The Lady Katherine Chronicles 22
Lady Katherine and The Silent Assassin
Posted January 2010
Codes: uber J/7
Setting: April 1193,
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now. P.s. no claims on historic accuracy are made!
Katherine pulled hard on Delta’s reins, swerving him round the end of a hawthorn hedge at full gallop. Beyond it the open landscape stretched onwards and Katherine could see her quarry already some distance off over the scrubby grass. Digging her heels in, Katherine tried to spur even more speed from her horse. The wind whipped at her short auburn hair as she hunkered down. Peering round Delta’s neck, she blinked a couple of times to focus. Her target had finally come to rest sitting on a dry stone boundary wall.
Katherine slowed Delta to a trot. She hopped down close to the wall, breathing hard after the swift chase. Now they were into April it would soon be time to start wearing fewer heavy winter layers, but as it was her damp shirt clung to her back underneath a sturdy leather tunic and thick cloak. Slowly she walked forwards. A pair of golden eyes swung towards her.
“Easy, girl,” Katherine said in low, soothing tones, inching closer the whole time. “There’s no need to fly off anywhere again.”
The goshawk continued to stare at her, its unblinking gaze unnerving. Katherine carefully stretched out her gloved hand, attempting to take hold of the jessies that dangled from the birds feet. She almost had her fingers round them when the bird gave a loud squawk. Its wide brown wings shot out as it leapt from the wall. Katherine lunged for the swaying leather straps, but she was too late. Her hand grasped at thin air as she tumbled forwards to land face down on the grass.
“God damn it to buggering hell!” she cried, beating an annoyed hand on the earth.
“I hope you don’t use that mouth with your priest.”
Katherine swung round on the ground, seeing another rider pulling up next to Delta. Not that she had needed to look to know who it was. Anne’s voice was as well known to her as her own. The other woman’s blue eyes regarded her with a faint hint of amusement in them. Katherine brushed herself down as she clambered to her feet.
“Considering my priest is the friar, I’m sure he’s heard much worse. He probably says much worse.”
Anne smiled and lowered herself from her horse. “Diana still proving elusive is she?”
“That bird will be the death of me!” exclaimed Katherine, staring out across the field to try and spot her.
“Which makes it all
the more puzzling that you would want to bring her out this far from
Katherine looked innocently back at her. “I don’t know what you could mean.”
Anne made a doubtful muttering noise. “Tobias would have a fit if he knew you were out this far on your own.”
Katherine sighed. “I
know he only has my best interests at heart, but we are still on the
“Should be,” agreed Anne, “but after the events of a couple of weeks ago we can’t be too certain.”
Katherine knew Anne
had a point, what with the attack on Eaton and then their eventful trip to
“Anyway, you got it wrong,” she began, “I’m not on my own, I have you here with me.” She let her fingers trail across the blue material of Anne’s tabard, down over the golden gryphon. “My faithful personal guard.”
Anne’s eyebrow quirked up. “If you’re trying to charm me so I won’t tell Tobias where we went you’ll have to try a bit harder.”
Katherine frowned, her hand coming to a halt resting over Anne’s left breast. “Hey, I thought I was your boss?”
“And Tobias is my captain…”
Katherine gave Anne a playful shove, but before she could pull her hand back, Anne quickly caught it.
“I hope you’re not going to make me restrain you so I can take you back to the manor house, Milady.”
“Sounds interesting,” replied Katherine with a seductive smirk, “but maybe another time. We do still have a wayward goshawk to catch after all.”
As tempting as a quick assignation in the field was, it was a little too public. Katherine walked back over to Delta and swung herself onto his back. Anne followed suit next to her, mounting her own horse.
“I don’t know why you keep bringing her out,” said the younger woman, “she’s practically feral,”
Katherine encouraged Delta into a walk while keeping an eye out for her hawk. “I guess a part of me was hoping to enter her in the Spring Fair contest this Friday.”
Anne laughed, causing Katherine to shoot her a curious look. The younger woman realised she was being watched as she rode along. She stopped her laughter, starring back at Katherine. “You’re serious?”
“I think the lady of the manor should lead by example,” stated Katherine, “join in with the festivities since I am the host.”
“Maybe you should pick something less challenging though,” suggested Anne, “like the jousting.”
“Very funny,” replied
Katherine. “You know you could join in too, put up a good showing for
“I don’t think so,” said Anne. “I don’t exactly see that going down well with the other Lords and knights you’ve invited – having to share their precious manly activities with a woman. Unless you wanted me to bake a cake for one of the stalls instead?”
Katherine pulled a horrified face. “I don’t think we want to poison our guests.”
“Now who’s the funny one?” Anne asked. “But seriously, I thought one of the main points of this fair was so you could try and forge some new bonds and alliances, not to cause scandal. I’m sure most of them would think it’s bad enough having a woman as a guard without shoving it in their face.”
“Well, sod them!”
Anne laughed. “Now you’re starting to sound like me. I thought you were the one who’s meant to be the diplomat?”
“I suppose so,” agreed Katherine reluctantly. “It’s just hard having to conform to stupid protocol sometimes.”
“But I’m sure you will put on your best smile and get through it.”
Katherine smiled. “With you there at my side.”
“Of course,” said Anne. “Just not being too obvious about it,” she added.
Katherine supposed that would have to do for now. At least she could have Anne with her wherever she went even if she couldn’t reveal the true nature of their relationship. Getting back to the task in hand, she surveyed the field they rode through.
“God knows where that bloody bird is. Maybe we should head to the nearest village, see if anyone’s seen anything?”
Anne didn’t answer, Katherine realising she was being favoured with a sceptical look.
“What?” asked Katherine, turning to meet the questioning blue eyes. “Can I help it if the nearest village is Eaton?”
“No, of course not,” replied Anne. “It’s pure coincidence.”
From her tone, Katherine knew Anne didn’t believe her for a second. Tobias had been dead set against her coming to the village after the recent attack. However, she needed to come and pay her respects, see how the survivors were doing and if they needed anything. She could have sent someone else, but felt it was the least she could do to come herself. Katherine believed Anne understood as much which was why she wasn’t objecting more forcefully.
They rode the short distance over the fields to where Eaton lay. The village was a collection of a dozen or so buildings, many of those now damaged, their roofs caved in or their insides burnt out. Katherine felt the stab of guilt on seeing the destruction. She should have protected them better. Her guilt turned to sorrow as she saw a group of people up ahead, kneeling in front of a shrine of sorts. It was little more than a few candles and crosses, but the people were hushed before it, heads bowed in prayer. Katherine pulled up at a respectful distance and dismounted. However, their arrival had not gone unnoticed.
A young woman rose from the group and came over to greet them. “Good morning, Milady,” she said, offering a small curtsey as she did.
Her voice broke as she
trailed off. Immediately Katherine stepped forward and wrapped her arms round
the young woman, hugging her tight. It wasn’t what most nobles would do in the
circumstances, but then she wasn’t like most nobles. “I’ll find whoever did this and bring them to
justice,” stated Katherine confidently. She already had a fair idea who was
responsible, though uncovering proof was another matter. At the moment all she
“Why don’t you introduce me to some of the others?” suggested Katherine gently.
“Of course,” said Katherine.
Anne hung back as Katherine moved towards the shrine, not wanting to serve as a stark reminder of what had happened to the village in her guard’s uniform. Instead she kept watch, eyes scanning the perimeter of the village. It was unlikely there would be another attack, but Anne didn’t like to assume anything. Satisfied there was nothing untoward on the horizon, she let her gaze drift to the group by the shrine. Katherine was kneeling amongst them now, offering kind words to the mourners. Anne marvelled at the other woman’s natural talent to connect with anyone be they noble or commoner. Such ease with other people was not something she herself was proficient at.
“Are you Lady Katherine’s lady knight?”
Anne turned to her side, her eyes having to track downwards to see her questioner. Though she had trouble connecting with people, for some reason children seemed drawn to her. The latest was a boy of about eight years. At least children were refreshingly open-minded when it came to her position in the guard. The boy looked up at her with a mixture of admiration and awe.
“I am her ladyship’s personal guard,” she informed him.
“You must be pretty good with that sword then,” he said, pointing at the one her hand rested on the hilt of.
“I am capable.”
“Are you going to be
in the contest at the Spring Fair? Only we’re going down there.
Anne tried to answer, but he was off and running, rambling on.
“She wants to go round all the boring stalls and stuff, but me, I want to see all the contests – the archery, the falconry, the jousting. Most of all I want to see the sword fighting. I bet you’d be good in that. You must be if you’re her ladyship’s personal guard.”
Thankfully at that moment Anne spotted wide brown wings swooping overhead. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to go,” she said to the boy, already moving towards her horse.
“I’ll see you at the fair then!” he called after her.
Before she reached her horse, Anne managed to catch Katherine’s eye and gestured towards the sky to indicate where she was going. Katherine would be safe in the village for the hopefully short time it would take to catch the bird.
Anne spurred her horse on while keeping her eyes locked on the bird above. Eventually it would come to rest and then she would be ready to pounce. They galloped on through a copse of trees, Anne losing sight of the hawk for a moment. She turned her eyes to her path, just in time to see a huge hole looming in front of them. She wrenched on the reins, but it was too late. The horse’s hooves stumbled over the rim in a desperate attempt to stay upright. It wasn’t enough. The loose ground gave way and they tumbled over, Anne just about managing to roll away before she was crushed by the falling horse. Fortunately the animal sprung back up in the bottom of the hole, not appearing to be injured. Anne took a moment to brush herself down after the shock of the fall. The hole appeared freshly dug, though why anyone would be digging in the middle of the path was unclear. It was a good six feet deep too, Anne’s head just below the rim when she got to her feet. Next to her the horse stamped its feet in agitation, not liking being in the enclosed space.
“It’s ok, girl,” said Anne, reaching for the reins and giving the anxious animal a pat on the nose. “Wait there a moment,” Anne instructed it as she sized up potential footholds. Picking the most stable looking, she hoisted herself up and out of the hole. Back at normal ground level, she could see that theirs was not the only hole. There was a whole series of them stretching throughout the copse. “What the hell?” Anne wondered out loud.
Below her the horse whinnied, no doubt wondering when it too was going to be freed from confinement.
“All right, I’m coming!”
Anne looked around for something to dig with, her eyes settling on a suitably shaped and sturdy piece of bark. Even with the makeshift tool it was slow going as she scraped away at the edge of the hole in an attempt to make a slope so she could guide the horse up it. It was hot work in her full uniform and halfway through she straightened up to wipe some sweat from her brow. Through the trees another horse with an auburn-haired rider approached.
“Having fun?” asked Katherine as she drew close. On her arm sat the errant goshawk, peering at the mud-caked Anne with what appeared to be a smug expression.
“Not exactly,” replied Anne. “It looks like someone has been digging up half the estate.”
Katherine’s eyes took in her surroundings for the first time. “Why in God’s name would someone be digging all these holes out here?”
“I would say they were looking for something,” posited Anne as she turned back to her task. “Whatever it is, it seems quite a coincidence so close to Eaton.”
“You think this and the attack are connected?”
Anne dug away the last bit of earth. “Just a theory,” she said, “though probably worth some investigation.”
Carefully she stepped back down into the hole and took the horse by the bit. “Time to go,” she informed it before tugging.
Woman and horse slipped
and staggered up the slope, having to make a few aborted attempts before finally
reaching level ground. Once she was back atop the horse, Anne and Katherine
turned back towards
By the time they made
it back to the manor house at
“Where have you been?” he demanded of Anne.
“On the north of the estate, visiting Eaton,” she replied. Inwardly Katherine cringed – sometimes Anne could be too forthright and truthful for her own good.
“I thought I instructed you to avoid that area for the time being?”
Katherine stepped in. “It’s not her fault, I insisted.”
Tobias gave an almost imperceptible sigh, the only outward indication of his annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure you did,” he said. “Unfortunately I cannot berate you.”
Katherine gave him a reassuring pat on the arm. “I’m sorry if you were worried, but nothing happened, we were fine. Well, apart from…”
Tobias’ eyebrow crept up a notch. “Apart from?”
“We found something rather curious near Eaton – a series of freshly dug holes, as if someone was searching for something. You don’t know anything about that do you?”
Tobias always had his ear to the ground and often knew things that were happening on the estate Katherine was unaware of. That was one of the reasons he made such a good captain of the guard. In this instance it appeared he was as perplexed as Katherine.
“I do not, but I shall investigate further. In the mean time you have a visitor.”
Something in his tone gave Katherine pause. “It’s not someone I’m going to be pleased to see is it?”
“It depends what your feelings on tax collection are.”
Katherine groaned. Tax collectors were notoriously dour and humourless and being as the one paying her a visit would be from the Sheriff of Nottingham that would only be doubly so. She wasn’t due for an audit, though, so wondered what the purpose of his visit was.
“The Sheriff’s tax inspector is waiting in the hall for you,” Tobias prompted before she could come up with a good excuse for a need to be elsewhere.
“Thank you, Tobias,” she said through gritted teeth.
As they started walking towards the house Katherine turned to Anne. “I don’t think you need to be subjected to this boredom. Why don’t you go and get the friar’s plans for the fair off him and we can take a look through those once I’m finished.”
“Are you sure, you may require someone to intervene should things get heated.”
“Your intervention would probably be a whack on the nose, though,” pointed out Katherine. “Appealing as that is, I think I can manage.”
“All right, I will see you shortly.”
Anne started to lean forwards, but caught herself. There were far too many prying eyes in the open courtyard for a kiss, even one on the cheek. Instead Anne simply nodded formally and walked off towards the gate. Katherine steeled herself and turned for the door.
The churchyard was quiet as Anne walked through it, her only accompaniment the sound of the wind brushing through the grass on the hillside. The church occupied the other prominent raised position in the town and as she approached the door Anne could see across to the manor house where the blue and gold flag fluttered atop the walls. She hoped Katherine wasn’t finding the tax inspector too tiresome.
Pushing open the heavy door, Anne entered the tranquil interior. There was no one else immediately apparent in the church and Anne moved up the aisle towards the small room at the back where the friar could often be found. She knocked a couple of times but received no answer.
“Friar, are you in there?” she asked, her hand on the latch.
Next to her the candles on the altar flickered, an indication the main door had been opened. Anne swung round, unprepared for the sight that greeted her. A young woman stood just inside the doorway, a smile on her elfin features.
“Good afternoon, Anne.”
Anne folded her arms across her chest, standing where she was. “What are you doing here, Axia?”
Axia walked up the
aisle towards her. “As I told you in
“And as I told you in
“I can’t do that, Anne, we need you,” Axia called after her.
Anne glanced back over her shoulder. “But I don’t need you.”
Anne swept out the
door and stormed down the hill back into town. She’d hoped Axia would have
given up after her less than enthusiastic reception in
A couple of days
passed and it appeared they were no closer to losing the attentions of the
Sheriff’s inspector. Supposedly he was just carrying out a routine audit, but
Katherine had voiced suspicions his real mission was to spy on her. She was
hoping to use the fair to forge new alliances and trade agreements with the
visiting nobles, something the Sheriff would be very
interested knowing about. With the inspector taking up more of her time than
she would have liked, she’d asked Anne to go to the nearby
Even though it was only just over a mile to the other village, an April shower managed to soak Anne on the way so she was grateful to get off her horse and into the warm interior of the blacksmith’s workshop. Inside the fire blazed while the smithy hammered away at his work, a fine sheen of sweat evident on his well-muscled arms. The repetitive clanging against the anvil meant the man didn’t immediately notice Anne and she let him continue, happy enough to let the heat dry her clothes.
Eventually the blacksmith stopped beating the sword he was working on, turning and nearly jumping out of his skin when he saw Anne standing there.
“Bloody hell! How long have you been there?”
“A little while,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
He wiped his brow with a dirty rag. “It wouldn’t have been a problem; it’s only an old sword,” he said, indicating the one that still sat atop the anvil. “Not like the one I presume you’re here to collect for her ladyship. Now that’s a beauty, even if I do say so myself.”
He ducked round behind the fire before reappearing with a sheathed sword. “I’m almost sorry to see it go,” he said as he offered it to Anne.
She took it, unable to resist drawing it to inspect the smithy’s handiwork. The balance of it was exquisite, like an extension of her arm. As she drew it closer the firelight played off the smooth, perfect blade. An inscription was engraved vertically at the base in small, intricately formed script. Anne read the Latin words. “Fortes fortuna iuvat.”
“I have no idea what it means,” said the smithy, “it’s just what I was told to put on there.”
“Fortune favours the brave,” Anne translated for him. “It’s a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, or at least a slightly modified form of it.”
The blacksmith looked suitably impressed by her knowledge. Few commoners could even read, let alone quote from epic Roman poems. “You could always win it,” he said as Anne continued to admire his craftsmanship, “if you enter the contest at the fair.”
“I don’t think so,” said Anne, sheathing the sword once more.
“I’ve heard you’re pretty handy,” he added.
Anne wondered when she
had become quite so well-known around
“I’m sure there will be plenty of other worthy contenders,” she said.
He shrugged. “If you say so. Though perhaps not any that her ladyship would support quite so much.”
For a moment she
wondered at the remark, worried that he knew something about their
relationship. She had to remind herself that to most people she was just
Katherine’s personal guard and no doubt it was to that he was referring.
Deciding it best not to linger on the point, she thanked him for the sword and
left. Once she’d secured it, she set off on the north road towards
Anne pulled up and dismounted. Stalking over, she scowled at the woman before her. “When are you going to get the hint? I don’t want to talk with you or meet any of your little pagan cult.”
Axia’s expression remained placid despite Anne’s obvious antagonism. “We are your people, not these people, not…”
Anne’s eyes narrowed, daring Axia to continue. “Go on, say it…not Katherine?”
“She is distracting you from your destiny.”
“Will you stop with
all this destiny rubbish!” Anne cried. “My destiny is
here, and quite happy I am with it too, thank you very much. So why don’t you
just bugger off back to
Axia stood stubbornly where she was even though Anne now loomed menacingly over the smaller woman. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but sooner or later you are going to have to face it,” said Axia calmly. “You are needed for something that is bigger than any one of us, bigger than our own personal desires or needs.”
Anne stepped back a pace, sensing she wasn’t going to intimidate Axia into leaving. “And I don’t suppose you could enlighten me as to what this mysterious task is?” When Axia didn’t answer, Anne took a moment to study the other woman’s face. “You don’t know, do you?”
Axia took a breath. “Not exactly, no.”
Anne threw her hands up with an incredulous laugh. “And you expect me to sign up on a vague pretext that we’re saving mankind from some threat we know nothing about?”
“We may not know what it is as yet,” explained Axia, “but it is coming and we must be prepared.”
“Well, you can prepare without me,” said Anne, already walking back towards her horse.
“What if I could give you something?” tried Axia with a hint of desperation in her voice. “Something of value to you. Would you join with us then?
Anne turned round, a look of disdain on her face. “You have nothing I need.”
“Do not be so sure….”
Suddenly Axia closed the distance between them and cupped her hands about Anne’s face. Anne tried to pull away, but before she could her mind was assaulted by a chaotic series of images. She struggled to make sense of the swirling, disjointed mess. The first image that became clear was that of a golden cup with red liquid swirling inside it. Just as quickly it was gone, lost in the overall jumble. Anne tried to focus. The sound of a child’s laughter came to her, swiftly followed by the flash of a small blonde head dashing past. The disorder filling her mind was starting to hurt, yet still she couldn’t pull back. Another sound resounded through her brain, this time the clatter of metal on stone. The source appeared to be a sword with a green gem imbedded in its hilt, dropped on some flagstones. Anne grimaced as the mental barrage continued. Now she was looking down at grassy ground. Someone was lying on it. With some effort she managed to drag the image into focus. It was Katherine. An arrow jutted from a bloody wound in the centre of her chest while her eyes starred vacantly at the sky above.
Anne recoiled in horror, finally breaking the link with Axia. “What the hell was that?” she demanded in between gasping breaths.
“A vision, of a possible future,” stated Axia evenly.
The emotionless tone only served to anger the already agitated Anne. “More like you’re trying to scare me into joining you! It’s probably all some fabrication of your twisted mind.”
“No,” said Axia, “I have shown you this so you can stop it. And if you do you will be indebted to me.”
Anne just stared at her unable to think with the image of a dead Katherine still so fresh in her mind. “You’re crazy! Just leave me alone!”
Anne ran for her horse
and leapt onto it. Before Axia could say another word, Anne galloped off,
wanting to distance herself from the other woman and what she’d seen. However,
the grim vision haunted her the whole way back to
Katherine opened the rear door to the manor house, thankful for the blast of fresh air that greeted her after several hours cooped up with the tax inspector. She suspected the Sheriff had deliberately sent the man at this particular time, when she was trying to carry out final preparations for the spring fair. Some of the nobles had already arrived and set up camp outside the grounds, while the rest would come during the following day in time for the welcome banquet.
Sometimes Katherine wondered why she organised such events. It would be much easier to lead a quiet, unassuming, safe life. But Katherine was none of those things, and in reality she liked the challenge if not always the stress. She stepped out into the afternoon air and walked across the grassy yard at the back of the house, heading for the winery. She wanted to check their stocks given the number of important visitors. If they were low there was still time to draw in emergency supplies from the vassals on the estate.
Katherine left the door to the winery ajar as she ducked inside since she hadn’t brought a torch with her. The building had no windows so her only light was that filtering in through the doorway. Once her eyes adjusted that was illumination enough to scan the dusty bottles and jars. Katherine counted them a couple of times to ensure she was correct in her calculations. Just as she got to the far end for a second time, the light dimmed. Katherine glanced to the doorway, seeing a figure standing there. With the light behind them she couldn’t make out their face, though they appeared to have a hood up covering it anyway. From their size and bulk she deduced it was a man, but could discern little else.
“Did you need something?” she asked.
The man didn’t answer. He just continued to stand there.
“I said, did you need something?” repeated Katherine in case he hadn’t heard the first time.
Still there was no sound or movement from the man. Katherine felt unnerved by his silence and the fact that he blocked her only exit. For a moment neither of them moved. Then suddenly the man darted out of view. Katherine ran for the door, but when she reached it and looked outside there was no sign of the mysterious stranger.
“Is everything all right, Milady?”
Katherine saw one of the kitchen women heading towards her, carrying some empty bottles.
“Did you see a man outside the winery just now?”
The young woman shook her head. “No, Milady. Is something amiss?”
Katherine surveyed the grounds once more, but the hooded man was nowhere to be seen. “No, it’s nothing,” said Katherine. Quite possibly the man was with one of the early arriving noble parties and had just been on the lookout for some drink, not expecting to find her in there.
“In that case I think the inspector was looking for you, Milady.”
Katherine sighed. When wasn’t he? “Thank you, Millie,” she said, moving off towards the main house.
Across the yard she saw a horse and rider arriving at the stables, recognising the dismounting blonde head immediately. Katherine surmised she could spare a couple of minutes, especially as she still felt somewhat disturbed by the encounter in the winery. However, Anne appeared distracted, not noticing Katherine until she had walked up right next to her.
“Did you get the sword all right?” Katherine asked, more to get her attention than anything.
Anne visibly jumped before she turned to Katherine. “Yes, I have it.” She patted the saddle where it was affixed.
Despite her positive answer, Anne’s whole demeanour was off. She appeared restless, her eyes not settling on Katherine.
“What’s wrong?” asked Katherine, forgetting her own worries for the time being. “Did the blacksmith give you trouble?”
“No, nothing like that,” replied Anne quickly, too quickly for Katherine to believe it.
Katherine placed her hands on Anne’s arms and waited for the other woman to look her in the eye before she spoke. “Whatever’s the matter, you can tell me.”
Anne’s internal deliberations were written all over her face as she hesitated. Eventually she sighed and opened her mouth to speak. Only she was prevented from doing so by another voice close by.
“Ah, there you are. I might have thought you were deliberately avoiding me.”
Katherine let her hands drop and turned to the inspector. “I don’t know what could have given you that idea.”
If the man discerned the sarcasm in her tone, he didn’t show it. “When you’re ready, we need to go over the tithes for the Ollerton ward.”
Glancing at Anne, Katherine realised the moment for saying whatever was on her mind had passed. She supposed she would just have to pursue it when she got the chance, if the inspector left her alone for more than five minutes.
“We’ll talk later,” she said quietly to Anne.
The other woman gave a small nod, leaving Katherine to follow the inspector back into the house.
Unfortunately the ever increasing demands of both the inspector and the fair meant Katherine didn’t get a chance for that talk with Anne for the rest of the day, nor at any time on the next day. In fact by the time the evening of the welcome banquet came round, Katherine had barely seen the other woman for more than a few minutes at a time. As the last of the daylight faded outside, Katherine sat in front of her polished copper mirror drawing a brush through her auburn hair. Soon she would need to go downstairs and fulfil her part as hospitable and charming host. Already she could hear the sounds of the banquet preparations filtering up to her chambers from the hall below. The sound of a knock on her door rang out over the general hubbub.
In the mirror she
caught sight of Anne entering the room. The younger woman was dressed in her
smartest uniform, the collar of her tunic stiff where it buttoned high round
her neck. On top as always she wore the blue and gold
“How are you doing?”
“Better now,” said Katherine as she offered a smile to the mirror, able to see Anne’s one in return. She swung round on her seat. “Though I’m running late. Could you help me with my dress?”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call Beatrice?”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “It’s a dress, not a rampaging horde of Celts.”
“I think I’d prefer the rampaging horde,” Anne said doubtfully.
Ignoring the less than enthusiastic response, Katherine got up and picked the deep red dress off the bed. “I just need you to do up the ties I can’t reach at the back.”
Immediately Katherine turned round so her back was to Anne and removed the robe she was wearing before stepping into the long dress. After waiting a couple of seconds, she craned her head over her shoulder. “Before all my guests go home would be good.”
Anne appeared to gather herself, having previously been staring at Katherine’s naked back. She moved closer and started drawing the ties together from the bottom.
“So how are you?” asked Katherine as the other woman worked her way up.
“Me? I’m fine.”
“Only yesterday you seemed a bit distracted when you got back from Tuxford,” Katherine noted.
“Oh, that. It was nothing.”
Katherine swung round enough to look sceptically at the other woman.
“Really, it doesn’t matter,” insisted Anne, gesturing for Katherine to turn back round so she could finish. “Someone said something to me, but it was just rubbish, not worth bothering about.”
Katherine lifted her hair up at the back so Anne could knot the last tie. “If you’re sure, because I could have a word with them if they’re giving you a hard time, being lady of the manor and all.”
“And the lady of the manor has far more important things to be worrying about right now, like all those nobles waiting downstairs.”
Now Anne was finished Katherine was able to turn back round, smoothing down the front of the dress and re-adjusting it plunging neckline so it didn’t reveal more than she wanted. Satisfied she turned her eyes up to Anne. “Nothing is more important to me than you.”
Anne smiled. “I know.”
Katherine suspected Anne wasn’t quite telling her everything, but trusted her to deal with whatever it was in her own time.
“You look beautiful, by the way,” added Anne.
Katherine grinned, slipping closer to the other woman. “And you look very dashing too,” she remarked, running her fingers along the gold braiding of her top. “Are you sure we have to go downstairs?”
Anne slipped her arms around Katherine. “Believe me there’s nothing I’d like more than to undo all these ties again,” she said as she slid her fingers over Katherine’s back, “but not many new alliances would get formed that way.”
“I suppose so,” agreed Katherine with a regret-filled sigh. She looked up to Anne, her tone slipping into a seductive purr as she spoke. “We’ll just have to save it until later.”
Unable to resist the nearness of the other woman, Katherine closed the remaining distance and placed her lips on Anne’s. Their bodies pressed together, Katherine fast losing herself to the heat of the moment. It took all her willpower to pull back.
Anne had to take a couple of deep breaths herself before she spoke. “If you’re ready, Milady, I should escort you downstairs,” she said, standing to attention.
“Hang on,” said Katherine, “I need to add the final touch.” She reached down to her dresser and picked up the pendant sat there. The rose quartz of the crystal reflected the flickering light as she brought it up to her chest and fastened the thin chain behind her neck. “Now I’m ready,” she said with a smile.
Anne returned the smile as she regarded the crystal that had been a gift from her to Katherine the summer before. “Then lead on, Milady.”
Katherine started for the door. “I wish you could escort me for real, but I guess I’ll have to settle for this way.”
“I do too,” agreed Anne, “especially to put off all those potential suitors.”
Katherine chuckled, pausing at the door. “I’m sure you’ll be able to do that just by glaring at them, darling.” She gave Anne a last tender touch on the face before opening the door to the party down below.
About half an hour
later, Katherine was starting to wish she had taken her own suggestion and
stayed in the bedroom with Anne. The parade of nobles and various hangers on to
greet seemed never-ending and Katherine wondered if she could withstand one
more sloppy kiss on the cheek without succumbing to the urge to go and scrub it
clean immediately. Still she was heartened to see the good turnout at the
banquet. It boded well for her attempts to strengthen
“Good evening, my dear Katherine.”
Katherine smiled and accepted another cheek kiss while she dredged around at the back of her mind for the name of the man in front of her. “Good evening, Matthew, it’s good to see you here.”
“I’d never miss the chance for some free food,” he replied with a grin.
Katherine would never have guessed as much from his giant belly. The man was practically round. “Then you’re in luck,” she said. “Go on in and enjoy yourself.”
As he moved off Katherine glanced back over her shoulder. Anne stood a few feet back as she had done the whole time, inconspicuously watching all those entering the hall. Her eyes met Katherine’s briefly, offering up silent support. When Katherine turned back to greet the next guest she was ever more glad for Anne’s presence close by. A pair of cold grey eyes locked onto her, their owner extending his hand.
“It’s good to see you again, Lady Katherine.”
fumed, her jaw clenched tightly shut. She couldn’t believe Lord Edgar had the
gall to turn up, especially after their encounter at
“I do not believe you were invited,” said the younger woman icily.
Edgar looked down his nose at her for a moment before addressing his reply to Katherine. “Are you going to let your servant speak to me that way in front of all your guests.”
Several people were already staring at the standoff by the door, watching to see how it might develop. Katherine would have loved to kick Edgar out on his backside, but that would hardly look good in front of the other nobles. She wasn’t sure what the general impression of Edgar was - she knew he was a sadistic bully and quite possibly a murderer, but whether anyone else knew as much yet she had yet to determine.
Swallowing down her repulsion, Katherine spoke up. “I apologise if you felt offended,” she said almost choking on the words. “Why don’t you come in and enjoy my hospitality?”
An obsequious smile crossed his face. “Thank you.” He took her hand and brought it to his mouth. It was all Katherine could do not to shudder as his thin, cold lips brushed across her knuckles. He relinquished his hold and moved towards the celebrations, offering a few parting words. “Maybe we can have a dance later?”
As he turned away laughing to himself, Katherine felt Anne loom ever closer. “Over your dead body,” she muttered after the departing noble.
“He’ll get his comeuppance sooner or later,” Katherine remarked.
“Let’s hope sooner.”
Fortunately there weren’t any other uninvited guests and once the round of greetings was over Katherine was finally able to join in with the feast. She took her place at the head of the long table and gave a welcoming speech, followed by a toast. Once the formalities were over the assembled guests started tucking into the vast array of food and drink. With the ale and wine flowing the atmosphere soon became raucous, the sound of conversation and laughter filling the hall. A few times through the feast Katherine glanced off to the side of the room where Anne stood back against the wall, watching over proceedings. She was by no means the only guard in the room since a few of the more risqué, antagonistic or generally cautious nobles also travelled with personal protection. Like Anne they also all stood to the side, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible. Unlike Anne, all the other guards were men.
As the evening progressed Katherine circulated amongst the nobles, making sure she spoke personally to as many of them as possible. Still the food continued to be brought out from the kitchens, though by now the minstrels were playing and most of the nobles were on their feet either drunkenly dancing or engaged in conversation. Katherine picked up another wine from the tray of one of the servant girls and moved off to the side to for a moment. She wasn’t on her own long, though, as a young lord came to stand next to her.
“It seems you’ve caused quite the stir amongst the other nobles,” he remarked.
He was studying the others, a faint smile on his lips. The rest of his face displayed an alert, youthful countenance behind a well manicured goatee beard. Katherine placed him somewhere in his mid to late twenties. “It’s not unusual,” she remarked, unsure whether he was suggesting her stirring was a bad thing or not.
He laughed and turned his soft brown eyes to her. “I had heard of your unconventional reputation.” He leant closer, though it was unlikely anyone would overhear with the noise in the room. “Between you and me I like unconventional - who wants to be like everyone else?”
The remark suggested he sympathised, though Katherine wasn’t about to lower her guard completely with a stranger. “I don’t believe I got the chance to greet you when you came in…”
“Lord Andrew of Bingham,” he finished for her as he made a theatrical bow to go with the introduction.
“Then welcome, Lord Andrew,” said Katherine with a more reserved nod of the head. “I hope you’ve been enjoying yourself.”
His easy smile spread across his face once more. “More so now.”
“So what have they been saying about me this time?” asked Katherine, side-stepping the implied compliment. Hopefully he might have useful information or at least let her know who her enemies were.
“Actually they’re mainly talking about your guard over there.”
Katherine didn’t need to follow his finger to where he was pointing. She knew where Anne was.
“Really?” prompted Katherine, hoping he would elaborate without her sounding too interested.
Lord Andrew seemed happy enough to oblige. “Indeed, look at old Roxborough over there for instance.” He indicated a red-faced noble still sat at the table with an over-flowing plate of food. “He can’t keep his eyes off her.”
The seated noble was indeed staring directly at Anne. His unwavering and somewhat predatory gaze stirred a strong protective instinct in Katherine. An urge to go over there and shove the man’s fat face into his pile of food had to be swiftly quashed.
Lord Andrew continued. “I think he wants one for himself.”
“A personal guard?” queried Katherine. “He has one already doesn’t he?”
“Well, yes,” agreed Andrew, “but not one as exciting as yours – a beautiful woman and ex-outlaw.” Katherine supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that last piece of information was common knowledge. “Though obviously she’s not as beautiful as her mistress,” added Andrew with a small wink.
The flirtatious danger sign was obvious and Katherine realised she’d have to be careful not to end up offending him by having to rebuff an unwanted advance. At the same time he could prove a useful new ally since he appeared to have a similarly pragmatic outlook on their fellow nobles. She didn’t know much about Bingham, apart from that it lay in the very south of the county, but she couldn’t afford to turn down prospective allies. Deciding it best to just ignore the flirting for the time being, she returned to the conversation at hand.
“The other nobles don’t think it’s scandalous then, that I dared to appoint a woman to such a position?”
“I’m sure a few of them do,” he conceded, “the stuffiest, most boring ones. Mainly I think they’re intrigued. The whole former outlaw thing just adds that extra edge of mystery and romance to it.”
Katherine tried not to choke on her wine at the mention of romance. Andrew didn’t appear to notice as he continued on. “I’m sure they’d be over there chatting to her if she didn’t look so damn scary.”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing. She supposed Anne did look rather imposing in her uniform, arms tightly folded across her chest, staring intently at the crowd from beneath her scarred eyebrow. For a moment Katherine just allowed herself to stare since Anne hadn’t noticed her perusal. She didn’t know if it was the heat of the room, the fact her inhibitions were dulled by wine or just her general over-riding lust, but a strong desire to grab Anne, leave the party and head upstairs flared in Katherine. The pleasant study was broken by a comment from a male voice, but not Andrew this time.
“What’s the joke?”
This voice quickly quelled any humour there might have been and Katherine’s face was a mask of barely concealed loathing by the time it swung to Lord Edgar who now stood next to Andrew. Edgar took a hearty swig from the ale in his hand before clapping an arm across Andrew’s shoulders.
“Come on, share, what’s the lovely Lady Katherine been saying?”
Andrew shook the arm off. “I think that would be impolite of me to say.”
“And I’m sure any joke would go over your head anyway,” Katherine muttered to herself. From the way Edgar was swaying, Katherine guessed the ale wasn’t his first of the night.
Edgar hadn’t heard her remark, instead still talking to Andrew. “I should have known not to ask you anything. You’re almost worse than she is, bloody weak-minded peasant lovers the pair of you.”
“If you’re done insulting me and my guests,” interjected Katherine, “perhaps it’s time you left?”
“I’m going to be back tomorrow,” slurred Edgar in response, “winning that fine sword in the contest.”
comment along the lines of him being too hungover to hold a sword, let alone
swing one the following day crossed Katherine’s mind. “You’re more than welcome
to try,” she said instead, “though I doubt you’ll beat
Edgar gave a scoffing laugh. “One of your feeble knights? I could beat the lot of them with one had tied behind my back!”
Still laughing to himself, Edgar turned and stumbled off through the crowd. Katherine hoped her bravado was well founded. The thought of Edgar getting his grubby hands on the beautiful sword and being able to crow further about his prowess was not a pleasant one.
“That man is a royal pain in the arse,” noted Andrew next to her.
“You’ve come across him before?”
“Only a couple of times fortunately, though that was more enough to determine he’s thoroughly unpleasant.”
Katherine was starting to like Lord Andrew more and more. “My own experiences have been less than favourable too,” she confessed.
“I thought I detected a touch of animosity when he came in,” said an intrigued Andrew. “Your guard looked like she wanted to rip his head off.”
“We had a recent dispute over some land that turned nasty,” said Katherine as diplomatically as she could manage.
“Sounds about right for Edgar,” agreed Andrew. “He seems to be trying to strengthen Retford’s power and influence and doesn’t care who he tramples on in that pursuit. He certainly established himself quickly there after appearing from nowhere.”
“Even more reason for those who share other, common goals to work together,” Katherine remarked with a hint of invite.
Andrew smiled. “Indeed it is. Maybe we could discuss that over a dance?”
Anne watched the young nobleman lead Katherine into the centre of the room and start to dance with her. The tempo of the song was fast and they did so at arms length as part of the pre-ordained dance pattern. Even so Anne couldn’t help the nasty stab of jealousy in her chest. She had half a mind to cut in, yet not only would that cause offence to the nobleman, but also her openly dancing with Katherine would be one outrage too far. If the fact she was a commoner and part of Katherine’s household wasn’t bad enough, then her being a woman would send most of those present into apoplexy.
“It’s all for show you know.”
Anne turned to her side where Beatrice now stood, balancing a tray full of empty plates on her arm. “I know,” replied Anne.
“Then why are you giving that handsome young man a glare that would burn down an entire forest?”
Anne forced herself to look away and focus on the dark-haired maid. “I am not,” she stated. “And I wouldn’t exactly say ‘handsome’.”
Beatrice laughed. “Because you’re the best judge of male beauty! Why don’t you just have a drink and relax?” She offered a goblet from the tray to Anne.
Anne abruptly stopped mid-sentence as she stared down at the drink Beatrice proffered. The red liquid swirled in the cup and Anne had a sudden flashback to Axia’s vision. She snatched up the cup, realising with some relief that it wasn’t made of gold. Of course it isn’t, she berated herself, why would it be?
“Are you all right?” asked Beatrice, looking bemused at Anne’s odd behaviour.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just…” Anne shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I think you really need that drink,” said an unconvinced Beatrice.
Anne put the goblet back down on the tray. “Not while I’m on duty.”
“Bloody hell, you’re becoming more like Tobias every day.”
Anne didn’t see the problem with that. In fact in her mind it was a compliment since the man was fiercely loyal and devoted. Beatrice just rolled her eyes and moved off to continue with her clearing up. Anne directed her attention back to Katherine and the nobleman. However, the reminder of Axia’s vision nagged at the back of her mind, refusing to go away.
After seeing Axia in the woods, Anne had contemplated telling Katherine all about it, but when she’d arrived back at the house there’d not been the opportunity. Then as she thought about it more, she’d come to the conclusion that Axia was just trying to play with her mind. Anne had never encountered any kind of pagan fortune telling ability before. The probability of Axia being able to see the future was about as likely as Anne herself being able to. Even if Anne was going to say something to Katherine to forewarn her, what would that be? Be careful not to get yourself shot with an arrow? It wasn’t as if Katherine was going to deliberately do so.
More likely Axia had been hoping to unsettle Anne, somehow scare her into joining her pagan group. Anne resolved that she wasn’t going to let the other woman play with her that way and focussed her attention on the party once more.
Once the last few nobles had departed back to their encampments or simply collapsed in a drunken heap in the hall, Katherine deemed it acceptable to excuse herself. As she moved towards the steps, Anne fell in beside her.
“Shall I escort you upstairs, Milady?”
Katherine glanced round the hall, seeing there were still a few servants milling about. That dictated the need for a formal response, though already her mind was leaping ahead to what might happen once in her chambers.
“Thank you, Anne,” she said and took the lead up the steps.
At the top, Katherine pushed open the door, walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge. “Ah, that’s better,” she said with a sigh. “My feet are killing me after all that dancing.”
“You did seem to be doing quite a lot,” agreed Anne as she closed the door. She removed her belt, sword and tabard and placed them on the table before she walked over. “With one guest in particular,” she added.
Katherine couldn’t fail to hear the edge in Anne’s voice. “Lord Andrew was very charming and an accomplished dancer,” she said in reply, not pandering to the hint of jealousy. “He was certainly much better than some of those other lords I had to hoof round the floor with. No wonder my feet are so battered and bruised!”
Katherine leant down to undo her boots while Anne remained standing.
“So what did Lord Andrew have to say for himself?” asked the younger woman.
Katherine contemplated teasing Anne further as she took deliberately long to remove her footwear. Eventually she straightened back up where she sat. “Actually we talked about you.”
Anne looked like she had swallowed her own boot. “You did?” she managed. “He doesn’t suspect…?”
“No nothing like that,” Katherine reassured her. “No, everyone seems to think you’re just my guard, and therein lies the gossip.”
Anne’s face took on a serious look. “I knew this would cause trouble for you. I should never have taken the position.”
“Quite the opposite actually,” Katherine said. “Apparently they’re all fascinated by you.”
Now Anne’s expression had changed to one of bemusement. “Why?”
“Is it so hard to believe they would be?” Katherine leant back slightly on her arms, favouring Anne with a soft, inviting look. “You fascinated me after all.”
“I certainly hope they’re not fascinated for the same reasons!”
Anne seemed too horrified to have noticed Katherine’s tempting pose on the bed. Katherine pushed herself up so she stood close to Anne, her face turned up to gaze into the young woman’s blue eyes. “You fascinate me for all sorts of reasons,” she said with a smile. “As for everyone else, from what I gathered it’s seen as rather exciting and daring, having a former outlaw and woman as my guard.” Katherine paused, before adding coyly, “We could use it to our advantage.”
“Oh God, you don’t want me to mingle and talk with them do you?” said Anne, aghast. “I thought you were trying to engender closer ties, not offend them.”
A vivid mental picture of various noblemen trying it on with Anne and then staggering away clutching their manhood flitted across Katherine’s mind. “Perhaps it’s not a good idea for you to speak to them,” she agreed, “but maybe you could give them what they wanted.”
“To see you in action,” grinned Katherine, “in the contests.”
Anne considered it. “I suppose it would give me the chance to wipe that smug grin off Edgar’s face.”
“You overheard that conversation about his beating my ‘feeble knights’ then?”
“It was hard not to, given his level of drunken discourse,” replied Anne.
“And if you entered, it would save me having to embarrass myself with Diana – somehow I think you might be a touch more successful than I would!”
“Are you sure you want me to enter, though?” asked Anne. “Have you forgotten what happened two years ago at another of your tournaments?”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing at the recollection even if at the time she’d been mortified. “You mean when you nearly disembowelled the visiting French ambassador because you thought he had designs on me?”
“He did have designs on you!”
“But none that were returned,” Katherine reminded her. “As long as you can avoid maiming or killing any of my guests, I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
Anne gave it some thought before replying. “Is Lord Andrew entering?”
Despite the deadpan delivery, Katherine knew Anne was joking. At least she hoped she was. “I would have thought Lord Edgar a more suitable subject for your attentions,” she remarked.
Anne shrugged. “So many annoying noblemen, so little time.”
“And talking of time,” said Katherine, “I think they’ve taken up enough of ours for now. I can think of some other things I’d much rather discuss.”
To demonstrate just what those were Katherine closed the remaining short distance between them and slipped her arms round Anne’s body. Anne instinctively lowered her head, allowing Katherine to tilt hers up and capture the younger woman’s lips in a searing kiss. The restrained, controlled mask Katherine had worn during the evening was swept away by the rising onslaught of emotion. She breathlessly devoured Anne’s lips, feeling alive for the first time that night. Before she lost herself completely, Katherine pulled back for a moment, gazing up into Anne’s eyes, wanting to savour the long awaited intimate moment.
Anne smiled back. “That did not seem to involve much talking.”
Katherine gave a throaty chuckle. “But I presume I made my point?”
“Most definitely,” agreed Anne. “Allow me to continue the conversation.”
Her lips met Katherine’s once more, the desire filling Anne just as great if the urgency and fervour of her kiss was anything to go by. It was with some effort that she drew back, though her heaving breaths betrayed her desire not to.
“Watching you dancing, I just wanted to be the one out there holding you.” Anne’s voice was thick with emotion, having lost all the cold, stiff composure she injected it with when playing her role of guard. It was like she was two different women.
“I would have loved that too,” agreed Katherine, “but even if you weren’t physically holding me, you always have a hold on my heart.” She reached up to caress Anne’s face, letting her fingers trail languidly down a smooth cheek. “Would you like a dance now?”
“There’s no music,” pointed out Anne.
“Does there need to be?”
Anne smiled. “I suppose not.”
Katherine extended her right hand sideways in an invite for Anne to take it, which the young woman did with her left. Anne wrapped her right arm around the other woman’s back to pull her closer, but left a tantalising gap between their bodies. In turn Katherine draped her left hand on Anne’s shoulder. “Look’s like you’re leading,” she noted with a smirk.
“I am honoured,” said Anne with mock seriousness.
Slowly she led them off, careful to avoid the furniture. Katherine didn’t even notice the lack of music as they sashayed round the room. They just followed a seemingly natural rhythm with one another, rising and falling as one. The whole time Katherine’s eyes never wavered from Anne’s face, the other woman regarding her equally as intensely in return. The look penetrated Katherine to the core. Unable to resist the pull of her desires any longer, she let her left hand slip down over Anne’s back so she could lean in closer and whisper.
“I think the minstrels are playing a slower tune now.”
Anne drew their entwined hands to her lips and kissed them. “So they are.”
Releasing her grip, Anne instead wrapped her arms round Katherine’s waist. The action pulled them together, Katherine’s chest heaving up against Anne’s own. Still they kept moving, but it was little more than a slow swaying revolution. Anne leant her head down and brushed her lips lightly over Katherine’s exposed collarbone. Katherine gasped at the unexpected contact. Encouraged, Anne continued the trail of her lips up Katherine’s neck. At the same time her fingers inched up Katherine’s back until they reached the top ties of her dress. Anne’s mouth was by Katherine’s ear now, her breath hot against it.
“I did say there was nothing I’d like more than to undo all these again…”
Katherine arched into Anne as she felt the first of the strings being loosened. A groan escaped her lips as Anne moved ever lower and more of Katherine’s skin became exposed to the cool night air. Still the slow dance continued. The last tie at the base of Katherine’s spine undone, Anne’s hands moved back up to the other woman’s shoulders and eased the material off them. Anne’s mouth was on her again, nipping at the flesh of Katherine’s shoulder as her fingers pushed the dress lower. It slipped easily over Katherine’s breasts and fell to the ground.
She stepped effortlessly over it as the dance moved on. Her naked breasts rubbed up against the leather covering Anne’s as their bodies moved together. The friction stiffened her nipples in an exquisite teasing caress. As arousing as it was she wanted to feel bare flesh against hers. The barrier between them needed to be removed. Katherine’s fingers slipped up between them as they continued to sway round. She deftly undid the fastenings down the front of Anne’s tunic until she could open it up. Her hands slipped round under the material and up Anne’s back, raking down her spine. This time it was the younger woman who groaned as her chest crushed against Katherine’s.
Their rotations became slower and slower until they were no longer moving at all. They stood silently for a moment, heat radiating between them. Anne drew back enough to speak.
“I think the music’s finished,” she said softly.
Katherine took a couple of steps backwards, pulling Anne with her. “Though not the dance.”
Anne shed her half-undone top on the way to the bed, Katherine dragging the pair of them down onto it before she could remove anything else. She couldn’t wait any longer; she’d been waiting all night. She pulled Anne to her, writhing up against her, lips devouring the full red ones of the young woman. Anne’s hands roamed down Katherine’s body, down over her thighs and then between them. Katherine moaned loudly as the graceful fingers teased her, not quite delving inside.
“You better hope those people downstairs are truly drunk if you’re going to make that much noise,” Anne whispered into Katherine’s ear.
Katherine barely registered the words. All she could feel was the hot breath, the sweaty, grinding body and most importantly the fingers hovering and tormenting her. “Just do it!” she ordered raggedly.
Ever obliging, Anne slipped two fingers inside Katherine, the digits easily sliding through the slick of moisture between her legs. Katherine’s own hands tangled in Anne’s hair, seeking out the younger woman’s lips once more. She needed something to stop her moaning her wanton lust to the world. When Anne’s fingers curled inside her though her head tipped back, losing contact as another unbidden cry escaped her lips.
“Oh, God! Yes!”
The cries only seemed to encourage Anne further, her fingers slipping in and out in an ever increasing rhythm. Katherine naturally gyrated in time with each thrust. She clutched at Anne’s strong shoulders, an anchor in the passionate storm sweeping over her. The tumult built, Katherine not caring how much noise she made as she moaned and groaned her pleasure to the night. Then suddenly her breath caught, all noise ceasing for a moment as her climax hit. She tipped forward as it drove through her, burying her head into Anne’s shoulder, teeth biting down on the soft flesh. Anne grunted, but held on tight as the after-effects continued to shudder through Katherine. Eventually Katherine flopped back against the covers with a mussed Anne hovering above her.
“Oh God, I love you!” cried Katherine, grinning widely as she did.
Anne laughed. “Good, because I love you too.”
Laughter filled the room, but Anne didn’t feel part of the jollity. The sound from the celebrations seemed hollow and mocking and she moved further away from the noise.
“Here, have a drink.”
Next to her Beatrice offered up a goblet. Inside the golden container, red liquid sloshed against the sides as Beatrice thrust it toward her. Anne felt a sudden tightness across her chest, fear gripping her in its thrall. She struggled to breathe and, unable to speak, she turned away. More laughter rang out, this time closer. Glancing down, Anne saw a young girl running past, her blonde hair flapping loose as she giggled. A chill swept through Anne and she suddenly felt faint. She staggered to the side of the room, bracing herself against the wall. Still the sounds of joy filled the room and Anne scrunched her eyes tight shut, willing it all to stop. A loud clanging noise rose above it all. Anne hardly dared look, but she had to. On the flagstones lay a dropped sword, the green gem in its hilt reflecting the light from the fire.
Anne turned on her heel and fled the room. She didn’t know where she was going; she just had to get away. As she got to the door a body blocked her way. Axia’s eyes bored into her.
“You can’t escape, it’s your destiny.”
Anne barged the other woman out of the way with her shoulder and dashed outside. It was night-time and she stumbled across the courtyard in the dark. Part way across her boot impacted something on the ground and she nearly tripped over. Righting herself, she peered down at the obstacle.
In the gloom the whites of Katherine’s eyes were visible as they stared vacantly back at her. Anne tried to step back but her boots slipped through something slick and she tumbled over. Her hands slithered through wetness on the ground as she desperately tried to right herself. Above the moon peaked out from behind a cloud. As Anne brought her hands up she could see the crimson blood covering them.
Anne’s eyes flew open, her breath coming in heaving gasps as she tried to orient herself. She was in bed, the covers clinging to her sweaty body. She closed her eyes again for a moment and took some deep breaths. A dream, it was a dream. Or more precisely a nightmare. As she sat up the chill of the night air prickled across her damp back. Next to her she was relieved to see that Katherine was alive and well and completely oblivious to Anne’s disquiet. Briefly Anne considered waking her, but instead contented herself with a light brush of her fingers over the other woman’s hair. Katherine’s breaths came slow and regular, unlike Anne’s own. Knowing she was unlikely to find sleep again any time soon, Anne rose from the bed, pulled on a robe and crossed over to the window.
The dark, cloudy night was an unwelcome reminder of her nightmare and as if on cue the clouds parted enough to allow moonlight to filter into the room. Anne half-expected to see her hands still covered in Katherine’s blood. “Damn you, Axia,” she muttered to herself.
“Who are you cursing over there?”
Anne jumped at the sudden voice in the dark. Before she looked over her shoulder she made sure to compose her expression so as not to reveal anything. “Just the gods for not letting me sleep.”
The answer didn’t seem to satisfy Katherine, though. The other woman lazily leveraged herself out of bed and padded across the room. Once close, she wrapped her arms around Anne from behind. For a moment she leant her head against Anne’s shoulders before pulling back.
“You’re all clammy,” she noted. “Are you sure everything’s all right?”
Anne continued to stare out the window. “I just had a nightmare, that’s all.”
She felt Katherine’s hands on her arms, guiding her round so they were facing each other. “Anything you want to talk about?”
The moonlight played across Katherine’s face, her blue-grey eyes warm in contrast to how they’d been in Anne’s dream. Anne shook her head as much in an attempt to dispel that disturbing vision as in answer. “Not really. It was just a nightmare.”
Katherine didn’t say anything else, just letting the silence stretch on in a hope Anne may fill it with more details. Anne didn’t think Katherine needed to know those. Katherine already thought Anne was too protective of her, she didn’t need to be aware the fear of losing her was haunting Anne at night.
Eventually Katherine gave a small shrug. “All right, if you’re sure,” she said. “Why don’t you come back to bed?”
Anne smiled and allowed herself to be led back over, only hoping the dreams wouldn’t plague her again.
The following day dawned fair and by the time Katherine and Anne stepped forth from the manor house it was turning into a pleasantly warm one. Katherine was glad for the good weather blessing the fair; hopefully it would mean a good attendance. The fair ran over a couple of days and provided a chance for all the people of the estate to gather together in celebration, plus an opportunity to show their wares to those visiting.
The two of them moved through the fairground, Katherine returning the greetings of all who crossed her path. Even though it was early the stalls were teeming with visitors. By the time they reached the central showground she must have exchanged over a hundred pleasantries. Before stepping up onto the viewing platform, Katherine directed Anne to a quiet area behind it.
“I suppose this is where the lady is meant to offer some favour as a token of good luck?”
Anne’s eyebrow quirked up. “And just what did you have in mind?”
“I have plenty in mind,” said Katherine suggestively. She took in their surroundings, seeing that though they were out of earshot of anyone else there were still plenty of people milling around to see them. “Unfortunately none of those are appropriate for polite company.”
Anne gave a regret tinged smile. “Are you absolutely sure you want me to enter? I should really be here guarding you given the number of unknown people about.”
“You make it sound
like there are people at every turn willing me harm!” cried Katherine. “We’ve
been holding this fair ever since I’ve been at
Anne looked like she wanted to say more, but held her tongue. Katherine knew the other woman only wanted to protect her, but there was protection and then there was over-protection. “If it makes you feel better, there are two guards stationed on the platform.”
It didn’t look like it made Anne feel any better, but if she still had reservations on that point she kept them to herself. Instead she tried another tack. “I’m still not convinced it’s a good idea to draw attention to my presence. While I’m just your guard and mainly in the background those who don’t like it can just about ignore it. With me out there competing it’s hard to do that.”
“And I take your point, but I think the positive attention it will bring will outweigh the negatives.”
“Though there is a limit to the amount of attention we want,” pressed Anne. “The Sheriff would still love to uncover proof of our real relationship – we can’t become too blasé about that. You might get people to accept me being a guard, or at least not openly object to it, but I don’t think such acceptance would extend to us being lovers, not when it goes against the great and good church. More likely we’d be burnt at the stake as witches or heretics!”
Katherine was about to comment when she sensed movement behind her. A glance over her shoulder revealed the tax inspector hovering and Katherine hoped he hadn’t been there long.
“Good morning, Lady Katherine,” he said far too cheerily. “I’m pleased to see you and your guard up nice and early. I suppose it must help with promptness when your guard stays the night in your room.”
Katherine just about avoided blushing at the remark. If she’d been in any doubt as to Anne’s comments on being careful, here was proof they couldn’t be too cavalier about the time they spent together. “I find it a most efficient and safe arrangement,” she stated evenly.
“Of course, we can’t be too careful – who knows where danger lurks.”
The man offered a nod of the head and carried on up onto the gantry. Though he’d not said as much, Katherine got the impression he knew exactly what the real ‘arrangement’ was. Apparently Anne thought likewise.
“See what I mean,” said the younger woman. “Now the Sheriff’s spy is snooping on us. I think it would be best if I used my regular quarters in the guardhouse for sleeping while he’s here.”
Katherine didn’t like the prospect, but could see the sense in it, especially if it was only for a few days. “All right, just while he’s here.” She risked a quick squeeze of Anne’s hand. “Good luck in the contest.”
As Anne entered the area where the knights were preparing for the contests, she thought she detected a lull in the level of conversation. It definitely wasn’t her imagination that several sets of eyes swung to her, each of them giving her an appraising and unwelcoming look. She glared back and eventually the eyes were averted and the discussions resumed.
Anne moved over to
where the other competing
“How goes it?” she asked Tobias as a means to start a conversation.
“All is well,” he replied. “I am carrying out the last checks on my jousting equipment.”
Anne nodded, supposing she might as well just come out and say what was on her mind. She was sure Tobias would appreciate the directness, not being one for prevarication. “I wanted to check that you’re all right with me entering the sword fighting contest. I mean, if you had someone better in mind …”
Tobias cut her off before she got any further. “I believe you will be a fine representative.”
Anne couldn’t resist a smile, though from Tobias’ puzzled look he was unsure what was so amusing. Anne enlightened him. “It’s quite the turnaround – you approving. I can remember a time when you couldn’t stand me.”
“Not so much you as what you represented,” he corrected.
“You mean being an outlaw?”
“No, I mean being a danger to her ladyship,” he stated. “When we first met I didn’t trust you and thought your relationship could only lead to trouble. But over time I’ve come realise that though there are still dangerous aspects to that, overall your presence has been a positive influence. And ultimately we share a common goal – we both what what’s best for her ladyship.”
“It means a lot to me to have your support, Tobias,” said Anne sincerely. “I know there’s no-one that Katherine trusts more than you.”
Tobias raised a single eyebrow. “Well, maybe one person.”
Anne felt herself blushing. She composed herself and stated confidently. “I won’t let you, or her, down.”
“Good, because I would have to kill you if you did.”
For a moment Anne wasn’t sure if he was joking since Tobias’ expression rarely wavered from deadly serious. Then she noticed a slight twitch of the corner of his mouth upwards. Tobias nearly smiling? He really must approve!
He moved back to his preparations and Anne supposed she ought to get ready too, though she wasn’t quite sure what she was meant to do. She’d never officially entered any such contest before. In the one a couple of years previously she’d somehow just turned up and gotten involved. She didn’t remember much about it, having been consumed by a jealous rage at the time. Anne surveyed those around her to see how they were preparing.
“I think you’re meant to polish your sword or something,” came a voice from beside her.
Anne turned to her side and looked down into the wide brown eyes of Natalie. “And since when were you the expert on knights?” she asked doubtfully.
Natalie folded her arms in a sign of determination. “Since I’ve been studying.”
“The friar gets you to study how to be a knight?” Somehow Anne couldn’t picture it. More likely he would be making her to read dusty religious tomes.
“No, I do that in my own time, after class.”
Anne supposed she shouldn’t discourage the young girl, at least it meant she was reading something. In fact she seemed more than keen on the subject.
“Maybe you could give me some practical lessons?” suggested Natalie.
“I think you might be a bit young for sword fighting,” pointed out Anne.
“Archery then,” persisted Natalie. “There are boys as young as me in the children’s contest here.”
Anne didn’t like to point out that ‘boys’ was the operative word in that sentence. Of all people she shouldn’t be the one to persist gender stereotypes. “All right,” she said, reasoning to herself that it would just be teaching Natalie how to defend herself and everyone should learn that. “I will teach you archery, but you must listen to me and practice properly.”
Natalie’s grinned and wrapped her arms around Anne’s middle. “Thank you!”
Anne noticed a few sniggers from other knights at the scene, but she couldn’t care less what they thought. Why shouldn’t the young girl be interested in something other than cooking or farming? As Natalie disentangled herself, someone else approached. Anne recognised him as one of the new squire trainees.
“Good morning, sir … er … ma’am … er …”
Anne saved him from his mumbling introduction. “Anne is fine, she said. It’s William isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he straightened to attention.
She didn’t bother to correct him again, sensing that would be a losing battle. “What can I do for you, William?”
“I was hoping … that is if you haven’t already … if it’s not too much of an imposition …” he gabbled nervously.
“Take a deep breath,” she instructed him, “and then ask your question.”
He did as ordered, finally composing himself enough to get out a coherent sentence. “I was wondering if you had retained the services of a squire for the contests, and if not whether I could offer mine.”
Anne was taken aback for a moment. She hadn’t even considered it, but supposed it was the done thing. Though normally that wouldn’t influence her, she decided it might be a good idea to conform for once. “I don’t have a squire,” she answered, “so you would be most welcome to join me as mine.”
While William beamed, next to him Natalie looked decidedly miffed. “I wanted to be your squire!”
Anne knelt down to the young girl’s height. “You’re a little young at the moment,” she said, before leaning in to whisper conspiratorially, “but in a few years you’ll be my number one choice.” That brought a smile to Natalie’s face and Anne straightened back up. “For now you can be my assistant squire, if that’s all right with William.”
The young man was uncertain how to respond, probably wary of losing the commission he’d only just received. “Er … yes … that’s fine …”
Anne supposed she’d have to find out from Tobias what exactly she was meant to do with a squire now she seemed to have two of them. For the time being she instructed them to simply be there when it was her turn to fight. William moved off to chat with his friend, John, the two young mean close enough for Anne to catch the start of their conversation.
“Are you trying to make us the laughing stock of the other trainees?” bemoaned John. “What in God’s name are you doing asking to be her squire?”
“At least I am a squire now,” replied William. “I don’t see any knights clamouring for your services.”
“Rather that than be squire to a woman!”
“I bet you’ll think differently when we win the contest.”
John just laughed. “Are you mad? She’s just going to embarrass Markham and you.”
Anne had heard enough
of John’s narrow-minded words and tuned out from the conversation. She’d hoped
his views might have softened after their recent trip to
“Will you look at
that, a bloody woman in the guard,” said one of them. “Next thing you know that
“I wonder how she got the position?” joined in his companion. “Maybe she had to assume a few other positions first, like on her back for the captain of the guard.”
The two men laughed to themselves and briefly Anne contemplated going over there and putting them on their backs. Remembering the whole purpose of the fair, she resisted. However, someone obviously thought something needed saying.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Anne’s in the guard on merit. She could take any of you lot.”
The identity of her
defender was of some surprise to Anne. Standing glaring defiantly at the two
Retford knights was Thomas. Anne had made a point of being as harsh as she
could when dealing with him over the past six months, ever since his betrayal
of Katherine in
Aware of the need for calm, Anne played peacemaker for once. She stepped in between Thomas and the other knights, with her back to the Retford men so she could address Thomas face to face. “It’s all right, they’re not worth it.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “How about a little kiss for luck?” asked one of the Retford men. “And then later you can kiss something else,” he added with a suggestive grab of his crotch.
In one swift motion, Anne swung round and grabbed the hand on her shoulder, twisting the man’s wrist awkwardly as she did. “How about I break your fingers?” she offered.
The knight whimpered as she delivered a further twist to his arm. Her point made, she released him and turned back to Thomas. His eyes immediately widened in surprise at something behind her. Anne sensed the danger herself just as Thomas gave a warning shout. She ducked to the side, but not quite far enough. A blow caught her across the shoulders and she fell to the ground. Thomas leapt at the knight who had dealt the cowardly strike. Suddenly the fight erupted to encompass everyone in the area. Anne found herself caught amongst the scuffling feet as knights from all different houses traded blows. She attempted to crawl out the way so she could get to her feet only someone was blocking her way. She looked up into the face of the knight who had originally spoken to her.
“Women don’t belong in the guard,” he scowled down at her. Raising his boot he brought it crashing down on her right hand. Anne yelped as pain shot up her arm. “Let’s see how well you fight now!” laughed the man.
Another body crashed into him before he could inflict further damage and Anne managed to scrabble away to the side of the enclosure at last. The melee continued as she sat against the fence and inspected her hand. Touching it induced a sharp intake of breath, though fortunately nothing appeared to be broken. That was only by sheer good fortune and the fact the ground was still soft from the recent rain. However, flexing her fingers proved difficult and painful.
Finally the fight seemed to be dying down, Tobias and a number of other more responsible knights managing to restore order. Anne got to her feet, being joined by her newly acquired squire.
“Are you all right, Milady?”
Anne almost laughed at his form of address. Katherine was the lady, not her. “I’m fine,” she said, continuing to flex her fingers to stop them from going completely stiff.
“Good, because apparently we’re up first.”
Katherine felt an odd
blend of pride and fear as she watched Anne step out into the show ground.
Around her she could hear the mixed reaction of the crowd on seeing the female
competitor. There were a fair few boos and curses, but they were interspersed
with cheers and shouts of encouragement, mainly from the
Once Anne and her opponent reached the centre of the open ground they stopped and turned to the platform where the nobles sat, offering a bow of acknowledgement. They then turned back to one another and drew their swords. Katherine couldn’t fail to notice the small wince from Anne as she did so. A stab of concern hit her. Is something wrong? For the first time she realised Anne’s tabard was also dirty as if she’d been rolling around on the ground. A hush had descended as the fighters and whole crowd waited for Katherine to signal the start of the bout.
Somewhat reluctantly she rose to her feet and extended her arm. “Fight!” she cried as she lowered it with a dramatic swish.
Two swords clashed
together. The crowd roared. Katherine sat back down, though her concern only
grew as she watched the fight progress. Something was definitely wrong with Anne’s
right hand. She looked like she was having trouble swinging her sword in her
usual free-flowing way, using a two-handed grip most of the time instead. No
one else would probably notice, but Katherine had sparred with Anne enough
times in her own training to recognise the young woman was impaired. Katherine
knew she had the power to intervene and stop the fight and the temptation to do
so was strong, even more so when a hefty blow from the opposing knight caused
Anne to drop her sword. Those in the crowd backing the
Out on the show ground, Anne rolled out of the way of the knight’s attack and snatched up her own sword. The pain shot through her hand again and she knew she had to finish the fight quickly or lose. Since she was having trouble with her hand, she decided some other appendages might better be used. She crouched on the ground waiting for the knight to get in range. Once he was she leapt right up off the ground and executed a spectacular roundhouse kick that sent the sword flying from his hand. The knight was too surprised to react as Anne landed gracefully next to him. She easily swept his legs from under him, dumping him on his back. Her sword was swiftly at his throat.
“Do you yield?”
He gave a resigned nod. For a moment there was deathly silence. No one seemed to know how to react. Even those that had been cheering Anne on had probably only done so more out of hope than expectation. Then the sound of a single pair of clapping hands resounded across the ground. Anne spun round to see Katherine standing proudly amongst the other seated nobles.
“Bravo!” she shouted.
Encouraged by the lady
of the manor’s reaction, the rest of the crowd started to join in with the
applause. The sound grew louder as it was swelled by cheers and whistles. Anne
was stunned. She’d only entered because Katherine wanted her to, but hearing
the support stirred a hitherto unknown sense of pride in her. Not only was she
fighting for Katherine, she was fighting for
With the first fight finished and her nerves shot to bits, Katherine decided she needed to take a break from watching. Why she had ever thought it would be a good idea for Anne to compete was beyond her at that moment. She wound her way between the other nobles to exit the platform. As she did she caught a number of their comments.
“… just wrong, a bloody woman fighting … “
“… thought she was marvellous … “
“ … Lady Katherine thinks she can get away with anything … “
“ … wish she was fighting for my house … “
Katherine supposed at least they weren’t all bad. As she stepped off the last wooden step she heard running feet thumping on the boards behind her. Someone sought to catch her up. She contemplated quickening her own pace to avoid them, but that was undignified. Fortunately when she turned she found her pursuer was a beaming Lord Andrew.
“Well done on your inspired choice of representative in the sword-fighting contest,” he remarked.
“I’m not sure everyone agrees with you,” replied Katherine.
They walked on through the fair side by side, Andrew continuing the conversation. “They’re just jealous because you’ve got the best contestant. She really was remarkably good.”
“You sound surprised.”
Andrew gave a wry grin. “All right, you caught me out. I have to admit like everyone else I did wonder if it was all a bit for show, her being in the guard - your way of cocking a snoop at the establishment and society.”
Katherine laughed. “I know I seem to have this reputation for being unconventional, but I don’t deliberately court controversy.”
“It just naturally follows you around?”
Katherine chuckled again. “I guess it must.”
“Have you thought any more about what we discussed last night?” asked Andrew, Katherine guessing that was the real reason he had followed her in the first place.
“The independent trade alliance?” she clarified. “I’m sure that would please the Sheriff no end.”
“Who says he has to find out?”
“Unfortunately he has a nasty habit of doing so – he has spies everywhere, along with people willing to sell information. Not to mention tax inspectors who drop by unannounced.”
“It’s not illegal for nobles
to pursue their own interests without involving
“No, it’s not strictly against the law,” agreed Katherine, “but if there’s one thing above all else the Sheriff loves it’s money. If he feels he’s being cut out of something that could profit him…”
She left the sentence
incomplete so Andrew could think about the ramifications himself. Though
Katherine couldn’t stand the Sheriff, she was well aware of the power and
influence he exerted. She was already one of his least favourite people and if
she did this it could actually make things worse for
They walked on further, coming across a larger group of people gathered round something of interest. On the edge of the group a couple of women stood with their backs to the approaching nobles. They appeared to be having a heated debate.
“Come on, I only need a couple of coins to bet with!” said the first woman.
“And people in hell want ice water,” said the second in a raspy voice, “doesn’t mean they’re going to get it.”
The other one thrust her hands on her hips. “I’ll remember this when I’m a famous minstrel, performing to king and country!”
Her companion laughed throatily. “Well, that’s never going to happen with that dodgy piece about the noble and the outlaw you’re still peddling.”
“Just you wait, you…you…trollop!”
With that the first woman turned on her heel and flounced off.
“See you later, your majesty!” called her friend after her. Having delivered the parting shot, the raspy voiced one noticed Katherine for the first time. “Begging your pardon, Milady,” she said before moving to the side to allow her past.
Katherine and Andrew had to wend their way through a fair few more bodies before what had drawn the gathering together was revealed to them. Sitting in the centre of the throng were Thomas and Beatrice, frantically trying to keep track off all the bets and money that was being thrust their way. For a moment they didn’t spot the latest addition to their clientele as the shouts continued to come in wagering on one knight or another. Then Thomas’ blue eyes met Katherine’s, his hand stopping in mid air as it reached to collect some coins. He nudged Beatrice who looked indignant at the poke before she followed his gaze. Seeing Katherine, the young woman froze too. With their bookmakers strangely unmoving, the rest of the crowd quickly realised why and a hush descended.
“And what might be going on here?” asked Katherine, though it was plainly obvious.
nervously. “Just a bit of friendly wagering, Milady,” he said, “all proceeds to
“Of course,” agreed Katherine sagely. She continued to survey all those present with a faintly disapproving look. “In that case I’ll have ten on Anne.”
Thomas stared at her, lost for words.
“Though I’m afraid I don’t have the coins on me,” added Katherine.
Thomas finally found his voice. “I think we know you’re good for it.”
The rest of the crowd didn’t appear to know what to make of the exchange, still looking worriedly to her, unsure whether her actions signalled complicit approval. She gave a smile. “Carry on.”
Immediately the betting shouts resumed and Katherine took the opportunity to extricate herself from the throng. Andrew followed her.
“And you say you don’t court controversy?” he asked rhetorically with a knowing smiling. “Anyway, I should be getting back, one of my men is fighting. About what we were discussing…?”
“I’ll have to think about it some more,” replied Katherine.
“Of course,” said Andrew, “I would expect no less from someone as considered and intelligent as yourself.”
Katherine favoured him with a sceptical look. “Now you’re just trying to flatter me so I say yes.”
Andrew grinned. “Maybe a little.”
He gave a flamboyant bow and disappeared back in the direction of the showground, leaving Katherine shaking her head at this cheeky charm. She herself carried on her tour of the rest of the fair, unaware of the hooded figure that followed her the whole way.
Anne rose early the following day in the unfamiliar surroundings of the guardhouse. She had not slept well, what with disturbing dreams driven by Axia’s vision and the lack of a warm comforting body next to her. The only good thing was that her right hand seemed much less sore and stiff than the day before. There was still some bruising, but she was able to flex her fingers without too much discomfort. Once she’d dressed, she moved on out through the main entrance area to the barracks. A few of the other guards were assembled, sharing a drink and chatting amongst themselves as they prepared for the day’s festivities. They didn’t appear to notice her and Anne made to move past them to the door. One of the men quickly stepped backwards, blocking her path. Anne recognised him as a guard by the name of Benedict. He and his cronies had directed taunts and barbed comments at her since her arrival at the Manor some six months earlier. For the most part she ignored them, unconcerned by what a few insecure individuals felt. Benedict had obviously decided it was time for another go at getting a rise out of her.
“I’m surprised to see you bunking here,” he noted, “been slumming it have you?”
“If that’s how you wish to class yourself, then who am I to disagree,” she replied evenly.
Benedict didn’t appear
to like her clever answer, his brows knitting together in a frown. He stepped
closer, face right up in hers. “Why don’t you just pull out of the contest now,
before you bring more shame on
Anne was unfazed by
the attempt at intimidation. “Because her ladyship asked me
“I just bet she did,” he scoffed. “Was this in one of those private meetings in her chambers?”
There were a few sniggers from the men behind Benedict. Anne held her tongue. Whatever she might retort with at that moment would only fuel the fire.
“Just get out of my way, Benedict,” she said instead and shouldered him to the side before he could respond. She was nearly out the door when she heard his parting shot.
“Check your stuff, boys, who knows what she might have nicked in the night!”
There was more laughter. Anne ignored it and stepped outside, straight into an another altercation ensuing on the grass
“I had it first; I’m going to sharpen it!”
“You can barely even lift it; give it to me!”
Anne rolled her eyes as the heated words continued between William and Natalie, her sword being dragged back and forth between the pair of them. Eventually she made a loud cough. The two young people stopped their squabbling, though neither relinquished their grip on the sheathed sword. Anne stepped closer, taking it herself.
“I think it’s sharp enough.”
“But, Milady, it’s the responsibility of the squire to…”
A stern look from Anne stopped William mid-sentence. He dipped his head. “It is indeed sharp enough,” he quickly corrected himself.
Anne held back a smile at his eagerness to please. “Why don’t you carry it for me?” she suggested. Seeing Natalie about to object, Anne quickly added. “And you can carry my … er … my … “ Her lack of knowledge of a squire’s duties stumped her.
“Your standard, Milady?” William offered helpfully.
“Right, yes of course, my standard,” she agreed, not even knowing what one was.
“Where is it?” asked Natalie reasonably.
Anne looked expectantly to William since it had been his suggestion.
“I’ll just go and get
it,” he said before running back into the guardhouse. He quickly returned
carrying a pole from which the
Out on the fairground
things were only starting to get going for the day. As Anne and her young
entourage walked through the tents, many of the merchants were only just rising
and getting out their wares. Those that were already up and about nodded in
acknowledgement as the
“Sorry,” said Anne as she offered a hand to help them. A bony hand was extended in return.
As soon as she took it, a chill swept through Anne. For a moment she was frozen, staring into the piercing gaze of the old woman. The other woman seemed equally reluctant to move, her grip on Anne’s hand just tightening, surprisingly strong. The air seemed to be closing in around them, pressing in, stifling. Wordlessly, Anne pulled the woman up, but even then the vice-like grip on her hand wasn’t relinquished. They just stood there, locked in a trance-like study of one another.
Suddenly a child’s laugh broke the moment. Reminders of Axia’s vision crashed in on Anne, and her head shot round in alarm, seeking out the source. A young girl ran past, being chased by a small boy. Her giggles rang out again, grating across Anne’s suddenly taut nerves. Finally Anne’s senses kicked in enough for her to realise that the girl’s hair was dark brown, not the blond from the vision. Anne internally cursed Axia once more and herself for letting the other woman get to her.
It took a moment for her to realise that her hand was now free, the dread-filled feeling that had been sweeping through her on touching the old woman gone. Anne scanned the area, but there was no sign of the woman; she had simply disappeared. Trying to shake off her disquiet from both sources, Anne continued on to the showground.
Katherine hurried on
down the steps from her chambers knowing that she was already late. It had
taken her ages to get off to sleep the night before, tossing and turning in the
large empty bed. Then in the morning there was no one to wake her until
Beatrice had finally entered expecting her to already be up and gone. One
hastily pulled on dress later she was out the door. As she came into the great
hall she noticed the tax inspector loitering over by the fire. Katherine made a
sharp turn towards the main door, praying the man didn’t spot her. She hoped he
was going to go back to
Once outside she was glad to see it was a fine day once again – at least God was smiling on her in some ways.
“It’s a gorgeous day isn’t it?”
Katherine recognised the soft female voice before Saskia drew alongside her. The other woman was staring up at the few white clouds that dappled the otherwise blue sky, a smile on her face. Katherine supposed she shouldn’t have been that surprised to see her there given how Saskia had been hanging off Lord Edgar the last time she’d seen her.
“Come to cheer on your new paramour?” asked Katherine.
Saskia’s brown eyes swung down from their regard of the sky. “Who said he was that?” she asked, her voice slipping into ever lower tones. “You should know I like to keep my options open.”
Katherine knew only too well, suspecting she was one of those options, at least in Saskia’s mind. “Yes, I had noticed,” she simply said in response not wanting to offer encouragement.
Saskia’s stance shifted, her expression becoming more serious. “Are you going on your own to the ground?” she asked Katherine. “No guard today?
Normally Katherine would have thought the comment a sly dig in regards to Anne, since Saskia was aware of their relationship, but something in the other woman’s tone made it sound more like she was actually concerned.
“I think I can make it from the house to the ground on my own without any mishaps.”
“Well…be careful,” said Saskia before heading on into the house.
Katherine watched her go for a moment, bemused by the odd warning. Then again Saskia did like to play games; perhaps this was just the latest. Dismissing it for the time being, Katherine continued on her own path out the gate and on towards the fair. The track was empty, everyone else already there. Just as she drew towards the first of the tents, something dark against the white cloth drew her attention. It was a figure, looking very much like the one she’d encountered in the winery two days previously. As then the hooded man did not move and though Katherine couldn’t see his face, somehow she knew he was watching her. She stopped on the track and stared back at him so he knew she’d seen him. She wasn’t going to let someone try and intimidate her on her own land. When that didn’t stir a reaction from the mysterious figure, she contemplated marching over there and just asking what his game was. Another figure hurrying towards her from the direction of the fair prevented that.
“Is everything all right, Milady?” Tobias asked her as he approached. “Only you are late and now seem to just be standing here.”
Katherine looked to him. “I’m not just standing here; I was wondering what that man was up to.” Only as Katherine glanced back towards the tent the dark figure was gone.
“What man?” asked a confused Tobias.
Katherine shook her head. “Never mind, it was probably nothing.” She didn’t really believe her own words, though. Something about the figure had made her uneasy. However, there was little point sending Tobias off on a pointless search for someone she couldn’t even describe. “I presume since you’re hurrying back this way to fetch me that my presence is required somewhere?” she asked instead.
“Yes, Milady, at the archery arena, the squires are nearing the end of their contest and you need to present the prizes.”
“Then lead on!”
Katherine had wanted to catch up with Anne before duty called, but her tardiness had put paid to that. Hopefully she’d still get the chance before Anne’s next bout in the sword-fighting contest, though the likelihood of it being a private meeting were remote. Katherine found herself looking forward to the end of the fair more and more.
The squire’s archery contest was indeed nearing its conclusion by the time Katherine and Tobias reached the arena. They were in time to see that final shot, a boy who missed the target completely. Instantly a burly knight crossed to the terrified-looking squire, Katherine recognising the Retford colours on his livery.
“That was hopeless!” shouted the knight as he cuffed the boy about the head. The blow was strong enough to send the youngster to the ground. “You’ve brought shame on Retford!”
No one else seemed to make anything of the knight’s reaction and certainly weren’t about to intervene to protect the young man. How knight’s treated their squires was entirely up to them and Katherine was well aware this sort of thing was more than likely the norm for most. However, when it was in front of her, she wasn’t going to stand for it. As the knight drew back his foot, about to kick the still downed boy, Katherine stepped across between them.
“I think that’s enough.”
The knight glared at her. “He’s my squire; I’ll decide when it’s enough.”
“And this is my land, so if you don’t want to abide by my rules you can get off it.” Katherine could practically hear the man’s fuming breaths as he towered over her. She steadfastly met his stare, contemplating how she could deflate his pompous ego. “I wonder if you could do any better?” she asked.
“I most certainly could,” he stated, “not that there’s anyone here that’s a worthy opponent.”
“How about me?”
The knight just laughed, not deeming the suggestion worthy of any other reply.
“Are you scared I might win?” added Katherine.
“No, of course not,” he replied instantly, “you’re a woman.”
“I’m glad you noticed,” said Katherine, “though you still didn’t answer my challenge.”
The knight snorted another laugh. “Fine, if you want to be made to look a fool at your own fair, far be it from me to dissuade you.”
Katherine certainly hoped that wasn’t going to be the case, especially as they now seemed to be gathering a burgeoning crowd. Word of something interesting moved quickly. Katherine saw Tobias standing at the edge of the crowd with a resigned look on his face. He knew better than to try and dissuade her when her righteous fervour was up.
“So, what do you say, three arrows each?”
The knight just grunted an affirmation, pretending to be busy testing the tautness of his bow. Katherine picked one up from the rack at the end of the arena and did likewise. As she moved to her place in front of the target she offered him a smile.
“Why don’t you go first?”
Again he didn’t deign to reply. The disrespect was obvious, but Katherine wasn’t about to pull him up on it. She was going to let her archery do the talking. The Retford knight took up his stance opposite the target at the other end of the field. His arrow flew true and straight, landing in the white ring just outside the central red one. A ripple of applause rang round the ground and the knight gave Katherine a satisfied smile.
“Your turn, Milady,” he said, emphasising her title snidely.
Katherine ignored him, concentrating instead on her own shot. She tucked her cloak back over her shoulders and levelled the bow. There was a slight breeze from the west, tickling across her bare right forearm as she pulled back the string. She picked her spot and fired. Just as she’d planned her arrow landed a fraction inside the knight’s one. Not in the centre, but then she hadn’t been aiming there – yet. She wanted him to think he had a chance for now. The applause was louder than it had been for the knight, a few whoops intermingled with the clapping hands. Katherine moved out the way of a disgruntled looking knight who muttered something about a “lucky shot” under his breath.
He took his time with his own second shot, Katherine able to see a small bead of sweat tracking through the crinkles on his forehead where he frowned in concentration. Finally he shot, the arrow thumping into the target on the boundary of the central red spot. Satisfied he stepped back.
“Let’s see you repeat that first fluke.”
Katherine smiled. “How about I better it?”
Nonchalantly she raised her bow, hardly taking any time to notch and fire her second shot. Again it sailed just inside where the knight’s own arrow had landed. The cheers were louder this time, the crowd really starting to get behind her now they sensed an upset. Katherine acknowledged a few of the shouts with a dip of the head as she stepped back once more. The knight brushed past her, deliberately bumping into her in his annoyance. Katherine didn’t care, though, it was just another sign she was getting to him. His jaw was set firm as he aimed his final shot, waiting for the crowd to quieten. Eventually he let fly and the arrow thumped into the target almost dead centre. The knight made a fist pumping gesture as he swung back to Katherine.
“All yours, Milady,” he crowed.
Katherine wasn’t worried. Though his shot was nearly in the centre, there was still a fraction to aim for to get it right in the middle; a tiny fraction to be sure, but still room. She focussed on that small area as she sighted down her left arm. For a moment there was just her and the target. The crowd, the knight and all other distractions were pushed away. The connection made, she let fly. The arrow thumped home, slap-bang in the middle of the target. The crowd erupted in cheering. Katherine waved her hand high in gratitude for the applause. At the back of the arena the look of pure unadulterated fury on the knight’s face made it all the more worthwhile.
Come the afternoon in the preparation area Anne re-adjusted the gambeson under her chain mail, trying to get it to sit comfortably. She wouldn’t normally wear the bulky undershirt nor the heavy mail on top as part of her regular uniform, preferring lighter clothing that left her capable of free and easy movement in her duties. However, it was a pre-requisite part of battle dress and though they weren’t strictly battling it was better to be safe. She’d already had two successful contests that morning and was now readying herself for the final showdown with Edgar who had also won through.
She received a few
good luck wishes as she made her last adjustments, the fact she was getting
them still of some surprise to Anne. To begin with it had been mainly some of the
However, she was still feeling jittery when a hand came to rest on her shoulder. She jumped and whirled round, barely holding back from drawing her sword. A shocked Katherine rocked back, withdrawing her hand and holding it up in supplication.
“Easy!” she cried.
Anne sighed, her shoulders sagging as she did. “Sorry, I guess I’m a bit on edge.”
“A bit?” queried
Katherine. She leant closer, lowering her voice to keep the words between just
them. “If you want to pull out, it’s fine, I’m really not that bothered about
Anne realised she could correct Katherine’s wrong assumption, but she was still trying to convince herself that Axia’s vision was all a ruse, even if she wasn’t being very successful at it. If she gave voice to it, then she was giving it more credence than it deserved.
“No, I’m fine,” Anne insisted, “just a few nerves, that’s all. What have you been up to today?” she asked to get off the subject.
“A few things, including teaching one of Edgar’s knights a lesson over at the archery.”
“The archery?” cried Anne in dismay. Axia’s vision lurched right back to the fore of her thoughts. Katherine … dead … an arrow in her chest.
“Yes, the archery,” repeated Katherine, looking at Anne as if she was crazy for her outburst. “Is there something wrong with that?”
Anne took a deep breath – she really need to get a grip and stop Axia’s plaguing her as it was. Nothing had happened to Katherine after all. “No, of course not,” she stated.
Katherine looked unconvinced, but there were too many people milling around the area for her to pursue it. “I just wanted to come and wish you good luck against Edgar,” she said instead. She gave a quick glance around before moving close enough to risk a squeeze of Anne’s hand. The touch was fleeting, it had to be in the company, but the simple contact re-affirmed their connection. Katherine gazed up at Anne, her eyes conveying the same message. “Be careful,” she whispered.
With everything praying on her mind, Anne wanted to step even closer and just wrap Katherine in her arms, hug her close to know she really was fine. Yet she couldn’t. All she could do was quickly squeeze Katherine’s hand in return before the other woman withdrew it and stepped back to a more appropriate distance.
For everyone else in
the vicinity’s benefit Anne gave a small dip of the head as if she had just
received some sort of official blessing. “Thank you, Milady. I will endeavour
to do my best for
The lingering look she gave at the last words indicated which was more important to her. However, once Katherine had departed for her viewing position, Anne was left with a persistent sense of foreboding. She just couldn’t shake the mental image of Katherine lying on the grass, her blood ebbing from her body. It had been so real, so vivid. She didn’t even notice the person hovering next to her until he spoke.
“I’m not surprised you look worried, I’m going to give you a sound hiding.”
Anne wasn’t in the mood for Edgar’s jibes and demonstrated as much by not even deigning to look at him. She kept her eyes trained forwards, staring at the grassy arena while she tried to bring her thoughts back to the task in hand.
“I wonder what your
lady will think of you then,” continued an undeterred Edgar, “when the
Still Anne didn’t answer, that fact seemingly annoying Edgar who leant in closer. When he next spoke his breath was hot on her cheek.
“I’m going to put you back where you belong, peasant,” he whispered, “grovelling at my feet.”
Finally Anne swung her head to look at him. “Not if I make you grovel first.”
Fortunately the signal came for them to enter the arena at that moment, preventing Edgar from replying further. William hurried to Anne’s side with her sword and a helmet. Again she wouldn’t normally wear one, but given who she was fighting it was probably even more prudent. She could just imagine Edgar ‘accidentally’ striking her somewhere not strictly permitted by the rules of combat. She lowered it onto her head and took one last deep breath before stepping forwards.
The crowd cheered both fighters and Anne was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of noise surrounding her. All eyes were focussed on them as they proceeded to the centre. Only one set concerned Anne, though, the blue-grey ones up on the viewing gantry. Katherine rose from her seat and slowly the cheers and applause died away. The quiet was even more unnerving - hundreds of people holding their breath and watching every move in the centre. Anne tried not to think about them. All she needed to think about now was the man standing next to her and how she was going to beat him. As she turned to him she knew that despite her bravado that would be easier said than done. She’d watched his earlier fights to get a measure of his style and had to grudgingly admit that he possessed no mean skill.
Edgar’s grey eyes stared menacingly at her from under his helmet and he raised his sword in readiness. Anne did likewise, waiting for Katherine’s command for them to begin. When it came the crowd roared immediately. Edgar wasted no time in striking first. Anne felt the weight of his blow right up her arms as she parried it. He wasn’t holding back. Several more vicious blows followed, each one deflected away. Quickly Anne realised she wouldn’t win in a contest of pure power; Edgar was bigger and stronger than her. Instead she needed to play to her own strengths.
Anne weaved to the side, skipping across the grass to dodge the latest attack. Finally she managed to get in her own lunge which Edgar only just managed to whirl round and parry. Anne’s momentum carried her in close and for a moment their arms locked together, swords stuck pointing sideways. Their faces were close and Anne could see the snarling fury on Edgar’s. Suddenly he wrenched his arm up and brought the butt end of his sword crashing into the side of her head. Anne’s helmet was catapulted right off, bouncing away over the ground. She staggered back and Edgar sought to press his advantage. The sharp end of his sword darted towards her head. Anne only just managed to duck to the side. The blade flashed past her cheek, missing that but severing a few locks of her now loose hair. The blonde strands fluttered down onto the grass. Around them the crowd gasped collectively at the near miss.
Anne took a few steps back to gather herself once more. Obviously Edgar was ignoring the rules and actually trying to hurt her. She supposed she should have expected nothing less. She could do the same, and it was tempting, but not to was the more honourable thing to do. Why that concerned her so much she didn’t know. Perhaps it was the thought that she wasn’t fighting just for herself. To remind her as much she heard a few shouts for her above the general roar of the crowd. She gripped her sword tighter and charged again.
Her sword swung in a flurry of quick strikes, Edgar only just keeping up with them. Anne continued to vary her position, manoeuvring them around the ground in the hope of tiring the bigger man out. Only she was starting to tire herself, not used to fighting under all the extra weight of the chain mail. At the rate they were going the fight would be decided when one of them collapsed from exhaustion. She had to finish it soon.
When Edgar’s next blow came in Anne let it knock her to the ground, feigning injury. As she’d guessed he happily sought to attack a downed opponent. Thinking her subdued, Edgar’s guard was down as he advanced. Anne let him get closer. His blade hovered close to her head. Suddenly she sprung up. Putting all her remaining might into one blow she knocked the sword from his hand. A swift sweep of the leg followed, sending Edgar crashing down onto his knees. Anne swung her sword down towards his exposed neck, but let it stop just before it met flesh.
“You can lick my boots while you’re down there if you like.”
Edgar’s head slowly swung round, the man not wanting to risk the blade so close to his neck. His eyes spoke of his furious, impotent anger.
“Do you concede?” continued Anne in a louder voice this time so the suddenly quiet crowd could hear.
Edgar struggled to get anything out beyond his tightly clenched jaw, finally forcing a single word past his lips. “Yes.”
The crowd erupted. Anne quickly found herself swamped by people rushing in to slap her on the back in congratulations. She also felt someone wrapping themselves around her lower body, looking down to see Natalie hugging her.
“I knew you could do it!”
Before her the crowd started to part, eventually making a narrow corridor of human bodies. Down it stepped Katherine who was trying and failing to hold back her smile. Anne felt a huge swell of pride as their eyes met. By the time Katherine reached Anne the crowd had hushed once more. Anne peeled Natalie off her and bent down on one knee, bowing her head as she did.
“Milady.” For some reason Anne wanted to laugh and break the enforced formality of the scene. She managed to hold it back, though allowed a smile to creep across her face as she kept it turned downwards.
winning and upholding
Anne’s eyes flicked up, meeting Katherine’s again. Her mind could come up with a few prize suggestions, most of them involving the woman before her in various states of undress. Now the heat of the battle was over, that heat had flooded to other areas of her body. Anne maintained eye contact as she rose to her feet and those thoughts continued to play through her mind. From the look she received in return she thought Katherine had similar ideas too. Anne was thankful no one around them was aware of the silent exchange ensuing.
Katherine’s hands extended and presented the prize sword to Anne. The younger woman removed her gloves and reached out to take it. As she did she let her fingers surreptitiously brush over Katherine’s on the underside of the scabbard. The brief contact was enough to stoke her lustful thoughts once more. If they hadn’t been surrounded by a couple of hundred people, Anne might not have been able to control herself. As it was she had to force her building desire down.
“Thank you, Milady,” she stated evenly.
The applause rang out once more before the crowd started to dissipate. Anne received another resounded slap on the back, this time from Thomas who was standing next to her and grinning.
“Now it’s obligatory to come celebrate with your fellow guards and a few ales.”
Anne glanced back to Katherine, thinking she would rather celebrate in other ways. However, someone else was already speaking with the noblewoman, Anne just able to hear a request to come and judge a falconry contest. Supposing her desires would have to be dampened down a bit longer, Anne turned back to Thomas.
“All right, just one.”
He was hardly her
preferred drinking companion, but she decided to be magnanimous given the
supportive intent. At least they were joined by several other
“Here, get that down you!”
Thomas thrust a frothing tankard into Anne’s hand and she guessed eating would have to wait. Beatrice stood at the young guard’s shoulder, her own drink in her hand. She raised it towards Anne.
She made to clink her goblet to Anne’s. As the drinks met, Anne couldn’t help noticing the flash of gold from beneath Beatrice’s fingers. Unaware of Anne staring at her hands, Beatrice brought the goblet up to her lips and took a swig. As she lowered it Anne could see the red liquid swirling within the gold. Her breath caught. The vision … just as in the vision …
Laughter broke her thoughts. It was a child, giggling. Anne’s heart skipped a beat. She stood frozen as a small blond girl ran past. No … it can’t be …
When the clatter of metal on stone came it made her physically jump. Anne swivelled round, her eyes inevitably drawn to the sword that lay on the floor. The green gem in its hilt glinted in the firelight.
The drink in Anne’s hand tumbled from her grasp as her grip went slack. It hit the flagstones, the ale splashing out across them. Anne just stared. Her breathing had stopped. For a moment she thought her heart had too, gripped by a crushing dread.
Then it jolted into life.
Katherine, I have to get to Katherine.
That was her only coherent thought as she barged out of door to the manor house and sprinted across the courtyard. She ignored the querying looks her manic charge back down the track to the fairground elicited. Barrelling on through the tents, the falconry field seemed agonisingly far away. Several times she crashed straight through stallholders’ wares, sending pots and pans flying. She didn’t have time to stop and apologise though. Only one thing mattered.
Flying out onto the field, she came to a skidding halt. Anne looked frantically around, but there was no sign of Katherine. Instead there were just a few knights with their falcons all giving her a curious look. She grabbed the nearest one, fixing the man with a wild stare.
“Lady Katherine…” she gasped, having to take a breath before she could make her meaning clear. “Where is Lady Katherine?”
“I think she went over to the archery.”
Anne practically flung him away from her as turned on her heel. Fear gnawed at her insides as she raced off again, barging her way through the crowds. She knocked a fair few people down in her urgency, but she didn’t care, she just had to get there.
Please, please, let me be in time!
Her lungs were aching,
her legs seeming to be like lead as she tried to force them on faster. Finally
she burst out onto the archery ground. At one end stood Katherine, obliviously laughing
as she shared a joke with Tobias and a couple of the
Screams rang out as the crowd broke, mayhem ensuing as everyone tried to run for safety. Through the scattering legs, Anne saw a figure in black at the far end of the archery ground trying to duck away. Immediately she clambered up off Katherine, pulling the other woman up with her.
“Are you all right?” she quickly verified.
Katherine looked completely confused by what was occurring. “Yes…I’m fine…”
Anne latched onto Tobias. “Watch her!” she ordered, not caring he should be the one giving those.
She ran off in the direction of the figure in black, the ire of righteous fury burning inside. They tried to kill Katherine. They tried to take her from me! Those thoughts were enough to galvanise more speed from her tired limbs. She might have averted the vision, but the image of what could have been still remained burned into her thoughts. Ahead she saw the black cloak weaving in and out of the stalls the figure trying to shake her. Anne darted to the side in an effort to cut the man off at the end of the row.
Only when she reached it the man was nowhere to be seen. Anne whirled round on the spot, but there was no telltale flash of black between the stalls. Frustrated, she kicked out at some nearby pails, sending them flying. Now the failed pursuit was over her tiredness finally caught up with her and she sagged down onto one of the upturned buckets to take a few deep breaths. A pair of feet came into the field of vision of her down-turned head.
“I was right then,” came a French-accented voice.
Tiredly Anne raised her head to Axia. “So it seems. One might wonder if you had a hand in it.”
Anne didn’t really believe that, though. Of all the things Axia might be, a murderer wasn’t one of them. Axia likewise gave the comment short-shrift.
“Would I have helped you avert it in that case? Which you did of course.”
“Yes,” agreed Anne, forcing the next words out, “thank you, for the warning.”
Axia sat down on a barrel next to Anne. “As I mentioned before it was not without a price.”
Anne shook her head. “There’s always one of those with you lot, isn’t there?” Her thoughts were mainly of the curse she was under, to live out her days aging twice as fast as any normal person. She wondered if that was why she felt so tired at that moment.
“All I want is for you join our group,” said Axia. “As I have said we need to prepare for the coming battle and we can’t do it without you.”
Anne really wasn’t in the mood to argue, wearily rubbing at her face. She supposed she did owe Axia and if there really was danger approaching it was best to be in on the knowledge of it. “If, and I’m only saying if, I agree to meet with you and your pagan gang, I’m not giving up my life here,” she stated. “This is my home now, not to mention my duties and responsibilities here - those come first and foremost.”
“That may not be possible…”
“That’s the only option you’ve got,” Anne quickly cut in, “take it or leave it.”
“Then I suppose I must take it.”
Anne rose to her feet. “Then if that’s all, I need to get back.”
“There is one thing,” said Axia as she shot up to prevent Anne departing. “We must keep what we are doing secret. We do not know who may be an agent of the dark forces.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” said Anne, anxious to get back and verify Katherine really was all right.
“No one at all?”
Anne didn’t answer. They both knew exactly who Axia was talking about.
“To be on the safe side,” continued Axia, “we all take a special covenant which prevents us revealing anything. Even if we are not intending to tell anyone, who knows what may be revealed by accident or under duress. We are bound to the covenant until our task is complete.”
Anne sighed, having had enough of the conversation about five minutes previously. “Fine, what is this covenant?”
“First I need some of your hair,” replied Axia, “just a few strands.”
Anne’s brow creased. “Seems everyone wants a bit of that today,” she noted. She drew her dagger and cut off a small piece where Edgar had already had a hack.
As she handed it to Axia the other woman drew something out of the small bag she carried. It was a locket and Anne could see some pagan symbols embossed onto the surface though was unable to read them at distance. Axia opened the locket and folded the hair inside before handing it to Anne.
“What, that’s it?” asked Anne as she took it. “Don’t I need to light a few candles, chant something?”
“We can if that would make you feel better?” suggested Axia. “But no that is all, you are bound to the covenant until the task is complete or the covenant is broken by releasing the hair from the locket.”
“And what would happen then?” asked Anne, recalling the earlier conversation on prices.
“If you do not break it, you will not find out.”
“Could you be any more cryptic?” scoffed Anne. “Never mind, I’ll look after it,” she added, pocketing the locket.
“You should wear it round your neck for safe keeping,” suggested Axia.
“No thanks, I already have one,” said Anne, showing the chain of Katherine’s pendant. “I’ll just keep this one tucked away. Now, I have somewhere much more interesting to be.”
As Anne turned to go she heard a last, “See you soon.”
By the time Anne returned to the archery ground, Katherine was no longer there, having gone back to the manor house. Anne followed on down and as soon as she entered the house she could hear the chatter circulating on the earlier incident. Speculation was rife as to whether it was an accident or intentional. Obviously not everyone was aware of the figure in black like Anne. Not immediately seeing Katherine, Anne accosted Tobias to enquire as to her whereabouts. He tried to engage her in a discussion on what had happened, but she deferred that for now. Realising he’d get no sense out of her until she’d seen Katherine, he informed Anne the other woman was upstairs changing.
Once she reached the door to the chambers, Anne knocked, more out of politeness than anything else. Katherine’s invitation to enter came immediately. Inside the room, Katherine was over by the bed, drawing on a clean dress as Tobias had indicated she was. For some reason Anne had thought perhaps his words were a ruse, an excuse for Katherine to get some time on her own after the shock of nearly being killed. However, it appeared Katherine was determined to carry on as normal.
Anne knew that could sometimes be a front though. “How are you?” she asked as she approached.
Katherine gave a rueful laugh. “Not skewered by an arrow at least.”
Anne saw through the sarcastic bravado, catching Katherine’s hands where they were fumbling at the ties on the front of her dress. “It’s all right to be shaken up,” she said softly, “I know I am.”
The frank confession halted Katherine’s last attempts to continue. Her eyes came up to study Anne’s face, an element of fear behind them.
“That arrow … it could well have killed me … if you hadn’t…”
Anne clutched Katherine’s hands tighter, needing the reassurance just as much as the other woman. “But I did.”
Katherine sighed and allowed herself to sag into Anne’s arms. Anne held her close, just happy to feel the warmth of the other woman’s body now they were alone together. Eventually Katherine’s head tilted upwards again.
“How did you know there was danger?”
“Just a feeling,” replied Anne.
“A feeling?” queried Katherine. “Not that I’m complaining, but it seems a pretty precise feeling that would lead you to run all the way out to the archery ground. It looked to me as if you knew exactly what was coming.”
Anne sighed, not liking keeping secrets from the other woman. What would it hurt if she told Katherine how she knew? Anne tried to speak only for some reason her mouth seemed reluctant to form the words of explanation. She frowned and tried again, but was met with similar muteness.
“Is everything all right?” asked Katherine.
“Yes,” replied Anne, though that was all she could say. Whenever she tried to say anything about Axia or the vision her vocal chords refused to work. She realised it must be part of Axia’s covenant, some sort of magic that actively prevented her discussing it. Still there were other ways of communicating.
Katherine looked even more bemused as Anne headed over to the desk. She drew out the quill and attempted to write down her thoughts. Only now her hand refused to obey the directions of the mind. In frustration she slammed the pen back down. Katherine was at her side, glancing down at the still blank paper.
“What are you doing?”
Anne shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” Forgetting about Axia for now, Anne turned back to Katherine. She brought her hands up to cup the other woman’s face, stroking her fingers across smooth skin to banish the doubts in the blue-grey eyes. “What matters is this.” Anne lowered her head so her lips could meet Katherine’s. Closing her eyes she lost herself in the sensuous contact. Any other troubles could wait for another day.
Saskia sat in the room at the inn, sipping her wine and wondering if she could have two less likely companions with her. In one corner the old witch-woman was poring over some cards and stones, muttering incomprehensibly to herself. By the window the hooded assassin stood, as silent as ever. She was grateful when the door suddenly swung open, even if the way Edgar stomped inside indicated his mood. He slammed the door behind him.
“How did that bloody guard woman of hers know to save her?”
Edgar stared at each of them in turn looking for an answer, but none was forthcoming. Saskia certainly wasn’t about to admit that she was secretly happy the attempt on Katherine’s life had failed. Eventually Eleanor piped up.
“When I came across her on the fair ground, I sensed something within her, an innate supernatural power.”
“A power to do what?” demanded Edgar.
“I don’t know as yet,” admitted the old woman.
“Then find out!” shouted Edgar. “Rub some of your runes together or something! I don’t want anything unexpected interfering with our plans. We only have a few more months as it is and we’re no nearer finding the bones.”
“Yes, My Lord,” said Eleanor. “Would you like the assassin to make another attempt on Lady Katherine? He is quite eager to.”
Saskia looked at the hooded man. How the old crone could tell what emotion he felt, if any, she didn’t know. Edgar appeared equally as doubtful and approached the assassin. “I don’t trust anyone who I can’t look in the face,” he declared, whipping the hood back before the assassin could react.
Saskia recoiled in horror at the sight before her. The man’s face was badly scarred, as if lumps of the flesh had been eaten away. The damage was particularly severe round his mouth which was set in a permanent lop-sided droop and was no doubt the reason he was unable to speak properly. However, just before she averted her gaze, Saskia’s eyes caught the intense, deep set ones starring back at her. The recognition was more shocking than his appearance.
“Oh my God, Charles?”
Edgar looked in equal parts bemused and revolted. “You know this man?”
Saskia couldn’t drag her eyes away from the ruined face.
She started at Edgar’s raised voice, finally forcing herself to look at him instead. “Yes, it’s Charles Kirby. He used to be Lady Katherine’s vassal at Ollerton, until he betrayed her and she dispensed with his services.”
“And how did he end up like …” Edgar’s lip curled up in disgust as he looked at Kirby “… this?”
“I don’t know,”
answered Saskia. “Last I heard he’d gone to
“It doesn’t matter, they were defeated and disbanded, thanks to Lady Katherine.”
A guttural growling sound echoed round the room at the mention of the other woman’s name. Saskia realised it was coming from Kirby. Fighting down her revulsion, she got up and moved closer to him, searching his eyes for a reminder of the man she had once known.
“Did she do this to you?” she asked. Though she could hardly believe it, a grunt and a nod of the head indicated Kirby’s answer.
“In that case,” noted Edgar, “Lady Katherine is more ruthless than she looks.” He actually sounded impressed. “I’ve changed my mind,” he suddenly added.
“My lord?” queried Saskia, unsure what he was referring to.
“I’ve decided I won’t kill Lady Katherine,” he clarified. “That would be too easy.” He shared a dark look with Kirby. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to see her suffer first.”
COMING SOON: Lady Katherine and The River of Blood