Rexana Brina urged her troops forward against the opposing army, confident that they could withstand the assault, but she had not counted on a panicked lieutenant calling for a retreat when faced with heavy fire. Before she could turn her horse around and bellow out new commands, she was struck by multiple arrows and found herself slipping from her mount, rushing toward the ground.
"General Aldridge, what is the meaning of this? You know perfectly well that all injured prisoners are to be treated for their wounds before being interrogated or jailed."
Braun Aldridge looked down at the chief medical officer for the Edlyn army, Dr. Elethea Assana. Her blue eyes were flashing with righteous anger, hands planted firmly on her shapely hips. Trying not to show his nervousness, he answered, "The triage was already full, and she's a very important prisoner. She's the general of the Coughlan army, Dr. Assana, and I need to interrogate her right away. Besides, she looks fine to me, she's a barbarian and can stand this treatment."
Dr. Assana raised her eyebrows at the remark. "General, I outrank you in all medical matters. The woman has serious injuries, probably even a concussion. She is to be moved immediately into surgery, on my orders."
"My concern until she is well enough for your interrogation."
"No ifs, ands or buts, sir. If you don't back down, I'll go talk to the king himself about this matter. Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do."
General Aldridge reluctantly saluted and turned to his aide, giving instructions for the prisoner's immediate release into Dr. Assana's personal care. He watched the aide scurry off to do his bidding, then started slowly walking out of the temporary prison. Why was the doctor so damned concerned about a barbarian? More importantly, how did she find out that he was about to interrogate Rexana Brina, commander of the Coughlan army?
Dr. Assana turned her attention back to the patient at hand, cursing the ineptitude of self-important generals and the army in general, no pun intended. Now she would be forced to care for the woman on the stretcher in front of her before taking care of the rest of the wounded. She wearily ran her fingers through her flaming red hair, trying to remember who was still on duty now. She glanced at the clock, deciding that some of her best surgeons were still on duty and could hand the rest of triage, but for now, she had to take care of this important prisoner herself.
She carefully lifted the blanket from the stretcher, peeling it back until the woman was completely unveiled. She ran a practiced eye over the woman's form, noting one arrowhead still lodged in her thigh, multiple shallow cuts on her arms, deep bruising all over her body, and a nasty head wound. The doctor turned to the basins in the tent, carefully washing her hands and then pouring carbolic over them to disinfect them, a technique she had recently learned from a civilian dentist, of all people. She then started running her fingers lightly over the wounds, assessing the damage more carefully. She ticked off the severity of each wound, then reached for a lantern. Dr. Assana held the lantern up near the patient's face, lifting each eyelid in turn to assess the extent of the head wound. She was pleased to note that the pupils contracted and dilated normally; she could turn her attention to sewing up deeper gashes and removing the arrowhead.
Rexana Brina woke up disoriented, stiff, sore, and in extreme pain. Before opening her eyes, she concentrated on all parts of her body, assessing the damage. She slowly twitched and flexed each limb, making sure that she was not paralyzed. Satisfied, she slowly opened her eyes.
"Good morning, General Brina," a odious voice intoned.
Brina turned to the owner of the voice, an officer in the Edlyn army. Edlyn army uniform? She looked around slowly, realizing that she was in an Edlyn field hospital with other patients, Coughlan prisoners, she deduced. Of course, the heavily armed guards gave that tidbit of information away pretty effectively. "Who are you?" she countered.
"Ah, such spirit, I'll look forward to breaking that spirit," the man purred as he seated himself on a stool next to her cot. "I'm General Braun Aldridge, commander of the Edlyn army, here for the first in a series of little chats."
"Fun chats, my dear, chats that I shall enjoy immensely." As he spoke, Aldridge slowly trailed one hand down her body, settling on a breast and squeezing. "They might be fun for you as well, my little Coughlan whore."
None of the guards were fast enough to save the general from his fate. Brina sat up, grabbed his throat and flipped him on the floor, landing on top of him, her other hand holding his knife at this throat, a thin line of red already welling. "Move any closer and I'll slice off his head." They froze. "Now that we understand each other, sir, let me tell you what I will reveal in any 'little chats.' I will tell you my name and rank, period until you release the rest of the prisoners in exchange for the prisoners that my army has taken. When you have your prisoners back, you may use me as a bargaining chip to have our kings talk, but nothing more. Are we clear?"
General Aldridge slowly nodded once, extremely aware of the deadly intent in the blade against his throat. "Good. I will release you under the condition that you will do exactly as you have promised. If you don't, I'll kill you now. Clear?"
"Perfectly," he choked out. Brina eased the knife, looking at him thoughtfully. He started to sit up, but she touched his throat with the knife tip. Understanding, he cleared his throat, then gave the orders to release the other prisoners for an exchange. "May I sit up now?"
"Sure, just don't try anything else," Brina said pleasantly, still holding the knife.
General Aldridge sat up, tentatively touching his throat, winching when he touched the wound. Before he could say anything else, Dr. Assana burst into the room, demanding an explanation. "She pulled my knife on me," the general started explaining.
"He wanted to rape me," Brina countered, "so I had to defend myself."
The doctor turned to the patient."I don't care what happened, but there will be no further violence in my hospital, am I clear? That includes you, General...what was your name again?"
"Rexana Brina, general of the Coughlan army, at your service. And you are?"
"Dr. Elethea Assana, Chief Medical Officer of the Edlyn army. If you and General Aldridge are quite finished with your little tiff, I'll see to his wounds. Do I have your word that you will not attempt to murder anyone else while you are here?"
Brina smiled innocently at the doctor. "You have my word of honor, Doctor. But, as I said, he started it-"
"I don't care who did what, no more violence. Now, buster, come with me so I can look at that throat. You, General Brina, sit back and rest, you are in no condition to be moving around so much now. You have very severe injuries and I spent a couple of hours sewing you up and I don't wish to do it again."
Brina reluctantly lay back down, promising to be good. She watched the beautiful doctor grasp the other general by the upper arm and march him out of the room, much like a parent would escort a small misbehaving child out of a room. The rush from the attack was wearing off now and she was starting to feel pain again, but it had been worth it. No damn Edlyn general was getting any answers out of her! She yawned and sank back into the bed, allowing sleep to reclaim her.
General Aldridge sat quite still as Dr. Assana cleaned and bandaged his throat, closing his eyes as he enjoyed the nearness of her warm body, wishing she would lean against him so he could feel her voluptuous curves. She was completely professional in her demeanor, however, and denied him this small pleasure, baffling him to no end. Elethea still acted as if Stefan had never promised his cousin to him, although there had never been an official announcement of their engagement.
"General, you may return to your duties," Dr. Assana said as she started washing her hands. The general reluctantly opened his eyes, daydreams dashed in the light of reality. "You may go back to your duties," she repeated when he made no move to stand up.
He slowly stood, touching his bandaged throat gingerly. "Was I terribly wounded?"
"No, it was just a scratch, you can take the bandage off in the morning. Just take care not to get any dirt in it for a few days, just like any other scratch."
The general started to button his collar, but decided against it. He reached for his jacket and asked casually, "Would you like to accompany me to dinner tonight? We can make it a private dinner in my tent, and I can have the chef prepare a tender roast pork chop, just like you like it. What say you?"
She finished returning the supplies to the cabinets, then turned to the general. "No, thank you, I need to make the rounds again tonight before I retire for bed. You know how I feel about the practice of officers dining so much better than the foot soldiers."
His face darkened, he ached to force her to accompany him to his tent, but she was an officer, and officers did not indulge in violence toward each other, except in justified cases of a duel. She did embarrass him in front of some of the guards, but one never challenged a woman to a duel. And why in the name of the Prophet did she insist that her rank was equal to his? Aldridge started to ask her why she insisted on treating prisoners so well, but realized that she had already left the room. He took several calming breaths, then blew out the lantern before leaving the room.
Gar Fielding handed his spear and sword to the steward, then marched into the king's hall. "King Richard, I'm afraid I have bad news," he announced as soon as the king acknowledged his presence. "Rexana was captured by the Edlyns when that damned lieutenant called a retreat instead of a regroup."
Richard motioned for the man to be seated at the table. "Show me where," he said quietly, waving his hand over the map. Gar looked at the map, then pointed to the location of the last pitched battle, a small flat area surrounded by hills on either side of the border. "Not a nice place to be captured," the king murmured as he looked at the surroundings, "don't we suspect that they have their important prisoners in the caves in yon hill?"
"Yes, my king. I'm embarrassed to say that I was not at the front of the battle, but your sister insisted that I stay at the back to direct the second wave. We never had the chance to press on, we were nearly caught in a vice as it was, with that damned young pup calling the retreat."
"I'm sure you did what you could," Richard soothed the general, "and if they realize that they have Rexana, sister to the king, they will be in touch."
Gar sat back in his chair, rubbing his stubbly chin. "Sorry I didn't take time to properly bathe and shave, but I thought you'd want to know this bit of news immediately."
"Don't worry, I shall not behead you for a speck of dirt," the king said, brown eyes twinkling. Turning more serious, he asked, "How many others were captured in battle? Do we have an accurate accounting for their families?"
"About a dozen, sir, some of the younger men in the unit. I fear for their safety, the Edlyn army is not known for treating prisoners very well."
"Which begs the next question, did we capture any of their men and women?"
"Twenty, but one died before we could get him to our healers." Gar snorted in disgust. "We treat their wounds, then house them in a clean cabin, give them a square meal. Better than what the damned Edlyns do. Why, sir, I hear that-"
"Enough, General Fielding." The king smiled wearily. "I've heard all about their conditions, how they treat their prisoners. See to it that our prisoners are questioned when the healers deem it time. And take some time to sleep and rest your mount as well before returning to the front."
"Thank you, sir, Lord and Lady bless you."
Richard stood up, holding his left hand up, palm out. "May the Lord and Lady bless you with their love and light. Dismissed." The general stood up, bowed, then left the king's hall, leaving Richard to ponder the information he had brought to the table.
"You mean you let her tell you what to do?" King Stefan sneered. "By the Prophet, man, you had the most valuable prize of the entire damned Coughlan army, and you let a woman tell you not to touch her!"
"But my lord, you yourself gave her the authority over all things medical. You gave her the rank of chief medical officer so no one would question her judgment in the treatment of the wounded. Besides, we know how stubborn your cousin is, she keeps refusing to marry me willingly!"
"True, so true, Braun. I suppose we can allow this little display of authority on her part. I thought that she would be sensible and use her authority to better treat our own wounded, not the barbarians. Well, it is done now, so do not hinder her, but keep the guards posted. I hear that General Brina is a very slippery character and has escaped from prisons before. Who would think that anyone in their right mind, though, would allow a woman to be the commander of an entire army? Certainly Coughlan will make a mistake soon, one that we may exploit."
General Aldridge winced at the reminder that his troops were unable to take advantage of the latest battle and could not squeeze the enemy when their troops started retreating instead of regrouping. They managed to elude his grasp, melting into the thickly wooded hills surrounding the plains of the battlefield. "We will, my lord," the general promised his king. "If we are successful, will you order your cousin to marry me?"
The king looked at the general thoughtfully, weighing the pros and cons of the alliance in his mind before answering, "We shall see, Braun, we shall see. When the time is right, I shall ask the Prophet if he gives his blessing to this union. Now, would you like to join my court for a light supper? We have some fine entertainment scheduled, including some after hours, if you stay in my castle."
"I would be honored, my king."
"Good, I'll inform my steward to set another plate and prepare another room. Now, go take a bath and put on a clean dress uniform, I hate to say it, but the stench of the battlefield is still lingering around your person." The king watched his general bow deeply and leave the room, then summoned his personal steward. "Good man, we have another guest for dinner and for the night. Please prepare a room for General Aldridge, as well as a wench for the night." The steward bowed and scurried to do the king's bidding. The king turned his attention back to the Book of the Prophet, hoping to complete his evening meditation without additional interruption.
Elethea Assana was completing the last of her evening rounds, grateful that her long day was about to end. She did adhere to tradition in making the rounds of her people first, then the prisoners of war. All was quiet, many were already asleep, except for one figure by the window. Stifling a yawn, Assana walked over to the patient, asking softly, "What would your doctor say if she caught you out of bed?"
"Probably throw me to the wolves, or at least to General Aldridge," came the throaty reply. "I am doing much better, though, and am making my evening prayers to the Lord and Lady. I feel better if I can see the sky when I make my prayers, Doctor." She turned around, looking intently at Dr. Assana with eyes that were such a deep brown that they appeared nearly black. "So, will you punish me, or merely guide me back to my cot?"
Elethea had to smile at the woman's jaunty manner, surprising in one who had been so severely injured this morning. "I'll guide you to your cot, General Brina."
"Please, my warriors are asleep, call me Rexana, general is such a stiff title, so formal. Which reminds me, we have not been properly introduced. I am Rexana Brina, Princess of Coughlan, Commander of the Army, sister to the good king, Richard."
"Dr. Elethea Assana, Chief Medical Officer of the Edlyn Army, cousin to King Stefan. Now, General Brina, I insist that you allow me to guide you back to your cot. You must rest, or you will not heal properly."
Rexana smiled charmingly as she took the offered arm, allowing herself to be guided back to her cot. She scrambled into bed, allowing the doctor to briskly tuck the sheet and blanket around her, relishing the bit of spoiling. Of course, the doctor probably didn't know that it was spoiling, she was being so professional about the whole thing. "Good night, may the Lord and Lady bless your dreams," she whispered to the fair doctor.
The doctor stilled her movements for a moment, then answered, "May the Prophet bless you as well. Good night." She walked away briskly, not slowing down until she reached her tent at the end of the medical compound. She debated briefly about showering now or in the morning, deciding that the morning would be soon enough. She'd cleaned up as thoroughly as possible after the surgery rotation today. Moments later, she was in her sleep clothes and under the covers, prepared to sink into sleep immediately as she usually did, but she still felt restless, despite her overwhelming fatigue.
It was usually the irritation with Braun Aldridge that would disrupt her sleep, but tonight it was the prisoner, Rexana Brina. It was amazing that the woman, who'd sustained such severe injuries, would be able to flip Braun to the floor and hold him there as one might a small dog. Or, to see someone who that afternoon had exhibited such swift violence to be standing, calmly praying to her god and goddess. Elethea detested violence, but was impressed by the woman's physical command of the situation. Rexana, such an unusually strong name for a woman, but so fitting for this particular woman, the one with such a handsome face, such strong features. Elethea admonished herself not to go down that path, not to think of such things. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she floated a quick prayer to the Prophet to guide her thoughts and steps, then slowly started drifting off to sleep, dreaming of meeting Rexana near her family's old hunting lodge at the waterfall.
Lady Catalin managed a stately pace through the halls leading to the king's hall, even though her gut was twisting with anxiety about the king's sister. She arrived at the door and lifted her hand in salute to the Lord and Lady when the guards came to attention, then showed her summons. One of the guards read it carefully, then allowed her to pass into the king's hall, announcing, "Lady Catalin to see King Richard."
"May the Lord and Lady bless you," she said as she bowed before the king and his council, "your summons said you needed me; what may I do for you, sire?"
Richard motioned for her to sit beside him at the council table. "My lady, Rexana was taken prisoner this morning in battle. According to General Fielding here, some idiot called retreat rather than regroup, so she and a half-dozen warriors were caught out in the open and taken by the Edlyn army."
"Rexana captured? I knew something had happened to her, I just didn't know what." The high priestess touched her forehead with trembling fingers. "No, not Rexana, not my...I'm sorry sire, I am having trouble taking it in."
"My Lady, this war seems to drag on forever, what do our Lord and Lady tell you about it? Is there any way we can resolve this dilemma without losing more lives of our young men and women?"
Lady Catalin forced herself to snap back into the role of High Priestess, to stop thinking about what might have happened to Rexana. "There are so many variables at work here; the tomb of their prophet, the raids on our territory, the Sacred Grove they cut down during their last great pilgrimage. I have offered to meet with their High Priest, but he refuses to see me, saying that a woman cannot speak for any god." She frowned as a new thought seeped into her mind. "It may be good that they captured General Brina, so long as they do not harm her too much."
"How do you mean?" asked General Fielding.
The feeling came through stronger now; the Lord and Lady were finally speaking to her. "She was meant to be captured, to show their king how we are, to finally bring about peace between our lands."
Richard snorted in surprise. "My sister, the hothead, bringing about peace?"
Serenity cloaked Lady Catalin as she affirmed, "Yes, King Richard, Rexana will be the one to bring about peace. I just do not know how she is to accomplish this, but the Lord and Lady have spoken. Rexana Brina will be the champion of peace between Coughlan and Edlyn."
The champion of peace was sitting on a stool next to Peter Dun's bed, asking about his wounds. "Not bad, General," he answered, "just stiff and sore mostly. The doctors here are pretty nice, one of them gave me something to dull the pain before he started sewing up my wounds. I wasn't as badly wounded as some of the others, just some cuts on my arms, but it sure is nice to rest a day or so. When do you think they'll let us go?"
Rexana shrugged expressively. "I don't really know, Peter, I suspect that it will be some time since I'm such a valuable prisoner. Rest now, I need you to be strong."
"I will, thank you." Peter closed his eyes and started drifting off as Rexana stood up and started slowly making her way back to her own bed, satisfied that her men and women were being taken care of by the medical staff. She was more exhausted that she cared to admit from being up for just a hour as she went from one bed to the other, talking to her people. The guards watched her warily, but did not interfere with her rounds, for which she was grateful, she did not really have the strength to battle anyone today. As she slowly laid back in her bed, she assessed the possibilities for escape. Perhaps in a day or two, if they were still in the hospital, they could escape, but not until then. Her own wounds were still healing and more severe than she first thought, but her warriors were all better off than she was, mostly cuts and deep bruising. Rexana yawned hugely, deciding to take her own advice to Peter and rest.
King Stefan sat in his study, pondering what step to take next. Should he let the prisoners, except for Rexana Brina, go back to Coughlan? Should he demand an exchange? He had studied the sacred writings of the Prophet for advice, but found nothing to cover the situation, yet he was positive that he still needed Brina as a prisoner, just not the other six soldiers. Satisfied with his decision, he grasped the bell cord for his personal steward.
"Yes, my lord?"
"Wake General Aldridge and my scribe and bring them here," the king ordered. The steward bowed slightly and left to do his bidding. He bent back down to his study of the Prophet's Words while he waited for the general and the scribe.
His scribe showed up promptly and started laying out his papers, pens and ink but it took the general longer to appear. When the general finally strolled into the room, he was clean, neat, and had a satiated look on his face that bespoke of his evening activities. The king had to hide a smirk for he knew that particular wench's many talents himself. "Gentlemen, I brought you here this morning to announce my decision about the prisoners we recently captured. As the general has told me, we have approximately twenty prisoners in Coughlan hands right now, and the seven prisoners recently acquired brings our total up to twenty-five. I am proposing that we exchange all but King Richard's sister for our own captured men."
General Aldridge cleared his throat noisily, asking, "And the reason for holding back Richard's sister?"
Stefan smiled thinly. "To make sure we have one final exchange: Rexana Brina for the Prophet's Tomb and all of the surrounding land between there and our border."
"Sire, are you sure it will work?"
The king turned to the scribe. "Please write up the appropriate orders, print them off, and seal them with the royal seal. You may leave now." The scribe nodded and gathered up his materials, bowing as he left the room. "Now, Braun, as to your question, King Richard is well known for his fierce love of his family, especially for his sister. I'm sure he'll do anything to keep her safe from harm, and we'll get the land we need."
The general gingerly crossed one leg over the other, winching slightly as he did so. "Stefan, we have them on the run now, why not press our advantage and try to crush them and take the area by force? Surely it would be better to-"
"No, no, Braun, you don't understand, this would be a more crushing defeat than merely defeating their army, it would be defeating their souls. The Prophet himself declared in that the infidel should make way for the True One. The best way to do this is to take away their Sacred Grove and to keep them from replanting their trees. It would be a victory of the soul for us, not just a victory of the body. Go make your plans, I want this exchange to be flawless. Oh, and have our special prisoner transferred to the most secure room in the dungeons so we can keep an eye on her. Leaving her in the hospital tents would be too tempting for a rescue mission."
"As you wish, sire."
"Go make your plans and may the Prophet bless you and keep you."
"And you also, Sire." General Aldridge stood, snapped a salute, then left the king's study. Stefan turned back to the Sacred Book, reading the passage that had decided his course:
From my altar you shall proclaim my words, from my altar built where false gods reigned.
Certainly this meant building an altar where His Tomb sat, in the grove of the false gods.
Elethea Assana nearly stumbled as she left the operating tent, intending to head for the showers and then to the mess tent for a long delayed meal. All thoughts of showers and food flew when she saw General Aldridge and his goons leading the prisoners from one of the tents, shackled together so heavily they could barely walk. "Wait," she called out, trotting over, "I did not dismiss these patients yet. On whose authority are you taking my patients away?"
The sergeant in charge handed her a paper, explaining, "Just my orders, doctor, they come straight from the king himself. We're exchanging them for ours, except for the general."
"Where is she going?"
"To the king's dungeons. Now if you'll kindly move aside, I must take these prisoners to the jail near the border until we get word of the exchange."
"Please, ma'am, let me carry out my orders."
Dr. Assana drew herself up, eyes blazing. "Sergeant, do you realize that my orders are that they are to remain in place until they receive their medical discharge?"
"Yes, but the king's orders supercede the C.M.O.'s orders, I'm told. If you have any doubts, just read the orders. Look, I'm doing you a favor in a way, keeping these barbarians out of your hair, so please step aside."
The sergeant reluctantly answered, "Or I'll have to arrest you for treason. That's in my orders from General Aldridge, he said if you kicked up a fuss, to arrest you and take you directly to him. I'm sorry, doc, but my orders are clear, and they're from the king and the general themselves." He turned to his soldiers and ordered them to continue.
The doctor looked over at the prisoners, noticing that several of them had blood seeping through their bandages. Ignoring the soldiers, she walked over to the prisoners and started checking the bandages, then turned back to the sergeant. "These men and women are not ready to be moved, they need their bandages changed and-"
"That's it, Williams, please arrest the doctor and chain her up with the rest. No, on second thought, chain her up with General Brina since they will be going to the same dungeon chamber. Move along, men, we have a lot of ground to cover today." The big soldier nodded and grasped the doctor's arms and dragged her to one of the tents, quickly chaining her to the main pole in the center of the tent.
Moments later, four burly soldiers came bearing Rexana Brina, each one holding a limb as she kept twisting and attempting to escape their grasp. One of them finally managed to cuff her on the head, stunning her long enough for them to shackle her to the doctor. After the soldiers left, the doctor found that she had enough slack in the chains to reach the other woman's head. She ran professional fingers over the prisoner's head, feeling the rapidly swelling bump, then pried open each eyelid in turn, watching for signs of reaction.
"Gee, doc, will I live?" Brina croaked.
Assana looked steadily at her, then finally replied, "Yes, you will, you have a nasty bump on your head and will probably have some dizziness and a headache for several hours."
Brina looked around the tent, at their chains, then finally at the doctor. "So, what did you do to get tangled up with me and these chains? "
"Just my duty as a doctor, General Brina. The rest of your men and women were being taken away to another location for a prisoner exchange, but I had not given them a medical discharge. Some of them are still bleeding heavily enough to need additional bed rest. Speaking of which, how are your wounds? Are you bleeding from the thigh?"
Brina shook her head, then chuckled. "Silly of me, to shake my head when it hurts like a thousand hammers raining down. I think you stitched it tightly enough to keep it from bleeding much, I'm much too tough to kill that easily." She started to say more, but was interrupted by the appearance of General Aldridge himself. "Oh, speak of the sorry bastard and he appears. I'd scrape and bow, but I'm a bit tied up at the moment."
The general gritted his teeth for a few seconds to force his temper down; the prisoner was swift enough to duck any blow and he might hit Elethea instead. Ignoring Brina for a moment, he turned to Elethea and asked, "Will you apologize for interfering with orders from your superiors?"
She looked at his cruel eyes and weak mouth, knowing that no matter what she answered, he would do whatever he wanted. "No," she replied softly, "I will not apologize, for the Prophet Himself told us to always render aid to the weak and the ill, am I to deny His commands?"
General Aldridge smirked, "You've just added blasphemy to your list of crimes, my dear. Take them away."
Assana spat back, "This should release me from any possible engagement, you don't want to marry a blasphemer."
He lost his temper and slapped her across the face, open-handed. "Take them away!" he roared, shaking with fury. He clenched his fists, forcing them down at his sides, fighting to master his temper enough not to go beat her senseless for her taunting words. He would, he silently vowed, break her spirit and make her into a proper wife, no matter what it took. Taking a slow, deep breath, he turned to his sergeant and hissed, "Go tell the scribe to send word to the king that the prisoners are all on their way, but don't tell him about the doctor, I wish to tell him myself."
"Yes, sir." The sergeant saluted smartly, then turned to carry out his orders. Aldridge waited until he was alone, then savagely lashed out with his foot and kicked the pole in half. He started smiling at the wonderful splintering sound, but belated realized that it meant that the tent would collapse on top of him, exposing him to the humiliation of his troops...
Gar Fielding was tearing into his supper when he was summoned to the center of camp. "What is the meaning of this?" he growled as he wiped his hands on his pants.
The courier bowed formally, then handed him a sealed scroll. "Greetings, General Fielding, I am on a mission from King Stefan to give you this scroll and to wait for an answer."
General Fielding gingerly took the paper and broke the seal, scanning the contents. He looked up and said, "I'll have to confer with King Richard on this, it might be a few hours before I can get one of my couriers to him."
"My orders are to wait," the courier replied stiffly.
The general scratched his cheek slowly, deciding what to do with this Edlyn courier. His face suddenly split into a wide grin as he clapped a friendly hand on the other man's shoulder. "Then may I offer the hospitality of the Lord and Lady? You may sup with me, I've just started, so there is plenty of meat and beer." He turned to his aide. "Karl, tell Cook to send another platter and mug to my tent, then have the scribe copy the scroll and send it to the king."
The courier reached into his bag and pulled out another scroll, saying haughtily, "That will not be necessary, I have another copy of the scroll. Printing presses are a wonderful invention, they allow exact copies each time."
"Then take the original, Karl, and leave the copy with me. Don't forget to have Cook send that food and drink for the gentleman, here. Thank you. Now, sir, will you dine with me?" The courier reluctantly followed Gar to his tent, expecting half raw meat and rough beer to be set before him. To his surprise, he found a pewter plate set before him with a savory smelling steak, a small mound of mixed vegetables, several slices of thick brown bread, and a pewter mug of thick beer. "I've already given thanks to the Lord and Lady for my meal, I assume you'll ask your Prophet to bless your meal," the general said as he took his seat.
"Yes," the courier said slowly, bowing his head. He silently asked for the Prophet's blessing, then picked up a crude pewter fork and sharp carving knife, slicing off a small bit of meat. He chewed carefully, noting that the meat was a bit tough, but very tasty and lean, not dripping with fat as he was accustomed to in his land. By the time he had finished his meal, he wondered if every man in the Coughlan army ate this well, or if only the officers did. It was embarrassing to admit, but these barbarians served better food than his army did, at least the food served to the troops.
Elethea gradually woke up, wondering where she was until recent events rushed back into her memory. She started to sit up but found herself held down by firm hands. "Careful, Dr. Assana, let me see your eyes first," a voice murmured in her ear. She opened her eyes and saw the prisoner, Rexana Brina, peering intently in her face. "Can't really tell since I have no light other than what's coming in through the window, but I think you're pupils are reacting normally. That bastard gave you quite a blow."
Elethea blinked a few times as she started a self-assessment of her physical state. Satisfied that she was at least in one piece and did not seem to have any major injuries, she asked, "Where are we, General Brina?"
"Call me Rexana, I'll call you Elethea, for now we're common prisoners of war. We're in the dungeon of your king's castle, but they made a few mistakes. First, the window is large enough for us to escape through. Second, we are not chained up. Third, we can use the rings on the wall to help us pull up to the window. Fourth, the mortar is cracked under one of the bars in the window, so I think I can work them loose. Fifth, the guard can't seem to hear us if we talk softly, I've already insulted his parentage and the king's parentage with no response. So, taking all these factors into account, we can probably escape this evening after full dark."
"Escape?" Elethea repeated, "why escape?"
"Do you trust your king to deal with you justly? I have no illusions about what will happen to me, I just wish to see my dear brother again in this lifetime, not the afterworld. And do you trust that General Asshole will really tell the king where we are?"
"I hadn't thought of that," Elethea answered slowly, "but I guess you have more experience in these matters than I."
"That's right," Rexana said, patting the doctor on the shoulder, "I have much more experience and have escaped from other prisons. It comes from being a warrior, you know. You do have a part in this, too, I'm counting on your knowing where we are exactly and how to get somewhere safe, can you do that?"
Elethea nodded slowly as she started thinking where they might run to that had shelter, food, water, and medical supplies. Of course, that was why she dreamed the strange dream the other night. "My family has an old hunting lodge near a waterfall, about ten miles or so from here. General Aldridge does not know it exists, and I seriously doubt that Stefan knows it either, it was in my mother's family, not my father's. I have not visited it since before I started my medical training, but it should be standing still as it has for centuries. I'm afraid it does not have indoor plumbing, but the waters should be safe enough from the waterfall."
Rexana's brown eyes gleamed with excitement. "Perfect. Now, I suspect that the trap door will open soon and we'll get our dinner," she said, pointing to a small hinged flap in the cell door, "so we must eat up to keep our strength. I'll snarl some expletives to let them we're still in here, and you'll object to my language. Make it sound really snooty, they'll think we hate each other and will probably leave us alone."
"To soften you up, dear Elethea. Hush, I hear boots now."
Elethea would have never dreamed of eating gruel with her fingers, nor of relieving herself over a bucket. She started to wash her hands in the water, but Rexana stopped her, explaining that the water was barely enough to drink, not enough to wash with. She reluctantly followed Rexana's example of sucking her fingers clean, then wiping them on the thin sheets on the bed. Rexana explained that they should not have food smells on their clothes so as not to attract any wild animals that night, and expressed her concern about the dried blood on Elethea's clothes. Elethea explained that she had underclothes on that were not stained, than her blouse and pants were lightly waxed to prevent the blood from seeping though to her other clothes. Rexana then insisted that she leave the bloody clothes behind. "We don't want to attract attention," she insisted. She also insisted that they take a short nap to conserve energy, stating that she would wake up at midnight.
"But, there's only one cot," Elethea said uneasily.
Rexana smiled as she lifted the covers, patting the thin mattress beside her. "This will be warmer than the floor, Elethea, and I promise not to bite you. You need some sleep, so quit being so dainty and come get in bed with me." Elethea reluctantly crawled in bed with the other woman, intending to keep some distance between them, but Rexana wrapped her arms around her, pulling Elethea close. Elethea shivered with the unexpected contact, which Rexana interpreted as shivering with cold, and pulled the doctor to her more snugly. Elethea forced herself to relax, sure that sleep would elude her.
King Richard looked up at Lady Catalin, asking, "So, is this part of the Lord and Lady's plans, to have my sister used as a pawn?"
The High Priestess read the demands from King Stefan again, then looked back at her king. "I do not know exactly how this fits into Their plans, sire, but I am sure that Rexana will help bring peace between the countries. I would recommend, upon approval of the council, that we participate in the prisoner exchange and await further communication as to the territory dispute."
"'Dispute?' My Lady, there is no 'dispute', they are trying to take the Sacred Grove!" one of the councilors roared.
She turned, face and voice mild. "They have already cut down the trees, so technically we do not have a sacred grove any longer. Be that as it may, we must not allow them to desecrate our lands any further. I confess, however, that I am not convinced of General Brina's diplomatic skills, but the Lord and Lady will help her with the proper words at the proper times."
"Or the proper actions."
"Or the proper actions." Lady Catalin allowed herself a small smile, even as her heart yearned for the safety of Rexana. No matter, she must not allow her feelings for Rexana interfere with her office as High Priestess.
Richard looked around the table, then called for his scribe. "Take this down, sir." He cleared his throat and started dictating:
"To the most honorable King Stefan of Edlyn, from the court of King Richard of Coughlan, regarding the exchange of prisoners of war:
I am more than willing to arrange for the exchange of prisoners, yours for ours, at a neutral location to be decided. As to the Sacred Grove and the Tomb of the Prophet, let us decide this matter in a separate negotiation. I only ask that you keep the general of my army, Rexana Brina, safe from harm until such time as we agree on the terms of the negotiation.
"May the Blessings of the Lord and Lady be over you,
"I remain yours,"
"Richard, king of Coughlan."
The scribe wrote rapidly, then held out his pen for the king to sign. Richard took the pen, signed with a flourish, then sent the scribe away to make copies before sealing the scroll and sending it back to General Fielding and the waiting courier.
Elethea was loath to wake up when the voice tickled her ear, telling her that it was time to leave. She started to snuggle into the warm body, then woke fully, heart racing with fear, leaping out of the bed, barely suppressing a scream. The last few hours before sleep came back in a rush even as Rexana laughed softly, saying that most women didn't scream when they woke up in her arms. Confused, Elethea just stared at the other woman, then drew herself up with dignity. "I apologize," she started, but was stopped as the Coughlan prisoner flowed out of bed and touched a fingertip to her lips, signaling for silence. The doctor stopped, waiting for further directions.
Rexana waited a moment, listening at the door for sounds in the corridor, then, satisfied, turned back to the doctor. "We'll have to move fast," she spoke in a low tone, "but first, we must remove those window bars."
"How?" Elethea asked. Rexana just smiled and started pulling herself up by the chains in the walls. When she was even with the window, she motioned for Elethea to come over, then explained in hushed tones that she needed to stand on Elethea's shoulders while she pulled out the bars. The doctor did as she was told, reaching up to steady the other woman's legs, praying that her own strength would hold out as she acted the part of a human ladder.
Time seemed to take on a peculiar quality, rushing by and yet standing still as Rexana twisted each bar in turn, grinding the loose mortar around the ends. Much to her surprise, the task was easier than she'd expected, she had been expecting them to barely break out before dawn, but she was already pulling out one of the bars. Whoever made these rooms was pretty slipshod and had merely embedded the bars into layers of mortar in the top and bottom rather than in the stone itself. She could barely see the ground outside the wall, about two feet under the window. Good, she could toss the bars out without making noise to alert the guards.
Elethea felt her shoulders going numb, but valiantly hung on to Rexana's legs until she heard her say, "Let me down now." She let go of Rexana's legs and allowed her to slide down her body until they were face to face. Rexana whispered, laid a brief, soft kiss on her lips.
"You kissed me!"
Rexana turned back around, watching in the pale glimmer of starlight as the doctor's face turned red as her hair. Holding back her amusement, she asked gravely, "Did I startle you? My apologies, I was merely thanking you without speaking, I don't want the guards to hear us."
"Oh, right," Elethea whispered back, flushing even darker as Rexana sauntered over to the bucket and pulled down her pants. Elethea turned away to give Rexana privacy until she heard, "All done, you'd better go now, we won't be stopping for many breaks." Elethea nodded, reluctantly walking over to the smelly bucket.
A short time later, Rexana showed Elethea how to use the chains to haul herself up the wall and wriggle out of the window. They took a few breaths for Elethea to orient herself, then headed out toward the king's gardens, where Elethea said she and her cousins used to play and sneak out of the castle proper. "Let's hope the king hasn't had the gates repaired," Rexana muttered as she followed the doctor. Sure enough, the gate was still lacking a latch, but was overgrown by vines. Rexana cursed softly under her breath as she started tugging on the vines, trying to dislodge them. They proved to be very sturdy and she was starting to wonder if the plans would work when she noticed Elethea slicing through the vines with a small, sharp knife. "Where did you get that?" she hissed.
Instead of replying, Elethea simply held up a small bag, opening it so she could see a number of leather wrapped items. Pointing, she said, "Surgical tools, I keep my set under my clothes so they won't be stolen by any other doctors." Rexana just gaped in astonishment as the doctor went back to coolly slicing through the growth with great precision, freeing just enough places to allow them to open the gate. "May the Prophet light our path," she intoned as she opened the old gate.
"And may it not be enough light to show us to our enemies. Come on, let's hurry before they discover we're gone."
Near daybreak, Rexana spotted a soldier and a serving wench loitering near the edge of the first town they came upon. She motioned for Elethea to stay hidden in the woods, then slipped up and slammed their heads together, causing the man and woman to slide bonelessly in a tangled heap. She motioned for Elethea to come over, whispering, "Our disguise. Here, help me drag them into cover."
"Let me check them-"
Rexana shook her head savagely. "No. This is our survival, they'll just have horrible headaches when they wake up. I'm assuming they'll both be embarrassed and think they were sleeping off a drunk, they both stink of beer and whiskey. You take her clothes, I'll take his."
"But what about-"
"Leave them naked. The sun's nearly up, we can't get caught now, so hurry, damn it!"
Elethea shut up and started the process of taking the woman's clothes off and slipping them on her own body. Her skin crawled as she pulled on the still warm dress over her head, then swiftly buttoned up the front, grateful that the dress was a close fit, just a little large in th waist. She glanced over at Rexana, who was quickly buttoning up the pants and smiling slyly. She realized why; Rexana had stuffed something in the pants to create a bulge and was now wrapping the soldier's silk scarf snugly around her breasts to flatten them. She grinned at Elethea's expression and commented, "It's part of the disguise, your army doesn't have women soldiers. Now, if anyone stops us, just hang on to me as if you were very drunk and I'd been the man you had slept with last night. You'd look down because you're considered lower than low, a wench who is out whoring. Don't give me that shocked look, it happens in armies around the world, although I tend to rip into my men and women if I find they've been cheating on their sweethearts or spouses. Are you ready? Good, let's start walking."
Rexana didn't want for an answer, she took Elethea's hand and lead her out to the road, watching for any sign of life for the first hour. Gradually, she relaxed and dropped Elethea's hand and started asking questions about the countryside and how far the lodge would be from them now. "I think another seven miles or so," Elethea answered between harsh breaths, "the village is about eight miles from the lodge. I don't remember any other villages between here and there, just farms and most of the farm houses face the westerly road instead of this one."
"Good. We need to walk at least another mile or so before resting, can you do that?"
Elethea gritted her teeth. "Did we remember the soldier's water bag? Is there any water in it?"
Rexana stopped, looking in all directions before checking her water bag and then handing it to the doctor. "Don't drink too fast," she cautioned, "or it might come back up."
"And who is the doctor here?"
"Hey, I'm a warrior and have lived off the land many times, so I'm the expert here. Okay, that's enough for now, let me have some."
Elethea handed the bag over, watching Rexana take several slow, small sips of water before stopping up the bag. She took another look around before saying, "Let's head back out, I really want to get further along before stopping. You never know when someone might jump out of the woods, so I don't want to take any chances." Elethea looked longingly at the water bag, but followed Rexana as they started back down the road again.
General Aldridge slapped the guard with his gloves, shouting, "How could they escape? Did you desert your post, you imbecile? I should have your uniform for this!"
"But sir, we had no idea that the bars were so loose, and you were the one who did not want them chained up!"
"Never mind that, just answer why you did not hear them escape!"
The guard bit back an angry reply; it was no use to argue with the general for he was always right, at least in his own mind. He tried to think of a reply that would not endanger his job, but was interrupted by the appearance of the king's steward who handed the general a note. Aldridge read it quickly, then turned back to the guard, hissing, "I'll finish with you later!"
Aldridge followed the steward into the king's formal receiving hall, where the king was seated on his throne, surrounded by several advisors. He went to the king, bowed, then asked smoothly, "How may I assist you, Sire?"
King Stefan sat back, studying the general for an agonizingly long time before finally replying, "You will find my cousin and the Coughlan general and bring them here."
"Yes, Sire, I'll take my men-"
The king held his hand up, hushing the general. "You do not interrupt the king, Braun. You, alone, will track them and bring them back, alive and unharmed!" His eyes locked on the general's, daring him to interrupt again. The general dropped his eyes, the very picture of subservience. "While you hunt for them, I will personally oversee the exchange of the other prisoners and attempt to save this sorry situation. Be on your way now."
"Yes, my lord at once." General Aldridge replied shakily,
"And one more thing, General."
"If you do not bring them back alive and unharmed, you will be busted back to private and have all of your lands stripped from you. You may go now, my steward will see to your equipment and horse." The king watched the general stiffly salute, then leave the room.
"It's just like I remembered," Elethea murmured into Roxana's ear as they slowly circled the house, "and we're in luck, no one is using it."
"How do you know?"
The doctor pointed to the front porch. "If it were in use, the flag would be flying next to the door, showing which branch of the family was using it at the moment. But, since it's not any particular hunting season, we should be safe for a while. Come one, let's go."
The general reluctantly followed the doctor to the front of the house, where she boldly opened the door and motioned for the general to come inside. Roxana warily crossed the threshold, hand on the hilt of the soldier's sword as she insisted on checking each room. Elethea busied herself with checking the dry goods and the water pump in the kitchen, then the wood supply for the stove. Satisfied that they had enough dry food and wood to at least eat a few sketchy meals, she went back to the living area to wait for Rexana.
"All clear," Rexana reported as she joined Elethea on the couch, "what did you find?"
"Some dry goods, some wood, a little dried meat. We should be able to eat tonight without fishing or hunting. I'm assuming that you can hunt."
Rexana looked wounded and clasped her hands melodramatically. "Oh dear, me, hunt? Of course I can hunt, silly. Now, let's decide where we should sleep, then see about cleaning up. I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a bath."
"I used to sleep in the back room upstairs, it was larger and had a better bed. Besides, it has a window near a tree that I climbed down several times."
Rexana grinned at the doctor. "Aha, not such a perfect lady, eh? Now, do we have any soap, towels, extra clothes?"
"Just soap and towels, no extra clothes, we'll have to wash these in the pool as well." She jumped up to fetch the bathing things, then came back into the living area. "Okay, General, let's get cleaned up. Remind me, though, that I need to look at your wounds, make sure they're healing properly."
"Will do, Doctor."
The courier waited stiffly as King Stefan read the reply from King Richard. Stefan finally looked up, saying, "I shall call you tomorrow to take my reply. Did they treat you well?"
"Yes, Sire, they treated me quite well, gave me supper while I waited for the reply." The king nodded, then motioned for the man to leave. He bowed low, then left the room just as the king's steward was entering.
"Sire, dinner is served at your pleasure."
"Thank you, you may announce me," the king replied absently, his mind still on King Richard's reply. He followed the man into the main dining room, acknowledging the advisors gathered at the table, waiting patiently for him to be seated so they could follow suit. "The Prophet's blessings upon you," he called out.
"And upon you and this our humble meal," they answered.
Stefan motioned for them to be seated and for the meal to be served. After the servants withdrew, he cut off a slice of roast and ate it before opening the conversation. "Good meat, gentlemen. Now, we have a reply from King Richard in regards to our offer for exchanging the prisoners and taking over the Tomb of the Prophet. He proposes an exchange of the prisoners at a neutral location, but to discuss the Tomb in a separate meeting. What say you to this proposed exchange?"
Most of the men looked at each other, waiting for someone else to offer the first opinion. Finally, Pieter Magnus, the Archbishop, spoke. "Brothers, we have been at war for some time now and have done nothing but lose the blood of our men. The Coughlan army will never let us take the Tomb, for we destroyed their Sacred Grove. We should have never have destroyed their sacred place, especially as a pretext for a war only to seize more rich farmlands. The Prophet has written, 'Take care what you do in My name, that you bring not dishonor on Me and your countrymen.' Declaring war in His name is a great dishonor."
"Pieter," the king said in a silky voice, "the Prophet himself is why we went to war. After all, it is written, 'From my altar you shall proclaim my words, from my altar built where false gods reigned.' Is not the Tomb considered His altar? Is not the grove where the false gods reigned? My good man, I have also studied the words and deeds of the Prophet since childhood, and I am the king."
"I'm sorry, I assumed that you wanted real opinions, not just men parroting back what you want to hear, my lord. I dare say that He would rather us help the Coughlans than to tear down their sacred spaces."
The king stared at the archbishop with deadly calm eyes, taking the measure of the man whom he thought he'd known for many years. "Archbishop Magnus, what are you saying?"
"That we exchange the prisoners, apologize, and work on a mutual sacred space. Or, is the land between the Tomb and our borders too rich to give up?"
"You are treading on dangerous territory."
The archbishop threw down his napkin and stood up, flinging his arms wide. "I am the Voice of the Prophet, not you, my king. It is my sacred duty to speak His message truly, no matter what you wish for it to be. How do we know that their Lord and Lady are false gods?"
"Because the Prophet also said we are not to worship other gods."
"Ah, we are not to worship them, not anyone else."
"Pieter, are you denying our Prophet?"
"No, and you know that the Prophet came in the time of our greatest, bloodiest war ever, to stop us from war."
The king stood up and slowly walked over to the archbishop and said quietly, "No, he came to stop us from warring with ourselves, not from warring with others. In the four hundred years since His death, we have gathered our peoples and have become a great nation, which He gave to me to protect. We must protect ourselves, and the sacred Tomb, and must not allow it to stay in hands of non-believers. This is a just war, and rightly called in His name."
The archbishop stared at the king, then dropped his eyes. "Believe what you wish, but do not forget that our Prophet stood for truth, no matter how unpopular the truth is." With that, he spun on his heel and walked out, unchallenged by the king or any other man in the room. The king simply watched, gritting his teeth, forcing his fury to subside, for it was considered a high crime to let any harm come to a man who spoke for the Prophet.
"What shall we do, sire?"
The king shook himself from his reverie, then proclaimed, "We agree to King Richard's terms and find a neutral location for a prisoner exchange." A death's-head grin stretched across his face. "More neutral for them than for us, if you catch my drift. Prepare your men for one glorious battle, we have a king to catch."
General Aldridge followed the sparse trail until it dead-ended at the outskirts of the nearest town, where he found their clothes and two very muzzy people, a soldier and a wench, both in only their undergarments. He dismounted from his horse, demanding, "What is the meaning of this? Where are your clothes?"
The soldier managed to hold his aching head up long enough to recognize the general, then dropped it into his hands. "Sorry, sir, I don't quite remember what happened. My girl and I were taking a stroll last night when we were ambushed by thieves."
The general snorted angrily, looking around. "Do you know anything about tracking?"
"A bit sir, I used to hunt with my father."
"Then find some clothes and help me track your thieves. If your commander had any problems, tell him that General Braun Aldridge needs you for a special mission. Meet me back here in half an hour."
"Yes, General Aldridge. Come on Betty, let's go." The soldier stood up gingerly, helping the woman up before slowly walking back through the town gates. The general watched them for a few minutes, then sat down under the tree, still holding his horse's reins. He might as well rest for a bit while he had the chance. "Damn it!" he swore softly, "Elethea, if you weren't so stubborn, we'd already be safely wed and you would have never wound up in the dungeon to start with, you'd be with our children." He leaned back against the tree and allowed himself to indulge in lazy daydreams of their wedding night.
Elethea didn't remember the water in the falls being quite so cold, but she didn't let it deter her from washing off the accumulated grime of the dungeon and the subsequent flight. Even though she saw bodies in various stages of dress and undress every day, she felt unaccountably shy when Rexana joined her in the falls, soaping up vigorously. She tried to concentrate on looking at the woman's wounds, which appeared to be healing rapidly, but found herself distracted by Rexana's breasts and her variable tan lines. Rexana's hands, face, and neck were the darkest, followed by her arms and legs. Her belly was fair, but with a slight olive cast. Her nipples were large and dark. Elethea forced herself to tear her gaze away, hoping that Rexana had not caught her looking at her so brazenly, as she had seen men look at women. What was wrong with her?
"What are you thinking, dear doctor?"
Startled, Elethea dropped her soap and had to dive to catch it before it slipped downstream. In doing so, she nearly fell into the water, but was caught around the waist by Rexana, who pulled her back to safety. "Hey, I'm sorry, Elethea, I didn't mean to startle you," Rexana said softly, pulling the doctor closer, "are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Elethea answered. She shivered, skin tingling where the other woman was holding her. Those deep brown eyes, looking straight into her own, full of sudden concern, so beautiful. "I'm fine," she repeated, wondering why she didn't just pull back to finish washing.
"Are you cold? You're shivering, Elethea." Rexana cupped one hand on Elethea's cheek, then her forehead. "You don't seem to be starting a fever, but this water is pretty cold if you're not used to it. Come on, let's finish washing up, then go back to the lodge to warm up." Rexana guided the doctor closer to the shore, prepared to pull them both out.
"No, wait, I haven't washed my hair yet."
"Oh, I've already finished mine. Here, hand me the soap and let me help you with that," Rexana offered. Elethea handed over the soap, then turned around so Rexana could start lathering her hair.
It felt wonderful, almost decadent to have someone else washing her hair. Strong fingers massaged her scalp, allowing tension to seep away, tenderly working through the tangles. By the time Rexana guided her over to the falls to rinse the soap out, she was so relaxed that she felt she could fall asleep right now. She didn't protest as Rexana guided her out of the water, dried her off, then swept her up and carried her back to the lodge and up the stairs, then laid her on the big bed. Elethea drifted off to sleep, comforted by the soft sheets and the warmth of Rexana lying beside her, tenderly cradling her in her arms.
Richard read over the proposed exchange, a frown creasing his handsome face. Stefan proposed to exchange the prisoners, holding Rexana back until he agreed to give up the Tomb of the Prophet and the lands between the Tomb and the Coughlan/Edlyn border. He pondered the proposal, at a loss for once in his life as to how to proceed. He wished that his sister was here, safe and sound, instead of in some Edlyn prison. Of course, if she was here, she'd be laughing at his concern and telling him just to look in his heart, fo that is where his best decisions came from in these types of matters. He didn't want to lose his sister, but he also didn't want to lose the land. Coughlan had many fertile valleys between steep hills and mountains, but most of the plains were rocky and hard to plough. This particular thousand acres was the most fertile plains in the entire kingdom, good for growing the best grains and vegetables, ones that he was sure the Lord and Lady blessed themselves. There was also the matter of the fine iron and copper ore in the mountain near the land, the very mountain that overlooked Sacred Grove and the Tomb of the Prophet. Perhaps Stefan of Edlyn was planning to expand his demands enough to take the mountain as well and cut off their supply of the best ore in the kingdom. He unconsciously touched the elaborate gold and copper torque around his neck, one that came from the sacred mountain itself, the torque symbolizing the leadership of the Lord and the healing from the Lady.
Richard turned around to find Lady Catalin standing, waiting for his attention. "I'm sorry, my lady, I did not hear you approach. What may I do for you?" He sat down, motioning for her to sit in the other chair.
Lady Catalin sat, glancing at the battle map on the table, then at the message from King Stefan, then back at her own king. "It is not what you may do for me, but rather what I may do for you," she explained, "for the Lord and Lady are quite disturbed by the latest proposal."
"Frankly, I am as well," Richard agreed, "I tend to think it is more than their Prophet's Tomb they want. You have a fine mind, look at this map and tell me what you see."
Without looking, she answered, "Valuable resources, both in fertile land and in minerals, sire. That I am well aware of, for the Lord and Lady created the land especially to feed us and to make our economy strong. No, my lord, I am not here to discuss the land, but the proposal and what will follow."
Lady Catalin stood and tapped the map. "If they cut us off from this acreage, they have a foothold into Coughlan, of which you are very aware. It is but the first parry in the real war, sire, the war for their Prophet. The Lord and Lady sent me a vision last night, one showing the real reason the king of Edlyn wants the land around the Tomb."
Richard sat up, intrigued. "Go on, my lady."
"They have already destroyed the Sacred Grove. New trees can be planted and dedicated to the Lord and Lady, but they mean to disallow us the privilege of planting new trees."
"For what purpose? Unlike their religion, the Lord and Lady will allow us to dedicate a grove in another location, as I understand it."
"True, King Richard, but they do not intent to allow us to dedicate a new grove anywhere. They intend to build an altar around the Tomb, and to force us to worship the Prophet and deny the Lord and Lady. We may exchange the prisoners as agreed, but you must leave General Brina behind until we can counteract this plan."
"Damn," the king swore softly. He ran fingers through his hair and chewed distractedly on his lower lip, trying to think of a way around this new complication. He had no doubt that the High Priestess spoke truly for the Lord and Lady, that the Edlyn king was trying to take over, but to force them to give up the Lord and Lady for their Prophet? "I hate to leave Rexana in their hands any longer than need be, but if you think it is best, I will."
Lady Catalin smiled wearily at the king. "She is safe for the moment."
"I believe you, my lady, if you say she is safe, she must be. Besides, she's too damn stubborn to let anything happen to her." Richard stood up, bowing slightly to the High Priestess. "I appreciate your insight, my lady. Let's call in the other councillors and hash out our reply."
"As you wish," she replied.
Pieter Magnus knelt in front of the altar, praying to the Prophet to use him as a vessel to speak truly to King Stefan, not just to give his own opinion. He was positive that the Prophet was not happy with the war, with shedding so much blood in His name, but he had to tread carefully around the king. He had been a mere country priest before being elevated to the high office of Archbishop, bypassing men who were older and more experienced than himself. The old Archbishop, Jerolin Nikki, had died in his sleep after the war had begun, but had left instructions in his personal copy of the Prophet's Book that the Pieter would be the next archbishop. Many had argued that such a young man, only a priest for a handful of years, especially a country priest, could not ascend to the highest post in the church, but in the end, were forced to accept him. The Prophet's ways were often mysterious, and the Archbishop must have be given his successor's name by the Prophet.
"Am I following Your will?" Pieter wondered out loud, "or am I following my own will, my own interpretations of Your Words?"
"No, I'd say you are doing fine, Pieter Magnus."
Pieter stood up slowly and turned around to face the speaker, a young man dressed in clothes from many years ago. "Who are you?"
The man smiled. "You do not recognize your prophet?"
"Do not question me, you just see my spirit, Pieter. You speak truly to Stefan, I came to stop wars, not to start wars. My message is of brotherhood and peace, meant to unite, not to divide. Pieter, you must convince the king to stop this war and compromise - I know that King Richard of Coughlan is more than willing to go back to the old agreement and allow pilgrims to visit my tomb. Although where my body is buried is not the most important part to worshiping me, it is what my people do in my name that is important to me."
"What if I cannot convince the king to stop the war?"
The Prophet smiled. "If you do not, there will be those who will, two women, one from each side of the war."
"Yes, Pieter, women." He reached into his bag and pulled out a book, laying it on one of the pews. "My new words to live by, Pieter. You will find that I did not ever say that women were to be subservient to men, but rather men and women were to be full partners in life, just as the women and men who worship the Lord and Lady are full partners in life."
"But they are barbarians!"
"Pieter, do not deny me, my son. My time is limited, I must ascend again into the heavens. They are not barbarians, they just choose to live differently. Do not let your prejudices get in the way of my message. Take my message, make it your own." A shaft of light filled the chapel, bathing Pieter in its glow. "My blessings upon you, my son." The Prophet faded from view, taking the light with him, leaving Pieter feeling lost and cold. He stood for several minutes, amazed, but finally shook himself out of his reverie. The book sat on the pew, inviting him to pick it up, to drink in the Prophet's new words. He cautiously reached for the leather-bound volume, almost afraid of it, just touching it lightly. It was warm, like a book left in the sun.
Elethea woke slowly, relishing the soft bed under her, the warmth of Rexana's body next to hers. It was a moment before the guilt started to kick in, it was against the teachings of the Prophet for two women or two men to lie together in lust. But, this wasn't in lust, it was just sharing the same bed, she argued with herself, the other bed was downstairs, less safe. It was no use, she could no longer deny the attraction she felt for the Coughlan general, nor the excitement that the general's touch generated. Elethea had always buried her feelings, first by keeping friends at a distance, then by throwing herself into her studies in medical school. Her father and mother had fought tradition by insisting that their daughter go to medical school rather than just for nurse's training, and were unexpectedly backed up by the king himself. The king her father's brother, recognized her talent for healing and encouraged it. He died just as she was finishing her residency, leaving the throne to his son, Stefan, who declared war within a year's time. Stefan had appointed her as the head of the entire medical corps of the army, hoping that it would solidify his grasp of the army.
But what to do? She carefully slid from Rexana's grasp, reluctant to leave the bed, but afraid to stay. Elethea had kept so busy that she never had time just for herself, for her feelings, but she could not deny them any longer. Of course, she could not give in, she must pray to the Prophet to take these feelings away from her, to make her normal again, even if it meant marrying Braun and submitting to his advances. She shuddered involuntarily as she imagined being in bed with him, a sick feeling creeping in her belly when she imagined his hands on her body.
"You awake?" came Rexana's sleepy voice.
"Yes," Elethea replied, "but you can go back to sleep, it would do you some good. You are still injured."
Rexana ignored the doctor, throwing the covers back. "No, I need to get up, check the traps I set before our bath." She peered at the doctor's face, exclaiming, "Lord and Lady, he belted you a good one!"
Elethea reached up to touch her face, assessing the bruising where Braun had hit her as they were being taken prisoner. "It's just a bruise, Rexana, no broken bones."
"Just a bruise? I should have cut his balls off for that," she snapped, anger smoldering in her expressive eyes. "He had no right to do that to you."
"Actually, under our laws, he has every right, he is my fiancé."
The anger drained from Rexana's face, replaced by horror. "That bastard? You are engaged to marry that bastard? Oh, right, I remember now, I guess that earlier blow to the head made me forget." She reached up, touching the back of her head. "Swelling's gone down, so maybe I won't forget anything else."
Elethea started to say something else but suddenly remembered that she was naked. "Where are our clothes?" she asked uneasily as she drew the covers up to cover her chest.
"Drying in the kitchen, why? Oh, you are modest, I'm sorry, they should be dry now, let me go get them. You stay here." Rexana jumped from the bed, unconcerned about her own nudity. Several minutes later, she appeared with the bundle of clothes, tossing them on the bed, then dropping on the bed herself, making no move towards getting dressed. "Are all women in your culture this modest? You're a doctor, you should be used to seeing bodies."
Elethea sat uneasily, wondering if she could politely ask Rexana to either leave the room while she dressed, or to get dressed as well. She also felt silly, they had bathed and slept together already, it wasn't like Rexana didn't know what she looked like. "I guess I'm not used to seeing naked bodies as people, just as patients," she tried to explain, "and my religion forbids that I sleep with anyone other than my husband."
"What? Oh, sex." The light dawned. "Hey, the Lord and Lady gave us our sexual natures to express our love for each other. Did your Prophet tell you to only sleep with your husband?"
"He forbade us to sleep with those of our own sex."
Rexana stared at the beautiful redhead, wondering what kind of nutcase god would deny pleasure based on gender. "Why?"
Elethea blushed deeply, embarrassed by the turns in the conversation, but pressed on valiantly. "Sexual acts are only for the marriage bed, to honor the Prophet with more children, therefore they cannot be committed by two men or two women."
"That's absurd, Elethea! Why, we revere the men and women who have two spirits, for they are in touch with both the Lord and Lady's natures! Our very highest religious leader is always one with two spirits, like our current High Priestess."
The doctor was shocked, their high priestess was a lover of women? Her mind reeled from the implications. "She is?"
"Yes. It's funny, though, she never chose a companion, most priests or priestesses have chosen a companion by her age. Catalin and I grew up together, I was fostered in a common household, as all royal children are who are not destined for the throne." The rest of the pieces clicked into place. "Wait, you are also of two spirits, but have never been with a woman, am I right?"
Elethea started to deny it, but could not. The years of denying her true nature boiled up with sudden anger, the unfairness causing hot tears to well up in her eyes. She roughly scrubbed her eyes with the back of a hand, ashamed of her secret coming out like this, but she bitterly acknowledged, "Yes, I am attracted to women, but I have never been with a woman. I never allowed myself to get too close to any of my friends, always afraid that they would know, that I would be stoned to death or married off before I finished my training." She took a breath, trying to steady her emotions. "I suppose you will now use this knowledge against me."
"Oh, baby, no, I wouldn't do that, I've already told you, you are blessed, not cursed!" Rexana scooted closer to Elethea, tenderly reaching out to wipe off the tears that started to trickle down her face. "You are a beautiful, intelligent woman, very attractive, you'd make some woman very happy."
"Who'd want me?"
"I would," Rexana answered softly, pulling the doctor closer, "I am very attracted to you." She trailed a single fingertip along the side of Elethea's face, marveling at her light, soft skin, her brilliant blue eyes. "I do want you, I want to show you how to worship the Lord and Lady in the most profound sense. Let me show you how, Elethea."
Elethea jerked back, trembling. "I bet I'm just another conquest to you," she spat out, trying to put some distance between them, even as fire stirred at Rexana's touch.
Rexana laughed, "Guilty as charged, I've been with a number of women." Her expression turned serious as she added, "But no woman has ever been a conquest, I only go to bed with women who are willing to share the gifts of the Lord and Lady. Won't you let me share the gifts with you?"
Mesmerized, Elethea lowered the blankets until the tops of her breasts showed. Should she? Just once, do something just once with this woman, this kind, yet dangerous woman. Give in to her lust? Or tear herself away, be true to the Prophet? She could feel Rexana waiting patiently, but see the passion stirring in her eyes, her nipples crinkling in anticipation, her breathing becoming a bit shallow. Curiosity and attraction won. She could always stop if she felt disgusted, she supposed.
The covers dropped, revealing the fair skin and pink nipples of the doctor to the general. Rexana suppressed a smile, remembering how eager she was in her first experience, grateful to the older woman who'd taken her to bed and shown her the fine arts of lovemaking between women. It occurred to her that she'd never been with a virgin, only women who were between partners or wanted to experience the love of a woman instead of their husbands. She was eager to taste Elethea, but felt the sudden weight of responsibility, of teaching a virgin, one of the most sacred acts. She took a deep, cleansing breath, then whispered, "Lay down, dear one, I promise not to hurt you, but to worship you."
Elethea pushed the covers back, laying down stiffly, trembling with fear and anticipation, not knowing what to expect. Rexana positioned herself over Elethea, lowering herself down enough to brush a brief kiss on her lips, then pulled back. Elethea shivered at the contact, finding herself wanting more. She reached up and laid a hand on each shoulder, pulling Rexana on top of her, feeling the warm weight of the other woman covering her like a blanket. Rexana relaxed on top of her, then sought Elethea's lips with her own, first softly, then with more passion, responding to the demand from the woman underneath her.
She responded to Rexana's kisses tentatively, then fiercely, feeling unfamiliar fire racing through her belly and lower regions. It was frightening in the intensity, yet she craved more, causing her to press her lips harder to Rexana's, to crush her in her arms. She didn't ever want to let go, to stop kissing this woman, but she had no idea what else to do. She felt as though her lips were bruising Rexana's, but she could not stop, driven by desire and lust. The fire continued to grow in her belly, leaving her wanting more.
Rexana was startled by the intensity of Elethea's kisses, but paced herself, not allowing herself to become too distracted by her own body's desires. She pulled back, leaving Elethea whimpering and trying to pull her back down, but she resisted, feasting her eyes on the fair skin of the woman beneath her. She waited until Elethea was panting with need to lower herself again, to slowly kiss her neck, trailing down until she reached the doctor's collarbone, which she nibbled lightly. She felt Elethea jump as her teeth touched skin, causing a spike in her own lust. She swallowed and froze her position for a moment, then moved on.
"Oh, my Prophet," Elethea thought as Rexana kissed each nipple in turn, then resettled her body. She could feel moisture dripping from her nether lips as Rexana's lips fastened on to a nipple, first licking it, then sucking on it as a baby would. She could feel the desire racing through now, building in intensity as Rexana continued to lick and suckle the nipple. She reacted by bucking her hips against Rexana's belly, gasping as her soaking mound made contact, instinctively wrapping her legs around the other woman, trying to grind against her as the tension continued to mount. She was panting in earnest now, but Rexana merely shifted her attention to her other nipple, giving it the same attention as she had the first one. Elethea felt as if she would burst, but could only moan in desire; words had fled.
Rexana felt Elethea nearing her climax and reluctantly left her breasts, slowly working her right hand between Elethea's legs. "Don't be afraid," she whispered thickly, barely restraining herself from roughly plunging her fingers in Elethea's wet, hot well. She lightly brushed past the hair, finding the swollen nub with her fingers. She traced an agonizingly slow route around the base of the nub as Elethea quivered with desire, then finally started stroking the very tip of the nub, sending hard shudders through Elethea's body.
Elethea bucked and shuddered, wanting more. She felt as if she were racing through a tunnel, anticipating something at the end. She bucked against the fingers that were stroking her fire, not caring what anyone thought any longer. Something was building fast and hot, and the fingers were stroking it faster and hotter. Suddenly, she started convulsing with the most delicious feeling, like the universe had just exploded around her. She was barely aware of fingers being shoved up her pulsing well, aware that her muscles clenched on tightly, even as she crossed her legs behind Rexana. The feeling continued to roll over her until she was wrung out, weak and limp. She sighed deeply, nuzzling against Rexana as the other woman laid down beside her.
Rexana waited until Elethea's breathing returned to normal before gently kissing her again, pleased when the other woman responded in kind. Elethea surprised her by flipping her over on her back, aggressively kissing her, covering her with her body. She leaned back into the pillows, savoring the feeling of having her breasts suckled, her neck kissed. The touch was still a shade tentative, but Elethea got into the spirit of lovemaking very quickly, improvising as she went along. Rexana felt the desire surging back up, burning hotter and higher as the doctor frantically sucked her nipples, switching rapidly between them. Rexana wrapped her legs around the other woman's torso, keeping her in place as she started bucking her mound against her, not sure if Elethea would actually reach down. Some women were shy about touching someone else there, but maybe..."oh, yes," she moaned as she felt a hand slipping down.
She opened her legs wider to give Elethea better access to her mound, encouraging her with inarticulate moans to slip her fingers through, to touch her as she had touched Elethea. She could barely hang on now as fingers found the tip of her nub and started rubbing enthusiastically, making her start to tremble with the anticipated climax. Fingers swirling around, then rubbing, then swirling around the base again, the rubbing the tip. She could herself getting wetter, juice dripping from her, lubricating the action. She closed her eyes, trying to hang on to the precipice for just a little longer when Elethea pushed a questioning finger into her well.
The climax roared through her body, shaking her very soul in its intensity. Rexana reflexively clamped her legs tighter around Elethea, bucking furiously in an attempt to draw out the feeling longer, to stretch the sense of flying. She shook hard with each successive climax, trapping Elethea's hand between her legs, barely feeling the other woman stroking her again, helping the feeling along to its final conclusion. Rexana finally stopped bucking as a pleasant fatigue overwhelmed her, gingerly opening her legs to allow Elethea to recover her hand. "Thank you," she murmured before pulling her down beside her, surrendering to an exhausted sleep.
After many false starts, the soldier found the tracks of Elethea and Rexana and followed them to a thick undergrowth, where he lost them. General Aldridge sat on his horse, waiting impatiently for the man to find the tracks again before finally saying, "It's getting dark, soldier, we should make camp." The soldier gratefully stood up, stretching his back before looking around for a spot to camp. He noticed the general's horse looking up, ears perking, nostrils flaring and decided that water was near.
"Sir, your horse senses water, we should follow him. Maybe there will be a clearing near the water for us to lay our camp." General Aldridge considered for a moment, then dismounted, motioning for the soldier to lead the way. The soldier took the reins from the general, then allowed the horse to lead them through the trees to a wide stream. He looked around, then saw a fairly clear spot just up the stream on the other side. "Over there, sir," he said, pointing to the clearing.
"Fine," the general said, swinging back up on his horse, "lead the way." The soldier squared his shoulders, dreading getting his boots soaked, but he had no alternative. The general probably would call him a sissy if he stopped to take off his boots and roll up his pants.
General Aldridge's horse reluctantly trudged through the cold, rushing water, picking his way across. He nearly skidded several times, earning a quick lashing with the general's quirt, but he only laid his ears back and did not offer to throw the man off his back. The horse finally reached the other side, plodding onto dry land, still following the soldier. Only then did the general dismount and allow his horse to drink his fill from the stream.
"Sir, would you like for me to unsaddle your horse?"
"Eh? Yes, I'd like that very much, then you may build a fire and start supper," Aldridge replied as he scanned the ground for the perfect spot to sit. "Thank you. I have some supplies in my saddlebags and I'm sure you can catch us some nice fish to go with our supper."
"Yes sir," the soldier replied. He was tired and his feet ached, but he didn't dare disobey the general, he'd heard tales of the general's temper. He quickly stripped the horse of his gear, found a brush, and started brushing the horse's sweaty sides and back. He was afraid that the general would protest, but a quick glance told him that the general had stretched out and fallen asleep. "There boy, doesn't that feel better?" he asked the horse. He smiled as the horse merely shifted his weight from one side to the other. When he finished brushing and tethering the horse, he turned his attention to finding firewood, unpacking supplies, and catching fish for supper. He just hoped that the general didn't wake up before he had completed all his tasks.
Gar Fielding didn't like the idea of King Richard joining him on the battlefield; he could not guarantee the king's safety if a battle broke out. But, Richard had sent a message to King Stefan that he would meet him at the Plain of Tears this afternoon for the final negotiation of the prisoner exchange. General Fielding had personally seen to it that the Edlyn prisoners had been well treated, given baths, medical attention, and clean clothes. Most of them seemed very grateful. A handful had been uppity about it, but the majority gave his men and women no problems. He hated to admit it, but he would be grateful to take his place as second-in-command back just as soon as General Brina came striding up to him. He missed her; she was an excellent commander.
"Look, Gar, I do believe that Stefan's contingent is coming," Richard observed. Gar looked up, seeing a cloud of dust as many horses thundered down the dusty road toward the plain. "Perhaps we should greet him."
"Yes, sire," Fielding answered. He turned and bellowed to the troops, "Saddle up, folks, the others are coming!" His warriors swung up on their horses nearly as one, waiting eagerly for whatever would come their way. Both sides knew that the Plain of Tears was neutral, yet filled with treacherous terrain, so he wondered why the Edlyns would choose such a place for a prisoner exchange. There were hidden holes in the ground, filled with miniature ponds where horses or warriors could easily snap their legs in half. All he could do was wait.
The Edlyn army stopped, then started scurrying around supply wagons, pulling out boards and laying them on the ground, tying them together to make a temporary platform. Gar was intrigued by their engineering skills, noting to himself that he's love to chat with some of their engineers after the war. After some time, they finally stood back, allowing the king's carriage to drive onto the platform so that the king could descend.
"All hail the king!" the Edlyn army bellowed as Stefan and his councillors stepped onto the platform. Gar nearly snickered at their outfits, all sparkly and impractical, with dainty shoes and sheer hose. He much preferred what Richard was wearing, a simple outfit of leather riding pants, boots, cotton shirt and leather vest. The only sign of his royal status was the gold and copper torque around his neck, winking in the sunlight. Their king, on the other hand, looked silly with the sparkling outfit, shoes, and jeweled crown on his head, carrying a jeweled stick.
Richard waited until the other king was at the edge of the platform, then nudged his horse to move forward slowly until he reached the platform. His gelding obediently stopped; he swung down lightly, landing on the platform just beside Stefan. "Greetings, King Stefan, may the Lord and Lady bless you."
Stefan eyed him suspiciously. "Where is your king?"
Richard smiled. "I am King Richard."
Taken aback a bit, Stefan made a very slight bow. "May the Prophet shine His light upon you and be merciful to you," he said in rich tones that carried across the field. "Are you ready for the exchange of prisoners?"
"Yes, I am. You will find them all in good health, sire," Richard informed him, "treated as we would treat our own men and women." He motioned for Gar to lead the prisoners forward. As the men picked their way across the field, he asked, "Where is General Brina?"
"She is held in a secure location," Stefan answered, "until we come to an agreement over the Tomb of the Prophet." He watched as his men came across the field, waiting until the last prisoner was over, "a very secure location indeed. Colonel, you may release the Coughlan prisoners."
"At once, my lord," the man replied, moving to unlock a wagon. The men and women straggled out, clothed in rags, feet bare, faces dirty. Richard compressed his lips, holding back his shock at the conditions of his people. Richard moved forward to greet his people, refraining from asking how they had been treated, that could wait until they were safe. Instead, he greeted each warrior with a warm handshake and a personal word of thanks.
Stefan was growing bored with this display by the Coughlan king, but managed to stave off the yawns by thinking how funny the other king's attire was, so simple, not majestic as benefitted a king. No wonder these barbarians were so far behind the Edlyn superiority!
Richard finished greeting the returning warriors, then motioned for Gar to bring forth the Edlyn prisoners. As the men stepped forward, Richard addressed Stefan. "I am returning your warriors, King Stefan, as agreed. I believe you will find them to be in excellent health and well-treated. Now, when may I look forward to agreeing to the exchange of General Brina?"
Stefan waved a lazy hand. "I'll send a courier with the proposed terms and place."
Richard could sense Gar stiffening behind him. "May I have your assurance that she is in good health?"
"Oh, certainly. Now, if you will excuse me-"
Richard stepped forth, catching Stefan's sleeve. "We are not finished yet. I'd like to propose a cease-fire until we can hammer out the final details of exchanging Rexana Brina."
One of Stefan's guards stepped forward, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to protect his king. "King Richard, please unhand me, or my guards will take it wrong. No cease-fire at this time. I'll send a courier with the details of your surrender."
"My what?" Richard gasped.
Stefan leaned forward, repeating, "Your surrender, little king. Take him." The guards stepped forward to snatch the Coughlan king, but Richard was too quick for them. He ducked under their arms, swept his dagger from his belt, ready for battle. Gar bellowed orders to his troops to be alert, but did not allow them to attack yet.
Richard managed to get away without injury to himself or others, watching as the Edlyns laughed at him. "Bastard," he muttered under his breath as he watched them rumble out of sight. He turned to Gar. "So, what's your take on the whole thing?"
General Fielding spat expressively on the ground, brows lowered in anger. "He doesn't intend to turn Rexana over until he gets his way. We could pursue him, but it might be a trap."
"Agreed, General. Well, we have our men and women back, and I'm sure my sister can take care of herself for now." Richard turned back to look at the enemy one more time before announcing to all, "Let's head back, we got who we came for."
Elethea stretched luxuriously, like a cat, as she woke up the next morning. She rolled over to see if Rexana was awake yet to find Rexana watching her with a devilish smile on her face. "Good morning, sleepyhead," Rexana purred before leaning over to give Elethea a thorough good morning kiss, "how do you feel this beautiful day?"
"Wonderful," Elethea sighed, "absolutely wonderful. I had no idea what all the fuss was about before I experience it for myself."
Elethea smiled prettily. "Okay, sex. Lovemaking. Shagging. Making whoopee. Whatever you want to call it, I had no idea that such intimate contact between two women could be so powerful, so all encompassing."
Rexana lightly ran her hand down Elethea's body, commenting, "You were pretty responsive, it was hard to believe that you were a virgin. Now I wish you had a shower in the lodge, we could see what we could do in the water."
Elethea's eyes widened. "What? Well, never mind, speaking of showers, we do need to bathe, we both smell pretty strong right now. How about a shower, then some breakfast?"
"Then a nap, then another round of mind-blowing sex? Sounds good to me," Rexana smirked. "No, seriously, we do need to shower and eat, then we need to make plans for food, security, finding additional clothes, items like that. I have to be good, even if you are a tempting little minx."
"Me? If I didn't have to answer nature's call so bad right now, I'd show you how much of a minx I am."
"I've created a monster," Rexana laughed as Elethea jumped out of bed, barely taking time to grab a robe before rushing downstairs. "I guess we need indoor plumbing." She reluctantly rolled out of bed, gathering up their clothes and bathing equipment, then sauntered downstairs to meet Elethea.
"What is your name?"
"Corporal Jerome Tisdale, sir."
General Aldridge handed his plate to the corporal for another bite of fish, asking, "Corporal Tisdale, you tracked them to the stream, where do you think they may have gone?"
Tisdale ladled the last of the grilled fish on the general's plate, then looked around the immediate area slowly, considering the options. Finally, he ventured, "I'd think they would have camped somewhere near the stream for water, food, and possible protection. They may have walked in the stream to throw off any trackers, which is what I would have done, but truthfully, they could be anywhere. If General Brina is as intelligent as reports say she is, it will be extremely hard to find her. On the other hand, Dr. Assana does not have much experience with living in the wild, so they may have to seek shelter of some kind." He furrowed his brow, trying to bring up a niggling thought about the doctor's family. No, not her father's family, her mother's family, the Medwins.
The Medwin family had long kept a hunting lodge somewhere in these woods, about a mile or so up the stream. He glanced at the general's cruel, aristocratic face, wishing he didn't have to share this bit of knowledge, for the Medwin family had long been known for their generosity to the villages surrounding their land, sharing their bounty of the hunt with the three villages that were within a day's ride of the lodge, in exchange for a strict no poaching policy during the rest of the year. The Great Hunt was still nearly a month away, so the lodge would be the perfect place to hide two women. It was also occupied during other times of the year, but not so much since the war had broken out. Corporal Tisdale reluctantly told the general where the women might be hiding.
"At least these clothes are clean and dry," Elethea commented as she finished dressing, "although I was starting to get used to not wearing clothes."
Rexana grinned in answer as she pulled on her boots, starting to make a reply, then changed her mind. She held up a hand for silence, instincts on high alert as she tried to determine what tripped her internal alarm system. She quietly gathered their bathing items, then motioned for Elethea to follow her back to the lodge.
"What's wrong?" the doctor whispered in her ear.
Rexana turned to face her, answering, "We're being followed. We'll go back to the lodge, gather just what we need, then head out again.."
"Now!" Rexana pushed Elethea in the direction of the lodge, stopping every few steps to listen to the forest noises, then led them on a circuitous route to the lodge. Before they arrived, she heard the local wildlife chattering fiercely, as if disturbed by something. Calculating possibilities, she decided to risk going back to their room to pack what they could. "How did you slip in and out of the room?" she queried.
"Remember the lattice and the vines on the side of the lodge? I used to climb on the inside, my cousins and I built a ladder going up the lattice one summer. I don't think we were ever discovered, so it should still be there."
Rexana looked carefully as they skirted the edge of the clearing around the house, listening for further disturbances, trying to decide if Elethea would be safe staying put or going with her. Before she could make up her mind, the doctor took matters into her own hands, running across the clearing and slipping behind the lattice. Rexana gritted her teeth, took one final look, then followed the doctor to the lattice.
"Up this way," Elethea whispered, tickling her ear. Rexana ignored the surge of excitement as she followed the other woman up the ladder. They made it into the room without incident, silently packing what little they had. Elethea went downstairs to gather food while Rexana found another set of sheets, quickly stripping the bed and replacing the linens. It would not do to find the well used sheets too quickly, she decided, trying to find a place for the used linens.
She ventured out into the hallway, finding a small, almost hidden doorway that led to the attic. Rexana carefully climbed the short staircase to the attic, finding it full of forgotten furniture, trunks, and old fashioned dress clothes. She wadded up the linens and stuffed them in the first trunk she came to, hoping no one would search the attic and see the disturbed layer of dust. She crossed over to a window, glancing around. She started to leave when she saw movement at the edge of the clearing. "Shit!" she muttered, wondering where Elethea was now.
"How long do you think you can keep them from finding out that you do not have General Brina in your grasp?" Pieter Magnus asked the king.
King Stefan shrugged unconcernedly as he buttered a piece of toast. "As long as Richard thinks I have General Brina, I have a bargaining piece to retake the Tomb of the Prophet. We must take the tomb, either by bargaining or by force, Father Magnus. That much, I am sure of in this war. What else would you have me do?"
Pieter wondered whether or not to reveal his visit from the Prophet himself now or now. The Prophet had entrusted him to spread His additional Words, those in the new book given to him last night in the chapel. Pieter had spent hours pouring over the book, first to compare the handwriting with the original copy, then to compare the phrasing. It all seemed the same, but others would have to be brought in to authenticate it, he knew. The new message, however, was absolutely clear - the Edlyns were to be at peace, not to wage war in a vain attempt to overtake the Coughlans and their territory.
"I repeat, Father Magnus, what else would you have me do?"
The priest shook himself out of his reverie, chagrined that he was found woolgathering in the presence of the king. He seemed to sense the presence of the Prophet standing over his shoulder as he made up his mind. "Sire, I would have you call an end to this war, to follow the Prophet's call for peace between the peoples. It is not the Tomb that is so important as is the way we follow His path."
The king stood, walking slowly and menacingly to the priest, his right hand on the hilt of his knife. The other councillors ceased their conversations to watch the drama unfolding before their eyes. Pieter Magnus stood up as the king reached his chair, calmly folding his arms across his chest, looking up to stare directly into the king's eyes. "I said, we should call an end to this war. The Prophet Himself visited me last night and gave me a new book of His Words, in which He specifically said we are not to wage war in His Name."
"Why should I believe you?"
The others gasped; no one was to doubt the Archbishop! Pieter ignored the gasps, still standing his ground. "The book is in the Holy Vault in the Archbishop's Library, if you would care to accompany me. I have been reading it, the writing is the same. Do you care to see for yourself, or will you be a true believer?"
Stefan trembled is suppressed rage, how dare this little man challenge him! Regrettably, he could not touch the Archbishop, for that was considered the foulest form of blasphemy. Neither could he charge the man with treason against the king, for the clergy was assumed to be above treason, answerable only to the Prophet Himself. Damn Jerolin Nikki for having already appointed his successor before succumbing to the poison! Stefan had planned to take the office himself, to anoint himself as king and archbishop, sure that the Prophet would approve this emergency melding of secular and sacred authority. Still forcing himself to be calm, he answered, "I am a true believer, Father, but many have claimed to see the Prophet since His death. Please forgive my initial doubt."
Pieter laid a hand on the king's arm, holding the other hand up in blessing. "You are forgiven, my son," he intoned, still calculating the best way to get across his message without becoming a martyr. He now knew that the words in the new book were true, "Behold, there will arise a leader who will use My Words against Me, who will lust more for the treasures of this world than the treasures of the soul." Too bad the Prophet didn't mention Stefan by name. "Now, let us finish our meal in peace, sire, then I will lead you and these men to the Vault to see for yourselves."
Stefan was foxed in, this man was far too clever! Swallowing his pride, he smiled, answering, "An excellent idea, Father Magnus, we shall continue our meal. As a life long student of the Prophet's Words, I would be most interested in His new writings. Gentlemen, let us turn our conversation to happier thoughts." Like twisting your scrawny neck with my bare hands, he thought bitterly as he swept majestically back to his seat.
Braun Aldridge followed Corporal Tisdale through the woods that bordered the stream, careful not to make any noise. He had reluctantly left his horse and supplies at the campsite, agreeing that the horse would make too much noise in their approach and alert the wily Coughlan woman. He was grateful to the Prophet for providing him such an excellent guide to track the women. As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, he could not have found them by himself.
They approached the lodge quietly, watching the windows for signs of life. He motioned for Tisdale to circle to the left while he circled to the right. He could hardly wait to lay his hands on his fiancé again, this time with few witnesses, only a lowly corporal and the enemy.
"Sir, there's movement in the kitchen window," Tisdale whispered as he approached the general. Aldridge jumped, embarrassed at being caught daydreaming but pulled himself together quickly enough to merely nod and follow the man back toward the kitchen.
Gar Fielding sat across from his king, picking at his food without actually eating any of it. Oh, he was pleased to get his men and women back, but furious about their ill treatment. He was even more furious when they told him that General Brina had been taken away to a separate cell, so they had no idea where she was now. He missed his commander fiercely, both as the head of the army and as his friend, the woman who'd stood with him at his wedding five years ago. He did wish sometimes that she could find that special woman in her life, someone to make a home with, just as he'd made a home with Evelyn. He remembered Rexana's mischievous smile as she'd teased him before the ceremony that if Evelyn grew tired of him, she'd be glad to take over.
"Sire?" Gar sat up, startled.
"They have no idea where my sister is."
Gar rubbed his forehead, admitting, "I agree, sire, they have no idea where she is."
"Do we dare mount a rescue mission? No, we have no idea either, damn it!" Richard pushed his plate aside, propping his elbows on the table and his chin on this fists. "I miss my sister, my children miss their aunt. I feel incomplete as a ruler without her. Do you think that the Lord and Lady are looking out for her welfare?"
"That's a question for the Lady Catalin, not me, but I have no doubt that she can take care of herself." Gar pushed aside his plate as well, looking directly at the king. "Sire, we can't send a mission, no matter how much we wish to, it would only make matters worse, give them a reason for invading further into our territory. They'd retaliate with a vengeance."
"True," Richard mused, "too true. Well, I'm off for bed, then back to the castle in the morning. Good night, Gar."
"Goodnight, my king," Gar answered. He sat a few minutes longer, then got up to check the latest intelligence with his staff. He really wished he could afford to even send a scout, but he suspected that Rexana was being held deep in Edlyn territory.
Rexana watched as the two men approached the back door, cursing her lack of weapons. She was torn between going down and trying to hid Elethea and staying put to attempt to find a weapon before facing the two men. Just as she had decided to go down and test her fate, she nearly tripped over a coiled whip that was hidden in the shadows. She picked it up and slung it over her arm, hoping that the leather wasn't rotted out.
Elethea caught movement out of the corner of her eye, freezing when she realized that someone was outside, moving toward the door. She took a deep breath to stave off the immediate panic that bubbled up, forcing herself to move back into the shadows. She must warn Rexana, but how? Was the door bolted? A glance assured her that the bolt was thrown, the Prophet must be looking out for her. She could hear them at the door, trying to open it quietly. Forcing herself to think, she looked at the distance between her hiding spot and the stairs, trying to decide if she could make it without being seen through the windows. Damn the lack of curtains! Taking a firm grip on the bag of food, she darted to the stairs, racing madly, forgetting to creep up silently.
"I hear footsteps, sir," Tisdale whispered. As the general peered in through the windows, he continued to try to quietly force the lock before concluding it had a lock and a bolt. Ignoring the general's growling about them getting away, he sized up the situation. The window was too far from the door to simply smash it and open the door and the door was too stout to force open without ten men with a battering ram. Ah, but the hinges! He studied the bolts in the hinges, noticing that they seemed loose. Perhaps some rot had set in around the clasps? He drew out his knife, probing around a bolt, managing to wiggle it some. "Sir, I may be able to dig the bolts out," he announced.
"Well, don't stand there, do it, ninny!" Aldridge snarled. Fool boy, he thought.
"I'll need something else, could you check the shed for something long and thin, so I can jam it in?" Tisdale asked, still picking with his knife, "my blade is too wide." Aldridge started to splutter that he was a general, not an errand boy, but swallowed his comments. They were so close, certainly he could find some tool for the boy to open the door.
"Braun and a soldier are here!" Elethea gasped out when she met Rexana at the head of the stairs.
"Yes, I know, I'm trying to figure out how to escape. Too bad they could see us if we went down the ladder. Is there any other way out of the house?"
Elethea set her sack of food down, trying to think. She closed her eyes, imagining that she was playing hide and seek with her cousins, racing through the lodge, finding that most elusive place where the older cousins could not follow. "Through the attic," she announced, "there's a window near the balcony roof, I used to hide there from my cousins."
"You are full of surprises," Rexana said as she kissed Elethea's cheek, "lead on."
"No, General, not that!" Tisdale hissed, trying to grab the heavy mallet from the general's hands. Too late, the general had already slung it through a window and was now tapping out the rest of the glass. "Why did you do that?"
"To get in quickly," Aldridge replied, "why not?'
"Did you hear that glass breaking?" Rexana asked, pausing at the attic door.
"Yes, do you think they are in?"
"I'm not willing to wait, come on, let's open that window and get out of here." Rexana pushed the door shut, then quickly shoved a heavy trunk in front of the door. "Move it!"
Elethea dodged furniture, nearly tripping as she neared the window. She grasped the sash and gave it a mighty heave, hoping that would still open. She struggled for a minute before remembering to unlock the sash, then desperately heaved up on the sash again. "Rexana, come help me," she panted.
Rexana grabbed the bottom of the sash. "On the count of three, shove! One, two three!" The women grunted with their effort, both nearly falling out when the window flew up abruptly. They could hear boots pounding on the stairs now, urging them to work faster. Elethea tossed the food bag onto the roof, then climbed out, balancing carefully on the rough shingles. Rexana followed, abandoning the clothes she'd gathered, thankful for the knife that was snugly secured in its scabbard. As she followed the doctor through the window, she ripped open her right hand on a rough spot in the windowsill, nearly causing her to slip off the roof when she lost her grip. Elethea managed to grab her and pull her back on the roof, eyes widening at the blood streaming freely from the hand.
"Wrap it quickly," Rexana hissed through the pain, knowing that the splinters would have to stay until they were safe. Elethea squatted on the roof, taking Rexana's knife and slicing off a strip from her petticoat, then re-sheathed the knife and quickly tied up the hand. "Good. Now what?"
"Where are they?" growled General Aldridge as he stalked through the upstairs. "The bed has been hastily made, the candles have been burned recently. Where could they have gone? They couldn't have slipped past us on the stairs!"
"No, sir," Corporal Tisdale agreed, looking down the hallway. He'd already checked the linen closet at the end of the hall, but had only seen disturbed sheets, like someone had been rummaging through them. He started thinking about the shape of the house when he heard a window screeching. Of course, there must be an attic above him! He started looking at the walls more carefully, finding a thin outline of a short door. "I think I found them, sir!" he called over his shoulder before turning back to push in on the door. "Help me sir, they have something blocking the other side."
"On my mark," the general said, lining up his shoulder to batter the door. "Now!" The two men pounded the door in unison, barely moving the door. "Again!" It scooted a few inches. "Again!" The door protested, but opened enough for them to squeeze through.
"Quickly, lower yourself on the whip," Rexana ordered as she tied one end to a balcony rail, trying not to disturb the bandage too much. Elethea nodded, tossing the food bag to the ground, then carefully climbed over the railing and started to lower herself down the whip. When she was nearly to the ground, she jumped, landing in soft grass, then looked up to follow Rexana's progress.
Rexana slid down the whip, ignoring the pain of the splinters driving deeper into the palm of her hand, jumping awkwardly as she neared the ground. She looked back up and saw two faces appear in the window. Maybe they were in the shadows enough not to be seen, she prayed.
"There they are!" Tisdale crowed, pointing to the two women slipping into the forest. He pushed the general aside, running back through the house and flying out the kitchen door, forgetting the general in his haste to catch up with the women. His ears picked up the crash of brush to his left, he wheeled and followed, knowing he was catching up with them.
"He's almost on us," Elethea panted as she ran beside Rexana. Rexana just grunted, then tripped and sprawled out on the ground as she found a hidden tree root. "Get up!" Elethea shouted, reaching for Rexana's arm, trying to yank her upright.
"Gotcha!" Tisdale snarled as he jumped on the women, knocking them to the ground. "General Aldridge will be so pleased with me!" He sat up, a knee on each woman's back, forcing them to lie still until the general could catch up with him.
"Good work," Aldridge panted hoarsely when he caught up, leaning over, gulping air in great gasps. "You deserve a medal. Tie them up."
"Yes, sir," the corporal answered, reaching into his waist pouch for rope. He quickly tied the women's hands so that they were tethered together, but still able to walk side by side. "On your feet," he ordered, yanking on the slack rope between them, "March!" The women reluctantly started marching in the direction indicated.
"Something must be done about the archbishop," one of the royal councillors said to the king, "he's starting to weave too much discontent with the war effort. He's had the audacity to preach to the people against our glorious and sacred effort to restore the Tomb of the Prophet to our people."
Stefan kept filing his nails while he listened to his councillors speak, all urging him to do something about the archbishop. Finally, he lightly buffed his nails, then precisely lined the nail equipment in its case, and spoke to their concerns. "What would you have me do, Sir Roger? I cannot oppose him in public, for our laws forbid that anyone attempt to silence the Voice of the Prophet. I cannot privately ask him to step down from his position either, especially after this vision he had recently. What, I repeat, would you have me do?"
Sir Roger licked his lips nervously, looking around him to gather support. The others nodded. "Sire, I would suggest that he befall a terrible fate, completely unforeseen, of course."
"Assassination? Tut, tut, dear man, why would anyone assassinate our beloved Archbishop? Unless, of course, he were to find himself in the thick of battle, while delivering his message to the troops. Now, you did not hear me say this, but I believe that our dear bishop must be indulging in too much of the sacramental wine and has delusions, but that is just my opinion, sirs, not to be repeated." The king stroked his chin lovingly. "Yes, as soon as General Aldridge is back, we'll have the dear archbishop accompany him back to the front. Thank you for your council, dear sirs."
Rexana evaluated her situation as she walked behind the corporal, feeling the general's horse breathing down her neck. She was tied to Elethea, who could walk for miles but not run for miles, her leg wound was seeping blood and felt hot, and she had not eaten nor drank anything since sometime yesterday. But, the temperature was moderate, the wind was light, and she had a beautiful woman by her side. Not too bad, all things considered.
Speaking of that most beautiful of women, she mused, Elethea was something else last night. Rexana had been with many women, and had experienced some really fantastic sex, but last night was really different. Rexana tried to pin the difference down in her mind. It wasn't technique, really, it was something else entirely. They had talked of their childhoods, their professional paths, even secret fears while on the road to the lodge. Rexana, who usually did not let anyone other than her brother or her best friend Gar know what she was feeling deep inside, found herself talking openly to the doctor. She even told her that she was scared of the violence within her soul, the ability to slaughter the enemy without a second thought. Elethea pointed out that if Rexana was not bothered by killing the men across the battle field, why was she worrying about it now?
Maybe that was the difference, she had actually opened up her heart and soul to Elethea, had really shared herself body and soul, not just body. That must have been the difference, sex as a bonding of souls, not just a pleasurable past time. That was the difference.
"Corporal, let's stop for a bit, my horse needs to rest," General Aldridge said, loudly, smirking.
"Yes, sir," Corporal Tisdale said, glad for a chance to rest. As the general slid down from the saddle, Tisdale took the reins from him, leading the party to a small clearing on the side of the road. "Shall I look for water, sir?"
"Yes, fill my canteen while you're at it," he answered, turning to the women. "Would you ladies like a drink?"
Before Elethea could say anything, Rexana piped up, "Please, General, it would be most kind. Our Lord and Lady have been quoted as saying, 'He who has a great soul treats even the prisoners with the dignity as the most noble of royalty.' I'm sure your Prophet said something similar."
Aldridge stood with his mouth hanging open, trying to think of a scathing reply, but was unable to come up with anything suitable. Instead, he waited for the corporal to come back with the water to order him to give the women water first. After all, Elethea was still his fiancé, no matter what she had done to deserve being jailed.
"Remember, drink slowly," Rexana cautioned as Elethea took the canteen from the soldier. Elethea didn't answer, but took small, slow sips of water until her first thirst was slaked, then passed it on to Rexana. "Thanks," she croaked, smiling at the Coughlan general. Aldridge saw the exchange and counted to ten, then to twenty to keep his calm. How dare Brina treat his beloved as an equal! He reached for the water, sending the corporal off to fill his other canteen. As soon as the corporal was out of sight, he gulped the rest of the water, then laid the canteen down on the ground.
"Elethea, my dear, would you like for me to loosen your ropes?" he asked solicitously. She looked at Rexana first, who nodded once, then held out her hands. "You know, I think that you have done fine work organizing the hospitals and modernizing surgery, but it is unnatural for a woman to be in such a high-ranking position. When I take you back, I'll ask your cousin, then king, if we can find another doctor to run the medical corps, give you a rest before our wedding. Oh, I'll still let you work, but I'll keep you safe in the king's castle, doctoring his family. I do apologize for you being locked up in the first place, I had no idea that the sergeant would actually order that you be arrested!"
"I am not your dear, furthermore, you will address me as Dr. Assana, General Aldridge. I have refused your offer of marriage more than once, so do us both a favor and let the matter rest. I will not marry you, I do not love you."
The general clenched his fists, letting his anger rise as he stood up, looming over the women. "What did you say?" he hissed.
"That I'll not marry you, Braun. You do not respect me, nor treat me as a partner, just as a little slave."
Braun Aldridge grabbed her, forgetting that anyone else was around, and shoved her to the ground. He fumbled with the buttons in the flap of his pants, yelling, "You'll be my wife and submit to my will, by the Prophet! Lie still, whore!"
Rexana managed to get the rest of the rope off her wrists and reached around for his knife, then grabbed his hair in one hand and held the knife to his throat with the other. "I'll just ask you once, very nicely, to get your grubby hands off of her. If you resist, you'll have a new smile across your throat." Braun froze, instinctively reacting to the threat and the pressure of the blade against his throat. "Now, very slowly, take your hands off of her and your pants and hold them in back of you. Elethea, dear, please tie up this swine. Now, mister, I'm going to relax the knife enough for you to lie down as soon as the good doctor has tied your hands."
After Elethea tied his hands, Rexana let go of his hair abruptly, causing his head to slam down in the dirt. "We'll just borrow your horse for our little escape. The good corporal will be back soon, I'll let you explain that you were about to rape your prisoner, which is a violation of all of my laws, and should be a violation of yours, too. You should be glad I'm not as mean as some of my warriors, they'd want to cut your balls off." She patted his head. "Farewell, General Aldridge."
Several minutes later, Corporal Tisdale came back to the clearing to find his general flopping around on the ground, trying to stand up. He laid down the canteen, slipping up quietly in case there were bandits around. "Sir?" he whispered when he leaned over the general. Aldridge jerked around, not recognizing the young man at first, thinking he was a bandit about to slit his throat. "Sir, it's me, Tisdale, are you okay?"
The general just closed his eyes, a blush creeping up his face. "Yes, I am."
"I'll just roll you over then and help you up."
Jerome Tisdale couldn't help the grin on his face once he turned the mighty general of the entire Edlyn army over - for the man had wet his pants.
"She has escaped," Lady Catalin informed the king, "but she is not coming home immediately. She has one task yet to complete."
Richard rubbed his forehead tiredly, trying to get rid of the headache that had plagued him for several days now. He had no idea how the High Priestess knew such things, but was loath to ask. He just assumed that the Lord and Lady gave her visions as they saw fit. "I'm glad to hear that much," he said as he reached for his goblet of wine, "not that I should ever worry about Rexana, she can always take care of herself."
The priestess reached out and lightly stroked his head, murmuring, "Poor Richard, this has been very rough on you. You are suffering from your headaches again."
"Yes, Catalin, I am. Can you do anything more for me than my doctors have done?"
She sat in the chair next to him, reaching for his goblet. "First, you can stop drinking wine and beer, alcohol dries out your system and makes headaches worse. Second, you can drink plenty of water to replenish your system. Third, you can lie in a dark room, under warm covers, and lay a cold cloth across your forehead. Have your cook bring out some ice and wrap it with the cloth before laying it across your head. Stay away from smoked foods, or the tea you enjoy so much."
He grimaced. "Catalin, I should know better than to ask you for advice, you tell me everything I don't want to hear. None the less, I'll take your advice, but only because you say my sister is safe." His brown eyes were drawn with pain as he stared into her green ones, seeing pain reflected in them. "What?"
"Richard, I said she had escaped, not that she was safe, at least, not yet. The Lord and Lady still have trials in store for her, no matter how much we wish her safely home with us."
"You can say that again." Richard rubbed his temples, trying unsuccessfully to drive out the pain, then giving up. "You win, my lady, I'll go to bed. My wife will be glad to see me, even if it is in a dark room."
"Give your family my best, sire," she replied as a courier walked into the study, then stood up to leave. "Blessings of light and love upon you, King Richard."
"Thank you, Lady Catalin, blessings upon you." He watched her leave gracefully, wondering why she had never taken a consort. Maybe she just hadn't found the right woman yet. "What do you have for me? I was about to leave for my quarters."
The courier stood at attention, handing over a scroll. "From General Fielding, sire. He insisted that I give it to you personally."
Richard sighed heavily, taking the scroll from the young man and handing him a coin. "Thank you, son. You may report to the general that I personally received the scroll. I'll call you if I need to send a reply, otherwise, you are free to bunk in the warriors' house."
"Thank you, sire!" the courier said excitedly. A chance to bunk with real warriors, not just support troops! "Blessings on you and your house."
"Blessings," the king answered, already absorbed in breaking the seal and reading the scroll. Richard was puzzled, it looked like an ordinary report, one like Gar sent to him every week. Why would this one be special? He yawned mightily, then wandered off to the royal kitchens to beg a rag full of ice for his poor, aching head. Halfway there, he stopped and reread the scroll and swore, "I'll be damned, it was the lieutenant!"
Rexana set the fastest pace she dared, hoping the horse was up to carrying two women at a gallop. He didn't seem to mind, stretching and bunching his legs in a rapid rhythm that ate the miles between the general and one of the many towns surrounding the castle in what seemed minutes. The general had thoughtfully provided them with a goodly amount of gold coins, more than enough for a decent dinner, a bath, and a bed for the night. Rexana had gone back to her disguise as an Edlyn soldier, and Elethea her wife. "We've been married a short time and I had some leave," Rexana explained to the innkeeper, slipping an extra coin across the counter, "but I don't want my commanding officer to find me too soon. He has a nasty way of turning up just when we are relaxing, if you catch my drift."
"No, sir, I won't let anyone know you are here. You boys are so brave to protect us, it's the least I can do for you and your bride. You did well to pick my humble inn, I have actual indoor plumbing in each room." He winked slyly. "Something the wife and I would have enjoyed on our honeymoon."
"We thank you in the name of the Prophet," Elethea added softly as she took Rexana's arm. "Dear, I feel very grimy, may we bathe before dinner?"
"Good idea. When is dinner served?"
"In about an hour, sir, but don't hurry on my account. I can have the cook hold back some for you young people. Go, have a restful time."
Elethea waited until they were in the room to ask, "I feel dirty from travel, but why bathe before eating? We haven't eaten since yesterday!"
Rexana started the water taps, then stripped off her clothes as she answered gently, "My dear doctor, I have excellent reasons. First, it fits with the cover of two people who have just married and have not had much time together. Second, I thought you'd want to wash away the touch of that bastard. Third, my pants were sticking to my leg where my wound was seeping and I needed medical assistance."
"Why didn't you say something earlier?" Elethea demanded, sitting on the edge of the tub so she could look at the wound. She washed her hands first, then carefully viewed the wound from all possible angles before announcing, "You'll live. There is some infection, but I think if I clean it out thoroughly and use a clean bandage, we can manage. Do you think the innkeeper would have any medical supplies? I could say you were injured and didn't want me to know."
"That, my dear, would be truer than you can imagine," Rexana answered, her eyes softening. "I have a bit of a problem showing any weakness, even to my physician or my priestess. Now, let's be practical, the tub is nearly full and I really want to clean up. Care to join me?"
Later that evening, after a bath, clean clothes, and a satisfying dinner, Rexana laid on the bed while Elethea cleaned her wounds and re-bandaged her leg. She followed Elethea with her eyes, hardly daring to move as the doctor tended to her wounds, hardly daring to believe her good fortune in having Elethea in her life, even if for such a short while.
"You seem so very far away." Elethea had finished her doctoring and was neatly re-packing the borrowed medical supplies. She now climbed on the bed, tentatively laying next to Rexana, head propped on one arm. "Where did you go?"
Rexana turned to look into the doctor's incredible blue eyes, a confusing swirl of emotions rising within her heart. "I was just thinking about today," she answered, voice thick with emotion, "and how I would have gladly killed Braun Aldridge for trying to rape you. How could anyone think he could just use a woman like that, then expect her to marry him?"
"It's part of our culture, it's expected that women exist to serve men, even in bed. In truth, if he had succeeded, nothing could be done since he has proclaimed publically that he will marry me. It is seen as okay for a man to force his wife or fiancé to submit to his sexual needs."
Rexana turned on her side, facing Elethea. "That's not right, honey, he would be publically whipped in my lands for doing that. Sex between partners is holy, consecrated by the Lord and Lady."
"Then why do you say you have been with multiple women? Why not settle with one woman and give her your heart?"
Rexana laughed ruefully, lightly stroking Elethea's fiery red hair, marveling in its silky texture. "I don't know, I guess I have been willing to share the pleasures and passions of the body, yet not been willing to share my heart. It's hard to command men and women in war and to allow anyone to get too close. Besides, all of my partners have been willing and did not want a commitment either."
"So, am I just another bed partner?"
Rexana dropped her hand as if burned. Pain and tenderness battled in her heart, desire for the other's body and heart intertwined. Swallowing hard, she answered huskily, "No, you are much more than that, my beloved doctor, much more than that. I've only known you a few short days, yet I feel like I've known you all my life. You know more of the secrets of my heart than anyone save my best friend and my brother. If circumstances were different, I would actually take the time to court you properly, to slowly build a bond before jumping into bed. I hope that I didn't hurt you, rushing like that, but it felt so right." Her voice broke; she abruptly rolled over.
"Wait, don't roll away from me," Elethea beseeched her, "that didn't come out right." She reached out, laying a hand on Rexana's shoulder, trying to pull her back. "Please, talk to me."
"Damn it, woman, you made me cry, no one has done that since that bastard hurt Catalin when were seven!" Rexana jumped up from the bed, roughly scrubbing tears from her face, turning to Elethea. "It hurts!" she croaked, shaking with the effort to quell the sobs that threatened to break to the surface.
"I am so sorry I hurt you, "Elethea said leaving the bed and going over to Rexana, "I had no intention of making you cry." She reached out, gathering the resisting woman into her arms, lightly kissing her face. "I had no idea you felt so deeply for me. I never knew that loving a woman was possible, I had always been taught it was wrong, but you opened a whole new world for me." She pushed away the implications of what had been said about courting, deciding to hang onto this oasis, to open herself up, no matter what the cost. "I would be proud for you to court me."
"Really?" Rexana inhaled deeply, praying for calm, "you're not just saying that?"
"No, I'm not just saying that. Come on, let's go back to bed," she said, taking Rexana's hand, "we can just talk, cuddle, or whatever we need."
Rexana dropped on the bed, pulling Elethea with her, content to just lie with her for the moment. "Thank you," she whispered, hiding her face in Elethea's neck, "thank you for understanding."
"Hush now, let me hold you," the doctor answered, wrapping her arms around the exhausted general, "there's always the morning."
"What in the name of the Prophet happened to you?" Stefan shouted at General Aldridge. "Bandits? Wild animals? Where are the prisoners?"
The general limped into court, feeling every ache and pain of his long journey intensely. The corporal had left him halfway to the castle, claiming he needed to rejoin his unit, leaving him to the mercy of the elements. Aldridge stopped at his house long enough to clean up and change clothes, but he still felt dirty, violated by nearly having his throat slit by a woman - twice. To top it all off, he lost his hat and was seriously sunburned, making his uniform extremely painful to wear. "I had them, sire, but they overwhelmed me and left me for dead."
"I know that Brina is a warrior, but, still, man, two women overwhelmed you?"
Aldridge thought rapidly for a more plausible tale, then smiled maliciously. "They did have help, sire, help from a deserter named Jerome Tisdale. He is a corporal in Colonel Whitecliff's unit, currently stationed in reserves."
The king looked at him through narrowed eyes, spitting out, "Do you remember what I told you would happen if you did not come back with the prisoners in tow?"
"No buts, Private Aldridge. I'll give your lands to your brother, in a very public ceremony. Now, get out of my sight. Steward, please escort Private Aldridge to the nearest hospital to treat his wounds, then ask the quartermaster for his new uniform. Go, do not cross my sight again."
Aldridge was defeated, at least for the moment, he knew. He bowed, saying, "As you wish, my king," then turned to follow the steward out of the king's sight.
Stefan waited until the men were out of the room, then motioned for Sir Roger to approach him. "Sir Roger, I have a mission for you. Do you think you can convince our former general that he may regain his position and glory by assassinating the Archbishop?"
Sir Roger's eyes widened in shock, but he merely assented, "I will do my best, my lord, if that is your will."
"It is. Perhaps Braun's brother can be convinced to share his lands with you. Perhaps you can also woo my dear cousin, she needs a steady husband. Go now, make your plans." Sir Roger bowed, then left the king. "Ah, all my plans are coming together," Stefan said to no one in particular, "coming together quite nicely."
Elethea was the one to take the lead the next morning, healing the distance between them. After the fires were banked, she kept running her fingers over Rexana's sweaty body, still quivering with the intensity of the experience, still marveling that anyone could share her body and soul this way. She could never marry Braun now, not after discovering her true nature, not after sharing love in such an egalitarian manner. Who would believe that such a fierce warrior could be so tender, so gentle in while making love?
"Dr. Assana, we must get cleaned up before heading for breakfast," Rexana said reluctantly, "even if we are expected to be late to breakfast."
"I suppose so, General Brina," Elethea answered, cupping a breast again, giving the nipple a quick lick. She stretched, then moseyed over to the tub, starting the water. "I should be a proper wife and scrub your back, as well as your other parts."
"So suggestive," Rexana grinned as she followed Elethea, "but I fear we do not have enough time to do more than really take a bath. Perhaps next time."
"If there is a next time."
"One never knows," she answered, kissing the doctor lightly. "Maybe the Lord and Lady will see fit to bring us back together in time."
"Perhaps. So, what is your brilliant plan for today?"
Rexana slid into the tub, groaning as the hot water surrounded her sore body. She closed her eyes, announcing, "After a hot soak and a hot meal, we'll go see your king." She smiled wickedly. "Just leave everything up to me, dear. Could you hand me the sponge and soap?"
Richard wearily rubbed his temples after attempting to eat breakfast, but the pain was starting to dull his appetite. He finally gave up even pretending to eat and pushed the tray aside, picking up the dispatch from Gar Fielding again, rereading what the general had written. Gar had written that he wanted to meet with Richard, bringing a certain lieutenant with him, the same one who was in the ill-fated battle several weeks ago now. Richard had already sent the courier back with a message to bring Gar and the lieutenant with him this morning.
Was it really possible that Lt. Nathair was really not as stupid as they thought? Could he possibly have collaborated with the Edlyns in pulling back just in time to capture General Brina? Lord and Lady, he missed his sister! His children missed their aunt too. He allowed himself a brief smile as he thought about the way Rexana played with her nieces and nephews, always managing to spend just the same amount of time with each of them. He glanced out the window, seeing that the sun was steadily climbing. Gar should be here soon, the front, unfortunately, was only a few hours away.
The king awoke with a start when he heard the door to his study being opened, and one of the guards announcing that General Fielding and Lt. Nathair had arrived. "Bring them in," he requested. He sat up straighter, reaching for a map to study while the officers were shown in. "Come in, what news do you have?" Richard asked after the men were seated.
Gar Fielding answered bluntly, "Lt. Nathair here claims he was confused by the battle. Based on the observations of others, I've decided that he pulled back deliberately, so General Brina could be captured." He turned to the sullen young man. "Care to elaborate? Remember, we are in the presence of the king, and he can have your had chopped off at any time for treason."
"I was just following orders, and believed that I heard retreat called by the bugler."
"A likely story. Sire, I personally caught him talking to some of the prisoners before we released them. I'd like to know what he was telling them."
The lieutenant just crossed his arms, refusing to answer. The king slowly stood up, circling around the table until he was just behind Nathair. He put a hand on either shoulder, then leaned down until he was at ear level. "What really happened?" he breathed into the man's ear. "Give me the real answer, or by the Lord and Lady, I'll tear it out of you bit by bit."
The man winced under the pressure on his shoulders, but still would not say anything. The king straightened back up and started slowly circling the room. "Who are you protecting?"
Richard came to a halt beside the lieutenant, hitching one hip on the side to the table, looking down at the man, suddenly whipping out his knife and driving the blade several inches into the table. He left it, quivering, not saying a word, watching Nathair's face turn pale. "Yes, that is what I want to do to you, but unlike what the Coughlans say, I am not a barbarian, nor are my people barbarians. So let's start again, what prompted you to call a retreat?"
"I heard the bugler call for retreat, I assumed that General Brina had told him to call retreat."
"Did you see conditions that warranted a retreat?"
"I was just following orders."
"Following orders. General Fielding, please hand me the report you sent to me a month ago." Fielding stood up, sorted through the stack of papers, then extracted one and handed it to the king. Richard read it, then handed it to the lieutenant, saying, "Please read the date, then the last paragraph." Lt. Nathair took the paper and started reading. His face turned a whiter shade of pale when he finished the last paragraph. "Please read the last sentence out loud."
"'I regret to inform you that my cousin, Roykirk Mayhill, was slain this afternoon in battle. He was the bugler, and made our blood stir with his music. I fear I will not be able to replace him any time soon.' Is that what you wanted me to read?"
"Yes. You will notice the date is the day before my sister was abducted, so the company did not have a bugler on the day of the abduction. Now, do you care to re-think your story?"
The officer started sweating, looking uneasily at first the general, then at the king. He swallowed hard, then finally admitted, "I was contacted by General Braun Aldridge of the Edlyn Army several days before the battle. He said that if he kidnaped General Brina, he could bring the war to a halt, and the land surrounding the Tomb of the Prophet would be restored. He said that if he did not win the war, you would not allow any pilgrims to approach the Tomb ever again. You see, sire, my mother's family is originally from Edlyn, and we worship the Prophet. General Aldridge convinced me that it was my sacred duty to protect the Tomb in any way possible."
Richard stared down at the young man for several minutes before softly saying, "They cut down the Sacred Grove of the Lord and Lady. Even so, I have been more than willing to allow pilgrimages to the Tomb again, but King Stefan insists on controlling the land between the Tomb and the border. Did you ever think that you were being used to strip away the land that Coughlan has held for a thousand years? That you would be a traitor, not only to Coughlan, but to your Prophet as well?"
"But the Prophet foretold that His altar would be built on the site of His Tomb!"
Richard nodded at the general, who left the room for a moment, then came back with Lady Catalin. "My Lady, would you please tell young Nathair about the duplicate scrolls?"
The High Priestess nodded, gliding around the table until she came to the lieutenant. "Just before the Prophet died, He took refuge with a priest of the Lord and Lady, where He copied His scrolls. He left one set with our people, and sent one set back to Edlyn. The set left with the priest was not to be unsealed unless a war sprang up between our peoples. As High Priestess, I broke the seal in the presence of a scribe, three priests and three of the prisoners, then had the scribe write a letter of authenticity, signed by all present. I have read the scrolls, and have discovered that while the Prophet proclaimed that an altar would be built near His tomb, he also preached peace and tolerance, and in the next paragraph, dictated that the altar be built with the assistance of whoever owned the land. Remember, the Prophet said, 'Take care what you do in My name, that you bring not dishonor on Me and your countrymen.' Isn't trying to wrest lands away from others bringing dishonor to the Prophet?"
Nathair looked at the three faces warily, confidence waning. He had not studied the book of the Prophet himself, he'd only heard the teachings from his parents and from General Aldridge. He'd always been taught that Edlyns were superior due to their advanced technology, but now he was starting to wonder who was actually superior. He had joined the Coughlan army to take the opportunity to report back to the Coughlan army, but was that really treason, and was it bringing dishonor to the Prophet's Name? "What would you have me do?"
General Fielding asked, "Are you still in contact with the Edlyn army?"
"Then find out what the next move is and report back to me. But, if you foul up this mission, you will be tossed in jail, awaiting your court marshal. As it is, you will be punished, but if you cooperate, it will be a lighter sentence."
He looked at the general, then at the king. He swallowed hard, doubt still creeping into his mind. If the Prophet truly left a copy of His Book here, certainly He didn't mean for the Coughlans to be taken over. "I'll do it," he finally agreed.
"May the Lord and Lady bless you with light and love, and may the Prophet hear your words and see into your heart," Lady Catalin intoned, holding her arms up in blessing, "and may your actions be worthy of all the deities."
After settling their account with the innkeeper, Rexana and Elethea took off toward the king's castle. Neither woman said much during the two hour journey, both wrapped up in their own thoughts, dreading the pending separation. Elethea thought wistfully of the lodge by the waterfall and the sweet night they had spend there, the discovery that it felt right to love a woman. Rexana thought of the coming days, the planning for the end of the war, the possibility of seeing Elethea again as friends, not as officers in opposing armies. So why was she suddenly wondering how Catalin was holding up?
She pushed the thoughts aside as they rode up in sight of the castle. "Okay, Dr. Assana, our next mission begins," Rexana said as she slid out of the saddle, reaching up to help Elethea down. "Too bad you don't have a uniform as well."
Elethea answered, "I don't have to, I am cousin to the king and have been here most of my life. The servants will let me in without question."
"The same people who took you prisoner?"
"Are you backing out of your plan, General Brina? The servants never saw me, just the jail guards, ones loyal to Braun. I would assume by now that he has fallen out of disfavor with the king and has been busted back to private."
"I hope you are right." Rexana touched Elethea's cheek tenderly, then leaned in for one last kiss. They reluctantly parted and started walking up the road to the main entrance of the castle, hoping for the best outcome possible.
One of the heralds entered the throne room and announced, "The General Elethea Assana, Commander of the Medical Corps of the Edlyn Army, and the General Rexana Brina, Commander of the Coughlan Army."
"What is the meaning of this?" King Stefan snarled.
The women calmly walked over to the table and seated themselves. "Greetings from the government of Coughlan, King Stefan, I am Princess Rexana Brina, Commander-in-Chief of the Coughlan Army, Sister to King Richard. May the Lord and Lady bring you light, love, and understanding. I am here to negotiate peace between our peoples."
Without taking his eyes off the women, the king asked his steward, "Would you please ask my councilors to attend me?" He waited for the steward to leave, then asked, "Why should I negotiate peace with you?"
"Because you are only hurting yourselves," General Brina answered, "and I have long suspected that you only want the fertile lands between the Tomb and our border, not the Tomb itself. Why else start a war by not only cutting down the Sacred Grove of the Lord and Lady, but by also using those very trees to start the fire that touched off this war? Despite your view of my people as barbarians, we never denied your people access to the Tomb. Despite the fact that we do not have indoor plumbing, or printing presses, or fancy gas lamps, we are humans as well. Just because we worship the Lord and the Lady, and not the Prophet, does not make us wrong, or heathens."
The councilors started filing in, wondering what was happening. Pieter Magnus stopped when he saw the king's cousin and a Coughlan woman in an Edlyn army uniform. "Greetings and blessings from the Prophet," he said, "may I know what we are meeting about?"
"Peace," Dr. Assana answered before the king could open his mouth, "and a stop to the atrocities of war."
"Peace, understanding, and opening of trade," amended General Brina. "You call us barbarians, yet refuse to trade your technology to assist us. The doctor here insisted on treating my warriors' wounds properly, yet found herself arrested and thrown in the dungeon for following the vows of her profession and the teachings of her Prophet to render aid without politics. I know that my men and women treated your soldiers with dignity, giving them medical attention without thought to their uniform. That is the way of my people, King Stefan."
The Archbishop turned to General Brina, asking, "How were you treated?"
"My people were to be last until the Dr. Assana put them in the same triage as her own wounded. She had to resort to going over General Aldridge's head in order to treat my people with the medical attention they needed. General Aldridge retaliated by seizing my people and taking us to the dungeon, and had Dr. Assana arrested as well, despite the fact that she was doing her duty as the chief medical officer. He claimed that she was a blasphemer and a traitor."
"Is this true, Dr. Assana?"
"Yes, Father Magnus."
The Archbishop walked over to the women, laying a hand on a should of each one. "Will you swear to that in the name of the Prophet?"
"No, they would lie through their teeth, for they have taken each other as lovers!" Braun Aldridge had come into the room while all attention was focused elsewhere, now he stood near the priest, knife drawn. "I would have still taken Elethea as my bride, but she has repeatedly refused my affections, and this barbarian has lain with her. They are an abomination before the Prophet, and must not be allowed to continue. They must be put to death."
"Cousin, is this true?"
"Yes," the doctor answered quietly, "it is true. I have always hidden my attraction for women, but have never hidden my dislike for Braun Aldridge. I protested when you presented him as my fiancé, Stefan, and I protest still. After he and Corporal Tisdale captured us, he attempted to rape me, but General Brina saved me."
The king stood up and stalked slowly toward the former general, fists clenched tightly. Standing inches from Aldridge, he hissed, "You attempted to force yourself on my cousin? You swine! How dare you lay your filthy paws on my kin!"
Confused, Aldridge countered, "But she is my fiancé, to be my wife, I was merely trying to take my rights. Besides, you yourself supplied me with a whore every time I stayed at the castle, is that any different?"
A silence blanketed the room, only to be broken by a young man appearing and asking, "General Aldridge? May I speak with you?"
Rexana turned at the familiar voice, her color draining as she recognized Nathair. "You!"
He stopped, then turned slowly, seeing his general. "Oh, Prophet!" he whispered, sweat beading on his brow.
"Ah, the pieces fall together! You, young Nathair, you called the retreat that allowed Aldridge's men to capture me in the first place! Of all the accusations of betrayal in this room, this is one that should stick!" Brina slowly walked over to Nathair, stopping just short of him. "Why? Why did you betray your country?"
Before he could answer, the king roared, "Enough! Now, Braun, you know that I do not condone such blatant trickery to win! Taking prisoners is one thing, but to deliberately use someone to betray his army is another!"
Sir Roger looked around uneasily, realizing that the king had essentially asked him to get Aldridge to do the same thing all over again. Was it really the former general's idea to plant the traitor, or was it the king's? The king had asked him to make sure that the Archbishop was assassinated, and wanted to blame it on Aldridge as well. Just how much blood did the king have on his hands? Was he using their religion to win the war? Pieter Magnus had always told the truth bluntly, but he was sure that the Archbishop spoke truly for the Prophet, and had called repeatedly for a cease fire over the past two days, claiming a vision from the Prophet. "Sire? If I may add something."
"What, Sir Roger?"
Taking his courage firmly in hand, knowing that his neck and family were at risk, Sir Roger answered, "General Aldridge had help with is betrayals."
"Oh, are you confessing?"
"Yes, sire, I am confessing that you asked me to persuade the general to kill the Archbishop because you do not like his message."
The king whirled on his councillor. "How dare you make such baseless accusations!" In one smooth motion, he snatched Aldridge's knife and attempted to stab Sir Roger, but was stopped by the iron grip of General Brina. "Let go of me!" he screeched.
Pieter walked up, quoting softly, "'Behold, there will arise a leader who will use My Words against Me, who will lust more for the treasures of this world than the treasures of the soul.' These are the new words of the Prophet, as handed over to me by the Prophet Himself."
The king bellowed, "Seize him! The Archbishop speaks falsely, I would never use the Prophet's words against anyone! He is a blasphemer and must be put to death!"
Sir Roger stepped forward, taking the knife away from the king. "No, Stefan, you know that the most sacred responsibility is to be the Voice of the Prophet. The Voice is never to be doubted, you should know that it is forbidden to put a priest to death." He turned to General Brina and said, "On behalf of my people, I would like to offer a cease fire in order to negotiate for peace. As the Senior Councillor of the King's Table, charged with upholding the laws of Edlyn, I hereby arrest Stefan and strip him of his title as ruler of Edlyn, pending trial." He then turned to Dr. Assana, bowing before asking, "Elethea Assana, as the closest kin to Stefan, it is your duty to rule in his place until his guilt or innocence can be determined. Will you take on this duty?"
The doctor hesitated a moment, wondering if the people would accept her as ruler. After all, she was a woman, and a two spirit woman at that. Nonetheless, it was her duty as a member of the royal family to take the reins of leadership should the Council request if of her. "I will," she answered proudly. "And as my first act as queen, I give Sir Roger and Archbishop Pieter Magnus the charge of negotiating peace between the peoples of Edlyn and Coughlan. Guards, please take Stefan, Braun, and Nathair to the dungeon, pending trial. Also, take a detail to clean out the cells."
The guards bowed, then hurried to do their new queen's bidding."Now, Master Steward, would you please have the kitchen send some refreshments? I'm famished."
Elethea and Rexana had shared a bittersweet farewell, unable to spend any time alone, only able to snatch a few moments in the castle chapel, with the archbishop standing guard. They knew that their destinies lay apart, not together, but it did not make parting any easier. Elethea promised to plant new trees around the Tomb, and Rexana promised that her army would escort Edlyn pilgrims until normal relations were established. They parted after a few stolen kisses, not knowing when they might see each other again.
Richard had proclaimed a national holiday when Rexana was restored to his side. He threw a huge banquet in celebration, inviting all of their family and all of the senior officers of the army to the celebration. Rexana repeated hugged her brother, her family, her best friend Gar, and her senior officers. She endured the many toasts called in her honor, grateful when the tables were cleared to open the floor for dancing. She danced with many people, but started wondering where Catalin was. She had seen the priestess in the crowd, but had not been able to speak with her alone since returning to Coughlan. Gar and Richard had told her how Catalin had repeatedly assured them that Rexana was fine, and that she would bring about peace, and had actually helped ferret out the plot to kidnap Rexana.
Rexana finished her mead, then wandered out to the privy to rid herself of the multiple cups of mead. When she came out, she did not go back to the festivities immediately, but took time to walk through the garden first, taking in deep breaths of the fragrant flowers. She caught a glimpse of a deep green gown, and followed it, wondering if it were Catalin, it looked like the gown she was wearing tonight. "Catalin?" she called, "is that you?"
Catalin turned around, stopping and waiting for Rexana to catch up. "General Brina, welcome home," she said stiffly.
"What? General? Oh, Catalin, my friend, why are you so formal?" Rexana asked as she reached for Catalin's hands. "Why are you avoiding me?"
Catalin allowed her hands to be captured, but would not look at Rexana. "I am not avoiding you, I have been busy with the negotiations."
Rexana frowned. It dawned on her that Catalin had heard of her affair with the new queen of Edlyn and was jealous. Catalin had never been jealous of other women before, she thought. "Honey, please look at me," she begged.
"Are you jealous?"
Catalin dropped her hands and sat down on a nearby bench. Rexana followed her, sitting down gingerly. "Rexana, I apologize for my behavior, you have to right to bed any woman you wish."
"You're in love with me."
Rexana took Catalin's hands again, chafing them gently between her own. She couldn't defend herself, couldn't offer any excuse. Suddenly years of their friendship flashed before her, the times that she had teased Catalin, had taken their friendship for granted, the thinly veiled looks that Catalin had given her. Even though she had fallen hard for Elethea, had shared her soul with her, she realized that she had always loved Catalin, but had resisted taking their relationship further than friendship. "I've been an ass," she muttered.
"Yes, you have."
"Hey, you're supposed to be forgiving!"
Catalin looked up, green eyes blazing in fury. "Rexana Brina, you are such an arrogant bitch! I have been in love with you all of my life, have ignored the flings you've had with other women, waited for you to notice me! I've never as much as kissed anyone else! But you went off and fell in love with someone else, and now you expect me to simply forget that I ever loved you!"
Rexana felt as if Catalin had sucker punched her, leaving her dizzy and breathless. "I'm sorry, but it happened. I can't undo the past. I admit that I felt love for the first time, opened my soul for the first time, but I can't have her. Besides, I can't believe that I've been so blind all these years, not seeing you as a woman."
"That's supposed to make me feel better?" Catalin snapped.
Rexana sagged, ego deflated. "I guess not. I should leave now," she said, starting to stand.
"Oh, no you don't, Rexana. You may be a royal bitch, and sleep around on me, but you don't get away that easily. I'm tired of waiting for you, tired of being celibate. I've lived without experiencing sex long enough, and you're going to share the Lord and Lady's gifts with me!" She grabbed Rexana, pulling her down, kissing her.
The kiss was clumsy and hard at first, but grew softer as Rexana melted into it, allowing Catalin to take the lead. Her head was spinning with desire, but she started trembling with emotion, breaking off the kiss abruptly, covering her face with her hands. "I'm sorry, I'm not good enough for you," she said in a thick voice, "you should find someone better."
"Rexana, no one is better for me than you. As many times as I've tried to stop loving you, I couldn't."
"Yes. Now, follow me."
Catalin took her by the arm and ran a possessive hand over her face. "To your room, my dear. You will teach me the arts of love."
Desire and love rising, Rexana merely walked with Catalin, unable to speak. When they arrived in her room, it was she who was trembling like a virgin on her wedding night, not Catalin. She stared in mute admiration as Catalin slowly undressed, revealing more of her body with each garment lost, trembling as Catalin laid on the bed beside her, helping her to shed her own clothing.
"Teach me, show me the gifts," Catalin murmured.
Rexana nodded, unable to speak still, closing her eyes and finding Catalin's lips with hers, losing herself in the insistent pressure, the dueling tongues. Tenderness and rising desire fueled her actions now as she taught Catalin without words, showing her the expression of lips on nipples, hands cupping everything. She was trying to draw it out, but Catalin was impatient, years of frustrated desire coming to a head. "Take me!" she called out, "take me, woman!" Rexana needed no further prodding, slipping down, parting her nether lips with her fingers, wrapping her arms around Catalin's hips. She buried her face, lapping fiercely at Catalin's nub, dispensing with a slow buildup. She could feel her own wetness dripping down her legs as she feasted on her love, hearing Catalin's constant moans of pleasure, feeling Catalin bucking against her mouth.
Rexana had never tasted a woman before, but had been tasted. It was better than she expected, like she was locked on the hub of Catalin's core, taking in the essence of Catalin. When Catalin started climaxing, she freed a hand and shoved her fingers in Catalin's hot well, feeling her love clamping down on them, bucking hard as the climaxes rippled through her body. She felt a holy connection with her love, like she had felt with Elethea. When Catalin finally stopped convulsing with the aftereffects, she made her way back up the bed, expecting Catalin to fall into an exhausted sleep, but Catalin surprised her by rolling on top of her and kissing her hard, rubbing her body against Rexana's, driven to return the pleasure. Rexana fainted with the fast rising climax as Catalin used fingers and mouth to stimulate her in the most intimate manner. As darkness claimed her, the last thing she felt was a feeling of deep love and satisfaction. She had come home to the other part of her soul.
"The years have been fruitful between our nations," Queen Elethea noted as she slowly walked along the garden path with Queen Rexana. "I'd like to make a proposal, if you will hear me out."
"Go ahead, I'm listening."
Elethea stopped and turned toward her counterpart, still shocked at the white hair that had replaced the dark hair after Rexana's partner, the Lady Catalin, had died two years ago. "We have successfully survived as trading partners for the last twenty-five years. Your people have taken advantage of our technology, and my people have learned to treat all as children of the Prophet. You have taught our men to accept women as equals. Now, I propose that we merge our countries."
"Hear me out, Rexana. We are both having problems with raiders from the west starting to encroach our borders, wouldn't we be stronger as a united nation? We could each retain a strong state within a united nation."
Rexana pondered the idea, then said, "I'll turn it over to my council to debate. Is there some other reason you invited me here today?"
"Yes." Elethea turned to face Rexana, taking her hands. "I have never stopped loving you, even when I married to continue the royal line. My daughter is of age to start taking over some of my duties, and I'd like to abdicate in a few more years."
Elethea took a deep breath. "Beloved, as I said, I never stopped loving you. I never stopped wanting your touch, your mind. I liked my husband well enough, but felt pressured to marry. I've overturned the laws against those like us, with two spirits. I know that you lost your love two years ago. What I'm daring to ask is, do you want me again?"
Rexana was stunned. She had not thought of even looking at another woman after she had pledged herself to Catalin so many years ago, yet here was her old friend, her old lover, waiting patiently to take her back. Old feelings started to surface as she examined Elethea's dear face, love shining in her eyes like coals. "Yes," she answered, "I want you again."
"Good. Now, would you like to teach me all about women? I'm afraid I've forgotten over the years..not in public, dear!"
Rexana merely grinned wolfishly as she stood close, cupping Elethea's breasts in her hands. "Who cares? We're in the castle garden, anyone who disturbs us could be punished!"
Protests were quickly replaced with moans of pleasure as the two queens started exploring the new relationship between their respective countries.