Disclaimer:There is nothing to disclaim in this here story. You will need an open mind to read it, though. If you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team. Thanks to Carol, Marsha, Phil and Liz for the editing and for the questions, comments, steering and encouragement. You guys ROC!
Special Thanks: To the many of you that have taken the time to send your kind words about the Valiant Series thus far. They have been much appreciated by the entire team (and yeah, they get to see the feedback too).
ICK Alert: My betas now having a full understanding of what the Southern meaning of UGLY is, asked that I forewarn readers that there is a section in Chapter VI that qualifies as serious ICK. Its beginning and ending is noted by **. Take the warning seriously. It is not for the faint of heart.
Author’s Note: This story picks up directly where A Valiant Journey left off. There is actually story in here somewhere, but they are on their honeymoon. They got married and reckoned they were entitled to one... go figure. Hey, *YOU* try arguing with them! The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is still in effect... mostly.
A Valiant Life
The early morning sun cut a swath across the bed, highlighting the golden hair of the woman who lay sprawled over her sleeping partner's larger body. Sleepy green eyes peered offended at the light, until they rested smilingly on the dearly loved features now backlit by the dawn. Married, Gwen thought, as a tingle of pure joy skittered up her spine. As though in response to the happiness the bard felt, the warrior opened her blue eyes, and looked down at her lover with an amused indulgence.
"Happy, my love?"
In answer, the younger woman rose up from her place, and captured the soft lips beneath her own for timeless moment. She paused and looked at the ring that once again graced her finger, wincing just slightly at the pull caused by the joining cut. "You wouldn't think a few words spoken aloud would make such a difference, but they do. It's like another beginning for us."
Strong arms wrapped tightly around the bard and engulfed her in a hug. "I love you," was all she answered, but Gwen understood. She leaned up once again, this time tracing Randi's face delicately with her fingers, before moving to follow the same path with her lips.
"I love you too," she whispered, before everything else faded out, and their world became solely focused on one another.
"I suppose we'd better get going before your folks figure out we're still here." It was later in the morning, but still early as they lay contentedly wrapped around one another. The soft sounds of the waves hitting the shore had lulled them into a peaceful lassitude, and coupled with their earlier lovemaking, made them very reluctant to stir from their warm nest.
"Oh, I'll bet they know," the blonde answered. "And I'll bet after that little prank last night, we don't have to worry about them showing up here either," Gwen growled. They looked at each other, then broke into laughter. "I suppose it is funny in retrospect," she said when they'd caught their breath. She lightly ran her hands up and down Randi's bare sides, delighting in the physical reaction her touch elicited. Randi's hands reciprocated, and she felt herself arching into the feeling they caused.
"Yeah, it is," the Sabre agreed. "Definitely something we will never forget."
The ride had been peacefully silent, the two of them still absorbing the fact that they were now bound to one another completely... emotionally, spiritually, physically and legally. Randi manipulated the controls while Gwen steered, lifting their bound hands to her lips for a gentle kiss. "I can't believe they ballooned the transport. I will be interested to see what they used to keep them in place." This said with a chuckle that was echoed by her blonde partner.
"Oh, you'll never guess," came a voice from the backseat, causing the warrior to slam the transport into a swift, sudden stop. Randi and Gwen simply stared at each other for a minute, until a childish voice cried out... "Wuv! Wen!"
"Fuck!" the Marine exclaimed sotto voce, though it was loud enough for the bard to hear. It caused Gwen to silently chuckle, and Randi, who felt the laughter, to glare at her. "What the hell?"
The balloons parted, and a curly blonde head stuck out. Randall, comfortably ensconced on his mother's lap laughed and lunged for the couple. Only Ella's quick grab saved him, because there was no way for the warrior to catch him, wrapped around Gwen as she was. "Ma!" he squealed, unhappy that she'd upset his plans.
"Nope, you gotta stay here, stud muffin. Wuv's got her hands full right now."
He pouted, then reached a hand forward and patted Randi on the head. Now it was the Marine's turn to chuckle. Then she looked Ella pointedly in the eye, difficult considering her position, but she did it nevertheless. "What are you doing here?"
The curly headed woman muttered to herself. "How did I let myself get talked into this? Don’t worry, Ella. It'll be fine, Ella. It's just a joke, Ella."
The other woman blinked and stopped muttering when the Sabre bellowed at her. Randall sat looking at Randi wide-eyed. Gwen lifted her hand from the steering mechanism, and gently reached to massage the now tense muscles on the Sabre's neck. Randi relaxed into the touch for a moment, then modulated her voice. "What are you doing here?"
"Geoff and Tommy's idea of funny."
The blonde reacted this time, with a raised brow, and an incredulous look of her own. "Excuse me? This was my father's idea?"
"They are equally guilty, I'm afraid. Those two are downright dangerous when they get to plotting together." Ella paused. "I just can't believe I let them talk me into this. It sounded downright hysterical when they described it to me."
"I'll just bet," the warrior answered drolly. "C'mon... we'll take you home."
"You don't have to do that. Tommy should be right behind us."
"It's all right. We were going there anyway."
The bard cast a questioning look at her companion, but Randi didn't elaborate. So they headed to the island, followed by a now very confused Thomas Steele.
They left the balloons with Randall and Ella, the woman rolling her eyes while the child cheered in delight. Tommy patiently waited until he saw their transport head for the beach house before he pulled up in front of his own. He was surprised, not pleasantly so, by his wife meeting him at the door. She grabbed him by the ear and pulled him into the house. "The next time you put me into the middle of one of your hair-brained schemes.... " The thought trailed off as the door shut solidly behind them.
The two pulled up in front of their home, and sat for a minute soaking up the newness of that thought. Ours... what an enticing idea. They looked at each other and leaned in, lips meeting for a long time. On an uneven breath the bard pulled back and looked into Randi's eyes. "C'mon, Stud. Let's find a more comfortable place to be."
"This isn't going exactly like I'd planned." The Marine removed her free hand from Gwen's waist and rubbed her face.
"Oh?" A frown creased the bard's fair features. "I thought it was going pretty well."
Randi chuckled ruefully. "A little too well, honestly. Um, actually, I had a different idea for the start of our honeymoon."
Green eyes softened, and Gwen smiled. "Oh?"
"Um hmm. We were gonna take the bike out. I have a little place in the mountains I thought we'd go spend some time at. It's private and secluded, and no one, not even Tiny, knows about it. It was the one place I could go when I needed to get away from being a Sabre for just a little while."
"And you want to share this place with me?"
"Everything I have."
Gwen's eyes watered at the sentiment, but she smiled. "That sounds wonderful. And if you want to leave tonight, well, where you go, I go, remember?" She lightly kissed the smile on her partner’s face. "But love, I can't think of a more perfect setting for our wedding night than the bed where we made love for the first time. There is something poetic about it."
Now the Marine had to smile. "You would know... you're the bard." Gwen giggled and kissed Randi's nose. The Sabre drew the blonde head down and captured her lips again for a long, passionate moment. "And now that you say so, I think you just might be right. The cabin will be there tomorrow." She drew an uneven breath.
They eased out of the transport, and moved as one toward the door. "So we were coming here first anyway, hmm?" Gwen gazed into twinkling blue eyes, and felt herself responding in kind to the quiet joy reflecting in them.
"Yeah. I couldn't see riding the bike in these," gesturing between them at their white clothing. She turned and keyed in the code, opening the door. Gwen stepped up beside the Marine and turned Randi to face her.
"Well," scratching the side of her nose, then moving her hand to the gold polished uniform buttons. "I think we need to do something about these clothes anyway."
"You do, huh?" The Marie smiled when a small hand moved up to the jacket's neck enclosure.
"Um hmm," working the collar clasp loose and moving her attention to the button beneath it. Two long fingers lifted the bard's chin and caught her lips in another breath-stealing kiss. Randi felt a second button work free. She moved them across the threshold and shut the door behind them without breaking their embrace. When Gwen opened the third button and slipped her hand inside the tunic, Randi growled. The Sabre pulled back from the kiss and looked down at her lover with darkened eyes.
"We have to remove the binding, Little One. You're not gonna be the only who gets to play tonight." The husky rumble sent shivers chasing up and down the bard's spine. Without a word she stepped back slightly and brought their bound hands up between them. Tenderly, she placed a kiss on each of the warrior's fingers, and slowly began to loosen the binding. Geoff had made a firm knot, and she carefully worked it free now. The silk slid from their hands, and they held one another's gaze for a long moment before Gwen tugged a willing Randi into the bedroom and shut the door firmly behind them.
"You know, I'm glad we stayed here last night."
The bard wiggled blonde eyebrows at Randi's statement. "Mmm, me too." She looked around their non-disheveled room. Their undressing of one another had been reverent, and knowing what the uniform had meant to Randi, she had taken it and hung it neatly away without a word. The Marine had reciprocated with her gown, and they had looked unspoken promises at one another for a long moment before resuming their wedding night activities. Gwen smiled at the recent memories.
"That's not what I meant." An arched brow from the bard caused her to chuckle. "That's not *all* that I meant, anyway, although that was wonderful too." Randi smiled at Gwen in perfect contentment. "Just being with you is wonderful for me, but you were right."
"So much of our life together has been here in this house. It seems only fitting that we begin our life as a married couple here as well."
"I promise," Gwen said solemnly, though her green eyes twinkled in mischief. "Your secret is safe with me." Now the Sabre looked at her with her dark brow raised, and Gwen laughed in response. "You are nothing but a big, romantic mushball."
Irate blue eyes glowered at her. "I am not!"
Gwen stood, absorbing the admiring look coming from her partner as she lithely stretched her well-loved body in the early morning sunlight. "Yes, you are. And I love that about you, just as much as I love every other part of you. Now, I'm going to get a shower." She reached the door, and turned to the still-reclining warrior. "You coming?"
In answer, Randi stood and stretched, enjoying the look of lust that crossed Gwen's features as she sauntered across the room. "Yes," was all she said, as she reached the bathroom, and drew the bard in with her, closing the door behind them.
It wasn't too late, close to mid-morning when they headed out on the bike. Geoff and Jill were at the window of the boathouse, puppy in hand, and they watched them leave together. Carbon howled once, and turned pitiful eyes on the older couple.
"It's all right, boy. We're gonna stay here with you... maybe teach you a few things." The weapons smith scratched the canine under his chin, and the dog whimpered in sheer pleasure. "We'll have a good time." Jill smiled as she watched the two of them together listening to the one-sided conversation the man was having with the pup. "Randi and Gwen need some time alone together... to celebrate their new life and the love that they share." He looked to his wife then. "How long before Tommy and I get forgiven for that little prank last night, do you think?"
"I have a feeling Randi and Gwen will have mercy before Ella will." Jill laughed softly. "Poor Tommy."
"Well, he and I are hoping to get some work done on Randi's boat. Maybe that will keep him out of trouble."
"Can you?" She gestured to his hover chair. "I mean...." The woman bit her lip. There was so much she wanted to say, to caution him against, but ultimately it was his decision. He read the concern and love easily coming from her eyes, and shifted the puppy to draw the woman down into his lap. The chair compensated easily. Thank goodness for modern technology, he thought briefly. Carbon began to gently lick Jill's face clean, and she squirmed away from his tickling tongue. "Carbon!"
The puppy looked up at her when she called his name, his tongue hanging out to one side, giving his face a comical expression. "Woof!" he barked at them, and they had to laugh. Jill stroked his back gently, and he curled up contentedly in her lap.
"Thank you love," the weapons smith commented quietly. "I know how hard it is for you sometimes. Thank you for not questioning my judgment, though I know you worry about me."
She cupped a hand around his thin cheek, feeling a noticeable difference since his injury. "Yes, I do. I think after thirty years, I've earned the right to worry once in a while," said with a smile to take the sting out of the words. "But I also trust you. You know what you can and can't manage."
He smiled at her. "Not always, sweetheart. The ego does tend to get in the way of the brain sometimes."
"Just be careful, all right? And try not to overdo."
"I will. I expect you to keep an eye on me, and make sure of that, okay?"
She smiled at him, and gently placed the puppy in her lap. Then she reached to frame his face tenderly in both hands, and leaned into him. "I love you," said on a whisper. And she caught his lips in a passionate kiss. He responded in kind, holding tightly to her waist.
"I love you, too," he said as they separated. Then they held one another in silence, comfortable in the love they shared. And they waited as Tommy, Ella and Randall slowly made their way down the dock toward them.
The wind was cold, and Gwen spared a brief though of thankfulness for the leather jacket she wore and Randi's warm bulk that blocked a vast portion of it from her. She snuggled up tighter against her partner, and felt the warrior's hand tangle with her own.
"You okay, Little One?" The low voice reverberated through her helmet.
"Um, hmm. Just perfect, thanks." She felt the taller woman's chuckle.
"Well, no argument from me on that point. But I'm a bit chilly, so I'm gonna stop for a bit of hot chocolate."
"Oh, I like that idea," Gwen agreed readily.
"Heh, I thought you might." The bike slowed and pulled into a little roadside stand that was very familiar to both of them. Rosie poked her graying head out the window of her home, and blinked at them in surprise.
"Didn't think to see you two anytime soon... certainly not this early." She smiled at their blush. "C'mon in." They followed the shamaness into the inner sanctuary of her home, bypassing the restaurant part and going to the private living quarters. "So what brings you out this way? I expected ya'll to be long gone from here."
"We're on our way now. Just stopped by for a bit of hot chocolate, if you have any ready. It's cold out this morning."
She looked at the two of them and smiled. They were so obviously happy, glowing with a quiet joy so rarely seen, even between new lovers. The woman sent a silent prayer of thanksgiving to her goddess, and moved to fix the requested drink.
"That was some party last night. Saw ya'll slip away early."
"Yeah, we did. But I'm glad you had a good time."
"Yep, it was something else." She set the cups down in front of them. "I know you've heard this before, but what you share... it is so rare, so special. It is beautiful to see. Soulmates who find each other are a gift... treasure one another and what you have together."
Randi reached out a hand and covered Gwen's, glancing at Rosie before holding the green eyes with her own. "We do, my friend. And we will, always."
She set their chocolate on the table, and sat down to join them. The next few minutes passed in quiet conversation and laughter. The two younger women finished their drink and stood, anxious to be in their way.
"Here," the proprietress said, having risen with them. "This may help keep you warm until you get somewhere you can help each other in that department." She handed them a container of the beverage. They stood looking at her, shell-shocked. "Aw, c'mon you two. It's a fact of married life... especially newlyweds. Everybody knows, and everybody does it." She watched twin blushes crawl up their faces equally, and shook her reddish-gray head in amusement. "The two of you are just too cute together, you know that?"
They were still gaping as they donned their jackets, Rosie's matter-of-fact words having chased off any residual chill that had been left by the hot chocolate. Finally, Randi shook her head and mounted the bike. Gwen put the thermos into the saddlebag, and let the warrior seat her.
"Anytime, girls. You're always welcome." She watched them ride away with a smile on her face. They were gonna win out... they had to. It would be a hard row to hoe, but they had what they needed to overcome.
They moved into the gentle rolling hills by mid-afternoon, and stopped at a little out-of-the-way restaurant for a bit of lunch. The proprietor squinted hard at Randi, as though trying to place where he knew her from, but finally shrugged his shoulders and seated them.
"I take it you've been here before," Gwen said quietly.
"Yeah, but it's been years since I was here last. But if I remember right, the food is really good."
Her memory proved correct, and they were both pleasantly stuffed when lunch was over. The man had continued to steal occasional glances of them through the meal, as though trying to jog his memory.
"You could just tell him."
"He could just ask."
"Well, he's starting to make me nervous."
"We're ready to go anyway. It'll give him something to think about when we're gone."
"You're so mean," said with a twinkling grin.
A rakish smile answered her. "Yes, I am. Thank you for noticing."
They stopped for the night just before dark, having found a quaint, tiny inn that Gwen's bardic mind found picturesque and appealing. Randi just smiled at her partner's enthusiasm, happy she could indulge this whim. It wasn't like the blonde asked for much, and this was so easy to do. And truthfully, the soldier appreciated the atmosphere just as much.
"Randi?" They were tucked into a large, comfortable bed. The warrior was wrapped around the bard, and Gwen luxuriated in the feeling of being surrounded by love. She snuggled into the embrace a little deeper with a happy sigh. Randi reciprocated by holding her just a bit tighter, absently stroking her hands up and down the storyteller's bare skin.
"Yes, Little One?"
"Tell me about your cabin." A dark brow lifted, and she quirked a little half-smile at the blonde. "Our cabin." Now the smile became a full-blown grin. "Ya know," Gwen said in response to the look, "I really love that."
"What's that, love?"
"That smile, and the reason for it." She smiled. "I love that there is an us, an our, a we. I love you."
"Hmm," changing the movements of her hands and feeling the bard arch into the touch. "I love you too." And the discussion went to the wayside for the time being.
"It's small, just a single room with a tiny bathroom." Gwen sat up a little, leaning on an elbow so she could look down at her speaking companion. "It's made of real cedar wood, and it's tucked away into the side of a mountain. It's surrounded by trees, and has a little bitty steam running along one side. There are fish in the stream, and flowers in the field, and it's peaceful and quiet. It's not much really, but it's private, and it's ours."
"Did you build it?"
"Yeah. I... it... it was a kind of therapy for me. I needed to be constructive, and I needed some space. This worked well for both." The sadness that shone out of the blue eyes caused a jolt to run through Gwen's heart, and she lifted a hand in reflex to stroke the pain from Randi face. The Sabre closed her eyes at the first touch, relishing the attention.
"I'm sorry, love. Sorry you had to go through so much."
"I'm not. We are together, and if I had to go through it all again just to end up here, with you by my side and in my arms, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
The bard didn't know what response to make to that, so she laid her head back on the broad chest with her ear pressed against the warrior's heartbeat. She gently traced Randi's face until they both fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Early morning found them in much the same position they had fallen asleep in. Gently, Gwen followed the sculpted planes of the Marine's features, smiling in response to the reaction she got from the still sleeping woman. A tiny frown crossed her brow, then Randi smiled a little as she recognized the touch, and leaned into the fingertips. The bard made a single circuit, then she was looking up into sleepy blue eyes.
"Good morning, love."
"It certainly is," the warrior replied, leaning down and seizing the bard's lips in a kiss. "Looks like we may hit some snow today, though." The blonde looked out the window, seeing for the first time the heavy clouds that seemed to hover close to the ground anxious to share their burden with a waiting world.
"Maybe we'll get lucky. How much further?"
Randi stood, and offered a hand to the bard. "With good weather? We should be there by nightfall."
"Well, c'mon then," pulling the taller woman into the bathroom. "The quicker we leave, the sooner we'll get there." The Marine couldn't help but laugh at her soulmate's enthusiasm. Gwen laughed at the joy she felt in Randi's happiness.
The roads had been open, and the light dusting of snow had only slowed them infinitesimally. So it was just twilight when they pulled into the well-hidden, overgrown path that led to the small cabin. It took quite a bit of maneuvering before the Sabre found the trail, but once they found the groove, the trip was swift, and within minutes, they were pulling up in front of a small, well-kept cabin.
Gwen stepped off the bike into calf deep snow, and looked around her grinning in delight. "Randi, this is incredible. She walked gingerly over the slick ground, not wanting to slip and fall. She went from one corner to the other, then looked back at the watching warrior who was observing her with a half indulgent, half hopeful grin. She ran back to the Marine's waiting arms, and jumped into them, heedless of the slipperiness of the snow. Even though she was braced for the impact, the bard's momentum still took them both over, and Randi ended up flat on her back. Not that she was complaining with Gwen cushioned on top of her. The Sabre chuckled silently when the smaller woman snuggled deeper into her arms.
"I really do like it here," the bard said softly.
"Here, in the mountains? Here, at the cabin? Or here, in my arms?"
"Yes," came the answer without hesitation. And the soldier had to laugh aloud.
"Well, could we move the in my arms part indoors? The snow is cold and wet."
"Really?" Green eyes twinkled down into blue. "I hadn't noticed."
With a single, graceful movement, Randi rose and Gwen went up with her and into her arms. "C'mon, love... it'll be dark soon."
The hand pad was a bit difficult to manage with the bard in her arms, but Randi refused to put the smaller woman down. "Nope. I couldn't carry you over the threshold at home... not between your wedding gown, my dress sabre and the binding. I'm gonna do it here."
It took a minute for the security to recognize her handprint, then the lock was released, and the door opened. The scent of cedar wafted out, and Gwen took a deep breath.
"You can't even tell it's been shut up for a while, can you?"
"Uh uh," shaking her dark head. "It's one of the reasons I built with cedar."
"Well, it smells wonderful."
For answer, The Marine stepped across the threshold and into the cabin, shutting the door firmly behind them. Then watched as Gwen looked around in awe. Randi slowly turned in a circle so the bard could see the entire room, and waited with bated breath for her soulmate to comment. She didn't have to wait long.
"This is so awesome." Green eyes looked back at her in startled wonder. "This is ours?"
A huge grin was its own answer. "This is ours."
The room was roughly square, with a fireplace that took up half a wall. Bookshelves lined either side of the door, and the bard looked in amazement at the collection of printed material. A bed, comfortable enough to fit Randi's large frame was set against the wall across from the fireplace. A dark couch sat along the wall close to the bookshelves, just to the side of the fireplace, and two well-cushioned chairs sat opposite the couch. A small table held a lamp between them. The tiny kitchen area was on the other side of the room, and the blonde was impressed by the efficiency of the space. A door stood between the kitchen and bed, and Gwen raised an eyebrow in question.
Randi walked the three steps necessary to reach it from where she stood, and opened the door. Inside was a state-of-the-art miniscule bathroom. There was a second door, and the Sabre opened it without being asked. It was a tiny garage area, with a small transport parked there.
"I had to have a way to get to the nearest town for supplies when I was here," she said in answer to the question she could feel forming on her companion's lips. "Speaking of... we'll need to do that tomorrow."
"Okay. You wanna put me down now?"
"I should," the Marine answered. "I need to put the bike up, and bring our gear in and get a fire started before it gets completely dark." She paused and drew a deep breath. "But I sure don't want to."
Gwen pulled the dark head down for a long soul-searing kiss. "Hang onto those thoughts for a little bit, okay love? I'll get the bags while you take care of the bike. Then you can start the fireplace fire while I rummage for dinner. And then...."
"Then?" seeing the mischievous twinkle in the green eyes.
"Then we'll take care of the fires that are already blazing."
Gwen was set on her feet so fast her head spun, literally, and she would have fallen had it not been for the warrior's steadying hands on her hips.
"You all right?" came a voice deepened in concern.
"Yep." The blonde smiled. "Just didn't expect that quick a reaction. You made my world shift."
Long fingers stroked the smooth cheek, and Gwen closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. Randi smiled, then her blue eyes darkened in all seriousness. She cupped the bard's face, and drew the chin up. "That is something you do for me every single day, love." Green eyes popped open in astonishment, and Gwen couldn't help the trickle of tears that flowed from her eyes at the sentiment. "I love you, Gwen." The warrior lowered her head until their lips were almost touching. "Always."
The bard couldn't answer for a long moment, her lips being occupied by something other than speaking. When they finally broke away from their kiss, breathless, she replied, "Forever, Stud. I'll love you forever."
The soldier smiled and moved to the door. "You stay right there... I'll hand you the bags, and you can...."
"You let me worry about the bags. You just hurry up and get back in here. It's too cold and dark for you to be running around outside."
Randi thought about the hundreds of missions she'd been on when it was dark and cold outside, never concerned about the dangers, except as they affected her work. I never had this to come home to though, did I? Never had her waiting for me at the end of the day. Amazing the difference a little caring, a little love can make in a person's outlook. She looked at Gwen, whose eyes were full of love and concern and just a hint of teasing. The Marine smiled rakishly.
"Yes, dear," she said, and slipped out the door.
"God, it's a good thing I love her so much", the bard muttered to herself, then smiled. She's such a brat. Thank you, Aphrodite. She stepped over to the kitchenette, and began looking for ideas for dinner.
High above, the watching love goddess whispered, "You're so welcome, babe."
Their things were put away, dinner had been eaten and cleaned up after, and now they were cuddled up in the big bed together watching the flames dance in the large stone fireplace.
"Tomorrow, will you tell me more about this place? About your life as a Sabre?"
"Anything you want to know, love."
"Good," the bard answered. She crept up on her hands and knees like a prowling tiger, smiling down at her soulmate with hungry eyes. The warrior ran her hands up the blonde's bare sides, grinning at the goosebumps that followed her touch. Gwen closed her eyes and swallowed. When she opened them, the green had darkened to almost black with passion. She drew a deep breath. "Because I have much better things to be doing with my mouth tonight." Then the talking was over, and the only sounds in the room were the soft music of their lovemaking, and the quiet crackle of the fire.
The winter sun felt more like spring sunshine, and by midday it had melted most of the snow in the open areas. Drifts were still scattered around in the various sheltered spots, but it was actually almost pleasantly warm. The couple walked slowly around the perimeter of the property while Randi showed Gwen around and introduced her to some of the hidden delights the land held.
"There are wildflowers in the meadow here from spring through fall. The orchard has apple and peach trees, and during the summer there are berries for picking as well. We have a swimming hole also," motioning to a deep spot in the water that had a rope swing overhanging it. "But I'll tell you... the water is frigid even in mid summer. It's a lot of fun though."
Gwen caught the ghost of a twinkle in her soulmate's eyes, and determined right then that they would be visiting here regularly, especially when it got warmer. She was eager to coax the kid she could see lurking in the blue eyes out to play. "Sounds wonderful, love. We'll have to come back then."
A big grin was her answer.
"This is the coolest thing though." They entered the garage, and Randi opened a second door that the bard hadn't noticed the night before. It opened right into the side of the mountain. The air smelled of earth and rock, and the Marine lifted a hand and flipped an old fashioned switch. Dim light washed through the cavern, and Gwen stood in awe looking around her.
The space was actually a series of caves carved into the mountain, and the first of them was filled with stalactites and stalagmites with a thin, winding path leading deeper into the mountain. She reached a hand out, and ran it over the rough stone. The bard's attention was caught by a bit of glitter reflected in the rock. She looked at her soulmate in mute question.
"There are several different minerals here... quartz, pyrite, limestone. I've found a bit of marble, some agate, and a little coal as well. There's a lot more to see." She held out her hand. "Wanna explore with me?"
Gwen took the proffered hand, eyes roaming the cave in interest. "This is amazing. How did you find this place?"
"I did a bit of research before I bought the land. We have freshwater pearls in these parts too. C'mon."
Gwen was quick to observe the switch that Randi activated at the entrance to each new cave. They wandered inside the mountain for the better part of an hour before starting their way back toward the surface, talking about the various things they were seeing.
"Will you tell me more about this?"
"What would you like to know?"
"Everything." Just then two stomachs growled in tandem.
Randi chuckled. "Let's go into town and feed the beasts. Then we'll pick up what we need for our stay, and come back and talk a bit. Sound good?"
"Sounds like a plan, Stud. Let's go."
The town was tiny, especially considering its attraction to travelers. A single grocer, a restaurant that was connected to the inn, a small temple, and a supply depot for every other need. But it was sought out for its solitude and beautiful peace, and its residents didn't see a need to change their way of life to cater to folks used to more. The people who visited came for the simple life, and were happy with the amenities they could find here.
Lunch was pleasant, and it became obvious to Gwen rather quickly that her beloved had spent a good deal of time in this place. Randi was greeted as an old friend by many of the people they encountered. And she was clearly thrilled to be able to introduce her companion to the people here. When they made to leave, they were reminded by many of the monthly social at the temple that weekend. The warmth of their welcome made the bard smile in reflex.
Gwen looked around the depot, spotting a pair of beautifully woven, matching tunics that coincidentally were just her and Randi's sizes. Nothing they had to have, of course, but she felt the desire to have them call out to her, and she succumbed to the temptation with very little fight.
The warrior meanwhile found herself in something of a dilemma, trying to find a wedding gift that suited Gwen. Wandering around on her own, she restlessly searched while keeping an unobtrusive eye on her companion. Finally, she relaxed, understanding it wasn't something she could force. When she found what it was her heart was searching for, she'd know. For now, she had supplies to purchase. The Marine glanced out the window. And they needed to hurry. The sun that had shone for a better part of the day was now obscured by heavy hanging clouds again, and Randi had the distinct feeling these might stick around a while.
They loaded the tiny transport up, and Randi heaved a sigh of relief as the last package was put into the vehicle. There would be room for them, just, and they might even beat the impending storm home. And they almost did. The vehicle was just pulling into the long lane that led to the cabin when a heavy snow began to fall steadily from the sky. Randi was thankful for the enclosure that housed the transport, and sighed deeply as she pulled the vehicle into it.
"This is nice," the bard commented. "How about I unload the transport, and you put things away? You know where everything goes," Gwen commented practically.
"I've got a better idea. Why don't we both do it? Then you can learn where everything is. Who knows," with her blue eyes twinkling, "maybe you can figure out a better system."
Remembering the totally organized space she'd seen the night before, the storyteller highly doubted that possibility, but the prospect of them working together appealed to her, and she smiled her agreement.
It didn't take them long before things were unloaded and put away. Then they took a carafe of hot chocolate and two cups, and settled themselves on the hearth rug, staring into the fire for a long period of silence. The Marine brought out the set of ribbons she'd brought with her for just this purpose. Then Randi's low voice rumbled between them, and took them back to a time almost fifteen years prior.
Marine boot camp was an interesting experience. Long grueling days and longer nights. Randi would have never admitted it to a soul, but she was lonely in ways she hadn't actually expected. She'd made friends with several of her comrades, but she missed her folks and Tommy. But she tried to put that out of her mind, and focused on getting through her training to the very best of her considerable abilities.
She was proud to be chosen as the squadron leader, and worked hard to make the squad into a cohesive unit. Her superior officers watched as the unit excelled, and passed every challenge set for them under her leadership.
Two days before graduation, the squad was doing their final five-kilometer run. They were running with full packs, weapons and armor, and keeping a fairly decent pace. The drill sergeant ran to one side, near the back, calling cadence, while Randi paced the group in the front. About halfway through the course, the soldier next to Randi stumbled, and she cut a look at him and muttered, "You okay, Henry?"
The man nodded his head and grunted in the affirmative, but didn't answer otherwise. Randi accepted his answer and continued leading the squad another fifty feet before Henry collapsed beside her. Immediately she called a halt and went to his aid, administering CPR when she realized her comrade was not breathing. The sergeant made her way to the front, moving soldiers aside to see the reason for their abrupt stop.
Immediately, the woman called for medical assistance, keeping an eye on the squadron leader as she and another recruit continued to breathe for the fallen man. Even though the medics arrived quickly, Henry had begun breathing on his own when they got to the scene. Randi and her comrade were commended for their swift action, and the man was evacuated to the base medical facility.
The Marines finished their run, and the drill instructor was pleased to report that their comrade, while still weak, was stable. He had suffered a severe allergic reaction to something he'd eaten, and that combined with the stress of the run had caused his collapse. Then she went on to mention that Randi's instant reaction had probably saved the man's life. The squadron had cheered, and Randi had blushed, and then with permission, slipped out to check on Henry.
She'd been glad to see him standing with them on Graduation Day. But she'd been shocked to hear her name singled out of the multitude of recruits standing on the field, along with that of her comrade who'd helped save Henry's life.
Butler received his, a silver medal, for joining her efforts. She was given a gold for taking the initiative and saving a fellow Marine's life. A cheer rose from the ranks, and before she could leave the platform, she was given a set of instructions to receive her orders. A confused frown crossed her face, but she saluted smartly, and joined her squadron once more.
"That was the very first medal I earned, and probably one of the ones I am most proud of." The Sabre fell silent then, and green eyes watched as the blue gaze turned distant, becoming sad and wistful. The bard wondered what memories the Marine was reliving, but had determined to let Randi tell her own story her own way. Gwen was pretty sure, given what she now knew about her best friend, that she would be able to fill in the pieces. Tiny had told her a lot about being a Sabre, and even without specifics, she knew the picture was gonna get kinda ugly.
The blonde looked at the ribbons still held loosely in Randi's hands, then liberated them from the Marine's grasp so she could take a closer look. The movement brought Randi back to the present, and she looked down inquiringly at the storyteller's inquisitive face.
"I was just noticing... you have two gold stars on this lifesaving medal." A nod was her only answer, and she scrunched up her features in thought. "If memory serves me correctly, that means you got this medal three times. Correct?" Another nod. "Was it for the same thing? I mean… did you save a fellow soldier's life?"
The Sabre scratched the back of her neck, thinking about the best way to explain this. "No. Um, it's different as a Sabre. You're expected to look out for one another, and cover each other's backs. It's part of the code." Gwen nodded her understanding. "No, the first time, I got it for saving a kid." She closed her eyes in memory.
The mission had been... peculiar. Their target was a single individual with known (to the Sabres, anyway) ties to Ghost Rider. The team had spent several days tracking and observing him, because his official presence was well-known throughout the world. It had been especially hard, as the man had a six-year-old daughter that he doted on, and they had all been witness to his affection for her.
The day before the takedown was scheduled, Randi was in town for some final reconnaissance. She was walking down the street following her target, when out of no where the man's young daughter spotted him from the other side of the road.
Without looking, the young girl stepped into the path of an oncoming transport that sped blindly around a corner. While the man froze in horror, the scene spurred Randi to action, and she rushed to remove the child from harm's way. The Marine managed to succeed by a hair's breadth, and her rescue caused the man to move from his place to gather his daughter into his arms.
Apparently his gratitude was overwhelming because, though the hit took place that night as scheduled, Randi was called to the Commandant's office week or so later. The general wore an enigmatic expression on his face.
"You asked to see me, sir?"
"Come in, Private, and shut the door."
She did, resting at ease when commanded to do so. She waited silently, wondering what she'd done to end up here. She reviewed her work, and nothing came to mind, knowing that things had been by the book on her last missions.
"I don't think I've ever seen a situation like this before, Valiant. And there is no delicate way to handle this."
A frown creased her forehead. "Sir?"
"I received notification from the Department of the Navy today that you are being awarded your second life saving medal." He easily read her confusion, and sympathized. "The little girl you saved last week...." He trailed off, waiting for recognition to dawn. When it did, her eyes grew wide. He nodded.
"Yes, well, you know her father was a big mucky muck, and he put you in for a commendation before his, ahem, untimely demise. The Navy saw fit to agree with his request, and well...." he finished awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. He laid the two gold stars on the desk; a large one for the medal, and a smaller one for the ribbon.
Big blue eyes gazed at him in horror. "Sir, I can't...."
"No choice here, Marine. The Navy decided, and to argue the point blows your cover and ruins your effectiveness. So suck it up, and put it on."
She reached a hesitant hand out to pick up the awards, and answered him softly. "Aye-aye, sir." She snapped him a stiff salute, which he acknowledged before dismissing her. "Sometimes the world just doesn't make sense, does it sir?"
She didn't wait for an answer, but slipped out the door to find a bit of peace.
"I always wondered what happened to that little girl. She'd be all grown up now." The Marine closed her eyes. "I wonder if she resents her father for dying, or resents losing him so suddenly the way she did... if she resents having lived... if she ever knew the truth...." A hand on her face caused her to open her eyes and she looked into verdant green at close, close range.
"You can't torture yourself with what ifs and maybes, love. That's not fair to anyone. Especially not yourself."
Tears welled in the blue eyes, and a blink sent them rolling silently down the warrior's cheek. "But Gwen, I still hate the man who killed my parents, and I had the satisfaction of seeing justice was done. She got none of that. Hardly seems fair."
The bard thought for a long moment. "Do you know her name?" Randi's eyes turned to her puzzled.
"Alyssa Armandon." She watched as green eyes grew round.
"You mean Fernando Armandon was...."
"I remember that. I was just fifteen or so, and we were overseas then. It was horrible." She shook her blonde head. It took a bare second for her to realize the warrior had pulled away from her, and she reached out a hand toward the Marine, pulling back when the other woman flinched away from her almost imperceptibly. A rapid review of her words caused her to smack herself in disgust. Brilliant, bard. Absolutely incredible. You gonna chew on that foot stuck in your mouth for a little bit?
She slid from the couch and knelt in front of the Sabre. She lifted the large hands into hers, and kissed them lightly, not allowing Randi to pull away from her the second time. She knelt there for a long time, staring into a face whose eyes would not meet her own. Patience was its own reward, but what she saw reflected back to her caused her soul to ache. Pain, regret, sorrow, and profound hurt. The storyteller released one of Randi's hands so she could cup the scarred face, gently running her fingers along the cut line.
"I'm sorry," she said clearly. "I didn't mean that to come out quite like that. It was horrible that it had to happen, and I remember there being quite a big to-do made of the fact that he died so suddenly and so unexpectedly. But to me, finding out that he had to die because of his warped beliefs.... Now wait and hear me out," she added when the Marine made to move away from her again.
"Here was a man who had everything... beautiful family, high profile career, wealth... and yet, he was willing to throw it all away over something that would destroy everything he had without thought. How horrible... how selfish. And to have put you into that position...."
"It's what I am, Gwen. It's what I'm good at. I was merciful to him... more so than I was to the man who killed my parents."
The bard was torn between wanting to reassure her partner and needing to let Randi talk about her parents. "It's not what you are, and it's sure not what you're good at," with a rakish grin, that got a crooked half smile in return as the warrior realized what her companion was implying. "But we can, ahem, talk about that later." Her gaze softened, and the Sabre felt herself responding. "Tell me about your parents."
"What would you like to know?"
"Anything you'd like to tell."
That first leave had been wonderful. She'd stood for Tommy when he and Ella exchanged vows. And she'd had the opportunity to visit with some old friends. Mostly, though, she'd spent her time with her folks, helping out around the place, and talking with them. For the first time, they interacted adult to adult, and they found it was a wonderfully pleasant experience for all of them. Different, but in a good kind of way. Without knowing it, her parents had helped soothe her troubled soul, and had unconsciously given her a reason to continue fighting the good fight.
They'd kept in touch with vid calls and emails, and though they knew she'd not be home for the holidays, since she was being sent halfway around the world, they made arrangements well in advance to have some vid phone time scheduled when they could all be there.
Festival Eve came and went, and Randi didn't get the expected call. She was worried since her own calls had gone unanswered, but was stonewalled at every turn. Finally, Festival afternoon, Tommy contacted her. The look in his eyes told her the news was bad, and with very few words, she found out her parents were dead, at the unwitting hands of a drunk transport operator. She requested emergency leave, which was immediately granted, and flew directly home to attend to her family’s affairs.
The funeral was mercifully brief, and Randi laid her parents to rest as they'd requested. She didn't grieve, but instead turned her emotion into a rage that she would subjugate the perpetrator of the crime to. As Tommy had once commented to Gwen, it had been brutal.
As the victim, she was allowed to choose and carry out the sentence if she desired, and the fury in her demanded that from her.
"Bring forth the prisoner." The man was led forward, knowing he would die, only waiting to find out by what means.
"Clifford Gabbott, you have been found guilty of the crime of murder. For that crime, you will be scourged with the lash... one stroked for each year of both victims’ lives. In the event you manage to survive those eighty-nine lashes, you will then receive one lash for each year they could have had remaining to them. If you live through the additional one hundred and eleven stripes, you will be a free man."
He had paled to such an extent that her final words didn't register. He didn't expect to survive the first eighty-nine, not having seen the blood in her eyes. He bowed his head and said a prayer, accepting her judgment.
Those who had come to witness justice being served looked at the Marine in shock. Most executions were humanitarian, and swift. Not so in the case of flogging. What was most disconcerting, however, was the fact that the Sabre looked glad to make the man suffer as much as possible.
Gabbott was stripped and tied spread eagle to the whipping frame. The first stroke made him scream in agony. By the fifteenth lash, he was whimpering. On the count of twenty-two, he fell silent, no longer able to remain conscious from the lack of blood and the excruciating pain. Randi was well-versed in the art of torture, and she exercised that knowledge to its fullest extent now. He was dead before she got to the fortieth lash, yet she continued to mete out his punishment, exacting the full payment for his crimes.
When it was over, the man was little more than a pile of ragged meat and bones. The gore covered Marine never batted an eye, but stepped from the judgment field without a backward glance. It was three days before anyone saw her again.
Gwen looked at Randi now, the memories making the blue eyes turn to ice, and the scar to flush an angry red. The bard placed her hand over the inflamed skin, noting the coldness beneath her touch. Something was going on here, and they needed to find out what it was, but first she needed to bring her soulmate back to her from whatever ugly place she was in.
It took a very long moment for the blue eyes to track to her green ones, and even then, it took another little while before the ice began to melt and recognition settled in.
"Love? Are you okay?"
Randi's eyes became the mirrors to her soul, and the bard held a breath at what she saw reflected back to her. Pain, confusion, and not a little anger were shone forth in stark measure. "I didn't regret what I did to him. I still don't. He deserved far worse."
"You did what you did, Randi, and its over. You can't change it, but I think you need to let it go."
"I can't. I...."
Searing pain swept across the scar, and bard and warrior gasped in shock as different sensations engulfed them simultaneously. Gwen flinched when the chill became overwhelming, making her hand ache from the cold. The Sabre's eyes water from the fierce burning, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. Then as quickly as it came, the feelings disappeared, leaving two very drained women who collapsed almost immediately into a deep sleep.
Seventy-five minutes later, the two woke up in tandem, tangled around one another comfortably. They looked at each other and smiled, not remembering anything about the reaction the scar had had to the emotional outpouring they'd shared. Nor did they remember the vitally different reaction they suffered because of it.
"I'm sorry about your parents, short stuff. I think I would have liked them."
Randi squeezed the storyteller in a firm embrace. "I know you would have, Little One. They were a lot like your folks. I think they would have gotten along famously. They genuinely like you." Her eyes twinkled every so slightly. "Hell, they *love* you. Not as much as I do, but then, what's not to love?"
Gwen blushed at the teasing, glad beyond measure that the soldier seemed to have moved past her painful memories. A large hand lifted to stroke the flushed face. "You are so beautiful," the warrior whispered, trailing her fingertips lightly down the jaw line, and up under the chin, raising the blonde's face slightly.
"In your eyes, Stud."
"Mine are the only ones that matter," leaning down and rushing a light kiss across willing, waiting lips.
"Nah, because to me, you are all that is beautiful," threading a small hand into the dark hair and pulling Randi's head down for another kiss.
"Still?" needing the reassurance.
"Always," came the prompt answer. "I love you."
The two lay snuggled up comfortably tangled together, reveling in the soothing warmth their cuddling provided them. Darkness fell with them still wrapped together this way, exchanging small kisses and light touches.
"What for dinner, Stud?"
Gwen burst out laughing, and Randi pouted just the tiniest bit. "I was being serious."
"So was I."
"Tell ya what... let me fix some soup and salad, and we'll have plenty of room for s'mores for dessert, 'k?"
An exaggerated sigh. "I s'pose."
"Do you *really* want s'mores for dinner?" the bard questioned as she walked into the kitchen space. She smiled and leaned back into the firm body that came up behind her and wrapped itself around her. She linked her hands with the ones locked around her middle, and tilted her head back to catch the blue gazed focused on her.
"Nah, we tried that once, remember? I don't want to be that sick again, thanks."
Gwen shuddered in memory. "Ew... me either."
Dinner didn't take long, and they crawled into the big bed together after the short shower that had become necessary as a result of their s’mores adventures. The storyteller had picked up Randi's bank of ribbons, and was gingerly examining them one by one.
"So many," she murmured almost to herself. "I don't think I had three. Well," after a thoughtful pause, "maybe three. Not much you can earn sitting in an office in the capital."
"No weapons quals?" the Marine asked. She found herself gently curious. The bard never really talked about her own military service, though she'd expressed interest many times in listening to whatever Randi wanted to share about her own.
Gwen rubbed the side of her nose, and laughed lightly. "Um, no. I mean, I passed the certs I had to to get through basic, but I was never really good at any of them. Until you taught me the staff, I never found one I was particularly comfortable with." She paused in thought. "You know, I never really thought about it until right now, but it fits." Green eyes lit in wonder.
"Fits what?" the Sabre asked curiously. She wanted to know what had brought that sparkle to Gwen's eyes.
"Um hmm. The stories. The Soulmates' stories." She glanced down at her ring, then Randi's, and she linked their hands together. "In the stories, the warrior is a stalwart defender, capable of offensive and defensive fighting, in all sorts of situations. The bard, while able to fight if necessary, usually only did so in defense and to cover the warrior's back." She breathed a moment. "Funny thing... while the warrior has always had a variety of weapons to choose from, almost inevitably the storyteller chooses a staff."
Randi felt a certain thrill run up her spine at Gwen's words, knowing she'd been the one to bestow the staff this time. Then something occurred to her. "How do you know all this? It's not in any of the stories you gave me."
"It's just something that dawned on me. But you don't have all the stories in the single volume I made for you, love. Those were just some of my childhood favorites. I can share the rest with you, if you like," she offered shyly.
"I'd like," blue eyes smiling down into green.
"I'd like too," Gwen sighed. "But I have to tell you, Randi, they're not all happy ever after stories."
"I understand, Little One," just as softly. "But that's okay, 'cause we've got our own happy ever after to look forward to."
It grew quiet after that for a very long while, and Randi was falling into a light doze when Gwen's breath whispered across her chest.
"Honey?" She fingered the ribbons one more time before she leaned up and placed them on the small bedside table.
A dark brow rose to her hairline, as the Marine studied this new address, deciding she liked the way it sounded when turned in her direction. "Yes, love?"
A small hand clenched at her waist as the bard yawned and resettled her head more comfortably on the cushioned chest she was pillowed on. The heartbeat under her ear settled her, and she smiled at the music it made for her. "Hmm, sorry. Tomorrow, will you tell me more about these? I'd like to hear the other lifesaving story, and I'm sure some of the others have equally as interesting tales behind them."
"Good," was Gwen's only reply. "I love you."
"I love you too, Little One. Happy dreams."
"You're here," the bard mumbled in response. "That makes them all happy." She hugged the body beneath her tightly before she slipped into sleep. A pair of soft lips dusted the top of her blonde hair.
Morning brought them awake very glad for the warm blankets that covered them as well as the body heat they shared. Randi groaned realizing she'd forgotten to light the heat sticks, and seeing the fireplace banked and almost dark, knew it was going to be frigid outside their cozy little nest. With a yip as the cold bit into her, the Marine slid from under the cover, careful to keep the heat trapped in with Gwen. The bard mewed a little at the loss of her partner, then cuddled more into the warrior's pillow with a sigh.
Randi broke the heat sticks open first, knowing it would take a few minutes for them to fully activate. Then she moved to the fireplace to rebuild the fire. It didn't take long, a matter of a few minutes, really, but she was freezing when she climbed back into bed and curled herself around the sleeping storyteller.
It took a mere blink before Gwen squealed when the cold hands hit her warm belly. "RANDI!!"
Innocent blue eyes peered back the green ones glaring back at her. "Yes, dear?"
"Don't you 'yes, dear' me! I'll get you for that."
"Promise?" with a devilish twinkle.
For answer, the bard proceeded to start a tickle fight that left her squealing even more as Randi reciprocated with ice-cold hands. "Augh! Mercy! You can stop now! You won!"
"But I'm still not all the way warm yet," said with just a teasing hint of a pout. Gwen could see this very easily becoming a formidable weapon in Randi's arsenal if she let it. She was just too damned cute for her own good.
"I have a better way to warm you up," Gwen replied, as her voiced became husky, and the green of her eyes darkened. She captured the poked out lip with her own, smiling when the warrior answered the kiss enthusiastically. Then the world faded out as the room grew warm, and things in the bed got very, very hot.
"Well," the Sabre commented as she stood at the window peering out. "Looks like we'll be inside for the day." The world outdoors was a wash of white, and the snow showed no of sign of letting up in the near future.
"Oh, the hardship," Gwen mock moaned. "Whatever shall we do?" melodramatically.
The warrior stalked back to the bed, tantalizingly aware of the bard's heated gaze on her, following her naked form. "I'm sure we'll come up with... something." She clutched the covers and jerked them off Gwen's warm body. Catlike, she climbed on the bed and hovered over the bard, reminding the smaller woman very much of a panther hunting its prey. Blue eyes darkened to an indigo, and Randi leaned down. Gwen's eyes half closed in anticipation. Then grew wide in consternation when the Marine licked her nose. "Breakfast sounds like a good idea."
Randi leaped from the bed while the bard sputtered in outrage. "Why you... I oughta.... "
"Yeeesssss?" The sound of the drawled purr made Gwen hesitate, loving the sound, and making her forget her mad. Instead, she got up and moved by the still waiting Sabre.
"Beat you into the bathroom," the bard giggled, and ran in, shutting the door firmly behind her.
"Clever, Little One. Very clever."
Breakfast became brunch instead, and the couple was cuddled up in front of the fireplace. "So," Gwen commented after a bit of silence, "tell me more about that other lifesaving ribbon." A hidden memory was niggling at her, though she had no tangible basis for the feeling.
"I'll tell you the story, then you have to tell me one, all right?"
"Seems like a fair deal,"
"Cool. C'mere." The warrior pulled the blonde into her lap and hugged her, not releasing her for several minutes.
"Not that I mind, but what was that for?"
"I needed a hug."
The bard was surprised that Randi laid it out so openly, and she squeezed her partner's neck again. "You can have all of those you need, Stud. I have an inexhaustible supply waiting just for you."
Randi kissed the top of the blonde head and loosened her hold, but did not release her completely. Gwen felt the warrior take a deep breath before she began to speak.
After her parents' death, Randi fell into a deep, dark place. She became the deadliest Sabre in history, being sent out on the most dangerous assignments, and always coming back successful. Killing was easy; living was hard. In fact, outside her contact with Tommy, she didn't live. She merely existed. He was the one sane factor in her entire world.
Two and a half years of killing, and she was tired in her very soul. The Commandant was notified of her slide into depression, and gave her mandatory leave to get away from the stress. She went more than a little crazy.
For the better part of a week, she went out drinking, looking for a new bed partner every night. Not a hard thing to understand, really. She was trying to live, or so she thought. But every morning she woke up empty, if not alone, and found this existence to be less fulfilling than the one she'd known since the death of her folks.
Finally, at the end of her first week of leave, she woke up alone with a hangover that would have felled a mammoth at a hundred paces. It was the darkest part of the night, and she got up to go out for a walk. Maybe that would clear her head.
She came round to the theatre area of town, where the performers were after their shows and late suppers. An odd sound at the end of an alley caught and held her attention. She forgot her heartsickness, and let the rage build at what she saw.
A girl, a young woman perhaps, had been cornered at the stage door by a group of punks, and it was clear from her body language that she wasn’t comfortable with their attentions. The Sabre hesitated, until the voice reached her ears.
"No, please. Just leave me alone."
Instead, the assembled kids moved closer into the girl’s space, and she went down in a crumpled heap. Without rational thought or planning, the Marine sprang into action.
She didn’t know that someone else had seen the problem and had called for help. But by the time help arrived, it was all over. The Sabre allowed her baser instincts loose when she saw the puddle of blood beneath the small frame that was huddled on the ground. She stood protectively over the form, and methodically decimated each of the five individuals. She did pull back from killing blows, figuring the punishment that would be meted out would be worse than death for these guys.
She checked the small form lying still on the ground. Blood poured from a cut in the girl’s side, and the Marine staunched the flow by applying pressure to the wound with a piece of cloth torn from her sleeve.
She heard the sound of running feet, and gently lifted the small body from the ground, and smiled sadly as vivid green eyes opened, and looked back at her. "Thank you," the soft voice whispered, and the Marine allowed the small woman a slight smile before the green eyes closed again in unconsciousness. Randi stepped over the downed bodies, and over to the waiting law enforcement officer.
"You‘ll need to get a statement from her when she wakes up." She nodded her head back toward the pile of bodies still lying unconscious in the alleyway. "And they need to be locked up for a multitude of sins... not the least of which would be attempted murder."
The law enforcement personnel moved to take care of the rouge, and the sergeant in charge looked back toward the medevac unit where the small blonde lay on a hover board receiving preliminary treatment before being transported. Much as he suspected, the Sabre had disappeared.
Eight days and hours of research later, the sergeant, a retired Sabre himself, finally found the Sabre he’d seen for a brief moment before she’d melted into the darkness. He put her in for a medal, knowing that for her it was a natural reaction, but thinking she deserved to be recognized for her efforts.
Randi looked in puzzlement at the Commandant when he called her into his office after her third week of leave had passed. Following the incident with the performer, she’d become reclusive, spending a lot of time meditating, trying to regain her center.
"Do you have something to tell me, Marine?"
The Sabre looked at him with complete puzzlement. "Um, no sir." She paused. "Should I?"
Randi looked much more rested and focused than Jerry had seen her for a while. The Commandant smiled slightly. "No, not really. I thought you might want to tell me how you ended up with your third life saving medal when you weren’t even on duty."
She looked at him in confusion, trying to understand what he could be talking about. She hadn’t given her name to anyone that night, and she certainly hadn’t shared that little incident with anyone. She shook her head negatively.
"I’m sorry sir. I can’t imagine where this is coming from."
He smiled. It was much as he expected it to be with her. He signaled to someone in the other room. The man came in and stood quietly while the Marine looked at him hard, trying to place him in her memories. When her eyes widened, he knew she knew.
"Yes, Corporal Valiant," he said. "I recognized you as a Sabre. I figured you should be recognized for your heroism."
"That wasn’t heroism," Randi growled at him. "That was decency."
"Nevertheless, you saved that girl’s life. She’s already gone back to performing, thanks to you. In fact," he continued, "she asked about you. Asking if I knew who you were, if she could say thank you. I didn’t answer...."
"Don’t." The word was bitten off. She made a visible attempt to bring her breathing under control. "It happened and it’s over."
"Well, you do need to add the award to your ribbons, Sergeant," Jerry interrupted. He could see she was not happy about the situation, but she merely nodded.
"Aye, sir. May I be excused?" The Commandant nodded his head and Randi snapped to attention. With a smart salute, and a nod to the second man she took her leave of them.
The two men contemplated the silence for a long while before the retired Sabre spoke. "It’s always hard for them to accept that kind of recognition, isn’t it?"
"Um," came Jerry’s answer. "And they are the ones who need it the most."
Randi was concerned about the bard’s stillness when she finished her tale, and she looked down to see tear-filled green eyes gazing back up at her in stunned silence. The Marine started to speak, but small fingers on her lips stopped whatever words were going to come from her mouth. She sat patiently, only closing her eyes when the hand began to move across her face in its ritual tracing.
"Open your eyes for me, love," came the whispered plea that the Marine couldn’t ignore. Blue eyes slowly opened, and the two simply looked at one another for a very long time. "It was you," Gwen finally spoke, in a voice so low the Sabre had to strain to make out her words. "It was you who saved my life that night."
Randi gazed at Gwen in complete non-comprehension, sure that what she thought she understood was not what the bard was really saying. The tall woman closed her eyes, and threw her mind back to that night so many years ago, picturing every detail clearly in her mind’s eye. She remembered the rage, the blood, the green eyes.... The green eyes... Randi opened her own eyes and gazed back into Gwen’s still tear-filled ones, and felt her own fill as well. Gwen spoke.
"I don’t remember much about that night, actually. I remember those kids..." Here she shivered. "From what the nice officer told me, I was some sort of initiation ritual. You kept me from becoming a statistic that night."
"And in so doing, saved my own soul," came the almost soundless response. The bard made a mental note to ask more about that. But she had other questions first.
"Why didn’t you come see me? I wanted so badly to thank you."
Randi flushed, and tore her eyes from the blonde’s. "I couldn’t. At that point in my life, I wouldn’t allow myself to care for anyone. Even though you were just a stranger then, coming to see you, allowing you to thank me, would have been caring. And I wasn’t going to do that."
"Is that when you built the cabin?"
"No, that came later. That was when I was assigned duty to the Amazons, and became a card-carrying Amazon myself."
Gwen smiled in spite of the tears that still sat wet on her face and in her eyes. "Amazing! Does this mean I get another story?"
"Um, no. Well, eventually. But you owe me one first."
"You’re right," she sighed dramatically. Then her voice softened. "But I owe you a thank you first." She shifted, until she was straddled the Marine’s lap. "What you did for me that night was amazing. Even though I didn’t know who you were, or why you were there, you changed my life that night."
Randi looked at her puzzled. "How so?"
Gwen sighed. "Well, until that night, my world had always been pretty safe. I was almost finished with school, and ready to serve my military commitment. I figured I had the world by the tail. Nothing could hurt me. And then something did."
Blue eyes ached with a profound sadness. "I’m sorry they took that away from you."
Small hands raised the chin so Gwen could look into the blue eyes. "What I lost was infinitesimal compared to what I gained." She smiled, and blushed just the tiniest amount. "I found a real life hero. Someone who cared, though there was no real reason to. You became the focal point of my stories after that."
Dark eyebrows rose to Randi’s forehead, and her mouth dropped open in shock. "Uh... buh... um...."
"Close your mouth, love," tapping on the chin she still held. "You’d hate to catch flies." Instead of closing her mouth, the Marine’s tongue gently began to lick the bard’s lips. Gwen groaned and captured the organ, giving herself wholeheartedly to the task of kissing her beloved. Long moments passed while the world faded, and finally they were forced to pull away to breathe.
"Ahem," the bard commented. "Wow! What brought that on?"
"Besides the fact that I adore you?"
"Because you saved my life that night too. You helped me find a focus I had lost when my parents died." The Marine paused and blushed. "Did I really become your hero?"
"Yep. You sure did."
"I love you, Little One."
"I love you, too." The bard cuddled down under Randi’s chin, and the morning passed quietly as they absorbed the knowledge of what they had just learned. When two stomachs began growling in tandem, they looked to one another and smiled.
"C’mon, Stud. Let’s fix some dinner, and I’ll tell you the first Soulmates’ story that made me cry."
"I remember Gramma telling me stories from the time I was itty bitty, and those are probably some of my favorites. But I noticed as I got older, that they were all happy ever after stories, and I didn’t understand that. Especially as I began going to school and started studying history, sociology, and human behavior."
The bard took a deep breath and continued. "So one day, when I was ten, I asked her about it. It was the only time I saw my Gramma cry."
"Gram, did all the Soulmates’ stories have happy endings? The only ones I’ve heard do, and it just doesn’t feel right."
Tears came into the old woman’s eyes, though they hovered on the edge of her lashes and didn’t actually spill down her face at that point. That would happen when she told the particular tale that occurred to her with her granddaughter’s words. A story she knew well, but didn’t share because of the heartbreak it caused her. There were a few unhappy ones, and Gwen would need to know them, but she had been hoping for a few more years of tranquility before they came up for discussion.
"No, little dove, they do not always end happy. There were times when circumstances or life keep them apart. And the wrenching was painful, and felt by the generations after. They always had longer interims in the afterlife together when things went wrong and they remained separated in life."
Gwen cocked her head while she processed her grandmother’s words. "Will you tell me, Gramma? Please?" Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "I think I need to know."
The old woman sighed, and Jill left the kitchen where the three of them had been. This was something she couldn’t share. She and her mother had had several long talks about the bard, and they had both decided that she was indeed one half of the soulmates. Jill had heard the stories, but it was her mother’s responsibility to pass them along to Gwen. And the story her mother had in mind was one that made her heart hurt. She decided to go spend some time with Geoff.
Gwen was curled up at her grandmother’s feet, being too big to fit into the older woman’s lap. They had moved into the reading room to be more comfortable. The older woman took a deep breath and began to speak.
"You have to remember that for a very long time, humanity has been its own worst enemy. Different was considered wrong, and people were expected to fit into the boxes that society had set up for them. If you were the wrong color, you could be persecuted. People were killed in the name of God and religion. Loving the wrong person brought shame and beatings to many."
Gwen’s brows scrunched up as she tried to understand the logic behind that. The grandmother waited until the girl’s focus was back on her again before she continued. "Politics were ugly and complicated, and they determined much of the tenor that society followed and found acceptable. And one of those tenets stated that individuals of the same gender could not love one another."
"Wait, Gramma... how did they get to decide who a person loved? It’s not a conscious choice, is it? I thought it just happened."
"It does just happen, little dove. But there have always been those who think that their way is the only way, and when they get power...." She paused and took another deep breath. This story always got her worked up; just the injustice of it all. She centered herself and resumed the tale.
"There were two women, who met and fell in love over a period of time. And though they gradually found contentment in husbands and children, there was a part of them that shriveled and died because of the separation they endured."
They met in the oddest of circumstances. The one, a soldier on leave; the other, an actress on her way to the theatre. A horrific accident occurred on the road in front of them, and both stopped to render aid. The soldier, an Army Major, began issuing orders and directives which the actress at first resented, and then followed without question when she understood that the Major really did have some sort of clue how to deal with what had happened.
In the fifteen minutes it took for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene, the two had developed a bond that would over time deepen into a rare friendship.
They exchanged emails and phone numbers, and spoke to one another nearly every day for almost a year. When the actress got a two-week break, she went out to visit her Army friend. The major was overjoyed to see her, and even had good news. She was being transferred to the base just outside where the actress lived. So the two weeks passed with them together every moment the soldier could spare from work. And the actress learned many things about military life.
Perhaps the thing that bothered them most was the ‘don’t ask’ policy. The actress understood her friend’s reticence at opening up to her, but she could feel something between them growing, and knew in her heart she was falling in love with the dark haired major. Odd really, considering she’d never found herself attracted to women before, but she knew what she felt.
The night before she was scheduled to return home, the actress cooked dinner for her hostess---quite an accomplishment for someone who rarely cooked. The soldier came home to wine, roses and candlelight. She stood speechless in the foyer, until the performer came and took her by the hand. She followed blindly, overwhelmed in mind and heart and body at the setting the other woman had gone to so much trouble to provide.
The soldier sat unsure what to do besides stay out of the way. When the smaller woman went to seat herself, the Major rose from her chair. For a long moment they simply looked at one another, then as if drawn together by an outside force, the two came together in a tentative kiss. Just a gentle brushing of lips, until by mutual, unspoken consent, mouths opened and tongues danced. Arms wrapped around one another, and the exploration continued for several minutes.
When they pulled back from one another, the Major’s blue eyes were filled with an aching sadness. "This is wrong, you know. Society, religion... everything we’ve ever been taught says this is wrong."
The green eyes flooded with tears, and dropped to the ground. "I know," the actress whispered. "But I can’t help the way I feel. And in my heart..." She looked up and held the soldier’s gaze. "In my heart, this is right. *WE* are right."
The soldier didn’t answer vocally, merely sweeping the smaller woman off her feet and into her arms. The night was spent exploring the love they had discovered for one another, and when morning came, they were making plans for their future together.
The next two years were spent almost as a couple. Because of the times, they maintained separate residences, though they spent every moment they could together. Rumors of course abounded, and it began to be detrimental to both their careers.
Finally, to their heartbreak, they started looking elsewhere for a safer love. Eventually, they both found husbands whom they were content to share a life with, and they settled into a more normal and accepted existence.
The military took the Major away, and though they still kept in touch, and retained a deep and abiding friendship, it just wasn’t what it was supposed to be.
Several years passed before they saw one another again, but when they met they felt the old pull towards one another. They embraced briefly, then withdrew at the anguish the momentary contact caused. Long moments passed while they simply looked at one another, unable to speak. The two men, each aware that his wife wanted a bit of private time with her best friend, scooped up their offspring, and left the women alone.
The hug was longer this time... their need overwhelming propriety. Soft, simple touches gradually became something far more intimate, and they found themselves curled together after furious lovemaking. The soldier reached a hand down to her lover’s face, gently wiping the tears from the green eyes.
"Tears, sweetheart?" She felt the tears flooding her own eyes.
"This is wrong. We have loving husbands whom we vowed to remain faithful to, beautiful children, successful careers." She reached up her own hand to cover the one still lying on her cheek. "And yet, my soul cries for you. Sometimes at night, you’re all I can think of, and my body hungers for your touch."
Tears rolled from the blue eyes, and small hands reached up and wiped them away. "I know, love. I know." And then there was silence as the two held one another in comfort, until good sense drove them from the bed to await their families’ return.
As the years passed, their separations and reunions grew more and more painful. They tried to keep their distance, but the parting was too painful for them to bear for too long. And their coming together was agonizing and racked with guilt.
Ten years after their initial separation, the soldier, now a colonel, was sent to war. The actress was in torment, doing her best to get to her beloved. Finally, she wangled a good will tour appearance, arriving two days before her world crashed around her.
Their reunion was brief and fiery, but the performer sensed a deep change in her companion. And when the soldier went out on patrol duty the following day, the actress felt the rending in the very depths of her soul.
When the news came the small blonde wasn’t surprised, and yet she was totally unprepared. She ran to the infirmary begging God for the chance to say goodbye. She skidded to a halt outside the field hospital, and the crowd of soldiers gathered moved aside silently to let her pass. She knelt down next to the colonel’s bedside, gently reaching for the broken and bloody hand. The room receded, and they were left alone for a few last minutes of privacy.
"It wasn’t supposed to be like this, love. We were meant to be together."
The blue eyes that had been closed in near death opened slowly, and focused on the bowed head of the blonde. "I will always love you. And I’ll be waiting for you."
Now at last, in their final moments together, they acknowledged who they were, and what they were to one another. And lamented the fact that they had let society force them to give up something so precious as the bond they shared.
The actress lifted the hand she held to her lips, and kissed the fingers lightly. "You won’t have to wait long love. I can’t exist without you in my life."
The soldier took a breath to speak, then her heart stopped, and her eyes closed in death. The performer sat by her beloved’s side for a while after that. Then without a backward look, she left the hospital, and took the first flight home.
Silence reigned for a few minutes while the young girl tried to absorb what her grandmother had told her. Her heart hurt, and tears fell quietly down her cheeks as the story impacted on her consciousness. Then, "What happened, Gramma? Tell me the ending."
The old woman sighed and nodded.
Fate stepped in and took a hand at that point. Their souls, unable to bear the separation, cried out in misery. And by some fluke, a twist of fate, the airplane that the actress rode in developed mechanical trouble that sent it spiraling out of control and toward the ground. She spared a moment of regret that she would not see her children grow into the responsible adults she knew they could become. And the unfairness to her husband that she had not loved him as she should. Then all she felt was blessed relief over the fact that her journey was over and the two halves would be a single whole once more.
"That is so sad, Gramma. And so terribly unfair to everyone."
"Yes, it is little dove, but life is like that sometimes. They were very lucky... they had husbands who knew, even if they didn’t understand, their need for one another. And they died almost together. Neither had to suffer alone completely without the other." She paused, then added in voice, "It was the last time the soulmates were here. They have yet to return and be united."
"I think they will this time, Gramma. I really think they will."
The bard could feel the silent sobs shaking the body she was cradled against, and she wrapped herself tighter around Randi, and held on. Gradually, the breathing became slow and even, and Gwen looked up to see if the warrior had fallen asleep. Blue eyes, shimmering with tears gazed back at her in mute horror.
The Marine lifted a hand to the bard’s face, and tenderly stroked the smooth skin beneath her touch. "So blind... so blind not to have seen what you meant to me. And so arrogant to assume.... My God, we came so close to having our lives be their nightmare magnified a hundred fold."
Gwen reached up her hand and cupped the scarred face. "It didn’t love. It didn’t. We are here, together, and we always will be."
By mutual, unspoken consent, they moved together, needing to confirm their reality in the most basic and satisfying of ways. They took their time, touching, exploring, loving, until with a cry their release washed through them, and left them spent and sated.
The snow still fell lazily, almost as though loath to reach the ground. The couple stayed entwined together as the darkness become solid and complete through the window. Finally, Randi shifted and spoke.
"C’mon, cutie. Let’s go see what we can wrangle for dinner."
"Oh, that sounds like a plan." She laughed when twin bellies rumbled loudly in complaint of their empty state. "In fact, it sounds like a most excellent idea."
They chuckled together, and began to rummage through the cabinets for something to eat.
"You’re very quiet," Gwen commented to Randi as they lay curled up together, tucked snuggly in the comfortable bed. They’d both made sure the fireplace was banked well, and the heat sticks were working before settling in for the night. The Marine especially had no desire for a repeat of the morning’s performance... well, she smirked, parts of it anyway.
"Just thinking about the story you told. Hope they’re not all like that." Indeed, her guts still clenched if she let herself think about it for too long. She smiled when the bard started a gentle rhythmic stroking on her belly. She felt the tightness ease.
"Not at all," Gwen answered. "Most of them are happy ever after stories. There are a few tough ones in there, though my opinion is that that one is one of the worst. It still makes me cry."
They lay wrapped around one another, absorbing the comfort they drew from being together. As they drifted into the twilight of sleep together, a thought occurred to the bard.
"So, I get to hear all about this card carrying Amazon business tomorrow, right?"
Blue eyes popped open in consternation. She’d forgotten about that. The Sabre sighed, and bowed to the inevitable. "Yep. It’s my turn for a story. And it’s attached to one of those ribbons as well."
"Hmm. We’ll see." She squeezed her smaller partner in an engulfing embrace. "Good night, love."
"Good night, Stud. I love you."
For answer the warrior brushed her lips over the light head tucked into the crook of her neck. And silence fell as two sets of breathing merged into one, as sleep overtook them.
"How ya holding up there, Geoff?" Tommy had noticed the older man seemed to be pushing himself quite a bit, but had restrained from saying something until now. The weapons smith’s pallor was frightening, and the younger man quickly searched his mind for a reason to stop.
"C’mon. I need a break and a beer. This pace is killing me."
Geoff looked at Tommy, gauging the sincerity of his words. He had been pushing himself very hard the last few days, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The sweat on the other man’s brow and his flushed face gave credence to his complaint though, and the ex-Sabre heaved a silent sigh of relief. Tommy noted it, but wisely didn’t comment.
"You’re right. We’ll get done when we get done. Not like we’ve got a deadline to meet... she doesn’t even know about this project, does she?"
The younger man grabbed two beers from the workshop refrigerator, and plopped into the nearest chair. He handed one drink to Geoff as he moved the hover chair over, then popped the top and guzzled half the bottle in one long swig.
"Damn, if that doesn’t just hit the spot. I didn’t expect to work up a sweat doing this in the middle of winter here."
The weapons smith looked wryly at Tommy. "About the only difference between summer and winter here is the humidity."
"Hey! We get our occasional cold day, ya know."
"Yeah, I know, and I think we had it for the wedding." The younger man gave Geoff a withering stare.
"I think I’m being pandered to." He mock-sighed. "But in answer to your question, no I don’t think she does. I mean, I certainly didn’t tell her, but with Randi, ya just never know."
They both looked at the partially built watercraft they’d already created. Then they looked to each other in understanding, well pleased with their progress so far. It had been a bonding experience, and they’d learned to use the strengths they each had. It had made them better friends, and they were both thankful for that. So now the two sat in peaceful contemplation, kept company by the whoosh sound of the crashing waves nearby.
The sun was blinding in its brilliance as it reflected off the mounds of newly driven snow that lay in heaps and piles outside the small cabin. Randi smiled in contentment, and hugged the bard tighter to her in reflex. Gwen, who had yet to open her eyes, snuggled closer in response.
"Good morning, beautiful," the Marine whispered at the blonde head. A grin broke across her face as she felt her companion fight to remain asleep. Small hands flexed at her waist and shoulder, and the warrior stifled the sudden need to giggle. Gwen had the ability to tickle her without trying, and Randi desperately wanted to keep the knowledge hidden. The bard nuzzled deeper into the Marine’s neck, her warm exhalation causing goosebumps to rise along the Sabre’s arms.
"Wha’s s’funny?" came the mumbled question.
The dark haired woman bit her lip to stop the silent laughter she knew the bard could feel. Then she decided to go with the truth... not the whole truth, mind, but the truth nonetheless. "I’m happy. It’s a beautiful morning, you’re in my arms, we’re married. I have a lot to be thankful for."
Sleepy green eyes peered up at the warrior’s profile. "Hmm," she answered thoughtfully. "That is true." She paused and flexed her hands, feeling the ripple in the Sabre’s abdominal muscles flutter beneath her touch. "I thought maybe you were just being ticklish sensitive this morning." She twitched her hands again, chuckling diabolically when the warrior squirmed just the slightest bit. "My, my... what have we here?" launching an all-out assault on old and new tickle zones alike.
Randi actually squealed before initiating her own war against Gwen. For several long minutes, the fight continued, until they mutually collapsed in a tangled heap of humanity.
"Oh," the blonde gasped trying to catch her breath. "That was fun. What an entertaining way to wake up." Then she drew in another deep breath when the stroking turned a little more sensual in its touch "Mmm."
"Like that, hmm?" the warrior questioned as she shifted her fingers just slightly. The bard’s body arched to meet her own, and she captured Gwen’s lips in a fiercely passionate kiss. The younger woman pulled back just a bit, and cradled Randi’s face in her small hands.
"I love you," she whispered. The Marine didn’t answer verbally. She simply gazed at her partner, letting the love she felt reflect in her darkened eyes. Then she moved things up several notches, smiling in approval at the sounds she managed to wrangle from Gwen. Randi applied herself wholeheartedly to the task at hand.
"Can we make a picnic?" Gwen’s voice was loud in the stillness they had been resting in.
"Excuse me?" the Sabre responded lazily. "It’s a little cold outside, love." This said with amused affection.
"I know, and if worse comes to worst, we can always picnic in the caves. But I’d like to get out and look around. I’ll bet it’s gorgeous outside."
"Tired of being cooped up with me already, huh?" A mock pout. "I guess the honeymoon’s over." An ersatz aggrieved sigh, and Randi tried to roll out of the bed. Only to find herself held by a surprisingly firm grip, and serious green eyes.
"Oh, you wish it was that easy, Stud. This honeymoon will NEVER be over. You’re stuck for the rest of your life."
"No Little One," the warrior said easily. "This is for eternity... lucky, lucky me." The smile on her face told its own story, and lit up the room with its intensity.
A bit later, they were moseying out of the cabin together, a picnic basket swinging between them. They moved slowly through the orchard towards the river. Gwen took a deep breath of the fresh air, imagining she could taste the scent of apples and peaches on the back of her tongue.
"It is so lovely here. So peaceful. How did you manage to find it?"
"Actually, I was given this land by an old Amazon shamaness after I passed the tests she’d set for me. This was the outcome of the final one, and I actually stumbled onto it by accident."
"Oh, this sounds intriguing. Tell me more?"
The warrior pulled them to a halt beneath the trees near the river. The icy water sped by, unimpeded by rocks and snow. Instead the barriers provided impetus for rushing whitewater that created its own music in the quiet that surrounded them. Randi reached down the small camping shovel she’d brought along, and began to clear an area under the trees. When she had a large square area scrapped clean of snow and rocks, Gwen reached into the basket they’d brought, and extracted a thermal blanket. The heat sticks were installed, and by the time they had lunch set out and had seated themselves, the material was warm and comfortable.
"It’s a long story, love."
"Warm blanket, good food, cold wine and each other. I think we’re set." The green eyes twinkled. "Go ahead and share what you’re comfortable with, Stud. We have the rest of our lives to talk."
The Marine smiled, pulling the bard into her arms, so they were sitting front to back. Gwen reached the basket over to her, and pulled out the wine and two goblets. Between then, they pulled the cork out, and the blonde poured the glasses about half full. Then she stuck the bottle into the nearby snow, and lifted a glass back to the warrior. Gwen leaned back against Randi’s torso, enjoying the absent stroking on her abdomen.
They fell into a silent peace, and the bard was almost surprised to hear the low burring of the Sabre’s quiet rumble in her ear.
Randi was sent into the Amazon camp under orders. Their leadership wanted to extend further good relations with the Sabres, and the Marine was invited in as the Sabre ambassador. No one expected her to turn the culture on its ear.
The idea had been, originally, that whoever was chosen would participate as an initiate. It seemed the easiest way to introduce the Sabres to the Nation’s way of life, and help them identify true Amazons from the renegade Fringe Amazons. If both sides had thought it through a little more carefully, they would have more easily seen the pitfalls in this particular plan.
To begin with, most of those in training were younger girls... pre-military service. This rite of passage Mariused them as adults in the Amazon culture. The small identifying Marius they bore on their neck was a symbol of their success, and Randi realized many of the military scouts were in fact Amazon women. Most initiates had grown up in one of the Villages that abounded in the more remote areas of the world. So they were already citizens of the Nation, which was the crucial first step to becoming a full-fledged, card carrying Amazon.
So the Marine’s first hurdle would be to learn the laws, history and culture of the Nation. This would allow her to become a citizen. Not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.
Then there would be the physical challenges... strength, endurance, observation, prowess, agility and ingenuity.
Finally, there was a spiritual challenge that the tribal shamaness was responsible for. It varied candidate to candidate depending on the individual need.
Randi knew it would be made tougher for her... one as an outsider, and two as an acknowledged adult female. She relished the opportunity to test herself against the standards set for her, especially in view of her Sabre training.
Looking back, she found the studying to be the most taxing for her. Not that she was by any means stupid. But the text was a little on the dry side, and the laws, some of them, were thousands of years old.
The history and culture, on the other hand, she found quite fascinating. These women had deep roots, some of their tales and traditions dating back millennia. She got a peculiar tingle up her spine when reading some of the stories. They were almost... familiar. She shook her head to clear the nonsense from it. That wasn’t possible... right?
Her nights were spent reading and studying, but her days were spent in pursuit of whatever goal was handed to her for the day. It felt good to have a definite goal to sight on, and with each day she grew stronger and more focused on her task. She did have the sense to be thankful for the forethought the Commandant had given to putting her in this assignment. She was beginning to feel like her old self... to believe again.
With her training, however, it became clear that there were some among the Amazons who did not want her there, certainly not to succeed. There was one woman in particular who seemed to have a very large chip on her shoulder in regards to the Sabres, but Randi had decided she wasn’t worth the energy to expend reacting to. Unfortunately, no one told Corky, and she was ready and willing to make an issue out of anything and everything that came her way.
After several weeks of training, the initiates began their testing. Each acolyte would be given three opportunities to accomplish her given task in each field. Most were expected to pass the first time, knowing the amount of training they’d had. Randi was looking for obstacles to come out of nowhere at her, understanding that her challenges would be tailor made to suit her abilities.
Her first challenge was that of strength. She and the other initiates were dispatched to free climb the rugged side of the mountain that had been built specifically for that purpose. The heat, however made everyone sweat, and getting a handhold was difficult.
This was an individual exercise, but they were supposed to look out for one another as well. Naturally, this group saw Randi as their leader, and she unconsciously accepted the mantle, and tried to keep an eye out for each girl. The Marine unknowingly became the object of several schoolgirl crushes because of her attention to them.
Today, however, everyone’s focus was trained on making it to the top of the mountain. Several times, girls had slipped, and Randi was right there to talk them through to the next handhold. Once, she’d even caught a fellow acolyte just as she lost her grip completely. It shook the group up badly, but with encouragement, they made it to the top, happy to rest there for a long moment before rappelling back down the way they’d come.
The Sabre endured the congratulatory hugs from her classmates, recognizing them for the good will they were. She was equally aware of the hatred that gazed back at her from gray eyes.
"What is her problem with me exactly?" she asked the Queen a little later in the day. "I have stayed out of everyone’s way, and have deliberately set out not to offend anyone here. But if the chip on her shoulder gets any larger, she’s not gonna be able to pick it up."
"Who, Corky?" waiting for Randi’s nod of affirmation. "She was the BWOC here until you showed up, and had made her intentions known toward my daughter in no uncertain terms. She’s not a bad sort, actually, and she adores Niall. She sees you as competition, a threat."
The Sabre’s eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. "Huh? Why? I am here to learn. The only person I’m competing with here is myself."
The Queen looked at the Marine to judge the seriousness of her statement. Understanding she was being completely open and honest about how she viewed the circumstances, she decided to fill her in on the realities of the situation from her perspective.
"No, dear. She sees you as a threat to her place in the nation, and in my daughter’s heart. Niall, like many of the initiates, and indeed, many of the girls her age, have crushes that change from week to week, depending on their mood. For a long time, Corky was the object of that attention from at least two or three girls at a time. Now that attention has turned to you, and she resents that."
Dark brows went up into the hairline. "Excuse me?"
The Queen snorted very unroyally. "C’mon, Randi. Look in the mirror sometime. You’re a beautiful piece of humanity, and every pubescent and prepubescent girl here has a major crush on you. Hell, honey... a lot of the big girls here are in serious lust with you." She chuckled as a blush crept unchecked up the warrior’s now stoic face. "It’s a compliment, honey. Just go with it. No one’s gonna approach you about it unless you make it clear that advances in that direction will be welcomed." She paused. "You have a pretty standoffish air."
"Good," the Marine replied gruffly. "Let’s keep it that way, shall we?"
The endurance test was the next item of business, and followed two days after the test of strength. Normally it was the next day following, but a vicious storm precluded any of the physical trials. Instead, the acolytes had a study session in the morning, and impromptu sparring in the afternoon. The girls were glad for the opportunity to practice, because watching Randi was a learning experience. She gave the lessons willingly, though she remained somewhat distant, and the trainees tried to respect her privacy. They were looking forward to the test of prowess now, though. The Sabre had given them some new tricks to try.
The sun shone brightly for the endurance test, and Randi could already feel herself sweltering in the heat. She was not looking forward to a twenty-mile run with full gear, even though Amazon gear was much lighter than her standard Sabre issue. She couldn’t begin to imagine how the kids felt about it.
The course was not flat. Instead, it wound over hills and valleys, around curves and across plains, through forests and at one point, crossed a rope bridge extended high above the river. There were lookouts posted every other mile to insure everyone was on track and doing all right. This event too, was normally seen as an individual achievement, so imagine the first Amazon’s surprised face when the troop of girls came over the first rise in perfect military formation. Well, maybe not quite perfect, but never in all the years of their recorded history had a group of initiates banded together into a cohesive unit like this.
So the acolytes ran at the pace Randi called out to them in cadence, and several hours later as a unit, they returned to the village. The elders and council didn’t know what to make of it. It was the first time in ages they hadn’t lost someone in the endurance test. It gave them something to think about.
The observation test was a seemingly simple test, but it was actually one of the more nerve-wracking. Each trainee was taken into a room singly, and allowed five minutes to study her surroundings. Then they were taken to another, and asked to identify the sights, sounds and scents they had observed in the first room. Finally they were taken to a third hut, and asked to name the differences between the first two rooms.
A pensive experience, and each was glad for the rest of the day off when their task was complete.
Randi was actually looking forward to the test of prowess herself. She was a weapons master, and had yet to come across one she did not soon become proficient in. The Amazon warriors participated in this event as opponents, and as Fate, with her twisted sense of humor would have it, Corky drew the Marine’s name twice.
The woman had been jabbing and taunting for a while, and Randi had simply ignored it, hoping the woman would just go away. But now the Amazon took her jeering to new levels, and she was standing on the Sabre’s very last nerve. Randi decided that enough was simply enough.
The first weapon was the bow, and its categories were long, short and cross. The Marine qualified easily and turned her attention to the next event... the staff. The staff was one of Corky’s preferred weapons, and with a flourish, she wielded it with great display of strength against the warrior, until she realized by the twinkle in Randi’s eyes that the Marine was simply playing with her. This made the Amazon angry, and angry people do stupid things. A spin and parry, a lunge and a twist, and Corky found herself disarmed and flat on her back.
Without a word, and with a complete lack of grace the larger woman rose and stalked off, already planning her revenge in the sword fight.
The short sticks were next, and it took very little time for Randi to adjust to using them. She found them to be much like knives without the sharp edges, and she applied her knowledge to using them in that direction. She made such an impression on the Queen, who was the Marine’s adversary in this task that she called for a halt, and asked for an impromptu lesson instead. Because the method in using the sticks was different than what the Amazons usually used, the Marine was able to maneuver around their usual defensive moves. And her offense had already bruised the Queen twice.
She took a few minutes to show the women how she approached the sticks differently than they did, and how that attitude made all the difference. It resulted in different handling, different tactics, different consequences. They cheered her when she finished the demonstration, and the Queen approached her about teaching her basic techniques to her own weapons masters. The Sabre graciously consented to once the initiation was complete.
The last weapons test that required a partner was the sword. Corky swaggered up to the ring, full of confidence. After all, she had never been defeated in this arena. It was time for the Marine to taste her own blood.
Or so the Amazon thought. And she did in fact draw first blood from the soldier, who seeing the deadly intent behind the gray eyes, buckled down into seriousness, and proceeded to demolish each offensive tactic the larger woman threw at her. Then quite deliberately, she went on an offensive that not only drew blood in a multitude of places, but drove the Amazon to her knees. Blue eyes lit with an inner fire gazed down on Corky, before Randi turned her back and left the field. Many of the Amazon sisters did the same, leaving Corky alone in her disgrace. She had crossed too many lines and pushed the boundaries of fair play and good sportsmanship way too far.
The final rounds, those of more conventional weapons were somewhat anticlimactic and Randi aced each of them easily. She was headed back to her small dorm room, when a hail from the Queen caused her to pause. She mumbled under her breath, anxious to get cleaned up but her good manners held.
Surprised when the Amazon leader handed not only the weapons token, but also the ingenuity token as well. Her dark brow rose in mute question.
"The council decided you had earned it, beating Corky at her own game like that. You could have forfeited and walked away. You could have killed her. Instead, you turned her efforts against her, and defeated her with her own arrogance. Quite clever."
"Nothing clever about it," the warrior responded. "It was either kill her or defeat her. And you said she wasn’t a bad sort. Just seems to have a personal problem where I’m concerned."
The Queen cleared her throat. "You have NO idea, and it only gets worse. My daughter has stated very firmly that Corky is no longer her preferred suitor."
The Marine looked pained. "Let me guess... after the bout just now."
"Um hmm. Told her that anyone who had to play dirty like that wasn’t suitable consort material."
"Um... coulda been worse. She coulda said she preferred you over Corky." Randi visibly winced. "You will still need to go on the overnighter tomorrow, though. You have to pass the agility part, and I think the girls might learn some ingenuity from you."
"All right. Let me go get cleaned up. I have to pass my citizen test tomorrow as well."
"You’ve surpassed any expectations we had when we invited you here, Randi. I think the council is willing to give you citizenship."
The Sabre smiled rakishly. "Nope. I’m gonna earn it. Everyone else has to, and I won’t be a special case."
"Well, if the rest of the Sabre women who come through here do half as well as you have, this program will be considered spectacularly successful as far as we are concerned."
Randi smiled and entered the quiet peace of her room.
The culture test was much easier than she anticipated, and took far less time than she expected. She couldn’t put her finger on the reason, but so much of it seemed... recognizable, comfortable and well-known to her. She resolved to do some more research on the things that were tickling her memories. But for now, she had a camping trip to prepare for.
The agility and ingenuity test were combined into one task. The group was sent out on an overnight camp out with nothing but the clothing on their backs, and one other item of their choosing. Randi tried to insure that each girl brought something that would help contribute to an overall comfortable camp.
The place they’d chosen for their camp was cleverly hidden, and definitely not in the clearing the Amazon leaders expected them to be in. Instead, they were in a grotto that barely fit the nine of them side by side. The river was at their backs, and the trees and brush made it difficult to approach. It was just what Randi had been looking for.
"All right, girls. We know they expected us to stay in the clearing we passed about a mile back. I’m sure it is a secret joke that each subsequent class learns to keep after their initiation."
One of the girls looked at the Marine questioningly. "What do you mean?"
Randi looked up from her task momentarily. "Think about it. That clearing is the perfect spot to stop after a long day right? Flat surface, nice fire pit, right on the water... I heard some of you grumbling when we passed it." Several girls had the grace to blush. "It is also the perfect set up for an ambush, and I would bet good money that is where the agility part of the test comes in. Remember the prowess tests yesterday didn’t involve hand-to-and fighting. We’re gonna have to escape using nothing but these," holding out her hands. "And this," indicating her mind.
"That is an excellent point." The princess looked around at her comrades. "What can we do?"
The Marine indicated the two weatherproof tarps they had. "We’ll need to make a shelter with these. A couple of you need to gather firewood, and some long straight sticks to help build the shelter. The two of you with canteens need to refill them. The ground needs to be prepared, and the blankets laid for the night. As warm as it is we shouldn’t need to cover up, fortunately. A couple of you need to go look for some edible tubers and roots to go with the berries we picked earlier."
"What about you? That’s a lot for us to do before dark," one girl said, indicating the almost setting sun.
"I’m gonna catch us some fish to go with the rest of dinner. And if you move quickly enough, there should even be time for a swim before we eat."
The girls scampered off to do her bidding, and it wasn’t long before they had a neat little camp set up, well hidden from prying eyes. The tarps nearly covered the enclosure, and the ground was smooth when they placed the blankets upon it. A tiny campfire faced the river, and slowly, each of the girls wandered down for a brief swim, relishing the cold water against their overheated skin.
The Sabre put the fish on to cook, and watched the girls idly for a few moments. She didn’t feel like a babysitter, exactly... more like a troop leader. When the food was ready, she motioned the girls to join her, well-pleased at their foraging efforts. They ate well, and set up a watch rotation, agreeing that it was unfair to expect Randi to stand one. She’d earned her token for ingenuity, after all, and had done more than enough to insure they were safe and taken care of. She gave in graciously, knowing this point of honor meant so very much to each of them.
Sometime in the middle of the night, a group of Amazon warriors arrived in the clearing, stunned to find it completely empty with no sign of recent habitation.
"What the hell?"
"Where the fuck are they?"
"What is going on here?"
The grumbling and cursing went on for several more minutes before the leader of the group motioned for quiet. "Well, obviously they figured out this was an ambush set up and got the hell out of Dodge. Spread out. They had to have left tracks or a trail for us to follow."
But they hadn’t. For the better part of ninety minutes, these seasoned Amazon warriors searched and hunted to no avail. No matter where they looked, there was no hint of where the initiates had disappeared.
"This is not fucking possible," Corky grumbled loudly. "They couldn’t just have vanished into thin air."
"Keep it down, will ya?" the leader hissed with a slap to the back of her head. "You want them to hear us out here."
"They’re not out here, Rita, or we woulda found them by now."
"Well, if they are, you and your big mouth just gave our position and intentions away to them." Rita hadn’t wanted to bring Corky along after the weapons fiasco, but she’d already been approved, and there was little choice without creating a scene the likes of which the gods had never seen. They’d kept Corky out of the leadership role because of it though, and she was intent on making Rita’s life miserable.
"Look," the Amazon leader whispered. "We’ve given up the element of surprise with all the searching and all the noise. We might as well go back to our camp and wait to surprise them in the morning."
"You can go back," Corky decreed, "but I’m gonna keep looking. They are close, and I’m gonna show that Sabre bitch up for the phony she really is."
"Corky, wait." But the big Amazon had slipped off into the darkness again, and Rita muttered under her breath.
"Whaddya think, Rita?"
"I think I am sorry I got assigned to this particular task." She sighed. "C’mon. She can’t beat Randi, and if I was her, I’d be ready to pummel Corky into the ground on principle alone."
Niall has been the one on guard duty when the Amazons were first spotted searching for them. Silently, she awakened first Randi, then the rest of their companions. They watched in silence as the warriors walked past their hidden camp on three separate occasions. The Marine wanted to growl when she spotted Corky’s face, but merely dropped her head, rethinking the strategy she’d had if they were found. Corky would make this personal, and the girls could actually get hurt. So when they slipped back to the clearing, the Sabre signaled the girls to stay put and followed.
She heard their plans, and watched the large woman fade into the darkness going the wrong direction. She moved back to the campsite, almost caught by surprise when two of the girls stopped her. She smiled at them in approval... both for their alertness, and their obedience in staying put. She explained the situation to them, and outlined her plan. The initiate eyes twinkled in delight. They had a real chance at defeating the warriors in this task.
Corky was fuming. Because of Randi, all her well-made plans had fallen to the wayside like so much dust. She had been stripped of her leadership and put on probation, and the princess had scorned her attentions because of her behavior. It just isn’t fair, she mused to herself. She’d earned her place here, and she really did care for the princess. Now she had something to prove.
It happened so fast she hardly had the time to fight. Then she found herself bound and gagged by the woman she’d learned to despise for no other reason than Randi was the best at everything she did. She struggled to no avail, then dropped her head when she realized she was destined to suffer further humiliation at this woman’s hands.
It took the better part of an hour for Randi and the trainees to methodically decimate the Amazon forces, and one by one capture the warriors. It was still a couple hours until sunrise, but the acolytes decided to march their captives home. As far as any of them knew, this would be the first time in history that the initiates had managed to capture the entire squadron of warriors sent to test them.
The acolytes were thrilled. The warriors wondered what sort of nasty punishment they were going to have to endure for the next twenty-five years because of this fiasco.
They entered the gates just as the dinner gong sounded at the village inn, and all activity simply ceased at the sight that met their eyes. The entire village turned and watched as the Marine walked to the back of the group, calling cadence, and the initiates, four to either side, kept their prisoners in step and in line. When Randi called a halt, the trainees forced the warrior to kneel and took up readiness positions around them.
The Queen and council approached, and with a nod from Randi, the acolytes released the warriors and knelt beside them in respect.
"Rise, my children," speaking to the girls. "You have done well, and have earned your right of passage. Tonight, we celebrate." A cheer rose from the entire village. "As for you," turning her attention to her erstwhile warriors, "I believe some refresher training is in order. You will each report to me tomorrow for a schedule of remedial training." Now the Queen’s attention focused on the Sabre. "Walk with me, my friend."
"I know that it is due to your leadership and ability that the initiates in this class excelled in each of their challenges." She held up her hand to keep the Marine from interrupting. "You have given us a lot to think about... things we need to look into changing and improving the way they’re done. The girls are done with their testing, as they are given spirit journeys when they are very young."
"They don’t do them as adults?"
"Certainly... as they have the need or the shamaness feels led to direct them. The spirit journey you need to take is part of their growing up here. But the shamaness assures me you need to do so to complete your rite."
"Well, whenever ya’ll are ready."
The Queen placed a warm hand on the warrior’s arm. "You’ll know when the time is right." And she left Randi to get ready for the ceremony.
The ceremony was fun, and Randi was pleasantly surprised by the loud cheering she received. She’d earned a place in the hearts and lives of the woman in this village, and for the most part was made to feel very welcome... even by the warriors she and the other initiates had defeated. The girls had given her a robe for her spirit journey, knowing that was usually bestowed by the family and realizing they were hers in this place. Randi accepted it in the spirit it was offered in. She slipped in on, and moved to a relatively quiet spot to watch the festivities take place around her. She took a sip of the mead that had been pressed into her hand. Without meaning to, she slipped into a daze.
The place she saw was beautiful... a mountain with caves. The fields were green and covered in colorful wild flowers, and the trees bore the blossoms of fruit. The water ran swift and clear nearby, and she leaned over to take a drink. It was clean and sweet, and cold enough to make her teeth hurt even in the warmth of early summer.
The Marine took a deep breath, relishing the scent of earth and fruit and flowers. She ran like a child, enjoying the feeling of sweet freedom and peace that pervaded this place. She fell to her back at the side of the water, listening to the tinkling and rushing while watching the clouds chase one another overhead in the blue sky. She sighed, wishing she could stay here forever.
"You can’t stay here forever," came the voice of the shamaness who suddenly walked out of nowhere. "But this is now your place. You will come here when your soul needs to rest. You will build and grow and share love here."
Randi shot up, standing defensively until she determined that the woman wasn’t a threat. The woman stood silently while the furrowed brow put everything together. "This is my spirit quest?" a little disbelieving.
"Yes." The shamaness smiled. "Yours is a little different than any I have ever accompanied on before. The first, well, since it is usually children, they get to see what their future holds, to a point. Whether they are meant to be warrior or craftswomen or the like. Those that come later, or usually for a specific purpose... most looking for direction or resolution to something they cannot solve themselves. It’s different with you. You are focused, clear on your direction and purpose."
"You need a place to be Randi, to be a human being, to be a woman. So much of your life is wrapped up in being a Sabre. You need this place."
Randi simply stared at her, wondering where the other woman had learned so much about her.
"I saw, Randi. It’s my gift. It’s what I do." She smiled. "You will have to physically search out this place, but when you find it, claim it and make it yours. It will bring you great peace, and one day, great happiness."
The Marine came back to the party to find the shamaness sitting beside her. She blinked blue eyes trying to reconcile what she’d seen to where she was.
"You all right there, Randi?"
"Was it real?"
"Oh yes. And when you’re ready, you’ll know just where to look to find it."
She wiped her eyes and shook her head. "I think I need a break from the mead and the noise. Thank you, priestess." She nodded and moved away from the party. Once in her dorm room, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"I stayed there for another couple weeks, helping the council rework their initiation tests, and streamlining their weapons program. I think it is used exclusively throughout the Nation now."
"And how you found this place…?"
"Is another story, and you owe me one first." The Marine grinned at Gwen’s frustrated face. "I promised you’d hear everything. And we have all the time we need." She wrapped the bard up in her arms, gratified when the smaller woman practically melted into her. "How about some of that lunch? All that talking made me hungry."
The bard chuckled and opened the hamper, while the warrior poured fresh glasses of wine.
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