As You Wish by Kim Pritekel

As You Wish
by Kim Pritekel

~~ ONE ~~

Lord Robert Wynton rode into the keep, his horse’s hooves clicking on the cobble stones laid out in the impressive space. The surrounding stones of the walls made the sound echo, helping to announce the presence of the nobleman. His journey had been long and tiring, but all worth it to win the hand of the most beautiful – and eligible – lady in the kingdom of Torai.

“Good ‘morrow, Mi’lord,” the horse handler Thomas said, hurrying to the side of the mighty beast Robert dismounted.

Robert didn’t bother to respond to the young man, instead removing his gloves one finger at a time as he made his way up the stone steps that would take him within the castle proper. It was a powerful structure, built back during the Viking raids three hundred years before.

Wynton passed guards along the way, each stopping to salute him as he passed. He gave a few a curt nod of recognition before moving on. He had a meeting with the King, after al, and nothing would keep him from it. Today they were going to set up the beginning steps for Robert to court the King’s daughter, Rachel. She was the oldest sister of the King, and the one next in line to marry, so states ancient proclamations: once a girl turns sixteen summers old, she had exactly twenty-four months to find a suitor and then husband, or she loses all rights to the throne.

“Good ‘morrow, Lord Wynton. The King awaits you this way,” said Timothy Ashton, the King’s trusted advisor, and a slimy little man that Robert detested, but tolerated because he knew Ashton was on his side, and all for the marriage between the houses of Tork and Laird, two families that were once ancient enemies, but who had made peace during the Second crusades, each helping to lick the other’s wounds after the abysmal failure of King Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany.

In the one hundred years since that tenuous peace, it was decided that this marriage would be the best for not only both families, but for Lord Robert Wynton, as well.

“In here, My lord,” Timothy said with a deep bow, standing outside the door to the King’s Library.

“Thank you, Ashton,” Robert said, breezing past the still bowed man, trying not to roll his eyes at the show of exaggerated respect.

“Robert!” King Jerome said, standing from the table he’d been sitting at, looking over his daily parchments: requests and complaints he had to deal with. “Welcome, my boy.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Robert bowed, much in the same way Timothy Ashton had just done to him, not getting up until prompted by the King. The two men sat at the heavy, intricately carved table. “I trust you received my gift, Your Majesty?”

“Indeed I did. The new servants are certainly a welcome sight after many of ours perished after the round of sickness that ran through the town of late.”

“Aye, I heard of that. So sorry, My Lord. So terrible.” In truth Robert didn’t give a rat’s behind about dead servants, but knew the King – for whatever reason – tended to be unique in that her respected the lives of those low enough to work for him.

“We are also grateful for the weapons.”

Robert gave another, smaller bow in acknowledgement.

“Now then. Let us get to business, shall we?”

*****

Rachel held her tongue as Tamara, her lady in waiting finished up with the intricate braid that was her long, blonde hair. She watched in the large looking glass that was mounted on the vanity she sat in front of. She watched the image of Tamara, a short, squat woman with an aquiline nose and hawkish features. She didn’t care much for Tamara in all truth, but she was a wonderful lady in waiting so she tolerated the older woman’s impatient nature and brewding presence.

“I’ve word Lord Wynton has arrived,” Tamara said, her voice loud and annoying, as usual.

“Have you, now?” Rachel asked, not caring in the least. She’d heard her closest suitor was handsome and from the family of Laird. None of which mattered to her, as she had no desire to wed in the first place. She knew better than to fight it, as it was a battle she’d surely lose. Even so, that didn’t mean she had to help it, or welcome it with open arms.

“Aye,” Tamara continued, finishing the hairstyle, which Rachel had to admit was quite beautiful. “Still going for a ride, are ye?”

Rachel nodded, standing from the padded stool she’d been sitting on for the past two hours. Her rear end hurt, and she was anxious to escape the castle walls for her afternoon ride. “Please tell Roger to have Azrael saddled and ready,” she called over her shoulder, disappearing behind the dressing screen as she donned her riding frock.

“Aye, m’lady,” Tamara said with a curtsey, then left the massive bedchamber.

*****

Allison stood near the door to the stables, watching as the new servant mucked the stalls. He’d been part of the gifts Lord Wynton had sent to try and soften the King’s heart and purse. The young princess was mesmerized by the new servant, whom she didn’t even know his name. He was tall, his face always smudged from the hours of hard work he had to do.

“You’re so much more handsome than the last stable boy,” she said at last, entering the dark, smelly stables.

The servant stopped his mucking and turned to look at the youngest daughter of the King, running the sleeve of his shirt across his face to try in vain to remove dirt. He said nothing, only stared at her.

Allison took his silence for interest, so she went with it. After all, interest from men was nothing new to her, merely a game and hobby. She gave him a coy smile, walking around him in a measured circle, sure to wave her skirts ever so slightly.

“What’s your name, boy?” She glanced up into his eyes, marveling at the color of the sky that looked back at her.

“I have stables to muck, m’lady,” came the soft reply.

“I asked you a question, boy,” Allison said, irritation marking her voice. “What is your name?”

“Allison, leave him be.”

Both princess and stable hand turned to see Rachel standing in the doorway of the stable, wiggling her fingers as she tugged her riding gloves on.

“Boy, saddle my horse,” the elder princess glanced at the boy Allison was trying to get her hooks into, then intended to look away, but instead her gaze returned to him, only to be met by the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, made even brighter by the dirt smudges on his chiseled face.

The stable hand looked at her, and in a soft voice said, “As you wish.”

Rachel couldn’t speak but could only nod in acknowledgement. She was struck, felt as though she had been pinned to the spot by a dagger through the hem of her riding gown. She vaguely registered the presence of her younger sister moving up beside her.

“Handsome, isn’t he?” Allison whispered, watching with appreciation as the boy saddled Rachel’s horse. Rachel did not answer, instead turned and headed back out into the cool, calm day.

Moments later, Rachel was on her steed, galloping freely through the fields of her father’s lands. John, one of the King’s private guard in charge of Rachel, rode alone side, mere feet away. Like a shadow, he protected the princess wherever she went.

“John?” she called out, giving the guard permission to fully approach and interact with her. His horse quickly pulled up alongside Azrael.

“M’lady?”

“I want you to find out how things went today with Lord Wynton here.”

“Aye, M’lady.” John didn’t dare pull his mount back into place again. He’d been guarding the fair Rachel since she’d been a child, and always knew when she called for his counsel there were usually many things she wanted to cover, all of which she covered in her own good time.

As expected from her personal guardsmen, Rachel was silent for a few moments, and then broached the true subject that was on her mind. “John?”

“M’lady?” John said, playing along with the polite surprise that his lady should speak to him.

“Where did that stable boy come from? I remember not seeing him before.”

“Aye, M’lady. He was part of your courting gift from Lord Wynton. Conley was in the bunch of four other servants, M’lady.” John gingerly guided his mount around a stand of trees the cut the trail in two. Soon his steed yet again walked beside Rachel’s.

“Conley?”

“His name, M’lady.”

“I see.” Rachel’s curiosity satisfied for the moment, she pushed her mount on ahead, ready to feel the wind through hair and shaking earth at her feet. John followed along at a discreet pace, his knowledge no longer needed.

*****

It had been a long day and Conley was tired. Though the conditions seemed to be better than the last master he’d worked for, the days were longer and the tasks more demanding.

He walked into the tiny room that was his new home. Outside the castle walls – near the stables in his case – were a long building made of mud brick and thatched roofing. The building was dissected into tiny one-person rooms that fit not more than a cot, wash tub and a small pot-bellied stove in the corner. Conley didn’t mind the small spaces, as he was used to that. He’d borne of a whore and a stable hand, his mother dying at his birth. Raised by a father who owned indentured servitude to a number of different masters his whole life, he’d taught Conley how to be the best servant possible. Conley had worked in kitchens, stables, blacksmith shops and had plowed more fields than he could count. Though he was a free man, he knew nothing else other than service for others, so as long as he could find a decent wage, he was happy enough.

Even still, he had to admit he resented being “given” to the King. Granted, he could have refused, but then he would have been out of a job. Wynton had not only given the King servants, but he’d also paid the wage for the four to the King’s coffers so the few pence wouldn’t come out of the King’s own monies. It was likely that after that year was up the four would be out of a job, anyway, unless they were able to prove to the King that they were useful.

Conley lit a fire in the stove and poured some water into the iron tea kettle, the only ting that had belonged to his mother that the owned. He was tired and sore and was craving a hot bath – something that he demanded of himself, while most bathed twice, if not once a year.

An hour later Conley lay in the washtub, luxuriating at the feel of the heat lapping against his sore muscles. As always, the water level in the tub reached his upper chest. That made it easier for him to not have to remember, and keep his identity in tact. No one knew but himself, his mother and his father. Now both of them were dead, so Conley was the sole person alive who knew his secret, and he intended to keep it that way.

A long, low groan escaped his throat as his body was finally allowed to fully relax and gain some equilibrium. The stables at the King’s palace were in horrible shape. He didn’t know who had been the stable master before – or who was now, for that matter – but they should lose their head, if they already hadn’t. The building itself was in disrepair, not to mention the stables themselves. Piled high with rotting hay and thick, hardened chunks of muck tucked into the corners. Tomorrow Conley had decided he’d begin a restoration project on the building. The King had a long of horses, and undoubtedly they were sick often.

Conley’s train of thought was interrupted by a pounding on the door to his room.

“Aye?” he called out, nearly shooting out of the tub and pulling on garments he needed, fear surging through his system.

“You’re needed at the castle immediately,” called the heavy voice from the other side of the door.

“Aye. Two shakes,” Conley called back. Relieved, her heard the heavy booted steps of a guard moving further away and finally out of the building.

Conley made his way to the castle, heart pounding as he went. He always hated being beckoned to the master’s quarters late, never knowing for sure what was in store for him. Over his nineteen years as a servant he’d been called late at night for emergency help, for a beating, and to entertain one of the ladies of the house who might fancy him. That actually happened quite a lot. Conley lost his virginity at age twelve for just such an event.

The castle was like so many Conley had seen: large, cold and drafty places that were far too high and mighty for a simple man like him. The large, overstated rooms and furnishings did nothing to impress him, and in fact made him realize how petty and trite men really were. Defense was one thing, peacock feathers, quite another.

He was led to the King’s offices, where the large man was sitting behind an even larger desk, quill in hand.

“You called for me, Your Highness?” Conley said quietly, bowing to one knee in respect of the regent for the land he’d been brought to.

“Aye. Come in, my boy.” The King set his quill and parchments aside, resting large hands across them as he studied the servant who now sat across from him. “As you know, you were given to me as a courting gift. I’ve watched you and the other three – all of which have been called in here as well – over the past weeks, trying to decide what the plan really is.”

Conley was confused. “Your Majesty?”

“See, whenever I am given a gift – be it of a material nature or that of a living, breathing creature – I always wonder what the point is. I am King, all know this, and the King often is given many gifts, but to what end?” he rose from his chair, the large signet ring on his finger catching the torch light. “I’m a cautious man, Conley, and don’t trust easily; especially those who give me gifts.” He stopped, giving the young man a small smile, most of which was hidden behind his red beard.

Daring to speak, but believing he understood what the King was saying, Conley spoke. “You’re wondering why Wynton gave you the four of us. What deficits do we have. Am I correct, Your Majesty?”

The King looked genuinely surprised at Conley’s assessment. “Aye,” he said with a nod. “Why should I keep you? Are you good at what you do?”

Conley nodded. “Aye, Your Majesty. The best.”

“Is that so?” The King sat on the edge of his desk, studying the handsome young man before him. “Then why would Wynton wish to give you up?”

“Mayhap he wishes his King to have only the best,” Conley suggested, taking a chance and meeting the King’s eyes.

The King was amused. “You are quite bold, aren’t you, boy?” Not waiting for – or necessarily wanting – a reply, he moved back around to sit behind his desk. “I’ll keep an eye on you, Conley. We’ll see if you are in fact, the best.”

“Aye,” Conley bowed in supplication, not wanting to appear too arrogant. In truth, a man’s worth to him was not his rank or title, but who he proved himself to be. He’d seen the best of men in a simply town idiot and the worst in the highest of rule. “I have a request, Your Highness.”

“Do you, now?” The King had nearly had enough of this boy’s attitudes. A part of him respected the obvious self-respect the young man had, but at the same time, he was speaking with the King. “And what is that?”

“Aye. I’ve been working in the stables of late, and I’ve noticed they are in dire need of repair. Might I have your permission to do this, Your Majesty?”

The King studied him for long moments, sitting back in his over-sized chair. “What is your plan?”

*****

Conley felt like he was walking on a cloud as he made his way back to his room. The King had agreed to his plan, and had not only given him permission, but also extra resources to all but re-build the stables. It had been an incredibly successful meeting, and he felt that perhaps he had also just secured a long-term position for himself.

Whistling a simple song, Conley removed his outer garment, leaving his scratchy shirt, breeches and boots when there was a soft knock on the door.

“Bugger,” he muttered, walking over to it and pulling it open. To his immense surprise, Allison stood out in the dim hallway. “M’lady,” he said in surprise. “Are you not well?”

Allison smiled, holding her cloak closed around her vaguely-dressed body. “I am, sir. May I come in?” Her asking was more of a formality than actual politeness, as she brushed past the stable boy and entered his room.

Conley wasn’t sure what to say, so said nothing. He closed the door behind the girl, as he knew it would not do to have others see her entrance, regardless of her reasons. He waited, a breathless tension beginning to fill the air.

Allison looked around the small space; nothing new here as she’d seen many more before. Finished with her minimal visual tour, she turned back to her host. She gave him the smile that she knew could drop a man to his knees. By the clenching and unclenching of Conley’s jaw muscle, she figured he was no more impervious than anyone else.

Conley could feel his heart beginning to pound a bit, the purpose of Lady Allison’s visit becoming very clear. He watched as the younger princess approached him, a knowing look in her green eyes, much like her older sister, but lacking so much of the depth that were the pools of Rachel’s gaze.

“Conley, is it?” Allison asked unnecessarily, wrapping one of the ties from the laces on the stable boy’s shirt around her finger, playfully tugging. She knew full-well what the handsome man’s name was.

“Aye, M’lady,” Conley said, his voice quiet and cautious.

“Clever me found it out,” Allison said, leaning her body slightly into his. “Clever, clever me.” She looked up into his sky-blue eyes. “Do you find me clever, Conley?”

“’Tis one word, M’lady,” he said, his gaze falling for a moment to see the revealing flesh not-so-cleverly hidden beneath Allison’s cloak. It didn’t seem the lady was fully dressed.

“Is another word beautiful?” Allison asked, running her hands up and over Conley’s upper chest.

“Aye that, M’lady. That you are.”

Allison’s smile was blinding, and almost predatory. “Let me show you my gratitude for your kind words, sir.”

Conley was pushed back a step by the passion of Allison’s kiss, nearly hitting the door. He wrapped his arms around the beautiful young woman both to stop them from falling, as well as glad to have the physical contact. The life of a servant could be a lonely one, especially for Conley. Physical contact usually only came in the rare times a whipping came, or the times when a lady of the house needed some attention scarcely given by a husband.

Allison’s carnal appetite was fierce, her knowledge broad as her kiss nearly left Conley breathless, and certainly speechless. She broke away, breath coming in heaving gasps as she looked up into Conley’s eyes. She took a step back from him, her gaze pinning him to where he stood. With sure, knowing fingers Allison reached up and unclasped her cloak, letting the heavy garment fall to the floor. Underneath she wore a thin chemise that did little to hide the young, womanly body beneath.

Conley took in the picture before him, feeling his blood begin to sing through his veins. Allison reached for his hand, moving backwards as she pulled him towards Conley’s small cot.

“I want you,” Allison breathed as she pulled Conley on top of her, their kissing resuming. She reached down between their bodies and began to unlace his breeches, but her hand was moved away, Conley taking over the task.

As he moved from her mouth to her neck, Conley knew he was taking a huge risk. If they were to be caught, it would mean his neck, as taking a lady’s virtue was a crime punishable by death. Even so, he had a strong feeling the Lady Allison’s virtue was long gone. She was far too good of a seductress to be a novice.

Allison moaned softly – not wanting to alert the entire complex of the happenings in Conley’s room – as her love slid inside her, her fingers grabbing bunches of his shirt in rhythm with his thrusts. She was surprised when he found her mouth again, his kiss deep and filled with the passion of youth and vigor. Most men she’d been with found that kissing was simply to allure the woman, and no longer needed once they’d gotten their way. She found it immensely satisfying.

Conley typically liked to take his time with a woman, but he sensed time was not on his side. His thrusts were quick and deep, trying to give Allison as much pleasure as he could while hurrying the act. To expedite things, he licked a fiery trail down along the column of Allison’s throat and down between her breasts, his hips never slowing.

Allison gasped and then groaned as her right nipple was suddenly surrounded by wet heat. Pleasure flooded her body starting at her breast and exploding through her sex as she clamped down on Conley, her hands pressing down on his butt to hold him deep inside her as she quietly cried out her pleasure.

Conley rained kisses down across Allison’s face as her body trembled slightly from the brief, but intense experience. As she came around back to reality, she pushed at his chest, letting him know she was done. Conley turned his back to the lady as he re-laced his breeches, his own body quaking still from the pleasure that coursed through him. He was surprised to hear the door to his room open then softly close. Turning to face the rest of the room, he saw no lady, nor traces of her.

Conley sighed, able to hear his father’s voice in his head:

“Conley, you are a fool. Yet again you’ve put your life in the hands of a spoiled child trapped in the body of a young woman.”

“I know, father.” He ran a hand through his dark, shaggy hair. “When will I learn?”

~~ TWO ~~

Conley managed to stay out of the grasp of Allison for the next month, as he had a strong sense that giving into her had been a mistake. A mistake made all the same, so he decided watching his p’s and q’s was wisest.

He was in the hayloft of the stable, pounding at a nail when he caught sight of Lady Rachel making her way over for her daily ride. Instantly Conley’s heart began to pound in his chest, his palms growing so sweaty that he nearly lost his grasp on the mallet he was using.

Everyday he readied Azrael, the lady’s most prized possession, and everyday he tried not to stare. The King’s eldest daughter was the most marvelous creature Conley had ever seen. Her hair was like spun gold, her eyes the color of the deepest emerald or the spring grass, newly green. She was breathtaking. Conley was never able to say much more to her than to simply acknowledge whatever her request might be, as he felt tongue tied and like an idiot. She shorted out his thoughts and turned his brain to mush.

Wiping his hands on the legs of his breeches, Conley quickly climbed down the ladder to the main portion of the stables and began to saddle Azrael in anticipation of the lady’s request.

Rachel slapped her riding gloves lightly against the skirt of her dress as she neared the stables. She had heard pounding in the building as she’d neared it, but it had suddenly stopped, leaving the morning quiet until she heard movement near the horses. She glanced around, making sure no one had seen her leave the castle without John, whom she’d told to stay behind. She only hoped his loyalty to her would be firm.

The smells of newly mucked and cleaned stalls met Rachel’s nose as she stepped into the shadow of the building. She saw that Azrael was already nearly ready to go, the horse lovingly taken care of by the stable boy. Rachel felt a slight flutter in her stomach as she saw the handsome servant readying her mount.

“Boy?” she called to him.

Conley looked at Lady Rachel, knowing he could be in trouble if he didn’t meet her gaze, if only briefly. “M’lady?” he said softly.

“Do you ride?” Rachel took a step closer to him, the beat of her gloves against her skirts quickening.

Conley looked at the princess, surprised by the question. “Aye, M’lady.”

“Good. You shall escort me this morn. John has come ill.” She had no idea why she was giving such an explanation, as she need not. She did not turn away, no matter how badly she wished to. It was he who looked away first.

“Shall I call you another guard-“

“I can do that myself, boy. I said it shall be you.”

Conley bowed his head in respect, his heart about to erupt out of his throat. “As you wish.”

*****

Conley did his best to keep an eye out for anything or anyone that could potentially harm the princess as they made. Lady Rachel had taken Conley with her as her escort every morning for her daily ride for the last fortnight. It was a task that was bitter/sweet for him. It was nice to get out and ride for a bit, but it was getting more difficult to be around the princess, as he felt his heart beat quicker and quicker each day.

Rachel, for her part loved having the quiet stable boy around to protect her. His quiet strength was immensely comforting to her. She knew he had begun to carry a weapon, which made her heart smile all the more. She felt supremely confident that should anything go wrong, she would be safe in his hands. Word had not yet reached her father, but she knew it would be a matter of time, and she’d have to deal with it then. A servant should not be her protector, but a seasoned, licensed guard, which the stable boy was not.

“Boy,” she called out over her shoulder so her voice would reach the two horse lengths he kept between them. “We water over there.” She pointed to a small stream where their horses could refresh themselves. Besides, she felt like walking a bit.

The request was unusual, as the Lady Rachel typically led them through their paces in the woods, then headed back straightaway to the stables.

“As you wish, M’lady,” he said, urging his mount towards the stream. Conley dismounted and tied off his horse then quickly moved over to the princess’ steed. He swallowed nervously as he reached his hands out, grasping Lady Rachel at her waist and lifted her out of the saddle and safely to the ground. She rested her hands on his shoulders, their eyes meeting for but a moment before Rachel looked away. She couldn’t afford to get lost in the sky of his eyes, no matter how badly she might want to.

“Thank you,” she said softly, her unusual gratitude coming to cover her very intense reaction to the close proximity of the stable boy.

Conley simply nodded, unable to speak.

“I wish to walk,” Rachel finally said, her voice soft, breathy from the lack of breath she was able to take.

Again, Conley nodded. “As you wish.”

Rachel forced her mind to clear and she turned away from the stable boy, putting precious space between them. She walked along the banks of the stream, able to hear his footfalls behind her.

“Boy?” she called, sparing a glance over her shoulder. ‘Come walk with me.”

Conley’s response was in action, as he moved up to her side, keeping pace with her. He said nothing, simply kept one hand at the hilt of his sword and his eyes peeled to the wooded area around them.

“What do you think of Lord Wynton?” Rachel asked at length, surprising her escort.

“I think not of him, M’lady,” Conley said, careful in his wording. He knew not if this was a trap. He didn’t believe in his heart that it was, but was going to be careful all the same.

Rachel stopped their progress, turning to him. “That’s not what I asked, boy,” she said gently, understanding fully why he would try and stay neutral. She continued walking, satisfied that her stable boy was still beside her. “What do you think of him?”

Conley sighed softly, knowing there was no way to get out of answering this question without honesty. He sensed the lady would know if he were lying. “I do not trust him, M’lady.

Rachel was relieved – and dismayed – to hear her own thoughts echoed back to her. “You worked for him before, yes?”

“Aye, M’lady.”

Rachel stopped them once more, for reasons she did not understand. She met Conley’s gaze full on. “You are to call me Lady Rachel, boy. I do not like such cold formalities of ‘M’lady’.”

Conley met her gaze, his own softening a bit. He gave her the barest hint of a smile. “As you wish, Lady Rachel.”

Rachel felt her breath catch yet again, and quickly looked away, continuing their walk. “Why do you not trust him?”

Conley was still trying to get his equilibrium back when the question came, and he didn’t answer for a moment.

“Boy? I’ve asked you a question,” Rachel said, her bothered state making her impatient. She didn’t fully understand what she was feeling, and why the stable boy had such an affect on her. She didn’t like it one bit.

“My apologies, Lady Rachel. I do not trust him because I’ve seen him hurt many.” Conley hated the words as they exited his mouth, as he knew the lady was to marry the nobleman. However, he could not lie.

“Such as?”

He began to feel uncomfortable now, Lady Rachel asking him to go into territory that could surely get him killed. “M’lady…” his voice trailed off, trying to convey in one simply word his discomfort.

Rachel stopped them yet a third time, this time with a hand to the stable boy’s arm, and clear, green eyes looking up into his. “You need not fear, boy,” she said softly. “This conversation goes no further than between you and myself. I ask because I wish to know more of the man I must marry, not because I wish to betray your confidences.”

Conley stared down into the sweet, trusting face of the woman before him. “You are so lovely, Lady Rachel,” he whispered, barely aware that the thoughts words had been said allowed until he saw the look on the lady’s face change from neutral to surprised to that of a blushing bride. Mentally he beat himself. “I’m so sorry, M’lady. That was inappropriate-“ he began to move away from her but Rachel stopped him, tightening her hold on his arm.

“Thank you.” She said softly, for the first time truly allowing her walls to lower with him.

Conley was able to see the kind, beautiful soul beneath the royal entrapments for just a moment, and it made his heart reach out to her, fully giving itself freely. Without thinking or realizing he was doing it, Conley reached a hand up, brushing Rachel’s soft cheek with callused fingertips.

Rachel’s eyes closed at the contact – so soft, so gentle. She could feel the pounding of her heart in her chest, her mouth running dry. She took hold of the stable boy’s hand, wrapping her fingers around his larger ones. She felt a warmth of spirit and body engulf her. She could feel Conley drawing nearer, could feel his warm breath upon her face. As suddenly as she realized he was going to kiss her, he was gone.

Rachel’s eyes opened in surprise when she heard the clash of steel on steel. She staggered backwards, shocked to see the stable boy in combat with an armed opponent.

“Stand back, Lady Rachel!” Conley called out, gritting his teeth against the strength of the man who had dared to attack from behind. They were in a holding pattern as both tried to overpower the other. Conley broke the stalemate with a kick the man’s midsection. With an “Oomph!” the man relinquished his hold and staggered back.

Rachel watched with wide-eyed fascination as the two men struggled, her heart pounding anew with fear for her protector’s life and safety. “Conley!” she cried as she saw the second man rush from the trees.

Conley groaned at the sting of a slash to his sword arm from the cowardly second man. He kicked back, catching the swordsman under the chin with a well-placed boot, knocking him to the ground. Just in time Conley raised his blade to parry the thrust of the first man, their blades breaking the peace of the beautiful spring day.

The second man rose and charged, doubling the attack on Conley, who fought with everything in him. He was worried he was about to be outfought and the princess harmed when he was given a break and the second man caught the tip of his blade in the side, causing a great cry of pain to escape his throat.

Conley used the moment of reprieve to give full attack on the first man, backing him into a tree and finally giving him a hard elbow to the nose, blood erupting from his nostrils along with cries of pain. Conley grabbed him by his dark, oily hair and slammed his head against the tree three times until the man was silenced, falling into unconsciousness.

Rachel watched in terror as the stable boy knelt down by the second man who was still holding his bleeding side. Conley grabbed him by the front of his shirt and planted a fist right in the middle of his face, the man’s shattering teeth cutting his knuckles.

“Don’t kill him,” Rachel begged, hugging herself.

Conley glanced over at her, seeing the terror in her eyes, then looked back at the man who was crying from the pain in his mouth and his side. Out of breath and beginning to hurt as the adrenaline died down, the stable boy stood, grabbing his sword from the ground where he’d dropped it.

“What shall I do with him, Lady Rachel?”

Rachel looked from one man to the other, knowing a decision had to be made. She knew what her father would want. “We’ll take them to the King.”

The ride back was quiet. The unconscious men had been loaded onto Conley’s horse, draped over the saddle and tied on. Conley rode Azrael, Rachel seated safely in front of her. She could tell the princess was shaken, as was he, truth be told.

“Conley?” Rachel said, her voice soft.

The stable boy smiled slightly. “So you do know my name, Lady Rachel.”

Rachel smiled. “Aye. Why do you think those men attacked today?”

Conley thought for a moment before he answered. “Honestly, M’lady, I think they were sent assassins.”

Cold fear trickled through Rachel’s body at those words. “Sent by who?”

“I know not, Lady Rachel. Your father can look into this further. See who would want to hurt you.”

They reached the stables where Conley quickly dismounted. He called over to one of the other stable hands. “Mark! Go get the King’s guard. Move!” The boy bolted out of the stable, and Conley turned to Rachel, holding his hands up to help her down.

As Rachel slid down off the horse, she slid right into Conley’s arms, where she stayed. Now that she was safe, it all hit her just what could have happened on their ride. The tears burst forth in a surprising shower of fear and relief.

Though Conley wasn’t surprised that it finally hit the princess, he was surprised that she went to him for comfort. Perhaps it was only because he’d been there to witness it all, and could truly understand. Or, remembering their moment before the attack, perhaps it was something else. He held her, whispering words of nonsense to try and ease her fear and emotion.

Word had spread around the castle what had happened, which sent many running to the stables to see if Princess Rachel was alright. The masses included Allison, who followed a young guard that she had been otherwise engaged with. She held up her skirts so as not to trip as she ran to see just what had happened, and if her sister was alright.

She stopped short when she saw Rachel in Conley’s arms, the sobbing woman being caressed and whispered to by him. A surge of jealousy raged through the younger princess and her expression of concern changed to that of suspicion.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, making her way through the gathering crowd.

Conley immediately pulled away from Rachel, a spear of guilt slicing through him. Rachel, for her part was unmoved by Allison’s outburst. Nothing wrong had been done, by her or the stable boy.

“I was upset, sister,” she explained, wiping her eyes with her kerchief. “Conley saved my life today, and was there for me.”

“I’m sure he was,” Allison said, eyeing Conley, who refused to meet her gaze. The two had had no contact since their activities in the stable boy’s room many weeks before.

Ignoring her sister’s comment – which made little sense to her – she turned to the gathering guards. “Those two men attacked me today, and this boy was able to stave off their deadly blows and bring them to submission. Take them to my father.”

The guards quickly apprehended the two men, who were both beginning to come around, groaning at their various injuries. Rachel turned to Conley, noting that he, too was beginning to feel the pain of the day’s events.

“Conley, please allow the castle physician to look at your wounds.”

“I’m alright, Lady-“

“Don’t argue with me!” She stared him down, hands on her hips. “You will do this, and you will do this without argument.”

Conley was amused, but managed to only show a small smirk. “As you wish.”

~~ THREE ~~

The King waited for his guest to arrive. He thought back over the past few days, and what little news and enlightenment it had brought to a most disturbing ordeal. Rachel had been the target of an assassination, and yet little was known by whom or why. A knock on the chamber door interrupted his reflections.

“Come!” he called, his powerful voice booming across the room.

Conley entered, bowing as always until he was told to rise.

“I owe you much, good sir,” the King said, looking at his new servant with new respect. “I hear you fought well, were brave.”

“Aye, Your Majesty. I’m pleased I was able to protect Lady Rachel,” Conley said with a deep nodding bow.

“I’ll deal with my daughter later on the fact that you were with her and not an armed guard, but that is not for you to worry about. You did a fine job, and I commend you. Where did you learn to use a weapon so?”

“My father, Your Majesty. He was a wonder with the blade and taught me well.”

“That he did.” As was his habit, the King wandered around the room, hands clasped behind his back. He brought one heavily-ringed hand up to stroke at his beard as he contemplated an ancestral painting that hung massively over the fireplace. “I have to say that I believe your talents might be wasted on the simple task of tending for horses, Conley.”

Conley wasn’t entirely sure where the King was going with this, so he remained quiet, waiting.

“Have you heard of what the captured men have said?” the King asked, turning the conversation in an entirely different direction.

“No, Your Majesty, I have not.”

“They are loyal to their master.” The King looked at the handsome young man who stood at the center of the room, unmoving. “They have said nothing, and one will no longer speak.” He studied the young man’s face for a moment, noting no change in expression. “He is dead.”

Inside Conley was reeling, but said nothing nor made any show or sign of his turmoil. “It was a brutal fight, Your Majesty,” he said, the quiet tone of his voice the only indicator of how he was feeling.

“Aye, so it would seem. The cowards attacked a woman and a single man.” He walked over to Conley, playing a large hand on his shoulder. “You need not worry about his death, boy. He chose the wrong man to fight against.” The King’s smile was filled with pride. “You’re a good man, Conley, and I wish to repay you for your bravery and valor, especially when my daughter put you into a position you had no right to be in.”

“You need not, Your Majesty. I would do it again,” Conley said, voice strong with the conviction of his words.

“Aye, exactly why I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”

****

Conley was squatting in front of his pot bellied stove starting a fire when there was a knock on his door. A groan escaped him as he stood, his injuries from the attack still healing, his body sore and temperamental.

To his surprise – and not so much delight – Allison stood on the other side of the door, a bright smile on her face. As before, she didn’t wait for an invitation, but brushed past Conley to enter his room.

“Can I help you, M’lady?” he asked, holding steady by the door.

Allison ignored his question, instead walking over to him, eyes transfixed on his many healing cuts and bruises, his face a roadmap of injuries.

“Oh, Conley,” she breathed, reaching a tentative hand up to touch one such cut on his lap. The stable boy flinched in anticipation of the touch. “Does it still hurt?”

“Aye,” Conley said, in no mood for the games of a little rich girl. “If it be alright, M’lady, I am tired and not feeling well. I’d like to rest.”

Slightly disappointed, but understanding, Allison nodded. “I only came by to congratulate you, dear sir. I heard of your promotion.” She leaned up and placed a gentle kiss on an unbruised portion of his cheek. “Mayhap we will celebrate later.” She gave him a coy smile and made her way around him to the door. “Sleep well, sir, and may sweet dreams be your companions on this night.”

Conley was relieved when the princess was gone, letting out a long, slow breath. He made his way back to the stove, slowly lowering himself down to a squatting position to continue his task of lighting a fire. It had been many a year since he’d been in such a brutal fight as he had been with the two assassins. They were vicious and determined, and to be utterly honest with anyone but himself and God above, he was quite surprised he’d beaten them. Mayhap it was only the knowledge that Lady Rachel would pay the ultimate price should he fail had seen him through the battle.

Another knock sounded on the door, this one a bit louder, more confident.

“Bugger it all!” Conley groaned through gritted teeth, yet again rising to his feet, a bit unsteady. To his shock the very figure of his thoughts stood before him. “Lady Rachel.”

“Might I come in?” she asked, indicating the room beyond the threshold. Without response, the door was opened wider and Conley stepped out of the way. Rachel looked around the Spartan space. “Such little rooms,” she marveled. “I’ve never been to the quarters of servants before.” She walked over to the stove, enjoying the fresh heat coming out of it’s mouth, holding her chilled hands in front of it.

“Aye, but ‘tis home,” Conley said, closing the door and walking to the middle of the room, keeping an appropriate distance between himself and the lady.

“Indeed. Though, from what I gather, not for very long.” Rachel turned to look at him, her gaze settling on the injuries to his perfect face. “Oh, Conley,” she whispered, walking over to him. “I’m so sorry.” He had been ordered by the castle physical to lie low for the past few days, so she had not seen him. As the bruises and cuts healed, they looked far worse than they had the day he’d gotten them.

“You need not be sorry, Lady Rachel,” Conley said softly, a small smile on his lips. “I would do it again and again.”

“I know you would, Conley,” Rachel said, her voice filled with quiet reverence. “That, sir is what makes you so brave, and why my father wishes to reward you for that bravery.” She reached up, barely touching a bruise with her fingertip. “These are your battle wounds, Conley.” She leaned up and placed a soft kiss first on the bruise she’d just touched, then gently upon his lips. “And that is my gratitude.”

Conley’s stomach flipped at the contact, his heart soaring. He reached up both hands, cupping the pale, soft skin of Rachel’s face. It was the wonderful, beautiful skin he’d ever had the pleasure of feeling beneath his fingertips. “And this, Lady Rachel is my pledge to you,” he leaned in, ignoring the pain in his mouth as he placed a soft but firm kiss on her lips, then continued in a whisper against them, “I shall never allow anything to harm you.”

Rachel was touched so deeply she couldn’t speak. She reached her arms up and wrapped them around his neck, pulling him to her again. As their mouths met her fingers buried themselves into the soft black hair they found. She had never kissed anyone before – not even her own husband-to-be, and would have no clue what she was doing had she given it conscious thought. But as she kissed Conley, her heart seemed to lead her, showing her the way and the form.

After a long moment Conley couldn’t take the pain anymore and had to pull away, a hiss escaping as he did.

“I’m so sorry!” Rachel exclaimed, bringing a kerchief out of her dress and gently wiping away a bit of blood that beaded up from the cut on Conley’s lip.

“’Tis alright, M’lady,” Conley said, taking her hand in his. “Sorry to ruin such a beautiful kerchief.” They both looked down at the small spot of blood. “I’m sorry to have done that, Lady Rachel. You are not mine to be so forward to.”

Rachel shook her head, holding their joined hands up to her pounding heart. “No one has ever made me feel as you do, Conley. Certainly not Lord Wynton.” She looked up into his eyes for a long moment, amazed the combination of gentleness and strength she saw within. “So beautiful,” she whispered, unable to suppress the intense emotions within her heart. “I’ve asked my father to create you my personal guard.”

Conley was surprised by this announcement. “And what was his reply?”

Rachel’s smile was brilliant and lit up the entire room. “He agreed. He’s already making you part of his guard, the ceremony to take place a fortnight from now, so why not give you to me?”

They shared a knowing smile, though Conley’s faltered. “I never meant to kill him, Lady Rachel.”

“Please call me Rachel when we’re in private, Conley. No need for formality, you agree?”

Conley smiled, nodding. “Aye. Rachel.”

The word was said almost like a prayer, which reached right to the princess’ heart, and nether regions. “I know you didn’t, Conley. You mustn’t feel blame or guilt for that act. It was defending not only my honor, but my life.”

Conley looked away, unable to meet Rachel’s loving gaze as the guilt ate at his heart. “Aye, Rachel,” he said softly, knowing she was right, but still unable to face his own guilt. Though he’d been in many fights – both with fists and sword – he’d never killed anyone.

Gentle fingers turned his face until he was looking back at Rachel. “Do not feel guilt, my love,” Rachel whispered, feeling the words to her soul. “You have a heart richer than anything in my father’s kingdom. The assassin died of his own choice, Conley. He chose to attack, chose to take the funds from his master to perform such a bastardized justice.” She cupped the side of his face, mindful of his injuries. “Take heart that by fighting fairly against this foe, you save an innocent life. Perhaps two, as you saved your own as well. That horrible day could have gone so terribly differently. It might be your own death that we mourn, rather than that of a foolish mongrel.”

Grateful for the words, Conley grabbed Rachel in a crushing hug, needing to feel her warmth and strength against him. He smiled at the soft sigh that escaped from the princess, who held him just as tightly. They stood there, bodies pressed together in a moment of solidarity before Rachel gently moved away.

“As much as I do want to stay, I should go.” She looked up at him with deep regret in her eyes.

Conley nodded, his heart falling. “As you wish.”

“Oh, indeed not as I should wish, but what I must do.” She gave him one last kiss then headed for the door. “I shan’t see much of you over the next fortnight, as you’ll be in training after the ceremony. But then,” a smile bright as the midday sun lit her features, “you’ll be my personal guard.”

Conley’s smile matched that of his princess. He gave her a deep bow. “A position which I shall take most serious, M’lady.”

Rachel giggled, her happiness rushing through her like the waves of the sea, crashing upon the rocky shores of their land. She blew him a final kiss as she hurried from his rooms.

Left alone, Conley felt like he could fly, if only he had a window to open to let him out into the night. Through his happiness, the wariness of body and soul could still be felt acutely, and he yearned for nothing more than to undress and bed.

With quiet pain, he removed his shirt, then with careful fingers began to unwind that which held him fast, and held him as a him. He had slept in his bindings more than once, but paid for it in the morrow, as it squeezed too much on his ribs. Now, with ribs broken, he needed to sleep in his bindings, but it hurt other parts of his anatomy in the process.

Taking careful breaths as the pain was attached to every one, he finished unbinding himself, his hands going to the chaffed skin of his chest. No matter how long he was in this body, the fullness that filled his hands never ceased to surprise him. He looked down at himself, no longer seeing the body of Conley, but that of Beatrice Elizabeth Fenton Conley.
~~ FOUR ~~

The tavern smelled of rotting souls: wine, sex and opium smoke. The den was filled with the filth of the streets and commoner. Two figures sat in the deep shadows provided by the overhanging balcony of the stairway.

“Why has it not been completed?” one figure asked, his breath smelling of cheap wine and even cheaper women.

“We tried.”

“Yet did not succeed!” He slammed a fist into the rickety table, shattering a clay mug on the floor. He reached across the table, gathering the front of the other man’s shirt in his fist and pulled him halfway across the table. “You finish this or the price will be your head.”

The second man nodded vigorously, knowing full well the threat was not an empty one. “Aye, sir.” He was shoved back into his seat, nearly knocking him and the chair backwards.

“You’ve got one more chance, and then it’s your head.” The man finished off his wine then pushed back from the table, disappearing into the throng of sinners.

*****

Conley did as bade and fell to one knee. The newness of the freshly-forged chest plate he wore made movement awkward and somewhat stiff. The stiffness of his own body didn’t help matters any. The cold steel of a sword blade was tapped onto his right shoulder then left and back to his right.

“By the power invested in me, King of Torai, I invest in thee, Sir Conley to defend with honor, strength and valor.” The King looked down on his newest knight, a fire in his eyes that was undeniable, even if the seriousness of his expression belied it. “Rise.”

Conley rose to his feet, hiding the grimace of pain as he did so. He wished his body would stop hurting and finally heal!

“My Knight, turn and face the people for which you are entrusted to protect.”

Conley turned, the Great Hall filled with the royal court as well as the commoners who had come for the festivities. He heard the sound of steel cutting through the air and turned, instinctually raising his blade to meet the blow of the King. Blades locked, the King smiled at him.

“You are a brave one, Conley,” he said, lowering his blade and openly showing his approval. He held out a hand in brotherhood, which Conley took. “Welcome, Knight.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Out of the corner of his eye Conley could see Rachel standing in all her royal finery, looking every bit the queen she would one day be. He gave her a quick smile and nod of acknowledgement, but he knew now was not the time for her, as much as he wanted to share the day with her. That thought was made more so as Lord Robert Wynton moved up beside her, putting a possessive hand to her back.

“Come, everyone!” the King bellowed. “Let us celebrate such bravery!”

Many hours of dancing and wine later, Conley found himself dancing in the arms of a beautiful noblewoman named Catherine, who seemed dead set on driving him mad with her flirtations and floral scent. Every time Rachel had entered his mind and need, he’d drank another glass of wine, to the detriment of his common sense and good bearing.

Rachel stood with Robert, who had been glued to her side since the end of the ceremony, and surreptitiously watched Conley’s behavior. He was quite the attraction at the ball, all the woman – available or not – hanging on his every word or glance. She found it rather disgusting and irritating.

“Are you alright, M’lady?” Robert asked, noting the look of contempt on his wife-to-be’s face.

“Fine, no need to worry.” She graced him with a smile then politely excused herself, claiming she needed a break to the privvy. It was the one place she knew Robert would not follow her, though he did seem to feel the need to escort her out of the hall, despite her protests that she knew her father’s home quite well.

Conley noticed Rachel and Robert leaving the hall, which enflamed his jealousy, which had already been a constant companion throughout the night. Catherine whispered into his ear, planting a smile on his face. With a hand on her back, he escorted her out of the Great Hall and out into the cavernous stone halls of the castle.

They found a small nook in the wall where no torch light could touch upon them. As soon as they were hidden in shadow, Catherine grabbed him and pulled him down into a heated kiss, fueled by wine and close dancing.

*****

Rachel looked at her reflection in the looking glass: tonight she had dressed for Conley, her finest gown flowing from her body in satin waves. Her hair was bound atop her head, emeralds sparkling in her ears and throat to match her eyes. Her lips were full, ready to be kissed. Perhaps when she returned to the festivities she would ask Conley for a dance. She wanted to see his eyes trail over her as they had been every other woman in attendance.

To her immense surprise – and relief – Robert was not waiting outside for her when she finished. Rachel was about to head back to the Hall when she heard voices further down the corridor – a woman’s voice, and a voice that she knew all too well.

Hot anger and jealousy burned through Rachel as she followed the noise. Soft moaning met her ears, putting visions of murder in the princess’ mind. The noise led her to a nook around the corner, the torchlight unable to break the shadow barrier. She didn’t have to see what she knew was happening inside.

Scurrying back around the corner, she headed back towards the nook, her steps echoing loudly as well as her innocent call of Catherine’s name.

*****

Conley was enjoying the overspill of clearage with his mouth, his hand reaching down tug the noblewoman’s skirts up. She was trying to help as much as she could, half leaning back against a window sconce, no candle in place. She was ready for him and would do whatever it took to claim her prize.

Conley was just about to unlace his breeches when they heard something. They both froze, looking at each other.

*****

After a moment Conley and Catherine appeared around the corner, both flushed from too much wine and blood flooding their nether regions. Rachel was livid.

“Catherine, your husband has been calling for you,” she lied, giving the noblewoman a sugary sweet smile which they both knew was forced. The two women had never been friends, and tonight didn’t help Catherine of Goul’s case any.

Catherine quickly hurried away from the embarrassing scene.

Rachel turned her attention to Conley, her heart pounding both from being in close proximity to him, as well as from her anger and hurt.

“What?” he asked, his pickled brain not clear, nor acting as a buffer towards his emotions.

“You should be careful, sir,” Rachel spat. “Catherine is a married woman.”

A lopsided smile curled Conley’s lips. “And you’re a bride-to-be, yet it seems to matter not to you.”

The slap came so suddenly that it took them both by surprise. Immediately a red welt began to bloom on Conley’s face, overlapping his other bruises. He was struck dumb, but refused to give Rachel the satisfaction of seeing his hurt.

Rachel stared for a moment before getting her equilibrium back. She lifted her skirts and hurried down the corridor towards the family cambers, not looking back.

*****

Quite honestly Conley would have preferred t be back in the hot environs of the stables, mucking the stalls of a hundred horses than follow Rachel around as she shopped. It wasn’t the act of shopping itself, it was the fact that the princess hadn’t spoken to him in the more than the week since the events at the celebration. That is, other than to bark out orders to him.

Not only was the day growing long and his patience short, but it seemed much of what was happening on this day was done on purpose. He’d catch small glimpses from Rachel, a smirk of content on her face as she’d head towards another merchant stall, or back to one they’d already been to three times before. She was exerting her authority and control, that much was obvious.

What made it worse however, was the fact that from time to time if Conley turned away for a moment, when he turned back Rachel would be gone. It had been a tense game of cat and mouse all day. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he was following Allison around. On top of trying to keep an eye on Rachel, he had to keep a watch for everyone else, too!

Conley was brought out of his frustrated musings when once again he noticed that his ward had vanished. “Bloody hell!” he cursed, ducking out of the stall he’d been standing in – where Rachel had been not more than three seconds before – and looked down the row of stalls and merchants, mixed in with the milling crowds peasant buyers.

Finally he spotted a quick flash of green, and knew the princess was wearing a green dress, and few of those were in anything other than the drab earth colors they could afford.

Rachel was fingering a bit of fabric when she was grabbed from behind and drug to a quiet corner of the open-air store. She gasped in surprise and whirled on her attacker, looking straight into the face of a furious Conley. For just a moment she felt a stab of guilt. Perhaps she’d taken her game too far.

“Have you not an ounce of wit?” Conley growled through clenched teeth. “Do you not realize what could happen to you out here?”

Rachel felt her feathers fluff at the rough tone and treatment of her person. “I have more wit in my little finger than you, sir shall ever have in the whole of your body.”

“That may be, M’lady, but at least the whole of my body will stay intact, which is more than I can say for you!” Conley couldn’t recall when he’d been so angry. Usually an even-tempered person, today Rachel had pushed him to his limits. “Do you not remember that someone out there has placed assassins after you? Someone who has yet to be caught, might I add?”

Rachel was startled back into reality by Conley’s harsh, but all too true words. She was about to speak, but her personal guard continued.

“IF you do not begin to listen to me or think for your own safety, I swear I will lock you in your rooms and push supper under the crack of the door!”

Rachel wasn’t sure whether to be angry, glad or amused at Conley’s profound anger. Either way, she knew Conley was right. She bowed in slight supplication. “I apologize, Conley, you are right.”

Conley was surprised by the resignation, and how easily it had come, but he was supremely appreciative. Even so, he wasn’t about to back down now. “Stay with me or lose me as your guard, do you understand? If you find it so difficult to be around me, then perhaps you shouldn’t have requested my presence.”

Rachel’s anger flared up anew. Or, perhaps it was simply her guilt. “Be mindful of whom you’re speaking to, sir. I am your master. Not the other way around.”

“And I will continue to be your loyal lap dog as long as you don’t get yourself killed with your bull-headed stubbornness.”

Rachel studied him for a moment, seeing just how concerned he really was. There was no need of battle of wills here. She was in danger, and it was his job to keep her safe.

“Alright,” she conceded. Conley was about to turn away, but she stopped him with a hand to his arm. When she had his attention, “I do not see you as my lap dog, Conley. You’re…,” she paused as she tried to fight the words, but they came flowing, “so much more than that.”

Conley didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. He graced her with a smile, then stepped away from her, allowing her to continue her shopping.

*****

Free for the night, Conley decided to take a ride by himself around the property. When he and Lady Rachel had returned from shopping Lord Wynton’s carriage had been parked on the grounds. When Rachel had asked her father if Robert wished to speak with her, the King had seemed surprised to hear that Wynton was anywhere around, as he hadn’t seen him. To say Rachel had been relieved was an understatement.

It had been a long day and Conley felt weary and cooped up. He longed for the freedom of a ride, the connection between man and beast, along together flying over the grassy plains.

In the stables, he quickly saddled and readied his steed, mounting the horse and leading him out into the cool, crisp night. A glance back towards the stables surprised Conley, as he saw a quick flash of light, as though a torch had been lit then just as quickly snuffed out. In that quick flicker, he’d seen two figures up in the loft, one female and one male.

He smiled as he urged his horse into a trot. Lucky couple engaging in a tryst. Who was he to say anything about it?

The night was cool and felt wonderful against his face, his hair blowing back away from his face. He urged his mount to breakneck speeds, craving the thrill of speed and freedom, the type of freedom that came only with the powerful pounding of hooves on earth.

After awhile, both man and horse were breathing hard, horseflesh slick with sweat from exertion. Conley decided to let the animal water for a bit as he lay on the grass, looking up into the night sky, filled with twinkling stars.

The sounds of his horse lapping at the water in the stream faded away as Conley relaxed, lying on his back, hands tucked behind his head. He had gotten out of his armor as soon as he’d reached his rooms. That was one nice thing about his promotion: rather than having a simple, sparse room in the servant quarters he lived in the guard quarters. He’d just barely avoided the guard barracks due to his position as personal guard to Rachel. His home now consisted of two rooms and his own chamber pot. He had an actual bed, as opposed to a cot, which in all honesty took his back some time to get used to. He’d always slept on either cots or the ground. Softness during the night was a luxury the body complained against at first.

Dressed in simple breeches and a lace-up shirt, Conley stared into the heavens, wondering what was beyond the giant shadow of night. What was the big picture, and where did he fit into it? Granted, he’d never seen his life turning in the direction it was. He was a simple man with simple needs, and had lived a simple life of service for others. What more was there than that?

Though slavery had been outlawed in the and more than twenty years before his birth, Conley often felt like he was destined to live a life of servitude. His life – even in his current position – was based upon the whim of another. When was it his turn to make the decisions? He had no desire to speak for others, but he did want to speak for himself. Would that ever happen?

From there his thoughts turned to Rachel. Inevitably to Rachel. He’d never met anyone like her, never felt the way he did when she was around him. She was likely to be the closest thing he’d ever know to love and happiness, no matter how brief it might be. Soon she’d be married and go off with Lord Wynton. What could Conley do then? Follow? Nay, he’d stay on and continue to work for the King and once again give his life’s service for another.

He must forget Rachel, and bury his feelings for her. She had a future that was much larger than his own, and far more important. That was what mattered, not the heart of a sad and lonely servant, no matter what uniform he wore.

Conley’s musings were interrupted when his horse cried out in a shrill whiney which had Conley on his feet and running over to the downed animal. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he looked around the area, trying to penetrate the darkness with his gaze.

Off in the trees to the right he could hear noise- the sound of booted feet crunching leaves. Before Conley could move, someone was on him. Literally. Arms around his neck held on as the person tried to cut off his air. He struggled frantically to loosen the grip, but it was a death grip. He could feel the breath of his attacker on his neck, hear the grunting as the man used his full strength to try and strangle Conley.

Conley managed to drop to the ground, giving him some leverage against her attacker. They struggled, dirt clouds flying up as bodies scrambled. Finally Conley was able to get the man off him, his lungs grateful as he coughed and sucked in lungfuls of air. His reprieve didn’t last long as his attacker was right back on him. Conley reached down for his sword and felt a moment of panic when he realized that when he’d changed from his uniform he’d removed his weapon. It looked like it be the will of one man or the other.

Conley nearly lost consciousness when his head was pounded into the ground, his assailant sitting atop his prone form. He tried valiantly to get him off, but the man was too heavy and strong. Conley lifted, using powerful thighs to raise his nips and back off the ground, his assailant having to hold on to stay atop. Using every ounce of strength he head, Conley clenched his stomach muscles and flipped himself backwards, the assailant flying off.

Jumping on top of him, Conley sat on his back and grabbed a handful of greasy hair, returning the favor as he pounded the man’s face into the earth – once, twice, three times. The man stopped kicking, his body still. Conley nearly collapsed on top of the other man, his energy gone and head pounding.

“Why is it always me?” he whispered, pushing himself to his feet.

Walking over to his horse, he saw what he had feared. The horse had been sliced open and was dead. Conley sighed, glancing in the direction of the estate. He had a long walk ahead of him.

~~ FIVE ~~

Conley looked over at the candle lit on the table, only to see that there were two candles. He blinked once, twice and on the third try the two candles merged back to only one. He looked away from the candle, the movement slow and measured. A glance to the table on the other side of the bed showed the clay mug with the remnants of his medicine in it: children’s fecal matter mixed with honey. The castle physical said it would cure his head ailment.

Conley closed his eyes, a dull throbbing through his head and behind his eyes. It was more than a headache. He’d once had something similar when he’d been bucked off a horse as a child and landed on his head. A swelling inside the head, they said.

He had no idea how long he’d been in the physician’s chambers. The last thing he fully remembered was starting his walk back to the castle, and then he’d woken up on the bed he was on now, and the King’s physician had made him drink that awful concoction. After, everything had gone black again until now.

He started when his cool hand was taken in a warm one. “How are you?”

He looked back to his left, surprised to see that Rachel was sitting there. Had she been there the entire time? “I hurt,” was all he could manage.

“I know.” She brought his hand up and kissed his fingers. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened?” Conley asked, his voice weak and dry. He closed his eyes as the room stopped spinning that way.

“’Twas another attempt. My father believes he though I was with you, or he was trying to get you out of the way.”

“Where is he?”

Rachel sighed sadly. “He was already dead when they found all of you.” From the confused look on Conley’s face, Rachel explained. “Your horse was dead as was the assailant. When you didn’t report for duty the next day, a search party was sent out and found you.” A tear slid down her cheek. “You were nearly dead, Conley,” she whispered. In that moment she lost her emotions and really began to cry, leaning forward and cradling Conley’s head against her chest.

Conley tried to do his best to comfort her but he was too weak to move. “’Tis alright, M’lady,” he whispered, all the strength he had left. “’Tis alright.” After a moment all went black again, Conley losing consciousness.

*****

Rachel was distracted as she began to shed her layers of clothing and slip into her night clothes. She was exhausted from her days by Conley’s side, and worrying for his safe and speedy recovery, neither of which were happening as she wished they would. Tonight had been the first words for her in days, and though they had been a relief, she still felt so terribly worried and frightened.

“The lad will recover, lady,” Tamara said, helping to loosen Rachel’s corset so she could step out of it. She looked at her mistress’ expression in the tall looking glass. “Do not fret. He’s a tough one, that lad.”

“Indeed, he is,” Rachel said, her voice soft as she stepped out of her clothing. Tamara quickly slid her sleeping gown in it’s place.

“I like the lad,” the lady-in-waiting said absently, seating Rachel at the vanity and brushing out her long, blonde hair. “A good soul, that one.”

Rachel nodded. “Yes. He has risked so much, Tamara. I fear the attack has turned to him, now. Not just I.”

“That might be. Mayhap that’s because he saves you. Might make an assassin’s work easier without the shield.”

Rachel whirled around to look at her lady-in-waiting, her movement so swift Tamara nearly brushed her face. “You think so?” she asked, eyes bright with this thought. “You feel the latest attack was meant to harm Conley?”

“Aye,” Tamara said, taking Rachel by the shoulders and turning her on the padded bench once more. “More than hurt ‘im, M’lady. ‘Twas meant to kill ‘im.”

*****

The King paced, restless like a caged lion from what he was hearing.

“Do you disagree, Majesty?” Robert Wynton asked, watching the King’s path. “Do you not find it odd that Sir Conley happened to be around during both attacks?”

“Odd, mayhap, but I’d say more misfortunate,” the King grumbled, reaching up to stroke his beard.

“Indeed. No offense, Highness, but I do not believe in such misfortune or coincidence.”

The King stopped his pacing and turned to look at his future son-in-law. “Are you suggesting the boy is involved in a plot against my daughter?” At the nobleman’s silence, the King continued. “I see not how that is possible, considering he was harmed badly both times. He nearly died this last time!”

Before Wynton could respond, the door to the King’s study burst open, a sobbing Allison and her handmaiden rushing in. The two men looked at them, startled.

“What is it child?” the King asked, moving over to his youngest. He looked to Sarah, the handmaiden for answers.

“Tell him, Lady Allison,” she said, gently urging her ward towards the big man.

Hearing the loud sobbing, Rachel hurried to her father’s door, standing just inside. “What’s happened?”

“Tell them, child,” Sarah said softly, looking over her shoulder at Rachel.

*****

Conley tried to turn onto his left side but stopped at the pain of his newly-cracked ribs. He groaned and turned back to his back, then nearly jumped out of his skin as the doors to the physician’s quarters burst open, three armed guards rushing in followed by Lord Robert Wynton.

“Take him and lock him up!” the nobleman shouted.

The guards grabbed Conley, dragging him off the cot and to his feet. He cried out in pain as they roughly drug him out of the room.

Rachel stood in the hallway, tears running down her face as she watched them drag Conley away.
~~ SIX ~~

Rachel lay in bed, the tears she thought long ago finished, but still they fell. Her gaze was drawn to the big, bright moon outside the beveled glass window that looked out upon the gardens during the light of day. She felt empty and horribly betrayed.

A soft knock sounded on the doors of her outer chambers. She heard Tamara hurry to answer, soft talking, then booted footfalls enter her bedchamber. She turned to her back to see her father making his way towards her bed.

“Father,” she said softly in greeting. The King sat on the edge of her massive bed. “What brings you so late?”

“I’ve just finished speaking with Robert about the Conley matter,” he explained. “I was on my way to retire when I decided to see how you’re doing.” He rested a large hand on her shoulder. “I need to ask you something Rachel, and I need you to speak the truth.”

Rachel nodded her agreement and consent.

“Did he ever touch you as he did Allison?”

For a moment Rachel thought about lying and saying, yes. He had touched her exactly how he’d touched Allison, but knew it would be horribly wrong, and an awful lie. Not that Conley deserved her truth, but she owed it to herself. “No, father. There was never an unwanted touch.”

“You’re sure of this?” At his eldest’s nod, the King sighed, relaxing a bit. He was afraid the scoundrel would cost him the marriage of his first born, especially now that it would be impossible for Allison to marry.. “I must say, I am shocked at this news.” He sighed deeply, looking as though he’d aged over the past two hours. “I trusted him.”

“We all did, father,” Rachel said quietly, her betrayal a burden she must carry alone. “What shall happen to him?”

“He’s been imprisoned, which is where he’ll stay until his execution two days hence.”

“Must it be, father?” she asked, for a moment her heart speaking for her.

The King looked at her with hard eyes. “Not only has he stolen from your King, he’s given your sister a burden she must carry for life, Rachel. She’s lost all honor and possibility for a decent marriage match. She is not just marked for these months, she’ll be marked for life, all due to his violent desires.”

*****

Conley could taste the blood in his mouth and tried to resist the urge to vomit. He sat on a bench, hands and feet shackled to iron rings bolted into the wood. The cell was no longer than the length of a man’s body and no wider than his reach. At one end was a wall with a small, barred window, the other the iron door.

“I said answer me!”

Another blow was delivered to the side of Conley’s head. He took it, his vision dancing before it settled again on Robert Wynton. He remained silent, as he had nothing to say.

Robert grinned, cradling his bloody hand against his body. “You’ve nothing to say for yourself, then?” he said, victory in his voice. He’d been beating the tar out of the stable boy for an hour, but he would say nothing.

“I have nothing to say that you don’t already know, M’lord,” Conley said, voice low and filled with hatred. He spit out a bloody tooth that had been knocked lose. “Other than perhaps you should be more careful where you park your carriage. The King may start to wonder why it’s owner is nowhere to be seen.” He gave the nobleman a knowing look. “Or perhaps he might check the stables.”

SLAP!

Conley’s ears were ringing, more blood trickling down the side of his face from Wynton’s ring. By time his vision cleared, Robert was gone.

Robert stormed out of the cell, watching as the guard locked the door. He then grabbed the poor man by the collar of his shirt and drug him away from the cell. “If that man escapes, it’s your head,” he growled. “I want to see his body wiggle under the blade of the axe man.”

“Aye,” the guard said, terrified by the hatred he saw in the other man’s eyes.

Robert slammed out of the jail and into the dark night where his carriage and driver waited.

Left alone finally, Conley spit out yet another tooth, blood dribbling down the side of his chin and cheek, where the ring had sliced the flesh. He was exhausted both of body and soul. Perhaps facing the executioner’s axe wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

He rested his head back against the stone wall behind him and allowed his eyes to close. He felt somewhat nauseous from his head injury sustained during the last attack on the princess, but he swallowed it down. Not like there was much in his belly to vomit, anyway. Once the room stopped spinning in his mind, he allowed his thoughts to venture outward.

Just a very few nights ago he’d been wondering what his destiny would be: true freedom or the life of servitude to others. Well, he got his answer, and oddly, it was neither. He could only hope that he’d see his father in Heaven, and not his mother in Hell. He’d tried to live a good life, honest and honorable, but in the end it had all backfired on him.

“I suppose you were right, Papa,” he whispered. “Good deeds to go punished.”

*****

Rachel looked up at the imposing-looking stonework building. The night sky was filled with the lightning of a distant storm, gaining speed and strength. It was a cold night, the winds picking up and carrying the scent of rain to chill her fair skin.

“M’lady,” the guard said, already receiving advance word that the princess and her woman would be arriving. He quickly bowed in respect then led the way down the dark, dank corridor.

Rachel pulled her cloak tighter around her petit frame, frightened by the place as well as chilled by the negativity in the air. The guard led her past a row of closed iron doors, some with faces staring back at her, making her shiver. At the end of the hall the guard stopped, fishing a large key out of his heavy key ring and inserting it into the door.

“Here you are, M’lady,” he said, holding the cell door open for her. “Do be careful, M’lady. A dangerous one, that.”

Rachel smiled politely at him then turned her attention to what she was entering. The room was tiny and smelled of human sewage and filth. And blood. Shackled to a wooden bench was Conley. His eyes were closed, one bruised and swollen. Dried blood lined his cheek, caked to a reddish brown color. His lip was split open, and fresh bruises were littering his face.

As she looked on, the one good blue eye opened, then widened at the realization of who had entered the cell.

“M’lady,” Conley whispered, his voice rough and parched.

“Who did this to you?” Rachel asked, indicating the new injuries.

“It matters not,” Conley whispered, knowing that it would do no good to tell her that her soon-to-be husband had beaten him just shy of his life.

Rachel said nothing, a good idea of the culprit, though she did not voice her suspicions. She sat at the one wooden chair that was pushed in under a tiny wooden table. She looked around to see a wooden bucket tucked into the corner under the bench Conley sat in. The contents were putrid and nearly over-flowing.

“Why are you here, M’lady?” Conley asked quietly, interrupting her inspection of the cell. It hurt to look at the beautiful Rachel, and he’d just as soon forget her perfect face before he was to meet his maker.

“I’ve come for answers,” Rachel said, turning her attention back to Conley. “Will you speak openly and honestly?”

“Do I not always?”

“I know not.” Rachel’s back straightened as her hurt rose to anger. “I must admit, I’m not so sure.”

Conley sighed, already feeling this would be a victory he could not attain. “As you wish, M’lady. I’ll answer truthfully.”

Rachel could feel her heart pounding wildly in her chest. Seeing Conley in this state broke her heart and made her want to do nothing more than take him in her arms and ease his pain. Then she remembered Allison’s words and painful confession. Using that to strengthen her resolve, she cleared her throat.

“Is what Allison said true? Did you father the child she carried within her womb?”

Conley stared at her for a long moment, then sighed heavily. “Nay, M’lady. ‘Tis impossible for me to be the father of her child.”

For a moment Rachel’s world brightened. “Then they got it wrong?” She sat forward in her chair, ready to bound out in joy. “You did not have relations with Allison?”

Conley looked at her for a long, sad moment, his heart breaking. Yet again. “I promised you I would be truthful, so I shall be. Yes, Rachel, I had relations with Allison.” When Rachel jumped out of her seat and hurried the few steps towards the door, Conley felt a frantic need to explain. “I did not attack her, Rachel!” he called out, desperately needing her to hear and understand. “I had been at your father’s home less than a month when she came to my room!”

Rachel whirled on him, the guard opening the door at her back. “You spit lies like venom,” she hissed. “May you find your way to Hell, Sir Conley.” With those dagger-slash words, she was gone, leaving Conley to stew in his own Hell, the one he’d created for himself.

*****

Rachel threw her cloak on her bed, the tears already flowing down her cheeks. She was angry and devastated. She had hoped and prayed that by talking to the source that Conley could set the record straight. She couldn’t believe he had attacked poor Allison as her sister had claimed. It seemed he had, and now he was scheduled for execution the following afternoon.

“How did it go, M’lady?” Tamara asked, rushing into the room at the sound of her mistress’ tears. She collected the cloak and hung it to dry, as the rain had begun to all as Rachel’s carriage had made it’s bumpy way back to the castle.

“He did it,” Rachel cried, trying to wipe at her eyes, but it did no good as more tears poured forth.

Tamara was taken aback, left speechless for a moment. “M’lady?” she asked, kneeling in front of Rachel to remove her sodden boots.

“Yes,” Rachel sobbed. “He did this thing they’ve accused him of.”

“So, the child is his?” Tamara asked, setting the boots aside and removing her lady’s stockings.

“That’s the strange part, Tamara. He says there is no way the child is his, but that he did have relations with Allison.”

Tamara chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, thinking of the best way to put her thoughts. She did not wish her lady to be angry with her. Rachel’s wrath could be heavy and hard if truly angered. “Lady Rachel, is it possible he speaks the truth? Could the child Allison carries truly belong to another?”

Rachel shook her head. “She said she was pure before Conley got hold of her.”

Tamara nearly burst into laughter at that. All the servants in the castle knew that was false. Likely Allison had seen more action than many of the King’s soldiers. “M’lady, if I may, I can dispute that claim.”

Rachel stared down at her lady-in-waiting, horrified by what she’d just heard. “Why do you say such?”

“Forgive me, Lady Rachel, but it’s been known for many months that Lady Allison is… friendly, with the male help around your father’s rooms. It’s a known fact, though a quiet one.”

Rachel was disgusted. “Why do you say such things?” She knew Tamara better than to think the servant was simply trying to besmirch her sister’s good name, or to spread horrible gossip.

“’Tis true, M’lady. I’ve heard it meself, and more than on one occasion.”

Rachel thought for a moment, disbelief and confusion warring in her mind. “But, he admitted to relations with her, Tamara.”

“And likely he had them, M’lady. It sounds to me like he told you truth.” Tamara stood, taking Rachel’s hand to pull her to her feet as well. “Come, Lady Rachel. Let’s get you out of this damp clothing.”

Rachel numbly followed Tamara to her wardrobe, her mind racing and stomach churning. She knew in her heart that her lady had a point, but even so, her heart was still broken. The thought of Conley bedding her sister made her want to scream.

No, it was over and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Even if Conley was pardoned tomorrow, he had betrayed her. Visions of him with Catherine of Goul popped into her mind’s eye. He was a ravenous sort, that was obvious. When was he bedding Allison? The same day he’d professed feeling for Rachel? Were they laughing at her as they grunted and wiggled like weasels?

Anger anew burning brightly in Rachel as she was undressed. Then she saw his face in her heart, the kindness and love in his blue eyes. She saw how hard he’d fought for her that long ago day, taking so many wounds to defend her life and honor. And what of the beating he took mere nights ago?

“Tamara?” she said, placing a hand on her lady’s arm to stop her. When she had the older woman’s attention she spoke. “I need you to do something for me.”

*****

“I’m sorry, M’lady, but I cannot allow you in to see the prisoner. Lord Robert Wynton’s orders.”

“And what is this?” Tamara asked, her pinched face showing her disgust at the guard. She held a parchment with the King’s own insignia stamp upon it. “Me thinks angering the King would not be wise.”

Not able to read the words, all the guard had to see was the stamp. He bowed his acquiescence and unlocked the cell door.

Tamara set her basket of goods on the small table as she was locked in with Conley, who was asleep. She studied his face and clucked her tongue. What monster had done this?

Allowing him to continue his slumber, she unpacked her goods, laying out freshly-baked bread and still-warm stew in a wooden bowl, covered with cheesecloth. A skin of wine and supplies to clean up his face.

Conley slowly came to, wondering if he were still dreaming as the smells of food carried him to consciousness. He opened his eyes, the one still swollen and nearly glued shut with dried puss and blood.

“M’lady?” he croaked, throat raw and dry.

“Sir,” Tamara acknowledged, even as she continued to pour powder in a flask of water from the physician. “Drink this.” She pushed the acrid-smelling drink to his lips, making him drink it. “’Twill help with your pain.”

Conley drank. At this point he didn’t care what it was: it was liquid. He coughed on the foul tasting brew, but drank it all down as he was told. “Pardon my questions, M’lady, but where did all this come from?” He looked at the bounty spread out on the small table, eyes wide and mouth watering.

“This is courtesy of Lady Rachel.” Tamara walked over to the cell door, pounding on it with a heavy fist. “Ay!” she called out, a guard hurrying to see what she needed. “How is the lad s’posed to eat his final meal when he has no use of his hands?”

Conley glanced over the hunched guard’s shoulder at a smiling Tamara. He was confused, but not about to complain as his left hand was released from the shackle.

“Ye’ve got ten minutes,” the guard grumbled, heading out of the cell and once again locking the two inside.

Conley flexed his fingers and wrist, relieved at even the small amount of movement he’d been granted. “Thank you, M’lady,” he said softly. He was handed the soup and spoon, and quickly dug into the hearty meal. It took only moments before it was gone, followed by the bread and caboosed with the wine.

Tamara sat back and watched her offerings disappear in record time. She sent a silent thank you to whomever had given Rachel a moment of gracious forgiveness in allowing her to bring the condemned man a brief respite from his fate.

Satisfied and with a supremely happy stomach, Conley sat back on his bench, glancing over at the woman who’d always shown him kindness at the castle. “Why did she do this, M’lady?” he asked, voice stronger than it had been in days.

“First I ask you a question,” Tamara said, studying him with hard eyes.

“Aye,” he agreed, taking the final sip from the wine. He relieved at the warmth it spread throughout his body.

“What truly happened with Lady Allison?” Tamara made it clear by her expression that she wasn’t leaving until she got the full truth.

Conley sighed, running a hand through his greasy hair. What he wouldn’t do to be in his bathing tub in his rooms at that moment. “A month after I’d arrived at the castle I met both sisters in the stables. Allison made her flirtations clear, though I did not return them. Nights later she came to my room in the servants’ quarters wearing nay more than her skin and a cloak.”

Tamara listened to his simple story, and it rang true with her. “And you mounted her?”

Conley nodded. “Aye. Knew then ‘twas a mistake, but a mistake I made all the same.”

Tamara sighed with a nod. “I see. It’s said you’re claiming the child is not yours.” She forced him to meet her gaze with the intensity of her own. “That true?”

Conley again nodded. “Aye.”

“How do you know this?”

“’Tis not possible, M’lady. This I assure you.” He saw the look of doubt in her eyes. “M’lady, I’ve spoken truth about all else. I’m due to die in a matter of,” he glanced out the window in the wall behind him, straining his neck to see the position of the moon, “a matter of hours. Why should I lie of this?”

Tamara nodded. “This is true. You are not live, then?” she asked, referring to a man who cannot produce viable children.

Conley gave her a small smile, but only nodded. If you wish to put it that way. It saved him humiliation and explaining.

Tamara sighed and pushed off the hard chair with a groan of old bones. She began to pack everything back into the basket, dropping the linen napkin onto the floor, which was covered with soiled straw. She groaned again as she reached down to pick it up.

Conley watched her, and in that moment something told him to act. He saw the glint of a hairpin off the torch light, and shot his freed hand out to tug it free from Tamara’s graying locks. Many other hairpins held her style in place, and he hoped she would not notice one less.

Unaware of what had just happened, Tamara got to her feet and tossed the napkin into the basket. “I should take my leave,” she said, gathering all her belongings and donning her cloak. A piece of hair drifted down into her line of sight. With creased brow, she brushed it away, looking perplexed for a moment before she raised a brow in Conley’s direction. He remained stone, not giving anything away. A knowing smile and a bow, then Tamara was gone, alerting the guard she wanted out.

As Tamara was being let out, Conley quickly stuck the pin into his mouth, wincing as it stuck the inside of his cheek. The object settled, he stilled, waiting for his hand to be re-shackled.

*****

Rachel sat on the verandah which overlooked the rose gardens her mother had planted so many years before. Miranda had been dead for more then twelve years, and Rachel’s memories of her were few. But she did remember the roses her mother loved so much.

The sun was dawning and spreading it’s fingers of color across the land. Rachel had been sitting watching it for some time, as sleep was scarce in coming. She had heard her father and Robert speaking of their outing later in the morning. They were off to see a beheading. Conley’s beheading.

Tamara had returned with Conley’s words of explanation as to what had happened with Allison. The lady-in-waiting was positive in his words, but Rachel was still unsure. She wanted nothing more than to believe it, but it almost hurt more to do so. If she were to believe what Conley said was true, he had not spoken but two words to him when he and Allison had been together.

She remembered that day fondly, the first which she’d met the quiet stable boy. As you wish, had been all he’d said to her. As you wish. “As you wish,” she whispered, watching as a lark bounced from tree to tree, trying to find the perfect spot to make it’s nest. “Indeed.”

She couldn’t make herself go to the “festivities” this day. Her heart was broken, and she felt her life was but a bleak reminder of what foolishness love could be. She supposed that marrying Robert would not be such. As far as she could see, he did not believe in love, and it would never be an issue between them. As far as she was concerned, she’d marry him because that was what she was told to do. She’d bare his children and make him a wife to be proud of in social circles. As for happiness, never to happen.

She reached up and wiped at a lazy tear that made it’s way down her cheek. She was surprised by it, as she hadn’t realized she had any tears remaining.

Voices erupted within the confines of the castle, alerting Rachel to trouble. She pushed up from her perch and hurried inside. A servant that she recognized as belonging to Lord Wynton rushed in, out of breath to meet the King.

“Sire, I have news!” he said, his voice shrill from his youth as well as the excitement of nearly running to tell the King.

“What is it, boy?” the King asked, concerned.

“The prisoner Conley has been killed in an attempt to escape!”

Rachel’s eyes widened, her heart stopping where it beat in her chest.
~~ SEVEN ~~

Six months have passed:

The King heard the rattle of carriage wheels coming up into the keep. He felt a wash of happiness fall over him and hurried out to meet it. It was his son-in-law’s carriage, and he was very much looking forward to seeing his daughters. After Rachel and Robert had married the previous spring, Allison had moved in with them so Rachel could help care for her sister, whose pregnancy was a difficult one, and so he hadn’t seen his girls in far too long. Especially Rachel.

The King had planned a large celebration for the visit, as Lord Wynton’s estate was more than four day’s ride, and that was in a fast carriage. He waited patiently, watching as the carriage was unloaded, as well as the passenger. Passenger?

Furious, the King approached the carriage as Robert was helped down. “Where are my daughters?” he asked, looking inside the luxurious vehicle, but seeing nothing but Robert’s walking stick.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. Allison grew ill so Rachel decided to stay back and take care of her.”

The excuse was growing cold. This was the third visit where Rachel had not appeared. The imposing man took a step towards Robert. “The last I saw my daughter was the summer festival, and now we’re nearing the fall harvest! Where is she?”

Wynton was feeling the sweat between his shoulder blades, but his expression remained neutral. “Your Majesty, Allison has had a difficult pregnancy, and now that she’s so close to the end, she has to be stayed with at all times.”

The King saw the logic, but something still felt wrong. “You have servants for that, Wynton. Or why did you not allow this visit to go the other way?” He placed a large, intimidating hand on the new prince’s shoulder. “Does that not make sense?” he asked quietly, warning in his voice.

Wynton nodded. “My apologies, my King. It did not occur to me.” His smile was large and laced with fear. “Next time, assured.”

“Indeed.” The King slapped the man on the back – perhaps a little harder than necessary – in friendly invite. “Come. Let us talk of things in our two kingdoms.”

*****

Allison looked down at her huge belly, grimacing in disgust. She pushed herself out of bed, her legs and knees complaining from the immense amount of weight she’d gained from the pregnancy.

“Mildred!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. She needed her chamber pot dumped, as the smell was making her nauseous and irritable.

As if materializing out of nowhere, the young chamber maid appeared. “Yes, M’lady?” she asked, always ready to serve her most demanding mistress.

“I think you’ve work to do,” Allison growled, waddling back to the giant bed. Mildred helped her climb the few stairs to the mattress and lay down. “Don’t touch me,” she hissed, wrenching her arm free of the girl’s helpful grasp.

Nonplussed, Mildred put a fluttering hand to her throat to get herself together and hurried off to do the lady’s bidding. She hated working for Allison; the youngest daughter of the King was difficult, demanding and could be very cruel. She felt sorry for the child she carried within her womb.

After she finished her duties in Allison’s rooms, Mildred hurried on down the hall, intending to go start helping with the wash when she stopped, turning to look at the closed door at the end of the hall, furthest away from the stairs. The door was always closed, and it was said that the lady of the house resided in there. Mildred had never seen her, but had heard the other servants whispering about her, and had heard words such as: herbs, sedation and prisoner.

She heard movement and soft talking behind the double doors, which she’d never heard before. Curious, she made her way to it and pressed an ear to the painted oak. There was only one voice, and it was too muffled for Mildred to plainly hear what was being said. She did know, however, that it did not sound like the voice of the cow Nancy. Nancy was a mean old bird, and the only servant allowed to assist Lady Wynton.

Mildred tried to scurry away when footfalls got closer to the door, then one was pulled open, and quickly shut. To Mildred’s surprise the woman was one she recognized as a washer woman named Tamara.

“What were you doing, girl?” Tamara asked, looking around to make sure no one had seen her leaving the room.

“N-nothing, mum,” the young girl stammered. Just taking care of my duties.”

“You do that.” Tamara leaned in close to the frightened chamber maid. “You need not tell a living soul you saw me exiting these rooms. Understood?”

Mildred nodded vigorously then scurried off down the hall.

Tamara glanced back at the double doors, sickened by what she’d just seen, but only taking the chance because the Lord Wynton was out of town, and Allison was now too large to move but a few feet. “M’lady,” she whispered in dismay, “what have they done to you?”

With a heavy heart and even heavier sigh, she hurried off back to complete her duties.

*****

The breeze had been chilly all night, but now that the windows had been closed, the room was beginning to warm. The massive high-bed at the center of the room was silent, it’s occupant well and truly asleep. Much like the princess of fairytale, she awaited her prince to come and take her from the evil spell which had been cast upon her.

The table next to the bed was laden with vials and jars of various herbs and potions, all mixed and meant to keep Rachel in the land of the unconscious. This day, her gown had been changed and was fresh, as well as her golden hair had been brushed to a shine. Tamara had seen to it that her lady’s person was in good order, as the witch Nancy did not.

Rachel moaned softly in her seemingly endless sleep, her head moving, face instinctually moving to the light coming from the opened drapes, much like a flower to the nearest light source. A soft sigh and she fell back into deep, peaceful slumber.

~~ EIGHT ~~

Timothy Ashton scurried down the long corridors, heading to the practice arena where he knew his lord would be working his skills. The sounds of blades meeting met his ears before he felt the coolness of the day on his face. Waiting a moment, he watched the King practice swordplay with his men, wanting to make sure the King wasn’t in a vulnerable position to be interrupted. It wouldn’t do for him to get hurt.

The King spotted his man. “Timothy,” he said, blocking a sweeping shot. “What news?”

“He is here, Your Majesty,” Timothy said, bowing his head low and dramatic.

All fighting immediately stopped, the King wiping his sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his tunic as he followed his man into the castle proper and towards his study where the requested guest awaited him.

A tall blonde man stood at one corner of the room, an arm tucked casually behind his back as he looked at a painting. His stance and air was casual as though he had all the time in the world.

“Good ‘morrow,” the King said as he entered, resting his sword along his desk.

The man turned, resting hard brown eyes upon the ruler. “Good ‘morrow, Your Majesty.”

The King studied him for a moment, noting his build was wiry but strong. He had a body that was built for speed, perhaps in the art of swimming. “Please, sit.”

Timothy scurried in, taking the King’s sword to be cleaned and polished, closing the door after him. He made sure to post a guard outside the office door, as the Mercenary was known as a dangerous man. Countless stories were told of his exploits among the bards and minstrels.

The King studied his guest for a long moment, knowing all the same stories that Timothy Ashton had heard. “I thank you for coming here today,” he began. The Mercenary was a wanted man by many, but the King planned to utilize his skills, anyway. “What I tell you here today is of great importance to not only me as a father, but me as the lawful regent in this land. I need not bring a civil war to my people.”

The blonde man nodded his understanding, but said nothing. He filed away every word to relay back later.

“You need not know all the details, but know that I believe ill has fallen upon my eldest daughter. I wish for you to get her back for me.”

“Has she been kidnapped, Your Majesty?” the Mercenary asked, a brow raised in adventurous pursuits.

The King sighed, glancing out the window of his study to the gray, storm-heavy sky beyond. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” He sighed, getting to his feet for his customary pacing. “She married last spring, and I’ve yet to see her but twice in that time. I’m told stories by her husband and my other daughter – whom my eldest is looking after – of Rachel’s sickness or weakness.” He turned to look at the Mercenary, missing the look of knowing surprise on the blonde man’s face at the mention of Rachel’s name. “I feel something is amiss, and I wish for you to see what that is.”

The Mercenary cleared his throat, bowing his head for a moment of respect for what he was about to say. “Pardon me, Your Majesty, but you are the King. Why do you not just go and get her yourself?”

“You have no idea how often that very question enters my mind.” He sat again, planning large hands on the top of his desk. “But I cannot wage a war against Lord Wynton, which is exactly what would happen. He is Rachel’s lawful husband, and therefore has the right to do as he pleases. That is the King in me speaking. The father in me says, no. This is not right and something must be done.” He met the hooded brown gaze. “Do you understand?”

The Mercenary smiled with a curt nod. “Very well, Your Majesty. I’ve already told your man f my price – half to be paid this day, and the rest when the request is complete.”

The King didn’t take his eyes off the other man as he unlocked his massive desk and pulled out a bag of gold coin. He tossed it across the desk, where it landed with a loud SHUNK. The man grabbed the bag and opened it, bringing out a gold piece and biting it between his teeth. Satisfied at the tooth mark left, he closed the bag once more and rose to his feet.

“I’ll need a few details before I can begin. After that, there will be no contact between us until completion. You must not send your men after me, nor send any word. My job is my own, and my time is my own. Your reward for your patience will be the safe return of your daughter. Agreed?”

The King nodded, rising to his feet and taking the man’s offered gesture of deal sealed. Hands shook, the blonde man turned and left the study.

The King knew there was no going back now. “Pray god I have done right by you, Rachel,” he said softly.

*****

The large black horse’s hooves pounded the earth as the blonde man made his way into the forest. He bypassed the traps that had been set, as well as the twists and turns until finally he neared the cave.

Slowing, he dismounted and led the horse inside the dark confines and over to where a make-shift stable had been built. Another horse was already housed there and happily chomping on a bag of oats.

His heavy boots clicked on the stone floor, the living area of the cave having fresh straw strewn across it to help keep in heat. The blonde man grabbed the torch that was always left lit around the dark corridor, which was out of sight of anyone who might stumble into the cave.

The torchlight illuminated all the carvings and painting that had been done on the cave walls. Many were from former occupants, some from the man and his companion. It was a matter of marking territory in a way that was difficult to miss.

The long corridor gave way to the natural room that had been carved out from millions of years of rushing water through the caves, though long gone, had left an indelible mark. The room had been fashioned into a living quarters, replete with tapestries on top of the straw to promote warmth and style, as well as beautiful, ornate furnishings. A castle without a king in sight.

The blonde man extinguished the torch once he entered the room, as many torches were lit and placed sporadically to light the interior. Sitting at the lavishly carved desk, quill in hand, was his partner in business and friend.

“Good ‘morrow, my friend,” he said, sauntering over to the table and tossing the bag filled with gold onto it’s surface. The dark head of his friend lifted.

“I see you bode well,” he said, returning to his scribing. It was an important missive that had to go out before nightfall of the following day. Since he was the only of the two who knew how to read and write, all written matters fell to him.

“Aye, that I did.” The blonde man fell into a chair that matched the one his friend occupied. “Deal is set, the details in here,” he tapped the side of his head with a finger.

“Excellent.” Task complete, the man rolled up his parchment and tied it with a length of ribbon. The stick of wax at his right hand was held over the flame of a candle until it began to melt. He applied glob to the scroll then finished with the seal of the Mercenary. Setting everything aside, he gave his full attention to his friend.

“I must say, your reputation as the Mercenary certainly does precede you.” He grinned. “I thought the ferret Ashton might wet himself as I disarmed myself.”

The man sitting across from him smiled. “Yes, it is well known that he is a weasel, indeed.” He sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “So, who does the King wish for me to dispatch for him?”

“That is the interesting part, my friend. He doesn’t wish you to kill anyone at all. He wishes you to rescue, instead.”

Dark brows drew. “Rescue?”

“Aye. Lady Rachel from her tyrannical husband, Lord Wynton.” He watched his friend closely, looking for any small sign at the news. True to form, his friend held full calm and composure.

“I see. That is interesting, indeed. Have you the details of the situation?”

The two men discussed what the King had said, and formulated a plan.

“Are you sure you wish to be the one?” the blonde man asked. “If you’re recognized, it’s likely your head.”

The darker man smiled, appreciative of his friend’s concern. “If we’re caught, Flagley, it’s my head, anyway. I am the Mercenary, after all. And that’s simply if I’m recognized as nothing more.”

“Yes, but considering the situation, the history-“

The darker man leaned forward, looking his friend in the eye. “When the King hired you in my stead he hired a lion. Retribution will be swift, and the King shall get what he paid for. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.”

Flagley nodded, knowing there was nothing he could say. Once the Mercenary made up his mind, naught could change it.

~~ NINE ~~

Lord Wynton walked through the house, dropping his cloak and gloves as he went. His manservant followed behind, picking up the trail. The nobleman, tired from a long journey of business, headed up to the rooms of Allison. Her chambermaid met him outside, a chamber pot in her hands. She gave him a quick curtsey and then rushed off to empty her burden.

“Woman’s got the face of a rat,” he muttered, pushing through the door and into the outer room of the spacious quarters. He could hear the soft music of a violin playing, and rolled his eyes. He was not in the mood for the arts, as Allison so adored.

“Be gone,” he demanded to the young musician, who quickly packed up his instrument and made haste in leaving. Robert’s temper was infamous in his lands. The nobleman walked over to the bed where Allison was sitting up, her ample body resting against dozens of pillows.

“You’re returned,” she said, a smile touching her lips. Of course she knew he would be returning this night, as she’d had her hair done fresh and a fresh dress put on.

“Aye, that I have.” He leaned down and gave her a deep, satisfying kiss. “When are you going to have this thing so I can lay with you?” he asked against her lips.

“Well, it’s because you laid with me in the first place that I carry this thing.”

Robert smiled then stepped away from the bed. “Any trouble while I was away?”

“Nothing of note. All was quiet,” she said, nodding her head towards where the room at the end of the hall would be.

“Good. I’ve got to do something, however. Your father is getting more and more impatient. I fear he might decide to show up upon our doorstep soon.”

Allison readjusted herself, trying to get as comfortable as she could. Not an easy task at nine months pregnant. “Yes, he will. ‘Tis a valid concern, Robert. Perhaps we should bring her out for a bit. Let her laze in the gardens and get some sun, then invite father here.”

Robert looked at her, always loving the way her brain worked. That was in part what had drawn him to her in the first place. Among other fine attributes. “that is an idea of brilliance, my love,” he said, giving her another kiss. “We shall do that. Put him off until the ‘accident’ can finish this for good.”

Allison’s smile was predatory. She took hold of Robert’s shirt laces and pulled him towards her. “Stay with me tonight, my love,” she whispered.

He looked down, taking a good look at her enormously swollen belly and quickly looked away. “I am tired, love. I need rest.” He kissed her quickly on the forehead. “I shall see you on the morrow.”

Allison watched him leave, sorrow her only company for the night.

*****

Tamara sighed in her sleep, trying to get comfortable on the cot she now slept in, in her rooms near the kitchen. She was used to fine clothing and accommodations in being the lady-in-waiting for Rachel for so many years. Now, entering the Wynton household, that position had been pulled from her, sending her down the ranks of servitude to a mere washer woman.

Up before dawn every morning to help ready the household’s breakfasts, then spend the rest of the day gathering linens and clothing for washing and mending. It was back-breaking work, and at more than forty-seven years of age, it was taking a toll on Tamara’s body and health.

In her sleep, she grabbed at the limited night covering, trying to keep herself warm as the autumn nights cooled to make way for the coming of winter. She was rudely awakened when a hand was placed over her mouth, and she was roughly dragged from her bed. She tried to scream, but it came out as nothing more than a muffled moan behind the iron-like grip of her assailant.

Pulled to her feet, she was held from behind, the body behind her tall and solid “Where does the Lady Rachel sleep?” a voice whispered in her ear.

Immediately Tamara tried to fight the man, willing to die to protect her mistress, even if she wasn’t Rachel’s lady anymore. The grip over her mouth and waist tightened.

“Stop struggling ole woman and tell me where she sleeps or I slit your belly right here.”

Tamara realized that the hand around her waist was holding a sharp dagger against her nightdress. Tamara squeezed her eyes shut, trying to decide what to do.

The man was growing impatient. “You try my patience, old woman. I am here on business from the princess’ father. Where does she lay?”

Tamara’s eyes widened at the words, and somehow in her heart they felt right. She immediately stopped her struggles, and was rewarded with the hand being removed from her mouth, even as she was still held tightly.

“She sleeps in the bedroom at the end of the hall on the second floor,” she whispered, her voice high-pitched from fright and surprise.

“Thank you.” The man released her and moved to leave but Tamara stopped him with a pleading hand to his arm.

“She is not well,” she said, her eyes begging for the dark figure to understand. The man before her was dressed completely in black, along with a black mask made of material that covered the upper portion of his face and crown, tying at the nape of his neck, much like a large black kerchief with holes cut out for his eyes. His mouth and downward was visible.

The man said nothing at her words, but did not pull away, either. Tamara felt this may mean a chance for her.

“She needs help, sir,” she continued, her hand not releasing his arm, the coolness of his leather bracer under her fingers.

“And I suppose you wish to provide such assistance/” he asked, a crooked smile lifting the corner of his mouth.

Tamara nodded vigorously. “Aye. I was her lady for her entire life at the King’s castle sir.”

“Yet you sleep in the quarters of a cook,” the man said, doubt and sarcasm lacing his words.

Tamara looked down, shame coloring her features. “When we came here I was put down, sir. Wynton wanted his own lady to care for Lady Rachel.”

“I see,” he said, pulling his arm away. “I have no time to wait for you, old woman. If you can keep up, you may come. If you tarry, it is your own skin.” With those words, he was gone.

Tamara felt her heart begin to pound in her chest as she quickly changed into more proper attire to leave her bedroom. When she emerged, the man was nowhere to be seen, so she hurried up the back staircase to the second floor in search of him.

The Mercenary made his way to the second floor, his booted steps soundless on the thick rugs, which he stuck to. The house was dark, so he had to be ultra careful not to bump into anything or make any wrong turns. He followed the old woman’s directions, eventually finding the bedroom at the end of the hall, it’s double doors looming up ahead.

He was shocked to find the doors locked, and cursed silently as he reached into a black leather pouch attacked to his sword belt, bringing out two slivers of metal. Glancing over his shoulder, he made sure he hadn’t been seen or heard, then went to work breaking into the lock. Within moments he had access to the room and pushed the door open just enough to squeeze his body into, and shutting it behind him.

The outer room was beautifully appointed with lavish furnishings and thick rugs and wall hangings. The doors to the bedroom chamber were also closed, and again to his surprise, locked. Within moments he had sidestepped the second obstacle, and let himself into the sleeping area. This room was much the same as the outer room, and certainly fit for a princess.

The Mercenary saw Rachel’s thin form lying at the center of the bed, unmoving and uncovered, save for a thin sleeping gown. The windows had been left open, the lacy curtains blowing inward with the night breezes. The figure in the bed was shivering violently, her lips near blue.

Anger bubbled up inside him. Someone wouldn’t treat an animal as this woman was being treated. If he didn’t know better, he might suspect someone was trying to kill the young bride. One thing was sure: all that the King had told Flagley was dead on. He had a right to be concerned and suspicious.

Tamara hurried into the rooms in time to see the man in black lifting the frail form of her lady off the immense mattress, and carefully cradling her in gentle arms. She watched him for a moment, studying his movements and what little of his face she could see. There seemed to be a softening of his features, a gentleness with Rachel that Tamara had seen once before, long ago.

“We must make haste,” a voice said from behind Tamara, nearly scaring her out of her skin. A tall figure stood behind her, his blonde hair drawn back in a tight at his neck. He was dressed similar to the other man, though without the mask.

The Mercenary glanced over at his friend, seeing Tamara standing with him. “Aye. Take the old woman with you to the horses. I’ll follow on Apollo.”

The blonde man nodded then took Tamara by the arm, and without a word nearly ran out of the rooms, his steps stealthy and soft despite his speed. The Mercenary followed quickly, though a bit slower with the bundle in his arms, and trying not to bash her head into anything.

He glanced down at Rachel’s face as they passed a stand of windows, the incoming moonlight painting her features in hues of blue and gray. Her face was so pale, as were her lips, which were full and gently pressed together. Her hair was long, falling in a golden wave over the Mercenary’s arm, and nearly reaching his hip.

Before leaving the bedchamber, he’d covered her with a woolen cloak he’d found, which seemed to help somewhat with the shivering, but not nearly enough to be safe. Her skin was so cold and pale, it gave the impression of the finest Greek statues.

Bursting out into the cold night, the Mercenary sidestepped the body of the fallen guards that littered the entrance into the house, and the yard beyond. In the distance a whinny could be heard, and the Mercenary knew it was his faithful mount, Apollo.

Tamara was already mounted up and ready to go, but Flagley stayed to help get Lady Rachel settled while the Mercenary mounted his steed.

“We must go,” Flagley said, once his dark companion was settled in his saddle, the princess’ limp form carefully secured in front of him.

The Mercenary nodded. “Aye. Yah!” he called to his horse, Apollo speeding off into the night, quickly followed by Tamara and then Flagley.
~~ TEN ~~

Terrence Winston made his way out of the house and towards the stables to feed the horses before the master of the house awoke and wanted his mount for the day. The morning air was chill, his breath white puffs in the torchlight of the pre-dawn hours.

He tugged his cloak a little tighter around himself when the toe of his boot caught on something, nearly sending him sprawling on his face. The torch flew out of his hand and snuffed out in the dew of the grass.

“Bugger!” he exclaims, now in total darkness and very cold. He feels around, trying to see both what had tripped him, and where his torch had gone. His hand rested upon something very cold, which he realized was a hand. It was hard, frozen. Further tactile touch revealed the uniform tunic of a guard, then another, and another and finally a third. Terrance cried out in surprised terror and jumped to his feet, running blindly back towards the house.

Before the sun had risen above the horizon, a flurry of panicked activity spread through the Wynton house like fire.

“How did this happen?” Robert yelled, knocking his guard’s captain to the floor with a powerful close-fisted backhand.

The man brought a hand up, stopping the stream of blood that spilled from his split lip. “I know not, M’lord,” he said, struggling to his feet. “My night guard captain was slain. I know not what his log would have been.”

Robert grabbed the man by the front of his uniform tunic. “You’d best find out.” He shoved him away, disgusted and furious. Who could have attacked and killed his men? Why? What was the purpose? He was about to get his answer.

Mildred ran into the room, her skirts held high so as not to trip. She been sent on a mission by Nancy, who didn’t want to face Robert Wynton at the news. The young chambermaid mad her timid way to her master, half expecting to lose her head at the news she had.

“What is it!?” Lord Wynton screamed when he heard the knock at his study door. “Come in, damn you!”

Mildred swallowed nervously then pushed her way into the large, opulent space. “M’lord?” she said, her voice weak and trembling. The nobleman looked up at her, warning in his gaze. “I’ve been sent to give you a message by the servant Nancy.”

‘Get on with it,” Robert growled between clinched teeth. He had matters to look into, not mess with a foolish girl.

“Lady Rachel is missing, M’lord.”

*****

The Mercenary sipped the hot tea he’d been given, absently as he looked out a second-story window. The rains were coming down in earnest now, as they’d been threatening to do all day. Though it had been cold and uncomfortable, he’d insisted they keep traveling. He knew there needed to be as much distance between them and Lord Robert Wynton before nightfall. And so it was, nightfall.

“You need to rest.”

He turned to see Agatha, Flagley’s mother, standing just beside and behind him. Her concerned brown eyes, so much like her son’s, focused on him. The Mercenary nodded. “Aye. That I do.” He sighed, finishing off his tea. “We must cover a lot of ground tomorrow to get the princess to the cave.”

“Why not rest another day, yet? She is in bad health. You must know that she has been poisoned for some time. Her skin and hair tell a great tale of her abuse and neglect.”

The Mercenary looked at the old woman, carefully keeping his face expressionless. He couldn’t allow himself to be moved by such news. Not anymore. “Will she live?” he asked, his voice calm and even.

Agatha nodded. “Aye. But she will need help. You were wise to bring along her lady. I believe she will be of great assistance to you and to the princess.”

He nodded. “Good.” He let out a deep sigh. He was indeed tired, but mostly in his heart, which he hadn’t felt in a great many months. As he stared out upon the night again he made up his mind. “We leave on the morrow.” He smiled down at the woman who had saved his life, and whose son had become his greatest ally and truest friend. “I don’t wish to put you in danger, Agatha,” he said gently. “Your kindness cannot be repaid through violence, and you’ve no idea how violent and evil the man who chases us can be. Look what he did to his wife. I will not chance your safety.”

Agatha smiled, her heart soaring at the kind and gentle nature of the man before her. She had grown close to him during his recovery. She reached up and with gentle, maternal fingers touched the scar on his cheek that would forever mar the perfection of his face. “This is personal for you, and I understand that. But do not allow hatred and vengeance get in the way of what is right, and what is right is for that girl to be allowed to heal and be free.”

“And she will. That is what I’ve been paid to do.” The Mercenary’s voice grew a hard edge, his will to squash any emotions or feeling of the situation apparent. “I will do what is right for her.”

“I know you will.” Agatha patted him on the arm, then left him alone.

The Mercenary continued his vigil at the window for another hour before deciding to go to bed. On his way to the room he’d used for many months, he stopped at a closed door, knowing that the princess lay just beyond. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed the doorknob and slowly, quietly turned it. The door opened easily and made no noise as it was pushed open.

Once inside, he made his way across the moonlit room, easily able to see the frail figure that lay in the small bed near the wall. He had to be careful, as Tamara was asleep on a cot nearby. Rachel had yet to come to consciousness that day, and the Mercenary knew both Agatha and Tamara were worried about her. Throughout the evening they’d taken turns watching over her and giving her herbs to try and counter the effects of whatever had been given to her.

Rachel’s face was so thin and pale, her cheeks sunken. It was a shock, considering the beautiful, vibrant woman she’d once been. As he looked down at her, a gentleness washed over him that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. Too long. Reaching out a hand, he brushed her cheek with the tips of callused fingers, always amazed at the softness he found there. So soft. So warm. What he wouldn’t do to see those green eyes open and look at him.

As though the Heavens had answered his wish, Rachel’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused and glazed, but open. She looked at him wordlessly, trying to focus her gaze. The Mercenary was unable to look away, once again finding himself getting lost in the depths of the rich color.

“She is awake?” Tamara said softly from beside him.

He was angry that his attention had been so drawn to Rachel that he hadn’t even noticed Tamara’s person. “Aye,” he said gruffly, turning to leave the room. “Make sure she is well. We leave on the morrow.”

Tamara watched him leave, a knowing smile curving her lips.

*****

The ground was soggy and wet, which made travel slow. The Mercenary was getting frustrated at their pace, but nothing could be done. They were having to stop about once an hour to clean the horse’s hooves, as they were getting caked with thick, heavy clay-mud, which slowed the progress even more.

They were on a steady walk now, unable to go much faster than a trot. A run was out of the question, even on more stable, solid ground as it would be far too easy for one of the horses to lose it’s footing. Someone could get hurt, or a horse could go lame, and that would be disastrous.

“Bloody rains,” the Mercenary growled, looking up into the skies above. The clouds were fat and pregnant with rains yet to come. It had been raining off and on all morning and into the afternoon. It was showing no signs of stopping, especially by the looks of those clouds.

“Think we should stop?” Flagley asked, also eyeing the heavens. He met his friend’s gaze. “Me thinks this won’t let up, but will get worse.”

The Mercenary sighed. “Aye. I agree.” The clicked his tongue, urging his mount to head off into the trees that surrounded them, Flagley and Tamara taking the lead. The blonde man knew the area well, and knew of a cave the four could stay in for the night. It would be cold and somewhat damp, but at least it would get them out of the coming storm.

Rachel felt listless and like her world was very surreal. For the first time in she wasn’t sure how long, she was conscious. She knew Tamara was with her, as she’d seen her, but had no idea who else was. Her vision was fuzzy at times, her ears ringing. She felt weak and deeply fatigued, which was amusing, considering she’d spent the past half of the year asleep.

She felt the warmth and strength of the strange man behind her in the saddle, but somehow she wasn’t frightened of him. She felt comforted on some level. As the horse’s gentle stride rocked her, she allowed herself to lean back into him and closed her eyes.

The Mercenary looked down at his bundle, able to feel her body relax against him. Rachel had been awake off and on, which made him feel better. It seemed as though she were dozing again, and had decided to use him as a living chair-back. It warmed his heart but chilled his blood, all at the same time. He returned his focus to the path ahead, not allowing her nearness to affect him, just as he hadn’t allowed himself to be affected by anything in nearly a year. He couldn’t afford to, as that was what had gotten him in the situation he was in, in the first place.

The cave Flagley led them to was much, much smaller than the cave fortress they had, but it would definitely work. The two men dismounted their horses, then each helped the lady down that had been riding with them.

The Mercenary grabbed Rachel at the waist and easily lifted her out of the saddle, her frame thin and very light. She rested her hands on his shoulders as she was lowered to the ground, her legs too weak to hold her up. He reached down and swept her into her arms, carrying her into the cave, which Flagley had already entered. He and Tamara were working to light torches that he had left there months before.

“Set her over here,” Tamara said, guiding the man in black to the makeshift bed she’d made with her cloak.

Rachel was set down with care, her weakened state leaving her helpless. Blue eyes looked out from the mask that covered so much of his face. Rachel stared up at him, noticing the scar that peeked out from underneath the fabric. She reached up a finger and lightly touched it, feeling the indentation against her skin.

“What happened to you?” she whispered, her throat tight and raw from lack of use.

The Mercenary gently took her hand in his, taking it from his skin. “Fight, M’lady,” he said softly.

She looked at him, her brows drawing just a moment before her eyes fluttered shut again. The man in black continued to stare down at her, trying to restore his equilibrium, which had been shaken terribly.

He stood and walked away, letting Tamara take care of her charge as the man in black went to help his friend start a fire and gather food.

*****

Night had well and truly fallen when Flagley went to look for his friend. He found him sitting outside the cave, acting as the watchman. Truth be told, Flagley knew he simply didn’t wish to be inside.

“How goes it?” he asked, climbing up onto the rock top of the cave, adjusting his sword to sit more comfortably at his hip.

The man in black glanced at him before looking back into the sky, which had cleared somewhat after a nasty storm. “All’s well.”

Flagley nodded, glad to hear it. After a moment, he said, “She’s beautiful. Just like you said.”

The Mercenary looked at his friend again. “Do not,” was all he said.

Flagley smiled, grabbing a dagger from his belt to pick his nail with. “You have handled well, my friend. You are not in an easy position.”

The man in black sighed, shaking his head. “No. I am not.” He reached up and tugged his mask off, shaggy black hair falling free. He rubbed the skin of his face with a callused hand, glad to be free of his protection for a moment. “This could mean my head, John.” He sighed and looked at his friend. “Should she or the old woman decide to turn me in. I’m finished. In case that happens I want you to ride out of here as fast as you can. No need for you to suffer my past.”

“You think the King will not pardon you? After all, ‘twas you who saved his daughter, Conley.”

He sighed and help up the covering that had been his mask for near a year. “Nay. ‘Twas the Mercenary who saved his daughter, not a lowly, condemned stable boy.”

John Flagley studied his friend for a long moment, then shook his head, looking out into the dark woods. “Where do we go from here?”

“I’ll ride out at dawn, see if we’ve been followed. See if I can find out anything. You stay here and watch the women.”

John looked at him with surprised. “Wantin’ to lose your head, are you? You know you cannot, Conley. The plan stays as it always does, no matter how much you might wish to escape that frail girl in there. You’re staying where your head might stay attached a bit longer.”

Conley sighed, knowing full well Flagley was right. All the same, he hated and resented it. “You know, the last night before I was condemned to lose my head to the axe man, I had all but given up on the thought of life. I had been accused of such a crime that was suitable for a nasty death, yet I had committed it not.”

John listened to his friend, having heard this story many times before. He knew Conley needed to talk, the source of his deepest pain so close by. “Aye,” he said, encouraging the other man to continue.

“When she left my cell, damning me for all eternity, I believed her. I wanted that for myself, too. My face hurt, my body hurt, my very soul hurt.” He sighed, closing his eyes as he tried to block out the pain that had risen once more.

“What made you steal that hairpin, Conley?” John asked softly. “What made you want to live?”

“She sent food.” Conley chuckled softly, shaking his head in disbelief. “She sent food and wine to dull my senses. She even sent medicines to help with the pain.”

“Why did she do that?”

Conley shook his head. “I know not. But in that moment, when Tamara bent down to grab that napkin, I knew it was then or never at all. Maybe, just maybe I’d find freedom somehow. Maybe Rachel would forgive me for both crimes real and false.” He looked at his friend. “I am a fool, John.”

John shook his head. “Nay. You loved her.”

Conley nodded, looking down at the material he held in his hands. “That I did.”

“Well,” John smiled, slapping his friend’s leg. “Good thing the guards feared Wynton so much. When they saw you’d gone they knew ‘twould be their head, and not yours.”

“Aye.” Conley smiled, a bit of brutish pride filling him. “Shame that prisoner had to die in my stead.”

“Well, they had to have some body,” John said, grinning wide.

“Yes. I’m not entirely sure if the story was ever fully believed by anyone – that I had been killed during an attempt at escaping. But,” he said with a sigh, “here I am. Sitting atop a cave with the Lady Rachel hiding within.” Both men laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.

“Aye, that you are. Come.” John jumped down from their perch. “Let us get rest.”

~~ ELEVEN ~~

A scream was torn from the upstairs bedroom, followed by several gasps for breath and a low, murmuring voice, trying to comfort the soon-to-be mother. Allison’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut as her body convulsed and spasmed, desperately trying to push the child out.

“Another nice push, luv,” cooed the midwife, who beginning to grow concerned. The lady had been pushing for hours, her hair sweat-soaked to her skin, as was her sleeping gown. There was also a great deal of blood. Far too much blood. “Luv,” the old woman said, grunting as she stood to look into Allison’s eyes. “The child is not wanting to come.”

The young princess looked at the midwife with tired, pleading eyes. “Why not?”

The midwife shook her head. “I know not. I must remove her.”

Without hesitation, Allison nodded. “Do what you must.” She just wished desperately that Robert were with her. If only he truly loved her.

*****

“What word?” Lord Wynton asked, slowing his horse as his guard captain approached.

“It’s being said that rat, Mercenary has been seen.” He waited for his head to be lopped off, but was immensely relieved when all he got was a glare.

“That bastard,” Wynton growled. “Should have known.” He turned back to his man. “Take as many guards as you need. You find out all that you can, and then you hunt him like the dog he is. If I have not his head, I’ll have yours. Understood?”

“Aye!” The captain turned his mount around and galloped off to do his master’s bidding.

Robert sat astride his mount for a long moment, thinking. He had to find Rachel, and he had to find her fast. If he did not, it could mean war from the King. Not only that, his plan would be all for naught. With the laws governing the land, if a married Rachel were to die, the throne would go to her living sibling. With Rachel out of the picture, Robert would be free to marry Allison, who would then be next in line for the throne. Robert’s grin was dark as it spread across his face.

“And with Allison gone…”

He kicked his horse into action, racing back towards his estate.

*****

The midwife was frantic as she tried to stem the blood flow. The chambermaid had the crying child in arms, cleaning her off, but now the mother was in grave danger.

“Take the child out of here!” she yelled to Mildred, who scurried from the room, the newborn’s cries in her wake. “Stay with me, child,” the old woman said, tossing yet another bloodied cloth aside. “Stay with me.”

*****

Rachel sat against the stone of the cave, warmed by the fire that danced not far. She was sipping a cup of herbal tea, a specialty of Tamara’s. She remembered it from the time she was a child.

“I’ve missed your special tea, Tamara,” she said, a small bit of color returning to her skin. She was still far too thin and frail, but life was coming back to reclaim the once ravenous princess.

“I’ve missed serving it to you, M’lady,” the lady-in-waiting said, more than happy for her former occupation to be restored. They shared a fond smile. “How are you feeling?”

“Stronger. My head is still somewhat fuzzy at times, but much, much stronger.”

“Excellent news.”

Both women turned to see the Mercenary standing at the mouth of the cave, a stack of wood piled in his arms. Mask firmly in place, he entered the retreat and gently lay the wood in a pile against the wall. He walked out of the cave again, only to return a moment later holding two slain rabbits by their ears.

“M’lady, if you wouldn’t mind?” he said, holding them out to Tamara, who immediately got to her feet and took the animals to skin and clean them for cooking. He looked to Rachel, who was sipping her tea and staring into the flames. A jolt of nerves went through him. She was obviously faring much better, which was a relief, but at the same time, having her awake and alert made him uneasy.

“What do you mean to do with me?” the princess asked quietly after a moment.

Conley squatted down near the fire, also staring into the flames. “I mean to keep you alive until I can return you to your father. He is who bade me to fetch you.”

“Why?” Rachel felt as though she’d been living a horrible nightmare for such a long time. She felt she didn’t know herself very well anymore, nor what had become of her.

“He was worried, M’lady. Your husband,” he couldn’t help but spit the words out, bitterness lacing his voice, “felt the need to keep you drugged and near death. The good King had not seen his eldest in some time, and grew concerned.”

Rachel studied the man in the black mask for a long moment. Her gaze traveled over his form, taking in the black, leather breeches, flowing black shirt with laces at the collar. His mask finished the vision of black. Blue eyes stared back at her from it’s dark depths. “Then I am in your debt,” she said at length, bowing her head to him.

Conley smirked. “’Tis your father who is in my debt.” He pushed to his feet, uncomfortable with the nearness to the lady. “Eat well this morn, M’lady. We will likely be on the road by dark.”

“By dark?” Rachel asked, tea forgotten.

“I’ve found travel by night makes it far more difficult for those who chase me to follow, M’lady.” He gave her a bow, then walked out of the cave with sure, confident strides.

Rachel watched him go, trying to figure out who this dark man was. She sensed danger about him, and felt to cross him was not wise. All the same, his arrogance nipped at her, bringing a bit of a fire alive in her once more.

Tamara nearly had the two rabbits skinned when the man in black emerged from the mouth of the cave, his stride far quicker than need be. The lady-in-waiting chuckled. “Little lady scare you off, lad?” she asked, unable to help teasing the man.

Conley stopped and glanced over at the woman. He wanted to be angry at her for calling him on his behavior, but he couldn’t find it within himself to do so. Instead, he decided to join her. A decision for which he might regret later.

“You’ve done nicely with our breakfast, M’lady,” he said, attempting to steer the conversation away from himself.

Tamara glanced down at the animals, pleased by the Mercenary’s words. “I thank you, M’lord. ‘Tis been awhile since I was made to feel so useful by those who appreciate what I do.” She gave him a small smile. “Not since my days back at the King’s castle.” She paused for a moment, deciding her next words well. “Have you still got my hairpin, then?”

Conley looked at her, his blood freezing in his veins. For a moment he could not speak, but finally found his voice, though it was weak. “M’lady?”

Tamara never missed a beat in her task of preparing the meat for the stew she had in mind. “Worry not, M’lord. I’ve no intention of telling you out.” She smiled at him yet again, giving soft comfort in her words.

Conley was struck, not sure what to do or say. So he had been recognized. He knew in his heart Tamara would never tell the world, but he also knew that her loyalty lay with Lady Rachel. Lady Rachel is one of the people who had condemned him in the first place! He took a steadying breath.

“Lady Rachel need not worry. As soon as I complete this job, I shall be out of her life for good. Just as she wished it.” His voice was quiet, filled with sadness that he could not keep from it.

Tamara stopped her task and turned to him, careful not to touch him with her gore-covered hands. “Conley,” she said softly, “she does not hate you. Far from it. The day she was told you’d been killed…,” her voice trailed off, remembering. “Well, she died that day. Her love for you has not dimmed.”

Conley felt anger build, as he did not want to believe the old woman’s words. “No,” he said, firm. “She condemned me as much as her father and Lord Wynton.” His strength and resolve built with every word. “She made her choices, M’lady.” And with those final words, he made his way off into the woods.

*****

Flagley jumped off his mount before the horse had even fully stopped, eager to get the news to Conley. The trio were seated in the cave, quietly eating a wonderful-smelling stew.

“Saved you some,” Conley said, nodding towards the bit of thick stew left in the small iron pot the men carried in their gear.

“Well, eat quickly because we will soon have company. Wynton suspects who has Lady Rachel, and he’s madder than a hornet on fire.”

Conley sighed, chewing the last bit of rabbit stew. He figured this would be the case, though he’d hoped to be able to wait until dark to move. He thought for a minute, trying to decide what was the best and safest way to work. Were it just he and John, they would stand and fight. He glanced over at Rachel, who was looking back and forth between the men, eyes wide. Though much improved, she was still very weak.

“Alright. We’ll move out within the hour.” Conley set aside his bowl and headed out to ready the horses. Rachel followed.

“M’lord!” she called out, much of her energy zapped in her haste to reach him. She was out of breath and had to lean on a large boulder for a moment to collect herself.

Conley looked at her, about to assist but decided not to. She would resent such help, and he knew it. “M’lady, you should be getting ready to go.”

“Leave me here,” she said, gaining her strength. “If Robert finds you, he’ll kill all of you.” Her eyes were wide with her fear. “Let me go to him. Perhaps it’ll stop him from following.”

Conley was incredulous. “And makes you think he won’t kill you, M’lady? If you don’t recall, that is exactly what he was trying to do to you – kill you.”

“My life is not worth three. Please, let me go to him.”

Conley studied her for a long moment, his old feelings beginning to rise. “I see. So, yet again you’d rather go with that wretch than with me?” The words were out and regretted before he could think.

Rachel looked at him, baffled. “M’lord?”

Conley returned his attention to the horses. “I’m sorry, M’lady. I will not follow your orders again.” He glanced at her, business in his eyes. “We do this my way.”

Rachel grew angry. She had just offered to sacrifice herself so the other three could escape, and here it was being pushed back in her face. Her royal breeding was rising to the surface. She walked over to where he tended to his horse. “How dare you speak to me this way! I was trying to be helpful!”

Conley sighed, in no mood for a confrontation with the princess. “And your help is not needed in this situation, M’lady.” He looked at her, daring her to argue. He should have known better.

“Then perhaps Tamara and I should go on by ourselves. We do not need a rogue who treats me as such.”

Now Conley was beginning to lose his temper. He turned to her, bending down so they were nearly nose to nose. “As you wish,” he said, voice low and dangerous. He knew he was going to say something else, so stormed off into the trees to cool off.

Rachel stared after him, mouth hanging open in shock and confusion.

“M’lady,” John Flagley said, hurrying over to the princess to stop her from following his friend. He had heard the entire thing, and knew things were going to get far worse before they got better. “We must not tarry. The situation is very bleak.”

Rachel turned to him, not seeing him for a moment as she blinked away tears. After a moment she meekly nodded and headed back into the cave.

~~ TWELVE ~~

“You must make haste,” the midwife hissed to the young servant. “Ride as fast and hard as you can, lad.” She thrust the wrapped bundle into his arms, as well as a sack filled with what he would need.

Without a word, the boy scurried out of the house and towards the stables, ever watchful to not be caught. He was on a mission of grave importance.

The midwife watched him go, relief filling her once the horse raced off into the distance. She hurried back to the upstairs bedroom where the body of Lady Allison was being cared for. She only prayed that Lord Wynton was as cold and callused as she was counting on him to be. Word was he was nearly to the estate, so everything had to be taken care of before he arrived.

She didn’t have to wait long.

Robert stormed into the house, intending to pen messages for help from nearby armies of the ruler of his lands. He was nearly to his study when the servant woman Nancy approached him.

“Lord Wynton,” she said, her voice low. The older woman had been part of Wynton’s household since he was a boy. He felt a certain fondness for her. A certain kindred spirit.

“Yes, Nancy, what is it? Make haste, woman, as I haven’t time for chat.” He pushed past her and continued on to his study, the servant wench following.

“Lord, I have grievous news for you.”

Wynton threw himself into the chair behind his desk, blowing out a heavy sigh. He was tired, as it had been an early, and long day. “What is it?”

“Lady Allison gave birth this morning, M’lord.” She waited for his reaction to such news, and there wasn’t much to speak of. “Nor she nor child survived the ordeal, M’lord.”

Robert stared at the trusted woman for a long moment, the news slowly sinking in. Allison was dead? He cared not for the child, as it would have been considered a bastard anyway. But Allison was dead? To his surprise, he felt a slightest ping in his chest. A touch of sorrow.

“I see,” he said quietly. Not only was it an emotional loss, it would prove most distressing for the King, and to Wynton’s situation. Things were dire, if not lethal. “Thank you, Nancy. Leave me.”

Nancy curtsied then hurried from the study, shutting the door behind her.

Robert sat alone, trying to rethink his plan and figure out where it had gone so wrong.

*****

The four rode on through the day, into the night and early morning hours. Much distance had been made, but at a heavy cost to the horses. They were tired and ridden hard, and had very little left to give.

“We break here,” Conley said, slowing his steed down near a clearing. They’d have to camp out in the open this night, as there were no good caves nearby, nor refuge of an inn. “Flagley, we’ll put the women between us.”

Wordlessly, camp was set up, a fire made and wood gathered. Conley had spoken not one word to Rachel during the whole of their travels that day, nor had she spoken to him. Soon, hopefully the entire situation would be finished, and they could both ride their separate ways in life.

Everyone was exhausted as they lay in their bedrolls. It had been such a long, trying day. The night was cold, and though John and Conley were used to such conditions, Tamara and certainly Rachel, were not. Rachel was shivering badly, the cold ground seeping into her bones, and the cold air blowing down on her. She opened her eyes and saw the dark form of the Mercenary in front of her. He was facing her she knew, but she could not see his face, though she tried. The moon was not full, the night terribly dark. Suddenly she felt as though she were being watched.

“Is all well, M’lady?” Conley asked softly, so as not to wake the others.

“I am well,” Rachel lied, even as she continued to freeze.

“M’lady shivers,” he said, compassion filling him. “Come, M’lady. Let us warm you.” He drew the frail body to him, wrapping her in both his arms and his cloak.

Rachel buried her cold face in a warm neck, sighing at the wonderful feeling of warmth. She felt so safe and secure within the embrace that she soon fell to sleep, able to forget about the dangers they faced in shadowy bliss.

Conley felt a gentleness wash over him, that which only Rachel seemed to pull from him. She always had. He stroked her golden hair in long, comforting strokes. He wasn’t sure whom it was comforting more: Rachel or himself.

For a moment it crossed Conley’s mind that he should tell Rachel his true identity. What would happen? What would be her reaction? Relieved happiness the he was alive? Bitter anger that he did not die? How was it that Tamara figured him out? He still intended to ask her that question.

At long last sleep claimed Conley. He held Rachel tightly against him, wrapped in strong arms of protection.

*****

As the morning fell to afternoon, two horses and four riders made good time. The day was far warmer than the night had been, and the land was drying out from the two days of rains. They had just started up again after stopping for lunch when they heard the sounds of yelling and whinnying horses.

Conley glanced over at John, who had also heard it. They edged out of a thicket of woods to see a group of three armed men on horses who had pinned in a young boy, a bundle held tightly to his chest.

“William!” Tamara breathed, focused on the boy.

One of the men had dismounted his horse and slashed the throat of the boy’s horse, causing boy and bundle to fall to the ground as the mount fell out from under him.

“Do not lie to me!” the guard yelled, kicking the boy in the stomach with the toe of his boot. The boy cried out in pain. “By Lord Wynton’s orders, deserters must die.”

Conley jumped off is horse before the mount had stopped, a full run at the fray. He was too late for the boy as the solder’s blade sank deep into his med-section. Conley body slammed the guard, surprising him for only a moment before they began to fight in earnest.

John dismounted his own steed, running full speed to help his friend. He ran towards one of the men who was still on horseback, knocking him off and to the ground with a loud grunt.

Rachel watched in fascination as their two protectors fought the three men. As she watched the man in black, something came to her. She watched his fighting style, realizing he used his blade as little as possible, preferring to disarm his opponent, not kill him.

She had seen such fighting before. As she watched the man in black, she felt as though she were watching a memory come to life. But where had she seen it? Her mind was beginning to recover, but kept everything – including many of her past memories – seeming to be far away, and just out of complete understanding and recall.

Conley knew that the men had to die, as they were Wynton’s men. He didn’t want to have to kill them, but there was no other way. The men would follow, or would be able to tell others which way the princess had gone.

Everyone was startled when the cry of a baby broke the afternoon. For just a moment the fighting stopped, everyone looking to the bundle by the dead servant boy.

Conley pressed the advantage of his distracted opponent and cold-cocked him with the pommel of his blade. The man went down, falling to one knee. The soldier saw the death blow coming, and only seconds too late tried to block it. He fell to the ground holding his mortal wound.

Tamara ran to the bundle, bravely running through the fray until she grabbed the child and hurried back to where Rachel waited. Together they looked at the swaddled infant.

“Allison’s child,” Tamara whispered.

Rachel nodded, knowing in her heart of hearts that it was in fact her niece or nephew. “What is it doing out here with that boy?”

The lady-in-waiting shook her head. “I know not. Unless Allison is trying to protect it from it’s father.”

Rachel looked at her. “It’s father is dead,” she said, her voice bitter.

Tamara shook her head vehemently, at both declarations, though Rachel was not aware of the second. “No, M’lady. This child was not fathered by Conley. This child owes it’s roots to Robert Wynton.”

The princess could only stare in disbelief.

John dispatched the man he’d been fighting, leaving only one to face both he and Conley. The fight was over quickly, the man trying to run but was caught by the long legs of Conley. He went down with a soft groan, mortally wounded, but not dead. Conley wanted answers.

He crouched down in front of the dying man, holding him up by the front of his tunic. “Why did you kill this boy?” he asked.

The soldier looked at him, blood falling from the corner of his mouth like drool. “Lord Wynton wanted anyone dead who escaped his estate,” the soldier said, followed by a cough.

“You know who I am, don’t you?” Conley asked, seeing the man’s nod. “How many more parties of you are there?” The man didn’t answer, coughing up more blood. “Tell me and we can get you medical help.”

More blood dripped from the man’s lips. “Four,” he barely managed before his final breath sighed from his lungs and he fell limp.

Conley let him drop, disgusted.

“It’s too late for the boy,” John said, walking over to his friend. “He’s dead.”

Conley sighed with a nod. “Aye.”

Tired and spattered with blood, Conley walked over to the two women, wiping his bloodied blade on the tunic of one of the men he passed. “What is this child?” he asked, looking into the tiny face of the newborn. “Very young.”

“Maybe a day old,” Tamara said. “’Tis Lady Rachel’s –“ she checked the sex of the child. “niece.”

Conley felt a slight burn in his belly, as this child was purported to be his. He would have lost his life – and certainly did lose his love – because of it. “Why was it out here with that boy?”

“We know not,” Rachel said, taking her from Tamara’s arms. She looked into the tiny face, so wrinkly and red. “She’s so beautiful.” She placed a soft kiss upon the forehead.

“My guess is either Lady Allison did not survive childbirth and the child was sent away, or she sent the child to the King, knowing she would be safe there.”

Rachel looked at her sister, eyes wide. “Are you saying my sister may be dead?”

Before Tamara could respond, Conley stepped between them, looking down at Rachel with hard eyes. “Do not cry for that loss, M’lady. She was a treacherous viper who helped to put you in the situation for which you are now.”

There was such conviction in the man’s words that Rachel couldn’t make herself argue. She looked into his eyes, wanting so badly to remove the mask he wore.

“This child is a gift to you, M’lady,” he continued. “Raise her as she would not have been raised by her mother and father.” With those words, he walked away, heading to his horse. “We mount!” he called out.

As night fell they neared a small village, which looked friendly enough. There was a single tavern in town with an inn attached, and John promptly booked two rooms. A woman would stay with each of the warriors to guarantee their safety, as there was not a room large enough for the four of them, plus a newborn babe.

Rachel requested the presence of the man in black, as she felt safe with him. Conley, f course was not keen on this and ignored the snigger from both Tamara and Flagley. They had settled into the tiny room they’d been rented. Against one wall was a small bed, barely big enough for two. A small table rested against the other wall, a chamber pot atop it and a simple candle and holder.

“This is quaint,” Rachel said softly, looking around the drab room.

“Aye,” Conley agreed, still trying to figure out how he was going to manage this. How could he not remove his mask and not draw attention to the fact that he refused? He supposed he could do as he had done the previous nights: remove it once the room was dark then make sure he was up first.

Rachel looked at the bed, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to imagine if there would be enough room. She was terrified having the child with her, as she knew nothing of children and how to care for a newborn.

“Worry not, M’lady. You and the child take the bed. I’ll sit in the chair and keep watch over you.”

Rachel shook her head. “No. You’ll be exhausted tomorrow, and we need you strong and alert. What if we’re attacked again?” She shook her head again. “There is plenty of room.”

Conley sighed, knowing better than to argue. Rachel was nearly full-strength, and her mind was nearly as sharp as it had once been. Certainly her stubborn streak was in tact. “I’ll get us food and something to feed the child. Get settled in.” Without another word Conley left the small room, in search of dinner for a family.

He snickered. A family. What rubbish. There was no family here. Other than perhaps Rachel and her niece, and maybe Tamara. After the princess was safely delivered to the King, the rest of their gold would be picked up and Conley and John would be off to fight another day.

He felt sadness wash over him as he placed their order at the bar. As he waited he sat down, looking out over the dark room, looking for any sign of trouble or unwanted interest. His mind drifted back to the woman upstairs. What made him almost more sad than anything was knowing that no matter what outcome would have occurred nearly a year before, the Lady Rachel would never have loved him. Could never have loved him. She would have been loving and living a lie, just as Conley had done his whole life

“I’m a fraud,” he muttered, self-hatred and recrimination abounded. Rarely anymore did it rise to the surface, as there usually wasn’t need for it to. Rarely did anyone see him as anything other than a cutthroat thief and, well, mercenary. It was the reputation he’d worked hard to bring to pass, and now that it had, it was all he had.

“Your dinner,” the barmaid said, setting down a small pot of stew, plate or bread and large flask of mead. A mug of fresh milk followed.

Conley paid her and made his way up the stairs, nearly running John over in the process. His friend put a hand to his arm.

“Good luck, my friend,” he said, a smile curling his lips.

Conley shot him a dirty look and continued to his room, John’s laughter following him. Inside, Rachel had managed to make a bit of a make-shift bed for the baby by fashioning one of their saddle bags into a bassinet. The child was sleeping soundly, comfortable and safe, surrounded by soft warmth from the blanket it had been swaddle in, as well as Rachel’s cloak.

Rachel sat on the bed, looking rather nervous and like a little girl.

“Hungry?” Conley asked, trying to put her more at ease. He set his offerings on the small table, opening the flask of mead and taking a healthy drink. Soon Rachel joined him there.

They ate in silence for a long moment before the princess spoke. “You remind me of someone,” she said, taking a bite of the tough rye bread, all the while studying her companion.

“Oh?” Conley said, part of him nervous, part of him very curious.

“Yes. Yes, you do.”

“And, who is this lucky fellow who I remind you of?”

Rachel stared at him for a long moment, trying t put the pieces together in her mind. Who was it, indeed. Then she remembered. “He was a servant, given to my father by Robert, ironically.” She was looking off into the past as she spoke, her voice growing soft and wistful. “He was a kind person. A beautiful spirit.”

Conley listened, lost in the same memories as Rachel. He wanted so badly in that moment to pull off his mask and proclaim that he was there! Right there with her!

“He was beautiful,” Rachel said, nodding as she remembered Conley’s face, so clear to her mind’s eye. “I had thought he loved me,” she said, her voice growing softer yet. “I thought I had found love.”

“What happened?” Conley asked, his voice just as soft, harking back to the stable boy he’d once been.

Rachel looked up, meeting his eyes. Blue eyes. “I was betrayed.”

The simple statement tore through Conley’s heart, ripping the wound that he had thought healed, wide open. He looked down at his hands, unable to look at Rachel. He was about to come clean with her, tell her who he was – who she was. There was no reason to keep the complete ruse from her anymore. Rachel deserved to know.

“Rachel,” he began, but was cut off when the baby began to cry. They both looked over to where the newborn had been asleep in it’s makeshift bed.

Rachel hurried over to the child, picking her up and cooing softly to her as she carried her back to the table.

“Here,” Conley said, pushing the milk over to the princess. They both stared at the mug, wondering exactly how a newborn babe was supposed to drink from a mug. “Wait,” he said, “I have an idea.”

Rachel watched as the man in black removed a clean rag from his travel bag and bring it to the table. He dipped one corner into the mug until the material was saturated. Rachel smiled, beginning to get the idea.

“Nicely done,” she complimented, taking the rag and allowing the baby to suck on it, just as she’d suck on her mother’s breast. They both watched in utter fascination as the infant’s instincts took over, and she began to suckle the saturated cloth, drinking the milk in. Rachel stroked the child’s soft cheek, seeing her sister in the baby’s features. “What were you going to say?” she asked softly, sparing a glance at her companion.

Conley was fixated, watching aunt and niece as the brand new child ate one of her first meals.

Rachel felt her heart swell as love filled it. She felt the connection to the child, and felt she would’ve known that they were kin no matter how she would have made the infant’s acquaintance. “Can I ask you something?” she said quietly, her eyes still resting on the bundle in her arms.

“Of course, M’lady.”

“Do you believe my sister is dead?”

Conley studied her for a moment, trying to decide what to say. “Truth?”

“Truth.”

“If she were alive, I do not believe the child would be here with you now.”

Rachel nodded slowly. “I agree.”

After the baby was fed, Rachel changed the diaper cloth, which both she and Conley were desperate to get rid of. Conley ran outside and quickly rinsed the cloth out in a small pond behind the tavern, then left the cloth to dry over the rail in his horse’s stall. When he returned to the room, Rachel had the baby resting peacefully in her arms as she lay on one side of the bed, leaving the other half for Conley.

“She’s almost asleep,” Rachel whispered.

Conley looked down at woman and child. “What will you name her?”

Rachel looked down at the angle who slept in her arms. “Emily. After our mother.” She smiled and placed a kiss on the child’s forehead, then rested her head down on the scratchy pillow.

“’Tis a lovely name, M’lady,” Conley said, blowing out the candle on the table. The room was sent into darkness as he sat on one of the chairs and removed his boots, weapons, then lastly, his mask. He climbed into the small bed, only able to lay on his side – as Rachel was – and not fall off the other side. Rachel scooted back into him, Conley automatically wrapping an arm around her waist, and a lying a protective hand on Emily’s tiny body. Soon, he fell asleep.
~~ THIRTEEN ~~

Conley could feel Rachel shivering against him as the party of four made their way through the increasingly brutal winds and snow. It had begun snowing the night before, and hadn’t let up all day. They were close to the caves, and Conley and John’s main hideout, but the weather was getting worse.

Conley slowed his horse, waiting for John and Tamara to catch up. He leaned over close to Flagley to be heard above the howling winds. “I don’t know how much longer the princess and baby can take this!” he shouted.

John glanced over at Conley’s passengers, and could feel the lady-in-waiting shivering behind him, as well. He nodded. “I agree, but we’ve got to make it to the caves! There’s nowhere else to stop and take sanctuary.”

Conley nodded. “Alright. Let’s keep going, but make haste!”

The two horses were kicked into gear again, the two continuing to trudge through the strengthening storm.

*****

Captain Hashtrid pulled tried to keep her cloak from blowing away from his body, which felt half-frozen. His boots made deep footsteps in the fallen snow, but were quickly once again covered by the new snow and blowing winds. He used the tip of his blade to lift the tail of the tunic the dead man on the ground wore.

“Ours,” he said, confirming what he’d already suspected. When the fifth party had not arrived to meet the other groups within two days of the planned meeting, he knew something was wrong. Barely visible beneath the snow were the bodies of three more. He knew there were only four in the party, so who was the fourth?

The frozen face of a young servant boy the captain recognized from the Wynton house stared back up at him. Hashtrid knew there was no way a young boy could have killed three trained soldiers. He stood erect, looking out around them. Not much could be seen, as there was nearly a total white-out, but he had a strong feeling.

Hashtrid hurried back to his horse and mounted up. This would have to be dealt with later, as he and his men needed shelter to ride out the storm.

*****

Between the knowledge of the two warriors and their horses, John and Conley managed to miss all their traps, set for anyone who should want to attack their hidden fortress.

Conley was nearly frozen to death as the horses clomped their way into the stone confines of their stable. He dismounted, helping Rachel and the baby off the large animal. He looked at the princess, alarmed to see that her lips were blue.

“I’m sorry, M’lady,” he whispered, quickly rubbing her arms to try and breathe some heat into them. “We shall have a fire started shortly. I’ll get you into the hot springs, as well.”

Rachel nodded, her teeth chattering. Tamara hurried to her lady’s side.

“Come, M’lady,” she said, her own teeth chattering and body shivering violently.

John helped Conley get the horses settled and fed, then hurried after the women so as they wouldn’t get lost. They all ended up in the large living space, John moving around the room lighting the mounted torches, illuminating the way. Both Rachel and Tamara looked around in awe, having no idea that what seemed like a simple cave was actually a posh fortress.

“Come, ladies,” Conley said, taking a torch from one of the sconces and leading them down a dark corridor, the stone walls cool, the space smelling of minerals and earth. “I will show you where you’ll be staying until the storm passes.”

Rachel was still cold, but she was so amazed by what she was seeing that she was able to forget about it for a moment. Besides, at lease she was no longer in the driving snow.

“Will this do?” Conley asked, though it didn’t matter the answer, as it was the best there was to offer. The torchlight revealed a huge, beautiful bed at the center of the large space, the canopy rising high into the dark depths of the thirty-foot ceiling. “I can bring in a cot for you, M’lady,” he said, nodding to Tamara. Turning back to look at Rachel, Conley realized that she was still shivering violently. “Come.”

Rachel handed Emily to a waiting Tamara, then followed Conley out of the beautiful, natural space, back into the dark corridor, Conley lighting torches in the bedroom area on the way out.

“’Tis so quiet in here,” Rachel said, trying not to be frightened as she was led deeper into the fortress. Her voice was little more than a whisper, as she felt to speak up would be inappropriate somehow.
“Aye,” Conley agreed, continuing deeper into the recesses of the cave.

They emerged into a smaller chamber, the warmth meeting their chilled skin before they had even rounded the corner. Rachel’s steps slowed as she looked around in awe. At the center of the chamber was a small pool, steam rising from the naturally warmed waters.

“What is this place?” Rachel asked in wonder.

“Hot springs, M’lady. You can bathe here and warm yourself.” Conley lit one of the mounted torches, lighting the chamber up even more.

Rachel walked over to the pond edge and leaned down, tentatively putting a finger into the water. She moaned softly as warmth enveloped her. She stood and with trembling fingers she tried to unclasp her cloak. She was getting frustrated as her fingers were not working.

“Here, let me, M’lady.” Conley placed his larger hands over Rachel’s cold, trembling ones to still her attempts. He smiled at her frustrated gaze, then unclasped the cloak for her. “Stay in as long as you wish. John and I will gather supper, and Tamara is caring for young Emily.” Conley was about to leave the chamber when a hand lightly grabbed his arm. He turned to see Rachel looking at him. “M’lady?”

“Thank you for all you have done for us, M’lord. I know not what even to call you.”

Conley smiled. “Call me a friend.” With one final smile, he left her alone.

Rachel stood where she’d been left, still staring after the Mercenary long after he’d gone. What was it about him that was so familiar to her soul? Why had she wanted to ask him to stay, and not leave her? She felt what was almost like an old abandonment wound open up again, though she couldn’t understand from where it stemmed.

Conley turned the corner, headed back to the main part of the fortress, but stopped, leaning against a wall and his eyes closing. It took several deep breaths for his heart to get back under control. How was it that the princess still had such an effect on him? It had been nearly a year, and a great deal of blood and water had passed under that bridge. Surely it was over?

With a sigh, he pushed away from the wall and headed back towards the living area, passing the bedchamber he had given up for Rachel and Tamara. He would not tell them, but he would be sleeping on a cot near the hot springs through the duration of their stay, giving up his own bed and privacy for their comfort.

“M’lord?” Tamara said, catching Conley as he was about to pass by the natural archway into the chamber.

Conley stopped, turning to the older woman, who rocked baby Emily in her arms, the infant deeply asleep. “Aye, M’lady?” he said, smiling down at the cherubic face of the child, despite himself.

“I wanted to thank you yet again for your kindness in this.” She indicated the sleeping babe with a quick glance. “You’ve taken on much more than you bargained for, me included.” She gave him a soft, genuine smile. “You‘ve a good soul. I always knew you did.”

Conley was truly touched by the older woman’s words. “I thank you, Tamara. That is very kind of you.” He gave her a genuine smile and was about to continue on to discuss details with John of their next move, when he stopped, stopping the older woman from turning back into the bedroom chamber. “Tamara,” he said, waiting until he had Tamara’s attention. “How did you know?”

Tamara smiled. “’Twas in your eyes, Conley, and I do not mean their color.” With those words she turned away, off to lay the infant down.

Conley smirked and walked on to speak to John.

“So,” Flagley said, sipping from his mug of mead, sitting at the large desk at the center of the room. A fire had been started in the fire pit, the flames dancing and snapping warmly. He slid a similar mug across the glossy finish of the desk until it was caught by Conley’s hand. “What now?”

Conley flopped down in John’s matching chair, putting his booted feet up on the desk edge. He took a long drink then set the mug down. “We wait out the storm, then get the princess home.”

“That easy, eh?”

Conley could tell there was something on John’s mind that he wasn’t saying. He glanced at his friend, a brow raised in question, even though it couldn’t be seen behind the mask. “What is on your mind, my friend?”

John sighed then turned to his friend. “Is it wise to have them here?”

Conley met his gaze. “We had no choice, John.”

“Aye, that ‘tis true,” John conceded, taking another drink, which finished off his mug. He slammed it down on the desk with satisfaction. “Be mindful of our precarious position, my friend, and you shall wish to keep your head.”

Conley studied his friend, surprised by the venomous warning in his voice. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I’ve seen how you look at the princess, Conley. History need not be repeated.”
Conley felt his anger build, even as he knew John was right. “Rubbish,” he exclaimed, booted feet hitting the floor with a loud thud. He got to his feet, heading off into the cave.

John sighed again, grabbing his friend’s unfinished mead and swallowing the last gulps.

*****

The snow had continued throughout the night, nearly burying the entrance to the cave fortress. Travel was impossible. Food gathering was impossible. Flagley took stock of their food reserves, and was confident that they’d been alright for three or four days, but then hunting and gathering would have to be done. As it was, milk for the child was already running scarce. The four adults had spoken earlier in the day about a remedy for such a problem.

Conley leaned against the wall of the main room, stroking his chin with his fingers as Rachel and Tamara talked amongst each other.

“It has been done before, M’lady,” Tamara assured.

Rachel looked at her, doubtful. “But, Tamara, neither of us was pregnant. How is it possible for either of us to breast feed Emily?”

“Trick the body, M’lady,” Tamara explained. “Have the baby suckle daily. The body will adapt.” She smiled shyly. “Seen it done amongst animals, I have.”

Rachel studied Emily – whom she held in her arms – for a moment. “I’m not sure this will work,” she said quietly, running her fingers over the softness of her niece’s face. “But, I suppose we must.”

“We’ve got but a couple days of milk left, M’lady. We may be able to get more if the storm ceases.” The lady-in-waiting glanced at Conley, “but we do not know if it will.”

Rachel chewed on her bottom lip, trying to decide what to do.

“I have seen it, as well, M’lady,” Conley added. “When a mare has been killed or died, I’ve seen other mares take her place, nursing the foal.” Both women turned to the man in black. “’Tis worth a try, anyway.”

Rachel looked down at her niece once more, deciding to give it a try. She nodded, decision made. “Alright.”

Left alone with John once more as the ladies left to begin their new regime, Conley turned to his friend. “Tomorrow let’s you and I go out hunting.”

John nodded in agreement. “Aye. It will help greatly if they can find a way to feed the child. I know not what to feed a child, other than milk.”

Conley shrugged. “Nor I.”

~~ FOURTEEN ~~

Lord Robert Wynton sat, waiting for the rest of his men to gather. All present were ready to go, horses packed and saddled, men armed and anxious. The cacophony of men’s voices was nearly deafening in the Great Hall, and every second that ticked by made Wynton more and more antsy, feeling as though he were about to jump out of his skin.

“M’lord,” his second in command, Sir Dexter, walked up to him. “All have gathered at present, and await your command,” he said with a deep bow.

Wynton nodded acknowledgement and cleared his throat, preparing to speak to the army and give orders. “Quiet!” he shouted, his voice booming in the catacomb-like space of the hall. The men immediately quieted, all eyes aimed at Wynton, waiting for his command. “We leave today. We have word where the scoundrel is hiding my beloved wife, and we will get her back!” An uproarious cheer went up, echoing off the walls. Wynton grinned, glad to see his men were so enthusiastic. He waited once again for silence to reign, then continued. “We have word from our other comrades who have been held up in an inn, waiting for the storms to pass. They have gathered word that not only did the scoundrel Mercenary stay at that very same tavern with Lady Wynton, but also with the traitorous servant woman called Tamara.”

Another round of cheers and jeers filled the space. Wynton listened with satisfaction.

“The woman Tamara’s life has been forfeit for her deceit in helping the scoundrel,” he continued, voice booming and filled with passion for the kill. “The man they call Mercenary,” he spat out the name, “is mine.”

Even Dexter looked at his master with a strange eye. He’d never heard such blood lust before, and he’d been a soldier his entire life. Knowing he had to abide by Wynton’s commands, he backed up the words. “we fight!”

The men raised their weapons and voices in a show of solidarity, their voices deafening. Wynton’s grin was glacial.

*****

John ran through the forest, frantically looking for his friend. He knew it wouldn’t be hard to spot him, considering it would be dark clothing against a white, winter wonderland, as well as the sharp sounds of an axe biting into tree flesh. Soon he spotted Conley’s horse, and ran in that direction.

Conley grunted with each thwack of the axe blade into the trunk of the tree he was felling. His horse waited patiently by, a rough-hewn sleigh tethered to him, piled with already cut firewood.

“Conley!” John exclaimed, out of breath by time he’d reached his friend. Conley stopped mid-swing, looking at his friend. John bent over, hands on his knees as his breaths came out in white puffs.

“What news?” Conley asked.

“Wynton is sending his entire army this way,” John gasped out, finding it hard to gather his breath as the cold temperatures stole it from him. “We’re outnumbered grossly.”

“How close are they?”

John shook his head. “I know not.”

Conley sighed, looking out over the forest around them. “The storms have stopped, but the heavy snow will slow them down.” His words were quiet, almost as though speaking to himself. He sighed, bringing a hand up to swipe at his red nose. “We’ve got to get word to the King.”

John looked at him, surprised. “Why don’t we wait him out? Wynton will never be able to find us.”

“Because we’re running out of resources, Flagley,” Conley said, his voice hard. “The child would never survive the trip to the castle, so we must bring the King to us.”

“You mean to try and stop a war,” John said, understanding dawning in his brown eyes.

Conley grinned, shaking his head. “I mean to start a war. Wynton’s pride will not allow him to stop until he gets his property back, and his vengeance is sated. He must be stopped now, or Lady Rachel will be forced to return to her husband.”

Fully understanding, though not necessarily agreeing, John nodded. “Do you wish to go, or shall I?”

“You’re a better rider than I, and you know the back ways, which Wynton and his men will not.” He put his axe on the sleigh and took his horse by the reins. “Come.”

John Flagley had headed out with a message for the King half a day ago, and Conley was left to protect the precious prize of Rachel, Emily and Tamara. Stress was on his shoulders, as a bad feeling had settled within the pit of his stomach. Something bad was to come, and now it was just a matter of waiting for it. The cave fortress was well-armed, that is, if Wynton and his men were able to find it at all. It was well-hidden, and many traps – some quite deadly – had been set up all throughout the area for just an occasion.

He had been soaking in the natural springs for nearly an hour when he’d gotten out. Fully dressed, Conley grabbed the fabric of his mask, getting ready to put it on when he heard footsteps behind him. On instinct, he turned to see who was at his back, only to meet the astonished green eyes of Rachel.

Rachel could only stare at the ghost that stood before her. Wide, frightened blue eyes – eyes that her heart immediately recognized – stared back at her. She was filled with a mixture of shock, love and a great deal of anger. As all these emotions warred within her, all she could do was turn and hurry from the chamber.

Conley could only stare after her, filled with a mixture of relief and dismay. “Bugger,” he muttered, running a hand through his wet hair. He was trying to decide what to do when quick footfalls in the dark corridor gave way to Rachel reappearing. All he could do was be still and look into her anger-filled eyes.

“You!” she accused, pointing a finger at him. Conley waited, wanting her to get it all out so they might talk rationally. “You died! Killed by guards.” She couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that the man she’d been protected by for many long days was the man who had stolen her heart, then broken it.

Conley waited, but when there was no more coming, he spoke. “Aye. That ‘tis the story that’s been told, from what I hear.”

“How is this possible?” Rachel shook her head, finding it difficult to understand. It made her angry, as she felt she should have known. Should have been able to see Conley in the man before her.

“I escaped the night I last saw you. No one saw me leave. Your husband” – the word bitter and accusatory – “had threatened the lives of the guards, should I escape.”

“So, you chose to murder another inmate to lie in your stead? They said there was a body.”

Conley nodded. “Aye, there was, but I did not harm anyone on my way out.” He could see the doubt in her eyes. “Rachel, I could barely keep myself alive, let alone kill a man.”

Understanding, Rachel nodded. “So the guards killed an innocent man so as not face the wrath of Robert.” Conley said nothing. There was nothing to be said. Rachel’s gaze turned from inward understand to the moment at present, and a long ago heartbreak. “Have you watched me, tending to my niece, laughing at the fact that she is your child?”

Conley began to get angry. There were accusations made from high emotions, and then there was cruelty. He took a threatening step towards Rachel, who took a step back in kind. “Never say that again, M’lady,” he said, voice a low growl. “Watching you – a natural mother – with Emily has been one of the most beautiful things I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. Do not insult me with such rantings. I told you many months ago in that prison cell that I am not the father of that child, and I tell you again.” Conley took a few deep breaths, trying to control his anger. He knew the time had come. “And prove it to you, I will.”

Rachel was startled when Conley took a step back and angrily banked his shirt over his head. A trim, muscular torso was revealed, a thin material wrapped tightly around his chest. She was confused, but then her eyes nearly popped out of her head when Conley unwrapped the fabric, releasing two perfect breasts.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “You said you had relations with-“ Her words were cut off when Conley stepped over to her and took her hand, making her grab the hard implement between his legs. She tried to jerk away, but he held her fast.

“Yes, M’lady. I am a woman. This,” he said, squeezing Rachel’s fingers harder around his ‘manhood’, “is merely attached using leather straps and fraud.”

He let her go, and immediately Rachel stumbled backwards, nearly tripping over her own dress. “But why?” she asked, out of breath from her shock.

“Because ‘tis harder to be a woman servant than a man. My father knew this, and did not want the same life or fate for me as that that took the life of my mother.”

As Rachel stared at the freed breasts, also seeing various scars and bruises along Conley’s torso, she felt faint. Before she knew what was happening, she was falling limply to the floor.

*****

Conley gently brushed Rachel’s hair aside as she placed yet another cool towel to the princess’ forehead. She sat next to the fallen woman, who had been laid on Conley’s cot in the hot springs chamber. Rachel’s eyes began to dance behind closed lids, and consciousness began to light.

Rachel’s eyes blinked open a few times before resting on the concerned face that hovered above her own. “What happened?” she asked, dazed.
“you fainted, M’lady,” Conley said softly. He sat back, giving her a bit of space to come about.

Rachel brought a hand up to her head, feeling the wet towel, then glanced at Conley. He, or perhaps better called she, was fully dressed once more, minus the usual mask. She looked into Conley’s blue eyes, and saw such warmth and acceptance there. She felt their pull, just as she had the very first time she’d looked into them in the stables. “Why did you never tell me the truth?” she asked, a question with no accusation.

Conley smiled. “Mayhap I was afraid you’d faint.”

Rachel met the smile. “I know not what to call you. Are you man? Are you woman?”

“I was born one, and have lived as the other. To be honest, I know not, M’lady. Whichever you are comfortable with, I suppose.” Conley shrugged. “To me, I am merely Conley.”

Rachel studied her for a moment, looking over Conley’s face. Such a beautiful face. How did she not see it before? Now that she knew, it seemed so obvious. Conley’s feminine features were unmistakable. She smiled. “’Tis amazing what a person will believe when they’ve been told something.”

Conley nodded. “Aye. I’ve always found that to be true.”

“I am sorry for blaming you for Allison’s pregnancy, and condemning you.,” Rachel said softly.

“And I am sorry for making you feel as though I had betrayed your heart in having relations with Allison,” Conley said, just as quietly. “I vow it ‘twas before I lost my heart to you.”

Rachel smiled. “I believe you.” Something occurred to her, her brows drawing. “Did she know?”

Conley shook her head. “She did not. Other than you, there are only two others who know, and they are both dead.”

“Your parents?”

“Aye. My parents.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, both reconciling with what had just happened between them. Conley realized that she may very well have just surrendered her life. Rachel would be returned to her father, and the King would have every right and every reason to once again condemn Conley to death, if not for the original crime, than for being a woman who masqueraded as a man.

She couldn’t think about that now. She had to keep her concentration on the mission at hand, and that was to return Rachel to her father safely.

*****

Flagley slowed his horse, peering through the trees until finally he came to a stop. The shouted orders could be heard echoing through the forest, and a cold trickle of sweat began to work its way down his back. He’d been traveling nearly a full day already, and it would take another night to get out of the dense woods.

This wouldn’t do. Wynton’s men had made their way into the forest already. The cave fortress was incredibly well hidden, and likely the men didn’t know the woods, but even still…. There was no way, no time for him to give warning to Conley and the others.

“You there!”

John froze, realizing he’d been spotted.

“Stop!”

John kicked his mount into action as two soldiers rode at breakneck speeds towards him. They still had some distance to cover, but John didn’t wait around for introductions. He pushed his horse to his limits, knowing that speed and knowledge of his surroundings would be the only thing that saved his neck this day.

The two riders pressed on, one drawing a crossbow, gripping his mount hard with his knees so he could free his hands. It would be a difficult – if not impossible – shot, with all the trees and thick foliage, but he had the feeling the man they chased was one they were sent to kill.

The rider in his sights, he released the deadly arrow, growling as it hit wide, missing it’s intended mark. “Bugger,” he mumbled, preparing a second arrow.

John’s heart was racing in his chest as he used his intimate knowledge of the area to give him a distance advantage. He had heard the whistle of the arrow slice through the space he’d been but a moment before, and knew there would be more to come. He steered his horse left, then right, then left again, seeing up ahead one of the first bits of camouflage he’d ever set.

“Thank you, God,” he whispered, drawing his sword as he raced towards it. He spotted the vine at the last minute, nearly passing it. He swiped the blade at it, the vine snapping and a wall of vines and branches falling into place behind him. To the outside man, who didn’t know the forest well, it would look like a dense timbre, un-enterable.

The two riders were confused as suddenly their rider disappeared into the deep shadows of the forest. They slowed their mounts, looking in every direction and at each other.

“Where did he go?” the man with the crossbow asked, another arrow ready to fire.

The second man shook his head. “They say these woods ‘r haunted,” he said in a near-whisper. “Mayhap he was a ghost.” Deadly serious, he felt a thrill of fear tickle his spine.

His comrade rolled his eyes. “But a woman to believe in such tales.” He turned his horse around. “Let us head back before we become ghosts ourselves.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth when he cried out in sharp pain, a hand coming up to his neck. A tiny dart was sticking out of the skin. A sharp whistle cut the air as a second dart flew out of the darkness, nailing it’s mark in the second man’s neck. Within seconds both men fell from their mounts, dead.

John watched, satisfied that he had hit his targets. With a quick jerk of the reins, he was off and galloping.

*****

Mask firmly in place – though it served no real purpose now – Conley went about checking the battlements of the cave. Many had never been used in battle, as they had never been attacked there. No one really knew it even existed, other than Conley, John, John’s mother and any previous occupants. They had spent months fortifying it and making it a home. A home it had become, especially now.

The cries of Emily echoed off the walls, making Conley smile. Her whole life all she’d wanted was a family. Her mother had died when she was born, so there obviously was no relationship there. Her father had died years before, and she missed him terribly. He had really been the only family she could speak of. John and Agatha were the closest thing to it, now.

Conley had climbed up into the furthest reaches of the cave, where a small natural hatch formed. It let in fresh air, as well as served as a wonderful vantage point to check for any attacks, or to send weapons flying: arrows and the small hand-canon they’d gotten their hands on, for one.

Climbing down, heavy boots thudded hard on the stone as Conley dropped the last ten feet. Hands on hips, she looked around, trying to think of what else she could check. They were all but sitting ducks, and she knew it. John had been gone for two days now, and with the snows clearing, she knew it would be a matter of time before Wynton’s army showed itself.

Heading back to the main room – and planning area – Conley sat behind the desk and brought out a map John had made years ago, when he’d first discovered the caves as a boy. She laid the map out flat across the desk surface, placing heavy paperweights at the two top corners to keep it from rolling back up.

She wiped her hands across the smooth surface of the parchment, eyes scanning the drawn caverns, rooms, tunnels and escapes of the caves. She wanted a backup plan for Tamara to get Rachel and Emily out, should John not get back in time, and something went terribly wrong. With the close quarters of the cave, and labyrinthine twists and turns – which Conley knew well – she could keep the men held off long enough for their escape, but not much else.

“M’lord?” Tamara said, entering the room and walking over to the desk. “You called for me?”

Conley looked up at her, surprised to see her as she’d been so focused on her task. “Aye. Please sit, Tamara.” The older woman did as bade. Conley tapped the map with a finger. “This is a map of the entire cave system here: all the hidden rooms and escape paths.” She pinned Tamara with an intense gaze. “Should something go wrong, or even if I just tell you to, I want you to get the princess and child out of here.”

Tamara nodded gravely, while secretly pleased for such trust to be put in her. “Aye, M’lord.”

“Come. Let me show you.”

*****

Rachel rocked slowly humming as she looked down at the child in her arms. She’d been massaging her breasts over the past days, as Tamara had advised, trying to stimulate her maternal instincts. Milk was running very low, even as John had gotten them some days before he left. She had experimented, trying to figure out what would work best for both she and the child. A bit of milk had been released the day before, to Rachel’s shock and delight. It was nowhere near enough to sate a growing baby’s ravenous appetite, but it was a start.

She had the cloth saturated with the goat’s milk John had supplied, against her breast. Emily had both her nipple and the milk-soaked cloth in her mouth, and was suckling contently. Rachel had to admit it was a very different experience, and often hurt, but Emily was worth it. She already saw the child as her own, and intended to raise her as such. There was no reason Emily should have to know of her ill beginnings.

“Such a beautiful babe,” she whispered, caressing the smooth cheek as she watched her feed. She had now learned Emily’s habits and time-frames, and knew that soon she’d fall asleep, content to be rocked in the safety of her mother’s arms. “I love you.” She leaned down and placed a soft kiss to the child’s head.

Rachel carefully disengaged the now-sleeping child from her breast and brought her up into her arms, continuing to rock her as she patted her back, waiting for the burp to come, softly humming the entire time.

Conley stepped up to the bedchambers entrance, leaning against the stone archway. She watched for a moment, knowing she should move on, but unable to move. The scene was beautiful, even as she respectfully kept her gaze from Rachel’s partially exposed breast. Feeling guilty, she was about to push away from the stone and move on when Rachel spotted her.

“You need not leave, Conley,” Rachel said softly, not wanting to wake Emily. “Come.”

Conley entered the room, pulling up a chair to sit near the two. She watched the baby for a moment, an instant smile coming to her face, unbidden. “She is a beautiful child, M’lady,” she said softly.

Rachel smiled, nodding. “That she is.”

They were silent for a long moment, pretending that Emily held their fast attention. They had not spoken of the incident in the hot spring, and Rachel’s new knowledge. Truth be told, Conley had avoided the princess like the plague, convincing herself that it was simply readying things for the impending battle. Lying to yourself was the greatest sin, she told herself, but couldn’t bring herself to seek out Rachel’s company all the same. She was terrified of looking into those green eyes and seeing disapproval or hate. That night in the prison cell, when she’d saw both flashing through Rachel’s eyes, it had cut Conley to the quick. It had nearly made her give up altogether.

“Any news?” Rachel asked at length, interrupting Conley’s musings. She kept her gaze on Emily, unsure what to say or do. She had noticed that Conley had been keeping her distance, and she felt she understood why, and perhaps was even grateful for it. She’d needed the time to sort things out in her mind and reconcile her feelings from before with her feelings of late. She also had to reconcile the fact that not only was Conley alive, but the always-perceived he was actually a she.

In retrospect, it actually made sense, Conley’s gender. Rachel thought back to the many moments they’d spent together a year ago. She remembered how tender Conley was, not only in his – her – actions, but also in her conversation and person.

“I’ve heard nothing, but feel the attacks will begin within the next couple days.” Conley was careful in what she said, as she didn’t want to alarm Rachel more than need be, even though alarm is exactly what she felt. She was anxious, and was doing all that she could to hide it. She gave Rachel a confident, encouraging smile. “We’ll be fine, M’lady. I’ve given Tamara instructions on what to do, should an attack come before John returns.”

Rachel studied Conley’s eyes, trying to look deep inside, beyond the color and bravado. “You’re scared,” she said softly. “Aren’t you?”

Conley thought for a moment, trying to decide on how to answer that very pointed – and accurate – question. Finally she decided on, “I’ll do all that I can to keep you all safe, Rachel.”

Rachel sighed, glancing down at the sleeping babe before returning her gaze to Conley. “I apologize for all the trouble I’ve caused you, Conley,” she said softly.

Conley smiled, shaking her head. “I don’t see it that way, M’lady. I’m glad I could help. Get you out of that prison Wynton had you in.”

“Yes, that it was. More so than I had even realized.” She sighed, sad memories rushing in. “I remember our wedding day,” she began, her voice distant and soft. “I knew then it was a mistake, and one I’d likely pay for with my life.” She met Conley’s gaze, a sad smile touching her lips. “Little did I know of how correct I was.”

Conley nodded. “I’ve spoken with Tamara. She has said she believes the intent was a slow poisoning, so at the end of the day, Wynton could claim natural death.” She sat forward in her chair, elbows resting on her knees. “What I do not understand is why? If Wynton wanted to kill you, why marry you?”

“The law of my father’s kingdom is such that should I die during marriage, and I have a sibling left alive, my husband would lose the throne, rather than take it over.” She smiled ruefully. “Years ago there was a rash of spousal killings for the throne. The new law was put into place to stop it.”

Conley chuckled, shaking her head. “So, why didn’t he just marry Allison?”

“He could not. I’m the eldest. My theory is he simply wanted to get to Allison,” she brushed her fingers across Emily’s face. “Especially with what I know now. Even so, I think it a matter of time before he would have murdered Allison, as well.” She sighed, fighting the emotion. “Though I guess no need for such now.”

“I’m truly sorry, M’lady. Your world has been turned upside down this past year.”

Rachel nodded. “Truer words were never spoken.”

“Well,” Conley said, slapping her thighs and she stood. “’Tis late, M’lady. We all should get some rest.”

Rachel nodded, sad to see Conley go. “Sleep well, Conley.”

“You do the same, M’lady.” Conley looked down at the baby, gently running her fingertips over the soft skin. “Sleep well, little one.”

Rachel watched her go, sadness in her heart, as well as a dark feeling of foreboding.

~~ FIFTEEN ~~

Lord Wynton looked at the map that had been hastily made by his cartographer of what he could make out of the densely wooded area. There were lots of cliff faces that were hidden. Some had been marked with cave openings, others had not.

“M’lord,” Dexter said, entering the nobleman’s tent and sitting across from him. “You called for me?”

“Yes,” Robert said, not looking up from the map. He was tracing a line across the parchment with his finger. He stopped, tapping an area. “Here. This is where we need to be.”

Dexter followed his line and studied the point on the map for a moment, rubbing his bearded chin. “You believe that is where the cave entrance lies?” he asked, unsure.

“That I do. We found the bodies of the two men here,” he pointed to another area where the two soldiers had been brought down with poisoned darts. “In these temperatures the murderer can’t be far from a home base.”

“We found hoof prints in the snow, M’lord. Doesn’t it make more sense that the murderer could have been trying to scout or check the perimeter? Perhaps he wasn’t close to the entrance at all.”

Wynton felt his anger beginning to build at being questioned. He glared at his second in command. “I’m tell you, Dexter, this is where we enter.” He slammed his finger down on his original spot. “Any questions?”

Dexter sighed and shook his head. “No, M’lord. I’ll speak with the unit commanders.”

*****

John was still shivering, even as he sat next to a massive fireplace, a dancing fire within. He took the cup of mead offered him by one of the servants. He gave a nod of thanks and then took a long sip, sighing as the strong liquid warmed his insides. He stared into the flames for long moments, grateful to have finally arrived at Rachel’s girlhood home, though he was somewhat anxious to speak with the King. He hoped the meeting would go as good as planned. He had some bad news to deliver, and wasn’t sure how the Regent would react.

“So, you’ve returned,” came the booming voice of the King. The large man walked across the room to the chair that matched John’s. He said down and looked at his guest, sizing him up. “You’ve returned half-frozen, half-starved and alone. What news?”

“May I speak plainly?” John asked, holding the warmed mead between his hands. At the King’s nod he began to explain. “We found Rachel, Your Majesty. She had been drugged for many months, near death. We whisked her and her woman, Tamara out of the house and managed to get to our hideout before the storms came.”

The King was silent, stroking his red beard as he listened. He was growing more disconcerted with each word.

“During our travels, we ran across a servant boy of Wynton’s, murdered before our eyes by three of Wynton’s men. The boy was dispatched by myself and my partner, and it was discovered that the boy carried a baby. The child of Allison. Though not certain, it is believed that the girl died giving birth to the child.”

“Where is the child now?” the King asked, the news and fates of his two daughters just beginning to sink in.

“She is with Lady Rachel, Tamara and my partner, Your Majesty. Safe.”

The King looked at the blonde man with skeptical eyes. “Why are you here without my daughter and grandchild, Mercenary? If you’ve come to ask for more-“

“I’ve come to ask for an army, Your Majesty,” John interrupted, needing the King to understand just how dire the situation had become. “We lost precious time because of the storms. There was no way the women and child would have survived such harsh snows had we continued on here. They are safe, or at least were when I left them three days ago.”

The King felt relief, as he saw nothing but truth in the man’s brown eyes. “What has happened?” he asked, voice deathly low.

“Wynton has brought his entire army into the valley to attack us. He wants the girl back at any cost. This is no longer about his wife, Your Majesty. This is about pride.”

*****

Rachel shot up in bed, the nightmare still fresh in her mind. She had seen a horrific battle, and watched as Conley was cut down, holding her blood-soaked middle as the life drained from her.

Heart racing, Rachel looked around the chamber, a lone torch burning at one end. Tamara was sound asleep on her cot, as was Emily, lying in the make-shift crib that had been fashioned. She took several deep breaths, trying to get her pounding heart to still. She threw her legs over the massive bed, a strong need to see Conley and make sure she was okay.

The corridor was dark, but Rachel had made the trip enough times to the hot springs now that she no longer feared the dark. She knew each crag where not to step along the way. The dim light of the torch Conley kept lit throughout the night loomed up again, acting as a guide to bring Rachel the rest of the way. The warmth from the springs also met her skin as she neared.

Rachel entered the small chamber, her eyes immediately going to Conley’s still form. She had kicked off her cloak covering long ago, her body splayed out comfortably on the small cot. Rachel smiled, noting one leg hanging off the cot, the foot resting on the stone floor. She sat on the edge of the cot, gently bringing the leg back up and placing it next to it’s twin.

Conley let out a heavy breath and turned her head, now facing Rachel. The princess looked down at the beautiful face, which she now wondered how she ever could have seen as handsome. She brought a hand up, using the lightest touch ass he traced the dark brows and down along a smooth temple. Worry lines began to gather between the closed eyes, and Rachel used a thumb to smooth them.

Conley’s eyes slowly slid open, blinking as she tried to get her focus. She was surprised to see Rachel sitting at her bedside, and even more surprised to feel her fingers on her face.

“Are you alright, M’lady?” she asked softly.

Rachel nodded, unable to take her eyes from Conley’s. “I had a nightmare and you were killed. I had to make sure for myself you’re okay,” she explained, her hand coming to rest on Conley’s jaw.

“I’m alright, M’lady.” Conley smiled. “Not dead, yet.”

Rachel shook her head. “No. You are not dead, and you will not die on me during this battle. Do you understand, Conley?” her voice was firm, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Aye,” Conley whispered. She covered Rachel’s hand with her own and turned her head to lay a small kiss on the palm. “I understand, M’lady.”

A shiver was sent down Rachel’s spine from that kiss. She lost her breath for a moment. “There’s something I want to tell you,” she said, running the fingers of her other hand through thick, black hair. “I am so sorry for what happened, Conley. It killed me to know you had been with Allison-“ Conley tried to speak, but Rachel put her fingers over her lips “Let me finish. I understand what happened, and I’m not longer angry. But at the time, I knew I had fount my heart, and it was ripped out that day.” She felt the sting of tears behind her eyes and tried to blink it back. “Then my heart died when I heard you were killed.” She looked at him with the love in her eyes she had fought so hard against. “I think you took the best part of me with you.”

Conley shook her head. “I do not agree, M’lady.” She smiled. “The best part of you is sitting right here, and is in there feeding and caring for Emily.” She placed a hand over Rachel’s heart. “She’s in here. Very much still alive and well.”

Rachel covered Conley’s hand with her own, and moved her hand from her heart to her left breast. Conley stared up at her, surprised. Rachel held her hand there, the nipple immediately responding to the warm touch of Conley’s hand. They both gasped at the sensation.

Conley was about to remove her hand, but was held firm. She looked to Rachel for explanation. “I hated that you were with Allison. I hated it because you were supposed to be with me.” She squeezed Conley hand, which in turn squeezed her breast. She gasped a bit at a small amount of pain from trying to breast feed.

“Sore?” Conley asked.

Rachel nodded, but didn’t release Conley’s hand. She leaned down, their faces not a hand’s length apart. “Conley, anything could happen during this battle, and I don’t want anything to happen to either of us without this.” With that, she bridged the gap between them and kissed Conley. The kiss started out soft and slow, but quickly built and deepened.

Conley released Rachel’s breast and used both hands to pull the princess on top of her. The kiss never broke as Rachel rested her weight on her forearms. She was amazed at the wonders of Conley’s mouth, and the feel of their bodies pressed together. Never in her life had she experienced anything so wonderful.

The kiss broke breathlessly, Conley’s body and soul on fire. She looked up at Rachel, who’s long hair had fallen all around them like a golden curtain. “I’ve missed your kiss for so long, Rachel,” she said softly, her hands resting on the princess’ lower back.

Rachel smiled. “I love the way you say my name,” she said. “You’re never allowed to call me ‘M’lady’ again. You must always call me Rachel.”

Conley chuckled. “I’m not sure how the King would view that.”

“I don’t care.” She kissed Conley again the broke away, looking down at her. “I want to be with you, Conley. The way you were with Allison.”

Conley looked at her, wanting to make sure Rachel was sure of what she was asking. She saw nothing but love and intense desire and need in her eyes. She smiled. “Well, at least you know I can’t get you pregnant.”

Rachel smiled, though it vanished. “I wish you could.”

Conley was surprised by the passion in the kiss Rachel delivered, which put an end to any doubt she might have about making love with Rachel. She maneuvered them so that Rachel was lying on her back on the cot, Conley hovering over her. She insinuated one of her legs between Rachel’s , making the princess gasp at the contact. Conley looked down along Rachel’s body, seeing her chest heave with every breath,

She leaned down to kiss Rachel, the kisses slow and meant to enflame. As she kissed her, her hand ran down along Rachel’s side, using her fingers to slowly pull up the princess’ sleeping gown until callused fingers came into contact with hot skin. Rachel sighed into the kiss, her hands working their way up and around Conley’s neck, and finally into her hair, holding her into their heated kiss.

Conley broke the kiss and broke totally away until she was on her knees on the side of the cot. She helped Rachel remove her gown, leaving the blonde nude and waiting. Conley stood up, working to undo her pants when Rachel sat up, stopping her.

“All of it,” she said softly, tugging on the hem of the black shirt Conley wore. Conley flushed deeply, as she’d never been naked in front of anyone before. But, she could deny Rachel nothing. She swallowed her pride and whipped the shirt off over her head, surprised to feel soft hands against her skin. Rachel was kneeling on the cot and beginning to work on the bindings that held her breasts captive. Once they were free, Rachel looked at them, tentatively bringing a hand up, touching the soft underside in wonder.

Conley wasn’t sure what to think, and felt a mixture of final acceptance, and discomfort, as she’d never felt totally comfortable with her femaleness. To take her mind off it for a moment, she pushed her breeches down, allowing them to slide down long legs and pile on the floor. She stepped out of them, leaving her completely nude, save for the leather straps that held on her phallus.

Rachel’s attention is brought to the leather phallus, her eyes drifting over it, somewhat afraid. She and Robert lay together only once, and that was the night of their wedding. He was rough and the coupling was painful. Though Rachel does not feel Conley would be as rough, she was still anxious.

“It’s okay,” Conley said, pushing Rachel back down to lie on the cot, following suit. Once Rachel was lying down, Conley began to explore her body with fingers and mouth.

Rachel began to relax, her eyes falling closed as Conley kissed and licked along her collar bones, her tongue dipping into the hollow Rachel’s throat and then working it’s way up. Rachel moaned softly as the hot mouth moved to her neck, her head falling to the side to allow more access.

“Oh, Conley,” she whispered, feeling as though she were being taken to heaven with the simple touch of the woman on top of her. Her body was responding to every touch, every kiss, every whispered or breathed word. She was on fire.

Conley had never felt anything like it, in all the times she’d been with a woman. The feel of Rachel’s skin against her own was magical. She could die at that moment and be alright with it. Pure bliss. The taste of Rachel’s skin, the feel of her responses, the way their bodies fit together…

Instinctively Rachel’s legs began to open, inviting Conley inside. Getting the idea, Conley positioned herself, moving up to kiss Rachel, long and deep, meanwhile reaching down between their bodies and Rachel’s legs and taking hold of the phallus. With careful precision, she guided the firm leather inside, using her hips to push all the way in.

Rachel concentrated on the feel, so different from her time with Robert. She looked into Conley’s eyes and saw so much love there. It made the sensations that much more potent as Conley began a slow, even rhythm. She leaned down and kissed Rachel, slow and deep.

“I love you, Rachel,” she whispered against her lips.

“I love you, too, Conley,” Rachel whispered back, drawing her in for another kiss. “With all my heart.”

As their bodies moved together, Conley knew in that moment that no matter what happened – if she were killed in battle, if the King had her executed, or if she lived on and never saw Rachel again – she would know that for a moment she had found true happiness. She knew that in that moment, with the woman she loved, she had found peace for the first time in her life. She just hoped it would be enough to last her the rest of her life, no matter how long that would be.

Rachel’s eyes slid closed as pleasure began to burn a slow path through her, a flame banked with every touch of Conley’s hands, mouth and the slow rhythm of her hips. She let out a long, slow sigh, her hands drifting down along a smooth, strong back until she felt the firm roundness of Conley’s butt. She ran her nails along the skin, feeling the leather straps that held her ruse in place. Conley shivered at the touch.

As Rachel’s head reclined back as pleasure filled her, Conley took the opportunity to taste more of her throat. She ran her tongue up along the graceful column of pale skin. She nipped playfully at the skin, arousing a moan from the blonde. Rachel’s breathing was quickening, her movements beginning to match Conley’s, instinctually urging Conley to move faster as her pleasure rose.

Rachel had never felt such pleasure before, as Robert’s coupling was nowhere near what was happening to her in that moment. Her brain seemed to stop functioning as a haze took her over. The world receded to Conley and the pleasure. Surprised at her own actions, Rachel grabbed a firm hold of Conley’s butt, urging her to increase her speed and thrusts. She raised her knees, moving her hips in tandem with Conley’s, helping to being them both to the pinnacle.

Conley could tell Rachel was close, so picked up her pace, returning her mouth to Rachel’s neck, nuzzling her as she made her way to her mouth, initiating a searing kiss. Soon Rachel had to break the kiss, unable to breathe as her breaths came faster and shorter, the heated pleasure racing through her running an intense course straight between her legs and exploding in a cry of ecstasy. She gripped Conley’s flesh with a talon-like grip, her body convulsing and trembling.

Conley wasn’t far behind, her own body exploding as she held onto Rachel for dear life, their bodies pressed together as she buried the phallus within Rachel’s depths. They stayed glued together for a long moment, both trying to catch their breath and bring the world around them into focus.

After a long moment, Conley pushed herself up, looking down at Rachel to see her beautiful, flushed face. She smiled, gently pulling out and moving to Rachel’s side. She gathered the blonde up in her arms, holding her close.

Rachel rested her head on Conley’s shoulder, pressing her body as close as she possibly could. Never had she felt so connected to another. She wrapped a possessive arm across Conley’s stomach. A burning question was eating at her. “Conley?” she began quietly.

“Aye, love?” Conley asked, running her fingers back and forth over Rachel’s arm.

“Was it like that with Allison?” The shyness in Rachel’s voice broke Conley’s heart.

She placed a soft kiss to Rachel’s forehead. “Nowhere near it, Rachel. With Allison it wasn’t about love. For either of us. ‘Twas about a need from her. It lasted mere moments.”

Rachel thought about that answer for a moment, and realized she believed her. She placed a small kiss on Conley’s neck before laying her bead back down. “Where did the scar come from?” she asked after a moment. “The one on your cheek.” She lifted her head, gently running a finger over the moon-shaped scar. “You said it was a fight.”

“And it was. Sort of.” She sighed, remembering the most horrible night of her life. “Wynton came into my cell, after I’d been arrested and convicted. I was shackled to the bench, and he decided to take his anger out on me.” She reached around Rachel, stroking the scar. “His ring cut my face.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rachel whispered, moving Conley’s hand out of the way and replacing it with her lips. She found his lips, the kiss quickly deepening and turning heated.

Conley grabbed Rachel, pulling her on top of her when they heard Emily’s cries echoing through the caves. Rachel pulled away, listening. She realized what she was hearing and gave Conley a quick kiss before moving off of the cot and quickly dressing.

“I’m sorry. I have to feed her.”

“’Tis alright,” Conley said, also getting up and dressing. She knew that with the situation being what it was – the situation with Wynton’s army, as well as the possibility of Tamara walking in on them – it was a much wiser idea to perhaps rest of the night.

Once Rachel had hurried off to get the baby, Conley decided to check on the cave and it’s surrounds, just to give her a solid peace of mind. She whistled softly to herself as she stepped out into the cold early dawn. The sun would be visible at the horizon within the hour. The temperatures were cold, her breath crystallized as soon as it hit the air.

She was about to head back inside when she stopped, peering into the dawn to try and figure out what she’d heard. Was it an animal? A hunter searching for it’s prey before the sun rose? Conley stepped further out until she was in the trees, listening, trying desperately to see where the source of the noise was coming from. It was the movement of branches and heavy footfalls on temperature-hardened snow. Lots of footfalls.

“Bugger!” Conley hissed, turning and running back into the cave. Her stomach was churning as she went to the pulley system that would place a heavy boulder at the mouth of the cave. Grunting as she fought with the ropes and heavy burden, finally the boulder rolled into place, blocking that as an entrance. From the sounds of the steps, she figured the army would be to the cave by dawn.

With little time – yet much to do to make sure Rachel, Emily and Tamara escaped unharmed – Conley felt pressure and panic. So this was it. The last stand. Pushing the morose thoughts out of her mind that insisted on parading past her mind’s eye, she rushed to the armory, quickly arming herself with a broad sword upon her back and a short, stabbing blade at her side. She slid daggers into her boots and belt, then ran towards the bedchamber with two more blades in her hands.

Unaware of what was about to happen, Rachel sat on the bed nursing Emily, Tamara was asleep on her cot. “Rachel, feed her as quickly as you can,” Conley said, doing her best to keep her voice calm. She didn’t want to frighten the two women anymore than was necessary.

Rachel looked up, shocked to see Conley standing in the entryway, armed to the teeth. “What is it?” she asked, instinctually holding Emily a bit tighter.

“They’re coming.”
~~ SIXTEEN ~~

The men were being broken up into small parties to search the area Wynton felt in his gut was the bandits hideout. He could smell victory in the cold morning air, the sun threatening to break through the horizon. They had spent the last two days combing the forest, which to Wynton’s chagrin, had been a waste of time, as they’d started where he truly felt the cave entrance would be. It had not. He had refused to admit to Dexter that he was wrong, simply had made a slight miscalculation, and they had moved on.

In the middle of the night a scouting party had found one of several deadly booby traps, one of which had caused a man to lose his life. The others had continued on, carefully picking their way through the forest, finding others while accidentally setting off yet others, though barely managing to escape the deadly consequences of their comrade. Finally they’d secured victory when they’d found what was likely a natural air shaft into the cave system. Not daring to spelunk inside, as they had no idea what, or how many would be found, but instead hurried off to camp, alerting their superiors. Within the hour Wynton and Dexter had their men ready to attack.

Wynton had stayed within the trees, watching as torch flames danced through the early morning darkness as the men made their way to the cave entrance, which had been covered by a huge boulder. Wynton was not worried. He would not be denied!

****

Tamara could feel her heart pounding as she stopped them once again so she could look at the map Conley had given her. It wouldn’t do to get her and the princess lost within the labyrinth of tunnels. Rachel held Emily, as well as what amounted to a thirteenth century diaper bag, doing her best to keep the baby quiet.

A finger leading the way on the map, the lady-in-waiting followed the path Conley had drawn for her, which would lead to an eventual exit, should it be absolutely necessary.

“Where should we go?” Rachel whispered, her heart pounding in fear at the thought of having to go back to Robert Wynton. She knew for face she would not survive it this time, and both Tamara and certainly Conley would be murdered by his vengeance.

“I believe we need to go this way,” Tamara whispered back, tapping the spot. “Conley did not wish us to exit.” She met her lady’s frightened gaze, trying desperately to hide her own. “Let us go.”

Tamara rolled the map back up and set them off in the direction of the left tunnel, Rachel following quickly behind.

*****

Conley’s heart was pounding as she watched from the small opening at the top of the cave. It was a great vantage point. The sun was rising, painting the forest in a gold-tipped fog. She was able to pick out a line of men that were breaking through the early morning fog. Raising her crossbow, she took aim.

The whistle of the flying arrows were muted by the sounds of marching soldiers. One of those in the front line grabbed his chest, a sound unable to even escape as he fell to the ground, dead. Three men down from him, another fell to his knees, gasping for air as his lung was destroyed by the incoming projectile.

Shields came up as word spread of the attack. The men huddled, trying to get an idea of where exactly the arrows were coming from. They didn’t have long to ponder as another volley came, though these arrows were tipped with fire. The recent snows kept the trees and forest from catching fire, but the men weren’t as lucky.

Conley watched as two men screamed, flailing around as flame began to engulf them. Their fellow soldiers either scattered out of the way or began to throw snow on them to put them out. Conley fought the urge to be sick at what she’d done, but knew it was a necessary evil. She had to protect the fortress at any cost.

She saw that the men were breaking into smaller parties to scour the area, and knew her moment of dominance was over. She moved out of the opening, sliding the natural cover over the top before she jumped down, hurrying down the corridor, snuffing torches out as she went. She knew it was a matter of time before the soldiers found their way inside. She wasn’t going to help them by lighting their way.

*****

As the sun rose, men were swarming the cave, like insects looking for any possible way in. Wynton had his archers set up and ready to pick off anyone that tried to leave the compound. He had heard that four of his men were already dead, and was not pleased. He had given orders to strike at will.

A small group of five men had found a small opening near some brush and were squirming their way inside. They fell into a black abyss, the light from above only reaching about a three foot circumference on the stone floor. Weapons drawn, they felt around, trying to find a wall to get some semblance of direction.

*****

The ground shook as hundreds of hooves pounded the earth. Patches of earth and snow flew through the air. Nothing in the path survived.

*****

Conley felt as though her breathing were louder than any canon as she waited in the pitch darkness. She could hear men stumbling through the darkness, their quiet discussion and instruction giving away their position, as their voices echoed unnaturally. She held her position, waiting until the mean got close and then she’d strike, her hand firmly gripping her blade.

She held her breath for a moment, trying to listen and discern how many there were. From the foot traffic, it didn’t sound like many – certainly no more than ten, but more than three, as she’d distinctly heard three different voices. She felt cold sweat gathering under her arms and between her breasts, the men’s voices and steps getting closer.

The men grew quiet, their voices gone as well as they’d stopped moving. All grew quiet, giving Conley an extreme sense of unease. She swallowed, and it felt to her as though it was so loud that everyone in the forest could hear it. That along with her pounding heart beat. She closed her eyes for a minute, taking several silent deep breaths, trying to stay calm. She knew the carnage that lay ahead would be brutal.

After a moment the steps started up again, though the men had ceased their conversation. They advanced, closer and closer until Conley could nearly feel them on top of her.

She adjusted her hold on her weapon and readied herself to strike.

*****

“Pull!” the soldier yelled, indicating his men should give another tug on the rope. Very slowly the men were getting the boulder to move, which was blocking the main entrance to the cave. “Again! Pull!”

*****

Rachel held Emily tightly to her, the baby beginning to grow restless and hungry. The princess rocked her, trying to get her to go back to sleep. “Tamara,” she whispered, “Give me Emily’s milk.”

The lady-in-waiting complied, feeling around the dark chamber with her hand until she felt the bag the baby’s belongings had been packed in. Once they had reached the chamber Conley had told her to hide in, they had snuffed the torch, deciding not to waste the light, as they had no idea how long they’d need to be there.

She had just found the milk when she stopped, her heart jumping. Above she could hear a noise. Voices, and they weren’t those of Conley or John Flagley. She stopped all movement, only able to hear their breathing, until her heart stopped altogether: Emily began to wail.

Rachel was desperately trying to get her to quiet without smothering the child. Tamara nearly threw the milk at Rachel, grabbing one of the blades Conley had given her and moving towards the chamber entrance, which was little more than a small hole in the stone wall, which Tamara was barely able to get her bulk through.

Rachel almost dumped the entire skin of milk as she hurriedly saturated the cloth in it, not even bothering to bare her breast. Emily quieted immediately once the food touched her lips, but Rachel’s heart was beating painfully fast. She wanted to ask Tamara the noise was, but didn’t dare speak.

Tamara listened, unable to hear the noise. Relieved, she relaxed until she heard the thud of boots as someone hurried down the corridor, stopping directly outside the entrance to the chamber. There was no light, so she knew the person held no torch, or at least did not have one lit. She was grateful the chamber entrance was low, very near the floor, so hopefully if the person felt around they would miss it.

She held her breath, trying to follow exactly where the person was. She just knew it wasn’t Conley. She could hear the person breathing and the scrape of boots on the stone floor as he moved slowly in the area. He was looking for something. Or more likely, someone.

Tamara’s palm was sweating as she held onto the sword she’d been given. She’d never used a blade before, and certainly had never hurt or killed anyone. She prayed silently, eyes open wide as her senses heightened. A rock was kicked in the dark, hitting the wall right next to the entrance of the chamber. Tamara looked down toward the noise, as though she’d be able to see it.

Rachel silently reached out for the second blade they’d been given, just in case whomever was to get past Tamara. She was ready to fight. She was starting to put Emily aside, ready for battle when the footfalls moved on, hurrying down the corridor. It was only once complete silence reigned once more that Rachel was able to breathe.

*****

Conley grabbed the first man, knocking him off his feet as she took his head between her hands and used all her strength to twist. A wicket CRACK followed, and the man fell, dead before he hit the floor. She used her blade to start thrusting and slashing, still somewhat hidden in the chamber she’d been tucked away into, so the men had no idea where the attack was coming from. Two men even killed each other, mistaking the other for the enemy.

Within moments, if a torch had been lit, Conley would have been the sole survivor of a blood bath. Out of breath and disgusted, Conley continued on, trying to find anymore breaches.

*****

The men shared the tips of their torches as they streamed inside, the boulder finally moved out of the way, leaving the entrance open just enough for them to squeeze through.

The men inside had no idea what the layout of the caves were, how big or deep they went. They were dispatched inside, a single mission in mind: kill.

*****

Conley heard the roar of the flood of men that had entered the caves. She frantically climbed up into a bit of a crawl space hidden up near the ceiling. Up in the hidden compartment was a pot of oil. An unlit torch lay nearby. Heart pounding, she waited until the flood swept through the corridor below then dumped the oil on the men, who carried their own torches.

Conley scurried to the back of the three-foot high chamber as the flames from below flared up into the entrance to the hideaway. She barely managed to escape through the back before her leg was scorched by flame. She ignored the screams of the burning men as she slipped as silently as she could into a dark passageway.

Three men burn to death down below, while four others are seriously injured. Their eight other comrades backtrack, finding a way around the burning bodies. Another group of soldiers – who took a different corridor than the first group – were just as unlucky as they missed the signs of the covered pit. Seven men fell to their deaths, leaving two barely holding on to the edge, eventually able to climb out, shaken, but able to continue their hunt.

*****

The archers were standing by, awaiting orders from their superiors. Two such archers were nocking their arrows when they were suddenly overtaken by an equestrian flood, the men trampled.

Wynton heard the deafening noise of horses and roaring men. He turned in time to see his father-in-law and his army, and they were riding right for him.

*****

Conley ran blindly in the dark, heading toward the chamber she’d sent Tamara and Rachel. She knew within moments the caves would be overrun with Wynton’s men, and there would be no way she could stop the flood. She had to get everyone out.

Around the bend, she heard the unmistakable sounds of soldier’s boots. She froze, quietly drawing both of her blades. She had the feeling that with the surprise of darkness and surprise, she’d be able to bring her quarry down and get to the women.

The men came across her path and Conley headed into the fray, blades swinging and a vicious war cry leading the way. She slashed and hacked, men crying out in pain as they fell, while others readied their weapons. Within moments steel clashed with steel. Conley grunted as an unseen blade split the skin of her side, leaving a slash through the black material of her shirt. Blood quickly oozed from the wound. She ignored it, continuing to fight for her life.

Suddenly, a distant horn was blowing, the long moan of the horn blow mournful and desperate.

“We’re being called back?” one of the soldiers asked, the fight coming to a standstill at the sound.

Conley took the opportunity to disappear from the pitch blackness of the corridor and continue on her way.

*****

The sounds of blades clashing and men crying out in victory or pain, rent the forest. Animals had scattered, horses whinnying at the fray all around them. The two armies were in mortal combat, both sides vicious and determined to protect their respective leaders.

John Flagley fought side by side with the King, the large Regent’s anger and vengeance making his fighting fierce and deadly. As he fought, he continued to search the forest for Wynton. He personally wanted a piece of the weasel.

*****

Rachel heard the cries of battle, which seemed to be all around them. She was terrified as she had no idea when the fight was going to spring in on them. She held Emily close, and she and Tamara held hands, bonded in a state of fear and survival.
Suddenly a very distant and muted horn blow was heard. She listened hard, trying to figure out what it was.

“Sounds like a battle horn,” Tamara whispered into Rachel’s ear.

The princes listened as it blew again, the new knowledge of what it could be coloring her interpretation of the noise. Now she just needed to know if that was good or bad. They waited, neither making a sound. The fighting had ceased, quiet murmurs taking the place. Then the sound of moving bodies, weapons knocking against armor and boots on stone. Silence.

Rachel tried to send her hearing out as far as she could, but just couldn’t make out anything. Then she gasped in surprised when there was a sudden torch-lit face peering at them from the tiny entrance to the chamber. Rachel’s relief was profound when she realized it was Conley.

“Come,” Conley said, beckoning the two as she got to her feet. The soldiers she’d been fighting had hurried off to answer the call of the horn, leaving her to rescue the women. If she was right, John had been successful, and Wynton had much more on his hands than simply the Mercenary.

*****

Wynton leaned back against the trunk of the tree, his jaw muscles clenching and un-clenching as he tried to get his breathing and fear under control. His men were being beaten down by the King’s superior forces and numbers. There was no way Robert Wynton was going down because of some slut who chose to leave with a vicious killer.

His plan was to get to his horse – if it hadn’t been killed – and get the hell out of the forest. He thought he was safe when he rounded a thicket of trees, only to see the pommel of a sword just before it slammed into his forehead.

Stumbling backwards, he shook his head to clear it, only to see a man standing before him dressed completely in black, though his shirt had been sliced on the side, the material blood-soaked to the skin. The mask her wore hid the upper part of his face and eyes. Angry eyes.

Wynton grunted again when he was hit with the pommel once more, nearly falling to the ground. He held onto a tree in order to stop his fall, as he knew if he touched the ground that would be it. He drew his blade, prepared to do battle for his life. He had the feeling that the man he was about to face was the Mercenary.

Conley was losing her self-control quickly. She had been shocked to see the bastard hiding behind the tree. She had made Rachel and Tamara stay out of sight. It was time she and her old master and condemner to meet face to face. Vengeance was hers.

“Hello, Lord Wynton,” she said, her voice a low growl. The nobleman looked at her. He knew the voice, but couldn’t place it. “Don’t you recognize me?” she asked, making a show of slowly pulling out both of her blades. “Maybe this will help.”

Wynton watched as the Mercenary pulled off his mask, then was struck dumb to see his old servant, and the bastard he’d pinned Allison’s pregnancy on. The man he had condemned, and who had been killed during an escape. “You’re dead!” he said stupidly, confused.

Conley grinned, shaking her head as she tossed the mask aside. “Apparently not. Guess the prison guards lied.”

Angry and humiliated, Wynton attacked with a loud growl. Conley met his every blow, hers calm and calculated, Wynton’s brash and wild.

“Tsk, tsk, Wynton,” Conley grinned, enjoying toying with her prey. “Shant allow emotion to interfere with honor.”

“You will die today, Conley,” Wynton said, charging, only to have Conley sidestep his thrust. Wynton stopped himself with his hands on the trunk of a tree. He whirled around, not wanting to leave his back exposed to his opponent.

Conley was waiting for him, not wanting to kill Wynton from behind like a coward. Besides, she wanted to play a little more with him first. She stood waiting, one of her blades tucked against her shoulder, tapping in feigned impatience. This, of course just served to make Robert more angry.

Rachel peeked around the corner of the thicket of trees she and Tamara were hiding in. She wanted to watch, but didn’t want to watch. She was ready to run in there and protect Conley if she was needed. In fact, she had handed Emily to her lady-in-waiting, just so she could be ready. As she looked at Wynton, she felt a mixture of fear and hatred, both equally strong. She turned to Tamara when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

“T’will be alright, M’lady,” the older woman whispered encouragingly.

Rachel smiled in appreciation of her words, but then turned her attention back to Conley and Robert Wynton.

Wynton tried to rein in his anger, knowing that it would make him sloppy and get him killed if he weren’t careful. He walked over to the man in black and engaged him once more. “I should have known it was you who stole Rachel from me,” he said – parry, parry, thrust, miss, thrust. The men circled one another, each waiting for the other to make another move. “You always wanted my wife.”

Conley grinned, big and filled with hatred. “Good thing I had her last night.”

Wynton felt his blood boil at those words. He had known that Rachel was in love with the rogue, even back then. Not that he had ever loved Rachel, but it would be over his dead body before he allowed another to have her Especially this bastard.

“You will die!” he cried, charging Conley once more, the two locked in fierce battle. Their swords clashed again and again, sweat popping up on each of their brows. It was more than pride that was at stake.

*****

The King took a moment to breathe. The battle had been fierce and heated. Wynton’s army had lost more than half of it’s men already, another third were injured too badly to continue their fight. It was truly a one-sided victory, as the King’s army had lost at most twenty men.

He wiped his forearm across his brow, blood and sweat smearing onto his bracer. He scanned the battlefield once more for Wynton. Spotting his general, he walked over to him and told him he was on the hunt for the cowardice nobleman. The general nodded in agreement, turning back to the man he was trying to patch up.

The King walked through the carnage, careful to avoid stepping on any bodies or injured. He stopped, listening. In the distance he heard the clang of blades and grunting of fighting men. Instinctively he knew it was the man he sought.

*****

Conley was pushing Wynton back, nearly knocking his back against the trunk of a tree. Desperate to escape, Wynton took a huge chance and dove out of the way of Conley’s sweeping blade, giving a hard kick at Conley’s ankle as he did.

Conley cried out as the ankle buckled and he fell to one knee. She didn’t notice that Wynton had popped back up onto his feet, and was swinging his blade high over head, preparing for the death blow.

“Conley!” Rachel cried in warning.

On pure instinct, Conley rolled away, the blade whooshing mere inches over her fallen head. She rolled out of the way as Wynton went after her, his sword coming down in a chipping action. Frustration was getting the best of Wynton. He wanted Conley dead!

“You will die this day, bastard!” Wynton yelled, teeth bared. As Conley was trying to get out of the way Robert lunged, managing to kick her viciously in the head and knocking her to her back.

Conley was dazed, her vision coming in black splotches. She was about to get up when she felt white hot pain sear through her body, and a shriek in the distance. She couldn’t breathe as she was pinned to the spot.

Rachel watched in horror as Robert Wynton ran his blade through Conley’s body. She hadn’t even heard herself as she’d screamed. Without thought, without care she ran out at Wynton, thrusting her own blade through his stomach as he turned toward her upon hearing her scream. They were no more than a hand-length apart as she held him on her blade. He looked down at her, stunned and mortally wounded.

“You will never hurt her again,” she hissed, thrusting the blade up with all her strength.

Wynton gasped, blood spilling out of his mouth. He fell to the ground, nearly taking Rachel with him, as his dead weight was much more than she could hold up with a sword blade. She let go, the sword thrust obscenely out of his chest.

The King ran when he’d heard the shriek. As he rounded the bend he saw Wynton lying dead on the ground and then he saw his daughter, leaning over a fallen man in black.

“Rachel!” he cried, running over to her.

Rachel didn’t even hear the voice of her father, so focused was she on Conley. She cupped her face in pale hands, looking into the pale blue eyes. “Don’t you leave me!” she begged, shaking the fallen woman. “Don’t you dare!”

Conley couldn’t speak, could barely hear Rachel’s pleads for her to live. She saw the sky above and somehow felt she were floating up into it. A woman appeared before her, a kind smile in her eyes. Standing next to the beautiful woman – whom Conley somehow knew was her mother – was her father. They were waiting for her.

“No!” Rachel screamed, her cries echoing throughout the forest.

~~ SEVENTEEN ~~

A single candle flickered and danced, painting the darkened room with eerie shadows. The old physician sat in the corner by the candle, mixing potions and remedies by it’s small, golden flame. He glanced over at the lone figure lying on the physician’s cot. He studied the figure for a moment, making sure the chest was moving in even, rhythmic motion, then he returned his attention back to his medicines. He’d be leaving the quarters for the night as soon as he finished with the last of the herbal remedies. He felt confident his patient would make it through the night. Besides, he knew the patient wouldn’t be alone, though the visitor had no idea she’d been seen there every single night for the past week.

Knowing she’d be arriving soon, the physician finished up his work for the night, then rose with a groan of age. He carried the dancing candle over to the table next to the patient’s cot and left it there to light the way of the princess. With a soft smile, he left the quarters.

Like clockwork, the door to the physician’s quarters was pushed open, a figure slipping inside, quickly closing the door behind her. She made her way to the bed where the lone figure slept, and took her place at the bedside.

Rachel took Conley’s hand in her own. She looked at the long fingers, running her fingers over the calluses on the palms and fingers. So rough, yet so incredibly gentle. Her gaze moved to the warrior’s face, taking in the arched brows and closed lids. Conley’s lips were relaxed and slightly opened.

The princess sighed, wishing for nothing more than for Conley to open those blue eyes. Then, as if in some answer to her prayer, they did.

Conley blinked several times, trying to bring her world into focus. She had no idea where she was, but knew someone was with her. Was it her mother? Her father? Were they still with her? Slowly she turned her head, trying to bring the person into focus. It took a moment but she realized it was, “Rachel.”

Rachel nearly cried at the whispered word. She nodded, caressing Conley’s hand between her own. “Yes, love. It’s me.”

Conley studied her for a moment, confused. The last thing she remembered was fighting Wynton, and then all went black. “Where am I?” she whispered.

“At my father’s castle,” Rachel said, bringing up a hand and gently brushing away Conley’s dark hair. “You’ve been here for a week. I’ve been frightened beyond measure.”

“Why?”

“You were stabbed, Conley. During your fight with Wynton.”

Conley let Rachel’s words roll around in her brain for a moment, trying to remember. She could remember nothing. She shook her head. “I remember not.”

“You fought him,” Rachel explained, resting her hand on Conley’s cheek, caressing the soft skin with her thumb. “It was awful.” She felt the emotion rise in her, but she fought it, not wanting to upset Conley. “But,” she said, forcing a smile. “You are safe now. Under my father’s protection and care.”

Conley studied Rachel for a moment, sadness filling her heart. “Rachel,” she said softly, “your father will have me executed as soon as he knows who I am.” She reached out a hand, wanting to touch Rachel, if not one last time. She was so weak, but used every bit of energy to touch her.

Rachel saw what Conley was trying to do and grabbed Conley’s hand, bringing it to her lips and kissing the callused palm before taking the hand in both of hers. She shook her head. “He knows. He saw your face that day.”

Conley wasn’t sure what to think of the news. “What of Wynton?” she asked instead.

Rachel looked at their joined hands. “Dead,” she said simply.

“I do not remember killing him.”

Rachel met Conley’s gaze with her own sad one. “You didn’t.”

“Then who?”

“I did. And I’ve not regretted it for a moment. He killed my sister, and tried to kill you.”

“And you.”

“And me,” Rachel agreed. She looked at Conley, unable to hide her love and relief. “You have worried me so, Conley. The physician wasn’t sure if you would survive or not. You’ve been asleep off and on for a week.”

Conley sighed, glad to be alive and awake, and looking at Rachel. “What happened? And why is it that whenever I’m at your father’s castle I end up in the physician’s quarters?”

Rachel smiled, almost feeling giddy at being able to sit here and talk to her love. She shook her head. “Guess you seem to find trouble wherever you go.”

Conley smiled. “Aye.”

Rachel could see that Conley was getting tired and losing strength. She leaned over and placed a kiss upon her lips. “Rest now, my love,” she whispered against them. “You need your strength.”

Conley nodded. “As you wish.”

They both smiled and then Conley slipped off into blissful sleep, Rachel never leaving her side.

*****

It took days for Conley to finally get back on her feet, but eventually she was able to get up and around. She wasn’t sure what the future held for her, and wasn’t sure if she should find a horse and escape while she could. Rachel had been with her every step of the way, for which Conley was eternally grateful, but now that she was well enough to leave, what would happen?

She was nervous, summoned before the King. He was sitting on his throne, impressive in the large, beautiful room, his crown in place and advisors surrounding them.

Conley’s clothing had been cleaned and repaired, so she stood before the King in black, her boots freshly polished and weapons at her side. The only thing missing was her mask, without which she felt vulnerable and naked. She had worn it for so long, it had become part of her identity, as much as her name.

Falling to one knee, Conley bowed her head in absolute respect to a man for whom she had come to greatly respect and admire, knowing to what lengths he’d take for his daughter and people. She did not speak, unsure what to say, or what she could say.

“You are a mystery to me, Conley,” the King said at length. He studied the figure before him. “I have spoken with my daughter, trying to unravel this tangle of half-truths and outright lies.”

Conley felt her heart fall, figuring Rachel must have told the King of Conley’s true identity and persuasion. She sighed heavily inside, but outwardly was like stone.

“Look at me, Conley,” the King said, not unkindly.

Conley raised her head, looking the intimidating man in the eye. If this was her last stand then she’d make it bravely.

“I look at you and I see the eyes of the quiet servant – a stable boy – who once saved my daughter from untold harm. Yet, when I look at your face, I see a proud, brave warrior – and very cunning man, I must say – who not only escaped a fate for which I had called upon your head, nameingly a date with the axe man, but managed to escape and then create an entirely new identity for yourself. An identity for which I, unknowingly came to request your assistance.” The King stroked his beard for a moment, as though considering his next words. “What have you to say for yourself?”

Conley cleared her throat, her voice strong when she finally spoke. “I have to say that I simply did what I had to to survive, Your Majesty. As I’ve done all my life. Had I been guilty of the crime, I would have taken my punishment. Since I was not guilty, and none would listen, instead taking the word of a man with no honor, I knew I had to save myself. You were good to me while I was here, Your Majesty, and I am sorry for my deceit to you and your people. I left this realm, intending never to return.”

The King smiled. “Until I managed to drag you back.”

Conley also smiled. “Kicking and screaming, Your Majesty.”

They both shared a moment of humor before the King once again sobered. “You have proven yourself most brave, Conley. I know not if I’ve seen such bravery, not only on the battlefield, but also in life. I am highly impressed and intrigued by you.” He studied the man before him for a moment. “What of life do you wish for, sir?”

Conley felt her heart flutter at the question and visions which stormed her mind. “To be happy, Your Majesty. To protect what is mine, and have the right to do so.”

The King nodded in approval. “I see. It has come to my attention that my daughter loves you very deeply. And,” he grinned, “I suspect this love is not one-sided.”

Conley wasn’t sure what to say. Was this a trap? She decided to stay prudently silent.

“You need not say anything, sir, as I see it in your eyes. Understand that when I married her to Lord Wynton, I truly thought I was doing the right thing for my people. Marriage, as you know Conley, is a matter of business. However,” he said, raising a finger of silence, “I was one of the few who were fortunate enough to find love in my wife, Emily. She was taken from our marriage far too young and soon, but I know what it is to love.”

One of the King’s advisers hurried over to the throne upon a flick of the King’s wrist. The squirrelly little man handed the King a parchment then scurried off. “This, young lad is a proclamation returning your honor as a brave and noble knight in this kingdom.”

Conley wasn’t sure what to say, as she felt there was more to this proclamation than had been thus far said. She waited, her heart beginning to pound.

“You have proven yourself most brave and loyal. These are all the qualities I’d welcome in not only one of my personal men, but also in a husband for my daughter. She is all that I have left, Conley, and I can’t bare to lose her again to a bad decision.” The King stood and walked over to where Conley still kneeled. “Stand.”

Conley stood, looking the King in the eye.

“Do you accept, Conley?” the King asked, his voice soft and that of a friend, rather than a powerful ruler.

Conley grinned. “With all my heart.”

~~ EIGHTEEN ~~

Conley looked around her new rooms, trying to understand how she’d gone from living in the servant quarters to a bit larger room of a soldier to a prison cell to the quarters of royalty. The bed chamber was massive, a stone fireplace taking up most of one entire wall. The fire crackled happily, warming the large space.

She heard a knock at the double doors to the outer chamber, which was answered by Robin, the man servant she had been given. Soft murmuring led to a knock at the bedchamber door. Expecting to see Robin, Conley was surprised – and utterly delighted – to see instead Rachel. The princess closed the door, back leaning against it and pinning Conley to the spot with the intensity in her eyes.

Conley couldn’t move, could barely think as they shared the glance. Finally Rachel broke the spell, pushing off the doors and walking over to Conley. The loose robes she wore fluttered around her, giving her an ethereal presence. Her hair was down and free around her breasts and back. She was more stunning than anything Conley had ever seen.

“Hello, my love,” Rachel said softly, stopping only once she’d reached the warrior. She rested her hands on Conley’s stomach, fingertips feeling the soft material of the fine garments she’d been given. “The kingdom becomes you,” she smiled, drawing closer.

Conley’s breath was taken by the pure beauty before her. Words escaped her as she looked into Rachel’s eyes. The princess smiled, seeming to understand the power she had over Conley.

“So beautiful,” Rachel said, bringing a hand up to cup Conley’s cheek. “Did you ever think your life would take this turn?” she asked softly.

Conley shook her head, finally able to release herself from the fog she’d succumb to. “No, M’lady,” she said softly. “I have but one worry.”
“What is that?” Rachel asked, closing the small distance between their bodies, making it even more difficult for Conley to think and speak.

“What if I’m found out?” Conley whispered. “All will be lost.”

Rachel shook her head. “It will never happen, Conley,” Rachel promised. “All who know are dead, and anyone else – myself – will take the secret to my grave.” She leaned up and placed a soft kiss on Conley’s lips. “I love you, Conley. To me, in my heart, you are my husband. What defines a man? Bravery? Size? Fortitude? You have all these things in abundance, my love.” She pressed her hips into Conley’s suggestively, making them both smile. “I am a lucky woman. You have all these wonderful qualities of a man, yet you have such gentleness in you. Such heart and warmth. Love. These are the things that make a woman. You are a wonderful mix of both.”

“Are you sure, Rachel?” Conley asked, doubt pushing away any thoughts of bliss.

“With all my heart. I love you. All of you.” Once again she leaned up, giving her love a kiss, though this kiss was deep, lingering. “Let me prove it to you,” she whispered against Conley’s lips.

Conley watched as Rachel broke the kiss and took a half-step back from her. With gentle hands, Rachel began to undress Conley, removing the wrapping around her breasts with loving care and kindness, then kneeling to help remove boots and breeches. Conley felt so vulnerable as the leather straps were undone, the device of her deception removed from her person.

Once she was completely finished, Rachel stood back and looked at the goddess that stood before her. Her gaze drifted along the creamy skin of Conley’s breasts, then her gaze wandered lower, taking in all the scars that marked the warrior’s body, including the healing wound of her latest fight with Wynton. She gently ran a finger along the angry red line that marked the wound she’d taken, that had nearly taken Conley from her.

Conley could hardly breathe as Rachel examined her body. She had never been so naked in front of someone before, completely unmasked. She wasn’t sure what to feel or think, other than grateful.

Rachel’s fingers ran across the smooth skin, so different from a man’s. Smooth and pale from lack of exposure to the sun. Her gaze then drifted lower, to the dark thatch of hair between Conley’s legs, which no longer supported a protruding object. She was curious and intrigued, and filled with deep desire. Without a word she disrobed, her gown falling to the floor in a sea of satin and silks. Both naked, Rachel met Conley’s gaze once more.

Conley could only hold the look for a moment, as she was so hungry to take in all that stood before her.. Rachel was magnificent. Her body had fully healed from it’s time of being poisoned and denied the basic human needs. Her skin was pale and soft, her breasts rosy-tipped, the skin straining against itself as a flush of desire began to rise along the flesh.

Rachel moved over to the thick rug that covered the stone floor in front of the massive fireplace. She lay herself down, waiting for Conley to join her. It didn’t take long. The warrior lay on her side next to Rachel, feeling like a new lover, unsure and vulnerable.

“I know not how to love you as a woman,” she said softly.

Rachel smiled, reaching for Conley. “Nor do I. But,” she grinned, pulling Conley on top of her. “Me thinks we can figure it out.”

Their first kiss in complete honesty was wonderful. Conley’s mind was whirling, trying to take in all the amazing sensations. As her mouth and tongue met Rachel’s, her body was exploding with sensation and gooseflesh. She had to admit that it felt wonderful to lie with Rachel as her true self: nothing false, nothing hidden. She could feel her desire growing, a need to share this with Rachel greater than anything she’d ever known.

As they kissed, Rachel ran her hands all along the naked flesh of Conley’s back, running her nails down along her spine, and down along the naked flesh of her behind. No straps now to interrupt the flow of softness. The pass over rounded flesh caused Conley to press into Rachel, making the princess sigh in pleasure. She wanted to know what it felt like to have their sex touching. She spread her legs, allowing room for Conley to fit between her thighs.

Conley moaned loud and deep as she and Rachel were pressed intimately together. She could feel Rachel’s wetness, which undoubtedly matched her own.

“You feel wonderful,” Rachel said, closing her eyes for a moment as she luxuriated in the feel.

Conley’s pleasure with a woman had always been second-hand, as it had come through the phallus, and not directly from her own sex. She felt overwhelmed as sensations passed through her. Was it always like this, or was it just Rachel? She wanted to know every part of the beautiful woman beneath her.

Rachel kept her eyes closed as Conley began to kiss and explore her neck. She brought her hands up to entwine in thick, black hair, giving Conley access to all that she wished.

Conley didn’t miss a single inch of flesh as she moved her way down to Rachel’s breasts. She was careful, as Rachel was still breast feeding Emily. She gently massaged, flicking her tongue over erect nipples. Rachel cried out softly, arching her back to offer herself fully; a sacrifice of flesh and desire.

Rachel’s skin was perfection, unmarred with the scars and imperfections that littered Conley’s body, a body that had labored and fought to survive. Rachel had been protected, leaving pale bliss for Conley’s hands and mouth. She ran her tongue along the center line of Rachel’s body from between her breasts down to her belly button. As she neared the golden thatch of hair, she could smell Rachel’s need and desire for her. She wanted that desire. Wanted to claim it as her own.

Rachel had no idea what Conley was doing, her eyes opening to look down to see Conley’s dark head moving toward her most private place. Her head fell back on the rug as a tongue sliced through her wetness. She no longer cared what Conley was doing; it felt unlike anything she could imagine, and short-circuited any and all thought.

Conley had no idea what she was doing, or if it was even right, but it didn’t matter. It felt right to her, and as Rachel’s hips began to slowly move with the movement of her mouth, she assumed the princess liked it. She found herself engulfed in the heat that made up Rachel’s very core, and it was a heat she wished she could curl up in and stay forever. It was the center of Rachel’s being, and apparently the center of her pleasure.

Bringing a hand up, she eased her fingers inside Rachel’s depths, making the blonde cry out in pleasure as she was filled. Conley marveled at the feel of what had always surrounded her phallus, though an extension of herself, not a fully participating member in the tactile bliss that was Rachel’s sex. She ran her tongue up and down along Rachel’s seam, gathering fluids as she went, more abundance with every pass. Finally she focused her attentions to the swollen part of her sex with her tongue, as her fingers were fully engaged in Rachel’s entrance.

Rachel was lost in a haze of sensual bliss as white hot pleasure spread through her, a pleasure that was almost too intense to bear. She gasped as Conley found a spot that sent tendrils of intensity up her body. Her hand slammed down on Conley’s head, holding her to that spot, breathlessly begging her to stay.

Conley did as asked, continuing to suck the nub into her mouth and running her tongue over it in quick passes, meanwhile her hand increasing it’s rhythm. After a moment more of this, Rachel’s legs slammed shut, a throaty cry filling the space as her body spasmed, her back arching off the rug as her body was overtaken by the experience.

Conley slowly removed herself from Rachel’s depths, moving her way back up her body, kissing and caressing to try and calm her. “’Tis alright, love,” she whispered, raining kisses all along Rachel’s face and shoulders. “I love you.”

It took long moments for Rachel to come back to the present, surprised to feel the chill of tears on her cheeks. The experience had been so intense, so utterly intense that it had nearly knocked her from one world and into the next. She wrapped her arms around Conley, holding her close. She’d never felt so close to another human being in all her life. Not even in the many other times of intimate connection she’d shared with the warrior in one way or another, had she felt such.

Conley held on, sensing Rachel desperately needed to feel her close. She wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, but figured it wasn’t a bad thing. After a moment she pulled back, brushing Rachel’s hair back away from her face as she studied her.

“Are you alight?” she asked softly.

Rachel nodded, feeling foolish for her strong reaction. “I’m sorry.”

“Do not apologize.” Conley’s brows drew. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“Oh, no.” Rachel drew Conley down for a long, deeply passionate kiss. “Not even close,” she whispered into the kiss, pushing Conley to her back and following until she lay atop the surprised warrior. “Now ‘tis my turn.”

Conley’s eyes slipped closed as warm lips and tongue tasted her flesh. No one had ever touched her in such a way. She gasped as her left breast was tentatively touched with inquisitive fingers. Her nipples both hardened to attention, aching for touch. Rachel quickly responded, swiping her tongue over the left one. A long, soft sigh escaped Conley’s lips as sensation shot through her chest, heading south.

Rachel was intrigued by the response of Conley’s body to her touch. She was surprised as the reactions made her own body respond in kind. She took as much of Conley’s breast into her mouth as she could, suckling on the soft flesh and feeling the nipple tickle the roof of her mouth. As her mouth continued with both of Conley’s breasts, her hand began to wander. She ran her fingers over the hills and valleys that made Conley the woman she was.

Conley gasped as fingers – gaining confidence with every response from her – found the wet heat between her legs. Instinctually she spread her thighs, allowing Rachel all the access she desired. Rachel’s fingers ran scorching paths along the soft skin of an inner thigh, before trailing along thick hair, and petting for a moment. Conley’s hips were moving slowly, silently inviting Rachel to explore further.

Rachel moved her mouth up to Conley’s, seducing her further with mouth, tongue and teeth. Her fingers slipped into the slick folds that made Conley a woman, dipping into the lave-like heat she found there. She moaned into the kiss, loving the feel of the heated, swollen flesh. She wasn’t entirely sure what to do, as she’d never even explored her own sexuality, but wanted so desperately to please her love. She tried to remember back to what had been done to her.

Conley was almost purring into the kiss as Rachel’s fingers stroked her, eliciting the most wonderful sensations and feelings throughout her entire body. After awhile she had to break from the kiss, her concentration needed on the pleasure that was spreading through her body like wildfire. Her breathing had heightened, her body moving in tandem with Rachel’s hand. Without warning, her body exploded in pleasure, her heart seeming to stop in her chest for that one moment of pure physical bliss. Rachel stayed with her, calming Conley as she’d been calmed, with kisses to the face and neck.

“I have got you,” Rachel whispered, continuing her finger’s movements until Conley breathlessly asked her to stop. She pulled the warrior against her, their bodies pressed together as Conley continued to convulse, her sex pulsing in time with her racing heart.

After a long moment they settled in, Rachel’s body curled up into Conley’s, her head resting on a strong shoulder. “I love you, Conley,” she whispered, placing a soft kiss where the neck met the shoulder. “I cannot wait to become your wife.”

Conley smiled, holding the princess closer. Never had she felt so loved and fully accepted. No deceit, no falsity. Nothing but truth and honor. “And I you. With all my heart.”

Rachel sighed, content. “May I spend the night here with you?” she asked, her voice growing tired.

“As you wish,” Conley whispered, her eyes slipping closed.

THE END

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One thought on “As You Wish by Kim Pritekel

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