by Norsebard






This historical, romantic action adventure drama belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.

This story depicts a budding romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

This story contains some genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains genre-typical violence, some of which is directed at women. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.




Written: May-June, 2017.

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Icebard - Thank you for your fun suggestion. As you can see, I put 'er in there… with a little twist ;D

- This is fiction, not a documentary, so certain liberties have been taken with regards to the timeline. Also, the eagle-eyed history buff may find a few anachronisms here and there with regards to clothing and military equipment.

Description: The ordered life of young Lady Christiane is thrown into turmoil by the unexpected death of her father, Gottfried Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor. When the Baron's last will is rejected by the Crown, Lady Christiane is forced to enter an arranged marriage with a nobleman from another part of the country to keep her home in the family's possession. Matters grow even worse for the new Baroness when the peace is threatened by the infamous bandit queen Black Rose whose gang of traveling ruffians has found a safe haven in the woodlands just a few kilometers south of Swan Manor…





Several clucks and a muted "Git! Git, Andersine!" heralded the arrival of an old, dilapidated flatbed wagon carrying the weekly delivery of groceries and other supplies to Swan Manor, the nobleman's estate that owned a great deal of the land and protected most of the villages in the south-eastern part of South Zealand, Denmark. The current manor had been the home of the Goldenloew family for close to forty years, but the strategic importance of the site that had a perfect view of the inlet to the east had been used by a long line of chieftains, generals and politicians for centuries.

Tugging the leather reins, the driver high atop the buckboard pulled the reluctant horse to the right to make it go onto the servants' trail that led to the manor. Behind the driver, the young man working as his apprentice needed to grab onto the wagon's sides to stay upright.

The combined weight of the driver and his apprentice, not to mention the heavy barrels and the wooden boxes on the flatbed, made the wagon creak and groan as it entered the turn, but it held together as it had done for the past ten years. Soon, the wagon squeaked along the modest servants' trail that was in a less-polished condition overall compared to the avenue reserved for the nobility that ran between two rows of well-groomed planetrees.

The heavy load held Andersine back, and the aging workhorse was unable to go much faster than a slow walk. The driver and his apprentice would have had plenty of time to study the landscape surrounding them had they wanted to, but the two men had seen everything too often to pay any attention to the colorful fields, the beech forest nearby, the magnificent ornamental garden or even the archaic-looking moat that framed the imposing, multi-storey Swan Manor on three of the four sides - not even the grand view of the hazy-blue inlet further to the east, beyond the village the two men came from, could tempt their eyes.

Although the almanac said the date was only just past mid-May, the sun that beat onto the wagon that creaked along the unprotected servants' trail made reams of sweat trickle down the two men's necks and run below their collars. Like all drivers, the man atop the buckboard - who was in his late fifties - wore clog-boots, heavy, woolen breeches and a black vest over a white shirt where the sleeves had been rolled up into untidy wads. A white cap was part of his regular uniform, and it should in theory have protected his balding head from the relentless sun, but he had put it next to him on the bench seat to get some fresh air to his flushed skin.

His young apprentice - a local in his early twenties whose propensity for seasickness had prevented him from following in his father's footsteps as a fisherman - fared no better in the heat wearing clothing that was similar to the older man's, save for the fact that his white cap was pulled down past his ears to give his reddish hair and pale hue a respite from the strong rays of the sun.

After driving along the servants' trail for a good while longer than what the driver's patience would stretch to, he steered the flatbed wagon off the uneven road and through the secondary, far less extravagant portal that all servants and suppliers had to use.

Soon after driving under the stone portal that marked the entrance to Swan Manor, the courtyard's white gravel began to crunch under the four narrow wheels. The experienced driver knew he needed to keep the speed up or risk getting the heavy wagon bogged down to its axles. "Lad!" he said over his shoulder even as he waved at a pair of servants who came out of a rear entrance to assist in unloading the supplies.

As the apprentice turned around and let out a grunt to let the older man know he was listening, the driver continued: "Jump off and gi'us a push… or we might spend the rest of the wretched hot day digging it outta this gravel!"

With Andersine pulling the wagon and the apprentice giving it a push from behind, they managed to get to the rear entrance without bogging down. From ground level, the multi-story Swan Manor was an imposing sight; the granite boulders that formed the manor's foundation, the red bricks that made up the tall walls, the square window frames that had been painted white, and the tiled roof that was so steep not even the pigeons could land there were all in excellent condition, proving that despite the sad passing of the old baron, life went on as always at the manor.

"Phew… whenever we need to go up here, it's either wretched hot or raining cats and dogs," the driver said as he clambered off the buckboard and onto the loose gravel. Letting out another gasping breath, he reached into his vest pocket to find a damp handkerchief that he proceeded to run around his neck.

His apprentice and the two servants had no time to reply to his comment, but the older man was only happy to see the younger people working hard carrying the wooden boxes and rolling the barrels down a wide chute into the manor's cellar. Moments later, his ruddy face cracked open in a smile as a young maid came out into the courtyard holding a silver tray that carried a mug of ale. "Ah! I thank ye, Gunilla. Always a feast for the eyes, lassie," he said as he reached for the mug and drained half of it in one gulp.

After wiping the foamy residue off his ruddy upper lip, his face turned darker. "Lassie, how's Lady Christiane coping? Has the mourning period ended?"

"Oh no, Sir. She'll be wearing the black robe for another three weeks. She has been devastated the past few days, but she seems to be coping better today, all things considered," Gunilla said, offering the driver a small smile. Like several of Swan Manor's servant girls, Gunilla was in her late teens. Puberty had left her skinny body an awkward mess of arms and legs that seemed out of proportion with her torso, but she had a good head on her shoulders and she was able to read and write, which was no common trait among the lower classes of the population.

The driver let out a grunt before he concentrated on downing the rest of the ale. Another brown foam mustache was taken care of with the back of a hand before he put the empty mug on the silver tray. "Drat, such rotten luck to have the lady of the manor still unmarried when the old baron made his exit. I wonder what the Crown will do now? Ah, as long as I get paid for hauling all your supplies, it's really none o' my concern. Thank ye for the ale, lassie. Delightful as ever," the older man said and offered the maid a grin.

Turning around, the driver moved back to the flatbed wagon and put his clog-boot on the wooden rung. "Lad! Lad, where the blazes are ye? We're leaving!" he shouted as he climbed up onto the buckboard and grabbed the reins.

The young apprentice hurried up the short flight of stairs from the rear entrance but came to a hard stop next to Gunilla who was still standing at the side of the wagon. Moving fast, he dove in to steal a kiss from the maid's lips, earning himself a few giggles in the process. Once he had pulled himself up onto the flat bed, he shouted "I'm ready, guv!" over his shoulder. As Andersine began pulling the wagon away from Swan Manor, the apprentice waved at the girl who duly waved back although her cheeks had gained a reddish tone from the surprise contact.


The interior of Swan Manor was as impressive as the exterior. The grand hall beyond the stately main entrance was a study in opulence with bare, dark-lacquered wooden floorboards; the walls were adorned by large mirrors and even larger family portraits and landscape paintings that were all protected by golden frames.

Several tile-top tables handcrafted of the finest wood had been placed under the imposing paintings to fill a blank spot along the wall, and to catch the eye of the visitors. Each table carried a pair of silver candlesticks and a bowl, cup or vase of the finest French porcelain that gold coins could buy. A pair of chairs and a round table matching the design of the tile-top tables stood at the center of the hall near the majestic, carpeted staircase that came down from the upper floor.

Wide doors to the right of the grand hall led to the banqueting hall; the old baron had dubbed it the Knight's Hall although very few Knights of the Realm had ever visited Swan Manor - apart from himself, only a select few noblemen had set foot in the region that was considered far too rural, and far too far away from everything, for the aloof members of high society. In recent times, the banqueting hall had acted as a showcase for the impressive collection of antlers brought back from the many hunting parties that had taken place in the surrounding forests. A magnificent view of the inlet to the east presented itself to the person sitting at the head of the table; however, since the old baron's passing, that particular dining chair had remained empty.

Another pair of wooden doors graced the wall opposite the banqueting hall. The intricately carved doors that a local master craftsman had worked on for a month led to the elegant drawing rooms where visitors to Swan Manor would be greeted by the sitting Lord and Lady as demanded by protocol.

The servants' quarters, the kitchen and the fully-stocked pantries were all located a floor down in the manor's cellar. The only accessway to it inside the main building was a flight of non-descript stone steps that had been tucked away on the rear side of the majestic staircase so it would be out of sight. At present, the arrival of the fresh supplies meant that several of the servants and chambermaids hurried back and forth from the kitchen to the Knight's Hall to set the dinner table for the coming lunch.

The first of the manor's upper floors was home to the private chambers of the Goldenloew family. The old baron's suites had yet to be reclaimed after his passing; thus, his daughter, the unmarried Lady Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Goldenloew, had the top floor all to herself.


From somewhere beyond a sturdy, wooden door that held a simpler design compared to most of the others at the manor, a creaking of wood proved that someone had just sat down in a chair. Soon, the sounds of a fountain pen scraping along paper filtered through the door.

Inside the regal suite, the twenty-three-year-old Lady Christiane sat at a bureau writing a letter on tan stationery. Sighing, she paused the activity to look out of the large windows and gaze upon the fields and forests that all belonged to the manor. Her main chambers were situated in the west wing of Swan Manor, and they offered her a good view of the hinterland all the way to the leading edge of the dense, bluish-green forests a few kilometers to the west and north-west. A blackbird tweeting nearby made her snap out of her somber state and return to the letter.

Still wearing the traditional - and compulsory - black robe and shawl following the death of her father, she had only just resurfaced from the pitch black abyss of despair she had fallen into at his passing. An acute, blood-related illness that even the baron's skilled personal physician had been unable to do anything about had claimed him within a matter of days. It had all gone far too fast for Christiane's sensitive mind, and she had spent the entire first week of the mourning period in bed with the curtains drawn to try to block out the harsh world.

Time and the relentless world moved on without remorse for the bereaved, so she had dragged herself out of bed and back into her new life as the Lady of the Manor, the landholder of a great deal of the region, and the arbiter of squabbles big and small that often arose between the citizens of the coastal village not too far from Swan Manor. Her new positions had only grown busier in the week she had been absent, but her father had trained her well so she was ready to take on the important responsibilities.

The official mourning period would continue on for another three weeks during which Lady Christiane would need to make countless decisions that would set the tone for her reign - however long that would last. Her parents had been the Baron and Baroness of Swan Manor, but being a woman meant that she would hold no title of her own until she married. Worse, with neither a potential husband nor children in sight to ensure the future of the region, the Crown could in theory order the position of Baron of Swan Manor to be transferred to the landed gentry living on one of the neighboring manors to maintain stability in the region, but Christiane hoped a workable solution would be found before it could come to that.

Putting the fountain pen into its holder, she leaned back in her chair and let out a long sigh. Her golden-blond hair had grown flat and dull from the lack of attention, and her fair skin was still pale save for the dark circles under her hazel eyes. The ceaseless churning she had suffered in her stomach since her father's passing had given way to a gnawing, empty sensation; she took that as a good sign. She hoped it meant she could go back to enjoying food again - she had rarely shied away from a well-prepared meal before the tragedy had struck, but the shock had caused her appetite to vanish.

Leaning forward again, she reached into one of the drawers to find a blotter. Once she had rolled it back and forth a few times to soak up the excess ink that threatened to bleed through the paper, she picked up the letter and began to read what she had scribbled.

'May 16th, in the Year of Our Lord, 1710.


My dearest Ellen. I humbly extend my gratitude for the letter you sent me on May 10th upon hearing the news of Father's sudden passing. My emotional turmoil was too great for me to reply at once, but know that your words were a great solace in my darkest hours. Rest assured I will be there for you when Our Lord sees fit to call your own parents home.


I fear my immediate future remains cloudy and uncertain. I have not yet heard from the Crown, but the official communiqué cannot be far off. Regardless of the contents of the letter I am hopeful I shall receive before long, I have no intentions of simply giving up. Having said that, I am under no illusion that the coming weeks and months will be anything less than a terrible strain on my soul.


If necessary, I shall travel to Roskilde to plead my case to the Councilor of State, or indeed take the exhausting day's journey to Copenhagen to seek an audience with King Frederik the Fourth. Father has always referred to him as a noble and wise king; surely he will allow me or my representative to present the specifics of the matter to the Crown.


To end this letter on a happier note: My dearest Ellen, I hereby have the great pleasure of inviting your husband and your own good self to our traditional midsummer jollification that will take place in my beloved ornamental garden at noon on July 12th. RSVP.



Forever in your debt,

Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Goldenloew.'

A faint knocking on the door interrupted Christiane's reading of her letter, so she put it down on the table and turned around to face the door. "Enter!" she said, getting up from the chair.

One of Swan Manor's many maids, the eighteen-year-old Signe, entered the suite carrying an empty silver tray. Like the other girls working as servants or chambermaids, she wore a black, long-sleeved dress with white highlights around the cuffs and the lower hem. On the front, she wore a white apron that had been tied behind her back. The white, starched collar stood firm at the neck and folded down at the front like it should; her white felt cap could not quite contain her long hair. "Milady," the maid said while performing a deep curtsey, "the Matron of the Kitchen would like to humbly ask if you have filled out your-"

"Ack! I have not!" Christiane said and let out a groan. Turning around, she eyed the piece of paper that was still on the tabletop where she had put it. She was supposed to have written the Matron a note on what she would enjoy eating for lunch the first day she had been out of bed, but time had been too short, and her mood too dark, to do anything about it. "It slipped my mind, Signe. Please inform the Matron that I shall be happy eating anything she can cook for me… though perhaps not a full portion yet. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Milady," Signe said and performed another curtsey before she left the suite.

As the door closed behind the chambermaid - who acted as the Lady's regular handmaiden when she was not performing double duty as a kitchenmaid - Christiane re-read the letter she had written to her old friend. Satisfied with what it said, she folded it twice and put it into an envelope that was sealed shut by dripping hot wax onto it. While the wax was still runny, she pressed the official Goldenloew seal down into the reddish substance to add the relief of the pair of golden leaves that had given the family its name generations earlier.


The first proper lunch she had eaten for an entire week went well for Christiane, perhaps aided by the fact that the Matron of the Kitchen had only made half of a regular serving. After a small bowl of salty fish soup as an appetizer, the servants had brought in a tray of cooked dove garnished with dill, thyme, coriander and other herbs and spices. The tender meat of the main course had gone down well, but it had left Christiane so full that she had been unable to eat any of the sweet eclairs that had been prepared for dessert.

On any normal day, her lunch would have been accompanied by a few glasses of port or mugs of watered-down ale, but her stomach had started to churn at the mere thought of alcohol, so she had settled for a jug of cool water that she knew would be clean since it came from the manor's own well.

Though the banqueting hall was as opulent as ever, the prevailing mood was gloomy and somber as a result of the single setting at the long table. Christiane had chosen to sit at her customary spot, the first seat to the right of the head of the table, but the empty chair on her left only hammered home the message that her father was gone.

The uncharacteristic silence inside the grand hall soon turned oppressive. It was only broken by the irregular clanging of the silver cutlery against the plates; there was nothing left of the life that usually echoed through the halls at mealtime. Christiane found herself wishing she could engage in a conversation with the two servant girls who were lined up along the far wall, waiting to bring or remove the various plates and eating utensils needed for the three-course lunch, but she knew such a course of action would be inappropriate.

A dark mood descended upon her that even the magnificent view of the inlet could not counter, but before she had time to regret ever getting out of bed, or choosing to eat in the banqueting hall, the doors to the hall were opened behind her. Turning around in her chair, she spotted her Mistress of the Manor - the most senior female member of the managerial staff, and one of Christiane's oldest friends - approaching with determined steps.

"Anneliese?" Christiane said, dabbing her lips on her napkin. As she moved to push back the chair, both servant girls rushed to her aid and helped her pull back the heavy piece of furniture.

"Lady Christiane, a visitor requests a meeting," the Mistress of the Manor said as she came to a halt in front of the noblewoman. In her mid-forties, Anneliese von Eyben was an angular, stern-looking woman whose gray eyes matched her graying locks that had been wadded up into a hard bun at her neck. She had worked at the manor for close to twenty years; during that time, few had dared to even consider opposing her and fewer still had done so, and yet, she had shown remarkable tenderness towards to her friend Christiane in the week following the old baron's tragic death. Not only had she been the Lady's closest ally, she had been the rock-solid cornerstone that had kept Swan Manor from breaking apart at the seams.

Like the chambermaids under her command, she wore a long-sleeved dress, but hers was pale-gray rather than black, and she carried no apron, starched collar or headpiece. "A Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg," she continued. "He says he's an aide-de-camp , an adjutant, for Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle, and that he needs to speak with you in private. It seems to be somewhat urgent."

"I see," Christiane said, stepping away from the dining table. Before she could even move three feet into the large room, the two servant girls had begun assembling the used plates and cutlery. "Very well, Anneliese. Ask him to wait in the drawing rooms, please. I shall be with him shortly."

"Yes, Milady," Anneliese said and performed a small curtsey before she turned around and stomped back to the hallway beyond the doors.

Christiane tracked the stern woman moving away. Iron shackles had snapped onto her own feet and legs at the news. An official emissary, working in conjunction with one of the well-known noble families up north no less, could only mean one thing: the long-awaited news from the Crown had arrived, and chances were that it would be less good news than she had hoped for.


A brief while later, Christiane entered the elegant drawing rooms and closed the doors behind her with a soft click. Through Anneliese, she already knew that Captain von Hardenburg had no interest in tea or other sweets or refreshments, and that he appeared to be an experienced officer.

The man she was there to greet rose from one of the four chairs that had been placed in a half-circle around the drawing room's fireplace. Not only was the Captain older than she had expected, he wore regular clothes fit for traveling rather than the colors of any of the Crown's regiments. His breeches were pale-brown and featured wraparound legs that would fit inside his riding boots. Up top, he wore a loose, white shirt and a pale-brown, four-pocket vest. Two of the pockets were occupied by his riding gloves and what appeared to be a cap of some kind - the other two held his tobacco and a small wallet.

In his late fifties at least, Ieronymus von Hardenburg - whose thinning hair was offset by a well-groomed full beard that had turned salt-and-pepper - stepped away from the chairs and performed a deep bow at his hostess. "Lady Christiane," he said in a rumbling baritone. "Please allow me to offer my sincerest condolences. The news of Baron Gottfried's untimely death came as a shock to us all. I know I speak for His Lordship when I say that your father was a great man and a just ruler."

The smile that creased Christiane's lips was a tired one, but at least it had been there. Until that point, any mention of her late father had only produced a deep frown and a strong urge to shed more tears, but the natural, unforced appearance of a smile made her think she had at last made some progress. "Thank you, Captain von Hardenburg," she said in a frail voice. "Now, please forgive my ignorance, but when I was told of your association with the King's military, I must admit I had expected you to wear a uniform of some kind…?"

"Ah, I wore the colors of the King's elite cavalry until late last year, Lady Christiane. I retired to serve as His Lordship's emissary and personal adjutant. Are you familiar with Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle?"

"I fear not, Captain, although I have naturally heard of his family. Please, let us have a seat. The week I have just been through has left me as weak as a newborn kitten," Christiane said and moved over to one of the available chairs. Sweeping forward the mourning robe, she sat down and folded her legs to the side so the retired officer would not be scandalized.

"Certainly, Lady Christiane," Ieronymus von Hardenburg said and claimed one of the other chairs. Reaching across to the seat next to him, he took a cylindrical object that turned out to be a sealed tube used for official documents related to the Crown. "Please confirm that the royal seal was hitherto unbroken," he continued as he cracked open one end of the tube.

Nodding and letting out a grunt at the retired officer's words, Christiane moved to the edge of her seat in nervous anticipation of the contents of the letter she was about to receive.

"His Lordship gave me the solemn task of handing over these two letters," Captain von Hardenburg continued as he held up the tube which made two rolled-up pieces of paper fall into his hand. "The first is from the court of King Frederik the Fourth, and the other is from His Lordship. I am aware of the contents of the second letter, but obviously not the first. Once you have read the first letter, my task is to give you the second one and return to His Lordship at once with your answer. I trust I have made myself clear on the matter."

A small, dark frown had developed between Christiane's fair eyebrows at the sudden change of tone that had crept into the retired Captain's voice. "Oh, you have made yourself perfectly clear, Captain," she said in a cool manner as she took the letter sent by the court of King Frederik the Fourth.

Cracking open a second royal seal, she unrolled the letter and began to skim the contents. Her eyes followed the lines of text for a short minute before they became still and just seemed to stare at a spot on the wooden floorboards. "The Crown is rejecting Father's last will and testament?" she said in a voice that had grown strangled. She looked up at her guest, but the retired officer showed no signs of surprise. Returning to the letter, she read the opening paragraph of the message of doom out loud: "The Crown demands an acting baron at Swan Manor or else we shall assume ownership and add it to our roster of…"

A pregnant silence filled the drawing room for several seconds before Christiane put the letter in her lap and let out a slow sigh. "I had feared they would transfer the title and the many responsibilities to the most senior member of one of the neighboring noble families… but this… how dare they go against Father's last will?!"

"I do believe the Crown can do whatever the Crown wishes to do, Lady Christiane," Captain von Hardenburg said and pinned the younger woman to the spot. "Now for the second letter, the one from His Lordship. It's imperative that you read it and understand the consequences today, Milady. I need a definitive answer, and I need it by nightfall tonight."

"Captain von Hardenburg, you are not on the battlefield, and I am not one of your subjects!" Christiane said and jumped to her feet in a display of energy that she did not quite possess after the ordeal she had been through. "This is neither the time nor the place to be issuing demands. Well! I shall read the letter from His Lordship, but I alone shall decide when to provide you with a reply! Good day, Captain. It has been a most enlightening meeting. Anneliese!"

On cue, the Mistress of the Manor opened the doors to the drawing rooms and stepped inside. The retired officer looked from one woman to the other with an unreadable expression on his face. Grunting, he rose and performed a bow to his hostess. "Good day, Lady Christiane," he said before he made his way to the door.

Once the emissary had left, the fire inside Christiane followed suit. Letting out a long, heartfelt sigh, she fell into the chair she had only just vacated. "Ack, Anneliese, matters are worse than I feared. Orders from the Crown… they will claim Swan Manor as their own unless we have an acting baron. Drat."

"And go against the old baron's last will, Lady Christiane? Surely not…"

"Apparently so," Christiane said and tapped the official document.

The Mistress of the Manor walked around the chairs to help the Lady back upstairs, but came to a stop when she noticed the long-forgotten second letter lying on the floorboards pushed halfway under Lady Christiane's chair. "Oh…" she said, bending over to retrieve the wayward document. "Seems there was a second letter, Milady," she continued, studying the seal on the back.

"It was sent by Lord-something-or-other of Allerød Castle, Anneliese. More bad news, I imagine," Christiane said, waving her hand in a tired gesture. "You have my permission to break the seal and read it. And I only need to be told about the contents if they cancel out the negatives of the first letter."

Anneliese arched a graying eyebrow at the unusual request, but did as she had been asked. Breaking open the seal, she unrolled the letter and began reading it from the top. It was not long before her face scrunched up into a darker mask than usual - then the stern expression mellowed into one of genuine concern for the young woman's well-being. "Oh, Lady Christiane, I… I fear I cannot withhold this letter from you…"

"Ack, is it that bad?" Christiane said and began rubbing her brow. "Oh… since I have already tumbled from the precipice of despair, another gust of ill wind cannot possibly harm me. Please, Anneliese, report the crux of the matter."

Anneliese wetted her lips a few times to prepare herself for the inevitable explosion that she was sure would follow the reading of the letter. Grimacing, she looked down at the squiggly lines of handwritten text. "Very well, Lady Christiane… Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle wishes to help you through this difficult phase, and his proposed means of doing so will be for you and he to be wed under the watchful eye of the Almighty Lord… after which you and he shall live at Swan Manor as the new baron and baroness."

"An arranged marriage," Christiane croaked, staring into the drawing room without seeing much at all. "A forced, arranged marriage… a forced, arranged marriage without even the tiniest hint of love between the two people in question. Ack!"

Anneliese grimaced again as she rolled up the letter and looked for somewhere to put it. "Quite," she added after a brief pause.

"We need to summon Pastor Steengaard as soon as possible," Christiane said as she clambered to her feet. "He did such a sterling job with Father's funeral… and he helped me with the reading of the last will. Surely he will know how to respond to such a thinly veiled threat. Please, Anneliese, send a runner to fetch Pastor Steengaard… better now than later."

"It shall be done, Milady," Anneliese said and hooked her right arm inside that of her Lady to help her remain upright. "First, however, I insist that we take you upstairs to your bedchamber for a nap. You are far too pale for your own good."

Christiane opened her mouth to complain, but fatigue washed over her to such a degree that she could do nothing but accept her Mistress of the Manor's instructions.


Later in the day, the large, wooden doors at Swan Manor's stately main entrance swung open to reveal Lady Christiane and Anneliese who moved out onto the top step of the small flight of stairs that led to the courtyard. Two young servant boys came running from the stables just in time to intercept the two-seater buggy that drove through the portal. They continued to run alongside it as the white gravel began crunching under the buggy's narrow wheels, but did not yet reach for the reins.

Though the afternoon hours had arrived, the sun was still beating down upon the manor with greater strength than what the month of May typically had to offer. The black mourning robe worn by Lady Christiane acted as a roaster, and the young woman's fair skin had turned ruddy and flushed, but she was determined not to appear too weak.

As the elderly man driving the two-seater buggy swung the vehicle around and came to a halt in front of the stone staircase, the two boys from the stables came to his aid at once and took the horse's reins. "Why, thank you, boys," the portly Pastor Johannes Steengaard said while he used a kerchief to dab his glistening head, neck and throat beneath his double chins. Although he wore light summer clothes rather than his regular black cassock, his skin was flushed to the point of appearing redder than a ripe tomato.

After taking a leather document-case that had been next to him, he rose from the bench seat behind the buckboard and exercised great caution in climbing down to the gravelly courtyard using the two metal rungs at the side of the buggy. Once he was on firm ground, he let out the nervous breath he had been holding - he had tried slipping off the rungs more than once, and it was an event he had no interest in revisiting if he could help it.

"Now, I would be grateful if you could feed her and give her some water. I had no time for it before I was called up here," he continued to the young boys who responded by nodding in unison.

Turning around to face his hostess, the Pastor performed a deep bow while the boys pulled the horse and buggy back to the stables. "Good day, Lady Christiane. I must say it warms my heart to see you up and about," he said as he ascended the stone staircase with labored steps.

To help the elderly Pastor - Johannes Steengaard was in his mid-sixties and thus beyond his first bloom, not to mention far beyond the slender figure he'd had when he was younger - Christiane came down the stairs and hooked her arm inside that of the older man. "Good day, Pastor. Oh, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see you on this desperate day. I fear I have some work for you… I need your opinion on- ack, I am getting ahead of myself."

"Quite!" the Pastor said and let out a rumbling laugh.

"Let us wait until we are seated in the drawing room," Christiane continued as she helped the elderly man through the manor's stately main entrance. "Anneliese, please inform the Matron of the Kitchen to bring the tea and sweet pastries."

"Yes, Milady," Anneliese said and performed a quick curtsey.

Smiling at her invaluable Mistress of the Manor, Christiane turned back to the Pastor. "Ah, I trust the decision I made on having the Matron prepare some sweet pastries was not too hasty?"

"My dear Lady Christiane," the portly, elderly man said with a smile that matched that of his hostess, "I cannot recall ever refusing tea and sweet pastries… perhaps I should have, but I am far too old to let 'should' rule my life. And your Matron of the Kitchen is one of the best in the land. I know I shall enjoy what she has to offer."

"Good, good. Very well, let us proceed to the drawing room," Christiane said and gestured at the doors to the elegant rooms.


The frown upon Pastor Steengaard's forehead told a darker tale than Christiane had needed to know. The elderly man's eyes continued to move left and right behind his pince-nez as he took in the contents of the letters from the Crown and Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle. Now and then, he stopped to let out a grunt or two.

Anneliese and one of the servant girls had been by with the tea and pastries, but while Christiane had taken a cup, the letters had stolen the Pastor's attention to the point of forgetting all about the refreshments. It was only when he put down the letter from the Crown that he realized he had two scrumptious-looking petit pastries waiting for him on a small plate. Snatching one, he waited until he had chewed it all before he spoke:

"Lady Christiane, there are times when I regret having spent the first years of my adulthood in law school. The message from the Crown is quite clear, and I fear I cannot offer a positive spin on the contents of this letter. You must marry if you wish to keep Swan Manor in your possession. It is quite unheard of, but I shall readily admit that this is an unusual set of circumstances."

"I cannot believe it!" Christiane growled, smacking her fist into her open palm.

"I fear it is thus, Lady Christiane," the Pastor said, snatching the second sweet pastry. He ate in silence, not needing to ask about the lady's state of mind - the dark-red blotches on Christiane's cheeks and forehead spoke louder than a dozen heated sentences could.

"Ack, if there is a less troublesome way out of this mess, it fails to present itself to me," Christiane said after a long pause. "I cannot and will not allow Swan Manor to fall out of the family's possession. Father would be so dreadfully disappointed in me if that were to… if I…" Her voice broke and she needed a moment to gather her composure.

A deep sigh followed, and she looked up at the Pastor who was sipping from his cup of tea. "My old friend, can you tell me anything about the man who has so kindly offered me his hand in marriage? Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle? I must admit I know nothing of his means or ways apart from common knowledge of the importance of the noble family to which he belongs."

"Ah," Johannes Steengaard said and shifted in his chair like he knew a little too much about the future husband of Christiane but was unwilling to divulge the worst of it. "I believe he holds an honorary rank in the King's elite cavalry. A descriptive that I have heard a few times is that he can be a queer sort on occasion. He is in his early thirties-"

"How extraordinary… early thirties and unmarried? Perhaps his first wife died in childbirth or some such?" Christiane said with some optimism in her voice though the lines near the corners of her mouth betrayed that she was still quite skeptical.

By the way the Pastor once more shifted in his chair, it was clear to see that he tried to weigh his words with great care. Then he continued: "No. I do not believe Lord Erich has ever claimed anyone's hand in marriage, Lady Christiane."

"Dear Lord, he must be a hideous creature," Christiane mumbled.

Chuckling, the Pastor reached for the plate with the sweet pastries only to find that he had already had them both. A frown formed on his meaty forehead as he pulled back his hand to make it rest in his lap. "Oh, I cannot say as I have yet to meet him in person. However, we both know that hideous creatures are typically sent away at birth so they won't disturb the perfect images so desired by the landed gentry."

"I suppose that is all too true. Perhaps it is merely his mind that is lacking…" Christiane continued in the same mumble. She was already in the process of drawing a mental picture of what their children would look like. With a summer wedding, it was demanded of her to produce offspring the following spring at the very latest.

"In all earnestness… whichever his reasons for this cause of action may be, Lady Christiane," Johannes Steengaard said and reached for the letters again, "I can only advise you to accept his proposal. I understand that such a marriage is not what you would have wished for, but I dare say the consequences of declining will be far worse than any trouble that may arise once the honeymoon is over."

Christiane got up from her chair without answering the Pastor. To help her mind come to terms with her future marital status, she crossed the floor to the large windows at the far side of the drawing room. Like in her own chambers upstairs, the view was of the nearby fields and distant forests. If she craned her neck to the left, she could see the stables, the haysheds and the hovels used by the peasants that were associated with the manor under her control. To her right, her ornamental garden stood in bloom brought on by the warm weather. Sighing, she closed her eyes and ran her fingers slowly across the wooden window frame like the coarse texture underneath her fingertips would help justify her decision.

All the land from the garden to the horizon belonged to Swan Manor and thus to her. Her heart told her in no uncertain terms that she would never survive seeing it all lost to the Crown. Even the manor itself, though only bricks and mortar, was too dear to her to give up on the basis of simple, foolish pride. She knew she was not the first woman in the kingdom to enter an arranged marriage, and she was certain she would not be the last. It all pointed to the inevitable conclusion:

"Very well," she said turning back to her guest. "I shall accept Lord Erich's hand in marriage. I shall even fulfil my solemn duties as the future baron's wife and subsequent mother to his children. My friend, please remain here while I call for His Lordship's emissary. I may yet need your keen mind."

"It shall be my pleasure, Lady Christiane," Pastor Steengaard said and briefly rose from his chair to show his respect. "Ah, perhaps I could be so bold as to ask for more petit pastries?" he continued, holding out the empty plate.

For the first time in a full week, Christiane chuckled as she took in the expectant look on the Pastor's meaty face. "I shall ask, my old friend. However, I cannot offer any promises. You know my Matron of the Kitchen. She has quite the temper."

"Indeed I do, and indeed she has! But nothing ventured, nothing gained. I shall be more than happy with a mere singular pastry… although I would not refuse if she offered me two."

Chuckling once more, Christiane moved back to the doors to the grand hall to call for Anneliese. It did not take long before the Mistress of the Manor was being let in on the finer details of the momentous decision; while the two women talked, the Pastor began scribbling the first draft of the replies to the Crown and Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle.




Deep inside an isolated stretch of woodland seven kilometers south of Swan Manor, in the sweet spot just beyond the patrol reach of the cavalry garrison at Vording Castle and the naval fortress at Masned Island, a clearing among the leafy-green beech trees had become the new, temporary home for a free-roaming band of ruffians.

Often fluctuating in size depending on how good the pickings were in any given region, the band of ruffians had gained another few like-minded members on their journey across the south of Zealand, and had grown to include fourteen brothers in crime - not the largest such group, or even the most feared, but perhaps the most cunning.

A handful of makeshift tents brought to the clearing by four, hard-working mules had been erected in a haphazard manner, and a circular firepit had been built near the center of the clearing so the smoke could escape up through the crowns of the trees.

As one of the ruffians knelt by the fire to stoke the flames into becoming nice and strong, two others carried in a slain, skinned deer that was to form the backbone of their supper for the next few days. A steady aim was a necessary skill to possess for any traveling bandit, and one they often employed as they went poaching in the many forests they entered. That most of the game they killed belonged to the Crown or the local nobility caused them no sleepless nights.

In other places the band of traveling criminals had spent a few days or weeks, they had needed to stay alert of the police soldiers sent out by the local magistrates, but through applying keen hearing to the carelessly wagging tongues of the local population, they knew they had nothing to fear in the region they had arrived at. Although there was a small detachment of such law enforcement soldiers in the coastal village closest to the stretch of woodland occupied by the bandits, they were always tied up at the docks patrolling the taverns frequented by the fishermen.

The scent of the pale-blue smoke wafting off the spitted, roasting deer prompted a few more of the rough-looking bandits to exit the tents and shuffle over to the fire. A stolen barrel of ale was soon rolled over and cracked open, leading to much laughter and clinking of mugs among the men.

The state and nature of their clothes betrayed the simple background of a majority of the ruffians: most wore regular clog-boots, but some of the more proficient thieves had on stolen boots made of genuine leather. All wore coarse, pale-brown or black working-breeches so typical of the peasant population. Some wore tan tunics or long-sleeved shirts made of flightier fabric, while others wore the heavy-duty, short-sleeved bricklayers' shirts preferred by the manual laborers working in the villages and cities all over the country. Most wore single or double suspenders to keep their breeches on tight in moments of struggle, but quite a few wore belts as well as they offered a good home for the sheaths that held the men's daggers, rapiers or hunting knives.

Long hair and full beards formed the order of the day among the traveling ruffians, and although a few wore caps, most were bare-headed to show off their impressive head of hair. Two of the bandits were still too young to shave, and the fuzzy downs they carried on their otherwise smooth cheeks were the cause of relentless teasing from the older, more experienced criminals - after all, everyone knew that a man's sexual prowess could be extrapolated from the volume of his hair and beard.

Facial hair or the lack of it was not at the top of their agenda at present; the men were too involved in the pleasures of the stolen ale to care about such mundane things. The local master brewer seemed to be a good one since the ale was of a high quality and thus providing a good punch in the gut once it had made its way down there.

Among the common population in the regions that had been visited by the traveling band of ruffians, the stories of the many daring raids perpetrated by them were on the cusp of achieving legendary status, no doubt fueled by the fact their leader was a woman, the notorious Black Rose.

Similar to the other infamous female gang leaders - like the brutal Thyra Bloodaxe who had terrorized the villagers living all along the Odsherred peninsula for years before she had been beheaded for her crimes, and Long Greta who roamed the moors of Jutland with her thirty-centimeters-long dagger always ready to strike - plenty of wild yarns had been spun in front of plenty of fireplaces about Black Rose's deviousness, her clever disguises, and not least her un-Christian appetite for human blood. It was even said that she had once gutted a hostage and had devoured a large cup of his lifeblood when a ransom note was left unanswered.

The family relations between the woman and her men were unknown, but some said the ruffians were her degenerate sons of different masters. Her age and physical presence were unknown as well - the few people who had seen her and lived to tell the tale had described her as a fair maiden, a mature woman or even a wrinkled, old crone who needed a thick walking cane to go anywhere. Passers-by should beware of the walking cane, however, as Black Rose could strike at any moment and would use it to bash in the skulls of the unsuspecting people.

Even her moniker had led to wild stories being concocted about its origins: some claimed that her heart was merely a black lump of coal after being cursed by the devil in a deal that had gone wrong, others said the name referred to an oozing wound on her back that would not heal as a result of her evil doings. Others still said they had been told by someone who in turn had been told by someone else that Black Rose had been mutilated with a branding iron for being a harlot, and that the shape of the hideous burn mark on her left breast resembled a rose. Whatever the cause of the name, the peasants all agreed that she was someone to steer well clear of.

The woman at the heart of all those wild tales entered the clearing by stepping out of her tent. A crimson drop ran from the corner of her mouth and onto her chin, but she licked it off before she did the same to her fingers. Moments later, she spat out a pit from one of the handful of blackberries she had just chewed on.

Far from being a fair maiden or a wrinkled, old crone, Cornelia 'Black Rose' Karlsdatter was a dark-haired, six-foot-tall woman in her prime. Her exact age was lost to the annals of time since she knew nothing of her parents or when she had been born, but she presumed she was in her early thirties. As an infant, she had been left at the doorstep of a convent wrapped in a filthy diaper that had a poorly written note pinned to it describing her name. Her features were well-defined and without signs of inbreeding, and the calluses on her hands and the broadness of her shoulders proved she was no stranger to hard, manual labor. Familiar with the men's various sayings and superstitions, she kept her hair long and untamed to show she was no innocent kitten - in fact, she had it down to her rear which was far longer than most of the bandits she had worked with.

Although clearly a woman, she dressed like a man in leather boots, coarse, dark-brown breeches held in place by a broad belt, and finally a tan tunic that she had snatched from the hands of a washerwoman. The servant in question had suffered a bloodied nose and a busted lip when she had not wanted to give up her master's garment without a fight, but it was a meager price to pay for attempting to prevent Black Rose from carrying out a steal.

The tunic did a good job of covering her bosom which went against the typical fashion for women, but she had a reason for it that only a select few had ever been shown. Now and then, the poorly treated welts on her left breast caused her plenty of pain, but it was nothing that strong ale or chilled port could not cure.

Her razor-sharp, sea-blue eyes studied the bandits she had under her command. They were a misfit brigade; a hardy bunch of thieves, con artists, highwaymen and cutthroats, but they were effective and would usually bring back something valuable from their raids through the land. As she continued to watch the men, one of them locked eyes with her and gestured that she should come over to the cooking fire.

Grunting, Cornelia made her way over there with long, powerful strides. "Jakob, what gives?" she said to the man who had waved her over.

Jakob Mikkelsen was a weasel of a fellow, and a full head shorter than Cornelia. In his mid-thirties, he was the owner of a pair of beady eyes, a narrow mouth, a scraggly beard and a scar across his forehead that shone a pink path through a sea of swarthiness. He was also Black Rose's second-in-command, and a man known for letting his blades do the talking. "Supper's cookin'. We're three men short. I told 'em to visit the village some kilometers north o' here. There may be somethin' there we can use," he said in a broad, rural accent that betrayed his peasant roots.

"Good," Cornelia said and gazed at the louts sitting at the cooking fire. The men were already well on their way to becoming drunk, and that meant that nobody would be left to patrol the makeshift camp's perimeter come nightfall. "Jakob, order Kresten Hansen and Søren Svendsen to stop their drinking. Those old geezers will form our first watch tonight. I'll take over at the witching hour."

"They're not gonna take that lightly."

"Oh, they'll survive," Cornelia said in a cold voice. "And a headache is guaranteed if I catch them sleeping on the watch," she continued, thumping her fist into her palm.

A cold, weasel-like smile creased Jakob's lips as he offered Black Rose a grim nod.


Once the first slabs of meat carved from the roasted deer had been distributed among the bandits, the laughter and merry chatter died down while everyone chewed. There were many unwritten rules concerning the life as a traveling ruffian, and one of them was to eat and drink whenever the opportunity arose. Only fools and saints would refuse food or beverages, and the rough men - and woman - around the cooking fire were neither.

Cornelia Karlsdatter sat among her men a short distance from the edge of the circular pit. She drank the good ale from a wooden mug and ate from a silver platter that she had stolen herself from a rectory near the town of Hillerød a few years back. Being the leader, she had been given a slab of tender meat that she sunk her teeth into with great relish.

Her sharp eyes never stood still, even while chewing on the roasted meat; always alert, she kept everyone under close surveillance to read their intentions two or three moves ahead of time. One of her men eyed the slab of meat sitting on the plate of one of his neighbors. It was bigger than the one he had been given, and it was clear he was dissatisfied with his share. Such a minor issue was of no concern to Cornelia, but she narrowed her eyes at the sight of one of the other bandits casting stealthy gazes at a coin pouch hanging off the belt of one of the two juniors among them.

Cornelia furrowed her brow at the sight. 'Honor among thieves' was a romantic myth coined by well-off intellectuals who had never seen a criminal in their life, but there was no need to shed blood among like-minded people for petty coinage. "Finn Mogensen," she said to get the attention of the fuzzy-cheeked junior. When he turned his head to lock eyes with her, she noticed that he was already three sheets to the wind. "How much gold do you have in your coin pouch there?"

"Uh…" Finn said, looking down at his belt like he had forgotten all about the pouch and its contents. "Can't remember," he slurred, shaking his head in a slow, overly deliberate fashion. A few drops of grease and cooking juice escaped his slack jaw and ran onto his chin; the mess only grew worse when he tried to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Let me tell you," Cornelia continued like they were talking about the weather. "In a short while, you'll have nothing. Why, I hear you say? Because I'll have it. Hand it over."


"Now," Cornelia said, holding out a hand palm-up. While she spoke to the junior, she kept a close eye on the ruffian who had wanted the gold for himself. The older, more experienced bandit let out a disappointed grunt and concentrated on his slab of meat.

After the drunken junior managed to get his fingers coordinated long enough to loosen the leather thong tying the pouch to his belt, he put the whole thing in Cornelia's hand. It clanged as he did so, proving that it held more than a few coins. "But wotcha gonna use it for? Ain't nothin' way out here…" the young man said in a puzzled voice that had only grown more slurred.

Cornelia chose not to respond; instead, she put the coin pouch in one of her own pockets for safekeeping. Many a man had lost his life over a single coin of silver or gold, so an entire pouchful would have given the junior a big, fat bullseye on his back for as long as the money was in his possession. None of the traveling bandits, however, had the guts needed to challenge Black Rose for it - they all knew it would be the last thing they ever did. She resumed eating once the small-scale drama was over, but continued to keep a sharp eye on her fellow ruffians.


A short quarter of an hour later, two male and a female voice were heard approaching the camp in the mounting darkness. It was clear all three were inebriated, and the sound of unbridled female giggles made the bandits at the cooking fire look up in surprise.

Surprise soon turned to eager anticipation among the men which made Cornelia furrow her brow. Having a woman at the camp was a guarantee for trouble. It could arise sooner or later, but female companionship never failed to produce friction among the sexually deprived bandits who would usually only see a woman's tender flesh when they had paid for it. Scuffles, fisticuffs or even blades glinting in the flickering light from the campfire could break out at any moment once they had a woman among them.

Soon, two of the three bandits who had been sent to the nearby coastal village returned to the camp walking arm in arm with a young woman who was without doubt a dove of dubious virtue. In her mid-twenties, the woman - whose features were best viewed in a faint light - wore a dark-blue top that was not shy in revealing her assets, and a crimson wraparound skirt that had already begun to unravel from the walk to get there.

Jakob Mikkelsen rose from his spot at the cooking fire to intercept the returnees. After conferring with them for a short while, he took a large duffel bag from one of the men and strolled back to Black Rose to report. "Cornelia, the last man got drunk off his ass so he couldn't come back with those two," he said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. "From what they tell me, the wench knows a thing or two about the local manor. We should question her."

"Yeah?" Cornelia said, licking her fingers clean of the last of the greasy residue from the roasted deer. Putting away her silver platter, she eyed the half-undressed dove with cool detachment. The woman was already too inebriated to be of any value judging by the way she giggled and stumbled her way through even simple words and sentences. "We'll do that in the morning, Jakob. She's of no use to us now."

"To you, perhaps," Jakob said, looking at the drunken men who were all eyeing the jiggling female flesh on display with poorly hidden excitement.

Cornelia threw the dove another detached glance before she gave a non-committal shrug and returned to her second-in-command. "Mmmm. The loot's in the duffel bag?"

"Yeah," Jakob said, emptying the contents onto the ground in front of Cornelia's boots. The two ruffians had managed to steal a wide selection of things that every traveler could use, bandit or otherwise: a pack of tobacco, an old pipe, three sticks of salty jerky, a smoked sausage, someone's nightshirt, a pair of clog-boots, a comb made of bone, sowing scissors that appeared to be made of silver, a fountain pen, a set of sowing needles that matched the scissors in their design, and no less than three clean handkerchiefs.

"This one's mine," Cornelia said and grabbed the pack of tobacco. Sniffing it, she established that it was of a fair quality, if perhaps shy of being the best she had ever found. "Distribute the rest of it among the men. Don't let them get into a drunken brawl over the jerky or the sausage," she continued, getting to her feet.

Nodding, Jakob scooped the loot back into the duffel bag save for one of the clean handkerchiefs that he stuffed into his own pocket. Once the duffel bag was closed, he swung it over his shoulder and shuffled out of the orange cone of light emanating from the cooking fire.

While her second-in-command concentrated on the loot, and the men concentrated on laying grand plans on what to do with the dove once it was their turn with her, Cornelia strolled back to her own tent to get some rest before she would take the second watch at midnight.


Like the other tents in the camp, Cornelia's quarters held no items that could not be packed down in a matter of minutes. She slept on - or in, when the nights grew cold - a pair of burlap sacks that she had sown together to match her long frame. She sat on an overturned apple crate that would come into use as a packaging crate once they moved on, and she used small stumps of old candles for purposes of lighting; she would ignite the stumps by smacking two pieces of flint together until a big enough spark would jump to the wick. Once the candle was going well, she could use it to ignite her beloved clay pipe on the rare occasions she had any tobacco.

She did now, and after going through the procedure of smacking the flints together, she was able to breathe life into her pipe. Pale-blue smoke soon rose from the pipe's head, drawing abstract patterns on its way towards the ceiling of the tent. Her initial assessment of the tobacco had been right: it was fair, but nothing special. Regardless of the quality, smoking always caused her much pleasure and helped her relax.

Pulling the apple crate over, she sat down and reached for the pile of maps of the region that she had managed to get her hands on. Although not new, the maps had been appropriated from the military and were thus of the highest quality. The former owner - an infantry officer whose wine had been spiked with a strong sleeping potion - had even upgraded the maps with detailed information on various distances, and thus estimations on how long it would take an infantry column to get from point A to point B. The latter in particular had come in handy for Cornelia on several occasions on their long, arduous journeys across Zealand.

She moved the lit candle closer to the map to see where the best hunting grounds were in the region. Her experienced eye soon told her that some of the outlying farms connected to the coastal village not too far north of their present location would be a good starting spot for their raids and expeditions in the area. Such farms could be picked off one by one as they were often leased by older, married couples who rarely put up a fight. In the rare instances where the farmer felt a need to swing his pitchfork, the matter would be dealt with at once through strength of number.

It was the same village the advance party had just returned from, so the dove could be of value to them after all if she survived the night - which was no foregone conclusion considering the number of cutthroats who had a front row seat around the campfire.

Grunting, Cornelia realized she had failed to hear the younger woman's characteristic giggling for a while. It was worth investigating, so she rose from the apple crate and shuffled over to the tent's opening to see what was going on. The dove had her back turned to Cornelia's tent, but by the way her head and fair locks bobbed up and down near the crotch of one of the bandits, it was fair to say she was busy - Cornelia shrugged and returned to her maps.


Once her pipe's first pinch of tobacco had been smoked, and the mug of strong ale that one of her men had brought her had been drained, it was time for the next part of her evening's entertainment. Rising from the apple crate, she shuffled over to the far corner of her tent where a strange, box-like contraption had been covered by an old shroud stolen from an undertaker's shop. The shroud was dusty and moldy, but it was adequate for the task of keeping the contents of the box out of sight of the world's prying eyes.

Her regal nose crinkled in disgust upon sniffing the air. Though she had put a chamber pot inside the box-like contraption for that very purpose, it always saw scant use for some reason. Grabbing hold of the corners of the shroud with her strong hands, she tore the whole thing off in a single swoop to reveal a wooden cage.

Inside the cage, a young, whimpering man was curled up in a fetal position. Although he was in his early twenties, the look of panic in his wide eyes made it appear that he was on the brink of sticking a thumb in his mouth to find some comfort. He was dressed in clothes typical of the landed gentry: black, dainty shoes, a frilly, puff-cuff tunic with a tall collar, and white breeches made of the finest silk. Much to Cornelia's disgust, the silk breeches now sported a large, yellow, glistening spot all over their front.

"Why do you think I put that wretched chamber pot in there, you drooling imbecile?" Cornelia said through clenched teeth, pointing at the pot in question. The young man had knocked it over with his foot, but the dryness beneath it proved that it had not seen use.

"Please don't hurt me! Plea- please don't hurt me again…" the young man croaked, shying away from the infamous Black Rose who could only scoff at his lack of bravery.

"Hurt you? Oh, come now, can't you at least pretend to be a man? You fell a few times and I helped you up. Then I helped you inside your little prison there. I never hurt you."

"You hurt me!" the young man said in a voice that grew to a near-shriek.

Cornelia rolled her eyes as she reached for the shroud. "Well. I can see you need a little more time to mull over the fact that-"

The young hostage jumped over to the other side of the narrow cage and grabbed hold of the thick, wooden bars. He stuck his face closer to one of the squares so he could get a better look of his captor. "No! No, please! Water… I need some water…"

"I'll consider it," Cornelia said and knelt down by the edge of the cage. She rearranged the sheath holding her dagger so it would not risk getting in the way, but the gesture caused the hostage to shy back sporting even wider eyes. "Now tell me, was I wrong to ask a ransom of twelve thousand rigsdaler 's worth in gold for your release? The way you behave gives me serious doubts as to your family's willingness to pay up. They may even be glad to see the back of you, I cannot say. However, if we haven't heard from them tomorrow at noon, my men and I need to reconsider our plans. We're in the middle of nowhere here. If we left you behind, nobody would find you for a hundred years. By then, it would probably be too late… although the wise do say that cowards and scoundrels live forever. And heroes, for that matter… however, I see no heroes here."

"Please… water…" the hostage croaked once more.

Furrowing her brow, Cornelia rose to her full height and put her hands akimbo. "Did you hear any of the things I just shared with you? Sounds like you didn't. I said I would consider bringing you water. I've decided against it for the time being. You'll just need to wait a little longer to wet your whistle. Have a good night." - With that, she pulled the shroud back up to cover the wooden cage, ignoring the terrified screams that came from the young nobleman inside it.


Night had fallen while Cornelia had smoked her pipe and wasted her time trying to instill some courage into her hostage - to no avail, although she had given him a mug of water to give her ears a reprieve from his ceaseless whimpering and gnashing of teeth.

From early May to early August, the sky never turned all dark even in the dead of night, but the crowns of the many beech trees surrounding the clearing worked as an effective cover that filtered out most of the faint blue tones that were visible high above them. A few torches had been lit near the tents, but the cooking fire still produced the strongest light.

The winds had died down like they often did at dusk, and that meant the column of smoke that rose from the crackling logs in the fire lingered near the ground for longer. It created a faint, mist-like fog that restricted their view of the paths leading to the makeshift camp - thus increasing the risk of being run over by a detachment of police soldiers or a local militia - but at least it masked the strong smell of the many unwashed men.

Though it had been a warm day, a certain chill closed in on the camp from the nearby trees and undergrowth. One or two of the ruffians coughed and hacked as the smoke and damp conditions wreaked havoc on their diseased lungs. Most around the cooking fire had physical or mental ailments of varying nature: some were carriers of mild cases of the coughing illness, others had birth defects in their extremities that had meant they had been unable to carry out ordinary work. Others still carried old wounds inflicted on them in hand-to-hand struggles or military service that plagued them whenever the weather turned too chilly or dank - like the hideous burn mark that had scarred Cornelia's left breast.

The onset of cooler temperatures had not stopped the dove from the coastal village from removing her top altogether - the sight of her jiggling mounds and the pinkish-white hue of her skin had only led to louder hollering from the ruffians. She was still on her knees servicing another of the bandits, but the event soon came to its inevitable conclusion which led to strong laughter and a round of applause from the others.

Cornelia strolled around the cooking fire to get herself another mug of ale before the stolen barrel would be drained dry by the unquenchable thirst of the ruffians. Like she always did, she continued to keep a sharp eye on the men. Most of them had their attention trained on the dove and her bare, jiggling chest, but one of the criminals that Cornelia considered among the most dangerous of the group was working on sharpening his hunting daggers instead of enjoying the free view.

She knew nothing of him save for the name he had stated when he had joined them, Sven Jensen, but it was so common that chances were that it was not the name he had been given at birth.

The man had no extraordinary features; blond and with grayish-blue eyes, he looked like the perfect Everyman commoner that could be encountered at the marketplace, or on a farm, or at the docks - however, the intensity that shone from his eyes whenever his sights had been set on something betrayed that he was more than just an average fellow.

He had only been with the traveling bandits for ten days after meeting up with them near Roskilde, the ancient port city where their spiritual ancestors, the Vikings, had done their business some seven hundred years earlier. Some of the regulars had begun to whisper half-truths and colorful speculation behind his back with regards to his accomplishments in the world of violent crime, and most agreed that he had a special place in hell reserved for him when he could no longer outrun the law. So far, he had yet to be at the root of any trouble among the band of travelers, but his stoic silence and chilling demeanor had caused some grumblings among the more good-natured of the bandits.

A sixth sense seemed to be part of his arsenal as well, because he looked up and locked eyes with Cornelia as she observed him. Neither of the fearsome creatures had any intention of backing down from the silent battle of backbone, and if it had not been for Jakob Mikkelsen arriving at Cornelia's side to interrupt the contest, they would have continued staring each other down until the cows would have come home.

"Cornelia?" Jakob said, eyeing the two stone-silent combatants with a certain degree of mirth playing on his lips. His beady eyes studied them both like he was trying to gauge which of the two he should support in case it came down to a knife-fight.

"I'll be with you in a moment," Cornelia said and strolled closer to her stoic opponent. Her hand never left the sheath on her hip though she had no idea if it would do her any good - after all, Sven's dagger was already in his hand, ready to strike. "Sven, you would have been wise to back down. I'll pay close attention to you from now on," she said in a low, no-nonsense tone.

A grunt was the only reply Cornelia got - she let out a matching one to prove that she was dead-serious. When nothing further happened, she strolled back to Jakob whose lips had now become hosts to a cold, calculated grin. "So… you had something to say?" she said, turning around to stroll further along the cooking fire and the row of men who were still watching the inebriated dove.

While the confrontation had taken place, the dove had begun to dance around between the men nearest to her, egging them on by teasing them with her mounds, her bare skin and her gyrating hips. All that female flesh on display proved too great a temptation for the bandits, and it was clear they had grown impatient to get their hands and everything else they had on her.

"Yeah, I do have somethin' to say. Look at 'em," Jakob said, gesturing at the drunken horde surrounding them. "The ale we stole was too strong. The boys got too drunk too quickly."

"I've noticed. I stopped after the second mug. None of those imbeciles did."

"No. Drunk and horny… that's a bad combination. We probably have to add another watch tonight to keep everythin' straight between 'em."

Cornelia nodded while she let her keen eye roam across the men; then, she took in the sight of the ungainly dove whose wraparound skirt had become so loose by her uncoordinated dancing that it did a poor job of hiding her bloomers. The view of her unmentionables only added fuel to the fire among the ruffians watching her; a growl left Cornelia's throat when she realized she was about to lose control over her men - a situation she would prefer to avoid.

"Perhaps I should have her brought to your tent so you could release some o' your own pressure?" Jakob said with a sly grin.

The corners of Cornelia's lips slid back in a disgusted grimace, and she crinkled her nose at the mere thought. "I would need to be a whole lot more drunk to hit that, thank you. No. We can't stop her now, anyway… the men are too far gone. They'll riot if we tuck her up for the night. But she needs to stay alive so I can question her in the morning. Make sure she does, Jakob."

"I'll keep an eye on her," Jakob said with another sly grin.

Cornelia shook her head as the dove's unmentionables left her ample hips and fluttered onto the ground. The appearance of a dusty-blond patch of curls seemed to tear down the last brick in the men's defenses, and a few of them jumped to their feet to be the first in line. Elbowing, nudging and shoving soon followed, as expected.


In the darkest night-time hours, the cooking fire had been reduced to smoldering embers. A quiet had fallen over the camp that was only broken by the faint breeze rustling the leaves of the beech trees, and the occasional crackling of the torches. Now and then, snores or groans of drunkenness escaped the tents or the ruffians who had simply fallen where they stood. The scents lingering in the air were an unfortunate mix of urine, vomit and the last traces of the smoke from the deer as it had roasted on the spit.

It was nothing new for the woman known as Black Rose who exited her own tent to begin her turn on the night watch. Pausing for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness, she slid a black cape around her square shoulders to be as invisible as possible. She had added another sheath to her belt just to be on the safe side; like the one on her right hip, the new one held a long, razor-sharp hunting knife. She knew she had made an enemy in Sven, but she had no intention of giving him the satisfaction of doing her in without a fight.

The faint sound of a woman weeping somewhere made her narrow her eyes. Such an outcome to the dove's drunken bawdiness had been inevitable - another thing that needed to be dealt with come dawn.

Slipping into the night with plenty of skill and stealth, Cornelia toured the camp to make sure that none of her men had become a head shorter during or after the rough evening. As she had expected, she found the occasional bloody nose and busted lip, but nothing worse than that. The junior whose pouch of gold coins was now in Cornelia's pocket moaned and groaned as she went past him, but the pool of fresh vomit not too far from his head proved where the moans originated.

The rest of the camp was quiet enough, all things considered, so Cornelia continued on her stealthy ways beyond the clearing and into the forest itself until she reached the row of trees she had found to be the best site for spying on the dirt trail that snaked its way through the forest. She had barely made it there when she heard the tell-tale sound of someone snoring. Growling, she drew one of her blades and moved ahead with even greater stealth.

Her foot soon made contact with an object on the ground near the spot where the men at the night watch were supposed to have been. Peering through the darkness, she was able to make out the shape of a drunken bandit who was still clutching a mug that had long since been emptied. "Kresten Hansen, you inbred son of a whore…" she whispered, kneeling next to the middle-aged thief whose slack jaw proved he was so far gone it would be mid-day before he would come to.

Feeling the need to punish the bandit for failing her, she put one of her hunting knives to good use by slicing through the man's suspenders. When he woke up, he would no doubt wonder why his breeches were pooling at his ankles. A large damp spot just south of the fly of the high-waisted breeches was more proof of the old saying that there was no point in buying high-grade ale since it would all just end up as a squirt of piss anyway.

With the first night watch located - and discarded - Cornelia went on a tour of the undergrowth to find the missing one. At first, she tried to continue her stealthy ways, but she soon realized she could have come through there like a herd of rampant oxen without anyone hearing a thing. "Søren Svendsen, you wretched pillock… where are you?" she said out loud, trying to see through the darkness.

A burp and a slurred "Hullo, Black Rose!" somewhere to her left made her clench her jaw hard. In no time flat, she had barged through the shrubbery and had grabbed the second bandit by his collar. The man was heavier than she, but the sublime annoyance caused by his failure canceled out any advantages he may have had, and she was able to slam him against the tree he had been using for cover. "Søren, tell me, were you not told to stop drinking hours ago?" she said right in his face.

"But… aw, we's got free ale…" the bandit slurred.

The stench of old ale and untreated teeth emanating from Søren Svendsen's mouth was strong enough to tan hides, and Cornelia had to swallow several times while she was close to him awaiting a better answer. Realizing she would not get one, she gave him an extra thump against the tree before she let go of his collar. "Get back to the camp and sleep it off, you old fool!" she said in a hoarse voice that left no room for misunderstanding.

As the drunken ruffian fumbled and stumbled through the undergrowth on uneasy feet, Cornelia hunkered down and pulled the black cape closer around her shoulders - she had a long, cold, sleepless night ahead of her.


Spending the night by herself in the middle of the cold, damp, pitch-black forest had done little to brighten Cornelia's mood. As she made her way back to the camp by the dawn's earliest light, she had not slept a wink, and her spot huddled up next to a tree trunk had necessitated squashing enough creepy-crawlies that had decided to use her for a field excursion to last for a lifetime or two. She was hungry, thirsty and in dire need of a pipe of the looted tobacco, but at least she'd had plenty of time and space to relieve herself during the night.

Stomping into the makeshift camp, she scoffed at the sight of half a dozen bandits who had still to recover from their drunken reveling the night before. Had she been the advance guard of a raiding force of police soldiers, it would have been the easiest catch in the history of law enforcement.

Part of her wanted to kick each and every one of the ruffians awake for being such drunken fools, but since she knew the only tangible result would be a pair of sore feet, she could not be bothered. Instead, she entered the supply tent to raid the water barrel. After gulping down two mugfuls of cool, somewhat clean water, she left the tent to pursue the next items on her early morning agenda - finding the dove and convincing her to give them the information they needed on her home village and the local manor.


Cornelia found the younger woman between two tents, naked and curled-up into a fetal position. Parts of the dove's torso were black and blue like someone had used her for a punching bag, and she had angry red claw marks on her thighs and across her back. Her face had fared no better. Dried blood from her nose had caked on her upper lip, and more blood had been smeared across her forehead. Her chin and cheekbones had turned purple from physical abuse, and it was still possible to see a thumbmark on her throat like someone had tried to squeeze the life out of her. The only positive that Cornelia could find in the situation was that the dove's chest was heaving, meaning she was alive.

A long sigh escaped Cornelia's lips as she knelt down and put a gentle hand on the younger woman's bare shoulder. "Hey," she said in a quiet voice so she could avoid adding to the woman's fright. "Hey… can you hear me?" she continued somewhat stronger.

As the younger woman's eyelids fluttered open, she gasped and shied back from the shadowy figure kneeling next to her. A whimper escaped her mouth, but it appeared she was in too much pain to move as she remained still save for a twitch or two.

"Don't be alarmed, I won't hurt you. I'm going to ease you onto your back," Cornelia said, eyeing the injuries on the woman's torso as she was rolled over. Further claw marks littered her stomach and her breasts, and she had punch marks on the lowest part of her abdomen.

A low, dangerous growl escaped Cornelia's lips as she took in the full extent of the dove's injuries - having women in the camp never failed to create trouble, in one way or the other, and she should have followed her instincts and sent the dove home the moment she had laid eyes on her the night before.

As the younger woman whimpered again, Cornelia decided to try a kinder approach, and even allowed a brief smile to play on her lips. "Hey… I'm Cornelia. What's your name?" she said, trying to brush a few locks of damp hair out of the victim's eyes.

"In- Ingeborg… Ingeborg Mortensdatter," the younger woman croaked. It was clear that her bloodied, cracked lips caused her discomfort as she winced even while she spoke.

"Where are your garments?"

"I d- don't know…"

"Never mind. I have something in my war chest that might fit you," Cornelia said and put an arm behind Ingeborg's shoulders to help pull her up into a sitting position. When the younger woman let out a pained cry, Cornelia shushed her at once. "I know you're hurting like hell, but you need to keep quiet. If the men see you, you'll be fair game all over again. C'mon… we need to get you to my tent before the bastards wake up."

It did not take long for Cornelia to realize that it would be far too time-consuming to get Ingeborg back to the tent if they had to rely on the younger woman walking on her own, so she swung an arm under the bare, bruised legs and pulled her up into her strong arms.

Two steps on, she came to a hard stop as she found herself face to face with Jakob Mikkelsen whose weasel-like face was not big enough for the broad, sly grin he wore. "So, Black Rose… I figured you'd snatch her up sooner or later. I just never expected you to want her all spent and bloody."

"Get the hell out of my way, Jakob," Cornelia growled as she forced herself past her second-in-command.

"But o' course. I wouldn't dream o' robbin' you of your turn with the wench," Jakob said while his grin only grew more sinister.


A short fifteen minutes later, Ingeborg Mortensdatter's face had been washed clean of the blood that had caked on her upper lip and forehead. Most of the cuts, scrapes and bruises around her body required no immediate attention as such save for a little water to clean off the filth she had collected from lying on the ground, but she was given a small potion from Cornelia's private medical stash for her cracked, bloodied lips.

Cornelia had never been adverse to nudity, much less female nudity, but seeing the naked dove curling herself up into a ball of humanity to protect what was left of her dignity made it bother her to no end. To ease Ingeborg's acute discomfort, Cornelia flipped open the small chest she took with her wherever they went on their ceaseless travels across the land. A few garments were discarded for being insufficient, too large or just plain inappropriate, but an old. threadbare tunic proved to be just right.

Ingeborg was more than a head shorter than Cornelia, so the tunic was long enough to act as a loose dress that would cover all her most important bits. "Mmmm," Cornelia said, squinting while holding up the tunic to gauge whether or not it would fit. "Try it on. It's the best I can do. I'll even turn away while you put it on," she continued, throwing the tan garment at the younger woman's feet.

"It's a good fit," Ingeborg croaked a brief moment later, prompting Cornelia to turn back around.

Cornelia nodded her appraisal of the makeshift clothing before pulling her apple crate over to have something to sit on. "I don't have any breakfast for you, but you wouldn't have had time to eat it, either. We need to talk fast before the men wake up. I want you out of here before they do."

"Th- thank you…"

"Don't thank me yet," Cornelia said and leaned forward to put her elbows on her knees. She shot Ingeborg a darker look that said things were about to get serious. "I want to know everything you can tell me about the village you're from… and this fabled manor I keep hearing about."

"I'll… I'll try my best," Ingeborg said and tried to smile. Her cracked lips made it too painful, so she assumed a neutral expression once more. "My village isn't rich… just an ordinary fishing village by the coast… a couple of inns down by the docks… a bakery, a greengrocer… we have a few supply traders who deal with the fishermen… they-"

"The supply traders… do they have warehouses with stocked goods?"

Ingeborg shook her head. "I d- don't know… I th- think so, b- but I don't-"

"Never mind. Where do you work?"

"One of the inns at the docks. I'm a barmaid."

"Mmmm. What are you going to say when the bar owner asks where you got so beat up?" Cornelia said and cocked her head.

The young woman opened her mouth to answer, but only a sigh escaped her. After a brief pause, she shrugged. "He knows I'm a whore. When he sees me, he'll expect it to have been a customer."

"Does he get part of what you're paid?"

"No… well, I suppose he does because I rent his apartment above the inn. I always use it for the business, so…"

Cornelia nodded - she had expected it to be thus since it was pretty much the standard setup for prostitutes in the villages and smaller towns around the country. "Mmmm. Ingeborg, have you ever been arrested for whoring?"

"Well… of course…"

"How many police soldiers are there in your village?"

"Oh… only a handful… and they're always tied up at the docks. The fishermen are rough people… ready for a fight at any time."

"All right. Enough of that," Cornelia said and moved even closer. "What about the manor?"

"It's called Sw- Swan Manor," Ingeborg said in a voice that grew more excited than it had been. "It's just a short distance from my village. Aw, the Goldenloew family is the richest bunch by far around here… by far! Th- they have fine porcelain and paintings and silver cutlery! And-"

"And you're not just tying a red ribbon around a turd and calling it a present, are you?" Cornelia said while leaning down towards the younger woman.

"No, no!" Ingeborg said, shaking her head so hard her hair bounced around. "No… I was there for the old baron's funeral the other week… they needed another servant girl, and I applied for the job 'cos I knew I could carry a tray or some such… but the old bat of a Mistress of the Manor saw me pinching a spoon so she kicked me out!"

"How rude," Cornelia said in the drollest voice she could muster. "If the old baron's dead, who's in control?"

"His daughter… Christiane-something. A little, frail slip of a girl. Aw, she won't pose no problems for you! They have so many paintings and silver candlesticks and whatnot they wouldn't even notice if some of it went missing!"

Cornelia chuckled at Ingeborg's mounting enthusiasm, not to mention the information she offered - at least some good had come out of the day so far. "Oh, I think they might eventually. The trick is for us to be far away once they do. Tell me, do you know if they have a permanent watch company there?"

"I don't know… maybe…" Ingeborg said, furrowing her brow as she tried to remember back to the somber event. "There were men in uniform there for the funeral… but they were stuffy old geezers, so… I don't kn-"

"Never mind, Ingeborg. Well. You've been most helpful," Cornelia said and rose from the apple crate. After pushing it aside, she turned back to the young woman and put out her hand. "Go home… and don't stop for a chat on the way."

"I'm… I'm free to go?" the dove said, looking like the message had not quite filtered through yet. Reaching up, she took Cornelia's hand and used it to get to her feet.

"You've been free to go the whole damn time," Cornelia said in a stern voice. "You should have taken advantage of that last night. Would have saved you a lot of pain. Were you promised anything for going with the two travelers?"

A wistful smile played across Ingeborg's face; soon, the smile was replaced by a frown that had the potential of turning into tears at any moment. "No… I just thought it would be exciting…" she said in a voice that trailed off when the events of the past half-day caught up with her once more.

"Mmmm. It's your life, and I won't interfere with how you decide to live it, but… the next time, perhaps you should use your head instead of giving it. Yeah?" Cornelia said, wrapping an arm around Ingeborg's shoulders in a motherly gesture.


Once the dove had snuck out of the camp in the oversized tunic, Cornelia carried out the task she had postponed earlier in the morning - she went around the fire pit and kicked the ruffians awake. A few, if not most, received kicks that were harder than necessary, but she was not about to hold back after seeing the end result of their drunken partying.

"Wake up, you miserable sons of whores! Get on your feet! The day is young and there's money to be made!" she roared, spotting Søren Svendsen's prone figure on the ground. Growling out loud, she gave the failed night-watchman an extra-hard 'good morning'-kick to make him come to.

Once the men near the fire pit began to stir, Cornelia stomped over to the tents to continue her mission. "The party delivering the golden boy's ransom will be here before noon… and I want you all to be in ship-shape before they do! So get on your feet! Now!"

Plenty of moaning, groaning and grumbling came at her from all sides at once, but it was nothing out of the ordinary after a night of heavy drinking. Stomping back to the center of the makeshift camp, she slammed her hands on her hips and shook her head over and over. "Sweet Saint Christopher, what a bunch of sorry asses I'm working with. Perhaps I should just walk away and start anew somewhere else…" she mumbled to herself as the men made slow, stumbling exits from the tents while nursing what had to be severe hangovers.




At Swan Manor, the three weeks that had gone by following the shocking news of the forced, arranged marriage had all been a blur for Lady Christiane. Although the mourning period for her father's death had officially ended, she had refused to shed the black robe. After the upsetting letters from the Crown and Lord Erich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle, the mourning dress had become a symbol for her own loss, and not just losing her father.

She had begun to eat less and less as well - much to the frustration of the Matron of the Kitchen - and she could barely muster enough energy to get up in the mornings. The days had become chores to get through; most often she would sit by the dormant fireplace in the drawing room lost to her thoughts, or at the bureau in her suite on the upper floor trying in vain to update her journal. Conversations with the chambermaids or the kitchen staff had been reduced to simple, meaningless phrases, or mono-syllabic replies to their best wishes for her health.

Her important task of arbitrating the squabbles of the region and coastal village had continued throughout the weeks of gloominess, though she could barely stomach hearing about other people's problems when each word uttered by the contesting parties reminded her of the issues facing her in her own immediate future.

Even the weather worked in sympathy with the somber mood of the Lady of the Manor. Gone were the warm, sunny stretches of mid-May, replaced by dull, overcast days of early June where the only hints of color came from the spectrums reflected in the raindrops that often trickled down the panes.

Lady Christiane's only source of joy was the ornamental garden that she had worked so hard on for a good portion of her twenty-three years. The manor's gardening staff performed wonders in keeping it as near to her wishes and desires as possible, but of course, even they could do nothing about the dull, drizzly weather that robbed the flowers and plants of their luster and turned the narrow pathways between the rows of neatly trimmed bushes into sticky, muddy trails.

The almanac revealed that it was the day before the forced wedding, and Christiane's sense of well-being was even lower than usual. Sitting at her bureau clutching a mug of long-forgotten tea with honey that had turned cold and grainy, she gazed upon the dark-gray, low clouds that once more threatened to dump their wet contents onto the fields and forests below them.

Her mood had reached its nadir the day before following the arrival of Lord Erich's entourage. A five-wagon convoy carrying a mere quarter of His Lordship's possessions had driven into the courtyard, and not even Anneliese von Eyben's loud protestations had been enough to stop the hired hands from offloading reams of furniture, clothing items and every other kind of accessory one could think of.

The retired cavalry Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg, Lord Erich's personal adjutant, had assumed command of the battlefield and had forced Anneliese to summon enough staff to help the men with the process of clearing out the old baron's suites. The items there, he had commanded, should be dragged up to the attic so there was room for Lord Erich's worldly possessions.

Christiane had been close to fainting on several occasions as she had watched the hired hands drag the old furniture a floor up with little or no care for its worth or sentimental value. It had been a living nightmare, and the smashing of a large mirror, a family heirloom for generations, had made her keel over. Out cold, she had been carried to her bedchamber by Anneliese and one of the hunters who had been summoned to clear out the collection of antlers from the grand banqueting hall - apparently, His Lordship found such a display barbaric.

She had not left her suite since, and had refused company save for Anneliese who had brought her a few mugs of tea, and the chambermaid who had come by twice to change the chamber pot. Her life in solitude could not continue, she knew that, and yet she could not work up enough energy to even get out of the chair.

The only contact she'd had with the world outside Swan Manor had come in the shape of letters that had been written by her friends and acquaintances living on the other manors in the region. Most offered her their sympathies for the hardship she had to endure, but one or two said between the lines that she had lived too sheltered a life until then, and that she needed to understand that in their circles, the women born to the fine and noble families had very little saying in the matter when it came to choosing a husband.

Sighing out loud, she motioned to take a sip of the tea. When she discovered it had grown cold and uninviting, she sighed again and put the mug on the bureau. Once more, she fell against the backrest of her chair unable to do anything but stare at the sky outside her windows. As a steady drizzle began to fall from the dark-gray clouds, the raindrops on the panes were matched by a few that escaped her eyes.

"Oh… those wretched tears," she said in a voice that had turned hoarse and thick from disuse. She tried to wipe them away with the back of a hand, but they were beyond her control and were soon joined by many more.


Later in the day, Christiane was dragged back to the unwanted - but inevitable - task of preparing for the upcoming big event by a knocking on the door. She felt no need to see or talk to anyone, but a second, more insistent, round of knocking convinced her that whomever was outside would not go away before they had heard from her. "Unless it is Anneliese, please, I wish to remain in solitude," she said out loud in a listless voice.

'It is Anneliese, Lady Christiane. I fear we have something important we need to do.'

"So important it cannot wait?"

'I fear so, Milady.'

"Oh… very well, then. You may enter," Christiane said and rose from the chair. After pushing it back to the bureau, she rubbed her red, stinging eyes to be a little more presentable.

The door soon opened to reveal the Mistress of the Manor and Lady Christiane's regular handmaiden, Signe, whose youthful looks were full of concern for the terrible plight of her mistress. The young maid carried an armful of what appeared to be exquisite fabric wrapped in a protective sheet.

Stepping into the regal suite, Anneliese von Eyben performed a deep curtsey. "Lady Christiane, I fear there's a small matter of a wedding tomorrow that we need to make plans for. Signe, put the dress on the bed," she said, pointing at the four-post canopy bed that had yet to be made following Christiane's latest nap.

While the maid lowered the sheet containing the fabric onto the bed with great care, Christiane sighed for the umpteenth time in the past few weeks. "The dress? Surely not my late mother's wedding dress, Anneliese?" she said in a listless voice.

"It is indeed, Milady."

Christiane sighed again and once more rubbed her weary eyes. "You cannot possibly expect me to sully my mother's wedding dress for… for this… wretched empty spectacle!"

Signe's cheeks blushed red at the lady's coarse language, but she knew better than to make an utterance of any kind. Instead, she folded her hands in front of her and placed herself against the wall so she would be close by for the next time she was needed.

"It is a tradition that has been passed down through the generations, Milady," Anneliese said and unfolded the protective sheet to reveal a dress that had been created more than a century earlier in the ancient city of Ribe by a master tailor and his team of expert seamstresses. "And, if I may be so bold, would it not be a source of comfort for you to wear something that your dearly departed mother cherished?"

Yet more tears stung the back of Christiane's eyes, and she clenched her lips in the vain hope it would stop them from escaping their confines. "It would, Anneliese… thank you for being so considerate," she said after a short while. Only a single tear had trickled down her cheek, and she claimed that as a success considering the mood she was in. It was wiped away in a hurry. "Oh, I presume I shall have to shed this black robe for the fitting, then," she continued, running her fingers across the black shawl she wore over her shoulders.

"Indeed you shall, Milady," Anneliese said before she turned to the handmaiden. "Signe, assist Lady Christiane in removing the mourning garment."

Signe curtseyed before she jumped into action and began removing the pins and needles that kept the shawl in place. Once the delicate, black fabric had been folded up and put on the bed next to the far nicer wedding dress, Signe unwound the wraparound cuffs and loosened the belt attached to the corset.

During all that activity, Christiane remained passive save for putting out her arms when the situation called for it. Once Signe began undoing the long row of buttons down the back of the robe, Anneliese aided the undressing by tugging on the sleeves so Christiane's shoulders would come free of the robe's restrictive, upper corners.

A sudden chill rippled across Christiane's body as it was robbed of the warmth created by the heavy robe, but Anneliese was ready to lessen the effect by sweeping a warm blanket around Christiane's shoulders.

"Thank you," Christiane said as she pulled the blanket closer so it would hide her brief unmentionables and the silky top she had wrapped around her chest for support. When the mourning period had first started the day after her father's death, she had worn a camisole and long undergarments underneath the black fabric. However, the temperature and humidity under the thick, black robe had nearly caused her to collapse from heat exhaustion, so on the subsequent days, she had shed most of her undergarments until only the two most necessary items remained.

Christiane cast a dark look at the somber robe as it was folded up by Signe. "Each morning I am helped into that garment, I promise myself it shall be the last day I shall wear it… but each evening when I cross over my almanac, I see that I am one day closer to the dreadful event, and my mood is thus that I cannot escape putting it on again the day after."

Anneliese smiled as she put the black robe away and moved over to the far more enchanting wedding dress. "Perhaps wearing this shall bring a smile to your face, Lady Christiane?"

"Oh, I fear smiles shall never return to my face once my future husband has arrived," Christiane said and pushed off the shoes that went with the mourning dress. Once her feet had been liberated - though she still wore the black, knee-length stockings that went with the mourning outfit as showing one's bare feet to anyone beyond the immediate family was considered vulgar beyond belief - she shuffled over to the canopy bed.

Touching the delicate fabric did indeed send a faint creasing across her lips, but it left as soon as it had come. "The mere thought of how carelessly His Lordship's entourage treated Father's possessions blackens my vision, Anneliese. I fear that such abhorrent events as the shattering of the mirror shall become an everyday occurrence. I dread to think what may happen to other invaluable items that we own, like the family paintings in the hall. It will only be a matter of time before His Lordship demands that his family is represented there rather than mine."

"Then we shall simply have to find somewhere else to display those magnificent paintings, Lady Christiane. Have no fear, I shall do my best to be a positive influence on the future Baron of Swan Manor," Anneliese said, wearing a reassuring smile.

"Oh, I have every confidence that you will… however, I fear that Captain von Hardenburg will be a far more difficult obstacle to manage. I cannot stand him, or his martial ways. Good Lord, that man is insufferable," Christiane said and rolled her red eyes.

"Perhaps so, but it shall not stop us from trying. And now for the next part. Signe, come help me with the wedding dress."

"Yes, Mistress Anneliese," Signe said and hurried back to the two others. Working together with the Mistress of the Manor, she swept away the warm blanket and slipped the wedding dress over Lady Christiane's head and arms. The delicate fabric soon fell into place on the lady's shoulders where it was revealed that it needed a tuck here and a pinch there.

"Fitting pins, Signe," Anneliese said in an impatient voice.

As the young handmaiden hurried over to the protective sheet the wedding dress had come in to remove the small pack of fitting pins, Christiane looked down at how the dress sat across her frame. She and her late mother shared the same body type though they had been denied the chance of meeting as adults: Frederikke Augustine Johanne Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor had died of complications to a miscarriage only weeks after Christiane's fifth birthday in 1692.

The Mistress of the Manor and the handmaiden worked magic with the fitting pins, and the wedding dress soon appeared like it had been tailor-made for Lady Christiane instead of her mother. When the headpiece had been pinned to her blond locks and the lacy veil lowered into position, Christiane had to admit she posed a striking figure - one that would have made her parents proud.

"Milady, I think you look wonderful," Signe said, sidestepping from left to right to take in the full spectacle of the exquisite wedding dress.

"Thank you, Signe," Christiane said, turning around in a slow circle to get a sense for how the dress would react when she and her new husband danced the traditional quadrille following the ceremonial part of the wedding. "Indeed, Anneliese, it does comfort me to wear my mother's dress, like you predicted it would. I am indebted to you for persuading me to try it on."

"You are most welcome, Lady Christiane," Anneliese said and performed a quick curtsey. "It is quite lovely. Yes, indeed, quite lovely…" she continued, taking a step back to get the full picture of Lady Christiane's appearance.

Christiane toyed a little with the lacy veil that was harder to see through than she had imagined it would be. She would need to be cautious when walking; the risk of tripping and ending up face-down in the courtyard's gravel was great. "Was that it for now, Anneliese?" she said, turning back to her Mistress of the Manor.

"I fear not, Lady Christiane. This was merely the first item on the agenda," Anneliese said and moved back to the canopy bed.

Christiane furrowed her brow and drew her lips back in a grimace. "Ack. Dare I enquire about the length of the agenda?"

"It has a few more items, but perhaps I should withhold the details from you," Anneliese said while an angelic smile played on her lips.

"Ah. I see," Christiane said and let out a sigh. "Oh, very well. Let us move onto the next item. Which is?"

"A trimming of your hair, Lady Christiane," Anneliese said and returned holding a pair of scissors.


The big day had arrived, and everyone working at Swan Manor had been up before the crack of dawn to go through the final preparations for the momentous event. Anneliese von Eyben had hired every available servant girl from not only the coastal village but the other villages in the region as well to meet the demands that were sure to be put on the staff. Even the hunters, the clappers, the coachmen, the wagoneers, the wranglers and the stable boys had been pressed into duty - not to mention pressed into their Sunday finest - to make sure the day would proceed in the smoothest possible way.

The Matron of the Kitchen had thrown a major tantrum when she had discovered that the Mistress of the Manor planned to use some of her kitchenmaids as upstairs servants. It had resulted in a brief, though ferocious, shouting match that had been won by the Matron who had threatened to walk out which would leave the high-and-mighty eating gruel and week-old biscuits rather than the seven-course meal that had been planned. That argument could not be countered, so the Mistress of the Manor had withdrawn from the conflict before tempers would flare any further - and plates start to fly.

Though the particulars of the wedding were unfortunate, formal invitations had still been sent out as dictated by the age-old traditions. The first guests had already arrived and were chatting with some of Lord Erich's entourage who had taken up temporary residence at the manor during the wedding days.

The pandemonium had caused Lady Christiane to retire to her bedchamber although her mood had in fact improved from the pitch-black depths it had been at. The impending ceremony and the hundreds of details of varying importance connected to it had left her head swimming, but she tried to clear her mind and remain focused on the good things in her life by reading some of the old entries in her journal.

She had been true to her wishes and had left the black mourning robe in her closet where it belonged. Instead, she wore a simple, dark-brown dress with long sleeves and golden highlights around the upper and lower hem. It was somewhat low-key for a wedding day, but it would take little time to shed once the moment came to slip into the wedding dress.

A gruff, male voice shouting something unintelligible from downstairs made her furrow her brow and put away the journals. Another few shouts followed, and she realized the man doing the shouting was retired cavalry officer Ieronymus von Hardenburg whose mood appeared to be somewhat shy of sunny. A brief shiver ran across her body at the thought of the Captain being even less civil than usual.

Further shouting made her forget her trepidations, and she left her bedchamber to see what was going on. Moving with hurried steps, she crossed the wooden floorboards on the landing to get to one of the upper-floor windows overlooking the main courtyard.

A luxurious carriage drawn by a team of four, well-bred pulling horses had just come to a halt in front of Swan Manor's stately main entrance. While Christiane looked down upon the unfolding scene, Captain von Hardenburg exited the grand hall, stomped down the short flight of stairs and went over to the carriage. After opening the door, he performed a deep bow and stepped aside.

Two men exited the carriage. The first, who was in his mid-twenties, wore the typical dark-blue uniform of a personal manservant. The other, who was in his early thirties, wore an outfit that could only be described as stylish and extravagant: black shoes, white stockings that reached the knees, and golden knickerbocker breeches that followed the latest fashion by being puffy along the thighs. Further up, he wore white gloves and a short, golden jacket over a white tunic that was equipped with puff-cuffs and a frilly collar. Both men wore their dark-brown, curly hair long, but the man in gold also wore a pale-brown, wide-brimmed French hat that sported a bluish-green feather.

While Christiane watched, the older of the two men removed his wide-brimmed hat and looked up to allow the hazy, reluctant sun to grace his features. His nose was straight and regal, his eyebrows were dark and neatly groomed, and his chin and cheekbones were well-defined and free of facial hair of any type. Christiane was unable to see the colors of his eyes since they were closed, but she imagined they would be brown to match the color of his hair.

"I say! What a peacock!" she mumbled as she stared at the colorful man who stepped onto the stone staircase and went out of sight. Soon, she could hear the commotion continue downstairs with several voices welcoming Lord Erich Johann Karl Heinrich Morgenstern of Allerød Castle to Swan Manor. "Well, well, well… His Lordship is a colorful man indeed. Handsome too, I cannot deny that. Why, he is handsome to the point of being pretty," she continued in a mumble.

Two servant girls came running past full of giggly enthusiasm, but when they spotted the Lady of the Manor watching them, they came to a dead stop and went into deep curtseys. "Milady," they said as one.

"Do carry on," Christiane said while she gestured at the servant girls. "Oh! Oh, before I forget… if you happen to see the Mistress of the Manor, would you please ask her to come upstairs?"

"Yes, Milady," the two servant girls said as one before they curtseyed again and took off like scalded cats.


"You called for me, Lady Christiane?" Anneliese said a short while later as she entered the bedchamber.

Christiane put away her old journals and rose from the chair by the bureau. "I did indeed. I have something I wish to share with you. Oh, and I just witnessed my future husband arriving. Quite the flamboyant entrance, was it not?"

"Oh! Was that wise, Milady? According to local superstition, you shall now live through seven years of misfortune…"

A brief chuckle escaped Christiane's mouth as she closed the distance between herself and the Mistress of the Manor - then she did something she had only done a handful of times in her entire adult life: she pulled Anneliese into a hug that left the older woman surprised to the point of being flabbergasted. "I called for you to let you know how much you mean to me, Anneliese, but words alone cannot express the gratitude I feel towards you. In these past few weeks, you have been the cornerstone upon which my entire existence has depended. Without you in my life, I would surely have died of grief or desperation. Thank you for being there for me, and for helping me through the terrible ordeal."

"Oh, I… you are most welcome, Lady Christiane. To be swept in such high praise is a great honor, and it makes my heart soar," Anneliese said and went into a deep curtsey. Her gray appearance had become flustered, and the unflappable Mistress of the Manor had even gained two red blotches on her cheeks.

Christiane smiled as she stepped back from the her confidante. "Ack, and I fear that the old superstition of seven years of misfortune has already been invoked when the mirror was smashed the other day. Or perhaps the two cancel each other out, I cannot say."

"Let us hope they do. After all, Swan Manor could use some happiness now."

"We could indeed. Which leads me to the final point on my agenda before I shall release you once more to the geese hunt downstairs," Christiane said and looked down like she was overcome by a wave of embarrassment. "It concerns the wedding night and my solemn duties to serve and please my husband. I understand the basics, but there are… certain… details… that… I… oh…"

"Ah," Anneliese said and folded her hands in front of her. "I understand. Well. Perhaps we should start at the initial kiss and move on from there?"

Struck speechless by the embarrassment that rolled over her, Christiane could only nod as she prepared to take plenty of mental notes on how to clear the first of many hurdles in her upcoming marriage.


The low cloud-cover broke up over the course of the mid-day hours, and by the time the clock struck four in the afternoon, the sun had come out to grace the many wedding guests who had assembled on the gravelly courtyard outside Swan Manor. The vast majority of the guests were members of the aristocracy, clergymen or soldiers from all branches of the King's military, and they had all donned their finest garments, cossacks or dress uniforms to mark the day.

Plenty of merry chatter rippled back and forth among the people waiting for the big event, and dozens of servant girls carried silver trays heavily laden with bottles of fine, pale port, ruby-red cherry brandy that had been produced in a distillery in the coastal village, and white wine that had been imported from renowned vineyards near the Rhine river south of the border. Some servant girls carried ceramic jars containing the latest items to reach high fashion among the nobility: walnuts soaked in honey, and berries and fruit submerged in port.

The wedding ceremony itself was to have taken place in the manor's private chapel at the rear of the main building, but when the number of guests who had responded to the invitation grew to unprecedented levels, Captain von Hardenburg and Lord Erich had made a decision to erect a temporary gazebo in the garden and relocate the big event there to create a more romantic setting by taking full advantage of the colorful backdrop provided by Lady Christiane's ornamental garden.

For once, Christiane had not objected to one of the Captain's forceful decisions - since her father's funeral, she had not set foot in the gloomy chapel, and she preferred it to remain so. She, Anneliese and her regular handmaiden Signe were upstairs on the landing outside her suite, all dressed up and waiting for the signal from downstairs that would tell them when to make their entrance.

Her heart thumped inside her chest like a rampant stallion in full gallop. She was short of breath, her hands were clammy despite wearing lacy gloves, and her mouth was a dry as a riverbed after a fortnight of drought. She wore the full wedding outfit including white stockings and the special shoes, but she wished she could have left them out since they were already pinching her toes. Now and then, she shifted left and right in an attempt to take the weight off her sore feet, but it had little effect, and she dreaded the traditional quadrille dance following the ceremony.

The selection of flowers used for the bridal bouquet had been collected from her own garden. They were beautiful but delicate, and she needed to hold them with great care or else they would crumple or lose some of the many petals. "Ack… what is the cause of this delay? What can they possibly be waiting for? The hangman?" she mumbled after a while.

Anneliese let out a frustrated grunt. "I cannot say, Milady… but it is certainly a great source of annoyance," the Mistress of the Manor said, glancing to her right at the Lady. She studied the wedding dress with critical eyes to find any imperfections that needed to be fixed, but had not yet found any.

"Mistress Anneliese," Signe said, "do you wish me to run down and find out?"

Anneliese shook her head even as she found a little detail wrong with the way the long, weighty veil had been attached to the headpiece. "No. I need you here when we get the signal. Surely it must come any minute now." Grunting, she went to work trying to straighten out the upper hook that held the veil in place.


Though Christiane felt an entire naval battle could have been fought during the delay, only a further short ten minutes went by before Captain von Hardenburg entered the hall and stormed up the grand staircase.

When the baron's adjutant reached the landing, he had to adjust his uniform to get it back into the proper position. To mark the day, he had donned the Captain's colors he had worn when in active duty: shiny, black, long-legged riding boots, dark-blue riding breeches with a red stripe down the outside of the leg, a short, dark-blue dolman jacket that sported a swirling pattern in gold on the front and back, and a fur-lined pelisse over his left shoulder. Several golden ribbons showing his seniority within the King's cavalry graced the right arm of his jacket, and a ceremonial saber that appeared to be gold-plated sat low on his right hip in a sheath that had been decorated with a pair of red tassels.

To round off the ensemble, he wore a dark-blue, flat-crowned hat that had a red feather attached to it. The hat's shiny peak and tight chinstrap made his presence even sterner and more martial than usual, and his gruff voice did nothing to appease that image when he spoke: "His Lordship is ready now. You may commence," he commanded like he was standing in front of a company of mounted cavalrymen.

"Thank you, Captain von Hardenburg," Christiane said and set off towards the upper steps of the grand staircase; Anneliese and Signe were right behind her, controlling the long veil.

The adjutant intercepted her and hooked his arm inside hers. "Lady Christiane, His Lordship has informed me it is my duty to lead you to the altar."

"Wait…" Christiane said and came to a halt at once which made the Captain shoot her a dark look. "I already have someone who shall give me away."


"Why, Anneliese, the Mistress of the Manor if you must know."

"Impossible. A woman cannot lead another woman to the altar," Captain von Hardenburg said and cast a brief glance at the Mistress who stood behind them. "As I explained to you before, Lady Christiane, His Lordship has chosen me to carry out that solemn task, and it shall be thus."

Christiane stared wide-eyed at the retired soldier, happy that the veil hid the true nature of the thoughts that ran through her mind. Though she wanted to let out a stream of bitter complaints about his aggressive ways, she knew it would do her no good. Instead, she sighed and put out her arm. Once the Captain had fallen into formation by her side, they continued walking towards the staircase. "Ack, why do I feel like a condemned woman on her way to the gallows?" she mumbled, earning herself a small snicker by Signe.


When Christiane moved from the courtyard's uneven, crunching gravel and onto the far softer ground in the garden, she breathed a sigh of relief. She kept her head up safe in the knowledge that no one would be able to see her eyes through the veil. On her way to the gazebo where Pastor Johannes Steengaard waited for her dressed in his official cassock, she glanced at the many guests who were there to see her get locked into matrimony with a man she had never spoken but a single word to. Of course, several of them seemed to only be there to drink the fine port, the cherry brandy or the imported white wine that she'd had to pay through the nose to buy.

She knew some of them from the many social gatherings that were so widespread among the nobility and landed gentry, but there were many new faces as well; no doubt family, friends and acquaintances of the groom from North Zealand. A group of cavalry officers all dressed like Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg had gathered near a small table upon which the best bottles of wine and port had been placed.

As Christiane's eyes toured the many guests, they happened to fall upon a tall, dark-haired woman who wore a frilly, pink dress with a high neckline that perhaps was not of the latest fashion. The regal-looking woman carried a pink-and-white umbrella that she held in such a way that she could observe the party without having anyone giving her a close inspection in return. A swarthy manservant stood next to her; his forehead had been marked by a long, hideous scar.

Lady Christiane had little time to wonder about the tall woman's identity as Captain von Hardenburg's arm - that was still hooked inside her own - continued to drive her toward the altar with the strength of a blacksmith.

Kneeling before God was part and parcel of the official ceremony, so a cushioned bench had been placed in the center of the gazebo. Pastor Steengaard stood behind it holding a Bible that he leafed through like he could not quite remember where he had put his bookmark. When the elderly clergyman felt Christiane's eyes on him, he looked up and offered her a reassuring smile.

"We're to wait for His Lordship here," Captain von Hardenburg said in his trademark gruff voice as he came to a halt just shy of the gazebo.

Christiane swallowed the barb she had already prepared; stopping short of the destination gave her another chance to study the tall woman dressed in pink. When she glanced in the direction where the woman had been, she found the spot vacated. Furrowing her brow in disappointment, Christiane looked at the other guests with greater care to see if the regal-looking woman was off mingling, but she was nowhere to be found nor were there any traces of the scarred manservant. "Captain von Hardenburg," Christiane said out of the corner of her mouth, "regarding one of the guests… I would like to enquire about a tall, dark-haired woman dressed in pink-"

"Shush, we have no time for that now," the Captain said in his typical gruff manner while he looked back at the manor's main building. "His Lordship is coming."

Being snubbed in such a curt, impolite fashion gave Christiane's jaw a grinding workout, but as the four male musicians rented for the big event - two playing on wooden flutes, one banging on a drum and one pulling the strings of a lute - began to play, she pushed it all aside to remain as calm as possible.

The arrival of Lord Erich went beyond even his grand entrance at the manor earlier in the day. Bare-headed, his long, dark hair had been arranged into a wide ponytail that was controlled by a gold barrette. Though still dressed in the golden outfit he had used for traveling, he had managed to make it even brighter and more luminous by wearing a cape and a golden bandolier that reached from his right shoulder to his left hip. One of the kingdom's finest decorations, the Star of The Realm was pinned to the bandolier near his heart, and it was joined by his family crest, the Morgenstern , and another colorful decoration that appeared foreign.

Several members of Lord Erich's entourage followed him at three paces holding up the tails of the cape, and the young, long-haired manservant - who had shared the luxurious carriage with Lord Erich when they had arrived at Swan Manor - walked backwards in front of the important nobleman throwing down a thick layer of rose petals so the dainty shoes had something soft to tread on.

Christiane had difficulty believing her eyes, and so did Pastor Steengaard judging by the amused snort that emanated from the portly clergyman. Soon, Lord Erich arrived at the gazebo; it was Captain von Hardenburg's cue to snatch Christiane's arm and lead her to the altar.

Kneeling on the cushioned bench, Christiane gulped several times as the gravitas and importance of the event that was about to unfold struck her. Getting married to a nobleman was something she had been groomed for since the day she was born, but she wished it would have come to her in a more positive guise. The thought that her father was not there to see her and give her away made her heart clench. She pressed her lips together to stop the tears that were already stinging the back of her eyes - it worked, but only just. Once more, her heart hammered in her chest at the thought of what was about to happen; it was not what she had wished for, but the sacrifice and personal despair would have been tenfold had she been forced to leave Swan Manor. All things considered, she had little to complain about.

As the Pastor began to read a passage from the Bible to mark the official opening of the ceremony, Christiane took advantage of the veil to glance at the man next to her. Up close, Lord Erich was more than just pretty, he was beautiful to the point of appearing effeminate.

Plenty of nervous energy seemed to course through him if his trembling hands were anything to go by, and Christiane took some solace in that fact. After all, it was a life-altering event for both of them, but she had almost had the sense that it was all but a charade for the handsome man from Allerød Castle.

"Lords and Ladies, Counts and Countesses, Barons and Baronesses," the Pastor chanted, "Officers of the King's armed forces. My colleagues. My friends. We are gathered here today, under the good graces of Our Lord's merciful sun, to see Lord Erich Johann Karl Heinrich and Lady Christiane Margrethe Frederikke enter the holy matrimony that shall see the houses of Morgenstern and Goldenloew join under the Goldenloew banner here at Swan Manor. As it says in the Bible-"


"I do," a female voice said. The words had sounded like they came from Christiane's mouth, but she was not too sure. The ceremony had gone by in a blur though she had been more composed than she had imagined she would be - and yet, when Pastor Steengaard had asked the big question at the end, she had been close to fainting. The blood that rushed past her eardrums was so noisy it drowned out everything else, but she was sure there was nothing more she needed to reply to so it mattered little.

The Pastor smiled at the married couple as he closed his well-worn Bible. "I now pronounce you husband and wife, and Baron and Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor. My Lord, you may kiss your Lady."

An 'Awwwww' rippled through the spectators as Lord Erich lifted Christiane's veil to take in his first-ever view of his new wife's fair face. His mouth moved in a jittery crease that never quite made it into a smile; leaning to the side on the cushioned bench, he stared at her with wide, nervous eyes that he did not even close before their lips touched.

Christiane had never in her life experienced being kissed romantically by a man prior to that moment, and once Lord Erich pulled back, she still hadn't. She furrowed her brow at the curious, half-hearted peck that had been clumsy, awkward and just plain detached. It had felt nothing like what her Mistress of the Manor had tried to explain to her earlier in the day - in fact, it had felt similar to a best friend kissing her on the cheek, which was not what she had expected at all, nor what it was supposed to have been.

Though she and the new Baron of Swan Manor had never met before, there should have been some sense of connection, if perhaps not yet mutual interest, but it had been as exciting as stale bread.

The wedding guests had not noticed a thing, and they broke out in cheers as Baron Erich and Baroness Christiane rose from the cushioned bench and stood arm in arm at the altar.

Christiane accepted the good wishes by her friends and acquaintances with a broad, genuine smile on her lips, but when her eyes caught a glimpse of a tall figure dressed in pink, her entire attention was snatched away. The tall woman and the scarred manservant were once again at the back of the group of guests. They appeared to clap and cheer like all the others, but there was something odd about the way the woman kept looking at the jewelry worn by the ladies nearest to her rather than at the two people at the altar like everyone else.

Then the woman in pink looked up and locked eyes with the new Baroness. As sea-blue met hazel, time seemed to slow down to a crawl for the two women who studied each other from afar. What started as a casual look soon turned to an interested glance, then a solid, unbreakable gaze that should have felt inappropriate given the situation, but did not.

The moment was broken by the new Baron who leaned in towards his wife and spoke in her ear. Christiane had not paid much attention to him for the past minute or so, so she turned to stare at him like she had only just realized he was standing next to her. "Ack… I fear I did not hear what you said, husband dearest… could you please repeat it?"

"I merely asked if you did not think it was a pleasant ceremony?" Baron Erich said in a well-modulated voice that held the accent so common to the noble families of North Zealand.

"Oh! I certainly did! Yes, it was quite pleasant. Pastor Steengaard and I have known each other for many, many years. He is such a charming man. Always kind and willing to help," Christiane said; while she spoke, her eyes left her husband and moved back to where she had seen the woman in pink. When she reached the exact spot, the woman had vanished once again.

"Come, my darling wife," Baron Erich said and took his new wife by the hand. "It is expected of us to mingle, so mingle we shall."

With a suitable smile fixed on her face, Christiane followed the Baron away from the gazebo and into the throng of wedding guests; though she met and spoke to several important people she knew from past social gatherings, her eyes never stopped the - fruitless, as it turned out - search for the tall, regal-looking woman in pink.


The refurbished banqueting hall echoed to the sound of the rented band striking up a set of merry tunes while a majority of the wedding guests performed the quadrille. Moving in perfect, square formations, the dancers were spot-on in performing all the intricate maneuvers associated with the party dance that had achieved widespread popularity among the aristocracies of Europe.

The ladies wore colorful, exquisite frocks and dresses, and the men matched them by being attired in knee-length stockings, puffy breeches, vests and longcoats, or dress uniforms. A few even wore white wigs of the fashion that was so popular in Britain, Germany and France, but most were bare-headed.

Dozens of servant girls waited on the guests who were not dancing. The brandy, wine and port continued to flow at a good rate, and a few of the guests were still eating the last bites of the magnificent seven-course meal even though the kitchenmaids were already busy clearing out the tables to have room for the traditional serving of tea and sweet pastries that was to follow.

As the band held the last note to signal the end of the round of dancing, the men and women who had been on the floor took a step back and bowed or curtseyed to their dancing partner like they were supposed to. At the center of the group, Christiane curtseyed to her new husband who had been a far better dancer than she - he possessed a natural grace that she had seldomly encountered in a man.

Her feet were on the brink of growing numb, and worse, the earlier pains from the shoes pinching her had moved up into her calves where they had festered. After the lengthy ceremony, the even lengthier celebrations around the vast tables in the banqueting hall, and the interminable bout of dancing the quadrille, she was about ready to go to bed and sleep for a week.

Christiane gulped when she realized that the 'going to bed'-part was about to be fulfilled, but not in the sense she wished for. The dancing formed one of the final traditions of the evening's entertainment. All that remained would be the serving of the sweet pastries to send the guests on their merry way, and then the wedding night itself - the former was already in the process of being served, and the latter was only moments away.

"Silence! May we have some silence, please!" Captain von Hardenburg barked in the gruff voice he used whenever he demanded that people listened to him. That more than half of his audience held noble titles seemed to mean little to him in the present situation. "Erich Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor wishes to speak. Your Excellency, the floor is yours," he continued, bowing to his master.

Erich smiled for all he was worth as he took a small glass of port and a sweet pastry from a tray held by Anneliese von Eyben - the Mistress of the Manor had made sure to remain close to Christiane during the indoor activities.

"My charming wife and I thank you all for joining our celebration. We hope you have had a pleasant day, and that you shall make your way home safely and in good spirits. As my wife and I are about to enter our first night as a married couple, we pray to Our Lord to grant us a boychild as soon as possible so the succession will be ensured. My friends, empty your glass, enjoy your honeyed pastry and wish us the best of luck in our solemn endeavor."

While Erich spoke the traditional closing text, Christiane noticed that not only were his hands trembling, the smile he wore never made it all the way to his eyes that seemed to radiate with a rampant case of nervousness. She furrowed her brow - what did the Baron have to be nervous about? The wedding night was her great concern, not his. She pushed all that aside to empty a small glass of port, gulp down a sweet pastry and move over to her husband's side once more.

Loud cheers and plenty of hurrahs rose from the wedding guests who all mirrored the new Baron and Baroness of Swan Manor by drinking their port and eating their honeyed pastries.

After putting down his empty glass, Baron Erich hooked his arm inside Christiane's and guided her to the doors leading to the grand hall. Anneliese von Eyben and Signe followed at a few paces to control the long veil. A strong round of applause accompanied the four people as they exited the banqueting hall and began a slow ascent of the elegant staircase.

Upstairs, the newlyweds came to a halt on the landing where they offered each other another kiss. Several of the wedding guests looked on from downstairs while they prepared to leave for home, and they cheered the couple with great enthusiasm.

Christiane's enthusiasm was nowhere in sight. Not only was she about to cross the threshold in more ways than one, the new kiss had been as awkward and stale as the first one in the gazebo. She grew concerned that something was terribly wrong with her since she could only illicit such a flat response from her new husband, and she sent Anneliese a puzzled look that was responded to in kind.

There was no time to ponder the finer details of the lack of zip between them as the Mistress of the Manor and the handmaiden moved closer to the new baroness to liberate her from the long, cumbersome veil. Once the long tail and the headpiece had been separated, Anneliese and Signe both went into deep curtseys before they withdrew to give the married couple the privacy they required.

Erich opened the door to his suite, stepped aside and held out his hand with plenty of grace and panache. Christiane accepted the hand and followed her new husband inside. As the door closed behind them with a soft click, she let out a deep sigh that was a good indication of the state of her mood.




Sixteen days after the wedding. Although summer had arrived which bathed Swan Manor and the surrounding lands in glorious sunshine from clear, blue skies, the air between Baroness Christiane and Baron Erich had only turned frostier. The concepts of mutual attraction, or budding love, or even the slightest sense of connection, was nowhere to be found between them, and their relationship had been reduced to eating at the same dining table four times a day. On certain days, it failed to even stretch that far as the baroness, or indeed the baron, would claim to suffer from a debilitating headache that would necessitate a serving of their food upstairs in their suite.

The rest of the time, including the nights, the married couple went their separate ways. Baron Erich spent most of his time in the drawing rooms reading or studying French with the aid of his loyal manservant Jean-Philibert Brocard - it had taken Christiane a full week to learn the servant's name since her husband or Captain von Hardenburg could not be bothered to tell her - and the baroness had taken to embroidering to have something to do that would not involve staring out of the leaded windows.

Whenever the weather showed itself from its most pleasant side, Christiane could be found in her ornamental garden where she pottered about the many plants and flowers from dawn to dusk. There had been times where she had nearly driven the manor's gardeners to the brink of tearing their hair out by showing up when they least expected it, or shadowing them to study their techniques, or offering new ideas or suggestions that they needed to follow. Once, she had even raked one of the pathways to remove a few, stray leaves, but the head gardener had put his foot down and flat out forbidden the baroness from participating in such filthy, undignified work.

At present, Christiane sat on a wooden bench in a secluded spot in her garden. The rays that graced her fair skin were warm so there had been no need to add a shawl to her light summer gown. Though still a full-length, three-layer dress with a tall collar and frilly puff-cuffs, it sat far better on her slender shoulders than the cumbersome winter dresses did, and she enjoyed the unrestricted feeling it offered her.

The day had been too nice to remain inside in the manor's oppressive atmosphere, so she had walked down to her garden at once after breakfast and had given the gardeners the day off so she could sit there undisturbed. The four men had bowed several times before they hurried off to spend the day engaged in the many other chores connected with running such a large manor.

Nature ruled the day in the ornamental garden as Christiane made sure to sit as still as possible so she could avoid being a disruptive element. A gentle, warm breeze rustled the willowy branches of the birch trees that lined the garden which created abstract patterns on the sun-kissed ground. A blackbird sang close by, and starlings and sparrows whimsied back and forth near the bushes. Bees, flies and even a large dragon fly buzzed to and fro the many colorful flowers, and now and then, she could hear a frog or two croaking from the moat that framed three of the manor's four sides.

A genuine smile spread over her features as she took in the colorful spectacle. The truth was that she enjoyed seeing how her plants and flowers grew and responded to her touch - they were the only things at the manor to do so. The wedding night had been an unmitigated disaster, though not for the reasons that had shaped her initial fears. She had spent the better part of twenty minutes trying to arouse her husband, but no matter what she had attempted to do, his reaction had been non-existent. It had only worsened their nervousness which in turn had killed the already passionless mood stone dead. With nary a word spoken between them as the event turned sour, they had slipped into their wedding garments and had parted company after a further delay to make sure the last guests had left.

Christiane's face fell at the thought of the disastrous night. That was the last time, and indeed only time, she and her new husband had seen each other less than fully clothed. Undressing in front of a rank stranger had nearly torn her soul apart at first, but his gentle ways, and the sight of him being just as soul-shakingly nervous about undressing in front of her, had given her some comfort. There was nothing wrong with either of them on an anatomical level, but the connection had not been there at all.

At least nature knew how to put a smile back on her face. A pair of fat turtle doves landed not far from the bench and began to coo as they walked around in circles. They were soon back in the air as a magpie disturbed them by going on a strafing run that only just missed their tailfeathers.

The crisp sounds of the clock in the chapel chiming eleven strokes made the smile fade from her face once more. Soon, food would be served in the banqueting hall. She was expected to eat lunch with her husband though her appetite for either had fallen by the wayside.

Her mood had returned to the somber, abyss-like depths it had been at prior to the forced wedding. If it had not been for her ornamental garden or her newfound interest in embroidering, there would have been days where she would not have left her bed.

A dark tidal wave threatened to roll over her, so she took a deep breath and rose from the bench before it could strike. Moving spooked the birds that all took off in a hurry, but they kept circling not too far from the garden so they could return to the ground once the human would leave them alone.


Christiane strolled along the pathways, stopping here and there to smell the flowers and admire the greenery. Breathing in the strong, pleasant fragrances and seeing the sea of bright colors invigorated her and soothed her soul. However, even that uplifting experience had a dark side: what she would do with her days, or indeed her life, come autumn and winter, she had no idea.

"Baroness Christiane?" a female voice said a short distance behind her.

Christiane managed to screw a smile on her face before she turned to greet her visitor; it proved to be Gunilla, the skinny, long-limbed kitchenmaid. "Yes, Gunilla?" she said to the young servant who held a silver tray that carried a white envelope.

"I beg for forgiveness, Baroness Christiane," Gunilla and went into a quick curtsey, "but the Matron of the Kitchen would like to humbly ask you to fill out the card so she will know what to serve for lunch."

Christiane sighed as she took in the near-threatening sight of the white envelope. "Ack, Gunilla… the Matron can serve anything the Matron pleases. I shall only have a tiny amount. I cannot say what the Baron wishes to eat for lunch."

It was clear by the nervous look in Gunilla's eyes that she was not looking forward to returning to the Matron with that message, but she curtseyed again and took off in a hurry.

On Gunilla's way out of the ornamental garden, she hurried past Anneliese von Eyben who came the other way. As always, the stern-looking Mistress of the Manor was dressed in a pale-gray, long-sleeved dress, but she had added a golden belt around her hips that not only accentuated her natural curves, but softened her general appearance.

"Anneliese?" Christiane said, letting out another sigh.

"Baroness Christiane, I have come to ask if you require a change of garments before lunch?"

"I do not, thank you. This summer gown is more than adequate for the two bites I can manage to eat."

The closing statement hung in the air like a thunderstorm on the horizon. Several seconds went by in an awkward silence before Anneliese folded her hands in front of her and drew a breath to speak: "Baroness, about that-"

"Not now, Anneliese. Please," Christiane said and held up her hands to stop the Mistress of the Manor from uttering her concerns.

Several more seconds went by in a silence that was no less awkward than the one preceding it. This time, Christiane relented and let out a deep sigh. "My friend, thank you for caring about me. As always, you have my deepest gratitude. Ack, if only my husband would care for me the way you do… so much of this dreadful situation would be different. So vastly different!"

"I have no right to criticize His Excellency the Baron, but… I agree with the Baroness," Anneliese said and went into a deep curtsey before she turned around and left.

Christiane let out a listless chuckle at her old friend's parting statement. She still had some time before she needed to be at the grand banqueting hall, so she turned around and strolled back to the bench - she hoped the birds would have forgiven her for disturbing the serene moment and return to play at her feet.


The mood inside the refurbished banqueting hall was even less joyful than usual. The baron and the baroness sat at the same table and enjoyed the same dish - the breast of a pheasant cooked in red wine, served with a good helping of freshly picked cowberries - but the only sounds heard were the occasional clanging of the silver cutlery onto the plates, and when the baron sipped from his long-stemmed glass of wine. Christiane had chosen to drink watered-down ale, and she used a cup that made less noise on the whole.

Not a word had been spoken between the two since they had greeted each other upon arriving, and even that had been nothing more than empty platitudes and a simple exchange of irrelevant pleasantries.

The married couple did not sit close to each other. After achieving the rank of Baron of Swan Manor at the wedding, Erich had inherited the chair at the head of the table. Christiane, however, had chosen to sit at the far end of the forty-foot long dining table. From there, she needed to crane her neck to have a clear view of the hazy-blue inlet beyond the leaded window panes, but it was still a better spot for her than one closer to her husband.

Four servant girls lined the far wall. They were ready to come to the aid of the baron or baroness whenever it proved necessary, but they had little to do following the serving of lunch. The silence turned so awkward they began to exchange puzzled, embarrassed looks with each other. Their little moment of freedom was quashed when Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg entered the banqueting hall and joined the four girls at the wall.

Only able to eat half of her cooked pheasant, Christiane sighed as she pushed away the plate with the rest of the white meat. The remaining cowberries were too tasty to leave be, so she scooped a good helping onto a spoon as a parting gift. It tore at her to see all the good food go to waste, but the portions were too large despite asking, pleading and even begging the Matron of the Kitchen to make hers less overwhelming.

A glance at her husband proved that he had no problem eating the portions. Though he held the cutlery and the long-stemmed wine glass with all the grace in the world, he stormed through the food like he had not eaten for a week. As Christiane watched him, a brief wave of his hand sent the Captain and one of the servant girls over.

"Ah, Captain von Hardenburg," the baron said in his velvety, well-educated voice. "Please send the Matron my regards. She continues to outdo herself. This pheasant was quite exquisite. Yes, quite exquisite indeed."

"It shall be done, Your Excellency," the Captain said with a brief bow.

"Girl," Erich continued, waving the servant girl over to his right-hand side.

The young woman hurried around the high-backed chair so she would be close. "You called, Your Excellency?" she said and went into a quick curtsey.

"Fetch me another helping. Though abstain from adding any of those horribly tart red berries," Baron Erich said, using his silver fork to point at the red cowberries like he was worried that one of them would jump onto his skin if he used a finger for purposes of pointing.

"Yes, Your Excellency," the servant girl said, doing another quick curtsey before taking the empty plate and hurrying away from the table.

Christiane sighed at the exchange that had taken place between her husband and the servant maid. Her late father would never have used such curt language while speaking to one of the young girls. Though the class structure needed to be upheld and vulgar familiarity with the staff needed to be avoided, a little civility went a long way.

Tired of being a bit player in a charade she had no interest in, Christiane waved another of the servant girls over to her. When the maid arrived, she helped lift the heavy silver plate off the table and into the young woman's waiting arms. "Like my dear husband, I would like to commend the Matron of the Kitchen for the wonderful meal. Please tell her that the cowberries in particular added a very welcome contrast to the fowl."

The servant maid's eyes zoomed from the baroness to the baron and back, like she chuckled inwardly at the vast difference between the married couple. She smiled as she took the plate. "I shall, Baroness Christiane. Do you require another helping? Or some wine, port or ale, perhaps?"

"I do not, thank you," Christiane said with a smile that faded once the servant girl moved away from the table. Turning back to the magnificent view of the inlet, her eye caught a glimpse of two white sails a good distance beyond the coast. The ships or boats propelled by the sails seemed to run parallel to each other as they were headed for the open waters past the peninsula that formed the northern part of the inlet.

All of a sudden, her heart clenched and tears stung the back of her eyes. The white sails moving towards the horizon represented a freedom that she no longer had, and that she would never again be granted. A life without friendly - much less romantic - relations with anyone was hardly a life at all, but that was the reality she was stuck in. Even if Erich passed away while she was still young enough to remarry, the Crown would force her into another arranged marriage that she could not escape from. The only alternative to her miserable existence was to seek out the clammy hands of the Reaper, but she had no intention of pursuing such a desperate course of action.

Discreetly wiping away a tear that had escaped her eyes, Christiane pushed back her chair and left the dining table without waiting for a maid to come to her assistance. Walking with swift steps, she moved along the table until she reached her husband's chair - there, she came to a stop.

For once, Christiane's dramatic departure elicited a response from the baron who looked at her with a cocked head and a furrowed brow.

"My dear husband, I fear I have a terrible headache. I shall seek out my bed for a good lie-down in the hope that it shall have cleared in time for tea," Christiane said, pressing the back of a hand against her forehead.

Erich let out a grunt at the sudden appearance of the ailment, but at least the concerned smile he offered her was genuine.

The smile Christiane sent in return was less so, and it was gone by the time she crossed the smooth floor of the grand banqueting hall. Once outside, she sought Anneliese but was unable to find the Mistress of the Manor anywhere. A deep sigh escaped her lips as she went upstairs to her suite instead.


The next day turned into a chilling mirror image of the previous one. After eating breakfast in silence and spending the entire morning in her beloved ornamental garden leading up to lunch, Christiane had rejected Anneliese von Eyben's offer to assist her in changing into a different gown; she had been unable to eat the entire portion of her lunch - veal medallion and herbs soaking in a gravy spiced with curry imported from the Orient - and her husband and she had failed to exchange but a single word following the empty platitudes upon meeting in the banqueting hall.

Lunch had been an even less joyous affair than usual, and it had come to a premature end as Christiane could not stomach it any longer. As she closed the doors behind her and entered the grand hall, she came to a halt in the middle of the floor and stared dead ahead without seeing anything at all.

She knew exactly how the remains of the day would proceed: first, she would return to her ornamental garden. Then at tea-time, she would nip at a scone or two and sip the warm, tasty liquid that would require another half a tea-spoon of sugar like always - her husband would pour it down like there was no tomorrow. The late afternoon would be spent embroidering. At dinner, she would be seated at the far end of the dining table where she would not be able to eat her entire portion while her husband would have a second helping and most likely behave in a discourteous manner to one of the servant girls. Then they would both withdraw to the elegant drawing room for more embroidery and reading until it was time to retire to bed, and they would do so separately, with no good-night kiss or any other exchange of endearment save for an empty phrase or two. And once the first rays of the sun would appear over the eastern horizon on the following morning, the whole thing would start over.

Feeling and appearing lost - and wanting to scream - she stared at the stately main entrance and considered running away to one of the colonies, Swan Manor be damned. "I cannot stand this any longer," she mumbled in a hoarse voice. The veal medallion churned in her stomach like it was thinking about making a reappearance, and she needed to wipe cold sweat off her forehead. She could feel her skin paling, and the poor sleep she had suffered from for so long made small black spots play around on the edges of her vision.

"I have it all… save for an actual life," she said in a mumble before the indignation really took hold. When it did, she drew a deep breath and threw her hands in the air. "Oh, Sweet Lord, why is it impossible for me to break through to my husband? Ack, he does not see me, he does not hear me… and he does not need me. And I need far, far more than what I am given! Such a wretched existence!"

"Baroness?" Anneliese said in a cautious voice. The Mistress of the Manor had been walking down the stairs just as Christiane had begun her elegy, but she knew better than to interrupt.

"Ack, Anneliese… dear friend," Christiane said, shooting the Mistress of the Manor a dead-tired, red-eyed glance. "I beg for forgiveness for my childish outburst. Yes. A petulant child am I, nothing more."

Anneliese closed the distance between them and took Christiane by the elbow. "Oh, far from it, Baroness. Come, shall we go upstairs for a nap?"

"I shall not lie down today. I would much rather spend some time among nature in my garden. My only joy these days, I fear," Christiane said in a trembling voice.

The experienced Mistress of the Manor narrowed her eyes and took in the baroness from top to toe. Although nothing would be visible after such a short while, she knew that a woman's hormones would be the first things to change. Furrowing her brow, she recognized some of the signs, but not all, and some of them seemed to point in the wrong direction altogether. "Baroness, pardon me for being so blunt," she said in a regular voice before she leaned in to continue in a whisper: "Are you pregnant?"

Christiane's eyes popped wide open - a moment later, she leaned her head back and let out a loud, bitter laugh that echoed through the grand hall. "My friend, I fear that such a question is more foolish than man's attempt to fly. No, I am not pregnant. I cannot be as I have yet to experience my husband showing any interest in me beyond passing the salt at dinner! And even that only happened once!"

The Mistress of the Manor was struck speechless for once. She began biting her lips until she had found an answer that would be appropriate given the awkward circumstances, but it was clear it was hard to come by. "Oh… uh… I see," she said, wincing as she recognized it was not the comment Christiane had hoped to hear from her. "But surely on the wedding night-"

"The wedding night was a sham! A… an… a diabolical charade! And that is the last I shall ever speak of that wretched failure!"

Anneliese opened her mouth to try again after parsing the new information, but before she could speak, Christiane's attention had been transferred elsewhere.

The baroness had shuffled over to the window next to the stately entrance to catch a better glimpse of the activity that had caught her eye. Outside in the gravelly courtyard, one of the manor's coachmen worked with a stableboy to attach and tighten a pulling harness onto a broad-backed, chestnut horse. The experienced wranglers were able to get the harness hooked up in no time, and the stableboy was soon pulling the horse over to a large carriage that was equipped with three rows of bench seats.

"Anneliese, please come. There is something I wish to show you," Christiane said over her shoulder. The Mistress of the Manor was soon by her side, looking at the horse and carriage through the same window as the baroness. "Seeing that beautiful horse and the vehicle bathed in sunshine," Christiane continued, "pray, does it not remind you of our Halcyon days here at the manor? When you, I and Father were driven down to the inlet on warm summer days to share a glorious picnic in the shade of the planetrees?"

"Oh… I must admit it does," Anneliese said, turning to look at the baroness whose cheeks had regained a good deal of the color they had been lacking only moments earlier. "But surely you do not suggest-"

"Surely I do, Anneliese! Yes! Yes, a picnic shall do me good," Christiane said and squeezed her friend's shoulder with an excited hand though she knew that such a contact with anyone beyond the immediate family was deemed inappropriate and far too intimate. She turned away from the window after sneaking a final glance at the horse and carriage. "And you, my dear Anneliese, has hereby been formally invited to share my personal carriage on a small joyride to the inlet where we shall wine and dine on a quilted blanket beneath the trees! Why, it shall hopefully be the most wonderful thing to happen here at Swan Manor since… oh, since I do not know when. For far, far too long!"

"Baroness Christiane, please… I fear you need to lie down," Anneliese tried though she could tell by the excited look in Christiane's eyes that she might as well be speaking to a doorknob. "The Baron may not approve of a picnic. Is it prudent to-"

"Prudent? Ack, Anneliese, it is not prudent to remain here at the manor for one minute longer! And the Baron will have no part of the picnic. Come! Come, my dear friend," Christiane said and took off in the direction of the stone staircase leading down to the kitchen, "we shall go downstairs and persuade the Matron of the Kitchen to make us a picnic basket filled with all the wonderful things we used to love! Yes, indeed!"


A short half-hour later, the coachman and the stableboy who had worked on attaching the harness to the broad-backed horse stowed a substantial picnic basket into the luggage rack underneath the back of the triple-bench carriage. With the reed basket in place and secured by a strong rope, the stableboy hurried around the back of the carriage to open the small sidedoor so the fine company could step up and find their seats.

Anneliese stepped up into the carriage first as protocol dictated. The leaf-springs at the front and rear creaked and groaned under her weight, but that was normal. Once the Mistress of the Manor had verified the stability and roadworthiness of the vehicle, she reached out and took the hands of Baroness Christiane to assist her in her ascent. The younger woman climbed up into the carriage in no time and clapped her hands to her heart like she was overcome with joy upon revisiting a favorite event from her childhood and youth.

To celebrate the joyous excursion, Christiane had turned her wardrobe upside down to find an outfit that would be appropriate for the first picnic in years: she had chosen heeled ankle-boots that covered a pair of lavender-colored knee-length stockings. Her three-layered sun dress was held in a delicate shade of lavender as well, and it sported not only a pair of fashionable, horizontal stripes at the waist, but a tall collar and puffy sleeves. She wore lacy gloves, but she planned on removing them once it was time to enjoy the delights of the picnic basket. To round off the ensemble, she wore a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned hat that was held in white save for the two goose feathers that had been attached to the sides of the low crown - they had been dyed lavender.

Christiane's regular handmaiden Signe had been chosen to accompany the baroness and the Mistress of the Manor on the trip to the inlet, and she climbed up last, holding a ceramic jar she had been given by the Matron. The jar contained sweet pastries, but she was under strict orders not to open it until after the esteemed people had finished the main course.

The three women found their seats according to their place in the hierarchy. The baroness was in her customary spot, the center seat in the center row of the cushioned benches. Anneliese sat on the bench behind the driver - it faced rearward so she could assist the baroness whenever it was needed - and Signe had the back bench all to herself. The servant girl put the ceramic jar on the wooden floor so she would not risk dropping it and thus be exposed to the wrath of the volatile Matron of the Kitchen.

"Oh, driver, I do declare… we are ready for our grand voyage!" Christiane said, waving a lavender-colored handkerchief in the air. The coachman - who wore the regular outfit of clog-boots, black, woolen breeches and a black vest over a white shirt - bowed at once and climbed up onto the buckboard. As he took the reins, a gruff, male voice boomed across the courtyard:

"Delay that order, driver!"

Christiane's face scrunched up into half the size it usually was. The retired cavalry Captain was the last person on earth she wished to see or speak to, but there he was, stomping down the staircase and across the gravelly courtyard. "Captain von Hardenburg," she said in the coldest voice she could muster. "I cannot recall inviting you on our picnic. And I fear there is no room for you now that you are here."

The Captain narrowed his eyes at the chill in the young woman's voice, but he soon fell back behind his regular, somewhat detached military facade. "Baroness Christiane, I have no interest in your picnic. I am here to warn you against going anywhere."

"Warn me? Warn me, Captain? Am I to take that as a threat?" Christiane said and rose from the bench to force the officer to look up at her. "I have no interest in the cavalry, or indeed the military, but I am quite convinced that a Baroness outranks a Captain!"

This time, Captain von Hardenburg's eyes narrowed down into tiny slits. His jaw began to grind and the pulse point at the side of his neck throbbed, but he managed to maintain his composure. "Baroness Christiane, I fear you misunderstood me," he said in a voice that appeared strangled at first. "I merely wanted to warn you about the presence of a band of degenerate criminals who have been spotted in the woods only a few kilometers south of Swan Manor. The band is led by Black Rose, a devil in the guise of a woman."

Now it was Christiane's turn to narrow her eyes. The news of a dangerous band of criminals roaming the woods was unwelcome, no doubt about that, but it would require a great deal of bad luck to run into them so close to the manor. "Ah. I see," she said in a more civil tone of voice. "Thank you for providing us with the somewhat unfortunate news, Captain von Hardenburg. However, we shall be headed east, to the inlet, not south towards the woods. Thus, we should be safe for the duration. We are going. Will that be all, Captain?"

"Baroness, if you insist on going, I must follow suit and insist that you bring an armed hunter with you for protection," Ieronymus von Hardenburg said, looking like he meant every word.

While Christiane pondered what to reply to that, Anneliese stood up to whisper in her ear: "The food is plentiful and so is the wine. Perhaps it would be a source of comfort for all to be accompanied by a hunter carrying a musket, Baroness?"

"The argument has been heard and approved, Anneliese. One should never turn down the opportunity to feel safe. Very well," Christiane said before she turned back to the retired officer. "Captain, select a hunter who is to join us for the picnic. But please do not laze about doing it. We shall be going in a moment, hunter or no hunter."

"I shall work swiftly, Baroness Christiane," the Captain said before he went into a deep bow.


Finding a hunter only caused a brief delay, and the five people were soon on their merry way towards the inlet. As the coachman steered the horse and carriage off the gravelly courtyard and onto the avenue that was lined by two rows of tall, decades-old trees, Christiane let out a sigh of relief and leaned against the backrest with a big smile on her face.

The horse was a good-natured mare, and it was able to pull the creaking, but elegant, carriage along the avenue at a safe speed that did not produce too many bumps or shakes beyond those that could not be avoided. Though the sun shone from a clear, blue sky, the many trees filtered the rays and drew ever-shifting patterns on the ground, the carriage, and the garments of the people going on the picnic.

Christiane was right at home, and the pleased smile she wore said so in no uncertain terms. Nature's offering of sounds was just as she remembered it from days gone by: the hooves clip-clopped, the leaf-springs creaked, the hubs let out the occasional squeak, the birds chirped in the crowns above, the insects buzzed when the carriage drove past their busy activities among the road-side flowers, and now and then, the horse's tail swooshed when a big fly got too close. She was in heaven, and the warm breeze that carried all the typical scents of the countryside to her only added to her blissful state.

Anneliese leaned forward so she did not need to speak up. "I should never have doubted you, Baroness. You were right about the picnic. The change in you is remarkable. You look like the young Christiane once more rather than the pale ghost you have been lately."

Christiane chuckled at the colorful description. "Ah, I sensed in my heart that such a positive change would come over me. I am grateful that it did. I had grave concerns that my vegetative state would have become permanent. Upon our return, we shall need to have a lengthy conversation on the topic of the future, you and I."

"Indeed we shall, Baroness Christiane," Anneliese said with a somber nod.

"But for now, let us enjoy what the Good Lord has provided for free. All this splendor!" Christiane continued, gesturing at the serene landscape they drove through.


A short kilometer south of Swan Manor, the driver tugged on the mare's reins which made it and the carriage head into a left-hand turn onto a side road that would lead them east, toward the coast and the shallow shores of the inlet.

At first, the side road was narrow and twisty, but it soon straightened out and became a country lane that ran between fields and the scattered huts and hovels belonging to the outlying farms connected to Swan Manor. Though the terrain was too flat and the crops too tall to get a good view of the approaching body of water that awaited them in the near-distance, it did not take long before the warm breeze carried salty traces of the sea water ahead of them.

The inlet was part of a larger fjord that in turn was connected to Øresund and the Baltic Sea. If one cared for a lengthy sea voyage - and Christiane did not as she could get seasick watching a maid carry a bowl of soup - no less than eight major city ports could be reached within a few days or weeks: Copenhagen and Gothenburg to the north, Kiel and the Hanseatic ports of Lübeck and Rostock to the south, and Danzig, Riga and Königsberg to the east.

Another right-hand turn followed, and the elegant carriage and the five people onboard found themselves on the coastal road that ran along the shore of the inlet all the way from the quarry and the industrial port eighteen kilometers north. If they traveled two kilometers further south, they would arrive at the fishing village where the manor bought all their supplies, but Christiane and her party would not need to go that far to reach their destination.

The baroness took a firm grip on Anneliese's hands as she stood up even while the carriage was still rumbling along the dirt road. "Ah!" she cried, eyeing a cluster of trees that she remembered from the old days. The trees were just the ideal distance from the shallow shore - close enough to enjoy the view of the ocean, but distant enough to do so without worrying about getting wet feet. The crowns would provide plenty of shade, the grass was not too tall, and the sheep pens were at a safe distance so no droppings or intrusive scents would ruin the picnic. "Driver… do you see the cluster of trees to your left? I do declare, that is the very spot we always used in the past! Please tell me it shall be possible for us to drive there on this glorious day!"

"I see it. Well… I'll do my best, Baroness Christiane," the coachman said as he whoa'ed the horse and began to study the terrain ahead of the carriage. After a short while, he turned around to face his passengers. His face and bare head had turned ruddy and glistening from the trip, and he wiped off a few beads of sweat with a handkerchief that had been white once upon a time. "I can tell you already that it will be a bumpy ride to get there. You had better sit down, Milady."

"I shall sit, have no fear about that, driver," Christiane said with a chuckle as she reclaimed her seat and gripped the carriage's side boards to stop herself from bouncing around.

Up front, the other man who had joined the picnic party - Ove Knudsen, an experienced hunter who had worked with the late Baron Gottfried ever since Swan Manor had been built in the early 1670s - pushed his dark-green flat cap back from his forehead as he eyed the uneven terrain ahead. Grunting, he signaled the coachman to wait until he had stepped off.

Ove Knudsen wore dark-green and dark-brown hunting fatigues made of felt and dyed wool that enabled him to disappear in any forest. The clothes were warm and uncomfortable when exposed to the direct sun, so his face was just as ruddy as the coachman's. Stepping off the elegant carriage, Ove swung his satchel containing the ammunition and firing utilities over one shoulder, and the musket's carrier strap over the other. "Baroness Christiane," he said, bowing to the Lady, "I shall be joining you once more when you have reached your destination by the trees. I feel safer the nearer my feet are to the ground."

"Very well, hunter," Christiane said with a smile. "With your experience in the field, I shall wager that you can make it there just as fast, if not faster than the carriage."

As the coachman steered the mare off the dirt road and into the rough, the carriage began rocking and rolling to such an extent the feathers on Christiane's wide-brimmed hat were given a strenuous workout. The springs creaked and groaned, and the woodwork on the frame and even the yoke began to squeak. "Why, I do believe… Oh!" Christiane said, letting out a tiny shriek and a resulting giggle each time the carriage bucked, "…that if the Matron of the… Oh! Of the Kitchen has stored a jug of… Oh! A jug of milk in the picnic basket, it shall be… Oh! It shall have turned to cream before we get there! Oh!"

The rocking motion continued for another twenty meters until the carriage had crossed through the worst part and had once again found more suitable ground upon which its large, seven-spoke wheels could drive. The final stage of the short journey was conducted under more peaceful conditions, and it did not take long before the coachman whoa'ed the horse a short distance from the shady spot pointed out to him by the Baroness.

Christiane had a hard time containing her enthusiasm, but she remained in her seat while Anneliese and the returning hunter scouted out the area to check that they would not be surprised by a hornets' nest, an anthill, a family of badgers, the dreaded muddy sinkholes that could swallow any shoe whole, or other unwanted disruptive elements. When the Mistress returned to the carriage to relay the message that all was fine, Christiane jumped up from her seat and took Anneliese's hand on her way down to the ground.


A few minutes later, a quilted blanket had been spread out at the foot of the cluster of trees, and Christiane had already sat down on it with her legs folded to the side. After the coachman had pulled the reed picnic basket from the luggage rack, Signe and Anneliese carried it back to the serene spot where they opened it and distributed the utensils needed to make it a pleasurable picnic: cutlery, long-stemmed wine glasses, silver plates and a cloth napkin for each.

The day could not be better suited for a voyage to the inlet. The sun was out, the breeze was gentle, the blackbirds sang merrily, the swallows raced across the sky, the hazy-blue inlet was calm and inviting, and the eating utensils that had been laid out to a less-strict order than usual were glinting in the bright light. Everything was spot-on, and just the thing to improve the mood of depressed baronesses.

"Oh, I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to this little adventure!" Christiane said and clapped her hands together in front of her. The gesture reminded her that she wanted to take off the lacy gloves, so she did. After putting them next to her on the quilted blanket, she reached for one of the wine glasses. "Let us start with a toast, shall we?" she said, raising the glass.

Once Anneliese had uncorked a bottle of imported white wine, she poured some of the contents into the Baroness' glass. The delicious, fruity scent spread among the three women and made two of them smile - the third, Signe, crinkled her nose.

"Ack," Christiane said with a chuckle. "The joys of wine have not yet found you, Signe?"

"I fear not, Baroness Christiane," the young girl said, shaking her head as she looked at her mistress.

"Wine is indeed an acquired taste. Oh, I can still recall the first time Father persuaded me to sample the nectar of Dionysus. Ack! It took me forever and a day before I ever attempted another sip," Christiane said, lifting the full glass. "So. The toast. Have we all been given a beverage of our choice?"

She looked to the coachman and the hunter who were tending to the horse and carriage. They nodded, both holding small mugs that contained watered-down ale. Anneliese took her wine glass, and Signe settled for a small mug of the ale that had become so weak by being diluted with water that it was possible to drink a barrelful without experiencing any of the customary side-effects.

"Good," Christiane continued. "To our health, good fortune and a safe passage home!"

"Your health, Baroness!" the others replied as they each took a sip of their drinks.

The food was next - after Anneliese had checked and approved the temperature of the wrapped packages - and soon, a delightful liver pate was cut into thin squares that were placed on slices of freshly-baked walnut-bread. Rolled, pressed pork with a spicy filling of chopped parsley and other herbs followed the liver pate, as did thin slices of glacéd ham served with fresh asparagus. While the three women enjoyed all the fine dishes, the two men at the wagon were more than happy to wolf down thick slices of rye with smoked or salted salami resting on thick layers of salted lard.

After Ove Knudsen had finished eating, the experienced hunter took his firing satchel and verified that he had all the items he needed in case he was called into action defending the baroness and her party from the roaming band of criminals. He carried sixteen firing kits with him; he would be able to fire sixteen, two-ounce lead balls at any attacker - it should be more than enough to scare off anyone shy of an entire horde of marauders.

While the Baroness, the Mistress of the Manor and the handmaiden enjoyed more food and drank more wine or ale, and their chatting grew more animated, the hunter swung his musket over his shoulder and headed for the coastal road to have a better view of anyone approaching them.


The better part of an hour went by before Ove Knudsen encountered the first sign of another human being. The sound of a slow, yet rhythmical thump-thump-thump of the butt of a walking cane hitting the coastal road's hard-packed dirt reached him moments before a figure walked around the bend a short distance to the south of his position.

He had already swung the musket off his shoulder when he realized it was an old crone dressed in filthy, disgusting rags, and not someone who would pose an immediate threat to him or the baroness. Crooked and decrepit, the crone walked in a labored fashion, but she kept her pace and did not seem to flounder even when she spotted him.

The hunter furrowed his brow and let out a grunt. He had heard every story there was on the merits - or the lack of them - of the feared Black Rose; in several of those stories, the vicious criminal had used a thick walking cane to clobber her victims. The crone hobbling toward him had a cane, but it was not thick, and she did not seem to be capable of clobbering a bug on the road without keeling over.

Grunting again, he made sure to scan the areas closest to the dirt road in case the criminals would use the diversion to try to sneak up on them, but the old crone was the only living thing on the entire stretch of road. He considered yelling at her to make her come to a halt at a safe distance from the baroness, but it seemed unnecessary considering the frailness of her appearance.

Instead of yelling, he swung the musket back on his shoulder and turned his focus onto the dirt road itself in case other, more sinister-looking, people would show up.


The old crone continued ahead at a steady pace. Her walking cane thumped into the hard-packed ground with a perfect cadence that seemed to belie her crooked, frail appearance. The hand that did not hold the cane trembled as it was pressed against her back, like she was ill or in great pain.

Reaching the hunter, she offered him a gap-toothed grin while letting out a croaking cackle. Her wrinkled facial skin under her threadbare bonnet was pockmarked and filthy, and the scent carried on her body and garments was strong enough to make even the hardiest turn away in disgust. "Oy, guv," she croaked, reaching inside the rag she used as a shawl to produce a clay pipe, "ya woudden happen ta have a light, would ye? I sure could use me some tabaccah."

"I do not, you disgusting old crone! Get away from me," Ove Knudsen said, stepping back from the strong smell emanating from the wrinkled, old woman who had come far too close to him for comfort.

The crone let out another cackle as she eyed the man's hunting fatigues and musket. "An' what o' them nice folks sittin' ovah yondah? Might they have a light for me, guv?" she said, pointing her walking cane at Christiane and the others who were still resting in the shade.

"They do not, and if you bother them, I shall personally see to it that you shall end your days in the dungeons!"

"Oy, guv, but fer a light… jus' a light fer mah pipe here…" When nothing further happened, the crone moved to take a step off the road in the direction of the people at the tree.

Despite the disgusting rags, the hunter grabbed hold of the crone's arm and yanked her back. "Did you not hear what I said? I said, do not bother those people!"

The hard grip around the old crone's arm made her cry out in pain, and her knees buckled to the point where she ended up on the dirt road. A long, heartfelt cry of pain left the old woman's gap-toothed mouth, and it echoed all along the coastal road. "Mah arm! Mah arm… let go'o' mah arm, guv! Ohhhh, ye gonn' break mah arm!"

The cries of the old woman grew so loud and tormented that Christiane took notice and sat up straight on the quilted blanket. A moment later, she was on her booted feet and stomped across the rough to get to the hunter and his elderly victim.

Anneliese von Eyben let out a long groan and jumped to her feet as well. Moving in a hurry, she caught up with the baroness who had already made it halfway through the rough. She held out her hands in case she needed to assist the younger woman get across the uneven terrain, but her help was not required.

"Hunter!" Christiane said in a stern voice. "That shall be quite enough, thank you! Release that old woman immediately!"

"Milady," Ove said and let go of the filthy rags. The palm of his hand had been coated in soot, dried mud and something he did not wish to know the origins of. Grimacing in disgust, he wiped it off on the seat of his breeches.

Faint moans escaped the elderly woman's gap-toothed mouth as she nursed the arm that had been grabbed by the hunter. When the baroness approached her, she tried to get up on her own, but was unable to. "Oy, me fair Lady… will ye offer a helpin' hand ta get an old, old woman up from this hard, cold ground?"

"We will, have no fear," Christiane said even though she eyed the filthy rags with some trepidation. Pushing all that - and the choking smell - aside, she and Anneliese took hold of the old woman's good arm and helped her to her feet. The walking cane was soon recovered, and the old woman was erect once more. "There… better?" Christiane said, discreetly using her lavender handkerchief to rid her hands of the worst filth.

Anneliese was less discreet and bent over to use the grass near the dirt road to wipe it all off.

"Aye, thank ye, me fair Lady. Thank ye. Ya woudden happen ta have some light fer mah pipe, would ye?" the crone said, holding up the clay pipe.

Christiane shook her head as she took in the haggard appearance of the old woman. Not only did her drawn face appear to have gone unwashed since the early part of the last decade, there were several meals' worth of crumbs, soup-stains and chunks of old food stuck to her shawl - no doubt a result of her missing teeth. Her cheeks were haggard and wrinkled like she had been ill for quite some time, and yet, her sea-blue eyes were bright and seemed not to miss a beat. "Oh, I fear we do not," Christiane said after a brief delay. "However… we have food to spare. Perchance you have a kerchief suitable for transporting food?"

"I only have the clothin' ye see me wear… ye have food fer me?" the old woman croaked.

"We do indeed. Walnut-bread, rye, lard and several types of cold cuts. Pray, when was the last time you enjoyed a solid meal?"

"A solid meal… not fer years an' years. I ain't eaten a'tall since the sun wus high yesterday."

"Ack!" Christiane exclaimed and clapped her hands in front of her. "Anneliese, please collect all our leftovers and wrap them in something suitable. Oh! The cloth napkins will be excellently suited for such a purpose. The Matron shall be most upset with us upon our return for losing one of them, but I am sure she would have agreed with the decision to use it had she been here."

Anneliese opened her mouth to add a tiny objection to the grand plan, but when she realized there was no point, she curtseyed and hurried back to Signe who was busy packing the picnic basket.


"Behold," Christiane said as she unfolded a snippet of one of the two cloth napkins that Signe and Anneliese had used to wrap the food into a double-bundle. "Glacéd ham and asparagus. It was a most delicious treat, but alas, our Matron had prepared far too much like she is prone to. There is also a little bit of liver pate and some rolled pork in here for your pleasure."

"Aw, thank ye, me fair Lady," the old crone croaked, staring wide-eyed at the leftovers she had been given. Putting her gnarled hands under the bundle, she lifted it to her nose and took a deep sniff - then she let out a long cackle. "Aw, I be so grateful fer this food, me fair Lady… now ah can get somethin' ta eat taday… warms mah heart! An' mah gut!" she continued, smiling so broadly all the gaps between her few remaining teeth stood out.

Christiane returned the smile while stepping aside to allow the old woman a free passage along the dirt road. "I wish you a safe voyage to wherever you wish to go," she said, once more putting a hand on the woman's filthy shoulder. "Will you be quite all right?"

"Aw, with this here luv'ly food, I am gonn' walk ta the end o' tha world with a spring in mah step! Thank ye fer yer kind heart, me fair Lady… not all woulda been sa helpful…" - The old crone pinned the hunter to the spot while she spoke the last part of the sentence.

The coachman had taken full advantage of the delay to drive the elegant carriage back up on the coastal road so the baroness would not need to suffer being driven across the uneven terrain for a second time. As he tugged the broad-backed mare's reins to make it come to a stop, he caught a quick glimpse of something colorful ducking down among the tall grass some one hundred meters further up the road. To try to get a clearer view of the grassy area ahead, he rose to his full height atop the buckboard, but it did not bring him anything.

Soon, Anneliese climbed up into the carriage to verify the roadworthiness like she did every time they needed to go somewhere. It was no better or worse than it had been on the trip down to the inlet, so she helped the baroness up and into the center seat before she sat down on the rearward-facing bench.

With the empty picnic basket stored in the luggage rack underneath the carriage, Signe seated in the back row and the hunter safe up front, the coachman slapped the reins and clucked his tongue to make the good-natured mare set off for home.

As the carriage began moving with a small jerk, Christiane turned around in her seat and used her lavender handkerchief to wave farewell to the old crone - the elderly woman reciprocated the kind gesture by holding her cane high in the air, and then lowering it down her left side. "Ah yes," Christiane said, appearing quite pleased with herself for helping the sickly, old woman. "Such a lovely day it has been. Driver! Home to Swan Manor, if you please."

"Milady," the coachman said, trying to find the spot where he had seen the splash of color. The grass was pretty much identical all along the length of the road, so he was unable to find the exact spot. Shrugging, he gave up. By the time he turned the horse onto the country lane that would take them home to the manor, he had forgotten all about it.




The decrepit, old crone hobbled along the coastal road until the elegant carriage carrying the five people from Swan Manor turned left onto the country lane and moved out of sight. Once she could no longer hear the rhythmic clip-clopping of the mare's hooves, she let out a grunt and looked over her shoulder to verify that she was alone - then the woman known as Black Rose emerged from the filthy disguise by straightening her back and thus rising to her full, imposing height.

After picking out the biggest of the well-chewed tobacco leaves she had used for blackening her teeth, she ran her tongue around her mouth and spat several times to get the smaller pieces out as well. Grunting, she sniffed the bundle of food again - the aromas made her stomach rumble. She had been searching for gold, silver or gemstones, but cold cuts and fresh bread was just as valuable to any traveling bandit, especially one who had not eaten much for a couple of days.

That part of her talk with the noblewoman had been true, but everything else had been a deception. The filth on her face had been created by rubbing dirt and dried mud onto her skin, and the disgusting items stuck to her shawl had been wild raspberries and chunks of apples that she had mashed into the fabric.

Looking up, she spotted Jakob Mikkelsen and Finn Mogensen appearing from the tall grass where they had ducked for cover when the coachman had appeared to see them. She waved at the two bandits which made the younger of the two set off in a slow jog to get to the leader of the gang. Jakob could not be bothered to run for anything - except perhaps to save his life if he was chased by someone with a sword or a musket - so he kept at a walking pace.

"I got us some of the good stuff here," Cornelia said, holding up the bundle of food. She unwrapped the cloth napkins at once and took in a deep sniff of the glacéd ham that was on top. Pulling the thin slices aside, she grimaced when she caught a glimpse of a block of pale-brown liver pate - a dish she simply could not eat, no matter how hungry she was. The other bundle held the walnut-bread and the remaining slices of rye, and those delicious aromas made Cornelia's mouth water.

Finn reached her first, and he stared at the food with wide open eyes. Almost at once, his stomach started rumbling as well. Jakob arrived a short while thereafter, but he was less impressed by the food or the circumstances in which it had been acquired. "Black Rose, have you gone soft all of a sudden?" he said in a tone of voice that held the tiniest amount of annoyance. "I thought the plan was to rob any folks we ran into… or brain 'em if you had to… not stay for an extended chat. And then you let 'em drive off unaccosted. What, were the girls so pretty you couldn't help yourself?"

Cornelia narrowed her eyes - a gesture that looked odd due to the filth that remained on her face from the disguise. "Jakob, I have listened to that kind of crap from you for the better part of ten days now… ever since we were forced out of the clearing by the damn rain. I don't know what your game is, and I don't care, frankly. I'm the leader here, and you can seek greener pastures elsewhere anytime you like."

The assertive statement was followed by a pregnant pause, but Cornelia's second-in-command soon put his hands in the air in a clear symbol of defeat. "All right, all right… never mind."

While the awkward confrontation went on between the senior members of the band of traveling bandits, Finn had continued to stare at the bundles of food with wide eyes and a watering mouth that had been close to drooling. "Uh… Black Rose, ain't we gonna-"

"Had that hunter grabbed my arm again," Cornelia said, cutting off the junior bandit, "I would have brained him for sure. It wasn't all acting… that son of a whore didn't spare his fingers," she continued, rubbing her upper arm where she had been grabbed.

"Uh… the food?" Finn tried again, but he was ignored once more.

The look on Jakob's face proved that he really did think that Cornelia had gone soft - though he knew better than to risk her wrath by speaking up. Instead, he turned to a safer topic. "He had a long-barreled musket?"

"Yes. Standard issue with a flintlock. Bone handle with some kind of carved motif that I couldn't make out. Doesn't matter, anyway. The weapon looked to be well-maintained. Being a hunter, I suppose he has plenty of experience with it, too," Cornelia said while she picked herself a large slice of the glacéd ham, much to Finn's disappointment. Leaning her head back, she popped the whole slice into her mouth in one go and began to chew hard on the juicy, tasty meat.

"You wanna share the loot, Black Rose?" Jakob said, and his voice had once again gained the mocking undertone.

"With you? Maybe. Finn can have anything he likes," Cornelia said and offered the bundles to the junior bandit who snatched a block of liver pate at once.

Jakob's face scrunched up into a dark mask, but he kept it all on the inside. "And jewelry? That short, blond woman in the fancy duds was bound to have been carryin' some," he said, grabbing a slice of the glacéd ham with one hand while he reached for the bundle holding the bread with the other. He soon found a slice of rye that he used as a base for the ham.

"Some, but too little to make it worth my while. And Jakob… I know something you don't."

The second-in-command stopped chewing while he waited for Cornelia to stop teasing and finish her sentence. When she did not, his face became a dark mask again. "And what, pray tell, would that be, Black Rose?" he said, and this time, he could not keep his voice from dipping deep into the mocking pool.

"They came from Swan Manor. And the blond was none other than Baroness Christiane-wotshername, Jakob," Cornelia said with a gloating grin on her face. "You should have paid more attention to them when they drove past you."

"Pah. There are many blondes and many elegant carriages," Jakob said as he waved his hand in disgust. "And I don't believe for a second that the Baroness would travel anywhere without an armed escort… and that damn hunter don't count!"

"It was the baroness, Jakob. What, you think I'm that dumb that I couldn't recognize her?" Cornelia said, cocking her head.

Finn eyed them both, but the free food had a greater pull on him. As he went for the bundle to get a second helping, he was delighted to find that Cornelia shoved the whole thing into his hands. He took full advantage of it at once by grabbing a slice of the walnut-bread, tearing it in half and sticking a fat slice of the rolled pork in the middle.

"Well, I guess you oughtta know what she looks like," Jakob growled as he grabbed the bundles of food to get some before it was all gone, "seein' how much you ogled her when we were at the weddin'. But never mind!"

Though Cornelia's eyebrows gained a life of their own - before they wound up in an angry stance - she decided to let it go and turned her attention to eating the rest of the loot. Being the leader, she had the right to choose first, so she did. The rolled pork with the chopped parsley went her way as did the slices of walnut-bread. She let Finn have the blocks of liver pate as she could not stand the taste; Jakob got the scraps.

The bundles were soon empty and their stomachs full. With a temporary ceasefire called to the hostilities between the small group of bandits, it was time to get back to business. "So," Cornelia said, licking her fingers clean of the final, greasy residue from the rolled pork. "Finn, head back to camp. Jakob and I will check out the area where they ate. Who knows, they may have forgotten a silver spoon or something."

"But I can do that, Black Rose," the junior bandit said with a cheeky grin.

"Sure you can. You can also get a boot up your ass for stealing from me, can'tcha?" Cornelia said, winking at the junior.

Finn grimaced at the threat - he knew it was anything but an empty one as he had tasted the soles of her boots often enough. Soon, he trundled back to their new camp which was a few kilometers closer to the coastal village and thus the sea than their previous base at the clearing had been. When the weather had turned foul in late May and early June, the ground near the clearing had become so muddy and treacherous it had been impossible for the bandits to maintain their base there. Making a quick decision, they had packed their loot and their meager belongings and had traveled north-north-east until they had reached suitable ground.

Once the junior bandit had left, Cornelia and Jakob turned to each other and exchanged dark glares. A brief battle of eye-contact ensued; it was won by Cornelia who let out a mocking snort at her second-in-command when he could not hold her steely-eyed gaze.

"Like I said, we're gonna go over to those trees and see if we can find anything worth our while," Cornelia said and moved off the coastal road's hard-packed dirt. Using the cane to search for sinkholes, she waded through the tall grass for a while - which was not easy wearing a skirt - until she had cleared the rough and had found more even terrain to walk on. When she realized Jakob had not followed her, she turned around and slammed her hands akimbo. "You coming or what? Or are ya waiting for written permission by King Frederik the Fourth?"

"Yeah, yeah," Jakob growled, stepping off the coastal road and into the rough.


Soon, the two veteran bandits reached the spot where the picnic had taken place. It was easy to see where the people from Swan Manor had put their blanket as a large section of grass near the trees had been flattened.

Cornelia studied the grass with an experienced eye, but did not find anything that glinted in the afternoon sun. What she did find, however, was a pair of lacy gloves that had slipped in between a few tufts of tall grass just beyond the flattened area. Grunting, she pulled up in her skirt so she could crouch down and retrieve the gloves. They were quite small compared to her own, callused hands, and of such high quality they had to belong to the baroness. A friendly, little smile played on Cornelia's lips as she took in the scent of the gloves - they held traces of lavender and soap.

"So you found a pair o' lacy gloves. Big deal," Jakob said once he reached Cornelia's spot by the trees. "Eh. They may fetch us half a rigsdaler if we find a vain whore to hawk 'em to."

"Mmmm," Cornelia said as she stuffed the pair of gloves in under her costume next to the cloth napkins that were too good to throw away. A quick glance at the grass proved that no other items had been left behind by the people at the picnic. Grunting, she stood up and removed the threadbare bonnet that had been part of her disguise. As her long, dark hair fell out of the bun she'd had it in, she ran her hands through it several times to get the worst of the filth out.

Jakob looked around the area closest to the trees to find a little thing for himself, but the gloves appeared to have been the only items there. "Cornelia… did we just waste the entire day on nothin'? We did, you damn well know it. All right, we got somethin' to eat today, but… no gold, no silver, no precious gems, no nothin'."

"Yeah… I suppose," Cornelia said, rubbing her filthy chin. She appeared deep in thought as she moved over to the nearest tree to lean against the trunk. After a few seconds, she reached into her costume and found the lacy gloves that she began to slap against her hand like she was pondering something major.

Enough time went by spent on thought that it made Jakob impatient and break out in a mocking snort, but Cornelia was not about to let herself get stressed into speaking before she was ready. "The day may not have been a total loss after all," she said after a further pause. "I think I have an idea."

"Either you do or your don't, Black Rose. It was your idea to come here today, so this one needs to be better."

Pushing herself off the tree, Cornelia narrowed her eyes down into slits as she shot yet another dark, angry glare at her second-in-command. "Jakob," she growled in a dangerous voice, "like I've told you a hundred times already, you're free to walk away whenever you damn well please. Or maybe I should just kick your ass out of my gang now and be done with it…?"

"And lose the men who are on my side? I don't think so, Black Rose. That threat is long past cuttin' it in the reality we live in now," Jakob said, offering his supposed superior a cold stare in return. "So… what is this fabled idea o' yours?"

"Oh, just a plan on how to get invited into Swan Manor and be treated as royalty," Cornelia said and grabbed the thick walking cane. The appearance of the weapon made Jakob narrow his eyes, but Cornelia used it for its intended purpose by sweeping the butt through the grass to make sure they had not missed any valuables. "Of course, you don't give a shit about the wealth there, do ya? No, you're more interested in petty stuff like stealing bone combs or a sleeping shirt off some fool's clothes-line," she continued as she used the butt of the cane to squash a big beetle that had tried to scurry away from the probing intruder.

Jakob let out a mocking snort that trickled off into nothing when he realized that Cornelia was serious. "And how the hell are you plannin' to do that? Knock on the door and tell the chambermaids you've found the Baroness' gloves and want to give 'em back to her?"

"Forget the gloves, Jakob… this is a solid deal, I'm telling you," Cornelia said as she began walking back across the rough to get to the dirt road, once again using the cane to search for sinkholes.

Jakob had no choice but to follow her if he wanted to learn more of her plan, so he stomped through the tall grass to get to the coastal road before she did. "No more games… tell me what the hell you've got planned!" he said, grabbing hold of Cornelia's arm once she made it onto the hard-packed dirt.

"We're gonna play another charade on the baroness and her new husband… and Jakob, I'd suggest you let go of my arm or you might end up losing that hand!"

When Jakob pulled back to a safe distance with a sour look on his face, Cornelia continued: "You said I ogled her at the wedding… I did, but she ogled me right back. She got a good look at me, and her fascination was plain as day. We can use that to our advantage."

Jakob shook his head as he and Cornelia began walking back to their new camp. "Now you've lost me completely…"

"Look, Jakob, do I need to spell it out to ya? You saw the fine French porcelain and the silver candlesticks in their hall when we were able to slip away from the ceremony… that was only the hall! How do you think the drawing room or the banqueting hall will look? Not to mention the private chambers upstairs?"

"So now you wanna get into her private chamber… yeah, right. And her bloomers too, I imagine… whether she wants it or not. Or maybe you get turned on when they cry and resist you? Yeah, like that other time with the whore we beat up. Eh, Black Rose?"

A cold smile full of promises of hard violence or even swift death played on Cornelia's lips as she grabbed Jakob by the collar and yanked him toward her. "That kind of talk will only see you wake up one morning with your throat slit from ear to ear. If that's what you want, keep yappin'."

When Jakob did not reply beyond a hateful look in his eyes, Cornelia let go of his collar and carried on walking. "We're gonna put on the costumes we used for the wedding and call ourselves some fancy-ass noble titles. We're gonna steal a horse and a carriage or a buggy from somewhere and drive hell for leather to the manor. There, we're gonna say we were attacked by Black Rose and her gang of degenerate criminals. They'll let us in with open arms. And then we'll have free access to all their wealth. You like my plan yet, Jakob?"

"Why don't we just raid the damn manor?" Jakob growled, straightening his clothes. "We have fourteen men at our disposal right now and I'll bet we could find some more if we wanted to… at least fourteen men with blades who ain't afeared o' usin' 'em. We could slaughter those high-and-mighty folks in a heartbeat and get everythin', not just what we could carry!"

Letting out a deep, long sigh, Cornelia shook her head at her second-in-command's short-sighted ways. "They have a ton of chambermaids, and then there's the kitchen staff, the stableboys and God knows how many more. Not to mention the hunters who'll fire their muskets at us the moment the first woman starts to scream. You don't think that killing them all would be a bigger ask than what our men could deliver? Even counting Sven, that raving lunatic?"

"Sven is a fine man…"

"No, he's not," Cornelia growled, thinking about the ruffian's cold, dead stare and his chilling attachment to his growing collection of sharp weapons. "This is still my gang, and I have the final say, Jakob. We do it my way."

Jakob sighed like Cornelia had done only moments earlier. Nearly a full minute went by of walking in silence before he broke out in a grunt and a small nod to show that he accepted Cornelia's plan.


Late on the afternoon of the day following the hatching of the devious plan, a single-horse, four-seater buggy blasted up the uneven servants' trail that led to Swan Manor. The buggy went so fast that clumps of dirt and cascades of dust were kicked up by the large wheels and the palomino mare's hooves. The driver did not spare the whip or the horse as he used the former to make sure the latter continued to go at a break-neck pace.

The turn through the portal and onto the gravelly courtyard was taken on two wheels, and the buggy let out several agonizing creaks and groans as it was asked to do far more than it was designed for. Going past the stables coming to the manor's main building, the driver waved and hollered at two men who were pouring feed into nosebags for the barony's many horses.

Another sharp turn followed before the driver yanked the reins back which made the palomino mare come to a scraping, crunching halt in front of Swan Manor's stately entrance. Massive amounts of dust caught up with the buggy and enveloped it and the rest of the courtyard in an impenetrable, pale-brown cloud that took ages to dissipate. A swing, a thump and a surprised cry of pain were heard through the dust, but it was impossible to see who had done what to whom.

The two workers from the stables hurried over to the buggy to see if anyone needed their help. On the buckboard, a battered, bruised, cursing and swearing manservant pinched his bleeding nose that had already showered his lips and uniform in plenty of blood. The man had a pink scar across his forehead, but it did not appear to be new.

As the two men from the stables climbed up onto the buckboard to help the manservant down, they spotted a noblewoman in dire straits in the back - and that made them change their mind in a hurry. Leaving the bleeding manservant behind, both men hurried over to the stately entrance and disappeared inside.

Jakob growled out loud as he wiped more blood off his upper lip. "I'm gonna get you for that, you wretched bitch… bustin' my nose like that… that was uncalled for!" he said, turning around to face Cornelia who was once again lying prone across the bench seat after taking full advantage of the cloud of dust to sucker-punch the contrary second-in-command in the nose.

Cornelia just sent him a cold grin in return as she leaned her head back to resume her role playing a damsel in distress. Her hair was in an acute state of disarray, the right-hand sleeve of her pink dress had been torn to within a thread of its life, and she had even given herself a bleeding cut on her upper arm to make it look real.

When she heard the gravel crunching under several feet next to the stolen buggy, she yanked a hair out of her nose to make the tears come. "Ohhhhh!" she moaned, pressing the back of a trembling hand against her forehead; her bosom heaved like a pair of bellows, and her eyes rolled around in her head like she was on the brink of entering a state of all-out hysteria.

Upon hearing the shocking news of a noblewoman in distress, the Mistress of the Manor and Captain von Hardenburg had stormed out of the main entrance and onto the gravelly courtyard. Anneliese von Eyben had already set her foot on the buggy's rung to climb upstairs, but the retired cavalry Captain pushed her aside with a curt: "Stand clear. This is a job for a man."

Although the statement earned him an angry glare and several mumbled curses, he ignored it all to climb up into the buggy to appraise the situation. His eyes went on a quick tour of the tall woman from her long, shapely legs, past the heaving bosom, the shredded sleeve, and up to the disheveled hair. "Milady, can you hear me?"


"I am Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg, formerly of the King's elite cavalry. The only injury you seem to have is a minuscule cut on your right arm. Just lie back, I shall carry you inside," the Captain said before he slipped his hands under Cornelia's legs and back. With a heave-ho, he lifted her off the bench seat and turned his clumsy boots around in the narrow footwell to step back down.

"Ohhhhhh…" Cornelia moaned, leaning her head against the Captain's manly chest. As she was carried past her second-in-command, she happened to look up and lock eyes with him. Not only had he been left to tend to himself, his nose was still bleeding and his jaw worked hard like he regretted ever agreeing to the plan.

As the Captain set foot on the gravel, Cornelia let out another moan. "Ohhhh! I can w- walk… pl- please let me down here…"

"I cannot do that, Milady. You are quite simply far too weak to walk on your own," Captain von Hardenburg said, already walking up the stone staircase to get to the grand hall.

The smooth floor was soon crossed, and once he had put her down on one of the chairs at the round table near the majestic staircase, he reached into the pocket of his breeches to retrieve a handkerchief. At first, he waved it in her face to give her some fresh air after all the dust outside, but the lady soon grabbed it and used it to blow her nose, which produced a noise akin to that of an entire bugle corps rehearsing at once.

Behind the Captain, Anneliese helped the injured manservant inside, but he was not allowed to sit in one of the fine chairs. Instead, she took him downstairs into the basement where the kitchen staff and chambermaids would deal with him. Anneliese was soon back in the grand hall where she hurried over to the injured noblewoman. "Milady," she said, kneeling on the stone floor in front of the tall woman in pink. "I am Anneliese von Eyben, the Mistress here at Swan Manor. Pray, what has happened to you? And may I enquire your name?"

"Ohhhh!" Cornelia croaked, once again pressing the back of a trembling hand against her forehead. "Good day, Mistress von Eyben. I am Lady Magdalene von Bielke… the… the former Lady-in-Waiting for Countess Na… Natalya of… of… of L- uh… Lütembourg Castle."

"I fear I am not familiar with the Countess or indeed Lütembourg Castle, Lady Magdalene…"

"It… it is a wonder-, w- wonderful noble estate far east of here… near… uh… K- Königsberg… but I have D- Danish roots, so-"

"Königsberg?!" Captain von Hardenburg barked and stood up ramrod-straight. He stared wide-eyed at his hands from all angles like he was worried he had protracted some vile illness from carrying the Lady inside. "How the blazes did you get out? Königsberg was completely sealed off last winter because of an outbreak of the Black Plague!"

Cornelia drew her lips back in a surprised grimace. While she racked her brains to produce a rather good answer to that rather good question, she wanted to smack herself silly for coming up with the wrong name altogether. "Uh… um… the reports w- ummm… were greatly exaggerated, my good man! We… we…"

"Never mind that now, Captain von Hardenburg!" Anneliese growled as she patted the woman's trembling hands. "It is quite obvious to anyone with eyes that Lady Magdalene does not suffer from the plague. Please, Milady, can you tell us what happened to you and your manservant?"

"We were attacked!" Cornelia howled, happy to get away from the touchy subject. "We came under attack from a band of ruffians who fell over us like a pack of wolves! Yes! Just a few kilometers south of here… in the woods! They killed our coachman and… and… threatened to kill or do unspeakable things to us! To me!" she continued in a voice that grew evermore hysterical and trembling as she spoke.

"A band of ruffians?" Captain von Hardenburg said. "Black Rose's gang of degenerates?"

"Oh! I do not know the woman's name, but a hideous female was among the bandits, that is true! Ack, she was an ugly runt… short, fat and hideous!" Cornelia said while her eyes once more rolled around in her head. "She wielded an ax or a hatchet and she threatened to behead us all! Even our horse! If my manservant had not assumed the reins and had brought us out of harms' way, we would surely have ended our days at that vile female's hands!"

The Captain nodded grimly. "That is Black Rose to be sure. Why, that murderous harlot must be stopped once and for all. And now we have an opportunity to do so. Mistress von Eyben, tend to Lady Magdalene. I shall round up all our hunters and lead them on a charge against the criminals before they can escape once more!"

Anneliese only had time to let out a grunt before the retired cavalry Captain spun around on his bootheel and stomped towards the stately entrance. As she turned back to Lady Magdalene, her lips moved in a quiet curse or two at the man's gruff, martial ways. "Milady, please, come with me to the drawing room where we shall tend to your injuries and your torn clothes. And perhaps get you a hot mug of tea."

"Tea? I would rather have a glass of port, if at all possible," Cornelia said as she seemed to struggle to get up from the chair. "Ack, my nerves, you see… my nerves are quite sensitive even at the best of times, and… ack! Ack, this has been the most dreadful of days! Ohhhh, that vile female! I still see her whenever I close my eyes!" she continued, working herself into near-hysteria all over again. Her trembling hand made a comeback and once more pressed against her forehead.

"But of course, Milady. Take my arm… it shall be easier for you."

Cornelia offered the helpful Mistress of the Manor a grateful smile as she rose from the chair and staggered across the smooth floor on wobbling legs. Only a few steps into the strenuous voyage, a fair, though rich and somewhat annoyed, voice spoke out from further up the grand, sweeping staircase:

"Anneliese, pray tell, what is the cause of all this shouting? It was so loud not even my solid door was able to… oh!"

The moment Baroness Christiane spotted the tall woman in the torn, pink dress, she came close to slipping off a step and onto her rear. Her dark-brown dress fluttered around her legs as she grabbed hold of the railing to remain erect, but she was soon back underway.

She had trouble believing her eyes - the cause of the hubbub was revealed to be the very woman she had spent a long minute gazing at back at the wedding, the one who had disappeared without a trace not long after. Then, she and her somewhat old-fashioned dress had been in one piece, however. The sight of the disheveled hair, the torn sleeve and the line of crimson blood on the tall, regal-looking woman's upper arm made Christiane gasp and clap a hand across her mouth. "Oh, my Sweet Lord! Pray, what happened to you, fair Lady?"

"Baroness Christiane," Anneliese said, gesturing at the Lady of the Manor and at the visitor in succession, "this is Lady Magdalene, former Lady-in-Waiting of Countess…"


"Of Countess Natalya of… of…"

"Lütembourg Castle," Cornelia said with a smile. She had a hard time tearing her eyes away from Christiane's fair face and slender frame, but she knew how strict the higher-ups were on etiquette and protocol, so nothing was done or said that would have been considered inappropriate.

"Of Lütembourg Castle, indeed. I beg for forgiveness," Anneliese continued before she turned back to Baroness Christiane. "Lady Magdalene and her party were attacked by that most feared of criminals… Black Rose."

"Oh no, how dreadful!" Christiane cried, rushing over to the tall, former Lady-in-Waiting. "I am Christiane Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor… but we have indeed already had the pleasure. At the grand wedding… remember?"

"Although we never were close enough to introduce ourselves, I remember it well. Please allow me to say you were a lovely bride, Baroness Christiane," Cornelia said and performed a curtsey although she remembered to do a clumsy one to keep with her wobbly charade.

"Why, thank you. Anneliese, let us proceed to the drawing rooms. Have you called for a chambermaid yet to assist with the dressing of Lady Magdalene's ghastly wound?"

"I have not, Baroness. I was about to when you joined us," Anneliese said as she tried to open the door to the drawing rooms while keeping a hand on the tall, unsteady Lady.

Smiling, Christiane noticed her friend struggling with the door, so she offered her help by taking a firm grip on the injured Lady's arm. When the taller woman winced from the touch, she released the grip a fraction but kept holding onto her. "You can fetch one now, Anneliese. I shall take Lady Magdalene to the drawing room. Oh, and perhaps some tea and honey?"

"Ah," Cornelia interjected, "like I had explained to your most esteemed Mistress of the Manor just before you made your entrance, Baroness, I would much prefer a glass of port to calm my poor, poor nerves. It needn't even be a small one."

Christiane chuckled at the final part of the comment. "Now that you mention it… Anneliese, a round of port for us all shall do us good."

"Yes, Baroness," Anneliese said and went into a quick curtsey before she hurried off to carry out her tasks.


Inside the drawing room, Christiane helped the taller woman over to, and down into, one of the chairs. As she sat down on the chair closest to the one Lady Magdalene occupied, she folded her legs to the side and noted with some curiosity that her guest had not yet followed suit.

Even before the thought had left Christiane's mind, Lady Magdalene appeared to realize she was sitting in an inappropriate fashion, because she tucked-in the lower part of the dress and folded her long legs to the side.

With the small drama over, Christiane smiled at her guest who still appeared quite pale and frazzled after her ordeal. The taller woman's eyes were so blue she was about to drown in them; the improbability of meeting two vastly different women with such bright-blue eyes just outside a twenty-four hour period was astronomical at best, downright impossible at worst - but the proof of the matter sat opposite her.

Cornelia, staying in character though she knew she needed to tone it down a little after the over-the-top histrionics in the grand hall, let out a nervous chuckle that made Christiane snap out of her gaze. "I dread to see myself in a mirror," she said and tried to fluff a few stray locks of hair. "The way you just studied me, my hair and my face must look a right-old mess…"

"Oh, I can assure you they do not, Lady Magdalene," Christiane said and broke out in a small blush at being caught gawking. Undeterred, a smile found its way onto her face as she resumed the eye-contact. "Although if pressed, I will admit that your long, beautiful hair has seen better days."

Cornelia nodded in a somber fashion. "Alas, I fear that when one is running for one's life, a hair brush cannot be at the top of the agenda."

"Ack, most decidedly not. Tell me, dearest Lady Magdalene, where were you attacked?"

"In the woods some three or four kilometers to the south of here."

"Oh, how ghastly… how frightening!" Christiane said and clasped a hand across her mouth. "My Mistress and I were on a glorious picnic yesterday down by the inlet. We saw no bandits, although we did meet an ancient crone who must have been at least ninety years old."

"I say! Ninety years old? Goodness me, that is practically living with one foot in the grave," Cornelia said, snickering into her hand in a most lady-like fashion to conceal how pleased she was with Christiane's comments - now she knew the disguise had been perfect. "Indeed, my manservant and I were on our way to Køge when we were attacked. I have taken up residence on the island of Falster while… while I wait for something personal to be shipped over from Königsberg. Are you familiar with the province?"

"I fear I am not, Lady Magdalene… I know that it is far east of here, but that is indeed the extent of my knowledge."

"Ack, it is such a wonderful place. It was my home until quite recently. My roots are here in Denmark so I decided to suffer through the long, long voyage to get back to my ancestor's lands," Cornelia said, gaining a distant look upon her face.

As with all the best charades, parts of the story were true. She had spent time on a castle in the east, though it had been in the Tsardom of Russia rather than Königsberg. She had been the first courtesan of a rich sea-merchant who had aspired to be awarded a knighthood and join the local aristocracy. When the plan had come to fruition for the merchant, Cornelia had turned into a liability since the demands from the Tsar involved an arranged marriage with a woman of noble blood - although her name had been Olga, not Natalya - so Cornelia had been kicked out in the cold. Her pride had not allowed her to accept such treatment without a fight, but it was a fight she had lost. The consequences had been brutal, and her left breast still bore the scars from being branded a harlot.

Since the established transport companies would not allow fallen women aboard their dilligences or stagecoaches, the interminable voyage home to Denmark had been conducted in the back of an endless row of stinking, filthy farmer wagons that had been used to haul hay, livestock or pigs - and on occasion, the wagoneers had demanded a transport fee that she could only pay with her body.

"Oh… I see," Christiane said in a cautious voice, wondering about the somber mood that had fallen over her visitor all of a sudden. "Did you go by sea?"

"I did not," Cornelia said, returning to the present. "I traveled by land for the most part, save for crossing the-"

Further conversation was made impossible by the return of Anneliese and Signe. The handmaiden carried a small, wooden box with medical supplies, and she was soon kneeling at Lady Magdalene's right-hand side while using a soaked piece of fabric to wipe away the trickle of blood from the wound.

As Anneliese poured some of the fine port into three cups, and the handmaiden treated Cornelia's self-afflicted wound, the leader of the feared gang of ruffians and bandits returned to the business she was there for. Thinking about her undignified past always left her in a rut, but at least she had plenty of pretty things to focus on, and that included the Baroness. She let her experienced eyes roam around the well-equipped drawing room without appearing to be doing so. Everywhere she looked, there were valuables just waiting to be picked off by someone with the necessary skills.

The drawing rooms - in reality two, large suites separated by glass double-doors - were tastefully furnished with maroon carpets on the floor that covered most of the wooden floorboards save for the outer edges of the rooms. The chairs and tables were of high-quality wood, and the bureaus were of no lesser worth. Vases, bowls and other types of fine porcelain graced the top of several display cabinets that appeared to hold silverware and figurines. A large display featuring a pair of antique broadswords and a coat of arms held in red, gold and pale-blue graced one of the walls - no doubt the traditional Goldenloew colors.

Two of the other walls were dominated by family portraits and several, smaller paintings of landscapes and warships. Although the frames were golden, they only held sentimental value for all but the family depicted in the paintings.

Several tall book cases dominated the far end of the first of the two rooms. Leatherbound tomes stretched from the ceiling to the floor, but Cornelia was too far away from them to make out any details. It mattered little to her as books were notorious in being difficult to make a profit off on the gray or indeed the black markets.

The silverware and the figurines inside the display cabinets had the most potential of the items in the drawing rooms. In the upstairs bedchambers, Cornelia expected to find silver hair brushes, sowing kits and perhaps crucifixes; also gold and silver bracelets and other forms of jewelry. The grand hall saw the silver candlesticks that were easy to carry - and she had not even seen the banqueting hall yet.

Sipping the fine port, Cornelia let her eyes slip back to the Baroness. The young woman had the delicate, elfin-like features so typical of the landed gentry and the rest of the country's aristocracy - and yet, there was a sadness, or perhaps even a darkness, lurking just behind her hazel eyes. Cornelia furrowed her brow as she took in the sight of the attractive baroness who was busy speaking to the Mistress of the Manor.

The baroness noticed the attention and offered her guest a smile that Cornelia responded to by smiling back and raising her cup of port. "My dear Baroness, I must applaud your choice of port. Such a good quality is hard to find these days. Ack, when I think of the many times I have suffered the misfortune of looking forward to a soothing glass of port only to discover it was of no better quality than the murky water found in a ditch!"

"Oh, how terrible!" Christiane said and let out a chuckle. Moments later, she fell quiet and seemed to ponder something as Signe finished up her work on 'Lady Magdalene's' upper arm.

"Baroness. Milady," Signe said, curtseying to both noblewomen in the drawing room. "Lady Magdalene, your wound has been dressed. It was only a shallow cut so I doubt it shall scar."

"You certainly did a sterling job. I never felt a thing," Cornelia said, looking at the wound's dressing. "I am in your debt," she continued, looking at the young handmaiden who broke out in a blush at once.

After Signe had curtseyed another time, she left the drawing room in a hurry to get back to the work she'd had to drop when she was called into action; moments later, the peace was disturbed again, and this time it was the retired cavalry officer who came by to add his unique brand of behavior to the conversation. "Mistress, Lady Magdalene, Baroness Christiane," he said, bowing to the latter two.

Cornelia noticed the change in Christiane at once. Where the young woman had been relaxed and smiling only moments before, the Captain's appearance had put a deep frown on her face - and not only that, but she had clenched her fists into tight, little balls that were pressed against the chair's armrests.

As always, the Captain had no sense for the mood around him. Disregarding the gloomy look on Baroness Christiane's face, he went into a lengthy report at once: "Two detachments of our finest hunters have been deployed to attempt the apprehending, or termination, of the criminal known as Black Rose. The first unit was sent out on our fastest horses to be able to make swift progress to the stretch of woods to the south of Swan Manor where Lady Magdalene was attacked. The second unit shall follow on foot to perform a thorough sweep of the fields between here and the woodlands in case the gang of degenerates managed to evade the cavalry. I shall return with a further update as soon as I hear back from my men… I beg for forgiveness, Baroness, your men."

Christiane's left eyebrow crawled up her forehead - as did Anneliese's though hers reacted to the baroness' - upon hearing the Captain's revealing error in the closing of his report. "Why, thank you, Captain von Hardenburg. Your efforts in making sure we are safe are noted with a great deal of gratitude. I am sure the Baron shall reward you with a colorful decoration or ribbon if the dreaded Black Rose is captured or killed. Will that be all?"

"That will be all for now, Baroness Christiane," Captain von Hardenburg said and bowed to the two noblewomen. Clicking his heels like he was back at the cavalry garrison, he turned around and marched out of the drawing rooms.

When the doors closed behind him, Christiane thumped her balled-up fist into the armrest. "I cannot stand that man or his martial ways," she mumbled before she remembered she had an audience in the shape of the statuesque, former Lady-in-Waiting. "Yet I cannot deny the effectiveness of his ways. And we surely cannot allow Black Rose to strike so close to Swan Manor. I would greatly prefer if she was apprehended and brought to justice for her many crimes… but if she must die to make a point, then so be it," she continued in her regular voice.

"Although I abhor any form of violence, I agree," Cornelia said in a somber voice. "I can assure you that seeing that hideous woman wielding that ax was a frightening experience, Baroness. Ack… the mere mentioning of the dreaded Black Rose has sent my nerves on edge. Dear Mistress, would there perchance be another round of port in that bottle?" she continued, holding up her empty container at Anneliese.

While Anneliese poured another fair amount of the fine port into the guest's glass, Christiane rose from her chair and moved over to the windows. She could see her ornamental garden from there; she had not had time to visit it after the relaxing picnic the day before, but the gardeners had been busy keeping it in fine fettle by raking the pathways and handling the delicate flowers. An unstoppable urge to show her garden to Lady Magdalene rolled over her, but it was too late in the day to do so. However, the garden had a golden shine to it in the hours following breakfast, and that would be a perfect time for a quick tour.

"Lady Magdalene," the Baroness said as she turned back to face the tall woman in pink, "it is far, far too dangerous for you and your manservant to resume your voyage to Køge today. I insist that you stay for dinner, and even for the night. I am sure we can find suitable accommodations for a woman of your most esteemed class and stature."

"I would be so grateful, Baroness!" Cornelia said and flashed her hostess a broad, toothy smile. "Oh, you needn't worry about proper accommodations… I could sleep in a burlap sack if I had to."

Christiane's eyes - and indeed her entire face - popped wide open at the suggestion, and she broke out in a wild snicker that she needed to conceal with her hand. "Ack! I fear I do not know if we even have burlap sacks ready for such an event! All jesting aside, Lady Magdalene, a canopy bed shall be far more comfortable. Anneliese?"

"It shall be arranged, Milady," Anneliese said and performed a quick curtsey.

"Oh, and someone with the heart of a lion must be sent downstairs to inform the Matron of the Kitchen that we shall require another two settings for dinner. You shall accompany us, of course, Anneliese," Christiane said and hurried back to the chairs.

Cornelia grabbed the cue waiting for her while a devious smile spread over her lips. "Perhaps we could send Captain von Hardenburg to your Matron?" she said, pinching her lips like she had just spilled the beans on the Crown Jewels.

"Ack!" Christiane said as she stopped halfway between standing up and sitting down, "I fear that a civil war would ensue, Lady Magdalene! The Matron of the Kitchen and the good Captain cannot stand each other. I fear she would come at him with a meat cleaver."

"I shall tell her, Baroness Christiane," Anneliese added. "Will there be anything more?"

"Indeed there will be, Anneliese," Christiane said and folded her legs to the side as she finally found time to sit down. "A change of clothes for our esteemed guest. Lady Magdalene, you cannot enjoy dinner in such tattered rags. Anneliese, do we have anything suitable for-"

Cornelia put her hands in the air to interrupt the baroness before she could go any further. "You needn't worry about my garments, dear Mistress. I have a chest with me in the buggy… unless it has fallen off during our escape."

"A wooden chest was indeed in the luggage rack when you arrived, Lady Magdalene," Anneliese said.

Christiane smiled at the two women. "Why, that is perfect! Once the Matron of the Kitchen has been informed and accommodations have been organized, I shall bring you there so you can freshen up before dinner. Also, you have yet to meet my husband, Baron Goldenloew, of course."

"Oh, the baron is present?" Cornelia said, leaning forward on the chair. "Since I had not yet had the pleasure of making the baron's acquaintance, I had assumed he was away from the manor."

The change in Christiane's mood was immediate - any talk of her husband prompted such a negative reaction. "The baron is indeed present. You shall meet him later," she said in a voice that was far less cheery than only moments before. It was clear she wanted to get onto another topic, so she put a smile on her face and turned to her old friend. "Anneliese?"

"I shall visit the Matron now, Baroness," Anneliese said and went into a curtsey before she left the room.


While a guest room was being readied so the 'esteemed, former Lady-in-Waiting of Countess Natalya of Lütembourg Castle' could spend the night at the manor safe and sound, Cornelia Karlsdatter had borrowed Baroness Christiane's suite upstairs to change her clothes.

Pulling the tattered, pink dress off her body, she threw it onto the four-post canopy bed without bothering to fold it up. It left her wearing a white, high-necked, full-length chemise that she had no intention of shedding - it did a good job of concealing the hideous burn mark on her left breast.

Her eyes never stood still as she took in the number and type of valuables in the chamber. There were fewer things present than she had expected, but the baroness did have a hair brush, a hand mirror and several candlesticks in there that were made of silver. A half-done embroidery had been left on a chair so there had to be a sowing kit somewhere as well; also, a fountain pen and a holder in a matching design that both stood atop an old writing bureau seemed to be of some value.

Beyond those small items that could fit into even a medium-sized satchel with no difficulty, the chamber had several large paintings and an even larger wall mirror that were all kept in wooden frames that appeared to be gold-plated. A washing set featuring a bowl and a jug made of fine porcelain had been placed on a low stool not too far from the mirror. A porcelain chamber pot had been pushed in under the bed, but even the feared, heartless Black Rose drew the line at stealing someone's night pot.

A brand new Bible had been placed on a low table next to the canopy bed. Although the leatherbound tome was closed, Cornelia noted that a bookmark had been put somewhere in the middle. Being no friend of that particular collection of stories, she had no interest in seeing which passage the baroness was reading at bedtime. A crucifix had been attached to the wall behind the bed, but it was made of wood and thus of no value to anyone save for the true believers.

Her own clothes beckoned, and she opened the lid of her chest to get on with the program. The selection was far from large, but she did have three dresses to choose from. She went with a pale-blue, high-necked gown that featured the standard fashion highlights of the day, namely a tall, starched collar and a pair of puff-cuffs.

Unlike the pink dress that she had stolen herself from the clothes-line belonging to the wife of a small-town magistrate as a payback, the pale-blue gown had been bought and paid for, albeit second-hand, in a seamstress' store. Of course, the rigsdaler that had paid for the gown had been acquired in a tavern just next door to the seamstress through the good, old swindle of paying too much for an ale, and then confusing the innkeeper when he tried to figure out how much change he needed to give back.

Once the gown had slipped over Cornelia's long, sculpted body, she gave herself a good shaking to get it in place across her broad shoulders and curved hips. With the rest sitting as it should, she arranged the cuffs and the collar to get the last items to line up as well. Turning around to face the wall mirror, she glanced at herself with a critical eye to see what kind of image she would project. All in all, she was happy with the result. Although she was no longer the sweet-faced early-twenty-something she had been when she had been the first courtesan to the sea-merchant, she still had plenty to offer.

Grunting, she turned back to the chest to retrieve a long necklace that carried a pendant made of solid gold. Akin to a medallion, the pendant sported the letters C-D-S-A that had been engraved into the gold in an artistic fashion - short for Cornelia Dorothea Sofie Amalie, her given names. As always, she could not help but admire the craftsmanship. It had been a gift from the sea-merchant for whom no price was too dear. Though she had come to hate everything about him following her fall from grace, she had kept it near her on the long voyage back to Denmark.

Selling it would have saved her from selling her body, but it meant too much to her on both a metaphorical and an actual level: the exquisite piece of jewelry was worth far more than the rest of her worldly possessions combined. If any of the men in the band of traveling ruffians knew of its existence, they would slit her throat, grab the pendant and leave her carcass to rot faster than she could sign her name.

The clothing, the hair, the jewelry and the mindset were all in place. She was ready to face the world once more, though this time, she would employ far less histrionics and far more charm - after all, she had a baron to wrap around her little finger. Men had a tendency to show off in her presence to make an impression on her, and a man showing off was a man who would let his mouth run off with him when it came to the particulars of his possessions and wealth.


Stepping out onto the landing, Cornelia closed the door behind her with a soft click. When she noted that the baroness may have spent the entire time she had waited for her looking out of the windows and down onto the courtyard, a natural, broad smile graced her features.

It did not appear as if the baroness had noticed her presence, so Cornelia slithered over there with silent steps. "Baroness-" she said in a strong whisper, but that was as far as she got as the younger woman yelped and jumped a foot in the air.

"Ack! My heart!" Christiane said as she spun around to take in the identity of the person whispering into her ear like a wicked ghost. "Why, Lady Magdalene! That was most cheeky of you!"

"I humbly beg for forgiveness, Baroness Christiane. I did not mean to frighten you," Cornelia said and did a quick curtsey to show her sincerity. "I only wanted to convey how grateful I was, and am, for the use of your bedchamber. I promise I have not made a mess of it."

Christiane opened her mouth to reply, but the sight of the pale-blue gown that graced her guest's statuesque frame took her breath away. The gold pendant around the taller woman's neck was perhaps the spectacular highlight, but the entire ensemble from the hairdo that had been arranged with great care to the pleated lower hem of the long skirt that fell just right around the woman's legs spelled out 'class' in upper-case letters. "Goodness me! I fear you have left me quite speechless, Lady Magdalene. Why, that dress is nothing short of magnificent. And that gold pendant… simply breathtaking."

"I thank you, Baroness Christiane," Cornelia said and did another quick curtsey.

In the background, Anneliese arrived with Signe in tow; it was clear the Mistress of the Manor and the handmaiden were ready to change the baroness' garments into something better suited to the grand feast the dinner had turned into. Christiane nodded at her old friend before she put a hand on her guest's elbow. "I fear I must leave you now, Lady Magdalene, but we shall meet once more in the banqueting hall below. The baron shall also be present."

"I am very much looking forward to meeting His Excellency, Baroness Christiane… and to meeting you again. I am sure you shall be wearing a gown that will put this old rag in the shade."

Christiane was about to reply that such a feat would hardly be possible, but she settled for smiling at her guest. Nodding a goodbye, she moved over to the door to her chamber where Anneliese and Signe were already waiting for her.


With the large dining table in the banqueting hall needing to be set for a grand feast for four rather than the usual two - it should have been five, but Captain von Hardenburg was too busy coordinating the hunt for Black Rose to attend - an entire battalion of kitchenmaids ran to and fro the basement to get all the silverware, wine glasses and eating utensils needed to set the table according to protocol.

The Matron of the Kitchen had performed wonders - after throwing a world-class tantrum - and had created a five-course meal in no time flat: the appetizer would be a thick asparagus soup, then it was onto sourdough dumplings with a filling of salty, baked tomatoes. Walnut-bread that was to be served steaming hot and with oodles of butter was always a surefire hit as the in-between. The main dish would be slices of first cooked, then baked high-quality ham glacéd with brown sugar and fiery mustard imported from France. The final dish, the dessert, would consist of halved strawberries soaking in honey that had been spiced with natural herbs.


Cornelia stood behind the backrest of the chair she had been assigned by the Mistress of the Manor. Nobody, not even the baroness, was permitted to sit down before the baron had made his entrance, but His Excellency was running a little late to the grand feast. The silence in the banqueting hall grew somewhat awkward as no less than eleven people - Christiane, Cornelia, Anneliese von Eyben and eight kitchenmaids - waited for Baron Erich to arrive.

When the doors opened at last, the baron's French manservant Jean-Philibert Brocard stepped inside and strode over to the chair at the head of the table. Once it had been pulled out and cocked to the side, he strode back to the doors to accompany His Excellency, Erich Johann Karl Heinrich Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor.

Like his wife - who had donned an ivory gown that she hoped could compete with Cornelia's pale-blue dress for sheer spectacle - Erich had dressed up for the occasion by putting on his favored golden outfit that he only used for special events. He did not wear his French hat which allowed his esteemed guest Lady Magdalene von Bielke of Lütembourg Castle to see his impressive mane of curly hair.

The first thought through Cornelia's mind upon seeing the baron for the first time was 'What a peacock!' When he came close enough, she played the opening hand of the ancient game by shooting him a warm glance that was full of admiration and interest. Much to her surprise, he returned the gaze with one that was full of absolute detachment and even utter disinterest.

She furrowed her brow - it did not happen often that her gambit failed, and when it did, it was usually because something was wrong with the person she had tried it on. The only other time she had seen such disinterest in the female of the species was when she had tried her look on a eunuch somewhere in East Prussia. She was sure that scuttlebutt would have picked up on the lack of that particular aspect of the newly-appointed Baron's anatomy, so something else would have to be at the root of the problem.

"My dearest husband," Christiane said, curtseying to the baron once he had come close enough to the table, "I have the utmost pleasure of introducing you to Lady Magdalene von Bielke, the former Lady-in-Waiting of Countess Natalya of… of…"

"Lütembourg Castle near Königsberg, Your Excellency," 'Lady Magdalene' interjected, performing the deepest curtsey she had ever attempted.

The baron offered Cornelia a brief nod and an even briefer smile. "Ah, we rarely have such charming visitors here at Swan Manor. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Magdalene," he said in his well-modulated voice.

"And I yours, Your Excellency," Cornelia said, curtseying again. When she glanced across the table and noticed the strained smile on Christiane's pretty face, a few more pieces of the puzzle fell into place - the reaction on the part of the baroness when they had spoken in the drawing room earlier had been genuine.

Their marriage was nothing but a charade, and the cause was the baron's complete lack of interest in the fairer sex. A brief, knowing smile spread over Cornelia's lips. She understood exactly what was going on, but the question was if the baroness did considering her inexperience with the strange twists and turns that the world and mankind had to offer.

At the head of the table, Jean-Philibert Brocard helped Baron Erich push in the chair which signaled the official start of the dinner. The others present all sat down, and behind them, the battalion of kitchenmaids began the final preparations for the serving of the first course by hurrying downstairs to get the bowls of steaming hot asparagus soup.

Cornelia unfolded her napkin and put it in her lap. Looking up, she exchanged a brief glance with the Baroness across the table. Pleased that she was able to put a smile on the fair face, she settled down and waited for the soup. The baron was already but a distant memory - her sights had been readjusted onto a subject that had the potential of yielding just as much, if not more, if she played her cards right. It would be an interesting evening and night for all involved, of that she was certain.




Night had fallen over the proud Swan Manor, and apart from the creaking of the woodwork that retracted after another long, hot summer day, everything was quiet inside. A few metallic clicks and soft footfalls that came from the garden below proved that a few unfortunate hunters had been selected by Captain von Hardenburg for all-night guard duty in case Black Rose's band of criminals had the audacity to strike the manor itself.

The curtains had been drawn most everywhere to cover the leaded windows, but the night-time sky outside was at its darkest, meaning the hands of time had moved past midnight. At no later than three-thirty in the morning during the height of summer, the eastern horizon would once again lose its dark hue and gain the faint colors of the new day.

A frustrated sigh echoed through Baroness Christiane's bedchamber. She was lying on her right-hand side in her four-post canopy bed. It was her preferred sleeping position, but on this night, it had failed to offer her anything. She had already tried using her chamber pot in the hope that relieving her bladder would help her find the peace needed to sleep, but it had not, nor had shoving the warm blankets away from her legs been of any help.

Rolling over onto her back, she let out another frustrated sigh and put her hands behind her head. It was too dark inside her bedchamber to make out any details, so she settled for staring into the darkness for a while - she had not tried counting sheep yet although she knew it probably would not help.

A minute or two went by while Christiane did nothing at all but try to find some sleep, but it grew evermore elusive. When it became obvious it would not come, she let out a growl and once more swung her legs over the side of the canopy bed. After giving her face a thorough rubbing, she got up and fumbled her way over to the chair where she had left her night cape and her evening slippers.

Once she was suitably attired for talking a walk around the manor in the dead of night, she let her fingers glide along the top of the writing bureau to find her tinderbox and the candlestick she knew she had left there. The metal box containing her fire striker was soon found, and the odd-looking tools employed to create a light that she transferred to the candle's wick.

The tear-shaped cone of light that blossomed from the candle cast an orange sheen across her bedchamber. After returning the smoldering piece of fabric she had used to transfer the light to the tinderbox so it would suffocate - as ever, she crinkled her nose at the horrid smell it produced when it burned - she picked up the candle in her left hand, turned around and shuffled over to the sturdy door that she needed to operate with her stronger right hand.


On the landing outside her bedchamber, she pulled the heavy door back to the jambs but did not close it shut. Everything was so quiet that even her faint breathing sounded like a pair of bellows.

Smiling at the spookiness that offered her a pleasant, little shiver down the spine, she shuffled across the wooden floorboards in her woolen slippers to get to the windows overlooking the courtyard. Since they carried no curtains, they offered a full view down upon the open square. Nothing much was happening there apart from a faint light that shone out of the sliding door to the utility shed connected to the main stables - she knew it the was one of the Master Wranglers maintaining a hot fire so they would be able to forge or repair horseshoes later in the day.

A series of creaks and squeaks that suddenly appeared somewhere behind her made the pleasant, little shiver down her spine turn into an army of ants. Coming to a dead stop, she drew a sharp breath. Her heart began to pick up the pace, and the fingers that held the candlestick gave the silverware a good squeeze. Though she was none too brave when it came to potential ghosts, mares or other nocturnal creatures of mythology, she turned around with the candlestick well ahead of her to give the area near the grand staircase a closer look.

The creaks and squeaks were repeated, and it seemed to come from the smaller flight of stairs leading to the attic where the storage rooms and the guest rooms for visitors of lesser standing were located.

Staring wide-eyed into the gloomy darkness - while holding her breath and biting her lips - Christiane continued to creep forward until she was standing a mere two meters from the bottom of the flight of stairs. Further up, a cone of light similar to her own bobbed left and right like someone was descending the steep staircase.

Beyond the creaks and squeaks that Christiane realized had come from the top few steps, not a sound was heard as the cone of light continued to descend the stairs. Shadows flickered across the walls, creating an illusion of a myriad of figures that approached the landing where the Baroness had taken her stand.

"H- halt! Wh- who goes there?" Christiane croaked in a trembling voice that had the impact of a thunderclap in the still of the night.

"Ack!" a female voice cried from above after a very brief pause. "Baroness Christiane! Ack, goodness me… my poor, little heart is galloping quite badly right now!"

"La- Lady Magdalene?" Christiane croaked, moving to the foot of the flight of stairs to see better. Sure enough, Lady Magdalene, the tall, statuesque, former Lady-in-Waiting of Countess Natalya of Lütembourg Castle in the vicinity of Königsberg was leaning against the wall halfway up - or halfway down since she had come from upstairs - while pressing her free hand against her heaving bosom.

Christiane noted that the Lady wore a high-necked, short-sleeved salmon-colored nightgown that did a very fine job of accentuating her female attributes and the rest of her sculpted figure, but she was quick to push those indecent thoughts aside.

"Indeed it is I, Baroness Christiane. Ack, I beg for forgiveness," the lady said as she moved down the final, few steps to stand at the baroness' side on the landing. "I never meant to scare you… I-"

"And I never meant to scare you, Lady Magdalene. Oh, it is I who shall beg for forgiveness. If you had fallen to your doom because of your fright, I would never have been able to forgive myself! I fear this was a case of rather poor timing," Christiane said and put a hand on the lady's bare elbow.

In the flickering light, she noticed what appeared to be three or four purple bruises shaped like thumbmarks on the left, upper arm of the taller woman. Worse, the lady wore no slippers meaning her bare feet were in plain sight. "I simply could not sleep and decided to take a wander around the manor," Christiane continued, moving her candlestick away from Lady Magdalene to give her some privacy - she obviously had not counted on meeting anyone, or she would have donned a cape and worn a pair of slippers.

"Oh! Sleep escaped me as well, Baroness. Perhaps we could accompany each other on a tour of your magnificent manor?" - Cornelia cocked her head and used the cover of the darkness between them to study the younger woman. With her hair down and looser than the elaborate hairdo she wore in the daytime, Christiane appeared prettier somehow, and indeed even younger than her twenty-three years. The night cape hid her slender body from all interested gazes, but it was clear she had plenty to offer the person who would steal her heart. That her husband had no interest in doing so would be his loss - it left the barn door wide open for others.

"Why, we certainly could, Lady Magdalene," the baroness said and hooked her arm inside the taller woman's to begin a slow, pleasurable presentation of Swan Manor.


"And this fair lady here is my mother, Frederikke Augustine Johanne Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor. She died when I was very young," Christiane said, holding up the candlestick so her taller guest could get a good look at the large painting that hung in a prominent position in the grand hall.

"Oh, I must say the old baroness was a woman of great beauty. In fact, she was nearly as beautiful as her daughter turned out to be," Cornelia said and pushed up the charm another notch. Much to her delight, she had noticed that the current baroness welcomed compliments; the warmer the better.

Christiane broke out in an embarrassed chuckle that left the cone of light shaking. "Oh, dear… the lateness of the hour must have affected your eyesight, Lady Magdalene. I fear I shall never quite reach the beauty that radiated from her."

"I beg to differ, Baroness," Cornelia said with a certain gleam in her sea-blue eyes. "But I digress. Do you ever speak to her? And please, do not apply a sinister motif to a wholly innocent question… I obviously do not mean that you hear her voice or see her ethereal being wander the halls as we have just done, but… do you think of her whenever you are in dire need of a friend?"

Christiane let out a deep, heartfelt sigh at her guest's words. She let her eyes linger on the painting for a while before she turned her head to gaze at the taller woman next to her. "I do. And I so dearly wish I could speak to her concerning all the hardship I have suffered recently."

"I understand. I often think of my late parents as well. And I dream of them, too."

"So do I," Christiane said, once more studying the taller woman. "Ack, in my dreams, we are back together. Everything is splendid and golden. We are happy. Content. Loved. And when I wake up, I… oh, I beg for forgiveness, Lady Magdalene. I did not mean to trouble you with all my petty problems."

Cornelia smiled, giving the baroness' elbow a tiny squeeze though she knew it was close to a breach of protocol. When Christiane did not shy back from the touch, it turned out to have been the right decision. "Fear not, Baroness Christiane. I understand better than you think as I too have been alone for far too long. Oh, I wish my stay here could be extended so I could be your friend or confidante. Alas, I shall be leaving for Køge in the morning… a meeting that I simply cannot postpone awaits me at the docks. Quite unfortunate as I have a feeling that you and I would be able to connect rather well."

"Indeed. I feel the same," Christiane said in a somber voice. "Ack, now sleep shall elude me for the rest of the night!"

Cornelia did a quick curtsey - a gesture that looked strange performed by a person in bare feet and wearing a salmon-colored nightgown. "Please accept my sincerest apologies, Baroness… robbing you of your sleep was never my intention. Perhaps we should wish each other a good night and go our separate ways?"

"No, we shall not."

"Ah… no?"

"We shall proceed to the drawing room," Christiane said and once more hooked her arm inside that of her guest. "Tea shall only make matters worse in these dark hours… and it matters not, anyway, since I dare not awaken the sleeping Matron of the Kitchen to ask her to make some… but speaking shall do us both good. Off we go!"

Broad, genuine smiles spread over their features as they strolled across the wooden floorboards to get to the cozy armchairs in the elegant drawing room. Once they reached the door, Cornelia opened it for the baroness and held it open so the younger woman - who was far higher in the hierarchy than a traveling ruffian like Black Rose - could step inside first like protocol dictated.


Christiane and the woman known to her as Lady Magdalene worked together to create a cozy atmosphere in the dark drawing room by igniting a further five candles around the room. The two candlesticks they had brought with them from upstairs were placed on a low table near the dormant fireplace so the two women could see each other better while they chatted.

Once the chairs were moved closer together, the scene had been set for a good heart-to-heart. Though they had spoken for the better part of fifteen minutes already, a sudden silence filled the room like they were both unsure about what to say.

Cornelia narrowed her eyes as she took in the presence of the baroness. The younger woman had an air of vulnerability about her that was rare among the landed gentry. Of the many noblemen and women that Cornelia had run across during her years traveling the land as Black Rose, the feared leader of a band of criminals, nine out of ten were aloof at best, downright heartless at worst. Though they may not have been that way from birth, the near-unfathomable wealth of their families corrupted them and made them unable, or unwilling, to look beyond the tip of their noses.

There had been exceptions, but they were few and far between. In fact, she could not remember meeting anyone born of nobility who had quite the same grounded, not to mention somber, presence as the young slip of a woman sitting opposite her. Her heart carried a sadness within her, no doubt brought on by the loss of her father and being forced into what scuttlebutt said was a forced marriage so soon after. That the marriage was loveless and cold was just further millstones around her neck.

A regret of ever starting the deceitful charade began to niggle at the back of Cornelia's mind, but she had already gone too far to back down. Even if she decided to walk away without acquiring some of the valuables found throughout the rich halls of Swan Manor, it was a dead certainty that her second-in-command, Jakob Mikkelsen, would not accept her decision and do something rash - especially after she had humiliated him by flattening his nose.

"Oh," Christiane said, shifting in the chair, "what a peculiar silence between us that arose just now. I fear I may have kept you up past your best hours after all?"

"Not at all, Baroness Christiane. I was merely collecting my thoughts. Such a process will inevitably take a little longer at this late hour," Cornelia said with a smile.

"Ha, indeed it will. I must admit I have never spent the dark of night sitting in one of the drawing rooms speaking to an esteemed guest, not even when I was a mere child playing at Father's feet. Why, the darkness and the shadows cast on the walls almost give me the feeling that we should be sipping mulled wine though we are in late June and not late December. Ack, Lady Magdalene, at Christmas, when the fireplace is raging and the snow falls outside the windows, the drawing room is the most wonderful place to spend an evening here at Swan Manor. Of course… how it shall be this year, only Our Lord will know."

Cornelia shuffled her long legs to the chair's other side to stop her feet from falling asleep. Not only was she not used to sitting like that, the chair was not built for someone of her lengthy frame - the edge of the chair pressed against the underside of her thighs which cut off the flow of blood to her feet and lower legs. "Oh, with your skills as a hostess, I have an inkling you shall experience a warm, wonderful Christmas this year, Baroness Christiane. Do you not have acquaintances among your peers that you could invite over for mulled wine and Yuletide treats?"

"I do, thank the Lord… but they all have families of their own so they cannot stay for days at a time," Christiane said with a shrug. "Enough talk about me. Now, Lady Magdalene, I wish to know everything about Königsberg and Countess Natalya of… of… ack, how rude of me… I cannot remember the name of the castle you came from."

"Lütembourg Castle."

"Lütembourg Castle, indeed! So strange that I cannot seem to memorize the name. I must reveal my ignorance and say that I have never heard of it, but there must be thousands of castles in Europe I have never heard of."

Cornelia screwed a smile on her face as she decided on what to say about the orchestrations of the events that had led to her painful fall from grace. As always, the truth was the best bedfellow to white lies when it came to keeping the cover stories straight in charades, so she decided to relay at least some parts of her harrowing past. "Well, I fear it is a long and somewhat unpretty story, Baroness…"

"Ack, I do not feel sleepy at all, Lady Magdalene! Pray, go on," Christiane said, kicking off her slippers and folding her legs up underneath her. She moved the night cape down in a hurry so her guest would not catch a glimpse of her bare feet.

"Very well," Cornelia said and licked her lips. "I came to Lütembourg Castle by way of a handsome man who stole my heart at first sight, and I am happy to say the feeling was mutual. I was on a sea voyage to the city port of Danzig at the time, but my destination changed when I met him. I decided there and then to follow him to wherever he would disembark."

Christiane clapped her hands and let out an "Ohhhh! How dreadfully romantic!"

"Indeed. Little did I know his family's wealth had enabled him to own and run the passenger ship we were on so he was scheduled to follow the entire route until the final port of call. When we arrived at the city port of Königsberg, my heart was in his hands and my fate had been sealed. Alas, there were further things he had neglected to tell me. The worst of which… he was already engaged to be married."

"No! A woman's heart should never be toyed with! What a horrible, horrible scoundrel!" Christiane said, throwing her hands in the air. The flames on the candles flickered back and forth as the upset air hit them, and it took several seconds for them to settle back down.

"I fear that is an accurate description of him, Baroness. There I was, far, far away from home with a gaping hole inside me where my heart had been. I did not know which way to turn, so… ack, this is going to paint me in a most dreadful light…"

"Surely not… go on."

Cornelia grimaced as she shuffled her half-numb legs around once more. "Perhaps I should not go on, Baroness. I fear you shall think quite poorly of me, and I would be so disappointed if that were to be the outcome."

"Well… do you regret the decision, whatever it was?"

"Very much so," Cornelia said, using the darkness to reach up to her maimed breast. Although the better part of a decade had passed since the day where the branding iron had been lowered onto her skin, the poorly treated welts were still painful to the touch.

"In that case, have we not all done things we have regretted later on? I certainly have. Please, Lady Magdalene, you cannot stop now."

Nodding, Cornelia licked her lips once more. "My mind was clouded with equal parts blind infatuation and sickening disappointment. I still loved him, so I stayed with him despite his subsequent marriage to a noblewoman. I became his… his… woman on the side."

A surprised "Oh…" was the only sound that escaped Christiane's mouth. She stared wide-eyed at her guest for several, long seconds before she settled down again and allowed a faint smile to crease her lips.

Since the comment had not been followed by scathing condemnation, Cornelia returned the faint smile and continued her story: "He and I carried on the charade for a while until his wife could no longer stand the humiliation. She laid down an ultimatum to her husband. Either I had to go, or she would leave. The decision was not a hard one to take for him."

"And you lost it all."

"I did indeed," Cornelia said, once more sensing the aches that were always in her tender breast.

A few seconds went by in silence before Christiane shifted around again. Cocking her head, the baroness shot her guest a curious glance. "I must admit it was a story I had not expected to hear from such an esteemed guest, but… I suppose we can only live according to what our heart whispers in our ear. However, I fear I do not understand… where does Countess Natalya enter your story?"

"Oh, I did warn you that it was a long tale, Baroness. After I had been… well… sent away… I had the choice of finding my own way home, or joining a convent of sorts," Cornelia said, and by now, she was deep into fibbing territory. "I chose the convent which was also in the fair city of Königsberg, or on the outskirts, to be precise. It was run by a Mother Superior who introduced me to Lady Natalya, as she was known then. Over the course of a few years, by working hard and tirelessly, I was able to regain the honor I had lost through my foolish infatuation. I advanced my position until I became her Lady-In-Waiting. It was an honorary task I kept until quite recently. Countess Natalya is an elderly lady now so she preferred to have a Lady-In-Waiting closer to her own age."

"Ah… I see. Goodness me, you have certainly lived a life that far outshines my meager adventures and accomplishments. And how far you have traveled! I have yet to travel beyond Zealand or the near islands of Møn, Falster or Lolland… no, I fear that is a lie. Once, years ago, Father and I sailed from the port of Korsør to Tåsinge Island for a four-day stay at Castle Valdemar. Ack, the voyage took hours upon hours, and I have never been so seasick… for

a week afterwards, I became ill to my stomach from the mere thought of the rough seas."

"And then you would have to return by sea as well…"

"Indeed!" Christiane croaked. "It was an ordeal the likes of which I never wish to revisit. And since we have touched upon such a topic… did you know that in order to visit the new continents in the far west, you need to spend three or four months at sea? Months, not weeks! Ack, I shall surely never visit the new continents for as long as I live."

Cornelia chuckled; she could well imagine traveling to the new world far beyond the western horizon. The possibilities for achieving wealth there were boundless, or so she had been told by drunken traders and merchants. She was about to speak up once more when the baroness beat her to it.

"Ack, how I still miss Father," Christiane said in a quiet voice. Sighing, she leaned her head against the tall backrest. "Though a month and a half has gone by now since his passing, I still feel his presence here at Swan Manor. Everything you see around us, he created. Everything. I have added nothing to the whole save for the flowers in bloom in my beloved ornamental garden… and even that was a gift from Father when I was old enough to understand what was needed to maintain it. What have I, Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor in fact accomplished? I fear the answer to that question is… nothing."


"And now that my marriage to the baron was forced upon me, I shall accomplish nothing for the rest of the years I shall be granted. However long or short that period of time shall be."

Cornelia narrowed her eyes - scuttlebutt had already told her that the marriage between Christiane and the golden peacock had been arranged, but having it confirmed by the baroness herself was valuable information. Any woman stuck in a loveless marriage was bound to be susceptible to a little romance on the side, and such an arrangement was an open invitation for someone to get a foot in the door, so to speak, of the richest manor in the entire region.

"Ah," Cornelia said, leaning forward so she could appear more sincere when she made her following point, "that would explain the baron's somewhat cold behavior towards you. Baroness, I beg for forgiveness for sticking my nose in where it simply does not belong, but had such an odd air of detachment been directed at me from my own husband, I would have been driven to the brink of despair within days. In fact, I would have been driven into the arms of another."

"Ack, Lady Magdalene, I fear we are getting a little too personal now," Christiane said and shuffled around in the chair like she had been bitten by a flea. "You know as well as I do… or perhaps even better considering what you have just told me… that a Lady who seeks the intimate company of a man outside wedlock shall suffer the wrath and utter condemnation by the Church. Worse, such a Lady would find herself rejected by the Crown and her peers. I have no interest in being that Lady. That is all I shall say on this topic as I do not wish to discuss my husband with anyone. But yes, alas… the courtship may have been brief, but the honeymoon was briefer still."

An awkward silence fell between them that was not broken until Christiane concealed a wide yawn behind her hand. "Oh, I feel that sleep shall be possible to find now. I thank you for our nocturnal conversation, Lady Magdalene. It was most enlightening," she said and got up from the chair. Her bare feet were soon back inside the protection of the slippers.

Cornelia rose as well and curtseyed to the younger woman. "It was indeed, Baroness. I am only happy to help. Shall I see you at breakfast before my manservant and I continue our journey to Køge?"

"You shall. I would not miss it for a pot of gold," Christiane said, standing up on slippered tip-toes to place a couple of quick kisses on the taller woman's cheeks. "I wish you a good night, Lady Magdalene."

It was the standard way for women of nobility to bid each other farewell, but the softness of Christiane's lips still made Cornelia break out in a smile when they touched her skin. "And I you, Baroness Christiane. Go on, I shall extinguish the candles before I head upstairs. Sweet dreams."

"I thank you. You too, of course," Christiane said, returning the broad smile before she left the room and closed the door behind her.

Standing alone in the drawing room, Cornelia grabbed a candlestick and shuffled over to the nearest display cabinet to continue her mission of reconnaissance. Like she had noted earlier in the day, the flickering flame revealed that it held silverware and figurines that looked promising when it came to the topics of value and worth. A sly smile spread over her lips as she turned away from the display cabinets and began blowing out the candles.


At large estates like Swan Manor, breakfast would be served at different times for the various groups of people working and living there. The peasants at the outlying farms had been up at the rooster's first crowing to wolf down a bowlful of barley porridge or oatmeal accompanied by dark ale to have enough energy for the day's hard slog in the fields.

The men and boys working in the stables were up at dawn as well to feed the horses and prepare the carriages if the schedule of the noble couple called for it. Once they had completed their first assignments of the new day, they could take their time eating their oatmeal or gruel before they were called to groom or wash down any horses that had already been given a workout in the sun. On some days, all hands were assigned to assist running the hot forge in the utility shed when plowshares, horseshoes and other objects of metal were to be forged or repaired - whenever that happened, the mealtimes would simply be 'eat when you can.'

The maids and the other staffers working inside the manor itself had different tasks to accomplish in the early hours of the day, but the Matron of the Kitchen would stir her helpers just after dawn to get the fires going in the oven and the stove. Once the kitchen was in good order, some maids would eat breakfast while others would be sent out to the nearest farms to get fresh eggs, milk, butter or slabs of salted pork from pigs slaughtered the night before. Once those maids returned, it would be their time to eat while those who had already finished eating would be set to work handling the produce brought back by the others.

By the time the Baron and Baroness woke up and finished their brief stand-up sponge baths, the rest of the manor was ready for the serving of breakfast in the grand banqueting hall. The table had been set with the silverware reserved for the early serving, the white bread had been baked, the bacon and eggs had been cooked, the milk - lukewarm, of course - had been poured into jugs, and the butter had been given a final churning and salting so it was nice and soft.

Like at dinner the night before, Christiane, Cornelia and Anneliese von Eyben stood behind their chairs waiting for Baron Erich and his French manservant to arrive, and behind them, a row of kitchenmaids were on stand-by. Jakob Mikkelsen stood at the far end of the line; his black, blue and purple face was locked in a deep scowl that made the young maids nearest him shy back in case he would lose his composure.

The manor's most skilled seamstress had spent the better part of an hour the night before repairing the torn sleeve of 'Lady Magdalene's' pink dress so it would be ready for whenever she and her companion would leave. Thus, the tall, noble guest of Swan Manor - whose true identity was still hidden from the others - wore the dress for breakfast. The priceless necklace with the gold pendant she had worn at dinner was kept in her chest for safekeeping since she knew Jakob would be present.

Christiane had donned a neutral, yet exquisite, off-white gown that sat well across her slender frame. Now and then, she looked up and locked eyes with the Lady with whom she had spoken for a good deal of the night. Once she had gone upstairs after their nocturnal conversation, she had slept like a baby until she had been stirred by Anneliese and Signe who had arrived to help her change into her day clothes.

Cornelia offered the baroness a smile that was returned in kind. Moments later, the door was opened to reveal the baron and his French manservant who entered the banqueting hall with a somewhat toned-down version of their usual spectacle - on the day, the Baron wore black shoes, white stockings that reached his knees, puffy breeches in a delicate shade of white, and a pale-brown vest over a white tunic that had puff-cuffs but a low collar with large lapels.

Once the usual, shallow platitudes and empty pleasantries had been exchanged between the people present at the breakfast table, Anneliese signaled the kitchenmaids to begin the process of serving.

Christiane had been looking forward to breakfast for the first time since her wedding. Not only had she found her appetite once more, she relished the fact that she had someone that she could talk to on topics that went far beyond what she had ever attempted to share with her husband - the two factors were no doubt connected.

Reaching for the churn of butter and the tray carrying the fresh bread, she offered the tall guest across the table a broad smile. "Oh, it appears the weather shall be fine today as not a cloud is to be found anywhere in the sky. Lady Magdalene, I would be so pleased if you and I could tour my ornamental garden while your manservant prepares your buggy for your departure," she said while she spread the fresh butter onto the warm bread. It melted at once and soaked into the bread like she had hoped it would.

"Although my meeting in Køge is important, I believe we should have time for a tour of your garden, Baroness Christiane. It would be my pleasure," Cornelia said with a nod and a smile.

"Wonderful!" Christiane said, discreetly dabbing her buttered fingers on a cloth napkin. Turning to the baron, her smile turned less genuine, but at least it remained on her lips. "And my dearest husband, I seem to recall you have planned to travel to the North Woods today to hone your painting skills? It should be fine weather for it."

"Indeed," Baron Erich said. The people eating at the table waited for further nuggets of wisdom, but nothing came from the taciturn Lord of the Manor. Instead of speaking, he sent a quick glance at his manservant whose lips creased in a faint smile.

Christiane never noticed a thing, but Cornelia did, and she let out a quiet grunt at the fascinating discovery.

"Ah," Christiane said, looking at Cornelia who offered the baroness a smile of sympathy in return. "Then we shall both be doing something we love," she tried, but she was unable to coax even a single-syllable reply out of the baron. Sighing under her breath, she returned to the well-buttered slice of white bread.


Christiane's good mood, peace of mind and even her rediscovered appetite were given a severe knock by the arrival of Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg whose frazzled - even somewhat haggard - appearance suggested he had spent no time sleeping the night before. He still wore the same, uniform-like outfit he had donned the previous evening when he had been put in charge of the hunt for Black Rose, and it had even turned wrinkled in places; something Christiane had never seen from the man whose clothes had always been impeccable until then.

The retired cavalry officer stomped over to the baron, clicked his heels and performed a deep bow. "Your Excellency, I humbly request a word in private."

Baron Erich let out a sigh and put down the silver spoon he had just used to decapitate a soft-boiled egg. "It cannot wait until after breakfast, Captain?" he said as he added pepper and salt - one dash of pepper, three dashes of salt - to the exposed, warm yolk.

"I fear it cannot, Your Excellency."

"You know how I feel about being disturbed at mealtimes."

"Indeed I do, Your Excellency, but-"

"A private meeting cannot be granted at this point. Speak up," the baron said without bothering to even look at the retired officer. Instead, he dug the spoon into the egg and scooped up a large portion of the warm yolk.

Christiane smirked at seeing the gruff, martial Captain brought down a peg or two in front of everybody, but she hid it by dabbing her lips with the cloth napkin.

Captain von Hardenburg's jaw worked in silence for a few seconds before he squared his shoulders. "Your Excellency, I do not know if it is wise to discuss such matters in front of women, in particular one who is merely a guest," he said, eyeing Cornelia with some suspicion. When it seemed the baron could not be swayed from his previous decision, the Captain cleared his throat. "Very well. I fear I must advise you to call off your expedition to the North Wo-"

"That is completely unacceptable!" Baron Erich barked, staring at the Captain with a pair of eyes that narrowed down into slits.

The rest of the people sitting at the dining table all stopped eating to stare wide-eyed at the man at the head of the table. Neither Christiane nor Anneliese had ever heard the Baron raise his voice to anyone; in fact, Christiane was surprised he was even capable of doing so.

"Your Excellency-" Captain von Hardenburg tried, but he cut himself off when the Baron made a simple gesture that spoke quite loudly.

"And, pray tell, my dear Captain, what is the reasoning for this bombastic warning? We have spent most of the past week planning the trip that is meant to be quite joyous indeed."

"I am aware of that fact, Your Excellency. Unfortunately, that fact is at the root of the problem. My men and I were unable to apprehend the vile Black Rose last night… it seems she has vanished without a trace. This, coupled with the fact that all and sundry may have heard of your trip leads me to, regrettably, advise you against going."

The baron stared straight ahead for several seconds before he crumpled up the napkin and threw it hard onto the table. It hit a spoon that performed a manic dance on the tabletop before it fell onto the floor with a loud clang. One of the kitchenmaids jumped forward at once, put it into the pocket of her apron and hurried back to the wall with the others. "Will someone explain to me why it is not possible to arrange an escort of armed hunters to go with us?" the baron continued once the servant girl had returned to the line by the wall.

"I fear it would spread our resources too thin, Your Excellency. It would leave Swan Manor open to attack. With Black Rose's gang so close, they could have spies here already."

"Wretched!" the Baron growled as he thumped his fist into the crumpled-up napkin. Moments later, he pushed the chair back from the table which made everyone else jump to their feet as dictated by protocol. "Very well, Captain. I shall heed your advice. I shall be in my chamber… seemingly for the remains of the day. Jean-Philibert!"

Once the French manservant had helped Baron Erich away from the dining table, breakfast was officially over for the entire group though they'd had precious little time to enjoy the many treats prepared by the Matron of the Kitchen. Even before Cornelia could snatch another slice of white bread, the servant girls had begun to remove the food and the silverware.

As the Mistress of the Manor clapped her hands to make the clearing of the table go snappier, Christiane grabbed hold of her chair's backrest with a sour look on her face. Mirroring her husband, she crumpled up her cloth napkin and threw it onto the table before she stomped away with hard, unrelenting steps.

Cornelia chuckled inwardly - there was a rather good explanation to the sudden disappearance of the feared Black Rose. She was in two minds whether she should follow the baroness and continue the process of seduction-by-smooth-talking she had started during the night, or pinch a few objects from the display cabinets in the drawing rooms and then pack up and head out in a hurry. "Ah, Mistress," she said to Anneliese who came hurrying past, "it would be such a pity to have all this good food go to waste. Do you suppose the Matron of the Kitchen would object if I asked for a pair of lunch packs to be made for my manservant and I for our trip to Køge?"

"Lady Magdalene, I fear that no one shall be able to get near the Matron of the Kitchen once she hears of the abrupt end to the breakfast. But I shall ask once she has cooled down sufficiently. I am sure she will be glad to make you a couple of packed lunches."

"That is all I can ask. I thank you, Mistress Anneliese," Cornelia said and did a quick curtsey. Once she was alone, she turned around to shoot a glance at Jakob Mikkelsen who had remained at the wall throughout the hullabaloo. The two ruffians exchanged a non-verbal message and subsequent agreement before 'Lady Magdalene' strode across the dining hall's smooth floor on her way to the drawing rooms - Jakob followed her at three paces' distance like a proper manservant would.


It took close to twenty-five minutes for the proverbial dust to settle at Swan Manor. The baron and the baroness had both stomped to their bedchambers to sulk - and for a change, it was for similar reasons - and the Matron of the Kitchen had exploded to such a degree that her angry words had been heard over most of the manor. From the ferocious shouting that had echoed through the grand halls, it seemed she was most displeased with His Excellency's criminal waste of precious, expensive food, not to mention all the hard work that had gone into preparing it.

Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg had left yet again to debrief the next group of hunters who came back empty-handed from the search for Black Rose, and Jakob Mikkelsen worked on and around the buggy on the gravelly courtyard in front of the manor. The bandit dressed in the stolen uniform of a manservant let out a steady stream of mumbled curses as he fumbled about, trying to stow the chest in the luggage rack underneath the rear of the small carriage. Nobody seemed to notice that the chest was twice the weight it had been when they had arrived.

All this left Cornelia who strolled around the manor like it was her home. First, she went upstairs to the guest rooms in the attic where she had spent the night - when she had not spoken to the baroness - to see if she had remembered to pack all her things. The room had indeed been cleared out to the point where even a small silver hand mirror that had been in a dresser drawer had gone missing. Then, she strolled downstairs to Christiane's chamber.

A quick look through the large windows overlooking the courtyard proved that her 'manservant' Jakob had the buggy fully loaded and ready to go. Grunting, Cornelia crossed the landing to get to Christiane's door. "Baroness? Baroness Christiane, it is I, Lady Magdalene," Cornelia said after knocking a few times on the wooden frame.

'Enter!' a faint voice said from the other side of the door.

Putting a smile on her face, Cornelia stepped inside intending to only say a brief goodbye to the pretty, young woman - but she changed her mind when she noticed that the pretty, young woman in question, who was sitting at her writing bureau, wiped away a few tears that were not meant to be seen by her guest. "Oh… Baroness Christiane… why are you crying?" she said, closing the door behind her.

"Ack, a darkness just fell over me," Christiane said in a thick voice. She wiped off another tear that had escaped her eye. "I harbored such high hopes that my husband would not return from his joyride until dusk had fallen. My day would have been spent on my own terms. Now, I shall have to suffer through his foul mood for lunch, tea and dinner for several days before he will have dealt with this grave disappointment."

"Oh, Christiane… the love between you cannot be seen through a magnifying glass, can it?" Cornelia said and moved closer to the bureau.

"There is no love between us of any kind. None. If he treated me with kindness, I could manage without love. Even if he treated me with harshness, I could manage without love… but there is no kindness, no harshness, no emotions of any kind, Lady Magdalene. He treats me with such wretched, cold detachment… he tolerates me at the best of times, ignores me at the worst. I simply do not exist in his world, and I cannot live like that!"

Cornelia scrunched up her face in sympathy. Closing the distance between them, she put out her arms out of sheer instinct. She had not expected any reaction, but Christiane rose from the chair and fell into the taller woman's grasp where she let out several deep, trembling breaths. "There, there," Cornelia said, touching the younger woman's soft hair though it was a clear breach of protocol. "If I may be so bold… like I hinted at last night, I honestly do believe you should find yourself a special companion."

"I cannot do that, Lady Magdalene," Christiane said in a voice muffled by the pink dress. "I cannot break the sacred vows I gave my husband and Our Lord. It would only lead to ruin for myself and Swan Manor. I must simply bury the longing deep down inside me and live like I would had I joined the same convent you did."

It took Cornelia a little while to understand the baroness' comments as she was quite sure she had never joined a convent, but then she remembered the white lies she had made up during the nightly conversation. The little niggle at the back of her mind concerning the appropriateness of tricking the Baroness blossomed into full-blown doubt - she had been a criminal for many a year and had no qualms about stealing a few of the manor's many riches, but toying with the sanity of the frail, young woman resting in her arms was a crime far beyond, and far more vicious, than any she had ever committed. "I understand, Baroness," she said, once more touching the soft, golden-blond hair. "Alas, I fear I need to burden your sensitive being with another disappointment."

"Ack," Christiane said, pulling back from the taller woman. Her eyes had turned red from the tears that had mostly remained unshed, and she had to blink several times in a row to keep it that way. "You have run out of time and cannot join me in my garden…?"

"I fear it is thus."

"Such wretched luck we seem to be having today…"

"I beg for forgiveness, Baroness, but I must reach the port of Køge before a certain cargo ship sets sails and leaves. The captain has transported a few personal items of mine, and it is vital I speak with him before-"

"Say no more, Lady Magdalene. I understand. I bid you farewell and wish you a safe journey on these roads that are seemingly infested with criminals," Christiane said and stood up on tip-toes to place a couple of kisses on the taller woman's cheeks.

For the briefest of moments, not even a split second, Cornelia considered kissing Christiane on the lips in return just to see how the younger woman would react. She could still feel the warmth of the baroness' body where she had been leaning against her. It was a different, and far better, feeling compared to the many times she had paid a wench to lie with her; with wenches and whores, it was all just a matter of financial transactions. She paid them a coin or two, and they spread their legs and copulated with her, simple as that - it could never reach the same giddy heights as a connection brought on by mutual attraction. She decided against trying to kiss the baroness as it would be inappropriate on more levels than just the most obvious. The moment passed and they slipped further apart. "I thank you. Will you accompany me to the buggy?" Cornelia said and put out her arm in an invitation for contact.

Christiane offered the taller woman a wistful smile instead of taking the arm. "I fear I cannot, Lady Magdalene," she said in a somber voice, taking a step back to keep the taller woman out of reach in case her resolve weakened at an inopportune moment. "I shall only make a fool of myself in front of you and my dear friend Anneliese. No. I shall remain up here until you have left. Then I shall embroider for a bit before I will venture down into my beloved garden for a quiet rest on the bench. I can already feel a debilitating headache coming on, so I shall be missing lunch. And maybe tea as well."

"Well, in any case… being acquainted with a woman of such charm and grace has been a great pleasure, Milady," Cornelia said and went down into a deep curtsey.

A blush spread over Christiane's cheeks, and she shuffled left and right like the compliments had made her embarrassed. "Oh, you are far too kind, Lady Magdalene. It has warmed my heart that we were finally able to speak after only seeing each other from afar at the wretched wedding."

A few more heartfelt farewells and kisses on the cheeks were exchanged before Cornelia closed the door to the Baroness' bedchamber behind her. Sighing out loud, she crossed the landing's wooden floorboards to get to the staircase - and back to their camp with the loot before anyone would notice that one of the display cabinets was only half-full.


Hurrying down the grand staircase with the lower hem of her pink dress held high so she would not trip on it and fall to her doom, Cornelia caught a glimpse of Jakob who had already taken his place on the buckboard. The second-in-command held the reins ready while keeping up a strict regime of glancing around the courtyard; it was clear he was ready to high-tail it out of there at the first sign of trouble, with or without Black Rose in the back.

Cornelia had only just set foot on the smooth floor of the grand hall when she was hailed by Anneliese von Eyben who came out of the drawing rooms. Clenching her jaw, she let her sea-blue eyes roam over to the stately main entrance where the door was already open: freedom awaited her no more than fifteen meters away. There would be no witnesses as nobody else was around. If the theft had been discovered by the Mistress of the Manor, Cornelia would have no option but to strike the likable woman to the ground and make a swift escape.

"Oh, Lady Magdalene!" Anneliese said once more, waving a hand in the air to catch the attention of the manor's tall guest. "The lunch packs you asked for are ready!"

Cornelia shot a sideways glance at the door to freedom. It could be a trick on the part of the Mistress, but she was prepared to risk it. If she aroused suspicion by acting out of sorts now, it could put the sincerity of her entire stay in doubt - and once suspicions were raised, the residents of Swan Manor would take closer looks at what had been said and done. "Ah! How splendid!" she said in a cheery voice, turning right to intercept Anneliese. "I have just come from Baroness Christiane's bedchamber where we bid each other farewell."

When Anneliese came to a halt in front of the taller woman, she did a quick curtsey. "I was fortunate enough to speak to the Matron of the Kitchen in one of her quieter moments, and she agreed to pack some bread, a churn of butter and a butter knife, the rest of the fried bacon, and a few apples she had prepared for lunch. Alas, the eggs had already gone bad and could not be salvaged. To compensate, she has given you a small cask of sweet ale."

"Well, I must certainly commend your Matron!" Cornelia said and clapped her hands in a dainty fashion in front of her bosom. "Such devotion to the task is hard to find these days. I am humbled and deeply grateful… please make sure you offer her my sincerest thanks."

"I shall, Lady Magdalene. If you care to wait in your buggy for a moment more, I shall send up a servant girl with the bundles at once," Anneliese said and performed another curtsey.

Cornelia offered the Mistress of the Manor a blinding smile before she strode across the hallway and out of the door.


Climbing up into the buggy unassisted and with far more strength than would be attributed to a dainty Lady, Cornelia sat down on the bench seat, crossed her long legs at the ankles and spread her arms over the backrest. "Ah, Jakob, my good man!" she said in a voice that was not shy in mocking her supposed manservant. "We need to wait for a moment longer before we can go."

Jakob Mikkelsen turned around and shot Black Rose an evil glare that became all the more effective due to the impressive palette of blues, blacks and purples that tainted his face courtesy of Cornelia's fist from the day before. "What? Have you lost your wretched mind, woman? We got what we wanted… let's get the hell outta here before they catch onto us!"

"Nope. Guess who just snared us a bunch of solid food to go with the riches we pilfered? Ale, too. If you drive nicely, I'll even let you have a sip. But only one," Cornelia said with a grin.

Letting out a low growl and several grumbles, Jakob turned back around and held the reins ready. "And don't you think for a damn second I've forgotten about you punchin' my nose, bitch. I'll get you back for that… that's a promise!" he said over his shoulder.

Cornelia could only snort at that threat, but the one-sided conversation was interrupted by Gunilla, the long-limbed kitchenmaid, who carried two bundles of food and a small, wooden cask on her arm.

Once the young maid had put the cask and the bundles of food in the footwell - the luggage rack was full, after all - she curtseyed and ran back to the manor.

"Now we can leave, Jakob. And take it easy… no racing out of here," Cornelia said, picking up the bundle that smelled of bread. When she unfolded a snippet, the pale-brown corner of a slice of white bread came into view. Grinning, she snatched the slice, tore it in half and began chewing on the high-quality bread with great relish.

Growling, Jakob slapped the reins which made the stolen palomino mare set off in a slow walk across the gravelly courtyard. As the pebbles and gravel crunched under the horse's hooves and the buggy's wheels, nothing seemed untoward during the first one hundred meters of their journey back to their camp. Then, a fair voice cut through the morning air:

"Wait! Wait, Lady Magdalene!"

Throwing down the half-eaten slice of bread, Cornelia spun around on the bench seat to see what was happening back at the manor. Though it had only taken her a heartbeat to recognize the voice, she had trouble believing her eyes when she spotted Baroness Christiane running down the staircase and onto the courtyard. The young woman had donned a cape and a bonnet for traveling, and the first thought through Cornelia's mind was that the baroness was using her to elope.

"Please wait!" the baroness cried again, waving a hand in the air as she hurried across the courtyard. When the headwind made the cape flutter open, she used her free hand to pull it tight around her collar so it would not fly off her shoulders.

Jakob had turned around as well, and the angry growl that escaped his throat proved he was less than happy about the situation. "Wretched! Hold on, I'm gonna kick this old nag into life-"

"No! Stop!"


"Stop the buggy, Jakob! Stop it… you heard me!" Cornelia roared, jumping out of the seat and toward the buckboard. When it became obvious that Jakob had no intention of stopping, she grabbed hold of the back of his uniform shirt and gave it a strong yank. "Stop this wretched buggy right now or I will break your damn neck, you wretched pillock! Don't believe for a second that I won't!"

"What the hell are you-"

"Pull to a halt! Now!"

When Jakob still did not react, Cornelia fired off a vicious punch to his kidneys that sent him reeling; the blow made him drop the reins which made the palomino mare trundle to a halt. Moaning and groaning, he pressed his hands against his back while swaying left and right on the bench atop the buckboard like a drunken sailor on the first night of his shore leave.

"Jakob," Cornelia growled in a hoarse whisper after checking how close the baroness was - too close, was the short answer. "If you break the charade now, I will kill you. Do you understand me? I will kill you stone dead with my bare hands. You know I can, so don't provoke me."

"Y- you… you r- rotten b- bitch!" Jakob croaked through clenched teeth.

"Shut up! Do we have a deal? Stay in character and you'll live!"

"A- all right… all right…"

Looking back once more, Cornelia noticed that Christiane was now within earshot. Shaking off the irritation over the unexpected development, she once more slipped into the dainty presence of Lady Magdalene by pressing a trembling hand against her heaving bosom. "Ack! Ack, my poor manservant… the buggy caught a rut and something in his back snapped!" she cried loud enough for Christiane to hear it. The mumbled curses that came down from the buckboard were conveniently ignored.

Christiane reached the buggy and hopped up on the metal rung on the left-hand side. Huffing and puffing from tearing across the loose gravel in shoes that were not meant to be used for running, she cast a puzzled glance at the cask of ale and the two bundles of food before she looked up at the groaning manservant. "Oh, such poor luck… does that mean that you shall return to Swan Manor, then?"

"No, we shan't. It is of vital importance that we shall be in Køge before noon… my manservant knows this, and I am sure he will simply behave like a proper man. He shall push the pain aside and carry on regardless. Won't you, Jakob?" Cornelia said, putting her palm against Jakob's back to remind her second-in-command about their deal.

Jakob had to take several deep breaths before he had regained enough strength to speak. Even then, he could only utter a mumbled "Yes, Milady," before he reached for the reins to prepare for their exit.

"But Baroness Christiane," Cornelia continued, "what, pray tell, are you doing here? Did I forget something when I packed my chest?"

An embarrassed grimace flashed across Christiane's face, and she did the tiniest of shimmies while standing on the rung. "I do not know as I have yet to visit the guest room… I merely had a sudden, insatiable urge to venture out for a drive in the glorious countryside. I hope you do not mind?"

"But of course I do not mind, Baroness. However, I fear it can only be a short drive as I-"

"Ah!" Christiane said and held up her hands. "I do have a perfectly good explanation, Lady Magdalene. Fear not, you will make your appointment on time."

Cornelia narrowed her eyes - it was difficult for her to see through the game played by the baroness. Whatever it was, it fascinated her enough to risk her neck. "In that case, welcome aboard, my dear," she said while she opened the small sidedoor to allow Christiane access to the buggy's bench seat. Once the younger woman was inside, she closed the door again and leaned back in her seat. "Jakob, off we go. Nice and easy so you won't put any further strain on your poor back."

Jakob let out a few more inarticulate grunts as he slapped the reins to resume their journey.

In the meanwhile, Christiane had sat down next to Cornelia after folding her dress and her legs to the side. As the buggy got underway with a small jerk before it rattled across the final part of the gravelly courtyard headed for the avenue between the trees, she leaned in toward the taller woman. "My dear Lady Magdalene, I hope you shall forgive me for this unusual intrusion. I simply could not stand the dead silence that permeated my chamber following your departure."

"Oh, there is nothing to forgive, Baroness," Cornelia said and took Christiane's hand so she could give it a little pat or two. "I recognize your depressing situation with striking clarity. Indeed, it is a highly delightful… if most unexpected… surprise to have you here by my side."

Up front, Jakob mumbled something that would have caused the baroness to faint had she heard it.

"Quite," Christiane continued, wearing a genuine smile. The palomino pulled the creaking buggy along at a steady pace that did not create too much dust from the large wheels. As the breeze was warm and pleasant and the sun beat down on the three people from above, Christiane undid the laces that kept her bonnet in place. Once her golden-blond locks had been liberated, she undid the cape as well and folded it into a neat pile on her lap. "Now, my plan is to travel with you for the first stage of your journey. I presume you shall be using the main north-south road that reaches between Vording Castle and Køge?"

"We shall indeed."

"Ah, then my presumption was correct. Once we reach Rønnede, I shall disembark, if you will. A haulage contractor in that small village often worked for Father when he had business to the north of Swan Manor. I am sure the he or one of his drivers will not mind bringing me back home."

"Baroness…" Cornelia said, squeezing the younger woman's hand to appear more sincere, "traveling with no escort in times like these? With that terrible gang of criminals on the loose in the region?"

"Lady Magdalene, I am grateful for your concern, but Captain von Hardenburg and the hunters spent the entire night on a wild goose chase without finding as much as a soul who even remotely resembled a bandit."

"Well, that is true, but my manservant and I were attacked only yesterday…"

"Yes, but to the south of here. Not to the north where we shall be going today."

To stall, Cornelia smiled at her companion while the gears churned hard in her head - she had already composed the first draft of the ransom note that would be sent to Swan Manor no later than that same evening. The original ploy had been to gain entrance to the manor to pilfer some of their riches, but she had never imagined that the singular most valuable item in the entire region bar none would just volunteer to travel into the relative unknown with a spooky-looking manservant and a Lady whom she had yet to know for a full day.

That the charming, young woman sitting next to her was far braver than her delicate appearance hinted at was undeniable, and that her marriage to Baron Erich was nothing more than an endless tempest of emotional distress was even more undeniable. How it would affect the payment of the ransom would be anyone's guess, but Cornelia was confident it would all work out in the end - after all, Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor would not be her first hostage of noble blood, and she had yet to be disappointed in the wealth of the nobility.

Christiane interrupted her future captor's thoughts by leaning forward and eyeing the bundles that had been placed in the footwell. "Ah! I do believe we have just struck gold! May I?" she said as she reached for the largest of the two bundles.

"But of course, Baroness. It is your food, after all. The Matron of the Kitchen merely took pity on my haggard cheeks and gave us a few scraps from the breakfast table so they would not go to waste."

"Ah, yes… it was such an unfortunate end to an otherwise delightful breakfast. Ack, I declare! We shall call this a second breakfast and enjoy this wonderful food right this minute," Christiane said, transferring the largest bundle to Cornelia's lap while she put the smaller of the two on top of her folded-up cape. "And your manservant?" she continued while buffing an apple on her sleeve.

"Ah, he cannot eat while driving. He shall only make a mess," Cornelia said, once more earning herself a row of muted grumbles and curses from up front. Grinning at her second-in-command's plight, she used the butter knife to spread the yellow substance onto a slice of white bread before she put two crunchy slices of salty bacon on top of it all. "To our health, then!" she said to the baroness before she bit down into the treat.




The one-horse buggy followed the avenue leading away from Swan Manor for a short kilometer before Jakob steered the stolen palomino mare right onto a country lane that would take them to the main crossroads a couple of kilometers further west. The crops in the fields lining the lane were so tall the stalks blocked out the view of most everything except the clear, blue sky high above.

So far, they had yet to encounter traffic of any kind on the country lane, but Jakob looked over his shoulder now and then to check if they were being followed by riders sent out from the manor - perhaps even the armed hunters.

Christiane enjoyed the quiet drive in the countryside with no sense that she was about to head into trouble of a kind and magnitude that would make her recent hardships appear like rosy moments. She still sat like a proper lady with her legs folded to the side, but she had loosened up to the point where her right hand almost never left the elbow or the arm of her taller companion. She had already worked her way through the first apple and a slice of well-buttered white bread by the time the buggy rumbled onto the country lane.

"- but then I said," the Baroness continued as she buffed the second-to-last apple on her sleeve, "my dearest Mr. Pettersson, if letters are used to illustrate an arithmetical problem, surely the result cannot be a figure… by logic, it must be a letter. So there is simply no reason in your example of the square root of A multiplied by B divided by C equals thirty. I fear he became so dreadfully upset with me. Ack, algebra was never my strongest point!"

The two women laughed at the old memory of one of the many home tutors Christiane had had when she grew up. It was unusual in itself that girls were allowed professional tutors, even in noble families, so for the baroness to have had several proved how much love there had been for her in the family.

Cornelia smiled at the mental image of a cute, precocious nine-year-old Christiane driving her algebra tutor to the brink of madness with all her questions. She herself had never received any tutoring as a child beyond what she had picked up here and there as she hustled her way through life - however, she was a fast learner and had a knack for picking up physical traits and speech patterns that she would use to great effect to impersonate people and thus earn a quick rigsdaler .

As a lull developed in the conversation, Cornelia glanced ahead at the crossroads that were already looming in the middle distance. By the time they reached it, the charade would be over and the next part of the developing, but certainly devious, plan would begin.

Jakob seemed to sense it as well, as he shuffled around in his seat atop the buckboard. Looking over his shoulder once more to check for any pursuers, he locked eyes with Cornelia to try to read her intentions. The two bandits exchanged a faint nod which was all he needed.

When they were a mere two hundred meters from the crossroads, Cornelia's heart picked up the pace at the prospects of the big revelation that was about to be brought forth; she wished it would unfold without drama, but if the baroness would fall prey to a bout of hysteria, she was ready to knock her out on the spot. Leaning across the bench seat, she put a gentle hand on the younger woman's arm. "Baroness Christiane," she said in her regular voice before continuing in a conspiratorial whisper: "can you keep a secret?"

"Oh! A secret? Why, I certainly can, Lady Magdalene!" Christiane said, shuffling around on the bench seat to get closer to the taller woman next to her.

"Good," Cornelia said and licked her lips. She eyed the crossroads once more; they were almost upon it. Turning back to the Baroness, she gazed deeply into the younger woman's hazel eyes while her lips were creased in a smile that was far colder than those that had gone before. "We shall not be going to Køge after all," she whispered.

Furrowing her brow, Christiane shot the Lady next to her a puzzled glance. "But… I do not underst-"

"Jakob, turn left at the crossroads," Cornelia said in her regular, far harder voice.

Up front, Jakob's only reply was a grunt. Soon after, he tugged the reins which made the palomino pull into a gentle left-hand turn that saw the buggy and the people aboard head south on the wider, smoother main road.

"Ack, what are you doing?" Christiane cried, sitting up straight on the bench seat, "Driver, you are going the wrong way, man! We cannot go south! It is far too dangerous to head south… that is where Black Rose and her gang of criminals are!"

"They're closer than you think," Cornelia said in a steely voice.

Struck speechless, Christiane fell back against the backrest and stared at the hard, cold look upon the face of the woman she only knew as Lady Magdalene. As the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for her, her shoulders slumped and she let out a long, drawn-out sigh. "You are Black Rose…" she said in a low mumble.

"Oh, well deduced, Baroness," Cornelia said, pinning the baroness to the spot with the full brunt of her sea-blue eyes. "Yes, I am Black Rose. The man up there isn't my manservant, but my second-in-command Jakob Mikkelsen."

Letting out a long groan that soon turned pained due to the mess she found herself in, the baroness grabbed hold of the buggy's railing and looked over the edge like she was working on an escape plan.

Black Rose cut her off before any such plans could come to fruition. "Jakob, pick up the pace! We need to be going so fast the baroness can't jump off without risking her life!"

"You got it. Yah! Yah!" Jakob cried as he slapped the reins hard. The stolen horse responded by jerking into a fast run that left the scenery going by in a dizzying blur.

Christiane's head snapped back to the taller woman next to her, and she released a glare that would have killed most lesser beings than the feared Black Rose. "You vile, evil, wretched harlot!" she barked, giving Cornelia a hard shove in the side to get her to move back from her. "I confided in you, and you betrayed me! You heartless bitch!"

Up front, Jakob broke out in a loud, scathing laugh. "Careful, Black Rose… the kitten's got claws! And she's definitely got you down pat!"

"You shut up!" Cornelia growled before she turned back to the baroness and grabbed hold of her arm. "Quit struggling! We can do this the easy way or the hard way… the hard way works by knocking you out! And don't think for a second I wouldn't!"

Christiane paled for a moment before the fire inside her returned and she tore her arm free of Cornelia's grip. "I am surprised you have not slit my throat and drank my blood already, you godless creature!"

"Don't believe everything you hear," Cornelia said while a cold smile flashed across her lips.

When the double meaning filtered through to Christiane's brain, her fire fizzled out in as abrupt a manner as it had come; the loss of energy left her slumped against the backrest. "It was all a lie, was it not? From first to last. All of it. All those stories about you and-"

"They weren't all lies, Christiane."

"Do not speak my name," Christiane said and kept her eyes fixed on the blurred scenery instead of the woman next to her. The headwind was so strong her golden-blond locks were thrown about, but none of that mattered now.

"Very well. I suggest we all keep quiet until we reach our camp," Cornelia said and leaned back into her own corner. "Jakob, don't spare the horse."

An angry grunt followed by a "Don't tell me how to drive!" came down from the buckboard, but Black Rose had no interest in any of second-in-command's petty complaints.


The new camp the traveling gang of bandits had relocated to following the near-flooding of the old grounds was situated in the center of a stretch of woodland some four kilometers south of the outlying farms connected to Swan Manor. Far quieter than the old spot because of the nature of the trees - dense pines rather than open beech trees - the new camp had been set up in a natural clearing created by four fallen trees that appeared to have been hit by lightning once upon a time. The four cracked stumps marked the camp's perimeter and offered a good spot for the tents, the cooking fire and the roped-in pen holding the pack of four, hard-working mules. The waste pit had been dug another seventy meters into the woods to keep most of the stink away from the cooking fire.

The buggy soon turned off the smooth main road and drove into the dense woodland. Despite the thick layer of withered pine needles on the forest floor that in theory would soften the ride, the ground was too uneven to go at any speed beyond a walking pace. Soon, Jakob jumped off and led the stolen palomino through the forest by the halter.

Even going that slowly, the small carriage hopped from one small mound to the next, and Christiane had a hard time hanging on up on the bench seat. She let out a constant stream of yelps and cries as the buggy's squeaking leaf springs and wooden axles were given a strenuous workout by the terrain.

Cornelia remained in place at the baroness' side throughout the bumpy ride to keep a close eye on her - she would not put it past the younger woman to attempt a daring escape by jumping over the edge of the buggy and dashing off into the woods.

After a fair while of being bucked around, the two women in the back of the buggy settled down once Jakob led the horse onto the smoother ground near the clearing. When the ride became easier, Cornelia stood up straight and pinned Christiane to the spot. "Welcome to my realm, Baroness. At last count, we had sixteen men here. Sixteen dangerous criminals who would like nothing more than to play with some fine, white flesh… if you catch my drift."

The news made Christiane press her lips together. Her throat was too contracted to speak, so she had to settle for a brief nod.

"Good. So for that reason, you'll be kept in a cage in my tent."

"A cage?!" Christiane croaked, sitting up straight.

"Why, Baroness Christiane, I did not know you were hard of hearing!" Cornelia said, speaking in the dainty voice she had used when she posed as Lady Magdalene. The look upon the Baroness' face seemed to suggest she did not find it funny at all, so Cornelia continued in her regular voice: "Yes, a cage. I'll feed you and give you water. You'll even get a pot to piss in. Oh… here we are. Behold, my men. The finest scoundrels you'll ever find."

As Jakob brought the horse and buggy to a halt near the circle of stones used for the fire pit, Cornelia kicked the small side-door open and jumped down onto the ground. The pink dress fluttered up, but she swept it aside with an annoyed grunt at being saddled with such cumbersome wear.

The burly, bearded members of the gang of traveling bandits flocked to the buggy to see what had come out of the lengthy raid that Cornelia and Jakob had been on. When they caught a glimpse of Christiane, they let out plenty of hoots and hollers that made the young woman press herself the farthest she could go into the corner between the seat and the buggy's outer woodwork.

"Men!" Cornelia shouted to get the ruffians' attention. When it did not work, she put two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle. "Settle down… you behave like ya never seen a noblewoman before! I bring you Christiane, Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor. I wanted to wrap her in a neat package for you, but I couldn't find any red ribbons worth stealing!"

The bandits let out roars of laughter that only died down when Cornelia whistled again. "But onto the important stuff. Why isn't the cooking fire going? Where's Kresten Hansen and young Finn?"

"Kresten is sleepin' it off and Finn is out huntin'," someone said from within the colorful flock of ruffians.

"What the hell is Kresten doing sleeping off a drunken stupor when it's almost noon?"

"We spent a long night drinkin', Black Rose," the same ruffian said.

"You got drunk while I got rich. That's why I'm the leader of the gang and you're just a buncha riff-raff. And who the hell sent out the junior to get the food?" Cornelia continued as she slammed her hands akimbo, once again earning herself a round of laughter. "Aw, we can't wait for that. Someone find Oskar Sturesson and send him out to get us a deer or something. Or hares… anything. There's no ash in the fire… didn't you eat last night?"

"All we had'da eat wus the gunk at'a bottom o' the barrel o' ale!" someone else shouted from the crowd of ruffians. It created another ripple of laughter that rolled through the rough men.

"Well, that's nice, but with our esteemed guest here, we need to stay on our toes. We need to get some food in our bellies so we can think straight!" Cornelia said and walked around the back of the buggy to get to the side where Christiane was still pressing herself into the corner. "Jakob, dump the carriage in the woods somewhere. We won't need it again. Keep the horse, though."

A mumbled curse of "Don't you order me around, bitch," came from the battered and bruised second-in-command, but he still climbed back up on the buckboard to carry out the command.

After opening the small sidedoor, Cornelia stepped up into the buggy and stretched out her hand. "Baroness… let's go," she said in a tone of voice that did not give the younger woman any options but to comply.

Christiane stared at the outstretched hand with dead eyes; then she accepted it and allowed Cornelia to assist her down onto the ground. Keeping her gaze firmly trained on her feet so she would not make eye contact with any of the crude ruffians, she waded across the thick layer of pine needles until she reached the largest of the tents present. When Cornelia pulled the flap aside to show her the way, she let out a deep sigh but stepped inside in good order.


Several hours later the same day, Christiane had curled up into a fetal position inside the sturdy, wooden cage. Though her heart raced in her chest, her body shivered from the cold that had rolled over her when the initial shock had receded. Her eyes were pressed shut, but she knew she was bathed in darkness as Black Rose had covered the cage with some kind of old blanket when she had left the tent to be with her men.

Being alone and in complete darkness frightened her out of her mind, but at least the motley gang of bandits, thugs and cutthroats could not come in and gawk at her. She could hear them plain as day as they went about their business in the camp; drunken shouting, dirty jokes, crude language and occasional roars of laughter drifted through the tent's opening. Now and then, Black Rose's characteristic voice joined the others, and she did not shy back from adding her two ører 's worth to the bawdy conversations.

A foul-smelling, cracked chamber pot had been placed at Christiane's feet, but she had no intention of stripping down so she could use it while stuck in the middle of a camp inhabited by a gang of degenerates. The familiar scent of smoke from the cooking fire had wafted around her nose at one point, but the mere smell of the meat being cooked over the open flames had caused her stomach to churn without remorse.

She was lying on an old, lumpy mattress, but years of wear and tear had reduced it to a mess of prickly straws and moldy fabric. The hard wood used for the cage's sturdy bars pressed against her hip and shoulder and made her groan in pain whenever she tried to shift her position.

Without warning, the blanket covering the cage was pulled aside which made her shriek and shy back from the intruder.

"Save your breath, it's me," Cornelia said as she crouched down next to the cage. After the successful charade at the manor, she had changed back into her regular outfit of leather boots, coarse, dark-brown breeches that were held in place by a broad belt, and a tan tunic with wraparound cuffs. Her long, voluminous hair was down after having been liberated from the bun and barrette she had used as Lady Magdalene; the full locks swept across her pronounced shoulders like she was a dark-haired mermaid. "Brought you some food if ya want it. The bread is stale, but the water is clean. Mostly."

"You can keep it," Christiane croaked, trying to move away from her captor. When all she accomplished was to grind her hipbone against one of the sturdy bars, she let out a groan and a mumbled curse.

"Oh, I think you should eat while it's there," Cornelia said and pushed the lump of bread through the bars. It landed with a heavy thud on the old mattress, proving that it was anything but fresh. It turned out to be one-third of what was known throughout the region as a millwheel, a round white bread that was meant to be broken and shared among a group of peasants working in the field. "Mmmm?" she continued, taking a tin cup filled with water from where she had put it before she had swept the old shroud aside.

The two women continued to stare at each other in a stony silence for several, long seconds before Christiane nodded and reached for the tin cup. She gulped down the water in no time flat before she handed the cup back to her captor. The lump of bread was less inviting on the whole, but she picked it up nonetheless and tried to tear a chunk out of it.

"Like I said, it's a little stale, but that's what we get to eat out here among us thieves, con artists and bandits," Cornelia said and put the empty cup away. "Perhaps we should abduct your Matron of the Kitchen as well, eh? She's the best damn cook I've ever encountered."

"I wish you would," Christiane croaked, saving the bone-dry lump of bread for later. "Because I am sure my Matron would tear your wretched head off!"

Cornelia chuckled and got up from the uncomfortable crouch. Pulling the apple crate closer, she sat down on that instead and leaned forward to put her elbows on her knees. "She may get a chance to do just that, who knows. But I digress. Now, as I'm sure you've worked out already, my original plan was to return to Swan Manor tonight or the night after tomorrow to continue stealing from you, but-"

"What?! Continue to steal… did you already-"

"Yes, my chest over there is full of items from your display cabinets," Cornelia said and pointed her thumb at the wooden box that had been placed not too far from the cage. "They'll fetch us a pretty rigsdaler or two once we get to one of the larger towns further north."

"Why, you rotten, conniving-"

"Temper, temper! But we can push that plan aside now," Cornelia said, cutting off the baroness before she could get started, "because with you tagging along under your own free will, there is no need to return to Swan Manor at all. The solution you provided on a silver platter will give us a far, far greater reward. We would be sheer idiots to turn down such an opportunity."

Christiane drew a sharp breath to object to the whole mess, but the fire had once again fizzled out of her, and she could only pick up the lump of stale bread to give it another try. "You shall seek a ransom for my release," she said after a few seconds.

"Indeed, Christiane. A ransom fit for a king! Or in your case, a baroness."

"Your plan is doomed to fail, Black Rose," Christiane said and shook her head in anger. "Once I have returned to the manor, I shall tell Captain von Hardenburg everything there is to know about you and your camp! He shall come and arrest you all!"

"Ah, you shouldn't bother your pretty head with the particulars, Baroness. You are by far not my first hostage, and I dare say you won't be my last… unless the ransom paid for your release is so great we can all retire and live like proper citizens, of course."

Christiane let out a few unintelligible grumbles as she turned her attention to the stale bread. It took her a while to tear a chunk out of it, and once she had, it was so dry that hard crumbs rained down onto the moldy mattress when she tried to manipulate it. She put it in her mouth and began to chew on it regardless.

"I don't have any glacéd ham to go with it, like at your picnic," Cornelia said with a grin.

Christiane stopped chewing at once to stare at the bandit leader. "The eyes," she mumbled through a mouthful of stale bread. She gulped down the rest of the bite in a hurry so she would be able to speak clearer. "Ack, that is why your eyes were so familiar to me… you were the old crone!"

"Indeed Ah wus, me fair lady!" Cornelia said in the voice and dialect she had used when she had played the old woman. To present the final proof, she broke out in the same cackling laugh.

"I cannot believe it… you have played me like a fiddle ever since we met!"

Another broad grin spread over Cornelia's features as she slapped her thighs in amusement. "And such a wonderful, warm sound you had, too! As a matter of fact, it began even before we met. The wedding was a good opportunity to lay the foundation for the rest of the events."

"You vile, wretched-"

"Ah! Careful, such uncouth language should not come from the mouth of a noble woman."

"Why should I care about that now?" Christiane said and thumped a clenched fist into the fragile mattress - the impact kicked up a small puff of straws and dust. "You have me in a cage eating stale bread… and you expect me to relieve myself into a cracked, stinking chamber pot!"

"Well, you are my hostage after all. Anyway, this is what I do, Baroness, and I'm damn good at it," Cornelia said as she rose from the apple crate. "Now, while you enjoy the rest of your bread, I'll find myself a solid pen and some paper. I'm going to write a good, old ransom note that one of my men will deliver to the manor."

Christiane could only look on in shocked silence as her captor rummaged around the tent to find the objects she had mentioned. When Black Rose had them both, she used the lid of the chest as a writing pad so she would not ruin the paper by pressing the tip of the pen through it.

Cornelia wrote the ransom note in a sweeping script and signed it as Black Rose. "There, that oughtta do it," she said, dotting the i's and crossing the t's. "Now, what should we add as proof of your capture? A lock of your hair? A snippet of your dress? Ack, it would be such a crying shame to ruin that lovely garment," she continued as she put her hands on her bosom in a mock display of daintiness. "Oh, I know… your traveling cape. Yes, it will fit the purpose nicely. Don't you think?"

Moving back to where she had put the cape and the bonnet when they had first brought in the hostage, she picked up the larger of the two objects and held it to her nose. "Yes indeed, it carries your sweet scent. Anneliese will recognize it at once."

Christiane let out a sigh and shuffled around inside the cage. The bread was too stale and dry to get anything out of, so she pushed the rest of it through the bars where it landed with another hard thud. "Do whatever you wish to, Black Rose," she said as she went back to lie in a fetal position.



Folding up the traveling cape into a tight bundle, Cornelia moved back to the chest where she had left the ransom note. "My name is Cornelia," she said as she put a piece of string around the two items and tied everything together.

"Frankly, I care not what your name is."

"I didn't expect you to. But now you know." Nothing further came from the baroness, so Cornelia pulled the shroud back over the cage to leave the high-profile hostage to simmer a little longer. When she moved away, her boot bumped into the lump of bread. There was still plenty of the good stuff left in it, so she tore off a chunk and popped it into her mouth as she walked out of the tent to find a bandit who was sober enough to find Swan Manor.


Night would fall at the end of even the longest day, and as the shade of blue grew darker across the sky, the flames grew higher inside the fire pit. The flickering, orange tongues of heat burned brightly and cast weird shadows over the colorful band of ruffians sitting around the circle of stones.

Cornelia nursed a mug of ale while the men around her celebrated the day's successes in a typical wilder fashion by engaging in mock bouts of fisticuffs, arm wrestling or drinking contests. Not only had they pulled off one of their biggest scores yet by abducting the baroness, several of the men had paid an uninvited visit to the back room of one of the dockside eateries in the coastal village and had brought back a slab of salted meat, a smoked sausage, some jerky, a ring of fresh onions, a loaf of rye bread, a jar of salted lard and two barrels of ale. Although it was watered-down and not the strong brew they had sampled at their old camp, ale was ale, and it would be criminal to let it go to waste.

Finn, the junior bandit, had returned empty-handed and red-eared from his hunt, so it was fortunate that Cornelia had sent out Oskar Sturesson as well. The Swede - a deserter from the Swedish army in the southern region of Scania - who was far more experienced in the fine art of poaching, came back carrying four hares on his arm.

The animals were skinned and prepared at once; two were rammed onto spits to roast over the open fire, and the other two had the meat carved from their bones to form the base of a nice stew. Cornelia had enjoyed a portion of each dish as the only one as a reward for bringing home the baroness; now, all that remained of their supper were the last, sorry scraps of meat at the bottom of the cooking pot that nobody, not even a hungry bandit, was interested in putting in his or her mouth.

Each time a new figure entered the flickering light from the fire pit, Cornelia looked up in the hope that it was the messenger returning from Swan Manor. Many hours had passed since she had sent one of the more fleet-footed bandits north to the manor, and a niggling worry about the success of his mission was creeping into her bones.

She was about to pour herself another mugful of the watered-down ale when she heard her name called from the perimeter of the camp. Throwing down the mug, she put her long legs to good use by stomping across the clearing with strong strides. "Henrik? Is Henrik Johansen back?" she said before she made it all the way over to a group of three men who were huddled around a crackling torch near one of the cracked stumps.

"Yeah, I'm here, Black Rose," the messenger said, wiping the sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his coarse shirt. In his early twenties, the wiry Henrik Johansen had been a miller's apprentice before he had joined the traveling band of ruffians near the large town of Slagelse. When he had made his deliveries of flour to the various farms and manors in the region, he had always made sure to sneak an item or two into his pockets to make the long trips worth his while. When he was caught red-handed - literally, as he had pilfered a ball of sticky, red wax used for sealing letters - he had fought his way free and had joined Black Rose's gang a day later as a fresh outlaw. "I got good news an' I got bad news," he continued in the flat dialect so typical of the region where he was born.

"Good news first," Cornelia said, putting her hands akimbo.

"The cape an' the letter wus delivered to the manor no problem. An' nobody followed me back, neither. I made sure to take the long way 'round comin' back so if there wus somebody on my ass they would lose my trail for sure."

"Mmmm. All right. And the bad news?"

"That Captain fella you said I should give the things to wussen at the manor. Neither wus the baron fella for that matter. They wus both away to somewhere further north. That's what I wus told, anyhow."

Cocking her head, Cornelia digested that unexpected information for a while before she let out a grunt. "I see. So…?"

"So I gave the cape an' the letter to a really, really stern-lookin' dame who said her name wus somethin' really weird like… Mistrose… or Mattress or somethin'."

"Would that be Mistress of the Manor?"


"That's not her name… that's her job, Henrik," Cornelia said while flashing a lopsided grin at the messenger. "She's like the boss of the chambermaids."

"Oh… figgers. She wus really stern-lookin'."

"All right, if the Mistress received the letter, we can be sure the baron and Captain von Hardenburg will be notified the moment they return to the manor. Good work, my friend. Get yourself some ale… you've earned it," Cornelia said and stepped aside so the sweaty, tired messenger could finish the ten-kilometer round trip in style.


Moving back inside her tent, Cornelia knelt next to the cage to remove the old, protective shroud. The strong smell of fresh urine that rose to greet her made her crinkle her nose, but at least the baroness had had the common decency to use the chamber pot unlike so many of the other hostages that had spent a few days in there.

The young woman seemed to have entered a fitful sleep, so Cornelia found the metal chain that held the key to the cage. Once the lock had been opened, she swung the cage's entire back end up to retrieve the full chamber pot. She paused for a moment to make sure that Christiane was not about to come bursting out of her temporary prison, but the baroness failed to stir.

With the chamber pot having been emptied against a tree, Cornelia slid it back inside the cage and lowered the section until the lock would match up. A quick application of key later, and the cage was as solid as ever.

The jingling-jangling sounds of the metal chain being twisted to seal the lock made Christiane come to. Letting out a groan, she moved out of the fetal position to see what was happening. When she noticed the empty chamber pot, a very brief smile creased her lips. "I thank you," she croaked.

"Ah, don't mention it. At least someone used the piss pot," Cornelia said and rubbed the last moisture off her hands on the seat of her breeches. She pulled the apple crate closer to the cage so she would not have to strain her knees by crouching or kneeling to be at eye level with her hostage. "The ransom note has been delivered to the manor," she said in a casual fashion like she was discussing the weather.

"Oh… may I enquire how my husband reacted?"

"Can't say. He wasn't there. My messenger gave it to your Mistress."

A few seconds of confused silence followed before Christiane shook her head and tried to sit up. The ceiling of the cage was just high enough to do so if she leaned her head down between her shoulders - that's how she had been able to use the chamber pot - but it hurt her neck so she gave up and settled for rolling over onto her back instead. "Baron Erich was not there? Where was he?"

"According to my messenger, your Mistress said he had left Swan Manor."

"To go where- oh… I cannot believe it…" When the truth dawned on the baroness, she could do nothing but stare at the cage's sturdy, wooden bars with wide-open eyes that did not see much.

"Yeah," Cornelia said and scratched her scalp. "I'm guessing he left for the North Woods anyhow… or wherever the hell it was he wanted to go."

"The North Woods, yes… he has gone there a few times already over the past few weeks," Christiane said in a monotone that proved she could not fathom her misfortune. Sighing, she turned her head to look at her captor. "The light among the trees is perfect for his painting, or so he says. But… but…"

Cornelia let out a dark chuckle. "But if you had known he was still going, even after Captain von Hardenburg's strong warning, you would never have come with us. Right?"

"I would not. I would have stayed at the manor. In my garden, or in the drawing rooms," Christiane said in a quiet voice. "My day would have proceeded according to my own wishes, not… not…" she continued, gesturing at the cage before she fell quiet.

"Such is life. Damned if you do, damned if you don't," Cornelia said and slapped her thighs. "Well. Get some rest. It's late, and tomorrow won't be any nicer than today has been. You need more bread or water?" she continued as she got up and grabbed hold of the old shroud that worked as a blanket.

"I do not… thank you."

Letting out another dark chuckle at the young woman's inherent politeness, Cornelia pulled the shroud across the wooden bars. Just as she was about to tuck in the corners so no light could enter the cage, the Baroness spoke up:

"Cornelia… please wait…"

"Yeah?" Cornelia said, moving the shroud back just enough to see the fair face of her hostage. The fact that Christiane had used her name made her grin although she tried to hide it so it would not instill false hopes in the young woman.

"May… may I enquire what my worth is? On the ransom note, I mean…"

"Seventy-five thousand rigsdaler ."

"Oh! Goodness me…"

"Like I said, a ransom fit for a baroness. Sweet dreams… and if the bedbugs bite, bite 'em right back," Cornelia said and pulled the protective cover over the cage once more.


Late evening gave way to the dark of night; the night gave way to dawn that in turn gave way to the brightness of day. Breakfast in the ruffians' camp had been a lead-limbed, hung-over affair as flat ale, stale bread and a few slices of smoked sausage on larded rye had been served for those of the bandits who could stand, and even for those who could only sit.

The baroness had been given a choice of stale bread from the day before, or staler bread that had already seen a pair of dawns and dusks. She had chosen the former but needed a second cup of water to get all that dryness down. Drinking such an amount of liquid had necessitated a second use of the chamber pot, but Cornelia had emptied it with a grin - and a pinched nose.

The woman whose dreaded moniker was Black Rose was never antsy when it came to hostages and the delivery of ransoms, but the entire deal with the baroness and the cold, peculiar baron had set her nerves on edge. She had woken up in a foul mood that had not improved when she had stepped in a pool of vomit left behind by a drunken bandit just outside her tent. Dealing with the baroness' basic needs had given her a reason to smile, but even that had only lasted until she had laid eyes on the sorry state of the hung-over scoundrels in the camp.

The men understood to keep a safe distance from Black Rose whenever she was in one of those moods, so she sat alone at the dormant fire pit, once more nursing a mug of ale and sucking on a stick of salty jerky while she waited for something to happen in the endless hours between breakfast and lunch.

Much to her annoyance, Sven, the stone cold killer with the dead eyes, shuffled over to the fire pit and sat down not two meters from her spot. Like he always did, he pulled out his two hunting daggers and began to sharpen them.

The sound of the metal grinding against the whetstone champed at Cornelia's last whole nerve, and the knuckles that held the mug of ale turned white. It was obvious from the start that the bandit had chosen that particular spot to sharpen his knives in the hope it would annoy her, and it became more and more obvious the longer it took that he was doing it to get her to lose her composure and come at him. Cocking her head, Cornelia stared at him over the rim of her mug. Sven looked up and locked eyes with her, but it only lasted a moment or two. Then, he returned to his favorite pastime.

When he slid the first knife back into its sheath, Cornelia growled through clenched teeth: "I think you missed a spot, Sven."

"No," the cold bandit said, drawing the blade again to let the razor-sharp edge glint in the sunlight. He gave it a close study for a while before he re-sheathed it.

Two seconds of silence followed; then he took the whetstone to the other blade and started the endless process over.

Grunting, Cornelia sucked off the salty jerky and stuck it into a pocket before she drained her mug of watered-down ale. She was determined not to show any weaknesses in front of her men, and that went double for the stone cold killer who sat two meters away from her. Beyond that, she would not allow herself to be dragged into any fights for supremacy or even just beefs with her bandits when they were so close to the grand prize. "You want some ale?" she said, getting up.


"All the more for me, then," Cornelia said and walked away from the dangerous bandit. As she had expected, Sven put the whetstone away only a few seconds after she had left the dormant fire pit. Snorting, she carried on without looking back.


Lunch came and went; Cornelia's antsiness remained and in fact grew worse. Though her foul mood had rescinded, it had morphed into a dull ache in the pit of her stomach that could not be referred to as an improvement. She stalked around the camp wearing a dark, gloomy expression that told everyone around her to back off or face the consequences.

As she reached one of the four stumps that marked the perimeter of the camp, she leaned against it and crossed her arms over her chest. Sighing, she stared into the dense, bluish-green forest in the hope of finding a golden solution to the whole mess that had developed since the baroness had hopped onboard the stolen buggy heading away from Swan Manor.

Something was amiss, there was no doubt about that. Either Henrik had lied to her about delivering the cape and the ransom note to Anneliese, or the Mistress of the Manor had not passed it onto the Captain and the baron, or the nobleman could not give two ører about his wife's fate.

There was a theoretical possibility that Henrik had lied to her, but it would be the first time since he had joined their gang - not to mention that it would be out of character for the level-headed miller's apprentice. The second option, that the loyal Anneliese von Eyben had not given the note to the baron, made no sense whatsoever. However, if the cause for the unusual delay in getting the reply to the ransom note was the third and final option, Cornelia would be in trouble.

She could only keep the men hanging for two days at the most before one, or more, of them would begin to needle her about the missing ransom. They all knew about the supposed importance of the hostage, but if it turned out there was no money to be made in exchange for the baroness' release, there would be no point in keeping her alive. Jakob Mikkelsen would be at the head of the line of bandits demanding that something should be done, and wherever the second-in-command went, the stone cold killer Sven would be right behind him.

In short, she needed a distraction that could stir up a positive mood in the camp. The best way of doing that would be to get everyone drunk off their feet on strong, stolen ale. Pushing herself away from the stump, she walked back to the center of the camp where her tormentor Sven had annoyed her with his whetstone earlier in the day - she considered herself lucky that she had not run into him since.

It was high time to go over to her own tent to check up on Christiane so the young woman would not come up with an escape plan, but she would do that later - first, she crossed the open space and ducked through the opening of one of the smaller tents.

Two of the three bandits who shared the tent, Kresten Hansen and Søren Svendsen, were sitting on old apple crates playing a card game popular in their home region of central Jutland. The third man, the junior bandit Finn Mogensen, was snoozing inside an old carpet that had been rolled up into a makeshift sleeping bag.

Though Kresten and Søren were prone to drinking themselves into oblivion at regular intervals, they were experienced and even somewhat trustworthy thieves who had an ability to blend into any street scene due to their average looks. Since they did not have the speed needed to evade pursuers, they had to rely on not being suspected of having been involved in the crime in the first place.

Unlike most of their colleagues in the camp, the two beardless, middle-aged men looked like someone's heavy-set uncle who had just gone out to buy a loaf of bread from the baker's down the street. They dressed to fit that image as well in neat clog-boots, pale-brown woolen breeches - that could be described as somewhat clean - white shirts and white caps. Although they both carried a sheath that held a knife, it was a regular, foldable tool for work and not an instrument of murder.

"Fellas," Cornelia said, shoving her hands down into her rear pockets to seem less threatening. When the two bandits looked up at her, she continued: "A tweety bird told me that the no-good scoundrels who paid the dockside eatery a visit yesterday afternoon were you guys…?"

"Ah, yes, that would be me and Kresten here. Once I had helped the Swede fix up the hares he had poached… and the old fella over there had woken up from his ale-nap… we decided to tour the local scenery," Søren said with a grin that revealed that his teeth were poorly kept. Just like most people who hailed from one of the larger towns in central Jutland, his dialect was lyrical but comprehensible to the Zealanders' ears - unlike the people from the rural districts who seemed to speak a different language altogether.

"Did ya see anything else of interest while you were there?"

"Well… not really… there were a couple of clothes-lines on the road into town, but they were mostly girls' clothes… undergarments and such," the middle-aged bandit said with a chuckle. "Not your size," he added a short while later after having given Black Rose a quick checking-out from her boots to her collar.

"Good thing I have all the undergarments I need," she said with a grin.

"Uh… yeah…"

"Hey," Kresten said, sneaking a peek at his playing opponent's cards while his attention was pointed elsewhere, "didn't we sniff someone's freshly made pie someplace? I think we did."

"Yeah… that's right. We did. Was that coming or going?"

"Going, 'cos we couldn't carry more than what we already had. We shoulda stolen a cart as well, huh?"


Cornelia chuckled at the exchange between the old friends who had supported each other with their thievery for as long as she had known them. "Well… do you suppose the same lady might have baked another pie today? I could eat some pie."

"Pie sure does sound good, Black Rose," Kresten said, looking across at his friend and then back at Cornelia. "Maybe some ale too?"

"Maybe some strong ale," Cornelia said though she knew that strong ale plus rough bandits never failed to equal friction and thus problems - although they would be problems of a different kind than those weighing on her shoulders at present. "Definitely not more of that piss-yellow soft brew that was in the barrels from yesterday."

"No, the real stuff. I can always drink some good ale," Søren said, licking his lips. "Yeah… but not from the same eatery."

Kresten scratched his meaty neck while he pondered the options. "No… he'll have put a better lock on the door by now. We'll try one of the others."

Having made the decision, the two thieves nodded as one and threw down their playing cards. Getting up, they put the apple crates onto their bunks and made to move past Cornelia. Before they could do so, she stopped them by putting out her arms. "Is there anything else you want us to find for you?" Søren said, shooting the leader of the gang a curious look.

"Yes and no," Cornelia said, turning more serious. "Once you're in town, listen to any gossip that might float your way on the breeze… like if the magistrate has called for reinforcements for his detachment of police soldiers. He'll have heard of our job at the manor by now."

"Sure thing, Black Rose," Kresten said as he donned his white cap and pulled it down so it sat crooked. "Ale, pie and news. Søren, you got anything to add to that?"

"Let me see… naw, I can't really think of anything. Let's go… perhaps inspiration will hit us on the way," the other middle-aged bandit said before he shuffled out of the tent.

"If perspiration won't hit us first," Kresten said, breaking out in a cackling chuckle that claimed Cornelia as well.


By the time the witching hour fell upon the camp inhabited by the band of traveling ruffians, a reply to the ransom note was yet to arrive from Swan Manor. Once word got around that no news was indeed bad news, the men had begun to whisper behind Cornelia's back. It did not help that Kresten and Søren had only been able to steal a small bottle of overseas rum and another barrel of watered-down ale - but no sweet pies. The spirits had disappeared down everybody's throats within five minutes, and the weak ale was only good for keeping their mouths wet while they waited for something stronger.

Cornelia stood at the raging, crackling fire pit with her legs slightly apart and her arms crossed over her chest. The flickering flames painted abstract patterns on her face and clothes, and the heat that emanated from the fire ruffled her long hair and made it fly back from her shoulders. She did not pay attention to any of that. The remains of the small deer poached by Oskar 'Swede' Sturesson for dinner had become charred as it had sat on the spit for far too long, but she did not have eyes for that, either.

The few bandits who still had functioning brains at midnight all sat on the other side of the fire. Not only would it be suicidal of them to bother Black Rose when she was in such a mood, but a good number of them were plotting against her - some in secret, others were less covert. None of them had expected that their biggest score yet would turn sour in such a short time, but it seemed that it had done just that.

The only one of the ruffians who dared to approach Cornelia was Jakob Mikkelsen whose smug look suggested that he was not too displeased with seeing Black Rose under such intense pressure. "I just spoke to Henrik… he spent the entire day hidin' near Swan Manor to see what the hell is goin' on up there."

"On whose orders?" Cornelia said, not even worthying her second-in-command a glance.


"Are you the leader here, Jakob?"

"I will be… and it won't be long," Jakob said while a sly grin creased his lips. "Henrik said the odd duck of a baron has been in the whole, damn day. That rotten bastard of a Captain, too. What does that tell you, Black Rose?" By now, the second-in-command did not even attempt to keep the mocking undertone out of his voice.

Cornelia's jaw got a strong workout as she stared into the flickering fire. There was no point in discussing anything with Jakob. She was playing a losing hand, and she knew it.

"Enough o' this shit," Jakob said and grabbed hold of Cornelia's arm to yank her around. When his attempt at moving her only made her stand firmer, he let go but put his hand on the hilt of his blade instead. "It's time to cut our losses and move onto the next hostage. Who's gonna slit her throat? You or me?"

"You touch her and you die, Jakob," Cornelia said, still staring into the fire.

A few seconds went by. A pregnant silence that was only broken by the logs crackling in the fire pit filled the air between them. "Do I hear your cunt doin' the talkin', Black Rose?" Jakob said in a dangerous whisper. "What? She got to you? Is that it?"

"Piss off, Jakob!"

"Well, you first."

"Look," Cornelia said in a growl. Spinning around, she pinned the shorter man to the spot with her sea-blue eyes, but noticed with some dismay that it was not enough to make him shy back from her this time. "We can mouth off like this for days if we have to, but listen to me… seventy-five thousand rigsdaler , Jakob!"

"It might as well have been seventy-five million 'cos the money isn't gonna come! When is that gonna get through your thick skull? You saw the baron… hell, you even spoke to him! He's the queerest bird I have ever seen. It's clear he doesn't give two brown shits about that pretty, little thing in there, so why should we?"

Stumped for an answer, Cornelia let out a growl and turned back to the fire. She needed a plan B, or even a plan C, worse than she ever had, but she did not have one. She needed to improvise - if it failed, the last thing she would see would be her own blood pooling on the ground, she was certain of that. "We're not gonna slit her throat, Jakob. We're gonna do something they'll never expect," she said after a short pause.

Jakob furrowed his brow and gave his gang leader a long, hard look. "And what would that be?"

"We're gonna cut our losses, all right… by cutting her loose."

"What?!" Jakob said, shaking his head in confusion. "After all that shit we went through at the manor, now you're just gonna let her go?!"

Cornelia let out a dark, cold chuckle. "So before, you wanted to get rid of her… now you wanna keep her? Make up your damn mind, Jakob."

"Quit twistin' my words! I didn't say that! But cuttin' her loose…"

"Why not?"

" 'Cos she's gonna rat out on us the second she gets back, that's why not!"

Another chuckle escaped Cornelia's lips; this one was not as cold as the first but perhaps far more calculated. "I'll make sure she doesn't. After all, we're the only friends she's got."

Jakob opened his mouth several times, looking very much like a big, fat trout caught on dry land. In the end, he gave up trying to figure out what the leader of the gang had cooked up. He turned away from Cornelia with a mumbled: "Women… can't live with 'em, can't chain 'em and throw 'em in the damn well…"

Once Cornelia was alone, she relaxed her stance and let out the long, deep breath of relief she had been holding back - she had bought herself some time by winning the first stand-off, but it would not be the last, she knew that all too well.




The time for uncertainty and ceaseless pondering had been and gone - the time for carrying out the daring plan had arrived. As the camp wound down in the darkest hours of the night, Cornelia strolled around the central area by the fire pit. A few bandits had fallen where they stood like they always did, even when they only had the weak, watered-down ale to get drunk on. None of them stirred when she nudged them with the tip of a boot. Other bandits were laughing inside one of the tents; judging by the sounds that wafted through the openings, they were playing cards or dominos.

In the fire pit itself, the raging flames had been reduced to tiny, orange-white tongues that licked upwards from the spent logs without having the strength to do much but flicker. She observed the fire's dying moments for a while before the symbolism became too much for her. Turning away, she never looked back on her way over to her own tent.

Inside, she lit a candle using her flints. After inserting the burning stump of the candle into a stick that had been stolen once upon a time in a village far away, she knelt next to the cage and removed the protective blanket from the wooden prison.

The baroness had once again entered a fitful sleep. The dark circles on the fair skin under her hazel eyes proved that real sleeping had not been among the activities she had spent any time on. As the light from the candle stirred her awake, she blinked several times and held a hand up to shield herself from the direct light. "May… may I have some water, pl- please?" she croaked through lips that were so dry they had cracked.

"I don't have any… will ale suffice?" Cornelia said and reached for the last remaining cask of the watered-down ale that she had claimed from the hands of the drunken ruffian who had attempted to down it all in one gulp - in the end, he had passed out drunk while drinking from it, so half of the murky-brown liquid had gone down the front of his shirt instead.

"I c- cannot say… is- is it strong?"


"Then I would like some, thank you…" the baroness croaked, reaching through the bars to attempt to retrieve the cask.

"You need to wait a moment. You can't have it yet 'cos I don't have a mug and the cask won't fit through the bars," Cornelia said and put the damp cask down onto the blankets on the floor of the tent. Swinging her legs around, she sat down and moved into a cross-legged position near the foot-end of the cage.

"Th- then why d- did you…"

"Because I have something else in mind, Christiane," Cornelia said and dug into one of the pockets of her breeches. Next to the stick of salted jerky that she had nursed all day, she found the long metal chain that carried the key for the makeshift prison. Inserting the key into the lock, she twisted it which released the latch and allowed her to raise the entire foot-end in one go.

The baroness stared wide-eyed at the freedom that was so close she could reach out and touch it with her foot; then she looked over at Cornelia whose face proved that she still did not know whether or not what she was about to do was the right thing, the wrong thing, or the most idiotic thing imaginable.

"Cornelia… wh- what is the meaning of this?" Christiane croaked, wiping her dry lips on the back of a hand.

The woman known as Black Rose let out a long sigh as she stuffed the chain with the key back into her pocket. "I've been doing a lot of thinking in the last few hours. There's been no word from Swan Manor yet, and frankly… there won't be. Your husband has abandoned you, Christiane."

"No… h- he is distant, b- but I c- cannot believe th- that he would aban-"

"But he has. One of my men, Henrik, told me yesterday already that he had given the letter and your cape to your Mistress. Do you honestly think she wouldn't pass it on to the baron?"

"N- no… Anneliese is one of m- my oldest and dearest friends… ack, sh- she must be beside herself with worry… the concern must be k- killing her!"

"Then I can only say that your husband cares even less about you than you imagined," Cornelia said matter-of-factly.

Christiane shook her head in a combination of frustration and dismay. "I c- cannot believe that… I just cannot believe that!" she said, grabbing hold of the cage's sturdy frame.

"But you should, Christiane."

Silence fell between the two women. Cornelia used it to hand the baroness the cask of weak ale, and to chuckle at her feeble attempts to drink from the spout rather than to get it all over her gown.

Christiane had far better success in getting the ale into her mouth than the drunken bandit, but she could not avoid a few brown stains to appear on her formerly white dress. When she'd had her share, she put the cask down on the floor of the cage. "I thank you, Cornelia," she said in a voice that had already turned stronger. Once again, she eyed the open end of the cage - she was unsure what it meant, but she knew she would be foolish to trust the feared Black Rose one iota.

"You are most welcome. Why don't you come out of there so we can talk like a proper pair of adults?"

A bitter laugh escaped Christiane's throat. Shifting around, she grabbed hold of the sturdy bars so she would not fall over. "So you can cut me open and claim I tried to escape? Hardly. I do not know the game you are playing, Black Rose, but I have a feeling I shall not like it once I do."

"I'm not playing a game, Christiane. You are free to go. Like I said, I've been doing a lot of thinking," Cornelia said and ran her hands through her long, voluminous hair. "Sometimes, it's best to do the unexpected."

"I cannot help but think that you are playing a game… indeed the same one you have already played on me. Yes, the game where you manipulate me into trusting you, only to strike like a snake when I am at my most vulnerable. What, you already have my silverware, so now you desire my maidenhead too? And do not look so surprised. I overheard some of the conversations you partook in out there. I know of your preferences," Christiane said in a voice that grew surlier as she spoke. When Cornelia did not reply at once, she let out a huff and crossed her arms over her chest.

It was Cornelia's turn to laugh, but hers was a strangled, embarrassed croaking stemming from the frank language spewing from the baroness whose innocent appearance was at odds with the words that had come from her mouth. "Well, for your information, that particular fruit is always the sweetest when it's offered, not taken. And… honestly, I was under the impression that your husband was supposed to take care of that little issue on your wedding night. I guess he always was an odd duck."

"I do not wish to relay the tragic tale of my wedding night to a complete stranger," Christiane said before she continued in a mumble: "But we spent most of it separately."

"Ah, I see. Drunk, was he?"


"Oh. In that case, I presume he is in fact a drooling retard when in private."

Shrugging, Christiane began to toy with the empty cask of ale. "You told me only moments ago… did you forget already? My husband simply does not care for me. Nor do I care for him," she said and broke out in another shrug. "He has not paid for my release, therefore, he has no interest in my well-being. I fear my initial assessment of him has been confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt following this development."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you say you couldn't believe it…?" Cornelia said with a wink.

Christiane let out a short huff at the humorous tone in Cornelia's voice. "Perhaps I was being less than honest with myself."

"Perhaps you were, Christiane. However," Cornelia said as she shuffled around to be able to reach inside the cage. Sticking her entire arm into the prison, she held her hand palm-up so Christiane could use it for leverage. "The fly in the ointment may have been Captain von Hardenburg. I wouldn't put it past him to trip you up. Wouldn't you like to go back to Swan Manor to find out for yourself?"

"Sweet Lord, you really are serious about this, are you not?"

"I am. You're free to go, Baroness Christiane," Cornelia said, wiggling her fingers on the hand that was still inside the cage.

Staring at the hand for a long time like she was afraid it would turn into a fist and punch her out instead, Christiane reached for it and put her smaller palm down onto her captor's callused version. When nothing untoward happened, she took advantage of Cornelia's pulling by creeping and crabbing along the sturdy bars to get to safety.

Though it took the baroness a short while - and cost her a few groans as her hipbones bumped over the sturdy bars - she found her way to freedom and was able to stand up for the first time in far too long. She had only just made it into an upright position when her knees buckled from fatigue and disuse, and she fell forward with a yelp.

"Whoa, there!" Cornelia said, wrapping her long arms around Christiane's body to keep her from suffering an unpleasant introduction to the carpet. Like the first time they had been in such a position, in the baroness' bedchamber at the manor, the warmth of the shorter body in her arms and the gentle pressure it applied to her chest made her break out in a broad grin. "It appears you need to crawl before you can run, Baroness. Here, have a seat…"

Christiane shook her head which made her golden-blond locks mingle with Cornelia's dark hair across the taller woman's chest. "I cannot stay but a minute longer," she said and pushed herself off her captor. "If I do not seek freedom now, I fear I shall never return home…"

"I certainly see your point. However, I still think you should sit down before you make a break for it," Cornelia said, supporting the baroness by holding a strong hand under her arm. "What do you say? Another minute in my company won't kill you."

"Ack, I-"

"Need to sit down," Cornelia continued, pulling the apple crate over by snagging the tip of her boot inside the frame. Once the wooden box was in place, she helped the baroness down onto it. "And besides," she said in a darker tone, "there is something we need to discuss before I can let you go."

Christiane let out a dark laugh as she massaged her thighs and calves to get them to function once again. "I knew it was too good to be true. Now you shall present the drastic conditions for my release. What? Shall I leave my weight in gold on the back staircase upon my return? You cannot have my first-born as I fear that shall never happen."

"No," Cornelia said as she got down to her knees to be at eye level with the woman sitting on the apple crate. "But I will not accept a betrayal from you. Had I followed the demands of my second-in-command, you would no longer have been alive. Once you return to Swan Manor, I think you should remember who set you free and who continues to keep you imprisoned. Do you understand me?"

The baroness closed her eyes and let out a sigh. Her personal situation at the manor was not perhaps quite as black-and-white as the gloomy picture just painted by Cornelia, but she admitted it was not far off. After a short delay, she nodded her acceptance of the conditions.

"Good," Cornelia said and got back on her feet. "Can you ride? I hope you can because I have no intention of carrying you on my back all the way to the manor. I don't want to waste time hooking up the buggy… and I don't even know what Jakob did with it."

"I can ride," Christiane said in a quiet voice.

"Good. Oh, did I neglect to mention we'll need to ride bareback? I may have," Cornelia said as she blew out the candle which left the tent in darkness.

Letting out a surprised grunt, Christiane looked up in a hurry to see if the feared Black Rose had cracked a joke, but the tall woman seemed to be in no mood for jesting. "Bareback?" she croaked, already feeling the strain on her lower regions.


It did not take Cornelia long to lead the stolen palomino mare they had used for the charade back to the camp's central square near the smoldering fire pit. Although she did not have a saddle for it, she had wrapped a leather halter around its head and neck so they would be able to control the steed.

The horse seemed annoyed with being disturbed in the middle of the night as it stomped and scraped its front hooves into the thick layer of withered pine needles, but it calmed down when Cornelia patted its neck. Its tail swooshed left and right a few times, but it kept quiet as it seemed to understand that if it whinnied, it could be in trouble.

Tip-toeing across the pine needles to get to the horse, Christiane made sure to take the long way around the ruffians who were sleeping where they had fallen. Her nose was locked in a permanent crinkle as she took in the unsavory sights and smells of the bandits for whom she presumed bathing was as alien as going to the sermon on Sundays.

Once Christiane made it to the tall horse, Cornelia held out the rope and slapped it into her hand. "Hold the horse… I need to do something. Don't leave without me," she whispered into the baroness' ear.

"Oh, have no fear. I shall not be moving a little finger before you return," Christiane whispered back, still crinkling her nose at the horrid smells that lingered around the camp.


It only took Cornelia a couple of minutes to get back to Christiane and the palomino, and when she did so, she carried a small, leather pouch that let out a curious, faint jingle-jangle as it moved.

Christiane furrowed her brow as she took in the unexpected sight - and sound - of the leather pouch, and the furrows grew deeper when Cornelia untied the string holding it together to allow her to peek inside. "Oh… why, are those not the very same cloth napkins that Anneliese used to wrap the food for the old crone?"

"Yeah. Although the glacéd ham was delicious, they're holding something slightly more valuable now," Cornelia said and once more tied the leather pouch shut. Licking her lips, she let out a low chuckle. "I must be going soft in the head, just like Jakob said. This is the necklace with the gold pendant I wore for dinner the other night."

"But… you are giving it to me? I was under the impression that it meant a great deal to you?"

"It does, and that's exactly why I give it to you for safekeeping. Perhaps the day will come where I can tell you what really happened," Cornelia said with a wistful smile. "My men don't know about it. My future here is uncertain. If the next hostage is more profitable than you have been, I'll ride out the storm, but if not… the storm will claim me. I don't want anything to happen to it, so… I give it to you for the time being."

Christiane nodded in understanding. Pulling her lips back in a nervous grimace, she looked up at the tall bandit. "Cornelia… the items you stole from the manor. What were they?"

"A few figurines and some smaller silverware items from the display cabinets in the elegant drawing room. Why?"

"Those figurines belonged to my late mother," Christiane said in a quiet voice. "Perhaps… I could…"

"I can't do that," Cornelia said and let out a sigh. "I'm sorry. I need some leverage with my men. Since I don't have you, I need something of value to keep them at bay."

Christiane furrowed her brow again as she broke out in a slow nod. "I understand. Oh… I promise the pendant shall be safe with me. You have my word."

"Thank you," Cornelia said and pressed the leather pouch into the baroness' hands. Once they were ready, she took the reins and pointed out the way to the younger woman. "After you, Milady," she said and did a short curtsey that looked out of place while wearing boots and a pair of men's breeches.


The two bandits who had been chosen to pull the first shift of the night watch a short distance into the pine forest were out cold from excessive drinking, so the two women and the tall mare met no trouble as they walked out of the camp and went deeper into the stretch of woodland. An owl hooting somewhere above them was the only thing that broke the silence as they made sure to walk on the thick layer of fallen pine needles.

When the trio reached the wide, main road that ran past the forest, Cornelia brought the palomino to a halt by a large boulder that would offer the perfect stepping stone to get up onto the mare's bare back. "Do you wish to be ahead of me or behind me, Baroness?" she said, giving the shorter woman a hand up onto the large boulder.

"Oh… I cannot say…" Christiane said, observing the distance from the boulder to the tall horse. "Ahead of you. I fear that if I sit behind your back, I shall become sick. I need to see where we are going."

"And I need to keep my tunic free of puke, so up front you'll go…" Cornelia said with a grin that was matched by a horrified grimace from the baroness.

Cornelia wasted no time in swinging a long leg over the palomino's back. She settled down at once and grabbed hold of the reins to control the horse that appeared to be accustomed to having someone ride her. "Oh… and there's no side-saddle, so you'll need to… ah… how can I put it… spread 'em," Cornelia said with another grin that once more was matched by a grimace that turned even more horrified than the previous one.

"Ack…" Christiane said as she accepted the hand held out by Cornelia. After fumbling and stumbling a little to keep her dress intact and the leather pouch containing the gold pendant out of harms' way, she managed to put her legs on either side of the horse's broad back. "Ack, this is obscene! Sweet Lord, such a ghastly sensation! How can you ride like this?!" she croaked as she tried to shuffle around with her legs spread wider than she had ever dreamed possible.

"Aw, you get used to it. You're doing good, Baroness," Cornelia said and pulled the slender woman closer to her so they could support each other. "Are you ready?"

"Ack… I cannot say with any conviction… but I believe I am. Oh!" Christiane said, crying out in surprise when Cornelia's strong arm appeared around her stomach to hold her tight. "Y- your arm!" she croaked, grabbing the fabric that covered the arm that was in breach of nearly every kind of protocol when it came to physical contact with a noblewoman.

Chuckling, Cornelia leaned in to speak in Christiane's ear: "Accept my arm where it is or risk falling off once we begin to move. It's your choice, Baroness."

"I… I… oh, very well," Christiane said and relaxed her stance. "I shall accept your arm around my stomach for the sake of my safety. But I hope you shall be the perfect… uh… gentlewoman."

"I will," Cornelia said in a voice that proved beyond doubt that she meant it.


The palomino mare brought the two riders through the dark night with no drama or crises. The hooves clip-clopped in a steady cadence on the wide, hard-packed dirt road that ran all the way from the cavalry garrison at Vording Castle eighteen kilometers to the south, and up to the major port at Køge forty kilometers further north. Along its route, the road with all its gentle undulations and easy turns passed by a handful of manors and noble estates, but none mattered more than Swan Manor that acted as the central hub for the entire region.

High above them, the stars were out in force on a sky that held few clouds. Countless points of light dotted the black velvet backdrop; some twinkled, some did not. The new moon reflected only a meager amount of light onto the ground, but it was enough to make out which way they needed to go.

It took a longer time for them to reach the crossroads and thus the country lane they needed to turn onto than it had when they had raced in the other direction in the stolen buggy, but it did not matter since the darkness of the night provided sufficient cover from prying eyes.

Even beyond that, Christiane felt safe atop the mare though she'd had severe doubts she would. The strong arm that was still draped across her stomach had turned from an intrusive limb to one of support, and she found herself leaning against Cornelia's front in the knowledge she would find some warmth there. "What a bizarre series of twists and turns my life continues to take," she whispered into the semi-darkness.

"Pardon?" Cornelia said, leaning into the baroness' golden locks.

"Oh, I… I find myself held in a way I have never been held before. It is a source of great comfort. It makes me feel safe, not just in the present situation atop this high mare… my heart feels content."


"And yet… the person whose arm is providing me with far greater support than my husband ever has is a woman… and the very same woman who threatened me with bodily harm not two days ago. I should be afeared of that woman. Of you. And yet… I do not feel fear at all. Only a strong sense of contentment. In a short while, I shall be reunited with my husband who should be the one stirring such emotions in my heart. And yet… he does not. Nor will he ever, I fear. Ack, my poor mind cannot sort out the tangled weave I find myself in."

"The situation is unusual, I agree," Cornelia said, studying the younger woman who had pushed herself so far up against Cornelia's front it would be impossible to slip an envelope between them. The hand that had clutched the tunic in a clear display of worry at first had relaxed and was resting across the arm - even toying a little with the fabric. Had she seen such body language in any of the women she had known over the years who shared her preferences, she would have thought they were playing the first notes of an overture to a little adventure, but the baroness? It seemed unlikely, but the whole mess had been made up of one unlikely event after the other.

Pushing those thoughts aside, Cornelia returned to the present. "And I dare say your husband is to blame for much of the situation we are in," she continued in a quiet voice. "Or perhaps the damn cavalry Captain, I can't say. Had they paid the ransom, you would have been returned far sooner and Jakob and I would have been long gone by now with the rest of the gang."

"But they did not."

"But they didn't, and I can't fathom why," Cornelia echoed, shaking her head.


Reaching the entrance to the avenue, Cornelia brought the palomino to a halt. She glanced up the tree-lined lane at the dark Swan Manor that loomed in the middle distance. The structure almost appeared foreboding as most of the main building was draped in deep shadows; only parts of the sloped roof caught the faint light from the new moon. There were no candles in any of the windows, nor had the torches she had seen next to the stately main entrance been lit.

Christiane let out a sigh of relief at the sight, and she leaned forward to get away from her soft, living cushion. "Home. I was afeared I would never see it again. But I have, and I thank God. And you, Cornelia… the vile, hideous, wretched Black Rose."

Cornelia chuckled as she removed her arm from the baroness' waist. "Well, at least you said my name in a fair tone of voice before you cursed me. I'll leave you alone now. I'm sure you can walk home by yourself from here."

"I can. Thank you… oh… perhaps…"

"What?" Cornelia said as she pushed herself back from the baroness to give herself room to swing a leg over the rear of the palomino mare. Dismounting, she jumped down onto the ground and patted the horse's flanks.

"I fear I shall require a hand in getting down, Cornelia… I do not believe I shall be able to do so on my own, and it would be most tragic if I fell off now and hurt myself so close to home."

"It would, I'll give you that," Cornelia said and reached up. Holding up her strong hands, she moved in close to be ready to grab the younger woman. "Push yourself back from its neck… yes, like that. Then swing your right leg over and I'll- Ooof!"

Action was swifter to follow on the heels of instruction than Cornelia had expected; from one moment to the next, she was almost knocked over as she found herself grappling with an armful of baroness. Still being the perfect gentlewoman, she lowered the blushing Christiane onto the ground where she untangled her hands from the ruffled layers of the dress. "There, that should do it," she said with a grin.

"I thank you, Cornelia," Christiane said, checking to see if the leather pouch containing the gold pendant was still safe to abstract from the fact that her rear had just been grabbed by accident.

Sobering, Cornelia moved the offending hand up to put it on the younger woman's shoulder. "Christiane… Baroness. I know it must seem a strange or even inappropriate request coming from an uncouth bandit like me… but remember what I told you. Think of what could have happened to you. Think of what did happen, and why. I trust you will not betray me."

Christiane nodded as she looked toward the manor. "No candles have been lit anywhere."

"No…?" Cornelia said, cocking her head in puzzlement.

Sighing, the baroness turned back to her former captor. "They are not holding a vigil for me. Do they even care that I have been taken? Anneliese will be beside herself with worry and grief, I do not doubt that, but… my husband… ack. You need not fear my loose tongue, Cornelia. I shall not betray you."

"That is all I can ask for," Cornelia said and leaned down toward Christiane. Time seemed to come to a full stop as they locked eyes. Cornelia's sea-blue orbs were unable to move from Christiane's hazel ones that radiated with something unsaid; something that bubbled just under the surface. The notion of a proper kiss hovered in the air around them, but the more experienced Cornelia knew the surprising emotions would most likely stem from the elation that had to run rampant inside the younger woman. Instead of taking advantage of the vulnerable state the baroness had to be in, she kissed her on both cheeks like any noblewoman would.

Nothing further needed to be said or done, so Cornelia once more took the reins and swung herself up on the palomino mare's bare back. She made the horse circle once to get used to the reduced weight before she nudged its sides and returned to Christiane. "I bid you a good night… and farewell, Baroness Christiane."

"Farewell, Black Rose," Christiane said and stepped out of the way so the leader of the gang of traveling ruffians had space to turn the horse around again. Soon, the palomino mare disappeared into the night carrying her sole rider whose long, black hair cascaded out behind her in the headwind.

Christiane kept standing at the mouth of the avenue until she could no longer see even the bright dot that had been Cornelia's tan tunic. Sighing, she turned around and began to shuffle the final, short kilometer to get to Swan Manor.


Elation washed over Christiane as she set foot on home soil, or rather the gravelly courtyard. She was almost home, but the final, short stretch leading to the stately main entrance appeared as long as the rest of the journey put together. Soon, the wave of elation was swept away by a stronger one that brought a mind-numbing sense of fatigue with it.

She spent the last few grains of her energy walking up the stone staircase to get to the front door - and she was on the brink of keeling over when she realized, after grabbing the door handle, that it had been locked for the night. "Oh… such wretched luck I seem to be having," she croaked, trying to stand up on tip-toes to peek through the windows in the door.

The grand hall beyond the main entrance was dark and deserted, but Christiane was in no mood to give up at the last hurdle. Instead, she clenched a fist and thumped it against the stately door. "Hello! Hello! Help! Please help!" she cried, thumping over and over until the flickering light of a candle appeared on the stone staircase that led down to the servants' quarters in the basement.

A shriek was heard from inside the hall, but that was all that came out of Christiane's best efforts of thumping a hole in the main entrance. "Wretched!" she growled, stepping back from the door. Sighing, she eyed the hard, cold surface of the stone staircase. "Perhaps I shall be forced to spend the night out here… across the steps like one of the drunken ruffians I have just left behind."

Her eye fell on the leather pouch containing Cornelia's gold pendant that she had kept safe in the palm of her free hand. The questions would by far overwhelm her ability to answer if she was found holding a piece of jewelry that had last been seen around the neck of 'Lady Magdalene,' so she needed to keep it hidden from all interested parties; especially Captain von Hardenburg, but even Anneliese von Eyben who would recognize the jewelry at once.

Scrunching up her face, she weighed her options for a brief while until she decided to hide the pouch in the only spot where nobody could look without her consent - under her dress. The upper hem was puffy enough to allow her to put it down there, and the waistband was tight enough to stop it from slipping back out. Giving herself a little shake, she rearranged the filthy dress around her body and let out a grunt. "Ack, it looks a little odd… but it shall have to do," she mumbled, trying another shake. She seemed to let out a faint jingle, and the sound made her break out in a hoarse, tired laugh.

Fate soon intervened and spared the baroness the ignominy of sleeping on her own doorstep. Shouts were heard from inside the grand hall; the shouts were accompanied by flickering candles that arrived from upstairs as well as the staircase to the basement.

Only a brief moment later, the main entrance was unlocked and Anneliese barged through it like a rampant stallion. Throwing down the lit candlestick she had been carrying, the Mistress of the Manor swept the baroness into her arms and gave her a strong, loving hug. "Oh! Christiane! I cannot explain how glad I am to see you!" the older woman cried as she continued to give the baroness a solid crush.

The dam finally burst from meeting such intense emotions, and Christiane surrendered to it by breaking out in a strong wail that soon claimed Anneliese as well. The two women continued to cry and hug each other until they realized that the entire grand hall had filled up with servants and maids.

Stepping inside, Christiane and Anneliese walked arm in arm until they stood at the center of the hall. Christiane looked with dead-tired eyes at the many young faces surrounding her; she tried to smile, but the fatigue and the rush of emotions inside her prevented it from growing much wider than a creasing of her lips. "I thank you all," she croaked in a thick voice, holding out her arms in a gesture that seemed to suggest she would pull everybody in for a hug if she could. "It was a dreadful, harrowing ordeal, but I have returned safe and sound. It is so wonderful to be home. Please, I should not keep you out of your beds at this ungodly hour. The Matron of the Kitchen shall be most displeased if I do!"

The undeniable truth of that statement made the servants and maids let out snickers and chuckles that were equal parts nervousness over the Matron's reaction and relief over the return of the baroness. They dispersed one by one, but not until they had curtseyed or bowed to their mistress.

Christiane attempted another smile at her staffers; she had gained enough strength through the unwavering support to make it broader than the first. Moments later, it was transformed into a deep frown as a familiar, gruff voice boomed out from upstairs:

"What the blazes is all this brouhaha? Have you not seen the time?!"

Anneliese and Christiane exchanged a quick glance; Christiane let out a deep sigh at the Captain's words, not to mention his gruff, martial manner of speaking.

"Captain von Hardenburg!" Anneliese cried, hurrying up past the first section of the staircase. "Baroness Christiane has returned! She's-"

"What?!" the retired cavalry officer barked from upstairs. After storming down the steep staircase from the guest rooms in the attic, the man appeared on the landing only dressed in his night garments and a pair of slippers that sported golden tassels. He seemed to realize that such an outfit was inappropriate for the nature of the event as he disappeared as fast as he had come, only to return a scant minute later tying a knot on the belt of the robe he had wrapped around himself.


Sitting in the elegant drawing room with Anneliese, the handmaiden Signe, Captain von Hardenburg and Ove Knudsen, the senior hunter who had accompanied the party on the picnic down to the inlet, the peace and quiet that Christiane was in so dire need of was nowhere to be found. The Captain and the hunter were discussing something of utmost importance and doing so in gruff commands and barked replies. Anneliese was trying to ask a hundred questions at once, and Signe tried to break in several times to offer her sympathies and the well-wishes of the staff.

A further layer of stress was added to the already chaotic situation when another of the kitchenmaids, the tender fifteen-year-old Elsebeth who still carried a bit of baby fat on her bones, brought in a tray laden with a tin mug, a jug of tea, a small jar of honey, and a platter that carried a stack of halved, well-buttered sweet buns.

"Milady," the young woman said in a fair voice, curtseying while still holding onto the tray. The gesture made the contents tilt forward at a dangerous angle, forcing Anneliese to jump ahead to keep the whole thing level. The young kitchenmaid's round cheeks exploded in embarrassment, but she managed to put the tray down onto one of the low tables without spilling a drop of the steaming hot tea.

Christiane reached for the tray, but Anneliese intercepted the baroness' hand and organized everything for her by pouring the tea into the tin mug. Once the hot liquid had been transferred, she took a silver spoon and scooped out a big glob of honey that was put into the mug as well - then, she handed it to the baroness.

"I thank you, Anneliese," Christiane croaked, wrapping her hands around the mug. The fatigue that had swept away the initial elation had brought a severe chill with it that did its worst to make her shiver inside and out. Though she had been wrapped in a blanket upon sitting down, her fingers were still icy to the touch so she was pleased she had something to warm them on.

The steaming hot tea disappeared in a short sequence of big gulps, but Anneliese was standing by to refill the mug and add another glob of honey. Only then did Christiane notice the young kitchenmaid who had brought the tray to the drawing room had not left her side yet. "Yes, Elsebeth?" she said, trying to look around Anneliese who was leaning over the low table.

"Baroness," Elsebeth said and curtseyed again, "the Matron of the Kitchen wishes to apologize for the somewhat dry buns, but she hopes the amount of butter that has been put on them will ease the burden. Also, she would like to humbly ask if you require anything special for breakfast in the morning?"

A long groan escaped Christiane's lips, and she shook her head several times as she just realized the chaotic mess had just gained a new dimension that reached far into the surreal. "Elsebeth… please inform the Matron of the Kitchen that I am very, very grateful for the buns, and that she does not need to prepare anything for me at all since I shall sleep for the entire remainder of the day… I hope."

"Yes, Baroness Christiane," Elsebeth said and did another curtsey before she hurried out of the room.

The next point on the agenda followed soon after as Anneliese put the full tin mug into Christiane's hands - and if that was not enough, the plate carrying two halved, buttered buns came hard on the tea's heels.

"Anneliese, please… I c- cannot take much more of this-" Christiane croaked, but she was interrupted by the door opening. The way the animated discussion between Captain von Hardenburg and Ove Knudsen, the senior hunter, came to an end from one syllable to the next gave Christiane a clue who had just entered the drawing room though the chair had been turned away from the door. Gulping down the bitter lump that had appeared in her throat, she thrust the tin mug and the plate with the buns back into Anneliese's hands before she got to her feet and turned towards the person at the door.

"Husband dearest, it pleases me to no end to return to you," she said and performed a curtsey to Erich Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor.

"My dearest wife," the baron said, stepping closer to Christiane - he even smiled, though it only touched his eyes at the edges. Unlike most other people in the drawing room save for Anneliese, the baron wore his day clothes which meant he had opined there was sufficient time to call for his French manservant and seek his help getting dressed before he would see his wife who had recently returned from being abducted by dangerous criminals. Putting out his arms, he dragged Christiane into a hug that was just as unnatural and awkward as their kisses had been the few times they had tried.

An exclamation point lit up in Christiane's mind as she reeled from the night-and-day difference between being held by Cornelia and her own husband. She noted with a severe amount of dismay that the feared leader of a gang of criminal degenerates had a touch that was far more gentle and comfort-inducing than the man with whom she was bound in the sacred institution of holy matrimony. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to keep her thoughts from coloring the look upon her face.

The baron noticed it, and it caused him to take a step back from her though he disguised it by crinkling his nose at the faint smell of urine, equine and ale that hung about her clothes. "Well," he said, straightening his right cuff that had been knocked askew by the awkward hug. "I shan't disturb you any longer. I wish you all a good night. Especially you, my darling wife."

"I thank you, husband dearest," Christiane said and went into another deep curtsey that she remained in until the baron left the drawing rooms and closed the door behind him.

Even Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg had an embarrassed look etched upon his face after witnessing the exchange, but it did not stop him from stomping over to the baroness - in his night robe and tassel-adorned slippers - once she had sat down and had been given the tea and the buns. "Baroness Christiane, first of all, I am pleased you are back."


"But I have several questions that need to be answered, and answered right this minute," the Captain continued like he was conducting a field interrogation of a prisoner of war. "First of all, I need to know whether or not your captor really was the woman known as Black Rose?"

Christiane stared at the impolite Captain with eyes that had grown as wide as saucers. If the tea had not singed the palm of her hand, she would have continued to stare at him for a while longer, but the gentle pain that shot up from her hand made her snap out of her puzzlement and take a sip instead.

While she swallowed the sip of hot tea, all sorts of considerations ran through her mind. Should she reveal the true identity of 'Lady Magdalene,' or should she cook up a story that would fit the popular, bloodthirsty image of Black Rose? The real Black Rose, Cornelia, had asked her not to betray her. After the dismaying discovery she had just made with her husband, a betrayal would never enter the equation.

"Baroness?" the Captain said in a voice that was clearly fed up with the delay.

"I am quite tired, Captain!" Christiane barked, flashing her hazel eyes at the retired officer. "Yes, my captor was the dreaded Black Rose. A more vile, hideous, filthy woman I have yet to encounter!"


"No, it was not! She kept me in a cage, Captain. A cage!"

Shocked gasps echoed through the drawing rooms, and the young handmaiden Signe looked to be on the edge of fainting.

"Now I have a question for you, Captain von Hardenburg," Christiane said, putting the buns and the mug of tea onto the tabletop with a bang. "Why, pray tell, were there no hunters in the courtyard or at the manor's perimeter when I arrived? I was brought here by one of the criminals who nearly dragged me behind his horse! Had he been captured by a patrol and interrogated, our men may have been chasing the rest of them down as we speak!"

The Captain licked his lips to reply, but before he could, the baroness had gone off again: "And why, pray tell, was the ransom note not replied to? Black Rose crowed to me it had been sent, and that you had received it, Anneliese…?"

"Indeed I did, Baroness Christiane," Anneliese said and wrung her hands in front of her, "and I gave the package to Captain von Hardenburg personally. He passed it on to the baron."

"So tell me, Captain von Hardenburg," Christiane said and whipped her head back to the retired cavalry officer, "was it not my traveling cape in that bundle delivered to the Mistress of the Manor? I watched Black Rose write that letter and fold up my cape. Did you not realize my life was in jeopardy?"

"Baroness," the Captain said, holding up his hands to put a cork in the stream of heated words. "May I speak?"

Panting from the exertion, Christiane fell back against the backrest and gestured at Ieronymus von Hardenburg in disgust. "You may," she said, reaching for her tea and the plate of buns.

"No patrols were out near the manor since the criminals had not been spotted in the region since your abduction. We could not know Black Rose would release you at this point. The men had already worked through the night several days in a row, and keeping them alert for even longer would have been detrimental for their efficiency. As for the second part… yes, we recognized it as your cape, but His Lordship simply could not gain access to such a vast sum of money in such a short amount of time. The moment we received the note, a fast dispatch rider was sent to his family in North Zealand carrying a letter that explained the situation and sought urgent financial support. The reply shall no doubt reach us within a few days."

Christiane furrowed her brow - the Captain's explanations were plausible, she had to give him that. "I see. Very well," she said after a while. To give herself a moment to think, she took a bite out of the buttered bun. Although the Matron of the Kitchen had apologized for its dry state, it felt fresh out of the oven compared to the stale bread she had attempted to eat at the bandits' camp.

The new information did not make her change her mind about her husband, but it did unravel some of the threads of the tangled weave she had found herself in. The size of the ransom had been the biggest stumbling block - not only had it been so large the baron had been unable to meet it, the promise of such wealth had caused the bandits to grow far too impatient. Had the demands been lower, or the bandits more patient, the matter would have been resolved earlier and the pressure on Cornelia's position as the leader of the gang would have been far less. Of course, had that happened, it would have prevented the budding connection that had been established between Christiane and Cornelia during the night.

"Ack," Christiane croaked as she realized the tangled weave had just gained a few more knots after all. "Oh, I fear I am so dreadfully tired, Captain… will there be anything else on this night?"

"Just a few more things, Baroness. Where were you abducted? And what happened to Lady Magdalene and her peculiar manservant?"

Christiane licked her lips. She was sure the experienced officer could read her face like a wide-open book. Moving her hand up without appearing to be doing so, she ran her thumb across the small bump in her dress that hid the leather pouch that Cornelia had trusted her with.

She was about to lower herself into dangerous quicksand, but a promise was a promise, even one given to a thief. Though a noblewoman should never fib or lie, an alternative truth was indeed needed. "After saying goodbye to Lady Magdalene and her manservant who continued towards Køge, I remained at the side of the main road to Vording Castle in the hope a carriage would come the other way to take me home. Alas, a decision I shall regret for the rest of my life as the vile Black Rose and her band of degenerates found me first."

"I see," Captain von Hardenburg said, narrowing his eyes - it was clear he had suspected the tall, statuesque Lady to be involved somehow. "Where is the location of the camp you were brought to?"

"Inside a stretch of woodland to the south of here," Christiane said at once; she knew it would be safe to offer the Captain that piece of information as he would already have it.

"Ah… quite. But where exactly?"

"I fear I cannot say, Captain. The first thing Black Rose did was to blindfold me with my own bonnet. It was only removed when I was inside her tent. Upon my release, the blindfold was not removed until I stood at the mouth of the tree-lined avenue."

The Captain nodded - it seemed he accepted the details. "Final question, Baroness. How many men were there at the camp?"

Christiane's lips creased in a brief, though tired smile. For once, she could offer the probing Captain a straight answer. "I overheard Black Rose mentioning to one of her men that their gang consisted of sixteen bandits. Please, Captain… I am so dreadfully tired," Christiane said as she shrugged off the blanket and made to get up from the chair. "If there is anything else, it shall have to wait until the light of day. I need to get upstairs and into my bed before I collapse."

"Of course, Baroness. You have been most helpful," Captain von Hardenburg said with a bow.

Fatigue had claimed Christiane at last, and she was unable to get up on her own. Putting out her arm, she waited for Anneliese to take it so she could go upstairs to her bedchamber and her much sought-after four-post canopy bed. When she was on her feet, she turned to the other people in the drawing room. "I bid you all a good night," she said, acknowledging the bows and curtseys that followed with a tired smile.


Seventy-two hours went by before Christiane had defeated the powerful fatigue that seemed to have taken over her body following her safe return. It was not until the dawn of her third day at home that she had regained enough strength to do anything but sleep, take in meager amounts of nourishment, or simply sit at her writing bureau staring at the distant horizon.

Waking up, she could feel in her bones that she was back to full fitness; she even allowed a smile to play on her lips as she thought of the breakfast that she was about to consume in the grand banqueting hall - and that had not happened all too often since the wedding.

Another smile came unprompted when she thought back to the dream she had just left behind: she had been back at the camp, talking to Black Rose. It had not been a nightmare, but a positive experience where she and the tall, beautiful woman had shared a warm moment. Thinking about it, she could even smell the woodsmoke and the watered-down ale, scents that had permeated the camp throughout her stay there. The scent of ale was perhaps not a good memory to harbor as it brought on an echo of the stench that lingered around the unwashed men.

The smile was replaced by a yawn as she swung her legs over the side of the four-post bed and stuck her bare feet into her slippers. While she waited for Anneliese and Signe to arrive to help her get dressed for the day, she looked at the drawer in the bureau where she had put the leather pouch containing Cornelia's gold pendant. The day before, during a moment she had been alone, she had slipped the exquisite piece of jewelry out of the pouch to study it by the light of a candle. Like she had expected, the gold was real and the craftsmanship sublime. Of the four letters that had been engraved into the gold, she only knew the first, the C, and she could not wait to find out from Cornelia what the D-S-A stood for.

A frown fell upon her face thinking about the whereabouts and the state of health of the tall bandit. As logic would demand, there had been no word from Cornelia as such a contact would defeat the entire purpose of the daring plan.

Captain von Hardenburg had stepped up the patrols in the hope that the bandits would grow more active since they did not have their high-profile hostage to bargain with, but nothing had come out of it - the hunters had not reported any sightings or even suspicions of such.

"Ack, I do hope Cornelia is all right," Christiane mumbled to herself as the frightful image of the gang's scarred second-in-command ran through her mind. The man - she could not remember his name - had not left a good impression on her, and it had not been difficult to pick up from the way Cornelia spoke to him that she was of the same opinion.

A knocking on the door brought Christiane back from the gloomy thoughts. "Anneliese?" she said out loud as she got up from the bed.

'Indeed it is I, Baroness. And Signe,' the Mistress of the Manor replied.

"You may enter."

It did not take long for Anneliese and Signe to open the door and enter the bedchamber. As always, the stern-looking Mistress of the Manor was dressed in a no-nonsense, pale-gray, long-sleeved dress that offered a stark contrast to the black-and-white uniform of the handmaiden, and Christiane's far softer, off-white sleeping gown. "We bid you a good morning, Baroness," the older woman said and went into a curtsey that was mirrored by Signe - the young handmaiden held an armful of clothes that Christiane needed to try on.

"And a good morning to you too, Anneliese. And you, of course, Signe. The shade of blue outside my window seems to suggest the day shall be nicer than yesterday," Christiane said, looking at the sky outside the leaded panes.

"Yes, indeed. The kitchenmaids said it was quite warm already when they were sent to the farms to collect the eggs, the butter and the milk," Anneliese said, giving Signe a small nudge on the shoulder to get her to put down the clothes on the unmade bed.

"Ah, good. Shall we?" Christiane said and began the long process of slipping out of her sleeping garments and into her day clothes.


Breakfast had been the positive affair Christiane had hoped it would be. Not only had the baron declined to come to the grand banqueting hall - a debilitating headache had claimed him - but the pancakes made by the Matron of the Kitchen had been so rich in their taste that she had needed not only a second, but a third helping as well.

Her return to Swan Manor seemed to have kicked her appetite back into life as she had devoured everything the Matron had made for her - even specialties like hen cooked in white wine, or a strong tomato-and-onion soup with croutons, or a Cumberland sausage with cowberries and creamy, brown gravy.

Pancakes were always best accompanied by sweet ale, so Christiane had enjoyed a large mug of the dark, easy brew that carried a head of pale-brown foam. As she pushed her empty mug away, she dabbed her lips on a napkin to get the foam mustache and the last stains of blackcurrant off the corners of her mouth. Letting out a sigh of contentment, she turned around and cast a long gaze out upon the hazy-blue waters of the inlet. A quiet chuckle escaped her when she caught a glimpse of a white sail that ran parallel to the coast.

She remembered the last instance where she had seen a pair of ships or boats sailing away from the shore; then, she had fallen into an acute state of despair at the realization that she was essentially a prisoner at the manor. This time, the first thought through her mind had been one of herself and Cornelia resting on a small pleasure yacht that cruised the coast line. The chances of that happening were less than zero since she would rather not be anywhere near a water-bound vessel if she could help it, but the prospect of spending time with Cornelia in such a relaxed, stress-free situation could perhaps persuade her to give sailing another go.

A commotion behind her made her turn back around in her seat. She groaned inwardly when Captain von Hardenburg stomped into the banqueting hall as the gruff man was never good news.

The retired cavalry officer soon came to a confused stop upon realizing the baron was not present. He was already on his way back out when Christiane spoke up:

"Captain, if you seek Baron Erich, I fear this is not a good time. A severe headache caused my husband such grief he could not join me for breakfast," the baroness said, intending to push her chair back. She only had time to put her hands on the seat to shift the heavy piece of furniture before two of the kitchenmaids were at her side, helping her - she thanked them with a smile. "But perhaps I can be of assistance to you?" she continued to the Captain as she crossed the smooth floor.

Captain von Hardenburg bowed at the baroness, but even while doing so, he let out a mumbled curse that proved what he thought of the Baron's frequent headaches. "Hardly, Baroness Christiane. This is a military matter."

"Oh? I certainly do not hope you are here to tell us we are at war all of a sudden, Captain!"

The retired officer let out a laugh that had a patronizing undertone; he managed to keep it civil, but the meaning had come across. "I certainly do hope the vile Black Rose shall feel like we are waging war against her! The squadron of Guard Hussars requested by His Lordship to assist us has sent an affirmative reply. My old comrades in arms shall be joining us tomorrow or the day after, depending."

"I fear I do not know what-"

"An elite, light cavalry unit supported by infantry Lancers. They shall put an end to Black Rose's reign of crime within days," the Captain said, once again bowing to the Baroness. It was clear he had no intention of explaining further as he spun around on his heel and stomped out of the grand banqueting hall.

The Captain's words caused a niggling worry for Cornelia's safety to blossom in Christiane's heart. The bandits had plenty of experience as thieves, thugs or even cutthroats, but fighting an elite cavalry unit would be quite some distance out of their comfort zone. In her stomach, the sweet ale and the delicious pancakes began to churn like they wanted to make a reappearance. She needed fresh air at once, so she left the banqueting hall with firm strides and hurried out to her ornamental garden.


The clock in the manor's chapel chimed at the top of the hour at nine, ten and even eleven o'clock during the time Christiane sat on the bench in her beloved ornamental garden. There, the world was still as it should be: the pleasant, early-July sun kissed the greenery with its warm rays while the blackbird sang from somewhere up in the trees, the cooing doves played on the pathways, the bees buzzed to and fro the many colorful flowers, and the starlings and sparrows zipped from bush to bush on a search for juicy insects.

Baroness Christiane did not see much of it. Instead, she stared dead ahead while a myriad of thoughts churned on in her mind. At some point, Anneliese had brought her a mug of tea, but she had forgotten all about it soon after. The Mistress of the Manor had been worried about the baroness' apparent relapse into the catatonic state she had been in after the old baron's death, but Christiane had tried to calm her fears without actually explaining any of the details.

She could not explain to her friend that the circumstances for her curious behavior were of such a peculiar nature that she herself had a hard time believing it.

For her heart, the matter was simple: she needed to warn Cornelia of the impending danger. The uncouth, crude bandits could be hunted down and killed for all she cared, but the tall, beautiful woman should be spared from any harm. Though smoke and mirrors had been the order of the day during their initial meeting, the hours spent in conversation while walking the halls or sitting together in the drawing room had been among the best moments of Christiane's recent life. Even the nocturnal ride back to Swan Manor gained more importance each time she thought of the experience - not to mention the strong but gentle arm that had been draped across her stomach.

At the same time, her mind reeled at the childlike simplicity of her heart's world view. Black Rose was a dangerous, unpredictable criminal who deserved any punishment the courts could throw at her. A feral creature who had lead a gang of degenerates across the land leaving a trail of robberies, violent assaults and thefts in their wake. Their initial meeting had not just been smoke and mirrors, it had been an open waste pit of vicious lies and deceitful charades whose sole purpose had been to lull the baroness into a false sense of security so she would let down her guard - and she had fallen for them, hook, line and sinker. The strong arm that had been draped across her stomach ended in a fist that had been used to threaten her with violence; chances were it had been used in the past to press a knife against a victim's gut or throat. Perhaps that fist had even killed. Why should she defend such a vile creature?

"Ack… I do not know what to do…" Christiane whispered to the birds that did not seem to have any interest in her great dilemma. Sighing, she picked up the mug of tea to have something to do that would take her mind off the present situation. A probing sip made her crinkle her nose in disgust, and she put down the stone-cold tea at once.


After picking at a light lunch that her churning thoughts and stomach had not allowed her to enjoy, she withdrew to her bedchamber with another mug of tea. While the tea cooled off, she found a piece of paper and her fountain pen intending to write down her thoughts in the hope the process would help her sort them out.

The empty sheet of paper mocked her at first, but it was not long before she put the tip of the fountain pen down to begin describing her thoughts - then she paused and furrowed her brow. "I wonder if… I wonder if that could be the solution I seek…?" she mumbled, pulling back from the paper. "It may be… but how would I deliver such a letter? Ack, I cannot go myself… and surely I cannot send a dispatch directly to the ruffians. He would face certain imprisonment in Cornelia's wretched cage. Perhaps if I asked someone brave? Oh, but I fear the brave can be quite foolhardy at times. Ack!"

A moment later, she pushed the thoughts aside for later to begin scribbling in her elegant hand:

'July 1st, in the Year of Our Lord, 1710.


My dearest Lady Magdalene. Through the means of this letter, I seek to contact you with the admittedly unexpected request that we meet in person, under a flag of truce and on neutral ground. I have obtained news that you need to be urgently made aware of.


If you accept my request, let us meet at the witching hour tonight by the tree where I spoke to the old crone.




Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor.'

Christiane fell back against the backrest as she re-read the words she had just written down. She had promised a criminal that she would never betray her; now she was trying to help that very same criminal by betraying her husband. A long sigh escaped her that proved she was not sure whether or not it was the right thing to do.

After rolling the blotter across the paper, she found an envelope and wrote 'Lady Magdalene of' before she came to a sudden stop.

"Ack! Now I cannot remember the name of the castle she claimed to hail from! Oh, what does it matter?" she mumbled, writing 'Eskilstrup Castle, Falster,' on the envelope, a castle that did not exist. On the flipside, she wrote her own name in the hope that even an uncouth bandit would recognize it and give it to his gang leader.

Leaning back in her chair, she closed her eyes and attempted to come to peace with her conscience - the final decision on how to get the letter to Cornelia was one she still needed to make.


Almost an hour went by before a mortified Christiane put the sealed envelope into the hand of one of the young men who worked in the stables. Her face was locked into a mask of worry, but she tried to hide it so the messenger would not sense that anything could be wrong.

Waiting on the landing outside the baroness' bedchamber, the blond, beardless youngling who wore suede riding boots, dark-green, wraparound riding breeches and a white, short-sleeved, o-neck shirt bore an expression that said he did not know whether to be nervous or excited about being that close to the baroness, though excited seemed to win out.

"I thank you for arriving so swiftly," Christiane said with a smile that she had to screw on her face to hide the emotional turmoil inside her. "I shall ask you to take this letter and deliver it to my dear friend Lady Magdalene von Bielke. Now, I need you to use the main road south as there may be a chance that my dear friend shall be traveling the opposite way at much the same time. Do you understand?"

"I understand, Baroness," the youngling said, performing a deep bow.

"Good. Off you go. This letter is important so there shall be a pretty rigsdaler waiting for you when you return."

The youngling bowed again before he stormed down the sweeping staircase and out onto the gravelly courtyard. There, he mounted a chestnut mare that he soon nudged into action. It did not take long before he had crossed the courtyard and had turned right onto the servants' trail.

Stepping away from the window, Christiane began to descend the grand staircase at a far slower, more deliberate pace than the young man had employed. Her face was frozen into a dark mask, and her guilty conscience made her stomach churn; she knew she had just sent a youngling onto a mission that could get him beaten or worse.

Her heart clenched as she pondered the monstrous fact that she hoped the young man would be intercepted by the bandits who would then search him and steal the letter. It would still require a miracle to make the letter fall into Black Rose's hands, but it was the only viable option beyond risking her own life all over again.


Christiane's guilty conscience was a millstone around her soul when several hours had passed with no news from the young rider. Though it was only late afternoon, she had retired to her bedchamber with an alleged debilitating headache - for a change, the standard lie in the Goldenloew household was not far off the truth.

She was too restless to lie down, so she stood at the leaded windows that offered a view of the fields toward the west. Nothing happened; even the white clouds seemed to stand still in the sky.

Unintelligible shouting from downstairs made her tear away from the window and out onto the landing. Gripping the railing, she looked down into the grand hall where Anneliese von Eyben had an arm wrapped around the blond youngling's shoulder to comfort him. The only visible scrapes he seemed to carry were torn clothes and ruffled hair. It was clear he was distraught, however, as he kept wringing his hands over and over, no doubt worried about the baroness' reaction.

Christiane knew it was too soon to unravel the knot of worry she harbored inside her; to know for sure what had taken place, she lifted her skirt and stormed down the sweeping staircase wearing a strong expression of concern that she did not need to fake. "Goodness me! Pray tell, what happened to you? Oh Sweet Lord, were you assaulted?" she cried, catching the attention of the young messenger.

The youngling bowed deeply, a gesture that made his ruffled hair fly about. "Baroness, I've failed you… I was robbed of the letter and even the horse! At the pine forest a couple-a kilometers to the south of here, two thugs… they must've been some of Black Rose's men… suddenly popped up in front of me! I tried to ride around them, but one of them grabbed the reins which made me fly off the saddle and into the ditch! They took everything I had on me… including the letter you had given me… I… I'm…"

"Oh, we shall not speak of that letter now, my friend. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see you safe," Christiane said and put her hand on the young man's elbow in a motherly fashion. "Ack, those wretched criminals! That vile Black Rose and her gang of degenerates shall be the end of us all if we do not find a way to stop them! Anneliese?"

"Yes, Baroness?" the Mistress of the Manor said as she went into a quick curtsey.

"Anneliese, I do believe the brave, young messenger here has earned himself a solid evening meal once dinner is served. Please see to it," Christiane said and offered the young messenger a smile of relief.

The youngling's face lit up in a grin at the prospects of eating something other than oatmeal seven days a week. "I thank you, Baroness!" he said, bowing once more. When he rose, he said with a grin: "I actually managed to sock of them in the eye during the struggle. He'll be black and blue come tomorrow!"

"Oh! Now that is excellent news! Let us hope the degenerate thug has been taught a lesson he shall not forget in a hurry. Anneliese, the next time you speak to the treasurer, please inform him that our friend here is to receive an extra month's wages for his strong commitment to his Baroness."

Anneliese and the youngling both stopped dead to stare wide-eyed and gap-mouthed at the baroness like she had sprouted a second head. Christiane offered them a grateful smile in return, knowing that she had been close to paying for his funeral instead.




Twenty past eleven in the evening of the same day, the door to the baroness' bedchamber was opened the slowest it possibly could to prevent it from creaking or squeaking. It only needed to offer enough room for the slender baroness to slip through unhindered and undetected, so the motion stopped after forty centimeters or so.

A moment later, a pair of hazel eyes peeked through the narrow opening. All was quiet on the landing in front of the bedchamber, so she continued carrying out her plan that was either daring or near-insane, depending on which mood she was in at the time.

Wearing black shoes, a black bonnet that came from the mourning outfit to keep her golden-blond hair under wraps, and the darkest clothing she had been able to find in her wardrobe, namely a dark-brown dress and a charcoal gray traveling cape, the baroness exited her bedchamber and tip-toed onto the landing. A quick peek out of the large windows onto the courtyard proved that no visible danger was lurking down there.

She pulled the door close to the jambs, but did not shut it as she knew the metal latch would make a racket whenever it was pulled from the outside. Moving around as quiet as a mouse, she tip-toed over to the sweeping staircase and began a slow descent.


Down in the grand hall, she held her breath to listen for sounds of activity from downstairs in the servants' quarters. A few jingles and jangles were heard, but it did not appear to be close to her - she guessed it was one of the kitchenmaids finishing her last chores of the day by doing a little final housecleaning or storing the pots and pans in their proper places in the racks.

The stately entrance beckoned, and she tip-toed across the smooth floor until she reached the door. The sturdy lock offered few problems from the inside, but she pushed the latch into its 'open' stop so she would not be cut off when she returned - that would perhaps be a little too hard to explain.

A faint, though somewhat chilly, breeze greeted her by sweeping around her legs as she set foot on the top step of the stone staircase; she wrapped her cape tighter around her and closed the button at the collar to stop it from flying off her shoulders. A quick peek at the night-time sky proved the clouds were racing by the moon that had already gained quite a bit since her nocturnal ride with Cornelia.

When she set foot on the gravel, the crunching sounds it produced were so loud in the quiet courtyard that she thought she had just woken up every single person sleeping in the manor. Gasping, she stopped dead with her arms stretched out wide in surprise, but nobody seemed to react to the thunderous noise.

Releasing the breath, she continued across the courtyard until she reached the stables. An orange light that shone out of the utility shed proved that some unfortunate soul had been selected to keep the forge going through the night to make sure it was hot and ready for the following day's activities.

Christiane slowed down and came to a halt just before she reached the sliding door to the shed. She needed to make up her mind whether or not to continue the plan she had worked out. Nobody had seen or heard her yet; she could slink back to the comfort of her four-post canopy bed with the tail between her legs if that was what she wanted.

It mattered little to her what happened to the rest of the gang of cutthroats, but if going ahead with the daring - or near-insane, depending - plan, offered even the slimmest chance of saving Cornelia from taking the long, lonesome walk to the gallows, it was worth risking her good name and reputation, not to mention her own neck, for.

An owl chose that moment to hoot at her from one of the trees that lined the avenue like it wanted to remind her how bizarre the situation was. A dry, self-deprecating chuckle left Christiane's throat as she squared her shoulders and took a faltering step ahead, past the corner of the sliding door to the utility shed.

Inside, the very same youngling who had been attacked while bringing the letter south to 'Lady Magdalene' manned the bellows that kept the forge hot and alive. Working in the high temperatures had meant he had stripped down to his waist, but even so, his hair, neck and shoulders glistened with sweat.

He had his back turned to the door at first, so it took him a while to notice the shadowy presence who had slipped into the shed. When he did, he grabbed a poker and spun around. "Halt! Who goes there? Reveal yourself, stranger!" he barked in a voice that trembled just a little too much to have any effect as a measure of deterrence. The poker was held high, ready to strike in case the short person in the dark cape was one of Black Rose's men.

"Ack! Please lower your weapon! It is I, the Baroness," Christiane said and stepped into the orange cone of light that emanated from the forge so the stableboy could recognize her.

The young man was hit by a strong bout of acute embarrassment; not only for being half-undressed in the presence of a Lady, but for threatening the very same Lady with a cast iron weapon. Moving fast, he threw down the poker and went into a deep bow to honor the noblewoman. "I… I beg for forgiveness, Baroness! It wasn't my intention to frighten you!"

"Well, I can certainly say that you take your duty very seriously. Oh, I do believe you shall make watch commander yet… provided we ever get such a position at Swan Manor," Christiane said with a smile.

"I fear my Master here at the stables would object, Baroness," the young man said as he reached for his tunic. After slipping it over his head in a hurry to cover himself up, he returned to his continued work at the bellows. "When he heard I got a good meal out of my simple afternoon task, he put me on a two-night shift to man the forge."

"Ack, your afternoon task was anything but simple! Ah… I fear I do not know your name?"

"Hjalmar Bertelsen, Baroness."

"Hjalmar. I thank you. The names of the people working at the manor are important to me. I fear I have another task for you, though fortunately one that shall involve far less danger," Christiane said and walked further into the utility shed. The heat that emanated from the forge was so strong she needed to keep well out of harms' way - even at five paces' distance, her facial skin grew so hot she worried about the state of her eyebrows. "I shall ask you to saddle one of the horses for me. A kind one. Sleep has been hard to come by, and Pastor Johannes Steengaard once told me that a nightly ride shall do the trick if even warm milk fails to do so."

Hjalmar furrowed his brow like he failed to see the value of that particular piece of advice, especially not in times where the bandits were roaming the lands, but it was not his place to question his Mistress' wishes. Instead, he bowed again and gestured at the door. "Of course, Baroness. This way."


Not long after, Christiane rode side-saddle on a bay gelding that went by the name of Bukefalos. Unlike its famous namesake from ancient history, this Bukefalos was a good-natured steed that did everything Christiane asked of him. With the headwind making the traveling cape stand out behind her and the golden-blond locks bobbing at the edges of the black bonnet, she rode along the avenue until she reached the familiar country lane. Once there, she turned east, towards the inlet - and towards the next part of her outrageous plan.


Three kilometers further on, she pulled Bukefalos to a halt and let out a curse that a Baroness should not know. She glanced left, then right, then left again - her meticulous planning had overlooked the small, but vital, detail that everything would be draped in shades of gray at that time of night.

She knew for a fact that she had reached the shore; she could tell from the strong scent of saltwater that permeated the air surrounding her. However, the vast sea beyond the shoreline was so pitch black she might as well have been inside a basement with no windows. Though she had found the coastal road, her chances of finding the cluster of trees where she and the others had enjoyed their picnic were almost non-existent.

"Ack!" she croaked, staring up and down the wide road. "We… we turned right… yes, we turned right from the country lane," she mumbled, tugging the reins to make Bukefalos clip-clop along the hard-packed dirt of the coastal road.

She rode on in silence for two hundred meters or so without seeing the trees where she had met Cornelia who had come in the guise of the old crone. After tugging the reins again to let her steed come to a stop, she let out a long sigh of frustration as she looked all around her in the vain, and ever diminishing, hope of recognizing some of the landscape's features. The gelding seemed to sense her indecision as it whinnied and began to sidestep. "There, there," Christiane said, patting its neck.

High above her, the cloud cover that raced across the heavens split up for just long enough to allow the young moon a chance to shine down upon the pitch black world. Christiane took full advantage of the ghostly-blue moonbeams to whip her head around on a quest for the elusive cluster of trees. She finally found the correct spot some seventy meters behind her - she had gone straight past it without noticing a thing.

She tugged the reins again which made the steed come around and set off in a slow walk. When she arrived at the cluster of trees, she dismounted and went up to stand at the edge of the tall grass that formed the rough patch between the coastal road and the spot where they had conducted the delightful picnic. "Oh… I better lead you across it. Come, Bukefalos. If we trip, we shall at least be closer to the ground," she said, holding onto the reins as she stepped into the tall, rough grass.

On her way across the uneven terrain, she let out another sigh. "Ack… now all I have to do is to wait for a woman who may not even show up… and if she does, she may have had a change of heart and capture me again. Or she may have brought company along in the shape of her criminal acquaintances. Sweet Lord, I must have been a raving lunatic when I dreamt up this plan…"


The word 'Restless' did not even begin to describe the state of mind Baroness Christiane was in: restless, antsy, impatient and growing more nervous by the minute. She had no means to tell the time, but if the progress of the young moon high above was anything to go by, the witching hour had been and gone. She should be back home in bed instead of hiding among the prickly grass by the pitch black sea, but there she was, and the mission was too important to throw it all to the wind and ride home.

In all her restlessness, she went through a frustrating procedure of kneeling in the tall grass, or leaning against the nearest tree, or patting the steed, or kneeling in the tall grass all over again. Her insides had clenched into a solid knot of worry, and her hands and legs were so cold they were growing numb. At present, she knelt in the grass, but she got up and shuffled over to Bukefalos to fiddle with the reins, or the tack, or the blanket, or the leather straps holding the side-saddle in place.

It did not help that she was surrounded by a multitude of rustling sounds from the animals that drifted around near the shore. She had seen a family of field mice zipping past her feet, and some time later, a red fox that had not even bothered to cast a glance in her direction had run the other way. A large bird that she guessed was a night falcon whooshed past not too far above her head on a quest to find something to eat, and soon after, a squirrel had climbed down from the crown of the tree to see what all the hubbub was about. It did not seem to care much for what it had found, however, because only a few seconds went by before it went back upstairs to catch a few winks before the new day would start.


Gasping from the shock of hearing the sudden exclamation, Christiane whipped her head around to stare south on the coastal road. She was unable to see anything in that direction, but the sound had reached her ears plain as day, so someone had to be there. She ran over to the tree to peek around the wide trunk. The coastal road was too dark to see any details, and it did not even help when the clouds broke up and allowed the moon to shine upon the dirt road.

She was beginning to think her mind had played an evil trick on her when the exclamation was repeated: "Psst! Christiane!" a female voice said in a strong whisper not too far from the cluster of trees.

Christiane crept the entire way around the trunk to look in the other direction, but she was still unable to see anything. Out of nowhere, a dark presence stepped between her and Bukefalos.

Shrieking, she took a big step back where she tripped over a large tuft of grass. Not even flailing her arms in the air could save her from falling onto her rear, but the tall grass and the cape cushioned most of the impact - even so, the air was forced from her lungs as she came down to land with a strong bump.

"Easy does it, Baroness," the female voice said, putting out an arm to help the unfortunate Christiane back on her feet.

Christiane accepted the strong, callused hand and recognized it at once as belonging to Cornelia Karlsdatter. "Ack… Cornelia, is that you?" she whispered just to be on the safe side. Getting on her feet, she dusted off the rear and the elbows of her traveling cape.

"Well, it sure ain't the Virgin Mary," Cornelia said and folded back a hood to reveal her long, voluminous hair. She wore a dark-brown, coarse cowl - that appeared to have been stolen from a monastery - over her regular outfit of leather boots, dark-brown men's breeches held in place by a wide belt, and finally a tan tunic. For the special mission, she had tied a crimson bandanna around her neck. Her sea-blue eyes were able to penetrate the darkness by shining with an intensity that such orbs rarely possessed. "You sent me a letter asking me to come, so I came."

Christiane coughed a few times while she gathered her thoughts. The plan had been so clear to her while creating it, but now that she was once again face to face with the - gorgeous - leader of a gang of feared criminals, her courage faltered. "Ack, I am pleased it even found you as it was a most difficult endeavor to organize," she said to stall while staring at the unusual brightness of the taller woman's eyes. She tore herself away from the pleasant sight to look at the expression Cornelia wore. Gone were the smiles and the soft friendliness she had seen when she had been released from the camp; in their stead, a steely determination was etched onto her face. This was Black Rose, not Cornelia.

"Ah…" Christiane continued in a croak. "How… how have you been? I hope my release did not cause you any grief from your men."

"A little. Nothing I couldn't handle."

"Oh… I…"

It seemed that Cornelia had already grown impatient with the stuttering report. Sweeping the cowl back, she put her hands on her hips and cocked her head like she was on the brink of leaving if she did not get anything worthwhile out of the reluctant baroness. "I was under the impression the information you had was important… but now I'm not so sure."

"Oh, they… no, no, the news I have for you is quite important," Christiane said and began to wring her hands. She realized with a rising degree of worry that she should have listened to what her mind, not her heart, was trying to tell her. The woman in front of her was not the woman she had dreamt of; she was the hard leader of hard men who had pillaged their way across the land until they had reached the south of Zealand and Swan Manor. "My… my husband has asked the Crown for assistance in fighting you… your gang."

"Further detachments of police soldiers?"

"N- no, from the King's armed forces. A squadron of light cavalry will arrive within days. Guard-something…"

"Guard Hussars?"

"I believe that is what Captain von Hardenburg called them, yes…"

"Wretched!" Cornelia said and thumped her fist into her open palm. "They're unbeatable on open ground, but perhaps not deep within the woodlands where their horses won't work so well. Will they be supported by musket infantry or other ground units?"

"I cannot say… I beg f- for forgiveness… oh… wait… the Captain spoke of Lancers…"

"Lancers?! Bloody hell!" Cornelia growled, throwing her arms in the air.

"I fear I do not underst-"

"The Hussars will drive us into a pocket, then the Lancers will round us up, or finish us off depending on their orders. I dare say your husband finally woke up from his long slumber! Why all this bloodlust all of a sudden?" Cornelia said and took a long step closer to the younger woman. "Christiane, please be honest with me now… what did you tell your husband and the Captain?"

"I told them nothing, Cornelia! You must believe me!" Christiane said and grabbed hold of the taller woman's arms. "I gave you my word that I would not betray you, and I have kept to that word. My husband had already set the plans in motion when you returned me to the manor the other night."

"Seems like the baron cares for you more than you believed."

"Perhaps so, though I am still not too sure. Oh… and, Captain von Hardenburg also gave me an explanation as to why the ransom was not met… the sum was quite simply too vast for my husband to comply with the demands without financial aid from his family in North Zealand. A dispatch rider was sent north at once when they received the ransom note, but your patience was too short to wait for the rigsdaler to be delivered."

"Wretched," Cornelia mumbled, scrunching up her face.

Christiane still held Cornelia's arms, but they did not feel like they had during the wonderful nocturnal ride back to Swan Manor. Sighing with disappointment, she let go and let her hands fall down her sides.

A short minute went by in complete silence before Cornelia cocked her head again and shot the baroness a pointed look. "Christiane, you do realize you have just betrayed your husband?"

"I do," Christiane said in a quiet voice.


"Because of the foolish notion of wanting to make sure your were safe. A protection you clearly do not need."

"I am quite capable of protecting myself, thank you."

Christiane sighed. "So I gather. What shall you and your men do now, Black Rose?"

Cornelia echoed Christiane's sigh upon hearing the baroness uttering her moniker rather than her name. "I suppose we'll move on. Go further south to Falster or Lolland. Or maybe we'll disband and start anew somewhere else, I can't say yet."


"Yeah. The public sees us a singular gang, but we've never considered ourselves as such. We just work together because it's in our best interest to do so. The men come and go all the time. When we were further north here on Zealand, we were only seven or eight. At the moment, we're fourteen… two men moved on."

"Oh… for some reason, I was under the impression that you were like Robin Hood's merry men… a group who stayed together through thick and thin."

Cornelia chuckled at that analogy. "Not quite, Baroness. Well. Thank you for the information. I appreciate the warning… I'd rather not wake up one morning with a nine-foot lance up my nostril. Will you be able to get back to the manor by yourself?"

Christiane had not expected to be dismissed in such a casual fashion, so her jaw slipped down to her chest at Cornelia's words. Her composure was soon regained, and she performed a brief nod even while her cheeks were tainted in a strong crimson. "I will," she said and shuffled over to Bukefalos.

Taking the reins, Christiane looked back at Cornelia in the hope that the tall woman had more to say. Time seemed to come to a standstill between them. The seconds became minutes or even hours, but when it dawned on Christiane that Cornelia had not even planned to bid her a good night or wish her farewell, she climbed up into the sidesaddle with a face set in stone. Moments later, she slapped the reins to begin the journey home.


As Baroness Christiane's bay gelding trod back across the tall grass, Cornelia kept standing at the tree, and she did not move until the young woman had nudged her steed into going a little faster up on the coastal road's hard-packed dirt. Though her face was unreadable, it was clear by her body language - hands akimbo and her legs apart - that she was annoyed with the development.

Once the baroness had disappeared up the road, Cornelia put two fingers in her mouth and let out a faint whistle. Jakob Mikkelsen appeared soon after from the ditch on the other side of the coastal road. "So?" she said to her second-in-command as she stomped over the tall grass to meet him halfway there.

"She was here alone, Black Rose," Jakob said. Like the leader of their gang, he wore a dark cape akin to a cowl over his regular clothes, only his had lost the hood somewhere along the way. "Foolish little girl. She had no clue where she was to begin with. She rode past me twice before she even found the trees. If the moon had not come out when it did, she would have missed the cluster by a long sea-mile."

"Mmmm," Cornelia said, using the cover of darkness to observe Jakob's scarred face. He had never been handsome, but his features had turned even more shady and secretive in the days following the baroness' release - it was clear something was brewing just under the surface.

"So what did she say?" Jakob continued. "Or maybe she was here hopin' you would jump her bones?"

Cornelia let out a dark chuckle. The budding intimacy she had felt on the ride to Swan Manor the other night had led her to think along similar lines, but the look of shock and disappointment etched onto the baroness' fair face just before she had climbed up into the saddle had put an end to all such notions, she was certain of that. "Doubt it," she said to keep it away from Jakob's salacious mind. "Seems Baron Erich has decided to stamp his authority on us."

Turning around, Cornelia began to walk back to the horses and the third ruffian they had left there to take care of them. Now that they did not need to sneak around, she let the cowl remain open so she could reach the knife she kept in her sheath if they got into any scrapes.

"How?" Jakob said after ten paces or so. When Cornelia still did not add to her initial reply, he let out a low growl and took a long step closer to her. "I asked you 'how,' Black Rose. Police soldiers?" he said between clenched teeth.

Cornelia shot her second-in-command a dark glare that explained in clear terms what she thought of his impatience - the same impatience that had cost them a shot at seventy-five thousand rigsdaler . "No. Guard Hussars and Lancers."

"Bloody hell! But what the hell for? What did we ever do to him?"

"You mean beyond abducting his wife? I guess even an odd duck like him has his limits," Cornelia said just as they reached their horses and the third man who had come with them, the wiry Henrik Johansen.

She had brought the stolen palomino mare that had turned out to be a good fit for her on a physical as well as a psychological level. After she had decided to make the proud mare her regular steed, she had gone to the coastal village to find a decent saddle she could steal so she did not need to ride bareback the whole time. A good saddle had been found, and thus, she inserted her boot into the stirrup and swung herself up onto the horse's back with little drama.

Jakob let out a grunt as he mounted his own horse, the chestnut mare that had been stolen from the blond youngling when he had been assaulted on his way to Falster carrying the letter to 'Lady Magdalene.' Once Jakob was in place in the saddle, he steered the steed around so he could speak to Cornelia. "Or maybe it's that wretched Captain who's tryin' to assert his position. Didn't he boast about bein' a cavalry officer?"

"Good point," Cornelia said before she turned to the final man there: "Henrik, we got trouble in store. Cavalry and foot soldiers. I want you to go to the manor and wait for the units to arrive. Don't come back to the camp until they have. We need to know their number and combat readiness. All right?"

"Yeah, Black Rose," Henrik said and mounted the third horse there with some difficulty. The wiry miller's apprentice did not look too comfortable atop the tall, somewhat skittish steed, so he dismounted at once and threw the reins to Jakob. "Naw, I've had it with this here wretched beast. Drag it back to the camp or dump it right here, I don't care. I'm gonna walk to the manor and home. Much faster," he said in his typical flat dialect.

Cornelia and Jakob who were both experienced riders laughed at their companion's lack of equestrian skills. They had to agree with him when it came to his progress, or rather lack of it, going to the shore - the horse had spent far more time tripping sideways than going forward. "Ya should've stolen a nicer one, Henrik," Cornelia said and made the palomino go around in a tight circle to show the wiry twenty-something how it was supposed to be done. "Remember, don't come back to the camp before the troops have arrived… we need to know everything we can about them. Yah!"


Cornelia and Jakob's steeds trotted along the coastal road's hard-packed dirt on their way back to the camp. They dragged the skittish horse with them at first, but it soon caused so much trouble through its ill-behaved ways they let it go and watched it run free; perhaps back to the stables it had been stolen from.

Instead of taking the country lane that Baroness Christiane had used to get down to the shore, the two bandits continued south along the coastal road until they arrived at the first, scattered huts and hovels of the small fishing village by the coast. They had carried out so many thefts there already that the villagers had formed a peasant militia carrying pitchforks, but it was a meager threat to the gang of experienced thieves.

In any case, the militia had done little good; Kresten Hansen and Søren Svendsen had still been able to go to town and stock up on their supplies of jerky, salted sausages and watered-down ale. The pair of veteran thieves had also visited the backyard of one of the town's nicest houses where they had stolen a men's nightshirt straight off the clothes-line. When they realized they had taken the shirt from the rectory, however, they had returned it with a letter of apology attached to it - as god-fearing men, it was bad form to steal from Pastor Steengaard.

Cornelia had plenty on her mind so she paid even less attention to her second-in-command than she usually would as they rode along. It was only when he growled at her that she could be bothered to look in his direction.

"I said," Jakob growled, "what are your intentions? Do ya wanna pack up the tents and head away from here, or-"

"Or? I certainly hope you don't expect us to stay and fight Hussars and Lancers, Jakob!" Cornelia growled back. "We are thieves, not soldiers. Even if we had military skills, nobody in their right mind would voluntarily go up against Lancers. Such a move would be suicidal!"

If looks could kill, Jakob would have become the new, undisputed leader of the gang following the glare he sent Cornelia's way. "No shit, Black Rose! That wasn't what I was gonna say!"

"Well, quit beating around the bush, then… spit it out."

Another glare followed that was even darker and deadlier than the one preceding it. "Or do you wanna try somethin' they'll never expect, is what I was gonna say."

"You have a plan, don't ya?" Cornelia said as they pulled their steeds off the coastal road to take a shortcut onto a connecting road that passed by the small village without getting too close to it.

The smug grin on Jakob's face proved he did indeed have a plan, and that it was one he considered good and solid. "I may have," he said after a short while. "And I may even let you in on it. Yah!" Nudging his heels into the chestnut mare's flanks, he and the steed took off in a hurry which left Cornelia and the palomino in their dust.

Cornelia kept riding at the tempo that was best suited for her horse - she was not about to let herself get caught up in childish pissing contests for the right to lead their men. Shaking her head, she let out a sigh at her second-in-command's annoying ways, but soon hunkered down and concentrated on riding home to the camp.


Turning onto the final stretch of road that would take her to the pine forest where they had set up their latest of a long line of camps, Cornelia tugged the reins which made the palomino mare slow down to a mere walk - she wanted to give herself some more time to think; less about the unexpected development involving the King's armed forces than the look of deep despair in Christiane's eyes when they had separated by the coast.

Soon, the mare fell into a natural walk. The rhythmic clip-clopping of the hooves on the dirt road formed the perfect backdrop to Cornelia's thoughts as she sat up straight in the saddle to think better.

The pained look in Christiane's eyes was the source of a peculiar niggle that had been kicked to life somewhere deep inside Cornelia. Had she led the baroness into believing that something intangible could develop between them? Yes and no. All she had done was to follow the plan she had laid out: to gain the baroness' trust, to sow a seed of connection so Christiane would not run home and betray them all. However, that the baroness would respond to the attention in such a strong manner - because of her husband's near-criminal lack of attention, not to mention love, for his wife - was something that the plan had failed to take into account.

Had something intangible developed between them after all? Apparently so, at least on the part of the baroness. The younger woman seemed to be able to harbor feelings for a woman despite the rigid framework she was born into and subsequently forced to live under, but chances were she did not know how to interpret those feelings as they came to her - and that would make her responses unpredictable. Cornelia knew from bitter experience to stay far, far away from the women who did not share her preferences, no matter how beautiful or alluring they were, but the baroness had made an impact on her, there was no way for her to deny that.

During the conversations they'd had the night after Cornelia's frantic arrival as 'Lady Magdalene,' she had seen the real person behind the title: the young woman who had received tutoring on algebra and language skills, who often wrote long, flowery letters to her friends and acquaintances, and who had genuine concern for the well-being of her staff - that alone almost never happened in the circles of aristocracy. The young woman whose inherent humble attitude had caused her to insist that she was nowhere near as pretty as her late mother though the opposite was blatantly true, and, alas, the young woman whose husband had so little time and love for her that she was falling apart on the inside.

A bad case of guilty conscience slapped Cornelia hard across both cheeks - she had caused even more grief and heartache for the impressionable baroness by dismissing her in such a brusque manner. Yet another unfortunate coincidence had been the cause of that rather than ill will or even malice; Cornelia had brought her two fellow bandits along as support in case the baroness had wanted to betray her by luring her into a trap. She had not, and had in fact betrayed her husband instead, but Cornelia could not respond to that with compassion like the situation called for since Jakob was watching it all unfold from across the road. Had Cornelia shown any tenderness or even just gratitude towards the baroness, Jakob would have used it against her in his quest to assume control over the gang, there would have been little doubt about that.

A growl laced with severe annoyance escaped her throat - sooner or later, she would have to do something about Jakob Mikkelsen, and she preferred it would be the former of the two.


The high tempo that the second-in-command had forced his chestnut mare to run at had caused it to fall prey to fatigue before they had made it all the way back to the camp. Cornelia caught up with him and his huffing and puffing steed near the entrance to the pine forest, a fact that did not seem to sit all too well with him.

They rode side by side across the thick layers of withered pine needles until they reached the trees where the night watch had been stationed. For a change, one of the two ruffians chosen to perform the duties was awake and alert, but he was so busy emptying his full bladder up against a tree that he did not even notice that the pair of horses rode straight past him. Cornelia chuckled and rolled her eyes at the inefficient watches they always seemed to have.

At the center of the camp, Oskar 'Swede' Sturesson had kept the cooking fire going so the returning ruffians could get something warm to eat. Two rabbits that the expert poacher had caught himself had been stuck on a spit and were roasting over the open fire. At Swede's feet, the last, unopened barrel of strong ale had been kept back in reserve in case Cornelia or Jakob wanted to wet their whistles.

Bandits who had already imbibed too much of the potent ale were scattered around the fire pit in all sorts of wondrous sleeping positions - some natural, other less so. Here and there, pools of vomit or urine proved it had been a merry evening indeed while the senior bandits had been away.

When the junior Finn Mogensen exited the tent he shared with the two older thieves and came out to greet the senior bandits, Cornelia and Jakob dismounted and left the horses for the young man to deal with. While he grabbed the reins and began to lead the horses back to the pen, Cornelia patted the flank of the palomino mare to show her appreciation of a job well done.

It did not take long for them to crouch at the cooking fire so they could get their hands warmed up. Though the calendar said that the height of midsummer was upon them, the nights were chilly as they invariably were. There was a chance that July and the coming August would be better if the weather would reach them from the south rather than the west, but come September at the latest, the wet, windy days and cold, damp nights would make an unwelcome return and cause plenty of grief for all those who lived on or off the road.

"Did you run into any trouble tonight, Black Rose?" 'Swede' Sturesson said in a sing-song accent so typical of the Swedes.

"No, but we may find some pretty damn soon," Cornelia said, untying the leather laces that kept her cowl tied at the collar. Once it was open, she swept it off her shoulders and dumped it by her feet.


"The baron has sent for a cavalry unit. They'll be here in a couple of days at the most. When's the food ready?"

"Five more minutes," 'Swede' Sturesson said, rolling the spit in his hands to make sure the rabbits would be roasted in an even manner. "Cavalry? Fa'n!" he continued, shooting Cornelia a worried look.

Cornelia chuckled at Oskar's Swedish profanity as she eyed the barrel of ale. "My thoughts exactly. Is the ale any good?"

"Strong as all hell… you need to go slow on it. Help yourself," 'Swede' said and handed Cornelia the barrel and a spare mug that had only been used by a handful of bandits.


Throughout the conversation, the smug look had never left Jakob's face. When the late-late supper was finally served, he jabbed his knife into the steaming hot meat to air it a little more before he could eat it.

The promising scent of the roasted rabbits brought along a few of the ruffians who could still stand - Finn and Sven, whose mere presence always brought conversations to a halt whenever he approached.

Not so on this occasion as Jakob seemed fit to burst with his plan. "All right, listen up," he said as he began to chew on the steaming hot rabbit. "I got a plan… and it's a big one. Our hands are gonna be tied pretty soon when the soldiers arrive, so… so how about we strike first and then scatter? Once we have the loot in our hands, does it matter where we'll end up goin'?"

Cornelia narrowed her eyes as she took her own section of the rabbit. "Strike where, Jakob?" she said as she tore off a chunk of meat and popped it into her mouth.

"The village outhouse! What the hell do you think we're talkin' about here, Black Rose? Swan Manor!" Jakob said and let out a strong snort.

The snort was matched by a grunt from Cornelia that betrayed her sublime annoyance in her second-in-command. "Didn't we already have this talk? Didn't we get stuck on the fact that you're gonna have to walk in there and kill 'em all?"

"Yeah, and I said we'll do that if we have to. I really don't give a damn what your conscience says. Look," Jakob said and pointed the tip of his knife at Cornelia, "I'll betcha they'll let down their guards now, what with the cavalry boys comin' and all. They'll relax and wait for the uniforms to show up… but we'll get there before they do. When they all have their backs turned, we'll strike."

"But how exactly?"

Jakob fell silent and began eyeing the others around the cooking fire; Sven, Finn Mogensen and 'Swede' Sturesson. From the prolonged silence that followed, it soon became clear he had not yet worked out the particulars.

While Cornelia ate on during the moment of awkwardness that fell upon the bandits at the cooking fire, she let her eyes roam across the others like Jakob had done. Oskar, the expert poacher who had not been with them long, but a valuable member since he would always bring back something edible from the hunting trips unlike most of the others who tried. Finn, whose youthful enthusiasm could not compensate for his lack of experience; Sven, whose undeniable killer instinct made him a dangerous man to be around even at the best of times, and finally Jakob, whose ambitions sometimes - often - made him blind to his shortcomings. Maybe it really was time for her to cut the losses and move on. None of the men sitting at the fire pit had anything to add to her life beyond thievery and violence, and she was more than capable of providing that herself.

When Jakob did not seem to want to add to the presentation of his plan, Cornelia let out a grunt and went ahead airing her own thoughts: "Yeah, see… I've been thinking-"

"This is my plan, Black Rose!" Jakob said, pointing his knife at himself this time.

"I'm not stepping on your toes, Jakob. I'm just saying I've been thinking. I am allowed to think, ain't I?"

The junior bandit Finn snickered at that, and at the subsequent expression on Jakob's face, but he was quickly silenced by a scathing glare sent his way by the gang's second-in-command.

Grunting, Cornelia eyed them all one more time before she concentrated on Jakob. "We've been at the manor and know how to get in, all right. We also know where the valuables are and how to transport them back. But I'm thinking that we should try to take the manor by skill and stealth, not brute force," she said as she tore off another chunk of meat and popped it into her mouth.

When it became clear Cornelia held the rest of her words of wisdom back to let Jakob stir-fry a little, the second-in-command clenched his jaw. "And what do you have in mind, Black Rose?" he said in a hoarse voice.

"Another charade, though a bolder one than before. I'll bet that Captain von Hardenburg doesn't know any of the peasants or fishermen living in the coastal village, and he sure as hell doesn't know anyone of us. The maids, the Mistress of the Manor and most likely the baroness as well will know some of the villagers, but none of our men-"

"Will you get to the damn point, woman!"

Cornelia let out a cold chuckle at the impatience in Jakob's voice before she let her sea-blue eyes roam around the men to make sure she had their attention. "My idea is to steal a few pitchforks and call some of our men… maybe four or five… a chapter of the local peasant militia. Then those guys will march straight into Swan Manor's courtyard and present a group of captured bandits… maybe five or six… to Captain von Hardenburg. I'll betcha that annoying blowhard will squirt white in his undergarments at the sight… he'll have scored big-time before the cavalry has even shown up."

"And then what?" Jakob said with a furrowed brow.

"The manor doesn't have any prison facilities, so they'll most likely put the captured bandits in the old vaults down in the basement. You stayed down there the whole time we were at the manor, so I'll bet you had time to check out the entire cellar."

Jakob began rubbing his chin. "Yeah… old doors everywhere. Even older locks. Won't hold a determined man. They might put armed hunters on the watch, though…"

"If a man can stand, he can fall," Cornelia said in a cold voice.


Cornelia nodded. Her plan was sound; she knew it, and so did the men around her. "And then we'll already have a few guys inside the castle. Break out in the dead of night, round up all the valuables we can carry, disappear into the darkness. And scatter, like you said before." Once Cornelia had finished describing her plan, she sucked a rabbit bone clean and threw the remains into the fire.

Despite the orange hue that emanated from the flickering flames, a dark shadow fell upon Jakob's face when he realized he had once again been upstaged by Cornelia Karlsdatter. Getting to his feet, he moved away from the cooking fire and began to kick pebbles and spruce cones around the camp. One of the cones hit a sleeping bandit on the side of the head, but the drunken ruffian just grunted and tried to swat away the invisible foe before he went back to sleep.

The mood around the fire pit changed to a darker and more dangerous one. Cornelia sensed it at once when Sven rose as well and met with Jakob some distance away from the others. The two men put their heads together and spoke in a muted whisper that did not carry back to the fire.

Cornelia furrowed her brow as she took in the sight of her two biggest adversaries at the camp - if not outright worst enemies - conferring in such a conspicuous manner. It was a complication she could have lived without, and one she did not know how to combat.

While Finn Mogensen and 'Swede' Sturesson discussed the finer art of cooking a rabbit when no herbs or spices were present to richen the taste, she let her fingers follow her belt until she reached the sheath. After the few days where she had worn both her daggers following her first confrontation with Sven, she had gone back to only wearing one - now she cursed that fact. She could take out Jakob with one hand tied behind her back. Sven would pose a bigger threat, but he was manageable; both of them at once would be an insurmountable problem.

The junior bandit and the expert poacher had yet to notice the change in the mood, and Finn was soon reaching for the barrel of the strong ale to get a little more of the potent brew down his throat before it would run out. After he had taken a good swig - that left red blotches on his cheeks from the kick - he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and offered the barrel to Oskar Sturesson. When the older man turned him down, he held it up for Cornelia. "You want some more, Black Rose? It's mighty good this time… not that piss-yellow water we've had so much of here."

"No thanks, Finn," Cornelia said, keeping her eyes fixed on Jakob and Sven rather than on the barrel. "Say… if you weren't here with us, what do you suppose you would be doing?"

Finn swallowed the next gulp of the strong ale before he realized the question had indeed been directed at him. "Uh… wha'?" he croaked, looking at Cornelia like he could not believe someone had asked him a civil question that did not involve various methods of thieving, looting, robbing or pilfering.

"What would you be doing now if you hadn't joined us?" Cornelia said again, keeping her hand near the sheath the whole time though it did not look as if she was doing so.

"I dunno… I ran away from home 'cos the old man beat me up. I'd be with another gang, I think," Finn said with a shrug. "Or maybe I would be in jail, I dunno." The junior shrugged again and picked up the barrel to take another swig.

Out of the corner of her eye, Cornelia noticed that Jakob and Sven nodded to each other and then split up. Her second-in-command strolled back towards the fire pit wearing a smug look on his face while Sven shuffled further around the fire until he was standing in the vicinity of Finn and 'Swede' Sturesson.

Cornelia's skin turned warm as her heart rate went skyward. Whatever was about to go down, it would be messy, she was sure of that. Her mouth turned dry at the prospects of imminent conflict, but since the only liquid she had access to was the strong brew, she was better off with a dry mouth. "Jakob, you look like you finally figured out how to play pattycake," she said, shooting her second-in-command a look of cold contempt.

"Cute. You've rattled my cage once too often for such a stupid barb to work," Jakob said, coming to a halt by the fire. He put his hands akimbo so his right one was close to the sheath holding his hunting knife.

Cornelia let out a droll laugh even while her eyes remained fixed on her adversary's sheath and the hilt of the razor-sharp blade kept inside it. "Imagine that. And there I was, thinking that most of 'em had gone clean over your head."

"Enough o' this shit! The men have grievances, Black Rose… and I demand a deliberation."

Finn Mogensen and Oskar Sturesson fell silent at once to stare at their leader and the second-in-command. Cornelia's jaw began to grind at Jakob's words. Whenever a member of any criminal gang claimed 'grievances' with the current leader, it was always the opening volley in a destructive power struggle. The severity of the struggle would depend on the strengths and skills of the challenger and the sitting ruler, but it was rare it would not turn messy in a heartbeat. "Grievances?" she growled, standing up without making any sudden moves.

"You heard me. The men are dissatisfied with the way you run our gang… like releasin' the baroness without gettin' as much as a rigsdaler of the ransom you promised us. And now you don't wanna go back to the manor and grab what we can get our hands on. What's next? You want us to go to church on Sundays?" Jakob said while displaying an evil grin. "No, Black Rose. Your time has run out. I got no idea why, but it seems you have lost interest in what we're doin' here-"

"Jakob, if you hadn't been so short on patience, we would have received seventy-five thousand rigsdaler for the baroness!" Cornelia said and slapped her hands together palm-up in the age-old illustration of the money that could have been resting there. "Her husband sent an urgent note to his family for financial support. We would have had that money one or two days later, but you had to-"

"That's just a load o' bull, Black Rose!" Jakob barked, pointing an accusing index finger at the leader of the gang. "Who told you that? The blond cunt? Why should I believe a word she told you? Or a word o' what you're tellin' me now, for that matter? The hell I will! I, Jakob Mikkelsen, propose a vote for the leadership of this fine group of men," he continued as he held out his arms - that the men in question were no more than drunken bandits who were out cold from excessive drinking mattered little.

"And you talk about bull, Jakob… this ain't no stinking democracy," Cornelia mumbled, putting her hand on the sheath.

"Who's with me?" Jakob continued, thrusting his hand in the air. Looking around, he nodded when Sven put up his hand as well. "Good. Swede?"

"No way I'm getting involved," Oskar Sturesson said in his trademark lyrical accent. As he spoke, he shook his head so hard his unwashed hair flew about. "I don't care about any of you. I don't need this! I'm gone the moment the sun comes up."

A frown developed on Jakob's forehead, but he kept his hand in the air. "I'm gonna keep you to that, you wrinkled, old piece o' shit. Finn?"

The junior bandit's eyes were as large as saucers as he looked from Jakob to the tall, imposing woman and back several times - in the end, he settled for looking at Cornelia. "I- I'm… I'm with Black Rose!"

"Are you now?" Jakob said, nodding at Sven who crept up behind the junior.

"Yeah!" Finn said, clenching his fists.

Jakob grunted and turned back to Cornelia. Though his plan for supremacy had taken a small hit, he still wore the smug expression on his face. "I s'pose you'll be votin' for yourself, Black Rose?"

Cornelia could not be bothered to play Jakob's childish game, but she knew matters were about to come to a head if she did not. Finn had already gulped down too much of the strong ale to sense Sven's presence. Even if she cried out to the junior that he should watch his back, he would not be able to get out of harms' way fast enough, and the stone cold killer would still attack. Though she could feel Jakob's beady eyes studying her, she kept her expression as neutral as she could.

In the end, circumstances forced her to accept defeat, and the chief circumstance came in the shape of the razor-sharp blade that Sven drew from one of his two sheaths. The orange light that emanated from the cooking fire glinted off the cold steel as it was held ready to be jabbed in between Finn's ribs. She had no doubt that Sven would kill the junior if the order came - perhaps he would do it even without being told. "Call off your attack dog, Jakob," she said in a low, dangerous voice. "I'll stand down as the leader. God help you all."

"God has no business here. This is my show," Jakob said and once more signaled Sven who sheathed the knife. The former second-in-command, now the leader of the gang, turned back to Cornelia while an evil smile spread over his face. "I don't hold grudges, Black Rose."

"The hell you don't…"

"No, no… I'll let you stay on as a regular member. O' course, we'll expect you to perform the same chores as the rest of the regular members, like diggin' the waste pit and all those shitty jobs," Jakob said with an arrogant grin that soon turned threatening. "And who knows what else you might be good for once we get you down on your hands and knees."

The juvenile pun made Cornelia pull her lips back in a sneer. "Don't get your wick up, Jakob. In fact… you can go to hell. You and your deranged friend there," she said, nodding at Sven.

Jakob let out a cold chuckle and put his hands in the air. "What, and you consider yourself a saint? You obviously don't appreciate my gracious offer, so I'll give you ten minutes to get your shit packed and get the hell outta here."

Clenching her jaw, Cornelia let the full brunt of her sea-blue eyes pin Jakob to the spot. She stared at him with such burning intensity that the new leader of the gang had to look away - when he did, she let out a snort and stomped away from the fire pit.

"Black Rose, wait!" Finn said and tried to jump to his feet. The strong ale had already gone to his head and he was only able to get halfway up before he keeled over onto his rear. "Wait… I wanna come with you!" he said as he made another attempt at getting to his feet. On the second pass, he was at least able to make it to his knees, but the effort seemed to have drained him of his last grains of energy, and he slipped back down onto the ground.

Through all that, Cornelia had never once looked back though she had felt several pairs of eyes burning holes in her back. Instead, she continued stomping across the clearing to get to the tent that had been hers until she had been ousted.

Jakob laughed at the drunken junior as he strolled over to him and grabbed him by the ear lobe. "Oh, so you wanna go with her, Finn? Hell no, you're staying right here with us," he said, yanking the junior's head closer to him. "And we're gonna have a whole lotta fun. Oh, yeah."


Inside the tent, Cornelia stomped over to her chest and flipped open the lid at once. The sheath with her second knife as well as the figurines and the small silver items she had stolen from the drawing rooms at the manor were all still there, as were her three gowns: the pink one that had been mended by Swan Manor's expert seamstress, the pale-blue, high-necked one with the starched collar and the puff-cuffs that she had used for the official dinner, and the exquisite, short-sleeved, salmon-colored nightgown.

To create more room for the most important of her meager belongings, she pulled out the pink dress and threw it onto the floor - the old, stolen dress had been threadbare even before she had torn the sleeve for the charade so it was no great loss. She was reluctant to get rid of the pale-blue one, so that stayed, as did the nightgown.

The knife was next, and she attached the sheath to her leather belt on the opposite side of the one she already carried. The risk of being involved in a fight before she would be allowed to leave the camp was great - perhaps she would even be forced to fight herself free - so with a blade on either side of her body, she would be able to defend herself no matter the particulars.

With a face that resembled a thunderstorm in August, she stored her beloved clay pipe and the remaining pack of tobacco before she took her fire-flints, the solid pen and a few pieces of the paper she had used for the baroness' ransom note; the only one that had not added to their coffers.

Thinking about the ransom note made her look at the wooden cage that had seen use as a prison for their hostages. It had been empty after the baroness had used it since they had been unable to find another hostage whose family was wealthy enough to make the whole business worth their while. The craftsmanship was near-perfect so it irked her to leave it behind, but it was far, far too heavy to drag around.

Standing up straight, she eyed the rest of the items in the tent: the makeshift sleeping bag made of a pair of burlap sacks sown together was too large to stuff into the chest or the saddlebags she had stolen along with the saddle for the palomino, so she would have to pilfer another couple of sacks wherever she would end up. The apple crate would in theory have room for the burlap sacks, but she could not be bothered to carry the cumbersome crate around, especially not when it was far more important to take the chest with her. The candlesticks and the stumps she had used for lighting purposes were nothing special so there was no point in taking them along. A moment later, she changed her mind and put two of the candle-stumps into the chest.

A quick check-over of the tent proved that she had taken all the valuable items. Sighing, she slammed the chest's lid shut and picked up the saddlebags instead. Opening the two flaps, she stuffed some of her regular clothes down into the large pockets: her spare breeches and a leather belt, a spare tunic, a white shirt, her two bandannas and an extra set of undergarments.

Once everything had been stored in the saddlebags, she closed and secured the flaps before she swung the whole thing over her left shoulder. With her chest in place under her left arm - so she had her good hand free for wielding the knife if she had to - she exited the tent without looking back.

She did not worthy Jakob and Sven a second look as she stomped across the clearing to get to the pen where they kept the stolen mules and horses. At least the palomino mare was happy to see her: it whinnied when she loosened the rope tying the horse to a trunk.

The saddlebags were soon placed across the mare's hind quarters, but the clumsy, wooden chest offered a greater challenge. It took her a few tries to get up into the saddle since she only had one free hand that she could use to pull herself up, but she got there in the end.

Grabbing the reins, she clucked her tongue and nudged the mare's flanks to get it underway. When she returned to the central area near the cooking fire, Oskar 'Swede' Sturesson had left, no doubt to pack his belongings as well. Finn Mogensen had succumbed to the ale and had fallen asleep, but Jakob Mikkelsen and Sven were still there, stoking the fire. She pulled the horse to a halt and cast a scathing glare at her former second-in-command. "Have fun being the leader of the gang, Jakob. I think you'll choke."

"Hardly, bitch," Jakob said and got to his feet. "Get the hell outta here while you still can. I never got to pay you back for bustin' my nose and punchin' me in the kidneys at the manor… and I'm just itchin' to do so."

Cornelia let out a snort before she nudged the mare's flanks once more. Ten paces further along, she brought the horse to a halt and made it come around. "You haven't seen the last of me, you damn pillock. I'll be there when you fail."

"Piss off, Black Rose! This is your last warnin'!" Jakob roared, drawing his knife to show that his limit had been reached.

Snorting out of sheer contempt for her second-in-command's behavior, Cornelia turned the palomino back around and set off to get away from the clearing, the camp, and the gang of ruffians she had led ever since it had formed several years earlier in another part of the country.


As Cornelia reached the wide, main road that ran between Vording Castle in the south and Køge further north, she tugged the reins to make the mare turn right - northbound. The horse traveled at a fast, efficient tempo that soon saw them arriving at the crossroads that connected the main road with the country lane that led to Swan Manor a few kilometers to the east.

She pulled the mare to a halt at the center of the crossroads while she pondered what to do. As the proud palomino stepped around in an indecisive circle that mirrored her rider's state of mind, Cornelia stared in the direction of the manor although it was far too dark to see anything.

Unlike the night where she and the baroness had traveled along the main road together, the cloud cover was heavier and the moon would only peek through at irregular intervals. The ghostly moonbeams that illuminated the landscape on the rare occasions where the break in the clouds was long enough only added to Cornelia's indecisiveness. She was about to continue northbound - away from all the problems had that plagued her from the moment they had set foot in the region - when the palomino made the decision for her.

Whinnying, the horse took off unprompted, heading onto the country lane that would bring them both to Swan Manor and Baroness Christiane. Relaxing in the saddle, Cornelia let out a chuckle as she allowed her steed to show her the way. Sometimes, horses knew best.




For Baroness Christiane, the first two days following her return from her mission to the inlet - that had turned out to be near-insane rather than daring after all - had been draped in a gloomy gray. She had little appetite, even less enthusiasm for embroidering, writing letters or spending time in her garden, and no interest whatsoever in pretending that everything was all right whenever she was in the presence of her husband, Anneliese von Eyben, or the gruff Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg.

The retired officer in particular had been a pain to be around since the manor had received a note from the commanding officer of the mounted regiment, stating the cavalry squadron would be detained at the garrison for a further two days. Captain von Hardenburg had turned even gruffer than usual, and he had barked orders left and right to all and sundry in a most obnoxious tone of voice that gave the baroness a genuine headache whenever she was unfortunate enough to be near him.

At present, she sat in the grand banqueting hall pushing her warm brunch around her plate. Although the Matron of the Kitchen had served smoked salmon in dill sauce - which had been one of Christiane's favorite dishes for years and years - she had no appetite. Behind her, the Captain and Baron Erich discussed the minutiae for when the detachment of soldiers would arrive, in particular in which suites and guest rooms to put the three officers, Colonel Rudolph Abildgaard, and his two Lieutenants.

Christiane could not care less if the sleeping accommodations for the cavalry officers ended up being a rowing boat that floated around the moat all night; her entire attention was directed at the hazy-blue sea at the inlet and beyond.

The smoked salmon and the dill sauce did indeed send out a delicious scent that trickled past her nostrils, so she tried the dish again and found she could indeed get a few more bites down though her appetite was not great.

The Captain finished his conversation with the baron by clicking his bootheels and performing a deep bow. To mark the occasion, Ieronymus von Hardenburg had changed into his old uniform: shiny, black, long-legged boots, dark-blue riding breeches with a red stripe down the outside of the leg, a short, dark-blue dolman jacket that sported a swirling pattern in gold on the front and back, and a fur-lined pelisse over his left shoulder. Like at the wedding, he wore several golden ribbons on the right arm of his dolman that showed his years of service within the King's cavalry, however, he had yet to don the tall hat, the gold-plated, ceremonial saber or the special cavalry-sheath that had been decorated with a pair of red tassels.

Soon after, Baron Erich dabbed his lips on his cloth napkin and let it fall onto his empty plate. Christiane's husband had enjoyed a mug of honeyed tea that had accompanied a portion of sliced, glacéd ham on buttered toast - he had declined the scrambled eggs that always went with the dish, much to the Matron's vocal annoyance since she had already cracked them. As he put his hands on the sides of his chair, two of the servants bolted away from the wall and rushed over to come to his assistance.

To follow protocol, Christiane rose when her husband did. She performed a brief curtsey that only garnered a brief nod in return before the baron strolled out of the banqueting hall.

Since the official end of the brunch had been reached now the baron had left the dining table, she pushed away the plate with the half-eaten fish - although she did break off a chunk of her toasted bun to scoop up a chunk of the smoked salmon and some of the delicious dill sauce before it would go to waste.

As two young kitchenmaids - who were sisters - hurried over to the baroness to take the plate and help her with the chair, she noticed both girls had red blotches splashed across their cheeks. The two maids were new employees at the manor, having only started earlier in the week. So far, they had been doing a good job, but there was much to take in for a pair of tender mid-teens.

Christiane eyed the young, similar-looking girls while a faint smile creased her lips. She had yet to learn their names, but the moment seemed a good one to do so. "I trust you have had a good morning, girls?" she said, making the sisters come to screeching halts and jump into deep curtseys.

"We have, Baroness Christiane," they said as one.

"Any good Lady of the Manor knows the names of her staff, but I do believe we have yet to be acquainted. You are?"

"Anne-Dorte, Baroness Christiane!" -- "Pernille, Baroness Christiane!" the sisters said as one.

Their synchronicity made Christiane chuckle, and she felt a little of her gloominess leaving her as she stepped away from the table to allow the maids room to work. "Pleased I am to meet two such charming sisters. Where are you from?"

"A small village a few kilometers south of here… Bårse, Baroness Christiane."

"Oh, I've gone through there on a number of occasions. I gather you have recently joined us?"

"We have, Baroness Christiane. Last Monday," Anne-Dorte said, curtseying again to be on the safe side. Both Anne-Dorte and her sister Pernille were in their mid-teens, and they both had pale-blue eyes and dusty-blond hair that had been cut to their collars so it would not fall into the food when they carried trays up to the suites. Although similar in looks, they were not quite twins as Pernille was just a touch more boorish than the somewhat sophisticated Anne-Dorte - Christiane presumed they had different fathers though they could not be more than two years apart.

"And I trust your first impressions of Swan Manor have been positive ones?" Christiane said, moving aside once more as Pernille began to pick up the plates and eating utensils used for the brunch.

"Yes, except-" Pernille began to say, but she stopped to let out a muted cry when her sister kicked her over the shin.

A smile tried hard to crease Christiane's lips at the interaction between the sisters, and she had an even harder time fighting it. "Except?" she said, cocking her head.

A dark glare raced from Anne-Dorte to Pernille before the more boorish of the sisters stepped forward holding the filthy dishes. "We- we hadn't been told the manor was haunted, Baroness Christiane."

"Ah… haunted?"

Anne-Dorte nodded hard. "Yes! We've heard steps squeak, or things that go bump in the night, but there's nobody there! And sometimes, plates, mugs and-"

"And even a whole tray of rye cookies straight out of the oven!" Pernille interjected.

"Yes, a whole tray of rye cookies disappeared last night!" Anne-Dorte said and nodded again. "The Matron didn't find that amusing… at all…"

"And two candlesticks went missing… only one was returned, and in a different place, too!" Pernille added.

The two sisters looked at each other and gained another few, red blotches on their cheeks as they recalled the various instances of ghostly activity at Swan Manor.

Christiane found it all rather amusing, but she was at a loss to explain the strange goings-on. She did not need to as Anneliese von Eyben entered the grand banqueting hall and strode over to the baroness and the two kitchenmaids.

When the two sisters were on the receiving end of an impatient look from the Mistress of the Manor, they finished their chores at the dining table without further comments. After curtseying, they hurried back out of the banqueting hall to go downstairs to the kitchen so they could begin cleaning the dishes.

Christiane chuckled as she and the Mistress of the Manor strolled across the smooth floor to get to the elegant drawing rooms. "Oh, I fear we have gained an otherworldly lodger, Anneliese. According to the girls there, Swan Manor is haunted."

"So I gather," the Mistress of the Manor said with a stern look upon her face.

"Ack, you already knew about it?"

"Indeed I did, Baroness Christiane. Merely old wives' tales spun by kitchen staffers who clearly have too much time on their hands. I did not want to bother you with them while you were under the weather."

Christiane let out an amused grunt at the colorful description of her woes. Nodding, she offered her old friend a smile. "I thank you, Anneliese. A ghost is certainly a romantic notion amidst our dreary existence. Imagine being doomed to walk the earth for all eternity… such a ghastly fate. Still, I cannot recall ever hearing of ghosts who had a craving for rye cookies."

"Quite. Perhaps a runaway from the coastal village?"

"That would be a more logical explanation, I agree," Christiane said with a smile. "I am convinced we shall be looking in the mortal realm for our mysterious guest."

After crossing the grand hall and walking into the first drawing room, Christiane strolled over to a low table and picked up an embroidery that she had left there the evening before. Once she had the kit ready, she moved back to the chairs by the dormant fireplace.

"Will that be all for now, Baroness?" Anneliese said and went into a quick curtsey.

The needlework was soon put on another of the low tables before Christiane swept her dark-brown dress to the side so she could sit down. "It will, yes. Thank you, Anneliese. If I seek your assistance, I shall simply give you a call."

"And I shall come to your aid as soon as I can, Baroness. I fear my day shall be quite busy with the arrival of the King's armed forces-"

"Ack! I had so nearly forgotten about that… quite. Perhaps Signe will be available," Christiane said and moved her legs to the side like all proper ladies should. "In any case, we shall meet for the fitting of my gown so our military guests can be greeted with plenty of pomp and circumstance. I promise I shall not bother you too often until then."

"Thank you, Baroness," Anneliese said and curtseyed again before she left the drawing rooms.

Once she was alone, Christiane picked up the embroidery. The picture she was working on - a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses - was a challenging piece, so she needed to concentrate hard to get everything right.


A while later, her neck cried enough, and she put down the needlework to regain some of her lost energy. Looking around the quiet drawing room, her eyes fell on the display cabinets from where 'Lady Magdalene' had pilfered the figurines and the silverware. A sigh escaped her lips as she thought of the unknown fates of the valuable items - though studying the cabinet, it struck her that something was not quite right about it.

She could not put a finger on what it could be, so she got up from the chair and moved over to the cabinet to explore it further. Realizing the missing items had been returned to their proper spots on the shelves, she let out an exclamation that was a cross between a surprised snort, an excited squeal and a confused grunt.

Her mind turned into a muddled mess as she stared wide-eyed at her late mother's figurines, the silver cream jug, the sugar bowl, the ashtray and all the other items that once again graced the shelves inside the display cabinets. "Cornelia…" she croaked, reaching up to clutch her head. "She must be our lodger… our friendly ghost…! Ack! But… but… if she is here, why has she not come forth? Ack! And where is she? Upstairs… downstairs… in the stables? I must find her!"

A myriad of thoughts raced around in her mind as she tried to come up with a plan to seek out the elusive house guest. She stormed over to the embroidery and picked it up only to realize there was not much she could accomplish carrying a half-done piece of needlework. Then she ran over to the window to look down into her ornamental garden in case Cornelia was hiding there, but that was as big a nonsense as the needlework would have been since there were no obvious hideouts down there - save for sleeping under the bench.

"I cannot imagine anyone could hide in the vaults… not with the Matron being so thorough. No," she mumbled to herself as she came to a halt in the middle of the drawing room floor. "Upstairs in the guest rooms? No, that is where the insufferable Captain is staying… ack! She must be in the stables! Oh, but the smell of the horses is so overpowering… but of course, her men smelled even worse! Perhaps the hayloft? Oh… I… I… need my boots!" she continued, storming out of the drawing room to get upstairs to her bedchamber.


The loose gravel crunched under Baroness Christiane's booted feet as she tore across the courtyard. It was only when her hair and face were hit by a few drops of precipitation that she noticed the sun had gone into hiding behind a rain cloud. She had not had time to find a bonnet, so to avoid having her hair get damp and frazzled on a day where she needed to look sublime for their guests from the King's armed forces, she increased the tempo even further until she reached the safety of the main building at the stables.

Three men - a Master Wrangler and two apprentices - were working inside the stables mucking out the bays of the fifteen horses kept there. The older, broad-shouldered Master controlled a heavily-laden wheelbarrow while the younger men scooped up the manure from the cobbled floor and transferred it onto the vehicle using dung forks. All three men stopped what they were doing to break out in wide-eyed stares when they were joined by the last person they had ever expected to see in there, the baroness.

"I bid you all a good day… oh, hello, Hjalmar," she said, smiling at the blond youngling who had risked his life to bring the letter south to Falster.

"Good day, Baroness. Shall I saddle Bukefalos for you?" Hjalmar said, bowing to his Mistress.

"No, thank you. Not today. I shall not bother you for long," Christiane said and turned back to the Master and the other apprentice; all three were dressed in long-legged clog-boots, woolly breeches, gray, short-sleeved shirts and heavy-duty leather aprons. She offered the other two a smile as well to keep all things equal between the men working in the stables. "I am only here to ask if you have noticed anything unusual here in the past few days?"

"Well, we have, Baroness," the Master said. In his late fifties, the senior wrangler was a burly, though beardless, man whose broad frame and muscular arms proved he was an accomplished blacksmith as well. "Someone brought in a strange horse the other night. Fully saddled and everything. The person hasn't been back to reclaim it, either. We don't know what to do with it, but we groomed it, and we'll keep on giving it feed and water until we're told differently…"

"Oh… a strange horse?"

"A palomi-"

"I need to see it!" Christiane said, stepping forward at once. The cobbled floor was strewn with hay, clumps of dirt and the occasional horse dropping, but she lifted the lower hem of her dress so the dark-brown fabric would not acquire any stains in a different shade of brown.

The Master Wrangler's eyebrows went up, then down, at the baroness' curious impatience, but he let out an affirmative grunt and trundled further down the long line of bays in his clog-boots. When they reached the second-to-last bay, the Master pointed out a palomino mare that was so familiar to the baroness that she could not hold back a cry of relief.

"Why, it is her!" she said and clapped her hands together, forgetting all about the state of her fragile dress. Moving up to the horse that seemed to recognize her as well, she stroked the side of its head - it whinnied like it appreciated the tender touch. "I thank you! I thank you, Master," she said, putting a hand on the burly man's sweaty arm.

"Uh… you are most welcome, Baroness," the senior wrangler said, staring at the dainty, lily-white hand that looked like it belonged to a doll compared to the size of his arm and the texture of his leathery skin.

"Has anything gone missing from the stables lately?" Christiane asked, looking at the Master and the two apprentices who had come down to the palomino to see what all the hubbub was about. "Tools, or perhaps food or beverages?"

"No… I can't think of anything. Well, not since that fella was caught the other day, anyway. He did steal a loaf of bread from our lunch room after all," the Master said, shrugging.

When Hjalmar and the other apprentice shrugged as well, Christiane cast a final glance at the palomino mare before she pulled up in her dress and moved out of the bay. "Very well. I thank you. Please carry on. I imagine you shall be quite busy with all the further horses coming later today. Grooming and whatnot?"

"Naw," the master said as they walked back up the cobbled path. "They bring their own wranglers. Won't let us civilians touch all the mighty fine army horses. Pah."


Leaving her soiled boots on the doorstep for one of the servants to deal with, Christiane slipped into her shoes in a hurry so no one would see her socked feet. With the palomino mare in the stables, it was confirmed that Cornelia was somewhere in the manor. Where the woman could be hiding, however, was still an open question.

Christiane was about to head downstairs into the basement when she heard the Matron of the Kitchen's characteristic rich, booming voice wafting up the stone staircase. The Matron seemed to be well into one of her infamous 'moments,' so Christiane reconsidered her plans and turned back at once. Instead of exposing herself to the storm of fire and brimstone that always accompanied the Matron's moments, she decided to try the attic instead.


Christiane's heart was in her mouth as she walked up the final, steep staircase that led to the attic and the row of guest rooms up there. Not as a late reaction from racing up the first part of the sweeping, majestic staircase, but from the burning question that had come to the forefront of her mind - why?

Why had the tall, beautiful woman chosen to come to Swan Manor all of a sudden? And why now, after the inauspicious parting at the inlet? Was it just the next stage in a grand charade once more meant to instill a false sense of hope in the baroness, or was it something more? And who would she be this time? The cold, fearsome Black Rose, or the warmer, gentler Cornelia who, although still a thief, had at least shown she was human?

Reaching the top step, Christiane shook her head. She could not answer any of those questions. As always, the top step creaked as she put her weight on it, so she needed to move a few paces onto the wooden floor before she could listen for any unusual sounds.

Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg occupied one of the guest rooms in the attic, and the gruff, retired cavalry officer had nailed a piece of paper onto the door. The note carried his name, former rank, and a warning to all chambermaids and manservants to knock twice and wait for permission before they would enter.

Christiane snorted at the warning. The staff would always knock and wait for permission before they would enter any of the chambers or suites, so there was no need to spell it out to them in such a patronizing manner.

Unlike most other manors that had a single, open space in the attic, the builder in charge of the construction of Swan Manor had planned the twelve smallish chambers into the design from the start. The rooms had been laid out in a perfect symmetry with six on either side of the steep, central staircase, and they had been built along a wooden pathway that ran the entire width of the main building from one outer wall to the other. All twelve were protected by sturdy doors with strong metal hinges and latches.

Of the twelve chambers, four were in use as box rooms, the Captain occupied one, and three of the remaining seven had been renovated and then sealed off in case the officers of the Guard Hussars would accept the simple accommodations. The four box rooms were crammed too full of items to offer space for anyone, even someone who was used to roughing it, so that left four chambers where Cornelia could be staying - if she was even up there.

Christiane rubbed her chin as she took in the sight of the many identical doors. She needed to start somewhere, so she went left and shuffled all the way down the pathway until she reached the end wall. Her quest was eased by the fact that the doors of the first two chambers - two of the box rooms - were locked and chained. The chains were large and heavy, and she could barely move them when she tried.

The third door from the left was unlocked, but the latch looked as if it had not been manipulated in quite some time. The next room had been the one that had been used for 'Lady Magdalene' during the charade. Christiane furrowed her brow - she would not put it past the cunning Cornelia to hide in plain sight, as it were.

Moving ahead, she reached for the latch. Not only was it unlocked, the metal's lower bar was shiny from the use it had seen during the charade - thus masking if it had seen more recent action. As her trembling hand crept closer to the handle, she took a deep breath and held it.

One centimeter before her fingers would have touched the cold metal, the door flew open and an arm came shooting out. The strong, callused hand that came from inside grabbed hold of the baroness and dragged her into the room before she could even think about shrieking.

As the door was shut behind the two people - which left them in complete darkness since the chambers had no windows - the baroness let out a muffled cry of terror as the hand that had grabbed her arm let go only to clamp down on her mouth.

"Hush, my dear baroness!" a female voice whispered in the darkness.

The hand that covered Christiane's mouth was too strong to remove, so she could only let out a "Hmphmpf!" as a reply though she continued to try to grapple with her unseen attacker.

"I'll let go now… please don't cry out. All right?" the chamber-dweller said as she removed the strong hand.

The tension and the darkness made Christiane pant, and her heavy breathing sounded like a whirlwind in the small chamber. A pair of fire-flints were struck once, then once more before a spark flew and ignited a wick on a stump of candle.

As the light blossomed from the candle, the tall, long-haired woman with the sea-blue eyes came into view. She looked pensive at first, perhaps fearing a scream, but her lips soon cracked into a smile. "Greetings, Baroness. Surprised to see me?"

"I'll say!" Christiane croaked, staring wide-eyed at the woman before her. Though her strong panting had been reduced to a regular breathing, her heart rate still had not come down to normal levels. "Cornelia, I declare… you… why… you… I do not appreciate being scared half to death!" she cried, stomping her foot on the wooden floorboards.

"Well, I beg for forgiveness. And please don't speak too loudly… I would prefer to remain undetected for as long as possible," Cornelia said and used the burning stump to ignite a second light that had been squeezed down into the neck of a silver candlestick. As the darkness receded further, an unmade bed, a low table and a rickety chair came into view. A chamber pot had been pushed under the bed, and a mug and a silver tray carrying a host of crumbs had been placed on the table; no doubt the last remains of the missing rye cookies.

"How did you even know it was me?" Christiane said and crossed her arms over her chest in a clear huff for being grabbed like that. "It could have been Captain von Hardenburg out there for all you knew!"

"No, his footfalls are much heavier. When I heard the step creaking, I knew it had to be a lightweight… so to speak," Cornelia said, grinning at her own comment. "And it couldn't be a chambermaid since it wasn't too long since someone was in there making the Captain's bed. Thus, it could really only be you. Well, you or the Mistress of the Manor. I knew you would find me sooner or later."

Unable to hold her stern facade, Christiane shook her head and broke out in a smile. "I must say… though we parted on less than amicable terms down by the inlet, I am indeed happy to see you. But who are you this time? Black Rose or Cornelia?"

Cornelia sighed and ran a hand through her wild hair. "I'm Cornelia. You might say that Black Rose, the bandit queen, doesn't exist anymore. Jakob staged a small-scale revolution. He ousted me and took my mantle as the leader of the gang."

"Oh… that was unexpected…" Christiane said and furrowed her brow. "I do not like that man," she continued with conviction after a short pause.

A muted chuckle escaped Cornelia. "I never have, but he's a good thief. What he isn't, however, is a good leader. Sooner or later, he'll fall… or be pushed. Stabbed in the back by one of the others."

Christiane crinkled her nose in disgust over the crude ways of the ruffians. A somber silence fell between them that Cornelia took full advantage of by sitting down on the unmade bed. They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds before Christiane shuffled over to the bed and sat down next to the taller woman. "Your necklace with the gold pendant is safe and sound in a drawer downstairs in my bedchamber. Do you wish to have it back at once?"

"No. You better hang onto it a little while longer."

"Very well… oh, and I thank you for returning Mother's priceless figurines to the display cabinet. I am indeed very grateful for your act of kindness."

"You're welcome," Cornelia said and let out a tired chuckle.

"How long have you been up here, then? For a day or two?"

"Getting close to two and a half days, actually. I arrived only a few hours after we had separated by the inlet," Cornelia said, slapping her thighs in frustration as she thought back to the ugly scenes that had transpired at the cooking fire. "I hoped I would be able to find a safe haven here… or rather, my horse did. She went this way, I was only a passenger."

They chuckled at that before they fell quiet again. "I wish I had known sooner that you were hiding up here. It would have saved me from two rather unpleasant days," Christiane said in a somber voice.

"I'm sorry, Christiane," Cornelia said and put a calm hand on the baroness' shoulder. "And I'm sorry for what happened at the inlet. I had to act the way I did because Jakob was watching us from the opposite side of the road. Had I allowed a more friendly tone to enter our conversation, he would have used it against me."

"Oh… he was there with you? I distinctly said in the letter that our meeting should be a private one."

Cornelia shrugged. "I couldn't know if you were going to betray me. You might have brought armed hunters with you, so…"

"I had given you my word, you know."

Another shrug followed. "Where I come from, a word means nothing."

"Mmmm," Christiane said, scrunching up her face. "So to prevent Jakob from using it against you, you acted so cold that it caused me grief and heartache for days. And then he was the one who ended up betraying you, not I!"


"Ack, a bandit's life must be unbearable. Never a moment of peace… always on the alert for trouble, or backstabbers, or police soldiers-"

"Speaking of which," Cornelia said, giving Christiane's shoulder a squeeze before she put her hands in her lap, "whatever happened to the Guard Hussars? I'm sure they haven't arrived yet… soldiers are rarely quiet people."

"No, they were detained at the garrison. But they shall arrive later today. Most likely at noon. The Captain is dressed in his old uniform," Christiane said and rolled her eyes at the memory.


"Oh! Before I forget!" Christiane said and turned around so she faced Cornelia. "One of your men… or former men, I suppose… was apprehended the other day. I do not know all the particulars, but Anneliese and Captain von Hardenburg told me that a member of Black Rose's gang had been caught stealing food from the stables."

"That must have been Henrik Johansen…"

"I fear I do not know his name. In fact, I have not even seen him."

"I told him to go into hiding here until the soldiers arrived. Hmmm… now that's interesting. With Henrik out of the picture, it means Jakob won't know when the cavalry shows up. So… was he hanged for stealing?"

"Good Lord, no! We are not savages!" Christiane said and pressed her hands against her chest. "No, he was incarcerated in the vault down in the basement. With the Guard Hussars coming, we have simply not had the time yet to send word to the coastal village's magistrate."

Cornelia scrunched up her face and let out a sigh - it meant Jakob already had a man on the inside. Had she known she would be ousted, she would not have told her former second-in-command of her detailed plan for getting into the manor under a shroud of deception. "Hmmm. He's a thief and a decent lock pick, but not violent or dangerous as such. I doubt he can be counted among my meager circle of allies, though. He's Jakob's man through and through."

"I do not understand, Cornelia… are you expecting trouble? Surely no trouble can arise with a full squadron of Guard Hussars crowding our halls?"

Before Cornelia had time to speak what was on her mind, a distant bugle call carried through the steeply sloped, tiled roof of the manor.

"Oh… what was that…?" Christiane said, sitting up straight. Another bugle call confirmed they were about to be invaded by a squadron of Guard Hussars supported by a platoon of Lancers. "Ack!" she cried, bolting to her feet. "Oh, they are here far too soon! I need to… I… I need to get changed before my husband and I shall greet the officers! Oh, I must hurry!"

"There is something we need to do first, Christiane," Cornelia said and rose from the bed as well.

"Oh! I fear it must wait… I cannot stay any long-"

"It can't," Cornelia said and pulled the baroness close to her. An eternal second passed where they gazed into each other's eyes; Christiane's hazel orbs displayed shock and surprise at first, but they soon mellowed into an unspoken invitation. Then Cornelia leaned down and claimed the younger woman's lips in a first kiss that was not only sweet and warm, but, above all, a promise of great things to come.

When they separated, Christiane's eyes never left those of the taller woman as she reached up and touched her tingling lips. The contrast between the kiss she had just experienced and those administered in such a clumsy fashion by her husband went far beyond a mere night-and-day difference. This kiss had been how all romantic kisses should be; now she understood what the great poets had tried to describe in their love poetry for millennia - and it had been a woman kissing her. A few pieces of the puzzle fell into place for her as a strong tide of warmth trickled down her being from the tips of her ears to somewhere far more exciting.

Struck speechless for once, she could only let out a goofy chuckle, but the look in her round eyes proved that she had enjoyed the experience and that she could get used to it should it ever happen again.

And then she reached up to give Cornelia a fair-sized slap across the cheek. "That, Black Rose, was for locking me up in a cage in your camp!" - Another, lighter, slap followed - "And that was for all those times you have scared me half to death!" She moved up her hand to add a third, feather-light slap for kissing her out of order though it had been rather sweet, but it was intercepted and given a good, little squeeze.

"Are you quite done?" Cornelia husked, kissing the fingers that had just slapped her.

"I… I, uh…" the baroness croaked, gazing into the intense, sea-blue orbs that seemed to hypnotize her.

"Need to hurry, or you'll be late," Cornelia continued, moving past the stunned baroness to open the door. Another bugle call was heard, and this one sounded like it came from just around the corner.

"Yes, I must hurry," Christiane said and let out a deep, heartfelt sigh. "But I shall return…" she added in a whisper before she had to leave the guest room - and the woman in it - behind.


All through the laborious process of getting the baroness into one of her exquisite gowns, manicuring her fingernails and doing up her hair, Anneliese von Eyben could not tear her eyes away from the goofy grin and the red cheeks that seemed to be plastered onto Christiane's face. Something was afoot, she was sure of it - and she had a strong hunch what it could be. "Signe, facial powder. Quickly, girl," she said to the handmaiden who had helped Christiane get dressed; the red cheeks needed to be dealt with in a hurry as a baroness could not greet complete strangers with a face resembling a ripe tomato.

Christiane let out another goofy chuckle. "Oh, Anneliese, my friend… I shall be fine. Please do not worry about my-"

"I fear I do worry, Baroness… and I fear I have every reason to do so!" Anneliese said as she snatched the powder compact from Signe's hand. Unscrewing the lid of the small, metal jar, she whipped up a storm and applied the powder as a solid coating on Christiane's fair skin. After the impromptu white-washing, the baroness was as good as new: pale to the point of appearing sickly, like the latest fashion for noblewomen dictated. "There… better. Not perfect, but better," Anneliese said, putting away the compact.

Christiane and Anneliese locked eyes for a moment; it was brief, but long enough for the experienced Mistress of the Manor to recognize the look that she knew quite well from being the senior staffer of a full roster of young women. The look confirmed the strong hunch she'd had; the baroness had dipped a toe into the heady pool of romance.

All the signs were there: her eyes were gleaming, her heart was racing, her skin was flushed, her grin was goofy, and she seemed to float on a fluffy white cloud. Anneliese let out a grunt. It was bound to happen sooner or later that a strapping young lad would catch the eye of the baroness, but she would have preferred it to be the man the young, impressionable Lady of the Manor was already married to - little chance of that, she thought.

"Baroness Christiane," Anneliese said and went into a quick curtsey. "You are ready to greet our esteemed guests."

"Excellent. I thank you, old friend. And you, Signe. You both did a sterling job on such short notice," Christiane said with a smile. Turning around, she looked at herself in the large mirror. The four-layer gown she wore was indeed exquisite: held in ivory, it had a half-height, starched collar and puffy shoulders that led to tighter-fitting arms and ended up at wide, though not quite puffy cuffs. The bodice had a plunging, though tasteful, neckline that accentuated her bosom. Below that, the waist held a horizontal line of double-layered fabric before it blossomed out into a wide, pleated skirt that had a metal frame inside it at the front to keep it fixed into shape - the rear was flat so she could sit down. The skirt reached the ground and covered the baroness' shoes that were ivory as well.

Her golden-blond hair was supposed to have been put through the strenuous process of being washed and then wrapped around warm metal rods that had been on a roasting grate over a fire for ten minutes so it could be manipulated into curls. There had not been enough time for that with the cavalry arriving early, so they had washed it, hand-dried it with a coarse towel, and tied it into a wide ponytail that was swept over her right shoulder.

"Oh, I do declare! This is your best work yet, Anneliese!" Christiane said and clapped her hands in glee.

"I am pleased you approve of the gown, Baroness," Anneliese said, performing another curtsey before she handed the younger woman the white gloves needed to complete the ensemble.


A few minutes later down at the stately main entrance, Erich Johann Karl Heinrich and Christiane Margrethe Frederikke, the Baron and Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor, stepped out onto the stone staircase just as several bugle calls were heard from the portal that led onto the gravelly courtyard.

Like his wife, Baron Erich had gone all-out in selecting his outfit. He wore a deep purple, velvet jacket over an off-white, v-neck tunic that was equipped with wraparound cuffs; below, his puffy knickerbockers - that matched the color of the jacket - reached his knees where they gave way to a pair of off-white stockings that ran the rest of the way down his calves to his feet. To finish off the ensemble, he wore black shoes with a golden buckle on top.

His voluminous hair was loose to allow it to fall over his shoulders near the top, but the lower end of the dark locks had been gathered into an easy ponytail held in place by a deep purple barrette. Although he did carry his wide-brimmed hat to the top step of the staircase, it was not meant to be put on. Rather, it was meant to be waved to greet the senior officers when they arrived - once it had been waved, it had finished its task for the day.

Their adjutants and close confidants came out to stand behind the important couple: The Mistress of the Manor Anneliese von Eyben, who had thrown on a clean, pale-gray dress with golden highlights, fell into place on Christiane's right, and Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg and Erich's French manservant, Jean-Philibert Brocard, slipped into place behind the baron's left.

The final bugle call was heard before barked commands took over as means of communication for the detachment of cavalry. Riding into the courtyard in seven rows of two with an additional, single rider up front, the colorful Guard Hussars offered a spectacular sight as they fanned out and turned their well-behaved horses to face the important couple.

All the mounted soldiers wore shiny riding boots and blue-and-red uniforms similar to the one Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg had put on to mark the day. The eleven enlisted men wore blue field caps, but the three officers and a sergeant wore tall, starched hats held in black - a red feather had been attached to the tall crown of the commanding officer's hat.

While the Hussars let their horses cool off after the long ride, two large cargo wagons pulled by a pair of sturdy dray horses each rolled into the courtyard behind them. The first wagon carried twelve Lancers sitting facing each other on wooden benches, and the second carried their equipment, including the fearsome, nine-foot long iron weapons that were among the most lethal in any close-combat situation.

It only took a short while for the experienced wagoneers to pull their cargo vehicles into place behind the Hussars. The Lancers soon disembarked and were directed into lining up in a perfect formation on the gravelly courtyard by a sergeant barking gruff commands.

Once everyone was in place, the commanding officer of the Guard Hussars dismounted and strode over to the couple waiting for him at the main entrance. Reaching them, he clicked his spurred heels and performed a stringent salute that was responded to in style by a similar one from Captain von Hardenburg.

Replying in his own fashion, the baron waved his wide-brimmed hat and performed a short bow at the officer - then he gave the hat to his French manservant who hurried inside with it.

The baroness cocked her head when she took in the sight of the commanding officer. The man was much older than she had imagined he would be - he appeared to be in his mid to late fifties - and his hair and swooping mustache had turned salt-and-pepper. The uniform made it difficult for her to discern his size, but he was not as large or as brawny as she had expected. Though he had a somewhat stern facade, a certain gleam in his eye gave a hint that he was not as gruff or martial as Captain von Hardenburg. Christiane knew better than most that looks could be deceiving, however, so she saved her assessment of the man until after she had spoken with him.

The senior officer performed a deep bow at the baron before he took off his white gloves with a flurry. "Colonel Rudolph Abildgaard at your service, Your Excellency!" he said in a booming baritone that sounded like it could bark orders loud enough to wake the dead if he had to. "Behold, a squadron of Hussars and a platoon of Lancers as requested. We are ready, willing and I dare say able to strike anyone, anywhere and at any time."

"Excellent, Colonel Abildgaard," Baron Erich said in his well-modulated voice. "May I present my wife, Christiane Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor," he continued, gesturing at Christiane who went into a curtsey at once.

"Enchanted, Baroness Christiane," the Colonel said as he performed another bow.

"And you already know Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg, I presume," Baron Erich continued, gesturing at the retired officer who stepped forward.

"I do indeed, Your Excellency," Abildgaard said with a grin. He nodded at von Hardenburg who nodded back.

The baron looked from one officer to the other with an expression on his face that said he had already become bored with the military influences on his day. "Very well. Shall we proceed to the drawing rooms?"

"Ah… Your Excellency," the Colonel said, taking a short step closer to the baron so he could speak in a lower voice, "you are meant to inspect the ranks…"

The bored expression on Erich's face turned into a surly one as he eyed the many po-faced men and smelly, warm horses who had lined up in his courtyard. "Ack, I fear I have no insight into such matters, Colonel Abildgaard. However, I am sure that my faithful adjutant will be most proud to carry out that task for me," he continued, gesturing at Captain von Hardenburg.

"It shall indeed be an honor, Your Excellency," the retired officer said and took a step forward.

"Good. Please carry on. I shall wait for you in the drawing room," the baron said and turned around to walk back inside - the French manservant followed on his heels as always.

Christiane curtseyed to her husband as he walked past her like protocol dictated she should; it was clear the whole thing had just turned quite awkward, and she did not know if she dared to look at the Colonel or Captain von Hardenburg.

The two experienced officers did indeed shoot each other exasperated looks - after all, the baron held an honorary rank in the King's elite cavalry - but they soon shrugged and strode back to the assembled Guard Hussars and Lancers to inspect the ranks like all military customs dictated they should.

Once Christiane and Anneliese were alone at the staircase, the baroness let out the breath she had been holding. "Ack… Anneliese, I fear this is going to be one of those days. My dear husband does seem to be quite short on patience today," she said out of the corner of her mouth.

"I agree," the Mistress of the Manor said and put a hand on the baroness' elbow. "Come, shall we go inside?"

"I suppose we must," Christiane said and let out a sigh.


The elegant drawing room was bustling with activity as the baron and the baroness had been joined by Anneliese von Eyben, three kitchenmaids holding trays, Jean-Philibert Brocard who waved a fan to blow cooler air at the baron - so the important man would not succumb to that most vulgar of ailments, namely sweating - Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg, Colonel Rudolph Abildgaard, and finally his two young Lieutenants, Sigurd Flindt and Henschel von Gahler.

The latter two in particular looked as if they would rather spend their time tending to their horses. There were not enough chairs for all to sit down, so the two youngest members of the party - save for the kitchenmaids - had to stand while they sipped their tea from fine porcelain cups that looked tiny in their large, masculine hands.

Baroness Christiane sat in the eye of the storm. All around her, the esteemed guests from the King's armed forces discussed various topics like battlefield tactics, garrison discipline and the importance of keeping the horses clean and healthy. As expected, discipline was a favorite subject for Captain von Hardenburg who could carry on for hours on that topic if he was allowed to - and it appeared he was.

Now and then, the three kitchenmaids toured the guests, pouring more tea or offering further slices of buttered walnut bread. The timetable had been given a knock by the early arrival of the unit of Guard Hussars, and the Matron of the Kitchen had let everyone in the manor know that she was most displeased with the situation. The grand feast that had been prepared for lunch could not be rushed even if the esteemed guest had been the Messiah himself, so instead, she and her kitchen staff had whipped up some tea and several loaves of the walnut bread that was supposed to have been saved for the afternoon snack.

While sipping her hot, honeyed tea, Christiane looked around to cast a few interested glances at the three officers from the Guard Hussars. The Colonel looked pleased with life as he continued to discuss various military topics with the Captain, but the Lieutenants - who appeared to be only a year or two older than she - had an air about them that said they were bored out of their minds. Although Christiane had grown accustomed to being in such a mental state, she could not blame them a bit.

The tea party was interrupted by the ringing of the dinner bell from across the grand hall. It meant that the battalion of kitchenmaids had finished setting the dining table in the banqueting hall, and had wheeled in the beverages and the bowls containing the steaming hot, spiced tomato soup that was to be the appetizer. Later on, the main dish would consist of roasted venison and mushrooms that had cooked in a strong red wine since the crack of dawn. The desserts would be rock sugar on small wooden sticks, and honey-coated whole walnuts and chipped almonds. Watered-down ale would be served to the appetizer, imported red wine to the main dish, and fine port would accompany the dessert.

Protocol dictated that the Baron should arrive last to the grand feast, so everyone else swarmed out of the drawing rooms after bowing or curtseying to each other to their hearts' content. Baroness Christiane was the first one out of the door at the head of the long line of uniformed men and young maids so she could maneuver the metal frame inside her skirt into position at the dining chair without getting in anyone's way.


The three-course hot lunch had been a raucous affair with the two senior cavalry officers holding court and telling tall tales from the various skirmishes they had been involved in over the years. The young Lieutenants had less to offer when it came to that particular topic, but they nevertheless had yarns to spin of their daring adventures at the Academy, especially some involving a renowned horse captain that all four officers knew well. Belying his rank and somewhat stern facade, Colonel Abildgaard turned out to have a knack for telling an amusing tale that even made the baron smile from time to time.

The spiced tomato soup and its crunchy croutons had gone down well for all members of the lunch party, and the roasted venison supported by mushrooms cooked in red wine had disappeared like the morning dew. As the six men and two women took their silver spoons to the small ceramic jars containing chipped nuts coated in honey, a silence fell over the table since the honey was too sticky to allow room for the tall tales to carry on.

Twelve maids and servants from the kitchen staff had been lined up at the far wall throughout the three-course meal. They were ready to jump into action at the drop of a hand, and the first sign of impending activity came when Baron Erich used his cloth napkin to dab the sticky honey off his lips. Soon after, he put his silver spoon into the empty jar and began shuffling around on the hard, uncomfortable dining chair.

On cue, two maids hurried to the baron's assistance and helped him pull back the chair. The other lunch guests all stopped eating and bolted to their feet to show the proper respect for the Lord of the Manor. This in turn caused an avalanche of uniformed maids and servants to rush from the wall and over to the table where they pulled out chairs, straightened gowns and began to collect the ceramic jars and the sticky spoons.

"I must say, Mistress," the baron said to Anneliese who immediately went into a deep curtsey, "you simply have to commend the Matron of the Kitchen for this exquisite lunch. Quite extraordinary. Yes, indeed."

"Hear, hear!" Colonel Abildgaard said, dabbing his swooping mustache clean of the honey.

"I shall, Your Excellency," Anneliese said, curtseying again.

Nodding, the baron even offered his wife a smile - a fact that left Christiane on the brink of being struck dumb. "And now," Erich continued, gesturing at the door to the banqueting hall, "let us reconvene to the drawing room where we shall enjoy a glass of fine port, further cordial conversation, and cigars imported from the Spanish province of Cuba in the Caribbean."

To follow protocol, everybody bowed or curtseyed at the baron as he left the table with his French manservant in tow. To avoid an embarrassing breach of customs later on, the baron would retire to his upstairs bedchamber for five minutes so everyone would have a chance to get to the drawing rooms across the hall - thus enabling him to arrive last, as he should.

"Gentlemen, please go ahead," Captain von Hardenburg said and moved away from the dinner table as well. As the three Guard Hussar officers strode across the smooth floor in their hard-heeled riding boots, Christiane and Anneliese tried to tag along, but the Captain stopped them by getting in the baroness' way. "Milady, Mistress of the Manor," he said, performing a short bow to the two women. "The second part of our conversation will be far too dramatic and indeed too graphic for sensitive, female ears. We shall be discussing military tactics on how to thwart Black Rose and her gang of degenerate criminals. I would rather not have either one of you succumb to fainting in the company of such esteemed officers."

Christiane's eyes narrowed down into hazel-green slits, and she opened her mouth to give the retired Captain a piece of her mind - but then she realized the dismissal was a godsend as it would allow her to go upstairs to Cornelia without raising suspicion by sneaking away.

To make it more believable that she would accept the Captain's words without a heated comment, it was time for a small charade of her own: "Ack," she said, putting the back of a trembling hand on her forehead, "you shall not hear but a single complaint out of me, dear Captain. I fear the imported red wine was far too strong for the likes of me. I shall need a long nap before I will be able to function again."

The Captain nodded with a knowing smile on his face. "Ah, yes. I had a notion that would be the result when I observed you taking a second glass of wine, Milady. Women should never imbibe too strongly on red wine… or any wine, for that matter. Your smaller bodies simply cannot handle the alcohol. Until we meet again, Baroness Christiane," he said, performing another bow.

Christiane screwed a smile on her face until the Captain had left the banqueting hall. Once the door closed behind him, she turned to Anneliese and broke out in a shrug. "I cannot fathom how it can be possible, but each passing day sees our Captain taking another turn for the worse…"

"It is indeed an enigma, Baroness," Anneliese said and let out a sigh.


A short time later, the Mistress and the regular handmaiden Signe left the baroness' bedchamber to go back downstairs after having liberated Christiane from her cumbersome skirt. The lower part of the exquisite gown would still be needed for when the festivities would recommence later in the afternoon, so the metal frame had been placed in the middle of the floor looking very much like an ale barrel wrapped in ivory fabric.

The door had barely closed behind the two women before Christiane jumped up from the chair at her writing bureau and hurried over to her wardrobe. Opening the wings, she grabbed a dark cape that she swept around herself and buttoned at the neck so she could explore the manor while being semi-undressed - her lower half only saw her long stockings and her chemise undergarments.

She paused for a moment to look further into the closet. After a short browse through the clothes in there, she grabbed a second cloak, one equipped with a hood, before she closed the wings and tip-toed over to the sturdy door.

Working the latch, Christiane pulled the door ajar and stuck out an eye and an ear to scout out the landing. Although it was hard to determine for sure with the scattered laughter that wafted up from the drawing rooms on the floor below the bedchamber, the coast seemed to be clear. Christiane tested the waters one more time before she slipped outside, closed the door behind her, and hurried over to the steep staircase that would bring her up to the attic.


She knew for a fact that Captain von Hardenburg would not catch her by surprise while she was sneaking around in the attic: she could hear his booming laugh coming through loud and clear from the drawing rooms. "We shall be discussing military tactics… my eye!" she mumbled, shaking her head at the Captain's poor excuse for turning the officers' meeting into a boys' club event.

The door to the guest room where Cornelia was hiding was soon reached, and Christiane knocked on it twice to give the woman inside an early warning so the unfortunate situation from earlier would not be repeated.

Out of nowhere, a female voice whispered into Christiane's ear: "Knocking works better if I'm actually in there."

The shock made the baroness shriek and jump a foot in the air. Upon landing, she spun around and stared into the deep shadows behind her. "Wh- what- oh… Cornelia, really! I declare, I have lost track of the number of times you have frightened me half to death!" she croaked, watching in wide-eyed surprise as the shadows began to move and coagulate into Cornelia's familiar shape.

"I better quit while I'm ahead, then," Cornelia said and moved up to stand close to the baroness. She put her callused hands on the younger woman's shoulders and gave them a little squeeze. "The next one might be permanent, and I would rather not have to explain why the baroness-"

"Not. Funny."


"No. Not in the least."

"Ah. All right."

Christiane drew in several deep breaths while she tried to get her heart rate back under control. "What, pray tell, are you even doing out here?" she said while pressing a hand against her chest. "It is far too dangerous for you to be here rather than in the safety of the guest room!"

"On the contrary. The racket from downstairs was so loud I wouldn't have been able to hear the top step creaking. Out here, I can stay in the shadows but see the identity of the guest at once. Not that anyone has been up here since you left." Cocking her head, Cornelia took a half-step back to cast an admiring glance at the baroness' hairdo and the bits of her ivory dress that were visible around the cape. "Oh, that's a good look for you. Very nice."

A blush spread over Christiane's powdered cheeks at the compliment. In five seconds, Cornelia had been more appreciative - or even just attentive - toward her looks than her husband had been for the entire duration of their marriage. "Oh… I… I thank you, Cornelia. Well… on the other topic, I must admit that what you say does hold a certain amount of logic," Christiane said as a loud wave of laughter rolled up the stairs. "Ack, the soldiers have arrived… as you may have noticed."

"Mmmm-yeah. They're hard to avoid."

Remembering the hooded cloak over her arm, Christiane unfolded it and held it up in front of Cornelia's tall frame. "Behold, I brought you a cloak… however, I fear it may not be quite long enough to cover your somewhat elongated legs."

"Well, that's nice… why?"

"So you do not have to spend all your time up here in the dark attic, of course. If you don a cloak, you can sneak around at night without worrying about being spotted."

"I already have, Christiane. Numerous times. It's what I do, remember?"

"Oh… true. I did not think of that…"

"But I'll give it a shot anyhow," Cornelia said and reached for the cloak. "To be honest, I'd rather have something to eat. The kitchen has been so busy the entire morning that I haven't been able to sneak down there. The rye cookies didn't go very far, so a few scraps from the table of the rich wouldn't have hurt," she continued as she swept the cloak around her shoulders. As predicted, it only came to her knees, but her dark-brown breeches and leather boots were dark as well, so the night-time camouflage was still solid.

"Ah, quite… but all the leftover food has been returned to the kitchen… and I dare not approach the Matron at this point. I gather it was an eventful morning in the kitchen with the soldiers arriving too early," Christiane said and pulled her lips back in a grimace.

Cornelia chuckled. "It must have been… I heard a ton of shouting from down there earlier. This Matron… she's a fabulous cook, but she must be some piece of work to be around."

"Ah… indeed. Would you believe there are times when she is as meek as a lamb? I fear they are few and far between, but she does indeed experience tranquil moments now and then."

"Remarkable!" Cornelia said and let out another chuckle before she sobered and once more put her hands on the baroness' arms. "Christiane… I have an idea."

"Oh, do tell!"

"I will take advantage of my new cloak now and use it to sneak around the manor. I need to see-"

"I meant for you to wear it at night! Not in broad daylight where all and sundry can see you!" Christiane said and shook her head in frustration. "There are scores of soldiers everywhere, woman!"

"Yes, and that's why I need to use it now. I need to see those soldiers with my own eyes," Cornelia said and moved towards the steep staircase. When she reached the top step, she turned around and looked back at the baroness. "Especially the Lancers. I need to read their number and readiness."

"But… I do not understand why? Cornelia?" Christiane said, but the tall woman had already begun walking down the stairs. "Oh… this truly is one of those days," she continued in a mumble. Sighing, she wrapped her cape tighter around her and followed Cornelia down the staircase.


Cornelia's forehead had grown deep furrows by the time Christiane caught up with the former leader of the criminal gang who stood at the large windows overlooking the courtyard with her hands on her hips and her legs slightly apart. The experienced thief stared down at the many soldiers who had set up a makeshift equipment pool at the far side of the square while they transferred it all into the barracks beyond the stables.

"Cornelia, will you please tell me what is going on," Christiane said and put a hand on the taller woman's elbow that was protected by the cloak. "I fear I do not understand a thing now… why are you still concerned with the soldiers? Please do not tell me this is all part of another charade! If it is, I swear I shall-"

"It's not, I promise. And this time, my word is solid," Cornelia said, cutting off the baroness before she could get any further. "However, I fear there is something I haven't shared with you. Before I was ousted, I told my men of a plan I had concocted… a plan to take the manor."

"What?!" the baroness croaked in a hoarse whisper.

Rubbing her face, Cornelia let out a deep sigh before she turned away from the window to look at the baroness. "My plan was to get some of my men to pose as a peasant militia who had caught members of Black Rose's gang… my thinking was that Captain von Hardenburg would invite the peasants in with open arms. They would all be men from my gang, of course. Once they were inside the manor, nothing would stand in their way. They would simply steal what they could get their hands on, and then make an escape."

"Sweet Lord!"

"Indeed. A sound plan… but not my finest hour," Cornelia said while her jaw worked hard. Shaking her head, she offered the Lancers down in the courtyard another brief glance before she turned back to the baroness. "Henrik Johansen is already here, down in the vaults. And I fear that Jakob Mikkelsen is stubborn enough, and ambitious enough, to carry out the rest of the plan despite the presence of the soldiers."

"But surely-"

"No, they won't be able to stop the men once they've made it inside, Christiane. Jakob knows, just as well as I do, that cavalry is unbeatable across open terrain… Lancers are unbeatable on a well-defined battlefield… but we," - Cornelia pointed at her chest - "thieves, thugs, crooks and cutthroats are unbeatable when it comes to sneaking around in close quarters… to rob people blind, or to knife them in the gut if they stand between us and freedom. That's what we do, and we're damned good at it."

Christiane stared at the tall woman with wide, frightened eyes. The color slowly drained from her already pale cheeks, and she could sense a strong panic starting to bubble up inside her. "But what should we do, Cornelia? Are you sure the ugly man will follow your plan?" she croaked.

"If the tables were turned, I would."

A few moments went by while Christiane processed the frightening news she had just been told; then, she shook her head. "In that case, we must warn the Captain… and my husband… and my dear friend Anneliese!"

"You can warn them all you like, but if you do," Cornelia said and clamped her hands down on Christiane's shoulders, "you might as well tie the noose around my neck yourself. I'm a wanted woman, Christiane. Wanted for crimes all over the country. Some imaginary, some real. If I'm caught, or if I reveal myself even to save others, the only place I'll go from here is Hangman's Hill."


"If Jakob Mikkelsen and my former men come, I'll deal with them myself the only way we degenerates know how. I'll let my blade do the talking… let it decide my fate," Cornelia said, patting the sheath she still wore on her right hip.

"Oh, my Sweet Lord, Cornelia… we- we cannot-"

"We may hav- no… I may have to. When they come, you must stay in your chamber and barricade the door. I don't want you anywhere near me when the shit starts to fly."

Christiane crinkled her nose at the coarse language, but it was not strong enough for her to shy back from the tall woman. Unable to find the words needed to express herself, she pulled a surprised Cornelia down towards her and claimed her lips in a searing, never-ending kiss that proved she was a fast learner indeed. As they separated, she leaned her head against the crook of Cornelia's neck. "Ack, they may not even come…" she croaked, panting from the cold fright and the warm kiss that both coursed through her veins.

"Oh, they'll come, all right," Cornelia said in a quiet voice as she glanced out of the windows once more. "The only question is… when."




The answer to Cornelia's question would come sooner than even she expected, though several things needed to happen before the signal to raid the manor would be called.

When dusk fell at the conclusion of the hectic, influential day, the festivities started to wind down in and around Swan Manor. The Baron and the Baroness, their two most trusted servants Jean-Philibert and Anneliese, as well as Captain von Hardenburg, Colonel Abildgaard and the two Lieutenants, had all ventured out onto the gravelly courtyard to watch a group of stableboys light sixteen torches that had been placed in a pattern that resembled a swan.

Plenty of oooooh's and ahhhhh's were uttered as the young boys from the stables ran between the metal rods to ignite the wicks that had been covered in a special coating that required gale force-strength winds to extinguish.

Soon, tall, proud flames rose from the torches, creating abstract effects of flickering, orange light that played across the walls of the manor and the people standing at the main entrance.

Baroness Christiane concealed a yawn with her gloved hand. Following the three-course lunch, the afternoon tea, the hefty five-course dinner and the evening snacks where the bottles of fine port had not been spared, her belly was full but her energy had been drained. Though she had been given a boost by Cornelia's kisses that had been sweet and unexpected, the worrying news of a potential nocturnal raid had meant she had taken a glass of port too many. She was tired, but there was not much she could do about it. The Baron seemed to enjoy himself watching the torches being lit, so she would act in a severe breach of protocol if she slipped inside before he did.

At last, Baron Erich started clapping and shouting "Bravo!" at the young men which made everyone standing at the stone staircase follow suit. Turning back, he waited for his French manservant to open the door before he walked into the grand hall.

That was the cue everyone had been waiting for, and several sighs of relief were heard, even among the cavalry officers, as they followed the baron inside.

Christiane waited for the others to go through the stately entrance before she followed. Even while Anneliese held the door open for her, she turned back around to take a final look at the torches and the rest of the courtyard. Furrowing her brow, she stared into the deep shadows that ran along the foundations of Swan Manor's main building. Something was lurking there, but she did not know what - or rather, who - it could be.

She was certain it could not be Cornelia as the former leader of the gang had said she would not venture out of the safety of her guest room in the attic until well past midnight, and the clock had only just chimed eleven strokes. If it was not Cornelia, it could only be one of the criminals. With her bravery leaving her in a hurry, Christiane zipped past Anneliese and stepped into the grand hall to get away from the spooky goings-on in the courtyard.


Deep in the shadows next to the manor's granite foundations, Cornelia Karlsdatter folded back the hood of her dark-brown cloak and moved out of the painful crouch she had been in ever since the important people had stepped out onto the stone staircase. She had been outside for an hour already, using the cover of the dusk and the mounting darkness to scout out the terrain and the roads leading to the manor.

Her heart was heavy with worry at the thought of something violent happening to the people at the manor as a result of her ill-conceived plan; the charming Christiane in particular, of course, but even the others although they meant far less to her. It was a new experience for her. In the past, she had been part of, or conducted, similar raids on rich, independent merchants, trade guilds or even competing gangs, and she had never cared who lived or died then - but things had changed somewhere along the way.

A chilly breeze trickled around the courtyard. It made the cloak billow out at the back and send shivers up her spine, but she was used to that from spending many a night cooped up in conditions far worse than the one she was in at the moment.

For the umpteenth time since sneaking out of the guest room in the attic, she patted the two sheaths that held her daggers to make sure the hilts were still in place and easy to pull out. She had decided to wear both her weapons since she had no way of knowing how many of the bandits would show up - but that they would show up was out of the question.

She remained in the deep shadows for the time it took the boys from the stables to pack up and head for their barracks on the far side of the main stable buildings. Once she was alone, she took off from the shadows - though still hunched-over - and ran the long way around to get to the portal that spanned the access road leading onto the courtyard. The loose gravel crunched under her boots, but not a soul was around to hear it.

Her plan was to climb the portal to get a better view of the surrounding lands, but the last traces of dusk's dark-blue light had given way to proper darkness while she had waited for the important people to go back inside the manor. The mounting gloom made climbing the six meters up onto the top part of the portal impossible without taking needless risks, and she preferred to keep her neck straight and her skull in one piece. Instead, she hunkered down at the foot of one of the portal's brick walls.

Worry continued to linger in her gut at the thought of what might be to come. She had been far too focused on getting one up on Jakob that she had never stopped to consider that he would stab her in the back once she had offered him a plan that was better than the one he had cooked up. She should have seen it coming; she had not, and now the risk that other people would end up paying the price for her arrogance was real.


A short hour later, male voices and distant jingling reached her ears. Unsure what to make of it - though fearing the worst - she strained her ears and tried to peek into the darkness to see what was happening. She thought she recognized one of the voices, but she was not sure. More creaks, scrapes, jingles and jangles were played out from further down the servants' trail, but it was not until she heard the familiar sound of a leaf spring squeaking that she realized that a horse-driven wagon of some kind was approaching Swan Manor.

Jumping up from her hiding place, Cornelia raced into the middle of the servants' trail safe in the knowledge that she would be well-hidden from the prying eyes of the people coming toward her on the trail. High above the world, the starry skies had almost clouded over, and the moon had yet to appear on the horizon. Thus, everything was draped in velvety darkness that offered good protection for friend and foe alike.

When one of the male voices spoke once again, Cornelia's stomach clenched - she could recognize Kresten Hansen's characteristic dialect anywhere. If Kresten was there, at that time of night, and not to mention sounding stone sober, it could only mean that Jakob Mikkelsen had carried out the plan at the first given opportunity following the arrival of the soldiers.

Another voice reached her ears: Finn Mogensen, the junior bandit who had wanted to come with her when she had been ousted by Jakob. Clenching her jaw, she mumbled a juicy curse about the young man's lineage. Though it was conceivable that he had been forced to come, the likeliness that he'd had a change of heart - perhaps brought on by a few gold coins that had been slipped into his pocket - was greater.

The sounds came ever closer. Although she carried the two knives on her belt, she preferred not to get caught up in a melee without knowing the strength and number of her opponents - thus, she set off back to the manor's main building going at a fair clip.


It did not take long for the wagon to be driven into the gravelly courtyard. Cornelia had gone back to hiding in the deep shadows, but she had a clear view of the vehicle and the men atop the buckboard who proved to be Kresten Hansen, his old friend Søren Svendsen, and the junior Finn. The flatbed wagon was unknown to her, so it had to be one they had stolen since she had left. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it had two hard-working mules tied to the yoke up front.

In the back of the flatbed, a bandit she did not know sat facing her. He held a pitchfork which meant he was posing as a peasant. Three further bandits had their backs turned to her, but they appeared to be playing the captured criminals rather than further members of the peasant militia.

"Makes sense," she mumbled to herself. "Kresten and Søren look like a couple of loveable, old gents… and who would suspect a kid like Finn of being involved in a brutal gang? But the others… hmmm…?"

The identities of the bandits playing the captured criminals were soon revealed as they got to their feet and prepared to jump off the tail end of the wagon. "Sven… that wretched son of a whore… of course he had to be here," Cornelia said in a hoarse whisper as the familiar shape of her eternal opponent came into view.

The bandit in the back who played a member of the peasant militia jumped down onto the gravel and used his pitchfork to hold the dangerous criminals in check - of course, the illusion would have worked better if he had not grinned at his mates as they jumped down next to him.

Commotion at the main entrance to Swan Manor made her look away from the wagon. Captain von Hardenburg, Colonel Abildgaard and Lieutenant von Gahler strode down the staircase and across the courtyard until they reached the wagon's three drivers. Kresten, who had been holding the reins, stood up and climbed down from the tall wagon with fumbling, unsure steps like he had needed a quick drink or two - or three - before going on the mission.

On the ground, he whipped off his white cap and put out his hand like he was ready to shake the Captain's. "Good evenin', General!" he said as he pumped von Hardenburg's hand.

"That's Captain, actually," the retired officer said in his typical gruff manner. "Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg. I'm the prime adjutant for His Excellency, Erich Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor. This is Colonel Abildgaard, commanding officer of the renowned Guard Hussars, and Lieutenant von Gahler. And you are?"

"Aw, ain't that somethin'!" Kresten said in an accent that was exaggerated to the point of sounding comical. To underscore that he was a rube of proud heritage, he bent over to slap his thighs like all peasants did when they were impressed by something. "How 'bout all them fancy titles you got around here? Kresten Hansen's my name. That old fella up there is my good friend Søren Svendsen, the young pup is Finn and the strappin' lad out back holdin' the pitchfork is Bent Peitersen. You can call me Kresten. We jus' caught three o' them there criminals that run with that there tall drink o' water Black Rose. Stinkin' o' ale they do too! Yessir, they be mi'ty dangerous folks, but they had no reply to our pitchforks, General!"

Even at fifty meters' distance, Cornelia could see a dark look descending upon Captain von Hardenburg's face. He had never suffered fools gladly, and it was obvious that he would already have sent the old man packing if it had not been for the three bandits he and the other three militiamen had brought to the manor. Despite the dangerous situation, Cornelia chuckled as she watched the Captain shaking his head while striding down the side of the wagon.

Sven and the other two bandits - whom Cornelia had never seen before; Jakob appeared to have been a busy bee - were soon lined up and given a strong lecture about right and wrong, and how hanging with degenerates would soon cause them to hang for good.

When the Captain returned to Kresten, the two men shook hands again. "Sterling work you have done tonight, Mister Hansen. Yes, indeed. Some of our men shall bring the degenerates into our vaults," he said and turned to the young man next to him. "Lieutenant, inform the Lancer sergeant that we need three of his men out here on the double. They're to be prison guards for the rest of the night."

"Sir!" the Lieutenant said, clicking his hard heels and performing a stringent salute before he set off across the courtyard to get to the barracks near the stables that housed the Lancers.

Captain von Hardenburg nodded in an appreciative fashion at the solid display of military discipline before he turned back to the old peasant. "I assure you that none of those criminals shall be able to escape our vaults. The walls are two meters thick down there. Now, may I offer you accommodations for the night? Surely it is far too dark for a pair of older gentlemen such as yourselves to drive home now?"

"Aw, that would be mi'ty fine, that!" Kresten said and clutched his cap to his chest. "Søren and Finn and Bent and me thank you muchly, General! Jus' put us up in the stables… us ol' hoss folks are used to sleepin' in the stables right next to them there hosses."

Captain von Hardenburg once more shook his head at the acute shortage of brain power among the men from the small coastal village, but he soon overcame it - although Colonel Abildgaard chuckled at his behavior - to gesture at the stables on the far side of the courtyard.

While the Captain had spoken to the peasants, three Lancer privates and a sergeant carrying a torch had left the barracks and were hurrying toward them to take care of the prisoners.


Cornelia continued to watch from the shadows as the four Lancers rounded up Sven and the two other dangerous criminals. She was surprised to see the soldiers were not equipped with iron manacles or shackles that could be slapped onto the wrists of the men they needed to control; instead, they used regular rope to tie the prisoners' hands behind their backs.

While Lieutenant Henschel von Gahler escorted Kresten, Søren, Finn and Bent - one of the new men Cornelia had not seen before - onto the barracks beyond the stables, the Lancer sergeant and his team shepherded the captured bandits the long way around the main building. Since using the stately main entrance would be out of the question for the criminals, they were to use the servants' entrance at the far side of the manor.

This would take the group right past the spot where Cornelia was hiding in the shadows, however. Sensing the imminent danger, she turned herself into a human hedgehog by pulling the hooded, dark-brown cloak over her head and rolling the rest of her long being into a ball. It was not pretty, but it worked, as neither the bandits nor the Lancers noticed that the most wanted bandit of them all was hiding in the shadows not five meters from where they walked.

Cornelia counted to twenty-five before she rolled herself out of the human ball. Her neck, shoulders, back and hips ached from the rough position, but those pains were to be preferred compared to having a nine-foot lance sticking out of her bleeding gut.

She could no longer hear the gravel crunching under the boots of the soldiers or the ruffians, so she got up and followed in their footprints until she reached the rear corner of the manor. When she had arrived after being ousted by Jakob, she had used the servants' entrance to sneak inside, so she knew the metal latch could be manipulated into opening with little effort.

The servants' entrance had already closed by the time she reached it, so she tip-toed down the short flight of stairs and put her ear to the sturdy, wooden door. Though the torch that had been left outside by the sergeant crackled and hissed, she could hear several male voices beyond the door. They moved away while she listened, meaning the Lancers were driving the captured bandits further into the manor's intricate system of cellars and corridors.

Grabbing the handle, she depressed it and pushed the door open - but only five centimeters or so to begin with. The voices grew stronger for a brief moment as she put her ear to the narrow crevice, but the men were still moving away from her so their voices grew fainter as well after a short while. Before she slipped inside, she took a good look over her shoulder to see if anyone else had had the same idea. The coast was clear all around her, so she moved into the first cellar and closed the door behind her with a soft click.


The cobblestones on the path that Cornelia followed through the cellars had been ground flat from decades of wear. Here and there, even flatter flagstones appeared between the cobbles, perhaps to replace cracked stones. It made for an uneven surface for walking, but as soon as she entered the kitchen itself, the floor became flat and far more pleasant for her feet and ankles.

Special, heavy-duty candles were still alight in the kitchen following the long, hard slog the staffers had had to live through - a great deal of them had worked non-stop since the crack of dawn to prepare all the food needed for the grand feasts. The thick, slow-burning candles had been placed in spiked, metal bowls on top of various brick walls around the manor's kitchen so they would not be a fire hazard even if they were knocked over.

The air held a peculiar combination of scents: the burning wax candles, the vegetables that were kept in wooden crates, the wood-burning stoves and stone ovens that continued to cool off, the ceramic jars carrying herbs and spices, and the last, lingering traces of the food that had been made all added their own fragrance to the mix.

Cornelia could not help but notice that the two stoves, the bread ovens, the table for kneading dough, and the countless pots and pans that hung on nails in a system of wooden racks, were all squeaky clean and spotless - no doubt a positive side-effect of the Matron of the Kitchen's fiery temper.

She wondered for a brief moment whether she would run into the infamous Matron, not to mention what she would do if she did, but angry voices from up ahead made her come to a dead stop and seek out a good spot to hide. Ducking down behind a low, brick wall, she strained her hearing to find out what had taken place up front.

It was difficult to make out since the thick, bare walls ate most of the sound, but it seemed that one of the bandits had complained about something or other, and then, one of the Lancers had given him a whack over the head for opening his mouth without permission.

Clicking sounds from several hobnailed boots striking the hard floor came toward her from deeper into the cellars. Grunting, she scooted away from her spot behind the low wall in a hurry to seek out a better hiding place. She found a good one next to one of the wood-burning stoves: a niche in the wall offered plenty of room behind a large firewood pail made of metal.

As she ducked down behind the metal pail, she observed two Lancer privates and their sergeant come marching along the cobbled pathway to get back to the exit. Since three privates had gone the other way, it meant they had left one behind for guard duty.

Cornelia kept in place behind the pail until she heard the door at the servants' entrance slam shut; then, she rose and continued forward, further into the cellars.


At the end of a narrow path where the curved ceiling was so low she needed to hunch over or risk scraping her head on the coarse bricks, she reached an open area where the manor's vaults were located. Getting down on one knee, she peeked around the corner to get a feel for the layout.

Six vaults had been built into the manor's thick walls on the opposite side of the open area that was lit by a row of torches. Each vault was protected by a wooden fence featuring a flimsy-looking door and a metal latch that would not be able to withstand force applied by a determined man, like Jakob had said.

The first vault appeared to be used for purposes of general storage; three were used as wine cellars, one was empty, and the final one, the one the furthest away from the entrance, had been converted into a makeshift prison.

Two chairs and a table had been put into the open area in front of the last vault, and two Lancers were resting near the table looking alert, but bored. A loaded long musket leaned against the wall next to the table; it was within reach of one of the men, but not both.

"So," the first guard said to the other as he pulled out the chair and sat down. "Have you had any trouble with that other criminal in there?"

The other guard shook his head. "No. He's been quiet ever since I was told to guard him. The new men you brought in look far more dangerous, though."

"Yeah. They're drunk off their asses. Stink of cheap ale, too. Speaking of which… I could use one," the first Lancer said, taking off his field cap.

"The Sarge would kill you," the other guard said and let out a chuckle.

"True. But I could still use one."

Cornelia's eyes slipped past the soldiers to see what was going on inside the makeshift prison vault. The flickering light from the row of torches made it difficult to make out any details, but she recognized Sven and Henrik who were both playing drunk.

The drunken act was meant to fool the two Lancers, and it probably did, but it would not fool Cornelia. She narrowed her eyes down into slits as she observed the hand signals that flew back and forth between the two experienced thugs. Even while they tried to speak or hiccup in slurred voices, their intents were crystal clear: When the signal to attack came, Henrik should break through the door. Once they were free, Sven would murder the two guards, get their musket and the bayonets they carried on their belts, and head upstairs with the other two men where they would meet up with the others.

The two other bandits sharing the prison vault with Sven and Henrik were unknown to Cornelia, but their hard, relentless faces and cold eyes were proof enough they were not there to play nice. Like the other bandits, they wore boots, dark-brown, woolen breeches held in place by suspenders - one of them even wore a belt in addition to his suspenders - and a pale-gray, o-neck shirt. One of the men wore a vest made of brown fabric, the other did not.

To test the patience of the guards, and the resilience of the wooden fence, one of the new bandits got to his feet and wobbled over to the wooden frame. In a slurred voice, he began to croak a raunchy song at the two soldiers, but the fun soon came to an end.

"Shut up, you filthy dog!" one of the Lancers barked. When the bandit did not comply, the soldier grabbed the musket and jumped to his feet. In two strides, he was at the wooden fence and thumped the butt of the musket against the ruffian's hands - howling, the man let go and flew backwards. "You all shut up in there! Any more out of you, and you shall taste hot lead!" the guard roared, holding the long musket ready in case the bandits would try again. The ruffians fell quiet, so the guard returned to the table.

Cornelia grunted and slipped back out of sight - she had seen enough. Henrik, Sven and the other two were just playing with those guards. Once the signal came from Jakob, they would break out, kill the Lancers and storm Swan Manor from the inside.


Hurrying back through the kitchen, Cornelia soon reached the door at the servant's entrance. She forced herself to slow down and think before acting so she would not risk getting caught by the kitchen staff or any of her old allies. With Jakob still missing from the scene, she had a hunch the trap was not ready to be sprung yet. She still had some time, and she would use it to try to talk some sense into Kresten and Søren whose subdued ways made them the only ones open for reason.

She pulled the door a few centimeters ajar so she could peek out into the night. When no mysterious figures seemed to linger in the shadows, and no sounds of crunching gravel, male voices or whinnying horses reached her ears, she exited the cellar and closed the door behind her with a soft click.


The courtyard was still deserted save for the sixteen flaming torches that she presumed would continue to burn for many hours to come, perhaps even to the break of dawn. Hunching over, she ran the long way around the courtyard until she reached the utility shed at the end of the main stables.

A half-dressed, blond youngling was inside, cursing under his breath at the bellows that gave the hot forge life. It seemed that something was wrong with the apparatus since it did not provide enough air to keep the forge going at full blast. While Cornelia watched him from the shadows at the doorway, he got down on his hands and knees and began to fiddle with the recalcitrant machine to find the spot that caused him so much bother.

She did not need to watch that, so she moved on from the utility shed, slipped past the main stables where she had left her palomino mare, and across another courtyard until she entered the area where the three sixteen-bunk barracks that were used by the wranglers and their apprentices had been built. Burning torches were attached to metal racks at both ends of all three wooden buildings so it would be possible to find the right one on the nights where the various workers finished late.

The ground was grass and dirt rather than gravel, so she did not need to be concerned about making a racket when she crossed over the terrain. Soon, she stood on the doorstep of the first barrack.

It was easy to see which of the other barracks was occupied by the Lancer platoon as they had posted a guard outside. Armed with a long musket, the uniformed guard stood to strict attention like he was back at the garrison. The final barrack was unguarded, like the first.

Cornelia scrunched up her face; it was not obvious which of the two unguarded barracks that Kresten and the others would have been led to, so she needed to chance it. Moving across the threshold to the barrack she was standing at, she pulled the hood over her head before she put her ear to the front door. When sounds of scattered snoring reached her from the inside, she let out a grunt and stepped back. Unless Kresten and Søren really had been drunk when they had arrived on the mule-driven wagon, they would not have been sleeping at that point of the proceedings - which meant the bandits had to occupy the third and final of the three barracks.

Once more pulling the hood up, she slipped into the deep shadows and ran the long way around the third barrack so she would miss getting into the field of view of the Lancer guard who was yet to move.

Arriving at the third of the low, wooden buildings, she continued running to the far side intending to peek through one of the windows, but she did not even need to do that as she heard Søren's laugh wafting out of the flimsy walls before she made it all the way there. Grunting again, she squared her shoulders and slipped in through the front door.

The simple barracks were made up of a single, large room that offered space for sixteen bunks. At the far end of the open building, a pot-bellied stove was bolted to the floor. Though the stove was dormant at present, it was still connected to a metal chimney that reached up to the ceiling and further into the roof through a sturdy iron ring.

Only four men were in there when Cornelia showed up intending to ruin their evening: Kresten Hansen, Søren Svendsen, Finn Mogensen and the new man who had been in the back of the flatbed wagon, Bent Peitersen. Bent had his back turned to the door as he watched the others play a traditional card game on one of the made bunks.

Cornelia used that to her advantage as she swept off the cloak and drew one of her knives before anyone had even noticed she was there. In one, fluid motion, she pressed her knee against Bent's back, reached under his chin to pull his head toward her, and placed the cold steel across his throat.

The croaking gasp that escaped the fourth bandit was enough to make the other three look at him - then they jumped up in surprise.

"Hello, boys," Cornelia said in a low, dangerous voice as she eyed her former comrades.

"Well, I'll be a son of a… Black Rose!" Søren croaked.

"That's right, Søren. It's me. Hope ya didn't think I'd stay away from here?" The four pitchforks the bandits had used for their charade were leaning against the wall within reach of Finn, so Cornelia pinned the junior to the spot with the full brunt of her sea-blue eyes like she was daring him to pick one up - it worked, as he backed away from the weapons with his hands in the air.

Søren shook his head as he sat down on the bunk next to the long-forgotten cards. "Look, Jakob told us-"

"Whatever it was, it was bull, Søren. He threw me out of the gang. My own, damn gang!"

"So now what?" Kresten said.

"First things first. Who's this fella right here?" Cornelia said and put more pressure against the throat of the man she was holding. When the bandit let out a pained cry, Cornelia broke out in an ice-cold chuckle.

"Bent Peitersen," Søren said, grimacing at Cornelia's coldness. "He really is from the peasant militia… he provided the pitchforks and the flatbed wagon. When he heard we were going to raid the manor, he wanted to be part of it."

Nodding in understanding, Cornelia moved her mouth down to Bent's ear. "Did you now?" she said in a voice that was close to a whisper. When the man nodded, she let out a grunt. "So you betrayed the trust your family and fellow villagers put in you when you joined the militia. That's certainly quite a career move. Why?"

" 'Cos the pe- people at the m- manor ha- have so much, a- and I got nothing!" the militiaman croaked. As he spoke, his Adam's apple bounced up and down right next to the sharp blade.

Cornelia let out another cold chuckle at the sight. She was surprised he had not wet his breeches yet; that he was mortally afraid was a fact she could confirm by his hair that grew ever damper against her arm, and the stink of sweat that rose from the rest of him.

"Why are you here, Black Rose?" Søren said. "To join us, or stop us? Or just to torment poor Bent there…?"

The question hung in the air for a few moments before Cornelia withdrew the knife from the soft tissue across Bent's throat. Moving with the speed of a striking viper, she lashed out at the bandit with the hand that held the knife. Clenching her fist so her grip hardened, she gave Bent an almighty whack on the side of his head with the hilt.

Groaning, the bandit keeled over and landed half-on, half-off the bunk he had been sitting on. "Does that answer your question, Søren? I'm here to stop you. If I have to knock you all flat on your asses, I will… but I would prefer not to kill any of you. Finn!"

The junior jumped up and stared wide-eyed at the tall, imposing woman.

"Last time we met, you wanted to join me. I guess Jakob gave you a better offer?"

"N- no… he d- didn't… he- he threatened to hunt me d- down… I'm not as brave as you a- are, Black Rose…"

"Hmmm!" Cornelia grunted, shooting her former comrades such dark glares they were forced to look away from her. "Right now, I'm back in charge… and I'm telling you to get your asses onto that wagon and drive the hell out of here before Jakob shows up. If you do, I'll put in a word on your behalf-"

"Since when were you pals with the baron, Black Rose?" Kresten said, narrowing his eyes.

"Not the baron, Kresten. Don't you bother your thick head about that."

After a few seconds, Kresten let out an amused chuckle that made Søren and Finn shoot him funny looks. "Ah, I see," he said, flashing Cornelia and the others a knowing grin. "The baroness. I shoulda known."

"Never mind that now!" Søren growled, thumping his elbow into his old friend's ribs. "Black Rose got a point… and what the hell are we even doing here, Kresten? This ain't our usual, petty stuff! We're way out of our league… if we're caught, our necks will be stretched for sure… and I'm telling you right now, I'm not going out that way!"

Finn, Søren and Kresten all exchanged worried looks at the prospects of exiting the world on Hangman's Hill right next to Sven, Jakob and the real cutthroats. "Yeah, she's got a point…" Kresten said, packing his cards in a hurry. "And so do you. Who knows, Black Rose, we may bump into each other in the future, but right now, we need to get our asses outta here before even more goes wrong."

Cornelia let out a sigh of relief. Though she had no scruples about sending her enemies to their doom, she would prefer to see the few friends or allies she did have to remain alive and healthy. "Before you go," she said and moved aside so the three bandits could leave the barracks unhindered, "you wouldn't happen to know when Jakob is planning to show up, would ya?"

"Naw," Kresten said and mashed his white cap down onto his thinning hair. "He never said a peep about any of that. He just told us when to leave for the manor. I'm guessing it won't be long before he shows up, though."

"Hmmm. All right. In that case, you better get on the move. If he catches you leaving, he'll know that something's up," Cornelia said and ran back to the door to peek outside. Everything was quiet outside, even the guard at the barrack occupied by the Lancers had gone inside for the night.

"The coast is cl-" she started to say, but the rest got stuck in her throat when she spotted the soles of a pair of marching boots sticking out from behind the end wall of the barrack. "Wretched!" she growled, drawing her second knife as well.

Kresten and Søren looked at each other and broke out in identical groans, but it was Finn who ran up to the woman at the door. "Wh- what's wrong, Black Rose?" the junior said, wringing his cap in his hands.

"It's started. Jakob is here."

"Oh… hell…" Finn croaked, looking back at the two, older thieves. Without warning, the tall woman grabbed his shirt and used it to knock him against the wall. With eyes as wide as saucers, he stared at the blade that hovered in front of his face as Cornelia continued to hold it in her fist.

"It's too late for you to go now," Cornelia said through clenched teeth. "I'll still put in a word for you if we all make it out alive, so don't do anything that'll make me regret that! You hear? You too, old geezers…"

"Yes, ma'am!" the older two thieves said as one - Finn could only croak.

"Good. And you didn't see me!"

"We understand… you better leave befor- oh…" Søren said, but the person he was speaking to had already stormed out of the door.


Cornelia ran across the courtyard cursing and swearing under her breath. Her cursing increased when she spotted another pair of boots lying on the floor inside the utility shed where the blond youngling had manned the forge's bellows - at least those boots were still moving, albeit slowly, unlike the Lancer's at the barracks.

Four strange horses had been left in the middle of the courtyard, and although they were unruly as they shied back from the burning torches, one of them appeared to be the chestnut mare she had seen Jakob use the last time they rode together.

She had picked up her cloak on her way out the door, but she had not had time to put it on - thus, her bright tunic acted like a pale beacon in the courtyard. She knew it was only a matter of time before she would be spotted, but it took even less time than she had expected.

From one moment to the next, she found herself tripped up by an unseen foot. Though she landed hard on the unrelenting gravel, she rolled over her shoulder and bounced back into a squat at once. Getting back up, she tweaked her shoulders to make sure she had not pulled anything that would hamper her in a potential fight with her unseen opponent.

She had lost the cloak but had held onto both her knives; she knew she would need them the moment she watched Jakob Mikkelsen step into the cone of orange light from the flickering torches.

The face of the former second-in-command was drawn back in a feral sneer at meeting such an esteemed, not to mention unexpected, interloper. "Black Rose… I should have known. You wretched bitch!" he growled, drawing his own knife.

"I was about to call you that, Jakob," Cornelia said in a cold voice. Hunching over, she and her usurper began circling each other like a pair of fighting roosters. "But you don't have the balls to be a real bitch. Just a little one."

"Shut up!" Jakob said and made a lunge at Cornelia. When she made an easy side-step, he tried again at once but pulled back when the results had not been better.

Cornelia's sea-blue eyes had turned to steel. Though she kept the knife in sight, she focused on her opponent's face that she knew would reveal his moves far ahead of attempting them. When she saw something brewing behind Jakob's gray orbs, she decided to make a pre-emptive strike and swung her left knife toward his midsection. It missed like the other thrusts had done, but her right blade was ready to follow up on the first swing, and as the cold steel swooshed through the air, she knew she was about to draw first blood.

Jakob cried out when the knife slashed through his shirt; moments later, the torn sleeve turned dark from the blood that seeped out of the wound. Roaring in anger, he jumped ahead and threw a punch at Cornelia's face with his free hand. The punch connected with her chin with a hard thump that made her head whip around, but it was not enough to bring her to her knees. "We shoulda done this a long time ago!" Jakob croaked as he attempted another wild swing at his taller opponent while she was vulnerable.

The hard punch had numbed Cornelia's cheek and jaw, but she was not about to let it come between her and finishing off her old second-in-command. Jumping forward with both knives at the ready, she performed a double-slash that would have been lethal had the blades made a solid impact. As it were, they only tore Jakob's shirt and grazed his skin, but further streaks of blood were drawn through the superficial cuts.

In her peripheral vision, she noticed three bandits running towards the corner of the manor. The first thought that zipped through her mind was that they were trying to escape, but then she understood they were trying to get to the servants' entrance at the back of Swan Manor. "Wretched!" she croaked, realizing the fight against Jakob had only cost her time - time she did not have.

Jakob came at her again with a roar and his knife held high, but she reached down and grabbed a handful of gravel that she threw in his face. As he cried out and tried to shield his eyes from the sharp stones, she took off and sprinted across the courtyard to get to the stately main entrance.

Behind her, Jakob roared out his frustrations at having the death match interrupted, but he soon piped down and set off after his men who had disappeared around the corner of the manor.

Cornelia sheathed both her knives as she reached the stone staircase. Leaping up onto the top step, she grabbed hold of the handle but found it locked for the night. Nothing happened inside the grand hall even after she had pounded on the door several times, so she took a step back and drew a deep breath. As she prepared to ram the door with her shoulder, she sent a silent apology to Christiane for ruining the nice entrance.

Racing ahead, she slammed into the door like a runaway dray horse. The doorjambs withstood the pressure, but the leaded window panes in the central part of the door did not - all four were blown out by the hard impact and fell onto the smooth floor inside the hall where they splintered into a thousand, sharp fragments with a racket that could have stirred the dead.

Although she had not been able to bust down the door like she had wanted to, she could take full advantage of the next best option by sticking her arm inside the empty window frame and work the metal latch from the inside. The door soon opened, and she found herself in the grand hall once more.

She could already hear men yelling and women shrieking from downstairs in the kitchen and further on into the cellars, so she understood she had very little time to alert the residents of Swan Manor.

Shaking her head in frustration with how the raid had been impossible to prevent after all, she drew a deep breath and let out a resounding roar as she raced up the sweeping staircase to get to the regal suites one floor up.


Doors were flung open left and right as Cornelia ran upstairs yelling at the top of her lungs. In the few instances where the doors were not opened, she pounded her fists against the sturdy woodwork to make sure that everyone knew that something was wrong. All around her, people poked their heads out only to fly back inside at the sight of the tall woman with the voluminous hair and bandit-like clothing who appeared to be running amuck in the hallowed halls of Swan Manor.

As she reached the steep staircase that went the final stretch of distance up into the attic, she was well out of breath, but the two most important stops were yet to come - first, she needed to alert the officers up in the guest rooms, then she needed to protect the baroness. After storming up the final, steep flight of stairs, she once more pounded her fists against the doors to the rooms occupied by the three Guard Hussars and Captain von Hardenburg.

The latter was slow in coming to the door, but one of the Lieutenants opened his in a hurry. As the door was swept open so the young officer could see what was going on, Cornelia caught a glimpse of a tender pair of pink, female breasts that tried to slip into a kitchenmaid's uniform on the bed behind the half-dressed officer. "What the devil?!" the man cried, holding a saber in his hand.

"The manor is under attack! Black Rose's gang has breached our defenses!" Cornelia cried in a fairer voice than normal, knowing she needed to sound like one of the chambermaids or else the soldiers would be suspicious of her.

"What?! Don't just stand there, woman! Alert the others!" the Lieutenant cried as he slammed the door shut to get dressed.

"No shit!" Cornelia growled, once more pounding her fists on the doors belonging to the other three officers. When Captain von Hardenburg's door began to open, she stormed away from it and ran halfway back down the steep staircase so the retired officer would not be able to recognize her from the charade where she had posed as 'Lady Magdalene von Bielke.' "Captain! Captain! Black Rose is here! The gang's inside the manor!" she cried in a voice that she hoped sounded like she was getting near to a hysterical breakdown.

"Bloody hell!" came the inevitable reply before the door was slammed shut so the Captain could put on his beloved uniform. In the two guest rooms next to that of the retired officer, it sounded like Colonel Abildgaard and the other Lieutenant were both almost finished getting their uniforms on, so Cornelia spun around to get ready to hurry back down the dark staircase.

First, she needed to wipe off her sweaty brow on her sleeve; then, her most important task at the manor remained. She stormed back down the steep staircase and tore across the landing even as the sound of hard-heeled, military boots echoed down the upper flight of stairs behind her.

The door to the baroness' bedchamber was next, and she pounded on it several times before she discovered it was unlocked. Depressing the handle, she flew inside and slammed the door shut behind her, but came to a dead stop as she was greeted by a shriek.

She had caught the shy baroness in the process of exiting the four-post canopy bed. Not only did the young woman have bare legs and feet, she wore a sheer nightgown that left little to the imagination. Cornelia's cheeks flushed red as she clapped a hand over her eyes and turned away. Not that she minded the view, but some things should be discovered as a shared experience, not gawked at out of turn.

"Cornelia, what the blazes?!" the baroness croaked as she grabbed her dark-brown dress with the golden highlights at the hems that had been laid out for the following day. When she held it up to slip it on, she froze in place. "Oh Sweet Lord… are they here? Have they come? The ugly man and the other bandits have come, have they not?"

"They've come," Cornelia said with a nod. She turned around, but it had been too soon, and she caught a second full view of the baroness. "Oh, for heaven's sake…" she croaked, once more shielding her eyes with her hand.

If Christiane had not been so frightened, she would have found the sight of the tough, experienced Cornelia Karlsdatter covering her eyes out of respect a humorous one. In no time flat, she slipped the dark-brown day dress over her slender shoulders and wiggled about a little to make it fit across her hips as well. "I am fully dressed now, Cornelia. Thank you."

"All right," Cornelia said and spun around. She eyed the contents of the bedchamber in a hurry to gauge which of the sturdy pieces of furniture that would be best suited for the purpose she had in mind. The large wardrobe would work, and she hurried over to it at once to try to get it to move. "You gotta stay here and barricade the door. Jakob only wants my ass, he's not interested in anything else now. The other degenerates won't be as-"

"I shall do nothing of the kind, Cornelia!" Christiane said and grabbed a pair of silver scissors from her sowing kit. "I shall defend my home. I have every right to!"

"Have you gone soft in the head, Baroness?" Cornelia said while her arms were wrapped around the large wardrobe. "These men are killers! They won't hesitate-"

"All the more reason to stop them before they can harm anyone dear to me. And that includes you, by the way," Christiane said as she stuck her feet into a pair of shoes that she knew would not fall off in a fight.

"Frankly… you can't… be serious!" Cornelia said between groans as she tried to maneuver the heavy wardrobe away from its spot by the wall.

"I have never been so serious, Cornelia. Ever! I shall not stand idly by while these degenerate criminals raid my home and steal the values collected by Father and Mother!"

"Armed with a pair of scissors…?" Cornelia said, but she knew she had lost the argument before it had even begun as the look upon the baroness' face was one of steely determination. Wiping her brow again, she let the heavy wardrobe be and turned back to the younger woman. "Oh, very well… but you must promise to stay close to me. You hear? Never leave my side unless I tell you to."

Cornelia nodded as she took a firmer grip on the handle of the silver scissors. "I promise I shall do whatever you want of me."

"Good. First, we need to alert your Mistress of the Manor. I'm sure she's frightened out of her mind by now," Cornelia said and put a hand on the hilt of the blade on her right hip.

A split second later, the door to the bedchamber flew open, causing Cornelia to draw both her knives and jump over to protect Christiane. The baroness shrieked once more and dove for cover behind the taller woman's broad back.

"Step away from the baroness, you deceitful bitch!" a female voice barked from the doorway, making Christiane and Cornelia let out identical grunts of equal measures relief and surprise. Anneliese von Eyben stood at the opened door armed with a long, ugly dagger that looked like a cross between a bayonet and the blade of a scythe.

The Mistress of the Manor was dressed in her customary pale-gray, uniform-like dress, but the expression she wore was anything but her regular, stern facade - in fact, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were shiny from the fear and the adrenaline that coursed through her veins. "Lady Magdalene! Of course! Or perhaps I should call you Black Rose?" she continued as she entered the room with the fearsome weapon pointing straight at Cornelia's heart.

"Anneliese!" Christiane tried, but her old friend had no time for interruptions.

The Mistress took another step closer to the taller woman; though her opponent's reputation preceded her - not to mention that Black Rose was larger and looking far meaner than she - her progress never wavered. "I shall not be afeared of driving this blade into your evil heart, Black Rose… I am giving you my last warning… step away from the baroness!"

Cornelia knew loyalty and devotion when she saw it. There was no point in testing Anneliese's determination, so she put her hands in the air and backed away from Christiane.

"Anneliese, I declare… you must listen to me!" Christiane cried, stepping in between her old friend and the woman who had come to mean a great deal to her. "This is Cornelia… yes, I fear she truly is the infamous bandit queen Black Rose, but… but she has had a change of heart, Anneliese. She came here to warn us about the raid!"

"I do not believe that for a moment! And neither should you," Anneliese said, never taking her eyes off Cornelia.

"But you must! You simply must, Anneliese, for it is the honest to goodness truth!" Christiane said, wringing her hands. "Please, Anneliese, put away your weapon… we cannot be fighting amongst ourselves when our true enemy is already near!"

Tension continued to mount between the three women until Anneliese let the fearsome blade fall down her side. On cue, Cornelia and Christiane both let out a long sigh of relief. "Ack, I beg for forgiveness, Baroness," Anneliese said and hurried over to the younger woman to investigate if she had been harmed.

Cornelia let out a croaking grunt as she ran back to the door to scout out the landing and the foot of the steep staircase that was just visible in the murky darkness. When it became clear that Christiane's old friend had no intention of apologizing to her, she let out another grunt. "Oh, don't feel bad on my account. People threaten me with their blades every chance they get these days," she said over her shoulder at the Mistress of the Manor.

"Anneliese," Christiane said, ignoring Cornelia's barb, "have you seen my husband? Is he safe?"

"I fear I do not know, Baroness. Your bedchamber was the first stop of my tour of the manor, so I cannot verify His Excellency's condition," Anneliese replied, trying to abstract from the nerve-racking fact that the baroness wore no stockings in her shoes.

Christiane shook her head in a clear display of worry. "Drat… although there is no love lost between us, I would rather not see any harm come to him. Cornelia?"

"Baroness?" Cornelia said from the door where she kept a keen lookout.

"Can we make it to my husband's bedchamber without being accosted by the criminals?"

Anneliese mumbled under her breath: "By any other criminals…" but Cornelia chose to ignore that in return for having her own barb ignored.

"I believe we can," Cornelia replied. "The landing is quiet… all the action takes place down in the kitchen at the moment. Pots and pans are being thrown about by the sound of it."

"Oh, Sweet Lord… the Matron of the Kitchen will make mincemeat out of them," Christiane croaked.

A dark chuckle escaped Cornelia's lips as she pulled her head back inside. "Let's hope she does. It would save us a whole lot of trouble. If we go now, we should be safe. Anneliese?"

"I fear I do not trust you further than I could throw you, so I shall go wherever the Baroness wishes to go," Anneliese said with conviction.

"And the Baroness is coming with me," Cornelia said, waving the two women over to her, "so I guess that means we're all going."


Halfway across the landing, the three women came to screeching halts on the wooden floorboards as the familiar sounds of a struggle reached their ears from downstairs in the grand hall. Rough male voices cried out, grunted, roared in anger, or did everything at once. Cornelia signaled to Christiane and Anneliese to stay well back while she investigated, and the two women nodded as a reply.

Sneaking up to the railing, Cornelia peeked over the edge and let out a growled curse at what she saw: in the grand hall, a group of Lancers had engaged in a fearsome hand-to-hand brawl with a group of bandits that was led by Sven, but the soldiers were at a disadvantage without their long weapons like she had predicted they would be. Sven and his team of four ruffians all had razor-sharp blades that literally tore chunks out of the ill-equipped soldiers. While she watched, the soldiers pulled back outside the grand hall to regroup; Sven and the others considered that a victory of sorts and followed the Lancers outside, yelling and roaring at the top of their lungs.

"Wretched! Damn, damn, damn…" Cornelia mumbled on her way back to Christiane and Anneliese. "Those soldiers the baron sent for ain't doing a particularly good job of it! Or to put it bluntly, they're getting their damn asses kicked!"

The Mistress of the Manor and the baroness responded to the coarse language by shooting each other wide stares and raised eyebrows, but they did not have time to complain about the crude manner of speaking before Cornelia had set off toward the baron's bedchamber once more.

Reaching the sturdy wooden door, Cornelia took a step aside to allow Christiane room to knock. "Baroness, you better speak to your husband yourself… I think it would only cause untold confusion if he saw me."

More glass was shattered from somewhere downstairs, and Christiane responded by pulling her lips back in a horrified grimace. Just when she made to move to the door, a large thump followed by a crashing sound was heard from the ground floor or perhaps the cellar. "Ack… my poor manor… oh, will anything be left after tonight?" she croaked as she ran up to the door.

"Just knock on the damn door," Cornelia said, "we'll deal with the rest afterwards!"

"I shall try," Christiane croaked and began to knock on the bedchamber door with her knuckles. "Erich? Husband dearest, is it I, Christiane! The manor is under attack! Are you safe in there?" - When no reply was forthcoming Christiane tried knocking again, only this time, she used her entire fist. "Erich? Erich! Are you all right?"

Cornelia continued being in a state of high alert by keeping a close eye on the sweeping staircase in case the stone cold killer and the men under his command wondered what treasures might await them upstairs. So far, they were still fighting the Lancers in the courtyard, but even while that was going on, she could hear other male voices from the cellar - she thought she recognized Jakob as one of the bandits speaking, but she was not sure.

"Cornelia," Christiane said, stepping away from the door while massaging her fist, "the baron is not responding. Oh, I fear I am becoming worried for his safety… do you not think he would at least acknowledge my pounding with a shout if he was all right?"

"Can't say," Cornelia said and shot a quick glance at the sturdy door and the heavy, metal latches. She knew at once they would need an ox to pull it apart if it came down to forcing their entry. "Is it locked or just barricaded?"

"I do not know," Christiane said and tried depressing the door handle at once. "I fear it is locked, yes! Ack!"

"I'm sure he's safe in there… maybe he's just gone into hiding like you should have done."

Christiane shot the taller woman a dark look before she turned back to the door to try one, last time. "Erich, it is I, Baroness Christiane! We are safe, Anneliese and I! Are you safe in there?" When nothing happened, she tried putting her ear to the door, but the racket from downstairs and elsewhere in the manor was far too loud to pick up any sounds from beyond the thick, wooden door. "Ack! Such wretched misfortune we seem to be suffering from tonight!" she growled, smacking her fist against the door in the vain hope it would convince her husband to speak up.

To try to cover all angles, Cornelia ran over to the windows overlooking the courtyard. Down on the gravel, she counted three Lancers and a bandit lying prone with crimson stains spreading out from deep wounds in their shirts or uniform jackets. At first, she could not tell the identity of the fallen bandit through the gloomy darkness, but she could see from the body type that it was neither Sven nor Jakob. When a faint breeze made the light of the burning torches flicker across the body, it was revealed it was Henrik Johansen, the wiry miller's apprentice from Slagelse. He was stock-still, so chances were he had already left the world behind to seek new adventures elsewhere.

Shaking her head in frustration, she ran back to Christiane and Anneliese, but just when she thought the night could not get any worse, it did:

"What the blazes is going on here?!" a male voice barked in a gruff, martial manner.

Christiane and Cornelia both let out long groans, though for different reasons. Cornelia for knowing her efforts for avoiding, or at least delaying, capture had just been thwarted, and Christiane for even running into Captain von Hardenburg when dealing with his abrasive ways was the absolute last thing on her wishlist.

"Baroness, why in the name of God Almighty are you out here and not in your chamber? And who is that man?" the Captain said, marching across the landing to see better. When he was close enough to recognize the tall woman in men's clothing as being 'Lady Magdalene,' he stopped dead and drew his saber. His face scrunched up into a dark mask as he jumped ahead to protect the baroness. "I knew something was wrong with that woman! She's Black Rose!" he roared, pulling his arm back intent on taking a swing at Cornelia with the gold-plated weapon.

Christiane shrieked, but Cornelia did not even have time to think about that before her arms were grabbed by Anneliese. Though the Mistress of the Manor was a head shorter than she, her determination was just as strong, and she raised the odd weapon she was holding and pressed the cold steel against Cornelia's throat.

"Black Rose she is, but we have her under control, Captain!" Anneliese said in a strong voice. "The Baroness and I caught her sneaking around His Excellency's door. We shall make her a head shorter if she tries anything, but we are planning to use her as a shield if the degenerates try to endanger the Baron!"

"Oh… I…" the Captain said, coming to a stop though he continued to hold his saber in the air. "Good thinking, Mistress Anneliese. I shall deal with her later, that conniving bitch. Don't let her escape!" Grunting, he sheathed his weapon before he spun around on his heel and stomped off in search for another melee to engage himself in.

When they were alone once more, Anneliese let out a trembling breath and moved the blade away from Cornelia's throat. "I beg for forgiveness, Milady… I just reacted. I hope I… Oh! I seem to have nicked your skin… let me dress that wound…"

Cornelia touched her throat where the odd-looking blade had rested. A few drops of blood were exchanged to her fingers, but she let out a croaking laugh as she wiped off her hands on her breeches. "Oh… that's just fine, Anneliese. For once, I agree with Captain Blowhard. It was good thinking. Baroness, I think we- Baroness?"

Christiane's face was white as a sheet as she continued to stare wide-eyed at the small drops of blood on Cornelia's throat, and then down at the blade held by her old friend Anneliese. "I fear… I fear I need to lie down now…" she croaked in a trembling voice.

When sounds of further brawling and subsequent destruction reached their ears, they snapped out of the trance they had found themselves in; it was clear the dangers were far from over. "Lying down is just about the only thing we don't have time for," Cornelia said and wrapped an arm around Christiane's shoulder. "The baron's safe for now. I want you to go back to your bedch-"

A wild scream that emanated from Anneliese cut Cornelia off before she could tell the baroness to head back to the safety of her bedchamber after all. Spinning around, Cornelia shot a steely glare at the three bandits who had raced up the sweeping staircase and were now fanning out on the landing. "Sven, you wretched son of a whore," Cornelia said in a low, dangerous hiss.

The stone cold killer did not worthy her with a reply beyond an affirmative grunt. Instead, he nodded at his two companions - the two men who had arrived with him, and whom Cornelia had seen in the vault with Henrik Johansen - who stepped forward to take care of their little problem.

Cornelia took several deep breaths and hunched over to be prepared for the impending fight. "Christiane… Christiane! Get back to your bedchamber if you can… or better yet, get inside with your husband," she growled, never taking her eyes off the two bandits who both wielded hunting daggers.

"I- I d- dare not leave you-"

"Just do it!" Cornelia barked, directing her entire attention at the two bandits.

"Ack!" the Baroness croaked, turning back to the sturdy wooden door that led to her husband's suites. "Erich! Erich! You must open the door! Please! You must let us in! You simply must! Please, Erich!" she cried, pounding her fists over and over against the woodwork.

The dance of death began when one of the two bandits - the one wearing a vest - roared and lunged at Cornelia, but she evaded the first thrust and dished out a long gash across the man's upper arm. When he cried and pulled back, his fellow ruffian - the one wearing a belt as well as a pair of suspenders - jumped ahead with his dagger ahead of him. His first lunge was no success either, but a feint and a second thrust were, and they gave him an opportunity to do a wild slash at Cornelia's midsection that tore her clothes, if not quite her skin.

Cornelia jumped clear at first, but thrust forward as soon as she had regained her balance. The second of the two bandits she was fighting did not expect such a move and had come too far forward. In a heartbeat, one of Cornelia's knives was buried inside his rib cage.

Gasping, the man dropped his own weapon and staggered back towards Sven who simply shoved him aside. Soon, the wounded bandit fell to his knees. Though he tried to grasp the railing, he was unable to and collapsed onto the landing - one down.

An ice cold smile spread across Cornelia's face as she watched the crimson blood dripping off the razor-sharp blade. "Good help is so hard to find these days, ain't it, Sven?" she said through clenched teeth. A quick glance over her shoulder proved that Christiane and Anneliese still had not been able to escape and were huddled up in each other's arms, but that was all she had time for before the other, new bandit came at her with a roar.

The ruffian wearing a vest seemed to want to avenge the second one's death as he jumped forward and swung his dagger from side to side in wild patterns. Although the blade whooshed through the air again and again, the approach was less effective than it appeared. Cornelia backed up, but remained focused on her surroundings so she would not expose the baroness and the Mistress of the Manor to Sven. When an opening came, she jumped forward and slashed her opponent across both forearms with her two blades.

The man cried out and grabbed his right arm that experienced the worst bleeding; Cornelia took full advantage of his lapse and went in deep. After kicking him in the midsection, she kneed him in the face once he doubled over. Another knee in the face sealed the deal, and his eyes rolled back in his head - two down.

"Sven, you miserable coward," Cornelia said between bouts of heavy breathing, "are ya just gonna stand there and watch? That's not like you. Don't you wanna dance with me?"

The stone cold killer let out a grunt as he drew both his razor-sharp knives and moved forward. "You talk too much," he said before he fell quiet again. It was clear from his body language that he was no stranger to hand-to-hand combat - the fight would no doubt be a bloody one for both parties.

As the two formidable fighters began to circle each other with nary a sound uttered between them, Christiane stared at the scene with wide, frightened eyes. She was gnawing on her knuckles out of worry for Cornelia's safety; although the tall woman had been able to beat her opponents so far, the final man seemed harder to conquer.

Just when the monumental battle was about to commence, the door to the baron's bedchamber was opened behind Christiane. Spinning around, she stared into her husband's brown eyes that were as frightened as her own. Although she opened her mouth to cry out, not a croak would come out. She was unwilling to leave Cornelia behind, but she knew she needed to get herself and her dear friend to safety. After casting a final glance at Cornelia and the scary-looking bandit, she grabbed hold of Anneliese's arm and pulled her into the baron's bedchamber.

They had barely made it inside before Erich locked the door and shoved a heavy sideboard back up against it to act as a barricade.

"Cornelia… oh Sweet Lord, please keep Cornelia safe…" Christiane croaked, clutching her head with ice cold, trembling hands.




Cornelia gulped down a bitter lump as she heard the door being locked and the piece of furniture being shoved into position to block any intruder from gaining entry. At least the baroness was as safe as she could be for now, but if Sven and the other bandits were not defeated, the lives of everyone at Swan Manor would still be at risk.

Returning her entire focus on her opponent, she tried to gauge his strengths and weaknesses. His strengths were numerous: he was fast, he was strong, he had a well-honed killer instinct and he was not susceptible to insults and barbs like Jakob was, so there was no point in trying to taunt him into making a mistake that she could exploit.

She scrunched up her face in a brief bout of worry when it dawned on her that she did not know any of Sven's weaknesses. She had spoken little with him and she had never seen him fight, so she had been unable to study him like she had studied Jakob or any of the other bandits who had been with the gang for a while. All she knew about Sven was that he harbored a dark past, and that camp scuttlebutt held him for a child killer. Camp scuttlebutt was untrustworthy at the best of times, but now she wished she had listened closer to it since there was always a grain of truth in even the wildest story. Her lack of information came back to bite her when she needed it the least, but she would just have to improvise.


Turning away from the door, Christiane began rubbing her face as an acute fear for Cornelia's safety, and a throbbing concern for everyone else's, coursed through her. She tried to smile at her husband who had remained by her side, but it never made it beyond a faint creasing of her lips.

She needed to sit down, or better yet lie down, so she walked further into the baron's bedchamber intent on finding a spot to rest before she would collapse. Visiting the suite for the first time since the awful, awkward end to their wedding night was embarrassing for her. She did not know what was more painful: the lingering memories of their utter failure at making love like a husband and a wife were supposed to, or the fact that she had not been back to her own husband's bed since.

Anneliese was already sitting on a chair with her face buried in her hands. When the Mistress of the Manor noticed the baroness was on the hunt for somewhere to sit, she rose and stepped aside so the chair would be vacant, but when Christiane waved her hand in dismissal, Anneliese took advantage of the reprieve and sat down at once.

Eyeing the baron's four-post canopy bed, Christiane came to a gradual stop. It dawned on her that something was wrong with the scene though it took her a few seconds to discover what it was: the bed was unmade, which was logical since the baron was dressed in a nightshirt and slippers, but it was unmade on both sides. A candle was alight on each of the two bedside tables that stood on either side of the bed. A pair of books were next to the candlesticks; one was closed, the other open.

A long sigh that came from the bottom of Christiane's soul escaped her. It was clear the baron had taken on a special companion, like Cornelia had suggested Christiane should do. Though it did not come as the world's greatest shock to her, the disappointment still gnawed at her heart. "Erich, shall we not discontinue the secrecy…?" she said in a quiet voice.

Behind her, the baron let out a matching sigh and came up to stand behind his wife. He put his hands on her shoulders, but she shrugged them off.

"Who is it? Do I know her?" Christiane continued in a voice that only grew quieter.

The baron sighed again before he moved past his wife and walked over to the door to one of the smaller side-rooms. Putting his hand on the door handle, he paused to shoot Christiane a somber look - then he opened the door. "You can come out now. The Baroness knows," he said in French before he stepped aside.


Cornelia had no choice but to play out the lethal fight, so she jumped forward with a grunt while thrusting one of her blades at Sven; he sidestepped it at once and took a swing at her in return, but she was able to evade it.

Another thrust followed by Cornelia, but Sven sidestepped again and lashed out at her midsection with a loud grunt. When his thrust failed as well, he tried a second time straight after the first and was able to slash Cornelia's tunic open across her stomach.

Cornelia's skin had only been nicked, but it was enough for a stinging pain to shoot up from her stomach. Clenching her teeth to ignore it, she began to bob on the balls of her feet to be able to move faster, and perhaps be more unpredictable in her attacks.

It seemed to help as Sven drew a step or two back to regroup. Circling back toward her, he swung his left dagger in a wild arc at Cornelia's face and throat while he kept the right one back in reserve for when he hoped she would duck left - into the path of the cold steel.

Cornelia did duck left to get out of the way of the wild swing, but she was already aware of the lethal blade that waited for her down low, and the body part that made an impact with the second dagger was her booted foot and not her soft gut. Kicking out the moment she noticed the lethal one-two coming toward her, she managed to score a direct hit on Sven's wrist that made the dagger fly from his hand.


Christiane squared her shoulders and tensed up. She thought she was prepared to face her husband's secret mistress, but the sight of Jean-Philibert Brocard entering the bedchamber with tears in his eyes made her jaw slack and her eyes wide. "What…?" she croaked, staring at the manservant whose undressed state - he was bare-chested, bare-footed and only wore a pair of long, satin night breeches - only confirmed that two people had been sharing the bed. "Erich, I do not underst-"

Before she had time to say more, Jean-Philibert began to cry for real, and he ran into the baron's open arms. Soon, Erich comforted him by holding him tight and tousling his long, curly hair. Soothing words were whispered in French before a tender kiss was placed on the younger man's forehead. When they separated, they shot each other a deep, tearful gaze before they kissed for real.

"What in the world…?" Anneliese croaked, shaking her head in disbelief at the unfolding scene.

Christiane had no need to make such an exclamation of surprise. Instead, she nodded, having received a crystal clear answer to a question she did not even know needed to be asked.

The tenderness shown to Jean-Philibert by the baron warmed her heart and erased many - but perhaps not all - of the awkward moments shared between her and her husband. Despite the lingering worry in her gut about Cornelia and the rest of the mess they all found themselves in, she was glad she had at last been given insight into what went on behind her husband's deep, brown eyes that all too often had had a touch of the distant, or even shadowy about them. An unprompted smile came to her lips as she stepped closer to the two men. "Erich, I should have understood, but I did not. Now I do. I will not lie and say it is not a surprise, but at least it is a positive one."

"Thank you," Erich said in a strangled voice. "It was painful not to be able to say anything. I feared you would not understand such a love."

"You need not worry about that. I do understand. And that warm kiss was more than enough proof of the strong love you share," Christiane said, thinking about the similar kisses she had shared with Cornelia. A frown flashed across her forehead as she considered whether or not to share her own secrets, but it was gone the moment it had arrived.


As a long groan escaped Sven from the pain that shot up from his wrist where he had been kicked, Cornelia flew at him at once and delivered a strong punch to his chin that she hoped would be enough to bring him to his knees, or at the very least make him disoriented; it did neither, and he struck back at once by kneeing her across the abdomen.

Now it was Cornelia's turn to let out a pained groan. She clenched her jaw hard to ease the tidal wave of pain that shot up from her lower stomach, but she had no time to reflect on the progress of the vicious fight. A moment later, she had her hands full in defense as Sven made a counterattack that saw his remaining dagger taking a wild swing at her. The sharp blade made several slashing impacts across the sleeves of her tunic, and even near her throat, but she was able to evade the worst thrusts by ducking, weaving and blocking the thrusts with her arms.

Striking back at once, she kicked out and managed to score a direct hit to his groin. She followed the initial success by kicking out again, and although she managed to score another hit across his gut, she was unprepared for yet another counterattack that caught her - literally - on the wrong foot.

She went down and landed on the wooden floorboards with a hard thump that drove the air out of her lungs. A split second later, she would need all the air she could get as Sven jumped down on top of her and thrust his dagger at her face.

Groaning from the severe exertion, Cornelia managed to get her arms up into an X at the last possible moment, and she intercepted the thrust only a few centimeters before the pointed tip of the razor-sharp dagger would have reached her left eye.

Sven used his superior weight to press down towards the sea-blue orb, but in his eagerness to finish off the fight, he had failed to think about controlling his opponent's legs - when Cornelia noticed her legs were free, she rammed her knee up into his groin for a second time.

The hard impact at the juncture of his legs made Sven howl in pain and redouble his efforts at mashing the knife into Cornelia's eye, but the painful kick had proved a distraction, and he eased off his attack for just a moment.

It was not much, but enough for Cornelia to get both her legs inside her opponent and shove him off her. Once she was clear, she jumped to her feet and noted with some pleasure that she had been faster up than Sven. Another vicious kick aimed at his face followed, but it missed and gave the killer an opportunity to swing his knife at her leg.

Although she was able to evade the worst of it, her breeches were torn on her right leg, and she received a nasty cut from just above the knee to halfway down her calf. Crying out in pain, she hobbled back to get out of harms' way. Warm blood soon seeped out and ran down her leg. When sweat was mixed into the wound, the stinging became almost unbearable and she clenched her jaw hard to stop the pitiful moan that was already at the tip of her tongue.

Sven jumped to his feet and began to circle Cornelia once more. His dead eyes had come to life, but it was from taking pleasure in seeing the blood that tainted the leg of Cornelia's torn breeches rather than any newfound humanity or pity for his weakened opponent.


Christiane tried hard to block out the sounds of the fight that took place outside the door to the bedchamber, but she was not all too successful. She needed a distraction, so she concentrated on studying her husband's interaction with Jean-Philibert with a wistful smile on her face. "How long have you been together?" she said, wringing her hands in worry over Cornelia's safety.

"Several years now," Erich said and pulled his lover closer to him. "We met in Troyes in France when I visited a distant family member. Jean-Philibert came back with me and has been at my side ever since." The two men exchanged a smile and another little kiss on the lips.

"That is so beautiful…"

"I am relieved you see it that way, Christiane… few people do. I fear all of this is why I was forced to enter this unholy marriage with you. My family in North Zealand was not as understanding, and they gave me an ultimatum following the news of your father's passing. Either I married you, or they would… ah, purge me from the family tree."

"Why, such a behavior toward a family member is simply ghastly!"

Erich nodded and gave Jean-Philibert another kiss on the forehead. "Quite. Captain von Hardenburg was assigned as my chaperone. He knows about my preferences, but does not approve. For some reason, he has always believed… and continues to do so, I might add… that despite my long-standing relationship with Jean-Philibert, I shall attempt to seduce every man I meet unless the good Captain is there to control my urges and actions. That is how 'we' are, or so he says."

"Ack! Sweet Lord, that is preposterous! I swear, I cannot stand that man!" Christiane said and stomped the heel of her shoe into the floor. Further thoughts of the kisses she had shared with Cornelia flooded her mind and tainted her cheeks.

Erich spoke a few words in French with his lover who nodded and withdrew to the side-room to get dressed in case other people would show up uninvited. "You blush," the baron said, turning back to Christiane. "Does it perhaps bother you after all?"

"It does not, Erich. I fear… no, that is the wrong word to use. My husband, I too harbor a secret," Christiane said, glancing at Anneliese who still seemed to be in a state of abject confusion.

When the Mistress of the Manor heard the baroness' words, she furrowed her brow even further and rose from the chair. "A secret, Baroness Christiane?" she said on her way over to the woman she had looked after for many a year. "Surely not one as weighty as the Baron's?"

"Ah…" Christiane said and turned back to Erich. "That depends on the eye of the beholder, I fear. You see… I too have kissed another since we exchanged the vows."


Cornelia scrunched up her face in concern. The cuts across her stomach stung, her abdominal muscles ached from when she had been kneed in the gut, and the lacerations she had on her arms and upper chest were painful - but the long cut on her leg was the worst, and it ate too much of her concentration. She needed to finish the fight before her opponent would do the same math and arrive at the conclusion that the feared Black Rose had become vulnerable.

The best defense was always an offense, so she jumped forward and began a wild series of swings, jabs and thrusts with her knife that made Sven duck and weave to get out of the danger zone. Another punch to his chin found success; a further kick to his gut was attempted, but missed.

Sven went on the attack once more by driving his elbow deep into Cornelia's ribs. Not only did it give him a respite from the vicious attacks, it gave him an opportunity to go on the offensive and come at his taller opponent with his blade poised to kill.

Wheezing, Cornelia noted the extreme danger but she was unable to mount an effective defense in time. Instead, she flung herself forward into Sven's path and wrapped her strong arms around the heavier man's neck and shoulders. Using a trick she had learned once upon an eon ago when she had worked as a cattle wrangler, she brought the man down onto the floor by yanking his head to the side.

The impact onto the wooden floorboards was once again a bone-rattling one, but this time, Cornelia found herself behind and on top of Sven. To finish it off for good before he could come at her again, she grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head back. Panting hard through clenched teeth, she moved the knife down intending to slit his throat, but stopped when she noticed that blood was already flowing from his mouth.

Stepping off her fallen opponent, she put the tip of a boot under his side and turned him over. The knife that was buried to the hilt in Sven's heart was his own, a fitting end to a stone cold killer.

He grinned at her even while blood continued to run from his mouth, but Cornelia failed to see the humor in the situation and pulled her lips back in a disgusted grimace. A shudder ran across Sven's body as he died, but Cornelia still collected both his blades - she would not put it past him to strike a deal with the devil to make a swift return.

Sven's long, razor-sharp knives were too dangerous to leave unattended, so she broke off the blades with several hard knocks from the heel of her boot. After they had come loose, she kicked them further down the landing where they came to a rest near the far wall so they would be out of sight of anyone passing by.


Erich furrowed his brow and shot his wife a puzzled glance as a reaction to her surprising announcement of a secret liaison, but Anneliese went one further: stopping dead in her tracks, she threw her hands in the air. "I knew it! Who? It is Hjalmar, is it not? The blond youngling from the other day? Ack, I saw it in your eyes all morning, but I could not believe it to be true!"

Christiane grimaced. "It is not the young stableboy although he is a handsome lad indeed. No, it is… ah…" - she looked from one to the other, and sensed the news would not go down well - "Cornelia."

"Wh- what?! Baroness Christiane!" Anneliese croaked, once more shaking her head in disbelief. Staring wide-eyed at the younger woman, she tried to get her brain to function again after the short-circuit it had suffered upon hearing the surprising news, but it refused to come back to life.

"A woman?" Erich said, furrowing his brow. "Ah. I see… well, that certainly puts our marriage under a whole new light, does it not? However, I fear I do not know the Lady…"

Christiane grimaced again - it was about to get even more awkward. "Actually, you do, only you know her as Lady Magdalene. And… she is perhaps best known by the moniker Black Rose."

Now the baron stopped dead as well to stare wide-eyed at his wife. "Lady Magdalene is the vile, hideous leader of the gang of degenerate criminals? The tall, beautiful woman with the bright-blue eyes… that Lady Magdalene?!"

"Ah, yes…"

"Well… that is… certainly…" Erich said and rubbed his brow. He opened his mouth to continue, but was unable to find anything else to say.

"Indeed," Christiane said in a flat voice. "And right this minute, she is outside, fighting vicious bandits to keep us all safe. Dear God, I wish she shall prevail. If she does not, I fear we may all be doomed… and my heart shall certainly perish regardless of whatever else happens to us."

The baron nodded in understanding, but Anneliese appeared less convinced.

The conversation was interrupted by someone at the door, and Christiane hurried over to it in the hope that it was Cornelia rather than a bringer of bad news.


Sweating, bleeding, panting, aching all over and just plain exhausted, Cornelia ran over to the door to the baron's bedchamber. She tried to depress the handle, but the door was still locked. "Christiane! Can you hear me?" she said in a shout to make her voice carry through the sturdy door. When nothing happened at first, she tapped her knuckles on the door's filling a couple of times. "Christiane? It's me!"

'Cornelia? Cornelia, oh thank the Good Lord you are alive! Are you hurt bad?' Christiane shouted back.

"I got knocked around a little, but I'll live. Stay-"

'I shall come out and dress your wounds at once!' Christiane continued, followed by scraping sounds from the furniture that was already being pushed aside.

"No! No, stay where you are, Christiane. It's still not safe for you out here!"



'Oh… very well. We shall all stay here. My husband is fine.'

Cornelia let out a hoarse chuckle at the mention of the baron - she had forgotten all about him. "That's good news. I promise I'll be back in a while. Don't let anyone in in the meantime. All right?"

'Yes! We understand, Cornelia!'

"Good," Cornelia said and ran away from the door. She paused at the three fallen bandits. Sven was still dead despite her suspicions of him cutting a deal with the devil, as was the first of the two other bandits. The third bandit, the one who wore a vest, was still out cold from being kneed in the face twice. Cornelia weighed her options - she could slit his throat and be done with him once and for all, or she could move him away from the baron's bedchamber so he would not get any bright ideas once he woke up.

She chose the second option and kicked him over with her boot so she could grab him by the belt and the scruff of his neck. Her wounds ached and bled even worse as she picked up the bandit, and she understood that it would put too much strain on her if she carried him downstairs. To save her strength, she dumped him again and watched him roll down the countless steps of the sweeping staircase. He tumbled end over end until he came to a crashing halt at the foot of the flight of stairs with his arms pointed one way, and his legs the other.

Shrugging, Cornelia set off hurrying down the many steps to continue her atonement for being the one who had cooked up the evil plan to raid the manor that had caused so much grief for so many people.


Downstairs in the grand hall, she had to wade through an assortment of broken glass, torn tapestries, fragments of porcelain, and bits of furniture that had been smashed into shapeless lumps. Everywhere she went, she needed to stride over men who had fallen where they had fought. Some wore the uniforms of the Lancers or even the renowned Guard Hussars, others wore regular clothes that identified them as being bandits - some of the men were dead, others merely wounded or otherwise incapacitated.

Several of the bandits were still engaged in battling their uniformed opponents like they had failed to realize that the entire objective of their mission at Swan Manor - to sneak in undetected, steal what they could, and sneak back out - had gone all to hell when their leaders had not been able to control themselves but had given in to mindless destruction rather than clever thieving.

Cornelia needed to do a double-take when she spotted several vegetables scattered on the floor near the staircase that led down into the kitchen. It looked like someone had been throwing onions at the bandits, and judging by the black eyes and bruised foreheads that were visible on the men who had fallen at random - even on one of the Lancers - that particular someone had a strong arm and a good aim.

She was about to move on into the hitherto elegant drawing rooms to see what kind of mayhem had taken place in there when she spotted a woman come running up the stairs from the kitchen. The woman, who wore a pale-blue dress with short sleeves, a flat collar with wide lapels, and a white apron that had been tied around her neck and waist, carried a wooden crate loaded with onions, carrots, celery roots and even a couple of smaller heads of cabbage.

"Oy!" the woman said in a rich voice. "Who the blazes are you, then? One of the good people or one of the wretched sons-a-bitches who wrecked my kitchen?" While she spoke, she reached into the crate to find a good, solid, rock-hard celery root that would be a good missile for the next bandit unfortunate enough to step into her firing line.

Cornelia put her hands in the air at once as it dawned on her that she had finally run into the infamous Matron of the Kitchen. "I'm one of the good people! Don't shoot!" she said, taking in the sight of the much-talked about woman. Unlike the hefty ox - or fire-breathing dragon - she had expected to see, the Matron was a short, slender woman with emerald-green eyes and an unruly mop of dirty-blond hair that did not seem to follow any of the current trends in fashion for women.

"You better not be lying to me 'cos I can nail you but good from fifteen paces!" the Matron said, eyeing the tall stranger whose blood-splattered, torn tunic and men's breeches were most unusual clothing items to wear for a woman.

"I'm not… have you seen a man with a long scar across his foreh-"

"Have I ever!" the Matron said and let out a growl. "Why, I nailed that miserable, lying piece of shit right in the kisser with an onion, but he got away! If I get my hands on him, he's gonna wish his momma and poppa never met!"

"Well, that's-"

"Damnations, more of those bastards!" the Matron cried as two bandits came into the grand hall from the courtyard. Roaring out loud, she pulled her arm back and cannoned off the celery root at the first man - she nailed him across the brow and sent him reeling back out of the door. Not content with her first vegetable assault, she picked up a fair-sized onion and jumped out after them.

Cornelia let out a coarse chuckle at the sight. Shaking her head, she went back to her original plan and stepped over a few more fallen men to get to the drawing rooms.


The elegant rooms were less ravaged than she had feared though three of the four chairs and the low table that had stood between them had been smashed to bits. A pair of tin cups and a silver tray appeared to have been used as weapons, and had ended up inside the dormant fireplace. Two of the leaded panes in the window overlooking Christiane's ornamental garden had been smashed, but the most important items in there - the coat of arms on the wall, and the display cabinets containing the late Baroness Frederikke's silverware and figurines - were unharmed.

It looked like someone had been brained with one of the pokers from the fireplace as blood, hair and bone fragments were still sticking to one of the three cast iron tools that had been knocked over and had fallen from their rack. No dead bodies littered the floor of either of the drawing rooms, however, so whomever had suffered the injury had managed to walk, crawl or be carried out of there.


The grand banqueting hall had not been left untouched by the ravaging horde of thugs and cutthroats either. Several of the tall curtains had been torn down and were lying in heaps on the floor. Not a single one of the heavy, uncomfortable dining chairs remained upright, and one had even been smashed to bits. The long table itself seemed to be all right although it had been shoved a foot to the side from its original position, but it was covered in splintered fragments of varying types and sizes that came from the plates and other utensils that had been used when the kitchen staff had set the table for the following breakfast.

Shaking her head at the mindless destruction, Cornelia ran over to the large, leaded windows that offered a grand view of the inlet and further toward the east. Although it was still quite dark outside, a navy-blue hue already tainted the eastern skies meaning that dawn was near.

Her sixth sense kicked in, and she looked down onto the ground just outside the windows. For a split second, she locked eyes with Jakob Mikkelsen who came running from the servants' entrance toward the main courtyard. "Jakob! You're mine!" she roared as she set off in a fast sprint to get to the main entrance before her former second-in-command could disappear again.


Outside, she jumped down the entire stone staircase to avoid the onions and carrots that littered the steps; keeping up the frantic pace, she raced into the courtyard and spun around several times to find Jakob. When she caught a glimpse of him trying to hide near the granite foundation where she had been herself earlier in the night when the torches had been ignited, she roared out loud and once more took off in such a hurry that a small storm of dust and gravel was kicked up from her boots.

"Jakob!" she yelled as she approached him. "Give it up, man! Sven is dead, and so is Henrik and most of the others. There's no point in pretending-"

With a roar, Jakob jumped up from the crouch and came at Cornelia with his blade ahead of him. When the first thrust missed, he swung the knife left and right in a wild pattern that made his opponent jump back to get out of the way.

The two fighters were illuminated by the flickering torches as their struggle ebbed and flowed all across the courtyard. They both thrust or slashed at the other, and the occasional kick or punch were thrown although few were hits and fewer still did any damage.

Cornelia was already exhausted, and the many cuts and scrapes that she had received in the fight against Sven bothered her to no end, but she was not about to let her former second-in-command see that. Going in deep, she took a swing at his gut but missed. The return swing missed as well because Jakob jerked clear at the last moment. "Damn, you're like a spooked, little kitten! What, are ya afraid of a girl?" she growled, taking a third swing at her opponent that was no more successful than the first two had been.

"I ain't afraid o' you, bitch!" Jakob cried in a hoarse voice as he attempted yet another thrust that also went wide. "I owe you so much pain… so much pain!"

Cornelia let out a cold laugh while she evaded the latest thrust. Unlike Sven, Jakob was an opponent who would respond to even the most childish of taunts, so she was looking forward to rattling his cage a little. "Until you gain better control over your weapon there, I'd lay off the fancy promises, friend," she said, cocking an eyebrow.

"I'm gonna hurt you but good!" Jakob cried, rushing forward toward Cornelia with the blade held high and his entire midsection exposed to a counterattack. "I'm gonna bleed you dry-"

The next moment, a loud crack rang out from a discharging musket. The lead ball zinged through the air until it made a bloody, thudding impact in the center of Jakob's chest. When blood started spurting from the wound, he took a staggering step back and dropped the knife. He and Cornelia exchanged one, last, silent look before he fell over backwards and landed on the gravel with a puzzled expression on his face.

"Drop your weapons, Black Rose, or die where you stand!" a gruff, martial voice cried out somewhere behind Cornelia.

Sighing, she let go of her knives and turned around. Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg, one of the Guard Hussar Lieutenants and a handful of Lancers came running toward her with their muskets or sabers trained on her. As she watched, the Captain swapped his spent long musket for a loaded one that he cocked at once.

"Get on your knees, woman," he said as he approached her.

Cornelia complied and fell down onto her knees though the coarse, loose gravel caused her untold pain from digging into the wound on her right leg. "Congratulations, Captain Blowhard. You got me at last," she said with a cold smile playing on her lips.

"Shut up! I'll let you know when you can spe- What did you call me?!" the Captain roared. His cheeks and forehead gained a crimson hue that made it appear he was on the brink of suffering from a coronary, but he did not let it stop him. "How dare you speak to me like that, you worthless piece of garbage?! You should thank your lucky stars I have not sent you to hell already!"

"I wonder if it's really any worse than being here with you…" Cornelia said, but perhaps she chose the wrong moment to taunt this particular opponent. Roaring out his frustrations, Captain von Hardenburg raised the long musket and used its metallic butt to clobber her across the brow.


A pinpoint of light came into view at the far end of a pitch-black tunnel. Soon, Cornelia went on a long, slow journey through the tunnel until she had gathered enough momentum to run the rest of the way. Although it was still too soon for her to open her eyes after being clobbered over the head, the silky-soft pair of hands that caressed her cheeks and aching forehead gave her a good reason to return to consciousness.

When the moment arrived where she was ready, willing and able to open her eyes, the state of mass confusion around her made her slam them shut again at once. She had only had a split second to take in her surroundings, but it appeared she had been moved into the grand banqueting hall and put on one of the heavy dining chairs. Her arms were behind her back, and she could sense a rope tied around her wrists that was connected to the backrest. When she tried to wiggle her legs, she found her ankles to be restricted as well - in short, she could not move.

The noises in her vicinity were chaotic, not to mention deafening, as it seemed a hundred men were shouting, or groaning, or crying out, or just plain making a racket all at the same time. It would have been too much for her even if she had been in good health; the splitting headache that throbbed inside her head only grew worse by the second from all the mess. "What the hell is going on in here?" she croaked.

"Oh! Oh, Cornelia," the baroness said, leaning down to frame Cornelia's bruised face with both hands, "how are you? Are you all right? Ack, you look terrible!"

"Why, thank you… I always appreciate a compliment. Am I all right? I don't know… my head hurts so I guess it's still attached…"

A screechy laugh brought on by her frazzled nerves and Cornelia's croaking quips escaped the baroness' lips before she had time to clap a hand over her mouth. When she had swallowed the inappropriate exclamation, she leaned down to whisper: "It is still there, yes… but you are bleeding from a cut near a hideous abrasion at your hairline. I fear the insufferable Captain mistook your head for a punching bag out there. I have sent Anneliese on a quest to find some bandages so we can dress your wounds, but it may take her a while since the manor has been turned upside down by those wretched bandits."

"Ah, yes… the dear Captain. Always prepared to offer a helping hand…"

"Indeed…" Christiane said, looking over her shoulder to shoot an angry glare at Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg who had assumed control over everything in the banqueting hall until the baron would arrive.

"Christiane," Cornelia croaked, "what's going on in here? What's all that racket about?"

"The Captain and the officers from the Guard Hussars are in the process of imposing martial law. They claim they have every right to do so since several soldiers from both units were slain in the attack."

"Martial law, eh? Figures."

"But have no fear, Cornelia… the baron still has the final word as the arbiter of the region. And if he cannot come forth with a clear defense of you, I will!"

A hoarse chuckle escaped Cornelia's throat. "I believe you," she said and shook her head at the insanity - a moment later, she wished she had not as the world started spinning.

Further commotion was heard from the doorway, and Christiane and Cornelia craned their necks to see what was going on. A group of Lancers brought in four additional bandits to make it seven survivors in all from the old gang: Kresten Hansen, Søren Svendsen, Finn Mogensen and Bent Peitersen who had all been apprehended in the barracks by the Lancers as they swept every room for further hostiles.

Taking a deep breath, Cornelia let out a resounding: "Hullo, chums!" to the captured bandits. Her cry was responded to by a "Hullo, Black Rose! So nice to see ya!" by Kresten - then, the older thief was shoved back and told by a stern soldier to shut up or face the consequences.

"Oh… I'm glad the old geezers are all right," Cornelia said and breathed a sigh of relief at seeing her old acquaintances in one piece. Then she remembered the story behind Bent's entry into the gang, and she furrowed her brow. "Christiane, the boorish man at the far end of the line… see him?"

"I do indeed, Cornelia."

"He's a traitor. He was in the coastal village's peasant militia, but he betrayed them. He only joined the gang to raid the manor. Though I know you can't stand speaking to the Captain, I'm afraid he needs to know before Bent starts telling lies."

"Goodness me… very well… that is certainly a sound reason for exposing myself to the good Captain's gruff manners. I shall do that at once. Will you be safe while I am away?" Christiane said and caressed Cornelia's cheek once more.

"Yes, I'll be fine. Please, it's important the Captain knows," Cornelia said with an apologetic smile.


When the baroness returned a few minutes later, her ears had turned red from the brief conversation she had conducted with the retired officer. She tried to smile at Cornelia, but it failed to go anywhere and caused her to give up trying. "I have relayed your information, Cornelia. Whether or not the good Captain listened, I cannot say. I fear he is even fuller of himself now than he has been… it seems he is quite pleased with himself for bringing down the infamous Black Rose."

"Well, that is understandable… I am quite the catch."

A long, snorting groan escaped Christiane's throat at Cornelia's words. She shook her head several times at the ill-timed quip, and ended up looking at the ceiling of the banqueting hall to seek guidance from above. "Sweet Lord, you are a dangerous woman… you are almost as bad as he is, albeit in a different manner altogether," she said, shaking her head once more. Looking back at the Captain, she let out a dark grunt. "Ack, I cannot stand him. And my antipathy toward him only grows worse as I get to learn more about him!"


"I shall tell you later. Suffice to say I have had an enlightening night, in more ways than one, Cornelia," Christiane said and let out a small chuckle. "Like I said, I shall tell you all about it later when we are alone."

Even more commotion at the door heralded the arrival of Colonel Rudolph Abildgaard, both Guard Hussar Lieutenants, Anneliese von Eyben and several Lancers armed with long muskets. Once most everyone was present - a dispatch rider had been sent to fetch Johannes Steengaard in the coastal village in case any of the accused needed to confide to a man of the cloth, but the portly Pastor was running quite late because he had been sleeping too soundly and could not be stirred awake in time - Captain von Hardenburg stepped into the center of the banqueting hall and put his arms in the air to claim the attention of those present. "May we have some quiet please… quiet! I officially declare this session to stand under martial law. It has been set up with the sole purpose of identifying the culprit, or culprits, behind this heinous attack. Once we have, we shall subsequently find a punishment appropriate to the crime, and see to it that it is swiftly carried out onto those people."

Affirmative grunts were heard from the privates and officers present, but the captured bandits were less enthusiastic on the whole. Christiane and Cornelia shot each other worried glances at the retired officer's words - there was no doubt that 'punishment appropriate to the crime' meant a noose slipped around everyone's neck.

Captain von Hardenburg stepped away from the center of the floor and performed a deep bow when Baron Erich appeared at the doorway with his French manservant just behind him and to his right as always. To mark the somber occasion, the baron had opted against wearing his usual, colorful garments for a set of dark-gray breeches and a matching tunic that carried wraparound cuffs. A black cape secured by a leather tie at the collar completed the low-key ensemble.

"Your Excellency," Captain von Hardenburg said and performed another bow once the baron had sat down on the chair that had been prepared for him. "I present to you the captured bandits and their leader. Behold, the vile creature known as Black Rose," he continued, gesturing at Cornelia. When he noticed her chair sat crooked so she was unable to look justice in the eye, he gestured once more, only this time it was directed at some of the soldiers.

A pair of sturdy Lancers ran over to stand behind Cornelia's chair. At the Captain's command, they grabbed hold of the backrest and yanked the chair around into a better position with no regards for the well-being of the prisoner.

Baron Erich let out a brief grunt at the sight of the many cuts, bruises and bleeding scrapes scattered all over Cornelia's body. He studied the tall woman for a few moments with an unreadable expression on his face before he looked up and locked eyes with his wife.

Christiane kept his gaze and sent him a silent message in return that said, 'Yes, this is the woman who has come to mean a great deal to me.' The moment was broken when Captain von Hardenburg stepped into the center of the banqueting hall once more, but she hoped the non-verbal message had come across.

"Your Excellency… Baroness… Colonel Abildgaard… my fellow officers," Captain von Hardenburg said and performed a round of short bows at the people in question. "We have been the victims of a nefarious attack on our home. Through a concentrated effort by our brave soldiers from the Guard Hussars and the Lancers, we managed to defeat the criminal invaders and reclaim what is rightfully ours, though at a high cost to life and property. There is little doubt in my mind that this cowardly raid was conceived and conducted by the woman you see before you… Black Rose. However, I shall not add to her mistaken pride by using the moniker that she has earned through spilling the blood of others. Pray tell, woman, what is your real name?"

Cornelia sighed. She knew exactly where it was all headed, but she might as well roll with it now they had put such a grand show on the road just for her. "Cornelia Karlsdatter," she said in a strong voice, looking at the baron rather than the Captain.

"Cornelia Karlsdatter, such an extraordinary name for such an extraordinary example of a degenerate criminal," the Captain continued, turning back to Baron Erich. "But I digress. Under the accepted rules of martial law, we, the wronged party, shall ask for the most severe of all penalties for the crimes committed by this evil woman. Your Excellency, we hope that you shall approve of our request for death by hang-"

"Captain von Hardenburg," Baroness Christiane said, cutting off the retired officer, "under the age-old rules of arbitration that we use here at Swan Manor, all accused have a right to defend themselves, or choose a defender if they cannot-"

"We are under martial law, Baroness. We do not adhere to the civilian rules of arbitration. These are prisoners of war, and thus have no civic rights whatsoever save for the right to choose whether or not they shall wear a blindfold as the hangman ties the noose around their neck."

"Then I shall defend the accused!" Christiane barked and stamped her shoe into the smooth floor.

The Captain stared at her like she had sprouted a second head, and he could not conceal a patronizing smile from spreading over his lips. "Baroness, this is hardly-"

"Captain von Hardenburg, need I remind you that you are not in charge here? My dearest husband, Erich Baron Goldenloew of Swan Manor is. Or perhaps you seek to stage a military coup while you are at it?"

The statement, and the heated fashion in which it was brought forth, caused a few muted grunts of dissent from the other officers present, but the snickers that spread from the captured bandits were louder - the latter were soon silenced by a few clouts over their heads by their guards.

Von Hardenburg's lips had been reduced to thin, gray lines in his face. After a short delay, he nodded to acknowledge the baroness' words before he crossed his arms over his chest and looked to the baron for guidance.

"Fine!" Christiane said, turning back to her husband as well.

"Captain," Baron Erich said, "the accused cannot be categorized as prisoners of war since no war has been declared. I shall allow the Baroness to defend the accused," he continued, gesturing at Christiane with his hand.

It did not do much good for the Captain's facial color to have his much-touted martial law session shot down like that, but Christiane enjoyed the verdict, and went into a quick curtsey to her husband before she turned her attention to the woman known as Black Rose. "Cornelia Karlsdatter, what do you have to say in your defense?"

Cornelia drew a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. While she spoke, he looked the baron in the eye to gauge what went on behind his brown orbs. "Your Excellency, I am guilty of conceiving the original plan to raid-"

"Ha! Did I not tell you?!" Captain von Hardenburg barked, pointing an accusing index finger at Cornelia.

"However," Cornelia continued, ignoring the annoying man's outburst, "I was not a part of the plan's execution as I found myself ousted from the gang before it took place. As Baroness Christiane will attest to, I was already here at Swan Manor when the raid was carried out by my former second-in-command Jakob Mikkelsen."

A murmur rippled through the crowd of spectators as Baron Erich eyed the other captured bandits. "Is that man among the accused now?"

"He is not, Your Excellency. He was shot dead by Captain von Hardenburg in the courtyard," Cornelia said, glancing across the banqueting hall to the retired officer whose facial color still had not improved.

"Ah, that was unfortunate," the Baron said, turning back to Cornelia.

The Captain mumbled a few unintelligible words before he settled for grinding his jaw. It was clear by the look in his eyes that he wished he had shot Cornelia stone dead as well when he had the chance.

"Your Excellency," Cornelia continued, looking at her acquaintances from the old gang. "Three of the four men who stand there accused had no part in the destruction of your home, nor the killing of the soldiers. I am speaking of the two older gentlemen and the young man you see before you. They remained in the barracks after their task of driving the real culprits here was over."

"That is completely irrelevant!" Captain von Hardenburg barked, once again pointing an accusing index finger at Cornelia. "They are accomplices of the crime. Pray tell, should we not arrest the man emptying the piss pots when we clear out a whorehouse?"

"Captain von Hardenburg!" Christiane said as a strong blush tainted her cheeks.

"I beg for forgiveness for my crude language, Baroness, Your Excellency," Ieronymus von Hardenburg said and performed two short bows to the important couple, "but my example stands. The accused cannot save their necks by hiding behind the pitiful excuse of not knowing what their fellow criminals were aiming to do here!"

Even Christiane had to concede that point, but then she remembered what Cornelia had told her about the fourth man in the group, Bent Peitersen. "Cornelia Karlsdatter, what of the fourth of the accused?"

Cornelia let her eyes roam across the worried faces of her acquaintances until they came to a rest on the man she knew very little of. Bent shot her a dark glare in return, no doubt still upset over being knocked out in the barracks. "The fourth man, Bent Peitersen, is a traitor and a renegade. He was part of the coastal village's peasant militia and supplied the wagon and the pitchforks used in the charade. He chose to betray his comrades in the militia when faced with the possibility of making personal gain here."

Using such martial terms had been a deliberate choice on Cornelia's part to make sure the soldiers present understood Bent's crime. The chorus of angry grunts that rose from the men in uniform proved that it had been the right decision - even the gruff Captain seemed to acknowledge her words.

"Very well. With that out of the way," Christiane continued, "what of your own involvement in the raid, Cornelia Karlsdatter? Two dead ruffians are upstairs near the door to Baron Erich's bedchamber. Can you explain to us who they were, and how they died?"

"I only know one of the deceased as the other had joined the gang after I'd been ousted. The name of the most dangerous one of them all was Sven Jensen, but that name is so common I believe it was an assumed name. He joined us near Roskilde. Rumor had it he was a child killer, but I can't verify that," Cornelia said, looking at the members of the audience. "And the cause of their death? I fought them both to stop them from breaking into the baron's bedchamber where His Excellency was protecting the baroness and the Mistress of the Manor. One I killed directly, one died as the result of a wound inflicted on him during the fight."

Another murmur rippled through the people assembled in the banqueting hall. Christiane shivered at the thought of seeing the remains of the two bandits when she and the others had exited the bedchamber upon receiving news of the end of the fighting. The one who had been on his back with a bloody wound in his chest had still worn a devilish grin on his face like he was not at all displeased with his new accommodations in the Grim Realm. "Ah… Cornelia Karlsdatter, what would have happened to us… to the people inside Baron Erich's bedchamber had those two men gained access?"

Cornelia grunted. "The women would have been raped and murdered, and the men would have had their throats slit. Sven Jensen was a stone cold killer whose favorite pastime was to sharpen his knives."

"Ack… so the killings of those two men were indeed justified?" Christiane croaked.

"I believe so, yes."

Christiane looked at the Captain and her husband before she continued - the two men gave her different looks in return, but at least the baron's was not hostile. "Was there not, in fact, a third bandit at the landing?"

"Yes, but I merely knocked him out. I threw him down the stairs once the fights were over to get him away from the bedchamber. I don't know what happened to him."

Hearing that, the Baron cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "Captain von Hardenburg," he said and shifted around in the chair, "was that man apprehended or did he lose his life as well? I see he is not among the accused."

"The bandit is still alive, Your Excellency," the retired officer said with a small bow, "and has been formally apprehended. However he is in the makeshift infirmary at present due to several broken bones that I presume were received in the fall."

"Ah. I see. Pray, go on, Baroness Christiane," Erich said, gesturing at his wife who nodded in return.

"Were the three men armed?" Christiane continued, turning back to Cornelia.

"Yes, they carried knives, as did I. Two appeared to have homemade daggers typical of the traveling bandits, but Sven Jensen carried razor-sharp blades made by expert craftsmen."

"So you defeated three armed men in a single fight to save the lives of the Lord and Lady of the Manor?" Christiane said; this time, she pinned the Captain to the spot to gauge what kind of reaction he would offer.

As it turned out, Captain von Hardenburg's expression turned to one of annoyance at sensing the mounting sympathy for the person he considered to be the mastermind of the whole event.

"I did," Cornelia said with a faint nod.

A few moments went by before Christiane stepped away from Cornelia and curtseyed at her husband. "Baron Erich, I rest my case. I believe it has been proven that neither you and I, nor the other people in the chamber with us, would be here now if this woman, Cornelia Karlsdatter, had not put her own life in danger to ensure our safety. Therefore, the defense must deny Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg's request of the death penalty for the accused."

Another murmur rippled through the spectators; some grunted in approval, others scoffed at the defense's softness toward the criminals.

"Having said that," Christiane continued, "we acknowledge that some, lesser form of punishment must be carried out for Cornelia Karlsdatter's involvement in the initial creation of the plan."

The baron shifted in his seat like hearing the gory details - and the even gorier implications had Cornelia not acted the way she had - had made him uncomfortable. It was clear by the thoughtful look upon his face that his mind was racing as it processed all the various details of the unusual case. He shifted in his seat for a second time to drag out the seconds, but then he let out a sigh and sat up straight. "I agree with the defense on both accounts. The request for the death penalty for Cornelia Karlsdatter has been denied. A lesser punishment-"

"You cannot be serious!" Captain von Hardenburg roared, drawing shocked gasps from the assembled spectators. "We suffered several fatalities among the soldiers, and the only one among the accused who can be held accountable for those crimes is that woman there! By God, she even admitted it!" A moment later, when he realized his severe breach of protocol, his face turned crimson. "I beg for forgiveness, Your Excellency," he mumbled through clenched teeth.

"I do not know if I should offer you forgiveness, Captain! I do not appreciate being interrupted, nor having my decisions challenged!" the baron said, using the strong voice that was so rare it caused yet another murmur to ripple among the spectators. "When we spoke in the courtyard a short time ago, you told me yourself that it appears that every bandit deemed directly responsible for the deaths of the soldiers were in fact killed in the fracas. Is that not correct, Captain?"

"That is correct, Your Excellency," the Captain mumbled - Christiane could not keep a smug grin off her lips.

"Therefore the accused cannot be held responsible for crimes committed by others in the period following her dismissal from her… ah, gang. Well! As I was saying before the rude interruption," the baron continued, shooting the Captain a dark glare, "a lesser punishment for Cornelia Karlsdatter for her involvement in the origins of the plan to raid Swan Manor has been approved and shall be decided at a later date. As for three of the four other accused, I have decided they are indeed guilty of participating in the crime. However, taking their limited involvement into consideration, I shall turn their cases over to the town magistrate where a suitable punishment shall be sought. The fourth man, Bent Peitersen, I find guilty of treason. Captain von Hardenburg, does the peasant militia fall under your jurisdiction?"

"It does not, Your Excellency," Captain von Hardenburg said, still speaking in an embarrassed mumble.

"Ah. Very well. In that case, I shall turn the guilty party over to the leaders of the local militia in the hope they shall issue a severe punishment to the man for betraying his brothers in arms. My decisions are final and cannot be appealed. This court is adjourned," Baron Erich said and got up from the chair. Since no kitchenmaids were present in the banqueting hall - the Matron of the Kitchen had them all working hard cleaning up the mayhem downstairs - he was forced to push the chair back himself.

As the baron strode out of the banqueting hall with Jean-Philibert Brocard trailing him as always, everyone bowed or curtseyed at the Lord of the Manor. Some of the people in the dining hall let out sighs of relief, others grumbled under their breath - but all in all, a sense of fatigue and exhaustion fell over them all as they realized that although the worst was over, the clean-up was going to be a tough phase to get through as well.

Christiane shuffled over to Cornelia and offered her a weak, tired smile. "Thank you," she whispered, stroking the long, dark hair that had turned damp from the sweat and the blood that had seeped from the wound at her hairline.

"Thank me? Thank you!" Cornelia said and broke out in a croaking laugh. She shuffled around on the seat trying to find a softer spot for her behind on the hard, uncomfortable dining chair, but she was unable to. "Should we ask the dear, old Captain to come and untie my hands and ankles?"

"I think we should not, Cornelia. I fear we better not let him come within ten paces of you for the foreseeable future. I shall find someone who can. After you have been released, I would like to see you in my bedchamber. Your wounds need dressing, and we have a few, important items to discuss… and they need to be discussed in private."

"Mmmm?" Cornelia said with a gleam in her eye that made the baroness blush and break out in an embarrassed snicker.


Seven hours later. The clock on the chapel at the back of Swan Manor had just finished striking the last of eleven chimes as the door to the baron's bedchamber was opened, and Christiane and Cornelia stepped inside.

The baroness had been so exhausted by the night's upsetting events that she had almost passed out the moment she saw her canopy bed, so the things she and Cornelia had wanted to discuss in private had been postponed until after a well-deserved nap - however, what was meant to be a few, brief winks turned out to be a six-hour deep sleep that had put an end to all discussions. When the baroness had woken up again, Cornelia had fallen asleep after her wounds had been dressed by Anneliese von Eyben, and the former leader of the feared gang of traveling bandits had not woken up until it was time to speak to the baron.

Jean-Philibert greeted them at the door by bowing and gesturing them inside. When Cornelia turned back to the manservant and spoke to him in solid, if not entirely fluent, French, his eyes flew open and he began rattling off a lengthy reply in an enthusiastic voice.

Christiane just stared at the taller woman like she could not fathom that French was one of her many skills. While the two people continued to speak in the foreign language, she swept a cape off her shoulders to reveal a neutral, white dress. With Anneliese busy supervising the salvage operation downstairs, and all the chambermaids pressed into duty as a large-scale cleaning crew, she had been forced to dress herself for a change. It had gone without a glitch, save for her long stockings that were difficult to slide up her calves without the expert assistance by her Mistress of the Manor and her handmaiden. After several failed attempts of donning them on her own, she had considered going without them, but there was a limit to her daring, even after the adventurous night she had endured.

Prompted by the French conversation going on in the bedchamber, Baron Erich came out from the small side-room and closed the door behind him. After receiving a curtsey from his wife, he kissed her on the cheeks before he walked down toward Jean-Philibert and the tall woman. "Ah, Lady Cornelia," he said, eyeing the bloodied tunic and the brown men's breeches with some trepidation.

"Baron Erich," Cornelia said and performed a short bow that was met by a chuckle.

"I could not help but hear that you speak French…?"

"Indeed I do. French is the official language at the court of the Russian Tsar after all," Cornelia said, slipping into a more refined dialect than her own, broad tones almost as a reflex.

Christiane came hurrying over and hooked her arm inside that of Cornelia. "Oh! So that part of your story was true? Goodness me, I cannot wait to hear the real truth behind that infuriating charade…"

Cornelia offered the younger woman a wistful smile. She would still need to hide some parts of the truth - her maimed breast among them; she sensed it would take the shy baroness a while to get used to having intimate relations with a woman - but she could not wait to tell her tale at last. "And hear it you will, my dear Christiane, though perhaps not all at once. I do not wish to bore you with the dreary details."

"Ack, that shall never happen!"

Smiling, the baron gestured at a few chairs that had been put up in the bedchamber. "Come, let us sit. We have several important topics we need to discuss now that we are all here."

Once the four people were seated, the baron assumed a more somber look. "I have been downstairs to get a first-hand impression of the destruction caused by the ravaging horde. While it is less severe than I had feared, many items have been destroyed. Furniture in particular, but also some of the fine porcelain. Many of the curtains have been torn or shredded as well, but, fortunately, none of the truly valuable items appear to have been harmed. The family portraits are all unscathed."

"Thank the Good Lord for that," Christiane mumbled.

"Indeed. The furniture can be easily replaced, and I have already sent a dispatch rider to the coastal village asking the master craftsmen to visit us tomorrow to give us a few quotations for new chairs, et cetera. And more importantly," the baron continued, taking Jean-Philibert's hand in his own. He looked at Cornelia to gauge her reaction and only found a broad, knowing grin, "through the sterling efforts of Lady Cornelia, we all came through the harrowing events in one piece. I am sure my wife will agree that the alternative is far too frightening to even consider, so… we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Milady."

"Hear, hear!" Christiane cried, breaking out in a fast clapping.

"And I thank you for sparing my neck last night, Baron Erich," Cornelia said and got up to perform a short bow. "Not to mention the necks of the two old geezers and the young man. They are good people… misguided, but good."

"You are welcome, Lady Cornelia. Your friends will still have to face some kind of punishment issued by the town magistrate, of course."

"Quite, but certainly not a trip to the gallows."

"Indeed not. Ah, and this…" the baron said, holding up his and Jean-Philibert's entwined hands. "You do not seem surprised. I take it you knew all along?"

"I had a hunch, yes," Cornelia said and reached for Christiane's hand to complete the serene image. Once the smaller hand was resting in her own, callused one, she gave it a little squeeze and offered Christiane a smile before she turned back to the baron. "I sense a change in you, Your Excellency. A rather big one, in fact."

"A change for the better, I hope? Though I still need to be cautious and distant when in public, the fact that the people closest to me all know about my supposedly dark secret means that a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Now I can allow my true self to shine through, at least while I am among like-minded people."

Christiane gave Cornelia's hand another little squeeze. "It becomes you, husband dearest," she said with a warm smile. "I only wish you had felt enough confidence in me to tell me sooner. But it does not matter now."

"Alas, I did not dare to tell you. Like you say, it does not matter," Erich said with a half-shrug.

"Cornelia, perhaps I need to explain… my husband was forced into marrying me under great, and certainly unjust, duress from his family," Christiane said to Cornelia, "and our beloved Captain Ieronymus von Hardenburg is his chaperone to keep him on the straight and narrow… so to speak."

"Ah… that explains a lot!" Cornelia said with a grin.

Erich smiled at the interaction between his wife and the tall, beautiful woman with the ungainly scrapes, bruises and bandages on her forehead. "Indeed it does, Lady Cornelia. Now, here is what I have in mind to propose to you both. Our marriage must continue or my wife and I shall both find ourselves in a terrible predicament. My family will disown me, and the Crown will assume control over Swan Manor. We cannot allow either to happen."

"Indeed we cannot," Christiane said, nodding in a somber fashion.

"Therefore, I believe I have found a solution that shall benefit us all. First of all, I shall appoint you, Lady Cornelia, to be the official Lady-in-Waiting of my wife, Christiane Margrethe Frederikke Baroness Goldenloew of Swan Manor. Such a title will allow you to share the baroness' bedchamber without anyone having the right to question or challenge it, not even the Crown. I do believe such a scenario would be beneficial for you both, would it not?"

Cornelia and Christiane exchanged a glance that proved without doubt that they could get used to sharing a bedchamber, and perhaps even a bed, on a permanent basis. "It would, Your Excellency," Cornelia said, wearing a broad grin - Christiane just nodded, though her grin was at least as wide.

"Ah, excellent. And Jean-Philibert and I shall continue sharing what we have now," Erich said and gave his partner's hand a squeeze. When a simple squeeze was not enough, he leaned over to kiss Jean-Philibert's forehead. The two men shot each other a warm gaze before the baron went in for another little peck on the cheek. "Perhaps we shall be lucky and the Captain shall perish from a heart attack in the coming months or years. The Good Lord knows he has been close to one already."

Cornelia chuckled, but it got stuck in her throat when she heard the baroness' next statement:

"Or maybe we should just push him down the stairs…" Christiane mumbled. When the conversation stopped dead around her, she looked up while a blush tainted her cheeks. "Ack… did I say that out loud? How dreadfully insensitive of me. I beg for forgiveness. I only meant to think it, not say it."

"And that's supposed to be better?" Cornelia said, reaching over to tease the baroness. As the long fingers found a good spot to tickle, the younger woman let out a squeal and began to squirm in her seat to get away from the long, relentless fingers.

They all laughed at the display of love, except Christiane who was busy sticking out her tongue. "Ah. I hope this summer shall last for a good while yet, for I am in a summer mood now," she said as she began to toy with Cornelia's long digits. "I have already invited all my friends and acquaintances to our traditional midsummer garden party. In fact, it shall take place just next week, on July Twelfth… I hope the mess downstairs will have been cleaned up by then… oh, I am sure it will be. This year, we will have plenty of things to talk about… and plenty of people to admire," she said, finishing her statement by letting her eyes roll up the long, statuesque shape of Cornelia Karlsdatter.

To make the decision to host a garden party legally binding, Erich leaned to the side and tapped his knuckles on the armrest of his chair. "I hereby declare that the item has been approved unanimously. I am looking forward to it already, but, ah… perhaps we shall find you more suitable clothes first, Lady Cornelia? Perchance I may be mistaken, but I fear men's breeches on such a beautiful woman will only cause blushing cheeks or indeed fainting among the nobility who shall grace our party."

"I may need another dress or two, but I think I'll keep the breeches in my wardrobe… they may come in handy in the future," Cornelia said with a grin.

In the distance, the sound of the lunch bell was heard loud and clear. "Ack!" Christiane cried, sitting up straight. "I cannot believe the Matron of the Kitchen has found time to prepare lunch! Oh, we better not be late… she shall be so upset with us if we are," she continued, getting up from the chair.

"And we don't wanna risk that!" Cornelia said and laughed out loud. "I met her last night… she was our secret weapon!"

Turning back to the baron and Jean-Philibert, Christiane performed a deep curtsey while Cornelia took another bow to show their respect. To follow protocol to the letter, they needed to be in the banqueting hall before the baron arrived, but there was something just as important that needed to be accomplished first.

After a long, deep gaze into each other's eyes, Christiane stood up on tip-toes and Cornelia leaned down so they could meet in the middle. At first, they stopped a centimeter apart so they could enjoy the proximity of the other, but they soon closed the distance between them and shared a slow, deliberate, and above all, warm kiss.

"Oh, brava! Brava!" Baron Erich cried and began to clap - but a moment later, he and Jean-Philibert were too busy mirroring the actions of the baroness and her new Lady-in-Waiting to have time for anything else.

And in the distance, the lunch bell was given an extra-extra-hard shaking like the person holding it was slowly getting riled up about the lack of attendance by the baron and baroness of Swan Manor…





Return to the Academy

Author's Page