~ Eagle's Reach ~
by J. Falconer
The Athenaeum's 2010
Romantic Fiction Contest
: Xena, Gabrielle etc belong to MCA/Universal and Ren Pics, and anyone else who has an interest in Xena Warrior Princess, not me.
: The characters in here belong to me. All rights reserved. No part or whole of this work may be copied or used in any shape, form, or manner whatsoever without the author's express written consent.
: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. This includes sexual violence (but it's only alluded to). Otherwise nothing very graphic, but readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read.
Feedback welcome - firstname.lastname@example.org
"Let me see if I have this right," said a tall, black haired woman, ice blue eyes twinkling with amusement as she gazed at the blonde man before her. "The Prince has cast his somewhat less than benevolent gaze towards your daughter and you want her married off to someone, anyone, to protect her from him?"
The blonde man frowned and his green eyes flashed. "I don't recall putting it quite that way, Algernon, but that is the gist of it."
Lady Katherine Runcible - the topic of the conversation - gazed between the two of them, her insides clenched so hard they hurt.
"And you, My Lady," said Algernon, glancing at her. "What do you think of this?"
Kate's eyes skittered away from Algernon's shockingly beautiful face. She colored and looked at the floor, the flagstones suddenly occupying all of her attention. Her mind roiled. She was not sure what she had expected, but not this.
"Sir Malcolm," said Algernon, no trace of amusement in her tone. "I would like to speak to Lady Katherine alone, if you don't mind."
Kate could almost hear her father grind his teeth. She glanced at him in time to see him nod once. "All right."
"Piter will see you to your rooms. I will send for you."
Sir Malcolm Runcible sighed. "Yes, Your Grace." He shot a quick glance at his daughter, his expression a mix of anger and pity. He gave Algernon a short bow and followed the liveried Piter out of the room.
Algernon sat heavily in one of the large chairs by the fire, and gestured for Kate to do the same.
Kate remained frozen in position.
"Come," said Algernon, patting the seat before her. "Sit!"
Kate followed slowly, watching the older woman warily. Algernon was broad shouldered and graceful, and looked about ten years older than Kate's seventeen. Kate almost collapsed in the chair. Her knees shook.
"So, I repeat my question, Lady Katherine," said Algernon. "What do you think about all of this?"
Kate shook her head after a moment, her gaze dropping away from Algernon's face as her eyes filled with tears.
She felt a calloused hand gently grasp her chin, forcing her face up to meet Algernon's gaze. She felt her tears spill over.
"I don't know what to think," Kate said. She sniffed. "I know I don't like Prince Stephen. His eyes are so cold." She paused for a moment, studying Algernon through a haze of tears. "I don't know you. All I know is that you're my father's friend."
Algernon smiled. "I am. I can also be your friend." She gently wiped Kate's tears. "Does the fact that I am a woman upset you?"
Kate thought about it for a moment. She studied Algernon, deciding that telling her the bland truth would probably be best. "I'm ... I ... I don't see you any differently to the way I would a man."
Algernon flinched. "I am no man, Lady Katherine," she said softly. "We would hardly have a conventional marriage, so why would I treat you as a man would treat you?"
Kate shook her head. "I don't know."
"I wouldn't," said Algernon. "You are now one of about five people who know I am not a man." She smiled. "What do you want from this life, My Lady?"
Kate gaped at her. "I-I d-don't know." She drew in a deep breath. "I always thought I would be married to a nobleman and bear his children. That is all there is for me, I think."
Algernon gave her a sad smile. "You are very beautiful, Lady Katherine. You can have a much broader life, if that is what you wish. You could be the Duchess of Eagle's Reach. You would never be subservient to me. You would always be by my side not behind my back. Does that appeal to you?"
Kate nodded, not knowing what else to do. She felt numb. "It does."
Algernon smiled. "You don't sound certain of that at all, but I think you are too young to really know what you want, aren't you?" She leaned forward, taking Kate's hands in hers. She looked directly into Kate's eyes. "Do you think you could be married to me?"
Kate thought about Prince Stephen's handsome face and snake like eyes. She gazed into Algernon's kind blue eyes and nodded. "I think I can."
Algernon nodded slowly. "Then I make you this promise, Lady Katherine: I will never hurt you. I will never make you do anything you don't want to do. I will not interfere with your life, if at all possible. I do not expect you to be my lover - I ask for nothing that is not freely given."
Kate felt her insides loosen. She nodded. "Thank you, Duke Algernon."
Algernon flashed a brilliant smile. "Excellent! Your father will be pleased." She stood and held out her arm. "Let's go and tell him."
Kate took her arm, feeling strangely disconnected. She surreptitiously glanced at Algernon's clean profile as they headed down the hallways towards their guest rooms. She wondered if they could ever be friends or if her 'husband' would always be a strange, unknowable animal that had nothing in common with her.
Algernon looked down at her and smiled. "Here we are," she said as she knocked on the door.
They entered the room and Kate frowned. Her father was whey faced. He glanced up at them.
"Bad news, Sir Malcolm?" asked Algernon with a frown.
Sir Malcolm nodded, distracted, as a page backed out of the room, bowing.
"It seems," began Sir Malcolm, "that Prince Stephen is currently awaiting our convenience at my estate."
Algernon sighed. "Then I suppose I must let you go. But before you do, we must have a wedding." She turned to Piter. "Fetch the priest!"
"Yes, my Lord," said Piter, bowing and backing out of the room.
Kate's heart began to beat hard and her hands became cold and clammy. Algernon glanced at her. "My lady," she said, putting her large hand over Kate's, squeezing it reassuringly. "We can't wait."
Sir Malcolm nodded. "She's right, Kate. It will explain why I am returning home alone. It will delay him for a while."
"What do you mean, 'delay him', father?" asked Kate with a dry mouth.
Algernon and Sir Malcolm exchanged an unreadable glance. "Nothing you need concern yourself with, My Lady," said Algernon. "Your father must hurry if he is to reach home soon. The first snows are almost upon us."
Kate shivered, and it was not from the cold, late autumn air that drifted in through the partially open window.
"All right," she said, nodding. "Let it be done, then."
Algernon smiled. "That's the spirit!" she said heartily. "Come, let's go down to the chapel."
Sir Malcolm nodded. "After you, Your Grace."
Algernon grinned and took Kate's arm. Kate felt her tears bubbling towards the surface, and a wave of panic flow over her. She soon found herself kneeling before an altar, dazed, trembling and clutching Algernon's arm. She struggled to control her tears.
"Who gives away this woman?" the slightly out of breath priest asked. He looked expectantly at Sir Malcolm.
Kate glanced at her father. He looked for a second as though he would refuse, but then the moment passed.
"I do," he said with a nod.
"We are gathered here today to celebrate the union of His Grace, Algernon De Vere, Duke of Eagle's Reach, and Lady Katherine Runcible, daughter of Sir Malcolm Runcible of Cayman's Leap ..."
Kate tuned his voice out as she glanced at the assembled onlookers. There were about five guards, looking hung over and pained, a serving girl and Piter, standing next to a woman almost as tall as Algernon and every bit as beautiful. Kate wondered who she was, noting the rank insignia on her collar that proclaimed her a Lieutenant in Algernon's guard.
Algernon discretely nudged her and she turned back to the priest. He smiled.
"Lady Katherine, do you take Duke Algernon to be your husband, for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others?"
"I do," she said as firmly as she could.
"You may place the ring on His Grace's finger," said the priest. Kate accepted the ring her father thrust in her direction. She took Algernon's hand and slipped it onto her ring finger. She felt Algernon's hand shake and suppressed a start.
Kate squared her chin and looked defiantly at the priest. He gave her a slight smile and turned towards Algernon.
"And you, Your Grace? Do you take Lady Katherine to be your wife, for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others?"
"I do," said Algernon smoothly.
"You may place the ring on Lady Katherine's finger," said the priest.
Algernon accepted the gold band from Sir Malcolm and gently placed it on Kate's finger.
Kate glanced sharply at her. She thought she had heard the slight tremor in Algernon's voice, and she looked down at their clasped hands. Algernon's knuckles were white and the gold ring circling her finger stood out in sharp relief against her pale skin.
Kate's internal eyebrows rose. Could it be that Algernon was as nervous as she was? She felt the tight band around her chest loosen a little.
Algernon stood, pulling her to her feet.
"I know pronounce you husband and wife," said the priest. He nodded towards Algernon. "You may kiss the bride."
Algernon looked set to protest as she eyed her new bride. Kate mustered a smile for her and leant towards her.
Algernon gently pecked her lips, and pulled back with what sounded to Kate like a sigh of relief.
Kate stifled a sudden, insane urge to giggle.
"I need you to sign some documents," said the priest, gesturing for Sir Malcolm and the beautiful, red haired Lieutenant to come forward.
He led them into a back room, and unrolled two pieces of parchment. He dipped a quill carefully in ink, holding it out for Algernon to use.
The first was their patent of marriage and Kate signed her old name to it with a trembling hand. She pulled back but Algernon gently pulled her in again.
"There's more," she said.
Kate nodded, and found herself shaking even more as she became Her Grace, Duchess Katherine Runcible De Vere of Eagle's Reach. Algernon gently took her hand and silently pushed a ducal signet ring on her finger. Kate looked at it, flexing her hand, amazed that it fit perfectly.
She wondered what a Duchess actually did.
Sir Malcolm and the beautiful Lieutenant, Rowntree, signed each of the parchments as witnesses.
When they were finished, Algernon called Rowntree over. "Lieutenant," she said.
Rowntree came to attention. "Your Grace?"
"As of now, you will be Her Grace's bodyguard. I am relieving you of all your other duties."
Rowntree frowned but it quickly vanished.
Algernon leaned towards Kate. "Pay no attention to her grumbling, My Lady. She is an excellent guard, and will be an asset to you. You will like her."
Kate stared dumbly at them both, unsure of how to respond. She had never had a bodyguard before and had no idea how to interact with her.
Rowntree smiled at her, lighting up her green eyes, and Kate felt a little better.
"Thank you, Your Grace," said Kate. She smiled back at Rowntree. "And thank you, Lieutenant."
Sir Malcolm coughed politely and Kate looked at him, feeling a sliver of dread that she fought down.
"I must be on my way," said Sir Malcolm without preamble as they left the vestibule. He turned towards Algernon and Kate.
"Thank you, Algernon. I will not forget this," he said quietly.
Algernon smiled. "If she gives me any trouble, I will send her back to you for punishment."
The lightly spoken words stung and Kate threw herself into her father's arms, squeezing him tight and taking in his masculine scent. She closed her eyes and her shoulders hitched with a sob.
"Father," she said.
He pulled back and gently cupped her face. "It was the only way, Kate. I love you."
Kate nodded, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I know," she said. "But ..."
He nodded as her voice trailed off.
"Algernon is my friend," he said, for her ears alone. "The Duke will take care of you as I would. It's a match that would have pleased me if had been made freely rather than of necessity." He smiled. "That is the life of privilege. With it comes duty and responsibility. Honor our name, Kate, and show them what it means to be a Runcible."
Kate nodded, burying her face into his chest one last time. "I will," she said, pulling back and gazing into his green eyes, so like her own. "I will always honor you and our name."
"Good," he said.
Kate stood aside as he embraced Algernon. He whispered something into Algernon's ear, and the black haired woman stiffened and pulled back.
"You can't be serious?" she asked.
Sir Malcolm nodded. "I can and I am. I am her father."
Algernon shook her head. "All right." She turned to Rowntree. "Fetch Sir Malcolm's horse and my own." She turned to Kate. "You can ride with me. We will see your father as far as the road, Lady Katherine."
Kate felt shocked and looked uncomfortable at Algernon's words.
"Now, then, my dear," said Algernon watching Kate closely. "Your father must be on his way and it will take too long to fetch a carriage for a five minute journey on horseback. It will be easier if you ride with me. Will you?"
Kate tried to smile despite her churning stomach, and nodded bravely.
Algernon smiled. "Thank you, Lady Katherine." She turned to Sir Malcolm. "Are you ready?"
Sir Malcolm nodded.
"Good girl," said Algernon. She leaned forward and whispered into Kate's ear, "Remember what I said, My Lady. And I don't bite!"
Kate nodded and bit her lip. Sir Malcolm laid a comforting hand on her arm and she smiled gratefully at him.
Minutes later, they were riding out of the courtyard, Kate sitting in front of Algernon on her horse, a great fur cloak tucked around both of them.
They remained companionably silent as they rode down a road lined with bare trees, decaying leaves deep underfoot.
Kate felt waves of uncertainty break over her. Where would she sleep? What would she do during the day? What did Algernon expect of her? Did Algernon want her as a lover? Was she telling the truth about Kate's choices?
"Here we are," said Algernon softly, breaking her reverie.
Algernon pulled her horse to a halt in a road that cut through a thick, bare forest. A maple tree stood at the crossroads, the dregs of leaves fluttering down from its almost bare branches. They crunched underfoot as the horse's hooves shuffled.
Sir Malcolm nudged his horse around to stand beside Algernon and Kate.
"I love you, Father," said Kate. She tried to memorize every line of his handsome face.
"I love you too, daughter," he said with a sad smile and a half wave.
"We will come to see you in the spring, yes?" asked Algernon. "I haven't seen Cayman's Leap for far too long."
"I look forward to it, Your Grace," said Sir Malcolm as they clasped forearms. He glanced down the road and steeled his jaw. "I must go. It does no good to keep His Highness waiting."
Algernon nodded. "No, it doesn't."
Sir Malcolm wheeled his horse around and nudged him into a canter.
Kate watched him ride away, a deep loneliness and sorrow rising in her chest.
All she had ever known in her life rode away with him. She felt rudderless and sad.
"What now?" she asked Algernon with a sigh. "And would you please call me Kate?"
"Thank you, Kate. I would like that." Algernon laughed softly. "Now we go back and have our wedding feast. We have a wedding night to deal with!"
"Oh," said Kate faintly.
"Don't worry," said Algernon. "I have it all planned out. Just enjoy the feast, will you? It's not every day that you get married."
Kate tried to muster a smile for her. She felt alone and isolated in the circle of Algernon's strong, warm arms. "I know."
"Truly, Kate," said Algernon awkwardly. "You must relax and trust me. I mean you no harm."
Kate nodded as Algernon pulled her horse around and they headed back to the castle.
"Penny for your thoughts?" asked Algernon after a while.
Kate chewed her lip. "What am I going to do with myself? What are you expecting me to do? I don't know the first thing about being a Duchess!" she finally blurted out.
Algernon's arms tightened. "Relax, My Lady. One thing at a time. First we have to get past our wedding night!"
"My goodness, you really are nervous about this, aren't you?" asked Algernon. "Look, our wedding feast will just be a large supper. We will celebrate publicly in a few days. For now it will just be us!"
"Why do we have to celebrate publicly at all?" asked Kate.
"You are a duchess now, my dear Kate. You now have people who will look up to you."
Kate went pale and felt her muscles turn to water.
Algernon held her into the saddle. "I don't seem to be saying the right things to you at all, do I?" she asked a little sadly.
"No," said Kate, feeling the tears rush to the surface again. "I'm just not used to any of this, that's all."
They had reached the castle again, and Algernon skillfully steered the horse towards the stables. "Look, Kate, why don't you have dinner with me this evening? And call me Algernon from now on. You're going to have to get used to it at some time."
Kate nodded. "All right, A-Algernon."
Algernon turned to her and gave her a brilliant smile. "There! That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
Kate shook her head and smiled, despite herself.
As they entered the castle, a troop of freshly scrubbed soldiers came to attention and cheered.
Algernon dismounted in front of their castle and held out an arm for Kate to dismount. Kate gingerly slid off the horse with a sigh of relief. She quickly threaded her arm through Algernon's.
"Oh dear," muttered Algernon as she smiled and graciously inclined her head. "It looks like we'll be having a public meal this evening after all." She patted Kate's hand where it rested on her arm. "You don't mind too much, do you?"
"Well, we did get married today." Kate shook her head. "Like you said - I am going to have to get used to it at some stage, aren't I?"
"That's the spirit!" said Algernon as they entered the grand hall. She carefully led Kate to the head of a vast table, and they sat down side by side.
Algernon poured her a goblet of wine and smiled. She raised her own.
"I would like to propose a toast!" she said before Kate could protest. "To my wife and our new Duchess! Long may she be at Eagle's Reach and interesting and fulfilling may her life with us be!"
The other hastily assembled nobles exchanged glances at the odd toast, but Lieutenant Rowntree quickly led them in a cheer of support for the newlyweds.
Algernon gracefully steered past Kate for a return toast, and Kate found herself pathetically grateful. She took a couple of sips of wine and began to feel herself untangle. Her plate always seemed to be full of the best food, her goblet full with good wine, and she found herself smiling at the animation of their guests.
"Come," said Algernon, holding out her hand. "It is time for us to dance as newlyweds!"
Kate felt nervous and Algernon saw it. She smiled encouragingly at the young Duchess. "Just follow my steps, Your Grace," she said as she slipped her arms around Kate.
Kate looked up into Algernon's eyes. Her head swam slightly and her vision seemed ultra keen. "You have lovely blue eyes," said Kate. "I've never seen any quite like them." She stifled the urge to giggle as she felt Algernon trip over her own feet.
Algernon blinked and then grinned. "Thank you, dear Kate. Apparently I take after my mother."
"You never met her?"
"No," said Algernon. "But let's speak of more pleasant things. How do you like your new home?"
"I haven't seen enough of it to judge," said Kate. "But I must say the maple grove is absolutely beautiful in autumn."
"I used to play in it when I was a little girl," said Algernon. She gave a wistful smile. "Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again."
"Why don't you show it to me?" asked Kate boldly. "Show me where you used to play."
Algernon tilted her head to one side and smiled. "Fascinating, dear Kate. You'd really like to see it with me?"
Kate nodded. "Yes. What better guide than one who has lived here her whole life?"
"Would you do the same for me if we went to Cayman's Leap?"
Kate smiled and nodded. "I would even take you to climb trees with me if it was at all in keeping with your station!"
"I am a duke, not a fossil, young Kate!" said Algernon with a laugh. She whirled Kate around the floor. "And I'll have you know I'm rather good at climbing trees!"
Kate surveyed Algernon's lanky body. "I'll bet you are!"
Algernon burst out laughing. "One day I'll just have to prove it to you, won't I?"
"Again, it's something I'd love to see!" said Kate, feeling her insides relax a little under the tall woman's open friendliness.
Kate was laughing and felt regret when Algernon led her off the dance floor and back to their seats.
Before long, she felt a surreptitious hand on her arm, and she leant over to catch Algernon's soft words over the noise of the crowd.
"Come, Kate. It's time for us to retire."
Kate felt her blood run cold at the words, and her good cheer abruptly vanished.
"Trust me, My Lady," said Algernon, smiling to cover the flash of pain in her brilliant blue eyes.
Kate firmed her chin and rose on shaking knees. She nodded.
Algernon took her arm and led her out of the hall after a quick thanks to the drunken revelers. She led them back to Kate's new room, beside her own.
"We have to do this," said Algernon softly as she opened the door and nudged Kate through.
Once inside, they stood awkwardly in the center of the room, staring at one another.
"You really don't trust me, do you?" asked Algernon softly. "You really think I would take by force something that was not offered freely to me."
"It is your right," said Kate softly, looking down.
"It is not my right and I am not an animal." Algernon sighed and sank into the chair by the fire. "I will not interfere with your life and I ask the same courtesy of you."
Kate flushed and stared at her, feeling like a cur. She remained silent, waiting to see what Algernon would do next.
Algernon reached over and pulled at a loose flagstone on the hearth.
"You," she said, "must give me your nightgown, and we must fetch the women for the sheets."
Kate flushed and felt her ears burn. She opened and closed her mouth several times. She did not really understand what transpired between men and women, let alone between two women, and she was terrified of it.
"Go," said Algernon, gesturing towards the dressing screen in the corner.
Kate quickly did as she was bid. She emerged moments later as Algernon carefully poured a vial of blood onto the sheets and the back of Kate's snowy nightgown.
Algernon untucked her shirt from her breeches. "It's done," she said to Kate with a quick grin. "That should keep everyone happy for a little while."
"Aren't they going to want to examine me?" asked Kate, finding her voice at last.
Algernon shook her head. "They won't unless you tell them they can."
"That's hardly proof that we've consummated our marriage! We might be lying!"
"Not if I get haughty about it," said Algernon. "But it's up to you. What do you want to do?"
"I'll tell them no. I don't want anyone to touch me," said Kate.
"All right," said Algernon. "We can do this on my honor and on yours." She looked at Kate and opened her mouth, but closed it with a snap and shook her head.
"What?" said Kate. She almost felt slighted but did not understand why.
"Nothing, dear Kate," said Algernon with a grin. "Let's just do this so we can both go and get some sleep."
"You don't want to spend the night in here, just for appearance sake?"
Algernon blushed and shook her head. "That's very sweet of you, Kate, but my bed is best for me. No one's expecting us to spend the entire night together."
Kate nodded. "Would you consider having breakfast with me tomorrow?" She bit her lip.
Algernon looked surprised for a second. "All right."
"I don't have any friends here," said Kate, forcing out the first words. "I would like it very much if you could be my friend. I'm sorry, Algernon, I can't help it. I'm just a little overwhelmed." She forced her mouth closed, fearing she had said too much.
In an instant she found herself tangled in Algernon's warm embrace, breathing in the scent of clean linen, wood smoke, steel and Algernon herself.
"I'm sorry, Kate," said Algernon as Kate sobbed against her chest. "I forget that you are so young and that you don't know anyone here. I promise to be a better host." She gently kissed Kate's forehead. "I am already your friend, Kate, and I will remain so for as long as you want me to be one."
Kate nodded. "Thank you, Algernon." For the first time all day she gave a genuine smile, feeling a little easier than she had before.
"Good morning, Your Grace," said Lieutenant Rowntree the next morning, bowing and smiling at Kate.
"Good morning, Rowntree," said Kate, smiling in return.
"His Grace requests the pleasure of your company for breakfast," said Rowntree.
"Certainly," said Kate, following Rowntree's gesture and heading towards Algernon's rooms.
Rowntree stayed the prescribed two paces behind her and Kate found herself grateful that she could finally discretely yawn. She had lain awake the previous night thinking forever on what Algernon had told her: I will not interfere with your life and I ask the same courtesy of you.
She wondered what she wanted to do with her life. She felt lost but a little better than she had the previous day. Algernon did not seem so frightening; she seemed kind but distant. Kate also realized that she had the entire duchy of Eagle's Reach that she could play in.
She would only have to do it for a few months until she could go and visit with her father, and if she was lucky spend an extended stay at home.
"Good morning, my dear," said Algernon heartily, smiling at her.
Kate automatically smiled back. Algernon was more beautiful in the light of day than she had been the night before and Kate took a moment to study her.
Algernon was tall and moved with a fighter's grace. Her face was chiseled which made her more striking than handsome. She seemed a little slender for a man, but large and muscular for a woman. Kate wondered how no one knew she was not a man.
"Is there something wrong?" asked Algernon, looking concerned.
Kate blushed and shook her head. "No," she said as she allowed herself to be seated.
Algernon nodded. "Everybody leave us!" she said, and the serving girl bustled out, followed by Piter. Rowntree stayed discretely behind Kate, and Algernon raised an eyebrow at her. Rowntree bowed and followed the servants out of the room.
Once they had all left, Algernon turned to Kate with a smile.
"How are you this morning, Kate? Did you sleep well?" she asked.
"Yes," lied Kate. "Fine, thank you."
"What," asked Algernon, pouring her a cup of coffee, "would you like to do with yourself today?"
"Um," replied Kate, blushing again, "do I have anything I'm supposed to be doing today?"
Algernon laughed softly. "Well," she said, "there is a list of things that I normally leave to my housekeeper that you could now take over, as my wife. First, there's a wedding feast to arrange, although I imagine we can slide past that one given the celebrations last night. Then we must make preparations for the Winter Solstice celebration. Our guests must be seen to, and so on."
Kate's head began to swim and she baulked.
"My housekeeper will show you how to do all of it," said Algernon with a grin. "I'm sure she's going to welcome the help."
When do I get any time for myself? Kate thought. "What are you doing today?" she asked.
Algernon sighed. "I have nobles to entertain today," she said shortly. "That's enough."
"Yes," said Kate, "but what are you doing today?"
"I promised Sir Geoffrey Brandywine a sparring match," replied Algernon, buttering a soft roll. She bit into it with a soft sigh of pleasure.
"Where is this match to take place?" asked Kate, picking at the pastry on her plate.
"In the courtyard. Why?"
"Um, do you mind if I watch?" asked Kate.
"Not at all," replied Algernon with a broad grin. "I didn't think you would be interested."
Kate shook her head and bit her lip. "My father is a fine swordsman. I like watching him." She was quiet for a moment, gathering her courage. "Can I persuade you to walk in the woods with me this afternoon?"
"I can't just leave our guests!"
"If I grant you my favor and you win, you have to do what I ask."
A smile played around Algernon's lips. "That hardly seems fair. I win and I'm at your mercy."
"If you win I'm at yours," said Kate. "That's the truth of it."
Algernon's grin gentled. "Of course, My Lady. If I win I will be your escort this afternoon."
"Thank you, Your Grace," said Kate, bowing as Algernon laughed softly.
Kate's stomach unclenched and she abruptly felt the first stirrings of hunger. She surveyed the contents of the table.
"Try one of these. They're delicious!" said Algernon, handing her a sticky pastry.
Kate hesitated for a moment.
"Oh, come, now!" said Algernon, grinning. "It's not poisoned!" She took a bite out of one end.
Kate felt as though a foreign entity took over her body as she leaned forward and took a large bite out of the end furthest from Algernon's fingers. Algernon looked surprised for a moment, but it transformed into a saturnine smile.
"Did you enjoy that, my dear?" she asked.
"Mmmm, tasty," said Kate, smacking her lips and leaning back with a grin.
"I told you it would be worth it." Algernon shook her head. "I really have to get going or I'm going to be late," she said. She tilted her head to one side and studied Kate. "You realize I'm going to go out of my way to win, don't you?"
Kate nodded. "I will be cheering for you!"
Kate stood by one of the pylons surrounding the courtyard. There were clusters of women standing near her, and she tried to make herself as invisible as possible so they did not notice her.
She watched Algernon and Sir Geoffrey spar, almost transfixed by Algernon's smooth grace and raw power. The Duke fought with staggering intensity and control. Kate had seen her father and their soldiers spar before but Algernon seemed in another league. Kate felt her stomach flutter as Algernon danced out of reach of her opponent's sword.
"Fascinating, aren't they?"
Kate turned to the owner of the feminine voice, blushing at being caught openly staring at Algernon. The woman was a little taller than Kate's five foot eight and had dark hair and friendly brown eyes. Her complexion was olive and she had deep dimples in her cheeks. Kate immediately liked her.
She smiled back. "Yes, they are."
"I'm Lady Eliza Brandywine, Your Grace," said the woman, curtseying and kissing Kate's proffered ring. "Sir Geoffrey's wife," she added when she saw Kate's momentary confusion. "His Grace's opponent." She laughed softly as Kate's blush increased.
"Your husband is very good," said Kate, trying to cover her embarrassment.
"Not as good as Duke Algernon, I fear," said Lady Eliza as they watched Algernon dance inside Sir Geoffrey's defenses and tap his chest with her practice sword.
"I don't think many swordsmen are as good as His Grace," said Kate. "And he's better than my father is."
"Who is your father, if you don't mind the question, Your Grace?"
"I don't mind at all. My father is Sir Malcolm Runcible of Cayman's Leap."
Lady Eliza nodded appreciatively. "I've not had the pleasure of meeting your father, but I've heard he is a fine and honorable man."
Kate abruptly felt the sting of tears and pushed them back. "He is," she said. "He is also a wonderful father."
Kate and Lady Eliza broke into applause as the round finished and the contestants clasped forearms in a friendly gesture.
"Congratulations, Your Grace," said Kate with a smile as Algernon and Sir Geoffrey approached them. "You too, Sir Geoffrey. Very impressive."
Sir Geoffrey, a muscular, dark haired man with the beginnings of grey at his temples, smiled broadly. "Her Grace is too generous."
"More generous than I am, I think," broke in Algernon with a grin. "You let me kill you three times, Geoffrey! Are you losing your touch?"
"No, Algernon," replied Sir Geoffrey with a matching grin, "I just didn't want to embarrass you in front of your new wife!"
Algernon burst out laughing. "Thank you, Sir Geoffrey. That was most civil of you!" She bowed her farewells and turned back to Kate. "Come with me, my dear." She offered her arm to Kate. Kate took it and Algernon led her back inside the castle.
"I remember our bargain," said Algernon softly.
Kate struggled not to stare at the smooth skin of Algernon's throat. A drop of sweat slowly slid down the skin visible in the vee of the duke's shirt. Kate tore her gaze from the mesmerizing sight.
"Huh?" she said. "Oh! Yes!" she quickly added, blushing at Algernon's soft laugh.
"I know it's all a little overwhelming," said Algernon, "but you'll get used to being a Duchess sooner rather than later, believe me."
"I don't know," said Kate. "I still don't know what to think."
"Easy, my Lady. You will find your way here soon enough."
Kate nodded and was silent for a moment. "Lady Eliza seems like a good woman. Is she?"
Algernon nodded. "You're asking me if she's a court harpy under those enchanting dimples?" She laughed softly at Kate's shocked look. "I was teasing you. No, she really is as good and honest as she appears. So is Sir Geoffrey. You need have no secrets from either of them."
"Is there anyone here that I should try to avoid?"
Algernon frowned. "The Duke of Fotheringill is the sole noble who sometimes graces us with his presence. Prince Stephen does not come here unless it is in a chariot dragged along by the hounds of hell. Fotheringill and Prince Stephen are to be avoided at all costs."
"You really don't like the Prince, do you?"
"No." They arrived outside Algernon's door and the duke pulled them both to a halt. "You may keep me company, or I will fetch you in your rooms. Your choice, Duchess?"
Kate felt herself in danger of melting from her blush. "I will wait for you in my rooms."
Algernon nodded and bowed. "As you wish."
Kate collapsed into the nearest chair and looked speculatively at the almost forgotten Rowntree. The Lieutenant took an unobtrusive position beside the closed door.
"Lieutenant Rowntree?" she asked.
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"Come closer, will you? I feel like I'm yelling at you."
The guard smiled and silently approached Kate.
"That's better," said Kate. She pointed to the chair opposite her. "Would you take a seat?"
Rowntree raised an eyebrow and awkwardly sat.
"I want to ask you something," said Kate.
"Yes, Your Grace?"
Kate stared at the woman's perfect face and began blushing. "Can you teach me to do that?" she asked in a soft voice.
"Teach you to do what?" asked Rowntree.
"Fight with a sword."
"Your Grace?" asked Rowntree, shocked.
"Can you teach me to fight with a sword?" asked Kate patiently, nibbling her lip.
"Ah ... ah ... yes, Madam. I can." Rowntree colored slightly.
"May I speak freely?"
Kate nodded. "Always. I always want you to speak your mind."
Rowntree paused for a moment. "Why do you want to know how to do that? It's quite unseemly for someone such as you to fight with a sword."
Kate smiled, putting a voice to words that had not even fully formed themselves in her mind yet. "I want to know how to defend myself. I want to be as good at it as Algernon is. His Grace said I could do whatever I wanted to do while I was here. So this is one thing I've never tried." Besides, Kate's mind quietly whispered, I want to spend time with Algernon doing something she enjoys and is good at. I want to be her equal, not her burden.
Rowntree stared at her for a moment. She slowly began to nod. "I can do that, but I'm not as good as His Grace. If you want to be that good, you're going to have to fight with Duke Algernon, Your Grace."
Kate nodded. "I know."
"When would you like these lessons to commence?"
"I don't want anyone to know what I'm doing, so you tell me when it would be best."
"Early morning, I think. I know a clearing close to the castle, and I can bring you there, Madam."
Kate smiled broadly. "Thank you, Lieutenant Rowntree."
Rowntree inclined her head. "My pleasure, Your Grace."
There was a knock at the door, and Kate called, "Come in!"
The door opened and a ruddy faced woman strode into the room, seemingly every inch the mistress of her domain. She saw Kate and bowed low.
"Your Grace," she said in a melodious voice.
"Hello. May I ask who are you?"
"I am Nancy," said the woman with a smile that lit up her light blue eyes. "I am His Grace's housekeeper. I was asked to come up here to discuss upcoming festivities."
"Oh," replied Kate. "All right. Where do we begin?"
Nancy's smile turned predatory. "Well, Madam, there is the small matter of a Winter Solstice celebration to be planned!"
Kate bravely returned her smile, wondering why they were preparing months in advance. "An excellent idea!"
An hour later, Nancy bustled out of Kate's rooms with an armful of notes, leaving an exhausted Duchess in her wake.
Kate sagged back in her chair and closed her eyes; she had long since dismissed Rowntree.
"Nancy tired you out, did she?"
Kate's eyes shot open, and she found herself face to face with Algernon's brilliant blue eyes. You were responsible for that, were you, you sneak? she thought. "Hello, Algernon. No, I'm not tired." Kate's gaze disobediently traveled down the vee of Algernon's clean, white shirt to the swell of her breasts and she blushed.
Algernon grinned, oblivious, and held out a small package. "I thought you would like a bite to eat while we go out on our walk. I snuck down to the kitchens before I got here."
"Thank you," said Kate, breaking into a large smile. "Bless you, Algernon. I'm starved."
"I thought you might be. Nancy can be quite a ball of energy." Algernon held out a hand and pulled Kate to her feet. "Let's go! It's a beautiful day out there!"
Algernon gently threaded Kate's arm through hers and led her out of the castle down the road they had taken the previous day. Conversation was difficult thanks to frequent interruptions from bowing peasants, saluting guards and jostling crowds. They shared the bread and cheese that Algernon had brought with her.
"Algernon, may I ask you something?" asked Kate as they left the city and entered a forest trail, barren maples lining the edges and leaves crackling underfoot.
"Of course," said Algernon after a moment.
"How does a woman become a duke?" asked Kate hesitantly.
Algernon's face became shadowed.
"I'm sorry," said Kate. "Forget I asked."
"No," said Algernon, summoning a smile. "You can ask." She fell silent and gazed sightlessly into the distance. Their breaths frosted in front of their faces and Kate abruptly shivered.
"I'm sorry," said Algernon immediately, reaching for Kate and pulling her in close so they sheltered under Algernon's great cloak.
She led Kate into the forest a short way so they were by a stream. Algernon pulled her down so they sat in full sunlight. The gentle breeze caressed them and the sun shone down from a brilliant blue sky. Their joined shadow was short in the early afternoon.
"I was born Algernon Sarah De Vere, younger sister of Algernon Peter De Vere. My mother, Sarah, died at my birth. My parents both decided - before my brother or I were born - to give their children the same name should it be necessary for any of us to take the other's place. Accordingly, we were trained the same, groomed the same and treated the same." Algernon smiled bitterly. "King Damien had just ascended the throne when I was born. He was always a just and fair king, but far too indulgent a father. His son, Stephen, grew up to be a horrible, grasping, lecherous man." Algernon's jaw tightened. "I'm sure you noticed. He has a taste for variety in his women and has no moral scruples whatsoever in taking what he wants. If he sees a maiden he desires, he has her. He moves from one to the other, leaving spoiled husks in his wake. Husbands, fathers and brothers do not have a say in what is done to their women." Algernon sighed. "About ten years ago, he set his sights on me. My father sent my brother and me away to Cayman's Leap. My father, you see, had just received word that Stephen was to spend the summer in Eagle's Reach."
Kate felt sick. "Algernon, you don't - "
Algernon smiled sadly. "It's all right, Kate. Really." She settled her arm around Kate's shoulder and pulled her in close again. "We thought Stephen had left and we were on our way back to Eagle's Reach. Bandits attacked us and killed my brother and most of our guards. I was brought back to Eagle's Reach, more dead than alive. Stephen had not yet left, so my father was told I was dead and my brother lived, and that was what he told the Prince.
"Stephen was furious, more so than if just simple highwaymen had attacked us. He sent out his guards to kill the bandits and he left in a fury. By the time he left my father knew that his daughter and not his son lived. A day or so after Stephen left my father was on his deathbed, dying of poison. Then I was the Duke of Eagle's Reach and have been ever since." Algernon was silent a moment. "Stephen was married at the insistence of his father a year or so later. His poor wife is left to watch and suffer as her husband feasts on every woman within his reach."
Kate's arms snuck around Algernon and tightened. She rested her head on Algernon's chest and sighed.
"That's terrible," she said. "And thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"It's all right, fair Kate," said Algernon. "The pain has long faded. I feel for your father. It took a long time for his needless guilt to pass. He was only trying to help."
"My father is a good man," said Kate. "But please don't tell me Prince Stephen is going to hurt him because of me!" She shivered and clung to Algernon.
"No, no," said Algernon quickly. "Stephen won't harm him for this. Our marriage is an agreement our fathers had in place a long time ago. We both had to be willing, that's all." She paused for a moment. "Why did you agree to this, young Kate?"
Kate hardly knew how to answer. She knew her fate was marriage and the production of heirs to someone who would always be a virtual stranger to her. She had never quickened on the subject of boys, so marriage to Algernon had seemed like a blessing for her.
"My father always spoke kindly of you," said Kate slowly. "He also told me you were a very unusual man, mainly because you were a woman."
She joined in Algernon's soft laughter.
Kate knew, from listening to her father, that Algernon was honorable and honest. The people of her duchy loved their Duke. Kate supposed she could try marriage to Algernon. She gathered all her courage into her hands and let her father take her to Eagle's Reach before she could change her mind.
She wanted to say that she was frightened of marriage, no matter who it was to. Some of that terror had passed, thanks to Algernon. The Duke's eyes were the most beautiful blue she had ever seen on another person and seemed so kind.
She could sense Algernon wanted her to ask the same question, but she was too afraid of Algernon's answer.
The moment passed.
"Come on," said Algernon after a while, standing and pulling Kate with her. "We'd better get back before anyone sees we're missing."
Kate nodded and unconsciously drew in close to Algernon as they began their walk back to the castle.
"Can we go out again tomorrow?" asked Kate after a little while.
Algernon was silent for a moment. "Certainly. Why not?" She glanced down at Kate and smiled. "What would you like to do tomorrow, fair Kate?"
"Show me where you played as a child," said Kate.
Algernon laughed softly, pulling Kate to a halt. Kate glanced at her.
"I can show you right now. Here!" said Algernon. She gestured at the deep carpet of leaves and bare trees. "All this was my playground."
Kate inhaled deeply, catching the smell of fallen leaves, wood smoke and cold air. She closed her eyes, feeling Algernon close to her, the distant warmth of sunlight on her skin.
"This is so beautiful, Algernon," she said softly, the sight of Algernon's lean, dark beauty and vibrant colors of autumn surrounding them burnt into her mind's eye.
"I always thought so."
"I want to climb a tree."
"Really?" said Algernon, smile playing about her lips.
"Really!" said Kate, suddenly running towards the closest maple tree. She lifted her skirts and sprang towards the closest branches. "You said you could climb a tree, Your Grace!"
"I am a duke, not a fossil!" said Algernon, quickly scampering around the side of her, unhampered by long skirts.
"Prove it!" said Kate, gamely climbing right behind Algernon.
"I thought I was!" said Algernon, climbing onto a branch that sagged dangerously under her weight. She shifted her feet to keep her balance.
Kate, lighter than Algernon, quickly shot past her to a higher branch. "You want to give up yet, Your Grace?" she asked sweetly.
Algernon looked down at her feet, the branch creaking and bowing dangerously under her weight. She glanced up at Kate, and then dropped down to a lower branch. "I will never give up, dear Kate," she said archly. "You have size and weight on your side."
"And a dress working against me and you still lost!" Kate had no idea where her courage was coming from.
Algernon tried to frown but burst out laughing instead. "So you can climb higher in trees than I can," she said. "I'll bet you don't do as well in a sack race!"
"What do you think I'm wearing, Algernon?" she asked.
Algernon laughed. "I give up! We will try it on an event by event basis!"
Kate nodded. "All right, Your Grace. I will hold you to that!"
"Yes, you can, Your Grace," said Algernon. "You want to see something magnificent? Hold onto the trunk of the tree, Kate ... good ... now look out to your left."
Kate did as Algernon asked and gasped at the sheer beauty she saw beside her. She did not realize they had climbed as high as they had.
A vast panorama of red and gold threaded through green, and some trees were bare altogether; a stream ran through the forest far below them and she could see out over the road. In the distance she saw a plain of rich green, nestled under a blue sky.
"This is all ours, Kate," said Algernon. "The duchy of Eagle's Reach."
Kate turned and saw the mountains on the other side of her, some peaks covered in early snow. The sight left her breathless.
She felt the touch of Algernon's hand against her foot and she climbed down behind the duke. Once their feet were safely on the ground, she threaded her hand through Algernon's proffered arm.
"Oh my, Algernon," said Kate when she was able to speak again. "This is beautiful."
Algernon nodded. "It is. And as I said, it's all ours."
Kate shivered. The sun was half way to the horizon and the path was in shadow.
"Are you cold?" asked Algernon, pulling her in close and nudging her cloak over Kate.
"I was," said Kate, drawing close to the tall woman. "I'm sure I'll warm up when we get in front of a fire." She looked up at Algernon. "Thank you for indulging me."
Algernon smiled. "Always, Kate." She was quiet for a moment. "Would you be interested in having dinner with me this evening?"
Kate hid her surprise. She felt sure that the duke would be well and truly tired of her young wife by the end of the day. "I'd love to have dinner with you," she said.
"Good," said Algernon with a broad grin. "The only thing is that we have to entertain our guests. I've neglected them shamefully today."
Kate blushed and bit her lip. "I'm sorry, Algernon. I don't mean to shame you."
Algernon pulled her to a halt and cupped her chin, looking deep into her eyes. "You shame no one, least of all me," she said. "What the two of us do together is entirely our business. Besides, if I was that concerned with appearances, don't you think I would have said something? Told you we needed to entertain?"
Kate gazed deep into her eyes, seeking something inside Algernon that would unlock the mystery of the young duke. All she saw was honesty, friendliness and intelligence that made her breath catch. "Yes," she said simply. "Yes, you would."
Algernon tilted her head to one side and studied her. "You really mean that, don't you?" she asked.
"I do," said Kate.
"Does this mean you're learning to trust me?"
Kate nodded slowly, blushing. She felt as though she were giving away a secret.
Algernon smiled and her eyes lit up. "Would you consider having breakfast and dinner with me on a permanent basis?" she asked.
"Are you sure?" asked Kate. It suddenly seemed as though Eagle's Reach could be home if she wanted it to be.
Algernon nodded. "I'm sure." She bit her lip. "I like you, Kate. I feel comfortable talking to you and I like it."
Kate nodded. "I know. I feel the same way."
"Do we really have to avoid each other just because we're married?" said Algernon slowly. "Why shouldn't we spend time together as friends?"
"I would like that," said Kate. She secretly felt pleased and flattered that Algernon wanted to be with her. She was also pleased that Algernon had put her own thoughts into words.
"Good," said Algernon. She held out her arm. "Shall we?"
Kate took it, glancing at Algernon in fascination as she realized the young duke's arm was trembling. It was almost imperceptible, but there. Could it be that Algernon was as wary of her as she was of Algernon?
"Can we have dancing this evening?" she asked.
"Pardon?" asked Algernon. "Oh! Yes! Of course - and you must promise me some dances."
"You can have them all, Algernon. I'm at your disposal."
"Then say no to me if you so desire," said Algernon, pulling her to a halt and gazing at her. "You can, you know."
Kate squeezed her arm and pulled her into motion again. "I know. And you're going to have to trust me to say no."
Algernon nodded. They reached the edge of the city and passed the watchmen who were lighting the lamps that lined the city streets.
They were jostled by citizens hurrying home for the evening as they approached the castle.
Algernon pulled her to a halt as they entered the castle. She pulled Kate's arms away from her body and looked down at her stained dress and at her own clothing. "We're both going to have to change," she said.
"You look like you've been climbing trees, Your Graces," broke in Sir Geoffrey Brandywine, slowly walking past them with Lady Eliza on his arm.
Algernon and Kate exchanged a glance and Algernon shrugged.
"Good Lord, Algernon!" said Sir Geoffrey, throwing up his free hand. He continued on his way to the hall, Lady Eliza's quiet laughter drifting back to them.
Kate looked at Algernon.
"Get used to it," said Algernon. "He loves to tease me."
"So I gathered," said Kate, following Algernon up the wide, stone stairs towards their rooms.
Algernon paused outside Kate's door. "I'll come by for you in ten minutes," she said.
Kate nodded and quickly entered her room. She had barely enough time to change and run a brush through her long, blonde hair.
She looked at her dresses and settled on one that had a plunging neckline that she had never quite had the courage to wear in her father's house. She grinned.
She was dressed with a minute to spare.
Algernon knocked on her door and she opened it herself. She smiled, feeling Algernon's wide eyed gaze settle on the creamy skin of her chest, cleft of her breasts, and then hurry back up to her eyes.
"You look magnificent, Kate," said Algernon appreciatively.
"So do you," said Kate, struggling to stop her gaze from slowing at the flare of Algernon's hips, the swell of her breasts, her broad shoulders.
"Have you a necklace to compliment that lovely dress?" asked Algernon.
Kate shook her head. "No."
"It doesn't matter, I think," said Algernon. "I don't think anyone's going to notice."
"You did," said Kate as Algernon led her down the wide stairs.
"You're my new wife. I'm supposed to notice," said Algernon. "They, on the other hand, don't dare stare at you or they're liable to feel the point of my sword. Or so they think," she hurriedly added before Kate could say anything.
Kate felt absurdly disappointed. "Well, at least I know I have the best swordsman in Eagle's Reach looking after me."
They entered the great hall to a round of applause and sat at the head of the table.
The celebration began in earnest, and Kate found herself the recipient of good food and wine and an evening of dancing, as Algernon promised. She managed to snare Algernon for the first waltz of the evening, but was swept away by a procession of young men for each dance after.
At the end of the evening, Algernon quietly snagged her and they said their farewells. The duke escorted her to her room and paused outside.
"Thank you, dear Kate," she said, kissing Kate's forehead.
"What for?" asked Kate, a little breathless.
"For a magnificent day," said Algernon. "I haven't had this much fun in a long time."
Kate suddenly threw her arms around Algernon and hugged her hard. Algernon hesitated for a second and then returned it.
They released each other after a few timeless minutes.
"Good night, Algernon," said Kate, kissing Algernon's cheek.
"Good night, dear Kate. Sleep well," said Algernon softly, disappearing into the darkened hallway.
The next two months were quiet for Kate as she settled into her new life as the Duchess of Eagle's Reach.
Her morning started at dawn when Rowntree came to her so they could begin her sword lessons. Rowntree took her down to the duke's weapons room in the castle cellars. She deemed it more appropriate than the miserably cold clearing that would serve them in the warmer months. Algernon seldom used it; winter practice for the soldiers was normally done in the heated exercise rooms in the barracks.
Kate's body ached abominably after each workout, but she was a fast learner and Rowntree a good teacher. She lost a considerable amount of weight - she could tell by Algernon's concerned frown - but shone with good health and generally felt better than she had before.
She breakfasted with Algernon every morning; after that, Algernon would go down for practice with the guard and meetings with her military, the merchants and farmers and any journeymen that sought an audience with her.
Kate would meet with Nancy and they would discuss household matters, both financial and anything that required the Duchess's input. Kate was more than happy to follow Nancy's suggestions and advice. Nancy, for her part, enjoyed the latitude Kate gave her, and they formed a formidable partnership that made Algernon shake her head in mystification and gratitude.
Every evening, Algernon came to her and they ate together again. Kate came to enjoy Algernon's company and began to realize that the duke was less of an enigma than a young woman with a lively sense of humor and quick intelligence and adaptability that Kate had only ever seen in her father.
They stayed together after dinner, at least three times a week, talking and playing games until either or both of them fell asleep.
It was on one of those evenings that they both sat back in their chairs with satisfied sighs after a particularly enjoyable mutton stew.
Algernon stood by the window, staring out over the mountains, covered in early winter mist.
"Nancy is a wonder in the kitchen, isn't she?" asked Kate, sighing happily and glancing at the duke.
Algernon nodded. "She is. Her predecessor taught her everything. My mother, apparently, had particular tastes and couldn't abide the 'prison cooking' that my father was used to."
Kate laughed. "I'll bet that would have been fun to watch."
Algernon nodded, a little sadly. "My father always spoke of my mother with a tinge of sorrow. He obviously loved her very dearly."
Kate went and stood close to Algernon. "My father spoke the same way about my mother."
Algernon turned to her. Half of her face lay in shadow, the other shifting in the dancing firelight. "What happened to her?"
"She died during childbirth as well. Giving birth to what would have been my younger sister."
"Oh, Kate," said Algernon sadly, reaching up and brushing Kate's face with her knuckles.
"It's all right, Algernon," said Kate, leaning into her touch. "It was so long ago. I don't remember much about my mother. Sometimes I think I remember her hands. All I really remember is her warmth and how she made me feel safe. Not much besides that."
Algernon smiled. "Funny. That's what I remember the most about my father. He loved me very much."
Kate nodded and they were companionably silent for a moment. "Do you think my father will be safe?" She glanced at Algernon.
"Are you asking me if the Prince will extract some kind of revenge for your absence?"
Kate bit her lip, feeling tears and worry close to the surface. She nodded, unable to speak.
Algernon's arms crept around Kate. "You must try not to worry too much. The Prince must pass by here to return to his father's lands. I know he has done just that."
"How do you know?" asked Kate. "We are much further into the mountains than Cayman's Leap is."
"My - our - duchy is very large, thanks to the mountains. It borders the main highway to Cayman's Leap. I have patrols out regularly and they just happened to see him pass by."
Kate nodded, slightly mollified but still uneasy.
"I promised you we would go to Cayman's Leap in the spring, and I meant it. As soon as winter breaks we will be on our way." Algernon nodded at the winter night, where snowflakes swirled down from the heavily clouded sky. "We can travel more quickly if we dispense with the carriage and other trappings of noblewomen."
Kate gave her the ghost of a grin. "Are you telling me you're already sick of dragging me around like a sack of potatoes?"
"'A sack of potatoes'?" said Algernon. "I wouldn't have described someone as lovely as yourself as a spud, but if you insist ..."
Kate laughed. "Seriously, Algernon. What did you have in mind?"
"That we ride as though we were a common patrol and cover as much ground as we can every day. The carriage can come after us. It will serve as a decoy."
"A decoy?" Kate snorted a laugh. "All right. It's a good idea. I'll have to ride with you."
"I don't mind," said Algernon. "But would you like me to teach you how to ride?"
Kate liked horses and was not afraid of them, but had never learned to ride, even sidesaddle. She had wanted to ride astride the horse but her father's stable master had reacted with such horror to the idea that she had pushed it back to one side and abandoned the entire idea of riding. After all, one did not have to ride to be able to pat horses or feed them carrots and apples.
She nodded. "Thank you, Your Grace. I would like that."
Algernon smiled. "We will begin tomorrow, then." She smiled at Kate and leaned forward, kissing her on the cheek. "I will take my leave of you. I know you must be tired."
Kate was not tired at all, but accepted it as Algernon's way of backing away gracefully. She nodded. "Thank you, Algernon. Good night." She was not really sure what Algernon did after they parted after dinner and did not have the courage to ask her directly.
Algernon smiled and elegantly backed out of the room. Servants bustled in and cleared away the empty dishes and Kate found herself alone after a moment or so. She bit her lip. She knew she was about to do the wrong thing, but could not deny her impulse.
She quietly snuck into the passage hidden behind a tapestry at the back of her rooms, to the connecting door between their rooms. She cursed herself for her weakness as a sick feeling of wrongdoing crept over her. She sank to her knees and peeked through the keyhole.
Algernon stood in her rooms, laughing and holding out a goblet to someone hidden from Kate's view. Algernon took a drink from her own goblet and shifted, so the other person came into view. Kate gasped, instantly clapping a hand over her mouth and shrinking back, afraid that Algernon had heard her.
Algernon and the chambermaid continued, oblivious. Kate watched as Algernon approached her with a predatory gleam in her eye that Kate had never seen before. Algernon's hands were gentle and nimble as she opened the chambermaid's bodice. The young woman's breasts tumbled free and Algernon began to feast on them. The young woman moaned and clutched Kate's husband.
Kate was unable to tear her eyes away as the two took their pleasure with one another. She watched in terrible, relentless fascination as Algernon cried out her release. The duke's full breasts heaved as she tried to get her breath back.
Kate sank back on her haunches. Her body throbbed and her soul ached. She could not halt the tears that gathered in her eyes and ran unheeded down her face.
It was in that moment that she realized several things. First, Algernon was the most beautiful woman Kate had ever seen. Second, that was what love was like between women, and Kate was sure that she would melt if anyone ever did that to her - and she wanted to try it. Third, she had never seen anyone look at her the way Algernon and the maid had looked at one another. Lastly, she wanted Algernon to look at her that way, and it was unlikely ever to happen. She had no idea how to make it happen.
Algernon's words swam into her mind. I will not interfere with your life and I expect the same courtesy of you. Algernon had been so kind to her - was still so kind to her - that she would try to honor this one, simple request from the duke.
No matter how much it hurt.
She stumbled back up the passageway into her room, collapsing face down on her bed and fighting tears and waves of jealousy that broke over her.
A soft hand gently touched her back and she sat up, heart beating hard, trying to stifle her tears.
She looked into Rowntree's concerned, green eyes and felt her tears start again.
"Whatever's the matter, Your Grace?" asked the redhead.
Kate felt empty, and could not bring herself to admit to spying and to what she saw. "Will you call me Kate? Please?"
Rowntree's eyebrows shot skyward. "Ah, of course, K-Kate." She reached for Kate and Kate found herself tangled in her bodyguard's embrace. Her reserve broke completely and she sobbed hard into the older woman's chest.
Rowntree gently stroked her back and hair, allowing her to cry herself out. Kate's head throbbed and her heart hurt.
"If you told someone, you might feel a little better," said Rowntree softly and Kate started slightly.
The Duchess shook her head. "I can't." How could she tell anyone about her husband's infidelity if the world did not know they had never been intimate?
"There's only one reason for a woman to cry like this after her husband leaves her for the evening. You saw something you shouldn't have, didn't you? A buxom young slut by the name of Alice, perhaps? The one who glares at you?"
Kate sat up with a start. "Huh?"
Rowntree was staring at her, anger in her eyes, but not directed towards Kate. "Alice. I think you know her. She finally bedded His Grace, did she?"
Kate blushed scarlet, unable to reply.
"It's all right, Kate," said Rowntree gently. "I know all of His - or should that be Her? - Grace's secrets. The vial Duke Algernon used on your wedding night was my idea. We knew you weren't quite ready for marriage. The Duke never wanted to force you. She really does care about you."
"If she really cares about me why did she do that with Alice?" Kate spat out the chambermaid's name, making it sound like a filthy curse.
"What do you want from her?" asked Rowntree quietly. "Do you want her? If you do, does she know? Or do you just want something you don't have but think you should? Or are you just curious?"
Kate flinched. She wanted to be angry with Rowntree but could not do it. "I don't know what I want."
Rowntree nodded. "Honest, at least. How do you feel about His Grace?"
"Please," said Kate, softening her tone so as not to hurt Rowntree, "leave me. I need to be alone for a little while."
Rowntree gently patted her back. "Yes, Your Grace." She stood and left and as her hand touched the door handle, Kate spoke again.
The redhead turned around and gave Kate a questioning look.
"It's Kate. And thank you."
Rowntree smiled and nodded. She gave a slight bow and left.
Kate lay back on her bed and thought about the questions Rowntree had asked her.
What do you want from her? That was easy. Everything. She wanted Algernon's heart and soul.
Do you want her? Kate could not stop thinking about her thick, black hair, sapphire eyes, broad, muscular shoulders and full breasts. She felt her heart skip a beat. She thought about Algernon's hands and lips on her the way they had been on the chambermaid's and a deep seated hunger began to gnaw away inside her. She had to force herself to relax.
If you do, does she know? Kate did not think she had ever given Algernon a sign of what was going on inside her. She also was not sure she had consciously considered it until what she had seen between Algernon and her lover.
Do you just want something you don't have? The world thought she had it. They were married so Kate supposed she had a wife's right to her husband. Was that all? Was it only because she thought she had to have Algernon as her lover? Did she want that with any other man or woman? She had to drag her eyes away from Rowntree, but never from any of the male guards that surrounded her. Rowntree was a very beautiful woman but Algernon simply eclipsed her in Kate's mind. Algernon made Kate feel things no one else ever had.
Are you just curious? Was this insatiable hunger that she felt for Algernon simple curiosity? No, it seemed much deeper than that. She felt she could spend every moment of her life in Algernon's presence and never tire. She loved having Algernon's attention, craved the time they had alone. She had never been in love before and wondered if this was it.
How do you feel about her? Kate was afraid of the answer to that question.
The worst question for Kate - the one neither she nor Rowntree had asked aloud - was did Algernon feel anything towards Kate at all? Anything like she felt towards the chambermaid? Algernon certainly liked Kate but Kate had never seen any sign from her that she wanted more from Kate than what she already had. Pain from Algernon's unspoken rejection washed over her.
Kate wanted more than anything for some sign to show her that Algernon could care for her the way she wanted the duke to.
It was hours before Kate fell asleep and when she dreamed, almost every turn in her dreams brought her back to Algernon's locked door; and she was never able to close her eyes and turn away.
The next morning, Algernon joined her for breakfast.
"Are you all right, Kate?" asked Algernon. "You look pale."
Kate felt as though her eyelids had sandpaper under them and her stomach felt acidic. She was exhausted and looking at Algernon made her heart ache and her eyes water.
"I'm fine," she said softly.
Algernon reached for her but Kate recoiled and Algernon's forward motion stuttered to a halt.
"What ails you, my dear?" asked Algernon softly, pained.
"Do you know when my birthday is?" asked Kate.
Algernon blinked. "It shames me to say it, but no. I don't."
Kate blinked back tears. "Do you know what age I was on my last birthday?"
Kate nodded and gave her a sad smile. She wanted to speak but no words would come out.
"What date is your birthday?" asked Algernon softly. "I've tried to find out but no one seems to know." She sat back in her chair, watching Kate carefully, breakfast forgotten before her.
This time Kate could not halt the flood of tears that trickled silently down her face. She sniffed. "It was the day of our wedding."
Algernon flushed at the quiet dignity in her voice.
"I'm so sorry," whispered the duke. "I really am. If I had known I would have tried to make it special for you!"
"And marriage to you doesn't count as special? You don't think of your marriage to me as special? The day we were married was one of the most important days of my life. It was incredible and it was because of you," said Kate. She felt empty. She pushed her chair back and stood. "I want to go for a walk," she said to Rowntree. She turned and began walking towards the door.
Algernon stood and watched her. "Kate," she said softly, "what have I done? Why are you so upset with me?"
Kate could not stifle the soft sob that escaped her.
"I have one word for you, you oaf," said Rowntree coldly. "Alice."
Kate felt a tall body behind her, quietly nudging her through the door. She turned and threw herself into Rowntree's arms, sobbing against her, exhausted and husked out. Rowntree held her until her tears dried, and then gently steered her down the hallway.
Algernon stood in the doorway, pain showing in her bright blue eyes. She watched them go and her shoulders sagged. She slumped in the doorway, wiping away her own tears.
"Kate, you should really take a cloak with you," said Rowntree. "You'll catch your death out here."
"It's not that cold," said Kate, relishing the feel of the cool air against her overheated skin. Her feet slipped on a slick patch of ice and Rowntree's hand quickly steadied her.
"Where are we going?" asked Rowntree.
"I don't know yet," said Kate. Then, after a pause: "You really called Algernon an oaf, didn't you? I won't let her do anything to you."
Rowntree smiled. "His Grace and I are friends. I'm sure she'll be angry at me but will forgive me in time. No one likes to have their flaws pointed out to them."
"Nor does a duke like to be referred to as an oaf," said Kate, mustering a smile.
Rowntree was about to respond but Kate clenched her arm. "What's that?" she asked shortly. She pointed and Rowntree followed the direction of her finger.
A man leading a horse staggered towards them. There was a lump in the saddle and Kate gasped as she saw it was an injured soldier.
Kate's exhaustion disappeared in a rush of adrenalin. She lifted her skirts and began to jog towards them.
"What happened?" she asked shortly as the man leading the horse collapsed to his knees before them.
"Behind ... behind ...," he gestured helplessly. Blood dripped from the figure on the horse and stained the light snow on the ground.
The man's bloodstained hand went back to clutch his side.
"Go and get help," said Kate shortly to Rowntree. "Leave your sword with me."
"Your Grace, I can't - ," began Rowntree.
"You can and you will!" snarled Kate, glaring at her. "There are only two of us and I can't go back as quickly as you! Go! NOW!" She shoved Rowntree and the Lieutenant cursed.
Rowntree unsheathed her sword and put it by Kate. "Algernon really will kill me if anything happens to you!" she said.
"Not if you get back quickly!"
"Goddamnitalltohell!" snarled Rowntree, turning on her heel. Her eyes blazed with fury.
Kate waved her away and watched as Rowntree ran back towards the city.
She turned to the man, watching blood seep out from between his fingers. Her breath frosted in front of her face, and she hunted around for anything that she could use to staunch the blood flowing from his wound. She looked down at her skirts and sighed.
Well, they're cumbersome to walk in anyway, she thought sourly, ripping off a strip of fabric to use as a make shift bandage.
She put a gentle hand on his shoulder to rouse him, but he fell forwards towards her, senseless. She cursed softly and pushed his heavy weight backwards. He slumped heavily onto the ground.
She pulled his coat and shirt open, grimacing at the terrible wound in his side.
He had a deep sword cut between his ribs. White knobs of bone peeked from either side of it. Kate fought back a wave of bile and pushed the torn cloth against it. It was soaked in blood within seconds. She cursed softly, grabbing handfuls of snow to pack against it and pushed down hard on it with all her might.
She watched as his chest rose and fell with his shallow breaths, and hoped against hope that her trembling muscles were strong enough to last until Rowntree brought help.
Gradually, she became aware of the pounding of hooves and shouts from men in the distance, in the direction the wounded man had come from.
Kate looked up as six men, all with varying wounds, jogged towards her, screaming at her to retreat.
A group of bandits ran behind them, waving swords around. Arrows flew and landed against the ground with dull thuds. Every now and again a man grunted in pain as one reached its mark.
Kate picked up her sword and held it as Rowntree taught her. Her arms trembled with anticipation and she tried to remember every lesson the Lieutenant had ever given her.
The injured guardsmen were almost upon her and they seemed as shocked to see her, as she was to see them. The man at the head of the group skidded to a halt, cursing softly.
"Get out of here!" he snarled without preamble.
"No!" she snarled back. "This man is injured! He needs help!"
"We're all going to be dead in less than a minute unless you get your arse up the road towards the city!"
"No, you boar!"
There was no more time to argue. The bandits tore towards them, screaming wordlessly. The leading one swung his sword towards Kate and she got her own up and blocked his blow. The concussion from the hit almost shook the sword free of her grasp.
Bandits met guardsmen all around her, but she barely heard the ring of steel against steel. She felt a punch to her middle, followed by a stinging sensation that almost made her drop her sword. Her opponent swung his sword in a vicious arc towards her head but she heard hands clap together around the blade, halting its downward momentum.
Kate fell to her knees, chest heaving. She felt oddly exhausted. Liveried guardsmen raced around the sides of her, making short work of the bandits. Corpses littered the road within minutes.
Kate opened her mouth to speak but no sound would emerge. She could not get enough breath into her lungs!
Algernon leant towards her, pale as death, and pulled the sword from her nerveless fingers.
Kate smiled at her. "Algernon," she whispered.
Algernon nodded. "Yes." She reached towards Kate. She slipped around the side of Kate, arm tightening around her shoulders. Kate leant into her embrace with a sigh. She was so exhausted!
She yelped in pain as Algernon's hand closed around the arrow shaft that stuck out of her mid section.
"Lean into me and don't look," said Algernon softly. "You can grab me as hard as you like. I can take it."
Kate buried her face into Algernon's neck and clutched at her shirt. Algernon's arm tightened. "Ready?" she asked.
"Yes," whispered Kate.
Algernon yanked the arrow out and Kate screamed. She clutched Algernon and sobbed. Her mid section felt as though it was on fire, and blood dribbled down the front of her body.
Algernon tore a strip off Kate's skirt and bound the wound in Kate's midsection. The bandage was soon stained red.
The duke stood, scooping her up and holding her close. Kate smiled. She was in a haze of pain and thought of nothing but Algernon's arms and warmth.
Kate spoke without thought. "Thank you, beloved."
The normally graceful Algernon tripped over her own feet at Kate's soft voice. Kate yelped and passed out.
Kate opened her eyes and blinked, gradually becoming aware of the soft linen beneath her bare back and warm covers over her bare breasts. Her midsection felt encased by thick bandages.
She looked around owlishly, trying to understand where she was. She did not recognize the room - or the bed.
She heard a body shift, and looked towards the light that streamed in through the huge window. A tall figure sat on the windowsill, peering at her uncertainly. It was Algernon and Kate felt dull anger and jealousy flood her system.
"Kate?" asked Algernon hesitantly.
The anger began to drain from Kate as she heard the pain in the duke's voice. "Algernon?" asked Kate. "Where am I?"
Algernon hesitantly approached her and perched on the bed beside her. "You're in my rooms," she said. "In my bed."
"Why aren't I in my own bed?" asked Kate, yelping in pain as she tried to sit up.
Algernon pushed her back onto the bed. "I wasn't thinking when we left the road," she said. She took a deep breath. "What were you thinking, Kate? You could have been killed!"
Kate glanced up at her sharp tone. Algernon's eyes burned with rage and her face was pale. Her fists clenched and unclenched. Kate wondered why she was so angry. If anything happened to Kate, Algernon could easily replace her.
"The man by the horse?"
Algernon's jaw clenched and unclenched. "He lives. The soldier on the horse is dead."
"Thank the gods one of them survived," sighed Kate. "I know you're angry at me, Algernon, but I couldn't go. I couldn't leave him. I didn't want to run away like a coward and leave him to die. He could have had a wife and children waiting for him!"
"I'm sure they thank you for your compassion," said Algernon coolly.
"Can I see him?"
"He'll be in bed for a while. He's very sick."
"Have you ever thought about the guardsmen who get injured in your service?"
"Of course!" said Algernon, shocked. "I had a hospital built for them! I have the best doctors in my duchy there looking after my people!"
"Would you mind if I spent some time in there with them?" asked Kate hesitantly. "I don't want to be in a situation like that again and not know what to do."
The duke blinked. "This isn't going the way I had planned. Stop changing the subject! We are meant to be talking about you behaving as though you were a straw target!"
Kate stared at her expectantly.
Algernon sighed. "All right. To answer your question: of course. You may do as you wish." Her eyes lost some of their anger. "Who taught you to fight with a sword?"
"Rowntree. You won't punish her, will you? It's all my doing."
Algernon shook her head. "She's a good teacher. I'm sure you'd be dead if she wasn't as good as she is. She's safe from my wrath. In fact, she has my gratitude, on more than one front."
"I'm so sorry, Algernon. I remember the one thing you asked of me. You said you wouldn't interfere with my life and you asked the courtesy same of me. I didn't live up to my promise. I've behaved like a child and I apologize." Kate's heart twisted as she said the words, but she meant them. She had no right to torture Algernon for seeking something Kate had never offered her.
"What are you talking about, dear Kate?" asked Algernon.
"I saw you. I saw you with the chambermaid," said Kate, nibbling her lip and blushing.
"Ah." Algernon leaned down and gently kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry, Kate. I never meant for you to find out. I didn't want to hurt you."
Kate blinked away tears. "I'm so sorry, Algernon. I don't know what the matter with me is. I think you're very beautiful and you're easily my best friend. I've always thought of you as mine but I know you're not."
Algernon was silent for a moment. "What of Rowntree?"
"What about her?" said Kate, feeling confused.
"You and she aren't - ?"
Kate shook her head, blushing. "No. We're friends. Why would you think otherwise?"
"After you left me that morning, I saw her holding you," said Algernon, blushing slightly.
Kate snorted a laugh, despite herself. "No. It's not like that at all."
"Oh," said Algernon. She was silent for a moment. Then: "I am."
"What?" asked Kate.
"You said that you thought of me as yours, but that I'm not," said Algernon patiently. "Well, that's wrong. I am yours."
"Oh," said Kate. Then, as Algernon's words sank in, "Ooh." A sliver of pure joy entered her heart and she had the insane urge to cheer.
Algernon laughed. "We have so much to talk about."
Kate nodded. "We do."
"I want to know if there can be something between us," said Algernon. "You're wonderful. You're so gentle, sweet and kind. I've never met anyone like you. I think you're very beautiful."
Kate smiled, her heart swelling as though it would burst. "Oh, Algernon," she said. "I want that too." She reached up and touched the duke's smooth cheek and the dark haired woman leaned into her touch. "I have only one request to make of you, if I may."
"I think I know what it is," said Algernon. "No more chambermaids."
Kate's eyes spat fire as she thought of Alice's hands caressing Algernon's breasts. She nodded. "Yes."
"I promise," said Algernon simply. She leaned down and placed a gentle, chaste kiss on Kate's lips. "To seal our bargain," she said softly.
"Accepted," said Kate. She gazed into Algernon's bloodshot, sapphire eyes. "When was the last time you slept, Algernon?"
"I'm not sure," said Algernon. "I've been too worried about you."
"How long have I been here for?" asked Kate.
Kate cautiously stretched out her arm, dimly pleased that it only hurt a little. "Come, Algernon."
Algernon lay down on the bed beside her, resting her head beside Kate's shoulder. Kate smiled, reaching for Algernon's fingers. Algernon's hand found hers and gently squeezed. She felt Algernon's tears dripping onto her bare skin and she kissed the duke's thick, black mane.
"I'm all right, Algernon. I'll be fine. I can feel it."
"I nearly lost you."
"But you didn't," said Kate. "I want to be around you too much to give up that easily." She traced circles on Algernon's stomach.
Algernon laughed softly, and sighed, nuzzling Kate's neck. Kate smiled and kept up the gentle movement of her hands. Algernon's breathing deepened and evened out as she fell into a deep, healing sleep.
Kate, heart brimming with happiness, sank into a deep sleep shortly after.
When Kate's eyes fluttered open again, she was alone and she wondered if she had dreamt Algernon.
"Your Grace?" asked Rowntree hesitantly, sinking to her knees beside the bed.
"Rowntree," said Kate with a genuine smile. "It's good to see you! And call me Kate or I'll have to punish you!"
Rowntree smiled, despite herself. "I'm sorry, Kate. I nearly lost you."
"Yes, but you didn't," said Kate. "And you left because I told you to. If you had stayed we'd both have been dead."
"Algernon was so angry," said Rowntree softly. "I thought she was going to kill me."
"I wouldn't have let her hurt you." Kate bit her lip. "Those two men. I didn't think they'd be running from bandits. I thought the bandits would have already finished with them."
"Well, now we both know better."
"Yes, we do," said Kate. She was silent for a moment. Then: "Where's Algernon?"
"Duke Algernon went to bathe and change her clothes. You got her to sleep. Thank you, Kate. She wouldn't rest or leave your side for days."
"Does she look better?" asked Kate. "I was worried about her."
"She looks much better than she did, as do you," said Rowntree. "May I ask?"
"Yes," said Kate. "We've spoken. It went well."
Rowntree smiled broadly. "I would hope so. If not, I would have had to fight her for your affections!"
Kate laughed and grimaced in pain. "Enough! Are you trying to tear my stitches?"
Rowntree opened her mouth to respond, but the door to Algernon's bedchamber opened and a surgeon strode in, a damp and freshly bathed Duke in tow.
Algernon stared at Rowntree kneeling beside Kate and holding her hand. She frowned at them both.
Kate and Rowntree exchanged a look.
Rowntree stood and bowed low. "I will be outside while Your Grace's bandages are changed."
Kate nodded. "Thank you, Rowntree. You're dismissed."
Rowntree grinned and backed out of the room.
"Your Grace," said the surgeon, bowing low. "I must change your bandages."
"I'll give you some privacy," said Algernon, backing towards the door.
"No!" Kate and the surgeon chorused.
"Please, stay," said the surgeon. "I need you to help her sit so I can take off the bandages."
Algernon nodded. "All right." She settled herself on the bed beside Kate with the ease of experience and maneuvered her arm under Kate's shoulders.
The surgeon pulled the covers down to Kate's waist. Kate felt half embarrassed by the audience and half amused that Algernon struggled to look anywhere but at Kate's bare breasts.
"Help me," said Kate softly, and hissed in pain as Algernon gently levered her off the bed. The surgeon quickly leaned forward and removed the bandage from around her torso with practiced ease.
He leant forward and examined the slice. It was a cut, an inch and a half long, an angry red line in the middle of her body. He put a gentle hand on it.
"It's not hot. It's healing normally," he said with a smile. "I will remove the stitches in another day or so. You can get up and move around, but don't engage in any strenuous activity for the next week. Take it easy and let it heal. I will give you a prescription for a poultice that you must apply twice a day for the next week. If you do it, you won't even see a scar in another month. Trust me!"
Kate nodded. "I do."
"Good." He turned to Algernon, handing her a small piece of paper with the recipe for the poultice written on it. "Your Grace looks much better this morning."
"Thank you, Doctor," said Algernon with a faint smile.
The doctor bowed and replaced Kate's bandages with Algernon's assistance.
"By your leave?" said the doctor with a deep bow when he was finished.
"Of course. And thank you for coming," said Algernon as the doctor backed out of the room.
Kate pulled up the covers so she was hidden again. "You can look now, Algernon," she said, sounding faintly amused.
"I was enjoying the view more before," said Algernon.
"So I saw, Algernon," said Kate. She was quiet for a moment. "I want to get up."
"And do what?" asked Algernon. "You're not well!"
"I want something to eat," said Kate. "I'm hungry. And perhaps you would consider taking a turn around the castle with me?"
Algernon nodded. "It would be my pleasure, Duchess." She leaned forward and waved an admonishing finger. "But it won't be for long. You mustn't strain yourself!"
Kate nodded and smiled.
An hour and a half later, Algernon and Kate were on the battlements of the castle. Algernon's arms were around Kate's waist and Kate leant back into her, tracing a pattern on her forearm. Algernon's cloak encircled them both.
Kate felt warm and content as they surveyed the winter wonderland around them.
"Are there normally bandits this close to the city?" asked Kate.
"No," said Algernon. "Partly because of the snow and partly because my - our - patrols are adept at spotting them and keeping them away."
"Do you know why? Should I be worried?" asked Kate, shifting to peer at Algernon. She was suddenly struck by Algernon's youth and the fragility of both of their lives. A bolt of fear tore through her, leaving her weak kneed and trembling.
"Goodness, you're shaking," said Algernon, arms tightening around Kate. Her blue eyes were concerned. "I can assure you, dear Kate that no harm will come to you while you are in Eagle's Reach. We are too well protected by the mountains and our men are too well trained."
"I'm sorry," said Kate. "I have too much ... I can't ... I can't lose you, Algernon."
"Shh." Algernon gently moved Kate so they were gazing into each other's eyes. "Nothing will happen. Not while we're here. And if anything ever does happen, do you remember the maple tree? At the crossroads?"
Kate remembered being astride Algernon's horse, her new husband's arms around her as her father rode off towards Cayman's Leap. The late autumn breeze drifted across her again, carrying the faint scent of wood smoke with it.
Algernon smiled. "I see you do. One of my ancestors planted it centuries ago. It's meant to be a place to meet that everyone knows. If anything ever happens here, or to me, go there. Wait for me." She cupped Kate's face with gentle, calloused hands. "I have as much to lose as you do, fair Kate. I will come for you if we are ever separated. I will find my way to you. We will meet at the tree. I promise, Kate."
"Algernon," breathed Kate. "Yes."
Algernon leaned down and placed a feather light kiss on Kate's lips. Kate felt it as a burning shock that traveled all the way down to her toes. It was not enough and she reached up and claimed Algernon's lips in a deep kiss, tasting her. Algernon returned it, exploring her with gentle passion. Kate had never kissed another person in such a way before and almost felt as though she were possessed.
Algernon moaned softly into her kiss and they swayed slightly as their bodies came together.
"Oh, Lord," breathed Algernon, pulling back and resting her forehead against Kate's. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"I didn't," said Kate unsteadily. "You inspire me."
"You're going to kill me," said Algernon, pulling back slightly, instinctively knowing Kate was not ready for more.
"No. And I'll never hurt you again, either," said Kate, arms tightening around Algernon, leaning into her and sighing.
They returned to Kate's rooms and had a quiet supper together. Despite her happiness and Algernon's gentle attention, she struggled to stay awake.
She noticed Alice bustle in to take their dishes, and the angry look she received. She was stunned at the ferocity in the girl's eyes; she had never noticed it before.
She also saw Rowntree stifle a grin and Algernon's brows pull together in a frown as she watched what was happening between them.
Algernon stood and bowed to Kate. Her eyes cut to Alice and she strode from the room. Alice gave a faint smile but it disappeared a second later. The servants finished clearing the dishes and bustled out a moment later.
Kate and Rowntree exchanged a grimace as they heard the shouting from Algernon's rooms, and the distant sound of breaking glass.
"Oh, no," said Kate. She grimaced and hoped that Algernon had ducked quickly enough.
Rowntree almost twitched with the effort to restrain herself from running towards the locked connecting doors to see what was going on.
After a moment, Algernon came back into Kate's room, traces of anger stiffening her shoulders.
Rowntree looked at Kate, eyes begging her to ask the question. A ghost of a grin flitted across Kate's features and vanished.
Algernon's sharp eyes took in their interaction. "Not one word," she said warningly, glancing between both Kate and Rowntree. "Not one."
"Yes, Your Grace," said Rowntree before Kate could utter a word. "And I won't congratulate you on ducking quickly enough."
"You're dismissed, Rowntree," said Algernon coolly.
Rowntree smothered a grin and bowed respectfully. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"That didn't go well, did it?" asked Kate as she slipped behind her dressing screen and changed into her nightgown.
"No," said Algernon. "I tried to be gentlemanly about it, but she turned into a harpy, stayed that way and then fluttered out of the room!"
Kate laughed softly and sank back onto her bed. "Will you stay with me for a while?" she asked.
"Give me a few minutes," said Algernon. "I'll be back."
She disappeared down the side passage to their connecting doors, returning after a few moments in her own nightgown and robe. She threw her robe onto the chair by Kate's bed and slipped between the sheets beside Kate.
Kate immediately rolled over and into Algernon's arms. It pained her but she pushed it aside. She wanted Algernon's warmth and spicy scent more than anything she had ever wanted before. She rested her head on the duke's chest, listening to the strong beat of her heart with a smile on her face. She felt Algernon's hand tracing gentle patterns on her back.
She was deeply asleep moments later, still smiling.
When Kate awoke the next morning, Algernon was still fast asleep beside her.
Kate gently traced the outline of a prominent cheekbone, feeling in a nameless tide of emotion flood over her.
"Good morning," said Algernon in a sleep roughened voice, her blue eyes fluttering open.
"Good morning," said Kate, smiling automatically in return.
"You're so beautiful you take my breath away," said Algernon, her blue eyes wide.
"Oh," said Kate. "I could say the same to you."
Just at that moment, a servant bustled in, pulling open the curtains and allowing sunlight to flood the room.
"Good morning, Your Graces," she said, smoothly.
Kate admired her poise.
"Good morning," said Kate. "What time is it?"
"It's six," said the maid. "Mistress Nancy asked me to remind you that you were to finalize the details of the Winter Solstice feast. It's in two days!"
Kate smiled at the maid's enthusiasm. She had missed most of the festival because of her injury.
She briefly thanked the gods that Nancy had pushed her into the decisions about the festival well in advance. Everything had run smoothly while she was unconscious.
"I'd forgotten about that," said Algernon. She smiled at Kate. "I'd like to take you down to see the festival, but it has to be this afternoon. I've been neglecting my duties for the past few days."
"Of course," said Kate immediately. "I'll look forward to it!"
"Good, I'll meet you back here for lunch."
Algernon slipped out of bed and into her robe. She leaned towards Kate and gave her a long, leisurely kiss, a promise of more to come. She disappeared up the side passage and into her own rooms. Kate watched her go, feeling scattered and slightly dazed.
Kate got out of bed, shedding her clothes as she headed to her bathing chamber. She had a lot to do before she met Algernon for lunch.
"What do you get a duke for Winter Solstice?" asked Kate, glancing at Rowntree.
"The duke is your spouse. Why don't you get something personal for her?"
"What would she like?" asked Kate. "She doesn't seem to wear a lot of jewelry."
"No. She's battle trained. Rings are not a good idea in such a profession."
Kate pulled her cloak up over her head, partially to block the wind, partially because she did not want anyone to remember seeing her outside.
"The idea of this gift is to express how you feel about her. Do you know how you feel?" asked Rowntree.
Kate was not sure. Whenever she thought about Algernon it was always as a collage of images and emotion that left her trembling. Algernon astride her horse; sparring with Sir Geoffrey Brandywine; bare and glistening in the firelight. The resulting blast of emotion and desire to be close to Algernon tore through her and left her trembling in its wake. She swallowed and shook her head. Tears bubbled up the back of her throat.
"What's the matter?" asked Rowntree, watching her closely.
"Nothing," said Kate, pushing the images aside. "I want to get her a necklace. Something of me she can keep to herself but won't get her hurt in battle."
"I know the best place to try," said Rowntree. "If you care to follow me, Your Grace?"
"I do," said Kate, taking Rowntree's proffered arm.
They went out of the castle, into the people milling around the icy city streets. Rowntree cleared their way as best she could, but Kate soon found herself distracted by the sights surrounding them. There were acrobats and jugglers everywhere, despite the snow and the numbing cold. Children ran in the streets, heading towards a makeshift skating rink marked by a hand painted sign.
Kate wondered if Algernon skated, and then dismissed the idea. She was certain Algernon had much better things to do than indulge her wife with childish games.
Rowntree led her down a deeply shadowed lane into a small shop marked by a faded sign that said Sonderson. Rowntree opened the door and Kate stepped through.
She pushed her cloak back and blinked in the flickering yellow candlelight. It was warm inside, thanks to a blazing fire to the left. An old, mousy man darted out of the back room towards them.
"Welcome! Welcome!" he said with a broad smile on his thin face.
"Hello," said Kate, and Rowntree inclined her head.
"What can I do for you, My Lady?" he asked, wringing his hands.
"I want you to make a pendant for my husband," said Kate without preamble.
"Certainly, My Lady," said the man. "What would you like on this pendant?"
"I want one side as a lion, the other as an eagle."
"A lion and an eagle," mused the man after a moment, nodding. "Yes, Your Grace, I can do that."
"But you have another suggestion," said Kate, watching him carefully.
His face creased into a friendly smile, touching his eyes and lighting up his face. "Yes," he said. "I have another idea that might interest you."
"Please, tell me what it is," said Kate.
"Do you know what a Griffon is?" asked the old man.
"No," said Kate. "What is it?"
"It is a mythical beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. You could have that design on one side and an inscription on the other," he replied.
Kate thought about it for a moment and glanced at Rowntree. The bodyguard smiled and nodded slightly. The more Kate thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her. It was a symbol of the melding of their houses and of their union. Her only question was what to put for the inscription.
She was frightened of what she felt for Algernon. She thought it could well be love, but she was uncertain of Algernon's heart. She was afraid to ask.
"I want you to put a date on the back for the inscription. Can you do that?"
"I can do whatever Her Grace wishes," said Sonderson with a smile. He gave her a price and Kate hid her surprise. It was not as expensive as she thought it would be.
"Thank you," said Kate. "When can I get this from you?"
"I will start work on it today. You can collect it the day after tomorrow."
Kate tried to hide her disappointment. Winter Solstice was tomorrow.
"Algernon's birthday is in a week," whispered Rowntree.
Kate immediately brightened. "Thank you, Rowntree." She turned to Sonderson. "I will pay for it now and my bodyguard will collect it the day after tomorrow."
Sonderson smiled. "I look forward to it."
Kate took out her purse and paid the goldsmith the price they had agreed to.
They took their leave of Sonderson, and Kate could not help but look pleased with herself as they walked back up the street. They still had an hour or so before Kate was supposed to meet Algernon for lunch, so they walked up and down the city streets.
Kate bought a few more gifts for Algernon for Solstice, and they were just on their way back to the castle when the clock began to strike twelve.
Kate cursed as Rowntree handed their packages to one of Kate's maids to bring back to the Duchess's rooms.
"Don't concern yourself, Kate," said Rowntree. "His Grace is still in the barracks."
"How do you know?" asked Kate.
Rowntree nodded to the quiet end of the town square, closest to the entrance to the castle. "The structure you see on the left is the hospital. On the right are the barracks. As you can see, there is a pennant with an eagle on it. It means the duke is in the barracks."
"Oh," said Kate. "Would Algernon mind if we visited?" She bit her lip uncertainly, expecting Rowntree to pat her on the head and tell her that the idea was a terrible one.
"No, of course not. You should really be quite familiar with it," said Rowntree. "You have as much right to be there as Algernon does. If Algernon were to fall in battle, you would almost certainly be called on to take her place, as the Duchess. But you mustn't fear, Kate - Algernon will not fall. She is an intelligent and insightful leader, and she likes to keep things quiet in Eagle's Reach. We face nature and mountains and should fear no man."
Kate lightly shook herself to rid herself of the sudden foreboding that washed over her.
"We'll visit the hospital first," said Kate. "I want to know how that soldier we found is doing. Algernon said he wasn't well."
"All right," said Rowntree. "This way, Your Grace."
Rowntree led her past saluting guards, into the hospital. She pushed open the door, and a nurse stood beside a liveried man at a desk.
"Corporal," said Rowntree to the man.
"Lieutenant," he replied, standing and saluting.
"The Duchess wishes to see the hospital," said Rowntree.
The woman standing next to the corporal curtseyed. "If Her Grace would follow me?"
"Certainly," said Kate. "What is your name?"
"Mildred," said the woman.
"How do you come to be here?" asked Kate, following her through another set of doors that led into a large ward. Only two of the beds were occupied and both the soldiers in them seemed to be asleep.
"My husband was a soldier in His Grace's army, and was killed by raiders two winters ago. I came to work here to support our children."
Kate nodded. She knew it would not be the last time she heard such a story. "Are you kept busy?"
"Busy enough," said the woman, pushing open another set of doors for Kate. "We need the most help when there are armed skirmishes."
"How often is that?"
"More often than most of us would like. This year has been the worst for them."
Kate stopped dead and Rowntree almost bumped into the back of her. The bodyguard hastily apologized, but Kate barely heard it.
Every one of the thirty beds in the ward had a soldier in them. Women bustled between the beds, and some of the soldiers had to wait for them to become free.
"You need more help?"
Mildred nodded. "Excuse me, Your Grace." She quickly moved over to a pale, sweating man. He collapsed back in bed as she approached and she bent over to catch his whispered words.
She sat down by his side and smoothed his hair back from his head. She dipped a rag into a bowl of water by his bedside and gently wiped down his face.
Kate looked at the bed closest to her. The man in it stared at her, dazed. His lips moved.
Kate frowned and moved towards him. She sat by him, and bent over to catch his whisper.
Kate sat up and looked around. At the rear of the room was a large barrel, and several dippers sat on top. Rowntree was already on her way, and returned with a full cup of cold water.
Kate helped him to sit up and he took several sips, falling back against the bedding with a sigh. Kate smoothed his hair back from his forehead. "Get well," she whispered.
She sighed and handed back the cup to Rowntree, in time to see Mildred staring at her.
"I'm sorry," said Kate quickly. "He said he was thirsty and I didn't think it would do him any harm."
"No, no, Your Grace," said Mildred. "That was good. That was right."
Kate breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness. I was afraid of hurting him."
Mildred gave her a genuine smile. "No need to be afraid of that, Your Grace! He wouldn't be asking for water if he wasn't able to stomach it. I'm just surprised. I would have given him the water."
Kate smiled. "No need, Mildred. You were doing something else. I'm here and I'm perfectly capable of giving water to a thirsty man." She looked at Mildred carefully. "Who's in charge here?"
"The Doctor is in the barracks, checking the new recruits. I will tell him that you want to see him."
"No need," said Kate. "I'll come back after Solstice. You look busy and I think I'd like to help."
Mildred's eyes widened. "But Your Grace, you don't need to do that!"
"I want to," said Kate. "If we ever go to war I'm not going to sit in my rooms and wave my handkerchief around in distress! I want to help!"
Mildred almost unwillingly barked a laugh. "All right, Your Grace. But you have to be prepared to accept orders from us!"
"Done!" said Kate. "I'll see you in three days' time."
Rowntree followed Kate back out of the hospital. "Did you recognize the man you got the water for?" asked the soldier.
"He was the man by the side of the road, wasn't he?"
Rowntree nodded. "And His Grace was right - the man really is sick."
"Will he live?" asked Kate.
Rowntree nodded. "Yes, I think so. His color is good and the fever is sweating itself out of him."
Kate nodded as they approached the sentries outside the barracks. Both came to attention when they saw Rowntree and Kate.
"Your Grace. Lieutenant," said the woman on the left.
"Is His Grace there?" asked Kate.
"Yes, Your Grace," said the soldier. "Would you like me to go and get him?"
Kate shook her head. "No. We'll go in to him."
"Very well," said the soldier. "He's in his office."
Rowntree quietly took the lead and Kate soon found herself standing in a richly appointed room. A fire blazed in the fireplace and thick rugs lay all over the floor.
Algernon bent over a map laid out on a table, a liveried man next to her. Rowntree came to attention when she saw him, and Kate realized that the officer was probably Algernon's Captain of the Guard.
Algernon looked up, distracted, and her expression quickly became one of shock. "Kate! What are you doing here? It's not lunch yet, is it?"
"Actually, Your Grace," said the grey haired Captain, "I think it's an hour or so after."
Algernon uttered a quick, black oath. "Could you please leave us?" she asked, looking pointedly between the Captain and Rowntree.
"We'll be waiting outside," whispered Rowntree to Kate, and Kate nodded.
They saluted and backed out of the room as Algernon approached Kate and took her hands.
"I'm so sorry," said Algernon. "Time got away from me."
"It's quite all right," said Kate. "Rowntree and I have been shopping. I also visited the hospital."
"Really?" said Algernon. "Did you have fun in the markets? And do you approve of my hospital?"
"Yes to both," replied Kate. She put her arms around Algernon and squeezed. "But it's really good to see you." She pulled back. "What are you doing that occupies so much of your attention?"
A shadow flitted across Algernon's face. "Bandits."
"Can I see?" asked Kate. "Tell me."
"I'm sure you'd just find it distressing," said Algernon.
"Try me," said Kate. "I'm not as delicate as I look."
Algernon blushed. "I'm sorry. No, you're not." She took Kate's hand and led her over to the map. "This is Eagle's Reach," she said. "Over here is Cayman's Leap and further down is the King's Heartland. Over here is Fotheringill. The land behind Eagle's Reach is owned by no one. That's where the raiders are coming from. I suspect they're really coming from Fotheringill but have no proof of it."
"That's all up a mountain, isn't it?" asked Kate, staring at the map.
Algernon nodded. "Yes. That's what's so confusing."
"What are they doing up there, right?"
"And where are they getting their supplies from?"
"Well," said Kate, "that's quite obvious. They've been storing them."
"Where? We know all the hiding places in the duchy and throughout the mountains."
"Algeron," said Kate. "You know it's the only explanation that makes sense!"
Algernon nodded. "Suppose that's true. What do they want with us?"
"I don't think it's what, I think it's who."
"Yes," said Algernon, looking at her curiously.
"It's no secret the Prince hates my father. And thanks to our marriage, I'm sure he hates you as well. Have you ever considered he might be trying to hurt you?"
Algernon nodded. "The thought had crossed my mind," she said. "But I honestly see no reason for it. Not for simply stopping him from violating another maid. No, if he's behind this, there's more to it than simple bile."
"If he disposes of you, he has another duchy under his control," said Kate. "That means that his father has one less noble to support him and one less day to live. My father always said that his interest in young girls was only surpassed by his interest in the throne."
"That's an interesting idea," said Algernon. "And it's also a very astute analysis. The thought had crossed my mind."
"How many men are normally injured over winter?" asked Kate.
"Well, only about a dozen or so. Fatalities are rare. We really are isolated up here, and only a fool would start a fight with a rested man who has a warm fire to go home to."
"Did you know the ward in your hospital had thirty beds and each one of them was occupied with a badly injured man?"
Algernon studied Kate carefully. "I know our injured are worse than normal, yes."
"Fotheringill sits between Cayman's Leap and Eagle's Reach, yes?"
Algernon nodded. "As soon as winter breaks, I want to go and visit your father. Just to be sure winter was kind to an old friend, you understand?"
Kate paled. "Yes, Your Grace. I understand."
Algernon held her gaze and gently squeezed her hand. "I won't let anything happen to your father, Kate. Know that."
Kate nodded, unable to speak. The worry she felt for her father bubbled to the surface.
Algernon saw it and gave her a quick hug. "Come, now. Let's go out and enjoy Solstice. Do you skate?"
Kate smiled, despite herself. She nodded.
"Good!" said Algernon. "You can drag me around the ice like a sack of potatoes!"
"I wouldn't have described someone as lovely as yourself a spud, but if you insist," replied Kate with a smile.
"That's the spirit, fair Kate," said Algernon, giving her forehead a gentle kiss. "Now let's go out and forget politics for an afternoon!"
Algernon was, in fact, an excellent skater, and Kate found her dark mood vanished as the Duke waltzed all over the ice with her.
They soon found themselves dancing with the children, Algernon carefully leading a little girl around the ice, much to the embarrassment of red-faced mother.
It was dusk when they finally returned to the castle. It was also the first of three days of celebration of Winter Solstice, and there was to be a large feast in the main hall.
Kate had just finished dressing and was smoothing the front of her dress, trying to decide if she looked good enough to be with Algernon.
"Why do you look so concerned?" The quiet voice of the Duke came from the passageway that connected their rooms. "You are the most breathtaking woman I have ever seen - especially in that lovely dress of yours."
Kate smiled. She wore the dress with the low neckline to please Algernon, and because she loved it. She turned to the duke. Her eyes widened and her breath caught. Algernon was dressed in her full finery and looked extraordinarily handsome.
"I could say the same for you," whispered Kate, unable to tear her eyes away from Algernon's sapphire gaze.
"I was going to give you this tomorrow, but I think tonight would be more suitable." Algernon reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a small pouch. She opened it with trembling fingers and a diamond and ruby pendant tumbled out.
Kate gasped and studied it closely. The gemstones were carefully crafted together to form an autumn colored maple leaf, nestled in a golden setting. "Oh, Algernon," said Kate. "I don't know what to say. It's gorgeous."
"Here," said Algernon, taking it off her and fastening it around her neck. She shook her head. "It's beautiful." She gazed at Kate. "You're beautiful."
"I have something for you," said Kate, bowing her head and nibbling her lip. "But it's not ready yet. It won't be for another couple of days."
"I think you can be forgiven for that. I understand why," said Algernon, cupping her cheek with a gentle hand. She took a deep breath. "I was so worried about you, Kate. I can't do that again."
"Remember you once told me that I would be by your side, never behind you?"
Algernon nodded. "I remember."
"Neither of us lives tame lives, Algernon. You can't worry about that with me, as I can't worry about that with you. Every moment I have with you means the world to me. Every one is precious. I will not trade a single moment with you." She felt the sting of tears. "I've said too much, haven't I?"
Algernon leaned down and kissed her. "No," she said when they broke. "You haven't. It's never too much to tell me how you feel."
Kate nodded against her chest. "Thank you, Algernon."
"We have to go down and mingle with our guests," said Algernon, her voice tinged with regret.
"Let's just go down and enjoy ourselves for an evening, beloved," said Kate, the endearment slipping out from underneath her defenses.
"Beloved?" asked Algernon hesitantly. "That's the second time you've said that. Do you mean it?"
Kate cursed herself for her weakness as her eyes watered. She nodded. She felt vulnerable and afraid.
"Please, don't look at me like that," said Algernon, her voice tinged with pain. "Feeling anything for me isn't really such a terrible thing, is it?"
"You have such power to hurt me," said Kate. "I'm frightened of you!"
"I feel the same way!" said Algernon, her own eyes filling with tears. "I'm frightened because I think I'm falling in love with you! What happens if you never feel that for me? Or I am a novelty and it fades? What of my heart then?"
"You already have my heart! I think I'm in love with you already!" said Kate. "I will never hurt you, Algernon. You are an amazing woman and my perfect match!" Yes, she thought. Yes. That's right. My beloved. She felt her tears disappear as her mind slipped gears and a strange sense of peace suffused her.
Algernon gave her the ghost of a smile and Kate met her half way for a deep and tender kiss of possession. This time Kate was the one to break it, and she pulled back, gazing deep into Algernon's sapphire eyes, seeing the well of love the older woman had for her.
"Come, Algernon," said Kate gently, threading her arm through the duke's. "It's time to meet our guests." She pulled in close to Algernon.
Algernon slowly led her down the halls, apparently in no particular hurry to reach the great hall. The servants bowed as they saw them approach.
Algernon stroked Kate's hand where it rested on her arm. "You must promise me a waltz, Kate," she said.
"The first and last dances are yours, Algernon, as are all the dances in between."
"If I could take them all I would," said Algernon with real regret. "But I doubt the ladies will let me."
"And I don't think the young men will let me."
Algernon nodded. "I know."
The doors opened and the servants announced them. Algernon and Kate slowly entered the hall, bathed in a sea of applause and well wishing from the assembled nobles and invited guests.
Algernon led Kate to the head of the table where they were seated by a liveried servant.
The feast lasted well into the night; the food was as magnificent as ever, the wine and music of the highest quality.
When the notes of the first waltz sounded, Algernon held out her hand. "May I have this dance, Your Grace?" she asked.
Kate smiled. "Yes, of course." She took Algernon's hand and the Duke led her out onto the floor. She felt uncomfortable with being the only couple on the dance floor, but Algernon smiled as her arms tightened around Kate.
"Relax," said Algernon. "Look at me."
Then Algernon began to lead her through the steps, and her uncertainty vanished.
When it was finished, Kate felt as though she was floating on air, and could not remember Algernon leading her back to her seat as the assembled crowd applauded.
Kate found herself out on the floor for every dance, held by a series of young noblemen who wished her well. Occasionally she would look over and find Algernon in conversation with a pretty girl, but the duke would always look up with a smile that was for her alone.
When they finally retired for the evening, Kate felt too energized to sleep. Algernon led her up to her rooms and paused outside the door.
"Good night, fair Kate," she said, kissing Kate.
"Don't leave yet," said Kate. "Come in for a while."
"Oh, Kate," said Algernon. "I don't know that's such a good idea."
"I know what you want," said Kate. She put her hand on Algernon's chest, slipping her fingers between the laces of her shirt and touching the silken skin of the Duke's chest; she felt her own pounding heart.
Algernon's eyes darkened and her gaze turned hungry.
Kate fumbled for the door handle, and opened the door with shaking fingers.
Algernon followed her in and they stood in the center of the room, gazing at one another.
Algernon reached for her, but Kate stopped her with a soft, "No."
Algernon looked surprised but forced her hands to still.
Kate smiled, and reached for the ties on her bodice. She kept her gaze trained firmly on Algernon's eyes as she opened them, allowing her breasts to tumble free from their restraints.
The dress and her shift slid to the floor and Kate stood before Algernon, completely exposed, daring her to speak or move.
Algernon reached for her, claiming her lips in a hungry kiss, tasting her. She kissed Kate's eyes, her cheeks, the curve of her jaw, her neck.
Kate felt herself pushed backwards towards the bed, and reached for Algernon, expecting to feel cloth but feeling soft, silken skin instead. She glanced at the duke, dazedly taking in her nakedness, hands finding her bare skin.
She felt Algernon's full breasts against her and moaned softly, feeling the dampness between her legs, the relentless throbbing of her sex.
"You're so beautiful, Kate," said Algernon softly, kissing her way down Kate's body, feasting on her breasts. Algernon's lips and hands did not stop and Kate soon found herself moaning as intense pleasure tore through her body leaving her feeling boneless and dazed.
"I want to do that to you," she said, trying to catch her breath.
Kate rolled on top of her beloved Algernon. She remembered each and everything that Algernon had just done to her and what Alice had done to Algernon. She kissed and licked every inch of Algernon's skin, finding the places that made her sigh and moan softly. When Kate finally allowed Algernon to peak, the Duke cried out and clung to her with desperate strength, and both sank back in the bed, breathing hard.
Algernon propped herself up on one hand and gazed at Kate. "My beloved Kate," she whispered, tracing Kate's breasts with her hand. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"And you, to me." Kate smiled and her breath caught as her nipples hardened under Algernon's gentle ministrations.
"You're mine," said Algernon, rolling on top of her and kissing her.
"And you, mine," replied Kate, tracing the Duke's cheeks with her thumbs. "You're inside me now."
Algernon nodded. "I know. So are you."
They spent most of the night tangled together in passion, falling asleep close to dawn, sated and exhausted.
The next morning, Kate woke, wrapped in Algernon's arms. She kissed the smooth skin of Algernon's chest, and then looked at her sleeping face.
Algernon looked so young and fragile, and Kate was struck by the knowledge that this young woman was one of the most powerful dukes of the largest duchy in the Kingdom.
And the King's son hated her.
Kate felt a fierce blast of protectiveness and love wash over her. Her vision blurred and tears dripped onto Algernon's chest. She leaned down and kissed them away, loving the slightly salty taste of the Duke's pale skin.
She looked up and into smiling, gentle, sapphire eyes.
"Good morning, my Kate," said Algernon. She gently wiped away Kate's tears. "No regrets?"
Kate's heart twisted at the terrible question in Algernon's voice. She shook her head. "No, no regrets. Never. I want everything you care to give to me."
"Everything I am and that I have is yours, dear Kate," replied Algernon.
"May I have this day with you, then?" Kate asked.
Kate slipped out of bed and held out her hand. Algernon took it and Kate led her to her bathing chamber, emptied of servants. Steaming water was in the tub and the duke and duchess lay back in the warm water, soaking away tired muscles and welcome pain.
That day ranked as one of Kate's favorites. They breakfasted together, and exchanged gifts; and then Algernon took her arm and they headed outside into the market square. They spent a few hours wandering around and looking at the various wares the merchants had on display; Kate took Algernon into the hospital to visit with the soldiers and any families that were there.
Kate knew Algernon was compassionate and cared about the people in her charge, but saw by the look in the Duke's eyes that it had never really sunk in to her that some of her soldiers had families and children.
Kate saw the shadow in her eyes and wanted to banish it. She took the Duke to the makeshift skating pond. Algernon became a young husband and lover leading her beloved Kate all over the ice, mingling with families enjoying the Winter Solstice.
It was finally time to return to the castle, and they again hosted a great feast for their guests.
After that, the night was theirs and they spent it tangled together in passion.
On the following day, Algernon went to her office for an hour or so, and Kate headed towards the hospital. Rowntree jogged up to her as her hand touched the door.
"Your Grace!" she said, holding out a small pouch. "It's ready!"
"Bless you, Rowntree," said Kate. "Thank you!"
"It's my pleasure," said Rowntree, pausing for a moment. "May I ask you something, Your Grace?"
"His Grace and yourself?"
Kate nodded, blushing. "Yes. Algernon, it seems, loves me."
Rowntree's beautiful face creased into a broad grin. "That's good, Kate. I'm very happy for you!"
"Thank you, Rowntree," replied Kate. "And thank you for asking the hard questions."
"My pleasure," said Rowntree.
Kate laughed and pushed open the door to the hospital.
That evening, the final of the festival, the doors to the great hall were thrown open and all were invited to enjoy the Duke and Duchess's hospitality.
Algernon and Kate stayed the entire night with the revelers, until dawn when the final stragglers finally left.
Exhausted, they curled up around each other in Algernon's rooms and fell asleep.
The next morning was the start of a new phase of Kate's life. She woke up to Algernon's kisses, and after a leisurely exploration of one another, Kate told Algernon of her birthday gift.
"It's not my birthday. That's not for another couple of days," said Algernon.
"I know." Kate gazed at her. "How old will you be?"
Algernon regarded her with fond amusement. "Twenty seven."
Kate nodded. "I'm sorry I never asked that earlier." She leaned up on her elbows. "Why did you agree to marry me, Algernon? You could have had your choice of any woman and more experienced ones at that."
Algernon was silent for a moment. "I originally agreed to marriage with you because I wanted to protect you. I found you strikingly beautiful and it made me sick to think of the Prince's hands on you." She gazed deep into Kate's eyes. "But now everything's changed. I can't stand the thought of anything happening to you!"
"I feel the same way about you," said Kate. She pulled the pouch out of a small pocket in her discarded dress. She held it out to Algernon. "I know you can't wear a ring when you fight, but I wanted something of me with you for always."
Algernon opened the pouch and pulled out the medallion. She looked at it closely and her eyes widened.
"It's the symbols of both our houses blended together. It's called a 'griffon'," said Kate. "I like it because I know that every time you see it you're going to remember that there's a woman who is a part of you that you have to come home to. Always come back to me, Algernon. Find your way home. Please."
"Oh, Kate," breathed Algernon. "It's beautiful." She slipped it over her head and it gleamed between her breasts. "I'll never take it off." She stroked Kate's face. "I promise you, Kate that no matter what happens, I will always find my way back to you. Nothing will keep me from you."
Kate bent down and kissed Algernon, long and deep, and a wave of passion carried them away.
That morning was the first of a new series of mornings for Kate. Her sword lessons with Rowntree began again, but with one main difference - Algernon joined them. Both Kate and Rowntree began to benefit from the Duke's instruction and Kate's skill slowly increased until she could hold her own against Rowntree.
Algernon also spent a couple of hours every day teaching her to ride. She loaned Kate her horse, a snowy white mare called Cloud, because Kate fell in love with her at first sight.
After that, they had breakfast together and Algernon disappeared to her office for the rest of the day, and Kate went to the hospital to help the women with the injured soldiers.
For the final hour of her day, she and Rowntree simply walked around town together. Kate did not want to interfere with Algernon's duties as the duke, and felt she had nothing concrete to contribute. She instead took Rowntree out to listen to what was happening in her duchy. She listened to gossip, talked to housewives, and watched children at play. She became accomplished at getting people to speak while revealing nothing of herself. Half the people that she spoke to had no idea they were pouring their hearts out to the Duchess of Eagle's Reach.
She convinced Algernon to begin some civic projects in the spring. They would rebuild the road into the mountains, connecting the outlying farms to the cities. They would increase patrols to the same regions to ensure that their farmers remained safe from raiders, and to protect them from any bandits that decided to set up their operations.
Warmth slowly returned to the land and the snow began to melt. Kate began to feel restless, wanting to go to Cayman's Reach to visit her father.
One morning, Algernon seemed particularly distracted over breakfast.
"You've buttered that roll twice so far," said Kate. "What's wrong, beloved?"
"What? Oh, sorry," said Algernon with a sigh. She dropped the roll and the knife back on her plate. She looked at Kate. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to bother you with this, but the Prince has announced his intention to visit us during the summer. The problem is that he neglected to tell us exactly when that would be."
"Oh," said Kate faintly. Her appetite fled and she felt sick.
Algernon immediately took her hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." She rubbed the back of Kate's hand with her thumb. "I have an idea if you want to hear it."
Kate nodded dumbly.
"We are going to visit your father. I will return by myself and entertain the Prince. I will keep him here as long as I can, and hopefully he will tire of the Northern Reaches and return to his father's lands. If he goes on to Cayman's Leap, I will send for you. He will of course stop in here when he returns but you will be with me and I will protect you."
Kate breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you. I want to visit my father." She looked into Algernon's blue eyes. "But I don't want to be without you."
"We have our whole lives together, my dear Kate. And who knows what matters of state will arise that delay a trip to the Northern Reaches? The Southern Holdings are not in a state of rest. They have an issue with Prince Stephen and taxes in his home seat, apparently."
Kate nodded. "I so hope you're right, beloved." She took another roll and delicately buttered it in the way she knew Algernon liked. She handed it to her duke with a smile. "When do you want to start for Cayman's Leap?"
Algernon bit into the roll with a happy sigh. "The snow has melted from the mountain passes. We can leave tomorrow, if you want."
Kate nodded eagerly. She longed to tell her father of her life in Eagle's Reach. She wanted to thank him and to tell him how much she loved it here, and how close she and Duke Algernon had grown.
"Good, that's settled," said Algernon. "Are you doing anything today? I find myself with a free day and I was wondering if you wanted to spend some time with me?"
"Of course! I'd love to!"
"Good," said Algernon. "Do you mind if we go for a walk through the meadow? I'm feeling a little restless."
Kate stood and held out her hand. "No time like the present, beloved."
Algernon smiled and took her hand.
An hour later they stood underneath the bare maple tree at the crossroads, watching the sunlight stream through the new buds on its heavy branches.
"It's so beautiful here," said Kate, nuzzling Algernon's neck. Her arms were threaded around Algernon's waist and the duke rested her chin on Kate's head.
"You're the one who's really beautiful," said Algernon.
"We're going to have to agree to disagree on that one," said Kate. She looked up at the tree. "This tree was really planted by your ancestors?"
Algernon nodded. "Yes. It was. It's the only maple tree at any crossroads in the Northern Reaches. My grandfather tried to hide it a little by planting a maple orchard on the land across from it."
Kate nodded. "It's a beautiful sight in autumn."
Algernon nodded. "It is. It's one of my favorites. You know I used to come down here when I was younger just to sit beneath the trees and feel the wind against my back."
The early spring breeze brought the scent of drying grass and pine to them. Kate breathed deeply and smiled automatically. "If you ever want to do that again and you want company, remember to come and get me."
"I will," said Algernon. "Always." She sighed. "We have to go back. We need to prepare for tomorrow's journey to Cayman's Leap."
Kate nodded. She took the duke's proffered hand. "All right."
The next morning, Algernon, Kate, Rowntree, Piter and twelve guardsmen set out for Cayman's Leap. Kate stayed by Algernon, mounted on Algernon's white charger.
She and Algernon were both worried, and it fueled their push to move forward. Normally, it was a three day ride to reach Cayman's Leap, but the Eagle's Reach party managed it in two.
When they reached the outlying farms, one or two had been razed to the ground, and Kate found this both grisly and troubling. In the entire time she lived there, Cayman's Leap had seen no violence. Sir Malcolm had always governed with a fair and just hand, and had carefully avoided making enemies that could damage them.
She automatically stayed close to the Duke, and Rowntree to her.
They reached her father's estates and they all stared in shock. The manor house looked tattered; it looked as though no one had been in it for months. Some of the windows lay open and the curtains, torn and water stained, hung outside in the elements. The garden seemed neglected.
"What happened here, I wonder?" asked the Duke.
"We passed a tavern on the way here. I could go and ask, Your Graces," said Rowntree.
Algernon nodded. "Go. We'll wait here." She turned to Kate. "If you don't mind, of course?"
Kate shook her head. "Of course not. Please, Rowntree. Go."
Rowntree saluted and galloped off to the township close to the knight's estate, Piter close behind her.
"Let's go," said Kate, turning to Algernon and nodding towards the abandoned estate. "I want to see. I want to know."
Algernon nodded. They walked their horses towards the estate. Algernon sent half of the troops to the stables with the horses, while she, Kate and the rest of the troops went into the house.
It was cold and damp inside; forgotten leaves blew across dusty floors. The front door showed signs of having been forced open and broken sticks of furniture littered the foyer. Kate led the way upstairs towards her father's room.
Algernon stayed close behind her, silent, peering around at the cobwebs and dust with interest.
Sir Malcolm's bed had not been slept in - it was still neatly made from the last time he had used it, months earlier.
There were more signs of struggle upstairs, and the rest of the estate was utterly deserted; the servants seemed to have disappeared when the manor had become deserted.
They went down to the great hall, and met up with the guards who had bedded the horses down for the night. The guards reported that the stables were all bare but undamaged; the horses had been left free to run. There was no hay or oats, so they left the horses to roam the paddock behind the stables for any fresh grass they could find. The troughs were full of clean water.
The put their bedrolls out on the floor and lit a fire from the shattered remains of the furniture they found scattered in the front of the house.
They had just broken out the trail rations when Rowntree and Piter returned.
Rowntree came up to Algernon and saluted smartly. "Your Grace."
"Sit, Rowntree," said the duke, patting the flagstones next to her.
Rowntree sat and accepted the bread and cheese handed to her by one of the soldiers.
"Curiosity is killing me," said Algernon. "What happened? What did you find out?"
"Apparently the Prince was waiting for Sir Malcolm as expected. What was not expected was that there would be a warrant out for his arrest. For treason. The Prince and his guardsmen were there to serve the warrant."
"Treason!" exclaimed Kate. "That's utter rubbish!"
"That's not the worst of it," said Rowntree, nodding gravely. "Cayman's Leap has been given to the Duke of Fotheringill to govern."
"Really?" said Algernon. "That's not good news."
"No," said Rowntree. "That makes Fotheringill the largest duchy in the Northern Reaches."
"Anything else?" asked Algernon.
"There's talk of issuing a warrant out for your arrest as well, Algernon," said Rowntree. "You're suspected of harboring an army to depose the King."
Algernon winced and Kate gasped. "That's really bad," muttered the duke. "It also explains the increased number of bandits over winter. They're troops lying in wait as 'proof' of my lack of loyalty."
"Why?" asked Kate. "Why?"
"Your father and I were of one mind," said Algernon. "We support King Damien. We have never supported Stephen's claim to the throne. He is not next in line for the throne. His son, Vincent, is in line to the throne."
"So the line of succession is what?" asked Kate. "Vincent takes the throne if anything happens to Damien. If anything happens to Vincent, Stephen takes over unless Vincent produces heirs?"
"That's about the size of it," said Algernon. "King Damien named your father as regent if anything happens to him. Vincent is a boy and is hardly likely to produce any heirs for a good number of years."
Kate felt sick. She bowed her head. "Does this mean my father is dead?"
"I don't know," said Algernon. "I think we have to try and find him. Piter?"
Piter bowed low. "Yes, Your Grace?"
"What was in the message that called Sir Malcolm back to Cayman's Leap?"
"Nothing, Sir. It was as reported by Sir Malcolm. The Prince awaited his convenience at Cayman's Leap."
"I don't think he made it back here," said Kate.
Algernon shook her head. "Neither do I." She sighed. "We head back to Eagle's Reach tomorrow. I will go to King Damien and spend the summer with him. I want to know what's going on."
"You're not going without me!" said Kate.
"Kate," said Algernon. "If you go with me it puts you directly in the sights of the Prince."
"I don't care! You and my father are both at stake!"
"How about we talk about it when we get back to Eagle's Reach?"
"All right," said Kate, only slightly mollified.
There was some further conversation, but the entire party was exhausted from the day's ride and they planned to start back to Eagle's Reach before dawn. Algernon set the watch and she and Kate curled up together in Algernon's bedroll. Kate lay with her head on Algernon's chest, allowing the duke's strong heartbeat to lull her to sleep.
The next morning they got up and were on the way back as quickly as they could. They left the township close to dawn and entered the forest.
It was unusually silent, and Rowntree and Piter pulled in close to Algernon and Kate. Algernon glanced up at the trees, eyes restlessly moving through the still dark undergrowth.
A guard grunted and his horse screamed. He was thrown backwards off his mount, a thick crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest.
Algernon cursed and slapped Kate's white charger.
"Ride, Kate!" screamed Algernon. Her horse reared and exploded forward into a gallop.
Piter, Rowntree, Algernon and Kate pushed their mounts as hard as they could. They thundered through the forest, arrows thudding into the trees and undergrowth all around them.
Suddenly Algernon yelped, and Kate glanced at her, in time to see the bay warhorse with a spear sticking out of its chest. It faltered and began to fall, and Algernon threw herself free from the saddle as it went over in a dead heap.
Kate screamed wordlessly and pulled her horse to a halt. She wheeled the mare around, galloping back to Algernon, but it was too late.
Arrows began to thud into Algernon's body and the duke staggered.
Rowntree cursed and headed straight after Kate. The duchess felt the wind of several arrows and the sting of others as they hit her unprotected flesh.
A ring of archers surrounded the fallen duke as the blood poured out of her body.
"ALGERNON! NO! DON'T LEAVE ME! PLEASE, DON'T LEAVE ME! YOU CAN'T LEAVE ME! YOU PROMISED ME!" screamed Kate.
Algernon lay still as Kate half fell off her horse. She tried to run to Algernon's side, but she was badly winded and fell to her knees.
She screamed in wordless agony and denial as one of the soldiers surrounding the duke rammed a sword home through her gut.
An arrow thudded into Kate's chest and she looked down, feeling the blood spurting down the front of her body. Her last cognizant thought was a forlorn farewell to her beloved Algernon, as Rowntree's bloodstained arms surrounded her and she lost consciousness.
Kate floated in a haze of pain and blackness for endless periods of time.
She heard whispered conversations and words around her; she was jostled and she screamed; she swooned and grayed out. Sometimes she thought she was floating; sometimes she thought she could feel the touch of another person; sometimes she felt pain from the many wounds in her body.
Most of all, when she could think, she thought of Algernon's body, fallen in the forest.
When she finally regained her senses and opened her eyes again, it was to find herself lying on a soft featherbed in an unfamiliar room, bathed in sunlight.
A woman sat by a floor to ceiling window, fully engaged in her needlework; her richly appointed clothing suggested she was not a servant.
"Hello?" croaked Kate. Her chest throbbed and burned.
The woman looked up. She had thick, long, black hair, dark, almond shaped eyes and olive skin. Her bone structure was perfect and her body was ripe and sensuous. She was one of the most beautiful women Kate had ever seen.
"You are awake," she said in a lightly accented, musical voice.
Kate nodded weakly. "May I have some water?"
The woman got up and quickly walked to the bed. Kate gasped when she saw the simple circlet on the woman's head.
"Your Highness?" she asked. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to order you around like a common maid."
The woman's black eyes lit up with her smile. "It's quite all right, dear," she said. "Here, let me help you."
Kate felt as weak as a kitten and gratefully allowed the woman to bear the brunt of her weight as she tried to sit up. She felt a glass held to her lips and sucked greedily at the cool water.
"Who are you, my dear?" asked the Princess.
"Katherine Runcible De Vere," replied Kate.
The woman's face became still. "I see."
"Are you Prince Stephen's wife?" asked Kate.
"I am." She stared at Kate. "I was unaware my husband asked me to attend to his whore."
Kate felt a flash of anger. "I am no whore, my lady. I am the wife of the Duke of Eagle's Reach." Her voice broke as her tears for Algernon surfaced.
"You are also my husband's latest conquest."
"I am no conquest! I am no whore!" Kate grimaced as pain flooded through her body. She forced herself to relax. "I have a husband I love - loved - very dearly. He is no longer with us, thanks to your husband. If all you can do is snarl at me for infidelity I would never commit against my husband, throw me from the battlements of this castle now!"
Tears escaped Kate's tight control. Sapphire eyes watched her from the mists of memory, arrows thudded into unprotected flesh and her beloved Algernon fell once more.
The princess looked chagrined in the face of Kate's pain and opened her mouth to speak.
Just at that moment, the door opened and a man strode in. He was tall, as tall as Algernon had been. He was handsome and had cold eyes.
"Ah, I see our guest has woken up!" he said heartily.
"Leave me be!" snarled Kate. "I don't want to see anyone!"
The man's eyes narrowed in anger.
The princess's eyes widened. "Stephen," she said, immediately approaching her husband. She put a placating hand on his arm. "Perhaps it is best if you leave for now. She has a fever and she doesn't know what she's saying. I don't think she's seeing through her own eyes!"
Prince Stephen's eyes lost some of their fury as he gazed at his wife.
"Perhaps you are right," he said. "Perhaps I should send for a surgeon and medicines for her mind!"
"A fine idea, husband," she said with a hearty smile. "Until then, let me tend her."
Stephen's eyes darted between the two of them. "All right," he said. "Let me know when her fever has broken."
The princess nodded. "Yes, husband." She curtseyed and he nodded and left.
The princess turned back to Kate and sighed. "The first rule of life with Stephen is to not speak unless you are spoken to, child."
"Thank you," said Kate softly. "I couldn't help myself." The princess's display of guile had made Kate's opinion of her go up a notch.
"So I see," said the princess dryly.
"What is your name?" asked Kate.
"My name is Rebecca," said the Princess.
"Thank you, Princess Rebecca. I don't suppose you know what became of the woman I was with? Or the duke?"
"Your soldiers are all dead, as are the bandits who attacked you. Stephen himself found your party in the forest. His men could not find the duke's body. And the woman you were with is dying."
"Can I see her? She is my friend," said Kate, trembling and trying not to show it. Rowntree! She had to save her friend!
"She is unconscious. She has an infection. The doctors don't think she is going to wake up again."
A bolt of misery tore through Kate, and she could not stop the tears that flowed down her face.
"How long have we been here for?" she asked.
"It took His Highness three days to bring you back. You have been in this room for three days."
"Six days!" said Kate in disbelief.
Princess Rebecca nodded.
"Can you take me to my friend?" asked Kate. "I really do feel much better." She was not telling the exact truth but she knew nothing else would get her out of her room.
Princess Rebecca looked closely at her, and Kate saw the Princess knew she was lying.
"You look terrible. You'd never make it," she said shortly.
Kate sighed. She felt more alone and isolated than ever. "Can you at least go to her and let her know I'm all right?"
Princess Rebecca watched her carefully and Kate could see the woman's obvious intelligence, and the wheels turning behind her eyes. "All right. But you must tell me: what is your friend's name?"
"Her name is Rowntree," said Kate with a tired smile. "Are the nurses bathing her wounds in salt water?"
"No," said Princess Rebecca. "The surgeons have given up on her. She isn't showing any signs of waking." She swallowed. "It is such a pity. She is so young and beautiful."
Kate shook her head. "Bath her wounds in salt water and feed her simple broth. Make her swallow it."
"We are doing that, but is there more we can do? She hardly keeps it down. Sometimes she seems to be awake and take more, but not often."
"Help her to sit up and massage her throat until she swallows. You must also make sure she has water."
The princess nodded, carefully noting what Kate told her.
"I will be back," said the Princess. She got up and left.
Kate fell back on the bed, exhausted and miserable. The image of their flight through the forest played itself endlessly in her mind, along with the final moments of Algernon's life.
That night was the first of many that she cried herself to sleep.
When Kate's eyes next opened, the princess was sitting by her bed, holding her hand.
"You're awake," Princess Rebecca said.
Kate blinked. "I'm awake, Your Highness."
"Your friend," said the princess. "She had some broth but she has a terrible fever. She looks very pale."
"May I have some water?" asked Kate.
The princess blushed. "I'm sorry. Of course." She helped Kate sit up. Kate took a cautious breath, grateful that her body did not hurt as much as it had before. Kate drank the water that the Princess held for her, and the soup the Princess brought for her.
"I must go and see my friend," said Kate. "All you can do is what I have told you to do. She must be tended constantly. She will be very weak when she wakes up!"
"If she wakes up," said the Princess.
"She will wake," said Kate with confidence she did not really feel. "She's a strong woman."
The princess looked pained.
"Look," said Kate. "You have to help me. You have to take me to her. I'm not of much use sitting in bed like this. I'm strong enough to move around. I promise to get rest, I really do."
The princess looked closely at her. "I will take you to your friend," she said slowly. "I understand what it is to be in a strange place where everyone seems your enemy." She smiled. "I am not your enemy, Lady Katherine."
Kate shook her head. "I'm not your enemy now, Princess. But what of your husband?"
The princess snorted. "My husband does not love me. He never did. I do not have his attentions and I do not want them. I don't love him."
"Then why do you stay with him?"
"For the sake of my son. I cannot protect him by myself. He would not be happy if we left. He loves his grandfather very much."
Kate nodded. In her more fanciful moments she had wondered what it would have been like to have children with Algernon. Algernon would have loved them to distraction and they her.
"You just thought of your duke, didn't you?" asked the princess.
Kate nodded, unable to speak.
"You loved him, didn't you?"
"Very much so," whispered Kate. "He meant the world to me."
"What is it like to give your heart like that?" asked the princess.
"I didn't give it. The duke took it from me and I never asked for it back." She smiled sadly at the princess. "Before you ask, I did the same to his. I still feel him inside me."
The princess nodded. "I hope one day that happens to me."
"I'm sure it will," said Kate. "You're too lovely to be unclaimed for very long."
The princess smiled and cleared her throat, breaking the moment.
Kate stood with the assistance of the Princess, and carefully bathed and dressed. Her wounds had half healed and she knew she would have to be slow and careful for a few weeks. She could feel the princess's eyes surreptitiously take in her every movement, following the curves of her bare body.
Well, well, well, she thought. Interesting.
She leant heavily on the Princess as they made their slow and careful way to Rowntree's room. The princess let them both in and Kate carefully went to the bed and sat on it.
Rowntree was pale and her closed eyes were sunken in their sockets. Her breathing was shallow and even her long, thick red hair had lost its luster. Kate remembered her strong and hale, barely recognizable in the wreck that lay in the bed before her.
Kate reached out and pulled the sheets away from Rowntree's body. She winced.
Rowntree was thin, every rib on prominent display. Her torso showed the healing arrow wounds.
The worst was a deeply infected wound just above her left breast.
Kate muttered an oath. The edges were dark red and a yellowish channel ran up the middle of it. Kate reached out and touched it, grimacing at the heat.
"We have to attend to this wound," she said, glancing at the pale princess.
Princess Rebecca nodded.
"I need salt water, a very sharp knife and for someone to light the fire. I need a sharp needle and catgut. And bandages. Lots of them. Freshly laundered."
Princess Rebecca rang for her personal serving maid, and instructed the girl to get the things Kate asked for.
Kate sat by Rowntree's side, holding her hand, imagining that she could feel the infection racing through her friend's body.
They soon had the knife and salt water. Kate ran the knife through the fire and glanced at the princess.
"Hold her shoulders down," she said. "And don't let go, no matter what you see." She kissed Rowntree's clammy forehead.
The Princess did as she was asked.
Kate ran the knife down the centre of the infected wound and pulled the edges apart. Foul smelling pus poured out of the wound, mixing with thin streamers of dark blood. Rowntree moaned softly as Kate pushed down on the edges and the middle of the wound pushed upwards.
The princess's grasp faltered.
Kate glanced sharply at her. "Hold still! I can see the head of the arrow and I must take it out!"
Kate pushed the knife into the wound and levered out the arrow head. She put the knife into the fire and staunched the bleeding as best she could with the clean rags the servant had brought to them.
"Are you all right?" she asked, glancing at the pale and shaking princess.
"I'm all right," she said in a brittle tone. "How do you know what to do?"
"I helped the wounded soldiers in my husband's hospital," said Kate.
"Your husband sounds like an amazing man," said the princess wistfully.
"He was," said Kate, feeling the sadness return. She sighed shakily and looked at the knife in the fire. The blade shone a dull red.
"She may move. You must hold her fast."
The princess nodded.
Kate pulled the knife out of the fire and pushed the glowing tip into the oozing wound, cauterizing it. Rowntree thrashed weakly and moaned.
Kate threw the knife into the bloody water where it hissed balefully.
"We just need to dress that wound, and it should heal nicely," she said. She took more clean rags and carefully cleaned the blood away from the wound. When it was done to her satisfaction, she took one of the bandages and wrapped it around Rowntree's chest with the Princess's help.
She sank back on the bed in exhaustion when they were done.
"Now all we have to do is give her more broth and water and wait for her to wake up."
"You really think she will recover?" asked the princess hesitantly.
Kate nodded and smiled. "Yes." She was not sure at all, but had a spark of hope.
She watched as the Princess and her servant gave Rowntree the broth and water. She fell asleep, exhausted, before they were finished.
Kate's eyes fluttered open, and she became immediately aware of the morning sunlight streaming in through the window.
The princess sat by Rowntree. She was pale and haggard. She held the redhead's hand, gently stroking it.
"Princess," said Kate softly. "Good morning."
The princess dropped Rowntree's hand as though burned.
Kate shook her head. "Don't do that on my account, Princess. Your secret is safe with me."
Princess Rebecca glanced at her with guilty relief.
"I'm sorry," she said. "My husband doesn't love me but he's still jealous."
"If you don't love him why on earth did you marry him?" asked Kate. "If you don't mind my asking," she belatedly added.
"I don't mind. It was my father's idea. I thought I could stand it. I thought we could at least be friends, but none of that turned out to be true."
Kate nodded. "I understand. I was lucky. My marriage was my father's idea but I came to love my husband very much." A wave of sadness, never far away, washed over her.
"What is your friend like?" asked the princess hesitantly.
Kate gazed fondly at Rowntree. The bodyguard looked better in the light of day than she had the night before. She was still pale but her skin had lost the terrible gray color, and her breathing was easier than it had been.
Her fever had broken during the night, and she was cool to the touch.
"She is a lively, intelligent woman, gifted with a great deal of confidence. She is skilled with sword and horse and can converse on a great number of subjects. In short, she is a fascinating woman."
"But hardly any man's idea of an ideal one."
"Who cares?" asked Kate. "I don't think men hold her attention."
"They don't," said Rowntree weakly, her eyes fluttering open.
"Rowntree!" exclaimed Kate. "It's so good to see you!"
Rowntree's eyes fluttered closed as she lost consciousness again.
"Quick! Broth!" said Kate. "She needs her strength!"
They fed the unconscious soldier and stayed by her bedside for the rest of the day and the night. Kate drifted off to a thin, restless sleep. She tossed and turned, tortured by dreams of Algernon and Rowntree, acutely aware of the Princess sitting beside them and watching over both of them.
Kate finally fell fully asleep when dawn's grey light stretched across the horizon. She awoke not long after, feeling stronger than she had.
She rolled over, heart beating hard, to meet Rowntree's bloodshot gaze.
"Kate?" asked the redhead softly.
Kate trembled from the relief she felt that Rowntree was still alive. "Rowntree? How do you feel?"
"Like I was hit by a dozen arrows," said Rowntree. She weakly jerked her chin towards the Princess, who sat in a chair by the window, eyes closed in sleep. "That's Rebecca, Stephen's wife, isn't it?"
Kate nodded. "It is."
"What is she doing here?"
"Watching over you." Kate grinned. "You don't have to be awake to be charming, do you?"
Rowntree gave her the ghost of a grin. "Speaking of charming, where's Algernon?"
Kate bit her lip against the sting of tears. She shook her head. Her throat clenched under a wave of sadness, robbing her of the ability to speak.
"Oh, no," sighed Rowntree, leaning back and closing her eyes. "No."
Kate nodded, squeezing Rowntree's hand. A vivid image of arrows thudding into Algernon's body overcame her mind. A tear slipped out from under a tightly closed eyelid.
Rowntree returned her squeeze. "Kate," she said. "Algernon was my friend."
Kate nodded again. She sniffed and looked at Rowntree's distressed features through watery eyes.
"I have to get you out of here," said Rowntree. "Algernon ..." her voice trailed off.
"I know," said Kate. "We'll go when you're stronger."
"You should go now," said Rowntree sadly.
"I know," said Kate. "I know. But I won't. I won't go without you." She took a shuddering breath. "I can't. I just can't."
Rowntree opened her mouth to speak and Kate's mouth tightened. Rowntree gave her a searching gaze. She finally nodded.
"Good," said Kate simply.
"You're awake!" said Princess Rebecca, straightening in her chair and giving them both a brilliant smile.
Kate glanced down at Rowntree again, but the redhead appeared senseless and was breathing deep, even breaths.
"She's unconscious again," said Kate. She glanced at the Princess. "She's doing better than she was, but she's still weak."
The princess flashed a brilliant grin. "That's wonderful!"
Kate nodded. "It is." She smoothed the hair back from Rowntree's forehead. She glanced up at the Princess. "When she wakes, we'll try getting her to eat some of the soup you've given to me. It should restore her more quickly than broth will."
The princess nodded. She slowly approached them, and sat by the bed close to Rowntree.
"Would you mind getting someone to help me back to my rooms?" asked Kate.
Princess Rebecca shook her head. "I have a better idea. Why don't you stay here?" She rang for a servant.
Kate could only think that it was unwise to be by herself in her own room. An image of Prince Stephen flashed through her mind.
A servant soon appeared with fresh clothes. The Princess helped Kate to Rowntree's bathing chamber. Rebecca seemed to understand her need for solitude and quietly withdrew, leaving Kate to her thoughts.
She shuddered as she thought of the eager way Prince Stephen's eyes took in her smooth curves and full breasts. It was only a matter of time before he took what he perceived to be his. Kate wanted to be away and to spend winter in Eagle's Reach. Her mind tried to shy away from Algernon, but she would not let it. She wanted to go back and find out what had happened to Algernon's body. She would bury her beloved Duke in the maple grove.
She thought of autumn leaves and cool air, and fingered the necklace around her throat. She looked down at the reddish orange maple leaf and remembered smiling, sapphire eyes.
She finished bathing and took stock of herself. Her wounds were healing nicely. The new skin was bright pink and painful to the touch, but she could feel the deep seated itch inside each one that told her she was healing well.
She pulled on her shift and laced the bodice of her borrowed dressed. She sighed and entered Rowntree's chamber.
Princess Rebecca sat by the unconscious bodyguard, holding her hand. She turned when she heard the rustle of Kate's skirts.
"You look so much better," she said. She gestured towards the table by the window. A couple of gently steaming bowls rested on it. "I took the liberty of asking for something for you to eat."
Kate abruptly felt ravenous and quickly lifted the lids covering the bowls. They were full of a thick stew, and she felt her stomach rumble.
The Princess sat down opposite her and they both ate quietly.
Kate sopped the dregs of stew from her bowl, feeling full and drowsy.
"When do you plan on heading back for Eagle's Reach?" asked Rebecca.
Kate fiddled with her bread, appetite gone. "When Rowntree gets better."
"My Lady - " began the Princess and Kate put up her hand.
"It's Your Grace. I am the Duchess of Eagle's Reach," she said.
Princess Rebecca's eyes widened. "You're the Duchess of Eagle's Reach? For pity's sake, you must not tell Stephen under any circumstances!"
"Is it only because he's behind the attack on our party?"
"I think you know it's more than that," said the Princess after a few moments of silence. "Eagle's Reach is important to my husband and he thinks he now has that duchy."
"Well," said Kate coldly, "he doesn't. It's mine!"
Rebecca nodded. She looked sad. "I know. You have to go and take Rowntree with you."
"May I ask you something?" asked Kate.
The princess studied her carefully for a moment. She nodded warily.
"Why are you so taken with Rowntree?" asked Kate. "She hasn't been awake so she hasn't been able to charm you. So why?"
"She's so beautiful," said the Princess, lowering her gaze and blushing.
"She's also very sweet," said Kate. "Talk to her when she wakes up."
The princess nodded.
"Well, let's go and see how our patient's doing." Kate stood and held out her hand. The princess took it with a hesitant, shy smile.
Kate, bleeding inside as she remembered her first days with Algernon, led her over to Rowntree's bed and they waited for her to wake up again.
Around mid morning, Rowntree's eyes fluttered open. She blinked and her gaze skated between Kate and Princess Rebecca.
"Hello, Your Highness," she said to the Princess.
Princess Rebecca blushed. "Hello," she said softly.
"I am Lieutenant Rowntree," she murmured. "I would salute but I'm reasonably certain I'm not standing." She gave the Princess the ghost of a crooked grin. "I'm not, am I, Your Grace?" she asked Kate.
"No, Rowntree, you're flat on your back," said Kate.
"One too many ales, Your Grace?" asked Rowntree with a grin.
Kate smiled in return. She felt tears of relief sting her. "Yes. And I promise not to tell the shepherd about anything you did." She paused for a moment. "Those poor sheep!"
"Good," said Rowntree comfortably. "I was afraid of what would happen to me if anyone found out."
Kate laughed. She regarded Rowntree fondly. "Are you hungry?" she asked.
"A little," said Rowntree.
"How do you feel?" said the Princess, blushing and nibbling her lip.
Rowntree glanced at Kate, ready to speak but Kate shook her head. The Princess was too shy for Rowntree's teasing.
Rowntree smiled. "I'm very sore and feel as weak as a kitten. But I don't feel as sick as I did."
The Princess studied the coverlet with singular interest. "Would you like something to eat?"
Rowntree reached out and gently took the dark haired woman's hand and squeezed it without strength.
Princess Rebecca glanced at her, surprised.
"I would love something to eat," said Rowntree. "But I don't have the strength to feed myself. Will you help me?"
The Princess blushed again under Rowntree's unwavering scrutiny. She nodded. "I will help. But first, I must find you something to eat." She looked questioningly at Kate.
"The soup you gave me would be good," said Kate.
The Princess nodded. "I will be back." She bustled out of the room.
"My goodness," said Kate when she had left. "You certainly have her bothered, Rowntree."
Rowntree blew out a gusty breath. "Oh, my. She's got to be the most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on. Have you ever seen eyes so dark?"
Kate shook her head. "Interested, are we?"
Rowntree blushed. "You know me, I'm not ready to - "
"Because she's very interested in you," cut in Kate smoothly. "She also seems to be an honest, decent woman, and someone we could both call friend. Try not to hurt her, Rowntree. She doesn't seem to have a lot of experience with matters of the heart."
"You don't mind?" asked Rowntree.
"After everything we've been through? After everything you've done to show how much you care for me?" Kate shook her head. "If you're worried about my sense of propriety, don't be. You're my friend. I care about your happiness and I won't stand in the way of it when you find it. If it's with the Princess, then I suppose she'll be returning to Eagle's Reach with us, if that's what you both wish."
Tears began to flow down Rowntree's face. "Thank you, Kate."
"You're welcome," said Kate. She shook her head. "I'm worried about you. How are you feeling?"
"I was telling the truth when I was asked before," said Rowntree. "You're afraid I'm not going to heal soon, aren't you?"
Kate unwillingly nodded. "I want to go home by the time the first winter storms are in Eagle's Reach."
"And that won't be for another couple of months," said Rowntree. "You really should go on without me. I can take care of myself."
"I know you can, but I won't leave you in this nest of vipers by yourself. Especially now that something's starting between you and the Princess."
Rowntree's eyes widened in shock. "Oh my God," she said. "What the hell am I doing?"
"Feeling something for someone isn't a bad thing."
"It is if the 'someone' is married to a Prince who likes killing things."
"But his attention will be elsewhere," said Kate.
"Look, Kate," sighed Rowntree. "You shouldn't do this for me. This is the last thing Algernon and I wanted for you."
"I'm a big girl and I can take care of myself. Life in Eagle's Reach taught me that." Kate smiled. "Just get better so we can get out of here, will you?"
Rowntree smiled and nodded. "All right, Your Grace." The smile dropped from her beautiful features and a hard, cold light shone in her eyes. "If the Prince touches you I won't be responsible for what happens."
"I will remember that, Rowntree," said Kate.
"Good," said Rowntree after a few moments.
They both looked up as the princess bustled back into the room, holding a tray. Kate struggled to control her shock. The Princess was obviously very taken with Rowntree to be acting as a common serving girl.
The princess put down the tray and helped Kate put extra pillows behind Rowntree so she was sitting up.
The princess silently fed Rowntree, watching her closely as she ate.
Kate smiled in pleasure. Rowntree made it through an entire bowl of soup before she passed out again.
Over the next week, Kate spent every day by Rowntree's side, often in the company of the Princess. Rowntree's color began to improve, but she remained treacherously weak. They carefully avoided talking about Algernon and when they would return to Eagle's Reach.
Kate herself felt much better and stronger than she had, but still felt weak and tired easily. She knew they would both have to travel on horseback and not by coach, which would have allowed them to leave much sooner.
News of Rowntree's recovery began to ripple through the castle, yet the Princess remained by Rowntree's bedside. Kate gradually returned to her rooms alone, unwilling to intrude on the intimacy that was blossoming between Rowntree and the Princess.
On the night of the seventh day, Kate returned to her room and changed into her nightgown, looking out of the window onto a moonlit city. She wanted to go out and walk in it, but hesitated. She remembered walking through icy city streets with Rowntree and her heart began to ache afresh.
She wanted to go to home so strongly that she could not breathe for a moment. She turned away from the window.
Kate knew she should begin to mingle with the other noblewomen in the castle, but it felt strange knowing that Algernon was never going to be with her. She would have to attend all social functions without an escort, and she did not want to go them anyway. She thought back to Solstice and dancing with Algernon. How she had loved seeing the barely veiled desire in Algernon's eyes, the feel of Algernon's silken skin beneath her fingers.
"How could any man resist a woman as beautiful as yourself?" said a voice from behind her.
Kate started, furious at having her privacy disturbed.
Prince Stephen stared at her appraisingly, a cold smile playing about his lips. His shirt was half unbuttoned and untucked.
"I am married. The only man who should not be able to resist me is my husband," she said, moving away from him.
"Your husband should not have left you in the forest alone for robbers to find. What kind of care does that display for one as lovely as yourself?"
Kate jerkily moved away from him again as he tried to stroke her hair.
"My husband was with me."
"We didn't find him."
"So your wife told me."
The prince gave her a brief, cold smile. "Your ancestral lands are under my control, governed by a steward appointed by me. Your husband is dead and his duchy no more. You have nothing and no one. You are living under my roof. Your gratitude is not enough."
He grabbed her and pushed her back towards the bed. She was too shocked by his cold cruelty to resist.
"You now say and do what I wish." He fumbled for the laces on his trousers.
Kate tried to fight him but he was too strong.
Tears poured down her face and she clenched her hands into fists against the pain.
The next morning Kate felt too humiliated to see either Princess Rebecca or Rowntree. She was naked beneath the covers of her bed and when she rolled over she caught a dim whiff of sweat and struggled to control her bile.
She beckoned to the servant sent to wake her.
The young woman hesitantly approached the bed.
"Could you please see to it that the sheets are changed in this bed? And please leave me. I don't want to be disturbed," she said.
The young woman looked at her.
"Do you understand?" asked Kate as gently as she could, suppressing a surge of anger.
The woman nodded. "Yes, My Lady. I understand. I am to see the sheets are changed and you do not wish to be disturbed."
"Yes, thank you," said Kate. "Please leave me."
The young woman bobbed a quick curtsey and then almost flew out of the room.
Kate slowly and painfully climbed out of bed with a deep sigh. She ached all over and felt about a hundred years old. She dragged herself into her bathing chamber, pausing to look in the mirror.
She wrinkled her nose with disgust at her reflection.
She had a bruise on her neck and marks all over her breasts. She could see a small crescent of teeth marks over her left nipple. Her upper thigh had blood on it and her womanhood ached. She shuddered.
She deliberately turned away from her reflection and climbed into her tub, wincing at the pain of overstrained muscles.
She thought about what Stephen had said to her: Your ancestral lands are under my control, governed by a steward appointed by me. Your husband is dead and his duchy no more. You have nothing and no one. You are living under my roof.
Kate shuddered to think of Cayman's Leap without her father. She hated the thought of Eagle's Reach as an open playground for the Prince and his cronies. She felt a surge of loathing for Stephen. His sense of entitlement was so ingrained he could not comprehend the idea that the people living in his ancestral lands were not things for his amusement. He could not take what he wanted without repercussions.
Yet she had surrendered to him with barely a fight. She felt a shot of self loathing. Why had she done that? She could claim it was for her own survival as much as she wanted, but that did not alter the fact that deep down she thought it was cowardice.
She could refuse the Prince and accept the consequences, despite what he said to her. He obviously did not know that she was the Duchess of Eagle's Reach.
She thought about Algernon's sapphire eyes and her promise to protect Kate. Kate now knew it was wrong to hide behind Algernon. She did not need to. She was a noblewoman, not a common whore for the Prince's amusement. Algernon had taught her that.
She dressed, feeling calmer and more confident than she had for days, and slowly left her chamber. She walked through the castle, invisible to the staff, and out of the front gates of the palace and into the bustling city streets.
The late spring heat knocked into her with the force of a powerful blow. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of unwashed bodies, offal and garbage in the streets.
It was disgusting, she thought. She was sure that Algernon had never allowed Eagle's Reach to sink into this level of decrepitude.
She turned and began walking blindly to the left, down a jostling city street, towards the market place. She became distracted by the sights and sounds - jugglers and acrobats; street urchins running between the men and women in the crowd; a rich nobleman's carriage inching along the cobblestone street, led by groomsmen; hawkers and peddlers yelling for customers to inspect their often brightly colored wares; the ring of a hammer on metal from the blacksmith's forge close by.
Kate started as a shadow fell across her and a hand grabbed her elbow.
"Unhand me!" she demanded, trying to pull herself free.
She was pulled into a darkened alley and to a halt.
"Sir Geoffrey Brandywine?" asked Kate, shocked.
Sir Geoffrey nodded, his face deeply shadowed in the alleyway. "What are you doing here? What has happened at Eagle's Reach? Where is Duke Algernon?"
Kate opened her mouth but Sir Geoffrey continued on, unrelenting.
"We heard you had been attacked! What happened?"
"If you would allow me to speak for a moment, perhaps I could answer some of your questions, Sir Geoffrey," said Kate dryly.
"I apologize, Your Grace," said Sir Geoffrey, apparently realizing he still had a firm grip of her arm.
"Is there somewhere we could go and talk?" asked Kate. She felt tired and heartsick. She remembered what Algernon had once said to her about Sir Geoffrey and Lady Eliza: You need have no secrets from either of them. She wanted to talk to him. Perhaps he could help both she and Rowntree return to Eagle's Reach.
"The building next to us is an inn. We can go through the back door and get a private room," said Sir Geoffrey, quickly leading her down the alleyway towards another deeply shadowed doorway. He knocked on the door and it swung open.
"Who is it?" asked a cadaverous, oily haired man, peering suspiciously out into the bright sunshine.
"A knight seeking a room," said Sir Geoffrey. He moved so he was blocking the publican's view of Kate.
Kate heard clinking coins and then Sir Geoffrey was pulling her into the inn. She sank into his side, hiding her face in his chest. He gently steered her down a musty corridor into a hot room.
"Leave us," he said to the publican. The door squeaked as it closed, and Kate heard his retreating footsteps.
She turned her head. They were in a darkened room, by a dusty table. The fireplace was cold and dead, but scrupulously clean.
Sir Geoffrey pulled a chair out from the table and gestured for her to sit.
"I'm sorry about my forgotten manners, Your Grace," he said, inclining his head when he was also comfortably seated.
"Don't concern yourself about it, Sir Geoffrey," said Kate. "I'm just glad to see you."
Sir Geoffrey smiled in genuine pleasure. "As I am you," he replied. "But where is Algernon? We saw no sign of either of you on our way here and we were worried!"
Kate closed her eyes against a surge of pain. The small flame of hope inside her that Algernon had somehow escaped the Prince guttered and died. She blinked as tears flowed down her face.
Sir Geoffrey instantly took her hand. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "I'm just making things worse, aren't I?"
Kate shook her head and impatiently wiped away her tears. She felt hollow. She took several breaths and tried to find her voice.
"It's not your fault. I'm sorry," she finally managed. "We were returning from Cayman's Leap when we were attacked. Algernon ... Algernon ...," her voice trailed off and she shook her head, waving Sir Geoffrey away when he gently squeezed her hand.
"Cayman's Leap. Your father's estates looked deserted," said Sir Geoffrey.
Kate nodded. "Apparently the Prince was waiting for him shortly after my wedding to arrest him for treason."
"Treason?" asked Sir Geoffrey. "Your father? Rubbish!"
"I know. My father is missing, Algernon is dead, Rowntree is badly injured and I'm stuck!"
"Algernon is dead." He shook his head. "Why are you stuck?"
"I'm not strong enough to travel and I can't leave Rowntree here," said Kate. "I'm sure she won't survive the Prince if I leave."
"How about I look after her while you go home?" asked Sir Geoffrey.
Kate considered it for a moment. She thought of Eagle's Reach without Algernon and Rowntree and felt a swift stab of pain. She could go there without one but not both. The wound was still too fresh.
Yet she could not stay in the King's Heartland. She had to go back to Eagle's Reach and reclaim her duchy.
"No," she finally said. "I don't know where my father is and if he's here I'm not leaving without him. I have to check here first. The Prince sees me as a prize and won't willingly let me go. I will go when autumn is in the air. The Prince won't dare to follow me, or he'll be trapped by the winter storms. I can use the winter months to regroup."
Sir Geoffrey's eyes darkened. "Has His Highness touched you, Your Grace?"
Kate flushed scarlet and Sir Geoffrey held up his hand. "I'm sorry, I overstep my bounds," he said. He shook his head. "Look," he said after a few long moments. "Algernon is my best friend. She would never forgive me if I left you here by yourself to go looking for her. She would want me to stay and make sure that your freedoms and dignity remained intact. But I can't leave my poor Eliza here close to the Prince because she is no safer than you are." He paused a moment. "How about a compromise? I will ask Eliza to return to Eagle's Reach to see what is happening and if there has been any word about your noble husband. She will return to us when she can. Is that suitable to you?"
"Surely she can't travel by herself, Sir Geoffrey!" exclaimed Kate. "Something could happen to her!"
Sir Geoffrey shook his head. "Appearances are certainly deceiving, aren't they? My beloved wife is as good with a sword as I am." He smiled. "I have taught her everything I know. I'm sure she will be safer on the road than here. Let me ask her."
Kate almost unwillingly nodded. "If you're sure?"
"I'm sure," he said. "My wife is an amazing woman."
"All right," she said. "We will as Lady Eliza if she will go to Eagle's Reach." I hope she returns soon and the news is good, thought Kate.
She and Sir Geoffrey clasped forearms, sealing their bargain. He led her back out into the street where they silently separated. She returned to the castle, sweating freely under her light dress, the oppressive heat and humidity robbing her of precious strength.
The summer heat proved to be too much for Kate's healing body, and she fell into a fever for the next three days, unable to get out of her bed. She was distantly aware that the Prince visited her but was forced to withdraw. Shortly after that, she felt cool, soft hands on her forehead smoothing her hair back, lending her strength.
She opened her eyes.
"Kate?" asked the princess hesitantly. "Do you mind if I call you Kate?"
Kate shook her head.
"Kate, you are sick," said the Princess. "I think it is poison. Who else knows about you?"
Kate shook her head. Sir Geoffrey knew, of course, but his loyalty was unquestionable. "No one. Why would anyone want to poison me?"
Rebecca stared at her. "You are my husband's lover, and competition for his other lovers. You are Duke Algernon's widow. This may not even have been intended for you."
"Is it possible Stephen tried to poison me?" asked Kate.
"It is perfectly possible although I don't know what he would have to gain from it. On the other hand, as Sir Malcolm's daughter, you are the heir to Cayman's Leap and his appointing a steward is entirely illegal. It is possible that he decided to deal with that point of law."
"Is there any way to find out?" asked Kate.
"No. This is a way of royal life, as harsh as it may seem," said Rebecca. She sighed and shifted in her seat. "I'm sorry. I've spent so much time with Rowntree that I have not paid appropriate attention to you."
"It's not your fault," whispered Kate. "I wanted to be left alone."
"You are my friend."
"And you are mine, but you can't watch over me every minute of every day. I'll just have to be more careful about my food," said Kate. She smiled weakly. "I'm thinking that now we know about my tainted meals perhaps whoever is behind this will try another method."
Princess Rebecca shuddered. "I hope not." She sighed. "Do you feel inclined to accept visitors?" she asked.
"A knight by the name of Sir Geoffrey Brandywine has been asking about you. My maids have put him off but he is becoming impatient."
"Let him in to see me!" said Kate. "He was my husband's best friend and is like a brother to me."
Princess Rebecca nodded after a moment. "All right." She stood. "Are you strong enough to receive him? He is outside now and I understand he is threatening to break down the door unless you open it for him."
Kate laughed softly, despite herself. "Of course."
Princess Rebecca got off the bed and went to the chamber door, opening it and beckoning.
Sir Geoffrey, for all his alleged bluff and bluster, hesitated in the doorway.
"Come," said the Princess. "Come in. She knows you are here!"
Kate silently watched him enter the room. His eyebrows shot up when he saw her lying in bed. He strode over to her, decorum forgotten, and frowned.
"Kate?" he asked. "What's the matter?"
"Please, Sir Geoffrey. Sit." She gestured towards a chair close to the bed. He sat awkwardly.
"I'm sick," she said.
Sir Geoffrey raised an eyebrow. "So I see. What's the matter?"
"She said you were her husband's best friend. Is that true?" asked Rebecca quietly.
Sir Geoffrey nodded. "She speaks the truth."
"Then I can tell you that she was poisoned," said Rebecca, casting a stern look at Kate when she began to weakly protest. "Not even I can protect you from Stephen!"
"Are you saying the Prince is responsible for this, Your Highness?" asked Sir Geoffrey.
"Nothing should surprise you where my husband is concerned, good knight," said Rebecca.
Sir Geoffrey's jaw tensed. "So it seems." He turned to Kate. "Are you well enough to get out of bed?"
"It entirely depends on where I'm going," said Kate.
"There is a ball tonight," said Sir Geoffrey. "I urge you to allow me to be your escort for the evening."
"You realize that if I tried it you would be dragging me around like a sack of potatoes," said Kate. "I really don't think that's such a good idea."
"I think it's a splendid idea," said Princess Rebecca. She smiled at Sir Geoffrey. "When will you be stopping by for her?"
"At around six, I think," said Sir Geoffrey. He turned back to Kate and smiled. "I will see you at six."
Kate gaped at them both. "How do you propose I managed to get out of bed and stay conscious, Your Highness?"
"Rebecca," said the Princess absently. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a vial. "This is the antidote. We have been giving it to you for the past day when we found your chambermaid dead. You should be fine by this evening."
"How did you know that was going to fix me?" asked Kate, shocked.
"When I agreed to marry Stephen, my education was extended to cover the indelicate subject of assassination," said Rebecca. "I know the symptoms of almost every poison."
Kate's eyebrows shot in the air. "Just trust you, in other words?"
Rebecca nodded and smiled. "Yes. Let me take care of you, Kate. Rowntree and I owe you a great deal."
"How is Rowntree?" asked Kate.
"She is well but worried about you," said Rebecca, handing Kate the vial and watching as Kate drained it to the last drop. Kate grimaced.
"Can you tell her I will see her tonight?" said Kate. "After the ball?"
The princess nodded. "Do you want me to stay and help you get dressed? It's three."
"What?" said Kate. "How on earth am I going to find a dress and be ready by six?"
"My wardrobe is yours, Your Grace," said Princess Rebecca. "I will have something sent over with my maids. We will have you ready on time, Kate." She stroked Kate's head. "You already seem a little cooler."
"We'll see how I feel by six," said Kate.
The Princess nodded. "All right." She stood. "If you will forgive me, I must withdraw. I also have to prepare."
Kate nodded. "Of course."
True to her word, the Princess sent her maids to Kate and the Duchess was ready by six. She sat in the chair by her window, distantly amazed that she felt considerably better than she had three hours earlier.
She heard a knock at her door and a maid opened it. Sir Geoffrey Brandywine, looking resplendent and handsome in his formal suit, bowed low when he saw her. She thought of Algernon at the Winter Solstice celebration and quickly pushed the memory to one side.
"Kate," he said. "You look magnificent."
Kate looked down at the dark blue dress and smiled at him. "Thank you, Sir Geoffrey. You look very handsome yourself."
Sir Geoffrey smiled. "Thank you, dear Kate." He held out his arm. "Are you ready to go?"
Kate nodded. "I am." She took his arm and they left the room.
Sir Geoffrey was a considerate escort, making sure that they moved slowly enough for Kate's comfort down to the main hall.
It was teeming with nobles and servants. The doors and windows were thrown open, allowing the warm, summer air to flow into the hall.
Kate's head swam as Sir Geoffrey steered them over to his section of the table. He helped her into her seat, sitting beside her. Kate sat back and let the conversation wash over her.
A corpulent man sat beside her, apparently more interested in devouring every morsel of meat on his plate than conversing with her.
She felt Sir Geoffrey's hand on her arm and leaned towards him.
"That is Lord Lucien," he said. "He owns estates in the west. He hates court but loves the food. Don't expect him to talk to you. He's somewhat of a snob and castle gossip has it that you have an insignificant rank."
She glanced at Sir Geoffrey and snorted a laugh. "So I'm not worth talking to unless I have a title?"
Sir Geoffrey grimaced. "Something like that. You will be stared at this evening. Gossip has it that you and the Prince have a connection, shall we say."
"You mean these people think I'm fair game because I'm the Prince's whore?"
"I wouldn't have quite put it like that," said Sir Geoffrey, "but that's the general idea."
"Idiots," muttered Kate. "I'm a married woman and a Duchess." She sighed. "I wish Algernon were here."
Sir Geoffrey sighed. "As do I."
"Who is the simpering idiot on the other side of you?" asked Kate, looking up in time to see a young, buxom, red haired woman batting her eyelids at Sir Geoffrey.
"A young woman who annoys my wife no end," Sir Geoffrey said with a grin.
Kate laughed. "I'll bet she does. But I'm equally sure Lady Eliza has no competition."
Sir Geoffrey smiled in genuine pleasure. "No one compares to my Eliza."
Just at that moment, the hall stilled, and everyone turned to gawk at the far wall.
There was a fanfare and the heralds began calling for everyone's attention. Kate found herself craning her neck, without really understanding why.
"Prince Stephen and Princess Rebecca!" cried the herald, and the royals both walked in.
Kate's breath caught. They made a magnificent study in contrasts. Both wore simple circlets of gold, his on light hair, hers on black. She wore a black gown matching his black suit perfectly. He was very handsome, she very beautiful; she had her arm threaded through his and they both dipped their heads, acknowledging the assembled nobles.
"He's a snake, isn't he?" whispered Sir Geoffrey, joining in the round of applause that swept across the crowd.
"He's more than that," muttered Kate.
She looked at the Prince and found him staring directly into her eyes. She thought she was mistaken but his lips curved into a faint smile and she knew she was not. Her heart sank.
The Prince and Princess allowed themselves to be seated, and the Prince beckoned to a page. He whispered into the young man's ear.
"Shoot me now," muttered Kate.
"Pardon?" asked Sir Geoffrey.
The page materialized beside them and whispered into Kate's ear. "His Highness requests the pleasure of your company."
"And my escort?" asked Kate, glancing at Sir Geoffrey. He looked as though he had swallowed a raw lemon.
"The Prince's invitation extended to your escort as well, My Lady."
Kate felt a sudden bolt of anger. "Thank him politely and tell him no. I have been ill for the past few days and I need to rest. Sir Geoffrey?"
Sir Geoffrey gaped at her. "Are you sure, my dear?" he asked.
"I'm sure," she said. What difference did it make? She thought to herself. The Prince would take what he wanted from her in private, regardless of what she thought about it. Public requests, however, were another matter. It would endlessly chafe him to be refused by what he thought was little better than a commoner and his plaything.
Sir Geoffrey was leading her out of the hall before the startled page had a chance to react.
"Are you sure about this?" he asked. "It is no trifling matter to refuse the prince."
Kate nodded. "It doesn't matter what he does to me. And if he thinks he can do it again he's in for a fight."
Sir Geoffrey shook his head and sighed.
Late that night, the Prince appeared in Kate's chamber.
He shook her awake. "Why did you refuse me?" he demanded.
She blinked at him, disturbed from a sound sleep. "You poisoned me, Your Highness. I am sick. I am not sufficiently healed to be your toy."
He snarled and pulled back his hand to strike her.
"Are you sure about marking me?" she asked. "I will parade myself around the castle and town tomorrow and everyone will know the Prince's charms failed him."
The Prince lowered his hand, seething. "Don't forget whose good graces you rely on for a roof over your head."
"I haven't forgotten," said Kate. "You remember, Your Highness, I am not a common whore. I am the wife of a duke! I am the daughter of Knight and a noblewoman!"
"You were the wife of a duke. You are only a noblewoman if I say you are," he said, striding out of the chamber before Kate could say any more.
She sank back onto her pillows, allowing her mind to turn to Algernon. She looked over at the pillow next to hers, empty and unused, and allowed her tears to flow.
Kate awoke the next morning feeling tired and husked out. She dressed listlessly, determined to go out into the city.
She opened the door to her chamber. The Prince stood outside, staring at her expressionlessly.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he put his large hand in the center of her chest and pushed her into her room.
Kate's screams began moments later.
"Kate?" asked Rowntree, peering closely at the duchess. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing," said Kate and sat gingerly beside Rowntree.
"That bastard touched you, didn't he?" said Rowntree shortly. She swore and clutched the bed clothing.
"It doesn't matter, Rowntree," said Kate.
"It matters!" snarled Rowntree.
"We have to leave. I need you to be strong when we do. Do you understand?" asked Kate. "We have to leave before the first snows land in Eagle's Reach. If we time it right we can winter there and regroup. But you need to get well first."
Rowntree opened her mouth to speak, but the door opened and the Princess quietly snuck in.
"Not you too," said Rowntree.
"Look at your face, Princess," breathed Kate.
"I'm all right," muttered the Princess. "Really."
"You don't look it," said Rowntree.
The princess looked down at the floor, trying to hide her black eye from Rowntree and Kate.
Rowntree held out her hand. She was trembling. "Come."
The Princess's shoulders hitched as tears came. She threw herself onto the edge of the bed and Rowntree held her.
"Rebecca," said Rowntree, gently kissing her. "I'm going home as soon as I can. Come with me?"
The princess glanced at her. "I can't leave my son!"
"He comes with us," said Rowntree. "I don't expect you to leave him."
"I can't leave my husband!"
"Your husband is taking his pleasure of everything in a skirt. You don't love him. Come with me. Please."
The princess looked deep into Rowntree's eyes. Kate got up and went to the window, trying to make herself scarce.
"I don't know," said the princess, sounding pained. "Without him I have nothing. I can't take care of myself and my son!"
"Don't worry about that," said Kate and Rowntree together.
"I have to!"
"Truly, Rebecca," said Rowntree. "I can take care of us both. We could have means."
"I'll think about it," said the Princess, sounding defeated.
"Rowntree," said Kate. "Are you up to getting out of bed? You have to start testing your strength if we're to leave here soon."
Rowntree nodded. "Help me. Let's go for a walk around the castle so I can see how I feel. I know I can stand."
"I'll have a dress brought to you," said the Princess.
"I'd rather it was shirt and breeches," said Rowntree.
Kate shot her a look. If she wore shirt and breeches it would become abundantly clear that Rowntree was no simple serving girl or merely Kate's friend.
Rowntree shook her head as though she had read Kate's mind. "A dress really doesn't suit me, Your - "
Kate frowned. She shot a look at the servant summoned by the princess.
" - Kate," finished Rowntree.
Just at that moment, the Princess rejoined them. "A shirt and breeches it is, my dear," she said with a smile.
Rowntree's return grin was large and infectious. "Thank you, Your Highness."
The serving girl returned after a few moments and the Princess and Kate withdrew to the sitting room while Rowntree dressed.
"My husband has designs for you," said the Princess to Kate.
Kate still felt the pain. "So I gathered."
"He hated your husband."
"I know that too," said Kate.
"You must leave here."
"Not without Rowntree."
"She can follow you later."
Kate shook her head. "No. She comes with me now."
The princess looked sad and nodded her head.
"Are you ready for your walk?" asked Rowntree from the doorway.
Kate looked up. The redhead had a half smile on her face and looked fearfully thin. She trembled slightly. Yet the steps that she took towards them were firm and graceful.
"Rowntree," said Kate, standing. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right," said Rowntree cautiously. "So far so good. Let's go!"
Kate hid her smile as the Princess offered her arm and Rowntree took it with a grin. They left Rowntree's room, and made their slow, deliberate way along the corridor towards the stairs to the battlements.
Once there, the Princess stayed close beside Rowntree as they looked out onto the verdant land below. There was a forest to their left and farmlands on all other sides of the castle. They could see toy houses in the distance with thin trails of smoke coming from their chimneys; tiny animals grazed in the fields. A road meandered through it all, wagons going along it looking like industrious ants.
Kate thought back to a happier time and place. The scene before here became a winter wonderland, and she could feel a warm body behind her and gentle arms holding her. She sighed and closed her eyes.
"Are you all right, Kate?" asked Rowntree, peering at her. The princess moved away from them to intercept a serving girl headed across the battlements towards them.
"I'm fine," said Kate, trying to muster a smile for her friend.
"You're not fine," said Rowntree. "You're thinking about Algernon."
Kate nodded. She could not speak.
"I understand," said Rowntree. Her arms snuck around Kate. "Let it out."
Kate began to sob, the sounds torn deep from the cellar of her soul. It was the first time she had been able to release the deep grief she felt for Algernon.
Rowntree held silently held her, allowing her to cry herself out. When she finally quieted a little, she pulled back, sniffling.
"I'm sorry, Rowntree," she said.
"I don't mind," said Rowntree. "One day, when we have time, I'll tell you how I came to be with Algernon. But not yet. Now isn't the right time."
Kate nodded. "I want to go home."
"So do I," said Rowntree. She shook her head. "But I don't want to leave Rebecca."
"Do you love her?" asked Kate.
Rowntree studied her for a moment. She finally nodded. "I think so."
"Does she feel the same for you?"
Rowntree nibbled her lip and nodded.
"Then we really can't go before the snows start. If we do, we're in trouble. The prince will come after his wife."
"I could stay here with her."
"And live as a walking corpse? No, I don't think so. You have to come back with me. And she has to come with us."
They turned to study the Princess, and Kate heard Rowntree's breathing catch. Rebecca stood talking to the serving girl, her hair gently lifted off her creamy shoulders by the soft breeze. Her profile was exquisitely beautiful, and her figure slim and ripe.
"She's beautiful," said Kate.
Rowntree nodded. "I know. What she's doing with that pig of a man I'll never understand."
Just at that moment, Princess Rebecca turned and began walking towards them. Her red lips curved into a smile as she watched them watch her approach.
She looked at Kate. "My husband the Prince has asked if he could have the pleasure of Lady Katherine's company at the races this afternoon." The smiled slipped away. "Sir Geoffrey Brandywine is competing so you cannot hide behind him." She shook her head and looked troubled. "That was his exact message."
Kate swore softly. "Then I suppose I am going to the races."
"I will go with you," said the Princess. "Decency is our best protection right now. I hardly think he will proposition you with me right in front of him."
"Hasn't he hurt you enough?" asked Kate.
"And you? What of you?" asked the Princess. She glanced at Rowntree.
Rowntree stepped forward. "I can't stand the thought of him hurting either one of you." She turned to the Princess and gently took her hands. She caressed them. "Princess, when we leave here, you must come with us. There's nothing for you here. If you must, you can tell your husband that you're wintering in Eagle's Reach. Be with me. Let me take care of you."
Rebecca released Rowntree's hands and cupped her beautiful, gaunt face. She stroked Rowntree's prominent cheekbones with trembling thumbs. She pulled Rowntree's face down and claimed her lips in a gentle kiss.
Rowntree moaned softly and Kate felt her heart tear a little more, despite her happiness for her friend.
"I want nothing more. You complete me. But I cannot leave my son and I cannot take him with me. I love you, Lieutenant Rowntree, more than I have ever loved anyone before. I want to be yours, but I cannot. There can be nothing between us." She wiped away the tears that cut tracks down Rowntree's beautiful face. "But I also cannot give you up. I am not that unselfish. I will throw myself at the mercy of King Damien, but I cannot do it until you are almost ready to leave. Will you wait for me?"
Rowntree rested her head against the Princess's and drew in watery breath. "I will wait forever for you. Just ... be with me."
Rebecca nodded. "I promise."
Rowntree leant down to claim her lips in a kiss and Kate quietly snuck away, unable to withstand the onslaught of pain. She returned to her rooms with a sigh, calling for a servant to help her with a dress for the races.
"Hello, Lady Katherine," said Prince Stephen smoothly as Kate followed a page into the royal box.
"Your Highness," said Kate smoothly, gritting her teeth as she was forced to sit next to Prince Stephen.
She pulled out her binoculars and looked down at the race track, hoping to catch sight of Sir Geoffrey.
"You are looking for your friend," said Prince Stephen, leaning towards her. "I do believe he is in this race."
"What number is his?" asked Kate.
"He is on the bay gelding." The Prince pointed. "Right ... there."
Kate followed the direction of his finger and saw Sir Geoffrey. She looked at him through the binoculars. He was frowning and his lips were pressed into a tight line. The horse pranced beneath him.
Kate wondered what was wrong.
"I am sorry I'm late, Stephen," said Rebecca, smoothly sliding into the suddenly vacant seat on the other side of the Prince.
Prince Stephen opened his mouth to speak, but was quickly silenced by a small boy hurtling towards him.
"Papa! Papa!" yelled Vincent, launching himself at his father.
Prince Stephen frowned and his eyes narrowed. He quickly grabbed Vincent and cuffed him. "Ruffian!" he snarled. "I am a Prince of the Realm and your father! Is that any way to greet nobility?"
Vincent faltered and stopped. His eyes became watery. "No, Your Highness. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath and bowed with his arms straight by his sides. "Hello, Father."
Stephen nodded approvingly. He gestured for servant.
"Take the Prince to his room and lock him in," he said. Vincent gaped at him and Rebecca put a placating hand on his arm.
"Are you sure that-ah!" exclaimed Rebecca, looking down at the wrist Stephen had clamped in one of his large hands.
"I'll go, Father," whispered Vincent. "Just let Mama go."
Stephen reached forward and cuffed Vincent again, knocking him over. The servant quickly picked him up and hurriedly led him away.
Stephen turned to the Princess. "Never contradict me in public, my dear." He smiled without mirth, his eyes hard and cold.
"I'm sorry, Stephen," said Rebecca.
Kate gaped at him. She finally found her voice and opened her mouth to speak.
Stephen instantly silenced her with a snake like stare. "Perhaps you should keep your eyes on your friend," he said. "You never know when it's the last time you will see him. And if he wins this race I'm sure you want to witness it."
Kate turned back to Sir Geoffrey, who seemed to be having problems with his mount.
Just then the bell rang and the riders shot out of the gates, headed around the track at breakneck speed. Kate stood, gripping the edge of the box in a white knuckled grip.
Sir Geoffrey lasted until the first turn, and then Kate watched in horror as he was thrown from his horse. Kate screamed as Sir Geoffrey staggered to his feet, dazed, and was hit by another horse. He went down, and a third galloped over the top of him.
She tried to turn and run down towards Sir Geoffrey, but the iron hand of Prince Stephen held her back.
"I am sorry about your friend," he whispered in her ear. "Let's just hope this is the end of his run of bad luck, shall we?"
Kate studied him carefully. His eyes were cold. She nodded. "Yes, Your Highness."
Kate walked into Sir Geoffrey's chamber, following his white faced valet.
"Has the surgeon been in to see him?" asked Kate.
The valet shook his head. "Too busy, My Lady."
Kate nodded, disgusted. Since when was a surgeon with delusions of grandeur too busy to see a knight? "Take me to him. I used to help in my husband's hospital and perhaps I can be of some use here."
The valet, a young man with the shadow of acne on his unlined face, looked at her. There were tears in his eyes. "Really, My Lady? He's ... I never had a father, you see ... and ..."
Kate nodded, gently squeezing his arm. "I understand. Let me see."
The valet nodded, leading her into the inner chamber.
She winced when she saw Sir Geoffrey. He was pale and unconscious. His handsome face was drawn and he had black circles around his eyes.
She put her hand on the bed clothes, but felt the touch of the valet. She looked at him.
"It's not proper, Miss. I - "
"Let me try and help you," said Kate softly. She put her hand on his. "We have to see how bad the damage is so I can see how to help him. I want to help him. You must trust me."
The valet's hand faltered away from her arm. She smiled.
She pulled back the bed clothes and sighed.
Sir Geoffrey's torso was a mottled mass of dark bruising and his ribs looked lumpy. Kate was sure some of them were broken. She felt sick and a cold sliver of dread worked its way into her heart, but she pushed it aside as best she could. Stephen was a sadist and her stupidity had almost cost Sir Geoffrey his life. She would never make that mistake with Prince Stephen again.
"He will live," said a soft voice from beside her.
Kate turned, surprised, doubly so when she saw Vincent's florid faced nurse peering at Sir Geoffrey.
Vincent hid behind her skirts.
Kate nodded. "I think he will too. He needs rest and medicine to heal quickly." She smoothed his hair back from his clammy brow. "He will need something for the pain."
The nurse glanced at the valet. "If I give you a list of things, will you go and get them?"
The young man looked between the two of them and Vincent snuck out from behind his nurse.
"I'm a Prince and you have to do what I say," said Vincent, lifting his chin. "Nurse said get some things for him, so I'm ordering you to go."
The valet smiled, despite himself. "Yes, Your Highness," he said, bowing.
Vincent nudged the nurse and the woman produced a small boy's pouch of coins. Vincent cautiously handed it to the valet. "You can use that."
The valet bowed low and waited as the nurse wrote a quick list of herbs and other ingredients she needed for Sir Geoffrey.
"There's an apothecary in the market closest to the castle. Go to him - his herbs are the freshest. Be back as quick as you can!"
The valet bowed low. "Yes, Madam," he said and ran from the room.
"Little One," said the nurse to Vincent. "Would you please see if you can find a page for me?"
Vincent nodded and ran from the room.
"How did you know to come here?" asked Kate.
The nurse sighed and settled herself on the bed beside Sir Geoffrey, putting a hand on his forehead, searching for fever.
"Her Highness came to see Master Vincent after the races. As soon as he found out about the accident he was ordering me up here to see what I could do." She smiled. "My husband - god rest his gentle soul - was a soldier-surgeon in His Highness's army. He taught me everything he could. That's why I'm called 'Nurse'." She glanced at Kate. "Vincent is a good boy. His heart is good."
Kate nodded and sent fond thoughts towards Rebecca and Vincent. "Anything other than that is just His Highness being a little boy."
"Exactly," said Nurse.
Vincent returned shortly after with a page. Kate and the Nurse bathed Sir Geoffrey with his assistance as best they could. The valet returned as they were finishing, and Nurse showed him how to make the poultices for his master's scrapes and cuts, and the herbal teas that would be good pain killers and sleeping aids.
Vincent helped as best he could, mindful of his manners and also staying out of the way of his busy Nurse.
When she was finished, he threw his arms around her neck and gave her a hard hug and a kiss on her florid cheek.
"You're like Mama," he said. "You can fix anything."
Nurse hugged him back. "Thank you, Master Vincent. You're a good boy."
Kate settled down to wait. She wanted to be there if Sir Geoffrey opened his eyes.
Sir Geoffrey did not regain consciousness and she returned to her rooms late that night, exhausted from the day's events. Sleep came to her slowly and when it did, her dreams were filled with the screams of Algernon's horse and the sound of arrows thudding into the duke's unprotected body.
Kate woke up the next morning determined to visit the castle dungeons. She was reasonably sure that the castle guards would not simply allow her to walk in there, so she sought out the Princess.
Rebecca, as she expected, was with Rowntree.
Rowntree lay in her bed and Princess Rebecca sat by her bedside.
"Good morning, Your Highness. Rowntree," said Kate.
"Good morning, Your Grace," said Rowntree with a grin that rapidly fell away. "You look terrible. Please don't tell me something worse has happened to Sir Geoffrey."
Kate shook her head.
The Princess and Rowntree exchanged a glance.
"Then what is it, Kate?" asked Rebecca.
"I don't really know how to ask this," said Kate.
"Just ask, Your Grace," said Rebecca, gazing at her curiously. "Surely you realize there are no secrets between us."
Kate smiled and perched on the edge of Rowntree's bed.
"All right. I want to go to the castle dungeons. I'm looking for my father," said Kate.
"What would your father be doing in the dungeon?" asked Rebecca.
"Your husband was waiting at my father's estate just before winter, waiting to arrest him for treason," said Kate. "I'm hoping he's there. At least I'd know he was alive."
Rebecca stared at her, and her gaze flew between Rowntree and Kate.
Rowntree nodded. "He did."
"Why would he do that?" asked Rebecca.
"Algernon told me that he was one of the nobles loyal to the King and not to the Prince and Stephen wanted to get rid of him."
"Yes, it's well known he wants the throne," said Rebecca.
"If he wants the throne so badly, why doesn't he just kill Vincent and King Damien?" asked Kate. "Why go through the whole drama of killing nobles?"
Rebecca was quiet for a moment. "Well," she said at last, "Stephen is the Duke of Manusk in the Southern Highlands. His duchy is in revolt because he is overtaxing them - and he refuses to give in to their demands to lower taxes. He is using not only his troops but ones from the other nobles of the Southern Highlands to keep his own duchy in line. As nobles that are loyal to Damien falls, Stephen - as the first born son to the king - automatically gains control over the duchy before it is given to another noble as their home seat."
"What about the first born of a noble? Don't they inherit their father's - or mother's - title and estate?" broke in Rowntree.
"Only if they're alive," said Kate quietly.
Rebecca smiled mirthlessly and nodded. "Correct, Your Grace. Stephen wants control of every duchy - it takes power away from Damien and gives him much needed resources. Why doesn't he simply kill Damien or Vincent? Damien succinctly told Stephen that if anything happens to either one of them, Stephen is automatically going to be arrested and hanged. The nobles of the Northern Reaches - Brandywine, Cayman's Leap, Fotheringill and Eagle's Reaches - are charged with carrying out this task. I think we all know where Fotheringill stands on this."
Kate and Rowntree exchanged a glance. Kate's mind churned. Algernon's life had always hung in the balance, and not once had she ever even hinted of it to Kate! She should have told Kate, so at least Kate could knowingly share the burden with her!
Kate was Algernon's widow, and the Duchess of Eagle's Reach. She wanted to finish what Algernon had started. Kate's resolve to go home doubled and the look in Rowntree's eyes showed she understood. It also showed her pain over Rebecca.
"I made the choice for you before, but that was wrong," said Kate. "I have to go home. I want you to come with me. Will you?"
Rowntree looked at her for a long moment, and then gazed into Rebecca's black eyes. Kate could see their shared pain and looked down at the coverlet, unwilling to intrude on their intimacy.
"She'll go with you," said Rebecca softly. She kissed Rowntree's knuckles.
Rowntree bit her lip.
"Now," said Rebecca, turning back to Kate. "The dungeon."
"I'll go down by myself," said Kate.
"I was going to suggest that I send someone down to look for him," said the Princess.
"No, I want to do it myself," said Kate. "I want your husband to know what I'm doing. I want him to know that I'm not his pet."
"He will damage you," said the Princess.
Kate nodded. "I know but better me than you." She smiled. "I'm glad you're coming back with us. We can work something out. Don't forget Cayman's Leap is mine."
Rebecca nodded, and Kate saw her internal struggle in her dark eyes.
"No matter," said Kate. "Think about it. Could you please tell me how to get to the dungeon?"
"I will take you," said Rebecca. "It's difficult to explain."
Kate took her leave of Rowntree and followed Rebecca through the castle, past the kitchens, towards a door with rusty hinges and latch.
"Go down that hallway," said Rebecca. "At the end is a guard's room. They will direct you from there."
"Are they Stephen's men?" asked Kate.
"Yes," said Rebecca. "Very much so." She smiled but it did not touch her eyes. "Be careful, Duchess of Eagle's Reach. My husband does not like having his nose tweaked."
Kate nodded. "I know."
Kate opened the door and walked down the long, stone hallway towards the guard's room. Her shadow shuddered uneasily in the flickering torch light. The corridor smelt dusty and dank; her eyes watered from the oily smoke coming from the torches.
She walked into the guard's room. It was occupied by two men playing cards. They both turned to study her with cold and sharp eyes.
"What do you want, girl?" asked the older of the two, a grey haired man with a neatly trimmed beard.
"I want to see the prisoners," said Kate, pushing aside her irritation at his disrespectful tone.
"Which one?" he asked.
"All of them," said Kate.
Neither guard moved.
"Well?" said Kate coolly. "Get up and let me in!"
"Look at that!" said the older guard to the younger one. "A wench who does not know her place!"
How about a Duchess who does? thought Kate dryly. "Come along, now - what harm can it do?" she asked aloud. "There's no law against it, is there?"
"No, there is no law against a woman visiting prisoners," said the younger one at last. "Let her in, Sergeant."
"Yes, Sir," said the older guard, standing and saluting.
The younger guard caught her wrist as she brushed past him. "You have five minutes, girl, and then you had best be out of there or I start unlocking cell doors."
Kate knew he was serious by his cold eyes. He pointed to a flickering torch by the door the Sergeant held open. "You will need that."
Kate nodded, and, taking the torch, entered the cell block.
The dungeon was not large, but she hurried to complete a round in the five minutes the younger guard had given her. The cells were dark and stank of unwashed humans, but were clean. Each of the cells had clean bedding and fresh straw on the floors, and a fragrant slop jar in a hidden corner.
"Time's up, Princess," roared the older guard from the open door to the cells.
Kate immediately hurried towards them, shaking and preoccupied. She hurried past him, thrusting the torch into his hands and almost flying from the dungeon. She distantly heard the roaring laughter of the guards, but paid no attention to them.
She burst out of the door to find Rebecca waiting for her.
"Well?" said the Princess. "What did you find?"
"He's not there," said Kate.
She sagged against the wall, trembling with relief. If he was not in the castle dungeons then where was he? Kate thought of him hiding in Cayman's Leap or dead by the road somewhere. She bit off the tears she felt coming, more determined than ever to leave for Eagle's Reach. They had a lot to do before the snows came.
Later that evening, Kate was returning to her room after spending the evening playing cards with Sir Geoffrey's valet. She paused outside her door, shuddering under the uneasy sensation of eyes on her back.
She turned and looked down the corridor in the direction she had just come from.
Prince Stephen stepped out of a darkened alcove, watching her carefully. His handsome face was so expressionless it seemed carved out of granite; but his eyes were not. Kate fought to suppress a shudder. She gazed back at him, unblinking, almost daring him to say something to her.
He met her stare, second for second.
Kate finally turned away and unhurriedly opened her door. She stepped through it with insulting ease, glad that her long skirts hid her shaking knees.
She waited for him to come, but he did not.
Kate spent every day for the next four weeks dividing her time between Rowntree, Sir Geoffrey and Princess Rebecca.
She breakfasted with Rowntree - who was slowly spending more hours out of bed - and the Princess. They would talk for an hour or so, and then Kate left the two of them to go and visit Cloud. After, she would walk either on the castle grounds or in one of the public parks that dotted the city.
She would visit Sir Geoffrey and eat with him and his valet. They would spend a few hours playing games with Vincent - who loved playing with Sir Geoffrey - or simply talking. Sir Geoffrey and Vincent spent their time together accusing each other of cheating at their games; the bigger the insult, it seemed to Kate, the more respect it drew from the one insulted.
Kate noticed that Sir Geoffrey taught Vincent manners under the guise of lending his valet to Vincent. Vincent learnt how to ask for things without insulting or offending the servants in his care. Vincent also saw and loved Sir Geoffrey for not making fun of him or hitting him when he forgot things. He was not terrified of the knight and remembered more of what he was taught, although his high spirits sometimes produced memory lapses.
The days passed quickly for Kate, but the evenings did not. She was forced to eat with Prince Stephen for four nights out of seven and he visited her almost every night. She loathed his touch although she was slowly growing used to it; he did not hurt her as badly as he had in the beginning.
She counted the days when they would return to Eagle's Reach. Her heart began to lighten as she felt the bite in the air that told her autumn had arrived and the day of their departure was approaching. She often fingered the chain around her neck, thinking of golden maple leaves and bright blue eyes.
She took to visiting the castle battlements, so she could look down and see the leaves on the maple trees turn golden yellow and slowly drop off the branches. She smiled, almost tasting the cold, mountain air in her mouth and throat. She remembered Algernon and climbing a tree, breathless at the beauty of her new home. It was then that the pain would take her, robbing her of her ability to breathe and she felt a fierce longing for Algernon that never seemed to abate.
Kate waited until she could go home.
Kate stood on the castle battlements, looking far down below at the King's Heartland. It spread out all around them, beautiful and somehow poisonous. Kate hated it, despite its beauty, and knew that feeling would never leave her. Too much had happened to her, very little of it good.
Rowntree and Rebecca stood close to her but out of earshot. She had broken the news to them that they had to leave for Eagle's Reach. Rowntree agreed and was ready to go; she felt much better than she had. She was planning with Rebecca how to leave.
Kate stared unseeing into the distance.
"Your Grace?" said a soft, hesitant voice from beside her.
Kate turned and stared at Lady Eliza Brandywine.
"Lady Eliza!" she said. "You must call me Kate! How wonderful it is to see you!" She threw her arms around the noblewoman and squeezed. She began to shake. Lady Eliza would have news of Eagle's Reach!
Lady Eliza smiled in genuine pleasure and returned her fond hug. "And it is good to see you, Kate."
Kate took a step back. "What are you doing here, My Lady? How was Eagle's Reach? Did you find out - ?" Her mouth shut with an almost audible snap at the quick shake of Lady Eliza's head.
"It's so quiet in the Northern Reaches. Much more exciting here." Lady Eliza gave her the ghost of a smile. Her eyes were shrewd and measuring. "Oh, you know why I'm doing here: meeting up with old acquaintances, looking for old friends, finding out court gossip."
"Really?" asked Kate.
"Really. For example, I heard you are the guest of the Prince and Princess. You met will ill fortune on your way back from Cayman's Leap and His Highness happened to be close by."
"That is true."
"His Grace is missing."
Kate flinched. "Also true."
Lady Eliza nodded. "I am very sorry for you. I can see you love your duke dearly."
Kate nodded, blinking back tears.
"If you are of a mind to go outside the castle, you must visit the Queen's Gardens." Lady Eliza leant over the battlements and pointed to a neat rectangle of trees. "It's lovely at this time of year."
Kate nodded. "Thank you, My Lady." She had to suppress the urge to run as fast as she could to the Queen's Gardens. She suspected that Lady Eliza was trying to lead her to a safe place for them to talk.
Lady Eliza bowed in farewell, and Kate turned back to the Princess and Rowntree.
They stood close together, arms touching.
Kate cleared her throat as she approached and they moved a little apart. Kate hid her smile.
"How are you feeling, Rowntree?" she asked.
"I'm all right," said Rowntree. "But I think I should sit for a while."
"Then let's head back to your room," said Kate. She felt restless and wanted to walk more.
"I will escort you back," said the Princess to Rowntree.
A small boy chose just that moment to run full tilt into Princess Rebecca and throw his arms around her waist.
"Mama!" he yelled happily.
The princess immediately put her arms around him and hugged him close. "Vincent!" She looked around. "Where is your nurse?"
"Oh, her. She's boring!" he exclaimed with a scowl.
Kate smiled. She knew, from watching them interact, how much of Vincent's griping was simply a cover for how much he loved his nurse.
Nurse rushed towards them holding her skirts and attempting to curtsey.
"Stop!" cried the Princess. "You'll fall over and hurt yourself!" She looked down at her son. "Apologize to Nurse. You know you're not to run from her!"
"I'm sorry," Vincent muttered. He looked at his mother. "But she's so slow!"
"Where were you trying to go?" asked Kate.
"Who are you?" asked Vincent, ignoring Kate and peering at Rowntree with interest.
Rowntree smiled. "I'm Rowntree, Your Highness. I'm Lady Kate's friend."
"I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Prince Vincent," said Vincent, bowing formally.
Princess Rebecca smiled at him. "Now you remember your manners," she said fondly, shaking her head.
"Sorry, Mama. There's an awful lot to remember," he said.
"Indeed there is," said Prince Stephen, materializing behind them and staring at his son as though he were a new and disgusting breed of insect. "But you had best learn it if you have some hope of becoming a gentleman and not remain a little ruffian!"
"Papa!" exclaimed Vincent. He backed away and stood beside his mother.
"Ladies," said Prince Stephen, ignoring his son. Rowntree, Kate and the Princess curtseyed.
"Your Highness," said Kate politely. She struggled with the urge to claw at his eyes.
"Would you like to go for a small walk?" he asked, eyes taking in her slim beauty.
"Thank you, no," said Kate with a smile that did not touch her eyes. "I'm a little tired."
"Then allow me to escort you back to your room," said Prince Stephen. He held out his arm and before Kate really understood what was happening he was dragging her back to her room.
Kate sat on the windowsill her room, looking out over the Queen's Gardens. She itched with the urge to bathe.
There was a knock on the door.
"Come!" she said.
The door opened and Lady Eliza entered. "Your Grace," she said, curtseying. Kate flinched.
"Please, My Lady," said Kate. "Just call me Kate. Especially here."
Lady Eliza nodded. "Are you up for a little walk?"
Kate nodded, glancing around the room. At one time it had been a haven; now it was rapidly becoming a prison.
"Where are we going?" she asked as they entered the corridor.
"Well, I thought you would like to visit the Queen's Gardens. And then, strange as it sounds, my husband suggested you would want to visit the stables."
Kate snorted a laugh. "Your husband is correct. I do want to know how Cloud is doing!" It hurt her to think about it. She loved the horse; it also reminded her of Algernon.
"She's doing well," said Lady Eliza as they walked down the main stairs towards the front exit of the castle. She laughed. "She was Algernon's, wasn't she?"
Kate nodded. "Yes. She was Algernon's horse. Her name is Cloud."
"That's an interesting name for a war horse," said Lady Eliza.
"Yes," said Kate. "It is. But it suits her."
They walked along the path towards the hedging that marked the boundaries of the Queen's Gardens.
Lady Eliza stood aside and allowed Kate to enter first. They stood in a grove of pine trees. Kate breathed deeply and smiled. It reminded her of the woods in Eagle's Reach.
She abruptly felt homesick and she fingered her maple leaf necklace. She wanted to go home.
They silent walked through the forest path, towards the center of the Gardens.
Kate could hear the sound of running water, becoming louder. They rounded a corner and found themselves by the side of a stream. Kate stopped and stared at it.
"It's beautiful," she said. She thought back to the day that she had first met Lady Eliza. She and Algernon had found themselves by a stream, sitting under the shelter of Algernon's cloak and simply talking. Late autumn, she had come to realize, was her favorite time of year.
"It is," said Lady Eliza. She pointed towards the road. "Keep going. I think I will enjoy the sun for a while."
"You want to rest for a little bit?" asked Kate.
"I do, but I understand you feel restless. By all means, keep walking. You can come and collect me when you have done your rounds of the gardens."
Kate nodded and kept walking. It was a strange request, but Kate knew Lady Eliza instinctively understood how she felt. She needed to be alone with her memories of Algernon and Eagle's Reach.
She rounded another corner and stopped dead.
An ancient maple tree stood in the exact centre of the Gardens. Sunlight dappled through its branches, playing on the golden leaves, highlighting a tall figure leaning against the thick trunk.
The figure straightened. "Kate?"
"Algernon!" Kate lifted her skirts and ran as hard as she could for her beloved duke. She flew into Algernon's embrace.
Algernon grunted and her arms tightened around Kate. Kate could not stop the tears that flowed from her eyes. Her shoulders shook with the force of her sobs.
"Algernon," she said in a thick voice. "You're alive!"
"I'm alive," whispered Algernon, pulling back and cupping her face. "So are you!" Her blue eyes blazed.
Kate leaned up and kissed her with every ounce of passion that had pent up through their months of separation.
"Algernon, I love you," she said when they broke. "You always knew how I felt but I never said the words. I love you!"
"And I love you," said Algernon gently. "More than life itself." She pulled back slightly. "Are you all right? What of Rowntree?"
"We're both good," said Kate. "Rowntree was badly injured but she's recovering. She's now well enough to travel. We both want to go home, although she has reservations."
"How so?" asked Algernon.
"It seems she has fallen in love with the Princess," said Kate. "And the sentiment is entirely mutual, I think."
Algernon grinned and shook her head. "Of all places for our Rowntree to lose her heart, it had to be here."
Kate nodded and gazed at Algernon, drinking in the sight of her beautiful, drawn face, scarcely able to believe her beloved duke was alive and holding her. "Was it Lady Eliza? Did she bring you here?"
Algernon nodded. "She did. Sir Geoffrey sent her to find me and bring me here." A tear escaped her blue eyes. "I waited for you, Kate. Every day you didn't come I died a little more. By the time Eliza found me I was ready to give up." She kissed Kate. "I missed you, Kate."
Kate snuggled into her. "I missed you, Algernon."
Algernon nodded. "I want to leave here as soon as we can."
"Do you know anything about my father?" asked Kate. "Do you know if he's - ?"
"He's in good health, dear Kate. He's in Fotheringill."
"What do you plan to do?"
"Get him, of course," said Algernon. "It seems that our good Prince Stephen has been sending out his men in the guise of bandits to execute the nobles that stand with his father. Sir Malcolm and I were last year's sport. His men were housed on Fotheringill land."
Kate's mouth tightened. "How did you find out all of this?"
"Sir Geoffrey told me about the missing nobles a year ago. When Piter came and collected what he thought was my corpse, he checked the body of one of the raiders that was left behind. He found the seal of the Duke of Fotheringill in a pocket. They needed the markers to travel on and off Fotheringill land unmolested."
"The duke has a great deal to answer for, doesn't he?"
Algernon nodded. "He does. And he is going to get quite a surprise when they see me in court tonight."
"You're not going to hide? Algernon, Stephen wants to kill you!"
Algernon smiled. "He may want to kill me but he won't be as brazen about it in front of his father."
Kate's arms snuck around the duke and she put her head on Algernon's chest, listening to the steady beat of her heart.
"Oh, Algernon," she whispered, tears leaking from her closed eyes. "I've missed you so. I thought you were dead!"
"I will admit it wasn't hard to play dead. I'm lucky Piter took me before the Prince's men could. He couldn't get you or Rowntree or he would have."
"Come," said Kate, taking her hand and pulling her back onto the forest path. "I'm sure Rowntree will be pleased to see you as well!"
Algernon took her hand and they walked back towards the stream. Lady Eliza sat on a rock, skipping stones into the water.
"Lady Eliza!" exclaimed Algernon in genuine pleasure. "Thank you!"
"My pleasure, Your Grace," she said.
Algernon offered Lady Eliza her arm and Lady Eliza graciously took it. Kate stayed close to Algernon on the other side, their fingers tangled together. Kate could not bring herself to care about appearances and decorum with Algernon.
"Where are you staying, Algernon?" asked Kate.
Algernon grinned. "With you, if you don't mind. We're married, aren't we?"
Kate squeezed her hand and nodded. "I don't mind at all." She looked and felt radiantly happy.
They made their way out of the Queen's Gardens, and Lady Eliza pulled them to a halt.
"You must forgive my rudeness, Your Graces," she said. "My husband is watching a sparring match with His Highness and I promised to go with him."
"Of course, Lady Eliza," said Algernon.
She bowed and Lady Eliza curtseyed.
Algernon led Kate to the stables and made a beeline for the stall that held Cloud. The warhorse whinnied and stamped her hooves when her mistress approached.
"I'm sorry, Cloud," said Algernon as Cloud nipped at her shirt. "I don't have an apple for you."
"Wait, Algernon," said Kate. "I'll see if the stable master has anything."
She made her way towards the back of the stable with the ease of experience. There was a large barrel of apples there and Kate soundlessly took one.
"- I don't care what you do!" exclaimed a red faced man, gesturing towards a young stable boy. "Get that damn knight's horse out of that stall! Don't you know that's where the Duke of Fotheringill keeps his horse? If he finds it occupied he'll cut off your balls with a rusty knife!"
"Yes, sir," said the young man hastily, rushing towards the front of the stables.
Kate silently made her way back towards Algernon.
Algernon scratched the mare's nose. "I'm sure she's looking as hard as she can, noble lady," said Algernon, kissing her nose.
"I have one for you," said Kate handing her the apple. "Did you know the Duke of Fotheringill is here?"
"Is he now?" said Algernon. "Good. I can tackle them both at once, then."
"What are you going to do?" asked Kate. She felt an instant of alarm and pushed it back.
"I'm going to take you and Rowntree out of here. We're going home."
Kate nodded. Algernon turned and smiled at her. She looked down and the smile faded from her face. She reached out and gently pulled back Kate's bodice.
"What's this?" she asked, tracing a mark on the top of Kate's breast.
Kate winced as her gentle touch caught an open wound and stung thinly. She blushed in humiliation at the treatment she had endured at the hands of the Prince.
"Kate, what's this?" asked Algernon clearly. Kate could see the spark of anger in the duke's sapphire eyes. "It looks like a bite. Is it?"
Kate hung her head, convicted. The pain of her earlier interaction with the Prince lay heavily upon her. She nodded.
"Goddamn!" snarled Algernon, slamming her hand against the stall door. "He used you! Are you hurt?" Her blue eyes spat fire.
Kate stared at her. "You're not angry at me?" she asked timidly.
"No, no, no," said Algernon. "Never at you, Kate. Not for this." She took a deep, shaky breath. "Are you hurt, my love? Did he hurt you? Did he hurt you?"
Kate remained silent. There was no way to hide from Algernon what had been done to her, and it would take days for her to heal completely.
"Oh, God," said Algernon. "I never wanted this! I never wanted him to hurt you! I wanted to protect you!" She wiped at the tears in her eyes.
Kate reached for Algernon and cupped her face. "I'm all right, do you hear me, Algernon? I'm all right! He can't take anything from me that doesn't belong to me! Don't you understand? It's all yours, Algernon. Yours." Some of the savage light faded from Algernon's eyes and Kate stroked her face. "He could never really hurt me, Algernon, because you've always been with me. Perhaps not in the flesh, but I've always felt you! Part of me is with you!"
Algernon's arms slipped around Kate and pulled her in close. "Yes, I do understand, my love. I do."
Kate glanced up at her. The expression in Algernon's sapphire eyes was icy cold. Her heartbeat began to pick up.
"Come with me," said Algernon, taking Kate's hand.
"Where are we going?" asked Kate.
"We're going to cheer with Sir Geoffrey!" said Algernon with the ghost of a smile.
"Please don't do anything foolish, beloved," said Kate.
"I won't," replied Algernon.
They strode into the practice yards, towards the circle of cheering nobles.
"Move aside," snarled Algernon.
The circle broke apart and Algernon strode into the ring. "Sorry, Sir Barnabus," said Algernon shortly. "The match is cancelled."
Sir Barnabus, covered in nicks and smears of blood, looked more relieved than insulted at Algernon's abrupt entrance. He bowed low. "Duke Algernon."
"Duke Algernon De Vere!" exclaimed the Prince with a grin that did not touch his eyes. "What brings you here?"
"You do," said Algernon coldly. "Scoundrel! PIG!"
"Those are bold words, Duke Algernon," replied Prince Stephen. "And what do you think I did to deserve it?"
"You took Kate! Against her will! Damn you, she is my wife, and my Duchess, not a common whore for your amusement!" snarled Algernon. She accepted the sword thrust her way and swung it, testing the balance. "How can you touch an innocent, decent woman like that? Blackguard! Animal!"
"You cannot do this, Duke Algernon," said Prince Stephen coldly. "I am a Prince of the Realm! You cannot throw around charges like that without proof!"
"The proof is on her body!" said Algernon, blue eyes flashing. "You are in no position to deny anything, Stephen! You can't!"
Prince Stephen turned his back on Algernon and walked towards the circle of nobles surrounding them. He stopped at the stony expressions as the men stayed in place.
"Let me by!" said Prince Stephen.
"No," said a soft voice.
Prince Stephen turned and found Sir Barnabus standing directly before him. "What?" he said.
"No," said Sir Barnabus. "Duke Algernon fights for the honor of the Duchess of Eagle's Reach. He demands satisfaction and he shall have it. If you try and leave we will stop you to a man." He glanced at the grim faced nobles surrounding them and they all nodded.
"Duke Algernon has no proof!" snarled the Prince. "There must be an investigation!"
Sir Barnabus stepped forward. His eyes blazed. He leaned in close to the Prince. "I think we both know that no 'investigation' is necessary. His Grace is correct on all counts. Your tastes are well known, and you are a coward and a blackguard. There is enough circumstantial evidence to convict you. I suggest you pick up a sword and begin fighting!" His lips pulled back in a humorless, savage grin.
The Prince's glance darted between the livid Algernon and the nobleman around them. He snarled and lunged towards Algernon. The duke parried and began an attack.
The nobles were deathly silent and reformed ranks as Algernon and the Prince fought furiously. At times, it seemed that the duke would triumph, others the Prince. Both contestants dripped sweat and continued as their blood began to flow.
The prince saw that Algernon was favoring her left side, and swung his sword in a vicious arc towards her.
Kate gasped. Algernon crumpled and almost dropped her sword. Her side became scarlet as the old, barely healed sword wound from the ambush months earlier tore open again.
She could not stand by and watch what was happening to her beloved Algernon.
She dived into the fray and frantically grabbed for the sword someone thrust her way.
She met the Prince's vicious, downward stroke and the concussion vibrated all the way up her arms so she almost lost her grip on the sword.
"Let go of the sword, Lady Kate," said the Prince impatiently. "This does not concern you!"
"Yes, it concerns me!" snarled Kate, swinging for him.
Kate thought about the insulting way he looked at her, about his air of superiority and his perceived right to behave the way he did and she lost her temper. She fought back with a fury that had him retreating almost respectfully.
"Oh, look!" he exclaimed, blocking her blow. "It has teeth! ... Good, good ... you must keep your arms up, my dear ... Ah! Yes! ... This is why ladies do not fight with a sword ... you are simply not as strong as I am!"
Kate gritted her teeth in irritation, trying to rein her temper in. He was calling out defects in her technique to force mistakes and to discourage her.
Algernon slumped over the side, stunned. Sir Geoffrey bent over her prone body and staunched the flow of blood.
"No more," whispered Kate. She lowered her sword and watched the gleam of triumph in the Prince's eyes as he thought she had given up.
He lunged towards her with no particular care, and she waited until the last second and pulled back. He overextended, overbalanced and tripped forward. She dropped to one knee and braced herself behind the hilt of the sword.
Prince Stephen's eyes widened as he realized what was happening the split second before it actually did. The sword sliced cleanly through his body, piercing his cold heart.
He sighed and grasped feebly at the blade as his eyes began to glaze over in death. The nobles remained silent, staring at the tableau in shock.
A scream of rage came from the back of the circle, and Kate turned in time to see a red headed man pounding towards her, his handsome face twisted into an expression of anger.
He whirled his sword, ready to strike the killing blow that would separate Kate's head from her neck.
Algernon's eyes widened. "Kate! Behind you!" she called. Kate whirled towards her assailant.
The tip of a crossbow bolt suddenly appeared in the centre of his chest, sticking out of his heart.
Kate rolled out of his way as he collapsed in the sand.
"Your Grace!" yelled Rowntree from the stands above them. "Your Grace! Are you all right?"
Kate crawled over to Algernon. Sir Geoffrey bent over her.
"His Grace is all right, Madam," he called up to Rowntree.
Kate squeezed his hand in gratitude.
"We're both all right," said Kate, turning back to the stands. "Thank you, Rowntree."
Algernon gave her a half wave. She turned to Sir Geoffrey. "Help me up, would you?"
Sir Geoffrey grinned and gave her a forearm, carefully pulling her to her feet.
"I think we should leave as quickly as possible," muttered Kate as they began to walk back to the castle.
Algernon nodded. "I quite agree. The King won't take kindly to either his son or Fotheringill's deaths."
Kate shook her head. "Are you fit to travel?"
Algernon lifted her shirt. "It's all right. The bleeding's almost stopped." She pulled Kate to a halt. "You know I really can't leave don't you? The King will undoubtedly want some form of justice against me."
Kate's shoulders slumped. "I know."
A neat sextet of soldiers marched towards them.
Kate glanced in their direction. She cupped Algernon's face. "No matter what, I am leaving here with you. If we have to go right now, we will do it. I don't want any more harm to come to either of us, King or no King."
The soldiers stopped directly in front of Algernon.
"Your Grace?" said the Captain. "The King wishes to see you."
Kate took a step forward and grasped Algernon's hand. "You're not going without me. Never again."
Algernon smiled at her. "I wouldn't dream of it." She kissed Kate's knuckles. "Your Grace?"
Kate threaded her arm through Algernon's and they found themselves surrounded by the soldiers.
They were quickly escorted into the King's audience chamber. Algernon knelt, pulling Kate down with her.
"Duke Algernon," said a rich, male voice from directly in front of them. "Duchess Katherine."
Algernon and Kate both looked up into King Damien's distinguished features.
"Your Highness," said Algernon and Kate together.
"I understand my son has been causing trouble, as has Fotheringill."
Algernon nodded. "I started it, Your Highness."
Kate glanced sharply at her. "Defending my honor, Your Highness!"
"More than that, I think," said King Damien. He gave a bitter smile. "I know about my son's activities. I apologize to you, Algernon, for not putting a stop to them sooner. I loved my son but his behavior was disgusting!"
"Thank you, Your Highness," said Algernon after a moment. "And I must apologize to you. I had meant to collect Her Grace and leave quietly."
"I think we both know there was only a slim chance of that happening, Your Grace," replied Damien. He turned to Kate. "I know about the disappearance of your father, Duchess."
Kate nodded. "May I ask Your Highness a question?"
Damien studied her for a moment and nodded. "Yes, my dear."
"If you knew everything your son was doing, why didn't you stop him?"
"I was in the process of doing just that," said the King. "And then your noble husband disappeared."
Kate glanced at Algernon. The Duke nodded. "That's true, Kate. It was the King's soldiers who brought us here."
"Were you planning on telling me this?" asked Kate archly.
"I never exactly got the chance," said Algernon with a grin.
The king smiled. "Rise, Duke and Duchess of Eagle's Reach. You are forgiven. You are welcome as my guests but I suggest you start soon for Eagle's Reach. The weather is turning."
"Thank you, Your Highness," said Algernon, bowing low and drawing Kate with her.
Kate curtseyed and they both left the audience chamber.
"I want to get started early tomorrow," said Algernon, allowing Kate to lead her back to her rooms. "I really hate the Heartland."
Kate nodded. "I can't say I'm terribly fond of it either. I don't know if Rowntree will be able to come with us, though."
"She has to," said Algernon, entering Kate's rooms. "She doesn't have a choice." She stopped. "Oh dear."
Kate almost collided with Algernon as she sank into a deep bow before Princess Rebecca. Rowntree stood beside her, looking pale.
"'Oh dear'? That's not what one normally says to one's Princess, my good Duke," said the Princess with a teasing smile.
"What does one say, then?" said Algernon.
"Sorry for killing your pig of a husband?" said Rowntree helpfully.
"Quiet!" said Algernon. "You're going to get me hanged, Lieutenant!"
The smile abruptly fell away from Rowntree's face. "Never, Your Grace."
Algernon held out her arms and Rowntree was in them, squeezing Algernon for all she was worth. Algernon stiffened in pain.
"I'm sorry," said Rowntree. "I never thought I'd see you again in this life."
"Nor you, old friend. I wasn't about to leave my wife or you in this nest of vipers." She turned to Rebecca. "I'm sorry, Princess, for my unflattering description of your home."
"Stephen is dead, so I'm not a Princess anymore," said Rebecca. I'm simply Lady Rebecca, third daughter of the Earl of Sargay." She curtseyed to Algernon. "Half of me is thankful Stephen is gone, the other half sad that life for us just got more complicated."
"You could still come with us, Lady Rebecca," said Kate.
"And be your permanent guest? I couldn't," said Rebecca.
"How about coming with me, then?" said Rowntree. She looked at Algernon and blinked. "I did a terrible thing today, Algernon."
Algernon nodded. "What your father did to you was worse, Rowena."
Rowntree nibbled her lip, her eyes showing her inner pain. They also showed her desire to believe Algernon.
"Rowena?" asked Kate. She looked at Rowntree curiously. "What's your real name if it's not Rowntree?"
Rowntree bowed. "I'm Rowena Tremont. Algernon came up with Rowntree when I asked her to help me after my father threw me out. Up until an hour ago I was the disgraced daughter of the Duke of Fotheringill. Now, it seems, I am the Duke of Fotheringill, since he never bothered to name another heir."
Algernon bowed low, Kate immediately following her. "Your Grace," they said.
Rowntree smiled. "Thanks to you both but in my heart I'm always going to be your Lieutenant Rowntree." She turned to Rebecca and took her hands. "Please, come with me. Do it as my wife." She leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on the dark haired woman's lips. "Vincent is more than welcome in his own right."
"Do you really mean that?" asked Rebecca hesitantly, gazing deep into Rowntree's green eyes.
Rowntree nodded. "I'm sure. I mean it. Marry me!"
"I want to, so much," said Rebecca, leaning into Rowntree and sighing.
"Why do you hesitate?" asked Rowntree, planting a kiss on her forehead and pulling her in close.
"My son. Vincent. He is the Crown Prince. I can't just take him away from here."
Just at that moment, the door flew open and a small boy ran into the room, skidding to a halt when he saw Algernon's bloody shirt. His eyes widened and darted between the shirt and the sight of his mother in the embrace of the tall, red headed woman.
"Mama?" he asked uncertainly as his florid faced nurse puffed into the room behind him. "Mama, is it true?"
Rebecca dropped to her knees and held out her arms. Vincent flew into them, his arms in a childish death grip around her neck.
"Mama, is it true?" he asked.
"Is what true?"
"Is Papa really dead?"
Algernon exchanged a look with Kate and flinched.
"It's true," said Rebecca, her voice breaking.
"Did it hurt?" asked Vincent, tears streaming down his face.
Rebecca pulled back. "No, son. I don't think it hurt."
He pulled back and looked around the room, eyes finally fastening onto Kate. He let go of his mother and approached her slowly, stopping about a foot from her.
"They say you did it."
Kate flinched and dropped to her knees. "Yes, Your Highness, it was me."
There was nothing more she could say. Stephen had violated her and she had stopped him from killing her beloved husband. Stephen had been a brutal, vicious, immoral man.
He was also the boy's father.
Vincent cautiously approached her and held out his arms. Kate leaned into his embrace.
"I forgive you," he whispered into her ear. "Papa didn't like me much and he was mean to me. He always hit me." He pulled back. "Does it make me a bad person if I said I didn't like him either?"
Kate felt the sting of tears and Algernon's hand on her shoulder. She shook her head. "No. I don't think you're a bad person. You mind your mother and your grandfather, don't you?"
He nodded and wiped the tears from his eyes. "Yes. I love Mama and Grandpa." He turned to Rebecca. "What will we do now, Mama? Does this mean we have to leave here?"
Rebecca shook her head. "I don't know. Let's talk to your Grandpa." She glanced at Rowntree, who was looking at her hopefully. "Let's go now." She held out her hand and Vincent took it. She glanced at Rowntree. The red head held out her arm and Rebecca took it.
"We'll see you later. Try and keep out of trouble!" said Rowntree as they left the room.
The silence was sudden and almost deafening as the room emptied of people, leaving Kate and Algernon alone.
Kate did not miss a beat. She threw herself into Algernon's strong arms, claiming her lips in a deep and passionate kiss.
"Let's get you out of those clothes," said Kate breathlessly when they broke.
"Yes, let's," said Algernon with a broad grin.
Kate laughed and tugged Algernon towards the bathing chamber.
Once inside, Kate stood facing Algernon, the scent of the gently perfumed bath water surrounding them.
Algernon's eyes darkened and she reached for Kate. "You're so beautiful."
Kate smiled and stepped back out of Algernon's reach. "No," she whispered. "Let me."
She reached for Algernon, slowly untying the laces on her shirt and pulling it off with the duke's help. She gazed at Algernon's smooth skin, marred by fresh scars, her full breasts. She had lost weight and her ribs stood out in sharp relief. Kate flinched at the sight. She ran her fingers slowly over them, over the duke's broad shoulders, relishing the warmth beneath her fingers, the hard muscle that lay just beneath it.
"Kate," breathed Algernon. "Let me see you. Please."
Kate smiled and took a step back. She allowed Algernon to untie her bodice and steadied the duke's hands as she pulled it back. Kate's dress dropped to the floor and she stood in her shift, her full breasts barely concealed. Algernon's jaw tightened at the bruises and angry skin.
Kate wanted her to forget. She took a step forward and unlaced Algernon's breeches, peeling them down her hips, kissing her way down the centre of the Duke's body as she went.
Algernon inhaled sharply and caught her wrists, pulling her to her feet. "You're killing me."
Kate allowed her shift to fall to the floor. "That was hardly my intention."
She took Algernon's hand and led her over to the bathing tub. They climbed in, and Algernon sighed in pleasure at the warmth of the scented water.
Kate smiled. She took great pleasure in stealing the soap from Algernon and bathing every inch of the duke's body. Algernon groaned in pleasure and when she attempted to reciprocate, Kate danced out of her reach.
"No, Your Grace, not yet," she said, kissing the duke, ending with gentle suction of her lower lip.
Algernon looked on greedily as Kate paid the same close attention to herself that she had to Algernon.
When she was finished, Algernon stood. "Enough," she said softly. She helped Kate out of the tub and, mindful of her delicate wound, led Kate over to the bed and pushed her down.
The duke made passionate love to her, kissing and nuzzling every fresh wound on her body, shedding tears over the damage done to her by the Prince.
Kate's ardor almost surpassed Algernon's as she reclaimed the duke's body and soul with her gentle attention.
When they were finished, they simply curled up around each other and fell into a deep and restful sleep.
Early the next morning Algernon and Kate, freshly bathed, sat down together for breakfast in their room.
Kate could barely take her eyes off her beloved Duke.
Algernon looked thin and sickly, but her blue eyes shone with love and desire for her. It took all of Kate's self control to keep her hands off the duke.
"I never thought we would have breakfast together again," said Kate. "It's so good just to live with you again, Algernon."
Algernon nodded. "I know. All the times I woke up in that inn in Cayman's Leap, hoping that the footsteps on the stairs were yours. All I wanted to do was get down to the maple tree at the crossroads."
Kate reached out and took her large hand. "I had planned on stopping there when we went back to Eagle's Reach. I was hoping that you would somehow be there." She sighed. "I was so sure you were gone."
Algernon nodded. She held up a cup of coffee, motioning for Kate to do the same. "Pact," she said. "Every day, you and I will do something together that's just fun. Not related to either of our duties, not because we have to, not because people expect it. We do it because we love one another and want to enjoy each other's company."
Kate nodded. "Here, here! I agree!"
They tapped their mugs together and took a swig of bitter coffee.
Just at that moment, there was a knock on the door.
"Enter!" called Algernon.
The door flew open and Vincent tore into the room as fast as his legs could carry him.
"You have to come with me!" he exclaimed, grabbing Algernon's large hand and tugging it.
"Certainly, Your Highness," said Algernon, bowing.
Vincent blushed. "I've forgotten again, haven't I?" he said.
"I won't tell if you won't," said Algernon comfortingly as Kate giggled. "Now, what can we do for you, Your Highness?"
"Mama's in the chapel. She's with Foth-Fotheri-Fo - "
"Fotheringill?" said Kate helpfully.
Vincent nodded enthusiastically at Kate. "She said they're getting married. She said you're her friend and she wants you and Duke Algernon to be there!"
"Well, I wouldn't miss it for the world!" said Kate, exchanging a surprised glance with Algernon. "We'd best be on our way, then!"
"Come on!" shouted Vincent over his shoulder as he ran full tilt from the room.
"I wish I could run," said Algernon with a sigh as she levered herself to her feet. "I can't. I'm just too tired for it."
"Well, at least our entrance will be dignified," said Kate, tangling their hands together.
Kate and Algernon went down to the chapel and entered together, still holding hands. Rowntree and Rebecca, standing before the altar with the priest, turned.
"Good morning, Your Grace," said Sir Geoffrey from behind them.
Algernon looked at him and grinned. Lady Eliza's arm was threaded through his; his other hand held the hand of the impatient Vincent, trying to pull him into the chapel.
"Good morning, Sir Geoffrey, Lady Eliza," replied Algernon. Kate inclined her head and smiled.
"Algernon!" said Rowntree. "Kate!"
"Excuse me," said Algernon. "His Grace is yelling for me in her customary dulcet tones."
Sir Geoffrey snorted a laugh and led Lady Eliza and Vincent to a pew as Algernon and Kate approached the altar.
"Will you be our witnesses?" asked Rebecca.
"Of course!" said Kate. She leaned forward. "You must tell me later what His Highness said," she whispered.
"In a nutshell," said Rebecca, keeping an eye on the bishop who was walking towards them wearing crooked robes, "he gave us his blessing, and Vincent will spend summers with him and winters with us!"
Kate opened her mouth to speak but the bishop hurried towards them, wheezing and gesturing for them to kneel before the altar.
Kate and Algernon later agreed it was a wedding to rival theirs. Both Rowntree and Rebecca firmly spoke their vows and gently kissed at the conclusion of the ceremony. Kate and Algernon witnessed their marriage and also the patent that elevated Rebecca to the title of Duchess of Fotheringill.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Kate, Algernon, Rebecca and Rowntree walked out of the vestibule in time to see Vincent in animated conversation with His Highness, King Damien. There was no sign of Sir Geoffrey and Lady Eliza and Kate assumed the King had dismissed them.
Kate and Algernon bowed when they saw the King.
"Rise, rise," said King Damien. "You can do that in public, but not now." He turned to Rebecca. "You, my dear, I wish you the best in your new life." He smiled. "One should not speak ill of the dead and I won't, but I will say I've never seen you look happier and as radiant as you are now." He turned to Rowntree. "You, Your Grace. Take care of her and of my grandson, or I will be forced to hang you!"
Rowntree gaped at him, while Algernon and Kate began to laugh.
King Damien gave them the ghost of a smile and gracefully withdrew.
"Imagine that!" said Rowntree. "Everyone else gets good wishes and I get a threat of violence! What's the world coming to?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Algernon. She grinned. "Where's the wedding feast?"
Rebecca and Rowntree gazed deep into each other's eyes.
"Eagle's Reach," said Rowntree softly. She looked at Algernon. "If you don't mind, of course?"
Algernon and Kate exchanged a glance. "We don't mind at all," said Kate. "Where are you off to now?"
"Lunch with His Highness," said Rebecca. "Vincent wants to spend time with his Grandpa before he comes away with us." She turned to Rowntree. "He can be quite a handful."
"I don't care," said Rowntree gently, cupping her face. "He's just a little boy and I'm sure we can find things for him to do in Fotheringill that will work off some of his energy."
"Where's Nurse?" asked Kate, looking around.
"She agreed to come with us to Fotheringill," said Rowntree. "And she asked for the morning off to prepare for the journey."
Kate nodded and smiled. "I'm sure she'll enjoy herself in the mountains. They're so lovely this time of year!"
Rowntree smiled at Rebecca. "I look forward to showing them to you, Your Grace."
Rebecca sank into her embrace and smiled contentedly.
Kate and Algernon left the chapel, hand in hand. Kate glanced back.
"Shouldn't we stay for the wedding feast?" she asked. "Or Stephen's funeral?"
Algernon shook her head. "No. Let's not. I just want to be with you today. It's all I've wanted for months." She paused a moment. "Stephen is already in the ground. He was given a pauper's funeral by his father, who openly acknowledged him as a murderer." She squeezed Kate's hand. "Remember our pact. What would be fun to do today?"
Kate gave her a wicked grin. "Well, actually, there are a couple of things I'd like to do. First, walk around the city with you on my arm. Second, how about a picnic in one of the city parks? The Queen's Gardens really are beautiful."
"I'd love to," said Algernon. "Let's go!"
The following morning, Kate and Algernon took their leave of Rowntree and Rebecca for their journey to Eagle's Reach. They had to prepare for Rebecca's and Rowntree's wedding feast, and were traveling back with Sir Geoffrey and Lady Eliza.
Lady Eliza and Sir Geoffrey had invested in a carriage they planned on bringing back to Brandywine. Kate's health did not allow for her to ride long periods with Algernon, so she found herself relegated to the carriage with Lady Eliza.
"Are you ready?" asked Algernon, peering into the carriage.
Kate rolled her eyes and eyed Cloud longingly. "Yes, I suppose we are."
"Give yourself a chance to heal, my love," Algernon said. "We can ride together on Cloud some other time."
"Thank you, beloved. It's nice to know I'm still considered good enough to ride your horse sometimes."
Algernon snorted a laugh. "Let's go home."
Lady Eliza laughed softly.
"I'm sorry," said Kate, turning to her and blushing. "I really don't mean to be ungrateful."
Lady Eliza glanced around the carriage. "These stupid things are damned uncomfortable." She sighed. "I know. I understand. I'd rather be out there on Geoffrey's horse."
Kate still felt tender. "I'm sorry," she said with genuine regret. "I'm so sorry my stupidity hurt your husband."
"You did nothing wrong, Your Grace. Geoffrey was on borrowed time with Prince Stephen. He was one of the nobles who openly opposed him," said Lady Eliza. "And Prince Stephen was well known by the noblewomen who had the misfortune to enjoy his hospitality. Geoffrey always hated that and never left my side whenever we went to court. He's always been very considerate that way."
"But your husband got hurt because of me. How can you forgive me for that?" asked Kate, biting her lip.
"He's better now," said Lady Eliza. "You must try to forgive yourself. We all misjudged Prince Stephen and we must all share the blame."
Kate nodded, not really believing it.
"Algernon thinks the world of Sir Geoffrey," said Kate after a moment.
Lady Eliza gave her a broad smile. "I'll tell Geoffrey. He'll be pleased - he thinks the world of your husband!"
They were silent for a moment, and Kate watched the landscape roll slowly by.
"You must be anxious to see your father," said Lady Eliza.
"I am. It's been almost a year since I last saw him," said Kate. "Algernon tells me he's waiting for us at Eagle's Reach."
"Is he staying with you or is he returning to Cayman's Leap?"
"I think he's going to have to return before the snows begin. He has an estate to resurrect." Kate sighed with regret. "I'll be sorry to see him go."
"That's what Geoffrey and I thought," said Lady Eliza. "We decided to take up his invitation to winter with him this year."
Kate smiled, lighting up her eyes. "Thank you, my Lady. I'm sure he'll appreciate that."
"You know, you must come and visit us in Brandywine one year," said Lady Eliza. "Spring is usually the best time."
"It sounds like a wonderful idea! I'll be sure to mention it to Algernon!"
The carriage began to bounce and jostle as they finally reached the open road and began to push harder for the Northern Reaches.
After a week of hard traveling - during which Kate was sure she had collected bruises in the strangest of places that would never heal - they finally reached the cross roads that led to the township of Eagle's Reach.
The carriage rolled to a halt, and Kate got out, shivering. The bite of late autumn was in the mountain air.
Kate drew in a deep lungful of clean air. "This is going to sound stupid, but I want to walk the last bit."
"No," said Sir Geoffrey, pulling up beside her. "It doesn't sound stupid at all." He turned to Algernon. "Do you mind if we go ahead of you, Algernon? I want a bath and to sample your fine wine."
"No, my friend, of course not! Go right on ahead! Tell Piter you want the wine from my personal collection!"
Sir Geoffrey smiled in genuine pleasure. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"A bath sounds like a wonderful idea," said Lady Eliza with a grimace. "This carriage was not designed for comfort!"
Kate shook her head. "Next time we're riding with our husbands. I promise you." She grinned. "Since I'm walking, why don't you get out and ride with Sir Geoffrey?"
Lady Eliza grinned and leaned out of the window. "Geoffrey?"
Sir Geoffrey leaned down and opened the carriage door, helping his wife into the saddle behind him. She sank into him and put her arms around his body with a happy smile.
"We'll see you up there!" said Algernon, giving the coach driver and guardsmen a nod for them to continue.
Kate and Algernon watched the convoy continue up the road towards Eagle's Reach.
Algernon slid off her horse and stood beside Kate.
Kate breathed deeply, enjoying the scent of pine and maple in the air.
"Home," she said.
Algernon's arm slid around her shoulders. "I'll bet you never thought it would feel like that."
Kate shook her head. "No. I was so afraid of you. I never thought you'd ever pay any attention to me, or that I'd actually fit in here."
"Well, I always thought you were very beautiful and I was drawn to you for that. But I also thought you'd never pay any attention to me because I'm a woman. I thought I'd have to grit my teeth as you chased the stable boys and guardsmen."
"No," said Kate. "You were so kind to me, from the second my father approached you with his request. You really seemed to care about me. I wanted to try to be your wife in reality and not just name but I wasn't sure if you could love me that way." She was silent for a moment. "Then I saw you with Alice. That hurt so badly. I couldn't understand why you didn't even want to try with me!"
"My dear Kate," said Algernon after a moment. "When we were first married, I could see how frightened you were of me. You knew nothing about the physical act of love and you never seemed interested in it. I don't think you ever really understood any of that until after you caught me with Alice!"
"I saw you, all right," said Kate. "The day after we were married, you sparred with Sir Geoffrey. I couldn't stop staring at you. I wondered what the matter was with me. But you're right. It wasn't until after Alice that I had some ... education ... in physical love."
"Yes, I noticed that," said Algernon. She put an arm around Kate and pulled her in close. She kissed Kate's temple. "I can't tell you how glad I am you finally decided to pursue me."
"I don't think I've ever wanted anything this much in my life." Kate leant into her touch and there was friendly silence for a moment.
The Duchess braced herself. "Have you seen my father?"
"No," said Algernon softly. "I gave the order to get him and headed straight for the King's Heartland." She looked around at the trees and breathed deeply. "I'm glad you wanted to walk. I haven't seen this road for months. I missed it."
Kate glanced at her. "I thought Piter brought you back here?"
"No, he took me to Cayman's Leap. I never made it back here. I've been in an inn for months, healing."
Kate pulled in close to Algernon. "Then let's enjoy it."
The leaves on the trees were turning towards golden and floated down to carpet the forest floor.
Kate sighed in pleasure. She was home at last.
They could see a figure in the distance walking towards them.
Kate peered at it. "Is that - ?"
Algernon nodded. "I believe it is. Go and say hello to your father!"
Kate did not need any further prompting.
"Father!" she yelled, running for him. Algernon followed more slowly.
Sir Malcolm stopped and held out his arms. Kate threw herself into them.
"Oh, Kate," said, sighing and tightening his arms. "Daughter, it is good to see you."
"Father," she said. "I have so much to tell you!"
"I know," he said. He turned to Algernon. "Your Grace." He held out his arms and Algernon was in them. She squeezed as hard as she could, blinking tears from her eyes.
"Welcome back, Sir Malcolm. Welcome back to Eagle's Reach."
Kate sat under the golden leaved maple tree, the late autumn wind blowing through the meadow and lifting the hair off her forehead. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply and smiling.
"Hello, my love," said a soft voice from behind her.
"Algernon," she said. "I'm glad you could join me."
"I wouldn't miss a moment of your company for anything," Algernon replied, sitting down on the ground next to her.
"I'm waiting for Rowntree - sorry, His Grace - and her new bride."
"I know. I wanted a moment with them before they were carried away for wedding celebrations."
"There is another reason, you know," said Kate, opening her eyes and gazing deep into her beloved Duke's sapphire eyes.
"What would that be?" asked Algernon, a smile playing about her lips.
"You, Algernon. Moments alone with you are to be cherished."
Algernon laughed softly, and slipped behind Kate, pulling her into her arms and gently nuzzling her neck.
"Then let's just enjoy them while we wait for the Duke and Duchess, shall we?"
Kate nodded and closed her eyes in the autumn sunshine. She felt content, rested and happy.
"Come now, my love," said Algernon softly. "What's bothering you? You look like you've wanted to talk to me about something at least ten times in the past week but you haven't done it. Why?"
"Algernon," said Kate, heart hammering, "what would you say if I told you I thought I was with child?"
"Hah. Are you sure?" asked Algernon after a few moments.
"I think so," said Kate, hanging her head and allowing her tears to run down her face. "I think you know who the father was."
"I can guess," said Algernon. Her arms tightened around Kate, a large hand caressing her still flat mid section. "There's no reason to suppose our child will be like Stephen."
"Ours?" asked Kate. Her voice trembled.
"Yes. Ours. I can think of nothing I would love more than to see you as a content mother, and me by your side, if you will have me."
"Oh, Algernon! Always," breathed Kate, twisting in her arms and kissing Algernon for all she was worth. "I love you."
"I love you too," said Algernon, tightening her arms. "Have you thought about what you'd like to call our little one? And please don't say 'Algernon'!"
"You don't like Algernon?" Kate turned. "What's your real name?"
"Sarah. Algernon was my mother's maiden name."
"That's a beautiful name. If it's a girl I'd like to call it Sarah."
Algernon smiled. "All right. What if it's a boy?"
Kate laughed. "I don't know. I thought we could think about it for a while."
"That's a good idea," said Algernon. "Now lie back and rest. I don't want you to strain yourself. That's our heir you're carrying."
Kate nodded, gently tracing patterns on Algernon's forearm. "I love you, Algernon. I hope he or she comes out exactly like you."
"You know that's not possible," said Algernon a little sadly.
"Yes, it is. You're going to have a hand in raising our heir. They're going to be exactly like you."
Algernon's arms tightened. "I love you too, dear Kate."
Kate smiled, watching the golden leaves flutter in the trees, tasted the cool, mountain air. She felt at peace. She had her lover, her land and her future. What more could any woman possibly want?