Freedom’s Heart by Amber

freedom's heart

Artwork by Carpe Chakram

Freedom’s Heart
by Amber

Chapter 1.

Jessica Da’Gran cleared the outer wall of the castle, laughing wildly as she urged the grey mare under her to even greater speed. Behind her, frantic shouts echoed from the castle walls, but she didn’t bother looking back. Leaning forward, the young girl whooped joyously and let the bubble of excitement welling deep in her belly grow. Her horse, Andromeda, caught the rebellious mood and galloped harder still away from the stables and the shadow of castle Da’Gran, thrilled at the wild race.

The winter air was bitingly cold despite the midday hour, making every breath the young woman took sharp and painful. Still, Jessica reveled in the chill, knowing today’s work would warm her blood quickly enough. Tendrils of long blonde hair pulled free from their braid and whipped about her face as she galloped down the road, Andromeda’s hooves kicking up mud and snow along their path. Squinting against the tears that were squeezed from her jade-colored eyes by the icy wind, Jessica grinned madly as she made out the line of mounted figures she was swiftly gaining on.

Within moments, the group of riders realized they were being followed and their procession halted. Drawing back on the reins, Jessica slowed Andromeda to a trot before stopping in front of the man at the head of the column, her breath coming in short, hard gasps. The man eyed her speculatively, his features stern and grim. With an effort, Jessica wiped the excited grin off her face and returned her fathers steady appraisal calmly.

Sir Richard Da’Gran – lord knight of the castle that bore his family’s name – was dressed in sturdy, functional plate-armor designed to offer maximum protection while allowing enough mobility to fight. His greying hair was partially hidden by a chain-mail headpiece, but the open face of the coif allowed his thick beard to flow freely over his chest. A beautifully crafted broadsword was sheathed at his side, and a short lance rested in a stirrup cup, its tip aimed proudly at the overcast skies. Though in his late fifties, Sir Richard still cut an imposing figure; strong, intelligent, and bearing his mantle of responsibility with dauntless courage.

Jessica felt the weight of intense grey eyes as they flicked over her. Sir Richard’s weathered features tightened as his mouth drew into a firm line and his thick eyebrows lowered in a scowl.

“Jessica.” He nodded a gruff welcome. “I thought your mother was keeping you busy.” His voice was deep and rumbling, yet at the same time cultured and carrying a hint of a Scottish accent.

“I guess she got distracted,” Jessica said once she’d caught her breath from the wild ride. Her grin somehow escaped and flashed across her face before she subdued it once more. Still, her laughing eyes betrayed her merriment, and together with her flushed features, Jessica’s excitement was obvious over her attempt at somberness.

“Mmhmm.” He grunted, turning away and signaling to the others that they were continuing on. “You’ll be wanting to join us I expect. Just be sure to keep your head on your shoulders and your wits about you. I’m not wasting my time protecting your neck if you’ve a mind to be risking it.” With a gruff wave, he ordered his daughter to his side.

Now she couldn’t help but grin as she took her place, nodding a greeting to her father’s second in command, Sir Miles Elirist, who returned it with a solemn bow. Her father’s gruff words didn’t bother her — she understood the pride and love that stood behind them.

Jessica had first followed her father into battle when she was twelve years old, and ever since then she rarely missed a chance to join him. Her mother usually tried to keep her busy in the castle, but Jessica always managed to slip away. Sir Richard pretended to be displeased at having to put up with his daughter’s company, but Jess knew his surliness was all an act. This conversation was one they had every time he rode out to deal with the roving bands of thugs and ruffians who plagued his lands. She knew his next words before he spoke them.

“You didn’t hurt her, did you?”

Always the same. Jess shook her head. “Not this time,” she grinned.

“Good.” He glanced at her and smiled a little, his usually somber eyes twinkling a little in amusement. His expression vanished, however, as he appraised her outfit. “Think maybe next time you can find something more appropriate to wear, girl?” He gestured to the soldiers around them. “This is a battle you know, not a picnic.”

“I know that,” she said angrily. Her green eyes flared a little, but she flushed as she glanced down. Her short, muscular frame was covered by a simple white shirt and brown trousers more commonly worn by the peasant men. In the fight they would give her no protection at all — especially since she’d torn the sleeves off the shirt, exposing her smooth, tightly muscled arms, covered in a few scars and gooseflesh from the winter chill. “I didn’t have time to get my gear.”

This was true. Her mother had been harder than usual to elude, and her armor was still arranged neatly in her room back at the castle. “I got this, though.” She patted the slender, elegant rapier sheathed at her side, the scabbard hanging below the flare of her hips from a length of course rope wrapped loosely about her waist. Meeting her fathers steady gaze, she said firmly, “It’s all the protection I’ll need.”

Sir Richard grunted. He knew his daughter was a capable fighter. Hell, she’s more than capable, he corrected himself. The darn girl can already outfight almost every soldier in the bloody garrison. And she’s got more than her fair share of battle experience, too. The clothes may not look fancy, but her skill can back her up. Still . . .

Jessica watched her father closely, trying to judge his mood. “I want to fight,” she said, a gentle lilt catching in her voice as it slipped into the accented speech she’d adopted from the soldiers, who’d spent many years in Ireland fighting in blood feuds. She only spoke like this when outside the presence of her mother; the older woman would have been shocked to hear her daughter speaking in such uncultured tones. “I can handle myself . . .”

“I know that,” he interrupted her gently. “I’m not questioning your ability, girl, but you need to be better prepared next time.” He paused, then added, “This fight won’t take much; just a few bandits camped too close to the village for comfort. The men can do most of the work, okay Jess?” His voice was soft with understanding, and he ignored the angry look he was faced with. “If I wanted a baby-sitter, I’d have stayed back at the castle,” the young blonde muttered angrily. She glared around her at the other soldiers, none of whom would meet her gaze. She knew that many of the men were uneasy about a woman fighting with them, even after all these years. Her talent and dedication had earned her their respect, though it was often given reluctantly.

She felt her former elation starting to drain away, replaced by a sullen anger she didn’t like. It made her feel she was behaving like a spoilt brat, and she hated that feeling. She was a fighter, and nothing her mother or anyone else could do would ever change that. It was the path she had chosen long ago.

Sir Miles leaned over from his massive and flighty war-horse to squeeze her shoulder with his left hand; his right had been taken from him in a fight during his youth. “We’re not here to baby-sit ye,” he growled. “This ain’t no competition. Ye wanna fight . . . fine. We all know ye can.” He gestured to the soldiers riding behind them. “Not one among ‘em would dare to question yer courage, Jess. But ye gotta be smart.” He patted her arm and drew back. “You’ll be more use if ye stay on the outside ‘a this fight, girl.”

Jessica studied the man intently. Sir Miles was a man she respected above all others . . . except her father, of course. He had been her friend and confidant since she’d been a child, and had been responsible for her training in combat and woodcraft. Despite the loss of his right hand, Miles was the best fighter among her fathers men, and his wisdom was extensive.

Her emerald eyed narrowed. “What do you mean?” she asked suspiciously.

“These bandit’s we’re after are hidin’ in the woods,” he explained. “No way to move a war-horse through them trees all that fast — that’s why we’re gonna try’n surround ‘em and strike before they kin form a defence. But in the confusion, a few of ‘em’ll surely try to bolt. If ye’re waiting on the outside, ye can chase ‘em down on that quick beast ‘a yours.” He pointed to Andromeda. “She’ll move fast through the woods. Ye can stop ‘em from gettin’ away, can’t ye?”

Jessica considered the idea and nodded slowly. “I guess . . .” She knew Andromeda could maneuver through the woods at great speed; the mare was nimble and light, unlike the heavier war-horses the soldiers rode, which were bred for strength and endurance over speed and agility. She frowned and glared at the older man. So . . . they get the fun stuff, and I’m stuck with mopping up the cowards who decide to flee? “You expect me to clean up the stragglers, huh?”

“Gods above, girl . . . you’ll not be happy till we say ye can get in the thick of it, will ya!?”

Jessica shrugged and patted a nervous Andromeda. “All I want is to be allowed to jump in where I feel like it!”

Sir Miles grinned and chuckled. “Aye lass,” he agreed. “And nothin’ we kin say’ll stop ye, will it?”

“Nope.”

“Fine then,” he agreed, his smile vanishing as his tone grew harder. “But remember . . . before ye go in arse first, keep in mind that any a them ruffians get away and harm the common people, it’ll be on yer head, child.” He fixed her with his most serious glare. “Ye’ve got yer job to do, same as the rest of us. See that it’s done.”

Jessica swallowed and nodded earnestly. “Yes, Miles.” Trust the man to say the one thing that’d get me to behave, she scowled.

Miles glanced at Sir Richard, who nodded his thanks for settling his stubborn child. Damn girl just had to have her way, he chuckled silently.

Her mood restored somewhat, Jessica grinned again and faced into the stiff breeze that had picked up. A familiar tingle raced up and down her skin making her shiver a little as her heart beat faster. The thrill of anticipation was high today. It made her blood sing in her veins and made everything in the world seem fresh and new. The daughter of a noble knight, Jessica had lived among steel and sweat all her life. The prospect of battle was nothing new to the young woman . . . yet something about today’s adventure seemed different. More thrilling, somehow.

There was deep portent in the air. She remembered that description from one of the books she’d read. It seemed to fit well the energy she felt crackling about her as they neared the woods. ‘Deep portent in the air’. Like before a thunderstorm. She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder and rested a hand reassuringly on the ornate hilt of her sword, reveling in the strange sensation that made her feel like God himself was watching her with more than passing interest.

She had a feeling this was going to be an interesting fight.

***************************

Kaleah had watched the group of rough men at their camp for over an hour now, her breath fogging in the winter air. Her muscles were growing stiff and cramped from holding the same position so long, and beyond that, she was just plain getting impatient. Still, it was better to take precautions when approaching strangers. She knew from bitter experience what could happen when she didn’t keep a chain on her patience and just charged in without watching first.

There were about thirty-odd men in the camp — a fair number. They were gathered around three small camp-fires set in a triangle, rubbing their hands together and trying to ward off the bitter chill. Even from where she sat hidden, Kaleah could smell the scent of roasting pheasant, and her stomach growled to remind her how unsuccessful her own hunting efforts had been of late. All the men were armed, though she noticed with a professional eye that their weapons were ill-maintained. Much of the metal was rusted, and their blades were of poor craftsmanship. The armor they wore was all leather, though a few had added squares of chain-mail to the hides . . . no doubt scrounged from battlefields. A few lookouts armed with bows were posted in the trees, so she had to be careful. All in all, Kaleah thought the group looked to be made up of thieves and bandits of a very common stock.

Thieves and bandits who’re still able to feed themselves, she reminded herself. That’s more than you can say for yourself.

Scowling, she rose slowly, letting her aching muscles adjust to movement again. Keeping her hands to her sides and away from the Spanish blade hanging prominently at her side, Kaleah started walking slowly towards the camp.

She hated doing this, but knew she would starve if she didn’t. A stranger in this land, Kaleah had little experience with weather this cold, having lived most of her life in cities or on the coast. The animals had seemingly vanished, and her efforts at lighting fires gleaned only sporadic success. These men – though doubtless outlaws and misfits – were experienced with the land enough to provide for themselves. If Kaleah wanted to survive this harsh, frozen season, she would have to mingle with other people . . . as hateful as it was to her.

A look-out quickly saw her coming and yelled a warning to the other men. Kaleah continued her approach undaunted, holding out her sturdy bow in a way that made it clear she meant no threat. The sentinels perched high in the trees trained their own bows on her, ready to cut her down if she made any hostile move.

The bandits reacted quickly to the warning of the look-out, scurrying to grab their weapons and form a defense. Seeing that only a single person was approaching, not an army, they relaxed slightly but continued to eye her warily.

“Ho!” Kaleah hailed the man who appeared to be the leader of the group — if they could be said to have a leader. “I come in peace!”

The man — a tall, grizzled individual with a scarred and rough looking face – pointed at her bow with his sword. “Put the bow on the ground,” he ordered.

Kaleah did so slowly, laying the length of strung wood on the thin, crisp snow, maintaining eye contact all the time.

“Whadaya want?” the man demanded once she’d stepped away.

Kaleah cast her eyes towards the fire. “I’m cold,” she said, “and hungry. I just wanted to share the fire with you, if I could. And maybe some of your food.” Her voice carried a distinct accent with it . . . part Spanish, part something more exotic but indefinable. She understood that most people found it quite pleasant, though it marked her as a foreigner in this country.

The grizzled man scowled. “We ain’t no charity, woman! We don’t give handouts.”

“I can pay you,” Kaleah assured him, moving a hand slowly to reach into a pouch hanging at her side. She pulled out a few coins and held them up, glad to see the man’s scowl disappear, replaced by a quickly muffled look of greed. “I won’t stay long . . . I just want something to eat and a moment to warm myself, that’s all.”

The man eyed her a long while, his sharp eyes shrewdly taking in the well-kept leather-and-chain-mail armor she wore, and the fine sword at her side. Kaleah held herself upright under his scrutiny, knowing others were often impressed by her appearance. She was tall for a woman, and from experience she understood that her clear blue eyes contrasted with her dark hair and bronze skin in a way that many found attractive for some reason. She had often cursed her appearance, hating the good looks that drew the attention of the worst kind of men . . .

She shook her head mentally. You don’t have to remember that, she told herself. It’s the past. You’re not a slave anymore . . . you’re a free woman!

But Kaleah knew the marks of her years in servitude were not easily erased. Even as she acknowledged this, she felt the man’s eyes pause on her face and knew he was studying one of those same marks even now. The scar that cut diagonally across both her lips was not long, but it was extremely prominent. It marred her otherwise perfect features and served as a constant reminder of the pain that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember.

“Alright then,” the man allowed, his inspection complete. “But you’ll have to give up that fancy sword first.” He eyed the beautiful weapon hungrily.

Kaleah shook her head. “No deal,” she said firmly. She’d die before handing over the weapon. “I promise not to use it, but I won’t come unarmed into a strange camp.”

Some of the men laughed and nodded their understanding, knowing she was justified in her desire to keep the blade. Their leader also grinned and nodded agreeably, waving her forward. “Fine then,” he allowed, seeing she was as much a veteran as she appeared. “Come on.”

She tossed him the coins as she passed and headed straight for the nearest fire, breathing a sigh of relief as the warmth permeated the thick numbness that stiffened her fingers and limbs. The cold tended to settle deepest in the joints of her fingers and along the worst of her scars. She was wet and cold from crouching in the snow all that time. Kneeling down to be closer to the blaze, she rubbed her hands together and groaned with pleasure.

The bandit leader and several of his men gathered near her. She ignored their curious looks. When one handed her a hunk of slightly blackened meat, she bit into it hungrily, not caring what it was. The men noticed and chuckled at her obvious hunger.

“Been by yerself a while, I’d be thinking,” said the leader, holding out his hand. “I’m called Pete.”

Kaleah hesitated, never liking physical contact, even a simple clasping of hands. Still, she knew what was expected and returned his gesture. “My name’s Kaleah,” she said softly. “And yes, it’s been a while since I had company.”

Pete grinned, showing slightly yellowed teeth. “New to the area, then?”

Kaleah just nodded as she tore at the meat, her stomach rumbling it’s appreciation and willingly overlooking the fact that the food was burnt.

“Ye running from someone?”

This was one of the reasons she avoided all contact with others — with company came the need for conversation and interaction. Kaleah hated company, and she hated talking. Still, these men were sharing their food and their fire; if the least they asked for was a few words in return, she could indulge them.

“Not running,” she said around a full mouth. “Just wandering.”

“Aye,” he grinned, suspecting otherwise. “Well, we’re not ones to judge.” His men nodded and poked at the fire, stirring it to greater heat.

Kaleah could feel her body start to uncoil as it warmed. “Neither am I.” True enough. Let them go their way, and I’ll go mine.

Pete laughed and slapped her on the arm. Kaleah tensed, but restrained the impulse to retaliate, knowing the gesture to be one of acceptance and camaraderie. Though somewhat limited in experience dealing with people, she knew enough to get by and was learning more all the time.

“Regardless, ye’ll probably want to be avoiding the local lord of these parts,” Pete said. “He does a better job than most with people like us.”

“Oh?”

“Aye. His men’re damn good, I’ll tell ya that. Well trained ‘n’ smart to boot.” He tore a hunk of meat from the carcass over the fire and bit into it, giving her a thoughtful look. “Doubt they’d bother you much,” he added. “Don’t see to many women dressed in that get-up.”

Kaleah had observed as much in her travels, which had covered much of the region between here and Spain. It seemed there were few females who took up arms in this land. She just nodded. “If his men are so good, why come here?” she asked. “There must be easier pickings elsewhere.”

“Aye,” he agreed. “Easier, but not near as ripe.”

“Ripe?” She knew the word, but not the context.

“These lands are rich. The people — even the peasants — all have a bit of money put aside. So long as we keep hidden and move about often, the soldiers ain’t too much of a problem.” He shrugged. “We do okay, even now it’s winter.” He paused, thinking, before adding, “There’s rumors of other reasons to be here, too.”

Kaleah heard the conspiratorial hint in his words. She didn’t much care about rumors; curiosity had brought her a lot of pain as a slave. Still, she knew she’d be expected to show interest in his secret, whatever it was, so she politely asked, “What rumors?”

Pete grinned. “I heard talk someone’s getting an army ready hereabouts,” he whispered to her. “Work for us if it’s true. Dunno who they’d be attacking, but I don’t really care . . . loot’s loot, ya know.”

Kaleah nodded and went back to her meal, eating slower now and relishing the food. She knew it might be a while before she ate meat again. She could sense the steady scrutiny of the bandit leader but ignored it. She didn’t care about joining an army, though the information would be useful if she were forced to turn to mercenary work — this winter would be hard, and she had no idea what might happen.

Pete pointed with the bone of meat he held to her side. “You any good with that there fancy sword?” he asked. “Or is it just for show?”

Kaleah froze in her meal. She turned her pale blue eyes on the bandit and was satisfied to see him shrink back a little, startled by their intensity. “I can use my blade,” she assured him, her voice calm and steady.

He nodded and swallowed in reflex. Damn, this woman’s got a glare that’d scare the Devil himself! “Just askin’” he said, glad when she turned back to her meal. She must be some kinda mercenary . . . either that or a criminal on the run, he pondered. The look about her and the way she spoke told him the strange woman was foreign, and the scar on her face and the way she moved suggested she had some talent. But there was something about her . . . something he could feel but not define, that told him not to offer her shelter or alliance as he had been about to do. She positively radiated tension and power, like the taut string of a loaded crossbow.

This woman was dangerous . . . plain and simple.

“Well,” he coughed to cover his discomfort. “I’d still avoid the soldiers, if I were you.”

Kaleah had every intention of doing just that. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll come get you here,” she asked. “These fires are smoking enough that anyone could find your camp.”

Pete laughed. “They won’t enter the woods,” he said confidently. “And they don’t know where we are.”

Suddenly, one of the look-outs gave a piercing cry and fell from his lofty roost. Kaleah and the bandits sprung away from the fire, startled. Even before the man had hit the ground Kaleah saw the wooden shaft firmly embedded in his chest. Her hand went instantly to the hilt of her sword, but she looked around before she drew it, unsure of the direction of the threat. Another look-out fell from his post, similarly slain.

The bandits reacted with the same speed they had displayed earlier, only now Pete was shouting orders, realizing his last words to Kaleah weren’t as true as he might have wished. The men had just managed to form a loose ring facing outwards when the forest erupted with sound and movement. Over a dozen mounted figures charged into the clearing from all directions at once, yelling war-cries and lowering lances as they came.

Still, Kaleah didn’t move. She crouched low, hand ready to draw her weapon. She was in the middle of the bandit ring and not that eager to die for these men. Several of the bandits were struck down by the lances, then chaos broke out as the battle was joined.

Crouched seemingly calmly in the center of the fighting, Kaleah looked around for an escape route. A few of the men chose to flee but were cut down by the mounted cavalry. She saw Pete and another grimy outlaw manage to yank one of the soldiers from his horse, but the armored knight proved just as dangerous on the ground as off it, slicing the chest of one man before clashing blades with the bandit leader.

It was then Kaleah noticed she wasn’t the only one holding back from the fight and simply watching. Just outside the clearing, a young woman with golden-blonde hair mounted on a grey horse surveyed the writhing field of combat with intense interest. The woman wore men’s clothes and carried a sword, but even at a distance Kaleah could make out her curvaceous, muscular figure. She looked like a peasant, but her calm appraisal of the bloody battle made it clear she was something more.

Perhaps sensing the scrutiny, the figure suddenly turned her head, and their eyes locked.

Time seemed to stop.

The sound of the fight around her disappeared.

The breath suddenly left Kaleah’s body and her heart skipped several beats as the intensity from the young woman’s gaze struck her an almost physical blow. Kaleah realized she could clearly make out every feature of the woman’s eyes even though they were some way away. She could tell they were a brilliant, clear green color, like wet emeralds . . . but more than that, somehow she could see the tiny flecks of gold that sparkled in their depths. She could see the hint of merriment and joy that caught the suns feeble rays through the forest canopy. For an instant she was gripped by a sense of recognition so powerful it froze her mind and scrambled her thoughts, making the battle fade away and become a distant thing of no consequence.

In that instant, something powerful and ancient inside Kaleah stirred for the first time in a lifetime. She felt a gentle presence engulf her senses . . . . . . then settle into her soul as though reclaiming long-familiar territory.

The battle intruded on the moment, however. Though her mind and soul were otherwise occupied in this bizarre dance of emotions, Kaleah’s body was still tuned to the fight raging about her. One of the armored soldiers – apparently having lost his mount – saw her unmoving form and figured on an easy target.

Even before his sword was raised, Kaleah erupted into motion. Her seemingly paralyzed arm drew the slender blade from her side, the steel singing in pure delight at finally being released. Sidestepping a professionally executed stroke from the knight, Kaleah twisted gracefully and sent the tip of her weapon arcing towards one of the gaps in the plate armor behind the man’s knee. She felt the steel blade tear into flesh, then quickly pulled back and spun away, her defenses raised.

With a cry of pain, the man spun around, his discipline slipping instantly with the pain of his injury. Kaleah ducked a few wild swings, knowing she didn’t have the strength to lock blades with the knight. When another gap appeared in his defenses, the dark woman pounced with another lightening strike, this time to his right shoulder. Unbalanced, the knight went down easily when she whirled again, lashing out with her leg to trip him.

Her enemy subdued, Kaleah turned back to the mounted woman, her heart beating strangely fast as though eager to make up for the moment it had stopped doing what it was supposed to do.

The young woman was grinning now, emerald eyes dancing playfully. Her smile was infectious and Kaleah found herself returning it unconsciously. The battle was at it’s fever pitch however, and she knew if she was going to make good her escape, now was the time to do it. Effecting a courtly salute to the young woman, Kaleah tore her eyes away and, quickly finding an opening, made a break for the denser parts of the forest.

As she ran, Kaleah wondered idly why she felt like she should be headed in the other direction.

********************************

Jessica watched with a grin as the dark-haired stranger raced off into the woods. The young woman was still a moment as she tried to analyze the waves of feeling that had swept over her when she met the stranger’s gaze. It was that portent thing again, she was sure of it. Those piercing blue eyes framed by fine, arching dark brows had sent shivers through Jessica’s body unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Checking briefly to make sure her father and his men were doing okay – which, of course, they were – the blonde woman guided Andromeda around the clearing and began to give chase.

Jessica thought she should feel disappointed — she hadn’t had the opportunity to fight anyone yet. The blue-eyed stranger and that weird but powerful sensation had stopped her just as she’d been about to jump into the fray. But she knew the bandits were all of poor skill, no challenge to her at all. Her prey now was something much more special.

The dark woman’s skill was obvious in her poise and the professional way she had moved. Her father’s men were the finest warriors in the region, yet the stranger had defeated one of them with only a few accurate hits, and none of them lethal. An armored knight was difficult to bring down . . . Jess knew from experience. The almost casual way this woman had done it was amazing.

Eyes brimming with glee and heart racing excitedly, Jessica weaved her horse through the thicker trees as she angled slightly away from her prey . . . she wanted to head the woman off.

This one quarry was worth all the other bandits combined, and Jessica was determined to catch her.

********************************

Kaleah ran as long as she thought was prudent, not wanting to tire herself out in case she needed her strength. Still, when she eventually paused in a small clearing, her breath came in short, painful gasps and a stitch burned in her side.

The battlefield was a fair way behind her, though she heard a few cries as the last of the bandits were defeated. She felt no shame in running away – pride was something that had been beaten out of her at a young age, and while it had started to return with her freedom it wasn’t nearly strong enough to make her want to fight to the death for a bunch of low-life’s and ne’er-do-wells she’d just met.

Looking around, Kaleah tried to get her bearings. She’d lost her bow thanks to this encounter, and she swore softly to herself in Spanish. Hunting would be harder now, she knew. Without the bow . . . well, she’d just have to get another one. Having caught her breath, the dark-haired woman started wondering which direction she should head.

A polite cough from her right interrupted her thoughts. Kaleah whirled about, sword raised and ready . . . and was startled to find laughing green eyes gazing back at her.

The girl was barely ten feet away, sitting calmly on a fallen log as though she’d been waiting for Kaleah to arrive. This close, Kaleah could see that the woman was younger than she first thought . . . eighteen or so at most. She had long blonde hair that was tied loosely in a braid, and her features were fresh and beautiful, with a mouth that seemed to smile easily and high, rounded cheek-bones. The torn sleeves of her shirt exposed smoothly muscled arms, and as she rose to her feet Kaleah acknowledged that, although only short of stature, the girl moved with a feline grace expressive of carefully controlled power.

The girl eyed her with an expression of curious amusement, and Kaleah flushed at the frank and open perusal.

“Were you going somewhere?” the blonde asked lightly. Kaleah noticed her voice carried a slight hint of the sing-song accent she’d heard in this country from time to time. She also noticed – somewhat uncomfortably – that the girl’s hand rested with a cool familiarity on the fine rapier sword that dangled from a rope at her side.

“I was just leaving,” Kaleah answered shortly, her eyes narrowing suspiciously over the hilt of her own sword. “This fight has nothing to do with me.”

“Really?” The blonde seemed a little surprised. “You were with those men, weren’t you?”

“I just stopped to share the fire and a little food,” she corrected. “I wasn’t with them.”

The blonde shrugged. “I only have your word on that,” she said, taking a step forward. “Maybe you’re lying . . . if I let you go and you hurt someone, it’ll be my fault for not stopping you.”

Kaleah gave a feral grin. “It’s not like you have any choice, girl,” she said, waving the tip of her sword in tight figure-eight’s. “I’m not going to come peacefully, and I doubt you’ll be able to force me, so . . .”

She stopped as the young woman drew the rapier, performed a formal salute, and assumed an en guard position with fluid skill.

One eyebrow arched in disbelief. “You must be joking?”

The girl shook her head and smiled, her eyes dancing playfully. “I’m taking you back to my father,” she said firmly. “I can’t let you get away.”

“This is not a game, little girl,” Kaleah threatened carefully. “I won’t be captured.”

The blonde advanced in a practiced motion that made it clear she knew what she was doing. “I’m not playing a game.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Kaleah backed up a step.

“Don’t worry.” The girl’s lips quirked into an almost smile. “You won’t.”

Kaleah scowled, not liking where this was going. She genuinely didn’t want to hurt this young woman who had affected her so strangely back at the bandit camp. Even now she could feel her stomach tighten as those intense green eyes bore into her own blue ones. But capture was not an option. She’d sworn never to submit to the collar of servitude ever again when she was granted her freedom.

Assuming an en guard stance herself, Kaleah waited grimly for the girl to make the first move.

The attack was sudden and flawlessly executed. Kaleah defended it with barely a thought, however, then instantly pressed in against the young blonde. She feinted high, performed a dazzling spin then thrust the tip of her sword at her enemy’s thigh. She wanted to disable, not kill . . . and she wanted to do it quickly so she could get away. Unfortunately, her adversary was more canny than she thought. Ignoring the feint, the girl easily defeated the attack and stepped back, smiling confidently.

Kaleah frowned, then let fly a few testing jabs just to see how quick the girl really was. Every thrust was foiled with ease, but Kaleah didn’t have time to grow worried before the blonde apparently decided it was time to take the offensive. Kaleah’s blade flashed about her in a defensive cage, watching for any feints and realizing the young woman was feeling her out. . . testing her skill and speed.

Kaleah let the play continue for a few minutes before, without any warning, she launched herself into a blindingly intricate routine that had never failed to bring down an enemy. Her Spanish blade whipped through the air in a flashing silver arc, twisting suddenly in mid-flight along a confusing and unpredictable path. Steel rang against steel as the girl fell back under the furious onslaught, her own blade weaving somewhat desperately to defeat the unexpectedly swift routine. Kaleah fully expected to at least disarm the girl; she was disconcerted when she broke off the intricate attack to find her adversary still armed and barely breathing hard. The slight smile on her face told the former slave the young blonde was actually enjoying this fight . . . before the girl launched herself forward with an answering attack of her own.

Kaleah managed to keep away from the flashing blade — barely. She was tired from her run; her vision was starting to go a little strange. And this scrap of a girl was proving to be a better fighter than she’d anticipated.

As the duel wore on, Kaleah’s concern grew stronger. This girl was good . . . very good. Too good to be just another common soldier, and much too good to be the peasant she appeared to be from her attire. Thinking for the first time that she might actually loose, seeing again the horrors of her life as a slave, Kaleah pressed her assault with savage skill and speed, her discipline starting to slip.

The attack was vicious and would have cut any ordinary soldier off at the knees. As it was, when the blonde girl leapt away trying to break from the furious assault she was breathing heavily. Kaleah saw a look of curious wonder cross the young woman’s face and she followed green eyes to her enemy’s arm. Kaleah’s sword had managed to hit at least something; a deep cut was etched across the young blonde’s thick bicep muscle. The wound didn’t seem to bother her, Kaleah noticed with annoyance. She just smiled and saluted again.

“First blood is yours, it seems,” the girl said, flushed but still grinning. Then without further comment, she dove back into the fight.

Now Kaleah was getting more than worried. Her opponent was fast and strong, and possessed a greater endurance than she’d expected. Kaleah was no fool. Although a talented swordswoman herself, she recognized that this slip of a girl was far her superior. Real fear began to flow like ice through her veins.

She was going to loose!

Her hold on her temper – never strong to begin with – finally snapped. With a cry of anguish and hatred, Kaleah lunged at her enemy blindly, desperately, now striking with the intent to kill.

She felt the blow across her thigh as her attack failed and she was struck. Her armor prevented blood from being drawn, but it still hurt. In a rage now she leapt forward again, hoping to overpower by sheer force of will.

Again the blow was defeated, and this time she watched as the hilt of the young woman’s sword slammed with dizzying speed into her temple. The world exploded in blinding pain and Kaleah lost all sense of balance. She fell to the ground, fighting the blackness that rose to swallow her, willing her limbs to continue fighting. Dimly she heard a voice yelling at her to stay down but she ignored it. Stumbling, she rose again and staggered forward, determined to kill, her blue eyes blazing.

The next hit knocked her to her knees . . . the one after it brought the darkness over her like the soothing waves of the ocean.

****************************

Jessica knelt beside the dark woman’s still form, her expression thoughtful. She checked for a pulse and found it strong and beginning to even out. Good. She didn’t want this stranger dead — just a little more manageable.

Carefully, she reached out and removed the sword from her fallen opponent’s grasp. Inspecting it with a professional eye, she realized it was of surpassingly fine quality. The blade was forged of rare Spanish steel and polished to a high finish. The hilt was ornate, layered in sparkling gold leaf and crafted to resemble a string of roses. Jessica admired it a moment before laying it gently at her side, wondering how the woman had come by such a rare and valuable weapon.

Wiping the blood from her captive’s face with the back of her hand, Jessica felt a pang of guilt over the bruises that were rising quickly. The damn woman just wouldn’t stay down! Even when she’d clearly lost, she kept trying to fight on. Jessica frowned and wished she hadn’t been forced to resort to such measures to subdue this spitfire.

Now free to allow a more intimate inspection, Jessica let her fingers linger over the scar that slashed across the woman’s lips, cupping the woman’s cheek with her hand while running her thumb over the old wound. From there, her fingers swept across high, sharply defined cheek-bones to trace the elegant, sweeping eye-brows. A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered that feeling of familiarity that had washed over her, acknowledging that it only increased her interest in this strange, exotic woman. Physical contact seemed to renew the feeling a little, and Jessica – always a touch sensitive person – allowed her hands to linger longer than she knew was proper.

The woman wore fine armor that had clearly been made especially for her. The single-piece leather-and-mail suit fit over her slender form well, allowing her to move, but protecting her from edged weapons. It also, she acknowledged privately, showed off the woman’s curvaceous figure to maximum effect. Soft doe-skin trousers hugged her shapely legs in a similarly provocative but practical design. The chain-mail was oiled and clean, and the leather was fresh and dyed deep green and brown to blend in with the woodland. Again, this didn’t make sense if the woman was a bandit. The average thug didn’t have coin to spend on tailored armor or fancy, foreign swords. The mystery grew a little deeper.

Looking at the deep bronze skin revealed by the cut of the armor, Jessica saw many scars on the woman’s arms and chest . . . scars she could not identify as having been inflicted by conventional weapons. They looked almost like the wounds that might be sustained from a severe beating. Perhaps the woman was an escaped slave, she thought. That would probably explain her desperation to avoid capture. But still, where did she get the armor and the sword . . . not to mention the skill with which she wielded the blade?

“Who are you?” she muttered to herself as she stroked her fingers again over the slashing scar on the stranger’s face, the gesture already seeming familiar.

Thinking quickly, Jessica considered what to do next. The woman fascinated her and she wanted very much to know her better. She realized a large part of this desire stemmed from the fact that she hoped to relive or explain that extraordinary sensation the dark woman had created before — the sensation that still tingled through her soul. But she knew that her father – while he would never dream of hanging a woman – would likely sentence her to a term of indenture, probably in the garrison with the soldiers, functioning as a cook or servant. She frowned. That wouldn’t do at all. No. Jessica wanted custody of the woman all to herself.

The fact that she was the one to apprehend her would add weight to her plea. Her father loved her, and would probably be easily swayed. Her mother, however, was a different story altogether. A devoutly religious woman who felt only the nobility were of any worth, Lady Rose would be shocked and appalled at the thought of her daughter’s desire to keep company with this barbaric creature.

Jessica frowned. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Hoof-beats sounded suddenly behind her, drawing closer. She turned and saw Sir Miles approaching on his massive war-horse. Andromeda nickered a welcome to her stable-mate.

“What happened?” he asked as he leapt from the saddle, noticing quickly the slashing cut across her arm.

Jessica glanced down at her bloodied arm. “It’s nothing. Look, the bleeding’s already stopped.” She waved him away with a negligent gesture, her attention on the fallen woman.

“That’ll need stitches,” he observed, insisting on checking the injury.

Jessica submitted to the inspection with ill grace. “We can do that back at Da’Gran,” she said. “Can you help me get her on your horse?”

Miles glanced at the dark-haired, blood-stained figure on the forest floor. “My horse!? Why do I have to be the one to carry the blasted woman?”

“Andromeda can’t carry both of us,” Jessica pointed out calmly. “It’s okay . . . she’ll be out for a while, I think.”

Sir Miles examined the bruises. “Hit ‘er pretty hard, did ye?”

“She wouldn’t stay down,” Jess explained regretfully. “I had too.”

“Aye.” Miles knew she wouldn’t inflict violence without need. “We takin’ ‘er back with us then, huh?”

Jess nodded. “She put up a hell of a fight . . . she’s someone special.”

“Oh?”

“Just look at her sword . . . and the armor she’s wearing.” Jessica pointed, her hands straying quickly over the woman. “She’s no common bandit, that’s for sure.”

“I guess. Perhaps she stole ‘em.”

Jess gave him an amused look. “You know better than that, Miles,” she said. “That armor’s custom made . . . I wonder who gave it to her . . .”

Miles saw the expression on his young protege’s face and recognized it instantly. He rolled his eyes and groaned.

“What?” Jess looked at him, puzzled.

Miles smiled a little. “Reckon ye’ve found another damn bird with a broken wing, girl,” he said softly, ruffling her hair with his good hand.

Jessica blushed. “It’s not like that . . .” She knew what he was talking about. Ever since she was a little girl, Jessica had been bringing home every wretched creature she found that needed care or shelter . . . much to the exasperation of her parents. She looked at the unconscious woman as she stirred, then settled, remembering the feeling she had experienced again. “But she’s mine. I caught her, and I get to decide what to do with her.” The look in her eyes and the possessive tone in her voice made it clear she was serious.

Miles could only sigh and shake his head. Damn girl’ll get ‘er way in this, if she’ll get it in anything. “Okay . . . let’s get ‘er up, then.”

Together, they lifted the unconscious woman onto Sir Miles’ great stead, who snorted in nervous excitement. The war-horse was still keyed up from the battle and the scent of blood. Miles mounted behind his passenger and wrapped a protective arm around her waist.

“We lost a man,” he told Jess as she mounted Andromeda. “A few were injured, but we got ‘em all in the end.”

They started back to rejoin the others, moving slowly in consideration for the injured and encumbered. “Captured . . . or dead?”

“They wanted to go down fightin’,” Miles said grimly. “Only seven surrendered, and we knocked out three . . . they’ll be taken back and tried later.”

Jess nodded. “Well,” she said, “This one won’t have to wait. I want her for myself.”

As they rode off, Jessica smiled to herself. I was right, she thought happily as they reached the others. It has turned out to be a very interesting day.
Chapter 2.
Built four generations ago by Jessica’s great-great grandfather, Castle Da’Gran stood proudly on a slight rise of land overlooking a patchwork of fields and forests. It’s archetecture, though stern and practical as befitted a bastion of war, was still graceful and pleasing to the eye. Consisting of a massive walled foundation guarding a central, mutlileveled keep, Da’Gran was a sprawling complex of rooms and passages that often proved confusing to strangers. Four turrets framed the castle walls, one at each of the cardinal points, and a towering lookout tower rose from the center of the keep itself, affording a magnificent view of the land for miles around.

Da’Gran had been Jessica’s home all her life, and she loved every stone of the mighty castle.

It was also home to hundreds of servants, knights and men-at-arms, all of whom served Sir Richard and assisted in the rule of the lands that formed his vassal. Besides the central keep, there were dozens of smaller buildings protected by the thick stone walls, including several barracks, a large stables, archery range, jousting pavilion and blacksmith. And although winter had brought most trading to a halt, the warmer months of Spring and Summer would bring dozens of traders from all over England and the rest of the world flocking to barter their goods. The commerce in turn attracted the peasants and common-folk, who journeyed the short distance to where the merchants set up within the castle, all gathering under the safety afforded by the presence of Sir Richard and his men.

Jessica looked forward to the coming season as she walked through the corridor toward her father’s audience hall. She loved having so many interesting strangers around, all bartering and squabling happily. During the months of trading, Jess would often wander among the stalls quietly, listening to and watching the merchants in fascination, ignoring her mother who always told her to keep away from the commoners.

As she neared the audience hall, Jessica’s footsteps slowed nervously. Her father had summoned her early that morning, and she knew he wanted to dicuss the request she’d made for custody of the dark-haired stranger. Jess had lain awake most of the night wondering what she should tell her father to explain her interest, and she took a moment now to calm her mind and organise her thoughts.

The mysterious woman had woken up, Jess knew. The jailer had sent a messenger to inform her at her request, and she’d been told the prisoner was now conscious and starting to make a nuisance of herself. Jess smiled. That seemed right.

Looking around, trying to distract her mind from the coming meeting, Jessica spent a moment just admiring the view through the archery slits of the stone keep.

Jessica had explored Da’Gran since she was a child, her curiosity insatiable. She’d solved every mystery it held . . . even the ones that no-one else — not even her father or Sir Miles — knew about. Mysteries only a young girl with many lonely hours to kill would ever think to look for. She knew that although the castle appeared to be just another bastion of war, it’s design was far more ingenious and subtle than first impressions might suggest.

Through the walls and between the various levels ran dozens of secret passage-ways, hidden and concealed, that accessed almost every room in the castle. Jessica had stumbled upon an entrance to them in her bedroom when she was a child, and had spent days exploring them thoroughly. In a hidden chamber she discovered the original plans to the fortress, and with them had unearthed all Da’Gran’s many secrets. She knew about the underground torture chambers, the hidden escape tunnel that led out into the woods, the access too and from the dungeons. She even knew about the peep-hole that looked into the bathing chamber . . . though she’d never used it, of course.

The secret passageways had given Jessica the ability to watch everything that went on in the castle; had given her access into the lives of servant and soldier alike. Because her mother discouraged her from making friend’s with anyone beneath her station, Jessica was often lonely. By spying on others, by listening to and watching them as they went about their lives, the spirited girl found solace and companionship . . . of a sort, anyway.

Still, the spying games only eased Jessica’s loneliness a little and she often wished for more. Besides her father, Sir Miles was about her only real friend . . . and he was a lot older than she was. She hated her pompous ass of a brother, and her mother disapproved of her consorting with the servants for any length of time, which meant that Jessica had never had any real contact with young women her own age. In fact, she hadn’t had any exposure to much of anything, really. Filled with curiosity and wonder, Jessica’s mind sought constantly to wander off into the wide world . . . preferably dragging her body along for the ride.

That was why the vivacious young blonde spent so much time in the secret rooms she had discovered, head buried in books about lands far away, where everything was different. Lands where Emperors ruled over vast regions, and where heroic men fought overwhelming odds to rescue beautiful maidens from evil warlords. These books, bought from the traders in secret and read alone, were Jessica’s closest and most treasured friends. She kept the books hidden from everyone. The Church disapproved of much of what she read, and if she were ever discovered with the books, Jessica knew she’d be in a lot of trouble. There were strict rules that dictated what texts were appropriate for the faithful, and the books Jess read did not fit in with the doctrines of the Church. As one of the nobility, it was her duty to obey and uphold the moral principals that God had set forth.

Of course, Jessica was unsure exactly why her books were considered so evil. Many of the sermons Father Grahem gave confused the young girl with their seemingly blind condemnations, but she found it easy enough to simply ignore the more intolerant preachings. She loved God, afterall, and believed in the power of His goodness. But she wasn’t prepared to give up something that meant so much to her, and she didn’t think God would mind her reading her books. What harm was there in learning about different places, or different cultures and ways of life? Or even different expressions of love?

Privately, Jessica had admitted this was one reason she wanted custody of the stranger . . . she’d be someone close to her own age to talk too, and it was clear from her exotic features and strange accent that she wasn’t from anywhere in the British Isles. Jessica was sure they could be great friends if the other woman were given into her care. The chance for someone to talk to, someone who had perhaps lived an exciting or adventurous life . . . for that, Jessica was prepared to go to any lengths.

Before she quite realized it, Jessica had reached the huge oak doors that led into the audience room. She nodded to the two guards standing at attention outside the great portal. They smiled and greeted her cheerfully.

“Not in trouble again, are ye, Jess?” asked one.

She laughed and waved her hand dismissively. “No . . . not yet.”

They chuckled and rapped loudly on the doors with their spear butts to announce her before swinging open the doors and allowing her to enter.

Jessica walked into the audience room, blinking to get her eyes to adjust to the change in light from outside to in. The room was expansive, with high stone walls and impressive tapestries covering everything. A long table took up the center of the great hall, mounted with candelabra that struggled to illuminate the massive room. The windows were narrow and tall, designed to make it easy to defend and difficult to attack. A few hunting dogs skulked about in the shadows. They wagged their tails when they saw her and looked hopefully at her empty hands, begging for a treat. Jess patted them. “Sorry, nothing here.” She let them lick her hands. “Maybe next time.”

Looking up, she saw her parents sitting at the far end of the table. Sir Miles stood a few paces from them, hands clasped behind his back. Sir Richard was listening to the words of an elderly, wizened man dressed in comfortable velvet robes dyed fanciful colors who leant on a long, twisted stick.

The man, Eric Grace, had been her father’s chief adviser since as far back as Jess could remember, and he also functioned in the capacity of an alchemist and sometime healer. He was smart, she admitted, but something about him had always made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was his eyes . . . they had a habit of staring through a person, rather that at him. At his side was his young apprentice, Senigma Wright. She didn’t mind the young man too much; he was polite to a fault, and could be amusing and rather charming when he put his mind to it.

Also at the table, Jess noted with a scowl, was her younger brother, Steven. The little bastard was sitting next to her mother, as always. He wore rich clothes and an expression of perpetual boredom and disinterest.

Jessica hated her brother. As firstborn son he was her father’s heir, and she had a bad feeling that when he came to power, everything was going to go straight too Hell. The young man had no interest in the lives of those he considered ‘beneath’ him; in that – and in almost every other regard – he took after his mother. He was soft and weak, preferring the comforts of a life at court to the hardships of the battlefield, and though intelligent he had no idea what running a castle was all about. For these reasons and more, Jessica had always despised him, and he returned the sentiment whole-heartedly.

The people at the table glanced up as she approached, and her father gestured for her to take a seat. When she’d done so, she waited nervously for her father to speak.

Her father folded his hands on the table. “Sir Miles has informed me of your desire to retain custody of the young woman you apprehended yesterday,” he said, settling his steely eyes on her. “I had planned to sentence her to the soldiers for a year of indentured service, but I’ve rethought the decision in light of your desire . . . after all, you were the one to catch her.”

Jessica held her breath. “Does this mean you’re letting me keep her?”

Sir Richard smiled. Her mother and brother frowned. She sounded like she was asking to keep some stray dog she’d picked up. Jessica ignored them and allowed her bright green eyes to flare with hope, knowing her father could never resist her charm.

“This isn’t some stray you found wandering in the garbage, Jessica,” he father said sternly, trying to ignore her expression. “It’s a grown woman . . . and from what you tell me, an seasoned fighter.” He glanced pointedly at her injury.

Jess scratched at her arm, where the cut she’d sustained was already starting to itch. The wound had taken five stitches, but it would be worth it if she could keep the mystery woman. “I still beat her,” she muttered, hoping her father didn’t think less of her for the injury.

He smiled. “That you did . . . but I want to be sure of your intentions before I release such a dangerous individual into your care.”

“I think you’re a fool for even considering her idiot idea,” her mother put in, unable to stay silent. “The woman’s a menace . . . a bandit, for God’s sake! Jessica has no business associating with such ungodly people.”

Her father waved his wife silent with a gesture. “Enough.” He paused, gripping the edge of the oak table and leaning closer, his expression frank and genuinely interested. “What exactly is it you want to do with her?” he asked softly.

Jessica had expected such a question, and she ignored her mother’s outburst, having expected it as well. “I want to employ her as my hand-maiden,” she told her father, considering her words carefully, unsure if he would understand or approve. She adopted the cultured tones her mother expected, rather than the ‘crude’ accented speech she normally used. “And I want to teach her to fight.”

“What!?” Her mother erupted with incredulous rage. “You want to teach her to fight better!? Why? So she can kill more of the soldiers when she decides to rebel?” She glared at her husband. “Tell me you’re not considering this ridiculous idea!?”

Her father was silent, but she could tell by his frown he was concerned. “She has a point,” he allowed. “The woman is already a danger . . . she managed to draw your blood, after all.” Sir Richard was well aware of his daughter’s skill. “Teaching her further would increase the threat she poses significantly.” His eyes narrowed shrewdly, suspecting something more. “What are you thinking?”

Lady Rose threw her arms in the air and fumed. Steven glanced at her with mild disgust, and brushed a speck of dust from his shoulder. Jess continued to ignore them. “She has great spirit, father,” she said softly. “I can feel it . . . she’s not just a common bandit. She moves with the grace of a noble woman” She threw a glare at her mother, who fell back a little. “She’s something special.”

Her father nodded. “Sir Miles said you thought as much,” he said, gesturing to his old friend. “And he has told me he believes this means a lot to you.”

Jessica nodded. “It means a great deal to me, father, yes.”

“Mmmm.” Her father thought a moment, then turned to Sir Miles. “Would you be prepared to instruct this woman, Miles . . . under my daughter’s supervision?”

Sir Miles took a step forward. “Aye, Milord, I would,” he answered simply. “Jessica’s me best pupil. Anyone who can break through her defenses must be talented to start with. This woman, if she kin be convinced this is to ‘er benefit, could be a valuable fighter.”

Sir Richard eyed his daughter, seeing her expression of barely contained excitement. “Very well,” he said at last. “You can offer her the choice, then. She can serve her term of indenture with the soldiers, or with you.”

Jessica threw her arms around her father’s neck and hugged him enthusiastically. “Thank you, thank you thank you!” she cried.

He blushed and pushed her away. “There now . . . no reason to go all mushy now girl.” His tone was gruff but she could tell from his smile he didn’t mind the affectionate gesture. “Just be sure I don’t regret this later, huh?”

“You won’t,” she promised. “You’ll see.”

Her mother stormed over. “You’re both crazy,” she yelled. “Jessica’s already enough of a misfit without this to encourage her behavior.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my behavior, mother,” Jessica said, her voice cold and soft. “Just because I don’t sit around dressed in fancy clothes drinking fine wine and expensive food, doesn’t mean I’m doing the wrong thing.”

“You’re a young lady!” her mother fumed. “You’re not a soldier . . . you’re a woman, and you should act in a manner reflective of your breeding! It’s unnatural and against God’s desire for you to conduct yourself the way you do!”

Jessica calmed herself with an effort. She wanted to strangle the woman sometimes. Her mother had tried to rear her to the life of the courts, wanting to establish her as the perfect gentle-woman. But ever since she was a small child, Jessica had taken after her father.

When Sir Richard realized her natural vocation – after watching her slicing up her dolls with a kitchen knife in a methodical and enthusiastic manner – he entrusted her to the care of Sir Miles. Under the old knight’s training Jessica had bloomed into a beautiful yet deadly flower, her skill surpassing that of all but a few of the veteran soldiers. But despite everything, Lady Rose had never been able to let go completely, trying desperately to wean her away from such unbecoming things as swordplay and warfare.

Her mother had more success with her brother, Steven, however. The young man saw the warrior arts as barbaric and pointless. Sir Richard paid him little attention, except to try to teach the slothful young man how to manage the affairs of state which would be his inheritance. Steven cared not at all for the lessons, but submitted himself to them with great reluctance . . . when he had to.

Now Jessica, content with her victory, simply glared at her mother and shrugged. “I’m getting married, aren’t I?” she demanded. “Isn’t that enough?”

“It might be if you’d set a date for your wedding,” Lady Rose retorted angrily. “You’ve been putting it off for four years now . . . at this rate, it’ll never happen.”

We can only hope, thought Jessica wryly. “Charles understands,” she said, knowing it was true. Her betrothed did indeed understand her quite clearly . . . knew she didn’t love him as anything more than a friend. And she knew he felt the same. Still, they were expected to marry.

“You’re just lucky he’s still interested in you,” her mother fumed. Then, grabbing Steven by the arm, Lady Rose glared one last time at her husband and stormed out of the hall, dragging her son behind her.

Jessica rolled her eyes and shared a mischievous grin with her father as the doors slammed shut. “I guess you’re gonna be hearing about this later,” she said, letting the accent back now they were alone.

Sir Richard sighed and shrugged. He was accustomed to dealing with his wife and knew she would settle down eventually. “Just don’t let this be something I regret letting you do, Jess.”

“I won’t,” she promised dutifully, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.

He blushed and shooed her away. “Go on now,” he growled. “You’ve got an angry woman to go see, girl — one who’s probably getting tired of that dungeon by now.”

“Then I’d better go let her out, hadn’t I.” She turned and smiled at Sir Miles. “Thank you.”

He grinned. “Just let me know when ye want to start ‘er trainin’,” he said. “Should be interestin’, I expect.” His eyes flashed with amusement.

With a slight bow to her father, Jessica left the audience hall and headed for the dungeons. Her broad grin spoke of her excitement at the prospect of seeing the strange, dark-haired woman again. She just knew they’d be great friends, once they got to know each other.

**************************

In the audience hall, Sir Richard sighed and rubbed his forehead wearily. “Are you sure about this?”

Miles grinned and patted his friend on the shoulder. “That girl’s growin’ up fast, Richard,” he said gruffly. “Ain’t right to be keepin’ ‘er away from people.”

“He’s right, milord,” Grace agreed. “Lady Jessica needs a friend . . . someone her own age to talk too. Perhaps having this woman around will help to keep her out of trouble.”

Richard smiled at that. “We can but hope, I suppose.”

“Yer doing the right thing,” Miles assured him. “This is just what Jess is needin’.”

Sir Richard sighed again. “I pray you’re right, Miles,” he said softly. “I really do.”

***************************

Kaleah had emerged from the darkness some time ago to find herself thrust back into the hell that had been her life for almost ten years.

The prison cell was dry, ill-lit and musty. She was it’s only occupant, though she could hear the sounds of others being held in cells further down the corridor outside. The bars were solid iron, rusted and unyielding. All in all, the prison was depressing but she’d seen far worse. Still, this nightmare brought back memories of her years of captivity; there was nothing more terrifying to Kaleah than the knowledge that now ran through her mind over and over, beating against her skull with depressing rhythm.

You’re a slave again.

Filled with typical restless energy now fueled further by anger and despair, Kaleah paced back and forth around the cell. She’d been pacing for hours. Her knuckles were split and bleeding from where she’d bashed them against the bars in desperation, but that pain was negligible compared to the throbbing in her head. Her throat was sore from screaming at the smug jailer, who had ignored her threats and pleas indifferently. Furthermore she was freezing cold, her armor having been stripped from her body, replaced with a simple coarse shift that did little to ward off the chill emanating from the stone walls, floor and ceiling. And over and over, the grim words rolled through her head.

You’re a slave again.

That damn little blonde! It was all her fault, Kaleah decided. The bitch just couldn’t let me get away, could she. When I get out of here, I’m gonna find that witch and . . . and . . .

Kaleah sighed. Lot of good such thoughts would do her in here. The girl had beaten her soundly. There was nothing she could do. She wanted to lie down on the thin pallet that served as a bed, but her rage and frustration wouldn’t let her. Anyway, the odds of her seeing that green-eyed demon again were slim at best. She must be someone important to have acquired so great a talent with a blade. It wasn’t too likely she’d ever wander down here . . .

“You planning on pacing like that all day?” asked a soft, now-familiar voice.

Kaleah looked up in shock to find those laughing green eyes watching her again. Damn, this girl moved quietly! She was standing outside under a burning torch, a cheeky grin tugging at her lips.

“You look cold.”

Kaleah scowled angrily, judging whether she could reach the girl through the bars and strangle her to death before the jailer got to her. Probably not.

“What do you want?” The reminder from the girl had caused her to start shivering.

The girl shrugged. “I’m here to give you a choice,” she said softly. “My father is the lord of this castle. He’s given me permission to make you an offer.”

“Let me go,” Kaleah demanded. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Like I told you, I’ve only your word on that,” the girl said, her tone maddeningly calm. “You were in the company of those bandits . . . you fought beside them -”

“I did no such thing!” Kaleah protested angrily. “I defended myself when attacked. You saw me . . . you were watching.”

Kaleah was surprised to see the girl blush a little at her words. Had she felt that strange feeling of connection as well? Interesting . . .

Shaking her head, she concentrated on more important things . . . like getting out of here.

“It doesn’t matter,” said the girl gently, her flush fading quickly. “I still captured you, and you’re still being held as a criminal. Would you like to hear the choices you’re being given? I can come back later if you’d prefer to stay here and rot for a while longer.”

Kaleah had it in mind to tell the green-eyed imp exactly what she could do with her choices, but with a supreme effort managed to control the desire. She’d suddenly noticed the girl was holding a ring of keys in one hand. Licking dry lips, trying to keep calm, Kaleah gestured for her to continue.

“My father was going to simply sentence you to a term of indentured service with the garrison-”

“I’ll not be a slave!” Kaleah growled fiercely.

“There’s a difference between indentured service and slavery,” the girl said.

“Not from where I’m standing. I’ve tried that life . . . and I didn’t like it.”

The green eyes flicked over her body and Kaleah held still. She knew that many of the scars of her captivity could be seen in the spare shift, and she hated revealing them to this young woman. She felt somehow she’d already revealed too much, though they didn’t even know each other’s names.

“I didn’t like the idea of you being wasted on the soldiers,” the girl continued after her assessment.

“That makes two of us.”

“Right.” The girl smiled even more radiantly. “That’s why I appealed on your behalf.”

Kaleah eyed her warily. “You’re letting me go?” she asked hesitantly.

The girl laughed. “No . . . but I have an alternative to my father’s sentence.”

Kaleah fell back, glaring. “And what’s that?”

Now the girl stepped closer and held up the keys. “I want you to come with me,” she said softly.

“With you? What do you mean?”

Green eyes held her seriously. “You can fight good,” said the girl, holding her arm up so Kaleah could see the neatly stitched cut she vaguely remembered inflicting. “I can make you better. You’re a stranger in this land. You clearly have little wealth to your name. My guess is you’re just a wandering mercenary or something . . . perhaps an escaped slave trying to survive.”

Kaleah crossed her arms defiantly, annoyed at being read so easily. “So?”

“So . . . I’m offering to teach you things you’ll never have the opportunity to learn elsewhere.”

Kaleah held back, cautious. “Like what?”

The girl shrugged. “Can you read?”

“A little.” In truth, very little.

“Well I can teach you more.” The girl jangled the keys temptingly. “I can make you everything you can be . . . teach you to survive better then you obviously were if you had to live with those bandits.”

Kaleah considered the girl’s proposal, her eyes still hungrily resting on the ring of keys. “What’s in it for you?” she demanded.

The girl rested her hand on the cell bars, seemingly confidant she had Kaleah’s attention. “Why does there have to be something in it for me?”

“That’s how things work,” she said angrily, trying to stay calm enough not to jump at the girl and break her neck.

“Alright . . . if that’s how you want it, I’ll tell you what I want.” The girl held her gaze. “I want you to spend some time with me . . . just talking and stuff.” She lowered her face, her messy blonde hair falling forward to hide her expression. “I don’t get a lot of company . . . at least not with women my own age. And certainly not with anyone like you.” She glanced up and smiled through her golden locks. “You’re foreign, right?”

Kaleah nodded slightly.

“I love foreign cultures and stuff,” the girl said, her enthusiasm obvious. “I read about them in books the traders have sometimes. You could tell me about all the places you’ve been . . . and what they’re like.”

Kaleah eyed her warily, not much liking the idea of relating her life story. “And you want to teach me to fight?”

“Sure. You’d be brilliant . . . hell, you are brilliant, but you could be even better.”

“And you’ll let me go after how long?”

“A year,” the girl said sincerely. “And you can leave better equipped to live, knowing you won’t be captured so easily again. I’ll even give you money, if you want . . . you know, to help you get started.”

Well, she’d had worse offers, that was for sure. “Where would I sleep?”

The girl clearly sensed victory. “I have a room next to mine,” she said. “It’s nice — a big bed, a fireplace. You’ll be more comfortable there than outside in the snow.”

“A room of my own?” She couldn’t believe this. “You’ll trust I won’t run?”

The girl shrugged. “There are guards on the walls . . . they’d shoot you if you could make it out onto the flats around the castle. Besides, where would you go? Surely it’s better to stay here and take what I’m offering than go out and die in the winter forests.” She paused, then added thoughtfully, “Better than being the servant for the guards, too; I doubt they’d treat you as well as I would.”

Kaleah considered that. What the girl said had some merit, she admitted. She hadn’t been doing well in this unbelievable weather. She had no experience with it, no idea how to survive in cold like this. Of course, the idea of spending most of her time in the company of others was unappealing; particularly the company of this intense young woman who, for some reason, made her feel things that she’d never felt before but which made her extremely uncomfortable.

“I’m not really the companionable type,” she said quietly. “I . . . I can’t be around people for too long. . . makes me nervous.”

“That’s okay,” the girl allowed. “You don’t have to be with me all the time. You can just go into your room, or onto the parapets, or the library. There’s lots of places to go to be alone here.” Something in her tone made Kaleah believe she spoke from experience.

“I want my armor back. I don’t have anything else to wear”

“Of course, they’re just being cleaned. And I’ll give you other clothes if you want.”

Kaleah turned away. “I won’t be a slave,” she said quietly, her voice thick with passion. “I’d rather die.”

“I won’t treat you as a slave,” the blonde said. “I just want to help you . . . in return for some company. It’s more like a . . . a business transaction, really. We both get something out of it.” She held up the keys, her eyes twinkling. “Do we have a deal?”

Kaleah sighed. “I guess I don’t have much choice,” she muttered.

“Nope.” The girl laughed, selecting one of the keys and twisting it into the lock. With a scrape of metal and the rasp of the hinges, the cell door swung open. The girl held out her hand. “My name is Jessica Da’Gran.”

Kaleah hesitated, but stepped forward and accepted the girls introduction. “You can call me Kaleah,” she said softly. The young woman’s grip was surprisingly strong, and she ended the handshake as quickly as she could, feeling uncomfortable with the contact.

“Kaleah . . .” The girl – Jessica – rolled the name around her mouth as though sampling it’s flavor. “I’ve never heard that name before . . . it sounds strange.”

“Humph.” Kaleah just grunted, still determined not to like this young woman. “Which way’s out?”

“This way.” Jessica led the way down the right path, taking them past several other mostly empty cells to a solid steel-braced door guarded by a bald, muscular man who bowed to the blonde respectfully before opening it.

Kaleah followed Jessica up a winding flight of steps that brought them out into the light and the blessed fresh air. Free from the dungeon, Kaleah spread her arms wide and took a deep breath, grateful to be out in the open again . . . even if it was cursedly cold in her simple shift. Stretching, she saw Jessica watching her with amusement.

“Come on,” offered the lively blonde happily. “I’ll show you around, and then take you somewhere you can clean up.” She grinned and Kaleah noticed for the first time that her nose developed a cute little crinkle when she did so. “You could use a wash.”

Kaleah gingerly touched the crusted blood on her forehead. “You’re right.”

Jessica saw her expression and her smile vanished. “I’m sorry I had to do that,” she apologized. “You just wouldn’t stay down.”

“Didn’t want to be captured.”

Jessica reached out and tentatively touched her on the shoulder. “It won’t be so bad,” she promised softly, and Kaleah was aware again of just how intense those green eyes could be. “If you just give this a chance, you’ll see.”

Turning, she led the way along an open pathway that gave a view of the castle courtyard, currently filled with various people going about their business. Kaleah followed, looking around carefully, paying attention to the number and location of the guards. She admitted privately that they were well placed and alert . . . not much chance of an escape. Shrugging, she hurried up, noticing that for some reason she could still feel a warm tingling sensation on her arm where Jessica had touched her.

***********************

Kaleah spent the next hour or so being led around the castle. She grudgingly admitted that the place was nice — sort of. The granite stone was cold, but not as bad as it was in the woods, and there were tapestries everywhere depicting great battle scenes or intricate, interlocking patterns Jessica told her came from an island to the west she called ‘Ireland.’

The room Jessica told her would be hers during her stay was luxurious beyond anything the former slave had ever known. She’d had to blink several times before she believed her own eyes.

“It’s alright.” Jessica had been delighted and amused at her reaction. “You’ll get used to it. And that door there leads right into my room, so if you want anything you can just come and ask, okay?”

Kaleah had nodded, still bewildered at this strange turn of events. Still, she kept up a litany in her mind, I will not be a slave, I will not be a slave, repeating it to keep alive the dislike she was determined to maintain for her unwanted new friend.

Jessica kept up a constant chatter, telling her about this and that. Kaleah got the impression the girl was a little nervous. For her own part, the dark woman was content to be led about, letting her companion’s words flow over her without really paying them much mind. She was still looking for a break in the defenses of the castle. As soon as she found it, Kaleah decided she would leave — regardless of the comforts, this felt too much like servitude for her tastes.

“And this,” Jessica said, stopping at a set of carved doors depicting some kind of aquatic animals, “is the bathing chamber. Um . . . I’ll leave you hear so you can get cleaned up, okay?” She opened the doors and they entered the steamy atmosphere beyond.

Kaleah gasped. The room was huge, adorned with amazingly detailed marble sculptures of beautiful men and women bathing. Light streamed from a ceiling crafted from multi-colored stained glass panels that must have cost a fortune. There were ferns hanging from pots all over the place, making the place seem lush and alive. Most of the room was filled with a great pool of clear, deep water, in the center of which was a raised island made from a series of steps and platforms. The pool had been designed to appear very natural, with parts left rough and others polished smooth for comfortable sitting. The steam rising from the water gave testament to it’s warmth, though she was at a loss to explain how. Kaleah had never seen anything so magnificent.

Jessica watched her reaction and smiled happily. “The water gets heated from the fires in the kitchen,” she explained. “It cycles through a system of pipes every day, so it’s always clean.” She turned to leave, giving the dark woman some privacy. “I’ll go get your armor while you wash up . . . there’re robes over there,” she pointed to a small room off to the side. “You can lock the door once I’m gone, but not too many people come into this part of the castle . . . just me. I can’t imagine why not, but hey . . . I’m not complaining either! I’ll be back in about half an hour.”

The door closed behind the blonde woman and Kaleah was alone. She spent a moment just looking at the amazing chamber, not quite believing she was here. Then, realizing just how dirty she was, she figured to get down to business.

After carefully locking the door — noting as she did that the latch wasn’t particularly strong – Kaleah stripped out of the course and uncomfortable shift gladly. Tossing it over a nearby rock, the former slave waded out into the deep, luxurious water until it came to her chin. A guttural sigh escaped her lips as she felt her body start to relax. She quietly cleaned the blood and grime from her lithe figure, running her hands over the many scars that marred her skin and feeling the warmth of the water seep into the old wounds that tended to ache in the cold. Her long dark hair fanned out around her and she scrubbed it roughly to work out weeks of accumulated filth. It would be tangled, but she was sure her new friend would lend her a brush.

Thinking of Jessica, Kaleah allowed her mind to ponder the young woman. When Kaleah had mentioned that she’d seen her watching her during the fight, the girl had blushed. She had gone out of her way to snare her into this arrangement . . . she was being friendly and generous. And, Kaleah had to admit, she seemed very genuine in her desire for friendship.

Strange, she considered. She would have thought a beautiful young noble woman like Jessica would have a lot of friends. Why would she need to force someone into being her companion? It was very odd.

Putting the matter aside for later consideration, Kaleah waded over to examine one of the statues more closely. She recognized the work of a skilled artisan, having spent some time learning the art of carving herself from her last master before he released her. The statue was of a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair, full breasts and a curvaceous figure. Kaleah felt herself blush a little, noting that the carver had paid a lot of attention to detail. Running a finger along the glistening marble sculpture, she couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of her surroundings. This place — this room — was about the most magnificent thing she’d ever seen.

Remembering that Jessica would return shortly, Kaleah finished up quickly and retrieved one of the comfortable robes she found in the adjoining room. Wrapping it tightly around her body, she unlocked the door and sat on a convenient wooden bench until the blonde knocked.

“Come in,” she called, standing up.

Jessica poked her head around the door, smiling. “Feeling better?”

Kaleah grunted non-commitedly. “Where’s my armor?”

“Here.” Jessica held out a large bundle wrapped in white cloth. “I also brought this . . .” She held out Kaleah’s sword, sheathed in its ornate scabbard.

Kaleah eyed the offered weapon skeptically. “You’re letting me keep my sword?”

Jessica just shrugged. “I’m giving you a little credit,” she said simply. “I think you’re probably pretty smart . . . smart enough to realize there’s not much point in trying anything like taking me hostage and making a break for it. Right?”

Kaleah realized this was true. The girl wasn’t taking much of a risk. She grunted and took the sword.

Jessica smiled. “I thought so. Besides, how can you learn to fight better if you don’t have your sword. Oh, and I brought this, too . . .” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a fine wooden flute. She studied it a moment, then held it out to Kaleah. The dark woman’s eyes flared hungrily when she saw the instrument. “They found this in your armor . . . I thought you might want it back.”

Kaleah snatched the flute and clasped it to her breast possessively. “Thank you.”

Jessica did not miss the reaction. “Do you play?”

“Sometimes.”

“Maybe you could play something for me,” Jessica suggested. “If you feel like it, of course.”

Kaleah frowned. She’d never played for anyone other than herself. Her music was private, but, she mused, there was no point antagonizing the young blonde. “Perhaps.”

“Great! I’d love that.” She gestured to the adjoining room. “Well, get changed and I’ll show you around some more.”

Kaleah eyed her for a moment, annoyed at how this woman seemed perpetually cheerful. She wondered what it might take to really make her mad, recalling that even when she’d been wounded in their fight, the young blonde maintained her calm and good humor. Turning, she went into the privacy of the nearby room to change.

As the dark woman walked away from her, Jessica let her eyes roam more thoroughly over her figure, not really trying to stop them from lingering here and there. There was no harm in admiring Kaleah, she thought . . . and there was certainly a lot there to admire. Her smile turned a little more feral and her eyes twinkled with daring. Despite her betrothal, Jessica had always been intrigued by the stories she’d read involving romances between women.

More than any other stories they were hard to come by, what with the power of the Church deeming them ‘evil’, but Jessica had several traders who kept their eyes open for her, knowing she could pay them well for their discretion. She felt no guilt in just looking. . . Kaleah was certainly beautiful. She was just appreciating the good Lord’s handiwork, that’s all. Jessica had never had much opportunity to explore her interest in other women. . . but she’d felt a strong connection to her new friend from the moment they locked eyes. It would be nice to have a female friend to talk with, no matter what came of it.

“You know,” Jessica continued talking just to fill the quiet, “I couldn’t help but notice the quality of the work on your blade . . . that Spanish steel’s rare nowadays.”

“Yeah. So?” Kaleah was struggling into her figure-hugging armor, reluctantly appreciating the fine job someone had done cleaning the outfit.

“Did you steal it?”

“Of course not.” Kaleah was a little offended the blonde had so little regard for her morality.

“I didn’t think so,” Jessica told her gently. “I looked at the blade; I can imagine, from your height and reach, that your sword was custom made for you . . . just like your armor, huh?”

“Not exactly.” Kaleah adjusted the last buckle, and strapped the sword around her waist, setting it to rest just below the flare of her hips. Stepping out of the room, she caught Jessica’s eyes. “I made them myself.”

Green eyes widened. “You did!?” Jessica was clearly surprised. “But . . . how could you . . .”

Pleased to have shocked the little blonde woman so, Kaleah grinned fully, showing her even white teeth. “My former master was a Spanish weapon-smith named Constantine De’Livier. He taught me as his apprentice for over a year,” she explained briefly. “He helped me to design my armor and weapon, and he taught me to use them. When I was ready, he released me from his service.” She watched Jessica closely for a reaction. “My freedom was the greatest gift he ever gave me.”

Jessica lowered her eyes. “And you think I’ve taken it away, is that it?”

Kaleah looked around. “This place may be fancy . . . but it’s a prison just as much as the dungeon was.” Her posture became aggressive and tense. It felt good to fan the flames of her anger, to justify it in the face of Jessica’s kindness. “You can keep me here, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s what I want.”

Jessica frowned and looked up through lowered lashes. She could feel her eyes starting to water. “I’m trying to help you.” Why couldn’t this woman understand that all this was going to be good for her?

Kaleah strode past her towards the exit. “No-one has ever tried to help me in my whole life. . . except for De’Livier,” she said as she passed, her voice husky and bitter. “I doubt you’ll be any different.”

Jessica watched her go, trying to steady her breathing. The barbed words hurt — they’d meant to hurt, she knew. Kaleah wouldn’t accept this passively, as she’d hoped. The woman was abrasive and filled with a quick and restless energy. Her emotional armor was strong and doubtless well made to protect her from a harsh life. But Jessica was determined . . . no matter the obstacles, she would persevere. With kindness and caring her tools, she would chip away until she won the dark woman over.

“This will be different,” she promised the departed woman quietly. “I’ll make it different.”

*************************

That night as Kaleah lay in the bed that Jessica had given her, she thought back on her day and wondered. She couldn’t get to sleep; the softness of the down-filled mattress was strange to her, the silky texture of the sheets against her bare skin seemed uncomfortably luxurious. From outside she heard the footsteps of the soldiers as they walked along the battlements. But worse than the newness of her surroundings, everytime Kaleah closed her eyes and tried to drift off, Jessica’s laughing eyes and perpetually smiling face appeared in the darkness — taunting, tempting.

The former slave had maintained her icy demeanor for the rest of the day, determined to make this as hard for her unwanted companion as she could. But Jessica had apparently chosen to ignore her scowling face and petulant attitude, smiling and chattering on about anything that popped into her head as she led Kaleah around. As the day wore on, Kaleah found it harder to maintain her dislike for the vivacious blonde. The young woman gave so freely of herself . . . seemed so filled with life and vigor, and yet at the same time appeared so calm and in control. Kaleah admitted to herself that the captivating blonde had her completely at a loss as to how to behave. Jessica repaid her dour looks with cheerful ones, her words of hatred with ones of friendship. A part of Kaleah wanted desperately to just give in and smile and laugh along with her, but she clamped it down whenever it tried to escape.

Now, laying in the darkness and trying to uncoil her tense body, Kaleah frowned and squirmed uncomfortably. There was an ache deep in her gut that she’d never felt before . . . an emptiness she hadn’t known existed until it had been illuminated by the vibrant emerald eyes of the young blonde. There was something about Jessica that called to Kaleah, made her wish she could just bask in this warmth and life forever, let it wash away the darkness and pain of her former life. But at the same time there was something about her that made Kaleah want to hold on to the hatred and anger all the more fiercly.

Whenever those incredible eyes pierced her own, Kaleah felt a stab of dull pain twist into her soul . . . and she saw for the first time just how empty that soul really was. Every word Jessica spoke sounded strange as it echoed in that dark void, and suddenly, for the first time since she’d been made a slave, Kaleah felt lonely. Felt vulnerable. The isolation that once seemed to protect her now seemed cold and barren.

It was not a feeling she liked, nor wanted to cultivate.

Sighing, Kaleah snuggled deeper into her bed and rearranged her cushions, pushing away her dismal musings. Jessica was clearly determined to be her friend whether she wanted her to be or not . . . but that didn’t mean Kaleah was going to make it easy for her. Remembering her words in the bathing chamber, the dark-haired woman nodded to herself. If she had to stay in this cursed place, she was going to make it clear that it was under sufferance — that no matter how Jessica tried to justify it, this captivity was unwanted.

Besides, she added silently. I’ll be out of here soon enough. Every castle has a chink in the defenses . . . it’s just a matter of finding it and using it. As long as the damn girl doesn’t put me in irons, it’s only a question of time before I can escape.

Closing her eyes, satisfied she had everything under control, Kaleah relaxed and let sleep overtake her . . . stubbornly ignoring the part of her that was still trying to point out just how nice it was not to be sleeping in some freezing cave in the middle of the snow-covered forest.

*********************

In her room next door, Jessica’s thoughts were also on her new companion, and the day they had shared.

Jessica thought the blue-eyed woman was fascinating. Absolutely enchanting. She possessed some inaliable quality that drew Jessica in and held her fast. Some kind of aura, like Eric, her father’s adviser, sometimes spoke of when espousing his alchemy hocus-pocus.

Part of it, Jess admitted, was simply her physical presence. The woman was uncommonly tall, slender yet powerfully built. She moved as though she were constantly tense and alert. . . or ready to bolt at a moments notice. Her clear blue eyes never seemed to soften – they were intense and magnetic, a sharp contrast to her long, inky black hair and bronze skin. Her features were hard and somewhat angular, finely sculptured and beautiful in an alluring, exotic fashion that made Jessica’s stomach twist and her hands start to sweat. Even the livid scar across her mouth did nothing to detract from her appearance . . . rather, it enhanced the sensuous lips by drawing the eye towards them.

But there was more to it than just her physicality. There was a force she couldn’t define about Kaleah, something exciting and fresh . . . dangerous, even. Something that made her want to reach out and touch the dark woman, like she’d always wanted to reach out and touch the burning candles as a child.

The woman had been stiff and thorny during their first day together, but Jessica had caught her almost smiling a few times during their rather one-sided conversation. It was almost as though she wanted to enjoy herself but was determined not to. This gave Jessica hope as she snuggled into her bed, smiling a wicked little smile.

She was going to make Kaleah her friend . . . even if it killed one of them.

***********************

There was pain. Pain so fierce it almost blinded her, almost brought her crashing to the floor. But she fought against the dizziness, focused on the cool, smooth wooden hilt of the dagger she clutched with desperate strength in her right hand. Slowly, every step an exercise in torment, she made her way across the room to the chamber beyond.

A thin smile pulled at her bloody lips as ice-blue eyes found her target. The man was bathing in a large tub, his back turned to her, oblivious to any danger. She stalked forward, fighting not to gasp at the agony that lanced through her body, knowing she’d only get one chance. Finally, she stood over the man as he washed. The broad expanse of his back was open to her, defenceless. The dagger gleamed hungrily in the candle-light, and she hesitated just long enough to savour the moment before she let it feed.

The man screamed at the first thrust, swinging about wildly to confront her. Before he could move to attack her she struck again, feeling a dark, powerful surge of energy wash over her as the crimson blade descended again and again. The man fell to the tiled floor but Kaleah didn’t stop. The dagger rose and fell unendingly, dragging screams from the man that soon grew weaker. Dimly she heard a pounding from outside and idly realized the guards were coming. They would kill her, she knew, but that didn’t matter now. Her eyes were exultant; the pain was gone. A dark and evil strength flowed through her blood, offering to wash away the fear and end her suffering. She smiled for the first time in many years, welcoming the numbing oblivion the darkness held out like a token.

The smile faltered when she looked up and found haunting emerald eyes regarding her sadly.

“Is this all you want?” Jessica asked softly, her voice so achingly beautiful it forced the darkness to receed. Kaleah looked at her hand, confused now at the uncomfortable weight of the dagger. She dropped it and studied the bloody aftermath of her frenzied attack.

Jessica stepped forward, her expression one of sorrow, not pity. Kaleah shivered and drew away from her radience.

“I can help you,” Jessica said gently. “I can save you from the pain. Save you from the darkness.” A hand reached out to her, and Kaleah felt her soul long for something it had never had. Jessica smiled sadly. “I can save you from yourself, Kaleah . . . if you let me.”

Kaleah jerked awake suddenly, gasping for breath, her blood rising quickly with panic. It took her a second to realize where she was, and when she did the dark woman fell back on the damp mattress with a relieved sigh. Her body was covered in a thin layer of sweat and the chill of the night made her shiver a little and pull the blankets closer about her.

It had been a long time since she’d had a nightmare — a long time since she’d let herself think back on the horrors she’d experienced as a slave. This dream had been different from the others, however; never had the present intruded on her memories of the past. Jessica seemed to light the darkness inside her, illuminating all those terrors again.

Kaleah scowled as she struggled to calm her body down. “Just another reason not to like her,” she whispered to herself. “Just another reason to get as far away from this place as I can.”

She lay awake through the rest of the night, knowing from experience not to fall asleep when the night-demons were so ready to torture her with ancient hurts.

***********************

A soft knocking at the door pulled Kaleah from a light sleep. Sitting up dazedly, the dark woman looked around the neatly-decorated room and scowled. She was tired and cranky, and the prospect of having to face Jessica’s constant cheerfulness wasn’t appealing.

The knock came again a little louder, and the door that lead into the coridor outside opened a crack. A strange young woman poked her face into the room cautiously. “Hello?”

“What do you want?” Kaleah demanded, pulling her sheets tighter about her body.

The woman’s eyes widened a little nervously at her angry tone, but she slid into the room anyway and held out a tray of food. “Lady Jessica asked me to bring you breakfast,” she explained shyly.

Kaleah studied the tray, her stomach growling. Wordlessly, she gestured the woman forward and accepted the offering. The woman regarded her with timid curiosity, her hands plucking at the hem of her apron. Kaleah regarded her coldly for a moment, then asked, “Are you Jessica’s slave as well?”

“Slave?” The woman looked at her strangely, perplexed by the question, then laughed a little. “Sir Richard would never allow slavery on his lands. I’m one of the kitchen-maids.”

Kaleah’s dark brows contracted thoughtfully. “But you do serve Jessica, right?”

The woman shrugged. “I serve the castle,” she said simply. “Sir Richard gives me a room to sleep in and warm meals, and he pays me with silver every few months. It’s a good way to earn a living.”

“So . . . you could leave here if you wanted to?”

“Aye.” The woman gave a quick look around, then sidled closer and lowered her voice. “I heard from the cook that Jessica’s taken a fancy to you. She’s not usually allowed to play with us commoners — you’re very lucky.”

“Lucky?” Kaleah snorted. “How’s that?”

“Well . . . Lady Jessica’s about the nicest person you could hope to meet,” the serving-girl gushed. “She’s funny and smart, and she’s always kind to everybody. But like I said, we don’t get to say much to her. She keeps pretty much to herself.” Curious eyes regarded Kaleah a little enviously. “She must think you’re something special for her to defy her mother.”

Kaleah was silent, absorbing this information, then her eyes hardened. “Thank you for the food,” she said shortly, effectively dismissing her guest, who bobbed her head and turned to leave.

“Oh, and Jessica said to tell you she’d be out in the courtyard when you’re finished,” the serving-girl said before she closed the door behind her and left Kaleah in peace to eat her meal.

*************************

“And this,” Jessica said with a flourish, “is the lookout tower.” She smiled at her dour companion as they reached the top of the winding stairwell that led up to the great spire. The height of the tower afforded a magnificent view of snow-covered fields and woodland, though it was windy and numbingly cold. “There’s usually a guard up here,” Jess added, looking around the empty parapet curiously. “I guess it must be a bit nippy for them.”

Jessica studied the dark woman a little nervously. For the last hour or so she’d continued to show Kaleah around the castle and introduce her to the people, talking all the while just to fill the silence. Her questions were answered with sullen glares or occasional grunts, but Jessica maintained her determination to win the intriguing woman over. Studying Kaleah now as they looked out on the majestic vista before them, Jessica saw the first glimmer of interest she’d seen in the dark woman all morning. Sapphire eyes gazed around everywhere, focused mostly on the castle itself.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said softly, stepping closer to Kaleah.

The former slave was silent for a long time, her eyes moving slowly over the castle grounds. Then she whispered, “Four walls.”

“Excuse me?”

“Four walls,” Kaleah said clearly. “That’s all I see.”

Jessica found herself suddenly caught in the Kaleah’s intense, cold gaze. She shuffled uncomfortably. “I don’t understand.”

Kaleah gestured with one hand at the castle battlements. “This is a cage, Princess,” she spat. “You can call yourself my friend, but all you really are is my jailor.”

Jessica’s eyes flared with a fire of their own. “Don’t call me ‘princess,’” she ordered. “My father’s not a king. And this castle’s only as much of a cage as you want it to be. Maybe things wouldn’t seem so bad if you just started thinking of this place as your home.”

“My home!?” Kaleah laughed mirthlessly. “I don’t have a home, Princess! I’ve never had a home, but I’ve lived in enough cages to know one when I see it.” She pointed again to the castle below. “Four walls that mark a boundary you say I can’t cross! Four walls that say I’m not free!” She glared at Jessica with a cold fury, then stalked toward the stairwell. “Does that sound like a home to you, princess?”

Jessica almost let the dark woman go, but the angry words stung her. She was trying to help Kaleah here, but all Kaleah wanted to do was wallow in self pity. Exasperated, Jessica grabbed the dark woman as she brushed past her and spun her around. Furious sapphires pinned her instantly as Kaleah jerked away from her touch, but Jessica stood firm and glared right back.

“I’m not here to hurt you, Kaleah,” she said sternly. “Why can’t you see that?”

Kaleah’s body was rigid and trembling, the dark energy building inside her. “I didn’t ask for a friend,” she hissed through grit teeth.

“Fine. Maybe you didn’t ask for one, but you’ve got one whether you want it or not.” Jessica set her hands on her hips, her jaw set stubbornly. “Now you can either spend the next twelve months mopping about this ‘cage’ feeling sorry for yourself and making my life difficult, or you can stop being such an ass and make the most of an opportunity you’re not likely to get ever again in your whole life!” She paused to catch her breath. “I’ll teach you to fight, Kaleah. I’ll teach you to read and write and hunt and anything else you want to learn! In twelve months, you can leave this castle with enough gold and enough skills to start a new life doing anything you want to do! I can’t force you to go along with anything Kaleah . . . but if you let me, I’ll help you become everything you can be.” Jessica stared hard at the former slave till the sapphire eyes broke away. Then she nodded to herself and started walking back down the stairs. “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” she called over her shoulder. “The choice is yours.”

They each spent the rest of the day alone.
Chapter 3.
The next day did not go well.

After sharing a hearty breakfast of eggs and porridge – which Kaleah stubbornly refused to acknowledge was far better than anything she could have made herself – Jessica carefully suggested a little light sparring.

“I usually train a few hours everyday either with the soldiers or Sir Miles,” Jessica told Kaleah after they’d eaten. “You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want too, but Miles and I were planning on a lesson anyway, so if you want to just watch, that’s fine-”

“I’ll fight,” Kaleah interrupted.

“You will?” Emerald eyes lit with pleasure, and the dark woman tried hard not to let them affect her. She nodded. Jess beamed a smile at her that made her heart ache. “That’s great! You’ll like Miles, I promise. He’s a great fighter — even better than my father. It’ll be fun.”

Kaleah didn’t say anything after that, but her eyes were cold as chips of ice. The strange dreams had returned last night, plauging her with haunting images of the blonde-haired girl with laughing green eyes, robbing her of sleep. The emotions the young noblewoman raised in her were strong and alien; she had no defense against their insistent call, and that only increased her confusion. So now as they sat together in Jessica’s room, the former slave was feeling frustrated and irritable, her temper on a low boil and rapidly heating.

A few hours later two young women stood in the open courtyard with Sir Miles, ready to fight. Jessica’s armor was similar in design to Kaleah’s, molded to fit her feminine curves tightly, while still allowing her a great range of movement. Sir Miles wore only light padding — a fact Kaleah instantly decided made him seem arrogant. Jessica made polite introductions, and the training began.

After only a few minutes watching the man warm up with Jessica, Kaleah had to admit Miles knew what he was doing. The loss of his right hand didn’t hamper his style at all. The old warrior was quick, accurate and powerful. Kaleah moved forward when they were finished to take her own turn at the man, eager to prove she wasn’t in need of training at all.

Grinning ferally, Kaleah assumed the en guard position as De’Livier had taught her. Sir Miles noticed the formal stance and mirrored it.

“Spanish school, are ya?” he muttered, seeing the eager glint in her steely eyes and recognizing it for what it was. “Always thought ‘em a bit pompous meself.”

Kaleah growled, rising quickly to the bait. On the sidelines, Jessica watched as the dark-haired woman attacked Sir Miles with lightening speed, her anger obvious. She smiled to herself. If her new friend hoped to overcome the knight with simple aggression, she was going to learn the same lesson she’d learned in the forest.

Miles fell back willingly under the tempest of fury, effortlessly defeating Kaleah’s furious assault. He’d trained hundreds in his lifetime and knew this rage needed purging before a fighter could be made truly great. A level head always defeated a clouded one.

“If’n I didn’t know better, I’d say ye was tryin’ to best me, girl,” he rumbled, his old eyes twinkling as he enjoyed Kaleah’s confounded expression when she stopped to catch her breath. He pointed to Jessica with the stump that had been his right hand. “That there green-eyed devil bested ye before. If I were you, I’d be making sure I could take on the pupil a’fore I tried for the teacher, eh?”

Kaleah felt her vision start to blur with a familiar crimson heat as her temper escaped her often tenuous hold. All the anger, confusion and fear she had experienced in the last few days suddenly came to a head and erupted like a storm inside her. Screaming in hatred and anguish, her features twisted with pain, the dark woman launched herself at Sir Miles, the tip of her sword leading the way.

Watching, Jessica was stunned by the expression on Kaleah’s face. She almost cried out as Kaleah sprang forward, fearing the woman would harm herself or the old knight, such was the power of her rage.

She needn’t have worried. Sir Miles coolly defeated every blow, giving ground without concern and waiting till his opponent grew tired. It didn’t take long, and when Kaleah slipped on the icy ground and fell, he swept the sword from her grasp with a graceful motion and held the edge of his blade across her throat.

Blue eyes glared up at him, thick with hatred, her breathing shallow. He smiled a little sadly. “Ye need to get a handle on yer temper, lass,” he told her softly, wondering if she was clear-headed enough to understand him. “Ye can’t beat anyone if ye can’t even master yerself.”

He pulled the razor-sharp edge away from her skin and sheathed the weapon casually. Kaleah broke from his gaze and hugged herself, collapsing into a huddled form, trying to suppress the shudders and sobs that fought for release. Looking up, Miles met concerned green eyes and sighed wearily. Walking past the huddled, shivering form, he patted Jessica on the arm.

“Will she be okay?” asked the young woman, eyeing her collapsed friend with deep concern.

“Aye, lass,” he assured her softly. “She’ll be fine. Give her a few minutes though.”

“You didn’t need to provoke her like that,” Jessica said reproachingly.

Miles shrugged. “Believe me, girl . . . it’s best to get this outta her system now. Longer it stays inside, more harm it’s gonna do her.”

Jessica considered that, then nodded slightly. “I suppose.”

“Listen, lass . . .” Miles hesitated, not wanting to poke his head where it wasn’t wanted. “Are ye sure you know what yer doin’ with this woman?”

Jessica saw the concern in his eyes and smiled sincerely. “Not really,” she admitted. “But I’m sure I’ll figure it out . . . sooner or later.”

“Aye . . . well.” Miles patted her arm again. “When ye’re ready for another session — when she’s ready — you let me know, huh?”

“I will.”

“Good lass.” He smiled fondly at her, then turned and walked away towards the garrison.

Sighing, Jessica slowly approached the curled up form huddled in the snow and mud. “Are . . . are you okay?” she asked tentatively, wanting to offer physical comfort but certain it wouldn’t be appreciated.

“Go away,” came the reply, the words muffled but thick with emotion.

Jessica didn’t want to leave the dark woman in so vulnerable a position. Many of the soldiers walking about were eyeing them curiously. “Would you like to go back to your room?” she suggested gently.

Kaleah didn’t even move. “Go away.”

Jessica took an unconscious step forward. She wanted so much to help, to ease the pain that was so obvious in the dark woman. She reached out a hesitant hand, but pulled it back before it could touch the huddled form. “You know . . . sometimes it helps to talk about things.” Her voice was so soft it was barely audible. “Pain can poison the soul if you don’t let it go . . .”

Kaleah looked up then and Jessica fell back at what she saw. The beautiful face was cold, emotionless, the mask firmly in place. No tears ran down the cheeks. Her eyes were not puffy or red. But looking into those clear blue gems, Jessica saw the most overwhelming agony she had ever seen. Kaleah’s eyes held all the feelings she kept from her face and for a moment, Jessica doubted she had the strength to offer comfort to this woman; wondered if she had the courage to be the friend she wanted to be, knowing that to continue to offer her hand in friendship meant that, if it was accepted, she would take this pain into her own soul as well.

“Leave. Me. Alone.” Every word sounded dead. The blue eyes held her for a moment, then broke away as Kaleah curled into a ball once more, the discussion over.

Jessica nodded and ran a hand through her hair shakily. “Okay,” she said softly. “I’ll, uh . . . I’ll be in my room if you . . . want to talk, or anything.”

There was no response, so, with every muscle in her body wanting desperately to kneel beside the huddled form and take her in her arms to comfort and protect her, Jessica left. When she looked over her shoulder, Kaleah hadn’t moved at all.

Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, she thought as she turned away and went back to her bedroom to think.

********************************

Alone, Kaleah struggled to get a handle on her emotions. She succeeded, but it was hard. Now more than ever she knew she had to get out of this castle. She could feel the walls crushing her, and her temper was becoming dangerously short. Her thick defences were crumbling under the assault of those bright green eyes.

Kaleah felt no shame for her attack on Sir Miles; the man had deliberately antagonized her from the start. But his last words still rang annoyingly in her head . . . and she didn’t like what they told her.

Always quick to anger, Kaleah knew her rage often unbalanced her. Her fight with Jessica demonstrated that clearly. It was one reason among many that she chose to live alone. A life in slavery had stunted her growth emotionally and as a person. She knew that. De’Livier had tried to teach her to fit in, but one could only learn so much in a year; not nearly enough to make up for a lifetime of social denial and abuse. Now Jessica expected her to just move into this castle and like it? Well, it wasn’t going to happen. She had to get away — and soon.

Jessica would be hurt when she ran . . . maybe even angry. Shivering on the ground, Kaleah was surprised to find the thought of hurting the girl caused her fists to clench and her eyes to burn with tears. Jessica had offered nothing but kindness to her. . . and this was how she planned to repay her?

Frustrated at these unwanted emotions, Kaleah growled and tried to stamp them out. Yes! This is for the best and you know it! Jessica forced you into this . . . and you’re going to escape this prison. That’s what this place is: a prison. Just because there’s lots of food, a comfortable bed and no bars on the windows, doesn’t change that fact. You’re a prisoner . . . and you’re going to escape.

Kaleah sighed as the words did nothing to make her feel better. They seemed to mean less and less every time she thought them.

****************************

Jessica left Kaleah to herself for the rest of the day. She heard her friend return to her room but resisted the urge to join her there, knowing she could easily make things worse. The dark woman needed space and some time to herself. Jessica was still determined to make this work — the sense of connection she felt for Kaleah was still strong, and she cried a little herself in private sympathy for the other woman.

They ate separately, each in her own room, divided by a solid stone wall and carved oak door. Neither ventured outside — it had started snowing just after midday and the cold was penetrating.

Kaleah fell asleep quickly at night, emotionally exhausted as her heart warred with her mind, struggling to reconcile the kindness Jessica showed with the fear of vulnerability that a friendship would bring. Her dreams were thankfully quiet that night, and she awoke refreshed in the morning, reluctantly reveling in the simple ability to snuggle into warm blankets and soft cushions.

For her part, Jessica slept poorly. The next morning, she rapped softly on Kaleah’s door before opening it and peering in.

“Kaleah? Can I come in?”

Kaleah startled a little and pulled the sheets tighter around her naked body. Normally she sleep fully clothed, but she had found that sleeping in her armor on the bed was pointless and uncomfortable. “I suppose so,” she allowed, grateful the room was still fairly dark in the early morning light. Outside she could hear the winds blowing fiercely, lashing the walls with sleet. She was grateful not to be out there.

Jessica tip-toed in and found a seat. She eyed the disheveled head that poked itself out of the thick blankets and couldn’t fight the smile.

“What?” Kaleah demanded, seeing her amusement.

“I’m sorry,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to get a hold of her laughter. “You just . . . you just look kinda cute like that, that’s all.”

Hands emerged to flatten unruly hair. “Like what?”

“Just . . . all disheveled and stuff.” Jessica was glad that Kaleah seemed somewhat recovered from her anger yesterday. “It’s nothing, don’t worry.”

“Humph.”

“I just wanted to see if you’re, you know . . . feeling any better?”

Kaleah tried to stoke the coals of simmering anger that had blazed the day before, but found them severely dampened by the true concern in the wet emerald eyes now regarding her. “I’m fine,” she answered shortly. “I just . . .” She struggled to explain, then decided there was nothing she could say, and shrugged. “Never mind.”

“Do you feel like doing something today?” Jessica asked tentatively. “It doesn’t have to be much. Do you know how to play chess?”

Kaleah shook her head. A particularly violent squall thudded against the thick wooden shutters of the bedroom, and she eyed it with misgivings. “Not much chance of going outside, is there?” she observed wryly.

“Nope,” the blonde confirmed. “There’s a bad storm out there and the winds are like ice. I feel sorry for anyone trapped in weather like this.”

“Oh?” A sudden idea formed in Kaleah’s head, and she ignored the part of her that urged it to shut up. “What about the men standing guard out there? They must be freezing.”

Jessica laughed a little, the sound fresh and joyful. “My father wouldn’t do that to them,” she said lightly. “The soldiers are all inside the barracks, trying to keep warm. No point keeping the guard out in this weather. It’s not like anyone could attack during a storm like this.”

“I suppose not.” Hmmmm. No guards . . . the cover of a storm . . . everyone staying inside. Kaleah smiled a little. This was going to be almost too easy.

“So,” Jessica continued, not noticing the look on her companions face, “you want to play some chess? I could teach you.”

“I, um. I think, maybe, if it’s alright with you I’d prefer to just be by myself for a while,” Kaleah told her softly. “Maybe we could play this . . . ‘chess’ later tonight?”

Pleased to have gotten even that much, and sensing that she was making progress with her reluctant friend, Jessica nodded enthusiastically. “Sure. That’d be fine . . . I understand. Um, I’ll have the kitchen send you up some breakfast, if you’d like?”

“Thanks.”
“Okay.” Jessica got up and walked back to her room. “I’ll see you tonight then. Just knock when you’re ready.”

“Fine.”

Kaleah grinned fully as the door shut behind the blonde woman. Quietly getting out of bed – somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth – she hastly donned her armor, strapped on her sword, and tucked her flute into its concealed pocket. Then she scanned the room quickly for anything that might be useful. She selected a small but very thick blanket and wrapped it into a tight ball. She pocketed a flint and striker from above the fireplace, and a few of the hard sweet candies that sat in a bowl on a table. She decided not to take any of the ornaments, even though some of them were doubtless quite valuable. She wouldn’t steal from someone who had been as kind to her as Jessica had been.

She waited until her breakfast was brought, and devoured it quickly. It would be best to leave with a full stomach, she thought. She figured to have at least four hours or so before anyone noticed she wasn’t there, and with a little luck no-one would be able to follow her until the storm died down. By the time they were organized enough to mount a serious expedition to recapture her – and Kaleah thought it unlikely even Jessica could convince them to – she would be long gone. She could hole up in a cave for a while, then continue her journey north.

Wrapping the blanket about her shoulders as a cloak, Kaleah softly opened the door and slipped out into the ill-lit corridor beyond, careful not to make a sound. Creeping outside, she was momentarily stunned by the freezing wind that blasted right through her, piercing to the very marrow of her bones. Shivering but undaunted by the challenge of the storm, Kaleah struggled her way out into the castle courtyard and across to the gateway and portcullis. Thankfully, the impressive iron gateway had been left open a little; the bottom teeth of the metal grid-work were suspended about three feet from the ground. Crawling under, Kaleah got to her feet on the other side and looked about with a hard smile.

She was free again.

Smiling grimly into the wind, she bowed her head and wrapped the blanket about her tighter. Blinking into the driving sleet, she started walking as fast as she could towards the distant forest and the caves she knew she’d find there. The thick blanket of snow and ice made for slow going. Her feet were already starting to go numb even with the protection of her boots. Snarling, she pressed forward despite the sense of unease stirring in her guts.

As she continued, the former slave wondered idly how long these storms lasted . . . and hoped it wouldn’t get any worse before she reached the safety of shelter.

**************************

As soon as Jessica entered Kaleah’s room late that afternoon, she knew even without looking that the woman was gone.

A quick glance showed her Kaleah had taken the flint and the blanket in addition to her armor and sword. Her mind worked instantly through what had happened, figuring that by now the dark woman was probably several hours into the worsening storm, no doubt headed for the safety of the caves in the deep forest.

“Damn!” Turning, Jessica ran quickly to search for Sir Miles, grabbing her sword as she left.

“What’s the matter, lass?” the old knight asked when she beat at his door, instantly reading her tension and fear.

“Kaleah’s gone,” she reported breathlessly.

“Gone? Gone where?”

“Probably into the woods . . . but that’s just a guess.”

“Hell!” Sir Miles covered his eyes in disbelief. “How long’s she been gone?”

Jessica shrugged. “Hours . . . since this morning I’d say. But again, I can’t be sure.”

“And she went in this weather? She daft or somethin’?”

Jessica shook her head. “She’s probably never seen a storm like this,” she explained. “I’m pretty sure she’s only been in the country a little while . . . this must be new to her. She wouldn’t know how dangerous it is.”

Miles shook his head, thinking fast. “What can we do?”

Jessica fixed him with her most determined look. “I’m going after her,” she said firmly.

“Jess, ye can’t just up ‘n’ go into a . . .” He saw the stubborn glint in her emerald eyes and sighed. “She could be dead by now . . . ye know that, don’t ye?”

“I know. But I’ve got to try and find her. There’s a chance she’s still alive. . . she’ll need my help.”

“Aye.” He could see there was going to be no dissuading her. He put his thoughts to helping her. “I kin come with ye. It’ll just take me a second-”

“No!” Jessica’s tone was stern. “I’ll go alone.”

“Jess, don’t be stupid-”

“I’m not,” she said calmly. “I can find her alone just as well as I can with you — there’s no sense risking both of us.”

“Then I’ll go. Yer father’d kill me if he knew I let ye go alone.”

She shook her head. “How would Kaleah react to you hunting her down?” she asked sensibly. “After yesterday, she’d fight you all the way. I need to do this alone. If I can find her . . .” She trailed off. “I don’t know what I’ll do, but I need to deal with it alone.”

Sir Miles was reluctant to agree, but knew he had little choice. He loved Jessica like a daughter. He had never denied her anything. Recognizing the look in her eyes now, he nodded slowly. “Aye, lass. I guess I’d only be makin’ it worse, huh?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “Ye’ll be needing a few things then, I guess.”

“Aye.”

“Well, come in then,” he opened the door to his room invitingly. “I’ll get ye fixed up and ye can head out.”

“Thank you, Miles,” she smiled at him. “I appreciate this.”

“Aye, ye better,” he growled. “Now. . . let’s see what we need. . .”

She was on her way out into the freezing wind and blinding sleet only a few minutes later, prepared for her expedition. Sir Miles had supplied her with two heavy skin coats, a flask of whiskey and another of lamp oil, a coil of rope, a pair of wide-soled snow boots, several rolls of tough, salty trail meat, and a bundle of oil-skins to keep her things from getting soaked through. The old knight said he would inform her father once she’d set out. . . just to make sure he didn’t try to stop her going.

All in all, Jessica knew she stood a better chance than Kaleah ever would have, and she turned her foot-steps toward the woods, hoping against hope that she would not be too late.
Chapter 4.
Only after hours of fruitless searching, trudging through the forest on legs that felt more like frozen blocks of ice than living flesh, did Jessica finally find what she’d been looking for. Seeing the irregular lump leaning against the trunk of a massive oak, Jessica let an ecstatic cry escape her throat, although it sounded more like a garbled croak after her ordeal. Her steps, previously heavy with her exhaustion, now gained new strength as she struggled against the dimly filtered wind toward the snow-covered figure.

The trip had been grueling and had drained her energy faster than Jessica had ever imagined it would. Though experienced in surviving such storms as these, she understood it was only a matter of luck that had allowed her to find Kaleah. These woods were almost as familiar to her as Castle Da’Gran, but the weather made the place seem alien and strange. She knew where she was, and where to find shelter though . . . it was enough to give her at least a chance at survival.

“Kaleah!” she cried hoarsely as she approached. She was worried when the name did not elicit a response. “Kaleah?” Reaching the cloaked figure, she reached out a shaking hand and checked for a pulse before she noticed the woman shaking violently.

Kaleah’s blue eyes were fixed and staring, her lips blue and her bronze features bloodless and pale. The bruises on her face that were healing well stood out in an ugly purple shade. Ice had formed thickly across her dark eye-brows and down from her nose. Still, Jessica was relieved to note her teeth chattering, and her fingers clenching and unclenching as she tried to breath warmth into their joints. She saw the woman’s lips moving around the twitching spasms, and heard Kaleah speaking strange, foreign words in some kind of chant. The woman was still alive, and the fact that she still felt the cold meant she stood a good chance of making it through this. But Jessica knew they had to act quickly.

“Kaleah? It’s me, Jessica.” She waved her hand in front of vacant eyes, trying to get the dazed woman’s attention. “Come on, snap out of it!”

Blue orbs focused reluctantly, and Jessica smiled encouragingly. “Are you okay? Can you walk? We need to keep going . . . do you think you can walk with me?”

Kaleah looked at her, finally understanding who this person was and what she wanted. Her mind seemed to have chilled and stopped working along with her limbs. She had never experienced cold such as this! Had never imagined such cold could exist! She couldn’t feel her feet, and her fingers were stiff and riddled with sharp pain. The wind was like a knife, stabbing at her mercilessly, freezing her blood and driving the sleet and snow that much harder against her. The shivering robbed her of her strength, and it had been a wonder she had made it even this far. But she had enough strength now to recognize Jessica . . . and to understand why she must be here.

“You w-w-w-won’t t-t-t-take me b-b-back there,” she stammered, her teeth chattering helplessly. Her jaw ached from the constant motion. She pushed away from the densely coated blonde, summoning strength from her determination not to be recaptured.

Jessica shook her head, the danger of the storm more immediate than her concern over taking the woman back with her. “You don’t have to come back with me,” she promised, “but we have to find a cave.” She pointed deeper into the woods. “I know where we can shelter . . . a few hundred feet that way, I think. But we have to move now! Can you walk?”

Kaleah eyed her warily, and nodded. “I-I-I-I’m s-s-s-ssssoooo c-c-cold,” she stammered, rubbing her hands together spasmodically.

“I know,” Jessica said, trying to help the tall woman by wrapping one of her arms around her waist to aid her steps. “We can warm up if you can walk.”

“I don’t n-n-n-need your h-h-help,” Kaleah insisted with what anger she could muster, pushing the girl away and almost collapsing as she struggled to master walking on legs she couldn’t feel or control.

“Oh, sure. I can see that. Come on . . .” Wrapping her arms about the woman and guiding her faltering steps. “Just put your arm around my shoulder, and we’ll get there that much faster, okay?”

“I’m f-f-f-fine,” Kaleah growled, frustration mounting again. Again she tried to push Jessica away, this time falling into the ice-slicked ground face-first.

Jessica’s patience was being tested. “I’m trying to help you, you idiot!”

“And I said I d-don’t n-n-need your h-h-help,” Kaleah managed, her body weaker now than ever as she struggled to get up.

Jessica eyed her pathetic efforts with her hands on her hips. Kaleah’s eyes were sharp with rebellion and watched her sullenly as she tried to rise. The trees in the forest were bent over double in the storm winds, and she was sick and tired of this whole situation. “You want me to leave you here, is that it?” she yelled, her face now flushed with her frustration. “I can, you know! Just walk away and let you freeze to death out here!”

“I’m not asking you to stay!” Kaleah yelled back, her anger overcoming her chattering teeth.

Jessica threw up her hands in exasperation. “Why are you being so god-damned stubborn about this!?” she demanded. “I wanted to be your friend! I wanted to make your life better! Can’t you see that!?”

Kaleah finally got to her feet, never breaking eye-contact, and stood on shaky legs. Jessica was clearly at the end of her patience. She remembered wondering back in the dungeon what it would take to make this young woman truly mad . . . well, now she knew.

“My life was just fine before you came along,” she said, glaring at the woman who, she kept telling herself, wanted to chain her to another year of servitude. It wasn’t easy though; her body was numb in a very painful way, leaking her resolution quickly. “I won’t be your slave,” she said, trying to keep her anger alive, “no matter how nice you make the prison. I’m a free woman!”

“You think you’re free!?” Jessica demanded. She spread her arms to indicate the storm-gripped forest. “This is your freedom!? Great! That’s just fine with me!” She bent and scooped up a handful of snow, then hurled it at Kaleah in frustration. The dark woman tried to dodge, failed, and fell to the ground again. Jessica glared down at her. “You can stay here for all I care! You’re free to die in the ice and the snow, and no-one will remember you because no-one cares about you, least of all yourself!”

Kaleah looked up at her, shivering, hugging herself. It was obvious she was too weak to stand, but her eyes still held to the last vestiges of her rage. Jessica shook her head, struggling to get a hold of her frustration. She crouched next to Kaleah, who drew away.

“You may think you’re free, Kaleah,” Jessica said, her voice barely audible over the wind, “but you’re not.” She held the other woman’s gaze, her eyes intense and hard, daring Kaleah to look away. “You’re still a slave, because you still think and act like one. I wanted to teach you how to live your life-”

“I was surviving just fine,” Kaleah scowled.

Jessica glared her down. “Is that all you want? Just to survive? To get through each day, not really going anywhere?” She shook her head. “If that’s true, than maybe I read you all wrong. I thought you were more than that. I thought you were someone worth the effort to try and save.” She sighed. “Maybe I was wrong after all.”

Jessica got to her feet, her anger exhausted. Kaleah watched her with a strange mix of anger, fear, and reflection. “I’m not going to fight with you, Kaleah. Now’s not the time,” she said. “We need to find shelter or we’ll both die.” She held out her hand in offering, not command. “Are you coming, or staying?” From her tone, it seemed she didn’t much care one way or the other.

‘You’re still a slave because you still think and act like one.’ The words burned in Kaleah’s mind. She realized they were true. She lived in the woods, shunning all contact unless she grew desperate. She still flinched whenever anyone held up a hand, always expecting the blow that never came. And she still couldn’t take care of herself . . . as much as she hated to admit it. Half a lifetime of slavery and servitude couldn’t be erased in just a few months.

Shivering, her body weak from the wrenching spasms of cold, Kaleah struggled and finally managed to reach out and clasp the offered hand.

Jessica hauled her up with surprising strength. “Do you need help walking?”

Kaleah shook her head. “I’ll b-b-be f-f-fine.” The stutter was back as her anger dwindled and her teeth started chattering. Still, when she tried to take a step, her legs buckled and she fell forward. Jessica caught her and, ignoring her threats and attempts to get free, forced her arm over her own shoulder to assist. Kaleah, drained after a moment of struggling, gave up and let her.

The next few moments were filled only with the harsh breathing and stuttered remarks of the two women as they helped each other through the woods in the direction Jess hoped would take them to shelter. The journey seemed to take eons, but in fact took only a few dozen minutes, before Jessica finally spied the dark mouth of a cave that – thankfully – faced away from the storm.

“Almost there,” she told her companion, indicating with her arm. Kaleah looked up and doubled her efforts as new life surged through her limbs.

Jessica half-dragged the taller woman into the cave and dumped her unceremoniously on the rocky floor. Moving with fixed precision, knowing time was slipping away, Jessica moved quickly to the back of the cave. As she had hoped, she found a stack of dead, dry tree limbs left by those last forced to shelter in the woods. Soaking a few of the smaller pieces of wood in the oil she’d brought, it was only a matter of moments before a healthy spark from the flint and striker resulted in the flickering glow of a small fire. Jessica carefully nurtured the life-giving warmth, occasionally glancing at her reluctant companion with some concern.

Kaleah sat where she’d been dropped, curled about herself and struggling to hold onto the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She looked up in shock when light from the fire drenched the interior of the cave, then hungrily watched the crimson flickering as it grew. When Jessica looked at her she hastily found somewhere else to set her eyes, unwilling to admit she needed this help.

Jessica just smiled. The dark woman couldn’t be feeling too bad if she still had enough energy to be stubborn and proud.

Once she was satisfied the fire was okay for a time – and that the smoke from it was flowing out of the cave and wasn’t likely to suffocate them both – Jessica tossed her oil-skin bundle to the ground and, keeping in mind it was a life-or-death situation while trying to ignore her natural sense of modesty, stripped down to her underwear as quickly as she could. She lay her sodden clothes out on the ground as near the fire as she dared, then curled up on them and huddled close to the blessed warmth, pulling one of the thick, dry cloaks she’d brought over her shoulders.

Near the entrance to the cave, Kaleah watched her in shock, quickly and thoroughly stamping down her gut-level reaction to Jessica’s exposed body. She realized suddenly what the young blonde was doing, noticing that, while her armor and the blanket had provided much needed relief from the bite of the storm while she’d been in the midst of it, the soaked clothing was now keeping the icy cold pressed against her skin.

“If you want to make it through the night, I suggest you get your gear off,” Jessica said to her from across the flames. She kept her tone carefully modulated, determined not to loose her temper again. Reaching over to her oil-skin bundle, she pulled out the flask of whiskey and took a long, shivering pull from the fiery liquid. Jessica was unused to alcohol of any kind – though she occasionally drank wine during festivals – and the harsh drink burned down her throat making her gag. “God . . . that’s nasty stuff,” she gasped. “How can people drink this?” A moment later she felt the fiery liquid spread a pleasant warmth through her belly, so she took another swallow then glanced at Kaleah with a raised eyebrow. “Want some?”

Kaleah stared at her suspiciously. Jessica nodded and shook the flask invitingly. “It’ll help to warm you from the inside.”

Kaleah thought of refusing but realized it was pointless. She was just too tired and, frankly, too scared to care about holding on to her sour mood. Her body was starting to experience sharp pain as the blood began to circulate again, and she couldn’t stand. Crawling shakily across the dirty stone ground she reached out and grabbed for the flask, thankfully drinking as much as she could handle. Tears sprang from her eyes, but she smiled a little.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

“You’re welcome.” Jessica allowed herself to smile a little in return. She watched Kaleah huddle down over the fire, putting her hands so close she was sure they’d burn. “Are you okay now?”

Kaleah nodded, her body still wracked with convulsions and sharp pain. But she’d be damned if she’d let this woman see her weakness. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered, her breath misting in the air. Outside, the storm raged on and she glanced to the entrance of the cave nervously. “It’s cold.”

“Bet you didn’t expect this when you ran, huh?” Jessica smiled wryly as she studied her shivering companion.

Kaleah glared at her. She was starting to hate that smile. “I-I thought I’d make it here quicker,” she admitted. This cold was terrifying. She had no idea that a bit of snow could kill so quickly. “I’ll be fine once I’ve warmed up.”

“Well you’re not going to get very warm if you don’t strip out of those wet clothes,” Jessica informed her. Her corset and breeches were sodden but she wasn’t prepared to take them off — they weren’t exactly concealing, but she felt better for what little cover they provided. “You want some help with your armor?”

“NO!” Kaleah quickly drew back from Jessica’s already advancing hands. When she noticed the look of hurt on the young woman’s face, she scolded herself mentally. She was only trying to help, you idiot. “No,” she said, gently this time. “I . . . I can manage it.”

Jessica shrugged. “Fine.”

Turning away, Kaleah reluctantly began to undo the buckles on her armor with stiff fingers. They were iced together and hard to get undone, but she persevered. She hated to expose herself like this; not for the sake of modesty — a slave couldn’t afford to be modest. But she knew the looks she would receive from Jessica when the young woman saw her body; she remembered the looks De’Livier had worn the first time he’d seen. Steeling herself, she shucked her armor and placed it on the ground near the fire to dry as Jessica had done, returning to the warmth of the flames in nothing but a pair of thin breeches. She dragged her long dark hair over her shoulders to cover her breasts somewhat. Looking at herself, she saw the flickering light cast the scars that covered her figure into vivid life, showing them stark white against the bronze of her skin. She was unhealthily thin from the starvation diet she lived on, her ribs standing out clearly in the firelight under lean muscle.

After a while, hearing nothing from her companion, she raised her eyes shyly.

Jessica was watching her with an expression of silent sympathy, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. Kaleah swallowed and shrugged, looking again at the marks of a thousand beatings . . . the evidence of a life lived in slavery.

“I’m so sorry,” Jessica whispered, her voice barely audible over the howling of the storm outside.

Kaleah shrugged. “It’s not your fault,” she said quietly, trying to remember the last time someone had cried for her . . . and realizing that no-one ever had. It felt surprisingly good, she marvled, to have someone care about you. She huddled nearer the fire. “But I won’t ever be treated like a slave again.”

Jessica nodded in sympathy if not understanding. “The storm should die down by morning,” she said. “If we can last the night, my father’s men should find us then. They won’t be sent out till dawn at the earliest.”

Kaleah was a little surprised. “Won’t he send someone as soon as he knows you’ve come after me?”

Jessica shook her head and added another log to the fire. “He knows it’s too dangerous. He’ll trust I can take care of myself . . . that I’ll find shelter and wait till he can come get me. If we survive the night-”

“If?”

“We’re not out of danger yet. It’ll get colder as night falls. And if the storm lets up before the sun rises, there’s a chance wild dogs might come hunting. If they find us . . . well. Nothing either one of us could do would save our lives.”

Kaleah eyed the storm outside nervously and started shivering all over again. It had been a long time since she’d been this scared. “I-I didn’t know it would be so dangerous,” she admitted softly.

“I know.” Jessica met the crystal blue eyes of her companion and smiled. “When they get here,” she continued, “you can take the cloaks and equipment I brought and leave . . . if that’s what you want. I won’t make you come back to Da’Gran. Not against your will.”

Kaleah frowned. “You’ll let me go?”

Jessica nodded.

“Then . . . why did you come after me?” asked Kaleah, shifting closer. “If not to drag me back there . . . why risk yourself in the storm?”

Jessica smiled. “You’d have died if I hadn’t. I knew that.”

“So? Why would you care?”

A simple shrug. “I don’t know why,” the blonde girl said softly. “I just do.”

Kaleah studied her companion, trying to understand. “I don’t understand you,” she stated quietly after a moment. “You hardly know me. Why would you go to so much trouble to save me, then just let me go free?”

“I want to be your friend,” Jess explained patiently. “If being your friend means caring enough to let you go, then so be it. That’s what I’ll do.” Green eyes settled on the flames. “I’m sorry I tried to force you into this whole thing,” she said quietly. “Sometimes I get carried away and think everything’ll work out if I just want it to badly enough — like in the stories I read where there’s always a happy ending.” A sigh. “I guess that’s pretty naïve, but it’s just how I am sometimes.”

Kaleah struggled to grasp such selflessness. She’d never met anyone like Jessica before, had certainly never had another person risk their life to save her. Friendship was a concept she’d never experienced before, one that confused and puzzled her. Unwanted and unrewarded, the thing Jessica offered – no, insisted on giving – was something Kaleah wasn’t sure she knew how to return, something strange and against her nature. Yet her heart cried out with longing for such acceptance, even as her mind recoiled in fear.

And Kaleah knew eventually, her heart was going to win.

Suddenly the former slave recalled the strange experience she’d had the first time she’d seen Jessica; that bizarre connection that felt exhilarating and frightening at the same time. And she remembered Jessica’s blush when she mentioned that first direct eye contact.

“When . . . when we first met . . .”

“Yes?”

Those emerald eyes bore into her with quiet intensity, and Kaleah lowered her gaze, trying to find something else to look at. “Nothing.” She couldn’t ask. “Never mind.”

Jessica smiled and rubbed her hands together, feeling the pain start to dwindle in her extremities. “Were you going to ask about that weird thing that happened when we looked at each other for the first time?”

The look on Kaleah’s face at this made her laugh; the woman’s mouth hung open and her eyes were so wide they looked unnatural. “What’s the matter? You think you’re the only one who feel it?”

“I-I didn’t really . . . I mean, I wasn’t sure.” Kaleah stammered. “I didn’t know what it was.”

Jessica watched her closely, wondering. “Neither did I,” she said. “I’ve never felt anything like it before. But it was one of the reasons I chased you down . . . one of the reasons why I wanted to get to know you better.” She sighed and took another sip of whiskey. “Maybe I should have just left things well enough alone.”

Hearing her tone, Kaleah felt a pang of guilt for causing the young woman to regret her kindness. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I . . . I shouldn’t have acted the way I did. I just thought-”

“I know what you thought,” Jessica said. “And I understand now why you thought it.” Her eyes drifted over the scars on the dark woman’s body, trying hard not to notice how the firelight made her bronze skin almost glow . . . and failing miserably. The tall woman’s long, dark hair hung over her firm breasts, covering them but revealing enough to tantalize the eye. Her lean body was tense from the cold, and was covered in gooseflesh. This was the first time Jessica had seen another woman’s body so completely, and her heart started beating strangely fast.

Noting that Kaleah was watching her appraisal, Jessica quickly prevented her mind from wandering further down the road it had been about to travel . . . a road paved with the many stories she’d read of what women could share with one another. “I guess it’s hard to trust anyone when you’ve been through . . . this.” She gestured to the scars as though she’s been studying them all along.

Kaleah squirmed, hating her marked body for it’s legacy of pain. “It is.” She couldn’t meet the intensity of Jessica’s gaze and looked away. “I’m not used to people wanting to be my friend. You’re about the first person who’s ever really tried.”

Jess grinned a little. “Sorry it didn’t work out.” Her eyes wanted to continue their wandering, but she forced them to behave. “I really wish things had gone better between us.” Her smile was gentle, but sad.

Kaleah allowed herself a slight smile in return. She could see the sincerity in Jessica’s green eyes and in the tears that tracked down her cheeks. Her heart was yelling at her frantically to surrender to this feeling she could feel growing inside her, and since her mind was still frozen by the storm, it managed to gain the upper hand before she could rally any arguments against it.

“If . . .” she started, then paused. “If I did come back to the castle with you . . . would I be allowed outside?”

Jessica stared at her, trying to keep her dawning hope from being too obvious. “I-I guess so,” she stammered quickly, sitting up a little straighter. “I mean, sure, if you wanted too.”

Kaleah pursed her lips thoughtfully. “If I wanted to leave, would you let me go without question?”

Jess nodded frantically. “Absolutely!”

Seeing the young girl’s barely contained excitement made Kaleah’s smile widen. “In that case . . . maybe we could give this thing another try. If you want to, that is.”

Jessica’s grin took in her whole face and made her eyes dance. “You mean it?”

Kaleah nodded. “As long as we take it slowly. I’m not really sure how to do a friendship thing, you know?”

Jessica bobbed her head happily in assent. “Of course,” she laughed. “No pressure . . . just somewhere nice to stay and company when you want it. At your own pace . . . no problem.”

They shared a smile together, basking in a mutual understanding and common ground finally reached. Then, each growing a little too aware of how long they’d been staring, their eyes returned to studying the flickering fire with great interest.

Eventually however, Kaleah’s eyes were irresistably drawn back to her companion. The young woman lay half on her side, hands stretched over the fire to warm them. She was apparently intent on watching the flames dancing about, so Kaleah let her eyes wander a little, trying not to appreciate the fact that her new friend was clad only in her breeches and a rather sheer and wet corset which did little to hide her full breasts. Flushing, she looked away, wondering how the small fire was able to warm the cave so swiftly. Her eyes darted back from time to time — of their own accord, of course — and Kaleah noticed that her companion’s body carried it’s own weight of scars.

“Something the matter?”

Kaleah looked up and, from the playful and amused look on Jessica’s face, realized she’d been staring. “Oh. Uh, I-I was just noticing that you, uh . . . you have a few scars of you own there,” she stammered, thankful her darker complexion did something to hide her blush.

Jessica examined herself and shrugged. “I’ve been fighting since I was old enough to hold a knife,” she explained. “I participated in my first battle when I was twelve, and I’ve trained almost every day for the last ten years or so. These are the marks of a soldier . . . I’m proud of them. They show that I survived in spite of the pain.” She picked at the stitches in her arm. “You’re the first person in over a year to contribute to the cause.”

Kaleah looked away and smiled a little. “Sorry.” Looking at her own body, her face dropped. “My scars aren’t like that,” she said softly, unsure why she wanted to tell Jessica this. “They’re the marks of a slave — the only good thing about them is that they made me less desirable as a whore. At least they did after I gained enough of them.” She rubbed a finger along the line that crossed her lips. “Especially this one. I remember I thanked God the day I was given this . . . I knew it would make me ugly so fewer people would want me.”

“That’s not true,” Jessica protested, sidling closer. “I think it makes you look even more beautiful.”

Kaleah eyed her suspiciously. “You do?”

“Of course.” Jessica’s hand wandered of it’s own volition up to gently caress Kaleah’s cheek, running her thumb slowly over the white scar and looking deep into sapphire eyes. “It draws attention to your lips . . . and makes your features stand out more.” Unconsciously she rubbed Kaleah’s lips tenderly. “Nothing could make you ugly.”

Suddenly, she noticed that Kaleah’s whole body was tense and coiled, frozen and unmoving. Her eyes held an expression that was half fear, half panic. Realizing the cause, Jessica quickly pulled her hand away.

“You don’t like to be touched, do you?” she noted with gentle curiosity, waiting till her companion relaxed a little. She made a mental note to continue the physical contact so Kaleah could get used to the idea that another person could touch you without wanting to hurt you.

Kaleah shivered a little and shook her head. “I learned to fear contact,” she admitted softly. “People touch you . . . and this is what happens . . .” she pointed to one of the more viscous scars on her lean but muscular abdomen.

Jessica nodded, then, eyeing the oil-skin bundle she’d brought, she grinned. “Well if you don’t like physical contact,” she said with her eyes laughing merrily, “you’re really not gonna like tonight’s sleeping arrangements.”

Following her gaze, Kaleah wondered what she meant. Sleeping arrangements? What was she talking about? From her companion’s teasing grin, though, she had a feeling her night in the cave would be anything but restful.

********************************

The storm blew itself out by morning, it’s demise almost as sudden as it’s birth. One minute the gale was threatening seriously to uproot every tree in the whole forest, then, as though tiring of the sport, it settled down and all was quiet once more. The snows stopped, and while the sky remained thick with clouds, they no longer seemed dangerous or ominous in the least, but rather weary and nonchalant.

The two women rose with the sun, neither of them particularly anxious to sleep in . . . as enjoyable as the activity might have been.

Kaleah had almost refused point blank to allow the sleeping arrangement Jessica insisted on using, entailing as it did that they sleep curled up together under the two thick cloaks the young blonde had brought with her. After a half-hour of pointing out that sharing body heat was the only way they could survive the night once the cold really set in, Jessica had finally managed to convince her dark companion to let her snuggle up against her back beneath the furs.

Of necessity, the fire had burned down to little more than glowing embers once they retired, and the chill was every bit as deadly as Jessica foretold. Even with the two blankets and their shared body warmth, both women shivered through most of the night. The fact that they were both far too conscious of the other’s nearness for comfort only made things that much more unbearable. By the time the storm died and the sun reluctantly reclaimed the sky, both women were feeling irritable, exhausted and freezing cold . . . but determined not to spend another moment under the blankets.

They each struggled quickly into still damp armor, facing away from each other for privacy. Their clothing wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it beat waiting around in the icy cold in their meager underwear. They shared a joyless breakfast of trail meat and some of the boiled sweets Kaleah had taken, eating in silence that wasn’t noticeably uncomfortable, before turning their attention to the outside world.

“How long do you think they’ll be?” asked Kaleah, standing at the mouth of the cave and looking out at the peaceful forest, trying to reconcile the serene image that lay before her with the violence she remembered from last night.

Jessica joined her, squinting into the light. “Don’t know,” she said. “Shouldn’t be too long though . . . they’ll know where the caves are and come to this area first.”

Kaleah looked at the young woman, her eyes suddenly nervous. “What will you tell your father,” she asked hesitantly. “. . . about me, I mean?”

Jessica looked up into her eyes and saw the apprehension there. She’d considered that problem herself during the long night. “Don’t worry,” she said, reaching out and patting the taller woman on the shoulder, noticing her tense up and smiling at the response. She was going to make sure to keep up with the physical contact . . . get her used to it. “I’ll tell him you were worried about a friend you know out here and wanted to make sure they’d be alright in the storm.”

Kaleah frowned, ignoring the tingling sensation her companion’s touch stirred up. “That doesn’t sound particularly convincing,” she observed. “You’re father knows I’m not from around here.”

Jessica laughed. “Oh, he’ll see through it in a second,” she grinned. “But since we’re both here, alive and well — and since you’re coming back with us — he’ll just figure we had a few things to sort out between us, and now we have.” She watched the roiling grey clouds for a moment. “My father trusts me. He’ll understand.”

“If you say so.” Kaleah was still nervous, then another thought occured. “What would you have told him if I’d decided not to come back with you?”

Jessica met her curious look and smiled. “I’d have told him the truth,” she said softly.

“And what’s that?”

Green eyes held blue for a moment longer. “That you weren’t ready to let me help you . . . and that I didn’t want to force you to accept something you didn’t want.”

Looking into those wet emeralds, Kaleah experienced the almost frightening sensation that she was falling into them and hastily averted her gaze, coughing a little to cover her nervousness.

“This friendship thing takes a while to get to used to, I suppose,” Jessica smiled, seeing her discomfort. “Believe it or not, it’s hard for me too.”

Kaleah looked at her in disbelief. “Y-you find this difficult?”

Jessica nodded.

“But you’re so, you know . . . outgoing.”

The blonde laughed. “I guess I am, huh,” she thought aloud. “I never really thought about it.” She looked up at Kaleah seriously. “Still . . . you’ll be the first friend I’ve ever had who’s close to my own age, and who’s the same sex as me.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh. There aren’t any female nobles around this area . . . at least none my parents are allied with. And my mother tears me down whenever I talk to the serving girls, so . . . this is new for me, too.”

Kaleah remembered what the kitchen-maid had told her a few days ago, and it suddenly clicked in her mind that Jessica was lonely. The idea that the energetic, gregarious young blonde was just as much a stranger to this stuff as she was made Kaleah feel a lot more comfortable. It was nice to know she wasn’t the only one feeling awkward and unbalanced. The playful grin on Jessica’s face made her smile a little in return. “You know you could have picked someone a lot easier than me to try this out on.”

Jessica giggled. “Maybe someone a bit less stubborn? But I would have missed out on this happy little excursion into the woods . . . that would have been a shame.”

Kaleah couldn’t help herself and let out her own little chuckle. She wasn’t used to laughing, and tried to hide her face by letting her long dark hair fall forward. Jessica saw what she was doing, however, and reached out to pull the ebony locks away. Meeting clear blue eyes that seemed to sparkle with happiness for perhaps the first time, she smiled at the shy expression on Kaleah’s face.

“You should laugh more often,” she said softly. “It’s good for the soul.”

At that moment, the clear sound of a hunting horn rang out through the forest, it’s tone sharp and bold. Looking towards the sound they both realized the search party was some way away into the woods. The horn had been to attract their attention if they were in the area.

Jessica looked at Kaleah and shrugged. “Guess we better go meet them, huh.”

“Yeah. I’ll, um . . . I’ll get the gear.”

“Okay.”
The dark woman retrieved the bundle of coats and equipment from inside the cave, then joined Jessica just outside the entrance. Handing over one of the coats to her companion, she donned the other and they started into the freezing, snow-covered forest.

“You really think this thing is going to work out?” Kaleah asked as they shuffled through the high snow.

“What thing?”

Kaleah gestured between the two of them. “You know . . . us. Being friends?”

“Oh, that.” Jessica threw her a rakish grin. “Absolutely.”

Together, the two continued on in companionable silence towards the sound of the still ringing horn, both aware of the subtle changes that had occurred between them. The first tender bonds of a lasting connection began to take firmer hold, and neither Jessica nor Kaleah felt any inclination to stop them.

**************************

Sir Richard met his daughter with little outward sign of relief, even though everyone knew how dangerous a threat the storm had been. With his typical lack of fanfare he greeted her return with a gruff “Mornin’ Jessica,” before handing her the reins to Andromeda and turning his attention to her dark-haired companion.

“We didn’t bring a horse for you, young lady,” he apolagized gruffly. “But I guess we can’t have you walking all the way back through the snow . . . you’ll catch your death of cold. Come here . . .” He reached down an arm to offer her. “You can ride behind me.”

Kaleah eyed the offered arm, then the massive war-horse with trepidation. “I-I’ve never ridden a horse before,” she admitted quietly. She glanced at Jessica as she mounted the smaller and nimbler Andromeda, envying her casual grace as she effortlessly controlled the beast. The grey mare seemed much less intimidating than the lord knight’s great steed. “I’d prefer to ride with Jessica,” she said, hoping the knight wouldn’t take offense.

“I’m sure you would,” Sir Richard smiled kindly. “But Andromeda can’t carry both of you safely in this snow. She sets her foot in a rabbit hole that might be hidden by the fall and it’d be the end of her. Don’t worry, lass. You’ll be safe enough with me. Just give me your arm and I’ll hoist you up.”

Kaleah reluctantly did as instructed, and was roughly but not unkindly lifted onto the back of the war-horse behind Jessica’s father.

“Put your arms about my waist,” Sir Richard instructed. “There you go . . . now, just grip with your legs and hold on to me. You’ll be fine.”

“We’re not going to go too fast, right?”

“Aye, lass,” he smiled, patting her hands that were clenched about his middle. “We’ll go slowly, have no fear.”

Nodding her head and trying valiantly to quell the trembling in her body that being on the seemingly mountain-sized horse had sparked in her, Kaleah glanced back and was greeted by the sparkling eyes of her companion, who was trying hard not to laugh at her expression.

“So . . .” Sir Richard turned the small retinue of men that formed the search party back towards the castle, “what compelled you two to end up in the storm like this?” He glanced at Miles, who rode beside his daughter. “I’m afraid Sir Miles was a little vague.”

Jessica grinned at the old knight, knowing he could always be relied on to keep her secrets. He’d never betrayed her confidence, not since she’d been a child and he caught her stealing cookies from the kitchen. “We had something to do,” she said, telling him the story she had formulated about Kaleah’s concern for her friend in the woods.

“Oh, aye?” Sir Richard raised an eyebrow at his daughter. “I trust they were alright?”

“Fine,” Jess smiled, seeing from his expression that he didn’t believe a word of her story. “Everything was fine. We were on our way back to Da’Gran when we were forced to take shelter in the caves. Lucky we came prepared or it might have been worse.” She looked at Kaleah, reminding her how completely unprepared she’d been for the savageness of the storm.

“Aye, well . . . if you’re smart you’ll think twice before going off like this again,” Sir Richard grumbled. “I don’t want to be pulling your neck out of any more nooses you tie yourself . . . you’re getting too old to be needing my help so much.”

Jessica settled down and gave her best impression of a meek and obedient daughter. “Yes father.” Glancing at Sir Miles out of the corner of her eye, she saw him trying to restrain his laughter at her dutiful tones. She scowled at him playfully, then patted Andromeda. “I doubt we’ll be needing you to rescue us any more . . . right Kaleah?”

Kaleah, who was holding on for dear life and concentrating on not noticing how much she hated her position, could only nod her head. She’d be damned if she’d ever test the fury of a winter storm again — even her formidable will was no match against it’s power.
Chapter 5

They spent the rest of the day in Jessica’s room, lying contentedly on her enormous bed and eating from a huge platter of food the servants brought them. Both had bathed and changed clothes, Jessica procuring a pair of trousers and a simple shirt and vest from the soldier’s barracks for her dark companion. The outfit was masculine and not particularly extravagant, but Kaleah insisted she preferred it to the dresses Jessica had offered to find; dresses she noticed the young woman didn’t seem too fond of herself.

Jessica’s bedroom was quite a bit larger than Kaleah’s, and was filled with rugs and tapestries, pieces of armor and various weapons, couches and cushions and tables and chairs. There were strategic maps of battle plans laid out next to glass vials of perfume, and neatly folded, elegant dresses sitting beside rumpled and torn peasant rags. Looking at the whole chaotic arrangement, Kaleah thought the room seemed almost at odds with itself, unable to decide if it belonged to a hard-as-nails warrior or a soft-and-sweet noble maiden.

It was, she decided, a good reflection of the woman who owned it.

The far wall was dominated by a huge granite fireplace framed by magnificently carved angels, each holding a double-edged sword pointing towards the ground. The room was lit now by the fire that had been laid within it, as well as the light of many mounted sconces. When Kaleah breathed in deeply, she could detect the perfume of vanilla and something her mind identified as being her young companion’s own particular scent; a musky combination of sweat and youth that was almost intoxicating.

Jessica did most of the talking, rattling off a few of the stories she’d read in her precious books, munching on the cheese, bread and meat that lay between them. For her part, Kaleah was content to just lie back and listen to the soothing tones of the young woman’s lilting voice, reflecting how nice this was after their ordeal.

Jessica finished the story she was telling and glanced at her companion. “Kaleah?”

“Hmmm?”

“I was wondering. . ?”

“Yeah?” Blue eyes opened her and regarded her lazily.

“Would you like to learn to ride?”

“Ride?” The dark woman sat up, curious. “You mean ride a horse?”

“Sure. I could teach you if you’d like.”

Kaleah thought about it. “I don’t know . . .” She wasn’t sure she could handle one of the beautiful, noble creatures, yet at the same time was envious of the ease and grace with which Jessica rode Andromeda.

“It’d be a good skill to pick up,” Jessica went on. “You could go wherever you wanted to go outside the castle. We could even go on rides together, you know. Into the forests and stuff.”

Kaleah smiled at that, quite liking the idea of being out in the wilderness with the young woman. Maybe it would be good.

“I guess,” she allowed.

“Great!” Jessica bounced up and down on the bed gleefully. “We can start whenever you want to . . . maybe tomorrow?”

“Sure, sounds good.” She regarded the cheerful blonde seriously. “Do you still want to teach me to fight?”

Jessica saw her expression and calmed herself. “Only if you want to learn,” she said quietly. “I’m really sorry about Sir Miles . . . he was only trying to help-”

“That’s okay,” Kaleah interrupted. “What he said . . . about me controlling myself. He was right.”

Jessica raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Kaleah nodded. “I seem to have kind of a short fuse,” she admitted softly. “When things go wrong, I loose my temper and lash out.”

Jessica had noticed that about her new friend. She’d seen how Kaleah fought against the knight back in the bandit camp, had been impressed by her controlled, considered actions which downed the armored, skilled warrior without him coming close to even touching her. But while the older woman had started out controlled when they’d fought each other in the clearing, she had lost her patience as the duel went on and saw she was going to loose. And her fight against Sir Miles . . . well, she hadn’t even tried to keep her cool, lashing out viciously, her intent to kill stemming from her frustrations and feelings of powerlessness.

“I can understand that,” Jess said, wanting to be compassionate. “And you’ve always been like that? Even before, when you
were . . ?” Jessica let the sentence hang.

The dark haired woman shrugged. “Sometimes, yes, even when I was a slave — at least for a while.” She smiled sadly. “It was something that got me into very bad trouble a few times, but I learned to deal with it. With freedom, it apparently came back. So Miles was right . . . I do have a lot to learn.”

“I’m sure he’d be happy to continue the lessons if you’d like-”

Kaleah shook her head. “Not just now,” she said quietly. “Would it be okay if . . . if just the two of us practiced together? Alone?”

Jessica grinned, her eyes dancing. This was more than she’d hoped for from the dark woman. “Of course,” she said enthusiastically. “I’d love that.”

Kaleah smiled herself, glad that her request had been so well received. “We could do some archery too, if you like?”

“Archery?” Jessica frowned. “I doubt I could teach you much about using a bow,” she admitted easily. “Never really was my strong suite, if you know what I mean. I focused on the sword and knife.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh.”

Kaleah allowed her smile to turn into a rakish grin. “Well, maybe if you like I could give you a few lessons, huh?”

Jessica returned the grin with one of her own, reaching out and grabbing another slice of ham from the platter that lay between them. “That’d be nice,” she said, lying back and looking up at the ceiling, which had been painted by skilled artisans into a now long-familiar scene of some religious event she’d never found out the story behind. She sighed happily, feeling her companion shift as she too lay back to regard the mural. “See,” she said. “This isn’t so bad, is it?”

“I guess not,” Kaleah allowed. She could feel herself quickly growing to like Jessica more and more now that she allowed herself to listen to her heart instead of her mind. It was a pleasant warmth that seeped into her blood and left her feeling relaxed and happy for the first time in a lifetime. “If I have to put up with someone’s company . . . you’re not such a bad choice.”

Jessica laughed and slapped her playfully on the shoulder. “You just wait till you get to know me,” she threatened with a chuckle, waving the meat around in the air. “I’ll wager there are soldiers in the barracks right now placing bets on how long it takes me to get us both in more trouble than we can handle.”

“Oh? You seem harmless enough to me.”

Jessica chewed on the ham and giggled. “This from the woman still bruised from our last encounter.”

“Maybe I was having an off day,” Kaleah growled, rubbing the still-tender marks on her forehead and face.

“Maybe.”

They lapsed into silence for a moment, just enjoying the company and the filling meal after a night of hardship. Kaleah particularly enjoyed the various tastes her palette had never sampled as a slave, and she hummed as she bit into a piece of sweetmeat with relish.

“So,” Jessica broke the silence and looked over at her dark haired friend. “You want to start tomorrow?”

Kaleah nodded, licking her fingers happily and not seeing the look that passed across Jessica’s face as she watched the unintentionally sensuous actions before dragging her eyes away, blushing furiously. “Provided the weather’s okay, sure.”

“Great.” Jessica steadied her suddenly racing heart-beat and closed her eyes. What is going on with me? she wondered. She knew about women who preferred the company of other women rather than men. She had even admitted privately that she found the idea rather intriguing . . . especially when she considered the fact that her wedding night — if it ever came about — wasn’t going to go as tradition might desire. But still, she had only known Kaleah a few days, and her mind seemed to constantly meander onto these strange, enticing pathways. Frankly, it was getting a little annoying.

Sure, the woman was spectacularly beautiful, and sure there was probably no harm in just looking; but the sermons Jessica had listened to since she was a little girl made it clear that any physical relationship between people of the same gender was a sin. Of course, Jessica had never really listened to these type of sermons — they seemed to say that God punished some kinds of love just because of a few physical differences. The line between right and wrong seemed awful blurry. So it wasn’t for the sake of her faith that she was worried by these thoughts . . . thoughts she’d had for a while now, but which had suddenly found a focus of attention. It was the fact that she wanted to be Kaleah’s friend. And just because she was trying to be friendly to the dark woman didn’t mean she wanted to be that friendly!

But still, the images of Kaleah that ran through Jessica’s mind even now continued to do everything they could to fan the flames that raced through her young body.

“Great,” she repeated, smiling at Kaleah to cover her nervousness. “Tomorrow it is then.”
Ho, boy! Jessica groaned silently. This friendship might be harder than I thought.

*****************************

“No . . . come in low and then twist round to the right so you aim for the neck, like this, see?” Jessica went through the motions slowly, demonstrating the rather advanced attack routine for her attentive sparring partner. “You got it?”

“Sure.”

They squared off and Kaleah attacked as instructed, hitting Jessica’s defense and then spinning around to strike high. She went slowly, getting a feel for the pattern, and was pleased when it went as intended.

“Excellent!” Jessica applauded. “You’ve got it perfectly.”

Kaleah grinned at the praise. “Again?”

Jessica nodded and they continued the routine, making it familiar and testing it in combination with other patterns, some of which they had developed just between the two of them, finding what suited their particular styles of fighting.

It had been over a week, nearly two, since their return from the storm, and both women were pleased to find their friendship had grown stronger as time went by. Now that Kaleah no longer saw herself as a helpless captive, she allowed herself to enjoy the castle and it’s comforts. Jessica enjoyed playing host to the dark woman, showing her more of the great fortress and making sure she felt at home.

During the day, they practiced fighting or riding, sometimes reading or just watching the soldiers train . . . though Kaleah had not yet started instructing her young friend on the use of the bow. From time to time, Sir Miles would come by and watch them spar, though the elder knight seemed content to wait for them to ask for his suggestions or invite his participation.

Sometimes, they would sit in Jessica’s room and play chess for hours. Kaleah had proven to be a quick study of the game, learning its intricacies with ease. Jessica recognized the sharp mind and keen intellect behind her friend’s intense blue eyes, and knew she had been right about Kaleah being a smart woman. But more than simple intelligence, the former slave seemed to possess an innate understanding of all manner of things; she played chess using complex strategies that left even Jessica baffled. She noticed minor things that others would miss. And she learned new fighting moves so quickly it was like she’d been born with a sword in her hand.

The dark woman adjusted well to castle life. Usually restless and filled with an animal energy, Kaleah was surprised to find that she didn’t feel trapped in her new home anymore. And although she had always preferred solitude after her release from slavery, Kaleah found herself feeling lonely whenever Jessica was not by her side. The young woman was lively and spirited; the people loved her and she gave of herself willingly . . . mostly to Kaleah herself. Though hesitant about trusting her undeveloped social abilities, Kaleah found that she was quite capable of enjoying spending her time with the vibrant blonde.

Kaleah also spent much of her time in the castle’s smithy. Jessica had introduced her to Sutton, the master smith, a short man with the unusually muscular arms of those who worked with forge fires all day, lifting the heavy hammers to pound out the red-hot metal into it’s desired shape. Although Sutton was an expert at his craft, Kaleah had learned weapon-smithing techniques from a man who’d spent his entire life perfecting one specific field of metal working; the art of forging swords. While Sutton may have been talented in all areas, De’Livier had been an artist, and Kaleah an attentive pupil. The dark woman made sure to spend a few hours whenever she could with the smith, showing him a few of the advanced techniques she had learned. Amazed to find so skilled a tutor, Sutton was only too happy to absorb all he could.

Of course, at times Kaleah still felt the need to distance herself from the other inhabitants of the castle. There were times when the constant presence of people around her raised the dark and ugly memories from her past. During these times, she generally sought out the heights of the lookout parapet. Far above even the castle walls, Kaleah would sit in her lofty perch and look out onto the surrounding land, enjoying the peace and freedom that such height afforded her. Sometimes at night, she could look out to the north and see the lights of the village that lay just a few short miles from the castle; close enough that the peasants could seek sanctuary within the great fortress should an enemy attack, yet far enough away to retain their autonomy and space.

When Kaleah asked Jessica about the village, the young woman explained that she’d never really been there that often — just when passing through on the way to somewhere else. She knew there were a few dozen families in the village . . . a few hundred people in all, mostly workers and farmers. Beyond that, her only contact with the peasants was when they journeyed to Da’Gran in the quest for justice.

Kaleah had learned from Jessica that every Saturday, Sir Richard, as reigning lord of a large area of land called a ‘vassal,’ held court within his audience hall. Any and all who dwelt on the lands under his protection could come and petition him for aid in whatever problems they were having. Sometimes, they asked for protection from roving packs of bandits like the one Kaleah had been with when she’d been taken. Sometimes they asked for Sir Richard’s judgement on a dispute or when a crime had been committed. And sometimes they came seeking the help of the lord knight and his soldiers for such things as the training of men for a militia, or the building of a protecting wall for their village. Jessica had informed Kaleah that her father ruled over some seven fair-sized villages . . . all in the name of the King of England, of course.

The day following this judgment, Sunday, was a traditional day of rest and observance of religious activities. Born in a land far distant and then abducted as a child by Godless slavers, Kaleah knew little and cared less for such matters. She had rarely prayed to or thanked any God for the life that had been thrust upon her — such deities rarely listened to her words. She was a little surprised when Jessica informed her that she did believe in God, and spent a few hours every Sunday thanking him for his bounty, and asking for continued good health and fortune for herself, her family and the common people everywhere.

The practical side of Sunday, as far as Kaleah was concerned, was that no work was permitted during this time. This meant a day of relaxation and enjoying the company of her young friend.

Jessica taught Kaleah to read more than she had ever known before, and they spent a bit of time looking through the books of history and lore of England and the nearby lands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. From her reading, Kaleah gained a greater understanding about exactly what Sir Richard did in his service to the King. She learned about the way the land was divided among the noble lords, barons and earls who, in exchange for the lands and power they were given, were expected to maintain the lives of the common peasants and also provide soldiers for the seemingly constant string of wars this land fought. These caretaker’s were generally free to fight amongst themselves as they saw fit, feuding and allying back and forth, occasionally launching serious assaults, but rarely actually gaining any tremendous degree of power. As long as the lands were safe and his armies supplied, the King seemed content to look the other way.

Thinking now as she continued to fence almost playfully with Jessica, Kaleah identified that today was Thursday. The thought brought a frown to her face. Thursday nights Jessica was expected to attend dinner with her family, the leading knights and the captain of the guards in the audience hall. That meant Kaleah would be alone tonight, which instantly made her feel depressed. She enjoyed eating her meals with Jessica, relaxing in the young girl’s company where she felt safe and protected. She hated Thursday nights.

Seeing her partner’s concentration wavering, Jessica pulled back. “What’s wrong?”

Kaleah shook her head. “Nothing,” she replied, trying to think of something fun to do to revive her spirits. “Hey, you want to head over to the archery field? You’ve been putting me off long enough, I think.”

Jessica smiled and wiped sweat from her brow. “I guess so,” she agreed cheerfully, sheathing her rapier. “But I warn you, I’m not very good.”

Kaleah dusted herself off and returned her own weapon to the scabbard at her side. “Don’t worry. I’ll show you what to do.”

“Hey there, young lady!” called a deep voice from the wall of the inner keep. Looking up, the two fencing partners saw Sir Richard leaning against a stone pillar, watching them.

“Hello, father,” Jessica called, waving.

Kaleah, remembering she was a commoner in the presence of nobility, effected a graceful curtsey with deep sincerity. In the last week, she had grown to rather like the lord knight, who treated her respectfully and with an almost fatherly sense of familiarity that Jessica found particularly entertaining.

“Good morning, Milord,” she said.

Sir Richard waved her gesture away as he walked down the flight of steps that led to the courtyard from the wall. His sharp eyes took in their sweaty faces and the disheveled looks earned from over an hour of practice.

“I’ve been watching you girls all morning,” he said, fixing his gaze on Kaleah. “I must say, young lady, you’re every bit as formidable as my daughter led me to believe.”

“Thank you, Milord.” Kaleah felt herself flush with the praise. It meant almost as much to her as Jessica’s words of encouragement.

“Aye . . . aye.” Sir Richard seemed to think for a moment, before he continued. “You’re from a Spanish school of training, aren’t you?”

Kaleah was a little taken aback. “Y-yes, milord. My former master was a teacher in the fencing academy for a time. He trained me.”

“Aye, I recognized your style.” He eyed her thoughtfully, taking in her fine armor, confidant stance, and finally the beautiful Spanish blade hung comfortably below the line of her hips.

“She’s a quick learner, father,” Jessica jumped in, happy to talk with her father about her friend. “A natural fighter. She’ll surpass my skill before the year is out.”

Sir Richard raised an eyebrow at this. “Oh, will she?” he asked, noticing the excitement in his daughter’s expression. “Well, I trust you won’t make it easy for her, will you?”

Jessica laughed. Kaleah could only blush at this praise. She knew she had a long way to go before she was in the same league as her younger friend. “I believe your daughter flatters me overmuch, Milord,” she smiled.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” he mused, rubbing his bearded chin in consideration. “I watched you just now; you could go a long way.”

Sir Richard was a sharp man, and he was proud of the fine young woman his daughter was growing into. In the last few years, however, he had seen Jessica grow more and more desperate for someone to talk to besides the soldiers and knights. She wanted — needed — a friend, so Richard had granted her request for custody of the dark-haired foreigner.

At first, things had seemed to go poorly. While Miles would not comment on the incident that occurred during their first training session, the lord knight picked up bits and pieces from other soldiers who had witnessed the fight. He had suspected dire things when his old friend came to him and told him of Jessica’s flight into the deadly storm, but had trusted his daughter to be smart enough to get through the night in one piece. He had expected the tall, scarred woman to be gone by the morning, but had seen immediately that the two young women had apparently sorted things out between themselves.

Now, Sir Richard could see for himself that he had made the right decision. Jessica and the barbarian woman sparred with a cheerful, almost playful comraderie, their styles different but somehow complementary. His wife had argued long and hard against allowing Jessica anywhere near this ‘heathen savage’, but Sir Richard was pleased to see his beloved daughter so happy with her new friend.

That in mind now, he decided it was time to get to know this ‘Kaleah’ a little better . . . if for no other reason than the fact his interest seemed to please his emerald-eyed child.

“Anyway, that’s not the reason I came out here. Jessica, tonight’s our dinner night . . .” He smiled at her muffled look of dismay. “Come now,” he said gruffly. “We hardly see you anymore at meals. Don’t deny your father one night a week of your company.”

“I know,” she said softly, looking at her feet. “It’s just . . . Mother makes things difficult.” Lady Rose was pushing about the damned marriage again.

“I understand,” Sir Richard patted his daughter’s shoulder, knowing she’d been scrambling for another plausible excuse to delay her wedding . . . again. “But I was wondering if tonight maybe you might like to invite your friend here to join us.” He indicated Kaleah, smiling at the shocked look on her face. “I’m sure she’d be a welcome addition to the table.”

Jessica stared at her father in disbelief, wondering if she’d heard right. “You want Kaleah to come to dinner?”

“Certainly.” He raised an eyebrow at the dark woman. “What do you say, young lady?”

Kaleah could only nod dumbly, she was so shocked. “Of course, Milord. I would be honored.”

“Good then. It’s settled.” He clapped his hands together in satisfaction and smiled at the two stunned women. “Should be an interesting night, eh, Jess?” He winked at his daughter, then turned and ambled away back up the stairs and into the keep.

Jessica and Kaleah just stared at each other. Seeing their own look of shock reflected in the others face, they burst out laughing — something Kaleah had found herself doing a lot more of lately.

Calming herself, Jessica could only shake her head. “I believe we were discussing a trip to the archery range?”

Kaleah wiped a tear from her eye and nodded. “That we were,” she agreed. They started off again. “Are you okay with me coming tonight?” she asked, not wanting to intrude on Jessica’s time with her family.

The blonde looked at her in disbelief. “Are you kidding? It’ll be great! I could use another friend at that table.”

Kaleah grinned, happy. “I think you overdid things a little there . . . saying I’d be as good as you within the year.”

“I was perfectly serious,” Jessica said firmly.

“You were?”

“Of course.” She looked the taller woman up and down. “I’ve trained as a fighter my whole life to be as good as I am, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“How long have you been training?”

Kaleah considered for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know . . . maybe a year, give or take a few months.”

“There you go.” Jessica grinned and patted her on the arm. “In a year, you’ve learned enough that you could lay a blade on me in a serious fight.” She held up her arm, where the stitches had been removed from the wound and the scar showed to be healing nicely. “You’re a natural fighter, Kaleah. You have a talent for this stuff I don’t. Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone learn as fast as you are — it’s kinda spooky how quick you pick up new moves.”

Kaleah frowned, her dark brows contracting thoughtfully. “You really think that?”

Jessica threw her hands up. “God, you don’t take praise very well, do you?” She laughed as her companion blushed. “Yes, I really think so. I’ve learned to fight since I was a little girl because I had more of my father’s blood in me than my mother’s. But it doesn’t come naturally to me like it does for you. Trust me, in a year, you’ll be more than my equal.”

“So . . .” Kaleah’s brow wrinkled in thought, “your father saw how good I am, and now he’s a little more interested in me, is that it?”

“I suppose so.” Jessica considered a moment, then continued. “That wasn’t why he offered the invitation, though.”

“It wasn’t?”

“Uh uh.” She locked her eyes with her companions. “He was accepting that you and I are friends,” she said. “He was letting me know that he approves of us spending so much time together . . . and that he likes you.”

“He was?” With a simple dinner invitation?

“Sure. You see,” she explained, “I usually spend most of my time alone, or training with the soldiers. But we’ve been spending a lot of time together the past week or so, and that’s unusual. People have probably been wondering who you are and why you’re suddenly a guest in the castle ever since you got here.”

Kaleah was confused. “Why don’t they just ask?”

“Because it’s not their place to ask questions,” Jess said patiently. “I’m nobility, and they’re just commoners.” From her tone, it was clear Jess thought little of this notion. “My father invited you to dinner because he wants to show my mother and the important people in the castle that you’re not just here as a servant, you’re here as my companion.” She paused, considering. “And he’s probably doing it also because he figures it’ll make him more popular with me,” she grinned. “And he’s right.”

“What do you mean?”

Jessica patted her on the shoulder. “He figures I’ll appreciate it if he makes an effort to get to know you . . . to be kind to you.”

“Your father’s already nice to me, Jessica.”

“I know that, but that’s just because he’s nice to almost everyone. This is his way of accepting you as a part of my life.” She continued on a few steps before she realized Kaleah wasn’t following. Puzzled, she stopped and turned around. “What’s wrong?”

Kaleah’s expression was shy and vulnerable, her sapphire eyes startlingly open as they peered out from under dark bangs. “Do you mean that?” she asked softly.

“Do I mean what?”

Kaleah hesitated, seeing her companion’s brow crinkle in confusion. “Th-that I’m a part of your life?”

Jessica watched the instant of fear in Kaleah’s sapphire eyes, and for a moment she was filled with rage at the people who had put such fear into this woman. People who had made Kaleah hesitate every time she reached out to accept something offered to her, for fear it would be snatched away. Made her flinch whenever someone reached out to touch her. And in an instant of insight, Jess realized that this fear would always be a part of Kaleah. It was permanent. No matter how much kindness she showed her friend, no matter how often she told her she cared, a part of Kaleah would always be waiting — expecting — this friendship to be taken away.

For that moment, Jessica felt her hatred for the slavers flare, and she knew there was nothing she could do except try to make Kaleah understand that, though the past could never be erased or forgotten, it couldn’t hurt her anymore. So she smiled and nodded, reaching out and squeezing the dark woman’s arm. “You’re a very important part of my life now, Kaleah,” she said sincerely. “A part that means a great deal to me. I mean that.”

Kaleah nodded, relishing the physical contact that would have caused her to shy away just a week ago. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Jessica squeezed Kaleah’s arm then released her. “Come on,” she said, smiling again to relieve the seriousness of the moment. “We have an archery range to get too.”

Grinning and happy once more, the two young women headed off once more towards their appointment with a bow and a quiver of arrows.

******************************

Tired and aching after their practice at the archery field, the two women headed back to Jessica’s room to prepare for the dinner just as the sun began to disappear over the distant horizon. The day had turned out to be quite pleasant for them both, with Jessica enjoying the lessons more than she should have; Kaleah had found it necessary to mould their bodies together as she demonstrated correct form and stance to the young blonde. Jessica found the delicious contact highly distracting, unable to prevent herself from taking guilty pleasure in the feeling of Kaleah’s body pressed tightly against her own.

Beyond that, Jessica’s shoulders, arms and back were now stiff and sore from the unusual exercise, and she stretched herself as she and her companion entered her room, shutting the door behind them.

“Uhgh . . .” She groaned, rolling her neck from side to side, trying to ease the tension. “I’m not looking forward to tomorrow.”

“Oh?” Kaleah just grinned at her happily. “A few hours of archery and you’re ready to quit already? Some tough warrior maiden you are.”

Jessica laughed and threw a cushion at her playfully. “See if I ever agree to another lesson like that,” she threatened under her breath, knowing full well her friend would hear her. She’d noticed Kaleah had remarkable hearing.

“What was wrong with my lesson?” asked the dark woman, seating herself on the enormous bed. “I think I did quite well, considering what I had to work with.”

“Hmph!” Jess frowned and pretended to grumble as she began sorting through her wardrobe for something presentable to wear to the dinner. From the corner of her eye, however, she watched her new friend and had to grin, feeling a bubble of happiness stir deep inside.

Over the past week, Kaleah had started to shed a lot of her stiff and stony shell as she allowed herself to enjoy life more and more. At times, she could actually be quite playful and cheeky. Their conversations still tended to be rather one sided, but Kaleah was starting to say more. She still didn’t laugh very much, and when she did she tended to hide her face behind her long dark hair, but it was a good start. They were comfortable together, and the friendship that had taken root in the harsh chill of the storm was now strong — and growing stronger every day. This dinner would be an interesting step for them both, Jessica knew. It would show Kaleah more of what her life was like, and would also demonstrate to her family that the dark-haired woman was here to stay.

“It would have been nice to get a bath in,” she commented, smelling her armpit and wrinkling her nose a little. She grabbed a bottle of French purfume from the dresser and used it to cover the smell of sweat that clung to her body, then handed it to Kaleah.

Kaleah watched the young blonde a little nervously as she selected a long, beautiful green dress and held it against her body thoughtfully. “Wh-what should I wear?” she asked shyly, looking at her muddy, sweat-stained clothes.

Jessica glanced at her and saw the look on her face. “Well . . . I doubt you’ll fit into anything I have. I could go borrow a dress from one of the servants, if you’d like.”

Kaleah eyed the rich garment the blonde held and shook her head. “I don’t like dresses,” she said softly. Dark images rose from the depths of her mind from the days of her slavery, and she shuddered. “I’d prefer to wear trousers and a shirt, if I could. I don’t suppose I could just wear my armor . . ?”

Jessica shook her head. “It’s a formal dinner. But I guess if you don’t want to wear a dress, you could just change into another outfit like what you’re wearing now.”

“These are men’s clothes,” Kaleah pointed out. “From what you’ve told me of your mother, I doubt she’ll like me wearing them.”

Jessica shrugged and started stripping out of her sweaty armor, turning away from Kaleah, who blushed a little and found something interesting on the wall to study intently. “My mother won’t like you no matter what you wear,” Jess said, her voice noticeably frosty. “If you wore a fancy dress, she’d say you were trying to act above your station in life. If you wore a smelly deerskin, she’d say you were just as barbaric as she thought you were, and should be sent outside to be with the animals.” She started to struggle into the folds of the dress. “Wear whatever you’re comfortable with. No-one will mind.”

Kaleah frowned and played with the covers of the bed idly as she waited for Jessica to finish getting dressed. “Will everyone feel the same as your mother?” she asked tentatively. She was used to being mistreated, ignored and abused, but outright hatred for no reason was something she had rarely experienced.

“Not everyone,” Jessica assured her, reaching back and trying unsuccessfully to tie the laces at the back of the dress. “Could you help me with this?”

Kaleah glanced up and saw her problem. “Sure.” She got up and started to tighten the cord with deft, sure fingers. “It sounds like you and your father are the only ones who want me at this dinner.”

Jessica swept her hair over her shoulder and held it out of the way. “My mother and brother won’t like you,” she said, “but Sir Miles thinks you’re okay.”

“He does?” She finished lacing the cord, and tied it off with a simple bow. “Even after I . . .”

“Tried to take his head off?” Jessica turned around and face her taller friend, smiling. “He understands you were angry and frustrated. Believe me, I’ve done the same thing once or twice myself.” She thought for a moment. “The captain of the castle guard probably won’t care one way or the other about you; in fact, he’ll probably be pleased you’re keeping me out of mischief. He doesn’t like me all that much — thinks I’m too good a fighter for a woman. I think Eric Grace, my father’s advisor, thinks you’re quite a good thing for me. His apprentice will be there, too. His name’s Senigma, and he’s a rather quiet sort. Very polite. He’s about your age, though, so he’ll probably be happy to have another pretty face to look at for the night.”

Kaleah flushed and lowered her face to hide it. “What about the others?”

Jessica thought. “There’ll be a few of the veteran knights there,” she said, “and Father Grahem the minister, who’ll either think it’s great that we’re doing our Godly duty to help the foreign heathen, or else will want you banished from the castle forever. I’d bet on the first one, though.” She put her hands on Kaleah’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes seriously. “I’ll be there,” she said softly. “The people who won’t like you will be the same people who don’t like me. Just ignore them . . . they’re no better than you are, no matter what they think or say.”

“You really think so?” Kaleah asked shyly.

“I thought so the first moment I laid eyes on you,” Jessica whispered. “You’re someone special, Kaleah. Even if you don’t believe it, you’re something worth more than all of them combined.” She smiled and patted the dark woman. “Go get changed,” she nodded to the door that led to Kaleah’s room. “I’ll wait here till you’re ready, then we’ll go.”

Kaleah smiled and nodded. Just as she reached the door, though, she turned around. “Jessica?”

“Hmmm?” The blonde head looked up from a critical self-appraisal.

“Thank you.”

Jessica smiled radiantly, an expression that shot straight to Kaleah’s heart and spread a slow burn through the rest of her body. “You’re welcome,” the blonde said softly. “Now hurry up or we’ll be late.”

Smiling, feeling better about herself and the coming dinner than she had before, Kaleah opened the door and went to get changed . . . wishing as she did so that they hadn’t spent quite so long at the archery range. Jessica was certainly right about that, she grinned to herself.

A bath was, indeed, requisite.

***************************

Kaleah had been to the audience hall before with Jessica, but never like this. She tried to quell the butterflies that started fluttering in her stomach, swallowing nervously. The restless energy that marked so many of her more irrational tendencies started to simmer.

Jessica noticed her jumpiness and reached out to squeeze her hand. “Relax,” she whispered as the doors were swung open by the ever-present guards. “Just hold your head up and act like you own the place. Remember, if you look confidant and in control, they’ll be put off balance. You’re better than they are. Just keep thinking that and you’ll do fine.”

Kaleah nodded and straightened her posture according Jessica’s instructions. She let a mask of confidence fall over her face, adding a slight smile she thought would make her appear haughty and amused by the proceedings. Her muscles tensed and she let her inner strength and power radiate from her — something she had learnt not to do as a slave.

Inside the great hall, the huge oak table was laden with platters of food: roast boar, venison, and pheasant, along with fruits, breads and cheeses of every shape and variety that Kaleah could imagine . . . and several that she was sure she could not have. A group of musicians were gathered in one corner of the room, playing a soft but cheerful melody, and hunting dogs lounged about under and around the table, waiting to clean up any scrapes that might fall to the ground. The rest of the people had already assembled, and they rose to their feet as the two young women entered, most bowing slightly to Jessica.

A servant pulled out their seats, and they took their places at the table. It was strange to be on the receiving end of such service, and remembering her roots, Kaleah made certain to smile and offer her thanks to the servants. She was grateful to find herself seated with her friend at her right hand side, and a young man about her age on the left whom she assumed was Senigma. She nodded to him slightly and he smiled.

“Nice of you to join us, Jessica,” Sir Richard said from his place at the head of the table. “Perhaps next time you could drag yourself away from your training a little earlier so as to arrive at the same time as everyone else?”

Jessica just beamed a crooked smile at her father and nodded agreeably. “Certainly father. I apologize.”

Kaleah had to concentrate hard not to let her mouth hang open in surprise; her friend’s voice had changed completely! Where before there had been the lilting accent she had heard among many of the soldiers, now there were the cultured and demure tones of a true noble maiden. She should have known it was odd the way Jessica spoke in such a common manner, but in truth, had never really thought about it.

Glancing to the head of the table, Kaleah found she was being studied by a woman sitting to Sir Richard’s right. The woman looked familiar, and she realized this must be Jessica’s mother – the Lady Rose Da’Gran.

The woman was taller than Jessica, with blonde hair that looked much redder than her daughter’s. Her features were classic and beautiful, even though she looked to be near her fortieth year. Her eyes, Kaleah could see, were green, but not the same vibrant green of wet emeralds that Jessica’s were, but rather a dull and lack-luster green that didn’t seem likely to sparkle or shine. Her expression as she studied Kaleah was one of haughty disdain. Kaleah, refusing to back down and repeating over and over in her head the words, They’re not better than you. They’re not better than you, returned the look with one of her own.

She broke away from Lady Rose’s glare when a plate was placed in front of her, already laden with food. She smiled a thanks to the servant, then, seeing that everyone else had already started eating, picked up the knife and fork that came with her meal and somewhat clumsily cut into a succulent looking side of venison. These people were obviously accustomed to using the cutlery, which Jessica informed her were a recent addition that had come into use in the courts of France.

As she ate, Kaleah listened to the conversations going on around her. True to her breeding, Jessica was acting the part of interested listener to the man seated at her right, who, Kaleah decided, must be the castle’s minister. The conversation seemed to be about her, she realized, hearing the man mention that Jessica was doing a “truly noble and generous thing, taking in a savage heathen like her (a general gesture). . . an act befitting one of true faith and sure to be looked on with favor by the Almighty.” Jessica, for her part, was smiling and agreeing with the man. For a moment, she turned to glance at the “heathen” in question, and Kaleah saw her wink slightly, grinning cheekily. Kaleah grinned a little herself, before returning to her meal.

The former slave could feel many sets of eyes watching her with intense curiosity, like she was some rare and possibly dangerous animal, brought here this evening as an entertaining spectacle. Some eyed her with outright hostility — Jessica’s mother and the young man she assumed was her friend’s younger brother being chief among the enemy ranks. Sir Richard, who was talking with Sir Miles on his left, occasionally glanced her way and nodded with a friendly smile, but he was too far from her to initiate much small talk.

Reaching for her cup, Kaleah took a long sip to settle her nerves, pleased to find it was filled with nothing more potent than cold water. As she set it back down, she saw her hands were shaking slightly. She could feel the nervous energy building under the scrutiny of these people. Kaleah had never liked crowds, never liked the feeling of being judged. A life in slavery had taught her the value of being inconspicuous — being seen and discarded from thought quickly was better than being singled out. The sudden familiar need to escape twisted her guts. Her throat started to tighten up, her muscles tensed for action.

Then a hand reached out and rested reassuringly on her knee, squeezing gently. Looking to her right, Kaleah locked eyes momentarily with Jessica. Her young friend had clearly sensed the panic rising, and reached out to comfort her. The soft, understanding expression in those wet emeralds held a quiet sense of compassion that instantly settled Kaleah’s nerves. It only lasted a moment before Jessica turned back to her conversation with the holy-man, but her hand remained on the dark woman’s knee, soothing her.

Kaleah closed her eyes, blocking out the rest of the world, and concentrated on the comfort she found in the touch of her friend. Taking several deep breaths to steady herself, the former slave patted Jessica’s hand to indicate she was alright now. The hand gave a final squeeze, then retreated.

Calm once more, Kaleah looked about and found the young man to her left smiling at her slightly, his eyes interested and friendly.

The young man . . . what was his name? Senigma? Yes, that was it . . . leaned closer in conspiracy. “Like watching a pack of hungry lions, isn’t it?” he whispered to her, nodding towards the other guests who were still appraising the dark stranger at their table.

Kaleah nodded, casting her eyes over to the head of the table where Lady Rose continued to eye both her and Jessica with malice. “I get the feeling I’m not the most popular person at the table,” she replied softly, aware for the first time in a long time how her own accent separated her from other people in this land, marked her as different.

Senigma smiled, and Kaleah took a more detailed inspection of him. He was slender for a man, with a pale look that identified him as more a scholar than a fighter. His features were a little too narrow and foxish to be considered truly handsome, but he was not unattractive. He had a refined air about him, and a rather stiff and formal way of moving, as though he considered every action carefully before committing himself to it. His voice was the same, clipped but smooth, every word carefully enunciated and clear. His eyes were light hazel, and carried a calculating intelligence that told Kaleah instantly he was wiser than his years would indicate.

“You’re Kaleah, aren’t you?” Senigma had performed his own brief scrutiny, and was now smiling a little wider.

She nodded.

“I’ve seen you about the castle with Jessica,” he said, looking her up and down swiftly. “I must say, you’re not half the demon that some have made you out to be.”

Kaleah couldn’t help but grin mischievously. “Just wait till you get to know me.”

Senigma rested his fork on the table and held out his hand in greeting. “I’m Senigma Wright,” he said as they shook hands. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“You’re the apprentice to Sir Richard’s adviser, aren’t you?”

Senigma lowered his head in modest confirmation. “Apprentice adviser, alchemist and occasional healer . . . in a clinch,” he said. “Though my main interest is more in the alchemy side of study. I still like to have a clear understanding of law and politics . . . one never knows when such knowledge might come in handy.”

“Right.” Kaleah, who had no interest in any such things just agreed to be friendly. No point alienating someone who was being nice to her, she thought.

“You’re Jessica’s . . . guest, are you not?” Senigma inquired pleasantly.

“Something like that.”

He smiled and nodded a little in understanding. “She’s quite a remarkable young woman,” he said, glancing past Kaleah to where Jessica was still engaged in listening to the minister. “Frankly,” he leaned forward even closer, his tone dropping to a more conspiratorial whisper, “she’d make the better successor to her father . . . her brother, Steven, is a less than useless fop.” They glanced as one over to where the young man sat eating his meal delicately, with practiced poise. “It’s a shame Sir Richard cannot name her as his heir, but she holds no rights to such a claim, being a woman. Her skills count for little in the eyes of this system.” He frowned, considering. “If . . . I mean when, Steven inherits Da’Gran, I fear the land will fall easily to some enemy or other.”

Kaleah had no knowledge whatsoever of court intrigue, but she was smart enough to realize that this young man was testing water’s. She thought carefully before she responded.

“I’m sure her brother will learn as he must, when his time comes.”

“Perhaps.” Senigma rested his chin on his hands thoughtfully. “But there are many who are deeply concerned what will become of Da’Gran when Sir Richard is gone . . . not the least of whom is Sir Richard himself. He has shared his concerns with my master a great many times, but no clear solution can be found.”

Kaleah shrugged, and effected a look of disinterest. “I dare say they will find one,” she said, returning to her meal. “It’s no concern of mine; I’m just Jessica’s guest here, after all.”

Senigma smiled at that, and returned to his own meal. “Perhaps.”

The sudden clear, sharp sound of Sir Richard banging his empty mug on the table drew the attention of everyone to the lord knight.

“Attention,” he called out, waiting for the musicians to stop playing before he rose to his feet and addressed the gathering. “I have an announcement to make.”

Kaleah put down her knife and fork along with everyone else, giving Sir Richard her undivided attention.

“Thank you.” The lord knight looked around and smiled at his dinner guests. “I have this day received word from our neighbor to the west, Sir William Lancaster.”

At this, a whispered hush went round the table swiftly, and Kaleah bent her head to Jessica, who leaned over to whisper in her ear. “He’s attacked us three times in the last five years . . . never successfully. This could mean trouble.”

Sir Richard waved his hands and waited for the mutterings to die down before he continued. “I know what you’re all thinking, but it seems that Sir William wishes to discuss a possible arrangement for a treaty. A temporary one, at least. This could mean an end to our conflict.”

Many of the people around the table shook their heads. Sir Miles and Eric Grace were silent, but they clearly supported Sir Richard’s views. Kaleah figured they had already been consulted on this matter; Lady Rose, too, though from appearances she wasn’t as happy with the situation as the other two.

“Sir William has requested a meeting, and is prepared to discuss the treaty proposal here, in Da’Gran. This act of good faith indicates he is willing to trust us, and I have returned his messenger with an agreement that he may have safe passage through our lands, along with a retinue of guards for protection from the bandits who have been raiding us this season. I have set the appointment for eleven days from today . . . time enough to make any preparations that may be required.”

A few people still frowned, but most grudgingly seemed supportive. Watching her friend, Kaleah thought the young blonde was in agreement with her father, but the crease in her forehead told Kaleah that she still had a few misgivings.

“You shall all be expected to attend the dinner welcoming Sir William. In addition, I sent a runner to the north, to request the presence of Charles Renault.” He turned his attention to Jessica, who smiled broadly. “I feel if we can show the evidence of our solid alliance with his father, the Earl, Sir William might be more easily swayed to join us.”

Kaleah could clearly see her friend was happy with this news, and she raised her eyebrow in question. Jessica just grinned and mouthed the word, “Later.”

“Perhaps,” the Lady Rose chimed in, “this will be a good opportunity for Jessica to set down a solid date for something she has delayed for far too long.” She cast her narrowed gaze towards her daughter, who, at her words, lost her smile and looked away. Kaleah wondered what that was all about.

Sir Richard evidently noticed his daughter’s distress, for he came to her rescue. “Perhaps. Though I feel we should focus our attention on the problem of Sir William. Some things can wait.”

Jessica smiled her thanks to her, and Kaleah wondered who this Charles was to her young friend.

“Some things have been waiting for four years,” Lady Rose muttered.

“Enough. We will not discuss it here.”

Lady Rose scowled and glared at her daughter, before focusing her malicious gaze on Kaleah, who once again smiled and refused to meet her eyes.

“Eleven days,” Sir Richard concluded. “Charles should arrive a few days sooner, which will give him time to settle in and be appraised of the situation. This could be the start of a firm alliance, which will bring us peace for years to come.” There were grim smiles all round the table; Kaleah thought some of the elder knights looked as if this talk of peace was sticking in their throats. Even the minister, who, by good rights should have considered such a proposal to be a heaven-send, appeared somewhat unconvinced. She didn’t have time to ponder this, however, because Sir Richard had suddenly turned his attention in her direction.

“Treaties aside, we have a new guest with us this evening.” He gestured to Kaleah, who suddenly found all eyes on her and had to struggle to maintain her calm composure. “As I’m sure most of you are aware, my daughter has been spending much of her time with her new friend, Kaleah. Kaleah has come to us from the Spanish fighting schools, is that not so?”

For a moment, Kaleah could only sit, frozen solid by fear and confusion. A gentle nudge from Jessica got her mouth moving, however, and she managed to stammer out an answer.

“It is, my lord.” Her accent sounded barbaric and uncultured even to her ears, and she winced internally. She realized that Sir Richard was deliberately leaving out the part about her being captured as a bandit, and that she had her roots as a slave — a fact she was sure he had realized from her scarred and bone-thin body, not to mention the way she had bolted into the storm. In a way, this story was true though. And it gave her a legitimate and respectable position at the table.

“Kaleah was passing through the region, and was nice enough to offer to share her talents with my daughter, who is in turn demonstrating our English fighting style to her.” He raised his mug to her. “I am most grateful that young Jessica has someone to spend her time with,” he smiled, “and I hope you will enjoy our hospitality a long while, Kaleah.”

Kaleah could only smile and bob her head slightly. “Th-thank you, my lord,” she stammered. “Your daughter has been a most gracious host, and very pleasant company.”

From his place at Sir Richard’s left, Sir Miles grinned and raised his mug in salute. “And we’re all grateful to ye fer keepin’ her attention on somethin’ else besides the trouble she can git into.”

There was quiet laughter round the table, and the gathered guests raised their drinks in a toast. Kaleah noticed a few did not share the gesture, however. Lady Rose and Steven looked at her with disgust and disdain. Smiling and raising her own mug, she ignored them and swallowed the cool water. Let them hate me, she decided. Jessica’s right. I am as good as they are.

Looking to her right, she met the laughing green eyes of her companion, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. She poked her tongue out slightly, and cheerfully went back to enjoying her meal. Listening to the lilting sound of the musicians as they resumed their playing, and the conversations that started up again all around, she smiled and relaxed.

The rest of the dinner was thoroughly enjoyable.
Chapter 6.
“Well,” Jessica said as she struggled to get out of her dress. “What did you think?”

They had returned to Jessica’s room, making a quick detour to the bathing chamber, taking turns to use the huge pool to wash their sweaty bodies. The dinner had just ended quite pleasantly, and both women felt a good deal better being clean again; the vanilla perfume Jessica was fond of became somewhat cloying after long periods of exposure.

Kaleah came over and helped her friend with the hard-too-reach lacings. “It was nice,” she admitted. “I felt a little out of place, though. Everyone was looking at me kind of strangely; I’m not used to being the center of attention.” Slaves tended to stay in the background.

Jessica shrugged the dress off her shoulders casually, letting it pool at her feet before retrieving a more comfortable shirt from her wardrobe. “That was just because you’re so new around here. They’ll get used to you.” She groaned as she slipped into the shirt, her aching muscles stiffening up after the extended period on the archery field.

“You okay?” asked Kaleah, hearing her.

“Sure. I’m fine.” Jessica smiled at her, ruffling her blonde tresses into some degree of order. “Just a little sore. I’m not used to pulling a bow, that’s all.”

“Your shoulder’s stiff?”

“Uh huh.”

“Mine too.” Kaleah thought for a moment, then, reaching a decision, she caught a hold of her friend’s arm and pulled her over to the bed. “Sit.”

Jessica did as told, eyeing the dark woman suspiciously. Kaleah got on the bed behind her, kneeling with her knees spread wide apart. “Could you hold your hair out of the way?” she asked. Jessica pulled her blonde locks over her shoulder. Kaleah reached down and hitched up Jessica’s shirt, running her hands underneath it flat over the smooth skin beneath, up the young woman’s back to her tense shoulders, taking the shirt with her.

Jessica froze, uncertain. “What are you doing?”

“Trust me,” Kaleah said softly. “This’ll help.”

Reaching Jessica’s shoulders, she ran her fingers over the muscles, feeling them jump and stretch. Probing, she found the tightest areas and began to massage them gently. This earned her a groan from the young blonde.

“This okay?”

“Ugh.” Jessica’s head lolled forward, and Kaleah felt her muscles start to relax as she realized what was happening. “That feels great.”

“Good.” Kaleah smiled, and set her long, powerful fingers to work on another area. She was about to ask Jessica to take the shirt off to make things easier, but before she could, her friend figured it out for herself and pulled the loose garment over her head, tossing it onto the bed behind them.

“Thanks.”

“Sure.”

Now Jessica’s whole back exposed to her, and she eagerly sent her fingers exploring the map of muscle and tendon. She stroked gently over the smooth surface of her friends body, stopping wherever she found tension to attack gently but relentlessly until it was relieved.

Jessica was sighing in ecstasy. She had never felt anything this wonderful . . . although her mind was eager to discuss with her a few other places those hands could roam that might feel even better. She closed her eyes and firmly refused to listen to it. “Where did you learn this?” she asked.

The hands paused their explorations. “A slave learns many things,” Kaleah answered shortly, before she continued the massage.

“Oh.” Jessica was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

Kaleah shrugged. “That’s alright,” she said softly. “They’re there always, in the back of my mind. This is just one of the things I had to do to serve my masters.”

She brought her hands down along the line of Jessica’s spine, her thumbs pressing firmly with long practiced motions along the vertebrae, rubbing into the tight muscles and feeling them relax and loosen as if by magic. When she was satisfied, she let her fingers flare out to mark along the crease of her friend’s lower ribs. Jessica’s skin was warm and smooth, marked here and there with scars which she made sure to massage thoroughly. Kaleah knew from personal experience how the muscles tended to ache around old wounds.

“You don’t have to do this if it makes you uncomfortable,” Jessica said softly, even as she prayed for the wonderful contact to continue.

Kaleah shook her head. “You’re not forcing me to do this,” she said. “I’m doing it because you’re my friend, and I want to help you.”

“You sure?”

“Of course.” Kaleah tilted her head as she lost herself in the subtle play of muscles running under Jessica’s skin. “It feels good to be using the things I learned from that time to help someone I care about,” she whispered. “Just relax . . . enjoy it.”

Jessica smiled softly and resolved to do just that, letting her shoulders slump and her back hunch forward. Kaleah pressed deeper into her muscles, working up and down, then back up again. The dark woman could smell the scent of Jessica’s freshly scrubbed body and the lingering perfume of vanilla, and she inhaled deeply without even thinking about it.

“So, who’s Charles?” she asked as she worked.

Jessica twirled a lock of her hair around her middle finger idly. “Charles is the son of James Adam Renault, an Earl who holds the lands to the north of us,” she explained. “His father and mine have been working on a permanent treaty for many years, and have pretty much agreed on everything.” She paused, then added, “As part of the treaty, Charles is my betrothed.”

Kaleah’s hands stopped completely, and Jessica turned to glance back at her, laughing when she saw the look of surprise in the clear blue eyes of her companion. “What’s the matter?”

“N-nothing.” Kaleah forced her hands to continue, ignoring the sick feeling that suddenly clenched her stomach. “I didn’t realize, that’s all.” She coughed a little. “So, that’s what your mother was talking about at dinner tonight . . . the marriage?”

“Mmmhmm.” Jessica sighed. “I’ve managed to make an excuse up every time she’s raised the issue in the past. It’s getting harder, though. I’ve been putting it off for four years now.”

Kaleah’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why?”

Jess shrugged. “Charles is a wonderful man,” she said softly. “He’s intelligent, and handsome, and kind . . . and about a million other things as well. We have a great time when we’re together . . . which isn’t very often, mind you. He’s always busy doing his things, it doesn’t leave much room for fun.”

“But?”

“But . . . I don’t love him.”

“You don’t?” Kaleah felt relieved for some reason, and realized with shock that the sudden sick feeling she’d had to the news of her friend’s betrothal had been caused by jealousy! Why would she be jealous? She didn’t have time to figure out the answer as Jessica shook her head and continued.

“Charles is great, but . . . I don’t know. He’s just not someone I love in . . . that way. You know?”

“I-I guess so.” She didn’t for a moment, then suddenly it hit her. She rolled her eyes and smiled. “So he doesn’t . . . ring any bells for you?” she asked teasingly, feeling Jessica’s blush warm the skin under her hands.

“No,” the embarrased girl mumbled. “And it’s not like he’s not good-looking — he is. He’s just . . . not the one.”

“Does he know how you feel?”

“Oh, sure,” Jess laughed. “I don’t exactly make a secret of it. He knows, and he feels the same way. We like each other, but just as friends. And since we hardly ever see each other, we don’t even have that much very often. He’s just as awkward about it as I am. But the treaty is so important, and we don’t really get a say in the matter.” She sighed. “Even my father agrees on this one — though it hasn’t stopped him from letting me put the blasted wedding day off for four years.”

Kaleah remembered the look on Lady Rose’s face during the discussion at dinner. “You’re mother didn’t look too pleased about it.”

Jessica shook with suppressed laughter. “Oh, she’s not, I assure you. But she’ll just have to wait till I’m good and ready, which isn’t looking to be anytime soon.” She groaned as Kaleah’s hands skirted along the underside of her ribs, along her sides where they stopped, hesitantly, before tracing upwards, the fingertips drawing tantalizingly close to the outsides of her breasts. Jessica’s body flushed with heat as her nipples hardened slightly in unconscious reaction, and it became suddenly that much harder to ignore the images her mind was still intent on providing her.

With an effort, the young girl controlled her body’s response and evened her breathing once more. She sorted through her scattered thoughts to locate what they’d been talking about. Her mother. Right.

“I haven’t thought of a plausible excuse to throw her off this time,” she continued. “Who knows, maybe Sir William will attack afterall, and I’ll be let off the hook for a while longer.”

Unaware of the effect her touch was having on the younger woman — though very much aware of the soft, smooth skin over which her hands were gliding and stroking — Kaleah smiled. “You think that’s likely?”

Jessica snorted. “He’s tried it before and never got too far,” she said. “He has more men than my father, but they’re not half as good fighters. Sir William is a manipulative, cowardly schemer who’d rather win with trickery and foul play than with honor. He’s probably realized he can’t defeat us, so now he’s decided to see what he can gain from an alliance.”

Kaleah finished rubbing Jessica’s shoulder’s, and reluctantly drew her hands away. “Okay . . . you’re done I think.” She smiled as the young blonde smiled her thanks, and reclaimed her shirt. “You should feel fine in the morning.”

“Thanks,” Jessica said, somewhat disappointed that the massage had ended, but at the same time grateful. It wasn’t easy ignoring her body’s persistent encouragement to pursue these exciting and mysterious lines of thought . . . and in spite of her best efforts, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “You want me to return the favor?”

Kaleah was sure her blush was visible even through her bronze-toned skin. She looked away. “You don’t have to do that,” she muttered, though a part of her was shouting that it was only fair, afterall.

“I don’t mind,” Jessica smiled. “I saw you stretching your shoulders before. You probably need it as much as I did.”

“I don’t know . . .” Kaleah still hated to reveal her marked body to anyone.

Jessica read her thoughts. “It’s okay,” she said gently. “You don’t have to be ashamed of the scars, Kaleah. Maybe you should even be proud of them, a little.”

“Proud?” Kaleah’s brow furrowed.

“Sure. They show others that you’re strong enough to survive, no matter what.” Jessica looked at her own scars. “I know people who think they’re the greatest, toughest men in the whole world, and I doubt they could have lived through a half of what you must have gone through.”

Kaleah swallowed. She hated discussing this, but could admit that Jessica was probably right. A lot of hardened people would never have been able to survive slavery. Thinking back, she remembered; a lot of the slaves she’d known hadn’t survived. “I guess so,” she mumbled, after a pause. “But still . . .”

“They don’t bother me. Not one bit.” Jessica’s smile turned teasing. “Come on, it’s not as though I haven’t seen you topless. Believe me, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.” She waggled her eyebrows.

Kaleah didn’t trust herself to reply, but she reluctantly removed her shirt and turned around, offering her back to her friend. Her muscles were sore. What could it hurt?

Jessica cracked her knuckles and moved closer. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this quite as good as you did,” she said. “But I’ll try.”

Kaleah pulled her hair out of the way and just grunted.

Jessica stopped and stared at her friend’s back, hands frozen inches from her skin. She’d expected the patchwork of scars that meshed across the bronze skin — but on Kaleah’s back, just below her neck, was tattooed an intricate design in black ink.

“What’s this?” She stroked the tattoo reverently with one hand. Jess had heard of the practice of marking the skin like this. Her mother said it was a barbaric practice of heathen cultures. She had never seen a design this detailed, however. The mark was in the shape of a circle, and looked as though it were comprised of a strange, stylized writing. The thought occurred that this was some type of slave mark, and she wondered if Kaleah would refrain from answering.

The dark woman turned to face her, curious. “What’s what?”

“This mark on your back.” Her fingers continued to trace the pattern. “It’s beautiful.”

“Oh. That.” Kaleah turned away. “It’s a tattoo. I’ve had it since I was a child . . . before the slavers came.”

“Does it have a meaning? It looks like some kind of writing.”

Kaleah shrugged. “I don’t know. The slavers thought it was writing, too. But none of my masters could read it, and neither can I. I don’t know anything about it.”

Jessica paused. “You don’t remember it being done? From what I’ve heard, these things have to be made with a great big needle, and they hurt like all the fires of Hell. How could you not remember it being done?”

Kaleah shrugged again. “I can’t really remember anything from before the slavers came,” she said softly. “They went to a lot of trouble beating the memories of my family and my homeland out of me . . . making it so I had nothing to go back too. Those things are hard to hold onto through the pain and the humiliation of being a slave.”

Jessica berated herself silently for causing her friend pain again, and swore privately to think things through before she said anything. Now, she let her hands move tentatively out to gently knead Kaleah’s shoulders. “I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing,” Kaleah said. “I keep telling you, it’s not your fault.” She was silent a moment, just absorbing the warm feel of her friend’s hands stroking at her aching flesh. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for,” she said after a moment. “I think you’ve done more for me than just about anyone in my whole life has ever done.”

“Really?” Jessica grinned, her face literally glowing with happiness at this. “What about that Spanish guy; De’Livier?”

“He helped me,” Kaleah said thoughtfully. “He taught me a trade, and how to protect myself. And he tried to teach me how to fit in with other people. But it was still sort of . . . I don’t know. Business-like, I guess.”

“What do you mean?”

“He treated me like an apprentice, rather than a servant. He paid me money, and he trained me well. He was a fine teacher. But he never really tried to be my friend . . . not like you have.” She felt Jessica’s hands still their soothing motion, and she turned to face the young blonde behind her. “You’re not expecting to get anything out of this,” she explained softly. “You were kind to me from the start, and even when I tried not to like you, it was hard. You gave to me, knowing I wasn’t likely to give anything back. It didn’t matter to you.” She saw tears start to form at the corner’s of Jessica’s eyes, and she brushed them away, smiling. “Don’t go getting all emotional on me, Jessica.” she laughed, trying to force some levity into the moment.

Jessica smiled a little, but couldn’t help the tears. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, wiping them away. “It’s just, that’s about the nicest thing you’ve said to me to date. Kind of surprised me.”

“But it’s true,” Kaleah insisted. “You’ve taught me what it’s like to have a friend. That’s something I never would have found out about without you.”

“Oh, come on.” Jessica tried to turn her around. “I’m sure someone-”

“No. I mean it.” Kaleah refused to turn around. It felt surprisingly good to be saying these things. She realized the reason it felt good was because she could see how much these words meant to the young blonde. “Do you remember what you told me in the forest, when we were out in the storm. You told me I was still a slave because I still thought and acted like a slave.”

“I didn’t mean-”

“Yes,” Kaleah smiled. “You meant it. And you were right. Without you, I would have wandered off and just kept wandering. I’d have survived alright, probably. But I’d never have really lived my life.” She held Jessica’s gaze for a moment, before she turned around to offer her back to her friend once more. “You can stop apologizing, Jessica. You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”

Jessica was silent and still for a long moment, just soaking in the words of her companion, who waited patiently for the massage to continue. This was probably the most they had talked since the storm — really talked, that is. She smiled happily, and went back to the task at hand. Kaleah was certainly making a lot of progress, she thought.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

Kaleah grunted and let her head roll forward, inviting Jessica to send her wonderful fingers up to her upper neck, where the tension was stiffest. The blonde was only too happy to accept. Kaleah let the silence go on for a few minutes, before her mind recalled the dinner again.

“That holy man you were talking to at dinner tonight seemed happy to have me in the castle,” she said.

Jessica had let her mind completely focus on the texture of the flesh that rolled beneath her fingers, and had to pull her mind quickly away from it’s pondering of just how nice it felt to be ‘helping’ her friend like this before she could answer.

“Um . . . yeah. He seemed okay with the situation.” Her brain kicked in gear a little more. “I think it has more to do with the chance of bringing you into the ‘knowledge of a true God’ than it has with him actually liking you, though.”

“Mmmm. I figured as much.” Kaleah snorted. “Not much chance of that happening.”

“I know.” They’d already discussed the subject of religion, and Jessica could understand Kaleah’s point of view. It must be hard to believe in God when all life had given you was pain and suffering. She smiled. “What were you and Senigma talking about? It looked like you were getting along quite well there.” Her tone was teasing and playful.

Kaleah felt Jessica’s hands roam down her back to her tailbone, and suppressed a shiver. “Actually, we were talking about you.”

“Me?”

“Mmmhmm. You.”

“And what was so interesting about me, pray tell?”

Kaleah grinned. “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think a young man like Senigma would find interesting about a lovely young lady such as yourself?”

Jessica blushed, and smacked Kaleah lightly on the shoulder. “Yeah, right,” she chuckled. “He’d know better than that. Seriously, what were you talking about?”

“Honestly, we were talking about you,” Kaleah insisted, “. . . and about your brother.”

The hands paused in their delicious exploration fractionally, but Kaleah noticed. “Oh.” Jessica began to push her thumbs gently along Kaleah’s prominent spine, her fingers tracing the valleys of her rib-cage. “I can imagine what he had to say about that.”

“He said your father’s worried about what will happen when your brother takes over the castle,” Kaleah said bluntly. “He seemed to think that many considered you the better choice for the inheritance . . . including your father’s adviser.”

“He did?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmm.” Jessica was interested in this. “I always wondered what Grace had to say on the matter. Interesting.” She had always figured the old sage disapproved of her; apparently, such was not the case. Still, she didn’t like him.

Kaleah relaxed and just absorbed the feeling of her friend’s fingers as they absently roamed along her sides, upwards and around, close to her breasts, where they paused a moment, before retreating back up to her neck. A part of her – a part that was getting louder and more insistent – sighed with longing, wishing the hands had just kept going where they were headed.

“I don’t suppose there’s much chance that your father will decide to name you his heir?”

“No,” Jessica sighed. “Running a castle and ruling land in the King’s name is man’s work.” Her tone was sarcastic. “At least that’s what everyone thinks. Just because I’d make the better ruler doesn’t even figure into the matter . . . just like I don’t get a say in my betrothal.” She rolled the muscles of Kaleah’s shoulders with her finger’s, earning a groan. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Kaleah grunted. “You’re good at this.”

Jessica grinned. “I’m a fast learner.”

“Mmmhmm. I can see that.” Kaleah tore her mind from considering other things the young blonde might be willing to learn. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The soldiers would follow you. I’ve seen the respect most of them have for you. What does it matter that you’re a woman?”

Jessica shrugged. “It shouldn’t matter . . . but it does.”

“That’s stupid,” Kaleah stated simply.

“Maybe. But I’m not going to be able to change the system. I already have more freedom in my life than most young women; my father’s pretty damn lenient about what I can and can’t do.” She pondered a moment. “I’m very lucky.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Kaleah fidgeted with her hair. “Besides . . . how bad can your brother possibly be, huh?”

Jessica scowled darkly as her hands worked over scarred flesh. “He has all the makings of a tyrant,” she said darkly. “He’s self-centered and self-reighteous. If he were simply indifferent towards the peasants it might not be so bad, but for some reason he seems to actually hate them.” She paused thoughtfully, hands idly fingering one of Kaleah’s scarrs. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven ruins everything my father’s spent his life building.” Jess shook her head, clearing away thoughts of what she couldn’t change. “Anyway, enough about that. I was thinking maybe we could go out for a ride on Saturday. There’s an old monastary a few miles out, buried in the woods. I go there sometimes when I want to think about stuff. You’d like it.”

“What’s a monastary?”

“You don’t know?”

Kaleah shrugged. “I’ve never heard the word.”

“Well, a monastary’s like a church, only it’s a place where monks live in the service of God. This one was ruined a long time ago, but it has a sense of peace about it still.”

Kaleah turned a little to glance at Jess. “A holy place?”

“Aye.” She grinned, knowing how Kaleah felt about the notion of God. “Trust me, it’s nice.”

Kaleah rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll come. But I don’t see the point.”

“Wait and see,” Jessica said, her expression playful. She raised her hands and wriggled her fingers. “You had enough?”

“What? Oh, yeah. That was great, thanks.”

“No problem.” Jessica thought she had probably enjoyed giving the massage as much as she had enjoyed receiving hers. She watched from the corner of her eye as her dark companion pulled her shirt back on, considering. “You know something?”

“Hmmm?” Curious blue eyes turned in question.

“You sure have changed a lot from the person who flinched away from me everytime I reached out to touch you. I guess a lot can happen in a week, huh?”

Kaleah flushed a little. “I haven’t changed as much as you think,” she said softly. “I still don’t like people touching me — I think maybe I just got used to it from you.”

Jessica smiled fondly. “Is that okay?”

Kaleah thought about it for a moment, then nodded slowly. “I-I don’t mind it,” she admitted. “It’s actually kind of nice, you know? Having someone reach out to me . . . and knowing I don’t have to be afraid.”

Jessica couldn’t help herself, and reached out to cup the dark woman’s cheek, running her thumb along the scar that crossed her lips. The gesture had become somewhat familiar to them both over the past week; Jessica didn’t know why she did it, but Kaleah didn’t freeze up anymore, like she had during the storm. She looked deep into the sapphire eyes of her companion and smiled gently.

“You never have to be afraid of me, Kaleah,” she said softly, her voice little more than a caress. “I’d never hurt you.”

Kaleah reached up and placed her own hand over Jessica’s. Her smile twisted the scar that the blonde was stroking. “I know,” she whispered.

For an instant, the two just sat and basked in the peace and comfort of the moment, looking into each other’s eyes and enjoying the contact where their hands joined. They could feel the sparks flying between them, were each aware how deep their friendship had grown in such a short space of time. For both of them, this was something new — a friendship Kaleah had never been offered or known could exist, and that Jessica had never been allowed to have.

“It’s kinda weird, isn’t it?” Jessica said softly after the long silence. “How much you can come to trust someone and care for them after only a few days?”

Kaleah nodded, feeling herself start to drown in the deep green waters of Jessica’s eyes and knowing that a part of her wanted nothing more than to sink into their comforting embrace. “But it doesn’t feel like only a few days,” she whispered. “It feels like . . . forever. Doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Jessica smiled a little, her eyes sparkling in the light of the candelabra. “I felt like that from the moment we first saw each other in the bandit’s camp. Remember?”

“Yeah.” The memory was still vivid. “I felt, I don’t know. Like maybe we were connected somehow. When I ran away from the fight, I could feel your eyes pulling me back. But I was too scared to deal with what I felt.” It felt strange to admit it, but in a good way.

“Is that why you ran? During the storm?”

Kaleah nodded. “I knew I had to get out of here,” she said softly, pulling their hands away from her face but maintaining the comforting contact. “I felt trapped. My temper was getting . . . too much for me to handle, you know?” She sighed. “I didn’t understand what you wanted from me. No-one ever just wanted me as a friend.”

“I know what you mean. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t see that I was only trying to help you. That I just wanted to get to know you. Bring out all the wonderful things I could see were inside you . . . give you a chance that no-one else would.”

Kaleah pulled her eyes away from the intense gaze of the young blonde. “Thanks,” she said, suddenly feeling the restless energy that had been dormant for so long spring to life in her nerves. She looked around, seeking an escape from the things that were getting too close to the surface again.

Jessica smiled at her skittish friend and patted her on the shoulder. “My pleasure,” she said, studying Kaleah’s angular features, seeing the nervousness there. “It’s alright,” she whispered. “I know it’s strange how quickly we’ve become friends like this. I had a feeling we were going to get along, but this is more than I ever expected after only a few weeks. But it’s not a bad thing, right?”

“Of course not,” Kaleah mumbled, meeting Jessica’s eyes briefly, then looking away. “I’m just . . . you know. Not used to it.”

Jessica nodded. “Neither am I. But I like it. It’s nice having someone to do things with, isn’t it?”

Looking deep into the young blonde’s intense green eyes, Kaleah swallowed and nodded. “Yeah.” She coughed and slapped her thighs, offering a shaky smile. It was time to get out of here, she decided. She needed to settle her mind. “So . . . we’ll go out to this holy place of yours Saturday, right?”

Jessica smiled inwardly, acknowledging that the dark woman had apparently decided to move past the difficult and emotional conversation and happy enough to let her get away — for now, at least.

“Sure,” she agreed. “It’s not as nice out there now as it will be in Spring, but it’s still very peaceful.”

“Right.” Kaleah got off the bed, and ran slightly trembling fingers through her long, dark hair to settle it. “I guess I’d better get some rest.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Jessica smiled and shifted on the now empty bed. “You want to do some more archery tomorrow? Or maybe we could go for a ride . . ?”

Kaleah shuffled nervously. She felt something warm and frightening stir in her heart, clenching painfully as she regarded her friend. She needed some space, some time to herself . . . for more than just a few hours. “Actually,” she mumbled, “I was kinda thinking I might spend the day by myself tomorrow, if that’s okay?”

“Oh.” Jessica tried to hide her disappointment, looking away and picking at her shirt. “Sure. I-if that’s . . . what you want.” Even she could hear the hurt in her voice, and she knew Kaleah could, too.

Blue eyes regarded her sincerely. “I just need a little time alone,” Kaleah said softly, hoping Jessica would understand. “Really. It’s not that I don’t want to be around you . . . I just . . . ” She sighed. “I need to adjust. Do you understand?”

Jessica thought about it for a moment seriously, then nodded. “I do,” she said.

Kaleah searched her eyes for a moment. She could see that Jessica was a little hurt by this, but she could also see that she did, at some level, understand.

“Good. Thank you.” She turned and headed to the door that led to her own room. She opened it and looked back at her friend, who was watching her a little nervously. “I’ll see you on Saturday,” she said softly.

Jessica waved a little. “Saturday.”

Kaleah smiled and went through the door, closing it softly behind her. Breathing deep, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the solid oak door. “Damn.”

The news that she wanted to be alone had hurt Jessica, she could tell. But Kaleah knew it was necessary. She needed a little space, some time to center herself. Some time to more deeply bury the thoughts and feelings that kept cropping up in her head and her heart regarding her young friend.

She understood them — most of them, at least. Her physical reaction to the attractive blonde was, she considered, somewhat natural. A life of slavery had introduced Kaleah to every kind of sexual act human beings were capable of. She had figured her exposure to — and involvement in — such a harsh and sickening world had long since killed any ability she might have had to feel physical desire for another person. Apparently, she reflected, feeling again the callused hands of her companion tracing tantalizingly close to her breasts . . . apparently, such was not the case.

She could accept that she was physically attracted to the young woman. Kaleah had preferred women to men since she had first been introduced to the concept. As a slave, her body had been used and abused in every conceivable way — mostly by men, but certainly not exclusively. Still, she had always preferred being ordered to provide for the pleasures of other women rather than men . . . and not just because they tended to treat her better, although that was a part of it. She actually liked the way a woman felt, and sounded. And tasted. No man had ever cared for how she felt during the act. Their concern was only for themselves. But many of the women she had served seemed to gain as much satisfaction from her pleasure as they had from their own. She had actually enjoyed herself at times like these, fleeting as they were. She would even have said that she went to such women willingly, of her own volition, for the small comfort they offered in her bleak and painful existence.

Such acts of consensual sex were rare during the ten or so years she had been a slave . . . though Kaleah had learned early on that if she was compliant, her torment would be over with that much sooner and she was less likely to be beaten.

Still, it was a little uncomfortable to have these stirrings of desire appear for her young friend. They clouded her mind with erotic images of the many things she knew she could introduce to the beautiful girl; things she didn’t want to think about. Sure, Jessica was breath-takingly beautiful. She was innocent and playful and full of life. And she was one of very few people in Kaleah’s life who had only ever shown her kindness. This in mind, the dark woman could accept that there was a valid justification for her physical response to Jessica.

Kaleah sighed, and flopped bonelessly onto her bed, staring up at the ceiling. But that was only a part of it, she knew. Being around Jessica stirred up feelings inside her that she had no understanding of how to deal with. Desire was one thing; she could put that behind her, knowing she would never risk the friendship that had developed just for the chance of a few moments of pleasure. It was the way her heart ached whenever Jessica touched her that made Kaleah want to take a step back and regroup. The way she could feel her soul start to loose itself whenever she looked deeply into the emerald eyes of her younger companion. The way her smile seemed to light up the whole world . . . and the way her words of gentle kindness worked like a soothing balm to ease the pain of ancient hurts.

Kaleah had her suspicions about what these feelings were . . . and she didn’t much like them. She was smart enough to realize that her reaction of jealously to the news of Jessica’s betrothal — and her relief when she heard that the young woman didn’t love the man — were a clear indication that this was something more than a simple physical attraction. That thought frankly terrified her. Kaleah wasn’t sure she could handle these emotions, was uncertain her battered heart and soul could ever deal with such a powerful feeling as love.

Kaleah scoffed as that word appeared in her mind. “You are not in love with her,” she told herself firmly. “It’s just a reaction you’re having to being emotionally close to someone after having no-one for so long. That’s all it is. Really.”

She sighed. The words didn’t help to ease the ache in her heart, didn’t serve to explain the way Jessica’s presence had seemed to wrap itself around her soul from the very second they had locked eyes with each other. It seemed the more time she spent with the young woman, the more she hurt inside; hurt for all the things she had never even known she could have in life.

Things she was starting to want with a painful desperation.

Kaleah blinked her eyes, feeling tears start to form. With an effort, she forced them down. She had spent so many years locking her emotions away, never crying because once she started, she feared she’d never be able to stop. The innocent and selfless way that Jessica gave of herself was breaking open those locked boxes of feelings . . . and it was frightening how much Kaleah wanted to let it happen.

It was going to take a lot of self-lecturing tomorrow to convince herself that her feelings were just a natural reaction to Jessica’s kindness. And in all honesty, Kaleah wasn’t sure whether it was going to work at all.

****************************

Kaleah would have been surprised to know that, left alone in her room, Jessica’s thoughts were running along quite a similar track to her own.

The young blonde sighed as she slumped back down on her bed, spreading her arms and legs as far as they would go, trying to touch the edges of the enormous bed. She failed by at least a foot on all sides.

The massage had caused new and interesting sensations to erupt throughout her body. Her skin felt unusually sensitive, and it tingled everywhere Kaleah had run her fingers. The muscles in her groin seemed to be curling in upon themselves, seeming to invite a massage of their own. Her blood felt like liquid fire in her veins, just waiting for something to make it erupt. Her nipples were hard and she could feel them pushing against the course material of her shirt, straining for an intimate caress. Jessica had never been so aware of every part of her body before, and although she’d never experienced these feelings quite so strongly, she recognized them as the stirrings of desire.

For whatever reason, the simple massage had aroused her like nothing before.

Jessica had felt these things a few times in the past, certainly, but never like this. She felt a pleasant tingling whenever she read the stories of female love that were secreted away in her hidden room. And, she admitted, when she had admired Kaleah’s body when it was revealed more than usual, or those few times when she had caressed the scar across the dark woman’s lips with her thumb. But the feeling of the Kaleah’s powerful fingers working against her flesh had sparked the sensations more than anything else.

She liked the way Kaleah looked, and sounded. She even liked the way she smelled. Jess had known she was attracted to the dark woman right from the start, but before it had been just a harmless bit of admiration. There was nothing wrong with looking. But the thoughts that kept creeping into her head — thoughts that had at first been a mild annoyance — were getting stronger all the time. She could no longer ignore them. They were inappropriate in such a friendship, and she knew she had to deal with them once and for all.

“Okay,” Jess told herself, deciding it might help to talk the problem out. “Let’s look at this objectively . . .”

Being alone so much of her life, Jessica often found she was the only person around to discuss things with. It had never bothered her before . . . although she had heard that talking to oneself was the first sign of madness. She had always scoffed at this notion. She’d had many very interesting conversations with her own mind, which often seemed at odds with her on what she thought she should do about some things. Her mind was now sitting up and paying close attention to the situation at hand as Jessica continued.

“So, Kaleah is . . . extremely attractive. And okay, so you’re having thoughts of what it might be like to be more friendly with her than you ought to be. It’s really not so strange.” She waved her hands to emphasis her points.

It’s not? Her mind raised a metaphysical eyebrow in question.

“It’s not,” she insisted to herself. “Think about it; you’ve been reading about this sort of thing for years now, and you always found it . . . interesting. But you’ve never had any female friends that you could spend any real time with . . . no close ones, anyway. So, along comes Kaleah. She’s beautiful, she’s exotic, she’s wonderful and interesting, and she’s. . .” Jess sighed. “Well, she’s about the sexiest thing that’s ever crossed into your field of vision, let’s face it.”

Her mental mind nodded to show it understood, and gestured metaphysically for her to continue.

“So . . . all of a sudden you have someone in your life who you’re able to think about in this way. Your body has a natural reaction to the presence of an attractive woman, and all the things you’ve read about suddenly take on a new form. You can picture what they might be like with her involved . . . it’s as simple as that!”

Both metaphysical eyebrows raised doubtfully as her mental mind gave her an amused look of patient indulgence.

“Well, it is!”

Her metaphysical mind just smiled knowingly.

“Bah, what would you know anyway?” Jessica waved her hands dismissively, and huffed to herself. “Let’s face it,” she continued petulantly, “Nineteen years is a long time to wait for. . . this sort of thing. Just because Charles isn’t your type, doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be stirrings and rumblings down below at some point or another. Especially if you’re going to be filling your head with those blasted stories, which, I think it’s safe to say, you should avoid for the time being!” She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair absently. “No point adding fuel to the fire when you’re trying to put it out.”

Jessica spent a moment reflecting. She and Kaleah were growing closer to each other rapidly. The dark woman was obviously feeling a little unsettled by the speed at which their friendship was developing — hence the day of solitude tomorrow. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Jessica considered this and finally had to admit that a little time alone was exactly what she needed.

“You can spend tomorrow getting this stuff back under control,” she told herself firmly. “No more being distracted by those sapphire eyes. You’ll deal with the situation, and remember that she’s trusting you enough to be her friend. You’re not going to jeopardize that trust by suggesting — or even thinking — anything the least bit inappropriate, like . . . like-”

Her imagination helpfully provided a colorful illustration of what might be considered inappropriate behavior.

“Yeah . . . just like that.” Jess closed her eyes and tried to get her breathing under control, letting the images continue for a few delicious moments while her body screamed for something it had never experienced but could well imagine.

After those few moments of tantalizing thoughts, however, she forced her eyes open. “Ugh!” Rolling over she buried her face under a cushion in frustration. “This is gonna be hard,” she mumbled into the pillow. “Very, very hard.”

Neither woman slept very well that night.
Chapter 7.
The next day passed slowly for both of them.

Jessica heard that Sir Miles was leading a hunt into the forests, and invited herself along. She didn’t actually like hunting all that much; it tended to require skill with a bow rather than a blade, and while she had killed men in the heat of battle, Jessica could never bring herself to slay the gentle deer the hunters usually stalked. Still, it was better than staying in Da’Gran with Kaleah, where she would constantly be reminded of the dark-haired woman’s absence.

Kaleah chose to spend her day alone in her customary roost. Before dawn, she went for a long run in the hope that she could exhaust the animal energy coursing through her body. When she returned, she took a quick bath then wandered into the heart of Da’Gran castle, where she offered to relieve the guard stationed in the lookout tower. The young soldier, knowing that Kaleah was Jessica’s friend, had gratefully accepted, giving up the lonely post with no regret. The dark woman stared forlornly out across the rolling fields for long moments, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out her treasured wooden flute.

The instrument had been given to Kaleah by a fellow slave, and she had kept it hidden during the long years of her captivity from those who would deprive her of even the small pleasure she could gain from her music. It had taken months to learn how to play the flute, but Kaleah had a natural ear for melodies. She only ever played when she was alone, and her tunes were always melancholy and sad.

High above the castle walls in a place that was cold, silent and very much appropriate to her mood, Kaleah put the flute to her lips and blew softly. The gentle strains of music filtered through the still air, molded by the dark-haired woman’s long, swift fingers. She changed the tempo and tone smoothly as her mind allowed itself to develop a rhythm and melody.

The two friends did not see each other once during the day. Jessica didn’t return until near sundown, and Kaleah only abandoned her post when the cold of the night forced her to retire. Neither woman felt the desire for food. Jessica didn’t talk to anyone, though Sir Miles watched her carefully with worried eyes all day. Kaleah scarcely even moved, except for her fingers which danced up and down along the holes of the flute.

By the end of the day, both Jessica and Kaleah felt somewhat better despite the misery their separation had caused. Both spent the day carefully searching for ways to rationalize the strength of the feelings they were having for the other, and by the time the sun went down, both women felt they had succeeded.

Jessica had managed to convince herself that her feelings were, indeed, quite natural, and was confidant that, given a few days, they would work themselves out of her system and Kaleah need never know about them.

For her part, Kaleah had eventually managed to drill it into her head that the feelings she was having for Jessica were simply a reaction to the renewal of emotional intimacy that her friendship with the young woman allowed her. It was understandable that her mind and her body were trying to make up for a lifetime of such emotional denial. This wasn’t romantic love — it was just some kind of temporary infatuation that would pass as she got used to feeling these things like trust and caring again.

Still, neither woman slept well that night . . . again. Each was very much aware of the nearness of the other. Kaleah didn’t come down from the look-out till after she felt Jessica would have drifted off, but the moment she entered her own room, she knew for certain her friend was still awake. It flashed through her mind to go across to the young woman’s room and see her, but she decided not to after a moment of inner discussion. She had only just gotten her defenses in place; it was a little early to start testing them already.

With a sigh, Kaleah got undressed and slipped beneath the covers of her bed thankfully. It had been deadly cold up in the high tower, and this savage winter still frightened her. The warmth of the soft blankets and softer mattress were very welcome indeed, and Kaleah smiled as she realized just how accustomed she had grown to this lifestyle.

“Fancy food, a warm bed, a beautiful, intelligent and funny friend . . . a whole castle and everything you could want,” she muttered to herself, grinning ironically and feeling the scar across her lips tighten. “Funny how life works out.”

Smiling to herself, she rolled over, closed her eyes, and settled down to wait for sleep to claim her. She knew she would be waiting a long time.

**************************

The next morning, Jessica awoke after finally stealing a few hours rest from the night. She was still tired, but her fatigue did little to sink her spirits. She just knew today was going to be a good day. Afterall, she thought as she got out of bed and threw on a simple shirt and trousers, she would be spending it with her friend. That had to beat yesterday.

Quickly dragging a soft brush through her perpetually-rumpled hair, the young blonde wondered if it was too early to wake her neighbor. Would Kaleah want a little time to herself this morning? Jessica gnawed on her lower lip in indecision, at last deciding to just knock on the door and find out.

A muffled, “Yeah?” greeted her sharp rapping, and she opened the door and poked her head into the dim light of the room.

“Can I come in?” she asked hesitantly.

Kaleah was still in bed, looking a little dazed. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and waved her hand. “Sure.”

Jessica grinned and stepped into her friend’s bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She claimed a sitting chair and studied the dark-haired woman who was busy drawing the covers tighter about her body.

“Have a good day yesterday?” she inquired casually.

Kaleah shrugged, studying the design on the blankets rather than meeting the blonde’s gaze. “I guess.” She glanced up, then away quickly when she saw the quiet and slightly concerned appraisal in the green eyes of her friend. “I just had to get my head around this,” she said softly, not really knowing why she felt compelled to explain. “It’s not something I’m used to.”

“I told you I understood,” Jessica said gently. “And I do. It’s alright.”

Kaleah nodded shyly, feeling a little silly. “So . . . you went out on the hunt?” She hadn’t seen her friend leave the castle, but a guard who came at midday to see if she wanted something to eat had informed her of the young woman’s departure.

Jessica nodded. “Yeah. Thought it would be something to do with the day.” She smiled a little wryly. “You know, before you came along, I spent most of my time alone, except when I was training. Never even had to give a thought about what to do with myself. Now, when you’re not with me, I feel so . . . lost.”

Blue eyes finally met hers directly, and in that instant, all the walls she had spent yesterday building . . . all the explanations and rationalizations . . . everything . . . all came down to nothing. She looked into the clear sapphire gaze of her friend, and was lost all over again.

Kaleah, too, felt the barriers that had taken hours to build being shattered in just a moment of contact with her friend’s intense gaze. She swallowed, and mentally berated herself. Get a grip, will you!? A pair of pretty eyes and you turn to mush!? She’s your friend, that’s all! In a few days, you’ll be over this stupid infatuation, and things’ll be fine.

Jessica just smiled a little. “Funny how you can come to depend on something so quickly, huh?”

Kaleah struggled for a moment, breaking the eye-contact thankfully, then nodded. “I, uh. I was just thinking the same thing last night,” she stammered, plucking at the blankets. “I’ve never slept in a bed half as comfortable as this one, but now, after only a fortnight, I can’t imagine what I’d do without it.”

“Not like I’m gonna take it away from you anytime soon.”

“I know.”

“So,” Jessica slapped her thighs, deciding to get this show on the road. “I believe we discussed a ride out to the woods. You wanna wait while I take a quick bath before we leave — it’ll help me wake up.”

“Sure.” Kaleah ran long fingers through disheveled hair. “I’ll see if I can get the horses ready.”

“Great. Just ask one of the stable-hands for help if you’re not sure of something. I’ll be down in a few minutes.” Jess stood up and headed for the door. “And don’t forget to dress warm,” she added. “It’s cold out there.

“Sure.”

“Great. I’ll see you in the courtyard.”

“Right.”

Jessica shut the door as she left and, grabbing her leather and mail armor, headed for the bathing chamber. When she arrived, she opened the huge, intricately carved doors and entered the sultry, steamy warmth beyond.

Inside, the young woman quickly stripped out of her clothes and laid them over a relatively dry rock a few feet from the huge pool. Retrieving a hand-towel from the small room in back, she slipped gratefully into the clear warm waters with a deep, throaty groan.

After ducking her head under the water, Jessica threw her wet hair over her shoulder and proceeded to gently scrub her body. Closing her eyes and relaxing in the calm and soothing environment, her mind quickly turned to it’s current favorite realm of contemplation: Kaleah.

Yesterday’s deliberations had apparently been for naught; one look into those deep blue eyes and the thoughts she had carefully contained leapt free once more. Sighing, she realized there was only one thing she could do; just accept the thoughts and try to ignore them as best she could. Hopefully, they would leave of their own volition once she was over this infatuation.

Suddenly, her imaginative mind remembered something she rarely ever thought of. Opening her eyes, Jess was helpless to stop the rakish grin that creased her mouth as she glanced over towards the wall to the left of the great oak doors. She searched for and quickly found the small hole in the intricate carvings of the wall . . . a hole invisible to all but those who knew where to look.

The peep-hole.

Jessica had discovered the secret spy-hole in the course of her explorations of Da’Gran, and she knew that many of the previous castle rulers had no doubt used it for their lascivious pleasures, watching those bathing within the chamber. Of course, she’d never used it herself, but the young woman’s creative mind had little trouble picturing the wonderful, exciting visions she might behold if she were to make use of the secret hole.

Jessica’s body instantly applauded the idea expressed by her mind, and she shivered a little at the heat that ran suddenly through her blood. The muscles in her groin tightened and curled upon themselves, and her breathing grew shallow.

Closing her eyes, Jessica attempted to gain control of the situation. “That’s enough,” she commanded, deciding her body was more likely to respond to verbal orders than non-verbal ones. “You are not doing any spying of any kind!”

Her body protested its displeasure.

“I mean it,” she insisted, squeezing her eyes shut tighter and making fists. “You’ve never sunk so low as to use the spy-hole . . . Never! And you’re not gonna start now!”

Ah, but there was never anyone like Kaleah worth spying on, her mind quickly pointed out to her. And it’s not as though you haven’t spied on everyone else in the castle at some point or another . . . just not quite like this.

Jessica felt herself flush as she realized this was true. She had watched the people in Da’Gran as they went about their business, using the secret passageways to allow her access into the lives of everyone from servant to soldier. “That’s not the same thing,” she told herself firmly. “This would be a betrayal of Kaleah’s trust.” Her heart ached just thinking of such a thing, and her body began to settle — albeit reluctantly.

She doesn’t need to know, her mind continued pursuasively, unwilling to give up. It won’t hurt your friendship at all. Don’t you want to watch her?

“No,” she growled through clenched teeth. “It would just be encouraging these thoughts, and you’ll be over them in a few days. That kind of encouragement is only going to make it take longer to get over this infatuation.”

But what if it’s not just an infatuation? inquired her mind rather pointedly. What if it’s more?

Jessica screwed up her face and wished for a moment she weren’t so good at debating; it would make this type of conversation so much easier. “It’s not,” she insisted. Opening her eyes, she glared down at her reflection in the water. “I am in charge here, and I say that this is just a natural reaction that you will have forgotten about in a couple of days! And if I say that’s all it is, than so help me God, that’s all it is!” She stopped and eyed herself narrowly. “Am I understood?”

Her reflection nodded somewhat petulantly through the distortion of the rippling waters.

“Good.” Flicking her hair over her shoulder, she quickly finished washing herself and exited the pool. Finding a towel in the back room, she dried off and slipped into her armor.

As she was about to leave, Jessica turned back to the room and studied the left wall thoughtfully. “Maybe I should just cover up that damn peep-hole once and for all,” she threatened herself. “Remove the temptation.” She turned and left, sealing the chamber as she went.

Her mind refused to rise to the bait, knowing full well the threat was a hollow one. There was a part of Jessica — a part she didn’t even know existed yet — that knew her feelings for her dark friend were not going to go away . . . and it counciled patience to the rest of her.

Patience.

Sooner or later, that part within the depths of her soul counciled . . . sooner or later, love has a habit of figuring itself out.

No matter how thick-headed a person might be.

*************************

The ancient remains of the once-great monastary lay in a wide clearing, even the trees appearing to respect the holy ground by not encroaching . A crisp layer of fresh snow blanketed the ruins, and as Kaleah looked around she had to admit her friend was right — there was a sense of quiet peace about the place that settled even her restless spirit.

Watching her dark-haired companion’s lips twitch into a reluctant smile, Jessica grinned and nudged her cheerfully. “See, I told you it was nice.”

Kaleah nodded, breathing in the cold winter air and releasing a sigh. “Yeah, you did.” She wandered slowly through the clearing, stopping to brush away ice from a half-buried brass bell. “How long has it been like this?”

“Don’t know,” Jess said. “Probably since my grandfather’s time.” Her voice became quieter. “I’ve been coming here since I was forteen years old . . . I needed to feel closer to God then more than ever.”

Something in Jessica’s voice made Kaleah look up curiously, just in time to catch a fleeting look of pain cross through expressive emerald eyes. “Why?”

Jess shrugged a little. “That was when I took my first life.”

“Oh.” Kaleah’s eyes flicked away uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It’s just something I’ve had to come to terms with. Something I had to face when I decided to walk this path.”

Kaleah was silent in thought, considering the strange dichotomy of the woman she was loosing her heart too. Jessica possessed an aura of such warmth and light and compassion, it was difficult for Kaleah to reconcile that with the image of the young girl as a fighter. Even when they were sparring, Jessica smiled and seemed so playful. After a time, sapphire eyes glanced up. “Why do you do this?”

“Do what?”

“This?” Kaleah gestured meaningfully to the rapier at Jessica’s side, then to the armor she wore. “You have the strength and the skill of a warrior, Jessica . . . but your heart wasn’t born for the battlefield.” Suddenly realising what she’d said, Kaleah flushed and turned away again. “I’m sorry. It’s not my place to say that to you.”

“No, that’s alright.” Jess smiled a little, flicking her hair out of her face. “You’re right; a part of me isn’t really cut out to be a fighter . . . at least not a soldier. But it’s what I want to be, so I just have to take the good with the bad and try to accept the things I can’t change.”

Dark brows arched thoughtfully, and Jessica sat on the curve of the giant church bell. “When I was just a little girl,” the blonde explained, “my mother was the one who raised me mostly. She tried to teach me that because I was born a noble, God held me in higher regard than he did the commoners. It was my place to rule, and their place to serve, because we were better than everyone else.” She frowned. “I was confused by her explanation, so I went to my father.

“My father told me a different story. He believed that God favoured no man over another, but valued all of us equally. He said we’re all born with different strengths and thus different purposes in life, but we all serve each other in one way or another.” Jess paused, watching Kaleah’s attentive expression before she continued. “He told me God gives farmers the skills they need to work the land, gives priests the skills to minister to the people, merchants the skills to trade, and so on. God made him a warrior, he said, and he was meant to use his gifts to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.” She smiled, remembering. “I asked him what God wanted me to be, and do you know what he said?”

“What?”

“He told me that every now and again — not very often — God makes a special person; a person who can do and be anything they want, who can follow any path in life they choose and be successful.” She smiled fully, her nose crinkling delightfully. “He said that I was one of God’s special people, and I would have to decide for myself how I should use his gift.”

“So you chose to become a warrior?”

Jess shrugged. “I looked at how much my mother was doing to make the world a better place, and then I looked at my father and decided he was helping more.” She paused, thinking. “I was very independent, even then. I guess what really decided me was the fact that my mother wanted me to follow in her footsteps — my father wanted me to walk in my own.

“After that, I watched the soldiers every chance I got, and started mimicking their actions. My father saw what I was doing, and he gave me over to Miles’ tutorship.” She grinned, thinking back on that time. “I was headstrong and stubborn, and lost my temper more than a few times with my teacher. But Miles was patient, and over the years I got better. When I was twelve, I followed my father to my first battle. When I was forteen, I killed for the first time.”

The sadness in her face touched Kaleah strongly, and the dark woman could see her friend was still affected even after many years. She could understand that.

“It hurt,” the young blonde said softly. “I came to this place then because I felt closer to God here than in the chapel at Da’Gran. For many days I struggled to deal with the fact that I’d taken a life. I was angry at myself . . . at God. But in the end, I realised that if I was going to commit myself to being a warrior, I had to accept the burden that came with such a life. And I did. I threw myself into my lessons with greater enthusiasm. I wanted to become good enough that I could outfight an opponent without killing him, and that’s pretty much what I did.” She smiled proudly. “I haven’t taken a life in over two years.”

Kaleah processed this, considering. “So, you fight to protect the commoners?”

“I live my life for the betterment of others, yes,” Jess nodded. “Of course, one of the worst things about being high-born is that I don’t get to bask in a lot of praise all that often. It’s a struggle sometimes just to convince some of the knights that I have a right to participate in a fight at all. It’d be nice to be able to just go among the commoners now and then without my mother telling me off.”

“Mmm.” Kaleah stood up and offered Jessica a hand. “You wanna show me the rest of this place?”

Jess accepted the hand and pulled herself to her feet, grinning. “Absolutely. There’s an old herb garden over here that still grows sage and rosemary during the Spring. Come on, I’ll show you.”

The young girl pulled the taller woman after her enthusiastically, Kaleah’s expression thoughtful.

***********************

“So,” Kaleah said as they left the stable and headed across the courtyard toward the keep. “Would you really like to be able to spend more time with the commoners?”

Jess flashed her a playful smirk. “I’m spending time with you, aren’t I?”

“Ha ha.” Kaleah swatted at the girl with mock indignation. “I’m serious. If you could, would you want to?”

“Of course. But I’m a noble; everytime I try to make friends with one of the peasants I get yelled at by my mother.” She gestured to Kaleah. “Except you, of course, and that’s only because we have unusual circumstances going on.”

“Wellll . . .” Kaleah raised an eyebrow rakishly. “We could always sneak out of the castle after dark and wander over to the village.”

“Oh, no!” Jessica raised her hands as if to fend of the suggestion. “Nononono, NO!” She started walking quickly away from Kaleah, shaking her head. The dark woman jogged after her and dragged her to a halt.

“I’m not interested,” the young blonde insisted, covering her ears and shutting her eyes.

With a smile, Kaleah gently removed her friends hands from her ears and brought her face up. “What’s the matter? Worried we’ll get caught?”

Green eyes narrowed. “No,” she said petulantly. “I’m not allowed to go into the village, that’s all. Even my father told me it’s too dangerous.”

Kaleah snorted and waved her hand dismisively. “He only told you that to keep you out of mischief,” she scoffed. “I’ve been to a few villages myself when I was forced to by circumstances; there’s nothing especially dangerous about them.”

“Really?” Jessica now appeared dubious, but interested.

“Really,” she confirmed. “As long as you don’t go looking for trouble, that is. We can bring our swords just in case, if you like. Believe me, no-one in town will be even close to a match for either of us.”

The young blonde considered this knew revelation. “But my father told me it wasn’t safe for young girls to go wandering about the village unescorted. He wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t have a good reason for wanting me to stay away from the town.”

Kaleah grinned. “Come on, Jessica,” she said. “From the stories I’ve overheard about you, your father’s fears are likely less for your sake than for the peasants.”

Those green eyes narrowed threateningly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Jessica demanded, poking Kaleah in the chest.

Kaleah raised her hands defensively and backed away a step. “Nothing, nothing. But let’s face it, you do have a reputation as something of a mischief-maker.” She grinned, remembering some of the stories she had overheard from the soldiers. “Is it true that you were kidnapped by an enemy wanting to hold you for ransom, but they gave you back after only a week because they thought you were bad luck?”

Jessica’s face flushed, and she lowered her head, letting her hair fall forward to cover her face. She gave a slight nod. “They couldn’t figure out any other reason for why they were suddenly being plagued by sickness, fires and vanishing underwear.” She stifled a giggle. “It never occurred to them that they should have tied me more securely then they did.”

Kaleah chuckled. “Your father’s probably afraid you’ll go off and cause trouble.”

“I guess. . .”

“And then again,” Kaleah went on, “he is right to worry about you wandering out there alone for another reason.”

“Why? I thought it was safe.”

“Weellll,” Kaleah hesitated, unsure whether her somewhat sheltered companion would understand the dangers she was thinking of. “You’re a very pretty young woman, Jessica. And there’s always the chance there could be bandits in the village — especially the tavern. If one of them saw you, they might figure to . . . you know . . .”

Jessica’s brow furrowed. “Abduct me for ransom?”

“Nnooo, not quite what I was getting at.” Kaleah blushed a little. “You’re very beautiful, you know. Very . . . pure . . . ?”

Jessica’s face developed a crimson hue. “You really think so?”

Kaleah struggled for a moment as she started to loose herself in the eyes that were regarding her with genuine interest. “Sure,” she said, trying to sound casual. She decided to try a more direct approach. Resting her hands on her friend’s shoulders, Kaleah adopted her best serious face. “Do you know what outlawed men might do to a young girl like you?” she asked quietly. “To someone who’s never . . . been with a man?”

Jessica studied her a minute, before understanding swept across her features. “Ohhhh,” she said, “You mean like rape?”

Kaleah nodded, relieved that her friend at least knew about such things. “Yes, like rape.” She felt her throat close up a little as she remembered some of her darker experiences as a slave.

Jessica saw the sad, haunted look that entered her friend’s crystal blue eyes, and wondered at it briefly. Had Kaleah gone through such things during her captivity? She remembered what the dark woman had said during their night together in the cave, about the scar that disfigured her face and how it made her less desirable to men. The realization of what she meant made the young blonde ache for the pain that Kaleah must have gone through . . . the pain she must carry with her always.

She had never really thought about such things before, but was serious now as she considered the grim danger. “You mean someone in the village might try to . . . do that . . . to me?”

“None of the peasants would, I’m sure,” Kaleah said. “But it’s always a possibility. Your father’s warning isn’t unjustified. You shouldn’t wander the village by yourself. But if I was with you, and we were both armed . . . ” She grinned a little, letting the dark memories raised by the topic fade away. “I’m sure we can handle ourselves, right?”

Jessica nodded reluctantly. “But the guards on the wall would stop us. How would we . . .?”

“Oh come on, Jessica,” Kaleah gave her a knowing look. “You’ve lived in this castle all your life; you must know every inch of the place.”

“Maybe.” Jessica swallowed as she remembered her thoughts of the peep-hole that morning. She knew more about Da’Gran than anybody.

“I’m sure you know a way to get past the soldiers without them knowing it,” Kaleah said. “Any place this big has to have at least one blind spot in it’s defenses, right?”

Jessica nodded reluctantly. She did indeed know of many such blind-spots. She had even considered using them to venture into the village she had only ever seen in passing, but her father’s stern warnings had always kept her from going.

“But how would we -”

“Excuse me . . . Lady Jessica?”

They turned and saw one of the guards standing there, his face solemn and apologetic.

“Yes?”

The guard glanced at both women curiously. “Forgive me for interrupting, Lady Jessica, but your mother has requested Kaleah’s company at once, in the anteroom.”

Kaleah was shocked, but no more so than her companion. “My mother wants to see Kaleah?”

The guard nodded, shuffling nervously. “Alone,” he added ominously.

Jessica’s eyes widened further. “Are you sure?”

“The Lady Rose was quite explicit,” he assured her, his expression making it clear he was aware how strange such a summons was.

Jessica turned to look at Kaleah. The dark woman shrugged. “Maybe she wants to get to know me,” she said with an optimism she didn’t actually feel. “Like your father.”

“Maybe.” Jessica’s tone was doubtful. “More likely she wants to stick a knife in your back.”

Kaleah forced a little laugh, but her eyes stayed cold. “I can take care of myself,” she assured her friend. “Why don’t you go wait in the courtyard. I’ll be out shortly. We can do some training and . . . continue our discussion. Alright?”

Jessica hesitated. “You sure you don’t want me to come?”

“Your mother said she wants me alone -”

“I know what she said, and I don’t give a damn! If you want me to come, I’ll come, and she can take it or leave it.” Jessica put her hands on her hips and glared a second at the guard, who, being familiar with the young blonde’s feisty attitude, was struggling to conceal his grin. “You are my guest in this castle, and are not at my mother’s beck and call.”

Kaleah felt her heart warm at the somewhat possessive quality in Jessica’s tone. She had heard others talk of her in a similar way, but never with this kind of genuine care and protectiveness. “I’ll be fine,” she assured her friend, patting her shoulder somewhat awkwardly. “Just wait for me in the courtyard, okay?”

For a moment, it seemed Jessica would refuse and insist on coming anyhow. But after a moment where rebellion flashed through angry green eyes, she huffed to herself and agreed. “Alright.” Her shoulders slumped and she ran her fingers through her hair in a gesture Kaleah recognized as meaning she was concerned or nervous. “But if you’re not out in a few minutes, I’m coming to get you.”

“Thanks.” Kaleah could only smile at her friend and marvel at how good it felt to have someone like Jessica who was truly concerned for her well-being. The affection she had felt in her heart for the young woman grew even deeper, and she thought she might explode from the intense feelings of love she had for her friend.

Turning to the guard before her emotions overcame her common sense and made her do something she knew she’d regret, Kaleah gestured for him to lead on. As they left Jessica behind, Kaleah felt her stomach flip-flop with another feeling; fear. What did Jessica’s mother want with her?

She had a feeling that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be anything good.

************************

Kaleah was led into an ante chamber that branched off from the audience hall. The room was small and tastefully decorated with tapestries and a few bookshelves. The guard led her inside, bowed once to the tall, slender woman waiting for them, then swiftly departed, closing the door as he left.

The Lady Rose smiled coldly at Kaleah, her eyes running up and down her form slowly. It was clear from her expression that she thought very little of what she saw.

Remembering that this was a woman of the nobility, Kaleah lowered her defiant eyes and performed a stiff bow. She knew she was supposed to curtsey, but chose not to; she would not offer a false gesture of respect, only an acknowledgement that the older woman held a noble title.

“You wished to speak with me, Milady?”

Lady Rose’s smile grew wider. She understood the unspoken message behind Kaleah’s actions, just as she heard the emptiness in her words.

“Yes.” The woman walked slowly forward, her steps measured and graceful. “I thought it was time we had a little talk . . . Kaleah, isn’t it?”

Kaleah nodded. The older woman had a way of saying her name that made it sound almost insulting. She stood still, forcing down her edgy temper as the Lady Rose walked around her, looking her up and down like she was a piece of meat at auction. Kaleah had some experience with that particular feeling. She gave Jessica’s mother a quick inspection of her own.

Lady Rose was not overly tall, though she was certainly far from being a model for her more diminutive daughter. Her hair was a reddish-blonde, and she wore it pulled into an intricate braid held in place with fanciful and doubtless expensive hair-clips. She wore a long, sweeping dress which was cinched at her extremely slender waist, and a glitteringly elegant necklace of gold and flashing cut stones. Her features held a similar cast of beauty to that of her children, marked only slightly by the imperfections brought on by her additional years.

Still, while there was a definite resemblance between mother and daughter, Kaleah had the impression that Lady Rose had never held the same inner beauty as Jessica did. The young blonde fairly shone with the glow of her warm and friendly nature — a beauty made more perfect by the fact that Jessica seemed so unaware of it, living in the castoff clothes of the soldiers and almost always messy and covered in dirt. So very unlike her mother.

Lady Rose finished her inspection and clasped her hands in front of her. Every action, every move the woman made was made with an air of calm and refined elegance that spoke of a lifetime spent learning proper etiquette and social graces. Standing stiff and erect under that scrutiny, Kaleah couldn’t help but feel like exactly what this woman thought she was; a barbarian savage from a Godless country.

Lady Rose smiled thinly again. “I understand you speak English fluently . . .?”

“Yes, Milady.” Kaleah was slightly insulted.

“Good.” Lady Rose regarded her with a cocked head. “I have noticed my daughter has been spending her time almost exclusively in your company,” she said, her tones cultured and aristocratic.

Kaleah nodded again. “She has, Milady.” She almost winced at how her accent, which she never noticed around Jessica, suddenly stood out like a bloodstain on white linen. “I am honored to have been of service to her.” She kept her tone polite, but the older woman continued to eye her with an air of mild curiosity overpowered by disdain.

“When I first heard that Jessica had captured a heathen barbarian woman on her latest escapade, and had requested that she be allowed custody of her, I was . . . disappointed.” Lady Rose turned and walked over to one of the tapestries hanging on the wall, one depicting scenes of an apparently religious nature. “Disappointed, but not greatly surprised.”

She turned back to observe Kaleah again, fixing her with eyes that carried at least a measure of the intensity her daughter’s were capable of. “Jessica has a habit of dragging home every stray she comes across,” Lady Rose continued. “Homeless dogs, orphaned fox-cubs, birds with broken wings . . . you name it. Any helpless animal she’s ever found, she’s brought it to the castle and tried to nurse it back to health.”

Kaleah struggled to stop her lip from curling into a snarl, not missing the scarcely veiled insult.

Lady Rose sighed, spreading her hands in a gesture of weary patience. “Fortunately, she usually gets bored with them after a few days, and let’s them go again.” She fixed Kaleah with an expression of annoyance. “I had hoped that such would be the case with you, Kaleah. But apparently, Jessica’s interest in you has proven to be more than simply . . . transient. For whatever reason, you have maintained her interest more than anything else ever has.” She paused for effect. “Frankly, I am becoming concerned with this continued relationship.”

Kaleah let an eyebrow raise into her bangs. “No disrespect, Milady,” she said slowly, “but my company does not harm your daughter. Our relationship — such as it is — seems . . .” She struggled to find the right word. “. . .beneficial, for us both.”

“Oh really?” Lady Rose raised an eyebrow in perfect immitiation of the way Jessica did. “I would have thought a woman with your history would have preferred a life without such servitude.”

Kaleah recognized that she was being baited, and felt again the years of practicing to remain calm and controlled surge forward to stop her from simply jumping forward and ringing this woman’s neck. “I guess old habits die hard,” she said softly, with thinly veiled malice.

“I understand my daughter gave you your freedom,” Lady Rose continued. “And yet you remain here. I was thinking that perhaps, with your freedom restored to you, it might be time to consider moving on. My daughter will tire of you eventually, believe me. It’s only a matter of time. If I may be frank with you . . .” her eyes lost a great deal of their polite facade, “. . . you are no different than the wandering beasts that Jessica tries to care for. My daughter is a young lady of noble birth and breeding. You are beneath her, and I do not believe it to be appropriate for you to remain here as her guest.” Her voice had taken on a cold and sharp edge, which was reflected in her gaze. “Do you understand me?”

Kaleah regarded her with a frozen expression for long moments. She considered the older woman’s words carefully, and then nodded once, slowly. “I understand you,” she said very softly. “But with all due respect, the decision isn’t yours to make. Jessica has told me I am her guest, not yours. Sir Richard, your husband, has given his approval for my presence. These things taken into consideration, you do not have the right to order me from the castle.”

“I know that,” Lady Rose acknowledged. “I’m not ordering you out — just giving you my considered advice.” She smiled very coldly. “As a friend.”

“I see.”

Lady Rose turned away and effected to study the tapestry on the wall with great interest. “You know . . .” she said casually, “I heard one of the kitchen maids was injured quite severely a few nights ago. An oil fire broke out in the kitchens, or so I heard. She was badly burned. Quite a terrible accident.”

Kaleah’s eyes narrowed, wondering if Lady Rose was going to attempt to link her with the event. “What’s your point?”

“My point?” Dull green eyes regarded her mildly. “I’m merely pointing out that accidents happen. It’s a big castle, after all. It can be a dangerous place for those who are, shall we say, unaccustomed to it’s workings. If you’re going to stay here, you should know that bad things could happen to you as a result.”

Ice blue eyes narrowed. “You threaten me?”

“Threaten? Me?” Lady Rose effected a look of offended shock. “Of course not, my dear. I am sincere in my desire to keep you safe from any harm — and my daughter safe from elements that might be . . . undesirable.”

Kaleah was still for long moments, her face a carefully blank mask. “Are we done here?”

Lady Rose nodded. “I think you understand me,” she said softly.

“Oh, I understand you, Milady,” Kaleah whispered in a voice thick with suppressed emotion. “But before I go, I will say this; in my life, I have met some of the most vicious, evil and twisted creatures ever to take human form. I have been exposed to their cruelties and have suffered much at their hands.” She let the snarl come now as she let the full weight of her presence fill the room, enjoying a moment of intense satisfaction as the Lady Rose took a hesitant step back.

“Wh-what’s your point?” she stammered, her face less certain now.

Kaleah smiled a feral smile that twisted the scar on her lips in a strange and ugly way. “My point is that, compared to them, anything you could dream up would seem like a minor annoyance to me at worst.”

Giving Jessica’s mother a stiff bow that held not a trace of respect, Kaleah turned and stalked out of the ante chamber without looking back. She had more important things to do than waste her time listening to pointless threats. Jessica was her friend. Her only friend. After living so many years with no-one else to share her life, Kaleah wasn’t about to give up the first honest friendship she’d ever known. She had endured pain and torment at the hands of cruel men all her life, and gained nothing in return but a legacy of scars that never healed. She was more than prepared to risk anything to stay with Jessica, and nothing that Lady Rose could do would make her think otherwise.

*******************

Lady Rose stood silent and unmoving for several minutes after the barbarian woman left. She had expected the dark-haired savage to be somewhat more amenable to her suggestion; it had not occurred to her that Kaleah would be so loyal to her daughter.

In truth, she admitted to herself, there was something about the savage that frightened her a little. The dark woman possessed a core of animal strength that reeked of violence, an inner power that had slipped away from her momentarily at the end of their conversation. Lady Rose had felt it and been impressed . . . and somewhat intimidated. But if this heathen believed for one minute that she had won, she was mistaken. Lady Rose would not stand idly by as this Godless savage filled her young daughter’s impressionable head with her barbaric ideals. No, there was no doubt about it. Kaleah was a dangerous companion for Jessica, and the more time they spent together, the worse the damage would be. If she would not leave voluntarily, then Lady Rose would just have to convince her.

Still, Kaleah had raised a point that she had not considered. The former slave was not likely to be a soft target. Her body gave silent testimony to the pain she had endured and survived. Lady Rose would never have dreamed of trying to physically intimidate or harm the dark woman herself . . . but that didn’t mean she was above using others to do so.

Considering her plan carefully for a moment — making sure it wasn’t likely to draw the attention of her intelligent daughter in her direction — Lady Rose decided it would do nicely. At the very least, it would let Kaleah know she was serious. Smiling coldly, her eyes mere slits, Lady Rose summoned a soldier and asked him to send for the captain of the guard.

**************************

Out in the courtyard, Jessica sat waiting for Kaleah as patiently as she could. To a casual observer, the young blonde might have seemed quite relaxed. She sat on a resting bench, her hands folded in her lap, apparently calm and tranquil. However, to the soldiers who had known her all her life, it was clear that she was nervous and on edge. Her green eyes were constantly moving, and she would often run her fingers through her long hair to sweep it out of her face. Her expression was stormy and troubled, not content, and she tapped her left foot from time to time on the cobble-stone ground.

Should it be taking this long? she wondered, fighting the urge to fidget. Why would her mother want to talk to Kaleah anyway? It was pretty damn obvious she didn’t like the woman. Jessica hated not knowing, hated the feeling that Kaleah might be in trouble, knowing she couldn’t help her friend.

She waited several more minutes. Then, just as she was about to go and retrieve her dark companion, mother or no mother, her roving eyes saw the woman striding toward her down the stone steps. Jessica smiled and rushed over to her.

“Well, what did she want?” she demanded. Kaleah’s expression was hard to read. She had adopted a look of obviously forced nonchalance, but the smile she gave Jessica was genuine enough and warmed the young woman’s heart instantly, making butterflies dance in her stomach.

Kaleah shrugged. “Nothing really,” she said casually. “Just wanted to chat.”

Jessica narrowed her eyes and stood directly in Kaleah’s path, hands on her hips. “Yeah, right. What did she say?”

Kaleah groaned inwardly, and rolled her eyes. “Honestly, it was nothing-” The expression in the young woman’s eyes stopped her. It was clear she was going to have to give Jessica something plausible, and she knew her friend was sharp enough to spot an outright lie. But that didn’t mean she had to tell her everything. “Okay,” she sighed. “Your mother told me she didn’t approve of us spending so much time together.”

“And?”

“And, thought it was time I moved on, and left her precious, high-born daughter alone.”

Jessica snorted in a most unladylike fashion, and Kaleah grinned. “What did you tell her?”

“That I was your guest, and that since your father approved of my being here, I wasn’t going anywhere for the time being.”

Jessica’s smile touched Kaleah’s soul and wrapped around it tightly. “You actually said that?”

“Yes. She didn’t seem happy about it, but she admitted there wasn’t a lot she could do. It’s not like she can run me off if I don’t want to go.”

“That’s right,” Jessica grinned and gave her tall companion a quick, shy hug that was not rejected. “Not while I’m around.”

Kaleah coughed and decided it was time to change the subject. “Well . . . before we were interrupted, I believe we were talking about our trip into the village tonight.”

Jessica’s smile faltered. “I’m still not really sure we should . . .”

“Oh come on.” Kaleah slapped the blonde playfully. “With all the stories I’ve heard about you, I’d have thought you’d be the one dragging me into town.”

“I’m not that bad.” Jessica protested half-heartedly.

“Riiiight.” A dark eyebrow raised in delicious challenge. “You know, if you’re too scared I could just go by myself.”

“Scared!?” Jessica’s eyes flared. She knew what her friend was doing, but couldn’t stop the competitive fires from bursting to life within her. She had always felt compelled to prove herself to those people whose opinions mattered to her. Before there had only ever really been her father and Sir Miles, but now she knew she wanted Kaleah’s respect and admiration as well. She glared at the dark woman. “Alright,” she growled through clenched teeth. “We’ll go.”

“Great!” Kaleah clapped her hands once, and started dragging her shorter companion back to their rooms.

“Wait! I thought we were going to do some training.”

“We’ll come back, if there’s time,” Kaleah told her. “Right now, we have to plan exactly what we’re going to do. We have to organize our disguises, and how we get in and out of the castle, and things like that. How much money do you have?”

“Why?” Jessica let herself be dragged along.

“Because we’ll need money to buy food and something to drink,” Kaleah explained. “It’s a tavern, afterall. They won’t let us just sit there in the warmth unless we buy something. Oh, and we’ll need to make sure the kitchen doesn’t send our dinner up to us like they usually do; we’ll be gone as soon as it gets dark.”

Jessica sighed. And I thought I was bad. She had a feeling this plan was going to lead to nothing but trouble.
Chapter 8.
It turned out that Jessica’s feeling of trepidation and concern lasted about as long as it took for Kaleah to take them both back to the younger woman’s bedroom. Kaleah continued to talk, pointing out various things to be considered for their little expedition that Jessica ceased listening too after a while. The more the young blonde thought about this, the more excited she became. Just think. . . she would be going into the peasant village disguised as one of them! It was certain to be quite an experience.

They left as soon as the sun went down. Jessica procured a couple of outfits from the kitchen servants that were ragged but still warm enough to combat the bite from winter’s jaws of ice and snow. They made sure their clothes came complete with hoods; as Kaleah pointed out, Jessica’s fair and beautiful features had nobility written all over them.

Although the village was only a few miles from the castle and they could easily walk the distance, Jessica insisted that they ride. Kaleah protested that none of the peasants would own horses except for a few heavy work animals, but Jessica was adamant.

“We can leave them tied up just outside of town,” she argued. “No-one will bother them, and we’ll pick them up on the way back. There’s no way I’m walking miles through the cold night so I can sit in some dirty tavern. We ride, or we don’t go at all.”

So in the end, of course, they rode.

The ride was bitterly cold. A wind had sprung up out of nowhere, and it cut through their ragged garb as though it wasn’t even there. They stopped a few hundred feet from the edge of the village, tying off the horses outside an abandoned barn a short way from the rutted track that continued into town. Then they walked the remaining distance, stopping as they reached the first thatched building that served as a home for a peasant family. From deeper inside the village boisterous music played, and the two friends smiled at one another.

Jessica was about to continue on when Kaleah grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Wait!”

“What?”

Kaleah pushed the hood from her friends face and scowled. The full moon illuminated Jessica’s clean, soft features clearly. “We can’t go in with you looking like that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because you look as though you’ve bathed in the last three days.”

Blonde brows furrowed. “That’s because I have,” Jessica observed wryly.

“Exactly. No peasant can afford such a luxury, Jessica. They’d spot you in an instant as nobility. Here . . .” She reached down and scooped up a small handful of mud. “This’ll do the trick . . .”

Jessica pulled away and glared at her companion. “You’re not serious!?”

Kaleah nodded. “If it makes you feel any better, you get to do the same thing to me.”

Jess considered this, and a slow smile crept across her face. “Okay,” she allowed, leaning forward to let Kaleah rub the dirt and mud gently into her face. “I guess that’s worth it.”

Kaleah grinned, trying to be as gentle as possible. When she was done, she studied her friend’s now not-so-clean face in the moonlight. “Not perfect, but it’ll do.” The young woman was still painfully beautiful even with the additional grime. Kaleah knew that no amount of mud could ever make Jessica look like just another peasant. “Better keep your face covered up, though,” she added as an afterthought as Jessica reached out with her own handful of mud, her expression perhaps a little too eager for Kaleah’s tastes.

“My turn,” the blonde said with a grin as she began to enthusiastically cover the dark woman’s face liberally.

“Easy.” Kaleah warned. “Don’t get any in my eyes.”

“Sorry.” Jessica slowed down, not wanting to hurt her friend. She unconsciously cupped Kaleah’s cheek as she finished, stroking the scar on her lips slowly. She had no idea why she liked doing that so much, but the gesture somehow made her feel more connected to the dark woman.

When she realized what she was doing, Jessica quickly drew her hand away, avoiding the blue eyes that regarded her with gentle intensity. She reprimanded herself mentally, but knew she couldn’t help it. The chemistry between her and the dark woman was growing stronger, drawing them together like two lodestones. “I, uh. I think you’re done.”

Kaleah studied her young friend a moment longer. She liked the feeling of intimacy that Jessica’s repeated gesture brought, and for a split second, it was on the tip of her tongue to ask her to continue. When she realized what she was thinking, Kaleah scolded herself. Better lay off the drink tonight, she noted. You don’t want to go loosing your inhibitions while you’re feeling like this.

Once Kaleah had herself back under control, she smiled and patted Jessica on the arm. “Okay. Let’s go.” They stood up and headed slowly towards the source of the music. “You brought money, right?”

Jessica patted the fat pouch tied at her hip, just next to the short slender blade she’d chosen to carry for protection. Her own sword was too long and conspicuous for this adventure, but she was adept with any edged weapon, and felt safer being armed.

Kaleah nodded when she heard the clink of the coins. “Good. Just remember; we go in, I’ll find us a table, and we sit down. Don’t stare at anything, just be casual. Try not to say too much. If we stay in the background and don’t attract any attention, we can listen to everyone, right?”

Jessica nodded. Her body was tense and thrumming with excitement. Her green eyes darted everywhere, taking it all in. She had only ever seen this place in passing, and she tried to remember every detail.

After a minute or two, they finally came to the source of the lively music. Jessica studied the large building with avid curiosity. It was bigger than most of the other structures in the village. The wooden shutters on the windows were open, and light and sound poured from within. Smoke rose from a central chimney, writhing into the chilly night sky like phantom demons. Jess smiled and tried to calm herself down, taking her cue from Kaleah. Even though she was sure the dark woman was typically nervous — as she always was when anticipating company — Kaleah still managed to appear bored and unimpressed by her surroundings.

Jessica pulled her hood about her face and caught up her friends larger hand. Meeting the dark woman’s eyes, which had turned a deep purple shade in the moonlight, she grinned playfully. “Shall we . . .?”

Kaleah returned the grin and nodded, bracing herself mentally for the challenge of being around so many people.

“This should be fun,” she heard the young blonde say as she led them into the village tavern.

*****************************

The inside of the tavern was smoky, loud, and very, very warm. Jessica, unprepared for the heat radiating from a fireplace in the center of the large common-room, blinked in surprise and stopped completely in her tracks. Kaleah promptly bumped into her.

The place was fairly full of people, but there were a few tables still unattended. A group of peasants were playing their music from a small, raised stage at the back of the room, and everyone appeared to be happy and friendly. And apparently, she added, quite talkative, too.

That made sense, she supposed. Winter was a time when the peasants stayed largely indoors. The crops had been harvested last season, and planting would not begin till spring, which left the dreary, cold months of winter for such activities as weaving, sewing, and trying to stay alive. Firewood had to be gathered from time to time, but apart from that, Jessica realized the peasants would likely see little of each other during the winter apart from such social gathering as this. It was understandable, therefore, that they would want to make the most of their time together.

Kaleah pointed to a far wall. “Over there,” she said, speaking directly into Jessica’s ear to be heard over the din of dozens of people all talking and arguing. Jessica looked, and saw an empty table that sat in an area of relative shadow.

She nodded approvingly. “Looks good.” A few people gave them curious looks as they moved through the tavern, but nothing more. They were, after all, just another couple of strangers. And being women, they weren’t likely to be dangerous . . . not like the mercenaries or bandits who would stop by sometimes.

They sat down and studied the room together. While Jessica’s eyes were filled with innocent curiosity, her companion’s were not so naive. Kaleah scanned quickly for anyone who would be likely to cause them trouble, and immediately noticed a group of three rough looking men sitting at the other end of the room. By their dress and the weapons they carried prominently, she recognized them as fighting men. Not bandits, she decided — their equipment was too well-kept. Mercenaries, then. They hadn’t noticed her and Jessica yet, but it was only a matter of time. She made a mental note to keep an eye on them.

It wasn’t long before a barmaid came over and gave them both an appraising glance. “What can I get you?” she asked.

Kaleah ordered stew and bread for both of them, and a couple of ale’s. She gestured for Jessica to pay the woman, which she did, handing over the requisite coins with a shy smile and a “Thank you.” The barmaid returned the smile and left, but Kaleah noticed with some amusement that her eyes lingered over Jessica’s face and figure for a long moment.

Apparently I’m not the only one in town with an appreciation of such things.

“You ordered ale?” Jessica asked when the barmaid left.

“Sure. Is that a problem?”

Jessica blushed a little. She didn’t want to seem like a child in front of Kaleah, but she wasn’t going to pretend to be any more worldly than she actually was. “I’ve just . . . well, I’ve never . . . you know?”

Kaleah caught on and smiled in understanding. “Not a big drinker, huh?”

Jessica’s blush deepened. “Not really,” she said. “I have wine during festivals, but . . .”

“Don’t worry,” Kaleah reassured her. “I’m not much for the stuff myself. But a few drinks will take the edge off the cold on the ride home. We might as well enjoy ourselves, since we’re here.” She produced a full, dazzling grin which her younger friend returned a little nervously. “So. . . what do you think so far?”

Jessica studied the room and the people in it. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. There wasn’t even a hint of danger in the air. There were people of all ages, not just adults, as she had thought there would be, but a few children and quite a number of women, too. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. She smiled, her eyes twinkling merrily in the flickering firelight. “I can’t believe I let my father’s warning keep me from doing this for so long,” she said. “This place is great!”

“Uh huh. Just make sure you keep your wits about you,” Kaleah warned her, nodding once toward the group of mercenaries. Jessica followed her glance and frowned. “Don’t worry,” Kaleah said, sitting back and getting comfortable. “They probably won’t do anything, but it’s good to be sure you know where the danger is, just in case. Okay?”

Jessica understood clearly, and nodded. The place may indeed be friendly, but her friend’s warning reminded her that they weren’t in Da’Gran anymore. There weren’t soldiers at every wall, waiting to protect her if anything should happen. This wasn’t even a battlefield, where her father and his men would always be close by if she got herself in trouble. Here, if she were forced into a confrontation, she had only herself and Kaleah to depend on. And if she got hurt, no-one in Da’Gran knew she was here. She straightened her posture and ordered herself to be more alert.

The waitress returned in short order with their drinks and two bowls of steaming stew. “Here you go.” She laid them on the table and gave Jessica a long, appreciative once over. “And if you need anything else . . .” her eyes took on a seductive hue, “. . . anything at all . . . just give me a call.”

Jessica just smiled innocently at her from under her hood. “Sure, we will.”

Kaleah grinned as the waitress returned the smile and left, her hips swaying a little more than necessary.

Jessica, completely oblivious to the lustful intentions of the attractive bar-maid, tore her stick of bread apart and used it to soak up the thick lamb stew. There were no spoons used here, but she had expected that. Jessica prided herself on being able to survive without the trappings of her nobility, enjoyed the knowledge that she didn’t need all the expensive luxuries that her high birth had given her. Although, she thought, it might be tough to have to live without baths. Even the rich smells from the kitchen in back and the burning wood from the fire couldn’t quite mask the odor of unwashed bodies.

The stew was actually rather good, and Jessica took a hesitant sip of her ale, hoping it would also be agreeable with her. As she tasted the warm, sweet liquid, she smiled in surprise.

Kaleah regarded her with amusement. “Good?”

“Mmmm.” She nodded, and took a larger mouthful. It slid down her throat leaving a pleasant sparkly feeling behind. “Nice. Much better than that God-awful whiskey Miles gave me when I went to save you from the storm. I like it.”

“I’m glad.” Kaleah took a long sip of her own drink, then waited for her friend to follow suit before she mentioned, quite casually, “You know, the barmaid is flirting with you.”

Jessica’s ale flew out her mouth and nose as her eyes widened. “What!?”

Kaleah grinned and gave her an innocent look. “You didn’t know?” she asked in mock surprise. Reaching out, she mopped up some of the spat out ale from the table and continued eating her stew. “I thought it was pretty obvious.”

“What do you mean, she’s flirting with me?”

“Is flirted the right word?” Kaleah asked, looking as puzzled as she could. “I’m sorry, I sometimes get difficult words confused. I mean she’s . . . attracted to you, and was expressing her interest.”

Jessica’s bright green eyes were wide, and her mouth hung open as she looked about the room wildly. No-one was close enough to be able to hear them, and none of the peasants seemed interested in them much at all. “What are you talking about?” she demanded in a hiss, keeping her voice down anyway.

Kaleah sighed and pointed to where the bar-maid was serving a table on the other side of the room. “I’m talking about her,” she said. “She likes you, and she was flirting with you.”

Jessica’s face was blank and confused. “When?”

“Just before, when she brought our food.”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“Oh? Well she was checking you out, and from the look on her face, I’d say she liked what she saw.” Kaleah’s grin turned rakish. “’If there’s anything at all I can do for you, just call me . . .’” she mimicked the husky, seductive tones of the barmaid, and batted her eyelashes teasingly at the now furiously blushing blonde.

Jessica looked at the barmaid in disbelief. When the girl saw her looking, she threw the young blonde a smile and winked.

It was true!

“Oh my God!”

Kaleah chuckled. “What’s the matter?” she asked, patting her friend on the hand. “She’s right, you’re very pretty. This can’t be the first time someone’s looked at you like that.”

“Well . . . sure, but um, you know, it’s not . . . she’s a -”

“A woman?”

Jessica nodded, feeling very flustered and embarrassed by the now suddenly obvious attention of the barmaid.

Kaleah just grinned, though her friend’s reaction wasn’t quite what she might have wanted. “It’s just a preference,” she said softly, deciding it wouldn’t do to tease the young woman too much. “Bet you don’t get to hear about that sort of thing locked up in Da’Gran, huh princess?” Her smile was still playful.

“No, it’s not that,” Jessica blurted, taking another long sip of ale while trying to get her blush to go away. Her eyes watered a little as the amber liquid slid down her throat. “I’ve heard about that sort of thing. I just never realized . . . you know. I didn’t think that anyone so close would be . . . well . . .”

Kaleah’s eyes widened in surprise. “You know that women can be intimate with other women?”

Jessica shrugged. “Sure,” she said off-handedly. “I told you, I read a lot. There were a few things about women like that in one or two of the stories I bought.” She decided Kaleah didn’t need to know that she deliberately sought out such tales, or that ‘one or two’ was actually twenty or thirty. Such details were unimportant.

Kaleah could only nod. “Oh.” She supposed she should have known.

“I’ve never had a woman actually say anything to me,” Jessica continued. “Of course, I’ve never really been around other women outside the castle.” She gave Kaleah a helpless, lost look. “What should I do?”

Kaleah shrugged. “Just be polite, and when she asks if she can do anything else for you, just say thanks, but you’ll be fine. She’ll see you’re not interested, and accept it.” She paused for a long moment, then added with a saucy grin, “Unless, of course, you’re interested in getting more of an education tonight than we planned on.” Jessica’s face was a picture of embarrassed shock, and Kaleah enjoyed her expression thoroughly. “In which case, all you have to do is say, yes, you’re interested in what her duties are after the tavern closes down for the night, and maybe she could-”

“I am not interested,” Jessica hissed, the blush back in full force.

“Well fine.” Kaleah smiled innocently. “She’s not going to bite your head off just because you reject her advances.”

“But . . . I don’t know how to.” Jessica gave her best impression of a lost puppy.

Kaleah sighed, and drank from her mug. “Would you like me to deal with it?” she asked.

Jessica’s face lit up. “Would you?”

“Sure. I think I know just the way to send her the right message.”

“Thank you.” Jessica looked almost comically relieved. Throwing the still watching barmaid a nervous smile, she returned to her stew and tried to concentrate on the conversations going on around them.

Unfortunately, Jessica quickly found that it was hard to listen to the people. There were so many voices all talking at once, it was impossible to catch more than fleeting snippets of their conversations. And what she did hear was nothing she didn’t already know.

The topic most of the people seemed to be discussing wasn’t the situation at Da’Gran; the young girl realized quickly the peasants had more immediate concerns than the politics of their rulers. The bandits that tended to raid Sir Richard’s lands were worse than usual this winter, congregating in dangerously large numbers. The peasants knew Da’Gran soldiers were doing the best they could, but from what Jessica made out the patrols weren’t enough to stem the danger.

Kaleah, who had stopped her teasing and was listening too, leaned closer. “Is this sort of thing normal?”

Jess shrugged. “Bandits are nothing new, no. I guess you know we try to deal with them quickly.” She smirked at her friend. “But we usually manage to keep things under control.” Her expression grew a little more serious. “I knew there were more raiders than we typically get. . . but it sounds pretty bad.”

Soon, the two friends finished their drinks and Kaleah gestured for the barmaid to bring another round. Since the girl was keeping one eye fixed enticingly on Jessica, it was easy to get her attention and she returned quickly with two full mugs. Setting them on the table, she gave the young blonde — who was blushing furiously and trying unsuccessfully to keep her eyes from staring at the barmaid’s more well displayed attributes — a radiant smile.

“Will that be all?” the buxom girl asked. Seeing where Jessica’s gaze was fixed, she placed her hands on her hips and thrust herself even further forward.

Kaleah just smiled, then reaching over, she put her hand firmly over her friends and leaned closer into Jessica, her posture protective. “We’ll be fine for the time being,” she said, forcing the barmaid to take her eyes off the young blonde. Her tone was unmistakably possessive, and she saw the girl falter for a moment.

The barmaid studied them, her eyes going from their clasped hands to the defensive way Kaleah was leaning against her friend. Then, she gave a little shrug, her smile returning as she transferred her attention to Kaleah. “No problem.” Her tone was still husky. “If you think of anything later, I’ll be here all night.” Her eyes became hooded as she regarded them both with a sensual smile. “Once everyone leaves, it usually takes me an hour or so to clean up. I could always use a little company . . . the more the merrier . . .”

Kaleah didn’t even blink. Not quite what I had in mind, but . . . “Some other time, perhaps,” she said, letting a slight smile play across her lips and giving the girl a wink she was sure Jessica wouldn’t see. Hell, there was no point burning bridges, especially if she was going to be staying at Da’Gran for a long time. Her feelings for her young friend were getting stronger, and her body was starting to get more anxious about a few things. Just because she couldn’t proposition Jessica didn’t mean she had to go the rest of her life without physical companionship, even if it wasn’t with the person she wanted.

The barmaid, reading the hidden promise in her gesture, smiled even broader and wandered off to continue with her duties. Kaleah gave herself a mental pat on the back, and picked up her mug. When she turned to Jessica, she found the young woman staring at her, mouth hanging open.

“What?”

“What was all that about!?” Jessica demanded, still blushing.

Kaleah shrugged. “You said you wanted me to handle it, right? Well, I doubt she’ll be bothering you anymore. What’s the problem?”

Jessica tried to say something, but for several moments found she could not produce words. Eventually, she managed to figure out a sentence. “Now she thinks that we’re . . . we’re . . .”

“Lovers? So what?”

Jessica tried to say something, but it was impossible to argue with the dark eyebrow that raised deliciously, daring her to challenge the fact that the idea had worked — in a roundabout way. After a long moment of struggling, she just snorted at her friend, and took another sip of her ale.

Kaleah studied the girl carefully for long moments, trying to gauge her reaction. Jessica didn’t seem offended by the idea of women being together with other women. Rather, she seemed embarrassed about the topic. That made sense, she supposed. Although she might be worldly about some matters, Jessica was still painfully innocent in a great many ways. At least she didn’t seem to have been infected with the vicious hatred the religion in this country encouraged against such people. That in itself was pretty surprising, though very characteristic of the young woman.

Finishing the last of her stew, she regarded the young blonde seriously. “Does it bother you that I let her think that?”

Jessica met her steady gaze for a moment, then looked away. “I guess not. I mean, not really,” she said quietly. “I just thought you were going to discourage her a little differently. Like I said, I know about that stuff, and it doesn’t bother me. You just surprised me, that’s all.”

Kaleah smiled. Jessica wasn’t upset about her little joke. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to,” she lied. “I gotta say, it didn’t work like I thought it would. Now she seems interested in both of us.”

“Yeah, what’re you planning to do about that?”

Kaleah grinned mysteriously and shrugged. “No harm in letting her be interested,” she said, her eyes studying the girl now serving a group of peasants in the far corner of the common-room. “She’s pretty enough, afterall, and I’m not likely to get a better offer any time soon.”

Jessica stared at her, her mug frozen half-way to her mouth. “Are you serious?”

“Only half,” she allowed. Jessica didn’t need to know she was actually considering a future rendezvous with the serving girl. “She is attractive, afterall. If I was in the market — which I’m not particularly — I could do a lot worse.” She saw the open-mouthed expression of surprise on Jess’s face, and smiled wryly. “Shut your mouth if you’re not going to drink.”

Jessica shut her mouth with an audible snap, but continued staring at Kaleah as the dark woman sipped her ale slowly. The young blonde could hardly believe what she was hearing! Was Kaleah saying that she was . . . interested in women? In that way? It sure sounded like it. Before her mind could begin to lay the groundwork for any of the pictures it wanted to draw for her, Jessica reminded herself firmly that, even if Kaleah did like women in that way, it didn’t change the fact that the dark woman had never expressed any interest in her.

Kaleah noticed her still staring, and raised an eyebrow. “What now?”

She shook herself away from her rather bitter contemplation’s of what might — but could never — be. “N-nothing,” she stammered, taking a drink to cover her nervousness. Silence reined for a few minutes before she could stand it no longer and simply asked, “So, you’re saying that . . . she’s,” she indicated the barmaid, “the sort of person you might be attracted to? If you were looking for someone?”

Kaleah took her time considering exactly how much to say. She regarded Jessica seriously, holding her eyes and not letting go. “She might be,” she replied quietly. “On a strictly physical level . . . maybe.”

Jessica thought that through, and nodded slowly. “So . . . you like women? Sexually?”

“I thought you said you weren’t bothered by the idea,” Kaleah observed, her eyes maintaining their intense hold on Jessica.

“I’m not,” Jessica said quickly. “I just didn’t know. And before you go saying it’s none of my business, I know that too. But you have to admit . . .” she smiled a little, “. . . it’s kind of a surprise to find out about.” The blonde saw fear and apprehension flash across Kaleah’s face for a second, recognized it for what it was.

“This . . . doesn’t change anything, does it?” Kaleah asked softly. “I mean, we’re still friends, right?”

Jessica looked faintly insulted. “Of course,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

Kaleah shrugged and looked away, drinking half her mug of ale in one swallow. “I just thought . . . The Church here-”

“You thought I might suddenly figure you were a sick, sinful barbarian afterall, and banish you forever, huh?” Jessica grinned playfully and mock-punched the dark woman gently in the arm. “You may be a barbarian, Kaleah, but if I was gonna banish you because of that, I’d have done it a long time ago. Could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble, saving your butt from the storm and all.”

Kaleah laughed lightly and finished off her second ale. “I guess so.” She was glad Jessica didn’t mind about her preference. Still, she reminded herself and the rising desire that ran through her loins, that didn’t mean the girl shared her tastes. It might be harmless to fantasize, but anything else would be inappropriate, and could destroy the only friendship she’d ever had in her life.

Sitting the mug down on the table, the former slave decided she’d had enough ale for one evening. While Kaleah had had little experience with alcohol, she’d had enough to know her limits. Although she was tall, she was thin, and lightly muscled. Intoxicants went right to her head, and the ale was rather strong. Anymore, and she might be tipsy enough to say or do something to give away her feelings.

A sudden crude comment shouted from across the room drew her attention to another reason to stop drinking. The three mercenaries had apparently noticed the presence of the two young women, and one of them had just called out his suggestion of a possible evenings entertainment. Kaleah felt her blood start to rise in anger, her vision dull. Taking a deep breath, she stilled her natural instinct to rush over and kill the men where they sat laughing. Jessica, sensing the energy that thrummed through her tense body, reached over and laid a restraining hand on her arm.

“They’re just words,” the young blonde said reassuringly. “They can’t hurt us.”

Kaleah struggled with her temper, and managed to gain a firm grip on it. “The words might not hurt us,” she whispered, “but what if they take it further because I don’t stop it now.” She met the clear green eyes of her companion as she gently removed the hand that was now rubbing her arm soothingly. “Better to deal with it before the ale makes them bolder.”

“You don’t have to.” Jessica’s eyes beseeched her to stay calm.

“I do.” She smiled as she got to her feet. The comments and hollering from the drunk mercenaries increased as the men saw her rise. She patted Jessica on the shoulder. “It’s okay, I’ll stay calm. I don’t always loose control, you know. Relax.” She fixed the men with an icy stare that was colder and more dangerous than the winter chill outside. “Be back in a minute.”

***************************

Striding over, aware that most of the conversation in the common-room had died down and the music stopped, Kaleah planted herself in front of the largest and most imposing of the grinning men. Using her height to good advantage, she looked down at him, a thin smile on her lips, her eyes like steel.

“Something you wanted?” she asked, setting her hands on her hips and serupticously sliding a hand under her peasant robes, wrapping long fingers around the hilt of a hidden dagger. She could feel the nervous eyes watching her and cursed inwardly. Damn! They were trying to keep this low-key. But it couldn’t be helped. These men were drinking hard, and would make more trouble later if they weren’t cut down to size now.

The big mercenary looked up at her with bleary, bloodshot eyes, a dull grin on his face revealing surprisingly even teeth. “Well, you’d be a fine start for now,” he leered, licking his lips disgustingly. “We can get to your friend over there later . . . if she don’t mind waiting, that is. We’ll try be quick for her.”

His companions laughed and slapped him on the back, adding a few comments of their own. Kaleah ignored them and focused on keeping her temper down. The man was too stupid to be aware of the coiled tension pulsing through the object of his lustful desires. He didn’t notice the cold, steady and utterly fearless expression on the face of the former slave. His drunk mind barely registered the flash of movement as Kaleah’s right hand shot out from her side in a fluid motion as swift as a diving falcon.

. . . But he wasn’t so drunk that he didn’t feel the press of cold steel against his neck, nor fail to recognize what it portended.

“You’d want to quicker than me then, wouldn’t you,” Kaleah whispered softly, her eyes darting to the man’s companions as they realized what was happening and reached belatedly for their weapons. She stepped behind the man and twisted the dagger menacingly, drawing a single drop of blood. “He’ll be dead before you can save him,” she promised coldly. “And you’ll be close behind. Hand’s on the table, or I end this badly for you right now.”

The men studied her for a moment, gauging her ability to carry out the threat. Seeing her strong stance and confidant expression, they snarled and did as she ordered, placing their hands slowly on the table top, fingers spread open, palms down. The man she held swallowed in fear, the blade biting into his skin.

Kaleah nodded. “Good. Now, what do you say we deal with this as adults? I don’t want to hurt you, and you don’t either. Am I right?”

They nodded, watching her suspiciously. Their slightly addled brains were still trying to figure out who she was. She looked like a peasant, but no peasant was this fast or skilled. They recognized now that it was too late how dangerous she was, and each man wished momentarily they’d picked a softer target for their sport.

Kaleah was well aware of the thoughts that were passing through their minds, and she grinned. “My friend and I were trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner and the chance to escape from the cold,” she said softly, keeping her voice low and carefully even. “We don’t take kindly to having our evening interrupted by the likes of you gentlemen. I’m certain you can appreciate that.”

The men nodded.

“Good.” She gave them a cold smile and cast a swift glance over to Jessica. The blonde was watching with a look of concern on her face. It was probably best to wrap this up quickly and quietly, before she attracted even more attention.

“We don’t want any trouble, but we’re quite ready to deal with any that finds us, as you can see.” She twisted the knife a little, drawing a gasp from the frozen mercenary. “I’m certain that now you’ve had the time to consider everything more thoroughly, you realize that you don’t particularly have any interest in either myself or my friend over there . . . right?”

Again, the men bobbed their heads in mute agreement.

“Excellent,” Kaleah purred. “Then I think we can forget this whole incident ever took place.” She slowly released the man from the paralyzing touch of the dagger, which vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Free once more, the big mercenary moved quickly away from her and ran his hand thankfully across his neck, making sure it was still there. He scowled when he saw the blood on his fingers, but made no move to attack her.

Kaleah gave the men a confidant smile and a slight bow. “I’m glad we understand each other,” she said softly, before turning and walking with feline grace back to her companion. Taking her seat, she patted Jessica on the shoulder reassuringly, and stared intently at nothing until the people in the tavern resumed their conversations.

“You alright?” asked Jessica nervously, reaching out to touch her friend, seeking contact to reassure herself.

Kaleah smiled and nodded. “Fine,” she said. “I told you, I can be calm when I want to be. They were no problem.” She looked around and saw a few curious inspections coming from the peasants. “I think we may have lost a bit of our inconspicuous cover though,” she sighed. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”

“Are you kidding? This was great! I’ve never done anything like this before.” Jessica grinned and finished her second ale, giving a hearty belch after a moment of intense concentration. She giggled. “We can always come back another night, right?”

“Sure.” Kaleah gave her friend a teasing grin. “And the night wasn’t a total waste. We found out that at least one of the commoners likes you just fine.” She waggled her eyebrows and nodded to the barmaid as she passed them, noting the girl was still smiling invitingly.

Jessica saw her look, blushed, then laughed shyly. She was enjoying the night thoroughly, despite the recent unpleasantness. There was a wonderful tingle going through her body that she suspected had something to do with the ale, and she rather liked the way it was making her feel. She had learned something very interesting about her dark friend — something her mind was going to have fun playing with later on, she was sure — and she was sharing the lives of the common-people, if only for a moment. All in all, Jess was having way too much fun to think of heading back to Da’Gran just yet.

Smiling at her companion, she studied her empty mug and said, “I think I’ll have another drink. You want one?”

Oh, yes. The night was still young.

*************************

Three hours and five stout mugs later, Jessica was feeling more than just a little tipsy. The room had developed a rather fuzzy quality that perfectly complemented the pleasant lethargy now permeating her whole body, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to stop staring at her friend. With her defenses down, Jessica’s imagination had no trouble at all drawing the erotic pictures it came up with across her mind.

Kaleah had urged the young woman to slow down, but Jessica seemed to have taken a definite liking to ale, and after a while the dark woman gave up trying to discourage her friend. The mercenaries had left soon after their little encounter, and she thought it unlikely there’d be any trouble, so Jessica would be fairly safe. Besides, she smiled to herself. Jessica made about the cutest damn drunk she’d ever seen.

Kaleah nursed her single mug as she watched her blonde companion race ahead, an increasingly silly grin plastered on her beautiful face. The intoxicated girl spent most of the remainder of the evening telling stories to Kaleah . . . which was fine except the tales grew less coherent as the night wore on, and eventually seemed to interconnect and overlap to such a degree that the former slave had no idea what her friend was talking about.

“. . . And that was why the princess couldn’t find the ring!” Jessica finished her current story with a flourish, then waited for her friend to give the proper surprised reaction.

Kaleah, who was still trying to figure out when the evil dragon in the story had suddenly morphed into a fair and radiant princess, just smiled and said, “Really? Um . . . great story.”

Jessica grinned happily, her whole face lighting up with pleasure, so Kaleah assumed her response had been satisfactory. It was just as well the girl didn’t slur her words too much, Kaleah thought to herself; her stories were hard enough to follow as it was.

“Want to hear another?” Jessica offered enthusiastically. “Wait, I’ll order another drink. . .” Bleary eyes looked around for the barmaid.

Kaleah quickly captured the young woman’s face and forced her eyes back around. “I think you’ve had enough,” she said wryly. “It’s late. We should head back to Da’Gran.”

Jessica just waved her hands and snorted. “What’re you talking about? The night’s still young.”

“The night was young two hours ago, Jess. Almost everyone else has gone home. I think we should . . . too.” She trailed off as she realized Jessica was staring at her with an expression of tearful joy. “What?”

“You called me ‘Jess!’” the young blonde cried, throwing herself forward and giving Kaleah an ecstatic hug. “You’ve never called me ‘Jess’ before, only ‘Jessica!’”

Kaleah pried her friend away. “So what?”

Jessica wiped bleary eyes and sniffled a little. “It’s just nice is all,” she said softly. She looked around and noticed for the first time that the tavern had emptied significantly. “Everyone went home?”

“Uh huh. And that’s where we’re going as well. Come on.” She wrapped an arm around the shorter woman and helped her to her feet. “Can you walk okay?”

Jessica staggered a little, but remained upright. “Of course I can. Why wouldn’t I be able to walk?”

“Never mind. Let’s go.” Kaleah leant her a supportive arm and started guiding them towards the tavern door. The barmaid saw her and quickly came over to help. Together, they got Jessica over to the exit and leaned her against the wall.

“Will she be okay?” the serving girl asked, running her eyes over Jessica’s shrouded figure with an expression that was half genuine concern, half uninhibited lust.

“She’ll be fine,” Kaleah assured her. “She’s just a little drunk.”

Green eyes appeared from under tousled blonde hair, looking quite surprised. “I am?”

Kaleah sighed. “It’s okay, Jess. We’ll get you home, and you can sleep it off. Don’t worry about it.” She shifted her weight to better support the shorter woman, grunting a little. Jessica was small, but she was damned heavy.

“You know, you could always stay here the night,” the barmaid offered happily. “You could sleep on the floor near the fire, or . . .” her eyes became hooded, “I could offer you a bed in my room, if you like.”

Kaleah smiled, but shook her head. “Thanks, but I think she’d be better off if we head out.” She noticed slightly unfocused green eyes looking up at her, and a teasing grin that told her Jessica was still sober enough to know what was being offered.

The barmaid shrugged, and ran a hand lingeringly over Kaleah’s arm. “Some other time, maybe?” A suggestively raised eyebrow.

Kaleah tried not to blush, and mostly succeeded. “Sure, maybe.”

The girl left with a final seductive smile, returning to her duties. Kaleah got a better grip on Jessica and together they headed back into the icy chill of the outside world.

The wind had died down a little, but was still piercingly cold. All the houses were dark, the people asleep. In the distance, Kaleah heard a hunting dog barking at something, followed by it’s owner yelling at it to shut up. The moon was largely hidden by a bank of clouds, but it was still light enough to see clearly. Taking a moment to get her bearings, the dark woman swiftly figured out which way they needed to go to get back to the horses and they set off.

Jessica pushed her friend away after a few steps. “I can . . . I can walk okay,” she said haltingly, her footsteps staggering quite a bit but holding her on a true course.

Kaleah shrugged and let her go. “Suit yourself.”

Jessica gave her a rakish look. “What was that last bit you said back there . . . about some other time, maybe?” she asked playfully. “Thought you said you weren’t in the market.”

Kaleah flushed. “I was just being polite.”

“Oh, is that what you call it? Bet she would’ve liked to find out just how ‘polite’ you could be, huh?” So would you, her mind informed her pointedly.

Kaleah saw by her expression that the young blonde was just teasing, and smiled in return. “Guess so.” She shivered in the chill and pulled her shawl closer about her, wishing it were Spring already. The warmer season was apparently only a week or two away, or so Jessica had told her. Kaleah would be happy to see it’s arrival.

“Glad you insisted on us riding out here,” she said. “I’d hate to have to walk all the way home. You staggering the way you are, it’d take us all night to get back.”

Jessica concentrated hard on her walking and realized she was a little off-kilter. It suddenly occurred to her that she was feeling rather odd, now that she was up and about. The world seemed decidedly skewed. She performed a quick assessment of her body and feelings, and came to the conclusion that she was indeed quite drunk. That realization brought her to an abrupt halt.

“I’m really drunk, aren’t I?” She sounded rather surprised.

Kaleah stopped alongside her, rolling her eyes. “Yes, you are. Come on, the horses are just up ahead. We’ll get you back to Da’Gran and you can sleep it off.”

Jessica was looking about herself with an expression of mingled curiosity and trepidation. “My father always told me being drunk was bad,” she said, giving Kaleah a confused look. “The soldiers are always complaining about headaches and . . .” she waved her arms about as she searched for a word, “and . . . stuff. But I feel really great. It’s not even cold!”

Kaleah sighed, and tried to get them moving again. “You feel good now,” she informed the inebriated girl. “In the morning, you’ll get to feel all the headaches you want, okay? But we have to get back to the castle. Just cause you can’t feel the cold, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Come on.”

She managed to prod Jessica back into motion, helping the young woman who was still looking around with detached interest and an expression on her face that Kaleah couldn’t help but find particularly adorable. After a few more minutes of walking, they made it back to the place where they’d left the two horses. Kaleah left Jessica standing on the dirt road while she retrieved the animals, admonishing her friend to stay exactly where she was and not wander off. Thankfully, Jessica adhered to her instructions with drunken intensity, smiling proudly when the dark woman returned leading Andromeda and her own stead.

“I stayed here!” Jessica seemed quite pleased with her simple feat. “Can I move now?”

Kaleah groaned inwardly and made a mental note not to take the young woman drinking too often. She was cute, but apparently required a lot of maintenance. “Sure,” she allowed. “Do you think you can ride?”

“Umm . . .” Jessica swayed on her feet and eyed Andromeda doubtfully. The grey mare wandered over and sniffed at her mistress, snorting as she detected the unfamiliar scent of peasant garb and ale. “I, uh . . . I don’t know.”

Figuring that meant no, Kaleah brought her own gelding over and stood him next to her friend. “Here, I’ll give you a hand up. You can ride in front of me, and I’ll hold onto you. Andromeda can be led. Okay?” Though she’d never tried riding like this when she had to be the one in control, Kaleah figured it was the only way they’d get back to Da’Gran safely.

Jessica saw what she intended, and nodded. It took a bit to get her mounted, but they managed after a brief struggle with gravity which almost put Jessica back on the ground on the other side of the horse. When she was sure her friend wasn’t going to fall off, Kaleah put her foot in the stirrup and threw a leg over the horse’s broad back just like she’d been practicing all week. The animal jumped a little at the unaccustomed weight, but quickly settled. After a moment to gather up the reins and secure an arm about the waist of the now giggling blonde, Kaleah set off slowly along the road, leading a placid Andromeda behind.

Jessica’s mirth petered out after a while, and she sighed. “I had a really great time tonight,” she said, turning to look up at Kaleah. “Thank you for suggesting we come out here.”

Kaleah smiled complacently. “No problem. Just don’t drink so much next time. If your father found out about this, he’d have my hide.”

Jessica almost made the comment that she could understand why . . . it was a hide worth having, but thankfully the guard in her mind who made sure she didn’t blurt out stupid things finally woke up after a long nap and ordered the words back down her throat before they could escape. Instead, she just said, “I’d have talked him out of doing anything bad to you.” She was starting to feel a little drowsy now. The rhythm of the horse’s gait and the warmth of the arm wrapped securely about her waist made her eyelids droop. She fought against the sleepiness. A sudden realization came to her, and she twisted in the saddle.

“How come you’re not feeling like me?” she asked the dark woman accusingly. “You were drinking too.”

Kaleah grinned. “I stopped at three,” she said wryly. “You just kept going.”

“Oh.” Jessica considered that for a moment, then snuggled back into the comforting warmth of the woman behind her. “Well, maybe next time we come out here, you could join me.”

Kaleah’s grin widened. “We’d never get home in that case,” she joked, drawing a chuckle from her companion.

“From the looks that barmaid was giving us, I think she’d be more than happy with that arrangement,” the blonde observed through her laughter.

Kaleah blushed and tightened her grip on her squirming friend. “I’m sure she would be,” she muttered under her breath. The wind changed direction suddenly, blowing the shawl off Jessica’s head and causing the young woman’s hair to fly back into her face. She fought a sneeze as the blonde tresses tickled her nose. Dropping the reins, she gathered up the hair and twisted it into a coil, handing it to her friend over the young woman’s shoulder. “Hold this.”

Jessica stopped laughing and grabbed her hair. “Sorry. Is it bothering you?”

“Not if you keep it out of my face, it isn’t.”

Jessica smiled and twisted so she could look up into her friend’s face. Kaleah looked down at her just as the moon appeared from behind the clouds, illuminating both their features in it’s pale silver glow, each to the other.

Jessica was instantly caught and held by the deep purple color Kaleah’s eyes had become. A curious dizzy sensation that had nothing to do with the ale swept over her, making her light-headed and causing her heart to double the tempo of its suddenly loud drumming. She felt herself drawing closer to the dark woman holding her, felt herself almost becoming one with her where they touched. It lasted a long moment, then slowly faded, leaving her with a desperate desire to rekindle the sparks it had sent through her somewhat numb body.

A deliciously raised eyebrow brought her back to the real world, however, and she blushed, realizing she’d been staring.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, trying to turn away. The arm around her waist held tight, wouldn’t let her. Dark eyes drew her back to their depths, and she saw a wondering, slightly amused but curious expression on Kaleah’s face. “I didn’t mean to stare, it’s
just . . .” Jessica gazed into the wine-colored orbs that twinkled above her, catching the light of the moon and dancing in it’s glow. For a moment she was lost again, but she dragged herself back. She offered a shy, helpless smile and shrugged. “Your eyes turn purple in the moonlight,” she finished softly. “They look . . . really pretty. That’s all.”

Kaleah studied her for a long moment, then she smiled. “Thanks. Your eyes turn almost clear in the dark.” She let her friend turn around, and nuzzled her hair, smelling lavender and vanilla. “They look pretty, too.”

Jessica smiled and settled herself back again into the softness of Kaleah’s body, sighing comfortably. “I’m awful tired,” she murmered sleepily. “Tomorrow’s Sunday, so we can rest which is good. Maybe we could go exploring.”

“Maybe,” Kaleah said with a knowing smile. She doubted very much that the young blonde would be in the mood to do a whole lot of anything in the morning, but at least it would make her think twice about ordering another drink next time they wandered into the village.

Chuckling silently, the dark woman led the horses quietly around to the rear side of the great castle and, finding the gap that would allow them access, silently snuck back inside. All in all, she reflected, it had been a good — and rather interesting — night.

She hoped the morning would be equally entertaining.
Chapter 9.
The next morning, Kaleah slept late and woke feeling a good deal more refreshed after their night in the village. Running long fingers through her hair to settle it, she dressed quickly and knocked on the door to Jessica’s room.

A muffled groan was all that greeted her. Grinning in understanding and a little sympathy — though not too much — she knocked again.

A slurred voice answered through the door. “Hurt! Lemme ‘lone.”

Kaleah cracked open the door and peered inside. “Jess?”

The tangled pile of sheets and pillows on the bed squirmed and wriggled. “Go ‘way.”

The dark-haired woman ignored this and entered anyway, tip-toeing over and quietly taking a seat beside the bed. Her grin broadened as hands clawed their way out from the tangled sheets and bleary, red-rimmed eyes appeared, set in a pain-filled face framed by messy blonde hair.

“You feel okay?” she joked, keeping her voice low.

Jessica scowled. “I feel like I’d be better off dead,” she groaned. “My head hurts.”

“I know.” Kaleah decided teasing the poor girl probably wouldn’t win her any points, so she settled on sympathy. “I could get you some water, if you like. It’ll help to make the headache go away.”

Jessica groaned again and squirmed pathetically. “It’s not going away. Not before it kills me.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hangover. Give it a few hours, some food in your stomach, and you’ll feel much better.” She put a hand on the blankets and gave the huddled figure a soothing pat, receiving a grunt of appreciation for the gesture. “You can stay in bed all day, if you want too.”

“My father will expect me to be at the sermon,” a muffled voice said.

“I’ll send a servant to tell him you’re sick. It’s true, in a way.”

The blankets parted again, and Jessica emerged more fully, blinking and putting a hand to her throbbing temple. The young woman looked positively wretched this morning, but she still managed to give the dark woman an accusing glare. “You knew this would happen,” she said menacingly. “Why didn’t you stop me?”

Kaleah couldn’t help but grin affectionately. “You wanted to keep drinking, Jess. I couldn’t say no to you.” She reached out and ruffled the disheveled golden tresses. “Besides, you were so damn cute when you got drunk . . . it seemed a shame to stop you.”

Jessica blushed shyly. She had a clear memory of the night before, and her mind, though thick and filled with a throbbing pain, was still active enough to want to read more into this gently affectionate gesture than she knew was there. “Next time, I’ll be more careful,” she said softly, rubbing her head. “How can something that tastes so good and makes you feel so wonderful be responsible for such an awful feeling as this?”

“Wiser heads than yours have asked that same question. If you’re going to enjoy the highs, you have to expect there to be lows as well. It’s the way life is.” Kaleah wondered as a side note whether her blooming friendship with Jessica was perhaps some weird balance against the hurt and suffering of her life as a slave. If it were, she mused, then it was only fair that it last the rest of her life. That thought made her smile inside, and her heart explode with a warm and sweet burning.

Tearing herself away from her contemplation’s, Kaleah saw that Jessica was regarding her with curious eyes and realized she’d been thinking in distraction long enough to be noticeable. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “Kind of drifted off there a little.”

Jessica smiled in understanding. “That’s okay. I do it all the time.” She lay back on the bed, trying to get comfortable in the messed-up bed. “What’re your plans for today?”

Kaleah shrugged. “I thought I’d take a bath and find some clean clothes first, then maybe I can come back here and we can play some chess. Or maybe you could teach me that draughts game you talked about?”

Jessica’s mind instantly cleared a lot of it’s fuzziness at the mention of her friend taking a bath, painting a quick picture of the peep-hole to remind her of the possibilities. She snapped back to reality, stamping down the naughty thoughts when she realized Kaleah was looking at her expectantly. What had she been asking about? Oh, right. Draughts.

“Um, sure. That’d be fine. It’s not a hard game really.” She smiled and rubbed her head, which was suddenly feeling much better now that it had a goal in mind which would need her full support. “It’s not too likely to make my headache any worse.”

“Great.” Kaleah got up and headed back to her own room. “I’ll go clean up and be back in a while.” She grinned. “After last night, I think a nice long soak is in order.”

Jessica could only nod dumbly, her mind having no trouble at all picturing the dark woman as she lay naked in the water, her hands stroking that long, bronzed body. She shook her head to clear the thoughts just as the door to Kaleah’s room shut, taking her friend away. Groaning, Jess closed her eyes and tried desperately to resurrect the splitting headache her body had abandoned for more interesting pursuits.

It would be sooo easy, her mind purred. The entry to the passages is just over there; a few minutes, and you can let your eyes wander without fear she’ll catch you looking.

“It’s wrong,” she insisted aloud. “She’s your friend. This is just an infatuation.”

Her mind didn’t even bother answering. It just raised a metaphysical eyebrow at her and adopted a ‘whatever you say’ expression.

Jessica sighed, and looked into her heart. She could no longer deny the truth . . . not to herself. It had become too obvious now, and she could no longer even say that this whole attraction was just a product of her romantic nature. No. This was no simple infatuation that would pass in time. This wasn’t even so much in her heart, her body or her mind. This was something she could feel down in the very depths of her soul. And it was never going to go away.

“Alright,” she admitted aloud, finally giving voice to her acceptance. “You’re falling in love with her.”

The metaphysical brow raised a little higher.

She sighed. “I’m . . . falling in love with her.”

Her mind nodded, satisfied with the confession.

“But that doesn’t mean she has any similar feelings for me,” Jessica continued. “She likes me as a friend, nothing more.”

But how do you know that? asked her mind. She told you she likes the company of other women over men, so that’s a pretty good start. At least she’s fishing in the same river as you are.

“She could be fishing in the damn ocean for all I care,” Jessica scowled. “She hasn’t given any indication that she’s attracted to me, and that’s all there is too it!”

Like you’d know the signals even if she was giving them, her mind scoffed. You’re completely out of your depths here and you know it.

“I am not,” she protested with a pout. “I’m a grown woman.”

Yeah, right! You didn’t even notice that barmaid was coming on to you until Kaleah pointed it out. She’d have to be lying on your bed buck naked and begging before you’d catch on!

Her imagination quickly provided a helpful illustration. Jessica blushed, and tried to come up with a counter-argument, but failed. She had to admit, her mind was right; she was an innocent . . . at least in the experience department. Her imagination had more than enough experience, though. She’d been imagining what it would be like to fall in love for years now, had been deliberately putting off her marriage in hopes that someone would come along and steal her heart. How ironic that when it happened, the thief was a woman.

You always knew you liked women, too, her mind put in. You just never had the chance to do anything about it. Well now you do.

“That doesn’t mean it’s right to spy on her in a moment of privacy,” she protested, still unwilling to give in.

You’ve been spying on everyone all your life. Maybe it wasn’t okay to do it when you thought it was just an infatuation, but now you know it’s more than that.

She was silent, considering. Her mind took that as a positive sign, and pressed on.

This isn’t going to go away, you know. If she lives here for a long time — and it certainly seems she wants too, from what she said she told your mother — you’re going to have to come up with a way to deal with your feelings eventually. Do you really think you can live with this temptation for years and not do anything about it?

Jessica frowned miserably. “My mother would hate this,” she sighed.

Your mother hates everything you do anyway, her mind pointed out. What do you care?

Green eyes wet with unshed tears regarded the mural above her bed sadly. “My father would hate this.”

Her mind was silent for long moments as it considered this. Look, it said after a long period of thought, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Not really. No-one except Kaleah. If she felt the same way for you, would you let the opinions of everyone else stand in the way?

“No.”

Then they don’t matter now. I think you should spend a little time trying to figure out whether there’s even the slightest chance Kaleah could feel the same way for you. Maybe, in time, she could come to love you. And if that’s true, then you’re going to need to be patient to win her over, right?

“Right.” The tears were drying as Jessica considered this new mission. Maybe she could win the heart of the dark woman. She’d been doing pretty well so far. Kaleah had opened up to her a lot in the last few weeks they’d been together. “It’s frightening,” she whispered. “I care for her so much, yet I’ve known her less than a month. How can that happen?”

Maybe it was meant to be, her mind suggested softly inside her head. You’ve read the stories of love . . . how it all happens so quickly because the two people are destined to be together. Maybe this is what God always intended for you.

Jessica scowled, remembering another person who’d be shocked to learn of her feelings for Kaleah: the minister. “Some people would call that sacrilege,” she said.

Some people would condemn love because of a few physical attributes, her mind told her gently. But no God worth the faith of his followers ever would.

Jessica sighed again, and nodded. “I know that.” She had always doubted the preachings that forbade so many of the things she enjoyed. Her secret books were against the edicts of the Church . . . and not just the ones about female romances. Foreign cultures were condemned if they did not accept the practices of the Church. The ancient legends of the Celtic gods that had been around long before the one God were outlawed as blasphemous. Jessica had ignored such things in the past. She had every intention of ignoring them now, and in the future.

“So, I should test the waters?” she asked herself. “How do I do that?”

Her mind threw up metaphysical arms in exasperation. If you don’t know, then how am I supposed to!? it demanded reasonably. You’ll think of something. In the mean time, there’s a spy-hole to the bathing chamber that you ought to be getting to pretty soon if you want to catch the show!

Jessica blushed. “I don’t know . . .”

Her mind swore fluently for a minute at her stubbornness, before it gained control once more. It’s reeeal simple, it explained slowly. You love her. You want to watch her. You’re going to watch her — if not now, then some other day. You can worry about how she feels later on. This is a victimless crime! If you figure she doesn’t love you, you never tell her. If you find out she does, then you can tell her and she’ll probably be flattered.

“So I should . . ?”

Get your blasted butt down there before she finishes up!

Jessica considered this for a moment, her imagination lending a hand to the argument by drawing pictures and her body quickly coming to life with the first flushes of desire.

It was a swift victory.

Getting out of bed and hastily throwing on a shirt and trousers, Jessica dashed over to the empty fireplace and reached behind the sword held by the carved angel on the right-hand side. Finding the hidden catch there, she pushed it down and heard the quiet rumbling as the whole fireplace rotated on a concealed pinion.

Ducking her head, she slipped into the darkness of the passageway beyond, closing the entrance behind her and lighting a torch that hung conveniently on the wall. With a smile on her face and a spring in her steps, Jessica set off for the corridor that led to the bathing chamber, and the wonderful spy-hole.

*****************************

Kaleah arrived at the bathing chamber not a moment before Jessica arrived at the spy-hole. Entering the misty room and closing the door behind her, the dark woman slipped casually out of her simple clothes and tossed them over a statue of a bathing man. She had brought a clean shirt, trousers and underwear, which she placed on a moderately dry rock. After retrieving a wash-cloth from the side room, she waded out into the deepest part of the huge pool and let her body relax.

The water reached almost to the tops of her breasts, and she sighed blissfully as the warmth eased away the aches in her body. Kaleah closed her eyes and lay back in the water, letting it support her body. She was totally oblivious to the green eyes watching her avidly from the concealed corridor behind the wall.

Jessica thought her heart would burst through her chest so hard did it start beating as her friend slid the thin breeches down over her hips and bent to retrieve them. The young girl broke out in a sweat and her breathing accelerated dangerously as she let her eyes roam as they pleased over the long, supple form of the dark woman, not blinking for fear of breaking the magnificent spell. Her mouth hung open and she shut it again only when she bashfully realized she had started to drool.

She’d seen Kaleah’s body before, but never like this. Never so fully, so detailed, in such an uninhibited forum. Jess let herself stare at the woman’s full, firm breasts, before her gaze dropped inevitably lower, past her hips, to linger at that most intimate of places she had never glimpsed before.

She was surprised to see that the dark thatch of hair which hid Kaleah’s sex was neatly trimmed into a slender arrow design, drawing Jessica’s eyes lower still. She had never heard of such an intimate level of grooming, and her eyes grew dark with desire as she imagined what it might feel like to caress the dark woman in the ways she had read of in some of her books.

Jessica’s body responded to the view with a stronger reaction than she had ever known before. Her groin itched, ached; her blood burned with the unknowing innocent passion of youth. As Kaleah floated peacefully on the surface of the pool, Jessica swallowed hard and wished now, more than ever, that she could win the love of her friend.

Floating in languid luxury, unaware of the hooded regard of her friend, Kaleah’s mind had turned to considering once more her feelings for the young blonde.

Last night, she had felt her affection for Jessica deepen further. She may have been completely unfamiliar with emotions of this nature, but Kaleah wasn’t stupid. The ache in her heart and the longing in her soul told her she was feeling a lot more than simple friendship for the young woman. She had never loved anyone before in her life — never seriously, at least — but that didn’t stop Kaleah from realizing that she was falling in love with Jessica; completely, hopelessly, and without any chance of reprieve.

“What should I do?” she mumbled to herself as she let her hands gently scrub her body. “Should I tell her? She said this kind of thing doesn’t bother her, but I guess it might be different if she suddenly had another woman pursuing her seriously.”

Kaleah thought back to how Jessica had reacted to the overtures of the barmaid last night. The young blonde hadn’t seemed the least bit offended by the attention. Embarrassed, sure. Maybe a little flattered even, once she’d accepted it. But at no point had she seemed actually interested.

Kaleah sighed. No, she thought. Jessica had not expressed any interest in women. Only an acceptance of the concept — of Kaleah, once she’d learned her friend was that way inclined. There wasn’t much hope the young blonde could ever return her feelings.

Shaking her head, feeling a wave of depression sweep over her, Kaleah swam over to the central island and hoisted her body out of the water with a grunt. The watching eyes widened as every inch of bronzed, radiant skin was exhibited. The thick walls of the bathing chamber prevented Kaleah from hearing the awed gasp that escaped her voyeur as she stretched her loose muscles in an unconsciously sensual display. Laying back, the dark woman closed her eyes, relaxed on the stone and let herself sink deeper into self pity.

Suddenly, blue eyes flared open as another memory came to mind: the way Jessica had looked into her eyes on their ride home. She’d held the gaze a long while; deeply, searching, lost. When she’d snapped out of it, the young girl had been embarrassed, had turned away.

Kaleah remembered the words her friend had said to her. “Your eyes turn purple in the dark . . . They look really pretty . . ?” Dark brows contracted, wondering. Thinking back through the night, along the path of her friends increasing intoxication, Kaleah remembered now that Jessica had been staring at her an awful lot. She had blushed a lot too, come to think of it.

Hmmm. Kaleah considered everything she’d ever seen of Jessica, every day of their last few weeks together. The young woman was charming, playful and gracious, but she was also unconsciously beautiful, innocently shy and had a habit of blushing a great deal whenever they drew close to anything approximating an intimate conversation. The young woman had wanted a friend, and had found it in Kaleah. Had she, perhaps, found something more? Did she realize, and was she too embarrassed and shy to come to terms with it?

Kaleah snorted. “Jessica’s a noble woman,” she told herself. “Believing you have a chance with her is just wishful thinking. If you made a pass at her, she’d be so embarrassed she’d probably never want to talk to you again. You’ve got a good thing going here with her. She’s the first friend you’ve ever had . . . there’s no way you’re risking that for a maybe.”

Besides, there were things other than simple uncertainty that kept Kaleah from revealing her desire and affection to the young blonde . . . things that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember.

Things like fear.

These emotions were so intense they frightened her . . . badly. Was it even possible for her to feel the kinds of feelings that were were now welling up inside? Was there any love left in her battered spirit? Or had a life of slavery — of constant suffering from and exposure to the darker side of human nature — robbed her of the capacity to bask in the warmth of such a simple and unselfish thing as pure love? Could she ever trust someone the way she wanted to trust Jessica?

Sighing, Kaleah acknowledged that answers to such questions were unlikely to present themselves soon. Only time would tell if she was capable of handling such powerful emotions. She would watch Jessica closely, however, for any sign that the girl might be interested in something deeper than the friendship they shared. If things progressed as they had been and the two grew closer still, Kaleah would deal with it when it happened. For the time being, she had a hung-over friend to distract from her day-after misery.

Grinning, happy to let her emotions pass for the moment, Kaleah rolled back into the water and half walked, half swam over to the edge. Stepping out with some reluctance, water sheeting from her slender figure, the former slave wandered over to the adjacent room and retrieved a dry towel. She rubbed herself dry and changed into the clean outfit she’d brought with her, then headed out the door.

Jessica watched her leave, the dazed, awe-stricken expression still fixed on her furiously blushing face. “My God!” she squeaked after several moments. Her brain struggled hard to fight it’s way through her lust so it could inform her that Kaleah had left now, and she should really be getting back to her room right away if she intended to make it there before the dark woman.

“Right. Gotta . . . get back.” Her limbs were still numb, her body felt like it had been struck by a bolt of lightening it was tingling so much . . . some places moreso than others. She could feel a liquid warmth between her legs she had never experienced before, but she knew what it was; her desire spreading from her center, inviting satisfaction. Struggling to her feet, Jessica stumbled her way back through the passageway towards her bedroom.

On the way, her mind gave her a very smug mental look. There. Now wasn’t that worth a little moral indiscretion?

Jess nodded blankly, her imagination replaying the way the water had run down her friend’s bronze body, rivulets coursing down off her breasts, over her taut stomach and between her slender legs . . . She stopped a moment, realizing she was drooling again.

“How am I supposed to look at her again with a straight face,” she groaned, the images of what she might do with that gorgeous naked body flashing uncontrollably through her mind, fed by a willing imagination. She shook her head, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the pictures. “This is gonna make this even harder!”

Not wanting to ruin a good thing, her imagination decided to behave itself and stopped the picture show obediently. Grateful, Jessica continued on, settling the raging fire that blazed through her young body as best she could on the way. She blushed furiously as she realized her underwear was soaked with the evidence of her desire.

“God, I wish I knew what she’d been talking about back there,” Jessica thought aloud. The peep-hole may have allowed her to watch her friend, but the thick walls prevented her from listening. “She looked troubled.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “You don’t suppose she’s caught on, do you? I mean, you were drunk last night — maybe you said something you don’t remember.”

Her mind cast back quickly, went over everything that had happened last night. There had been several instances where Jessica had given away her attraction to the dark woman, but it was never in any particularly overbearing or obvious way. No, her mind assured her after a moment. She couldn’t know. It must be something else that’s bothering her.

“Maybe it was something my mother said to her,” she considered. “Maybe she didn’t tell me everything.”

Possibly. You can think about it later. Get back in your bed before she gets there and finds you missing. And for God’s sake, try to look at least a little pathetically wretched! You’re supposed to be hung-over, remember.

“Right . . . hung-over. Whatever happened to my head-ache, anyway?”

It went away quite naturally, her mind informed her. All by itself.

“Really? I thought it was going to last all day.”

A slight pain crept into her temples. There, her mind said snappily. You have a headache again. Happy?

Jessica rubbed her temples and sighed. “No need to get testy,” she muttered. “I’m moving.” She opened the concealed doorway and closed it behind her before jumping back into bed. “You know, you’re not exactly the easiest person to live with.”

Her mind could do nothing but agree complacently.

*************************

The rest of that day was passed quietly with Jessica teaching Kaleah how to play draughts, which the dark woman took to with natural skill. Jessica managed to do quite a passable impression of hung-over misery, especially when she saw that it earned her sympathy from her dark friend. She spent so much time bemoaning her aching skull in such a convincing fashion that Kaleah gave her head a gentle massage, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

The feel of those long, supple fingers running through her hair, pressing gently but firmly into her scalp, relaxed Jessica so much she almost fell asleep. It was very different from the last massage she’d received from her dark friend. This time, her body did not respond with heated desire, but rather it opened up to absorb the soothing caress. Her imagination remained dutifully silent, allowing her to simply enjoy the warm touch of her friend as Kaleah attempted to ease her suffering away.

Jessica had noticed instantly that Kaleah was acting a little differently — which was funny, because that was exactly the same thing Kaleah noticed about her. She wondered at the cause, but decided it was probably not related to anything she was hoping for. Watching the dark woman out of the corner of her eye, Jess tried hard to spot any indication that Kaleah might be at least physically attracted to her. Unfortunately, Kaleah was watching her with exactly the same intent, which resulted in neither of them noticing the guarded glances of the other.

It was only after Kaleah had retired for the day and the young blonde was left alone once more that her imagination roared forth and replayed the images it had captured of the dark woman bathing. The pictures were seared into her mind now, and her body readily accepted and responded to them. Jess was getting used to the physical reactions her body had to desire; she recognized them from descriptions she’d read in some of the more detailed of her romantic stories. The problem was, she mused, she had absolutely no way of dealing with them . . . and that was starting to make her very, very frustrated.

Lying in her bed, the sun long since departed, leaving her room in darkness filled only with the images of her friend, Jessica growled a little and tried to make her restless, unsatisfied body go to sleep. But it was hopeless. Whatever fire burned in her veins wasn’t going to loosen it’s grip without a fight. Scowling at the ceiling, Jessica decided to place the blame for her situation squarely on her mind and her imagination.

“You just had to go watch her, didn’t you?” she said through gritted teeth. “Now look what’s happened!”

Wasn’t like you had much choice in the matter, her mind argued quickly. The temptation was just too great. It would have happened sooner or later. It paused, the added with a grin, You could always sneak into town and let that barmaid show you how to relieve the ache . . .

“Humph! Don’t even think about that,” Jessica told herself sternly. “If Kaleah doesn’t like you in that way, then you’re just going to have to get used to feeling like this . . . at least until you can figure out a way of getting rid of it by yourself.”

That thought did little to help her mood. Accustomed to being calm and in control of any situation, Jessica didn’t like this chaotic feeling of indecision and worry. It made her feel helpless and adrift. She liked to think she was mature enough to handle anything, that she was not a child and that all the gifts life had given her weren’t as important as her own will and strength. But she admitted that there was nothing she could do about this new emotion.

Confessing to herself that she was falling in love with Kaleah made the formally nebulous, cloudy feeling suddenly so real and intense. Everytime she was around the dark woman, Jess knew she was going to have trouble concealing the depth of her affection. It was only a matter of time before their continued company led to something being said.

In a way, Jessica was already looking forward to that time. Keeping secrets from her friend was hardly a positive way to start out. It meant she didn’t trust Kaleah enough to tell her the truth.

Well, her mind put in. Do you trust her?

“Of course I trust her,” she scoffed. “I’m just not sure I’m ready to tell her how I feel. If she doesn’t return my feelings, that’s fine, but I don’t want to drive her away. She might . . . I don’t know, take it weird or something. I don’t want to wreck the special thing we have going here. If we’re meant to be together, time will tell.”

Sure, that’s fine to say. But if you really trust her, why haven’t you shown her all the secrets that you haven’t shown anyone else?

“Like what?”

Her mind directed her eyes over to the fireplace — the concealed entrance to the hidden passageways. To the secret rooms that had known only her presence in decades.

“You mean . . ?”

A mental nod.

Green eyes widened, then narrowed after a moment of reflection. If she meant what she said about trusting her friend, surely she should tell Kaleah about the secrets of Da’Gran.

Unless you’re lying to yourself about how much you love her, her mind taunted. Show her you trust her enough to keep your secrets. If she sees that, maybe she’ll offer up some of her own.

“That’s true.” Looking around, Jessica wondered what time it was. It couldn’t be too late; she hadn’t been lying here waiting to fall asleep that long. Would Kaleah still be awake?

“Only one way to find out,” she muttered, getting out of bed and throwing on some simple clothes to ward against the chill that was noticeably less dire than it had been a week ago. Spring was coming, she idly acknowledged as she knocked on the door to her friend’s room.

“Kaleah? Are you awake?”

There was a long pause before the door was opened by Kaleah, looking bleary-eyed and tousled, but quite awake. She was wearing her simple shirt and trousers, the clothing rumpled and obviously thrown on hastily.

“What is it?” she demanded, rubbing her eyes.

“Were you sleeping?”

“Not in any serious way,” the dark woman groused. In fact, she’d been doing much the same thing her neighbor had been doing: trying to quell the burning desire in her loins. The only difference was, where Jessica was unfamiliar with sexual frustration, Kaleah knew exactly how to satisfy her body’s ache. The dark woman had been doing everything in her power to keep her hands from wandering where they wanted to, unwilling to seek solitary pleasure over lustful thoughts of her friend.

Unaware of any of this, Jessica just smiled and accepted the dark woman’s grumpiness, attributing it to being woken up. “I have something I want to show you,” she said in a loud whisper.

“Why’re you whispering?”

Jessica looked around and gestured for Kaleah to join her in her room. “It’s a secret.”

Kaleah closed the door behind her and folded her arms across her chest. “These walls are solid stone, Jess. No-one could hear you even if you screamed.” Oooh, wrong thing to say, she thought, picturing a few of the ways she could make the young blonde scream . . . ways she was sure her friend would enjoy if she could experience them.

“I know, it’s just . . . Well, it’s a secret.” Suddenly feeling a little foolish, Jessica decided it would be safe enough if she spoke normally. “Okay, it doesn’t matter. There’s just something I wanted to show you.”

“Can’t it wait till morning?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Jessica apologized. “Sorry. I just started thinking about this, and I couldn’t wait.”

“Okay, what did you want to show me?” Kaleah assumed a patient look and prepared to be politely surprised or impressed by whatever the young woman had decided to exhibit.

Jessica grabbed her arm. “Come on.” She led the dark woman over to the fireplace and looked up into her deep blue eyes seriously. “Promise you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to show you?”

Seeing the sincere expression in her friend’s face, Kaleah nodded solemnly. “Of course, I promise.”

Jessica held her gaze a moment longer, trying to convey the importance of this gesture. Certain her tall friend understood, she turned around and reached behind the stone sword of the angel, finding the hidden release and pressing it down firmly.

Kaleah stepped back apprehensively as the fireplace swung on it’s axis, making only a slight grinding sound of stone rubbing against stone. She eyed the dark passage that was revealed with astonishment, then looked into the expectant eyes of her friend.

“Wh-what is it?”

“It’s a secret passageway,” Jessica told her, pleased with her reaction. She held out her hand. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

Kaleah reflexively took hold of the offered hand and was led into the darkness of the hidden corridor. Jessica paused to strike a flint to stone; a moment later, light from a torch filled the corridor. The young blonde tugged Kaleah along, guiding them with the sure feet of one familiar and comfortable with the path they tread.

Kaleah could only look around her in amazement. The passage was narrow, but surprisingly clean. There was no sign of rodent life, as she might have expected, and only minimal dust stirred at their passage. Bright green eyes, flickering in the torchlight, regarded her happily.

“These passageways go right through the castle,” Jessica explained, enjoying the feeling of sharing a secret she had kept to herself her whole life. “They can take you anywhere you want to go. There are whole rooms down below that no-one else knows about. Come on, I’ll show you . . .”

Kaleah was dumbfounded, stunned, impressed. They walked for some time, down stairs and along stretches of passageways that were at times wide enough that three men could walk abreast. “This is amazing,” she breathed when she could find her voice at last.

Jessica grinned. “The best is yet to come. Look at this.”

They had come to a door; solid and compact, made of pitted steel marked with age. There was no handle, but Jessica reached confidently for a hidden latch and the door swung open on silent hinges.

Jessica led Kaleah through the door into a chamber that was larger than her bedroom and neatly furnished. A table set with chairs took up the center of the room, while shelves occupied much of the far end. A number of pictures hung from the walls; scenes of the forest and the castle drawn mostly in charcoal by an obviously talented hand; a hand that could only be Jessica’s. There were comfortable looking, over-stuffed seats next to one wall, and as the young blonde went around lighting candelabra and wall-mounted torches, Kaleah realized with a start that the entire place had a very lived in feel to it. She regarded her friend with surprise.

“You did all this?”

Jessica blushed a little and nodded. “This is where I used to spend most of my time,” she explained. “I found the entrance to the passages when I was a child. I explored them, and found the original plans to the castle. They showed me everything, and I found all the secrets built into Da’Gran.” She surveyed the room with pride, pointing to the shelves of books. “A lot of the stuff I read is forbidden by the Church,” she said. “Stuff about other cultures and religions . . . different ways of thought and practices of living. If my mother ever found them, I’d be in trouble. So I bring everything down here, where no-one will ever find out about it. Where no-one can take it away.”

Blue eyes looked around in awe. “You mean . . . no-one else knows about all this?”

“Uh uh.”

“Not your father . . . not Sir Miles?”

Jessica gave her a shy smile. “Just me . . . and now you.”

Kaleah was speechless for several moments as she absorbed the gift that Jessica was giving her. The young woman was showing her the one thing she had never shown anyone else, was trusting her as she had never trusted anyone. By bringing her here, Jessica was allowing her access into her most private and secret sanctuary. Kaleah saw the shy, hopeful smile on her friend’s face, and felt tears creep into her eyes.

“Thank you,” she whispered after long moments, unable to fully express how much this meant to her. “Thank you.” It was all she could think of to say.

Jessica’s smile grew a little wider, her eyes dancing. “It means a lot to me . . . showing you this place, I mean.”

“I know.” Hoping the young woman would see that she was aware of the depth of this sacrifice.

Jess nodded. “I can see you understand.” She walked over and wiped away the unshed tears that sparkled in her friend’s blue eyes. “You’re the first friend I ever had, Kaleah. The first person I ever wanted to show this place too. My father or Sir Miles would have seen it only as a tactical strength; would have invaded the only place I could come too to be myself. To really be myself, I mean. This is where I keep the things I love the most.” She stroked Kaleah’s face, her thumb sliding intimately over the scar that creased her lips. “I wanted you to see it.”

Kaleah smiled, touched beyond words at the trust Jessica was showing her. The feel of her friend’s thumb on her lips almost made her swoon, and she restrained the urge to take that thumb into her mouth and taste it, to run her tongue along it. Blushing and looking around to cover her lapse into fantasy, Kaleah didn’t see the fleeting look of wonder that passed across her friend’s face.

“This place is amazing,” the dark woman said, talking to cover her nervousness. She studied a few of the books on the shelves, not really seeing them. “I, uh. I’ve never had a friend like you before either,” she said softly, hearing Jessica draw nearer, sensing her presence close behind her but not turning around. “I’ve never had someone trust me like you are. And I’ve never trusted anyone the way I trust you.”

Jessica froze as she was about to reach out and touch her friend. For a second there, looking into Kaleah’s sapphire gaze, Jessica had been certain she recognized the emotional kindred of her own love. For a moment, she was sure passion had darkened those gems with the flames of desire. But just as she was about to make a move, just as she was about to test her belief, those words called her back.

I’ve never trusted anyone the way I trust you.

Jessica drew her hand away before it did something stupid. Kaleah was learning to trust again. The young blonde had befriended this woman in the hopes that she could help her. Help her to recover from the pain she so obviously bore. Help her to accept the nobility of spirit that a life in chains had buried. Help her to trust, to care and to think as a human, not just as an animal, seeking only to survive a day at a time. Her hopes were being recognized now, she could see clearly. Just because she’d fallen in love with the dark woman did not mean she could jeopardize Kaleah’s future because she thought she’d seen something that might not have even existed. No. She would be strong, would wait. Kaleah trusted her, and she would not do anything to make her question that trust . . . not unless she was absolutely certain her friend felt the same way.

The young blonde settled for a gentle pat on the shoulder; friendly, platonic. “I’m glad you like it.”

Kaleah turned and favored her with one of her rare full smiles; the ones that took in the whole of her face and lit up her eyes like beacons in the night. “I do.” Her eyes roamed around the room, taking in the neatly arranged items and the comfortable furniture, seeing this amazing young woman’s touch in everything about the place. “Maybe one day . . .” She paused, considering. Jessica waited patiently till she managed to finish. “Maybe one day . . . I’ll be able to do the same thing for you as you’ve done for me.” Blue eyes sank into green. “Some day, I’ll let you into my private places.”

Jessica smiled warmly up at the taller woman. “There’s no hurry,” she said softly. “You’ll tell me when you’re ready. I’m not going anywhere.” She took Kaleah’s hand and tugged her on towards another door set opposite the one they’d entered from. “Come on, there’s a whole lot more to see down here. I can show you how to get out of dungeons, if you like.”

But, her mind put in silently, it’d probably be for the best if you stay away from the peep-hole. No need to raise suspicions, is there?

Thankful that Jessica had apparently understood the words that were so painful for her to speak, Kaleah let herself be led meekly by her younger companion. Jessica had shown her this secret that was so obviously private, so personal that not even her own father knew of it. The dark woman resolved there and then that she would somehow work up the courage to share a few of her own dark secrets with her friend; to return this trust and to prove — for herself, if for no-one else — that she was capable of offering and accepting the kind of relationship she wanted from the spirited blonde.

Love, it seemed, was going to require a lot of work.
Chapter 10.
The next day, the two women slept late again and woke just a few hours before midday, having spent the previous night exploring the complex of hidden rooms and passages that ran throughout the castle. Jessica had been overjoyed at the opportunity to finally share her secret, and Kaleah quickly caught her excitement and willingly gave up a restless night of thinking about the young woman in favor of a night spent in her physical company. By the time they returned, exhausted, to their respective beds, it was early morning; both fell asleep with little effort.

The day was surprisingly fine, with only a few scattered clouds blanketing an otherwise clear sky, and Jessica suggested they enjoy a few hours sparring practice in the courtyard. Kaleah readily agreed, thinking as she did that she probably would have agreed with the young woman had she suggested they spend the glorious day mucking out the stables — so long as it meant they were together.

Their practice was light and playful, though they tried to maintain at least a sense of seriousness, aware of the soldiers watching them. They would fight until the sun grew too warm and they tired, then they would stop and rest in the shade of the castle walls for a few minutes before returning to their fun.

It was not until early afternoon that Kaleah called a halt to their energetic sparring. Raising a hand, she smiled at her heavily-breathing, sweaty friend.

“Enough,” she gasped, wiping her soaked hair from her face and trying to catch her breath. Their last bout had been fast-paced and vigorous, and she felt a stitch coming on. “I need a break.”

Jessica laughed easily and sheathed her sword. “Me too,” she admitted. A loud rumble came from her stomach, and she blushed a little at her partner’s grin. “I think I could use a bite to eat, too.”

“We did skip breakfast,” Kaleah acknowledged.

“Only because we slept so late.”

“We only slept late because we were up all night. Not that I’m complaining, of course. I would have traded a lifetime of sleep for last night, and considered it a good deal.” She gave her friend a warm smile. “Thank you so much for showing me.”

Jessica blushed. “You’re welcome.” Her stomach rumbled again, louder. Her face grew even redder. “Um, I think we missed lunch by a good few hours, but maybe if I go to the kitchen and ask nicely, the cook will make us something.”

“I’m sure you could charm her into anything,” Kaleah laughed. “I’ll wait over there . . .” She pointed to a the stairs that led up onto one of the walkways that rambled about the castle walls. “It’s such a nice day, we should make the most of it.”

“Great. I’ll be back in a minute,” Jess promised, turning and jogging with casual grace into the main part of the fortress.

Kaleah watched her go, letting her eyes linger on the young woman’s body, which was well displayed by the revealing-yet-practical cut of her armor. She felt a familiar flush run through her body and shivered a little, reveling in the warm sensation that clutched at her heart and made her insides feel like honey.

A slow, sensuous smile pulled at her lips, and she let it form as her eyes narrowed. Just because she was unsure of Jessica’s feelings towards her didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the wonderful feeling that first love ignited in her.

Wandering over to the stairs, Kaleah found them nicely warmed by the sun and sat down, resting her sword at her feet. A few people in the castle still gave her curious looks, but an equal number gave her little nods of acknowledgment and acceptance, too. Not bad, she reflected, considering how she’d come to be in Da’Gran initially. Her skill — both with a blade and with the forge-fires — had earned her the respect of many of the castle’s soldiers, and her obvious friendship with the lord knight’s much-loved daughter had strengthened it.

Kaleah sighed happily and closed her eyes, content to just bask in the light of the sun and ponder the changes in herself since she had first met the young noble woman. Able to look back from her current position, Kaleah recognized that before her encounter with Jessica, she had been living as an animal, as a slave on the run. Avoiding contact with others, hunting for food when she could, content to starve when she couldn’t, Kaleah had lived her life as a solitary nomad, never stopping long enough to develop any kind of attachment. A life in slavery had shown her the fickle nature of attachment; whatever one held dear would inevitably die, or be destroyed.

Now, she mused, she had found something worth risking herself for. She had grown attached to Jessica in a way more powerful than she had ever known could exist. Not only that, but she had come to regard Da’Gran as a home; a place of safety and protection. Remembering what she had been taught happened when one came to care for something, Kaleah saw now what she had never seen before; that some things were worth the risk.

She knew that one day, Jessica might be hurt. Might die. That she herself might be driven from Da’Gran . . . possibly. Just thinking of such a loss hurt inside, but she knew that nothing could stop her from feeling the way she felt for Jessica. Their friendship gave her so much joy —more joy than she could remember feeling in her whole life. To flee from such an attachment — to run away because you might actually start to care — was the act of a coward. Life might hurt less, but would be empty and shiftless. Squandered.

Kaleah smiled and opened her eyes, blinking as she looked about at the bustle of happy people milling about the castle on whatever business they had. No, she thought. She wouldn’t give up her life with Jessica for anything . . . and no-one could make her.

So wrapped up was Kaleah in her own happiness, she did not notice the captain of the castle guard studying her from one of the castle parapets. The captain — a veteran of many battles — studied the resting woman for many long moments, his face thoughtful. Eyeing the crowd of people bustling about, he shook his head and mumbled to himself before turning his attention back to his look-out duties.

*********************

Jessica reached the kitchen only to find it empty. No cook, no servants, nothing. Sighing, she was just about to try her own hand at making lunch — wondering whether she was hungry enough to subject her stomach to whatever she could concoct herself and thinking that, in any event, she didn’t want to poison Kaleah — when a large, callused and battle-scared hand suddenly clasped her by the shoulder.

“Hey!” growled a voice behind her.

Spinning around, startled, her hand going instantly to her sword hilt, Jessica came face to face with the lined and friendly visage of Sir Miles. The old knight held up his one good arm to show it was empty, and gave her an apologetic look.

Jess took her hand from her sword and glared at her friend. “You frightened the bejeezers out of me!” she accused, still shaken.

“Sorry,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Didn’t think ye’d take up so. Ye reflexes look mighty good, though.”

Jessica ran her fingers through her hair and concentrated on slowing her racing heart. “I’m sorry, I thought I was alone.”

“Come fer some lunch then, have ye?”

“Yeah, but . . .” she gestured about the empty kitchen, “no-one’s down here.” She eyed him wickedly. “Think I can make my own food?”

“Not if’n ye be thinkin to feed it to ye tall, dark and deadly friend out in the courtyard, I don’t,” he grinned. “Doubt she’d take too kindly to bein’ poisoned.”

Jessica laughed. “I was thinking the same thing myself.”

“Ye want me to fix ye something?” the old knight offered. “Can’t do nothin’ fancy, but me one hand works just fine.”

“Sure.” Jess nodded agreeably. “Anything you can make has gotta be better than what I could do.”

Sir Miles wandered over to the large central preparation bench and began to bustle about, looking quite at home in the kitchen. He retrieved bread from a cupboard and started fixing up a tray of various things. As he worked, he cast his eyes over to where Jessica leaned against a table, watching.

“How’ve ye been lately?” he asked casually, slicing meat deftly and with more skill than might be expected from a man encumbered with his disability. “Don’t see ye too much now ye’ve got ye dark friend about.”

Jessica smiled, hearing the teasing tone in his voice. “I guess you don’t, huh?” she mused. “But I went hunting with you the other day . . .”

“Aye, and spent every minute bein’ about as moody as I’ve ever seen ye.” He grinned at her slyly. “Heard ye wasn’t feeling too good yesterday?”

She nodded. “I was sick.”

“Aye . . . found yer sickness in the bottom of an ale mug, I wager.”

Jessica’s mouth opened, but no words came out. He laughed at her surprised expression. “Ah saw the two a ya leave out the side gate. Thought somethin’ was up when ye canceled yer supper.” He paused in his work. “Ye went to the village, aye?”

She nodded. “Kaleah told me it would be safe,” she explained hastily. “I just wanted to see what the peasants were like when they were doing what they usually do. Nothing bad happened.”

“Aye?” He grinned broadly, showing a few missing teeth. “Saw ye come back, too; the way ye was walking, looked like ye were lucky ye had yer friend with ya.”

The mention of Kaleah brought an instant visible response from the young blonde. Sir Miles studied her carefully, noting every line of her posture, and every nuance of her expression. She saw his careful appraisal and narrowed her eyes.

“What?”

He assumed a fatherly expression. “Known ye all yer life, Jess,” he said gently. “Ah kin tell when somethin’s givin’ ye troublin’ thoughts.”

Jessica was silent for many moments, but at last she nodded. “I’ve had a lot to think about lately,” she admitted hesitantly, unwilling to discuss the nature of her problems.

Sir Miles smiled and put down the knife, giving his friend the benefit of his full attention. “These thinkin’s wouldn’t by any chance involve ye blue-eyed friend, would they?”

Jess shrugged. “Maybe . . .”

Miles sighed and regarded her fondly. “Don’t wanna talk ‘bout it, huh?”

“Not really.”

The old knight was silent in consideration for long moments. He didn’t want to push his friend, but he could tell there was something she wanted to talk about, even if she didn’t realize it herself. How far should he go to encourage her to discuss her troubles?

“D’ye remember when ye was just a wee babe, and I caught ye down here stealin’ biscuits from the jar?”

Jess smiled and nodded, recalling the incident clearly. “I said I’d share the cookies with you if you promised not to tell my father,” she giggled.

“Aye.” Miles looked at her with a fatherly, loving expression. “Ah never told ye Daddy ‘bout that,” he said quietly. “Ye know that, don’t ye?”

She nodded.

“D’ye remember the first day ye bled as a woman?” he asked. She nodded again. “Ye came to me fer help . . . and I gave it, best as I was able.” He watched her face flush a little. “All ye life, Jess, ye’ve always come to me with yer secrets . . . with yer problems. Ah’ve never turned ye away, and I’ve never told another livin’ soul what ye told me in confidence.”

“I know.”

He raised a bushy grey eyebrow and nodded. “If ye don’t wanna talk to me, I understand. Just remember, I’m here if ye change yer mind.” He turned back to his slicing, letting her think about it by herself.

Jessica considered Miles’ words, and realized she did want to tell the old knight about her attraction to Kaleah. Her love was burning away inside her. It needed some kind of an outlet. Maybe it would help to discuss it with someone she knew she could trust not to tell. The only question was, would Miles be sympathetic about her attraction to another woman . . . or would he be offended and repulsed.

After a long moment of consideration, she pulled herself up onto the table and sat with her legs dangling over it’s edge, hands folded in her lap. “I, uh . . . I have sort of been wanting to talk to someone,” she said quietly. “It’s kinda . . . well . . . it’s complicated-”

Sir Miles turned to her again and gave her his full attention. “Aye?”

“Well, you see, I’ve uh . . . I’ve been thinking about a few things lately.” She lowered her face and let her hair fall forward as she always did when she was nervous or embarrassed. “. . . About Kaleah.”

“Ye’ve been good fer the lass,” Miles commented. “I’ve seen the changes in her lately; ye done more than I ever thought ye’d be able to do.”

“Yeah. She’s really great. I uh . . . I like her a lot.” She could feel her face grow hot. She’d never really been too good at talking about this sort of thing with others — although she talked about it often enough with herself. “Have you heard the sermons that Father Graehm gives sometimes?” she asked quietly after a moment. “The ones about the people of Sodem?”

Sir Miles thought a moment, then nodded his head slowly. “Ah believe I know the ones yer thinkin’ of,” he said. “What about them?”

“Do you agree with the things Father Graehm says?” she asked frankly, her eyes hopeful.

Sir Miles cocked his head, considering. “Not all of them,” he said carefully. “Ye know I believe in God, Jess, but I’ve been a fightin’ man all mah life. Some things in the good book don’t take to me right.” He regarded her solemnly for a long minute. “What bits exactly be ye talkin’ about?”

Jessica found that her blush was fading a little, her face was serious. “Do you think it’s a sin for women to be intimate with other women?” she asked bluntly.

Sir Miles’ eyes widened only a little in surprise, but he held her gaze without faltering. “Is that yer problem?” he asked softly. “Ye having . . . thoughts . . . about yer tall friend out there?”

Jessica nodded. “I’ve fallen in love with her,” she told him quietly. It felt so good to say it out loud to another person, and even as her heart feared that Miles would condemn her love, it swelled with joy at finally giving voice to her pent up feelings in the presence of another. Somehow, it made the emotions more real.

Sir Miles just regarded her a long moment, before he nodded and turned back to his slicing. “Ah see.” He looked at her as he worked. “She know?”

Jess shook her head. “I can’t tell her. I just, well. I’m not ready yet. I want to know if she’ll react badly, that’s all.”

Miles nodded understandingly. “Aye. And yer sure ye love ‘er? It’s not just some kinda . . . passing thing, is it?”

“No,” Jessica was certain of that. “It’s real.”

Sir Miles regarded her shrewdly, one bushy brow raised. “Ah know ye, Jess. Ah know ye feel with yer heart all too often, fillin’ yer head with all them stories of mush and such. Can ye be sure ye ain’t just hopin’ fer somethin’ to distract ye from yer weddin’ to Charles?”

Jessica returned his look confidently, searching her mind for the words to express how she felt. “I know the difference,” she said quietly. “This is love.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “When I wake up in the morning,” she said slowly, her voice soft and gentle, “she’s the first thought in my mind, and I feel so happy because I know that I’m going to see her soon. And every night when the door closes behind her, the only thing that keeps my heart from breaking is the knowledge that when I fall asleep, she’ll be in my dreams . . . and I can tell her how I feel . . . and show her how much I love her.”

Her eyes opened and she smiled a little sadly at Miles, who remained silent. “She makes me feel things I’ve never felt before, things that are so wonderful and so frightening all at once sometimes they make my head spin. Everytime she looks at me, I feel like I’m standing on the top parapet with nothing below me but a hundred-foot drop. And it scares me so much because a part of me wants to fall into her so badly it hurts. She smiles, and my heart can’t decide if it wants to speed up or stop altogether. And when we touch . . . it’s like . . .” Jessica blushed a little. “It’s like liquid fire spreading through my blood, and all I want to do is let it burn me.”

Miles saw the certainty in her face and heard the conviction in her words. It was clear the young woman was not just suffering from a simple infatuation. He had never seen this look in her eyes before, but he knew what it meant; passion and love and tenderness all at once.

The old knight coughed a little awkwardly, thrown off balance. “She uh . . . shown any interest?”

Jessica shrugged. “I don’t know.” She was pleased this was going well. Miles didn’t seem offended. He was being objective and helpful as he could be. “She told me she . . . likes women more than men. And I thought I saw her look at me in a . . . more than friendly way, I guess you could say. But I don’t know how to tell.”

Miles raised an eyebrow. “She told ye she prefers women, did she?”

Jess nodded. “In the tavern, when we were having dinner.”

The old knight chuckled. “I’d like to know how that conversation came up.”

Jessica blushed. “It wasn’t like that. There was this barmaid, you see, and she was . . .” The young woman saw the teasing, curious look in Miles eye and waved a hand. “Forget it. The point is, she told me.”

“And what did ye say?”

“I said I was okay with it,” Jess shrugged. Seeing Miles smile at her, she threw him an exasperated look. “I was surprised, it was lucky I said anything!”

“Aye.” The old man was obviously trying hard to conceal his amusement. Seeing that Jessica was getting flustered and uncomfortable, he cleared his throat and adopted a serious expression. “So, what is it ye plan to do, exactly?”

Jessica shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea. What do you think I should do?”

“Ye wanting to be with her? As a woman?”

Jessica blushed furiously and nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit, these past few nights,” she admitted sheepishly.

“Heh. I bet. She’s a looker, that one. Ye got good taste, I’ll give ye that.”

Jessica’s blush deepened.

Miles regarded her seriously. “I can’t really help ye much, lass,” he told her softly. “I ain’t got much experience in these matters; I’m just a simple fightin’ man. But if it helps ye any, I’ll say this; if’n that girl’s got a likin’ fer other women ‘stead a men, she’d have to be blind, deaf and stupid to boot not to fall head over heels for ye.” He smiled at her affectionately. “Yer about the cutest damned thing I ever saw, Jess.”

“Thanks.” Jessica gave him a warm smile, grateful not only for his words but for his acceptance. “So you’re not too surprised about me feeling this way?”

“Surprised? Aye, maybe.” He added a few pieces of dried fruit to the tray and finished it off with a flourish. “Ye always seemed too bloody innocent for yer own good, no matter how good ye may be with a blade. Didn’t think ye even knew ‘bout stuff like that.” He handed the platter to her and gave her a pat on the shoulder once she’d taken it. “But if yer askin’ me if I think any less a ye for it . . . I’d be hopin’ ye had more regard for me than that.”

“But what about what the Church . . ?”

He smiled and squeezed her shoulder with his meaty hand. “Love is love, Jess,” he interrupted her gently. “I have faith in the good Lord . . . and I believe every word he ever spoke is truth. But that don’t mean I believe in the faulty way a man reads his words. Ye think God’s gonna care that ye love another woman? No, lass.” He patted his chest. “It’s what’s in our heart’s that he looks at . . . and what’s in our souls.” He smiled. “Don’t let anyone tell ye otherwise.”

Jessica grinned and nodded. “I won’t.” Suddenly realizing that Kaleah was probably wondering where she was, she said, “I better be getting back. She’ll be waiting.”

“Aye, lass. Off ye go then.”

As she was about the head out the door, she stopped and turned back into the kitchen. “Miles?”

“Aye?”

She gave him a final smile. “Thank you. It felt good to talk about all this.”

He returned her smile. “Any time, lass,” he said. “And Jess . . . You be careful. Don’t wanna see ya get yer hopes up ‘bout this and be crushed when ye finds out things aren’t as you wish they were.”

She blushed. “I’ll be careful.” She turned and left the kitchen with her platter of food, feeling happier then she had when she entered. What Miles said was true, she told herself. It’s what’s in the heart that counts, and what’s in the soul. And if that was the case . . . well, she was sure that eventually, somehow, her love for Kaleah could only be a blessing for them both. Regardless of whether the dark woman could return her feelings in the way she was thinking of.
Chapter 11.
Wednesday morning, Jessica and Kaleah were outside in the courtyard, practicing a few moves that the dark-haired woman thought were frankly beyond her grasp but was attempting anyway in order to please her younger companion, when the clear, cutting sound of a horn pierced the still air.

“What’s that?” asked Kaleah, her body instantly tensing at the sound, easily roused by the clarion call that was still used to summon warriors to battle.

Jessica’s eyes went instantly to the highest pinnacle of the castle; the central parapet. “Relax,” she said, patting her friend soothingly while at the same time admiring the lightning-quick reflexes the dark woman displayed, the instant readiness to take either to flight or to fight. She pointed. “It’s the look-out horn. Someone’s coming to pay us a visit.”

Kaleah let go of the tension that coiled her muscles and eyed the distant watchman perched on the look-out tower. “How come I’ve never heard it before?”

“Well they only ever use it when someone important is approaching, or when an army’s been spotted. That hasn’t happened since you arrived.” The young blonde watched as the soldiers started running about, curious and tense, then added, “Besides, even if they had, you can’t hear the horn so well inside the castle. It’s mainly to alert the guards on the wall and to send a runner to tell my father what’s happening.” She grabbed her friend and started dragging her excitedly across to the nearest stairs that led onto the walls. “Come on, let’s take a look and see who it is.”

Reaching the top of the wall, the two women found all the guards looking eagerly outside, their expressions relaxed and cheerful, not stern and serious as they would be if an enemy rode for Da’Gran. The top of the wall was designed in the typical style of a fortress of war, with gaps spaced along it at regular intervals to provide access for archers and look-outs. One of the guards saw Jessica and helpfully moved aside with a smile to give her room.

“Looks like your friend came early, Jess.” he told her, pointing out the brightly colored caravan and its retinue of mounted figures approaching at a leisurely pace. “Guess we caught him during a quiet time. I didn’t expect him to get here till Friday.”

Jessica studied the caravan and instantly recognized the raised standard of Earl James — Charles’ father. She looked at Kaleah, who regarded her questioningly.

“It’s Charles,” she told her friend with a broad smile.

Kaleah couldn’t help but smile in return, catching the young woman’s enthusiasm. In truth, she reflected, she was rather looking forward to meeting this man Jessica liked so much. The young blonde was a good judge of people she had seen, and there was little doubt in her mind that Charles must be someone special.

They watched as the caravan drew nearer. Kaleah could make out the lead figure; a man mounted on a dark-brown horse draped with finery and the trappings of nobility she would have expected of Jessica, but had never seen the young woman indulge in. The entourage that followed behind numbered a few dozen, including many mounted soldiers baring lances and shields, as well as numerous foot-soldiers armed with halberds, several unarmed servants, and of course the wagon that likely carried their supplies.

Kaleah’s sharp eyes, accustomed to watching for danger, were drawn quickly to the man riding about fifteen paces behind the lead figure of Charles. This man rode a massive black destrier charger and wore heavy plate armor sporting numerous blades. He was obviously a big man, strong and powerful as those who donned such weighty armor had to be. As the procession drew nearer, Kaleah watched him more curiously, impressed by the clear display of formidable power.

She pointed him out to her friend. “Who’s that?”

Jessica looked where she indicated. “The big man with the black horse? That’s Damon Cook. He’s Charles’ body-guard; they’re almost always together.”

“Body-guard?” Kaleah was familiar with such people . . . most of her former masters had employed protection of some kind. A dark memory rose unwanted in her mind, and she crushed it down. “Is he okay?”

Jessica shrugged, unaware of the change in her friend’s tone. “He’s kinda quiet, but he’s a damn good fighter. Very loyal to Charles and his father, which is what’s important in a body-guard, I suppose.”

The sudden arrival of Sir Richard drew their attention away from the approaching caravan. The lord knight marched across the courtyard, Sir Miles and Eric Grace trailing close behind.

“Come on,” said Jess, patting her hair down and straightening her rather rumpled shirt. “Let’s go down and greet them.”

The two joined Sir Richard at the raised portcullis. Jessica’s father gave them both a slight smile of acknowledgement, but shook his head a little at the ragged attire of his daughter. Jess just shrugged a little sheepishly and grinned at Kaleah.

The group of riders approached quickly, the lead figure waving cheerfully before he dismounted and strode forward to greet Sir Richard. Jessica and Kaleah held back as the two men embraced warmly and exchanged a few low words of welcome and thanks. When they parted, Sir Richard drew the man forward and gestured towards his daughter, who grinned and hugged him happily.

“It’s so good to see you again, Charles,” Jessica said as they separated. “I’ve missed you.” Kaleah noticed that her friend adopted her cultured tones once more, and recognized it as an indication that this was a somewhat formal occasion. The dark woman marveled how Jessica managed to slip into her role as a noble lady so quickly and easily. The sudden changes in her accent, expression and body language were almost disturbing.

Charles ran a gloved hand through his hair and grinned. “I came as soon as I could,” he said. “I’m glad for these talks . . . it’s been too long since we were together, hasn’t it?” He cast his eyes over her dirty peasant clothes and his grin grew wider. “I see some things have changed little.”

“More than you might think,” she replied cryptically, playfully punching his arm.

Charles’ eyes wandered from her and immediately fixed on Kaleah, who had watched the exchange intently and with only a small feeling of jealousy at the obvious closeness between the two. The young nobleman raised a curious eyebrow at Jessica, who eagerly gestured her friend forward.

“Charles, I’d like you to meet my new friend, Kaleah.” She put a hand on the tall woman’s arm and drew her closer. “She was passing through the region and I um. . . invited her to stay here for a while. She’s been a wonderful sparring partner, and we’ve become the best of friends.”

Kaleah couldn’t help but smile at the young woman’s words. She bowed slightly to show respect for the young noble. “A pleasure to meet you, my lord,” she said quietly, aware as always how her barbaric accent made her sound strange among these people . . . except, of course, around Jessica.

Charles studied her with intelligent brown eyes that held much the same spark of mischief as Jessica’s, taking in her tall, athletic form displayed nicely by the soft leather and chain-mail armor she wore. He smiled warmly. “The pleasure is all mine, I’m sure.” Kaleah relaxed a little when she recognized his interest as friendly and inviting, and allowed herself a moment to study him in return.

Charles was almost as tall as she was, and much broader across the shoulders and chest. He wore clothes that were obviously expensive, and a decorative sword hung from the belt that cinched about his trim waist. His ash-blonde hair was wavy and fell evenly to within a few inches of his shoulders. His face was gentle and kind, with a soft goatee framing a mouth that smiled easily. Kaleah acknowledged that Jessica was right; the young man was quite handsome, with an air of quiet nobility that was enhanced by his wardrobe, not based upon it. She smiled unconsciously, and relaxed more.

Charles finished his own appraisal and his smile grew warmer. “I look forward to getting to know you better,” he said, his voice smooth and refined. He winked at Jessica. “And to hearing how you two met up.”

“Certainly.” The young blonde nodded agreeably.

Sir Richard laid a hand on Charles’ shoulder. “You can talk later, Jessica,” he said firmly. “Charles is here for the treaty talks, not to keep you entertained. Miles? Would you see to the horses and have the men allocated to the barracks? Come, Charles. We have much to discuss.” He guided the young man towards the central keep, turning only to gesture for the hulking form of Damon to follow them. Sir Miles quickly took control of the rest of Charles’ entourage, and Jessica drew Kaleah over to the castle walls where the sun was warmest.

“He seems . . . nice,” Kaleah said as they sat down on the rough stones, dangling their legs over the edge.

“He is. I’m glad you think so.”

The young blonde couldn’t help but smile, recognizing by her friend’s words that the dark woman was comfortable with Charles being around. She had, in all honesty, been a bit worried. Afterall, Kaleah hadn’t taken to Sir Miles very well at all. Her reactions to other people when they tried to get close were usually defensive, sometimes aggressive, and highly unpredictable. She really wanted Charles to get along with her new friend, and was relieved that their initial introduction had gone okay.

“I saw his sword,” Kaleah mentioned. “It looked very . . . pretty. Can he use it?”

Jessica grinned, knowing her friend’s expert eyes had recognized that Charles’ weapon was too flashy to be the tool of a hard soldier. “He can fight a little,” she said. “But not nearly as well as most. Charles is a scholar and a diplomat; that’s probably a part of why my father wanted him here for the talks with Sir William.”

“So he’s not much of a fighter?”

Jessica shook her head.

“Is that the reason for the body-guard?”

Jessica shrugged, swinging her legs a little over the drop. “Most nobles have body-guards when they travel,” she said. “Charles is an important man. His father is very rich. Any thug with a few men would be only too happy to take a chance at grabbing him for ransom.”

Kaleah nodded, understanding. “So he has to travel with a small army everywhere he goes?”

“I guess.”

Kaleah eyed her friend. “You don’t.”

“That’s different.”

Kaleah turned to regard her friend more closely. “How? You’re a noble woman. I’m sure your father would pay any ransom demanded of him if you were kidnapped.”

“He never has before,” the blonde laughed. “My father expects me to be resourcful enough to get myself out of most trouble.”

“Has he ever offered to get you a body-guard?”

Jessica’s eyes flashed with emerald fire. “He knows better than to even suggest such a thing. There are three basic reasons why I don’t have a body-guard.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, I rarely ever go outside the castle walls unless it’s riding with my father. Two, there are only a few men in the castle who can fight better than I can, and apart from Sir Miles, none of them surpass my skills by all that much. And third . . .” She grinned. “My father knows full and well what I’d do if he tried to stick me with a body-guard.”

Kaleah considered this, and it suddenly occurred to her just how very different Jessica was from the rest of the nobility. She glanced at Jessica and found the young woman gazing at her with a slight smile and a wondering expression. Her eyes were soft and carried a gentle but undeniable force — the power of compassion and care. She couldn’t hold their gaze for more than a moment before the beating of her heart became so overwhelming that she had to look away, her blood rising.

“Something wrong?” the blonde asked.

She shook her head. “I was just thinking . . .”

“About what?”

“About just how unique and special you really are.” The words were out before she had the time to close her mouth around them. Her blue eyes widened and she cursed herself silently. “I mean, um . . . compared to the, uh, the other nobles.” She risked a glance at her companion, and was relieved when she saw only that same gentle, comfortable smile and the warmth and affection in her eyes.

“I’m no better or worse than anyone else, Kaleah,” the young blonde said softly.

“Yes you are,” the dark woman insisted.

“Oh?” Jessica gave her an amused and playful look. “And just what makes me so special?”

“Welll . . .” she thought for a moment. “Take Charles, for example. He’s a fairly typical noble, right?”

“I suppose.”

“And like a typical noble, he wears fine clothes and jewels, he has body-guards and an army wherever he goes. His hair was perfect . . . his teeth were perfect . . . he speaks well.”

“Sure . . . so?”

Kaleah smiled. “I’ve only ever seen you wear something other than peasant rags or fighting garb once or twice,” she said. “You’re almost always covered in sweat and mud, unless you’ve just taken a bath, of course. You talk like the soldiers unless your mother’s around, and whenever you brush your hair, it only ever seems to stay brushed for about five minutes before it’s a tangled mess again.” She grinned at her friend’s rather shocked expression. “You fight like a soldier, you can curse like a sailor, and if I had to find a single word to describe you, it would probably be ‘scruffy.’”

Jessica’s mouth hung open a little at this rather blunt appraisal, and she quickly snapped it shut. Okay, her mind said, rather deflated. So she doesn’t find you all that attractive physically. You can work on that. Maybe dress up a little more . . . get her to notice you. You could even let your mother do your hair or something . . .

“What’s your point?” She couldn’t help but sound a little depressed.

Kaleah’s eyes twinkled, hearing the tone in the young woman’s voice. “That is my point,” she said quietly.

“Huh?”

Kaleah drew her long legs up and crossed them under her. “You act like just another regular person,” she said. “You’re more than just the title you were born with. All the little things that everyone else thinks are so important — the fancy clothes, the jewels, the servants — they don’t matter to you.” She grinned. “I can’t really picture Charles rolling around in the mud like we do when we’re sparring.”

Jessica absorbed these words a moment, and a slow smile crept across her face. “So, what you’re saying essentially . . . is that I’m special because I usually walk around dressed in sweaty peasant rags, matted hair and covered in mud?”

Kaleah couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s a pretty grim assessment, but it’s not far off the mark.”

“Gee, thanks,” Jessica snorted. “You know, next time you want to boost my ego by telling me how damn special I am, maybe you could think of something a little more flattering than, ‘Jess, you look like a ragged peasant. Keep it up!’”

The dark-haired woman smiled a slightly shy but honest smile. “Okay,” she whispered. “How about this; you’re a beautiful, amazing young woman with the most generous heart I’ve ever seen . . . and you’ve made my life better than I ever thought it could be.”

Jessica flushed hotly, her playfulness vanishing as she saw the sincerity in her companions sparkling cerulean eyes. “Thank you,” she said softly. “You’re pretty special yourself.”

The women held each other’s gaze a few more moments before their individual emotions grew too much, then looked back into the castle courtyard, where the troops Charles had brought were mingling happily with the soldiers of Da’Gran. Jessica cleared her throat and swung her legs against the stone wall, happy to just sit and enjoy the silent company of her friend and revel in what she could feel growing between them.

She thinks you’re beautiful, her mind observed happily, and she felt the ball of joy in her stomach grow. Maybe she goes for the scruffy type. I guess that means you can forget about dressing up nice . . . just stay messy and unkempt for her. I mean, I’m not saying you should stop bathing, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

“So, want to go and practice at the archery field?”

Kaleah shrugged, grateful her friend was going to let the emotional and rather revealing conversation drop. “Sure, why not.”

They got up and wandered slowly over to the target range. On the way, Jessica waved one of the guards over and asked him to inform Charles where they would be as soon as he got out of his talks with Sir Richard, and would he like to join them. Glancing at Kaleah from time to time as they walked, Jessica recalled the dark woman’s words and couldn’t fight the smile that settled permanently on her face.

********************

Charles joined them at the archery range about an hour later, just as the two young women were beginning another round of shooting after a brief rest.

“Thought you didn’t like archery, Jess,” he observed with a grin as he meandered over, seeing the vibrant blonde take the bow from her partner.

“Well, it’s starting to grow on me,” she replied, giving him a warm smile. Jessica nocked an arrow and drew back, sighting carefully along the shaft towards the large bullseye at the far end of the field. Exhaling slowly, she calmed her mind as Kaleah had instructed her before she released the taut string, sending the arrow speeding through the air.

Charles grinned broadly when the missile embedded itself — not very firmly — into the outer-most ring of the target. “Not growing too fast, I see,” he teased, earning him a light slap.

“Better than anything you could do, I’d wager.” She handed the bow over to Kaleah, grinning at the dark woman and adding, “He’s worse with a bow than he is with a blade.”

Charles watched Kaleah swiftly nock an arrow, noting the casually professional way she stood. “And how about you, Kaleah?” he inquired in a friendly, interested tone. “Can you shoot?”

Kaleah gave him a slightly self-deprecating smile, faced the target, and in a single smooth, almost liquid motion, she drew, sighted and released the arrow, sending it deep into the middle ring of the bullseye, only an inch or two from the very center.

“Who do you think’s teaching Jessica?”

Charles clapped his hands and laughed, finding himself liking this strange woman instantly. “Very good,” he applauded as Jessica took the bow again. “You must be an excellent teacher . . . the last time I saw Jess try to shoot the target, she couldn’t get within thirty feet of it.”

Jess scowled and took another shot, this time hitting another ring closer to the center. “Just wait,” she promised with a pout. “By the time Kaleah’s finished with me, I’ll be as good as she is.” She raised an eyebrow curiously at him. “How’d the meeting go?”

“Fine,” he said, waving the issue aside. “If Lancaster is sincere in his desire for a treaty, it could mean great good for us all.”

“Humph!” Jessica snorted as she took a second shot, unfazed when the arrow only nicked the edge of the target and caromed away. Charles laughed, but she just shrugged. “It takes a lot of practice. I’m getting better.”

“Today’s been your best effort so far,” Kaleah agreed, taking the bow from her. She regarded Charles a little shyly, sensing that he was still observing her closely. She did as Jessica had told her to do in such situations; stood firm and strong, displaying a confidence that used to be fake, but which she was now beginning to believe in herself. “Jessica’s told me Sir William has been your mutual enemy for many years. Perhaps his desire to talk peace is a ruse. Maybe he’s planning to attack . . .” She remembered that Charles was of noble birth, and quickly added, “milord,” as she knew commoners like her were expected to use the title when they addressed their social betters.

Charles just laughed easily and waved the formal appellation away. “Please, Kaleah, no need for that. Just call me Charles,” he insisted. “Any friend of Jessica’s is a friend of mine . . . and my friends are my equals, not my servants.” He smoothed his fingers through his thin beard, considering her question seriously. “Sir William has more men than Jessica’s father, it’s true, and he’s attacked many times in the past. But the troops in Da’Gran are far better fighters then his own soldiers, and with the new alliance between Sir Richard and my own father solidified, he would be foolish indeed to attack. Da’Gran is a solid fortress; it wouldn’t be likely he’d attempt an assault.”

“He could hire mercenaries.” Kaleah remembered hearing somewhere that mercenaries were gathering in the region, but she couldn’t recall where or when she had heard it.

Jessica snorted again as Kaleah nocked another arrow. “And pay them with what? Lancaster is a greedy old fool. He might have dreamed of taking these lands once, but he can’t be stupid enough to try again.” She patted her friend on the back just as the dark woman was taking another shot. Jessica laughed when the arrow missed the target completely. “Ha! Looks like the teacher needs a little more practice herself!”

Kaleah flushed. “You distracted me.”

“Oh, boo! I just patted you on the back,” Jess teased. “Maybe I should be more creative next time . . . no telling how much you might miss by if I actually put my mind to distracting you.”

Kaleah snorted and turned away, grateful her dark complexion hid the color in her cheeks. “Don’t even think about it,” she groused, wondering if her words were meant for Jessica . . . or for herself, as she pondered a few ways the young girl might distract her.

Charles watched the interaction between the two women, recognizing instantly the close bond that had been forged between them. Jessica looked happier and healthier than he’d ever seen her before; the glow in her smile was more radiant than the sun. Every other time he’d visited Da’Gran, the young woman had been almost pathetically glad for his company. When it came time for him to leave, she always wept. Charles knew how lonely she was, how her mother kept her away from people she considered beneath their noble station. How had the Lady Rose been swayed to allow this friendship to ever develop? Come to think of it . . . how had Kaleah been swayed?

Charles was experienced at reading people; this tall, dark-haired woman with the piercing blue eyes didn’t seem the type to make friends with someone like Jessica. Studying Kaleah, recognizing a solitary and silent soul, he wondered how she had become a part of the young blonde’s life — and how she had worked such changes in his friend. Jessica’s simple explanation that the dark woman had just been passing through was obviously not the truth . . . or not all the truth. He could see the numerous scars on the woman’s body and the one that marred the beauty of her face. She moved with an almost savage, animal grace, her motions restless and tense. She certainly wasn’t someone he would have expected would make friends with the vibrant, spirited Jessica, and vice versa. His curiosity grew.

“Sooo . . . you wanna tell me how you two got together?” he asked.

Jessica grinned. “Right to the point, huh Charles?”

“That’s what works best with you, isn’t it?”

The blonde laughed and nodded. “I guess so.” She looked at her dark-haired friend, who smiled and shrugged, letting her know she didn’t mind the nobleman knowing the truth. “Kaleah and I met about a month ago,” she explained simply. “She was with a group of bandits my father arrested in the woods. In the fight, I saw she was good with a sword, so when she ran away, I chased her and . . . caught her.”

“She knocked me out,” Kaleah corrected.

“Only ‘cause you wouldn’t stay down,” Jess argued. “And it’s not like I got away without a scratch.” She displayed the still vivid scar on her right arm to Charles, who regarded Kaleah with new respect.

“Jess is quite a fighter,” he said, studying her with greater interest. “You must be pretty good yourself to get past her defenses.”

Kaleah waved him away, but the young blonde quickly jumped in. “She’s brilliant. We’ve been training together only a few weeks, but she picks up new moves faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Kaleah blushed and quickly loosed another arrow into the heart of the target. “Jessica likes to give too much credit.”

Charles grinned. “Only where it’s due,” he said. “So, you got caught. How’d you go from being a captured bandit to being Jessica’s friend?”

The dark woman shrugged. “She offered me a nice place to sleep and the chance to be a better fighter. All she wanted was a little company. It was either that or be sentenced to the barracks as a servant, so I accepted her offer.”

“I see.” Charles sensed more, but didn’t have to prod since Jessica was happy to fill in the blanks.

“Yeah, she accepted my offer, then took off as soon as a storm hit,” the blonde explained. “It was lucky we didn’t both die out there in the snow.”

“You went out alone into a winter storm?” Charles eyes were wide with surprise.

Kaleah shuffled her feet a little. “I, uh. . . I didn’t know how bad it would be.”

“Kaleah hasn’t seen many winter’s like this,” Jessica explained gently. “She’s only been free for less than a year.”

Aahhhh, Charles thought, studying Kaleah’s suddenly guarded expression. That explains a lot. “You were a slave.” A statement, not a question.

Kaleah nodded once, shortly. “For most of my life. My last master taught me to fight and to make weapons before he released
me . . . that was late last Spring. I was wandering around, just trying to survive in the months before Jessica found me.”

“We reached an understanding after a few initial problems,” Jess said softly, patting her tall friend on the arm comfortingly. “We’ve really gotten along well since then. Kaleah’s been a wonderful companion. I can’t even remember what I did before she came along.”

Charles didn’t miss the softening in Kaleah’s expression at the young woman’s caring words, nor the unconscious, lingering way Jessica patted and stroked the former slave’s arm. These two cared about each other a great deal, that much was obvious. He gave Kaleah a friendly, compassionate smile. “Well, I’m glad you found each other,” he said gently. “Slavery is an inhuman trade. I’ve seen many lives destroyed by it. It does my heart good to see that you, at least, have been given another chance at life.”

Kaleah flushed a little, hearing the sincerity in his words. “Thank you.”

Charles let the moment continue a little longer, then clapped his hands and smiled, dispelling the serious atmosphere with the skill of a true diplomat; one accustomed to setting others at ease. “Could I interest you ladies in a mid-day ride?” he asked. “I’m sure my men don’t want to strain your father’s supplies anymore than we must, Jessica. A hunt would do them the world of good.”

Jess agreed readily when Kaleah nodded her acceptance, the dark woman pointing out she had never been on a real hunt before. Together, the three left to gather Damon and the rest of Charles’ men for the chase.

****************************

The sun had started to set by the time the hunters returned, bearing the carcasses of two deer and a brace of pheasants. Jessica, never much for killing the forest animals, had been happy to sit back and let her friends participate while she enjoyed the last days of the winters magic. A dozen or so men agreed to come along, and the group had been in high spirits as they searched the woodlands for prints. Kaleah proved to be at best a mediocre tracker, but her aim was perfect, felling the graceful deer with a single shot. Jessica, seeing the look of intense concentration on the dark woman’s face as she lost herself in the chase, had allowed her imagination full rein as she let her eyes roam where they would.

Charles, ever an astute observer, did not miss the unusual amount of time his betrothed spent watching the former slave . . . nor did he fail to see the rakish smile that lit her face. He couldn’t help but grin, figuring this might explain at least some of the changes in the young woman. Still, he thought, admiring for a moment Kaleah’s admittedly appealing figure, it was probably better to learn the exact nature of what was going on before he started teasing the girl — which he quickly put at the top of his ‘things to do’ list.

Watching closely to see if Kaleah was reciprocating the interest, the nobleman was at first disappointed. Kaleah’s focus was all for the hunt, and the few glances she threw Jessica did not hold the same desire that was being directed her way. Charles was just beginning to worry that his friend was heading for heartache when, as they were headed home, the dark woman drew alongside him at the head of the column and said, in a suspiciously casual way, “So, Jessica tells me you two are betrothed.”

And we have a winner, the young man thought, quickly masking his amusement. “That’s right, for about four or so years now.” He glanced behind to where Jessica was riding, figuring the blonde had opted to ride back a ways so she might watch her tall companion without fear — a suspicion confirmed when he saw her green eyes quickly dart away to study the surrounding woodland with great interest as she realized he was looking at her.

“Four years? Why so long?”

Now he couldn’t help but grin as he regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “Come on, Kaleah,” he ribbed her. “Jess doesn’t make a secret of it, and neither do I.”

Kaleah had the sense to blush a little and stammer an apology. “I uh . . . wasn’t sure if . . .”

“I felt the same way?”

The dark head nodded. “I mean, she told me you didn’t love her as anything more than a friend, but . . . you know. Maybe you were just saying that to make her feel more comfortable.”

Charles shook his head. “Jessica’s a romantic heart,” he told her softly. “She wants to wait till she falls in love with the right person, and that person isn’t me. I understand that, because I feel pretty much the same way.”

Was Kaleah the right person? he wondered, studying her classic dark features. She obviously cared for Jessica, but Charles knew slaves rarely escaped their captivity without carrying dark emotions with them. Jessica deserved someone who would trust her and love her completely. Would someone like Kaleah — someone who had learned not to trust — be able to give herself over to such intimate reliance?

“So,” Kaleah’s voice drew him back from his considerations, “you’re not in love with her?”

“I love Jess as a friend,” he assured her. “She’s very dear to me, and she’s a very special person. But no, I have no interest in anything deeper.”

Kaleah’s brow furrowed. “Then why must you be married? Neither of you wants it. Why would they force you to do something you don’t want?”

“The marriage will solidify the treaty between her father and mine,” he explained. “It’s a bond that other lords will recognize and respect, and will work to ensure they don’t launch attacks against either of out lands.” He sighed a little and shifted the decorative sword at his side, for a moment envying the ease and familiarity with which the soldiers bore their weapons. The damn thing pinched him uncomfortably. “Jessica’s been quite creative finding new ways to delay the wedding, and I’ve supported her all I can. But unless something happens to change things in the next year or so, I think we’re both going to run out of road.”

Kaleah absorbed this with a thoughtful expression, then asked, “If you don’t love each other, how will you handle being married? Won’t you be expected to . . . you know? Have children?”

Charles shook his head. “The marriage is political. We won’t have to have children if we don’t want them. Jessica and I discussed the issue of sex, and we both agreed. Neither of us would be comfortable in such a relationship.” He shivered a little, glancing back at the watching blonde. “She’s like my sister, for God’s sake!”

“I see.”

Kaleah turned away, her eyes thoughtful. Charles, letting her slip away, could feel the presence she projected even when her mind was occupied. He could understand how Jessica could get swallowed up by that intense magnetism. It was clear the two women, having developed a solid friendship, were now hurtling quickly towards something more.

Charles’ father, who had traveled a great deal in his youth and developed a very liberated mind along the way, had raised his son to respect the ways of other people, no matter what they were. That was one of the many things he appreciated about Jessica; she rarely passed judgement on others . . . although, he had to admit, it was a little surprising the vibrant blonde had apparently fallen for another woman. He’d certainly never seen that one coming. But if it made her happy, then he would support and nurture it as best he could; as a friend. This budding attraction which, it appeared, had yet to be consummated, was an unexpected though welcome discovery for the young lord. If he could nudge the two closer . . . well, it might be a way to escape his and Jessica’s forced betrothal. Now, if he could just figure out a way to get Jessica to admit to it without embarrassing her . . .

Clucking to his horse as the party neared the imposing walls of castle Da’Gran, the young nobleman grinned to himself. He predicted this was going to be an unusually interesting visit.

**************************

Once the horses were stabled and the soldiers had returned to their barracks after preparing the meat they brought in, Jessica claimed the day had worn her out a little, and decided to retire to her room for a late supper.

“You want to join me?” she offered, including both but looking at Kaleah.

Charles declined. “I’ve been on the road the last few days,” he reminded his friend, stretching worn muscles. “My rooms are prepared; I’ve been looking forward to getting a good night’s rest. Sorry, Jess. We’ll do something fun tomorrow though, huh? The three of us?”

Jess nodded and hugged him goodnight before he disappeared into the keep. She raised an eyebrow at her friend. “Hungry?”

Kaleah was tempted, but she shook her head. “Actually I uh . . . I was planning on taking over the tower watch tonight,” she explained quietly. Seeing the surprised look on her companions face, she reached out and patted the younger woman on the arm. “I just . . . I need a little space again, that’s all.” Her words sounded hollow even to her own ears.

Jessica searched her friend’s face for a moment, unable to hide her disappointment and regret. It’s been a while since she last wanted to be alone, she thought. I suppose it was a little too much to hope that she was past all that. After a moment, she nodded. “I understand,” she whispered, covering the hand that held her arm and stroking it comfortingly. “You’ll join us tomorrow though, won’t you?”

Kaleah nodded and smiled warmly at the slight note of desperation that crept into her friend’s voice. For a moment, the need to reassure the young woman that she would always be needed became so overwhelming Kaleah almost bent down and pressed her scarred lips against the softer ones below. With an effort though, she leashed her desires and locked them again in the cage of her heart.

“Of course,” she promised. “Charles is great, I like him already. It’s just . . .” she struggled to find words to make Jessica understand she wasn’t drawing away from her. “I just have a few things I need to think about, that’s all. Nothing bad,” she quickly added, seeing the concern on Jessica’s face. “Just regular stuff. Okay?”

The blonde nodded. “Sure.”

“Alright then. I’ll see you in the morning, bright and early, okay?’

“Bright and early.”

Kaleah ruffled her messy blonde hair in a now familiar gesture, gave her a little grin, and headed away into the gathering shadows. Just before she vanished from sight, Jess called out to her; “Kaleah?”

“Yeah?” Blue eyes shone even in the darkness.

Jess smiled. “Promise me you’ll get at least a little sleep?”

Teeth flashed white as the former slave grinned fully. “I promise,” she said, before turning away. Her footsteps grew dimmer, and she was gone.

Jessica sighed. Her appetite had disappeared.

**************************

Kaleah climbed slowly up the winding, narrow staircase that led to the top of the lookout turret, her thoughts tangled and weighing down her feet. Reaching the summit, she relieved the grateful soldier on night watch and settled down to watch as the lights from the nearby village were lit, creating a distant glow.

Sighing deeply, the dark woman picked up a cloak left behind by the guard and wrapped it round her shoulders to ward off the night’s chill. Shivering only a little, she let her mind ponder her relationship with Jessica.

Kaleah hadn’t served as a whore for so many of her slave years without learning to recognize the signs people gave when they were interested in her. The way a person looked, or sounded, or even smelled could tell her quickly if someone wanted to bed her. However, that only made what was happening now all the more confusing.

Jessica wasn’t like anyone she had ever known. Before, the people who came to the any of the brothels her masters had owned came because they wanted something; they wanted pleasure. Their desires were plain and based purely on the physical. This connection with Jessica was emotional as well . . . and maybe even deeper than that. She could feel the girl’s presence in the very depths of her soul.

Kaleah had no idea if the signals the young woman was sending were just normal signals that passed between normal friends, or if they were something more. Maybe Jessica just blushed a lot naturally, she thought. Maybe she gave everyone those sidelong glances. She certainly liked to touch people a lot when she was near them — that one was assuredly not unique to their interactions. But the rest? How could she know for sure?

One thing was clear, however; Jessica was aware that something was going on between them. Kaleah had seen the curious, wondering expression in her friend’s eyes from time to time. Sensitive to other people, the young blonde had to have realized they were growing even closer to each other as time wore on. She seemed happy with it, but maybe that was because she hadn’t even considered a physical dimension to their relationship. Would the young woman draw away if she found out about the thoughts Kaleah had been having?

A sudden, nearly silent footstep drew Kaleah away from her ponderings. Her hand went instantly to the Spanish blade she still carried at her side . . . but it was too late.

As Kaleah turned to see who it was, something struck her across the face with dazzling force. The dark of the night exploded suddenly with white and flashing stars. She had a vague impression of three figures carrying stout wooden sticks, dressed in black, faces concealed by cloth wrappings, but another blow sent her to the ground before she could get her weapon free. Her hand dropped from the hilt of the sword to break her fall, and pain lanced from her wrist up her arm from the impact.

“Look’s like yer settlin’ in alright, slave bitch,” snarled a voice, slightly muffled by the wrappings. A booted foot slammed into her stomach, and Kaleah croaked out an involuntary sound as the air left her lungs. Doubled over in agony, she barely heard the men. “May be that ye’ve outstayed yer welcome.” Something hit her in the small of her back, causing her body to arch up. “Time to be movin’ on, I reckon. Da’Gran’s not the place fer you.” Before she could cry out, one of her attackers kicked her in the head, sending her flopping to the stone, clinging to consciousness, her body exposed and defenseless.

For a moment, she struggled through the rising darkness to summon the anger and rage that always lay so close to the surface, trying to draw strength to stand and fight. She wished for the breath to give a battlecry, but it was all she could do to spit out the blood that welled in her mouth. She’d been beaten before as a slave, and she called on her experience to push through the pain.

You were beaten as a slave, her mind screamed at her. But you’re not a slave anymore! Get up! Fight!

Snarling, she closed a shaking hand over the hilt of her sword and tried to pull it free. One of the men quickly struck her sword arm . . . hard. Kaleah cried out as fire ripped through the damaged limb.

Her fury managed to get her back up to her knees, but before she could go further successive blows rained down on her as her assailants moved in to complete the punishment. Kaleah felt real fear for the first time in weeks; it flowed through her blood like ice, weakening her further. Dark memories rose of the times she’d been punished by her masters, and she was engulfed by the same feeling of powerlessness that had pervaded her life for as far back as she could remember. As the men struck again and again, Kaleah, knowing there was nothing she could do, curled into a protective ball and tried to shield her face.

Eventually, after what seemed to her pain-filled mind to be several hours but was probably only a few minutes, the shower of agony halted and she relaxed a little, groaning weakly and struggling to hold back the darkness that wanted to spare her the pain. A large, rough hand grabbed her by the hair and jerked her face up. Two eyes were all she could see of the man; his face was carefully masked to conceal his identity.

“This is just a warnin’, slave,” the man growled, raising his fist. “Get outta this castle while ye still got legs to walk on. Next time . . . we won’t be such gentlemen.”

The man’s fist slammed into her face, and dark oblivion became the whole world.
Chapter 12.
The dream was warm and fuzzy, filled with gentle images of bronze skin and flashing blue eyes. She felt the strong arms of an ethereal lover wrap protectively around her middle and released a sigh of utter bliss and contentment. Wonderfully soft pleasure coursed through her naked body, not urgent or rushed, but slow and teasing, drawing guttural moans from deep in her belly. She heard her name whispered by the woman loving her, and she smiled and snuggled deeper into the seductive embrace that blocked out the rest of the world and made her feel so very special.

“Jess . . .” the voice called, sounding more urgent as she turned and wetly kissed what skin she could reach. “Jess!”

“Kaleah?”

“Jess, it’s me . . . Charles.” Someone was shaking her lightly. . . someone real. “Come on Jess, wake up.”

Reluctantly letting the dream slip away, Jessica opened bleary eyes and looked up to find Charles sitting on the bed next to her. “Alright, I’m up,” she grumbled crankily, a little miffed at having the wonderful dream interrupted. Fuzzily she looked at the window, rubbing her eyes. She scowled. “For God’s sake, Charles, it’s still dark outside!” she slapped his arm lightly — but not too lightly. “I was in the middle of a dream that . . .” She suddenly noticed the tension in the young lords face. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

He nodded. “Kaleah’s been hurt.”

Green eyes widened and Jess’s hand went to her mouth. “Hurt? What do you mean hurt? I-is she okay? Where is she?”

Jessica started to get up but Charles put his hands firmly on her shoulders, holding her back before she could leap out of the bed. “Calm down,” he insisted softly. “She’s okay, Jess. Eric Grace is with her now, seeing to her injuries. Get some clothes on and I’ll take you too her.” He released her when he felt her relax a little.

Worried green eyes bore into him. “What happened?”

Charles got up and turned around to give her some privacy as she dressed. “We don’t know. She wasn’t all that coherent when the guards found her.”

“Wasn’t coherent? What do you mean? How . . . how bad is she?”

He sighed. “She’s pretty bruised and battered, but Grace says nothing’s broken. She uh . . . she did ask for you though.”

“She did?” He couldn’t help but hear her slight smile. “When did they find her? She told me she was taking the night-watch in the lookout turret.”

“One of the guards went to bring her some food near midnight. He found her lying about half-way down the stairs and went to get help. Grace has been working on her since they carried her down.”

“Midnight?” He turned around to see the young woman dressed in her ragged soldier’s uniform, hands on her hips, expression stormy. “Why didn’t anyone come and get me?”

“You were sleeping. She was barely conscious. You couldn’t have done anything, and Grace said you would have gotten in his way.” He raised his hands to forestall the anger that the small blonde was getting ready to unleash. “Jess, you needed your rest,” he argued preemptively. “She’s going to need you now more than she did during the night.”

Jessica considered this and realized it was true. “Someone still should have told me,” she said, her voice breaking a little. “I could have at least . . . been there for her. Where is she?”

“The infirmary. Come, I’ll take you to her.”

The two headed down the corridor, Jessica’s long, almost masculine strides forcing Charles to lengthen his own in order to keep up. Opening the door into the infirmary, Jessica rushed inside and came to a sudden stop when she saw her friend.

“Oh my God!” Her voice caught in her throat. She covered her mouth as tears sprang into her eyes.

Kaleah was lying on a padded bench, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling evenly. She wore a simple, loose-fitting shift, but most of her body was wrapped in bandages. Her face was badly bruised; one eye was swollen black and blue, and had been covered with a greenish-brown poultice Jessica knew was used to help broken skin heal. Her right arm was wrapped in a splint, and what patches of skin were showing were all darkened by bruises.

Eric Grace looked up from where he was finishing with the last of the bandages. “Aahhh, Lady Jessica. Excellent, you’re here. Your friend was asking for you.” The old man nodded a greeting to Charles as he came in after her.

“Is she . . ?”

“Her condition is quite stable.” He saw the expression of fear and grief in her eyes and gestured for her to come closer. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he assured her, the cold detachment in his voice chilling her for some reason as she stepped forward and reached out to reassure herself with physical contact that Kaleah was okay. She stopped, thinking she might accidentally hurt her friend further. Forcing down the tears and trying to dislodge the lump in her throat, she studied the dark woman’s battered features.

“Kaleah?” No response. She looked up to see Grace moving about his equipment, cleaning up. “Why is she still unconscious?”

“Not unconscious; sedated,” he corrected her. “She was asking for you and being rather uncooperative. I was worried she might do herself more damage so I gave her something to put her to sleep. It’s quite alright, milady, I assure you.”

Jessica pulled a nearby stool closer and sat down. Unable to stand not touching her friend, she gently took the dark woman’s hand and stroked it soothingly. “How long will she be out?”

Grace gave the matter consideration, studying his patient’s slumbering form. “Hard to say,” he admitted. “She’s thin, but strong. She should be coming round shortly, though she’ll be a bit groggy for a while.”

“How did this happen? She was only supposed to be taking guard duty. Who would do this to her?”

Grace shrugged and patted her shoulder. “She told me she tripped and fell down the stairs.”

Jessica’s brow furrowed as she regarded the extent and nature of the damage. “Do you believe that’s what happened?”

“Can’t say for sure. I suppose she might have taken a nasty tumble. Her injuries are fairly consistent with what I’d expect of such an accident. Still . . .” He indicated the poultice-covered gash on her face. “That looks almost like she was kicked in the face by someone wearing a boot,” he observed with clinical interest.

That was exactly what Jessica thought. But . . .”Who would do that? She hasn’t given anyone a reason to hurt her.”

Grace shrugged. “However it happened, she’s gonna be pretty sore for the next few days. I assume you’ll want to take care of her yourself . . ?”

She nodded. “When can she come back to her room? I think she’d be more comfortable there.”

Eric nodded. “I anticipated as much. Give her till tonight, then I’ll have some of the servants carry her up.” He gathered the bag that held his various herbs and medicines and tucked it under his arm. “Her injuries are cleaned, and the worst of the bruises are wrapped. I’m afraid that’s about all I can do for her, and I have other duties to attend to with your father. I trust you’ll want to stay here with her?”

She nodded.

“Fine. When she wakes up, just try to keep her from moving around too much. Nothing’s broken, but everything will be awful tender.” He opened the door. “Remember, Lady Jessica, the best thing for your friend right now is plenty of rest. Her body needs time to heal. I’ll send Senigma in to check on her around noon.”

“Fine. Thank you, Eric.”

The old man started to leave, then suddenly turned back. “Oh, one last thing, Lady Jessica,” he said. “While I was treating the young woman, I couldn’t help but notice the mark she has on her back . . . just below her neck. Have you seen it?”

“The tattoo? I’ve seen it, yes. Why?”

“Well, I must say it fascinated me,” Grace said eagerly. “The mark seems to be formed from some type of ancient writing. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve made quite a study of such things. I uh, took a quick tracing while she was unconscious. I apologize if it was forward of me, but I was very much hoping to study the design further . . . if it were agreeable with you, my lady.”

Jessica considered Grace’s request, and nodded. “I see no harm in it. Kaleah has no idea what the mark means; I doubt she’d mind you looking into it.”

Grace smiled broadly and bowed, his velvet robes shuffling about him. “Thank you, Lady Jessica.”

“And Grace?”

“Yes, Lady Jessica?”

“If you do find anything about it, I’d like to be informed.”

“Of course. My pleasure, Lady Jessica.”

The door closed behind him and she suddenly found it too hard to hold back her tears. “Oh, Kaleah . . .” She reached up with her free hand and cupped the sedated woman’s cheek, stroking the scar that slashed across the swollen lips with her thumb in a gesture that instantly brought her a measure of comfort. “I’m so sorry.”

Charles stepped up behind her, putting his arms on her shoulders and giving her a squeeze. “You couldn’t have done anything,” he told her softly. “It was an accident-”

“This was no accident,” she said firmly. “She was attacked.”

“How can you be sure? Eric said. . .”

“Someone beat her. She wouldn’t have fallen down the stairs. I know she wouldn’t have.”

Charles was puzzled. “But you said it yourself; who’d want to hurt her?”

“I don’t know.” The blonde continued to gently caress Kaleah’s lips with her thumb . . . a gesture that was so unconsciously intimate and caring Charles couldn’t help but notice. “But someone did. When she wakes up, I’ll find out who.” Anger lit fires in her emerald eyes as she studied the bruises. “I’ll find whoever it was . . . and they’ll be sorry when I get my hands on them.”

Deciding it was probably best not to argue with his friend when she was in such an emotional state, Charles just sighed and pulled another stool over next to hers. He sat down and patted her arm. “You two have become pretty close, huh?”

Jess nodded. “She’s the best friend I’ve ever had,” she whispered, almost to herself. “I can’t believe this happened! She’s suffered enough already in her life . . . sh-she doesn’t deserve this . . . she-” The tears started to flow.

Seeing the young woman loosing hold of her emotions, Charles reached out and pulled her into a gentle hug. “Ssshhhh, it’s okay, Jess,” he soothed, stroking her head as she started to sob. “She’ll be fine in a few days. Everything’s alright.”

Jessica let herself cry, the shock of seeing Kaleah like this becoming too much. Her body was wracked with deep shudders as she clutched Charles close, letting him comfort her. After many moments, her tears began to taper off and she slowly brought herself back under control.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered, drawing away from Charles’ embrace. “It’s just . . .” she turned back to the slumbering woman. “It hurts so much to see her like this, you know?”

“I understand.” He patted her on the shoulder and gave her a kind smile. “You, uh . . .” He didn’t know if this was the most appropriate time, but thought that it might help the young woman to share her feelings. “You really like her, don’t you?”

Jessica didn’t look up at him as she returned to stroking the scarred lips, but she nodded slowly with a small, secret smile. “You have no idea how much,” she whispered.

He grinned a little. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he argued playfully. “I think I could take a pretty good guess . . . based on how much time you spent yesterday with your eyes glued to her butt.”

“What!?”

He couldn’t help but laugh as she spun around, her green eyes wide, mouth hanging open. “Come on, Jess, you didn’t stop staring at her all day,” he teased good-naturedly. “The look in your eyes was making me blush!”

“I-I, uh . . . I was just . . .” Jessica stammered helplessly, trying to come up with an explanation. Charles just regarded her patiently with a raised eyebrow. Eventually, running out of breath, the young woman just blushed and looked at her feet. “I wasn’t really being that obvious, was I?” She peeked up at him shyly from under sleep-mussed blonde hair.

“I’m afraid so,” he nodded. “But don’t worry. No-one else was paying any attention. And Kaleah was focused mostly on the hunt, so I think you got away with it.” He grinned and folded his arms across his chest.

“Oh God.” Jessica ran her fingers through her hair and blushed furiously. She couldn’t help but chuckle at herself a little. “I guess I should be more careful next time, huh?”

“Maybe you should be more obvious,” he suggested quietly. “She doesn’t know how you feel about her, does she?”

“Welll, not exactly, no.” Jess took Kaleah’s hand again and rubbed it soothingly. “She knows how much I care for her . . . kind of. And I guess she must be aware that our friendship’s still growing stronger. But she doesn’t know some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, if you know what I mean.” She glanced at him questioningly. “You, uh, don’t mind about it, do you?”

He shook his head fondly. “You’re my friend, Jess. If this is something that makes you happy, then it makes me happy, too.” He studied the dark woman. “She is attractive, I guess, in a . . . primal kind of way.’’

“I know.” A rather sexy smile twisted her lips. “And her eyes are the most amazing blue . . .” She sighed. “I’m still trying to figure out how to tell her. I’ve never had to do anything like this before. But I can’t keep it inside me much longer. It’s getting too hard not to touch her, to be closer to her.”

“How do you think she feels?” Charles had already figured Kaleah was just as interested in his young friend as she was in her, but it was not his place to tell another’s secrets, regardless of the happiness it might bring them both.

“I have no idea. I can’t tell.” Even now, just looking at her sleeping friend made her feel all warm inside, no matter how grim the circumstances. “Sometimes, she looks at me a funny way, and I’m sure she’s thinking . . . you know . . . those kinds of thoughts about me. And sometimes, she says something that makes me wonder if she’s trying to figure out if I’m interested in her.” She sighed again. “But then she pulls away, or changes the subject, and I have to let her go. She’s learning to trust me, and no matter what my feelings are, I won’t risk destroying what it’s taken me so long to build.”

Suddenly, Kaleah groaned and her eyes flickered. Jessica stood up excitedly as the dark woman began to move her head from side to side, mumbling.

“She’s coming round.” She stood up and moved around the padded bench excitedly, pressing a palm to Kaleah’s forehead to sooth the beaten woman’s uneasy motions. She threw Charles a threatening look. “Not a word of this to her, promise me.”

He instantly raised his hand. “I swear, Jess. Your secret’s safe with me.”

She smiled and went back to easing her friend into wakefulness.

“Jess . . ?” An eye cracked open, then the other, revealing cerulean orbs fuzzy with confusion.

“I’m here, Kaleah,” the young woman reassured softly. “You’re safe, just lie back. You should try to stay still.”

Kaleah groaned and tried — not very successfully — to sit up. She looked around, disoriented. “Where . . ?”

“The infirmary,” Jess explained. “A guard found you and called for help. You shouldn’t move for a while. You’re awful bruised.”

“Urgh” Kaleah lay back and took stock of the damage to her body. Jess was right, she assessed. Everything felt sore. She ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek, feeling the skin torn and tender from where her flesh had been smashed against her teeth. She knew she was lucky not to have lost a tooth. Her right arm was splinted, but she suspected it was more to keep it stable than because the bone was broken. All in all, she considered herself fairly lucky. The beating had been professional and effective, meant to deliver injuries that were painful but which would heal quickly. She had a feeling her attackers hadn’t wanted to do anything that might necessitate a prolonged recovery.

She looked up and was instantly captured by the compassion and concern in her friend’s expression. With a slight groan, she managed a smile she hoped was reassuring. “I’m okay,” she whispered, wincing when talking hurt her cheeks.

“You’re a very long way from okay, Kaleah,” Jessica insisted.

“I’ve had worse.”

Jessica ran her fingers through the dark woman’s hair, smoothing it. “I know you have,” she said softly. “But you should be safe from this sort of thing in Da’Gran. What happened?”

“I fell . . . down . . .” She trailed off when she saw the stern look in Jessica’s face. Sighing, she admitted to herself that if anyone deserved the truth, it was her young friend. “Three men. They came from behind while I was on watch. I didn’t hear them coming, and they knocked me down before I could get my sword out.”

“Did you see what they looked like?” asked Charles.

She shook her head. “They wore masks.”

“Did they say anything? Could you recognize a voice if you heard it again?”

“They said-” She stopped, suddenly realizing that if she told Jessica what her attackers had said, the young woman’s sharp mind would assuredly make the same connection she herself had made. The men wanted her out of Da’Gran . . . just like the Lady Rose. This attack was obviously the noble woman’s way of making sure Kaleah understood she was serious. Jessica didn’t need to know about any of that. “They said something, but I-I can’t remember what it was. They sounded like any of the soldiers. I don’t think I’d recognize them again. I’m afraid they all sound the same to me.” True enough. The accent was too common to distinguish one man from another.

Jessica frowned. “Do you have any idea why they attacked you?”

Kaleah shook her head. Lady Rose was pushing her harder, but she’d known there might be consequences to her continued involvement with her blonde companion. This was something she would deal with in her own way. She had no desire to pit Jessica against her own mother.

Jessica wasn’t happy, but decided now was not the time to vent her frustration. “Nevermind,” she said gently, feeling Kaleah move into her fingers encouragingly as she stroked her face. “We can talk about it later if you want. You need to rest.”

Kaleah shifted a little and grumbled; the bench she lay on wasn’t very comfortable. “I’d rather be in my bed.”

“I know. We’ll get you moved to your room later on tonight. For now, you should stay here and keep still . . . let your body recover.”

From years of dealing with worse injuries than this, Kaleah knew well the wisdom in her companion’s advice. She smiled and relaxed, letting Jessica’s touch ease away the shadows that this experience had raised from the depths of her memory.

Da’Gran had become a home to her; a place of safety after years spent living in constant fear. Now, that sense of peace had been called into question. She felt the walls that had crumbled under the care and company of the young noble woman start to rebuild, instinctively trying to protect her. With an effort, she stopped them. Lying back and relaxing into the tender caress of her friend, she knew that Jessica would protect her. Closing her eyes, basking in the warmth of the care being lavished on her, the dark woman closed her eyes and let the pain fade away.

Yes, she thought sleepily as her mind drifted off. Jessica will protect me. All I have to do . . . is lie back and let her.

***************************

Kaleah slept for most of the day, the sedative Grace had given her working to keep her still and also aiding her body’s natural healing properties. Charles regretfully was called away from the infirmary by his duties, but Jessica remained at her friend’s side. Whenever Kaleah woke from her restful slumber, the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the young woman smiling down at her reassuringly, her hands gently caressing her face or her hair.

“Have you had anything to eat today?” she asked drowsily during one of her periods of wakefulness.

Jessica smiled. “I’m not hungry. Maybe I’ll send for something later . . . do you feel up to some soup?”

The dark woman’s eyes warmed, and she basked in the simple pleasure of knowing someone cared for her; a pleasure she’d been a stranger to most of her life. She regarded her friend openly, unable to stop the sweet smile from forming as she thought again how beautiful Jessica was. “Maybe later.” She felt the medicine start to pull her back into darkness, and grasped the blonde woman’s hand tightly as she closed her eyes. “D-do you . . . have anything you . . . have to do today?”

Jessica read the hidden question easily, and squeezed her hand. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” she promised in a whisper. “I’m not going to leave you.”

Consciousness slipped away, but Kaleah smiled happily and sighed. “Not going to . . . leave you either,” she breathed as she drifted away. “Never leave . . .”

Jessica smiled and felt her heart ache with the love it held for this woman.

Around noon, Senigma stopped by and gave a sleeping Kaleah a brief once-over before reporting to Jessica the reassuring news that the patient was doing well and would likely be fully repaired in a few weeks, depending on her how fast her body healed.

Early afternoon rolled on, and as the sedative began to wear off Kaleah spent more time awake. Feeling how weak her muscles were, she asked for something to eat and Jessica called for a servant to bring them some soup and bread. They ate the meal in companionable silence, each occasionally stealing glances at the other. When they were done, the former slave found her energy somewhat recovered and managed to sit up further.

“Be careful,” Jessica scolded with concern when she heard the sharp intake of breath as Kaleah stood on shaky legs.

“It’s okay . . .” The dark woman winced, but had decided it was time to move around. She didn’t like to feel herself being restrained — by her injuries, or by anything else. “I just need to get up and ease my muscles, that’s all.”

“Do you want to go back to your room?”

Kaleah nodded. “I think I can walk that far.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ll get some servants to help . . . we can carry you there on the stretcher-”

“Jess, wait!” Kaleah reached out to stop the young woman as she was about to head out the door. “I don’t need the help. I can make it by myself.”

“But-”

“Please . . ?”

Seeing the desperate look in her friend’s expression, Jessica sighed, realizing Kaleah didn’t want to appear helpless. She didn’t want to be laid out on a stretcher and carried everywhere like an invalid. Jess knew the dark woman well enough to understand her restless spirit, and the pride the former slave took in every freedom she could lay her hands on. But, like it or not, Kaleah needed to understand that she was hurt; she had to take things easy.

“Will you at least let me help you?” she asked softly, sensing it was probably the most her friend would accept. After a brief internal debate, Kaleah nodded and Jessica wrapped her splinted arm around her neck and accepted as much of the taller woman’s weight as she could.

The two took it slowly, with Jessica insisting they stop and rest frequently along the way. Kaleah, recovering her energy as the medicine wore off, would have protested but for the dull ache that was spreading through her body. The few soldiers and servants who passed them by gave slight nods of genuine sympathy to the dark woman, but recognized that any offer of help would not be welcomed.

It took them over an hour to reach the hallway where their rooms were located, and by then Kaleah’s body was throbbing in agony. Jessica sensed her companion’s pain. Her room was closer than Kaleah’s, so when they reached it she directed the groaning woman inside.

“Wait, this is-”

“You can stay in my room tonight, Kaleah,” she said shortly. “It’s closer.”

“But where-” Kaleah hissed as pain shot down her arm. “Where will you sleep?”

Jessica shrugged. “It’s a big bed,” she replied simply.

Kaleah was in too much pain to argue. “Uurgh!” She groaned loudly as she collapsed into the welcoming softness of the mattress and still-rumpled blankets that bore the distinct scent of her young friend. She lay still for a while, letting the pain fade away to a dull ache she could ignore. Then, rolling over, she looked up at Jessica and grinned a little. “After lying on that damned board all day, this feels soooo good!”

“I bet.” Jessica smiled and lay down next to her friend, careful not to bounce her too much. After resting a moment she looked to the window, where shadows were gathering outside. “It’s going to be dark soon; want me to set a fire?”

“I’m not going to try to stop you, if you have your heart set on it,” Kaleah replied playfully. The injuries were feeling much better already, now that she wasn’t moving so much. Her eyes danced, unable to feel bad in the company of the young blonde.

Jessica gave her a strange, slightly amused look before she got off the bed. “You’re in a surprisingly good mood,” she observed wryly as she laid out the kindling in the fireplace.

Kaleah smiled at her, then wrestled with a blanket and managed to pull it over herself at least part-way. “Yeah, well maybe that’s because I feel pretty good . . . considering,” she said cheerfully.

The room was suddenly lit with flickering, crimson light as Jessica ignited the pile of dry kindling with a skillful hand. Kaleah’s heart almost stopped beating as she watched her young friend brush her hands off and turn around. In the firelight, Jessica’s perpetually rumpled blonde hair looked iridescent; the shadows framing half her face highlighted every perfect angle, and her emerald eyes sparkled with her youth and life. When the young woman smiled, Kaleah knew she wanted nothing more from her life than to make that smile appear as often as possible.

Jessica studied Kaleah, the teasing words that had been about to spill from her lips vanishing as she saw the strange look in the dark woman’s eyes. She smiled almost shyly, suddenly a little self-conscious for no reason she could identify. Standing under that quiet, intense gaze, she felt heat rise in her face. When the cerulean eyes dropped away from her face and flickered over her body — if only for a second — she could feel the familiar sensations of desire wash over her, filling her stomach with butterflies and turning her blood to liquid fire that spread outwards from her groin and almost stopped her heart with it’s power.

Eventually, the young blonde cleared her throat and broke the intensity of the moment, afraid she’d do something she might regret if it continued. “Are you still hungry?” she asked quietly. “I could ask the kitchen to send up some dinner.”

Kaleah nodded, casting her eyes elsewhere in the room, aware she’d been staring. “Sure. I think I need something more than that soup we had if I’m going to recover my strength.” She suddenly realized it was Thursday. “Aren’t you supposed to attend the dinner with your parents in the great hall tonight?”

Jess shrugged. “I sent word earlier I wouldn’t be there. You need me a lot more than they do right now.”

Kaleah flushed with happy warmth, still surprised somehow by every kind act this amazing woman displayed so effortlessly. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” The young blonde grinned cheekily. “If it gets me out of my mother’s not-so-subtle mentions of the wedding, so much the better. I’ll send someone down to get some food.”

Before long a servant knocked on the door bearing two plates of meat and vegetables. The two lay on the huge bed, eating quietly and using the time to contemplate the nature of what had passed between them. By the time they were done, both had reached about the same conclusion; that something stronger than friendship was building here . . . and that they were both aware of it.

Neither were prepared to grasp the possibility that what they had seen in the eyes of the other was desire, or even romantic interest. But deep down, the seeds that had been planted some time ago were nourished by the moment . . . and began to grow into a love that was more confidant and sure of itself.

They talked awhile about nothing in particular, and Jessica suddenly realized their conversations were no longer as one-sided as they used to be. Kaleah talked quite a bit when they were together now, willing to respond with more than the single sentences or — at times — grunts which had characterized most of her repertoire not so long ago. The young woman smiled at the change, then muffled a yawn, realizing it was getting late.

She smiled at Kaleah regretfully, not wanting the evening to end. “I should probably let you get some rest. I know what I said before about it being a big bed, but you probably need a bit of space. I can stay in your room, if you like.” she said. She started to get up, but was stopped by the shy touch of her friend.

“Please . . . don’t go.” Kaleah’s voice was so quiet she almost missed her words. Turning, she found open blue eyes beseeching her, filled with something that was not quite fear, but very similar. The dark woman squeezed her arm, refusing to let go. “I-I don’t want to be alone right now.” Blue eyes implored her shyly. “W-would you . . . please stay? Just for tonight?”

Jessica could only smile reassuringly and nod her head. “Of course,” she whispered, patting the hand that held her. “If you want me to, I’ll stay.”

Relief washed over Kaleah’s face and she eagerly pulled the covers off the bed and moved over to allow her friend to join her in the warmth. Jessica looked at her ragged clothes and frowned. “Will you be alright if I wear these? I could take them off?” She reached to pull the shirt off.

“NO! Um . . . they’re fine, don’t . . . don’t worry about them.”

Jessica hid her grin, wondering not for the first time if maybe Kaleah was thinking the same things she was. Shrugging casually, she slipped under the covers and into the welcoming warmth.

For a moment, both women lay there in silence, staring up at the mural on the ceiling and just enjoying the comfort of the others nearness. There was about a hand-span of space between them, but Jessica soon gave in to the temptation to snuggle closer. Already a touchy-feely person, it was too much to expect her to keep her hands to herself.

“I-is this alright?” she asked tentatively as she drew closer, wanting more but also willing to back off if it made Kaleah uncomfortable. To Jessica’s relief, the dark woman tensed only for a moment — possibly from pain — then turned slightly to better accommodate her companion’s embrace.

“It’s fine,” she heard whispered in the darkness, Kaleah’s voice sounding oddly strained. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “You’re welcome.” And you’d be welcome to sooo much more, her mind put in with a metaphysical grin. She silently ordered it to shut up.

Holding the tall woman in a gentle embrace with her head resting lightly on the dark woman’s breast, Jessica felt Kaleah’s body trembling in her arms. She drew back and studied her friend’s face. “Are you cold? Am I hurting you?”

Kaleah shook her head. “You’re fine,” she whispered. “It’s just . . .” She struggled a moment to put her feelings into words, but gave up. It was just too hard to express the emotions the young woman’s touch inspired in her . . . emotions that went so far beyond mere physical desire she was afraid they would tear her apart from the inside. Seeing the genuine concern in Jessica’s verdant gaze, she smiled reassuringly and pulled the girl closer to her. Jessica, confidant she wasn’t causing the woman any pain, snuggled deeper into her warmth.

“You tell me if I start to hurt you, alright?”

“I will.”

They lay together for some time, just soaking in the sensation of being so close. Kaleah eventually got her body settled down, and the trembling subsided. Thinking of what her life had been like during the months before she met Jessica, the dark woman couldn’t hold back a slight chuckle.

Puzzled eyes glanced up at her. “Are you laughing?”

She nodded, her teeth flashing in the dim light as she grinned.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, I was just . . . just thinking about things.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “Like how things have changed since I met you . . . and how they’ve stayed the same.” Her smile grew softer as she looked up at Jessica. “I always hated to be touched,” she whispered. “I hated having to talk to anyone, and I hated having to put up with company.”

Jessica grinned. “I guess that has changed a bit, hasn’t it?” she said, pointedly regarding their bodies pressed together.

“Not really,” Kaleah replied. “I still don’t like it when people try to touch me. I still can’t hold up a decent conversation, and I don’t like it when there are too many people around . . .” Her expression grew softer as she studied her friend’s face, which had become a little guarded. “Except when I’m with you,” she continued. “Remember when we had to sleep like this that night in the storm? How much I didn’t want to be anywhere near you?”

“You flinched everytime I tried to reach out to you.” Jessica grinned. “I remember.”

“Exactly. And I still feel the same way about everyone . . . except you. When you touch me . . . I feel safe, because I know you’d never hurt me. I’ve never . . . been touched like that before.” It was a simple admission, an acceptance of what had grown between then, nothing more. She studied the soft lines of the young woman’s face, her expression open and unguarded. A hand reached up involuntarily to trace the smooth planes of Jessica’s cheeks. The young woman’s eyes closed as she leaned into the gentle caress, and Kaleah smiled at the sigh that escaped her lips. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Jessica,” she whispered, gently drawing her hand away before it could consider wandering further. Green eyes, shy and uncertain, opened and looked down at her wonderingly.

They were silent for long moments, just enjoying the feelings that ran between them. Eventually, however, Jessica smiled as she felt the intensity start to ebb away . . . as she knew it always did. She ran a single finger across her companion’s lips, tracing the scar there as she always did. “I think you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, too, Kaleah,” she said quietly. “I, um . . . I’m glad this . . . whole thing worked out so well. For both of us.”

“Me, too.”

Smiling, Jessica nodded a slight nod and lay back, resting her head on her companion’s breast.

This is getting ridiculous! her mind screamed at her. You should have just kissed the damn woman! She wouldn’t have stopped you . . . can’t you see that? Are you stupid or something!? This is starting to get out of hand . . . I mean, are you ever planning to make a move, or are you just going to go on having these soul-searching moments that nearly stop your heart and then disappear!? Cos if this keeps going on, you’re going to wind up with a serious heart condition . . . I mean it. What are you waiting for!?

Jessica silently ordered her mind to shut up. She knew what she was waiting for; the Right Moment. Kaleah was clearly aware of the strength of the emotions between them, but maybe the former slave wasn’t ready for anything more. And for that matter, maybe she wasn’t ready herself. Her body was definitely ready for more . . . but that didn’t mean her heart was. Jessica was a patient person, usually. She had spent her whole life waiting to find true love, and now that she had, she wasn’t going to rush into anything. When they were both ready, there would come a time when it would be Right . . . when the intensity of the moment would spark into flames, not fade away and leave this sweet ache behind.

When the time was right . . . this love would outshine everything else in the world.

 

Continued in Chapter 13

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