by Norsebard







This short story 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.

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: January 15th - 20th, 2018.

- As always, thank you very much for your help, Wendy Arthur :)

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


Description: The young Guthren of Emmerlingen, apprentice to the great sorceress Kriemhild, studies hard to pass the exams that will enable her to become a travelling sorceress, but her mind and her spellcasting are thoroughly jumbled when she meets the breathtaking Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg who has arrived at Kranichburg Castle to take part in the Saint Valentina's Day Jousting Tournament…




In a distant world far beyond the narrow confines of past, present, future or even reality, a land was graced by dense pine forests, rolling hills, raging rivers and snowcapped mountains. The people of the land were protected from their neighboring opponents by large, walled castles and citadels that were scattered throughout the countryside like dark-gray, man-made boulders amid the colorful scenery.

Atop a lush, rolling hill near the heart of the nation, a vast edifice made of boulders and mortar had been built countless centuries earlier as the primary palace for the ruler of the land. The imposing Kranichburg Castle had been the home of Queen Irmgard since her birth and it would continue to be so until her death, after which the next generation would take over to follow those who had gone before them.

The six-storey-tall defensive wall surrounding the castle had no less than twenty guard towers connected by battlements. Within the well-defended perimeter, the castle itself had two keeps, countless suites and chambers for the ruling family and their numerous aides, a large kitchen in the vaults, a sublime Knights' Hall used as a dining and reception hall, and an opulent throne room where Queen Irmgard held audience at least once a fortnight.

An archery range, the royal stables, two hay barns, an ornamental garden, a deep well and the main access to the underground dungeon had all been put in the vast, main courtyard that still had plenty of room to spare for the sandy tiltyard used for jousting.

The latter saw a good deal of activity from a swarm of carpenters and groundsmen who worked tirelessly on building the grandstands for the annual three-day tournament set during the week leading up to Saint Valentina's Day, the name day of the patron saint of all romantic couples everywhere.

Eight storeys above the courtyard in the smaller of the two keeps, a shock of reddish hair pulled back from a narrow opening in the thick wall. The open window had offered the young girl a good view of the goings-on downstairs and the lush countryside beyond the castle, but her textbooks beckoned and she pulled herself away from the spectacle uttering a long sigh.

The smaller keep was the home of the handmaidens, the pages, the kitchen staff and the apprentices to the resident sorceress. The latter group had the top floors of the keep all to themselves since no one else dared to go near the chambers that were frequently home to experiments and exercises that did not always go to plan.

Guthren of Emmerlingen returned to her wooden desk and pulled the uncomfortable chair back to it. Slender to the point of appearing scrawny, the young, red-headed apprentice was nevertheless on the cusp of turning eighteen which meant she needed to study tirelessly to ensure she would pass the important exams.

She had been orphaned as a two-year-old through a vicious outbreak of the fever, but when the orphanage she had been sent to had no longer been able to contain her growing powers, she had been transferred to Queen Irmgard's castle under the tutelage of the resident, highly experienced sorcerer - that the resident sorcerer had moved on a few years later stating impossible working conditions as the reason for his exit was mostly unrelated.

The final exams were looming large for Guthren. If she failed, she could wave goodbye to a career as a travelling sorceress; a life she had been destined for since her fifth birthday where her Skills had been verified by a travelling sorcerer.

Although it would still be possible for her to travel the countryside and employ her skills, the official letter of approval signed by the Queen that she would earn at the successful conclusion of her exams would open many doors for her wherever she went.

The ancient textbook had not grown any less dull while she had gazed out of the window, but she needed to get on with it. The candle she needed to ignite through a spell was ready in a candlestick, so she picked up her magic wand and turned a couple of pages in the dusty, old tome until she reached the collection of spells listed at the end of each chapter.

Guthren was dressed according to the old traditions for sorcerers and sorceresses: an unshapely, clumsy, dark-brown robe hung over her slender frame like a tent. The hood was folded down and reached halfway down her back. The sleeves were so large she needed to pull them up constantly - which often drove her to the brink of despair - but even the darkest cloud had a silver lining since their huge width and breadth meant she could hide just about everything in there.

Underneath the robe, she wore a plain dress held in two shades of blue; it wasn't much to look at, but she had made it herself. Her feet were protected by thin long-stockings and flat shoes at present, but she had a brand new pair of rugged leather boots all ready to go for when she would - hopefully - pass the exams.

Guthren read, re-read and re-re-read the practice spell that had been written in an ancient language she could hardly read. She let out a quiet mumble while she waved her magic wand in the air around her as she tried to recreate the spell. The best among the sorcerers could cast spells through the power of their mind, but the less-experienced - like Guthren - would most often need to repeat the spell out loud for it to work. "And… fire shall claim this candle!" she said in a strong voice as she pointed the magic wand at the candlestick.

Nothing happened at first. She had just enough time to let out a disappointed grunt before a bright-yellow fireball came out of nowhere to not only incinerate the candle and the candlestick, but take a fair chunk out of the wooden desk as well.

"By the Holy Mother!" she cried, furiously waving her magic wand to make the big ball of fire return to whatever dimension it had come from before she would need to explain yet another fine mess she had caused. She waved her arm with such vigor that her wide sleeve caught the edge of the ancient textbook and sent it flying onto the hard floor.

Groaning, Guthren tried all she knew to contain the fireball, or at least send it out of the open window, but her Skills weren't yet strong enough to combat the destructive entity she had summoned. At one point, she thought she had gotten the better of it, but it merely made a lazy swing through the chamber before it swooshed back at her. The second pass of the raging fireball necessitated a quick dive onto the floor to keep her red hair out of harms' way. Though she managed to save her locks, the landing certainly didn't improve her mood.

Her hair, skin and clothes, not to mention the rest of her chamber's interior, were spared a moment later when the sturdy wooden door leading to the winding staircase was flung open and a distinguished, mature woman dressed in a purple robe stepped inside. All the experienced sorceress needed to do to eliminate the fiery threat was to make a fist and then re-open her hand.

As the fireball ceased to be, it let out a puff of black smoke that spread through the chamber before it dissipated. Down on the stone floor, Guthren caught the tail-end of the smoke and ended up with plenty of soot on her cheeks and her forehead.

Hacking, coughing and spluttering, she sat up straight and ran her hands across her face. The simple gesture only worsened the smudges and left her looking like a chimney sweep's apprentice rather than that of a sorceress. When she realized that the woman in the purple robe had crossed her arms over her chest like she was waiting for an explanation that no doubt had to be really, really good, she let out a long sigh and clambered to her feet.

"Good day, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren said, bowing to show her teacher the proper respect.

In her late fifties, Kriemhild of Quedlinburg was usually of a friendly, patient persuasion, but she could turn hard whenever her students didn't listen to her. Her Skills were the source of legends, and they had saved her many times during her decades as a travelling sorceress and the nine years she had been working as the headmistress under Queen Irmgard's rule. During those years, she had seen countless apprentices come and go; some had been successful, some less so. Some had given up, and some had ventured into the world as travelling sorcerers or sorceresses despite their lack of Skills. Most of those had died - and not all from illness or other natural causes.

"Guthren," the older woman said in a voice that wasn't as cold as it could have been considering the umpteenth mess her apprentice had just created. "Pray tell, what were you trying to achieve this time?"

"Ignite the candle, Mistress Kriemhild." Guthren wanted to point at the candlestick but came to the realization that there was no point since it no longer existed. The candle was gone as well, as was a part of the desk. Another chunk of wood had merely been left charred, but it appeared she would need a new desk before she could continue her studies.

Kriemhild let out a warm sound that could be interpreted as a chuckle. Shaking her head, she closed the wooden door behind her and moved into the chamber. "Ah. I see. And you summoned a fireball instead."

"I fear so, Mistress Kriemhild…"

"Very well. Let me show you what you should have done," Kriemhild continued, waving her hand to conjure up a new candlestick that arrived out of nothing. It already had an unlit candle stuck into it, but it didn't stay that way for long once the sorceress had picked up Guthren's magic wand. A brief wave later, the candle had been ignited. "There. You see?" she said, pointing the tip of the wand at the gentle flame that flickered from the flow of air in the room.

Guthren sighed as she took in the sight of the burning candle. "I see, Mistress Kriemhild…. but I fear I do not understand," she said and rubbed her forehead again which created an even larger smudge. "I followed the spell to the letter… and I closed it by saying 'and fire shall claim this candle'."

"Mmmm. And it did. Too well."

"Ah… yes."

Nodding, Kriemhild put down the magic wand on the remains of the charred table before she snuffed out the flame. "I want you to try again… but I better stay here this time."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren said and retrieved her magic wand. After picking up the ancient book of spells, she re-read the fire spell so it was fresh in her mind. She took a deep breath as she let out the spell; first in a mumble, then a loud and clear voice: "And fire shall claim this candle!"

Nothing happened at first. Then the gentle flame atop the unlit candle erupted like an angry volcano and spewed out a four-foot tall column of fire that instantly charred the ceiling of the chamber. "Oh, no!" Guthren cried, already well on her way to dive for cover all over again.

Kriemhild reacted with less panic and simply performed a small wave of her hand. The column of fire was once more reduced to a gently flickering flame.

The corners of Guthren's mouth crept further and further south when it dawned on her she was headed for failure of the worst kind. If she couldn't master such a simple spell, she had zero chance of making it through the exams. Clambering to her feet once more, she stuck her hands into her wide sleeves and let out a deep sigh.

"Guthren, may I suggest," Kriemhild said while she extinguished the flame by pointing at it with her index finger, "that you take the rest of the day off?  I think you may be studying too hard. Head downstairs and take your mind off the spells for a while."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren mumbled.

The experienced sorceress smiled at her unfortunate apprentice before she turned around to open the door. "Go down to the jousting yard and watch the carpenters work their own brand of magic on the grandstands. They have as many skills as we do, only in a different field."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild. I shall do that," Guthren said, nodding. "Perhaps it shall help to think of something else."

"I am sure it will," Kriemhild said and left the charred chamber. A moment later, she opened the door again and popped her head inside. "Oh… and no more fire spells for a while, Guthren. Please."

The sorceress left before Guthren had time to reply. "Do not worry," she said in a mumble to the closed door, "attempting the fire spell again could not be further from my mind… I shall never pass those wretched exams!"

Grumbling under her breath at the unfortunate turn of events, Guthren shuffled over to the other side of her chamber to move a few personal items back into order. She came to a jerking halt when she passed by her mirror. Taking a step back to get a better view the second time of asking, she let out a long, tormented groan as she caught an eyeful of her soot-stained face.


Guthren found herself in one of those bad news, good news situations. Though she had messed up yet another spell which didn't make her immediate future look any brighter, she had been given permission to roam the castle by the headmistress herself. Roaming the castle was, and had always been, one of her favorite pastimes: her heart and thus her spirits never failed to soar when she visited the Queen's ornamental gardens, the royal library, or indeed the Knights' Hall that featured paintings of the family line going back centuries. She could spend ages strolling around those places, gathering inspiration that would enable her to write flowery love poems that she kept in a thick tome in her bedside table.

Walking down the uneven steps of the winding stone staircase to get to the foot of the keep, her feet had been dragging at first because of her latest fiasco, but she picked up the pace when she thought of the opportunity it had given her to see one of her best friends, the handmaiden Isolde. So much could be learned from helping the aides and maidens with their various chores, and the dusty, old tomes could simply not compete with actual, hands-on experience.


Guthren soon found Isolde working in the wing of the castle that housed the master quarters and chambers reserved for the esteemed guests of Queen Irmgard and their aides. The prestigious jousting tournament celebrating Saint Valentina's Day was to commence the following day, and because of that, a good deal of the castle's staffers were working flat out removing cobwebs, making the beds, dusting off the furniture, polishing the brass and silverware, and preparing the hearths that all rooms were equipped with.

The latter in particular was cumbersome, filthy work, and it could even be dangerous to the staffers' health if the chimneys had been blocked by birds' nests or dislodged mortar. Setting the fires often caused rattling coughing if the foul-smelling smoke backfired and went into the staffer's face instead of up the chimney. It was a task most tried to worm their way out of, but a few, brave souls actually enjoyed it.

When Guthren heard one of the matrons barking orders to the handmaidens under her command, she made a left-hand turn and shuffled down one of the hallways. Aiming for one of the ubiquitous hand-drawn carts that had been loaded past capacity with bedlinen, she had only just made it to the door of the first master quarters when her friend Isolde ran out into the hallway to get a new armful of clean linen for the room's king-sized, four-post canopy bed.

Bumping into a darkly-robed figure in the middle of the corridor spooked the handmaiden into shrieking and jumping up on tip-toes. When she came back down, she let out an emphatic "Oh, Guthren!  Really!" that didn't sound nearly as spooked.

Guthren snickered into her hand at the way her friend had reacted to her. Folding back the hood, she offered Isolde a polite smile that she hoped would be enough to offset the fright she had caused.

Like all maids assigned to tend to the quarters and chambers, Isolde wore a tan dress that sported three-quarter-length sleeves and a lower hem that had been reinforced with a leather band to stop it from wearing out too quickly on the coarse stone floors that most chambers were equipped with. A cape and a starched headpiece were usually part of the ensemble as well, but since the maids on linen-duty were in no danger of running into any of the important guests, the matron had allowed them to remove the garments for the day.

"Greetings, Isolde… you are working hard, I see?" Guthren said, shuffling back to allow her friend access to the linen-cart.

"Working hard?  Working hard does not begin to describe it!" Isolde said and scooped up another armful of clean linen. With no time to even wipe the beads of sweat off her forehead, she hurried back into the master quarters to continue working on the large bed.

When Isolde came back outside to get the next armful, she cocked her head and shot Guthren a funny look. "Are you not supposed to be studying for your exams, Guthren?"

"Indeed, but Mistress Kriemhild told me to take the rest of the day off," Guthren said with a beaming grin gracing her features.

Isolde came to a halt to shoot her friend a dark look, but a barked "Isolde!" from inside the quarters prompted her to carry on at the same, breakneck speed as before.

Guthren watched Isolde continue to hurry back and forth between the linen-cart and the chambers. They only had time to exchange a single word here and there, so by the third stop of the sheer endless list of rooms Isolde had been assigned to, Guthren nodded to herself and reached into one of her wide sleeves to find her magic wand.

Determined to find a solution that would be a great help to her overstressed friend, Guthren began waving the wand around at random until she had worked out a plan that appeared as rock-solid as it was simple. She cleared her throat and spoke in a voice that was loud and clear: "Oh, hear me, linen-cart… take this advice to heart!  Sprout a will and use your wheels so that Isolde can rest her heels!"

The spell was delivered with plenty of gusto, and finished with a flourish as Guthren tapped her magic wand against the cart's wooden frame. She already had a grin on her face safe in the knowledge that she was about to be thanked by her grateful friend. The smile only grew wider when the cart began to roll under its own free will - but the smile turned to a mask of pure horror when the cart took off at great speed down the hallway. All the clean bedlinen was thrown overboard and landed in unruly heaps on the dusty, filthy floor.

Cries, hollers and screams spread like wildfire all the way down the hallway as the runaway cart made the handmaidens jump left and right to get to safety. More bedlinen was thrown high in the air as the various maids tried to escape being run over, and it was all headed for a great, big disaster.

The disaster finally happened when the short-tempered matron was rear-ended and knocked into two of the far skinnier chambermaids. The young girls had no chance of ever catching the older, not to mention far heftier, matron, so all three ended up in a wiggling pile of arms and legs. The cart itself continued on until it crashed against the end wall of the corridor; the wheels went one way, the wooden frame the other.

Guthren bared her teeth in an embarrassed grimace as she took in the carnage. Bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet for a short while, she found it most prudent to vanish before the matron would start a bear hunt for the guilty party. Before she could leave, her friend Isolde came out to watch with a comical expression on her face. "Oh, Isolde… I really must be off. I am truly sorry for the trouble I caused. Will you please tell the matron- oh, here she comes now. Farewell!"

Spinning around, Guthren folded the dark-brown hood back up and zipped into the safety of the poorly-lit staircase. Next stop: the jousting yard. She was certain no dramas - or irate matrons - would find her there.


Hurrying down the winding staircase to get away from the chaos she had created, Guthren couldn't miss the resounding fanfares that heralded the arrival of several groups of the nation's finest knights and their squires and knaves who had traveled to Kranichburg Castle to take part in the traditional jousting tournament marking Saint Valentina's Day.

The main courtyard with its hay-strewn cobblestones saw more activity than the average beehive by the time she made her way down the staircase and came to a screeching halt at the wide door at the foot of the keep. She took it all in in a wide-eyed, excited stare - everywhere she looked, she saw tough, proud knights sitting astride tough, proud stallions.

The members of the jousting teams were all decked out in travelling outfits made of colorful fabric, though some of the more important people wore leather draped in chain mail. The steeds were swept in fabric known as caparisons that carried the coat of arms of the House they belonged to: black-and-bronze, scarlet-and-gold, green-and-blue, black-and-red and white-and-blue were represented so far, and further teams appeared beyond the drawbridge spanning the moat.

All jousting teams had a group of squires and knaves whose primary task was to assist the knights don the armor, and mount or dismount the steeds. The black-and-bronze team in particular caught Guthren's eye. Like their knight master, the sturdy men were clad in black leather and a loose, dark-brown tunic that sported a bronze-colored lily known as a fleur-de-lis on the chest.

One of the squires was as tall as the others but of a more slender build. He appeared younger than his fellow seconds and assistants as he had no facial hair, but to compensate, his long, near-black locks reached halfway down his back. Guthren narrowed her eyes and shot the youngling a closer look. When she realized it wasn't a man at all, but a woman, she drew a deep breath and let out a "Hmmm… interesting!"

A large group of pages and their master wranglers swarmed out of the stables to greet the jousting teams and offer feed and water for their steeds. Soon, the imposing animals were led back to the stables by young boys who didn't appear big enough to even fit on the wide saddles.

Guthren stepped out of the doorway and hurried onto the courtyard, eager to be introduced to the female squire before she would have a chance to disappear. The clumsy, dark-brown robe fluttered in the headwind as she ran across the cobblestones; it made her stand out among the brightly-colored knights and their teams, but it didn't help her when it came to intercepting the woman wearing black-and-bronze.

"Oh… wretched," Guthren uttered as she came to a stop in the spot where she had seen the person she wanted to meet. Though the yard was awash in squires, knaves, knights, steeds, stable pages and wranglers, the woman from the black-and-bronze team was nowhere in sight. Dejected, she turned back only to bump into a tall figure clad in black leather and a dark-brown tunic. "Ooof!  Oh, such a fool I am… I beg pardon of thee," Guthren said, curtseying at once to show the proper respect.

A warm chuckle produced by a female voice made her bolt upright - the very squire she had been looking for had found her instead. "Oh!" she squeaked when she caught an eyeful of the woman's bright-blue eyes. "Buh… uh… greetings, Milord… I mean, Milady!"

"Greetings, fair handmaiden," the woman said in a rich timbre. Up close, there was no doubt she should be counted among the female of the species. Her pronounced cheekbones, her regal nose and her graceful chin all proved without the shadow of a doubt she was a Woman. She appeared to be in her mid to late-twenties, and her strong, confident posture marked her out as being someone to watch, even if she was a mere squire.

"Uh… a handmaiden I am not, actually," Guthren squeaked. "I am in fact an apprentice to the great sorceress Kriemhild of Quedlinburg. Guthren of Emmerlingen is my name."

"Ah!  I have obviously heard of the legendary sorceress. I am Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle, squire to His Lordship Maximilian of the House of Holsteinia. Pleased to meet you," the tall woman said as she took off her leather glove. Extending her right hand, she held it out for the traditional clasping.

Guthren clasped it with a smile though she needed to pull the wide sleeve back to even find her own hand. When she did, her magic wand fell out and onto the cobblestones.

"A magic wand!  How intriguing," Siegrid said, promptly bending over to retrieve the stray tool. With a smile, she handed the small, wooden stick to the young apprentice. "Here you go, Milady."

"Thank you, Lady Siegrid," Guthren said with a smile. The two young women locked eyes for a moment; it was clear they both wanted to say something more, but the commotion around them grew to hitherto unreached levels when two further jousting teams arrived at the same time.

The resounding fanfares alone caused plenty of activity from the stable boys and the master wranglers, and the courtyard was soon filled past capacity with armor-wearing knights, sweating knaves, strongly-smelling horses, and castle staff dressed in wooden clogs and woolly outfits who ran to and fro to serve all the guests.

"Oh!" Guthren squeaked as she had to sidestep in a hurry to avoid having her feet run over by a heavily-laden, tandem-axle cart that carried two complete suits of armor and the supplies that were left after the long trek to Kranichburg Castle. When she looked up, Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle had vanished into the crowd once more.

A grunt escaped her lips when she spun around to seek out the tall squire. Although countless people were near her, the dark-haired woman was not among them. "Oh… such wretched luck I seem to be having today…" she mumbled.

The courtyard soon proved to be too dangerous for anyone not wearing armor or at least clog-boots, so Guthren slinked back to the wide door at the foot of the keep to get away from potential dangers before they found her. Pausing, she let her eyes roam across the colorful sea of humanity one last time. The tall woman with the remarkable eyes was nowhere to be found. "Drat," she mumbled as she went inside to seek out new adventures elsewhere.



As the night watch walked around Kranichburg Castle at sundown lighting the many torches, sounds of the merry festivities taking place in the Knights' Hall could be heard throughout the castle. The banquet on the eve of the Saint Valentina's Day jousting tournament was just as steeped in tradition as the battle of bravery and equestrian skills the following day.

The kitchen staff had worked the entire day to prepare the seven-course meal that was to be presented to the many esteemed guests. The countless knights of the realm and their entourages would expect no less than sublime food and drink to be served, so every part of every serving had to be perfect. Ten whole barbecued pigs with all the trimmings like prunes, leeks, carrots, onions and other vegetables were on the tables along with two-hundred pounds of spiced sausages, eight complete slabs of salted beef, six dozen haunches of lamb, two dozen whole sheep and close to one hundred goose eggs. Beyond the food, thirty barrels of wine and ale had been rolled in to satisfy the thirsty noblemen and their various squires - the knaves were too young to attend and had to dine in their quarters - who had all brought their personal ornamented chalices and goblets sporting the coats of arms of their Houses.

One person did not partake in the grand festivities. After the headmistress had learned of the mess that had been created in the guest wing earlier in the day, Guthren had been sent to her chamber to get a little perspective on what she had done. At present, the young apprentice sat at her charred desk eating a hunk of salted rye bread with a slice of smoked sausage, drinking water from a plain cup, and wearing the gloomiest sulk found in the entire Kranichburg Castle.

She had closed the window to the courtyard, but the sounds of the merry goings-on down in the Knights' Hall still wafted up to her chamber. Sulking even harder after she had finished the simple meal, she moved over to her bed to lie down. The dark-gray stone walls, the charred furniture, the meager collection of personal belongings - and the wooden chamber bucket - offered little in the way of entertainment, so she let out a long, deep sigh as she put her arms behind her head.

"I just wanted to help Isolde… how can that be so wrong?  Granted, the end result was somewhat… hmmm… short of my expectations," she mumbled to herself - not that thinking about the unfortunate incident helped her break free of the sulk.

Downstairs, the castle's musical ensemble struck up a merry tune on their home-made instruments which made Guthren let out yet another deep sigh. She had been looking forward to the grand banquet ever since the last one had been such a fun event for her, but now, she considered tearing out a few tufts of hay from her mattress and sticking it in her ears so she wouldn't have to listen to the fun times the others were having.

A vision of the tall, dark-haired squire came to her unprompted as she stared at the non-descript stone ceiling. "Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle…" she mumbled as she thought of the young woman's impressive physical presence. Thinking back to the previous jousting tournaments she had experienced at Kranichburg Castle, she couldn't remember ever encountering a woman among the squires or knaves - and even if she had, they had certainly not been so captivating.

Guthren had shed her clumsy robe in a huff as she had been confined to her chamber, but it had ended up close by: in a pile on the floor next to the bed. Grunting, she reached over the edge to pick up the dark-brown fabric so she could combat the evening chill that rolled over her arms and legs.

When she spread out the robe and put it over herself, her magic wand fell out of one of the wide sleeves. Staring daggers at the offending item like it was the root of all the bad things that she had become involved in, she was about to throw it clear across the room when she reconsidered at the last moment.

Instead, she waved it around in the air like she was casting a spell. She hadn't memorized anything, but closed her eyes and let her mind drift free while she drew meaningless patterns in the air. A sheen of gently flickering light soon originated at the charred desk. As the sheen grew stronger, it caught her attention, and she cracked open an eyelid to see what was going on.

"By the Holy Mother!" she cried as she bolted upright in bed to stare at the spectacle at the desk. A candlestick had been conjured up out of nowhere, and the white tallow-candle it held had been ignited. It was burning with a bright, gentle flame that swayed from side to side as it was caressed by the circulating air in the draughty chamber.

Guthren put down the magic wand to rub her eyes once, then once more. She stared at the candle, at the candlestick, and finally at her hand that had held the wand. "Oh… I did it!  How I did it, I cannot say… but I did it!" she said in a croak.

Picking up the magic wand, she folded the robe aside to get out of bed. She was at the burning candle in a heartbeat to see if it was real or if she was imagining the whole thing. The light and heat that rose from the flame proved that it was in fact real. She couldn't yet snuff it out by clenching her fist like the experienced masters could, but she did the second-best thing and extinguished it the old-fashioned way: by blowing on it.

As the gentle column of gray smoke rose from the blackened wick, she threw her arms in the air and let out a victorious squeak. "Amazing… if only Mistress Kriemhild had been here to see it!  Oh… I need to tell her right away… and I need to tell Lady Siegrid as well!  They will be so proud of me!" she said in a voice that grew from a half-whisper to an all-out, joyous cry.

She zipped back to her bed to grab the robe and the magic wand before she left her chamber in a hurry; she could finally offer her teacher some good news.


It wasn't until after the fourth, unanswered knock on the door to the headmistress' study on the top floor of the keep that Guthren remembered that Mistress Kriemhild would be in the Knight's Hall with the queen and all the knights of the realm. Although the powerful sorceress was an ascetic who abstained from ale, wine, spirits and most of the guilty pleasures of the table, she would be sitting at Queen Irmgard's side as one of the most important and valued members of the court.

Guthren groaned out loud when it dawned on her that even on the rare occasions where she experienced success, something would crop up to prevent her from telling others about it - only her admittedly frequent failures were known to the world at large.

Grimacing, she turned around and began to shuffle back down to her own chamber a few floors down. The clumsy, dark-brown robe nearly caused her to trip at the first step of the winding staircase, so she came to a halt to pull up the lower hem. She paused to look back at the door. It seemed to have a magic pull on her, so she turned back around and shuffled over to the same spot she had been at before.

She was eager to at least write Mistress Kriemhild a note to let her know of the success with the candle, so she tried to depress the handle: though it gave off a few squeaks, creaks and groans, it opened the door.

Guthren peeked in with wide eyes. The study doubled as the classroom for the apprentices so she had been in there more often than she could count, but never so late at night. A pale-blue moonbeam reached in through the window and illuminated parts of the thick carpet that covered most of the floor. The desks, chairs and the rest of the furniture were draped in the shadows that lingered elsewhere in the study. The air still held a whiff of the many exotic ingredients they had used to create various magic potions the day before; it made her smile as she remembered the fun experiments she and the other apprentices had conducted.

After looking over her shoulder for any possible castle guards, Guthren sneaked into the study and closed the door behind her. The moonbeam provided enough light for her task which was to write a simple note for Mistress Kriemhild, and she had soon accomplished that.

A loud cheer that rose from the Knights' Hall made her slip over to the window to look down. Although she couldn't see anything of the banquet hall itself, the window offered a vantage point opposite the one in her own chamber so she took the opportunity to study everything she could see. The sky high above Kranichburg Castle still held a dark-blue hue, but the stars had already come out in force and were greeting the young apprentice by twinkling at her.

Below, countless torches flickered in the gentle breeze down in the courtyard as the small army of carpenters hurried around putting the final touches on the grandstands and the rest of the yard so everything would be in top shape for the jousting tournament. The sound of horses whinnying in the royal stables joined the beating of hammers and rhythmical rasping of the saws and plane irons that worked on the wooden structures.

Guthren propped up her head on her arms and gained a distant, dreamy expression as she took in the romantic atmosphere that permeated her surroundings. As always, she became inspired to write a love poem or two so she tore herself away from the view to head back downstairs.

Before she could reach the door, she happened to cast a glance at one of the shelves that had been built up against the stone wall just inside the door. She could hardly believe her eyes when she found herself looking at one of the most important textbooks they had in their library: the huge, leather-bound tome known as the Book of Love Spells.

The spells were so volatile and even potentially dangerous in nature that only masters and mistresses of the highest order could be trusted with them; even beyond that, it took a highly experienced sorceress like Mistress Kriemhild to even have the Skills needed to cast them.

Why the tome hadn't been locked away was beyond Guthren, but she did what came natural to her and took the heavy book off the shelf just to sneak a peek. Opening it on a random page, she tried to read the squiggly lines of text using the light that came from the moonbeam, but the pale-blue shine wasn't strong enough to allow her to see all she wanted.

"Oh, I… I… I think I shall borrow it and take it downstairs to my own chamber. Yes. Just to study a few spells. Surely no harm could come from that," Guthren said and stuffed the heavy tome under her arm.

Once the handle restrained the door to the study from opening once again, she pulled up in the lower hem of her clumsy robe and hurried down the winding staircase - the exciting Book of Love Spells beckoned.


Guthren had barely made it fifty pages into the hefty, six-hundred page tome before she needed to refill her inkwell and find a new quill. The ink and the writing tip of the old quill had succumbed to the strain of jotting down one love spell after the other; she had scribbled hard and had already filled out a dozen pages in the small journal where she kept the early versions of her poetry.

She found it only fitting that her own, somewhat flowery poems were joined by the best of the potent spells - after all, love was love, and although she was still inexperienced in the field that left even the masters mystified from time to time, she felt she had something to offer.

"Just imagine," she mumbled as she crossed the Ts and dotted the Is of the latest love spell she had copied, "someday… someone… somewhere… will find this journal and study my own poetry like I study the ancient spells now… my, how I wish I could be there to witness the impact my poems will surely have!"

Leafing through the newly updated pages of her journal, she gazed at the spells she had copied. Some were simple, some were difficult; some would only be effective for a limited amount of time, some would be permanent. She was sorely tempted to try one of the simpler ones at once, but in order to do that, she needed someone to try it on.

Another image of the attractive, dark-haired squire came to her mind's eye. Guthren had never admitted it to anyone, but unlike most - if not all - of the young women at Kranichburg Castle and the walled city of Emmerlingen where she had been born, her body and soul reacted the strongest to other girls. At infrequent intervals, she did feel a tiny jolt whenever she happened to see a handsome fellow, but it was nothing compared to the pleasure she felt inside whenever a beautiful woman spoke to her, or better yet, smiled at her.

Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle had done both, and just thinking about the unusual squire sent a warm sensation rolling through Guthren's body. The sensation helped her make up her mind. Closing the priceless Book of Love Spells, she hid it under her bed before she grabbed her journal and her dark-brown robe and zipped out of her chamber - her destination: the Knights' Hall.


No one apart from Mistress Kriemhild knew of the fact that Guthren had been confined to her chambers, so the numerous heavily-armed guards she encountered on her way through the castle's many corridors, halls and hallways had no reason to suspect her of anything. After the third time she had been stopped by guards, she had folded back the robe's floppy hood so they would be able to identify her from a distance.

The music, laughter and various other sounds of merry enjoyment continued to grow louder as she ventured closer and closer to the Knights' Hall. Instead of entering through the main entrance - that would be a little too bold, even for Guthren of Emmerlingen's standards - she slipped down yet another corridor to use the servants' access at the rear of the banquet hall.

A constant stream of kitchen staffers ran to and from the hall, carrying full trays to the tables and returning with empty ones that would be cleaned off and used again as soon as they had been returned to the castle's vast kitchen down in the vaults. None of the busy waiters had time to question why one of the apprentices would suddenly appear there, so she was left to her own devices.

Whistling a slight ditty through her teeth to mask the fact she really didn't have any business there, Guthren sort-of shuffled back and forth like she was waiting for someone. When a lull finally developed in the stream of waiters, she grabbed a jug of water and strode toward the swinging doors that would lead her to the Knights' Hall.

The great hall wasn't a place she visited all too often: the last time she had been in there had been at the grand celebration marking the Queen's birthday in Wolfmonth late in the previous year, but it wasn't like she didn't know her way around it.

The smooth, hard floor was made of imported marble, and it had been laid out in a checkered pattern that alternated between off-white and forest-green, the coat of arms of the realm's central region around Kranichburg Castle. Vast tapestries depicting various important moments and events in the history of the realm adorned two of the four walls; the third wall carried all the paintings of the countless generations of rulers. The fourth wall was held in neutral colors since it was behind the opulent throne - nothing should steal the focus away from the queen when she sat there during state dinners. An open hearth in which a fire was going strong had been built into the fourth wall so the ruler's back could be pleasantly warm during the various celebrations that could, and would, often turn lengthy.

At present, the usually so elegant Knights' Hall seemed more akin to an unrestrained marketplace somewhere in the distant, rural provinces. The tables had been moved around to resemble a horseshoe so the many esteemed guests could look at each other while they ate and imbibed to their hearts' delight. Piles of expensive goblets and chalices, empty trays and gnawed-off ribs and haunches of lamb could be found on every table, and the frequent pools of red liquid that stained the formerly white tablecloths proved that not everyone had been fortunate enough to get the exquisite wine down their gullet.

Guthren came to a gradual halt to stare at the rampant merriment. The band was still striking up a storm at the back of the banquet hall, but few of the knights and squires seemed interested in them after the sumptuous seven-course meal. She shook her head at the tasteless spectacle; the previous years certainly hadn't degenerated into anything like the mess she was witness to. That she had spent the past several weeks eagerly awaiting the big banquet suddenly seemed like a waste of time and enthusiasm - this wouldn't have been a place for her.

Crinkling her nose in a bout of disappointment, Guthren let her eyes roam across the many guests in the hope of finding the black-and-bronze jousting team in general, and the tall, beautiful Lady Siegrid in particular. When she finally did, the nose-crinkle was replaced by a smile that spread over her features. Siegrid didn't appear to be drunk at all, but fit as a daisy as she sat at the center of the team she had arrived with. Although she held an ornamental chalice in her hand, she had maintained a dignified posture unlike many of her teammates who had succumbed to the strong ale or potent wine. She appeared to be engaged in a conversation with the fellow on her left, but it didn't seem to be a very rewarding exchange judging by the way her bright-blue eyes scanned the hall even while she spoke to her fellow squire.

The inevitable happened - the two women locked eyes once more. A smile spread over Siegrid's face, and she waved a small 'come here' gesture to Guthren that no doubt meant she needed all the help she could get.

Guthren was only too happy to comply, so after putting down the jug of water she had used as an excuse to get into the Knights' Hall, she pulled up the robe's lower hem at once so she could zip along the smooth marble floor.


Over at the table, Siegrid dabbed her lips on a cloth napkin and moved to push back the heavy chair. At once, several of the castle's aides rushed over to remove the chair so the esteemed guest did not need to perform any acts of physical labor. The fellow on Siegrid's left was still speaking to her, but not for long. "Lüttich, I am sure your heroic tale is quite thrilling when you are sober," she said, interrupting the inebriated squire, "but you have told me the same thing four times now. I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with your drunkenness… or your breath, for that matter. I bid you a good night."

Just as Guthren arrived at the spot where the black-and-bronze team representing the House of Holsteinia sat, the tall, regal woman stepped away from the table to intercept her. "Ah!  Greetings, Lady Siegrid!" Guthren said, grinning from ear to ear.

"Lady Guthren," Siegrid said and reached for the younger woman's hand.

Guthren misunderstood the situation at first. Thinking that the Lady was merely trying to clasp the hand once more like in the courtyard when they had first met, she pulled back the annoying sleeve to put it out there - but when the Lady took the hand, brought it to her lips and placed a kiss just beyond the row of knuckles, Guthren's cheeks exploded in a shade of red last seen just before sunset. "Ohhhhhh…" she croaked, nearly swooning at the sensation of the soft lips upon her skin.

The unexpected, intimate contact did little to impede the thoughts that were already floating around in her mind when it came to Lady Siegrid; in fact, the contact only added a few logs to the fire. "Why, thank you, Lady Siegrid!  Yet I fear I must correct you. I am merely an apprentice and thus no Lady."

"And I must correct you. A Lady you surely are," Siegrid said with a smile. Before Guthren could object to the statement, the squire put a hand on the apprentice's elbow and guided her away from the deafening hustle and bustle at the dinner tables. "Come, Lady Guthren… let us find a quieter haven for our conversation."

A thoroughly giddy expression was etched onto Guthren's face, and her lips were pulled so far back in a near-manic smile that she was unable to object verbally - not that she wanted to.


The two young women soon entered one of the smaller courtyards at the back of the castle's main halls. Though indoors, the courtyard had a tall ceiling, and it was equipped with flower beds, a few low trees and several white, wooden benches that had been placed around a three-level fountain. Water babbled gently as it trickled down across the layers from the nozzle at the top until it pooled in the basin at the foot. From there, it was sent back up to the nozzle at the top to repeat the cycle.

Clusters of torches had been placed in each of the four corners of the courtyard to create an intimate atmosphere. Further torches had been placed close to the fountain to provide flickering, amber light for those visitors who were there to explore each other.

It was a serene environment that would offer them a respite from the drunken partying in the Knights' Hall, and Siegrid took full advantage of the peace and quiet by sitting down on one of the benches and letting out a deep sigh. When she realized that the young apprentice hadn't followed her, she patted the spot next to her on the bench. "Come, Lady Guthren… have a seat."

"Thank you, Lady Siegrid," Guthren said and folded the clumsy robe aside so she could lower herself onto the bench without fumbling.

"Oh, you are very welcome. And thank you for saving my ears and my sanity from the ramblings of my fellow squire."

Guthren smiled once more. Her breath had been stolen by the mere presence of the regal-looking woman whose profile seemed even more striking in the flickering torchlight than it had been in broad daylight earlier. When she realized she had been spoken to, she formed an 'O' with her mouth and blushed all over again. "I beg pardon of thee, Lady Siegrid… I was not paying attention," she squeaked as she ducked her head down between her shoulders.

"Oh, please do not feel ashamed, Lady Guthren," Siegrid said and patted the younger woman's hand. "My ears are still ringing from the racket… I should not have expected you to hear anything without being addressed first." - She let out a gentle chuckle - "I merely asked about your intriguing apprenticeship. Pray tell, what does being an apprentice to the great sorceress Kriemhild of Quedlinburg actually involve for you?"

"Oh, I dearly wish to become a travelling sorceress like the great Kriemhild was in her youth. Roaming the countryside to help people in need… I cannot think of a better way to spend my life," Guthren said with a dreamy quality sneaking into her voice. "But in order to do that, my fellow apprentices and I must study, study, study for years on end to achieve the insight needed to gain full control over our Skills."

"I have heard of the Skills, actually. Tell me, have you gained the ability to manipulate objects from afar?  Like…" - Siegrid looked around the small courtyard to find something she could use as an example - "Could you extinguish or re-ignite one of those torches over there by the fountain simply by waving your magic wand?"

Guthren bared her teeth in a grimace as she glanced at the torches - had it been anything else, she would have jumped at the chance to show off her skills to the beautiful woman, but the risk of conjuring up an uncontrollable fireball or volcanic flame was simply far too great to even dare. She was in plenty of hot water already given that she had left her chamber after being confined to it. If she needed the assistance of Mistress Kriemhild to put an end to yet another drama she had created, she would face severe punishment, there was no doubt about that. "Ah… now… well… in theory, yes, but… but… uh… I fear that I am-"

"My dear Lady Guthren… I did not mean to embarrass you. Let us find another topic of discussion," Siegrid said and patted the apprentice's hand again.

Happy for the reprieve, Guthren let out a nervous snicker and turned to the squire. "In that case, I would dearly like to know how a young woman such as yourself has ended up on a jousting team…?"

A shadow raced across Siegrid's face for the briefest of moments before she licked her lips and turned back to the young apprentice. "I have taken my younger brother's place. A few years ago, he was slain by a dastardly assassin from the House of Lisanthia."

"Oh no, how dreadful!"

"Indeed it was. It was a terrible shock to my entire family. It caused great upheaval… the ramifications of which are still felt today. As a woman, I could not legally avenge my brother's death in person… instead, I chose to assume his position in our jousting team," Siegrid said and nodded quietly. "My older brother, Lord Maximilian of Oldenburg Castle, is the knight who shall seek the glory of winning the Saint Valentina's Day Tournament tomorrow. He is strong and brave so I feel we stand a good chance of defeating our opponents whomever they may end up being."

"Is… have you seen anyone here from the House of Lisanthia?" Guthren said, instinctively reaching for Lady Siegrid's hands.

Several moments went by; the pregnant pause was finally broken when Siegrid spoke in a somber voice: "They cannot be here, Lady Guthren. For my older brother made sure they were put in their graves for their misdeed. All of them."

"Ack!" Guthren croaked, pressing her free hand against her bosom. The other still held onto Siegrid's strong fingers. "But… will such an act of vengeance not continue the cycle of violence?  Will the surviving members of the House of Lisanthia not seek vengeance on you?"

"I am sure they will, eventually."


"Oh, now my talk of bloody revenge has ruined the joyous mood," Siegrid said and cleared her throat. "I beg for forgiveness. I did not mean to-"

Before Guthren could reply that merely speaking to the fascinating Lady Siegrid had been reward enough, they were interrupted by an aide who came running into the courtyard clearly carrying an important message.

"Milady Siegrid of Oldenburg," the aide said and performed such a deep bow that his nose almost touched the tips of his shoes, "Lord Maximilian requests that you heed the lateness of the day. The preliminary rounds of the tournament begin bright and early-"

"Say no more. I understand. Thank you," Siegrid said before she turned back to the younger woman at her side. "I fear I must leave you now, Lady Guthren. The tournament will not wait for anyone. So many among my team will suffer the wrath of this eve… someone needs to have a cool head tomorrow."

"Indeed, Lady Siegrid," Guthren said and got up from the bench. "It was a pleasure sharing this moment with you. I shall certainly cheer for the black-and-bronze team as well as my own… I only hope the two shall not meet in the finals!"

"If they do, may the best team win," Siegrid said and once again kissed the back of Guthren's hand. Smiling, she bid the young apprentice a good night before she strode out of the small courtyard with long, regal steps.

Guthren kept watching the tall woman until she had turned a corner and had gone out of sight. Her head was swimming with joy despite failing to even open her journal that contained the love poems and the copied spells. Once she was alone, she pressed her hands to her bosom and spun around on her heel; she moved so fast her dark-brown robe fluttered out. As it settled down again, she let out a gleeful snicker into her hands before she zipped back to her chamber so she wouldn't get caught breaking her confinement.


Sleep could not overcome the pleasant thoughts that churned on ceaselessly in Guthren's mind. Even long after she had changed into her nightgown and had swept her bare legs up under the warm furs to get settled for the night, the wide, excited smile would not leave her lips.

In her mind, she and the beautiful Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle were the best of friends. After they had done all the many things best friends did, they had ventured onto a few things that it took a special kind of friend to participate in. Guthren's ears were tinged in a deep shade of red as the vivid images ran across her mind's eye.

Her pulse quickened as the images grew bolder; her body reacted by infusing such heat into every part of her being that she was afraid she might combust. To prevent her thoughts from going any further, she swept a corner of the warm furs aside so she could get some fresh air to her heated body. The excited smile had never left her lips, and was in fact still there when sleep finally claimed her a short while later.



The sunlight of the following morning seemed even brighter and more golden than usual. Guthren turned over onto her left side so she could study the narrow slice of pale blue sky that she had a view of through the window in her chamber - it seemed the weather would be just fine for the first real day of the Saint Valentina's Day Tournament.

She snickered when she thought of the many hangovers that would be plaguing the squires and perhaps even some of the knights after the raucous banquet in the great hall. The final few nails she could hear being hammered into the wooden beams by the carpenters would no doubt sound like thunderclaps to the unfortunate souls who had failed to stop drinking the potent wine and strong ale while they had enough wits about them to do so.

As she had been sleeping, a perfect plan had formed deep in her subconscious, and she had no trouble tapping into it: the easy-going rapport that had existed between herself and the striking Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle meant that she didn't even need to cast any love spells to create the connection.

It would be far more fun and exciting for all involved if she could stir up a little good fortune to the squire from the black-and-bronze team representing the House of Holsteinia by casting a few spells that would ensure a successful campaign in the three-day jousting tournament.

The spells shouldn't be too obvious or else the competitors or the referees would begin to suspect foul play; they only needed to be just enough for the black-and-bronze team to gain the upper hand in the tight moments that would inevitably arise in such a close-fought contest.

A small frown developed between Guthren's fair eyebrows. The spells she thought of casting were merely examples and exercises in her old textbook. Though she had often thumbed past them in her studies, she had never actually tried any of them and she wasn't exactly sure how they worked, how long they would be active, or how effective they would be when cast. There was a first for everything, however, and after discovering she could successfully ignite the tallow-candle by not overthinking the process, she was full of confidence that she could help the charming Lady Siegrid as well.

Nodding to herself, she swept the warm furs aside to get started on the day's busy program. She had a lot of things to accomplish - and first up was to write Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle a note requesting an urgent meeting in Queen Irmgard's ornamental garden. It was a peaceful place, and thus the perfect spot for casting a few victory spells.


Guthren once more sneaked through the castle's many corridors and halls on her way to doing something she perhaps wasn't supposed to do. The dark-brown robe helped her stay incognito for most of the small journey, but now and then, a castle guard spotted her. Whenever it happened, she came to a halt and pretended to be busy polishing a brass candlestick, straightening one of the countless tapestries, dusting off a vase, or doing some other non-specific chore.

When she entered the wing of Kranichburg Castle used by the esteemed guests, she tip-toed along the stone floor although no one would be able to hear her footfalls on the hard surface even if she came down it dancing a merry jig. After finding the door to Siegrid's chamber, she folded back the robe's hood, took a deep breath, and put an ear to the wooden frame.

Through it, she could hear gentle humming and the familiar sounds of splashing water. She didn't need to be a powerful sorceress like Mistress Kriemhild to figure out that it meant the Lady was engaged in a morning bath to get herself scrubbed clean before she had to spend the entire day around warm horses and sweaty knaves and squires while helping her older brother get in and out of the heavy plate armor.

After giving the corridor a thorough check and finding it empty, Guthren reached into her wide sleeve to produce the note she had written. Another check was performed before she pushed the note under the door. When it was fully inside the chamber, she folded the robe's hood back up and zipped along the corridor to get back to her own room in the keep.

The next item on her agenda was to return the priceless Book of Love Spells to the study on the top floor of the keep - she couldn't risk Mistress Kriemhild discovering that it was missing from its shelf. Then she would zip down into Queen Irmgard's ornamental garden with her textbook so she had time to memorize a few of the victory spells she was going to cast.

Snickering, she pulled up in the lower hem of her clumsy robe and raced around the corner that connected the guest wing's corridor with one of the winding stone staircases.


Queen Irmgard's ornamental garden was a study in nature's own opulence. Visitors from the entire realm would inevitably be awed by the sterling work of the small army of master gardeners who were kept busy throughout the year maintaining, among other things, the lush bushes that carried nuts of most types, the gently swaying birches that cast swirling patterns on the ground's white gravel, the section of the garden that held a vast collection of gnarled miniature trees, and - above all - the magnificent flower beds that were home to thousands upon thousands of flowers of all shapes, sizes and colors.

White benches had been placed in carefully selected spots to give the visitors the perfect opportunity to rest their legs and allow nature's boundless splendor to reinvigorate them through its own, special brand of magic.

One of the walnut bushes had a special guest hiding behind it - Guthren of Emmerlingen whose nose was stuck into the ancient textbook to read, re-read and re-re-read one of the spells she was planning to cast. Her lips moved silently as she tried to memorize the special spell. At regular intervals, she looked up to glance at the rose-covered archway that marked the entrance to the garden, hoping that the striking Lady Siegrid would soon stride through it.

She closed the textbook after adding a bookmark so she could return to the proper page in a hurry in case the spell didn't work as she hoped it would. A short while later, she grimaced and opened the book once more. "Oh, I better try it on… something… anything," she mumbled, looking around for an animal to test it on - a colorful bird entered the garden just as Guthren was watching.

Grinning, she jumped up and reached into the wide sleeve of her dark-brown robe to find her magic wand. She tried to set her mind free and think of nothing in the hope of recreating the success with the candlestick; having achieved a solid level of empty-headedness, she waved the magic wand at the bird.

It took but two heartbeats after casting the spell for the bird to strike gold - or rather, to snatch a juicy flying insect straight out of the air. The bird let out a surprised, but happy, squeak as it caught the bug in its beak. Wasting no time, it crushed the juicy treat at once before it took off for somewhere to gulp down the free meal.

"Magnificent!" Guthren cried, punching the air in delight. Jumping up, she slammed the ancient textbook shut and ran into the center of the ornamental garden to wait for Lady Siegrid out in the open.

Behind her, the bird aimed for a branch of one of the birch trees but misjudged the landing completely. Skidding off the edge of the branch that was far more flexible than it had anticipated, the bird went straight down in a flurry of flapping wings, kicking legs and flying feathers. A short while later, it took off from the hard ground while letting out a long line of annoyed tweets and chirps - and it had even lost its bug breakfast.

Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle chose that moment to enter the ornamental garden. She had to duck to evade the angry bird as it flew off, but she was soon back to her full height. Looking around the colorful garden, she carried the note in her hand like she wasn't sure what it was all about.

"Greetings, Lady Siegrid!" Guthren said and ran closer to the taller woman. "Ah!  I am so fortunate that you had time to come down here. I wish you a good morning!"

Siegrid had already donned the all-black, all-leather outfit she was to wear for the tournament: long-legged boots, high-waisted wraparound pants, a double-breasted jacket and a pair of sturdy gloves that had a reinforced plate that reached past her wrists to protect them. Her long, near-black hair had been tied into a tight ponytail that hadn't allowed but a single strand of hair from escaping. Though she had abstained from wearing the heavy chain mail, she did wear the dark-brown tunic that sported a bronze-colored fleur-de-lis on the chest. "Oh… greetings and good morning to you too, Lady Guthren… so it was you who slipped the note under my door?"

"It was indeed… I beg pardon of thee for the covert nature of the note," Guthren said as she came to a halt. She did a quick curtsey just to be on the safe side; the curtsey soon turned into kicking her heels out of sheer nervousness. "I wished to see you again before the tournament, but I did not know if you had time for me."

"Well, to be honest…"

"Ack, your day will be terribly busy, I know… but I shall be brief, Lady Siegrid," Guthren said and put her hands in the air. The wide sleeves fell back, but fell forward again as soon as she lowered her arms. "I have gathered a collection of victory spells that will surely assist your team in today's events!"

"Victory spells?" Siegrid said while a confused furrow grew across her forehead.

"Yes!  I shall cast the spells which will render you capable of overcoming any or all problems you may encounter in the-"

Siegrid shook her head to interrupt the young, excitable apprentice before she could really get going. "But that would not be chivalrous, Lady Guthren. Nor would it be fair. Not to our opponents, and certainly not to ourselves. A victory gained through dishonest means can only be a shallow one."

Hearing Siegrid's heartfelt utterance took the wind clean out of Guthren's sails. Though she had been looking forward to casting the victory spells, she knew in her heart that the regal-looking squire was speaking the truth. "Oh… you… you are right, of course, Milady," she mumbled, "I… do not know what I was thinking… or if I even was thinking… I just wanted to show you some… some of the things I have learned…" - As she spoke, her voice trailed off into nothing until it ended in a sigh.

A brief smile spread over Siegrid's features as she wrapped an arm around the younger woman's slumped shoulders. "That is a different matter, Lady Guthren. I am most interested in seeing what you can do. I have time to witness one or two spells now, but only if they are quick… for lengthier spells, we shall have to meet once again after the conclusion of the day's first-round matches."

"Oh!" Guthren said, clapping her hands with barely hidden excitement. "Oh, I would be so honored to show you a few spells, Lady Siegrid!  Oh… which one should I choose… ack, I know!" she said, reaching into one of her wide sleeves to find her magic wand and the cue sheet she had made of not only the victory spells, but the best of those she had found in the sacred Book of Love Spells.

"The stage is all yours," Siegrid said and took a long step back in case the show would prove to be a spectacle.

"Thank you, Lady Siegrid!" Guthren said, performing a slight curtsey. She studied the cue sheet for a moment before she began waving the magic wand in the air. Her intentions were to let one of the many colorful flowers grow into double-size; although such a spell didn't exist word-for-word in any of her textbooks, she borrowed a little from one spell, something else from another, and finally a whole lot from her vivid imagination.

She cleared her throat and spoke in a loud and clear voice: "Oh hear me, precious flower… take this advice to heart!  Grow to double size without breaking apart!" The spell was signed, sealed and delivered by pointing her magic wand at the flower in question.

The next moment saw the young apprentice bowled over by a strong gust of wind that struck her from behind. The gust was accompanied by a flash of light and a howl that grew in intensity for each passing moment. As Guthren grappled around on the white gravel while trying to wrestle her way free of her dark-brown robe that had fluttered up to cover her head, it dawned on her that the howl seemed to come from Lady Siegrid.

When she finally found a way out of the devious robe, she stared wide-eyed at a perfectly-tailored size-eighteen leather boot that had sunk deep into the soft gravel. A croaked "By the Holy Mother…!" escaped her as she leaned her head back to take in the sight of the new and somewhat enlarged Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle.

"Guthren!  What have you done, girl?!" Siegrid roared at the top of her lungs - and since she had grown close to twelve feet tall, her lungs had capacity for quite a bit of roaring.

The young apprentice froze in a wide-eyed stare at the female behemoth who took up so much space she blocked out the sun. "I… I… I… I do not know, Lady Siegrid!" she croaked, clambering to her feet. On her way up, she happened to look at the flower she had wanted to double - it was still its regular size. "Oh, drat…" she croaked, realizing she had perhaps been a little too lax in reciting the spell.

"Get me back to normal, for the love of… and right this moment, too!" the booming voice roared from above.

"Yes… yes, yes!  Yes, I shall… shall try my very best, Lady Siegrid!" Guthren croaked, rubbing her brow furiously to come up with a spell that could reduce the enlarged woman to her previous size. "Ah… ah… I… uh…"


"Any moment now!" Guthren cried with her arms flailing in the air. Pushing back the wide sleeves, she began to swing the magic wand around in a frantic pattern. "All… all right… oh hear me, precious Siegrid!  Take this advice to heart!  Return to half your size so you can claim your prize… in… the tourna- ack, it does not rhyme… too late!"

The gust of wind returned along with the flash of light, and once more, Guthren was blown clean off her feet. Flung some distance away from the spot where the twelve-foot Siegrid had been, a nut bush stopped her flight. Once she had landed in an unruly heap, she jumped to her feet and swept the dark-brown hood away from her face.

A teeny-tiny roar could be heard from somewhere in the vicinity, but there was no sight of the squire. "Lady Siegrid…?  Lady Siegrid?  Lady Siegrid?!" Guthren cried as she raced back to the central area of the ornamental garden.

Coming to a screeching halt that kicked up plenty of the white gravel, she stared wide-eyed at a pile of leather clothes that had simply been dumped in the middle of it all. "Lady Siegrid…?" she croaked, whipping her head left and right to find the missing woman.

A flash of pink ran behind one of the flowers that was equipped with a set of leaves just wide enough for a four-inch-Thumbelina to hide behind. "Guthren!  This is intolerable!" a tiny voice cried.

"Lady Siegrid…?" Guthren croaked, looking closer to the ground. When she noticed a tiny set of footprints - made by bare feet - that had made a beeline to the nearest flower bed, she clapped both her hands over her eyes and let out a tormented groan that was soon followed by a: "Oh no, what have I done…?"

"I do not know, and I do not care!" the greatly reduced Siegrid cried. "But I do know that you must return me to my regular size right this instant!  And look away!  You have left me stark naked!"

Guthren's cheeks exploded in a deep red at the news. "Ack!" she croaked, staring at the pile of clothes. "Ack… I… I shall try… oh, by the Holy Mother… I shall be confined to my chamber until I am old and gray…"

"Just get on with it!" the tiny voice could be heard crying; as Siegrid spoke, the wide leaf rustled like she was jumping up and down in a fit of pique.

"Please do not stress me, Lady Siegrid!" Guthren cried back, throwing her arms in the air. "Casting spells can be dangerous!  I almost dare not proceed now!  I may risk turning you into a bird, or a frog, or even a three-legged donkey if I do not concentrate!"

The statement caused no further replies from the tiny squire save for an annoyed huff that rustled the leaves once more.

Guthren shook her head in disappointment. It was clear to all involved - most of all herself - that she was an utter failure at the ancient art of casting spells. If she had no talent at such a vital part of the Skills, she could forget all about her life's dream of becoming a travelling sorceress.

The corners of her mouth went south as she raised the magic wand and began to wave it in the air. This time, she was determined to get it right. To make sure that no further dramas would fall over the charming Lady from the House of Holsteinia, she skipped the vocal part of casting the spell and relaxed her mind like she had done in the small success with the candle up in her chamber.

Nothing happened at first. It caused a niggling worry to roll through her mind though she tried to keep it clear from any and all distractions. Redoubling her efforts, she focused hard on getting the tiny woman back to her regular size. At the most inopportune moment - right at the conclusion of the spell - a reminder of the fact that Lady Siegrid would be wearing no clothes whatsoever once she came back made her heart skip a beat; it also sent her mind onto a wild tangent that she tried to beat down, but to no avail.

The familiar flash of light and the gust of wind soon appeared behind her. Turning her back at once to give the bare woman some privacy, she noticed the gust had been less strong this time as she was able to remain on her feet.

Soon, the sound of clothes being donned filtered through the dark-brown hood that she had pulled up to be sure she wouldn't see anything that was not hers to see. "Lady Siegrid?" she said in a half-croak, not daring to turn around before she'd had confirmation of the spell's success.

"Yeah?  Watcha want?" a female voice said somewhere behind Guthren. The broad dialect and crude tones didn't sound like Siegrid's dulcet, cultivated manner of speaking at all, and it made Guthren furrow her brow.

"Well… have you finished putting on your clo-"

"Aw yeah, I'm all set. Nice duds, too!  Sorry, girl, you're too late to catch the peep show there. Ya shoulda turned around a little faster an' ya woulda seen plenty. Hey, I can get nekkid again if ya want me to…?  Ya want me to give ya a little striptease or somethin'?"

A horrified grimace flashed onto Guthren's face at the vulgar words that spewed from the elegant woman's mouth. Inching around like she was afraid of what she would find, she eventually stared at Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle - except that she seemed different somehow.

Gone were Siegrid's elegant stance and regal features. In their stead, a lazy slouch and a low-brow expression formed the order of the day. "Oh, no…" Guthren croaked as the blood drained from her face. "Now what have I done…?"

"Aw, ya bein' a cute li'l one, aintcha?" Siegrid said with a cheeky grin as she took in the sight of the mortified Guthren. She put her hands akimbo and cocked her hips to enter a provocative stance. "Yeah, a real cutie-pie with that red hair. Always loved them redheads… ya bein' like wildcats in the sack an' all."

"Gah!" Guthren croaked, clutching her head.

"What?" Siegrid said, looking down at herself. When she couldn't see anything untoward, she went on a tour of her body. "Ain't got nothin' stuck in my teeth… ain't got no boob hangin' out… ain't got no button in these here pants so I can't have nothin' showin' down there neither."

"No, no, no… Lady Siegrid, this is not you!"

"Aw… sure it is, girl…"

"I am telling you differently!  You have changed somehow!" Guthren croaked, running up to stand next to the taller woman. She looked at her from all angles without finding a solution to the pressing problem. "Do you not remember?  You are Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle… one of Lord Maximilian's squires for the Saint Valentine's Day tournament!  Your older brother is the Black Knight… the head of the black-and-bronze team from the House of-"

"Pah!" Siegrid said and waved her hand in disgust. Her voice grew coarser as she spoke: "That limp dishrag?  Aw, I'm tellin' ya, that soft-boiled egg can't even pull down his damn britches when he needs to squeeze out a turd. I'm the Black Knight!  That's right, girl… it's my ass on the line in each an' every damn tournament 'cos my fool brother is too chicken to even carry that lance!  I get to wear the plate armor an' risk my life high atop them destries. Do you know what'll happen to my body if I get shoved off the horse wearin' the damn armor?  It's so heavy my neck an' backbone will snap like a pair o' damn twigs if I land the wrong way, girl!"

"But… but… that cannot be right, Lady Siegrid… you are a woman…"

"Aw!  Nice of ya to notice, girl!  Tell me, what gave it away?  My rack?  The fact I ain't got no lump in my pants?"

"N- no, but… ack!  You told me your brother had-"

"Carried out sweet revenge on them bastards who took my kid brother's life. Yeah. 'Cept he didn't. I did. I sentenced 'em all to die. He was too yella to, that coward, so I had to put everythin' back in order. I'm the elder sibling but I got boobs instead o' stones so I can't claim my father's throne. My realm ain't like yours, girl."

"Ack…" Guthren croaked for the umpteenth time. Only a few moments later, the opening fanfares could be heard from the jousting yard on the far side of the castle's thick walls. The music was the cue for the official opening of the day's activities. The schedule for the first day saw all the elimination rounds from where the best eight teams would proceed to the finals the following day. "Oh… what have I done?  Without their knight, the team from Holsteinia cannot even compete!  Such a worthless apprentice I am… drat!  From this moment on, I shall never wield that wretched magic wand again!" To underscore her words, she threw down the stick of wood that she took for the cause of all the dramas.

A look at the slouching, black-clad woman who may have looked like the real thing but whose behavior was night-and-day different to the genuine Lady Siegrid made her reconsider. Picking up the magic wand, she began to swing it through the air.

One spell Guthren did master and that she did not need to refresh was one that would put whomever it was cast on to sleep - and in a hurry. For a change, the spell seemed to work as the crude, vulgar copy of Lady Siegrid stretched her arms high in the air while her hips gyrated and her face cracked open in a wide yawn. Guthren watched the woman closely as she shuffled over to the nearest bench to make herself comfortable.

Once the woman appeared to be asleep, Guthren pulled up the lower hem of her clumsy robe and tore out of the ornamental garden the fastest her legs would carry her.



Guthren stormed through the castle that had turned far busier than it had been when she had gone to the ornamental garden earlier in the morning. Searching for the headmistress everywhere she went, she had to duck and weave around the small army of aides and kitchen staffers that were serving snacks and beverages to the many esteemed guests and their teams outside in the main courtyard.

With the first rounds of the Saint Valentina's Day jousting tournament now underway, the whinnies, grunts, clangs and cries produced by the steeds and the knights fighting in heavy suits of armor wafted in from the outside. Now and then, a loud cheer rose from the spectators when an impressive move had been performed. Whenever a knight had been defeated by his opponent, prolonged clapping rolled in from the grandstands.

"Mistress Kriemhild?  Mistress Kriemhild?  Mistress Kriemhild!?  Oh, where could she be?" Guthren said, clutching her head when searching yet another hall had proven fruitless. Staring wide-eyed at nothing in particular, she suddenly realized that the headmistress would be in the classroom at the top of the keep. The time had flown by because of all the drama in the garden, and Guthren was long overdue to attend her class in harvesting, preparing and applying healing potions from the many herbs and plants that any travelling sorceress would find in the countryside.

"Ohhhh," she groaned as she zipped back to the foot of the winding staircase. Gulping down a big lump of worry, she began the long trek upward.


A short while later, she flung open the door to the study that she had visited so stealthily the night before. All her fellow apprentices jumped in their seats before they turned around to stare at the intruder. When they saw that it was merely Guthren, several of them rolled their eyes and mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "What did she do this time?"

Panting like an old donkey from racing up the stone staircase, Guthren needed to bend over to put her hands on her knees before she could deliver the dreaded cry for help.

Mistress Kriemhild let out a deep sigh as she took in the sorry figure standing - and panting - in the doorway. "Guthren?  You are late. Very late, in fact."

Guthren still panted too hard to speak coherently, but by pressing her hands against her chest, she was able to get most of the message across: "I know… Mistress… Kriemhild. I beg… par… pardon… of… of thee. Oh… this is… an emergency!  You must… come quick!  Oh… I fear I… have made such… a terrible, terrible mistake… I-"

"A mistake?  A mistake regarding what, Guthren?  Be more specific," Kriemhild said as she put down the open textbook she had been reading aloud from.

"I wanted to impress- I mean… I tried to… I cast a few… spells that all… went horribly, horribly wrong!  Please… Mistress Kriemhild… you must come and… set things right again!  I fear a good… soul may be lost forever if… if you do not!"

"Guthren…" Kriemhild said in a low, dangerous tone of voice that she reserved for the occasions when one of her students had made a mess of things. That Guthren of Emmerlingen often turned out to be the one who was spoken to in that tone of voice was another issue completely.

Guthren wiped her damp forehead on her wide sleeve; at last she had found something they were good for. As she regained her breath, her cheeks grew redder at the dangerous tone of voice that had been used on her - she knew there would be some kind of punishment waiting for her in her immediate future. "D- downstairs… in the ornamental garden… the knight of the- I mean, one of the squires of the black-and-bronze team. Oh please, Mistress Kriemhild, we must hurry!"

"Very well. I shall deal with it at once," Kriemhild said before she turned back to the other apprentices. "The rest of you shall continue where we left off. Chapter seven. There will be a test when I get back."

Predictably, a groan spread among the other apprentices as they turned their attention to their dusty, old textbooks.


"-But I put a sleeping spell on her before I took off to find you!" Guthren explained as she and the headmistress hurried down the winding staircase.

A deep groan escaped Kriemhild's throat. "Those spells are only temporary, Guthren!  Very temporary, even… it will have worn off by now."

"Ack… I cannot do anything right!" Guthren said, attempting to slap her forehead. The wide sleeve was in the way and nearly caused her to lose sight of her feet and fall down the staircase instead.

At the foot of the keep, the two women just about knocked over a kitchen maid who was minding her own business carrying a tray of salty snacks and dried fruit out to the grandstands. They had no time to stop and offer an apology though the maid let them know in some of the language's crudest terms what she thought of people running at such a speed where others were working.

"To the left, Mistress Kriemhild!" Guthren said and zipped in that direction.

Turning in the same direction, Kriemhild followed the younger, nimbler woman at a few paces' distance. "I do know where our queen has her ornamental garden, young lady!"

"Ack… I beg pardon of thee, Mistress Kriemhild… I did not mean to imply-"

"Never mind that now!"

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren mumbled, letting out a sound that was a cross between a croak, a sigh and a groan as she raced along the cobblestones.


When they reached the rose-covered archway, Guthren flew onto the crunching gravel while she whipped her head left and right to locate the vulgar copy of the charming Lady Siegrid. The bench where she had left the sleeping woman was empty. "Oh, by the Holy Mother… we are too late!  She has wandered off on her own… I hope she has not gone too far!  Her presence will soon be needed for the jousting, but she cannot show up like that!"

The older and somewhat slower Kriemhild arrived a few moments later; the first thing she did was to throw her arms in the air in frustration. "If you would only listen to what I say… I have told you more than once not to put too much faith into the sleeping spells. They put the subject to sleep, yes, but they do not prevent them from waking up… sometimes at once!  Even the sleeping spells I cast cannot be relied upon at all times."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild…"

"And to put a sleeping spell on a squire of one of the jousting teams after the tournament had already started… quite frankly, Guthren, that was impolite of you."

"Ah… yes. A squire. Now, about that-"

"Is she not a squire?"

"Ah… no," Guthren said and performed a few shuffles to buy herself some time from the stern talking-to she knew would come. When the silence between the two turned oppressive, Guthren drew her lips back in a worried grimace and began to speak in a mumble: "I fear she happens to be an important person in the black-and-bronze team that represents the House of Holsteinia. Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle. And… when I say important person, I mean she is the Black Knight, Mistress Kriemhild."

Kriemhild's eyes went wide for a moment; then they narrowed down into slits. "Guthren, what were you thinking?  Were you in fact thinking at all?" she said in a hard voice.

"I… I fear I was not, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren said and ducked her head down between her shoulders. When it became obvious the self-deprecating comment wasn't enough to appease the headmistress - who could be quite stern when the mood hit her - she shook her head in defeat.

"Well, I am certainly glad you have that amount of insight. Pray tell, what is the connection between yourself and the good Lady Siegrid?"

"There is none, Mistress Kriemhild…"

Kriemhild cocked her head as she studied the younger woman's tell-tale expression. "But you would dearly love for one to develop."

"Ack… it truly is thus," Guthren croaked, squirming under Kriemhild's intense gaze. "Oh, I fear I have failed you, Mistress Kriemhild. Badly. I wanted to impress Lady Siegrid by demonstrating my skills at casting spells. I believed them to be good enough to-"

"Show off."

Guthren drew a breath like she wanted to counter the statement - then she realized the headmistress had been spot on. "Ah… quite, Mistress Kriemhild… alas, they were not. Even making a flower grow was beyond me… at least without causing untold disasters for the fair Lady Siegrid." She looked around the small square near the bench hoping to see bootprints, but the white gravel had been disturbed too much by the running to read any clues from it.

"We shall deal with that later, Guthren. And mark my words, we will."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild…" Guthren mumbled.

Kriemhild nodded and returned to the problems at hand. "Now, we need to see where the lady knight has gone off to," the powerful sorceress said before she fell quiet and concentrated on creating a vision-sphere. Clenching and unclenching her fists to dip into her own, impressive set of Skills, she held up her hands like she was trying to grasp an imaginary ball. Soon, the air between her fingers turned into a black fog that was replaced moments later by a pale-blue haze.

The haze offered her a colorful view beyond the limitations of the human eye, and it had soon located the missing Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle. The pale-blue haze showed in excruciating detail how the tall squire from the team of the House of Holsteinia sat deep in the castle's kitchen wolfing down cold-cut leftovers from a tray while occasionally chugging down ale from a wooden mug. Kriemhild frowned at the sight of the two brown streams that ran down the Lady's cheeks when she turned too greedy. The frown only deepened when Lady Siegrid belched out loud - showing a mouthful of half-chewed food - while she wiped her chin on her leather sleeve.

The sorceress didn't need to see more, so she removed her hands which made the vision-sphere dissolve into thin air. "Guthren… I must say… you have really outdone yourself this time. By the Holy Mother, this goes beyond that one time with the pig and the flagpole…"

"That was an accident…" Guthren mumbled.


"Ack, Mistress Kriemhild… I am only too aware of the fact that I have behaved in an irresponsible way," Guthren said, shuffling back and forth on the white gravel. "I gather you were able to locate Lady Siegrid?"

"Indeed I was. She is in the kitchen. Gorging herself on leftovers from last night's banquet… and chugging down the strong ale like there was no tomorrow," Kriemhild said flatly.

The frown that had been on the sorceress' forehead was instantly transferred onto Guthren's. The young apprentice bared her teeth in an embarrassed grimace, and she let out a groan that proved she knew she was headed for ten to fifteen years of being confined to her chamber.


It didn't take long for Guthren and Kriemhild to hurry over to one of the inner courtyards. Once there, they went down the short flight of stairs that led to the rear entrance of the castle's large kitchen. The back door was only used for various deliveries and was never visited by anyone important; thus, the kitchen maid who opened the door after Guthren had thumped her fist against it multiple times stared dumbstruck at the headmistress as the older woman strode into the rear of the kitchen.

The apron-wearing kitchen maid soon recovered from her shock and dipped down into a neat curtsey. "Mistress Kriemhild… was something wrong with your breakfast?"

"It was exquisite as always, maid. That is not why we have come," Kriemhild said as she shot a quick glance around the delivery entrance to locate the spot she had seen in the vision-sphere.

The section at the back of the kitchen had been built at a lower level compared to the rest. The stone floor and the thick walls down in the vault were made of crushed boulders glued together by mortar which kept the temperature down throughout the year, and the rooms offered perfect conditions for storing foodstuff like pickled fruits and vegetables, smoked sausages, salted meats and countless barrels of home-made ale. They were also home to the secondary pantries where all the surplus food was put before it could be given a second life in hodge-podge stews and the like.

With Kriemhild seemingly not having the time or the inclination to explain further, Guthren stepped forward and put a hand on the kitchen maid's elbow. "Please, fair maiden, we need your help… where is the squire from the black-and-bronze team?  It is of the utmost importance that we find her as soon as possible…"

Before the kitchen maid could answer, a loud belch did it for her by echoing through the corridors. It came from further into the cold storage rooms and offered plenty of hints as to Siegrid's whereabouts.

"Come, Guthren," Kriemhild said and strode through the first room.

Guthren's cheeks had turned deep red after hearing the vulgar, bodily exclamation, but she turned back to the confused kitchen maid to offer her an apologetic smile before she hurried after the headmistress.

The narrow corridors at the back of the kitchen were rapidly dealt with until Kriemhild and Guthren arrived at a cozy, little nook at the far end of a tiny hallway where the ceiling was so low Kriemhild needed to duck her head. A wooden chair and a round table had been set up in the spot where the kitchen staff could rest their weary legs in periods of less activity.

A flickering tallow-candle offered a meager light upon the black-clad person occupying the chair. A leg had been draped across the table where a near-empty tray had been shoved aside by a boot. Another belch rang out after the final few drops of the strong ale had been emptied from a wooden mug.

As Kriemhild and Guthren entered the nook, the slouching woman on the chair looked up in surprise. She had to blink several times to get the ale-induced haze to clear up a little before she could see the identity of her visitors. "Hey, it's you again!  The sexy, li'l redhead!" Siegrid said in a cheery voice that was tinged by a distinct slur. "Sorry, girl, ya too late to get some o' this awesome ale. Maybe that li'l gal outside can pour ya a mug o' somethin' else, though. C'mon, whaddaya say?"

"By the Holy Mother, this is even worse than I had expected, Guthren!" Kriemhild said to the apprentice who could only grimace, sigh and nod in return - and in that order. "Oh, we have no time for this nonsense!" the powerful sorceress continued in a growl. She had already moved her hands up to begin the short preparation phase she needed before she could tap into her Skills.

"Aw, mind yer manners, grandma!  I was just tryin' to be a little friendly with this here sexy redhead. Let's eat, drink an' get some nookie!" Siegrid said as she pulled her leg off the table.

Guthren let out a groan and buried her face in her hands. Though she wasn't familiar with the last word, she could well imagine what it implied.

The gravity and urgency of the situation, and the deep-seated state of the spell the young apprentice had cast on Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle, called for a far stronger response than Kriemhild had anticipated. Drawing a deep breath, she closed her eyes to focus all her Skills on righting the wrongs that had been committed. Moving her hands in a constant circle, she created a ball of energy that cast a ghostly, pale-blue light over the small nook and the three women there.

"What the…" Siegrid croaked, staring at the glowing ball that grew between the older woman's hands. Getting up from the chair, she crept back toward the stone wall to evade the strange phenomenon. "Hey, wotcha tryin' to do there, grandma?  You gonna shoot me with some kinda fireball or somethin'?  My sword's gonna take care o' that… damn, ain't got no sword!"

Guthren stepped forward and put up her hands to calm everything down before it would get any worse than it already was. "Please, Lady Siegrid… it will not hurt. Mistress Kriemhild is merely trying to help you get back to your true self."

"Ain't nothin' wrong with this self, girl!" Siegrid said, but that was all she had time for before the ball of energy had grown sufficiently strong to be thrown.

Kriemhild let out the breath she had been holding and released the ghostly blue sphere directly into Siegrid's chest. As the ball hit the black leathers, arcs of energy exploded out from the point of impact. Within moments, the tall woman was fully enveloped in energy that appeared to soak up all the negative vibes that had been infused into her by the failed spells.

Once the cleansing was done, the ball of energy dissipated until it vanished into thin air. Staggering back to the wooden chair, Siegrid bumped down into it with a puzzled look in her wide, bright-blue eyes. Shaking her head slowly like she wasn't sure where she was or how she had ended up there, she stared at the empty tray and the drained mug before she looked up at the two women. At the sight of the distinguished woman in the purple robe - which marked her out as a member of Queen Irmgard's court - she fumbled back up from the chair and attempted to perform a deep, regal bow that didn't quite meet the expected standards. "Milady," she said in her regular, sophisticated tones before she turned to face Guthren. "Oh… and good day to thee, Lady Guthren. Nice to see you again."

"Ohhhhh, thank the Holy Mother!  You are back!" Guthren croaked, rushing forward to grab Siegrid's hands.

"I had left?  I… cannot remember anything. Or… no, that is not quite true," Siegrid said while a deep furrow appeared across her brow. "Were we not in the ornamental garden just now?  Where you attempted to… oh!  Cast a spell on a flower or some such…?"

Grimacing, Guthren turned back to the headmistress to seek assistance from the far more experienced woman.

"Greetings, Lady Siegrid. I am headmistress Kriemhild, formerly of Quedlinburg," the sorceress said as she stepped forward. "What happened is a lengthy tale that I fear we do not have time to shed light upon. However, I do believe our young friend Guthren here has an important statement to make. And an equally important apology."

Siegrid turned to Guthren while her puzzled expression only grew deeper. "I see?" she said, locking her bright-blue eyes onto Guthren's darker orbs.

"Ah… yes," Guthren said and licked her lips. "Oh, I fear I have caused so much trouble for all involved, Lady Siegrid… but especially you. Where should I start…"


"What?!" Siegrid barked, narrowing her eyes down into bright-blue slits.

The intense glare caused Guthren to clam up and blush hard. She had brought it upon herself, so she needed to be strong enough to deal with the aftermath, but the angry look in Siegrid's eyes nearly sent her heart plummeting into her boots. All of it had been caused by her selfish desire to see the Lady smile at her; now, all she got from the Lady in question was wholly justified anger. When she spoke, the words came in a downcast voice: "It is true, Lady Siegrid. I fear you told me all of it. Or at least most of it. I… I merely wanted to impress you, b- but it was for foolish reasons and I humbly beg pardon of thee…"

"I do not know if I wish to grant you such pardon, Guthren. You know of my true identity though I have shed blood to keep it from others."

"I… I fear I do, Lady Siegrid. Had I known, I would never- oh, it matters not," Guthren said and wrung her hands.

Leaning forward on the wooden chair, Siegrid rubbed her chin. "And if you caused untold dramas for the sake of wanting to impress me, how can I trust that you will not wag your tongue and reveal this priceless nugget of information to someone else you wish to impress?"

"Ah… I see your point, Lady Siegrid… but I can assure you that I-"

"Lady Guthren, what you know cannot be allowed to reach the ears of anyone else. If it does, my life is worth less than the crumbs left on this platter," Siegrid said, pointing at the last few scraps of leftover food that remained on the metal tray.

A grimace marred Guthren's face; she nodded in defeat a moment later. "I give you my word, Lady Siegrid. It shall never travel past these lips."

A grunt left Siegrid as she rose from the chair - the low ceiling meant she couldn't stand fully upright. "I accept your apology, Lady Guthren…"

"Thank you-"

"But I cannot and will not lie. You have disappointed me tremendously by casting spells you were not ready for. At the very least, I feel you should have told me of your uncertainty regarding the magic. We would simply have spoken like friends. Now, I fear I must leave you as less than that." Grunting, the squire turned to the powerful sorceress: "I must rejoin my team at once, Mistress Kriemhild. It may already be too late to appease the jousting referees, but we shall see."

Guthren had to clench her jaw or else she would have let out a choked-up croak. Siegrid's message of leaving on unfriendly terms was understandable, and she had even presented it in a sober manner, but the words still stung.

Nothing further was said as Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle exited the small nook to make her way back out of the maze of narrow corridors that she could not even remember entering. A pregnant silence spread between Guthren and Kriemhild once they were alone.

"Guthren," Kriemhild finally said, putting a hand on the shoulder of her young apprentice. "I hope you have learned a lesson today. And that it will stay in your mind a little longer than most other lessons you have learned over the years."

"It will, Mistress Kriemhild. I have never been so ashamed of myself…" Guthren croaked.

Nodding, Kriemhild used the hand on Guthren's shoulder to guide the young woman back into the low corridor. "Mmmm. Come. Let us go back up to my study and continue learning about the healing potions. Once the class is over, you shall return to your chamber where you shall remain for the next two days. Food, drink and your homework will be brought to you. Come the day after tomorrow, I shall re-evaluate your case with fairness."

Guthren nodded. That she would be punished was inevitable - and wholly justified, even she could see that. Sighing, she shuffled off down the corridor. Though the hand of the headmistress weighed down on her shoulder, it was nothing compared to the heavy shackles that had enchained her heart.



Two days later.

Guthren had behaved herself like she had promised she would: the time had been spent with her nose in the ancient textbooks so she could improve her skills that she had discovered were sorely lacking. Though the castle's kitchen had kept up the traditions of creating a cornucopia of magnificent dishes for the Saint Valentina's Day celebrations, she had only had water, hunks of salted rye bread and slices of a greasy, smoked sausage just to punish herself a little further.

The third and final day of the jousting tournament had begun down in the main courtyard. It was a warm day, so Guthren had her window open while she studied. The fanfares, the general din of the big event, and the joyous cheers from the early spectators who were greeted to a humorous juggling act while the knights and their teams warmed up elsewhere tried hard to steal away her attention, but she was determined to stay focused for however long her punishment was due to last.

She sat at the charred desk wielding the textbook in one hand and her magic wand in the other - without actually daring to cast any spells - but another cheer from the courtyard made her put down the items to investigate further.

Shuffling over to the window, she pulled herself up into the windowsill so she had a good view of the goings-on down in the courtyard. At one end of the jousting yard, a pair of colorful jugglers awed the spectators who had begun to flock to the grandstands for the main event. A firebreather, a pair of jesters and a female balancing artist who could walk the tightrope while wearing a blindfold entertained the crowd at the other end of the courtyard.

A knocking on the door made Guthren jump down from the windowsill and race back to the charred desk. "You may enter," she said, picking up the textbook so it would appear she had been studying the whole time.

When the visitor proved to be the headmistress wearing clothes fit for a day in the sun - a white dress with a loose headscarf that would shield her hair and face from the strong rays - Guthren put down the book to wait for any words of wisdom.

"Guthren," Kriemhild said as she closed the sturdy, wooden door behind her. "I see you are still studying. It pleases me. Do you feel you are closer to gaining an understanding of the spells?"

"I truthfully cannot say, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren said and shook her head. "I dare not cast any practice spells out of fear of fouling up again."

"Mmmm. I certainly understand your concerns considering what happened last time, but you must, Guthren. The key is to learn from your mistakes. I read your note the other day… you wrote you had been able to ignite the candle after all."

"Yes, Mistress Kriemhild."

"Mmmm," Kriemhild said again. When she shot a quick glance at the charred desk, she let out a grunt. "But that is for later. The tournament finals are today. I shall give you a reprieve so you can come downstairs with me to watch the jousting with your classmates."

"Oh!  I am deeply grateful, Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren said and performed a quick curtsey at her teacher.

"However… you must promise me you will not attempt to cast any of your home-made spells while the finals are taking place. I shall be right there next to you. You know my Skills, and you know I shall be able to sense if you intervene through unfair means," Kriemhild said in a stern voice.

Guthren had begun nodding vigorously even before Kriemhild had finished speaking her warning. "I promise, Mistress Kriemhild. I really have learned my lesson this time. No home-made spells of any kind. None."

"Good. I believe you," Kriemhild said and broke out in a smile that transformed her face. Moving back to the door, she grabbed the handle. "Get dressed for a day in the grandstands. I shall wait outside while you change."

Once the headmistress had left the chamber, Guthren jumped so high into the air out of pure glee that she almost bumped against the stone ceiling. Upon landing, she tore over to her wardrobe to find a sundress that would do a good job of protecting her fair skin for the duration of the big spectacle.


The grandstands had almost filled out by the time the headmistress led her class of apprentices up a short, but steep, flight of stairs on their way to their seats. She had chosen to sit four rows up from the ground to have the best view of the proceedings, and to avoid being splattered by droplets of blood in case one of the jousts turned gruesome.

All around the students, the regular spectators were buzzing with excitement. The weather was perfect for jousting with the sun beaming down from a blue sky that only held a few, scattered clouds. The temperature was creeping upward, and many people in the grandstand were already fanning themselves.

Down on the jousting track itself, several of the castle's staffers pulled a heavy cart equipped with a water tank that was used to spray the sandy surface to bind the worst of the dust - it was inevitably kicked up by the hooves of the large horses, but if such a cloud of dust fell over the queen, it would cause quite a stir.

The firebreather, the balancing artist, the jugglers and the jesters had left the stage; out of view of the spectators, the first jousting teams were lined up to file past Queen Irmgard in the traditional opening parade. The tack and armor on the large horses and their riders clinged and clanged as the steeds shuffled around with impatient steps, and the strong smells that rose from the warm animals - and their riders - proved the excitement was building there as well.

As always, crafty traders walked up and down the spectator aisles and rows hawking their goods: "Dried fruit!  Dried fruit!  Get your jousting snacks here!" -- "Freshly pressed apple juice and orange squash sold here!" -- "Nuts, berries, honey!  Sold in small packs, medium packs, cornets and cups!  Spoon included!"

"Oooooh!" Guthren said, craning her neck to take in the sweet sights and even sweeter fragrances that emanated from the tray carried by the vendor selling nuts, berries and honey. Though the first one moved past their row without selling much, he was quickly followed by the woman hawking dried fruit.

Guthren had been living on nothing but water, salted bread and greasy sausage for two days, so she wasn't about to let the fruit-vendor go. "My good woman!  A pack of dried apricots, if you please!" she cried, waving her coin pouch in the air.

The snacks were soon bought and paid for, and the pretty picture was completed by a large cup of freshly pressed apple juice that she drank through a straw. She glanced to her left at the headmistress to gauge her reaction, but the older woman wore a smile rather than the frown Guthren had been worried about - all was good.

Down on the jousting yard, a group of musicians struck up another buzz among the spectators by playing a resounding fanfare. As it finished, the master of the ceremony announced the arrival of Queen Irmgard.

Everyone rose to pay proper respect to the ruler of the lands by bowing or curtseying. They remained standing until the distinguished queen and her most trusted advisors and adjutants had found their seats in a booth protected by an awning.

With the queen present, the finals of the Saint Valentina's Day Jousting Tournament could start. The emcee went into a well-rehearsed spiel where he introduced the four remaining teams just before they entered the tiltyard: first up was the team carrying scarlet-and-gold who represented the House of Sachsonia, then the white-and-blue team from the House of Bavarria who had traveled the furthest to get to Kranichburg Castle - all the way from the southern-most province.

The blue-and-silver team from the House of Elsania was next, closely followed by Siegrid's men who were all dressed in their handsome black-and-bronze leather uniforms of the House of Holsteinia. Atop a mighty steed that wore a chanfron-armor to protect its head and a caparison cloth along its flank to display their coat of arms, the Black Knight brandished a twelve-foot lance that was painted in the same colors as their banners.

Guthren paused in her frantic chewing of the dried apricots to cheer on the black-and-bronze team from the House of Holsteinia. Although her lone voice was drowned out by the cheer of the massed spectators, she thought she saw the Black Knight turn her head toward her - it was hard to tell considering the heavy monstrosity of a winged helmet worn by the knight.

"Ohhhh, I hope Lady Siegrid has recovered fully…" she mumbled, glancing around to see if anyone had overheard her comments. Everyone around her was busy cheering, save for Kriemhild who arched an eyebrow as her only response.

Blushing, Guthren returned to sucking on the straw.


The events that unfolded down on the tiltyard proved that Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle had indeed recovered from being under the influence of Guthren's misbegotten spells. She fought the Blue Knight from the House of Bavarria, the white-and-blue team, and defeated him by winning three passes and losing once in the best-of-five jousting competition. It sent the black-and-bronze from the House of Holsteinia into the finals where their opponent would be the scarlet-and-gold team from the House of Sachsonia.

Hailing from the eastern-most province of the realm, the Sachsonian men were all retired, battle-hardened veterans from the war against the neighboring realms. Their steeds were large-framed, sturdy draught horses that were perhaps not the fastest among steeds, but that would keep going forever and a day through the worst conditions. The Scarlet Knight, Lord Pomerow of Sachsonia, was already fully suited and sitting atop his horse carrying the twelve-foot lance that had been decorated with several ribbons matching their coat of arms.

Guthren whipped her head around to look at the black-and-bronze team. Wearing her disguise as the Black Knight, Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle was in the process of being lowered into the saddle by a few of her stronger squires. Although not too heavy - all things considered - the suits of armor were so cumbersome it was near-impossible for the rider to mount the horse the regular way once they were fully decked out; thus, the knight needed help to get up there.

To Guthren's eyes, Siegrid's horse seemed tiny, or even fragile, compared to the big brute that the scarlet-and-gold knight sat on, but she knew from the previous matches that it was a fast steed. As she watched, it shook like it was bothered by the chanfron-armor or the caparison cloth along its flanks, but Siegrid patted its neck to keep it calm.

While that was going on, several of the Holsteinian squires and knaves pulled up a cart fully loaded with the instruments of war needed for round two of the finals - a mace, a broadsword and a black-and-bronze shield that carried a painting of the fleur-de-lis lily.

The resounding fanfares that echoed through the courtyard heralded the official opening of the finals of the Saint Valentina's Day Jousting Tournament, and every spectator there jumped to his or her feet to let out wild cheers, whistles and cries of support for their favored team among the finalists.

The apprentices rose to cheer the spectacle as well, but Guthren couldn't help but feel worried - she had a niggling sensation in her gut that the match-up against Lord Pomerow wouldn't be plain sailing for the charming Lady Siegrid of Oldenburg Castle.


As the horses carrying the Black and the Scarlet Knights lined up on either end of the tiltyard for the first of the best-of-five jousts, a hush fell over the spectators.

Guthren could barely keep watching. Holding her breath, she even forgot to blink as the tension continued to mount. On the field, the chief referee finally dropped the flag which sent the two knights thundering towards each other on either side of the center barrier. "Ohhhh," Guthren croaked, pressing her hands against her chest as she stared wide-eyed at Lady Siegrid and her steed that barreled down towards the far larger opponent.

When Siegrid's lance made a cracking impact on the Scarlet Knight's armor, it sent the spectators into a wild cheer. Although the impact didn't unseat the opposing knight, he was knocked askew by the forces involved which counted as a successful pass for the Black Knight. Guthren cried and threw her arms in the air like the rest of the spectators, but perhaps her response was even louder than that of the others.

The riders soon lined up for the second run of the best-of-five. Siegrid's lance was swapped for an undamaged one; the impact had crushed part of the tip which rendered it illegal to use according to the ancient rules of jousting.

When the chief referee motioned for the second run to commence, Siegrid spurred on her horse and took off at great speed with the intent of repeating her win. Again the opponents thundered toward each other with the intent of unseating the other or at the very least striking an impact somewhere on the suit of armor.

Siegrid was less fortunate in the second pass, and her horse paid the price. When the Scarlet Knight's lance struck her lower, left side in a glancing blow - thus granting him the win - the tip of the deadly weapon continued on a downward trajectory. It tore through the colorful caparison cloth and carved a long, bloody wound on the left side of the horse's rump. Whinnying in pain, the horse jerked to the right and bolted from the tiltyard which nearly threw Siegrid.

Guthren and the rest of the spectators all let out wild cries of worry, but the experienced rider managed to get her steed under control for long enough for several of the bravest knaves to catch up with her and grab hold of the tack of the errant horse.

It was obvious from the horse's panicky appearance that a new one was required, so Siegrid needed to be helped off the first one and onto one of the spares that had already been prepared for such an eventuality.

While the swap took place, the juggling act came back onto the courtyard to entertain the spectators, but most people on the grandstand only had eyes for the drama that went on at the black-and-bronze team's awning.

"Oh, my heart," Guthren croaked, bumping back down into the seat.


The unfortunate injury to her primary horse had weakened the Black Knight, and she was powerless to stop the Scarlet Knight from scoring a win in the following joust - she had even been knocked askew which had necessitated yet another intervention from her team. Her opponent only needed one more win to claim the first round of the finals, but if she could even the score, the last joust would settle it.

Even as the flag dropped and Siegrid took off down the tiltyard, it was clear to all but the most inexperienced of the spectators that she would be unable to defeat her opponent - or to be precise: his far larger horse - in the last joust. The Scarlet Knight didn't even need to obtain a good aim with his lance to have an advantage, and the result was given almost before they met at the halfway point of the track.

The cracking impact against the Black Knight's chest plate was so loud it sent a shocked hush through the spectators; the hush was transformed into a loud cry when the knight jerked back and was unable to maintain a good grip on the saddle's handles.

Guthren jumped to her feet and clutched her head at the sight of Siegrid rolling sideways off the saddle and landing with a heavy, bone-rattling thud on the tiltyard's sandy surface.

The Black Knight performed two further rolls that eventually saw her stranded on her back like an upside-down turtle. At first, the armored knight appeared to be dazed or perhaps even knocked unconscious, but she was able to sit upright as soon as her knaves and squires had raced to her rescue. One of them wanted to take off the heavy, winged helmet, but the knight swatted the knave's hands away at once.

While the Scarlet Knight rode back to his team to get dismounted and prepare himself for the second part of the finals, Guthren chewed on her fingernails. She had promised not to cast any of the disastrous, home-made victory spells during the jousts, but in view of the potential defeat for Lady Siegrid and her team from the House of Holsteinia, it had become almost impossible for her to keep her word.

She shot a quick glance at Kriemhild who was seated right next to her like the headmistress had said she would be. Guthren drew her lips back in a worried grimace. Kriemhild's Skills were so pure she could sense if others cast spells. If she caught Guthren red-handed, the punishment would be so severe that the two-day stretch the apprentice had just been through would seem like a frolicking day at the beach.

It was too risky - she couldn't chance it. Even if she would be able to sneak a spell past the powerful sorceress, there was no guarantee it would assist Lady Siegrid. Another quick glance at Kriemhild underscored the risks: the stern headmistress had locked eyes with Guthren almost like she had sensed something even before the notion had gone beyond a mere spark of inspiration. Smiling innocently, Guthren returned to the last of her dried apricots.


As the second round of the finals got underway, the fierce battle between the armor-clad knights raged on in a cordoned-off section of the courtyard. The Scarlet Knight had the upper hand when it came to brute strength, and he employed plenty of aggression in the wild swings he performed with the first of the close-combat weapons: the mace.

A single blow by the cast iron ball that typically sported sixteen fearsome-looking spikes would be enough to defeat any opponent on the battlefield, but the version used in the various tournaments had been limited to eight spikes. A direct hit would still be a painful affair, but the armor plates worn by both combatants would absorb most of the damage.

The Black Knight had the advantages of speed and agility, and Siegrid was able to evade most of her opponent's aggressive swings while getting in a few good hits with her own mace. It was clear to most of the assistants on both teams that the Black Knight tried to wear down the constantly charging Lord Pomerow by never standing still for longer than a few moments at a time, but the success of such a tactic would only become evident over the long term.

Charging again, the Scarlet Knight swung his mace at the winged helmet of his opponent, but he had misjudged the Black Knight's speed and suffered a direct mace-hit across his gut as his only reward. The strike took the wind clean out of his sails: doubling over, he staggered backwards which left him wide open for a finishing blow.

Siegrid came at her opponent at an oblique angle, watching keenly for a possible fake reaction from him though such a conduct was considered unsporting and unchivalrous. When his response did come, she was fully prepared and sidestepped his wild swing. Moving her mace around once, she clobbered him on the chest which created a loud clang that echoed through the courtyard; wasting no time, she struck again and clobbered him over the neck.

The second strike loosened his battle helmet and forced him onto his knees. The chief referee intervened and held Siegrid back while the Scarlet Knight's squires fixated the helmet back in place.

While she waited, Siegrid moved back to her team's awning and threw down the mace. Instead, she was given a four-foot broadsword and her shield that carried the fleur-de-lis lily on the black-and-bronze background.

The spectators all cheered - they had all been wishing for swordplay since it was far more spectacular than the simple wielding of the mace. Guthren whimpered rather than cheered. Although she was as inexperienced when it came to the art of war as she was in the magical field of love, she had enough imagination to know what could happen during a swordfight.

Preparing for the last part of the finals only took a short while, and the two combatants soon returned to the cordoned-off section of the courtyard. After they had greeted the chief referee and each other in accordance with the rules of the game, they began to circle each other like hungry predators.

They were both right-handed which eased the combat. Carrying their swords in their right hands meant they could use the large shields for the task they had originally been designed for, namely holding close to their bodies at the side where the opponent had his - or her - sword. Mismatched combatants fought sword-on-sword and shield-on-shield which always created dull fights since neither opponent would dare to strike the first blow out of fear of exposing himself too much.

In this match, the Black Knight struck first by thrusting out her broadsword. Her opponent sidestepped it and let his shield intercept the long blade. No sooner had the last echo of the impact rolled around the courtyard before he charged by swinging his own sword wildly.

Siegrid had seen it all before and employed a tactic that saw her parrying the sword with her shield while she thrust out at the body that followed directly behind it. Although she managed to scrape the sharp edge of the blade along the Scarlet Knight's armor at his side, no damage was done, and the referee didn't score it as a hit.

Moving back, Siegrid regrouped and ducked to her right at once. Her more laggard opponent hadn't expected that and was even slower than usual in reacting. Another thrust aimed at the plate armor protecting the larger man's gut was delivered with swiftness and strength, and this time the chief referee raised a flag which indicated it had been scored.

The Scarlet Knight roared out his frustrations behind his heavy, all-enveloping helmet; charging hard, he swung his blade at the Black Knight's head once, then a second time, then a third time. None made an impact or were even close to doing so. The drawn-out grunts that came from his covered mouth offered a good hint that he was tiring.

It gave Siegrid the perfect opportunity to up the ante by upping her pace. Going in fast and deep, she hacked at her opponent's sword arm above the elbow - it was a solid hit and scored as thus. Even before the Scarlet Knight had recovered from the blow that would have resulted in a severed arm in real combat, Siegrid feigned pulling back. Instead of following through, she thrust ahead at once. Her fast move had tricked her opponent into lowering his defenses, and she slammed her broadsword across his chest in a finishing move that sent him reeling from the impact alone.

The chief referee raised another flag to score the strike before he threw down a red cloth indicating that he terminated the match due to the nature of the blow.

The first few moments after the official's decision saw everyone stunned into silence, but then the entire grandstand erupted in wild cheering. The members of the two jousting teams ran onto the field to separate the two combatants in case of flaring tempers, but the two knights were experienced enough to know when a fight was over.

While the Black Knight put an arm in the air to mark the victory - which only created an even louder cheer from the spectators - the knight of the scarlet-and-gold team, Lord Pomerow from the House of Sachsonia, took off his helmet to reveal a flushed, sweat-streaked face. Moving ahead, he clasped arms with his still-helmeted conqueror before he shuffled off back to his team's awning to get out of the bulky suit of armor.

To an unrestrained soundtrack of enthusiastic cheering from the grandstands, the Black Knight strutted around on the sandy surface with the broadsword and the shield held high in the air to celebrate the victory. A squire ran over to the armor-clad knight to take the weapons and deliver a special lance that carried a small black-and-bronze ribbon at the tip.

In accordance with the ancient rules and traditions, the victor of the Saint Valentina's Day Jousting Tournament now had to select the fairest maiden among the spectators. The lady in question would receive and carry the winner's ribbon which would give her special privileges for the entire year until the next tournament.

The Black Knight traded her sword and the shield for the lance. Moving back to the grandstand, she let the long weapon pan slowly across the many ladies present until it came to a halt at a young redhead whose cheeks were even redder than her hair.

"By the Holy Mother," Guthren croaked when she realized the disguised Siegrid had selected her as the Lady of the tournament. "Oh… oh, Mistress Kriemhild, this was not my doing!  I pro- promise that I have not cast any love spells!"

"I know," Kriemhild said as she nudged her elbow into the apprentice's side. "And, pray tell, Guthren… from where would you be familiar with any love spells. Mmmm?" As she spoke, the stern sorceress leaned in towards the young apprentice to give her shoulder a little bump.

"Oh, I… surely… cannot… say… Mistress Kriemhild," Guthren squeaked. "I merely meant it as a figure of speech-"

"I Saw you borrowing the Book of Love Spells the other evening."


Kriemhild nodded and moved fully back to her own seat. "But we shall speak of that later, you and I," she said in a voice that had returned to its regular, authoritative tones.

Down on the tiltyard, the Black Knight had not yet grown impatient, but it couldn't be far off. Guthren continued to stare wide-eyed at the lance and the ribbon. "Mistress… wh- what should I do?" she continued in a croak.

"Do?  Go down there and accept the ribbon, of course!"

"Buh… really?"

"Yes, really… go on, Guthren… before she loses patience and selects someone else."

That threat did the trick, and Guthren jumped up from her seat to a loud cheer from the other spectators. After excusing herself two dozen times while she moved past the legs of those sitting next to her, she reached and descended the steep staircase. She moved ahead in a trance until she stopped at the Black Knight whose fierce, shiny black armor appeared aggressive to the point of being near-evil, even in broad daylight.

Siegrid reached up and cracked open the visor just enough to let the young apprentice see that she winked at her. Lowering it again, she moved the lance over so the ribbon could be accepted.

The spectators all clapped and cheered as Guthren took the black-and-bronze ribbon off the tip of the lance and attached it to her simple, blue dress. She wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around Lady Siegrid and give her a big hug, but the black armor was so wide she would never have been able to reach around it - and besides, all the hard plates would only have thumped her over the head if she had tried.

A sudden commotion around them proved to be the squires and knaves from the Holsteinian team cheering just as wildly as the spectators. Before Guthren knew what had happened, she and Lady Siegrid had been whisked away into the awning used for preparing the horses. In a matter of moments, Siegrid's armor was removed piece by piece until she stood in a black, tunic-like undershirt. Sweat poured off her glistening body that had turned black and blue from the hard knocks she had received in the jousting and the close combat, but there was little time to do anything about it, or even to get herself wiped down.

A second Black Knight wearing the full, shiny-black suit of armor hurried back out onto the jousting arena to continue to reap the applause from the spectators. The alternative Knight soon removed his helmet to reveal his handsome, proper-masculine, bearded face as he crossed over to the awning where the queen and her advisors sat. Kneeling, he accepted the spoils of victory in the shape of a laurel wreath.

"Wait a moment…" Guthren said in a dark growl that surprised even herself. Turning around, she stared at Lady Siegrid who had just done up the buttons of her black leather jacket common to all the squires. Siegrid's face was flushed, and her hitherto neat hair was disheveled and lumped together by sweat.

Guthren turned back to stare at the bare-headed, bearded Black Knight who continued to strut around the sandy tiltyard with his laurel wreath. "Wait a moment," she said again as she put her hands on her hips. "Who, pray tell, is that man masquerading as you?"

"That, my dear Lady Guthren," Siegrid said, finally finding the time to wipe off her sweaty face and neck with a rag, "is the man I was masquerading as. My esteemed brother, Lord Maximilian. The victor of the Saint Valentina's Day tournament. The true Black Knight."

"The true knight, you say?  Not from my vantage point, Lady Siegrid!  Oh… why… this is… preposterous!"

"Perhaps so. It is also the best solution for all involved. Come," Siegrid said and put a warm, damp hand on Guthren's elbow, "you must be seen with the Black Knight. After all, he chose you as the fairest lady of the tournament."

"He did not!  You did!  And I thank you…"

"Oh, you are most welcome. I would be a liar if I said it was not true. You are the fairest lady here by far," Siegrid said with a smile. "Please, do not worry about any of the obligations you shall have over the course of the year. They are merely ceremonial in nature save for your presence at the grand banquet tonight in the Knights' Hall. I promise there is no kissing involved at any time. Unless you wish to, of course."

Guthren had already made a face at the thought of kissing the bearded Black Knight when it dawned on her that the simple statement could be interpreted in a different way. She turned back to Lady Siegrid who wore a beaming smile. "Oh," was all she could think of saying.

When a few moments went by with no reaction, Siegrid shrugged and made to move away. "But of course, if you do not wish to…" she said; then she found herself held back by a delicate hand that grabbed hold of her black leathers.

"I wish to… but not here," Guthren said quietly, looking at the many knaves who were busy cleaning the weapons used in the match. Not too far from the two women, several groomsmen were tending to the horses used in the jousts, and others again were already beginning to pack up so it wouldn't turn into a late night for the team.

Nodding, Siegrid took Guthren by the arm and led her out of the crowded awning. The two women walked for a short while to get clear of the cheering spectators. On their way, Guthren was greeted by several who wanted to congratulate her on being chosen as the fairest maiden of the Saint Valentina's Day tournament, and she replied by smiling so broadly her teeth were showing.

They finally reached a secluded spot that saw no other activity than that brought by their own thumping hearts. The smiles turned shy as they moved closer to each other. Guthren's eyes slipped shut as she stood up on tip-toes to ease the bruised Lady Siegrid's path to her, but before their lips could touch, her conscience took over and made her back away.

Siegrid furrowed her brow at the unexpected development.

"Lady Siegrid," Guthren said, clutching her hands in front of her bosom, "I cannot go ahead with this sweet encounter without begging thee for pardon once more for the terrible, terrible plight I put you through the day before yesterday. I have never been so ashamed of myself, you must believe me when I say that."

"Of course I believe you. And I hope you believe me when I say it does not matter anymore, Lady Guthren," Siegrid said with a smile that turned distant. "At first, I was disappointed and upset… and even angry, I will readily admit to that… but I forgave you even before nightfall. By then, you had already commenced your confinement to your chamber so I was unable to communicate my change of heart to you."


"So you see, if you wish to kiss me, nothing stands between us."

The statement was the cause of another shy glance by Guthren. Somewhere back at the main courtyard, the spectators let out another loud cheer, and it seemed it was the impetus Guthren needed to close the distance between herself and the taller, leather-clad woman in general - and her lips in particular.

When they kissed, it was as sweet as Guthren had hoped it would be. Sweet and warm. Lengthy, too. When it ended, they stayed close so they could share the same space while gazing into each other's eyes. "That," Guthren said, licking her lips to absorb all traces of her kissing partner's taste, "was as wonderful as I had dreamt it would be. Wonderful… just wonderful. And beautiful."

"It warms my heart to hear it. And you, my dear Lady Guthren, are the beautiful one among us… after all, were you not chosen as the fairest lady of the tournament?  Alas, I fear we must soon be on our way back to the courtyard. The Black Knight must be wondering where his Lady is."


"On the other hand, I am sure His Lordship can wait for another few moments. I, my dear, cannot," Siegrid husked before she leaned back down to continue where her lips had left off moments earlier.

Guthren barely had time to breathe before her senses were taken over by the sweet onslaught. She let out a short moan into the warm mouth that claimed her own. Sometimes, magic wands and love spells could not compete with the real magic that could blossom between two people - and especially not on Saint Valentina's Day. After all, she was the patron saint of all romantic couples everywhere…




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