Freedom’s Heart part 2 by Amber

Chapter 13.

Kaleah lay on the bed, one arm wrapped loosely around her companion, feeling the solid, comforting weight of the young woman’s head resting on her chest. In truth, the numerous bruises across her body were starting to hurt, but she would have endured a thousand times worse pain just to feel this kind of peace.

Never before had Kaleah felt so protected, so loved. Never before had she trusted another person so completely that she could just let them be so near her. Always before, the barriers had slammed down to protect her from harm. But this, this simple, wonderful thing that had built between her and the young woman she held in her arms — this was something she could believe in. Something she wanted so badly that she would die before she let it go.

Kaleah had never known a person like Jessica, someone who could give so freely of herself and demand nothing in return. Someone who would let Kaleah be whoever she wanted to be, and would always support her. Jessica had shown her how empty her life had been — how empty her freedom had been — by showing her a life she had never known she was capable of living. The young woman had trusted Kaleah with her most treasured secret, invited her into her private, personal places, and had never asked for anything in return except the chance to be her friend.

Perhaps, she pondered, it was time to show the same faith in return.

“Jess?” she whispered, struggling to keep her voice from breaking. “Are you asleep?”

The young woman wriggled. “No . . . but you should be. You need to rest, Kaleah. Your body needs to heal-”

“I’ve been sleeping all day,” Kaleah pointed out. “I’m really not tired. A-are you?”

Jessica yawned, but shook her head. “No, I’m alright. I’ll stay awake and keep you company, if you like.”

Kaleah lay quietly, eyes open but unseeing. She knew she needed to do this, knew this obstacle had to be overcome before she could ever consider herself worthy of this young woman’s love. But for long moment’s, her throat closed up and refused to let any words form. Her mind tried desperately to shut down, to block out the memories that were filled with so much pain it still hurt, all these years later. But with an effort, the former slave slowly controlled herself, relaxing her muscles. Summoning a calm, detached tone that shielded her from her own words, Kaleah started to speak in a voice so quiet, it fell into the silence like raindrops falling on a lake.

“It’s funny, the things the mind chooses to remember. I remember the day the slavers came,” she whispered, feeling Jessica tense against her. “I can’t remember how I felt. I can’t remember the faces of my family . . . I don’t even know if they were there. But I can remember that the sun was shining in the sky. I can remember the smell of the wildflowers that I’d tied into a chain and hung around my neck. And I can even remember that a moment before the men grabbed me, a hawk flying overhead gave a piercing cry. So many things that don’t really matter . . . but for some reason, I can remember them perfectly instead of the things I want to be able to.”

Realizing where this was going, Jessica looked up, her eyes gentle and sad. “You don’t have to do this,” she whispered.

“I know. But I need to.” Kaleah struggled for a moment, wanting her friend to understand. “Do you remember when you showed me the secret passages through the castle? You let me see the places you keep hidden from everyone else. I told you that some day . . . I’d do the same for you.”

“But there’s no hurry. If you’re not ready-”

“I am,” she interrupted gently. “I want you to hear.” She gave a little, sad smile. “My secrets aren’t as nice as yours are, I’m afraid. But I need to be able to show you . . . to show you that I trust you.”

“Oh, Kaleah!” Jess reached out and stroked her face. “I know you trust me. You don’t need to prove yourself to me.”

“I know that,” Kaleah breathed. “But I need to prove it to myself.” She looked deeply into the wet emerald gaze of her friend. “Do you understand?”

Jessica was silent a long moment, then nodded slowly and lay back on her friend. “I understand,” she whispered.

“Thank you.” Kaleah sighed and, after a moment to get comfortable, she looked up at the ceiling, her eyes not seeing the beauty of the mural above the bed, but instead looking back into a past she had tried hard to forget.

“I know I lived on the coast,” she whispered, “because the slavers came from the sea. They had two ships . . . but I can’t remember much about them. I know they took others, but I didn’t know anybody else. They took me onto one of the ships, chained me in the galley, and left me.

“When I was finally allowed on the deck, we were already far out to sea. I couldn’t have escaped at that point if I’d tried. I was young. . . ten years old or so, at most. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Where were they taking me? Where were my parents? I guess I must have been terrified, but . . . but I can’t remember. The slavers spoke a language I didn’t understand, and it took a while for me to learn enough to get by. Since I was too young to be of any use at hard labor, they put me to work in the kitchens . . . cooking meals, cleaning up. The work never seemed to end. I was in a stupor . . . like everything around me wasn’t quite real. The only time I let myself feel anything was when they beat me. I couldn’t block out the pain of the lash, however hard I tried.”

She was quiet again for a minute or two, just remembering. Then, breathing deeply, she continued. “I served on the ship for a long time. I guess I sort of got used to my life after a while. Compared to what came later, those years weren’t so bad, really. I was just a child, and they had little interest in the children as long as we worked hard, and did as we were told.” She sighed. “But things had to change eventually. My body grew up . . . and after a while, the slavers decided the gold they could get from selling me on the stocks was worth more to them than my services as a kitchen-hand could ever be.” Her voice was dead, her eyes vacant as they stared into a time long since past. “So they took me to a city . . . and they auctioned my innocence to the highest bidder.”

Jessica listened in horror, her heart breaking at the lifeless tone in her friend’s voice. She tried to imagine what it must have been like for Kaleah; to be so young, and to have something so personal and intimate be regarded as little more than sales incentive. She couldn’t do it. Her mind just wouldn’t wrap itself around such a barbaric, hideous concept. Jessica knew she had lived a charmed life compared to her friend . . . she was only now starting to realize just how terrible Kaleah’s life had been.

She tried to think of a way to comfort the dark woman . . . to come up with a way she could make this pain go away. But she knew now as she had known all along that there was nothing she could say or do to erase the past. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, her voice strained with emotion. The words sounded so weak against the brutality of Kaleah’s story . . . but she felt she had to say something.

Kaleah gave her a sad smile, and shrugged a little. “I know.”

Jessica saw the lost look in the dark woman’s face, and tears sprang from her eyes, flowing unchecked down her cheeks. On a deep, almost primitive level, she understood that this pain — Kaleah’s pain — was being made her pain as well. The love that bound her to this woman was helplessly seeking to take on the past’s heavy burden the only way it could . . . by making it a part of her. She wept silently, wanting to stop Kaleah’s story and the anguish it brought to them both, but knowing in her soul that she had to hear this. There was healing to be found in the sharing of suffering . . . she had leaned that herself on the battlefield.

“The . . . first time was . . . painful,” Kaleah continued, her voice almost breaking. “I had no knowledge of sex . . . I was terrified by the experience. I felt . . . violated, in a way that nothing the slaver’s had done had ever made me feel. The next few weeks were very bad, but some of the other women my master owned tried to help me as best they could. They showed me how to take my mind away from the pain . . . how to cope with the humiliation. Eventually, I learned that if I was compliant, the ordeal would be over with sooner. A few months later, my master sold me to a man who owned a whore-house. I was . . . not as lucky as some others. Men considered me attractive because I had blue eyes with dark features. There were few women like me in that land, so I became the star of my new master’s business.

“Over time, I was trained further in how to pleasure my master’s clients. I was punished if I did not . . . perform, well.” She spat the word out, still hating the taste of it. “Some beatings were worse than others . . . but I almost preferred the pain of a few bruises to some of the alternatives. I never got used to my life, but I learned how to make myself numb to what was happening to me. I pretended that none of it was real, that it was happening to some other person, and I was just observing. But at night . . .” Her voice cracked a little, and she cleared her throat. “. . .At night . . . I couldn’t stop it from hurting.

“Over the next few years, I was passed from one place to another . . . mostly whore-houses, but not all. Some of my owners were . . . very bad, but some of them were alright. Some actually treated me like a human being . . . simple things like being fed properly, being allowed to sleep in peace. But there weren’t many like that, and I was never with them for long.”

“Didn’t you ever . . . you know . . . try to escape?” Jessica asked quietly.

Kaleah gave a short, sharp bark of laughter, her eyes flaring with sudden anger. “That’s what most people ask,” she said bitterly, softening her words by stroking Jessica’s rumpled blonde hair. “’Why didn’t you get away?’ Most people think that’s what they’d do if anyone ever tried to make them into a slave.” She snorted. “It’s not quite that simple,” she whispered. “I was taught to believe I was worthless. It was beaten into my head until it seemed like the truth. But still, during those first six years or so, no matter how much they did to me . . . no matter how bad it got . . . there was always a part of me, deep down inside, that they could never touch. A part that wanted to be free.”

“So . . . you did try to escape?”

Kaleah nodded, her eye vacant again. “I tried all the time,” she remembered. “Everytime I changed hands, I’d always make an attempt to run for it . . . to escape.”

“It never worked?” Jessica couldn’t believe someone as intelligent and resourceful as Kaleah couldn’t figure out a way to break free.

“Of course it never worked,” Kaleah said harshly. “My masters weren’t stupid or foolish . . . they knew every trick there was, and they were ready for anything.” She smiled coldly. “The smart ones would actually encourage new girls to try and escape, just so they could show them how impossible it was. And so they could teach them what would happen the next time. Once I’d been a slave for a while, I became more picky about my plans to get away. Still, they never worked. I was beaten and raped every time I tried . . . but despite the punishments, it wasn’t until after many years had gone by that I finally stopped trying to get away.”

Jessica shuddered as she heard a subtle change in her companion’s voice . . . a coldness. She looked at the sharp, angular features of Kaleah’s face, and saw for the first time an ugliness there that frightened her. Almost afraid to know, but helpless to stop this, she asked in a voice so low she wondered if it were hers at all, “What happened?”

“There was a man,” Kaleah said, her voice like ice with dead hatred. “He bought me and took me as a . . .” She struggled a moment. “I think the word is, ‘concubine?’”

Jessica nodded to show she understood.

“He was bad . . . far worse than any of the others.” Kaleah’s face was hard and stony as the grave. “The things he did to me . . . and the things he made me do.” Her body started to tremble. “He was not a man. He was something more evil than a man can be. I knew I would never escape him alive, knew he’d never let me go. And the thought of having to live out the rest of my life . . . as his slave . . . I couldn’t do it. I knew I would rather die, but when I sought to end my life, I found it harder than I had thought it would be. The guards were watchful, and we were never left alone. There was nothing sharp ever left with the slave girls, and nothing to tie a noose from. I soon realized that I would not even be allowed to escape into death.

“Then, one night, I had my chance. My master had left me on his bed — unconscious, or so he thought — and had gone to bathe in the next room. I was weak from . . .” Her voice cracked, then hardened. “. . .from what he’d done to me, but I regained my strength when I saw he’d left a dagger he’d been using on me on the table by the bed. I took the knife in my hands and was about to use it on myself, when suddenly I had a thought; if I was going to die . . . why not take my tormentor with me?”

Jessica gasped. Seeing something glacial and heartless burn suddenly in her friend’s eyes, she drew back slightly, uncomfortable and frightened by the person now laying so near her. The Kaleah she knew and loved was still there . . . but the animal fury she had only ever glimpsed fleetingly was in control. The young girl knew this primal darkness was a part of her friend’s soul . . . and she knew she had to accept it as such if they were going to continue along the road they were traveling.

“My master was naked and unarmed,” Kaleah continued in a detached monotone, but her body was thrumming with energy. “I went into the room where he was bathing . . . and I thrust the knife into his back. He screamed . . . and I did it again . . . and again.” A cruel smile curved her lips, twisting the scar in a hideous way. “I was disappointed when he stopped screaming,” she breathed, “but I kept stabbing him anyway until his guards broke the door down and dragged me away.

“I knew they would torture me to death. But I didn’t care.” She grinned fully now, her teeth flashing bone-white in the dim light. “They couldn’t take away from me that sense of power I’d felt. They couldn’t make me their slave anymore. Even though I was going to die . . . I felt invincible. The man who had used me as a plaything for his perverse will was just as mortal as I was. His life was as frail as mine . . . and I — someone he had considered less than an animal — I had taken it from him.” She breathed a sigh of pure bliss. “In that moment . . . I felt free for the first time in an eternity.”

The dark woman glanced at her friend and suddenly saw the apprehension and fear in the emerald eyes staring back. The darkness conjured by these evil memories vanished instantly, and she reached out. “Hey . . . ” she whispered soothingly. “It’s okay . . . I’m still here.” She tried to give a smile, but couldn’t manage one. But Jessica saw the coldness let go her face, and drew nearer once more. “I’m sorry,” Kaleah whispered as she held the young woman close. “It’s hard to remember these things.”

Jessica snuffled a little and embraced her friend. “You scared me. For a minute there, you looked . . .”

“I know.” Kaleah stroked the long blonde hair, as much to comfort herself as to comfort Jessica. She stared at nothing, feeling nauseous from the memories of that evil power. “It’s a scary thing,” she breathed softly, “to know the darkest part of yourself. And to wish with all your heart you could know it better.”

Jessica recovered her composure and gently pulled away from her companion. “Why didn’t the guards kill you? Did you get away?”

Kaleah shook her head. “No. I thought I’d be executed, but the guards knew that if they killed me . . . I would have gotten off lightly. They couldn’t let me win like that. So they took me to a room . . .” Her eyes became unfocused, slightly puzzled. “It was a room I’d never been to before, in a part of the house I’d never seen. They took me in there . . . and . . . and they . . .” Her words faded as her brows knit in apparent confusion.

Jessica leaned forward in dread anticipation. “What did they do?”

Kaleah’s eyes focused on her, and she shrugged with a helpless expression. “I don’t know.”

Jessica sighed inwardly. “It’s alright,” she said gently, letting her eyes drop away to the sheets. She couldn’t help but feel a little hurt that Kaleah didn’t trust her with this one secret. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to-”

Kaleah smiled a little and pulled her face back up to meet hers. “I would tell you if I could, Jessica. Believe me. But that’s the simple truth of it . . . I don’t know what happened to me in that room because I can’t remember.”

Jessica eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean you can’t remember? How can you-”

Kaleah shrugged again. “I don’t know. But when I look back into that part of my mind . . . the memories just aren’t there anymore. It’s like there’s a hole in my past . . . when they took away from me the power and strength I’d just discovered.” She sighed and lay back on the bed. “I don’t know how long I was in that room, but I can remember I spent many months in a cell recovering. My body was broken and twisted . . . but worse than that, they’d gone into my head and killed whatever will of my own I still possessed. It took me weeks to recover my sanity; to find myself again in all the pain.” She rubbed at one of the bandages, the cloth itching her skin. “After that . . . I never tried to escape again,” she concluded simply. “The desire just wasn’t there anymore.”

Jessica looked searchingly into Kaleah’s eyes, overwhelmed with sorrow. She ran her finger along the vivid scar that crossed the woman’s oh-so-soft lips. “Is that when you got this?” she asked.

Kaleah shook her head, repressing the desire to take the exploring fingers into her mouth. “That came after. The guards who served with the man I killed knew they’d have to sell off the slave girls, including me. Damaging the face of a slave makes it harder to sell them into the sex market,” the dark woman explained matter-of-factly. “After . . . whatever they did to me, things get kind of blurry in my head. I was sold to another man, and then to another. I was in a fog . . . unable to care about anything anymore. It took a few years for me to recover to the point where I could even think again. By that time, I had passed from one owner to another, and ended up with a man who ran a brothel using exotic girls from all over the world.”

“Is that . . .” Jessica blushed a little. “Is that what most of your master’s . . . used you for?”

Kaleah nodded. “Mostly. As I said, I was considered beautiful, and they usually preferred to leave any physical labor to male slaves. Still,” she smiled a little, “this man was much better than most. He wasn’t so much interested in his slaves as he was in the money they made him. A pure businessman; I’d learned they were the best masters to get. He didn’t believe in beating his slaves, because he knew it would cost him money while they recovered. He fed us all well, and he let us sleep as much as we needed too. As long as we were compliant, he pretty much left us alone . . . even going so far as to order his guards to protect us from any clients who got . . . carried away.”

“So how did you get this scar?” Jessica asked, touching the mark.

Kaleah gave her a slightly amused look. “Are you sure you want to know?”

Jessica nodded. “You’ve told me so much already . . . might as well get it all out.” She paused, wondering at the sudden almost playful look Kaleah was giving her. “Unless you don’t want to tell me, of course-”

“No, I’ll tell you.” Kaleah let the darker memories fade away as she cast her mind back to the time that had marked the beginning of a better life for her. She grinned a little. “But remember . . . you wanted to hear it.”

Settling back, she rested her splinted arm on her chest and wished for a moment her body didn’t hurt so much. Then, seeing Jessica waiting, she went on with her story.

“A woman came to the brothel my master owned,” she said. “She was the wife of a wealthy merchant, a man who had more interest in profits than he had in satisfying the desires of his wife. Since her husband traveled so much, the woman figured she should seek pleasure in the arms of another; but she didn’t want to have an affair with anyone in the city who might report her infidelity to her husband. So, she sought the advice of a friend, who happened to be a client of my master’s and, furthermore, a client of mine.” She grinned, watching Jessica’s reaction carefully. “Her friend recommended me and, being eager to explore all avenues of physical pleasure, the woman came to my master and requested my services.”

The dark woman saw the slight blush on Jessica’s face, and could tell from her wide eyes the girl was hanging onto every word. “Anyway,” she continued, still studying her friend’s reaction, “by this time I had been exposed to every sexual act possible . . . another woman was nothing new to me. I had been trained how to provide for anything a client might desire, so when the woman requested that I show her everything I knew . . .” She grinned dazzlingly and waggled her eyebrows at a gaping Jessica. “. . . I knew I’d be seeing a lot more of her.”

Jessica suddenly realized her mouth was hanging open, and she snapped it shut with a slight cough of embarrassment. She knew she was blushing, but couldn’t help it. She just hoped Kaleah would interpret her reaction as stemming from her innocence . . . not from the images that were running rampant through her mind. “So, um . . .” She coughed again nervously, cool blue eyes regarding her with amusement. “So did you . . . prefer women even then, or-”

“Yes,” Kaleah answered honestly. “At first, I was shocked by the idea of being intimate with another woman, but I soon realized that was only because I’d never considered the notion. When I got used to it, I realized I preferred providing service for a woman more than I did for a man. And not just because they tended to be . . . less rough with me, although that was more often the case.” She frowned. “Not always, of course. Some of the worst times were with women . . . just because they knew my body enough to know exactly what would hurt the most. But generally speaking, women were less likely to beat me or hurt me then the men were. That wasn’t the only reason I preferred them, though.” She smiled a quiet, reflective smile “I liked the way they sounded . . . the way they felt, and how they tasted. And I liked the way that sometimes — quite often, in fact — they would insist on returning the favor.”

Jessica swallowed . . . hard. “You mean they . . .”

Kaleah nodded. “Every man who ever took me — ever raped me — never gave a thought to anything other than his own desires. I was just a body . . . and I doubt they even cared for anything beyond those few parts they needed. The first time I ever felt anything but pain during the act was when another woman pleasured me.” Her smile widened. “It was a hell of a surprise for me, and something that I rarely got to experience. But there were women, from time to time, who took great satisfaction in making sure I enjoyed myself as much as they did. And while they didn’t come along too often, the comfort I found in the pleasure they gave me kept me sane in that hell when I thought I’d otherwise go mad.”

Jessica digested this information slowly. “So . . . the merchant’s wife was someone you . . .”

“Enjoyed being with?”

Jess nodded.

“Yes.” Kaleah grinned rakishly, her blue eyes glinting in the moonlight. “During the months her husband was gone, she proved to be a very . . . eager, student.” She couldn’t help but laugh at the blush that tore across Jessica’s face. “Is it hot in here or something? You look a little flushed.”

Jessica pouted and slapped her gently on one of the less bruised patches of skin. “Don’t tease,” she growled, “or I’ll rough you up even worse than you already are.”

Kaleah just chuckled and swatted her away. “Sorry. It’s just so easy, that’s all. And it’s fun, too.”

“Hmph.” Jessica assumed a very cross look and glared at her friend. “Just be careful it doesn’t come back and bite you on the arse someday,” she threatened in a playful voice.

Kaleah’s eyes twinkled. “It can bite me anywhere it wants to,” she said with a wink, pleased when Jessica’s flush deepened. “You want me to keep going with the story? Or will you go up in flames if you hear anymore?”

Jessica growled at her, but gestured for her to go on. “I can’t wait to hear how you managed to get cut. Did she get a little enthusiastic or something?”

“No.” Kaleah wriggled deeper into the blankets, the night air turning cold. “She wasn’t the one who did it. She became what I suppose you’d call my lover for almost three months. As I said, I’d had very few experiences sexually where I can honestly say I was a willing participant. She was definitely one of them.” Seeing the suddenly guarded mask drop over Jessica’s face, she quickly went on. “She provided a physical satisfaction and relief that I appreciated . . . but that’s really all it was: physical. We both understood there was nothing more to it. We each filled a void in the other’s life, if only for a moment.” She regarded the green eyes that watched her with perfect openness. “I’ve never experienced the kind of . . . emotional, connection I feel with you,” she admitted quietly.

Jessica smiled warmly. “Me neither . . . with you, I mean.”

Kaleah nodded, and continued. “Of course, like everything else that was good in my life, the affair didn’t last long. Her husband returned from his trip and, within a few short days had heard rumors that his wife had been frequenting with a whore. He was outraged, and with his money and power behind him it wasn’t long before he found out exactly which whore his wife had been with.

“He came to the brothel when my master was away. He asked that I be brought before him, and the guards, not knowing any better, did as instructed. When I was kneeling on the ground in front of him, the merchant pulled a knife from his belt and went straight for my throat, seeking to avenge himself.”

Jessica gasped. “How did you . . .? What happened?”

Kaleah shrugged. “The guards saw what he intended and they knocked him down. I tried to duck away from the blade, but it still slashed across my face,” she touched her fingers across the white line that marred her lips, “cutting deep. I tasted blood. My master returned just then and was furious at the merchant. With my face disfigured — even so slightly — my value as a whore was severely reduced. He demanded . . . a fee, I suppose you’d call it. He said the word . . . ‘rest . . .restit-”

“Restitution?”

Kaleah nodded. “Yes. The merchant had to pay, or risk trouble with the law and public disgrace. Still my master decided I was useless to him, and he sold me as soon as he could.”

Jessica was silent, trying to understand this harsh and cruel world her friend spoke of. “What . . . what happened with the woman?”

Kaleah turned her penetrating blue eyes on the young woman, wondering. Is that envy I detect, Jess? she mused. Or am I just hearing what my heart wants to hear?

“The merchant’s wife came to me the night after I was cut,” she explained. “She wanted to say good-bye, I suppose, and share a final night of pleasure with me. Before she left, she tried to apologize for her husband’s actions, but I stopped her. I said that what he’d done was probably the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me since I became a slave.”

Blonde brows furrowed in confusion. “But . . . he hurt you.”

Kaleah smiled. “He made me less desirable as a whore. After that, I had a few more owners, and while they sometimes used my body for their own pleasures, I was never used as a sex slave again. Mostly, I was put to work in the kitchens and in the fields. Over time, I started to rediscover some of what had been taken from me. I could no longer hope that one day I might be free, but I started to come to life once more as I was exposed to less of the evil’s of the darker slave world. It was during that time that another slave introduced me to music by giving me a reed flute she had. I practiced a long time in secret, and found that music helped me to settle my mind. After a while, I was taken across the sea, and eventually was put up for auction in a new land I’d never been to. The man who bought me was a nobleman named Constantine De’Livier.”

“The man who let you go?” Jessica smiled, liking him already.

The dark woman nodded. “I didn’t know it at the time, but De’Livier was unlike any master I’d ever had. He thought slavery was a cruel trade, and bought me because he knew my life would be safer in his hands than someone else’s. At first I was puzzled by the way he treated me; asking me my name, where I was from, how old I was. No-one had ever cared about such things before.” She shrugged. “I’d forgotten everything about who I was . . . even my real name. De’Livier decided to call me by the name of some foreign queen he’d heard somewhere; Nerukaleah . . . Kaleah for short.”

“So . . . Kaleah’s not your birth name?”

“No. De’Livier guessed I was probably about nineteen or twenty year old, but he had no idea where my accent came from; probably because I’d been traded across half the world, and had to learn bits and pieces of so many different languages. I’d never been to Spain before, but De’Livier spoke English, which was my strongest language . . . so we communicated with no problems. I didn’t expect him to be any different from any of my other masters, so I was very surprised by what he told me when we arrived at his home.

“De’Livier explained that he was a weaponsmith . . . one of the finest in the world. He forged blades for kings and generals, soldiers and mercenaries, and he had taught in the Spanish fighting schools during his youth. He told me straight out that he didn’t want a slave — what he needed was an apprentice. Someone to help him with the grueling and demanding work of the forges . . . someone who would learn the art quickly and be able to assist with things like finishing hilts and guards and pommels. He expected me to work hard . . . very hard. But in exchange for my labor, he would teach me an ancient and respected tradition that I could use in my life. He would give me good food, and a warm place to sleep in the hay-loft. He even said he would pay me money, and would allow me to sell anything of value I made, once I’d gained sufficient skill.”

Kaleah grinned and chuckled a little. “I didn’t even understand what he was talking about at first,” she mused. “I was a slave. I worked for nothing, and in exchange would not be beaten. That’s all I expected. I couldn’t grasp a concept like equal trade or mutual benefit. It took the poor man days to make me understand what he was offering, and when at last it sunk in . . .” She sighed, closing her eyes and just remembering the feeling. “I felt more human than I had in nearly ten years.”

“He sounds very special,” Jessica whispered.

“He was.” She thought a moment, then chuckled. “Of course, when he told me the work would be hard, he meant it. For the first fortnight or so, I woke each morning with muscles in agony, and fell asleep each night the moment my head hit the hay. Working the forge fires made the labor I was used too seem like mild exercise. I sweat gallons and my hands were covered in blisters, but I was determined to stay with De’Livier, so I never complained. Eventually, my muscles grew stronger, and my hands toughened. I got used to the heat, and began to actually enjoy learning from a true master. De’Livier was well pleased with my efforts, and when he saw my skills rapidly increasing, he offered to teach me to fight. I was eager to learn anything I could by then, and agreed quickly.

“I took to the blade with ease, and learned the basics of swordsmanship in a matter of a few weeks. De’Livier was impressed, and started teaching me more advanced moves. Soon, my skills were growing rapidly from day to day.” She grinned. “De’Livier was amazed.”

“I’m not surprised,” Jessica said. “You are amazing. You learn new moves in seconds. The way you fight . . . it’s like you were born with a sword in your hands.”

“That’s pretty much what De’Livier said. And when he realized how great the changes in me had become, he knew he had no right to keep me. He decided to prepare me for freedom.”

“I bet that came as a shock.”

“Actually, he didn’t tell me his plans to release me for a long time,” Kaleah said. “I’d been a slave almost my entire life; the concept of freedom was impossible for me to accept. De’Livier knew this, so he started out very slowly, at first just asking me questions like, what would I like to do tomorrow, what did I think about this or that — things that would get me to make up my own mind about what I thought, rather than just following instructions. Before long, he was wanting to know what my dreams were . . . what I wanted out of life. The questions confused me at first, but when I actually considered them, I started to . . . to change.”

“In what ways?”

Kaleah thought back to that time and shrugged. “I started to get restless,” she explained. “I hated to stand still for any length of time. I wanted to move, to go somewhere. I went for runs every morning, but I could feel amazing amounts of energy coursing through my blood. My fighting lessons became more heated as my temper became more edgy. De’Livier started taking me into social settings with him more often, trying to teach me how to interact with other people as equals. It was quite a change from what I was used to, and I never really liked being around others very much. When I had the choice, I would work alone at the forge, just enjoying the way I could shape and mould the metal to any form I chose. It gave me a sense of control and power I liked.

“Then, one day, De’Livier came to me and told me to design a weapon and a suit of armor for myself. I did so, and when I was finished we discussed the designs and made a few alterations. Then, De’Livier put me to work at the forge, making what I had drawn on paper into real life. It took me many weeks . . . months, even, but when I was finished I had crafted the armor and sword I still carry today. I was very proud of myself . . . but no moreso than De’Livier was. He told me the armor and weapon were mine to keep, and that he could teach me no more. I was dumbfounded when he told me I had served him well, and had earned my freedom.”

Jessica smiled warmly at her friend. The story was terrible but at least it had something of a happy ending. “It must have been wonderful.”

“It was,” Kaleah breathed, returning the young woman’s expression. “I stayed a little while longer, learning something of the lands that lay near Spain so I would understand where I was better. When I left, I promised De’Livier I would never forget the kindness he had shown me. He told me it was enough of a reward just to know that he had helped someone to escape such a dreadful existence. I headed north, following the coast. I smuggled aboard a ship that carried me to this country, and just took to the woods for a long time. I avoided people, hunting for my food.” She saw Jessica grin broadly at this.

“You must have gone hungry a lot,” Jessica joked, poking her clearly defined ribcage. “You’re not exactly the greatest tracker I’ve ever seen.”

Kaleah lowered her eyes. “I know. But I was used to going without food. I was fine . . . until the winter came, that is.

“I’d never experienced such weather before. The animals vanished, and I was forced to seek out others if I wanted to survive. I ate at taverns, or with bandit camps, using the coin De’Livier gave me to buy food and drink.” She grinned. “The first night I discovered the effects of alcohol was an interesting one. Still, I never stayed in one place for too long; I moved always to the north.

A few times, bandits tried to rob me, but my skills were more than enough to beat them back.” Her expression fell into a frown. “I lived in caves, and avoided people unless I was desperate. I was starting to forget all the things De’Livier had taught me. I could feel myself becoming less and less human every day. Then, starving, I found the bandits camp where we first met.” She smiled and sighed. “I guess you know how the story goes from there. I met a beautiful young girl who took me back to her father’s castle and showed me there was more to life than just being free. There were things like friendship and trust . . . and warm beds.” She grinned. “You showed me all the things I never knew I could have . . . and you gave them to me.”

Jessica’s face reddened with pleasure. “You’re very welcome,” she said shyly. Laying back against her friend slowly, careful not to hurt her bruises, she rested her head on Kaleah’s chest and sighed. The dark woman’s scent flooded her senses, almost making her dizzy. “Thank you . . . for trusting me enough to tell me those things.” She studied the dark woman’s face. “Do you feel any better?”

Kaleah thought for a minute. In truth, she realized, she did feel better . . . lighter, somehow. A slow smile brightened her face. “Yeah. I do, actually.” She leaned down and placed a gentle, only slightly lingering kiss on the blonde’s forehead. “Thank you for listening,” she breathed, missing the look of joy in her companion’s face. “I think maybe you were right . . . it does help to talk about things.”

Jessica recovered from the feeling of Kaleah’s lips on her heated skin, tucking the sensations away to be revealed in later, when she was alone. “You’ve spent your whole life keeping everything bottled up, Kaleah. That’s not good for anyone. You need to let things out into the open, to share them with someone you can trust.” She wrapped her arms lightly around the dark woman’s slender waist and nestled closer, pleased when Kaleah didn’t tense up. “I think I understand you a little better now,” she whispered. “I thought I had a fairly good idea what you must have gone through . . . and maybe I did. But it’s so different to hear it all.” Tears leaked from her eyes. “I really did handle you all wrong at first, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Kaleah’s voice replied. “But you did what you did because you cared, and good came of it eventually.”

“Still, I’m sorry for the way I treated you when we first met.” She yawned and let her eyes slip closed. “It’s pretty late,” she observed. “Are you tired now?”

Kaleah shook her head. “No, but you go ahead and sleep if you want to.” She stroked the blonde head soothingly, hearing a soft, happy moan escape the young woman. She was silent for several minutes, just thinking about the wonderful changes in her life since she had met her companion. “Jessica?”

“Hmmm?”

Silence. Then, “Don’t ever leave me.”

Jessica’s eyes opened. She heard the naked vulnerability and quiet desperation in Kaleah’s voice, and again felt her anger rise at the cruel men who had done so much evil to the dark woman. She squeezed her arms tighter about Kaleah’s waist. “I’ll never leave you, Kaleah,” she promised for the second time that day. She smiled a little. “After the effort I put into getting you here . . . you’d need a pry-bar to get rid of me.”

There was a moment of silence, then she felt Kaleah’s body shake with a light chuckle. “Get some sleep, Jess.”

“Mmmph.” She snuggled deeper into the body of her companion, relaxing and letting her mind slip past the dark story of Kaleah’s life to the promise of a brighter tomorrow. As consciousness fell away, her last thought was a mild concern that with the object of her desires so near at hand, the dreams she had been encouraging of late might make her say something inappropriate in her sleep. But the thought was a fleeting one, and was quickly followed with a quiet reassurance from her mind that, if she was lucky, Kaleah wouldn’t mind one bit.
Chapter 14.
The next morning, Jessica woke late to find the woman she’d been using as a pillow now fast asleep, and looking to stay that way for some time. Rubbing her eyes and stretching, she studied the relaxed curves of the dark woman’s face curiously, a smile touching her lips at how young Kaleah looked without the stern lines that so characterized her features. The smile faded as she studied the nasty bruises and the split skin over Kaleah’s eyes. She wondered how late her friend had stayed up. From the looks of things, sharing the burdens of her past had eased Kaleah’s pain quite a bit. Jessica was happy she could be a part of that.

Easing away from the bruised woman gently, careful not to wake her, Jessica yawned and scratched her midrift absently. A rather loud rumbling from her stomach alerted to the fact that she was hungry, so she called for a servant and asked for some breakfast. As an afterthought, she asked the serving girl to find Eric Grace and ask if he had any more of the medicine Kaleah had been given yesterday. Jess knew her friend needed rest, even if she didn’t necessarily want it.

When the food arrived, Kaleah was quickly roused by the smell of fried bacon and oatmeal, and the two sat happily on the bed eating until they were full.

“What’s this?” Kaleah asked, picking up the small leather pouch that had arrived with their breakfast.

“Just some herbs and stuff I asked for,” the blonde replied. “Medicine to help you get better.”

Kaleah’s eyes narrowed as she opened the drawstring pouch and took a suspicious sniff. “You want me to eat these?”

Jessica nodded. “They’ll help to take the swelling down in your bruises,” she explained. “Believe me, they make a big difference. I’ve had to take them everytime I got hurt. They’re not so bad, really.”

The dark woman licked a finger and dipped it into the pouch, regarding the flakes of brown and green dried herb that clung to her saliva dubiously. “Is this the same stuff Grace gave me yesterday?”

“Aye, pretty much.” Jessica saw Kaleah’s face harden, and quickly continued. “Look, Kaleah, I know you don’t want to take it, but please-”

“This’ll make me sleep, won’t it?” the dark woman interrupted.

Jessica sighed, but gave a little nod. “I know you hate having to stay still . . . really, I do. But you need to get better.” She reached out and patted the woman’s arm. “I’ll stay with you, I promise. We can just hang out in here.” She smiled a little. “Let’s face it, Kaleah, it’s not like you could really do a whole lot today anyway, is it? You’re hurting-”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Oh really?” Jessica regarded her friend sternly.

“I’ve had far worse.”

Jess sighed. “But you’re not a slave anymore, Kaleah,” she said softly. “You don’t have to hide from the pain . . . you can accept it, and let me help you get better. Please?”

Kaleah scowled at the pouch, then looked up at her friend’s imploring gaze. There wasn’t anything she could do against the onslaught of those caring green eyes. “Alright,” she conceded grumpily, trying to ignore the smile that lit Jessica’s face. “But tomorrow, I’m getting up whether you like it or not.”

“Of course.” Jessica didn’t bother arguing further. “I’ll get you some water to take those with.”

“Thanks.” Kaleah tipped the dry herbs into her mouth, chewed them a few times then swallowed with a grimace. They were bitter-tasting, and she gladly chased them down with the mug of water her companion held out for her. Then she wriggled into the soft mattress and patted the empty space next to her in invitation for Jessica to join her. The young woman happily did so.

As the herbs started to take effect, Kaleah listened as Jessica told her another story; some ancient legend about the old Gods this land once worshiped. The gentle lilt of the young woman’s accent was very soothing, and she let her eyes fall shut as the words eased her mind away from the pain of her injuries. Before long, she was sleeping peacefully, her lips forming a soft smile of utter peace.

Jessica stayed as she was long after Kaleah passed out. With one hand, she smoothed the long, midnight-black hair away from the woman’s face, smiling when Kaleah moaned a little and wriggled closer to her. Her heart ached with the unbearable strength of her love, and she swallowed a little as she remembered the feel of Kaleah’s soft lips against her forehead. Warmth flared in her blood, and she instantly recognized desire stirring.

“Don’t even think about it,” she growled quietly to herself, knowing her imagination was just about to start a nice little picture show.

Oh, come on, her mind argued. She’s out like a light . . . no harm in just thinking about these things.

“Not . . . now!” she rumbled low in her throat.

Why not? It’s not like she’s gonna care, is it? Her mind gave her a metaphysical grin. Last night wasn’t exactly what you had in mind for your first night together in the same bed, but it certainly brought you closer together. She knows the relationship is still getting stronger . . . maybe she wants the same thing you do afterall.

“Maybe,” Jess conceded.

So where’s the harm in thinking about her this way? I mean, she said it herself, she’s an . . . experienced, lover. Just imagine what she could do with those lips-

“That’s enough!” Jessica wasn’t going to let her libido get out of hand, not while Kaleah was so near to her and in such a vulnerable state. “You can think about it latter, when you’re alone. Now’s really not a good time.”

But can’t you just-

The semi-conversation was interrupted — thankfully, Jessica thought — by a firm, bold knock at the door. Jessica instantly recognized it wasn’t one of the servants, who tended to knock softly and almost hesitantly. Gently easing herself away from Kaleah’s embrace, she wandered over and opened the door. Her eyes widened in surprise when she found Sir Richard standing in the hallway outside.

“Father?”

“Mornin’ Jess,” the lord knight greeted her somewhat awkwardly. “I was, uh, hoping I might have a word with you, if that’s alright.”

“Of course.” Jessica opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter. “C-come in.” She looked around the room and briefly wished she didn’t keep it in quite so chaotic a state, refusing to let the servants clean it. “I’m, uh, sorry about the mess. It’s usually much neater,” she lied.

Sir Richard was a man who led his men into battle fearlessly and with dauntless courage, but he entered his daughter’s bedroom with a hesitancy no bravery could deny. Da’Gran may have been Jessica’s home, but this room was where she really lived. Almost every hour not spent in training or being schooled by either Eric or the Lady Rose, Jessica would spend alone in here. This room — in fact this whole section of the castle, pretty much — was Jessica’s domain; her sanctuary. He may have been her father, and the ruler of Da’Gran, but this was an invasion, nonetheless.

It had been some years since Richard had last come here, and that had only been because his young girl had been badly injured during a battle many years ago. That had been a very different time, when Jessica had been struggling to adjust to the changes adolescence was causing in her growing body. He remembered the room then still bore the last marks of a child — a child determined to grow up fast. Awkward but curious, he looked around the disorderly room now with mild amusement.

Jessica kicked a pair of undergarments beneath the bed quickly. “I’ve uh, been a-a little busy lately,” she stammered. “It’s hard to find time to clean up.”

He smiled slightly, the expression showing as little more than a twitching of his mustaches. “You should ask the servants to do it,” he said gruffly. “That’s what we pay them for.”

Jess nodded agreeably. “I-I’ll be sure to do that,” she promised obediently.

Sir Richard grunted. Independent and head-strong, he knew Jessica would never expect someone else to do her dirty-work for her. The damned girl insisted she could do everything herself. Knowing not to push the issue, however, Richard went back to studying his daughter’s habitat.

The room had changed quite a bit since the last time he’d seen it. There was a new maturity that had not been present some years ago. Peasant clothes were scattered about alongside fancy silk dresses, neither preference given any more care or interest than the other. Swords and pieces of armor the young woman was cleaning or just playing with were cluttered all over the place, some serving as weights to hold down sheaf’s of paper with detailed and not-so-detailed scribbles all over them. The air smelled of steel and leather and polish, but also carried the vanilla scent of perfume and silk and lace. The contrast was a little disorienting, but overall bore Jessica’s personal stamp clearly. The lord knight’s eyes widened only slightly when they fell on the slumbering figure resting on the rumpled blankets and cushions of the bed.

Jessica closed the door and turned, catching her father’s curious look at Kaleah. “She, uh . . . she was hurt, so I thought it might be best if she stayed in my room,” she explained quickly. “She didn’t want to be alone last night.”

Sir Richard’s lips drew firm into a slight smile and he put his hands behind his back. “I see.”

Jessica stood awkwardly for a moment, thrown off balance by her father’s presence in her room. Then she remembered her manners. “Um . . . would you like to sit down? I can just . . . move some of this stuff . . . ” She gathered a pile of maps and drawings off the largest table and, after looking helplessly around for somewhere suitable to put them, decided there wasn’t anywhere and just dumped them on another — already crowded — table nearby.

Sir Richard smiled at his daughter’s nervousness, glad he wasn’t the only one. While he was perfectly comfortable around his beloved child whenever they were together at any other time, he couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable intruding into Jessica’s private sanctuary; just as he knew Jessica would have felt if she were asked to come into his. But he needed to talk with her, and while he could have just sent someone to bring her to the great hall, he knew she wouldn’t come. He could see Jessica would never leave Kaleah’s side, even while the dark woman slept.

Taking a seat at the table, coughing to clear his throat, he folded his hands in front of him as Jessica sat down opposite.

“So,” the young woman asked curiously, “what brings you all the way into this part of the castle?”

He smiled gruffly at his daughter’s bluntness, and cast grey eyes back at Kaleah’s slumbering form. “Actually, I came because of your dark-haired friend over there,” he answered quietly, not wanting to rouse the resting woman. “Charles and Grace have both informed me of the unfortunate injuries she suffered. I thought I should come and discuss it with you.”

“I see.” Jessica considered this, knowing her father would not have come here if he wasn’t truly concerned about something. It seemed a little odd that Kaleah’s beating would warrant that kind of attention, but then again . . . “How much did they tell you?”

“Only that the young woman had sustained some serious bruises while she was on the night-watch,” he replied. “Grace gave me his medical opinion that the injuries were deliberate.” His eyes narrowed. “That Kaleah was beaten. Charles was reluctant to discuss the matter, but he concurred with that assessment.” An eyebrow raised questioningly. “Is that what happened?”

Jessica nodded. “A group of men attacked her from behind . . . like cowards. She told me there were three of them, and she never saw them coming. All were masked, and she couldn’t recognize them again — or so she says.”

“You don’t believe her?”

Jessica shrugged. “She’s holding something back, I can tell. Maybe she doesn’t want to worry me.” She sighed. “She didn’t even have a chance to fight back. If she had’ve got her sword free, it might have been a different story.”

“I see.” Sir Richard sat back and frowned, studying his daughter. “Do you have any idea why they attacked her?”

She shook her head. “She’s done nothing to warrant such a beating. She’s with me almost all the time, and she hardly ever talks to anyone else — except Sutton.”

“That’s what I thought.” Sir Richard stroked his fingers through his thick beard absently. “That being the case, I don’t need to tell you how serious this is,” he said tensely. “Someone beat Kaleah . . . someone living in this castle. And you know what that could mean, right?”

Jessica suddenly realized what her father was getting at, and she scolded herself for not thinking of this sooner. “We could have disloyalty among the soldiers . . . maybe even a traitor,” she wondered aloud. Frowning, she shook her head. “But that makes no sense. Why would they attack Kaleah?”

“Perhaps she wasn’t the real target,” Sir Richard explained gently. “Maybe whoever attacked her did so in order to hurt you.”

“Me!?”

“Calm down, Jess,” he said firmly. “Just think about it for a moment, okay. Kaleah has no enemies, but you’ve managed to piss off more people in the last five years or so than most people manage too in their whole lives. There are plenty of people out there who would pay dearly to make you suffer.”

Jessica settled down and considered her father’s words. With a sigh, she realized he was absolutely correct. In addition to the dozens of men she had defeated and captured in battle, there were others in more powerful positions who disliked her for her hard-won skills and for the popularity she had among the commoners. “It’s not my fault I’m good at what I do,” she said angrily.

“I know that, Jess. But we have to consider the possibility that whoever attacked Kaleah did it because it was the easiest way to hurt you. You’ve made no secret of how much you care for her.”

Jessica felt her blood start to rise in anger. “So . . . she might have been hurt because of me?”

“It would explain why she’d be a target.” He spread his hands. “Whatever the case, this incident has serious ramifications. I can’t afford to have dissention among the men, not at a time like this, with Sir William arriving in just a few days.”

Jessica understood that. If Lancaster saw any hint of weakness in her father or his men, he would never agree to a treaty. Da’Gran had stood strong for so long in this harsh land because of unity, common purpose. Under the strong leadership of Sir Richard and his father before him, the castle had withstood siege and assault many times because the men were loyal and proud of their rulers. Desention meant unrest, and she had read tales of many great rulers brought down from within because they had failed to hear the warning bells of an uprising.

“What do you plan to do?” she asked. “We don’t know who attacked Kaleah, or if there are more than just those three. And we have no idea who’s behind the attack.”

Sir Richard frowned and stood up, indicating he was about to leave. “I’ll have Sir Miles look into it,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe someone overheard something about the incident, or maybe someone wasn’t on duty when they should have been. In the mean time, I think you should keep an eye out, just in case.” He looked at Kaleah’s slumbering figure. “And not just for your friend there, Jess. Until we know more, you watch out for yourself as well.”

“I will, Father,” she promised, giving him an awkward hug. “Let me know if you find anything, alright?”

“Of course.” The lord knight opened the door and was about to leave when another thought occurred to him. He turned back. “Oh, and Jess?’

“Hmmm?”

“Why don’t you bring Kaleah to the welcoming dinner on Monday? I’m sure you could use another friend at the table.”

Jessica looked at the dark woman, then back to her father. “You want Kaleah there? Are you sure?”

“Certainly.”

Green eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Sir Richard shrugged gruffly. “Why not? She makes quite an impression when she enters a room, don’t you think? I’m sure Sir William won’t know what to make of her.” He studied the sleeping woman. “She has a presence about her that really captures the attention.”

Jessica relaxed and smiled, looking at Kaleah as well. “I know what you mean,” she agreed softly. “She’s like a bolt of lightening that doesn’t just flash and die away, but stays there and continues burning. She has that kind of raw, elemental power . . . and she barely even knows about it.” She frowned. “Maybe that’s why someone targeted her,” she mused aloud, “because she stands out so much against everyone else, because she doesn’t really fit in here.”

Sir Richard considered that, and admitted it might be true. “Perhaps,” he said. “Regardless, she’d be more than welcome to attend the dinner, if only to keep you company.”

“Alright . . . I’ll ask her if she wants to come.”

“Fine. I’ll see you at Church on Sunday?” A question, she noted, not a statement.

She nodded. “Sure. I missed it last week what with being so sick. I’ll be there.”

Sir Richard grunted his acceptance and left, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Alone with Kaleah again, Jessica returned to the bed and resumed her position carefully, not wanting to disrupt her friend’s rest. Releasing a tense breath, she thought about what her father had suggested . . . and she didn’t much like her conclusions.

It was indeed possible the attack on Kaleah had been aimed at her, not the dark woman. Jessica had earned quite a reputation as a fighter in the last few years. She was sure there were many who would revel in her suffering. Maybe the common bandits she had taken down over the years weren’t so subtle as to orchestrate such a plan, but there were plenty who were. And the thought that Kaleah had been hurt because of the friendship they had formed . . . well, the cold, empty feeling it brought to her heart hurt with a dull ache.

Suddenly, as she considered this new possibility, something else occurred to her. There was one person in Da’Gran who hated Kaleah, she realized. One person with enough power to direct such an attack, no matter the loyalty of the men. But surely . . .

“She wouldn’t be that foolish,” Jessica thought, green fire starting to burn in her eyes as she wondered. She looked at Kaleah’s battered face and scowled. “She’d never sink to something so base . . . would she?”

Sighing, letting her anger wash away, Jessica lay back and relaxed. She had a lot to think about while her friend slept, and while her thoughts weren’t very pleasant ones, at least they kept her mind away from other considerations . . . things she promised her sulking mind she would examine in greater detail later.

Her mind reluctantly agreed not to push the issue.

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

Friday came and went peacefully, with Kaleah sleeping through most of the day, holding drowsy conversation with her constant companion when she was awake. Charles stopped by to see how the injured woman was doing, and stayed a while talking about the attack with Jessica. He had considered briefly the possibility that his own men might have been responsible, but a quick check had assured him such a thing was impossible. The troops who made up his escort had been celebrating the hunt that night . . . all had been accounted for by more than three others at the time the assault took place. Although Jessica wanted to question Kaleah further on the attack, her hesitant queries were met with defensive silence. It was clear Kaleah didn’t want to discuss things yet, so Jessica reluctantly let it go.

The next day, Kaleah woke feeling much better. The swelling had gone down considerably, her own innate healing powers helped along by the medicinal herbs. After so much time spent lying still, the former slave insisted she was healthy enough to have the bandages removed and to move around. Her energy was reaching a dangerous level, and she needed to do something to burn it off.

Unwrapping the bandages, Jessica was surprised and relieved to find some of the bruises already faded away, while the more severe had turned from an aggressive dark blue to a lighter purple tone. The splint was no longer required, and Kaleah groaned in relief when it was removed, stretching her arm thankfully. Inspecting everything thoroughly, Jessica smiled. It seemed her friend would be as good as new in another few days.

“You heal awful fast,” she remarked as she examined the healing gash over Kaleah’s eye.

The dark woman winced as her companion prodded the area with firm but gently fingers. “I’ve always been like that,” she said. “Broken bones take me a while, but anything on the surface goes away real quick.” She scratched at one of the scars on her arm. “They usually leave a bit of a mark, though.”

Jessica finished her inspection by spreading a clear liquid salve over the wound. “Do you think this will scar?” she asked.

“Probably not,” Kaleah replied, shooing her away when she’d finished. “It’s not that deep m. . . and with all the stuff you’re putting on it, I’d be surprised if it’s still visible in another week.”

Jessica chuckled and backed off, letting the dark woman stand up. She couldn’t help but stare in admiration as Kaleah stretched long and hard, waking her dormant muscles. Standing behind her friend, the young blonde’s eyes feasted on the image of rippling, tight sinew under bronzed skin revealed all-too-well by the loose-fitting shift. Her eyes widened as they stored the image away in the back of her mind . . . which was starting to get a little crowded by now.

“What should we do today?”

Kaleah’s question snapped Jessica out of her lustful appraisal just as the dark woman turned around. The blonde assumed an air of casual indifference and shrugged. “I’m not picky . . . as long as it’s not too strenuous,” she said. “You still need to take it easy.”

Kaleah gave an exaggerated groan and rolled her eyes. “Fine . . . how about we go for a bit of a walk out to the monastery.” She had found the ancient ruins strangely fascinating when Jessica had taken her there last week.

“Okay, but are you sure you want to walk all that way? I mean, the spring thaw’s started . . . everything’s pretty damn muddy.”

Kaleah grinned. “So I’ll take a bath when we get back instead of before we leave.”

Jess couldn’t argue against that . . . she’d watched the dark woman bathe several times since last week. The fact that Kaleah seemed to like being clean had provided a great deal of inspiration for the young blonde’s strengthening desire. “Alright,” she agreed. “But if you get too sore, we’re turning back.”

“Okay. Wait here, I have to get changed into something warmer.” Kaleah headed for the door to her own bedroom, trying not to think about the fact that she probably wouldn’t be sleeping with Jessica anymore after last night. Afterall, there wasn’t any reason now that she was feeling better. Sighing as she slipped into the emptiness of her bedroom, she decided to just enjoy the day.

The two decided to ask Charles to come along with them, and he happily agreed.

“I should go get Damon,” he said as they were about to head out, but Jessica waved the suggestion away.

“Oh, come on, Charles,” she said, laughing. “We’re only going to the abbey . . . what bandit’s gonna set up camp that close to the castle? Besides,” she patted the rapier at her side, “if anything does happen, Kaleah and I can protect you.”

Charles gave her a look of mock insult. “Are you saying I’m not man enough to protect myself?” he demanded with a playfully lofty air.

Jess grinned and arched a blonde eyebrow cheekily. “No . . . are you?”

Charles was unable to help himself from rising to challenge. “Of course not,” he grumbled, relaxing. He wondered briefly how come whenever he visited Da’Gran, Jessica always managed to lure him into some kind of trouble.

Jess clapped and linked arms with her two friends. “Alright then. Let’s go.”

“Just remember, Jess, if we get into any trouble because of this, I’m gonna say it was all your fault and I was just trying to make sure you were safe.”

The young blonde snorted inelegantly. “Yeah . . . like anyone’d believe that.” Nevertheless, she decided it would be for the best if they used the side entrance . . . just in case anyone was watching.

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

Kaleah flopped down on Jessica’s bed and gave a long, guttural sigh of absolute bliss. Closing her eyes, she savored the warm ache in her muscles from the long day of exploring in the woods and basked in the simple pleasure of being clean again after tracking through the mud of spring thaw.

“Mmmm,” she moaned, opening her eyes to find Jessica smiling down at her. “You know, I think I love that bathing pool more everytime I go in there. If I had to choose a favorite room in this whole castle, that’d be it.”

Jess joined the dark woman on the bed, leaning back against the headboard. “I definitely agree,” she said. “It’s one luxury of being high-born that I truly wonder if I could live without.” And, she added silently, it had become doubly attractive now that Kaleah was here. Her body was still aflame with desire from watching her companion wash up.

Kaleah rolled over and ran fingers through her still-wet hair. “I had a lot of fun today,” she said. “Charles is great. I, uh . . . I haven’t met too many people I feel that comfortable with so quickly.”

Jess smiled, genuinely pleased. “I’m glad you like him. And it was a good day, wasn’t it? You didn’t get sore or anything, did you?”

“Are you kidding? After spending so long lying down, I could have run the whole way and thought nothing of it. I really needed to get rid of some of that energy.” She rubbed gently at the wound on her eye. It was starting to itch.

“Hey! Don’t pick at that, or it will leave a scar.”

“It itches.”

“I don’t care. You don’t need any more marks on your face, so leave it alone.” The young blonde swatted Kaleah’s hands away from her face. Kaleah growled playfully. Jess raised an eyebrow threateningly. “Keep it up, Miss Difficult and I’ll make you eat those sleeping herbs again.”

“Try it and see how far you get,” Kaleah returned, her eyes sparkling.

Jessica just laughed and sat back again. She loved it when Kaleah relaxed so completely like this . . . when she let herself be playful and fun. It was happening more and more often, especially when they were alone, and she found herself trying harder to bring a smile to the former slave’s face.

Watching as the dark woman ran long, elegant fingers through her tangled wet hair, gently sorting through the knots until it was even and neat, Jessica decided maybe now was a good time to bring up the welcoming dinner on Monday.

“Kaleah?”

“Hmmm?” Blue eyes looked up and regarded her openly.

“My father was wondering if . . . maybe you’d like to come along to the formal dinner we’re having for Sir William on Monday.” She saw the surprise in Kaleah’s face and went on. “I-I was kind of hoping you’d say yes . . . I mean, it’d be nice to have some company there. I have to go, and you’d be alone anyway so, if you don’t mind putting up with people looking at you, I’d really like it if-”

“I’ll come.”

Jessica trailed off and stared at Kaleah. “You will?”

“Sure.” Kaleah went back to unravelling her hair. She glanced up at her friend. “If you want me there, of course I’ll come.”

The words were spoken in a casual, off-hand manner, but they sent shivers down Jessica’s spine. “Thank you,” she said, watching the older woman smile at her and turn away. She giggled nervously. “You know, I didn’t think it’d be quite that easy to convince you,” she admitted.

“Why not?”

She shrugged. “Welll . . . there’ll be a lot of people around, you know. Everything very formal. And let’s face it Kaleah, you’re not really much of a one for socializing, are you.”

Kaleah turned those amazing eyes on her and added a dazzling smile to it. “I don’t care so much about that stuff anymore,” she said softly. “It doesn’t matter how many people are around . . . as long as I’m with you.”

Jessica wanted to wave the comment away, but was captured by the look in Kaleah’s eyes. She swallowed the lump that suddenly leapt into her throat. Her body was still thrumming with sexual heat from watching Kaleah bathe, and it took a physical effort to stop herself from just . . leaning forward and . . . and . . . Well, from doing something that she wasn’t entirely sure she knew how to do. She smiled shyly and looked away, wondering if Kaleah had noticed how much she seemed to be blushing lately.

Seeing the young woman’s nervousness, Kaleah gave a little chuckle. “So,” she continued, turning away to give Jessica a chance to regain her composure, “what should I wear to the dinner? I don’t suppose I can get away with just wearing my armor?”

Jessica cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the large lump in it she suspected was her heart. “Um . . . no. It’s formal. We’re trying to really impress Sir William . . . it’s one of those stupid little games we nobles have to play all the time.” She rolled her eyes. “A polite demonstration of how civilized and well-bred we are here in Da’Gran, so we can show Lancaster how much better off he’d be if he made a formal alliance with us.” She regarded Kaleah who was now lying flat on her stomach. “I think you should probably wear a dress,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m sure I can rummage up something really nice for you . . . maybe blue silk, to match your . . .eyes . . .” She trailed off, seeing the guarded look in Kaleah’s expressive blue eyes. “Is something wrong?”

“I, uh . . . I don’t like dresses,” Kaleah explained shyly.

Jessica looked puzzled. “I’m sure we can arrange something nice,” she said, confused by her friend’s reaction. “I don’t like them all that much myself, but they’re not so bad . . .” She remembered the dark woman had preferred men’s clothes the last time she’d suggested something more feminine. What was so bad about wearing a dress?

“Can’t I just wear trousers?” Kaleah pleaded. “Dresses just . . . make me uncomfortable.”

Jessica could see Kaleah was genuinely unnerved by the idea of having to wear a dress. “Why?” she asked softly.

“They just . . .” Kaleah felt the gentle concern in Jessica’s eyes, and decided it would be best if she just explained. Afterall, she had already told the young woman her basic life story . . . she’d understand.

“When I was a slave,” she explained quietly, “the clothes I was given would always tell me what I’d be doing for a new master. If I was to be a worker, I’d be given trousers and a shirt. A dress always meant I was going to be a whore.” She cast her eyes to the bedsheets, still feeling the shame of that life. “Dresses gave . . . easier access,” she finished in a whisper.

Jessica absorbed this, understanding. “Oh. I see.” She was silent a moment, then reached out to pat Kaleah’s shoulder, offering what comfort she could. “I didn’t. . . I didn’t understand. But you know Kaleah, you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. I’d never want to make you feel that way.” She smiled as the dark woman raised her head hopefully. “I’m sure I can find some silk trousers . . . if I look for them.”

Kaleah nodded gratefully. “Thank you. I’d really prefer that, if it’s okay.”

“Sure.” Jessica sat back and gave the tall woman a quick perusal. “It’s a shame though,” she mused, knawing on her lower lip.

“What is?”

“Well . . . I was kinda looking forward to seeing you all dressed up.” Jessica grinned rakishly, unable to stop the image forming in her mind. “I bet you’d look really beautiful in a full-length dress . . . something that showed off your figure, you know?”

Kaleah blushed and studied herself critically. “Y-you really think so?”

“Oh yeah.” Jess nodded enthusiastically. “I’d kill to have a body like yours.” Her mind almost made a sarcastic comment, but she anticipated it and silently ordered it to shut up. “You’d be stunning.”

“Well . . . maybe.”

Jessica couldn’t help but smile broadly at the thoughtful expression on Kaleah’s face as the dark woman headed off to her own room later that night. And it came as no surprise when the former slave brought the subject up again the next morning when she returned from the service in the castle chapel. Kaleah said she’d thought about it, and decided a dress probably would be a good idea, afterall. At least it couldn’t hurt to give it a try . . . could it?
Chapter 15.
Monday morning, Jessica and Kaleah watched from the south-west parapet as a large contingent of men approached Da’Gran slowly. The day was clear and almost warm, with spring thaw well under way. What few patches of snow and ice still remained would likely be gone in a day or so, which meant that everything would be very muddy until the new grass began to shoot. Sunlight glinted off armor and steel in the distance as Kaleah squinted to make out the group of dim figures more clearly. The warning horn was still sounding from the central look-out, summoning Sir Richard to greet the arrival of Sir William.

The former slave saw there were a lot more men in this escort than Charles had brought with him . . . maybe three times as many, in fact. The troops rode in disciplined lines around a covered wagon, and despite having to keep formation they managed to move quite quickly. The knights were mostly armed with lance and sword, and all carried heavy shields. As they got closer, Kaleah studied the brightly colored banners which depicted two crossed arrows in red over a white field. Jessica had been teaching her a bit about heraldry, and she knew this was the design used by Lancaster.

“There are a lot of them, huh?” she said.

Jessica frowned, but nodded. “Aye.”

“I-is that normal?”

“More or less. Sir William is a lord knight . . . and my father has been his enemy for a long time. Meeting like this to discuss a treaty, I suppose he’d want to bring a fair amount of muscle just in case we decided to be less-than-honorable about it.” The young woman squinted to make out details. “A contingent of guards that large would need some pretty heavy support . . . squires, cooks, that sort of thing.”

Kaleah studied the group, but saw only mounted knights. “So where are they?”

“I don’t know.” Kaleah heard a faint suspicious tone in her friend’s voice. “Maybe they left them at a camp in the woods. But wherever they are, the fact that Lancaster didn’t bring them with him means he doesn’t intend to stay long . . . probably just tonight.”

“And what does that mean?”

Jessica shrugged. “If you were serious about a peace treaty — even a temporary one — how much time would you give to discussing it with your enemy?”

Kaleah considered that and realized what the young woman was driving at. “You think maybe Lancaster has no real intention of signing a treaty? But . . . why would he go to all this trouble?”

Jessica’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “Maybe it’s nothing . . . Lancaster might just want to get everything out of the way as quick as he can. That makes sense too; he can’t be comfortable about meeting on enemy ground. But still . . .” She frowned as the men hailed the guards at the gate, stating their business. “Something about this whole thing doesn’t feel right.”

Sir Richard arrived in the courtyard, dressed in full ceremonial armor with Sir Miles and Charles flanking him. A score of other knights fell into step behind as honor guard, and they marched with stiff dignity to the gates just as they were opened to admit the visitors.

“Should we go down there?” Kaleah asked, watching Sir Richard clasp hands formally with a large, similarly armored man; apparently Sir William.

Jessica laughed. “Dressed like this? Are you kidding?” She held out her arms, displaying the simple, rumpled tunic and trousers.

“Not appropriate, huh?” Kaleah smiled, thinking the young woman would look beautiful if she was wearing torn rags and mud.

“My father would kill me if I presented myself like this before an enemy lord during a formal peace meeting.” Jessica laughed again. “This whole thing is all about show,” she explained. “We have to present a strong, civilized face or else Sir William will be at an advantage.”

Kaleah gave her a blank look. “But if you already are strong, why does it matter? Surely Sir William knows it’s all just an act.”

“Of course he knows. And he’ll know tonight at the dinner that, no matter how fancy I may have dressed up, I usually dress like a man and wave a sword around my head.” She grinned, and added, “And I’ll know that underneath all his shiny armor, he’s still just a brutal, treacherous bastard.”

Kaleah shook her head. “I don’t get it. Why the whole performance if you both know none of it’s real?”

Jessica sighed, wondering how to explain something she didn’t fully understand herself. “It’s what most nobles do,” she said after a moment. “We try to look nice, and speak politely to one another . . . but underneath, we have all the same faults as anyone else. It’s all just a big game . . . like chess. And like in chess, the best way to play it is with subtlety. If you make a mistake . . . a word out of place, an incorrect gesture . . . you give your enemy the upper hand. And while it may look more civilized, believe me, these games can be just as bloody and violent as a real life battle.”

Kaleah turned back to watch Sir Richard greet his guest, noting now the stiff and practiced way he held himself, the considered actions. “Are you sure I should be attending this dinner then?” she asked. “I don’t know anything about such things.”

Jessica patted her on the shoulder and chuckled. “That won’t matter, Kaleah. Believe me.”

Blue eyes looked at her in question. “Oh?”

Jessica took the taller woman’s arm and led her back down the stairs, ignoring the curious, amused looks the soldiers gave them. “My father knows you have no training in court intrigue, but he wants you at the dinner anyway,” she told her friend.

“Why?”

“Because Sir William won’t know what to make of you,” she said, grinning. Seeing the blank look on Kaleah’s face, she continued. “You have a powerful presence Kaleah, whether you realize it or not. Sir William will notice you immediately . . . and your presence at such an important function will tell him you’re an important part of Da’Gran. You’ll become an important game-piece . . . someone he doesn’t know and therefore can’t predict.”

“But I don’t have anything to do with any of this stuff!” Kaleah argued, not much liking the idea of being treated like some pawn.

“That doesn’t matter,” Jessica assured her. “Sir William doesn’t know that. But you’ll be a force my father can use to his advantage simply by including you in the dinner. That’s a big part of court negotiations . . . knowing how to gain something from nothing, and making the most of what you have available.”

Kaleah suddenly jerked away from her, her eyes flashing angrily. “I don’t like being made into a puppet!” she growled.

Jessica’s smile disappeared when she realized how Kaleah had taken this explanation. “Hey . . .” she said soothingly. “It’s not like that.” She reached out, but Kaleah drew back. She sighed. “My father would never force you to attend the dinner Kaleah. You’re a free agent in this castle . . . not one of his subjects. But if you do come, you’d be an asset to him, that’s all.” She smiled tentatively, seeing her friend relax a little. “If it’s any consolation, I’m no different.”

“You’re not?”

She shook her head. “My father will put me on display because he knows I’m one of his strongest game-pieces. And unlike you, I have no choice about attending.” She smiled a little more. “He’ll present me as his daughter all wrapped in lace and perfume . . . all the while knowing Sir William can see the steel underneath.” When she reached out again, Kaleah did not pull away. “I want you with me,” she said, linking their arms once more. “You’re my friend . . . and if you don’t mind me saying so, I’m quite looking forward to showing you off.”

Kaleah let go her sudden anger easily, letting the warmth of the young woman’s touch melt it away. She grinned down at the proud look on Jessica’s face and snorted. “Not much to show off, I’m afraid,” she said. “Unless you think they’ll be impressed by a foreign barbarian.”

Jessica returned the grin mischievously and patted her hand over Kaleah’s arm. “We’ll see,” she said mysteriously. “I think you might be surprised.” Grinning ear to ear, she led them back to their rooms. There was a lot to do before the dinner that night.

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

Jessica spoke with a servant as soon as they arrived back in the familiar part of the castle that housed their chambers. Though Kaleah had her doubts about all this, she couldn’t deny that she enjoyed the excitement her young friend was displaying. If Jessica wanted to see her all dressed up in fancy clothes, she wouldn’t deny her such a simple pleasure . . . no matter if it made her uncomfortable.

The two sat and talked a few minutes before there was a knock at the door. Jessica opened it and waved in the group of women standing in the hallway. She gestured to her friend and made introductions.

“Kaleah, this is June.” She indicated a tall, heavy-set woman of advancing years who stepped forward with a beaming smile. Kaleah bobbed her head uncertainly. “She’s my mother’s seamstress and general hand-maiden.”

“Ach, get on with ye, child!” the elderly woman laughed, smacking Jessica lightly. “I’m many years past bein’ called a maiden!” She turned clear, intelligent eyes to Kaleah, studying her curiously. “So, yer the one what’s been causin’ my lady so much heat?” She grinned and nodded, as though pleased, then nudged Jessica slyly. “Ye mother’s none too pleased with ye ‘bout this affair, Jess.”

The young woman returned her grin and shrugged. “Since when has that stopped me?”

“Aye, well . . .” She looked Kaleah up and down. “We’ll see if we can’t surprise her tonight, shall we?”

Jessica nodded while Kaleah gave her a puzzled, slightly wary look. She saw the dark woman’s trepidation and reassured her quickly. “Kaleah, I asked June here to find something for you to wear at the dinner. She’s going to fix you up so you look as much like a true noble-woman as my own mother.”

June bit her lip as her eyes fell on Kaleah’s bruises and the scar across her lips. “Gonna be tough to hide those marks, Jess.”

“Just do what you can for the bruises,” Jessica told her. “Forget the scars. We don’t want to mask them.”

“If ye say so.” June did not appear convinced, but she smiled at Kaleah reassuringly. “My, girl, but don’t you just have the prettiest eyes. And hair like midnight . . .” She reached out to touch the raven tresses, but Kaleah pulled back. The old woman nodded as if she’d expected it, and drew her hand away. “Touchy as I’ve heard, too.”

Jessica stepped up and took Kaleah by the hands. “It’s alright, Kaleah. June won’t hurt you, she just wants to measure your body so she can fit the dress to you right. Then later on, she’ll fix your hair and stuff like that.”

Kaleah swallowed nervously. “I-I thought . . . you’d be doing all that for me,” she whispered hopefully.

Jessica shook her head sadly. “I can’t. I don’t know how. She’ll be doing the same thing for me when you’re finished though, and she’s really very gentle. You’ll be fine.”

“I don’t like to be touched.” Kaleah’s voice was strained and so low only Jessica could hear her.

The blonde gave her a warm hug then smiled. “I know,” she replied softly. “But I’ll be here while they measure you . . . and it’ll only take a few minutes to get your hair fixed up. Please Kaleah?” She gazed imploringly into deep blue eyes. “Could you do this for me?”

Feeling those glowing wet emeralds burning into her soul, Kaleah could only swallow and nod. “Okay,” she choked. She knew she would do anything Jessica asked at that moment. “But that look’s gonna start loosing it’s effect if you use it too often.” She offered a shaky grin and Jessica returned it, planting a soft kiss on the back of her wrist as they separated. Kaleah suppressed an involuntary groan. The friendly kiss burned her skin like liquid fire.

For the next half-hour, Kaleah posed as June directed her while the other women took measurements that she didn’t understand. It took a great deal of effort for the former slave to keep her body still as so many hands invaded her personal space. Her blood felt like lightening was coursing through it, and she felt suffocated and desperate for the ordeal to be done with. The only thing that kept her from simply shoving the women away was the calm young woman standing next to her, occasionally reaching out to pat her arm whenever it felt like things were getting too much. Jessica’s presence distracted Kaleah from the measuring. Her touch soothed her fevered spirit like nothing else ever had.

Eventually, after what seemed like forever, the women had collected whatever information it was they wanted and departed. June promised the dress would be ready by that afternoon, and she would return to prepare the two of them a few hours before the dinner was due to start.

Kaleah sighed as the door closed and she was alone again with her friend. She sat down on the bed, her muscles uncoiling slowly. “I didn’t like that,” she said quietly.

“I know. But you did really good Kaleah. Really good. When you first came to Da’Gran, you wouldn’t have been able to sit still like that. But now you can.”

“Because of you.” The dark woman’s blue eyes shyly gazed up at the young blonde. “You won’t be with me when they do . . . whatever it is they’ll do to me tonight, will you?”

Jessica shook her head. “But it won’t take long,” she promised. “And June is very gentle. You can trust her not to hurt you.”

Kaleah sighed and flopped back onto the stuffed mattress, resting an arm over her face. She closed her eyes. “I guess I’ll be okay,” she said. An eye cracked open and turned to Jessica. “You hungry?”

“Sure. My father and Charles will both be busy with Sir William for the rest of the day. I’ll get someone to bring us some food.”

“I don’t suppose we’ll be doing any training today, huh?”

“Not likely,” Jessica agreed. “We’d best keep a low profile with Lancaster’s men about.” The young woman summoned a servant who went to fetch them some late breakfast. Then she joined her friend on the bed. “Tonight should be fun. We should aim to arrive a little late . . . I want to make a good entrance.”

Kaleah smiled, noticing the heightened flush in Jessica’s face, and the sparkle of excitement in her eyes. “You really enjoy this stuff, don’t you?”

Jessica gave her a roguish grin. “You should see me right before a battle,” she said with a wink. “This is the first time we’ve had a real formal dinner in a long time. I may like to dress and behave like a warrior most of the time . . . but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to be a lady when the occasion calls for it.”

“I know. Your whole body changes when you slip into that role. Even your voice sounds different.”

Jessica waved her hands and blew a bit of hair out of her face. “I usually only do that when my mother’s around. The people in Da’Gran are used to me looking a mess . . . and you along with me. But tonight,” Kaleah could hear the smile in her voice, “tonight . . . we get the chance to show everyone just how civilized we barbarian’s can be.”

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

With a slight sigh, Jessica turned her back on the door to Kaleah’s room and studied herself in the mirror for the tenth time in as many minutes. The servants had completed their work on her some time ago, and now she was waiting for June to finish up with her friend in the next room.

It was some time since Kaleah had returned from her bath (which Jessica had watched once more, reveling in the delightful ache her voyeurism generated in her loins), only to be led away by a very gentle June for her preparations. The young blonde knew Kaleah must be getting flighty by now. The urge to go in there and rescue her was strong, but she knew June wouldn’t stand for her barging in. So she sat as calmly as she could and studied her reflected appearance while trying not to dart anxious glances at the door behind her.

A slight smile touched Jessica’s lips as she admitted to herself the women had done a very good job. Her hair — usually wild and free — had been tamed with gentle persistence into a series of intricate braids, which had then been curled into an elaborate coif design that rather suited the soft lines of her face. Her eyes had been very lightly accented with dyed coal, as had her full lips. The dress she wore clung to her muscular figure, and she couldn’t help but blush a little at the low neckline which revealed more cleavage than she might have liked.

Still, she assessed critically, she certainly had nothing to be embarrassed about. Her body was attractive; firm and toned from hours of training, unlike most women of the nobility who tended towards slender lines with narrow legs and arms. Her breasts were full and firm, and she filled out the soft green dress very nicely. But still . . . she wasn’t accustomed to displaying herself in quite so feminine a manner. The elegant silver necklace that hung at her throat felt constricting, and she kept rubbing at the rings and bracelets that adorned her fingers and wrists. Despite the discomfort, she couldn’t help but grin a little as she wondered if Kaleah would like the way she looked.

She hoped so.

At last, the door to Kaleah’s room creaked open and Jessica stood up, turning to greet her friend. Her excited smile vanished, however, when her jaw dropped at the sight before her.

Jessica had thought Kaleah’s exotic features attractive before, but she found the vision of her now to be almost overwhelming. The dark woman was dressed in a full-length, royal blue dress which displayed her slender, athletic body even better than her armor did. Delicate shoes adorned her feet, and though Jessica knew her friend didn’t like jewelry, June had somehow managed to convince her to wear a simple, elegant silver pendant about her neck. Kaleah’s long, sable tresses had been braided with pieces of colorful string, then gathered back into an incredibly intricate coif that highlighted her sweeping, angular features. The bruises that still marred her face were almost indistinguishable, but June had left the slashing scar across the dark woman’s sensuous lips alone. As Jessica had suspected, the vivid white scar stood out in stark contrast against the red of her lips, drawing the eye and highlighting the perfection of Kaleah’s face, not detracting from it.

Jessica eyes widened further and her heart almost stopped when she at last met her friend’s shy gaze. June had highlighted Kaleah’s most striking feature with dark lines of finely-ground coal dust, making the dazzling orbs seem amazingly bright and intense. The lines drew out to the very tips of her eye-brows in a style Jessica knew would be thought of as scandalous among the nobility. But the overall effect was stunning, and the young blonde understood and applauded what June had set out to achieve.

Kaleah could never blend in with the other attendees. The primal aura surrounding her was simply too powerful . . . she would stand out no matter how she dressed. So rather than try to hide Kaleah’s features, the talented hand-maiden had decided instead to flaunt them. The dark woman looked like some kind of barbarian Goddess; exotic and radiant, with an untamable strength that seemed to flow from her in sensuous waves of energy.

Jessica eventually managed to get her jaw off the ground and back into working order, noting with relief that Kaleah was too busy staring at her to notice her reaction. She smiled when the dark woman finished looking and gave her a shy smile of her own.

“You look amazing,” the young blonde breathed, stepping closer and reaching out a hand to touch the braided hair.

Kaleah flushed and shuffled her feet nervously “You, too.”

June entered the room, closing the door behind her. She beamed at Jessica’s awe-struck reaction. “She scrubbed up real nice,” she said proudly, giving Jess a once over and nodding in approval. “Ye’ll knock ‘em dead, ye will. I wish I could be there to see the look on yer mother’s face when you walk into that hall!”

Jess grinned. “Thank you, Rose. You did a wonderful job.”

“Aye, well, it’s easy when I’ve got something so nice to work with,” the old woman said warmly, patting Kaleah on the arm gently. The former slave only tensed slightly, but submitted to the affectionate gesture. “I’ve got to go finish with my lady now, Jess.” She gave the young blonde a quick hug. “I’ll see ye later, okay?”

“Fine.”

The two companions stood awkwardly a few moments after June left, just letting their eyes roam over the other slowly. When their eyes met, they both laughed a little at the expression in the other’s eyes.

“I can’t believe how beautiful you look,” Jessica said, shaking her head in amazement. “I mean . . . wow!”

Kaleah lowered her head, pleased at the response but shy. “Thanks.” She looked at herself in a nearby mirror and smiled a little. It was hard to reconcile the image of her reflection with what she was accustomed to. “I never thought I could look like this,” she whispered almost to herself. Her fingers rose to play with the pendant about her neck.

“Do you like it?”

Kaleah nodded. “It’s just so . . . unexpected. I mean, I’ve lived my whole life hating the fact that men found me attractive. My beauty was a curse. But now . . .” She gazed into Jessica’s verdant eyes, feeling her stomach flip-flop as she felt herself falling. “You’re the first person who really made me want to be beautiful,” she whispered.

Jessica just smiled. “Well, I think you look beautiful no matter what you’re wearing,” she said, noticing with interest the blush that her words inspired. “You’ll do fine tonight, Kaleah. I know you will.”

“I hope so.” The dark woman went back to regarding her reflection in amazement. “I may look a lot fancier . . . but I can’t pretend to sound cultured like you can. And I don’t know court manners like you do.”

“That’s not important,” Jess argued. “You have a power inside you that puts you on their level. Just remember; for people like my mother and Sir William, the nobility they have is just a veil to hide their weaknesses and true intentions. What you have inside is worth so much more . . . because it comes from the soul.” The young blonde patted Kaleah on the shoulder and gave her a serious look. “If you want them to see and believe in the power you have within . . . all you have to do is believe in it yourself.”

Kaleah nodded and swallowed a lump in her throat. Before Jessica had come along, she had believed herself to be strong; a life in chains killed those who were anything but. Now, having seen herself as she had been through more mature eyes, Kaleah knew she had not been as strong as she thought. She had made herself numb to her life . . . had let the pain and suffering beat her down to the level of dumb beast. Jessica had shown her how strong she could be . . . had become her source of hope and light. Kaleah had grown stronger than she had ever been before; strong enough to have a friend. Strong enough to fall in love.

Maybe, if she believed in the power of her love enough, she could make Jessica believe in it, too.

But not tonight, Kaleah reminded herself. Tonight, she had to curb her natural fears and focus on the task at hand. She was starting to admit to herself — albeit with great trepidation — that Jessica did indeed seem to be giving her signals of interest; but now was not the time to explore the subject more fully. Tonight was about pretending to be something she wasn’t, not about revealing the truths that were in her heart.

Drawing strength from the young woman still gazing up at her, Kaleah let her confidence grow as she saw the faith her friend had in her. “I can believe in myself Jess,” she said softly, “because you do.” She offered a slight, happy smile, her eyes twinkling against the dark of her make-up at the surprised look on the blonde’s face. She turned away and let the comment sink in. “Want to play a game of chess before the dinner starts? Might as well let me beat you again.”

Jessica managed to hear the dark woman over the pounding of her heart, and nodded. “Sure,” she said, coughing a little to clear away the lump in her throat. She grinned at Kaleah, who sat down at the chess table and began to arrange the pieces. “And I don’t let you beat me, my friend. You win fair and square.” She rubbed her hands together and sat opposite the dark-haired woman. “Don’t think that’s gonna happen tonight though. I’ve figured out your strategy . . . you’re lucky streak is over.”

Kaleah snorted. “Yeah, right. If you’re going to go easy on me, you should at least make it less obvious. Nobody’s stupid enough to make some of those moves you were making — Hey!”

Jessica slapped her playfully. “Don’t call my moves stupid then,” she growled. “I was just testing to see what worked.”

Kaleah rubbed her arm in an exaggerated way and gave the young woman a hurt look. “Well it was obvious they wouldn’t work,” she said, moving a pawn forward. “And they were stupid,” she muttered under her breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” she said innocently. “Your move.”

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

Several hours passed before Jessica decided it was time for them to head off. As they made their way with dignified grace to the audience hall, Jessica enjoyed the shocked reactions they received from the servants and guards they passed. She knew the people had seen her dressed up like this before, but Kaleah was a different story. Glancing to her side, Jess smiled proudly at her friend’s regal bearings and strong, confidant poise.

She knew Kaleah was nervous on the inside, but the former slave was covering her fears with this illusion of power. Walking up to the imposing doors of the audience hall, Jessica could feel the waves of animal energy radiating from the dark woman. She grinned a little as she wondered what kind of impact Kaleah would make.

The two guards stationed at the double doors could only stare at the two women for a long moment, before Jessica cleared her throat and gave them a playful wink. They immediately blushed and bowed at the waist in respect to the young noble-woman, before throwing open the great doors. A wave of heat, music and conversation engulfed them before one of the guards banged his halberd on the floor and announced their arrival to the already assembled guests.

The noise stopped as the gathered people rose from their seats to welcome the two women. Jessica stepped forward and held herself proudly under the eyes of so many people, accustomed to being put on display. While she had not been greatly interested in her mother’s lessons on etiquette, she had learned the social graces well despite her disinterest. She sensed Kaleah enter behind her, and saw everyone’s attention shift instantly to her captivating companion. The young woman didn’t need to glance backwards to know that Kaleah was uncomfortable with the attention, but from the low murmurings her appearance generated through the room, she could tell that the people were impressed by what they saw.

Glancing about quickly, Jessica took in the layout of the room. A dozen or so tables had been arranged in a large rectangle, with Sir Richard, Sir Miles and the members of Da’Gran’s court seated down one side, and Sir William and his most trusted men filling out the other. A small group of musicians played in the background, and several servants hovered about with jugs of mead or platters of food, ready to provide whatever was desired for the guests. Jessica also noticed a few figures holding back in the shadows, and recognized them as being Eric Grace and Damon Cook. No doubt the two were here to watch out for their respective lord.

Finishing her swift appraisal which lasted only a heartbeat, Jessica smiled radiantly and bowed a little to her father. She noticed Kaleah doing the same out the corner of her eye. “Forgive out lateness, father,” she said, her voice clear and cultured. “Our preparations ran over-long.”

That was obviously a lie, and the slight smile on Sir Richard’s face told her he knew it. Jessica had planned on their tardiness to make a better, more dramatic entrance. From the looks on the people’s faces, she had succeeded well.

Sir Richard nodded and gestured to the two empty places at his table. “Quite alright, Jessica,” he rumbled. “Won’t you join us.”

“Thank you, father.”

The guests resumed their seats as Jessica led Kaleah around to their places. Her seat was to the right of Charles, as befitted their betrothed status, and he in turn was seated next to the Lady Rose. She gave him a mischievous smile when she saw his eyes drift to Kaleah in awe, before allowing a servant to assist her into her chair with refined dignity. Kaleah did the same, sitting with a controlled grace to her right.

The dark woman’s outward expression was calm and serene, but when their eyes met for a brief moment, Jessica could see the tension in Kaleah’s eyes. She gave her friend a reassuring smile, which was returned timidly. A plate of food was set before her, and another for Kaleah. The musicians started to play again, and after a moment, the conversation followed. Giving her father a quick grin, she signaled a servant to fill her mug and then cast her eyes to the opposite table to study their guests.

Sir William had changed little since the last time she’d seen him. Dressed in full ceremonial armor just like her father, the lord knight cut a pretty impressive figure. Short but muscular, Lancaster had thick dark hair just running to grey, and long, braided mustaches that gave him a perpetually frowning expression. His shrewd, calculating eyes were fixed on Kaleah, but they quickly snapped to her when he realized he was being watched. Jessica gave the enemy lord a slight nod and smile, then raised a mug in salute. He returned it, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Looking around the table, Jessica saw that many people were looking at her friend curiously, and not just their guests. While Kaleah may have become an accepted presence about the castle lately, no-one had seen her dressed like this before. Most of the men were looking at the former slave with simple amazement, while the women regarded her with expressions of jealously and trepidation. Glancing to the left, Jessica saw that none were more surprised by the dark woman’s appearance than her mother. The expression of shock on Lady Rose’s face gave Jessica a rather vicious sense of satisfaction.

Look at your barbarian peasant now, mother, she snarled silently. She may be a savage, but she can play the part of nobility just fine. And if I find out you had anything to do with her beating, I’ll make sure you learn firsthand just how savage I can be!

Jessica was distracted from her thoughts when Kaleah leaned closer to her and whispered, “I take it that’s Sir William?” nodding to where the knight was watching with interest.

She nodded. “That’s him, alright,”

Kaleah smiled a little and nodded to the man, who returned the gesture after a moment of confusion. “He’s paying a lot of attention to me, considering he’s never seen me before in his life.”

“He’s trying to figure out who you are, just like I said he would,” Jessica explained.

“But why should he care?”

Jessica smiled and delicately took a bite of food from her plate. “I told you,” she whispered back, “you have a real presence, Kaleah. He can feel the power in you . . . and he wants to understand it. He’s unsure of your position in the castle. You could be a threat to him, or possibly an ally.”

They watched the lord knight as he watched them, seeing his brow crease in thought. Apparently concluding that a direct approach would work best, Lancaster raised his voice and addressed Jessica’s father.

“Sir Richard, I see an unfamiliar face at the table.” He smiled and nodded towards Kaleah. All eyes turned to regard the former slave curiously. “Might you not introduce me to this young woman keeping company with your charming daughter?”

Sir Richard smiled and nodded. “Of course, Sir William.” He stood and gestured to Kaleah. “I would be delighted to introduce to you Kaleah . . . a young woman recently come to our castle from Spain. My daughter, Jessica, met her but a few months ago and the two found they shared much in common. She has been our guest since then, and they have become firm friends.” He smiled fondly at Kaleah, who fought to maintain her calm and detached mask. “I am most grateful that my daughter has found such pleasant company.”

The Lady Rose scowled. Jessica’s sharp eyes noticed, and again she wondered to what lengths her mother might go to break apart this friendship.

Sir William smiled pleasantly at Kaleah. “I am most pleased to make your acquaintance . . . Kaleah, is it?”

Kaleah nodded. “Yes . . . thank you, lordship,” she said, not even trying to hide her accent. “The pleasure is surely mine.”

“Of course.” Sir William stroked his mustaches thoughtfully as he studied the two women. An eyebrow raised in question. “I am curious to know what common interests you have found with young Jessica here,” he pondered aloud. He could feel a dangerous energy emanating from this strange woman, and recognized an unstable force when he saw one. He turned his attention to the vivacious blonde. “Perhaps your focus has shifted since last we met, Jessica?”

The young noble gave him a thin smile. “Not particularly, Sir William,” she replied coolly. She could feel her father’s eyes on her, watching to see how she dealt with the situation. “My studies have merely advanced . . . not shifted. Kaleah has proven to be the perfect companion for me . . . she has been of great assistance to my education.”

“Truly?” Sir William’s brow raised further as he assessed the dark woman in light of this. Clearly then, she was a warrior of some sort. Her features were barbaric, and her accent most peculiar. She seemed a strange companion for his rival’s daughter. He smiled at Jessica. “I still remember our last meeting,” he said, his tone carefully polite but his eyes cold. “It was, if I recall correctly, one of the most interesting encounters I’ve ever had.”

Jessica took a sip of her water and gave him a soft, coy smile. “Indeed?”

“Yes, very much so. In fact, I think you taught me better than anyone the folly of judging a person on appearances alone.” Sir William raised his mug to her in a toast. “A valuable lesson, to be sure.”

Jessica batted her eyelids in innocently. “One well learned, I trust?”

He nodded, grinning in an unpleasant way. “Oh, very well learned, I assure you.”

Jessica smiled, and returned to her meal. Glancing serupticiously at her father, she saw a slight frown on his face which she simply returned with a shrug. What did you expect me to do? she asked silently. He was baiting me.

Kaleah was a little confused by this exchange. She took a few bites of food from her plate as elegantly as she could, though in truth her stomach was churning with stress. Only the calming presence of Jessica beside her kept her from making a hasty departure. She raised an eyebrow at her young friend, who leaned closer to explain.

“He wanted to find out if you’re a fighter like me,” Jess explained quietly. “Did you notice the way he didn’t refer to me as a warrior?”

Kaleah nodded.

“That’s because it would be a social blunder for him to suggest that a young lady of the nobility such as myself would engage in such a violent pursuit. So he dances around the words, and uses insinuations to ask his questions.”

Kaleah absorbed this, starting to gain a slightly better comprehension of this intricate world of court intrigue. “What was that last bit about?”

“About me teaching him a valuable lesson?” Jess hid a smile by taking a sip of water. “The last time Sir William attacked us, he managed to actually get his army close to the castle itself. My father led a charge against him before he could raze the village. I went with him, and during the fight I had a run in with Sir William himself.”

Kaleah’s eyes widened at the thought. She knew from her talks with Jessica that a lord knight would receive the highest standard in training. She had little doubt Sir William was a formidable fighter. “What happened?”

Jessica smiled and speared a baby carrot from her plate. “He’d never met me before, so he thought I was some foolish peasant girl who got caught in the crossfire,” she said, taking a bite and chewing happily. “Imagine his surprise when he attacked me only to discover he was taking on one of Da’Gran’s finest warriors.”

“You beat him?”

Green eyes sparkled in the torchlight as Jess nodded. “Disarmed him before he knew what was going on. I know I would have lost if he’d known who I was . . . but the surprise was enough to let me win.” She cast the rival lord a charming look. “Of course, with my sword at his neck Sir William was forced to call a retreat. I let him go, and he pulled his men out of our lands . . . albeit reluctantly.”

Kaleah frowned. “He must hate you.”

“I’m sure he does,” Jessica agreed. “Being beaten by a scrap of a girl half your size can’t do much for a man’s ego. Still . . . he wants an alliance. There’s not much he can do about his anger if he expects this to work.”

Kaleah nodded in understanding and went back to eating her meal. She took her time, noticing that everyone else seemed to be dragging the dinner out. The food was probably delicious, but it tasted all the same to the nervous woman. As she ate, Kaleah let her eyes wander about and tuned her ears to the conversations going on around her.

There were still many people watching her with various expressions of interest, and it dawned on her suddenly that Jessica was right. These people seemed to be in awe of her for some reason. Kaleah was used to men giving her looks of lust, certainly . . . but most of these men seemed timid in their appraisals. Like she was something beautiful but unattainable; a radiant star to be admired but never touched. It was, she mused, very different to what she was accustomed.

Feeling her confidence grow as she realized the power she apparently had, Kaleah sat up straighter and slowly swept the room with her heavily accentuated eyes. A smile quirked her lips when everyone watching her looked away rather than meet her steady gaze. This was almost fun, she thought, before reminding herself what Jessica had said. It was important to watch everything that was going on around her.

Adjusting her mind, Kaleah noticed quickly how formally everyone talked. Just like Jessica had explained, the people seemed to be taking extra care about what they said and how they said it. She also noticed quickly that there was little verbal communication going on between Sir Richard’s side of the table and Sir William’s. But while nothing much was being said out loud, the former slave could sense the subtle exchanges that were happening behind what Jessica had referred to as the ‘veil of civility.’ Paying close attention, she watched every nuance of expression in the visiting lord’s face and body. What she saw made her instantly uneasy.

Jessica was currently engaged in conversation with Charles, and Kaleah noticed immediately that the two were very openly holding hands. A brief surge of jealousy hit her in the gut before she realized it was just a show for the benefit of Sir William. Still, the display of affection made her wish again that she could show the young woman how she felt . . . that they could share such intimate contact with such ease.

Kaleah nudged Jessica under the table to get her attention, and leaned closer when green eyes turned towards her. “I think you were right this morning when you said there was something not right about this whole treaty talk,” she whispered when Jessica turned to listen to her. She blinked her eyes in Sir William’s direction. “He doesn’t look like a man come to ask for an end to conflict.”

Jessica nodded. She too had been watching the lord knight closely while holding idle conversation with her betrothed. She was pleased Kaleah had been paying attention as well. “His body language is defiant . . . cocky, even,” she agreed. “It’s like this whole thing means nothing to him.”

“But like you said, if it means nothing then why the big show? Why come all the way out here if he doesn’t care about the treaty talks?”

Jessica chewed a mouthful of potato thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment. “But look at the way he’s looking around.”

“He looks . . . confidant.” Kaleah’s eyes darkened. “He looks the same way I must have looked that first time we met and fought in the woods,” she whispered. “Like he’s already won the fight before it’s even started.”

Jessica frowned. She had to admit, Sir William did indeed have the same expression on his face as Kaleah had when they’d first met. The thought was not a pleasant one. “But there is no fight,” she insisted. “He hasn’t the men to attack my father’s lands . . . and certainly not enough to lay siege to the castle.” She watched as Sir William glanced at her, a cold smile on his face. The look in his eyes sent shivers down her spine. “What could he be planning?”

Kaleah shrugged. “I don’t know, but watch his men, too.” She inclined her head towards the other guests. “Look at the way they’re smiling.”

The young blonde did so, and her concern deepened. “They’re treating this as a joke,” she observed. “If they were serious about this treaty, they’d all be stiff and at attention . . . but they look quite relaxed.”

“Mmmhmm. Just polite enough to keep the game alive,” Kaleah noted, touching her lips with her napkin and swallowing a sip of water. “If this were a game of chess . . . I’d be getting pretty damned worried right about now.” She raised a dark, highlighted eyebrow at her friend. “Should you say something to your father?”

Jessica considered, glancing at Sir Richard. “No,” she said, seeing the stern, disciplined expression on his face. “He already knows something’s wrong. And besides, Grace is watching everything, too.” She gestured subtly behind them to the advisor who stood in the shadows, easily overlooked. “He may be a bit of a ghoul, but he has a lot of experience at this sort of thing.”

“So we just sit back and do nothing?” Kaleah didn’t like the idea of just letting everything go when she knew there was something wrong. She caught the playful look in Jessica’s green eyes and the roguish smile that was quickly banished. She managed to muffle a slight chuckle behind her hand. “I guess not, huh?”

Jessica waggled her eyebrows. “You should know me better than that by now, my friend,” she said softly, her smile quickly returning to what one would expect of an innocent and well-bred young maiden.

Kaleah smirked. “So what do we do then?”

Jessica just gave her a mysterious, playful look and turned back to her meal. “First thing . . . we finish our dinner like the perfect young lady’s we are.” She gave her companion a crooked smile as she took a dainty bite of carrot and chewed happily. “Then . . . I think I’d like to hear exactly what our arrogant visitor has to say for himself.”

Kaleah’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I thought you said you weren’t allowed to be a part of the treaty discussion, Jess.”

The young blonde gave her a quick wink. “Like you said when you carted me off to the village, Kaleah . . . my father doesn’t need to know about everything we do. Does he?”

Kaleah could only shake her head and hope her young friend wasn’t going to get them into trouble.

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

“Now remember,” Jessica told her companion again in a low voice, “we have to be very quiet or they’ll hear us.”

Kaleah sighed and promised dutifully to remain silent . . . for the tenth time.

The dinner had ended an hour ago, quite pleasantly but with a tension coiling below the surface that spoke of something nasty brewing. Returning to their rooms, the two women had changed quickly out of their formal dresses into more comfortable clothes. Then, joining Jessica in her friend’s room, Kaleah had watched her open the hidden fireplace entrance and lead the way into the darkness beyond.

A long, very winding journey through the concealed passageways had brought them here . . . wherever here was. Kaleah had never really had too good a sense of direction, and without the presence of her young friend would have been completely lost. Jessica had doused the torch and left it behind a while ago, and they were going mostly by touch alone.

“How can you tell where we are?” she had asked at one point.

“I’ve explored every inch of these catacombs,” Jessica had replied softly. “Once you get used to them, they’re not that confusing really.”

“Have you ever gotten lost down here?”

She had heard the grin in her companion’s voice even though she couldn’t see it. “A few times, sure. I remember once it took me more than a day to find my way out. And it’s not really ‘down’ here, Kaleah. More than half the passages are above ground, just like the rest of the castle.”

Kaleah had scowled. These passageways were dark and confusing, they smelled of earth and dust and gave the impression of being deep underground. That’s all she needed to feel justified referring to them as being ‘down’ here.

A few moments latter, Kaleah — who had been walking with one hand on her companion’s back so she didn’t bump into anything — realized the tunnels were getting a little lighter. She found she could make out the details of her companions face and figure. Jessica moved forward more confidently, putting a finger to her lips to remind Kaleah that silence was called for. The former slave rolled her eyes and joined the younger woman at the source of the faint light.

It was a metal grill set into the side of the tunnel. Peering through, Kaleah saw what looked confusingly like a narrow, vertical tunnel leading straight up. It was only when her nostrils detected the strong scent of coal-dust and ashes that she realized she was looking at the inside of a chimney. To her surprise, she could also hear voices coming from below, the sound echoing strangely in the stony darkness.

Jessica leant very close and breathed in her ear, “The chimney leads to the fireplace in my father’s formal chambers. That’s where they’ll be having the discussions. We can hear what they say, but if we talk too loud, they’ll hear us, too. Just listen.”

Kaleah felt her knees go weak from Jessica’s nearness, and she filed away the sensation of warm breath trickling through her hair for later enjoyment. The two were sitting very close together in the cramped passage, and Kaleah had to take a moment to focus her attention away from the distracting smell of Jessica’s perfume in order to make sense of the dim words being filtered to them via the fireplace.

She could recognize the voices of Jessica’s father, Sir William, Charles and Eric Grace, but there were a few she couldn’t place. She decided they must belong to Sir William’s advisors. Breathing quietly, the two young women crouched together with ears pricked as they listened to the conversation taking place.

Kaleah frowned as she took everything in. From what she heard, it seemed the roving bands of raiders and bandits that Jessica said had been preying off the peasants and merchants in Sir Richard’s lands had been causing even more trouble to Sir William. The neighboring lord claimed his men were hard pressed to deal with the situation, and thus he was asking for aid from his old rival. In exchange for Sir Richard’s assistance, Sir William was offering to sign a formal treaty that would prevent him from launching any kind of hostile attacks against his neighbor for an undecided length of time. Kaleah knew from Jessica that if the treaty were broken, the King himself would ensure that justice was carried out. Therefore, the former slave understood that such an agreement could be of great benefit to her friend’s father.

On the surface, the proposal seemed simple enough; rational, reasonable and not too hard to swallow. But there was something about the way Lancaster and his men were talking that made Kaleah choke on what was being offered. And by the look on Jessica’s face, she could tell her young companion felt the same way.

They listened for a few more minutes as the men continued to discuss the matter, learning that Sir William intended to leave early in the morning. He claimed he could not be gone long from his lands, but promised he would send a messenger to finalize the arrangements if everything was alright by Sir Richard. When they had heard as much as they needed to hear, Jessica signaled to Kaleah and led them away from the grill.

They walked for a few minutes in silence, Kaleah taking Jessica’s hand as the light faded and they were plunged back into the inky darkness. Before long, the young blonde found the torch she had left behind and lit it again, filling the passageway with flickering, dancing light.

“What did you think?” she asked her tall, rapidly blinking companion.

Kaleah shook her head as she adjusted from the darkness. “It sounded good,” she admitted, “but like everything else, something about the whole thing doesn’t sit right.”

Jessica nodded in agreement. “The bandits would have to be hitting pretty hard for Sir William to make such an offer.” They started walking back towards the more familiar passages they had explored last time they’d been down here. “But if it’s all a big ruse . . . what’s he really after?”

“An attack?” Kaleah guessed.

“It’d be suicide, like I said,” Jessica disagreed. “He hasn’t the men for a frontal assault.” Her sharp, military mind worked quickly through the possibilities, but there wasn’t anything she could think of that fit the scenario.

“Perhaps he’s trying for something more subtle,” Kaleah suggested. “Maybe he came here to see if he could find any weaknesses.”

“An attack from within?” Jessica started to run her fingers through her hair absently, only to realize it was still braided into the intricate coif. She cursed mildly, hearing her companion chuckle at her strong words. She growled playfully, then considered the suggestion. “It’s possible,” she admitted, “but what weakness is there to take advantage of? Da’Gran is strong . . . the men are loyal . . .” She remembered her conversation with her father from a few days ago and frowned. “If Lancaster wants to take the castle, he’ll find it difficult to say the least.”

“Still,” Kaleah mused, “this could all be simply a scouting mission.”

“Reconnaissance?” Jessica shrugged and sighed. “It’s the best idea we’ve got so far.”

“What’s rec . . . recon . . .”

“Reconnaissance?” Kaleah mustn’t have heard the word before. “It means to go ahead to look around in new territory . . . like what you said. Scout the place for weaknesses and strengths. Stuff like that.”

“Oh.” Kaleah filed the word away in her mind, repeating it to memorize it thoroughly so she wouldn’t forget. “Will your father agree with his proposal?”

“I don’t know,” Jessica said. They finally reached the hidden door that led to her bedroom, and she opened it and slipped through into the light beyond. Kaleah followed before she carefully sealed it behind them. “He’ll probably stall until he knows for sure that Sir William is sincere . . . but after that, I can’t be sure. Such an agreement would be of too great a benefit to ignore, no matter how suspicious my father may be.”

“I guess this is one of those things where we just have to wait and see, huh?”

“Yeah.” Jessica watched with a smile as Kaleah flopped happily onto her bed. “Comfortable?”

Kaleah flashed her one of her playful grins that took in her whole face and nodded. The dark coal-dust around her eyes made them appear luminescent. “Very.”

“Humph. You know you have your own bed, right?”

“I know. But yours is right here . . . and it’s sooo soft.” She wriggled back onto the bed more fully. She nodded towards the fireplace and the catacombs beyond. “Are there many places like that one in the passages?”

“Like what?”

“You know? Places where you can spy on what everyone’s doing?” Kaleah waggled her eyebrows. “Anyone ever tell you it’s not nice to eavesdrop?”

Jessica couldn’t help but blush, thinking of her more recent secret activities at the peep-hole. “Um . . . I know that. But no-one gets hurt. There are lots of places like that in the castle. I only use them to watch the servants and soldiers.”

“I see.” Kaleah flashed her a wicked grin, her eyes sparkling. “I guess that explains how you know what everyone in the castle’s doing all the time, huh?”

Jess nodded, quickly trying to settle her blood. “I used to have a lot of time on my hands,” she explained. “Since my mother wouldn’t let me be friends with any of the servants, watching the people in secret was the best way I had to keep myself busy.” She shrugged. “Even if they didn’t know I was there . . . it still made me feel less lonely.”

Kaleah’s smile faltered as she heard the sadness in her friend’s voice. It was so easy to forget that Jessica had been so alone before she had come along. “Well,” she said after a moment, “I’m here now. You’re not lonely anymore, are you?”

Jess shook her head. “That’s why I haven’t been spying on anyone lately. There’s been no need.”

Kaleah’s smile returned. “Maybe we can go people-watching some time together, huh?”

“Sure, if you like.” Best to stay faaar away from the bathing chamber, though, her mind put in. She doesn’t need to know about that. The young blonde tried to run her fingers through her hair again, but scowled when she remembered she couldn’t. “Could I get you to take my hair out for me?” Jessica indicated her braids.

“Only if you’ll do mine.”

“Sure.” The young blonde sat on the bed while her companion got behind her and, with slow, gentle fingers, began to undo the tight braids. Closing her eyes, Jessica let herself concentrate wholly on the magical hands that worked with infinite tenderness on her hair. Even though they weren’t physically touching, she could feel the heat radiating from the former slave’s body . . . could sense every motion behind her.

“You did really well at the dinner tonight,” she said, thinking if she didn’t occupy her mouth with talking she’d start whimpering in pleasure at the simple contact.

“Thanks.” She could hear the smile on Kaleah’s face. “I think you might be right about what you said. You know . . . about me having that inner power? The people seemed pretty impressed by us.”

“Mmmm. Well, I’m sure the clothes helped.”

“Yeah . . .” There was something like surprise in Kaleah’s voice. “I felt . . . kinda good tonight.”

“You looked kinda good tonight.” Jess grinned, knowing she’d be replaying the image of her friend in the form-fitting blue dress and exotic make-up later that night.

“I guess I did.” Kaleah’s deft fingers worked for many moments in silence. “I, uh . . . I noticed some of the men watching me,” she said softly, running her fingers through her friend’s thick hair that was almost all loose.

Jessica turned and waggled her eyebrows. “I’m not surprised.” She was pleased with the flush that rose in Kaleah’s bronzed skin.

The dark woman giggled shyly and turned to let Jessica start on her hair. “I was.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have thought it’d be something new for you.” The young woman eagerly started to sort through the midnight braids, carefully working to remove the colored string from the silken hair.

“It’s not. I mean . . . I’m used to men looking at me, just . . . not like that.”

“Like what?”

Kaleah was quiet for a moment thinking. “Like . . . I was beautiful, not just desirable,” she said softly. “The people at the dinner looked at me like I was . . . something they could admire, but never touch. Something with a beauty that wasn’t necessarily sexual.” She fiddled with a lock of hair that Jessica had unraveled, feeling her friend pause in her efforts. “I’m . . . not really used to that.”

“Oh.” Jessica was still another moment, then let her hands continue their enjoyable task. “Does it bother you when people think of you sexually? I mean, you didn’t seem too upset when it was the barmaid in the village.” She couldn’t help but grin. “I’m pretty sure she thought you looked fully touchable.”

Kaleah grinned as well, wondering what prompted the question. She thought she had a fair idea, but was still fearful of what might happen if she was reading the signals all wrong. “I don’t care usually,” she said, not wanting to discourage her friend if she wanted to have such thoughts. “It was just . . . different for me.”

“Well, I for one thought you looked magnificent tonight,” Jess said. She ran her fingers through the last tangles and giggled at the effect the braids had had on Kaleah’s hair.

Curious blue eyes turned to look at her and she laughed harder. A slight smile touched Kaleah’s lips. “What’s so funny?”

Jessica struggled and managed to get her mirth under control. “I-It’s just your hair,” she chuckled. “It’s all frizzy.” She covered her mouth as Kaleah went to look in the mirror, laughing herself when she saw her reflection.

“I look like I haven’t brushed it in weeks.”

“Well . . .” Jessica took a lock of her own hair and studied it. “Mine’s not much better.”

“Yeah, but your hair looks messy all the time,” Kaleah teased. “I can hardly tell the difference.”

“Hey!” Jessica grabbed a pillow and threw it at her friend hard. “Be nice.”

Kaleah threw the pillow back and returned to the bed. She was amazed at how comfortable she felt in her friend’s bedroom now. The place was cozy and relaxed, and she probably spent more time in here than she did in her own room. Sighing, Kaleah glanced outside at the darkness that had spread across the land.

“I should probably get some rest,” she observed regretfully. It was getting harder every day to leave Jessica’s company.

“I guess so.” Jessica looked almost as disappointed as she did. “It’s been a busy day.”

“Yeah.” Kaleah lay for a minute in silence, delaying her departure. “Sir William said he’d be leaving in the morning, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“You feel up to a little training once he’s gone? We haven’t done a lot the last few days.”

“I don’t know . . .” Jessica regarded the bruises that were now showing through the fading make-up on Kaleah’s face. “Are you sure you’re alright for that.”

Kaleah waved her away. “I’m fine,” she said somewhat testily. She liked it that Jessica cared, but was quickly learning she could only enjoy being fussed over for short periods at a time. “My arm still aches a bit, but everything else is okay. I could really use a little exercise . . . help my muscles to stretch out a bit.”

Jessica held the dark woman’s gaze for a long moment, then nodded. “Okay then, I guess we can do some sparring tomorrow.” Kaleah did seem to have recovered from the beating very well, and it had been a while since they’d practiced. She really enjoyed their sessions together . . . it would be nice to get back into that.

Kaleah got up, stretching to relieve a kink in her neck. “Great.” She groaned as an audible crick sounded. “I’ll, uh, see you tomorrow then.”

“Fine.”

Once the dark woman was gone, Jessica fell back on the bed and gave a sound that was half-groan, half-sigh, and wholly frustrated. Every minute spent in Kaleah’s presence made the ache in her body grow stronger. And every minute spent alone made her heart yearn to share this secret attraction and satisfy these rampant desires.

“I don’t know if I can survive much more of this,” she muttered to herself as her memory started sifting through captured images of the stunning woman.

I wouldn’t worry too much, her mind chimed in. Something’s bound to snap sooner or later. Either this ‘Right Moment’ thingy you’re still pining for will come along . . . or else your desire will just drive you crazy.

“That’s not very reassuring,” the young blonde muttered, rolling over onto her stomach and feeling the tension build between her legs. She frowned and shifted position again, trying to find one that didn’t remind her how sensitive everything was right now. “Of course I am sitting here in an empty room talking to myself,” she mused. A blonde brow raised in self-question. “Do you think Kaleah would find insanity attractive?”

Bah! her mind scoffed at her. Right now, I’m the only person around giving you any decent advice at all.

“And what, pray tell, is your advice?”

Her mind was silent.

Okaay, it admitted after a long moment. So I don’t have a whole lot to offer right now. Ask me again tomorrow and maybe I’ll have something.

Jessica grinned. “You’re not so damn smart afterall, huh?”

No, you’re not, her mind agreed with a smug grin.

She frowned. “Humph.”

Hey . . . give yourself a chance. Her mind apparently decided a little pep talk was in order. This isn’t easy like planning a war or commanding an army. This is love. You really don’t want to screw up this chance. Kaleah and you are meant to be together, remember?

She nodded.

She’s giving you some signals that could very well be signals of interest, right?

She nodded again.

Well then . . . just take everything a day at a time.

Jessica considered this and smiled. “Not too bad. If your advice could get rid of this damn throbbing down below, it’d actually make this whole situation interesting, not just frustrating.”

Patience, her mind admonished. I’ve got a good feeling about tomorrow . . . trust me.

Deciding to do just that, Jessica quickly threw her clothes off and scrambled under the covers, letting the initial chill of the mattress bring her temperature down a few notches. Still, with her imagination painting vivid pictures of erotic scenarios and fantasies, fueled further by the recent memories of Kaleah as she bathed and stretched, it was several hours before exhaustion finally carried her into a world of soft, wonderful dreams. And even then, she moaned in her sleep as the dark woman followed her, and promptly proceeded to fulfill her every desire.

The night was tauntingly enjoyable . . . even if it wasn’t particularly restful.

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

While the rest of the castle slept, a heavily cloaked figure crept silently through the darkened hallways, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the guards who were especially vigilant tonight due to Sir William’s presence. The figure made it’s way patiently through the castle, eventually reaching the rooms used by visiting dignitaries. Glancing about a final time, the figure knocked softly on the heavy oak in a rapid, complex pattern. A moment later, the door opened a crack and a suspicious eye glared out.

“Yes?”

The cloaked figure bowed respectfully. “I believe Sir William is expecting me.”

The eye looked the figure up and down, then, reluctantly, the door opened wider and allowed entry.

Stepping past the guard into the chamber, the figure looked around and found Sir William sitting at a beautifully carved cedar table, apparently waiting. The burly lord knight glowered at the newcomer angrily.

“You’re late.”

“Forgive me, my lord, but I had to take extra precautions. Sir Richard has doubled the watch and the guards are nervous. I came as fast as I could.”

Sir William just scowled darkly and gestured impatiently for the figure to be seated. “I trust all is in readiness for the attack?”

“Of course, my lord.” A slender hand reached into a hidden pocket and drew forth a slender vial filled with clear liquid. Holding it up to the light, hidden eyes flashed proudly. “When the time is right, Da’Gran will be struck down and the castle will be yours.” A pause. “I risk much with my treachery.”

Lancaster’s eyes gleamed. “You will gain much when victory is achieved.” He folded his arms across his stout chest and glared at his guest. “What of the barbarian woman sitting with Jessica tonight? The one named Kaleah?”

The figure secreted the vial away again and shrugged. “She’s just some bandit the girl captured a month or so ago; a talented fighter from what I’ve seen, but hardly a threat to your plans. She and Jessica have been thick as thieves lately.”

Lancaster’s lip curled into a snarl. “That girl could be a problem,” he said angrily. “She should be dealt with before she can make trouble.”

“That could be difficult,” the figure argued hesitantly. “Jessica’s a very private person, my lord, and she’s rarely alone since the foreigner moved in. It wouldn’t be easy to take her out of the picture.”

“No, perhaps not,” Lancaster admitted. “But if an opportunity should arise-”

“It shall be taken advantage of, my lord,” the figure assured.

“Good.” Lancaster smiled contentedly, seeing everything falling perfectly into place. “The advance troops are already in place. Another week and they’ll be ready to strike.”

“Da’Gran’s men are skilled,” the figure pointed out. “If something goes wrong, they could cause much damage-”

“Nothing will go wrong,” Lancaster snapped. “My commander is more than capable of keeping an army of raiders in line. And by the time any of these fools realise what’s going on, it’ll be too late for them to rally a defense.” He grinned, narrow eyes exultant. “The army will attack from without, while you take away their hope and strength from within. In another month, I shall be lord of this castle, and Sir Richard and his bitch daughter will be rotting in their own dungeons.”

The cloaked figure smiled, confidant his services would be well rewarded so long as he pleased his new lord. The balance of power was about to shift.
Chapter 16.
Sweating profusely, Kaleah watched the trajectory of her friend’s slender rapier as it swept diagonally towards her throat. When she was sure the bold move wasn’t just a feint to hide something more subtle, the former slave performed a lightening fast spin which brought her own blade up to block the descending steel an inch from her skin. With a competitive grin, she braced herself and reversed her body’s direction, launching a measured series of sweeping cuts so suddenly that Jessica was forced to hop back desperately to avoid the attack.

Breathing hard but smiling, Jessica held up her hand before Kaleah could advance.

“Enough,” she gasped, holding a slight stitch that was tightening her stomach. “I need a break.”

Kaleah grinned and threw herself into a dazzlingly fast sequence of twists and turns, her slender Spanish blade cutting about her body like a cage of steel before she ended the flashy maneuver and sheathed her weapon. Sapphire eyes glinted in the late afternoon sun, sparkling with vigorous joy. “Wore ya out, huh?”

Jess laughed, seeing Charles and Damon standing nearby watching their sword-play with much appreciation. “I think you’re just showing off.”

Kaleah gave a devastatingly innocent look and pointed to her chest. “Me? Never.”

Sheathing her own sword, Jessica laughed again and, taking a deep breath to steady her racing heart, she joined the dark woman as she headed over to their audience.

Charles beamed at the tall, dark haired woman as she approached, clapping his hands. “You’re amazing,” he applauded. “I’ve seen few warriors move so fast.”

“Thanks.” Kaleah ran fingers through her damp hair, patting down a few errant strands. Her face was a little flushed from their energetic sparring, but the warm ache that spread through her muscles was very welcome. “Jessica makes a great teacher.”

The young blonde slapped her on the back and grinned. “I didn’t teach you that last move,” she said.

Kaleah shrugged. “It was pretty good, huh?”

Jessica nodded. The former slave’s skill with a blade was growing at a phenomenal rate. Their sparring was still playful and fun, but with so much freedom to explore new ideas, Kaleah was developing an incredibly fluid, sweeping style that made Jessica dizzy to watch. These new moves and attack patterns were devastatingly effective in battle. If the unpredictable woman could manage to control her temper, Jessica knew she would quickly become an even more spectacular warrior than she already was.

Charles sat down on a bench and the two women joined him. Damon remained standing to the side, but he smiled warmly at Kaleah. “You fight well,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft and gentle for such a gigantic man. “I’m most impressed.”

Kaleah thanked him and returned the smile. She’d been a little suspicious of Damon since the first time she’d seen him, but now realized her reaction was unfounded. Even without his plate armor and helm, the body-guard was massive. Kaleah was easily six feet tall, but he topped her by head and shoulders. His shoulders were broad and his chest bulged with muscles. But despite his imposing stature, Damon was actually very kind and rather shy. After she’d gotten over her initial apprehensiveness, Kaleah found the contrast rather charming.

Kaleah and Jessica had spent the early morning in the lookout parapet, watching as Sir William and his entourage packed up and left. Neither were sorry to see the lord knight and his men disappear down the road. The day was cloudy early on, but they had warmed up with a few hours of light practice in the courtyard, before Charles wandered over and asked if they’d like to join him and Damon for a ride out into the woods. They both happily agreed, and the four companions enjoyed a picnic lunch out by a nearby river watching the last of Winter’s ice succumb to Spring thaw.

Returning to the castle, Kaleah found her energy still burning high and challenged Jessica to another session of sparring. The young blonde agreed, although her muscles were still sore from their earlier play. She figured privately that if she moaned about it enough, Kaleah might feel guilty and give her another back-rub.

The fighting had been vigorous and fast-paced, though still playful and inventive. Jessica found herself hard-pressed to match the sudden energy of her friend. Still, she couldn’t deny Kaleah’s insistence that she had recovered from the beating . . . if she recovered any more, Jess thought, it might be dangerous.

Laughing with her friends now, stealing glances at Kaleah every now and then, Jessica thought she had never been so happy in all her life. Certainly, she’d never had this many people around to talk too. Before Kaleah had arrived, she had been isolated and lonely most of the time, with only the soldiers and Sir Miles to keep her company. Watching the beautiful woman who had made her life so much more interesting, Jessica felt almost giddy with joy.

Pleasantly relaxed after the energetic day, her usual edgy temper mellowed by so much exercise, Kaleah breathed deeply and closed her eyes. She could smell the changes in the weather coming. Spring had wrested control of the land from winter’s icy grasp, and the renewed sense of life and energy was infectious. Breathing again, she detected something not quite so pleasant in the air, and took a sniff of her armor. Her companions laughed at her expression of distaste.

“I think I need to wash up,” she admitted with a grin.

“You and me both,” Jess agreed, scraping a crust of mud off her leather trousers with a finger.

“You wanna use the bathing room first, or should I?”

“You can,” the young woman hastily allowed. “I, uh . . . I don’t mind waiting.”

“You sure?”

She nodded vigorously. “Absolutely sure. You go ahead. I’ll be, uh, in my room when you’re done.”

Kaleah shrugged her shoulders. “I won’t argue with that.” Standing up, she bowed to Charles and Damon. “Gentlemen,” she said, trying to imitate Jessica’s cultured tones, “I have enjoyed your company very much. Thank you for a wonderful day.” They all chuckled at the strange effect her accent had on the imitation, but bid farewell before she winked at Jessica and departed for the main keep.

Charles didn’t miss the flush that darkened Jessica’s face at the saucy glint in Kaleah’s eye, nor the way her eyes fixed on the dark woman’s swaggering hips as she left. He gently cuffed her on the arm.

“Hey!?” She glared at him.

He just grinned. “You’ve got quite the wandering eye on you, Jess,” he chuckled. “If you’re not careful, she’s gonna catch you staring one day.”

Jessica’s flush deepened, and she cast Damon and nervous look. “Shutup,” she hissed.

Charles glanced at his enormous body-guard and laughed. “Don’t worry about Damon. He’s not blind . . . he can see how much you care for Kaleah.”

Damon grinned and shrugged when her eyes widened and pinned him anxiously. “Sorry, Jess,” he apologized bashfully. “It’s pretty obvious. But don’t worry, I’d never tell anyone.”

Jessica calmed herself and growled, “You better not,” before she suddenly realized she had somewhere to be. “Oh, damn!” She slapped her forehead. “I just remembered something I, um. I have to do,” she said, standing up.

“Oh? What?”

Spy on my friend while she bathes.

Jessica ignored her mind, and stammered, “I-I was, um, planning to clean up in my room . . . and I have to uh, get a few things Kaleah wanted from . . . somewhere.” She waved her hand in a vague direction, seeing raised eyebrows and confused smiles on her friend’s faces.

Oh, that’s reeeaal casual, her mind ridiculed.

“I’ll, uh . . . see you tomorrow, okay?”

Charles nodded. “Sure. Good luck with your room.”

“Yeah. Th-thanks.” She turned and quickly followed Kaleah back into the castle proper.

Charles and Damon exchanged amused looks. The young nobleman shrugged and stroked his goatee. “Wonder what that’s about.”

Neither noticed the other eyes that watched the departure of both women with interest from the castle wall. The watcher smiled cruelly and nodded to himself. This was an opportunity too good to miss out on . . . and he hurried away to find his companions.

The barbarian bitch had had her chance. It was time to increase the pressure.

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

Taking a short cut via the passages, Jessica managed to arrive at her destination a few moments before Kaleah reached hers. Settling down in front of the peep-hole, she watched eagerly as the dark woman slipped into the warm, sultry mist of the bathing chamber. The spying had become a ritual over the last few weeks, but Jessica knew no matter how many times she watched her friend as she bathed, she would never tire of the sight.

Licking dry lips in anticipation, Jessica smiled wickedly as Kaleah unbuckled her armor and carefully laid it out on a rock along with her beautiful sword. Hungry eyes skipped up and down the lithe, toned body of her friend as it was revealed. She delighted in the way the light refracted through the stained-glass ceiling to play across the bronzed, smooth skin, throwing shadows across the hollows of her ribs and the dip of her hips. The few bruises that still marred Kaleah’s body were barely noticeable anymore. The tall woman had healed amazingly fast.

After retrieving a wash-cloth from the adjoining room, Kaleah entered the water slowly. Jessica watched as her eyes closed and her mouth opened, and not for the first time she wished the walls didn’t prevent her from listening to her friend. She wanted to hear the obviously contented moan Kaleah released as she strode deeper into the pool.

The young blonde stared as she watched Kaleah begin to scrub herself clean. Her green eyes fought not to blink as she tried desperately to commit every inch of perfect flesh to memory, just as she always did. Her hands clenched into fists, itching to touch the object of her desire and affection. Her body, innocent to the ways of true passion, thrummed with the strength of fully awakened desire. Wetness bloomed between her legs and she blushed unconsciously, her nose detecting the scent of her arousal even over the smell of sweat and mud. She knew from experience it was best to let Kaleah use the bath chamber first; it gave her a chance to wash away the musky scent afterwards.

Much to Jessica’s delight, Kaleah took her time bathing. As she usually did, the dark woman lay for a period on the central island, her wet hair clinging to her body like ink, flowing over her shoulders and across her breasts in liquid waves. The rippling muscles of Kaleah’s body had the most amazing way of remaining tense even when she was relaxing, and Jessica wished so very much she could trace their delicious curves with her hands and fingers. The young blonde’s breath became shallow as her imagination replayed one of her current favorite fantasies, aided by the vision of her friend’s naked, wet body lying so close before her . . . yet so far away.

After another quick dip in the pool and a final scrub, Kaleah apparently decided she was clean and left the water. This was one of Jessica’s favorite parts; she loved the way the steam rose from the dark woman’s body . . . the way the water dripped from her soaking hair down over the ridges and valley’s of her hard muscles, finally descending past her hips and her oh-so-long legs to the stone floor. With her shimmering bronze skin and firm body, Kaleah looked to her admirer like some dark Goddess risen from the water . . . ready to ignite the world with passion’s flame.

The young woman was so engrossed in her voyeurism that she didn’t notice the three men as they slipped into the chamber just as Kaleah began toweling herself dry. It took several moments for Jessica to acknowledge their intrusion, and a few more before she realized what their grim presence portended.

The three men were all clothed alike in concealing black cloaks, their features hidden by cloth strips wrapped around their heads. Each had a sword carried in a scabbard at his side, but they carried stout wooden clubs in preference to the deadlier weapons. It took Jessica’s lust-fogged mind a second to realize these must be the three who had beaten her friend the night Charles arrived. As this thought struck, her green eyes flared with terrible fires and her mind clouded with rage.

Kaleah hadn’t noticed the men yet as they spread out to flank her and prevent escape. One man — the leader, probably — moved stealthily forward and retrieved the unsuspecting woman’s sword from where it rested. Kaleah was defenseless.

Jessica’s mind quickly processed the situation. Tearing herself away from the spy-hole, she ran as fast as was safe through the narrow corridor, thinking quickly to figure out the swiftest route to the bathing chamber. All she could think of was that Kaleah was in danger . . . and she had to protect her. Stalking through the secret passages, Jessica let the fire grow inside her, all lustful thoughts overridden by the need to save her friend.

Kaleah’s attackers had made a mistake by targeting her friend — she intended to make certain they paid dearly for it.

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

Kaleah didn’t realize she had company until she heard someone clearing their throat right behind her.

Whirling about, her hand dropping the towel and reaching for her sword in reflex, Kaleah found herself confronted by three cloaked and masked men. At the same instant she realized she didn’t have her sword, she noticed one of the men holding the precious weapon, inspecting it casually. That thought was quickly followed by the knowledge that she was in trouble. Naked, defenseless and facing three men who had threatened to do worse than beat her.

Yeah, she thought, swallowing hard and trying not to give in to a rising fear. Big trouble.

The man holding her sword looked up at her, his head tilted in contemplation. “We told you ta leave Da’Gran,” he said calmly. Shaking his head, he tossed the weapon carelessly behind him. “Ye should’ve taken our advice.”

Kaleah backed away, her eyes darting frantically between the three slowly approaching men, searching for the weakest link and not finding much. “I have every right to be here,” she said harshly. Her muscles coiled when she noticed the clubs they carried. It crossed her mind to yell for help, but she knew the castle walls were too thick for sound to penetrate far. Besides, she cursed, few people ever ventured into Jessica’s part of the castle.

The largest man shook his head. “Not everyone wants you here, bitch. In fact, some are quite insistent that ye go back where ye came from.”

Kaleah decided it was time to stand her ground. Assuming a fighting stance, she raised her hands and glared at the intruders, unashamed of her nakedness. The men looked at her for a moment, then laughed.

“Even without a sword, I can still do damage,” she scowled. She’d been training all day, however, and the energy that had sparked during her sparring with Jessica was mostly gone. Her body was tired . . . and from the amused look in the men’s eyes, they knew it.

“Make it easy on yerself, girl,” one of the men advised. “Ye shoulda left after last time, but nooo . . . ye had to stay.”

“This is my home now,” she argued. “I’m not leaving it and I’m not leaving Jessica.”

“Oh, you’ll leave, alright,” the third man said. “Jessica don’t be needin’ the likes a you around ‘er. But since ye wouldn’t listen to a beatin’ . . .”

“. . . Maybe ye’ll listen to something a little more . . . personal,” the apparent leader finished, his cruel eyes raking her body lecherously.

Rape.

The word flashed through Kaleah’s mind, and her knees went weak. They’re going to rape you, her brain informed her. She suddenly felt her body begin to shut itself down on instinct, preparing itself to deal with what was certain to follow. She fought against the numbness that swept through her limbs, willing herself to fight. It was hard, though. For so many years, she had trained herself to close everything down in order to cope with repeated abuse. It was almost second nature to her.

No! she screamed at herself, shaking her head to clear the fog. You’ll fight, damn it! You’re not a slave anymore, you’re a human being! If they want to do this, they’ll have to fight you for it! You’re not just going to lie there and take it! Fight them!

The men started forward, closing the circle on her. Muscles still aching from overuse tensed, ready to strike, when suddenly a calm, low voice cut through the mist like an arrow.

“I’d think twice before taking another step, boys.”

The three surprised men turned to face the speaker, clubs raised . . . and were confronted by a small blonde-haired girl with flashing green eyes holding Kaleah’s very sharp sword.

“Jessica?!” the leader of the men gasped, his voice strangled.

Kaleah’s brain struggled to acknowledge the sudden appearance of her friend, but her body was still functioning enough to catch the sword that Jessica tossed to her. Instantly, the former slave moved with smooth skill into a defensive stance, the blade in her hand restoring a sense of security. Kaleah watched as Jessica drew her own weapon and smiled very coldly at the three stunned men who were now backing away from the new threat.

They may not have taken Kaleah seriously . . . but it was clear they understood the danger of Jessica’s presence all too well.

Jessica regarded the three men with eyes of emerald fire. Rage poured through her body, but unlike Kaleah — who tended to fall into quick violence when enraged – the anger only served to center Jessica’s mind and hone her reflexes to a finer point. She had arrived just in time to hear the last part of conversation. These men had been about to rape her friend. That knowledge made her knees weak with blinding fury.

Taking a deep breath through her nose, the young woman tried to calm the unbelievable tempest of emotions that swept through her blood. She wanted to unleash her wrath upon these men; she wanted to kill. But the stronger, more rational part her mind knew this was not the time to loose control. She needed to deal with this sensibly, and remember she had a responsibility to her father and his title, not just to her friend.

She suddenly noticed Kaleah shift, and saw the dark, animal passion take charge of the former slave. Sudden ugliness twisted the woman’s features in a terrifying, primal way; the look in her steel-blue eyes spelled death to the men whose focus was split between the two women. Kaleah was about to attack.

Just as the dark woman slipped forward, Jessica managed to catch her eye. A dark brow lifted, and Jessica shook her head subtly. Blue eyes still raw with anger glared at her, and for a moment the young blonde thought her friend would strike anyway. But with a visible effort, Kaleah relaxed and stepped back, her eyes still turgid but trusting her friend to handle the situation.

The man in the middle looked from Jessica to the door behind her, judging his chances. Jessica smiled coldly. “You’re not going anywhere,” she said, her voice calm and low.

The man raised his club. “I don’t wanna hurt you, Lady Jessica,” he hissed, fear evident in his tone.

Her smile widened, showing teeth. “That’s right. You don’t.” She took a step forward, pleased when the three men drew away.

“I will if I have too.”

She shook her head. “I doubt you’d be that stupid.” The slender blade of her rapier traced lazy figure eight’s in the air. “My father would do worse than kill you if you laid so much as a hand on me.”

Even though the man was masked, Jessica could see him swallow. The two other men were obviously waiting for some kind of order, but their panic was rising. It was obvious they knew what fate awaited them if Sir Richard ever learned they had threatened his beloved daughter.

“If you surrender now,” Jessica said quietly, “I might let you walk away from this with most of your body parts intact.”

“Surrender?” The leader scoffed. “So you can turn us in to your daddy?”

Jess shook her head, glancing at Kaleah who was still trembling with suppressed fury, her nakedness forgotten in her anger. “I think we’d all prefer to keep this little incident from my father,” she said. “His involvement would raise many nasty questions . . . like who it was that ordered you to attack my friend, for instance.”

It took a moment, but a look of understanding suddenly appeared in the man’s eyes. His stance shifted, and he cocked his head thoughtfully.

Jessica knew exactly what he was thinking. This attack had obviously been instigated by Jessica’s mother, the Lady Rose. She was the only one with the power to order Da’Gran soldiers on such a cruel assignment, and she was the only one with sufficient motivation to do so. If Sir Richard discovered what his wife had done, it would mean a lot of trouble for everyone. Jessica, whose independent spirit was well known in the castle, would obviously want to deal with the situation by herself. That being the case . . . The man eyed her shrewdly.

That being the case, maybe there was a chance to escape this mess alive.

“W-we can walk away from this, Jess,” he offered hopefully. “Just forget the whole thing.”

She shook her head, the smile vanishing. “You beat my friend . . . and now you tried to rape her.” Her tone was chilling in it’s intensity. “Be thankful I’m even offering you your stinkin’ lives.”

The man glanced at her, his guard high. “What’re yer terms?”

She indicated the club the man still carried. “Drop your weapons,” she ordered, “and remove the masks. I want to see who was stupid enough to dare attack Kaleah.”

The man considered this, and shook his head. “Can’t do that, Lady Jessica.” He eyed his companions. “I don’t fancy bein’ thrown from Da’Gran into the cruel world.”

“You’ll be lucky if you can crawl your way from the castle,” Jessica snarled, her eyes narrowing. “It’s not like you have much choice in this matter.”

The man considered this, and shook his head again. He dropped the club, but reached instantly for his sword. Drawing the weapon, he motioned for his men to stay back, then faced off against Jessica. “Think I’ll take me chances with Sir Richard,” he growled. “As long as he don’t know who hurt you . . . I figure he can’t exact much vengeance.”

Jessica stepped back, giving herself plenty of room. The smile on her face was cold, and her green eyes stormy. “I think you might be surprised,” she said quietly. “No hole you could find would be deep enough to hide you from my father. Beat me, and he’d hunt you down and kill you if it takes him a hundred years.” She assumed an en guard stance, her blade flashing in the now-fading light. “And that’s assuming you can beat me.”

The masked man shrugged, stepping closer. “I know yer reputation, Jess. ‘N I’ve seen ye fight.” His simple longsword waved back and forth slightly. “Maybe it’s time we find out just how good you really are.”

She grinned wickedly, relishing the opportunity to vent her anger. When the man attacked, it was with the professionalism she would expect from a true soldier of Da’Gran. Her defense was swifter than thought, however, and the counter that followed forced the man back several feet as he fought to keep the sharp tip of the rapier from tearing out his throat.

The man was desperate, and his fear leant him strength and speed; but not nearly as much as Jessica’s rage leant her. After a few second’s dizzying sword-play, Jessica saw an opening and exploited it fully. Her sword curved with graceful skill upwards and under her opponents blade, slashing across his face, the tip cutting deep into his left eye and ripping half the mask away.

A cry of furious pain escaped the man’s throat. He dropped his sword and turned away, a hand coming up to cover his face. Jess let him step back, her stance calm and waiting. She saw a few drops of blood splash onto the stone floor through the man’s fingers, and couldn’t help but feel a warm satisfaction. The young blonde didn’t like to hurt others, but her attack had been vicious, intended to maim.

“Your stupidity just cost you an eye,” she observed simply. A blond eyebrow rose curiously as she studied him over her sword. “Care to try again?”

“You bitch!” The man’s ferocious snarl was almost incoherent.

She smiled coldly and eyed the two men who were watching her with awed terror. “How about you? You know there’s nothing I’d enjoy more right now than to take you guys apart piece by piece. Would you like to give me the excuse?”

The two men shook their heads desperately.

“Then drop the clubs and remove your swords.”

The men did so quickly.

“Now,” Jessica studied the three men, only looking away when Kaleah, standing to the side, knelt to retrieve her towel and wrap it about her lithe figure. “How about we remove the masks, hmmm?”

Darting glances at their still cursing leader, the two men reluctantly did as ordered. Jessica frowned, recognizing both as men she had lived with and fought beside for many years. When the injured man finally straightened and tore his mask away angrily, her eyes grew even more sharp.

“Captain Brian,” she snarled. The man had been her father’s captain of the guard since she had been a child. “I would have expected better from a man in your trusted position.” Then again, she thought, Captain Brian had been cozying up to the Lady Rose in more recent years. This certainly explained how the noble lady had been able to keep her husband in the dark.

Captain Brian glared at her with his remaining eye. Blood ran freely from the savage cut that Jessica had inflicted down the left side of his face, and his left eye was closed tightly, dripping clear fluid. Jessica knew he would never recover his sight in that eye again, but felt nothing but satisfaction at having been responsible. Afterall, this man would have raped the woman she loved.

The captain’s sword lay at his feet where he’d dropped it, but he made no move to retrieve the weapon. He studied Jessica’s quiet, calm face and his lip curled into a snarl. “I was only followin’ orders, Lady Jessica.”

“Well you followed the wrong ones, didn’t you?”

He frowned. “I’ll leave the castle then.”

She nodded. “Within the hour.” Her voice was cool and dispassionate. “Take no weapons, and you leave on foot. And if you are still within sight of Da’Gran’s walls by the end of the hour, I will personally order you hunted down and executed. Understood?”

He nodded stiffly, then almost headed for the door before she raised the sword and stopped him.

“There’s one more thing we have to settle before I let you leave,” Jessica said, little more than a whisper.

“What?”

The young girl calmly stepped over to a stained wooden bench nearby, intended for those who simply wished to enjoy the warm, tranquil atmosphere of the bathing chamber without making use of the huge pool. With elaborate motions, Jessica replaced her sword in its scabbard and drew a large, sturdy knife from her boot.

“Kindly step over here.” She gestured him closer with the blade.

Cautious, Captain Brian approached.

Jessica indicated the bench. She could feel Kaleah’s eyes watching her curiously. “Put your right hand on the seat . . . fingers spread.”

Captain Brian’s one good eye widened, and he drew away, clutching his right hand protectively to his chest. Jessica smiled at his reaction.

“You can’t be serious!”

Her steady green eyes held him fast. “I most certainly am.”

“You can’t-”

“I can,” she interrupted softly. Her gaze was merciless. “You can accept my justice, or that of my father. The choice is yours.” She tapped the knife on the bench.

Captain Brian trembled, but, after a moment of very serious consideration, he stepped forward and grimly placed his right hand on the smooth wood, fingers well apart.

Jessica nodded. “A wise decision.” She stepped forward, forcing her body to move calmly, feeling Kaleah’s eyes on her the whole time. With deliberate care, the young woman set the tip of the knife down between Captain Brian’s thumb and first finger. She saw him swallow, felt understanding dawn in the appraisal of her friend. Then, with sudden strength she chopped down, forcing the knife through flesh, hearing the sickening crunch as the bone gave way to the power in her arm.

Captain Brian bit his lip, but couldn’t contain the scream that burst forth from deep within. His features paled immediately as Jessica pushed the knife through the final few layers of skin, severing his thumb completely. Blood poured freely as Brian clutched his disfigured hand to his chest, glaring up at her. She returned the look without pity or reason, before turning her attention to the other men.

“Next.”

With ruthless efficiency, Jessica repeated the grisly task on Brian’s trembling accomplices. The first tried desperately to plead for mercy, but she gave none.

“You attempt to rape my friend and expect charity in return?” she asked coldly. “Be thankful I don’t take your whole hand.”

When the work was complete, Jessica wiped the blade of the knife clean on one of the men’s masks, then returned it to her boot. “You have one hour,” she said, regarding the three soldier’s with eyes still glowing with anger. “I suggest you make good use of that time.”

Captain Brian nodded, still regarding her with anger but weak from pain. As he was about to exit the chamber after his companions, he turned back and gestured to Kaleah. His hazel eyes bore into Jessica. “I only did what I was told,” he said. “And I followed me orders cos I agreed with ‘em. Yer a noble lady, Jessica. Barbaric heathen like ‘er ain’t no suitable company fer you to be keepin’.”

Jessica shrugged. “It’s not for you to say whose company I keep, is it ‘Captain?’”

He held her gaze another moment, then snarled and left.

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

Jessica stood a few moments in silence after the door closed behind the men, taking the time to settle her stomach. She tried hard not to cast her eyes towards the three bloody digits still sitting on the bench, but couldn’t help herself. Bile rose to the back of her throat, but she forced it down before turning her attention to Kaleah.

The tall woman stood, her eyes a violent mix of fear and fury, clutching the towel to her chest with a trembling hand.

“A-are you okay?”

Kaleah swallowed, some of the tension leaving her body, but not much. She shook her head, the shock of the last few minutes catching up to her suddenly as adrenaline drained away. Her body started to shake.

Jessica saw the tremors and quickly moved in to offer what comfort she could. Wrapping her arms around Kaleah’s body, she pulled her head closer and softly stroked the long, wet hair.

“It’s okay,” she soothed, feeling the former slave’s body vibrate with tension. “They won’t hurt you again. I promise. It’s gonna be okay.”

Kaleah let herself be comforted for several long moments while she struggled to regain control of her body and mind. The incident had brought the hideous shadows of her past to terrible life. For the first time in years, she had felt the fear of such a personal violation. Only this time was different . . . worse, somehow.

Exposure to freedom — to life — had restored so much of Kaleah’s sense of self. As a slave, rape had been nothing unusual . . . a part of day to day life. This was the first time she had been threatened with rape in years. The terror . . . the fear . . . It felt like she was experiencing all those nightmares for the very first time.

Only this time . . . with the fear had come anger.

She recognized the violence that the incident had raised within her. It’s darkness had been a part of her since she had murdered her master all those years ago. But as a slave, that darkness had been subdued by numerous beatings, suppressed until it no longer seemed to even exist. With the gift of freedom restored, Kaleah had felt it emerge once more, taking the form of the restless energy that so plagued her. The soldiers had not attacked a helpless slave. They had attacked a warrior . . . someone who would kill to defend.

And she had wanted to kill the men. She wanted to make them pay for making her feel so scared. The sword had been in her hand . . . she had only needed to step forward and use it.

She still wasn’t sure what had stopped her. All she knew was that, just as she’d been about to attack, Jessica’s simple look had stayed her hand. In that look, her friend had asked her to trust her to deal with the situation. Kaleah had agreed before she was even aware of it. That trust which had once seemed so alien was now something she gave without conscious thought.

She trusted Jessica with every fibre of her being.

After a while, Kaleah forced herself to draw away from her young friend. Meeting green eyes filled with deep concern, she offered a shaky smile, nervously clutching the towel tighter to her chest.

“Thank you,” she said softly, her voice almost breaking.

Jessica smiled and rubbed her on the arm. “You’re very welcome. I’m just sorry it all happened.” Emerald fire flared in her eyes, but only for a moment. “I promise it won’t happen again, though.”

Kaleah nodded, then looked down at herself. “I, uh. I should probably . . . get dressed.”

“Yeah. I guess. I’ll . . . wait outside if you like-”

“No.” Kaleah stopped her as she was about to leave. “I . . . I’d rather you stayed.” The young woman’s presence made her feel protected and safe. With the fear still running high in her blood, she didn’t want to be left alone.

Jessica didn’t ask for an explanation. She could see how shaken up the dark woman was.

“Okay,” she said, giving a final reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I’ll turn around . . . give you some privacy.” She did so, waiting patiently.

Kaleah moved over to her armor, laying down the sword reluctantly and pulling on her underwear and leather trousers quickly. The rest proved more difficult, however. Her fingers were still shaking, and her head felt thick and foggy. The intricate buckles were impossible to navigate.

“I . . . I could use a little help,” she admitted, realizing she’d never figure it out by herself.

Smiling with gentle sympathy, Jessica turned and helped her, calmly arranging the leather straps with the skill of one long-accustomed to wearing armor.

“Thanks.” Kaleah flushed, embarrassed at her weakness. “I-I don’t know why but . . . I can’t stop shaking.”

“Hey . . . it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Jessica took her friend’s hands and clasped them gently in her own. The trembling instantly subsided, and the young woman smiled. “I’d be shaking, too.”

Kaleah lowered her head, then gave a little nod. “Can we go back to your room now? Please?”

“Sure. Just let me get one thing first.”

Kaleah watched her friend quickly collect the cloth strips the soldiers had used as masks, then use them to gather up the three severed thumbs. Wiping away the last drops of blood as best she could, Jessica pocketed the grisly bundle and gave a grim smile at Kaleah’s raised brow.

“Best to clean up after ourselves, right?”

Kaleah just nodded, and together, the two friends quickly made their way back to Jessica’s room.

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

As soon as she was back in the familiar environment of her friend’s bedroom, Kaleah sighed and hugged herself. The tension in her body vanished almost entirely as she breathed in the smell of leather and perfume; smells that comforted her in a way she couldn’t explain but wasn’t about to argue with. Smiling at Jessica, she sat on the bed and let the sense of safety and well-being wash away the fear.

Jessica watched her a moment, then joined her, quickly leaving the cloth bundle she carried on a reasonably clear table. Sitting on the bed, she regarded Kaleah with concern.

“Are you okay?”

Kaleah sighed again and smiled somewhat more confidently. “I am now,” she whispered.

Jessica wasn’t sure, but the fear in the dark woman’s blue eyes had dissipated greatly. “I-it’s okay that you were scared,” she said softly. “I was scared too. If you . . . feel like talking about it. . ?”

Kaleah nodded, her face hardening. She was silent for a long time before she spoke very softly.

“I wanted to kill them.”

Jessica folded her hands in her lap and regarded them seriously. “I know. I saw the look in your eyes.” She sighed. “I’m glad you didn’t, though. A big part of me wanted to kill them, too. But their deaths would have raised all sorts of nasty questions.”

Kaleah accepted that, amazed at the sincerity in the young woman’s words. She knew Jessica did not like to take the life of any living creature, and recalled their conversation about how that ideal clashed with many aspects of her life.

“You surprised me back there,” she admitted quietly, her eyes going to the blood-stained bundle on the table. “What you did was so . . .” she hesitated. “Ruthless.”

Jess considered this, and nodded. “I still feel a little sick, to tell the truth.” She ran fingers through her hair nervously, swallowing hard. “I like to fight . . . but that’s the first time I’ve ever felt that kind of . . . enjoyment from inflicting harm.”

Blue eyes studied her carefully, and Kaleah saw for the first time that the ordeal had been just as terrible for Jessica as it had been for her. Perhaps in a different way, but the young blonde had been shaken badly as well. She reached out and patted her arm in gratitude. “You did what you had to do,” she reasoned, but Jessica shook her head.

“I could have done it without taking his eye.”

Knowing the young woman’s skill all too well, Kaleah couldn’t argue with that. “Do you regret doing it?”

Jessica thought about it, then whispered, “No. He got what he deserved. I only wish I could have done more.”

“Well . . .” Kaleah gave the cloth bundle a pointed look. “You did do more.” She raised an eyebrow curiously. “Why exactly did you do that? It seemed . . . calculated.”

“It was.” Jessica shrugged and looked away. “It’s a punishment sometimes given to enemy soldiers captured during war. I’ve seen my father order it done a few times. A soldier without his thumb can’t wield a sword. His value as a combatant is reduced, but he can still live a fruitful life. Captain Brian and his friends might learn to use their other hand to fight, or they might learn to use a different weapon . . . but they’ll never be as proficient as they were.”

Kaleah listened to this and realized her friend was right. With such a disability, few men would ever find work as a fighter. “So . . . basically, you crippled them?”

Jessica met her gaze, and nodded. “Crippled and banished. With such a mark against them, those men will likely be forced to take up common labor just to survive.” Her lips drew into a grim line. “I figured if I couldn’t kill them . . . I could at least take as much of their lives as possible for what they tried to do.”

Her face was calm, but Kaleah could see the pain beneath the surface. She reached out and took Jessica’s hand, smiling. “I’m sorry you had to do that,” she said sincerely.

Jess shrugged again and gave a lopsided smile. “Hey . . . it’s just part of the territory. I chose to be a warrior; it wasn’t forced upon me. And part of being a warrior is taking the good with the bad, just like I told you. I accept my responsibility . . . and it felt good to be able to use my skills to help protect you.”

“Thanks. I . . . feel a lot safer now.” She gave her armor a dirty look. “Safer, but not a whole lot cleaner for someone who just took a bath. I think I’m gonna need to clean these leathers.” She rubbed at a mud stain with her fingernail. “I guess I should get changed into something more comfortable.” She was growing accustomed to wearing softer clothes, she knew. The sense of protection the armor gave her didn’t seem as necessary around her blonde companion.

Jessica studied her own grimy, armored figure and grinned. “I know what you mean. And I still need a bath, too.” She suppressed a flush, detecting the lingering scent of her arousal still clinging to her. She just hoped Kaleah didn’t notice it. “Would you be alright if I take a few minutes to get cleaned up?”

Kaleah felt a moment of panic. She didn’t want to be alone. But, she realized, the doors to Jess’s room were thick and could be locked securely. The bolt on the door to the bathing chamber was meant to simply indicate that it was in use; it wasn’t actually intended to seriously stop an intruder. She would be safe in here until Jessica returned . . . and it would give her a few minutes to calm her shattered nerves and regain some of her composure.

“I guess,” she allowed after thinking. “But . . . don’t take too long. And be careful.”

Jessica understood her concern, and nodded. “Don’t worry. Captain Brian’s not stupid enough to test his luck further. My guess is he’ll get out of Da’Gran as quickly and as quietly as he can manage it. If my father or Sir Miles sees him with that eye, they’ll ask questions. Right now, that’s the last thing those men want.” She scowled, her anger at the attack still dangerously strong. “I doubt they’ll even risk reporting back to my mother.”

Kaleah gave her a startled look, her eyes widening. “How did you-” She stopped, realizing that Jessica wasn’t a fool. She was certainly smart enough to figure out who must have ordered the attack. Green eyes regarded her calmly, a blonde brow raised in question.

“You knew?”

Kaleah struggled a moment, but eventually nodded. She could do nothing but tell the truth with that intense, calm gaze resting on her. “She warned me to leave you alone.”

Jessica was silent, absorbing this information. So Kaleah had known the whole time? She felt a stab of betrayal. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked softly, unable to hide the hurt in her voice.

Kaleah lowered her head, letting her hair fall forward to hide her face. “I just . . . I couldn’t . . .”

“You didn’t trust me?”

Her head instantly shot up, and she saw the sting in Jessica’s open features. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I-I didn’t want . . . to make you choose, that’s all.” Her eyes closed as she lowered her head again.

Blonde brows contracted in confusion. “Choose? You mean choose sides?”

A nod.

“Kaleah?”

Unusually timid blue eyes raised.

Jessica stepped forward and gently cupped the dark woman’s face. “Kaleah, my mother has been trying to control my life since I was born,” she said softly. “Because of her, I’ve never been able to experience something like the friendship we have. She’s always tried to make sure no-one she thinks of as ‘beneath me’ gets close enough to be my friend. You’re the first that ever stuck around long enough . . . and I would never ask you to leave me just because my mother doesn’t like you.”

Kaleah absorbed this silently, then said, “I just didn’t want to pit you against her, that’s all.”

Jessica smiled. “You haven’t. She’s been against nearly everything I’ve ever done since I first took up arms.” Her smile turned into a scowl. “But if she thinks she’s gonna threaten you, she’s got another thing coming.”

Kaleah heard the suppressed rage in her friend’s voice. “You won’t hurt her, will you?”

Kaleah grinned. “My father asks me that everytime I ride into battle with him and have to get away from her,” she said, then shook her head. “I won’t hurt her. Not physically. But I will make sure she understands that you’re not going anywhere you don’t want to go.”

Kaleah smiled, letting the pleasant knowledge that Jessica would always protect her ease the fear away further. “Thanks. I’m . . . sorry I didn’t tell you immediately, Jess. I just thought I should deal with it myself.”

“I understand. Just let me know next time, okay? I’m a part of this friendship, too, you know. I should have a say in what happens.” She let her fingers gently stroke the fading bruise above Kaleah’s eye. “And the idea that you got hurt because of . . . our friendship . . . it makes me feel bad.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it.” Kaleah waved her away, rubbing the itchy mark. “No permanent damage was done.”

“No damage should have been done at all,” Jessica countered, “permanent or otherwise. This is your home for as long as you want it to be. And I plan to make sure my mother understands that.”

Kaleah smiled warmly. “Thank you.” Her nose crinkled, and she pinched it closed. “Now go take that bath before you drive me out of here with that stench.”

Jessica laughed and slapped her playfully. “Fine. Get changed and wait here, I won’t be too long.” She rummaged around and found a clean pair of trousers, underwear and a soft tunic. “I’ll bring us back some dinner, and I have a few other things to take care of quickly. But lock the door behind me just in case.”

“I will. And be careful.”

“Sure.” Jess patted her sword and smiled. “I’ll be fine.”

Sighing as the door closed behind her friend, Kaleah ran fingers through her hair absently and figured she should get out of her armor. Looking around, she found a pair of Jessica’s clothes that looked like they’d fit her and, figuring the young woman wouldn’t mind, she quickly stripped off her leather and chain-mail and donned the trousers and shirt. A smile touched her lips as she inhaled deeply, catching Jessica’s scent from the clothes.

Tossing the armor in a corner, figuring to deal with it later, Kaleah locked the door before happily falling back on the bed. After a brief wrestling match, she finally won her way under the covers and got comfortable while she waited for her friend to return.

As Kaleah waited, she replayed the events of the evening over in her mind. The attack had been frightening, and the fear was still fresh in her mind, but on reflection things could have been much worse. Jessica had protected her, just as she had promised. The men hadn’t raped her, and their threat had been effectively dealt with. There was little doubt in Kaleah’s mind that Jessica could handle her mother. In all, this night had removed two big concerns that had been plaguing Kaleah for some time, and she felt much lighter without their shadows hanging over her. Of course, if Jessica hadn’t shown up when she had . . .

“Wait a second . . .”

Kaleah sat up as a new thought occurred. In the bathing chamber, she hadn’t screamed for help when the men had come for her. There hadn’t seemed to be any point. Jessica had said she was going to return to her rooms to wait . . . but the bathing chamber was quite a way off the path back to their rooms. Kaleah’s brows dropped, her eyes narrowed, and she chewed her lip as she asked the question.

“How did Jessica know I was in trouble?”

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

It took Jessica almost an hour to return to Kaleah, although she washed up as quick as she could. Putting the unpleasant events of the evening behind her for the moment, Jessica set her mind to the task of damage control; she needed to hide this incident from her father first of all . . . and then make certain it was never repeated. As she bathed, her quick mind planned how to manage that.

By the time she was clean, Jessica had formulated a plan. First, she needed to confirm that Captain Brian and his friends had indeed left the castle. A quick and casual tour of the castle wall assured her the three men had left together without explanation some time ago. The guards she spoke too were curious, but didn’t question the actions of their superior. Once she was certain Brian was gone, Jessica immediately set off in search of Sir Miles.

She knew the absence of Captain Brian and his accomplices would be reported back to her father before dawn; Da’Gran was well-organized and disciplined if nothing else. A single man out of place did not go unnoticed. If Sir Richard learned the true circumstances of their sudden departure, Jessica knew ugly questions would be raised; questions that would lead the lord knight to his own wife. She needed an explanation that didn’t involve either herself or Kaleah . . . and Sir Miles was the perfect person to give it.

Finding the elderly knight already retired in his chambers, Jessica quickly explained her situation, skillfully avoiding any direct description of the incident in the bathing chamber. As she expected, Miles wasn’t happy about the situation, but after a while, he agreed to tell Sir Richard that he had dismissed the long-standing Captain for a serious breach of duty.

“He won’t be pleased with me, Jess,” he had told her grumpily. “Ah kin tell ye that.”

“Better he hear it from you than from me,” she replied. “If he learns I was involved, he’ll be suspicious and could take it into his head to track Brian down.”

“Aye, well . . . I won’t ask questions, Jess, cos I know ye won’t answer ‘em. But I don’t like lying to me own lord.” He scowled at her. “Hope ye appreciate this.”

“I do. And don’t worry, I’ll take care of the situation. All you have to do is make sure my father doesn’t look any further into the Captain’s dismissal. Alright?”

He agreed, as she knew he would. Sir Miles had been like another father to her since she’d been given into his care and training as a child. In all those years, he had never denied her anything. This was stretching his limits, she knew, but it was important that Sir Richard not hear of the attack. His reaction to a threat against his daughter would be dangerous.

After her visit with Sir Miles, Jessica made one more stop before she returned to her waiting friend. It was quite a walk to where Charles was staying; all the way on the other side of the castle in fact, in a section used to house visiting dignitaries and such. She rarely ever ventured into this area, and it took her a few tries before she found his rooms.

Her visit was brief since she didn’t want to leave Kaleah for too long, but she quickly informed the young lord of what had transpired that evening, leaving out only the truth of how she had come to rescue her friend. Charles was shocked, naturally, but he understood quickly the plan that Jessica laid out that would prevent any further attacks. He knew how much Lady Rose’s meddling had cost his young friend and betrothed, and he agreed immediately to give what small assistance Jessica asked of him.

“It seems simple enough,” he admitted when she’d finished her explanation of the plan. “Maybe a little too simple. Are you sure this will work?”

Jess just grinned. “It’ll work. Trust me on this. But I need this done by tomorrow. Can you manage that?”

Charles looked at the letter she had dictated to him and nodded. “Damon’s good at this sort of thing,” he assured her. “It’ll be ready by morning. I’ll send a servant with the finished copy once it’s done.”

“Fine.” She gave him a quick hug and a friendly kiss on the cheek. “Thank you. This’ll insure Kaleah’s safety for as long as she stays here.”

Her duties done, Jessica hurried back to her bedroom making a quick detour to the kitchen on the way. When she knocked on the door, Kaleah quickly opened it for her and smiled in welcome.

“What took you so long?”

“I had a few things to take care of, like I said,” she replied. “They just took a little longer than I expected them too, that’s all. But I brought us dinner . . .” She held up the tray of food she’d collected from the kitchen as she entered her room, “and you’ll be happy to know that Captain Brian is long gone. I’ve arranged things so my father won’t ever hear of what happened.”

Kaleah nodded, but Jessica saw her lock the door anyway. “That’s good. I guess if he ever found out your mother was behind the attack . . .”

“He’d be furious,” Jess stated, frowning. “I don’t know what he’d do to her, but it would surely be something that would cause great upheaval in the castle. If an enemy got wind of the dissention, they could attack us, figuring my father would be weaker for the stress.” She sighed. “Better to keep this quiet, and deal with it directly. I may not care much for my mother or her politics, but I don’t want the people to suffer from her actions any more than they must.”

Kaleah returned to her friend’s bed. “Your father loves you, but he doesn’t seem like the type to over-react. If anything, he seems over-casual about your life.”

“He just expects me to be able to take care of myself, that’s all.” Jessica put the tray on the bed, then dragged off her boots before joining her friend. “When I get hurt though, he can be unpredictable. I remember once in battle, I took a dagger in the side . . .” She slipped her trousers down a little and displayed a clear white scar just above her right hip. “My father went crazy for a second. He hacked the man to death right in front of me.” She shuddered a little and reached for a slice of ham.

“Wow.” Kaleah was a little surprised. Sir Richard seemed so level-headed, this description was at odds with what she had observed of the man. “I guess he just hides his temper well . . . the same as you do.”

“Tell that to the former Captain Brian,” Jess grinned, chewing contentedly.

The two ate in silence for a time, just enjoying the excellent food and the feeling of being safe and warm after such a shocking experience. As they ate, however, Jessica caught Kaleah looking at her with a strange expression in her eyes; something like curiosity, but with a gentle hint of something deeper. A slightly raised eyebrow and half-smile made the look doubly mysterious. Eventually, Jessica couldn’t stand it anymore.

“What?”

Kaleah’s smile just grew a little more crooked. “What, what?”

Jessica threw down the food she’d been eating and glared at her friend. “Don’t be smart, Kaleah. You know what I’m talking about. What’s with the weird look?”

Kaleah just held her steady gaze a moment before she asked calmly, “How did you know I was in trouble tonight?”

Azure eyes watched Jessica’s expression closely, and Kaleah had to admit the young woman did a good job of acting casual as she replied.

“I was heading back to my room when I saw the three soldiers walking down the corridor to the bathing room,” Jess said easily. She had already formulated the explanation, anticipating this question after her meeting with Charles. “They were dressed suspiciously, so I followed them. By the time I got there, the last of them was slipping into the chamber, and I knew they were the ones who attacked you.” She offered an easy smile. “Lucky I was there, huh?”

Kaleah’s gaze didn’t waver, but her smile grew a little wider. “Yeah. Very lucky.” Slender fingers brought a slice of carrot to her lips and she sucked it slowly, still watching her friend. Her lips twitched when Jessica looked away first.

In the time Kaleah had spent with Jessica, she had seen many facets to the young girl’s personality. Sometimes, it seemed the blonde’s emotions ran right under her skin, easily visible to anyone who looked. At other times, the mask of sophistication and nobility hid the truth well. Watching her as she gave the explanation, Kaleah almost missed the subtle tells she was searching for.

Almost, but not quite.

A slight flush, an almost imperceptible moment when Jess’s eyes had looked away, and the quickly masked quaver in her voice told the dark woman all she needed to know.

Jessica’s story may have been entirely plausible . . . but it was a lie, nonetheless.

Kaleah’s eyes sparkled with delighted interest as her razor-sharp mind worked quickly to determine why her friend was lying. And perhaps more curiously, she wondered, what was the truth? How had Jessica known of the danger unless . . . Kaleah’s heart skipped a beat.

. . . Unless she’d been watching.

Recalling last night’s foray into the secret passages, Kaleah silently considered this possibility as she finished eating. Jessica had said there were other places she used to spy on people. Was it possible she’d been using one to observe Kaleah as she bathed? Kaleah grinned to herself. Yes, she realized. It was possible . . . and moreso, it seemed almost probable, when everything was looked at closely. And if that were true . . .

Well, Kaleah thought to herself as she watched the young woman finish off the last of the food. If it were true, perhaps Jessica’s thoughts were following a path not dissimilar to her own. And perhaps she wasn’t as unaware of them as Kaleah might have expected of someone so innocent.

“Are you done?”

“Huh?” Jessica’s question snapped her out of her lascivious ponderings. She realized her companion was talking about dinner, and nodded. “Sure. I couldn’t eat another bite.”

“Great.” The young blonde got up and set the tray on a cluttered table, where it balanced precariously on a stack of rough charcoal drawings she’d been working on. Returning to the bed, she settled back against the headboard and sighed. “Quite a day, huh?”

“That it was,” Kaleah agreed. Suddenly, she realized she’d have to return to her own room soon, and against all reason she felt the fear start to rise again. “Um . . . Jessica?”

“Hmmm?”
“Could . . . would it be alright if I stayed with you tonight?” she asked hesitantly. “I’d . . . really rather not be alone right now.”

Jessica saw the anxious, shy expression in her friend’s face and quickly nodded. “Sure. If you like. I mean . . . I guess you’re still probably shaken up, huh? I know I am.” She pulled back the covers and invited the dark woman to join her.

Kaleah accepted readily, not even thinking until she was safely wrapped in the warmth of the blankets about the fact that Jessica might share her attraction. By the time she did, her friend had already snuggled up to her and she could feel her usually tense body melt against the warmth of the young woman.

“Did you want to go to sleep right now?” Jess asked quietly.

Kaleah shrugged. “I am sorta tired.” She wriggled around a little, her body molding to fit against Jessica’s smaller frame better. Her companion sighed and wrapped her arms about her waist. The warm contact sent shivers down Kaleah’s body, but somehow she sensed that Jessica intended nothing more than affection in the gesture. Regardless of how deep the young woman’s feeling’s ran, there was nothing more than friendship in this closeness.

“Do you want me to snuff out the candles?” She felt the warm breath against her side and couldn’t help but shiver again.

“No . . . this is nice,” she managed to mumble without choking. “We can let them burn out, right?”

“Sure.” Jessica pressed herself deeper into Kaleah’s body with a smile. “Kaleah?”

“Hmmm?”

A long pause. “I’m really sorry about this whole thing with my mother. But I promise that after tomorrow . . . you’ll be safe here.”

Kaleah smiled and brought a hand out to stroke the glowing blonde hair that flowed across her friend’s shoulder. “I know. And thank you . . . for protecting me like you said you would.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on the softness around her fingertips. “You know I trust you with my life, right?”

The smile in the green eyes that lifted to regard her warmed the dark woman’s soul faster than the strongest flame. “And you know I do the same for you.” Jessica yawned, feeling the long day catch up to her all of a sudden. She shifted her shoulder and grimaced.

Kaleah grinned and rubbed the young woman’s arm, feeling the muscles tense. “I guess we worked a little too hard today, huh?”

Jessica grunted. “It’s more than I’m used to, that’s for sure.”

“Well . . . tomorrow if you ask really nice, maybe I’ll give you a massage.” Kaleah couldn’t help but smile when she felt Jessica’s heart skip a beat, then speed it’s rhythm against her chest.

“Um . . . that’d be great.” Jessica’s voice sounded a little strained. Kaleah’s smile turned into a grin. “I’d be happy to return the favor, you know.”

“I know,” she said softly, closing her eyes and settling back. “Remind me in case I forget.”

“I will.”

Kaleah relaxed fully, and let her mind drift. There were a thousand different thoughts filling her head as she lay in her friend’s embrace, but it had been a very long and wearing day, both physically and emotionally. Even as she struggled to decide on a course of action to take with Jessica, sleep swiftly mounted it’s assault. Before long, her breathing had evened out and the warm fog of dreams overrode the more pressing concerns.

Just as she succumbed to the seductive depths of unconsciousness, Kaleah smiled, feeling the cadence of Jessica’s heartbeat matched perfectly with her own.

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

Some distance away from the castle — many miles, in fact – three figures trudged slowly down the muddy road, looking for a suitable place to set up camp.

Brian Hadrick, former Captain of the guard, snarled at the throbbing pain in his eye. He had tied a crude bandage around the open, seeping wound, but it didn’t help to ease his suffering. Worse than the injury, of course — worse even than the absent thumb on his right hand — was the knowledge that he was helpless to avenge himself. The damn bitch had taken his eye and crippled his ability, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it!

The three men had been walking for hours, and had made good distance considering. They were far from the walls of Da’Gran now . . . far from the village and the safety it provided. The great forest now surrounded the road on all sides, filled with the eerie sounds of birds and night critters out hunting the darkness for prey. This was the wild now, Brian knew. Still, as dangerous as he knew such a place could be, he wasn’t too concerned. Bandits would likely have packed up for the day; they tended to attack at dusk, or during the more heavily traveled hours of the day.

“D’ya see anywhere good yet, Duncan?” he demanded sharply. His friend glanced at him nervously and shook his head.

“Could’ve stayed at the bloody village, sir,” he pointed out.

“Bah! With our luck, Sir Richard’ll figure out wha happened and be after us ‘fore dawn. Ya wanna make it easy fer ‘im?”

Duncan shook his head again. Even though he no longer technically served under this man, he was accustomed to following orders. Besides, Brian had a point. The Lady Jessica had ordered them to leave the lands of Da’Gran that night. Staying at the village would have put them uncomfortably close to the castle.

“We’ll find somewhere soon,” he said hopefully.

“Aye . . . or we’ll walk through the night.” The former Captain glanced at the heavens, where stars were winking brightly in the dark sky. He breathed deeply, wincing and rubbing at the stump on his right hand. “I guess things can’t really get much worse, at least.”

A sudden, sharp pressure struck Brian with shocking force in the chest. It was followed immediately by several more stunning blows that knocked him back a step. He heard a slight gasp from one of his colleagues, followed by a thud. Looking down, staggering a little, the former Captain found himself staring with his one good eye at four feathered shafts jutting oddly from his chest.

His brow furrowed in confusion. “That’s not right,” he mumbled, feeling no pain but a peculiar numbness instead. However, by the time the unfortunate man realized he’d been shot . . . he was dead.

Dozens of stealthy figures moved out from the woods, surrounding the three slain men cautiously. A few lit torches and approached while others kept watch, cross-bows loaded and ready.

Three men knelt beside the dead Captain, studying him curiously. One waved the torch over his face, then down to his uniform and armor.

“Some of Da’Gran’s men, sir,” he reported to a tall man standing behind him.

The man, who was dressed in soft leather armor reinforced with steel plates, raised a dark brown eyebrow and stepped closer. “A patrol? Seems an odd time and place for Sir Richard to be sending his men out.” His voice was calm, with a hint of refinement that seemed at odds with his hardened features.

“No patrol, I think, sir,” the man kneeling beside Brian corrected. “Lookit this.” He lifted the dead man’s right arm, displaying the disfigurement for his superior, who smiled thinly.

“Aahh.” He rubbed his hands together in interest. “Exiles? How curious.” Intelligent hazel eyes studied the man’s face, taking in the terrible wound with the detachment of one accustomed to such injuries. “And the others? Are they the same?”

“Aye, sir,” a man near Duncan reported.

“Well. It appears Sir Richard has had some trouble with his soldiers. A pity we killed them so quickly. They might have been willing to talk.”

“Aye, a pity.” The man by Brian stood up and wiped his hands on his worn armor. “Still . . . better safe than sorry, right sir?”

“I suppose.” The leader of the men waved his hand towards the bodies, then at the woods. “Get these three buried, then back to your places. Hurry.”

His men leaped instantly to do as instructed, removing the three bodies into the dense, dark forest and sweeping away all traces of their passage. The man watched, his hands on his hips, a satisfied smile on his face. When all was complete and his men back in place, he turned to his second in command.

“A good night’s work, even if it could have been better, don’t you think, Rennard?”

“Aye, sir,” Rennard agreed. “None’ll be reportin’ back our presence so close to the castle. That’s all we be needin’”

“Indeed.” The man turned his head and looked down the road where he knew Da’Gran lay but a few hours march away. “And when the real work begins . . . we’ll have three less soldiers to worry about.” He grinned and patted his second on the back as they headed back into the woods. They vanished as silently as they had appeared.
Chapter 17.
The sun was a low ball of fire hanging a handspan above the horizon when Jessica reluctantly allowed herself to part with her dreams. Opening fuzzy green eyes, the young woman groaned as she shifted against the warm body she was wrapped around. Her muscles were stiff after yesterday’s unusually vigorous sparring, and she stretched painfully under the blankets.

Yawning languidly, Jess scratched at her neck and smiled. Sitting up a little and musing just how much she enjoyed waking up like this, the young blonde studied her still sleeping bed-mate. Kaleah’s face looked so beautiful as she rested; the gentle, innocent expression warmed Jessica’s heart and reminded her again that the dark woman was only a few years older than she was. The hard lines carved by slavery’s heavy chisel were gone, revealing Kaleah’s true youth.

Jessica had woke twice during the night when she heard her companion muttering in her sleep. At first, the young blonde thought Kaleah was having a nightmare, but that thought was dispelled by the slight smile on the sleeping woman’s face. Whatever dreams Kaleah was experiencing appeared to be anything but unpleasant.

Watching now, Jessica couldn’t stop her hand as it reached out to gently stroke Kaleah’s smiling lips, drawn by a force far greater than her will. Kaleah’s smile widened and she sighed happily, leaning into the caress. Sleepy blue eyes fluttered open and looked up, meeting Jessica’s dancing emerald gaze.

“Mornin’,” Kaleah greeted as Jessica removed her hand.

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

Kaleah stretched, and Jessica felt her powerful, long body coil and tense against her. The sensation of such animal force so close sent a shiver over her skin. “I slept great, thank you.” Kaleah groaned. “I think I might want to take things easy today, though. My body feels like it’s been run over by a cart.”

Jessica grinned. “Mine, too. Remember, you promised a massage later tonight, right?”

Kaleah nodded, her eyes growing hooded as she remembered last night’s ponderings. “Absolutely,” she agreed, already looking forward to it. Rolling her neck to loosen the muscles a bit, she sighed happily.

Jessica watched her friend stretch herself awake. “Did you know you talk in your sleep?” she asked.

Kaleah stopped her activities and raised an eyebrow at her. “Really?”

“Uh huh.” Jess nodded sincerely. “You woke me up a few times.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Kaleah returned to trying to ease the stiffness in her joints. “Wh-what was I saying?” she asked, wondering if she wanted to know. A flash of memory from a dream came to mind, and she hoped she hadn’t said anything too revealing.

But Jessica just shrugged. “I don’t know. You weren’t speaking English or French, and it didn’t sound Spanish. I couldn’t understand the words . . . but it sounded kinda nice.”

“Really.” Kaleah thought for a moment. “Did it sound like this . . .” She rattled off a quick sentence in a guttural, throaty dialect.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Jessica grinned. “What language is that?”

Kaleah shrugged. “It’s the language of my people . . . from before the slavers came,” she explained simply. “I may have forgotten most everything else about that time. . . but I never forgot the language. I guess there are some things you never really forget, huh?”

Jessica nodded. “I like it,” she said after a moment. “I’ve never heard it before though.”

“That’s not surprising. I’ve never met anyone who knew where it came from.” Kaleah finished her stretching and lay back. “I guess it’s probably not a common tongue . . . maybe my people were tribal, I don’t know.”

A soft knock at the door interrupted the conversation, and Jessica smiled. “Time to get up, I guess.” Struggling out of the warm blankets — which Kaleah quickly pulled back around her — the young blonde shuffled over and unlocked the door before opening it. She was greeted by a serving girl a few years younger than herself.

“Yes?”

The girl bobbed her head. “Milady . . . Lord Charles asked me to deliver this . . .” She held out a neatly capped redwood scroll case.

Jessica smiled warmly. She’d never met this girl before, and assumed she was new to Da’Gran. Servants came and went in the castle, though they generally stayed for many years. “You can call me Jessica, please,” she said kindly. “What was your name?”

The girl blushed deeply. “Um . . . it’s Heather.”

“Thank you, Heather.” Jessica took the scroll-case and gave the young girl a friendly nod of gratitude. “Please thank Charles for me, and tell him his assistance is greatly appreciated.”

The girl bowed shyly and nodded. “I will, mil-. . . Jessica.”

Thanking her again, Jessica closed the door and turned back to find Kaleah regarding her curiously.

“What’s that?” the dark woman asked, pointing to the cylindrical wooden case.

Jessica grinned and opened the case, drawing out the worn piece of parchment it contained. “This?” She inspected the flowing script that covered the paper and nodded in satisfaction. “This is a weapon.”

A dark brow raised dubiously. “A weapon?”

“Mmmhmm. A very powerful weapon that will insure your protection from my mothers interference.” Her smile turned unpleasant. “If you don’t mind, I have to go have a little chat with her for a while.”

Kaleah shook her head. “No, I don’t mind at all.” She smiled, a plan forming in her mind. “How long will it take?”

Jess shrugged, walking over to the blood-soaked bundle of cloth wrappings that sat on the nearby table. “Hard to say. It depends on how much of a fight she wants to put up. It could take an hour or so.”

Kaleah considered that, and nodded with a satisfied smile. “Fine.” She watched as her friend rummaged around till she found a small, finely decorated jewelry box which was, of course, empty. With a look of disgust, the young blonde unwrapped the gristly items and laid them in the box, snapping it shut quickly.

“I’ll be as quick as I can, Kaleah, but I want to make sure she gets the message.”

“Well, that’ll do it.” Kaleah gestured to the box, figuring she had a fair idea what her friend had in mind, but wondering how the mysterious piece of paper figured into the plan. “I’ll wait here for you, okay?”

“Sure.” Jessica dragged a brush quickly through her disheveled blonde hair, managing to bring it to at least a temporary state of order. Grimacing at her clothes, she shrugged. “I’ll bring us back some breakfast . . . I’m starving.”

Kaleah nodded agreeably and watched the young woman open the door and leave. As the heavy oak door closed firmly, the dark woman grinned fully, her dazzling eyes wandering instantly to the stone fireplace . . . and the secret passages beyond.

“Well,” she stated happily, clapping her hands and tossing off the blankets regretfully, “I’m not going to argue with this kind of good luck.”

Searching quickly on one of the tables, Kaleah located a piece of charcoal her friend had been using to draw with. Then, wandering over to the fireplace, she searched for and quickly found the hidden catch. Pressing down on the lever behind the angel’s sword, Kaleah stepped back as the whole thing shifted, rolling on the concealed pinion and opening into the darkness beyond. Kaleah’s eyes twinkled and her grin turned feral.

“Time to do a little exploring, I think,” she whispered, before ducking her head and slipping into the hidden corridor.

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

Jessica found her mother in one of the more luxuriously appointed rooms of the castle, sitting with her brother Steven. The two were obviously engaged in some deep conversation, but that ended as soon as she entered the room. Her brother glared at her, but she just glared right back.

“Jessica.” Her mother smiled a little, but didn’t seem particularly surprised to see her. Standing, the woman regarded her first-born child somewhat condescendingly, frowning at her simple clothes. “How nice to see you.”

“I doubt that,” Jessica said politely, standing stiffly. Her lip curled as she saw Steven sniff at her presence. “I was wondering if I might have a word with you, mother.” Her green eyes bore into her brother with unrelenting malice. “In private.”

Steven was about to say something, but the Lady Rose silenced him with a calm look. “Now, Steven. What have I told you about base insults? The true gentleman does not resort to such things.” Her eyes returned to her daughter. “Even Jessica here can understand common manners.” She smiled thinly, and gestured for Steven to leave. “I’m sure this won’t take long.”

As soon as the boy was gone, Lady Rose waved Jessica forward. “Would you care to sit?”

“Thank you.” Jessica sat stiffly but with an undeniable grace, folding her hands primly in her lap. Her mother took the seat opposite her and smiled.

“I so rarely see you of late,” she remarked, and Jessica thought she heard genuine regret in her mother’s tone. “I’ve missed the time we spent together. I wanted to tell you I was proud of you on Monday. You presented yourself as a true lady for Sir William.”

Jessica accepted the praise with a nod. “Kaleah and I did our best.”

Lady Rose’s smile faltered. “Yesss. Your ‘friend’ made quite an impression.” She was silent in thought for a moment, then regarded her daughter pleasantly. “So . . . what brings you here?”

“I thought it was time we had a little discussion,” Jessica said simply, “. . . about Kaleah.”

Rose frowned and cocked her head. “I see.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what there is to say, really. You know how I feel about your association with that . . . woman.”

“And you know I don’t much care how you feel about Kaleah . . . at least I don’t so long as you leave us alone.” Jessica placed the small jewelry box on the table between them and pushed it towards her mother. “It has been brought to my attention that such is not the case, however.”

Lady Rose reached out and took the box, opening it. Her features paled when she realized what the contents were, and she glanced at her daughter somewhat uneasily. Jessica just smiled coldly.

“Captain Brian and his lackey’s decided to move on from Da’Gran last night,” the young woman said quietly. “After the . . . discussion I had with them regarding their recent actions, they seemed quite anxious to be gone.” She cocked her head and nodded to the box. “I think the fact that they were missing their thumbs might have had something to do with their hasty departure.”

Lady Rose swallowed a lump in her throat at the icy tone in her daughter’s voice. Calmly returning the box to the table, she shifted uncomfortably under Jessica’s unwavering gaze. “What has this to do with me.”

Jessica didn’t answer for a long moment, but just continued to regard her mother coldly. “I’m not a fool, mother,” she said finally. “I don’t expect you to take responsibility, but we both know full well who directed the attack against Kaleah.” Green eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’m here to tell you that it all stops now. Leave . . . Kaleah . . . alone.”

Lady Rose smiled weakly. “You always did have the subtlety of a sledge-hammer, Jessica,” she said, sitting back and studying her daughter curiously. “Do you really expect me to sit back and do nothing?” she asked after a long contemplation. “You are my daughter, Jessica. It’s my duty to protect you.”

“Protect me? From what?”

“From yourself! From this . . . Godless savage you’ve become so attached too!” The lady’s eyes flared angrily for the first time. “You are a child of the nobility, Jessica! You should associate with people of your own class. This heathen has no place at your side! No matter how nicely you dress her up, or how well you teach her the social graces, you can’t hide the fact that Kaleah is nothing more than a barbarian!”

Jessica leaned forward suddenly, her presence filling the room with suppressed rage. “I’ve never tried to hide Kaleah’s heritage, mother!” she hissed. “She may not worship any god, and she may be a savage, yes. But she has more loyalty and nobility in her big toe than you’ll ever have in your whole life!”

“Loyalty!?” Lady Rose rolled her eyes. “She’s an escaped slave, Jessica! A creature like her cares only for itself. Trust me . . . she’d leave you in a heartbeat and think nothing of it if she thought for one second she’d gain something by deserting you.”

Jessica smiled and settled back, reining in her temper. “That sounds very much like what she tells me you told her about me, mother,” she observed. “Believe me . . . you don’t know anything about Kaleah. She’s here to stay for as long as she chooses . . . it’s time you accepted that.”

“Never!” Lady Rose gestured sharply with her hand. “Nothing you can do will ever make me stop trying to rid this castle of that demon who has bewitched you!” She glared at her daughter angrily. “Maybe one day, you’ll realize I’m doing this for your own good, Jessica. I love you . . . and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe from the influence of that woman.”

Jessica considered that a long moment, holding her mother’s eyes and seeing the determined conviction there. Apparently, her mother wasn’t going to make this easy. So be it. She had anticipated such would be the case . . . and had come prepared. A slow, self-assured smile tugged at her lips and she nodded.

“Very well then. I can see you’re not prepared to play this game my way.” Reaching into belt, she pulled out the redwood scroll-case and offered it to her mother. “I guess we’ll have to play it yours.”

Lady Rose eyes the scroll-case skeptically. “What’s this?”

“Take it.”

She did so, albeit reluctantly. Jessica watched her mother open the case and remove the parchment from within. When she gave her a curious look, the young blonde just smiled and gestured for her to read. Intelligent eyes scanned the writing swiftly, then narrowed in confusion.

Lady Rose looked at her daughter sharply. “What is this?”

Jessica shrugged. “It is exactly what it appears to be,” she said softly. “A letter from Lord Patrick Terrace to my father, dated, as you can see, a few months before you married him.” The smile held a sense of quiet triumph as she sat back and studied her mother. “The details are a little vague, of course . . . but the general message is quite clear. Lord Terrace writes of his concern for my father’s betrothal . . . it seems he doesn’t approve of his friend’s plan to marry a common whore.”

Lady Rose had turned very pale, but she looked again at the letter. “This is ridiculous!” she breathed. “Lord Terrace never wrote this. This letter is a complete lie!”

“Yes, it is,” Jess agreed easily. “I dictated the letter myself and had it copied into quite a believable forgery. But you were the one who taught me, mother, that a lie can be the most effective weapon on earth . . . if properly used.” Jessica saw a hint of comprehension dawn in her mother’s eyes.

“No-one will believe this,” Lady Rose said.

“Won’t they?” Jessica reached forward and took the letter from her mother’s limp hand. She reread a part of it and shook her head. “I would think that the servant who conveniently finds this letter will be only too happy to believe such a juicy story. And what’s more . . . I’d bet my right foot that the first thing they’d want to do is share the information with a friend.”

Jessica leaned forward and grinned fully. “Imagine it, mother,” she whispered. “The rumors would spread faster than wildfire, faster than you could ever hope to stop. I’m sure you could present the people with the truth . . . but would they listen? You were the one who taught me the first rule of court intrigue is that people will always believe an interesting lie rather than the boring truth. If word gets out that Sir Richard Da’Gran’s noble wife is little more than a whore who blackmailed him into marriage,
well . . .” She shrugged dramatically. “You’re reputation would be shattered beyond your capacity to repair.”

Lady Rose listened in silence, her breathing noticeably shallow. She looked from her daughter’s intense green eyes to the fraudulent letter, then back. “You wouldn’t dare release such information,” she said softly after a moment. “Your father-”

“My father is a fighting man,” Jessica interrupted. “He cares nothing for court intrigue or rumor, so long as his people are protected.” She waved the letter. “This does him no harm . . . only you.”

Rose scowled darkly. “And you would do this to your own mother?”

Jessica shrugged. “You attacked that which I care deepest for,” she said simply. “Don’t think for a second I’d hesitate to do the same in return.” Carefully, she rerolled the letter and replaced it in the scroll-case. Standing, she gave her mother a triumphant look. “Kaleah will be left in peace . . . and in return, so will your reputation and dignity. Do we understand one another?”

Lady Rose was silent, then she nodded. “You leave me little choice.”

Jess smiled coldly. “That’s the idea.”

Turning to leave, Jessica was almost out the door when her mother called out to her. She turned back, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes?”

Lady Rose hesitated, then offered a strange smile. “Well done,” she said quietly.

Jessica was confused. “Huh?”

“I’m pleased to see all the time I put into trying to teach you about court life hasn’t been for nothing,” her mother said. “Strange as it may sound . . . it makes me proud that you could outmaneuver me so easily.” She shrugged. “You were always so busy pursuing your foolish swordplay . . . I never thought you were paying any attention to the things I said.”

Jessica regarded her mother silently, wondering what to say. She had never particularly liked the time she’d been forced to endure with her mother, always preferring the lessons with Sir Miles and even Eric Grace. There’d never been much in common between the two women . . . and Jessica had always resented the way Rose kept her from befriending any of the servants. Still . . . she had won for now. She supposed she could be gracious.

Smiling a little at her mother, Jess shrugged. “You shouldn’t mistake disinterest for inability,” she said quietly. “I learned everything you ever taught me . . . I just chose not to use it.”

Then she turned and left, shutting the door behind her and heading for the kitchen. The unpleasantness of the meeting couldn’t quell her hunger, and she was glad the whole thing was settled. All in all, with her most pressing chore taken care of, the day was looking to be a good one. Kaleah’s safety was assured . . . and she had a massage to look forward to later on that night.

With a spring in her step, the young blonde quickened her pace as she headed through the stone hallway deeper into the keep.

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

While Jessica was busy dealing with the problem of her mother, Kaleah was off on a mission of her own.

The secret passages were a confusing labyrinth to Kaleah, who’d never been good in such directionless places. Without her friend’s guiding presence the dark woman was nervous in the stale, musty darkness. Taking extreme precautions, however, she used the charcoal stick she’d taken to mark every turn she took, and didn’t rush her search. The former slave knew it would cost her time if she got herself lost.

The bathing chamber was located not terribly far from Jessica’s room, down a few hallways and around a few corners. As Kaleah neared the area she figured must be fairly close to the chamber, she slowed even further. Casting the light from the torch she carried over the walls, her sharp eyes began to search for anything out of the ordinary in the stonework.

It only took a minute for her to find what she was looking for; the hole was small, but it’s smooth gold edges stood out clearly from the rough-hewn granite. Grinning in triumph, Kaleah put her eye to the peep-hole and found herself looking into the bathing chamber . . . just as she had suspected.

“My, oh my,” she whispered to herself. “Jessica, my friend . . . it would seem you’re not quite the innocent you appear to be.”

The spy hole gave a surprisingly unrestricted view of most of the room beyond, considering how small it was. From here, Kaleah realized a person would be able to see just about everything that went on in the bathing chamber — realized Jessica had had the perfect view of her as she washed up.

“It’s not nice to spy on people, Jessica,” she admonished to her absent friend softly, remembering the way Jessica had blushed when she’d admitted to using the secrets of Da’Gran to watch the servants and soldiers. “How long have you been doing this?”

Her suspicion confirmed, Kaleah smiled and decided she’d best get back to Jessica’s room before the girl returned and found her missing. As she drew away from the secret hole and started back along the narrow passage, the former slave pondered the ramifications of her discovery.

There was little doubt in her mind but that Jessica had been watching her through the spy-hole as she bathed. It was the best — and pretty much only — explanation for how the young woman had known she was in danger last night. And to Kaleah’s mind, there was only one possible reason why Jessica would be indulging in such voyeurism: she was interested in more than just friendship.

With the bond between the two of them growing markedly stronger every day, Kaleah had been noticing Jessica’s shy looks more and more. The stolen glances . . . the constant blushes . . . the lingering touches and increasing affection. Kaleah grinned. It all told her Jessica felt the same way she did — told her the young woman felt an attraction as strong as her own. And the fact that the young woman had been watching Kaleah bathe indicated she was not only comfortable with being attracted to another woman . . . she was embracing it wholeheartedly.

But even as her heart leapt with desperate joy at the knowledge her love did not go unrequited, Kaleah forced herself to be rational. She reveled for a moment in the intense emotions that flooded her brain, then set her mind to figuring out the next step. She knew Jessica had deeper feelings for her . . . but what was she supposed to do with this information now?

Kaleah had no idea what was normal or appropriate in this type of situation. Sure, she’d had a lot of experience providing sexual pleasure for her masters and their clients . . . but this love she felt was so far removed from anything in the sordid world of slavery she could scarcely draw inspiration from that well. Not that she didn’t want to use her knowledge of physical pleasure as well; she most certainly did. But there was a lot she had to do beforehand. This was the woman she loved, not some callous stranger to be dealt with as quickly as possible and then escaped. She wanted to do this right . . . take things slowly. But what did normal people do?

Kaleah had a vague understanding that perhaps she was supposed to court Jessica somehow, but she had no idea how to go about such an endeavor. According to a few of the romantic stories Jessica had told her, flowers were often considered a suitable gift. But considering the idea, she scoffed.

“Winter only just ended . . . there aren’t any flowers around yet. And somehow, I doubt such a gift would get the message across.”

Okay, so that was out. Maybe she should try the truth.

“Oh, yeah. I can just see that. ‘Hey, Jess, I found your little spy-hole and I know you’ve been watching me get naked and wet . . . Maybe you could join me next time, huh?’” Kaleah laughed to herself and shook her head. Then she smiled wickedly and cocked her head. “On the other hand . . . maybe she’d agree . . .”

Shaking away the licentious thoughts for the moment, she tried to come up with something else. Thinking of what she knew of Jessica’s personality didn’t help much. She knew the girl was a romantic; she loved stories of handsome knights rescuing helpless maidens and such . . . but at the same time, there was a core of calm pragmatism to her as well. A sense of economy and grounded wisdom that clashed with her idealism.

“Maybe Charles could help me,” she pondered aloud as she finally reached the entrance back to Jess’s room and opened it. She liked the young nobleman; he had always been friendly and seemed worthy of trust. She knew he wouldn’t tell Jessica a secret like this, and he could very well have some good advice on matters of courtship. She grinned at the twisted irony of that plan.

“Go to the man Jess is supposed to marry and ask his advice on how I should tell his betrothed that I’m in love with her.” She sighed and slipped into the bedroom, dusting herself off and closing the fireplace behind her. “I wonder how many people have ever thought that would be a good idea.”

Kicking off her boots, the dark-haired woman scrambled back into bed, propping herself against the bedboard and closing her eyes. There had to be something she could do to let Jessica know of her interest. Courtship was all well and good, but from what little she understood of the process, it seemed awfully complicated. Her love was simple; she had faith in it’s power and she knew now that it was reciprocated. Surely there was a more direct way to get the ball rolling.

Suddenly, her eyes snapped open and a slow grin twisted the scar on her lips. There was indeed a more direct approach than courtship, she realized . . . and it’s name was seduction.

Admittedly, Kaleah acknowledged, she had almost the same level of experience with the art of seduction as she had with courtship . . . but the principle idea was much more to her liking. All she really had to do, she figured, was let her desires closer to the surface where her companion could see them. The basic foundation of a good seduction seemed largely composed of a conscious display of one’s attraction. Plus, she thought with a grin, it meant she got to tease the young woman to frustration. She’d never really put a lot of thought into flirting with anyone before, but she very much liked the idea of flirting with her friend.

Confidant that Jessica had been entertaining lustful thoughts of her, the dark-haired woman wasn’t afraid she’d make a fool of herself. And, as she considered the mechanics of her plan, she realized with some surprise that a lot of useful foundations had already been laid. The massage she had promised Jessica came quickly to mind.

Chuckling to herself gleefully, Kaleah crossed her arms over her chest and settled back to wait for her friend’s return. She was already looking forward to the next few days.

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

Juggling a tray bearing two bowls of honeyed oatmeal, a stack of buttered toast and some gently steaming eggs, Jessica struggled a moment but eventually managed to work the door-handle. Kicking the door open, she entered her bedroom, smiling quickly at Kaleah who was still sitting in bed.

“Hey,” she said, pushing the door closed behind her with a hip thrust. “You planning on staying like that all day?”

“Maybe,” the dark woman replied with a strange grin. “You bringing me breakfast in bed isn’t exactly making me want to get up.”

Jessica handed her the tray and, after removing her boots, joined her on the huge, comfortable, and still warm mattress. “Well . . . I ran into Charles and Damon on the way to the kitchen,” she told her friend, taking one of the bowls and stirring the sweet honey into the oatmeal with a spoon. “They were wondering if we might like to join them for a walk. It’s a little cloudy outside, but not too bad. What d’ya think?”

“Sure. Sounds good.”

“Great.” Jessica started eating with enthusiasm, feeling very happy. She was half-way through the oatmeal and had finished off two pieces of toast before she realized that Kaleah hadn’t taken her eyes off her even while she ate her own breakfast. Stopping mid-chew, she looked at her friend curiously. “What’s wrong?”

Kaleah just smiled at her in a rather mysterious way and said, “Nothing.” But her intense blue eyes didn’t stop staring.

“Do I have something on my face?” She wiped at her chin, thinking perhaps she’d smeared honey on herself.

Kaleah’s smile grew a fraction wider. “No.” She slowly devoured a spoonful of honeyed porridge, her eyes never breaking their magnetic contact. Jessica swallowed as her friend very deliberately licked the spoon clean, the smile never wavering.

Feeling a flush rise in her face for some reason she couldn’t identify, Jessica pulled away from the intense regard of those eyes and tried to concentrate on eating. When she quickly glanced back at Kaleah, the dark woman was still watching her, smiling her strange, quiet smile.

There was something about the expression on Kaleah’s face — something in her smile — that was sending shivers across Jessica’s skin. The look was partly like the one Kaleah wore when she was in a playful mood . . . but there was some new, mysterious ingredient Jessica had never seen before. Something that hadn’t been there when she’d left to confront her mother.

“Did you sort everything out?”

“Huh?” Kaleah’s question snapped her out of her contemplation.

“With your mother,” the dark woman clarified. “Is everything alright?”

“What? Oh, right. My mother.” Jessica blushed. “Yeah . . . it’s all fine now. Well . . . maybe fine’s too strong a word, but . . . I don’t think we’ll have any more trouble from her.”

“Good.” Kaleah chewed very slowly on a bite of toasted bread, licking her fingers when she’d finished. “Where are we going to go for our walk?”

Jessica felt butterflies start to flutter in her stomach and for some reason felt very unbalanced. “Um . . . I don’t know. Maybe just out to the woods or somewhere like that. Not too far.”

Kaleah nodded agreeably. “Great. After yesterday, my muscles could use a good stretch.” Jessica watched the woman flex her whole body with a sensuous, feline grace. She looked away a little nervously.

“Me too.”

Jess suddenly realized that something had changed in Kaleah’s voice. The dark woman was talking very softly . . . much lower and throatier than she usually did. The exotic accent that Jessica had grown accustomed too had become huskier, more noticeable. In fact, her whole body language was different. Watching from the corner of her eyes, Jessica noticed the primal, animal tension that usually gripped Kaleah’s body was largely gone . . . replaced with an almost languid, supine relaxation that seemed strangely . . . inviting.

“When did you want to leave?”

Kaleah almost purred the words, and suddenly Jessica’s eyes widened in shock. She felt a moment of pure panic and stared into her friend’s hooded eyes, momentarily struck dumb. The deep, husky tones her friend was using . . . the peculiar expression and body language . . . She had seen them before.

The barmaid in the village had behaved just like this.

Jessica’s brain put everything together and suddenly, she realized what was going on.

Kaleah was flirting with her!

A deliciously raised brow called attention to the fact that she’d been asked a question, but for a long, frightening moment Jessica couldn’t get her mouth to work. It opened and closed, but no words came out. Feeling heat in Kaleah’s playfully amused regard, she flushed and cleared her throat. Thankfully, she managed to get out a strangled reply.

“Um . . . I-I guess . . . anytime would be fine.” She saw the smile on Kaleah’s face turn into a flashing grin. A fever ran through her body and she hastily broke away from the intensity of the dark woman’s gaze. “Maybe after breakfast . . .” she added.

“Great.”

OH MY GOD!! Jessica’s mind recovered enough to start working again. She’s flirting with you!! Is it possible!? Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe she’s just catching a cold or something and it’s making her voice go all husky. Maybe the stress from last night’s doing weird things to her mind. Maybe . . .

“Are you feeling alright?”

Kaleah’s voice intruded; she sounded very pleased with herself. Jessica looked up and saw those blue eyes sparkling playfully . . . saw an open, very clear invitation for her to join the game.

Maybe she’s flirting with you, her mind admitted in awe. I don’t know what the hell happened while you were gone, but something clearly did. God-damn it . . . look at her eyes! They could melt lead!.

Jessica managed a somewhat shaky smile, and nodded. “I’m fine . . . thanks.” Her voice sounded strange in her ears, but Kaleah grinned.

“Good.” The dark woman finally released Jessica from her magnetic gaze and focused on finishing off the rest of the food that Jessica had apparently abandoned. The young blonde breathed a silent sigh of relief, understanding that her friend was giving her a little space to figure this out . . . to grow comfortable with what was happening.

Taking the opportunity to calm her racing heart, Jessica wondered what she was supposed to do now. What had started out as just another, entirely pleasant day had suddenly taken an almost dreamlike turn into uncharted territory. She’d known the last few days had brought her closer to the dark woman . . . had even started to entertain serious thoughts that Kaleah might possibly be romantically interested in her. Certainly, she’d been aware of things getting stronger. . . more binding between them. But this still seemed surprisingly sudden.

Perhaps she just decided she didn’t want to wait any longer, her mind suggested. You’ve been getting pretty damn frustrated lately. If she feels the same — which it’s pretty clear she does — things can’t have been much better for her. Maybe she just figured it was time to make the first move.

That made sense, she knew. Kaleah had probably realized Jessica wasn’t likely to feel comfortable initiating a deeper, more physical relationship . . . which, from the heat in those scorching blue eyes, it certainly seemed was what Kaleah was bucking for. Whatever had prompted the sudden shift, Jessica wasn’t going to argue with it.

She felt her breath catch in her throat as the information finally sunk in; Kaleah desired her. And as she let herself get caught for a heartbeat once more in the magnetic depths of the dark woman’s eyes, she recognized the gentle, patient affection that lay behind the desire . . . Kaleah’s love was the mirror of her own.

A delighted, excited rush flooded through her blood, generating in her heart and spreading outward till even her fingertips tingled. In the split second before she broke the eye-contact, Jessica felt that same intense sensation of recognition, of soul-shattering destiny that had not occurred since the day they’d met. The crooked, roguish smile that tugged at Kaleah’s lips told her the dark woman experienced the same thing, before they mutually looked away.

Suddenly, Jessica was sorry she’d promised Charles they would join him for the walk. She wanted nothing more than to stay here and revel in this exquisite new feeling; to bask in the warm rush and giddy joy she now felt as her heart and soul wrapped themselves in the knowledge that the love they’d nurtured and cared for the past few weeks was not in vain.

Oh well, she thought with a little grin as Kaleah scrapped up the last of the breakfast she’d brought. There was always tonight . . . and the massage she’d been promised.
Chapter 18.
Later that afternoon, as the sun sank ever closer to the distant horizon, Kaleah stood watching her friend from the castle wall, her back braced comfortably against the battlements. Jessica sat in the courtyard below, close enough that Kaleah could make out every detail of her expression as she chatted animatedly with Charles. The former slave knew her friend was aware she was being watched; every now and then, shy green eyes would glance in her direction and a slight flush would color her fair skin. Kaleah was happy to give Jess her space for now, knowing the innocent girl was in need of a little time to adjust.

Grinning quietly to herself, Kaleah sighed contentedly, reflecting on how the day had gone so far.

After breakfast, she and Jessica had found Charles and Damon outside the keep with Sir Miles. Though they had invited him to join them, Miles had begged off, saying he had duties to attend to. So, wishing him a pleasant day, the four friends had hiked out a few miles to the woods, where they spent several hours just exploring through the thick undergrowth. As they wandered about, Kaleah had taken every opportunity to brush up against the young blonde . . . and after a while, Jessica had started to timidly return the contact.

Kaleah had enjoyed Jessica’s reaction to her gentle flirtations. At breakfast, she’d clearly been surprised . . . but that had soon changed to an almost dazed comprehension which, as the young woman grew more comfortable as the day wore on, changed again into a hesitant reciprocation which Kaleah encouraged with warm smiles.

In the company of Charles and Damon, Kaleah had decided not to be too suggestive about her advances. Still, the heated looks she threw Jessica from time to time, and the quiet, inviting smile she adopted proved more than effective. Jessica had spent so much time blushing and stumbling distractedly over every fallen branch that crossed her path that eventually Charles had asked her if she was feeling okay. Jessica’s mumbled, embarrassed response to that had been followed by a warning glare at Kaleah, who had simply smirked and shrugged slightly.

On the return trip, Kaleah had allowed herself to drift back a few paces, falling into stride just behind and a little to the left of her blonde friend. In that position, she’d been free to let her admiring eyes wander further over the young woman’s body. At one point, Jessica had turned just in time to ‘catch’ Kaleah with her eyes fixed firmly on her backside. Kaleah had grinned at Jessica’s expression, and at the subtle ‘not now’ gesture she’d thrown with a nod at Charles and his body-guard. Still, the former slave hadn’t missed the sudden, enticing swagger Jessica’s stride developed for the rest of the walk.

Once back at the castle, Damon had left them to join Sir Miles, who was training with the soldiers on the jousting field, but Jessica asked Charles to remain with them. Kaleah had frowned at this . . . before she caught the sly, teasing smile the girl threw her. Apparently, Jess had decided to play the game, too.

They had just finished a light lunch together in the courtyard, watching the bustle of soldiers, servants and commoners as they went about their business; or at least, Charles had watched the bustle, while Jessica watched with extremely wide eyes as Kaleah set about finding the most suggestive way possible to devour a chicken drumstick. Then, deciding it was probably time to give her companion a break, Kaleah had made up an excuse and left the two alone, coming up here where she could continue to watch her friend . . . but where she was far enough away that the young woman had the privacy to talk with Charles.

All in all, Kaleah judged the day to be a good start. And of course, there was still more to come. She wondered if Jessica would start to feel uneasy once they were alone again. The young blonde had started to return the looks Kaleah gave with ones of her own . . . had shyly encouraged the dark woman’s advances. Kaleah hoped that would continue later on.

“Ye found a comfy roost here, I see.”

The voice startled her, and she spun about to find Sir Miles standing calmly not ten feet away. “Oh . . . it’s you.” Her body released some of it’s surprised tension . . . but not all. She suppressed a frown of displeasure. “I thought you were at the jousting field.”

The old knight shrugged. “Damon took over,” he explained. He watched her with knowing eyes, seeing the wary posture. “Ye have a nice walk?”

“Fine, thank you.” She stared at him a moment longer, then turned back to watching her friend, dousing the fires in her eyes. She hoped Sir Miles would take the hint and leave, but instead he stepped closer and joined her observation.

She had not really spoken to Miles since their fight when she’d first come to Da’Gran. While he sometimes watched her sparring sessions with Jessica, the elder knight had not approached her directly since that day. In truth, Kaleah felt a little embarrassed about her behavior . . . about the way she’d reacted to him at first. But it was hard for her to offer an apology, so she’d just avoided him. As he joined her now on the wall, she wondered if he was going to take the first step for her.

“Been watching you,” he said after a long period of very awkward silence. He nodded towards Jessica. “Ye look at that girl with fire in your eyes.”

The words took Kaleah by surprise. Her head snapped around and she stared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded angrily.

He just smiled into his beard and raised a bushy eyebrow. “Ah think ye know what I mean, lass,” he said softly. “The way ye been watchin’ Jess these last few weeks . . . ain’t hard to tell what ye been thinkin’ about her.”

She stared at him for several seconds, seeing calm, unwavering certainty in his eyes. Then, knowing he wasn’t going to look away first, she shrugged and went back to watching Jessica. “So what?”

Miles folded his arms over his broad chest, cupping the stump of his right arm with his left hand. “I ain’t one to pass judgement,” he said after a moment of silence. He picked his words carefully. “But I care a lot fer that girl.”

“So do I.”

“Aye . . . I kin see that. And I’m sure you prob’ly know I want only what’s good fer Jessica.”

Kaleah’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and she turned their force against him. “Are you suggesting that I’m not good for Jessica?” she asked, her voice very soft. “Because if that’s why you’re here, you’re wasting your breath.”

Miles held his hand up in peace. “I’m not here to suggest any such thing, lass,” he assured her. “Since you came to Da’Gran, Jess’s been happier than I’ve ever seen ‘er in her whole life.”

Kaleah heard the sincerity in his tone, and felt her anger evaporate quickly. “Really?”

“Aye, really. And I know her better than most folk ‘round here.” He gave Kaleah a warm smile. “Ye been very good for ‘er, lass.”

Kaleah’s mind stumbled for a moment, then she returned the smile with one of her own. “Then . . . what’s your point?”

Miles regarded her seriously. “Ye got a mind to be tellin’ Jess how ye feel?” he asked.

She nodded. “She deserves to know.”

“Aye . . . that she does.” He looked at the young woman below them fondly, then back to Kaleah. “But from the way you was lookin’ at her just now . . . I’d say yer thoughts were takin’ a pretty serious path.”

Kaleah frowned. “I love Jessica,” she stated firmly. “There’s nothing wrong with the way I think about her. I’d never force my desires on anyone . . . and certainly not on her.” She paused. “I’ve been on the receiving end of that too many times myself.”

Miles heard the quiet sadness in her voice and nodded in understanding. “Aye . . . I’ve no doubt if Jess said she weren’t interested, you’d leave the matter to rest. But it’s what happens if she is interested that brings me up here.”

Something in his tone set off bells in Kaleah’s mind. She studied Miles’ face carefully. “Has she . . . said anything to you?”

Miles laughed and stroked his beard. “If’n she had . . . d’ya think I’d be betrayin’ her words to you?”

Kaleah considered that and smiled. “I guess not.” It didn’t really matter, she supposed. It was clear to her now that Jessica returned her feelings. But still, it was nice to think the young woman had been sure of her heart enough to share things with another person. “Regardless . . . I’m letting her know how I feel.”

“Aye, I kin see. Yer eyes looked like hot coals just now when ye was lookin’ at her.” His face became serious again. “I don’t want to be seein’ Jess get burned by those coals . . . if ye understand me?”

Kaleah frowned. “You think I’d hurt her?”

“Nay . . . at least not knowingly.” Miles took a second to phrase his concerns, wanting Kaleah to understand, but not wanting to aggravate her volatile defenses. “But ye have to understand that Jessica’s . . . just a child in a lot of ways,” he said carefully. “She may talk and think and fight like a veteran soldier . . . and in a lot of ways she’s older than most. But in other ways — in the ways ye’ve clearly been thinkin’ of her — she’s still just a child.”

Kaleah listened carefully, and realized what Miles was getting at. “I know Jessica’s a virgin,” she said bluntly. “I’m not stupid. And I know she’s probably got only a vague idea of . . . what goes on in the bedroom. But with all due respect, Sir Miles . . .” she grinned, “just because she’s inexperienced doesn’t mean she’s innocent of desire. Believe me . . . I’m sure she’s had thoughts that are anything but those of a child.”

“Oh, aye?” Miles sensed Kaleah spoke from some kind of secret knowledge, and he wondered what it was. “So ye think to be winnin’ her over, eh?”

Kaleah smiled confidently, and nodded. “I can feel her inside my soul,” she said with absolute certainty. “I know she can feel me in hers.” Her expression grew serious as she looked at Miles, and she appreciated that he had come to her with his concern. “You needn’t fear my desire for Jessica, Sir Miles,” she assured him. “I’ve never known anyone as special as she is . . . and I’m not taking this situation lightly. There’s no way I’m going to rush into anything or do anything that she might regret afterwards.” She smiled. “Slow and easy . . . that’s my plan.”

Miles nodded slowly, remembering what Jessica had said about feeling Kaleah in her soul. Those words almost matched the ones he heard now, and he thought maybe Jessica was right afterall; perhaps they were meant to be together.

“Well . . . Good then.” He smiled at her and cast a last fond glance at Jessica. “I hope ye realize just how great a gift that girl’s love is,” he said softly.

Kaleah watched her friend as she sat, talking with Charles. “I do.”

Giving Kaleah a final, gruff pat on the arm, Miles grunted and headed back along the wall towards the stairs. Kaleah bit her lip, unsure for a moment, then rolled her eyes at herself. What the hell.

“Miles?”

The knight stopped and half-turned. “Aye?”

“Maybe next time Jess and I are training . . . if you’re not busy, you could . . . you know, join us. I mean, if you wanted to.” Kaleah winced at how awkward she sounded, even to her own ears. But Miles just smiled warmly at her, nodding slightly.

“Aye . . . that’d be nice.” He gave her a quick once over and winked. “You’ve been gettin’ better with yer temper, I’ve noticed. Be interestin’ to see just how far ye’ve come.” Then he turned and left her alone with her thoughts again, disappearing back in the direction of the jousting field.

Kaleah returned her attention back to Jessica, who gave her a curious look. Obviously, she’d noticed the exchange, and was wondering what it had been about. The dark woman gave her a reassuring smile to let her know everything was okay, then let her regard turn sultry again. Jessica instantly turned back to her conversation with Charles, her blush visible even from the battlement.

Kaleah grinned. This seduction thing was definitely the way to go.

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

“So . . .” Kaleah folded her hands behind her head and leaned back against the headboard on Jessica’s bed, wriggling her toes. “Did you enjoy today?”

Jessica shut the door behind her and nodded. “Yeah. I-it was great. Charles told me my father’s not sure about Sir William’s sincerity, just like we figured . . . and apparently Damon’s joining a group of soldiers heading to the village tomorrow. It seems there was a fire there the other night; the commoners asked for help doing some rebuilding. I thought maybe I’d go with them.” She smiled a little shyly. “You feel like coming with me?”

Kaleah shook her head regretfully. “I’d love to, but I already promised Sutton I’d help him at the forge.” She hadn’t been putting in much time at the anvil lately, and the blacksmith had been asking for a little assistance with a new cache of swords Sir Richard wanted. “I think he could really use another pair of hands, and besides . . .” Her voice took on a husky tone. “. . . I’m a big believer in keeping important skills . . . . fresh in ones mind.”

Jessica flushed, marveling how the dark woman could make even the simplest statement sound incredibly erotic. It’s gotta be the accent, her mind decided. Still, she was disappointed.

“That’s too bad,” she said, kicking off one boot, then struggling with the other. “I was looking forward to spending the day with you. I’ve never gone on one of these volunteer things before . . . I thought it would be interesting.”

Kaleah watched her friend eventually wrestle the stubborn boot off her foot, then toss it next to its mate. “Sounds like we’ll both be working hard tomorrow, huh?”

Jessica grunted, hesitating a moment before she joined the dark woman on the bed. For Gods sake, her mind chuckled. You’ve been dreaming of this kind of situation for weeks, and now all of a sudden you get nervous? It’s not like she’s gonna jump on you . . . she’s just flirting! Relax and enjoy it.

Deciding that was good advice, Jessica let go of the nervous excitement that had plagued her all day and allowed her body to sink into the soft blankets with a sigh.

She really had enjoyed her companions not-so-subtle advances. The way Kaleah had been looking at her all day — the way her eyes had roamed across her body — made her feel giddy and almost light-headed. She’d always found the dark woman mesmerisingly beautiful and sexually alluring . . . but now that Kaleah was deliberately working at being seductive, the young blonde was discovering a whole new level of arousal; one that had settled over the day into a delicious ache that pulled low in her gut, and made her whole body amazingly responsive to even the slightest contact.

It seemed strange how suddenly things had changed. When she’d woken up this morning, everything had been normal; her feelings had been under control . . . her love growing steadily but still safely hidden. Now, just a few hours later, her relationship with Kaleah had changed in the most wonderful way. The changes had occurred on a subtle level, too, without the need for words. Kaleah had made her affection and desire obvious in her looks and her body language . . . nothing had been said directly.

It was a little weird trying to adjust to the new dimension . . . to the idea that she could be a bit more obvious in her own attraction and not have to fear being discovered. And it was strange having Kaleah suddenly looking at her with uninhibited appreciation and desire. Strange, she thought, but rather flattering, too.

Considering things as she closed her eyes and felt Kaleah’s eyes roaming again down her body, Jess acknowledged that even though the relationship was changing, the most important things remained just as they’d always been. Kaleah was the still the same person she’d been last night when they’d fallen asleep in each other’s arms. Maybe she was behaving a little differently . . . but it was a good difference. When she thought about it that way, Jessica realized there was no real reason to be nervous — or even shy — about this stuff. Kaleah was still her friend . . . still the same woman she’d always been. And even though the circumstances were new, Jessica trusted the woman not to push things.

There was nothing to fear.

Opening her eyes, she glanced up at Kaleah. “Are you hungry?” Her own stomach was growling a little.

Kaleah eyes grew hooded, their cerulean depths darkening visibly. “Oh, I’m very hungry . . .” she purred, waggling her eyebrows.

Jessica felt her face start to blush again, but she forced her rising blood down. It was about time she gave Kaleah a little of her own medicine, she figured, so instead of looking away, she just raised an eyebrow and assumed a look of perfect innocence. “I could get us some dinner, if you like.”

Kaleah smiled. “Yeah . . . dinner’d be nice, too.” She paused, then added, “Nothing too heavy, though. I’m still pretty full from lunch.”

Jessica grinned. “You certainly did seem to enjoy the chicken,” she said wryly, remembering the dark woman’s erotic lunch-time display.

Kaleah’s voice dropped a full octave. “Well . . . there’s nothing like a nice, succulent, tender drumstick to satisfy ones appetite.” She licked her lips enticingly, but Jessica didn’t even flinch now. She just smiled her best naïve-young-maiden smile.

“I thought it was a little oily, myself.” A raised eyebrow invited Kaleah to take the bait, which she happy did.

“It wasn’t oily, Jessica . . . it was juicy.” Kaleah leaned forward. “And there’s nothing quite so tasty as fresh young meat cooked in it’s own sweet juices . . .”

They looked at each other a moment, sparks flying between them, before Jessica couldn’t help herself and broke into a grin, which quickly turned into laughter. The sexually charged tension broke, and Kaleah joined her mirth.

When the chuckles subsided, Jessica wiped her eyes and rolled off the bed. “Wait here,” she smiled, tugging her boots back on. “I’ll be back in a minute. I think soup should be pretty safe.”

Kaleah grinned wickedly. “Wanna bet?”

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

Twenty minutes later, Jessica was feeling very relieved she hadn’t accepted the wager.

Kaleah set her empty bowl back on the tray Jessica had brought, and sat back with a very contented sigh. From under half-closed lids, she watched her friend hastily finish off her own soup, pleased at how successful she’d been at distracting the young woman . . . though it had been a challenge to figure out a suggestive way to consume soup.

“That was nice,” she said throatily as Jessica set her bowl on the tray and set the tray on the table just next to the bed. With her hands folded over a satisfyingly full belly, Kaleah muffled a belch and let her body recline lower against the headboard.

“Yeah.” Jessica smiled, thinking ‘nice’ wasn’t exactly the way she’d choose to describe her companions eating style. I never thought eating soup could pass as a method of seduction, she thought as she lay across the length of her bed. I guess maybe Kaleah’s just more creative than most. She wondered with a shiver if the dark woman’s creativity would extend beyond this playful teasing . . .

Probably.

Glancing at the window, Jessica frowned. “It’s getting dark,” she observed. She’d lit a few candles when she returned with their meal, but the chill was rising as the sun disappeared. “Should I light a fire?”

“If you like.” The dark woman’s voice took on a very sexy tone that caused a tightening in Jessica’s stomach. “But if you’re cold . . . I’m sure I could warm you up . . .”

Jess repressed the part of her that wanted to ask Kaleah just how she planned to do that; she wasn’t ready to call the dark woman on that step just yet. So she settled on a mildly amused but coy look, and a half smile. “Another time, maybe.”

Kaleah grinned at that, and sat back contentedly to watch as her blonde counterpart got up and set about the task of building the fire. Already hooded lids dropped lower still as she let desire-soaked eyes roam at will across Jessica’s body. Kaleah admired the firm, toned muscle that was evident even under the simple shirt, and let herself grow lost in the young woman’s enticing curves. When Jessica sat up a little straighter and froze for a second, she smiled, knowing the girl could feel the heat of her appraisal without even having to turn around.

Bent over the fireplace, feeling the force of her companions eyes on her body, Jessica gave a mental shrug and very deliberately leant over her work further than was really necessary. As the daughter of a lord knight, Jessica was used to being put on display. But as she tensed her body and arched her back a little, giving her audience a better view of her more interesting attributes, the young woman couldn’t help but blush a little at her own behavior.

For someone who’s lived a chaste and modest existence, her mind grinned, you sure can act like a hussy when you’ve got the right incentive.

Sneaking a glance behind her, seeing Kaleah’s amused but very attentive regard, Jessica grinned. She was really starting to enjoy this teasing game . . . especially now that she was loosening up a little.

Quickly finishing her task, Jessica expertly struck flint to striker and coaxed the resulting spark into a small flame. Blowing gently, she managed to get the light wood burning nicely, and spent a few minutes making sure the fire was okay before standing up. Aware of the eyes still watching her, she gave a slow, languorous stretch, groaning dramatically.

“Urgh . . . I’m still a little stiff from yesterday,” she groaned, turning around and fixing emerald eyes on her friend. She rubbed her neck. “I hope I’m not too sore tomorrow . . . the work in the village’ll probably be pretty strenuous.”

Kaleah grinned, knowing full well what the young woman was driving at. She sat up a fraction, more than happy to play along. “Well, we don’t want the princess to be sore, now do we?”

“Uh uh.”

“And I believe I promised you a massage tonight, didn’t I?”

Jessica cocked her head thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I do seem to recall something like that being offered, yeah.” She smiled what she hoped was a sexy smile. “Does it still stand?”

“Of course . . . anything you want.” Kaleah sat up and got off the bed. “I want you to be happy, Jessica,” she said in silky tones as she stepped closer to the young woman. When she was only a foot or two away, she stopped and gazed down into the suddenly shy eyes of her friend. “Would a massage make you happy?”

Jessica swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat, but managed a nod.

“Fine.” Kaleah broke the eye contact and stepped past the young woman. “Take your shirt off and lie down on your stomach.” She started sifting through the items on one of the dresser drawers, searching for something.

Jessica shook her head to clear it of the fuzziness it had developed, then glanced back a little nervously. Her fingers toyed with the edges of the shirt, but she hesitated to remove it. She’d been topless around Kaleah before . . . but things were different now. Touches that had been innocent before that morning took on a greater depth and significance in light of the new sexual chemistry that had developed.

Kaleah continued to rummage through the vials of perfume and oils on the dresser, her back turned. Jessica realized the dark woman was giving her the time and privacy to undress and get on the bed, and the simple gesture brought a measure of reassurance. Kaleah wasn’t going any faster than Jessica could handle . . . and the innocent blonde appreciated that.

Turning, she quickly pulled the shirt over her head and tossed it on the bed, running her fingers through her hair to settle it. Half-turning, she silently thanked Kaleah for being so considerate . . . only to blush deeply and hastily lie down on the mattress when she saw that the dark woman was watching her with great interest in the mirrors, which gave her a very clear view of everything.

“That was low,” she mumbled as she settled herself and tried to get her face to stop glowing. Kaleah had excellent hearing . . . Jess knew she heard the comment and could almost see the cheeky grin that flashed across the dark woman’s face. Turning a little, keeping her breasts covered, she glanced back her friend. “What are you looking for?”

Kaleah finished her rummaging and held up a clear glass vial filled with a thick, slightly purple liquid. “This.”

Jessica recognized the vial and her eyes narrowed. “That’s scented burning oil,” she said. “Why would you want that?”

Kaleah smiled mysteriously. “For your massage, of course. You don’t have any proper oils . . . but this’ll do fine.”

Jess’s eyes widened. “You’re going to rub that into my skin? Kaleah, that stuff came from France! It cost a fortune!”

“So?” The dark woman removed the small stopper and took a sniff. She smiled. “Do you ever use it?”

Jessica’s eyes flickered and dropped. “Sometimes.”

“Uh huh . . . like when?” When the young blonde didn’t answer, Kaleah just nodded. From what she’d seen of Jessica, it was clear the girl collected things like the oil — things that other nobles would consider essential — but rarely ever actually used them. She seemed to just like having them around for display; if something wasn’t actually useful, she tended to ignore it. “Trust me . . you’ll get your money’s worth better this way than you ever will from burning it.”

Jessica regarded her skeptically for a moment, then turned back so she was lying flat. “Fine.”

Kaleah grinned and stepped up onto the bed. Very slowly, making sure the young woman understood what she was doing, Kaleah stood over the horizontal body and lowered herself gently until she was straddling the girl’s buttocks. Keeping her thigh muscles tense to absorb most of her weight, she settled herself lightly onto the young blonde.

“Is this okay?”

Jessica swallowed audibly, but managed to croak out a “Yes.”

Kaleah gathered up the blonde hair into a tail and pushed it over the girls shoulders. Settling her hands reassuringly on tense shoulders, she admired the exposed flesh, noticing every tiny scar and freckle. “I’m not too heavy for you, am I?”

“No . . . th-that’s fine.”

Jessica could feel Kaleah’s primal strength radiating outward, felt it surround and embrace her half-naked body in a way that was not smothering or forceful . . . but rather, gentle and protective. The hands on her shoulders squeezed slightly, then disappeared. She sensed motion above her, then felt their warmth return and begin to move over her back. Powerful fingers slid with sensual, liquid ease over tight muscle, slowly but with profound intensity. The sharp smell of jasmine reached her nostrils, and she detected an erotic friction between her body and those magic hands. With a throaty moan of surprised pleasure, she realized the dark woman was spreading the scented oil over her skin.

After a few minutes spent just soaking in the sensations Kaleah’s touch inspired, Jessica had to admit the idea of using the oil was a good one. She’d never cared enough to burn the expensive oils . . . but she was gaining a new appreciation for their use as they allowed Kaleah’s hands to glide with silken, smooth motions over her body.

“Feel good?” She heard the smile in the low voice above her, and realized little sounds of pleasure were escaping her throat.

“It . . .” She cleared her throat. “It’s very nice. Thank you.” The hands slid in perfect accord along her rib-cage, running with teasing patience ever lower. Jessica couldn’t hold back the gasp that escaped her as she felt the electric light touch of fingers against the sides of her breasts.

“Ooops . . . Sorry about that.” The hands retreated to the safer region of her shoulders and neck, their movements slow and very attentive.

Jessica didn’t trust herself to speak; if she opened her mouth, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop herself from asking that the hands continue the tantalizing journey they’d only just hinted at.

Although it wasn’t the first time Kaleah had given her a massage, Jessica knew this was different to the experience of weeks before. Then, Kaleah’s hands had been firm and strong, searching out and relieving the tension in her muscles. Now, however, the touch was softer and more sensuous. Kaleah wasn’t trying to ease discomfort, Jessica realized . . . she was seeking to arouse . . . to stimulate.

And, the young blonde thought with a flush, she was succeeding admirably.

Jessica’s body felt like it was on fire; every nerve ending was alive and eagerly receptive to the hands that slid over her sensitive skin. Her heart was racing; she felt lightheaded . . . probably because most of the blood in her body was going to more needful places than her brain. The coiling tension in her gut was overwhelmed by the steady, pulsing pressure that settled between her legs, it’s relentless ache crying out to be satisfied. And although Jessica was innocent to the demands of such sexual arousal, her body knew enough to want to start pushing those sensitive areas into the mattress beneath her.

With the gentle weight of Kaleah’s body settled squarely on her butt, Jessica could feel the wetness starting to build. And thinking about exactly what part of Kaleah’s body was pressing the hardest against her didn’t help to stem the flow of her desire.

Jessica whimpered quietly. She had never in her whole life felt so stimulated. Had never in her life wanted anything so badly as she now wanted to just roll over and beg Kaleah to let her hands finish the job.

The young woman was so wrapped up in her own twisting, intense arousal that she was completely unaware of the fire building slowly in the woman providing this pleasure.

Kaleah’s eyes feasted with fixed, unblinking awe on the subtle shift and motion of her beloved’s back. Her hands moved with a will of their own over Jessica’s skin, spreading the liquid oil over every inch, making the young woman’s body glow like rich gold in the dancing light of the candles and fire. Her brain struggled to comprehend the intimate contact . . . to accept the emotions caused by the depth of her love and desire.

In all her life, the former slave had never wanted anything with this kind of passionate intensity. She couldn’t even remember wanting her freedom as much as she now wanted simply to be allowed to love Jessica. It was hard to get used to these new, incredibly powerful feelings; the need to protect and care for this wonderful young woman . . . the trust she now gave without effort or will. Everything was all so new . . . but in some strange way Kaleah couldn’t explain, it was also as ancient and timeless as the earth itself.

On some deep, intangible level . . . Kaleah knew she had always felt this way.

And knew she always would.

When she let her hands roam down and caress the outer curve of Jessica’s breasts, Kaleah smiled at the young woman’s swift response. As a slave, she had been taught the art of sensual massage and the body’s natural pleasure centers . . . and it wasn’t long before the effect of using those skills on the woman she loved started to take it’s inevitable toll on her own hyper-sensitive body.

While her hands applied a slow, gentle pressure to every sensitive part of the young woman’s back, Kaleah felt her breathing grow shallow and strained. Sapphire eyes darkened to the color of the midnight sky, and a light sweat broke out across her forehead. But it was only when she realized that her hips had started to slowly and erotically grind her center against Jessica’s backside that Kaleah took a deep, shaky breath and realized she needed to slow down; not just for Jessica’s sake, but for her own.

Shaking her head a little, trying to regain control of a desire so strong it was frightening, Kaleah focused her attention and managed to stop the rocking of her hips. She couldn’t tell if Jessica had noticed, but thought it unlikely. The young woman was very quietly whimpering, seemingly lost in the sensations Kaleah suspected were very new to her. The scent of the jasmine oil thankfully overwhelmed the musky scent of her arousal, and Kaleah gave herself a stern reprimand for getting carried away.

Take it slowly, remember, she told herself. She likes what you’re doing to her . . . don’t spoil that by giving more than she’s ready to take. So much of your life has been awful and cruel. You want this one thing to be perfect . . . for both of you.

Calm again, though her body still screamed for satisfaction, Kaleah smiled as she felt more than heard the soft, pleasured sounds coming from the body moving slightly under her fingertips. Knowing the effect she was having on the young woman almost made her start that slow grind once more. Her sex was heated and slick with arousal . . . she had never wanted release more in her whole life! And the knowledge that she wasn’t going to get it just made the ache more intense.

But at the same time . . . it also made her want to drag this sweet torture out for as long as she possibly could.

Sweeping her hands down very low over Jessica’s back, Kaleah let her thumbs press into the young woman’s tail-bone. The action earned her a deep moan, and she smiled. Leaning down carefully, the dark woman brought her lips closer to Jess’s ear.

“I like the way you sound,” she breathed softly. Another whimper. “Are you enjoying this?”

Jessica struggled visibly with herself, but words seemed beyond her. Kaleah’s smile grew wider.

“Would you like me to stop?” Her hands stilled their movements.

Instantly, Jessica shook her head violently. “N-no . .” she pleaded. “Please . . . keep going.”

Kaleah’s hands resumed their explorations, dipping down several times to wander teasingly close to Jessica’s breasts. When the young woman lifted herself slightly, inviting them to roam further, the former slave pulled them back to more familiar ground. Jessica groaned quietly, but settled back down.

“You know,” Kaleah said conversationally, “when I was a slave, I was taught every possible way there is to arouse a person . . . every way to give pleasure.”

Jessica closed her eyes and tried very hard not to concentrate on the feel of the dark woman’s body pressing her deeper into the mattress. She had a feeling she was pushing the limits of her endurance with this glorious torment . . . but she didn’t want it to stop just yet. Kaleah’s voice continued.

“I always hated the lessons they gave me . . . and I hated even more having to use the skills I acquired. But right now . . .” Her fingertips caressed the faint scars that marred the perfect body under her. “. . . Right now . . . I’m almost grateful for everything I was taught.” She leaned down again and breathed into Jessica’s left ear. “You’ve given me back my life, Jessica. It feels good knowing that I can thank you like this . . . Knowing that I can give you this pleasure.”

Jessica’s body was starting to tremble, the overwhelming strain of suppressing her desire becoming too much for the inexperienced girl. Kaleah felt her own need reaching a dangerous level, and decided it was time to end the massage. If it went on any longer, she feared she might not be able to stop herself from taking it too far.

Letting her hands slow, Kaleah finally withdrew them from Jessica’s back. She heard the young woman stop breathing, anticipating their return, but regretfully, she lifted a leg and rolled off her friend. Her heated center cried out at the lost contact, but she ignored it. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm the fire in her blood.

“I think that’s enough . . .”

Green eyes dark with desire pinned her instantly as a hand shot out in desperation, latching onto her arm. Jessica sat up a little, forgetting her modesty in the quest to get those hands to resume their delicious stimulation.

“Please,” she begged, her eyes imploring. “C-can you keep going . . . just for a few minutes?”

Kaleah looked away, knowing if Jessica insisted she could never deny her. “I . . . really think we should stop,” she whispered.

“Why?”

Gently taking the hand that clutched at her, Kaleah gazed into the desperate eyes of her friend. She didn’t want to hurt Jessica, but she had to make the girl understand. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, the dark woman held her friend’s hand.

“I want to make you happy-”

“You were!” Tears of frustration appeared in Jessica’s eyes, and Kaleah scolded herself.

“I shouldn’t have taken it so far-”

“I liked it . . . Please? Don’t stop . . .”

Kaleah was tempted, but only for a moment. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. But if I keep going . . . I don’t know if I could . . .” She trailed off, searching for a sign of understanding in Jessica’s eyes.

After a moment, she found it. Jessica reluctantly let go her death-grip and nodded slightly. “Okay,” she said very softly. Reaching out, the young woman grabbed her shirt and held it to her chest as she sat up. Taking a shaky, tremulous breath, she couldn’t help but grin a little sheepishly. “Guess I got a little carried away, huh?”

Kaleah returned her smile, glad that her friend could understand. “I think we both did.”

A blonde brow raised hopefully. “You want me to . . . return the favor?”

Kaleah shook her head, and Jessica’s expression turned from hopeful to disappointed.

“Why not? It’s only fair, after all.”

Kaleah’s face turned a darker shade of bronze as she blushed. “Maybe tomorrow, huh? I don’t think now’s a very good time.”

Jessica’s brow furrowed in confusion. “It’s not?”

“No.” Kaleah gave her friend a roguish smile and tried to find the words that would explain her situation to the sweetly naïve girl. “I’m kinda . . . on the edge, if you know what I mean . . ?” She wasn’t sure how much Jessica knew about sex.

When the green eyes suddenly widened and the young woman gasped, however, Kaleah was grateful to whatever God had saved her from having to explain her situation more fully.

Jessica stared at Kaleah for a long moment, just absorbing the information. “You mean . . . you . . .”

Kaleah nodded.

Jessica’s mouth hung open. “Oh.”

You never even touched her . . . Her mind struggled to figure out the mechanics of an act she had only a very vague comprehension of, and she eventually concluded that there was obviously more to this sex thing than she was aware.

A slow smile appeared on her face. “I guess that means you . . . enjoyed the massage as well, huh?”

Kaleah grinned bashfully. “You could say that,” she admitted. “But I’m not forgetting this. You owe me, alright?”

“Sure. Anytime you want.” Jessica hesitated, letting her head fall forward so her long hair hid the color in her cheeks “I . . . really enjoyed myself, too.” Her undergarments were soaked, but thankfully all she could smell was the scented oil. Tomorrow, you’re gonna need to take a bath before you leave the castle, her mind noted for her. To bad you can’t make it a cold one.

The fire crackled loudly just then, and Jessica glanced at the dying flames. “Should I put more wood on that?”

Kaleah shook her head. “I think the fire’s burned hot enough for tonight . . . don’t you?”

Jessica nodded, understanding the real message. “Yeah . . . I guess so.” She yawned suddenly, and grinned. “I don’t know how much sleep I’m gonna get after that massage . . . but I’m kind of tired.”

“Mmm.” Kaleah was feeling the effects of a very busy day herself. “We’ll both be working hard tomorrow. We should probably get what rest we can.” A dark brow lifted. “You mind if I . . . ?” She pulled back the covers.

Jessica shook her head. “Not at all. You’re probably still a little nervous after the attack, naturally.”

Kaleah grinned and got under the blankets. “Right . . . The attack.”

Jessica considered a moment, wondering if she should be going to bed without washing off the oil. Did she want to be sleeping with the smell of jasmine for the next week?

Kaleah read her hesitation and said, “Don’t worry about it. Just put the shirt on and leave it till tomorrow.” A pause. “I think it smells nice, anyway.”

That clinched it. Jessica turned away while she quickly dragged the simple tunic over her head, tugging her hair free and ruffling it into messy order before getting up to snuff the few candles that lit the room. When all was dark again, she joined her companion in the warm bed.

At first, Jess was unsure if she should initiate the same level of contact as she had the night before. In light of the new dimension to their relationship, was it appropriate to get that close? How would her touch affect Kaleah? Or maybe more importantly, how might it affect her?

Her uncertainly was made redundant, however, when Kaleah swiftly wrapped long arms and legs about her body and pulled her close into an embrace. She felt the entire length of the tall woman’s body curl about her, trapping her in a soft cocoon of comfort and safety. She sighed.

“Just relax,” said the deep voice, Kaleah’s breath tickling her ear. “I just want to hold you . . . okay?”

“Sure.” Jessica snuggled back, enjoying the contact that was no longer trying to stimulate, but seemed only loving and affectionate. Still, her body wasn’t going to forget the massage so soon, and the teasing ache was still strong.

Not going to get a lot of rest tonight, I’m afraid, her mind told her.

Wrapped in the darkness, feeling frustrated but very happy, Jessica’s mind turned it’s consideration quite naturally to the amazing new developments the day had brought.

It was sudden, she thought . . . but somehow felt perfectly right. The love she had worked so hard to hide was now free to shine in the company of the dark woman, and the knowledge that Kaleah returned her feelings made her feel like she was caught up in one of the romantic stories she so loved to read. Only this was all real . . . even if it was strange.

That thought reminded her of something, and she decided now was as good a time as any to ask the question that had plagued her all day.

“Kaleah?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I ask you a question?”

A moment of amused silence. “If I say no . . . will you ask it anyway?”

She grinned. “Probably.”

“I guess you might as well go ahead then. What’s the question?”

She considered a moment, then asked, “Did something happen this morning that I don’t know about?”

There was no answer for a long time, and she felt Kaleah’s body shift. “Why do you ask?”

“Well . . . I’m just trying to figure some stuff out, that’s all,” she explained. “When I got back from talking to my mother, you started acting . . .” She searched for an appropriate word. “. . . strangely.”

“Did I?”

“Yes . . . And you can wipe that grin off your face, Kaleah. You know what I’m talking about.”

“You can’t see me grinning.”

“No, but I can hear it.”

A pause. “It’s not bothering you, is it? The way I’m acting?” The smile was gone in the voice, and Jessica knew Kaleah was asking seriously. “I mean . . . I didn’t think you minded.”

“No,” she said quickly.

“If it’s making you uncomfortable . . . you can just tell me. I’ll stop if you want.”

“No . . . I don’t mind the way you’re acting at all.”

Jessica realized suddenly that this was the first time they had actually talked about what was going on. She had accepted the playful flirting and the lust-filled looks that had grown more serious as the day wore on, and she knew Kaleah wouldn’t have continued them if she had discouraged her. But still, the dark woman was ready to stop if she said the word. It made Jessica feel more in control . . . reassured her that she really was safe.

The arms wrapped around her squeezed a little, hugging her to the body behind. “I didn’t think so. You know . . . I’d never do anything you didn’t want me to, Jessica.” The words were spoken very softly, very sincerely.

She smiled. “I know you wouldn’t,” she whispered. “And you know I’d never hurt you . . . or leave you.”

A long stretch of silence. “I know.”

“So . . ?”

“So . . . what?”

“Answer the question.”

“What was the question again?”

Jessica growled and felt a chuckle vibrate through her bed-mate. “You think you’re funny?”

“No. I think you sound cute when you get frustrated and make that noise.”

“’Frustrated’ is a polite word for what I am, Kaleah . . . thanks to you.”

She heard the grin again. “Glad to do whatever I can.” The voice turned sultry. “But you know, Jess . . . there’s nothing wrong with being frustrated.”

She snorted. “Tell that to my . . .” She blushed and stopped. “Nevermind.”

She felt the chuckle again. “Frustration’s just your body’s way of saying it want’s more,” the low, sensuous voice said. “And the greater the frustration . . . the more enjoyable it is when you eventually get what you want.”

Jessica considered this seriously. “I hope you don’t expect this frustration to get too much worse then,” she said after a moment. A hand went to her hair and caressed her cheek slowly.

“We’re only just getting started,” promised the dark voice.

She groaned. “Can you at least answer the question? Did something happen this morning that I’m not aware of?”

There was no answer for several seconds, then one word. “Maybe.”

“Does that mean yes?”

“Maybe.” This time with a definite grin.

Jessica considered, certain now that something had happened that had somehow given Kaleah the confidence to initiate the seductive advances. “Will you tell me what it was?”

The hand stroked her hair lightly. “Not tonight.”

Jessica sighed. “Tomorrow?”

“Maybe.” Silence. “Does it really matter though?”

Jess shrugged as much as she could. “It . . . doesn’t change things, if that’s what you’re asking. But I’d like to know, that’s all.”

“Alright. I promise I’ll let you know when I’m ready to tell you. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Jessica closed her eyes and relaxed into the warmth of her friend’s embrace. Having spent her whole life sleeping alone in the big bed, it was amazing how wonderful it felt to have someone holding her close; to know that someone loved her with a purity and strength that would last forever. They hadn’t had any declarations of love as yet, true . . . but then again, at this point they didn’t need them. This love was so obvious and so deeply ingrained it needed no words to make it real. Her soul bore the dark woman’s brand clearly . . . and she knew Kaleah’s bore hers.

Once her body had let go it’s coiled tension, Jessica felt her heartbeat start to even out and concentrated on matching her breathing to Kaleah’s. Soon, they were perfectly harmonized, and the young woman smiled.

“Jess?”

“Hmm?”

“Sweet dreams.”

She grinned. “After that massage, they’d damn well better be.”

Kaleah chuckled and planted a soft kiss on the back of her head. “’Night.”

“Mmm.”

Sleep came to Jessica surprisingly quickly . . . and her dreams were just as enjoyable as she expected them to be.
Chapter 19.
Jessica finished hammering the roughly-cut board onto the solid frame and stepped back, breathing heavily. The front of her simple tunic was soaked with sweat, and the coarse material scratched her neck and chest. She wiped at her forehead with the back of her arm, knowing she looked like a mess and not minding in the slightest. A sharp ache had developed in her biceps from the hours of hard labor, but it was a satisfying discomfort. The young woman had tied her long hair back into a loose tail to stop it getting in her face, but a few damp, golden strands had pulled free. She flicked them away, patting them down absently as she surveyed the half-completed house in front of her.

Living in a castle with all the luxuries of nobility, Jessica had never actually seen much of the dwellings used by the common-folk. Of course, she knew they were simple structures, designed to be cheap and easy to build; in a land where an attack could come at any time, few things were built to be permanent. The house that Jessica was helping to build was replacing one that had been lost to fire just the other night; constructed from highly combustible materials, peasant houses were often destroyed during winter, when a kitchen fire could easily turn into a blazing inferno.

Consisting of a single room for living, a single room for sleeping, and another smaller room for cooking, Jessica couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could stand such cramped accommodations. She had always thought she could live without all the trappings of her noble blood . . . but realized now just how accustomed she had grown to living in the vast, secure castle of Da’Gran.

She knew the villagers here lived good lives. From stories Sir Miles had told her, some peasants in other vassals were treated by their lords as little more than slaves or playthings. The lands of Da’Gran were wealthy, and Jessica’s father made sure everyone under his protection benefited from that fact, never hoarding his riches away like many lords did. Sir Richard offered the services of his own men to assist his people when things got hard for them, doing all he could to make their lives a little bit easier. The people in the village had asked for aid to rebuild the destroyed house, and the volunteer’s had left Da’Gran that morning when the sun was still low on the horizon, led by Damon Cook.

Jessica had never been allowed to join such an expedition before; Lady Rose had always insisted her daughter stay away from such demeaning manual labor. But with the changes she had made to her life recently, Jessica figured her mother wouldn’t be able to stop her this time. And since Damon was in charge, she at least had a friend to keep her company.

Stepping back now to study the progress that had been made, Jessica smiled, feeling rather proud that she had played a part in the project. The house was about half-way to completion. It had taken most of the morning to build the frame-work, which was now raised and secured. Under the supervision of the village headman, the small army of volunteer’s from Da’Gran were now working on cutting and then nailing long, rough-edged boards to the structure. After that would come the thatching on the roof, and the house would be largely completed. The final touches would be done by the villagers themselves. The building was nothing fancy, but to Jessica’s eyes, it looked as majestic as the great fortress that was her home.

Hands on her hips, the young woman nodded to herself, pleased with her efforts. It was hard work. Even Jessica, who was extremely fit from endless hours of training, found the work exhausting. Exhausting, but very satisfying. It felt damn good to know that she was really helping the common people, to know that they could actually see her trying to make a difference.

Though she was dressed in the same manner as the other volunteers, Jessica had never entertained thoughts that she might be able to blend in. For starters, everyone else was a lot taller than she was, and with her long, flowing golden-blonde hair and delicate features, it was impossible to hide herself among the rugged, mostly bearded men. No woman in Da’Gran looked even remotely like she did . . . her nobility was stamped on her face clearly, and no amount of sweat and grime could hope to mask it. Even the giant Damon wasn’t getting as many stares as she was. Jessica knew the villagers standing nearby watching, and the ones who were working side by side with the soldiers, knew exactly who it was that walked among them. Thankfully, no-one seemed to recognise her from the night she’d spent at the tavern with Kaleah.

In truth, Jessica found all the awed attention rather amusing. The village headman who was given command of the men from the castle hadn’t known what to make of the situation, and had obviously been extremely nervous about ordering Sir Richard’s own daughter around. At first, he offered her small, token jobs, figuring such a delicate flower wouldn’t be willing to get her hands dirty with real work. As the day wore on, however, Jessica pitched in more and more, proving herself to be just as tough and hard a worker as any of the men. When she’d hit her thumb with a hammer and let loose a string of colorful curses, the headman realized he was mistaken in his thoughts of her. After that, Jessica was given more challenging, physical tasks which she threw herself into happily. Now, most of the villagers were accustomed to her presence and treated her no differently than the other soldiers . . . although they still seemed hesitant about getting too close to her.

The sound of a horse approaching drew the young woman’s attention from the house. Turning, Jessica smiled when she recognized Charles’ elegantly-appointed stead cantering toward her with graceful, considered strides. She waved as her friend drew the dark-brown gelding to a halt next to her.

“Morning, Charles,” she greeted happily, before gesturing grandly towards the house. “What d’ya think?”

Charles tilted his head thoughtfully and surveyed the work. “Looks good. Not that I know much about building a house, of course, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to fall down anytime soon. That’s certainly a good start.”

Jess grinned. “What brings you out here? Planning on getting off your horse and joining the fun?”

He grimaced and eyed her sweaty form with distaste. “I’d say you were enjoying the fun enough for both of us, Jess. No, I just came out to see how you were doing. Things were a bit dull at the castle.” He looked around. “I see Kaleah decided not to come, huh?”

Jess flushed a little, the memory of last night still fresh in her mind. “No, she, uh, decided to stay back at Da’Gran. She had some work to do.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. She’s working at the smithy all day, I think. Sutton asked for some help.”

“From Kaleah?”

Jess shrugged. “Sure. She was trained as a weaponsmith by her last master. I don’t know one end of an anvil from the other, but to hear Sutton talk about her, you’d think she had steel in her veins instead of blood.”

“Really?” Charles cocked an eyebrow. “I never pictured her doing something like that. Smith’s are usually so big and muscular . . . like Sutton, you know? Kaleah’s more . . . athletic.”

“Yeah, she is, isn’t she. But you know, she’s also a lot stronger than she looks.” Jessica tried to sound casual, telling herself not to think of how that ‘athletic’ body had pressed against her own last night. She almost succeeded.

Charles grinned and dismounted. “I’ve seen that.” Stepping closer, he gave her a serious look for a moment. “So . . . you two are still okay then?”

Jessica raised an eyebrow at the question. “Of course we are.” She shuffled a little, thinking of just how very okay they were. “Why would you ask that?”

He shrugged a little. “Well . . . it’s just that yesterday you seemed a little out of sorts, that’s all. I thought I felt some tension going on between the two of you.” He smiled when she blushed and nervously glanced away. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Uh huh.” Charles’ put his hands on his hips sternly, but his tone became playful. “Then why are you turning such a lovely shade of crimson? You were doing that a lot yesterday, too, if I recall correctly.”

Jessica stammered for an explanation for a few seconds, then looked up at her friend shyly. “She was, uh . . . she was . . . kinda . . flirting with me, that’s all.”

Both Charles’ eyebrow’s shot up at that, and his mouth fell open a little. “She was what!?”

The young blonde shrugged. “She was flirting with me. Just since yesterday morning.” Jessica turned away, wishing she could hide behind her hair like she usually did. She felt embarrassed talking about this stuff when she was still getting used to it herself.

Charles took her arm gently and turned her back to face him. “Hey . . . it’s okay. I knew you liked her. Isn’t this good news?”

She cocked her head. “Yeah, it is. It’s just . . . a little new, that’s all.”

Charles tilted her face up gently, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You know you can talk to me about it, Jess. Just because we’re engaged doesn’t mean I don’t want you to be happy.”

Jessica couldn’t help but grin at that. “Thanks.” She chuckled shortly. “Frankly I’m surprised you didn’t spot it yesterday. She was being pretty damn obvious about it.”

“Well . . . I just thought she was still shaken up about the attack, that’s all. I didn’t want to read anything into the way she was acting.” He regarded her seriously a moment. He knew the young blonde had no experience in this kind of arena, and he also knew she was prone to idealism and romantic flights of fancy. He had to ask. “Are you sure she was really flirting with you? I mean, maybe you’re just seeing what you want to see.”

She grinned fully, her eyes dancing in the sunlight. “Oh, I’m sure, alright. Believe me, Charles.” She remembered the feel of Kaleah’s hands as they flitted tantalizingly close to her breasts, and was unable to repress a shiver at the memory. “We haven’t really talked about it too much yet, but she’s made her feelings very clear!”

Charles held her eyes a long moment, seeing the conviction there. “I see. So, you think this is going to be getting . . . serious, huh?”

Her eyes glinted with shy mischief and she smiled coyly. “I certainly hope so.”

The young lord nodded slowly, considering this development gravely. “Well, if that happens — if she likes you the same as you like her — where does that leave us?” The question was asked very quietly and gently, and Jessica had to take a few seconds to think.

“I don’t really know,” she admitted after a pause. “You . . . know how I feel-”

“And you know I feel the same way. You’re my friend, and I want you to be happy. If Kaleah’s the one you’ve been waiting for these last four years, than I’m glad you’ve finally found her. But we’ve both been trying to find some way to call off this wedding for a long time now . . .” He hesitated, but knew they’d have to deal with the problems this could cause sooner or later. “I don’t think the fact that you’ve fallen in love with another woman is going to be an acceptable excuse, Jess.” he told her gently.

Jessica considered this, realizing she’d been so swept up in the glorious knowledge that her love was returned to even think about the ramifications. After a second, however, she shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said, jutting her chin out stubbornly. “If people can’t deal with it, that’s their problem.”

“And the treaty?”

“The treaty’s already firm. Let them ratify it some other way!”

“Jessica . . .” Charles put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder to calm her. His soft eyes locked with hers and refused to let go. “We both live our lives for the betterment of others . . . that’s what you’ve always told me, anyway. We have to make sacrifices-”

“I’m not giving this up, Charles!” Jessica snapped angrily, suppressing the urge to pull away when she felt the eyes of the villagers watching them with interest. With an effort, she calmed herself. “If they won’t accept that I’m in love with Kaleah, then we’ll just have to make up some other excuse.” Her emerald eyes flashed defiantly. “I’ve sacrificed a lot already, and you know it!”

“You’ve been given a lot, too, Jess,” Charles pointed out softly.

She nodded. “And every gift I was given was used to help others. I’ve taken little for myself, Charles . . . but I’m keeping this one thing, and nobody’s going to stop me!”

Charles had rarely seen Jessica look so fierce, and against the look in her flashing eyes he knew he had no recourse but to admit defeat. With a sigh, he turned away a little, running a hand through his wavy hair. “Fine,” he conceded. “I guess we’ll think of something.” He turned back to face her. “Is this . . . situation . . likely to get more serious any time soon?”

Jessica glared at him. “The ‘situation’, as you put it, could very well get more serious pretty damn soon if I have any choice in it!”

“Hey!” Charles raised his hands defensively. “I’m on your side, remember? But if you want to make everything work out without loosing a whole lot, you’re going to have to be a bit careful!”

The young blonde took a steadying breath. She didn’t like being angry, especially at Charles. Everything was so out of control, and it was a scary feeling for someone so accustomed to discipline and order. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just . . . I hadn’t even thought of all that stuff yet.”

“I know, but you better start thinking about it soon.” Charles lowered his voice and stepped closer. “Your mother already hates Kaleah — imagine if she finds out what’s really going on?” He saw that sink in when Jessica’s eyes darkened. “She’d crucify you both, and the Church would support her all the way, no matter how much everyone loves you.”

Jess nodded slowly. “You’re right.”

“That’s why you have to be careful. The people watch you a lot, Jessica, and they can’t help but watch Kaleah, too. A public display could mean a whole world of trouble for both of you.”

“The Church could try her for treason . . . or even condemn her as a witch!” she thought out loud in growing horror.

“It’s not going to come to that. At least it won’t if you’re smart.” He patted her reassuringly on the shoulder. “Just don’t let things get out of hand, Jess. Please?” She nodded. “We’ll think of some viable reason to call off the marriage . . . and then we’ll deal with everything else.” A sudden shout from Damon ended the conversation, the huge warrior calling out to his lord to join him. Charles gave her a swift hug. “Be careful, okay?”

She sighed. “I will.” They parted and she gave him a dour look. “I’m not saying I’m going to stop things from moving at all with Kaleah, because I can’t do that. But I’ll be sure to keep it in private.”

Charles patted her shoulder and smiled teasingly. “Do you even know what you’re doing with her?”

She blushed a little, but her eyes sparkled. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out. And besides . . .” She winked saucily, “. . . I’ll bet she’d be happy to give me instructions if I get lost.”

He laughed. “I daresay she will be.” Damon called again, and he waved to him. “I’ll see you later, huh, Jess? We’ll talk more about this.”

“Sure.”

The young lord turned away, heading over to where Damon and most of the workers were gathered to eat a quick meal. Left alone again, Jessica stepped away from the house and considered these problems.

Having waited all her life to find true love, Jessica wasn’t prepared to loose it now that it had come along. And there was no doubt in her mind that Kaleah was the one she was meant to be with. She had felt it the moment they’d laid eyes on one another . . . although it had taken her a while to figure out the true meaning of those strange sensations and feelings that had been sparked by their meeting. All her life, Jess had never considered that falling in love would raise so many damned problems; she’d always kind of assumed it would work itself out.

Apparently, she mused, that wasn’t going to be the case.

The biggest problem, of course, was the fact that Kaleah was a woman. The Church condemned all such relationships — if her mother found out, the best Kaleah could hope for would be banishment. Then there was the fact that the former slave was a heathen savage. Jessica knew there were a lot of ways to sugar-coat that fact — Kaleah was noble and courageous and loyal — but when all was said and done, she couldn’t deny her own heritage. For Jessica, it wasn’t a problem; in fact, she found the savage, animal aura Kaleah radiated exciting, and rather sexy. But among the nobility, such qualities were scorned. It wasn’t likely that Jessica could ever openly reveal her relationship with the dark woman . . . but she didn’t mind that too much. The difficulty was going to be finding a way to get out of her betrothal to Charles.

In the last four years, she had connoted and discarded dozens of plans to achieve this, and Charles had done the same. So far, the best they’d been able to do was delay the actual wedding. But after four years, the ideas were running out, and it was growing clear that a permanent solution was required. But what?

Sighing, Jessica sat down on a thick log that was waiting to be cut into wooden boards and started idly tearing up pieces of bark. The grim realities of this whole affair were starting to sink in with Charles’ words. She felt the elation of last night and this morning dwindle, replaced by a niggling depression.

You can’t let it worry you, her mind advised. Kaleah loves you, and you said yourself that if you ever found out she felt that way, it wouldn’t matter what everyone else thinks. If you let a few problems stop you from enjoying one of the greatest experiences of your life, then you don’t deserve her love!

Jess scowled. She was just about to reply when she heard someone approaching. Looking up, expecting it to be Charles or Damon, she was a little surprised to find an elderly woman coming closer, carrying a wooden mug and a chunk of bread. Immediately, the young blonde let go her thoughts and smiled in welcome.

The old woman seemed hesitant about interrupting Jessica’s thoughts, but the smile gave her courage and she stepped nearer. “My Lady . . . I was thinking you might be likin’ somethin’ to eat.” She held out the bread and cup shyly.

Jessica flashed her a dazzling grin. “Thank you. You’re most kind.” She accepted the offering happily, only now remembering that she’d skipped breakfast that morning in favor of staying wrapped in the embrace of her still-sleeping bed-mate. There had been little time to talk once Kaleah did wake up, since Damon had summoned his volunteers early, impatient to get started on the work.

The peasant woman flushed a little. “It’s not much, I’m afraid, my Lady . . . but it’s freshly baked . . .”

“It’s fine. And you can call me Jessica, if you like.” She bit into the bread hungrily, finding it soft and still warm from the oven. She chewed happily a moment, then turned her green eyes back to the woman. “What was your name?”

“Um . . . it’s Mary.”

“Mary. What a lovely name.”

The woman’s flush grew deeper with pleasure. “Thank you.”

Jessica glanced over at the group of gathered workers, who were watching her curiously. “They seem a little nervous with me here, don’t they Mary?”

“Well . . . we don’t get too many young women like you turnin’ a hand to common work, my La . . ” Jessica raised a brow, and the peasant blushed. “. . . Jessica.”

Jess smiled and nodded. She didn’t like her noble title . . . it seemed to separate her from everyone else, and being alone so much, she had come to detest things that made her feel even more isolated like that. “I’m happy to be able to help.”

The woman stepped closer shyly. “I-I’ve seen you a few times, you know,” she said, “when you was . . riding out to some battle or other. And a few time when I went to the castle for the Spring festival. If I may say so, Lady Jessica, it’s a real honor to be able to meet you in person.”

Jessica flashed her eyes at the woman and saw her smile almost on reflex. “Thank you. You’re very kind.” She nodded to the other villagers and saw them all look away hastily. “They look at me as though I had a second head or something,” she chuckled in amusement.

“They’re . . . just a little surprised, is all.”

“Of what? Of the fact that Sir Richard’s daughter would get down in the mud with them and let herself be seen as a normal person?” She saw Mary flush and glance away. “I thought I had a reputation better than that.”

“Aye, you do,” the grey-haired old woman said hastily. “But . . . it’s one thing fer you to be off soldierin’ and the like. It’s quite another fer you to be workin’ right beside us.”

Jessica tore another mouthful from the bread and chewed thoughtfully. “Well,” she said when she’d swallowed, “maybe after today, you’ll be seeing me around here more often.”

Mary smiled and nodded. “That’d be real nice, Lady Jessica. I’m sure we’d all like to see more of you than we gets to now.” She bobbed her head. “Enjoy your lunch.”

Jessica nodded. “Thank you, Mary. It was nice to meet you.” She watched the woman return to her fellow peasants, shaking her head a little in amusement when several other women flocked about her, clearly asking excited questions. “Guess I know who’s gonna be the topic of conversation tonight around here,” she chuckled, before returning her attention back to feeding her impatient stomach.

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

It was dusk, and the sun was vanished from the sky leaving behind only a last fading light by the time Jessica returned to the castle. She went immediately to the open shelter that made up the blacksmith’s workshop, her steps slowing and a smile forming on her lips when she made out the distinctive form of her dark-haired friend pounding away with measured blows at a red-hot length of blackened steel. Kaleah was wearing a light tunic and trousers covered by a protective leather apron, and her back was facing Jessica as she approached. Coming closer, the young blonde let her eyes run up and down Kaleah’s tall, slender figure, stopping to appreciate the rippling muscles across her sweat-slicked shoulders and back. With her midnight-black hair tied in a loose tail, every inch of glistening, bronzed skin was exposed, even the intricate lines of the strange tattoo which twisted with every flex. Jessica licked her lips unconsciously.

By God, she’s magnificent! Her eyes narrowed. And she’s all mine!

When she got close enough, Kaleah sensed her presence and turned around, a smile already on her face. “Hey,” the dark woman greeted, thrusting the length of metal into a trough of water, where it hissed and let off a cloud of steam. Turning back to Jessica, she wiped her hands on her apron. “How’d it go with the building?”

“Fine. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.” She smiled at Kaleah’s face, which was dripping with sweat from the heat of the forges. “You look hot.”

“Thanks.” Kaleah’s eyes darkened and her smile took on an instantly seductive twist. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Jessica couldn’t help but blush. She’d let herself forget the true effect of those sparkling sapphire eyes when they turned on her in desire. “Thank you.”

Kaleah grinned, pleased at the response. She turned away a second to dunk her head in the trough, letting the cool water take the edge off the heat in her skin. Surfacing, she shook herself, splattering Jessica.

“Hey!” The young blonde shielded her face from the water. “You’re getting me all wet!”

Kaleah waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “I didn’t hear you complaining about it last night.” Her voice was very throaty, and it took Jess’ innocent mind a moment to realize what Kaleah meant. When she did, however, she flushed and glanced away.

“You . . . had a busy day, huh?” Jessica observed when she’d got her face to assume it’s normal coloring. She pointed to a rack of rough, still unfinished blades sitting off to the side. “Bet you’re tired.”

“Yeah.” Kaleah flexed her arms and shoulders, grimacing slightly. “Hard work.”

“Doesn’t help when you don’t be takin’ a break, either,” came a deep voice from behind the still-glowing forge pit. Sutton stepped out and nodded in greeting to Jessica. Then he glared good-naturedly at Kaleah. “Told ye to take a rest, girl. Ye’re gonna feel like you been run down by a wagon tomorrow, I promise ye that.”

Jessica stared at Kaleah. “You’ve been doing this all day without a rest!? Kaleah, you must be exhausted! This is . . .
You should . . .”

Kaleah shrugged and gave her a mischievous wink. “I guess I had a little extra energy to burn off after last night,” she said. “That’s not my fault. And I did take several breaks, thank you, Sutton.” She glared at the master smith. “They just weren’t very long ones, that’s all.”

“Aye, maybe so,” he allowed. “But I still don’t know how ye be lifting that hammer all day with those skinny arms a’ yours.” He flexed his own fire-scarred, bulging muscles. “Got me enough trouble doing it with these.”

Jessica grinned and poked Kaleah’s arm playfully. “Yeah. I couldn’t do this work for more than an hour before I’d collapse, and you’re not as strong as I am.”

Kaleah shooed her away. “How can you possibly know that until you’ve tried it.” She offered the hammer, but Jessica backed away. “Come on . . . give it a try. It’s fun.”

“Uh uh. No way. I don’t consider getting hot and sweaty to be ‘fun’, unless I’m holding a sword.”

“Oh really?” Kaleah’s voice grew low and husky, and she took a step closer. “I know a few extremely pleasurable activities that chiefly involve getting quite . . . hot and sweaty.” Her smile was rakish as she arched an eyebrow. “I’d be happy to show you . . . if you’re interested . . ?”

Jessica swallowed, fearing for a moment her brain was going to just melt out of her ears under the heated assault of those dark gems. Eventually, she managed to get control of her rebellious voice. “Um . . . sh-sure.” She cleared her throat and glanced at Sutton, reassured when she saw the huge smith inspecting some piece of rather dangerous looking equipment. Standing straighter, she managed to meet Kaleah’s gaze without faltering and smiled playfully. “Maybe we can discuss these . . . activities . . . later on tonight?”

“Maybe we could.” Kaleah smiled seductively. “But if I recall correctly, you have a family dinner to go too right about now, don’t you?”

Jessica rolled her eyes and cursed herself for forgetting. “God, you’re right. I’m gonna be late if I don’t move it.” She scowled, then gave Kaleah a hopeful look. “You wanna come keep me company?”

Kaleah shook her head, seeing the hopeful look turn to a disappointed pout. “Sorry . . . but I really want to finish up here first.” Her voice raised. “Another hour or two and we’ll be done, right Sutton?”

“Aye, another hour should do it.”

“See.”

“But . . . can’t you put it off?” Green eyes pleaded soulfully in a look Kaleah knew the young woman had cultivated just for these situations. Still, she shook her head.

“If I get this done today, then I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands tomorrow.” Her voice lowered again. “Free time I was thinking maybe we could fill in together . . .”

Jessica absorbed the meaning there and reluctantly dropped the pleading look. “Okay . . . I guess. So . . . I’ll see you back in my room when you’re done?”

“Sure. I’ll grab something to eat from the kitchen and be up there after that. But I think I should probably take a bath first.” She scowled at her arms, which were covered in steaks of black grime . . . except her hands, which were protected by thick leather gloves. “I doubt you want me getting dust on everything.” Kaleah didn’t miss the quickly masked expression of delighted interest that flitted across her friend’s face at the mention of a bath, and she smiled.

“Sure. I’d, uh . . . better be getting cleaned up myself before dinner. And Kaleah . . .” Jessica gave the dark woman a last enticing grin. “. . . You really do look hot.”

Kaleah just rolled her eyes and watched Jess saunter off, her hips swaying a little more than was normal. She grinned.

“Hey!” Sutton’s voice called her back to the task at hand as he lefted a piece of red-hot steel from the forge fire. “You ready fer this?”

“Sure . . hand it here.” Kaleah took the metal rod in her gloved hands and laid it on the solid surface of the anvil. While Sutton returned to the bellows, she lifted a heavy hammer and struck with rhythmic, practiced blows, further flattening the steel length and slowly tapering the end into a point. When the red glow faded, she thrust it back into the embers of the forge and waited for it to gather heat again.

As she worked, Kaleah’s mind drifted, lulled into a state of relaxation by the repetitive ringing of the hammer blows. Her lips bowed into a quiet smile as she considered the night that lay ahead . . . particularly, her thoughts focused on the bath she planned to take. Her smile grew wider even as her arms ached from the day of constant work.

Yeah, she thought idly as she formed the steel into the shape of a sword. A nice long bath . . . and maybe a massage to follow it. Her eyes glinted happily. I’m sure Jess’d enjoy that as much as I would!

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

Jessica’s heart skipped a beat in anticipation at the knock from the door to Kaleah’s room. She smiled when the door opened, admitting her tall, dark-haired friend. Kaleah closed the door behind her and smiled.

“How was dinner?”

Jess waved her hand in a ‘so-so’ motion. “Mixed bag, really. On the one hand, I had to listen to my mother’s snarky disapproval of what I was off doing today, as well as a few insinuations about the wedding. But on the other hand, she didn’t say anything about you, and my father said something about the number of bandits in the area dropping off. Apparently, the patrols are turning up nothing, so . . . maybe they all decided to move on.”

“That’s good news.” Kaleah hesitated a long moment, her eyes nervous. “Wh-what did you tell your mother . . . about the wedding?”

Jessica smiled, hearing more than idle curiosity in the question. “I told her what I usually tell her; that it’s not a good time right now. My father backed me up on that one . . . the treaty with Sir William’s making him a bit nervous, I think.” Her verdant eyes held Kaleah’s. “Charles and I are trying to think of a way to end the betrothal more permanently.”

Kaleah nodded slowly. “I see. So . . . does this mean that you and I can . . .” She trailed off, but Jessica read the question clearly enough.

“It sure does,” she nodded. “But Charles reminded me that we should be a bit careful about things, you know?”

“Charles? Does he . . . know about . . .” Kaleah waved between them. “. . . this?”

“He asked me, so I told him,” Jess said simply, watching her reaction carefully and hoping she didn’t mind. “We don’t keep secrets from each other . . . and besides, he figured most of it out all by himself when he first got here.” She grinned. “I guess he’s just good at reading people.”

“Yeah.” Kaleah smiled to show she was okay with Charles knowing about them. “Well . . . I just finished eating and was looking forward to a good long soak after working so long.” She held up a bundle of clean clothes she was holding. “I’ll be back in a while, okay?”

“Sure. Take your time. Relax.” Jessica’s tone was carefully casual, but her eyes were lit from within by an unmistakable excitement. Kaleah grinned fully, her teeth flashing, before she retreated back into her own room, heading for the bathing chamber.

As soon as the door closed behind the dark woman, Jessica let her eyes drift shut as her imagination ran a quick but extremely heated picture show across her mind. Since yesterday, the young woman’s thoughts of being intimate with Kaleah had taken on a much more serious aspect. She already had a fairly good idea of how two women might make love just from reading so many stories on the subject . . . but now her young body was growing ever more eager to explore the full depth of this love that burned in her blood. When her eyes finally opened, Jessica’s attention went instantly to the secret entrance.

“You probably shouldn’t go and watch her,” she told herself. Already she could feel arousal washing through her body, and she suspected Kaleah would only fan the flames of her desire when she returned. “If you see her getting all wet and naked in the bathing room, you’ll only make things worse for yourself.”

Oh, come on! her mind mocked. How can you even think about not watching her!?! She got to see you topless last night, remember? Looking in the mirrors? If she gets to see you, it’s only fair you get to see her, right?

Jessica felt her breathing start to quicken, and her mouth grow dry. She swallowed. “It’s nothing you haven’t already seen,” she argued. “Watching her now’ll just make you even more frustrated when she’s wrapped around you tonight.”

Unless . . .

“Unless?”

. . . Well . . . maybe when she gets back, she’ll want to do more than just talk, her mind suggested hopefully. She did say she’d like to show you . . . more, didn’t she?

“Yeeessss . . . but last night she didn’t sound like she wanted to move too fast.”

Her mind considered that and sighed metaphorically. You’re right. It was silent a moment. Let’s face it, though . . . you’re going to be restless tonight whether you watch her or not. And you know how much you like to watch her, right?

Jessica smiled as her ever-helpful imagination provided a picture of Kaleah’s naked figure. “Yeah . . .”

So why not do it?

Jessica hesitated.

Okay, let me put it another way, her mind pressed. Would you prefer to watch her bathe and be done with it . . . or watch whatever your imagination can come up with later on? A few images of sweat-soaked, naked bodies twisting together in an erotic display flashed across her mind, and Jessica knew her rebellious senses had won.

“Fine . . . I’ll go.” Heaving a sigh, she rolled off the bed and stepped quickly over to the fireplace where she opened the doorway to the passages beyond. “Just don’t bitch to me about all this later on tonight when you feel like you’ll burst into flames if she doesn’t touch you, okay?”

Her mind refused to agree to any such thing.
Chapter 20.
Kaleah stripped down quickly and waded out into the deeper parts of the great pool, letting the warm water ease the aches from her joints and muscles. With her senses on full alert, the dark woman knew she would be able to feel Jessica’s presence if it was there . . . but she didn’t feel anything. Ducking her head under the water a moment and slicking her long, sable hair back from her face, Kaleah felt a moment of disappointment.

Maybe she’s not coming, she worried. Maybe she doesn’t want to tempt herself. She must be getting pretty damned frustrated by now . . . could she have decided to avoid making it worse?

Kaleah puzzled on that a moment, then shook her head. No . . . the desire in Jessica’s eyes had been from anticipation. She would come to watch, no matter how much worse it would be for her. Taking the wash cloth she’d collected from the side-room, Kaleah began to slowly wash her arms and chest, every nerve alive as she waited.

It wasn’t long before a sudden delicious wave of awareness swept through Kaleah’s body, her senses screaming that someone was watching her. An instinct buried bone-deep recognized Jessica’s presence, and the former slave wondered for a moment how she’d not sensed the young woman’s voyeurism earlier. Probably because I was so busy trying to convince myself she didn’t like me that way, I guess.

Kaleah smiled to herself and turned a little so she half-faced the well-concealed peep-hole, setting her body to a better angle for her admirer. She could feel the heat of emerald eyes as they burned into her naked body . . . could feel them even as they moved up and down to take in every part of her. Unable to resist, she stepped into a shallower section of water, exposing herself down to the waist. With gentle, slow movements, she brought the wash-cloth up to her breasts and caressed them slowly, more interested in teasing the young woman watching her than in actually getting clean. Her nipples hardened under her attentive actions, and Kaleah groaned throatily at the pleasure that raced straight to her groin, lighting fires along the way.

For several minutes, the dark woman continued to slowly wash herself. Trying not to be too obvious, she made sure her young voyeur got the best possible view of all her activities. It was hard for Kaleah not to look directly at the peep-hole itself, but with new restraint she managed to avoid the temptation. It was amazing, but she could swear she could sense Jessica’s rising excitement . . . could tell exactly where the young woman’s eyes were fixed. Before long, the combination of her own caresses and the heated appraisal from beyond the wall took their inevitable toll on Kaleah’s body. Without really intending for it to happen, the dark woman had managed to work her body into a start of extreme arousal. Her breathing was growing shallow, her skin more sensitized. A pressure had built between her legs . . . and it started to pulse maddeningly, demanding satisfaction. When Kaleah moved the cloth down her body and ran it lightly over the apex of her thighs, the pleasure zinged through her center and caused her legs to almost buckle. Unable to resist, she stroked herself again, groaning deeply at the incredible sensations.

With an effort, the dark woman stopped and took a deep breath, trying to clear her head. It was no good. The build-up of the last few weeks — and particularly the last few days — was just too powerful, her need too great. Kaleah could never hope to quell the storm that raged within her. There was no way she could return to Jessica in this condition . . . and she knew there was only one way to deal with this situation.

She needed release . . . and she needed it now!

Considering the matter quickly, her body thrumming with excitement and anticipation as it sensed victory, Kaleah felt the emerald eyes boring into her and wondered how this might affect Jessica. Would she be disgusted? Kaleah grinned a little. Not likely.

This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said I’d be happy to show her some pleasurable activities, she thought, but it works well, just the same. In fact . . . this works very well indeed!

Kaleah grinned. She could satisfy her own raging desires . . . and bring Jessica to an even greater level of need at the same time.

Quickly pulling herself out of the water onto the central stone island in the middle of the pool, Kaleah found a smooth, polished area that would be perfect for her plan. The rock had been carved into a gentle, curving slope that Kaleah lay back into, letting the rock support her in a semi-reclined position. Checking her position, the former slave smiled, satisfied that her hidden admirer had an unobstructed, direct view of everything she was about to do.

Well, Jessica . . . I hope you’re ready for this! She grinned as her hands began to slowly slide up her taut, dripping body, teasing the edges of her ribcage with feathery touches. You’re about to get an education!

From the other side of the wall, Jessica watched with unblinking eyes and open mouth as Kaleah lay back on the island and began to run her hands along her bronzed skin. The young woman swallowed hard and stared as her dark friend finally cupped her own breasts and let her head fall back, eyes closed in obvious pleasure.

“What the hell is she doing?” Jess breathed, her eyes widening. She almost stopped breathing when Kaleah’s fingers sought out hardened nipples and began to pinch and roll them lightly. The young woman felt dizzy and her mouth went suddenly dry as all the moisture in her body headed south. When Kaleah’s legs drifted apart and exposed glistening pink folds to her heated appraisal, Jessica gasped as understanding dawned. “Sh-she’s not going to . . .” She struggled to get the thought to form properly, her mind unable to process the notion it wanted to. When Kaleah’s right hand slowly wandered down her tight stomach to between her own legs and gently began to stroke back and forth, Jessica thought for sure she was going to burst into flames right then and there. “She can’t . . . can she!?”

Her mind was too stunned by what was happening to give an answer, however. Awed, her senses reeling at the erotic vision unfolding in the next room, Jessica watched the show, unable and unwilling to tear herself away.

Kaleah sighed deeply as her fingers parted smooth, slippery folds and began to stroke gently. With her left hand, she continued to fondle her breasts while her fingertips slid with fluid ease along the length of her highly sensitized sex. Oh God, but she needed this! Never in her life had she felt this level of need . . . this strong an arousal! The fingers working between her legs were instantly soaked in the sweet juices that flowed from her desire, and with a groan she let them drift a little higher to find the hardened bundle of nerves that screamed for attention. At first contact, her hips thrust forward, desperately seeking greater pressure, but Kaleah forced herself to slow down. If she wasn’t careful, this would all be over too soon . . . and she wanted to give Jessica a good show!

With great restraint, Kaleah spread her legs wider and ran two fingers teasingly across her swollen clitoris, drawing out the pleasure slowly, determined to make it last. Her sex was dripping with true wetness as she dragged her fingernails through the neatly trimmed hairs above her most sensitive area, reveling in the delicious sparks that shot through her groin. Her left hand started to squeeze harder on the nipple it was tending to, and she groaned in ecstasy. Unable to resist any longer, she ran her flat palm down and pressed against herself, gasping for air at the tremendous pleasure. She could feel the burning emerald eyes of her unseen admirer following her every move, and the knowledge that she was being watched only served to heighten her arousal further. Her hips began thrusting against the pressure of her palm, and she slowly increased the pace until her need grew too strong. When she could stand it no longer, Kaleah finally drew back and, making absolutely certain her audience could see everything she was doing, she very slowly speared two fingers and pushed them into her molten depths.

Jessica watched, lightheaded and hardly breathing, as Kaleah penetrated herself. No story she had ever read had detailed the actions she was now witnessing. . . and even though a small part of her knew that she shouldn’t be spying on such a private moment, it was drowned out by the pulsing emanating from between her legs. Her breeches were soaked through with her arousal, and even just the pressure of the coarse material against her sensitive folds made her yearn for something more solid to grind against. Squeezing her legs together brought a sharp stab of blissful pleasure . . . but it couldn’t satisfy this fire, could only make her more aware of how great her need had become. Her brain was still frozen, lost somewhere as it struggled to comprehend the fact that she was watching her friend make love to herself.

Kaleah’s head shot forward as her fingers gradually pushed deeper, feeling her inner walls tighten in delight against the welcome invasion. What started as a slow, steady rhythm quickly sped up as her heart beat faster in her chest and her body thrust against her fingers. Gasping for breath, Kaleah’s left hand abandoned the breast it was working on to join it’s mate between her legs. With long-practiced ease, two fingers parted over her clit and started to stroke and lightly pinch the engorged nub. When she pushed a third finger into her dripping core, Kaleah’s hips bucked hard and she couldn’t suppress a slight scream of joy. Tears crept into her tightly shut eyes as her pace increased, bringing stars to her vision. She was rapidly loosing control.

“Oh, God . . . yesssss,” she hissed as her fingers found a sensitive spot inside and pressed against it repeatedly on every thrust. The combined stimulation was bringing her to the peak faster than she might have liked, but there was nothing she could do to slow down. This had been building too long, and for a moment, the dark woman almost feared her rapidly approaching climax, wondering if she could survive its intensity. She had never experienced this level of pleasure — by her own hand, or any other. Just knowing that Jessica was watching her made everything seem so much more real . . . so much more fulfilling.

Her arms were getting cramped, but they continued to move at a blinding speed both inside and against her clit. Kaleah felt her legs shaking, but focused on the wave that was building to a crest inside her. “Yes! Oh, God, please . . .” Her inner walls began to spasm as her wrist strained to keep up the pace. It started slow, but as she thrust deeper still, orgasm ripped through her body in pulsing, blinding white waves of ecstasy, so strong she thought for sure they would tear her apart. “Jeess-i-caaaa!!!” The name burst from her throat, and a part of her dimly realized she was trying to share the intense feelings with the woman at the heart of their creation. Her fingers continued their movements, dragging out the climax for as long as possible as her essence flooded out of her, dripping down her wrist. Eventually, however, she slowed down and opened her eyes. Her chest rose and fell quickly, trying to draw needed air into her lungs. Breathing heavily, Kaleah collapsed back onto the slick rock surface and let the last few pulses wash over her.

After a moment, her strength returned and Kaleah smiled lazily. A pleasant lethargy settled over her body in the afterglow of pleasure, and she exhaled. “Wow!” Slowly, the dark woman drew her fingers from their wet, tight glove, her inner walls pulsing a little in memory, desire stirring again. Ignoring the temptation to just start the ride a second time, she brought her soaked hand up to her lips without thought. Licking absently at the sweet, tangy honey, Kaleah grinned when she realized what she was doing . . . and remembered her audience. Feeling Jessica’s eyes still fixed on her, she deliberately ran her tongue up her wrist, collecting the juices there before sucking seductively on each finger in turn, humming happily to herself.

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did! She wondered what must be going on in her young friend’s head. Sighing as she swallowed the last of her flavor, contented for the moment, Kaleah closed her eyes and relaxed fully, just enjoying the warmth that filled her soul and the wonderful tingles that still ran up and down her body. She decided to wait a while before she finished washing up and returned to the bedroom. Jessica would probably need a little time to collect herself . . . and to deal with her own arousal. Kaleah smiled, feeling very pleased with herself.

Maybe it’s time we talked about this stuff seriously, huh Jess? She frowned, thinking for the first time of how this whole situation might affect her young friend and would-be lover. With her lust sated — at least for now — her mind was clear to comprehend some things she’d not considered before.

If Jessica wanted to be with her, Kaleah was more than happy to give her everything she wanted; but she didn’t want to young, innocent girl to rush into a situation like this without being fully aware of what the consequences of her actions might be. Jessica deserved to be treated right; if things went badly down the track, the young girl could easily be hurt. As Kaleah lay back and let her mind drift, she realized it was time for her to make sure the young woman fully understood what she was getting into . . . and to give her a way out, if she needed it.

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

On the other side of the wall, Jessica crouched with her legs locked in position, unable to move as she watched her friend recover. She had read enough about sex to know what had just happened . . . recognized her friend’s climax for what it was. Though the thick walls prevented her from hearing Kaleah’s cries, she recognized her own name as it was formed on the older woman’s lips just as her body was apparently overwhelmed by her self-induced pleasuring.

Realizing that Kaleah’s thoughts were centered on her at such a moment made Jessica’s heart ache. When she saw the dark woman begin to lick herself clean, Jessica’s mouth hung open and she would have drooled in envy were it not for the fact that every drop of moisture in her body had congregated in a lower portion of her body. She had never seen such a display of sheer eroticism . . . and the effect of the vision on her inexperienced body was stunning. It took several minutes for her mind to start working again . . . and several more before she could finally tear herself away from the spy-hole.

Sitting back on very shaky legs, Jessica concentrated on just taking slow, deep breaths, trying to get the blood flowing back to her limbs again. The smell of her arousal was thick in the air, and she could feel that her undergarments were completely soaked through. Swallowing, the young blonde ran a trembling hand through her hair, trying to collect her thoughts.

“She just . . . made love to herself.” Somehow, saying it out loud made the idea seem clearer, easier to grasp. “She just made love to herself . . . and she was thinking about me while she did it!”

Taking a quick peek back into the room, she saw that Kaleah had settled back against the rock and was apparently resting. It looked like she was going to stay there for a while. Reassured that she had time, Jessica struggled for a second but managed to get to her feet.

She’ll be coming back to your room when she recovers, her mind observed when it recovered a little. You’re going to have to get yourself cleaned up, or she’s gonna know something strange is going on just from the way you smell!

Carefully, with shaky steps, Jess made her way through the passage back towards her room, trusting long years of walking these paths not to get her lost as her memory replayed the images of Kaleah pleasuring herself. She was still in shock, her mind fuzzy and dazed, but she navigated her way back to her room as quickly as she could.

Once back in the familiar, candle-lit warmth, Jessica turned her mind to setting things right so Kaleah wouldn’t suspect what had happened. Stripping out of her trousers and underwear, noting with a deep blush that her essence had soaked both articles of clothing, she hid them behind a large bookshelf in the back of the room. “Clean those tomorrow,” she told herself sternly.

Next, Jessica filled a wide bowl with water from a pitcher and found a clean rag. Wetting the rag, she ran it between her legs, gasping when the cool contact brought an instant rush of pure pleasure to her heated center. Curious, the image of Kaleah’s somewhat frenzied activities still in mind, Jessica used the cloth to gently clean away the dew that slicked her inner thighs. When she applied cautious pressure to her swollen sex, her eyes shot wide open in amazement at the sensations the touch produced. She felt the urge to press more firmly against herself, but, remembering a few of the things her mother had told her about a woman’s ‘first time’, she reluctantly backed away. Still extremely sensitive, Jessica dried herself off as best she could and washed her hands, then found a clean set of clothes and hastily pulled them on.

Still operating largely without conscious thought, Jessica sat back on her bed and stared at the walls, not really seeing anything but the memory of what Kaleah had just done.

“How the hell am I supposed to act when Kaleah gets back?” she asked herself. “I won’t even be able to look at her without seeing . . .” She waved vaguely. “. . . all that stuff she just did!” Frustrated and worried, Jess lay back and groaned, covering her face with her arms. “The way I feel right now, if she doesn’t take the initiative with this relationship soon, I’ll bloody well do it myself!”

L-let’s not be rash here, her mind stammered, trying to regain a little equilibrium again. You can’t very well just . . . pounce on the woman and demand her to . . . to . . .

“To ravish me right here, right now? You wanna bet?” Jessica’s passion was growing to ridiculous levels, and her inexperience gave her no idea of how to deal with a hunger like this. She had imagined falling in love before, and had accepted her attraction to the dark woman with relative ease. She knew she wanted a physical relationship with the former slave . . . but this raw desire for Kaleah’s touch was so much stronger and more intense than she could ever have anticipated! Jessica had never thought herself capable of feeling this kind of animal lust . . . and it was only her innocence and shy nature that made her reluctant to make the first move. But now she was getting desperate.

“I want her . . . and I know she wants me. She screamed my name when she . . .” Jessica groaned and slammed her fists into the mattress in frustration. “Why couldn’t she have just asked me to do that for her!?! I’d have been more than happy to touch her like that . . . if she’d just show me how!” Her eyes grew hooded, and her voice deepened. “And then she could touch me . . . and I could touch her again . . .”

Snap out of it! For God’s sake, you’re a chaste, innocent virgin who’s never even been kissed before!! When Kaleah’s ready to take that step with you — and she will be in good time — then she’ll come to you on her own. Remember what she’s been through . . . You jump her, and you could easily scare her off for who knows how long!

Jessica considered this, and realized her mind was right. Kaleah had been a slave all her life; had been abused in so many ways it hurt Jessica just to think about. She might be hesitant about starting a sexual relationship that was based on an emotional connection like this.

“Maybe that’s why she did that then,” Jess mused thoughtfully. “Maybe she just needed some relief. . . but she wants to take it slowly. .” She sighed. “I guess I have to go slowly too, then, don’t I?”

Just . . . don’t push her, that’s all, her mind counseled. She’s made it very clear she wants you . . . let her go at her own pace.

“Okay.” Jess pouted. “But what am I supposed to do when she comes back? How can . . . I’m not gonna be able to look at her without blushing! What do I say to her!?”

How about . . . ‘Did you enjoy your bath?’

Jessica groaned.

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

Kaleah waited some time in the bathing chamber, wanting to give Jess plenty of time to get her head on straight and taking a moment to relax and think about her next course of action. Once she’d settled on a plan, the former slave quickly finished her wash and left the pool, returning to her friend’s room with a spring in her steps.

When she opened the door, Kaleah found her young friend sitting rather stiffly on the bed. Her eyes roamed down Jessica’s body quickly, taking in the tension that was apparent in her posture and not missing the fact that she’d changed clothes. She saw the girl swallow, and her eyes flit away. It was clear to her that Jess was still highly charged with excitement after her display. “Hey.”

“Hey.” A pause. “So . . . did you . . enjoy your bath?” Jessica almost rolled her eyes at herself. Just seeing Kaleah brought her blood right back to the boil. The dark woman’s posture was so languid and sensuous, her eyes so dark and hooded, Jessica wanted more than anything to just tear off her clothes and beg for a relief she knew only her friend could give her.

Kaleah just smiled at the question. “It was wonderful, thank you.” She hugged herself a little. “Very . . . relaxing.”

Jessica swallowed even harder, and managed to squeak “Great.”

Kaleah stepped closer. “Could I get you to do me a favor? My hair was getting to me today. Could you maybe, I don’t know . . . tie it into a plait or something? Nothing fancy, just to keep it out of my face.”

“Umm . . sure, I guess.”

“Thanks.” Kaleah handed the young blonde a soft hairbrush she found on a dresser and sat down on the bed, turning away so her friend could get to her still-wet sable tresses. There was a long moment of hesitation before she felt Jessica tentatively reach out and run the brush through her tangles. She smiled a quiet smile, enjoying her secret knowledge. She could detect a slight musky scent still clinging to Jessica, and it made her mouth water as the girl gently brushed her hair. “You have very gentle hands,” she said softly.

There was a long pause before Jessica whispered, “Thank you.”

“I thought about you a lot today.” She felt the hands holding the brush tremble slightly, then continue. “While I was working, I just looked forward to tonight . . . when I’d be able to relax with you.”

“Are-” Jessica cleared her throat. “Are you sore? You must be after smithing all day.”

“I was, yeah. Especially across the shoulders.”

“Well . . . you know I do owe you a massage, so if you wanted, I could. . .”

Kaleah grinned at the excited, hopeful expression in the young woman’s voice. “That’s alright. My bath really took the edge off the ache.” She could almost sense her friend’s disappointment. “Maybe tomorrow.”

A very quiet “Okay,” before Jess fell silent.

Kaleah let the quiet continue for a while, closing her eyes and feeling Jessica patiently begin to divide her hair into sections and tie it into a simple braid. After a while, she finally asked, “Is there something wrong?” The hands behind her froze instantly.

“Of course not.” Jessica’s voice trembled a little. “W-why would you think there was something wrong?”

“You’re just acting kind of nervous, that’s all.” Kaleah turned around and faced her friend, letting her hair go unfinished. When she looked Jessica in the eye, the girl couldn’t meet her gaze and glanced away. She smiled, knowing exactly what the problem was. “I was worried maybe I’d. . . done something you didn’t like . . .”

Jessica’s eyes instantly widened and she shook her head. “No! You . . . you haven’t done anything wrong! It’s not that, it’s just . . .” She trailed off, her eyes dropping.

Kaleah smiled. Her voice became very soft and gentle. “Is it because of what you saw me doing in the bathing room?”

The look on Jessica’s face was such a twisted mix of shock, fear and surprise that Kaleah couldn’t help but laugh. The young girl’s mouth opened and closed several times before she managed to start stammering. “How did . . I didn’t . . .y-you-” Kaleah placed two fingers over Jessica’s lips and stopped her babbling.

“Ssshhh. It’s alright.” She smiled reassuringly, then took a deep breath. “You wanted to know if something happened yesterday morning, right? Well, after the attack, I started wondering how you’d known I was in trouble.”

“I told you-”

“Uh uh.” Kaleah pressed her fingers more firmly against the soft lips. “Just hear me out. What you told me was a lie, I could tell. It was very convincing, but it didn’t fool me. And the only other way I could think of for you to have known what was happening was for you to have been watching me. So, while you were busy dealing with your mother yesterday, I did a little exploring.” She smiled. “When I found the spy-hole, well. . . it answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking myself for a long time now.” She took her fingers away slowly. “It told me I wasn’t crazy to hope that what I saw in your eyes was more than just friendship. And it gave me the courage to start showing you just how much I really care for you.”

Jessica just stared at Kaleah for a long moment, trying to process this. It wasn’t easy . . . especially when she remembered what the fingers pressed against her lips had just been doing. Her nostrils flared when she caught the hint of a musky aroma still clinging to the digits, and her mind went blank for a frightening moment. But the warmth in her friend’s sapphire gaze quickly banished her fears and concerns, and she gave a tentative smile.

“So . . . that’s why you started . . . flirting with me, huh?”

Kaleah nodded. “Once I knew you were okay with the idea, I wanted to let you know that I was interested in you. Really interested, I mean.” She cocked her head to the side, her eyes glinting playfully. “I was wondering, though, just how long you’ve been playing this little ‘spy-on-Kaleah-while-she’s-taking-a-bath’ game?”

Jessica saw the look and smiled coquettishly. “A while,” she said evasively.

“Uh huh. Would that be ‘a while’ as in a week or so, or ‘a while’ as in just once or twice?”

Jess shrugged. “Actually, it’s ‘a while’ as in since that morning when I had a hangover after we went out to the village,” she admitted with a blush. “And I was thinking about it even before that.”

A dark eyebrow rose curiously. “So . . . that means you’ve been having these kind of thoughts about me for a while then, doesn’t it?”

The young blonde nodded, feeling a little shy suddenly. “H-have you?”

Kaleah considered a moment, then nodded. “From the moment I met you, you made me feel things I’ve never felt before. For as far back as I can remember, all I ever felt was pain, hatred and anger . . . and it scared me at first; all these new emotions I didn’t know how to deal with.” She smiled and let her hand caress Jessica’s cheek. “It took a while to get used to everything, but when I did, I quickly figured out I was attracted to you as more than just a friend. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to frighten you . . . and I could feel things growing more . . intense between us everyday.”

Jessica nodded, letting her eyes slip away shyly. Her hands fidgeted a moment. “So . . .does this mean you’re not mad at me? For spying on you, I mean.”

Kaleah grinned fully and she waggled her eyebrows. “If I was mad at you, do you think I would have done what I just did?”

Jessica blushed deep crimson, her eyes widening. “Wait! You knew all along, didn’t you!?” Kaleah nodded. “You mean you did . . . that, even though you knew I was watching you!?”

“Not exactly.” Kaleah’s voice dropped lower. “I did it largely because I knew you were watching.” Jessica just stared at her, mouth gaping. “I could feel your eyes on me the whole time I was washing myself and I guess . . . knowing you were there got me a little too hot. I needed release . . . and I didn’t think you’d mind the show, so I decided to make the best of things.” Her blue eyes turned violet with desire. “Did you . . . like what you saw me doing?”

Jessica looked down at her nervously twisting hands, letting her hair fall forward to hide her furious blush. “Yes,” she admitted very softly.

Kaleah smiled, and her voice became throaty as she leaned closer. “Did it . . . excite you?”

Verdant eyes glanced up through the blonde curtain of hair, then quickly looked away. “Yes.”

“I thought so.” Kaleah’s voice was just a breath that whispered close to Jessica’s ear. “I can tell how excited you are just from the way you smell . . . and from the way you’re breathing.” A fingertip gently drew a lock of golden hair behind Jessica’s ear. “I imagined it was your hands touching me, Jessica. Knowing you were there made everything feel sooo much better.” Kaleah almost purred. “I screamed your name when I climaxed.”

Jessica whimpered, the low voice assaulting her highly-charged senses. “I-I know. I saw you.” Her voice trembled with the strength of her re-ignited arousal. She swallowed, soaking in the incredible sexual aura that surrounded her dark friend, knowing she was going to die if the woman didn’t take her right now!

Kaleah could feel the energy thrumming through the young girl’s body, and she licked her lips as she felt her own passion begin to tighten in her groin. “Did you even know that what I did to myself was possible?” she asked softly. Jessica’s head shook very slightly. Kaleah grinned. “Have you ever thought about touching me like that?” Jessica could only groan. “Is that a yes?”

“Yesss.” Jessica’s head snapped up suddenly, and Kaleah drew back a little when she felt the intense heat in the young girl’s emerald gaze, surprised at the raw lust revealed in her friend’s eyes. Uh oh. Jessica leaned forward, her hands surging up to pull Kaleah closer. “I want to do that to you! Please!”

“Wait!” Kaleah realized her seduction plan had worked a little too well; the predator had become the prey.

“I don’t want to wait, Kaleah! Please!! I need you!” Jessica pressed nearer, her lips descending, but Kaleah grabbed her by the shoulders and held her back, amazed at the passion she’d unleashed. Jessica moaned, her pupils dilated and barely focused but burning with need. She pressed against Kaleah, but the dark woman was firm.

“We can’t.”

“Why not?” With courage born of desperation, Jessica grabbed Kaleah’s right hand and forced it to release her shoulder. She slid her friend’s hand down her body and guided it to her breast, groaning at the delicious contact.

Kaleah struggled to regain control of the situation. She had wanted to tease Jessica, yes, but only so the girl understood the gravity of her actions. She wasn’t expecting this sudden turn of events, but the feel of Jessica’s firm breast pressing into her palm was making it hard to concentrate. She could feel the young woman’s rock-hard nipple through the thin material of her simple shirt, and she couldn’t stop herself from massaging the ripe flesh being offered. Sensing victory, Jessica pressed forward again, her lips seeking Kaleah’s. The dark woman felt her move, and shook her head to dispel the desire to just let this happen.

No! You need to slow down, or Jessica’s going to get hurt!

Kaleah tore her hand away from her friend’s chest and pushed her back. “Jessica . . . please, stop.”

“Why?” The green eyes pleaded. “I . . . I want you to touch me.”

“I know, and I want that too.”

Jessica’s breathing was ragged, but she finally quit fighting. “Then why do we have to stop? I’m ready-”

“Jessica, I-” Kaleah took her hands off Jessica’s shoulders when she saw the girl relax a little, and she sat back on the bed, putting some distance between herself and the amorous blonde.

“You’re not ready?”

Kaleah sighed, the speech she’d figured out in the bathing chamber flying from her head under the emerald assault of her friend’s eyes. “It’s not that. I just. . .” She considered her words carefully, wanting Jessica to understand. “I need to be sure that . . . this is really what you want.”

Relief flooded through Jessica’s face and she smiled. “It is, Kaleah. This . . . you . . . I want us to be together.” She started to move forward again, but Kaleah stopped her with a raised hand.

“No! Just . . . listen.” Jessica sat back with a slight pout. Kaleah shook her head. “Jessica, I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. You. . . you fill all the empty places inside me that I never even knew were there before we met. You make me feel complete for the first time in my life. Nothing would make me happier than to make love with you—I’m not finished!” Jessica froze as she’d been about to launch herself bodily at Kaleah. “I do want to be with you, believe me! But I don’t want you to regret later what we do in a moment of passion. I don’t want you to get hurt by this.”

Jessica listened, realizing she was going to have to come up with a way to reassure Kaleah before she could get what she wanted. The dark woman’s insistence on making sure she was comfortable with everything was only making her love burn stronger. “I know you won’t hurt me, Kaleah. And I know you’re taking this seriously. So am I.”

“I know. But I want you to consider — and I mean really consider — how this is going to affect your life.” She stared at her friend and would-be lover seriously until she finally saw a glimmer of understanding dispel some of the fuzziness in the young woman’s eyes. She sighed in relief. “You’re an important person in this land, Jessica. You told me yourself how your life is dedicated to helping to protect others. If we do this — if we become lovers — it’s going to affect your reputation and your life.”

“It doesn’t have to,” Jessica argued, sitting back on her legs and struggling to bring her raging desire back under control. “Charles and I will figure out a way to call off the wedding . . and we don’t need to let anyone else know about us-”

“And how long will that work for? A week? A month? Maybe we can keep it a secret for a year, even. But you know better than I do that in a castle like this, nothing stays hidden forever. It would only be a matter of time before a servant or a guard catches us in an embrace . . . or sees us looking at each other with more than just friendship. Hell, the rumors could start even without that much!” She saw Jessica look away and knew she understood. “Sooner or later, everyone would know about us.”

“I don’t care!” Jessica snapped.

“Don’t you?” Kaleah shook her head sadly, knowing she was making Jessica frustrated but needing to be sure. “Maybe you don’t care what your mother thinks of you . . . or your brother. And maybe some people won’t care about what our relationship is. But what about your father?” Jessica’s face dropped. “You’re his only daughter. How will he feel if he learns you’ve taken a barbarian woman as a lover?”

Jessica fidgeted. “My father loves me,” she said quietly. “He’s never judged me for anything I’ve ever done, and he’s always respected my right to make my own decisions. If this is what I want, he’ll understand.”

Kaleah considered that and nodded slowly. “Okay, maybe he will. But what about the soldiers? The commoners? All the people who love you and respect what you do? Will they be so understanding?” She saw Jessica swallow nervously. “You know they won’t be. The religion in this land would condemn us both. If we go forward with this, your faith will cast you out.”

Tears crept into Jessica’s eyes and she gazed imploringly at Kaleah. “Are you saying we can’t do this? Is that it?” She sniffled. “This was just a big tease-”

“NO! That’s not what I’m saying at all! I just need you to be aware of all the things that this could cost you, Jessica. Because if you come to regret anything I do to you . . . I couldn’t live with myself knowing I might have prevented it.” She smiled a little. “If you want me . . . it’s forever, Jess.”

Jessica nodded vigorously. “That’s what I want to! Please . . . I need you.”

Kaleah closed her eyes and wiped her face with her hands. “And I need you to think about this carefully.”

Jessica watched, stunned, as Kaleah got off the bed and stepped back, suddenly realizing the dark woman was going to leave. “What- Where are you going!?”

“I’m taking the night watch in the look-out,” Kaleah said gently.

“Y-you’re leaving me!?! But-”

“Jessica, you need time to settle down and consider this alone.”

“But . . .I know I want you!”

“Your heart says this is what you want because of how you feel for me,” Kaleah said, “and your body says the same thing because you’re aroused. But I need you to stop listening to them . . . and listen instead to your head.” She pulled her boots on and grabbed her sword. “Consider this logically; consider how this could change things not just for you, but for those around you. For those who need you to serve them. This decision will affect the rest of your life, Jessica. You can’t make it with me around to distract you.”

“I see.” Jessica swallowed her tears, trying to repress her emotions but finding it hard. “And what if tomorrow, I still want to be with you?”

Kaleah smiled warmly. “If you think about everything carefully tonight, and you decide that you’re willing to continue . . . then we will.” Light lit the wet emerald eyes of the young blonde, and she quickly continued. “But you have to be sure, Jess! This is too important to just breeze past, okay?” She stepped closer and reached out a hand, letting her fingertips trace the curve of her friend’s cheek and along her full lips. When Jessica shuddered, she pulled away. “I’m serious. Do you promise you’ll think about it carefully?”

Jessica smiled up at her. “I promise . . . but only if you promise that if I decide it’s what I want, you won’t argue with me. Okay?

Kaleah nodded, then turned around. “Come find me in the morning,” she said as she opened the door. “I’ll be in the look-out.” Her piercing eyes locked onto Jessica’s. “This is your last chance to stop this thing. Don’t waste it.”

“I won’t.”

Kaleah was about to step through the door when Jessica called her name. She glanced back. The young woman grinned.

“Try to get at least some sleep, won’t you?”

She just smirked and winked. “I’ll have a better chance of sleeping then you will, Jess. G’night.” She stepping out into the hall and closed the door gently behind her with a sigh.

It was going to be a long night.
Chapter 21.
Kaleah looked out at the sweeping view from the majestic height of the look-out tower, watching the sun as it cleared the horizon and made it’s way into the sky. There were a few puffy clouds here and there, but the former slave could feel a new warmth in the air that told her Spring had arrived fully, and the icy hand of Winter had released its hold on the land. Everything looked green and golden and wonderful . . . but Kaleah felt a weight in her heart that couldn’t be dispelled even by the inspiring view. By now, Jessica would have made her decision, and even though Kaleah felt sure the young woman would decide to continue the relationship, regardless of the risks or consequences, a small part of her — the part that had learned that all good things would eventually be stripped away — was bracing itself for rejection.

Kaleah had slept a little during the night, but the memory of Jessica’s hungry expression and eagerly offered body were not conducive to rest. Through the dark hours, she made plans for the day; plans that were neutral in regards to Jessica’s decision. When the soldiers began to move around, the former slave headed for the kitchen and grabbed a bite to eat . . . more to distract her mind from what might come later than because she was actually hungry.

Now she stood, leaning against the huge brass signal horn that was mounted here to warn of someone approaching the castle, staring out at the distant horizon and trying to find some measure of comfort by watching the birth of a new and beautiful day.

She didn’t hear the quiet, soft footsteps coming up the stairs behind her, or the slight rustle of leather and cloth. But she sensed the arrival of another person, and without even turning she recognized the calm power in the new presence.

“Sleep well?” she asked.

“Not really,” came the musical reply, and Kaleah could hear the slight smile in Jessica’s voice. She felt her friend come closer. “Did you?”

She shrugged. “Just a few hours,” she said. “It was enough.” There was a long period of silence before Kaleah turned to study the profile of the young woman. Jessica looked tired and still a little hazy . . . but there was a calm about her now that answered Kaleah’s next question before she asked it. “Did you think about everything?”

Jess nodded. “For most of the night, yes.” She turned to face Kaleah, and smiled a little. “I gotta say, it took me a while to calm down so I could think about anything except . . . you know?” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Kaleah grinned. “But after an hour or so, I got myself under control and I did what you wanted me to do; I thought about this whole thing in a rational, logical way . . . and about what it might mean to me and the life I live.”

Kaleah put her hands on the stone battlement in front of her and turned out to look at the tapestry of fields and forest. “And?”

Jessica smiled quietly. “Well . . . I considered everything very carefully, just like you said to do. And I think you’re right,
Kaleah . . . there are a lot of risks to us being together.” She took a deep breath. “My mother would never stand for it . . . and with the power of the Church behind her she could probably overturn anything my father might do to protect me. Maybe we could appeal a death sentence, but you’d be banished for sure, and God knows what they’d do to me.

A lot of the soldiers and knights would probably refuse to ever ride with me again, and the commoners would likely start whispering about how I’d been seduced by a witch. I could loose in an instant everything I’ve spent my whole life struggling to build; the respect of the other warriors, the love of the peasants, and maybe even my home and my family.” She looked at Kaleah’s stony expression. “And against all that I have a savage, heathen barbarian still bearing the scars of a life spent in slavery and torment.”

Kaleah’s face was a careful mask, but she couldn’t stop her fists from clenching into the hard granite, knuckles turning white. She swallowed, tasting bitter bile in her throat. “So . . .” Her voice trembled. “I guess that means you . . made your decision.”

A warm hand reached out and strong but gentle fingers twined themselves with her own. Kaleah glanced down into the slightly amused but loving eyes of her smiling friend. “There wasn’t really any decision to make,” Jessica said softly.

Kaleah’s mouth opened and closed a few times as her companion’s words sunk in. “Y-you mean . . . you-” Jessica put her hand over Kaleah’s mouth and stopped her.

“No,” she said. “You had your chance to talk last night. Now it’s my turn.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, opening them when she felt Kaleah smile against her hand. Looking up into the cerulean gaze of the older woman, Jessica let her heart speak.

“When we first saw each other, something happened between us. Something we both felt, but didn’t understand.” Kaleah nodded very slightly. “Well, I think I understand what it was now,” Jess whispered. “It was the feeling of God’s hand binding our two souls together. When I looked into your eyes . . . it felt like I was seeing the color blue for the first time in my life. I couldn’t stop myself from following you when you ran from the battle, and I couldn’t stop myself from following when you tried to escape into the storm.” She stepped closer, pressing herself against the dark woman’s powerful body. “Even if I wanted to stop loving you — which I don’t — I couldn’t do it. You’re a part of me Kaleah. I don’t have a choice in this . . . we’re just meant to be together, that’s all.” She took her hand away, smiling at the look of relief and love in Kaleah’s expression. Eager hands wrapped around the tall woman’s waist, and Jessica squeezed her close. “I love you.”

Kaleah’s hands went automatically around the young woman pressed against her, and she placed a tender kiss on the blonde head resting on her chest. “I love you too, Jess,” she whispered, her heart pounding so hard she worried it might burst. A feeling of well-being and relief flooded through her so strong it made her light-headed, and it was only after several long minutes just holding Jessica that she managed to convince herself this was real.

They stood like that for a long time, just enjoying each other’s warmth, before Kaleah finally drew away and looked down into mist-green eyes. “What about your mother-”

“Sshhh.” Jessica grinned. “Whatever happens, Kaleah, happens to both of us together. You trust me, right?” Kaleah nodded without even thinking. “Then trust that I’ll be able to handle the consequences of being with you. When the time comes, we’ll deal with whatever problems come along.” Her eyes darkened and a slow, sexy smile spread across her face. “Did you . . . have anything planned for today?” she asked in a voice so low she barely recognized it as her own.

Kaleah shuddered, seeing that Jessica’s passion still burned just as strong as it had last night. She smiled and nodded. “As a matter of fact I did,” she breathed seductively.

Jessica’s eyes sparkled and she raised a blonde brow invitingly. “Do your plans involve me?”

Kaleah nodded again and bent down very slowly, licking her lips. “How would you . . .”

Jessica’s breathing accelerated as she leant forward eagerly. “Yesss?”

“Feel about . . .” Kaleah’s lips descended as Jessica’s eyes drifted shut, the young girl’s head tilting to the side. The dark woman stopped just before their lips met, and she grinned. “. . . a picnic in the woods?”

“What!?!” Jessica’s eyes shot open and glared at Kaleah, who couldn’t help but chuckle at the thwarted look on her face. “You’d better find a God and start praying if you’re serious, Kaleah,” she growled, pulling the dark woman even tighter against her.

“What’s wrong?” Kaleah grinned. “You had something else in mind?”

Jade eyes narrowed. “Damn right I did!” Her hips forward and Kaleah felt heat against her thigh. “Something involving you, me, and a nice big bed!”

Kaleah blinked her eyes in innocent confusion. “You wanted to sleep in?” Jessica growled, and Kaleah laughed. “I like that noise,” she whispered, using her free hand to brush a strand of Jessica’s hair back over her ear. Her eyes grew hooded. “I wonder what other noises I can get you to make . . .”

“I guess that’ll depend on what you do to me,” Jess replied, her hips unconsciously grinding against Kaleah as the ache inside grew stronger. “And I doubt you’ll get much opportunity to do a whole lot if we go on a picnic . . . unless you’re planning on us going alone, in which case you might be able to twist my arm.”

Kaleah raised an eyebrow. “You know, Jessica, for someone so patient and in control of herself — not to mention so sweet and innocent — you sure are in an awful hurry about some things.”

“A hurry!?” Jess’ eyes widened. “You call waiting nineteen years a hurry? And after all the stuff you’ve been doing the last few days, I think I’m being positively saintly about this stuff!” She growled again. “I’ve waited long enough!”

“Well, I’m really sorry, Jess, but you’re gonna be waiting just a little longer,” Kaleah said with a grin. “There’s a patrol leaving in an hour, and we’re going with it.”

Jessica’s smile disappeared and she took a step back. “You are joking, right?”

“Nope. I already had the kitchen make up a basket of food for us . . . and I thought we’d ask Charles and Damon if they’d like to come, too.”

Jessica stared at her, hands on her hips, totally incredulous. “We’re going on a picnic?” she hissed. Kaleah bit her lower lip and nodded. Jessica’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Now!?”

“Uh huh.” Kaleah fought to contain a grin, but couldn’t.

Jessica stalked forward and poked her in the chest. “You get me all worked up and then you force me to wait all night . . . and now you’re telling me we can’t do anything because you want to go on a blasted picnic!?!”

Kaleah shrugged sheepishly. “Um . . . that’s how it looks, yeah.”

Jessica took a deep breath and turned around, collecting herself. She was getting tired of having to drag her rampaging libido back everytime it leapt forward. After a moment, she faced Kaleah again. “And when, exactly, are you going to let me be with you?”

Kaleah smiled crookedly. “Tonight . . . after we’ve enjoyed this beautiful day.”

“Tonight? You’re sure?”

Kaleah nodded sincerely.

Jess sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Okay . . . fine. I think I can wait that long.” The smile on Kaleah’s face made her chuckle at herself a little. “But no more stalling, you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.” Kaleah stepped closer and ran a single finger down Jessica’s face, past her chin and between her breasts which were clearly defined through the thin shirt she wore. The dark woman smiled when she heard Jessica’s breath catch, and she boldly let her finger continue it’s southward journey, eventually finding the heat at the juncture of her leather-clad thighs. “Like I told you . . . the best part about being frustrated is when you finally get what you want.” Jessica whimpered when Kaleah pressed her finger firmly against sensitized flesh, and her hips began to move of their own volition, trying to increase the pressure. When she felt that, Kaleah pulled away, causing Jessica to glare at her. She smiled. “Tonight, my love . . . I’ll give you everything you ask of me.”

Jessica held her eyes a moment longer, then swallowed. “You damn well better,” she said breathlessly, “or you’re gonna find out just how dangerous nineteen years of chastity and virtue can be!”

Kaleah grinned and patted the young blonde on the head. “Come on then,” she said, linking their arms and feeling her happiness spread through her blood like an intoxicant. “Let’s go find Charles and get the horses ready. I’m looking forward to a nice long ride.”

Jessica gave her a sultry grin and winked as they headed down the stairs. “So am I,” she purred, “but I can wait till tonight.”

Kaleah blushed a little, but laughed, amazed at how the young blonde could be shy and innocent, and at the same time so forward and bold.

Inside the dark woman’s heart, the small part of her that had grown accustomed to being deprived of everything except pain and sadness and grief finally realized that after a lifetime of abuse, something wonderful and light had come along . . . and this time, it wasn’t going to be taken away. As Kaleah basked in the simple pleasure of this young woman’s love and life, the former slave felt the dark shadows of her past recede . . . and she knew that for the first time, the pain of those terrible years couldn’t hurt her anymore. Jessica’s love and understanding shielded her from that darkness like a blanket of light.

Kaleah smiled as she and her young companion walked quickly down through the tower, looking forward to what she was determined would be the best day of her whole life.

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

Charles and Damon were delighted by the proposed picnic, and happily agreed to accompany the two women and the patrol of soldiers. Jessica saddled Andromeda herself, then helped the still somewhat clumsy Kaleah saddle her large chestnut gelding. The dark woman sent a servant to bring the basket she’d had prepared from the kitchen, and less than an hour later they assembled with the group of twenty soldiers just outside the castle walls. Charles and Damon were already there, waiting, and Jess saw the massive body-guard had decided to wear his heavy, dark plate armor and the demonic-looking helm. She chuckled.

“We’re going on a picnic, Damon, not riding off to war. You’re gonna be sweating a river in that stuff.”

The burly man raised a mailed hand and flipped the visor on the helm up, flashing her a grin. “This is a patrol, still,” he argued sensibly. “I must be ready to protect my lord.”

“You take things too seriously,” the young blonde laughed, but she admired his dedication. For Damon, being Charles’ protector was a job he took very seriously indeed.

Charles’ horse skitted nervously under him, but he soothed the beast easily. “It’s a wonderful day for this,” he observed, looking up at the nearly-clear sky. “The first few days of Spring are my favorite time of year, I think.”

“Mine too,” Jess agreed. She had to admit that this was a nice idea . . . no matter how intriguing the alternatives were. She gave Kaleah a smile that said she wasn’t too mad at her, then hastily looked away when the dark woman ran her eyes openly down her body, not being shy about where she focused her attention.

If she keeps this up, by the time you get her back to your room you’re going to explode the instant she touches you, her mind informed her. Jess decided it was a risk she’d just have to take.

Watching the interaction between the two women, Charles groaned inwardly and rolled his eyes. Apparently, Kaleah wasn’t the subtle type; the look she gave the young blonde was enough to make even the open-minded young lord blush. But when he glanced at the soldiers, Charles was relieved to see that none of them seemed to be paying any attention to the two women. They gave Jessica courteous nods, and mostly the same to Kaleah, but other than that, they seemed blind to the sexual tension that charged between the two.

Strange, he thought to himself. Or then again, maybe not so strange. Afterall, these people must be used to Jess and Kaleah being together all the time. They’ve seen it everyday for the past few weeks. Why would they bother looking twice to see something that wasn’t there before?

The thought was somewhat comforting for Charles; he knew what could happen if Jessica’s romance with her dark friend was seen by the wrong people. He didn’t want her getting hurt because of her love.

The patrol set off from the castle at a leisurely pace, even the soldiers willing to enjoy the pleasant warmth. The men laughed and joked with each other, relaxed but still watchful as they neared the trail that led into the woods. The bandits in the region were showing up less and less recently; the last few days, patrols hadn’t found a single camp, nor evidence that raiders had passed through. Still, despite their high spirits, the soldiers of Da’Gran were disciplined and ready for anything . . . especially considering they were riding escort for their lords daughter.

The patrol rode a few hours out, not in any hurry, the men letting Jessica set the pace. The young woman rode next to Kaleah, casting her secret, sidelong glances every now and then, the sultry smile never leaving her face. Kaleah returned the looks with ones of own; looks that promised mysterious delights that would be explored later that night, and that sent shivers through Jessica’s ardent young body.

If we get attacked, her mind observed pointedly, you’re going to be the last one to notice, and the first one to die! Stop giving the damn woman ‘come-take-me’ looks and keep at least one eye on the bloody forest!

Jessica told her mind to shut up. She was enjoying herself . . . and was actually enjoying the slowly building sense of anticipation, too. She leaned closer to Kaleah.

“This wasn’t such a bad idea, you know,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry I was a little . . . overzealous before.”

Kaleah didn’t know what ‘overzealous’ meant, but she could take a good guess. “That’s okay,” she said calmly. “Later on, you can be as . . . ‘over zee-lus’. . . as you like.”

Jessica giggled at her strange pronunciation of the new word, and explained, “It means, um . . . extreme. Really enthusiastic.” She waggled her eyebrows, and whispered, “I think it sums up my feelings quite well right now.”

Kaleah grinned. “You want to look for a place to stop for our picnic? You didn’t have breakfast, afterall.”

“Sure. I’ll tell the men.” The young woman rode forward to the head of the column and informed the patrol leader they wanted to break for an early lunch. The man agreed amicably; this patrol was just a close-range scout, intended to discourage anyone from setting up too close to the castle. There was no hurry in their assignment, and when a suitable clearing came along, he called a halt and the men happily dismounted and stretched out the stiffness in their limbs.

While the soldiers settled themselves in groups and unpacked their own food, Jessica and her three friends opened their picnic basket and inspected it’s contents. Jessica pulled out cloth-wrapped bundles containing everything from roast pheasant and honey-sweetened pork, to fragrant bread rolls filled with dried fruit. There were even a few slices of freshly-baked butter cake, of which Jessica quickly claimed the largest piece.

The four friends settled themselves down under the sweeping branches of an aspen tree and ate contentedly. Kaleah couldn’t resist tormenting her young friend a little more, and began to eat her food in a suggestive and rather enjoyable manner. Jessica tried to ignore her at first, but found her eyes straying to the dark woman of their own accord. Glaring at Kaleah didn’t make her stop, nor did the furtive, subtle nods towards their companions. Eventually, her interest in food rapidly disappearing, Jessica decided it might be time to find somewhere a bit more private to continue this seduction . . . and she knew just how to convince Kaleah to come with her.

Her eyes glinting with mischief, Jessica took a large piece of sweet cake and, looking Kaleah straight in the eyes, flicked it at the dark woman’s chest.

“Hey?!” Kaleah glared at her. “What was that for?”

Jess just grinned playfully and flicked another piece.

Kaleah growled as Charles and Damon glanced at each other, amused and curious. “Cut it out.” The young woman just shook her head and repeated her actions. This time, Kaleah sat up on all fours, her eyes narrowing dangerously. Her voice was a low, intense rumble. “I’m warning you, Jess . . . don’t start with me-” A well-aimed crumb landed right in her cleavage, and Jess giggled.

“What’re you going to do, Kaleah?” the blonde taunted playfully.

“You don’t want to know, princess.”

“Oh, don’t I?” Jessica considered a moment, then very deliberately took the last piece of her cake and tossed it at the dark woman.

“That’s it!”

Jessica squealed and had only a second to get her legs under her as Kaleah sprang forward, her hands reaching for a hold. The young blonde heard a curse behind her, but bolted for the woods as fast as she could, knowing Kaleah was right on her heels. Most of the soldiers laughed or rolled their eyes, accustomed to the lively antics of the spirited girl, but the patrol leader called out a quick warning for her not to go too far. Jessica put her head down and pumped her legs hard.

She couldn’t keep her pace going for long, however, and against the long-legged strides of her pursuer, the chase only lasted a few minutes before Jessica heard Kaleah’s harsh breathing right behind her. She heard the dark woman grunt, “Gotcha,” right before long arms wrapped around her waist and dragged her back. The dark woman’s body overbalanced her and Jessica crashed to the soft ground, giggling as she struggled to get free. Kaleah quickly pinned her down with her long body, holding her arms down firmly, her face just an inch above her own, breathing hard. Jessica struggled a moment longer, but melted when Kaleah inserted a muscled thigh between her legs and applied a gentle, very welcome pressure where she wanted it most.

Dark blue eyes gazed down at her, the predatory smile on the dark woman’s face sending shivers down Jessica’s spine. “You caught me,” she breathed.

“Yes I did.” Kaleah eyes wandered over her face and she pushed forward a fraction with her thigh. “The question is . . . what am I gonna do with you now?”

Jessica felt daring and brave, the weight of the dark woman pressing against her in all the right places making her blood burn. Green eyes sparkled invitingly. “Whatever you’re gonna do, you should hurry,” she said softly. “If the soldiers decide to follow us and catch us like this, they might think you’re trying to attack me.” Her eyes sparkled. “They could kill you before I could stop them.”

Kaleah considered a moment, seeing the playfulness in Jess’s face, but also aware of the serious invitation she was making. The dark woman decided she’d teased the girl enough, and her smile turned sensuous. “Well . . . if I’m going to risk my life . . . I might as well get something worth dying for while I’m here.” Slowly — slower than either woman thought she could stand — Kaleah’s lips descended and brushed lightly over Jessica’s.

Jessica’s eyes drifted shut as her lips pursed slightly and she tilted her head to accept the slow kiss. Kaleah’s lips were so soft against her own, and the young woman let the rest of the world fade away as she gave herself over to the incredible sensations. When Kaleah released her hands, Jess quickly buried her fingers in the dark woman’s thick hair, pulling her closer and deepening the contact. Kaleah used one hand to support her weight, and ran the other lightly down Jessica’s body, stopping at the curve of her hip.

Kaleah let the kiss last several moments before she eased off, but Jessica quickly pulled her head back down, moaning at the loss. Feeling the young woman’s passion burning fiercely, Kaleah let her tongue glide forth to gently stroke against the soft lips under hers. Jessica’s response was a low, rumbling growl, and her lips parted in open encouragement. Slowly, Kaleah let her tongue venture into the young woman’s mouth, ready to retreat at the slightest hint that she was moving too fast. But Jess accepted the invasion eagerly, her own tongue welcoming the company.

Jessica felt light-headed at the feeling and taste of Kaleah’s mouth and tongue, and her body began to rock against the leather-clad thigh that pinned her down. With her fingers combing restlessly through Kaleah’s long, sable tresses, the young woman refused to let the kiss end even when her lungs began to cry for air. Breaking contact for a second to gasp in a quick breath, Jessica felt Kaleah’s tongue retreat and she followed it instantly with her own. For long moments she explored the dark woman’s mouth, tracing her sharp teeth and the inner contours of her cheek, feeling there the still slightly torn flesh from Kaleah’s beating. When Kaleah’s lips closed over her tongue and sucked forcefully, Jessica felt a powerful tightening sensation in her groin and pushed herself harder against the body that covered her.

A moment later, the two woman drew apart by unspoken agreement, their breathing shallow and harsh. Jessica opened her eyes and gazed up into the somewhat unfocused eyes of her friend. She smiled dreamily, and Kaleah flashed her a dazzling grin.

“Are you okay?” the dark woman asked softly, letting her hand wander lightly over the young woman’s body.

Jess nodded. “Fine.” She gave a slightly shy giggle. “I feel a little dizzy,” she admitted with a blush.

Kaleah’s grin widened. “Me, too.” She glanced down meaningfully at where her thigh was pressed against the young blonde’s still-grinding center. “You know, you should probably stop that or we’re going to get carried away.”

Jess followed her eyes and saw how she was moving, and her blush deepened. She couldn’t seem to control the rhythm of her own body, but with the sensations coursing through her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She raised an eyebrow and smiled as she deliberately thrust harder. “Getting carried away sounds really nice right about now,” she panted breathlessly.

Kaleah smiled, but pulled her leg away. Jessica moaned at the loss and pouted, but the dark woman ended any protests with another searing kiss, which quickly turned into another long session of gentle explorations. When they parted again, Jessica’s eyes were dazed and fuzzy. She smiled a silly smile.

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you like that for so long,” the young blonde whispered. “All my life, I’ve read stories where people share kisses so intense they make everything else disappear. I’ve never . . . actually kissed anyone that way before, though.” She gnawed her lower lip shyly as she gazed into sapphire pools. “You make me feel like I’m living in a fairy tale . . . I have to keep reminding myself this is real.”

“It’s real,” Kaleah assured her, kissing her gently on the cheek. “And it only gets better from here.” She gazed seriously into dark green eyes. “I love you, Jess.”

Jessica smiled. “I love you, too.” Her eyes grew darker still. “And I really want to show you just how much I love you.” She pulled Kaleah’s body down onto hers more firmly, enjoying the feel of so much contact but wishing she could get rid of the leather armor that kept her from touching the bronzed skin that lay beneath. The young blonde was inexperienced at all this, but she wasn’t about to let that get in her way.

Kaleah found herself helpless against the strength of her young love, and she buried her face against Jessica’s neck, breathing in the intoxicating scent of vanilla and sweat. Her lips pressed against soft skin, and she nipped lightly with her teeth, causing the blonde to yelp, then groan. “I want to make love with you, Jess,” she whispered into her ear, smiling when she felt a shudder run through the body pressed so close against her own. “But I want it to be perfect for both of us.” She drew back a little. “As much as I’d like to continue this right now . . . we really have to stop.”

Jessica pouted. “This is perfect, Kaleah,” she insisted.

“How perfect will it be if the soldiers catch us?” Kaleah saw that register in the young woman, who sighed and nodded her understanding. “I promise I’ll make the wait worthwhile.”

Jess smiled shyly. “Can we . . . kiss again?” she asked. “Just once, before we head back?”

Kaleah grinned and nodded, then claimed the young woman’s lips. She let her passion show in the kiss, making it a promise of things to come. Time drifted away as they explored each other at a leisurely pace, quickly becoming lost in the soft sensations and the warmth of their love. But when the sound of a twig snapping just a few feet away broke the silence of the forest, blue eyes opened instantly and locked with startled green. The spell of the kiss broken, they sensed the presence of others in the clearing. Adrenaline dispelled the fog of desire, and both women moved with dazzling speed.

Kaleah was on her feet and turning a fraction of a second before Jessica rolled to the side and crouched low. It was a struggle to make the transition from a moment of intimacy to one of danger . . . and with her defenses lowered, Kaleah felt the dark and wild beast that crouched inside her easily shake off it’s leash and spring forward. She tried desperately to regain control, but it was hopeless. The sudden interruption brought all her deepest and most primitive instincts to the fore, and Kaleah was helpless to drag the darkness back.

It took a heartbeat to identify that the intruders were not part of their patrol, and the passionate fury focused her vision, giving her a single-minded goal; to protect Jessica. Somewhere inside, Kaleah paused a second to marvel at this. Even the darkest part of me feels nothing but love for her.

Steel flashed as a dagger appeared in the dark woman’s hand so swiftly it was almost magical, and a feral grin twisted the scar on her lips. The darkness that caught her in it’s powerful grip didn’t even think to regret that her sword was still back in the clearing with Charles and Damon; the shorter blade was just as deadly. She stepped forward as one of the roughly-armored men charged her, swinging an iron-shod mace at her shoulder.

Kaleah ducked the straight-forward attack and struck with lethal skill. The dagger swept upwards, ignoring the mans armored chest to plunge into his unprotected throat, angled to penetrate his brain. He was dead instantly, but Kaleah was advancing on the next man before his body had crumpled to the ground. Through the fog of rage that blinded her, Kaleah watched her own hand strike him down with the same ruthless efficiency, unable to cage the darkness that had been loosed.

Stepping back as more men moved forward, Kaleah saw Jessica behind her. The girl was still crouched, a slender dirk in her hand, but she hadn’t moved to fight yet. Wide green eyes set in a pale face stared at her uncertainly, but Kaleah turned away coldly, her focus on the advancing intruders. The dark woman guessed there were about fifteen men surrounding them now, but the darkness made her numb to any fear. Bending down, she picked up the sword from her most recent kill and spun it a few times, getting the balance. The weapon was heavier than her own blade, but she didn’t care. Rage fueled her body with fearsome strength, and even through the haze of blood-lust and darkness, her thoughts went instantly to her young love. She had to protect Jessica . . . and she knew that Jessica would protect her.

Facing the men, Kaleah took a step forward, sword raised, but she stopped when several of the intruders raised new weapons. “Drop the sword!” one man ordered sharply. The former slave had seen a few cross-bows in her life, and recognized the danger as gleaming bolts were trained on her. Still, she hesitated only a moment before she stepped forward again, fearless of pain or death.

“No, Kaleah!!” Desperate hands grabbed her and pulled her back. She snarled and tried to pull free, but Jessica was strong. Glaring down at the smaller woman, it took a moment for her to understand the look in Jess’s emerald eyes. The darkness receded a little, and Kaleah held still, struggling against the urge to continue the fight. Jessica’s hands relaxed a little and her eyes flitted nervously to the cautious men who were waiting. Her expression was full of fear . . . not for herself, but for Kaleah. “They’ll kill us both!” she whispered frantically. “We can’t fight this. Please.”

Even the animal rage in Kaleah was helpless against this soft plea. Reluctantly, the red mist dissipated and the former slave took a long, shaky breath before nodding her understanding. “Okay.” Numb fingers released the sword, which thudded to the forest floor. The dagger followed, and Jessica sighed with relief, tossing her own weapon away. Kaleah glared at the men and their deadly bows with cold, malevolent eyes, but she held herself still. Jessica raised her hands to show they were empty as the men stepped forward more boldly now.

“We surrender.”

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

Jessica watched the group of men as they tightened their circle, cross-bows never wavering. Her eyes flickered briefly to the two men Kaleah had killed, then she glanced at her dark friend quickly, trying to judge how her volatile temperament might affect their chances of getting out of this. The young woman knew she could yell for help and the nearby patrol would probably hear her . . . but by the time help arrived, it would certainly be too late. Against the glinting danger of the cross-bows, there was nothing even her swift reflexes could do.

“My, but this is an unexpected encounter,” came a rich, cultured voice from behind. Jessica whirled about to find a tall, slender man with short, dark-brown hair and refined features step through the ring of men. He wore reinforced leather armor and his motions were calm and considered. Intelligent hazel eyes looked her up and down, and a slight smile washed over his handsome face. “A young woman with so beautiful and noble a bearing can be no other than the daughter of Sir Richard himself,” he mused, studying her. “Am I correct to assume I have the honor to stand before the Lady Jessica Da’Gran?”

Jessica held herself steady under his inspection. She was surprised to find his tone was not sarcastic, but held only a sincere respect. Glaring at him, she nodded warily. “You do.”

The man clapped his hands once, his smile widening. “What a strange piece of fortune this is,” he said, offering a slight bow. “Permit me to introduce myself, my lady. I am Frederick Gosford . . . though I don’t suppose that name means anything to you.” His eyes were curious, and his tone said he was testing her.

Jessica searched her mind for the name, but came up empty. “Should it?”

Gosford shrugged. “Perhaps. In some circles, I am quite well-known. Having heard your reputation, I thought it possible you might have heard mine.”

She shook her head, considering the man carefully. Gosford wore no crest or heraldic symbol, yet his armor was of excellent quality, and the long-sword at his side was worn with casual grace that spoke of great familiarity. His accent and manner of speech indicated he was educated and well-bred, but from his rugged features, Jessica guessed the man held no title. Studying him in comparison to the other men, Jess suddenly understood what was going on.

“You’re a mercenary.”

Gosford smiled and inclined his head, accepting the title. “One of the best, my lady . . . and one of the most expensive. After so many failed attempts to take Da’Gran land by force, it is understandable that Sir William would spare no expense for his latest endeavor.”

Green eyes widened. “You’re working for Lancaster!?”

“Indeed I am, my lady. His lordship hired me at great cost to lead the expedition against your father . . . his own strategies weren’t working.”

“This is impossible.” Jessica struggled to comprehend the situation, realizing she was in more danger than if these men were simply an itinerant band of raiders. “You can’t think to take the castle with Lancaster’s men. Even if he gave you every man in his army, you’d never win against Da’Gran troops. And Sir William hasn’t the wealth to hire a mercenary army of any decent size.”

“Of course not, my lady,” Gosford agreed amicably. “Sir William has kept the greater part of his forces at home . . . but I don’t need his men to win.” His hazel eyes were unnervingly calm and slightly amused; Jessica didn’t like his confidence. “Even as we speak, an army of rouges, thieves and bandits marches through the woods towards your father’s castle. They outnumber his forces four to one, and by tomorrow evening, they will lay siege to the fortress.” He smiled at the stunned expression on her face. “We have been recruiting for this campaign since before the start of winter. The raiders may not be the greatest fighters in the world . . . but they’re cheap, expendable, and best of all, numerous. With a capable commander, they make an unstoppable force.”

Jessica saw the conviction in Gosford’s eyes, and knew the man spoke the truth. This explained how the bandit groups had seemingly vanished recently, and the strange behavior of Sir William during his visit. The magnitude of the threat hit her hard, but Jess managed to conceal her fear from the carefully watching mercenary.

“And what are your plans for me?” she demanded coldly.

“Can you not guess?” Gosford smiled in amusement. “Sir Richard’s love for his daughter is well known. Finding you out here like this is great fortune. You will be a powerful tool against him in the coming days.”

“If you know anything of my father, than you must know he holds the lives of his people above all else . . . even my life. He’d never agree to a ransom.”

“Oh, I beg to differ.” Gosford’s expression became serious. “Believe it or not, Lady Jessica, I want this conquest to be as bloodless as I can make it. I have a great respect for your father, and indeed for you yourself. My terms for surrender will be more than fair. In time, Sir Richard will see sense.” His eyes went to the two dead bodies lying on the forest floor, then to Kaleah, who stood stiffly next to Jessica. “Sir William made mention of a strange woman keeping company with Jessica,” he mused speculatively. “He worried you might be an extra thorn in our side, and I see he was not entirely unjustified in his concern.” He chuckled, his hazel eyes sparkling. “Still, I am certain he will be most amused to hear that the ‘handmaiden’ he troubled over is little more than Lady Jessica’s whore!”

Gosford’s laughter died suddenly as Jessica’s fist slammed into his face with a speed that was blinding. Kaleah instantly moved to place herself between her young love and the men holding the crossbows as they stepped forward, their fingers tightening on triggers. They halted at a raised hand from the mercenary leader.

Jessica’s green eyes were filled with venom and her body trembled with rage. “If you speak another word like that against Kaleah, I’ll rip your throat out,” she hissed. One of the men reversed his bow and moved to deliver a stern reprisal.

“No!” Gosford halted the man. “She’s right. My words were crude and unwarranted against a lady of the nobility.” He rubbed his jaw, wincing a little before offering a slight bow to Kaleah, then one to Jessica. “I apologize to you both, but you must understand that it is something of a shock to stumble upon the two of you in so intimate a circumstance. I should not have displayed such disrespect, however, and I am sorry for it.” He motioned with his right hand, and the bandit soldiers reluctantly backed away.

Jessica eyed him a moment, suspecting he was taunting her, but realized quickly that his regret was sincere. She nodded her acceptance of the apology, and he smiled.

Who was this Gosford? The bandits obviously held him in great regard, but he was unlike any of the mercenaries Jessica had encountered before. He spoke with great eloquence, and held himself with an almost regal bearing. Sir Miles had once told her that the more brutal and cruel an enemy was, the more flaws and weaknesses he was trying to cover. She could tell that Gosford’s behavior was not an act; he could afford to be magnanimous because he was confident of his abilities.

Beneath the charm, Jesica knew, lay a dangerous man.

Gosford looked around the woods, searching. “We are close to Da’Gran,” he muttered. A sharp eye trapped Jessica. “Are the two of you alone out here?”

Jessica hesitated. She didn’t want this man to know that help was close by, and she judged him quickly to surmise the best way to keep him unsuspecting. Swallowing, she shook her head. “There’s a whole patrol with us,” she said, pitching her voice deliberately high. “They’re not far away.”

Gosford considered this, his head cocked to the side. “Far enough that you didn’t bother calling for help, I see,” he pondered. “Far enough that you felt safe to engage in private acts with your ‘friend’ here.” He gestured to Kaleah. “I think it more likely that you are alone, my lady,” he smiled, “and that you came here to steal some time away from the eyes of the castle with your companion.” Jessica looked away briefly, her features paling, and Gosford’s smile widened, fooled completely by the guilty expression. “We must return to camp quickly before a real patrol comes by.”

Gosford turned his attention back to Kaleah, who still hovered protectively close to the young blonde. “I have a use for you besides ransom,” he said. “I want you to inform Sir Richard that we have his daughter. In twenty-four hours, his castle will be under siege. He has that time to evacuate the villagers behind Da’Gran’s walls and to make what preparations he will. Inform him that I will make terms for surrender as soon as my men are in position. Can you remember all that?”

Kaleah looked to Jessica, not wanting to be separated, but the young woman nodded and gave her a reassuring pat on the arm. She glared at Gosford and nodded.

“Excellent. And to be sure you don’t take it into your head to follow your mistress . . .” His eyes flickered beyond her, and Kaleah turned just in time to receive a sharp smack to the temple from the oak stock of a crossbow.

“Kaleah!?!” Jessica cried out as the dark woman slid bonelessly to the ground.

“She’ll be fine when she comes too,” Gosford said, signaling for his men to grab her. “Be gentle,” he reprimanded them when they pulled Jessica roughly away from her friend. “Keep in mind that you are escorting a lady of the nobility.”

Jess glared at him angrily, a tear escaping her eye. “You didn’t have to do that!”

He shrugged. “I’ll not risk that she’ll try to be a hero and rescue her lover,” he said firmly. “By the time she’s in any condition to follow us, our trail will be covered. Come now, it’s a short walk to the horses, then another hour ride back to camp.” He gestured to the two men Kaleah had killed. “We take them with us. Go!” The bandits moved quickly to follow orders.

The men guided the young blonde out of the clearing and back into the deeper parts of the forest, their actions firm but not rough. Jessica looked over her shoulder and felt her throat tighten at the sight of Kaleah’s unconscious figure. “Be safe,” she whispered, before the men insisted she turn and continue.

What had started out to be the most wonderful day of her life had taken a suddenly dark turn. Her home was in great danger . . . worse than it had ever been during her life. Jessica wished for Kaleah’s company but was thankful that her friend would at least be safe for the time being. All she could do now was hope that her father and Sir Miles would figure out a way to save Da’Gran — and hopefully her as well — before it was too late.
Chapter 22.
Kaleah didn’t have enough time to duck the blow from the butt of the crossbow, but her swift reflexes did allow her to roll away a little, reducing the force of the impact. Everything went black for a frightening moment as she fell limply to the ground, but she managed to struggle against the seductive pull of the darkness for a few moments . . . just long enough for her to mark firmly in her mind the direction the men took her beloved Jessica. Then, her eyes fluttered closed and the pain vanished.

A familiar voice, urgent and worried, called her back seemingly a moment later. Opening her eyes, Kaleah found Charles bent over her, calling her name. His relief was obvious when she shook her head a little, and he helped her sit up.

“What happened?” he questioned anxiously. “Where’s Jessica?”

Kaleah looked around groggily to find several Da’Gran soldiers from the patrol watching her. A few were bent over the ground studying something. She groaned and put a hand to her throbbing head. “Men,” she said shakily. “They attacked us. I-I killed two of them but . . . they had crossbows and Jessica . . .” She shook her head. “They took Jessica.”

“Who were they?” demanded the patrol leader. “Bandits?”

Kaleah shrugged and tried to stand, but a wave of dizziness overtook her. “I think so, but their leader was a mercenary. He said his name was . . . Gosford, I think. And he said he had an army.” She saw the patrol leader’s eyes widen and quickly told him what Gosford had said about the planned attack on Da’Gran.

“That’s not possible!”

“It is,” Kaleah insisted. “The army will be here in a day.”

“I don’t believe it.”

Kaleah saw in his face that he did. “Jessica took his threat seriously,” she observed, and after a moment he sighed and nodded.

“Sir Richard must be informed,” he said. “We need to get back to Da’Gran as quickly as possible.”

Kaleah’s eyes widened. “What about Jessica?”

“There’s little we can do,” Charles told her. “They’re long gone by now.”

Kaleah struggled against him and managed to get to her feet. “I’m not leaving her with that man,” she hissed angrily. “I’ll go alone if I have to, but I’m getting her back.”

“You can’t-”

“I can, and I will,” she insisted, shrugging off his attempts to restrain her. Her sapphire eyes bore into his. “Don’t even think of trying to stop me, Charles.”

“Jessica’s smart,” he argued persuasively. “She’s been in hostage situations before. She knows how to handle it.”

Kaleah didn’t move a muscle. “I’m getting her back,” she said slowly and calmly. Her voice pitched lower so only Charles would hear. “You know what she means to me. Do you honestly expect me to stand and watch peacefully while she’s ripped away from me?”

He was silent a long moment, then he sighed. “You’ll never get her back if you go alone. I’ll come with you.”

“Milord, I must insist you return to Da’Gran.” The patrol leader had heard those last words and moved instantly to intervene. “We cannot risk handing over another hostage . . . especially one as valuable as yourself.”

“He’s right,” Damon agreed. “I cannot in good conscious allow you to go.”

Charles considered this a moment. “Very well. Damon, you will go in my place.”

“Milord, it is my duty-”

“It is your duty to follow orders,” Charles interrupted. “There are enough men to escort me safely back to the castle. Kaleah will need your help more than I.”

“I can spare a few men to go with you as well,” the patrol leader agreed readily. “If it is at all possible to rescue Lady Jessica, we must at least try.”

Kaleah smiled and nodded. “Thank you. I saw which way they headed, but I’m not a great tracker. We must hurry.”

With the discipline of veteran soldiers, the men quickly organized themselves into two groups, one to return to the castle, one to go with Kaleah. In only a few minutes, the dark woman was leading her somber group through the forest, her cold eyes focused and intense.

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

“You’ll never win. You know my father will fight to the death for his people.” Jessica glared at the man studying a pile of detailed maps laid out on a table a few feet away. Gosford glanced at her, smiling his quiet, confidant smile.

“Against my numbers, Lady Jessica, even a soldier of Sir Richard’s experience cannot stand.” His eyes returned to the maps. “We have everything in place, and every possible avenue covered. Da’Gran will fall, one way or another.”

Jessica snarled and pulled uselessly at the ropes that bound her hands behind her back. This was Gosford’s own private tent, the largest of the three structures that made up the center of the small encampment. The other two she had seen likely housed supplies or weapons, with the common soldiers sleeping outside. She knew the mercenary had had her brought here mostly so he could personally ensure she behaved herself, but from the hard look he gave some of the bandits earlier, she suspected there was another reason also. Jessica had a reputation among the bandits, and it was entirely possible they might seek retribution once they were away from the stern eyes of their commander. The young blonde had heard a few of the crude comments and suggestions from the men about her and Kaleah. She was grateful to Gosford for the courtesy of his protection.

The camp numbered several dozen from what Jessica had seen, and they were reasonably well-equipped. There had even been a few soldiers wearing the heraldry of Sir William. Jess prayed that Kaleah would be sensible and return to the safety of Da’Gran, but knowing the unpredictable woman as she did, it was impossible to rule out a rescue attempt.

This wasn’t the first time Jessica had been in a hostage situation, and she was less frightened than she was angry. Her home was about to be attacked, and instead of preparing to fight, she was tied up and helpless, about to be used as a bargaining chip in Gosford’s terms for surrender. She was a fighter; her skills would be wasted if she stayed like this. Although she hoped fervently that Kaleah would be safe and go back to Da’Gran, Jessica was more than ready to escape if the opportunity presented itself.

Assuming a relaxed and slightly haughty expression, Jessica eyed the mercenary a little calmer. “You think a rag-tag army of bandits can defeat Da’Gran troops?” She snorted. “Any one of my fathers men is worth ten of yours. The castle is strong and gives the advantage of a secure position. Numbers will avail you little against it.”

Gosford shrugged. “I have more than simple numbers on my side, my lady . . . I have timing and preparation. You’ve a sound understanding of warfare and tactics; eventually, you will come to understand the many pieces that will give me victory.”

Jessica was considering a response when a sudden shout came from outside, followed instantly by the clash of weaponry. Gosford’s sharp eyes leapt up and held her for a moment, then he turned towards the covered entrance looking outside. A loud, bellowing battlecry rang through the camp, and he turned back, eyes cautious but angry.

“Perhaps your father moves faster than I had thought,” he growled, standing over her. “Still, if he hopes to have you rescued, the task will prove more difficult than he anticipates.”

“Is that so?” purred a low voice behind him.

Gosford’s eyes widened and his sword leapt from its scabbard as he whirled about, only to be confronted by two menacing eyes as hard and cold as chips of ice. Before he could even register the presence of the dark-haired specter that had risen behind him however, the ornate hilt of Kaleah’s Spanish sword slammed into his face and he fell back, dropping his weapon. Kaleah advanced and snarled as Gosford shook his head, trying vainly to focus his dimming vision. “Maybe you’re not as good at this stuff as you think you are.” Steel flashed in her hand as she leveled the tip of her sword under his throat. She smiled ferally. “Maybe you won’t live to learn any better.”

“Kaleah, no!”

Sapphire eyes lifted and regarded Jessica quickly, softening instantly then returning to Gosford. The sword withdrew a fraction. “You don’t deserve the second chance she’s giving you,” Kaleah whispered angrily. Her hand reversed and delivered a second mighty blow, this time knocking the mercenary out cold. “There won’t be another.”

Kaleah turned quickly and rushed over to Jessica, throwing her arms around the young woman and clutching her fiercely to her chest. Tears welled up behind her tightly closed eyes and she swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice catching. “I got here as soon as I could.”

Jessica struggled to balance without the use of her hands. “I’m okay,” she assured the dark woman quickly, accepting a desperate kiss. “You should have gone back to the castle. You would have been safe there.”

Kaleah pulled back and wiped at her eyes. She smiled wryly. “If our positions were reversed, would you have gone back without me?” Jessica’s head fell forward, and the former slave nodded. “I’d do anything you ever asked of me, Jess,” she said softly, “but never expect me to stay behind when you’re in danger.”

Jessica met her eyes again and nodded. “Okay. Now quickly . . . we have to get out of here. Untie my hands.”

Kaleah cut the thick ropes and helped her young love to her feet. “Damon and the others can’t hold the soldiers long,” she said urgently, guiding them over to the slit she’d made in the back of the tent. “As soon as they form an organized defense, they’ll have to pull back and retreat. This is just a distraction.” Even as she spoke, they heard the sounds of the skirmish die down, replaced by cries of alarm and shouts of “Fire!!”. Jessica cast her tall companion a curious look and was met by an evil smirk and a raised eyebrow. “That’ll be the supply tents.”

Jess chuckled, then ducked outside. Looking around, she found the camp in a state of confusion, men running in all directions. Some seemed to want to give chase to the figures she saw retreating back into the forest, while others were more concerned with the now roaring blaze that was consuming the two tents. A firm hand gripped her shoulder. “This way.” She allowed Kaleah to guide her swiftly into the welcome cover of the denser trees.

The sounds of the camp died away quickly as they ran as fast as they safely could, and it wasn’t long before they reached a clearing. Jessica grinned when she saw the gathering there, hugging Damon’s armored figure briefly and nodding her thanks to the others. Several of the men bore minor injuries, but their hit-and-run tactic had worked well and they had escaped lightly.

“We have to get back to Da’Gran quickly, Lady Jessica,” one of the soldiers stated. “Your father will be relieved when he hears you are safe.”

Kaleah brought Andromeda forward and handed Jessica the reins. “Charles returned with the others to warn everyone about what’s happening,” she said quietly. “The villagers will have time to evacuate.”

“Good.” Jessica mounted the nervous mare smoothly and smiled at the men who followed suit. “Thank you all for risking yourselves to save me.”

“Was Kaleah’s only thought when we found her,” Damon said. “She refused to return to the castle without you.”

“Is that so?” Jessica flashed her friend a quick grin, her eyes twinkling. Now that she was free again her excitement was difficult to contain. “Well I’ll be sure to thank her properly when I have the time,” she said playfully. Kaleah returned her grin knowingly, then urged her own horse forward.

They set a brisk pace through the forest, knowing that pursuit was almost certain. Only when they were trailing along the familiar paths that laced the woods close to the castle did they slow down and give their tired horses a break. Kaleah rode next to her young love, needing to be close to her. Jessica reached out and patted her thigh reassuringly.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I’m safe now and we’re together. That’s all that matters.”

Kaleah smiled a little and nodded. Then her features hardened. “Why didn’t you let me kill him?”

Seeing that Kaleah was furious at Gosford for the abduction Jessica considered her answer carefully. “Gosford’s not an evil man,” she said slowly. “He’s just being paid to fight against us. He treated me with respect, and I know he’ll be an honorable opponent against my father.” She paused. “Killing him wouldn’t stop the army. Someone else would just take over, and we could be fighting against a real monster.” She watched Kaleah’s face and saw the tense lines relax a little in understanding. “Whatever else he may be, Gosford’s no petty butcher. Whatever happens, I know he’ll deal with us fairly.”

Kaleah nodded, her expression grim. She faced Jessica seriously. “We’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?”

Jess was silent a moment, then whispered, “Aye, we are.” A slight smile appeared then, and she patted Kaleah on the leg intimately. “But at least we’re together . . . so it’s not all bad, huh?”

Kaleah nodded, reaching down and pulling Jessica’s hand to her lips. The kiss was brief and gentle, but it managed to convey her love and affection nonetheless. They smiled at one another, then parted as a call from ahead called their attention to the fact that they’d reached the edge of the forest. Da’Gran castle came into view in the distance.

Jessica sighed, feeling a little tired at the events of the busy day and knowing she wasn’t likely to find rest any time soon. “I guess this means we have to postpone our plans for this evening again, doesn’t it?”

Kaleah couldn’t help but grin at the hoarse tone of her friend’s voice. “Yep.”

“Humph.”

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

Emerald eyes scanned back and forth slowly, taking in the grim view with weary despair. Jessica’s heart felt heavy in her chest, but she was too tired to cry. She couldn’t remember wanting sleep so badly in all her life. Turning, the young blonde looked up into the warm sapphire eyes that were watching with her and smiled sadly, glad for Kaleah’s support through the last hours. Her gaze shifted to Sir Miles. The old knight’s face was drawn with fatigue and sorrow, but his stance was strong. He sighed as his shrewd eyes looked out from the battlement to the field.

“He’s no fool, to be sure,” was his simple assessment.

“Aye.”

It was approaching dusk, and the bandit army had been in position for almost a day now. It had taken that long for Gosford to get his men settled and secure. The mercenary established himself in a wide perimeter that encircled Da’Gran completely, his troops just out of range of Sir Richard’s archers. At that distance, of course, he hadn’t the men to surround the castle entirely, but had settled for secure pockets of men spaced evenly every thirty paces. A troop of cavalry rode back and forth along the lines, making sure the gaps in the siege were clear and keeping the unruly bandits from doing anything stupid. Now, as the sun began to vanish over the horizon, a ring of campfires sprang to life, their flickering glow forming an evil faery-ring around Da’Gran, and serving to keep the defenders mindful of the enemy at the gate.

Jessica had returned to the castle to find everything in a state of disciplined chaos. Charles led a group of soldiers and knights out to the village and ordered an evacuation. A tent city sprung up in the jousting and training fields, and the common people took what they could carry and moved behind the walls of Da’Gran. After much debate, the village itself was razed to prevent the enemy from plundering the materials for siege engines. The smoke from the smoldering remains choked the air, increasing everyone’s despair.

Sir Miles had passed weapons out among the peasants, who held them clumsily as they would a shovel or a hoe. Still, they were prepared to fight to defend their lord and their lives, and Sir Miles called for volunteers from the garrison to train them as best they could.

Jessica’s safe return was met with subdued cheer, but it was quickly apparent to the young woman that something was wrong. When she didn’t see the face of her father among those welcoming her back, she feared she knew why. A glance to Sir Miles’ drawn face had confirmed her intuition for the general air of desolation that seemed to flow over the people, and the grey knight drew her and Kaleah aside to explain.

Sir Richard had been struck down by a fever.

The sickness had started early that morning, Miles reported, with Sir Richard complaining of nausea and cramps. He had waved it off at first as unimportant, but it worsened quickly, developing into a high fever and painful spasms that brought the strong lord to his bed. Eric Grace and his apprentice had been unable to remedy the illness, but by the timing and nature of it, Grace suggested grimly that Sir Richard may well have been poisoned somehow.

Jessica had visited her father, but he had drifted into a delirious sleep and she was reluctant to rouse him. She’d cried briefly then, and Kaleah had held her close, stroking her hair soothingly and repeating that everything would be alright. Then, composing herself, the young blonde had set herself to the task of protecting her people and her home.

When the bandit army emerged from the forest, the people continued their preparations with stoic disregard. Jessica answered a messenger from Gosford who delivered terms for surrender with a calm no, then returned to the work at hand. She knew the people were heartened by her presence, and she spoke to everyone gratefully, boosting their moral. Jess knew that that would be the first thing to be threatened in a siege, when the long hours of waiting could bring crippling depression and despondence to defenders in a matter of days.

Finally, her body aching from exhaustion and sorrow, the young woman allowed herself to study the enemy in greater detail. It was now, with the siege upon them, that she began to understand just how well Gosford had planned all this.

“What are we going to do?”

Kaleah wrapped a long arm around her waist and pulled her into an embrace. “His men are spread thin,” she observed. “We could break through easily and sweep along his line.”

She shook her head, smiling a little at the blunt strategy that was so characteristic of her companion. “His army outnumbers us too greatly. Our troops would be exhausted before half the enemy were slain. And then, the castle would fall easily.”

Kaleah considered. “I don’t suppose we can just wait him out?”

“No. He’s planned this well. The castle supplies are at their lowest right now; we’ve been relying on them through the winter, and we’ve not yet planted the spring crops. He’s forced us to evacuate a whole village so we’ll run through the supplies faster still. Even with rationing, we won’t last more than a week or two before we have to fight.”

“And that’s if the water’s still pure,” Sir Miles added with a scowl. “Grace still can’t say fer sure what sickened yer daddy.”

Jessica sniffled a little. Without her father, the people were relying on her and Miles for leadership. Lady Rose was less than useless, and had already retreated into her rooms with Steven in tow.

“What about Charles’ father?” Kaleah suggested. “Surely he’ll figure something’s wrong when his son doesn’t return on time.”

Jessica gripped Kaleah’s arm and pulled it tighter about herself, needing physical contact with the dark woman now more than ever. She didn’t care if someone saw. “That’s the most clever and daring part of Gosford’s strategy,” she said softly. “He had Lancaster offer to attend a treaty discussion in Da’Gran, and my father brought in Charles to demonstrate our alliance and its strength. Now he attacks, and traps Charles here. Once he takes the castle, he’ll capture Charles and hold him as a hostage against the Earl moving in his troops.” She sighed, blinking her eyes rapidly as the flickering lights of the many fires started to swim in her vision. “I don’t know if he had a hand in my fathers illness, but regardless, it bodes well for him and poor for us. Our figurehead is gone, and the people’s resolve will be weakened.” She rubbed her eyes wearily.

“Let’s be takin’ this a day at a time, lass,” Miles rumbled. “Gosford don’t look to be goin’ anyplace fer the time being. Let ‘im get comfy fer a while ‘fore we make a move. Those bandits ain’t known fer their patience.”

“You’re right.” Jessica studied the army outside curiously. “Give it a week and their discipline could start to slip. Then we could-”

“Wait ‘n see what happens ‘fore ye go gettin’ excited. It’s been a long few days, Jess. You’ll be no use to the people as a leader if ye don’t get some rest.” His eyes shifted to Kaleah, who wasn’t any better than the young blonde. “That goes fer you, too.”

Kaleah smiled and nodded. “Let’s go,” she whispered, kissing Jess’s head softly. “Thing’s might look better in the daylight.” With a final glance at the circle of fire, the former slave guided her unresisting friend down the stairs and back to Jessica’s room.

The dark woman stood her numb friend up and gently removed the armor she was wearing, laying each piece neatly on a frame nearby. Jessica smiled as she was undressed, enjoying the simple, undemanding pleasure of Kaleah’s light touches. She obediently slipped into a clean shirt and trousers, the cloth feeling almost sensual to her after the hours spent in her leathers. When soft lips caressed her shoulder, Jess giggled and pulled her tall companion into an embrace.

“You know, I should be too tired to feel anything,” she mumbled as she began to return the favor, her hands lingering over every inch of bronzed skin revealed. “But now that we’re alone . . . I’m feeling rather energetic.” She felt a deep rumble pass through the body pressed tight against her.

“We neither of us have the energy to do anything tonight,” the dark woman purred, though her hands combed eagerly through Jessica’s blonde locks. “No matter how much we might want to.”

Jess pouted and tossed a piece of leather aside. Her eyes twinkled playfully even through her fatigue. “Are you so sure of that?”

Kaleah grinned. “Believe me, princess,” she rumbled, “you’re gonna need to be well rested before you start getting frisky with me.”

“Oh, really?”

“Mmmhmmm.” Kaleah waggled her eyebrows.

Jess blushed a little, but pulled away from the dark woman long enough to find her a shirt and pants to change into. She watched with hooded eyes as Kaleah donned the simple garments. “Well . . . I wouldn’t want to fall asleep in the middle of something.” She grinned, then lay back on her bed with a sigh of contentment. “You’ll still sleep in here though, right?”

Kaleah answered by flopping bonelessly down beside her.

“Good.”

They dragged the covers over them and, as before, Jessica found herself entangled in a warm and safe cocoon of powerful arms and legs as Kaleah spooned her body around her. Her eyes closed instantly, and the tension from the last few days drifted away. She could set aside the troubles of the outside world and simply enjoy the gift of this haven of love and peace. Kaleah’s breath washed away her fears of tomorrow, of her father’s safety, of everything else. Jess sighed in contentment, feeling a gentle kiss against her shoulder. As she drifted away into the misty world of dreams, she heard a low voice ruffle the hairs at the base of her neck.

“I love you.”

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

The smell of bacon and freshly baked bread roused Jessica from slumber early the next morning. Before she even opened her eyes she sensed the absence of her bedmate. The room was empty. Groaning mildly and wishing circumstances would allow a few more hours sleep, Jess looked around and quickly found the tray of breakfast resting on the bedside table. She smiled and eagerly grabbed it.

There was a folded note resting under the plate, and the hungry young blonde opened it and scanned the somewhat clumsy writing as she happily shoveled food into her mouth.

J,

Miles said to tell you he’s called a meeting in the war-room — wherever that is. He wants you there as soon as you’re ready. I volunteered to work with Sutton at the forge . . . we need more arrows, and weapons for the peasants. I guess it’s going to be a busy day for us both.

K

Jess smiled fondly, then noticed an additional scrawl on the back of the note. She flipped it over.

I know we were both looking forward to some time alone together and we didn’t ask for this to happen, but I think we have to focus our energy now on saving the castle and your people. Remember I love you . . . but we can’t let passion distract us.

Green eyes narrowed. “I don’t think I like the sound of that,” Jessica murmured cautiously. “Not let passion distract us? Does that mean what I think it means? Cos I’ve been waiting for a little ‘passionate distraction’ with you for too long already, Kaleah.” She reread the brief note, then shook her head. “We’re going to be talking about this later,” she told her absent friend sternly. “Just as soon as I get finished with Miles.”

Quickly scarfing down the rest of her breakfast — remembering that the castle supplies would need to be rationed if they were going to survive the siege — Jessica donned her armor and strode through the halls to her fathers war-room — a hallowed place she had only ever visited once or twice before in her whole life. A guard stationed outside nodded in greeting, then opened the door and announced her to the gathered knights within. Whatever discussion had been going on died quickly as the men turned to face her.

Sir Miles smiled. “Come in, Jess. We were just about to get started.”

Stepping into the room, Jessica found herself unconsciously mimicking the posture and attitude she had seen her father assume during times of crisis. She coolly met each set of serious, troubled eyes in the room, pleased to find no hint of challenge at her presence. Being a woman, Jessica had no official right to be attending this council; indeed, some of these same knights had argued for her removal from battlefields in the past, despite her skills. She didn’t want to have to fight her case again when there were more important issues to deal with.

From his position at the head of the round oak table, Sir Miles watched his finest student with pride, smiling a little at her familiar, masculine stance. Jess was short, her features almost angelically innocent, and even though she was muscular she was dwarfed by the burly gathering of knights. But the confidant, unwavering gleam in her emerald gaze gave her a force of presence that filled the room and swept away any doubts about her right to be here.

She had been born to the duties of leadership, had trained tirelessly to earn the right to be a part of this world of sweat and steel, and every man recognized in her the same innate nobility and strength of spirit that had made Sir Richard such a commanding lord. Seeing this scrap of a girl step forward into a room of men twice her size and three times her experience, the old knight could only marvel silently at the gentle but irresistible power of her charm.

“Right . . .” Jess rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, taking charge of the meeting as she knew her father would have done. “We’ve an enemy at the gates, a low food supply, and no reinforcements to save us.” Her lips tightened into a grim line. “Let’s hear some suggestions.”

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

The meeting lasted several hours, but it was productive. Jess didn’t ask for permission to take her father’s place as commander; she just took it. No-one was foolish enough to question her authority — especially with Sir Miles, Eric Grace and Charles giving her their full support.

Grace reported that his tests had proven the castle water to be free from any toxins. His tests of the grain and meat stores were the same. While he still believed Sir Richard’s sickness to be no accident, he was certain the poison had not originated from the general supplies. Jess considered again Sir William’s visit, aware that such a devious method of attack was well within his moral boundaries.

Jessica was relieved to hear that her father’s condition had stabilized during the last twenty-four hours, but was concerned there had been no visible improvement.

“Whatever grips Sir Richard is beyond my ability to heal,” the old sage stated calmly. “I have tried every remedy I know of, but cannot break the fever fully. From what I can see, however, Sir Richard’s body is fighting the sickness on it’s own, and is winning . . . albeit slowly.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then added, “I believe that in time, he will recover fully.”

“But not soon enough to lead us,” one of the knights concluded grimly, giving Jessica a meaningful glance.

The young blonde swallowed and said softly, “We’ll just have to do this without him then.”

Hearing from each of the assembly in turn, Jessica quickly gained a clear view of the situation. Gosford was apparently settling in for a long wait. The bandit army had not started building siege engines; no battering rams or catapults or climbing ladders. They had fortified their position with trenches to stop cavalry and simple walls to shelter archers, but were making no move to attack the castle directly. That suggested Gosford planned to wait for their food and water to run low and their strength to diminish before he attacked.

“Which means we have to do something before the soldiers grow demoralized and too weak to fight,” Jess stated.

One of the younger knights snorted. “We don’t stand a chance against those numbers. We leave the castle and they’ll cut us to ribbons.”

“No army is perfect, regardless of it’s virtues.” she shot back, her eyes flashing. “We just have to figure out what Gosford’s weakness is, and how we can exploit it.”

The council suggested a variety of strategies and possible weakness’, but Jessica calmly discounted each in turn, observing the flaws that would defeat them. Eventually, when it became apparent that they weren’t going to figure anything out then and there, Jessica ended the discussion.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the next few days bring,” she stated finally. “We don’t know how strong a hold Gosford has over the raiders. Obviously, he’s using the few dozen troops Sir William gave him to maintain order . . . but how long will that last. If we’re patient, and watchful, an opportunity might arise.” Her eyes narrowed. “If that happens, I want us to be ready to take advantage of it.”

From there, the council turned it’s attention to organizing the training of the commoners, the rationing of supplies, and general issues of restructuring the way of life in the castle to deal with the siege. Jessica listened to the advice she was given, and acted on the wisdom of the more experienced warriors. She had only an abstract knowledge of siege warfare, and was smart enough to admit it. Throughout the council Miles stood at her right, supporting and guiding her decisions, and glowering at any of those who seemed to want to take issue with the young blonde’s leadership.

As soon as the council ended, Jessica excused herself and left quickly to search for her dark-haired friend. She was glad to shed the stiff shell of leadership, feeling for the first time in her life the full weight of her position settle uncomfortably on her shoulders. Jessica loved combat. She loved the thrill of battle, and the excitement of knowing that the only thing saving her from a painful death was her talent. But in every battle she had ever been in, her father’s reassuring presence had been closeby, ready to defend her from both the enemy and those who disliked having a young woman fighting beside them. That was gone now. Her father was sick, and even with Miles, Charles, and the others who liked her, she felt the burden of leadership dragging her down.

Shaking her head to clear the unwanted thoughts, Jess redirected her focus to the next task at hand — the task she was, in truth, much more interested in pursuing; finding a certain tall, dark and delicious warrior who needed a stern talking too.

Unfortunately, Kaleah was nowhere to be found at the smithy. Sutton told her the dark woman was taking a break after a hard morning of work. Jess checked the central look-out, the bathing chamber, and their respective bedrooms, all without success. Frustrated, Jessica started to get the feeling that Kaleah was avoiding her deliberately.

“Is this your way of making sure we don’t get ‘distracted by our passion?’” she ground out under her breath. She blew her bangs out of her eyes angrily. “Well . . . there’re only so many places you can hide, Kaleah — and I know them all . . .”

“Lady Jessica?”

“Huh?” Turning, she found a soldier standing nervously a few feet behind her. “Yes?”

“Sir Miles sent me to find you. He’s running drills at the archery range and he wants you to join him there.”

Jess glared at him a second, seriously considering ignoring the summons to continue her search for Kaleah. Then she took a deep breath and nodded to him. “I’ll be right there.” She took a final careful look around, knowing it was possible her friend was watching her, then followed the soldier.

The day moved slowly by and Kaleah did not make an appearance. It was an effort for Jessica to focus on her duties, her mind and her imagination conspiring once again to tempt her with interesting visions of what the night might hold once she got her dark friend alone in her room. When darkness fell and she was able to at last retire, hungry and worn out but still eager to bring her imaginings to life, Jessica found her bedroom depressingly vacant. In Kaleah’s place was a simple note which read, A leader needs to be well rested. Get some sleep while you can.

Frustrated, Jessica crumpled the note and stormed over to investigate Kaleah’s room. It was empty. The former slave had clearly found some other place to sleep. Emerald eyes glowed with thwarted desire.

“You can’t avoid me forever Kaleah,” she muttered, trying without much success to convince her body to accept that it wasn’t going to get what it craved that night. Returning to her own room, she grumpily shucked her armor and slipped naked into bed. Sighing, Jessica tried to summon up some kind of fatigue.

“This is so unfair,” she groaned, stretching out fully on the bed that now seemed depressingly vast. Jessica had slept alone in here since she was old enough and headstrong enough to convince her father she deserved a place of her own. In all those years, she’d never felt so lonely as she did now. After only a few nights she had grown so accustomed to Kaleah’s presence that her absence made sleep impossible. Even without this newly-awakened, lustful hunger, Jessica wished her friend beside her, needing her comforting warmth so badly she ached inside.

Closing her eyes, Jess curled herself into a ball and called to mind the wonderful sensation of Kaleah’s long, lean figure wrapping itself around her lovingly. The memory made her smile, and she settled down to what she knew would be a long, empty night.
Chapter 23.
Kaleah was feeling rather proud of herself. For the last two days, she had successfully avoided the searching emerald eyes of her young love without shirking her duties at the smithy. Although she knew full well that Jessica was eager to explore a physical relationship with her, Kaleah was willing to postpone that so the young woman’s attention would not be sidetracked. The gesture was, to her way of thinking, rather noble . . . although she was quite sure Jessica didn’t see it that way. Kaleah grinned. With her eyes flashing like lightening and her posture tense and angry, the young blonde had everyone in the castle scrambling to stay out of her way.

The former slave had been sleeping in a room she’d discovered via the secret passages. She had, at first, pondered whether the passages could be useful against the enemy, but quickly came to the same conclusion she knew Jessica would have reached. The passages were only useful if they planned to give up the castle. From the determined set of Jess’s face, Kaleah figured that wasn’t going to happen.

Tonight would be the third night in a row she’d slept alone, and Kaleah was sorely tempted to give in to her desire and bed with her friend. But she was taking the role of suffering martyr quite seriously, and had written another note of devotion and solace to be left in Jessica’s room; a poor substitute for her own presence, she knew, but, like Jess had told her long ago, the people’s lives must come first in a true leader’s heart.

When she reached Jessica’s room however, Kaleah was surprised to find a note already pinned to the oak door. She pulled it down and opened it, recognizing the fluid, elegant penmanship of her friend.

Kaleah,

We need to talk. I’m waiting for you in the bathing chamber. Come at once.

Jessica.

Kaleah sighed. The note was brief and clearly indicated this was more a summons than a suggestion. “Still,” she mused aloud, “I could just pretend I never found the letter. She’d never know-”

That thought died quickly when she saw the additional scrawl on the back of the note: Don’t even think about it, or I’ll send the guards to track you down. I want you here NOW!

Slipping the note into her leathers, Kaleah turned and headed for the bathing chamber, head bowed penitently. She suspected she was in for a stern lecture from her young companion . . . but couldn’t repress the shiver that ran through her body at the thought of what Jess might consider an appropriate form of apology.

Reaching her destination, the dark woman hesitantly pushed the door open and stepped into the thick, warm air of the chamber. “Jess?”

“What took you so long?”

Kaleah turned. “I was just- ulp!” Her jaw dropped and lost the words when she saw the vision before her.

Jess stepped out from behind a statue of a woman bathing. She wore a sheer black robe made from a silky material that clung to her curves in shimmering waves, accentuating her muscular figure. The simple robe fell to mid-thigh and was tied loosely in front with a sash, only barely able to cover the swell of the young woman’s breasts. From the amount of bare skin on display, Kaleah suspected Jessica was naked beneath the robe. Her blonde hair was loose and damp, and her eyes sparkled wetly. When Kaleah managed to drag her eyes up from their feast, she found the young woman regarding her with a sultry, pleased look. As Jess came closer, her body undulating in a consciously sensual display, Kaleah swallowed hard.

“You’ve been avoiding me.” The tone was playful, with only a hint of rebuke.

It took a moment for Kaleah to get her jaw working. “I just — I thought . . . since you needed to be doing leadership stuff, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to-”

“Distract me?” Jess grinned fully, noting the way Kaleah seemed to be having difficulty keeping her eyes from wandering. She stopped a few feet from the dark woman, setting her hands on her hips and pulling the fabric taut across her body. She gave the dark woman a long, lingering once over, and Kaleah’s nostrils flared. “Did you really think that I’d stop thinking about you just because you weren’t beside me?”

Kaleah flushed, feeling a jolt of pure arousal hit her low in the gut from the sexual timbre in Jess’s voice. “I-I thought it best for you to focus on the people . . . that’s all.”

“Do you know how hard it is for me to focus on the people when all I can think of is you?” She paused, then corrected, “Us?”

Kaleah shrugged helplessly. She hadn’t thought of it that way, had assumed Jess would be able to put her desire aside while her duties called for her attention. It was hard to summon any justification for her actions with the young woman tempting her a few feet away. Her eyes tried to find other things in the room to focus on, the urge to ravish the blonde maiden growing stronger.

Jessica saw the struggle in the dark woman’s face, saw the way her eyes refused to settle on her for more than a second. A warm rush of pleasure swept through her from seeing the effect she had on her friend. Smiling coyly, Jess slowly ran a hand up from her hip and lazily drew a finger down her well-displayed cleavage. “You can look at me if you want to.”

Kaleah’s wide eyes fixed on her hand instantly, her breath coming fast. Jess smiled, a tightening sensation clutching at her stomach from the heat in those azure jewels. “Do you like me?” Her finger tracked lower, pulling the robe open a fraction and earning a desperate nod from the dark woman. It was an exciting, daring feeling that flowed in her blood, and she would have laughed at her own wanton behavior but for the fact that her seduction was in earnest. She took a step closer, hips swaying, eyes yearning.

“If I could take back the last few days and make it so this siege never happened, I would,” Jess whispered. “But I can’t. I know you want everything to be perfect for us . . .” She gazed into sapphire eyes that held the perfect mix of lust, fear, and utter devotion, knowing they were a mirror to her own. “But the world isn’t a perfect place. I won’t stop loving you and wanting you just because things aren’t as good as they could be.” Her body pressed against Kaleah’s armored form. “I love you with all my heart and my soul, Kaleah. And now I want to be able to love you with my body as well.” Her hands reached out and she ran her thumb over the scar the marred the former slave’s trembling lips. She felt the taller woman’s body shudder and reveled in the knowledge that she was the cause. Stepping on tip-toes, she claimed a brief, gentle kiss. “Please. . . will you let me?”

“Yesss.” The surrender — though against her nature generally — seemed the most natural thing Kaleah had ever done.

“Good.” Jess stepped back, her eyes hooded and irresistible. Finding a smooth granite rock behind her the young woman sat gracefully, crossing her legs at the knee. The silky robe rode up her thigh, exposing her almost to the hip. Beyond aroused, Kaleah released a shuddering breath. Jess smiled. “Take off the armor.”

Normally calm fingers hastened to comply at once, shaking but eventually winning out over the buckles and laces that held the leather and mail together. Kaleah tossed the armor away and faced the look of hunger from her partner, her nakedness only fanning the fire in her blood.

Jessica let her eyes roam slowly down Kaleah’s body, her lust apparent as she took in the firm breasts, lean muscle and bronzed skin lashed with vivid white scars. The ache inside her grew stronger when she settled her attention lower still, and she shivered in anticipation when a flash from one of her dreams skipped teasingly across her mind.

“You are magnificent.” The words slipped out of their own volition, and Kaleah flushed self-consciously.

Jessica stood and, very slowly, pulled the knot from the sash that held the robe closed. The silky cloth fell from her shoulders and pooled on the floor, allowing the sunlight that trickled through the stained-glass ceiling to cast interesting shadows over her exposed body. The young blonde wore only a pair of thin breeches under the robe, and Kaleah spent a long moment captivated by the play of light over her lover’s muscular form.

Green eyes met blue then, and Kaleah saw a hint of shyness touch the emerald depths regarding her. Jessica smiled a little nervously, and Kaleah understood. She stepped closer and caressed Jessica’s cheek with an almost reverent touch, letting her love and passion show in her face.

“There’s no need to be shy,” she whispered breathily. “You’re beautiful.”

Jess smiled shakily and captured the stroking hand, bringing it to her lips and placing a wet kiss on the palm. Her heart hammered loudly in her ears, craving more. “I want to be beautiful for you, Kaleah. As beautiful as you are to me.”

Kaleah’s hand escaped and her fingers tangled in Jessica’s hair. The young woman was pulled willingly into an electric embrace, and they both gasped as skin met skin. Kaleah bent down and gently brushed her lips against those waiting to be claimed. The kiss was soft and intense, sweeping away all apprehension and doubt. Jessica quickly let her tongue enter the dance, deepening the contact and eagerly exploring her partner’s mouth when Kaleah accepted her unspoken request immediately.

The intimacy of the moment shook Kaleah to her very soul. She had never been so willing to surrender to the touch of another person . . . had never wanted to be claimed like this before. Jessica’s hands roaming up and down her back were eager and excited, but at the same time seemed undemanding and gentle. The kiss was equally tender as it was passionate; the young woman clearly understood that this experience was something new to both of them.

After long moments of breathless exploration, Kaleah felt Jessica grasp her left hand and gently guide it lower down her body, eventually pressing her fingers against her hip. The young blonde pulled away, gasping a little. Her eyes were smoldering as she glanced down meaningfully at her undergarments.

“Take them off. Please.”

Kaleah grinned. “As you wish, Princess.”

Trailing a line of wet kisses down Jessica’s chest, deliberately by-passing the tempting swell of the young woman’s breasts, Kaleah knelt before her love. She looked up at Jessica’s face seriously as she slid her fingers into the waistband and slowly tugged downwards, her hands caressing lightly down the length of the young woman’s legs. Jess couldn’t help but blush as she was exposed fully to the thick, sultry air of the bathing chamber. Sapphire eyes dark with desire released her and she felt their gaze rest hotly on her most intimate places. As she stepped out of the breeches Jess gnawed her lower lip, knowing Kaleah couldn’t help but notice how excited she was.

The dark woman took in the heady scent of her lover’s arousal, almost dizzy with longing. She wanted to take Jessica right there, to taste her essence and ravish her body till she was quaking and blind to all but her touch. But she restrained herself. After waiting so long for this moment, she was determined to go slowly . . . or at least, as slowly as she could manage.

Standing, Kaleah took Jessica’s hand and smiled down at the furiously blushing girl. “Join me for a bath?”

“Sure.” The haste of her response earned a wickedly raised eyebrow from Kaleah, and she blushed. After watching the dark woman bathe for so long, Jessica had enough fantasies about getting naked and wet with her friend to sink a fair-sized ship. The young blonde happily let herself be pulled into the steaming waters.

Kaleah waded out to the island where the water lapped just below the underside of her breasts, then turned and pulled Jessica to her. The young woman smiled shyly, reaching out hesitantly to caress Kaleah’s face with trembling hands. Her touches wandered lower, down the dark woman’s neck where they paused. Sensing her lover’s uncertainty, Kaleah reached up and gently guided Jess onwards, her breath catching when the feather-light caresses moved over her breasts.

Jessica gently ran her hands over the wet skin, eyes wide. “So soft,” she murmured, awed by the incredible sensations that touching Kaleah evoked in her. Hearing Kaleah’s breathing go ragged she grew bolder, lightly dragging blunt nails over pebble-hard nipples. Kaleah hissed, and a smile tugged at the young blonde’s lips as she studied her lover’s expression. Curious, she pinched lightly, eliciting a sharp intake of breath.

“You like that?”

“Uh huh.”

“Good.” Standing on tip-toes, Jessica claimed eager lips, exploring the dark woman’s mouth with her tongue as her hands roamed happily over the ridges and valleys of Kaleah’s body. Long arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her hips forward. Jess growled when dexterous fingers ran the length of her spine, sending bolts of desire straight to her groin. When Kaleah’s hands gripped her buttocks and lifted her upwards, Jessica immediately wrapped powerful legs around the dark woman’s waist and pulled their bodies closer. The move gave her sufficient leverage to take control of the kiss, and also pressed her heated center against the taut muscles of Kaleah’s abdomen. She moaned and flexed her thighs, starting an unconscious grind.

Kaleah let herself become lost in the dizzying warmth of Jessica’s mouth, only pulling away when the need to learn more of her lover’s body became too strong. Pulling the young woman up higher still, the former slave trailed her lips down Jess’s throat, sucking at her pulse-point eagerly before nibbling her way lower till she reached her lover’s breasts. She hesitated just long enough to grin seductively at the expectant, barely breathing woman, then descended. Her lips teased only a moment or two before she couldn’t stand it anymore and found the hardened points of her lover’s nipples.

“Oh, GOD!” Jessica’s eyes shot open and her fingers clutched desperately at Kaleah’s head, pulling her closer. “Don’t stop!” The sensation was more powerful than she would have believed possible. She’d never thought her breasts to be especially sensitive before, but the bolts of intense pleasure that were shooting straight to her center forced a re-evaluation of that notion. When Kaleah’s teeth nibbled at the stiff nub, Jessica gasped harshly for breath, whimpering helplessly.

Kaleah switched her attention to the breast she was neglecting, feeling the heat of her lover’s sex pressing firmly against her stomach. With one hand she supported Jessica’s weight as best she could, while with the other she massaged the young woman’s left breast, lightly pinching and rolling the nipple between her thumb and forefinger.

Jessica was burning up, her skin felt feverish as the dark woman blazed a trail over her body with her lips, teeth and tongue. Her brain struggled to process the incredible sensations that rocked through her, but coherent thought eluded her. The ache in her belly was growing unbearable, weeks of pent-up desire and frustration finally being satisfied.

Kaleah pulled away from her enjoyable feast and gazed into the sparkling depths of Jessica’s excited eyes. “Enjoying yourself?”

Jess gasped for air. “Oh yeah.”

“And we’re only just getting started, too.” Kaleah kissed her briefly, nibbling on her lower lip and causing a muffled groan. “The best is yet to come.”

Jess blushed at the promise in Kaleah’s eyes. “Wh-what are we going to do?”

A lone finger trailed down between the blushing girl’s breasts, descending into the water to toy with her navel then slipping lower with a feathery touch. “You’re the one who had this whole thing planned. What would you like to do?”

Jess shivered, her hips bucking forward against her will, trying to increase the delicious contact against her liquid center.

Kaleah withdrew her teasing finger and raised an eyebrow. “You want more?” she purred. The breathless girl whimpered, unable to form words. “Would you like me to keep touching you like that?”

Jess managed a frantic nod.

Kaleah flashed her a toothy grin. “Here . . . I want to be able to see all of you.” Flexing her biceps, the former slave lifted her lover up and onto the stone island behind them, then pulled herself out of the water to join her. The slick rock was smooth and polished. Jessica lay back, shivering half from the chill surface, half from desire as Kaleah positioned her body half over her own. Their lips met and enjoyed several moments of leisurely, gentle exploration. Kaleah ran her hands lightly down her partner’s trembling body, the water creating a tantalizing friction between them. Soon, her lips followed the path her hands had trailed, lingering here and there to nip at Jessica’s more sensitive areas. The young blonde writhed and panted uncontrollably, then froze when Kaleah’s hand came to rest against her slick center.

“Uugh.”

The dark woman paused, stroking very slightly with her palm and giving the innocent girl time to adjust to having someone touch her so intimately. She suckled at Jessica’s breast, her eyes fixed on the emerald orbs watching her with shy passion.

“Is this okay?”

Jess nodded shakily. “Um . . . Yeah.”

Kaleah smiled as her lover’s thighs spread a little wider to accommodate her explorations. The heat against her fingers was intense. Two fingers drew playfully through passion-slicked folds and the scent of the young woman’s arousal made her nostrils flare hungrily. Kaleah placed a string of feathery kisses across Jessica’s collarbone while her fingers sought out and began to tease the swollen nub of her lover’s clitoris. A startled squeak escaped Jess as she fell back weakly, her eyes rolling back in bliss as she absorbed this new sensation.

“Oh, my!”

Kaleah licked the moisture from Jessica’s throat as she stroked slowly with her fingers, tasting sweat and salt. “I can feel how excited you are,” she breathed. “You feel ssoooo good.”

Jessica’s hips began to move now, pushing against the welcome stimulation. Overwhelming sensations of pleasure were buffeting the young blonde as her body frantically tried to increase the pace. She struggled to regain control of herself, but her body understood her needs better than she did, and ignored her half-hearted orders to slow down. Only when she felt Kaleah’s lips start to trail a path down from her breasts did Jessica freeze, uncertain.

The kisses stopped and Kaleah glanced up, sensing her apprehension. Jessica’s breathing was ragged.

“Wh-what — Where are you . . ?”

Kaleah smiled reassuringly and glanced down suggestively to where her fingers were still moving. She licked her lips and Jessica’s face turned deep crimson.

“You mean —”

“Uh huh.”

“With your mouth . . .”

“Mmhmm.” Kaleah brought the fingers that were exploring the young woman to her lips and licked at the clear nectar that coated them, watching the stunned expression on Jessica’s face. She smiled and moaned a little, savoring the spicy, slightly sweet flavor that only made her want more. Jessica whimpered. “You liked what I was doing, didn’t you?”

“Y-yes.”

“Well I can make it feel even better.” Kaleah’s fingers slipped down and combed through soft blonde curls, damp with desire. “Can you feel a pressure building? Like a fire in your blood?”

Jess panted and closed her eyes blissfully as the fingers slid along the length of her sex, teasing her. “Yessss.” Her hips started pushing forward again.

The dark woman grinned, not surprised that her lover was so responsive after so many days of restraint. “Your body won’t last much longer,” she purred. “I want to taste you . . .” She kissed at Jessica’s sternum, licking the scars there and causing a deep moan. “I want to savor every inch of you . . . to pleasure you till all you can feel is my love for you.” She kissed lower and smiled when Jessica lay back and spread her legs wider in invitation. The young girl tangled her fingers in Kaleah’s dark hair and pushed her closer to the center of her need.

Jessica grit her teeth, trying to steady her breathing as Kaleah settled her body between her legs and planted wet kisses on her inner thighs. She blushed, knowing just how open and exposed she was to her lover’s gaze. She squirmed a little, feeling a deep throbbing in her groin that only increased when scarred lips softly nuzzled her. Jess looked up at the stained-glass ceiling with unseeing eyes, her focus trained solely on the sensations Kaleah was causing.

The dark woman inhaled the scent of her lover’s passion deeply, using her fingers to gently part Jessica’s nether lips. Her tongue slid out and tasted the young woman’s essence, dragging upwards along the full length of her burning sex.

“OH, my God!” Jessica’s head shot up in shock as she felt the warm, wet muscle slide against her, swirling in intricate and evocative patterns through her wetness. Wide green eyes stared down disbelievingly as Kaleah smiled up at her wickedly and blew softly onto her clit. “Kaleah?”

“Yes?”

Jessica’s expression was one of utter trust. “M-more . . . please, more.”

Kaleah lashed the hard bundle of nerves quickly and grinned. “Whatever you desire, Princess.” Her lips descended and she applied herself to her task with religious fervor, watching the look of surprise on her lover’s face change quickly to one of ecstasy. Emerald orbs rolled upwards and Jess fell back against the polished stone weakly, low, moaning sounds escaping her throat.

Spasms of almost painful pleasure twisted through Jessica’s body as Kaleah continued to do amazing things with her fingers, lips and tongue. She had never dreamed that feelings like this could exist; the tension building in her lower abdomen felt like a ball of fire, hot and consuming. She wasn’t sure how much she could stand before that liquid heat consumed her.

Kaleah could feel the climax building in her lover’s tense body; felt it in the muscles that twitched against her fingers and in the powerful thighs that framed her. She could feel tears falling from her eyes, the joy of being able to love Jessica so perfectly overwhelming her untried emotions. She wanted to feel every moment of her lover’s orgasm when it came; wanted so much to be inside the young woman. Jessica was a virgin, however, and Kaleah remembered well the pain of her own first experience. She didn’t want there to be any pain for her innocent love.

It wasn’t long before Kaleah sensed a change in the rhythm of Jessica’s breathing and the motion of her hips became more desperate. Recognizing the signs, the dark woman increased her attentions, her tongue moving everywhere as Jessica panted and made small, pleading sounds. Kaleah rested the tips of two fingers against the entrance to the young woman’s core, feeling the first pulses of climax as she pushed forward slightly. As her lover tightened around her fingertips and cried out her climax, Kaleah clamped her lips down on the hard nub and sucked forcefully, lashing the swollen bundle of nerves rapidly with her tongue.

Jess screamed and bucked her hips forcefully as waves of searing pleasure ripped through her. Kaleah immediately pushed her two fingers smoothly into the thrashing woman, tearing past the thin membrane and into her untouched depths. The swift stab of pain was lost in the overwhelming pleasure, and a second orgasm claimed Jess before the first had subsided. Kaleah pumped smoothly with her fingers as she continued to suckle the throbbing clit, dragging out Jessica’s pleasure for as long as she could, reveling in the contractions that clamped down on her penetration.

Eventually Jessica’s body could give no more and she collapsed bonelessly against the granite supporting her. Kaleah withdrew from her depths and gathered the gasping young blonde into a tight embrace, rocking her gently as she recovered.

“Thank you,” Jess sobbed as her breathing returned to something close to normal. “Thank you.”

Kaleah nuzzled her disheveled blonde hair lovingly. “You’re welcome.” She smiled when she saw her exhausted young lover blink rapidly, and she held the sweat-slicked body close against her. “Rest now. You need to recover your strength.”

Jess grinned dopily and snuggled deeper into the warmth of her partner. “You were right,” she murmured huskily, her throat strained from crying out.

“I was?”

“Mmm. Frustration did make getting what I wanted more enjoyable.”

Kaleah felt the young woman’s body relax as her eyes closed, and a warm smile twisted the scar on her lips. “So did love,” she whispered to herself.

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

Kaleah felt the body in her arms stir a short time later. She grinned as Jess wriggled a little, then chuckled when pearly-white teeth nibbled lightly at her neck.

“Still feeling frisky I see.”

Green eyes filled with love and a healthy splash of playfulness turned towards her and Jess grinned. “Just a little.” Her hands wandered idly over Kaleah’s stomach and she watched the muscles flex under her touch. “I can’t believe . . . I mean, I’ve read about this stuff but still . . .” She glanced up into clear blue eyes and blushed modestly, wishing she could find words to express how wonderful Kaleah had made her feel. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Kaleah lowered her eyes shyly at the complement. Her emotions were still a bit jangled from making love to the young woman, and she suspected it would be some time before she got used to the intensity of these new feelings.

“So you feel okay?” she asked uncertainly.

Jess shifted a little and gave her body a once over. “I’m a little sore,” she admitted. “But it’s a nice sore.” She shivered a little in memory. “God, it’s like I can still feel you inside me.” She blew damp bangs out of her eyes and gazed at her lover. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.” Kaleah grinned, then ducked her head down to kiss the sweet lips that beckoned her. She granted access to the seeking tongue that wanted deeper contact, then froze when suddenly Jessica stiffened slightly in her arms. Kaleah immediately pulled away and searched the young woman’s face, worried she’d done something wrong. That notion vanished when she saw the look of shy wonder in her lover’s expression, and realized that her mouth still held the flavor of Jessica’s essence.

The young blonde met the curious eyes of her companion and offered a nervous giggle. “I ahh . . . I just-”

“You taste incredible.” Kaleah licked her lips theatrically, causing Jess to blush. “I could spend a thousand years exploring you like that and never tire of your flavor.”

Jess grinned and licked the dark woman’s nose quickly, earning an indignant snort. “Flattery will get you everywhere, huh?”

“It’s just the truth.”

“Mmm, well . . .” Jess considered for a moment, her hands continuing their wanderings. She glanced down and noticed for the first time the heat Kaleah’s body was generating. Her attention drawn to it, the young blonde also detected the strong musky scent of the dark woman’s arousal. Her hands paused. “Do you, um . . .” She blinked shyly. “Do you taste like that?”

White teeth flashed an extremely playful grin at the young woman, and Kaleah raised a dark brow rakishly. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

“Umm.”

“Here.” Kaleah took Jessica’s right hand in her left and gently guided her touch lower. “Let me show you.”

Together, their hands explored the dark woman’s body, trailing over ridged muscle and scars down until fingers combed through neatly-groomed curls damp with desire. Jessica gasped a little as Kaleah pressed her fingers into slick flesh, amazed at the heat and the incredible velvet texture. She stroked her fingers and smiled. “You’re so soft,” she breathed.

“Uh huh.” Kaleah gripped her lover’s hand and urged her lower still. “Two fingers . . . lower,” she croaked. “Like this.” Gently she took two of Jessica’s fingers and speared them slowly into her depths. Jessica gasped at the sensation of being inside her lover. She could feel Kaleah’s inner muscles pulsing around her buried digits and she stroked back and forth curiously, still a little uncertain. Kaleah was hot and incredibly wet, however, and Jessica flushed when she realized she was the cause of such arousal.

“I guess I’m not the only one who’s enjoying this so far, huh?”

Kaleah let her inquisitive lover explore a few moments more before she pulled the digits from her core. Fixing Jessica with seductive eyes, she brought the young woman’s fingers to her lips and licked her own essence from them. Jessica swallowed hard, her eyes fixed and staring. The sensation of Kaleah’s tongue wrapping around her fingers was incredibly erotic, and the fire so recently sated in her loins begin to stir once more.

Kaleah coated her lips with the thick nectar, then lowered her face to deliver a light kiss to the hungry blonde. Lust over-rode all sense of modesty in the young woman, and she eagerly savored the dark woman’s taste, searching every part of Kaleah’s mouth till she was sure none had escaped her. When she pulled back, breathless, she licked her lips and grinned. “You’re different,” she noted, considering thoughtfully. “More . . . I don’t know how to describe it. But I like it.”

Kaleah took hold of her hand and guided two fingers back to her center. “Well there’s a lot more where that came from,” she breathed raggedly. “You just have to go get it.”

The blonde wasted no time accepting the invitation, returning to the liquid heat with renewed confidence. Kaleah grunted, then stifled a cry as Jessica pushed fully into her, the young woman’s thumb brushing against her engorged clit. Jess froze a moment uncertainly, then grinned when she saw the reaction was not one of pain but of pleasure. Experimentally, she drew her fingers out and pushed them in again, pleased when Kaleah’s hips bucked involuntarily against her, seeking a rhythm.

“You like that, don’t you?”

“Yesss.”

Jess spied a tasty looking nipple and quickly brought her mouth into play, suckling the dark woman as her fingers continued their slow but purposeful motions. Kaleah’s breathing went ragged as her innocent lover set to work exploring her body with teeth and tongue, searching out sensitive areas and plundering them for every ounce of pleasure she could draw. As she roamed across a field of scarred flesh and toned muscle, Jessica made happy little sounds of contentment, reveling in the ability to make her lover truly feel the depths of her desire and passion. She paused to glance up at her panting lover.

“Am I doing this right?”

“Uh huh. Can’t you tell?”

“I guess so.” Jess grinned, her fingers sliding effortlessly into velvet warmth that was slick with arousal. “You feel so good,” she murmured, stroking against the inner walls that clenched around her in rhythmic pulses. She studied the petal-like folds of Kaleah’s sex, still amazed that she was being permitted such an intimate touch. The dark woman was so open to her, so vulnerable and trusting. Jessica wanted to reward that trust with the same mind-shattering pleasure she had just experienced. Licking her lips, she trailed a line of quick, wet kisses down the taut abdomen and past the dark hair that shielded Kaleah’s center. Kaleah’s body went stiff the moment she realized where this was headed, and she closed her eyes and spread herself wider for her young lover.

The first touch of Jessica’s tentative tongue against her clit almost sent Kaleah soaring over the edge, but with an effort she fought her climax, wanting to give the inquisitive blonde time to fully explore this new world. The muscles strained across her neck as Kaleah grit her teeth to keep from screaming out as Jessica lapped at her gently, all the while maintaining a steady rhythm with her hand.

Though her lover was not as worldly and talented as others had been, Kaleah could sense the strength of her approaching orgasm already, and knew every other experience paled against it. Never before had she been able to let go the fear and tension that gripped her during such moments of intimacy. Never had she been able to trust that the next touch would not bring pain. The way she trusted Jessica was almost frightening, but at the same time promised a haven of gentle love and open affection that she was helpless to ignore. She could feel Jessica’s love for her in every gesture she made . . . in the tender touches and the passionate but almost hesitant looks of lust. No one else in her life had ever touched Kaleah that way . . . and the power of that love brought tears to her eyes.

The dark woman struggled hard to prolong the delicious torment, but Jessica’s explorations grew bolder as the young woman learned swiftly what actions elicited the strongest response. Kaleah couldn’t hope to hold out against her lover’s determined assault, and she cried out as the first inevitable waves crashed over her.

“More!” she begged breathlessly. “Please . . more!”

Jessica frowned. More?

“I . . . I don’t . . know what you want-”

“Another finger,” Kaleah gasped. “Please!”

“Oh!” Jessica suddenly understood and carefully pushed a third finger into Kaleah’s pulsing heat. “Like that?”

“Uh huh!” Kaleah’s eyes squeezed shut as tears ran down her cheeks, the stunning bolts of pleasure coursing through her blood and over her skin. Jessica felt the muscles clutching at her fingers suddenly grip tightly at the invasion and realized she had achieved her goal. Quickly the young girl lowered her mouth back to Kaleah’s dripping sex, drawing out the sensations for as long as she could. A moment later Jess smiled as she felt a second powerful climax grip Kaleah’s body, and heard the dark woman scream out strange words in her native language. She recognized her own name among them.

Jess continued her gentle ministrations until Kaleah finally collapsed back on the polished rock and weakly grabbed her hand. “No more,” the dark woman gasped. “Please . . . just . . . hold me.”

“Sure.” Jessica pulled out of her lover slowly, drawing a final shudder from her body, then wrapped herself contentedly in the arms that reached out for her. A fuzzy, soft glow of happiness and fulfillment settled in her body, and she nuzzled at Kaleah’s neck like a cat, smelling sweat and her lover’s own indefinable scent. Her own arousal was fully awakened once more, but she ignored it for the time being. “So . . .” Green eyes flecked with mischievous gold regarded sated blue. “How was that?”

Kaleah chuckled a little and pulled the muscular body closer. “That was amazing,” she whispered happily.

“Really?” A cute crinkle formed at the top of Jessica’s nose as she grinned fully.

“Really.” Scarred, elegant fingers combed through disheveled blonde tresses absently. “I’ve never felt so . . . loved . . . before.”

“Well, maybe that’s because no one’s ever loved you like I do.” Jessica relaxed and idly caressed the toned body under her. She was silent for long moments, just soaking in the wonderful, new emotions that were rocking against her soul. “You know Kaleah,” she whispered, “no matter what happens here . . . no matter how this whole siege turns out . . .” She paused. “No matter how my father or my mother or anyone else feels about it . . . I’ll always love you.” Emerald eyes caught and held Kaleah, startling her with their openness. “If I have to give up everything just to be with you . . . I will.”

Kaleah was still a moment, a little stunned, then she cupped Jessica’s cheek lovingly. “I hope it doesn’t ever come to that,” she breathed. “I don’t want you to have to choose between me and everything here.”

Jess kissed her palm lightly and smiled. “Like I told you before . . . there really isn’t any choice to make.” She held the dark woman’s gaze for long moments, reveling in the power of what she could feel between them, before she grinned playfully. “What do you say we dry off and head back to my room. There’re a few things I’ve been dreaming about doing on that nice big bed for a while now.”

Kaleah grinned lasciviously. “Still feeling frisky are we, Princess?”

Jess bounced to her feet and raised a blonde brow challengingly. “Catch me, and you can find out.” With a giggle, the young blonde dived into the deep, steaming water and swam quickly away.

Kaleah watched her a moment, appreciating the view as her lover hurriedly donned a robe and escaped the chamber before she stood up shakily. “Looks like it’s going to be a long night.”

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

Sir Miles looked down at the face of the man who had been his lord and best friend for most of his life, a frown dragging his moustaches into a firm line. Sir Richard was pale from his sickness, his features drawn and pained from the spasms of agony that still gripped him from time to time. Though not a young man, Richard was strong. Miles knew that, given time, his friend would eventually recover from this fever and be none the worse for it. The elder knight intended to make sure nothing happened to jeopardize his recovery.

Hovering over his patient, Grace fussed with his potions and medicines busily, paying no mind to his visitor at all. He glanced up only when the door to the bedchamber opened to admit another intruder, smiling politely to the Lady Rose before turning back to his work.

Lady Rose paused when she saw Miles, then lifted her head and approached the bed where her husband lay. Miles bowed a slight greeting. “M’Lady.”

“Miles.”

The old knight’s bushy brows drew low over his eyes in a scowl. “Sir Richard’s fever is improving,” he reported shortly. “Expect he’ll be fine in a few weeks.”

“Indeed . . . providing you’ve managed to hold off these barbarian invaders for that long.” Lady Rose sniffed. “Frankly, I have little confidence that such will be the case.”

Miles grunted. “Everything that can be done is bein’ done, M’Lady. I suggest you let the people most able to deal with the situation do so.” The old knight had little patience for the interference of non-combatants.

Dull green eyes flicked over Miles hautily. “And who might those people be? Hmm? My daughter? Bah!”

Miles stood and leveled an even glare at Lady Rose. “Jessica’s taken to ‘er duties well, M’Lady. Ye should be proud of her.”

“She has no right to take command of the men,” Rose scoffed angrily. “She is a child and a lady of noble birth. It is not her place to be cavorting around playing soldier with the commoners!”

“With all due respect, M’Lady, Jessica has every right to take ‘er daddy’s place in his absence. She has experience and wisdom in these matters, despite that ye may be wishin’ otherwise.” His tone grew milder. “Like it or no, Jess is the only one who can lead. There ain’t no-one else the people’d follow.”

“Oh really? What about Charles? He’s a fine young man, and his blood-line is pure.”

“Charles is no fighter, ma’am. He’d barely be a match fer the worst of those raiders outside.”

Lady Rose waved her hand dismissively. “Then you should take command,” she insisted. “You have seniority among the knights. My husband trusts you above all others. It is your right and your duty to lead the men.”

Miles shook his head. “Ah’m no leader. The commoners barely know who I am, and they’d never follow me into battle. But Jessica . . .” He smiled. “Everyone knows yer daughter well, Lady. They love ‘er . . . and they’d follow ‘er to the gates of Hell if she asked ‘em to.”

Rose frowned and shrugged. “The commoners mean nothing. They can’t fight. All they do is drain our supplies.”

“We canna win without their numbers. They’ll fight when they must . . . but they won’t fight fer me.”

Rose sighed a long-suffering sigh. “Jessica is making a fool of herself, demeaning her station in front of the people with this foolishness. How can she degrade herself like this . . . running around with that barbaric slave, playing in the mud like a filthy pig!” She scowled. “No-one will have any respect for her or for her bloodline with such debasement!”

Miles snorted angrily. “Yer daughter’s earning more respect from the people than she ever would staying locked up in the castle all covered in silk and lace. The commoner’s love that girl, and if ye had eyes to see ye’d know she’s the only thing what’s holding the people together right now!” His eyes were hard grey slates as he glared at the noble lady. “Ye have no idea just how blessed you are by yer daughter. She gives without thought of reward, and loves even when it hurts her to do so.” He took a calming breath and turned to away. “God don’t make a person like Jess everyday, M’Lady. It amazes me that he’d deliver such a gift to a selfish, self-righteous creature as yerself.”

With that, Miles strode angrily from the room, slamming the door behind him.

Lady Rose cleared her throat and turned back to her husband and the curious eyes of Eric Grace. She smiled shakily. “Well . . . I suppose we must expect such a lack of decorum from the soldiers.”

Grace shrugged non-commitedly. “I suppose we must,” he muttered, then turned back to his work, dismissing the entire confrontation to focus on restoring his lord to health.
Chapter 24.
Kaleah and Jessica watched from the southern battlement as the ring of campfires sprang up around the castle, lighting the enemy lines as the sun vanished. There were no guards walking the watch here; Jessica had relieved them, wanting to be alone with her friend. The dark woman held her in a warm embrace as they silently surveyed the field beyond.

Jessica hummed tunelessly to herself, a contented smile turning the corners of her lips and lighting her eyes, her features radient after their love-making. It was hard for the young woman to feel any kind of fear or sense of danger, so caught up was she in the whirlwind of new and wonderful emotions that came with the consummation of her love with Kaleah. She was a little sore still, and a little tired from their afternoon of gentle but passionate love-making, but Jessica knew she had never been so happy in all her life as she was at this moment.

“I feel like I’m floating among the clouds,” she sighed, her eyes half-lidded and lazy. Then she chuckled and petted the scarred arm that encircled her waist. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of doing that.”

Kaleah grinned. The young blonde had proven to be an energetic and vigorous lover, mixing passion with tenderness in a way that robed Kaleah of thought and reason, making her wish she could spend every waking hour paying homage to this wonderful love. “I know how you feel, but if we don’t get any rest we’re never going to break this siege.”

Jess grunted, glaring at the campfires as though her ire alone could remove them. “Stupid bandits,” she growled. “We could have been doing this for days now if it weren’t for that idiot Lancaster and his pet mercenary.”

“Well you can’t say you’re being distracted by your desire anymore,” Kaleah teased playfully. “Now that your appetite’s been sated, you can focus your energy on saving your people from this invasion.”

Jess turned about and looked up into glowing sapphire eyes with a smirk. “What makes you think I’m sated?” One hand crept up under Kaleah’s shirt and roamed eagerly over still-sensitive skin, making the dark woman’s muscles twitch. “I still have quite a strong ‘appetite’, Kaleah . . . there’s no way we can fit a week’s worth of missed opportunities into one afternoon.” Her fingers played along the underside of a firm breast and Kaleah gasped. Jess just raised an eyebrow. “But we can certainly try.”

“Uh uh. No more of that.” Kaleah gently stopped the young blonde’s explorations before they went any further. “You’re going to be sore in the morning as it is, Jess. We keep going and you won’t be able to walk properly tomorrow.”

Jess pouted. “I could still do things to you,” she suggested hopefully. Kaleah’s expression softened a little and she pressed her advantage. “You liked what I was doing before, didn’t you?”

“Oh, you know I did.” Kaleah shivered in memory.

Nimble fingers started moving again. “Maybe you could teach me something new,” the amorous blonde suggested huskily. “I’m a quick learner . . . and it’s always a good idea to practice . . . lots.”

Kaleah’s desire surged anew, but she was still a little tender from the previous ravishings her young lover had subjected her too. She firmly stopped Jessica’s hands as they were about to journey into more sensitive territory, ignoring the adorable expression of thwarted lust on her partner’s face. “We can ‘practice’ all you want as soon as we defeat Gosford and his army.”

Jessica sighed, but withdrew her hands from their warm nest. “Fine,” she huffed, turning back around and watching the fires. “I guess play-time’s over . . . for now.” She felt the vibration in the body pressed against her as Kaleah laughed a little.

“Amazing how quickly you can drop that innocent, naïve young maiden act when you want too, isn’t it?”

Jess poked the dark woman in the side. “Don’t tease,” she scolded. “This is new for me . . . it’s understandable that I want to explore it more fully.”

“I know.” Kaleah kissed her lover’s disheveled hair affectionately. “And I want us to have more time together . . . time for both of us to get used to everything that’s happened. But first, we have to figure out how to break the siege.”

Jess sighed and nodded. “You’re right.” Taking a deep breath, Jessica assumed a determined expression and concentrated on the task at hand. It was a lot easier to focus now that her body wasn’t demanding satisfaction, and she studied the enemy fires for a long moment in silence.

“Gosford’s greatest weakness is also his greatest strength,” she mused aloud, intelligent eyes lighting up as her quicksilver mind attacked the problem wholeheartedly for the first time. “He’s placed all his hopes on the bandits he’s recruited through the winter.”

“You said we can’t fight against his numbers,” Kaleah reminded her.

“True, we can’t. But even though Gosford’s army is big, it lacks discipline. Bandits have short attention spans; he must have promised to pay them with loot from the castle and villages once they help him win. If he doesn’t deliver that loot fairly soon, the raiders are bound to get restless and start making trouble.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “Lancaster obviously gave him a few dozen of his own cavalry troops to help keep everyone in line, but I wonder how long he can maintain his authority.”

“Why isn’t he just attacking the castle directly?”

Jess shook her head. “We hold a strong position here,” she explained. “Our archers would cut them to pieces, and it would take a heavily shielded battering ram to even make a dent in the portcullis. Easier to wait us out . . . we haven’t enough food to last long.”

“And with your father no longer leading them, the soldier’s are demoralized.”

“Exactly.” Jessica’s eyes narrowed suddenly as a new thought occurred. “Kaleah, do you remember when Gosford sent his terms for surrender?”

“Umm . . . sure, why?”

“Do you remember who he addressed those terms too?”

“Yeah, they were for your . . . father.” Kaleah realized what her friend was getting at. “Why would Gosford address negotiations to your father if he knew Sir Richard was poisoned?”

“Unless he didn’t know.” Jess scowled darkly. “For that matter, why would he kidnap me?”

“You think maybe your father’s sickness is just a coincidence?”

Jess considered for a moment, then shook her head. “Grace said the fever isn’t natural. My father was poisoned alright . . . but I’m not so sure Gosford’s the man behind it.”

“Then who?”

Jess shrugged. “It’s just the sort of dirty trick Sir William would pull to give him an edge.” She recalled her observations of Gosford carefully. From what she’d seen, the mercenary seemed an honorable man, hardly the type to stoop to petty assassinations. “Perhaps Lancaster’s keeping his commander in the dark about some things,” she mused. “Maybe he hasn’t told Gosford about poisoning my father.”

“Mmmm.” Kaleah’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Makes you wonder what else he’s keeping secret.”

Jessica considered this new possibility for a moment, then shrugged. “It makes little difference,” she concluded. “By now, Gosford must know that I’ve taken command, and from that he’d realize there was something wrong with my father. I still think our best chance to win is if we can somehow cause dissent among the bandits themselves.”

Kaleah’s brows knit in confusion. “How?”

Jess shrugged. “I don’t know.” An irritated sigh. “I need to know what’s going on out there. I need to know how committed the raiders are to this campaign, and how well Gosford’s keeping them in line.” Her emerald eyes twinkled as a sudden thought occurred. She grinned. “I need some reconnaissance.”

Kaleah saw the mischievous look in her friend’s face and, knowing Jess all too well, quickly saw where this line of thought was headed. “No,” she stated firmly. “No Jess, you are not going out there!”

“You’re right.” Jessica’s grin grew wider. “We’re going out there.”

“Jessica, you can’t-”

“Of course I can.” Jessica escaped her lover’s arms and started tugging the tall woman after her. “We’ll use the escape tunnel in the stables. It’ll bring us out to the forest and from there we can do some exploring.”

“No!”

“Oh, come on!” Jess pouted. “If we’re careful we won’t be in that much danger. And we’re the only one’s who can do this; no-one else knows about the escape tunnel. This is important, Kaleah. Please?”

Kaleah tried to remain stern, but the look on Jessica’s face knocked over her defenses easily. She sighed. “Fine. But we can’t go dressed like this.”

Jess gave her a quick kiss of thanks and nodded happily. “You’re absolutely right. We’ll find some old armor, and we’ll wear helmets to hide our faces. With all the people out there, no-one’ll notice a couple of strangers. The guards will be set up to stop people getting out of the castle, they won’t even be looking for spies coming from the woods. It’ll be easy.”

Kaleah let herself be dragged away from the battlement by her energetic lover, smiling to herself a little.

Neither of them noticed the dull green eyes that had been watching their loving interactions with disgust from a window high in the castle. As soon as the two women disappeared into the darkness, the unseen observer turned angrily away back into her chamber, considering the best way to deal with this latest information.

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

Less than an hour later, Kaleah and Jessica were meandering through the encampment of their enemy, looking for all the world like just another couple of ragged bandits. Jessica managed to rummage up some old pieces of armor and a couple of helms, the mis-matched pieces of leather and mail allowing them to blend in with the other raiders perfectly.

Up close, Jessica was pleased to find that for all his skill, Gosford was having a hard time keeping his bandit army in disciplined order. It appeared the men had got hold of ale or wine at some point, and doubtless Gosford recognized it was better to let them drink than try to stop them. The raiders were split into groups that gathered around the campfires, cavalry riding between them from time to time. Drunken arguments and bawdy songs could be heard clearly as the two women made their way towards the largest tent on the field, though Jess noticed that more than half the men seemed sober and watchful.

As they neared the tent Jess assumed was Gosford’s central command post, she frowned grimly, seeing guards posted at the entrance. Tugging at Kaleah’s arm, she nodded her head. “Come on. We can sneak around there, to the back.”

Kaleah was alert and cautious as they moved silently around to the rear of the tent where there were no guards. She watched Jess hunker down beside the canvas wall and use her dagger to slice a small hole in the cloth. Taking a final quick look around to make sure no-one was watching them, the dark woman knelt beside her friend and they listened to the voices inside.

Inside the command tent, Frederick Gosford paced angrily back and forth, glaring at the man standing stiffly before him. The man, dressed in the livery of a messenger and bearing the heraldry of Sir William, watched the mercenary with an expression of weary indulgence.

“I don’t understand why this upsets you so, sir.” His tone was best described as respectfully condescending. “Surely Sir William’s actions have only made your job easier.”

Gosford stopped pacing and fixed the messenger with a withering look. “I do not like surprises,” he snarled. “Sir William should have consulted with me before he had Richard poisoned. Now, from what I hear, Lady Jessica has assumed command of Da’Gran’s troops!”

“So? You should be pleased! Instead of facing an experienced knight, you face a mere slip of a girl barely past her nineteenth year. I could probably best the wench!”

Now Gosford smiled thinly. “Be thankful you’ll never have the chance to test your boast,” he whispered. “By poisoning Sir Richard, Lancaster has removed a dangerous but well-known and understood commander from the game-board, and replaced him with an unknown, but equally dangerous one!”

“She’s just a girl!” the messenger scoffed.

“She’s a skilled warrior who’s been fighting since she was old enough to hold a sword,” Gosford snapped. “And her tutor was Sir Miles Elirist — one of the most talented knights in the whole damn country! Where Sir Richard might have seen the wisdom of surrender, Lady Jessica will not. She’s young and headstrong. She won’t be willing to give up without a fight.”

“So you’ll loose a few men . . . no problem.” The messenger shrugged dismisively.

Gosford snarled angrily. “The problem, you fool, is that I have no idea what Jessica is capable of. While it’s not likely, it is still possible that she could figure out a way to even the odds.” His tone grew milder. “I’m not saying she can win . . . but she could make it a lot harder for us to take the castle.” He stared at the messenger with sharp hazel eyes. “Return to Sir William and inform him that in future, I would like to be appraised of any action he takes that could affect what I do here.”

“Yes sir.” The messenger paused. “Sir, what about our man on the inside? Do you have any orders for him?”

Gosford waved his hand. “Have him removed from the castle,” he ordered absently. “His presence will not be required.”

“But sir-” The messenger hesitated at Gosford’s dangerously raised eyebrow. “A-are you certain that’s wise? I mean, Sir William has expended considerable effort to acquire such a valuable resource.” He paused. “A traitor is a terrible thing to waste.”

Gosford was adamant. “I will win this siege without such deception,” he said sternly. “By now, Da’Gran’s supplies will be running low. Jessica must make her move within the next few days or her men will be too weak to fight. It’s a good thing, too; these raiders we’ve recruited have little patience for waiting.” He gestured to the tent doors. “You may return to your lord.”

The messenger held the gaze of the mercenary commander for a long moment, then sighed and left the tent. Gosford returned to studying his maps . . . not noticing the small hole in the back of the tent, nor the twin shadows that retreated furtively back into the night.

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

“A traitor in the castle! So that’s how my father was poisoned!” Jessica’s quicksilver mind hurriedly processed this new information, then set to work trying to determine how she might make use of it.

“Who could it be?” Kaleah asked, her long legs struggling a little to match the excited pace her companion set as they headed back to the forest. “Your father’s men seem so loyal.”

“Mmm . . . I’d have thought so too, but most men can be bought for the right price.” Jessica considered for a moment, then sighed. “It could be anyone. Most of the common soldiers could have slipped him poison with little trouble.”

“And if Gosford’s pulling the man out anyway, I don’t suppose we have much chance of catching whoever it is, huh?”

Jess shook her head regretfully. “I guess not.”

They reached the cleverly concealed entrance to the escape tunnel and slipped into the cool, moist darkness, lighting a small torch to guide their way. Kaleah smiled a little. “At least Gosford respects your abilities,” she remarked teasingly. “That’s a point in his favor.”

“But against us,” Jess observed. “I’d rather he thought I was stupid and ignorant — he’d be more likely to underestimate me and make a mistake. Now I have to defeat an enemy who’ll be watchful and wary.”

“Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Kaleah frowned. “So . . . we know how your father was poisoned, and we know that Gosford wasn’t a part of it. We know the raiders are getting bored and want to end this thing quickly.” She studied her friend in the dim light of the torch. “How do we use this information to win?”

Jessica sighed heavily. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I need a plan in the next day or two, or like Gosford says, the men will be too weak to be of any use.”

Kaleah was silent, considering things a moment. “Jess?”

“Hmm?”

“You said before that Gosford would have promised to pay the raiders with loot from the castle, right?”

“Aye, most likely. Lancaster hasn’t the wealth to pay them in advance.”

“Right. So, what happens after that? I mean, assuming for the moment that Gosford takes the castle-” She ignored the indignant look Jessica shot her. “-what will he do with the raiders?”

“I guess he’d pay them from my father’s treasury, then divide them up and use them to subjugate the rest of the villages.” She caught Kaleah’s puzzled expression and clarified. “Take them over.”

“Mmm.” Kaleah’s brows furrowed in thought. “Who’d stay in the castle then?”

Jess shrugged. “Probably the men Sir William sent to serve with Gosford. Then once everything was secured, Lancaster himself would probably pay a visit and install one of his sons as the new ruler.”

Kaleah smirked wryly. “Too bad we can’t just skip ahead to that part right now, huh? With the army all split up like that, I’m sure you’d be able to take them out one by one.”

Jessica stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes lighting up suddenly. Kaleah paused to look at her, seeing an extremely wicked glint in the sparkling emeralds that was mirrored in the evil grin that spread across the young woman’s face. Jess took a shivering breath. “Kaleah, you’re a genius!”

“I am?”

The radiant blonde planted a quick, searing kiss on her lovers lips. “Yes, you are. You just gave me an idea.”

“I did?” The dark woman was thoroughly confused, but Jessica’s excitement was palpable. She raised an eyebrow. “And what idea might that be?”

Jess started marching rapidly down the tunnel. “Gosford has an army that we can’t defeat as things stand. We’re running out of food, and we’re running out of time. We can’t possibly hope to win this battle.”

“So?”

Jess gave her a mischievous, sparkling smile. “Gosford wants this castle? Fine. We’ll give it too him.” She chuckled darkly. “And then we’ll find out if he has the strength of hold on to it.”

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

Thirty minutes and a change of clothes later, Kaleah sat on the edge of Jessica’s bed regarding the expectant blonde seriously. Jess had explained her plan quickly, and the dark woman had questioned a few points and added her own suggestions. Now she considered it carefully.

“You realize this plan could cost many peasants their lives,” she said quietly. “They’ll be the ones at greatest risk.”

Jess nodded. “I know that. But we can’t hope to win this without loosing a few lives. At least this way, casualties should be minimal.”

“Uh huh.” Kaleah paused and watched her friend’s face carefully. “You’ll be giving up a lot, too, Jess,” she whispered.

Jessica smiled a little sadly. “A small sacrifice.”

“It’s not a small sacrifice for you, and you know it,” Kaleah protested. “Those passages have been your secret all your life, Jess. They mean a lot to you. Don’t belittle this.”

The young woman sighed. “A leader must be willing to give up anything for the sake of the people. And I am.” She appreciated the understanding she saw in Kaleah’s eyes, and gave the dark woman’s shoulder a squeeze. “We should go find Miles and tell him-”

“Oh, no you don’t.” Kaleah grabbed the diminutive blonde and pulled her firmly into an embrace. “That can wait till morning. You need your rest if you’re going to pull this off.”

“But we can-”

“Rest,” Kaleah growled into a shapely ear, smiling when she felt a shiver rush through her lover’s body. “We’ll start getting everyone ready tomorrow. Right now, we sleep.” Nimble fingers started pulling off Jessica’s simple tunic. “I’ve missed holding you in my arms at night.”

“Mmm.” Jessica moaned as the dark woman slowly undressed her, feeling fires ignite in her groin. She quickly conceded to Kaleah’s wishes and began to return the favor. Within moments the two women were wrapped around each other comfortably under the thick blankets, exchanging gentle touches and light kisses.

Jessica ran her fingers down Kaleah’s spine, smiling at the low rumble her touch inspired. “Can we . . ?”

Kaleah smiled at her lover’s eagerness but shook her head. “Like I said before, Jess, you’ll be sore in the morning as it is, and we really do need as much sleep as we can get. We’re going to be very busy tomorrow.”

Jessica pouted but stilled her explorations obediently. In truth, she was a little tender in certain places. It was just that everything was so new and felt so wonderful . . . she wanted to experience the incredible pleasure of Kaleah’s love as much as possible. But for now, she admitted it was probably a better idea to behave herself. Rolling over, Jess pulled her lover’s arms around her and relaxed in the safe cocoon of the dark woman’s embrace. Taking a deep, calming breath, she couldn’t help but grin wickedly as she caught the scent that clung to the sheets. “I can still smell us,” she giggled.

Kaleah smiled. “Just try not to think about it.”

Jess giggled again. “That’s not easy when we’re both naked and surrounded by the scent of our lovemaking.” She settled down and planted a soft kiss on Kaleah’s arm. “G’night, Kaleah.”

“Mmm, night, Jess.”

Overwhelmed by the long and busy day, both women were soon seduced by their exhaustion into a land of warm, vaguely sensuous dreams, content and relaxed as they held each other for the first time in many days.

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

The next day, Gosford watched curiously as the routine of the defenders in Da’Gran changed drastically. Where before the men had lined the walls at even spaces, now there were few soldiers visible, and those that were in sight seemed distracted and excited. Observing through a small eyeglass used more commonly by sailors than soldiers, the mercenary wondered what this change might mean.

“Something’s going on,” he mused aloud to Rennard. “I don’t like this.”

“Mayhap they plan to attack,” the officer suggested.

Gosford considered but shook his head. “Lady Jessica knows she wouldn’t stand a chance against us. She’s not stupid enough for a frontal assault,” he said firmly. His lips drew into a grim line. “Still . . . it never pays to be overprepared. Have the men ready themselves for defense, just in case.”

“Aye, sir.” Rennard quickly marched off, spreading the word up and down the line to the raiders, who had already noticed the strange behavior of the defenders and were talking in low, excited voices.

But no attack was launched that day. As the hours wore on, the bandit army started to get restless. Fights broke out between groups of men, and Gosford was quick to discipline his men. By sun-down, even the few soldiers who had manned the battlements of the castle had vanished. The mercenary grew more suspicious, unable to figure out what his enemy had planned. As dark fell, he ordered a double watch, and all the men slept with their weapons nearby.

Gosford was rudely awakened an hour before dawn by loud, earth-shaking explosions. For a moment he thought his assessment of Jessica was wrong; the girl had launched some kind of an attack afterall. But when he rushed outside and found his own army looking at the castle in wonder and awe he realized the truth: the explosions were coming from inside the castle walls. From where he stood, the mercenary could see plumes of orange and green smoke curling up above the unmanned battlement, lit from beyond by devilish lights. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“What in hell is she up too?” he pondered aloud.

The explosions lasted a few minutes, then all was still and silent in the pre-dawn darkness. Rennard joined his leader, gazing curiously at the castle. “What d’ye think that was, sir?”

Gosford shrugged. “I have no idea . . . though I rather suspect we’ll find out come light.”

Rennard glanced at the bandits, who were fingering their weapons nervously and muttering among themselves. The words ‘devil-child’ and ‘sorcery’ could be heard whispered back and forth. Gosford exchanged meaningful glances with his second. “Superstitious fools,” he muttered angrily, seeing fear in the faces of his troops. These bandits were savage men who were eager for battle . . . but he knew they’d run away in terror at the thought they faced an otherworldly foe. “If she hopes to scare us off with a light show,” he said loudly, “that girl’s in for a rude surprise.”

The men laughed at his humor, but their eyes were still turgid and troubled. Gosford gestured to the bandits. “Send word for everyone to get moving,” he ordered. “We’re all awake now . . . we might as well be ready for whatever she’s got planned.” He glanced at the last clouds of strange smoke. “We’ll find out more when the sun’s up.”

What the light revealed, however, was about the furthest thing from what Gosford had expected.

The solid, spiked portcullis that could easily have held against the sturdiest battering ram was raised; the castle gates swung open. No defenders manned the walls or the towers. No sounds of life could be heard. Gosford and his muttering troops besieged what now appeared to be an empty castle.

“It’s a trick,” the mercenary immediately concluded. “An obvious trick at that. She’s got the soldiers and knights all lying in ambush, just waiting for us to walk in.” He smiled a little. “I would have expected more from the daughter of Sir Richard Da’Gran.”

“What’ll we do, sir?” asked Rennard. He pointed to the bandits who were already mobilizing, anticipating that they would be attacking the castle. “We gonna take the bait?”

Gosford considered a moment, not liking this. “I would have preferred a more bloodless end to this affair, but it seems that’s not to be the case.” He sighed. “So be it. The men are restless; they need to fight, and with our way now clear we can easily overwhelm whatever pitiful defenses she might have devised.” He waved his hand. “Have the men assemble and prepare for close-quarter combat. When they’re in position, we take the castle. And remember . . . I want Jessica and her family taken alive if at all possible.”

Rennard left and the orders were swiftly carried out, the only trouble being that none of the bandits wanted to miss out on the fun, and so fought for the front positions. When they were eventually readied, Gosford gave the command and the bandit army surged toward the open entrance, yelling war-cries and waving swords hungry for blood.

They were to be disappointed, however.

The castle was deserted. The bandits spread out immediately and searched everywhere, but while an unlucky few discovered lethal booby-traps, the only living creatures they found were the stabled horses.

In the courtyard, however, Gosford and his men discovered something strange. A gigantic, arcane symbol had been burned deeply into the earth. The acrid stench of sulfur filled the air, and a few of the men made signs of warding against evil, sensing witchcraft had been worked.

“The girl’s a devil-child!” one of the bandits shouted, pointing at the strange, mystical rune. “She magicked ‘em all away! This castle be cursed!”

Gosford snarled as many of the bandits nodded agreement, spitting on the symbol and glancing about suspiciously. “Lady Jessica is no witch!” he told them sternly. “She couldn’t have escaped past our siege!” He looked around him carefully and his voice lowered. “She’s here somewhere. She’s just hiding.”

“Her and a few hundred others?” someone demanded.

Gosford’s eyes narrowed. “Damn girl’s smarter than I thought,” he mused aloud. “But she’s not smart enough to hide forever! Search every room and hallway in this castle until you find them!” The men grudgingly did as ordered, glaring at the mercenary balefully. They searched every place in the fortress, from the dungeons to the look-out turret. Finding nothing, Gosford ordered a search for hidden rooms or tunnels, and after an hour was rewarded. His men discovered an ill-concealed trapdoor in one of the stables, which opened to reveal a wide escape tunnel.

Gosford glared at the mouth of the tunnel furiously a long moment, then concluded through grit teeth, “They escaped.”

The mercenary took over the great hall as his command center and began to issue orders. The bandits were disgruntled; he had promised them bloodshed and loot, but so far all he had been able to give them was a pittance reward. Apparently the defenders had taken most of Sir Richard’s wealth with them. For the time being, Gosford ordered large groups of men to comb the forests in search of the vanished troops and to hunt for food. A messenger was sent back to Lancaster to tell him the castle was secured. Gosford also set up a guard along the battlements to watch for any surprises, knowing victory wasn’t likely to come without some kind of trouble. As a precaution, he collapsed the escape tunnel to prevent Jessica from using it to get back inside the fortress.

“In the morning, we divide our forces to take the other villages,” he told Rennard and the main leaders of the raiding bandits. “It’s most likely Jessica will try to rally the peasants to fight with her, so expect resistance. We’ll search the forests, too. An army that size can’t stay hidden forever.”

A few of the bandit leaders grumbled, and Gosford eyed them angrily. “Is there a problem?”

The bandits exchanged sullen glances before one stepped forward. “We joined this campaign cos ye promised us riches,” he said angrily. “Ye promised we’d get to kill the Da’Gran soldiers!”

“And?” Gosford faced the angry man calmly. “We will find them in time. And when you have taken the villages you will have all the plunder you desire.”

“No!” The man shook his head viciously. “My people grow tired of waiting! You pay us now!”

The mercenary cocked his head thoughtfully. “You’re welcome to search the castle yourself for gold, but you won’t find any,” he said quietly. “I cannot pay you what I don’t have.”

“Then we’re leaving this accursed castle!” the man shouted. “My men and I won’t fight fer nothin’!”

Hazel eyes narrowed and the mercenary stepped closer to the furious bandits. “You wish to be rewarded for your efforts?”

“Aye!”

A slender dagger flashed through the air in a silver arc and the bandit clutched suddenly at his throat. Blood welled between his fingers as he coughed, choked, grasping for the mercenary with feeble hands before he collapsed. The other men stepped back, eyeing their commander nervously.

Gosford wiped his dagger clean and sheathed it. His eyes studied the bandit leaders calmly. “Do any of you wish a similar reward?”

Several heads shook desperately.

“Then do as I command.” Gosford nudged the dead man with his foot. “Follow my orders, and I will deliver that which was promised. Now go.”

The bandits left as quickly as they could, leaving Rennard and his commander alone in the great hall.

Gosford closed his eyes and took a calming breath. He was frustrated and annoyed because of it. That slip of a girl had managed to escape him! But something wasn’t right here. He had a feeling he was missing something, he just didn’t know what it was. Jessica’s little stunt of false magic had convinced many of the gullible bandits that the castle was now somehow cursed; a simple yet effective trick. Still, it seemed strange that she would give up her position so readily.

“That girl’s not finished with this yet,” he whispered half to himself, half to his second. “We may have taken the castle, but she’s out there somewhere. I can sense it.” He took a deep breath and frowned. “I want her found before she has a chance to make trouble.”

“I’ll order more men into the woods, sir,” Rennard offered.

“Excellent. And Rennard?”

“Sir?”

Gosford gestured to the body of the raider on the floor. “Have our uncooperative friend here removed. We don’t want bloodstains marring the stonework.”

“Of course, sir.”

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

Far, far below, beneath the very foundation of castle Da’Gran, Jessica stood next to Kaleah in a vast, cavernous room filled with nervous, curious people. The great room was lit by several torches that burned in wall-mounted sconces, but the light couldn’t take away the knowledge of a hundred tones of earth and rock that hung above their heads. All the knights of her fathers court were here, along with most of the lesser soldiers, gathered around a large, rectangular table that was covered in dust and dirt.

Her mother and brother stood to one side, both regarding her with sullen anger. Jess winced a little when she saw the expressions worn by Miles and Charles, knowing she had a lot of explaining to do. There was one notable absence among the gathering: Eric Grace. She knew she was going to have to explain that to the people, too. The last day and night had been wearing on the young woman; she was tired and in little mood for this talk. But she knew she couldn’t rest just yet.

As she stepped forward to address her audience, Jessica assumed what Kaleah called her ‘leader face’ — the expression and stance she modeled after her father.

“I know you all probably have a lot of questions right now,” she said, her gentle yet mesmerizing voice bringing instant silence to the muttering crowd, “but before I answer them I want to thank you all for your patience. I understand that I asked a lot of you — I expected you to follow orders without taking the time to explain things. For that I’m sorry.”

The young woman took a deep breath. “I know you all want to know about these hidden passages and rooms, first of all.” She saw many nods from the knights who were puzzled at these mysterious secret places in their home. “I discovered them many years ago, and I suppose you could say I used them to play in. The passages run through and under the castle, and can access almost any part of Da’Gran we want to go too. There’s enough room for us all to live here comfortably for as long as we need too.” She paused, her tone growing a little harder. “As for why I kept these passages a secret . . .” She glanced at Miles and Charles. “. . . I can only say that I had my reasons. I’m not going to justify myself to you people, and you don’t have the right to expect me too.” Her voice dropped slightly. “My secret harmed no-one.”

Lady Rose stepped forward now, eyes stormy. “And what other secrets have you kept from us, Jessica?” she demanded loudly. “What else don’t you want us to know about?”

Jessica glared at her mother coldly. “Whatever my secrets are, mother, they are mine to keep.” Her eyes swept the assembly of soldiers. “I’m sure we all have things we keep private . . . things we share only with those closest too us. I don’t expect anyone here to divulge every hidden thought and feeling to me, and vice versa.” Most of the knights reluctantly nodded their agreement, willing to accept this explanation for now.

Lady Rose wasn’t to be discouraged so easily. “Pretty words, Jess, but how do you think these people would feel if they did know the truth about you?”

Jessica paused now, her back stiffening. Rose was questioning her authority in front of the people she had to lead. She couldn’t let that stand. “Do you have something you wish to say, mother?” she demanded, her soft tone at odds with the steel in her eyes.

Lady Rose sniffed at her daughter in disgust. “I know all about you, Jessica,” she hissed. “I know all about the things you’ve been doing with that heathen bitch!” She pointed accusingly at Kaleah. “I saw the two of you up on the battlements the other night — you with your hands all over her!”

The silence in the room suddenly grew breathless. Lady Rose smirked malevolently as Jessica’s face went deathly pale and her eyes widened. She stepped closer, enjoying the look on her daughter’s face. “I should have expected as much from you, you disgusting harlot! Whoring yourself to some foreign devil-woman! It makes me sick to think a creature like you ever came from my body!” Rose’s hand snapped up quickly, intent on delivering a hard slap to her daughter’s face.

She did not realize just how dangerous the young girl’s reflexes were.

Jessica caught her mother’s hand before it even got near her face and, with seemingly no effort at all, twisted the older woman’s body around, throwing her hard against the surface of the oak table. Rose gave a surprised squeak as Jessica slammed her hand down on the tables dusty surface — a sound which changed to a shocked cry of pain as the furious young blonde drew a dagger and, without thinking twice, drove it through her hand, pinning it to the table.

“Jessica!” Miles stepped forward to intercede, but cold green eyes froze him before he got the chance.

“NO!” Jessica’s gaze swept the room, the stunned people falling back from the fury in her gaze. When she looked at Kaleah, however, her expression softened at the look of sadness on her dark lover’s face. Jess turned back to her gasping mother, releasing her grip on the dagger and clutching for her throat. Terrified green eyes widened.

“The next time you speak a single word of malice against Kaleah,” the girl whispered, “I swear I’ll find my dagger a home in your heart.” She stared at her mother a long moment, unblinking. “Do you understand me?”

“You can’t-” Powerful fingers cut off her words as they tightened about her throat.

“Try me.” Jessica leaned in closer. “When you try to hurt Kaleah, you hurt me. And I will defend myself with every power at my disposal, mother. Now if you have any sense at all in your head, you’ll say ‘I understand, Jessica,’ and get out of my sight.”

Lady Rose swallowed hard, gasping at the fire that burned from her hand. She saw for the first time just how strong her daughter had become — how dangerous. The force of power the small girl projected was unbelievable, and there was nothing she could do against it. “I understand, Jessica,” she repeated dutifully.

“Very good.” Jessica released her grip on her mother’s throat and unceremoniously plucked the dagger from her hand. The older woman fell back, clutching her wounded hand to her chest. Father Grahem stepped forward with Steven and they managed to lead Lady Rose from the chamber, the minister glaring at Jessica with disgust and making the sign of the cross before he departed.

When they were gone, Jessica turned back to the faces watching her, their expressions ranging from sympathy to concern to distaste. There was no way she could deny her mother’s accusation now. She hadn’t wanted it to be this way, but had accepted long ago that loving Kaleah would eventually lead to this. She smiled a little when Kaleah stepped closer to her, offering comfort. The silence grew uncomfortable, and the young blonde faced the gathered soldiers with dignity and pride; she would never let herself feel shame for her love.

“What Kaleah and I do in private is between the two of us alone,” she said softly. “Does any person here wish to dispute that?”

There was silence; a few men shook their heads.

Jessica nodded. “Good.” She felt a hand reach out for her own and gratefully accepted the contact with her lover. “I don’t expect any of you to understand this, or even to agree with it. And I’m certainly not going to ask for your sanction. You can hate me, if that’s what you want. You can be disgusted by me.” Her eyes hardened. “But I do expect you to follow my orders until my father has recovered strength enough to take back command.” She met each man’s gaze steadily. “If any of you think that’s going to be a problem, speak now.”

Another silence. No-one stepped forward.

Jess smiled a small, tired smile. “Thank you. Now, if we’re done questioning my love life” – There were a few nervous chuckles – “we can continue.”

Releasing Kaleah’s hand, Jessica stepped into her role as leader easily. “The last twenty-four hours have been confusing for you all, since I haven’t had time to explain my plan in it’s entirety. The situation stands thusly: the bandit army lead by Lancaster’s mercenary commander, Frederick Gosford, has taken control of the castle.” There were a few low mutterings at this point, but they ended when Jess raised her hand for silence. “I know this wasn’t the most popular decision I’ve made, but like it or not, we didn’t have a hope of defeating Gosford. Our supplies were running low, and we hadn’t the numbers to break the siege.” She saw reluctant acknowledgement of the facts. “By now, Gosford will have discovered the escape tunnel that was built below the stable.” She grinned. “He will have concluded that we retreated from the castle, and that the castle is his.”

“If there’s an escape tunnel, why haven’t we sent for help?” demanded one of the younger knights.

“Runners were sent early yesterday morning,” Jess replied. “With the head-start they have, I have every confidence that Charles’ father will hear of our plight and send reinforcements. However, they’ll take time to get here, and we must use that time as best we can.

“Gosford will almost certainly assume we have pulled back to the other villages, hoping to rally greater numbers from the peasants. That being the case, I believe he will divide his army into smaller groups and send them out to sweep away any resistance quickly. He can’t keep the raiders in the castle; they’re too unruly and hard to control. And besides, thanks to Kaleah’s idea of marking the courtyard with arcane symbols, most of them will have little desire to remain in the castle, believing it to be cursed.” She smiled a thanks to her lover. “Within the next two days, the enemy will be divided into a dozen smaller groups, and the castle will be defended only by a small garrison of Lancaster’s own men.”

Comprehension suddenly dawned in the faces of the gathered knights, and many of them nodded slowly, smiling when they saw where this was going. “Ye plan to wait fer that to happen, then defeat then one by one,” Miles guessed.

Jess nodded. “We sent runners to warn the villagers what’s happening — with luck, they’ll be able to hold out till we can send aid. The Earl’s men will help us to mop up the stragglers, and victory will be ours.” She planted her hands on her hips proudly. “All we have to do is wait a few days, and watch for our opportunity.” She flashed the men a charismatic grin. “Any questions?”

There was a few moments of silence, then one of the elder knights raised his hand almost timidly. “Um . . . I heard that Sir Richard was poisoned by a traitor . . . and that the traitor is dead. Is that true?”

Jess sighed and nodded grimly. “When Kaleah and I were rigging our little magic display, we went to Eric Grace for assistance with the chemical components. We found him dead in his laboratory, apparently killed by his own hand.” She pulled a scrap of parchment from her belt and held it up. “This was on the body. It reads simply, ‘I can live no longer with my betrayal. God will be my judge.’” Jessica scowled darkly, still feeling that something about Grace’s suicide seemed off. “From all appearances, my father will recover. His fever has broken, and he has been wakeful for brief periods.” The relief was obvious in her tone, knowing her father was now resting comfortably in one of the hidden rooms above. She could see the men shared her relief.

“So what do we do now?” asked a soldier. “Just wait?”

She shrugged. “Patience is our greatest ally at the moment,” she said. “I’ve shown Miles and Damon where to find the largest rooms. They’ll assign you a space to sleep and we’ll start a guard to watch the movements of the enemy.” A full grin lit her face. “When we attack, they won’t know what hit them.” She paused, waiting for any further questions. When none were forthcoming, she waved her hand. “I’ll leave you to get organized. Miles? Take over.”

Taking Kaleah’s hand, Jess turned and led them from the cavernous room, sighing the minute they were out of sight.

Kaleah felt the tension drain from her young friend’s small frame and gathered her up in her arms quickly. “You alright?”

Jess shrugged. Her emotions were raw; she wasn’t sure how she felt right now. “I wasn’t expecting my mother to hit me with that,” she breathed. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, but they were born of stress more than despair. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Kaleah sighed, feeling her lover’s pain. “I’m sorry you have to hurt because of how you feel for me.”

Jess turned and smiled up at her crookedly. “It’s a small price to pay, Kaleah. I love you . . . and I knew all along that a lot of people would never accept that.” A little light entered her eyes. “At least no-one’s going to try to hang either of us for the time being,” she observed. “Like it or not, this plan is going to save us from almost certain defeat. Even my mother and Father Grahem couldn’t incite the people against us.”

The dark woman smiled and laid a soft kiss on rumbled blonde hair. “Come on, Princess,” she said. “You can show me some of these intriguing stories I’ve heard so much about.”

Jess giggled, her eyes sparkling. “Mmm . . . are you sure you wanna do that? I mean, reading a bunch of erotic love stories could get me kinda worked up.”

Kaleah grinned roguishly. “Oh, I’m counting on it.”

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

The next few days dragged by slowly for the people hidden in the secret rooms. Jess knew rumors about her and Kaleah had spread quickly among the people, but she chose to ignore them. It wasn’t difficult; afterall, Jess had lived her whole life being the center of controversy. She’d never been one to go by the rules of others, her independent spirit earning her admiration from some, disapproval from others. It seemed her love for the dark barbarian woman would prove no different than every other decision she’d ever made.

Jess paused a moment as she entered her special room — the room that housed her pictures and her secret books. She and Kaleah had claimed it as their quarters for the time being, and the young blonde smiled as she found her lover lying full-length on the over-stuffed couch, her eyes closed peacefully.

Jessica took the opportunity to let her eyes linger over the long, slender body of her friend. In the last few days, this room had offered the luxury of privacy to the two women, and Jess found herself growing ever more comfortable with the intense physical dynamic their relationship had developed. Her hunger and passion for Kaleah had only grown stronger as she enthusiastically explored new ways of expressing her love and desire. Kaleah had encouraged Jessica to fully share her dreams and fantasies, helping the innocent girl to accept and understand her burgeoning sexuality. As their level of intimacy increased, so did their love, and watching her dark lover now in a rare moment of relaxation, Jessica knew their love would give them both strength in whatever future they faced.

As Jess suspected, Kaleah soon sensed her presence and sleeping azure eyes blinked open. A smile twitched the scarred lips as the former slave sat up a little and stretched. “Hey,” she greeted drowsily. “Everything okay?”

“Mmhmm.” Jess strolled over and straddled Kaleah’s lap happily, kissing her lover long and slowly. “Everything’s absolutely perfect.”

Kaleah grinned and pulled the blonde tighter against her. “Everything?” A dark brow raised doubtfully.

Jess giggled. “Well, okay, not everything. But Gosford’s moved out nearly all the raiders and we’re about ready to attack him, my mother’s keeping out of sight, and . . .” She grinned mischievously. “. . . I’ve had a few rather timid comments from a couple of the soldiers and servants complementing my taste in women.”

Sapphire eyes widened in surprise. “Really?” Knowing hands skirted playfully along the young woman’s ribcage, thumbs playing close to full breasts. “Were there any comments about the noises coming from this room late in the evenings?” she teased.

Jessica’s nostrils flared as her body quickly wakened to her lover’s touch. Still, she poked the dark woman with mock outrage. “I’m not that loud,” she argued. Kaleah’s eyebrow lifted higher, and Jess blushed. “I’m not.”

Kaleah smirked. “Whatever you say, Princess.” In truth, the young woman was proving to be as vocal as she was energetic during their love-making; a fact Kaleah found thoroughly endearing. She decided to change the subject. “So, how’s your father doing?”

Jess shrugged. She had just been to visit her father, who she’d found sleeping comfortably. “He’s okay, I guess.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes wearily, considering again the strange events surrounding his sickness.

Kaleah instantly recognized Jess was holding something back. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, it’s just . . .” Jess trailed off, not knowing how to explain her disquiet. “I just can’t understand why Grace would do something like that. It seems so . . . so illogical.”

“I thought you said you never really liked him to begin with.”

“I didn’t.” Jess frowned. “But just cos he gave me the willies doesn’t mean it’s easy picturing him as a traitor. Something about it doesn’t seem right. Doesn’t fit.”

Kaleah sat up a little straighter, pulling Jess along with her. “Like what?”

“Well . . .” Jess pondered the matter a moment. “For starters, Grace has served my family all his life. He was my grandfather’s advisor and alchemist before my father came to power. If he’d wanted to betray us, he could have picked a hundred better opportunities than this one.”

“Maybe no-one ever made him a generous enough offer,” Kaleah suggested.

“Maybe. But why now? He was old. He wouldn’t have had a lot of time to enjoy his rewards anyway. And Grace never seemed to care much for money or wealth. His only interest was serving my father well and working on whatever it was he worked on in his laboratory.” She paused. “He was a good advisor and fair healer, even if he was a bit of a ghoul. It’s so hard to believe he could have betrayed my father.”

Kaleah kissed the vexed girl gently. “Just be happy he’s gone,” she said quietly. “When this is over, we can investigate things a little more if you want . . . maybe find out why he did it.” Another gentle kiss, a little lower, and Kaleah grinned, feeling Jess melt against her. “When are you planning to attack Gosford and his remaining troops?”

“Uh . . . attack?” Jess quickly lost her train of thought as Kaleah set to work on her neck and chest. “Oh . . . um, I don’t — uh, don’t stop!”

Kaleah grinned. “That soon, huh?” She suckled a wildly humming pulse-point happily. “Maybe you should rethink that.”

Jessica tangled her fingers in Kaleah’s dark hair, moaning. “We attack tomorrow evening,” she gasped quickly, her senses focused fully on the dark woman’s sensual assault. “Kaleah?”

“Mmm?”

“I don’t really make that much noise . . . do I?”

Kaleah grinned rakishly. “Let’s find out.”

Scarred lips returned to feast on fevered skin, descending along a path that quickly convinced Jess she really didn’t care one way or the other how loud she was.
Chapter 25.
Jessica listened intently to the voices she could hear echoing up through the chimney from her father’s chambers, recognizing them as belonging to Gosford and his lieutenant. She was alone in the cramped tunnel, waiting with calm excitement for the attack to begin. The grate that sealed off the chimney had been removed, and when things started to happen, Jess would have to move quickly to secure the room and take the mercenary captive. If Gosford managed to rally a defense, Jess knew her men would suffer greater casualties.

Miles had protested her wanting to take on the mercenary by herself, but Jessica had been adamant. Kaleah was positioned nearby, waiting to take out the guards to the chamber, so if Jess ran into trouble help was close at hand. One way or another, she wanted Gosford for herself.

The plan was fairly simple. Lancaster’s men were now distributed throughout the castle, their numbers few. Against Da’Gran’s better-trained and more numerous troops, they didn’t stand a chance. The trick would be making sure none of them managed to escape the castle and rally support from the divided bandit army. Therefore, Miles would lead a contingent of men too the gatehouse to take control of the portcullis, closing it and preventing escape. While the soldiers wiped out the invaders, the servants and peasants of Da’Gran would remain safely hidden in the catacombs, waiting till everything was secure. Since Lancaster’s men believed their enemy to be many miles away, Jessica had every confidence that victory would be swift and decisive.

After what seemed like hours of breathless anticipation, Jess finally heard what she’d been waiting for. The sound of a door flying open, then a panicked voice. “Sir! Forgive the interruption sir, but . . . we’re under attack!”

“Attack!?” Gosford’s voice was understandable incredulous. “By who?”

“Sir Richard’s men, sir! They’ve-”

“That’s impossible!” In the darkness, Jess grinned at the disbelieving tone in the mercenary’s voice. “Lady Jessica wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack the castle.”

“She’s already inside the castle, sir!” the guard reported hastily.

“What!?!” There was a sound of mail and leather rustling, then a startled squeak. “How is that possible? Where are the men?”

“The men are trying to hold them back, b-but they’re everywhere!” came the strangled voice of the guard, and now Jessica could make out the sounds of battle coming from beyond the room. The familiar tingle of adrenaline and excitement flooded through her blood, heightening her senses and making her feel dangerously alive. She took a deep breath and counseled patience, fingers toying with the pommel of her sword.

Below, Gosford cursed angrily for a moment, then apparently regained his composure. “Fine,” he said softly. “Jessica may be clever, but we’ll win this still. Rennard?”

“Yessir?”

“Go find some runners if you can. We need to recall the bandits. If we’re lucky they won’t have traveled too far.”

“Of course sir.”

“I’ll take care of this whelp one way or another. Try to get the men to fall back to the central keep. We can defend ourselves better if we’re not out in the open.”

“I’ll do what I can, sir, but you’d best hurry.” Footsteps faded quickly away as Rennard and the soldier left. Jess crept forward soundlessly and slipped into the chimney, holding herself poised over the drop, waiting. A few heartbeats later came the sound of fierce fighting from just outside the room, Gosford’s started shout, and then the echo as the doors to the chamber slammed shut forcefully. Kaleah had done her job well, cutting off this section of rooms and leaving Jessica to confront Gosford in peace.

Confidant that she would not be interrupted, Jessica dropped stealthily down into the fireplace, her soft-soled boots crunching only a little in the ashes. Moving quickly, she ducked under the stone mantle and stepped into her father’s chamber, glancing about warily.

Gosford stood in front of the solid oak door, pounding on it and trying unsuccessfully to get it open. Jess grinned fully and shuffled closer, noiselessly drawing her slender rapier. When she was only a few feet away, Gosford finally sensed her presence and turned angrily, his hand flying to the hilt of his own longsword.

His eyes widened when he found the tip of Jessica’s sword flirting with the skin under his throat. Her eyes were dancing and strangely playful, and suddenly Gosford understood how this girl had gained such a formidable reputation at such a young age; her skill was matched only by her charm.

Jess smiled at the stunned expression on the mercenary’s face. “We meet again, master Gosford.” Her eyes flicked warningly to where his hand still gripped his sword hilt. “You wish to test my resolve, perhaps?” A blonde brow raised curiously, her expression not at all afraid.

Gosford removed his hand and raised it away from his side.

“How did you get back into the castle?” he demanded. “We collapsed the tunnel.”

“A lady can’t reveal all her secrets, master Gosford . . . can she?” Outside, the sounds of fighting could still be heard, though they were muffled by the door. “Your men are the ones outnumbered now,” she observed. “We will take back my father’s castle and then destroy your ragtag bandit armies one by one.”

“Impossible. Your haven’t the men.” From his tone, Gosford didn’t seem convinced of his own words. Jessica’s smile never faltered.

“Maybe not right now,” she agreed complacently, “but as soon as the messenger I sent to the Earl gets through, the reinforcements he sends will be more than enough to even the odds. I think when word reaches the bandits, most of them will run for the hills anyway.” She eyes sparkled. “You are beaten, master Gosford. Accept it gracefully.”

Suddenly, Jessica felt the hairs at the nape of her neck tingle in warning, and she sensed another presence in the room; a presence she could tell immediately did not belong to her lover.

“We’ve not lost yet,” said a vaguely familiar voice. “Release the mercenary, Lady Jessica, or I’ll be forced to kill you.”

Jessica struggled a moment, unable to identify the voice but knowing the threat was real. Unwilling to pull back the rapier and accept defeat, she twisted her body so she could face the intruder without releasing Gosford.

Green eyes widened in shock, and for a moment Jessica cursed herself for her own stupidity. Of course! It’s so obvious! How could I have forgotten about him! Everything fell into place as she stared past the glinting bolt of the crossbow to the intelligent, unassuming face of Senigma Wright.

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

Miles easily dodged the fierce but simple attack of the man facing him, then sprang forward with sudden speed and plunged his sword through the chainmail and into the soldier’s heart. Around him, Da’Gran’s warriors were pressing quickly through the enemy ranks. The attack had been unbelievably successful, beyond even what Jessica had promised, and by now Lancaster’s men were beginning to panic.

And that meant they’d be looking for a way out.

“Too the gatehouse!” Miles shouted fiercely, urging his men to move quickly on their mission, ignoring those who sought to flee so they could press on.

Their path cleared quickly and Miles lead the way across the courtyard, raising his shield to catch the few arrows that were being fired by the desperate enemy. A few of Lancaster’s men had managed to get outside the castle walls, but glancing up Miles saw Da’Gran archers taking careful aim from the battlements, dropping them before they could run far.

When they reached the gatehouse that housed the controls for raising and lowering the massive portcullis, Miles was flustered to encounter the first signs of organized resistance since the attack first started. A group of footsoldiers armed with pikes had taken up a defensive stance outside the gatehouse, their position protected by several archers armed mostly with longbows and a few crossbows. Miles saw the man beside him fall to the deadly accuracy of the archers, and he raised his sword to stop the advance.

“Down!” he called. “Find cover!”

Somewhat reluctantly the soldiers did so, breaking apart and hiding behind what small shelter there was in the open courtyard. Miles scowled at the enemy defense, searching with experienced eyes for a weakness.

“We can’t charge them, Sir Miles,” observed a younger soldier. “They’ll cut us to pieces.”

“Aye, but we gotta get that portcullis down.” He turned and saw a few of Lancaster’s men charge into the courtyard, seeking to escape. His own men dispatched them quickly, then returned to their cover. “If the bandits’re rallied, we’ll have lost everything . . . and they won’t be fooled a second time.” He frowned as he looked around, searching for anything that might help. His eyes lit up suddenly when he spied what he wanted.

“There.” He pointed to the far end of the courtyard. “We use that.”

The young soldier gave him a confused look. “A wagon, sir?”

“Aye.” Miles grinned and began retreating, using his shield as protection. “You three . . .” He picked out three men. “Yer comin’ with us. The rest of ye stay here and keep the enemy from escapin’.”

Miles led his group over to the large straw-filled wagon and inspected it briefly. “Perfect,” he concluded. “You two, get on that side and start pushin’. We gotta get this lined up with the gatehouse.”

The men did as ordered, not understanding but trusting to Miles’ wisdom. With some straining, they managed to maneuver the heavy wagon over to the rest of their group, who sought shelter behind it immediately.

“I need a flint ‘n a striker.” Miles gestured impatiently until one of the soldier’s produced the requested items and handed them over. The old knight spared a glance towards the enemy, who appeared confused and wary of his actions. “Get behind the wagon,” he ordered. “When it starts burnin’, push it hard.” A few of the soldiers grinned as they realized what he was planning.

The men quickly did as ordered, and Miles expertly struck a spark into the tinder-dry straw. A flame obediently sprang to life, spreading quickly as the soldiers put their heads down and started pushing. By the time the wagon was half-way to the gatehouse it was fully ablaze and moving at unstoppable speed. The enemy, seeing the fiery destruction that hurtled towards them, broke ranks and tried to escape.

The wagon ploughed into the wooden gatehouse and instantly crashed against the stone wall behind it, causing a ball of fire to erupt outwards in a wave of heat. The wagon also managed to hit the mechanism controling the portcullis directly, smashing it to pieces and freeing the thick chain that held the gate open. With a piercing squeal of protest and a sharp crash, the heavy spiked grill slammed down, almost impaling one man who was trying to escape.

Miles and his group attacked quickly, cutting down the lightly-armored archers easily then turning to confront the tougher pikemen. Seeing that escape was now impossible and their cause was lost, the pikemen dropped their weapons and raised their arms in defeat.

“We surrender.”

Miles smiled and gestured to some of his men. “Strip their weapons and armor,” he ordered, “and lock ‘em somewhere they won’t make trouble.” He turned to the rest of his group. “The rats won’t be fleeing this sinkin’ ship,” he grinned, then held his bloody sword out. “Let’s go find us some more fun, huh?”

The soldiers cheered, and they dashed off to join their fellows in the last stages of the battle, leaving behind the blazing remains of the destroyed gatehouse.

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

Senigma smiled foxishly at the expression on Jessica’s face, his hands holding the crossbow a little awkwardly but steady. Jessica stepped away from Gosford, rapier still poised but now uncertain who to attack.

“I can see you’re a little surprised,” the apprentice advisor observed. “I imagine at this point you’re probably kicking yourself you didn’t notice I was missing from those you managed to hide away, but don’t feel too bad. I’m upset I left Da’Gran before I got a chance to see how you pulled off such a wonderful piece of trickery.”

Jessica quickly masked her shock and assumed a confidant expression. She nodded at the crossbow. “You’re not a warrior, Senigma. You haven’t the skill to use that thing.”

Senigma’s smile grew wider. “From this range, Lady Jessica, even I can’t miss. Now, release the mercenary and surrender.”

“You shoot me and I’ll still have the strength to kill him,” Jessica stated, pressing the tip of her sword against Gosford’s throat. Her momentary fear was gone, and she almost found herself enjoying this challenging addition. “Do you really think you can command Lancaster’s men? Do you think you can give them victory?”

Senigma hesitated, uncertain, clearly not expecting this resistance. “The bandits will-”

“The bandits will run in terror when the Earl’s men arrive,” Jess interrupted. “Killing me won’t change a thing.” She caught a sudden movement from the corner of her eye and smiled to herself as a shadow emerged from the fireplace. Green eyes twinkled daringly as she turned back to Gosford, who seemed unprepared to make a move while his life hung in the balance. “What did Lancaster offer you for the death of my father, Senigma? Why would you betray the position of trust you stood to inherit?”

Senigma shrugged. “The winds of power were shifting, Jessica. By the time Grace had passed away, your brother would likely have risen to power.” He gripped the crossbow tighter. “Do you really think an idiot like Steven could hold these lands for long? Lancaster offered wealth and the position of chief advisor and alchemist to me as soon as Da’Gran was his. I could either rise along with him, or watch as your brother ruined everything — including my future. The decision wasn’t difficult to make.”

Jessica processed this explanation silently. “So you poisoned my father and killed your own teacher because you feared the future?”

“That’s right. You may be a worthy successor to your father, Lady Jessica, but unfortunately you’ll never be permitted to rule here. Only the strong or the wise survive in this world, and while you may be both, Steven is neither. I’m smart enough to see that Da’Gran must fall . . . and that — regrettably — you must die if I’m to earn the trust of my new lord.”

Jessica smiled charmingly. “You’re not as smart as you think you are, Senigma.”

“No?” His grip tightened on the crossbow. “I’m not the one about to be shot.”

“That remains to be seen.” The shadow behind Senigma stepped closer, and Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “You really think you can stop my father’s entire army? Bah! You couldn’t even kill my father when you tried to. And even if you did have some clever plan to rally the bandits again, you’re overlooking one very important thing.”

“And what might that be?”

Steel flashed suddenly and Senigma felt the cold, sharp edge of a sword press firmly against his neck. A low growl came from behind him and he felt a powerful presence suddenly fill the room. Jessica’s green eyes sparkled challengingly.

“If you kill me, you’ll die too,” she said very softly, winking at the angry sapphire eyes now hovering menacingly over Senigma’s shoulder. “Nice of you to join us, Kaleah.”

“My pleasure,” the dark woman purred.

Senigma swallowed fearfully, seeing his carefully nurtured plans suddenly falling to pieces in a matter of moments. Jessica faced Gosford again, making sure he didn’t take advantage of the distraction to make a move. “I believe we are at an impasse, Senigma. And since I hold a greater advantage than you do, I suggest you do the smart thing and surrender without a fuss.”

The young man’s eyes flittered nervously to Gosford, asking for help. The mercenary shrugged, helpless with the tip of Jessica’s blade forcing his compliance. The hands that gripped the crossbow quavered. “If you harm me,” he warned Kaleah, “I’ll kill her.”

“What makes you think you’ll die slow enough to get that chance?”

Jess glanced back at her lover, eyes communicating a warning to be ready. Kaleah nodded her head fractionally, her sword pulling back in preparation. Senigma would act rashly in a moment; he was nervous and desperate.

Suddenly, several things happened in the space of a heartbeat: Jessica turned fully to face Senigma, her sword breaking the hold it had on Gosford, who instantly reached for his own weapon. Surprised by the sudden fearful confrontation, Senigma stumbled backward and pulled frantically at the trigger of the crossbow. Kaleah’s sword was already descending, however, ignoring flesh and blood to slice neatly through the taut string that waited to propel the bolt forward. The steel head of the crossbow snapped forward ineffectively and Senigma had just enough time to figure out his weapon was useless before Jessica slammed the ornate hilt of her sword into his temple. He crumpled to the ground like a sack of wheat, and the two women turned as one to face Gosford.

The mercenary’s eyes twitched back and forth, evaluating his options. Jessica waved her sword in tight figure-eight’s, her stance wary but confidant. “Surrender,” she ordered.

“On what terms?”

A blonde brow raised. “You kidnapped me, attacked my people, and would have handed us all over to that savage brute Lancaster, and you expect terms?”

“I expect nothing I did not offer you.” Gosford glanced at Kaleah, then back. “I can still do damage,” he observed pointedly. “You care for this woman . . . are you prepared to risk her safety — and your own — for the sake of your pride?”

Jessica considered this and admitted Gosford had a point. If Kaleah were injured in a fight with the formidable mercenary and she could have prevented, Jess knew she’d never forgive herself. Besides, she reminded herself, Gosford had acted with honor and as a gentleman. To do otherwise in return was to behave as a barbarian. She nodded and stepped back a foot.

“Very well. These are my terms: surrender yourself peacefully and you will be held under arrest until the raiders you recruited have been dealt with and no longer pose a threat to my people. I will guarantee your well-being until that time, and then you shall be released — without your armor or weapons — outside my father’s land. You can do as you please from then, so long as you never return to Da’Gran land, or the lands of our allies.” She paused. “Do you accept?”

Gosford considered a long moment. “What about him?” He pointed to Senigma.

Jess frowned. “He will be tried and executed for treason,” she said. “His life is not negotiable.”

Gosford shrugged. “And you swear I’ll not be harmed?”

“I swear,” she promised.

“Then I agree to your terms.” He flipped the sword over in his hand and held it out to her, hilt first. She took it from him, then motioned for him to raise his hands over his head.

“Kaleah, cut the rope from that crossbow and bind his hands,” she instructed. Outside, the sound of fighting was dying off, and she grinned at Gosford as Kaleah roughly tied his arms behind his back. “I believe the day is ours,” she said, feeling rather proud of herself. She had outwitted an enemy more experienced than herself, and she doubted that casualties would be high. “Let’s go congratulate the men, then get things moving. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Kaleah grinned. “We can’t use the door,” she reminded her companion. “I blocked it. Want me to go remove the chocks?”

Jess nodded. “The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can finish up for the day.”

“Great. Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.” Kaleah darted over to fireplace and pulled herself up into the chimney. Jess watched her leave with a smile, then turned back to Gosford, who had suddenly gained an insight into how his enemy had evaded him. She shrugged at his curious expression.

“Simple,” she said with a smile, “but it worked.”

Gosford’s lips twitched into a reluctant smile, and he shook his head ruefully. “I shall never be so quick to judge things by what they appear to be,” he said. “People or places.”

Jess grinned dazzlingly. “That’s what most people say after meeting me.”

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

The next fortnight was a busy one for the inhabitants of Da’Gran castle. As soon as the castle was secured and all prisoners were locked safely in the dungeons, Jessica and Kaleah led a small army of men out to start the process of wiping out the divided bandit armies. The battles were fought mostly as a series of skirmishes, and by the time the Earl’s reinforcements arrived Jessica had secured the safety of nearly half the endangered villages.

Soon, the enemy was broken and Jessica returned with Kaleah to Da’Gran, leaving the simple clean-up task to the other knights. There was much work to be done in the castle itself and in the nearby village, before the peasants could return to their lives.

Sir Richard’s strength recovered quickly, though he did not step in and take over from his daughter. As Miles pointed out to him, this campaign was hers, and she deserved to finish what she’d started. It didn’t take long for Sir Richard to learn what had happened during his sickness, or for rumors of his beloved daughter’s ‘sordid affair’ with the heathen barbarian woman to reach his ears. Jessica did not visit him often, preferring to work on rebuilding the village rather than confront her father about her relationship with Kaleah. Besides, as the days passed, Jessica discovered another thing to worry over.

Kaleah’s behavior started to change. Though the dark woman was as loving and affectionate as ever, the restlessness which so plagued her when she first came to Da’Gran returned now, and she frequently sought out the solitude of the look-out tower. Jessica suspected the changes were a reaction in part to the whispered remarks that flew among the soldiers and servants regarding their relationship. While the young blonde was accustomed to being a focus for gossip, Kaleah was not, and the rumors clearly upset her. But Jessica knew that was only part of the problem, and as the days passed she slowly realized the nature of her friend’s discomfort.

Kaleah was feeling trapped. And Jessica knew there was only one solution.

She found the dark woman sitting in her usual haunt, looking out from the central tower at the patchwork of fields and forest, playing an idle tune on her flute. An unconscious smile touched Jessica’s lips as she listened to the stirring music, and she paused a moment just to enjoy the sight of her lover as she played. She didn’t have much time, however, before Kaleah sensed her presence and turned around, already smiling.

“Hey.” The dark woman pocketed the flute and held out her arms. Jessica grinned and eagerly stepped into the embrace. “I saw the messenger arrive. Word from the army?”

Jess nodded and kissed her lover. “Mmmhmm. The last of the raider armies broke apart. Most of them ran for the hills, but a few weren’t fast enough. The soldiers are pulling back, and the Earl’s men are heading home as well.” She paused and let herself savor the victory a moment. “It’s over now.”

“Mmm. You did a good job.” Kaleah curled long fingers through strawberry-blonde hair. “This leader stuff suits you.”

Jess flushed with pleasure. “Thanks.” Freeing herself from Kaleah’s arms, she looked up into sapphire eyes seriously. “How are you feeling?”

Kaleah stiffened a little, then shrugged. “Fine, I guess. Why?”

The young blonde smiled knowingly and shook her head. “I’ve seen you lately,” she said gently. “You’re not fine. You’re getting fidgety, like you were when we first met.”

Kaleah cocked her head and grinned lasciviously, her eyes darkening. “We’re doing a lot of things now that we certainly didn’t do when we first met,” she purred.

Jess shivered a little in reaction to her lover’s expression, but knew she had to stay focused. “You know what I mean Kaleah.” She paused. “Do you want to talk about what’s wrong?”

For a moment, Kaleah looked almost frightened, then she shrugged. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Oh really?”

“Really.”

“Mmm.” Jess pouted adorably, then gave a coy smile. “Okay. You don’t have to say it if you don’t want to. Besides, I already know what’s wrong.”

A dark brow raised playfully. “Oh? Do tell.”

Jessica’s small hand raised to cup Kaleah’s face tenderly, her thumb caressing the scar that marred her lips. She looked deep into melting sapphires and smiled quietly. “You want to leave this place, but you’re afraid I wouldn’t come with you.”

Kaleah’s eyes widened, caught off-guard but the absolute certainty in the young woman’s voice. Then she shrugged a little and turned away. “I told you before I’d never leave you, Jess, and I meant it.”

“I know that.” Jess smiled. “If I wanted to stay in Da’Gran forever, you’d be by my side everyday, even though it meant being miserable for the rest of your life.”

Kaleah frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Who said I’m miserable? I’m with you, and that’s all that matters.”

“That’s not all that matters, Kaleah, and you know it.” Jessica stepped closer, seeing the tension rolling off her lover as the dark woman’s defensive nature kicked in. “Do you think I could be happy knowing that staying with me in this castle made you feel uncomfortable?”

“I’m not asking you to leave this place,” Kaleah snapped.

“And I’m not offering.” Jessica’s eyes warmed and her nose crinkled. “We’ll leave at first light.”

“Jess-”

“No.” Jessica pressed a hand over her partner’s mouth, effectively silencing her. “This is what I want. I love you Kaleah. Like it or not, God made you a restless spirit; he never meant for you to be caged. If you stay here you’ll never be happy, and neither will I.” She removed her hand and smiled up at her companion. “Any questions?”

Kaleah regarded the stubborn set of the young woman’s jaw and sighed. “I can’t ask you to leave your family . . . your home.”

“You’re my home, Kaleah. Da’Gran is just a place of stone and wood. I’ve always dreamed of traveling too new places and meeting new people . . . I just never had the strength or the reason to leave.” She took Kaleah’s hand in her own and squeezed it. “We can see the world together now.”

“But what about the people here, Jess? You said you’re purpose in life is to help others.”

A blonde brow raised challengingly. “Are you saying there aren’t people in need of help elsewhere in the world?” She snorted inelegantly. “The peasants here have my father and his army to take care of them. I’m sure there are plenty of others in greater need everywhere else.” She grinned. “We can help them together.”

Kaleah opened her mouth to argue further, then saw the playful glint in Jessica’s eyes and snapped it shut. No doubt the girl had an answer to anything she might say. Besides, when she paused to consider things, the thought of making a life with Jessica away from the judgement and condemnation of Lady Rose and those like her was suddenly very appealing. Maybe they could travel south to Spain and see De’Livier again. She could show him she had used his gift of freedom to make a worthwhile life for herself.

Jessica saw Kaleah’s expression change slightly and quickly wrapped her arms around the dark woman’s waist. “I knew you’d see things my way,” she said, her voice muffled by her lover’s chest as they embraced. They pulled apart and Jessica looked up to find tears trekking down Kaleah’s cheeks. “What’s wrong?”

Kaleah shook her head. “Nothing.” She sniffled a little and wiped angrily at her face. “I was just thinking how lucky I am that I found you.”

Jess grinned and pulled the dark woman down for a soft, tender kiss. “If you really want too, you can thank me properly later on tonight,” she growled seductively, earning a deep chuckle from her companion. Jess grabbed Kaleah’s hand and started tugging her towards the stairs. “Come on,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of packing to do before tomorrow. We’ll need money, and blankets, and warm clothes . . . Oh, and we should take bows, too, if we’re going to be hunting our own food. How far is it too the ocean, anyway — I’ve always wanted to see it. Can we get the horses on a ship, cos I don’t want to be walking everywhere. And deserts, too . . . can we go to a desert? I think we should . . .”

Kaleah grinned as the excited blonde girl prattled on and on about their plans, shaking her head a little in wonder but obediently letting herself be led away.

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

Sir Richard looked up from his conversation with Sir Miles to find his daughter standing somewhat timidly just inside the door, seemingly reluctant to enter the great hall. He smiled immediately and waved her forward, flicking a glance behind her where Kaleah hovered like a protective shadow.

“Jessica! Nice of you to visit me.” He grinned and pulled her into a fatherly embrace. “Miles was just telling me the news about the army. Congratulations are in order, child . . . you’ve won your first serious campaign.” Jessica offered a slight smile, but her eyes were nervous. Sir Richard pulled back seeing his daughter’s expression, and his smile vanished as he interpreted it’s meaning. Clearing his throat he glanced again at Kaleah, who seemed unsure of how welcome she was. “You’re leaving?”

Jessica swallowed, her eyes already tearing up, but she nodded. “In the morning . . . come first light.” Her voice broke a little. “I’m sorry-”

He waved her away. “No need to apologize, Jess,” he said gruffly. “I’ve heard the things your mother and Father Grahem have been saying about you.” He scowled darkly. “Though I suppose you knew the consequences when you first” — he motioned vaguely between the two women — “went into this thing.”

Jess snuffled a little, but nodded. “And I wouldn’t change a thing I did had I known it would lead to this,” she said softly. “Are . . . are you mad at me?”

Sir Richard couldn’t help but smile, hearing for the first time in many years the uncertain, childish tremor in his daughter’s voice — fear that she had disappointed him. He shook his head and patted Jessica’s disheveled blonde hair affectionately. “Never, child. I’m proud as I ever was to have you as my daughter.” He cocked his head thoughtfully and studied his beloved daughter’s face seriously. “I taught you to live by your heart, Jess, and I’d never love you less just because some things aren’t as I might prefer them to be.”

Jessica glanced back at Kaleah and motioned her forward. Taking the dark woman’s hand, she faced her father and Miles resolutely. “I’ve found someone who loves me, and who I love in return. What more could you want for me?”

Sir Richard blushed a little seeing Jessica’s open affection for the dark woman in the simple gesture. “Well . . . grandchildren might have been nice.”

Jess grinned mischievously and nudged Kaleah. “We’re trying our hardest, but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting.” Her father’s blush grew deeper and she couldn’t help but laugh at his mortified expression.

Miles laughed as well and clapped Sir Richard on the back. “Guess she couldn’t stay a child forever, could she?”

Richard coughed, regaining his composure. “I suppose not.” He grew serous. “Where will you go?”

Jess shrugged. “Everywhere. There’s a lot of world out there to see.”

“Will you . . .” Sir Richard hesitated. “Will you ever come back?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted softly, not wanting to offer false hope. “I’d like to.”

Richard nodded, understanding. “You’ll at least send word when you get the chance, won’t you? Just so I know you’re alright?”

She nodded. “I’m sure we’ll settle someplace for awhile,” she said. “I’ll let you know how we’re doing.”

“I’d like that.” Richard turned to Kaleah. He had to admit, the former slave was an impressive figure. It was understandable that Jessica had been drawn to her. She had a sense of overwhelming presence much like his daughter possessed — only more savage, untamed. “You make sure you take care of her, child,” he growled. “Keep her safe.”

“I’ll guard her life with my own, my lord,” she promised solemnly.

Jessica turned to Miles, unable to stop her tears from falling. The old knight smiled warmly at the sadness in her eyes and wrapped his arms around her. “I’ll miss ye, lass,” he said softly.

“And I you.” She choked back a sob, not wanting to ruin the moment. “I’ll never forget everything you taught me, Miles.”

“I know, lass.” He lifted her chin and gently wiped away her tears. Jessica had been as much his child as she had ever been Richard’s, and his heart ached thinking how empty the castle would seem without her. “Don’t cry, Jess. Ah always knew this day would come.”

“You did?”

“Aye.” He smiled shakily. “Yer one a God’s special people, lass. It’s a selfish thing to keep ye locked away from the world. The time’s come for you to share yer light with others . . . so ye kin touch their lives and make ‘em better.” He ruffled her hair teasingly. “It’s what ye were born for, Jess: to make the world a better place for everyone.” He paused, grey eyes warm with love. “You’ve made me a proud man, just to watch ye grow into the woman ye’ve become.”

Jessica blushed under his praise. “Thank you.”

He turned to Kaleah. “And you . . .” He grinned crookedly. “Ah doubt I could’ve picked a better mate fer Jessica. My only regret is that I won’t get to see ye become the creature I know you’ll grow into.” He shook his head ruefully. “Given a year or two, Kaleah, I reckon yer skill with a blade’ll be a wonder to behold.”

Kaleah smiled shyly. “Thank you, Miles.” She stepped forward and offered him her hand. He clasped it solemnly. “And thank you for everything you’ve done for Jessica.”

Sir Richard cleared his throat and Jessica turned to him. “Do you want me to tell your mother,” he asked hesitantly,
“or do you . . .”

She shook her head, her eyes hardening. “No,” she said firmly. “I need to do it myself.”

Leaving Kaleah in her room to finish packing, Jessica went in search of her mother. She found Lady Rose in her sitting room, Steven in attendance as usual. Rose scowled darkly when Jessica entered the elegantly appointed suite, not even trying to hide her disgust. Steven’s expression was almost a mirror image of his mother’s.

“What do you want?”

Jessica braced herself mentally, not wanting to be hurt by her mothers disapproval but feeling the sting of rejection nonetheless. It was a pain that quickly raised her anger, however, and she faced the older woman without shame.

“Kaleah and I will be leaving Da’Gran at first light,” she stated calmly.

Lady Rose sniffed disdainfully. “Good riddance.” Her dull green eyes were cold and venomous, though Jessica could see the slight fear that lurked deep within. “If you expect me to say I’ll be sorry to see you gone, you’re wasting your time coming here. As far as I’m concerned, you and that barbarian whore belong out in the wilds with the rest of the savages.”

Jessica’s eyes flared instantly. “Be careful, mother,” she said softly. “You’re forgetting my warning very quickly.” She glanced pointedly to Rose’s still-bandaged hand. Rose glared back at her, but was clearly daunted. Steven, however, had not the intelligence to remain silent.

“Get out,” the young man snapped, planting himself boldly in front of his mother. “You don’t belong here among decent people!”

Jessica’s eyes narrowed hatefully and she took a step closer, using her height to good advantage over her younger sibling. “Decent people like you?” she asked, her lip curling in a sneer. “I’d rather keep company with the lowest peasant than with people as stupid as you, brother.”

Steven glared back at her, undaunted. “This castle will be better without you fouling it with your perversion.”

Emerald eyes blazed warningly and Jessica fingered her dagger, tempted to teach her brother some manners. “You’re a fool.”

“Bah! I’m not afraid of you, Jessica.”

The young blonde’s hand snapped up suddenly and grabbed Steven about the throat. He gave a startled squeak and clawed futilely at her fingers, but Jessica was far stronger than he would ever be. She brought his face close to her own and whispered, “Some day, brother, I may return. And when I do, you’d better pray I find these lands and their people are healthy and well. If I don’t . . .” She smiled wickedly. “If I don’t, you can be sure I’ll teach you to fear me.”

Releasing him suddenly, Jess gave her brother a little push and sent him falling backward into one of the sitting chairs. Steven gasped and rubbed his throat, but was smart enough to realize it would be stupid to retaliate. Jessica glared at her family for a moment, then sighed. “By this time tomorrow,” she said softly, “Kaleah and I will be far away from you and all your simple-minded ignorance and selfish bigotry. I’ll be glad to be rid of you.”

With that, Jessica turned her back on them and left, closing the door quietly behind her.

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

Epilogue.

Word somehow spread through the castle that Jessica was leaving, and in the morning there were many present to watch her departure. From among the soldiers, the servants and the common people, the walls of Da’Gran were filled with those either wanting to bid farewell to the two women, or making certain they were gone for good.

Jessica accepted hugs and kisses on the cheek from dozens of well-wishers, stoically ignoring the few eyes that watched her with scorn. The display of gratitude and love touched the sensitive young woman deeply, and she promised she would try to return some day, if only for a visit.

By the time she was done with her farewells, the sun had well and truly cleared the horizon and Jessica mounted Andromeda gracefully, settling herself somewhat awkwardly over the supplies she had packed. Kaleah rode the chestnut gelding she’d been practicing on, her horse similarly weighed down with provisions. With many backward glances, the two rode out through the repaired gateway, Jessica’s face streaked with tears but smiling through the sorrow.

When the castle was just a distant grey shape far behind them Kaleah reached out to her lover, stroking her thigh soothingly. “You don’t have to do this,” she whispered.

Jessica snuffled a little and wiped at her eyes. “I told you, Kaleah, this is what I want to do.” She smiled radiantly and took a deep breath. “It’s just a little hard to say goodbye to my father and Miles.”

Kaleah nodded, understanding. “We’ll be stopping to visit Charles,” she observed. They had decided to pay a visit to the young lord since it was on their way. “We can spend a few days there if you like.”

“I’d like that,” Jess said. “But not too long, huh? I want to see the ocean, remember?”

Kaleah chuckled. “I know.” Jessica’s excitement was contagious, and the dark woman was easily caught up in her enthusiasm. She cocked an eyebrow curiously. “Just how far have you actually been from Da’Gran?”

Jess shrugged. “I’ve visited Charles twice,” she said, “and I’ve been through a few of the other villages on my father’s land when we were fighting near the borders but . . . that’s about it.”

Kaleah’s eyes widened. “You’re joking?”

“Nope.” Jess grinned sheepishly. “All the traveling I’ve ever done has been through the stories I’ve read.” She frowned a little sadly. “I’m gonna miss all my books and scrolls.” There hadn’t been a way to carry them with her, so most of her treasured possessions had remained at the castle. Sir Richard had promised never to throw them away.

Kaleah patted the young blonde on the shoulder. “We’ll get to hear all kinds of stories on the road,” she promised. “There are places in cities where people go to listen to tales and songs all the time.”

Jessica’s face lightened immediately. “Really?” She considered that and grinned. “That sounds like fun. Although,” she chuckled, “I’m sure gonna miss that bathing chamber.”

Kaleah’s eyes darkened with desire. “Me, too.”

They held each other’s eyes a moment longer, then laughed. Suddenly Jessica grinned again and started rummaging through one of the sacks tied to Andromeda’s saddle. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She pulled out a thick piece of dark parchment and handed it to Kaleah. “I was going through Grace’s things the other day and I found this.”

Kaleah unrolled the parchment and studied it curiously. Her eyes widened. “That looks like my tattoo!” she gasped.

“Uh huh. I let Grace take a copy of it — he said he wanted to study its design.” She reached over and pointed out a scrawl of notes on the parchment. “See here . . . Grace thinks the tattoo is some kind of writing used in the far South — though he couldn’t find anything quite like what you’re marked with. It seems that particular writing style was lost hundreds of years ago.” She smiled excitedly. “Makes me kinda curious as to how you ended up with such a design.”

Kaleah slowly read through Grace’s neatly scrawled comments, her lips sounding out the letters silently. She glanced up when she was done. “You think . . . maybe we could journey south?”

Jess grinned. “Of course. I thought we’d find a boat to take over too France, and we can travel down into Spain first — I want to meet the wonderful man who set you free. Then, if things look okay, we can keep going south and try to find where you came from.” She paused a little, watching Kaleah’s face carefully. “We could look for your homeland.”

Kaleah considered this idea. She could barely remember anything about her life as a child; knew nothing of her origins. But now, she suddenly realized that she very much wanted to know more . . . to perhaps reclaim a part of her heritage that had been stripped away so long ago.

“I’d like that,” she said softly. “We can look together.”

Jess grinned, her eyes flashing in the early-morning light like twin emeralds, her tears already forgotten.

“Together.”

Smiling and laughing, the two women rode side-by-side down the rutted, meandering track, discussing their plans excitedly as they left behind the fields of Da’Gran, heading into an uncertain future they knew they would face as one.

THE END

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