The Lady Katherine Chronicles Number 2
Lady Katherine And The Hidden Outlaws
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in anyway, 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.
Codes: uber J/7
Rating (whole story): NC-17
Time Period: This story is set in 12th Century England (though no claims are made about the historical accuracy of this story!)
Thanks: to Trek and Jay for beta reading this for me :)
The wind caught Lady Katherine Johnson’s hair and sent her long auburn locks flowing out behind her as she geed her mount to leap another hedge on the Markham Estate. The horse eagerly complied, vaulting the low fence that marked the boundary of one of the many fields that dotted the manor. The animal continued on, under Katherine’s instruction, skirting along the edge of a small copse of trees whose leaves were just starting to show after the blossom of spring.
Katherine had taken advantage of a break in the changeable English spring weather to take her favourite horse, Delta, out across the estate. Tobias, the captain of her guard, had tried to persuade her to take one of his men with her. She recalled the look of chagrin on his face as she had stubbornly refused. Of course he had tried to cover it up, as he always did, and she felt bad for denying him; she knew her safety was always paramount in the loyal guard’s mind. However, sometimes she just needed to get away on her own, away from her responsibilities as lady of the manor. Out here she could forget all that and just let herself go in the exhilarating feeling of pushing the animal beneath her to gallop across the fields and rolling hills. The sun peeked out from behind one of the white clouds that dappled the sky and she smiled as the warm rays touched her face.
She encouraged her steed to slow as they came to a small river. She allowed the animal to bend its chestnut head and lap from the clear waters, bubbling gently across the rocks and pebbles of the riverbed, as she wiped the sweat from her own brow. Despite the fact that it was only May, it was unexpectedly warm and she was glad to have only worn a short-sleeved cream tunic, open low at the neck, and her breeches for the ride.
Now that they were at rest, she found her thoughts turning back to the same ones that had been playing on her mind for the last couple of weeks. Two weeks ago she had encountered a band of outlaws on her way back to Markham from a trip to negotiate with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Against her, and Tobias’, better judgement she had actually aided the outlaws in retrieving a jewel from the Sheriff. Of course, even though she was loath to admit it, she knew the real reason for her impaired judgement – the outlaw woman known as Seven.
Katherine had found herself bewitched by the beautiful, mysterious, young woman, whose real name she had later discovered to be Anne. Whenever she was near her, her heart would start hammering and she found it difficult to breath or even speak coherently. Katherine knew that spelt trouble, as normally she was completely in control of herself, composed and confident. She had to be, since she had been left in charge of the manor after Mark’s untimely death in the Holy Lands three months ago. She had to be strong-willed and determined or she would most likely be usurped from her position by one of the knights of the manor, who were responsible for governing the separate villages that made up the estate. There were rumours that some of them were unhappy at taking orders from a woman. Tobias was keeping a close eye on things and Charles Kirby in particular. The tall, stocky knight with the strange tattoo was one of her senior knights, but Katherine had never completely trusted him. Ever since he had escorted her back from Nottingham she’d had the sense that he was somehow suspicious of her. Maybe she was being paranoid, but then again, she had plenty to be paranoid about. She had narrowly avoided being discovered in bed with Anne by the man!
Thoughts of penetrating ice-blue eyes, long golden hair and smooth white skin flickered across her mind again, as they had done so many times these past two weeks. Thinking of that night they had shared started the now familiar fluttering in her stomach, and other areas of her body. Not for the first time, she wondered if she had made a mistake in the way she had acted afterwards. The night itself had been more than she could ever have dreamed of, but in the morning the guilt and recriminations had hit her. Her mind had been bombarded by thoughts of her duty and responsibilities and how they conflicted with the notion of having any kind of relationship with someone who was an outlaw.
So she had pushed Anne away. The hurt in the young woman’s eyes had almost been more than Katherine could bear. She didn’t know how she could have done that to Anne. Was she really so cruel that she could get the other woman to drop her guard, make her give in to her feelings for Katherine and then squash those feelings? Especially since she knew, even from their short time together, that Anne was not the sort of person to show the emotional side of herself to just anyone. She worked hard at maintaining her tough, arrogant exterior and Katherine had been privileged to receive a glimpse of Anne’s inner self. Katherine felt like she had treated that privilege with disdain.
She wondered if the young woman could ever forgive her. She hadn’t seen her since they had parted at Nottingham Castle; Anne going back to Robin Hood’s outlaw band in the forest where she lived. Katherine felt pained by the separation and had even found herself trying to come up with an excuse as to why she needed to make a trip through Sherwood Forest. Though what she was hoping to find there, she didn’t know. Did she think Anne would be waiting around, pining for her? Had she really ruined what chance they might have had of…love? Dare she think that was what she felt? She had certainly never felt such a connection with anyone else before, not even with her husband. With Anne the chemistry between them was palpable. But her mind rallied - Anne was a woman, surely that couldn’t be? Maybe what she really longed for was friendship and companionship. Yet even as she tried to console herself with those thoughts, images of Anne writhing naked on Katherine’s bed sprang conspiratorially to mind.
Shaking her head to try and dispel them, she tightened the reins to let Delta know that his drinking time was up. He made a small whinny of protest as Katherine turned him for home and spurred him into movement. Delta pounded swiftly back over the fields and in no time she was cresting the ridge above Markham Manor. From here she could see the house and its outbuildings laid out below, all of them enclosed in a protective wall. She urged Delta on down the slope and through the gate to the manor which was swung open by the attentive guards. Guiding him into the stables she dismounted as one of the stable lads quickly hurried over.
“Here let me take him for you, m’lady,” said the keen young man.
“Thank you… ,” Katherine pondered for a moment over the young man’s name. With over a hundred people working in and around the manor house it sometimes took her a few seconds. “…Isaac.”
The young man beamed back at her, obviously happy that she knew who he was. Most nobles didn’t even know the people who worked for them existed, let alone their names. He was about 16 years of age, and, now she thought about it, she recalled that he was the page that Tobias had mentioned to her. According to Tobias, the boy was very eager and hard-working and was angling to become a squire. A squire was a personal attendant to a knight, from whom they learnt the skills of fighting and hunting as well as the knightly code. He would stay under the knight’s tutelage until he was deemed ready to swear his allegiance to the knightly code of protecting the weak, defenceless and helpless and fighting for the general welfare of all. Of course, this code was rarely lived up to, but it remained the standard for chivalry and proper behaviour. She had a sneaking suspicion that Tobias was considering taking the boy under his own wing, and she knew he could have no better teacher if that were the case.
As the young man led Delta back outside towards the drinking troughs Katherine found herself alone in the stables with just the horses for company. She took a moment to run her hands through her unruly hair and compose herself after the exertions of the ride. Suddenly she heard a small noise from one of the empty stalls behind her and she swivelled round.
“Hello? Is there someone there?” she called out.
There was no answer. Perhaps she had imagined it, or maybe it was just one of the other stable lads, too flustered by being addressed by the lady of the house to answer back. As she turned to go back to the house she felt a light touch on her shoulder. She spun round again and let out a small involuntary gasp when her gaze was met by a pair of ice blue eyes.
“Anne!” she cried, unable to keep the excitement of finally seeing the young woman out of her voice.
Katherine wanted nothing more than to fling herself into the other woman’s arms and press her lips to hers, but she wasn’t sure that would be welcomed. It was hard though, the fluttering feelings she had felt earlier were intensified a hundredfold in the actual presence of the one who caused them. Anne was dressed in her usual outlaw outfit of all black, including a hooded top, which she used to conceal the fact that she was a woman. At the moment it was pushed down, allowing her distinctive blond hair to tumble freely over her shoulders. Anne hadn’t said anything in reply to Katherine’s initial outburst, but instead maintained her intense scrutiny of Katherine. Katherine tried hard to read the expression on those classical features, but was none the wiser. Anne looked fairly cool and aloof, but then she often looked that way. What was bubbling under the surface was anyone’s guess.
“How are you? Are you fully recovered?” asked Katherine as a way to break the silence, referring to the fact that Anne had been meted out some punishment at the hands of the Sheriff’s guards during her brief incarceration in the dungeons at Nottingham Castle.
Anne reflexively reached up to touch her left eyebrow, which Katherine could see still bore a small scar from where it had been split.
“Yes, I am fine,” she replied in precise, clipped tones.
Katherine was starting to get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach due to the other woman’s detached demeanour, though there was still the fact that Anne was here at all. She supposed she could hardly have expected much else after her treatment of the young woman.
“So what brings you here?” she asked as nonchalantly as she could manage.
Anne seemed to be considering for a moment as if unsure of the answer herself.
“I have something that belongs to you, I thought I would return it,” she finally said.
Katherine looked puzzled; she didn’t remember giving anything to the woman. Anne was looking round nervously and Katherine realised she had forgotten for a moment that Anne was an outlaw, wanted by the authorities – which included any of Katherine’s own guards. She ushered the young woman to an empty stall, out of the way of anyone who might happen to come in the stables.
“Perhaps we should talk in here,” she suggested, shutting the gate on the freshly cleaned stall. “So what is it you have for me?”
Anne still seemed nervous, shuffling uneasily from foot to foot, and Katherine wondered if it was just the prospect of getting caught by the guards that was causing it after all. Anne reached down into her boot and drew something out before presenting it to Katherine.
“My dagger!” said Katherine in surprise. After everything else that had happened she’d forgotten that Anne had taken it the first time they met.
“Thank you,” she continued, “But you really didn’t have to come all the way here to return this.”
Anne looked disappointed and Katherine quickly rallied. Here was the woman she’d been thinking about continually for the last two weeks and she was acting like a complete idiot.
“Not that I’m not pleased to see you,” she added hurriedly, “In fact I’m very pleased to see you.”
Anne glanced back up at her inquisitively.
“Really? You’re not going to call the guards on me then?” she asked tentatively.
Katherine let out a small laugh, “Of course not!”
Anne seemed to visibly relax and Katherine was starting to realise just what it had taken for the young woman to come here. Obviously she had been uncertain of the reception she would receive and yet she had still sneaked in here at personal danger to herself. Katherine was beginning to dare to hope that Anne had come because she had similar feelings to Katherine herself.
“So,” began Katherine, her voice dropping to a much lower husky tone and her eyes fixing on Anne, “What was the real reason you came here?”
Anne looked down and Katherine could see a slight flush creeping up her face. She decided the onus was on her to make the first move. Slowly she reached out her hand and lightly stroked her fingers down Anne’s cheek. Anne’s eyes flicked up to regard her, an intense, longing look in them.
“I’ve missed you,” whispered Katherine, “I’m so sorry about what happened at the castle.”
As Anne looked momentarily perplexed and Katherine suddenly realised how that could be interpreted.
“Not about what we did! I mean for the way I acted afterwards.” She was starting to ramble, but she pressed on anyway, as if all the things that had been pressing in on her were coming tumbling out. “I just got scared by all that I was feeling. There was you on one side and then my duty on the other. But I know that what I feel for you is something I don’t want to lose. I’ve hardly been able to think of much else but you since we parted. I just wanted so desperately to see you again, though at the same time worried about whether I had pushed you too far away…I haven’t have I?”
“No, you haven’t,” replied Anne quietly.
She took Katherine’s trembling hands in her own, the dagger gently plopping down in to the hay at their feet.
“I haven’t been able to think of much else either,” she added
“So the dagger…?” asked Katherine.
“Yes, you caught me out,” replied Anne letting out a small laugh. “That was just an excuse to come and see you. I’ve been looking at that damn thing for the past two weeks thinking about you every time. I’ve been driving Robin so crazy, that finally he was practically forcing me out of the camp to come here.”
“I always knew Robin was a wise man,” Katherine smiled as she moved towards Anne, slipping her arms around her middle and drawing her close.
Katherine tilted her head up, closed her eyes and allowed her lips to tenderly caress those of the other woman. Anne responded by tightening the embrace, so that Katherine could feel the curves of Anne’s body pushing against her. She let her tongue play across Anne’s lips, teasingly.
Suddenly Anne swung her round and pushed her up against the side of the stall, deepening the kiss as she did so. Katherine let out a low moan as Anne placed her leg between Katherine’s own and pressed upwards. As she continued to slide the muscled thigh against Katherine, Anne moved to place small kisses on Katherine’s neck and up towards her ear. As her tongue brushed Katherine’s ear, the older woman let out another small gasp at the sudden jolt of pleasure that shot through her. She knew she should try to control her outbursts since there was still every chance that someone might walk in the stables. Yet somehow the threat of discovery added an extra frisson to the encounter. The blissful sensation of Anne delicately nibbling at her ear while at the same time seductively gyrating against Katherine was proving almost too much and she bit her lip to try and stop the cry that threatened to erupt as she felt the warmth spreading down through her body.
Deciding it was time she took control of things, she pushed away from the wall, while at the same time placing her foot behind Anne’s leg, tripping her so that she fell onto the hay behind her, Katherine following down on top of her. As Katherine hovered above her grinning, Anne looked up in mock consternation.
“You seem very practiced at that. Do you often seduce people in the stables?” she asked, raising her eyebrow.
Katherine pretended to think for a minute, causing Anne to frown. Katherine laughed at the expression.
“No,” she said, lowering herself down so that she could whisper in Anne’s ear, “You’re my first.”
Anne shivered as the breath caressed her ear. Katherine proceeded to lick around it, sucking on the lobe when she got there. As she made small nips on down Anne’s long neck, she allowed her hand to slide underneath Anne’s top, up the smooth flesh of her abdomen, to gently squeeze her breast. Anne groaned in pleasure as Katherine took the already stiff nipple between her fingers and tantalisingly pinched it. Katherine was finding it hard to control herself though, such was the lustful fire burning with her and she moved back to press her lips to Anne’s once more letting her tongue delve into Anne’s mouth. Katherine could feel the young woman’s body arching up to meet her and she let her hand trail back down her body, deftly undoing the ties of her breeches. Barely able to contain her fervour now, she slipped her hand down the young woman’s trousers, past the tangle of wiry hair and sliding into the wetness below. She let out an involuntary gasp as she felt how wet Anne was. Anne was thrusting her hips up against the older woman now.
“Please, Katherine, do not tease me,” she cried in a ragged whisper.
Acceding to the young woman’s wishes, Katherine plunged two fingers into her, easily sliding them in. Anne cried out in rapture and Katherine covered her lips to capture any more noises that threatened to escape. Knowing that she should be quiet, Anne instead grasped for something to try and release the pent up feelings that swamped her, finding a handful of the cloth on the back of Katherine’s tunic in one fist while the other arm flailed wildly about in the hay. Katherine continued to be consumed by the wonderful feel of her fingers inside the other woman, while at the same time bringing her thumb to brush against the small hard spot at the top of her sex. That proved too much for Anne who let out one final wail of delight as Katherine felt a tightening around her fingers, the whole of the young woman’s body going taut for a moment before she was shuddering beneath Katherine. As Anne finally opened her eyes, Katherine looked down upon her.
“Are you trying to get us both caught?” she asked, laughing as she did.
“That was entirely your fault,” replied Anne.
“Oh, really? I didn’t hear me wailing like a banshee”
“Not yet,” said Anne playfully as she rolled Katherine over in the hay.
“I don’t think I could possibly make as much noise as you…ooo…ooo…” Katherine began, being cut off by the distracting sensation of Anne sucking on her breast through her tunic.
Katherine steadfastly refused to make any noise, even as Anne continued on down her body and slipped her breeches off. It was a close thing as Katherine felt Anne’s tongue flick across her intimate regions, especially as that caused waves of unmitigated passion to shoot through her. However, once the tongue touched her clitoris she could resist no more and allowed a low moan to bubble up from deep within her. As Anne stroked her tongue back and forth across the small protuberance Katherine let out shuddering pants, lifting her hips to meet the other woman’s mouth. As the ecstasy overcame her she flung her head back and made a strangled gasp, the orgasm rocking her entire body. As she sunk back onto the hay, Anne came up to hover over her. Katherine reached up and took the young woman’s face in both her hands, stroking her thumbs across her cheeks. She didn’t say anything, just gazed into her eyes, lost in their blue depths.
A sound from out in the stables startled them both and they both remained rigidly still in each other’s arms, craning to hear who was there.’ Katherine wondered if they were always destined to be disturbed in this way.
“Come on, Delta, old boy, a quick brush and then back in your stall,” came Isaac’s voice.
Katherine looked at Anne in shock. She had suddenly realised that this was Delta’s stall. Anne obviously knew it was time to be making herself scarce too as she quietly rose. Katherine quickly slipped her breeches back on and took Anne’s hand that was offered to help her rise. Anne pulled her up into an embrace.
“When will I see you again?” whispered the young woman, searching Katherine’s eyes worriedly.
Katherine supposed she was still concerned about Katherine pushing her away, something that Katherine would only be able to rectify in time.
“Tomorrow. Do you know the old oak tree on the River Meden, in the west of the estate?” suggested Katherine.
“Yes,” replied Anne.
“I shall see you there at midday then,” she said, smiling up at the other woman.
“Until then,” agreed Anne, softly kissing Katherine once more before she clambered expertly out the small, high window at the back of the stall.
Katherine dashed out the door to her chambers and down the short staircase to the grand hall. She knew she had to hurry or she would be late for her meeting with Anne. As she hopped down the steps she quickly tied her auburn hair in a ponytail having already made a hasty change into her riding outfit. She had been silently cursing the local farmers she had sat in meeting with all morning, knowing that time was growing short before she needed to leave. She hoped they hadn’t noticed her constant glancing out the window to check on the position of the sun.
She definitely didn’t want to miss the meeting with Anne and cause any more misunderstandings between them, not now she had managed to overcome her initial fears about getting involved with the outlaw. The idea of meeting the young woman in secret filled her with equal parts excitement and nervousness. She smiled to herself as she pondered that she felt like some silly teenager off to a rendezvous with their first love. Her stomach was churning and her heart beat erratically in her chest. Of course there was the added pressure of making sure no one knew where she was really off to. She couldn’t be seen to be actively associating with outlaws, not if she wanted to maintain her position as head of the estate.
As she came out into the hall she glanced about, but didn’t see any of her guards or knights. There were a few peasants milling around as usual - some of the workers on the manor lands would actually sleep in the hall. It was the focal point of the house and everyone, including Katherine, would dine here at night, whiling the evening away in front of the large open fire. She smiled and nodded to the various men and women as she briskly headed for the large door at the other end of the hall. They all bowed or curtseyed in response, none of them commenting on the sight of the lady of the manor rushing past in a short-sleeved tunic and breeches. In fact, it was quite a regular sight and they had all gotten used to the fact that Lady Katherine liked to do things somewhat differently to the average noble.
Coming out into the morning sun she strode across the courtyard towards the stables. She was almost there when she heard the voice calling out to her.
For a split second she contemplated pretending she hadn’t heard. Finally she sighed and turned to regard her caller. Walking purposefully towards her was Charles Kirby, his sword swinging by his side and glinting in the sun.
“I’m glad I caught you,” he said, oblivious to the fact he was holding her up, “I wondered if I could speak to you.”
“Is it urgent? Only I was just heading out for a ride?” she answered, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice.
“I’m sure that can wait for a moment, it won’t take long” he suggested, smiling and crinkling the tattoo above his left eye.
“Fine,” she agreed with a sigh, knowing it would probably take even longer if she argued the point with him. There was also the fact that she couldn’t immediately think of a good excuse as to why a horse ride would be so important. She decided she really needed to work on her skills of deception.
“So what is it?” she asked.
“I just wanted to ask you about the patrols of the western border.” He explained.
“Yes…?” she prompted, not sure where this was going.
“There have been some reports of increased outlaw activity in that region. Several people have been accosted on the roads and robbed. No doubt it’s that area’s proximity to Sherwood Forest that is the reason. As you know, that wood is a den of villainous outlaws.”
He paused, looking at her with concern. She supposed he was trying to show how much it pained him that she herself had been attacked on her way through the forest. She thought it just succeeded in making him look vaguely constipated.
“Anyway,” he continued, since she didn’t seem to be interrupting him, “I thought it may be a good idea to step up patrols of that area, we don’t want merchants and nobles thinking it’s dangerous to come to Markham.”
“No, indeed not,” she agreed. Unfortunately she had to concede his point; they relied on trade and agreements with the neighbouring estates.
“Why don’t you talk to Tobias about it,” she added, “Though, since that area is close to your lands around Ollerton and comes under your guardianship, I’m sure whatever you see fit will be fine.”
“Very good, m’lady,” he said, beaming at her, “I just wanted to keep you abreast of everything that’s happening.”
She secretly doubted the trueness of those words – she had her suspicions that Kirby would like nothing more than to see her deposed as head of the estate and he himself supplanted in her place. However, now was not the time to pursue that.
“Is that all?” she asked, since he seemed to be showing no sign of going anywhere, instead just staring distractedly at her.
“What?” he said, stunned out of his musings. “Oh, yes, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to accompany me on a hunting trip tomorrow?”
She had to seriously resist the temptation to groan out loud. So here it was, as usual, the attempt to get some time alone with her.
“Is there a large party going?” she tried to ask in an innocent voice, fixing him with her blue-grey eyes.
“Er, no, I thought that maybe…er…it could be just the two of us,” he stammered, becoming uncomfortable under her intense gaze.
She enjoyed watching him squirm for a minute; she knew that her stare was enough to make lesser men wilt.
“Well, I would love to, but unfortunately I have a meeting with the friar tomorrow,” she said eventually.
“Oh, well, another time then,” he said disappointedly.
“Yes, another time,” she agreed, turning to go, “Good day, Charles.”
“Good day, m’lady.”
As she continued on her way to the stables she glanced up at the sky again; she would really need to push Delta fast over those fields now to make it on time. She didn’t spot any of the stable lads around, so she went to Delta’s stall and saddled him up herself. Just as she was leading him out of the stall she was disturbed once more.
Katherine ground her teeth and cursed her luck this morning.
“Good morning, Tobias,” she said, turning to face the captain of her guard who was standing stiffly to attention behind her.
“You are going out riding alone again?” asked the tall, dark man.
“Yes, that’s right,” she replied tersely. She was getting quite exasperated now and she really didn’t need another lecture from Tobias on the need for her to be accompanied, even if he did have her best interests at heart.
“Need I remind you of the presence of outlaws in the countryside? Or perhaps you are actually hoping to encounter some?” he said evenly.
She stared at him in surprise. She should have known that not much escaped Tobias’ attention.
“I don’t know what you could mean, Tobias,” she said as calmly as she could.
“Indeed,” he replied, slightly quirking one eyebrow to suggest that he didn’t quite believe her. “I know I cannot stop you, but please try to be cautious, you are in a very precarious position. Kirby would love to find something to use against you.”
Katherine sighed; she knew he meant well and she reached out and patted his arm as reassurance.
“I will be, Tobias. Thank you for looking out for me. You know I appreciate your loyalty,” she said looking up at him earnestly.
“And you will always have it, m’lady,” he said seriously.
She smiled up at him stroked his arm once more, before turning back to Delta. It meant a lot to her that this strong, proud man would stand beside her no matter what.
“Are you going to help me up then?” she asked.
“Of course, m’lady,” he replied, boosting her up onto the horse.
Delta trotted out of the stables and through the gate. Once clear of the walls, Katherine spurred him into a fast gallop. His hooves pounded rapidly over the fields and through the woods of the Markham estate as Katherine urged him on faster and faster desperate not to be late for her meeting. She lent low against his neck as he vaulted a low wall, scattering up a shower of mud as he landed the other side. She looked up at the position of the sun – it was near the apex of its arc and she knew she was never going to be there on time. It was a good few miles from the house to the place they had agreed to meet and she was barely half way there. Katherine prayed that Anne would at least hang on for a little while and not give up heart.
Finally she crested the hill above the River Meden and encouraged Delta on down the slope into the gentle valley below. The river meandered lazily across the floodplain, amongst a haven of green pasture. Trees and bushes dotted the riverbank, but one giant oak tree towered above them all. Katherine pulled Delta up abruptly as she came to it and leapt down. Anne was nowhere to be seen.
Katherine let out a groan and put her hand to her temple, rubbing her brow as she cursed the farmers, Kirby and Tobias for delaying her. Sighing, she wandered over to the riverbank and put her hands on her hips as she gazed out over the waters, shaking her head at her bad luck.
“I wondered when you’d get here,” came a voice from behind her suddenly.
Katherine jumped in surprise and swivelled quickly round. The muddy bank was more slippery than she realised, though, and she promptly fell straight in the river with a resounding splash. The water was rather cold and she thrashed about frantically for a moment until she found her feet and stood up, the water coming up to just above her waist. As she spluttered and coughed she realised that Anne was now standing on the bank, laughing heartily. Katherine shot her a baleful look through the sodden strands of hair that hung down her face. This just seemed to amuse the young woman even more and she actually doubled over as the guffaws erupted from her. Katherine let a small smile creep across her own face, she supposed it was slightly funny, and seeing Anne laugh so freely warmed her in a strange way.
“Ha, ha, yes, very funny, sneaking up on a lady like that,” she said with mock consternation.
“Well, if said ladies will be so late…” replied Anne in between sniggers.
“You can blame the various calls of the manor for that,” she explained, making her way to the edge, “So are you going to help me out, or do I have to unceremoniously scramble up the bank?”
“Ah, we can’t have that can we,” smiled Anne, “A well to do lady getting her fingers dirty, heaven forbid!”
Anne reached down to offer Katherine her hand. As Katherine went to take it she had a sudden wicked thought…she couldn’t, could she…?
Gripping the proffered hand firmly, she tugged, sending Anne flying over her head and into the water behind her. Now it was her turn to laugh as the young woman surfaced, soaked to the skin, her black tunic clinging tight to her body and her blond hair plastered flat against her head.
“Hmm, now who’s the sneaky one?” said Anne playfully, advancing on Katherine with a glint in her eye.
“You must have taught me a few things,” replied Katherine, grinning as the young woman stood over her. Droplets of water cascaded down the smooth skin of her face and Katherine felt warmth suffusing her body at the seductive sight.
Anne slipped her arms around Katherine’s waist and pulled her to her.
“A few things like this?” she asked before bending to cover Katherine’s lips with her own in a long sensuous kiss.
“Yes, indeed, things like that,” gasped Katherine when she finally broke for breath, “Maybe we ought to get out of this river now, though?”
“I don’t know,” replied Anne, stroking her hand down Katherine’s arm, sending tingles of pleasure through her, “I kind of like the effect it’s had on your clothes.”
Katherine glanced down and immediately saw what Anne was referring to. She was wearing a cream coloured tunic top, which was now pretty much completely see-through. What Anne was making her feel was also startlingly obvious from her chest. Katherine flushed as she looked back up at Anne. The young woman smiled warmly and gently cupped Katherine’s face with her hand, guiding her into another kiss.
“Come on then,” Anne agreed eventually, “Maybe it is a bit cold.”
“You certainly seem to have caught a chill as well now,” Katherine confirmed, indicating Anne’s ample bosom.
Anne just rolled her eyes and clambered up the bank, hauling Katherine up after her. They sat on the grass, allowing the sun to make an attempt at drying their clothes as it beamed down upon them. Katherine stole a sideways glance at Anne; the young woman was leaning back on her elbows with her eyes closed, allowing the warm rays to caress her skin. Katherine marvelled at how her still-wet hair shined in the sunlight as it hung loose down her back. She studied the classic features of the other woman, the high cheekbones, the luscious red lips. Anne looked so young and beautiful like this, it was hard to imagine her other life as an outlaw and criminal. Anne’s blue eyes flicked open suddenly.
“Do you like what you see?” she asked gazing at Katherine.
“Very much so,” replied Katherine, her voice a husky whisper.
Anne smiled at her candour and then glanced away as if she was weighing up whether to say something. Katherine could see that she was nervously biting her lower lip.
“What is it?” asked Katherine inquisitively, sitting up straight.
“I have something to ask you,” said Anne after some more contemplation, not looking directly at Katherine.
Katherine wondered what it was that had the young woman so agitated, why did she have the feeling it was bad news.
Anne continued to look uneasy as Katherine waited for her to ask her question. She was sitting up now, fidgeting her shoulders and glancing nervously at the ground.
“Well,” Anne began hesitantly, ”The thing is, we…that is, Robin and I…we were wondering if you might do us a small…favour.”
“Oh, really?” Katherine replied warily, not entirely sure she wanted to hear the kind of favour that an outlaw would request.
“I mean, you don’t have to agree,” Anne added quickly, obviously sensing Katherine’s trepidation, “I told Robin that it would be putting you in a difficult position.”
“But I bet he thought that if he got you to ask, I may be more agreeable, right?” Katherine deduced.
Anne looked away guiltily, confirming Katherine’s suspicions. Katherine got up and gazed out over the river, folding her arms across her chest as an outward indication of her displeasure. Katherine was annoyed that the outlaws were trying to use her to further their own ends. This just added to her initial fears that getting involved with Anne would lead to conflict between her duty and responsibility to the manor and her feelings for the young woman. She shivered slightly as a soft breeze caught at her still damp clothes and wondered for a moment whose idea it had been to approach her. She decided to give Anne the benefit of the doubt, at least until she found out what the request was. She turned back to Anne, placing her hands on her hips as a sign that she was in command of the situation and not ready to agree to anything.
“You had best ask me this favour then, since you’ve brought it up now,” she said with a slight frosty edge to her voice.
Anne glanced up, catching the steely look in Katherine’s eye. The young woman had to swallow and clear her throat before she spoke as she felt the pressure of the stare.
“We were hoping we might use one of the abandoned buildings on the west of the manor, near Ollerton,” Anne began, pausing to see if Katherine’s stance was softening at all. Katherine remained resolutely stiff as she stood over her.
“For…?” Katherine prompted.
“There are a couple of our men,” Anne continued, “They need to get out of the forest for a while. We just need somewhere safe for them to hide for the time being.”
“Why would they need to leave the forest?” asked Katherine; she assumed that would be the best place for them to hide.
“There has been some…trouble with rival groups of outlaws,” explained Anne, “It’s all a bit too convoluted to go into, but basically not all of these other groups share our values. Whereas Robin is an outlaw because he believes the system is unfair and wants to try and balance things in favour of the poor, most of the other groups do not share his good intentions. So, anyway, these men need to disappear for a while as there have been a few…altercations.”
Katherine decided not to probe as to what exactly these “altercations” involved, she thought she was probably best off not knowing. The idea that there was more than one group of outlaws had never occurred to Katherine. She didn’t much like the sound of these other groups if they were even rougher than Robin’s band – some of them, Will Scarlet in particular, had been most unpleasant as it was.
“So why do you need my help exactly? Surely you could have just used these buildings anyway without seeking my permission?” Katherine asked.
“That is true,” agreed Anne, “But we were hoping that you might arrange for a reduction of guards patrolling that area.”
“Ah,” said Katherine, everything becoming clear now.
She pondered for a moment. Would it really be that much of an imposition to agree? She was sure she could find some feasible excuse as to why Tobias had to restrict patrols in that area, but did she want to? If she acceded to this request would she be on the slippery slope to more and more dangerous ones being asked of her?
“It’s all right if you can’t,” insisted Anne hastily, realising that Katherine was not keen on the idea, “We were a bit desperate, but I’m sure we can come up with something else.”
“These men’s lives are in danger?” asked Katherine.
Anne shot her a look of hope, surprised that Katherine seemed to be edging towards complying.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
Part of Katherine’s mind was crying out that she must be mad to even contemplate agreeing, but somehow she just couldn’t seem to resist when Anne looked at her with those big, blue eyes; it was just futile trying.
“All right,” sighed Katherine, making a small wave of her hand, “I’ll arrange for the patrols to be lessened, just give me a day to organise it. You can assume it will be safe to move your men in the day after tomorrow.”
Anne leapt to her feet a wide smile on her face and enfolded Katherine in a warm embrace. Moving back from the hug, she placed her hands gently on Katherine’s forearms, continuing to smile as Katherine glanced up at her.
“Thank you,” said the young woman earnestly.
“Mmm, I just hope I don’t live to regret it,” said Katherine, frowning slightly.
“You won’t, I promise. This means a lot to us…to me.”
Anne was gazing down at Katherine, her eyes fixed intently on the older woman, boring into her very soul. Katherine allowed herself a rueful smile as she reached out and trailed her fingers lightly over Anne’s cheek.
“Look what you can make me do, just by asking,” she sighed, shaking her head slightly.
“Perhaps I should ask you to do some other things then?” suggested Anne.
Katherine was startled for a minute. She hadn’t thought she would be sucked into the outlaw world this soon. Then she saw the smile on Anne’s lips and realised she was being teased.
“You!” she exclaimed, gently poking Anne in the shoulder.
Anne laughed and captured the hand poking her.
“I was thinking along the lines of asking you for…a kiss?” she said, drawing Katherine’s hand to her lips and kissing it softly.
Katherine felt tingles shooting all the way down her arm from the point of contact.
“Now that,” began Katherine, moving closer to Anne and putting her free hand on her hip, “Is one request I’d be happy to agree to.”
She tilted her head up and brushed her lips against Anne’s before letting her tongue dance across the moist lips. Anne closed her eyes and made a small groan. Katherine freed her other hand and wrapped her arms around the lithe form of the other woman, moulding their bodies together while at the same time probing deeper with her tongue. Anne’s hands came up to glide through Katherine’s hair and hold her head so that their lips remained firmly locked together. After long delightful moments utterly consumed by the intensity of the kiss they finally broke apart.
“I definitely need to make requests of you more often!” said Anne almost panting.
Katherine let out a small laugh and regarded the other woman warmly.
“And I shall do my best to fulfil them,” she replied, “Unfortunately I really must be getting back before Tobias starts sending out the search parties.”
Anne’s face fell in disappointment.
“I know,” sighed Katherine, caressing the young woman’s face once more, “I wish I could stay longer too, but duty calls.”
“Can I come and call upon you again?” asked Anne anxiously.
“Of course!” exclaimed Katherine instantly, “At any time, though you must be careful, Tobias has my guards trained a little too well.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find ways to get around them,” said Anne confidently.
“I’m sure you can,” agreed Katherine, having no doubt that Anne could run rings around them if she so wished.
Katherine picked up Delta’s reins and pulled him away from the clump of grass he was busy munching on. Anne leaned in and kissed her gently once more before Katherine mounted the horse. As she looked down upon Anne from her lofty position, Katherine found her heart was clutching in her chest at the prospect of having to leave. She felt she ought to say something else to the young woman, tell her how much she meant to her. But there was a little something in her that was cautious about exposing her heart so soon. She hardly knew Anne really. Yet at the same time it almost seemed like she had always known her, like it was somehow destiny that they had met. Finally she managed to tear her gaze away from the eyes that seemed to be imploring her to stay.
“Goodbye, Anne,” she said huskily, her voice catching slightly.
“Goodbye, Katherine,” said Anne in reply, giving Delta a small pat on the behind to get him moving.
He had taken a few steps when Katherine turned around, determined to say something else after all. Only, when she swivelled in the saddle, she found that Anne had disappeared. Bemused, she cast her gaze all around, but the young woman was nowhere to be seen. Wondering at how she managed to do that, Katherine spurred Delta on towards Markham.
The following day Katherine sat in Markham Church pondering her decision to aid the outlaws. She was supposed to be talking to the friar about various points of church business, since the church was of great importance in the lives of the people of the manor, but she kept finding her mind wandering to how readily she had agreed to help Anne. With her elbow on the table in front of her, she rested her chin on her hand and glanced out the small window of the church’s ante-chamber. As if mirroring her unease, the rain drummed down outside from the overcast skies. She hadn’t liked asking Tobias to reduce his patrols without explaining why to him. She suspected he had some inkling regarding Katherine’s association with Anne, but he was too considerate to probe into it. He respected Katherine and would accede to her judgement in such matters. He had still made a few more warnings about the dangers of any such involvement, but had then left to put her request into action. She knew she could trust Tobias implicitly to carry out her orders, which made her feel even worse about her subterfuge and deception.
“Am I boring you?” asked the friar suddenly.
Katherine was startled from her thoughts. She realised she had absolutely no idea what the man had been talking about.
“I’m sorry, Edward,” she said contritely, “Please continue.”
The friar regarded her inquisitively for a moment. He was a few years older than Katherine, a tall, wiry man somewhere in his late forties. The main sign of his age was his markedly receding hairline. The top of his head was completely bald, though some dark hair still clung on around the base of his skull and ears. He had been the friar at Markham for as long as Katherine had lived there and Katherine had always found him to be a kind and considerate man. Unusually for the clergy he was also quite open-minded, not one to ram the bible down the throats of his parishioners.
“Something is troubling you,” he observed.
She frowned slightly at herself for making it so obvious that she was distracted. Mind you, the friar was probably more observant than most and had the advantage of having known Katherine for seventeen years to aid in the interpretation of her mood.
“I can’t put anything past you, can I,” she replied wryly.
“Why don’t you tell me what it is?” he suggested gently, “I’m sure discussion of what hymn we’re singing this Sunday can wait.”
Katherine considered his offer for a minute and decided that she may as well tell him some of the details of what was ailing her, though perhaps omitting a few choice ones. He usually had sound advice to offer and she needed to unburden herself to someone. Though she could have spoken to Tobias, who was completely trustworthy, he was not the most emotional of men and would probably have been uncomfortable if she started talking to him about her feelings.
“I’ve developed some…feelings for someone,” she began hesitantly, “Strong feelings.”
“Really?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, “Anyone I know?”
“I don’t think so, and that’s not important anyway,” she replied. The fact that it was a woman who she had these feelings for and that they were also an outlaw definitely came under the section of details to be omitted.
“One of the things bothering me is the depth of these feelings and how quickly they’ve developed,” she continued, “I’m not even sure I can trust my judgement where this person is concerned.”
“Well,” he said, after contemplating her words for a moment first, “I have to say that I’m glad you have found someone to show your…affections to.”
Katherine looked at him in surprise.
“I had feared that maybe the loss of Mark still weighed heavily on you,” he explained, “I know how devastated you were when news of his death reached us. So I am glad that you seem to be moving on with your life.”
“You don’t think it’s too soon then?” Katherine asked, though she had to admit to herself that thoughts of Mark had not been foremost in her mind. It was as if meeting Anne had made her completely forget him. She felt guilty for that, as if she had betrayed his memory in some way.
“Katherine,” he began, reaching over and touching her hand reassuringly, “You are a passionate woman, you can not be expected to remain in mourning forever. I’m sure everyone will understand.”
Katherine had to stop herself from laughing out loud. If only he knew! She was pretty sure most people would not understand.
“It sounds to me as if you care a lot for this person,” he added, “In which case I would suggest you listen to your heart, we all deserve happiness in our life. The responsibility of running the estate is a grave one and I know it has been hard for you. I think it would be good for you to have a bit of love in your life to balance out all the work.”
She smiled at him and patted his hand with her other one.
“Thank you, Edward, I will try and heed you advice,” she said warmly.
As their discussion turned back to the church, Katherine just hoped that in doing so she wasn’t exposing herself to the potential of damage to both her heart and her life.
Lady Katherine came out of the kitchens and into the great hall of Markham Manor, glad to be out of the steamy room. Brushing away a few odd bits of flour that had somehow managed to get onto her skirts, she noticed Tobias talking with a couple of guards over by the large oak front door. As she approached the two younger men departed, obviously having been given their orders for the day, leaving her free to converse with her captain.
“Good morning, Tobias,” she began, “I hope everything is going smoothly?”
“Yes, m’lady, everything is going as you requested yesterday,” he replied.
“Good,” she said, nodding, “I want to thank you again for carrying out my instructions without questioning why.”
“You know I will do whatever you request of me, m’lady,” he said sincerely.
Touched by his complete loyalty, she smiled up at the taller man as he continued on.
“On a separate note I have seen Mr Kirby lingering around the manor this morning, asking after you. You may want to indispose yourself in some way.”
Katherine laughed lightly at Tobias’ deadpan delivery of the news and patted him on the arm. Tobias gave nothing away in his expression but she knew his opinion of Kirby was about as high as hers.
“Thanks for the warning. I think I have some pressing paperwork in my room. So what are you up to today?”
“I was just about to a take group of the guards out, for the regular patrol of the estate,” he informed her.
“Well, don’t let me keep you, we want to keep most of our lands well guarded,” she said with a small wink.
“Indeed,” he agreed with a slight tilt of the head before turning to go out the door.
Katherine made her way up the steps to her private chambers, crossing the wooden floor to stand by the window, surveying the grassy courtyard of Markham Manor down below. The rains of the day before had cleared and it was another sunny spring day. The peasants were taking advantage of the good weather, getting on with their various tasks, whether it be in the stables, the kitchens, the dairy or out in the fields. She saw Tobias marching a group of her guards across the yard from the guardhouse to the gate, all in their matching blue tabards with the Johnson gold crest on the front. Deciding that she really did have some paperwork to do after all, she turned from her study of the men and went to sit at her small writing desk, drawing out her quill. Some half an hour later, a knock at the door disturbed her out of her contemplation of taxes and tithes.
“Come in,” she called, looking up from her papers.
“Good day, m’lady,” said her maid Beatrice, entering and making a small curtsey.
“Honestly, Beatrice, I thought I told you there was no need to keep doing that every time you come in,” sighed Katherine.
“Sorry, m’lady, we were always taught to curtsey to the lord or lady, it’s a hard habit to break,” said the younger woman. “I have your clean clothes,” she continued, explaining her presence.
“Thank you, Beatrice,” said Katherine as the dark-haired woman went over to the wardrobe with the armful of laundry.
“If you don’t mind me saying, m’lady,” ventured the young maid as she set about folding and putting away the clothes, “You could do with some new dresses, especially with the French coming to visit soon.”
“I suppose you could be right,” agreed Katherine, “We can’t have those French showing us up now, can we. Though the ambassador isn’t due for over a month yet.”
“That just gives us plenty of time to find something special,” smiled Beatrice.
“You just want to go on a shopping trip to the market at Nottingham!” laughed Katherine, “Looking for something to impress a certain young guard are we?”
Beatrice blushed at the good-natured teasing.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Beatrice,” added Katherine, “From what I’ve seen, Thomas only has eyes for you.”
“Do you think so?” asked Beatrice, casting a worried look at Katherine, “Only I’ve seen lots of the other women watching him.”
“Well, any of them would be mad to get in your way,” replied Katherine, referring to Beatrice’s famed temper. “Where is your young man today, I don’t think I’ve seen him around?”
“He’s been asked to help Mr Kirby’s guard for a few days,” disclosed Beatrice.
“Really?” asked Katherine, her interest suddenly piqued, “Why does Mr Kirby need extra guards?”
“I believe it was something to do with patrols of the western lands around Ollerton,” clarified Beatrice.
Katherine stared at the young woman in shock. That was the very area she was meant to be keeping her guards away from! And it was today that the outlaws were supposed to be moving their men in.
“When was this?” Katherine asked desperately.
The young maid was taken aback by Katherine’s sudden change of mood, staring dumbfounded at her for a moment before stammering out her answer.
“Er…not long ago, m’lady, they may not even have left yet…”
Katherine dashed immediately out the door, leaving a confused Beatrice in her wake. She jumped down the steps several at a time, almost tripping over her dress as she landed at the bottom. She ran the length of the hall and out into the courtyard, sprinting across to the stables. As she came skidding into the stables she looked about frantically, but there was no sign of Kirby or any of her guards.
“Can I help you, m’lady?” asked the young page, Isaac, coming in carrying a bucket of water.
“Mr Kirby,” began Katherine, panting from her run across to the stables, “When did he leave?”
“About quarter of an hour ago, m’lady,” he replied.
Katherine groaned and leaned on one of the stalls, bringing her hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose in exasperation. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought Kirby was deliberately trying to thwart her plans.
“Is there something wrong, m’lady?” asked Isaac with concern.
“What, er, no,” she replied. She had to get control of herself or everyone was going to notice her strange behaviour.
She knew she had to do something quick – Kirby was on his way back to Ollerton and would soon be patrolling the area where the outlaws were going to be. To make matters worse Tobias was busy out on his patrol. She could chase after Kirby herself, but how would she explain what she was doing there without arousing suspicion. The alternative was to warn the outlaws in some way.
“Isaac, can you get Delta ready for me please, I’ll be back in a minute” she instructed the young man.
“Of course, m’lady,” he replied, “Right away!”
He eagerly hurried off to the horse’s stall as Katherine dashed back over to the house to change out of her cumbersome dress. Ten minutes later she was flying out the gate on the back of the chestnut colt. She headed across the fields directly for Sherwood Forest, not taking the longer route via the proper tracks and roads – she needed to save as much time as she could.
After about an hours ride she found herself on the edge of the forest and made her way back on the proper road to Nottingham that went through it. There was no one else on the track, since most people tended to avoid coming this way if they could. The forest was eerily quiet, the towering trees seemingly innocuous, though Katherine knew that outlaws lurked in them somewhere. Now it was just up to her to find them. She reasoned that the best way to do that was to ride to the spot where they were originally attacked by Seven and her group over two weeks ago, and then try to find her way to the outlaw camp from there.
Delta trotted along the track, though the forest appeared to be making him somewhat skittish. Every now and then he would make a small twitch to one side or the other in response to noises from the wood. His mood seemed to be rubbing off on Katherine and she found that she was growing increasingly apprehensive about riding the road alone. She felt the sweat prickling on the back of her neck and she had to make a concentrated effort to keep her breathing steady.
Suddenly Delta came to a halt as three men leapt out of the forest in front of him. By their clothes Katherine could tell they were outlaws – they wore the same green tunics as all of Robin’s men and had bows slung across their backs.
“Ah, thank goodness,” she cried, “I’ve actually been looking for you.”
“Do you hear that, lads?” said one of them, “The lady’s been looking for us, it must be our lucky day!”
He smiled at the other two, showing off a set of blackened teeth. They went perfectly with the rest of his face, which was craggy and marked with a number of scars, despite the fact that he probably wasn’t much over thirty years of age.
“Must be, Paul, very lucky,” sneered one of the others, as equally an unappealing sight as his comrade, with lank blonde hair and a scruffy beard.
“I’ve got an important message for Robin,” continued Katherine, ignoring their banter.
“Oh, really? Well, you can tell it to me of you like?” said the one called Paul, coming to stand at the side of Delta.
“I think I should pass this message onto Robin myself,” she insisted, starting to feel uneasy about the encounter.
“Well, there may be a little problem there,” he confessed, “We don’t actually know Robin.”
She had a moment to stare at him, her mind processing what he had said, before she felt a tug on her tunic from the other side of the horse, dragging her off Delta’s back to come crashing down on the muddy track below. The air was forced from her lungs with the force of the landing and, as she took a few heaving breaths, the three men quickly surrounded her. The bearded man roughly hauled her to her feet by the scruff of her tunic and pinned her arms to her side as he held her from behind. Paul came up in front of her, uncomfortably close. Standing over Katherine, he was near enough so that she could smell his rancid breath and she reflexively turned her head away from the stench. She now realised that these men must be from one of the rival gangs Anne had mentioned; one of the gangs with less scruples than Robin’s men.
“This is the point where you give us your money and valuables, your ladyship,” explained Paul in a low, menacing tone.
“I don’t have anything on me,” she replied honestly. She had dashed straight out of the house; all she had were the riding clothes she was wearing.
Paul looked her up and down, realising the truth of her statement.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, sucking in his breath, “What we going to do with her now then, boys?”
The one holding Katherine laughed nastily.
“I can think of a few things,” he answered with a sinister edge to in his voice.
As if to emphasise his point he gave Katherine’s forearms a little rub before tightening his grip once more. Paul’s mouth quirked in an evil smile and Katherine felt her blood running cold. Why had she thought coming to the forest on her own was a good idea?
“I know all about what you want to do, Bill, you only ever have one thing on your mind! But how about we play a little game first?” suggested Paul.
“What we gonna play, Paul?” asked the third man. He was shorter than the other two, closer to Katherine’s height. He had scruffy short hair and a pair of small beady eyes.
“How about that old favourite of ours – hunters!” said Paul.
“Oh yeah, I’m up for a little sport,” agreed the short man, casting a leer at Katherine.
“Bill?” asked Paul looking at the man behind Katherine.
“Sure, why not,” he replied gruffly, letting go of Katherine and giving her a little shove away from them.
She whirled round to face the three men who were all drawing the bows off their backs.
“Now see,” began Paul, “This is how it works – we are the hunters, you are our prey…run!”
All three of them laughed in unison as if it were some great joke. Katherine just felt sick. She could either stay here and be killed after god knows what happened to her or she could take her chances in the wood. It wasn’t much of a choice really and, turning on her heels, she sprinted for the trees.
Katherine careened frantically through the trees, a strong sense of déjà vu pervading her thoughts. Only two weeks previously she had been in a similar situation, running away from outlaws through Sherwood Forest. That time she had been caught by Anne and her life had changed quite unexpectedly and dramatically. The only thing likely to change about her life if she got caught this time was that it would be over.
She mused that there was one slight advantage to being chased by the three men, rather than Anne, and that was that they were nowhere near as stealthy as the young woman. Katherine could distinctly hear them crashing through the undergrowth behind her, spurring her on to run faster.
A barrage of braches thwacked against her body and brambles scratched at her legs as she recklessly plunged on trying as best she could to push them from her path. Suddenly, her foot caught on an outstretched root and she tumbled to the forest floor, rolling in the dirt and leaves. She quickly scrambled to her feet and hurried on, brushing her disarrayed auburn hair from her face to see where she was going. She had no idea where she was heading, just that she had to keep running. She had to hope that she could keep going longer than they could, though she wasn’t sure how much longer that would be. Her heart was already pounding in her chest and her breathing was becoming increasingly ragged as she gasped to draw in enough air. Determinedly she forced herself to keep going; she was damned if she was going to let those three ruffians get the better of her.
Suddenly the tress thinned and she found herself out on an open grassy stretch of land, leading to a river cutting through the forest. She cursed herself for not having heard the running water before. Her own movement through the trees and the blood pounding in her ears had most likely deafened her to it. Turning round to face the forest she pondered which way to go. She was too exposed out on the bank and had to get back under cover quickly, or maybe she should jump into the river and take her chances that way?
Before she could decide, a searing pain suddenly knifed through her left thigh and she let out a howl of pain. Her leg crumpled beneath her, sending her crashing to the floor. Daggers of pain lanced through her whole leg and glancing down she saw an arrow protruding from it, buried deep in the flesh. Blood was already starting to stain the fabric of her breeches, flowing freely from the wound. Groaning, she decided to make an attempt to pull it out, so she might be able to continue on in some way. The outlaws were obviously in shooting distance and she couldn’t stay lying here just waiting for them. As she tugged on the arrow, fresh waves of agony shot through her limb and she had to let go. She lay for a moment, resting on her hands and panting heavily as nausea welled up within her. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead and she started to feel light-headed, most probably from the loss of blood she realised. She wondered if maybe she could haul herself to the river with the arrow still in her leg for now and let the current carry her away. As she steeled herself to attempt it the three outlaws appeared from the trees.
“Good shot, Paul!” said the scruffy bearded one, patting one of the other men heartily on the back..
“Thanks, Bill,” replied the one called Paul who appeared to be the ring-leader of the small group.
“Well, you gave us quite a run for our money there,” he continued, as he came to stand over Katherine.
“Who would have thought her ladyship could run so fast!” he laughed to the other two who were also standing threateningly by her prone form.
“But not faster than an arrow, eh?” sniggered the third man; the short, beady-eyed one.
Katherine just glared balefully up at them. Even if her heart was beating wildly in her chest and her situation was dire, there was no way she was showing any kind of fear to these men. If they were going to kill her she would die with dignity; there would be no desperate pleading for her life from her.
“Well, to the victor the spoils,” the bearded man added, looking at Paul, “What do you want to do with her?”
As they stood around her, discussing her as if she wasn’t there, Katherine felt her head start to droop into unconsciousness; the blood continuing to pump from her body and down her leg. Suddenly Paul grabbed a handful of her tunic front and hauled her up into a kneeling position.
“Oy! No nodding off, your ladyship!” he spat, giving her a resounding back-handed slap across the face with his other hand.
Katherine’s head snapped to the side and she felt more blood pooling in her mouth. Paul maintained a fistful of her tunic so that she was still unwillingly on her knees. The pain in her leg was excruciating and she gritted her teeth to try and stop herself from crying out, turning back to face her tormentor.
“Oh, does your leg hurt? What a shame,” he said nastily.
“Maybe I should help you out there?” he added, reaching down and wiggling the arrow.
Katherine couldn’t stop herself from letting out a strangled cry then as the arrowhead ground against her muscle. Paul laughed with satisfaction and let go.
“Not so tough now then?” he asked her maliciously.
She glared up at him, her eyes still challenging him with a steely glint.
“If you’re going to kill me,” she said through clenched teeth, “Why don’t you just get on and do it.”
He regarded her for a moment and then tipped back his head and laughed. Drawing the sword that he wore at his side, he brought the tip to touch against her throat. She could feel the cold metal just pricking her exposed skin.
“You’d like me to put you out of your misery would you?” He asked, an evil smile breaking across his face, showing his disgusting set of teeth.
Katherine maintained eye contact with him; if she was going to die she would do it looking her killer in the face. He stared back at her, as if contemplating whether to run her through or not. The moment seemed to stretch on for eternity and Katherine ignored the pain raging through her leg; she wasn’t going to look away now. In her peripheral vision she saw his arm start to move backwards, as if he was about to plunge the sword into her, when the expression on his face changed dramatically. His eyes bulged in shock, and his grip on her tunic went slack, dropping her back down onto the ground.
She watched as he staggered past her and toppled into the river, floating away face down with an arrow lodged in his back. Stunned she swung her head back round to look at the other two outlaws. They looked as surprised as her casting nervous glances at each other.
Their confusion was broken when a figure all in black came bursting out of the forest towards them, a bow slung across their shoulders and a sword raised high, flashing in the sunlight. Katherine’s eyes widened as she recognised Anne, her blonde hair flapping behind her in its ponytail as she lunged at the two men. The closest one barely had time to quickly draw his own weapon and parry the fierce blow that was directed at him. He actually staggered back a couple of steps with the force of it. The other one slid his sword out too and joined the fray.
Katherine marvelled as Anne fended off the two men. She made them look slow and clumsy as she danced gracefully around them dodging their swipes. Her face was set in a look of pure hatred as she in turn slashed at them. Her obvious anger meant her blows reigned down on the men with added venom. Anne carried herself with a deadly intent and Katherine could actually see looks of worry start to creep onto the men’s faces. Sparks flew as swords clanged together, the sound of metal upon metal echoing round the forest.
Anne parried the short man’s sword once more and Katherine gasped as she saw the bearded one preparing to swipe his down on Anne’s head as she was momentarily distracted. Before she could shout out any kind of warning he lunged. Anne side-stepped at the last moment, bringing her own sword round so that his own momentum impaled him upon it.
Anne slowly withdrew the blade from his stomach and he sagged lifelessly to the ground, blood trickling out onto the grass from the gaping wound in his abdomen.
One of the men dispatched, the young woman menacingly turned her full attention on the remaining outlaw. He glanced frantically from her to his fallen comrade, a look of terror now crumpling his features. Obviously deciding that caution was the better part of valour, he quickly turned and ran for the trees. Anne looked for a moment like she was contemplating pursuing him, staring off at the trees with her back to Katherine. Katherine could see Anne’s hand was tightly gripping the sword on which the other man’s blood was fast congealing, her knuckles white. She could almost feel the barely suppressed fury radiating from the young woman’s tense shoulders. Finally she swung round to regard Katherine, anger still flashing in her icy blue eyes. Katherine could now see why the outlaw had thought it prudent to flee.
“What are you doing here?” Anne asked sternly, “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be wandering round the forest on your own?”
“Well, I do now,” replied Katherine, glancing down at the arrow still sticking out of her thigh.
Anne’s whole face suddenly changed, her look of anger being replaced by one of shock. Obviously she had not noticed the arrow before. She knelt down at Katherine’s side, her eyes now registering concern as she glanced from the arrow to Katherine. The icy edge had gone from them so that Katherine was now gazing into two deep blue pools.
The distraction of watching the fight gone, Katherine was drawn once more to the extreme pain shooting through her left leg and she winced slightly as she shifted position. Anne placed a gentle hand on Katherine’s arm.
“Don’t try to move,” she said softly.
“I think we need to try and get it out,” said Katherine, though that thought filled her with dread.
“Yes, but we could make it worse. We have a healer back at the camp who’s removed a fair few arrows in his time. I think we should probably head back there,” suggested Anne.
“A good idea, but how the hell am I going to get there?” replied Katherine, “I don’t think I’m up for any more treks through the forest.”
Anne considered that for a moment before suddenly placing one arm under Katherine’s knees and the other around her back and lifting her effortlessly off the ground. Katherine couldn’t help herself from letting out a small gasp of surprise at being so easily picked up by the young woman. She may be a lot smaller than Anne, but it was still no mean feat. She knew Anne was tough and strong but now that fact was emphasised with great clarity.
“Oh, my,” sighed Katherine huskily, “Are you going to carry me all the way there?”
“Yes,” replied Anne simply before setting off, seemingly having no trouble walking with her extra burden.
Katherine had to admit that she wouldn’t mind be transported around this way all the time, lovingly cradled in the tall woman’s arms. As they made their way through the forest she rested her head on Anne’s chest and let her eyes drift shut.
The agonising throbbing in her left leg was the first thing making itself painfully aware to Katherine as she struggled back to consciousness. Opening her eyes, she gazed up at Anne as the young woman determinedly carried the lady of the manor through Sherwood Forest in her strong arms. The rays of the sun poking through the leaves high above glinted upon Anne’s blonde hair. Katherine took a moment to study the contours of Anne’s face, which was hardly showing any signs of the exertion. A single bead of sweat upon her brow was the only indication that it was anything other than a normal walk through the forest for her. Anne’s deep-blue eyes flicked downwards to regard Katherine.
“You should try and stay awake if you can,” said Anne gently.
“Easier said than done,” replied Katherine ruefully.
She still felt light-headed, having lost a substantial amount of blood from the arrow wound in her thigh. Her skin was cold and clammy and waves of nausea washed over her periodically.
“We are nearly there, please try and hold on,” added Anne with an edge of concern.
Katherine realised the wound must be bad from the tone of Anne’s voice.
“You shouldn’t be so damn comfortable to lie against, it’s just too easy to shut my eyes and drift off,” said Katherine, smiling weakly at the young woman, trying to reassure her.
“Maybe I should make the ride a bit bumpier then?” suggested Anne, joining in the banter to try and lighten the mood and take away from the seriousness of Katherine’s injury.
Katherine shot her a small mock frown, crinkling her eyebrows together.
“How about just talking to me instead?” she proposed, “I didn’t say thank you, by the way, for rescuing me. I guess I should count myself extremely lucky that you were nearby.”
“I wouldn’t have been, but Henry and I found your horse wandering on his own on the road and realised something must be wrong. It was fairly easy to track you and your assailants through the forest from there,” explained Anne.
“Was Delta all right?” asked Katherine.
“He was fine, Henry took him back to the camp while I followed you,” clarified Anne.
Katherine paused for a moment before fixing the young woman with an intent look.
“I really thought they were going to kill me,” she said quietly, “If you hadn’t…”
Her voice trailed off and Anne’s focus moved once more from the path she was picking through the trees to the slight form in her arms.
“Well, I did. So, you can forget all about them now. Two of them certainly won’t be bothering you again,” Anne remarked matter-of-factly.
“Indeed,” agreed Katherine. She didn’t really approve of the taking of human life unless it was absolutely necessary and was dismayed that part of her was glad the two outlaws were dead.
Her thoughts were disturbed by the sound of conversation filtering through the trees and she turned her head to see that they were stepping into Robin Hood’s outlaw camp. The camp was comprised of a number of small wooden huts in a clearing in the forest. Some of the outlaw band milled around carrying out various tasks or just talking. One of them approached now upon seeing the new arrivals. Katherine recognised the man as Will Scarlet, the outlaw who had been less than receptive last time Katherine was in the camp. He didn’t look any more pleased to see her this time.
“What are you playing at, Seven?” he asked angrily, using Anne’s outlaw name. He cast a disgusted look in Katherine’s direction. “Do you have to keep bringing her to the camp?”
“In case you didn’t notice, she’s injured,” replied Anne icily, “Now, get out of my way.”
Anne shoved past Will before he could protest further and carried Katherine over to a hut on the far side of the camp. Ducking her head below the low entrance, she bore Katherine inside. Katherine’s eyes adjusted to the gloom within as Anne bent down to lay Katherine on a sort of bed on the floor. It consisted of some furs, blankets and pillows arranged on the bare ground. The rest of the hut was sparsely decorated, a small wooden chest in the corner the only other furnishing of note in the small room.
Anne knelt at Katherine’s side and gently brushed a loose strand of auburn hair from Katherine’s now fevered brow. Katherine was having trouble keeping her eyes open again though she did catch a movement in the doorway. Robin Hood, the leader of the outlaw band had entered the hut.
“Anne, what’s going on?” he enquired, his tone much kinder than Will’s had been.
“She was chased by some of Barton’s men, she’s wounded,” Anne replied moving to the side so that Robin could see the arrow protruding from Katherine’s leg. The outlaw sucked in his breath sharply.
“I’ll get the doc,” he declared succinctly before leaving.
Anne turned back to Katherine, stroking her cheek tenderly while looking down at her with obvious concern in her eyes.
“You’ll be all right now,” she insisted, “The doc’s dealt with hundreds of arrow wounds.”
Katherine wasn’t sure who Anne was trying to reassure more – herself or Katherine. Something in her voice suggested to Katherine that things weren’t quite as straightforward as she was trying to make out. She reached up to touch Anne’s hand with her own, brushing her fingers over the smooth skin. Her eyes met the young woman’s and they gazed at each other almost as if it might be their last chance to do so.
The moment was broken as Robin reappeared with another man. Katherine’s eyes widened as the light from outside fell across his face and bald head.
“Friar?!” she cried in astonishment.
“Hello, Katherine,” he answered nonchalantly.
“What are you doing here?” she asked incredulously.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he replied with a small smile, “Though from the looks of things it seems the main thing you’ve been doing is getting into trouble.”
He came over to crouch next to Anne, inspecting the arrow wound. Katherine saw a worried look briefly cross his features before he turned to Robin.
“I need some clean water and cloths,” he instructed the outlaw.
Robin merely nodded and went back out again to fetch the requested items. Katherine knew she was staring at the friar, but she couldn’t seem to get her mind round the incongruity of seeing him here in the outlaw camp. He was supposed to be at the church in Markham, not wandering round the forest with outlaws. The friar caught her confused look and laughed.
“Well, who do you think sees to the religious needs of the outlaws?” he said in explanation of his presence, “Just because they’ve broken certain laws, doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to worship the lord. And occasionally I help them out in other ways too.”
Katherine flashed him a suspicious look; was the friar the one who had been supplying information to the outlaws?
“Don’t worry,” reassured the man, reading her face, “I would never do anything against you or Markham; I’m a friar not a spy. I meant more in the way of advice or my healing services.”
At that moment, Robin came back in with a large earthenware pitcher of water and a bunch of cloths, which he handed to the friar.
“Now,” continued the balding man, “You need to stop worrying about Markham for once and concentrate on yourself. I’m going to remove the arrow and I’m afraid it’s going to hurt like hell.”
Katherine thought that the friar’s bedside manner could do with some improving and she swallowed nervously, her mouth suddenly dry. She found her right hand clasped by Anne as the young woman moved round to her other side, out of the friar’s way. Anne squeezed gently to let Katherine know she was there. Katherine flicked her a small smile of gratitude.
“Are you ready?” asked the friar, positioning himself by Katherine’s left leg in preparation.
“Hang on,” she said, suddenly, “In all the commotion I almost forgot why I came here in the first place! Robin, it isn’t safe for your men near Ollerton. One of my knights has taken it upon himself to increase patrols around there.”
“Thank you for letting us know,” he said sincerely, “Especially at such risk to yourself. If you’ll excuse me I have some men to rescue.”
“Right, so are we ready now?” asked the friar again, as Robin left the hut.
Katherine took a few deep breaths and nodded. She firmly gripped Anne’s hand as the friar took the back end of the arrow in his right hand, placing the other one on her lower leg to brace himself and her. With intense concentration he manoeuvred the arrow slightly causing Katherine to wince as a sharp pain shot through her limb. Suddenly he yanked the arrow from her thigh in one swift movement. Katherine let out an involuntary cry at the explosion of pain in her leg and screwed her eyes shut, gasping for breath. She just had the chance to briefly open them and catch sight of a bloody arrowhead before she lost consciousness again.
Some time later Katherine slowly became aware of voices in the room with her. She groaned at the pain raging through her leg and groggily opened her eyes. Anne and the friar were the ones in hushed conversation, standing by her bedside. On hearing Katherine’s low moan they both glanced down to regard her.
“Katherine, you’re awake!” gasped Anne, a distinct tone of relief evident in her voice.
Katherine tried to speak but found that her mouth was too parched, the words only forming a strangled croak. Anne knelt down and offered her a cup of water, helping Katherine to raise her head to sip slowly from it. Katherine licked her lips and tried once more.
“Thank you,” she said to Anne before turning to the friar.
“So what’s the prognosis?” she asked, her voice still raspy but at least audible.
“Well, you’ll live,” he informed her blithely, “But the wound was serious. You’ll need to stay off your leg for a couple of weeks to allow it to heal properly.”
Katherine sighed, “Well, I suppose I can just about manage to stay in my bed at the manor, if I must.”
“No, you don’t understand,” added the friar, “It’s too risky to try and move you. It could re-open the wound and I’m not sure you could cope with losing any more blood. You’ll have to stay here.”
“What?” cried Katherine, “I can’t stay here for 2 weeks!”
“I’m sure we can just about manage without you for that long,” claimed the friar.
“That’s as maybe,” conceded Katherine, “But how am I going to explain my absence? People are going to wonder where I’ve suddenly disappeared to.”
She sighed in exasperation, lying back against the soft furs. She could see the sense in what the friar was saying. She certainly didn’t fancy trying to go anywhere if the pain in her leg while just lying down was anything to go by, but at the same time she didn’t like the idea of leaving the manor to run itself or worse be run by someone like Kirby. And how would she conceal her sudden unexpected absence from Markham?
“Unless,” she began, an idea forming in her mind, “You could speak to Tobias for me? I’m sure he’ll be able to think of something to cover up where I am, maybe some urgent business in Lincoln? That’s far enough away that no one is likely to check or try and contact me.”
“I don’t see why not,” said the friar with a small shrug, “As long as you trust Tobias?”
“Totally,” declared Katherine.
“Very well, I’ll head back to Markham and speak to him,” agreed the friar.
“I’ve instructed Anne how to keep the wound clean and change the dressing,” he explained. “Just don’t go doing anything stupid like trying to ride your horse home,” he added, fixing her with a stern look.
“I promise,” she replied with a roll of the eyes.
She thought perhaps the friar knew her and her stubborn streak too well. For once she would try and heed doctor’s orders, though. Especially as there was the added incentive of her own personal carer, she mused, casting a surreptitious glance in Anne’s direction. The young woman gazed back at her, a small smile on her lips.
“Right, well, take care of yourself, Katherine,” interjected the friar, glancing between the pair of them and noting the look they were exchanging. “Maybe next time we meet you can tell me a bit more of those ‘strong feelings’ of yours,” he added with a knowing wink before turning and departing through the doorway.
“Great, now the friar knows my secret too,” groaned Katherine, “I may as well just take out a proclamation and tell the whole of Markham.”
“I’m sure you can trust Friar Tuck to be discreet,” laughed Anne, “He’s managed to keep the fact that he’s been helping us a secret all these years.”
“I suppose there is that,” conceded Katherine, “Not that there’s much I can do about it anyway, stuck here.”
“And is that so bad?” asked Anne, leaning down closer to Katherine, so that her face hovered mere inches from Katherine’s.
“Maybe not…” admitted Katherine, her lips twitching into a smile.
Anne closed the small distance between them and gently brushed her lips over Katherine’s. Katherine revelled in the soft warmth of Anne’s lips delicately caressing her own.
“Now, you should get some rest,” Anne instructed softly, pulling away to gaze down at the older woman.
“All right, if I must,” sighed Katherine.
Anne smiled as she stood up, “I can see you are going to be a very difficult patient.”
Lady Katherine slowly stirred from her slumber. She was unsure how long she had been asleep, but could see that daylight was starting to fade outside the small hut where she lay recuperating. A single candle had been placed by her bedside, no doubt by Anne who seemed to be taking her duties as Katherine’s nursemaid very seriously. Katherine’s leg still throbbed from where the friar had extracted the arrow earlier, though it was more of a dull ache now than the previous shooting pain. Whatever it was that the friar had placed on the wound was obviously doing some good, even if it did have a rather unpleasant odour, mused Katherine. Looking down, she could see that her breeches had been ripped open up to her hip to expose her damaged left leg, which was tightly bandaged.
“Ah, awake at last are we?” came a voice from the corner of the hut.
Katherine started; she hadn’t realised there was anyone else in the room. Glancing over she saw Will Scarlet emerging ominously from the shadows. He swaggered over and squatted beside her low bed. She felt somewhat unnerved by his close proximity, since she had no means of moving away. He was a young, ruggedly handsome man with sandy coloured hair, but there always seemed to be something mildly threatening about his demeanour. Katherine wasn’t quite sure if that was just in her presence or if it was his natural disposition. Somehow she thought it was the latter; he struck her as a generally angry young man. Katherine wondered if she should call out for Anne, but decided he probably wouldn’t do anything to her here, especially now that she was in favour with the outlaws. She was sure she could cope with any verbal jousting he wanted to attempt.
“Feeling Better?” he sneered without any hint of compassion.
“Yes, thank you, it’s kind of you to ask,” she replied sarcastically.
“I should have known you’d end up back here,” snorted Will, fixing her with his dark, menacing eyes.
“Oh?” responded Katherine, not entirely sure what the odious outlaw was getting at and just wishing he would get on with it and leave her in peace.
“Yeah, I expect Seven’s been using her witchy powers again to ensnare another unsuspecting victim,” he scoffed.
“What are you talking about?” asked Katherine, regarding him with a bemused expression.
“Oh, she didn’t say anything about that then?” he said with fake surprise. “But why would she,” he continued, his voice dropping to a lower, more sinister register, “Otherwise how would she get you where she wants you.”
Katherine still looked at him in confusion; she had absolutely no idea to what Will was referring. She supposed he was trying to stir up trouble between herself and Anne, in which case it was probably best just to ignore him and hope he got bored.
“She did the same to me, you know,” he added, undeterred by her lack of response.
Katherine remained resolutely silent, though part of her was interested to know what he meant. It looked like that part of her was going to be satisfied as he leaned in a bit closer to continue.
“Bet she didn’t tell you about that either,” he said, leering at her.
“About what?” she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“About me and her,” he stated simply.
Katherine looked at him, confusion still etched into her features, not comprehending what he meant, or perhaps not wanting to.
“You know…” he said, winking crudely and making a suggestive motion with his hand.
Realisation suddenly dawned on Katherine and she felt a horrible sick sensation settling in the pit of her stomach.
“You’re lying!” she hissed at him.
“Ha! You wish!” cried Will, letting out an evil laugh. “Me and Seven were like that,” he explained, crossing the first two fingers of his hand.
Katherine was revolted by the very idea of it. She didn’t want to believe that Anne would have had anything to do with this repulsive man but unwanted images were already starting to invade her thoughts. She didn’t want to hear any more, but it looked like Will wasn’t going to let up, not now he had got some sort of reaction from Katherine. She knew her face was probably displaying a myriad of emotions from shock through to anger and she tried to bring herself under control and quell the jealousy that was welling up inside her. She looked away from his piercing eyes and took a few calming breaths. He was probably just making it up she told herself unconvincingly.
“Course, I didn’t realise then that she had this unnatural power over people, but I guess that was only to be expected with her parents,” he continued on, ignoring the fact that she had looked away, “And after she’d had her fun with me, she cast me aside,” he added bitterly. “Guess I just wasn’t the right gender.”
Katherine’s head shot back round and she stared in surprise at the outlaw. He bent down threateningly, close enough for her to feel his hot breath across her face. A nasty smile played across his lips. Katherine determinedly held his gaze with her steely blue eyes, her jaw firmly clenched shut as she seethed internally but tried to contain it.
“Mind you,” he said, leaning across to whisper in her ear, “She didn’t seem to complain when we were making love. In fact I’d say she rather enjoyed having a real man.”
Katherine felt like someone had driven a dagger into her heart and was now twisting it round mercilessly. As she saw him move back, grinning wickedly, her blood boiled and she could no longer control her rage. She made an angry lunge at him, but he easily dodged her clumsy attack and she sprawled out of the bedding onto the dirt floor. Her leg screamed out in agony, but she didn’t care, all she could think about was wiping that smug look off Will’s face. Deep down she knew this was exactly what he had been hoping for, but her mind was too clouded by the hatred and hurt she felt to work in its normal reasoned way.
“Ooops, had a little accident?” he said smarmily, standing over her.
“Perhaps you need a hand there?” he suggested, before deliberately poking her injured leg with his toe.
Katherine gasped at the jolt of pain that knifed through her limb.
“You bastard!” she spat.
He shot down and grabbed the front of her cream tunic in his fist, raising her torso off the floor so her face was level with his as he loomed over her.
“Why don’t you just sod off back to your cosy manor and leave us alone!” he snarled venomously, “We don’t want you around here!”
Katherine glared up at him, focusing all her anger into a deathly stare, wishing that the heat from it would be enough to fry him on the spot.
“What the hell is going on?!” came Anne’s voice suddenly from the doorway.
Discarding what she was carrying she dashed over and roughly grabbed Will, yanking him up, making him drop Katherine back to the ground.
“What are you doing?” she demanded angrily, pushing him up against the wall.
“We were just having a little chat,” he explained with a shrug, “Isn’t that right, m’lady?”
Katherine shot him a baleful look from the floor, grinding her teeth together as she fumed quietly. Anne glanced down at Katherine for confirmation, but the older woman averted her eyes; she couldn’t bring herself to look at Anne.
“I think you should leave,” Anne ordered Will, man-handling him to the door.
“Maybe we’ll continue this later, eh?” called Will back over his shoulder as Anne shoved him from the hut.
“Are you all right?” asked Anne with concern, turning back round and reaching down to aid Katherine.
“Fine,” replied Katherine tetchily, batting away the helping hands and attempting to haul herself back onto the bed herself.
“Why don’t you let me help you?” pressed Anne.
“I can manage!” Katherine shot back irritably.
Anne flinched away, surprised by the vehemence of the tone. She regarded Katherine suspiciously as the older woman struggled onto the bed while studiously avoiding making eye contact with Anne.
“What exactly did Will say?” asked Anne slowly.
Katherine’s eyes flicked up to meet Anne’s, anger from her encounter with Will still sparking in them. She didn’t speak immediately, searching Anne’s face as if she would find the answers to her questions there.
“He told me about you and him,” she said finally, looking away to stop Anne seeing the pain in her face.
“Oh,” was all that Anne managed in response.
“Oh?..Oh?…Is that all you can say?!” cried Katherine, whipping round to fix the young woman with her gaze once more.
“What do you want me to say?” challenged Anne, an angry edge now creeping into her voice too, her eyes flashing as she met Katherine’s.
“I don’t know…deny it maybe? Tell me it’s all in his mind, some sick delusion?” beseeched Katherine.
Anne stared down at the floor.
“I…can’t,” she replied.
“So it’s true?” demanded Katherine
“Yes, it’s true,” Anne replied, her eyes flicking up to challenge Katherine.
Katherine regarded her with a look of disgust on her face, her voice coming out haltingly as she spoke.
“So you and him? …you?…urgh…I can’t even bring myself to say it!”
“Yes, we had a relationship, “ explained Anne crossly, “But I don’t know why you’re so angry about it! It’s not like you haven’t been with anyone else, you were married for years for christ’s sake!”
“That’s different,” insisted Katherine.
“Really? And why is that?” asked Anne petulantly.
“I don’t know, it just is!” exclaimed Katherine.
“What? Did you think I was some sort of virgin conquest for you?” spat Anne.
“No…no…I…” Katherine was fast losing her train of argument. She didn’t even really know why she was so angry. The conversation with Will had fired her up and now the jealousy had taken hold, clouding her thought process.
“I don’t know why I bother!” cried Anne, “I save your life and this is all the thanks I get! Well, good luck looking after yourself!”
And with that she spun round and stomped out the door.
“Anne, wait…” entreated Katherine to the departed form, reaching out after her.
But it was too late; Anne was already gone. All Katherine succeeded in doing was over-balancing and sending her body tumbling onto the floor again. She cried out as a sharp pain stabbed through her leg. Looking down she saw an ugly red stain rapidly spreading out to soak the bandage round her thigh. Gasping as fire raged through her limb she tried to crawl back onto the bed, sweat beading upon her brow. As she clutched at the furs blackness crowded into her vision and she collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Katherine felt the brush of the soft furs against her face as she slowly woke once more. Opening her eyes she squinted against the sunlight that poked through the one small window of the hut. Focusing on her surroundings she spotted Anne leaning up against the wall beside the bed, wrapped in a rough blanket and fast asleep. Katherine felt strangely warmed that the young woman was obviously watching out for her despite what Katherine had said when they last spoke. Katherine was ashamed of her behaviour towards Anne; she had allowed Will to provoke a reaction in her and she vowed to apologise and listen to Anne’s side of things. She just hoped Anne would be forgiving. As she studied the soft features of the slumbering woman, Anne’s eyes suddenly flicked open, their blue orbs training on Katherine.
“Good morning,” croaked Katherine with a faltering smile.
Anne did not return it, instead glancing away as if trying to hide something. Katherine guessed there was no time like the present for her apology.
“About what I said before…I’m sorry…” she began.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Anne cut in.
Katherine was stymied and slightly perturbed that Anne didn’t seem ready to hear her apology. Neither of them spoke as Katherine wondered if she had done irreparable harm to their relationship.
“You gave us quite a scare,” added Anne breaking the silence and glancing ever-so briefly at Katherine.
This piqued Katherine’s interest – so Anne had been worried about her.
“I hope that wasn’t just your way of trying to get my attention, trying to kill yourself by bleeding to death?” remarked Anne.
“Er, no,” agreed Katherine, “I can think of slightly less hazardous ways to do that.”
“Well, you were just lucky that Nicholas came in to bring you some food,” Anne informed her, “He found you collapsed on the floor, your leg wound nicely split open again. Fortunately I’ve learnt enough from the friar that I was able to patch it back up.”
“Thank you,” said Katherine sincerely, trying to catch Anne’s eye, but the young woman was still avoiding looking directly at her.
“So, am I safe to leave you here this time without you damaging yourself?” enquired Anne.
“I guess so,” replied Katherine unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice. She had hoped that Anne was going to stay and continue to watch over her.
“Good, I have a few things I need to do,” explained Anne, getting up and stretching her long legs out to shake the sleep from them.
“Anne?” called Katherine after her as she made for the door.
The young woman slowly swivelled round, finally actually looking at Katherine. Katherine was uncertain what it was that she could see in the blue depths of her eyes, though she thought there was a definite element of pain in there.
“We will talk, though?” asked Katherine hopefully.
“Yes, when you’re better, we’ll talk,” agreed Anne before turning to go.
Ten days later Katherine hobbled through Sherwood Forest. Her left leg protested at the exertion but she determinedly ignored it. During the past days spent lying in bed at the outlaw camp the wound had healed quite well, but stiffness had set in and she needed to activate her muscles again. They didn’t seem too keen to obey her, though, but she forced herself on anyway. She had somewhere in particular she wanted to be, and a small thing like an arrow wound in her leg wasn’t going to stop her getting there. She stumbled slightly as she came down a slope, jarring her leg as she did. She winced at the dull pain in her thigh realising it would be a while before the affects of the injury were gone completely.
Emerging from the trees she spotted Anne sitting on a log by the side of a lake. The body of water was an oasis in the middle of the forest, a small waterfall feeding it at one end, while towering trees surrounded it, their leaves rustling in the wind. Katherine stood and observed the young woman for a moment. She was dressed in her normal black outfit, blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, her knees pulled up to her chest as she gazed out over the still waters, lost deep in thought. A slight breeze whispered across the lake and floated a few loose golden strands of hair around her face. She lifted her hand to subconsciously brush them away from her fine features. Katherine’s breath caught and she wondered if she’d ever seen a more beautiful sight. Gathering herself she tottered across the grass to join the young woman.
“A beautiful spot,” she remarked as she approached.
Anne turned to regard her, dropping her knees, surprise flashing across her face briefly at seeing the older woman here.
“Yes,” she agreed, “It’s one of my favourite places in the forest.”
Katherine didn’t say anything, hoping the young woman would continue and reveal more. She surmised that if her presence were unwanted Anne would tell her, since she didn’t seem to be reticent in expressing herself normally. Anne glanced back out over the lake as she spoke wistfully.
“It helps to remind me that there is still some beauty is this world, away from all that fighting and thieving. I like to come here alone to unwind from life at the camp.”
Katherine turned to look out over the water too; she could see how it could have a calming affect - watching the way the light played across the surface, listening to the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.
“How did you find me?” asked Anne, breaking their shared contemplative moment.
“Robin told me you might be here,” explained Katherine, limping over to sit to the left of Anne on the log, leaving a small gap between them.
Anne noticed her faltering steps.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed yet,” she chastised gently.
“I’ve spent enough time in that small hut to last me a lifetime,” laughed Katherine ruefully, rubbing her left leg gently. It was still tightly bandaged under the borrowed breeches she now wore. Young Henry had been more than happy to lend her a pair, since he was of a similar height to Katherine. She’d had to draw them in rather round the waist though, to fit her womanly shape.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I need to get up and about if I’m going to head back to Markham.”
“You’re thinking of going back soon then,” asked Anne. She had tried to keep her voice nonchalant but Katherine detected a slight edge of concern.
“Yes, though the friar managed to speak to Tobias, I still want to get back and make sure things are running smoothly,” she disclosed.
“Always worried about the manor, eh?” said Anne quietly with a mild bitter edge to her tone.
Katherine didn’t respond straightaway having noted the resentfulness in Anne’s words. She knew the young woman was partly right – the manor was important to Katherine, she had her duty to make sure it and its people were safe. But Anne was also important to Katherine and she needed to make the other woman see that somehow. For now she pushed from her mind the troubling question of which was more important to her, though she feared it was something she would have to face up to sooner or later.
“I wanted to apologise,” said Katherine, moving the subject onto the main reason why she was here, “For the way I behaved that day when Will confronted me. How I treated you was completely uncalled for. Who you’ve been with in the past is no concern of mine, and it wasn’t fair of me to judge you. I’m loathe to admit it, but I let jealousy get the better of me.”
“Don’t worry, I know how…devious Will can be some times,” replied Anne, “He was probably waiting for me to leave the hut so he could deliberately come in there and stir things.”
“Even so, I should have known better than to rise to the bait,” Katherine castigated herself, shaking her head, “And then to take it out on you…can you forgive me?”
Anne considered for a moment before responding, letting Katherine’s words sink in.
“Katherine,” said Anne, reaching over and placing her hand on the older woman’s right thigh for a moment, “It’s all right, really.”
Katherine slowly turned to face Anne as she withdrew her hand, searching her face for confirmation that everything really was fine. Anne obviously had more to say on the matter as she kept her eyes on the floor, speaking with unusual hesitancy.
“I can kind of understand your reaction, actually. I’m quite disgusted with myself for having ever thought that a relationship with Will was a good idea,” she revealed.
Katherine felt a slight tightening in her chest as Anne mentioned the outlaw’s name in the context of his relationship with Anne, but she disregarded it. Now was not the time to let her jealousy overrun her again.
“I was young and inexperienced,” added Anne, “I think I just wanted someone, anyone, to show an interest in me, to show me love,” she confessed. “And to start with Will did that. But then I slowly started to see his other side, his more unpleasant qualities - anger, spitefulness, jealousy. I began to see that he was a cruel man at heart, that all he was really interested in was himself.”
Katherine just listened intently, interested to be getting this insight into the young woman. This was more than Anne had ever revealed to her and she was heartened that she felt she could talk to Katherine in such a frank way about her feelings.
“As time went on I knew my heart wasn’t really in it anyway. There was always something not quite right about being with him, with the whole idea of being with a man really. So in the end it wasn’t hard to end it. Though Will didn’t quite see it the same way. He’s been rather resentful ever since.”
“He certainly is that,” agreed Katherine.
“He seems to think that if he can’t be with me, then he’s going to ruin anyone else’s chances too,” added Anne.
“So have there been others then?” Katherine asked warily.
“Not since Will, no,” admitted Anne, “I just wasn’t really interested in anyone…at least not in any men…”
She trailed off, but the implication was clear.
“So what about you?” enquired Anne, looking up from the ground.
“Me?” asked Katherine, unsure what Anne meant.
“You and your husband…did you…love each other?” she asked tentatively.
Katherine looked away from the young woman’s scrutiny for a moment, sighing as she contemplated her answer.
“I guess we did,” she confessed, “We were married young, when we were both 21. It was more of a convenient arrangement between our families, though we had always been friends. But I think over time I did grow to love him. I wouldn’t say it was a highly passionate marriage, it was more a…friendly…kind of love. And he always respected me and my opinions, which is more than can be said of a lot of men.”
“And do you miss him?” asked Anne.
“I did,” admitted Katherine, “When he first went off to the Crusades those many months ago, and then when we heard…when word came that he had been killed four months ago,” she faltered for a moment. It was still painful to think of Mark, slain in some foreign land.
“Obviously when you’ve shared your life with someone for 17 years, then you’re bound to miss them,” continued Katherine in explanation, “But recently…well, I’ve found myself thinking of him less and less.”
She cleared her throat, still looking away from Anne, though she could feel the young woman’s eyes boring into the side of her head. She decided she didn’t really want to think about Mark any more. That part of her life was over; she wanted to look forwards to the future.
“There was one other thing Will said…” she began, wanting to get everything that had been bothering her out in the open, while it seemed they were in the mood for discussion.
“Yes?” prompted Anne.
“I know this probably sounds ridiculous, but he made some strange reference to you having some sort of power over him, and that it had something to do with your parents,” she explained.
Katherine could see Anne visibly tensing up at the mention of her parents.
“I…I don’t really want to talk about them,” declared Anne, “My parents were killed 15 years ago, I’d rather leave them in the past where they belong.”
Killed? mused Katherine to herself. She had just assumed they had died of natural causes when Anne had first told her about them. She decided she would respect Anne’s wishes for now, but hoped that the young woman would trust her enough at some point to tell her the full story.
Silence descended between them as Katherine contemplated how to approach what she wanted to say next. The only sounds breaking the hush of the forest were the water lapping gently at the lake edge and the odd bird calling far off in the trees. A few drops of rain began falling from the overcast skies and Katherine was glad for their cooling affect as she turned her face up to allow them to splash on her skin. She took a few breaths, her heart pounding ten to the dozen, as she summoned the courage to express what she was feeling. She had been thinking of little else since the first time they had kissed and she knew she had to be honest now for both her own peace of mind and in fairness to Anne. She looked down at her hands, trying to still them as they trembled upon her thighs. Slowly she turned to face the woman who sat beside her.
“A few weeks ago,” she began hesitantly, “when we were at Nottingham Castle, you said some things to me…”
She paused for a moment searching for the right words to continue and to try and compose herself further, her voice having initially come out as a rather shaky whisper.
“You said…you said that you loved me,” Katherine added her voice still husky but gaining in confidence as she went on, “At the time I didn’t say anything back to you apart from telling you I needed time. But I think I’ve had enough time now to know what it is I’m feeling.”
She broke off again - God this was hard! Where was her famed composure now?
“When we met by the river the other day I wanted to say something, but you disappeared so quickly before I had the chance, “ Katherine disclosed, “Well, now I have you here and I wanted to get this out before anything else stops me, including my own foolish pride.”
She paused again, running a hand nervously through her auburn hair and looking to the leaden sky for inspiration. Just a few more words and it would be over and she’d know one way or the other. Anne remained quiet, not interrupting the older woman, understanding she had something important to say.
“So you see,” continued Katherine, “Well, the thing is…I think…I think I love you, Anne.” She gazed intently at the young woman her eyes moist from the emotions swirling within her. “No, that’s not right,” she corrected herself, “I know I love you.”
There she had said it! She felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her. Now all she had to worry about was the fact that Anne was just gazing back at her silently. Katherine could swear she could hear her own heart hammering away in the quiet of the forest, her mouth becoming dry as the silence stretched on. Had Anne changed her mind? Had Katherine declared her love only to have it rebuked? Anne’s eyes flicked away for a moment and Katherine felt a sharp clutching in her chest; she could barely breathe as she waited for some sort of response. Anne turned her eyes back on Katherine and the older woman now actually held her breath as Anne’s lips parted to speak.
“I love you too, Katherine,” she whispered simply.
Katherine’s breath rushed out in a huge relieved sigh and a massive grin spread across her face. She knew it was probably completely inane, but she didn’t care one little bit. All she cared about was that this beautiful, wonderful woman had just told her she loved her. Her heart still beat erratically, but now from excitement rather than nerves. She felt her whole body being filled with the most delightful, tingling warmth as she gazed into Anne’s glistening eyes. Without saying another word she wrapped her arms around Anne’s neck and pulled her into a deep, sensuous kiss. She was so awash in the blissful sensation that she barely registered them tumbling from the log to roll onto the soft grass. As the rain plopped gently into the waters of the lake and splashed upon their heated bodies they set about showing each other the extent of their love.
Charles Kirby marched over to the guardhouse at Markham Manor. He was determined to get some answers from Tobias. Kirby was convinced the captain of the guard had been deliberately avoiding him for the past week or so, ever since Katherine’s mysterious and sudden “visit to Lincoln”. At least that was where Tobias had been telling everyone she had gone. Kirby thought it was highly suspicious though - the lady of the manor leaving for a trip so unexpectedly. Especially since the French ambassador was due to visit in a few weeks time. He would have expected her to be here making preparations to impress the visiting delegation in order to secure all important trade agreements. There was also the fact that she hadn’t taken Tobias with her, which was most unusual; he usually followed her everywhere. As he approached he saw his target emerging from the building and Kirby quickened his pace before Tobias could disappear.
“Tobias!” he called, just to make sure the other knight spotted him.
“Charles,” nodded Tobias impassively as Kirby reached him.
“Any word from Katherine yet?” asked the tall, burly man.
“No, but she should be back this week,” replied Tobias. “Was there something you wanted to discuss with her?”
“No, no, just curious,” said Kirby trying to keep his voice vaguely disinterested. “What was she doing in Lincoln again?” he probed.
He could have sworn he saw the normally cool and calm Tobias squirm slightly at the question.
“It was some private business,” answered the dark man finally.
“Ah, I see,” remarked Kirby, “Well, I’ll just have to speak to her when she gets back then.”
“Indeed,” stated Tobias, “If there’s nothing else I have work to do.”
“Of course, don’t let me keep you,” replied Kirby.
He watched Tobias head off to the stables and stroked his chin in quiet contemplation. He was now surer than before that Tobias was covering something up. He wondered what Katherine was really up to and vowed to himself that he would do everything in his power to find out. He had a strange feeling that whatever Katherine’s secret was, discovering it would be to his advantage.