The Chosen One
LOVE/SEX DISCLAIMER: This story contains scenes depicting a love/sex relationship between two consenting adult women.
I would like to thank my good friend, BL Miller, for her help and encouragement, without which, I would never have tried to write a story in the first place. I would also like to thank Lunacy, who also gave me help and encouragement on my very first story, which was very much appreciated. Lunacy also created a beta reader’s directory where I found some wonderful beta readers who have given their time to help improve the story you are about to read. These wonderful women are: Buff, Janet, and Helen.
Amon looked at the elaborate feast spread out on the blanket. He had asked for a simple picnic basket of bread, fruit and cheese to be packed, and was surprised to find the sumptuous delicacies now spread before him. He supposed his parents just wanted to make sure that Lady Roslin was properly impressed. He looked at the pretty young woman sitting across from him and thought how lucky he was. Her hair was the color of wheat, and it cascaded down around her hips. Her eyes were of the palest green he had ever seen, with tiny flecks of gold, making them appear to change from green to gold, like cat’s eyes.
“Some wine?” he asked, holding the bottle up for her to see.
“Please,” Roslin said, as she held her glass out. Remembering her father’s instructions, she smiled at the raven-haired young man who was trying so hard to impress her. “Smile and be pleasant Roslin,” he had said, “and remember it is your duty to please him.” Her father had selected Amon as her future husband, and she had been sent to stay with her maternal grandfather, Governor Gage of Frama, so they could become acquainted before the wedding. He seemed nice enough; at least he didn’t treat her like she was just an unimportant woman like her father and brother Lon at home did. Of course it did help that her father, Lord Athol, was the Sovereign of the fifteen city-states of Ryshta. Amon would be on his best behavior until after the wedding, when the pretty little blonde would belong to him.
Roslin was to have been wed at the tender age of sixteen, but her mother had become ill, and she had begged her father to let her stay by her mother’s side through the illness. He had reluctantly consented, and Roslin had watched her mother waste away for three years. Now, at almost twenty, she would finally marry.
The morning had been pleasant enough, starting with a carriage ride through the lovely countryside to introduce her to her new home. They had stopped to picnic under a sweet smelling honey locust tree. The meal was interrupted by the sight of smoke rising in the distance, and Amon sought higher ground in order to identify what might be burning. To his dismay, he saw that the smoke was coming from the city of Frama itself. Hurriedly, they packed the carriage and started for home. As they drew closer, it became apparent by the shouts and screaming that a battle was raging. Amon hid Roslin in the underbrush on the hill overlooking the city, and ran to help defend his home. From her hiding place, Roslin watched in horror as the attackers swarmed through the city, laying waste to everything in sight. For the marauders victory was swift, and their cheers could be heard as they marched away from Frama.
Roslin slipped from her hiding place and ran down the hill into the city. The grounds were littered with the dead and dying, and the sight and smell of the carnage caused the young woman to drop to her knees, retching until she though she would die. The streets were filled with the sight of women clutching the bodies of their dead men and the sounds of wailing women and children filled the night air.
Roslin made her way to the governor’s home, only to find her grandfather lying in a crumpled heap in front of the house. She heard her name called, and turned to the sound. Amon lay in the shadows on the far side of the yard. Running to him, she sat and pulled his bleeding head into her lap.
“I tried,” was all he said, as she watched him struggle for breath.
“I know,” she answered, trying to blink back the tears. “Don’t try to talk, just rest.” Franticly she looked around for someone who could help, but saw only the dead. Looking back into his face, she realized he was already gone. No one could help him now. She gently lifted his head off her lap, and placed it on the ground. New tears started down her face. Not for the loss of loved one’s, for in truth, everyone here in Frama were strangers to her, even Grandfather Gage was a stranger. Her brothers had traveled many times to Frama to visit with him at his request, but Roslin was a female, and only useful when it came time to marry her off. No, Roslin did not weep for loss of loved ones; she wept at the horror of the situation. There was nothing for her here now, and her only thought was to try to get home and let her father know what had happened. She knew that Dairus, the capital city of Ryshta was to the west, and she started walking, not wanting to linger another moment in this devastation.
The evening chill had set in and it began to drizzle as the young woman walked out of the city. It seemed to Roslin that she had traveled for miles when at last she saw a cottage in the distance. Not knowing if they would be friend or foe, she debated whether to approach it or not. The cold and hunger got the best of her, and she decided to risk asking for help. No light shone through the windows, but that could be attributed to the late hour. They could be sleeping, unaware of the carnage that had gone on just a few miles away. When she got closer, she noticed that the door was open. Something was not right, and she slipped quietly to the window and peered inside.
The house appeared to be empty, and things were scattered around as if the occupants had made a hasty exit. She went inside, and although it was not particularly warm, at least it was dry. Looking at the cold hearth, Roslin wished she knew how to start a fire. She had never needed to know how to do such things; someone had always done them for her. She had been raised in the sheltered world of the palace grounds of the Sovereign, and had never been allowed out to mingle with, or be contaminated by, the slave riffraff, as her father called them. Her slaves were not even allowed to speak to her except to ask how they might serve her. Continuing to check the small house, she found that the occupants had taken the entire cache of foodstuffs with them. Exhausted, she curled up on a bare mattress, and went to sleep.
Morning found the young woman feeling more alone then ever. She was still cold and hungry, but looking down at her blood covered clothing, she decided the first thing she needed was a bath. She had seen clothes hanging on the line last night, so at least she would have something clean to put on. As she gathered the garments, she wondered why they had been left behind, and decided the occupants must have missed them in their haste to leave. She found a well outside and drew out a bucket of water. The water was ice cold, but she stripped and washed anyway. She could not abide the filth any longer. As she dressed, the simple coarse garments chaffed her skin, which had known only the smooth softness of silks and satins.
The day progressed and Roslin continued to walk westward. The pain in her feet overshadowed the hunger pains in her empty stomach. Her feet had never hurt like this before; of course she had never walked for miles and miles before either. She sat and pulled off her shoes with effort, and was shocked at what she saw. The skin on her heels and toes had been rubbed away, and the area was raw and bleeding. Anger flooded through her, and she threw her shoes, cursing the murdering barbarians who had placed her in this position. She hugged her knees up to her chest, and let the frustration flow out of her body with tears. “Pull yourself together,” she finally told herself. “You’ll never get home sitting here crying like an idiot.” Reluctantly, she forced herself to get up and start walking again.
It had been four days since she had had something to eat, and three without any measurable amount of water. This morning she had discovered that licking the leaves of bushes and the long grasses before the sun evaporated the moisture helped. It was not much, but at least it eased the awful dryness in her mouth. Walking under these conditions was taking its toll, and she found she had to stop frequently. Her belly ached for want of nourishment, and she felt weak and lightheaded. The pain in her feet was constant now, as the bottom of her feet were as raw as the rest, and she cursed herself for leaving her shoes behind. She couldn’t stop though. To stop meant death, and she wasn’t ready to give up yet.
Roslin reached the top of a small rise and found she could go no farther. It was time to rest for a while, and she looked around for a place to sit. Her eyes came to rest on a thicket that was covered with berries so deep a shade of purple they were almost black. Suddenly she had the energy to move again, and she ran toward the first meal she had had in days. They were not the best tasting berries she had ever eaten. They were sweet, but also had a bitter tang. The bitter taste did not deter the young woman, to Roslin, they were ambrosia.
After Roslin had eaten her fill, she pulled up the bottom of her shirt to make a pocket to hold berries. Soon she had stripped the bush of its burden, and her pocket was overflowing. She knew that if she was careful and did not overdo like she had just done, the berries would last for three or four days. Feeling very pleased with herself, she got her bearings and again started walking westward. As she reached the bottom of the hill, she started to feel a cramping in her gut. Within moments, the pain dropped her to her knees in agony. Curling up on the ground, she clutched her stomach and groaned.
As Roslin lay there in the dirt wishing she would just die and get it over with, she heard the sound of many footsteps. She didn’t even care if it was the marauders, hoping they would kill her and put her out of her misery. Roslin watched the group of perhaps twenty men crest the hill and start down towards her. Although there were only a few of them, she realized it was the marauders. She recognized a tall man immediately as the one she had seen leading the massacre at Frama. He walked to where she was and knelt down, picking up one of the spilled berries.
“Did you eat these?” The tall man asked, holding it up for her to see.
All the young woman could do was nod and groan.
Pulling her over to him, the tall man turned her on her side and stuck his fingers down her throat, causing her to gag and retch violently. Picking her up, he started back up the hill.
“You men go on ahead and round up the slaves and bring them back here. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I need to get her back to camp so my mother can treat her or she won’t last long.”
Mercifully, Roslin drifted into unconsciousness for the walk back to camp, and was aware of nothing until she felt firm slaps to her face. She fought to slip back into the black void that took away the pain that had now spread to her head as well as her stomach. The slaps came again, this time harder, and she started awake. She saw an older woman with salt and pepper hair leaning over her.
“I need you to drink this, child,” the woman said as she lifted a cup to her lips.
The odor that wafted up from the cup was awful, and she pushed it away.
The woman put down the cup and took Roslin’s face in her hands. “Listen carefully, child. The berries you ate were poisonous, and I need to purge them from your stomach. This infusion will make sure there is nothing left in your stomach. Do you understand, child? I’m trying to keep you alive.” She reached for the cup again and brought it to the young woman’s mouth, and this time Roslin drank. Almost immediately the retching started and the old woman gave her a bucket to use. She heaved until she thought her guts themselves would come out.
When the retching finally ended, the old woman brought a cup again to her lips. Roslin no longer had the strength to push it away. “Please…no more,” she whispered.
“This one is soothing, child. It will calm down the cramps in your belly. Sip it slowly and I promise it will help.”
The warm liquid did soothe her throat that had become raw from vomiting, and the cramping was beginning to ease up a little. Roslin was starting to slip into the darkness again when the voice called her back.
“Scoot down so you can hang your legs over the end of the cot, child. We need to take care of these feet.”
Roslin screamed when her feet hit the bucket of hot water, and tried to pull them out. She didn’t have the strength to win and the old woman held them in place.
“I know the salt water burns, but these feet are infected. This will help.”
Tears streamed down Roslin’s cheeks, but she stopped fighting. She was grateful when the blackness engulfed her again in its soothing embrace.
The full moon shone brightly in the small clearing at the bottom of the hill. Brice could hear questioning voices drifting his way as his long strides carried him out of the shadows. The response of the slaves, upon casting eyes on him was always the same. First shock, and then exuberance that the chosen one had finally come. The prophecy passed down through the generations said that the chosen one would come to lead them to freedom. It was said that he was tall as the trees, with eyes the color of sapphires. This had to be him. With most of the men standing five foot nine or ten inches, a six-foot man was considered tall. No one had ever seen a man as tall as Brice, whose looming six-foot-three-inch stature dwarfed all those around him.
Stepping into the center of the clearing, he raised his hands for quiet, and a hush fell over the expectant crowd. “My friends, I ask that you move quickly and quietly to your homes and retrieve your families. Bring them, and all the foodstuff you can carry, and my men will lead you to the safety of our camp. At first light I will lead my army against the Ryshtans. Any of you who are willing and able are welcome to join us.”
Without another word he turned and strode back up the hill and out of sight, as the speechless slaves tried to comprehend that this was happening so fast.
Roslin awoke and slowly opened her eyes to take in her surroundings, and found herself lying on a cot in a large tent. How did I get here? she thought, puzzled that she could not remember. The sun coming through the open door flap to the tent told her it was well past mid-day. She felt ill, her stomach was sore and her head ached, but the intensity of pain she remembered from the previous day was no longer there. Closing her eyes again, she lay still, her mind trying to pull recent events back into clarity. The last clear memory she had was dropping to the ground with a pain in her belly so great that she thought she would die, had in fact wished for death to stop the agony. She tried to sit up, but the room started to spin, and she dropped back down to the cot closing her eyes, waiting for it to stop. She turned her head to the sound of footsteps, and saw a stout woman of middle years, with smiling blue eyes and salt and pepper hair, walking towards her.
“Well, child, you made it through the night. The worst is over,” the woman said kneeling beside the cot. She carried a mug with her and raised it for Roslin to see. “I’ve brought you some broth.” She slipped her free hand under the young blonde’s shoulders and lifted her a little so she could drink. Roslin gratefully accepted the broth as the woman lifted the mug to her mouth. “My name is Shea, child. What do people call you?” the woman asked as Roslin finished the broth and lay back down.
“You get some rest Roslin, and I’ll be back to check on you a little later.” The woman smiled warmly and patted her hand.
Roslin watched the woman rise and walk to the door. “How did I get here?” she asked, before Shea could make her exit.
“My son Brice found you and brought you to me to tend,” Shea said, turning once again to the young woman. “It’s good that he found you when he did. Mopoo berries work quickly.” With that she turned and was gone.
As Roslin started to doze off again, a small voice broke through the haze, and she opened her eyes to see a small girl, perhaps four or five years old. She was a beautiful child with soft hazel eyes, and a mop of auburn curls framed her sweet face.
“My grandma said I should not bother you,” the girl said, reaching out to touch her cheek. “When I don’t feel good, my papa tells me a story. Would you like me to tell you a story?” she asked with a smile.
Roslin really didn’t feel like staying awake to listen to the girl. “Perhaps later,” she said.
The smile disappeared from the elfin face, and the little girl turned as if to go. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“You know, you could be right, a story might make me feel better,” the young woman said, patting the edge of the cot. “What’s your name?” she asked as the girl climbed up and sat down, the smile returning to her face.
Roslin listened as the girl talked. She liked the child. There was something familiar about her, but she just couldn’t place it. When the story ended, Cadie looked at her expectantly. “Thank you Cadie, I do feel a little better.”
The little girl grinned from ear to ear. “Do you want me to tell you another?” she asked, pleased with herself for making the stranger feel better.
“I would love one later Cadie, but right now I think I need to sleep.” She reached up and patted the girl’s cheek.
“Alright, I’ll come back later.” She reached down and felt Roslin’s forehead and cheek the way she had seen her grandmother do when the woman slept. She didn’t know why Gram had done it, but it made her feel important to pretend she did. It felt good to know that she had been able to make the lady feel better.
“I’ll take good care of you,” she said, as she climbed down from the cot.
“I know you will.” The little girl was so darn cute that Roslin had to smile. She watched Cadie leave, and it suddenly came to her what was familiar about the child. Her smile was so much like her younger brother Kyle’s. It was more than that, something in the eyes too. She drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face, thinking about the sweet child.
When Roslin awoke again in the early evening, her bladder told her it was time to be emptied. Sitting up she noted that the dizziness had eased, along with the headache. She felt weak and shaky but otherwise much better. She swung her legs over the edge of the cot, and noticed for the first time that her feet were bandaged. She let them touch the ground, and was relieved to find that although they still hurt, the padding on her feet helped a lot. Slowly she made her way to the door, and turned to walk toward the privacy of the brush surrounding the campsite.
As Roslin returned to the clearing, she heard the sound of many horses. Looking in the direction of the sound, she was horrified to see a large group of men riding into camp led by the same tall man she had seen at Frama. He had blood spattered all over him, and she wondered how many innocent lives he had taken today. He lifted his sword and she heard him shout, “Caiman has been liberated.” The cheer that sounded around her was deafening, and she covered her ears. Panic gripped her as she realized that she was in the camp of the marauders who had killed her grandfather. She felt a hand on her shoulder and shrank away from it.
Shea watched her young charge as she returned to the clearing, and saw the terror plainly written on her face. Walking over she placed her hand on Roslin’s shoulder. “It’s all right child, we won. No harm will come to you.” She felt the young woman pull away from her until their eyes met and the panic in her face eased some. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed. I’m going to have my hands full with our wounded, and I don’t need to be worrying about you, too.”
Roslin allowed herself to be led back into the tent and put to bed, as she realized that for some reason these people believed her to be one of them. That explained why they were taking care of her. She was grateful that Shea had not tried to bathe her or it would have been obvious to them that she was Ryshtan. Her skin was unblemished by the brand that all slaves carried. Her father had explained to her long ago that slaves would die, like any beast of burden, without proper guidance and a strong hand. They could not take care of the simplest tasks without being forced to do them. He also explained that the brand was to prevent a slave from running away and pretending to be Ryshtan in another city. All strangers claiming to be Ryshtan, entering any city in Ryshta had to have their arm inspected for the brand.
As she lay on the cot she wondered at her fate. She had to let the barbarians believe she was one of them, lest she suffer the same fate as Grandfather Gage. When her feet were healed, and she was stronger, she would try to escape, but for now she had no choice but to stay and hope that her true identity was not discovered. A sweet little voice brought her out of her musings.
“I brought you some thick soup and bread,” Cadie said, holding a bowl out to her new friend.
Roslin looked over to see the girl with a bowl in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other. She sat up and accepted the food. “Thank you,” she said, smiling at the child.
Cadie sat beside Roslin and watched her eat. The woman’s smile had faded, and she ate in silence. Cadie had noticed that her friend looked upset when her grandmother brought her back to the tent and decided the sight of wounded men had been the cause. “My papa says that someday we will all live in real houses and not have to travel around fighting like this anymore.” She watched to see if this news would cheer her friend up.
Roslin turned to the child and asked, “Would you like that Cadie?”
“Oh, yes! Papa said we will have a flower garden because my Mama loved them so.”
“What happened to your mother Cadie?”
“She died when I was a wee babe. I don’t remember her, but I know all about her. My Papa tells me about her all the time. He said she was beautiful and she loved me very much.”
Roslin felt sorry for this little girl, losing her mother and being raised by this traveling army of barbarians. “I’m sure she loved you, and I’ll bet you grow up to be just as beautiful as she was.”
The two of them spent the rest of the evening talking, and Roslin let Cadie tell her another story. The girl was so open and friendly, Roslin couldn’t help liking her.
The wounded had finally all been seen to, and Brice sat by the fire to relax and get a bite to eat before retiring for the night. He had cleaned the blood off his body, and finally felt human again. It had been a long day and he was tired. As he ate, he thought back over the day and was grateful that his casualties had been few. They would stay here a few days to give the wounded a chance for some rest and then move on toward their final destination. He needed his army well rested and in top shape to defeat the Sovereign. Dairus, the capital of Ryshta was the largest of the fifteen city-states, and was by far the best armed. Brice had saved Dairus for last, letting his army grow with each city he liberated. Now he was ready to face the Sovereign with a force that he believed could win. They had surprise on their side, which was another advantage. They had started at the farthest edge of Ryshta, and worked their way toward the capital. It had been a hard fought campaign, but with the army growing steadily with each conquest, each victory was easier than the last. In just a few short months, they had done what the elders’ back home in Dairus had said was impossible. The final victory was in sight, and he could taste it.
Standing and stretching, Brice made his way toward the tent he shared with his family. As he approached, he heard the sounds of laughter and talking, and stopped to listen. His daughter Cadie was talking to the silly woman who tried to kill herself with mopoo berries. Apparently she was feeling much better tonight. It was such a joy to hear the happy sounds after a day like today. He could hear that Cadie was telling one of her stories, and receiving much praise from the stranger. He decided he liked this woman, who was taking such pains to be kind to his daughter. Lifting the tent flap, he walked inside. Cadie was sitting on the woman’s lap, and the woman had the most radiant smile on her face. She really is a beautiful woman, he thought to himself. The only time he had really looked at the woman her face had been so twisted in pain that he hadn’t noticed her beauty at all.
“Papa,” Cadie shouted, running to him and throwing herself into his arms.
“Mmm, you give the best hugs,” Brice said, as her small arms wrapped around his neck and squeezed tightly. He kissed the top of her head, then looked to the woman. “I’m Brice,” he said extending his hand to her. “Thank you for being so kind to my daughter.”
Roslin took his hand. Up close, it was hard to imagine this smiling man capable of the carnage she had witnessed back at Frama. She had never seen a man so pleasing to the eye before; he truly was beautiful. “My name is Roslin, and it was my pleasure. You have a charming little girl. I enjoyed spending time with her. She’s been taking good care of me.”
Cadie fairly beamed at the compliment.
“I really should be the one thanking you. I’m told You’re the one who saved my life.” Roslin continued, totally drawn into those incredible blue eyes. She had never felt this strong an attraction toward anyone before, and the fact that it was directed at the leader of these barbarians, startled her.
Repeating her sentiments, Brice said, “The pleasure was all mine.” Roslin’s smile was captivating, and he couldn’t help smiling back. Brice was still holding her hand, and lifted it to his lips gently kissing her knuckles, pleased that she didn’t pull the hand away.
Shea, who had been lying on her cot, decided to remind Brice of the late hour. “Morning comes early Brice. I think it’s time Cadie went to bed.”
“Please tell me a story before I go to sleep,” Cadie begged, hugging her father’s neck tightly.
Shea noticed a rip in the back of Brice’s shirt, and the red torn skin beneath. She shook her head. Brice makes sure everyone else is taken care of and ignores himself. “You’ll have to get your story tomorrow night, Cadie. I need to get your papa’s wounds dressed.” She ushered the child to her cot, and put her to bed.
“I’m all right Mother, it’s just a scratch.”
“Scratch or not, it needs to be cleaned and dressed.” She led Brice around the privacy screen that separated his sleeping area from the rest of the tent. “Now get that shirt off so I can take a look at you.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, pulling the shirt gingerly over his head to display a shallow gash about two inches long on his lower back, just above his waist.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Shea admitted, as she cleaned and dressed the wound. Noting that the muscles in Brice’s shoulders were tight and knotted, she started working them with her fingers, kneading and rubbing until she felt them start to loosen. She looked at the strong muscular back, and marveled that her tiny newborn babe could have developed so.
“It’s a girl,” Eamon said, holding up the screaming infant for her mother to see. After four healthy boys, a girl would now bless their home. He placed the babe on her mother’s stomach while he tied off the cord and delivered the afterbirth. It was a relatively quick and easy delivery even though the child was quite large, and he attributed it to the fact that Shea had done this so many times before.
“What a lovely big girl you are,” he said lifting the infant and placing her in a warm cleansing bath. The warm water seemed to soothe her, and she quieted immediately. He was thankful that the child had chosen to make her appearance at night so he was able to be here to help with the birth.
While her husband cleaned her new daughter, Shea took herself to her own bath. She was eager to be clean so she could relax and feed this newest addition to her family.
As Shea settled herself back into bed, Eamon placed the infant at her breast. The little one immediately started to nuzzle and search for her mother’s nipple, latching onto it with great vigor. “Ah, she has an appetite to match her size,” she said, laughing.
Eamon sat and watched his new daughter suckle contentedly at her mother’s breast. It would not be an easy life for her he knew. Girls were taken away at an early age to be bed slaves. They were used as such until they were past their prime, then traded for a younger slave and discarded as if they were a piece of trash. His Shea had been taken to the master’s bed at the tender age of fourteen, with only periodic visits home until she was returned to the village at eighteen. The master had used her to satisfy any deviant need he thought too vulgar for his wife to endure, and also to warm the bed of any important visitor. She had borne three of his babies, only to have them ripped from her arms at birth, and murdered before her eyes. Ryshtans did not allow a child of mixed blood to live. Such an impure child was almost considered blasphemy. They thought themselves the chosen people of God, and all other creatures, man or beast were beneath them. Eamon was grateful that most of his children were boys and were spared this type of sorrow and humiliation. Slaves did all manual labor in Ryshta. Farming, building, and any chores requiring greater body strength were man’s work. Cleaning, cooking, needlework, and of course servicing the Ryshtan men were considered woman’s work.
The girl child of Eamon and Shea was named Brice and she romped with her older brothers as she grew, unaware of the fate that awaited her. She grew strong, and as she approached the fifth anniversary of her birth she was as tall as the youngest of her brothers who was two years her senior.
Eamon walked into the great hall. Master Gage, the governor of Frama, had sent for him and he wondered if he or one of his sons had done something to displease him. He and his family had been treated better than most of the slaves because of his way of coaxing even the most stubborn of horses into an exquisitely trained mount. The sport of horse racing was the favorite pastime of the men of Ryshta, and Eamon was Gage’s master-trainer and breeder. Master Gage was the highest ranking of the Ryshtan governors, second only to the Sovereign, Lord Galen. The sovereignty of Lord Galen was divided up amongst fifteen governors, but Gage had the Sovereign’s ear and his daughter had been chosen to wed Lord Athol, the sovereign’s oldest son. This was the greatest honor imaginable, and his grandson would one day rule the land.
Eamon approached the dais and knelt before Master Gage. He hated the man and detested groveling before him, but he had a family to take care of and could not risk the wrath of the loathsome ruler. “I am here to serve you, Master Gage. What do you desire?”
“I have been known throughout the Sovereignty of Ryshta as the breeder of the finest horses in the land. Lord Galen has requested horses, as well as my best trainer as part of my daughter’s dowry. You and your family are to ready yourselves and five mares that carry the seed of my stallion, Windsong. You leave in five days time for the palace of the Sovereign.”
“As you wish Master Gage. It will be done.”
Eamon walked back toward his home with a heavy heart. His people were well aware of the Sovereign’s legendary brutality. Half the girls taken to his bed died before they could be returned to their families, and the ones that did live told tales of such horror that many of the slaves mercifully killed their girl babies at birth to spare them. Fortunately his little girl Brice had not yet reached her fifth year, and therefore had not been counted as a living child. The mortality rate among infants was such that no child was counted until it reached the age of five. The Sovereign would be unaware of her until then, but it would not be long before she was counted and put on the list of girls waiting to come of age to service the Ryshtan men. The Sovereign of course would have his choice, and Eamon wished, not for the first time, that Brice had been born a plain child that would blend in with the other girls. Alas it was apparent, even at this tender age, that like her mother before her, she would be a great beauty. Perhaps they could leave her here to be raised by another family. It was no guarantee that she would never reach the Sovereign’s bed, but the chance would be greatly diminished.
Shea was anxiously waiting Eamon’s return. Master Gage did not often call for a personal audience with one of his slaves. Most contact came from the slave bosses who doled out punishment to those who did not please them. She knew something was very wrong when she saw the look on his face as he walked through the door.
“What did he want?” she asked, afraid of the answer she might receive.
“Master Gage has given us to Lord Galen as part of his daughter’s dowry. We leave in five days time.”
Shea collapsed into a chair as the full impact of the situation hit her. What she had gone through with Master Gage had been a nightmare, but Lord Galen…she couldn’t let him get his hands on Brice. It was unthinkable. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. “He can’t have Brice. I’ll kill her myself first.”
Eamon knelt and wrapped his arms around his weeping wife. “Shhh, we’ll think of something. She hasn’t been counted yet.”
Shea’s face brightened, “That’s right…she hasn’t been counted yet. Lord Galen doesn’t know we have a girl. We’ll register her as a boy.”
“We can’t do that, they’ll find out.”
“No…they won’t,” the distraught woman countered. “With her rough and tumble attitude, everyone always assumes she’s a boy until we correct them. She never wants to play little girl games; she’s always rough-housing with the boys.”
“That’s because she has only brothers, they taught her to behave that way. What happens when she grows up and becomes a woman? You really think they won’t notice?”
Shea took his hands, her tone serious. ” She’s a big strong girl…she can pass.” She turned away and sat at the table, clenching her hands together. “Brice is not like other little girls. I have known that for some time now. I believe she knows it too.”
“Do you understand what that would mean? Once she’s registered, she would have to live her life as a man. There would be no going back unless the deception is uncovered, at which time we would probably all be executed.”
“It will be years before there is even a chance they could find out, ” Shea pleaded. “No one there knows us or knows we have a daughter. It can work.” She broke down sobbing again. “I can’t let him have her…I just can’t.”
Eamon nodded his head; it was the only way to safeguard his daughter. It would be done.
Eamon walked to the door of the children’s room, pausing a moment at the door to contemplate what he was about to ask of them. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and strode inside, letting his eyes fall on his daughter for the last time. He had to think of Brice as a boy, and treat her as such, if he hoped to succeed at this desperate plan. Sitting on the edge of her bed, he took her hand, smiling down on her beautiful face. “I just returned from an audience with Master Gage,” he said, letting his eyes fall in turn on each of his children. “He informed me that we have been given to Lord Galen of Dairus, and we leave in five days time.”
The children knew not to argue with a decision made by the master, and sadness, tinged with excitement, fell over them at the thought of leaving all they knew behind for a glimpse of the unknown.
“This is going to be hard on all of us,” Eamon continued, looking back at Brice and stroking the child’s head. “But it will be especially hard on you, little one. When we get there, you are going to have to pretend to be a boy.” He looked to his sons and continued. “It is important that you refer to Brice as your brother, for to do anything else could cause great harm to our family, and she could be taken away from us.”
Brice looked at her father, confusion clear on her face. Why would he think this would be hard for her? She already considered herself more like her brothers than the girls she knew. “Don’t worry Papa, I won’t have to pretend. I feel like I’m closer to a boy than a girl anyway.” She smiled to reassure him. “I can be a boy for you.”
Eamon pulled the child into his arms and held her tightly as relief spread through his body. Shea had been correct when she said that she believed that Brice realized she was different from the other girls. Perhaps this deception would not be as difficult as he had first imagined.
The years passed and the fates smiled on Brice. At fifteen, she was the tallest in the village, male or female. She exercised her body relentlessly and it became well muscled with small breasts that were easily concealed. Although she had an uncommonly beautiful face, because of her masculine stride and tall stature, no one so far had questioned her gender. Her dark brown hair fell just below her ears, and her eyes of purest blue, captivated any they fell upon. She worked alongside her father from the age of ten, and her gentle, yet firm way of handling the horses was so successful that it had been Brice, and not one of her older brothers, that was chosen to replace her father as the master horse trainer when it was time for him to step down. Her oldest brother Glen was trained to be an iron-smith, and Rylan had been put to work as a carpenter. The youngest brothers, Dover and Collin, were sent to the out lying farmlands to till the soil.
Shea was brought out of her musings by her daughter’s voice.
“Are you all right, Mother?” Brice asked, as she looked back over her shoulder to see a pained, far away look in her mother’s eyes.
“I’m fine,” Shea said, patting Brice’s shoulder. “Just tired I guess.”
Turning to face her mother, Brice took Shea’s hands and squeezed gently. “We’ll be staying here for a few days. You’ll be able to get some rest. Now go on to bed, I’m fine. Thank you.” She watched Shea leave, then lay down, her thoughts going back to the beautiful young woman on the other side of the tent.
Roslin also lay awake, unable to stop thinking about Brice, and her unexpected attraction to the man. It was hard to reconcile this man whose eyes shone with such love when he looked at Cadie, with the memories she had of the devastation at Frama.
Morning found Brice still thinking about the beautiful young woman recovering in her tent. She hadn’t felt this kind of attraction for anyone since Elsbeth, and she couldn’t help feeling she was being disloyal to her lost love. When Brice had looked into the young woman’s eyes last night, she got the feeling that the attraction was mutual. When she was with Roslin the attraction had been so strong. But now, in the light of day she could see things more clearly. Brice pushed thoughts of the beautiful young stranger away. This is absurd, she thought, Roslin is just another woman in camp, nothing more. I have no reason to feel this guilt. Throwing back her cover, she got up and dressed quickly, needing to distance herself from the woman sleeping just a few feet away. Stepping from behind the screen, she noted that Shea was already up. Good. Perhaps she has already heated water for tea, she thought as she exited the tent.
Shea watched her troubled daughter as she approached. She could read Brice’s face easily, and could see that something was bothering her. Handing her a steaming cup, she asked, “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“What?” Brice answered, puzzled at the question.
“I know something is troubling you. Please let me help.” Shea reached out and patted her daughter’s cheek gently.
Brice looked around the campsite. It was early, they were alone, and she did need someone to talk to. Accepting the proffered cup, she sat, staring into the fire. “It’s silly really.” Brice looked up into her mother’s concerned eyes. “I find myself drawn to Roslin, and I…It scares me.
“Because of what happened with Elsbeth?”
Brice nodded, her gaze returning to the fire. “I hardly know the woman, yet I feel drawn toward her, and I got the feeling last night that she was attracted to me as well.” Brice put down her cup and turned to her mother and took both of her hands into her own. “I loved Elsbeth, Mother, and I lost her. I don’t know if I could go through that again.”
Shea lifted her hands and cupped Brice’s face. “So you think it’s better to live a life of loneliness? To never allow yourself to love, or be loved?”
“No, of course not. But this is different.”
“Why is it different?”
Brice looked back into the fire. “I don’t know, it just is. I feel disloyal.”
“Listen to me, daughter. If there’s one thing you’re not, it’s disloyal. I watched you put up that wall when she left you, and it broke my heart. Five years is long enough to mourn. If someone has come along that might reach into your heart again, then I believe you should give yourself permission to get to know her, without feeling disloyal. Just enjoy getting to know her, and don’t rush things. You have plenty of time.”
Brice smiled. “You always seem to know what to say.”
“I’m your mother, and I love you.”
Brice wrapped her arms around Shea, pulling her close. “I love you too.”
Camp was starting to come alive as people began their morning chores. Brice saw Roslin and Cadie leave the tent, and watched Roslin as she slowly limped into the brush beyond camp for her morning visit. She wondered how many miles the young woman had walked to do that kind of damage to her feet. Hurriedly, Brice walked to the edge of the brush and waited for Roslin to emerge. When she did, Brice picked her up to carry her back to the tent. “You need to keep off these feet as much as possible for a few days,” she said to the puzzled young woman. “If I’m around, you just call me and I’ll carry you.” She smiled shyly at the young woman.
Roslin was a little flustered at being held in the strong arms of the man she had found herself very attracted to. “I don’t want to be a burden,” she answered, a shy smile creeping onto her face as well. Her heart had started beating wildly, and she wondered again at being attracted to a man that she considered a barbarian. But she was, and she couldn’t help herself.
“Believe me, you’re no burden,” the tall woman said, as she placed Roslin gently on her cot. “I haven’t eaten yet. Can I bring you something and share the morning meal with you?”
Roslin smiled. “That would be nice, thank you.”
Returning the smile, Brice turned and left the tent, leaving a very confused young woman behind.
Roslin thought about how wonderful it felt to be held in Brice’s arms, and smiled. She had watched him with Cadie. He was so loving and gentle with her that she could almost forget that he, or one of his men, had murdered her grandfather. Suddenly the smile faded, as the reality of the situation set in. What are you doing? She asked herself, and pushed back the attraction she was feeling for the tall man. She thought of him as she saw him that night, terrifying, with his bloody sword slashing through bodies. He destroyed Frama. When she was not in such close proximity to Brice, she could think clearly. She excused her behavior by reminding herself that she had to be nice to him until she could make her escape. If Brice found out who she was, he would surely kill her.
Brice returned with two hearty bowls of porridge, accompanied by Cadie, who carried a bowl of her own.
“We came in here to eat with you,” the child said, as she sat on the cot beside Roslin.
Cadie always seemed to have a smile on her face, and Roslin couldn’t help but respond to it. “I can’t think of anyone I would rather eat with,” the little blonde said, grinning back at the child.
Brice smiled as she watched Roslin and Cadie chat as they ate. It was clear that her daughter found the young woman as appealing as she did. That was good. She could not imagine letting an attraction, no matter how strong it was, go beyond just an attraction, if Cadie did not like her.
The sounds of children playing outside the tent caught Cadie’s attention, and she ran to the door to see what the game was about. “Can I play too?” she called, as she dashed out the door, forgetting her half-eaten porridge.
Brice was both relieved and annoyed at Cadie’s quick departure. She wanted to be alone with Roslin, but found herself tongue tied, and couldn’t think of anything to say. At least Cadie had kept the conversation going. “My mother told me that you have no memory of my finding you and bringing you here,” she finally said, after a few silent moments.
“No, none at all.”
“Perhaps it’s for the best. You were a very sick young woman.”
“Yes, I guess some things are best forgotten.” Roslin thought back to Frama, and wished those images could be erased from her mind. Brice was so different here with his family, and he had been so kind to her. She decided to push the other image back and hold on to the Brice that seemed to care for her.
“When I found you, it looked like you had been walking for days. Where had you come from?” Brice asked, thinking again of the young woman’s feet.
Roslin thought quickly and decided to avoid talking about her past by simply pretending not to remember anything before wakening in Brice’s tent. Shea had already confirmed that she had no memory of him finding her, and this way she would not have to come up with a story she would have to remember correctly, or get caught in a lie. “I…I can’t remember anything before you brought me here.” Roslin looked away, afraid he could see in her eyes that she was lying.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure it will come back to you,” Brice said, trying to reassure the young woman. “And remember, if your past does not come back to you, you still have a lifetime ahead of you to build new memories that I hope I can be a part of.”
Roslin looked up into sincere blue eyes, and melted. She couldn’t believe what his gaze did to her. “I hope so too,” she said, smiling shyly. She had never felt this kind of physical attraction before. She was drawn to Brice, and couldn’t seem to help herself.
Brice decided it was time to again distance herself from the beautiful little blonde. She had been desperately lonely for so long, that now that she was giving herself permission to care for the young woman; her body was pushing her to move too fast. She could feel it happening and was helpless to stop it.
“Well, I need to check on my men, and see how the wounded are faring,” she said, taking Roslin’s hand and kissing it. Standing, Brice picked up the bowls and started for the door. “I’ll check back on you later, and if you need to go somewhere, send Cadie to fetch me.” She smiled down at the young woman, then turned and left.
Brice walked through the large camp toward the area that had been set up for the wounded. She made the rounds, giving praise for a job well done, and encouragement to those with serious injuries. The rebel leader tried to keep her mind on what she was doing, but her thoughts kept returning to the little blonde recovering in her tent. Without even realizing where she was walking, Brice found herself staring at the footprints Roslin had left at the edge of camp this morning as she entered the shelter of the brush to relieve herself. Kneeling and touching the print as a fine rain started to fall, she thought again about Roslin’s feet, and decided the young woman needed protection for them as they healed. Quickly, she measured the footprints, knowing that they would soon disappear into the wet ground.
The rain started coming down in earnest, and the camp was suddenly alive with people scurrying to shelter themselves. Brice walked to one of the covered supply wagons, and climbed inside. Rummaging around, she found some scraps of leather, and some leather cord. This will do nicely, she thought to herself, a smile spreading across her face. It was not enough leather for a proper pair of shoes, but would be plenty to make a pair of sandals. Roslin’s feet would be too tender for some time for regular shoes, and sandals would give her the protection she needed to heal. It had been a long time since the tall woman had taken the time to sit with her leather tools and work, and she found it very relaxing watching her creation take shape. Finally they were done, and Brice inspected her handiwork one more time before she started off towards her tent to check the fit, and to see if Roslin approved. Exiting the wagon, she was relieved to see the rain had stopped, and the ground had already started to dry out. She thought it strange that she had been so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t even noticed.
Brice entered the tent and found Cadie was again entertaining their houseguest. She walked over and knelt in front of the beautiful young woman. “I made you some sandals. Shall we see if they fit?” Brice lifted each bandaged foot, and slipped the shoes on, tying them securely.
Roslin was pleasantly surprised that Brice would take the time to make shoes for her to wear. “They’re perfect.” She looked over into unbelievably blue eyes, and the close proximity to Brice sent a warm flush through her. “Thank you.” She smiled and looked away, needing to distance herself from those eyes that seemed to be calling to her. “Now I won’t need you to carry me around.”
“I didn’t mind. How could I object to having such a beautiful woman in my arms.”
Roslin’s blush deepened. He’s flirting with me again. “Well then perhaps you wouldn’t object to carrying me out one more time for a little visit with the bushes before bed time.”
Brice scooped Roslin into her arms and stood. “I wouldn’t object at all,” she said, smiling at the young woman in her arms. Any excuse to hold Roslin was welcome. She carried the little blonde to the edge of the clearing and set her down, but kept her arms around her. It had been so long since she had held a woman in her arms, and her body was reacting strongly. Her heart was starting to pound, and she wished she could make love to the beautiful woman right here and now. Leaning down, she kissed her gently on the lips, pleased that Roslin did not seem to object. When she pulled her closer, and tried to deepen the kiss, she felt the young woman tense, and immediately pulled away. “I’m sorry…I…”
Roslin placed her fingers to Brice’s lips to silence her. “Shhh, it’s all right …I wanted you to…but I think we need to slow this down. It’s happening too fast.” She paused a moment to gather her thoughts. “I need to know that there is more between us than just a physical attraction. I want the passion I feel when I am in your arms, but I want more than that.” Roslin searched the blue depths of the rebel leader’s eyes, hoping her words of needing commitment would not drive him away. The blue gaze was warm and accepting, and it gave her the courage to go on. “I want to savor every moment when I make love for the first time, and know that the one I love returns those feelings. In desperate drinking, the savor of loving is lost. I hope you can understand.”
Brice kissed the fingers that still rested against her lips, and smiled. “I understand, and there’s no hurry. We’ll take the time we need.”
“Thank you,” Roslin said, as she turned and walked into the bushes to relieve herself.
When they returned to the tent, Shea was pulling a nightshirt over Cadie’s head.
“Off to bed with you now little one,” Shea said, as she patted Cadie’s little behind.
Cadie looked over to Brice pleadingly. “Did you forget, Papa? You promised to tell me a story tonight.”
“I guess I did, didn’t I? All right, but just one.” Picking her up, she walked over to her cot and lay the child down, pulling the blanket up over her. Sitting on the edge of the cot she asked, “What would you like to hear?”
“Tell me again how you and my mama first knew you loved each other,” Cadie answered, stifling a yawn.
“All right, you close your eyes, and I’ll tell you all about it.” Tired eyes closed, and as Brice began to speak, she brushed a wayward lock of auburn hair from Cadie’s face. Try as she might, the child could not stay awake, and soon Brice heard the gentle even breathing of sleep. Brice leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I won’t ever let her forget you, Elsbeth,” she whispered, as her mind drifted back again to that time so long ago.
Brice sat keeping watch over the lovely sorrel mare Sabiea. She was due to drop her foal at any time. Her first foal had been found dead the morning after his birth, and they were not sure if he had been stillborn, or if the mare’s inexperience had simply caused her to leave him to suffocate. She was taking no chances with this foal, and intended to keep watch until it made its appearance. She glanced over to the sleeping figure of her friend Elsbeth and smiled. They had been friends for years, but of late, Brice found she could not look at her friend without her heart starting to race, and a warmth spreading through her body. They had agreed to take turns with the watch, but the girl looked so peaceful that Brice did not have the heart to waken her. Her hair was of the deepest auburn and framed her face in soft curls. As the young trainer watched, soft gray-green eyes fluttered open, and Elsbeth stretched and sat up. Yawning, the girl crawled out of her pallet in the straw and joined Brice on the bench against the barn wall.
“Did you forget to wake me?” she asked, smiling at her friend.
“I wasn’t tired, so I thought I’d let you sleep a while longer.” Brice turned away from the girl, not wanting her to see the flush that she could feel spreading across her face and neck.
Elsbeth saw the blush and smiled. Finally a sign, she thought. She had had a crush on Brice for some time now, and decided if he was too shy to declare his feelings for her, then she would have to be the one to make the first move. She leaned over and sweetly kissed the flushed cheek. “I love you Brice,” she said, as she felt a warmth color her cheeks as well.
“I…I love you too,” Brice stammered, as she tried to will her heart to stop trying to pound its way out of her chest.
“Come…put your head in my lap and get some sleep,” Elsbeth asked. She saw the hesitant look in the young trainer’s eyes. “You don’t have to worry, I’ll keep watch,” she said, patting her lap. “Come on.”
Brice scooted down the bench and lay down looking up into gray-green eyes.
“Now close your eyes,” Elsbeth instructed, running her fingers through Brice’s thick dark hair. She began to hum softly, and soon the exhausted young trainer was sound asleep.
The second night of their watch found the young couple hoping the mare would take her time, and not be in any hurry to drop this foal. Brice made a nest of straw against the wall, and they spent the early part of the night talking and cuddling, neither wanting to sleep, but knowing they had to.
“It’s your turn to sleep,” Brice said, her fingers lightly stroking up and down the young woman’s arm. “I love touching you.” She leaned over to kiss her cheek.
Elsbeth reached up and encircled Brice’s neck, and held the young trainer as she turned and offered her lips instead of her cheek. She had longed to feel Brice’s lips against hers, and she intended to make sure it happened.
The young trainer could not turn down such an invitation. She thought her heart would stop when she felt the softness of Elsbeth’s lips caressing her own. Again and again they kissed, not caring if they ever slept again.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” Eamon shouted, pulling his daughter off her young friend.
“We were just kissing Father…I swear.”
“You’re too young for this kind of foolishness.”
“I’m almost sixteen father.”
Eamon looked at Elsbeth, “and how old are you girl?”
“You’re both just babies,” he raised his hand as if to strike Brice.
Elsbeth grabbed his arm. “Please Sir, we didn’t do anything bad…we just kissed.” Tears started down her cheek. ” I love your son.”
Eamon lowered his arm and looked at her sadly. “Go home girl. I’ll keep watch with Brice.”
She looked at Brice, the fear plain on her face that if she left his father might strike him.
“Go on home,” Brice said, wiping the tears from Elsbeth’s face. “I’ll be all right.” She watched until the girl was gone before turning to Eamon.
“I love her, Father,” she said, trying to hold back the tears she felt at the disappointment she saw in his eyes.
“And just what do you expect to tell her when she wants more than you can give?” He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. Putting a hand on each of Brice’s shoulders he asked. “How long do you think you can keep the fact that you are not the man she thinks you are from her?” He turned and walked to the bench sitting down heavily. The time he had dreaded had finally arrived.
Brice walked over and knelt before her father. “I want to tell her the truth.”
“Are you crazy? If you do that you will add one more person to be held accountable if this deception is ever discovered.”
“Everyone accepts me as a man. No one will find out.” She stood defiantly.
“And what if Elsbeth can not accept you when she knows the truth? Have you thought of that?”
“She loves me,” Brice said, turning her back to her father.
“No…she loves what she thinks you are.” He reached out and grabbed Brice’s arm, turning her around.
“A woman has physical needs, just as a man does. Some day she will expect more than your kisses, and you won’t be able to give that to her. Women also want children, and you can’t give her those either.”
Brice pulled her arm away from her father. “I am a woman, and I think I know more about a woman’s needs than you do. The only thing I can’t give her is a child, and if she really wants one, we will deal with that problem when it comes up.”
They heard a grunt from the stall and realized that the mare was in labor. “We’ll talk more of this later,” Eamon said as he walked towards the stall.
Elsbeth finished the dress she was working on, and stood to stretch. She held it up to inspect the tatting she had just attached to the collar and sleeves. This dress needed to be perfect; it was for Lady Roslin, Lord Athol’s daughter. She was to wear it to the celebration of the tenth anniversary of her birth, and Elsbeth didn’t like to think what they might do to her if they were displeased.
Her mind drifted away from her work to Brice, as it had done many times this day. She was anxious for her workday to be completed so she could go to him and find out what happened between him and his father last night. She did not understand why Eamon had been so angry. He had always seemed to like her and she was surprised that finding them together upset him so. It was true they were young – she had just reached her fifteenth year – and Brice was soon to enter his sixteenth. She reached into her pocket and took out the scarf she had made for Brice, and ran her fingers across his name embroidered lovingly by her hand.
The work bell sounded the end of her day’s labor, and she folded the scarf and placed it back in her pocket. She ran all the way to the stable, knowing Brice would still be there. He loved his work with the horses and never was in a rush to leave with the bell.
Brice sat on the bench and watched Sabiea’s foal as she eagerly suckled. She heard the sound of footsteps, and looked up as Elsbeth joined her on the bench.
“I made something for you,” Elsbeth said, as she reached into her pocket and pulled out the pale blue scarf and handed it to Brice.
The young trainer smiled as she opened the scarf and saw her name embroidered ornately along the edge. “Thank you…I love it,” she said bringing it to her nose. “It even smells like you.” She tied it around her neck and pulled the young woman in for a hug.
“What happened after I left last night?”
Brice stiffened and released her hold on the young woman. She sat a moment trying to decide if now was the time to tell Elsbeth everything. She believed that the young woman loved her, and the truth would be surprising, but not abhorrent to her.
Elsbeth felt Brice stiffen, and her heart clenched. “Why doesn’t he like me?” she asked, as her gaze fell to her lap.
Brice pulled the young woman into her arms again. “It’s not you…it’s me. He’s afraid if you know the truth about me, you won’t want me any more.”
Elsbeth pulled away from the embrace to look into the young trainer’s eyes. “I don’t understand,” she said confused. “There is nothing I could learn about you that would change my feelings. I love you.” She took Brice’s hand and squeezed it. “You can tell me anything…you know that.”
“I’m a woman,” Brice said quickly, wanting to get the words out before she lost her nerve.
Elsbeth laughed. “Come on…don’t joke.”
“I’m not joking,” Brice answered, suddenly afraid. She didn’t know what she would do if her young love rejected her.
“You’re lying, I could never fall in love with a woman.”
“It’s not a lie,” Brice said, reaching for her britches and starting to unbuckle them. “I’ll prove it.”
“NO!” Eslbeth shouted, covering her eyes. “I don’t want to see. That would spoil everything.” She turned away stunned. How could this be? She had known Brice most of her life, how could she not have seen the truth?
Brice was shattered at her young love’s reaction to the thought of seeing proof of her femininity, and was filled with regret at having to live in this body.
“Why?” Elsbeth asked, trying to understand why Brice would play such a cruel trick on her.
“My parents wanted to protect me. They thought they were doing the right thing. We were sent here before I was of age to be counted. They decided to raise me as a boy to keep me from Lord Galen. I know it sounds strange, but I’m glad they didn’t try to raise me as a girl. It’s just not how I see myself.” Brice read the shock on Elsbeth’s face and her heart leapt to her throat. What if her father was right? “I don’t mean that I don’t see myself as a woman…I am a woman, but I don’t identify with being a feminine woman. I couldn’t live like that…and I do love you… with all my heart.”
It didn’t take Elsbeth long to realize that she didn’t love Brice because she thought she was a man. They had built a friendship over the years, and she had grown to love her because of who she was, not what she was. She acknowledged to herself that she probably would not have allowed herself to feel this way about Brice if she had known the truth. It was still a shock, and it would take some getting used to, but as long as no one else found out the truth, she could keep her illusion of Brice as a man. Turning back, she saw the anxious look on her love’s face as she awaited her answer. She could see in her eyes that the waiting was torture. She wrapped her arms around Brice and pulled her close. “I love you…nothing is going to change that.”
Roslin watched Brice tuck the covers tightly around Cadie and stand. Then the rebel leader walked over to her cot and squatted down in front of her.
“I have the early watch tonight, so I must take my leave.” She lifted Roslin’s hand and kissed it. “Goodnight,” she continued, then she stood and walked out the door.
Roslin knew she had a silly grin on her face, and she felt a fluttering in her stomach. Is this what it feels like to be falling in love? She thought to herself. It just felt good, and that was all she cared about at the moment. She was brought out of her thoughts, when she felt Shea sit down beside her on the cot.
“Brice seems to be very taken with you, child. I haven’t seen him behave this way toward a woman since Elsbeth.” She patted Roslin’s hand. “Be gentle with his heart; it’s taken so long to mend, I would hate to see it shattered again. When he lost Elsbeth, it changed him. He wouldn’t let anyone in but Cadie. The only thing he lived for was to one day destroy the Ryshtan regime, and liberate our people. It has been almost five years, and this is the first time he has let anyone get close. It would break my heart if he shut off his emotions again.”
Roslin shuddered at the thought of what might happen if Brice found out that she was Ryshtan. “I care very much for Brice. I would never purposefully hurt him.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t, child. I just want you to be aware of the power you hold. Don’t let him push too fast. A starving man will sometimes destroy himself when a banquet is placed before him. The body is not the only part of us that can starve. Hearts can starve, and Brice’s heart has been starving for some time now.” Shea smiled. “Well, I think I need to get these old bones to bed. Morning comes early.” Rising, she walked to her cot and prepared for bed.
Roslin lay back and let her mind wander again over the events of the day. How could she be attracted to someone one day and the next day believe she was falling in love with him? Could things like this really happen that fast? She was glad they had had the talk about slowing things down; she really needed to be sure of her feelings before she could commit to any type of a relationship, and she wanted him to be sure too, especially now, after talking to Shea.
Shea was away, and Roslin and Cadie had been left to entertain each other. Cadie had provided an endless stream of chatter, and the young woman had to laugh at the child’s vivid imagination. She came up with the cleverest stories to entertain the young woman. Roslin was laughing loudly, when Brice came in and scooped her up in her arms.
“I think it’s time for you to meet more of my family,” she said, as she carried the little blonde out the door, and started for the other side of camp.
“My feet are feeling much better today, you really don’t need to carry me. I can walk,” Roslin said, even though she was enjoying being in his arms again.
“It’s a long walk,” Brice answered. “Humor me.”
Roslin just smiled. Cadie ran on ahead, and Roslin could see Shea and another woman sitting and talking together. Two children several years older than Cadie came running over to greet them, and Brice put the young woman down to introduce them.
“Roslin, these are my brother Glen’s sons.” Brice placed a hand on the older boys head, “This is Bowen, and this is Tully,” she added, ruffling the fine red hair on the younger boy’s head.
Roslin smiled, shaking first Bowen’s hand, and then his brother’s. “I’m very pleased to meet you.” The woman that had been sitting talking with Shea came forward extending her hand. “I’m Lessa, Glen’s wife. I see you’ve met my boys.” She took Roslin’s hand and pulled her toward the fire. “Come on over and get off your feet, and I’ll get you something to eat.”
“Thank you,” Roslin answered, as she followed the friendly woman to a log by the fire.
Brice walked over and sat by her side, while Shea and Lessa began dishing up plates of food. “Where’s Glen?” she asked Lessa, when she handed her a plate.
“Oh he’s off in the woods, taking care of business,” Lessa answered. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
A pleasant looking man approached their little group, and smiled down at the little blonde sitting next to Brice. “You must be Roslin,” he said, sitting and accepting a plate from Lessa. Looking up, he winked at her. “Thank you, love,” he said, then turned back to the little blonde. “I’m Glen. Brice has told me all about you. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”
“Much better,” Roslin answered, “thank you for your concern.”
Roslin studied the man. His hair was dark brown like Brice’s, but other than that, she could see no resemblance between the brothers. His eyes were a soft brown, and his nose was larger, with a little bump, where Brice’s was straight.
“Mother tells me that you have no memory before coming to our camp. That must be most distressing.”
Roslin’s eyes fell to her lap. She hated lying, and found she could not look Glen in the eye when she did so. “Yes, most distressing.”
Brice could see her discomfort. She reached over, covered her hand, and squeezed. “This is good,” the rebel leader said to Lessa, trying to change the subject. “It’s a wonder what you can do with trail rations.”
“Yes, it’s very good,” Roslin agreed, the smile returning to her face. The young woman found that she liked these people very much. They didn’t have much, but what they had they shared. They seemed to truly care for each other, and despite the hard life they were living, seemed happy. She tried to think back to a time in her life when she could say the same, and failed. She shuddered at the thought of ever going back to that kind of existence again.
As the days past, Brice spent every moment she could spare with Roslin, and their closeness continued to grow. She longed for the time when the fighting would be over for good, and she could commit her entire being to the young woman. Her one fear was that when she was finally able to tell Roslin the truth about herself, the young woman would not be able to accept the fact that she was a woman, and reject her. She prayed that once she had Roslin’s heart, her gender would no longer matter, but deep down inside, she feared this would not be the case. For now she would have to be content with little snatches of time between the work that was required to make sure everything was ready for the battle with the Sovereign. This battle was the culmination of years of work, and with the defeat of Dairus, all her people would finally be free.
The days flew by too quickly. Their brief respite was over, and it was time to start for Dairus again. Any of the wounded that were still not up to sitting astride a horse were loaded into wagons. The last leg of the journey had begun, and Brice was anxious to finally put this part of her life behind her, and begin a new one with Roslin.
Mounting her horse, Brice rode to where Roslin was waiting her turn to climb into the wagon with Shea and Cadie. “Ride with me?” she asked, extending her hand to the young woman.
Roslin smiled, and accepted the hand up. She wrapped her arms around Brice and snuggled close, laying her head against a muscled back. What is it about Brice that captivates me so? She wondered, not for the first time. He was not like any man she had ever met. There was something different about him that she just couldn’t quite identify. Whatever it was, it drew her to him, and she realized she had totally lost her heart to the man.
They walked to the beginning of the procession and cantered ahead, leaving the slow moving caravan behind. This was the first time they had truly been alone, and Brice rejoiced at the feel of the young woman pressed so closely against her. . I love having you all to myself like this, she thought, as she gently stroked the hands that were clasped around her middle.
They were ten days into the trip and the anticipation had built steadily as they got closer to Dairus. This was it. The final battle in a hard won fight for their freedom. Brice and Roslin had ridden ahead as usual, and were just returning to check on the progress of the caravan, when the sound of loud voices could be heard. The rebel leader could see that a group of men were gathered around one of the large wagons, while others were exasperatedly glancing down an embankment at the edge of the road. She urged her mount closer and dismounted, walking to the edge of the embankment to see what they were looking at. She could see one of the supply wagons at the bottom, about twenty feet down. It was broken into several pieces, and supplies were scattered everywhere.
“What happened?” she asked, turning her gaze to Glen, who was striding her way.
“We broke an axle on our wagon, and that damn fool Trustin tried to go around us and went over the edge.
He jumped clear, but the wagon isn’t salvageable.”
Brice was angry and frustrated at the delay. There were still several hours of daylight left, and to lose them meant that the battle would have to be put off a day. She had hoped to arrive just outside Dairus early tomorrow evening. That way they would have had time to set up camp, evacuate the slaves, and still have time to rest up for battle at first light. As it was, they would not get there until very late. Too late to get the proper rest she wanted them to have before taking on the Sovereign’s army. She turned back to Glen. “How long to fix it?”
“Four or five hours. I don’t have a replacement, I’ll have to make one.”
“Okay, there’s a clearing about two hundred yards ahead. We’ll set up camp there.” Brice looked at the men standing around the crippled wagon. ” Some of you men get this wagon moved over far enough to let the rest pass safely.”
Camp was set up quickly, and Glen started to work on repairing the broken axle, while others made a living chain to pass the scattered supplies hand to hand up the slope. Roslin watched Brice pace back and forth. It was obvious he was upset, and she decided to try to take his mind off the problems that vexed him so. Walking over she took his hand. “Come, walk with me.”
Brice looked down at the young woman and smiled, squeezing her hand, and nodding. “I’d like that.”
They walked to a stand of trees, not far from camp and stopped out of sight of prying eyes. The rebel leader had decided that it was time to tell Roslin her secret; the young woman deserved to know the truth. Brice took her face in her hands and spoke, her voice trembling. “You take my breath away.” She leaned down and kissed Roslin, and was surprised when the young woman opened her mouth and hesitantly touched her lips with her tongue. She deepened the kiss, and felt her heart try to pound its way out of her chest as Roslin moaned into her mouth. “I love you,” Brice whispered, as she pulled away to gaze into beautiful green eyes. She let her hands slide up Roslin’s arms. “I have something important I need to tell you, something, I…”
As she felt Brice’s hands slipping under her sleeves and caressing her arms, Roslin panicked. If he notices I have no brand, my deception will be discovered. She pushed Brice away, and hastily pulled down her sleeve back down to cover her bare arm. She watched Brice’s face change from passion to puzzlement.
Brice saw the panic in Roslin’s face, and her heart sank. She couldn’t think I would force myself on her, could she? Suddenly it registered. Why was Roslin so desperate to cover her arm? She remembered the smoothness of her skin. It was too smooth; there was no brand. And the way Roslin reacted, she was very aware of this fact. There had been no memory loss…she had lied. Brice reached for her arm again, and Roslin froze as her sleeve was pushed up to reveal a blemish free arm.
“You lied to me,” Brice said, closing her eyes with sad acceptance.
“I really didn’t remember you finding me and taking me to your camp, so I thought I would just let you believe I couldn’t remember anything else. You all assumed I was one of you, and I just didn’t volunteer the truth.”
” I took you into my family, took care of you. I thought we were becoming… Why didn’t you tell me?”
Roslin remembered the other Brice…the one she had seen in the heat of battle…the Brice who didn’t seem real any more. She had to make him understand the terror she felt when she first found herself sheltered under that Brice’s tent. She had a very real fear of being killed if he found out she was Ryshtan. Things had changed, she no longer feared him, but that did not change the fact that the terror she felt at first had been very real. “I was afraid. When I first realized who you were, I thought you would kill me if you knew. I saw you at Frama…”
Brice was shattered that this woman she had just professed to love, could believe she would kill her. “If you saw me at Frama, then you should know that I killed armed men in battle. I did not murder unarmed women.”
” I didn’t understand why you attacked my people when we’ve taken care of you, provided homes and work.”
Brice’s anger flared. “Provided for us? We provided for you! We fed you, clothed you, built your homes, and maintained them. Ryshtans are so ignorant and lazy you can’t even blow your own noses without our help. The only thing you are capable of is doling out punishment.” Brice’s head was spinning. How had a Ryshtan been able to live among them unnoticed? The fact that she had been so ill was the only explanation.
Roslin could see the change come over Brice. His eyes no longer shone with kindness; they flashed hatred. This was the Brice she remembered from Frama, and she lashed out at him. “You murdered my grandfather, Governor Gage.”
“I’m sorry to say I was deprived of that pleasure. The coward took his own life, rather than face me in combat.” Brice was well aware that Lord Athol’s daughter was named Roslin, but it had never occurred to her, until now, that this was that same Roslin. Anger and hurt flooded through Brice. Had she really fallen in love with the daughter of that monster who had killed Elsbeth?
“He was not a coward!” Roslin shouted defensively.
“He was a coward all right, and a monster. What would you call a man who takes pleasure from the misfortune of others? He has ordered the murder of countless innocents, and when he was called to answer for his crimes …he took his own life. He has tortured and murdered my people long enough; we will die before returning to a life of servitude to the likes of him.”
Roslin’s head was spinning. How could Brice expect her to believe his lies? She had never witnessed any tortures, and execution was only dealt out to criminals who committed heinous crimes. “He never ordered the murder of innocents. Only criminals are executed as a deterrent to prevent others from following in their path.”
“And what crime did my three infant sisters commit? Wait…I remember…the crime of having a rapist for a father.”
“That’s a lie…my grandfather would not order the murder of an innocent babe.”
Brice could not believe that a highborn Ryshtan could be that naïve. Could it be that they hid such things from their women? “Your grandfather was not alone. Ryshtan men take our women to their beds against their will, and when a child results, it is killed. My own Cadie would have been murdered if Lord Athol had known that my Elsbeth carried his child.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re trying to turn me against my own people.” Suddenly Roslin remembered how like her younger brother Cadie had seemed when they first met. Could it be true? Was Cadie her sister?
“This discussion is over. I have decided to let your punishment fit the crime. Your people have enslaved mine for generations. You seem to believe that by enslaving my people, the Ryshtans were doing us a favor. I will extend to you the same favor. You pretended to be a slave, now you will experience what it is like to be one.” Brice took the young woman by the arm and dragged her out of the tent and over to the cook-fire. She picked up one of the iron rods used to place and remove pots from over the fire, and plunged it into the coals to heat.
Roslin’s eyes grew wide with fright. He can’t mean to brand me! “What are you going to do?”
Brice pulled up her shirtsleeve to expose a prominent scar on her upper arm. “I’m sure you’ve seen many of these before, all my people carry them.” She tightened her grip as the young woman’s panic grew and she began to struggle to get away. “Acadia, Nairne,” Brice called, “come hold her still.”
Roslin watched Brice pull the iron out of the hot coals. It was glowing red, and her heart seemed to stop at the thought of it searing into her skin. Never in her life had she known this kind of fear, and she could feel the bile burn her throat. She forced herself to stop struggling; she would not give Brice the satisfaction of seeing her fight and call for mercy. Closing her eyes, she held her breath and waited. When the hot iron seared her flesh, her legs almost buckled, and her scream could be heard throughout the camp. She could smell the burning and it nauseated her. When it was finished, they released her and she collapsed to the ground, the tears flowing freely down her face as she tried to choke back her sobs.
Brice tossed the iron rod aside and strode back to her tent, retrieving a shirt and ripping it. She took it back out to the slave lying on the ground by the cook-fire and threw it at her. “This shirt needs mending. Have it finished before the evening meal.”
“I don’t know how to sew,” Roslin managed through her tears.
“I would advise you to learn quickly. A non-productive slave will not be tolerated.” Brice reached down and grabbed her, pulling her to her feet. Addressing the crowd that had gathered she announced, “This woman has masqueraded as one of us, but she is Ryshtan. She is now my slave and will be treated as such.” Releasing her hold on Roslin she glared at the young woman nodding to the shirt. “Get to work.”
Roslin didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to make Brice angry, and she clutched the shirt to her as she made her way to Brice’s tent, hoping to find Shea there. The woman had been kind to her, and she hoped she would continue to do so.
The older woman looked up as Roslin entered the tent. She had heard the commotion outside, and knew what had happened. She held a jar of salve out to the young woman. “This will help with the pain.” She then picked up a needle and some thread, and handed them to her as well. Brice had instructed that she be treated as a slave. In Ryshta, slaves were not spoken to except to be given a task, or to be punished, so there could be no more conversations with the young woman. She walked out leaving Roslin alone in her pain.
Roslin’s arm was throbbing, and it was hard to think of anything else but the pain. Her stomach told her it was time for the evening meal and she looked at the shirt in her lap. She had already pulled the thread out and started over three times, yet it still looked awful. She heard the booted footsteps as Brice entered the tent, and she cringed. Brice snatched the shirt and held it up to inspect it.
“Pathetic,” she said, as she pulled the young woman to her feet and ripped her shirt from her body. Handing the mended shirt to her she said. “You will wear your handiwork so all will see your ineptitude.” She watched as Roslin pulled the shirt over her head and laughed at the comical effect. She looked like a child playing dress-up in the large garment. Brice pushed her toward the door. “It’s time for the evening meal.”
Roslin walked to the cook-fire and filled a plate. When she started to bring a bite to her mouth, the spoon was grabbed and her plate slapped out of her hand.
Brice couldn’t believe it when she started to eat. The woman had never been without a slave to serve her, she should know that they never eat in the presence of the master.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Brice asked the startled woman.
“I was eating.”
“Have you ever seen a slave eat?”
Roslin looked around the campsite filled with people eating their meals. “Yes,” she said, indicating with her head the people around her.
“These are not slaves,” Brice spat at her. “We are free people.” She repeated her question. “Have you ever seen a slave eat?”
Roslin realized that Brice was right; she had never seen one of the palace slaves eat. She never thought about it before. It never seemed important to wonder if they ate or not, as long as they were there to serve her. Suddenly she felt ashamed that she had never really considered their feelings at all.
“And what did you see slaves doing at meal time?”
Roslin cringed. “They served me my meal.”
Brice glared at the young woman, “And what are you now?”
Brice grabbed her shirt and pulled her almost off her feet. “A slave, what?” She saw the puzzled look on Roslin’s face. “How do you address me?”
“I am a slave, Master Brice,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Very good,” Brice said, releasing her. “And what are you here to do?”
“I am here to serve you, Master Brice.”
“When it’s meal time, you will serve me. When the meal is finished, you will clean up. When your work is finished, you eat. I expect you to anticipate my every desire without being told. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master Brice.” Roslin was not sure what Brice meant by the word desire, but she was afraid to ask him and risk his wrath again. All she could assume was that she was to serve him as a bed slave as well. She walked over and got another plate that she filled for Brice. When she handed it to him, he nodded to Shea and a puzzled Cadie, who had joined him at the fire. The little girl had been at the other side of camp playing with her cousins, and could not understand her papa’s harsh treatment of her friend. Immediately Roslin filled two more plates and served the rest of the master’s family.
“Why is Papa so mad?” she asked Roslin, when the young woman handed her a plate.
“You’re not to talk to Roslin any more Cadie,” Brice said, pulling the child away from the young woman.
“But why, Papa? Roslin is my friend. ”
“Not any more,” Brice answered, as she abruptly stood and quickly walked away, unable to face her heartbroken daughter.
When the meal was finished, Shea ushered a reluctant Cadie to their tent. Roslin was left to clean up, and wonder about what a bed slave actually does. When she was finally finished, she retired into the shadows with a hunk of bread and some gravy, not wanting to risk being seen eating.
When Roslin got back to the tent, Shea and Cadie had retired for the night. Cadie slipped out of bed and quietly approached the young woman who was sitting forlornly on her cot. “Why don’t you want to be my friend?” the child asked, a tear starting down her cheek. “Don’t you like me any more?”
Roslin pulled the sad little girl into her arms. “No matter what happens, you will always be my friend, don’t ever forget that.” She stroked the child’s head, and rocked her back and forth. “I didn’t tell your Papa something important, and now he’s mad at me, but it has nothing to do with you. I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me, so please don’t talk to me when he’s around. Now get back to bed before he gets back and finds us together.” She kissed Cadie on the forehead, and sent her on her way.
Roslin knew it would not be long before Brice would retire. Should I wait on my cot for him ‘till he calls for me? She wondered. No…he said anticipate my desires without being asked. I have to be there waiting for him when he gets back. Reluctantly she disrobed and walked around the screen to his cot and slipped under the blanket. Roslin had been attracted to the man, and had grown to care very much for him. She had even wondered and fantasized about what it would be like to make love to him, but this was different. She was repulsed by the thought of her body being used for the pleasure of someone who had grown to despise her. She was thankful for the privacy screen and wondered if the purpose of it was so he could have sex beyond the view of his family.
Brice started back to her tent and wondered to herself why she felt the need to be so hard on Roslin. She didn’t seem to be able to help herself. She just couldn’t seem to separate her feelings’ for Lord Athol from her feelings’ for his daughter. The thought that she had been attracted to that monster’s child was hard to accept. She entered the tent and stepped behind the screen and sat down on the cot to remove her boots. She felt Roslin immediately and jumped up and turned to face her. Cold fury pumped through her body. Reaching out she grabbed the edge of the cot and tipped it over, dumping her slave onto the floor. “Your father murdered Cadie’s mother, and you think you can take her place in my bed?!” She picked up a blanket and threw it on Roslin to cover her nakedness. “He snuffed out her life as if it meant nothing. You disgust me. You have no concept of love or compassion, do you? What does it matter if you destroy a few lives, so long as your needs are met?”
“No…I’m sorry,” Roslin stammered. “You said I was to serve your every desire. I thought that meant in your bed as well.” The young woman stood and wrapped the blanket around her body. “I know you don’t believe me, but I am so sorry for what my people did to you. I understand now what it’s like to be a slave.”
“YOU UNDERSTAND NOTHING! A lifetime of suffering can not be comprehended in the few hours you have been a slave.”
Roslin realized that Brice was right. She could not possibly understand what a lifetime of this type of treatment would do to a people. But the young woman had been a slave long enough to feel the helplessness and humiliation it caused. Her eyes filled with tears and she put her face in her hands and sobbed. To realize she had treated people as her possessions without even giving it a second thought broke her heart. She turned and ran out of the tent.
Brice watched Roslin run away and shuddered at the thought that the young woman thought she wanted to use her as a bed slave. She had been hard on her, yes, but she would never force herself on the woman. She did not have to be raped herself to understand the pain and humiliation it caused. The pain of what Elsbeth had endured flooded back into her consciousness, and she tried to lock it away again in a dark corner of her mind. “I’m so sorry Elsbeth…I wish I had been able to protect you.” She whispered, as the memories refused to be locked away this time.
When Elsbeth failed to meet her at the stable that night, Brice went to her home only to find that she had been taken early in the day. Captain Alban of the Sovereign’s royal guard had claimed Elsbeth as his bed slave. The thought of one of those pigs touching her was almost too much to bear, and the guilt Brice felt that she had been spared, while the woman she loved had to endure this nightmare was overwhelming. They had both known that this was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept, now that it had finally come to pass.
Brice walked back to the stable in a daze. She saw the large oak tree in the side yard, and suddenly it was no longer a tree, but the Ryshtan captain who had taken her Elsbeth away. With a rage that could not be controlled, she used her fists to beat the tree until exhausted, she sank to the ground, her hands a bloody mess.
Eamon found her there in the morning, curled into a ball, her hands looking like raw meat. He took her into the barn, and cleaned and wrapped her injured hands. He tried to think of something to say that would make this easier for her. “Elsbeth had luck on her side,” he said, sitting down pulling her close for a hug. “The captain of the guard has never been able to sire a child. At least she will be spared that pain.”
Brice nodded. As bad as the situation was, nothing was worse than having your innocent babe murdered. At least she would be spared that part of this nightmare. Now that Elsbeth had been taken as a bed slave, the only time they could spend together would be the few days a month she was soiled with blood. Bed slaves were not allowed to be touched when they were unclean, and this time was given them to visit their families.
Two years passed, and Brice prayed for the time that Elsbeth would come home for good. Caption Alban had not been a brutal man, and Elsbeth had learned to tolerate his unwelcome attentions. She lived for the few days a month she and Brice were given.
Word reached Brice that Lord Athol had seen Elsbeth in the company of Caption Alban, and was so taken with her that he clamed her for his own. Elsbeth had been in the Sovereign’s household for over a month and Brice prayed she would start her monthly cycle soon. Brice needed to see her…know that she was all right. They could only hope she would not become pregnant too soon, for a woman heavy with child was not allowed a home visit until the child was born and disposed of. The Ryshtans could not allow the possibility that a babe might be birthed and hidden away.
As each day passed, Brice’s fear that Elsbeth could be pregnant grew. Nine months away from her love seemed an interminable amount of time. She heard the bell sounding, and quickly made her way to the meeting hall. She had been stirring up the people and had finally gotten enough supporters to call a meeting with the elders. She went inside to find that Mikah, the leader of the slave elders was already there. She nodded a greeting to him, and sat down to wait for the rest of the men to arrive.
Brice knew it would be hard to convince the elders that they must not allow their people to go on like this anymore. Too many generations had gone along with this life, accepting it as a fate that could not be changed. She could not do that, and although she was young, her physical resemblance to a leader that was prophesied to lead them out of slavery was helping to sway many to her way of thinking.
The prophecy stated that a man would come that was as tall as the trees, with eyes as blue as the
sacred crystal, and if they were to follow him, he would lead them to freedom. With her blue eyes, and the fact that she stood six foot three inches tall, it was easy for some to believe that the prophecy was coming true. It was a patriarchal society, but as long as they remained ignorant to the truth of her gender, they would continue to follow.
The large room filled up quickly, and the sound of voices filled the room. Mikah stood and called for quiet, and a hush spread across the room. “We are here tonight because some of you believe that young Brice here is the one chosen to lead us from this life of slavery. I have watched this young man grow up, and I find it impossible to believe that this gentle young man could be the chosen one. I say a life of slavery is better than no life at all, and to follow a boy barely eighteen is foolishness.” Turning to the young trainer he continued. “If we follow your lead Brice, we’ll all be killed.” He swept his hand around the room, “Do you want their deaths on your head?”
“Slavery is no life.” Brice stood, letting her height once again influence her followers. “If we stand together, we can beat them.” She looked around the room at the defeated faces of the elders. Their spirits had been broken long ago, and fear of reprisal ruled their decisions.
“They have weapons; we don’t. Are we supposed to start a rebellion with rakes and shovels?”
“And who makes their weapons?” Glen asked, stepping into the fray. “We do…and we can bloody well start making a few extra at a time, stockpiling them until we can properly arm ourselves.” He looked at his sister and smiled.
Brice returned the smile. “They think they’ve broken our spirits and we will never strike out against them…we can use that to our advantage.”
Some of the younger men were getting fired up, and support for a revolution was growing. Some really did believe Brice to be the Chosen One, but it would take many more numbers than that if they hoped for a victory. It was decided that for now, they would start to prepare. They would store arms, and train to use them. The non- believers thought that it would not hurt to be ready for the time when the real Chosen One would come. A message would be sent to all fifteen city-states through the tax collectors driver. He was the one slave that could travel unnoticed to all parts of Ryshta. When the time was right they would defeat Ryshta. Until then they would bide their time, doing nothing out of the ordinary to draw attention to themselves. It would be a slow and arduous process, but now that a plan had been set in motion, Brice felt new life surging through her. For the first time in her life she had hope for a better future.
The end of the next day found Brice working with a promising new colt. Not only was he showy, he could run like the wind. Horseracing was the Sovereign’s favorite entertainment, and the last few years had proven his racing stock the most successful in all Ryshta. She loved putting the colt through his paces, but today her heart was just not in it. Another day, and still no sign of Elsbeth.
Eamon watched his daughter at work and could see something was wrong. It saddened him that Brice no longer confided in him as she had in the past. She had moved out of his house and into the stable the day after he had confronted her about Elsbeth, and they had never been able to get past it. He joined her as she began to cool down the colt, hoping he could get her to open up to him.
“Is there a problem I can help you with?”
Brice looked at her father and shook her head. She could not discuss her feelings’ about Elsbeth with him because she knew he had never been able to come to terms with their relationship.
Eamon reached out a hand and pulled her to a stop. “I want you to know that I was wrong to expect you to live your life without someone to love. Elsbeth is a fine girl, and if you wish it, we will welcome her into our family.”
“Thank you, Father.” She started walking the colt again and her father fell in step beside her. “I’m worried about her, Father. It’s been over a month and a half; she should have been home by now.” Suddenly she heard her name called out and she turned to see Elsbeth running down the path to meet her.
“I’ll take the colt…you go see to your lady,” Eamon said as he took the lead from his daughter.
The joy of seeing Elsbeth put wings to her feet, and Brice fairly flew to greet her. Wrapping her arms around the young woman, she ushered her into the privacy of the barn. Elsbeth was out of breath from running most of the way home and she clutched Brice tightly, unable to speak, she was gasping so. Brice just held her close, savoring the feel of her beloved in her arms once again. “I was so worried about you,” Brice said, as she kissed the top of her head. She could feel the young woman’s grip around her tighten, as Elsbeth broke down into gasping sobs. When her breathing returned to a more normal rhythm, Brice led her over to the bench so they could sit down.
“I think I am with child,” Elsbeth blurted out, as she began to sob again.
“And they let you come home?”
“They don’t know. I cut my finger and soiled myself so they would believe my cycle had begun.” She looked into her lover’s bewildered eyes. “What are we going to do?” she asked, falling again into Brice’s arms.
“We’ll run away.” Brice realized almost immediately that this plan would not work. Even if they managed to stay ahead of the solders, the Ryshtans would take out their defection on their families. The possibility of her family being executed on her behalf sent a chill through her long frame.
“We can’t run.”
“I know…” Brice closed her eyes and just held on to the young woman. She couldn’t send Elsbeth back. She felt helpless. How could she just stand by and let them continue to do this to the woman she loved? He will pay for what he’s done to you, she silently told herself. They will all pay.
“I promise I’ll fix a place to hide you. You won’t have to go back there ever again,” Brice said, as tears started down her face. “We’ll make them think you’re dead…they won’t even try to find you.”
“How can we do that without a body?”
“I don’t know, but we have five days before you have to go back to think of something.”
“I’m afraid,” Elsbeth said, wanting to believe it was possible, but terrified of the consequences if they got caught.
“Trust me.” Brice kissed the top of her head. “They won’t hurt you again.”
The rest of the evening was spent in frustration, as they tried to figure out where Elsbeth could be hidden safely, and still be close to Brice, should a problem with the pregnancy arise. The trainer’s work tied her here to the large barn and training arenas surrounding it. She looked around and her eyes fell on the door to the grain room off to her left, against the back wall. “That’s it,” she shouted, jumping to her feet and running to the enclosure.
Brice had built a room to store the grain that was fully enclosed, including a wooden floor. Anytime you try to store grain, you have to deal with rodents, who think they should have a share. Felines were abundant in the stable area, but still the problem persisted. The rest of the barn had a hard packed earthen floor.
Elsbeth was confused. She knew her young love was not the only person to enter the storage area, and it was not large enough to keep her concealed from their view indefinitely. Brice was already inside when she got there, pulling sacks of grain out and stacking them outside the door until she had a six foot by six foot area of floor cleared. Her puzzlement grew when the young trainer ran to fetch her tools, and began pulling up the floorboards. Then it dawned on her.
“You’re not going to hide me in a little hole in the ground?” she asked, not quite believing what she was seeing.
“No… I’ll dig it out so it is almost as large as the grain room, then I’ll build wooden walls to reinforce the earthen sides, and it will look like a room, not a hole. Run fetch me a wheelbarrow. I need something to haul the dirt away in. We can’t use a horse and wagon, it would make too much noise.”
The earth was dry and hard packed, and the digging went slowly. The hole was too small at this point to allow both of them to dig, so Elsbeth filled buckets with dirt and carried them to the river to dump.
Brice dug throughout the night, wrapping her hands in cloth when blisters formed and burst. When the wheelbarrow was full, she would make a river run to dump it, then return to her digging. She was exhausted and her muscles were screaming an hour before dawn when she finally stopped. She had to put the place back the way it was so no one would suspect what they had been doing. After replacing the floorboards, she and Elsbeth climbed into the loft and collapsed.
Brice had been sleeping only a few minutes when she heard activity beginning below her. Reluctantly, she forced her aching and exhausted body to rise. She looked at her slumbering companion and smiled; at least she could sleep.
The rest of the week was spent much the same, with Brice lucky to get even an hour of sleep a night. But the room was finished, and now the rest of her plan had to be put into effect. She was going to make it appear that Elsbeth had drowned. The peaceful river flowed into a small lake, then narrowed and continued on at a swifter pace over a waterfall and a series of large boulders forming rapids. It was well known that anyone swept over the falls, although not high, would be thrashed to death in the rapids beyond. The Ryshtans would believe that she was killed and her body carried down the swift flowing river.
Brice attached a rope to the thick underbrush on either side of the falls. The rope was pulled tight against the rock wall underneath the fall, and could not be seen by prying eyes. Attached to the rope was another rope, just long enough to reach the bottom of the falls, but not long enough to get to the rapids beyond. Now she only had to wait for daylight to set the rest of the plain in motion.
Morning found the anxious couple praying for this desperate plan to work. Brice would tend to her duties as usual, and when it was time for the noon meal, they would slip away to the lake. The weather had been extremely hot, and the Ryshtans, having no labor to keep them occupied, spent most afternoons splashing in the lake’s cool depths.
Brice tied the rope securely around Elsbeth, and then attached another rope that she would use to pull the young woman to the edge of the river after she had gone over the falls. Everything was set, and all that was left was to wait for the audience to arrive. When enough people were across the lake, Elsbeth waded in. She waited until one of the Ryshtans spotted her and yelled for her to get out of the water, then she started thrashing about, and let the current carry her over the edge of the falls. She felt the rope jerk as she reached the end, and then felt the other rope start to pull her toward the edge. Then suddenly, the pulling stopped and she started to panic. As the seconds ticked by her lungs felt like they were going to burst. Then she started choking on water as her body instinctively forced her to try to breathe and everything went black.
Brice watched Elsbeth go over the falls, and clutched the rope tightly. As soon as she saw her go under water at the bottom of the falls, she started to pull her toward her. The young woman was about half way there when the rope hung up on something. Brice pulled with all her might and couldn’t get it to break free. She tied the rope off, then holding on, pulled herself hand over hand until she came to the tangle of branches that the rope was caught in. Cutting the rope on the other side of the tangle, she braced herself against it and pulled the unconscious young woman to her. She attached the rope around her middle, then started frantically pulling herself and Elsbeth out of the water. She dragged the young woman into the underbrush, then clutching right under her ribcage she gave several strong thrusts to force the water from her lungs. Still the young woman lay there not breathing. Desperately Brice tried to breath air into her lungs, but when she blew air in, instead of going into her lungs, she could feel it come out Elsbeth’s nose. She tried again, holding her nose this time. One breath…two…three… Elsbeth started to cough and breathe on her own, and Brice pulled the young woman into her arms, rocking her gently and sobbing. She thought she had lost her, and the relief was too much to hold back.
When she was sure Elsbeth was all right, Brice left her hiding in the woods and made her way back to the stables. The young woman would wait until she came back for her later, then they would remove all the ropes, so no one could accidentally stumble over them later and discover the deception.
Brice and Elsbeth settled into a frustrating routine. They were happy to be able to be together each night, but as time passed, Elsbeth came to hate being shut away in the little room more and more. Being alone day after day, with no one to talk to, and nothing to see was driving her crazy. She had very little light because Brice would not let her have more than one candle, for fear light could shine through the boards and announce her presence. The normal emotional ups and downs of pregnancy were intensified by the situation, and she became increasingly short-tempered with Brice.
“I can’t raise a child in this hole,” Elsbeth said, rubbing her ample belly. Her babe would be born soon and the young woman feared for her sanity, and the well being of her child. “A child needs light, and fresh air, and others to play with.”
“So do you, love.” Brice reached over and cupped her cheek. She had been watching Elsbeth wither in this dark prison they had created, and could no longer allow it to continue. “Tessa, my brother Dover’s wife died almost six months ago now and he needs help to care for their two children so he can bring them back home. He has agreed to take you into his family to tend to them.” Brice leaned down and kissed her lips. It would be so hard to be without Elsbeth, but this was no kind of life. She could bear the loneliness, if it meant getting the woman she loved out of this hole and into the light. “I made arrangements for him to take you back with him when he comes into the village to pick up seed for this year’s crop. We will hide you in a grain sack.”
Elsbeth sat up. “Why did you make these arrangements without asking me?”
“I was afraid to get your hopes up and then have him say no.” Brice took the young woman’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry…I thought you would be happy to get out of here. If you want to stay…”
“No… I’m desperate to leave. It’s just that I should have been consulted. I’m not a child, and I’m not your slave.” She pulled her hand away from Brice’s grip.
The young trainer felt as if she had been kicked in the gut. Had she been treating Elsbeth like her slave? That the woman she loved would liken her to the hated Ryshtans was devastating. She got out of bed and walked to the ladder. “Dover will be here tomorrow afternoon, and will leave at first light the next day. I’ll sleep in the loft tonight.” Without another word she climbed the ladder and left the young woman alone.
Brice watched the wagon pull out with the woman she loved hidden safely away. She wished she had said a proper good-bye, but Elsbeth’s cutting words still hurt, and she let her leave with silence between them.
It was a little over two months before Brice had word of the young woman. It was the first free day in some time that Dover had come with his children to visit his parents. With Tessa’s illness, his visits had been sparse over the last year. Some months Tessa felt up to the trip, but most of the time they stayed home. Then after her death, he just didn’t feel like socializing. He brought news that shortly after he brought Elsbeth to his home she had birthed a daughter, and both were doing well.
The separation from Elsbeth had been hard on Brice, but the news that she and the child were doing well brightened her mood. She ached to see the young woman, and decided that next months free day would be spent in her company. She hoped the three-month separation would be enough to make her a welcome sight to the new mother.
Brice also ached to get the revolution started. Defeating the Ryshtans was the only way she would be able to make a home with Elsbeth and her daughter. At the rate they were collecting weaponry, it would be at least another year before they could arm themselves adequately enough to hope for a victory.
Shea lay quietly on her cot, sorry for the pain those two young people were going through. Deciding it was time she told Brice her feelings’; she got up and walked to the privacy screen. After stopping for a moment to pull her thoughts together, she stepped around the screen to find Brice sitting on her cot, her jaw clenched tightly.
“I’ve had enough of this Brice. You owe that child an apology.”
Brice’s mouth fell open. How could her mother expect her to apologize to a Ryshtan?
“I can’t. Mother, you don’t understand.”
“I think I do,” Shea said, reaching over to cup her daughter’s cheek. “You were attracted to her. You thought perhaps you were falling in love with her, and that made you feel guilty because you thought you were being unfaithful to Elsbeth. While you were trying to work out that guilt, you found out she was Ryshtan and that you were falling for her murderer…the ultimate betrayal. You have been taking out the sins of Roslin’s father on her, and that’s just not fair.” She sat next to Brice, and squeezed her hand. “You have hurt her, and humiliated her. Any more and you will be no better than the ones we are fighting against. You just made a speech to her about the Ryshtans not caring if they hurt someone and how much that disgusted you.” Shea took her daughter’s face in her hands. “Look at yourself, Brice. Do you think because they did it to us first that it makes enslaving them acceptable? I see you becoming more and more like them in your treatment of that child, and I can’t condone that kind of behavior from a child of mine. I brought you up better than that. Roslin was brought up to think slavery is acceptable. Give her a chance to see the error to it. I believe she has a good heart, and her apology to you was sincere.”
Brice dropped her gaze to the floor. Could her mother be right? She was behaving like the ones she despised most in the world, and the thought sickened her. God! What am I becoming? The final insult to Elsbeth’s memory would be for her to become no better then the animals that murdered her.
“I’m sorry Mother…I didn’t realize,” Brice said pulling her in for an embrace. She kissed the top of Shea’s head. “I can’t forget that she’s Ryshtan…I just can’t. I don’t like myself for the way I have treated her, but…” Brice closed her eyes, and a tear trickled down her cheek. “I’ll tell her tomorrow that she is no longer a slave, but I don’t think I can apologize…not yet.” She was still not prepared to fully trust the woman – that would take time – but she could treat her civilly.
Shea squeezed Brice’s hand and left her to think about what they had talked about. She had faith that her daughter’s heart would eventually win this battle.
Brice sat on her cot, her mother’s words playing over and over in her mind. Why did things have to turn out like this? Why did she let herself fall under that woman’s spell so quickly? A small voice broke her silent musings.
“Why did you make my friend cry, Papa?” Cadie asked, looking up at Brice sadly.
Brice felt guilt settle heavily on her shoulders. Not only had she behaved badly, she had done it within earshot of her precious Cadie. What kind of an example was she setting for her child. “We had a misunderstanding Cadie, but I’m sure it will work itself out.”
“When someone hurts my feelings and I cry, you always talk to me and make me feel better. Please go talk to Roslin Papa. She needs to feel better.”
Brice pulled Cadie into her arms and hugged her tightly. “I will, little one.” The little girl had a way of making everything seem so simple.
Brice found the young woman huddled on the ground by the cook-tent. She appeared to be asleep, and Brice decided this talk could wait until morning. She would tell her then that she was no longer a slave, and that they would set her free to go – or stay – as she chose after the Battle for the capital city of Dairus was won.
Roslin saw Brice walking toward her and quickly closed her eyes. Hopefully whatever task he had for her would be forgotten until morning if he thought the slave was asleep. Roslin listened as the footsteps stopped for a moment, then turned back the way they came. She had come to realize that she did not begrudge these people their freedom. She understood now that slavery was wrong. She believed that with all her heart, and wondered why she had not seen it before. Perhaps it was because her life had been so removed from the plight of the slaves. Roslin was sure if she had really understood what was going on, it would have made a difference. She chastised herself for not caring enough to even try to find out how these people were really treated. One thing was for sure, Roslin did not want to continue to be a slave, and she couldn’t sit by and let them slaughter her friends and family either. A decision was made. She would wait until she was certain everyone slept deeply, then she would slip away and go home and warn her people. Brice had told her how close they were to Dairus, and she believed if she left tonight, she would be there by late afternoon, or early evening, tomorrow.
When the camp had been quiet for some time, Roslin got up and slipped into the cook tent. She grabbed a loaf of bread and a jug of water, then walked silently to Brice’s tent. She had run out of there with just the blanket wrapped around her naked body, and needed to retrieve her clothes and sandals before she could began her journey. She prayed that Brice was not too light a sleeper, and that she could get in and out without disturbing him. Afraid to even breathe, she crept to where she had left her clothes and scooped them up. She didn’t breath again until she was safely outside. Slipping into the shadows at the edge of camp, she dropped the blanket and dressed quickly. She didn’t know how soon they would discover her missing, but she hoped she would have at least a few hours head start.
Cadie woke to see Roslin leaving the tent. Rubbing her eyes, she wondered where she was going. It was not even light out. She remembered that Papa sometimes went out just before light to get to the river when the sun came up. He told her that early in the morning was the best time to catch fish, and Cadie wondered if Roslin was going fishing. That must be it, she thought. Roslin and her Papa must have talked and made up. I bet Roslin is going to catch a fish to surprise Papa. He loves fish better than almost anything. She decided to follow her to see, and ask if she could help. Papa would be so proud of her if she helped Roslin bring home a nice big fish. She slipped into her shoes and grabbed her coat and went outside. She couldn’t see Roslin, so she stood still and listened. She heard a faint noise and followed the sound to see a movement in the shadows.
Cadie followed along quietly, afraid if she let her presence be known too soon Roslin would send her back to camp.
It seemed to Cadie that they had been walking forever when the sky took on the soft glow of approaching dawn. We have to be there soon, Cadie thought. Fishing is best at first light. She was watching the sky and not where she was walking, and stumbled over a rock.
Roslin heard a noise behind her and ducked into the underbrush to hide. She waited until she saw Cadie running along, panicked that she had lost sight of her friend. Stepping out onto the road she grabbed the girl as she ran by. “What are you doing here?” Roslin asked, angry at herself for not noticing that she was being followed.
“I wanted to go fishing with you,” Cadie answered, a grin returning to her face. Her friend wasn’t lost after all.
Roslin didn’t know what to do. They had been walking for hours, and there was no way she could take the child back. As mad as Brice would be at her for running away, he would kill her for taking his daughter. She thought about the life the girl had led until now, never having a home, traveling from battle to battle. That was no life for a child. But was taking her away from the only family she had ever known right? Roslin thought of the times she had seen Brice with Cadie, the love that shone in his eyes was real, and the child was not even his true daughter. She had never seen her father’s eyes light up like that at the sight of her.
No, as much as I would like to have my sister with me, I can’t take her away from Brice. It would break his heart.
A decision was made; she could not go back, but somehow she would find a way to get Cadie back to her father.
“I’m not going fishing Cadie, I’m going to see my father.” She took the girl’s hand and led her away from the road. With the child along, the chances of Brice following her went from probable to certain, and she decided they would walk out of sight of the road.
“I’m hungry,” Cadie said, looking up expectantly.
Roslin had planned on eating as she walked, not wanting any delay that could allow Brice to catch up with her. But now things had changed. She needed to let Cadie rest, or she wouldn’t make it without being carried, and Roslin didn’t think she was strong enough to carry the child any distance. They would take a short break to rest and eat. Walking to a tree, she sat down resting her back against it. She wasn’t aware of how tired she was until she sat, grateful to be off her feet. Breaking the small loaf, she handed the girl half.
“Are we almost there?” Cadie asked, around a mouthful of bread.
“No, we still have a long way to walk.”
“I’m tired, I want to go back to my Papa.”
“I’m sorry you’re tired Cadie, but you shouldn’t have followed me. Now finish eating, we need to get started again.” Roslin knew that if Brice wasn’t already up that he soon would be, and on her trail. She had to get the child up and walking again. Standing, she pulled Cadie to her feet.
Cadie started crying. “I want my Papa,” she sobbed, as Roslin pulled her along.
Roslin tried to think of something to quiet her down. If she kept this up, Brice could find her with no problem. “You know, I sure would love to hear one of your stories, Cadie. You tell them so well.”
The little girl stopped crying and gave a crooked little smile. She loved the way Roslin praised her stories, and immediately started into a tall tale. They took turns telling stories until Roslin finally started to see familiar landscape. When they finally reached the city, she was carrying the child. Exhausted and hungry, Roslin thought her arms would break off.
Instead of turning toward the palace, Roslin turned and walked to the slave village. She knew that once she told her father about the slave rebellion, none of these people would be safe. As much as she had tried not to believe Brice’s words, Roslin had finally come to the conclusion that he did indeed speak the truth.
Brice woke, but lay in bed thinking about her actions last night. Power with nothing to balance it is a dangerous thing. She had succumbed to it without even realizing it. She shuddered at the thought of how much like the Ryshtans she had allowed herself to become. She was grateful to her mother for stepping in and forcing her to see what she was doing. Stretching, she got up and dressed. This was going to be the last day of the journey that had started five years ago when Elsbeth died. They would reach the outskirts of Darius tonight and make camp. It seemed the closer she got to where it all started, the more on edge Brice became. She hated Lord Athol with every fiber of her being, and the thought that she would finally be able to get her revenge was intoxicating. This quest had taken its toll, dividing her family. Her father and oldest brother had both followed her, and her father had fallen in battle a year into their journey. The three middle brothers had chosen to stay in Darius, not believing that their little sister could really be the chosen one. They feared that to follow her would mean death. The reunion would be bittersweet.
Stepping around the privacy screen, she found all three cots empty. She walked to the tent flap, only to be met by Shea coming in, concern showing in her eyes. “Mother…what’s wrong?”
“Have you seen Roslin and Cadie?” Shea asked, looking around the tent hopefully.
“No, I just got up. Have you looked everywhere?” Shea nodded, and Brice pushed past her to make a search of her own. The camp was quiet, most of the people still in slumber. Walking the parameter of the camp, she found the blanket Roslin had been wrapped in the last time she had seen her. The young woman’s footsteps were headed west, away from camp. Brice’s heart stopped and real panic set in when she saw the small footprints of her little girl walking west also.
“NO!” Brice screamed, as she crumpled to the ground. “She took my baby.” Pictures flashed through her mind of what Lord Athol would do to Cadie if he got his hands on her. Her grief was replaced by blind fury, as she got up and quickly walked to Glen’s tent. Walking in, she pulled her brother out of bed, and dragged him outside. “Roslin has run away to warn the Sovereign, and she’s taken Cadie with her. I’m going after them. I don’t know how much of a lead they have on me, but they are on foot. I’m going to try to stop them before they reach Darius. You’re in charge here. When you get to Darius, if I’m not there waiting with Cadie, then I didn’t make it in time. Don’t make camp and wait. Start the attack immediately.
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll find Cadie and get her to safety, then I’ll join you.” Brice turned and walked to where the horses were tethered, and began to saddle her mount. “Get everyone up and going, we’ve lost the element of surprise, and every moment we delay, gives them time to prepare a defense.” With those words, she mounted up and was gone.
Roslin found her way to a largish building, and inside she found a group of women sitting and sewing. Some were stitching fine silk garments, and some were weaving cloth. An older woman looked up at her with a puzzled expression.
“I don’t remember seeing you before. Why are you out and about in the middle of the work day?”
Roslin placed the sleeping child on the floor, and turned to face the woman. “Do any of you know a tall man named Brice?” Gasps were heard all around the room, as all eyes turned to the stranger, who asked of their lost friend.
The woman rose and walked to the little blonde. “Yes, we knew Brice. Why do you ask about someone who has been dead for five years,” she asked suspiciously.
“Brice isn’t dead. He’s on his way here now with an army to try to defeat the Sovereign.”
The woman looked shocked. When Brice and his followers ran, the Sovereign sent his army after them. They came back with a report that all had been killed, and their bodies left for the vultures. They had all been grateful that they had not followed him too, and been slaughtered as well. Could it be true? “How do we know you speak the truth?”
Roslin pointed to the child sleeping on the floor. “This is his daughter Cadie, she can tell you her father is alive.”
A woman stood suddenly, and all eyes in the room turned to her. She walked to the sleeping girl and knelt down and stroked the auburn hair that was so like Elsbeth’s. “Cadie?” Tear’s started down her face as she watched the girl sleep. “I thought my grandchild was dead.”
“You’re Elsbeth’s mother?” Roslin asked, as the woman returned to stroking the child’s head.
“Yes,” she looked up and extended her hand. “I’m Cora.”
Roslin was pleased that she could leave Cadie in the care of her grandmother, knowing she would be in loving hands. “Cora, I need to leave Cadie with you. I didn’t know that she had followed me until it was too late to take her back. Please get her safely back to Brice. Spread the word that Brice is on his way here with an army. You need to get your families out of the city as soon as you can. You’re all in danger if you stay. The battle could begin as early as tonight, but no later than first light in the morning. You don’t have a lot of time.”
“We’ll all be killed,” a voice from the back of the room said.
“Not if you stay calm,” Roslin responded quickly, before a panic could spread. “You need to go on with your work like nothing is happening. As soon as the bell sounds, go home and gather your families and get out. Don’t take time to gather your belongings, just get out. Hopefully, you will all be long gone before the fighting starts.”
Roslin knew that when she warned her father about the rebel army, he would no doubt try to round up the slaves of Dairus to use as a shield. She couldn’t live with herself if they were all butchered because she warned the Sovereign about the uprising. No, she was glad she had warned them so they could get to safety. Now the problem was timing. She didn’t know how much time she had, but was certain that it was not much. Roslin knew that she could not warn her father until at least an hour after the bell sounded. She hoped that would give the slaves enough time to get away, and still give her people a chance to prepare for the battle.
Brice had pushed the gelding to near exhaustion, when he stumbled and almost went down. Brice climbed down and looked at the lathered animal. She knew better then to treat a horse like this, but Cadie’s life was at stake. “I’m sorry Angus,” she said as she slipped the bridle off of his head. Removing the saddle as well, she patted his neck and continued. “I’ll be back for you as soon as I can.” Realizing that she needed to pace herself, or she would end up just like Angus, Brice broke into an easy jog. It would do Cadie no good if she collapsed and didn’t make it at all. The fact that she hadn’t caught them by now confirmed her fears that they had left last night and not early this morning as she had hoped. Undoubtedly they would already be in the city by now, but they would not be expecting her army to arrive until late tonight. She could still slip in and get Cadie out if Athol hadn’t already murdered her. Pacing be damned, she thought, as she picked up speed.
Roslin approached the palace with much trepidation. The guilt that she felt from the prospect of betraying Brice and the people she had grown to love was overwhelming. She couldn’t think of any other way. She had to at least give her people a chance. She saw a group of slaves bringing fresh produce into the palace, and joined them, fearing the guards would not let her enter. Once inside, she quickly walked to her father’s chamber and knocked on the door. Well, she thought as the door opened, it’s too late to change my mind now.
Athol was shocked to see his daughter dressed in the crude homespun garb of a slave. “What happened to you girl, and why are you dressed in those rags?” he asked. Walking around her, Athol saw the red discoloration on Roslin’s upper arm. He grabbed her and pulled her close to examine the blemish. “Who dared to brand my daughter like a common slave?” Rage flashed in his eyes. The humiliation of his seed walking around branded a common slave was overwhelming.
“The slaves have mobilized into a rebellion, Father. Grandfather Gage is dead, and Frama has fallen. I was afraid and ran away and the rebels found me. I was forced to be the slave of their leader Brice. I managed to escape, and came home to warn you.”
“He used you as his slave!?” Athol shook his head in disgust. He would never be able to marry her off now. No man would have a woman who was used in this manner. “Cover that up girl; I don’t want it public knowledge that those barbarians used you as a slave. I would never live down the shame.”
“Yes father,” Roslin answered, trying to stretch her sleeve down to cover the burn.
“Brice…that name is familiar. Wasn’t he a trainer in my stables?”
Athol glanced at Lennix, his slave boss, for confirmation, and received a nod.
“Brice is the slave who went berserk over the death of your runaway bed slave,” Lennix answered. “The girl and her father were executed, and hung out as an example of what happens to runaways, and anyone who harbors one.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. Brice was a bad one all right. He ran away too, taking a good many of my able bodied slaves with him.” He turned to Lennix. “We let it be known that they had been hunted down and killed, to prevent others from trying to follow and join them.”
“They should be arriving here late tonight.” Roslin told her father. She had given her people a fighting chance. That’s what she had come here to do, so why did she feel guilty about it? She wished she could think of a way to stop the battle without bloodshed. She didn’t want the Ryshtans to win. She believed they were wrong, but she didn’t want them slaughtered either. “May I be excused to clean myself up, and put on some appropriate clothes?”
“By all means get out of those rags,” Athol said looking at her with disgust. “And try not to let anyone else see you until you look decent.”
Roslin walked to her room in silence. The guilt she felt at warning her father seemed to hover around her shoulders, weighing them down. If Brice didn’t hate her before, he certainly would now. Now that she understood the pain he had been through, she understood why he had lashed out at her. If only there was something she could do to stop the fighting. A thought came to her; if she could just put her father’s solders out of commission so that they couldn’t fight…Yes, that could work. She hurried to her room to change, so she could set her plan in motion.
Brice could see the lights of Darius gleaming in the distance; she was almost there. She knew she should feel exhausted, but the adrenaline pumping through her made her oblivious to it. It seemed the closer she got, the more energy she felt. All she could think of was finding Cadie. Once she knew that her little girl was safe, Roslin and her father would pay.
Roslin knocked on the door, and waited for the healer to answer. This had to work, so much depended on it. The door opened and the raven-haired healer Belvin greeted her. He was a rather obese man, with thick bushy eyebrows. His cheeks and nose were always flushed, giving the appearance of long hours in the sun. He looked at her with surprise. The young woman was supposed to be in Frama.
“What can I do for you, my Lady,” he asked in concern, bowing his head to show respect. She looked haggard, and there were dark circles under her eyes.
“I am in need of a strong sleeping powder, Belvin. I think I shall go mad if I don’t get some rest.”
“Of course, my Lady. Come in, I have just the thing.” He stepped aside to welcome her inside. He turned and led the way to a room that was full of bottles and jugs of every size and shape. He walked to a large jug and scooped out a spoonful of powder and emptied it on a square of cloth, which he tied up and handed to the young woman. “Put a pinch of this in some water or juice and drink it down. It should do the trick, but be sure not to put it into wine. When mixed with spirits, it is ten times more potent, and it will knock you right out, with a most unpleasant headache when you finally awaken.”
Just what I need
, she thought. “I’ll be careful,” Roslin answered, reaching out to take the cloth pouch. “Thank you.” Now I just need to figure out how I am going to get back in here to get that jug of sleeping powder without been seen. That problem was solved when someone pounded on the door and asked the healer to rush to his wife’s bedside. She was about to birth their first child, and the man was all in a dither. The two men rushed away, leaving Roslin to collect the powder unhampered.
The final part of Roslin’s plan would kill two birds with one stone. The palace slaves that lived within the palace grounds had not been warned and sent to safety. She would need their help to drug the wine and get it to the soldiers. There was no way she could get it all done in time by herself. Slipping out of the palace, she went to the slave cottages in the back. If she could not get these people to believe her, all would be lost.
A fair haired child answered the door and silently stared at Roslin. “Who is it Elise?” a voice asked, as the child’s mother appeared at the door.
“I need your help, Lena,” Roslin said, recognizing the woman as one of her own personal servants.
A Ryshtan would never come to the home of a slave, much less the daughter of Lord Athol. Something was very wrong. The woman knelt before the young woman and asked. “How may I serve you, my Lady?”
Lena’s husband had arrived at the door and dropped to his knee as well.
“Please get up, your people are in danger. I have come to warn you and ask for your help in preventing bloodshed between your people and mine.”
The couple did not rise, afraid to be caught standing in the presence of the Sovereign’s family. The man looked at her skeptically. “Why would you want to help us?”
Roslin lifted her sleeve and showed them the brand on her arm. “I don’t have time to explain everything right now, but I understand now that slavery is wrong, and I want to do what I can to try to stop it.” Roslin could see by the shocked expression on the young man’s face, that the sight of her burned arm had had the desired effect. “A runaway slave called Brice is on his way here with an army to destroy Dairus. If this happens, there will be many casualties on both sides.”
The young man’s expression had changed from skepticism, to wanting to believe, and then back to skepticism at the mention of Brice’s name. “Brice can’t lead an army; he died five years ago.”
“He’s alive. I spent the last few weeks with him and his mother Shea, and daughter Cadie,” Roslin said, hoping desperately that they would believe her and help. Time was quickly running out.
Lena grasped her husbands arm. Many of their dear friends had supposedly been hunted down and slaughtered, but no bodies were returned as proof. The Sovereign had announced that they had been left for the scavengers to feed on, that they were not worthy to bring home for a proper burial.
“I don’t have time to argue with you about Brice’s death,” Roslin continued, “There is an army approaching, and lives will be lost unless we do something. I have a plan that can prevent this, but I need your help to drug my father’s best wine and deliver it to the soldiers so they will be unable to join in the fight. Round up all of the palace slaves and send the women and children away. The rest of you can help me stop the soldiers.”
The young husband found it hard to believe that the Sovereign’s daughter would help them like this, but she seemed sincere, and he found himself trusting her. Standing, he extended his hand. “My name is Rogan, and I am proud to help you, Lady Roslin.”
“Thank you,” Roslin said, taking his hand and squeezing. “Please hurry, we don’t have much time.”
Roslin sat at Rogan’s side as he drove the wagon full of wine toward the palace gates. This has to work, she thought to herself, glancing back at the crates of drugged wine behind her in the wagon. They stopped at the gate and the palace guard greeted the Lady Roslin with a bow. Roslin acknowledged the bow and asked. “Open the gates. My father is sending his finest wine so his noble solders can drink a toast to victory before the battle. Of course the Royal guards, such as yourself, will have the honor to drink their toast with the Sovereign himself and not have to settle for his daughter.” She was relieved to see the grin spread on his face as he opened the gates, and waved them through. They drove the wagon to the soldier’s enclosure, and Rogan helped Roslin down. Men were bustling around busily, preparing for battle, but stopped in their tracks when they saw Lady Roslin. Taking a deep breath, Roslin began to speak.
“Good soldiers of Ryshta, my father wishes to honor you by presenting you with his finest wine. He has every confidence in your victory over the rag-tag rebels that threaten our sovereignty. He has asked that every man of you drink a toast to the coming victory.” Roslin extended her hand to the wagon. “The leader of each division will take enough for his men, and make sure that every man drinks to a swift victory.” With that she beckoned Rogan to follow her leaving the men to distribute the wine, and carry out what they believed to be the Sovereign’s wishes. When they were out of sight of the soldiers, Roslin stopped and turned to Rogan. “It’s time for you to join your family in safety. Thank you.” Rogan started to kneel in front of her and Roslin took his hand and pulled him back up. “You are a free man now. You no longer need to kneel before the likes of me.”
Rogan dropped to his knee. “I am honored to have been of service to you, Lady Roslin.” He took her hand and kissed it. “I say this as a free man, and I kneel because I want to, not because I have to.”
A tear came to Roslin’s eye. “Thank you. Now get to safety, your family will be worried.”
“What about you, my Lady?”
“I have to go back and try to keep my father occupied until I know the drug has had time to work. I am hoping when he finds out, he will see he has no choice but to surrender. If we’re lucky, this could be over soon with no one getting hurt.”
“Luck be with you then, my Lady,” Rogan said, as he stood to leave.
Roslin watched him until he was out of sight, and then started back to the palace. It looked like things just might work out. She hoped that once Cadie got back to Brice, and Rogan explained everything else, perhaps he could even forgive her for accidentally spiriting away his daughter. Roslin knew he had to be frantic with worry over the child, and she was so sorry for causing him such grief.
Brice reached the palace, and slipped over the wall unnoticed. Pathetic, she thought. The Ryshtans had grown so complacent, even a child would have no trouble sneaking in. Brice had never been a palace slave and was not familiar with the palace, or its grounds. Having no idea where to start, she decided she would just go from room to room until she found Cadie, and anyone who tried to stop her would pay dearly. She started through the garden when she saw something moving out of the corner of her eye. Glancing over, she saw that Roslin was also walking toward the palace.
At that moment, Roslin’s eyes fell on Brice and she froze. She recognized the look in Brice’s eyes for what it was. It was clear that Brice planned to kill her, and she turned to run. Brice overtook her effortlessly, and threw the young woman to the ground. Straddling Roslin, the tall woman placed her dagger against her throat.
“Tell me where Cadie is,” Brice demanded, as she pushed the blade until blood started to trickle down Roslin’s neck.
“I gave her to the slaves. I asked them to warn the others, then take Cadie back to you.”
Brice found it hard to believe this incredible story. Why would Roslin take Cadie, only to send her back? It made no sense. No, she had taken the child to use against her when the battle started, and Brice was not about to let that happen. Roslin would tell her where Cadie was, then she would die. “Don’t lie to me! I’ll kill you and anyone else that keeps me from my daughter.”
“I told you the truth. I would never hurt Cadie. I love her.”
Brice was trembling, she was so angry. She had believed that Roslin was falling in love with her before all this started, and that turned out to be a lie. She was only pretending until she could run away and warn her father of their plans. Now to hear the woman profess to love her little girl was too much. “I hope you have made peace with your God, because you are about to die.” Lifting the dagger into the air, Brice made ready to plunge it into her betrayer’s heart.
Roslin watched Brice’s trembling hands as she waited for the dagger to strike. They seemed to hover above her forever, prolonging the agony. “Just do it and get it over with!” she screamed, as she reached up and grabbed Brice’s hands, forcing them down toward her chest.
Startled, Brice watched as the tip of the knife broke through the skin of Roslin’s chest. “No!” Brice shouted, as she pulled the dagger back, then tossed it to the side. Roslin watched Brice’s expression change from one of fury, to one of pain. “Why did you steal my baby? I cared for you.” Brice asked pleadingly, a tear starting down her face. She got off the young woman and sat, her eyes never leaving Roslin’s face.
Pulling up the sleeve on her right arm to expose the raw burned skin Roslin answered. “You have a funny way of showing it.”
“I’m sorry I did that, but… I was hurt and angry.” Brice looked down at her hands, unable to continue to look into confused green eyes. “I thought we were growing to love each other. I cared about you, and you lied to me.” Looking back into Roslin’s eyes, she pleaded. “Please, I don’t want to hurt you, I just want my baby. Give her to me, and you’ll never have to see me again.”
Roslin couldn’t believe how vulnerable Brice had allowed himself to become. She couldn’t bear to see the pain reflected in his eyes. Reaching over she covered one of his large hands with her own. “Please believe me, I didn’t steal Cadie from you. I would never do that. When I ran away, she followed me. I didn’t know until it was too late. I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t leave her alone, so I brought her with me.” Tears started down Roslin’s face as she continued. “I told you the truth. I gave her to your people, and asked them to warn the others, then get Cadie back to the safety of your camp.” She squeezed Brice’s hand. “Cadie is safe.”
Brice searched the green depths of Roslin’s eyes. She wanted so desperately to believe what she said. A lifetime of hate and mistrust of the Ryshtans made it difficult for her to believe that one of them would protect her child, especially after the way Brice had treated the young woman when she found out the truth about her. She felt relief wash over her as she realized that she did trust Roslin. Cadie was safe. Brice took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, wiping the tears from her face. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“In the barn there’s a grain storage room. Three paces from the south wall, there is a door in the floor that can be pulled up. There’s a nick in one of the floorboards. That’s how you pry it open. It leads to an underground room. You’ll be safe there until this is all over.” Brice stood and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Roslin said, standing quickly and grabbing Brice’s arm. She was torn as to whether or not to tell Brice what she had done. If her feelings were correct about the rebel leader, Brice would help her take down Ryshta with as little bloodshed as possible. But what if she was wrong? It would be the slaughter she had been trying to prevent. “I…”
“Yes?” Brice answered, as she waited for Roslin to say something, indecision clearly evident in the young woman’s eyes.
“I sent drugged wine to my father’s soldiers to drink a toast to victory. They should still be unconscious when your army arrives.”
Brice looked into startlingly green eyes, and she believed her. “Why?”
“I was trying to prevent bloodshed…on your side, and mine.”
“Do you know what you’ve done? Your father will never forgive you for this.”
“I don’t seek my father’s forgiveness…only yours.” Roslin looked away, unable to hold the blue gaze any longer.
Brice placed a finger under the little blonde’s chin and lifted her face so their eyes could meet again. “I’m the one who needs to ask forgiveness. Can you forgive me for the way I treated you when I found out you were Ryshtan?”
A tear started down Roslin’s cheek. “I can,” she answered, never breaking eye contact.
Brice wiped the tear away with her thumb. “And I can forgive you,” she said. “Now I need to get back to my army and let them know the situation before all hell breaks loose around here.” Leaning down, she pulled Roslin into her arms, and pressed her lips to her forehead in a gentle kiss. She closed her eyes and clung to the young woman, not wanting to let go. “Promise me, you’ll go to the safety of the hidden room until this is over. I’m afraid of what your father will do to you if he finds out what you have done.”
Brice leaned down for one more kiss, and then she was gone.
The captain of the royal guard knelt before his Sovereign. Alban was visibly shaken by the news he was to relay to Lord Athol. His Lord was known for his temper, and frequently took it out on the messenger of bad news. “My Lord, we searched the village and the slaves are nowhere to be found.”
Lord Athol bellowed. Anger flushed his face. Somehow the slaves had been warned and had managed to escape.
“There is more to report, my Lord. It would appear that someone drugged the wine you sent to your army for a victory toast. We found the men unconscious at their posts.”
“I SENT NO WINE,” Athol shouted, furious at the turn of events.
“But the guard at the palace gate told me that the Lady Roslin personally told him it was from you,” Alban said, confusion clearly showing on his face.
“Roslin?” How could this be? There must be some sort of misunderstanding. “Find her…bring her to me.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Athol was stunned. Roslin? Would Roslin try to undermine their defenses? It couldn’t be, she was, after all, Ryshtan. There had to be something else at work here and he intended to find out what, or who it was. He needed to think, clear his head. Walking outside into the cool moonlit night, he sought the solitude of his garden. Hearing voices, he slipped behind the hedge that bordered the garden. He could see Roslin standing with the rebel leader Brice. When the slave kissed her, and she did not try to rebuff him at all, it was more than he could stand. She was the daughter of the Sovereign; he was a piece of low-life trash. Suddenly he understood why all the slaves had vanished. Roslin had betrayed him. How could she choose to side with a pack of rebellious barbarians? The bastards had even branded her, yet she was helping them. He wished he had had some of the royal guard with him, and he would have had Brice captured on the spot, but looking at the size of the man, there was no way he would try to take him on alone. No, he would wait until he left, and then deal with Roslin.
Roslin watched Brice disappear into the darkness. The world she grew up in was crumbling around her, yet she smiled. All she could think of was that Brice did not hate her…had actually asked for her forgiveness. Not only did she forgive him, she was grateful to him for opening her eyes to the suffering the Ryshtans had caused.
“Well, well. What do we have here? My daughter, willingly consorting with the enemy.”
Roslin whirled around to face her father. She watched as he slowly approached her, a look of pure hatred reflected in his eyes. “Father, I…”
Athol shouted, as he slapped her across the face. “I don’t need to hear any excuses from your betraying lips. Anything you say would be a lie. You let that low-class-scum touch you. I saw the look on your face when that bastard kissed you. You enjoyed it”. He backhanded her hard, his ring leaving a bloody scrape across her face. He reached down and grabbed her arm, and started for the palace, pulling her with him. “He may take Dairus from me, but he will not take you. When he returns, he will find his new woman hanging out on display, just like the other one.”
Roslin couldn’t believe this was happening. Her father meant to kill her and hang her out to torment Brice. Frantically she pulled away and tried to run, but he grabbed her again, and this time she felt his fist slam into her face, and everything went black.
Brice went over the wall again with no problem, and started away from the palace at an easy jog. She headed for the woods east of the city, sure that she would find the recent evacuees in its protective cover. Glen and the rest of her army would not arrive for some time yet, but she could organize the men of Dairus who were willing to fight with her. She was not sure how many would join her; after all, these were the ones who had been afraid to follow her five years ago when she ran away and started building and training an army that would one day bring an end to the reign of the Sovereign.
Reaching the woods, she moved silently, listening for any sound that would lead her to the hidden slaves of Dairus. She was almost to the other end of the trees when she finally heard them, and crept closer to verify that these were indeed her people. Brice smiled as she recognized friends she had not seen in five long years. Her long strides carried her swiftly into the large group of people, who sat and waited for word that Brice’s army had arrived. Spotting Mikah, she walked to where he stood talking to a group of men. She could tell by his tone that he was not pleased with the turn of events. The old man saw her approaching, and walked to meet her.
Brice had never been able to get through to the village elder, and by the sound of it, he was still trying to convince the people of Dairus that to follow Brice would mean their death. It was also evident that they were no longer willing to listen to him, now that it appeared Brice had in fact been the chosen one all along.
“Well,” the old man said, “I see the rumors are true.” He looked around to see if anyone accompanied Brice. “Where is this army of yours that’s come to liberate us?”
“I came ahead. They will be here sometime tonight.” Brice answered, looking through the throng of people. More and more were gathering, as word spread that she had arrived. Suddenly someone was shouting her name, and Brice turned to see her brother Collin running toward her. He threw his arms around her in welcome.
“They told us you had all been hunted down and killed,” Collin said, hugging her tightly. Then stepping back, he took a good look at his little sister. “You are a sight for sore eyes,” he hugged Brice again. “Come on, I’ll take you to see the rest of the family.” He smiled and turned to lead the way.
“Is Cadie with you?” Brice asked as she fell in step with her brother.
“Yes, Cora brought her when she gave us the news that you were coming. Cadie is going to be so glad to see you. I think she was a little bewildered to wake up among strangers.”
They continued through the crowd of people who had come to see for themselves that Brice was really there. Everyone wanted to shake her hand and thank her for coming back for them. It was slow going, but finally the people she found surrounding her were family. She could see her brother Dover standing away in the shadows watching her, but he made no move to greet her with the rest of the family. Some wounds take a long time to heal, she thought, and knew when this was all over; she would probably have to make the first move to re-establish a relationship with Dover.
“Papa,” Cadie shouted, running as fast as her little legs could carry her.
Brice knelt down and scooped the child up in her arms. They had been apart for only one day, but it had been agony. “You scared me when you ran off like that,” she said, as she hugged Cadie fiercely. “Please don’t ever leave again without telling me where you’re going.”
“I thought Roslin was going fishing, so I followed her. I wanted to surprise you with a nice big fish.”
“I know little one, but it’s important I know where you are or I worry.”
“I was okay Papa, I was with Roslin,” Cadie said, wondering why her Papa would be worried about her when she was with her friend.
Brice felt arms wrapping around her as Rylan greeted her.
“It’s about time you got back,” Rylan said, releasing his hold on his sister, and punching her arm. “When this is all over, we have a lot of catching up to do. You have a niece and nephew you’ve never met.” Looking around he continued, “Are Mother and Father with you? And where’s Glen?”
“Mother and Glen are on their way here now, but…” Brice looked down sadly. “Father was killed in battle almost a year ago.”
The brothers became very quiet, as the sad news was digested. They had accepted their family’s death five years ago, but hope that the whole family would be reunited had blossomed with the news that Brice and her army were on their way home.
“I know you all want to know what happened to Father, and I’ll tell you everything, but this is not the time. We have to get organized and prepare for what’s to come.” Collin and Rylan nodded in agreement, and Brice continued. “I believe we will be able to take Dairus with little or no bloodshed.” She saw the skeptical look on their faces, and hastened to explain. “Roslin managed to drug most of the Sovereign’s army. All that remain are the royal guard, and when my army arrives we will have them vastly outnumbered.”
“Are you sure we can trust her?” Rylan asked, plainly confused. ” What if she only told you she drugged the soldiers? What if it’s a trap?” He looked around at the gathering crowd. “Why would the Sovereign’s daughter help us defeat her own people?”
“I’m sure,” Brice answered, her face becoming very serious. “I would trust Roslin with my life.” Brice smiled to herself to realize that it was true. She trusted the young woman completely. “Roslin spent the last few weeks in my camp, and has come to view slavery as detestable as we do, and she’s made me understand that perhaps not all Ryshtans are the monsters we thought them to be.”
One of the men listening to this conversation stepped forward. “Brice speaks the truth,” Rogan said. “The Lady Roslin asked for the help of the palace slaves to drug the wine and deliver it to the soldiers. I personally drove her and the wine to their destination. She risked her life to help us.”
Cora stepped forward too. “It was Roslin who gave me my granddaughter, and warned us to run so that her father could not use us as a shield against Brice’s army. I see no reason to doubt her sincerity.”
Brice wrapped her arms around Cora. “It’s good to see you,” she looked around at the faces of her family then made eye contact with Dover and smiled, “All of you. I’ve missed you so much.” Her face became serious again. Looking at her brothers she continued. “I need you to poll everyone, and see who is willing to fight. I’m hoping that it won’t come to that. There is a chance they will surrender to our greater number. When Glen gets here, join your forces with his and explain what has happened.”
“Won’t you be with us?” Collin asked.
“No, I’m going back to Dairus. I need to make sure that Roslin made it into hiding safely.” Although Brice knew that she had been able to move more stealthily without the young woman, the rebel leader couldn’t help wishing now, that she had brought Roslin with her. She just had a bad feeling, and knew it would not ease up until she went back to check. “When they get here, I want you to surround the palace wall…let them see the reality of our numbers. Even if the solders had not been drugged, they would have been hard pressed to beat us. If you don’t hear from me when you get there, assume that I have been incapacitated, and Glen will be in charge.” With those words, Brice turned and slipped back into the darkness.
Athol walked into Roslin’s chamber and dumped his unconscious daughter unceremoniously on the bed. Pacing back and forth he waited for her to regain consciousness. He wanted her awake, and fully aware of what was happening to her. Growing tired of waiting when it appeared she would not awaken anytime soon, he slapped her a few times until she started to come around. Roslin awoke feeling groggy, and fought to clear the fogginess in her head. This can’t be happening, she thought, as Athol stripped the fine clothes off her body and forced her to put on the simple garments she had been wearing when she arrived home. As far as Athol was concerned, she was no longer his daughter. She had defected to the other side and would die without honor, dressed in the disgusting rags that would let everyone see the reduction in her station.
Roslin grimaced as her hands where tied tightly behind her, and she was dragged from the room. Her brothers Kyle and Lon met them in the hallway, and ten-year old Kyle gasped at the sight of his battered sister. Running to her, he threw his arms around her and burst into tears.
“What happened to you?” he asked his sister, clinging to her.
Athol pulled Kyle away from Roslin. There was no keeping what Roslin had done a secret. He decided that now was as good a time as any for them to find out the truth about their traitorous sister. He didn’t believe in coddling his children. “With the help of your sister, the slaves have mounted a rebellion. She has doomed us all to be butchered by those ungrateful low-lifes.”
Roslin glared at her father. “Ungrateful? Were they supposed to be grateful to you for keeping them as slaves and dehumanizing them?” Roslin took a step closer to Athol, never losing eye contact. “I believed you, Father, when you told me that slaves were so ignorant and lazy they would have died if they had not been taken under our control.” Roslin looked over to her brothers and continued. “I found them to be just the opposite. They were good, hard working, caring people. They saved my life and took care of me.”
“And they branded you a slave,” Athol spat at her.
“Only after Brice found out I had lied to him. That was the day I ran away. The rest of my time with them, I was shown nothing but kindness. Not because I was someone important and they feared reprisal. I was a stranger to them, but they took me in and shared what they had with me. What I went through that last day opened my eyes to what we have done to these people. When I think that I participated, it sickens me.”
“I can’t believe that my daughter could turn her back on her family and her people, condemning them to death after such a short time with those barbarians.”
Roslin could see that her words were having no effect on her father, but she hoped she could at least reach her brothers. If, for some reason, the Ryshtans managed to win this conflict, her brothers were the future, and needed to see the truth. She let her gaze move from one brother to the other, beseeching them with her eyes to believe her. “I am not a traitor. I’m trying to save our people, and theirs. There is no reason we can’t all live together as free people.”
Athol gripped Roslin’s jaw, forcing her to look at him. “And in this free society of yours, who will do the labor? If we don’t force them, they won’t do anything.”
Roslin’s eyes bore into her father’s, refusing to be intimidated. “You don’t have to force them. Just pay them a fair wage, or a share in the crops…”
“This is ridiculous. If you really think something like that can work, you’re crazy. You committed an act of treason by betraying us to the enemy. For that you will die.” Athol started pushing Roslin down the hallway, and Kyle started crying again. “Lon, take your brother to his room and keep him there.”
“Yes Father,” the fifteen-year-old answered. Roslin must be mad to talk back to him like that, the young man thought. It was dangerous for any woman to address a man in such a way; but this was not just any man, he was the sovereign. Not even a man could speak to him like that and go unpunished. He wondered, as he dragged his little brother away if it was true what their father said. Had Roslin really committed an act of treason? Guilt gripped his heart, and he wished he were man enough to stand up to his father like Roslin had done. The young man could not agree with his sister’s support of the slaves. Everyone knew they were inferior, but just the same, he found himself admiring his sister, even if she was just a woman. She would die, and if what their father said was true, he supposed it was a just punishment. Still, he wished there was something he could do to prevent it.
Roslin was grateful her brothers would not be forced to witness her execution. Kyle had grown especially close to her the last three years. Because of their mother’s illness he had depended on her for the mothering that the ill woman was unable to give. As a female child, she had spent little time with her brothers until then. Girls and boys were schooled separately, and seldom, if ever were allowed to play together. They were together at mealtime, and that was about it. She noticed that in Brice’s camp, girls and boys were schooled together, and played together. If Ryshtan boys had not interacted with their mothers, they would have had very little contact with females at all until they were twelve and allowed to take their first bed slave.
Athol pushed her through the door for the walk to the wall surrounding the palace grounds. He planned to hang her from the wall in full view of Brice’s army as they advanced.
“Lord Athol, they are coming,” Captain Alban said, rushing to his sovereign’s side.
“How long before they get here?”
“Perhaps five minutes.”
Athol pushed Roslin to walk faster; this had to be finished before the rebels reached the wall. “Sorry you won’t get to say good-by to your lover, but you will be dead before he arrives.”
When they reached the steps leading up to the sentry walk atop the wall, Roslin stopped. “Please… Father, don’t do this. Lay down your arms and talk to them. This can be settled without bloodshed.”
Athol stepped around her and started dragging her up the stairs. When they reached the walkway, he placed a rope around her neck, then forced her to climb to the edge of the wall. The rope hung down her back, and she could feel it with her fingers. Roslin grasped the rope as her father pushed her off the wall, but when she reached the end of the slack, her arms were wrenched back painfully, causing her to let go, but at least she had managed to break her fall and prevent her neck from being broken. The weight of her body pulled the knot tight, and she began to strangle.
When Brice found the hidden room empty, panic filled her heart. Something had gone wrong; Roslin had promised she would come here and wait. She vaulted out of the underground room and started running toward the palace grounds. She prayed she would be in time. If Lord Athol had already discovered Roslin’s efforts to help the slaves, her life would surely be forfeit. Reaching the wall, she climbed it quickly, and was horrified to see Athol push Roslin over the side with a rope around her neck. They were only about a hundred feet away, but with Roslin hanging at the end of a rope, it seemed an enormous distance.
Athol saw Brice coming and turned to run. He was not about to go up against the formidable man alone. He called for Alban to come. He knew that Alban was no match for the rebel leader, but he hoped the caption of his royal guard would be able to delay Brice so that his efforts to save Roslin would be in vain.
Brice did not attempt to catch Roslin’s cowardly father as he attempted to escape. Her only thought was getting to Roslin in time. If the fall had not broken her neck, she should still be alive. Grasping the rope, she pulled the young woman up the side of the wall until she could reach her shoulders and lift her over the side of the wall.
As Roslin continued to strangle, her vision seemed to be shrinking, like she was looking through a black tunnel that kept getting smaller. Soon the blackness would be complete, and it would be over. Roslin felt hands gripping under her arms and pulling, but the rope around her neck did not loosen. She thought she could hear Brice’s voice off in the distance calling her as the darkness finally closed in around her.
As Brice lifted Roslin over the wall and removed the rope from around her neck, she felt a searing pain run through her shoulder. Looking down, she could see the tip of an arrow sticking out of her left arm right where it connected to her shoulder. Whirling around, she saw Athol hiding behind a soldier who sent another arrow flying toward her. It caught her in the side, and she momentarily went down on one knee. Rising, she grabbed her sword, and stood over Roslin to protect her. She could see her army approaching, and if she could only last another minute or two, Roslin would be safe. She couldn’t understand how Glen had gotten here so quickly, and planned to ask him if she managed to live through this.
Lord Athol watched Brice sway as she stood protectively over Roslin, and suddenly this man did not seem quite so frightening any more. Alban had notched another arrow, and the sovereign pushed the bow down just as he released the string. The arrow went low, and hit Brice in the thigh. “No more, he’s mine,” Athol said. Grabbing Alban’s sword, he advanced on Brice, a large grin spreading across his face. He wanted to inflect his revenge on Brice personally. Brice stepped forward awkwardly to meet the attack. Pain wracked her body, and she was losing a lot of blood. When the first blow hit Athol’s sword, he was surprised at the strength the wounded man still possessed. This was not going to be quite as easy as he had first thought. Moving in and out he pressed his attack on the injured man. He could tell with each blow that Brice was weakening quickly. Springing forward, he kicked Brice in her wounded thigh and her leg buckled. She went down hard, gasping for breath. Revenge is sweet, Athol thought, as he stood over Brice, ready to strike the killing blow.
Dazed and confused, Roslin regained consciousness. As she fought to clear her head, she was horrified to see three arrows protruding from Brice’s body. Her father was fighting with the wounded man, and Roslin scrambled to her feet as the rebel leader was kicked in the leg and fell. Her father stood over Brice, poised to thrust his blade through her fallen savior. “NO!” she screamed, as she ran at her father, hitting him as hard as she could with her shoulder. The blow was unexpected, and it sent him sprawling over the edge of the walkway to the ground below.
Roslin watched in horror as her father went over the edge of the wall. She had only wanted to stop him…not kill him. She dropped to her knees, fresh tears making their way down her cheeks. He had not been a loving father, but she had loved him in spite of it. Even though he had tried to kill her, she did not wish him dead. Her heart ached at the taking of a life, but she knew with certainty, she would do it again if she had to, to save Brice.
Turning back to the fallen rebel leader, Roslin wished she could reach out and touch him, but her hands were still tied behind her back. Brice looked so pale, and there was so much blood that the young woman began to panic. They were alone on top of the wall now. Alban had fled when he saw that Lord Athol was dead. The enemy had surrounded the wall, and he knew they would be less then charitable toward him for shooting their leader.
Roslin stood and searched the mass of men below looking for Glen. She was frantic to get someone up here to take care of Brice. She couldn’t see Glen, so she just started calling for help. “SOMEONE PLEASE HELP,” she shouted, as her eyes continued to scan the crowd. “BRICE HAS BEEN INJURED…HE NEEDS HELP. PLEASE HURRY.” She saw Glen push his way through the mass of men, and rush toward the gate followed closely by three men she assumed were Brice’s brothers.
The gate was locked, and Glen immediately started to scale the wall. He yelled for others to climb over as well to unlock the gate.
Now that she knew that help was on the way, Roslin knelt by Brice’s side. “Hold on,” she said, tears spilling down her face. Roslin’s chin started to tremble and she leaned forward and rested her face on Brice’s good shoulder, unable to hold back the racking sobs any longer.
Brice reached up and stroked the young woman’s hair. “Shhh, I’ll be all right. Don’t cry.”
“But there’s so much blood,” Roslin sobbed, not consoled by Brice’s comforting words.
Glen arrived and knelt on the other side of Brice. “I can’t leave you alone for a minute or you get yourself in trouble,” he said, smiling at his sister.
“How did you get here so quickly?” Brice said, returning the smile.
“I left a small escort for the women and children. The rest of us mounted up to get here as quickly as possible. Collin, Rylan, and Dover arrived, and Dover dropped to his knees. “Brice…I…I’m so sorry.” The tall woman reached out and took his hand. “It’s forgotten,” was all she said, and then she smiled at him.
“But…” Dover tried to speak again, but Brice cut him off.
“I said it was forgotten…I meant it.” Brice said, as she watched him nod his acceptance.
“You two pick up Brice, we need to get him taken care of,” Glen said to Collin and Rylan, who immediately picked up their sister. “Where to?” Glen asked, looking at Roslin. “Mother won’t be here for hours yet and Brice needs a healer.”
“Follow me,” Roslin answered, standing and starting down the stairs. “We have a healer in the palace.”
Glen caught up with Roslin and cut the rope that bound her hands, while his brothers carefully followed along, trying not to hurt Brice.
Roslin rubbed her wrists and hands, trying to take away the numbness the tight leather tie had caused. “I’m going to run ahead and find the healer. When you get to the palace, take Brice up the stairs to my chamber. It’s the last room on the right. I’ll bring the healer as soon as I find him.” She dashed ahead, hoping that Belvin had not gone into hiding as it seemed all the palace guard’s had done. With the appearance of Brice’s army, and the death of their Sovereign, all sight of the royal guard had vanished. It was as if they had ceased to exist.
Roslin found the healers chamber in disarray. It looked as though he had quickly gone through his belongings and remedies, taking what was important, and leaving the rest. Her panic grew as she realized she had no idea where else to look. She knew with his great bulk, he would not be moving too fast, so there was hope. If only Shea was here, but it could be hours before she arrived.
Turning to leave, Roslin stopped dead in her tracks. She was sure she heard a noise coming from the closet. Crossing the room, she listened at the door. Cautiously, she opened it to find Belvin and his belongings packed tightly inside.
The fear on Belvin’s face momentarily relaxed into relief as he saw that it was Roslin, and not the rebels who had discovered him. His expression becoming grim again as he noticed her bruised and bleeding face. Extricating himself from the tight confines of the closet, he shouldered his bag and started for the door. “Come Lady Roslin, we must flee the city before it is overrun by the rebel slaves. No Ryshtan is safe here anymore. The guards have abandoned us to them.”
“We are in no danger; they mean us no harm,” Roslin said, stepping into the doorway to block his exit.
“No harm?” He looked at her frantically. “I saw the royal guard as they deserted the city. I called to them to ask what had happened.” He gripped Roslin’s shoulders. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the rebels have killed your father.” Moving her out of the way he moved through the door and started down the hall. “They took your brothers with them. They should have taken you with them too. I’ll protect you as best I can, but I’m a healer, not a soldier. Our best chance is to get out of the city and hide.”
Roslin grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to a stop, but the large man kept on walking. She could plainly see that he was scared to death. There was no way she could force this hulking man to come with her so she decided on another plan of action. “Please come with me to my chamber while I gather a few belongings.” She looked up into his eyes. “I’m afraid to go alone, but I will feel safe if you are with me.”
Belvin hesitated for only a moment. The beautiful young woman’s words stroked his ego. She feels safe with me. Nodding at the young woman, he started walking toward the back staircase. “I’ll help you Lady Roslin, but we must be quick.”
Glen opened the door and stepped aside to allow his brothers to carry Brice into Roslin’s room. They placed her gently on the large canopied bed. They had no more than put her down, when the door opened and Roslin entered, followed by a large man. Belvin took one look at the men and turned to run.
Roslin again grabbed his arm to try to stop him and the results were the same as before. He continued on down the long hallway, as if she was not holding onto him at all. “Wait…” Roslin called to the frightened man. “Please, we need your help. They won’t hurt you.”
Brice’s four brothers took chase of the healer as he lumbered down the hall, catching up easily and surrounding him. It was clear the man was frightened, and they kept their distance for fear he might hurt Roslin in his panic. “Our brother has been injured and is in need of a healer,” Glen said as he took a step closer. He held up his hands to show that he carried no weapons. “I promise no harm will come to you if you help us.”
“Why should I believe you?” Belvin gestured toward Roslin. “Look what your people did to the Lady Roslin.”
“No, they didn’t do this to me. My father did.”
Belvin knew Lord Athol’s temper. He had in fact experienced it on more than one occasion. Was it possible that Lady Roslin was telling the truth? Realizing that the battle was lost and he really had no choice, he nodded his head and walked back toward Roslin’s Chamber. It certainly would do no harm to minister to the injured man, and it might just save his life.
Roslin couldn’t bear the thought of the pain Brice would be in when the arrows were wrenched from his body. Remembering the sleeping powder the healer had given her tied up in a square of cloth, she ran to fetch it. She put a pinch in a glass of wine and brought it to Brice, hoping to spare him the pain.
“Drink this…it will help with the pain,” Roslin said, as she lifted Brice and held the glass to her lips.
Brice managed a few good swallows, before the strain of trying to sit up became too much, and she was forced to lay back down. Seeing the worried look in Roslin’s eyes, Brice tried to comfort the young woman. Reaching over, she took a trembling hand in her own and squeezed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine as long as you’re here,” she said as her eyes slowly closed.
Roslin squeezed back. “Sleep now…I’ll be here when you wake up…I promise.” She leaned over and gently touched her lips to Brice’s forehead.
“Okay,” Brice nodded, as the world slipped away.
The healer washed his hands, and watched Roslin with his patient. He wondered at her seeming devotion to the man, thinking perhaps this was the reason Lord Athol had beaten her so. Opening his bag, he removed a knife and began to cut his patient’s shirt from her body. When the shirt was removed,
Belvin found that the rebel leader’s chest was wrapped in a bandage. He wondered if Brice had cracked some ribs. He decided he could wait to check on the old injuries and went to work on the more urgent sites. Cutting through the pant leg just above the arrow in Brice’s thigh, the last of the obstacles were removed. The sleeping powder had done its work, and Brice slept through the removal of the arrows from her body. Roslin clung to Brice’s hand, and watched in silence as the healer cleaned and dressed each of the wounds.
“Is he going to be all right?” Roslin asked, as Belvin finished dressing the last wound.
“I think so, as long as infection does not set in.” He reached to pick up his knife. “Now lets get these old bandages off and see if new ones are needed.”
Roslin remembered the second night she had been in Brice’s camp. Shea had insisted on dressing a wound that the rebel leader had told her was just a scratch. That must be what this is, she thought, as she watched the healer cut through the layers of cloth. She gasped, as the wrapping was removed to reveal the unmistakable breasts of a woman. Releasing Brice’s hand, she backed away from the bed; unable to keep herself from staring at the evidence that Brice had also lied. Turning, she ran from the room and out of the palace. Not stopping until she reached the spot in the garden where she had asked Brice for forgiveness. Dropping to her knees, Roslin had only to close her eyes for the unwelcome vision of Brice’s breasts to engulf her again. Anger flooded through her. He…she, lied to me. She remembered again how her own lie had angered Brice. The tall woman had made it clear that because they had grown to love each other, that there should be no lies between them, yet she had continued to perpetrate a lie, while chastising Roslin for hers. The little blonde was not sure she could get past the lack of trust that the rebel leader had in her. Brice had expected Roslin to trust her completely with her secrets, yet trust should work both ways.
Glen saw Roslin run away, and could tell the young woman was upset. He rushed to his sister’s side, fearing the worst. He found the healer staring at Brice’s uncovered chest in disbelief. He walked over and pulled a cover over his sleeping sister, and turned to Belvin. “Is your work finished here?” he asked.
Belvin nodded his head. “I’ve done all I can. She’s lost a lot of blood, and we can expect her to feel a weakness from that. There will be pain, but no vital inner organs were damaged. She should be up in a few days unless infection sets in.” He turned to the water basin and washed, then dried his hands. “She will need to take it easy for two or three weeks, but I don’t anticipate any lasting results of these injuries, beyond the unavoidable scarring.”
“Thank you for taking care of my bro…sister,” Glen said, catching himself from using the word brother. It would be silly to try to deceive Belvin, the man had seen for himself that Brice was not what she appeared to be. Glen had spent most of his life calling Brice brother, and to tell the truth, to him, that’s what she was. Now that Roslin and the healer knew, it wouldn’t be long before everyone did. Well, it was bound to come out sometime, and Glen was amazed that no one had discovered their secret sooner.
“Yes…well…I’ll be back to check on her a little later. She should sleep until morning.” Belvin turned and started for the door. He was relieved that the rebels needed him. He would be safe for at least until they no longer required his services. He was rather expecting an escort waiting to take him to his chambers, and was pleasantly surprised to find none. Apparently he was free to come and go, as long as he continued to do their bidding.
Roslin hardly remembered walking back to the palace, and up to her mother’s bedchamber. The exhaustion of two days without sleep was catching up to her. Collapsing on the bed, she hoped sleep would claim her quickly. Sleep would be the only thing that would stop the vision of Brice’s breasts from returning to haunt her. She had known that Brice was not like other men; had even tried to identify what it was about her that didn’t quite fit. Now she understood, but this understanding did not seem to make the attraction any less. Just the opposite in fact. The sight of those beautiful womanly breasts on Brice’s strong muscular body somehow seemed to increase the desire she felt for the woman.
Brice awoke to pain. It seemed that everything hurt. Opening her eyes, she found herself alone. The first rays of dawn’s light were beginning to filter through the windows. She was not accustomed to sleeping in a bed that was long enough for her tall frame and she wondered why someone Roslin’s size would have such a bed. Pain could not stop the smile that warmed her features at the thought of the beautiful woman. Roslin had almost given up her life to protect the slaves of Dairus, and had been willing to forfeit her own father’s life to save Brice. It saddened her to think of what the young woman must be going through now, and the smile faded from her face. Roslin must be suffering terrible guilt at having been forced to kill her own father. Suddenly Brice knew she had to find the young woman…make sure she was all right. Pushing the covers away, she realized for the first time that the familiar binding she always wore to conceal her breasts was missing. Panic filled her heart. Roslin had said she would stay with her…that she would be here when she woke up. Had the young woman been repulsed when she found out Brice was a woman? Why else would she not be here as she promised she would be? The sound of the door opening brought her out of her musings, and she looked hopefully at the door to see if it was her young love. Disappointment filled her being as she saw that it was just the healer.
“Ah, I see you’re awake. How are you feeling this morning?” Belvin said, as he padded across the room.
“Fine,” Brice answered, turning her gaze to the ceiling. She stifled a groan as the healer prodded her to check on her progress.
“The pain will start to ease up in a day or two,” Belvin said, noting his patient’s clenched jaw. “Everything looks good. No sign of infection.”
“Do you know where the lady Roslin is?” Brice asked, her eyes tracking to the large man’s face.
“She has taken up residence in the Sovereign’s chamber. I assume she is there now.” Belvin saw the fear in Brice’s eyes, and he remembered the young woman’s reaction last evening when she fled the room. He patted her hand. “She is probably still asleep. I’m sure she will be by to see you later.” He hoped the rebel leader would not see the doubt in his eyes.
Turning away, Brice nodded.
The healer was relieved when the door opened and an older woman walked in with a small girl in tow. He excused himself as the child called out, and dashed across the floor.
“Papa,” Cadie shouted, running to the bed and crawling into Brice’s arms. “They hurt you,” she sobbed, burying her face in the rebel leader’s neck.
Brice flinched, but held on tightly. “Shhh, don’t cry.” She kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “I’m going to be fine little one,” she lifted the small face and wiped away the tears.
Shea sat at the edge of the bed and watched the two embrace. She gave them a moment more of closeness before pulling the child off Brice. “You need to be careful, Cadie or you’ll hurt your Papa. No more big hugs, until those wounds heal up.”
Cadie raised her eyes to Brice’s face. “Did I hurt you, Papa?” she asked.
“Just a little,” Brice answered. She stroked Cadie’s face and smiled. “But it was worth it. I needed that hug.”
“Want me to tell you a story and make you feel better?” Cadie asked hopefully.
“I would love a story,” Brice answered, watching her little girl’s face light up. She closed her eyes, and let Cadie’s voice lull her back to sleep.
Brice was awakened a few hours later by the arrival of Shea with a cup of warm broth. “I think it’s time we get some nourishment into you,” she said, smiling down at her injured daughter. “Do you need help sitting up?”
“I’m not helpless, Mother,” Brice snapped, wincing as she pulled herself to a sitting position.
“I didn’t think you were,” Shea scolded, as she placed several pillows behind Brice’s back.
“I know…I’m sorry. I guess I’m just not in a very good mood right now.” She leaned back into the pillows, and accepted the mug of broth. Her hands were shaking, and Shea reached over to steady them while Brice drank. “Thank you for putting up with me, Mother.”
“Well, back in the land of the living I see,” Glen said as he entered the room.
Brice’s expression sobered. “What’s the status in Dairus?”
“We have confiscated all the weapons we could find, and all the regular soldiers have been detained. The royal guard and a few of the Ryshtans have gone into hiding, but their numbers are so few, I don’t think they will be foolish enough to try anything without the army to back them up. Thanks to Roslin, we were able to walk in with almost no resistance.”
“How is Roslin? Have you seen her?”
“Not since she ran out of here last night.” Glen sat on the large bed next to his mother. “She hasn’t been to see you today?”
“No,” Brice whispered, glancing down at her no longer bound chest. “She knows the truth about me Glen. She was here when…”
“I know,” Glen interrupted. “She looked pretty upset when she ran out. Give her some time, she’ll come around. ”
Brice nodded her head, and gave him a halfhearted smile. The words Glen had just uttered confirmed her worst fears. Roslin had been horrified to find out she was a woman, and ran away. That explained why she was not here this morning as she promised she would be.
“We’re going to have a family reunion celebration as soon as you’re up to it,” Shea said, trying to change the subject. “I still have grandchildren I’ve yet to meet.” She patted Brice’s hand. “We have so much to be thankful for. Our family back together again is something I have prayed for.”
“Yes,” Brice smiled at her. “We really do have much to be thankful for.” Looking again at her brother, she asked, “Glen, will you go back to camp and bring me some clothes? I need to get dressed and get out of here.”
Glen’s face wrinkled into a frown. “Why do you want to leave? The palace is yours now. You led us to victory, you deserve to claim the prize.”
“This is Roslin’s home, she can have it…I don’t want it. This is not what I was fighting for.” Brice lay back and closed her eyes. “I’m tired; I just want to go home.”
“You get some rest and we’ll be back for you with a litter before you know it,” Shea said, leaning down to kiss her daughter’s pale cheek. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she told her son as they walked to the door.
Glen started back to camp to pick up Brice’s belongings and bring them to the old house. He promised Shea that he would find his brothers and their families, and send them over to help her get the place cleaned and ready so they could bring Brice home as she requested.
Shea found she was a little overwhelmed when she arrived at the old house. It felt so strange to finally be back in the home where she had raised her children. It seemed like a lifetime ago since she had been here. She had worked hard to make this place a home and it was sad to see the state of disrepair which had befallen it sitting empty for five years. Well…might as well get started, she told herself, as she walked in and started dragging everything that was not nailed down, outside to be cleaned and aired out. Soon friends and family arrived, all eager to help get the place ready for their fallen leader. It was heartwarming to see everyone pitching in to help. At this rate, it would be no time at all before they could bring Brice home.
Mid afternoon found Roslin pacing back and forth in her room. Although the young woman had been exhausted when she went to bed the night before, her troubled mind would not let sleep take her until almost daybreak. She had spent her sleepless night pondering her feelings for Brice, and had come to the conclusion that she loved the woman with all her heart. But she was still hurt and angry that the rebel leader had not trusted her with her secret, and decided it was time to confront Brice about the inequity of trust in their relationship. If they were to have a deep committed relationship, they had to trust each other. Her mind made up; she walked to her bedchamber, only to find it empty. Her heart stopped. What could this mean? When she left Brice last night the rebel leader was in no condition to go anywhere. Why hadn’t anyone told her that something had happened to Brice? Running outside, she stopped the first person she saw.
“Please…can you tell me what happened to Brice? ”
“His brothers came for him about an hour ago…said they were taking him home.”
Roslin’s heartbeat slowly returned to normal as it sunk in that death had not claimed her love in the night as she had feared. It puzzled her that Brice’s family would take her away from the healer, and the comforts of the palace. She hurried toward the palace gates; sure she could get someone to direct her to Brice’s home, once she was in the village.
Although there were horses, Roslin had never learned to ride because it was considered unladylike for a woman to sit astride a horse. There was also a carriage, but she didn’t know how to hitch a horse to it. She realized she had a lot to learn in this new society they were in the process of creating. Now that she no longer had slaves to do her biding, she realized she was going to do a lot of walking until she learned to do things for herself.
As Roslin walked through what used to be the slave village, the former slaves were happy to point her in the right direction in her quest to find Brice. Word of her deeds had spread quickly, and they were all grateful for the help she had given their people.
The family had finally stopped fussing over her, and Brice was alone at last. Everything had gone much better than she had ever imagined. They had defeated the Sovereign, and with almost no bloodshed. She knew she should be elated, but without Roslin at her side, the victory seemed shallow.
She heard a knock at the door. “Come,” she called, turning to see who was it was. The door opened, and there in the doorway stood the most beautiful vision she had ever seen. A smile crept to her face. “I was hoping you would come.”
Roslin walked to the bedside chair and sat. She looked around the small room, and wondered at Brice’s decision to leave the palace and come here. “How are you feeling today?” she asked, her eyes coming to rest on the rebel leader. She could see that the woman looked pale, and dark circles were clearly visible under her eyes.
“Pretty good,” Brice lied. Roslin’s eyes burned into her and she knew the young woman could see the truth.
“You look awful,” Roslin said, scooting her chair closer.
“Okay, I hurt. But after seeing you I feel so much better…you’re just the medicine I needed.”
“Brice…” Roslin paused, not sure how to broach the subject of truth and commitment.
“Yes…?” Brice asked, suddenly afraid.
“I…” another pause. Why am I doing this now? Roslin thought to herself. “I need to talk to you, but I think it needs to wait until you’re stronger.”
Now Brice was really frightened. She was sure that Roslin wanted to tell her she didn’t love her any more, and wanted to wait until she was recovered to give her the bad news.
Brice’s face became hard. “If you’re going to tell me you don’t want me any more, do it now. I don’t need to lay here wondering.”
“No, I wanted to talk to you about how hurt I was that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth. You were furious at me for keeping the truth about me a secret, and all the time you were keeping your own secret. Do you realize what a hypocrite that makes you?”
“It’s not the same thing,” Brice answered defensively.
“How is it different?” Roslin asked, letting her anger surface again.
“The difference is, I had every intention of telling you. When I found myself falling in love with you, I wanted to tell you. In fact I started to tell you. Would you have ever told me the truth if I had not found out on my own?”
Roslin thought for a moment. She wanted to believe that she would have eventually told Brice the truth, but she wasn’t sure. “I really don’t know.” She reached over and squeezed the tall woman’s hand. “I hated lying to you Brice, but when it started I was afraid, and by the time I was certain I didn’t need to fear you, it was too late. I didn’t know how to tell you. I was afraid of losing you.”
“And how do you feel about me now?” Brice asked, her grip tightening on the young woman’s hand.
“I love you,” Roslin answered without hesitation. “But I need to know that I can trust you…that we can trust each other. It works both ways.”
“Yes…both ways. Can we put the lies behind us and start over?” Brice asked.
“Yes, I’d like that,” Roslin answered. Standing, she bent over and kissed the tall woman gently on the lips.
Brice awoke to find Roslin sleeping in the chair, with her head resting on the bed. She reached over to stroke the golden head, and smiled. She was still here, and everything was going to be all right. Moving to turn on her side so she could more easily watch the young woman sleep, she was reminded again of her wounds, and stifled a groan, as pain shot through her body.
Roslin started awake. “Are you all right?” she asked, sitting upright and taking the tall woman’s hand.
Brice smiled to reassure the young woman. “I’m fine, just moved wrong.” She reached out to cup Roslin’s cheek. “You should have gone home to your bed. You’re going to be as stiff and sore as I am, sleeping bent over my bed like that.”
“I don’t want to leave you. I’m your best medicine, remember?” Roslin answered, bringing her hand up to cover the large hand caressing her cheek.
Brice nodded, “The only medicine I need.”
“If you want me to go home, you’re going to have to come with me. I have no intention of being separated from you again.”
Brice couldn’t help the silly grin that spread across her face. She had no desire to live at the palace, but now the thought of sharing her life with Roslin made any objections she may have had vanish. It was her lady’s home, and she would not take that from her. She could not deny that the thought of sharing that large bed with the young woman was also appealing. “My brothers are going to get tired of moving me back and forth”
“Well, we don’t want to upset your brothers, so I guess you’ll have to stay here.” Roslin said, brushing her lip’s across Brice’s, and then pulling back, laughing.
“Oh no…You’re going home, and I’m coming with you. They’ll survive.” Brice reached up, wrapping her large hand around the back of Roslin’s neck, pulling the young woman down for another kiss. She winced a little as her muscles complained at the effort to pull Roslin down. Ignoring it, she deepened the kiss.
Roslin had felt Brice’s body tense for a moment and then relax again. She pulled away and stood up. “Uh uh, no more of that until those wounds heal. I want you to rest like a good little girl.”
Brice reacted immediately. “Don’t ever call me that,” she said sharply. “I am not a girl. I never have been, and I don’t intend to start now.”
“I’m… sorry,” Roslin stammered, “I didn’t mean…”
“No, you don’t need to apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry that I snapped at you like that.” Brice’s eyes pleaded with the young woman to understand. “I’m… uncomfortable being referred to as a girl, and I should have just explained that to you instead of biting your head off.”
Roslin smiled, “I promise I will never call you a little girl again.” The young woman walked back to the bed and sat down again, her expression thoughtful. “I would never knowingly say something to you that would make you uncomfortable.” She paused a moment. “You do believe that, don’t you?”
Brice pulled herself up into a sitting position. “Yes, I do.” She let her hand slide up Roslin’s arm, stroking gently. “With all my heart.” Her hand suddenly stilled when Brice felt the scar on the young woman’s upper arm. She lifted Roslin’s sleeve and bent to kiss the brand. “I’ll never forgive myself for doing that to you.”
“I wish you would. I have forgiven you, and that whole experience taught me a valuable lesson. You gave me a small taste of what it was like to be a slave, and it helped me understand what your people have had to endure their whole lives.” Roslin cupped the tall woman’s face, and brushed her thumb across Brice’s lips. “As unpleasant as it was, I think I needed that.”
“No one needs to be tortured and humiliated,” Brice said sadly.
Roslin smiled, “And thanks to you, no one will have to suffer that fate again.” She leaned over and kissed the tall woman. “I’m very proud of you.” Standing, the young woman started for the door. “Now I’m going to go find someone to help me take you home,” she called over her shoulder, and was gone.
Brice lay back and smiled. Home… She wants to make a home with me. All was right with the world.
“How much pork fat did you put in?” Roslin asked Shea, as she sat at the table watching the older woman make cornbread. She was writing the instructions down, so she could remember later.
“Oh, I don’t know, I guess about the size of an egg.” Shea reached for the milk pitcher, and started pouring milk in a little at a time, stirring in between.
“How can you just pour milk from the pitcher like that?” Roslin asked, puzzled. “If you don’t measure, how do you know when you have enough?”
“Well, you just pour a little and stir, then pour some more. Keep doing that until it won’t peak.”
“What does –won’t peak- mean?” Roslin asked, her confusion growing. This learning to cook was complicated.
Shea crooked her finger at the young woman. “Come on over and I’ll show you.”
Roslin walked around to the other side of the table, and looked into the bowl of thick batter. Shea lifted the spoon out of the batter several times, leaving small peaks that looked like a range of jagged mountains. “See how the batter is thick, and stands up in these little peaks?” Roslin nodded, and Shea stirred a little more milk, then lifted the spoon again. She still had peaks, but they did not stand up as high. A little more milk was added, and the batter would not hold a peak. “There, you see? Now we have enough milk.” She smiled at the young woman and patted her cheek. Turning to Cadie, the older woman asked, “Did you get that pan greased little one?”
“Yep, all done,” Cadie said, as she held the pan.
“Good girl, you are such a big help.”
Cadie grinned from ear to ear at the compliment, as Roslin pulled her into her lap, tickling the child. “When I am able to do this cooking stuff by myself, you can be my number one helper, and your papa will be so proud of us.”
The kitchen rang with the sound of laughter.
Belvin replaced the dressing on Brice’s wounds. “They look really good, we got lucky. Infection can be very nasty when it sets in.” He sat down in the large chair by the bed. “I hope you believe I didn’t mean to expose your secret to Lady Roslin…I…I didn’t know.”
“No one knew.” Brice paused a moment. “Have you told anyone?”
“I would never betray a secret of one of my patients,” Belvin replied sincerely. “You may not believe me, but I’m glad you defeated the Sovereign. I was afraid at first; I thought your people would take out your just revenge on us.” He looked down at his hands, sighing deeply. “I have never agreed with slavery. The lady Roslin can attest to the fact that I owned no slaves, but…” His gaze lifted again. “I am ashamed to say that I was afraid to speak out against it. I was a coward.”
“It’s all in the past, and we’re all starting over with a clean slate.” Brice extended her hand. ” I would be proud to call you friend.” The tall woman wondered how many more Ryshtans were just like Belvin. Not agreeing with slavery, but afraid to speak out for fear of what the Sovereign would do to them. Knowing Roslin and the healer made her realize that her prejudice against all Ryshtans was wrong.
Belvin smiled, and grasped her hand firmly. They looked up to see Roslin walking in the door with a tray laden with foodstuffs, followed closely by Shea and Cadie. “Well, I will leave you to your family,” the large man said, nodding his good-bye to the new arrivals. “Ladies.”
Cadie ran across the floor. “Papa, we brought you some stew and cornbread.” She pointed to the tray Roslin was setting on the bedside table. “Gram made it, but Roslin and I helped,” she said proudly.
“If you two helped, then it has to be wonderful.” Brice sat up and opened her arms, engulfing the child in a hug. Embracing her daughter was a little painful, but the little girl needed to see that Brice was all right, and a little pain was worth it. Releasing the child, Brice got to her feet.
“Ah, ah, ah…” Roslin said, blocking the tall woman’s path. “Whatever you need I’ll get. You climb right back in bed.”
“Okay,” Brice said obligingly. “If you would be so kind as to empty my bladder for me, I would be most appreciative.”
Roslin grinned and stepped aside. “If I could, I would.”
“I know, love,” Brice said. She gave the young woman a quick peck on the cheek and then disappeared through the doorway.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Brice so happy,” Shea said, placing her hands on Roslin’s cheeks. “Thank you for that.”
“I’ve never been happier. Loving Brice feels as natural as breathing, and as necessary.” Roslin looked from Shea to Cadie. “Thank you for making me feel welcome in your family.”
Roslin thought of her own family. She had been thinking of her brothers a lot, and now that Brice was out of danger, the need to find her brothers and make sure they were all right had become stronger. She had become Kyle’s surrogate mother when he was seven, and she was sure he would want to come and stay with her. She was not as sure about Lon. He had been older when their mother had become ill, and had not attached himself as firmly to her apron strings. The important thing was to get them back home to Dairus as soon as possible, wherever they stayed. She knew they were as lacking in the skills to take care of themselves as she was, and hoped that someone was looking after them. Brice had sent out scouting parties to find them, but as yet, they had not been located.
It had been almost three weeks since the liberation of Dairus, and Brice was pleased that Roslin had finally taken her word that she was fine, and stopped treating the tall woman like an invalid. There was work to be done, and the young woman’s constant hovering had made that difficult, even though Brice had enjoyed the attention.
The people were clamoring for Brice to take on the mantel of Sovereign of Ryshta, and she had called a meeting to announce her decision. People had been arriving for some time now, and Brice looked over the crowd frowning. She had sent word that there would be a meeting, and that all people of Dairus were invited; yet she saw not one female face in the large group. In the past, town meetings had been limited to men, and perhaps they had misunderstood the invitation. Standing, she strode to the platform that her brother Rylan had built for the occasion. With a nod to Glen, the bells were sounded, signaling time to begin.
All eyes went to the tall figure on the dais, and a hush fell over the crowd. “My friends,” Brice began, her deep full voice carrying easily across the crowd. “I had hoped to see the women of Dairus here today. In the future, any town meeting called will include women as well, or it will be canceled.” Grumbling voices could be heard throughout the crowd at the thought of women taking part in matters of state. Brice lifted her hands to quiet the mutterings, and continued. “I have called you here today to explain my plans for the future of Ryshta.” She let her gaze sweep the sea of people, making eye contact with as many as possible. The rebel leader wanted them to feel that she was speaking to each one individually. “You have bestowed on me the title of your Sovereign, and although I appreciate the gesture, I cannot accept it.” A rumble started through the crowd, and shouts of, “But you are the Chosen,” could be heard. Brice lifted her hands, and the people began to quiet down. “I believe we need to work together to govern ourselves,” she continued. “The new government will consist of twelve people, six of which will be elected by the people in a free election, and six, including myself, that I will choose. These six will be appointed for life, or until they choose to step down. When a spot becomes vacant in the permanent council, a replacement will be chosen by the entire council.”
The murmur in the crowd increased again, and Brice noted that although the people seemed surprised, they did not seem displeased with her decision. “These twelve people will work together to draft a new constitution. This new constitution must be approved by at least two-thirds of the twelve to become law. An election will be held in two months time, and you will elect the six to represent you.”
Brice walked to the edge of the stage, and extended her hand toward a small group of five people standing to the left of the stage. “These are the other five permanent members of our new governing council. My brother Glen, my mother Shea…”
There was an audible gasp that spread through the throng of people. Mikah pushed his way to the front. “We can’t have women deciding our future,” he spat. “This is ridiculous.” He looked at the others waiting to be introduced. “How can you possibly think we could allow Ryshtans on our ruling council,” he said nodding to Roslin and Belvin, who were still waiting to be introduced. “We defeated them, and now you want them to help rule us?”
“We are all free people now Mikah,” Brice said, jumping down from the stage to tower over the older man. “Our new government needs to represent all the people, women and Ryshtans included. We need to see the views of all sides to make decisions that are fair to all.”
“Were the Ryshtans fair to us?” Mikah said, glaring at Brice.
“Stop talking about the past. It’s over. We have to think about the future. We didn’t win our freedom only to turn the tables and enslave the slavers.” Brice stepped back up onto the stage. “I choose these five people for their wisdom and compassion. “You all put your faith in me when you asked me to lead you. This is how I choose to lead, and this decision is final.” Brice turned and strode from the stage, her long legs moving her quickly toward the palace.
Roslin broke into a run to follow Brice, catching her as she climbed the palace steps. “Don’t let him upset you,” she said, taking the tall woman’s hand and squeezing. “The people believe in you; they won’t listen to him, after all, you are The Chosen.” She stepped in front of the tall woman, wrapping her arms around her neck. “And you belong to me.”
“You think so?” Brice said, smiling seductively.
“Oh, I know so,” the young woman answered, pulling her down for a kiss.
Brice straightened up and took Roslin’s hand, pulling her toward the door. “I told mother I needed some time alone with you. I asked her to pick Cadie up after the meeting, and keep her for the night.” Once inside the door, Brice pulled the young woman close again. “I know it hasn’t been easy for you these last three weeks. You’ve been taking care of me and Cadie, and trying to cope with all the changes and confusion.” The tall woman lifted the small hand she still held, and pressed it to her lips. “I want to make it up to you.” Her eyes dropped from Roslin’s eyes, to her lips. “Tonight is just for us,” she said, leaning down to kiss her again. “I want to make love to you, but more than that, I want to make a life with you.” Brice pulled back and gazed into green eyes overflowing with love. “Will you consent to be my wife?”
“Oh yes,” Roslin answered, wrapping her arms around the tall woman’s neck, and pulling her down for a kiss. Their lips met, and this time the kiss was more urgent.
When the kiss ended, Brice turned and led her young love up the stairs. The wait was finally over; tonight she would make love to this precious woman.
Brice joined the young woman in the large bed, her heart pounding wildly at the thought that she would finally be able to make love to this woman she loved more than her own life. Propping herself up on one elbow, she stroked Roslin’s beautiful face with her free hand. “I love you,” she said, as she bent down and captured soft lips with her own.
“I love you too,” Roslin answered, breaking the kiss momentarily. “With all that I am.”
Brice leaned in to kiss her again, the close proximity of her beautiful young lover causing her desire to build almost more than she could bear.
“I need to touch you,” Brice whispered, as she slipped her hands under the young woman’s gown and pushed it up, smiling at the gasp that escaped Roslin’s lips. Now the pretty blonde’s breasts were exposed, and Brice devoured them with her eyes. Leaning down she nibbled and suckled at first one breast, and then the other.
Roslin’s breathing was reduced to short, aching gasps, as she wound her fingers tightly in Brice’s hair. “Yes…please touch me,” she begged. A groan escaped her lips when her nipple was pulled into her lover’s mouth.
The tall woman let her hands explore downward until they stopped at the young woman’s panties. Grasping the delicate undergarment, she slipped them down as far as she could reach. Brice sat up, pulling the panties completely off the young woman. Next she pulled the gown over Roslin’s head, then covered the small body with her own, thrusting rhythmically against her. Her mouth sought out Roslin’s mouth, her kiss urgent and deep. She let her teeth nip their way down the slender throat of her lover, and across her shoulder blade. Sliding down the firm young body beneath her, Brice again made love to Roslin’s beautiful breasts.
Roslin felt her body explode with desire, the likes of which she had never experienced before. Her hands clenched and unclenched Brice’s hair franticly, and a fleeting thought that she might be hurting the tall woman evaporated as her lover continued her sensual assault down her body.
Sliding still further, Brice nuzzled the soft curly hair at the apex of her lover’s legs. She let her index finger stroke ever so softly along the opening to her lover’s need. She settled herself between Roslin’s thighs, the scent of the young woman intoxicating beyond belief. She kissed and stroked the young woman with her tongue, holding her tightly, when Roslin’s bucking hips threatened to dislodge her. She was in ecstasy when the young woman stiffened, and her name was raggedly torn from Roslin’s lips.
Slowly, the tall woman climbed back up her lover’s body, cradling her gently in her arms. She could feel Roslin’s ragged breathing slowing, and returning to normal. She had been surprised, and pleased, at how passionate Roslin had been. Elsbeth, her only basis for comparison, had always seemed to enjoy her touch, but this…There was no comparison to the passion and desire she had felt emanating from the young woman as she made love to her.
Roslin had no idea that making love could be this wonderful. Her mother had explained to her that she must submit to the young man her father had chosen for her to marry, and in time, if she was lucky, she might grow to love him. But love him or not, if he called her to his bed, she must submit; it was her duty. But she understood now, that when it is with someone you love, it is beautiful beyond belief. She wanted to give Brice the same pleasure that the tall woman had just given her, and she slipped her hand under her nightshirt. Instantly a strong hand grabbed her wrist, and pulled her hand away.
“I want to please you,” Roslin said smiling, reaching under the shirt again.
“You have…more than you can know,” Brice answered, removing the hand again, gently, but firmly. She brought Roslin’s hand to her lips and kissed the knuckles. Brice pulled the young woman to her and cradled her head on her shoulder. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
Roslin lay with her head on the strong shoulder, trying to understand what had just happened. Her head was spinning. No one had ever affected her this way, and she ached from the need to touch the tall woman. Brice had been so gentle and caring when she made love to her, but she had been very firm that Roslin was not to touch her. She had kept her breasts bound and her nightclothes on. The young woman knew that it had pleasured Brice to make love to her, but the fact that her tall lover did not seem to want, or desire, her touch, hurt.
Mikah stood in front of the assembled men in the meeting hall. He had called this meeting of the newly freed men of Dairus to make them see the folly of following Brice in this ridiculous new plan for governing themselves. The mere thought of Ryshtans and women making rules and sitting in judgment over the freed men of Ryshta was repugnant to him, and Mikah was determined to make them understand.
He had not invited Brice, nor had he invited any of the Ryshtan men, but he had not kept the meeting a secret either, so he supposed it was possible that the rebel leader might show up. He doubted it though. Brice had made it clear that they were free to assemble and campaign, and he had not stated in his invitation that he was campaigning against Brice’s self-governing ideas.
“Men of Dairus,” Mikah began. “I know Brice is responsible for the overthrow of the Ryshtan Regime, and I am as grateful as the rest of you to him for my freedom. But does that give him the right to re-install Ryshtans in a place of power over us?” He paused to let his words sink in. Mikah was no fool. He knew that Brice was well loved and respected by the people. He had to be careful with his judgement of the man, or the crowd just might turn on him for attacking their savior, the chosen one.
“It is clear that through no fault of his own, he has lost his heart to one of them,” Mikah continued, “and perhaps she is responsible for the strange decisions he has made. Roslin is a Ryshtan, and a woman. Either should be enough to keep her off the governing board. I fear she has bewitched him.” Mikah shook his head sadly. “How else can you explain the changes we have seen in him? When Brice left Dairus five years ago, he was bent on revenge. There is no way that the Brice I knew would have placed one of them in a position of power, yet that is exactly what he has done. He has installed two of them on the permanent board. He can’t be in his right mind.”
Rogan stood. “I’ll fight any man who would say a disparaging word against the Lady Roslin.” He looked around the room. “Have you forgotten that she is responsible for drugging the solders so Brice’s army could march into Dairus unopposed?” His voice trembled with anger. “She chose us over her own people.”
“That’s right,” someone else shouted. “She carries the brand, she is one of us now.”
“She may be one of us, but she is still a woman,” Mikah said, lifting his voice to be heard above the murmurs of the crowd. “How many of you feel your women should be allowed to decide how we are governed?” He looked around the room, as the men sat silent, none willing to relinquish his role of authority to a woman. “Decisions on the welfare of our community and our families, have always been the responsibility of men.” Mikah paced back and forth, his arms moving rapidly to emphasize his words. “Women were given to men to take care of us, and bear our children. Not to make decisions that can effect us for the rest of our lives.” His pacing stopped, and he faced the crowd. “Follow him if you must, but don’t give up control in your own households. If Brice must rule over us, so be it, but keep control in your own home. Your women belong to you, not Brice. You have control…use it.” Mikah took a deep breath, and ran a hand through his hair. “I will run for a place on the board. I would hope you will vote for me, for I will use my vote to make sure that women are kept in their place where they belong.”
Applause rang through the room, and Mikah knew that he had found a platform that the men of Dairus would support.
Shea walked up the main staircase in the palace, and started for Roslin and Brice’s bedchamber. She had made a quilt for the large bed, and needed to put it on the bed to surprise Brice. She wanted something made by her own hand in this grand house, so Brice would feel more at home. Roslin was down in the kitchen preparing the evening meal for the tall woman, and Cadie had talked her into letting her help. The older woman had been teaching Roslin to cook, and tonight was her first attempt at it on her own. She had asked Shea to leave so she could brag to Brice that she did it herself.
The door was open, and Shea could see her daughter sitting on the large bed. Brice was unaware of her audience, and her face was clearly troubled.
Brice looked up to see her mother walking toward her, and her expression changed immediately, but she could see in Shea’s eyes, that it was too late. She had already seen. The rebel leader knew that her mother could read her like a book.
“You might as well tell me,” Shea said sitting next to her tall daughter. “I know something is bothering you.” She reached out and patted a large callused hand.
Brice looked up at her mother and shook her head. Am I really that transparent? She had been thinking about seeing Rogan bring a basket of eggs to Roslin earlier. The young woman had greeted him with a warm smile and a hug, and the tall woman had not been able to stop the jealous insecurity that had welled up inside her. “I worried that Eslbeth would eventually leave me for a man.” Brice looked at her mother, unable to keep the fear out of her eyes. “Now I find that same fear returning, and I can’t help but wonder sometime, why Roslin wants some poor excuse for a man, when she could have the real thing. She probably wishes I were a man too.”
“You think I wish you were a man?” Roslin asked incredulously.
Brice was startled to hear the young woman’s voice, and turned to see her standing in the doorway. She could see anger flare in those beautiful green eyes, and wondered how long she had been standing there. The silence in the room was deafening, as the two stared at each other. Shea silently rose, and quickly left the two troubled young people alone to talk.
Brice had not moved, and Roslin walked to where the tall woman sat on the bed and knelt before her. Anger was replaced by sorrow that her lover could doubt her love. She repeated her question softly, and without anger this time. “Do you really believe that I wish you to be anything other than what you are?”
“Elsbeth did. She pretended I was a man.” The tall woman looked down at her hands, unable to maintain eye contact. “She loved me in her way, but she never wanted me to do anything to remind her that I was a woman, and…” The tall woman paused, remembering how desperate her devotion to Elsbeth had been. Brice would have done anything the young woman wanted to keep her in her life.
Roslin reached out and covered Brice’s hands with her own. “She never wanted to look at your beautiful body…to touch you?”
The pain shown plainly in her face, as Brice brought her eyes up to meet the young woman’s gaze again. “No…never.”
Roslin couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Just the mere thought of caressing those beautiful breasts and running her hands over Brice’s muscular body made her tingle all over, and she could feel the slick wetness coating her undergarment. She realized now that it was not that Brice did not desire her touch. The rebel leader was afraid. Afraid that if she did not keep that part of herself hidden, the young woman wouldn’t want her anymore.
“I don’t want a man, I want you, and I don’t want to pretend you’re a man either.” Roslin reached up, gently cupping Brice’s face in her hands. “You’re not some poor excuse for a man; you’re a magnificent woman.” She let her thumbs brush softly across the tall woman’s lips. “I love the fact that you’re a beautiful masculine woman. The thought of touching you sends shivers down my spine. I want to…no, I need to touch you. I desire you…Please don’t push me away.” Standing, Roslin pulled Brice’s shirt over her head, then knelt again, leaning over to kiss her belly. She felt her lover tremble at her touch, heard her breath catch. Touching the tightly wound binding around Brice’s chest, the young woman looked up questioningly, requesting permission with her eyes to remove this unwelcome barricade.
Brice closed her eyes, and lifted her arms to allow Roslin to unwrap the binding. She believed Roslin, yet still her stomach clenched, as panic filled her. With each layer that was removed, her panic grew. She knew the fear was not rational, but she had no control over it. Opening her eyes, she reached to still her partner’s hands from their task.
Roslin looked up and her heart broke when she saw the pain in her lover’s eyes. She climbed up on the bed and pulled the tall woman into her arms. Brice wasn’t ready to allow herself to be a woman yet. Perhaps she never would. “It’s all right,” she cooed as the tall woman snuggled close.
“I’m sorry,” Brice whispered, “I really wanted to…I’m sorry.” Tears started down her face, and she clung desperately to Roslin, as if the young woman would disappear if she let go.
“Shhh, It’s okay. When the time is right I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere,” Roslin said, stroking the dark head pressed against her chest. She reached over and grabbed the blanket, pulling it over them. She could feel Brice’s body relax against her, and she bent down to kiss the dark head. “I love you.”
Brice awoke to find the first rays of the sun dimly illuminating the room. She could feel Roslin pressed firmly against her back, her arm draped around her waist. They had forgone the evening meal waiting downstairs, silently holding onto each other last night until sleep claimed them.
The tall woman slipped out of bed, collecting the cloth wrap that had finished working its way off her chest sometime during the night. She felt a little awkward, after her behavior last evening, and wanted to distance herself from Roslin for a while, and think this through. Dressing quickly, Brice made her way downstairs to start some water heating for tea. The rebel leader grabbed a bucket, and started outside to fill it, when the sound of running footsteps caught her attention. Turning in the direction of the sound, she saw Glen running toward her at full tilt.
“We found them,” Glen called out, as he crossed the final distance between them.
“Found who?” Brice asked, “Roslin’s brothers?”
“Yes,” Glen answered excitedly. “A runner arrived this morning with their location. It will take me about three days to get to where they were last spotted.” Glen took a few good breaths, then continued. “Our men are following at a distance, and marking the trail for us to follow.”
Brice threw her arms around her brother, her face erupting in a huge smile. “Finally, some good news.”
Releasing her hold on Glen, Brice turned to hurry back to Roslin with the news. “Take plenty of men with you.” She shouted over her shoulder. “I want this over with quickly.” Her awkwardness forgotten, she ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, to wake her sleeping lover with the good news.
Roslin felt a gentle shaking, and her eyes fluttered open to the beautiful sight of Brice leaning over her with a radiant smile on her face.
“I have some wonderful news,” Brice said, reaching out to ruffle Roslin’s sleep disheveled hair. “They found your brothers. Glen just gave me the news.”
Roslin sat bolt upright in bed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “When will they be home?” She asked, scooting to the edge of the bed, and letting her feet hang over. Now that she was awake, her bladder was urgently requesting to be emptied.
“Not sure, probably no more than two weeks,” Brice said, as she watched Roslin slip off the bed, and pad toward the door.
“Ooh, I have to hurry,” Roslin said. “Be right back.”
Brice watched her go, her thoughts drifting to the two boys that would be joining their household. Suddenly, it dawned on her that she and Roslin now had three children to raise instead of one. Of course, Lon was practically grown, but Kyle would be with them for some time to come. This was not something she had bargained for when she fell in love with Roslin, but they were now part of the package, and she would deal with them as best she could. After all, she expected Roslin to take on her child; she could do no less.
“I think I need to tell Cadie first,” Brice said, to Roslin, as they rode in the gently rocking carriage towards her mother’s house.
“Do you think she will accept me as her mother?” The young woman asked. “I don’t want her to think I am trying to replace Elsbeth in her heart.
Brice pulled the horse to a stop and turned to face Roslin. “I’m sure she has room in there for both of you.” The tall woman smiled, pulling her young lover close. “She has a big heart and I know she cares for you.”
Turning back to the road, she slapped the reins, causing the carriage to jerk to a start.
The house came into view, and Brice could see Cadie dangling from a rope swing in the side yard. When the little girl caught sight of them, she squealed with glee, releasing the swing and bounding across the yard to greet them. Shea heard the commotion, and popped her head out the door to see what all the fuss was about.
“You’re just in time for the noon meal,” Shea said, walking out to welcome her tall daughter and Roslin to her home.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Roslin asked, taking Shea’s arm, and starting for the door. She knew Brice wanted to speak with Cadie alone, and this seemed a good way to leave them to themselves.
“You’ve gotten pretty good at making gravy,” Shea answered. You work on that, and we’ll be just about ready.” The two disappeared through the doorway, leaving Brice and her daughter alone in the yard.
Brice sat down on a stump, and pulled the little girl into her lap. “Do you like us living with Roslin?” Brice asked, watching her child closely for a reaction.
Cadie nodded her head. “I love Roslin.”
Brice stroked Cadie’s angelic face. “I love her too,” she said, pulling the child close. “I want us to be a family.” Pulling back, the tall woman put a finger under the little girl’s chin, tilting her head up. “I asked Roslin to be my wife, and she has given her consent.”
“Does that mean she will be my mother?” Cadie asked, a hopeful look on her little face.
Brice paused a moment. “Would you like Roslin to be your mother?” she asked.
“Oh yes, Papa, yes,” Cadie said, scrambling to her feet in the tall woman’s lap and throwing her arms around her neck, squeezing tightly. Then she jumped down and ran to the door. “Gram, Gram! Roslin’s going to be my mother,” she called to Shea, as she bounced up and down in the doorway.
The little girl danced across the room, and into Roslin’s arms. Brice stood in the doorway and watched the grin spread across Roslin’s face as she wrapped her arms around her new daughter. The joy the young woman felt at the child’s acceptance of her new position in her life, was clearly painted in that radiant smile.
Glen watched as his men took up their positions, surrounding the Rychtan camp, cutting off any means they had of escape. When word had come from the scouts that Roslin’s brothers had been located, Brice sent her brother out immediately to bring them home. Glen knew how important it was to Roslin to not only bring her brothers back to her, but to do it without shedding any blood if possible.
As the dawn’s light slowly made its appearance over the horizon, the Ryhstan guards posted on night watch saw for the first time that an army of men had surrounded them in the night without their knowledge. Sounding the alarm, they took up defensive positions, waiting for Captain Alban to give the order to fight, or to surrender to the enemy’s overwhelming numbers.
“How did this happen?” Alban shouted, as he ran to join his men. “Were you sleeping at your post?”
“No Sir,” the young solder on watch answered quickly.
“Are we going to surrender Sir?” An inexperienced soldier – not much more than a boy- asked hopefully.
Alban walked over to the boy and looked him in the eye. “We’re dead either way, soldier. Do you really think they’re going to let us live?” His eyes swept those of his frightened men. “I say, if we’re going to die, we take as many of them with us as we can before we go. What do you say men? Are you with me?”
“We’re with you, Sir,” came the chant from his men, and together they turned to face the enemy.
Captain Alban was surprised to see one rebel step away from the others, and toss his sword to the ground. The man walked forward, his hands held out to the side.
“I am unarmed. I mean you no harm.” Glen kept his arms away from his body, and slowly turned in a circle so that they could see he carried no weapons. “I have a message to relay from our leader Brice…then you are free to go as you choose.”
Alban tossed his sword to the ground, and nodded his willingness to talk. He had been certain that they were all going to die, but now a ray of hope had been dangled in front of him, and he intended to find out what these people wanted in exchange for their lives. Holding his arms away from his body as the rebel had done, he approached the man cautiously. “What is it you want from us? You have already taken our homes, and our livelihood.”
Glen watched the man approach, and wondered how loyal he was to the Sovereign’s family, now that Lord Athol was dead. Would he be willing to die to keep Roslin’s brothers with him? “We have installed a new order in Ryshta. All people in Ryshta are now free, including you and the people hiding here under your protection. We do not wish to enslave you, as your people have done to us for generations. Slavery has been a blight on this land long enough.” Glen could see the people behind Alban looking at each other in wonder at his words. “It will not be an easy peace, for there is much resentment on both sides, but our leader, Brice, is determined to make a peace work between our peoples.” Glen let his eyes travel from person to person, letting them know he was speaking to each one as an individual. It was something he had learned from Brice to pull the audience to him, and gain their confidence. “You are all free to return to Dairus, or leave, as you choose. No one will pursue you for retribution.”
“How can you expect us to believe you?” Alban asked, crossing his arms across his chest defiantly.
“Because if we wanted you dead, I would not be here talking to you right now.” Glen gestured behind him.
“It is obvious that we have you outnumbered by at least ten to one. It would have been easy to just ride in and massacre the lot of you.”
“So, you’re just going to turn around and ride back to Dairus, and leave us be?” Alban asked, a little less skeptically. This seemed too good to be true. There must be a catch. “You want nothing in return?”
“The lady Roslin has a request. She wishes her brothers to be returned to her. Give them to me, and I will escort them safely to her.” Glen answered.
“And if I refuse?”
“Then we will take them. I wish your people no harm, but I have orders to bring Roslin’s brothers to her, and I intend to do that, with or without your cooperation.
Alban was torn. How could he just turn over the Sovereign’s sons to these people? He was sworn to protect them. He remembered Brice standing protectively over Roslin, allowing himself to be shot, rather than leave her unprotected. No, he reasoned; it was clear the man loved her. Brice would not allow any harm to come to Roslin’s brothers. The Captain decided it was unwise not to surrender the boys. He would not risk the lives of his people to keep Lon and Kyle with him, when he was fairly certain they would be safe with Roslin.
Brice sat in her dressing room deep in thought. It had been five days since Roslin had attempted to make love to her, and the young woman had respected the tall woman’s wishes, and not tried to touch her again. Daytime had not been uncomfortable, but when it was time to go to bed, they both got very quiet. Neither knew what to say, so they would cuddle in each other’s arms and go to sleep. Brice ached to touch Roslin again, but the young woman had made it clear that night that she too had the same ache inside of her, and Brice could not bring herself to make love to the young woman again until she knew she would be able to reciprocate. Standing, Brice unwrapped the binding around her chest, letting her breasts fall free. She slipped her nightshirt over her head and walked into the bedchamber to join her lover in bed.
Brice rounded the corner and saw her young love lying in bed, her eyes closed. They fluttered open when the young woman heard her footsteps, and Roslin smiled at her, accepting a goodnight peck, before turning over on her side for sleep. This had become the nightly routine. Roslin would lie on her side, and the tall woman would hold her. Brice took a deep breath, and snuggled close, wrapping her arms around the little blonde’s middle, and pressing her breasts into her back.
Roslin felt the softness of Brice’s breasts, instead of the firm unyielding bound chest she was used to, pressing against her back. Her heart skipped a beat, as she realized that Brice was finally ready to at least try to sleep without the bindings. It was a first step. Turning in the tall woman’s arms, she faced Brice, wrapping her arms around her and stroking her back. “I love you,” Roslin said. She felt Brice tremble as their breasts pressed together, then felt the long body go rigid. “It’s alright love, I just want to hold you, nothing more.” She pressed her lips against the tall woman’s forehead. “Sleep now.” Roslin continued caressing Brice’s back, until she felt her relax in her arms.
Brice lay in the little blonde’s arms, needing to talk, but not knowing what to say. A warm wet feeling between her legs interrupted her musings. Damn, she thought, her cycle had started. Another reminder that she was not what she pretended to be. Her cycles were irregular, and could not be predicted. Reluctantly, she extricated herself from her lover’s arms, needing to clean herself up.
“Is something wrong?” Roslin asked, as Brice pulled away from her embrace.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” Brice answered, as she hurried toward the door. “I’ll be right back.”
The little blonde lay in bed, wondering if she had pushed Brice too far again. Had she driven her lover out of their bed? The more she thought about it, the more she hoped that was not the case. Perhaps it was just a call of nature. The sound of footsteps drew her gaze to the doorway. Brice stepped into the room, and was painted in the soft glow of the full moon streaming through the open window. As she walked toward the bed, Roslin could see Brice’s breasts moving under her nightshirt, and the sight took her breath away. It was not that they were large…they weren’t, but they were large enough to sway gently as she walked and Roslin could not take her eyes off them.
Brice saw where her lover’s eyes were, and immediately her arms came up to cover her breasts.
“Please don’t cover them,” Roslin asked. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about. I love looking at you.”
The tall woman let her arms drop to her side, and climbed back onto the bed. Roslin scooted over and laid her head on Brice’s chest, sliding her hand up the rebel leader’s side, stopping just short of her right breast. Brice reached over, and Roslin was sure she was going to remove her hand, but she picked it up, and placed it on top of her breast. The little blonde could feel the long body beneath her stiffen and tense up, but Brice did not remove the young woman’s hand.
“Tell me how you feel,” Roslin said, as she slowly caressed her lover’s breast, and watched the tall woman’s jaw clench, and her eyes shut tightly. Roslin stilled her hand, but kept it where it was. “Please talk to me.” She could see beads of sweat appearing on Brice’s face, and her breathing was becoming labored.
Brice could feel her heart pounding erratically, as the panic grew. “I…I can’t… breathe!” she gasped, clutching at the young woman and pushing her away. This was worse than last time. Her heart felt like a hammer in her chest, and she thought she was going to suffocate.
Now it was Roslin’s turn to panic. “I’ll go get help,” she said, as she started to crawl off the bed.
“No…” Brice gasped out. “Please…don’t leave me.” Reaching out frantically, she grabbed the young woman’s arm in a death grip. Her distress heightened by the thought of being left alone.
The grip on her arm was crushing, and it hurt, but Roslin made no attempt to remove Brice’s hand. Reaching out with her other hand, she began stroking her lover’s clammy forehead and humming a lullaby that she could remember soothed her when she was young. Ever so slowly, she could see Brice’s breathing return to normal and the tall woman released her arm. She continued humming, as tears streamed down her face. It broke her heart that her touch could cause the woman she loved such distress. Roslin watched the blue eyes open and focus on her tear streaked face.
“Please don’t cry,” Brice said, reaching up to wipe the tears from her lover’s face.
“You scared me,” Roslin said, turning her face into Brice’s hand and kissing the palm.
“I scared me too,” the tall woman said, taking a few much needed deep breaths. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
“It hurts to know that my touch causes you so much pain.” Roslin paused. “Have you ever thought that perhaps something inside you is trying to tell you that you don’t really want a woman lover?” New tears started down the little blonde’s face. “They have forced you to live as a man all your life, with the fear that you and your loved ones faced possible torture, or death if the deception was ever discovered. You couldn’t have a man, perhaps your loneliness forced you to seek comfort from women.”
“NO!” Brice sat up and took the young woman’s face in both hands. “No,” she spoke softer now. “I love you.” She pulled the young woman close. “I am attracted to you as a woman.”
“You are a woman, attracted to a woman.” Roslin said, trying to understand. “If you can be attracted to a woman, why is it so hard for you to believe I could be?”
Brice looked down at her hands. “I do believe it.”
“No you don’t…not really. I don’t know how to convince you that it’s really true. I was attracted to you before I knew the truth about you, but I remember thinking to myself that you were not like other men, it was that difference that I was so attracted to.” Roslin reached out and lifted Brice’s face up to make eye contact. “When I saw your breasts I was both angry, and sexually aroused. I was hurt that you lied to me, but finding out you were a woman made the attraction I felt even stronger. I know you find this hard to believe, but it’s true. When are you going to get it through your thick head that I’m not like Elsbeth? I love you…” She poked the tall woman in the chest. “…For who, and what you are.”
Brice grinned at the little blonde. “Seeing my naked breasts aroused you?”
Roslin blushed and nodded. “Very much.”
Brice blushed too. It was strange, but pleasing to think of Roslin admiring her feminine attributes. It was the first time she actually admitted to herself that perhaps it was not such a tragedy that she was not born a man. Roslin likes my breasts, she thought to herself, and her smile broadened. Her attraction for me grew stronger because ‘I am’ a woman, not in spite of it. If her young love was happy she was a woman, she would learn to be happy with it too. Relief spread through her consciousness at the realization that she no longer regretted the body she was in.
“Does it arouse you to see my naked body?” Roslin asked.
“Oh yeah,” Brice lay back, and held out her arms to the young woman. “I love you.”
Roslin snuggled down into her arms with a sigh. “I love you too.”
Roslin had been working all morning to prepare a grand supper for the mid-day meal. One of the scouts Brice sent out had come back yesterday, advising them that Glen should be arriving a little before mid-day today with Roslin’s brothers. The little blonde wanted everything to be just right, and was looking forward to showing off her new cooking skills. Suddenly strong arms wrapped around her middle, and she was pulled back into firm contact with Brice’s long lean body.
“Something smells good,” The tall woman said, leaning down and kissing the little blonde’s neck. She gave her a final squeeze, then reached for a loaf of bread that Roslin had just turned out on a rack to cool.
“Uh, uh, uh,” Roslin said, reaching out to smack her hand away from the loaf. “Not until my brothers get here.”
“But I’m hungry,” Brice said, letting her lips turn down into a pout. “I need something to tide me over.”
“Will this do?” Roslin said, as she wrapped her arms around the tall woman’s neck and pulled her down for a kiss.
“Mmmmm,” Brice said, forgetting her grumbling stomach. “This will do nicely.” She wrapped her arms around the little blonde, grateful that the awkwardness of kissing and touching seemed to have been partially resolved last night. She knew she was still not ready to truly surrender, but they were back to being able to kiss and cuddle, and that was wonderful. She was determined that with time she would conquer these unfounded fears. Gently, she tickled Roslin, delighting in the young woman’s giggles.
Brice and Roslin turned to find Glen standing in the doorway. Roslin rushed to him, throwing her arms around him. “Thank you for bringing my brothers home,” she said, looking eagerly over his shoulder and finding no one there. Her eyes tracked back to Glen’s, worry showing clearly on her fine features. “You did bring them home didn’t you?”
“I brought them back, but the older boy was not that anxious to come home. They went up to their rooms to change; Lon was complaining about having to wear the same clothes since they left Dairus.”
Roslin smiled with relief, and turned to Brice, patting her belly. “Well, I guess you’re going to get to eat before you waste away to nothing.” Turning back to Glen she asked “Would you join us for the mid-day meal?”
“Thank you, but no. I’m anxious to get back to my family.”
Roslin kissed him on the cheek. “I want to give Lon and Kyle a week or so to settle in and then invite the whole family over to meet them. I’m hoping Kyle and Bowen will become friends; they are about the same age.”
“You just let us know when you want us,” Glen said, turning to leave. “We’ll be glad to come.” A quick wave and he was gone.
Brice could see the worried expression on Roslin’s face and she hoped with all her heart the reunion with her brothers would go well. After all, the young woman had killed their father, and Roslin had been agonizing over whether they would accept her explanation that it was an accident, or if they would consider her a murderer. Brice pulled the young woman in for a comforting hug. “It’ll be all right…you’ll see,” she said, kissing the top of Roslin’s head.
Roslin smiled and nodded. “I’ll get the food on the table and fetch my brothers; you go call Cadie in from playing and get her cleaned up.
Roslin knocked on the door and held her breath, fearing the reception she might receive. When Kyle opened the door and his face brightened into a smile, she threw her arms around the boy and pulled him in tight. “I’ve missed you,” she said, stepping back to get a better look at him. He looked none the worse for wear. “Are you hungry?” she asked, and received an enthusiastic nod. “Good…” Roslin said, patting his belly. “… because I cooked plenty just in case.”
“You don’t know how to cook,” Lon said sarcastically.
Roslin turned around to find her other brother standing behind her. “Why don’t you wait to judge my cooking until you’ve tasted it?” Roslin said, and Lon rolled his eyes. She opened her arms for a welcoming hug, but Lon turned his back on her. Give him time Roslin, she told herself, and started walking toward the stairs. “Come on, we better get down there or you’ll have to eat it cold,” she said, as she started walking down the hall.
“Father would have had a slave beaten if they tried to serve him cold food, but you don’t need to worry about that do you? You murdered him.”
Roslin stopped and turned around to face her brother. “I killed him, but it was an accident,” she said, looking from one brother to the other, her face pleading for them to believe her. “My hands were tied behind by back. The only way I could stop him from killing Brice was to run at him and push him away with my shoulder. I was trying to protect Brice, not kill father. He stumbled and lost his balance and fell. I only wanted to stop him. Please believe me.”
Kyle listened to her words, and he remembered the last time he had seen his sister, and how battered she had been from their father’s brutality. He had been devastated to learn that he also planned to kill her. The boy did not want his father dead, but he had understood when he found out the man had died by his sister’s hand. Now to hear from Roslin’s own lips that it was the accident he hoped it had been and not the cold- blooded murder Lon had led him to believe was an enormous relief. Though either way, he would have supported his sister. “I believe you,” Kyle said, glancing nervously at his brother.
Lon sneered at the boy. “You would.” He looked back to his sister. “You chose a slave over our father. I will never forget that,” he spat. “And now that same slave thinks he is Sovereign and is using a Ryshtan Lady as his bed slave.”
“I am not Brice’s bed slave,” Roslin said, color rising to her cheeks.
“You deny he has taken you to his bed?”
“I have consented to be Brice’s wife, and have taken him to my bed for no other reason, than that I love him. There are no slaves in Ryshta.”
At that moment, Cadie came dancing up the stairs. “Hurry Mama, we’re hungry.”
A smile returned to Roslin’s face, and she reached out and took the child’s hand. “Come on then, we wouldn’t want to you starve.”
“I can’t believe you let that little street urchin call you Mama,” Lon said, looking disgustedly at Cadie.
Roslin felt the flush, as anger washed over her, and she was about to lash out at Lon when she felt the little girl clutch her hand tightly. She looked down at Cadie, and saw her little lip tremble, as tears made their way down her cheeks.
“You still want to be my mother don’t you ma…Roslin,” she said, being careful to call her by her name and not say mama. Now that Roslin’s brothers were here for her to take care of, perhaps she would not want a little girl any more..
Roslin knelt down and pulled the child into her arms. “Of course I do.” Leaning away a little, she cupped the little face in her hands. “I love you. You’re my little girl now, and nothing is going to change that. Not ever.” She wiped the tears from Cadie’s face, and kissed her forehead before standing to face her brothers. “Brice and Cadie are a part of me now, Lon. We are family. Don’t push me to choose you over them, because you’ll lose.”
“You would choose a pretend family…” he nodded at Cadie, “…over your own blood family?”
Roslin’s anger flared higher. “She is of our blood. Look at Kyle. Can’t you see the family resemblance?” She had not meant to blurt that out, and wished immediately that she could take it back.
Lon really looked at Cadie this time. Yes, he could see it. Kyle had been the one who looked like their father, while he and Roslin favored their mother, but this child looked even more like their father than Kyle did. “Why should I be surprised that you’ve taken in father’s bastard half-breed.”
He turned to Kyle. “You go down and join Roslin’s new family if you want to. I choose to eat in my room.” He turned and walked down the hallway and into his room, slamming the door behind him.
Cadie looked up at Roslin’s flushed face. She had never seen her so angry. She didn’t understand Lon’s words, but she did understand that they upset Roslin. “Am I a bastard?” Cadie asked. She may not understand what it was, but she was pretty sure it was referring to her, and her gaze dropped to the floor, sad to be the cause of Roslin being upset.
“Don’t you pay attention to him little one. He was just trying to make me mad. It has nothing to do with you.” Roslin put a finger under the child’s chin, lifting her face up so she could look into her eyes. “Okay?”
A smile returned to the little girl’s face. “Okay.”
Roslin knew Brice was going to have a hard enough time with Lon’s attitude, without knowing about his verbal attack on her and Cadie. “Lets not tell your Papa about this, okay? I need to work out this problem with my brother, and I don’t want Brice to worry.”
Cadie nodded her head. She already felt responsible for the problem between Roslin and Lon, and she didn’t want to be responsible for worrying her papa too.
Kyle watched Roslin and Cadie together, and a tinge of jealousy flared in his consciousness. Her new daughter seemed to be taking all her love, and he wondered if she would have any left for him. When she put her arm around him and smiled, his uncertainty eased. Perhaps she had room for all of them after all.
“This is my brother Kyle,” Roslin said, as she entered the dining room with the two children. Brice stood up and extended her hand to the boy, and he froze.
So this is the new Sovereign
, he thought, as he took the tall woman’s hand. He was still not sure how he felt about a slave in a position of such power. After all, hadn’t his father told him that dim-witted slaves were only suited to menial tasks, but nothing that required complicated thought. “I’m pleased to meet you Lord Brice,” he said, bowing his head.
“Just Brice will do,” she said, sitting back down. “Welcome to our table.” She smiled, trying to reassure the boy. She could see that he was frightened of her, but that was to be expected. To him, she was still the conquering enemy.
Kyle and Cadie sat, and Roslin picked up Lon’s plate and began to fill it. “Lon is taking his meal in his room. I’ll take this to him and be right back.” She looked at the somber faces around the table and started laughing.
“What?” Brice said, starting to laugh herself, as she watched her partner giggle.
“You three look like you just buried your best friend. Now help yourselves to some food, and I’ll be right back.
Her laughter had been contagious, and Kyle and Cadie joined in too. The awkward silence broken, everyone began to fill their plates as Roslin left the room.
“Is Cadie really our sister?” Kyle asked, as Roslin tucked him snugly into bed.
“Yes, she really is.”
The boy looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you love her more than me?”
Roslin smiled. “Is that what you’ve been worrying about?” She received a nod. “I love both of you the same,” she said, leaning over to kiss his forehead.
“But you told Lon that if you had to choose, you would pick them over us.”
“I love you and Lon. Please don’t doubt that. I want you with me, that’s why we sent Glen to bring you home. You have a place here with Brice and me, as long as you want it.” Roslin reached out and ruffled his hair. “Lon said some very hurtful things, and so did I. I hope that we can work out our problem, but if he can’t accept Brice and Cadie as family too, and continues to cause problems, I’m afraid that Brice will ask him to leave. If that happens, I will stand behind Brice’s decision. I can’t allow him to tear our family apart. I only pray that he can adapt to our new way of life, and we can all go forward as a family.” Roslin leaned over and kissed him again. “Sweet dreams,” she said, rising and extinguishing the lamp.
What a mess
, Roslin thought to herself, as she walked into her dressing room. She hoped that Kyle had believed that she loved him. Stripping off her clothes, she slipped into her nightgown and joined Brice in their bed. “Kyle was afraid that Cadie was taking his place in my heart.”
Brice pulled her close. “Did you make him understand that it wasn’t true?”
“I think so,” Roslin said, snuggling closer. She was pleased to find that Brice had again removed the binding from her breasts before coming to bed. “Thank you for not wearing the bindings, I love the feel of your breasts against my face when I lie on your chest.” She pushed herself up to look into impossibly blue eyes. “I was afraid that after your panic last night, you would go back to wearing them again.”
“I won’t wear them to bed again…I promise,” Brice said, pushing the little blonde over onto her back, and covering the small body with her own. She leaned down placing kisses all over Roslin’s face, then capturing her lips. Rolling over onto her back, she pulled Roslin with her, savoring the feel of the young woman’s body pressing down on top of her. Her breath caught as she felt the familiar panic start, and she pushed it back.
Roslin had felt her love momentarily tense and then relax again, and smiled. Brice had been able to control the panic this time. Scooting down the tall woman’s body, she lay her head on her breasts and sighed. This was enough for now. “Goodnight,” she whispered, and closed her eyes, content for the time being with this closeness.
“Goodnight love,” Brice said, as she kissed the top of her head, and thanked whatever higher power sent this precious woman into her life.
Lon woke up and stretched. It was so good to be back in his own bed. This was the first good night’s sleep he had had in what seemed like forever. Even though he had given Roslin a hard time last night about it, he was glad she was going to marry the new Sovereign. At least it allowed him to remain in the Sovereign’s household, with whatever privilege that entailed. That did not mean, however, that he had to like Brice, or approve of his sister’s relationship.
The sound of his door creaking open brought his gaze to the door, and he could see Kyle peeking in through the small opening. “Come on in,” Lon said, sitting up and stretching again.
” I was just checking to see if you were awake yet. Roslin sent me up to fetch you for the morning meal,” Kyle said, opening the door all the way and stepping inside.
“Tell her I wish to be served in my room again.”
Kyle frowned. He had been worried Lon would say that. He wanted his brother to stop hurting Roslin’s feelings, and snubbing the rest of the family was hurtful.
“All right, I’ll tell her,” the boy said, as he turned to leave.
“Wait,” Lon said, standing and walking over to his little brother. “What is this Brice like?” He asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“He’s… very tall,” Kyle answered. “The tallest man I’ve ever seen, and he was nice to me. I…um…I kind of like him.”
Lon rolled his eyes. “Oh please Kyle, you can’t be serious. His influence on Roslin turned her against us and got our father killed.”
“She told you that was an accident.”
“Yes, a very convenient accident. Brice wanted him dead, and he got Roslin to do it for him.”
“You know it wasn’t like that.” Kyle said, defending his sister. “If you give him a chance, you might like him.”
“You’re pathetic, you know that?” Lon said, taking a step closer to Kyle. “Go back to your pretend family. I don’t need Roslin, and I don’t need you either.”
Kyle lowered his gaze to the floor, and turned to leave, trying not to let Lon see the tears he was fighting to hold back.
“Tell Roslin I need a bath before I eat,” Lon added, as he watched his brother stride toward the door. “Have her bring water for my bath now, I’m tired of being dirty.”
Kyle didn’t look back, he just nodded and left the room, closing the door and taking several deep breaths to help compose himself before facing Roslin.
Everyone was at the table when Kyle entered the room. Roslin had dished up the porridge already, and a plate of hot biscuits was in the center of the table.
“Where’s Lon?” Roslin asked, when she saw the boy enter the dining room alone.
“He said to tell you he want’s to eat in his room again.” Roslin picked up Lon’s porridge and started to rise.
“Lon also said he wants you to fix him a bath before he eats,” the boy said, as he sat next to Cadie.
Roslin sighed and started for the kitchen to fetch the buckets for water. Brice reached over and grabbed her arm. She hated seeing the sadness in Roslin’s eyes from the way her brother had been treating her. “I’ll take care of Lon,” she said, pulling out Roslin’s chair and beckoning her to sit back down.
“I’ll take care of it,” Brice repeated, her tone gentle, yet firm. “I’m sorry Roslin, but I won’t have Lon treating you as his personal slave. I don’t care if he is your brother.”
“But he is my brother, and I don’t want him hurt, he just needs time…you’ll see.”
Brice cupped the young woman’s face in her large hand. “He needs to understand, Roslin. Don’t you see that giving in to his demands only reinforces this behavior? He’s behaving like a spoiled child and he needs to learn that this is not acceptable”.
Roslin knew that Brice was right, and she nodded her compliance. She watched Brice’s tall frame disappear through the doorway and sighed.
Brice walked quickly up the staircase. Lon and Kyle had been home for only a day, and Brice was fast losing her patience. Lon tested her every chance he got with his treatment of Roslin, and the tall woman found herself struggling to hold her tongue, for fear of upsetting the young woman. She supposed his arrogance was understandable; after all, he had been groomed to be the next Sovereign and was not prepared to become just one of the people. But that was what he was now, and it was time he started pulling his own weight. She opened Lon’s door, and found the boy lounging on the bed, waiting for his sister to come up and wait on him hand and foot. Striding into the room, Brice stood at the foot of Lon’s bed.
The young man saw the towering figure at the foot of the bed, and knew without a doubt that this was Brice. Refusing to give Brice the respect of a Sovereign, he addressed her in a condescending manner, as he would a slave. “Did you fetch the water for my bath?” Lon asked, his arrogant gaze unflinching.
“There will be no bath, and if you don’t get your sorry behind downstairs now, there will be no meal to break your fast either.”
“You deny me my birthright, and now you won’t even let me bathe?”
“You want a bath?” Brice walked to the young man and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him toward the door. “It’s time you learned to fix it for yourself.”
“I don’t do slave work,” Lon spat, as Brice dragged him bodily through the door.
“You damn well better learn if you ever plan to bathe again.” Brice continued dragging the struggling young man, down the stairs, and through the large house. Obscenities spewed from Lon’s mouth as he tried without success to extricate himself from the tall woman’s grip. Brice stopped at the bottom of the stairs, grabbing the young man by the front of his shirt, and lifting him in the air, shoving him against the wall. Barely contained rage was clearly evident in her eyes. “I will not tolerate such language around my family. Shut your mouth, or I’ll shut it for you.”
Lon looked into Brice’s eyes, and for the first time was afraid. He stopped his outburst immediately, his jaw snapping shut.
Brice loosened her grip on the young man, and let him slide down the wall. “I wanted to try, for Roslin’s sake, to give you a chance to settle in, and become accustomed to the new way we do things in your own time.” The tall woman stepped away from the angry young man. “But I’ve changed my mind. You’re one of the people now, with no special privileges. It’s time you learn that. No one is going to take care of you; you’re old enough to take care of yourself.” Brice started walking again, pulling Lon along; her long strides making him have to run to keep up.
Brice walked him to the tool shed and retrieved an ax and wedge. “You’ll start by cutting the wood to heat the water.” She marched him to a pile of logs that needed splitting. “You’re lucky I don’t make you cut down the tree first.” Brice picked up a log, and hammered the wedge through it with the blunt side of the ax to demonstrate what she wanted him to do. “After you split them, you use the other end of the ax to cut them into burning size. ” She demonstrated again, then handing Lon the ax, she crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at the boy. “Get to work.”
“I hate you,” the boy spat, but quickly took the ax, and started to work on the logs.
Brice watched Lon work for an hour, his unused muscles trembling from exertion. When she finally told him he could quit, he was drenched with sweat, and his hands were blistered, and bleeding. “Pick up an armful of wood and follow me,” she told him, turning and striding toward the house.
Lon followed along, wishing he had never asked for a bath.
Brice pointed to the wood box in the corner of the kitchen. “Put the wood in the box.”
Lon complied, and waited silently for his next instructions. Brice showed him how to put wood in the stove and light the fire. “Now go out to the well, and bring in water to start heating.” She pointed to two metal buckets. “You can only heat two at a time, but it will take ten buckets of water to fill your tub.”
“I can’t carry water, my hands are sore.” Lon held up his bleeding hands for Brice to inspect.
Brice reached into a drawer, and pulled out two towels. “Wrap these around your hands.”
“Just do it.” The tone in her voice brooked no arguments. “Don’t fill them too full, or you might spill boiling water on yourself when you carry them upstairs.”
Lon’s eyes grew round. “Why would I heat the water to boiling? I don’t want to scald myself.”
“How long do you think it takes to heat a bucket of water? By the time the next bucket is hot, the first one would be cold if you did not heat each one to boiling. Now just do as I say and I’ll be back to check on you later.”
Lon watched Brice go, his anger somewhat muted by exhaustion. The young man had been pushing the rebel leader. He knew that, but he hated Brice for destroying his world, taking away his chance to be Sovereign, and enticing his sister into killing their father, and betraying the people of Ryshta. Now he realized that his father had been right about Roslin. It disgusted him to watch her voluntarily lowering herself to do menial slave work. The fleeting admiration he had felt for her when she stood up to their father was gone.
Never in his young life had he been forced to do manual labor. Even though his muscles trembled from overuse, he reluctantly walked to the buckets and picked them up. He hated Brice, but he feared her more. Lon would do as instructed, and his reward would be a nice long soak in a hot bath.
Roslin had watched through the window as Brice tried to teach her brother that he was no longer the Crown Prince, but one of the people now. It was a hard lesson for someone who had been taught just the opposite all his life. When she saw him tremble with effort, her heart ached for him, even though she knew that it was necessary. Things would never be the same in Ryshta, and the sooner he accepted that fact, the sooner he could get on with his new life.
As the days passed, the tension around the house lessened somewhat. Lon seemed to hate everyone, and hardly spoke to anyone but Kyle. And poor Kyle…it was so hard for the boy being in the middle like that. He seemed to be adjusting pretty well otherwise, and after seeing what happened to Lon, when Brice said jump, he asked, how high? Glen had let Bowen come over and take him around and show the boy a part of Dairus he hadn’t even known existed, and the boys seemed to be becoming good friends. Kyle did get annoyed sometimes when Cadie tried to tag along, but for the most part, he seemed to be coming to terms with having a little sister.
“We need to talk about the wedding,” Roslin said, as she snuggled into Brice’s shoulder. “Should it be before, or after the election?”
“Before, I think,” Brice answered, kissing the top of her head. “I don’t want to wait; I want to marry you now. It was hard enough to wait for your brothers to come home and get settled in.”
Roslin looked up and smiled. “I don’t want to wait either.” A thoughtful look crossed her face. She remembered how business-like and formal Ryshtan weddings were. “Do your people always marry someone they love?” she asked, wondering if she and Brice’s marriage was only unique to her people.
“Of course,” Brice answered, “Why else would someone get married? When you marry, you pledge the rest of your life to that person. I wouldn’t want to have to spend my life with someone I didn’t love.” Brice looked at Roslin questioningly. “Do your people marry without it?”
“Yes, unfortunately they do. That’s why I was at Frama when you liberated it. I had been sent to stay with my grandfather so I could meet my betrothed. I was lucky that father picked a man that lived in Frama so I could go stay with my grandfather and get to know the man before the wedding. My mother did not meet my father until the day before her wedding.”
Brice was stunned. “Do all your people marry strangers?”
Roslin became thoughtful again. “I don’t know if everyone does, but the upper classes do.”
“What would have happened if you didn’t like him? How could you let him touch you?”
Roslin remembered the talks she had had with her mother on this subject. “Well, you just put up with it and do the best you can because it’s your duty. Once you marry, you belong to them, but when your children come along, you have someone to love, and it makes it all worth it. My mother told me that with time, many women learn to love their husbands. She said she hoped that would be the case with me, but if that did not happen, I would get plenty of love from my children, just as she had from hers.”
“What if he doesn’t love you either, and doesn’t give you children?”
“Oh they always give you children. They need an heir to continue their line. Mother said a man doesn’t need to love you to have sex with you. She said they stop bothering you once they have enough children to secure their line. Then they keep after their bed slaves and leave you alone to raise their children.”
Brice shook her head. “Why would anyone want to live like that?”
“Power, I think. They marry off their children to secure alliances between families of wealth and power. It’s good business, nothing more.”
Brice shuddered. “I could never do that.”
“Now that I know the difference, I couldn’t either.” Roslin’s brow wrinkled. “You know Brice, I see the way some of your men treat their women, and from the outside, it doesn’t look that different from ours.”
Brice let her hands wander up and down Roslin’s back. She supposed that was true to some extent. “The one major difference is that they begin their life together with love. Then this ego thing gets in the way.” Brice thought a moment. “I really think it began for the right reasons. Men believe that women are fragile things that need to be taken care of, which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t carry it to the extreme.” Brice continued to let her hands caress the beautiful body in her arms as she spoke, smiling when the young woman sighed and cuddled closer.
“They think women are too sensitive and incapable of taking an equal part in making decisions that effect their future, and only think her opinion matters in regard to their children, and woman’s work. I think it is almost as difficult for our men to see their women as equals, as it is for your people to see mine as more than beasts of burden. In that respect, we all have some adjustments to make.”
“You and I are lucky,” Roslin said, thinking of all the obstacles they had overcome. “We found each other and fell in love, in spite of the differences in the way we were raised, and the prejudices we carried for each others people.”
“I count my blessings every day,” Brice said, kissing the top of Roslin’s head. “The day you become my wife, will be the happiest day of my life. Wife, to me, means partner, and I want our wedding to reflect that. When we marry, you will belong to me, but I will also belong to you.”
Roslin smiled. She liked the sound of that. “Yes, we will belong to each other forever.”
They lay in each other’s arms for a while, neither speaking, just enjoying the closeness. Roslin turned her face and kissed Brice’s breast through her nightshirt. “I love you so much,” she said, as she stretched up to kiss Brice’s neck.
The tall woman turned them over and leaned down for a kiss, eagerly exploring Roslin’s mouth when the young woman parted her lips. She allowed Roslin to caress her breasts through her nightshirt, and if felt glorious.
As the days passed, they continued to kiss and cuddle, and occasionally touch each other’s breasts, and each night, Brice felt more and more secure in Roslin’s appreciation of the feminine part of her. One evening they were lying in bed, and Roslin was gently massaging Brice’s breasts. She thought about how much she loved touching Brice, and could not imagine not wanting to touch the person you are in love with. “I don’t understand how Elsbeth could say she loved you, and not want to touch you.”
“She told me she could only respond to my touch if she pictured me as a man, and to see or touch the real me would spoil everything. She wanted a man…she settled for me.” A tear came to Brice’s eye. “I loved her, but it was never a complete love. She never truly gave herself, and I lived in fear that she would fall in love with a real man…and she did.” Brice paused and wiped the tears away while she composed herself.
Roslin was stunned. She already knew that Elsbeth pretended Brice was a man, but she hadn’t known that she had left her for one. “If she left you, how did you end up with Cadie?”
“He didn’t want her…I did. From the moment I knew Elsbeth was with child, I accepted the babe as my own. When Elsbeth was murdered, he was left to raise his own children alone. He didn’t want to take on another man’s child . I had loved her before she was born, and I loved her mother. I couldn’t leave her in Dairus to be branded a slave.”
Roslin looked at Brice with a new understanding of why she so desperately concealed her femininity. Elsbeth had made her believe she was only worthy of being loved if she hid everything feminine about herself, and even when she did as Elsbeth requested, the woman still left her for –as Brice put it- the real thing. No wonder Brice had been terrified to let her see that part of herself. She was afraid that the feminine part of her would drive Roslin away as well.
Roslin found herself hating Elsbeth for doing that to the woman she loved. “I don’t understand how you can still love her.”
“I hated her for a while, but I couldn’t look at my beautiful Cadie and hate her mother.”
“Did you know the man she fell in love with?”
Brice nodded her head, “Yes…I knew him well. He was my brother Dover.”
Roslin was stunned. “Oh, Brice…how could they do that to you?”
“My brother Dover smuggled Elsbeth out to his place shortly before Cadie was born. His wife had died and he needed help with his children, and I needed a safe place for Elsbeth. She was angry with me, and we parted without speaking. She had been so unhappy and lonely, having to stay hidden, and he was just getting over losing Tessa.” Brice held Roslin tightly, as the memories washed over her.
It had been nearly three months since Brice had seen Elsbeth, and she hardly slept, waiting for morning to arrive so she could make the trip to Dover’s to see Elsbeth and their baby girl. Frustrated, she got up and started out in the dark, deciding that if she wasn’t going to sleep, she might as well get an early start. She arrived at Dover’s place just after daybreak. Opening the door she found the house quiet and realized everyone must still be asleep.
Unable to wait another moment, she opened the door to the children’s room, and was surprised to find that Elsbeth was not there. A lump formed in her throat. There were only two bedrooms in the small house, and if Elsbeth was not sharing a room with the children, that meant… Brice closed her eyes tightly as she felt her breathing start to accelerate and heat flushed her face. She loved them both; how could they do this to her? She walked to the door and placed her hand on the knob. She hesitated a moment, then holding her breath she opened the door.
The room was illuminated with the first soft rays of the morning sun, and Brice could see them clearly. Elsbeth was lying with her head in the crook of Dover’s shoulder, and his arms were wrapped around her. “NO!” was torn from her lips before she could hold it back, her voice so strained, it sounded foreign to her ears.
Dover and Elsbeth started awake, and watched in horror, as Brice turned and ran from the room.
Brice’s trembling legs took her only a few steps from the house before she dropped to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. This can’t be happening, she thought to herself.
Elsbeth pulled a robe on quickly, and ran outside. Dropping to her knees in front of Brice, she tried to pull the sobbing woman close to comfort her. “I’m so sorry…I didn’t want you to find out like this.”
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” Brice shouted, as she violently pushed Elsbeth away. The tall woman got to her feet. “You said you loved me.” Brice turned and walked to her horse.
Elsbeth ran and caught her arm, pulling Brice around to face her. “I do love you. You’re the dearest friend I’ve ever had. I will always love you.”
Brice pulled her arm from Elsbeth’s grip. “I saw how much you loved me when I found you in my brothers bed.”
“You have to believe me that I never meant for this to happen. I love you both, but it’s different with Dover, it just feels right for me.” Tears started down the young woman’s face. “I never meant to hurt you, it…it just… happened.”
Roslin felt her face flush, as anger welled up inside her. “I hate her for doing that to you,” she said, wrapping her arms tightly around the tall woman, returning her embrace.
“I don’t hate her, and a part of me will always love her. I’ve thought about it, and I realize that she tried to love me as best she could. I just wasn’t right for her, and when she found someone who was…well, I can’t blame her any more. It may sound funny, but when I found myself attracted to you, I felt disloyal to Elsbeth. I thought I could never love anyone as much as I loved her, but I was wrong. I thought what I had with her was true love because I had nothing to compare it with, but what I share with you is so much more…” Tears came to her eyes. “Now I understand what Elsbeth meant when she said ‘it just feels right for me’. Because being with you feels so right for me. I love you.”
Brice put down her napkin, a contented burp slipping out. “That was wonderful,” she said, pushing away from the table.
“Thank you,” Roslin said. “It’s a pleasure to cook for someone who thinks everything I make is wonderful.”
Brice leaned over and kissed her, causing Kyle and Cadie to giggle, while Lon sat silently glaring at Brice as usual.
“I need to get back to the stable,” Brice said, as she stood and pushed her chair back against the table. “Topka is laboring with her foal, and I want to be there in case she needs help.” The tall woman looked across the table at Kyle. “Would you like to come help?” she asked, and the boy’s face lit up.
“Oh yes, I’ll help,” he said, jumping to his feet.
“Can I help too, Papa?” Cadie asked sweetly.
“I’m afraid you’re to young for this job, little one. You stay here and help Roslin.” She looked up at Roslin and winked.
“I really could use your help Cadie,” Roslin said, reaching for the little girl’s hand and smiling. She was grateful that Brice had been making such an effort to help her brothers. After their initial confrontation, Lon had resisted every effort Brice had made to let him know that he was welcome in their home as long as he followed the rules. Lon had grudgingly taken on the chores assigned to him, and they had had no further clashes, but he never spoke to Brice except to answer a direct question, and his scathing looks made it clear to any who saw them that he hated Brice. But Kyle was a different story. He was settling in and making friends, and seemed truly happy with his new family.
Brice saw a long gangly leg emerge from the mare’s vagina, and she frowned. A breach delivery was always difficult, and often times deadly.
“You see how we have only one leg coming out?” she asked, speaking calmly, so as not to let the boy know she was concerned. He nodded and she continued. “I need to reach inside her and feel around for the other leg to make sure it’s not caught up on anything.”
Kyle frowned. He could not imagine sticking his hands up inside the huge animal.
“If she is unable to deliver the foal, they could both die,” Brice explained, as she pushed a hand into the opening. Finding the other leg, she gently worked it free and pulled it out to join the other.
Kyle smiled when he saw her hand emerge and pull the other leg out. “Is she going to be all right now?” he asked, finding himself getting excited at the prospect of watching a new life being born.
“With our help, I think she will be.” Brice reached back inside with both arms this time. “Grab onto both legs, and when I tell you to pull, I want you to pull with a steady pressure, no big jerks, just steady pressure. Okay?”
Kyle nodded and grabbed the slender legs. “What if I hurt it?” he asked, terrified that he might do something wrong.
“Don’t worry, you won’t.” Brice said, as she felt for the foal’s front legs. Finding them, she held them snuggly against the foal’s body and waited for the next contraction. “Pull now,” she said, as she felt it start. Kyle and Brice both pulled, and the foal slid smoothly along until only its chest, shoulders, and head remained inside.
“You did great,” Brice said, smiling at the boy. One more push should do it.” Her face sobered momentarily. “Without your help, I might not have been able to get it out in time. Thank you.” Her eyes turned back to the foal. “It’s time,” she said, pressing firmly against the foal’s ribcage, and pulling steadily. The foal emerged, and Brice ripped the sack with her strong hands, pulling it away from its head. She grabbed a towel, and started to wipe the foal down, while Kyle looked on in awe. Brice’s words played again in his ears, ‘Without your help, I might not have been able to get it out in time.’ He swelled with pride that he had helped save this funny looking little creature.
The mare nuzzled her newborn, and started licking him. “Let’s leave them alone to get acquainted,” Brice said, handing Kyle a towel so he could wipe the mess off his hands.
“I can’t believe I helped him be born,” the boy said, his eyes never leaving the colt.
“Would you like to have him?” Brice asked, placing her hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “I think you’re old enough for the responsibility, and you did help bring him into the would.”
“Yes!” Kyle said, throwing his arms around the tall woman, than letting go just as quickly when he realized what he had done. “I…I’m sorry,” he stammered.
“Hey, if you can’t hug your family, who can you hug?” Brice said, pulling the boy back for another hug. Kyle’s grip tightened around her, as these new words sank in. Brice considers me part of his family, he’s not just being nice because of Roslin.
Brice released the boy, but wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go home and get cleaned up. Kyle looked up at the tall woman and nodded, and they walked out into the night together.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kyle so happy,” Roslin said, wrapping her arms around the tall woman. “He’s already fallen in love with that colt. He couldn’t wait to take Bowen and Cadie over there to show him off.”
Brice smiled. “I know, I saw him strutting over there like a proud papa, with them in tow.”
Lon walked in and stopped in front of Brice. “I’m finished,” he said, his face devoid of emotion.
“Good,” Brice smiled, “You finished early. Why don’t you go on down to the stable. I’m sure Kyle is anxious to show you his colt.”
“You may have bought my brother, but you can’t buy me,” Lon said, as he turned to leave. “I’m not interested in seeing anything you gave him.” He turned and left the room.
Roslin shook her head. “Are we ever going to get through to him?”
“I don’t know,” Brice said, pulling her close. Lon was such an angry young man, but hopefully, given time, he would come to see they were trying to help him. “I just don’t know.”
Roslin sat in the large overstuffed chair in her bedchamber, and watched Brice pace back and forth. The election was fast approaching, and Mikah had campaigned tirelessly to convince the people that Brice was wrong in letting women vote too. He told the people it was bad enough that Brice had placed two women on the governing council in permanent positions. To let women vote and decide the fate of men was unthinkable. He urged the men not to allow their women to vote. His following was growing, and Brice was surprised to find women falling in with their men in support of Mikah.
Brice couldn’t believe that the women thought so little of their own worth that they would relinquish their voting rights to their men, thinking themselves incapable of making important decisions. Was that the reason? Or were they just not willing to take the risk of angering their men? With three weeks to go until the election, it looked like only a few women were likely to go against their husband’s wishes and vote. It was even worse with the single women. They were afraid that if they voted, the single men would classify them as unsuitable for marriage. After all, what kind of a wife would they make if they considered themselves equal to a man?
“How do they think they can get people to see their point of view if they refuse to express it?” Brice asked, shaking her head. “I want all people to have a say, not just the male half of the population.”
Roslin got to her feet, and blocked the tall woman’s path to halt her pacing. She could see Brice was getting herself worked up over this, and decided to do something about it. “Don’t get so upset, love. Change takes time,” she said, taking the tall woman’s hand. Leading her to the chair, she pushed her down into its softness, then climbed into her lap. “A few women will vote this election,” she leaned over and kissed Brice. “A few more the next,” Another kiss. “And before you know it, we’ll even have women submitting themselves as candidates.” She nuzzled into the tall woman’s neck, nipping and biting, as she worked her way up to a sensitive earlobe.
Brice shivered at her partner’s sensual assault. “You think you have me wrapped around your little finger, don’t you?” She asked, trying not to groan as her earlobe was drawn between soft wet lips.
Roslin let go of Brice’s ear and sat back with a self-satisfied grin on her face. “Yes, I believe I do,” she said, letting her hands travel to the tall woman’s breasts, caressing them through her nightshirt. Brice’s eyes fluttered shut, and this time she didn’t try to stifle the groan. It felt too good.
They had been doing more and more kissing and touching lately, but always with their clothes on. Brice no longer panicked when the young woman touched her, and Roslin decided that tonight was the night she was going to try to take the love play a little further. How far, she was not sure, but she was at least going to try to get both of them unclothed for a change. Standing, she pulled her nightgown over her head, revealing a completely nude body. “I want you,” Roslin said, extending her hand to her tall lover.
Brice was on her feet in an instant. “It’s been too long,” she whispered, as she pushed the young woman against the wall. Her large hands found Roslin’s round firm behind, and she lifted the little blonde up, extending her thigh so that the young woman was straddling it. “You feel so good,” Brice said, thrusting her thigh into the young woman, as she squeezed the firm round globes in her hands. Brice continued to lift Roslin, until the little blonde could wrap her legs around her waist. Now the young woman’s breasts were high enough to enjoy the tall woman’s attentions, and she lovingly suckled first one, then the other, all the while, using her hands to push Roslin’s center into firm contact with her belly.
Roslin wrapped her arms around the tall woman’s neck, and arched her back, pushing her breasts harder into Brice’s mouth. Each pull on her nipple sent a jolt to the young woman’s center and she tightened her legs around her lover, needing the contact.
Brice turned and walked to the bed, placing Roslin down on it, then climbing up on top of her. She loved the feel of the young woman beneath her, as she thrust her hips down, making delicious contact. Leaning down, she captured the young woman’s mouth with her own, exploring its depths with her tongue.
Roslin could feel her release building quickly as her tall lover’s fingers thrust into her moist center. Clutching Brice tightly, she moaned into her ear. “Mmmmm…. uhhh..Briiicce….”
Brice was floating in the sweet sounds her lover was making, and when she felt Roslin’s warm breath against her ear, as she moaned her name with her release, the tall woman almost joined her with a release of her own. Roslin stiffened in her arms, then collapsed back down onto the bed, her breathing ragged. Brice lay beside the young woman watching her; the tall woman’s head propped up on her hand.
Brice remembered the rare times in her youth that she had attempted to pleasure herself, and wondered if it felt different when someone else touched you there. It had felt wonderful to make love to Roslin again, to touch her and watch her respond. Nothing could be better than that, she thought, picking up the young woman’s hand and pressing it to her lips. She continued watching Roslin, as the young woman’s breathing returned to normal, and her eyes fluttered open, a radiant smile on her face. “I used to think I knew what love was,” Brice said, her hand gently stroking Roslin’s belly, then moving up to caress her breast. “But I was so wrong.” She leaned down to place a kiss on the breast she was caressing. “I’ve never felt this deeply about anyone, never felt so…” Brice paused a moment, needing to find the right words. “…complete, and happy. My heart is so full of love for you that I feel like it will burst from the joy of it.” Her eyes went back to the breast she was so lovingly caressing. “I love touching you.”
Roslin turned over on her side to face Brice. “I love to touch you too,” she said, reaching out and cupping her lover’s breast through her nightshirt, then deciding to do something she hadn’t tried yet, she leaned over and Pulled a nipple into her mouth.
Sensations long denied flooded through the tall woman, and her body was on fire. She wanted…no…needed more. “Wait,” Brice said, and the young woman froze. Was she pushing her too fast again?
Brice saw the confusion in Roslin’s eyes. “I trust your love for me,” she said, tracing the young woman’s lips with her index finger. “I’m not afraid anymore.” Brice sat up and pulled her nightshirt over her head. The tall woman was wearing no undergarments, and the sight of her lean muscular body took Roslin’s breath away.
“Please…I need your touch,” Brice said, Laying back down on her side, and pulling the young woman close.
Roslin smiled. Those were the words she had been longing to hear, and she threw her arms around the tall woman. Brice was so big and strong, power emanated from her, yet at this moment, Roslin had the power, and this knowledge swept through her. She needed to possess this woman… her woman. “I love you,” she whispered, as she captured Brice’s lips in an urgent kiss.
When the kiss ended, Brice allowed Roslin to push her over onto her back. She watched the little blonde’s eyes devour her body, desire showing clearly in their green depths.
“Your breasts are beautiful,” Roslin said, leaning down to kiss the tip of a hardened nipple. “So beautiful,” she repeated, as she began to make love to Brice’s breasts.
The fire that had began to burn spread rapidly through her body, until Brice thought she was going to scream, but somehow, she managed to hold it back. The sweet torture Roslin was administering to her breasts was almost more than she could bear. She didn’t want to cry out…she couldn’t. Women cry out.
Brice clutched the small woman to her tightly, stopping her ministrations, and giving herself a moment to catch her breath and think.
When Brice’s crushing embrace relaxed a little, Roslin lifted herself up so she could look into Brice’s eyes. “Are you all right?” she said, stroking Brice’s sweat covered forehead.
Brice looked into worried green eyes, and melted. “I’m fine…I…it was just going too fast, I thought I was losing control.”
“I kind of like knowing I can make you lose control,” Roslin said, smiling seductively. “I want you to lose control.” She ran her fingers through the coarse dark hair at the apex of Brice’s legs, causing the tall woman to gasp. “Do you want me to stop?” Roslin asked, taking delight in the way Brice’s powerful body quivered beneath her touch.
“No.” Brice swallowed the lump in her throat. “Please don’t stop.” She felt Roslin slowly run her hand up and down the length of her torso, and the smoldering fire burst into full flame again, and a groan forced its way from her lips.
“That’s good love, don’t hold back…let it out,” Roslin said, covering the tall body with her own.
The feel of her lover’s naked body pressed against her own sent Brice soaring. The tall woman had not expected to be so overwhelmed by simply pressing their naked body’s together. Roslin slipped off Brice and leaned over, nuzzling into her left breast, causing the tall woman to moan loudly, no longer trying to hold anything back. Both of Brice’s hands gripped the bed quilt, as the little blonde continued exploring her body. Brice gave her body permission to respond, and respond it did. She felt Roslin’s small hands stroke the inside of her thighs, and her legs spread wide of their own volition, inviting a more thorough investigation. She could not believe the moans she was hearing were coming from her own mouth, and was helpless to stop them. Though in truth, she no longer wanted to stop them. She wanted to experience everything.
Roslin’s hands were gentle and tender as they brushed and teased across her center, and Brice thrust her hips upward to make firmer contact.
“Now, I need you inside…now.”
Roslin drew a hard nipple into her mouth at the same time she thrust her fingers into Brice. The tall woman released the quilt and gripped her young lover tightly, as if by doing so they could merge into one complete being. “Harder,” she pleaded, thrusting her hips to set a rhythm for Roslin to follow. Brice screamed out Roslin’s name as her first orgasm crashed through her body, and she clutched the young woman so tightly Roslin could hardly take a breath. When it was over, and Brice could breathe again, she raised her hands to wipe the tears that were flowing from her eyes. They were tears of joy, and she smiled to herself at how wonderful it felt to finally allow herself to accept the pleasure that her partner so wanted to share with her. Reaching down, she pulled Roslin up for one more kiss. “Thank you for not giving up on me,” she said, as more tears began to fall. “I love you.”
Brice had sent word that there would be a meeting of women only, and she made it clear that attendance was compulsory. This way, they would not have to argue with their men in order to attend. All women were required to be there.
“I am not advocating a war between the genders, that’s not what this is about.” Brice said, to the room full of women. “But I am going to assure that all people, regardless of their gender, be allowed to have a say in how they are governed.” Brice paused, her eyes sweeping the room. The women seemed torn between taking a step closer to equality with men, or not making waves, and letting their men have their way.
“You can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” a woman sitting off to the side called out. “You have nothing to lose, you’re a man.” Several of the women nodded their agreement. “Walk a mile in our shoes, and see if you feel the same.”
Brice realized they were right. She was a woman, but no one knew it. The respect and leadership that had been given her was based on the fact that everyone believed her to be a man. They never would have followed her if they had known the truth. Perhaps it was time to end the lie. Perhaps if they knew she was a woman, they would see that a woman could lead as well as any man.
“You’re right,” Brice said, walking over to Roslin, and taking her hand for moral support. “I don’t really know what it’s like to be a woman,” she squeezed the small hand. “But there is a truth about me that I want to share with you.” Brice looked down at Roslin, and the young woman smiled up at her, a small nod of the head, letting the tall woman know she had her approval. Brice’s heart started pounding, and her mouth went dry. The same panic she had felt the first time Roslin tried to touch her as a woman began to engulf her, and she used the calming influence of her lover to push it away. There was no going back. She gripped Roslin’s hand harder, and thanked god the young woman was here with her. “I was born a girl, but my parents chose to raise me as a male to protect me from the Ryshtans.”
There was a collective gasp in the room, then complete silence, as the women to digest this unbelievable information while the tall woman continued.
“I could have continued to lie to you, but I wanted you to see, that the only limitation you have is what you allow others to put on you.” Brice turned to Roslin and smiled, “I won’t do that any more. I want to be who I am, no matter the consequences. I want that for all of us. Change is a difficult thing, but that doesn’t make it undesirable.” Brice felt her panic dissipate, as the weight of the lie she had been living with was lifted off her shoulders. It felt surprisingly good to be free of it. “Please don’t limit yourselves. Your men should be your partners, not your taskmasters. If you truly do not want to express your opinion with your vote, that is your choice. I respect that. But don’t allow someone else to make the decision for you. It is your right as a free person. Don’t throw it away.” Brice turned and escorted Roslin from the room, leaving the women of Dairus to ponder her words.
“We need to call the children together and tell them before someone else does,” Roslin said, as the returned from the meeting with the women of Dairus.
“I know we should have told them first, but I hadn’t planned to tell anyone when I started talking.” Brice looked at Roslin and smiled. “It just happened.” Brice knew that Roslin was responsible for helping her come to terms with who she really was, and being able to say it out loud in a room full of people. It felt good to be free of hiding what she was from people she cared about. “Kyle and Cadie will be at the stable with the colt,” Brice said, stopping and looking in that direction. “I’ll go fetch them, and you go in and see if Lon is home.”
Roslin nodded and continued up the palace steps.
Cadie and Kyle smiled and chatted with each other, while Lon sat quietly watching them. He couldn’t understand why Kyle was nice to the brat. They all sat in comfortable chairs in the large sitting room that was just off the great hall. They couldn’t help but wonder what was so important they had to drop what they were doing, and meet together like this.
Brice and Roslin appeared in the doorway, and the room became quiet, as all eyes turned their direction. “I have something I need to tell you,” Brice said, stepping into the room. Roslin followed her in and sat next to Kyle. “What I have to say is not going to change anything in our family, but it’s something you need to know.” Brice let her eyes rest on each of them momentarily, and then she continued. “When I was a small child, just a little younger than Cadie, my parents decided to raise me as a male child, even though I was born a girl.”
Kyle’s eyes grew round with surprise, while Lon just roled his eyes and shook his head.
“If you were born a girl, how did you turn into a boy?” Cadie asked, confusion showing plainly on her little face.
“I didn’t,” Brice said, kneeling in front of her daughter. “I’m still a girl.”
Cadie frowned. “Are you still my papa?”
Brice scooped the little girl up in her arms. “I will always be your papa. Nothing is going to change.”
“Okay,” Cadie said, a smile returning to her face.
Brice looked at Kyle and Lon, who had remained silent. “Nothing is going to change around here. I’m not going to suddenly start wearing petticoats, and looking for the man of my dreams.” She looked at Roslin, who had let a laugh slip out at the picture Brice had just painted. “I already found the woman of my dreams,” she said, reaching out and clasping Roslin’s hand and pulling her to her feet. “Roslin is going to be my wife, and we are all a family. That has not changed.
What will change is that everyone else will know the truth about me and they might give you a hard time because of it. I hope that doesn’t happen, but we wanted to tell you ourselves, before someone else did.”
Kyle stood up. “I’ll punch anyone who says anything bad about you,” he said, looking up sincerely at the tall woman.
Brice smiled. “Thank you Kyle, but I don’t want you getting into fights defending me. I can take whatever they say about me, as long as I know my family is okay with it.”
“I’m okay with it,” Kyle said, “But what kind of a man would I be if I didn’t defend my family? I’m sorry but I think I will have to punch ‘em if they say anything bad.”
Lon stood up. “If that’s all, can I leave now?” he said, looking at Roslin. She nodded, and he walked away. He decided he needed to have a talk with his friend Adler about the possibility of joining his group that was leaving Dairus in the morning.
“Well, what did he want?” Mikah asked, as his daughter Sharlyn walked through the door. He had been surprised when Brice had called a women-only meeting, and was glad he had a daughter he could send who would report back to him.
She looked at her father, wondering what his reaction would be when she told him Brice was a woman. “Brice told us we shouldn’t let our men folk intimidate us, and to have faith in our opinions, and not be afraid to express them.”
Mikah shook his head, wondering how the man could possibly believe women should be taken seriously. “Is that all?” he asked, wondering why they needed a meeting for something so unimportant.
“No, that’s not all,” Sharlyn answered. “Brice also explained that given a chance, a woman can be just as effective a leader as a man can, and to prove it…” she held her breath a moment before blurting the news out. “…She told us that she’s a woman.”
Mikah’s jaw dropped open, and he shook his head in disbelief. It couldn’t be true. He had known Brice basically all his life. “You’re sure you heard him correctly?” he asked, looking skeptically at his eldest child.
“I’m sure I heard her correctly,” Sharlyn responded. “She said that she is living proof that a woman is capable of doing more than traditional woman’s work.”
“I don’t believe it. This is just a trick to make women think they should be considered equal to men.” Mikah turned and started to pace. “It won’t work though, no one is going to believe such a ridiculous story.”
“If you had heard her, you’d believe it.” She thought a moment, picturing Brice when she announced her revelation. “I believed her,” Sharlyn said, “And the other women there believed her too.”
Mikah stopped short, a smile slowly spreading across his face. This might work to his advantage after all. If it was true, then it was not only evidence that Brice was just an inferior woman, but it also proved her to be a liar. If it proved false, it still showed him to be a liar. Either way, he won. He was certain he could convince the people not to follow someone they could not trust to tell them the truth. Once their faith in Brice was shaken, he could get them to throw out this ridiculous permanent council, and simply elect a leader and let him choose his own advisors. This would give him a good chance of taking over the power in Ryshta.
Word spread rapidly, and soon all of Dairus knew that their leader was really a woman. When Brice heard the bell sounding to call the people for an impromptu meeting, she was certain she knew what the topic of discussion would be. She vacillated about whether to go, or let everyone get used to the idea before facing them, finally deciding it was better to face their questions now, rather than wait and wonder what was going on.
When she arrived at the meeting ground, she found the people were not angry, they were confused. In that state they were easily manipulated by Mikah, who was doing his best to sway the people to his way of thinking. He made it clear to them that he thought they should toss Brice out on her ear, and choose a new leader.
“…and how can we continue to put our faith in a leader who has been lying to us all her life?” Mikah pointed at the tall woman, as the crowd parted to let her through.
“You don’t understand, ” Shea said, raising her voice to draw the attention away from Mikah. “Brice had no choice in the matter. She was only a babe when her father and I decided to raise her as a male.”
All eyes turned to the older woman, wanting to hear what she had to say. “Once she was counted as a boy, we had no choice but to continue, for to do anything else would have meant severe punishment, and possible death for our family.”
“What about these last five years? There were no Ryshtans standing over her shoulder, ready to dole out punishment,” Mikah said, turning once again to the crowd. “I can understand why she kept up the pretence while she was here, but for the last five years she has been free of them. She could have given up this charade and lived as a decent woman. Instead she continued the deception even though it was no longer necessary to keep her family safe. No, she preferred to lie to the people who trusted her, taking on a woman lover to perpetuate this deviant lifestyle. This was a choice.” He looked at Brice and asked her point blank. “Why did you continue to live as a man when you left Dairus?”
“I lived the way I have always lived…the way that is comfortable for me. I’ve never introduced myself to anyone and said ‘Hello, I’m a man’. People assumed I was a man, and I did nothing to change their perception of me. If you want to call that lying, then yes, I lied. There was more than one reason I let people believe I was a man,” Brice continued. “First, I didn’t want to shake the confidence my soldiers had in me as their leader. If we were going to win our freedom, we had to pull together, gathering momentum as we liberated Ryshta, city by city. The slaves we encountered in each new city would not have known me, and might have been reluctant to join us if they knew I was a woman. What we were doing was too important to take that risk. Second, but just as important to me is…” she looked Mikah right in the eye. “…I did not then, nor do I now, plan to change the way I live. I don’t care if you call me he, or she. It makes no difference to me, because what you label me does not define who I am. What you see right now, is how I am most comfortable. I am in love with a woman, and I won’t give her up to please anyone.” She thumped her chest with her fist. “This is not a lie, it’s the real me.” Brice looked from face to face and repeated, ” This is who I am. I haven’t changed at all except for what you choose to call me. I am the same person I was before you found out the truth of my gender. Can’t you understand that nothing about me has changed?”
“Everything has changed,” Mikah said, glaring at the tall woman. He turned back to the crowd. “Can’t you see what she’s trying to do?” He purposefully let his eyes skip from man to man, never making eye contact with the women in the group. “She’s putting ideas into our women’s minds, and they are starting to question our decisions.” He glared at Brice momentarily, then his gaze returned to the gathering. “She is planning on marrying another woman. Where does that leave us if our women start pairing up with each other?”
“I am not advocating that women pair up with each other to the exclusion of men,” Brice said, exasperation clear in her voice. “What I said was that I am in love with a woman, and I do not intend to give her up. I believe that people should follow their hearts. Love is a beautiful gift, and should never be thrown away because you fall in love with someone that perhaps others might not approve of.” She looked at Roslin and smiled. “I hope you people can accept my love for Roslin, but if you don’t, that won’t change my feelings for her, or stop me from pledging the rest of my life to her. People don’t all have to be the same. Be who you are, and together we will go forward as a free people who respect each other’s diversity.”
A large ruddy-faced man stepped out of the throng and turned to face them. “I don’t give a damn what Brice is, or who she chooses to love. She has been a good friend, and a good leader. Without her we would still be slaves. She gave us the courage to try and win our freedom. Would anyone here prefer to go back to the way things were?”
The few Ryshtans in the group were quiet, but everyone else called out “NO!” quite vehemently. “Brice is the Chosen One, sent to lead us…”
“That’s another lie,” Mikah said, interrupting. Brice could not be the Chosen One. The prophecy said that the Chosen was a man.”
Egan, the old priest, stepped forward. “No! You’re wrong,” he said, looking Mikah in the eye. “I have read the passage many times. There is no mention of the gender of the Chosen, only that they would step from the masses to lead our people out of slavery, and into a new life. The only description given was that the Chosen was tall as the trees, with eyes the color of the sacred crystal.” He turned to face the crowed. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I for one believe Brice is the Chosen. She fits the description, and she fulfilled the first part of the prophecy, she led us out of slavery. Now Mikah is trying to stop her from completing the prophecy.” The old man looked at the tall woman and smiled. “Brice is the Chosen One, and I will follow where she leads.”
The priest spoke eloquently, and although the issue of Brice’s gender had momentarily confused the people, the facts spoke for themselves. If the great earth spirits chose Brice, then who were they to question the ancient wisdom. The crowd erupted with support for her. Circling the tall woman and cheering, they lifted her up onto their shoulders, and walked away en mass, chanting her name, leaving Mikah and his little group behind.
Roslin stood and watched as the crowd carried Brice away. She swallowed the lump in her throat and sighed. It was finally over, they finally saw Mikah for what he was, and accepted Brice as she was. There would be no more opposition to the governing counsel, or the right of women to vote.
“I should have known she would win,” Lon said, walking to where his sister stood in front of the dais. “Those people really are as stupid as Father said they were.” He had hoped the people would rebel again and throw Brice out. It had certainly not proven to be an advantage living under her roof, as he had first thought. Now he just wanted her gone, but that was not going to happen. He knew that now. It was time for him to leave the nest, and now seemed as good a time as any to join one of the emigrating groups of Ryshtans leaving Dairus.
“I wish you could understand that we all won,” Roslin said, trying not to let her brother’s words spoil the warm feeling that seeing the people embrace Brice had caused.
“I have decided that I can’t live under your roof any longer,” Lon said, ignoring his sister’s words. “I’ve spoken to my friend Adler’s father, about joining them when they leave in the morning for Frama.” He looked at Roslin, and she could see determination in his eyes. “I don’t belong here anymore.”
Roslin let him finish speaking, and sighed. She had so hoped that he would open his stubborn eyes and really see what they were trying to do here. “If that’s what you want to do, we won’t try to stop you.” She walked closer and put her hand on his shoulder. “If you ever want to come home and be a part of our family, you’ll be welcome.”
Lon shrugged her hand off his shoulder. “I have no family.” He turned and walked away.
Roslin really wasn’t surprised that he wanted to go. Ever since the rebels took control of Dairus, the Ryshtans had been leaving in small groups to make a home elsewhere. Some chose to stay, refusing to be driven out of their homes, but more and more were leaving every day, wanting to go where they were not so greatly outnumbered by people who despised them. They understood that wherever they went in Ryshta, the new rules applied.
Kyle stood and watched his brother pack his belongings. “I don’t want you to go,” he said, his eyes pleading with Lon to reconsider leaving Dairus.
Lon looked at the boy and shook his head. “I have to go. You know how Brice treats me.” His jaw clinched. “I hate her.”
“Will I ever see you again?” Kyle asked, his voice cracking.
“I’m never coming back,” Lon said, picking up another bag and starting to stuff it. “If you want to see me, you’ll have to come to Frama. I’m going to go claim Grandfather Gage’s house, as his eldest heir.”
“Roslin’s older than you are.”
“You know women don’t count in things like this.”
“They do now.”
“Well, I doubt she’s going to leave Brice and go claim it.” He finished packing the last bag and looked around the room to see if he was forgetting anything important. “You could come with me if you want,” Lon said, looking back at his brother. “I don’t think Roslin will force you to stay if you really want to go.”
Kyle shook his head. He loved his brother, but he didn’t want to leave Roslin and the new family he had become a part of. Roslin had made it clear to him how much she loved and wanted him with her, and Brice had gone out of her way to make him feel special, and welcome, and a part of her family. He even had to admit that his pest of a little sister was starting to grow on him too. For the first time in his life, he felt part of a family that truly cared for each other.
“Suit yourself,” Lon said, as he shouldered one bag, and picked up two more. “Get that one for me,” he said, nodding to the last bag.
Kyle picked up the bag and sadly followed his brother out the door.
Egan, the high priest, watched as Roslin and Brice walked into the small chapel, hand in hand. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” he asked, as they drew near.
“As you know, I have asked Roslin to marry me, and she has consented.” Brice looked down at Roslin and flashed a radiant smile that was returned in kind.
Egan nodded his approval, and smiled at the young couple.
“I know that I was not raised in your faith,” Roslin said, holding tightly to Brice’s hand. “But Brice and I want to start our life together with the traditional ceremony of her people, and we would be honored if you would preside.”
The old priest took Roslin’s hand. “You and Brice worked together to free my people and I would be honored to be the one to join you in marriage.” Egan looked from Roslin, to Brice. “You will each have tasks to perform in preparation for the joining.” He placed his hand on Brice’s shoulder. “Brice, you will prepare the circle.” The tall woman nodded her head, and the old priest dropped his hand back to his side, and continued. “The circle will be built with cedar logs, and you will tend the fire for three days to purify the circle. The first morning, the two of you will ask the blessing of the spirit of the earth, and all growing things. The second morning, you will ask the blessing of the spirit of the wind. The last morning, you will seek the final blessing from the spirit of the fire.” He looked back to Brice. “After the final blessing, you will let the fire burn down to coals for the ceremony. During the three days of blessing and purification, you will also compose the words that signify this joining in your hearts. Write the words together, and your hearts will speak as one.”
As she was instructed, Brice prepared the circle of logs, and tended it faithfully for three days. Each morning, they joined hands and knelt in front of the circle, and requested the blessing. Each evening, they looked into their hearts to find the words that would define their union.
It was time. The cedar logs had been burned to glowing embers and Brice and Roslin waited together for
the wedding party to approach the circle, led by Egan, the high priest. Immediate family and friends, were allowed into the circle, the rest of the people, who had gathered to celebrate the union of the Chosen One and her lady, stood back and watched as the wedding party approached the circle of embers.
“We gather on this day to celebrate the Love of Brice, and her lady Roslin, and to sanctify their union. Let us begin therefore, by leaping the fire, which is an ancient act of purification.” The priest jumped into the circle, then stepped aside, allowing Brice and Roslin to jump over the embers, followed by the rest of the wedding party. The guests linked hands to form a circle around Brice, Roslin, and the priest.
Egan walked to the glowing embers, and bent down, lighting a candle. “As you hold the sacred flame, receive its blessing of passion and energy. You’re entering into a new life. It is the most fragile of relationships and yet the strongest. It is fragile because it requires exactly the right mix of caring and of sharing, of being together and of being alone. It is strong because it involves the unseen forces of something we call love, mutual devotion, concern for the happiness of the other and joy in each other’s company. There is no stronger force than this silent bond of love,” he said, handing the candle to the couple, who each reached out with one hand.
Egan turned and retrieved a chalice from the wedding table and held it out in front of Brice and Roslin. “Remember that this joining is only a symbol of what already exists in the silent places of your hearts. It is yours to define, yours to make real and yours to live. Are there symbols of this union that you wish to exchange?”
Brice took a shaky breath and reached into her pocket, pulling out a ring. Bringing it to her lips, she kissed it reverently and placed it in the chalice. She thought her heart would burst with joy, as she watched the woman she loved place a ring in the chalice as well.
“May these symbols be blessed, and may they ever be a reminder of the love shared here today. So shall it be.” The priest held the chalice up for all to see, then brought it back down in front of the couple. “It is time to speak what is in your hearts.”
Brice and Roslin faced each other and clasped hands.
Brice was not sure she could speak, she was so overcome with emotion. She looked into Roslin’s beautiful green eyes, and the words they had written together, suddenly started to spill from her lips with no effort.
“I, Brice, in the name of the spirit’s that reside within us all, by the life that courses within my blood and the love that resides within my heart, take thee Roslin to my hand, my heart, and my spirit, to be my chosen one. To desire you and be desired by you, to possess you, and be possessed by you, without sin or shame, for naught can exist in the purity of my love for you. I promise to love you wholly and completely, in life and beyond, where we shall meet, remember, and love again. I shall not seek to change you in any way. I shall respect you, your beliefs, your people, and your ways as I respect myself.” Brice reached a trembling hand into the chalice, and retrieved the small silver band, slipping it reverently on Roslin’s finger, then lifting the small hand and kissing it, as a single tear made its way down her face.
Roslin reached up and wiped away the tear. “I Roslin, in the name of the spirits that reside within us all, by the life that courses within my blood, and the love that resides within my heart, take you, Brice to my hand, my heart, and my spirit to be my chosen one. To desire and be desired by you, to possess you, and be possessed by you, without sin or shame, for naught can exist in the purity of my love for you. I promise to love you wholly and completely in life and beyond, where we shall meet, remember, and love again. I shall not seek to change you in any way. I shall respect you, your beliefs, your people, and your ways as I respect myself.” Now it was Roslin’s turn to slip a ring on Brice’s finger. The tall woman’s hand was trembling so, that it took a moment for Roslin to get the ring on. She smiled up at the tall woman, then they turned together to face the priest again.
“May your love so endure that its flame remains a guiding light unto you.” Egan smiled at them. ” It is traditional for the couple to jump the broom. This represents the transition into a new life. Will one member of each of your family’s step forward?” Glen and Kyle stepped out of the circle, and held the broom low to the ground, while Brice and Roslin jumped across it.
” Go now together. Greet your brothers and sisters and receive their blessings.”
Brice and Roslin walked around the circle hand in hand, receiving congratulations from friends and family.
Egan and his assistant retrieved cakes and ale from the small table behind them, and followed behind the couple, passing them out.
“Eat and drink. Share and be happy.”
When Roslin and Brice completed the circle, they each took one cake, and one glass of ale. “And as we share, let us remember that all we have, we share with those who have nothing. So shall it be.” Brice offered Roslin a bite, and then a sip of ale, and received the same in return.
Brice took both of Roslin’s hands in her own, and brought them up to her lips, kissing each palm in turn. They had pledged themselves to each other many times before, but somehow this was different…it was more. Perhaps it was because they had evoked the blessings of the spirits, but she felt a connection to Roslin that she knew nothing in this world, or any other, could sever.
Leaning down, she kissed Roslin’s upturned lips, then pulled her close, burying her face in golden tresses. “I love you,” she whispered, as she felt Roslin’s arms tighten around her. “I wouldn’t change anything in my past, because it led me to this moment, and to you.”
Roslin was overcome by the sentiments. Tears began to fall, and she couldn’t speak. She just nodded and pressed her wet face into Brice’s neck. An involuntary shudder went through her body at the thought that this joy almost wasn’t hers, and of the life she would have led if things had been different, and she had married Amon. I would rather be dead, than give this up, she thought, as the tears came down in earnest.
Releasing Roslin, Brice cupped her wet face in large hands, wiping the tears away with her thumbs. Clasping hands, they stepped across the fading embers and walked together toward their new life.
Credit where credit is due.
I read some essays on medieval and renaissance wedding ceremonies, and Scottish handfastings. One in particular by Ryan Hunter I really liked, and used some of it for the foundation for Brice and Roslin’s wedding.
There is also a line from a wonderful old song by Mason Williams that I used. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the song, and I’m not sure I am remembering the line correctly. I believe it goes: But in desperate drinking, the savor of loving is lost, and so never was mine. I love that line, and when I was writing a scene, it just popped into my mind, and seemed to fit so perfectly, I used it.