The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 9
Lady Katherine And The Dark Awakening
November 1191, Nottinghamshire, England
MercyCroft and Jay for beta reading this for me :)
I have to add a thank you to Monty Python for lending me part of the opening 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 Johnson tucked her purchase carefully into her bag and turned away from the stall to survey the rest of the crowded market. As was common on market day in Mansfield, the castle courtyard was alive with activity as peasants tried to get the best deals from the merchants who had made the trip to sell their wares. The sea of humanity bustled about the multitude of small stalls that were densely packed into the enclosed yard. The people were going quickly about their business, since it was a particularly freezing November day, and Katherine tucked her hands inside her woollen cloak to ward off the chill. Katherine wore several layers under the long outer garment, yet they did little to stop the gnawing cold from permeating her bones. The stalls selling hot foods were suddenly looking more appealing, despite the less than appetizing smells of various vegetable based stews wafting off some of them. As Katherine studied them, she noted that some of the bubbling concoctions even made Nicholas’ cooking look good. In a last vain attempt to fool her body into thinking it was warm, Katherine pulled up the hood of her cloak. It also served the added purpose of disguising her identity, just in case anyone she knew happened to be there.
Even though it was nearly three months since she had been cast out of Markham Manor, her husband Mark was still maintaining the charade that she was merely ill and off recuperating somewhere. It continued to puzzle Katherine why he would do so. It had crossed her mind that he still harboured hopes that she would come back to the manor and be with him again. After all he had begged her to, the last time she had seen him at Loughborough Castle back in September.
In a way she wished she could have taken him up on the offer, if only to prevent the damage he was doing to the Markham estate with his mismanagement. However, that part of her life was gone now; it had been over as soon as she had met Anne and fallen head-over-heels in love. Thinking of the young woman, she realised it must be time to meet up again and she started walking for their pre-arranged meeting spot.
The two of them had come to Mansfield for the day to pick up some winter supplies for the outlaw camp in Sherwood Forest where Katherine now made her home. Though she was happy living with Anne there, part of her still longed for life at the manor. Anne sensed it too, and she remained confident that they would still find a way to depose Mark and re-instate Katherine. Katherine, meanwhile, had accepted her situation, realising that it really wasn’t that bad after all.
After a few initial problems, most of the outlaws had been welcoming enough. But the biggest advantage was that she got to spend much more time with Anne now than she ever could when she had been lady of the manor. She couldn’t quite believe they’d made do with the scarce meetings they’d had before her exile. Spending pretty much every day together, Katherine had come to realise that Anne was everything to her, vital to her very existence. In fact, she couldn’t imagine living a single day without her. It was almost scary sometimes, how much she truly loved her. As if to prove her point, she felt a silly sense of excitement trickling through her at that moment, at the mere prospect of catching sight of Anne in the market. She didn’t know why she was surprised – it happened every time she saw the younger woman. As soon as those intense blue eyes met hers the familiar warm sensation would spread through her chest; the one that always seemed to put a stupid smile on her face.
As Katherine pushed through the crowded marketplace in search of those eyes now, she suddenly spotted some of the Lord of Mansfield’s guards heading her way. They weren’t after her in particular, just patrolling the busy courtyard, but she didn’t want to take the chance that they may recognise her. She had been to Mansfield in her official capacity as Lady of Markham a few times and one of the men may be observant enough to connect the two disparate views of her, even if she did look rather different right now in her common peasant’s clothes.
She looked around for somewhere to try and look inconspicuous. She supposed her best bet was to appear as if she was interested in something at one of the stalls. Crossing to the nearest one she picked up a random object from it, a rough piece of clothing.
“How much?” she asked the stallholder while keeping one eye on the guards behind her.
“Twenty pennies,” replied the man eagerly.
“Right,” noted Katherine distractedly, fishing in her purse.
“There you are,” said Katherine handing him the money as she looked over her shoulder at the passing men.
“Wait a minute!”
Katherine focussed on the small man for the first time, unsure why he was waylaying her. “What’s the matter?”
He looked back at her indignantly, his hands on his stout hips. “Well, we’re supposed to haggle.”
Katherine rolled her eyes, “No, no, I’ve got to get…”
“What do you mean, ‘no, no, no?’”
“I haven’t got time, I’ve got to…”
“Well, give it back then,” demanded the man grabbing the garment off her.
Katherine could see that people were starting to turn and look in their direction as the irate stallholder raised his voice.
“All right, all right!” she said putting up her hands and trying to appease him, “So what do we do?”
A small smile crossed his chubby face. “Right, well, let’s start with me saying I want twenty for that.”
“I just gave you twenty,” noted Katherine with exasperation, though the man didn’t seem to hear her, now he was into his haggling patter.
“Now are you telling me it’s not worth twenty pennies?”
“Er…no,” replied a bemused Katherine.
The man steadfastly ignored her again, holding out the garment for Katherine to inspect instead. “Look at it, feel the quality, that’s none of your goat.”
“All right,” said Katherine, “I’ll give you nineteen then.”
“No, no, no,” sighed the man, “Come on do it properly.”
“Haggle properly. This isn’t worth nineteen. You're supposed to argue,” he explained before demonstrating in a singsong voice. “'Nineteen for that? You must be mad!”
Katherine was really starting to get fed up with the annoying little man now. It didn’t help that she had noticed the rather inviting smells of warm nuts and ale wafting up from the next stall along. They really made her wish she had selected that one to hide from the guards instead. It was as if her stallholder had been waiting all day for some poor, unsuspecting victim and now he had one he wasn’t about to let her go.
Katherine let out a slow sigh as her stomach made a loud rumble. “All right, I’ll give you ten.”
“That's more like it,” noted the man, beaming enthusiastically. “Ten? Are you trying to insult me?” he said, theatrically putting his hands to his chest, “Me? With a poor dying grandmother? Ten?”
“All right. I'll give you eleven.”
“Now you're getting it. Eleven? Did I hear you right? Eleven? This cost me twelve. You want to ruin me?”
“No, no. You go to fourteen now.”
“All right. I'll give you fourteen.”
“Fourteen? Are you joking?”
Katherine just stared at him in disbelief. “But that's what you told me to say.”
He shook his head as if she were a hopeless case. “Oh, dear.”
Anne paced nervously back and forth across the courtyard, keeping her eyes trained on the people of the market as she did, looking for any potential signs of trouble. She had been to Mansfield for supplies dozens of times before without any bother, but she couldn’t help feeling just that extra bit wary when Katherine was with her.
To add to her anxiety, Katherine had also insisted that she needed to go and speak to one of the merchants she knew on her own. Not that Katherine was a wanted woman, as far as Anne knew. That was despite the incident at the inn in Cotgrave a couple of months previously, when Katherine had started a drunken brawl. Though it hadn’t been particularly amusing at the time, Anne couldn’t help looking back on the incident and smiling fondly to herself, as she recalled how absolutely steaming drunk Katherine had been. Of course, she wouldn’t let Katherine know she had found it funny. Fortunately, from what Robin had gleaned from his contacts, Katherine had not been recognised in the overall chaos, so it was still just Anne herself who could possibly be identified as an outlaw.
Knowing that, Anne wore the hood of her calf-length cape up over her blond hair, though she probably would have done anyway, to keep her head warm in the cold of the late autumn air. Winter was fast approaching now, and Anne wondered how Katherine would find it, living out in the forest when the snow fell and the waters froze. Though she considered that Katherine could hardly be considered faint-hearted, and would most probably take it all in her stride. It was amazing how easily she had adjusted to the rough life with the outlaws after years living as a noblewoman. She was even getting better at wielding a sword, though Anne thought she would never be a natural. Her skills with a bow were something else altogether, though, and she had won over any last doubters amongst the outlaw band with her skill.
As her eyes scanned the crowd once more, Anne’s thoughts came back to something else that had been playing on her mind all day. When the day had started back at the outlaw camp, Anne had assumed that Katherine knew full well what day it was and was just pretending that she didn’t. However, now it was the afternoon, Anne was beginning to think that Katherine had indeed forgotten that it was Anne’s birthday.
As she considered that, Anne began to have doubts over whether she had in fact ever told Katherine that the Seventh of November was her birthday, this one being her Twenty-Seventh to be precise. Trying to recall if they had discussed it at any point, Anne became convinced they had - she knew that the Twelfth of April was Katherine’s birthday after all.
Anne deliberated that maybe nobles didn’t celebrate such things in the same way as peasants did. For the common people it was a big event when they reached another anniversary of their birth, since it marked another year of successful living amongst people where life could often be cut cruelly short. There would normally be lots of food and drink and general cheer, along with gifts, usually of the homemade variety since the people were generally poor and better served spending their money on things like food.
Even if Katherine wasn’t used to celebrating birthdays, Anne thought she would have at least acknowledged it in some way, but there hadn’t been a single word on the subject. Disappointedly, Anne had to deduce that she had merely forgotten. Anne was so caught up in her glum thoughts that she didn’t spot the guard until he had clamped his hand around her arm.
“Hey, I know you!”
Cursing herself for allowing her thoughts to distract her so, Anne turned to the young guard who wore the Mansfield colours of red and purple on his tabard. “I don’t think so,” she replied keeping her head low so that her hood obscured her face, “I think you must be confusing me with someone else.”
He wasn’t being put off, maintaining a firm hold of her arm as she tried to pull it away. “No, no, you’re that outlaw woman…one of Robin Hood’s band…”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she insisted, “I’m just here for the market like everyone else.”
Suddenly his other hand darted out and yanked her hood back. “I knew it!” he cried triumphantly, “You’re that Seven woman! Hey, lads!”
Anne spotted another three guards glancing their way as he called to them, and realised it was too late to try and bluff her way out of the situation. She drew back her fist and thumped the young guard forcefully across the jaw as he turned back to face her. In the couple of seconds it took to disentangle him from her arm, the other troops had managed to dash over and leap on Anne. She fell heavily onto the cobblestones under their combined weight, desperately kicking and punching out at them in an attempt to get free.
Katherine was beginning to wonder if she was ever going to manage to extricate herself from haggling with the persistent tradesman. Just as she was starting to lose the will to live, she noticed a disturbance on the far side of the market. Through the crowd she could just spot a blond head being wrestled to the ground.
“Oi, come on,” said the stallholder, noticing her distraction, “Are we haggling or what?”
“Sorry, but I don’t want it anymore,” replied Katherine, trying to size up the best way to get over to where Anne was in trouble through the dense throng which was getting denser with the prospect of a fight to watch.
“Don’t want it? Did you hear that?” he said to the crowd at large in a horrified voice, “She doesn’t want it…”
“Oh, shut up!” cried Katherine, picking up a gourd off the table and whacking him round the head. As he slumped to the ground in unconsciousness, she looked at the solid container for a moment. It made quite an effective weapon.
Scanning the stalls a few more times, Katherine gingerly clambered up onto the top of the current one, glad that the canvas seemed to support her petite frame. She took a moment to judge the distances in front of her, swaying slightly on the unsteady structure. A stray thought played across her mind, wondering at how funny it was that all this seemed natural to her now, how she was becoming more like one of the outlaws with each passing day. Not only that, but she actually found it rather exciting.
Then she was off, vaulting between the coverings of the neighbouring stalls to propel herself swiftly to her target. A few appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from below tracked her progress across the stall tops. Finally she reached the end of the row, leaping down to the ground and clobbering the nearest guard with the gourd she had brought with her. The other three glanced up at her in surprise from where they had Anne pinned face down on the ground. Katherine seized the opportunity to kick one of them resoundingly across the jaw, sending him tumbling to the side.
As another let go of Anne to come at her, Katherine thumped the gourd down on his head, finally shattering it, but also succeeding in knocking the man out. The final guard seemed unsure as to whether he should stay holding onto Anne or let go to face the new threat. His indecision proved fatal as Katherine punched him squarely in the face. As he flopped backwards onto the ground, the surrounding crowd burst out into spontaneous applause and Katherine made a quick theatrical bow to acknowledge them, trying to ignore the pain emanating from her knuckles.
Realising she had been released, Anne’s head came up from the ground. Her eyes glanced round at the fallen guards before they swivelled up to Katherine. Seeing who it was that had come to her rescue, a broad smile crossed her face.
“What kept you?” noted Anne cheekily, as she clambered to her feet and dusted herself off.
“Don’t ask!” replied Katherine, rolling her eyes.
“Oi! You two! Stop right there!”
Katherine and Anne turned in unison to see another dozen or so guards attempting to get through the throng to apprehend them. Fortunately, the crowd appeared to be making it more difficult than necessary for the troops to get through. One particularly stout woman had ‘accidentally’ dropped the entire contents of her basket at their feet, and the guards’ curses as they tripped through the turnips and cabbages were audible to everyone present.
“Uh oh, looks like our cover is well and truly blown,” remarked Katherine.
“Indeed, I suggest a hasty retreat,” agreed Anne.
Katherine nodded and turned to run in the direction of the gate to the enclosed courtyard, knowing that Anne would be right on her heels. They frantically barged through the crowd, trying to avoid the obstacles that littered the yard. Skidding round the end of the row, Katherine didn’t spot the precariously balanced wooden containers until she had crashed straight into them. The tower toppled over, the wood splintering on the stone and releasing the chickens within. The animals squawked and flapped noisily around her as Katherine tumbled to the ground. As she tried to bat the animals away, the flurry of feathers was broken by a hand shooting out and hauling Katherine to her feet.
“If you’ve quite finished playing with the birds?” Anne asked.
“Yes, thanks,” replied Katherine, indicating they should carry on running as the owner of the chickens desperately tried to round up his wayward flock.
Closing in on the gate, Katherine saw that there were actually a couple of guards stationed there. The men looked surprised as they spotted the two women hastily fleeing in their direction with general chaos in their wake from where the other troops were battling through the crowd behind them. The two men leapt into action, pulling on the large levers either side of the solid wooden gates in an attempt to close them before Katherine and Anne got there. Katherine could see that she and Anne weren’t going to make it on time – they were going to be trapped in the yard. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Anne bending over as she continued to run. The young woman whipped out the dagger from her boot and launched it at one of the guards in one swift motion. The blade caught the corner of his tabard and pinned him to the lever mechanism. The other gate banged shut, but Katherine and Anne sprinted through the still open one onto the track beyond.
Anne pulled up sharply. “Go and get Delta, I’ll hold them up here,” she quickly instructed.
Katherine nodded and ran off in the direction of the stables, realising that getting her horse was their only hope of making good their escape. She took time to shoot a quick worried glance over her shoulder, spotting Anne drawing the sword she had secreted under her cloak and facing the guards as they came through the gate. Katherine prayed she could keep the men at bay for long enough.
Luckily the stables were amongst the outbuildings that surrounded the castle, outside its high stone walls. Katherine quickly retrieved Delta, leaping onto the colt’s back and spurring him out onto the muddy track. Her hood was pushed back by the cold wind buffeting her face as she charged down the road with her cloak flapping out behind her.
As she approached, Katherine could see that Anne was just about maintaining her position thanks to some furious swordplay and the narrow gap the men had to come through to get to her. The clanging noises from the clashing blades echoed up the road. Katherine dug her heels into Delta’s sides, forcing him into a gallop. Anne must have heard the fast approaching horse, as her eyes flicked briefly in Katherine’s direction before she had to fend off another swipe.
Holding on tightly to Delta’s reins with her left hand, Katherine extended her right hand. “Anne!” she yelled just before she got there, slowing Delta ever so slightly.
The young woman swivelled round and grasped Katherine’s hand as she thundered past. Katherine was almost pulled straight out of the saddle with the sudden extra weight, but she clung on for dear life as Anne managed to flick herself up off the ground to land behind Katherine on the horse’s back.
“Go!” cried Anne as she wrapped her arms gratefully around Katherine waist.
Katherine didn’t need to be told twice and urged Delta into a full gallop once again. A few arrows thudded into the ground around Delta’s fleeing hooves as more guards appeared on the battlements.
“Is anyone following us?” Katherine called back to Anne, having to raise her voice over the sound of the wind whipping past her face.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Anne replied as she craned her head round to look behind them, “Three mounted guards. Just head for the forest as quick as you can!”
The mud sprayed up from the track as they pelted along it, the troops slowly gaining on the over-burdened Delta. Katherine knew they wouldn’t be able to outrun the men all the way back to the camp – Delta was fast, but not when he was carrying two people. She just hoped that either the guards wouldn’t pursue once they got to the forest or that they could lose them in the trees.
Turning off the road in the direction of Sherwood, the icy wind stung Katherine’s eyes as Delta pounded over the exposed fields. Katherine reached up to brush away the few tears that were forming in the harsh breeze, along with the strands of hair that had worked themselves free of her ponytail and were obscuring her vision. At least the rest of her was warm now, a combination of the adrenaline that was pumping because of their flight and the fact that Anne was pressed up tightly against her back, her head tucked onto Katherine’s shoulder.
Delta finally made it to the tree line and Katherine urged him on amongst the trunks. The trees were quite widely spaced in this part of the forest and they could still maintain a fair pace as they wound their way between them.
“Did they follow us in?” Katherine asked Anne, keeping her own eyes on where they were going – the last thing they needed was to come a cropper because she wasn’t paying attention.
“Yes,” confirmed Anne, “They don’t seem to want to give up without a fight. Head on down to the river and we can try and lose them.”
Katherine nodded and tugged commandingly on Delta’s reins to direct him towards the river. Though Katherine’s knowledge of the forest was nothing compared to Anne’s, she could now find her way around with some degree of confidence, having spent the last three months living there. Katherine carefully guided Delta on down the slope that led to the water, his hooves slipping a couple of times in the carpet of wet leaves that lay on the forest floor.
Reaching the bottom, Katherine just managed to hold him back from the edge, stopping him sliding right off the bank into the rain-swollen waters. Pulling sharply to the left, she directed Delta along the riverbank, catching sight of the guards appearing at the crest of the slope as she did. Spying their quarry, they pushed their mounts on with added urgency, careening haphazardly down the slope. Unfortunately their eagerness also meant that they found it rather difficult to stop at the bottom. One of the horses slithered straight into the river, neighing loudly as it hit the cold waters and dislodged its rider. The other two men desperately yanked at their reins, pulling their steeds up short and sending a flurry of mud into the fast-flowing river.
“Turn across the river here,” Anne suddenly said to Katherine.
“What?” shot back Katherine in surprise, “You want me to go into the river?”
“There’s a narrow shallow passage,” Anne revealed, “Trust me, we’ll be all right.”
Katherine studied Anne’s face for a moment as she arched round in the saddle. Anne’s pale blue eyes regarded her intently. A small smile crept across her face telling Katherine all she needed to know.
Katherine swung back round to face the river. “Come on, Delta,” she instructed, pushing him toward the water.
However, when they got there, the young horse stopped abruptly at the edge, reluctant to enter the cold waters, no doubt thinking his mistress must be mad. Katherine could see the pursuing guards were only a hundred yards or so along the bank now and closing fast.
“Come on, boy,” Katherine urged again, giving him a small kick of encouragement.
Delta whinnied and stomped his hooves in the mud, still refusing to budge. Suddenly there was a resounding slap and Delta shot forwards. Katherine flicked her eyes round to Anne, who just shrugged.
“I think he just needed a bit of a helping hand,” she noted nonchalantly, quickly grabbing onto Katherine again as Delta plunged into the river.
Katherine was relieved to find that it was shallow in that section, just as Anne had said. Delta splashed easily through the water under Katherine’s guidance, his hooves no more than a foot under the surface as they clopped over the stones. Springing out of the river on the far side, Katherine stopped the colt for a moment, giving him a small pat of thanks for braving the chill waters. The remaining guards had stopped on the opposite bank, obviously unsure whether to risk the crossing. The shallow path wasn’t obvious in the bubbling waters and Katherine herself would never have known it was there if Anne hadn’t pointed it out.
Gathering their courage they forged onwards together. One of the horses disappeared immediately into the depths as its rider chose the incorrect path. The other one was more fortunate, finding the shallow area more by luck than judgement. Sensing he had picked correctly, he spurred his horse into a trot, and Katherine responded, realising she was about to get caught if she dallied watching him any longer. Delta scrabbled up the bank and into the trees, though Katherine could hear the guard’s horse wasn’t far behind now.
“Slow down and let him catch us,” Anne suggested to Katherine.
Katherine wasn’t about to question Anne’s plans now, and did as instructed. She could hear the thump of the hooves on the wet ground growing closer and closer as she pulled back on Delta’s reins to slow him to a trot. The guard drew alongside Delta, seemingly unsure what exactly he was meant to do now he had caught up with them.
“Stop your horse and surrender,” he instructed, drawing his sword and pointing it at them.
Katherine looked round at Anne to see what she was intending. She just caught the quick smile Anne offered the guard before she whipped up the branch she had been holding, concealed on the far side of Delta, and whacked it into the man’s chest, sending him flying off the back of his mount.
“Now go!” instructed Anne urgently.
Katherine geed Delta into a gallop again, leaving the guard cursing on the ground as they disappeared into the forest.
Anne dipped her head under the low opening to her hut and drew the wooden door closed behind her. Undoing her thick leather belt she dropped it and her sword onto the soft straw that covered the floor, sinking down on the makeshift bed made up of various furs and blankets piled on top of one another. She lit a single candle by the bedside to bring a little light to the room now it was dark outside. Lying back on the furs, she stared up at the thatched ceiling as she rubbed her hand wearily over her face.
She hadn’t really felt like socialising with the other outlaws once they got back to the camp after their successful escape from the Mansfield guards. She knew it was silly really, after all it was just a birthday, but she couldn’t help feeling disappointed that no one seemed to have noticed. She supposed if she just went to sleep it would soon be a new day and she could forget all about it. However, before she got the chance to try, the door swung open, letting in the light from the campfires outside. The orange glow silhouetted a familiar figure in the doorway.
“Didn’t you want anything to eat?” asked Katherine, coming in and joining Anne, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“No, I’m not hungry,” replied Anne distantly, staring back up at the roof, “I’m tired, I was just going to go to sleep.”
“Oh, right,” noted Katherine.
The older woman went quiet for a moment and Anne stole a sneaky glance at her. Katherine remained perched on the edge of the bed with her back to Anne, the fingers of her left hand playing absently with a loose thread in one of the blankets. Anne supposed she should have known it wouldn’t have been long before Katherine spotted that she had left the group of outlaws eating Nicholas’ dinner by the fire and sought her out. It was just a shame she wasn’t quite so observant when it came to dates.
“So…” began Katherine slowly, shaking Anne out of her meandering thoughts, “…you won’t be wanting your birthday present then?”
Anne suddenly shot up into a sitting position and Katherine’s head swung round to regard her. Anne could see the smile twitching at the corners of Katherine’s lips.
“You thought I’d forgotten didn’t you?” Katherine asked, raising her eyebrows slightly in inquisition.
Katherine turned her whole body to face the stammering Anne, shuffling closer to her on the blankets. Her fingers stopped teasing the thread and came up to Anne’s face instead, brushing gently across her cheek before cupping it. Anne found herself mesmerised by Katherine’s eyes, their blue-grey depths illuminated by the flickering light.
“As if I could forget the anniversary of the day you were brought into this world,” Katherine said, her smile now fully on display. “I may be getting old, but I haven’t gone senile yet.”
Anne laughed. “You are hardly old,” she insisted.
“Maybe not,” allowed Katherine, “And I suppose you are a year closer to me now.”
“For a few months anyway,” agreed Anne, “What is that, only eleven years behind now?”
Katherine shot her a horrified look. “I thought you were trying not to make me feel old!”
Anne crept even closer to Katherine, placing her legs either side of the other woman’s. “You’ll always be young in my eyes,” she said in a low seductive voice before she leant in to press her lips to Katherine’s.
As soon as the connection was made, Anne felt the surge of emotion within her. She closed her eyes, savouring the lush taste of Katherine’s mouth as her tongue slid inside brushing past Katherine’s own. She almost forgot everything as she fell under the spell of Katherine’s enticing lips and her own raging desire. Almost.
“So…erm…” began Anne, using all her willpower to pull back, “You mentioned a present?”
Katherine chuckled huskily. “I don’t know if you’ll like it,” she said, clambering up from the bed, “But I wanted to get you something, as this is your first birthday since I’ve known you. It was rather hard trying to think of something, though, especially since I don’t really have the same opportunity to acquire things as I did when I lived at Markham.”
Katherine picked up her bag from the corner, delving into it. “I’m just sorry I couldn’t give you something a bit more personal,” she added, “But Mark obviously still has all my belongings back at the manor house. That is if he hasn’t burnt them all or thrown them away.”
“That’s all right,” Anne reassured her with a smile, “Anything from you will be personal. And I do already have your pendant after all.” Anne tenderly patted her chest where she always wore the small blue gemstone, close to her heart, a constant reminder of Katherine.
Katherine smiled back before turning her eyes down to fish deeper in her bag. Seeing the warm smile, Anne realised that whatever Katherine’s present was, the fact that she had Katherine in her life meant much more than any material possessions. Still, she couldn’t help be curious about what was in the bag.
Finally a triumphant look crossed Katherine’s face, and she pulled the item out, hiding it behind her back and crossing over to sit on the bed once more.
“Right, close your eyes and hold out your hands,” instructed Katherine, seemingly almost as excited as Anne herself.
Anne did as ordered, waiting expectantly for something to be placed in her upturned palms. She was completely unprepared when Katherine’s lips brushed across her own in the most delicate of caresses. Anne’s eyes flew open again.
“Sorry,” grinned Katherine her face hovering just in front of Anne’s, “I couldn’t resist. You were just pouting so cutely. Shall we try again?”
Anne raised a single eyebrow of admonishment before closing her eyes again. “I shall endeavour not to pout in a inviting manner this time,” she noted.
The feel of something soft against her fingers indicated she had succeeded. It was some sort of material, light, silken.
“All right, you can open them now,” Katherine offered.
Anne slowly peeked down at her hands. Sitting there was a stunningly blue silk shirt. As Anne ran her fingers delicately over it in wonder, she thought the material was unlike anything she had ever touched. It was so amazingly soft she just couldn’t stop caressing it. Studying it in more detail she noted the intricate embroidery that adorned the cuffs in a slightly different shade, along with the matching pattern that tracked around the collar and down the v-shaped neckline. It must have taken someone a great deal of time and care to make the garment.
“It’s beautiful,” she said finally, glancing up at Katherine who was beaming happily, “Thank you.”
“Well, aren’t you going to put it on?” suggested Katherine, her voice strangely choked.
“Of course,” agreed Anne eagerly, quickly whipping off her rough black tunic and shirt and slipping on the new one. As it slid over her head and floated down over her body, she marvelled at the sensation of the sheer fabric against her skin. “Where in heaven’s name did you get it?” she asked, running her fingers over the embroidery once more.
When there was no answer, she looked up at Katherine again. The older woman was just gaping at her. She almost looked like she was about to cry.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” asked Anne, suddenly concerned. She extended her arms and looked at the shirt, checking to see if something was wrong with it.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Katherine reassured her in a husky whisper, taking Anne’s hands to stop her anxious perusal, “It’s just…perfect, more than perfect.”
Seeing the soft look in Katherine’s eyes sent a fresh flutter of warmth trickling through Anne. She thought the shirt was probably the best birthday present she had ever received, especially if it garnered this sort of reaction. “You got it at the market this morning?” she suddenly deduced.
“That’s right,” confirmed Katherine, “I actually spoke to the merchant last month when Nicholas and I went to Mansfield, to arrange for the shirt to be made. But it wasn’t ready for me to pick up until today. So I asked the others not to mention anything about your birthday before I got the chance to give it to you, though they all wanted to give you a big party of course. I did suggest that they could throw you one after I had given you my present, so if you want to join them now…”
Anne put her fingers to her chin for a moment, stroking it in contemplation. “Hmm, let me think, it is tempting…”
Katherine looked at her evenly, trying her best to hide her worried expression.
Anne took pity on her. “I’m joking of course!” she said, “As if I’d rather get drunk with them than have our own private celebration.”
She slinked closer to Katherine on the bed, the other woman appearing unable to move, caught in the allure of the approaching vision. Kneeling in front of the dumbstruck Katherine, Anne placed her hands gently on either side of her face and drew her forwards until their lips met in a soft kiss.
“So you really like it then?” asked Katherine when Anne leant back for a moment, “You’re not going to complain that it’s not black?”
“I do possess some clothes that aren’t black, you know,” Anne insisted, rolling her eyes.
“You do?” said Katherine in pretend surprise, before casting her eyes around the room. “Where?”
Anne poked Katherine playfully in the arm, stopping her search for the elusive clothes. “You’re supposed to be nice to me on my birthday.”
“Oh, I can be nice,” Katherine remarked, a saucy look now creeping onto her face, “Very nice.”
Katherine shoved Anne backwards onto the bed, tumbling down with her and swiftly capturing Anne’s lips in a mind-blowing kiss. It was so intense that Anne barely registered Katherine’s hands gliding over the smooth fabric of her shirt until Katherine propped herself up to look down on her.
Katherine’s right hand still tracked across the material, straying up to the neckline and toying with it between her thumb and forefinger. “Actually one of the reasons I picked this colour was because it was the same colour as that dress of mine you tried on,” noted Katherine, “The one you looked stunningly gorgeous in.”
“As I recall, I didn’t manage to keep that on very long.”
Katherine looked up and down Anne’s body a couple of times. “I’m afraid I think you might have the same problem this time.”
Anne merely had time to quirk her eyebrow in anticipation as Katherine dipped down again, devouring her lips in a passionate kiss. Anne’s hands shot up round Katherine’s head, tangling in her hair and pulling her ever closer as the fiery kiss deepened. She could feel Katherine’s right hand sliding down over her stomach and up under the hem of the shirt, eagerly seeking out the flesh underneath.
Her fingers continued their frantic trail up Anne’s body beneath the flowing shirt. Anne groaned against Katherine’s lips as she squeezed her breast, kneading the flesh enthusiastically. As her thumb brushed roughly over Anne’s stiff nipple, Anne tightened her hold on Katherine, trying to mould the mouths together as one, desperately seeking out Katherine’s tongue with her own.
The combined feel of Katherine’s hands upon her and the silky material, gliding against her skin, drove Anne wild with desire. She pressed her thigh up against Katherine, rubbing hard between her legs. Katherine broke away from her mouth, groaning.
Then her hands were on Anne again, frantically clawing at the shirt.
“Careful,” noted Anne, smiling at Katherine’s uncontrollable lust, “You’ll damage my present.”
“I’ll get you another one,” growled Katherine.
Anne felt the rush of heat searing through her when she saw the wanton look in Katherine’s dark eyes. She captured Katherine’s hands. “Allow me,” she suggested.
She slowly sat up, pushing Katherine up with her, since she was sitting straddling Anne’s legs now. Teasingly Anne peeled the shirt off, inching it up over her head with deliberate care. Katherine’s lop-sided smile, the one that twitched saucily at the corners of her lips, was obvious spreading across her face as Anne finally got the shirt off. Anne dangled it tantalisingly in front of her before flinging it off across the room. As Katherine’s eyes came back from subconsciously watching its trajectory, Anne swiftly wrapped her arms around her, pulling their bodies close as they sat on the bed, covering her lips once more.
Katherine seemed stunned for a moment at how Anne had taken command, before she slipped her hands round Anne’s back, raking her fingers down the smooth flesh either side of her spine. Anne’s head instinctively went back at the sensuous touch, Katherine seizing the opportunity to dip down to Anne’s neck and draw her flesh in between her teeth, sucking gently.
Katherine’s loosened hair tickled across Anne’s collarbone as her lips tracked a path down her neck and across the muscles of her shoulder, sweeping on down to her chest. Now it was Anne’s breasts that Katherine was sucking; nibbling; biting. First one and then the other and then back again, caught up in the fire that was quickly enveloping them both.
Anne needed to feel Katherine’s skin too, yanking at the older woman’s shirt, barely able to control her hands’ grabbing assault on the fabric. She wasn’t entirely sure how, but finally it was off and flying across the room to join her own recently discarded one. With the material gone her hands were free to roam across Katherine’s pale, soft skin and roam they did – around her waist, up her back and then round to squeeze the delicious mounds of her breasts. Katherine moaned appreciatively, the sound sending a burning need right through her.
Wrapping her arms round Katherine’s neck she pulled her back down into a hungry kiss. Anne continued her backward momentum, dragging Katherine down with her onto the blankets. Katherine’s hot bosom pushed into Anne’s own, the flesh squashed together between their bodies.
Katherine’s hands were all over her now, exploring her flesh. Every touch sent a fresh delightful skittering sensation shooting through her. So consumed was Anne, that she barely registered Katherine tugging her trousers off. She realised Katherine must have slipped her own off too when a naked limb dipped between her legs, sliding through mixture of sweat and other fluids that coated the inside of her thighs.
As Katherine rubbed her whole body provocatively against her, Anne gasped again, feeling the flood of juices increasing ever more. She slid her fingers into Katherine’s hair, now she was in reach again, and pulled her into another tongue-tangling kiss, needing some way to release all the pent up desires that were threatening to spiral out of control. Her whole body ached to be touched, sensitive to the merest caress, the brush of the furs at her back adding to the stimuli.
Finally Katherine took pity on her, tracking her hand down further from where she had been maddeningly toying with Anne’s nipples. There was no resistance as she slipped one and then another finger inside Anne. When she slid the rest of her body down across Anne’s so that her hot breath and then her tongue joined her hand, Anne lost all coherent thought. Time seemed to stretch on in an unending array of wonderful sensations. As she feared her head might explode from the pulsing fire pounding through it and the rest of her body, she suddenly sensed the building orgasm. Giving in to it, she rode the blissful wave as it crashed through her leaving her trembling in its wake.
When her mind eventually engaged again she managed to open her eyes, to look up into a pair of blue-grey ones gazing warmly down at her.
“I love you.”
Anne smiled at the three simple husky words that meant everything. “I love you too”
Katherine hazily registered the soft tickling sensation across her breastbone as she swam up from sleep. Slowly peeking out from half-lidded eyes, she spied Anne, trailing her fingers in a delicate caress across her skin. She seemed entranced in what she was doing and it took a moment for her to notice the sleepy blue eyes studying her in return.
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
Katherine smiled, propping her head up slightly with a hand behind it as she did. “Yes, but what a lovely way to be woken.”
“I can think of a few better ones,” replied Anne, snuggling up to Katherine under the furry blankets.
Katherine turned her face to Anne’s, lying next to her on the pillow. “I just bet you can,” she noted, closing the small gap to place her lips lightly upon Anne’s. Her arms snaked around the young woman’s body, pulling her even closer into a warm embrace. She took a moment to luxuriate into it, recalling the how she had explored every inch of that body the night before…many times. It was then that she noticed how warm it was in the room, despite the fact that she could see it was another grey November day outside through the single small window. Her eyes flicked to the far side of the room where a fire was burning in the small hearth, crackling away and sending its smoke up the chimney. “How long have you been awake exactly?” Katherine asked Anne.
“Not that long,” replied Anne non-commitally.
Katherine narrowed her eyes suspiciously recognising the evasion. “And you were watching me sleep all that time?”
Anne looked slightly abashed at being caught out. “Well I did light the fire, but yes, after that…”
Katherine kept her eyes fixed on Anne, knowing that the younger woman would feel compelled to elaborate further soon enough under the penetrating gaze.
“I just like to watch you lying there, peaceful,” continued Anne, succumbing, “Your breath fluttering out past your slightly parted lips, your chest rising and falling rhythmically,” she added wistfully. “Anyway, it’s your own fault for giving me the opportunity by being such a lazy bones in the morning.”
“I am not!” cried Katherine indignantly, “You’re the one that sleeps like a log. A herd of wild boar could come crashing through our hut, reduce it to kindling around you, and you wouldn’t wake up until the rain started falling on your head. In fact even then it may take a flood to wash you away into the river to rouse you.”
Anne pouted at Katherine. “You are exaggerating.”
“I am not!” countered Katherine, “You even snore,” she added for good measure.
“I do not!”
The playful argument was cut short by Anne deciding the best way to try and win was to tickle Katherine into submission. Katherine frantically tried to avoid the dancing fingers as they stole under the blankets and skittered up her sides, but couldn’t resist for long as Anne pinned her in place.
“All right, all right, I give up!” cried Katherine eventually, trying to catch her breath between laughs.
Anne rolled off Katherine, smiling at her success. “Actually it does serve another purpose, watching you sleep.”
“Really?” enquired Katherine doubtfully, brushing away the auburn hair that had flopped into her eyes during the tussle.
“Yes, it gives me time to think.”
“And what were you thinking about this morning?”
“I was just mulling over how things have changed over the past year,” Anne replied thoughtfully.
“In a good way I hope?”
Anne smiled reassuringly, reaching out to stroke Katherine’s cheek. “Oh yes, most definitely for the better. But considering the past, I was thinking I might take a look at that book we got from the abbey at Loughborough, if you still have it.”
“Of course,” confirmed Katherine, heartened to hear that Anne wanted to examine the pagan book. She’d been denying her past for too long, and this was just another welcome indication that she was finally coming to terms with all that had happened to her and her parents. “I’ve been keeping it safe and sound, in the hope you might take a look eventually. It’s right here somewhere.”
Katherine clambered up out of the bed, shivering slightly despite the heat from the fire. She hoped she could quickly find the book and get back under the welcome warmth of the blankets, not to mention getting back in the arms of the gorgeous woman waiting there for her. Stepping over the clothes that had been haphazardly discarded on the floor the night before, she noted that the shirt she had given Anne had been picked up and folded neatly on top of the wooden chest that sat against the wall. The young woman must have done it while Katherine had still been asleep. Katherine eyed up the disorganised pile of belongings in the corner, before taking the plunge and delving in amongst them. She tried to carefully root through them, but had to give up in the end, casually tossing items over her shoulder in an effort to find what she wanted.
“God, how do you ever find anything in this place?” she remarked flicking a look back at Anne, “You need some sort of storage, or a bigger hut.”
“That’s all your stuff, cluttering up the place,” replied the young woman. She was now lying on her front, chin resting on her upturned hands as she watched Katherine’s efforts with no small amusement. Or maybe she was just smiling at the sight of a nude Katherine in front of her. “I knew full well where everything was before you moved in here,” added Anne, “I didn’t know anyone could acquire so many clothes in such a short space of time.”
Katherine shifted some swords out of the way, the hilts banging noisily together. “I could say the same about you and your weapons. How many different swords does one person need?”
“They all serve a very specific purpose I’ll have you know.”
Katherine turned round to look at her sceptically. “What, such as bringing you luck?”
“I’m telling you that sword is lucky,” insisted Anne, referring to the one she had lent Katherine, “Not only did you manage to beat Kirby with it, but it also saved your neck as I recall.”
“Are you saying I couldn’t have beaten Kirby without a little help?” enquired Katherine, stopping her search for a moment to fix Anne with a questioning look.
“Well…er…no, not exactly,” Anne offered hesitantly, “Your sword skills are improving,” she added diplomatically.
Katherine chuckled at Anne’s back tracking before turning back to the pile. “I’m just teasing you. I know I’m not the world’s greatest swordswoman, but I don’t think I’m that bad for someone who only picked one up for the first time about six months ago. Ah-ha here we go!”
Katherine swung round happily clutching the leather bound book. She quickly crawled back over to the bed, pressing up against Anne’s enticingly body as she snuck under the covers.
“Bloody hell, your feet are freezing!” exclaimed Anne, squirming away from the chilly limbs that had brushed up against her own.
“Just shut up and look at your book,” replied Katherine, frowning indignantly at her, “Before I put them somewhere else.”
“Sounds like an offer to me,” noted Anne cheekily. She quickly took the book and glanced down at it to avoid Katherine’s withering look of response.
Katherine watched Anne gliding her fingers reverently over the embossed cover before she carefully opened it. The glow from the fire illuminated Anne’s face, picking out her striking bone structure as she scanned the text with her soft blue eyes. Katherine could see the advantages of studying someone when they were otherwise occupied; it gave you a candid look at them. Of course, she had watched Anne sleeping dozens of times before too, but she had hardly been about to admit that before. The vision of Anne that was revealed to her now was different to her sleeping one though, eyes wide with wonder as she read the ancient words. Katherine felt a swell of pleasure within her upon seeing the obvious delight Anne was getting from the book that Katherine had kept for her. Noting how fascinated Anne was by it, Katherine decided to go out in search of some breakfast and leave her to it for a while. Seeking out her clothes on the floor, she pulled on her trousers and was just slipping her light under-tunic over her head when a pair of arms slipped round her waist from behind.
“Where do think you’re going?” whispered Anne, pulling Katherine back against her.
“I thought I would give you a bit of space to have a look at it,” replied Katherine, glancing back at the young woman, “I know you need to concentrate to properly take in the text.”
Anne pursed her lips slightly, looking off distantly in contemplation. “That’s true,” she remarked, turning her eyes back to Katherine, “But I don’t need to look at it right now…”
Katherine dipped her head as she let out a small laugh, the look in Anne’s eye had been unmistakable. “You are incorrigible!”
Anne promptly spun Katherine round in her arms so they were face to face. “And you,” she began, placing a delicate kiss on Katherine’s lips, “Are irresistible!”
Suddenly Katherine found herself tumbling back onto the blankets once more. Before she knew it her clothes were quickly removed once more.
“There wasn’t much point me putting those on was there,” she remarked sardonically, looking down at her own naked body since Anne seemed to be studying it intently too.
“Not really,” agreed Anne, allowing her fingers to join her eyes’ perusal, “You know I’d just keep you naked in here all the time if I had my way.”
Katherine laughed. “Only if you agree to leave all your clothes at the door too.”
“It’s a deal!”
“I shall remind you of that on a cold December morning when it’s your turn to light the fire.”
Anne’s eyes finally flicked up from watching her hand brushing across Katherine’s abdomen. “What do you mean my turn? I always end up lighting the fire.”
Katherine grinned, knowing the truth of the statement. “But you do it so well.”
Anne didn’t reply straight away, holding Katherine’s gaze as she walked her fingers across Katherine’s chest, up her neck and brought them to rest against her lips, parting them slightly. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” noted Anne before replacing her fingers with her lips.
Anne flicked anxiously at the dead leaves that carpeted the shore of the lake with her boots as she walked along. Katherine had gone off for one of her regular meetings with Tobias, to catch up on the news from Markham, and that always made Anne nervous. She realised her fear was rather irrational, but a small part of her remained scared that Katherine would be tempted to go back there one day, go back to her husband.
It hadn’t helped that Katherine had told her how Mark had collared her at Loughborough Castle a couple of months back. He’d proceeded to ask, in fact practically beg, Katherine to return with him. Katherine had only told Anne because she didn’t want to keep any secrets from her, rather than as any kind of ploy to make her insecure or jealous, but Anne had found it hard to hide her disgust at the man’s audacity. Of course Katherine had turned him down flat, but she had noted that he had seemed sincere in his apology for his past actions. Anne thought he would have to be bloody sincere before she could forgive what he had done. Though she had just about restrained herself from harming him in the past, she still held a certain degree of resentment towards him. He had murdered her parents after all, that was hardly something she was going to forget in a hurry.
Trying to stop the insidious thoughts, she reminded herself that Katherine loved her, had chosen her over the opportunity to go back with Mark and rule over the manor again. If she needed any more evidence of Katherine’s love then she needed only to look back at the previous night and that very morning. Those memories brought a warm smile to her face, and she shook her head, not knowing how she could ever doubt Katherine’s feelings. Sitting down on the lakeside log that formed a handy resting place, she heard a sound from the trees. She quickly swivelled round, hoping that Katherine was back early and had come to seek her out.
Instead she was meant by the sight of Will Scarlet, creeping out from between the trunks towards her. “Oh, it’s you,” she noted with barely concealed disgust.
“Don’t be like that,” said Will, actually sounding hurt by her tone, “I just wanted to give you your birthday present, since I didn’t get the chance yesterday.”
Anne eyed him doubtfully as he crossed the space to join her on the log. “You want to give me a present?”
“Does that seem so strange?” he commented, “We were close once.”
“‘Once’ being the operative word,” noted Anne bitingly, “You’ve shown your true colours since then.”
Wills dark eyes regarded her evenly. “I’m sorry if I’ve been making things difficult for you since we broke up, I was hurt and I took it out on you. It was wrong of me.”
Anne couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. Will, apologising? She remained doubtful of his sincerity, though. “That was over 5 years ago,” she pointed out, “You can’t still be harbouring a grudge surely?”
“What can I say,” he offered, “I really cared for you…”
Now Anne was starting to have serious doubts about Will’s purpose in offering up the supposed excuse for his behaviour. As far as she knew, the only person Will cared about was himself. “What do you want from me?” she asked him, cutting to the chase.
“Nothing, honestly,” he replied, still maintaining eye contact, perhaps to try and convince her of the veracity of his claims, “All I want is to give you your present, in the hope that it will be a small step towards us being friends again.”
“Yes, friends,” he insisted.
Anne looked at him, trying to work out what he was playing at. Could he really mean what he was saying? She had to admit that he hadn’t been half as bad recently after his initial challenge to Katherine’s arrival at the camp. There were times when he had actually been civil. Mind you he hadn’t actually been round that much either, so that could go some way to explaining the lack of hostilities.
“All right, where’s this present then?” she eventually asked, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
He smiled and turned to rummage in the bag at his side, producing a small box-like object wrapped in cloth. He grinned again as he handed it to her, and Anne was amazed at how it changed his face to see something other than a surly snarl on it.
She peeled away the cloth to reveal a wooden trinket box, ornately carved with what Anne recognised as some pagan symbols that referred to good health, friendship and family among other things.
“Did you…make this?” she asked in wonder, glancing up at him.
She looked down at it again. “It’s…lovely,” she said, surprised that it was.
“Happy birthday,” said Will, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek.
Anne flinched slightly at the contact, turning her eyes away from him. She was so resolutely trying to ignore him and the crawling sensation he evoked that she failed to spot that he hadn’t pulled completely away. As she turned her face back in his direction he closed the small distance between them and pressed his lips to hers.
Anne flew up off the log. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, looking at him in shock.
“Oh, come on, Anne, you know you want to,” said Will rising too, his face now back in one of its more familiar expressions - a suggestive leer, “You can hardly be getting what you want from that woman.”
Anne’s mouth opened and closed silently a few times as she sought the words to counter the sheer magnitude of Will’s delusion. “For your information,” she finally said, the initial surprise subsiding, “Katherine satisfies me in ways you never could, in ways you could only dream of. Not that it’s any of your business anyway.”
Will’s eyes scrunched together doubtfully. “That cold, haughty noble, satisfy you?” He remarked, the scepticism obvious in his tone.
“She is not cold and haughty,” stated Anne, glaring furiously at him, “Katherine is a warm, passionate woman. And what’s more she’s intelligent, kind, compassionate - all things that are foreign to you.”
Now it was Will’s turn to stare at her angrily. Not that Anne cared if he was annoyed or not. She knew it had been a mistake giving him another chance. People like Will never changed, all they were interested in was themselves and what they could get out of other people.
“Oh, and finally,” said Anne, pressing home her point, “There’s the small matter of me being totally and utterly in love with Katherine.”
Will let out a bark of a laugh. “In love?” he repeated incredulously, “Don’t make me laugh! Now I could show you some real loving,” he suggested, stroking her arm.
Anne swiftly batted his hand away. “Don’t touch me!” she spat, just about managing to restrain herself from punching him in the face. “Can’t you get it through your thick skull - I love Katherine. I want to be with Katherine. I don’t want you or anyone else. And even if I weren’t with Katherine, I still wouldn’t want to be with you if you were the last man in England!”
She could see the muscles in Will’s jaw jumping where he was grinding his teeth together.
“So, if that’s all,” Anne continued, “You can take your present and shove it!”
She thrust the box back into his hands and turned on her heel to go.
“I wanted to give you one last chance,” she heard Will mutter behind her, “But you’ll regret this.”
She swung her head back round, “I don’t think so,” she scoffed disdainfully before turning back for the trees and leaving him standing there alone.
Anne stomped into her hut, banging the door noisily closed behind her. Pacing across the floor, she opened and closed her fists a few times to fight down the anger within her. She couldn’t believe the nerve of Will, trying it on like that. And more fool her for allowing herself to be drawn in, however briefly. Flopping down onto the bed, she drove her fists into the covers a few times to expel the last of her rage. Will was just lucky she hadn’t used his face rather than the blankets to express her annoyance. Eventually she lay back onto the bed, trying to take a few deep breaths and calm herself.
As she lay there her eyes fell on the pagan book, still by the bedside where she had left it that morning. Sitting up again, she picked it up. Anne considered that she wasn’t really in the mood for any intense study right now, yet she needed something to distract her and the book seemed as good a choice as anything.
Crossing her legs, Anne closed her eyes for a moment, breathing deeply from the pit of her stomach to calm the last of her angry thoughts. When she felt sufficiently at ease she opened up the book at the first page. Though she had given some of the text a cursory glance earlier, she hadn’t actually read any of it properly since she’d got somewhat sidetracked by Katherine’s presence.
The words of the book were intricately presented, having been painstakingly written by hand, probably over a period of years. They were in an ancient pagan language, one that few people could understand these days, and to most normal people they would have just appeared as a pretty, but meaningless jumble. However, Anne had been taught the language by her parents and, though she hadn’t utilised the skill for some years, she found that she could still read the text with ease. Her parents had always said she had a natural ability, not only with reading but with many other aspects of paganism too. She knew they had been grooming her, nurturing that natural power, guiding her in the right way to use it. Unfortunately that had all been cut short when they were murdered, leaving her with no one to turn to for help. So she had just tried to forget about her abilities, though they were always there, simmering away under the surface.
Concentrating on the words once again, Anne found herself being drawn into the text, which was describing the founding principles of paganism. As she turned another page the words seemed to flicker before her, and she blinked a few times against the disconcerting effect. She didn’t think she had been reading long enough to strain her eyes. Looking down at the page again she saw with amazement that the words really did seem to be moving. She stared at the ink at it swirled round the page in hypnotic patterns. The dancing words were beginning to make her dizzy, yet she seemed unable to tear her eyes away. She felt them beginning to droop. She was so tired. Maybe if she just shut them for a moment…
Anne suddenly jolted upright. However, rather than sitting on her bed, she found herself in the middle of a vast grassy plain, stretching out as far as the eye could see. A warm breeze fluttered across her cheek and the faint smell of spring flowers was distinct, carried on the wind.
Clambering to her feet and casting her eyes around for any sign of life, Anne realised that she remembered the place – it was the spirit plane. She had been there once before, when Bronwyn had kidnapped Katherine. That time Anne had meditated with the express purpose of reaching the plane, but she was at a loss to know how she had got there this time. All she had been doing was reading the book, with those odd, shifting words.
“I see you made it at last.”
Anne swung round to see Bronwyn standing behind her. The other woman’s long black hair billowed out in the soft breeze, while her piercing green eyes regarded Anne evenly.
“You!” spat Anne angrily, glaring at her, “You brought me here?”
“Indirectly, yes,” confirmed Bronwyn with her sly, insidious smile creeping across her face. “I was beginning to think you were never going to pick up that book,” she added taking a few steps closer to Anne.
“That came from you?” asked Anne, surprised.
“Indeed it did. It wasn’t very hard arranging for my little minion to pass it on to you at the abbey, in the guise of it having come from the monks.” Bronwyn had come to stand directly in front of Anne now, her eyes studying the young woman and making her decidedly uncomfortable. “But you certainly have kept me waiting since then,” she remarked, reaching out to touch Anne’s cheek.
Anne maintained an even stare, resisting the urge to shiver at the cold touch as Bronwyn held her fingers there. While Bronwyn merely stared enigmatically, revealing little, Anne was secretly trying to reach out and touch the real world with her mind, see if she could find some way out of the spirit realm and back to her body. The connection was elusive however, and she realised she would have to play along for now. Finally the other woman dropped her hand.
“What do you want, Bronwyn?” demanded Anne, keeping her eyes fixed balefully on the witch.
The nasty smile twitched at Bronwyn’s crimson lips once more, but she didn’t answer, seemingly content to taunt Anne with her silence.
“You’ve obviously been waiting for me for some reason,” continued Anne, “Though I can’t imagine why you think I’m going to help you whatever it is you want.”
“And who said I needed you to be a willing participant?” commented Bronwyn, stepping round Anne as she spoke. “Of course that would be preferable, but I learnt to my cost last time that you have those silly loyalties to that woman. I don’t know what you see in her, she has no concept of the greatness that would be available to you if you would just forget all those qualms about hurting the insignificant masses and allow yourself to embrace it. It’s a shame because if you’d just let go and join me, we could do great things together.”
“Evil things more like,” shot back Anne, Bronwyn having came before her once more. “You’re not going to be able to say anything to convince me to join you, so why don’t you just get on with it and tell me what you want.”
Bronwyn’s smile was gone now. “Fine,” she said through narrow lips, “Have it your way.”
She moved away from Anne, swinging round sharply in the grass after a few steps. “After our last encounter I found my own body rather damaged, too severely wounded for me to be able to recover in fact,” she explained, “I’ve been managing to hold on, but I knew that sooner or later I would need to find a way to shift my consciousness elsewhere, into a healthy form. But not just anyone would do, of course, I needed someone with the necessary mystical abilities to sustain me, especially for what I have planned.”
“You needed me,” deduced Anne.
“Yes, and your body. Your potential is amazing; you’ve barely touched on it. And who better than me to make use of that. With your innate abilities available to me, I shall have no problem completing my task.”
“And what task might that be?”
“All in good time,” replied Bronwyn with a slight tilt of the head, “We will be spending a fair amount of time together and they’ll be plenty of time for explanations.”
Anne let out an incredulous laugh. “Like I’m going to spend time with you. You’re obviously delusional.”
Bronwyn swept towards Anne again, her hand hovering before Anne’s face as she made to grab her. “You think you can resist me?” she said, closing her fingers into a threatening fist, “I already managed to draw you here using the spell hidden within the book. What makes you think you’ll be able to stop me doing whatever else I want? Though you may have the potential to be powerful, you’ve chosen not to explore those abilities. Lucky for me; unlucky for you.”
Suddenly Bronwyn smacked Anne across the jaw, sending her tumbling to the ground. Anne could only have had her eyes closed for a second but when she opened them she was back in her dim hut, lying on her bed, the pagan book discarded at her side. She wondered if it had all been some sort of dream. Making to bring her hand up to her head to rub her temple, she got a sudden shock when it didn’t respond. Panic swept through her as she realised she couldn’t move any of her other limbs or any other parts of her body for that matter. She was just lying there staring at the ceiling, unable to do anything else.
Of course you can’t do anything, came Bronwyn’s voice, seemingly directly inside her head, I’m in charge now.
What are you talking about, where are you? Thought Anne, since she found she couldn’t speak out loud.
I’m here in your mind with you replied Bronwyn.
Don’t be ridiculous, that’s impossible, I’m hallucinating or something.
Ridiculous is it? How about this then?
Suddenly Anne found herself getting up of the bed, only she wasn’t controlling her actions in the slightest. It was highly disconcerting just watching her own hands reaching out and picking up the book off the bed.
Now Bronwyn was laughing inside her mind, cackling evilly.
What have you done to me?
I told you I needed your body, so I’ve just transferred my consciousness in here with yours, via the spirit realm, which you were so kind as to come and visit.
No, it can’t be true, I’m dreaming, this is some sort of nightmare.
Not exactly, but it soon will be!
Anne watched helplessly as she left the hut, unsure where Bronwyn was taking her.
I’m going to meet Katherine of course, Bronwyn noted, answering Anne’s unspoken question, Just as you arranged earlier.
You can read my thoughts. You know my memories? Asked a stunned Anne.
Not all of them, only the ones that are bubbling near the surface. You seem to be doing quite a good job of hiding the others from me. Though I’m sure I’ll be able to get to those in time too, when you realise the futility of resisting.
I’ll resist you to my dying breath! Stated Anne vehemently, If my mind is all I have left then I’m going to protect that with all the willpower I have. I’m not giving in. Somehow I’ll find a way to reverse what you’ve done to me.
There is no way to reverse this. Accept your fate; we’re as one now
No, you wouldn’t tell me even if there was a way, reasoned Anne
Believe what you want, but sooner or later you’ll have to accept the truth. Resist for now if you want, I like a challenge.
Anne didn’t reply, concentrating instead on shielding her thoughts from Bronwyn. How she wished now that she had explored her mystical abilities sooner, so she might have known how to defend herself properly against such an attack. Her opposition to Bronwyn was more bravado than anything else – she had no idea how she might force Bronwyn from her mind and regain control.
Anne remained a passenger in her own body as she crossed the outlaw camp, heading in the direction of the spot near the edge of the forest where she had indeed arranged to meet Katherine on her way back from the manor. Anne’s growing uneasiness at least proved to her that she still had the capacity to feel things, independent of Bronwyn; that maybe there was still hope of escaping this somehow.
Nothing more to say? taunted Bronwyn as they went, just when I was enjoying the conversation too.
I have nothing else to say to you
But you were so keen to know all about my plans before. I’ll just keep them to myself then shall I?
Anne resisted the temptation to respond. Bronwyn just laughed.
Oh, well, you’ll find out soon enough anyway - in ten days time to be precise, on the day of the lunar eclipse.
Anne wondered what the significance of the eclipse was, but wasn’t about to ask now. She kept adamantly silent as Bronwyn reached the rendezvous point, casting Anne’s eyes around a few times in search of Katherine. As soon as the older woman stepped through the trees and spotted who she naturally assumed was Anne, she smiled and started wandering over. Anne desperately wanted to call out to Katherine, warn her that all was not as it seemed. However, no matter how hard she tried she was trapped, a mere spectator to the unravelling events.
She felt a mounting apprehension as Katherine approached, afraid of what Bronwyn might do. It was no secret that Bronwyn viewed Katherine with a mixture of hate and disdain. Anne could feel those emotions now, surprised to find that the ability to sense the thoughts and feelings of the other consciousness inhabiting the body extended both ways. To confound her fears, Anne realised Bronwyn was making her smile in return to Katherine’s continued grin. Just as she wondered exactly what Bronwyn was intending, she realised with horror that Katherine was closing in to kiss her.
No! cried Anne, but the words were just in her mind, not from her lips. Instead those lips were quickly covered by Katherine’s own.
Well, this is fun, Bronwyn teased Anne, as she deepened the kiss, slipping Anne’s arms around Katherine’s waist to draw her closer, Katherine certainly is an affectionate woman after all, isn’t she?
Let go of her! Screamed Anne, Stop this! She could feel Katherine’s tongue in her mouth now and while she would normally revel in such a sensation, knowing that Bronwyn was sharing in this intimacy was pure agony. She didn’t care what Bronwyn did to her, but to think she might hurt Katherine in some way while using her body was too much to bear.
Mmm, her bottom is rather pert too, noted Brownyn, giving it a small squeeze, I wonder what the rest of her feels like?
Don’t you dare! cried Anne futilely, growing increasingly scared about exactly how far Bronwyn was going to take this. Katherine had no way of knowing it wasn’t Anne who was controlling the hands gliding across her body, and Anne had no way of telling her.
Suddenly a sound off to their side caused Katherine to draw back, glancing anxiously in the direction of the disturbance, just beyond the treeline. Anne heaved a sigh of relief, or at least a mental one, since she couldn’t actually do the real thing right now.
“Quick, it’s some riders,” said Katherine, grabbing Anne’s hand and dragging her out of view, crouching down behind some bushes.
Katherine’s attention was focussed on the men, watching them carefully as they trotted past the women’s hiding spot. Bronwyn, meanwhile, seemed intent on tracking her eyes up and down Katherine’s body.
Stop looking at her like that!
Bronwyn laughed internally and turned her eyes to view the men too. It was then that Anne saw that one of them was Mark Johnson, Katherine’s erstwhile husband. Upon seeing him she was unable to control the surge of emotions, realising too late that Bronwyn would be able to sense them too.
We could leap out and kill him if you like.
Anne was flabbergasted by the blunt suggestion. Why would you say that?
Because it’s what you want.
I do not want to kill him, Anne stated adamantly.
You can’t lie to me. It was plain to see in your initial thoughts, no matter how much you try to hide it now. You want to hurt him for what he did to your parents, and why shouldn’t you?
Because it’s wrong!
And who told you that? Katherine? The name was said with obvious distaste.
I came to my own conclusions! Katherine may have helped me, but I was the one who decided not to pursue the revenge I had been intent upon for so long.
It’s a shame your desires don’t quite match your noble words.
Maybe not for now, allowed Anne, knowing there was little point in denying it since Bronwyn had obviously already sensed the emotions concerned, But having a desire and acting upon it are two different things. Yes, part of me does still want to hurt him, but my mind is strong enough to recognise that it isn’t the right thing to do.
And of course it’s nothing to do with her is it? said Bronwyn sarcastically, flicking her eyes to Katherine once more.
What do you mean?
She’s imposing her values on you, but they’re not what you want really. The only reason you allowed him to live was because it’s what Katherine wanted. She probably still loves him. That’s the real reason why she didn’t want you to kill him, nothing to do with you at all.
You know nothing
What you really think she loves you, the common little pagan girl? Don’t be stupid. Her sort always stick with their own kind in the end, and that’s him. You’re probably just a bit of fun, a little fling, a bit on the side until she goes back to her real life.
You’re wrong! Anne tried to remain defiant, though Bronwyn’s words painfully echoed ones that Katherine herself had said to her only a few months ago. Katherine had been forced into saying those words, Anne told herself. She hadn’t really meant them. Had she?
I wonder how she’d feel if you murdered him right in front of her? Pondered Bronwyn casually, glancing back at Mark and his party. Do you think she’d still ‘love’ you then?
No, please, begged Anne.
Bronwyn’s hand snaked down to rest on Anne’s sword hilt and Anne could feel her tensing to spring, seemingly about to disregard Anne’s plea. Anne knew she couldn’t let this happen, she couldn’t let Bronwyn kill him in her name, in her body. Bronwyn’s fingers tightened round the sword. She went to leap from the bushes.
No! cried Anne, her mind screaming at Bronwyn to stop. It took a couple of seconds for Anne to register that they hadn’t in fact moved.
What are you doing, demanded Bronwyn angrily and with a hint of surprise.
Anne didn’t understand – she wasn’t doing anything, was she? All she knew was that she’d had an overwhelming urge to prevent Bronwyn’s attack. Now it seemed that somehow she unconsciously had. She could feel her own body trembling as Bronwyn fought to regain control of it, the flesh being caught in the middle of the battle of wills. Anne wondered if she really could beat Bronwyn.
“Anne, are you all right?”
Katherine had noticed the strange shuddering coming from Anne and now looked at her with concern. Seeing Katherine’s blue eyes trained on her broke Anne’s concentration and suddenly she was back in the prison of her mind, her body going slack once more.
“Yes, I’m fine.” It was Anne’s voice, but they weren’t her words. Bronwyn was back in control. Her use of Anne’s voice was harsh, the witch no doubt still perturbed by Anne’s brief display of resistance.
Anne tried frantically to gain control again, find whatever it was that had sparked her momentary display of power, but it was gone. All she felt now was tired, weak from the effort she’d had to put in to just holding Bronwyn back for the barest of moments.
“Are you sure?” pressed Katherine, “You were visibly shaking.”
“I told you, I’m fine!” snapped Bronwyn, getting to her feet and striding off into the trees on her own.
I suppose you think you’re clever do you? Bronwyn asked Anne as she crashed hastily through the undergrowth.
Anne couldn’t help feel a slight degree of smugness at Bronwyn’s angry tone.
This would be so much easier of you were a willing participant, instead of rattling around back there trying to oppose me. It’s futile resisting you know.
Oh really? Your level of annoyance suggests otherwise, Anne posited, pleased to seemingly have the upper hand, at least mentally. You’ll never fool her for long, you know. Katherine will notice something’s wrong and she’ll stop you, even if I can’t. Do you really think you can pretend to be me for ten days?
Bronwyn pulled up sharply, her normally dominant thoughts quiet for a moment. Anne supposed she was considering something.
You may be right, Bronwyn agreed eventually, her thought process still slow as if she was pondering over various possibilities, In which case I need to make sure she doesn’t have the chance to see through me.
A wave of fear shot through Anne’s mind. You can’t mean…you wouldn’t…
What? queried Bronwyn, apparently confused by Anne’s meaning, Oh, you think I meant to kill her! she suddenly deduced. That’s not what I had in mind, but now you mention it…
Anne’s naked terror left her unable to say anything more.
But it’s probably not a good idea, at least not for now. If your small bout of resistance was indeed triggered by my threat to that pompous idiot Johnson, I don’t want to risk seeing what might happen if your precious Katherine’s life was in danger.
No, I thought it might more fun to drive her away, make her hate you, while you can do nothing about it. You’ll just have to watch as her belief in you slowly ebbs away, along with any foolish hope of rescue you might have. Maybe then you’ll see that your best option is to succumb and join me.
It’ll never work, she’ll never believe it.
You think not? I have quite the devious mind you know. And I’ve been rotting away in that hut for months with only that cretin Scarlet for company, it’s about time I had a little fun.
Will? Will’s been helping you? Anne was shocked by Bronwyn’s casual admission.
Oh yes, a right little snake in the grass that one. I think he believes he might still have a chance with you. I guess we could have a little fun with him too…
Will’s words about her last chance suddenly made horrible sense to Anne now. He had known exactly what Bronwyn had planned, had known the terrible fate that was about to befall her. The sound of someone else moving through the trees filtered through to Anne, and Bronwyn swung round to see Katherine hurrying through the forest to catch her up.
Just watch, said Bronwyn nastily to Anne, when I’m through with her, she’ll be only too glad to be rid of you.
“Anne, what’s wrong, why did you dash off like that?” asked Katherine, out of breath.
“Nothing’s wrong. Why does something always have to be wrong?” snapped back Bronwyn.
Katherine’s eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “Obviously something’s up. One minute you’re kissing me like a woman possessed, the next you’re running off without a word.”
A woman possessed? Echoed Anne at the irony of Katherine’s words, Yes, that’s exactly it!
Anne noted that Katherine was now putting a comforting hand on her arm, fixing her with one of her soft expressions. “Was it seeing Mark? I understand that it’s probably still painful for you…”
“Painful for me?” cut in Bronwyn scathingly, “Of course it’s bloody painful!”
Katherine flinched back at the vehemence in the tone. “I didn’t realise you were still so angry about it.”
“Looks like you don’t know me as well as you thought,” shot back Bronwyn.
Anne caught the brief flash of hurt that played across Katherine’s face before she schooled her features into a compassionate look once more. “Then tell me what it is I don’t know, if something’s wrong I want to help you.”
Bronwyn shook off Katherine’s hand. “I don’t want to talk about it now, I’m going to read my book. Alone.”
Katherine hunkered down behind the fallen log, her eyes trained on the forest track, watching and waiting for their quarry. The stiff wind tugged at her clothes and she drew her cloak in tighter around her shoulders. She hoped the Sheriff’s men came soon, before her entire body went numb with cold and inactivity. Casting a glance to her side she studied Anne as the young woman also scanned the road attentively. A small stabbing sensation jabbed in her chest as she took in the look of cool indifference on Anne’s face. Her blond flicked idly about her face and she brushed it away, now noticing the eyes watching her. She held Katherine’s gaze for the barest of moments, her features not softening in the slightest, before she turned back to the track, barely acknowledging the other woman’s presence.
Katherine was really starting to get worried now. When they had argued in the forest two days ago, she had just assumed that it was the shock of seeing Mark that had sparked Anne’s ire and that when she’d had time to calm down they’d talk and sort things out. Only she’d barely seen Anne the last two days, let alone had the chance to have a proper conversation. Anne was always off reading the pagan book or other places she didn’t see fit to tell Katherine about. Katherine thought there was more to Anne’s withdrawn behaviour than just Mark, but she was at a loss to know what it was with Anne being so reluctant to talk or spend time with her. Even at night, when they were alone, Anne always insisted that she was tired from her study and immediately turned over to go to sleep before Katherine could say anything further.
When Robin had asked for volunteers for the ambush of the Sheriff’s men, Katherine had been surprised that Anne had piped up. Thinking it might be a chance to finally get Anne on her own, Katherine had also offered her services, along with several of the other men. Anne had stared at her then, and from the look of annoyance on her face, Katherine had wondered whether Anne was actually going to back out simply because Katherine was going too. During those agonising few seconds before Anne nodded her agreement, Katherine realised she had stopped breathing.
However, now they had got out to the track, Anne seemed as reticent to talk to Katherine as she had been for the last two days. Katherine had tried to break the ice a couple of times, but Anne had quickly hushed her, saying they should be quiet while hiding. Katherine couldn’t leave it, though, not like this.
“Anne, please, what’s going on? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”
Anne’s eyes swung to her once more, narrowing in what Katherine would almost say was a look of disgust. It scared her. “Now is not the time to be talking, we have a job to do.”
“When then?” asked Katherine in a hushed whisper, “You’ve been avoiding me for two days.”
“Why does it have to be about you?” replied Anne, her lips thin, her words seething out from between her teeth, “I haven’t been avoiding you, I’ve just been busy. Not everything I do revolves around you.”
“I’m not saying it has to. Of course you should do things on your own. But this is different, it’s like you’re shutting me out.”
Anne merely shrugged dismissively. Before Katherine could press her further the sound of horse hooves drew the young woman’s attention and she turned her back to Katherine, pulling out her bow. Katherine followed suit, disappointed that the arrival of their target had cut short their conversation. Not that it had really been much of a conversation, she considered. Anne seemed determined to cut her out of whatever it was that was bothering her. That only made Katherine equally determined to uncover the truth.
Katherine notched an arrow in her bow, her heart increasing it’s thumping beat in her chest as she waited for the ambush to begin. Her and Anne’s job was to stay concealed in the trees and prevent any of the men escaping to raise the alarm with their advance party before the job of the other outlaws was complete. Katherine had been on a few of these raids during her time at the camp. She was known as one of the best shots in the camp, so the men liked to have her along in this capacity. Katherine also preferred that it was her that the task fell to, since she could ensure that she only wounded anyone that tried to make a run for it, whereas not all of the other outlaws would be quite so considerate.
On cue, the other outlaws sprang from their concealment among the undergrowth that lined the edge of the road, their predominantly green clothing having kept them camouflaged up to that point. Katherine’s fingers twitched nervously on her bow as she observed them swiftly corralling the guards and relieving them of the money they had been transporting. Robbery still wasn’t an entirely comfortable pastime for Katherine, no matter how much justification Robin supplied regarding how the money had been obtained in the first place or where it was going once they had re-appropriated it.
Suddenly there was a commotion out on the track, and one of the riders broke free, galloping off down the dirt road before any of the outlaws could stop him. As the hooves pounded past her position, casting up a flurry of mud in their wake, Katherine swung her bow round, tracking the man on horseback the whole time. She narrowed her eyes taking aim for his shoulder. Her arrow flew straight and true from her bow, but she heard the unmistakable swish of a second arrow being loosed in tandem with it. Her bolt impacted exactly where she had been aiming, unfortunately the second arrow thumped into the middle of the man’s back.
Katherine swivelled round to stare at Anne. “Why did you shoot him too?” she demanded, “I had him covered.”
“You might have missed,” responded Anne glibly, “Better to be safe than sorry.”
Though the words came from her mouth, Katherine couldn’t quite believe Anne had said them. She didn’t have time to ponder Anne’s apparent disregard for her abilities or the life of the guard, though, she had to go and check on the fallen man quickly. Swinging her bow onto her back, Katherine pulled up her hood and dashed from the trees. She could hear the moans from the guard before she even got to where he was lying in the dirt. Kneeling down at his side, Katherine was thankful that he was alive, if in pain. She gingerly inspected the wounds in his back, noting that he was lucky Anne’s arrow hadn’t been a few inches either way and penetrated any vital organs.
“It’s all right,” she said softly to the groaning man, rubbing his good shoulder gently “We’ll take care of you.”
Katherine’s head titled up, regarding Anne sternly from beneath her hood. “What is wrong with you? We don’t just kill people for no reason!”
Anne looked unrepentant, crossing her arms over her chest in a defiant stance. “He’d kill us given half the chance.”
“You don’t know that,” replied Katherine, “And even if he would that doesn’t mean we should act in the same way. I thought you understood about showing compassion, you showed it to Mark after all.”
“Yes, well maybe that was a mistake.”
Katherine was taken aback, unsure where all this sudden hostility from Anne was coming from. It was almost as if Anne had completely forgotten about the past six months, going back to her persona as the ruthless outlaw. Even then, that had been more of an outward layer that Anne had used to suit her purpose, to fit in with her fellow outlaws. Underneath she had always had the capacity to be the warm, caring, sensitive woman that Katherine had fallen in love with. Now, though, it seemed like the outward layer had taken over, that Anne really didn’t care that she had hurt the man.
“Just help me with him,” ordered Katherine testily, bending down to hook her arms under his body. When Anne didn’t join her, she looked furiously back up at the young woman. “Anne! Help me!” she instructed again.
Anne eyed her for a moment, with what was practically a sneer. “I will not.”
Katherine’s mouth dropped open; she was completely stunned by Anne’s obstinate refusal, unable to even formulate a response. She just watched dumbly as Anne swivelled round and stalked off down the road, leaving Katherine to tend to the injured guard alone.
Katherine sat dejectedly by the fire, poking distractedly at the logs with a loose twig as the last light of day faded. She was alone, as she had been for the whole day, as she had been for much of the past four days. Anne was off reading her book yet again, basically ignoring Katherine, just as she had been since the day after her birthday.
Recalling that day, Katherine remembered how it had been so wonderful - the joy of giving Anne her present, the blissful lovemaking through the night and into the next morning. And then…
Katherine didn’t know what had happened then.
Everything had appeared normal when she had gone off to meet Tobias that morning; Anne had seemed fine. But when she got back Anne had been behaving strangely, erratically. That behaviour had only gotten progressively worse as the days progressed, including the incident with the wounded guard two days previously. Every time Katherine tried to speak to her, Anne would irritably brush her off, insisting that nothing was wrong, apart from Katherine’s persistent nagging.
Katherine had considered that maybe she was blowing it all out of proportion, that Anne merely wanted a bit of time on her own and that Katherine’s constant pressing for explanations was only making things worse. She mulled over whether she should just give Anne a bit of space. And yet she had the strong feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong. She didn’t know if that something was with Anne, her or their relationship, but in her heart she knew this wasn’t just something she could ignore.
If only Anne would at least speak to her, she might understand what was behind it, but she didn’t seem willing to even offer that much to Katherine. Instead Katherine was left, cast adrift, not knowing where she stood. Katherine didn’t think she had ever felt so lost in her life.
“Can I join you?”
It was Robin Hood, the leader of the outlaw band, standing by her, regarding her with his dark eyes. She wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted, finding it hard to read his expression in the dim twilight, but she supposed she hardly had much other company to occupy her presently.
“Why not?” She shuffled up along the log she was sitting on, indicating for him to take up the place next to her.
“So how are you?” asked Robin casually as he sat.
Katherine eyed him as he looked off into the fire. Though his tone was light, she got the sense he was fishing for something. “I’m fine,” she offered slowly.
“Right,” he noted absently, pushing a few odd embers back into the fire with the toe of his boot.
They sat quietly for a moment, with just the sound of the crackling wood to fill the silence. Katherine waited patiently, gathering that Robin had some purpose in speaking to her, but that he was finding it hard to broach the subject. She suspected she knew what that subject was.
“So you’ve not noticed anything…odd,” he remarked eventually, turning to her, “With Anne.”
Katherine sucked in a breath. So she had been right. “Actually, yes,” she confirmed, quickly deciding that she could confide in Robin. She knew he cared for Anne almost as much as she herself did since he had looked after her after parents had died. “I thought it was just me, though, that I’d done something to offend her in some way.”
“No, some of the others have mentioned that she’s been behaving rather strangely. Apparently she threw Nicholas’ lunch all over him earlier for no reason at all apart from that she thought it was offensive, and then of course there’s what happened on the raid the other day.”
“You heard about that then?” remarked Katherine, “I don’t know what was going on, but it didn’t seem like Anne at all – I really believe she would have just left that man to die in the road if I hadn’t been there. I mean, I’m not naïve, I know things can be tough as an outlaw, that sometimes you need to do…certain things to defend yourself or your people, just to survive. But this was different, he was completely harmless at that point, no threat to anyone.”
Robin nodded his head in agreement, digesting her words. “Indeed. You’re right, that sometimes we have to do things we might not be entirely proud of, but Anne wouldn’t normally be so ruthless, not if there was no immediate danger, which it doesn’t sound like there was.”
“No, he wasn’t going anywhere, the rest of the men had everything under control and she just left me there, didn’t lift a finger to help.” Katherine hung her head disconsolately at the recollection.
“Have you tried talking to her?” asked Robin, “Asking if there’s something troubling her?”
Katherine let out a rueful laugh. “Oh yes, I’ve tried, but she seems determined to avoid me as much as possible. She’s been moody, short-tempered and generally withdrawn - I’ve barely gotten two words out of her for the last four days. How about you? Have you tried speaking with her?”
“Yes, I got pretty much the same response as you by the sounds of it. She basically just told me to mind my own business, though not quite so politely. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s almost like she’s a different person.” Robin’s brow crinkled together as he tried to decipher Anne’s actions, “Something must have sparked this marked change in behaviour.”
“Well, we did see Mark that day it all seemed to start, but I didn’t think that could have effected her so severely as this. It’s not like she hasn’t seen him since she found out who he was. When we saw him on the way to Loughborough she was fine.”
“I tend to agree with you, I think there’s something more to it, something we don’t know about.”
“But how do we find out what that is if she won’t even talk to us?” asked Katherine, unable to hide the dismay in her tone.
“I suppose we just have to hold in there,” suggested Robin, “Wait for now and hope she sees sense at some point soon. Hope that she’ll eventually seek one of us out to talk.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
Robin didn’t seem to have the answer to that question. His face turned away from Katherine again, and Katherine could see him biting nervously at his lip as he looked for options in the flames of the fire. All this wasn’t really reassuring Katherine much, and she wondered whether to tell Robin of the rest of her concerns. She wasn’t hesitant because she was afraid to trust him; it was more that if she voiced them out loud then they would be real, rather than rattling around in her head only.
Taking a few deep breaths, she gathered her courage. “I’m scared, Robin,” she began honestly, “It just seems like everything we’ve built up over the past six months is disintegrating before my eyes and I’m helpless to prevent it.”
Robin gently put his hand on her knee. “Katherine, I know it’s hard to be strong but I know Anne loves you.” His eyes regarded Katherine softly and she had to fight back the tears that were threatening to well up at his kind words. “Believe me, she’s never been happier than she is with you, she wouldn’t throw all that away suddenly for no reason.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself too,” she replied, “But maybe I’m deluding myself. Perhaps I’m just too stubborn to admit that she’s just had enough of me. Maybe all this is her unsubtle way of driving me away. At the moment it seems like I may as well not be here.”
“And yet you are,” noted Robin, “And that’s because you love her too and you want to help her. You care too much for Anne to walk away when you know she needs you.” Robin squeezed her knee, making sure she was looking at him as he continued. “It may not seem obvious now, but she does need you.”
Katherine laughed ruefully. Anne didn’t seem like she needed anyone right now.
Robin was undeterred though. “Just as you need her. Don’t abandon her now.”
Katherine’s eyes shot to his. “You know I would never do that,” she stated, realising the absolute truth of it herself. “Until she tells me direct to my face to bugger off, then I’m going to hang in there fighting. In fact I’ll probably hang in there long after that too.”
Robin tried to offer her a reassuring smile. “You’ll always be welcome here, whatever happens, don’t forget that.”
Robin rose from the log, leaving Katherine to her troubled thoughts. Despite his attempts to encourage her, she couldn’t help the gnawing, lonely pain that was settling in the pit of her stomach.
Anne read the words that floated before her eyes, hoping in some small way that they might hold an answer to her problem. She hardly thought Bronwyn would be that careless, though, to read something that could give Anne any sort of advantage. It was now five days since Bronwyn had invaded her body, suppressing Anne’s own consciousness so that she was a mere spectator. After the brief time she had managed to gain control of her body, on that very first day, Anne had tried to push up to the surface again but to no avail. Even worse was that she could feel herself weakening as the days passed. Sometimes it actually became hard to distinguish where her thoughts began and Bronwyn’s ended. Yet she would remain defiant to the end, hold on as long as she could in the hope that Katherine or someone would realise what was going on.
Thinking of Katherine, she felt a crushing dismay sweeping through her mind. It had been agony watching helplessly as Bronwyn pushed Katherine away. Katherine kept trying to talk to her for now, but how long would that last? Eventually, Bronwyn’s continued hostility would drive a wedge between them and Katherine would give up Anne as a hopeless case. Anne could hardly blame her; Bronwyn had been awful. She was mean, moody and generally nasty whenever Katherine came anywhere near her. Anne could see the pain behind Katherine’s eyes every time she and Bronwyn spoke and it was almost too much to bear. If she had any control she’d close her eyes to avoid it, but she couldn’t even manage that.
You’re being awfully quiet back there
Bronwyn was attempting her usual goading of Anne. It was something she did at regular intervals, chipping away at her resolve. Anne wouldn’t admit that it was starting to get to her.
I know you’re getting weaker. Soon all your thoughts will be mine anyway, be kind to yourself and just give in now.
You’re not fooling them, you know, Anne replied, deciding to go on the offensive, Katherine will see through you, she’ll stop you.
She wouldn’t know how! Your confidence in her is misplaced.
We’ll see. You haven’t managed to drive her away yet.
Not yet, but I’m betting that when it comes down to it, she will abandon you.
Katherine stepped carefully through the trees of Sherwood Forest, making her way back to the outlaw camp. She was trying to remain alert, but it was hard to take her mind off the meeting she’d just had with Tobias. To say she’d been a little surprised when he mentioned that Mark had approached him, asking after her, was an understatement. It had also shocked and worried her, the thought that he might have uncovered Tobias’ duplicity in filtering news of the manor to her.
However, Mark had reassured Tobias that his position as captain of the guard was safe. All Mark wanted to know was if Tobias were in contact with Katherine, so he could get a message to her. Tobias had been noncommittal to begin with, waiting to see what exactly the message was. Having received it, he had brought it to Katherine as requested, though still having not directly revealed to Mark whether he knew of her whereabouts or not.
Mark wanted to meet Katherine, just to talk, so he said. He was after her help, in any way he could get it, even if all that meant was the odd clandestine meeting with her. Katherine had deliberated long and hard over the proposal. She knew it could all be some elaborate ruse, to trap her and either haul her back to the manor or even kill her. Yet after the meeting at Loughborough Castle she didn’t think that was the case. She thought Mark really was sorry for his past misdeeds, and that he genuinely wanted help. She had thought about their meeting at Loughborough a few times over the past couple of months, wondering if there could have been any way she could help him and indirectly the people of Markham. Even after all this time away from the manor, she felt responsible for them. Her duty to them was engrained deep down in her soul and not something she would forget in a hurry. And now here Mark was, offering her a chance to finally do something, and on her terms. So she had sent Tobias back to Markham with instructions to arrange a meeting for the following day - the least she could do was listen to what he had to say. After that she could decide how to proceed.
She tried to ignore the unwanted thought, prodding away at the back of her mind, suggesting that she was reaching out to cling onto anything at the moment, even if that something was her past.
Come evening Katherine once again found herself alone by the fire. She dazedly shovelled her food into her mouth, chewing distractedly but not really tasting it. Looking glumly down at her bowl, she stirred her wooden spoon around a few times, wondering exactly what it was meant to be.
The day had proved as fruitless as all the past ones in her attempts to talk to Anne. Katherine had even tried just sitting in the hut with the young woman as she remained glued to her book. She had a faint hope that Anne may get so annoyed with her presence that she was forced to tell Katherine to go away if nothing else. At least that would be the start of some sort of discourse. Instead Anne had resolutely ignored her, acting as if she wasn’t there.
The only good thing about not having spoken to Anne was that Katherine hadn’t been required to decide whether to tell Anne about her upcoming meeting with Mark or not. She suspected that even if they had talked then she wouldn’t have mentioned it. Anne’s current erratic behaviour made Katherine reluctant to trust her or her reactions, and that saddened Katherine somewhere deep in her heart - normally she would be happy to tell Anne anything.
“Not hungry tonight?”
Katherine glanced up at Nicholas. “Huh?”
“You’ve been stirring that stew around for about ten minutes,” clarified the bearded man.
“Oh.” Katherine put the half-full bowl down on the ground. “It was lovely, really,” she said, knowing Nicholas had made it, “But…well…”
“You don’t really have the appetite.” It was more a statement than a question. The outlaw folded himself onto the ground next to Katherine, turning his soft eyes to her. “I know you’re worried about Anne, we all are,” he noted, “If you want to talk about it with someone…”
Katherine ruefully shook her head. “That would be good, if I knew what to say!” she replied, the exasperation in her voice obvious, “But I just don’t know what’s going on.”
“Take your time,” offered Nicholas gently, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Katherine sighed, closing her eyes for a moment to collect her thoughts. She knew Nicholas was a kind man and only wanted to help, but she was at a loss to know where to begin. He didn’t press though, just sitting there patiently but unobtrusively in case she did feel like speaking. Anne had told her he was a good listener, belying his jovial outer demeanour, and Katherine had found that to be true on the previous occasions she had confided in him.
“I’m worried, Nicholas,” she finally began, “Something’s obviously happened with Anne but she’s not saying anything to anyone about what it is. I just want to help her but she’s making that almost impossible by hiding away all the time. I mean it could be just me, but I don’t think so.”
“Maybe she’s just too stubborn to ask for help and is pushing us all away?” proposed Nicholas.
Katherine exhaled long and slow. “Well, she’s making a pretty good job of it, if that’s her intention. I keep searching my mind, trying to think if there’s something I’ve done or said or something else that’s happened to her that might have sparked things off, but nothing I can think of could have inspired this almost complete shift in character. I just don’t recognise Anne at the moment.”
“I know what you’re saying,” he agreed, “She’s not been herself at all, she’s just so…so…” He broke off to search for an apt word, “…nasty!”
“Exactly,” concurred Katherine, “I mean I know Anne can be a bit volatile sometimes…”
“…Difficult…” chipped in Nicholas.
Katherine nodded, “…Opinionated…”
“And you don’t want to be on the wrong end of that temper,” noted Nicholas, making Katherine think he had been on more than one occasion.
Katherine let out a wistful laugh as she recalled the same fieriness. “Indeed not. But that’s only because she passionate about things and people that she cares about. I have no doubt that she’d stand by me and defend me until her dying breath…or at least I used to know. Now though it’s like she just doesn’t care about anything, like she can’t be bothered with me, or any of us for that matter.”
“Almost as if we’re beneath her.”
“Right. And if she does deign to interact, there’s this underlying current of what I would almost say was malice. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had disagreements in the past, heated ones, but then we’ve always managed to sort things out after we’ve cleared the air. That’s not the case this time though. Apart from on the road the other day, we’ve not really had an argument as such - she’s just suddenly not speaking to me. It’s like I’m invisible!”
As if to prove her point, Katherine caught some movement at the edge of the clearing where she sat, and saw Anne’s face illuminated by the orange glow of the fire as she entered it. However, rather than come and join Katherine, she crossed to where another group of outlaws sat, taking the ale that was offered to her.
“See what I mean,” Katherine noted to Nicholas at her side, “Not even the slightest acknowledgement.”
“Maybe you should go over and try talking to her, since she’s finally emerged?”
Katherine deliberated for a moment, watching Anne swiftly downing her drink and sharing a joke with one of the men. She actually found herself nervous about approaching the young woman. “I suppose it may be the only chance I get at this rate,” she reasoned, gathering her courage and rising from the ground.
Katherine attempted to take a few deep breaths as she crossed the short space to where Anne sat. This was ridiculous - she shouldn’t be this anxious, and yet she just didn’t know what sort of reception she was going to get from Anne these days. Katherine stopped in front of the other woman, who was busy speaking to one of the men. She had to wait until the other outlaw noticed her presence and stopped talking, before Anne finally craned her head round.
“Yes?” Her tone was icy, her gaze equally cool.
“I was wondering if we could have a chat?” asked Katherine.
“Go on then,” Anne replied with a dismissive shrug.
“I was thinking more of a private word.”
Anne laughed. “I’m sure the others don’t mind hearing anything you have to say,” she said waving her arm at them.
As she followed Anne’s gesture, Katherine realised for the first time that one of the men sitting in Anne’s group was Will Scarlet. The fact that Anne was choosing to spend time in the company of the odious outlaw was even more proof that something was badly wrong. He shot Katherine a sneering look as her eyes passed over him.
“Maybe they don’t mind, but I do,” Katherine said, turning her attention back to Anne.
Suddenly Anne was up off the ground, her drink sloshing wildly at the hasty movement. Anne herself seemed unsteady, and as her bleary eyes tried to focus on Katherine, the older woman realised with dismay that Anne was drunk. Considering she’d only had one by the fire, Katherine deduced that she must have been drinking in her hut beforehand. That made the chances of a rational conversation even remoter.
As Anne spoke, the smell of alcohol was obvious on her breath. “And what makes you think I give a damn whether you mind or not?” she challenged, jabbing her finger at Katherine’s chest.
Katherine regarded her for a moment, the young woman’s normally alert blue eyes dulled by the drink. Katherine quickly concluded that there really was no point pursuing it now, with Anne in her present state.
“Never mind,” said Katherine with a small shake of the head, turning to go.
Anne grabbed for Katherine, clutching onto her forearm. “Wait, that’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say?”
“For now, yes,” replied Katherine, looking back, “There’s not really much point when you’re drunk is there?” The words had come out harsher than she had intended.
“Jesus! Here we go, the lecture for getting drunk!”
“I wasn’t lecturing you, it was an observation.”
“That’s why you said it in that disparaging voice was it?”
Katherine could feel the conversation descending into dangerous territory fast. She needed to try and diffuse things before someone said something they didn’t mean. At least she hoped it wouldn’t be meant.
“Just let go of my arm, please,” requested Katherine, deciding that leaving Anne to it for now was probably the best option.
Anne released her hold. “All right, well, see you then! We wouldn’t want to have any fun or enjoy ourselves after all would we,” she commented nastily. Katherine could spot a few of the other men sniggering, but resisted the temptation to reply.
As Katherine walked back over to where Nicholas still sat, she could hear Anne’s loud drunken comments behind her.
“Now, I bet you guys know how to have fun, don’t you?”
Nicholas greeted Katherine with a sympathetic look as she sat back down next to him. Anne’s voice was still loud enough to be heard by the pair of them, Katherine thought deliberately so.
“Will,” said the young woman, moving over to him and eyeing him up, “You look like a man who knows how to enjoy himself.”
Katherine watched in horror as Anne lowered herself onto Will’s lap. As Anne’s fingers started tracking down his cheek he looked like the cat that had got the cream, while all Katherine could do was look on dumbly with her stomach churning painfully into a knot.
Anne’s face slowly drew up to glance Katherine’s way. The firelight flickered off her eyes, highlighting how dark they were, the normal bright blueness edged out to a thin circle around the black pupils. Her lips curved into a wicked smile as she noted that she had got Katherine’s attention. At least it was a sort of smile, but one that didn’t reach her eyes. Then she was closing those eyes and dipping her lips, pressing them to Will’s.
Katherine actually let out an audible gasp. It was like someone had driven a stake directly into her heart, the pain was so intense. A flood of emotions swamped her, chaotic, battering her with their intensity. All at once she wanted to scream, cry, shout. Most of all she wanted to curl up and die - anything to stop her having to witness the hideous scene unfolding before her. And yet at the same time she couldn’t tear her eyes away, too stunned to move. All she could do was stare numbly at Anne as she continued to enthusiastically kiss Will. As Katherine’s vision started to falter, she realised she had actually stopped breathing.
Taking a shuddering breath she had to fight back the urge to cry. She wasn’t about to give Anne the satisfaction of seeing that, since this whole show was obviously for Katherine’s benefit. Biting her trembling lip, she clambered up off the ground and swung away from Anne, taking dazed steps towards their hut. She was finding it hard to breathe still, her stomach feeling hollow and twisted. She was amazed that her legs managed to carry her the whole way to the hut, and as she got through the door they gave up, depositing her down on the bed.
It was then that she finally allowed the tears to come.
Anne’s form stumbled haphazardly across the outlaw camp as a few faint wisps of smoke tapered up into the light grey of the dawn sky from the long extinguished fires. Stopping against a tree for a moment, Bronwyn brought her hand up to her head.
Your body really isn’t very good at handling drink is it?
Not the amounts you were consuming last night. replied Anne, taking a small degree of relish in the hangover that Bronwyn was suffering.
Bloody hell, you sound just like that annoying woman of yours
The mention of Katherine sent Anne’s mind cart-wheeling off in a daze of anxious thoughts. God only knew what Katherine thought of the night before. Anne’s mind raced with fear as she wondered if the other woman would even have bothered hanging round at the camp at all after having to watch Bronwyn throwing herself at Will while in control of Anne’s body.
Anne thanked the stars that Bronwyn had drunk so much that she’d been unable to do anything else with Will beyond the kissing. That had been bad enough, and certainly not something Anne had ever wanted a repeat experience of. Will, of course, had been more than keen, and when Bronwyn had suggested they go somewhere quiet he was all for it. However, when she revealed to him that she was really the dark witch in Anne’s body, his ardour seemed to die somewhat. Shortly after that Bronwyn had collapsed in a drunken stupor anyway.
The witch was off again now, staggering back towards Anne’s hut through the leaves that carpeted the clearing. Her boots crunched on them, the chill of the early morning having encrusted them with a few crystals of frost. As Bronwyn opened the door, Anne’s heart was in her mouth – would Katherine be in there?
The sight of an auburn head rolling over in the bed to regard the entrant to the hut sent a surge of relief through Anne. That relief was short-lived, though, as she caught sight of Katherine’s face. Katherine quickly tried to rub at it as she sat up, but the red-rims to her eyes and the smudges on her cheeks made it plain to see that she had been crying.
“You didn’t wait up then?” noted Bronwyn caustically.
“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Katherine angrily, shooting up from the bed in her nightshirt.
“Ow, can you keep it down a bit?” Bronwyn winced, clutching at her head.
“Keep it down, keep it down?” repeated Katherine incredulously, “Where in god’s name have you been all night?”
Anne could see the stormy look in Katherine’s blue-grey eyes as she stood with her hands on her hips. It seemed she had finally lost patience with Anne. The young woman could hardly blame her, even if it did send daggers of despair into her heart.
“I don’t want to talk about it now,” replied Bronwyn, trying to brush past Katherine.
Katherine’s hand shot out, grabbing her arm. “Well, I do!” she exclaimed furiously.
The incensed shout was enough to stop even Bronwyn in her tracks. Anne feared where the conversation was heading.
“You’ve been avoiding me all week,” continued Katherine, the outrage evident in her tone, “Fobbing me off with comments about being busy or not wanting to talk about it and I’ve left it. But after the performance by the fire last night and then your disappearing act after that, well, I think I have the right to an explanation!”
“Sorry, I didn’t realise I had to report all my movements to you!” snapped back Bronwyn, shaking her arm free of Katherine’s grasp.
Katherine was practically shaking with rage now. “Only when those movements include playing around with ex-boyfriends!”
“At least Will knows how to have a good time!”
The comment hung in the silent air like a bad smell. Katherine looked like someone had punched her in the stomach, while her face had gone deathly white. Anne suddenly had a sickening realisation of why.
Oh my god, she thinks that Will and I…I mean Will and you, that you…oh my god! Tell her! Tell her nothing happened!
Don’t be silly, where would be the fun in that? Just look at that poor crumpled look on her face, the way she’s so desperately trying to hide the pain. Oh dear, you really seem to have hurt her.
I haven’t done anything! It was you!
Shame she doesn’t know that though.
Katherine finally speaking disturbed Anne’s internal dialog with Bronwyn.
“What’s happened to you, Anne?” Her voice was now quiet with disbelief.
“Nothing’s happened to me,” replied Bronwyn scornfully, “Maybe I’ve finally seen the light.”
“Where? In that book you’ve been so consumed with?” Katherine’s fury was bristling to the surface once more, the fire flashing in her eyes.
“You wanted me to study it and now you’re complaining?” Bronwyn shot back. “Christ, you would hardly let up about it, insisting we take it from Loughborough, dropping little hints about it all the time.”
Anne had the terrible realisation that the knowledge Bronwyn had just used in her argument was direct from her memories. The witch had somehow accessed them, meaning the barriers to Anne’s mind must be weakening or that she was so agitated that her thoughts were easily available.
“If I’d known this was the affect it would have on you, I never would have encouraged it,” Katherine answered, shaking her head. “You hardly have your nose out of it, and when you do you avoid me like the plague. Something’s happened to you since you started reading that book - it’s like you’re hardly the same person.”
“Or maybe this is who I was always meant to be,” suggested Bronwyn, “If you don’t like it…”
Bronwyn flicked Anne’s eyes towards the door, her meaning obvious. Katherine looked from it to Anne, too dumbstruck to reply.
“Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to get some sleep.” Bronwyn noted, succeeding in passing the shocked Katherine this time to flop down on the bed. She immediately turned her back to the other woman, her shoulders forming a barrier to further discussion.
“Anne!” Katherine finally managed, “We haven’t finished!”
“Yes,” said Bronwyn with quiet menace, not bothering to turn back over, “We have.”
Anne could sense Katherine lingering there for what seemed like an eternity. It was like a silent torture, being unable to turn over and look. Bronwyn kept her still open eyes trained on the far wall, refusing to grant Anne her wish. Finally to her dismay, Anne could hear that faint sounds of Katherine getting dressed and then leaving the room.
See I told you that I’d be able to drive her away, taunted Bronwyn. I think a couple more things and she’ll have had enough. I’m surprised your little show with Will wasn’t enough to be the final nail in the coffin to be honest.
Maybe Katherine is more resilient than you realised, replied Anne defiantly, though in reality she was scared that Bronwyn was right.
That will only last for so long.
So will your luck. She’s already made a connection with the book, how long before she works it all out? She’s going to stop you yet.
I suppose you could be right, conceded Bronwyn. I still have four days before the eclipse, and I wouldn’t want anything going wrong at this late stage. It could be time for more drastic steps. Though for now though it’s time for some sleep.
As Bronwyn closed her eyes, Anne cursed herself for drawing attention to Katherine’s capabilities for thwarting the dark witch. Now she had to desperately hope that Katherine would be able to live up to her billing.
When Anne awoke she found herself still alone in the bed. It had really been too much to hope that Katherine might return any time soon after the way Bronwyn had treated her. Lazily rising from the blankets, Bronwyn peeled off Anne’s ale-sticky clothes and hunted amongst her things, digging out a fresh set of black trousers, shirt and tunic.
Do you possess any other colours of clothes?
I thought you’d like black, noted Anne sarcastically.
Bronwyn ignored the retort, having spied a flash of blue amongst the black. Hello, what’s this?
It was the shirt Katherine had given Anne for her birthday. It had only been a week before, but it seemed like a lifetime ago now to Anne. Bronwyn was turning it over in her hands, fondling the soft fabric.
That was nice of Katherine, she remarked spitefully, disdainfully casting the shirt aside onto a storage chest and picking up Anne’s belt and sword instead.
As she fastened them round her waist, Anne berated herself for not focusing properly – she had allowed Bronwyn to read her surface thoughts about the shirt. It was getting harder to keep such things from the witch, especially when they sparked such a strong emotional resonance.
Meanwhile, Bronwyn was scrapping her blond hair back into a ponytail, quickly securing it and making for the door. With her fingers on the handle she suddenly paused in the doorway. Turning back to the room, she pulled Anne’s sword from its scabbard and swung it round in a flashing arc. It impacted with a thump in the top of the wooden chest, neatly slicing the silk shirt that lay on top of it in half.
Bronwyn’s laughs echoed nastily in Anne’s head as she exited the hut, blinking a couple of times at the winter sunshine that filtered through the trees. Anne judged that it was somewhere in the region of midday. Bronwyn headed on down to the stream that ran close to the camp, bending to splash some water on her face when she got there.
Gone quiet on me again?
Anne didn’t reply. For one she didn’t really want to talk to the evil witch, and for another she was having to concentrate more and more to keep Bronwyn from invading her mind and overwhelming her consciousness completely. Her carelessness had already cost her the shirt; she didn’t want it to have any more serious consequences. Just as Bronwyn turned back towards the camp she caught sight of a flash of auburn through the trees.
Well, well, well, noted Bronwyn, having recognised who the red hair belonged to just as Anne had, I wonder where she’s sneaking off to.
Bronwyn dashed off in pursuit, ducking through the undergrowth to keep up but remaining far enough back to avoid alerting Katherine to her presence. As Bronwyn rounded another large tree trunk, Anne spotted that Katherine had finally stopped, standing by the bank of a small stream. Bronwyn quickly ducked down behind a holly bush to stay out of sight, peering through the dark jagged leaves as Katherine began pacing back and forth.
Hmm, this is interesting - it looks like she’s come to meet someone. I wonder who it is?
Anne wondered too, but she wasn’t about to voice her interest out loud and give Bronwyn any ammunition to taunt her with.
Funny how she didn’t mention it to you.
Even without Bronwyn teasing her, Anne would have been curious about what Katherine was doing. It was unlike her to go off on her own without at least mentioning to Anne where she was going. Though Anne supposed she’d hardly been approachable the last few days thanks to Bronwyn.
Looks like she’s been keeping secrets from you.
Shut up, Bronwyn, snapped Anne finally, immediately cursing herself for rising to the bait. However, she was finding it hard to contain the rising tendrils of fear that were fluttering through her. That fear only intensified when the person Katherine was waiting for appeared through the trees. As Anne watched Mark approaching her, she knew the sparks of jealousy mixed with hate would be all too apparent to Bronwyn.
“Hello, Mark,” greeted Katherine, checking for any signs of him being accompanied.
“Hello, Kathy,” he replied, smiling warmly. “Don’t worry, I’m alone,” he added, noting her study. “I did bring a few of the guards with me on the pretext of checking some of the outlying villages, but Tobias is keeping them occupied nearby at the moment. I don’t have much time though, before they realise I’ve sneaked off.”
“Well, I guess you better get on with it then,” suggested Katherine, “Why did you want to see me? I thought I made it clear last time that I couldn’t come back to the manor with you.”
“I know, but I wanted to see if perhaps you’d reconsidered? You didn’t really get much of a chance to think it through when last we spoke. I was hoping that maybe a bit of time had given you a fresh perspective.”
Katherine thought ruefully that unfortunately time had given her no such thing. Part of her almost wished that it could be another way – it would be so much simpler if she could go back to that safe life at the manor with Mark, play the good and dutiful wife. But it was never going to happen. She was a different person to the one Mark had left to run the manor in his absence over a year ago. The insight she had received into controlling the manor on her own had given her a whole new independence, one that she didn’t want to give up. Not that she had been some wilting flower before that, but now she knew she couldn’t even pretend to be inferior to a man, to defer to him, as she would be required to do should she return with Mark. Whereas with Anne they were equal, they complimented one another. At least they normally did, she told herself with a fresh stab of pain jabbing at her heart as she recalled the events of the night before and that morning.
During the walk to meet Mark she had tried to avoid thinking about what Anne might have got up to, but unwanted images had still crowded into her mind. Anne wouldn’t have done…that…with Will though, would she? Despite those sickening thoughts, Katherine still couldn’t take her mind off Anne. It was almost galling to have to admit it, but she knew she was still in love with Anne, and no amount of wishing otherwise could undo that.
“No, I’m not coming back with you,” she informed Mark finally, “Especially not after the way you’ve been running things in my absence.”
“But that’s exactly why I need you. Everything’s getting on top of me. I can’t seem to organise things without you. The other knights are running me ragged - they’re pretty much doing what they want.”
Mark really did seem to be at a loss, and Katherine was beginning to suspect that it was more Mark’s weakness than any innate malice on his part that was causing the problems on the estate. She decided to be magnanimous and offer some advice. “You could help yourself by getting rid of Charles Kirby for a start,” she suggested, “He’s a bad influence, Mark, you can’t trust him.”
“But he’s the one that’s really been there for me,” said Mark, appearing to doubt her words.
“And don’t you wonder why? He’s probably just looking for the easiest way to get rid of you. You know he was plotting against me the whole time I was in charge while you were away. That’s why I was marrying him that day you turned up – he forced me into it.”
“What?” queried Mark, stunned.
“Yes, I bet he didn’t tell you that did he? He found out about Anne and me, threatened to have her killed. That’s why I was doing it, to save her life.”
“I never realised,” remarked Mark thoughtfully, “Maybe I will reconsider his position on the estate.”
“Believe me, you’ll be doing yourself a favour,” agreed Katherine.
“You were willing to do that for her then, sacrifice yourself,” said Mark wistfully, his mind obviously tracking back over her words, “She’s a lucky woman to inspire such devotion. You’re really happy living out here in the forest then?”
Katherine wasn’t sure what to reply to the question. She had been happy, up until about six days ago. Now she was decidedly unhappy.
“Kathy?” he prompted, raising his eyebrows inquisitively having spotted her hesitation.
“I’m just having a few problems,” she noted evasively, “But I’m sure I’ll work them out.”
“If there’s anything I can do?”
Katherine laughed out loud at the incongruity of the offer.
“Is it problems with Anne?”
Katherine just stared bemusedly at him, considering how bizarre this was, discussing her current lover with her husband. She wasn’t sure she was entirely comfortable with it. “Yes,” she allowed, not really wanting to disclose anything more.
“You don’t want to talk about it?” Mark deduced.
“Well you have to admit it’s a bit strange, the two of us talking about such things,” she noted.
“Maybe, but I’d like to think we could still be friends. If something’s bothering you I’d like to help, even if it’s just offering a sympathetic ear.”
Katherine’s features creased into a decidedly doubtful expression. “You’re seriously telling me you’re going to be sympathetic if I start telling you about any problems I might be having with Anne? That there won’t be any ulterior motive on your part?”
“I’d like to think I could be impartial,” he replied with an honest shrug, “I know I may not have given that impression initially, but I was shocked. I do want you to be happy, though, even if that means being happy without me.”
Katherine allowed a small smile twitch at the corners of her lips. She was touched by his genuine concern, especially after the lack of love and support she’d been receiving from other quarters recently. “Thank you,” she said earnestly, “That means a lot to me right now.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, returning the smile. “Well, I guess I’m going to have to make something else up to cover your absence now,” he commented lightly, changing the subject, “I was hoping you’d eventually come back, but I realise now that’s not going to happen.”
“Am I still meant to be ill?”
Mark laughed. “Yes, recuperating at your sister’s in Yorkshire.”
“Well, Philippa always was a poor nursemaid, no wonder I haven’t recovered,” joked Katherine.
Mark joined her with a small laugh. “I suppose I’d better be getting back,” he remarked casting his eyes round at the trees. “It was good seeing you, Kathy.” He leant in to kiss her on the cheek.
“Get away from her!”
Mark shot back from Katherine at the shout from the trees. Katherine swung round to see Anne running towards them, drawing her sword from her scabbard as she leapt over the rough ground.
Katherine was so shocked that she barely had time to step across and waylay Anne before she ran her sword right through Mark.
“Anne? What are you doing here?” she asked incredulously. She had assumed Anne didn’t care where she went after their argument earlier, yet here she was displaying all the signs of being in a jealous rage. Seeing the look of pure hatred on Anne’s face, she was worried for Mark’s safety and tried to keep herself interposed between them as Anne attempted to shuffle round her.
Anne’s eyes shot down to Katherine, annoyed at her intervention. “What am I doing here? Following you, that’s what! And with good reason by the looks of it!”
Anne tried to lunge for Mark again, and Katherine grabbed for her arm. “Anne, wait, calm down.” Katherine noted that at least Mark was showing some sense by staying well back and keeping his mouth shut.
“Calm down?” cried Anne scornfully, “I find you secretly meeting this piece of scum and you want me to calm down!” She jabbed the point of her sword in Mark’s direction. “How long has this been going on?”
“Nothing’s going on!” retorted Katherine, “Not that you’re in any position to be casting aspersions after what you got up to with Will last night!”
“That? It was just a small kiss. Just a bit of drunken fun. It’s not like I hid it from you, whereas you’re carrying on with him behind my back!”
Katherine felt a small jolt of relief on discovering that a kiss was as far as things had got with Will, even if Anne had led her to believe otherwise earlier. “For your information, we were just talking.”
Anne let out a barking laugh. “That’s not what it looked like to me, you looked very chummy. Do you want to get back with him, is that it?”
“No, I was actually telling him I could never do that, because of you. Though given your recent behaviour I’m beginning to wonder why.”
“Oh I’m sorry, is my complicated life too much for you?” interjected Anne scathingly, “I might have known you’d just up sticks and bugger off as soon as the going got tough. Well go on then, sod off, go back to your cosy manor.”
Katherine’s eyes scanned Anne’s face in dismay. “You don’t mean that.”
Anne’s turned her attention down to Katherine, her eyes cold. “Don’t I? I don’t need you; I don’t need anyone. Didn’t you hear me,” continued Anne, leaning in closer so her hot, furious breath flew out in Katherine’s face, “I said…fuck…off!” To make her point Anne gave Katherine a small shove away.
“I say, there’s no need for that,” said Mark, finally speaking up.
“Here comes your gallant knight to the rescue,” Anne spat in Katherine’s direction, “Shame he’s a murdering bastard.”
Katherine couldn’t find her voice to reply, still too taken aback by Anne’s venomous words. She watched dumbly as Mark made his way over and grabbed Anne’s arm, turning her to him to direct her ire from Katherine.
“I think you need to go away and cool off,” he said evenly, fixing her with a serious stare.
Anne met the gaze, snarling out her response. “Oh you do, do you? Well I think you need to mind your own business.”
Without warning Anne’s right arm swung up, thrusting her sword directly into Mark’s stomach and out through his back.
Katherine choked out a shocked cry that caught somewhere in her throat, staring in disbelief at the metal that had ripped so easily through soft flesh. Meanwhile Anne gripped Mark’s tunic with her free hand, holding him up as he coughed up a spray of blood that splattered all over her. She ignored it, hauling him close as he fought for breath.
“You thought I’d just let you have Katherine after what you did to my parents?” she growled menacingly, pushing her face right up into his. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years,” she spat, Mark’s eyes flinching closed at the spittle flying from Anne’s mouth with her angry words. “You’re a sick, murdering son of a bitch and you deserve to die.”
Anne gleefully rammed the sword in again, before whipping it out and letting him slump to the ground.
It took several moments for any sort of coherent thought to register in Katherine’s brain. In the mean time she just stood rooted to the spot, her eyes wide, her mouth hanging limply open, her breathing shallow. She looked dazedly from Mark to Anne. Anne stood over him, her sword still gripped tightly in her hand as the blood ran down it to drip from the point down onto the grass. Anne’s gaze was fixed grimly on the unmoving form at her feet. As a sneering smile crossed her face, Anne distractedly wiped away the speckles of Mark’s blood that flecked her otherwise pale face.
Katherine finally managed to engage her body to do something, more on instinct than anything else. Kneeling down, she rolled Mark onto his back to see the huge bloody stain that covered the front of his tunic. She could hardly breathe as she reached up with shaking fingers to feel for any sign of life. Resting her hand on his fast cooling skin she bowed her head for a moment, before turning her face up to Anne who was still hovering expectantly.
Katherine was flabbergasted by Anne’s attitude, she actually seemed proud to have killed Mark. The smile on her face was plain to see. Katherine’s mind and heart reeled out of control, unable to quite grasp the magnitude of the events. The whole situation had now taken on an almost unreal quality, like it was all some terrible, crazy nightmare. Katherine desperately wished she could wake up from it.
“The way I see it I’ve done us both a favour,” continued Anne cockily, “I’ve repaid the man who murdered my parents and it means you are once again lady of the manor.”
“What are you saying?” said Katherine in consternation, rising from the ground to face her, “You just murdered someone and that’s all you can think about. I-I can’t believe you…”
“What’s the matter?” asked Anne with a nonchalant tip of the head in Mark’s direction, “It’s not like he’ll be a great loss.”
Katherine struggled for something to say, her thoughts and emotions a chaotic jumble. “What’s going on, this isn’t like you,” she managed.
Suddenly the dark look was back on Anne’s face. “It isn’t? You really thought I could let it go just like that? Forget what he did to my family and me? Well, I guess I couldn’t!”
All Katherine could do was gape at Anne like she was some crazed stranger and not the woman she loved. How could someone change so dramatically in such a short space of time? The icy look in Anne’s eyes chilled Katherine to the bone. Just as she was endeavouring to gather her confused thoughts the sound of breaking twigs far off in the trees drew both their attention. Katherine spotted brief flashes of blue and gold through the tightly packed trunks.
“It looks like we’ve drawn a crowd,” noted Anne, turning back to Katherine, “Better think up your story quick!”
Before Katherine could respond, Anne sprinted off into the trees, leaving Katherine there alone to face whoever was on the way. Katherine stared mutely off at where Anne had disappeared into the depths of the forest. Hearing the sounds of approaching people, she didn’t think she could have made a run for it, even if she’d wanted to. Her legs were barely holding her up as it was.
Katherine swung unsteadily round. “Tobias?” she asked, latching onto the dark features of her former captain of the guard.
“Oh my god, his lordship’s dead!”
The astonished cry had come from one of the other men who were with Tobias. He was crouching down by Mark’s side, looking up at the rest of the guards in bewilderment.
“Were you set upon by outlaws?” Tobias asked Katherine.
“What?” asked Katherine, dumbly, searching his face in confusion. It was all too much for her to take in at that moment, her brain having been swamped by her out of control emotions.
“After you met his lordship,” outlined Tobias, catching her eye. It finally permeated Katherine’s dulled mind that Tobias was trying to cover for her and explain her presence. He wanted her to play along.
“Yes, yes…” she agreed, falteringly, “I was just on my way back from my sister’s and we’d arranged to meet…then they jumped out and…and…”
It wasn’t hard putting on the show of shock and upset for the assembled men, because that was exactly what she was feeling anyway.
“Why were you meeting here?” questioned one of the guards dubiously.
“Don’t ask stupid questions, Matthew,” Tobias instructed sharply, “Can’t you see her ladyship is in no fit state. We need to get her back to the manor house, right away.”
“Y-Yes, of course,” stammered the man, “Sorry, m’lady.”
Katherine merely nodded in acknowledgement, allowing Tobias to put a comforting arm around her shoulder. She cast one last despairing look back at the trees before turning for Markham.
Anne watched Katherine’s departing form, her soul letting out a silent cry of protest. Bronwyn’s actions had been so sudden and unexpected that Anne hadn’t even had the chance to try and stop her, though she didn’t know if she would have possessed the mental strength anyway.
Despair swept over her as she contemplated that the rift Bronwyn had finally succeeded in creating between the two of them was quite possibly irreparable. How could Katherine ever see past this, ever forgive this? To Katherine it appeared as if Anne had callously murdered Mark right before her eyes.
That’s right, she’ll never forget it. It’s over! sneered Bronwyn.
Anne recognised that Bronwyn must have read her thoughts, but at that point she didn’t really care anymore. It was obvious that her dejection was only serving to further weaken her will, and with it her ability to withhold Bronwyn from the last bastions of her mind. As the dark thoughts began to encroach, she realised with a crushing finality that she may never see Katherine again.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN: Lady Katherine and The Ultimate Sacrifice