The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 16
Lady Katherine And The Secret Seduction
MercyCroft, Jay, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :) Plus a small nod to Bailey B’s great fic “Bound” which probably had a subconscious effect on the last scene!
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.
Lady Katherine of
Despite the repeated hails, there was no sign of the stubborn Goshawk. Katherine kicked out at the dry earth in frustration, sending up a cloud of dust as her boot skidded through it. She’d been looking for the bird for a good half an hour, pursuing her through the woods in the grounds of Chesterfield Hall. Katherine was beginning to think the damn thing had gone for good this time.
As if it wasn’t tiring enough traipsing after the animal, the heat was merciless. The height of midsummer was only a couple of days off, and even under the shade of the trees the air was close and oppressive. The folds of Katherine’s summer dress hung heavy against her legs, sticking to the skin.
Suddenly there was a cracking sound from behind her. Katherine whirled around. “Hello?” There was no answer save the swishing of the dense leaves above in the soft summer breeze. “Diana?” Another sound; to her left this time. “Is there someone there?”
Her eyes probed the wood, scanning urgently back and
forth. A single squirrel darted between
trees, but otherwise there was no untoward movement in the light that filtered
through the leaves from above, picking out patches of brown earth. Katherine was beginning to think it might
have been a touch foolish to come looking for her bird alone, what with the
Ares Syndicate still looming large on the horizon. There hadn’t been any more incidents since
the attempted robbery from her bed chamber at Markham Manor some three weeks
before, and yet she had the feeling that they were just biding their time
before they struck again. Having to sit
In the silence of the forest, Katherine could hear her own breathing, soft and shallow. She tried to take a few deep breaths, calm her irrational fears, but her heart refused to oblige, still beating hard against her chest. Her eyes darted to every small movement of the trees, determined to catch anyone that was watching her. To her paranoid mind it seemed like there were hundreds of spying eyes amongst the mass of greens and browns. Katherine’s hand naturally rested on the hilt of the dagger that she wore at her belt. Down her spine she could feel the slow descent of a single bead of sweat.
She whirled round on the spot several more times, finally deciding that she’d had enough - Diana could fend for herself. Katherine reasoned that the bird would probably turn up when she got hungry anyway. Determining the correct direction, Katherine turned for Chesterfield Hall, thinking they’d probably be wondering where the hell she’d got to by now. She was surprised Tobias hadn’t sent out a search party already.
Walking briskly through the forest, Katherine became aware of something close by, a noise that was out of place amongst the chatter of the birds and the swish of the wind. If she strained she could just hear it – footsteps other than her own sweeping through the dry twigs and leaves. She couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from…behind her somewhere? Katherine quickened her pace. The other steps quickened too. She glanced over her shoulder, but all that faced her was the constant green mass of the forest. By now she was striding swiftly along. Still she could make out the other footfalls following.
Giving up on any form of decorum, Katherine broke into a run. Now she couldn’t tell what the other steps were doing, her own noisy progress as she crashed onwards blotting out any other sounds. The branches snagged her dress and tugged at her auburn hair as she plunged on. Up ahead she could see the trees starting to thin, the edge of the wood getting tantalisingly closer with each frantic step. Then all of a sudden her path was blocked by a body dropping from the trees above. Katherine reflexively screamed and immediately turned on her heel to run in the opposite direction. A hand shot out, grabbing her arm. Katherine swung back at the person, attempting to punch them in the face, but her hand was caught before it got there.
Katherine froze at the voice, actually looking at her pursuer for the first time. A pair of blue eyes were staring back at her in bemusement.
Katherine sagged in relief. “Jesus sodding Christ, Anne! You scared me stupid.” She wrested her hand from the other woman, and shoved Anne in the chest, half in annoyance at her own skittishness as much as the young woman. “What did you think you were doing?”
“I was just following to make sure you were all right.”
Katherine couldn’t stand still, pacing around agitatedly, her heart still racing. “Why didn’t you come out when I called?”
Anne seemed confused. “You called?”
“Yes! In the forest, just now!”
Anne blocked her way, catching both Katherine’s hands and bringing them up between them. There was a look of obvious concern on her face, her brow creased, the scar above her left eye furrowed. “You’re shaking.”
Katherine tried without success to pull her hands away. “I am not,” she said indignantly.
Anne guided her closer so that her hands were now squashed tight between them, pressed up between their chests. Katherine could feel the steady beat of Anne’s heart through the material of her dress. It was comforting, reassuring. Katherine’s hands became still.
“I’m sorry for scaring you,” said Anne softly. Her face was hovering so close Katherine could feel each individual breath across her cheeks. “Perhaps I can make it up to you?”
Katherine’s residual trembles of fear turned to ones of anticipation. She was surprised by the strength and suddenness of it. Before she knew what she was doing, she was stepping backwards, dragging Anne with her, the sudden urgency to take things further and forget everything else over-powering. Anne sensed the desire and pushed her on until finally Katherine impacted against a thick tree trunk. Katherine let out a small grunt and then a more guttural sound as Anne’s lips sought out the skin at her neck. Hot fingers wormed their way under the hem of her dress, pushing the light fabric off her shoulders.
A small voice of reason somehow escaped Katherine’s lips. “What if someone sees us?”
Anne didn’t even bother to look up. “They won’t.”
Katherine could feel the young woman’s tongue circling across her skin, while her hands tracked down over Katherine’s hips. Katherine’s mouth seemed to have a mind of its own, determined not to let her lose herself completely, not yet. “But there’s hundreds of people out there at the festival,” said Katherine in between heaving gasps, “And there could be another one with a bird as defiant as mine…”
Anne came up to face Katherine. The predatory look in the piercing blue eyes was enough to stop Katherine dead. “Katherine…,” said Anne slowly, “…just shut up.”
Even if Katherine had wanted to disobey she couldn’t. Anne pressed forwards melding her lips to Katherine’s, jamming her body up against her. The tree poked hard into Katherine’s back providing a stark comparison to the soft flesh covering her from the front. Anne thrust up against her again, hands roaming down and tugging at her skirts. It was verging on rough, but Katherine wanted more, wanted Anne to take her. Whether it was her earlier fright or the fact they were out in the open yet threatened with discovery she didn’t know. What she did know was that she was hot and wet and ready.
Katherine reached up and tangled her hands in Anne’s blond hair, pulling her down, devouring her. There was a low groan from deep in Anne’s throat. Katherine could feel it tickling her tongue. All thoughts of falcons and festivals and potential watchers were long gone now. All that mattered was her and Anne.
Anne’s hands were on her thighs, rubbing across the skin, delving between her legs. Katherine parted them without thought, her body’s instincts taking over. She tipped her head back against the tree, squeezing her eyes shut and moaning as Anne entered her. Katherine dug her nails into Anne’s shoulders, tearing at the material of the young woman’s own dress. She pulled it aside, needing to touch bare flesh, needing to grip onto it. Anne let out a gasping cry as Katherine’s fingers found purchase, her own hand thrusting deeper in response.
Still Katherine needed more. She bent forwards, latching onto Anne’s shoulder with her teeth, nipping, biting, sucking hard on soft flesh. Anne grunted again, jamming hard up against Katherine, another finger working its way up to join the others, filling Katherine. Each small finger movement now caused a flash of desire to shoot through Katherine’s fevered body. Each small flick a juddering burst of pleasure. Katherine wrapped a leg around Anne needing to open herself up more, accept her in fully, make them one. Somehow the young woman held her up as she clung on.
Then suddenly she was there, mouth open wide in a silent scream as the orgasm struck. Her senses were torn to shreds, her body resting heavily against Anne’s. She realised she was lying down, not entirely recalling how she got there. She assumed Anne must have guided them down. Katherine pushed sweat-dampened strands of hair from her face as she peeled herself off Anne. The young woman was lying on her back, looking far too smug. Katherine decided she needed to do something about that.
Without a word she slid down over Anne’s body, fingers seeking out the hem of the young woman’s dress. She found it had already ridden invitingly up Anne’s thighs at some point in the previous exertions, and Katherine didn’t have to push it up much further to reveal all. As soon as her mouth descended she heard a gasp from Anne, even though she wasn’t directly touching the other woman. Slowly breathing in and out a few times, she realised it was her hot breath causing the shuddering reaction.
Katherine continued to tease Anne, getting closer and closer, but still not touching her with her tongue. Only when she could practically feel the eager anticipation radiating from Anne did she finally inch that extra bit nearer, delving her tongue into warm, wet flesh. There was a soft moan from up above, Katherine glancing up to watch the other woman’s ecstasy though not removing her mouth. Instead she swirled her tongue around, before bringing it up to flick across Anne’s clitoris. Each movement brought a fresh shudder from the young woman beneath her.
Katherine built the speed of her sweeping motions until Anne was panting loudly, back arched up off the earth. Anne’s hands gripped tightly onto Katherine’s where they sat on the young woman’s thighs. Nails dug into Katherine’s palms as Anne lost all sense of anything in a juddering climax.
The last whispers of Anne’s cry had only just died when another call took their place. The beating of wings followed on before a regal looking haw landed gracefully right beside them. The bird fixed its amber eyes on the two women, casting a disparaging gaze over the dishevelled pair.
Katherine couldn’t help laughing at the mildly disgusted look, before glancing up to Anne. “At least she has good timing!”
A short time later Anne was still adjusting her dress as she walked back across the fields. Glancing to her side, she had to shield her eyes against the beating sun. Next to her, Katherine was walking confidently towards Chesterfield Hall, showing hardly any sign of what had just occurred in the wood. There were a few hairs slightly out of place in her otherwise neat and daringly short hair, but apart from that she just looked like she was out for an afternoon stroll. Anne wondered what she herself looked like. If her outward appearance were anything like how she felt inside, then she would appear as a quivering wreck.
She would have preferred to take some time in the forest before emerging, but Katherine had persuaded her of the urgency of returning to the house. She’d been gone over an hour and didn’t want anyone to start panicking or getting suspicious. Anne thought that rather unlikely. It was chaos back at the Hall, with dozens of guests having descended upon it for the annual falconry festival. They were hardly going to notice if one person was missing.
As Anne considered that thought fully, she had to re-assess her conclusion. She contemplated that at least one person might notice Katherine’s absence – Lady Saskia. Katherine had been somewhat wary of the reception they’d receive from the lady of the manor, not least because of a mysterious incident involving Katherine, Mark and Saskia some years before. Katherine hadn’t given Anne many details, and from the slightly pinched look on her face when discussing it, Anne sensed she shouldn’t press. It didn’t take much deduction to guess that Mark had probably succumbed to the temptation that most men fell to, of following their nether regions and forgetting to engage their brains. Most likely he had made some romantic overture to Lady Saskia. Or possibly the other way around, Anne considered bringing to mind an image of the predatory woman she had met for the first time the day before.
Either way it seemed neither Katherine nor Saskia bore a grudge, since the other woman had been most welcoming on their arrival. In fact she’d been delighted to see Katherine again after so long and had made a point of paying extra attention to her. Lady Saskia was a few years older than Katherine, somewhere in her mid-forties, but age had been exceedingly kind to her. Anne had to wonder which devil she had made a pact with to be blessed with such smooth skin and keen brown eyes at that age. Yet there was something else in those eyes, something of the predator. Give her a pair of wings and she could almost be in the festival herself.
As they neared the expansive house, Anne kept one eye out for the earthbound bird of prey who seemed to be absent for once. There were plenty of other people gathered in the grounds, though, and Anne’s heart sunk when she noticed that one of them was Lord Chesterfield. Even worse was that when his eyes flicked to them at that moment, the smile on his face was obvious. He wasn’t an unattractive man, with dark hair and eyes and a strong jawline to a noble face. The smile currently gracing that face appeared warm. His figure was also surprisingly trim for a noble of his age – most of them had let years of too much good food and ale bloat their body by the time they reached middle age.
Having seen them, he quickly excused himself from his other guests. “Good afternoon, ladies.” The greeting was addressed to both of them, but it was Anne who his eyes lingered on that bit longer. That was highly unusual given that she was supposedly the servant, and usually invisible to the upper classes.
“Good afternoon, m’lord,” replied Katherine for both of them. It wasn’t Anne’s place to speak, unless a question was directed straight at her.
“You found your troublesome bird,” I see, he said, noting Diana’s presence on Katherine’s arm, “And your maid too,” he added, “Though I hope she’s not as troublesome.”
“She has her moments,” replied Katherine.
Anne wasn’t entirely sure she liked being talked about as if she wasn’t there, but realised it was all part of the banter and act Katherine had to put on. She thought it safest to keep her own mouth shut. Despite her best attempts to blend in with the crowd in her role as Katherine’s maid, Anne had already managed to attract the unwanted attention of the lord of the manor. A couple of times she’d seen Lord Chesterfield openly ogling her, often right in front of his wife Lady Saskia. If the lady noticed or minded she didn’t say anything. It didn’t help that Anne was forced to wear a low cut summer dress that displayed far too much flesh for her liking. She would much rather be back in her normal black shirt and breeches, but then she would stand out like a sore thumb and would be banged up in the dungeon faster than you could say ‘outlaw!’.
Anne had mentioned the uncomfortable perusal from the lord to Katherine. She in turn had tried to dismiss it at first, until she herself had caught the man with his eyes practically in Anne’s breasts. Even then Katherine had been reluctant to say anything, wary of offending their host when they still needed to continue their search for the last Ares object. So instead she’d had to ask Anne to grin and bear it and try and avoid Lord Chesterfield as much as possible. That was proving easier said than done.
“If you ever need a hand in that department…” he commented now, the suggestion heavy in his voice.
Lord Chesterfield left the offer hanging, and once again Anne could see his eyes drifting across her body, most notably her chest area. The look left little to the imagination. Anne could see Katherine was aware of the perusal too.
“I think I can handle it for now,” Katherine replied evenly.
He simply dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I trust I shall be seeing you at dinner?”
The offer was to Katherine, though Anne got the distinct impression it was inclusive of them both.
“Of course,” agreed Katherine.
Lord Chesterfield gave them one more smile before bidding them farewell and disappearing to be with his other guests. Anne waited until he was safely out of earshot before turning to Katherine.
“How much longer did you say we have to stay here?” she asked half-jokingly.
Katherine wasn’t smiling though. Rather she was staring grimly off after the departing Lord. “As long as it takes,” she said dourly.
Anne noted the troubled look was back on Katherine’s face, it was one that never seemed to be far away at the moment. Katherine’s earlier good humour and ardour hadn’t lasted long. No doubt she was thinking about her task once again, the weight of those thoughts obvious in the slump of her shoulders.
“It’s just that I’m not sure how much longer I can fend off the eager Lord Chesterfield,” pointed out Anne reasonably.
Katherine shrugged. “Just do your best. We need to find this last object and whatever we can do to make that task as easy as possible, the better. If that means being a bit more pleasant to him then that’s just what we’ll need to do. He may even be able to help us.”
Anne couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “More pleasant?” she repeated, trying to keep her voice down in the busy courtyard despite her growing disquiet, “I hardly think he needs any encouragement.”
Anne didn’t say anything further; she was too stunned to. Not long ago they had been making love in the forest and now Katherine was acting as if she couldn’t care less what Anne got up to. Anne wanted the other woman to be defending her honour, even if she didn’t need it, not practically selling her off.
Katherine appeared oblivious to Anne’s unease, caught up in her own thoughts as they walked towards the stables. “We need to find this last object whatever it takes,” she mused, “Before the Syndicate get their hands on it, or even worse the weapon itself. The festival gives us the perfect cover to search for it, we have to take advantage of that.”
“And where exactly have you been searching?” Anne’s question was much more sharply spoken than she might normally have intended.
Katherine couldn’t have failed to notice the tone and her clipped reply indicated as much. “Someone has to keep up the pretence of why we’re here. We all have to make sacrifices.”
“And is there nothing that we won’t sacrifice?” Katherine’s blinkered obsession with finding the last item was starting to disturb Anne.
“You want the Syndicate to get this weapon do you?” asked Katherine, turning the questioning back on Anne.
Anne kept her mouth deliberately shut, thinking that Katherine knew full well that’s not what she had meant. It was almost like the other woman wanted to goad her into an argument. Resisting the temptation to fall into the trap laid, Anne decided to divert the conversation.
“Have you had any luck deciphering the diagram yet, to find out what the last item is?”
“No,” replied Katherine.
Anne could see she was fast losing the battle to keep the conversation going, but fought on anyway to try and rescue it. “Sometimes I wonder whether your father actually wanted these items found,” she noted.
However, Katherine didn’t answer that comment and Anne supposed it was time to give up for now. The other woman appeared distracted as they continued on in silence. Anne could readily guess where the other woman’s thoughts were, so she was surprised when Katherine spoke up again.
“Anyway, with everyone else occupied at the dinner tonight you can take a look around some of the rooms.”
Anne couldn’t be bothered to argue given how the discussion had gone already; obviously she was the designated searcher.
“And be careful,” added Katherine.
At last Anne was relieved to detect a flicker of interest from Katherine in her well-being. Or maybe she was just concerned that the object was found. “I’m always careful,” replied the young woman, trying to inject some light-heartedness into her tone.
There was no answer. Instead Katherine was giving her a ‘look’, one that was highly doubtful but at least seemed vaguely amused.
“What?” asked Anne.
“Do I need to mention
Anne didn’t want to dwell on either of those incidents further, she was hardly proud of getting caught - twice. “Just keep Lord Chesterfield busy,” she suggested to Katherine, “The last thing I need is our lecherous friend following me round the house.”
“Perhaps I should slip something into his ale,” pondered Katherine, “It might be the only way to keep him away from you?”
Katherine laughed as they ducked inside the archway to the
stables that had been converted to house the falcons and hawks. Anne was glad to see the smile on Katherine’s
face and not a little relieved. Ever
since she’d discovered her father’s letter, Katherine hadn’t really been
herself. Her behaviour at both
Having left Diana securely in the hands of the squires,
Katherine and Anne entered the main house.
Chesterfield Manor was a lot larger than
“There you are at last. Where have you two been, or shouldn’t I ask?”
The wink he added was completely unsubtle, and Anne could see Katherine was less than amused by his words. It didn’t help that they were spoken at the loud volume common to those who had imbibed a few too many ales.
“I had to retrieve my bird…”
The friar’s laugh interrupted Katherine. “I can see that!” His eyes were on Anne, though not quite focussing correctly.
“My goshawk,” clarified a tight-lipped Katherine.
For once it was Thomas showing some sense and quickly directing the friar away before one of the women flattened him. Once he was gone, Katherine pulled Tobias aside.
“How much has he had to drink?” she asked with no small concern.
“Too much I’m afraid, m’lady. He had already started before we returned, else I would have curbed his consumption.”
“Never mind, it’s not your fault,” Katherine told him, “We
just have to be careful, given the circumstances.” Katherine looked sideways at Anne. Tobias was unaware of the Syndicate or the real
reason they had come to
“Nor maybe the person whose place is not amongst your normal attendants,” said Tobias evenly.
Katherine gave him a warning look. “Tobias…,” she began, but it was Anne who stepped in to directly challenge his comment.
“Do you have a problem with my being here?” she asked the captain of the guard. She knew he had never been particularly happy with her and Katherine’s relationship, but at least it had been near invisible to him before. While the two women had been meeting in secret and keeping it to themselves, he hadn’t really had to address it. Now with Anne spending more and more time travelling with Katherine while they were on their quest, it was obviously concerning him more. Anne squared up to him and he turned to stiffly face her. He was an inch or two taller, and Anne had the urge to stand on her tiptoes so they could stare each other right in the eye.
He held her gaze for a moment before answering. “Yes, I do have a problem.”
Seeing the storm brewing, Katherine quickly stepped between them before anything else could be said that might be regretted later. “Now is hardly the time for this,” she pointed out, mindful of the many eyes and ears in the hall.
Anne could sense her nervousness and decided to defer to Katherine, even if it meant backing down in front of the combative guard. She took a step back. “Another time then,” she couldn’t help offering in parting.
Several hours later it was Katherine who was contemplating the words exchanged as she made her way down to the great hall for dinner. Tobias’ attitude earlier had surprised her as much as it had obviously perturbed Anne. Katherine had always known he was concerned by her relationship with Anne, but she’d just put it down to him being over-protective. Now it seemed that protectiveness might have turned into hostility towards the young woman. She resolved to speak to him when she next got the chance. Hopefully she could make him understand that her love for Anne outweighed the potential problems. She certainly didn’t want to fall out with him over it.
Putting that to the back of her mind for now, she tried to get into character for the dinner before she entered the hall. More and more these sorts of occasions were becoming an act on her part, a role she had to fulfil as part of her duties but nothing more. Once upon a time she’d not really had to think about it, attending them and eating, drinking and being merry with the rest of the nobles present. Now she felt oddly out of place, like she wasn’t really one of them. Maybe she never had been and it had only taken the changes in her life over the past year to make her realise as much.
Either way it was still down to her to put on her best diplomat’s face and be pleasant to all those present, even if their opinions and words made her cringe. Taking a final deep breath, she pushed open the large doors. As she had feared it was heaving inside, nearly all those that were in attendance at the festival taking the opportunity to indulge in the fine foods on offer. Katherine navigated her way through the throng, smiling and returning greetings as she went.
The call came from the table and the crowd parted conveniently so she could see Lady Saskia sitting and beaming at her in her feline way. “Come and sit by me,” she offered, indicating the spare seat at her side.
Katherine knew it would be rude to refuse their hostess,
though she could think of places she would rather sit. Something about Lady Saskia made her
wary. Quite possibly it was the
recollection of what had happened last time she had visited
Saskia laughed and leant over to the now sitting Katherine. “There’s really no need for formalities is there? You can call me Saskia.”
“Thank you, Saskia,” said Katherine awkwardly. She took a sip of the wine before her to calm her nerves that were strangely present.
“You look amazing, by the way,” said Saskia. Katherine glanced at her, bemused by the enthusiastic compliment. She could see that the other woman was smiling again, her dark eyes sparkling in the candlelight. “Red is definitely your colour,” added Saskia.
“One of my maids picked it for me,” replied Katherine.
“Then she has good taste,” noted Saskia. “Was it the blonde girl? I’ve seen you around with her a few times.”
“Yes.” Katherine realised too late that she should have lied, to avoid further questions on Anne.
Saskia didn’t continue quite how Katherine might have expected, though. “She really is quite beautiful,” she said thoughtfully, “For a commoner.”
“Is she?” Katherine tried to sound dismissive. “I hadn’t really noticed.”
Saskia laughed. “If you haven’t, my husband certainly has!”
Katherine’s eyes widened at the candid comment. Saskia took in the look. “I can see you’ve noticed his interest too,” she remarked.
“It’s hard not to,” confessed Katherine. “Don’t you mind?”
“I would prefer he was a little less obvious,” admitted Saskia, “But it’s all harmless. I allow him his dalliances with the help, and he allows me to pursue some of my interests.”
Katherine had to wonder what Saskia got in return for allowing her husband’s adulterous behaviour. More pertinently, she didn’t like the picture Saskia was painting of the man, not when it was Anne he was currently interested in.
“Where is he anyway?” Katherine asked, casting her eyes round the throng, “I haven’t seen him yet.”
Saskia followed Katherine’s probing eyes round the room. “You know neither have I,” she admitted, “Maybe he’s gone off in search of something…or someone.”
There was a tiny flutter of fear in Katherine’s stomach. There was only one person the Lord was interested in at the moment. She didn’t know if she should be more worried for Anne or him
Anne peered round the corner to check there was no one down the corridor. It appeared to be empty, the only movement the flicker of the torchlight on the stone of the walls. She eased out and walked along quietly. She didn’t expect to meet anyone, since they would all be stuffing themselves silly at dinner. Part of Anne wished she too could be down at the meal, the part of her that wanted to be with Katherine. Another part of her was grateful for having been spared from the superficiality of the occasion and the need to be pleasant to those she disliked. The decision had been taken from her hands anyway, because it wasn’t a servants place to be there while the food was being eaten by the great and good. Later, when there was clearing up to do, they would be welcome, and might get a few scraps if they were lucky. Anne thought they could keep their leftovers, she’d rather eat stale bread.
Concentrating on the task at hand she crept further along. She was hoping to make it to the private quarters of the lord and lady that lay on the top level of the house. So far she hadn’t managed to search them, though she had been through dozens of other rooms without success. All of a sudden someone stepped out from a door right in front of her. There was nowhere for her to hide, so she just stood there to face them as if she belonged. She was surprised to see it was Tobias coming out of somewhere that was most definitely not his room. His eyes narrowed when he saw her standing there obstinately.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Anne didn’t like the tone of his voice, and her own met the challenge in it. “Katherine asked me to look for something, you can check with her if you like,” she replied smugly, knowing it was true. “What about you? Why are you sneaking around rather than being guardly at the dinner?”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you.” It seemed Tobias didn’t like the questioning being turned back on him.
Since they were alone, Anne decided to say exactly what was on her mind. “What’s going on with you, Tobias? I thought we’d come to some sort of uneasy truce at the end of last year, but just recently I’m getting the impression that I should watch my back if you’re behind me.”
His face showed little emotion as he replied. “I am merely concerned about the affect your…association is having on her ladyship.”
Anne noted the way he stumbled over the best way to describe it, so deliberately sought clarification where she needed none. “You mean our relationship?” She saw the way he flinched ever so slightly at the last word. It gave her the small sense of satisfaction she’d been seeking.
“If that’s what you want to class it as,” he replied disparagingly.
“I do as a matter of fact,” stated Anne, her annoyance at his superior attitude rising, “I really don’t care if you like it or not. Get used to it, because I’m not going anywhere.”
“And do you think that it’s right for her ladyship too?” asked Tobias pointedly, “You are endangering her with your continued association.”
Anne had to fight hard to contain her building anger. “I would never intentionally put Katherine at risk.”
“But you do, by your very presence. She nearly lost
“They were not my friends!”
“You’re all criminals are you not?”
“You think you’re so much better?” Anne had to clench her fists at her side, else she might have hit him by now. “You seem to forget it was Charles Kirby who tried to orchestrate Katherine’s downfall last year, not me, and right under your nose I might add!”
Tobias chose to ignore the barb, picking up where he had left off accusing Anne. “And what if someone recognised you, or you were caught engaging in criminal activities while part of her ladyship’s official party?”
“Contrary to popular belief I can go more than five minutes without stealing something!” she cried in exasperation. “I’m here to support Katherine, she wants me here.”
“She has other people who can support her,” Tobias stated, “Are you sure that’s it’s her who wants you here and not the other way around?”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a rich, powerful woman,” he clarified, “Why would she need a common outlaw to depend on? I think it’s you who needs her, you who can’t bear to think she could do without you. You have confused her gratitude over your past assistance for something else. Her ladyship is just too polite to tell you otherwise.”
“That’s bollocks!” Anne couldn’t think of anything more articulate to say given the anger that was coming dangerously close to spilling over.
“Think what you will,” he said dismissively.
“Yes I bloody will, thank you very much!” she shouted back, reining in the volume of her voice before continuing. “And you can keep your opinions to yourself in the future – don’t go poisoning Katherine’s mind with this crap.”
Tobias was still being obdurate. “It is my duty to offer her ladyship my guidance.”
“Right!” scoffed Anne. “You just can’t stand that she might need someone more than you! Is that why you’re trying to drive us apart?”
“I am merely concerned with her well-being.” His tone barely wavered the whole time. Anyone impartial listening would have probably been convinced.
Yet Anne wasn’t impartial or convinced. “If that were the case then you’d see that she’s happy to be with me and be happy for her in return.”
“If she’s so happy, why has she been so troubled recently?” he shot back. “Her mind has not been on estate business, she’s been distracted and quick tempered – not herself at all.”
Anne was stymied. The last thing she was going to do was tell Tobias about the Ares Syndicate and let him in on that confidence.
“I am waiting,” he prompted.
His patronisingly calm tone was simply infuriating. Anne could have gladly thumped him on the nose, but thought he’d get some grim satisfaction from it.
“Then you can bloody well wait all night,” she said instead. “I’ve had enough of this. Just don’t talk to me and I’ll steer clear of you, all right?”
“Fine by me,” he agreed, “Though I’d rather you disappeared altogether.”
Anne wasn’t entirely sure if it was a veiled threat or simply wishful thinking. Tobias was notoriously hard to read with that unblinking expression of his. Not trusting herself to say anything further she swung away from him and stalked off in the direction of the stairs. She was still fuming when she reached them, not paying proper attention. She didn’t notice the man descending them until he was right next to her.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
Anne groaned internally as soon as she heard the voice. “Good evening, m’lord,” she said, forcing a smile onto her face as she curtsied.
Lord Chesterfield’s smile was much more genuine, spread wide across his handsome face. “Your lady let you out for the night has she?” he asked amiably.
“I wasn’t required at dinner,” Anne replied, “Should you not be there though?”
He placed a friendly arm around her shoulders, pulling her up against him so he could speak in confidence though they were the only two people in the corridor. “Between you and me, I can’t stand all that hob-nobbing,” he confessed.
With anyone else, Anne would have shrugged the arm off immediately, but she was reminded of the need to be polite. “Still, I’m sure they will be wondering where you are. Your wife…”
He interrupted with a half-laugh, half-snort. “She would hardly notice if I was standing up on the table and doing a dance with no clothes on.”
Anne didn’t really want the mental image that conjured up. “I’m sorry to hear that, m’lord, but I really must be getting on. My lady requested my presence after dinner.”
“Damn, we wouldn’t want to offend the good Lady Katherine after all.”
Anne wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not. There was a faint whiff of alcohol from him and Anne decided it really would be prudent to extract herself from his presence as soon as possible. Searching upstairs would have to wait for another time. Carefully, she removed his hand from her shoulder. “I most certainly wouldn’t,” she concurred.
Lady Saskia was still talking, but Katherine had long since started replying automatically at appropriate points, not really thinking about her words. She knew she was being hideously rude by her continued distraction, but she couldn’t help watching the door, waiting for any sign of Lord Chesterfield.
So far there had been a host of servants bringing food and wine and ale, plus some minstrels to provide entertainment, but no sign of the missing Lord. Just when she was considering excusing herself, there was a figure she recognised, but not the one she had been expecting. Instead it was Anne who strode into the hall, eyes scanning around obviously looking for Katherine. Katherine would have loved to jump up and signalled her location, but it would hardly have been appropriate in the company. As Anne stood searching, someone else swept into the room close behind her. This time it was the person Katherine had been keeping a lookout for. His appearance so soon after Anne caused fresh stirrings of anxiety in Katherine’s stomach, especially when she saw the way his eyes immediately darted keenly to Anne. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that they had arrived near enough together. Anne had noticed his arrival behind her too, and was quickly putting some space between the pair of them, making her way randomly through the bodies having still not spotted Katherine in the crowded room.
“I see my wayward husband has returned,” noted Saskia beside Katherine. “And your maid,” she added.
“Yes, actually I have something I need to ask of her, if you’ll excuse me?”
Saskia leaned closer to Katherine; “You’re not going to leave me with all these frightful bores are you? Sorry if I was wittering on about myself, how have things been with you?”
Katherine cursed internally, but knew it would be a breach of etiquette and a snub to her host to get up to go after Anne when Saskia was still trying to engage her in conversation. “Fine,” she replied.
“And the manor at
“I manage, I like the challenge.”
“I’m sure you do. Though it can’t have helped to have lost some of your more senior knights like Charles Kirby.”
Katherine stiffened at the mention of his name.
Saskia seemed oblivious to the reaction. “You know it was quite the point of gossip for a while, she continued, His mysterious dismissal. Yet no one seems to know what was behind it. Maybe you can enlighten me, put me one up on everyone else?”
Katherine certainly wasn’t about to mention that Kirby had discovered her secret relationship with Anne before trying to blackmail her into marriage. Nor that she’d since discovered he was part of a sinister syndicate who were after a deadly, powerful weapon. The only thankful thing about the whole affair was that Kirby had gone to ground, remaining similarly discrete about the reason for his dismissal as Katherine herself.
“It was just a difference of opinion, that’s all,” said Katherine vaguely, “I’ve not heard from him since so I couldn’t tell you anymore.”
“I’m not surprised,” noted Saskia, “Last I heard he’d gone
Saskia shrugged. “Some business I presume. Maybe he’s after a fresh start over there. I did hear something about a key, though I’m not sure what that’s got to do with it – maybe he’s going to be a jailer.”
Saskia laughed, but Katherine
wasn’t joining in, her heart was beating too hard in her chest. It was all too coincidental – why would Kirby
be going to
“Did I say something wrong?”
Katherine glanced up, seeing Saskia regarding her quizzically due to her extended silence.
“You looked so serious,” noted Saskia, “In fact it reminded me a bit of your father.”
The mention of him so out of the blue took Katherine completely by surprise. “You knew him?”
“Why yes,” confirmed Saskia, looking confused too, “I
thought you knew. He used to come to
Katherine tried to recall him ever mentioning it, but drew a blank. Was it another one of his secrets? Was Lord Chesterfield somehow involved with the Syndicate himself? Her head spun at the possibilities.
“He was a lovely man,” continued Saskia, “We were sorry to hear when he died, and even sorrier we couldn’t make it to the funeral given the circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” asked Katherine sharply.
Saskia looked confused. “Those surrounding his death...” she started cautiously before trailing off.
Katherine didn’t understand the reference. As far as she knew both her
father and mother had died from a commonplace case of fever. When they’d been taken ill, she’d been in
Seeing Katherine’s continued bemusement Saskia quickly changed track. “Anyway, you are a credit to him,” she said.
Katherine could have laughed at the irony of the intended compliment, if it wasn’t so painful.
“I’ve offended you again,” deduced Saskia on seeing Katherine’s dark look.
“No, of course not,” Katherine quickly assured her, “I’m just feeling a bit warm all of a sudden, it’s very stuffy in here. I think I might go and get some fresh air if you’ll excuse me?”
Saskia immediately got up. “Of course,” she said graciously, “We wouldn’t want you getting ill when there’s still so much of the festival to enjoy.”
Katherine got to her feet too, finding that the combination of the heat, wine and shocking revelations had gone to her head. At least the slight sway as she stood was convincing evidence of her need to depart . “Good night,” she quickly said before turning and departing the room.
Anne had almost given up hope of finding Katherine amongst the crowd in the great hall when she finally spotted her. She was sitting talking with Lady Saskia on the far side of the room. They were leant in very close to one another, perhaps to make themselves heard over the general hubbub. Anne started working her way back through the throng in their direction, only to see Katherine was getting to her feet and heading for the door.
Anne sped up, but Katherine was already out of the room long before she got there. Even worse was that Lord Chesterfield was back standing by the door, blocking that path. Anne reversed course to try and find an alternative exit. When she did eventually make it back to Katherine’s quarters, Anne initially thought she’d been wrong in her assumption of the other woman’s destination. The main room was dark and Anne was just turning to go back out, when she noticed the barest flicker of light issuing under the door of the bedroom. Pushing it open, she found a single candle alight; it’s meagre light playing off the red hair of Katherine’s bowed head. She hadn’t noticed Anne’s entrance, too busy reading something as she sat on the edge of the bed. Katherine held it close to enable her to read in the poor illumination. As Anne edged nearer she recognised the parchment with Katherine’s father’s spidery writing across it. Katherine’s eyes were scanning over and over it, the furrow in her brow deepening with each pass.
Seeing Katherine pouring over the letter, Anne immediately forgot about all her own concerns regarding Lord Chesterfield, Tobias and everything else. None of that mattered when Katherine was so obviously upset. Anne made it right to the bedside before Katherine glanced up. There was a faraway, distracted look in her eyes
“Katherine? Is everything all right?”
“What?” Katherine focussed on Anne as if she still hadn’t even noticed she was there.
Anne was concerned by the distance in her voice and eyes. “Did something happen at dinner?”
Katherine still seemed to be having trouble concentrating on what Anne was saying. Her mind was obviously elsewhere and given that she was clutching her father’s letter in her hand, Anne could guess where that was. Despite the fact that Anne knew Katherine spent much time thinking about it, she rarely spoke of her father. Anne had tried on several occasions to pierce the carefully constructed barriers, but it seemed Katherine wasn’t ready to let them drop yet. Maybe she couldn’t right now. Not until they were finished with their task. At least that bit of behaviour was reassuringly Katherine – she always did want to keep the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Not wanting to add to that weight, Anne hadn’t bothered to
correct Katherine’s assumptions about what had transpired three weeks
previously in Maplebeck. When they’d found the Ares candlestick in the
church, Katherine had jumped to the conclusion that Father Cooper was working
for the Syndicate and that Anne’s kidnap had been to do with their quest to
locate the weapon. They’d already
encountered one Syndicate priest in the form of Father Martin at
Katherine’s assumption might have been shown as false, if she’d had the chance to question the priest, but he had mysteriously disappeared without a trace when guards were sent to fetch him from his underground chamber. How he’d managed that with two of Katherine’s arrows embedded in him Anne didn’t know. She certainly didn’t like the idea that he might be out there somewhere, planning to come for her again. Not that there was any point in him doing so – she didn’t have the power he so desired. At least she thought she didn’t have it. Whether that was really true or not was not something she had time to consider right now. Helping Katherine find the fifth Ares object was what she was focussed on. To that end she pressed on now.
“Something to do with your father?” she prompted the still quiet Katherine.
Suddenly Katherine folded up the letter, tucking it away in a pocket. “It doesn’t matter,” she said abruptly.
Anne was bemused by the sudden change in the other woman, not for the first time recently. “Katherine?”
Katherine got to her feet, walking away from Anne and heading for the bedside drawers. “I said it doesn’t matter,” she stated, “I’m tired, I’m going to bed.”
Anne felt a painful twinge in her chest at the coldness in the tone. “Would you like me to stay?”
Katherine didn’t bother to turn round. “You’d better not, there’s an early start tomorrow.”
Anne tried to hide her disappointment, realising now probably wasn’t the best time to challenge Katherine’s instruction. “As you wish.” She turned for the door, pausing to glance back over her shoulder once she got there. Katherine still had her back to her, undressing for bed.
Anne felt the tightening in her chest at the sight, desperately wanting to go back across the room and embrace the other woman. Yet it appeared that wasn’t what Katherine wanted right now, she had made that much abundantly clear. So instead Anne ducked quietly out of the room and closed the door behind her.
It took a moment for Katherine to register the voice that accompanied the urgent shaking of her shoulder. Blearily she opened her eyes, focussing on the person standing over her bed. She supposed she should have been slightly more surprised to see it was her father, but for some reason she wasn’t.
“Come on,” he urged, “You need to get up, there’s something I have to show you.”
Katherine sat up, continuing to rub the sleep from her eyes. “What is it?”
“You’ll see when we get there, now come on.”
He’d already started for the door, not waiting for her assent. Shrugging her shoulders, Katherine swung out of bed and started to quickly dress. All the time her father stood there, impatiently hopping from one foot to the other.
“Is this anything to do with the Ares Syndicate?” she asked as she pulled on her boots.
Suddenly he swept over and bent down by her side, looking around warily before whispering to her. “Don’t mention their name!”
“Why shouldn’t I mention the Ares Syndicate?” she questioned belligerently.
He winced at the repeated use of the name. “Because they might hear!” he answered, “I’m sure they’re following us, that’s why you have to hurry!”
The reasoning seemed flawed to Katherine, but she didn’t question it. “All right, I’m ready, lead on.”
He took her swiftly through the house that was strangely quiet. Even the great hall was empty as they crossed that heading for the hallway. Their footsteps echoed around the room as they stepped across the flagstones.
“Where are we going?” queried Katherine.
“You’ll see, come on hurry.”
He sped through the archway on the far side of the room, and on down some steps that Katherine had never noticed before. Katherine descended them in his wake. “Where is everyone?” she wondered out loud.
“It’s better that no one’s here,” he replied, “You can’t trust them.”
“Anyone, you can’t trust anyone.”
Katherine frowned at his back as he continued on down before her. “What, no one at all?”
“But I can trust Anne.”
Her father came to a halt, whirling round to face her. “You can’t trust anyone!”
Katherine flinched back at the vehement tone. “All right, I get it, I can’t trust anyone,” she said to appease him, rather than because she believed it.
He stared at her for an uncomfortably long time without speaking. She felt like he could see right through her, see the deceit. He’d always had a knack of spotting her lies. Yet he didn’t say anything more. Instead he turned for a nearby door.
“It’s in here.”
Katherine stepped through the doorway first. It was dark inside and she couldn’t see anything, let alone whatever mystery object her father was taking her to. She swung round to say as much, only to find the door slammed in her face. She was immediately plunged into darkness.
Katherine fumbled for where she thought the handle was just as the sound of a bolt scraped across the wood. “What are you doing?” she called out through the door.
“Didn’t I tell you not to trust anyone?” came her father’s muffled voice.
Katherine stared incredulously into the dark. “I didn’t think that included you!”
“It includes everyone,” he informed her, “So let this be a lesson to you.”
“All right, point made,” said an annoyed Katherine, “Now open the door.”
There was no answer. “Father? Are you still there?” There was still no answer. Katherine rattled on the handle, but it was firmly locked. “This isn’t funny! Open this bloody door!”
The only answer was the skittering of a creature in the corner of the room. “Father!” There was an air of desperation in her voice now. Something brushed over her foot. “Father!”
She was still calling his name when she bolted upright in bed and found that she hadn’t moved from her room.
If Anne had hoped a new day would bring with it a brighter mood for Katherine, then she was sorely disappointed. The other woman barely spoke to her as they prepared for the day’s falconry. Anne remained in the background as Tobias, Beatrice and the others fussed around organising things. All the time Anne just wished they would disappear and give her and Katherine more than a minute alone. Once they were out in the fields, Katherine remained solemn and distracted, hardly seeming to notice Anne was even there. It was another hot day, but that hadn’t discouraged the attendees at the festival. The main falconry field was teeming with nobles, knights, squires and falconers all hoping to impress with their prowess at the sport.
Anne found it all a bit pointless. Jousting, archery, sword fighting – they were proper sports. Trying to tame and bend a bird to your will was just an exercise in domination and power. A few times she had been tempted to untie the birds jessies while their masters’ weren’t looking and free them. The main thing stopping her was the fact that the birds were so domesticated now that they probably wouldn’t go anywhere. Apart from Diana that was. Anne could see that Katherine’s bird was looking eager to fly as always. She was flapping her wings as she sat on Katherine’s arm, the other woman holding tight as she spoke with Lady Saskia. Anne moved closer, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation.
She didn’t get much opportunity as Katherine quickly spotted her. “Anne, could I have a word?”
For a moment hope sprung in Anne’s heart, but then she saw the still serious look on Katherine’s face and approached with an air of resignation.
“Yes, m’lady?” Anne used the formal address since Saskia was still hovering close by.
“I’ve left my bell jessies in my room, could you go back and fetch them?”
Anne was confused – she knew Katherine didn’t possess any bell jessies. She scanned the other woman’s face, realising that Katherine was sending her off to search for the Ares item while everyone was busy outside. “Of course, m’lady,” she answered, giving a small curtsey as she turned to go.
Trudging back over the fields to the house, Anne felt more and more like the skivvy – sent to do their master’s bidding while they swanned around doing what they liked. Anne couldn’t understand why Katherine was continuing to spend so much time socialising with the others and Lady Saskia in particular when they had a job to do. One minute Katherine was focussed on finding the object to the point of obsession, the next it was if she’d forgotten what they were doing there. It was just another example of her recent unpredictable and unexplained behaviour. If anyone was interested in seeing the quest to its conclusion at the moment it seemed to be Anne. Though she had to wonder why she was trying so hard given Katherine’s apparent lack of urgency.
Deep down she knew the answer to that – because it was what Katherine wanted and needed. There had never been anyone Anne had wanted to satisfy and impress more in her life than Katherine. No one whose opinion mattered more. So if she could gain such approval by doing this for Katherine then she would. Yet at times, when she stood back and took stock, Anne had to wonder if she had lost sight of her own identity, if she had lost herself in her desire to please Katherine.
Trying to find some consolation, Anne considered that all the socialising was Katherine’s way of trying to uncover information that might lead them to the object – she had always been one to try and think or talk their way around a problem. If that was the case then Anne just wished Katherine had told her as much, rather than just summarily dispatching her to search on her own.
As Anne came into view of the walls of the house she spied Lord Chesterfield conversing with some of his guards. Anne rolled her eyes – it seemed she couldn’t get away from the man. Rather than continue onto the gate, Anne followed the walls round to the rear of the house, thinking she would wait a while in the hope that Lord Chesterfield was on his way out to join everyone else. The land sloped away from the walls round the far side of the house, leading on down a grassy incline to the river.
The river meandered gently past the manor house, providing a natural moat along one side of it. Once at the water’s edge, Anne sat down glumly on the dry grass. There were a few odd stones amongst the yellowing blades, and the young woman took one and aimlessly tossed it out into the slowly moving river. It made a small plop before sinking below the surface.
A few more followed, but it was faintly unsatisfying. It certainly wasn’t the same as sitting by
her favourite spot by the lake back in
Out over the river a dragonfly flitted just above the surface, its wings beating rapidly to keep it safely a fraction off a watery grave. Anne tracked its path as it darted erratically this way and that. Watching the lazy course was hypnotic, and Anne felt the urge to lie down so she could continue to gaze out over the river. The sunlight danced across the tiny ripples that broke the surface, reflecting up onto the small insect as it continued to fly through the hot summer’s air. Anne rested her chin on her forearms, happy just to relax into the moment and try to forget about her troubles.
Her eyes drifted to the water close by, lapping at the bank. Anne could see the riverbed through the clear waters, a collection of mud and stones shifting in the gentle motion of the river. Slowly they became obscured as the surface clouded over. For a moment Anne wondered what it was, until a form began to take shape in it.
Anne could only stare as the face of a woman became apparent in the surface of the river. She wasn’t actually in the river though; it was as if she was a part of the waters, her face moving with the swirls and ripples. She was about Anne’s age, with soft brown hair falling about an elfin face. There was something oddly familiar about the woman that Anne couldn’t immediately place. Then all of a sudden a pair of brown eyes focussed onto her. Anne started at the sudden perusal from the ghostly face. At the same time the woman’s lips were moving, and Anne realised she was trying to say something. The words were silent, though, and Anne tried to concentrate on the movement of the lips and decipher the words. She determined it was actually a single word, repeated over and over. Anne, Anne, Anne…
Suddenly Anne’s head jolted where it rested on her arms, breaking the spell. She shook herself, realising she had almost nodded off in the heat. Refocusing on the flowing waters before her, there was no sign of any faces in it now. Anne frowned, wondering if it had been a dream. Even if it was, who was the mysterious woman in the water? Anne had the strangest feeling she had met her before, though where she couldn’t begin to imagine.
“Taking a break are you?”
Anne started once more at the voice, quickly swinging over and standing up to face the speaker. She certainly didn’t want to remain on the ground and perhaps encourage Lord Chesterfield to sit with her. He was standing with his arms crossed over his broad chest, a look of amusement on his face.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” he told her, giving her a conspiratorial grin.
“Thank you, m’lord,” she replied through gritted teeth. Having to act so humble was really starting to grate.
He cast his eyes absently out over the water where she had been staring moments before. As he raised a hand to shade his eyes against the bright sun, the rays sparkled off the large emerald in the ring on his index finger. “Aren’t you wondering why I’m not out with everyone else too?” he pondered.
“I didn’t think it was my place to ask,” Anne replied. It was partly true, plus she didn’t want to get drawn into a conversation with him.
“It’s probably for the same reason you’re here throwing stones in the water,” he noted, making Anne wonder how long he’d been watching her, “I’ve had enough of all those pompous arses!”
Anne held back a smile, not wanting to encourage him in any way. He hardly needed it. “You are not enjoying your festival?” she asked.
“Yes and no,” he answered, “There are certainly some advantages,” he added, leering at her to make it entirely obvious what they were.
“Indeed,” she said, realising it was time to go, “Though I’ve been tarrying too long, I should be getting on.”
Lord Chesterfield held out an arm to waylay her before she could move. His fingers were hot as they touched the bare skin of her forearm. “Now why is it that you always seem to be running away whenever I try to speak to you?”
Anne didn’t think it was prudent to answer truthfully. “I don’t know, bad timing?”
He seemed amused by the answer. “Well, we’ll have to work on that I suppose,” he allowed, stepping away to let her pass for now.
An hour or so later Anne thought she’d finally given Lord Chesterfield the slip. She hadn’t thought it safe to go into the house or back out to the festival. In the end she’d resorted to leaving the grounds of the house and entering a seedy looking tavern in a less than salubrious part of the adjoining town. It was full of half-drunk peasants who should really have been doing something better given that it was the middle of the day. With the summer heat outside, the atmosphere inside the low ceilinged building could only be described as steamy. Anne didn’t really want to contemplate a descriptive word for the stench of the place, which was a mixture of stale sweat, old ale and rotten vegetables.
At least she appeared to be safe from Lord Chesterfield’s attentions there – it was not the sort of place the lord of the manor would frequent. Unfortunately there were plenty of other unwanted approaches for her to fend off. She wished she had never made the offhand comment to Katherine a few weeks previously about men never seeming to want to try it on with her, because now it seemed fate had listened in and decided to make her pay.
The latest potential suitor was before her table now, obviously thinking that an ale-stained top and a line of drool running from the corner of his mouth was something women would find attractive.
“Can I buy you a drink?” slurred the man.
“No.” Anne found it best to get straight to the point.
As usual the directness left the questioner momentarily stunned. “Er…right…er…” Anne merely kept her eyes fixed on him, staring him out until he got embarrassed. “Right…er…well…I’ll be off then.”
She rolled her eyes and turned back to her drink. The liquid was bitter, and each time she took a mouthful she had to cringe, but it was the best on offer. Turning back to watching the other patrons, she suddenly spotted a familiar face. Or more aptly a familiar head; a bald one. Friar Tuck was sitting in a corner, engaged in conversation with someone Anne didn’t recognise. She hadn’t noticed him before, but assumed he must have been in there the whole time. She wondered whether to go and join him, but the reason she’d come to the tavern in the first place was to get away from everyone else, so instead she kept her seat and merely watched.
The discussion looked quite heated and Anne wondered if she was going to be called on to intervene and risk being barred from yet another drinking establishment. However, whatever disagreement they were having passed, and finally the other man slid the friar something under the table before departing. The friar gave a quick look over whatever it was he’d received, before following on out the door. Anne was contemplating going after him, when all of a sudden another body standing before her table blocked her view of the door. Annoyed, she spoke before looking up.
“No, I don’t want a drink! Now bugger off, you’re in the way.”
“Well, that’s a charming way to greet a friend.”
Anne’s eyes flicked up to see the half-smiling face of Beatrice.
Anne sighed, “Sorry, I’ve been having a few problems with the clientele.”
Beatrice gave Anne a quick once over, her eyebrows rising as they took in the dress she was wearing. “I can’t imagine why,” she said sarcastically.
Anne’s eyes followed those of Beatrice, the young woman realising that whenever she leant forward on the table she was giving those passing a nice view down her cleavage. She sat up straight. “They shouldn’t be looking,” she stated.
Beatrice laughed before grabbing a chair from a nearby table and sitting herself down opposite Anne. “Sometimes I do wonder about you. You’re a bloody outlaw for Christ’s sake, yet sometimes you come across more like a nun.”
“If you’ve just come to insult me, you can bugger off like I first suggested,” warned Anne.
“All right,” said Beatrice holding up her hands. She took a swig of her own drink and surveyed the room. “So what the hell are you doing in this place?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” noted Anne.
Beatrice swung her eyes back to Anne. “I was looking for someone,” she answered.
Anne knew that could only be one person. “Not Thomas by any chance?”
Beatrice nodded. “He’s gone missing on me again,” she said in frustration. “I don’t know what’s going on with him. One minute I get the impression he’s about to propose, the next he’s acting like a frightened rabbit and running off whenever he sees me coming.”
“You can be quite intimidating,” Anne ventured, “Maybe he’s just plucking up the courage to ask you.”
“Well he better bloody get on with it, I’m not getting any younger,” laughed Beatrice. “Anyway, what’s up with you?”
“Who said there’s anything up with me?”
“Because you’re slurring your words.”
“I am not,” stated Anne indignantly, keeping her answer short just in case it was true.
Beatrice wasn’t going to be easily fooled. “How many have you had exactly?”
Anne knew she wasn’t drunk, maybe a little tipsy but certainly not drunk. “Including this one?” she asked. Beatrice nodded and Anne made a show of thinking about it before answering. “One.”
Beatrice nearly choked on her own drink. “One? Jesus Christ, talk about not being able to hold your drink! I thought you outlaw types were all hardened drinkers.”
“Just like all maids are loose women and having affairs with their masters you mean?”
Beatrice gave her an unamused look. “Very funny. Just for the record I was never knocking off Lord Markham. Or her ladyship for that matter, let me quickly add, before you start whipping your sword out and chasing me round the tavern.” Beatrice’s eyes settled on Anne’s face as she spoke. “Though I can see I’ve hit a nerve,” she noted. “It’s Katherine isn’t it? What’s she done now?”
“Nothing.” It was odd hearing Beatrice use Katherine’s first name informally, few people did, especially not servants. Anne supposed it was allowed given what they were discussing.
Beatrice leant across the table. “Just tell me, or I’m going to sit here staring at you until you do.”
Anne studied the other woman’s face realising she meant it. Not really having the energy for the fight, she sighed before answering. “I don’t know really, I’ve just got the feeling something’s not quite right. At the moment it’s almost like Katherine actually believes in the roles we’re playing, that I really am just her servant who she can order about and dismiss as required.”
Beatrice looked surprised by the revelation. “You’re joking, right? She loves you! It’s obvious.”
“Does she?” questioned Anne, playing devil’s advocate. “Sometimes it feels like it’s more one-sided, that I’m devoting all my time and attention to her and for what?”
Beatrice was starting to see where Anne was going. “You feel like she takes you for granted?”
Anne wasn’t entirely sure herself, and the drink wasn’t helping her thought process decipher what it was she did think. Maybe she was slightly more drunk than she had realised. “I guess so,” she said, “Not that I do what I do because I expect gratitude or thanks – I do it because I love her and would do anything for her.” Now Anne knew she’d had one too many. She would never normally blurt out her feelings as she was doing. Her mouth seemed to have a mind of its own though.
Beatrice was listening intently, interested in seeing this other side to Anne. “Just sometimes it would be nice to feel a bit more appreciated?” deduced the dark-haired woman.
“Yes,” agreed Anne. “Of course I want to support her, be there for her, but just recently it feels like even that isn’t enough, that I do the wrong thing no matter how hard I try.”
“She has seemed a bit strained with everyone recently,” mused Beatrice, “Under pressure. Maybe it’s not you in particular she’s off with.”
Anne nodded. “You’re right that there are added responsibilities on her shoulders at the moment that I can’t really talk about. Suffice to say Katherine is more burdened than normal. Only that means I don’t feel I can tell her anything that’s going on with me, how I feel, because it just seems insignificant in comparison.”
Beatrice picked up on the underlying meaning. “Is there something going on with you?”
Anne cursed her runaway mouth. “No,” she answered though it was obvious she was lying. Beatrice simply looked at her, intimating she knew as much with her doubtful expression.
“Maybe, yes,” conceded Anne eventually, “But I’d rather not talk about it.”
“At least not with me.”
Beatrice was spot on, so there was no point denying it. “Sorry,” said Anne in apology.
“No, I understand,” said Beatrice, “You want to talk to her, you need her.”
Anne exhaled, running her fingers slowly round her battered mug. “She just seems so distant at the moment,” she said sorrowfully. “We just don’t seem to have the time for each other. It’s almost like we’re lurching from one crisis to another without the chance to catch breath. Obviously we’ve never been able to spend as much time with each other as we’d like, and sometimes I wonder if that’s ever going to change. Then I start asking myself if I can go on like this, with no prospect of really sharing a life together.”
“And the alternative is?”
Anne held the inquisitive gaze for a moment as an image of that situation flashed through her mind. “To hideous to contemplate,” she quickly said, shaking it away. “And I know it would never come to pass, not if I had anything to do with it at least. I love Katherine too much to ever let her go while I still have breath in my body.”
“But you’re not sure if she feels the same?” asked Beatrice pointedly.
Anne had always been so sure before, but now they were actually discussing it, some doubts arose in her mind. “I know she loves me,” she stated perhaps to try and convince herself as much, “But…”
“You wish she would show it more?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Anne said quickly, “It’s not like things are falling apart completely, we still have the passion, the desire. Only at times it feels like that’s all there is, the love and closeness seems to have gone.”
Beatrice mulled over Anne’s words for a moment. “It sounds to me like it’s just a rocky patch – we all go through it. When things are tough in our life and we’re devoting a lot of time and effort to something, it’s just natural that we take it away from something else. Unfortunately that’s often our loved ones.”
Anne wasn’t particularly reassured. “So basically I should sit it out and hope we sail through the rocks?”
Beatrice shrugged. “And if worst comes to the worst you can be a single girl like me!”
“You aren’t single,” pointed out Anne.
Beatrice tutted as if that was a minor point. “I might be soon if Thomas doesn’t get his finger out!”
Katherine slumped down onto her bed, having managed to get away during a break in the competition. The heat was tiring and it didn’t help that she had a pounding headache from the night before. She lay where she had fallen for a moment, just breathing in and out and not trying to think about anything. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before images and thoughts encroached on her momentary peace.
First and foremost were those of her father. After her nightmare she’d found it hard to get back off to sleep, tossing and turning the night away under sticky sheets. She sat up now, reaching for the cloak that held his letter. It was like a scab she couldn’t stop picking at.
Only the cloak wasn’t where she had left it the night before. In some agitation she leapt of the bed, furiously hunting round the room for it. She was still tossing articles frantically around when the door opened and Beatrice stepped into the room.
Katherine’s eyes darted immediately to her. “Have you seen my cloak?” she demanded.
Beatrice looked a little taken aback by the sharp question. “The dark red one?” she asked tentatively.
“I put it away in the wardrobe,” answered the maid, crossing over to retrieve it.
As soon as she pulled it from the wardrobe, Katherine snatched it off her. “I’d thank you not to touch my things.”
Beatrice merely looked incredulously at her as Katherine verified the letter was still safely in the inner pocket.
“What are you talking about?” asked the maid, a slight air of annoyance creeping into her tone, “I always tidy your things away.”
“This time you shouldn’t have,” snapped Katherine, not appreciating being talked back to.
“And how was I meant to know that?” continued Beatrice, stubbornly thrusting her hands on her hips, “Am I meant to be privy to your increasingly crazy wishes?”
Katherine just caught her angry retort before it spilled forth. Instead she clamped her mouth shut and stared back at the obstinate maid, trying to batten down her simmering fury. Beatrice didn’t flinch under the steely gaze. Standing there exchanging furious looks, a sane thought managed to work its way to the fore of Katherine’s mind. It suddenly occurred to her that she was acting crazed, or at least half-crazed. She glanced down at the cloak that was still in her hand and shook her head. What was becoming of her?
Katherine sighed and walked back over to the bed where she sat once more. Beatrice followed her over, but remained standing.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on,” began the maid, “But the last couple of months you’ve been like a bear with a very sore head.”
Katherine let out a rueful laugh at the candour. “I’m sorry if I’ve been off with you,” she said with a sigh, “There is something that’s been plaguing me, something I have to do.”
Beatrice took the opportunity to sit. “You could tell me, you know, a problem shared and all that.”
Katherine glanced to the young woman whose dark eyes were inviting her to speak. “I wish I could, but you’re better off not knowing.”
“But this task is important?” prompted Beatrice.
“More important than anything else?”
The comment hung for a moment before Katherine replied. “What are you getting at?”
“Sometimes we get so caught up in the pursuit of our goals, we forget that which is most important to us…those who are most important to us.”
“You mean Anne,” deduced Katherine, surprised by the degree of sadness in her own voice. “Has she said something to you?”
“No, but it’s obvious she’s not happy,” replied Beatrice, “And I can’t say as I blame her if you’re the same way with her as you have been with everyone else.”
Katherine put her head in her hands, running her fingers
into the strands of her hair. She knew
Beatrice was right. It was hard to pin
down when it had started, but lately she and Anne seemed to be simply drifting
along, getting more and more distant as other tasks took greater
importance. She supposed it had begun
sometime around when she’d first discovered her father’s letter and they’d
You know you could try just talking to her, Beatrice remarked, reading Katherine’s thoughts.
Having returned late from town, Anne found that Katherine’s quarters were empty when she eventually made it to them. She wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or not for that fact. Part of her wanted to speak to the other woman, try and sort out what was going on with them, while the other part of her was scared to bring it up in case she didn’t get the answers she wanted. She didn’t have long to mull that over, as the door behind her opened. Anne was thankful to see it was Beatrice.
“You’re wanted on the roof,” the maid informed her succinctly.
“The roof? What for?”
“Who am I to question the orders of our great mistress,” replied Beatrice sarcastically, “She just asked that I send you up there when you got back.”
Anne sighed. So it was another order was it? Another summons to perform some task?
“Are you waiting for something?” prompted Beatrice.
“No, nothing at all,” replied Anne flatly. She exited the room, pausing for a moment outside the door. She had a good mind not to bother going up to the roof. Let Katherine wait for naught. Yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to stand the other woman up. With an air of resignation Anne ascended the winding stone stairs that led to the upper levels.
Though it was late in the evening, there was still some light as she came out onto the exposed rooftop. It was the longest day of the year, midsummer’s eve, so the twilight would last well into the night. The absorbed heat of the day was radiating from the stone of the house, making it pleasantly warm outside. As Anne cast her eyes around, there was no one immediately apparent on the roof that was flanked on all sides by battlements. Anne wondered if Katherine was playing some sort of game. Then she saw it, a faint flickering light issuing from round the back of where she had come out. Anne wandered round the tower, finding the incongruous sight of Katherine sitting cross-legged on a rug that was laid with food and drink and lit by a couple of candles.
Anne raised a single eyebrow in query. “What are you doing?”
Katherine held out a goblet to the young woman. “Waiting for you.”
Something about the way the candlelight sparkled off Katherine’s blue-grey eyes led Anne to accept the wine and take up a seat opposite the other woman. She waited for Katherine to continue, intrigued by where this was going.
“I know I’ve been distant at times recently,” began Katherine with uncharacteristic hesitance, “Pre-occupied, distracted…and I wanted to say I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel like I don’t need you, if I’ve been shutting you out. I know I’ve been pretty awful…”
Anne went to speak but Katherine quickly cut her off. “You don’t need to try and contradict me, I’m willing to admit I’ve been a complete pain in the arse to be with! I’m not going to try and excuse it, I just wanted to try and explain if I can.”
Anne simply nodded, thankful that Katherine was talking to her at last. It had been some time in coming, but hopefully worth the wait.
Katherine licked her lips nervously. “I’ve just found it difficult to come to terms with how I feel about…everything.”
“You mean how you feel about your father,” prompted Anne.
“Yes, my father,” agreed Katherine quietly. She had to stop for a moment to find the words to continue. “I don’t think I wanted to admit to myself, let alone anyone else just how hurt I was, how hurt I still am.”
Katherine summoned the words to carry on. “I loved him so much, trusted him without question and then to find out…” she shook her head, unwilling to express it. “The feeling of betrayal is actually physically painful at times. And even worse is that I’ve got no recourse – I can’t ask him why he did it or get any answers, all I have is the letter as an explanation. Yet that’s no real explanation at all. It gives me the bare bones on which I can hang all sorts of fanciful scenarios of what really happened all those years ago - from my father being a reluctant participant somehow blackmailed into joining the Syndicate, to him being a cold, calculated ruthless tyrant and everything in between.”
“My thoughts and emotions on the whole thing have been all over the place. I can’t help it, but one of those overriding emotions is anger. I’m angry with him for keeping it from me, angry with him for betraying my trust, angry with him for leaving me this task. I mean, why should I complete what he failed to? Why should I have to tidy up after his mistakes?”
Anne knew the questions were rhetorical, so didn’t interrupt Katherine’s flow.
“Yet of course he knew I would,” she added ruefully, “Else he wouldn’t have left the task to me in the first place. It seems that he knew me well enough to know that I wouldn’t shirk the responsibility, and that just makes me angry too – that he could predict how I would act whereas I obviously knew him so little. I’m not sure I can trust my own judgement regarding anyone anymore if I could know someone for a lifetime and still get them so wrong…”
Katherine finally trailed off, her eyes drifting out to the evening sky that was shading to black now. She looked so forlorn and lost that Anne forgot any last anger of her own. Moving some of the plates aside, she shuffled closer across the rug, taking Katherine’s hands and placing them in her lap. Katherine turned back to her, eyes searching Anne’s face for something Anne couldn’t quite identify. Hope? Meaning?
Anne held the gaze as she spoke. “You know I spent a lot of years being angry too, hating my parents for leaving me alone. I couldn’t reconcile what had happened, couldn’t understand it, so I channelled my emotions into something I could understand, something that was powerful and strong and that I could hold onto in those uncertain times - hate. Yet all I really succeeded in doing was damaging myself, make myself hard and bitter. If I’d been able to see past the pain and anger I might have realised sooner that they were only trying to protect me, that they’d only ever wanted what was best for me. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to see it do the same to you. You need to see past this, see beyond the negatives.”
Katherine sighed. “There’s one small difference – your parents were good people who made a noble sacrifice, my father ran an organisation responsible for misery and suffering. I thought he was the perfect father and all the time he was doing…well, god knows what.”
“It’s true he obviously made some mistakes,” agreed Anne, “But he can’t have been all bad if he raised you. I don’t think that was a lie, that he loved his family. Sometimes circumstances make us do terrible things, things we would rather not do.”
“He chose that life though,” pointed out Katherine bitterly, “No one was forcing him to join the Syndicate.”
“You don’t know that,” reasoned Anne. “You don’t know how it started. Maybe what they wanted him to do at the start seemed reasonable at the time. One small thing, that led to one other small thing, then something bigger. Sometimes it’s hard to see where we’re going until we get there. I’m not necessarily defending him, I’m just saying everything isn’t always black and white.”
Katherine sighed heavily again. “I suppose I have to accept that I’m never going to know the real truth. It’s not as if there’s anyone left to tell me.”
Anne wished she could say something comforting, but unfortunately Katherine was right. It was unlikely they would ever find anyone to shed any light on the past, unless they found some talkative members of the Syndicate. That was exceedingly unlikely, given recent experience. “All you can do is go by what you did know, believe that it wasn’t all a lie,” she tried to offer, “That the part he kept hidden was actually only a small part of who he really was.”
It seemed small comfort. “I suppose so,” allowed Katherine mulling it over before she continued. “I wonder how we know when we’re on that path that leads to damnation? When we’ve taken that wrong turn that leads to another? When do our actions turn from being committed to a cause to being self-serving?”
Anne took a moment before answering, guessing the underlying meaning of the words. “Katherine, you are not your father.”
“Are you sure? How about how I’ve been recently? I’ve been blind to everything apart from this bloody quest, his bloody quest.”
Katherine stared at her, unsure of the meaning. “Now?”
“Are you blind now?”
Katherine drew in a slow breath. “No.”
Anne nodded. “No, you’re not. You’ve realised what’s happening, that’s the important difference. There’s time to do something about it. Maybe your father realised his mistakes too, his letter intimates as much, but it was too late for him to rectify them. I know you have the strength to complete this task and maintain a hold of your identity and principles.”
Katherine dropped her eyes to the hands in Anne’s lap. “Not alone, though,” she said softly. She had to clear her throat as she raised her head again. “I know you don’t have to come traipsing after me on this quest…”
Anne interrupted. “But I want to…”
Katherine reached out a hand to touch Anne’s arm, cutting her off. “I know you do, she said gently, “And maybe I’ve been taking advantage of that fact. I know I don’t even have to ask, I just assume you’ll go along with whatever I want. Katherine’s voice was barely above a whisper now. But I want you to know that above all else I need you by my side, that I couldn’t do this without you.”
Seeing Katherine gazing so earnestly at her, Anne felt a
sudden lump in her throat, and had to swallow it down before she replied. “You did all right before I ever came along,”
Anne recalled, surprising herself with her own words Katherine was telling her
all she had been waiting and hoping to hear, yet here she was challenging
it. Perhaps she just needed to be sure. “You were running
Katherine let out a long sigh, closing her eyes for a minute, remembering that time before they’d met. “Oh, I was running the estate fine,” she eventually said, “But inside I was slowly withering away, lost to my duties and responsibilities. That wouldn’t have been sustainable in the long run,” she focussed on Anne once more, “Not without your love.”
Anne was lost to the look, unable to speak even if she had wanted to. Fortunately Katherine seemed to have words enough for both of them.
“Even if I give the impression of being strong and in control, everyone needs support once in a while, someone to pick them up when they founder, someone to keep them going when all seems dark. At least there are some people I know I can count on to be there for me no matter what.” She met Anne’s gaze, to show just who she meant if there was any question. “It’s your support that gives me that strength and determination. Don’t ever think that I don’t appreciate that.”
Anne swallowed hard again. How could she ever have doubted? Her heart was in her mouth but somehow she managed to speak. “I won’t.”
A tiny half smile flickered at the corner of Katherine’s mouth. “I know things have been strained recently,” she confessed, “What with Robert and Alan and everything else…”
Anne made to speak, afraid that what had been going so well was about to go downhill fast at the mention of the dead outlaw’s name, but Katherine cut her off before she could say a word.
“…And I wanted to say sorry.”
Anne had to take a moment, repeating the word to make sure she had heard right. “Sorry?”
“For not being more understanding,” clarified Katherine, “For not thinking about how you might be feeling. I know you only did what you did to protect me and I threw it back in your face. I might not have agreed with how you did it, but I can understand why. In a way it humbles me to think you would go that far on my behalf.”
Anne wrapped her own fingers around Katherine hands, feeling the connection that tingled up her arms. “There is nowhere I wouldn’t go for you.”
Katherine’s face crumpled for the barest of moments before she reined it in, though the husky timbre in her voice was more than enough to betray her emotions. “I promise to devote more time and attention to you in the future,” she stated with conviction, “Rather than sidelining you to whatever latest crisis is befalling me or the estate,” she added with a half-hearted laugh.
Anne couldn’t help but laugh in response, needing to break the tension of the moment. “Well, the latest crisis is certainly a good one,” she replied with a smile, “So I guess I can forgive you.”
The tension in Katherine seemed to have eased too, Anne feeling the relaxation in the hands that still sat in her lap. “Still, I think I forget that you do have a life too,” said Katherine, “One that I keep taking you away from.”
Anne chuckled again. “Believe me, I’d rather be here. I’m sure the guys can handle robbing from the rich and giving to the poor without me every once in a while.”
Katherine tilted her head to the side, favouring Anne with a dubious look but didn’t say anything further.
Anne glanced away from the curious gaze, down to the rug. “I suppose we ought to eat some of this,” she remarked, gesturing to the food on the plates.
Katherine didn’t immediately question the sudden change in topic. “Be my guest.”
Anne suddenly realised she hadn’t eaten all day, and hungrily devoured a large hunk of ham. She noted that Katherine wasn’t joining her. Instead the other woman spoke up.
“So you’re all right, there’s nothing bothering you?”
Anne continued to eat and avoid Katherine’s eyes. “No.” She could almost feel Katherine’s doubt washing over her through the warm night air, and it didn’t take long for the other woman to vocalise it.
“I thought we were being honest here.”
Anne swallowed her latest mouthful. There was nowhere to hide, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Her eyes flicked up, finding Katherine’s blue-grey ones fixed on her, seeming bright in the fast fading light.
“I don’t want to trouble you further,” attempted Anne.
Katherine placed a hand over Anne’s. It was partly reassuring and partly to stop her trying to stall further by picking up any more items off the plates. “Just tell me.”
Anne took a moment to wipe her hands on her rough dress, giving her a chance to compose her thoughts. “It’s about Father Cooper…and some other things.”
“Father Cooper?” repeated Katherine anxiously on hearing the name of the priest who had kidnapped Anne. “What is it? Have you seen him since Maplebeck? Is he here? Is he after the Ares object too?”
“No, no nothing like that,” Anne quickly answered, seeing how worried Katherine had become, “Father Cooper wasn’t in the Ares Syndicate.”
Now the other woman just looked confused. “Wasn’t in the Syndicate? But you said…”
“I never said anything, you just assumed.”
Katherine had to think about it for a second. “But if he wasn’t in the Syndicate what was all that business with kidnapping you?”
“He wanted something else from me.” Katherine looked horrified again, and Anne suddenly realised how that sounded. “Not like that,” she added swiftly.
The sigh of relief from Katherine was audible on the quiet rooftop. “Then what?”
Anne licked her lips uncertainly, but there was no going back now. “He wanted my pagan powers.”
“Your…but…” Katherine’s confusion was growing by the moment. “You gave those up…didn’t you?”
“So I thought, only…”
“There have been a few occasions when there were indications they were returning,” explained Anne.
“When were these?” asked Katherine in consternation, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t want to bother you, not when I was unsure myself and not when you had so much else to worry about.”
“Have I really been that unapproachable?” Katherine wondered out loud. The sorrow in her voice was palpable, and Anne couldn’t resist stroking a reassuring hand down the other woman’s arm.
Katherine gave a rueful smile in response. “So what were these indications, when did they start?”
“The first time was on the way back from
“And since then?”
“There was another time with your hawk,” recalled the young woman, “You know you asked me what I had said to her to make her so calm when you found us? Well, it was more like the other way around. I was convinced she gave me an image of you, just before you arrived. But I dismissed it until Father Cooper. He claimed he could sense that I still had the power within me and that he wanted it.”
“But he didn’t manage to get it?” asked a concerned Katherine.
“No, thanks to your timely intervention.”
“But before that?”
“There was a part of the ritual…” Anne closed her eyes to try and remember it better, though it wasn’t exactly pleasant “…Even through the pain I felt something,” she tried to explain, but it was hard to describe what was little more than an instinctual feeling. “Since then the flashes have been more frequent. I had one only yesterday. I just don’t know what’s happening.”
“And do you want them back?” asked Katherine pertinently, “I know you always made out they were more a burden than anything, and tried to make light of sacrificing those abilities, but they were still a part of you.”
Anne nodded, knowing the truth of the words. She had missed those abilities more than she had ever thought she would. “If I’m being truthful, I’d have to say I would like them back, even if it was just that connection, that closeness with nature and nothing else.” The next statement was hard for her to express, she didn’t like to openly show weakness, yet this evening it seemed the right thing to do. “At the same time I’m scared,” she confessed, “What if it’s not the same? Or what if I have been imagining it all along?”
“I’m sure you haven’t,” Katherine stated with confidence, “It sounds like there have been too many incidents for it to be coincidence or wishful thinking.” She hung onto Anne’s hands, squeezing them gently. “Whatever happens, you know I’ll be there for you.”
A warm breeze floated across the rooftop, picking at the ends of Katherine’s hair as she held Anne’s gaze. It was nearly dark now, the only illumination the guttering candles whose flickering flames highlighted the red strands of the other woman’s hair. It seemed only natural for Anne to edge closer.
“By the way,” whispered Katherine, “There is one other thing I forgot to say.”
Anne tilted her head to the side inquisitively, causing Katherine to smile at the gesture. Her fingers came up and brushed Anne’s cheek. The touch was so light, that the young woman thought she might be imagining that too. Katherine leant ever closer, so close that Anne could see the tiny dark flecks in her irises. Katherine gave one last soft smile. “I love you.”
Then there was no more talking, there was just Katherine gently pushing her lips to Anne’s. Anne’s senses came alive at the touch, a warm glow radiating out to her very fingertips. The overwhelming stimulation flooding her was better than any ability to communicate with nature and she realised she’d happily sacrifice that a hundred times over if it meant she could have this. Eventually Katherine pulled back.
“I’m not sure I tell you enough,” she said softly, “Another thing I take for granted.”
Anne smiled reassuringly. “I have something for you that might help you remember.” Anne felt around in her pocket for it. “I think it’s still before isn’t it?”
Katherine looked intrigued. “Why is that relevant?”
“Because it’s a pagan tradition to give gifts on midsummer’s eve,” explained Anne, “It is our big festival of the year after all.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise,” said Katherine with a tinge of regret, “I haven’t got you anything.”
“That’s all right,” said Anne, “I didn’t expect you to, unless you’ve suddenly denounced the church and converted to paganism while I wasn’t looking?”
Katherine considered it for a moment. “No, all those white robes and dancing around hilltops naked isn’t really me.”
Anne laughed, “I don’t know, I think I’d kind of like to see that.”
Katherine chuckled too, before her curiosity got the better of her. “So what is this gift?”
Anne contemplated making her wait for a bit, of teasing her, but she couldn’t resist producing the object. Given her recent doubts, she’d been thinking that she might not get the right moment to present it, so she was more relieved than anything to be able to give it to Katherine.
Once Anne had passed the small object to her, Katherine had to hold it up to the light of the moon to get a better look. It was a pendant with a pink crystal dangling from the fine chain. “It’s beautiful,” noted Katherine appreciatively, “What stone is it?”
“It’s rose quartz,” said Anne watching the moonlight playing off the many facets, “It’s a crystal that’s closely tied to the heart and love,” she added. “Would you like me to put it on for you?”
Katherine grinned, Anne’s stomach doing one of its strange flips on seeing the genuine smile directed at her. She had missed those smiles. “Yes, please.” Katherine handed the pendant to her, her fingers lingering more than necessary in Anne’s palm before she let go of it.
Anne sidled round behind the other woman, and fastened the clasp about her neck. As Katherine had done moments before, Anne allowed her own fingers to stray from the chain onto Katherine’s skin, stroking along the line of her dress. Anne leant forward to whisper in Katherine’s ear.
“It’s just in case you ever forget me again.”
Anne noticed the small shudder of arousal from Katherine as her breath floated past her ear. Katherine turned her head enough to catch Anne’s eye. “I could never forget you.”
After their heart to heart on the rooftop, Katherine and Anne resolved to focus their joint efforts on locating the final Ares object. With that in mind they both stayed behind at the house the following day, Katherine managing to excuse herself from attending the day’s festivities. Having split up to cover more ground, Katherine discovered the house was nearly deserted, as she had been hoping. She had almost free rein to explore at leisure. Any servants she did encounter didn’t dare challenge her presence. She methodically worked her way through the rooms, seeking out anything that might be the Ares item, but the mark was frustratingly absent. It was late afternoon when she had an unwelcome encounter on one of the upper floors. Coming to the top of the stairs she spotted Lord Chesterfield ahead of her. Unfortunately he too had seen her.
“Ah, Katherine!” he beamed, “I was hoping I might find you, Saskia said you were back here.” Katherine gave a wan, forced smile in return. “I was hoping to speak to you about that maid of yours,” he continued, “The buxom girl,” he added by means of identification with a disgusting groping gesture to accompany it. “I was hoping we might be able to come to some arrangement…”
Katherine gritted her teeth at the way he was talking about Anne. Now she had awoken from her introverted thoughts, Katherine resolved she wasn’t going to put up with his obnoxious and chauvinistic behaviour. She couldn’t believe she had been actively encouraging Anne to pander to him, it must have been unbearable. Katherine just thanked god things had progressed in any way, else she might have been forced to introduce Lord Chesterfield’s private parts to her dagger…or a rusty scythe…or a pitchfork…
“Katherine?” prompted Lord Chesterfield, breaking her out of her malicious daydreams.
“I’m afraid my maid will not be available today or any other day,” stated Katherine firmly.
Lord Chesterfield wasn’t to be put off though. “She can’t be busy all the time, share and share alike I say.”
Katherine could feel her blood boiling as she rounded on him. Her anger was partly directed at him and partly at her own previous casual attitude that had encouraged him. She moved up close, invading his personal space as she fixed him with a deathly and unwavering stare. She hoped she was making him feel as uncomfortable as he no doubt made his female servants feel. She had to fight hard to keep her temper in check else she would say something she really regretted.
“Anne is not a commodity to be traded about by bored noblemen,” she said evenly, amazed she managed to get the sentence out without any curse words in it. “I suggest that you find a more productive way to occupy your time, and not waste it chasing after the latest beautiful woman to cross your path.” Katherine paused, staring just that bit harder to emphasise the point that Anne was completely off limits. Lord Chesterfield couldn’t maintain eye contact and had to glance away, giving Katherine the victory she was after. “Why not direct your attentions to ensuring the welfare of the people on your land, rather than ensuring your own cravings are catered for?” Katherine was really warming to her subject now, with Lord Chesterfield representing all that was wrong with the nobility. “We are meant to be the guardians of these people not their oppressors.”
Katherine couldn’t quite believe she had spoken to her host so brazenly, but it felt good. Lord Chesterfield appeared just as taken aback, not knowing quite what to make of it. He certainly seemed incapable of speech at that moment.
Katherine stepped back, satisfied her point had been made. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.” She turned and walked off down the corridor, leaving him rooted to the spot. There was an added bounce to her walk as a small smile broke across her face.
Meanwhile, Anne had also been searching the manor house nearly all day too, and was starting to think they were never going to find even a clue as to the whereabouts of the Ares object. She was contemplating giving up for the day when she’d finally had a stroke of luck. She’d overheard one of the maids talking about a quill in the Lord’s chamber that possessed odd markings and that he was very protective of. Knowing he shouldn’t yet be back from the fields, Anne realised she had the perfect opportunity to search his quarters. Not having time to let Katherine in on her plans if she wanted to take advantage of the short window of opportunity she headed straight up there.
Lord Chesterfield’s chambers were sumptuously decorated, everything made from fine fabrics or lined with gold. Anne wondered how many peasants had suffered and gone without food to finance the overt decadence. She was halfway round the room, delving through a cabinet made of a polished dark wood that she didn’t even recognise, when the sound of the door handle echoed round the large room. Her heart skipped a beat as the door swung open. She was stuck with nowhere to go. Her only choice was to try and brazen it out, so she simply stood up in full view.
Lord Chesterfield did a double take as he saw her there, before a smile crept across his face. “Well, well, well, if you wanted to see me, you just had to ask.”
There was no option but to play along and hope she could talk her way out of it. “I wasn’t sure I could m’lord,” she replied demurely.
She deduced the comment had been the right thing to say when his smile widened. “Would you join me for a drink?”
There was no way she could say no at that moment so she simply nodded, wondering how far she might have to continue the charade before she could find a way to leave. Lord Chesterfield had gone over to another cabinet, pulling the cork from an unmarked bottle and pouring some blood-coloured liquid for them both. He offered a goblet to her.
“To new friends?”
Anne took it and clinked the cup to his before drinking. She tried not to drink too much, knowing her propensity for being affected by alcohol. However, Lord Chesterfield was watching her intently over the rim of his own goblet, studying her every movement.
Eventually he lowered his drink and placed it down with deliberate slowness on a table. He sat down on the edge of the bed, his eyes on her the whole time. The perusal was uncomfortable, penetrating. Anne knew exactly where he was hoping the encounter would end up.
“Come, sit down.” His voice was soft, enticing.
Anne realised that if she didn’t get out of there soon there would be no turning back. “I really should be going,” she attempted, putting her own drink down next to his, “My lady will be wondering where I am.”
“I’m sure Katherine can spare you for a bit.”
“I really can’t…”
Without warning he grabbed her hand, pulling her close. Anne stumbled, having to reach down onto the bed beside him to steady herself. Seeing she was off-balance, he seized his chance and leant up to press his lips to hers. He smelt of wine, his lips rough, a slight stubble on his chin chaffing against her skin.
Anne immediately shoved Lord Chesterfield back down onto the bed. Strangely he was laughing as she did. When Anne had managed a couple of steps in the direction of the door she realised why. The dizziness hit her out of the blue and she staggered to the side, crashing heavily into the table. The goblets spun off it and clattered to the floor. The ringing of the metal on the flagstones echoed painfully in her head. Anne clutched at her throbbing temple, desperately trying to focus as her vision blurred alarmingly. The whole room was spinning as she tried to straighten up. Somewhere far off she could still hear the Lord’s laughter. She swung unsteadily towards the sound, seeing him still sitting on the bed.
She took a single laboured step. “You…drugged…me…”
He merely nodded, regarding her with interested amusement. Anne managed one more step before her legs gave way and she hit the floor with a thump.
Katherine glanced at her door for the hundredth time. Where the hell was Anne? She should have been back by now. Katherine got up and paced back and forth,
but that didn’t help so she sat back down in the regal chair by the
window. It was getting dark outside, the
eerie quiet of dusk descending over the countryside. The situation was all too reminiscent of when
they had been at
Suddenly there was a knock at the door and Katherine shot up from her seat to yank it open. Only it wasn’t Anne, but the much less welcome sight of Saskia at her door. The other woman held up a bottle. “Care to join me for a drink, you look like you need one.”
Katherine’s mind was telling her to say no, but on the other hand she did need one. She couldn’t immediately think of the best way to say no either, and before the moment became too awkwardly long she ushered Saskia inside.
“Is everything all right,” asked Saskia as she poured the deep red liquid for both of them, “Only you seem somewhat on edge. Is this anything to do with why we didn’t see you at the festival today?”
Katherine couldn’t help glancing distractedly to the door as she accepted the offered drink. “No, I’m just waiting on some news.”
“Nothing bad I hope,” commented Saskia. She had made herself comfortable on the edge of Katherine’s bed.
Katherine downed her drink in one go. “I hope not too,” she remarked to herself.
“Come, sit down, before you wear out my rug with all that pacing,” said Saskia with amusement.
Somehow Katherine found herself sitting on the bed, not really recalling making a conscious decision to follow Saskia’s suggestion. When she turned to the other woman she saw Saskia regarding her keenly, too keenly. Then Saskia’s hand was on her face, stroking down the skin. The sensation felt strangely disconnected from her own senses and Katherine was finding it hard to process the moment, the situation not really registering in her mind. Where was she again? What was she doing there?
Saskia was edging closer on the bed until their thighs were touching. Katherine could only look down bemusedly at the two legs pushed together, it didn’t even seem like one was hers. It took some effort to lift her suddenly heavy head up. When she did she found Saskia’s face right in front of her. It only took a slight movement for her to press her lips to Katherine’s.
Katherine’s eyelids naturally slid shut as she relaxed into the kiss. She had little control now, her body having taken over and pushed away conscious thought. It all seemed like it was someone else doing these things and she was just along for the ride. Yet beneath it all her mind was still active. It was struggling to be heard, but somewhere in the deep recesses of her thoughts there was something nagging away, telling her this was wrong. It battled its way up through the haze, stabbing itself prominently forward.
Katherine’s eyes shot open, and she pulled back from Saskia in horror. Her head was still swimming and she had to blink a few times, finding it hard to focus on the other woman’s face. Her eyes swung lazily to the goblet that sat on the table, her mind making the connection despite the fog that was sweeping her brain. “What…what did you give me…?”
Saskia gave a wicked smile, but didn’t answer. Katherine tried to push up from the bed but her arms were heavy, unresponsive. The feeling quickly spread to the rest of her body and she slumped back onto the covers, darkness sweeping over her.
When she did wake, Katherine’s head was slumped forward resting on her chest, her first view being of her skirted lap and the stone floor at her feet. Katherine found she couldn’t immediately lift her head, or move any of the rest of her body for that matter. There was a dull pounding in her brain and a cottony taste in her mouth. She swallowed a few times to try and get rid of it while struggling to raise her head.
The throbbing in her mind made it hard to focus her thoughts, but the fact that Saskia had slipped something into her drink was obvious. What it was and for what purpose Saskia had given it to her, Katherine could only imagine. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her bed and realised that she was still in her own room. There were some strange muffled noises coming from somewhere and she wasn’t sure if it was from inside her own mind. Everything was confusing and muddled. Katherine scrunched her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths before finally managing to force her head into an upright position.
She was met by the vision of Saskia. She had changed out of her plain dress into something far more revealing. The fabric was jet black and clung to all the curves of her body. In particular it dipped down low at the neck, displaying the porcelain white skin of her chest. Seeing that Katherine was awake, Saskia’s bright red lips curved up at the corners. She eased closer and Katherine could see that there was a long slit up the side of her dress so that a titillating expanse of thigh was shown on each step. Katherine tried to engage her mouth to speak but was finding it difficult to move it as with the rest of her body.
Meanwhile, Saskia bent down over Katherine, whose head flopped back down listlessly when she tried to flinch away. Katherine could see Saskia running her hands up her own arms. There was a faint tickling where the other woman’s fingers brushed the short hairs, the first indication that Katherine had any sort of feeling in her body.
“Let yourself go,” whispered Saskia, “You know you want to.”
When Katherine managed to look up again, Saskia’s face was hovering right before her, each hot breath whispering out over her lips. Katherine could smell the wine on them and then suddenly she was tasting it too. Saskia’s kiss was surprisingly soft, a simple teasing caress. Katherine could do nothing but sit there and wait for it to finish, counting each second in her mind. Slowly Saskia pulled back and straightened up, a wicked grin on her face as she drew a finger across her moist lips.
“Exquisite. I can see we’re going to have fun.”
Katherine cleared her throat though her voice was still hoarse as she spoke. “What is it you want?” She had a fair inkling, but this could all be the prelude to something else. Maybe Saskia was in league with the Syndicate and was after information.
Saskia smiled again at the question “What is it I want? I would have thought that was obvious – I want you.”
Katherine realised the situation was dire. She’d thought Saskia had laid to rest what had happened in the past, or maybe that had been wishful thinking on her own part. Either way it was time to set the record straight once and for all. “I told you five years ago,” said Katherine, “There can never be anything like that between us.”
Saskia had started to walk around the back of Katherine’s chair. Katherine tried to follow her with her eyes, but her head was refusing to move that far. “You did say that at the time, that’s true,” came Saskia voice from behind her. It was followed by the touch of a hand, trailing languidly over Katherine’s shoulder. “But wasn’t that just because of some misguided loyalty to your husband? I realise you were just being the dutiful Christian wife. No adultery for you.”
Katherine could almost have laughed – if only Saskia knew.
“You’re not constrained by marriage now,” continued the other woman, “Unless you have any other commitments?”
Katherine didn’t answer, not about to give the woman any further ammunition.
Saskia had completed her circuit of the seated Katherine and was in front of her again. She reached out to trail a single finger seductively down Katherine’s right cheek. “You’re an attractive woman, I imagine you’ve had lots of suitors. Though I’m better than any of them.”
Katherine realised that it was much worse than she had feared. Previously she’d thought Saskia’s interest in her had been a simple curiosity, a desire to try out something different, nothing more. Yet here they were five years later and it was all the more intense. The look in Saskia’s eyes was only what Katherine could describe as feral. And this prey had nowhere to go.
Katherine had to try and talk some sense into the other woman who seemed blinded by lust. “And you’re an attractive woman too,” Katherine allowed, trying to pander to her ego, “Intelligent, witty. I like you as a friend.”
“Just a friend?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Suddenly Saskia pulled back, as if Katherine had dashed water in her face. “I see,” she said in clipped tones, devoid of the soft seduction of moments before. Katherine realised she’d obviously made a mistake, misjudged the situation. “And what do you require in someone for them to be more than a friend?”
Saskia paused, eyes boring into Katherine. Something in the piercing look casued Katherine’s heart rate to quicken further. Somehow she knew what was coming next.
“Blond hair?” offered Saskia slowly, watching for Katherine’s reaction, “Blue eyes?”
Katherine’s blood ran cold. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She was surprised she could speak her mouth was so dry.
Saskia slowly leant down closer once more, resting a hand on the arm of Katherine’s chair. Her eyes were cold now as they pierced into Katherine. Then maybe you need something to help you visualise what I mean.
Saskia’s fingers closed around the chair’s arm and swung Katherine round, the wooden legs scraping angrily across the stone floor. Now facing the other way, Katherine could see that they weren’t alone in the room. The indistinct noises she’d heard hadn’t been her foggy mind playing tricks on her after all; another person had made them. A very familiar person. A pair of frantic blue eyes fixed on Katherine from across the room. Katherine felt the lump catch in her own throat as she tried to swallow down her fear on seeing Anne captive too, the young woman bound and gagged before her.
Katherine turned her eyes up to Saskia who was hovering by her side. She tried to inject some steel into her voice as she spoke.
“What are you doing?” she demanded of Saskia. “Why have you kidnapped my maid?”
Saskia laughed loudly, but it wasn’t a humorous laugh. It was fake, calculated. Then all of a sudden she stopped dead, swinging down in front of Katherine instead. “There’s no need to keep up the pretence, Katherine,” she said with soft menace, her fingers rubbing over the back of Katherine’s hand where it rested on the arm of the chair, “You’re amongst friends now.”
Katherine’s skin was crawling at the touch, but she couldn’t seem to muster the energy to even pull her hand away. It was like her whole body was disconnected from her mind, out of her control. All she could do for now was watch as Lord Chesterfield appeared, walking across the room in Anne’s direction. Had he slipped Anne something similar to what Saskia had given her? If that were the case either it was milder or Anne’s body was better at fighting it off, because Katherine could see she was flexing her hands and trying to yank them out of the ropes that bound them to the chair.
The look on Lord Chesterfield’s face was similar to that of Saskia’s, like an animal toying with its captured prey. He stood in front of Anne watching her efforts to get free with amusement. “Now you’re not going to come out with any of that foul language again if I take this off are you?” He indicated the gag.
Of course Anne couldn’t answer, at least not with her mouth. The baleful look in her eyes was silent answer enough. Despite it, he reached round to untie the gag. Anne coughed and spluttered for a few moments before shooting him another deadly look. “Bastard.”
Lord Chesterfield laughed, turning to his wife who was standing behind Katherine again. “I think she likes me.”
Katherine could feel the fingers sliding across her shoulders, trailing a slow path along the fabric of her dress before they reached the bare skin at the nape of her neck. Saskia started to stroke the short strands of hair there, swirling her fingers round in gentle patterns. Katherine shuddered at the touch. Opposite Katherine, the fury written in Anne’s eyes was obvious, the young woman straining ever more urgently at the ropes that bound her.
Saskia’s head was by Katherine’s ear, whispering softly into it. “As I said we just want to be friends,” she said, “Very good friends. A bit like you and your maid here.”
Katherine barely had time to cast a reflexive glance at Anne before her head was yanked back by the scruff of her hair. She opened her mouth to cry out and suddenly her lips were covered by Saskia’s. The kiss was rough this time, the other woman’s tongue forcing it’s way into her mouth. Still Katherine was unable to move her limbs, unable to resist.
Eventually Saskia released her, Katherine’s head flopping back down. She wanted to wash her mouth out to get rid of the remnants of the kiss, but had to settle for spitting on the floor to show her disgust. She glared indignantly at Saskia. “You’re crazy! What makes you think you can just kidnap people and use them in your sick fantasies? You can’t keep us here forever. Just let us go now and I won’t report this to anyone.”
Saskia threw back her head to laugh again. It seemed Katherine’s bravado was having little impact. “You really think anyone would believe a word you say?” asked Saskia. “It would be your word against ours and who is everyone going to believe, the respectable Lord and Lady Chesterfield, or that odd noble lady from some backwater in Nottinghamshire who has the audacity to try and run an estate without a man?”
Katherine had to concede that Saskia was right, though she wasn’t going to admit as much out loud. There had to be another way out of this. Meanwhile, Saskia had come full circle again, only this time she didn’t stay standing when she came before Katherine. Instead Saskia slipped closer, spreading her legs so she could straddle the other woman’s lap and ease herself down onto it. The split in her dress parted helpfully to allow one naked leg to rest up against Katherine’s dress. Katherine could feel the heat from the other woman’s body pressing down onto her through the thin fabric.
“Don’t worry,” said Saskia, cupping Katherine’s chin in her hand, “We’ll look after you.”
Katherine managed to move her head enough to shake off the fingers. “Don’t touch me,” she spat, “I don’t want to be looked after by you or you husband.” Katherine looked over Saskia’s shoulder, seeing the Lord lingering close by a near apoplectic Anne.
Saskia seemed to find the defiant show of resistance amusing. “Now don’t be like that,” she said, “You just need to relax and enjoy yourself.” To show Katherine what she meant she placed Katherine’s hand on her exposed thigh, rubbing it back and forth since Katherine was unable to move it herself. Not that she would have wanted to caress Saskia’s leg if she could have. Katherine could feel the warmth of the flesh beneath her fingertips. “We know how passionate you can be.” Saskia looked back at Anne for a moment who was shooting her another dark look for the enforced fondling. Saskia ignored it and turned back to Katherine. “We’ve seen you two together.”
Katherine swallowed nervously, the pounding in her head starting up once more. Either the room was hot or she was, because she could feel the sweat starting to slip uncomfortably down her spine. Her thighs were moist too where Saskia continued to sit.
“What was it again?” said Saskia, “‘I could never forget you’” she added in a poor impersonation of Katherine.
Katherine stared incredulously at her on hearing her own words from the rooftop repeated to her. “You’ve been spying on us?”
“Oh yes,” admitted Saskia readily, “And very illuminating it’s been too. That day after you got here in the woods in particular was an eye-opener. I knew it was worth following you, even if you did nearly see me and then try to run away.”
Katherine felt the sickness welling up in her stomach. These two had been watching them, in their most intimate moments and they’d been completely oblivious. It made her skin crawl at the mere thought of it. Saskia on the other hand appeared to be in her element.
“I always knew you had it in you,” she said patronisingly, “I just knew some stuffy old fart like Mark couldn’t be the limit of your desires. I can see it in your eyes, she added leaning closer, “That lust for your own kind.” Her lips were a hairs breadth from Katherine’s.
“You are not my kind,” stated Katherine, obstinate to the last.
Saskia pulled back slightly. “What about if I said I had something you wanted?”
“You have nothing I want.”
“Not even this?” She snapped her fingers and Katherine saw Lord Chesterfield produce a quill that he handed to Saskia. As soon as it was in the other woman’s hand the Ares marking on it were obvious. “I always wondered what all that odd writing on it was,” mused Saskia.
Katherine didn’t say anything, not knowing how much Saskia really knew. Her mind was still frantically trying to come up with an escape route from the situation, but presently it appeared they were at the couple’s mercy. It occurred to Katherine that the only way out might be to play along, though how far she might need to go she didn’t want to contemplate.
Suddenly Saskia stood up, the weight lifting from Katherine’s legs. Saskia slinked across the room to Anne, before sitting herself sideways on Anne’s lap. When she brought her hand up to touch Anne’s cheek, Katherine could see the young woman desperately trying to lean back but she had nowhere to go.
“And what about you,” asked Saskia, “Am I your kind?”
“Only if you were impaled on the end of my sword.” The sharpness of Anne’s tone alone might have been enough to impale someone.
Saskia merely grinned, though. “Such feistiness and spirit.” She glanced up to the waiting Lord Chesterfield. “I can see why you like her.” Her eyes came back to Anne, scanning her face, searching for something. “But who are you really, hmm? If you’re a maid then I’m the Queen of France.”
“Pleased to meet you, your highness.”
Lord Chesterfield actually chuckled at the comment before his wife shot him a reproachful glance. “Bring me the green bottle please, darling,” she instructed him.
He dutifully retrieved the object as instructed, with Saskia getting up off Anne before he returned. Once the bottle was in her hand, the older woman stroked it lovingly. “Now are you going to take this nicely, or are we going to have to force you.”
Anne kept her mouth resolutely shut. Part of Katherine wished she would just concede, fearful of what Saskia might do in the face of resistance.
“I see,” noted Saskia, appearing to enjoy the obstinacy a little too much, “Force it is then.”
Saskia nodded to her husband who suddenly grabbed Anne’s head in his hands, wrenching it backwards so that her mouth was pointing up to the ceiling. Anne struggled in her chair, but she couldn’t break his grip without the use of her limbs. His fingers wormed their way into her jaw to prise it open, allowing Saskia to swiftly dump the contents of the bottle down Anne’s throat. Lord Chesterfield quickly jammed her jaw shut again before she could cough it up, holding her nose until she was forced to swallow. Their task complete, they finally released the now spluttering Anne.
“What did you give her?” demanded Katherine, scared to hear the answer, but trying to keep her voice calm despite that.
“Just a little something to loosen her tongue and inhibitions,” explained Saskia.
Katherine wasn’t sure whether she should be relieved or not. At least it wasn’t poison. If they were alive, there was still a chance for escape. Not that Anne looked like she was capable of that anymore. She was slumping back in her chair, head lolling to one side with a glazed look in her eye.
Saskia took her chin in her hand to bring the young woman’s head level. “So who are you?”
There was a slight slur to Anne’s words as she replied. “My name is Anne.”
Lord Chesterfield chuckled again, shrugging when Saskia darted him another venomous look. “You asked!” He said unrepentantly. Brushing his wife out of the way, he knelt down in front of the swaying Anne. He caught her by the shoulders to make her focus on him as best she could. “We know that,” he said, “What my lovely wife really meant is are you a maid?”
“No, I am not.”
“So what are you?”
“I’m an outlaw.”
Saskia’s incredulous gasp was loud in the otherwise quiet room. She looked back at Katherine in amazement. “You do like to live dangerously. And I thought I had outrageous tastes.”
Katherine wasn’t really listening, watching Anne instead. Her eyes were staring aimlessly around the room now she wasn’t being addressed by anyone. Katherine knew that Anne had lost any sense of inhibition given her frank answers. She was scared what else the young woman might reveal, but more fearful of what else might happen as Lord Chesterfield moved closer.
“You’re a dangerous woman, then,” he noted, “As well as an incredibly beautiful one.”
The instant his lips met Anne’s, Katherine’s heart stopped along with her breathing. They only started again when she felt a sudden hand on her own shoulder. It was Saskia. Katherine hadn’t even noticed she had moved back across the room to her chair.
Saskia bent down so she was looking over Katherine’s shoulder. “An erotic sight, isn’t it?” she whispered.
“No,” was all Katherine could manage. Still the Lord continued to kiss Anne, his hands cupping her face to his.
“I just think you need to let go a bit more, embrace those dark desires you aren’t willing to admit to.”
“No.” Katherine didn’t seem capable of anything else at that moment.
The show before her was a disgusting reminder of seeing Anne kissing Will Scarlett. At least then there’d been the excuse that she was possessed, though Katherine hadn’t known at the time. Katherine felt sick to her stomach, wanting to turn away but at the same time unable to.
Saskia was still behind her. “See, you can’t look away can you?” she crowed. Her hands slid over Katherine’s shoulders and on down the front of her dress. “Admit it, it makes you hot doesn’t it?” she teased Katherine. Her hands were now at Katherine’s lap, sliding back and forth across the fabric, pressing down on it. “I can feel your desire.”
Katherine was beyond answering now, her heart hammering in her chest, which was painfully tight. Finally Lord Chesterfield pulled back and Katherine let out an audible gasp of relief. The respite from her torment wasn’t long though. Anne was gazing back up at Lord Chesterfield, something akin to lust obvious in her expression.
“I want to touch you,” whispered the young woman.
Katherine screamed in her mind. Outwardly nothing was forthcoming past her dry lips. She didn’t think she could watch any more. She could actually taste the bile in her throat now, bitter, curdling her stomach further.
Meanwhile, Lord Chesterfield was smug beyond belief. “Of course you do,” he replied, “And who am I to deny you.”
“Wait!” called Saskia, her voice ringing loudly by Katherine’s ear. “She could be pretending.”
Lord Chesterfield glanced between his wife and the enraptured Anne. “With the amount you tipped down her throat? I don’t think so. But I can handle her either way,” he added confidently.
Dismissing his wife’s doubts, he eased off the ropes around Anne’s legs first. When she showed no sign of anything untoward he removed the ones from her wrists so she was totally unfettered. As he had assumed, Anne made no sudden bid for freedom. Instead she simply sat where she was, waiting for him. As he approached Anne’s fingers slid languidly over his waist, down his thighs, and back up over his buttocks.
Katherine could hardly breathe and yet still she watched, having to blink away a couple of tears that threatened her vision.
Anne’s hands gripped onto the Lord’s trousers, pulling him closer towards her. Then suddenly she yanked hard and rammed a single knee between his legs. Lord Chesterfield howled in pain, immediately doubling over and crashing to the floor on his knees.
Both Katherine and Saskia were too stunned to move for a moment. The realisation was slow in dawning on Katherine with her muddled thoughts, but eventually it got there - it had all been an act. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Not waiting for anyone else to react, Anne was staggering towards them and lunging for Saskia. The charge was uncoordinated and clumsy and easily dodged. Anne went careening past, straight into a sturdy chest of drawers.
Finally finding some life returning to her legs, Katherine tried to stand up, only to find herself yanked back into sitting, her bottom thumping back down onto the seat. Craning her head round, she saw there was a shackle around her left wrist that she hadn’t noticed before, the other end wrapped firmly around her chair. It seemed Anne was on her own.
Anne tried desperately to push herself up off the drawers to turn and face Saskia but her body didn’t seem to be too keen to cooperate. It had taken much of what it could give to get up at all. As she rested for a moment, she realised the room didn’t seem to be quite in focus either, blurring out at the edges of her vision. When she did finally manage to stagger round there appeared to be two Saskias, and Anne had to blink a few times to try and get them into one. It was then that she noticed both of them also appeared to be holding a very sharp sword. A sword that was suddenly swinging at her.
Anne flung herself to the side just as it crashed down onto the wooden chest. The splinters rained down around her as Anne scrabbled away across the floor, desperately looking for something to defend herself with. Where was a handy poker when you needed one?
Saskia swung again, Anne managing to dodge under it and grab a trinket box off the drawers. She flung it back at Saskia as the other woman chased her round the room. It clattered into her sword, but was little more than a minor hindrance. Meanwhile, providing an obstacle for Anne was Lord Chesterfield, who had finally recovered from the low blow and was trying to get up. Anne quickly punched him again, on the head this time so he went down for the count.
She had no time to revel in her small victory as the sword swished by her head again. Anne stumbled backwards, her head still swimming from all the potions that had been pumped into her.
“I wanted to have some fun,” said Saskia as she pursued Anne, “But you just had to spoil that didn’t you. Never mind, I can dispatch you and then Katherine and I will be free to do as we please.”
Anne’s eyes automatically drifted to the still seated Katherine, a fatal mistake. Saskia saw her distraction and lunged. Anne only just managed to avoid it, losing her balance in the process and tumbling to the floor, tangled in the skirt of her dress. Anne cursed to herself - this was why she never wore them! Trying to force home her advantage, Saskia came forwards swinging, Anne having to skitter backwards in an ungainly way on her hands and bottom. Before she knew it, she was backed up against the wall with nowhere to go. The bed was to one side of her, the wall to the other. Saskia edged menacingly closer, able to see she’d cornered the young woman.
Then Anne saw it, under the bed – a bedpan. She grabbed it, kicked off the pan itself and gripped the long metal rod just in time to parry Saskia’s downward blow. Anne was quickly on her feet again, holding the pole out like a sword.
Saskia merely laughed. “You’re going to fight me with a bed pan? I have to warn you I’ve had tuition from some of the best knights in the land.”
“And I’ve had tuition from some of the best outlaws,” retorted Anne, “And they know a damn sight more than your lot.”
She swished the rod at Saskia who blocked the attack. The impact jarred up Anne’s arms from the makeshift weapon. Saskia in turn flicked her blade at Anne who turned it away. The two women fought their way back and forth across the room a few times, getting each other’s measure. Anne had to concede that Saskia wasn’t a bad swordswoman.
Anne had to be careful to concentrate fully as Saskia attacked again, forcing the young woman back. Anne stepped over Lord Chesterfield as she went, eliciting a small groan from him as she stomped on his hand for good measure. Then suddenly another wave of dizziness hit. It was all the opportunity Saskia needed. She whacked the rod from Anne’s hand with a swift blow. It skidded away across the stone floor. Seeing it clatter into the wall, Anne knew the rod was too far away; she’d never reach it in time even if she leapt for it. Saskia could see it too, the evil grin on her face spreading as she pulled her sword back to strike. Only it wasn’t her striking next. Instead a chair shattered across the back of her head. Saskia slumped forward, crashing onto the floor at Anne’s feet. In her place stood Katherine, the shackle around her wrist now attached to a single broken chair leg.
Katherine glanced down to the unconscious form at her feet, surprised by the great swell of satisfaction she’d felt in crashing the chair over the woman’s head. Normally she wasn’t one for physical violence, but in this case she was willing to make an exception. She had to restrain the strong urge to take the remaining part of the chair and give Lord Chesterfield a few resounding whacks too. It was a shame she didn’t have that rusty scythe with her, else she might be making good on her earlier internal threats regarding his privates.
“That’s one way to break free,” noted Anne appreciatively as she got up. She gave Saskia a testing poke with her toe to make sure she was unconscious.
Katherine managed a rueful smile as she dangled the remnants of the chair before her. “I think I’ll worry about the rest of this once we’re safely out of here.”
Anne looked at the two downed nobles. “You think perhaps we’ve outstayed our welcome?” she deduced sardonically.
“I would say so,” agreed Katherine. She considered she would be quite happy never to receive a welcome from either of them again. She picked up the quill from where Saskia had left it. “At least we got what we came for.”
When Katherine turned she saw that Anne was staring down at Lord Chesterfield and for a moment Katherine thought the young woman was about to do something rash. Even more worrying was that part of Katherine wanted something suitably nasty to happen to him.
Anne sensed the other woman’s gaze and met it. “That thing with Lord Chesterfield,” she said hesistantly, “You realise it was all an act?”
“I’m sorry you had to see it,” Anne continued as if she felt the need to explain further, “It was the only way I could think to get out of here.”
Katherine didn’t really want the reminder Anne’s words were evoking, and decided to try and speed the conversation on its way. “It’s just lucky you seemed reasonably immune to their potions,” she noted, “I couldn’t move after Saskia gave me whatever it was.” Katherine shuddered once again at the thought of it, having the odd desire to wash her mouth out with something strong and medicinal. “Else I would never have let her…you know.”
Katherine could see Anne’s fists were reflexively clenching and suspected the young woman was having murderous thoughts about the other noblewoman. Katherine had a fair few of her own in that regard. She determined it was probably best to depart before either of them succumbed to the desire for revenge.
The rest of Katherine’s party were somewhat surprised to be
roused from their beds in order to make a hasty departure, especially when they
saw Katherine seemed to have part of the furniture attached to her by a
chain. Luckily they were far too polite
to question their lady’s orders or appearance and it wasn’t long before they
were riding out of
Once on the open road, Anne trotted her horse up to
Katherine. She had the quill they’d
retrieved from the
“Do you think they knew what it was?” Anne asked.
“I don’t know. Saskia seemed to know we wanted it at least.”
“You think the Syndicate told her?” wondered Anne, “That maybe she’s part of it? But then why reveal its existence to us? Why not try and hide it?”
“Who knows,” sighed Katherine, “I’ve given up trying to guess what the Syndicate is doing.”
“Can I see it?”
Katherine passed it across. Anne had trouble making out the words for a moment. They were tiny and it was hard to read in the moonlight. Eventually she translated it, her mind using the memorised decryption algorithm.
“So what’s the verdict,” prompted Katherine.
“Would you like the whole thing?”
Katherine nodded and Anne recited the full rhyme, with the final part now known to them:
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 dipping of the gate
At this place then find the key
And from it allow red to run free
Katherine considered it. “So it brings us back to the problem of this mysterious key.”
“From the rhyme, it sounds like it’s waiting to be found at the resting place of the weapon itself,” posited Anne.
“Maybe that’s why Kirby’s already gone to France,” pondered
Katherine, “Maybe he’s hoping to get the key before us since we have the rest
of the items.” Seeing the curious look
she was getting from Anne, she added.
“Sorry, I forgot to mention it with everything else. Saskia let slip
that Charles Kirby is in
“But what if we’ve got it wrong and the key is still hidden
“Not that I could tell,” confessed Katherine, “There are the five numbered items but nothing else linked that I can see.”
“Then maybe it really is there in
“I’m not too keen on the uncertainty either,” agreed Katherine, “But I don’t think we have much choice, we don’t have time to sit around trying to work it out further. All we can do is go there and see what we find. One thing that might assist us is someone who can help us decipher some of the local references in the rhyme.”
“Why do I think you already have someone in mind?” asked Anne warily.
Katherine gave a half smile that only increased Anne’s trepidation. “You remember our good friend, Pierre?”
Anne groaned. The last time she’d met the Ambassador she’d almost killed him in a sword-fighting contest over a misunderstanding regarding his intentions towards Katherine. Luckily Anne had been masked at the time, so he wouldn’t recognise her again should they meet.
Seeing her pensive look, Katherine deduced Anne’s thoughts. “I’m sure he won’t remember you from the tournament,” she noted, “And I think he could be a big help.”
Anne realised there was no point arguing. “Then I guess we should pay him a visit.”
Lady Saskia entered the cool confines of the church, half expecting the entrance archway to burst into flames on her passing. Luckily for her, there was no smiting from God, and she moved on up the aisle, spotting the lone occupant of the small building sitting in the front pew. He was staring at the cross on the altar, only turning to her when she drew level with his position.
Saskia glanced curiously between him and the Christian symbol. “I didn’t take you for the god-fearing sort,” she noted.
Charles Kirby laughed humourlessly, “I’m not,” he replied, “But we won’t be disturbed or seen here.” He gestured her to sit. “Did you accomplish your task?”
Saskia lowered herself onto the wooden seat. “First things first,” she said, “I think there was something you neglected to mention about Katherine wasn’t there?”
He glanced away, a telltale sign he was about to lie. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t give me that, Charles,” said Saskia with a derisive laugh, “Did you not tell me because you thought it might interest me a bit too much?” she wondered out loud. “Unfortunately for you I still found out about Katherine’s sudden switch of sensibilities to more feminine ones.”
Kirby turned back to her, an obvious look of fear in his eyes. “You didn’t do anything…?”
“And what if I did?” she teased him.
“Tell me you didn’t ruin this for us because of some stupid infatuation?”
“And you’re one to talk!” Saskia exclaimed. “You couldn’t wait for Mark to disappear so you could try your luck. The poor chap wasn’t even dead and you were trying to marry his wife.”
Kirby held up his hands. “All right, not a stupid infatuation then.” His agitation was growing. “Please, just tell me, did they get the item or not?”
Saskia’s lips curved into a wicked smile. “How much is it worth?”
Kirby grabbed her wrist. She let out a small cry as he yanked her close, twisting her arm up between them. “Don’t play games with me Saskia,” he spat, “You might think I’m a fool, but I’m a fool with little to lose.”
Saskia struggled in his grasp. “You’re hurting me,” she said, looking to where his fingers dug into her skin. “I kind of like it.”
Kirby released her in disgust. “You are sick.”
Saskia laughed, rubbing at the sore wrist before finally taking pity on him. “All right, yes they got it, though I thought your other spies would have been able to tell you that by now.”
“I haven’t been able to get hold of our man yet, Katherine’s
party are still on the way back to
“I don’t suppose they’ll be hanging around there long when
they do return, since I managed to drop your hint about
Kirby quickly latched onto the comment. “So something did happen.”
“Not much, more’s the pity,” admitted Saskia. “So what is it you and your friends have in
store for Katherine.
Kirby was calm again now he had his answer. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
Saskia slipped closer along the bench, snaking out a finger to trail it seductively across his thigh. “Not even with a bit of persuasion?”
“No,” he stated keeping his eyes fixed forwards. However, she could feel the trembling in his leg.
“But you wouldn’t stop a girl from trying?” Saskia leant in closer, tickling her tongue around his earlobe.
Kirby smiled and finally turned to her, slowly sliding his hand over her thighs to tease them apart. “Of course not.”
Coming Soon….Lady Katherine and The French Connection