Amon looked at the elaborate feast spread out on the blanket. He had asked for a simple picnic basket of bread, fruit and cheese to be packed, and was surprised to find the sumptuous delicacies now spread before him. He supposed his parents just wanted to make sure that Lady Roslin was properly impressed. He looked at the pretty young woman sitting across from him and thought how lucky he was. Her hair was the color of wheat, and it cascaded down around her hips. Her eyes were of the palest green he had ever seen, with tiny flecks of gold, making them appear to change from green to gold, like cat's eyes.
"Some wine?" he asked, holding the bottle up for her to see.
"Please," Roslin said, as she held her glass out. Remembering her father's instructions, she smiled at the raven-haired young man who was trying so hard to impress her. "Smile and be pleasant Roslin," he had said, "and remember it is your duty to please him." Her father had selected Amon as her future husband, and she had been sent to stay with her maternal grandfather, Governor Gage of Frama, so they could become acquainted before the wedding. He seemed nice enough; at least he didn't treat her like she was just an unimportant woman like her father and brother Lon at home did. Of course it did help that her father, Lord Athol, was the Sovereign of the fifteen city-states of Ryshta. Amon would be on his best behavior until after the wedding, when the pretty little blonde would belong to him.
Roslin was to have been wed at the tender age of seventeen, but her mother had become ill, and she had begged her father to let her stay by her mother's side through the illness. He had reluctantly consented, and Roslin had watched her mother waste away for three years. Now, at twenty, she would finally marry.
The morning had been pleasant enough, starting with a carriage ride through the lovely countryside to introduce her to her new home. They had stopped to picnic under a sweet smelling honey locust tree. The sight of smoke rising in the distance interrupted the meal, and Amon sought higher ground in order to identify what might be burning. To his dismay, he saw that the smoke was coming from the city of Frama itself. Hurriedly, they packed the carriage and started for home. As they drew closer, it became apparent by the shouts and screaming that a battle was raging. Amon hid Roslin in the underbrush on the hill overlooking the city, and ran to help defend his home. From her hiding place, Roslin watched in horror as the attackers swarmed through the city, laying waste to everything in sight. For the marauders victory was swift, and their cheers could be heard as they marched away from Frama.
Roslin slipped from her hiding place and ran down the hill into the city. The grounds were littered with the dead and dying, and the sight and smell of the carnage caused the young woman to drop to her knees, retching until she though she would die. The streets were filled with the sight of women clutching the bodies of their dead men and the sounds of wailing women and children filled the night air.
Roslin made her way to the governor's home, only to find her grandfather lying in a crumpled heap in front of the house. Hearing her name called, she turned to the sound. Amon lay in the shadows on the far side of the yard. Running to him, she sat and pulled his bleeding head into her lap.
"I tried," was all he said, as she watched him struggle for breath.
"I know," she answered, trying to blink back the tears. "Don't try to talk, just rest." Franticly she looked around for someone who could help, but saw only the dead. Looking back into his face, she realized he was already gone. No one could help him now. She gently lifted his head off her lap, and placed it on the ground. New tears started down her face. Not for the loss of loved one's, for in truth, everyone here in Frama were strangers to her, even Grandfather Gage was a stranger. Her brothers had traveled many times to Frama to visit with him at his request, but Roslin was a female, and only useful when it came time to marry her off. No, Roslin did not weep for loss of loved ones; she wept at the horror of the situation. There was nothing for her here now, and her only thought was to try to get home and let her father know what had happened. She knew that Dairus, the capital city of Ryshta was to the west, and she started walking, not wanting to linger another moment in this devastation.
The evening chill had set in and it began to drizzle as the young woman walked out of the city. It seemed to Roslin that she had traveled for miles when at last she saw a cottage in the distance. Not knowing if they would be friend or foe, she debated whether to approach it or not. The cold and hunger got the best of her, and she decided to risk asking for help. No light shone through the windows, but that could be attributed to the late hour. They could be sleeping, unaware of the carnage that had gone on just a few miles away. When she got closer, she noticed that the door was open. Something was not right, and she slipped quietly to the window and peered inside.
The house appeared to be empty, and things were scattered around as if the occupants had made a hasty exit. She went inside, and although it was not particularly warm, at least it was dry. Looking at the cold hearth, Roslin wished she knew how to start a fire. She had never needed to know how to do such things; someone had always done them for her. She had been raised in the sheltered world of the palace grounds of the Sovereign, and had never been allowed out to mingle with, or be contaminated by, the slave riffraff, as her father called them. Her slaves were not even allowed to speak to her except to ask how they might serve her. Continuing to check the small house, she found that the occupants had taken the entire cache of foodstuffs with them. Exhausted, she curled up on a bare mattress, and went to sleep.
Morning found the young woman feeling more alone then ever. She was still cold and hungry, but looking down at her blood covered clothing, she decided the first thing she needed was a bath. She had seen clothes hanging on the line last night, so at least she would have something clean to put on. As she gathered the garments, she wondered why they had been left behind, and decided the occupants must have missed them in their haste to leave. She found a well outside and drew out a bucket of water. The water was ice cold, but she stripped and washed anyway. She could not abide the filth any longer. As she dressed, the simple coarse garments chaffed her skin, which had known only the smooth softness of silks and satins.
As the day progressed, Roslin continued her westward trek. The pain in her feet overshadowed the hunger pains in her empty stomach. Her feet had never hurt like this before; of course she had never walked for miles and miles before either. She sat and pulled off her shoes with effort, and was shocked at what she saw. The skin on her heels and toes had been rubbed away, and the area was raw and bleeding. Anger flooded through her, and she threw her shoes, cursing the murdering barbarians who had placed her in this position. Hugging her knees up to her chest, she let the frustration flow out of her body with tears. "Pull yourself together," she finally told herself. "You'll never get home sitting here crying like an idiot." Reluctantly, she forced herself to get up and start walking again.
It had been four days since she had had something to eat, and three without any measurable amount of water. This morning she had discovered that licking the leaves of bushes and the long grasses before the sun evaporated the moisture helped. It was not much, but at least it eased the awful dryness in her mouth. Walking under these conditions was taking its toll, and she found she had to stop frequently. Her belly ached for want of nourishment, and she felt weak and lightheaded. The pain in her feet was constant now, as the bottom of her feet were as raw as the rest, and she cursed herself for leaving her shoes behind. She couldn't stop though. To stop meant death, and she wasn't ready to give up yet.
Roslin reached the top of a small rise and found she could go no farther. She needed to rest for a while, and looked around for a place to sit. Her eyes came to rest on a thicket that was covered with berries so deep a shade of purple they were almost black. Suddenly she had the energy to move again, and she ran toward the first meal she had had in days. They were not the best tasting berries she had ever eaten. They were sweet, but also had a bitter tang. The bitter taste did not deter the young woman; to Roslin, they were ambrosia.
After Roslin had eaten her fill, she pulled up the bottom of her shirt to make a pocket to hold berries. Soon she had stripped the bush of its burden, and her pocket was overflowing. She knew that if she was careful and did not overdo like she had just done, the berries would last for three or four days. Feeling very pleased with herself, she got her bearings and again started walking westward. As she reached the bottom of the hill, she started to feel a cramping in her gut. Within moments, the pain dropped her to her knees in agony. Curling up on the ground, she clutched her stomach and groaned.
As Roslin lay there in the dirt wishing she would just die and get it over with, she heard the sound of many footsteps. She didn't even care if it was the marauders, hoping they would kill her and put her out of her misery. Roslin watched the group of perhaps twenty men crest the hill and start down towards her. Although there were only a few of them, she realized it was the marauders. She recognized a tall man immediately as the one she had seen leading the massacre at Frama. He walked to where she was and knelt down, picking up one of the spilled berries.
"Did you eat these?" The tall man asked, holding it up for her to see.
All the young woman could do was nod and groan.
Pulling her over to him, the tall man turned her on her side and stuck his fingers down her throat, causing her to gag and retch violently. Picking her up, he started back up the hill.
"You men go
on ahead and round up the slaves and bring them back here. I'll be back
as soon as I can. I need to get her back to camp so my mother can treat
her or she won't last long."
Mercifully, Roslin drifted into unconsciousness for the walk back to camp, and was aware of nothing until she felt firm slaps to her face. She fought to slip back into the black void that took away the pain that had now spread to her head as well as her stomach. The slaps came again, this time harder, and she started awake. She saw an older woman with salt and pepper hair leaning over her.
"I need you to drink this, child," the woman said as she lifted a cup to her lips.
The odor that wafted up from the cup was awful, and she pushed it away.
The woman put down the cup and took Roslin's face in her hands. "Listen carefully, child. The berries you ate were poisonous, and I need to purge them from your stomach. This infusion will make sure there is nothing left in your stomach. Do you understand, child? I'm trying to keep you alive." She reached for the cup again and brought it to the young woman's mouth, and this time Roslin drank. Almost immediately the retching started and the old woman gave her a bucket to use. She heaved until she thought her guts themselves would come out.
When the retching finally ended, the old woman brought a cup again to her lips. Roslin no longer had the strength to push it away. "PleaseŠno more," she whispered.
"This one is soothing, child. It will calm down the cramps in your belly. Sip it slowly and I promise it will help."
The warm liquid did soothe her throat that had become raw from vomiting, and the cramping was beginning to ease up a little. Roslin was starting to slip into the darkness again when the voice called her back.
"Scoot down so you can hang your legs over the end of the cot, child. We need to take care of these feet."
Roslin screamed when her feet hit the bucket of hot water, and tried to pull them out. She didn't have the strength to win and the old woman held them in place.
"I know the salt water burns, but these feet are infected. This will help."
Tears streamed down Roslin's cheeks, but she stopped fighting. She was grateful when the blackness engulfed her again in its soothing embrace.
The full moon shone brightly in the small clearing at the bottom of the hill. Brice could hear questioning voices drifting his way as his long strides carried him out of the shadows. The response of the slaves, upon casting eyes on him was always the same. First shock, and then exuberance that the chosen one had finally come. The prophecy passed down through the generations said that the chosen one would come to lead them to freedom. It was said that he was tall as the trees, with eyes the color of sapphires. This had to be him. With most of the men standing five foot nine or ten inches, a six-foot man was considered tall. No one had ever seen a man as tall as Brice, whose looming six-foot-three-inch stature dwarfed all those around him.
Stepping into the center of the clearing, he raised his hands for quiet, and a hush fell over the expectant crowd. "My friends, I ask that you move quickly and quietly to your homes and retrieve your families. Bring them, and all the foodstuff you can carry, and my men will lead you to the safety of our camp. At first light I will lead my army against the Ryshtans. Any of you who are willing and able are welcome to join us."
word he turned and strode back up the hill and out of sight, as the speechless
slaves tried to comprehend that this was happening so fast.
Roslin awoke and slowly opened her eyes to take in her surroundings, and found herself lying on a cot in a large tent. How did I get here?she thought, puzzled that she could not remember. The sun coming through the open door flap to the tent told her it was well past mid-day. She felt ill, her stomach was sore and her head ached, but the intensity of pain she remembered from the previous day was no longer there. Closing her eyes again, she lay still, her mind trying to pull recent events back into clarity. The last clear memory she had was dropping to the ground with a pain in her belly so great that she thought she would die, had in fact wished for death to stop the agony. She tried to sit up, but the room started to spin, and she dropped back down to the cot closing her eyes, waiting for it to stop. She turned her head to the sound of footsteps, and saw a stout woman of middle years, with smiling blue eyes and salt and pepper hair, walking towards her.
"Well, child, you made it through the night. The worst is over," the woman said kneeling beside the cot. She carried a mug with her and raised it for Roslin to see. "I've brought you some broth." She slipped her free hand under the young blonde's shoulders and lifted her a little so she could drink. Roslin gratefully accepted the broth as the woman lifted the mug to her mouth. "My name is Shea, child. What do people call you?" the woman asked as Roslin finished the broth and lay back down.
"You get some rest Roslin, and I'll be back to check on you a little later." The woman smiled warmly and patted her hand.
Roslin watched the woman rise and walk to the tent flap. "How did I get here?" she asked, before Shea could make her exit.
"My son Brice found you and brought you to me to tend," Shea said, turning once again to the young woman. "It's good that he found you when he did; mopoo berries work quickly." With that she turned and was gone.
As Roslin started to doze off again, a small voice broke through the haze, and she opened her eyes to see a small girl, perhaps four or five years old. She was a beautiful child with soft hazel eyes; a mop of auburn curls framed her sweet face.
"My grandma said I shouldn't bother you," the girl said, reaching out to touch her cheek. "When I don't feel good, my papa tells me a story. Would you like me to tell you a story?" she asked with a smile.
Roslin really didn't feel like staying awake to listen to the girl. "Perhaps later," she said.
The smile disappeared from the elfin face, and the little girl turned as if to go. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bother you."
"You know, you could be right, a story might make me feel better," the young woman said, patting the edge of the cot. "What's your name?" she asked, as the girl climbed up and sat down, the smile returning to her face.
Roslin listened as the girl talked. She liked the child. There was something familiar about her, but she just couldn't place it. When the story ended, Cadie looked at her expectantly. "Thank you Cadie, I do feel a little better."
The little girl grinned from ear to ear. "Do you want me to tell you another?" she asked, pleased with herself for making the stranger feel better.
"I would love one later Cadie, but right now I think I need to sleep." She reached up and patted the girl's cheek.
"Alright, I'll come back later." Cadie reached down and felt Roslin's forehead and cheek the way she had seen her grandmother do when the woman slept. She didn't know why Gram had done it, but it made her feel important to pretend she did. It felt good to know that she had been able to make the lady feel better. "I'll take good care of you," she said, as she climbed down from the cot.
"I know you
will." The little girl was so darn cute that Roslin had to smile. She watched
Cadie leave, and it suddenly came to her what was familiar about the child.
Her smile was so much like her younger brother Kyle's. It was more than
that, something in the eyes too. She drifted off to sleep with a smile
on her face, thinking about the sweet child.
When Roslin awoke again in the early evening, her bladder told her it was time to be emptied. Sitting up she noted that the dizziness had eased, along with the headache. She felt weak and shaky but otherwise much better. She swung her legs over the edge of the cot, and noticed for the first time that her feet were bandaged. She let them touch the ground, and was relieved to find that although they still hurt, the padding on her feet helped a lot. Slowly she made her way to the door, and turned to walk toward the privacy of the brush surrounding the campsite.
As Roslin returned
to the clearing, she heard the sound of many horses. Looking in the direction
of the sound, she was horrified to see a large group of men riding into
camp led by the same tall man she had seen at Frama. He had blood spattered
all over him, and she wondered how many innocent lives he had taken today.
He lifted his sword and she heard him shout, "Caiman has been liberated."
The cheer that sounded around her was deafening, and she covered her ears.
Panic gripped her as she realized that she was in the camp of the marauders
who had killed her grandfather. She felt a hand on her shoulder and shrank
away from it.
Shea watched her young charge as she returned to the clearing, and saw the terror plainly written on her face. Walking over she placed her hand on Roslin's shoulder. "It's all right child, we won. No harm will come to you." She felt the young woman pull away from her until their eyes met and the panic in her face eased some. "Come on, let's get you back to bed. I'm going to have my hands full with our wounded; I don't need to be worrying about you, too."
Roslin allowed herself to be led back into the tent and put to bed. She realized that for some reason these people believed her to be one of them. That explained why they were taking care of her. She was grateful that Shea had not tried to bathe her or it would have been obvious to them that she was Ryshtan. Her skin was unblemished by the brand that all slaves carried. Her father had explained to her long ago that slaves would die, like any beast of burden, without proper guidance and a strong hand. They could not take care of the simplest tasks without being forced to do them. He also explained that the brand was to prevent a slave from running away and pretending to be Ryshtan in another city. All strangers claiming to be Ryshtan, entering any city in Ryshta had to have their arm inspected for the brand.
As Roslin lay on the cot she wondered at her fate. She had to let the barbarians believe she was one of them, lest she suffer the same fate as Grandfather Gage. When her feet were healed, and she was stronger, she would try to escape; but for now she had no choice but to stay and hope that her true identity was not discovered. A sweet little voice brought her out of her musings.
"I brought you some thick soup and bread," Cadie said, holding a bowl out to her new friend.
Roslin looked over to see the girl with a bowl in one hand, and a hunk of bread in the other. She sat up and accepted the food. "Thank you," she said, smiling at the child.
Cadie sat beside Roslin and watched her eat. The woman's smile had faded, and she ate in silence. Cadie had noticed that her friend looked upset when her grandmother brought her back to the tent and decided the sight of wounded men had been the cause. "My papa says that someday we will all live in real houses and not have to travel around fighting like this anymore." She watched to see if this news would cheer her friend up.
Roslin turned to the child and asked, "Would you like that Cadie?"
"Oh, yes! Papa said we will have a flower garden because my Mama loved them so."
"What happened to your mother Cadie?"
"She died when I was a wee babe. I don't remember her, but I know all about her. My Papa tells me about her all the time. He said she was beautiful and she loved me very much."
Roslin felt sorry for this little girl, losing her mother and being raised by this traveling army of barbarians. "I'm sure she loved you, and I'll bet you grow up to be just as beautiful as she was."
The two of them spent the rest of the evening talking, and Roslin let Cadie tell her another story. The girl was so open and friendly, Roslin couldn't help liking her.
The wounded had finally all been seen to, and Brice sat by the fire to relax and get a bite to eat before retiring for the night. He had cleaned the blood off his body, and finally felt human again. It had been a long day and he was tired. As he ate, he thought back over the day and was grateful that his casualties had been few. They would stay here a few days to give the wounded a chance for some rest and then move on toward their final destination. He needed his army well rested and in top shape to defeat the Sovereign. Dairus, the capital of Ryshta, was the largest of the fifteen city-states, and was by far the best armed. Brice had saved Dairus for last, letting his army grow with each city he liberated. Now he was ready to face the Sovereign with a force that he believed could win. They had surprise on their side, which was another advantage. They had started at the farthest edge of Ryshta, and worked their way toward the capital. It had been a hard fought campaign, but with the army growing steadily with each conquest, each victory was easier than the last. In just a few short months, they had done what the elders' back home in Dairus had said was impossible. The final victory was in sight, and he could taste it.
Standing and stretching, Brice made his way toward the tent he shared with his family. As he approached, he heard the sounds of laughter and talking, and stopped to listen. His daughter Cadie was talking to the silly woman who tried to kill herself with mopoo berries. Apparently she was feeling much better tonight. It was such a joy to hear the happy sounds after a day like today. He could hear that Cadie was telling one of her stories, and receiving much praise from the stranger. He decided he liked this woman, who was taking such pains to be kind to his daughter. Lifting the tent flap, he walked inside. Cadie was sitting on the woman's lap, and the woman had the most radiant smile on her face. She really is a beautiful woman, he thought to himself. The only time he had really looked at the woman her face had been so twisted in pain that he hadn't noticed her beauty at all.
"Papa," Cadie shouted, running to him and throwing herself into his arms.
"Mmm, you give the best hugs," Brice said, as her small arms wrapped around his neck and squeezed tightly. He kissed the top of her head, then looked to the woman. "I'm Brice," he said extending his hand to her. "Thank you for being so kind to my daughter."
Roslin took his hand. Up close, it was hard to imagine this smiling man capable of the carnage she had witnessed back at Frama. She had never seen a man so pleasing to the eye before; he truly was beautiful. "My name is Roslin, and it was my pleasure. You have a charming little girl; I enjoyed spending time with her. She's been taking good care of me."
Cadie fairly beamed at the compliment.
"I really should be the one thanking you. I'm told you're the one who saved my life," Roslin continued, totally drawn into those incredible blue eyes. She had never felt this strong an attraction toward anyone, and the fact that it was directed at the leader of these barbarians, startled her.
Repeating the young woman's sentiments, Brice said, "The pleasure was all mine." Roslin's smile was captivating, and he couldn't help smiling back. Still holding her hand, Brice lifted it to his lips gently kissing her knuckles, pleased that she didn't pull the hand away.
Shea, who had been lying on her cot, decided to remind Brice of the late hour. "Morning comes early Brice. I think it's time Cadie went to bed."
"Please tell me a story before I go to sleep," Cadie begged, hugging her father's neck tightly.
Shea noticed a rip in the back of Brice's shirt, and the red torn skin beneath. She shook her head. Brice makes sure everyone else is taken care of and ignores himself. "You'll have to get your story tomorrow night, Cadie. I need to get your papa's wounds dressed." She ushered the child to her cot, and put her to bed.
"I'm all right Mother, it's just a scratch."
"Scratch or not, it needs to be cleaned and dressed." She led Brice around the privacy screen that separated his sleeping area from the rest of the tent. "Now get that shirt off so I can take a look at you."
"Yes ma'am," he said, pulling the shirt gingerly over his head to display a shallow gash about two inches long on his lower back, just above his waist.
look too bad," Shea admitted, as she cleaned and dressed the wound. Noting
that the muscles in Brice's shoulders were tight and knotted, she started
working them with her fingers, kneading and rubbing until she felt them
start to loosen. She looked at the strong muscular back, and marveled that
her tiny newborn babe could have developed so.
"It's a girl," Eamon said, holding up the screaming infant for her mother to see. After four healthy boys, a girl would now bless their home. He placed the babe on her mother's stomach while he tied off the cord and delivered the afterbirth. It was a relatively quick and easy delivery even though the child was quite large, and he attributed it to the fact that Shea had done this so many times before.
"What a lovely big girl you are," he said lifting the infant and placing her in a warm cleansing bath. The warm water seemed to soothe her, and she quieted immediately. He was thankful that the child had chosen to make her appearance at night so he was able to be here to help with the birth.
While her husband cleaned her new daughter, Shea took herself to her own bath. She was eager to be clean so she could relax and feed this newest addition to her family.
As Shea settled herself back into bed, Eamon placed the infant at her breast. The little one immediately started to nuzzle and search for her mother's nipple, latching onto it with great vigor. "Ah, she has an appetite to match her size," she said, laughing.
and watched his new daughter suckle contentedly at her mother's breast.
It would not be an easy life for her he knew. Girls were taken away at
an early age to be bed slaves. They were used as such until they were past
prime, then traded for a younger slave and discarded as if they were a
piece of trash. His Shea had been taken to the master's bed at the tender
age of fourteen, with only periodic visits home until she was returned
to the village at eighteen. The master had used her to satisfy any deviant
need he thought too vulgar for his wife to endure, and also to warm the
bed of any important visitor. She had borne three of his babies, only to
have them ripped from her arms at birth, and murdered before her eyes.
Ryshtans did not allow a child of mixed blood to live. Such an impure child
was almost considered blasphemy. They thought themselves the chosen people
of God, and all other creatures, man or beast were beneath them. Eamon
was grateful that most of his children were boys and were spared this type
of sorrow and humiliation. Slaves did all manual labor in Ryshta. Farming,
building, and any chores requiring greater body strength were man's work.
Cleaning, cooking, needlework, and of course servicing the Ryshtan men
were considered woman's work.
child of Eamon and Shea was named Brice and she romped with her older brothers
as she grew, unaware of the fate that awaited her. She grew strong, and
as she approached the fifth anniversary of her birth she was as tall as
the youngest of her brothers who was two years her senior.
Eamon walked into the great hall. Master Gage, the governor of Frama, had sent for him and he wondered if he, or one of his sons, had done something to displease him. He and his family had been treated better than most of the slaves because of his way of coaxing even the most stubborn of horses into an exquisitely trained mount. The sport of horse racing was the favorite pastime of the men of Ryshta, and Eamon was Gage's master-trainer and breeder. Master Gage was the highest ranking of the Ryshtan governors, second only to the Sovereign, Lord Galen. The sovereignty of Lord Galen was divided up amongst fifteen governors, but Gage had the Sovereign's ear and his daughter had been chosen to wed Lord Athol, the sovereign's oldest son. This was the greatest honor imaginable, and his grandson would one day rule the land.
Eamon approached the dais and knelt before Master Gage. He hated the man and detested groveling before him, but he had a family to take care of and could not risk the wrath of the loathsome ruler. "I am here to serve you, Master Gage. What do you desire?"
"I have been known throughout the Sovereignty of Ryshta as the breeder of the finest horses in the land. Lord Galen has requested horses, as well as my best trainer as part of my daughter's dowry. You and your family are to ready yourselves and five mares that carry the seed of my stallion, Windsong. You leave in five days time for the palace of the Sovereign."
"As you wish Master Gage. It will be done."
back toward his home with a heavy heart. His people were well aware of
the Sovereign's legendary brutality. Half the girls taken to his bed died
before they could be returned to their families, and the ones that did
live told tales of such horror that many of the slaves mercifully killed
their girl babies at birth to spare them. Fortunately his little girl Brice
had not yet reached her fifth year, and therefore had not been counted
as a living child. The mortality rate among infants was such that no child
was counted until it reached the age of five. The Sovereign would be unaware
of her until then, but it would not be long before she was counted and
put on the list of girls waiting to come of age to service the Ryshtan
men. The Sovereign of course would have his choice, and Eamon wished, not
for the first time, that Brice had been born a plain child that would blend
in with the other girls. Alas it was apparent, even at this tender age,
that like her mother before her, she would be a great beauty. Perhaps they
could leave her here to be raised by another family. It was no guarantee
that she would never reach the Sovereign's bed, but the chance would be
Shea was anxiously waiting Eamon's return. Master Gage did not often call for a personal audience with one of his slaves. Most contact came from the slave bosses who doled out punishment to those who did not please them. She knew something was very wrong when she saw the look on his face as he walked through the door.
"What did he want?" she asked, afraid of the answer she might receive.
"Master Gage has given us to Lord Galen as part of his daughter's dowry. We leave in five days time."
Shea collapsed into a chair as the full impact of the situation hit her. What she had gone through with Master Gage had been a nightmare, but Lord GalenŠshe couldn't let him get his hands on Brice. It was unthinkable. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. "He can't have Brice. I'll kill her myself first."
Eamon knelt and wrapped his arms around his weeping wife. "Shhh, we'll think of something. She hasn't been counted yet."
Shea's face brightened, "That's rightŠshe hasn't been counted yet. Lord Galen doesn't know we have a girl. We'll register her as a boy."
"We can't do that, they'll find out."
"NoŠthey won't," the distraught woman countered. "With her rough and tumble attitude, everyone always assumes she's a boy until we correct them. She never wants to play little girl games; she's always rough-housing with the boys."
"That's because she has only brothers, they taught her to behave that way. What happens when she grows up and becomes a woman? You really think they won't notice?"
Shea took his hands, her tone serious. " She's a big strong girlŠshe can pass." She turned away and sat at the table, clenching her hands together. "Brice is not like other little girls. I have known that for some time now. I believe she knows it too."
"Do you understand what that would mean? Once she's registered, she would have to live her life as a man. There would be no going back unless the deception is uncovered, at which time we would probably all be executed."
"It will be years before there is even a chance they could find out, " Shea pleaded. "No one there knows us or knows we have a daughter. It can work." She broke down sobbing again. "I can't let him have herŠI just can't."
Eamon nodded his head; it was the only way to safeguard his daughter. It would be done.
Eamon walked to the door of the children's room, pausing a moment at the door to contemplate what he was about to ask of them. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and strode inside, letting his eyes fall on his daughter for the last time. He had to think of Brice as a boy, and treat her as such, if he hoped to succeed at this desperate plan. Sitting on the edge of her bed, he took Brice's hand, smiling down on her beautiful face. "I just returned from an audience with Master Gage," he said, letting his eyes fall in turn on each of his children. "He informed me that we have been given to Lord Galen of Dairus, and we leave in five days time."
The children knew not to argue with a decision made by the master, and sadness, tinged with excitement, fell over them at the thought of leaving all they knew behind for a glimpse of the unknown.
"This is going to be hard on all of us," Eamon continued, looking back at Brice and stroking the child's head. "But it will be especially hard on you, little one. When we get there, you are going to have to pretend to be a boy." He looked to his sons and continued. "It is important that you refer to Brice as your brother, for to do anything else could cause great harm to our family, and she could be taken away from us."
Brice looked at her father, confusion clear on her face. Why would he think this would be hard for her? She already considered herself more like her brothers than the girls she knew. "Don't worry Papa, I won't have to pretend. I feel like I'm closer to a boy than a girl anyway." She smiled to reassure him. "I can be a boy for you."
the child into his arms and held her tightly as relief spread through his
body. Shea had been correct when she said that she believed that Brice
realized she was different from the other girls. Perhaps this deception
would not be as difficult as he had first imagined.
passed and the fates smiled on Brice. At fifteen, she was the tallest in
the village, male or female. She exercised her body relentlessly and it
became well muscled with small breasts that were easily concealed. Although
she had an uncommonly beautiful face, because of her masculine stride and
tall stature, no one so far had questioned her gender. Her dark brown hair
fell just below her ears, and her eyes of purest blue, captivated any they
fell upon. She worked alongside her father from the age of ten, and her
gentle, yet firm way of handling the horses proved most successful. In
fact it had been Brice, and not one of her older brothers, that was chosen
to replace her father as the master horse trainer when it was time for
him to step down. Her oldest brother Glen was trained to be an iron-smith,
and Rylan had been put to work as a carpenter. The youngest brothers, Dover
and Collin, were sent to the out lying farmlands to till the soil.
Shea was brought out of her musings by her daughter's voice.
"Are you all right, Mother?" Brice asked, as she looked back over her shoulder to see a pained, far away look in her mother's eyes.
"I'm fine," Shea said, patting Brice's shoulder. "Just tired I guess."
face her mother, Brice took Shea's hands and squeezed gently. "We'll be
staying here for a few days. You'll be able to get some rest. Now go on
to bed, I'm fine. Thank you." She watched Shea leave, then lay down, her
thoughts going back to the beautiful young woman on the other side of the
Roslin also lay awake, unable to stop thinking about Brice, and her unexpected attraction to the man. It was hard to reconcile this man whose eyes shone with such love when he looked at Cadie, with the memories she had of the devastation at Frama.
Brice still thinking about the beautiful young woman recovering in her
tent. She hadn't felt this kind of attraction for anyone since Elsbeth,
and she couldn't help feeling she was being disloyal to her lost love.
When Brice had looked into the young woman's eyes last night, she got the
feeling that the attraction was mutual. When she was with Roslin the attraction
had been so strong. But now, in the light of day she could see things more
clearly. Brice pushed thoughts of the beautiful young stranger away. This
is absurd, she thought, Roslin is just another woman in camp, nothing
more. I have no reason to feel this guilt. Throwing back her cover,
she got up and dressed quickly, needing to distance herself from the woman
sleeping just a few feet away. Stepping from behind the screen, she noted
that Shea was already up. Good. Perhaps she has already heated water
for tea, she thought as she exited the tent.
Shea watched her troubled daughter as she approached. She could read Brice's face easily, and could see that something was bothering her. Handing her a steaming cup, she asked, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
"What?" Brice answered, puzzled at the question.
"I know something is troubling you. PleaseŠ let me help." Shea reached out and patted her daughter's cheek gently.
Brice looked around the campsite. It was early, they were alone, and she did need someone to talk to. Accepting the proffered cup, she sat, staring into the fire. "It's silly really." Brice looked up into her mother's concerned eyes. "I find myself drawn to Roslin, and IŠIt scares me.
"Because of what happened with Elsbeth?"
Brice nodded, her gaze returning to the fire. "I hardly know the woman, yet I feel drawn toward her, and I got the feeling last night that she was attracted to me as well." Brice put down her cup and turned to her mother and took both of her hands into her own. "I loved Elsbeth, Mother, and I lost her. I don't know if I could go through that again."
Shea lifted her hands and cupped Brice's face. "So you think it's better to live a life of loneliness? To never allow yourself to love, or be loved?"
"No, of course not. But this is different."
"Why is it different?"
Brice looked back into the fire. "I don't know, it just is. I feel disloyal."
"Listen to me, Brice. If there's one thing you're not, it's disloyal. I watched you put up that wall when she left you, and it broke my heart. Five years is long enough to mourn. If someone has come along that might reach into your heart again, then I believe you should give yourself permission to get to know her, without feeling disloyal. Just enjoy getting to know her, and don't rush things. You have plenty of time."
Brice smiled. "You always seem to know what to say."
"I'm your mother, and I love you."
her arms around Shea, pulling her close. "I love you too."
Camp was starting to come alive as people began their morning chores. Brice saw Roslin and Cadie leave the tent, and watched Roslin as she slowly limped into the brush beyond camp for her morning visit. She wondered how many miles the young woman had walked to do that kind of damage to her feet. Hurriedly, Brice walked to the edge of the brush and waited for Roslin to emerge. When she did, Brice picked her up to carry her back to the tent. "You need to keep off these feet as much as possible for a few days," she said to the puzzled young woman. "If I'm around, you just call me and I'll carry you." She smiled shyly at the young woman.
Roslin was a little flustered at being held in the strong arms of the man she had found herself very attracted to. "I don't want to be a burden," she answered, a shy smile creeping onto her face as well. Her heart had started beating wildly, and she wondered again at being attracted to a man that she considered a barbarian. But she was, and she couldn't help herself.
"Believe me, you're no burden," the tall woman said, as she placed Roslin gently on her cot. "I haven't eaten yet. Can I bring you something and share the morning meal with you?"
Roslin smiled. "That would be nice, thank you."
Returning the smile, Brice turned and left the tent, leaving a very confused young woman behind.
about how wonderful it felt to be held in Brice's arms, and smiled. She
had watched him with Cadie. He was so loving and gentle with her that she
could almost forget that he, or one of his men, had murdered her grandfather.
Suddenly the smile faded, as the reality of the situation set in. What
are you doing? She asked herself, and pushed back the attraction she
was feeling for the tall man. She thought of him as she saw him that night,
terrifying, with his bloody sword slashing through bodies. He destroyed
Frama. When she was not in such close proximity to Brice, she could
think clearly. She excused her behavior by reminding herself that she had
to be nice to him until she could make her escape. If Brice found out who
she was, he would surely kill her.
Brice returned with two hearty bowls of porridge, accompanied by Cadie, who carried a bowl of her own.
"We came in here to eat with you," the child said, as she sat on the cot beside Roslin.
Cadie always seemed to have a smile on her face, and Roslin couldn't help but respond to it. "I can't think of anyone I would rather eat with," the little blonde said, grinning back at the child.
Brice smiled as she watched Roslin and Cadie chat as they ate. It was clear that her daughter found the young woman as appealing as she did. That was good. She could not imagine letting an attraction, no matter how strong it was, go beyond just an attraction, if Cadie did not like her.
The sounds of children playing outside the tent caught Cadie's attention, and she ran to the door to see what the game was about. "Can I play too?" she called, as she dashed out the door, forgetting her half-eaten porridge.
Brice was both relieved and annoyed at Cadie's quick departure. She wanted to be alone with Roslin, but found herself tongue tied, and couldn't think of anything to say. At least Cadie had kept the conversation going. "My mother told me that you have no memory of my finding you and bringing you here," she finally said, after a few silent moments.
"No, none at all."
"Perhaps it's for the best. You were a very sick young woman."
"Yes, I guess some things are best forgotten." Roslin thought back to Frama, and wished those images could be erased from her mind. Brice was so different here with his family, and he had been so kind to her. She decided to push the image of the other Brice back, and hold on to the Brice that seemed to care for her.
"When I found you, it looked like you had been walking for days. Where had you come from?" Brice asked, thinking again of the young woman's feet.
Roslin thought quickly and decided to avoid talking about her past by simply pretending not to remember anything before wakening in Brice's tent. Shea had already confirmed that she had no memory of him finding her, and this way she would not have to come up with a story she would have to remember correctly, or get caught in a lie. "IŠI can't remember anything before you brought me here." Roslin looked away, afraid he could see in her eyes that she was lying.
"Don't worry, I'm sure it will come back to you," Brice said, trying to reassure the young woman. "And remember, if your past does not come back to you, you still have a lifetime ahead of you to build new memories that I hope I can be a part of."
Roslin looked up into sincere blue eyes, and melted. She couldn't believe what his gaze did to her. "I hope so too," she said, smiling shyly. She had never felt this kind of physical attraction before. She was drawn to Brice, and couldn't seem to help herself.
it was time to again distance herself from the beautiful little blonde.
She had been desperately lonely for so long, that now that she was giving
herself permission to care for the young woman; her body was pushing her
to move too fast. She could feel it happening and was helpless to stop
"Well, I need to check on my men, and see how the wounded are faring," she said, taking Roslin's hand and kissing it. Standing, Brice picked up the bowls and started for the door. "I'll check back on you later, and if you need to go somewhere, send Cadie to fetch me." She smiled down at the young woman, then turned and left.
Brice walked through the large camp toward the area that had been set up for the wounded. She made the rounds, giving praise for a job well done, and encouragement to those with serious injuries. The rebel leader tried to keep her mind on what she was doing, but her thoughts kept returning to the little blonde recovering in her tent. Without even realizing where she was walking, Brice found herself staring at the footprints Roslin had left at the edge of camp this morning as she entered the shelter of the brush to relieve herself. Kneeling and touching the print as a fine rain started to fall, she thought again about Roslin's feet, and decided the young woman needed protection for them as they healed. Quickly, she measured the footprints, knowing that they would soon disappear into the wet ground.
The rain started
coming down in earnest, and the camp was suddenly alive with people scurrying
to shelter themselves. Brice walked to one of the covered supply wagons,
and climbed inside. Rummaging around, she found some scraps of leather,
and some leather cord. This will do nicely, she thought to herself,
a smile spreading across her face. It was not enough leather for a proper
pair of shoes, but would be plenty to make a pair of sandals. Roslin's
feet would be too tender for some time for regular shoes, and sandals would
give her the protection she needed to heal. It had been a long time since
the tall woman had taken the time to sit with her leather tools and work,
and she found it very relaxing watching her creation take shape. Finally
they were done, and Brice inspected her handiwork one more time before
she started off towards her tent to check the fit, and to see if Roslin
approved. Exiting the wagon, she was relieved to see the rain had stopped,
and the ground had already started to dry out. She thought it strange that
she had been so engrossed in her work that she hadn't even noticed.
Brice entered the tent and found Cadie was again entertaining their houseguest. She walked over and knelt in front of the beautiful young woman. "I made you some sandals. Shall we see if they fit?" Brice lifted each bandaged foot, and slipped the shoes on, tying them securely.
Roslin was pleasantly surprised that Brice would take the time to make shoes for her to wear. "They're perfect." She looked over into unbelievably blue eyes, and the close proximity to Brice sent a warm flush through her. "Thank you." She smiled and looked away, needing to distance herself from those eyes that seemed to be calling to her. "Now I won't need you to carry me around."
"I didn't mind. How could I object to having such a beautiful woman in my arms."
Roslin's blush deepened. He's flirting with me again. "Well then perhaps you wouldn't object to carrying me out one more time for a little visit with the bushes before bed time."
Brice scooped Roslin into her arms and stood. "I wouldn't object at all," she said, smiling at the young woman in her arms. Any excuse to hold Roslin was welcome. She carried the little blonde to the edge of the clearing and set her down, but kept her arms around her. It had been so long since she had held a woman in her arms, and her body was reacting strongly. Her heart was starting to pound, and she wished she could make love to the beautiful woman right here and now. Leaning down, she kissed her gently on the lips, pleased that Roslin did not seem to object. When she pulled her closer, and tried to deepen the kiss, she felt the young woman tense, and immediately pulled away. "I'm sorryŠIŠ"
Roslin placed her fingers to Brice's lips to silence her. "Shhh, it's all right ŠI wanted you toŠbut I think we need to slow this down. It's happening too fast." She paused a moment to gather her thoughts. "I need to know that there is more between us than just a physical attraction. I want the passion I feel when I am in your arms, but I want more than that." Roslin searched the blue depths of the rebel leader's eyes, hoping her words of needing commitment would not drive him away. The blue gaze was warm and accepting, and it gave her the courage to go on. "I want to savor every moment when I make love for the first time, and know that the one I love returns those feelings. I hope you can understand."
Brice kissed the fingers that still rested against her lips, and smiled. "I understand, and there's no hurry. We'll take the time we need."
Roslin said, as she turned and walked into the bushes to relieve herself.
When they returned to the tent, Shea was pulling a nightshirt over Cadie's head.
"Off to bed with you now little one," Shea said, as she patted Cadie's little behind.
Cadie looked over to Brice pleadingly. "Did you forget, Papa? You promised to tell me a story tonight."
"I guess I did, didn't I? All right, but just one." Picking her up, she walked over to her cot and lay the child down, pulling the blanket up over her. Sitting on the edge of the cot she asked, "What would you like to hear?"
"Tell me again how you and my mama first knew you loved each other," Cadie answered, stifling a yawn.
you close your eyes, and I'll tell you all about it." Tired eyes closed,
and as Brice began to speak, she brushed a wayward lock of auburn hair
from Cadie's face. Try as she might, the child could not stay awake, and
soon Brice heard the gentle even breathing of sleep. Brice leaned down
and kissed her forehead. "I won't ever let her forget you, Elsbeth," she
whispered, as her mind drifted back again to that time so long ago.
Brice sat keeping watch over the lovely sorrel mare Sabiea. She was due to drop her foal at any time. Her first foal had been found dead the morning after his birth, and they were not sure if he had been stillborn, or if the mare's inexperience had simply caused her to leave him to suffocate. She was taking no chances with this foal, and intended to keep watch until it made its appearance. She glanced over to the sleeping figure of her friend Elsbeth and smiled. They had been friends for years, but of late, Brice found she could not look at her friend without her heart starting to race, and a warmth spreading through her body. They had agreed to take turns with the watch, but the girl looked so peaceful that Brice did not have the heart to waken her. Her hair was of the deepest auburn and framed her face in soft curls. As the young trainer watched, soft gray-green eyes fluttered open, and Elsbeth stretched and sat up. Yawning, the girl crawled out of her pallet in the straw and joined Brice on the bench against the barn wall.
"Did you forget to wake me?" she asked, smiling at her friend.
"I wasn't tired, so I thought I'd let you sleep a while longer." Brice turned away from the girl, not wanting her to see the flush that she could feel spreading across her face and neck.
Elsbeth saw the blush and smiled. Finally a sign, she thought. She had had a crush on Brice for some time now, and decided if he was too shy to declare his feelings for her, then she would have to be the one to make the first move. She leaned over and sweetly kissed the flushed cheek. "I love you Brice," she said, as she felt a warmth color her cheeks as well.
"IŠI love you too," Brice stammered, as she tried to will her heart to stop trying to pound its way out of her chest.
"ComeŠput your head in my lap and get some sleep," Elsbeth asked. She saw the hesitant look in the young trainer's eyes. "You don't have to worry, I'll keep watch," she said, patting her lap. "Come on."
Brice scooted down the bench and lay down looking up into gray-green eyes.
your eyes," Elsbeth instructed, running her fingers through Brice's thick
dark hair. She began to hum softly, and soon the exhausted young trainer
was sound asleep.
The second night of their watch found the young couple hoping the mare would take her time, and not be in any hurry to drop this foal. Brice made a nest of straw against the wall, and they spent the early part of the night talking and cuddling, neither wanting to sleep, but knowing they had to.
"It's your turn to sleep," Brice said, her fingers lightly stroking up and down the young woman's arm. "I love touching you." She leaned over to kiss her cheek.
Elsbeth reached up and encircled Brice's neck, and held the young trainer as she turned and offered her lips instead of her cheek. She had longed to feel Brice's lips against hers, and she intended to make sure it happened.
trainer could not turn down such an invitation. She thought her heart would
stop when she felt the softness of Elsbeth's lips caressing her own. Again
and again they kissed, not caring if they ever slept again.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" Eamon shouted, pulling his daughter off her young friend.
"We were just kissing FatherŠI swear."
"You're too young for this kind of foolishness."
"I'm almost sixteen father."
Eamon looked at Elsbeth, "and how old are you girl?"
"You're both just babies," he raised his hand as if to strike Brice.
Elsbeth grabbed his arm. "Please Sir, we didn't do anything badŠwe just kissed." Tears started down her cheek. " I love your son."
Eamon lowered his arm and looked at her sadly. "Go home girl. I'll keep watch with Brice."
She looked at Brice, the fear plain on her face that if she left his father might strike him.
"Go on home," Brice said, wiping the tears from Elsbeth's face. "I'll be all right." She watched until the girl was gone before turning to Eamon.
"I love her, Father," she said, trying to hold back the tears she felt at the disappointment she saw in his eyes.
"And just what do you expect to tell her when she wants more than you can give?" He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. Putting a hand on each of Brice's shoulders he asked. "How long do you think you can keep the fact that you are not the man she thinks you are from her?" He turned and walked to the bench sitting down heavily. The time he had dreaded had finally arrived.
Brice walked over and knelt before her father. "I want to tell her the truth."
"Are you crazy? If you do that you will add one more person to be held accountable if this deception is ever discovered."
"Everyone accepts me as a man. No one will find out." She stood defiantly.
"And what if Elsbeth can not accept you when she knows the truth? Have you thought of that?"
"She loves me," Brice said, turning her back to her father.
"NoŠshe loves what she thinks you are." He reached out and grabbed Brice's arm, turning her around.
"A woman has physical needs, just as a man does. Some day she will expect more than your kisses, and you won't be able to give that to her. Women also want children, and you can't give her those either."
Brice pulled her arm away from her father. "I am a woman, and I think I know more about a woman's needs than you do. The only thing I can't give her is a child, and if she really wants one, we will deal with that problem when it comes up."
a grunt from the stall and realized that the mare was in labor. "We'll
talk more of this later," Eamon said as he walked towards the stall.
Elsbeth finished the dress she was working on, and stood to stretch. She held it up to inspect the tatting she had just attached to the collar and sleeves. This dress needed to be perfect; it was for Lady Roslin, Lord Athol's daughter. She was to wear it to the celebration of the tenth anniversary of her birth, and Elsbeth didn't like to think what they might do to her if they were displeased.
Her mind drifted away from her work to Brice, as it had done many times this day. She was anxious for her workday to be completed so she could go to him and find out what happened between him and his father last night. She did not understand why Eamon had been so angry. He had always seemed to like her and she was surprised that finding them together upset him so. It was true they were young - she had just reached her fifteenth year - and Brice was soon to enter his sixteenth. She reached into her pocket and took out the scarf she had made for Brice, and ran her fingers across his name embroidered lovingly by her hand.
bell sounded the end of her day's labor, and she folded the scarf and placed
it back in her pocket. She ran all the way to the stable, knowing Brice
would still be there. He loved his work with the horses and never was in
a rush to leave with the bell.
Brice sat on the bench and watched Sabiea's foal as she eagerly suckled. She heard the sound of footsteps, and looked up as Elsbeth joined her on the bench.
"I made something for you," Elsbeth said, as she reached into her pocket and pulled out the pale blue scarf and handed it to Brice.
The young trainer smiled as she opened the scarf and saw her name embroidered ornately along the edge. "Thank youŠI love it," she said bringing it to her nose. "It even smells like you." She tied it around her neck and pulled the young woman in for a hug.
"What happened after I left last night?"
Brice stiffened and released her hold on the young woman. She sat a moment trying to decide if now was the time to tell Elsbeth everything. She believed that the young woman loved her, and the truth would be surprising, but not abhorrent to her.
Elsbeth felt Brice stiffen, and her heart clenched. "Why doesn't he like me?" she asked, as her gaze fell to her lap.
Brice pulled the young woman into her arms again. "It's not youŠit's me. He's afraid if you know the truth about me, you won't want me any more."
Elsbeth pulled away from the embrace to look into the young trainer's eyes. "I don't understand," she said confused. "There is nothing I could learn about you that would change my feelings. I love you." She took Brice's hand and squeezed it. "You can tell me anythingŠyou know that."
"I'm a woman," Brice said quickly, wanting to get the words out before she lost her nerve.
Elsbeth laughed. "Come onŠdon't joke."
"I'm not joking," Brice answered, suddenly afraid. She didn't know what she would do if her young love rejected her.
"You're lying, I could never fall in love with a woman."
"It's not a lie," Brice said, reaching for her britches and starting to unbuckle them. "I'll prove it."
"NO!" Eslbeth shouted, covering her eyes. "I don't want to see. That would spoil everything." She turned away stunned. How could this be? She had known Brice most of her life, how could she not have seen the truth?
Brice was shattered at her young love's reaction to the thought of seeing proof of her femininity, and was filled with regret at having to live in this body.
"Why?" Elsbeth asked, trying to understand why Brice would play such a cruel trick on her.
"My parents wanted to protect me. They thought they were doing the right thing. We were sent here before I was of age to be counted. They decided to raise me as a boy to keep me from Lord Galen. I know it sounds strange, but I'm glad they didn't try to raise me as a girl. It's just not how I see myself." Brice read the shock on Elsbeth's face and her heart leapt to her throat. What if her father was right? "I don't mean that I don't see myself as a womanŠI am a woman, but I don't identify with being a feminine woman. I couldn't live like thatŠand I do love youŠ with all my heart."
It didn't take Elsbeth long to realize that she didn't love Brice because she thought she was a man. They had built a friendship over the years, and she had grown to love her because of who she was, not what she was. She acknowledged to herself that she probably would not have allowed herself to feel this way about Brice if she had known the truth. It was still a shock, and it would take some getting used to, but as long as no one else found out the truth, she could keep her illusion of Brice as a man. Turning back, she saw the anxious look on her love's face as she awaited her answer. She could see in her eyes that the waiting was torture. She wrapped her arms around Brice and pulled her close. "I love youŠnothing is going to change that."
Roslin watched Brice tuck the covers tightly around Cadie and stand. Then the rebel leader walked over to her cot and squatted down in front of her.
"I have the early watch tonight, so I must take my leave." She lifted Roslin's hand and kissed it. "Goodnight," she continued, then she stood and walked out the door.
Roslin knew she had a silly grin on her face, and she felt a fluttering in her stomach. Is this what it feels like to be falling in love? She thought to herself. It just felt good, and that was all she cared about at the moment. She was brought out of her thoughts, when she felt Shea sit down beside her on the cot.
"Brice seems to be very taken with you, child. I haven't seen him behave this way toward a woman since Elsbeth." She patted Roslin's hand. "Be gentle with his heart; it's taken so long to mend, I would hate to see it shattered again. When he lost Elsbeth, it changed him. He wouldn't let anyone in but Cadie. The only thing he lived for was to one day destroy the Ryshtan regime, and liberate our people. It has been almost five years, and this is the first time he has let anyone get close. It would break my heart if he shut off his emotions again."
Roslin shuddered at the thought of what might happen if Brice found out that she was Ryshtan. "I care very much for Brice. I would never purposefully hurt him."
"I'm sure you wouldn't, child. I just want you to be aware of the power you hold. Don't let him push too fast. A starving man will sometimes destroy himself when a banquet is placed before him. The body is not the only part of us that can starve. Hearts can starve, and Brice's heart has been starving for some time now." Shea smiled. "Well, I think I need to get these old bones to bed. Morning comes early." Rising, she walked to her cot and prepared for bed.
back and let her mind wander again over the events of the day. How could
she be attracted to someone one day and the next day believe she was falling
in love with him? Could things like this really happen that fast? She was
glad they had had the talk about slowing things down; she really needed
to be sure of her feelings before she could commit to any type of a relationship,
and she wanted him to be sure too, especially now, after talking to Shea.
Shea was away, and Roslin and Cadie had been left to entertain each other. Cadie provided an endless stream of chatter, and the young woman had to laugh at the child's vivid imagination. She came up with the cleverest stories to entertain the young woman. Roslin was laughing loudly, when Brice came in and scooped her up in her arms.
"I think it's time for you to meet more of my family," she said, as she carried the little blonde out the door, and started for the other side of camp.
"My feet are feeling much better today, you really don't need to carry me. I can walk," Roslin said, even though she was enjoying being in his arms again.
"It's a long walk," Brice answered. "Humor me."
Roslin just smiled. Cadie ran on ahead, and Roslin could see Shea and another woman sitting and talking together. Two children several years older than Cadie came running over to greet them, and Brice put the young woman down to introduce them.
"Roslin, these are my brother Glen's sons." Brice placed a hand on the older boys head, "This is Bowen, and this is Tully," she added, ruffling the fine red hair on the younger boy's head.
Roslin smiled, shaking first Bowen's hand, and then his brother's. "I'm very pleased to meet you." The woman that had been sitting talking with Shea came forward extending her hand. "I'm Lessa, Glen's wife. I see you've met my boys." She took Roslin's hand and pulled her toward the fire. "Come on over and get off your feet, and I'll get you something to eat."
"Thank you," Roslin answered, as she followed the friendly woman to a log by the fire.
Brice walked over and sat by her side, while Shea and Lessa began dishing up plates of food. "Where's Glen?" she asked Lessa, when she handed her a plate.
"Oh he's off in the woods, taking care of business," Lessa answered. "When you gotta go, you gotta go."
A pleasant looking man approached their little group, and smiled down at the little blonde sitting next to Brice. "You must be Roslin," he said, sitting and accepting a plate from Lessa. Looking up, he winked at her. "Thank you, love," he said, then turned back to the little blonde. "I'm Glen. Brice has told me all about you. I'm glad to see you're feeling better."
"Much better," Roslin answered, "thank you for your concern."
Roslin studied the man. His hair was dark brown like Brice's, but other than that, she could see no resemblance between the brothers. His eyes were a soft brown, and his nose was larger, with a little bump, where Brice's was straight.
"Mother tells me that you have no memory before coming to our camp. That must be most distressing."
Roslin's eyes fell to her lap. She hated lying, and found she could not look Glen in the eye when she did so. "Yes, most distressing."
Brice could see her discomfort. She reached over, covered her hand, and squeezed. "This is good," the rebel leader said to Lessa, trying to change the subject. "It's a wonder what you can do with trail rations."
very good," Roslin agreed, the smile returning to her face. The young woman
found that she liked these people very much. They didn't have much, but
what they had they shared. They seemed to truly care for each other, and
despite the hard life they were living, seemed happy. She tried to think
back to a time in her life when she could say the same, and failed. She
shuddered at the thought of ever going back to that kind of existence again.
As the days past, Brice spent every moment she could spare with Roslin, and their closeness continued to grow. She longed for the time when the fighting would be over for good, and she could commit her entire being to the young woman. Her one fear was that when she was finally able to tell Roslin the truth about herself, the young woman would not be able to accept the fact that she was a woman, and reject her. She prayed that once she had Roslin's heart, her gender would no longer matter, but deep down inside, she feared this would not be the case. For now she would have to be content with little snatches of time between the work that was required to make sure everything was ready for the battle with the Sovereign. This battle was the culmination of years of work, and with the defeat of Dairus, all her people would finally be free.
The days flew by too quickly. Their brief respite was over, and it was time to start for Dairus again. Any of the wounded that were still not up to sitting astride a horse were loaded into wagons. The last leg of the journey had begun, and Brice was anxious to finally put this part of her life behind her, and begin a new one with Roslin.
Mounting her horse, Brice rode to where Roslin was waiting her turn to climb into the wagon with Shea and Cadie. "Ride with me?" she asked, extending her hand to the young woman.
Roslin smiled, and accepted the hand up. She wrapped her arms around Brice and snuggled close, laying her head against a muscled back. What is it about Brice that captivates me so? She wondered, not for the first time. He was not like any man she had ever met. There was something different about him that she just couldn't quite identify. Whatever it was, it drew her to him, and she realized she had totally lost her heart to the man.
to the beginning of the procession and cantered ahead, leaving the slow
moving caravan behind. This was the first time they had truly been alone,
and Brice rejoiced at the feel of the young woman pressed so closely against
her. . I love having you all to myself like this, she thought, as
she gently stroked the hands that were clasped around her middle.
They were ten days into the trip and the anticipation had built steadily as they got closer to Dairus. This was it. The final battle in a hard won fight for their freedom. Brice and Roslin had ridden ahead as usual, and were just returning to check on the progress of the caravan, when the sound of loud voices could be heard. The rebel leader could see that a group of men were gathered around one of the large wagons, while others were exasperatedly glancing down an embankment at the edge of the road. She urged her mount closer and dismounted, walking to the edge of the embankment to see what they were looking at. She could see one of the supply wagons at the bottom, about twenty feet down. It was broken into several pieces, and supplies were scattered everywhere.
"What happened?" she asked, turning her gaze to Glen, who was striding her way.
"We broke an
axle on our wagon, and that damn fool Trustin tried to go around us and
went over the edge.
He jumped clear, but the wagon isn't salvageable."
Brice was angry and frustrated at the delay. There were still several hours of daylight left, and to lose them meant that the battle would have to be put off a day. She had hoped to arrive just outside Dairus early tomorrow evening. That way they would have had time to set up camp, evacuate the slaves, and still have time to rest up for battle at first light. As it was, they would not get there until very late. Too late to get the proper rest she wanted them to have before taking on the Sovereign's army. She turned back to Glen. "How long to fix it?"
"Four or five hours. I don't have a replacement, I'll have to make one."
"Okay, there's a clearing about two hundred yards ahead. We'll set up camp there." Brice looked at the men standing around the crippled wagon. " Some of you men get this wagon moved over far enough to let the rest pass safely."
Camp was set up quickly, and Glen started to work on repairing the broken axle, while others made a living chain to pass the scattered supplies hand to hand up the slope. Roslin watched Brice pace back and forth. It was obvious he was upset, and she decided to try to take his mind off the problems that vexed him so. Walking over she took his hand. "ComeŠwalk with me."
Brice looked down at the young woman and smiled, squeezing her hand, and nodding. "I'd like that."
They walked to a stand of trees, not far from camp and stopped out of sight of prying eyes. The rebel leader had decided that it was time to tell Roslin her secret; the young woman deserved to know the truth. Brice took her face in her hands and spoke, her voice trembling. "You take my breath away." She leaned down and kissed Roslin, and was surprised when the young woman opened her mouth and hesitantly touched her lips with her tongue. She deepened the kiss, and felt her heart try to pound its way out of her chest as Roslin moaned into her mouth. "I love you," Brice whispered, as she pulled away to gaze into beautiful green eyes. She let her hands slide up Roslin's arms. "I have something important I need to tell you, something, IŠ"
As she felt Brice's hands slipping under her sleeves and caressing her arms, Roslin panicked. If he notices I have no brand, my deception will be discovered. She pushed Brice away, and hastily pulled her sleeve back down to cover her bare arm. She watched Brice's face change from passion to puzzlement.
Brice saw the panic in Roslin's face, and her heart sank. She couldn't think I would force myself on her, could she? Suddenly it registered. Why was Roslin so desperate to cover her arm? She remembered the smoothness of her skin. It was too smooth; there was no brand. And the way Roslin reacted, she was very aware of this fact. There had been no memory lossŠshe had lied. Brice reached for her arm again, and Roslin froze as her sleeve was pushed up to reveal a blemish free arm.
"You lied to me," Brice said, closing her eyes with sad acceptance.
"I really didn't remember you finding me and taking me to your camp, so I thought I would just let you believe I couldn't remember anything else. You all assumed I was one of you, and I just didn't volunteer the truth."
" I took you into my family, took care of you. I thought we were becomingŠ Why didn't you tell me?"
Roslin remembered the other BriceŠthe one she had seen in the heat of battleŠthe Brice who didn't seem real any more. She had to make him understand the terror she felt when she first found herself sheltered under that Brice's tent. She had a very real fear of being killed if he found out she was Ryshtan. Things had changed, she no longer feared him, but that did not change the fact that the terror she felt at first had been very real. "I was afraid. When I first realized who you were, I thought you would kill me if you knew. I saw you at FramaŠ"
Brice was shattered that this woman she had just professed to love, could believe she would kill her. "If you saw me at Frama, then you should know that I killed armed men in battle. I did not murder unarmed women."
" I didn't understand why you attacked my people when we've taken care of you, provided homes and work."
Brice's anger flared. "Provided for us? We provided for you! We fed you, clothed you, built your homes, and maintained them. Ryshtans are so ignorant and lazy you can't even blow your own noses without our help. The only thing you are capable of is doling out punishment." Brice's head was spinning. How had a Ryshtan been able to live among them unnoticed? The fact that she had been so ill was the only explanation.
Roslin could see the change come over Brice. His eyes no longer shone with kindness; they flashed hatred. This was the Brice she remembered from Frama, and she lashed out at him. "You murdered my grandfather, Governor Gage."
"I'm sorry to say I was deprived of that pleasure. The coward took his own life, rather than face me in combat." Brice was well aware that Lord Athol's daughter was named Roslin, but it had never occurred to her, until now, that this was that same Roslin. Anger and hurt flooded through Brice. Had she really fallen in love with the daughter of that monster who had killed Elsbeth?
"He was not a coward!" Roslin shouted defensively.
"He was a coward all right, and a monster. What would you call a man who takes pleasure from the misfortune of others? He has ordered the murder of countless innocents, and when he was called to answer for his crimes Šhe took his own life. He has tortured and murdered my people long enough; we will die before returning to a life of servitude to the likes of him."
Roslin's head was spinning. How could Brice expect her to believe his lies? She had never witnessed any tortures, and execution was only dealt out to criminals who committed heinous crimes. "He never ordered the murder of innocents. Only criminals are executed as a deterrent to prevent others from following in their path."
"And what crime did my three infant sisters commit? WaitŠI rememberŠthe crime of having a rapist for a father."
"That's a lieŠmy grandfather would not order the murder of an innocent babe."
Brice could not believe that a highborn Ryshtan could be that naïve. Could it be that they hid such things from their women? "Your grandfather was not alone. Ryshtan men take our women to their beds against their will, and when a child results, it is killed. My own Cadie would have been murdered if Lord Athol had known that my Elsbeth carried his child."
"I don't believe you. You're trying to turn me against my own people." Suddenly Roslin remembered how like her younger brother Cadie had seemed when they first met. Could it be true? Was Cadie her sister?
"This discussion is over. I have decided to let your punishment fit the crime. Your people have enslaved mine for generations. You seem to believe that by enslaving my people, the Ryshtans were doing us a favor. I will extend to you the same favor. You pretended to be a slave, now you will experience what it is like to be one." Brice took the young woman by the arm and dragged her back to camp and over to the cook-fire. She picked up one of the iron rods used to place, and remove pots from over the fire, plunging it into the coals to heat.
Roslin's eyes grew wide with fright. He can't mean to brand me! "What are you going to do?"
Brice pulled up her shirtsleeve to expose a prominent scar on her upper arm. "I'm sure you've seen many of these before, all my people carry them." She tightened her grip as the young woman's panic grew and she began to struggle to get away. "Acadia, Nairne," Brice called, "come hold her still."
Roslin watched Brice pull the iron out of the hot coals. It was glowing red, and her heart seemed to stop at the thought of it searing into her skin. Never in her life had she known this kind of fear, and she could feel the bile burn her throat. She forced herself to stop struggling; she would not give Brice the satisfaction of seeing her fight and call for mercy. Closing her eyes, she held her breath and waited. When the hot iron seared her flesh, her legs almost buckled, and her scream could be heard throughout the camp. She could smell the burning and it nauseated her. When it was finished, they released her and she collapsed to the ground, the tears flowing freely down her face as she tried to choke back her sobs.
Brice tossed the iron rod aside and strode back to her tent, retrieving a shirt and ripping it. She took it back out to the slave lying on the ground by the cook-fire and threw it at her. "This shirt needs mending. Have it finished before the evening meal."
"I don't know how to sew," Roslin managed through her tears.
"I would advise
you to learn quickly. A non-productive slave will not be tolerated." Brice
reached down and grabbed her, pulling her to her feet. Addressing the crowd
that had gathered she announced, "This woman has masqueraded as one of
us, but she is Ryshtan. She is now my slave and will be treated as such."
Releasing her hold on Roslin, she glared at the young woman then nodded
at the shirt. "Get to work."
Roslin didn't know what to do. She didn't want to make Brice angry, and she clutched the shirt to her as she made her way to Brice's tent, hoping to find Shea there. The woman had been kind to her, and she hoped she would continue to do so.
The older woman
looked up as Roslin entered the tent. She had heard the commotion outside,
and knew what had happened. She held a jar of salve out to the young woman.
"This will help with the pain." She then picked up a needle and some thread,
and handed them to her as well. Brice had instructed that she be treated
as a slave. In Ryshta, slaves were not spoken to except to be given a task,
or to be punished, so there could be no more conversations with the young
woman. She walked out leaving Roslin alone in her pain.
Roslin's arm was throbbing, and it was hard to think of anything else but the pain. Her stomach told her it was time for the evening meal and she looked at the shirt in her lap. She had already pulled the thread out and started over three times, yet it still looked awful. She heard the booted footsteps as Brice entered the tent, and she cringed. Brice snatched the shirt and held it up to inspect it.
"Pathetic," she said, as she pulled the young woman to her feet and ripped her shirt from her body. Handing the mended shirt to her she said. "You will wear your handiwork so all will see your ineptitude." She watched as Roslin pulled the shirt over her head and laughed at the comical effect. She looked like a child playing dress-up in the large garment. Brice pushed her toward the door. "It's time for the evening meal."
Roslin walked to the cook-fire and filled a plate. When she started to bring a bite to her mouth, the spoon was grabbed and her plate slapped out of her hand.
Brice couldn't believe it when she started to eat. The woman had never been without a slave to serve her, she should know that they never eat in the presence of the master.
"What do you think you're doing?" Brice asked the startled woman.
"I was eating."
"Have you ever seen a slave eat?"
Roslin looked around the campsite filled with people eating their meals. "Yes," she said, indicating with her head the people around her.
"These are not slaves," Brice spat at her. "We are free people." She repeated her question. "Have you ever seen a slave eat?"
Roslin realized that Brice was right; she had never seen one of the palace slaves eat. She never thought about it before. It never seemed important to wonder if they ate or not, as long as they were there to serve her. Suddenly she felt ashamed that she had never really considered their feelings at all.
"And what did you see slaves doing at meal time?"
Roslin cringed. "They served me my meal."
Brice glared at the young woman, "And what are you now?"
Brice grabbed her shirt and pulled her almost off her feet. "A slave, what?" She saw the puzzled look on Roslin's face. "How do you address me?"
"I am a slave, Master Brice," Roslin corrected, trying to keep her voice steady.
"Very good," Brice said, releasing her. "And what are you here to do?"
"I am here to serve you, Master Brice."
"When it's meal time, you will serve me. When the meal is finished, you will clean up. When your work is finished, you eat. I expect you to anticipate my every desire without being told. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Master Brice." Roslin was not sure what Brice meant by the word desire, but she was afraid to ask him and risk his wrath again. All she could assume was that she was to serve him as a bed slave as well. She walked over and got another plate that she filled for Brice. When she handed it to him, he nodded to Shea and a puzzled Cadie, who had joined him at the fire. The little girl had been at the other side of camp playing with her cousins, and could not understand her papa's harsh treatment of her friend. Immediately Roslin filled two more plates and served the rest of the master's family.
"Why is Papa so mad?" she asked Roslin, when the young woman handed her a plate.
"You're not to talk to Roslin any more Cadie," Brice said, pulling the child away from the young woman.
"But why, Papa? Roslin is my friend. "
"Not any more," Brice answered, as she abruptly stood and quickly walked away, unable to face her heartbroken daughter.