The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 17
Lady Katherine And The French Connection
MercyCroft, Jay, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :)
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.
“I wondered where you’d got to…”
Katherine’s words died on her lips as she swivelled round to see a man looming behind her. He wasn’t alone either. There were at least five more, including one she recognised.
Katherine felt a chill sweep through her as a nasty smile broke across the man’s swarthy face.
Katherine’s eyes reflexively darted to the small wooden chest on the other side of the dead camp fire. Kirby’s gaze followed before returning to her.
“Something interesting in it?”
Katherine tried to survey the rest of the camp without being too obvious. Where the hell had she put that sword? She wished she hadn’t been so cocky about it now. Kirby started to move towards the chest. Katherine’s eyes fell on the only thing within her reach. Suddenly she lunged forward, scooping up a handful of ashes from the fire and flinging them up into the eyes of the men. They coughed and spluttered, giving her the chance to leap over the fire and snatch up the chest.
Knowing her only chance was to flee, she started running for the trees. Katherine risked a backwards glance to see the men already in pursuit. As she turned forwards again she cannoned straight into an immovable object. Katherine let out an involuntary scream at the shock as she tumbled to the ground. There were more men. They had her surrounded.
As she clambered to her feet, one of them went to grab her. Katherine used the only weapon she had, swinging the chest and clattering him about the head. Yet there were too many. Another one was already behind her wrapping her up in a bear hug. She struggled in his grasp, cursing him loudly. The man tried to put his hand over her mouth, but she bit down hard on his fingers. He yelped, loosening his grip enough for her to stamp on his foot. He cried out again and let go of her, but another hand quickly latched onto her arm. She tried to swing the chest once more, but a second hand grabbed that wrist. Katherine frantically looked around for anything that might help her. A movement at the edge of the trees on the far side of the camp caught her eye.
Two weeks earlier.
Lady Katherine of
She waited at the window for the first rays to filter over
the horizon, heaviness in her heart as she mulled over what lay ahead.
Katherine glanced to the small wooden chest sitting on her bed. It seemed innocuous, but inside lay the five objects that were the answer to the mystery. Katherine hadn’t really had much time to think about what she would do if and when she finally got her hands on the weapon, since it had seemed a remote possibility until now. One of the ridiculous things about the whole quest was that she didn’t even know what the weapon was, or whether she would be able to destroy it if and when she did find it. Her father had failed to destroy the objects when he’d had the chance. Would she be able to find the fortitude to see the task through to its conclusion? Or would she fall prey to the curiosity that had beset him? Either way she had to follow the trail to its completion. She just hoped the completion would be a happy one.
A soft light spreading through the room broke her from her
contemplative thoughts. Turning once
more to the window, Katherine could see the sunlight washing over the tops of
the hills, bathing the landscape in its warming rays. She watched wistfully, wondering if she would
get to see daybreak over the Nottinghamshire countryside again. Would she see the light picking it’s way over
The dawn concentrated her thoughts and Katherine realised that they would be late for the pre-arranged meeting with Anne if she didn’t get a move on. She quickly gathered up the last of her belongings and headed for the door. Pausing on the threshold, she took a last look back at her room. Katherine hoped and prayed she would see it again soon, though her sense of foreboding was growing with every moment.
There were three guards waiting in the courtyard as Katherine came out of the main door into the early morning air. They were standing with their backs to her, three blue and gold tabards lined up as they made their final preparations with their horses. Tobias and Thomas she recognised, but the third guard was wearing a helmet, visor down. Katherine had to wonder why Tobias would be risking bringing someone else with them, someone outside their close circle of confidence. She’d thought long and hard before finally letting Tobias in on the reason for the urgent trip to France, but that didn’t mean she wanted all and sundry knowing. She was just about to pull Tobias aside and question him on that very point, when the third guard turned to face her. Something about the movement seemed oddly familiar. Then the guard pushed up their visor and all became clear in a pair of blue eyes.
“Anne?” Katherine couldn’t have sounded any more incredulous if she’d tried.
The young woman merely smiled as Katherine’s eyes shifted to Tobias to give him a quizzical look. He returned it with his normal inscrutable one before speaking.
“Given her previous track record in attempting to pass as a maid, I thought it might be more prudent if she tried something a little closer to her sensibilities this time,” the captain of the guard explained.
Katherine supposed she should be happy Tobias approved enough to let Anne wear his precious uniform. Or maybe it was just what he logically saw as the safest way for her to travel in their group.
“Of course if we need to stay in any settlements or in company, it might be wiser to utilise the maid disguise,” added Tobias, “Just in case anyone sees through this particular façade on closer inspection.”
Katherine glanced back to Anne, examining said façade for herself. It was good, but now she knew what she was looking for she could see the slight roundness at the hips, the more slender build. Katherine found herself staring at Anne’s chest area, not for the first time in her life. She wondered if it was the weight of the chain mail that kept her usually ample bosom concealed, considering it more likely there was strapping involved; heavy duty strapping.
“Is there something of interest on my tabard?” asked Anne innocently.
Katherine cleared her throat and met the younger woman’s eye. “No, just verifying the quality of the colouring. The blue is very lustrous, though I think your gold thread is a bit faded.”
Katherine edged closer, blocking the other’s view with her body as she moved a single finger up onto the cloth. “Just about here,” she whispered running it slowly back and forth across the leg of the upper griffon.
Now it was Anne who had to clear her throat. “I still can’t see it,” she managed.
Katherine stopped what she was doing, peering up at Anne with soft eyes. “I guess I’ll have to give it a more thorough inspection later.”
Katherine was amused to see she had stymied Anne, noticing the slight bob at her throat as she swallowed hard. It was good to inject a bit of playfulness into proceedings when they could. It stopped them from forgetting what was most important when all the quests for weapons, fighting outlaws and saving the country was said and done. More important than all that was each other. Without the love they shared, then what was the point?
Katherine reluctantly stepped back, not wanting to show anything more in front of the other two men. Not that they weren’t aware of the relationship between the two women, but knowing about it and witnessing it first hand were two different things. Tobias in particular would be uncomfortable at the sight of any sort of closeness. Instead Katherine made her way to her horse, Delta, giving the chestnut colt a quick pat before preparing to hop on his back. Before she got the chance a call from across the courtyard halted her. “Hang on, aren’t you forgetting someone?”
Katherine whirled round to see the friar ambling towards them, weighed down by a host of bags. Her brow furrowed. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard you were going to
“You can speak French?” she asked doubtfully, also wondering how he’d found out about the trip.
“Mais, oui, naturellement,” came the friar’s reply.
“Et vous connaisez le Nord de la France?” Katherine slipped into the other language to verify if he knew more than just a couple of words.
“Un peu. Je suis alle en Normandie a quelques reprises.”
Katherine sighed, supposing it might prove useful to have more than one French speaker in the party. As far as she knew none of Anne, Tobias or Thomas knew any of their neighbouring country’s language.
“Fine you can come,” she conceded, “Though I hope you’re not going to be consuming any alcohol while we’re on this particular trip?”
The friar’s pale face flushed right up to his bald head at
the reminder of his behaviour at
“See that you do,” noted Katherine finally.
Thomas was dispatched to fetch another horse from the stables and once he returned the friar took some time loading up his belongings. Katherine considered suggesting he leave some behind, but decided it would probably be quicker to let him get on with it rather than get into a long debate on the relative merits of each of his books. Finally he was all set and Katherine had made it all the way up onto Delta’s back this time before there was another voice preventing their departure.
“Wait! Where do you think you’re going without your lady in waiting?”
Katherine sighed deeply before turning to see Beatrice heading towards them this time. She was much more lightly packed than the friar, with just a single bag, but packed nonetheless. It was Thomas who answered before Katherine.
“Somewhere that could be dangerous, you’re better off staying here,” said the young knight.
“Not if my lady is going somewhere,” said Beatrice stubbornly, ignoring her sweetheart and carrying on to the side of Katherine’s horse. “Besides, it’ll look suspicious if you’re travelling without any attendants,” Beatrice informed the mounted noble woman, “And I’m guessing you don’t want to arouse that if the secret dawn departure is anything to go by.”
Katherine favoured Beatrice with a serious look. “Thomas was right, it could be dangerous,” she re-iterated. “I relieve you of your normal duties as my lady in waiting. Anne can always pass as a maid if need be.”
Beatrice laughed, the sound ringing round the courtyard. “You have to be joking, right? She can pass as a maid as long as you don’t mind a maid that might whip out a sword and impale someone at any moment. If you want the real thing, then look no further.”
Katherine’s eyes drifted to Anne who shrugged. “You’ll get no objection from me.”
Seeing that she was on the losing side in this battle, Katherine turned back to Beatrice. “All right, all right. You can come! I might as well just take the whole household at this rate.” She added ruefully. “Let’s get out of here before the cook, the blacksmith and the squires all appear to join us too!”
Once Beatrice was mounted on another horse, the party of
five filtered slowly out of the gates and off over the hills to the south,
picking up speed as they got into stride on the open road. Fortunately they were long gone when the
troops crested the western hills. The
knights and foot soldiers stood on the rise for a few minutes, the
Katherine’s group were well on their way through the county, unaware of what
lay behind them, crossing the southern boundary of the Markham Estate to the
territories beyond. The road wound its
way into the edges of
Sensing someone drawing up along side her at the front of the party, Anne turned to face them, expecting to find it was Katherine. Instead she was surprised to discover the captain of the guard, Tobias.
He was giving her one of his typical unflinching looks. The knight didn’t say anything, so Anne deduced it was up to her to start any conversation there was going to be. “Thank you for agreeing to my presence in the party,” she offered in a spirit of friendliness, “Especially in this capacity.”
“The decision on your involvement was not in my hands,” he replied frostily, “And since there was no choice, I deemed this the safest method of travel.”
Anne sighed, obviously he had come to bait her once more. He’d become increasingly antagonistic the past few weeks. “This trip is going to be long enough as it is,” she said, “Without you giving me the cold shoulder the whole way. Can’t you see that we both have the same goal – to help Katherine find this weapon and destroy it?”
“And is that your aim?”
Anne’s brow furrowed. “Pardon?”
“Do you wish to destroy the weapon?” clarified the knight.
Anne’s expression darkened further. “What exactly are you insinuating?”
“I am merely speculating,” he said without inflection, “You are an outlaw, such a weapon could prove useful.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” exclaimed Anne, “There’s a big difference between stealing from the rich to help the poor and using a weapon to hurt innocent people.”
“And what about hurting people that aren’t innocent in your eyes,” he reasoned, “Such as those rich you seem so dead set against?”
“Now you’re just being pedantic.”
Tobias shrugged. “Or maybe just cautious…”
Anne held up a finger, suddenly stopping the knight. Her eyes darted to either side, seeking out the source of the noise she’d detected. She was acutely aware that the trees made it a good place to stage an ambush. Recollections of a similar situation a couple of months previously when it had been just her and Katherine travelling through the forest sprang unhelpfully to mind. The last thing they needed was a run in with Barton who was still on the loose.
Tobias surveyed the area too, all arguments put to one side in the face of Anne’s obvious wariness. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure…” Anne looked over her shoulder. There was a slight movement in the trees off to the right of the road. She turned back to the front, pretending she hadn’t seen it. “There’s someone following us,” she informed the knight in hushed tones.
“Where?” Tobias had the good sense not to look round and give the game away.
“About a hundred yards back, on the right.”
“Then we should go and investigate,” he suggested.
For once Anne was in agreement with the man. The pair of them waited until they rounded a bend in the road before swiftly dismounting and leaving the horses to be led on by Thomas’. The rest of the party carried on up the road as if nothing untoward was occurring, while Tobias and Anne ducked into the trees. Neither of them spoke as they picked their way carefully back through the wood, recognising the need for stealth. Once near the location where Anne had thought she’d detected the watchers they crouched down in the undergrowth.
Anne wished her pagan abilities would make one of their impromptu visits, but instead she had to rely on her regular senses to detect those pursuing them. Those senses were enough for her to notice the rustling of a bush close by. She gestured wordlessly to Tobias, directing his attention to it. He simply nodded that he had seen it. He surveyed the area momentarily before pointing off to one side, indicating Anne should circle round behind whoever was hiding from them. Anne quietly slipped her sword out of its scabbard and did as instructed, with Tobias going the opposite way.
Anne was in her element in the forest, creeping through the trees. It was second nature to her, moving stealthily along, ready to pounce on an animal or a rich merchant. It didn’t take her long to pick her way silently through the undergrowth and come up behind those following them. Anne could see that they were two men, also crouching in the bushes and completely oblivious to the woman behind them with the sharp weapon.
She waited for a moment to allow Tobias to get into position, though her first instinct was to challenge the men herself since there were only two of them. While she knelt in the forest, she could feel a few drops of anticipatory sweat trickling down her back. Her hands were clammy in her gloves too, and she tightened the grip on her sword. Even she was capable of getting nervous. Finishing her internal count, Anne leapt from her hiding place, quickly kicking one of the men in the back. As he fell she followed up with her foot to stand on his back to keep him there. The other man was clattered by Tobias, sending him tumbling over past Anne. As his hood fell back Anne recognised a quick flash of red hair. Tobias already had his sword out and was getting ready to run the man through when Anne managed to find her voice.
Tobias’ sword tip hovered by the downed man’s throat, while a pair of blue eyes peered at Anne from beneath a shaggy red-haired fringe.
“Nicholas,” identified Anne, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Pinned in place on the ground, the man shrugged as much as he could. “Following you?”
Tobias pulled his sword back a fraction. “You know these men?” he asked of Anne, the disdain obvious in his voice.
Anne raised her booted foot, allowing the man beneath it to turn over and face her. Henry smiled sheepishly up at her. “Yes, I know them,” Anne told Tobias, “You can put your sword away.”
Tobias didn’t seem convinced but reluctantly sheathed his sword and allowed Nicholas to clamber to his feet as Anne helped up Henry.
Nicholas smiled genially at Tobias. “We have met before actually, last year in the outlaw camp.”
“Ah yes,” sneered Tobias, “I had tried to forget.”
“Well, I didn’t forget you, Mr Captain,” said the cheeky outlaw teasingly.
Tobias didn’t reply, though Anne could see a vein popping in his cheek where he was obviously clenching his teeth. She reined in a smile and addressed Nicholas. “And why might you be following me?”
“I’m sure you can guess the answer to that one,” replied Nicholas.
She didn’t need to guess. “Robin.”
“Indeed, Robin,” concurred Nicholas. “He asked us to come along and make sure you’re all right on your journey.”
Anne shook her head. When was Robin going to realise she was perfectly capable of looking after herself? Sometimes his big brother act was too much. “Do you actually know where we’re going?” she asked Nicholas.
“No,” he admitted, “But wherever it is, we’ll be following.”
“No matter how far?”
“It would be more than our lives are worth to go back and tell Robin we left you to it,” he insisted, “So don’t even think about trying to put us off.”
Anne rubbed at her forehead, thinking the size of the party was starting to get out of hand. What Katherine would think of these latest additions was anyone’s guess, but Anne didn’t think being pleased would rank highly in the possibilities.
“Then I guess you’re with us,” she finally allowed.
Tobias went to object but Anne quickly stopped him. “Unless you’re about to run them through with your sword I don’t think you have much say.”
She could see he was tempted, his hand hovering by his scabbard. Anne placed her own hand on the hilt of her weapon, indicating that he would have to get through her to attempt it. “Fine,” he relented, “But you can tell her ladyship.”
Taking the small wooden chest out of one of her bags, Katherine quickly verified the Ares items were still firmly in place before putting it back away. She wasn’t sure where she was expecting them to have gone, since the bag hadn’t been out of her sight all day. Still she couldn’t stop the nagging fears that she would open the chest and there would be an empty gaping space. Outside her tent she could hear chatter from beside the fire, Nicholas’ voice audible as he picked up teasing Tobias once more. Katherine had been less than amused when Anne and Tobias had returned from the forest with the two outlaws in tow, but the older man’s good humour was infectious and she conceded it might be worthwhile having him along. She also secretly hoped he’d brought more of his cough-ee along for the trip.
She was disturbed by a cough at the flap of her tent, followed by a polite ‘m’lady?’ query for entrance.
Katherine smiled to herself. She had wondered how long it would take him. “Come in, Tobias.”
The dark knight stepped over the threshold, the flap swinging closed behind him. “Good evening, m’lady.”
“Good evening, Tobias, is everything secure?”
Tobias remained standing silently just inside the tent’s entrance. Katherine stared at him expectantly, but he didn’t say anything further. Of course she knew he wouldn’t unless invited to.
“And now you want to tell me you think it unwise to be bringing outlaws on this trip?” she prompted.
“I would not presume to question your decision.”
Katherine sighed. Sometimes his adherence to protocol and rules was frustrating. “We’ve known each other a long time, Tobias, you can speak freely.” He still looked uncomfortable at the prospect. “Please.”
His dark eyes gave her one more verifying glance before he spoke. “Yes, I do believe it unwise. Given the nature of those pursuing us, I do not think it prudent to be allowing known criminals into our party.”
Katherine pursed her lips for a moment, knowing he was having a sly dig at Anne too. “As I see it the alternative was to have them follow us anyway, since Robin had ordered them to,” she said, “Better to have them with us than hiding in the bushes and making us think the Syndicate are tracking us.”
“They still could be, now with our permission.”
“You really think Henry or Nicholas is with the Syndicate?”
Tobias glanced to the flap just as a round of laughter peeled out from the camp fire. “It seems unlikely,” he conceded, “But then again that may be precisely why they would be effective.”
Katherine supposed she should be grateful she had someone as paranoid as Tobias looking out for her. “A fair point,” she said, “You have my permission to keep an eye on them.”
“And I suggest that once we arrive at the location of the weapon, the outlaws be made to wait at a safe distance.”
Tobias paused before adding. “All the outlaws.”
Katherine held Tobias’ gaze.
He had been showing increasing signs of hostility towards Anne the past
few months. Katherine had been meaning
to speak with him about it since his behaviour at
“Anne may be an outlaw in name, but not in thought or deed.”
Tobias surprised her by letting out a scoffing laugh. He very rarely laughed. “Such deeds as kidnapping us and forcing you to help steal something?”
“That was over a year ago,” pointed out Katherine, “And no one forced me to do anything. I wanted to help once I knew the purpose of the stone of Gaia.”
She could see Tobias opening his mouth to speak and then catching himself, as if he was going to say more and thought better of it. Both of them knew that a strong persuasive factor in Katherine’s aiding of the outlaws had been Anne. However, for Tobias to say as much out loud would be a candid comment too far. Instead it was Katherine who continued.
“Have you forgotten the times she has literally saved my life?”
“No, but that does not mean she has changed, once an outlaw, always an outlaw.”
“I’m surprised at you Tobias. I thought you of all people might be willing to see beyond a label and give someone a chance, like Mark did with you.”
Tobias had nothing to say to that. When Mark had taken Tobias on as a knight there had been those questioning the wisdom of trusting a moor. When he had later made Tobias captain of the guard, most people thought he had gone insane. What those people neglected to notice beyond his skin colour was that Tobias was as honest and as loyal a man as you could wish to find.
“I’m not asking you to like Anne; all I ask is that you accept her.”
Tobias dipped his head. “I will try, for you m’lady.” He went to go, but paused for a moment before exiting. “But she will betray you.” And with that parting comment he ducked outside.
Katherine shook her head at his obstinacy. She wasn’t quite sure what was behind
it. Maybe it was a simple desire not to
see Katherine get hurt. Perhaps it was
something else more deep-seated. Either
way she didn’t really have the time, energy or inclination to think about it
Katherine caught the sound of the flap to her tent being drawn back again. She glanced around absently, catching sight of one of her guards stepping through the opening. Katherine had to catch herself and correct the assumption. It appeared to be one of her guards. The blue tabard with the gold edging intricately embroidered into it was right; the thick belt with sword firmly attached was correct; the stout leather boots and gloves were spot on; the light chain mail was accurate. It was only when Katherine’s eyes reached the head that the supposition fell down. Now the sturdy helmet had been removed to display long golden hair framing high cheekbones and full red lips, it was obvious this was not one of her guards. Women were not allowed to hold such positions for a start. Katherine considered that was a shame given the alluring sight before her.
Anne wore the armour and uniform well, almost like she had been born into it. She looked every inch the chivalrous knight about to defend and protect their master, or mistress in this case. Katherine edged closer, strangely aroused by the attire. Any lingering anxiety from her discussion with Tobias quickly faded. She’d seen her guards in the uniform plenty of times before but never had it had this affect on her. She wondered if she’d ever be able to look at any of them in the same way again.
Katherine reached up to track a lazy finger across Anne’s breastbone, feeling over the blue material of the tabard. “It suits you,” she whispered, her voice much more husky than she had intended.
Anne’s lips curved into a smile. “Does this mean I get to keep the job?”
Katherine mulled it over, inadvertently licking her lips at
the prospect. It seemed her body was taking
over, reacting all on its own to the temptation. “I’m not sure,” she finally said, “I like to
give all prospective guards a thorough assessment. Make sure they’re loyal to the
Anne was pretending to stand to attention, hands clasped behind her back. She knew the game they were playing. “And how might I demonstrate my willingness to serve you?”
Katherine slowly rolled her tongue round in her mouth - so many intriguing possibilities, so little time.
Anne swallowed long and hard as Katherine eased around
behind her. The younger woman had to use
most of her considerable willpower to remain standing stock still, maintaining
the illusion of dutiful guard being assessed by their mistress. Anne could sense Katherine’s presence but
kept her eyes trained forward with her hands clasped firmly behind her back. A hot breath whispering past her right ear
Katherine’s voice was barely audible, sending a tingle right down Anne’s spine. She had to restrain herself from outright shuddering as Katherine continued to hover by her ear, simply breathing in and out. Anne’s part was to play the stoic, unflappable knight, though she was starting to have serious doubts over how long she could keep it up under the influence of such erotic provocation. Already she could feel the moisture pooling between her legs in anticipation, the heat rising in her chest. She felt decidedly hot under the uniform. She knew it would be easy to simply turn around and grab Katherine in a passionate embrace. Too easy.
“I admire your willpower.”
Anne didn’t answer, not sure she was capable of getting something out from her dry throat. Fortunately she could pass off silence as part of her role. Katherine was still out of sight, but Anne could feel the other woman’s fingers on her shoulder now, edging slowly across the material of Anne’s blue tabard. They continued on down the sleeve of her shirt until they brushed the small expanse of bare skin between sleeve and glove. Anne bit her lip as the small hairs on her arm stood on end. Katherine was barely touching her. That was why it was so maddening.
“I suppose I ought to check your equipment,” said Katherine still speaking in a low throaty tone, “I want to be sure all my knights are prepared correctly.”
Anne’s mind raced at what that could mean. Exactly what ‘equipment’ was Katherine going to be inspecting? Anne could feel her nipples stiffening against the strapping under her shirt in readiness.
“Let’s see,” continued Katherine, her hand slipping round Anne’s waist from behind, “Sword…belt…good…”
Katherine eased open the clasp on the belt and allowed it and Anne’s sword to drop to the earthen floor with a dull thump. Katherine loosened Anne’s hands from their grip, bringing one of them with her as she moved round in front of Anne. Anne’s gaze didn’t waver, still fixed on the side of the tent. She was determined to let the scene play out as long as possible. Katherine started teasing the glove off the hand she held.
It might have sounded like a real inspection if Katherine wasn’t saying every word in a seductive purr. Coming from those lips even the most mundane of words took on erotic form. The glove was discarded casually to the floor, swiftly followed by the second one. Katherine’s hands came up to Anne’s chest, stroking the gold embroidery of the griffon upon the tabard. Anne tried to swallow again, it catching in her dry throat. Katherine’s eyes flicked up momentarily. She had seen the movement. In her peripheral vision Anne could see Katherine smiling to herself, obviously satisfied with eliciting the reaction.
As Katherine slid her fingers under the tabard and started pushing it up, Anne was convinced Katherine would be able to feel her heart hammering below her remaining clothes. When Katherine paused with her hand just above Anne’s breast she was sure of it. Anne’s vision was obscured for a moment as Katherine pushed the garment the rest of the way over Anne’s head and then it too was tumbling to the floor.
Katherine surveyed the light chain-mail vest underneath. “You may need to help me with this.”
Anne made sure to take it off with deliberate slowness, trying to play Katherine at her own game, though part of her was dying to simply rip off the rest of her own clothes and then make similarly short work of Katherine’s. Instead, once she had taken off the mail, she stood to attention once more. Katherine smiled knowingly and reached out to start unlacing the ties at the collar of Anne’s shirt.
Once she had unlaced it partly she eased enough of the material off to reveal a tanned shoulder. Anne’s eyes widened as the other woman leant in and tickled her lips over her skin. Katherine tilted her head slightly so her short hair brushed the exposed skin.
“So how much longer are you going to hold out?”
Anne didn’t answer, though her willpower was fading fast. Katherine gave one last tiny kiss on Anne’s collarbone and then she was perching up on her tip toes to reach Anne’s ear. Her chest rubbed lightly against Anne’s own as her lips parted to whisper her words. “You know that resistance is futile.”
Anne mulled the words over. She liked the turn of phrase and would have to remember it for future use. In this case it was accurate too. The time for resisting was over.
Anne allowed her eyes to drift slowly from the spot she had been staring at on the side of the tent the whole time. Katherine was just resting back onto the flats of her feet, but her gaze remained fixed intently on Anne – watching, waiting. She was wordlessly tempting Anne to do something. Anne was content to wait a few seconds more and tease Katherine in return.
The pause had the desired effect, with Katherine raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “Are you waiting for something?”
“For m’lady’s orders.”
Katherine smiled at Anne’s continuance of the role. “Then I order you to kiss me.”
“I will comply.”
Anne could still feel the smile on Katherine’s lips as she captured them. She swiftly sunk into the passion of the kiss, succumbing to the lust that had built up over the last few minutes. Her hands slipped naturally round Katherine’s smaller body, pulling her closer.
It was Katherine who broke off from the fast enveloping moment. “And now,” she said, her voice so low and throaty that Anne wouldn’t have heard if she’d been more than a whisper away, “I order you to make love to me.”
Anne tried to answer with deadpan seriousness but couldn’t prevent the smile from creeping onto her lips. “I will comply.”
And with those words any last sense of restraint was gone. For both of them. Anne realised she hadn’t been the only one holding in pent-up desires during the excruciatingly drawn out undressing ritual. Katherine was practically tearing at the remainder of her clothes now in between urgent kisses. Giving up on trying to yank the shirt off, Katherine closed her mouth over Anne’s nipple - material, strapping and all. Anne gasped as she sucked hard, suddenly finding a single finger on her lips.
Anne opened her eyes to peer down at Katherine. “I suggest you be a little quieter unless you want everyone to hear.” She gestured to the side with her eyes. “Tents have very thin walls.”
Anne bit her lip and nodded. Though it was vaguely arousing to think of the others so close by, she didn’t really want Tobias or anyone else knowing what was happening mere feet from them.
“You would be
Katherine looked at her curiously for a second. It was all the opportunity Anne needed. She grabbed Katherine, pulling her to the ground where there was a conveniently placed rug. Anne would almost think Katherine had been expecting her. Anne yanked her shirt off over her head and quickly unwound the strapping that had been attempting to contain her bosom. She was thankful to be rid of it at last, and Katherine looked equally thrilled at the sight of the two breasts now set free before her. Her hands reached up, but Anne caught them at the wrists before they could reach their target. She gently pushed them back down onto the rug either side of Katherine’s head, following them on down so her face was hovering just above Katherine’s. The other woman’s blue-grey eyes locked onto Anne’s in a look of eager anticipation.
“I believe I am the one who is supposed to be fulfilling my
Before Katherine could answer Anne dipped her head further, down to the side of Katherine’s head where she could snake out her tongue and trail it slowly along the rim of the other woman’s ear. Anne could feel Katherine’s body pushing eagerly up against her, hips gyrating, thigh rubbing against Anne’s trousers. Anne groaned, realising she needed to be free of the last obstacles to feeling the direct touch of flesh on flesh. Luckily Katherine had far fewer layers on than Anne. One to be precise. One very thin one that was falling invitingly off her shoulder already. Anne teased the dress off further with her teeth, kissing the smooth skin beneath. Katherine let out a low moan and now it was Anne’s turn to place a quieting finger on heated lips.
“Remember the walls…”
Katherine grinned before opening her mouth to suck Anne’s finger inside. She swirled it round with her tongue, lavishing extended attention on the digit. All the time Anne remained motionless, eyes closed, mesmerised. For long exquisite moments she forgot what she had been doing, eventually managing to engage her brain. Katherine’s dress.
Reluctantly she slid her finger from its warm home and turned her attention to the still worn garment. It didn’t remain that way for long. Instead it quickly joined most of Anne’s clothes on the floor. Anne paused for a minute to drink in the site of the body now revealed beneath her. Beautiful.
There was a tiny demon rising up at the back of Anne’s mind, telling her that at any moment Tobias could come back in. Quite what he would make of finding his mistress splayed on the floor, gloriously naked and about to be ravaged by the young woman was anyone’s guess. Anne found the thought strangely arousing in a perverse way. Katherine caught her smiling.
Anne shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, just a wicked thought.” She banished the image of the knight. “But I have more wicked ones…”
Suddenly their lips were together once more, engaged in a fevered kiss. Anne was dimly aware of Katherine’s hands pushing at her trousers. Her desire was rising fast now and Anne quickly kicked off her boots and wriggled free of the trousers. As soon as she had she was back against Katherine, their two bodies sliding against one another unencumbered at last. They writhed over the rug, a jumble of arms, legs and exploring lips.
They had made love not two nights before and yet there was something more urgent, more primal about it this time. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they might not get the opportunity again for some time. Who knew what was in store on their journey? Given the uncertainty, they needed to make the most of tonight, make the most of each other.
Anne could already feel the heat coursing through her, filling every fibre of her being. Soon she would be lost to the consuming fire. She took the chance to speak before it overwhelmed her.
“I love you, Katherine.”
It was all she needed to say. Katherine smiled back at her, whispering her own husky reply. Then Anne was lost to the moment, finally succumbing to the over-flowing desire. She was blissfully unaware of her surroundings or anything else. The real world could wait. For now it was just the two of them.
Anne could hold back no more, she needed to touch
Katherine. Her right hand trailed down
over Katherine’s stomach, through wiry hair and between moist thighs. As soon as she slipped a finger inside
Katherine the other woman groaned quietly.
The sound sent shivers through Anne.
Katherine was so wet that Anne easily slid another finger in, using them
both to stroke a slow rhythm against soft flesh. There was a low moan from her own lips as she
felt Katherine trembling beneath her.
Anne dipped her head lower, her mouth closing over Katherine’s left nipple. She gently sucked it inside, flicking the stiffening flesh with her tongue. Katherine gasped again, fighting hard to remain quiet. Anne glanced up, wanting to see the reaction herself. She deliberately paused with Katherine’s nipple held between her teeth until the other woman opened her eyes and looked down. As soon as she did, Anne grazed her tongue against the sensitive flesh again. Immediately Katherine’s head tipped back against the floor, mouth open in a silent moan. A further bolt of arousal drilled through Anne and she could contain her fingers no longer. Her rhythm intensified, with each rapid thrust greeted with a fresh shudder from Katherine. Then finally there was no more shuddering. There was stillness, Anne’s fingers held clenched tight within Katherine. Anne released Katherine’s nipple, rising up to watch the other woman. Katherine looked like she wanted to scream, her mouth open and gasping, but instead she directed all tension her into clinging tightly onto Anne. Finger nails dug hard into Anne’s back as the moment of release came.
Katherine slackened her grip but still remained clinging onto Anne, breathing hard as she rested her sweaty brow against Anne’s shoulder. Anne simply held on, her own breaths equally rapid as they rippled over Katherine’s damp hair. Anne closed her eyes, breathing in deeply. There was a strong smell of sex in the air.
Anne felt Katherine’s hands finally moving, guiding her down onto the rug. Anne was happy to let the other woman take charge now. Briefly Katherine’s lips were on her own, a teasingly short kiss before they descended down across Anne’s body. Anne knew she was already close to the edge, having witnessed Katherine’s climax, and she fought to rein in her arousal. Her body was less than obliging though, twitching and jolting each time Katherine reached a sensitive spot on her torso.
As soon as Katherine slipped between her legs Anne feared she was going to come then and there, and all the other woman was doing was breathing hotly. Katherine started to slowly circle a finger round in the wetness, each circuit bringing her up to flick tantalisingly over Anne’s clitoris. Anne clenched her teeth, fearing she was about to groan much too loudly.
When Katherine’s tongue joined with the finger, Anne had to bite her lip. Hard. Anne couldn’t tell what was tongue and what was fingers. All she did know was that it felt good. Far, far too good. Her back arched up off the floor as the wonderful sensations continued to flood her body. It was too much. Too many sensations. Sensory overload. Anne didn’t know where she was. Then the world came crashing back in on her as her orgasm swept through her. She was back on the ground, a trembling, shuddering wreck.
Anne was glad to have the memories of the night before as
they approached their next destination on the journey. She had been dreading the stop-off ever since
Katherine had made the suggestion. Katherine
was insistent that they should call in at
If Kirby was in
Given those suspicions, she supposed it made sense to get
what information they could. Unfortunately
Almost as soon as she’d met him, Anne had disliked Lord Robert. The fact he’d once had a relationship with Katherine didn’t help, but Anne maintained there was something else about him that caused her unease. She couldn’t quite pin it down; it was just an instinctual feeling. Of course Katherine thought those instincts had more to do with jealousy than anything else, and Anne knew that had a part to play, but it wasn’t the full story. However, until she could find something definite to hang her dislike of him on, she resolved to keep her thoughts to herself and maintain a polite demeanour in his presence.
That demeanour received its first test as they drew into the expansive courtyard of the large manor house to be greeted by an enthusiastic Robert. As soon as Katherine dismounted he swept her up in a warm embrace, and Anne found her uncharitable thoughts speeding to the forefront of her mind again. She lowered herself from her own horse, averting her eyes from the show of affection, even if it was just platonic. Anne was still smoothing down the skirt she was now wearing rather than the guards outfit, when she realised Robert had given up fawning over Katherine and was actually waiting to speak to her. Anne straightened up to see he was smiling genuinely at her.
“I’m glad to see you’re better,” he said, referring to the
poison-induced illness that had afflicted Anne last time they’d been at
“Thank you, m’lord.” Anne could already tell that being nice to him was going to prove difficult. For once she was grateful of the preclusion on servants speaking to nobles unless spoken to, since it saved her having to make forced polite conversation with the man.
“Why don’t you all come inside?” suggested Robert addressing the group, “You must be tired after your journey.”
They didn’t need to be asked twice and as they headed towards the door Anne kept close enough to listen in on Katherine and Robert’s conversation.
“I’m afraid I do have an ulterior motive for my visit,” confessed Katherine.
“Really?” noted Robert, the hopeful suggestion in his voice obvious. Anne was tempted to stick out a foot and trip him up so he landed flat on his face. Let him offer those charming grins with a couple of teeth missing.
Katherine tutted at his comment. “You are incorrigible, but I was referring to those men you captured, the ones with the tattoos.”
“Damn, I didn’t think you’d actually come to speak to them,” he said regretfully, “I’m afraid I handed them over to the Sheriff – he’s much better at all that wheedling information out of people.”
“How convenient,” muttered Anne under her breath. Katherine caught the comment and gave her a swift reproachful glance over her shoulder.
“You’re more than welcome to go question them at
“No, it’s back in the other direction from where we’re going,” said Katherine with a sigh, “Never mind, they probably wouldn’t have revealed anything anyway.”
In that case Anne had to wonder what exactly they were doing there.
“So where are you going?” queried Robert. When Katherine didn’t answer, he decided to speculate. “Hmm, a secret is it?” he teased. “A new fancy man maybe?”
Katherine laughed but didn’t confirm nor deny the supposition.
“I’m actually off on a trip myself tomorrow,” said Robert conversationally since Katherine wasn’t being very forthcoming.
“Oh yes, where to?” asked Katherine.
Robert smirked. “I can have secrets too.” Anne could see the small wink he added as he turned to Katherine.
Once inside Robert left them to be guided to the guest’s quarters by one of his many servants. Katherine was thankful for the respite from his suggestive comments and gestures. As much as she loved Robert, his insistence on clinging onto the past was starting to wear thin. She could tell Anne was fast losing patience with him too, and Katherine was glad they were only staying the one night. All she would have to do was negotiate dinner with him and they could be on their way.
The guest quarters were plainly decorated but welcoming enough, especially after a few nights lying on hard ground. Anne followed Katherine into her room, in her guise as a maid, and started to examine it as if looking for spy holes and secret doors. Katherine watched her in some amusement for a couple of moments as she went about her silent task.
“Come on then, spit it out, whatever it is you’re dying to say.”
Anne stopped peering up the chimney and straightened up. “Well, do you think Robert ever really caught anyone?”
Katherine couldn’t stop her exasperated sigh.
“I’m just saying,” continued Anne, “It’s a bit convenient that they’re gone when we get here, if they ever existed.”
“Would you believe anything Robert told you?” asked Katherine pointedly.
“I can’t help it, he’s just so…so…”
“Nice? Helpful?” offered Katherine.
“Yes, that’s it!” agreed Anne. “He’s too bloody nice! There’s something wrong with someone who’s that accommodating.”
Giving up on a reasonable discussion Katherine turned to the bed to start unpacking her bag. “I shall remember to be more horrible to you in future then,” she said over her shoulder.
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” insisted Katherine, “You just can’t see past
the fact that we were once in a relationship, but that was long ago, we’re just
friends now.” She turned back to Anne
who was standing with her arms defiantly crossed. “And I need all the friends I can get in the
nobility at the moment,” added Katherine, “Goodness only knows what the
“What we did to them?” repeated Anne in some consternation, “They kidnapped us first, we were only defending ourselves.”
“Unfortunately it’s their word against ours and who do you think anyone of note is going to believe? Not only that, they know about me and you.”
Now Anne really did look worried. Her voice became quieter when she continued, as if she was concerned about someone overhearing, even though they were the only two people in the room. “You think they’d spread that around? Have you heard anything to that effect?”
“No, and I’m sure I’d have had a visit from the Sheriff by
now if he was aware I was consorting with outlaws at all, let alone having a
relationship with one.” Katherine
imagined such a visit would swiftly end up with her incarcerated in the
Sheriff’s dungeon, but didn’t outline as much to Anne. “So either the
“Or they might just have let it go,” offered Anne hopefully.
“It was a nice thought,” but Katherine seriously doubted it. “You really think Saskia would live and let live?”
“No,” conceded Anne, “She’ll be out to get us; it’s just a question of when.”
“Indeed.” Katherine started sorting through her belongings again. “Not that we have time to worry about that now,” she said, “I can fret about my reputation later, if and when we get back.”
She sensed Anne moving closer, hovering just behind her as she leant over the bed.
“You really think we won’t come back?” asked the young woman softly.
Katherine’s head bowed, her hands stopping their distracted rifling. “I just have this feeling, that something’s not right.”
“You think the Syndicate will be waiting for us,” said Anne, “That they’ve been playing us this whole time?”
Katherine nodded. “It’s a possibility, so we have to be on our guard.” She turned round, finding Anne was much closer than she’d realised. Their chests were almost touching once Katherine was facing her.
Anne reassuringly stroked her hands over Katherine’s shoulders and down her arms. “Whatever happens, you’ll have me to watch your back. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Katherine couldn’t help smiling at Anne’s complete confidence. It was as if the statement was a universally accepted truth. “I know you won’t.”
By the time Katherine’s mug was filled with wine for the
third time, she knew she’d have to find some polite way to refuse the next
top-up. Already the alcohol was starting
to affect her and the last thing she needed was a pounding head when they had
another full day in the saddle the next day.
Robert was happily downing his drink and she had to wonder if it was a
ploy on his part – inviting her to dinner alone and then plying her with ale in
the hope of getting her drunk and suggestible.
From her last visit to
There had been plenty of hints already during dinner that he was still angling to rekindle their old affair. Katherine had resolutely ignored all of them, but knew she had to keep a clear head to continue doing so. Robert leant closer over the table once again, smiling as he spoke.
“So come on, where is it you’re going that’s so secret?”
Katherine remained tight-lipped. “I really can’t say.”
“You can’t tell an old friend?” he pressed playfully, “I’m hurt. How about I show you mine and you show me yours?”
Katherine didn’t respond to the teasing comment.
“All right, I’ll just guess then shall I?” suggested Robert.
Katherine took another sip of her wine. “If you want to.”
“Tease! All right,
let’s see, you’re going south…
Katherine tried hard to maintain her even expression but
obviously something flickered across her face because Robert suddenly looked
“I might be,” allowed Katherine since it was obvious she had somehow indicated as much already.
“Interesting,” he noted, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“Robert, please, don’t tell anyone,” Katherine said seriously.
Robert’s face changed into a much more serious expression too, as he sensed Katherine’s unease. “Of course I won’t if you don’t want me to,” he said sincerely. “What’s the secret though? Is it to do with what you were looking for last time you were here?”
“It is connected to that yes,” she admitted, thinking
disclosing as much was safe enough, “There’s something I need to find in
“I’m sure you will find it,” he stated, “With the help of your…interesting group.”
Katherine nearly choked on her drink. “What do you mean?”
“Are you really telling me those two men are squires?” asked Robert.
It took Katherine a moment to make the connection to Henry and Nicholas at which point she heaved an internal sigh of relief. For a moment she had thought he was going to question her about Anne.
“You forget I was once a lowly squire myself,” he continued, “And those two couldn’t tell a dirk from a rondel.”
“You’re right of course, they aren’t squires,” confessed Katherine, realising there was little point denying it, “But I’m hoping they will be useful to us.”
Robert seemed to be satisfied with the cryptic answer. “Say no more.”
Katherine took another fortifying gulp of her drink, hoping that there weren’t any more difficult questions to come. She could see Robert watching her with a curious look on his face. She put down the mug and offered him a querying one in return.
“You know there’s something different about you,” he commented.
“Different from what?” Again the nervous hairs were rising on the back of Katherine’s neck.
“From how you were when you were married to Mark,” he explained, “You seem more like your old self, before he suffocated you.”
Katherine laughed, partly in relief. “Robert! You make him sound like a tyrant! Mark was a kind and loving man. Katherine thought it best not to go into the less kind and loving aspects to him that she’d discovered more recently. “He most certainly didn’t ‘suffocate’ me, in fact he encouraged me to get involved in the estate and its workings. He gave me a lot more independence than most women. I’m glad he did, else I might not have had a clue what I was doing now.”
“But you have to admit, he was a bit…dull.”
Katherine chuckled again. “All right, maybe a bit.”
Robert’s fingers snaked out across the table, finding their way onto the top of Katherine’s hand. “I like this you better, by the way.”
As his fingers started to brush over her skin, Katherine realised she was going to have to be proactive. “Robert…,” she said warningly, taking her hand out from under his.
He retracted his hand too. “Sorry, you can’t blame me for trying can you?”
“Only if you’re going to persist when I’ve told you we can’t go back to how we once were.”
Robert sighed, seemingly getting the message at last. “All right, sorry, no more advances.”
Katherine was relieved to hear that and prayed it was true. She did love Robert, just not in that way. That love was reserved for someone else. “Talking of the past, can I ask you something?”
“Someone said something to me recently that got me thinking about my parents, and more pertinently their death.” Katherine paused, trying not to think too hard about what she was talking about. “There wasn’t ever anything…suspicious about their deaths was there?”
Robert looked concerned. “Suspicious…as in it might not have been natural causes?”
“I don’t know,” confessed Katherine, “This person didn’t really elaborate. I just got the impression all was not as it seemed, that things were kept from me. You were here at the time, I just wondered if you could shed any light on it?”
Robert thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I can’t recall there ever being any
suggestion that it was anything other than it was. As far as I know they died from a common
place fever. There was a lot of it about
that winter, and they weren’t the only ones to succumb at
“Thank you, I think the person who told me otherwise had an ulterior motive.”
“I’m sorry,” he offered sincerely.
“It’s not your fault,” she said gently, “I’ve been thinking about them a lot recently, that’s all.”
The sombre turn in the conversation thankfully coincided with the end of the meal and it wasn’t long before Katherine was able to excuse herself and make her way back upstairs.
“Didn’t I tell you not to trust anyone?”
Katherine stared incredulously into the dark, not believing she was hearing her father’s words from the opposite side of the locked door. “I didn’t think that included you!”
“It includes everyone,” he stated, his voice muffled slightly by the thick wood, “So let this be a lesson to you.”
“All right, point made,” said Katherine, annoyance creeping into her tone, “Now open the door!”
There was no answer from outside though. “Father? Are you still there?” Katherine rattled on the handle, but it was firmly locked. “This isn’t funny! Open this bloody door!” Katherine started to pound on the door with her fists. “Father! Father!”
Suddenly the door swung open. An unprepared Katherine tumbled out, falling face first onto the ground. She was surprised to find herself with a mouthful of damp grass rather than hitting a stone floor. Scrambling to her feet she found that not only was she now standing outside in the dead of night, but also that the doorway behind her had completely disappeared. Katherine peered into the gloom that surrounded her, trying to discern if there was anything familiar about the place. However, there was no moonlight and she couldn’t make out more than a few feet ahead of her.
A chill skittered down her spine and she wasn’t sure if it really was cold out, or whether it was the eerie stillness of the place causing phantom terrors. It was so quiet she could hear her own breath. The more she thought about it, the faster and shallower it got. Taking a deeper breath to calm herself, Katherine started walking in a random direction, thinking that one was as good as any. Still there was no light from above, but at least her eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness. Up ahead she could make out forms in the grass, dark blocks jutting from the earth.
With sick realisation she knew where she was. It was a graveyard. Katherine approached the nearest headstone, kneeling down next to it to try and read the inscription. A single shaft of moonlight broke through the clouds at last, falling upon the letters. Katherine’s fingers reached out to stroke across the rough stone, tracing the name etched into it.
“You must finish this.”
Katherine jumped at the sudden voice in the silence, craning her head round to the speaker. Her father loomed over her, his eyes dark shadows in the sparse light.
Katherine stood up to face him. “I’m trying.”
“Then you must try harder. You cannot let the syndicate get there first, it would mean the end for everyone.”
Katherine frowned with indignation. “If you hadn’t made it so bloody hard to find the objects we might have got there a damn sight faster!”
Her father ignored her argument. “You must find the weapon!” He grabbed her about the shoulders, his cold fingers digging into her flesh. For the first time Katherine could see his eyes, boring into her with manic intensity. They were nothing like the warm, brown eyes she was used to.
“Let go of me!” Katherine shook the clawing grip off and started walking away.
She could hear his footfalls following her. “You must find it!”
Katherine started running, having no idea where she was going only that she wanted to get away from him. This man who she had loved and adored and who now scared the living daylights out of her. She stumbled over the rough ground, glancing behind her to check if he was still chasing. As she did Katherine’s foot caught on something and she tripped, pitching forwards. The ground didn’t meet her where she expected, though. Instead there was a gaping hole in front of her that she tumbled awkwardly into. She hit soft, cloying mud and it took some effort to extricate herself from it and stand up. The hole was rectangular, the edges just out of reach above her. In horror Katherine realised it was an empty grave. She started scrabbling at the muddy walls, desperately trying to find some purchase. It was hopeless, though, her hands slipping through the earth and only succeeding in dislodging more dirt into the pit.
Katherine looked up to the rectangle of dark sky. “Help!” She called out.
Katherine was just opening her mouth to call again when something hit her smack in the face. It was cold and fragmented into tiny pieces as it sprayed over her cheeks. She coughed and spluttered as she wiped the earth from her face. Then there was another clod, and another, great lumps of dirt being shovelled in on top of her.
“Stop!” She screamed out, battering away the rain of earth. “I’m in here!”
If the person above heard they gave no indication as more and more dirt was sent into the grave. It was fast becoming an unrelenting torrent and Katherine was already buried to her waist.
“No!” she cried futilely. The earth was pressing in on her, tight around her shoulders. “No!”
Katherine’s eyes shot open. There was still tightness about her shoulders, but this time it was from Anne, who was gripping them in a frantic attempt to wake her. Katherine sagged, letting herself fall into Anne’s embrace. Gentle fingers brushed through Katherine’s hair as she lay against the warm chest.
“Another nightmare?” asked Anne softly.
“Yes, and they’re getting more frequent.” Katherine let out a long sigh, her breath tickling out over the exposed skin at Anne’s neck.
“About your father again?” prompted Anne.
Katherine simply nodded and Anne tightened her embrace, not needing to say any more to show her support. She continued to hold on until Katherine drifted off to sleep once more.
The following day was warm once again as Katherine and her
party set off early from
“Looking for more of your outlaw chums?” Katherine cast a reflexive glance at Henry and Nicholas who were both perched on the single horse Robert had allowed them to borrow. Thankfully he hadn’t pressed as to why they hadn’t had one in the first place.
“Or Syndicate members,” noted Anne more pertinently. She scanned the horizon once more. “I just have the oddest sense we’re being followed.”
“Is this a normal sense or one of your ‘special’ senses?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” replied Anne, “They’ve been strangely quiet on this journey so far. Either they’ve gone into hiding again, or there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Let’s hope it’s the latter,” said Katherine. “If we’re being followed then maybe we should go a bit faster,” she pondered, “That is if that old nag of yours could keep up,” she added teasingly.
“This ‘old nag’ came from your stables,” pointed out Anne, “Anyway, effective speed is all in the skill of the rider,” she declared.
“Really? So you think you could beat me to that tree up ahead?”
Anne glanced down the road to the one Katherine had indicated. “Ready when you are,” she replied, accepting the challenge.
Katherine grinned as she gripped her reins tighter in her hand. “Are you sure you don’t want a head start?” she offered charitably.
“I was going to ask the same thing of you.”
Katherine laughed. “Then I’ll see you there!”
She dug her heels into Delta’s flanks and the colt shot off down the road. Katherine could hear the pounding of the other set of hooves close behind and she risked a backwards glance. Through her flapping hair she could see Anne hot on her heels. Turning back to the front, she geed Delta on faster, his hooves kicking up clouds of dust on the dry track. Somehow Anne managed to pull up alongside her, though, her own horse matching Delta stride for stride. Looking across, Katherine could see Anne offering her a knowing grin.
Every time Katherine tried to encourage a bit more speed from her mount, Anne’s kept pace, the two animals fair flying along now. The warm wind whipped past Katherine’s face and she hunkered down even closer to Delta’s neck. Next to her Anne’s pose mirrored her own, the young woman’s blond hair loose and streaming out behind her. For a moment Katherine could almost forget what the purpose of the trip was. In this moment of pure escapism there was just them, the horses and miles of open countryside.
Their target was fast approaching though, and Katherine made one last supreme effort to stretch Delta that bit more. It wasn’t to be though, and they pounded past it, still nose to nose. Katherine pulled up on her reins, Delta seeming somewhat reluctant to come to a halt. Anne slowed her horse to a trot too before wheeling round next to Katherine.
“I believe that was a tie,” said the young woman.
“Well, that’s no good!” Katherine cast her eyes around the landscape. “All right, on to that tree.” She pointed to one even further up the road. “Go!”
Delta leapt ahead, leaving Anne and her horse in his wake for a moment before the young woman gathered herself and set off in pursuit. Katherine knew the game was hugely childish, but equally knew they needed a bit of release after recent times. Anne seemed to be caught up in it too, a look of concentration on her face as she once again managed to catch up. Katherine could only look on in consternation as the other woman edged ahead in their race.
Katherine leant closer to Delta’s bobbing head. “Come on, boy, you aren’t going to let them win are you? That old carthorse beating a thoroughbred like you?”
Obviously it was the right thing to say, because suddenly Delta seemed to find an extra burst of speed. Katherine had to hold on tight as she steamed past an indignant Anne and made it to the appointed tree with time and space to spare. Only he didn’t stop there. All of a sudden Delta seemed to have a mind of his own, galloping on and on now he’d had a taste of freedom. Katherine tried without success to pull him up, the young colt ignoring her commands and continuing to forge ahead at speed. Katherine was almost thrown out of her saddle as the horse easily vaulted a stone wall into a wheat field and started charging through it, bashing the stalks down on his onward course. Finally Katherine managed to tug hard enough to get the headstrong colt to stop. He was panting hard and Katherine lowered herself out of the saddle to come round and pat him calmingly on the nose, though he hardly deserved it after his wilful behaviour.
“Oi!” came a loud call from behind Katherine. She turned to see three peasants heading her way through the long stalks. They looked decidedly unhappy. “What are you doing? This is Banbury land, you’re trespassing.”
“My apologies,” said Katherine calmly, “I shall move off.”
As she went to climb back on Delta’s back one of the men grabbed her arm. “Hey, hold on a minute, look what you’ve done to the bloody wheat!”
Katherine surveyed the field, having to concede that Delta had made rather a mess of it, trampling a nice path to their current location. “I’m sorry, my horse got slightly out of control,” she said, “Maybe I can compensate you in some way?”
Katherine reached for her saddle before realising she didn’t actually have her purse on her. It was back on the pack horse. Turning back to the men she could see them looking doubtfully at her still empty hands.
“With what? Fresh air?” asked one sarcastically.
“Look my party will be here in a minute, then I can give you some shillings for your troubles,” said Katherine reasonably.
“Yeah, a likely story,” scoffed one of the men, “I think we should take you into the manor, you’re probably one of them outlaw types. I expect this is a stolen horse, that’s why you couldn’t stop the stupid thing.”
“I assure you I am not an outlaw,” stated Katherine, “I’m
Lady Katherine of
The man looked her up and down, taking in her rough travelling clothes of trousers and a thin summer shirt. “A likely bleeding story,” he concluded, “You’re coming with us.”
The man grabbed her arm again, and Katherine was just
contemplating how she might prove her identity, when the sound of hooves
heading their way drew all their attention.
Anne had finally caught up, having had the forethought to put her helmet
back on to conceal her face. Katherine
hoped it would be enough to convince the peasants she was one of Katherine’s
knights, decked out in the
Anne pulled her horse up next to them, but didn’t immediately dismount, instead maintaining an imposing position towering over the men. “Unhand her ladyship at once.”
Katherine almost burst out laughing as Anne spoke. The young woman was putting on the most ridiculous deep voice. In the end Katherine had to put a hand over her mouth to cover up any signs of mirth.
Anne hopped down from her horse and drew her sword. “I said let her go,” she repeated in the comical voice.
Katherine continued to snigger into her fingers. Fortunately the peasants didn’t see through the put-on tone or notice Katherine’s reaction to it and did as instructed.
“Sorry, sir,” said one, practically grovelling, “We thought she was spinning a line about being a noble, she don’t exactly look like one.”
“Her ladyship is travelling incommunicado,” outlined Anne gruffly as she put her sword away.
Katherine doubted the man knew what the word meant, as much evidenced by his blank look. “Right…,” he nodded stupidly.
“No harm done, gentlemen,” said Katherine, stepping in before she had an unfortunate accident from having to hold her giggles in. “Apart from to your wheat,” she added. “But the rest of my men are nearly here, then I will send one to compensate you as I said.”
They seemed appeased by her offer at last, trusting her to follow through now they knew she was a genuine noble. They moved away, back to tending their crop. Once they were safely out of earshot, Katherine finally succumbed, collapsing into a fit of laughter. She had to lean against Delta’s side as the laughs rocked her.
“‘Unhand her ladyship at once’” she repeated between guffaws in an even more over the top voice than Anne had originally employed.
Anne’s blue eyes peered at her from the slit in the helmet. “It worked didn’t it?”
“Mmm,” managed Katherine, trying hard to compose herself, “Though maybe in the future we should pass you off as the mute knight.” Anne didn’t answer straight away and Katherine tried to discern her obscured expression. “Are you practising now?”
If Katherine could have seen, she guessed she would have seen Anne rolling her eyes at that point.
Eight days after they had first left
“What is it?” she asked scanning the view.
Katherine didn’t know what to say in response to the obvious statement of fact. She looked again at the Channel before them, not seeing anything out of the ordinary that might have caught Anne’s attention. It was another fine day, the sun glinting up off the water that stretched out to the horizon.
“It’s beautiful,” said the young woman.
Katherine looked curiously at Anne. She wasn’t one given to such wistful utterances. Yet there she was gazing out over the sea with what could only be described as a look of pure wonder. Finally Anne tore her eyes away from the water. “I’ve never seen the sea before,” she stated simply.
Katherine’s mouth dropped open for the barest of moments
before she caught it. “Never?…but…,”
Katherine couldn’t quite comprehend that someone could get to the age of twenty
seven, and never have reached the shoreline of
“I was born in Nottinghamshire, I grew up in Nottinghamshire,”
reasoned Anne, “Before I met you, the furthest I’d been from Nottinghamshire
Katherine was stunned, though now she thought about it she
supposed it had been somewhat presumptuous of her to think Anne would be as
well travelled as she was. Commoners
didn’t often have the means or need to journey far. “You never said anything before,” she
remarked, “So when we went to
“That was the furthest from home I had ever been, yes.”
“Then I’m even gladder you’ve come this far with me now.”
A smile edged Anne’s lips. “As I’ve said many a time, there is nowhere I wouldn’t go for you.”
Apparently Tobias had contacts in the town and was to be
responsible for garnering them passage across the sea to
The party didn’t receive a second glance as they entered the
bar, despite the fact that both Katherine and Anne were wearing trousers. The people of the town were obviously used to
seeing their fair share of travellers from all over the country and even
further afield. Thomas was in plain
clothes too, Katherine not really wanting to advertise the
Given their distance from home it was safe for Anne to be seen in public without any form of concealment. Even with her degree of local notoriety back in Nottinghamshire, she seriously doubted tales of her had stretched this far south. Possibly the more well-informed would have heard of Robin. For once she was able to mingle openly with the crowd. Meanwhile, Katherine was quickly arranging rooms with the barkeep, stalling any questions with added coins pressed into his hand.
Anne found a seat next to a surprisingly alone Beatrice. “Where’s Thomas gone?” Anne enquired glancing round the crowded room for the fair-haired young man who seemed to have vanished.
Beatrice gave a shrug. “Goodness knows! He’s done one of his disappearing acts on me again.” Beatrice took a swig from a drink that Anne could only assume the previous occupant of the table had left behind.
“Maybe he had a call of nature?” offered Anne helpfully.
“Yeah, I’ll just bet he did.” Beatrice swallowed a final draft from the mug before calling out to the barkeep for another.
Anne frowned, unhappy with the young knight. Not only had he deserted Beatrice in a strange town, but also he was supposed to be guarding Katherine with Tobias busy elsewhere. It was a good job Katherine had other sources of defence.
“Look, you don’t need to keep me company,” Beatrice said, practically pushing Anne out of her seat, “Go on, at least one of us has someone to be with.”
Anne glanced over her shoulder, seeing that Katherine had finished her transaction with the innkeeper and had now drifted over to a group gathered round a gaming table.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” she pressed Beatrice.
“Yeah! I’m fine!” Beatrice waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve got my mug of ale, I don’t need anything else.”
Anne could tell that was plainly untrue, despite Beatrice’s bravado and assertions otherwise. She resolved to give Thomas a piece of her mind when she saw him next. In the mean time Beatrice gave Anne another friendly shove. “Go on! I’m going to bed in a minute anyway.”
Anne reluctantly got up. “All right, but you know where we are if you want anything.”
“Yes, yes.” Beatrice wasn’t really listening now her second drink had arrived. “Anyway you better get over there,” she said gesturing wildly in Katherine’s direction, “Before she starts offending the locals.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
Katherine tried to put on her best affronted look as she turned to Anne. “What? I was only watching.”
The expression had little effect on Anne, who merely looked sceptical in return. “Hmm, watching as a prelude to joining in,” she said, “At which point you won’t be able to resist giving everyone else a thorough trouncing. After that they’ll be a few possible outcomes - they’ll be too drunk to care, too embarrassed at being beaten by a woman to make an issue of it or they’ll try and kick your head in. The likelihood of the latter increasing if there are any Scots round the table.”
Anne could see Katherine obviously recalling the last Scotsman she had beaten at dice. No doubt she didn’t really fancy being hurled halfway across an inn again or having to jump into a pile of rotting vegetables to escape. “Point taken,” she conceded. “Perhaps we should just have an early night?”
Anne didn’t need to be asked twice. However, just as they reached the stairs, Anne caught sight of someone and tugged at Katherine’s sleeve to make her stop. “Hang on, I think we might be about to see something interesting…” Katherine followed her gaze to see Thomas hurrying through the crowd to reach an exceedingly irate looking Beatrice.
Before he could even speak the dark-haired woman stood up and proceeded to dump the contents of her mug over his head. Dripping in ale, Thomas held his hands out in supplication. Unfortunately Anne and Katherine couldn’t hear his words over the general hubbub, but the apologetic look on his face was obvious. Amazingly Beatrice appeared to be listening, rather than storming off or inflicting further damage on the young knight. Anne thought he must be saying something really good. Then he was on his knee in front of Beatrice who suddenly looked very abashed. Anne and Katherine exchanged a surprised glance, both of them obviously leaping to the same conclusion.
As they looked back to the other couple, their view was blocked momentarily by one of the inn’s clientele. “Get out of the way!” hissed Katherine. Anne chuckled to herself at Katherine’s eagerness to see the outcome. The man in the way peered stupidly at Katherine with drunken eyes. “Move!” she repeated more vehemently. He gave a grunt and shuffled away to the bar. With him out of the way, they could see Thomas now had his hand on Beatrice’s. Even without being able to hear, the forming of the word “yes” on her lips was obvious.
Thomas leapt excitedly to his feet and wrapped his arms around Beatrice, lifting her right up off the floor. Anne smiled to herself while out of the corner of her eye she could see Katherine dabbing at her face. “Not crying are we?”
Katherine gave a small cough, composing herself. “No, I’m just pleased to see two young people happy.”
Anne wasn’t letting her off that easily. “If you’re like this now, what are you going to be like at the actual wedding?”
“I shall be blubbing like an idiot no doubt,” Katherine readily admitted. “And what about you?”
“You better be digging out your best dress,” Katherine noted smugly, “Beatrice will need bridesmaids after all…”
“Oh…no…” Anne shook her head, turned and started walking up the stairs.
Katherine continued needling her as she followed on. “I’m sure you’d look lovely in pink…”
“Or maybe a pretty lilac…with bows…”
The next day it transpired out that Tobias had found them
passage on a trading vessel. There were
a good number of merchants and travellers packed onto the vessel, but
fortunately the weather was fine so most of them had taken advantage of the
space on the expansive deck to make the voyage.
However, Tobias maintained he would rather avoid the crowds and
Katherine reluctantly conceded the point.
So rather than watching the boat casting off from the docks at
Her group had found a quiet corner to hole up in where they would hopefully be undisturbed. Verifying there were no onlookers, Katherine checked through her belongings once more. She noted the Ares items were still safely stashed away. As she was closing up the chest, she sensed someone coming to stand before her. She glanced up to see a smiling face.
“Hello, Nicholas.” Katherine smiled in return. “What can I do for you?”
“I thought it might be more what I could do for you.”
He produced a steaming mug from behind his back, and Katherine could immediately detect the familiar aroma of his cough-ee concoction. She grinned. “You read my mind.”
Nicholas beamed. Ever since he’d discovered Katherine actually liked the liquid that everyone else despised he’d been keen to bring her some at every opportunity.
Katherine took another drink from the warm cup, having to resist the temptation to smack her lips in pleasure as it passed them. “Have you seen Anne?” she asked Nicholas conversationally.
“Last I saw she was up top, looking a bit green,” he informed her, “She’s certainly no sailor!”
Katherine laughed. “Looks like I might have found her weakness at last.”
Deciding she best check on the sickly young woman, Katherine left the chest under Tobias’ watchful eye and made her way above decks. As she came out into the sunlight she immediately spotted Anne slumped against the side of the boat. Katherine noted that Nicholas was right, she did look rather off-colour, though more white than the green he claimed. There was a slight roll of the boat and all of a sudden Anne was leaning over the side and heaving into the sea. She had managed to straighten up again by the time Katherine reached her, though Anne had to quickly wipe the last remnants of her stomach contents from the corner of her mouth.
Katherine didn’t really need to ask, but felt obliged to anyway. “How are you feeling?”
Anne showed what she thought of the stupid question by the grim look on her face. “Just wonderful,” she said sardonically, “I told you this was unnatural.”
Katherine took a sip of her drink. Anne gulped down something herself before peering at Katherine’s cup. “What is that?”
“It’s Nicholas’ cough-ee, would you like some?” Katherine offered it to her. “You never know, it might settle your stomach.”
Anne took one sniff and then suddenly she was bent over the side again and making a hideous retching noise. Katherine winced at the sound.
“Or maybe not,” she added quietly, rubbing the young woman’s back in sympathy.
Anne mournfully raised her head, looking off into the distance. “You’re sure there’s another country out there somewhere?”
Katherine laughed. “Yes, about twenty miles away is all. On a clear day you could see it.”
She could see Anne straining to make it out, but it was hazy and all that stretched out beyond the prow of the boat was water and more water.
Katherine couldn’t help smiling to herself as she ducked back below decks. She knew she shouldn’t laugh at someone else’s misfortune, especially not when it was Anne’s, but she couldn’t help but find it perversely funny that the indomitable young woman had been conquered by nothing more than a slight swell on the sea. She had to wonder how Anne would have coped had the weather been bad.
Katherine was still pre-occupied with thoughts of the poorly young woman as she squeezed her way down the narrow timber passages. She didn’t register the galley hand heading towards her until he bumped directly into her.
“Sorry,” said Katherine as she bounced back from him.
The man didn’t say anything in response, instead staring back at her in silence. Katherine couldn’t quite read his odd expression.
“Can I help you with something?”
Still he didn’t answer. Katherine shook her head, not having the time to fathom his behaviour.
“In that case if I could just get past…”
As Katherine went to sidle past him, she caught sight of something on the inside of his forearm. It was a tattoo. Her eyes flicked up to see him staring back at her. It was obvious he had noticed her recognition of the five pointed pattern. They both moved at once. Katherine pulled out her dagger as he produced one from behind his back.
He made a swift slashing motion at her which she only barely dodged in the enclosed space. Her back to the wall, she had to roll out the way of the next lunge. That gave her an opening though. As the man tried to re-balance she swiped down across his arm. The blood sprayed out over the timbers from the gash. The man clutched at it for a second before suddenly turning on his heel and dashing in the opposite direction.
As another bout of nausea swept over her, Anne wondered whether there could possibly be anything left in her stomach. Surely it was all out and floating in the Channel by now? She could feel the cramps coming again in her stomach and she lunged for the side, retching a couple of times over it. Yet there was nothing forthcoming from her battered stomach and dry throat. Eventually she flopped back down onto the deck, knees drawn up to her chest and head resting on them. A small moan issued from her lips. She could only will the torture to be over soon. As far as she was concerned, humans were land dwelling creatures and that’s where they should stay.
From down below she could hear the sound of running feet. Anne almost didn’t have the energy to lift her head and look as they got closer, but somehow she forced her eyes up. One of the galley hands burst out onto deck, looking frantically around. The sight of a dagger in his hand made Anne suddenly much more aware. Reaching for the side, she managed to drag herself to her feet just as Katherine came charging out in the man’s wake. Anne’s stomach was still flipping but she swallowed down hard and stood up straight, recognising that the man was obviously up to no good and that Katherine might need help. Whether she was capable of giving it was another matter, but she could at least look the part.
The man cast his eyes nervously between them, realising he was cornered.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Katherine informed him, holding up her own dagger threateningly.
He glanced furtively between them a couple more times before suddenly making a run for the side.
Katherine’s cry came too late. The man jumped up and over the railing, a
loud splash audible from the sea as he landed in it. Both women peered over, seeing him swimming
away, back in the direction of
“It’s not worth it,” said the older woman, “We’re miles from land and you’re not exactly in great shape.”
Anne reluctantly backed down, knowing the other woman was right. All she was likely to do in going after him was drown herself. “He was from the Syndicate?” she deduced.
“Yes, it seems they’ve caught up with us at last.”
Anne slid the sharpening stone slowly along the blade of her
sword, the action and noise reassuringly familiar in the strange place. Looking up from her position sat on the
ground, she could see that both Tobias and Thomas were doing the same
thing. Obviously she wasn’t the only one
feeling out of place in the foreign land.
At first appearances
Anne had never thought herself to be particularly attached
to any one place, but being so far away from home, she found herself longing
for it more and more. She didn’t think
she was the only one suffering from home-sickness either. Like Anne, most of the others previous
experience of foreign places would have been a visit to another county, not
another country. A sombre mood sat over
the camp, not even the usually jolly Nicholas able to rouse its quiet
occupants. They were all too acutely
aware of how serious their task was now they were actually in
Having arrived in
So rather than their chain mail and tabards, the knights now wore similar commoners clothes to the others. They still carried their weapon, but that wouldn’t cause a stir as most travellers carried protection with them. Likewise, Katherine also wore a plain, unadorned dress that didn’t proclaim her wealth. Anne herself had reverted to trousers, wanting to be able to take quick action if it was necessary. That was another reason she was sharpening her sword.
Looking for a way to connect with the unknown land, Anne tried to lose herself in the sharpening action, forget all conscious thought and let her mind drift. She was hoping to hear the familiar chatter of the natural world around her. At least that was the same wherever you went. The voices were reluctant to come forth though, and it was a human one that broke her out of her meditative state.
“Any sharper and you might cut the stone itself.”
Anne opened her eyes and glanced up. Katherine was standing over her, blue-grey eyes sharp in the twilight. She didn’t wait for an invite to sit, lowering herself down next to Anne, and then shuffling even closer on the rug so that their shoulders brushed one another. Anne could feel the warmth of the touch through her thin shirt.
“I think we all want to be prepared after the incident on the boat,” she said.
Katherine surveyed the camp, catching sight of the two
knights preparing their own weapons while Nicholas and Henry attached
arrowheads to shafts of yew. “The
seriousness of this trip really seems to have hit home now we’re in
Anne put down her sword for a moment, and reached into her bags for something else. “Given what happened I’d like you to have this,” she said, handing a small dagger in a sheath to Katherine.
“Another weapon, you shouldn’t have!”
Anne merely looked disapprovingly at Katherine for the glib remark. “That dagger Tobias gave you is far too large to conceal effectively. You can keep this one in your boot. You’ll even forget it’s there.”
“Until I stab myself in the leg, that is.”
Anne sighed. “I promise you won’t stab yourself.” She softened her look, closing her hand over Katherine’s that held the slender weapon. “Please, it would make me feel better.”
Anne was satisfied to see the direct appeal had the desired effect as Katherine gave a resigned shrug. “All right, I’ll take it and hide it in my boot.” She pulled up her skirt a fraction. “Though goodness knows where I’m meant to put it when I’m wearing more ladylike footwear,” she continued, “Perhaps I can slip it down my cleavage or something.” When Anne didn’t reply to the inviting comment Katherine glanced up from her boot. “Anne? Are you listening?”
Anne wasn’t listening. At least not to Katherine. Instead she was overwhelmed by the voices surging up from the back of her mind. The chatter was almost deafening in its suddenness and she tried to tone it down, work out why the forest was trying to speak to her when it had been so reticent before.
This time it wasn’t Katherine speaking her name, it was the forest itself. Taming the voices further, Anne realised that wasn’t correct, it was actually a single voice.
The French accented, feminine voice was speaking straight
into her mind. Even though Anne had
never been to
“You must ask for me.”
Katherine’s voice broke through the spell, making the young woman jump. Anne found a concerned hand had found its way onto her shoulder as well.
“It’s all right,” managed Anne, somewhat shaken by the odd
communication. “It was just the forest
Katherine didn’t look convinced and Anne wasn’t sure why she hadn’t mentioned the woman’s voice calling her name. It was the first time her link with nature had been in the form of a definite single voice. Before it had always been more instinctual senses and feelings rather than specific words. Uncertain as to the meaning of it, Anne pushed it to the back of her mind, resolved to concentrate on the task ahead instead.
“Anne? What do you see?”
It was as if she didn’t hear Katherine, and the older woman noted the vacant stare on Anne’s face, similar to the expression she’d had back in the forest. It was as if she was somewhere else entirely. Katherine stepped round in front of the young woman who suddenly started, focussing in on the shorter form before her.
“Is everything all right?” asked Katherine. “You looked like you’d drifted off again.”
Anne stepped silently past Katherine, picking up one of the items off the stall. To Katherine it looked like a plane wooden carving, but Anne appeared fascinated by it, turning it over and over in her hands.
“What is it?” asked Katherine.
“Nothing…something…” said Anne distractedly before seeming to gather her wits and more characteristic assurance. “My parents had one of these,” she told Katherine, “It’s a depiction of Diancecht, the god of healing.”
“And was it…,” Katherine glanced about and leant in closer before speaking, though it was unlikely any of the peasants understood English, “…Speaking to you in some way?” she finished in a whisper.
“Not exactly,” replied Anne, “I think it might have been my memory playing tricks on me.”
Katherine took the small object from Anne’s hands for a moment, holding it up in the direction of the stallholder. “How much?” she asked, switching into French.
“Ah, a wise choice,” said the man, “That is an ancient
artefact, discovered on the plains of the
Katherine held up a hand, silencing him. “Forget the patter, how much do you want for it?”
The man looked disgruntled, muttering something disparaging about the English to himself. “It’s two sols.”
Katherine suspected her reluctance to engage in the customary exchange had led to the over-inflated price. “I’ll give you ten deniers.”
The man perked up now she had entered into the spirit of bartering. “Sixteen deniers,” he tried as a counter-offer.
“Fourteen, take it or leave it.”
He contemplated it for a good few seconds, before letting out a resigned sigh. “You drive a hard bargain, fourteen it is.”
Katherine thought she was still paying well over the odds, but wasn’t in the mood for a long debate about it. The merchant wrapped the statuette in a piece of cloth and handed it to her, stopping her from leaving with a quick hand on her sleeve.
“Here, as a valued customer, you get this free plant.” From somewhere he had produced a sprawling mass of greenery.
Katherine gave it a cursory glance. “It’s all right, I really don’t want it.”
The merchant was not to be deterred. “No, no, it is yours.” He thrust it towards her.
Katherine tried to back away. “No, really.” She bumped into someone in the crowded market place, giving the trader the chance to catch up to her. He shoved the plant into her reluctant hands.
Katherine immediately tried to return it, only to find the sinuous branches and leaves had somehow become entwined in her hair as if it had a mind of its own. Struggling to disentangle herself she looked plaintively to Anne. “Help, it’s got me by the hair!”
Anne was too busy sniggering into her hand to offer much assistance. “I think it likes you,” she managed.
Katherine proffered her with a withering look in return and continued trying to wrench the tactile plant off her. Finally she managed to yank it off, placing it back on the merchants stall and taking a good few paces back, out of its reach should it try to make another play for her.
Katherine felt a softer touch on her hair, turning to see Anne picking a leaf out of it. “You missed one,” said the young woman before reaching out again, “Make that two.”
As she went to withdraw her hand a second time she allowed her fingers to surreptitiously brush Katherine’s cheek. It was the barest of touches, yet Katherine couldn’t help closing her eyes and losing herself in it even for the briefest of moments. A loud bray from a nearby donkey brought her resoundingly back to reality. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Anne smiling faintly to herself.
“Come on, let’s go and find
Anne was glad to get out of the throng too, having no real liking for large crowds. She much preferred the freedom of the open road or forest. As they passed through the main gate to the citadel, the air became refreshingly cooler, the high walls that surrounded the courtyard blocking off much of the sun that had poked its way through the clouds at last. Katherine quickly talked her way past the guards who deemed it appropriate to let the weary travellers through. If they had been in any doubt they should, then the deathly glare from Katherine when one of them tried to object quickly quashed such thoughts.
Once inside one of the servants was swiftly dispatched and
not long after
Any initial surprise he might have had at finding them there
was quickly overtaken by pleasure at seeing Katherine. He ushered them all into the great hall,
exchanging greetings and pleasantries with Katherine as he did. They slipped between French and English as
A couple of times Anne caught him glancing at her, a slightly puzzled look on his face as if he had some vague recollection of her. Anne made sure to avert her eyes, rather than meet his gaze as she might normally have done. Her eyes were probably the only thing he would have seen of her when she’d had him at the end of her sword last time they’d met.
Katherine gave no immediate reason for her visit, but
Once the food arrived there was some more small talk before Katherine eventually broached the subject of the real reason behind their visit.
“I need you help with something…personal.”
Katherine glanced nervously around the room. “I’d rather not speak when there are so many to overhear,” she said, indicating the servants with her eyes. It was unlikely any of them spoke English, but Anne knew Katherine wisely wouldn’t want to take the chance.
“Your servants are staying?”
Katherine nodded. “I trust them all.”
Katherine sat opposite him at the table, hands resting on top of the oak table. From her vantage point standing just over Katherine’s right shoulder, Anne could see the other woman’s fingers nervously running across the wood as she sought where to start.
“My father left me a task,” Katherine said eventually, “A riddle to solve that has led us here.” She paused, the room waiting in silence. “However, the rest of the riddle means nothing to us and we were hoping either you might be able to help us or give us a clue of where to look for more information.”
“It sounds intriguing,” said
“Something like that.”
“And what is the treasure?”
Katherine didn’t answer immediately. Anne wondered how much she was going to disclose, how much she really trusted him. “It’s not really treasure,” said Katherine, “Just something I need to find.”
Obviously not completely, thought Anne to herself.
Katherine flicked a look back at Anne. They hadn’t written down the words in case it should fall into the wrong hands, so instead Anne recited it for him:
Use these five items and the key
To open the Ares sanctuary
In the North of
Under the touch of Veliocasses hand
Walk the watery path that turns to the sun
For a length close to that which has been won
Past the watcher of
Through the of the dipping of the gate
At this place then find the key
And from it allow red to run free
“We have the five items mentioned at the beginning and obviously we’re in the north of ‘gaullish land’, we just don’t know where to start with the next reference – ‘under the touch of veliocasses hand’.”
“But you know something?” asked Katherine hopefully.
Katherine could barely contain her excitement. She was leaning across the table, hands now gripped together. “So the watery path…?”
“Would be the
“And what about the ‘length close to that which has been won’?” asked Katherine.
“If we’re still talking about the Veliocasses, then my guess would be that this refers to their infamous battle with the Roman’s over their land. It was a famous victory for the Veliocasses, driving the Roman’s back ten miles before they finally conceded.”
“So we have to walk along the banks of the
“Now you have me,” admitted
Anne was the one who interjected. “
Katherine merely offered a half-smile and a shrug in
“And is this hill about ten miles south, near the river?” asked Katherine.
“Yes, it is,” he confirmed.
Anne leant down. “That just leaves the ‘dipping of the gate’,” she said to Katherine.
As Katherine and Pierre poured over them, Anne couldn’t
quite believe their luck. It was almost
too good to be true.
Completing her circuit of the room, Anne found her attention drawn to the drapes at the far end. They were a thick material, dark red in colour with an elaborate pattern embroidered around the hem. They hung the full length of the wall to cover the huge window. Yet something was not right about them. She watched intently and then she saw it, a brief flicker of movement. Without thinking she drew out her hidden dagger and flung it at the curtains. The sharp blade pierced the material and thumped into something solid behind it. Stumbling from his concealment came a man, one that Anne had unfortunately missed.
He stared across the room at the assembled group all of whom were now looking that way in stunned silence after Anne’s sudden actions. The whole room seemed to be frozen for a second as if no one could quite comprehend what was happening. The man broke the spell by dashing for the door.
Anne was the first to react to
Back in the room, Katherine and Pierre were left alone, quickly tidying up the maps they had been studying.
“Is there a
“Yes, the North tower, but why?”
“I presume our eavesdropping friend will want to get out of the castle as soon as possible, we might be able to spot him from there and stop him if no-one else has.”
The weapon didn’t look like it was for much more than show. There was a clear mark on the wall from where
it had been, and Katherine wondered when he had last fired it. She quickly followed
“Your maid certainly has a way with a dagger,” said
“It’s not,” answered Katherine, “Anne’s just…unique.”
“I would say she is - she knows about history, can recite a passage of prose from memory and is able to arrow a dagger across a room with more accuracy than most knights. Not to mention she’s incredibly beautiful. I don’t suppose she’d consider a change of employer?”
Katherine knew he was only joking. “Find your own maid,
“I think it’s unlikely I’ll find one with such talents, you’re very lucky.”
Katherine really didn’t need to be told. “Yes, I am.”
Both of them were
Her eyes darted to where
Suddenly on the open ground beyond the walls a figure came into view running away from the castle.
“Sacre Bleu! It can’t be!” cried
Katherine had no idea either, but wasn’t about to stand around watching while he disappeared in the direction of his Syndicate friends and told them everything. “Here, give me that.”
“What are you going to do, shoot him?” he asked incredulously. “He’s too far away!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Katherine with more bravado than she actually felt.
The man was certainly at the limits of the range of the bow. Hindering her further was a strong, gusting wind. She sighted the man down the arrow, his form dipping in and out of view through the trees. It would have to be one hell of a shot.
She tensed the string, and watched for a few more seconds before loosing it. The arrow sailed straight and true. They were too far away to hear any sound, but the man suddenly stumbled and fell, the arrow lodged in the back of his thigh. Katherine was glad to see she had caught him, even gladder that it appeared she hadn’t killed him. Her aim at that distance wasn’t so good that she could have ensured a non-lethal outcome.
The man’s leg was still pumping large quantities of blood by
“Who are you?” demanded
The man sneered as he slumped in the chair, barely able to keep his eyes open. “She knows.”
“He is with a group who also want the item we are seeking,
the Ares Syndicate they call themselves.”
“I have heard stories, yes,” he acknowledged. “The stories are not pleasant.” He looked down at their captive disdainfully. “This man will not tell us anything.”
“What if I did?”
Katherine barely heard the wheezing comment from the man. “I beg your pardon.”
He coughed a couple of times, steeling himself. “What if I told you something? Would you get help for me, would you let me go?”
Katherine glanced at the garish wound in his leg. “We would get you help either way, not all of us share your morals.”
“But would you let me go, if I told you something important.”
Katherine eyed him doubtfully. In all of her experience, members of the Syndicate were not the sort to betray their brotherhood. “That depends on what it was,” she said, unwilling to commit herself one way or the other. She could see Anne next to her looking perplexed by the exchange, since the whole thing was being conducted in French.
The man coughed again before indicating Katherine come closer so he could speak. His eyes were starting to droop, so she leant in, not wanting to lose the opportunity. For a moment she thought he had lost his battle to remain awake and she reached out to poke his shoulder. Suddenly his eyes flicked back open and he leapt from the chair at her. She was on her back on the floor before she could react, the man’s hands on her throat. Yet before he could even begin to squeeze he was wrenched off her. Katherine sat up to see Anne pinning him to the floor, deliberately digging her knee into his damaged leg. He cried out in pain, gasping as he craned his head towards Katherine.
He was actually laughing. “Do what you want to me, the Syndicate will kill you all!”
“Tell me again how you got Tobias to agree to this?”
Katherine stopped poking the fire and glanced up to Anne who was sitting opposite her on the woodland ground. “I used a logical argument.”
Anne raised a single doubtful eyebrow. “And when that didn’t work?”
“I ordered him to go with Beatrice,” admitted Katherine. Fortunately she knew Tobias would never disregard a direct order, no matter his personal opinion. Watching Anne playing absently with the embers with her booted foot, she could tell that Anne also had some opinions on the matter that she was reluctant to voice.
“You’re not sure of this either are you?” Katherine deduced.
Anne sighed, stilling her toying boot. “I never thought I’d be agreeing with Tobias, but it does seem a little dangerous.”
Katherine tried to turn the discussion around. “Are you saying I’m not safe with you?”
“Of course not!” Anne looked aghast, before realising she had fallen into the trap. “I’d just prefer if we had a few of the others with us too.”
“Which is exactly what the Syndicate are looking out for,”
said Katherine, re-iterating the argument she had used on Tobias. “Hopefully they’ll have fallen for the bait
of Beatrice disguised as me since she’s accompanied by the rest of our party. If
“Even less conspicuous would have been a man and a woman travelling together.” Anne paused before voicing the question Katherine knew was coming. “Did you consider bringing Tobias instead of me?”
Katherine let out a rueful chuckle. “That would have been the sensible choice wouldn’t it?”
Anne didn’t answer the rhetorical question. Instead she simply held Katherine’s gaze over the flickering fire.
Katherine sighed, knowing there was no point denying what had led to her decision. “Truth is, I want you here with me, simple as that. It might not be the most logical thinking, but in this case I don’t care.” She moved round the fire so she was next to Anne. “I’m sure you’ll guard me just as well as Tobias would.”
Anne took Katherine’s hand, placing it between her own. “With my life.”
By the time Katherine stirred the next morning, Anne had already been awake for what seemed like hours. She hadn’t been able to sleep much, too aware of their perilous situation. So instead she’d merely lain there, watching Katherine resting against her, chest rising and falling rhythmically. At least one of them seemed to be able to sleep soundly. A small snuffling sound from the other woman had signalled her waking. Katherine slowly peeled herself up off of Anne’s chest to look blearily up at the younger woman. Her hair was dishevelled, clumps of auburn sticking out at odd angles.
“Good morning,” said Anne. She shuffled up into a sitting position as the other woman continued to gather herslf.
Katherine rubbed at her eyes and yawned. “I don’t suppose you brought any of Nicholas’ cough-ee with you, did you?”
Anne made a face. “No I did not. You can’t seriously tell me you’d want to drink that first thing in the morning?”
“I’d give it a go.”
Katherine ran her hands through her hair, trying to smooth it down. “I wonder if I have any left in my pack.” An involuntary shiver came over her as she
went to move and she had to
Anne supposed there was an early morning chill in the dawn air. No doubt later it would be sweltering again but for now she could feel the goosebumps rising on her own exposed arms. She looked to the dead and blackened fire. “We need some wood, will you be all right for a few minutes?”
Katherine rolled her eyes before letting out another
yawn. “Anne, we haven’t seen so much as
a flicker of the Syndicate since we left
Anne didn’t think it entirely appropriate to be so blasé, but didn’t say anything. As she rose she made sure to fasten her belt and sword back round her waist. She had slept in the rest of her clothes, being back in her more customary black now they were away from civilisation.
“I’ll get the wood and some water,” she said, pulling her boots on, “But I don’t think we should tarry long. If we leave soon we should be able to make it to Vesuvius Seat by this afternoon.”
Katherine nodded. “Hopefully I’ll be awake by the time you get back.” She let out another expansive yawn. “It’s all your fault you know, what with last night…”
Anne couldn’t help smiling. “I believe it was you who initiated that.”
“And you were so resistant!” cried Katherine indignantly.
“You were the one that told me ‘resistance is futile’”
Katherine threw a boot in Anne’s direction which she easily dodged. “Just go and get the wood!”
Anne was still smiling to herself as she made her way
through the forest back down towards the river.
They had made camp away from the banks in case they were spotted by any
passing boats. The
The sound of a scream ringing out round the forest brought Anne resoundingly back to reality.
Anne was off and running without conscious thought, beating a frantic path back through the trunks. Her mind was already racing with a hundred and one terrible thoughts. When she burst back into the clearing it was in time to see Katherine being hauled kicking and screaming away by a group of men. They looked like soldiers, all of them armed and wearing various forms of chain mail or thick leather. There must have been at least two dozen, a good few of those having to try and contain the struggling Katherine.
It was Katherine who was first to see Anne on the edge of the clearing, crying out to her as rough hands pulled at her arms and clothes. The men turned to Anne as well at the shout. They were all unfamiliar to Anne apart from one - the dark face of Charles Kirby instantly recognisable to her amongst the group.
Anne drew her sword and let out an enraged cry before charging at the soldiers. A few of them immediately swung to face her, while the rest continued on their path away from the camp, dragging Katherine with them. Anne cannoned into the remaining men, knowing she didn’t have time to waste. She hacked and sliced at them in a whirl of flashing swordplay, and the men quickly fell to her expert blows.
Once they were all dispatched Anne paused briefly to listen. She could hear the sound of a struggle through the trees, Katherine no doubt continuing to put up a stiff battle against her would be kidnappers. Anne dashed off after the noises, speeding nimbly over the ground that was taking a downward turn. She could almost taste her anxiety and she swallowed it down, focussing instead on the powerful urge to catch up with them before anything happened to Katherine.
Suddenly the whistling noise of a crossbow bolt filled the air and Anne barely dodged in time as it lodged in a tree behind her. Before her assailant could reload she reached down to her boot and sent her dagger arcing at him through the trunks. He let out a brief cry as it lodged in his stomach before he tumbled back onto the dead leaves.
Anne only paused to whip her dagger from the body of the downed man before she was off and running again. More soldiers reared up to combat her progress as she charged down the slope, each one cut down remorselessly with blows from her sword. She had no time for niceties, not when Katherine was getting further away.
Anne had beaten over half of the original group by the time she came barrelling out of the woods at the foot of the slope, almost running straight into the waiting river. She pulled up sharply, her boots skidding in the mud of the shoreline. The river stretched out widely before her, the water speeding past. The sight of a boat at a jetty a few hundred yards away from her position met Anne’s quickly scanning eyes. She could see they were trying to cast off. She could also see the familiar red head amongst those on board.
With added urgency she started sprinting for the jetty, sword still raised high to slice away the few men that had remained on the bank to stall her. She barely stopped running for a second as she dispatched each one with ruthless efficiency, the water at the edge of the river starting to run red with the remnants of battle. She held no regret for her actions, thinking they deserved all they got for daring to try and take Katherine from her. As she splashed on through the shallows, Anne could see that those on the boat had now thrown off the final rope and it was moving, sliding away from its moorings.
Anne’s boots clattered onto the boards of the small jetty as she watched the boat get agonisingly further and further away, slipping beyond her reach. A final man was shoved unceremoniously into the water before Anne got to the end, leaping into the air after the departing craft.
For a second she didn’t think she was going to make it. The water was getting awfully close below her…
Then her boots hit the deck of the boat with a thump.
The sound of the first crossbow bolt hitting her flesh quickly followed.
It caught Anne high on her left shoulder. She cried out, stumbling backwards as the pain flared instantly. From the far side of the small boat she heard another anguished cry in unison with her own.
Anne clenched her eyes shut for a moment at the pain. She had been shot before, but perhaps not at such close range. Feeling for the wound she found that the bolt was buried deep within her flesh, only about a half of it still protruding. She winced as her fingers touched it. Steeling herself she grabbed hold of the end and yanked the bolt out in one swift motion. She had to grit her teeth hard against the scream that wanted release.
Pushing the throbbing pain to the back of her mind, Anne gripped her sword tightly and opened her eyes. The remaining six men were arrayed opposite her. Three of them were suddenly levelling their crossbows again as they realised the first shot hadn’t stopped her. Two of them were holding back a frantic Katherine. The final man was Charles Kirby, looking at her with his normal sneering expression. He was challenging her to attack. Anne dipped her head and started charging.
The second and third bolts still failed to halt Anne as they thumped into her body but when the fourth one speared into her right thigh, her leg gave out and she was pitched forwards onto the boards of the deck. Her knuckles banged hard against the wood as she kept a tight hold of her sword, determined not to lose it. She was on her knees, able to see blood all over the deck.
There was so much of it, staining the brown boards…
It took a moment for her mind to register that it was actually her blood. She stared at it dumbly, and then down at her body as if seeing the damage for the first time. Each of the three crossbow bolts remained embedded at various points on her torso and leg, each one disgorging varying quantities of blood.
Then all of a sudden she could feel all the wounds. Each one was a dagger of fiery agony. Her breath was lost to her anguished cry.
Trying to look up, a further crossbow bolt cannoned into her chest, rocking her already peppered body. She didn’t even have the voice to cry out anymore. All that issued from her lips was a gasping gurgle as the blood welled up in her throat and splattered forth down the front of her shirt. While she was all but silent, Katherine’s screams rang out across the water for both of them.
Anne bowed her head. She could hear Charles Kirby’s laughter, mocking and hollow over the top of Katherine’s ongoing cries for them to stop, to spare Anne and let her live. It took nearly all Anne’s willpower to simply raise her head again, the dizziness washing over her straight away and causing her arms to wobble. She swallowed back the bile that threatened, forcing her eyes up the rest of the way.
She had to see, she had to see Katherine. It might be the last time.
The blue eyes were upon her, as Anne knew they would be, so close but so achingly far. Katherine pulled at the men restraining her but it was no good, they were too strong. Anne held her gaze in a look of silent apology, sorry that she had failed Katherine. Anne was so tired now, her eyes just wanting to slide shut, her head just wanting to rest down on the floor.
It would be easy, just a little rest to gather herself.
Her head started to droop.
Yet there was someone calling to her, or at least she could hear her name being screamed in anguished tones. It sounded far off, like she was already at the bottom of the river and they were far above.
Anne forced her eyes open.
She focussed in on Katherine again, seeing her tear stained eyes begging her not to let go.
This can’t be it! Anne determinedly told herself. She absolutely refused to die there at Kirby’s feet. She resolved she would fight on until the last breath in her body. For Katherine. For Katherine she would give everything.
Anne’s left hand slid shakily across the wooden deck, finding the central mast close by. Her fingers gripped onto it, seeking purchase on the ropes that encircled it. The knotted hessian was harsh against her palm as she clung on and attempted to haul herself up. Her body screamed out to her as she lifted herself slowly from the floor, begging her not to do this, beseeching her not to put it through this torment. Yet she ignored the pain, focussing on her goal of simply getting to her feet. She grunted and grimaced with each jolt of pain, seeing the fresh splatters of blood splaying out across the deck plates as she rose.
Yet somehow, finally she was standing. Defiant. Sword raised and pointing at Kirby.
“You really don’t know when to give up do you,” he said, slowly sliding out his own weapon from its sheath.
Anne would have come out with some witty or obstinate retort if she had the energy, but it was taking everything she had to stay up. Not waiting for one either, Kirby swung at her. His sword clashed into her own, the tremors shooting through her weary arms, but still she held resolutely on.
He tried again, and again she parried, but that was about all she could do. She wasn’t sure she could summon the energy to actually attack with her own blade. Her head was swimming, the nausea coming in an almost unending barrage now. Suddenly a fresh hacking cough ripped through her, Anne bracing herself back against the mast and bringing up her hand to her mouth. More garish blood seeped through her fingers as she withdrew them.
Anne barely saw the flash of Kirby’s sword in the sun this time, and it was only when she heard the clatter of a sword on the deck that she realised she had dropped her own weapon. Looking in shock at her right arm she could see it hanging limply by her side, Anne having lost all feeling in it. She staggered heavily against the side of the boat as she clutched feebly at the pumping wound on her bicep.
Kirby was laughing, louder now as he stepped forward, kicking her sword away across the boat. Anne had nowhere to run as he cornered her, nothing left to fight with as she leant against the timbers. Her breathing was ragged and short, her legs shaking with the effort of staying on her feet - she knew this was it, the end.
Anne cast her eyes despairingly at Katherine once more. She was still struggling frantically in her captors grasp, scratching and clawing, but she stopped when she sensed the study.
Her pale blue-grey eyes latched onto Anne’s imploring gaze, the rest of the surroundings seeming to fade into obscurity for a moment with the power of the look. Anne could hear her own laboured breathing, feel her pounding heart that was desperately trying to keep the last of her blood in her body. Other than that all knew was Katherine. From the unremitting pain in her eyes, Anne could tell that Katherine knew as she did that it was too late. Too late for anything other than for Anne to open her blood-stained lips and silently mouth the words ‘I love you’ across the space between them.
Katherine let out a gasping sob, the tears streaming freely down her face now. Her lips trembled as they repeated the words back. She may even have said them out loud, Anne couldn’t tell with the roaring in her ears.
Then there was pain; searing, biting, overwhelming pain. It started somewhere in the pit of her stomach and then arced out through her whole body. Anne was brought harshly back to reality as her head lolled forwards to see where Kirby had impaled her with his sword. He drove it in once more, laughing evilly to himself as he did, taking immense pleasure in her agony. That was all encompassing, the fire in her stomach white-hot. Anne was dimly aware of the blood cascading from the wound and down her clothes, soaking them in a river of red. Finally Kirby whipped the blade out and shoved her backwards. The slap of the cold water against her cheek was the last thing Anne felt.
TO BE CONTINUED….
COMING SOON: Lady Katherine and The Ruthless Ritual