The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 7
Lady Katherine And The Perilous Journey
September 1191, Nottinghamshire, England
to MercyCroft and Jay for beta reading this for me :)
This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now.
Lady Katherine Johnson wound her way through Sherwood Forest, heading for the rendezvous she had kept regularly over the past few weeks. The wind whispered through the trees, leading her to let out a small involuntary shiver as it cut through her light shirt and sleeveless tunic. At least her thick trousers and stout boots provided her decent protection on the lower half of her body against the brambles that littered the forest floor. Now they were into autumn, she realised she would need to procure some warmer clothes. She didn’t really relish the prospect of a winter spent living out in the forest with the outlaws, but it seemed that was what she had been reduced to.
Reaching the edge of the trees, she stopped to check that there was no one around, other than the person she was expecting. She shook her head as she considered how it had come to this; how she found herself skulking round in the undergrowth like a common criminal. Determining that they were indeed alone, she made her way over to the tall man who stood waiting just beyond the treeline. His dark eyes turned to meet her as she approached.
“Good afternoon, m’lady,” he said in greeting.
“Good afternoon, Tobias,” she replied, “Though as I told you before, there’s no need to keep calling me that anymore, Katherine will suffice.”
“Of course, m’lady,” he said with a small nod, and she couldn’t help smiling at his persistence. At least someone still thought of her as the lady of the manor, even if she herself felt less and less like it each day.
“So how are things at the manor?” she asked, half-dreading the reply.
“Much the same,” he informed her, “Unfortunately Mark seems intent on exploiting the peasants as much as he can since his return.”
Katherine exhaled slowly, closing her eyes as she pinched the bridge of her nose while contemplating his words. Ever since she had been cast out of the manor for her relationship with Anne, Mark had got more and more tyrannical. She pondered over how he had never been like that before he went away on the Crusades, at least not in her presence. He seemed to have come back a changed man after his experiences in Europe. Not that he had been completely innocent of wrong doing before that, she had discovered – he had murdered Anne’s parents after all. That fact weighed heavily on Katherine, with nagging doubts that she was somehow culpable still present in her mind. Of course Anne had reassured her that she herself didn’t think that, but it continued to gnaw away at Katherine anyway.
“Mr Kirby is also ever-present at the manor house, exerting his influence,” added Tobias, interrupting her thoughts.
“I might have known that he would have some hand in it,” she noted ruefully.
“Indeed, together they are turning Markham into a manor where the peasants live in fear, scared of incurring the wrath of the lord,” he remarked.
Katherine sighed again, turning from Tobias to pace across the grass, her head bowed and her arms crossed over her chest. It was hard to believe what was happening on the estate; hard to take the tales that Tobias brought her of the hardships that Mark was inflicting on the people. While she had been in charge everything had been run in a spirit of cooperation, but now it seemed Mark was intent on wrecking all of her good work. She couldn’t help feeling that it was all somehow her fault. If only her involvement with Anne hadn’t been discovered then maybe she could have done something to prevent it, to protect her people. Or maybe if she had never even gotten involved with Anne in the first place…
Katherine caught herself, disturbed that the last thought had even crossed her mind, no matter how fleetingly.
“I believe the Sheriff may also be part of the problem,” Tobias continued as Katherine gazed up at the grey clouds above as if they could provide some answers.
She swivelled back round to face him, “Oh yes?”
“Yes, he has visited the house on several occasions since Mark’s return,” Tobias revealed.
“That’s all we need,” said Katherine, shaking her head. She knew of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s bloodthirsty reputation, and any input he had in the running of the manor could only be bad.
“So,” she continued, “Mark still hasn’t disclosed my real whereabouts to the world at large then?”
“No, he’s maintaining that you’re off recuperating from illness,” confirmed Tobias.
Katherine nodded. She wasn’t quite sure what Mark was up to, but for some reason he was keeping the fact that she was living with the outlaws in Sherwood Forest a secret. Maybe he didn’t want to see the Johnson name disgraced, she considered. Though, in that case, he would eventually have to say something – she could hardly stay “ill” forever. She realised that the most likely outcome was that in the end he would reveal that she had actually died of her illness. At that point he would have to actively seek her out to make that a reality, and stop his lie being exposed. That meant she had a limited time to do something about the current situation, though she was at a loss for ideas at the moment.
“And he still doesn’t suspect you in any way?” asked Katherine, worried about the risk Tobias was taking bringing her news of the manor.
“No, I think Mark is convinced of my loyalty, though Mr Kirby keeps a much closer eye on my activities,” he noted.
“Well, just be careful, I don’t want anyone else being dismissed on my account,” she said, referring to Beatrice. The young maid had received her marching orders immediately after Kirby had revealed Katherine’s secret to Mark. Her actions during the non-wedding to Kirby had been enough for them to deduce that the maid must have been in on Katherine’s deception. Luckily they didn’t seem to suspect either Tobias or the friar of being connected in any way, for the time being at least.
“Do not worry, I am always discrete,” he reassured her.
“Thank you for keeping me informed,” she said, patting his arm gratefully, “I just wish there was something I could do about what’s happening.”
“I’m sure you will think of something,” he replied, and Katherine wished she shared his confidence in her.
“I’ll see you again in two days time?” she asked.
“Indeed, I shall be here,” he agreed before turning to go.
She was glad Tobias was managing to avoid suspicion so far; she didn’t want anything else to haunt her already burdened conscience. What with her guilt over what was happening to the people on her land in her absence, plus the residual doubts over the murder of Anne’s parents, she was already finding it difficult to remain upbeat. She knew she could talk to Anne about it, but she was somewhat reticent. Not only did she not want to heap her problems on Anne, who had enough to deal with after finally discovering the identity of her parent’s killer, but she also had a fear that Anne could take it the wrong way – as a sign that Katherine didn’t want to be living in the forest, living with Anne. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth - it was wonderful that they could be together all the time now, without having to sneak around. However, that didn’t stop Katherine missing the manor. She just wished there was some way she could have both. Trying to dismiss her fears and doubts she continued back to the outlaw camp.
Anne sat in the camp, attaching the feathered heads to a bunch of arrows, frequently casting her eyes up as she anxiously watched for Katherine’s return. She knew she had gone to meet Tobias again, and just prayed that he had some good news this time. Unfortunately, Anne doubted that would be the case. Katherine usually came back from her discussions with the captain of the guard even more down than when she went, which was saying something.
Anne was getting increasingly worried about Katherine and her state of mind. Things had been fine for the first couple of weeks in the camp, both of them thrilled to be able to spend so much time together and certainly taking full advantage of it. She allowed herself a small smile as she recalled all the wonderful places they’d found to make love around the forest.
However, Anne could sense that Katherine was becoming more and more unhappy, though she hadn’t actually said anything to that affect. She supposed Katherine was just trying to put a brave face on things. However, Anne wished Katherine would just speak to her about what was on her mind. Anne realised she could ask Katherine about it, but didn’t want to push things, hoping that Katherine would come to her of her own volition when she was ready.
She considered that perhaps Katherine was wary of talking to her because of what she herself had been through recently, but Katherine’s well-being was troubling Anne far more than any residual thoughts of what Mark had done to her parents. She just wanted Katherine to be happy, which obviously wasn’t the case at the moment. She suspected it was partly to do with suddenly losing her position as head of the manor, judging by her generally depressed reaction after seeing Tobias and hearing what Mark was doing in her stead. Katherine’s strong sense of duty would make it hard for her to take what was happening to the people she used to be responsible for.
Anne was sure there were also other things on her mind adding to that sense of guilt, especially since Katherine had hardly mentioned what Mark had done in the forest, when he had tried to force himself on her. It was like Katherine had just dismissed it, or more likely buried it deep down to fester. Anne knew all about pushing hurt away like that, and was worried it could have as damaging an effect on Katherine as it had on her.
Suddenly she saw Katherine’s auburn head appearing from the trees and she quickly dumped her arrows and crossed to meet her. Before she even spoke, Anne could tell that it had been more bad news, Katherine’s grim expression all too obvious.
“How did it go?” asked Anne, though she thought she already knew the answer.
“Not good,” replied Katherine, sighing heavily.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Anne sincerely, reaching out to place a comforting hand on Katherine’s shoulder.
“I think I’m going to go and sit down by the lake for a while,” said Katherine flatly, her eyes looking off distractedly.
“Do you want me to come with you?” asked Anne.
“No,” stated Katherine, still avoiding her eyes, “I’d rather be on my own.”
Anne just nodded and let her go, though she desperately wanted to follow. A small clutching sensation in her chest was telling her that’s exactly what she should be doing as her eyes followed Katherine until she was out of sight. It pained her to see the normally vibrant woman so low like this and she just wanted to help her. However, she also knew that Katherine was a proud and stubborn woman, and she would have to reach her own conclusions about when she wanted to speak about things.
In the mean time, Anne would just try and be as supportive as possible. Having spoken to Robin about her concerns, she had managed to persuade him to let her and Katherine carry out a small task for him. It involved delivering a land deed to some monks in Loughborough, to the south of Nottingham. It would be a three or four day journey there, and Anne was hoping the time away from the outlaw camp would do Katherine some good. It wouldn’t hurt that they would also be alone together on the trip, perhaps giving Anne the chance to get Katherine to finally open up to her.
Katherine picked up the stone and weighed it in her palm, brushing her thumb over the jagged surface. Casting her eyes around she sought out a suitable target, spying a likely looking tree off to her left. Taking aim, she flung the stone with all her might at the bark, satisfied when the impact broke away some of the protective layer. If she squinted really hard, she could just imagine that the tree was Mark.
She wasn’t quite sure where all her anger was coming from; normally she could control her emotions much better than this. Yet there it was, amongst all the guilt and recrimination that also occupied her thoughts, this urge to just lash out at something. She wasn’t even sure who it was she was angry at - Mark, herself, Kirby, the whole world?
One after another she threw stones at the tree, finally giving up when her arm became sore. Sitting down on the hard ground, she brushed her hair from her face, wiping away the sweat that had accumulated on her forehead.
Resting her chin on her arm, she had to admit that she didn’t really feel much better for her exertions, and she wondered whether she should have taken Anne up on her offer to join her. She could tell the young woman was concerned about her, which was partly why Katherine had declined in the first place, not wanting to place her problems on Anne’s shoulders. Katherine realised that she had been acting a bit oddly recently, alerting Anne to her unease. Mind you, she was at a loss to explain her behaviour to herself some of the time, let alone try and discuss it with someone else. She found herself switching mood quickly - sometimes feeling the urge to take foolish risks, such as when she had taken on Kirby, while at other times barely able to muster the will to get up in the morning.
Letting Anne in on her insecurities also ran the risk that she would end up being the one that Katherine lashed out at, with no other outlet for her simmering anger. That would be unacceptable, and Katherine resolved that she would sort this out herself - she was strong, she could do it. She would just have to make a better effort of demonstrating to Anne that she was all right, to stop the young woman fretting over her.
Attempting to pull herself together and drag herself out of the gloomy mood that had swept over her, she got up and headed back up to the camp.
This time when Anne approached her, she forced a smile onto her face, hoping it didn’t appear too strained.
“How are you feeling?” asked Anne, her blue eyes regarding Katherine intently.
“I’m fine, really,” replied Katherine stroking Anne’s arm as she spoke in an attempt to reassure her, “I’m sorry about earlier, I just needed a bit of time of my own.”
“Of course, I understand,” remarked Anne gently, “But if there’s anything you do want to talk about…”
She let the offer hang in the air, and Katherine almost leapt at it, especially when she saw the soft look in Anne’s eyes, drawing her in, enticing her to speak. Yet something held her back – any temporary problems she might be having adjusting to her new life were inconsequential.
“Thank you,” she said finally, “But it’s nothing important.”
“If you’re sure?” probed Anne, and Katherine was sure she could detect the faint trace of disappointment in her tone.
“Yes,” confirmed Katherine, “So what’s been going on around here anyway?” she asked, wanting to get off the subject of herself.
“Well, actually, Robin’s got something he needs doing,” revealed Anne.
“Oh yes?” enquired Katherine.
“He’s got a land deed which he needs delivered to the abbey at Loughborough, it was stolen from the monks there some time ago and he’s managed to retrieve it,” Anne outlined.
“Loughborough? That’s a fair way,” noted Katherine.
“Three or four days walk,” nodded Anne.
“Walk?” asked Katherine, frowning, “Couldn’t we just ride? I do still have Delta here after all.”
“We need to remain inconspicuous,” explained Anne, “Especially as we’ll be crossing the Sheriff of Nottingham’s lands, and riding about on a thoroughbred horse is a sure fire way to arouse suspicion.”
“I guess so,” conceded Katherine.
“So, you think it’s a good idea though?” asked Anne eagerly.
Katherine wasn’t entirely sure about that, but she could see that Anne was keen and suspected that she had actually requested this responsibility from Robin, perhaps for Katherine’s benefit. She supposed it couldn’t hurt – hopefully it would allay Anne’s fears and it might actually do some good to get out from the confines of the camp for a while. Not that things had been particularly difficult for her amongst the outlaws since she had proved her loyalty by robbing Kirby. Will Scarlet had also been strangely absent recently, which only made things easier.
“Yes, why not,” she acknowledged with a smile.
“Good,” replied Anne, beaming back at her, and Katherine was glad she had agreed on seeing the pleasure it had given the young woman.
“Oh, though, I’m supposed to meet with Tobias again in two days,” she suddenly realised.
“I’m sure Henry or someone won’t mind going to meet him and apprise him of the situation,” suggested Anne.
“I guess not, it’s not like he has anything much new to tell me at the moment anyway,” noted Katherine, berating herself for letting the bitterness edge back into her voice, “So when are we off then?” she quickly added before Anne could comment on it.
The following morning they set off from the outlaw camp, having been sent on their way with a hearty breakfast from Nicholas. The start of their journey took them through the forest to join onto the main track that headed south past Nottingham. Luckily the weather was fine, the sun actually peeking out from the white clouds that dappled the blue sky, and it was much warmer than it had been over the past few days.
Anne was pleased to see that Katherine’s mood seemed somewhat brighter too, though she still harboured suspicions that it was partly an act, and that Katherine was trying to cover up her real feelings. She guessed she had a good six or seven days to work on that, and find out what was really troubling her as they made their way to and from Loughborough.
Both of them carried small bags slung across their shoulders, containing their supplies for the trip. Hopefully they would be able to find places to stay on the journey – Anne having a few contacts along the route – and they wouldn’t have the need to sleep outside. Sleeping under the stars was fine if the weather remained warm as now, but you could hardly rely on such things in September in England.
Anne also carried her customary dagger tucked into one of her black boots, plus an extra one in her bag. She didn’t wear a sword or carry a bow as that would be far too suspicious, not being the sort of thing peasants normally did. It was odd enough that they were two women travelling alone without drawing further attention to themselves. However, Anne had drawn the line at wearing typical peasant woman clothing in order to fit in – a dress for travelling was just too impractical. It wasn’t that uncommon for women to wear trousers when working the fields anyway. Plus there was always the vague chance that they could run into trouble along the way, which may require quick flight. She was hoping that wouldn’t be the case, but it was best to be prepared for such eventualities. Keeping that in mind, Anne had insisted that Katherine also carry a dagger. She had protested but eventually grudgingly taken it, though Anne wasn’t quite sure where she had concealed it.
They made idle small talk as they went, Anne deliberately avoiding any potential problem areas for the time being, and it wasn’t long before they left the cover of the trees and came out onto the open road. They had to be more careful along this stretch, since they were still on the Markham estate and it was possible anyone spotting Katherine would recognise her. Not that she was wanted, of course, since Mark had not revealed the truth behind her disappearance, but a sighting of her may find its way back to him. They hadn’t heard that he was actively pursuing her, but that could change if he was presented an easy opportunity. Fortunately the track seemed deserted for the time being and they progressed unhindered over the rolling countryside.
During a break in the conversation, Anne took the time to study the woman walking beside her, noting the way the sunlight caught the red in Katherine’s hair whenever it made an appearance. She found her eyes tracking across Katherine’s body too, admiring the view. Katherine had always possessed a well-toned body, remarkable considering her background – most nobles grew fat and lazy sitting in their manor houses. Now, however, it was honed even further from her time in the camp, where she was called upon to perform more physical work than normal. The slight tan she had acquired from the last of the summer sun only added to the healthy glow she exuded. Suddenly Anne realised Katherine was looking back at her and she averted her eyes, blushing slightly at being caught so obviously staring. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Katherine smiling to herself and Anne felt a stirring of arousal. She had to fight it down – it was hardly the time and place to be thinking about such things. Maybe later when they had found somewhere safe to stay for the night…
“How about we stop for some lunch?” suggested Katherine, rescuing Anne from her distracted thoughts, “I don’t know about you, but my feet are killing me!”
“Good idea,” agreed Anne, stepping from the track, “I think there’s a small stream just off the road here, if you fancy dipping your toes in.”
Anne led them to the bubbling waters, sitting down on the grassy bank and removing her boots and socks to air her own aching feet. Katherine followed suit, before inching towards the water and tentatively lowering one foot in.
“Ooo,” she yelped, quickly withdrawing her limb, “It’s a tad chilly!”
Anne laughed, “You were expecting a warm bath?”
Katherine made a face before dipping her foot back in, prepared for the coldness this time.
“Actually it’s quite refreshing,” she remarked, “Once you get used to it.”
As Katherine put her other foot into the water, swirling them both about in the gentle current, Anne rooted through her bag, drawing out some bread and cheese that Nicholas had given her for the trip.
“Sorry, it’s not exactly gourmet cooking,” she said, handing some to Katherine.
“It’s fine,” replied Katherine with a smile, “It makes a nice change from Nicholas’ other unusual efforts.”
“He has been trying rather hard since you came to the camp,” chuckled Anne.
“Indeed, trying is the right word,” noted Katherine.
Anne laughed again, before tucking into her own simple meal, scooping up some water from the stream to wash it down. Once they had both finished, they made their way back up onto the track, refreshed after their short stop.
They didn’t see any other travellers as they continued south, and just as Anne was thinking that everything was going far too well she heard a faint thumping sound from behind them on the road – horse hooves! Swinging round she could see the dust being cast up by the approaching riders, though they themselves were still out of sight.
“Quick,” she said, motioning to Katherine to get off the road.
Katherine didn’t need to be told twice, following Anne over the hedgerow that lay just off the track and crouching down beside her as they waited for whomever it was to pass. Anne deduced that they couldn’t be travelling that fast, since it took them a good few minutes to come into view. Peering through the leaves of the hedge, she recognised the crest of the guards at the front of the group immediately – there was no mistaking the blue and gold of the Johnson family.
She cast a quick glance to her side, noting the firm set of Katherine’s jaw, indicating she too had identified the approaching riders. As they got closer, Anne saw that right in the centre of the group sat Mark Johnson and Charles Kirby, laughing as they shared a joke. A small stirring of anger flared up inside her as she watched the lord of the manor – it was the first time she had seen him since she had tried to kill him nearly four weeks previously. However, she was surprised by the mildness of the emotion – yes, the sight of him angered her, but it was nowhere near the burning hatred she had at first felt.
If anything, it appeared that Katherine’s reaction was far stronger - a deathly expression now fixed on her features. Her grey-shaded eyes never left the party as the men passed their position, and Anne was actually worried that Katherine was about to leap out and confront them. She reached over and put a hand on Katherine’s arm, partly as a reassuring gesture and partly to restrain her from any such action.
They remained quietly concealed until the riders were safely away down the road, then rejoined the track themselves.
“Are you all right?” asked Anne, as Katherine stared off in the direction the group had gone.
Katherine didn’t immediately reply and Anne wondered if she’d even heard the question, she seemed so caught up in her thoughts. Anne waited, considering that those thoughts couldn’t be particularly pleasant since Katherine’s face was still set in a grim mask. Just as she was about to repeat her question, she saw Katherine shaking her head, as if she’d suddenly realised she’d been off somewhere else.
“What was that?” she asked, turning to Anne.
“I asked if you were all right,” repeated Anne.
“Yes, I’m fine, it was just a surprise seeing Mark and Kirby,” explained Katherine, though Anne didn’t think ‘surprise’ was really what Katherine was feeling at all, “I wonder where they’re off to?”
“As long as it’s nowhere near Loughborough, I don’t mind,” remarked Anne.
“Knowing our luck, that’s probably exactly where they’re going,” said Katherine, half-jokingly.
“Don’t even think it,” sighed Anne, rolling her eyes, “Come on, let’s get going again, I’m hoping to make it to Oxton by evening.”
Katherine had never been to Oxton before, since it lay just outside the boundaries of the Markham estate, on the Sheriff of Nottingham’s lands, but it was much like any other Nottinghamshire village. There were about thirty dwellings, a range of shapes and sizes, though all rather ramshackle. They had all been built on the flat ground that lay by a small river and were surrounded by fields, now mostly divested of their crops in preparation for winter. In between the homes there were pens for various animals - pigs, goats, sheep, chickens. Some of the livestock also ran loose around the village, as did a number of scruffy looking children.
The one thing that made Oxton different, of course, was that it was where Anne had been born and grown up, at least for the first eleven years of her life. As they walked into the village she could see Anne’s eyes taking it all in, a faraway look in her eyes as if she was thinking of another time. Katherine hoped it was a pleasant memory, whatever it was, but didn’t pry, not wanting to disturb her. No doubt it was connected with her parents, though at least Oxton wasn’t where they had died. The Shrine of Gaia itself lay some miles to the north and west of Oxton, near the village of Blidworth.
Since it was early evening, the people of the village were mostly back from their work on the fields, and it wasn’t long before they were spotted on their approach - an old man of about sixty glancing up from where he sat working on something outside his hut. Spying Anne, a broad smile crossed his face and he leapt up, coming over and surprising Katherine by immediately wrapping the young woman up in a warm embrace.
“Anne, it’s good to see you,” he said enthusiastically, letting go and turning his dark eyes up to regard her with a welcoming expression crinkling his weather-beaten face.
“It’s good to see you too, John,” replied Anne, smiling in return.
“And who is your lovely friend?” asked the grey-haired man, switching his eyes to Katherine.
“John, this is Katherine…Katherine, John,” said Anne in introduction, obviously not feeling the need to explain any further as to who exactly she was.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Katherine, offering up her hand for him to shake.
He looked at it for a moment, and then stepped in and hugged her instead.
“Welcome to Oxton, Katherine,” he said amiably, finally releasing her, “Any friend of Anne’s is a friend of mine. Come on, come and meet the others.”
He motioned for them to follow and Katherine took the opportunity to step close to Anne so she could speak to her out of earshot of the old peasant.
“I take it we don’t need to worry about being given up to the Sheriff here then?” she enquired in a low whisper.
“No,” replied Anne, “The people here are sympathetic to Robin, as are most peasants. Though you can never be too careful - someone might decide that the rewards on offer for the capture of an outlaw are too great an opportunity to miss. I think we’re safe here though, especially with John, I’ve known him all my life.”
The old man guided them through the village to the far end where most of the village seemed to be gathered around a fire, eating, drinking and generally looking like they were having a good time.
“Is it some sort of celebration?” whispered Katherine to Anne.
“I don’t think so, just a social gathering,” answered Anne, before they were suddenly enveloped by a host of villagers coming to greet them.
Katherine found herself swept up in a hoard of welcoming faces, offering her all sorts of food and drink and urging her over by the fire. Glancing over at Anne she could see that she had received a similar reaction from the smiling villagers, a dozen or so hands patting her on the back, shaking her hand or trying to entice her with drink. Their eyes met through the throng, Anne smiling reassuringly since Katherine was feeling rather overwhelmed. The good mood was infectious, though, and Katherine was heartened by the warm and genuine reception, returning Anne’s smile.
Allowing herself to go with the flow, Katherine made her way over to the fire, accepting some of the food she recognised, along with a cup of something which she assumed was ale. Taking a sip, she let out a small cough at its potency. The man who had given it to her laughed at her response, and clapped her resoundingly on the back.
Sitting down by the roaring blaze, she chatted amiably to the various men and women, who seemed to accept her into their village without question. She surreptitiously took the time to watch Anne as she too spoke with the people on the far side of the fire, the soft glow of the flames lighting up her face.
“She’s the spit of her parents you know,” said a voice from beside Katherine.
“Sorry?” said Katherine, turning to see that it was the old man, John, who had joined her.
“Anne,” he said, tilting his head in the young woman’s direction, “It’s amazing how much she looks like them.”
“Ah,” nodded Katherine, following his gaze, finding herself reminded of the tragic end they had met.
“So, you’re a friend of hers are you?” he asked, when she didn’t offer anything else.
She turned back to him, narrowing her eyes slightly. Something in the way he had said the word ‘friend’ had raised her suspicions. How on earth had he picked up on anything – they’d barely been there an hour? A small smile crept across his face as he took in her bewilderment.
“Mmm, I thought so,” he noted, “It’s all right, your secret is safe with me,” he added winking at her.
Katherine just stared at him dumbfounded. Either they were way too obvious in their affection or the old man was a very astute observer of human nature.
“Just you make sure you take good care of her,” he continued, while Katherine tried to find her voice, “She’s had enough heartache in her life.”
“I will,” said Katherine finally, still somewhat stunned to be getting a lecture from the old peasant. However, she had to concede that he only seemed to have Anne’s best interests in mind.
“Good,” he said sagely, “I don’t doubt you will, and I like to think of myself as a good judge of character.”
Katherine felt like she was being appraised as a potential suitor - that at any moment the old man was going to decree that Katherine had his blessing and could now go ahead and ask for Anne’s hand in marriage.
“Anyway, now we’ve cleared that up,” he continued, “How about a drink?”
Having chatted to him for a while, Katherine found her mind wandering to thoughts of the encounter on the road earlier that day and the mix of emotions seeing Mark had stirred within her. Excusing herself, she got up and made her way from the fire and the group that surrounded it, finding a quiet spot away from the general hubbub. She lowered herself onto the dew-dampened grass, drawing her knees up and gazing wistfully up at the stars in the clear night sky.
Hearing footfalls behind her, she didn’t turn, guessing who it was that had spotted her departure from the impromptu party. Her assumptions were confirmed when a familiar body sat down next to her, just close enough that Katherine could feel the heat radiating off Anne’s shoulder where it almost touched her own.
The young woman didn’t speak, though, seemingly content just to sit there and join in Katherine’s stargazing. Katherine’s eyes drifted from the stars to the woman at her side, and she felt a sudden rush of affection and love seeing her beautiful face lit up by the moonlight. Anne must have caught Katherine’s audible intake of breath as she stopped her perusal of the stars too, her blue eyes coming down to rest on Katherine instead, causing another surge of warmth within the older woman.
“So what do you think of the village?” asked Anne softly.
“The people are certainly very welcoming,” replied Katherine, “Well, after my intentions had been verified anyway.”
Anne regarded her quizzically for a moment, Katherine noting how Anne’s small eyebrow scar always crinkled up when she got that particular expression on her face.
“Your friend, John,” clarified Katherine, “He certainly is a wily old man.”
Anne laughed, “Yes, he is. Checking that you were treating me well was he?”
“Basically, yes,” nodded Katherine.
“I think he kind of sees himself as my surrogate father, ever since…,” Anne paused for a moment, before continuing, “…ever since my parents died. He was a good friend of theirs, and though I couldn’t stay here in the village, I’ve seen him a lot since.”
Katherine was intrigued by Anne’s tone. Despite the pause in her speech, she was much calmer and accepting in talking about her parents than Katherine had ever heard her before.
“He told me you looked a lot like them,” commented Katherine, deciding to see if Anne really was willing to talk about it.
“Did he?” said Anne with a little laugh, “I suppose I do, though it’s hard to remember their faces sometimes. Everyone here seems to remember them though - that’s all I’ve been hearing most of the night, how wonderful they were.”
“And you don’t believe them?” prompted Katherine.
“Actually, hearing the villagers speak about them made me remember all those good times we did have living here, remember some things I’d forgotten. Mind you, I’ve been thinking about them a fair bit ever since I found out about Mark,” revealed Anne.
“Really, you never said anything,” said Katherine with a tinge of regret, shifting closer so she could stroke her fingers across Anne’s thigh.
“Well, I wasn’t really sure how I felt,” said Anne, placing her own hand over Katherine’s, “I had to sort it out in my own head first. But I’ve come to realise that carrying all the anger around with me wasn’t doing me any good. Especially when it was so misplaced. And,” she added, removing her hand and bringing it up to caress Katherine’s cheek instead, “Especially not when there are other much better emotions to concentrate on.”
Anne’s fingers were warm upon her cheek, gently brushing across the skin. The moonlight reflected off her pale blue eyes, which were fixed on Katherine, leaving her no doubt as to which emotions the young woman was referring. Katherine found herself drawn closer until she could feel each of Anne’s breaths, fluttering out hotly across her own lips. They remained, caught in each others gaze for an eternity, or perhaps it was only a few seconds, Katherine had lost track. Then the soft lips were upon hers, and she closed her eyes, falling under the spell they always cast.
Time had lost all meaning as Katherine became consumed by the sensations washing through her at all the delightful stimuli - the delicate brush of the lips, the gentle hands holding her close, the warm body pressing up against her, the swell of the breast rubbing against her own.
Eventually Anne peeled back, kissing the palm of Katherine’s hand as she went.
“Come on, let’s get back to the party,” she suggested, standing up.
As they walked back to the fire, Anne thought over how well the trip seemed to be going so far. Despite seeing Mark on the road earlier, Katherine seemed to be a lot happier than at any time recently. Anne had deliberated over coming to Oxton, because of the memories it might stir, but now she was glad that she had been able to share this with Katherine. The welcoming nature of the people seemed to be exactly what she needed. Now all she needed to do was broach the subject of what was troubling Katherine.
Reaching the gathering, Anne felt a tug on her hand, and Katherine guided her to a group talking off to one side.
“Beatrice?” asked Katherine, going up to the young woman whose back was to her.
“M’lady?” queried Beatrice in surprise, swinging round, “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” replied Katherine equally confounded, “You don’t live here, do you?”
“No, we’re just here for the food and drink,” said Beatrice with a smile, “Since our village is only a couple of miles away.”
“Well, it’s good to see you,” noted Katherine, smiling back, before her tone took on a more concerned edge, “How have you been?”
“How has she been?!” cried another voice to their side, and Anne turned to see an irate woman approaching, thrusting a cup into Beatrice’s hand as she joined them, “I’m surprised you care!”
“Mother, please…” said Beatrice to the woman. Anne could see the family resemblance now she had been identified – the older woman had the same dark hair and eyes as Katherine’s former maid.
“No, I will not be hushed! It’s all her fault that you lost your job!” fumed Beatrice’s mother, pointing an accusatory finger at Katherine.
“I’m sorry…” began Katherine, holding up her hands to try and placate the angry woman.
“You bloody well should be!” spat the other woman, cutting her off, “My family relied on the money Beatrice brought home.”
Anne saw Katherine’s mouth opening in an attempt to speak but it seemed the woman was in full flow now, and Anne could see from where Beatrice had inherited her temper.
“…Especially now that husband of yours has put all the taxes up!” she continued, actually poking Katherine in the chest, “And we’re not the only ones! Lord Johnson is squeezing all the peasants, making life difficult for them.”
“Katherine is no longer with him,” interjected Anne, stepping round Katherine to interpose herself between her and the other woman, “His actions have nothing to do with her.”
“Oh really?! Well, as far as I’m concerned they do. She’s still married to him isn’t she? She could do something about this. But oh no, she’s happily swaning about the countryside having a good time!”
“That’s hardly fair…” remarked Anne, glancing over at Katherine who looked too stunned to speak up on her own behalf.
“Fair?! Fair?! I’ll tell you what’s not fair,” fumed Beatice’s mother, “Trying to feed four children on the pittance we have left after the lord and the church and everyone else has taken their cut!”
“Mother, please,” said Beatrice, reaching across to pull her away, “Just leave it.”
The woman looked like she wanted to continue her tirade, but Beatrice forcefully turned her around. Beatrice shot a look back over her shoulder at Katherine and Anne and mouthed the words “sorry” as she guided the still ranting woman away.
“Katherine?” said Anne softly, reaching out a comforting hand since Katherine still looked somewhat shocked.
Katherine brushed it away. “I think I’m going to bed,” she stated coolly.
Anne sighed as she watched Katherine walking over to John’s hut, the hunch of her shoulders all too evident. Maybe it was going to take a bit more time to lift Katherine’s spirits after all.
Katherine remained quiet the following morning, hardly speaking as they breakfasted with John in his small hut. She saw Anne and the old man talking as she packed up her things, their eyes flicking to her every now and then, and surmised that Anne’s concerns for her had been aroused again. The thing was, she had been starting to look on the bright side, partly due to the warm welcome they had received from the villagers and partly due to the extended time she’d been able to spend with Anne, away from the outlaw camp, just enjoying each other’s company. And then they’d seen Beatrice and her mother, and all Katherine’s guilt had come crashing back in on her. It was true what she had said – what right did Katherine have to be happy when her people were suffering so?
As they left the village Katherine felt a few spots of rain splash onto her head, and she glanced up at the leaden skies, smiling grimly as she thought how the dour weather conditions suited her mood perfectly. The few spots turned into a more concerted downpour as they continued on, soaking them to the skin and dampening any desire either of them may have felt to talk about the previous evenings events.
By the time they reached the town of Cotgrave, come nightfall, Katherine was thoroughly fed up and just wished she could find somewhere to have a hot bath and a change of clothes. The town lay to the east of Nottingham itself and was a good deal bigger than anywhere they had passed through so far. There were a fair few other locals and travellers bustling about the streets, hurrying to their destinations in the teeming rain.
“I need to go and speak to my contact alone,” said Anne, peering at Katherine from under the hood of her top as the rain dripped from it, “He can be a little bit suspicious.”
“Fine,” agreed Katherine testily, “I’ll just wait here shall I?”
“Well, I guess you could go and wait in the inn over there, as long as you keep a low profile” suggested Anne, pointing out a structure on the far side of the street. Katherine hadn’t even realised it was an inn, though she hardly had much experience of being in such establishments.
“All right,” she said, thinking that anywhere would be better than standing out in the rain, “Just don’t be long.”
Anne nodded and disappeared off down the street, leaving Katherine to trudge across the muddy track alone. Entering the inn, she was immediately hit by a wave of warmth and noise. The single room was brimming with people, most probably eager to get out of the foul weather like she was. Various wooden tables and chairs dotted the low-ceilinged room, a fair few of them gathered round the fire at one end. At the other end was what she assumed was the bar, though it was little more than a slightly taller table. Managing to find a free table in the corner, she plonked herself down, peeling back her sodden hood and running her hands through her damp hair. She knew Anne had told her to keep a low profile, but she seriously doubted she was going to meet anyone she knew in the seedy inn.
She caught a few eyes flicking glances her way, but she stared them all down - she wasn’t in the mood for being nice. At least she wasn’t the only woman in here, she noted. There was a group of four sitting near the bar chatting amongst themselves, plus various others round the room talking to the men, those ones rather provocatively dressed.
“What would you like?” came a gruff voice from above her as she studied the rest of the room’s occupants.
She cast her eyes up to regard the rotund man who had spoken. He stood with his hands on his hips and his face was hardly the picture of the welcoming barman, in fact he looked decidedly surly.
“I’ll have an ale,” she replied, fishing out a coin and slapping it on the well-worn table.
The man simply grunted and took the coin, returning some moments later with her drink, which he thumped down.
“Thank you,” she said sarcastically at his retreating back.
Taking a swig from the mug, Katherine baulked at the harsh taste – it was hardly up to the standards she was used to at the manor. Still, it was alcohol, and she guessed beggars couldn’t be choosers. At least it had certain warming qualities, and she could certainly use those as she sat in her dripping clothes, her feet squelching uncomfortably in her boots as she flexed her toes. As she morosely finished her drink, she found herself eavesdropping on the conversation of the four women at the bar.
The one that was speaking at that moment had a rather pleasant voice, Katherine thought, low and husky, almost raspy. She guessed the woman must spend a lot of time in the inn. The second one to speak also had an interesting voice and it took Katherine a moment to place the accent, before she identified it as being of Irish origin. A more typical English voice now joined the conversation, talking about cereal crops and wheat in particular. This seemed to garner a few groans from the others as if the speaker often spoke on that particular subject and they were sick of it. Finally the last of the women spoke, again another local woman from the sounds of it.
“I’ve got this idea for a new song,” she said to the others.
“You’re not still going on about being a bard are you?” asked the raspy voiced one, “How many times have I told you, you’re a whore, you’ll always be a whore.”
Katherine let out a small laugh at the way she said ‘whore’, dragging out the word to emphasise it. One of the women swivelled round in her seat to regard her suspiciously, and Katherine quickly busied herself with staring at her near-empty mug.
“I’m telling you,” continued the potential bard, undeterred, “People are crying out for new songs.”
“And what exactly is this wonderful creation of yours about?” asked the Irish woman.
“Well, it’s about two women…”
“Two women?” interjected the raspy voice, “You’ve got no chance!”
“It’s about two women,” continued the wannabe bard, “One’s an outlaw and one…” she paused for dramatic emphasis, “…is a noble lady…”
Katherine spat her mouthful of drink all over her table, choking nicely in the process. All four women turned to look at her as she tried to regain some dignity.
“Went down the wrong way,” she coughed apologetically, wiping her mouth.
They eyed her uncertainly for a moment before turning back to their conversation, continuing on in lower voices. Katherine ordered another drink, since it seemed that was the last she was going to hear about this interesting tale of two women, and wondered what was keeping Anne.
Anne pushed open the weather-beaten door and bowed her head under the low doorway, casting her eyes about the heaving room in front of her from beneath her hood. Her meeting had taken longer than she had hoped, but she had at last managed to persuade the man to let them stay the night. Now all she had to do was find Katherine and they could finally get some rest. It had certainly been a trying day, slogging on through the rain and mud. Searching the room, her eyes finally spotted the auburn head amongst the throng and she made her way over to Katherine’s table.
A pair of bleary blue-grey eyes flicked up to greet her. “Anne, why don’t you join me?” slurred Katherine.
“Katherine? What are you doing?” hissed Anne in a low voice, recognising Katherine’s drunken demeanour straight away. This was not what she’d had in mind when she had suggested a low profile.
“I would have thought that was obvious,” said Katherine, leaning back in her chair and smiling, “I’m having a drink.”
“And more than one by the looks of it,” noted Anne, “Exactly how many have you had?”
“Um…” said Katherine, crinkling up her face in the effort of thought, “…er…you know, I kind of lost count after about the fourth.”
“Four?” said Anne incredulously, rolling her eyes. No wonder Katherine was practically on the floor - these sorts of places were known for their strong ale.
“Come on, join me, it’s rather good once you get past the initial shock,” said Katherine loudly with a lop-sided grin.
“Katherine, could you please keep your voice down?” said Anne quietly, glancing about her, “Some of us are wanted outlaws.”
“Oh, you worry too much!” replied Katherine with a dismissive and extravagant wave of the hand.
“Maybe we should just go,” suggested Anne, reaching down to take Katherine’s arm.
“No, no,” said Katherine, quickly drawing her arm out of reach, “Sit down, come on, I’m sure you could do with one too.”
Anne could see people starting to stare, since Katherine’s voice had taken on the loudness of a typical belligerent drunk, and she reluctantly sat down to avoid arousing further suspicion. The people here were a different breed from those at Oxton, and would happily call the Sheriff’s guards if they thought there was some money in it.
“There you go,” beamed Katherine, clapping her on the arm, “Barman, another drink!” she cried off in the direction of the bar.
Anne sipped at the mug that was set down before her and slowly lowered her hood, scraping her sodden hair back into a ponytail. She tried to keep her head bowed, though, and avoid making eye contact with anyone round the room. Ever since the incident at Nottingham Castle, some five months previously, Anne’s face was known to the Sheriff and his guards – it was hardly one they were likely to forget unfortunately. No doubt word of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman outlaw would have reached a town such as this too. Katherine was being much less discrete, continuing to talk loudly, and Anne prayed they could quickly finish their drinks and get out of there.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” said Katherine, folding her arms on the table and leaning across to regard to Anne.
“Oh yes?” prompted Anne, keeping one eye on the room for any sign of troops.
“Yes, I think I should have an outlaw name too,” stated Katherine.
“Pardon?” said Anne, turning her full attention back to Katherine who was having trouble focusing on Anne in return.
“An outlaw name,” repeated Katherine, “I mean you have one, I think I should have one too.”
“And I presume you have something in mind?” asked Anne, deciding it was best to humour her.
“Hmm, I hadn’t got that far,” disclosed Katherine, frowning. “Let’s see…well, you’re Seven, so I could be…Eight!” she cried, laughing uproariously at her own joke, “Oo, oo, or even better, I could be Six – then I get to be under you all the time!”
Anne rolled her eyes again as Katherine tipped back in her chair laughing, and Anne thought for a moment that she was going to fall off it. As the chair clonked back onto the stone floor, Katherine attempted to give Anne a seductive look, but failed miserably.
“Which reminds me,” remarked Katherine, swaying closer to Anne again, “I still haven’t guessed what the Seven is for.”
“If I just tell you, can we leave?” asked Anne hopefully.
“Where would be the fun in that?” said Katherine, casting up her hands, “No, no, I’m going to guess it if it kills me!”
“Or both of us,” muttered Anne to herself.
Katherine missed the remark in her inebriated state, her face having taken on an intense look of concentration again, her hand stroking her chin in contemplation.
“Right, I’ve got it,” she declared, raising a finger in the air, “Is it the number of pints you can drink in one night?”
“Yes, you’re right, well done,” said Anne quickly, pushing back her chair, “Now can we go?”
Katherine narrowed her eyes. “You’re lying.”
“Sorry?” said Anne innocently.
“That’s not the real reason at all is it?” asked Katherine.
Anne sighed to herself. She wondered how come Katherine was so drunk she could barely sit up straight, yet the older woman still managed to spot when she was lying.
“All right, no, it’s not the real reason,” conceded Anne.
“Ha! I knew it!” cried Katherine in smug satisfaction, “You can’t fool me.”
Anne suddenly spotted movement in the doorway, and swallowed nervously when she realised that a group of the Sheriff’s troops had just entered. Judging by the lack of reaction to their entrance, she guessed it was a common occurrence, and that they were probably just there for a drink like the rest of the clientele. Nevertheless, she didn’t think it was safe for them to stay there, especially not with Katherine in her present loud-mouthed state.
“I think it’s time to go,” whispered Anne.
“What?” slurred Katherine, completely oblivious to the men, “When the night is so young? You haven’t even finished your drink.”
“It’s fine, I don’t want it,” she said, watching the guards sitting down over by the fire.
“Well I want mine,” said Katherine defiantly, grabbing for her mug.
Unfortunately her uncontrolled movement sent one of their drinks flying onto the neighbouring table, spilling ale all over the lap of one of the large men sitting there. He leapt to his feet, storming over to them, Katherine rising unsteadily to meet his approach. Anne followed suit, casting an anxious glance in the direction of the troops.
“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded the man, towering over Katherine who stood with her hands steadfastly on her hips, meeting his stare as best she could.
“Nothing intentional,” she replied with disdain, “Do you think we’d deliberately invite your company? Now, why don’t you just take your ugly mug back to your table?”
Anne was taking another cautious look at the troops and didn’t realise that the man was now swinging his arm in Katherine’s direction. Nor did she realise Katherine had ducked under the intended punch until the fist impacted on her own jaw. She flew backwards onto another table, which promptly broke under the force of impact, sending the drinks perched on it all over the men sitting there.
Anne had a brief glimpse of Katherine flinging herself at Anne’s assailant before the whole inn descended into chaos. Fists, drinks and chairs flew freely round the room as Anne staggered to her feet. She ducked under a body that hurtled past her head, then punched a man, who was charging at her, squarely in the face.
Frantically she looked around for Katherine amongst the melee, finally spotting her being hefted off the ground by their original aggressor and dumped unceremoniously over the bar. Anne dashed over, snatching up a chair, which she then smashed over the back of the man. As he slumped to the floor, Anne caught a blow to the back of her own head, tumbling to the ground. Lying amongst the spilled drinks she realised she wasn’t the only one down in between the scuffling feet.
“Come here often?” asked Katherine from beside her, seemingly happy to remain lying where she was in the filth. Or perhaps she was just incapable of getting up, surmised Anne.
Anne sighed, “I hope you agree we can get out of here now?”
“Yes, I don’t think I like the ambience here any more,” agreed Katherine drunkenly, as another body crashed to the floor next to them.
Suddenly Anne was hauled up by the scruff of her top, and found herself face-to-face with a snarling man. He drew back his fist, but before he could move it a bottle shattered across the back of his head. He fell face first onto the floor, leaving a smiling Katherine behind him, half a bottle still left in her hand.
“Thanks,” said Anne, “Now come on!” she added, dragging Katherine with her before she got any ideas about rejoining the fray, “I spotted a back door this way.”
Anne was relieved when the night air hit them, the coolness welcome after the stuffy inn. Thankfully it had also stopped raining at last as they stumbled away from the building. It was slow going though, as Katherine was starting to really feel the effects of the alcohol. Anne had to put her arm around her waist to hold her up, but she was almost a deadweight, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Suddenly Anne lost her grip and Katherine plopped onto the soggy ground, giggling to herself as she sat in the mud. Anne merely shook her head as she looked down on the drunken woman, who seemed completely unrepentant at her present state, grinning inanely back.
A noise back at the inn drew Anne’s attention and she looked up to see the Sheriff’s men bursting out the door from which they had just come. There was a local with them who was gleefully pointing at Katherine and Anne. As the soldiers started running in their direction, Anne desperately tried to rouse Katherine into action. She was too far gone to realise the imminent danger, though, and Anne realised there was only one thing for it. Reaching down she hauled Katherine up and over her shoulder, the older woman making a small moan of protest at the rough treatment. She then turned and ran, knowing any hopes of staying with her contact were gone now.
Katherine gingerly opened her eyes and then sincerely wished she hadn’t. The harsh light of morning hurt, and she quickly screwed them shut again, alarmed at the spinning sensation that washed over her despite the fact she wasn’t moving. In fact, from her brief glimpse of her surroundings, she had garnered that she was lying on the ground somewhere in a forest. Slowly she opened one eye again, followed by the other. She realised she couldn’t actually recall how she got here – the last thing she could remember was being at the inn. After that it was all a bit of a blur. She vaguely recalled a fight and some of the Sheriff’s troops, groaning as her head started pounding at the effort of conscious thought.
“Good Morning,” came a voice above her.
Katherine winced; it was like Anne was screaming in her ear. “Is it?” she croaked.
Katherine attempted to sit up, having to take a moment just to hold her head in her hands and fight back the urge to vomit. Now she was upright she could see they were indeed in the middle of a forest, a small fire burning off to her side. She guessed they must have spent the night out here. The smell of ale wafted up from her clothes, an unhelpful reminder of the night before. An image of lying on the dirty floor of the inn amongst the spilled drinks swam to mind, and she let out another low moan.
“I’m not surprised your head hurts, after all those ales,” commented Anne without sympathy, “What were you thinking?”
“I just had a few drinks,” said Katherine shortly, “What’s the problem with that?”
“The problem is we’re supposed to be discrete,” explained Anne, “Not draw attention to ourselves, remember.”
“Well, maybe I’m sick of sneaking around,” said Katherine tetchily, looking defiantly at Anne who had taken a seat opposite her.
“I could tell,” muttered Anne, shaking her head.
“And what does that mean?” snapped Katherine, wincing once more at the sound of her own raised voice.
“Getting drunk, starting a fight?” answered Anne incredulously, “Anyone would think you wanted us to get arrested.”
“Everything was fine until you turned up,” shot back Katherine angrily.
“Oh, and you would rather I had left you to it, to drink yourself into oblivion,” asked Anne.
“Yes, that would have been fine and dandy!” replied Katherine obstinately, folding her arms across her chest.
Anne sighed and took a moment before speaking again. “Katherine,” she began, more softly now, trying to inject some calmness into the argument, “Please, what’s going on?” she reached out to touch Katherine’s folded arm, but Katherine refused to meet her eye. “I’m worried about you, I just want to help.”
“Well, maybe I don’t want your help,” exclaimed Katherine, clambering to her feet, “Maybe I don’t need anybody’s help!” she added, stomping off into trees before Anne could reply.
Trudging through the forest, unsure of where she was really going, Katherine shook her head. What was wrong with her? Why had she said those things to Anne? She knew the young woman was right, what she had done in the inn was stupid and irresponsible. She didn’t even really know why she had done it. No, that wasn’t true, she did know why. The alcohol had numbed her, allowed her to forget her problems. It had felt good to forget her problems, to escape her guilt for one night at least.
Suddenly she felt the bile rising in her throat again, and she barely had time to brace herself against a tree before the contents of her stomach spilled out over the forest floor. She leant heavily against the trunk for some time, breathing heavily as the nausea died down before slumping down onto the rain-soaked ground, putting her head in her hands. She ran them through her sweaty and matted hair, realising she must look a right sight.
She had to pull herself together – this destructive behaviour wasn’t helping anyone. Yet it was as if she just couldn’t help herself, as if her normal good judgement had deserted her. Not wanting to think about it any more, she decided to try and do something useful, and look around for some logs for the fire.
Everything was rather sodden after the downpour of the day before, and it wasn’t easy to find dry wood. At least it seemed they had been blessed with a fine day today, she noted, casting her eyes up at the blue sky. She quickly turned her head down again, away from the bright light – maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Finally finding a suitable specimen she bent down to pick it up, at the same time hearing a sound in front of her that was definitely not a woodland animal. Slowly rising she found herself confronted by the sight of one of the Sheriff’s men, staring blankly at her. He seemed as stunned as Katherine, his eyebrows crinkling together in a confused look as he remained rooted to the spot. Katherine offered him a small smile, before smacking him round the face with the log she held in her hand. As he crashed to the ground, Katherine spied a movement off to her side – another guard!
“Oi!” he yelled raising the crossbow he held, “Stop right there!”
Spotting more men heading through the trees in the direction of the shout, Katherine turned on her heel and started running back in the direction she had come.
Anne sat prodding the fire glumly with a stick, thinking her earlier chat with Katherine could have gone better. She had tried to remain calm, but it was difficult in the face of Katherine’s ongoing belligerence. Anne supposed there wasn’t much else she could do for now but continue to be supportive and hope that Katherine would let go of her stubborn refusal to admit anything was wrong and finally open up to her.
She hoped it was soon, because Katherine’s behaviour was starting to be a liability. They were lucky to have escaped the night before, especially since Anne had had to carry Katherine all the way to the makeshift camp. Fortunately she had managed to lose the soldiers in the trees of the small forest.
Watching the flames licking at her stick, Anne heard the approaching footfalls crashing through the undergrowth long before she saw the rather unexpected sight of Katherine barrelling out of the trees towards her at full tilt.
“Run !” yelled Katherine as she dashed straight past Anne and across the clearing, disappearing back into the trees on the far side.
Anne sat stunned for a moment, watching Katherine’s fast disappearing form, before a crossbow bolt whistled past her ear, alerting her to the cause of the other woman’s flight. Snatching up their bags, she leapt up and sprinted after Katherine.
Even though Katherine was running as fast as she could, she was disadvantaged by her shorter stature, and it didn’t take Anne long to catch up.
“What have you done now?” asked Anne breathlessly, vaulting over a log as they continued to flee through the trees.
“I didn’t do anything,” insisted Katherine between ragged breaths, “It’s the guards from last night again.”
More crossbow bolts thumped into the ground at their feet as they careened frantically through the foliage, spurring them to run faster. Anne stayed behind Katherine, keeping herself between the potential threat and the other woman. She took a moment to cast a glance behind her, and then almost ran slap bang into Katherine who had come to a sudden halt. Turning, Anne could immediately see why – they were standing on the edge of what must have been a good fifty-foot sheer drop into a fast-flowing river below. As Katherine gingerly stepped back from the edge, a few loose bits of earth broke free and plunged into the river.
“How deep do you think it is?” Katherine asked Anne.
“What?” responded Anne in confusion.
“The river, how deep do you think it is?” clarified Katherine, glancing over the edge.
“How deep do I…?” began Anne, before she realised what Katherine was suggesting, “You can’t be serious!” she cried incredulously.
Katherine flicked her eyes to Anne, “Oh, I’m very serious, what better way to escape,” she said with bravado.
“Don’t be foolish,” said Anne with an edge of exasperation, “Even if you survive the drop, I don’t like the look of that river. Come on let’s head along the ridge.”
She made to go, knowing that the troops weren’t far behind and they were wasting time on this pointless discussion. However, it seemed Katherine had other ideas. Before Anne could do anything, Katherine took a few paces back and then ran, launching herself over the edge of the precipice.
“Katherine!” screamed Anne desperately, running back to the edge and looking down to the river. Her eyes desperately scanned the churning waters, looking for any sign of Katherine. She let out a relieved sigh as she saw an auburn head bobbing to the surface and being carried away by the current.
Another crossbow bolt suddenly whizzed by Anne’s nose, and she flicked her eyes between the trees and the river, sighing as she resigned herself to the inevitable – there was no way she was leaving Katherine in that river on her own.
Gathering her courage she leapt into thin air.
The wind whistled past her face as she plummeted towards the raging river below, the cold water hitting her hard as she plunged below the surface. She experienced a moment’s panic as she tried to orientate herself and kick for the surface, while being bundled along by the strong current.
While frantically striving for the surface, she realised her right arm was caught in something, impeding her progress. Finally bursting into the fresh air, she gratefully gasped for oxygen as whatever it was dragged at her, trying to pull her down again.
Straining to keep her head above water, she deduced that it was the straps of the bags she was carrying that were causing the problem - they must have become tangled around her arm and body when she leapt into the river. Fumbling with them to free herself, her fingers became increasingly numb as she clawed at the resistant leather. All the while the river mercilessly buffeted her, throwing spray in her face that she had to splutter from her mouth.
Tumbling along, her legs were becoming tired at the effort of fighting the primal force of the river without the aid of her arms. The river continually twisted and turned her about, hampering her efforts to release the straps. With one last tug, she finally managed to untangle them and swivel round in the water to face her direction of travel. She had a brief moment to see the large boulder looming up in front of her, before her head smacked straight into it and everything went black.
Having been carried sufficiently far from their pursuers Katherine started to swim towards the bank, her clothes clinging to her body as she ploughed through the water. She knew it had been somewhat impetuous to leap into the river, and she had a brief thought wondering why the potential danger hadn’t stopped her – the logical, and safer, option would have been to follow the ridge as Anne had suggested. Yet part of Katherine didn’t feel like being logical and safe at the moment. She had to admit it had certainly been exhilarating leaping off the cliff and then riding the river. Reaching the shallows, she found her feet and took a moment to catch her breath and push her damp hair from her face. A stinging sensation in her arm drew her attention and she looked down to see the sleeve of her shirt blossoming red from where she must have cut her forearm on a rock. She hadn’t even noticed in the thrill of the ride. She gingerly looked at it – it didn’t seem too deep, just a slight graze really. She cast her eyes back upstream, searching for Anne who she had spotted jumping from the cliff soon after her.
As soon as her eyes came upon the black-clad form, floating aimlessly along like some piece of driftwood, she felt a horrible plunging sensation in her stomach.
“Anne!” she screamed in alarm, diving back into the water.
Katherine splashed frantically out to the centre, cursing the water as it slowed her progress. As she got closer she could see the nasty gash across Anne’s temple, and her heart clutched painfully in her chest at the sight. Trying not to think the worst, she managed to grab hold of Anne’s collar and start swimming for the bank once more, with Anne in tow. Pulling the dead weight behind her, while fighting the flow of the river, sapped her strength, and Katherine’s muscles cried out in protest. She ignored them, forcing herself on.
Finally she got to the edge, summoning her last reserves of strength to haul Anne from the river and up onto dry land where her body flopped lifelessly onto the ground. Katherine sank to her knees beside her, suddenly finding it hard to breathe through her constricted throat.
“Anne!” cried Katherine raggedly, shaking the young woman’s shoulders to try and rouse her.
A further jolt of anguish swept through Katherine as Anne’s head merely lolled listlessly from side to side at the shaking. Her eyes remained firmly shut, and her face was pale as the rivulets of water tracked across it. Not a single breath issued from her still lips.
“No, no,” entreated Katherine, “Oh god, please, no…”
Her heart wrenching pleas received no reply, and she could feel the tears brimming up behind her eyes – this couldn’t be happening, it just couldn’t. She despairingly bowed her head to rest on Anne’s chest, clutching forlornly at the motionless body beneath her. Suddenly a faint heartbeat echoed in her ear.
“Anne!” cried Katherine again, more forcefully this time.
Katherine grabbed a fistful of soggy black shirt, and pulled Anne up off the ground slightly, slapping her across the face with her other hand in a last desperate attempt to wake her. A spray of small droplets flying out across the grass from the young woman’s blonde hair as her head snapped to one side was the only sign of movement.
“God damn you, wake up!” screamed Katherine, slapping her again, “Wake up!” she ordered, before adding an agonised, “Please.”
Suddenly a shuddering breath erupted from Anne’s lips, followed by a series of spluttering coughs. Katherine let go her hold of Anne’s shirt in surprise, falling backwards onto her rear. Anne’s eyes slowly fluttered open as the coughing subsided, and she sat up to regard Katherine who hadn’t moved.
“Katherine?” asked Anne in confusion, her blue eyes looking questioningly at the older woman.
“Oh god,” whispered Katherine, her voice hoarse from her anguished cries, “I…I thought I had killed you.”
Before Anne could reply, Katherine flung herself at her, wrapping her arms around her torso and hanging onto her as if her life depended on it. As Anne’s arms closed warmly round Katherine in response, Katherine felt everything she had been keeping locked up inside over the past weeks bubbling up before all the fears, doubts, guilt and remorse came crashing out in a torrent of tears. She trembled in Anne’s embrace as the sobs shook through her, Anne silently holding on the whole time as Katherine’s face remained buried in her chest, her tears mingling with the river water that had drenched their clothes.
Eventually, Katherine managed to prise herself away from the welcoming arms so she could turn her tear-stained face upwards.
“I’m so sorry,” she croaked, “I’ve been such a fool.”
“It’s all right,” replied Anne, taking Katherine’s hands as they sat facing one another.
“No,” said Katherine, exhaling slowly and shaking her head, “I’ve been acting like an idiot, I don’t know what’s come over me, it’s like I can’t control myself or my moods half the time.”
Anne kept firm hold of her hands as Katherine tried to pull them away, “The only thing idiotic is that you’ve been keeping this all to yourself,” she said, fixing Katherine with her soft blue eyes, “After all you’ve been through, you were bound to have some sort of emotional reaction.”
“I thought I could cope,” muttered Katherine, looking down at their hands, “I should be able to cope.”
Anne freed her right hand and tilted Katherine’s chin up so she could look her in the eye. “Katherine, you don’t have to cope, at least not on your own.”
Katherine swallowed, trying hard to hold back the tears that threatened to spill again as Anne made a small reassuring smile.
“I know you’ve been feeling a mixture of guilt, remorse, even anger over what happened,” continued Anne, “And I know you’ve been missing the manor.”
“You do?” said Katherine in surprise.
“Of course,” nodded Anne, “Did you really think I wouldn’t notice how unhappy you’ve been? It wasn’t much of a leap to deduce that was one of the reasons why.”
“And you don’t mind? You’re not upset?” asked Katherine, her eyes scanning Anne’s face as she spoke.
“Of course not, why would you think that?” replied Anne.
“I just thought that you might think I wanted to be there, rather than with you,” said Katherine, thinking it sounded rather foolish now she had said it out loud.
“Katherine, I understand the manor was a big part of your life,” said Anne, her eyes never leaving Katherine’s, “An important piece of your life. It’s part of who you are. How could I claim to love you if I wanted to change who you were?”
Katherine dipped her head, unable to take all the emotions swirling within her. She realised she should have trusted Anne sooner, and was overcome by her understanding and compassion now. Unable to speak, she simply squeezed Anne’s hands in hers.
“Of course I love having you with me all the time,” continued Anne, “But at the same time I realise how hard it’s been for you adjusting, especially with what Mark has been doing in your place. I know how responsible you feel for the people of Markham, it’s part of what I love about you, how you care so much for everyone, no matter who they are.”
“You’re right, I do feel responsible for them,” said Katherine ruefully, “And right now I feel like I’ve abandoned them.”
“But that’s not the case, Mark forced you out,” countered Anne, “And even if he hadn’t do you think you would have been able to do anything about his current behaviour?”
“I guess not,” conceded Katherine, tilting her head back up, “I just feel so useless at the moment.”
“Don’t ever think that, you are not useless!” stated Anne emphatically, “We’ll find a way to turn this around, you just have to have faith in yourself, I know I do.”
A small smile touched Katherine’s lips at Anne’s sincere words and absolute belief in her.
“But that’s not all that’s been bothering you is it?” ventured Anne gently.
Katherine looked at her quizzically, uncertain where Anne was going now.
“I think you’ve been feeling responsible for what Mark did in the past too,” suggested Anne.
So she had picked up on that too. Katherine didn’t know why she was surprised. She was beginning to realise how stupid it had been to try and hide her feelings from Anne; the young woman knew her far too well to be so easily fooled.
“Katherine, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this but it wasn’t your fault, he acted of his own volition, it was nothing to do with you. I don’t hold you accountable in any way. You have to let it go.”
Katherine stared at her, her guilt so close to the surface she could almost taste it. Anne met her gaze, eyes soft, face open, eyebrows raised, waiting for Katherine to concede the point.
“All right, I believe you,” allowed Katherine, with a tilt of the head, “I have been letting my guilt and remorse overwhelm me.”
“Not to mention your feelings of vulnerability,” added Anne.
“Pardon?” asked Katherine, definitely confused now.
“You probably haven’t even admitted it to yourself,” said Anne, noting Katherine’s bemusement, “But after what Mark tried to do to you…”
So that was what Anne was talking about. She had been trying to forget about that, and maybe that was the problem.
“I guess you could be right…,” admitted Katherine as visions of Mark pushing her to the ground came to mind, his rough hands upon her, “...I was so powerless against him…,” she was finding it hard to continue, “...thank god you were there…”
Anne pulled her close once more as the tears started tracking down her cheeks again.
“Shh, it’s all right,” said Anne softly, stroking Katherine’s hair, “Just let it all out.”
Katherine did as suggested, feeling a sense of relief that everything was now in the open, that she now had some sort of explanation for her erratic behaviour.
“Now I think of it,” she said, still wrapped around Anne, “Not just the thing with Mark was making me feel insecure. It was almost as if all that I knew has been whipped out from beneath my feet, and I was left flailing for something to hold onto. But I didn’t want to show my vulnerability outwardly so I overcompensated by being rash and reckless.”
“Well, I hope you know now that you do have something to hold onto,” said Anne, resting her cheek against the top of Katherine’s head, “You have me, and I’m not going anywhere. Well unless you make me jump over any more cliffs.”
Katherine laughed, leaning back to glance up at Anne. “I think we can safely say that is a no.”
“Good,” replied Anne with a smile, “You know, you can put on that brash, confident exterior all you like, but I can see through that to the real you beneath. You don’t need to put on an act for me, and you don’t need to keep everything pent up inside. I love you for all that you are, both your strong confident side and the sensitive woman underneath.”
“I guess after all this time as head of the manor I got used to keeping that mask up all the time, making it hard to let it drop,” admitted Katherine, “But I will try and be more open with you. I think I was just worried to tell you how I was feeling because I thought you might be upset, see it as me being unhappy at being with you.”
“So instead you kept it all bottled up inside,” remarked Anne.
“And there was the fact that after all you’d gone through I hardly thought it was fair for me to burden you with my trivial problems,” added Katherine.
“They’re not trivial if they make you unhappy,” insisted Anne, “I care about you, you can tell me anything. I want you to tell me anything that’s troubling you.”
“Listen to you counselling me,” noted Katherine with a rueful shake of the head, “When did you get so wise?”
“I had a good teacher,” answered Anne, smiling at her.
“Maybe not,” conceded Anne, “But you have been there for me countless times in the past. You just need to give it time. You’ve had a drastic change in your life. But you have to remember that you don’t need to face it alone. Whatever problems we have, we can beat them together.”
“I just wanted to be strong for you,” explained Katherine, brushing Anne’s damp hair away from her face, “You’ve been through so much too, and yet you seem to be coping so much better than I have. I’ve been running around doing one stupid thing after another while you’ve been so calm and understanding.”
“Well, someone showed me that I don’t have to let my anger over what happened so long ago control my actions now,” said Anne softly, “I just want to help you in return.”
“And you do,” said Katherine sincerely, dropping her hands to take Anne’s again, “Just by being there for me, even when I’m acting like a complete arse.”
Katherine held onto the warm hands, offering Anne a small, faltering smile as she looked up at her.
“Just hold me,” she whispered.
Anne immediately pulled Katherine to her again, Katherine closing her eyes and breathing deeply as she relaxed into the embrace. She couldn’t quite believe how stupid she had been, but was eternally grateful that it hadn’t had much worse consequences.
A tingling sensation in her injured arm disturbed Katherine from her happy cocoon, and she pulled back from Anne’s embrace to investigate. She was amazed to see the cut that had been there moments before was now completely healed. Through the tear in her shirt, she traced her fingers over the previously damaged skin – it was smooth, not a trace that there had ever been any damage at all.
“Did you do that?” she asked Anne, her eyes glancing up at the young woman in wonder.
Anne took Katherine’s arm, stroking her fingers gently over the section of exposed skin. “I guess I must have done,” she answered uncertainly, “Though I wasn’t thinking about doing it.”
“Have you ever been able to do that sort of thing without actively concentrating on it before?” asked Katherine.
“No,” confessed Anne, “Not that I’ve really been trying to harness my abilities,” she reminded Katherine, “That time I healed you before was the first time I tried using that power in years, and then it was a great effort, only possible because of the strong emotions I was feeling at the time.”
“And do you think that’s what happened now, that somehow your emotions activated your mystical ability?” enquired Katherine.
“I don’t know,” said Anne, pursing her lips in thought, “I don’t think so, if anything, I was feeling calm, peaceful.”
“Strange,” noted Katherine, looking down at her arm again.
“Or maybe that’s it,” said Anne cryptically.
“Well, since I’ve known you, the only times my powers have manifested themselves have been at times of high emotion,” explained Anne.
“Indeed,” nodded Katherine, thinking of the various arguments they’d had when Anne had subconsciously caused the temperature in the room to rise with her anger.
“But that’s only one way to access them,” continued Anne, “And the more dangerous way.”
“Right,” nodded Katherine, recalling how drained Anne had been when she had saved Katherine’s life after the incident with Bronwyn.
“However, the way that my parents were trying to teach me was through concentration and meditation,” added Anne, “The aim of which was to reach out and tap the power of nature.”
“And you think your calm state allowed you to do that, without even thinking about it?” deduced Katherine.
“I guess at some subconscious level I must have wanted to heal your cut,” mused Anne, “And then my natural abilities just took over and did it.”
“Well, I’m certainly grateful,” said Katherine, smiling at the young woman, “Maybe you could have a go at healing yourself too?” she suggested, indicating the gash on Anne’s left temple.
Anne reached up to gingerly touch it, as if she had forgotten it was there. At least it wasn’t bleeding any more, noted Katherine.
“I don’t think it’s possible to heal yourself,” remarked Anne, “The healer acts as the conduit for the power, channelling it outwards. And what I just did to you was purely by accident. If I deliberately tried and thought about it, I probably couldn’t.”
“That’s a shame, though perhaps for the best,” commented Katherine, “You know I’m a bit wary about you using your abilities anyway, without knowing more about them first. I just don’t want you endangering yourself in anyway, and there’s so much neither you nor I know about it.”
“Unfortunately, there’s not really anyone around to teach me either,” noted Anne, “And the last teacher didn’t turn out particularly well anyway.”
“No,” agreed Katherine, “We certainly don’t want anyone like Bronwyn exerting an influence over your development. There must be other good pagans out there, though, perhaps just well hidden after all they’ve been through. Or I guess there is always that book of the friars to study.”
“True, though I’m still not sure if I want to explore my abilities right now anyway,” said Anne hesitantly.
“I understand,” said Katherine gently, “You’ve made amazing progress in dealing with your parents death these past weeks, you should take your time. I’m just glad you’re finally showing some interest in it.”
Katherine suddenly found herself shivering, as a slight breeze whipped along the riverbank.
“Maybe we should go and get out of these wet things,” suggested Anne, “Before we both catch a chill.”
“Shouldn’t we be getting on with our journey?” asked Katherine, “We did travel the whole of yesterday soaked to the skin after all.”
“Even more reason to give ourselves a break today,” reasoned Anne, “And I think we can spare a little time to get dry.”
Katherine sat on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest to ward off the chill, while Anne expertly arranged the logs for a fire and sparked it into life. Fortunately, they had managed to find a relatively dry spot in the forest that had been sheltered from the rains of the day before. As the fire flickered slowly, Anne came and sat next to Katherine, wrapping her arm around her shoulder to pull her close.
“It’ll only take a few minutes for it to get going,” she said, rubbing her hand up and down Katherine’s arm in a warming gesture.
Katherine watched the building flames for a moment, her mind starting to wander as they danced before her eyes.
“How am I ever going to get back in the manor?” she asked absently, not realising she had voiced her concern out loud until it was past her lips.
“I don’t know,” replied Anne with equal distraction, also staring into the fire.
They sat silently for a few more moments, the only sound disturbing them the crackling from the fire, before Anne spoke up again.
“Of course you are still married to Mark…” she began slowly, “…so if he wasn’t around then you would still be the rightful heir, correct?”
“Yes,” answered Katherine, “Though I don’t really see what help that is.”
“Well, I could always kill him for you,” noted Anne nonchalantly.
Katherine’s eyes shot to the young woman in shock.
“I’m joking!” she said, noting Katherine’s look of consternation, “Though there must be some other way to get rid of him for good…”
“Maybe,” said Katherine, shrugging, “But let’s stop worrying about that for now shall we? I don’t know why I brought it up anyway.”
“Good idea,” agreed Anne, “And I think the fire is probably warm enough now,” she added.
Katherine’s eyes narrowed quizzically.
“To get out of our wet things…” Anne reminded her.
“Oh yes…” recalled Katherine with a smile, “Do you need a hand?”
She didn’t wait for Anne to reply, slipping her hand around Anne’s back and up under the fabric of her shirt, caressing the skin underneath. She heard Anne let out a small gasp at the contact of her fingers.
Katherine moved so that she was straddling the younger woman, Anne sitting on the ground while Katherine hovered above her on her knees. At the same time she slid her other hand around to join the first. Anne gazed up at her, her eyes deep pools of desire. Katherine could hear her ragged breathing as Katherine’s hands trailed languidly up her back before raking down her spine.
The sight of Anne’s neck, exposed as her head tipped back, was too inviting, and Katherine dipped her head to place a series of soft kisses upon it. Every now and then she would stop and make a small nip at the skin, pulling at the smooth flesh between her teeth. Each one elicited a fresh groan of pleasure from Anne, encouraging Katherine to spend even longer trailing her lips up and down.
“You don’t…seem…to be….getting very far,” commented Anne, hardly able to get the words out.
“Mm-hmm?” mumbled Katherine in query, her head still nuzzled in Anne’s shoulder.
“Helping me…get out…of my wet things…” clarified Anne, between pants.
“Oh yes,” noted Katherine, pulling back for a moment, “I got a bit distracted,” she added with a wicked grin.
She hooked her fingers under the hem of Anne’s shirt and in one swift tug pulled it up and over her head, along with the vest-style tunic she wore over the top. She flung the garments over towards the fire.
“Is that better?” she asked, looking saucily at the expanse of flesh now exposed to her, “Though you do look a bit cold,” she noted, a seductive smile still on her lips.
Anne looked at her quizzically for a moment as her hands rested on Katherine’s hips, holding her in place over her.
“Just about here,” explained Katherine, reaching out to brush her fingertips over one of Anne’s stiffened nipples, “Maybe I should try and warm you up?”
Katherine leant forward, her mouth tantalisingly close to Anne’s breast, but not quite touching it. Slowly she breathed out, feeling the quiver from Anne’s body beneath her hands as the hot breath whispered over the sensitive tip. Her tongue snaked out to graze over the nipple, lightly at first, the touch a delicate caress.
Taking her time, she traced her tongue slowly around the hard nub, before taking it between her teeth and drawing it into her mouth. Gently holding it in place, she flicked her tongue back and forth across the tip, noting the trembles each movement caused. She continued to suck the nipple with wanton intent, moans of pleasure now issuing from above her.
Katherine could feel Anne’s hands worming their way under her own top, in a vain attempt to remove it despite her distraction. Suddenly Katherine found herself flipped over onto her back as Anne pounced on top of her, practically ripping off the shirt that had been frustrating her. Katherine certainly wasn’t complaining as Anne started to nibble down Katherine’s naked torso, instead showing her appreciation with loud, lustful groans. She didn’t even care that she was lying on the twigs and grass of the forest floor, any discomfort from that more than outweighed by the desire rushing through her.
When Anne reached Katherine’s waist, she took the ties of her trousers in her teeth and tugged at them, working them loose. At the same time her hands slid up Katherine’s side and over her chest, coming to rest cupping both of her breasts possessively. As she gently squeezed, the tingles worked their way from Katherine’s breasts, down through her body to where Anne’s tongue was now dancing tantalisingly around her belly button.
Knowing she was about to lose any coherent thought, Katherine turned the tables again, rolling Anne over so that she was on her back with Katherine kneeling over her.
“I believe I was helping you, wasn’t I?” she noted, her hair falling about her face as she gazed down at Anne, “And you still have a few wet things on…”
To show exactly what she meant she slipped a hand down, over Anne’s abdomen, which trembled as the fingers brushed over the skin, and worked her fingers under the top of Anne’s trousers.
“These need to come off…now!” she stated. Without waiting for any sort of confirmation, she tugged the damp trousers off, flinging them over with the rest of the discarded clothes.
“Now that’s better,” she remarked, settling down between Anne’s legs.
She could smell Anne’s arousal from where she was, but resisted the temptation to feast on the inviting juices straight away. Instead she tickled her tongue up the inside of Anne’s thigh, her hair sweeping over the smooth flesh as she went. She knew Anne had a particularly sensitive spot, just in the crook of her hipbone, and she slowly worked her tongue up over the young woman’s leg to trace it delicately.
“Ohhhh!” cried Anne from above her, her hands clasping at the loose ground at the sensations the teasing touch elicited.
Finally succumbing to her own passion, Katherine dipped back down between Anne’s thighs. She took a moment to savour the intoxicating sight of Anne’s engorged lips, slick with the signs of her arousal, before she probed forwards with her tongue to taste the essence of the other woman. She delved inside the moist folds, stroking her hands over Anne’s hips and round to clasp her bottom as she did. Anne thrust against Katherine’s mouth as she swirled her tongue within her.
Sliding her tongue out of the warm, wet flesh, Katherine trailed it up to the hard nub just above, gently flicking over it before descending once more. She repeated this several times, each small flick garnering another soft moan from Anne’s lips. Each sound, touch, taste inflamed Katherine’s own lust, and she slipped one of her fingers up to join with her tongue, now awash with Anne’s juices.
Anne’s head was now tipped back, her mouth open to allow release for her frenzied gasps, while her whole body began to tremble. Without stopping her licking and caressing, Katherine watched in wonder as Anne upper body arched up off the ground. The muscles in her stomach tensed and her fingers dug into the dry earth before suddenly she came crashing back down, her body jerking as Katherine tasted the fruits of her orgasm.
Katherine eased her finger out of Anne and moved her head back slightly so she could peer up at her over her pelvis. Anne was breathing heavily, her head flopped to one side, her arms now limp.
“Well, I’m certainly feeling warm now,” commented Katherine, crawling up Anne’s body.
“Me too,” replied Anne, smiling as Katherine came to settle by her side, propped up on one elbow, “Though you still seem to have some wet things on,” she noted.
Katherine glanced down at her trousers, “I don’t think that’s from the river,” she said with a small lop-sided grin.
Anne slipped her hand down between Katherine’s legs, “I think you may be right,” she agreed rubbing her palm over Katherine’s crotch, “Though it’s probably best to get these trousers off either way,” she added with a sly wink.
“I couldn’t agree more,” smiled Katherine, divesting herself of the offending item and throwing it casually over her shoulder.
As she turned her face back down to Anne, the young woman slid her hands around the back of Katherine’s head, pulling her down into a fiery kiss. Katherine’s body slid against Anne’s hot, sweaty skin as they rolled over the ground, consumed by their passion.
Walking along the dirt track, Katherine turned her face up to the sun and smiled as the warm rays touched her cheeks. It was amazing what a difference a day could make. The day before she had been as low as she had been for a long time, and now today it felt like she could take on the world again. That was the benefit of sharing your problems, she supposed, or at least sharing them with someone you loved. Someone you knew would stand by you no matter what.
After their love-making by the fire, neither she nor Anne had had any inclination to move, and they had ended up spending the rest of the day and night in the forest, before finally continuing with their journey today. They were now on the fourth day of their trip, but it wasn’t as if they were in any hurry. In fact now she was feeling better about herself and the world in general, Katherine really wasn’t bothered how long it took.
Apparently Anne thought that if they made good time that day, then that would put them within striking distance of Loughborough. They would at least be close enough so that they could make camp, and then travel into the town the following morning. Of course that depended on them making good time, and not succumbing to any distractions along the way. Katherine wasn’t sure she could guarantee that. Now she had stopped wallowing in self-pity, Anne’s mere presence was enough of a distraction.
For example at this moment, Katherine was entranced by the sunlight flickering off the strands of Anne’s golden hair as she walked just in front of her along the track. Katherine’s current position also gave her a fine view of Anne’s behind, and she noted the way the young woman’s tunic top fell over it, the flesh underneath being bought into definition with each step.
Feeling the first awakenings of arousal, Katherine had to glance away quickly, instead busying herself with an intense study of a pair of sparrows in a nearby tree. She followed that with a close perusal of the construction of the hedgerow. However, it wasn’t long before her eyes drifted back to Anne, like she was exuding some irresistible force that Katherine couldn’t ignore.
Anne must have sensed the eyes on her back, because she suddenly stopped and whirled round, catching Katherine out in mid-stare.
“You’re going to wear it out you know,” she commented.
“I beg your pardon?” replied Katherine innocently.
“The cloth on the back of my clothes,” clarified Anne, “You’re going to wear it out if you stare at it any longer.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” remarked Katherine nonchalantly, though she could feel the red tinge creeping into her cheeks, “I had my eyes on the road the whole time.”
“Really,” noted Anne, quirking one eyebrow, “I didn’t realise the road went anywhere near the vicinity of my bottom.”
“It will in a moment, when I dump you on it,” replied Katherine sarcastically.
“Ha, I’d like to see you try,” taunted Anne.
“Right,” said Katherine, “You asked for it.”
She lunged for Anne, who smartly side-stepped her attack. Anne then turned and started running down the track, with Katherine in hot pursuit. Every now and then Anne would glance round, smiling at Katherine’s futile attempt to catch her. However, she got slightly too overconfident, stumbling over a pothole and giving Katherine the chance she needed. Katherine flung herself at the young woman and they both tumbled off the road and down the grassy bank at its side. They finally came to rest with Katherine lying fully atop Anne at the foot of the slope.
“See, there’s life in the old girl yet!” said Katherine smiling broadly.
“I never doubted there was,” grinned Anne, reaching up and pulling Katherine to her so that their lips met briefly, “Plenty of life,” she added before deepening the kiss into a more passionate one.
Katherine pushed down upon the enticing body beneath her, groaning softly as she let herself be swept up in the kiss.
“We’ll never get to Loughborough at this rate,” she whispered in Anne’s ear, having nibbled her way round to it.
“Well, Robin didn’t specify a time limit,” noted Anne.
Katherine propped herself up on her elbow, “I guess not,” she agreed with a smile, “Though even I’m not quite exhibitionist enough to do anything quite this close to the track.”
“True, that would be quite an unfortunate, not to mention embarrassing, way to get arrested,” laughed Anne.
“Come on,” said Katherine, getting up and pulling Anne up with her, “I’m sure we can find somewhere more secluded later.”
After a full days travelling, they did indeed manage to find a nice sheltered spot to spend that night, only a couple of miles outside of Loughborough itself. Luckily their resting place provided cover too, since the heavens decided to open overnight and drench the Nottinghamshire countryside once again. Neither Katherine nor Anne were too bothered, though, wrapped up in each other’s arms sequestered away in their shelter.
Fortunately the rains had ceased come morning and they were able to pack up their makeshift camp and head into Loughborough under clear skies. Katherine had been to the town a few times before, since it was one of the larger ones in Nottinghamshire and maintained trading links with Markham. She kept her hood up as they moved among the peasants on their way to the castle, within whose walls the abbey lay. She didn’t really expect to see anyone she knew down in the bustling streets, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
It seemed to be especially busy that particular day with quite a variety of people – peasants, merchants, travellers, knights – milling about the streets. However, the number of people didn’t help the condition of the muddy track that pulled heavily at Katherine’s boots.
“I think it must be market day,” Anne whispered to her.
“I did wonder at the number of people,” commented Katherine, yanking her foot from a particularly muddy puddle.
“It could be handy for us, though,” continued Anne, leaning in closer, “At least we’ll be able to easily get past the castle walls since the market is in the courtyard. That just leaves us to get into the abbey without arousing suspicion. But again, with the number of people around, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem explaining what we’re doing there if we do get challenged.”
Katherine nodded and followed Anne across the drawbridge and through the castle gates, keeping her eyes turned downward so as not to make any eye contact with any of the guards. She needn’t have worried though, neither of them receiving more than a second glance from the armed men. In fact the guards seemed much more interested in the mugs of ale that a young woman had brought over to them from one of the market stalls.
The market itself was heaving with people, all out to barter the best prices for the goods on offer, from food and drink, to cloth, tools and weapons. It was so crowded that Katherine found herself bumped and jostled several times as they wound their way through the stalls. When she had come to markets before she had usually been accompanied by at least one of her guards, and people tended to give a noble a wide berth anyway, unless they wanted to get into trouble. Now, however, she was just one of the throng, and she found it at once an interesting though at the same time slightly unsettling experience. Just as another young boy knocked into Katherine, Anne’s hand shot out across her to grab him by the arm.
“I don’t think you want to be doing that,” Anne said to the boy, who looked terrified in her grasp. He tried to pull away, but Anne held on tightly against his squirming.
Katherine looked quizzically at Anne, unsure why she had stopped the scruffy urchin.
“I think you have something you want to return,” offered Anne to the boy, with an underlying threat in her tone that suggested it was best he comply.
Grudgingly he delved into his tunic, which was far too big for him, and pulled out a dagger in its sheath. It took Katherine a moment to realise that it was actually hers as he handed it back to her.
“Thank you,” was all she could manage, stunned that he had managed to lift it from her without her realising.
“Now be on your way,” said Anne, letting go of the boy who quickly disappeared back into the crowd.
“How did you know?” asked Katherine, quickly ferreting her dagger away in her bag.
“Let’s just say I’ve picked a few pockets in my time too,” revealed Anne with a sly wink, “Keep your bag close and you should be fine.”
Taking Anne’s advice, she clutched it to her chest as they made the rest of the way through the market. When they eventually made it to the far side of the courtyard, Katherine saw something that stopped her dead in her tracks. Standing guard by one of the castle entrances was a group of knights. There was nothing unusual about that in itself, but it was the colours they displayed on their tabards that had caught Katherine’s eye – the blue and gold of the Johnson crest. Katherine’s eyes flicked to Anne, who returned her look of astonishment.
“I can’t believe it,” muttered Katherine, “Of all the places for them to have been going.”
“I told you not to tempt fate,” sighed Anne.
“Well, we won’t be going in that way, then,” noted Katherine, recognising a couple of the men, now she took the time to study them in more detail.
“No,” agreed Anne, “Come on, there must be another entrance with fewer of your troops.”
Moving round the side of the castle they came to a quieter area of the yard where a lone guard looked bored as he maintained his post by a wooden door. He wasn’t one of the Johnson guards, displaying the Loughborough crest instead as he leant against the stone wall, kicking aimlessly at the earth with his boot.
“Looks like this is our best option,” suggested Anne, indicating the door with her eyes.
“Indeed, time for a little attempt at diplomacy then?” asked Katherine.
“If you want to give it a go,” shrugged Anne, “Though I say we just whack him over the head and get it over with. There’s no one around to see.”
“I’d like to avoid violence if possible,” said Katherine with a slight frown, “He is only doing his job.”
“Lead on, then,” said Anne, gesturing for Katherine to go ahead.
Katherine pulled down her hood and approached the guard, who perked up on seeing an attractive woman heading his way.
“Good morning,” began Katherine cheerily, offering her most winning smile
“Morning,” he replied in return, revealing a nice set of blackened teeth as he smiled back at her.
“My friend and I were just taking a break from looking round the market, and we spotted you looking lonely over here,” said Katherine, “So we thought we might come over and have a chat. It must be pretty boring for you, being stuck back here all the time.”
“Oh, it is,” he agreed, “Nothing ever happens back here, I don’t know why the lord bothers having someone on guard.”
“Yes, it does seem like a waste of someone of your undoubted skill,” she nodded, hoping to pander to his ego.
“That’s what I keep saying too,” he concurred.
“Well, tell you what,” she said conspiratorially, leaning towards him despite the stench that was wafting off his body, “Why don’t you take a little break, go and have a look round, enjoy some of the ale. We’ll keep an eye on things for you,” she added with a wink.
“I don’t know,” he said doubtfully.
“You said yourself that nothing ever happens back here…,” she continued persuasively.
“Yeah, but if I desert my post…”
Suddenly his eyes bulged and he slumped forwards, crashing to the ground at Katherine’s feet. Anne stood behind him, looking innocently up at the sky. Katherine’s eyes widened as it dawned on her what the other woman had done. She put her hands on her hips and waited for the young woman to look back at her. Having noticed the silence, Anne’s gaze finally drifted downwards.
“It was a small tap, he’ll recover,” said Anne with a shrug.
“And when he does?” asked Katherine.
“He wasn’t responding to diplomacy,” offered Anne, stepping over his prone form, “Now, if we’ve finished discussing this, perhaps we’d better get inside.”
Katherine and Anne crept along the torch lit corridors of the castle, both of them acutely aware of the potential dangers in this part of the building. Every so often a sound would echo in between the cavernous walls – a far off voice, the bang of a door – and the pair of them would freeze in place for a moment, straining to hear if it meant they were about to be discovered. Katherine hoped that they could make it to the abbey area without encountering any guards, though the presence of the Johnson party at the castle too made that fairly unlikely.
Suddenly, the sounds of footsteps alerted them to someone’s approach and they ducked out of sight, hiding in a darkened alcove. Katherine was sure the sound of her anxious breathing must be loud enough for whoever it was to hear, but fortunately they walked straight past without pause. After Anne had made a quick check that it was clear, they continued on their way.
They eventually found their way safely into the Abbey where there were no guards patrolling out of respect to the monks. The monks themselves were unlikely to judge or question those who entered their domain, welcoming anyone who wished to come and worship there. Of course, Katherine and Anne had other intentions, and they were directed to the Anne’s contact, who was extremely grateful to receive the land deed from her.
Katherine was thinking how relatively easy it had been slipping into the castle when a shout came, halting them in their tracks as they made to depart the Abbey. She glanced at Anne whose eyes met hers, asking the same silent question – should they just run for it? Flicking a look over her shoulder, Katherine saw that it was just one of the monks dashing after them, his plain brown robe flapping about his ankles as he hurriedly crossed the stone floor of the main chamber.
“I’m glad I caught you,” he said, out of breath as he reached them, “There was something Matthew was meant to give you, but forgot.”
Anne eyed the man suspiciously; “Robin didn’t say anything about collecting something.”
“No? Oh well, it’s more of a gift to say thank you really,” said the man amiably, “Just wait here a moment and I’ll get it.”
Before they could object, he hurried off to fetch whatever it was he had for them. Anne turned to Katherine and shrugged, “I suppose we may as well wait for him.”
After a couple of minutes, the monk re-emerged, carrying a small leather-bound book. Anne looked slightly mystified as he handed it to her. She gingerly opened the thick cover, not wanting to damage any of the delicate parchment inside. Katherine saw her eyes widening as she read the text on the first page. Suddenly she snapped the book closed again and thrust it back in the monk’s direction.
“We don’t need this,” she stated firmly.
“Hang on,” said Katherine, confused by her adverse reaction to what was just a book, “What’s wrong with it?” she asked taking it from Anne’s hands.
Turning it over in her hands, Katherine noted that the cover gave no indication as to the contents, so she followed Anne’s example and opened the first page. The text was ornately and painstakingly drawn and illustrated, but made absolutely no sense to Katherine since it appeared to be written in an entirely different language.
“I don’t understand,” she said, looking up at Anne, “What is it?”
“It’s a pagan text,” she replied stiffly
“Ah,” noted Katherine, looking down at the innocuous book once more, “Well, surely it can’t hurt to take it, can it? It would be useful to have just for future reference, if you wanted to look at it,” she offered gently.
Anne’s eyes narrowed slightly, and Katherine wondered if she was so against visiting her pagan past that she was going to argue the point here in front of the monk. After their talk under the stars, Katherine had thought that maybe Anne was warming to the idea slightly, but perhaps she had misjudged things.
“Fine, you carry it if you want,” sighed Anne eventually, acceding to Katherine.
Katherine smiled briefly at her as she placed the book in her bag. “Thank you,” she said to the monk, who nodded in return.
“What harm can it do to have it?” Katherine whispered softly to Anne as they walked off together, “You don’t have to look at it if you don’t want, we can just use it as a doorstop if you’d rather.”
Anne made a small laugh at Katherine’s attempt at lightening the mood, “I guess it was just a slightly painful reminder of the past, reading those first few words,” she confessed.
“That’s understandable,” said Katherine, placing a comforting hand on Anne’s arm and running her fingers down it for a moment, “So you could read it then?”
“Yes, it’s in an ancient language, but my parents taught it to me,” remarked Anne, her voice taking on a wistful edge as she recalled those past lessons.
“Well, as I said, I’ll just keep it safe and if you ever feel the urge…”
“I’ll know where to find it,” finished Anne, shooting her an acknowledging smile.
Katherine’s mouth curved up at the corners in response. It never ceased to amaze her how just a small smile from Anne could induce such wonderful warm sensations within her. It was as if the barest of glances or touches could speak a thousand loving words to her heart.
Back out in the main part of the castle, she had to focus her mind again, onto the task of leaving the building undetected. The sound of voices drifted down the corridor towards them and both women’s eyes darted about as they looked for somewhere to hide.
“Here,” said Anne, indicating a rather narrow recess in the wall.
“Are you sure?” asked Katherine, eyeing the small space doubtfully.
“Quick,” said Anne, pushing her in before she could protest further.
Katherine found her back pressed up against the wall as Anne wedged herself in behind her, the young woman facing her. They remained quiet in the enclosed space as the men approached, and Katherine guessed they were just lucky that castles tended to be built in such a haphazard way as to offer up such potential places of concealment. Anne’s chest was squashed up tightly against her own, and Katherine found that it was hard to breathe – though she wasn’t sure if that was because of the lack of room or the distraction caused by the soft flesh. She could feel Anne’s warm breath whispering out across her forehead, brushing through the strands of her hair. Despite their precarious predicament, she found the tickling breaths highly arousing, and she had to clamp down her desire to do something about it. The men were almost upon them now, and Katherine could finally make out what they were saying.
“…so, where is that lovely wife of yours then?” came a slurred voice.
There was a pause in the conversation, as if the one being questioned didn’t quite know how to respond. Then another voice came with the answer. As soon as the man spoke, Katherine recognised him – Charles Kirby.
“Mark doesn’t like to talk about it, do you?” he explained, his voice also coloured by the effects of alcohol, “But she’s rather ill, I’m afraid, she’s gone off to convalesce, away from the strains of manor life.”
“Really? That’s a damn shame,” said the first man, “Especially after all that time you were away. Or did you wear her out when you got back, eh?” he added in a suggestive tone.
Katherine felt the heat rising to her face as they discussed her. Kirby and the other man were laughing as they continued to make further innuendos about her absence from Markham, and she sensed Anne’s body stiffening next to her at the aspersions cast on Katherine’s character. She did note that Mark didn’t seem to be joining in with the banter. The men’s voices faded as they moved past the women’s position, finally disappearing altogether. Anne peeled herself away from Katherine and stepped out into the corridor. As Katherine joined her, back out in the flickering light, she could see that the young woman had a thunderous look on her face.
“Those bastards,” she seethed looking down the corridor after them, “If we were anywhere else…”
“It’s all right,” said Katherine, putting her hand on Anne’s arm, “It’s not like I have much honour left to defend anyway.”
“You have way more than any of them will ever have,” stated Anne, turning back to face her.
“Thank you for saying so, darling,” smiled Katherine, “Anyway, who cares what that bunch of chauvinistic morons think anyway?”
“Good point,” agreed Anne, “Well, I don’t think we should follow in that direction, do you? I guess we should go this way instead,” she suggested indicating the opposite branch.
“All right,” nodded Katherine, “Though I’m starting to get a little lost in this maze of corridors!”
“Just stick close to me,” said Anne, starting off.
“I have no problem with that,” commented Katherine, “No problem at all.”
Anne led them through the twisting and turning warren, each corridor looking the same to Katherine – just more bare stone with the odd torch or door along it. She really had lost all sense of direction, but trusted that Anne knew what she was doing. A clanking noise interrupted Katherine’s bemused thoughts, and she realised some armed guards were heading their way. This time, however, though were no handy nooks or crannies to sneak into. The only option was to stay and wait for the men; run back the way they had come and hope for somewhere to hide back that way, assuming the men didn’t hear them and give chase; or to chance the door that lay opposite them. It seemed Anne had reached the same conclusion as Katherine, as her hand darted out to try the handle, the solid wooden door swinging open as she did.
They entered what appeared to be an empty room, apart from the various items of furniture dotted about. Katherine wasn’t sure as to its function, and didn’t really care as long as the men didn’t follow them in. However, when the clanking stopped just outside the door, she realised her wishes weren’t about to be granted. Her eyes shot frantically to Anne’s who was looking anxiously around the room, searching for somewhere to hide.
“There,” she said suddenly, pointing over at the corner, “Get behind that dresser!”
“What about you?” asked Katherine, realising there was only room for one.
“I’ll be fine,” insisted Anne, shoving Katherine towards the hiding place.
Just as Anne pushed her behind it, the door swung open. Katherine didn’t have time to see who stood in the doorway, as Anne suddenly dashed in their direction. Katherine heard some scuffling, followed by the sound of several sets of footsteps disappearing down the corridor at pace.
Katherine ran to the door and glanced anxiously down the corridor, but there was no sign of either Anne or her pursuers. Pondering what she should do, Katherine cursed Anne’s recklessness in drawing the men away on her own as some chivalrous gesture. She knew the young woman was experienced in evading capture, but that didn’t stop Katherine worrying that this time Anne’s luck would run out. After a moments consideration Katherine picked one way and set off, hoping she had guessed right and would catch up with Anne. Even if the young woman wanted to try and protect her, Katherine could hardly allow her to face the guards alone.
Katherine passed a few servants on the way, a couple of them giving her strange looks. However, she held her head high and kept walking, pretending she had as much right to be there as they did. Rounding a corner, she walked straight into a body coming the other way.
“Sorry…” she began, her eyes drifting up to their face at which point her words trailed off. Standing directly in front of her was Mark.
“Kathy?” said Mark incredulously, his mouth dropping open in amazement.
An irrational urge to get away swept through Katherine, and she tried to turn and run. Mark’s hand shot out to grab her arm, forestalling her. As he gripped her tightly, she felt the icy tendrils of fear snaking through her, wrapping around her heart…squeezing…crushing.
“Let go,” she cried, pulling at his grasp while trying to keep the tremor from her voice. She couldn’t quite believe he was evoking these emotions within her. Nevertheless, she had to admit that she was actually scared of Mark.
“Sorry,” he said, surprising her by releasing his hold, “I just want to talk to you.”
“Well, after our last ‘chat’ I can’t say as I want to talk to you,” she replied, trying to inject some hardness into her tone despite her fear. At the same time she slowly started backing away, inching along the corridor in an attempt to put some space between her and the source of her disquiet.
“Please, just a minute?” he asked, stepping towards her again.
It was all Katherine could do to stop herself from cowering at his advance. She tried to tell herself it was stupid, but her mind kept drifting back to the forest and what he had tried to do to her. Those thoughts were quickly followed by a sense of dread that he may try it again now. Her heart was pulsating erratically in her chest, and she suddenly felt like the walls of the corridor were closing in on her, trapping her there with Mark. The effect was dizzying, and she had to reach out and brace herself against the cold wall.
Maybe Mark could sense the terror he was evoking, as he stopped in his tracks, a remorseful look coming across his features.
“I’m sorry for what happened before, in the forest,” he said, his voice quiet and genuinely regretful, “It was totally wrong of me to hit you, to…” he broke off, as if he had trouble fathoming his own previous behaviour. His eyes were firmly fixed on the floor as he spoke, “I know it’s no excuse, but I was shocked, and I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“You can say that again,” said Katherine, her breathing shallow as she leant up against the wall, trying to compose herself. Seeing his down-turned eyes, she wondered if she could make good her escape, but was frightened of what he might do if she provoked him. She had already been witness to his angry outbursts twice, and wasn’t keen for a repeat performance.
“Oh Kathy,” he suddenly wailed beseechingly, making her jump with the abruptness of his outburst, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Ever since I came back from Europe, I’ve not felt right.”
His eyes came up to bore into her, and she had to fight back her fear, to stop it overwhelming her. She wasn’t sure if she could run now, even if she wanted to. She was frozen to the spot, her legs barely supporting her.
“I can’t seem to control myself,” he continued, shaking his head, “I’m irrational, short-tempered, and I don’t know why. My mind tells me what I’m doing is wrong, and yet, I still do it.”
As Katherine looked into his pleading face, she began to see that maybe he wasn’t that fearsome. In fact, if anything, he looked lost, pathetic.
“Is that why you’ve been punishing the people of Markham?” she asked doubtfully, finding her voice again, “Because you can’t help yourself?”
“Yes…no…I don’t know!” he moaned, bringing up his hand to rub roughly at his temple, “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.”
“And before Europe?” she asked, becoming more confident as she recognised his confused and troubled state.
“Sorry?” he questioned, not understanding the reference.
“You killed Anne’s parents before you went anywhere near Europe,” she outlined in an accusatory tone, “You can hardly use your time away as an excuse for that.”
“No, you’re right,” he admitted with a weary shake of the head, “There is no excuse for what I did then.”
She looked at him in surprise, not sure she was hearing him correctly.
“Despite what you think, I’m not a monster,” he tried to explain having observed her expression, “I do regret what happened all those years ago.”
“That’s not what you said last time I saw you,” she interjected scornfully, “In fact you seemed quite proud of the fact you had murdered them.”
“I know,” he conceded, “But that’s what I’m talking about. That wasn’t me talking. I don’t know who it was, but whoever they are, they scare me.”
Katherine didn’t chip in to confess that they scared her too.
“I can’t defend what I did back then. All I can say is that I was young, easily led. It seemed like I was doing what the church wanted,” he sighed, his shoulders now slumped as the weight of the memory pressed down on him, “But it was wrong, killing those poor people just because they believed something different. Their faces have haunted me over the years, you know, a constant reminder of the blood on my hands.”
“And you want me to feel sorry for you because of that?” she asked harshly, though she had to admit she did feel the faint stirrings of sympathy.
“No, I’m just trying to explain things to you, tell you the truth,” he offered, “I don’t expect you to forgive me; I don’t forgive myself.”
Katherine saw his throat bob in the dim light as he took a moment to swallow, and try to find the words to continue.
“I also wanted you to know that you weren’t wrong in your judgement of me while we were married. I’m sure you’ve been wondering who it was you were really married to? Wondering if I somehow deceived you into thinking I was something I wasn’t? Wondering if you really knew me at all?”
He looked at her for a moment, and she could almost see the man she had married buried behind his eyes - the good, honest man.
“Well, you did know me, you knew me better than anyone. I trusted you with everything, relied on you for everything, told you everything…,” he swallowed nervously again, “Everything but this one thing – I was too ashamed to tell you about that.”
He turned away from her, bowing his head, “Anyway after that incident with the pagans, I resolved I would never do something like that again, swore that I would be fair and just to the people on our estate. I wasn’t hiding anything else from you all those years, I really was a changed man. It was you who helped me do that with your love and support,” he finished swinging round to fix her with eyes, which now had a few tears brimming in them.
Katherine had been listening attentively, her fear having subsided now to be replaced by a kind of pity. Mark looked so sad, staring at her with a plaintive look on his face, and she could tell he was genuinely sorrowful for what had happened in the past. Some of her old feelings stirred inside her and she found herself actually wanting to reach out and comfort him, but she held back. No matter how much pain he might be in, it didn’t seem right to be offering solace to this man who had hurt her and Anne so badly.
“The thing is,” he continued on, “That’s what I need again now, your love and support. I want you to help me, Kathy. I need you.”
Katherine let out a laugh, “You want me to help you?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “Please, Kathy,” he added beseechingly, “I need you to help me find myself again. After what happened in Sicily…what they did to me…” he paused for a moment, closing his eyes in silent remembrance, “Please, come back with me to the manor, help me run it again, together.”
“And what about Anne?” she asked.
“What about her? You’re not seriously telling me you have real feelings for her? I mean, she’s an outlaw, a woman…” he said stupidly.
“So? Does that mean my feelings should be any less or different?” she replied determinedly.
“But, but, you can’t…it’s just not right…” stammered Mark, not quite grasping the situation.
“What’s not right about loving someone?”
“You…love…her?” said Mark slowly, trying to comprehend the words he spoke as an utterly gob-smacked expression settled on his face
“Yes, I do,” stated Katherine simply.
“You’re in love with her?” he asked again, perhaps hoping she was going to change her mind if he kept probing.
“Yes,” she replied, crossing her arms and fixing him with an intense look, as if she was speaking to an idiot, “I am completely head over heels in love with her, is that plain enough for you?”
“I…I...” he stammered, his mouth opening and closing several times as he tried to find something sensible to say.
“I’m sorry, Mark, but there’s no way I’m giving up what I have with Anne, especially not for you,” she explained, softening her tone slightly having seen how shocked he was by her revelations, “That’s not to say I don’t care about you. We were married for seventeen years, and in a way, I wish we could have still been friends…”
“We can be,” he interrupted, “You can both come back to the manor, anything if it means you’ll be there.”
Katherine laughed again, “You don’t really expect me to believe that you’d happily have my lover living at the manor house with us? Not to mention the fact that I don’t think she’d exactly be receptive to living with her parents’ killer or that she’s an outlaw. The only thing that’s going to change that is if King Richard suddenly pitches up, back from Jerusalem, and gives her a pardon. For all I know, you’d hand her over to the Sheriff the first chance you got.”
“I wouldn’t, I give you my word,” he insisted.
“Ha, why doesn’t that fill me with confidence? And what about Kirby?” she asked incredulously, “I’m sure he’d be welcoming me back with open arms.”
“I’ll dismiss him,” he stated emphatically, “Anything, I just need you!”
Katherine stared at him, this shadow of the man she had once known, the man she had once loved. His eyes locked onto hers in return, pleading with her to come with him, pricking away at her old feelings. Studying his pathetic face, she found she couldn’t hate him, but at the same time it was too late for her to help him. That time was in the past; her life was on a whole different path now. The only thing vaguely tempting about his offer was that she might be able to put right some of the harm he had caused to the people of Markham.
Her sense of duty didn’t allow her to dismiss his offer out of hand, though, not when she had been bemoaning her lack of an opportunity to do anything about his actions. Maybe she could go back with him somehow, she pondered, before her mind drifted back to thoughts of Anne telling her she should do what was right for her. Though Katherine was willing to make the personal sacrifice, if it meant rescuing the people from his clutches, she knew that in the end giving up her life, her happiness, would just make her bitter and full of regret. In fact she could end up just like Mark himself.
“I’m sorry, Mark,” she said, “But I can’t come back with you. I don’t love you anymore, and quite frankly I don’t trust you either.”
“Please, Kathy,” he wailed, crushed by her refusal, “I don’t know if I can go on without you.”
His statement hung in the air between them, and she felt his desperation tearing at her heart. No matter what he had done she still felt some sort of responsibility towards him, some sort of duty. They stood in silence regarding each other, his face a mask of pain and anguish. Suddenly Katherine caught a movement behind him and spotted some of the guards that had probably been chasing Anne. They in turn saw her and started running in their direction.
“I’m sorry, Mark,” she said, one final time, before turning and running off.
“The exit’s that way,” he called after her as she approached the junction at the end of the corridor.
She shot him a last, grateful look over her shoulder before she disappeared round the bend the way he had indicated. She was just considering that maybe he wasn’t that bad after all, when a hand suddenly shot out and grabbed her arm, hauling her out of the corridor and into another cramped nook.
“What the hell…” she began, whirling round.
Standing in the shadows was Anne, “shhh!” she said, placing her hand over Katherine’s mouth, while pulling her deeper into the hiding place.
Pressed up against her warm body once more, Katherine heaved an internal sigh of relief that Anne was all right. In that moment, she knew she had made the right choice in refusing Mark’s offer to go back to the manor. Her heart belonged to Anne, and she would be incomplete without her. Subconsciously she snuggled up closer, Anne’s arms eagerly enveloping her in return. Katherine heard the guards scooting round the corner and pounding past their location without pause.
“There are bloody guards everywhere,” whispered Anne, “I think we might have to find an alternative exit from the castle.”
“What do you mean?” queried Katherine, tilting her head up to regard Anne, the smooth contours of her face highlighted by the meagre light from the corridor behind them.
“Just follow me,” said Anne cryptically, heading off down the corridor once more.
Katherine was surprised when Anne led them up a twisting flight of stairs, halfway along the stone hallway. She wasn’t sure how they were going to get out of the castle by going higher up one of its towers. Reaching the top they found a door that opened out to the brisk September air.
“I don’t see how this helps us,” remarked Katherine in bemusement, noting the impressive view of the surrounding countryside from their current height, “We may be outside, but how are we going to get down?”
“We’re going to jump,” stated Anne confidently.
“I beg your pardon,” replied a confused Katherine, “But I could have just sworn you said we were going to jump.”
“That’s right,” said Anne, peering through one of the gaps in the crenelated wall that edged the top of the tower, “Into the moat.”
Katherine joined her perusal of the murky waters below, “You have to be joking,” she said sceptically. The moat looked less than inviting, though at least they were at the back of the castle with open land beyond the narrow waterway.
“No, and anyway, I thought you would have had enough practice of jumping from a great height into water by now,” commented Anne, “At least this water’s still and there are no rocks.”
Katherine shot her a withering look, not appreciating the reminder of her previous foolhardy behaviour. Especially not when the evidence of it was still so prominent in the form of the purple bruise on Anne’s forehead. The sound of some voices echoed up the stairwell, and Katherine realised they were about to have company.
“Come on,” said Anne, taking Katherine’s hand and clambering up between the battlements, “Trust me, I’m an outlaw.”
Katherine stepped up onto the low wall next to Anne and took a deep breath. Shooting a quick sideways glance at Anne, she saw the young woman smiling reassuringly at her. Katherine merely nodded and then they leapt together, Katherine clasping onto Anne’s hand during the brief time it took for them to reach the bottom and hit the water.
Katherine plunged under the surface, the coldness of the water knocking her breath from her. She felt a firm hand tugging at her sleeve and was hauled up into the fresh air.
“Urgh!” cried Katherine, paddling for the edge and desperately trying to hold her head out of the water to stop any of it getting in her mouth, “This is disgusting!”
“Well, what do you expect,” remarked Anne, reaching the grassy bank and clambering out of the fetid water, “It is meant to deter people after all.”
“It certainly does it’s job in that case,” noted Katherine, as she was dragged out by Anne, “Christ, I stink!” she said, catching a whiff of herself and turning up her nose.
“Don’t say I don’t take you to all the best places,” laughed Anne, as Katherine pushed her sodden hair away from her face and tried to brush some of the remnants of the moat from her clothes.
“Indeed, remind me to think of a suitable excuse next time you suggest a little road trip,” said Katherine, giving up her efforts as hopeless and standing regarding Anne with her hands on her hips instead. She might have looked imposing if it wasn’t for the mud smeared across her face and the way her hair flopped back down every time she tried to push it away.
“How about if I promise that we can have more fun on the way back to Sherwood?” suggested Anne, still with a smile on her face despite the fact that she too was utterly filthy and soaked to the skin.
“No more getting wet?” pressed Katherine.
“Well, not by swimming in moats or rivers at least…” replied Anne wickedly.
Katherine finally allowed a smile to creep onto her face too, “Now that sounds like a much better proposition.”
“Though I think we may need to find somewhere to bathe in the short term,” noted Anne, sniffing at her own clothes and recoiling.
“I guess that’s acceptable,” agreed Katherine, taking Anne’s arm, “Far be it from me to turn down an opportunity to help you remove your wet clothes again.”
Anne grinned back at her as Katherine turned them for home and led Anne away from the castle.
Will Scarlet shivered as he carried the logs in his arms, heading for the small hut hidden deep within the forest. He was getting increasingly fed up with being treated as Bronwyn’s skivvy, especially when it meant he had to keep sneaking off at ridiculous, and cold, times of night. The faint glow of candlelight from the building guided him to its whereabouts amongst the trees. A hooting owl made him jump and he almost spilt his cargo onto the forest floor. Quickening his pace, he hurried to the door and pushed it open with his shoulder.
“You’re late,” came the greeting from the dark witch, who sat huddled by the dying embers of the fire.
“Sorry, I couldn’t get away,” he said apologetically, dumping the logs by the grate and kneeling down to spark the fire back into life.
“I hope you’re not starting to have doubts about coming here,” said Bronwyn evenly, though her green eyes pierced into him, giving a whole world of meaning to the words.
“No…of course not,” he stammered, looking back to the fire to avoid her stare.
“Good,” she remarked, “Anyway, hopefully it won’t be for too much longer. How many days ago was it that they departed again?” she asked.
“It was five days ago,” he replied, finally having managed to elicit some flames from the wood.
“So they should have reached Loughborough by now,” she deduced, “And providing all went to plan have they should also have the book,” she added, a smile curving the corners of her lips.
“As long as Luke managed to get them to take it,” said Will, warming his hands by the fire.
“I’m sure he will have done,” nodded Bronwyn, “If he knows what’s good for him. In which case we just need to sit back…and wait.”
COMING NEXT: Lady Katherine and The Haunted Castle