Freedoms Heart Part 3.
The next morning, Kaleah slept late and woke feeling a good deal more refreshed after their night in the village. Running long fingers through her hair to settle it, she dressed quickly and knocked on the door to Jessicas room.
A muffled groan was all that greeted her. Grinning in understanding and a little sympathy though not too much she knocked again.
A slurred voice answered through the door. "Hurt! Lemme lone."
Kaleah cracked open the door and peered inside. "Jess?"
The tangled pile of sheets and pillows on the bed squirmed and wriggled. "Go way."
The dark-haired woman ignored this and entered anyway, tip-toeing over and quietly taking a seat beside the bed. Her grin broadened as hands clawed their way out from the tangled sheets and bleary, red-rimmed eyes appeared, set in a pain-filled face framed by messy blonde hair.
"You feel okay?" she joked, keeping her voice low.
Jessica scowled. "I feel like Id be better off dead," she groaned. "My head hurts."
"I know." Kaleah decided teasing the poor girl probably wouldnt win her any points, so she settled on sympathy. "I could get you some water, if you like. Itll help to make the headache go away."
Jessica groaned again and squirmed pathetically. "Its not going away. Not before it kills me."
"Oh, come on. Its just a hangover. Give it a few hours, some food in your stomach, and youll feel much better." She put a hand on the blankets and gave the huddled figure a soothing pat, receiving a grunt of appreciation for the gesture. "You can stay in bed all day, if you want too."
"My father will expect me to be at the sermon," a muffled voice said.
"Ill send a servant to tell him youre sick. Its true, in a way."
The blankets parted again, and Jessica emerged more fully, blinking and putting a hand to her throbbing temple. The young woman looked positively wretched this morning, but she still managed to give the dark woman an accusing glare. "You knew this would happen," she said menacingly. "Why didnt you stop me?"
Kaleah couldnt help but grin affectionately. "You wanted to keep drinking, Jess. I couldnt say no to you." She reached out and ruffled the disheveled golden tresses. "Besides, you were so damn cute when you got drunk . . . it seemed a shame to stop you."
Jessica blushed shyly. She had a clear memory of the night before, and her mind, though thick and filled with a throbbing pain, was still active enough to want to read more into this gently affectionate gesture than she knew was there. "Next time, Ill be more careful," she said softly, rubbing her head. "How can something that tastes so good and makes you feel so wonderful be responsible for such an awful feeling as this?"
"Wiser heads than yours have asked that same question. If youre going to enjoy the highs, you have to expect there to be lows as well. Its the way life is." Kaleah wondered as a side note whether her blooming friendship with Jessica was perhaps some weird balance against the hurt and suffering of her life as a slave. If it were, she mused, then it was only fair that it last the rest of her life. That thought made her smile inside, and her heart explode with a warm and sweet burning.
Tearing herself away from her contemplations, Kaleah saw that Jessica was regarding her with curious eyes and realized shed been thinking in distraction long enough to be noticeable. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "Kind of drifted off there a little."
Jessica smiled in understanding. "Thats okay. I do it all the time." She lay back on the bed, trying to get comfortable in the messed-up bed. "Whatre your plans for today?"
Kaleah shrugged. "I thought Id take a bath and find some clean clothes first, then maybe I can come back here and we can play some chess. Or maybe you could teach me that draughts game you talked about?"
Jessicas mind instantly cleared a lot of its fuzziness at the mention of her friend taking a bath, painting a quick picture of the peep-hole to remind her of the possibilities. She snapped back to reality, stamping down the naughty thoughts when she realized Kaleah was looking at her expectantly. What had she been asking about? Oh, right. Draughts.
"Um, sure. Thatd be fine. Its not a hard game really." She smiled and rubbed her head, which was suddenly feeling much better now that it had a goal in mind which would need her full support. "Its not too likely to make my headache any worse."
"Great." Kaleah got up and headed back to her own room. "Ill go clean up and be back in a while." She grinned. "After last night, I think a nice long soak is in order."
Jessica could only nod dumbly, her mind having no trouble at all picturing the dark woman as she lay naked in the water, her hands stroking that long, bronzed body. She shook her head to clear the thoughts just as the door to Kaleahs room shut, taking her friend away. Groaning, Jess closed her eyes and tried desperately to resurrect the splitting headache her body had abandoned for more interesting pursuits.
It would be sooo easy, her mind purred. The entry to the passages is just over there; a few minutes, and you can let your eyes wander without fear shell catch you looking.
"Its wrong," she insisted aloud. "Shes your friend. This is just an infatuation."
Her mind didnt even bother answering. It just raised a metaphysical eyebrow at her and adopted a whatever you say expression.
Jessica sighed, and looked into her heart. She could no longer deny the truth . . . not to herself. It had become too obvious now, and she could no longer even say that this whole attraction was just a product of her romantic nature. No. This was no simple infatuation that would pass in time. This wasnt even so much in her heart, her body or her mind. This was something she could feel down in the very depths of her soul. And it was never going to go away.
"Alright," she admitted aloud, finally giving voice to her acceptance. "Youre falling in love with her."
The metaphysical brow raised a little higher.
She sighed. "Im . . . falling in love with her."
Her mind nodded, satisfied with the confession.
"But that doesnt mean she has any similar feelings for me," Jessica continued. "She likes me as a friend, nothing more."
But how do you know that? asked her mind. She told you she likes the company of other women over men, so thats a pretty good start. At least shes fishing in the same river as you are.
"She could be fishing in the damn ocean for all I care," Jessica scowled. "She hasnt given any indication that shes attracted to me, and thats all there is too it!"
Like youd know the signals even if she was giving them, her mind scoffed. Youre completely out of your depths here and you know it.
"I am not," she protested with a pout. "Im a grown woman."
Yeah, right! You didnt even notice that barmaid was coming on to you until Kaleah pointed it out. Shed have to be lying on your bed buck naked and begging before youd catch on!
Her imagination quickly provided a helpful illustration. Jessica blushed, and tried to come up with a counter-argument, but failed. She had to admit, her mind was right; she was an innocent . . . at least in the experience department. Her imagination had more than enough experience, though. Shed been imagining what it would be like to fall in love for years now, had been deliberately putting off her marriage in hopes that someone would come along and steal her heart. How ironic that when it happened, the thief was a woman.
You always knew you liked women, too, her mind put in. You just never had the chance to do anything about it. Well now you do.
"That doesnt mean its right to spy on her in a moment of privacy," she protested, still unwilling to give in.
Youve been spying on everyone all your life. Maybe it wasnt okay to do it when you thought it was just an infatuation, but now you know its more than that.
She was silent, considering. Her mind took that as a positive sign, and pressed on.
This isnt going to go away, you know. If she lives here for a long time and it certainly seems she wants too, from what she said she told your mother youre going to have to come up with a way to deal with your feelings eventually. Do you really think you can live with this temptation for years and not do anything about it?
Jessica frowned miserably. "My mother would hate this," she sighed.
Your mother hates everything you do anyway, her mind pointed out. What do you care?
Green eyes wet with unshed tears regarded the mural above her bed sadly. "My father would hate this."
Her mind was silent for long moments as it considered this. Look, it said after a long period of thought, it doesnt matter what anyone thinks. Not really. No-one except Kaleah. If she felt the same way for you, would you let the opinions of everyone else stand in the way?
Then they dont matter now. I think you should spend a little time trying to figure out whether theres even the slightest chance Kaleah could feel the same way for you. Maybe, in time, she could come to love you. And if thats true, then youre going to need to be patient to win her over, right?
"Right." The tears were drying as Jessica considered this new mission. Maybe she could win the heart of the dark woman. Shed been doing pretty well so far. Kaleah had opened up to her a lot in the last few weeks theyd been together. "Its frightening," she whispered. "I care for her so much, yet Ive known her less than a month. How can that happen?"
Maybe it was meant to be, her mind suggested softly inside her head. Youve read the stories of love . . . how it all happens so quickly because the two people are destined to be together. Maybe this is what God always intended for you.
Jessica scowled, remembering another person whod be shocked to learn of her feelings for Kaleah: the minister. "Some people would call that sacrilege," she said.
Some people would condemn love because of a few physical attributes, her mind told her gently. But no God worth the faith of his followers ever would.
Jessica sighed again, and nodded. "I know that." She had always doubted the preachings that forbade so many of the things she enjoyed. Her secret books were against the edicts of the Church . . . and not just the ones about female romances. Foreign cultures were condemned if they did not accept the practices of the Church. The ancient legends of the Celtic gods that had been around long before the one God were outlawed as blasphemous. Jessica had ignored such things in the past. She had every intention of ignoring them now, and in the future.
"So, I should test the waters?" she asked herself. "How do I do that?"
Her mind threw up metaphysical arms in exasperation. If you dont know, then how am I supposed to!? it demanded reasonably. Youll think of something. In the mean time, theres a spy-hole to the bathing chamber that you ought to be getting to pretty soon if you want to catch the show!
Jessica blushed. "I dont know . . ."
Her mind swore fluently for a minute at her stubbornness, before it gained control once more. Its reeeal simple, it explained slowly. You love her. You want to watch her. Youre going to watch her if not now, then some other day. You can worry about how she feels later on. This is a victimless crime! If you figure she doesnt love you, you never tell her. If you find out she does, then you can tell her and shell probably be flattered.
"So I should . . ?"
Get your blasted butt down there before she finishes up!
Jessica considered this for a moment, her imagination lending a hand to the argument by drawing pictures and her body quickly coming to life with the first flushes of desire.
It was a swift victory.
Getting out of bed and hastily throwing on a shirt and trousers, Jessica dashed over to the empty fireplace and reached behind the sword held by the carved angel on the right-hand side. Finding the hidden catch there, she pushed it down and heard the quiet rumbling as the whole fireplace rotated on a concealed pinion.
Ducking her head, she slipped into the darkness of the passageway beyond, closing the entrance behind her and lighting a torch that hung conveniently on the wall. With a smile on her face and a spring in her steps, Jessica set off for the corridor that led to the bathing chamber, and the wonderful spy-hole.
Kaleah arrived at the bathing chamber not a moment before Jessica arrived at the spy-hole. Entering the misty room and closing the door behind her, the dark woman slipped casually out of her simple clothes and tossed them over a statue of a bathing man. She had brought a clean shirt, trousers and underwear, which she placed on a moderately dry rock. After retrieving a wash-cloth from the side room, she waded out into the deepest part of the huge pool and let her body relax.
The water reached almost to the tops of her breasts, and she sighed blissfully as the warmth eased away the aches in her body. Kaleah closed her eyes and lay back in the water, letting it support her body. She was totally oblivious to the green eyes watching her avidly from the concealed corridor behind the wall.
Jessica thought her heart would burst through her chest so hard did it start beating as her friend slid the thin breeches down over her hips and bent to retrieve them. The young girl broke out in a sweat and her breathing accelerated dangerously as she let her eyes roam as they pleased over the long, supple form of the dark woman, not blinking for fear of breaking the magnificent spell. Her mouth hung open and she shut it again only when she bashfully realized she had started to drool.
Shed seen Kaleahs body before, but never like this. Never so fully, so detailed, in such an uninhibited forum. Jess let herself stare at the womans full, firm breasts, before her gaze dropped inevitably lower, past her hips, to linger at that most intimate of places she had never glimpsed before.
She was surprised to see that the dark thatch of hair which hid Kaleahs sex was neatly trimmed into a slender arrow design, drawing Jessicas eyes lower still. She had never heard of such an intimate level of grooming, and her eyes grew dark with desire as she imagined what it might feel like to caress the dark woman in the ways she had read of in some of her books.
Jessicas body responded to the view with a stronger reaction than she had ever known before. Her groin itched, ached; her blood burned with the unknowing innocent passion of youth. As Kaleah floated peacefully on the surface of the pool, Jessica swallowed hard and wished now, more than ever, that she could win the love of her friend.
Floating in languid luxury, unaware of the hooded regard of her friend, Kaleahs mind had turned to considering once more her feelings for the young blonde.
Last night, she had felt her affection for Jessica deepen further. She may have been completely unfamiliar with emotions of this nature, but Kaleah wasnt stupid. The ache in her heart and the longing in her soul told her she was feeling a lot more than simple friendship for the young woman. She had never loved anyone before in her life never seriously, at least but that didnt stop Kaleah from realizing that she was falling in love with Jessica; completely, hopelessly, and without any chance of reprieve.
"What should I do?" she mumbled to herself as she let her hands gently scrub her body. "Should I tell her? She said this kind of thing doesnt bother her, but I guess it might be different if she suddenly had another woman pursuing her seriously."
Kaleah thought back to how Jessica had reacted to the overtures of the barmaid last night. The young blonde hadnt seemed the least bit offended by the attention. Embarrassed, sure. Maybe a little flattered even, once shed accepted it. But at no point had she seemed actually interested.
Kaleah sighed. No, she thought. Jessica had not expressed any interest in women. Only an acceptance of the concept of Kaleah, once shed learned her friend was that way inclined. There wasnt much hope the young blonde could ever return her feelings.
Shaking her head, feeling a wave of depression sweep over her, Kaleah swam over to the central island and hoisted her body out of the water with a grunt. The watching eyes widened as every inch of bronzed, radiant skin was exhibited. The thick walls of the bathing chamber prevented Kaleah from hearing the awed gasp that escaped her voyeur as she stretched her loose muscles in an unconsciously sensual display. Laying back, the dark woman closed her eyes, relaxed on the stone and let herself sink deeper into self pity.
Suddenly, blue eyes flared open as another memory came to mind: the way Jessica had looked into her eyes on their ride home. Shed held the gaze a long while; deeply, searching, lost. When shed snapped out of it, the young girl had been embarrassed, had turned away.
Kaleah remembered the words her friend had said to her. "Your eyes turn purple in the dark . . . They look really pretty . . ?" Dark brows contracted, wondering. Thinking back through the night, along the path of her friends increasing intoxication, Kaleah remembered now that Jessica had been staring at her an awful lot. She had blushed a lot too, come to think of it.
Hmmm. Kaleah considered everything shed ever seen of Jessica, every day of their last few weeks together. The young woman was charming, playful and gracious, but she was also unconsciously beautiful, innocently shy and had a habit of blushing a great deal whenever they drew close to anything approximating an intimate conversation. The young woman had wanted a friend, and had found it in Kaleah. Had she, perhaps, found something more? Did she realize, and was she too embarrassed and shy to come to terms with it?
Kaleah snorted. "Jessicas a noble woman," she told herself. "Believing you have a chance with her is just wishful thinking. If you made a pass at her, shed be so embarrassed shed probably never want to talk to you again. Youve got a good thing going here with her. Shes the first friend youve ever had . . . theres no way youre risking that for a maybe."
Besides, there were things other than simple uncertainty that kept Kaleah from revealing her desire and affection to the young blonde . . . things that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember.
Things like fear.
These emotions were so intense they frightened her . . . badly. Was it even possible for her to feel the kinds of feelings that were were now welling up inside? Was there any love left in her battered spirit? Or had a life of slavery of constant suffering from and exposure to the darker side of human nature robbed her of the capacity to bask in the warmth of such a simple and unselfish thing as pure love? Could she ever trust someone the way she wanted to trust Jessica?
Sighing, Kaleah acknowledged that answers to such questions were unlikely to present themselves soon. Only time would tell if she was capable of handling such powerful emotions. She would watch Jessica closely, however, for any sign that the girl might be interested in something deeper than the friendship they shared. If things progressed as they had been and the two grew closer still, Kaleah would deal with it when it happened. For the time being, she had a hung-over friend to distract from her day-after misery.
Grinning, happy to let her emotions pass for the moment, Kaleah rolled back into the water and half walked, half swam over to the edge. Stepping out with some reluctance, water sheeting from her slender figure, the former slave wandered over to the adjacent room and retrieved a dry towel. She rubbed herself dry and changed into the clean outfit shed brought with her, then headed out the door.
Jessica watched her leave, the dazed, awe-stricken expression still fixed on her furiously blushing face. "My God!" she squeaked after several moments. Her brain struggled hard to fight its way through her lust so it could inform her that Kaleah had left now, and she should really be getting back to her room right away if she intended to make it there before the dark woman.
"Right. Gotta . . . get back." Her limbs were still numb, her body felt like it had been struck by a bolt of lightening it was tingling so much . . . some places moreso than others. She could feel a liquid warmth between her legs she had never experienced before, but she knew what it was; her desire spreading from her center, inviting satisfaction. Struggling to her feet, Jessica stumbled her way back through the passageway towards her bedroom.
On the way, her mind gave her a very smug mental look. There. Now wasnt that worth a little moral indiscretion?
Jess nodded blankly, her imagination replaying the way the water had run down her friends bronze body, rivulets coursing down off her breasts, over her taut stomach and between her slender legs . . . She stopped a moment, realizing she was drooling again.
"How am I supposed to look at her again with a straight face," she groaned, the images of what she might do with that gorgeous naked body flashing uncontrollably through her mind, fed by a willing imagination. She shook her head, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the pictures. "This is gonna make this even harder!"
Not wanting to ruin a good thing, her imagination decided to behave itself and stopped the picture show obediently. Grateful, Jessica continued on, settling the raging fire that blazed through her young body as best she could on the way. She blushed furiously as she realized her underwear was soaked with the evidence of her desire.
"God, I wish I knew what shed been talking about back there," Jessica thought aloud. The peep-hole may have allowed her to watch her friend, but the thick walls prevented her from listening. "She looked troubled." A sudden thought occurred to her. "You dont suppose shes caught on, do you? I mean, you were drunk last night maybe you said something you dont remember."
Her mind cast back quickly, went over everything that had happened last night. There had been several instances where Jessica had given away her attraction to the dark woman, but it was never in any particularly overbearing or obvious way. No, her mind assured her after a moment. She couldnt know. It must be something else thats bothering her.
"Maybe it was something my mother said to her," she considered. "Maybe she didnt tell me everything."
Possibly. You can think about it later. Get back in your bed before she gets there and finds you missing. And for Gods sake, try to look at least a little pathetically wretched! Youre supposed to be hung-over, remember.
"Right . . . hung-over. Whatever happened to my head-ache, anyway?"
It went away quite naturally, her mind informed her. All by itself.
"Really? I thought it was going to last all day."
A slight pain crept into her temples. There, her mind said snappily. You have a headache again. Happy?
Jessica rubbed her temples and sighed. "No need to get testy," she muttered. "Im moving." She opened the concealed doorway and closed it behind her before jumping back into bed. "You know, youre not exactly the easiest person to live with."
Her mind could do nothing but agree complacently.
The rest of that day was passed quietly with Jessica teaching Kaleah how to play draughts, which the dark woman took to with natural skill. Jessica managed to do quite a passable impression of hung-over misery, especially when she saw that it earned her sympathy from her dark friend. She spent so much time bemoaning her aching skull in such a convincing fashion that Kaleah gave her head a gentle massage, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
The feel of those long, supple fingers running through her hair, pressing gently but firmly into her scalp, relaxed Jessica so much she almost fell asleep. It was very different from the last massage shed received from her dark friend. This time, her body did not respond with heated desire, but rather it opened up to absorb the soothing caress. Her imagination remained dutifully silent, allowing her to simply enjoy the warm touch of her friend as Kaleah attempted to ease her suffering away.
Jessica had noticed instantly that Kaleah was acting a little differently which was funny, because that was exactly the same thing Kaleah noticed about her. She wondered at the cause, but decided it was probably not related to anything she was hoping for. Watching the dark woman out of the corner of her eye, Jess tried hard to spot any indication that Kaleah might be at least physically attracted to her. Unfortunately, Kaleah was watching her with exactly the same intent, which resulted in neither of them noticing the guarded glances of the other.
It was only after Kaleah had retired for the day and the young blonde was left alone once more that her imagination roared forth and replayed the images it had captured of the dark woman bathing. The pictures were seared into her mind now, and her body readily accepted and responded to them. Jess was getting used to the physical reactions her body had to desire; she recognized them from descriptions shed read in some of the more detailed of her romantic stories. The problem was, she mused, she had absolutely no way of dealing with them . . . and that was starting to make her very, very frustrated.
Lying in her bed, the sun long since departed, leaving her room in darkness filled only with the images of her friend, Jessica growled a little and tried to make her restless, unsatisfied body go to sleep. But it was hopeless. Whatever fire burned in her veins wasnt going to loosen its grip without a fight. Scowling at the ceiling, Jessica decided to place the blame for her situation squarely on her mind and her imagination.
"You just had to go watch her, didnt you?" she said through gritted teeth. "Now look whats happened!"
Wasnt like you had much choice in the matter, her mind argued quickly. The temptation was just too great. It would have happened sooner or later. It paused, the added with a grin, You could always sneak into town and let that barmaid show you how to relieve the ache . . .
"Humph! Dont even think about that," Jessica told herself sternly. "If Kaleah doesnt like you in that way, then youre just going to have to get used to feeling like this . . . at least until you can figure out a way of getting rid of it by yourself."
That thought did little to help her mood. Accustomed to being calm and in control of any situation, Jessica didnt like this chaotic feeling of indecision and worry. It made her feel helpless and adrift. She liked to think she was mature enough to handle anything, that she was not a child and that all the gifts life had given her werent as important as her own will and strength. But she admitted that there was nothing she could do about this new emotion.
Confessing to herself that she was falling in love with Kaleah made the formally nebulous, cloudy feeling suddenly so real and intense. Everytime she was around the dark woman, Jess knew she was going to have trouble concealing the depth of her affection. It was only a matter of time before their continued company led to something being said.
In a way, Jessica was already looking forward to that time. Keeping secrets from her friend was hardly a positive way to start out. It meant she didnt trust Kaleah enough to tell her the truth.
Well, her mind put in. Do you trust her?
"Of course I trust her," she scoffed. "Im just not sure Im ready to tell her how I feel. If she doesnt return my feelings, thats fine, but I dont want to drive her away. She might . . . I dont know, take it weird or something. I dont want to wreck the special thing we have going here. If were meant to be together, time will tell."
Sure, thats fine to say. But if you really trust her, why havent you shown her all the secrets that you havent shown anyone else?
Her mind directed her eyes over to the fireplace the concealed entrance to the hidden passageways. To the secret rooms that had known only her presence in decades.
"You mean . . ?"
A mental nod.
Green eyes widened, then narrowed after a moment of reflection. If she meant what she said about trusting her friend, surely she should tell Kaleah about the secrets of DaGran.
Unless youre lying to yourself about how much you love her, her mind taunted. Show her you trust her enough to keep your secrets. If she sees that, maybe shell offer up some of her own.
"Thats true." Looking around, Jessica wondered what time it was. It couldnt be too late; she hadnt been lying here waiting to fall asleep that long. Would Kaleah still be awake?
"Only one way to find out," she muttered, getting out of bed and throwing on some simple clothes to ward against the chill that was noticeably less dire than it had been a week ago. Spring was coming, she idly acknowledged as she knocked on the door to her friends room.
"Kaleah? Are you awake?"
There was a long pause before the door was opened by Kaleah, looking bleary-eyed and tousled, but quite awake. She was wearing her simple shirt and trousers, the clothing rumpled and obviously thrown on hastily.
"What is it?" she demanded, rubbing her eyes.
"Were you sleeping?"
"Not in any serious way," the dark woman groused. In fact, shed been doing much the same thing her neighbor had been doing: trying to quell the burning desire in her loins. The only difference was, where Jessica was unfamiliar with sexual frustration, Kaleah knew exactly how to satisfy her bodys ache. The dark woman had been doing everything in her power to keep her hands from wandering where they wanted to, unwilling to seek solitary pleasure over lustful thoughts of her friend.
Unaware of any of this, Jessica just smiled and accepted the dark womans grumpiness, attributing it to being woken up. "I have something I want to show you," she said in a loud whisper.
"Whyre you whispering?"
Jessica looked around and gestured for Kaleah to join her in her room. "Its a secret."
Kaleah closed the door behind her and folded her arms across her chest. "These walls are solid stone, Jess. No-one could hear you even if you screamed." Oooh, wrong thing to say, she thought, picturing a few of the ways she could make the young blonde scream . . . ways she was sure her friend would enjoy if she could experience them.
"I know, its just . . . Well, its a secret." Suddenly feeling a little foolish, Jessica decided it would be safe enough if she spoke normally. "Okay, it doesnt matter. Theres just something I wanted to show you."
"Cant it wait till morning?"
"I couldnt sleep," Jessica apologized. "Sorry. I just started thinking about this, and I couldnt wait."
"Okay, what did you want to show me?" Kaleah assumed a patient look and prepared to be politely surprised or impressed by whatever the young woman had decided to exhibit.
Jessica grabbed her arm. "Come on." She led the dark woman over to the fireplace and looked up into her deep blue eyes seriously. "Promise you wont tell anyone what Im about to show you?"
Seeing the sincere expression in her friends face, Kaleah nodded solemnly. "Of course, I promise."
Jessica held her gaze a moment longer, trying to convey the importance of this gesture. Certain her tall friend understood, she turned around and reached behind the stone sword of the angel, finding the hidden release and pressing it down firmly.
Kaleah stepped back apprehensively as the fireplace swung on its axis, making only a slight grinding sound of stone rubbing against stone. She eyed the dark passage that was revealed with astonishment, then looked into the expectant eyes of her friend.
"Wh-what is it?"
"Its a secret passageway," Jessica told her, pleased with her reaction. She held out her hand. "Come on, Ill show you."
Kaleah reflexively took hold of the offered hand and was led into the darkness of the hidden corridor. Jessica paused to strike a flint to stone; a moment later, light from a torch filled the corridor. The young blonde tugged Kaleah along, guiding them with the sure feet of one familiar and comfortable with the path they tread.
Kaleah could only look around her in amazement. The passage was narrow, but surprisingly clean. There was no sign of rodent life, as she might have expected, and only minimal dust stirred at their passage. Bright green eyes, flickering in the torchlight, regarded her happily.
"These passageways go right through the castle," Jessica explained, enjoying the feeling of sharing a secret she had kept to herself her whole life. "They can take you anywhere you want to go. There are whole rooms down below that no-one else knows about. Come on, Ill show you . . ."
Kaleah was dumbfounded, stunned, impressed. They walked for some time, down stairs and along stretches of passageways that were at times wide enough that three men could walk abreast. "This is amazing," she breathed when she could find her voice at last.
Jessica grinned. "The best is yet to come. Look at this."
They had come to a door; solid and compact, made of pitted steel marked with age. There was no handle, but Jessica reached confidently for a hidden latch and the door swung open on silent hinges.
Jessica led Kaleah through the door into a chamber that was larger than her bedroom and neatly furnished. A table set with chairs took up the center of the room, while shelves occupied much of the far end. A number of pictures hung from the walls; scenes of the forest and the castle drawn mostly in charcoal by an obviously talented hand; a hand that could only be Jessicas. There were comfortable looking, over-stuffed seats next to one wall, and as the young blonde went around lighting candelabra and wall-mounted torches, Kaleah realized with a start that the entire place had a very lived in feel to it. She regarded her friend with surprise.
"You did all this?"
Jessica blushed a little and nodded. "This is where I used to spend most of my time," she explained. "I found the entrance to the passages when I was a child. I explored them, and found the original plans to the castle. They showed me everything, and I found all the secrets built into DaGran." She surveyed the room with pride, pointing to the shelves of books. "A lot of the stuff I read is forbidden by the Church," she said. "Stuff about other cultures and religions . . . different ways of thought and practices of living. If my mother ever found them, Id be in trouble. So I bring everything down here, where no-one will ever find out about it. Where no-one can take it away."
Blue eyes looked around in awe. "You mean . . . no-one else knows about all this?"
"Not your father . . . not Sir Miles?"
Jessica gave her a shy smile. "Just me . . . and now you."
Kaleah was speechless for several moments as she absorbed the gift that Jessica was giving her. The young woman was showing her the one thing she had never shown anyone else, was trusting her as she had never trusted anyone. By bringing her here, Jessica was allowing her access into her most private and secret sanctuary. Kaleah saw the shy, hopeful smile on her friends face, and felt tears creep into her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered after long moments, unable to fully express how much this meant to her. "Thank you." It was all she could think of to say.
Jessicas smile grew a little wider, her eyes dancing. "It means a lot to me . . . showing you this place, I mean."
"I know." Hoping the young woman would see that she was aware of the depth of this sacrifice.
Jess nodded. "I can see you understand." She walked over and wiped away the unshed tears that sparkled in her friends blue eyes. "Youre the first friend I ever had, Kaleah. The first person I ever wanted to show this place too. My father or Sir Miles would have seen it only as a tactical strength; would have invaded the only place I could come too to be myself. To really be myself, I mean. This is where I keep the things I love the most." She stroked Kaleahs face, her thumb sliding intimately over the scar that creased her lips. "I wanted you to see it."
Kaleah smiled, touched beyond words at the trust Jessica was showing her. The feel of her friends thumb on her lips almost made her swoon, and she restrained the urge to take that thumb into her mouth and taste it, to run her tongue along it. Blushing and looking around to cover her lapse into fantasy, Kaleah didnt see the fleeting look of wonder that passed across her friends face.
"This place is amazing," the dark woman said, talking to cover her nervousness. She studied a few of the books on the shelves, not really seeing them. "I, uh. Ive never had a friend like you before either," she said softly, hearing Jessica draw nearer, sensing her presence close behind her but not turning around. "Ive never had someone trust me like you are. And Ive never trusted anyone the way I trust you."
Jessica froze as she was about to reach out and touch her friend. For a second there, looking into Kaleahs sapphire gaze, Jessica had been certain she recognized the emotional kindred of her own love. For a moment, she was sure passion had darkened those gems with the flames of desire. But just as she was about to make a move, just as she was about to test her belief, those words called her back.
Ive never trusted anyone the way I trust you.
Jessica drew her hand away before it did something stupid. Kaleah was learning to trust again. The young blonde had befriended this woman in the hopes that she could help her. Help her to recover from the pain she so obviously bore. Help her to accept the nobility of spirit that a life in chains had buried. Help her to trust, to care and to think as a human, not just as an animal, seeking only to survive a day at a time. Her hopes were being recognized now, she could see clearly. Just because shed fallen in love with the dark woman did not mean she could jeopardize Kaleahs future because she thought shed seen something that might not have even existed. No. She would be strong, would wait. Kaleah trusted her, and she would not do anything to make her question that trust . . . not unless she was absolutely certain her friend felt the same way.
The young blonde settled for a gentle pat on the shoulder; friendly, platonic. "Im glad you like it."
Kaleah turned and favored her with one of her rare full smiles; the ones that took in the whole of her face and lit up her eyes like beacons in the night. "I do." Her eyes roamed around the room, taking in the neatly arranged items and the comfortable furniture, seeing this amazing young womans touch in everything about the place. "Maybe one day . . ." She paused, considering. Jessica waited patiently till she managed to finish. "Maybe one day . . . Ill be able to do the same thing for you as youve done for me." Blue eyes sank into green. "Some day, Ill let you into my private places."
Jessica smiled warmly up at the taller woman. "Theres no hurry," she said softly. "Youll tell me when youre ready. Im not going anywhere." She took Kaleahs hand and tugged her on towards another door set opposite the one theyd entered from. "Come on, theres a whole lot more to see down here. I can show you how to get out of dungeons, if you like."
But, her mind put in silently, itd probably be for the best if you stay away from the peep-hole. No need to raise suspicions, is there?
Thankful that Jessica had apparently understood the words that were so painful for her to speak, Kaleah let herself be led meekly by her younger companion. Jessica had shown her this secret that was so obviously private, so personal that not even her own father knew of it. The dark woman resolved there and then that she would somehow work up the courage to share a few of her own dark secrets with her friend; to return this trust and to prove for herself, if for no-one else that she was capable of offering and accepting the kind of relationship she wanted from the spirited blonde.
Love, it seemed, was going to require a lot of work.
The next day, the two women slept late again and woke just a few hours before midday, having spent the previous night exploring the complex of hidden rooms and passages that ran throughout the castle. Jessica had been overjoyed at the opportunity to finally share her secret, and Kaleah quickly caught her excitement and willingly gave up a restless night of thinking about the young woman in favor of a night spent in her physical company. By the time they returned, exhausted, to their respective beds, it was early morning; both fell asleep with little effort.
The day was surprisingly fine, with only a few scattered clouds blanketing an otherwise clear sky, and Jessica suggested they enjoy a few hours sparring practice in the courtyard. Kaleah readily agreed, thinking as she did that she probably would have agreed with the young woman had she suggested they spend the glorious day mucking out the stables so long as it meant they were together.
Their practice was light and playful, though they tried to maintain at least a sense of seriousness, aware of the soldiers watching them. They would fight until the sun grew too warm and they tired, then they would stop and rest in the shade of the castle walls for a few minutes before returning to their fun.
It was not until early afternoon that Kaleah called a halt to their energetic sparring. Raising a hand, she smiled at her heavily-breathing, sweaty friend.
"Enough," she gasped, wiping her soaked hair from her face and trying to catch her breath. Their last bout had been fast-paced and vigorous, and she felt a stitch coming on. "I need a break."
Jessica laughed easily and sheathed her sword. "Me too," she admitted. A loud rumble came from her stomach, and she blushed a little at her partners grin. "I think I could use a bite to eat, too."
"We did skip breakfast," Kaleah acknowledged.
"Only because we slept so late."
"We only slept late because we were up all night. Not that Im complaining, of course. I would have traded a lifetime of sleep for last night, and considered it a good deal." She gave her friend a warm smile. "Thank you so much for showing me."
Jessica blushed. "Youre welcome." Her stomach rumbled again, louder. Her face grew even redder. "Um, I think we missed lunch by a good few hours, but maybe if I go to the kitchen and ask nicely, the cook will make us something."
"Im sure you could charm her into anything," Kaleah laughed. "Ill wait over there . . ." She pointed to a the stairs that led up onto one of the walkways that rambled about the castle walls. "Its such a nice day, we should make the most of it."
"Great. Ill be back in a minute," Jess promised, turning and jogging with casual grace into the main part of the fortress.
Kaleah watched her go, letting her eyes linger on the young womans body, which was well displayed by the revealing-yet-practical cut of her armor. She felt a familiar flush run through her body and shivered a little, reveling in the warm sensation that clutched at her heart and made her insides feel like honey.
A slow, sensuous smile pulled at her lips, and she let it form as her eyes narrowed. Just because she was unsure of Jessicas feelings towards her didnt mean she couldnt enjoy the wonderful feeling that first love ignited in her.
Wandering over to the stairs, Kaleah found them nicely warmed by the sun and sat down, resting her sword at her feet. A few people in the castle still gave her curious looks, but an equal number gave her little nods of acknowledgment and acceptance, too. Not bad, she reflected, considering how shed come to be in DaGran initially. Her skill both with a blade and with the forge-fires had earned her the respect of many of the castles soldiers, and her obvious friendship with the lord knights much-loved daughter had strengthened it.
Kaleah sighed happily and closed her eyes, content to just bask in the light of the sun and ponder the changes in herself since she had first met the young noble woman. Able to look back from her current position, Kaleah recognized that before her encounter with Jessica, she had been living as an animal, as a slave on the run. Avoiding contact with others, hunting for food when she could, content to starve when she couldnt, Kaleah had lived her life as a solitary nomad, never stopping long enough to develop any kind of attachment. A life in slavery had shown her the fickle nature of attachment; whatever one held dear would inevitably die, or be destroyed.
Now, she mused, she had found something worth risking herself for. She had grown attached to Jessica in a way more powerful than she had ever known could exist. Not only that, but she had come to regard DaGran as a home; a place of safety and protection. Remembering what she had been taught happened when one came to care for something, Kaleah saw now what she had never seen before; that some things were worth the risk.
She knew that one day, Jessica might be hurt. Might die. That she herself might be driven from DaGran . . . possibly. Just thinking of such a loss hurt inside, but she knew that nothing could stop her from feeling the way she felt for Jessica. Their friendship gave her so much joy more joy than she could remember feeling in her whole life. To flee from such an attachment to run away because you might actually start to care was the act of a coward. Life might hurt less, but would be empty and shiftless. Squandered.
Kaleah smiled and opened her eyes, blinking as she looked about at the bustle of happy people milling about the castle on whatever business they had. No, she thought. She wouldnt give up her life with Jessica for anything . . . and no-one could make her.
So wrapped up was Kaleah in her own happiness, she did not notice the captain of the castle guard studying her from one of the castle parapets. The captain a veteran of many battles studied the resting woman for many long moments, his face thoughtful. Eyeing the crowd of people bustling about, he shook his head and mumbled to himself before turning his attention back to his look-out duties.
Jessica reached the kitchen only to find it empty. No cook, no servants, nothing. Sighing, she was just about to try her own hand at making lunch wondering whether she was hungry enough to subject her stomach to whatever she could concoct herself and thinking that, in any event, she didnt want to poison Kaleah when a large, callused and battle-scared hand suddenly clasped her by the shoulder.
"Hey!" growled a voice behind her.
Spinning around, startled, her hand going instantly to her sword hilt, Jessica came face to face with the lined and friendly visage of Sir Miles. The old knight held up his one good arm to show it was empty, and gave her an apologetic look.
Jess took her hand from her sword and glared at her friend. "You frightened the bejeezers out of me!" she accused, still shaken.
"Sorry," he said, patting her on the shoulder. "Didnt think yed take up so. Ye reflexes look mighty good, though."
Jessica ran her fingers through her hair and concentrated on slowing her racing heart. "Im sorry, I thought I was alone."
"Come fer some lunch then, have ye?"
"Yeah, but . . ." she gestured about the empty kitchen, "no-ones down here." She eyed him wickedly. "Think I can make my own food?"
"Not ifn ye be thinkin to feed it to ye tall, dark and deadly friend out in the courtyard, I dont," he grinned. "Doubt shed take too kindly to bein poisoned."
Jessica laughed. "I was thinking the same thing myself."
"Ye want me to fix ye something?" the old knight offered. "Cant do nothin fancy, but me one hand works just fine."
"Sure." Jess nodded agreeably. "Anything you can make has gotta be better than what I could do."
Sir Miles wandered over to the large central preparation bench and began to bustle about, looking quite at home in the kitchen. He retrieved bread from a cupboard and started fixing up a tray of various things. As he worked, he cast his eyes over to where Jessica leaned against a table, watching.
"Howve ye been lately?" he asked casually, slicing meat deftly and with more skill than might be expected from a man encumbered with his disability. "Dont see ye too much now yeve got ye dark friend about."
Jessica smiled, hearing the teasing tone in his voice. "I guess you dont, huh?" she mused. "But I went hunting with you the other day . . ."
"Aye, and spent every minute bein about as moody as Ive ever seen ye." He grinned at her slyly. "Heard ye wasnt feeling too good yesterday?"
She nodded. "I was sick."
"Aye . . . found yer sickness in the bottom of an ale mug, I wager."
Jessicas mouth opened, but no words came out. He laughed at her surprised expression. "Ah saw the two a ya leave out the side gate. Thought somethin was up when ye canceled yer supper." He paused in his work. "Ye went to the village, aye?"
She nodded. "Kaleah told me it would be safe," she explained hastily. "I just wanted to see what the peasants were like when they were doing what they usually do. Nothing bad happened."
"Aye?" He grinned broadly, showing a few missing teeth. "Saw ye come back, too; the way ye was walking, looked like ye were lucky ye had yer friend with ya."
The mention of Kaleah brought an instant visible response from the young blonde. Sir Miles studied her carefully, noting every line of her posture, and every nuance of her expression. She saw his careful appraisal and narrowed her eyes.
He assumed a fatherly expression. "Known ye all yer life, Jess," he said gently. "Ah kin tell when somethins givin ye troublin thoughts."
Jessica was silent for many moments, but at last she nodded. "Ive had a lot to think about lately," she admitted hesitantly, unwilling to discuss the nature of her problems.
Sir Miles smiled and put down the knife, giving his friend the benefit of his full attention. "These thinkins wouldnt by any chance involve ye blue-eyed friend, would they?"
Jess shrugged. "Maybe . . ."
Miles sighed and regarded her fondly. "Dont wanna talk bout it, huh?"
The old knight was silent in consideration for long moments. He didnt want to push his friend, but he could tell there was something she wanted to talk about, even if she didnt realize it herself. How far should he go to encourage her to discuss her troubles?
"Dye remember when ye was just a wee babe, and I caught ye down here stealin biscuits from the jar?"
Jess smiled and nodded, recalling the incident clearly. "I said Id share the cookies with you if you promised not to tell my father," she giggled.
"Aye." Miles looked at her with a fatherly, loving expression. "Ah never told ye Daddy bout that," he said quietly. "Ye know that, dont ye?"
"Dye remember the first day ye bled as a woman?" he asked. She nodded again. "Ye came to me fer help . . . and I gave it, best as I was able." He watched her face flush a little. "All ye life, Jess, yeve always come to me with yer secrets . . . with yer problems. Ahve never turned ye away, and Ive never told another livin soul what ye told me in confidence."
He raised a bushy grey eyebrow and nodded. "If ye dont wanna talk to me, I understand. Just remember, Im here if ye change yer mind." He turned back to his slicing, letting her think about it by herself.
Jessica considered Miles words, and realized she did want to tell the old knight about her attraction to Kaleah. Her love was burning away inside her. It needed some kind of an outlet. Maybe it would help to discuss it with someone she knew she could trust not to tell. The only question was, would Miles be sympathetic about her attraction to another woman . . . or would he be offended and repulsed.
After a long moment of consideration, she pulled herself up onto the table and sat with her legs dangling over its edge, hands folded in her lap. "I, uh . . . I have sort of been wanting to talk to someone," she said quietly. "Its kinda . . . well . . . its complicated-"
Sir Miles turned to her again and gave her his full attention. "Aye?"
"Well, you see, Ive uh . . . Ive been thinking about a few things lately." She lowered her face and let her hair fall forward as she always did when she was nervous or embarrassed. ". . . About Kaleah."
"Yeve been good fer the lass," Miles commented. "Ive seen the changes in her lately; ye done more than I ever thought yed be able to do."
"Yeah. Shes really great. I uh . . . I like her a lot." She could feel her face grow hot. Shed never really been too good at talking about this sort of thing with others although she talked about it often enough with herself. "Have you heard the sermons that Father Graehm gives sometimes?" she asked quietly after a moment. "The ones about the people of Sodem?"
Sir Miles thought a moment, then nodded his head slowly. "Ah believe I know the ones yer thinkin of," he said. "What about them?"
"Do you agree with the things Father Graehm says?" she asked frankly, her eyes hopeful.
Sir Miles cocked his head, considering. "Not all of them," he said carefully. "Ye know I believe in God, Jess, but Ive been a fightin man all mah life. Some things in the good book dont take to me right." He regarded her solemnly for a long minute. "What bits exactly be ye talkin about?"
Jessica found that her blush was fading a little, her face was serious. "Do you think its a sin for women to be intimate with other women?" she asked bluntly.
Sir Miles eyes widened only a little in surprise, but he held her gaze without faltering. "Is that yer problem?" he asked softly. "Ye having . . . thoughts . . . about yer tall friend out there?"
Jessica nodded. "Ive fallen in love with her," she told him quietly. It felt so good to say it out loud to another person, and even as her heart feared that Miles would condemn her love, it swelled with joy at finally giving voice to her pent up feelings in the presence of another. Somehow, it made the emotions more real.
Sir Miles just regarded her a long moment, before he nodded and turned back to his slicing. "Ah see." He looked at her as he worked. "She know?"
Jess shook her head. "I cant tell her. I just, well. Im not ready yet. I want to know if shell react badly, thats all."
Miles nodded understandingly. "Aye. And yer sure ye love er? Its not just some kinda . . . passing thing, is it?"
"No," Jessica was certain of that. "Its real."
Sir Miles regarded her shrewdly, one bushy brow raised. "Ah know ye, Jess. Ah know ye feel with yer heart all too often, fillin yer head with all them stories of mush and such. Can ye be sure ye aint just hopin fer somethin to distract ye from yer weddin to Charles?"
Jessica returned his look confidently, searching her mind for the words to express how she felt. "I know the difference," she said quietly. "This is love." She closed her eyes and sighed. "When I wake up in the morning," she said slowly, her voice soft and gentle, "shes the first thought in my mind, and I feel so happy because I know that Im going to see her soon. And every night when the door closes behind her, the only thing that keeps my heart from breaking is the knowledge that when I fall asleep, shell be in my dreams . . . and I can tell her how I feel . . . and show her how much I love her."
Her eyes opened and she smiled a little sadly at Miles, who remained silent. "She makes me feel things Ive never felt before, things that are so wonderful and so frightening all at once sometimes they make my head spin. Everytime she looks at me, I feel like Im standing on the top parapet with nothing below me but a hundred-foot drop. And it scares me so much because a part of me wants to fall into her so badly it hurts. She smiles, and my heart cant decide if it wants to speed up or stop altogether. And when we touch . . . its like . . ." Jessica blushed a little. "Its like liquid fire spreading through my blood, and all I want to do is let it burn me."
Miles saw the certainty in her face and heard the conviction in her words. It was clear the young woman was not just suffering from a simple infatuation. He had never seen this look in her eyes before, but he knew what it meant; passion and love and tenderness all at once.
The old knight coughed a little awkwardly, thrown off balance. "She uh . . . shown any interest?"
Jessica shrugged. "I dont know." She was pleased this was going well. Miles didnt seem offended. He was being objective and helpful as he could be. "She told me she . . . likes women more than men. And I thought I saw her look at me in a . . . more than friendly way, I guess you could say. But I dont know how to tell."
Miles raised an eyebrow. "She told ye she prefers women, did she?"
Jess nodded. "In the tavern, when we were having dinner."
The old knight chuckled. "Id like to know how that conversation came up."
Jessica blushed. "It wasnt like that. There was this barmaid, you see, and she was . . ." The young woman saw the teasing, curious look in Miles eye and waved a hand. "Forget it. The point is, she told me."
"And what did ye say?"
"I said I was okay with it," Jess shrugged. Seeing Miles smile at her, she threw him an exasperated look. "I was surprised, it was lucky I said anything!"
"Aye." The old man was obviously trying hard to conceal his amusement. Seeing that Jessica was getting flustered and uncomfortable, he cleared his throat and adopted a serious expression. "So, what is it ye plan to do, exactly?"
Jessica shrugged helplessly. "I have no idea. What do you think I should do?"
"Ye wanting to be with her? As a woman?"
Jessica blushed furiously and nodded. "Ive been thinking about it a fair bit, these past few nights," she admitted sheepishly.
"Heh. I bet. Shes a looker, that one. Ye got good taste, Ill give ye that."
Jessicas blush deepened.
Miles regarded her seriously. "I cant really help ye much, lass," he told her softly. "I aint got much experience in these matters; Im just a simple fightin man. But if it helps ye any, Ill say this; ifn that girls got a likin fer other women stead a men, shed have to be blind, deaf and stupid to boot not to fall head over heels for ye." He smiled at her affectionately. "Yer about the cutest damned thing I ever saw, Jess."
"Thanks." Jessica gave him a warm smile, grateful not only for his words but for his acceptance. "So youre not too surprised about me feeling this way?"
"Surprised? Aye, maybe." He added a few pieces of dried fruit to the tray and finished it off with a flourish. "Ye always seemed too bloody innocent for yer own good, no matter how good ye may be with a blade. Didnt think ye even knew bout stuff like that." He handed the platter to her and gave her a pat on the shoulder once shed taken it. "But if yer askin me if I think any less a ye for it . . . Id be hopin ye had more regard for me than that."
"But what about what the Church . . ?"
He smiled and squeezed her shoulder with his meaty hand. "Love is love, Jess," he interrupted her gently. "I have faith in the good Lord . . . and I believe every word he ever spoke is truth. But that dont mean I believe in the faulty way a man reads his words. Ye think Gods gonna care that ye love another woman? No, lass." He patted his chest. "Its whats in our hearts that he looks at . . . and whats in our souls." He smiled. "Dont let anyone tell ye otherwise."
Jessica grinned and nodded. "I wont." Suddenly realizing that Kaleah was probably wondering where she was, she said, "I better be getting back. Shell be waiting."
"Aye, lass. Off ye go then."
As she was about the head out the door, she stopped and turned back into the kitchen. "Miles?"
She gave him a final smile. "Thank you. It felt good to talk about all this."
He returned her smile. "Any time, lass," he said. "And Jess . . . You be careful. Dont wanna see ya get yer hopes up bout this and be crushed when ye finds out things arent as you wish they were."
She blushed. "Ill be careful." She turned and left the kitchen with her platter of food, feeling happier then she had when she entered. What Miles said was true, she told herself. Its whats in the heart that counts, and whats in the soul. And if that was the case . . . well, she was sure that eventually, somehow, her love for Kaleah could only be a blessing for them both. Regardless of whether the dark woman could return her feelings in the way she was thinking of.
Wednesday morning, Jessica and Kaleah were outside in the courtyard, practicing a few moves that the dark-haired woman thought were frankly beyond her grasp but was attempting anyway in order to please her younger companion, when the clear, cutting sound of a horn pierced the still air.
"Whats that?" asked Kaleah, her body instantly tensing at the sound, easily roused by the clarion call that was still used to summon warriors to battle.
Jessicas eyes went instantly to the highest pinnacle of the castle; the central parapet. "Relax," she said, patting her friend soothingly while at the same time admiring the lightning-quick reflexes the dark woman displayed, the instant readiness to take either to flight or to fight. She pointed. "Its the look-out horn. Someones coming to pay us a visit."
Kaleah let go of the tension that coiled her muscles and eyed the distant watchman perched on the look-out tower. "How come Ive never heard it before?"
"Well they only ever use it when someone important is approaching, or when an armys been spotted. That hasnt happened since you arrived." The young blonde watched as the soldiers started running about, curious and tense, then added, "Besides, even if they had, you cant hear the horn so well inside the castle. Its mainly to alert the guards on the wall and to send a runner to tell my father whats happening." She grabbed her friend and started dragging her excitedly across to the nearest stairs that led onto the walls. "Come on, lets take a look and see who it is."
Reaching the top of the wall, the two women found all the guards looking eagerly outside, their expressions relaxed and cheerful, not stern and serious as they would be if an enemy rode for DaGran. The top of the wall was designed in the typical style of a fortress of war, with gaps spaced along it at regular intervals to provide access for archers and look-outs. One of the guards saw Jessica and helpfully moved aside with a smile to give her room.
"Looks like your friend came early, Jess." he told her, pointing out the brightly colored caravan and its retinue of mounted figures approaching at a leisurely pace. "Guess we caught him during a quiet time. I didnt expect him to get here till Friday."
Jessica studied the caravan and instantly recognized the raised standard of Earl James Charles father. She looked at Kaleah, who regarded her questioningly.
"Its Charles," she told her friend with a broad smile.
Kaleah couldnt help but smile in return, catching the young womans enthusiasm. In truth, she reflected, she was rather looking forward to meeting this man Jessica liked so much. The young blonde was a good judge of people she had seen, and there was little doubt in her mind that Charles must be someone special.
They watched as the caravan drew nearer. Kaleah could make out the lead figure; a man mounted on a dark-brown horse draped with finery and the trappings of nobility she would have expected of Jessica, but had never seen the young woman indulge in. The entourage that followed behind numbered a few dozen, including many mounted soldiers baring lances and shields, as well as numerous foot-soldiers armed with halberds, several unarmed servants, and of course the wagon that likely carried their supplies.
Kaleahs sharp eyes, accustomed to watching for danger, were drawn quickly to the man riding about fifteen paces behind the lead figure of Charles. This man rode a massive black destrier charger and wore heavy plate armor sporting numerous blades. He was obviously a big man, strong and powerful as those who donned such weighty armor had to be. As the procession drew nearer, Kaleah watched him more curiously, impressed by the clear display of formidable power.
She pointed him out to her friend. "Whos that?"
Jessica looked where she indicated. "The big man with the black horse? Thats Damon Cook. Hes Charles body-guard; theyre almost always together."
"Body-guard?" Kaleah was familiar with such people . . . most of her former masters had employed protection of some kind. A dark memory rose unwanted in her mind, and she crushed it down. "Is he okay?"
Jessica shrugged, unaware of the change in her friends tone. "Hes kinda quiet, but hes a damn good fighter. Very loyal to Charles and his father, which is whats important in a body-guard, I suppose."
The sudden arrival of Sir Richard drew their attention away from the approaching caravan. The lord knight marched across the courtyard, Sir Miles and Eric Grace trailing close behind.
"Come on," said Jess, patting her hair down and straightening her rather rumpled shirt. "Lets go down and greet them."
The two joined Sir Richard at the raised portcullis. Jessicas father gave them both a slight smile of acknowledgement, but shook his head a little at the ragged attire of his daughter. Jess just shrugged a little sheepishly and grinned at Kaleah.
The group of riders approached quickly, the lead figure waving cheerfully before he dismounted and strode forward to greet Sir Richard. Jessica and Kaleah held back as the two men embraced warmly and exchanged a few low words of welcome and thanks. When they parted, Sir Richard drew the man forward and gestured towards his daughter, who grinned and hugged him happily.
"Its so good to see you again, Charles," Jessica said as they separated. "Ive missed you." Kaleah noticed that her friend adopted her cultured tones once more, and recognized it as an indication that this was a somewhat formal occasion. The dark woman marveled how Jessica managed to slip into her role as a noble lady so quickly and easily. The sudden changes in her accent, expression and body language were almost disturbing.
Charles ran a gloved hand through his hair and grinned. "I came as soon as I could," he said. "Im glad for these talks . . . its been too long since we were together, hasnt it?" He cast his eyes over her dirty peasant clothes and his grin grew wider. "I see some things have changed little."
"More than you might think," she replied cryptically, playfully punching his arm.
Charles eyes wandered from her and immediately fixed on Kaleah, who had watched the exchange intently and with only a small feeling of jealousy at the obvious closeness between the two. The young nobleman raised a curious eyebrow at Jessica, who eagerly gestured her friend forward.
"Charles, Id like you to meet my new friend, Kaleah." She put a hand on the tall womans arm and drew her closer. "She was passing through the region and I um. . . invited her to stay here for a while. Shes been a wonderful sparring partner, and weve become the best of friends."
Kaleah couldnt help but smile at the young womans words. She bowed slightly to show respect for the young noble. "A pleasure to meet you, my lord," she said quietly, aware as always how her barbaric accent made her sound strange among these people . . . except, of course, around Jessica.
Charles studied her with intelligent brown eyes that held much the same spark of mischief as Jessicas, taking in her tall, athletic form displayed nicely by the soft leather and chain-mail armor she wore. He smiled warmly. "The pleasure is all mine, Im sure." Kaleah relaxed a little when she recognized his interest as friendly and inviting, and allowed herself a moment to study him in return.
Charles was almost as tall as she was, and much broader across the shoulders and chest. He wore clothes that were obviously expensive, and a decorative sword hung from the belt that cinched about his trim waist. His ash-blonde hair was wavy and fell evenly to within a few inches of his shoulders. His face was gentle and kind, with a soft goatee framing a mouth that smiled easily. Kaleah acknowledged that Jessica was right; the young man was quite handsome, with an air of quiet nobility that was enhanced by his wardrobe, not based upon it. She smiled unconsciously, and relaxed more.
Charles finished his own appraisal and his smile grew warmer. "I look forward to getting to know you better," he said, his voice smooth and refined. He winked at Jessica. "And to hearing how you two met up."
"Certainly." The young blonde nodded agreeably.
Sir Richard laid a hand on Charles shoulder. "You can talk later, Jessica," he said firmly. "Charles is here for the treaty talks, not to keep you entertained. Miles? Would you see to the horses and have the men allocated to the barracks? Come, Charles. We have much to discuss." He guided the young man towards the central keep, turning only to gesture for the hulking form of Damon to follow them. Sir Miles quickly took control of the rest of Charles entourage, and Jessica drew Kaleah over to the castle walls where the sun was warmest.
"He seems . . . nice," Kaleah said as they sat down on the rough stones, dangling their legs over the edge.
"He is. Im glad you think so."
The young blonde couldnt help but smile, recognizing by her friends words that the dark woman was comfortable with Charles being around. She had, in all honesty, been a bit worried. Afterall, Kaleah hadnt taken to Sir Miles very well at all. Her reactions to other people when they tried to get close were usually defensive, sometimes aggressive, and highly unpredictable. She really wanted Charles to get along with her new friend, and was relieved that their initial introduction had gone okay.
"I saw his sword," Kaleah mentioned. "It looked very . . . pretty. Can he use it?"
Jessica grinned, knowing her friends expert eyes had recognized that Charles weapon was too flashy to be the tool of a hard soldier. "He can fight a little," she said. "But not nearly as well as most. Charles is a scholar and a diplomat; thats probably a part of why my father wanted him here for the talks with Sir William."
"So hes not much of a fighter?"
Jessica shook her head.
"Is that the reason for the body-guard?"
Jessica shrugged, swinging her legs a little over the drop. "Most nobles have body-guards when they travel," she said. "Charles is an important man. His father is very rich. Any thug with a few men would be only too happy to take a chance at grabbing him for ransom."
Kaleah nodded, understanding. "So he has to travel with a small army everywhere he goes?"
Kaleah eyed her friend. "You dont."
Kaleah turned to regard her friend more closely. "How? Youre a noble woman. Im sure your father would pay any ransom demanded of him if you were kidnapped."
"He never has before," the blonde laughed. "My father expects me to be resourcful enough to get myself out of most trouble."
"Has he ever offered to get you a body-guard?"
Jessicas eyes flashed with emerald fire. "He knows better than to even suggest such a thing. There are three basic reasons why I dont have a body-guard." She ticked them off on her fingers. "One, I rarely ever go outside the castle walls unless its riding with my father. Two, there are only a few men in the castle who can fight better than I can, and apart from Sir Miles, none of them surpass my skills by all that much. And third . . ." She grinned. "My father knows full and well what Id do if he tried to stick me with a body-guard."
Kaleah considered this, and it suddenly occurred to her just how very different Jessica was from the rest of the nobility. She glanced at Jessica and found the young woman gazing at her with a slight smile and a wondering expression. Her eyes were soft and carried a gentle but undeniable force the power of compassion and care. She couldnt hold their gaze for more than a moment before the beating of her heart became so overwhelming that she had to look away, her blood rising.
"Something wrong?" the blonde asked.
She shook her head. "I was just thinking . . ."
"About just how unique and special you really are." The words were out before she had the time to close her mouth around them. Her blue eyes widened and she cursed herself silently. "I mean, um . . . compared to the, uh, the other nobles." She risked a glance at her companion, and was relieved when she saw only that same gentle, comfortable smile and the warmth and affection in her eyes.
"Im no better or worse than anyone else, Kaleah," the young blonde said softly.
"Yes you are," the dark woman insisted.
"Oh?" Jessica gave her an amused and playful look. "And just what makes me so special?"
"Welll . . ." she thought for a moment. "Take Charles, for example. Hes a fairly typical noble, right?"
"And like a typical noble, he wears fine clothes and jewels, he has body-guards and an army wherever he goes. His hair was perfect . . . his teeth were perfect . . . he speaks well."
"Sure . . . so?"
Kaleah smiled. "Ive only ever seen you wear something other than peasant rags or fighting garb once or twice," she said. "Youre almost always covered in sweat and mud, unless youve just taken a bath, of course. You talk like the soldiers unless your mothers around, and whenever you brush your hair, it only ever seems to stay brushed for about five minutes before its a tangled mess again." She grinned at her friends rather shocked expression. "You fight like a soldier, you can curse like a sailor, and if I had to find a single word to describe you, it would probably be scruffy."
Jessicas mouth hung open a little at this rather blunt appraisal, and she quickly snapped it shut. Okay, her mind said, rather deflated. So she doesnt find you all that attractive physically. You can work on that. Maybe dress up a little more . . . get her to notice you. You could even let your mother do your hair or something . . .
"Whats your point?" She couldnt help but sound a little depressed.
Kaleahs eyes twinkled, hearing the tone in the young womans voice. "That is my point," she said quietly.
Kaleah drew her long legs up and crossed them under her. "You act like just another regular person," she said. "Youre more than just the title you were born with. All the little things that everyone else thinks are so important the fancy clothes, the jewels, the servants they dont matter to you." She grinned. "I cant really picture Charles rolling around in the mud like we do when were sparring."
Jessica absorbed these words a moment, and a slow smile crept across her face. "So, what youre saying essentially . . . is that Im special because I usually walk around dressed in sweaty peasant rags, matted hair and covered in mud?"
Kaleah couldnt help but chuckle. "Thats a pretty grim assessment, but its not far off the mark."
"Gee, thanks," Jessica snorted. "You know, next time you want to boost my ego by telling me how damn special I am, maybe you could think of something a little more flattering than, Jess, you look like a ragged peasant. Keep it up!"
The dark-haired woman smiled a slightly shy but honest smile. "Okay," she whispered. "How about this; youre a beautiful, amazing young woman with the most generous heart Ive ever seen . . . and youve made my life better than I ever thought it could be."
Jessica flushed hotly, her playfulness vanishing as she saw the sincerity in her companions sparkling cerulean eyes. "Thank you," she said softly. "Youre pretty special yourself."
The women held each others gaze a few more moments before their individual emotions grew too much, then looked back into the castle courtyard, where the troops Charles had brought were mingling happily with the soldiers of DaGran. Jessica cleared her throat and swung her legs against the stone wall, happy to just sit and enjoy the silent company of her friend and revel in what she could feel growing between them.
She thinks youre beautiful, her mind observed happily, and she felt the ball of joy in her stomach grow. Maybe she goes for the scruffy type. I guess that means you can forget about dressing up nice . . . just stay messy and unkempt for her. I mean, Im not saying you should stop bathing, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
"So, want to go and practice at the archery field?"
Kaleah shrugged, grateful her friend was going to let the emotional and rather revealing conversation drop. "Sure, why not."
They got up and wandered slowly over to the target range. On the way, Jessica waved one of the guards over and asked him to inform Charles where they would be as soon as he got out of his talks with Sir Richard, and would he like to join them. Glancing at Kaleah from time to time as they walked, Jessica recalled the dark womans words and couldnt fight the smile that settled permanently on her face.
Charles joined them at the archery range about an hour later, just as the two young women were beginning another round of shooting after a brief rest.
"Thought you didnt like archery, Jess," he observed with a grin as he meandered over, seeing the vibrant blonde take the bow from her partner.
"Well, its starting to grow on me," she replied, giving him a warm smile. Jessica nocked an arrow and drew back, sighting carefully along the shaft towards the large bullseye at the far end of the field. Exhaling slowly, she calmed her mind as Kaleah had instructed her before she released the taut string, sending the arrow speeding through the air.
Charles grinned broadly when the missile embedded itself not very firmly into the outer-most ring of the target. "Not growing too fast, I see," he teased, earning him a light slap.
"Better than anything you could do, Id wager." She handed the bow over to Kaleah, grinning at the dark woman and adding, "Hes worse with a bow than he is with a blade."
Charles watched Kaleah swiftly nock an arrow, noting the casually professional way she stood. "And how about you, Kaleah?" he inquired in a friendly, interested tone. "Can you shoot?"
Kaleah gave him a slightly self-deprecating smile, faced the target, and in a single smooth, almost liquid motion, she drew, sighted and released the arrow, sending it deep into the middle ring of the bullseye, only an inch or two from the very center.
"Who do you thinks teaching Jessica?"
Charles clapped his hands and laughed, finding himself liking this strange woman instantly. "Very good," he applauded as Jessica took the bow again. "You must be an excellent teacher . . . the last time I saw Jess try to shoot the target, she couldnt get within thirty feet of it."
Jess scowled and took another shot, this time hitting another ring closer to the center. "Just wait," she promised with a pout. "By the time Kaleahs finished with me, Ill be as good as she is." She raised an eyebrow curiously at him. "Howd the meeting go?"
"Fine," he said, waving the issue aside. "If Lancaster is sincere in his desire for a treaty, it could mean great good for us all."
"Humph!" Jessica snorted as she took a second shot, unfazed when the arrow only nicked the edge of the target and caromed away. Charles laughed, but she just shrugged. "It takes a lot of practice. Im getting better."
"Todays been your best effort so far," Kaleah agreed, taking the bow from her. She regarded Charles a little shyly, sensing that he was still observing her closely. She did as Jessica had told her to do in such situations; stood firm and strong, displaying a confidence that used to be fake, but which she was now beginning to believe in herself. "Jessicas told me Sir William has been your mutual enemy for many years. Perhaps his desire to talk peace is a ruse. Maybe hes planning to attack . . ." She remembered that Charles was of noble birth, and quickly added, "milord," as she knew commoners like her were expected to use the title when they addressed their social betters.
Charles just laughed easily and waved the formal appellation away. "Please, Kaleah, no need for that. Just call me Charles," he insisted. "Any friend of Jessicas is a friend of mine . . . and my friends are my equals, not my servants." He smoothed his fingers through his thin beard, considering her question seriously. "Sir William has more men than Jessicas father, its true, and hes attacked many times in the past. But the troops in DaGran are far better fighters then his own soldiers, and with the new alliance between Sir Richard and my own father solidified, he would be foolish indeed to attack. DaGran is a solid fortress; it wouldnt be likely hed attempt an assault."
"He could hire mercenaries." Kaleah remembered hearing somewhere that mercenaries were gathering in the region, but she couldnt recall where or when she had heard it.
Jessica snorted again as Kaleah nocked another arrow. "And pay them with what? Lancaster is a greedy old fool. He might have dreamed of taking these lands once, but he cant be stupid enough to try again." She patted her friend on the back just as the dark woman was taking another shot. Jessica laughed when the arrow missed the target completely. "Ha! Looks like the teacher needs a little more practice herself!"
Kaleah flushed. "You distracted me."
"Oh, boo! I just patted you on the back," Jess teased. "Maybe I should be more creative next time . . . no telling how much you might miss by if I actually put my mind to distracting you."
Kaleah snorted and turned away, grateful her dark complexion hid the color in her cheeks. "Dont even think about it," she groused, wondering if her words were meant for Jessica . . . or for herself, as she pondered a few ways the young girl might distract her.
Charles watched the interaction between the two women, recognizing instantly the close bond that had been forged between them. Jessica looked happier and healthier than hed ever seen her before; the glow in her smile was more radiant than the sun. Every other time hed visited DaGran, the young woman had been almost pathetically glad for his company. When it came time for him to leave, she always wept. Charles knew how lonely she was, how her mother kept her away from people she considered beneath their noble station. How had the Lady Rose been swayed to allow this friendship to ever develop? Come to think of it . . . how had Kaleah been swayed?
Charles was experienced at reading people; this tall, dark-haired woman with the piercing blue eyes didnt seem the type to make friends with someone like Jessica. Studying Kaleah, recognizing a solitary and silent soul, he wondered how she had become a part of the young blondes life and how she had worked such changes in his friend. Jessicas simple explanation that the dark woman had just been passing through was obviously not the truth . . . or not all the truth. He could see the numerous scars on the womans body and the one that marred the beauty of her face. She moved with an almost savage, animal grace, her motions restless and tense. She certainly wasnt someone he would have expected would make friends with the vibrant, spirited Jessica, and vice versa. His curiosity grew.
"Sooo . . . you wanna tell me how you two got together?" he asked.
Jessica grinned. "Right to the point, huh Charles?"
"Thats what works best with you, isnt it?"
The blonde laughed and nodded. "I guess so." She looked at her dark-haired friend, who smiled and shrugged, letting her know she didnt mind the nobleman knowing the truth. "Kaleah and I met about a month ago," she explained simply. "She was with a group of bandits my father arrested in the woods. In the fight, I saw she was good with a sword, so when she ran away, I chased her and . . . caught her."
"She knocked me out," Kaleah corrected.
"Only cause you wouldnt stay down," Jess argued. "And its not like I got away without a scratch." She displayed the still vivid scar on her right arm to Charles, who regarded Kaleah with new respect.
"Jess is quite a fighter," he said, studying her with greater interest. "You must be pretty good yourself to get past her defenses."
Kaleah waved him away, but the young blonde quickly jumped in. "Shes brilliant. Weve been training together only a few weeks, but she picks up new moves faster than anyone Ive ever seen."
Kaleah blushed and quickly loosed another arrow into the heart of the target. "Jessica likes to give too much credit."
Charles grinned. "Only where its due," he said. "So, you got caught. Howd you go from being a captured bandit to being Jessicas friend?"
The dark woman shrugged. "She offered me a nice place to sleep and the chance to be a better fighter. All she wanted was a little company. It was either that or be sentenced to the barracks as a servant, so I accepted her offer."
"I see." Charles sensed more, but didnt have to prod since Jessica was happy to fill in the blanks.
"Yeah, she accepted my offer, then took off as soon as a storm hit," the blonde explained. "It was lucky we didnt both die out there in the snow."
"You went out alone into a winter storm?" Charles eyes were wide with surprise.
Kaleah shuffled her feet a little. "I, uh. . . I didnt know how bad it would be."
"Kaleah hasnt seen many winters like this," Jessica explained gently. "Shes only been free for less than a year."
Aahhhh, Charles thought, studying Kaleahs suddenly guarded expression. That explains a lot. "You were a slave." A statement, not a question.
Kaleah nodded once, shortly. "For most of my life. My last master taught me to fight and to make weapons before he released me . . . that was late last Spring. I was wandering around, just trying to survive in the months before Jessica found me."
"We reached an understanding after a few initial problems," Jess said softly, patting her tall friend on the arm comfortingly. "Weve really gotten along well since then. Kaleahs been a wonderful companion. I cant even remember what I did before she came along."
Charles didnt miss the softening in Kaleahs expression at the young womans caring words, nor the unconscious, lingering way Jessica patted and stroked the former slaves arm. These two cared about each other a great deal, that much was obvious. He gave Kaleah a friendly, compassionate smile. "Well, Im glad you found each other," he said gently. "Slavery is an inhuman trade. Ive seen many lives destroyed by it. It does my heart good to see that you, at least, have been given another chance at life."
Kaleah flushed a little, hearing the sincerity in his words. "Thank you."
Charles let the moment continue a little longer, then clapped his hands and smiled, dispelling the serious atmosphere with the skill of a true diplomat; one accustomed to setting others at ease. "Could I interest you ladies in a mid-day ride?" he asked. "Im sure my men dont want to strain your fathers supplies anymore than we must, Jessica. A hunt would do them the world of good."
Jess agreed readily when Kaleah nodded her acceptance, the dark woman pointing out she had never been on a real hunt before. Together, the three left to gather Damon and the rest of Charles men for the chase.
The sun had started to set by the time the hunters returned, bearing the carcasses of two deer and a brace of pheasants. Jessica, never much for killing the forest animals, had been happy to sit back and let her friends participate while she enjoyed the last days of the winters magic. A dozen or so men agreed to come along, and the group had been in high spirits as they searched the woodlands for prints. Kaleah proved to be at best a mediocre tracker, but her aim was perfect, felling the graceful deer with a single shot. Jessica, seeing the look of intense concentration on the dark womans face as she lost herself in the chase, had allowed her imagination full rein as she let her eyes roam where they would.
Charles, ever an astute observer, did not miss the unusual amount of time his betrothed spent watching the former slave . . . nor did he fail to see the rakish smile that lit her face. He couldnt help but grin, figuring this might explain at least some of the changes in the young woman. Still, he thought, admiring for a moment Kaleahs admittedly appealing figure, it was probably better to learn the exact nature of what was going on before he started teasing the girl which he quickly put at the top of his things to do list.
Watching closely to see if Kaleah was reciprocating the interest, the nobleman was at first disappointed. Kaleahs focus was all for the hunt, and the few glances she threw Jessica did not hold the same desire that was being directed her way. Charles was just beginning to worry that his friend was heading for heartache when, as they were headed home, the dark woman drew alongside him at the head of the column and said, in a suspiciously casual way, "So, Jessica tells me you two are betrothed."
And we have a winner, the young man thought, quickly masking his amusement. "Thats right, for about four or so years now." He glanced behind to where Jessica was riding, figuring the blonde had opted to ride back a ways so she might watch her tall companion without fear a suspicion confirmed when he saw her green eyes quickly dart away to study the surrounding woodland with great interest as she realized he was looking at her.
"Four years? Why so long?"
Now he couldnt help but grin as he regarded her with a raised eyebrow. "Come on, Kaleah," he ribbed her. "Jess doesnt make a secret of it, and neither do I."
Kaleah had the sense to blush a little and stammer an apology. "I uh . . . wasnt sure if . . ."
"I felt the same way?"
The dark head nodded. "I mean, she told me you didnt love her as anything more than a friend, but . . . you know. Maybe you were just saying that to make her feel more comfortable."
Charles shook his head. "Jessicas a romantic heart," he told her softly. "She wants to wait till she falls in love with the right person, and that person isnt me. I understand that, because I feel pretty much the same way."
Was Kaleah the right person? he wondered, studying her classic dark features. She obviously cared for Jessica, but Charles knew slaves rarely escaped their captivity without carrying dark emotions with them. Jessica deserved someone who would trust her and love her completely. Would someone like Kaleah someone who had learned not to trust be able to give herself over to such intimate reliance?
"So," Kaleahs voice drew him back from his considerations, "youre not in love with her?"
"I love Jess as a friend," he assured her. "Shes very dear to me, and shes a very special person. But no, I have no interest in anything deeper."
Kaleahs brow furrowed. "Then why must you be married? Neither of you wants it. Why would they force you to do something you dont want?"
"The marriage will solidify the treaty between her father and mine," he explained. "Its a bond that other lords will recognize and respect, and will work to ensure they dont launch attacks against either of out lands." He sighed a little and shifted the decorative sword at his side, for a moment envying the ease and familiarity with which the soldiers bore their weapons. The damn thing pinched him uncomfortably. "Jessicas been quite creative finding new ways to delay the wedding, and Ive supported her all I can. But unless something happens to change things in the next year or so, I think were both going to run out of road."
Kaleah absorbed this with a thoughtful expression, then asked, "If you dont love each other, how will you handle being married? Wont you be expected to . . . you know? Have children?"
Charles shook his head. "The marriage is political. We wont have to have children if we dont want them. Jessica and I discussed the issue of sex, and we both agreed. Neither of us would be comfortable in such a relationship." He shivered a little, glancing back at the watching blonde. "Shes like my sister, for Gods sake!"
Kaleah turned away, her eyes thoughtful. Charles, letting her slip away, could feel the presence she projected even when her mind was occupied. He could understand how Jessica could get swallowed up by that intense magnetism. It was clear the two women, having developed a solid friendship, were now hurtling quickly towards something more.
Charles father, who had traveled a great deal in his youth and developed a very liberated mind along the way, had raised his son to respect the ways of other people, no matter what they were. That was one of the many things he appreciated about Jessica; she rarely passed judgement on others . . . although, he had to admit, it was a little surprising the vibrant blonde had apparently fallen for another woman. Hed certainly never seen that one coming. But if it made her happy, then he would support and nurture it as best he could; as a friend. This budding attraction which, it appeared, had yet to be consummated, was an unexpected though welcome discovery for the young lord. If he could nudge the two closer . . . well, it might be a way to escape his and Jessicas forced betrothal. Now, if he could just figure out a way to get Jessica to admit to it without embarrassing her . . .
Clucking to his horse as the party neared the imposing walls of castle DaGran, the young nobleman grinned to himself. He predicted this was going to be an unusually interesting visit.
Once the horses were stabled and the soldiers had returned to their barracks after preparing the meat they brought in, Jessica claimed the day had worn her out a little, and decided to retire to her room for a late supper.
"You want to join me?" she offered, including both but looking at Kaleah.
Charles declined. "Ive been on the road the last few days," he reminded his friend, stretching worn muscles. "My rooms are prepared; Ive been looking forward to getting a good nights rest. Sorry, Jess. Well do something fun tomorrow though, huh? The three of us?"
Jess nodded and hugged him goodnight before he disappeared into the keep. She raised an eyebrow at her friend. "Hungry?"
Kaleah was tempted, but she shook her head. "Actually I uh . . . I was planning on taking over the tower watch tonight," she explained quietly. Seeing the surprised look on her companions face, she reached out and patted the younger woman on the arm. "I just . . . I need a little space again, thats all." Her words sounded hollow even to her own ears.
Jessica searched her friends face for a moment, unable to hide her disappointment and regret. Its been a while since she last wanted to be alone, she thought. I suppose it was a little too much to hope that she was past all that. After a moment, she nodded. "I understand," she whispered, covering the hand that held her arm and stroking it comfortingly. "Youll join us tomorrow though, wont you?"
Kaleah nodded and smiled warmly at the slight note of desperation that crept into her friends voice. For a moment, the need to reassure the young woman that she would always be needed became so overwhelming Kaleah almost bent down and pressed her scarred lips against the softer ones below. With an effort though, she leashed her desires and locked them again in the cage of her heart.
"Of course," she promised. "Charles is great, I like him already. Its just . . ." she struggled to find words to make Jessica understand she wasnt drawing away from her. "I just have a few things I need to think about, thats all. Nothing bad," she quickly added, seeing the concern on Jessicas face. "Just regular stuff. Okay?"
The blonde nodded. "Sure."
"Alright then. Ill see you in the morning, bright and early, okay?
"Bright and early."
Kaleah ruffled her messy blonde hair in a now familiar gesture, gave her a little grin, and headed away into the gathering shadows. Just before she vanished from sight, Jess called out to her; "Kaleah?"
"Yeah?" Blue eyes shone even in the darkness.
Jess smiled. "Promise me youll get at least a little sleep?"
Teeth flashed white as the former slave grinned fully. "I promise," she said, before turning away. Her footsteps grew dimmer, and she was gone.
Jessica sighed. Her appetite had disappeared.
Kaleah climbed slowly up the winding, narrow staircase that led to the top of the lookout turret, her thoughts tangled and weighing down her feet. Reaching the summit, she relieved the grateful soldier on night watch and settled down to watch as the lights from the nearby village were lit, creating a distant glow.
Sighing deeply, the dark woman picked up a cloak left behind by the guard and wrapped it round her shoulders to ward off the nights chill. Shivering only a little, she let her mind ponder her relationship with Jessica.
Kaleah hadnt served as a whore for so many of her slave years without learning to recognize the signs people gave when they were interested in her. The way a person looked, or sounded, or even smelled could tell her quickly if someone wanted to bed her. However, that only made what was happening now all the more confusing.
Jessica wasnt like anyone she had ever known. Before, the people who came to the any of the brothels her masters had owned came because they wanted something; they wanted pleasure. Their desires were plain and based purely on the physical. This connection with Jessica was emotional as well . . . and maybe even deeper than that. She could feel the girls presence in the very depths of her soul.
Kaleah had no idea if the signals the young woman was sending were just normal signals that passed between normal friends, or if they were something more. Maybe Jessica just blushed a lot naturally, she thought. Maybe she gave everyone those sidelong glances. She certainly liked to touch people a lot when she was near them that one was assuredly not unique to their interactions. But the rest? How could she know for sure?
One thing was clear, however; Jessica was aware that something was going on between them. Kaleah had seen the curious, wondering expression in her friends eyes from time to time. Sensitive to other people, the young blonde had to have realized they were growing even closer to each other as time wore on. She seemed happy with it, but maybe that was because she hadnt even considered a physical dimension to their relationship. Would the young woman draw away if she found out about the thoughts Kaleah had been having?
A sudden, nearly silent footstep drew Kaleah away from her ponderings. Her hand went instantly to the Spanish blade she still carried at her side . . . but it was too late.
As Kaleah turned to see who it was, something struck her across the face with dazzling force. The dark of the night exploded suddenly with white and flashing stars. She had a vague impression of three figures carrying stout wooden sticks, dressed in black, faces concealed by cloth wrappings, but another blow sent her to the ground before she could get her weapon free. Her hand dropped from the hilt of the sword to break her fall, and pain lanced from her wrist up her arm from the impact.
"Looks like yer settlin in alright, slave bitch," snarled a voice, slightly muffled by the wrappings. A booted foot slammed into her stomach, and Kaleah croaked out an involuntary sound as the air left her lungs. Doubled over in agony, she barely heard the men. "May be that yeve outstayed yer welcome." Something hit her in the small of her back, causing her body to arch up. "Time to be movin on, I reckon. DaGrans not the place fer you." Before she could cry out, one of her attackers kicked her in the head, sending her flopping to the stone, clinging to consciousness, her body exposed and defenseless.
For a moment, she struggled through the rising darkness to summon the anger and rage that always lay so close to the surface, trying to draw strength to stand and fight. She wished for the breath to give a battlecry, but it was all she could do to spit out the blood that welled in her mouth. Shed been beaten before as a slave, and she called on her experience to push through the pain.
You were beaten as a slave, her mind screamed at her. But youre not a slave anymore! Get up! Fight!
Snarling, she closed a shaking hand over the hilt of her sword and tried to pull it free. One of the men quickly struck her sword arm . . . hard. Kaleah cried out as fire ripped through the damaged limb.
Her fury managed to get her back up to her knees, but before she could go further successive blows rained down on her as her assailants moved in to complete the punishment. Kaleah felt real fear for the first time in weeks; it flowed through her blood like ice, weakening her further. Dark memories rose of the times shed been punished by her masters, and she was engulfed by the same feeling of powerlessness that had pervaded her life for as far back as she could remember. As the men struck again and again, Kaleah, knowing there was nothing she could do, curled into a protective ball and tried to shield her face.
Eventually, after what seemed to her pain-filled mind to be several hours but was probably only a few minutes, the shower of agony halted and she relaxed a little, groaning weakly and struggling to hold back the darkness that wanted to spare her the pain. A large, rough hand grabbed her by the hair and jerked her face up. Two eyes were all she could see of the man; his face was carefully masked to conceal his identity.
"This is just a warnin, slave," the man growled, raising his fist. "Get outta this castle while ye still got legs to walk on. Next time . . . we wont be such gentlemen."
The mans fist slammed into her face, and dark oblivion became the whole world.
The dream was warm and fuzzy, filled with gentle images of bronze skin and flashing blue eyes. She felt the strong arms of an ethereal lover wrap protectively around her middle and released a sigh of utter bliss and contentment. Wonderfully soft pleasure coursed through her naked body, not urgent or rushed, but slow and teasing, drawing guttural moans from deep in her belly. She heard her name whispered by the woman loving her, and she smiled and snuggled deeper into the seductive embrace that blocked out the rest of the world and made her feel so very special.
"Jess . . ." the voice called, sounding more urgent as she turned and wetly kissed what skin she could reach. "Jess!"
"Jess, its me . . . Charles." Someone was shaking her lightly. . . someone real. "Come on Jess, wake up."
Reluctantly letting the dream slip away, Jessica opened bleary eyes and looked up to find Charles sitting on the bed next to her. "Alright, Im up," she grumbled crankily, a little miffed at having the wonderful dream interrupted. Fuzzily she looked at the window, rubbing her eyes. She scowled. "For Gods sake, Charles, its still dark outside!" she slapped his arm lightly but not too lightly. "I was in the middle of a dream that . . ." She suddenly noticed the tension in the young lords face. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
He nodded. "Kaleahs been hurt."
Green eyes widened and Jesss hand went to her mouth. "Hurt? What do you mean hurt? I-is she okay? Where is she?"
Jessica started to get up but Charles put his hands firmly on her shoulders, holding her back before she could leap out of the bed. "Calm down," he insisted softly. "Shes okay, Jess. Eric Grace is with her now, seeing to her injuries. Get some clothes on and Ill take you too her." He released her when he felt her relax a little.
Worried green eyes bore into him. "What happened?"
Charles got up and turned around to give her some privacy as she dressed. "We dont know. She wasnt all that coherent when the guards found her."
"Wasnt coherent? What do you mean? How . . . how bad is she?"
He sighed. "Shes pretty bruised and battered, but Grace says nothings broken. She uh . . . she did ask for you though."
"She did?" He couldnt help but hear her slight smile. "When did they find her? She told me she was taking the night-watch in the lookout turret."
"One of the guards went to bring her some food near midnight. He found her lying about half-way down the stairs and went to get help. Grace has been working on her since they carried her down."
"Midnight?" He turned around to see the young woman dressed in her ragged soldiers uniform, hands on her hips, expression stormy. "Why didnt anyone come and get me?"
"You were sleeping. She was barely conscious. You couldnt have done anything, and Grace said you would have gotten in his way." He raised his hands to forestall the anger that the small blonde was getting ready to unleash. "Jess, you needed your rest," he argued preemptively. "Shes going to need you now more than she did during the night."
Jessica considered this and realized it was true. "Someone still should have told me," she said, her voice breaking a little. "I could have at least . . . been there for her. Where is she?"
"The infirmary. Come, Ill take you to her."
The two headed down the corridor, Jessicas long, almost masculine strides forcing Charles to lengthen his own in order to keep up. Opening the door into the infirmary, Jessica rushed inside and came to a sudden stop when she saw her friend.
"Oh my God!" Her voice caught in her throat. She covered her mouth as tears sprang into her eyes.
Kaleah was lying on a padded bench, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling evenly. She wore a simple, loose-fitting shift, but most of her body was wrapped in bandages. Her face was badly bruised; one eye was swollen black and blue, and had been covered with a greenish-brown poultice Jessica knew was used to help broken skin heal. Her right arm was wrapped in a splint, and what patches of skin were showing were all darkened by bruises.
Eric Grace looked up from where he was finishing with the last of the bandages. "Aahhh, Lady Jessica. Excellent, youre here. Your friend was asking for you." The old man nodded a greeting to Charles as he came in after her.
"Is she . . ?"
"Her condition is quite stable." He saw the expression of fear and grief in her eyes and gestured for her to come closer. "Its not as bad as it looks," he assured her, the cold detachment in his voice chilling her for some reason as she stepped forward and reached out to reassure herself with physical contact that Kaleah was okay. She stopped, thinking she might accidentally hurt her friend further. Forcing down the tears and trying to dislodge the lump in her throat, she studied the dark womans battered features.
"Kaleah?" No response. She looked up to see Grace moving about his equipment, cleaning up. "Why is she still unconscious?"
"Not unconscious; sedated," he corrected her. "She was asking for you and being rather uncooperative. I was worried she might do herself more damage so I gave her something to put her to sleep. Its quite alright, milady, I assure you."
Jessica pulled a nearby stool closer and sat down. Unable to stand not touching her friend, she gently took the dark womans hand and stroked it soothingly. "How long will she be out?"
Grace gave the matter consideration, studying his patients slumbering form. "Hard to say," he admitted. "Shes thin, but strong. She should be coming round shortly, though shell be a bit groggy for a while."
"How did this happen? She was only supposed to be taking guard duty. Who would do this to her?"
Grace shrugged and patted her shoulder. "She told me she tripped and fell down the stairs."
Jessicas brow furrowed as she regarded the extent and nature of the damage. "Do you believe thats what happened?"
"Cant say for sure. I suppose she might have taken a nasty tumble. Her injuries are fairly consistent with what Id expect of such an accident. Still . . ." He indicated the poultice-covered gash on her face. "That looks almost like she was kicked in the face by someone wearing a boot," he observed with clinical interest.
That was exactly what Jessica thought. But . . ."Who would do that? She hasnt given anyone a reason to hurt her."
Grace shrugged. "However it happened, shes gonna be pretty sore for the next few days. I assume youll want to take care of her yourself . . ?"
She nodded. "When can she come back to her room? I think shed be more comfortable there."
Eric nodded. "I anticipated as much. Give her till tonight, then Ill have some of the servants carry her up." He gathered the bag that held his various herbs and medicines and tucked it under his arm. "Her injuries are cleaned, and the worst of the bruises are wrapped. Im afraid thats about all I can do for her, and I have other duties to attend to with your father. I trust youll want to stay here with her?"
"Fine. When she wakes up, just try to keep her from moving around too much. Nothings broken, but everything will be awful tender." He opened the door. "Remember, Lady Jessica, the best thing for your friend right now is plenty of rest. Her body needs time to heal. Ill send Senigma in to check on her around noon."
"Fine. Thank you, Eric."
The old man started to leave, then suddenly turned back. "Oh, one last thing, Lady Jessica," he said. "While I was treating the young woman, I couldnt help but notice the mark she has on her back . . . just below her neck. Have you seen it?"
"The tattoo? Ive seen it, yes. Why?"
"Well, I must say it fascinated me," Grace said eagerly. "The mark seems to be formed from some type of ancient writing. Ive never seen anything like it before, and Ive made quite a study of such things. I uh, took a quick tracing while she was unconscious. I apologize if it was forward of me, but I was very much hoping to study the design further . . . if it were agreeable with you, my lady."
Jessica considered Graces request, and nodded. "I see no harm in it. Kaleah has no idea what the mark means; I doubt shed mind you looking into it."
Grace smiled broadly and bowed, his velvet robes shuffling about him. "Thank you, Lady Jessica."
"Yes, Lady Jessica?"
"If you do find anything about it, Id like to be informed."
"Of course. My pleasure, Lady Jessica."
The door closed behind him and she suddenly found it too hard to hold back her tears. "Oh, Kaleah . . ." She reached up with her free hand and cupped the sedated womans cheek, stroking the scar that slashed across the swollen lips with her thumb in a gesture that instantly brought her a measure of comfort. "Im so sorry."
Charles stepped up behind her, putting his arms on her shoulders and giving her a squeeze. "You couldnt have done anything," he told her softly. "It was an accident-"
"This was no accident," she said firmly. "She was attacked."
"How can you be sure? Eric said. . ."
"Someone beat her. She wouldnt have fallen down the stairs. I know she wouldnt have."
Charles was puzzled. "But you said it yourself; whod want to hurt her?"
"I dont know." The blonde continued to gently caress Kaleahs lips with her thumb . . . a gesture that was so unconsciously intimate and caring Charles couldnt help but notice. "But someone did. When she wakes up, Ill find out who." Anger lit fires in her emerald eyes as she studied the bruises. "Ill find whoever it was . . . and theyll be sorry when I get my hands on them."
Deciding it was probably best not to argue with his friend when she was in such an emotional state, Charles just sighed and pulled another stool over next to hers. He sat down and patted her arm. "You two have become pretty close, huh?"
Jess nodded. "Shes the best friend Ive ever had," she whispered, almost to herself. "I cant believe this happened! Shes suffered enough already in her life . . . sh-she doesnt deserve this . . . she-" The tears started to flow.
Seeing the young woman loosing hold of her emotions, Charles reached out and pulled her into a gentle hug. "Ssshhhh, its okay, Jess," he soothed, stroking her head as she started to sob. "Shell be fine in a few days. Everythings alright."
Jessica let herself cry, the shock of seeing Kaleah like this becoming too much. Her body was wracked with deep shudders as she clutched Charles close, letting him comfort her. After many moments, her tears began to taper off and she slowly brought herself back under control.
"I-Im sorry," she stammered, drawing away from Charles embrace. "Its just . . ." she turned back to the slumbering woman. "It hurts so much to see her like this, you know?"
"I understand." He patted her on the shoulder and gave her a kind smile. "You, uh . . ." He didnt know if this was the most appropriate time, but thought that it might help the young woman to share her feelings. "You really like her, dont you?"
Jessica didnt look up at him as she returned to stroking the scarred lips, but she nodded slowly with a small, secret smile. "You have no idea how much," she whispered.
He grinned a little. "Oh, I dont know about that," he argued playfully. "I think I could take a pretty good guess . . . based on how much time you spent yesterday with your eyes glued to her butt."
He couldnt help but laugh as she spun around, her green eyes wide, mouth hanging open. "Come on, Jess, you didnt stop staring at her all day," he teased good-naturedly. "The look in your eyes was making me blush!"
"I-I, uh . . . I was just . . ." Jessica stammered helplessly, trying to come up with an explanation. Charles just regarded her patiently with a raised eyebrow. Eventually, running out of breath, the young woman just blushed and looked at her feet. "I wasnt really being that obvious, was I?" She peeked up at him shyly from under sleep-mussed blonde hair.
"Im afraid so," he nodded. "But dont worry. No-one else was paying any attention. And Kaleah was focused mostly on the hunt, so I think you got away with it." He grinned and folded his arms across his chest.
"Oh God." Jessica ran her fingers through her hair and blushed furiously. She couldnt help but chuckle at herself a little. "I guess I should be more careful next time, huh?"
"Maybe you should be more obvious," he suggested quietly. "She doesnt know how you feel about her, does she?"
"Welll, not exactly, no." Jess took Kaleahs hand again and rubbed it soothingly. "She knows how much I care for her . . . kind of. And I guess she must be aware that our friendships still growing stronger. But she doesnt know some of the things Ive been thinking about lately, if you know what I mean." She glanced at him questioningly. "You, uh, dont mind about it, do you?"
He shook his head fondly. "Youre my friend, Jess. If this is something that makes you happy, then it makes me happy, too." He studied the dark woman. "She is attractive, I guess, in a . . . primal kind of way.
"I know." A rather sexy smile twisted her lips. "And her eyes are the most amazing blue . . ." She sighed. "Im still trying to figure out how to tell her. Ive never had to do anything like this before. But I cant keep it inside me much longer. Its getting too hard not to touch her, to be closer to her."
"How do you think she feels?" Charles had already figured Kaleah was just as interested in his young friend as she was in her, but it was not his place to tell anothers secrets, regardless of the happiness it might bring them both.
"I have no idea. I cant tell." Even now, just looking at her sleeping friend made her feel all warm inside, no matter how grim the circumstances. "Sometimes, she looks at me a funny way, and Im sure shes thinking . . . you know . . . those kinds of thoughts about me. And sometimes, she says something that makes me wonder if shes trying to figure out if Im interested in her." She sighed again. "But then she pulls away, or changes the subject, and I have to let her go. Shes learning to trust me, and no matter what my feelings are, I wont risk destroying what its taken me so long to build."
Suddenly, Kaleah groaned and her eyes flickered. Jessica stood up excitedly as the dark woman began to move her head from side to side, mumbling.
"Shes coming round." She stood up and moved around the padded bench excitedly, pressing a palm to Kaleahs forehead to sooth the beaten womans uneasy motions. She threw Charles a threatening look. "Not a word of this to her, promise me."
He instantly raised his hand. "I swear, Jess. Your secrets safe with me."
She smiled and went back to easing her friend into wakefulness.
"Jess . . ?" An eye cracked open, then the other, revealing cerulean orbs fuzzy with confusion.
"Im here, Kaleah," the young woman reassured softly. "Youre safe, just lie back. You should try to stay still."
Kaleah groaned and tried not very successfully to sit up. She looked around, disoriented. "Where . . ?"
"The infirmary," Jess explained. "A guard found you and called for help. You shouldnt move for a while. Youre awful bruised."
"Urgh" Kaleah lay back and took stock of the damage to her body. Jess was right, she assessed. Everything felt sore. She ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek, feeling the skin torn and tender from where her flesh had been smashed against her teeth. She knew she was lucky not to have lost a tooth. Her right arm was splinted, but she suspected it was more to keep it stable than because the bone was broken. All in all, she considered herself fairly lucky. The beating had been professional and effective, meant to deliver injuries that were painful but which would heal quickly. She had a feeling her attackers hadnt wanted to do anything that might necessitate a prolonged recovery.
She looked up and was instantly captured by the compassion and concern in her friends expression. With a slight groan, she managed a smile she hoped was reassuring. "Im okay," she whispered, wincing when talking hurt her cheeks.
"Youre a very long way from okay, Kaleah," Jessica insisted.
"Ive had worse."
Jessica ran her fingers through the dark womans hair, smoothing it. "I know you have," she said softly. "But you should be safe from this sort of thing in DaGran. What happened?"
"I fell . . . down . . ." She trailed off when she saw the stern look in Jessicas face. Sighing, she admitted to herself that if anyone deserved the truth, it was her young friend. "Three men. They came from behind while I was on watch. I didnt hear them coming, and they knocked me down before I could get my sword out."
"Did you see what they looked like?" asked Charles.
She shook her head. "They wore masks."
"Did they say anything? Could you recognize a voice if you heard it again?"
"They said-" She stopped, suddenly realizing that if she told Jessica what her attackers had said, the young womans sharp mind would assuredly make the same connection she herself had made. The men wanted her out of DaGran . . . just like the Lady Rose. This attack was obviously the noble womans way of making sure Kaleah understood she was serious. Jessica didnt need to know about any of that. "They said something, but I-I cant remember what it was. They sounded like any of the soldiers. I dont think Id recognize them again. Im afraid they all sound the same to me." True enough. The accent was too common to distinguish one man from another.
Jessica frowned. "Do you have any idea why they attacked you?"
Kaleah shook her head. Lady Rose was pushing her harder, but shed known there might be consequences to her continued involvement with her blonde companion. This was something she would deal with in her own way. She had no desire to pit Jessica against her own mother.
Jessica wasnt happy, but decided now was not the time to vent her frustration. "Nevermind," she said gently, feeling Kaleah move into her fingers encouragingly as she stroked her face. "We can talk about it later if you want. You need to rest."
Kaleah shifted a little and grumbled; the bench she lay on wasnt very comfortable. "Id rather be in my bed."
"I know. Well get you moved to your room later on tonight. For now, you should stay here and keep still . . . let your body recover."
From years of dealing with worse injuries than this, Kaleah knew well the wisdom in her companions advice. She smiled and relaxed, letting Jessicas touch ease away the shadows that this experience had raised from the depths of her memory.
DaGran had become a home to her; a place of safety after years spent living in constant fear. Now, that sense of peace had been called into question. She felt the walls that had crumbled under the care and company of the young noble woman start to rebuild, instinctively trying to protect her. With an effort, she stopped them. Lying back and relaxing into the tender caress of her friend, she knew that Jessica would protect her. Closing her eyes, basking in the warmth of the care being lavished on her, the dark woman closed her eyes and let the pain fade away.
Yes, she thought sleepily as her mind drifted off. Jessica will protect me. All I have to do . . . is lie back and let her.
Kaleah slept for most of the day, the sedative Grace had given her working to keep her still and also aiding her bodys natural healing properties. Charles regretfully was called away from the infirmary by his duties, but Jessica remained at her friends side. Whenever Kaleah woke from her restful slumber, the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the young woman smiling down at her reassuringly, her hands gently caressing her face or her hair.
"Have you had anything to eat today?" she asked drowsily during one of her periods of wakefulness.
Jessica smiled. "Im not hungry. Maybe Ill send for something later . . . do you feel up to some soup?"
The dark womans eyes warmed, and she basked in the simple pleasure of knowing someone cared for her; a pleasure shed been a stranger to most of her life. She regarded her friend openly, unable to stop the sweet smile from forming as she thought again how beautiful Jessica was. "Maybe later." She felt the medicine start to pull her back into darkness, and grasped the blonde womans hand tightly as she closed her eyes. "D-do you . . . have anything you . . . have to do today?"
Jessica read the hidden question easily, and squeezed her hand. "Ill be here when you wake up," she promised in a whisper. "Im not going to leave you."
Consciousness slipped away, but Kaleah smiled happily and sighed. "Not going to . . . leave you either," she breathed as she drifted away. "Never leave . . ."
Jessica smiled and felt her heart ache with the love it held for this woman.
Around noon, Senigma stopped by and gave a sleeping Kaleah a brief once-over before reporting to Jessica the reassuring news that the patient was doing well and would likely be fully repaired in a few weeks, depending on her how fast her body healed.
Early afternoon rolled on, and as the sedative began to wear off Kaleah spent more time awake. Feeling how weak her muscles were, she asked for something to eat and Jessica called for a servant to bring them some soup and bread. They ate the meal in companionable silence, each occasionally stealing glances at the other. When they were done, the former slave found her energy somewhat recovered and managed to sit up further.
"Be careful," Jessica scolded with concern when she heard the sharp intake of breath as Kaleah stood on shaky legs.
"Its okay . . ." The dark woman winced, but had decided it was time to move around. She didnt like to feel herself being restrained by her injuries, or by anything else. "I just need to get up and ease my muscles, thats all."
"Do you want to go back to your room?"
Kaleah nodded. "I think I can walk that far."
"Dont be silly. Ill get some servants to help . . . we can carry you there on the stretcher-"
"Jess, wait!" Kaleah reached out to stop the young woman as she was about to head out the door. "I dont need the help. I can make it by myself."
"Please . . ?"
Seeing the desperate look in her friends expression, Jessica sighed, realizing Kaleah didnt want to appear helpless. She didnt want to be laid out on a stretcher and carried everywhere like an invalid. Jess knew the dark woman well enough to understand her restless spirit, and the pride the former slave took in every freedom she could lay her hands on. But, like it or not, Kaleah needed to understand that she was hurt; she had to take things easy.
"Will you at least let me help you?" she asked softly, sensing it was probably the most her friend would accept. After a brief internal debate, Kaleah nodded and Jessica wrapped her splinted arm around her neck and accepted as much of the taller womans weight as she could.
The two took it slowly, with Jessica insisting they stop and rest frequently along the way. Kaleah, recovering her energy as the medicine wore off, would have protested but for the dull ache that was spreading through her body. The few soldiers and servants who passed them by gave slight nods of genuine sympathy to the dark woman, but recognized that any offer of help would not be welcomed.
It took them over an hour to reach the hallway where their rooms were located, and by then Kaleahs body was throbbing in agony. Jessica sensed her companions pain. Her room was closer than Kaleahs, so when they reached it she directed the groaning woman inside.
"Wait, this is-"
"You can stay in my room tonight, Kaleah," she said shortly. "Its closer."
"But where-" Kaleah hissed as pain shot down her arm. "Where will you sleep?"
Jessica shrugged. "Its a big bed," she replied simply.
Kaleah was in too much pain to argue. "Uurgh!" She groaned loudly as she collapsed into the welcoming softness of the mattress and still-rumpled blankets that bore the distinct scent of her young friend. She lay still for a while, letting the pain fade away to a dull ache she could ignore. Then, rolling over, she looked up at Jessica and grinned a little. "After lying on that damned board all day, this feels soooo good!"
"I bet." Jessica smiled and lay down next to her friend, careful not to bounce her too much. After resting a moment she looked to the window, where shadows were gathering outside. "Its going to be dark soon; want me to set a fire?"
"Im not going to try to stop you, if you have your heart set on it," Kaleah replied playfully. The injuries were feeling much better already, now that she wasnt moving so much. Her eyes danced, unable to feel bad in the company of the young blonde.
Jessica gave her a strange, slightly amused look before she got off the bed. "Youre in a surprisingly good mood," she observed wryly as she laid out the kindling in the fireplace.
Kaleah smiled at her, then wrestled with a blanket and managed to pull it over herself at least part-way. "Yeah, well maybe thats because I feel pretty good . . . considering," she said cheerfully.
The room was suddenly lit with flickering, crimson light as Jessica ignited the pile of dry kindling with a skillful hand. Kaleahs heart almost stopped beating as she watched her young friend brush her hands off and turn around. In the firelight, Jessicas perpetually rumpled blonde hair looked iridescent; the shadows framing half her face highlighted every perfect angle, and her emerald eyes sparkled with her youth and life. When the young woman smiled, Kaleah knew she wanted nothing more from her life than to make that smile appear as often as possible.
Jessica studied Kaleah, the teasing words that had been about to spill from her lips vanishing as she saw the strange look in the dark womans eyes. She smiled almost shyly, suddenly a little self-conscious for no reason she could identify. Standing under that quiet, intense gaze, she felt heat rise in her face. When the cerulean eyes dropped away from her face and flickered over her body if only for a second she could feel the familiar sensations of desire wash over her, filling her stomach with butterflies and turning her blood to liquid fire that spread outwards from her groin and almost stopped her heart with its power.
Eventually, the young blonde cleared her throat and broke the intensity of the moment, afraid shed do something she might regret if it continued. "Are you still hungry?" she asked quietly. "I could ask the kitchen to send up some dinner."
Kaleah nodded, casting her eyes elsewhere in the room, aware shed been staring. "Sure. I think I need something more than that soup we had if Im going to recover my strength." She suddenly realized it was Thursday. "Arent you supposed to attend the dinner with your parents in the great hall tonight?"
Jess shrugged. "I sent word earlier I wouldnt be there. You need me a lot more than they do right now."
Kaleah flushed with happy warmth, still surprised somehow by every kind act this amazing woman displayed so effortlessly. "Thank you."
"No problem." The young blonde grinned cheekily. "If it gets me out of my mothers not-so-subtle mentions of the wedding, so much the better. Ill send someone down to get some food."
Before long a servant knocked on the door bearing two plates of meat and vegetables. The two lay on the huge bed, eating quietly and using the time to contemplate the nature of what had passed between them. By the time they were done, both had reached about the same conclusion; that something stronger than friendship was building here . . . and that they were both aware of it.
Neither were prepared to grasp the possibility that what they had seen in the eyes of the other was desire, or even romantic interest. But deep down, the seeds that had been planted some time ago were nourished by the moment . . . and began to grow into a love that was more confidant and sure of itself.
They talked awhile about nothing in particular, and Jessica suddenly realized their conversations were no longer as one-sided as they used to be. Kaleah talked quite a bit when they were together now, willing to respond with more than the single sentences or at times grunts which had characterized most of her repertoire not so long ago. The young woman smiled at the change, then muffled a yawn, realizing it was getting late.
She smiled at Kaleah regretfully, not wanting the evening to end. "I should probably let you get some rest. I know what I said before about it being a big bed, but you probably need a bit of space. I can stay in your room, if you like." she said. She started to get up, but was stopped by the shy touch of her friend.
"Please . . . dont go." Kaleahs voice was so quiet she almost missed her words. Turning, she found open blue eyes beseeching her, filled with something that was not quite fear, but very similar. The dark woman squeezed her arm, refusing to let go. "I-I dont want to be alone right now." Blue eyes implored her shyly. "W-would you . . . please stay? Just for tonight?"
Jessica could only smile reassuringly and nod her head. "Of course," she whispered, patting the hand that held her. "If you want me to, Ill stay."
Relief washed over Kaleahs face and she eagerly pulled the covers off the bed and moved over to allow her friend to join her in the warmth. Jessica looked at her ragged clothes and frowned. "Will you be alright if I wear these? I could take them off?" She reached to pull the shirt off.
"NO! Um . . . theyre fine, dont . . . dont worry about them."
Jessica hid her grin, wondering not for the first time if maybe Kaleah was thinking the same things she was. Shrugging casually, she slipped under the covers and into the welcoming warmth.
For a moment, both women lay there in silence, staring up at the mural on the ceiling and just enjoying the comfort of the others nearness. There was about a hand-span of space between them, but Jessica soon gave in to the temptation to snuggle closer. Already a touchy-feely person, it was too much to expect her to keep her hands to herself.
"I-is this alright?" she asked tentatively as she drew closer, wanting more but also willing to back off if it made Kaleah uncomfortable. To Jessicas relief, the dark woman tensed only for a moment possibly from pain then turned slightly to better accommodate her companions embrace.
"Its fine," she heard whispered in the darkness, Kaleahs voice sounding oddly strained. "Thank you."
She smiled. "Youre welcome." And youd be welcome to sooo much more, her mind put in with a metaphysical grin. She silently ordered it to shut up.
Holding the tall woman in a gentle embrace with her head resting lightly on the dark womans breast, Jessica felt Kaleahs body trembling in her arms. She drew back and studied her friends face. "Are you cold? Am I hurting you?"
Kaleah shook her head. "Youre fine," she whispered. "Its just . . ." She struggled a moment to put her feelings into words, but gave up. It was just too hard to express the emotions the young womans touch inspired in her . . . emotions that went so far beyond mere physical desire she was afraid they would tear her apart from the inside. Seeing the genuine concern in Jessicas verdant gaze, she smiled reassuringly and pulled the girl closer to her. Jessica, confidant she wasnt causing the woman any pain, snuggled deeper into her warmth.
"You tell me if I start to hurt you, alright?"
They lay together for some time, just soaking in the sensation of being so close. Kaleah eventually got her body settled down, and the trembling subsided. Thinking of what her life had been like during the months before she met Jessica, the dark woman couldnt hold back a slight chuckle.
Puzzled eyes glanced up at her. "Are you laughing?"
She nodded, her teeth flashing in the dim light as she grinned.
"Whats so funny?"
"Nothing, I was just . . . just thinking about things."
She shrugged. "Like how things have changed since I met you . . . and how theyve stayed the same." Her smile grew softer as she looked up at Jessica. "I always hated to be touched," she whispered. "I hated having to talk to anyone, and I hated having to put up with company."
Jessica grinned. "I guess that has changed a bit, hasnt it?" she said, pointedly regarding their bodies pressed together.
"Not really," Kaleah replied. "I still dont like it when people try to touch me. I still cant hold up a decent conversation, and I dont like it when there are too many people around . . ." Her expression grew softer as she studied her friends face, which had become a little guarded. "Except when Im with you," she continued. "Remember when we had to sleep like this that night in the storm? How much I didnt want to be anywhere near you?"
"You flinched everytime I tried to reach out to you." Jessica grinned. "I remember."
"Exactly. And I still feel the same way about everyone . . . except you. When you touch me . . . I feel safe, because I know youd never hurt me. Ive never . . . been touched like that before." It was a simple admission, an acceptance of what had grown between then, nothing more. She studied the soft lines of the young womans face, her expression open and unguarded. A hand reached up involuntarily to trace the smooth planes of Jessicas cheeks. The young womans eyes closed as she leaned into the gentle caress, and Kaleah smiled at the sigh that escaped her lips. "Youre the best thing thats ever happened to me, Jessica," she whispered, gently drawing her hand away before it could consider wandering further. Green eyes, shy and uncertain, opened and looked down at her wonderingly.
They were silent for long moments, just enjoying the feelings that ran between them. Eventually, however, Jessica smiled as she felt the intensity start to ebb away . . . as she knew it always did. She ran a single finger across her companions lips, tracing the scar there as she always did. "I think youre the best thing thats ever happened to me, too, Kaleah," she said quietly. "I, um . . . Im glad this . . . whole thing worked out so well. For both of us."
Smiling, Jessica nodded a slight nod and lay back, resting her head on her companions breast.
This is getting ridiculous! her mind screamed at her. You should have just kissed the damn woman! She wouldnt have stopped you . . . cant you see that? Are you stupid or something!? This is starting to get out of hand . . . I mean, are you ever planning to make a move, or are you just going to go on having these soul-searching moments that nearly stop your heart and then disappear!? Cos if this keeps going on, youre going to wind up with a serious heart condition . . . I mean it. What are you waiting for!?
Jessica silently ordered her mind to shut up. She knew what she was waiting for; the Right Moment. Kaleah was clearly aware of the strength of the emotions between them, but maybe the former slave wasnt ready for anything more. And for that matter, maybe she wasnt ready herself. Her body was definitely ready for more . . . but that didnt mean her heart was. Jessica was a patient person, usually. She had spent her whole life waiting to find true love, and now that she had, she wasnt going to rush into anything. When they were both ready, there would come a time when it would be Right . . . when the intensity of the moment would spark into flames, not fade away and leave this sweet ache behind.
When the time was right . . . this love would outshine everything else in the world.
Continued in Part 4.
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