The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 10
Lady Katherine And The Ultimate Sacrifice
November 1191, Nottinghamshire, England
MercyCroft and Jay for beta reading this for me :)
A special thanks to Mercy for that extra little bit of supernatural inspiration ;)
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.
The chill November air clawed at the face of Lady Katherine Johnson as she was jarred in her saddle, bounced around by the trotting gait of her horse. The iciness stung her eyes, but she forced them open wide, wanting to feel the pain, wanting to feel anything. Yet she couldn’t. Like the air, her heart was cold, numbed by the events she’d witnessed earlier that day.
She forced herself to relive them now, playing them over in her mind time and time again, as if they might make more sense with each retelling.
Again and again she watched as Anne thrust her sword through Mark’s body, crowing gleefully as he fell to the ground at her feet. Again and again she saw the hard, unfeeling look in Anne’s eyes as Katherine told her Mark was dead. Again and again she felt her own heart breaking inside. It was a never-ending torment that only left despair and questions in its wake.
How could Anne do that? Why would she do that? Had Katherine misjudged her completely? Would Katherine ever see her again?
The last question was the real cause of her desolation. Of course she was upset about Mark’s death – you didn’t spend seventeen years of your life with someone and not still care for them in some way. However, she couldn’t avoid the fact that what she was more upset about was the death of her relationship with Anne. Despite the way Anne had been acting the past week the thought that she might never see the young woman again stabbed through her heart as swiftly as Anne’s sword had through Mark.
So she could feel something after all then, she pondered glumly, even if it was heart-wrenching sorrow.
Her mood was matched by the countryside they were crossing on the way back to Markham – bleak, desolate, and barren of life in the fading winter sun. Katherine could almost weep with the irony of her journey. Here she was on the way to resume her position as head of the manor and all she could think about was the part of her she’d left behind in the forest.
As they passed on through the village and up to the manor house, Katherine felt none of the usual warmth and feeling of home that such a path would evoke. Where once the walls of the manor had seemed welcoming, now they appeared dark and foreboding. None of this seemed like home any more.
Her party trotted into the courtyard and up to the front of the house. Katherine noticed a few startled looks from the peasants that were out working in the yard and a small crowd had gathered by the time she clambered down from her mount. They seemed too stunned to say anything though, especially as it wasn’t respectful for a peasant to speak to a noble without being spoken to first. They just watched silently as Mark’s body was taken from the back of one of the horses, having been wrapped in the cloaks of a couple of the guards for his final journey home. Katherine couldn’t bring herself to look in that direction.
Dazedly she made her way through the large oak door to the great hall of the house, where finally a voice broke the oppressive quiet.
“What the hell is going on? What are you doing back here? Where’s Mark?”
The furious stream of questions came from Charles Kirby who was hurrying across the wooden floor towards her. Fortunately Tobias was right behind Katherine and he stepped round to fend off the knight.
“His lordship is dead,” Tobias informed the other man starkly.
Kirby looked thunderstruck, the tattoo above his left eye crinkling in confusion. “Dead? But how? Was this your doing?”
He was looking angrily at Katherine now, but she glanced down to the floor – she really wasn’t in the mood to face anyone right now, let alone Kirby.
“I do not believe that is an appropriate way to address her ladyship,” Tobias continued on her behalf.
“Her ladyship?” he repeated incredulously, “But she’s been living with outlaws! She gave up all right to be called that!”
“I thought she was convalescing from illness at her sister’s? At least that’s what his lordship said,” commented Tobias evenly, though of course he knew full well that it wasn’t true.
Kirby opened and closed his mouth a few times, some frustrated noises emanating from it since he knew he couldn’t say anything lest he wanted to claim that Mark was a liar.
“Ho, very clever,” he finally said scathingly, still directing his comments at Katherine, “Kill off the husband and it’s all yours again!”
Katherine had had enough of the irritating Kirby and gently pushed Tobias to one side so she could face him one on one. Taking a step closer to him, she titled her head up and fixed him with a dark look. “How dare you insinuate that I would kill Mark in order to claim Markham as mine,” she said, her voice low and menacing.
“I’m only stating the truth.”
“The truth?” she shot back, “You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the backside.”
“I know enough. I know that you’ve been running around associating yourself with outlaws, I’m sure they know a few good ways to kill someone.”
“As Tobias said,” she continued in a softly menacing tone, “I have been at my sister’s the last three months.”
Katherine actually found herself relishing this opportunity to spar with Kirby. At least it served as a distraction from more distressing thoughts, and it was somewhere where she was on familiar territory.
“We both know that’s not true!” cried Kirby, his frustration growing.
“Do we? As far as everyone is concerned I’ve been ill for months and now my husband has been brutally murdered. Do you really want to question the word of the late lord of the manor and his grieving widow?”
Kirby huffed and puffed for a few more moments, but he knew as well as she did how hopeless it was.
“Now,” added Katherine, “I suggest you leave before I do something unladylike.”
Kirby had one last go at rescuing something from the situation. “Even if you didn’t do it, I bet that little tart of yours would!”
All Katherine’s anger shot back to the surface in that moment. Her fingers balled into a fist and she punched Kirby resoundingly in the face. She watched in satisfaction as he tumbled backwards onto the floor, clutching at his jaw.
“Now get out!” yelled Katherine as she stood looming over him, “I don’t ever want to see you round here again, either the house or the estate. If you do show your face then I shall have you arrested and thrown in a dank dungeon for a very long time.”
Kirby stumbled to his feet, grumbling under his breath the whole time and still rubbing his jaw.
“And don’t go spreading rumours about me or anyone I associate myself with,” Katherine instructed him, “Or you’ll make yourself look an even bigger fool than you do already.”
Kirby made for the door, pausing in the doorway to fire one last parting shot. “This isn’t over, I’ll get you back for this!” he stated before slamming the door behind him.
At the same time, somewhere deep inside of Sherwood Forest, Anne sat amongst the trees, toying with some loose stones as she watched the wildlife scurrying through the undergrowth. At least, it was the body of Anne that sat there. However, her mind lay deep within, pushed away from conscious control of her own body by the dark witch, Bronwyn.
It was Bronwyn who picked up a stone and weighed it in her hand. It was Bronwyn who watched the squirrel gathering the last of its provisions for winter. It was Bronwyn who hurled the stone at the small animal and let out a satisfied grunt when it hit its target.
All Anne did was watch numbly. She still couldn’t get the images of what had happened earlier out of her mind. Mark’s eyes when the sword had penetrated his stomach would haunt her forever. She had killed people before, but there had always been some sort of justification, at least in her mind. To watch someone dying right in front of you at your hand when you were powerless to stop it was something else altogether. Feelings of guilt swept through her as she wondered if she could have actually done something to stop it, prevented Bronwyn in some way.
And then there was Katherine. Anne’s soul ached to see the other woman, to try and explain what had happened. Katherine had looked so utterly mortified as Mark had died before her, and the subsequent horrified look she had given Anne had chilled the young woman to the core. Anne wanted to scream out that it wasn’t her that had killed him, that it was Bronwyn. Yet it was hopeless – her lips were not her own.
Are you just going to sit there all afternoon, moping?
Bronwyn was speaking to Anne in her mind.
There’s no point thinking about Katherine anymore, she’s long gone, back to the manor. She’s probably forgotten about you already.
Anne didn’t reply, though it seemed Bronwyn had been reading her thoughts again so she really didn’t need to. With her despair it was getting harder and harder to hold Bronwyn at bay from the deeper recesses of her mind. As the days had progressed since Bronwyn’s assault, Anne had felt her mental strength faltering as it was, without this added torment to weaken her fortitude. Anne suspected that it was part of the spell that Bronwyn would eventually take over completely and Anne’s personality, soul and spirit would be gone forever.
Anne had started out so defiantly, determined to do whatever she could to thwart Bronwyn, but now she wondered if there was in fact any point in continuing to battle on – maybe she should just give in and give her whole mind and consciousness over to the other woman. At least she might find some peace for her broken heart in the oblivion that lay there.
But at the same time there was still a small part of her telling her to hold on, to fight the witch to the bitter end. Anne didn’t know what Bronwyn’s grand plan was yet, only that it was to be resolved come the eclipse in three days time. However, she knew enough about the witch to assume that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be beneficial to anyone but the witch herself. People would no doubt be in danger - people like Katherine. That thought galvanised Anne. It was up to her to try and stop Bronwyn harnessing Anne’s pagan abilities to accomplish whatever evil plans she had. At the same time Anne hoped against hope that if she could just hold on then maybe Katherine would finally discover what had happened. Maybe after reflection she would realise something was terribly wrong with Anne. Maybe Anne could communicate with her in some way to let her know.
I don’t know why you insist on holding out hope, I’m telling you she won’t be thinking about you, she’ll be thinking about her precious manor.
Anne had finally had enough, gathering the last of her willpower. You don’t know Katherine at all – she loves me, she’ll rescue me!
Even after this? I doubt it. As far as she’s concerned you’re just a cold-hearted murderer.
No, you’re wrong.
Bronwyn made an annoyed sigh. All right, we’ll find out shall we? I can see you’re not going to give in until she tells you herself, so we’ll just have to go see her won’t we.
As Bronwyn clambered up off the ground and started heading for Markham, Anne felt both hopeful and anxious in equal measure. She knew she had to try and hang on that bit longer and then make one supreme effort to do something, anything when she saw Katherine.
Anne watched through her own eyes in confusion as she tried to recall how she came to be standing by the large tree on the bank of the River Meden. From the height and position of the sun she could tell it was mid-morning, yet the last thing she could remember was going to sleep in her hut the night before. Before that Bronwyn had snuck into Markham Church to see Friar Tuck in order to get him to arrange a meeting with Katherine. There were far too many guards around the house itself after the lord’s murder for Bronwyn to be able to risk attempting to see Katherine there.
With no small alarm, Anne realised that her mind must have become so weak that her consciousness was now being overpowered altogether by Bronwyn’s during certain periods. That meant she was also running out of time to do something. Anne knew she had to try and concentrate, gather her strength.
Searching for something to hold on to, she thought of Katherine and their clandestine meeting back in the spring, by the very tree she now stood by. It hadn’t been long after they had first met. Unlike the biting cold of the present, it had been a warm day then, and Anne’s heart was equally filled with warmth now as she remembered surprising Katherine and causing her to fall in the water. The indignant look on her face as she surfaced wet and bedraggled had only caused Anne to laugh harder. Of course Anne had subsequently been dragged in too, and as she thought of it now she could almost feel the warm rays of sun on her skin as they both lay on the grass drying themselves off.
Anne’s pleasant thoughts were rudely interrupted. You’re back then? I thought perhaps you were gone for good and there was no need for this.
No, I’m still here. I don’t care what it takes; somehow I’ll stop you.
Brave, but ultimately foolish words. You’ll soon see what Katherine really thinks of you and then we can get on with our real task.
Ah ah. Not yet. You’ll find out soon enough, but first things first. I think I see a horse on the horizon.
Anne followed Bronwyn’s gaze. She had to anyway since Bronwyn had control of her eyes. There was indeed a horse cresting the hill now, the red hair of its rider evident in the light of the late autumn sun. Anne’s heart did a small flip. She knew this was it – her last chance. At least Katherine had come, that meant there was still hope.
As the horse trotted on down towards her, Anne had never been more nervous in her life. It was clear to her that if she couldn’t do something now it would all be over, not only for her and Katherine, but also for whoever else Bronwyn had in her sights.
Katherine didn’t look at Anne as she pulled the horse up by the tree and clambered down to tether it. It was just one of the random stable horses, since Delta was still back at the outlaw camp in the forest. Katherine appeared pensive as she approached, her eyes eventually meeting Anne’s in a wary look of inquisition. Seeing the blue eyes regarding her almost undid Anne, but then she remembered what she was trying to do and started to try and force her will up, push against Bronwyn’s control. It was like there was a barrier in her mind that she was battering upon.
What are you trying to do?
Anne didn’t reply, focussing on Katherine who was looking rather confused at Anne’s continued silence.
Bronwyn laughed. Oh, you’re not trying to take control are you? Dear me, when are you going to learn that won’t work? No, you just sit back and watch the fun.
Anne was straining with all her mental might, but it wasn’t working, the barrier was impenetrable. She knew she needed something to give her that extra push, something to stoke her emotions even more. Bronwyn’s own emotions were filtering through to Anne now, the malicious intent with which she was eyeing up Katherine all too obvious. The predominant emotion Anne felt right then was fear.
If you hurt Katherine I’ll kill you! she said defiantly, trying to build up her anger if nothing else.
And how are you going to do that exactly? Don’t make threats you can’t keep. And anyway, who said anything about hurting her?
Bronwyn took a step closer to Katherine, curving Anne’s lips into a sly grin. Katherine was too stunned to move as Bronwyn leant in and pulled her into an embrace, melding their lips together as she did.
No, stop! Bronwyn! cried Anne as she could feel Katherine struggling to break the contact. Katherine finally succeeded in getting her hands up onto Anne’s chest and pushing her away enough so that their lips were no longer touching. Bronwyn still kept her arms wrapped round the smaller woman though.
Katherine looked up at Anne in disbelief. “Anne, what in god’s name are you doing?”
“I was just giving you a welcome kiss,” Bronwyn answered, “That’s what lovers do isn’t it?”
Katherine’s looked dumbstruck for a moment before she disentangled herself completely from the arms that enfolded her. “What lovers do…?” she managed incredulously, “Anne - you killed Mark! I hardly think this is the time for kisses do you? I thought you were going to try and explain why you did it, tell me what’s been going on, not pounce on me like some lovesick teenager.”
Bronwyn slinked closer to Katherine again, her voice dropping to a feral whisper. “Do we have to talk about that? There are other things I’d much rather do.”
Anne could sense what Bronwyn was intending now, and her concentration slipped as a sickening sensation swept through her. Please, Bronwyn, she pleaded, I’ll do whatever you want, just stop this now.
It’s too late for that. You thought you could hold me back? But it’s taken most of your strength and for what? Now you’ll see what happens when you try to resist me.
Katherine was backing away, though the huge trunk of the tree was behind her. “Yes, we have to talk about it!” she cried adamantly. She was getting angry now, after her initial shock. “For Christ’s sake, Anne, what’s gotten in to you? You’ve been behaving oddly all week, but this…I want to know what’s going on, or I’m leaving right now!”
“Don’t be like that,” said Bronwyn, softly and seductively.
Katherine had nowhere left to go and as Bronwyn moved closer her back was pressed up against the tree. To show just what her intentions were Bronwyn placed her hands on Katherine’s forearms, pinning her in place against the bark.
Katherine’s eyes were stormy as she glanced up. “Anne, I’m warning you, get off me, now!”
Katherine’s voice was defiant, but Anne could see the tinge of fear that lay behind the blue-grey eyes. Fear caused by her.
“And what are you going to do about it?” sneered Bronwyn. She pushed Anne’s body up against Katherine’s smaller frame, her leg slipping in between Katherine’s. Anne could feel the warmth of Katherine’s body, so familiar…but not like this, never like this!
Bronwyn, no! begged Anne desperately.
Katherine shoved against Anne with all her might, succeeding in pushing her away just enough to slip away from the tree. But Anne was quick, latching onto her arm to prevent her going far. As Katherine was spun round she never even saw the other hand until it connected with her face. A harsh backhanded slap snapped her head viciously to the side and she tumbled backwards onto the ground, partly from the shock as much as the force of it. Her hand instinctively flew up to touch her stinging cheek. She couldn’t believe it – Anne had hit her. Anne had actually hit her.
No matter how many times she repeated it she still couldn’t comprehend it. Her eyes flicked to Anne, unsure and not a little scared of what she was going to see. Of all the things she might have imagined, Anne crouched on the ground, holding her head in her hands was not one of them. Katherine could hear the low plaintive moaning coming from the young woman, and Katherine’s confusion only increased. What the hell was going on? First Anne attacked her, now she was seemingly wracked with… what? Guilt? Remorse? Pain? Suddenly Anne’s eyes shot up to her, staring wildly.
“Katherine, please…” the plea sounded like it had been wrenched from Anne’s very soul. Her hand shakily stretched out towards Katherine, though she remained hunched on the grass, gripping at her stomach with her other hand as if she was trying to hold something in.
Katherine was caught in Anne’s piercing stare, pinned in place by the power of it. She didn’t know what to do. Her mind was telling her to get out of there, get away while Anne appeared to be immobilised, but her heart was telling her something else. Despite everything she couldn’t leave Anne.
“Anne, what is it, what’s wrong?” Katherine got up onto her knees, inching closer, but staying just out of reach. She hadn’t completely forgotten what had just happened.
Anne groaned again, dipping her head as her face twisted into a pained grimace. Her outstretched hand fell to the ground, clawing at the dirt. Katherine’s heart was clutching painfully in her chest in response to Anne’s obvious distress, and she couldn’t resist the urge to go closer.
“Anne, what’s happening? Tell me!” Katherine’s hand was on the young woman’s shoulder now and she could feel the tension in it. Anne’s whole body seemed to be trembling from some almighty effort.
Anne titled her head up once more, blue eyes desperately scanning Katherine’s face. “Katherine, oh god…” she managed through clenched teeth, each word forced out, “…You have to go…”
“I don’t understand. What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Please…” begged Anne, “…before she hurts you…”
“She? Who?” asked Katherine glancing round momentarily, “There’s no one else here.”
“She’s here.” Anne stopped again to let out another gasping cry, before dragging some more words past her lips “…Bronwyn…inside me…controlling me…”
Katherine was floored. Bronwyn? She desperately struggled to comprehend what Anne was telling her. “But, how?”
“No time!” cried Anne, her voice suddenly loud, ringing out across the open ground. She took a few ragged breaths. “I can’t hold her back much longer…get away…quick…”
“I can’t leave you like this, there must be something we can do.”
“Yes, yes,” agreed Anne suddenly. Beads of sweat were breaking out on her forehead despite the chill air. “Find a way to stop her…any way…But go, now!”
Anne’s head bowed again, another grunt of effort issuing from her lips. Katherine hesitated. Should she do as Anne was asking? She just couldn’t tear herself away, though, not when Anne was in such pain.
Suddenly Anne’s hands shot up from the ground and grabbed onto Katherine’s arms, her fingers digging sharply into Katherine’s flesh. Katherine’s indecision had left her vulnerable, and Anne’s momentum as she pushed forwards was too much for her too resist. Katherine fell heavily onto her back, her breath being crushed from her body as Anne landed on top of her.
Only of course it wasn’t Anne at all, she now knew – it was Bronwyn. That was why Anne had been acting so strangely the last week - the dark witch had somehow possessed the young woman. Now everything was painfully clear – the arguments, the moods, Will, Mark – it had all been Bronwyn. That knowledge did little to comfort Katherine now as hands roughly pawed at her while she tried frantically to fight them off. She heard the rip of part of her clothing, caught in the tussle between them. Even if it was Bronwyn behind the actions, Katherine still had to look up into the face of her beloved, watch as that face contorted into a look of pure rage and hatred.
“So now you know the truth,” taunted Bronwyn, grabbing for Katherine’s flailing hands, “Little good it will do you.”
“You bitch,” shot back Katherine, “Let Anne go!” Katherine resolutely avoided looking into Anne’s eyes as she spoke, it was the only way she could keep in mind that this was Bronwyn, not Anne doing this to her.
Bronwyn tipped Anne’s head back and laughed, a nasty laugh the like of which Katherine had never heard from the young woman. If she needed any more convincing that this wasn’t Anne, then the hollowness in that evil cackle was proof enough. Just as Bronwyn’s head dipped back down, Katherine, seized her momentary opportunity, lashing out and raking her fingernails across Bronwyn’s cheek.
Bronwyn screamed, reflexively bolting upright over Katherine, her hand shooting up to cover the four gashes in her otherwise flawless skin. Katherine tried to squirm away, but Bronwyn’s still straddled her, pressing down on her torso.
Bronwyn had now recovered from her momentary shock and was glaring furiously down on the wriggling Katherine. “You bloody cow!”
Her right fist drew back ready to fly down at Katherine’s face but then it merely hovered where it was, shaking in mid-air by Bronwyn’s head. A look of confusion spread across Bronwyn’s face and her eyes swivelled to the obstinate hand, as if she couldn’t understand why it wasn’t moving. Katherine was equally confused as she watched the bizarre sight of Bronwyn reaching round and grabbing onto her own hand in an effort to move it.
Katherine suspected that Anne had somehow managed to halt that hand; that she was still furiously resisting Bronwyn in whatever way she could. Knowing this could be the last chance she got, Katherine finally prised herself free of the distracted Bronwyn. As Katherine clambered to her feet, Bronwyn shot her a sneering glance.
“Go on then, run away, coward!” she cried, still wrestling with her hand as she knelt on the floor.
The harsh words stung. Katherine desperately wanted to stay, but she knew she couldn’t do anything to help Anne here and now. She had to retreat, regroup and try and find a way to counter whatever it was Bronwyn had done.
Anne was screaming at Katherine in her mind, wishing she could somehow make the words come past her lips. Katherine was still hovering, though, seemingly unable to turn her back on Anne. Anne didn’t know how much longer she could hold on, it was taking every ounce of her willpower to control her right hand. Gaining full control of her body before had weakened her already depleted reserves, but the threat to Katherine had been more than enough to spark another bout of resistance.
Katherine cast one final longing glance in her direction before turning and running for her horse. Having untied it she leapt on its back and galloped away. Anne watched her until she was out of site over the hill, only then relinquishing her control of the hand.
She was so tired now; all she wanted to do was drift off. She tried to hold her consciousness together as best she could against the fatigue.
See, I told you she would abandon you, Bronwyn teased.
She hasn’t abandoned me, Anne replied obstinately, You’ll see. She’ll be back and then she’ll stop you. She knows the truth now.
So what? She doesn’t know what to do about it does she? And in three days time it won’t matter what she or anyone else knows because they’ll all be mine.
Thoughts of Anne preoccupied Katherine as she flew over the fields back to Markham, spurring her horse on as fast as she could. It had been terrible leaving the young woman, especially now Katherine knew what had really happened and that Anne was trapped in her own body while Bronwyn controlled her actions. A small shiver went down Katherine’s spine as she thought of it. All the previous week the evil witch had been in control of Anne, and Katherine hadn’t even realised. She berated herself for not pressing Anne on her odd behaviour sooner. Katherine had thought she was doing the right thing, leaving Anne to it and giving her some space, but all the while she was playing into the witch’s hands. How could she have been so stupid? She should have known that Anne wouldn’t change so dramatically, that she wouldn’t do those terrible things. It made her skin crawl to think of Bronwyn masquerading as Anne. It was all she could do not to wipe her mouth in disgust as she recalled how she had let the other woman kiss her. At least she could thank god that things hadn’t progressed beyond that.
It was too late for recriminations now, she told herself sternly, what she needed was action. She might have missed the obvious signs of trouble before, but she wouldn’t fail Anne again. The only problem was she knew nothing about pagan magic or how the hell Bronwyn had managed to take over Anne’s body. Which was why she needed to speak to the Friar.
Unfortunately she also had Mark’s hastily arranged funeral to contend with first. It occurred to her that she had almost completely forgotten about him in her worry over Anne, and she would quite happily forget about him now if she didn’t need to be seen to be doing the right thing. The resources available to her as lady of the manor might be crucial in her fight with Bronwyn, so she couldn’t afford to raise suspicions over her intentions. At least the funeral would be conducted by the Friar, allowing her a chance to speak to him afterwards, thus killing two birds with one stone. She made a small grimace to herself at the unfortunate terminology as she galloped on towards the manor house.
Anne slowly drifted into consciousness, realising that she must have lost some time again. It was hardly surprising after the supreme effort of talking to Katherine had drained her; she only hoped she could hang on long enough. At least she had the thought that Katherine now knew what was happening to buoy her.
Anne could see that Bronwyn had brought them out into the forest, though it was an area Anne didn’t immediately recognise. The trees were densely packed and the undergrowth rose high off the ground, Bronwyn having to fight to get through it. Anne could only assume it was still the same day, though she couldn’t see the sun through the thick ceiling of green. Finally the undergrowth started to thin and they came out to a more open area, where there sat four huge standing stones. They stood at the corners of a large square of open ground, in the middle of which Anne could see a couple of figures. As they turned to regard her approach she immediately recognised the sneering face of one of them.
“Hello, Will,” said Bronwyn, coming before him, “You managed to find a suitable test subject then.”
Will was holding onto an old peasant man. He looked terrified as Will roughly grasped his arms, preventing him fleeing.
“Yeah, no one’s going to miss old Peter here,” answered Will, grinning evilly. “Everything fine with you?” he asked looking at her face curiously.
Bronwyn brought her fingers up to touch the gouges left by Katherine’s nails. “Yes, though our mutual friend tried a bout of resistance. She’s all quiet again now though.”
Aren’t you, Anne?
If Anne could have shot Bronwyn a dark look she would have done. Instead she had to settle from remaining stubbornly silent.
“Bring him over to the altar then,” Bronwyn instructed Will. As she passed the outlaw she ran the tips of Anne’s fingers seductively across his cheek. Anne suspected Bronwyn was doing it deliberately to taunt her and she could see the small gleam it brought to Will’s beady eyes. Meanwhile, all Anne wanted to do was form those fingers into a fist and punch him.
Will hauled the old man over the stone alter, the poor peasant struggling feebly and pleading with them not to hurt him the whole way. Both Will and Bronwyn ignored him as Will held the man down. Bronwyn meanwhile picked up a small implement from the end of the altar. It was slightly smaller than a dagger and had two fine points, rather than one. Bronwyn dipped the points into a jar that also sat atop the stone, the weapon coming out with green liquid dripping from it. She took the two-pronged weapon and swiftly jabbed it in the old man’s neck. He let out a howl of pain, bucking in Will’s grasp.
Anne watched, sickened, as the old man’s eyes began to glaze over. Suddenly she felt the weirdest sensation trickling through her mind. It was as if her brain was expanding with new knowledge out of nowhere. Gradually she became aware of memories and feelings that weren’t her own. They were faint at first - thoughts of a family, of children playing, of working in the fields. But the memories kept coming, a deluge now that was swamping her mind with a myriad of places she’d never been to and people she’d never met. A lifetime’s worth of hopes, fears and dreams was sweeping in on her and she could feel herself drowning under the onslaught. Desperately Anne tried to push the thoughts away.
It was already hard enough trying to maintain her sense of self while sharing her mind with Bronwyn, without having anyone else trying to encroach. However, as she concentrated Anne found she could actually subdue the new thoughts to some degree. They weren’t quite like Bronwyn’s, which dominated and were always obvious. As she gathered some sense of calm once more it was like the old man was there in the background, his mind available if necessary but otherwise dormant.
All of a sudden Bronwyn’s voice was speaking in Anne’s head, only it wasn’t directed at her. Instead the witch was ordering the old man, speaking to him via some invisible link, directly into his mind. He continued to stare blankly as Bronwyn instructed him. He was in some sort of hypnotic state, under Bronwyn’s spell and ready and willing to do her bidding.
It was now that Anne started to feel something else, other than the man’s thoughts. She felt a kind of extra energy coursing through her, causing her heart to beat just that little bit faster.
Yes, yes, you feel it too then!
Anne couldn’t deny that she could, the extra power was almost intoxicating in its potency.
And that’s just with one person under my spell. Imagine the amazing power we’ll be able to harness as more fall under it.
Anne didn’t really understand what she meant until she saw the old man picking up an implement similar to the one Bronwyn had used on him along with a vial of the potion and disappearing off into the trees. With sickening clarity Anne realised that Bronwyn meant to cast the spell on more and more people to increase her power - but why?
I suppose it won’t hurt to tell you now, you’ll probably sense it soon enough anyway as our minds become closer.
You’re right about the old man, he’ll go off and infect more people, and each one of those will in turn infect others until my spell is spreading like a plague through the countryside. Once we have enough people under our control we’ll be able to utilise the immense power that generates to break down the boundaries between the mortal and spirit realms.
Stop saying ‘we’, I have no part in this!
Oh, but you do! It’s your body that’s allowing us to collect and harness this power, your innate mystical abilities. Of course, it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the eclipse in two days time. That is the final catalyst. The alignment of the moon and sun provide the perfect disturbance in the fabric of the realms to allow us to perform our task and open up the gateway.
And to what end are you doing this?
Once the boundaries are gone, anyone will be able to cross the realms. And there are so many realms you aren’t even aware of, ones with fearsome creatures and demons that will do my bidding and allow me to conquer this world completely.
You’re mad! It’ll never work!
Bronwyn merely laughed manically in response.
Katherine carried the candle over to the window, lighting the second one that sat on the table there and setting her one down on the wooden surface. As the flames flickered on the pane, her eyes were drawn to the blackness outside and up to the stars in the night sky. Of course it should really have been a stormy night if it was to truly match how she was feeling, but she supposed darkness would have to do.
Mark’s funeral had been another unwanted trying ordeal, though her mind hadn’t really been focussed on it. The friar’s words had mainly passed her by in a daze. Luckily most people assumed her distraction was because of her grief and not because she was thinking of Anne. Afterwards, Katherine had managed to fob off most of the well-wishers to allow her to finally speak to the friar alone. Not that he’d had much good news for her.
A knock at the door broke Katherine out of her melancholy recollections and she called out to grant entry to whoever it was. She was surprised to see Beatrice standing in the doorway. Though Katherine had sent word that the young maid was welcome back at the manor, she hadn’t expected her quite so soon.
“Beatrice, it’s good to see you,” said Katherine in as warm a voice as she could muster, “Come in. How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you, m’lady” replied the maid crossing to join her, “But more to the point, how are you?”
Katherine sighed. She supposed she could pretend she was all right or she could admit the truth. Without Anne to talk to, she guessed that Beatrice was her next best option.
“To be honest, I’ve had better days,” Katherine conceded.
“I heard about Mark, I’m sorry,” Beatrice said gently.
“You don’t know the half of it,” said Katherine ruefully, “You better take a seat.”
As they sat on the bed, Katherine launched into an explanation of all that had occurred over the past week, including her discovery that morning that Bronwyn had possessed Anne.
“Oh my god, that’s awful!” cried Beatrice, “Is there nothing you can do?”
“That’s why I needed to speak to the friar this afternoon,” Katherine outlined, “To see if he could shed any light on what happened to Anne. He knows a lot more about magic and paganism than any Christian friar really should.”
“And was he able to help?”
“Not exactly,” Katherine said ruefully shaking her head, “He didn’t know anything offhand, but he’s going to see what he can find out from his books and other sources.”
“It must be frustrating, having to wait,” said Beatrice.
Katherine exhaled slowly and rose from the bed heading back over to the window where she leaned on the stone wall that flanked it. It felt like the weight of the world was pressing on her slender shoulders and she bowed her head under the force. The flames of the candles darted randomly in the slight draft that drifted in from the cold night. How Katherine wished she could be that light and free.
“It is frustrating,” she finally said in response to Beatrice’s comment, swinging round to face the young woman again, “I just feel so powerless. I want to run out and find Anne, help her, but I just don’t know how.”
Beatrice crossed the room too, waiting for a moment when she got to Katherine before she reached out to place a comforting hand on her shoulder. Katherine realised why she had hesitated; servants weren’t normally allowed to touch those of a higher class without permission. However, in this case she was glad Beatrice had broken protocol. She offered the young maid a small smile to confirm this.
“I’m sure you’ll find a way,” said Beatrice confidently, “If anyone can it’s you.”
“Thank you,” replied Katherine, “I just hope you’re right.”
The voices were the first thing to hit Anne. There were so many voices – talking; shouting; screaming. It was an endless tide of humanity all in her head. She fought back her panic as she struggled through the morass, striving for proper consciousness. She wondered how Bronwyn had managed to enslave so many people so quickly, before it occurred to her that she had no idea how long she had lost her grip of consciousness. Maybe she had been submerged for days? She thought that unlikely though, she wasn’t yet that weak that her periods of time loss were anything more than a few hours.
You’re right, it’s only morning, but my little minions have been busy. I should have more than enough come the eclipse in two days time.
Anne was actually grateful to hear the dark witch’s voice – it gave her something to cling on to, allowing her to haul herself above the sea of other minds drifting through her own.
You’re here just in time actually, continued Bronwyn, One of our drones is at the manor house in Markham. You might catch sight of your beloved if you’re lucky.
Anne couldn’t help the little spark of hope that shot through her, though Bronwyn laughed nastily as she too felt it. Bronwyn had closed her eyes now and she was reaching out to find the person at the house that was under her control, pick them out amongst the many others. Anne started to become aware of something akin to a dream, like she was looking through someone else’s eyes. It was indistinct and somewhat misty but she could see figures. They became clearer as the person who they were riding with got closer, though the faces still remained slightly blurred and out of focus. The voices also sounded as if they were reaching Anne’s ears through some viscous medium, muffled and slurred just a fraction. Anne could just about work out that the person was now entering the hall at Markham. Once inside, no amount of blurring could prevent Anne from recognising the face of the person who stood talking to Beatrice over by the fire. She knew every contour of that face in minute detail. Seeing Katherine, Anne longed to physically be there with her though she knew it was impossible.
“How are you feeling this morning?” asked Beatrice as Katherine joined her by the fire. She poked at the wood with a poker, stirring it into life to ward off the chill November air.
“Tired, drained, weary…” began Katherine, running her hand roughly through her auburn hair, “Shall I go on?”
“That good, eh?” remarked Beatrice, eyeing Katherine’s haggard appearance. “Did you get any sleep at all last night?”
“I tried but…”
“Thoughts of someone pre-occupied your mind?” Beatrice finished for her.
“Yes, I’m trying to keep busy as best I can in the daytime with manor duties, but when I’m alone at night with only my thoughts it’s hard to forget that a piece of me is missing, maybe lost forever.”
“That doesn’t sound like the normal Lady Katherine Johnson speaking. Where’s the determination? The refusal to give in?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Katherine with a long sigh, “Maybe it’s just because I have no idea where to begin. I only hope the friar has some good news soon, before the waiting drives me insane. In fact I think I’ll go and check on his progress now.”
Anne just had time to watch Katherine heading for the front door before the link was suddenly severed.
Oh well, there’s still time to get her later, noted Bronwyn. Our puppet will be making their way through the servants and before Katherine knows it she’ll be surrounded. Then it’s only a matter of time before she’s one of us!
Anne struggled to keep her fear from overwhelming her. If only she could warn Katherine of the impending danger in some way, but it was hard enough maintaining her own mind let alone attempting anything else that might weaken her further. She felt so helpless, just having to watch as events unfolded.
Katherine paced nervously across the floor of Markham Church, waiting for the friar to emerge. When she’d come to see the man the day before after speaking with Beatrice, he’d had to inform her that he’d made little progress. It wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear and the rest of the day had been difficult to bear, thinking of what Bronwyn might be doing to Anne while Katherine had to sit round at the manor twiddling her thumbs.
That was followed by another practically sleepless night, the bouts of wakefulness only punctuated by periods of fitful dreaming. The dreams had all had the same subject - Katherine frantically searching for and being unable to find Anne. The sickening despair of the nightmares was so potent it still haunted her now she was awake. As soon as it was light she’d come back to the church. She’d been so early she’d caught the friar unawares, and he’d disappeared to search out the texts he’d been perusing, leaving her out in the main room of the small stone building.
Katherine wandered over to the lectern, flicking distractedly through the pages of the ornately illustrated tome that sat there. It was all in Latin and she had to admit that hers was pretty rusty, since there wasn’t much call for it in everyday life. She recalled how her parents had forced her to sit through endless lessons on the subject when all she’d wanted to do was get out in the fields and play. She hadn’t quite grasped at that early age that it wasn’t the done thing for the daughter of the lord to be playing with the normal peasant children. Of course, Katherine had anyway, whenever she’d been able to sneak out.
“Having a good read?”
It was the friar, back clutching an armful of books and papers that he deposited on the altar.
“Not really,” she replied, stepping over to join him, “So what have you found out?”
“Right, I’ve been looking through all my pagan texts,” he explained, opening a few of them up, “For references to the dark witch and this sort of possession. From what I understand Bronwyn would somehow have had to lure Anne to the spirit world. Once there she would be able to effectively ride back into Anne’s body with her when she left. Since Bronwyn is much more experienced in this kind of thing, she knows how to override Anne’s control, making Anne a virtual prisoner in her own body. Though her consciousness is still in there, all she can do is watch what Bronwyn does.”
“But I have spoken to Anne herself, since it happened,” Katherine reminded him.
“Indeed, and that’s pretty remarkable from what I can gather. Being able to surface like that takes incredibly strong willpower. I’ve only found a few other examples of anyone else ever managing to circumvent this kind of control, and always it’s only temporarily. Basically what normally happens is that the dark witch takes over and the other person is lost forever. Obviously Anne is proving a more formidable opponent than perhaps Bronwyn anticipated.”
“So she might be able to fight her off completely?” Katherine wondered in hope.
The friar sucked in a slow breath pursing his lips and avoiding Katherine’s gaze.
“What?” pressed Katherine anxiously.
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“But she managed it once,” Katherine insisted.
“And that’s partly where the problem lies. That kind of resistance doesn’t come easy, and it would have left Anne even weaker than before. We may only have a short time to save her.”
Katherine turned away from the table for a moment, her back to the friar as she took a deep breath. She wondered if they’d already wasted too much time finding out what they had. Was it already too late for Anne? Shaking her head, she pushed those thoughts away; she refused to allow herself to think like that yet.
“If Anne can’t overcome Bronwyn alone, then we’ll just have to force her out somehow,” reasoned Katherine, turning back to the friar, “There must be some way to do that at least?”
“There is,” the friar said slowly.
“Let me guess – it’s not easy.”
“Indeed it is not. Not only is it not easy, it’s also highly dangerous both to Anne and the one who attempts the spell required.”
“Well, you’d better spit it out, since we both know that one will be me.”
The friar sighed, though he must have known that Katherine would volunteer even before he outlined what was required. “The first thing we need to do is get the Stone Of Gaia,” he began, “Since none of us have natural mystical abilities, we need something that does have an innate power. The stone possesses special qualities allowing someone to draw on its powers using their emotions. To do that the emotions must be strong, not a problem in your case where Anne is concerned I’m sure.”
Katherine didn’t reply, merely staring back at him with a fiercely determined look in her eyes to show him that he was right.
“Drawing on the power of the stone the wielder can ward off the evil spirit, by saying the appropriate chant at the right time.”
Katherine nodded her understanding. “It seems you’ll be teaching me a pagan chant then.”
“There is one other thing,” the friar added, “To perform the exorcism you have to actually be physically touching Anne at the time, to allow the energy to flow through to her.”
“I see, so now we’re back to the problem of finding where they are. Have there been any clues in your books as to where the dark witch might be?”
“There have been a few references to various locations with standing stones, I’m just in the process of correlating them all, to see if there’s a pattern or if they’re all meant to be the same place.”
“Well, be quick about it, or we’ll just have to go and try and find them all,” Katherine declared. “Other than that, you think this will work? What happens to Bronwyn once we force her out? Could she just go to another body?”
“She can’t just go to any body, no. If we force her out, she’ll be automatically drawn back to her own body.”
“But once back there, she could still do something against us.”
“True, unless we find her body wherever it is and kill that. But we’d need to do it at the right moment. Too soon and she’d sense it. It needs to be just as you cast the spell.”
“And if we manage this feat of timing?”
“Then Bronwyn will be trapped in the spirit realm forever.”
Katherine nodded, trying to take in all that the friar had told her.
“You don’t have to do this you know,” the friar said slowly as she pondered, “This is just how the dark witch sometimes passes from host to host. We could always let her.”
“What?” cried Katherine furiously, “We could just let her have Anne? I can’t believe you’re even suggesting it!”
“I’m just being Devil’s Advocate, no pun intended” he tried to explain, “From our point of view there’s no difference between Bronwyn in her old body and Bronwyn in Anne’s body, the threat is still the same. But if you do this, you’ll be risking your life too, on a very slender chance.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take!” stated Katherine adamantly.
“I don’t think you realise how dangerous this is, the power from the stone is unstable, especially in the hands of a novice. It could turn back in on you; destroy you. Or it could drain you completely – you might end up saving Anne at the cost of your own life.”
Katherine focussed her gaze on the friar so he would understand that she meant every word of what she was about to say. “If it’s the only way, then I will sacrifice myself to save her.”
A short time later Katherine entered the hall of the manor house with the friar’s words still rattling around in her brain. Though he wasn’t pleased about it, she still wasn’t going to be deflected from her course - if it came down to it she would gladly surrender herself if it meant Anne could live. Now all that remained was to find Anne.
In her distraction it took her a few seconds to notice that something was amiss in the cavernous room. She was already halfway to the stairs when she suddenly realised that the hall was deserted. She glanced round the empty room in confusion, wondering where all the peasants that usually congregated there were. It was highly unusual for there to be no one around. Normally she would be tripping over the people just to get across the room, since many of them slept in there too.
Katherine decided to investigate the other rooms, opening the door to the kitchen to find a similar story. There wasn’t a soul in the normally bustling room. Katherine took a few steps inside to check, getting increasingly worried. At the far end of the room the large fire was lit as always and a pot sat suspended above it, bubbling away. That made Katherine think that someone had at least been there recently.
As she turned back to the door for the hall she caught a flash of metal out of the corner of her eye. Katherine leant back at the last second as the blade of a cleaver whizzed by a hair’s breadth from her nose. She didn’t have time to think as it flew immediately back at her again, wielded, she could now see, by the head cook.
“What the hell are you doing?” she exclaimed, dodging the latest swipe.
He didn’t reply, continuing his furious attack mutely instead. Though his swipes were vicious, they were also erratic. Katherine managed to stumble backwards down the room as he came at her, swinging wildly. She knew she had criticised the cook’s dishes in the past but she didn’t think it quite justified a physical attack.
Her hands searched out something to defend herself with as she kept her eyes on his flashing blade. She grabbed various items off the kitchen table, flinging them at him in a futile attempt to stall his progress. Half a cabbage, a small copper pot and a handful of wheat all flew in his direction to be batted away.
Then there was no more table to search and just the warmth of the fire behind her, licking at her backside. She just managed to duck under another violent swipe when she saw it. The poker. Quickly grabbing it she bought the metal rod round and down onto the cook’s hands, knocking the cleaver from them. He looked infuriated as his weapon clattered onto the flagstones, snarling up at her. It seemed that was the only communication he was willing or able to offer though. It was then she noticed his eyes. They were glazed over, not really looking at her at all.
Unperturbed at having lost the cleaver, the cook launched himself bodily at Katherine. She felt a small pang of guilt as she bashed him over the head with the poker, but it was obvious he wasn’t himself. As he and the poker crashed to the floor she was suddenly reminded of the similarity with Anne’s situation, making her wonder if there was some connection. Could Bronwyn be responsible for this too?
Stepping over his prone form she hurried back out into the hall, hoping the cook was the only one affected by the strange malady. She got an answer to her question much sooner than she was expecting. Two peasants stood facing her, the same vacant look on their faces as had been on the cook’s. Katherine put up her hands as they moved towards her menacingly.
“Now, now, there’s no need for violence.”
While backing up she cursed herself for not bringing the poker with her. Before she could berate herself further she suddenly found herself on the floor, her head ringing from the blow she had received to the back of it. Whirling round she saw there was a third peasant, a woman holding a lump of firewood. Then she noticed a fourth and a fifth emerging from the shadows, all heading inexorably in her direction. They had her surrounded and she had no weapon. Clambering to her feet she took up a stance to defend herself as best she could with her bare hands.
The nearest man lunged for her but luckily his attack was as uncoordinated as the cook’s had been. Katherine deftly sidestepped and managed to trip him in the process. However, now the rest were upon her en masse. Two of them grabbed her flailing arms as she desperately tried to hold them off. Meanwhile one of the women was in front of her brandishing a sharp object, bringing it towards Katherine’s neck. Katherine tried to kick out at the woman, but one of the men restraining her brought his own foot into the back of her standing leg. Katherine cried out at the jolt of pain as the limb gave way beneath her. The men held her roughly up as the woman kept coming. Katherine struggled, but she couldn’t shake their grip.
When the woman was only feet away, Katherine watched in surprise as her fingers suddenly dropped the implement, going slack as she pitched forwards, landing face first on the floor with a resounding thump. In the space where she had been standing was Beatrice with a ceramic chamber pot. It appeared that the possessed peasants weren’t the only ones capable of using household objects as weapons. The second woman leapt at the young maid, knocking her to the floor where they rolled around, tussling for supremacy. Meanwhile the two men still held Katherine fast, though neither made a move to pick up the two-pointed weapon that sat invitingly right in front of them.
Katherine could only watch as Beatrice battled with the large peasant woman, the other woman’s bulk eventually telling as she managed to get on top and pin Beatrice’s arms with her knees. She had also managed to wrestle the pot from Beatrice and raised it now, to smash it down on Beatrice’s face. Beatrice’s dark eyes looked up in horror at the heavy object.
Suddenly a whistling noise shot through the room, followed by the telltale thud of an arrow striking flesh. The bolt had lodged itself in the peasant woman’s shoulder and the pot tumbled from her grasp as she too slumped to the floor. Katherine’s eyes shot to the front door to see Tobias and Thomas there, the young guard holding the crossbow that had loosed the arrow. Tobias drew his sword, advancing on the remaining men as Thomas checked on Beatrice.
“Let her ladyship go now, or I will be forced to make you,” he instructed the men.
If they heard or understood his words they gave no indication, their grip still painfully tight on Katherine’s arms. Tobias glanced at her, seeking permission to use force against them. Katherine knew they weren’t in control of their actions, yet at the same time she could see no other way out of the situation. Regretfully she nodded her head.
Tobias was lightning quick, disabling both men with a couple of swift slashes of his blade. Thankfully they were only wounded, rather than dead, though Katherine didn’t know how long they would be able to continue to use such restraint in the face of an enemy that couldn’t see reason.
“Thank you, Tobias,” said Katherine, rubbing at the back of her knee where the man had kicked her. “Do you know what’s happening to everyone?”
“No,” he replied, “Though I believe it may have something to do with this,” he added kneeling down to pick up the double-spiked weapon.
Katherine took it from him, careful to avoid the sharp points. Inspecting it up close she could see what looked like some kind of green liquid on the tips.
“Some sort of potion?” she offered, showing Tobias what she meant.
His dark eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he studied it. “It would appear so,” he agreed.
“Mmm, and I know one person in particular with an interest in potions.”
“Yes. Somehow I suspect this is connected to what’s happened to Anne. That makes it even more imperative that we find her, before the whole of Markham ends up like these poor souls.”
Anne’s consciousness drifted slowly up through her mind. The voices were still there, but there were so many now that they formed a constant drone, the individual thoughts indistinguishable. She had no idea how Bronwyn managed to pinpoint anyone amongst the masses. As she started to sense her body she realised that someone was touching her, their fingers stroking her shoulders, gently kneading them. Though she couldn’t turn round to look, she had little doubt that it was Will who was the owner of the massaging digits.
After a few more moments of this, during which Bronwyn made some pleased groaning noises, she eventually stood up, turning to the person behind her. Anne had guessed correctly, it was Will.
“Thank you,” said Bronwyn in a soft whisper, stroking his cheek seductively as she spoke. Anne cringed inwardly as she felt his flushed skin.
“Is there anything else you’d like me to do?” asked the man, the eagerness to please obvious in his voice. Anne knew exactly what things Will was after and almost wished she hadn’t managed to regain consciousness at this point.
Don’t be like that; Will has been very helpful. I think it’s only fair we show him our pleasure.
Anne kept forgetting how easily Bronwyn could read her thoughts now. Bronwyn cupped Will’s face in her hands, drawing him towards her while all Anne wanted was to close her eyes and disappear back into oblivion. Unfortunately she didn’t seem to have any control over that either, and had to feel her lips meeting Will’s in a slow, lingering kiss. If she could have vomited, she would.
Eventually Bronwyn released him, Will looking as if he was adrift on a tide of pleasant thoughts.
“Now,” said Bronwyn, snapping him out of it, “It’s time for you to go off and enslave your old friends.”
It took a couple of seconds for her words to register. “You want me to go to the outlaw camp and cast the spell on Robin and the others?” he asked doubtfully.
“Yes, and I want you to retrieve the book from Anne’s hut too. I hope you don’t have a problem betraying your old allies?”
Will grinned nastily. “Absolutely not, it will be my pleasure.”
Katherine stumbled through the undergrowth trying to stop the brambles snagging on her trailing skirt. She hadn’t had time to change into something more practical before they’d had to flee the manor house. The situation was much worse than they’d initially imagined, with nearly everyone at the house seemingly under the mysterious curse.
They’d had to fight their way out past the clawing peasants, all of them intent on bringing Katherine and her companions into the folds of the enslaved army. Once out in the fields of the estate, they’d found things weren’t much better. With each village they came to it seemed that more and more people were succumbing to the curse, falling to the spell as easily as stalks of wheat, scythed down for the harvest. The spread of the spell seemed as unstoppable as the keen blade of the farmers’ tool too.
In the end Katherine’s group had decided to head into Sherwood Forest, in search of the outlaws, hoping that it hadn’t reached their camp yet. In front of Katherine, Tobias and Thomas hacked the path clear, while behind her came Beatrice and the friar, who they had managed to rescue from the church where he had barricaded himself from the crazed peasants.
“Still think we should leave Bronwyn to it?” Katherine asked the bald man, allowing him to catch her up.
“I never said we should leave her to it,” he replied, “I was merely expressing a possible alternative course of action.”
“Indeed, one that doesn’t look so clever now.” She knew was probably being a bit unfair, but she hadn’t forgotten how he had suggested abandoning Anne to Bronwyn’s tender mercies.
“All right, point taken,” he conceded. “If you’ve finished crowing, you might like to know that I managed to save my research into where Bronwyn might be, I think I’m getting close.”
“Good,” noted Katherine, thinking it was about time they had some good fortune, “When we get to the outlaw camp you can sit down and continue your search.”
“Assuming they haven’t all been assimilated by this spell.”
Katherine didn’t even want to contemplate that – they needed everyone they could get if they were going to defeat Bronwyn. It was with no small trepidation that she approached the outlaw camp, praying that they were all right still. She took the lead, since Thomas and Tobias might not be well received by the outlaws unless they realised immediately that Katherine was with them.
Stepping into the clearing in the forest, Katherine spotted Robin straight away, over by one of the fires. His eyes swivelled to her and she heaved a sigh of relief – they were still keen and alert.
He hurried over to greet them. “Katherine, it’s good to see you, we’ve been getting all sorts of strange reports about things happening outside the forest, about peasants turning on one another and talk of a strange spell.”
“All true, I’m afraid,” she confessed, “Come on, I’ll explain everything.”
Katherine and Robin took a seat by the fire, while the others stood watch. The outlaws eyed Katherine’s party suspiciously, not used to seeing soldiers in their midst, at least not live ones. Katherine filled Robin in on the dire situation, explaining how they needed to go and get the stone of Gaia and then find Anne so she could attempt to force the dark witch from her body by using its power. She didn’t tell him about the potential dangers, though it seemed he sensed she was holding something back.
“You make it sound easy,” he remarked, “Why do I think you’re not telling me the whole truth?”
“Because she isn’t!” interjected the friar who had obviously been eavesdropping. He plonked himself down next to them. “What she neglected to mention is that in all likelihood the one attempting the spell will either fail or be killed themselves.”
Robin raised his eyebrows at Katherine. “I should be the one to do this,” he stated, “Anne is my responsibility.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I have to do it.”
“No, you don’t,” cried the friar again, “Robin could do it!”
Katherine shot him a dark look, silencing him immediately. She realised he was just looking out for her, but is interruptions were starting to get annoying.
“Did you not say that the stone draws on the emotions and feelings of the wielder?” she reasoned, “Then it makes sense that the greatest chance of success is for that person to be the one who feels the strongest.”
“And who’s to say that’s you?” queried the friar. “You brought Anne up didn’t you?” he asked Robin, “You love her like a sister?”
“Yes,” responded Robin simply.
“And I know that’s true,” agreed Katherine, “I don’t mean to make light of what you feel for Anne, but I love her more than I think I can express.” She took a couple of moments to compose her thoughts before continuing. “Before I met Anne I don’t think I knew what love was. Of course I’d had feelings for people, for Mark, but nothing when compared to the all-encompassing joy of being with Anne. It’s like she fills my very soul with such wonderful feelings that I feel I could almost leave my body and fly away on their uplifting currents. It’s hard to explain, but I just know we were meant to be together, like it was fate. As soon as I met her I knew deep down that this was the one person I’d been waiting for all my life, the one person who could complete me, inspire me, love me. She means absolutely everything to me; I would give anything for her. And I know she feels the same way. If our positions were reversed I have no doubt whatsoever that she would willingly risk everything to save me, and I will do no less.” She finally stopped, partly because it was getting hard to continue past the large lump forming in her throat. She had to blink away a couple of tears too.
Robin nodded at her words. “Then you shall attempt this spell, though that doesn’t mean we won’t come with you to make sure you get there safely.”
Katherine smiled at him. “I was hoping you would.”
Katherine could see the friar sighing next to them, realising he had lost the argument, though he had the good grace not to say anything more. Instead he got out his papers, so he could get to work finding Bronwyn. Presuming that he was going to discover something soon, Katherine decided that a change of clothes was in order so she would be ready to head off as soon as he did.
She excused herself and disappeared off in the direction of Anne’s hut, noticing that Delta was still tethered outside where she had left him three days ago. She hoped the outlaws had been taking good care of him, stopping for a moment to stroke his nose reassuringly.
As she turned for the hut, Katherine found herself stopping on the threshold for a moment. It was strange, being there without Anne. Wrong somehow. The sense of loss was palpable, being in this place where they had lived together, been so happy together. Katherine had to gather herself before she ducked inside, where the reminders of the young woman were even more powerful. All her belongings were still there, just as she had left them, piled haphazardly in one corner. Katherine felt her eyes drawn to the bed in the centre of the small room where they had slept together night after night, where they had…
Katherine caught herself before her mind wandered too far. If she went down that path she knew she would find it hard to get back, more than likely being consumed by melancholy remembrance. She turned her eyes away from the bed, only to see something else that upset her just as much. She immediately knelt down on the floor, unable to hold back a few tears as she picked up the shredded pieces of the silk shirt. She bit her lip as she ran her fingers over the clean cut, trying desperately to hold back the surge of emotion. Closing her eyes, she could see Anne now – her face lit up with a huge smile as she slipped the shirt on. Katherine instinctively brought the two pieces up to her face, bringing them close to her lips and taking a deep breath through her nose. Anne’s scent was still on the material. Katherine clutched it closer to her, though it offered scant replacement for the real thing.
Trying to gather herself, she recalled what she had come to the hut for – clothes and weapons so she could go off in search of Anne. She had to try and focus on that, on the task ahead rather than wallowing in the past. She quickly changed out of her dress and into some of her other more practical clothes that were still in the hut. Somehow pulling on the outlaw’s clothes made her feel more ready for battle, a feeling reinforced as she attached the sword in its scabbard to her belt. She was just tying the leather laces on her boots when the door suddenly swung open. Katherine shot up in surprise to see Will Scarlet standing in the doorway. He looked equally dumbfounded.
“What do you think you’re doing in here?” Katherine demanded, putting her hands on her hips.
He didn’t reply; his eyes darting round the room searching out something instead. Katherine stepped towards him. “I said,” she reiterated as she blocked his view of the interior with the body, “What are you doing in here?”
His eyes flicked to her in annoyance before he suddenly shoved her roughly to the side. Caught off-guard, Katherine stumbled away, while Will grabbed the book that was sitting on top of the bedclothes in the centre of the room. Katherine recognised it as the one she had brought back from Loughborough on Anne’s behalf.
“Thanks!” he said with a nasty little smile as he ran out the door.
Katherine snatched up her bow and arrows and dashed from the hut after him. Glancing frantically around the clearing, she spotted Will already at the treeline, disappearing amongst the trunks. She sprinted after him, desperate not to lose him in the gloomy forest. It seemed obvious that he had come to get the pagan book for a reason. It was too much of a coincidence for that not to be related to Anne and Bronwyn.
Katherine leapt through the undergrowth of the forest, keeping her eyes on Will’s back the whole time. She ignored the brambles and branches that tugged at her, trying to slow her down. They were inconsequential to her in her determination to catch him.
Only she realised with a sinking sensation that she wasn’t going to. Stopping instead she notched an arrow in her bow, knowing she most likely only had one shot before he got too far away and the trees obscured him. Trying to calm her breathing as best she could she sighted him along the shaft of the arrow. Her hand was shaking, and she closed her eyes for a second, taking one more deep breath. She could feel a single bead of seat tracking down her forehead. Then her eyes flew open and the arrow shot from her grasp. It swept soundlessly through the trees before burying itself in the back of Will’s thigh.
His scream was audible even at Katherine’s distance, and she could see him crashing to the ground, sprawling in the dirt. Katherine ran the remaining way to him, reaching his position just as he was yanking the arrow from his leg.
“You bloody bitch!” he cried seeing her, “I’ll make you pay for that!”
He staggered unsteadily to his feet, favouring his left leg. With bloodied fingers he drew his sword, pointing it at Katherine. Katherine followed suit, sliding her weapon from its scabbard.
“What do you want with the book?” Katherine asked, as they circled around, sizing each other up.
Will laughed, making a lunge for her. Katherine parried the blow with a resounding clang. “You’d really like to know wouldn’t you?” he remarked.
“Is it for Bronwyn?” pressed Katherine, “Do you know where she is? Do you know where Anne is?”
“I might do,” said Will with a shrug, before trying a swipe from a different angle.
Again Katherine deflected it. “Tell me where they are!” she demanded, “Is Anne still all right?”
“Well, we’ve certainly been having fun,” he noted smarmily, “So I’d say she was more than all right.”
“Pig!” exclaimed Katherine. She felt her anger welling up inside her and she used it to take the initiative, slashing at him. He laughed as he battered her sword away and they fought backwards and forwards across the forest floor, neither of them able to get the upper hand. All the time Will had a nasty leer on his face, almost taunting her to attack him. Katherine was more than happy to oblige; she had never liked Will and to know that he had been helping Bronwyn sickened her even more. As they fought she found it hard to ignore the other unpleasant image that was encroaching on her mind, the one of Will and Anne kissing by the fire. Even if Bronwyn had been in control at the time it still sent shivers down her spine.
Suddenly a sharp pain shot through Katherine’s left arm and she instinctively leapt back. Glancing down she could see that Will had caught her across the forearm while her mind had wandered. She knew she needed to focus on what she was doing or she wouldn’t have any mind left to wander.
“You know she called me much nicer things,” Will said obsequiously while Katherine maintained her distance, “While I was caressing her body, while we were kissing, while we were…
“Shut up!” exclaimed Katherine, “You’re lying! Anyway that was Bronwyn, not Anne!”
“Are you sure about that?” he wondered, an insidious tone in his voice, “How do you know Anne wasn’t in control then? Maybe she just used this opportunity to have what she’s always wanted – me!”
Katherine’s fury exploded in a great torrent, crashing over her. She couldn’t think anymore, all she could do was swing wildly at Will, the urge to hurt him consuming her. Her attack held no pattern, no co-ordination; she was fighting purely on instinct and the anger that drove her on. Will staggered backwards under the onslaught initially, but Katherine’s carelessness told in the end. Will managed to hook his sword around hers and flick it from her hands, the weapon flying away through the forest. He sneered at her, gloating, but she swiftly punched him in the face, before diving to retrieve her sword.
She was on her knees, frantically scrabbling for her sword amongst the leaves and twigs, when she heard him. Or more precisely his feet - rapidly crunching through the leaves, getting closer. She didn’t have time to look exactly how close – she had to find the sword. Where the hell was it?
Her heart was beating ten to the dozen as her fingers finally closed over something metallic. Grasping it, she swung round while still in a kneeling position. It was more in hope than anything - she had no idea where Will was.
The sword met soft flesh.
He was right on top of her.
Will’s eyes bulged in surprise as Katherine felt the sickening sensation of her sword grinding through flesh and bone. Will made an awful gasping, gurgling sound, his eyes drifting down to his stomach where Katherine’s sword had driven into him. They flicked back to Katherine once more in incomprehension. All Katherine could do was stare back in stunned horror, watching Will’s blood start to ooze from the wound and down her blade. As it touched her fingers she snatched her hands back as if the liquid were a deadly acid.
Will was still standing above her and his hands replaced hers on the hilt of the sword, drawing it out. For one terrible moment, Katherine thought he was actually going to strike her with it as she sat dumbstruck on the ground. However, the weapon flopped from his trembling fingers to the ground. It was swiftly followed by Will himself, his body hitting with a heavy thump.
The forest was now eerily silent, just the faint whisper of the breeze through the branches to accompany Katherine’s ragged breathing. There was no sound from Will.
Katherine wasn’t sure how long she just sat on the forest floor, too shell-shocked to move. She had long since forgotten about her own wounds and bruises. Finally she crawled through the dirt to where Will lay, though she was certain she already knew his fate. Her hands were shaking as she reached out for his shoulder and pulled him over onto his back. She gasped out loud as his staring eyes met hers. Only they weren’t staring at her at all she suddenly realised. They were staring off into some vast void - the void of death.
Katherine felt a surge of bile in her throat and quickly bought her hand up, just about managing to swallow it back. She sat back down, putting her head in her clammy hands to take a few deep breaths. She had seen dead people before, but never someone she had killed. But that was what she had done, she had to remind herself – she had killed someone. No matter how vile he was, he was another human being and she had taken his life.
Her head pounded with the implication of it. She wondered if it felt this way for everyone the first time, this horrible sick guilt. Had it felt this way for Anne? She had killed people. Katherine didn’t know how many, she had never pressed, but it was more than one that was for sure. Did it get easier with each one? Katherine didn’t think she ever wanted to get to a stage where it was easy. In fact she never wanted to feel like this again, and yet in all likelihood she would before this was all over. Thinking of the larger situation she realised she couldn’t sit there wallowing in guilt, there were bigger things to contend with now.
She forced herself to stand, her legs shaky for a moment. Her sword still lay on the ground where Will had dropped it, but she knew she needed it. Trying not to look at the blood that stained the blade, she picked it up and attempted to wipe it on a meagre grassy patch. It was then that she noticed something else that Will had dropped. Bending down she could see quite clearly that it was one of the two-pronged weapons, used to cast the spell on new people. The sickening realisation of where he had just come from hit her, and she grabbed the pagan book and dashed off in the direction of the camp.
Crashing through the undergrowth and back into the camp, Katherine spied Beatrice at the nearest fire, relieved to see that she at least was still there.
Katherine hurried over to her, panting as she spoke. “Beatrice, quick, we need to get the others.” She took a couple of more gulps of breath. “Will’s been here with one of the weapons.”
Beatrice swung round, cracking Katherine across the jaw with her fist. Katherine tumbled to the ground as the pain flared up her cheek. Looking up she could now see that Beatrice’s eyes held the same vacant look as everyone else that had succumbed to the spell.
“Oh no, Beatrice, not you too.”
Beatrice didn’t reply, lurching relentlessly towards Katherine once more. Katherine scrabbled to her feet avoiding Beatrice’s grasping hands. She cast her eyes frantically around the camp, trying to assess who else was there. The first person she saw was the friar, still sitting by the fire where she had left him, studying his papers, oblivious to any sort of danger. As Beatrice came for her again, Katherine smacked the hilt of her sword into the side of young woman’s head.
“Sorry!” she called behind her as she ran for the friar.
“Friar!” Katherine yelled while still a few paces away.
His head shot up as he jumped in surprise, immediately seeing her frantic expression. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“The spell,” said Katherine, hauling him to his feet, “It’s made it here, we have to go.”
“Wait, my papers,” he said, breaking away from her to bend down and retrieve them, “I think I’ve finally found out where Bronwyn is.”
Katherine spun back round to face him. Her eyes were met by the terrible sight of an outlaw looming behind the friar, his hand raised high with the two points of his weapon catching the shafts of sunlight that filtered through the trees.
“Friar!” screamed Katherine in warning.
But it was too late. The sharp prongs plunged into the friar’s neck, tearing the flesh. The friar howled out in pain as the potion coursed through his veins. Slowly all expression left his face - a blank calmness replacing his anguish. His hands went limp, the papers he had been so resolutely clutching drifting down into the fire.
“No!” cried Katherine in despair, trying futilely to snatch them back from the flames. Only it was useless. She could only watch as the answer to Anne’s whereabouts was reduced to ashes and scattered to the breeze.
She was on her knees now in the dirt, head in her hands. “No, no, no,” she repeated dumbly, shaking her head at the cruelty of it.
However, the friar and the man that had attacked him weren’t about to give her any respite. She caught sight of the weapon again, heading in her direction this time. She wondered for the barest split second about allowing it to strike her, to relieve her of her impossible seeming burden. Then her hand flew up to bat the assailants away. She couldn’t give up. Not yet, not while she still had breath in her body.
Drawing her sword she leapt to her feet. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she told the pair of them, sweeping the blade in their direction.
They ignored her warning, continuing to advance, though their movements were sluggish. Seeing that and not wanting to add to her tally, Katherine decided that flight was the better course of action. Then she might be able to get a moment to think and plan what to do next. As she was running for the trees she caught sight of at least a dozen other outlaws, all shuffling in her direction much as the friar and his companion had been.
Katherine swung round, relieved to hear the sound of another voice amongst the silent masses. Tobias was suddenly at her side, and she could see that his sword was bloodied.
“Is there anyone else left?” she asked him quickly, taking a moment to catch her breath and look round to see how close the outlaws were.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I don’t know how it happened. One minute everyone was all right and then suddenly the spell had swept through the camp like wildfire. I’m afraid Thomas and Beatrice were infected.”
“Yes, I saw Beatrice,” noted Katherine sadly, “Let’s just hope this can be reversed some way.”
“We should leave,” Tobias reasoned, “Find somewhere away from anyone else to hole up.”
“Agreed,” said Katherine, following him out of the overrun camp.
Are you still there?
Anne could hear a voice, distinct over the hubbub of the multitude, though she found it hard remembering who it was.
Anne was sure she was meant to know who that was calling her, if only she could think properly over all these other people that were constantly chattering away in the background.
Bronwyn. That was it.
Ah, so you are there!
Yes, I’m still here, you haven’t won yet.
But so very nearly, the eclipse is tomorrow at dusk. Then the boundaries between this world and others will be gone and spirits and everything else will be free to walk the earth amongst us
That’s a whole day yet, there’s still time for Katherine to stop you.
I don’t know why you cling on to that hope. How do you know she hasn’t succumbed to the spell already?
No, I would have sensed her among us, declared Anne, And you would have been taunting me about it straight away too.
That seemed to stymie the witch, confirming what Anne thought she knew already – Katherine was evading Bronwyn. There was still hope.
Katherine dumped the pile of logs onto the forest floor before bending down to try and start a fire around them. She knew it was a risk to spark the orange glow into life, since they were trying to avoid anyone finding them, yet at the same time they didn’t want to freeze to death. Now it was dark the icy chill of night had quickly pressed in, Katherine’s fingers already starting to go numb.
She fumbled with her flint, the stone resisting her attempts at generating the necessary spark. How she wished Anne were there to do it. Katherine could just picture it now - Anne would tut and roll her eyes as Katherine pretended not to know what she was doing, finally giving in and seizing the stone for herself. Then they would sit by the warm glow, while it built in intensity, Anne’s arm around her drawing her close.
The stone suddenly grazed Katherine’s finger and she flung it down in the dirt in disgust, sucking the damaged digit.
“Problems lighting the fire?” enquired Tobias as he came back into the small camp they had set up. He placed his own set of firewood on the ground, reaching for the flint.
“No, I can do it,” said Katherine resolutely, picking the stone back up before him.
He merely tilted his head in acknowledgment as she set to work again. She forced herself to stop thinking about Anne for a few seconds and concentrate on her task. Finally the flames flickered on the wood, and she sat back, satisfied.
“How is your arm?” asked Tobias.
“It’s fine,” she replied with a dismissive wave of the hand.
“Let me check the dressing,” he offered, moving towards her to take it.
“I said, I’m fine!” she snapped.
He stopped where he was, castigated by her harsh words. “I’m sorry,” she added quickly, bringing her hand up to rub her temple. She knew he only wanted to help and that she shouldn’t take her frustration out on him. “Of course you can re-dress it.”
Tobias gently took the arm Will had slashed and undid the makeshift bandage. He dabbed at the bloody wound with some water they had collected earlier before retying a fresh strip of cloth to replace the blood soaked other one.
Suddenly there was a crack from off in the woods and both Katherine and Tobias leapt up in unison, drawing their swords. They glanced warily into the blackness, swinging round to try and work out where the sound had come from. As Katherine peered amongst the trees she thought she saw a figure approaching, a single form gliding through the dark. She tightened her hold on the hilt of her sword, nudging Tobias wordlessly to indicate the person.
As they stepped into the light cast by the fire, Katherine slackened her hold, dropping the tip of her weapon.
“It’s all right, I’m not one of them,” said Robin Hood, noting the drawn weapons.
“Are you alone?” asked Katherine, looking behind him.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied, “Everyone else was affected by that…whatever it was.”
“Looks like it’s just us three then,” remarked Katherine, sitting back down by the fire to be joined by Robin. She looked up at Tobias who was eyeing Robin warily. “Tobias, are you going to stand there all night or are you going to join us?”
The captain of the guard slowly lowered himself onto the ground, taking up a position to Katherine’s right, on the opposite side of her from Robin.
Katherine glanced between the two men. “Since we could well be the only three people not under the affect of this curse, I suggest we gather our meagre forces together and cast aside any doubts we might have for now. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Robin, offering his hand to Tobias.
Tobias looked at it for a moment, before stiffly placing his own hand in it and shaking.
“Good, well, now that’s settled, what’s our next move?”
“You still need to get the Stone of Gaia, right?”
“Yes,” confirmed Katherine.
“Then I suggest we go to the shrine tomorrow to fetch it,” outlined Robin, “I can speak to the people of the village if need be, explain why we need to borrow it.”
“That is if they’re not all under this spell too,” Tobias added with caution.
“In which case we may have to fight our way to it,” remarked Katherine, not pleased by that prospect. She didn’t like hurting people at the best of times, and especially not when they weren’t responsible for their actions.
Once they had verified the plan for the following day, they all settled down to sleep, hunched close to the fire. Katherine found the darkness elusive, tossing and turning as thoughts of Anne filled her mind. Somehow she eventually drifted off into a troubled sleep.
Anne was aware that she was awake and yet she couldn’t see anything. While she puzzled over that it suddenly occurred to her that the voices had stopped too. She sighed internally at the blessed release from the constant chattering. She had almost forgotten what it was like to be alone with her thoughts. Taking the time to savour the sensation, she wondered if Bronwyn had actually left her body for some reason, though that seemed unlikely with her plan so close to fruition. Anne tried to open her eyes, but found she still had no control over her physical form. Bronwyn must still have been present. At least she could feel her body though - the soft brush of her clothes against the skin, the tiny weight of Katherine’s pendant lying against her chest, close to her heart. It slowly dawned on Anne what had happened - Bronwyn had fallen asleep.
Anne considered that it was certainly an unexpected turn of events. She had never even thought to try and stay awake while Bronwyn fell asleep, though Anne had barely been present the past few days to try it anyway. She was lucky to have stumbled upon this discovery now. Not that it was much use to her, since she still couldn’t move or speak.
Lying there in the silence her mind started to drift to thoughts of what might happen soon. Her periods of consciousness were so sporadic now, that it wouldn’t be long before they ceased altogether. She dearly wished that she could see Katherine one last time before that happened, tell her that she loved her before she was no more. She brought an image of Katherine to mind now, pretending that she really was there, that she could speak to her.
In her mind Katherine was standing on the bank of the lake near the outlaw camp, Anne’s quiet spot where they had sat together many a time. In this vision it was a warm summer’s day and the sunlight lit up Katherine’s hair like a blaze of fire against the green of the forest. Her face turned to Anne, a soft smile spreading across it. Anne thought Katherine’s face was more radiant than anything the sun could manage. Katherine didn’t speak, her blue-grey eyes reaching out across the distance along the bank instead, boring into Anne pulling her very soul towards her.
Then Anne started to feel something different, a strange sensation starting to prick at the back of her mind. She tried to push it away, but it was insistent. Anne watched in dismay as the image of Katherine started to fade. Her heart cried out in silent protest, wanting to clutch onto it and never let it go. Yet something was telling her to trust in this other feeling, to ride along with it. So ride it she did.
All of a sudden it felt like she was floating, and when she looked down she could see the vast green swathes of Sherwood Forest beneath her, illuminated by the moon. Then she was falling, spiralling downwards towards the trees. Her descent was heart-stoppingly fast and she screwed her eyes shut to ward off the sickening sensation. Just as quickly as it had begun it was over. She was at rest once more.
Slowly she opened her eyes. In front of her was Katherine, asleep by a fire.
The sight of her right there in front on Anne was overwhelming, feelings of warmth, tenderness and love surging through the young woman in such a tumultuous cascade that it was like nothing she had experienced before. She quickly reached out to touch the other woman, to check it really was her and not some delusion of Anne’s wishful mind. It seemed too much to hope that the way she had been thinking of Katherine had somehow allowed Anne to make this connection.
However, rather than stroking it, Anne’s fingers slipped through Katherine’s shoulder as if they weren’t there. Anne drew them back in bemusement, staring down at the digits. In the light of the fire she could see that they weren’t corporeal, the ground below visible through what should be solid flesh. Suddenly she realised what had happened, and recalled how she had read about such things. She had managed to leave her body in spirit form, but not to walk the spirit world, to actually exist in the real world. This sort of thing was almost unheard of, only possible when the person you were contacting had some strong emotional connection to you. From what little Anne remembered, she knew that she would only have a short time, before the pull of her body became too much and she was drawn back to its confines.
Desperately not wanting to waste what little time she had, she tried to speak.
“Katherine,” she whispered.
Though she heard her own words, it seemed Katherine did not. She slumbered on, though her face was creased as if she was having a fitful sleep. Anne wanted to stroke that furrowed brow, ease the tension.
“Katherine,” she tried again with more force.
There was the barest of flickers from the other woman’s eyelashes.
Katherine’s eyelids slowly slid open. She blinked a few times blearily as she tried to work out what was happening. Then she saw the ghostly apparition in front of her and suddenly she was wide-awake.
“Anne?” Katherine’s eyes swept over the form in front of her. “Is it really you?”
Without waiting for an answer she was up, and trying to embrace the young woman. Katherine tumbled straight through Anne’s diaphanous form and Anne actually felt the brush off Katherine’s body as it passed through her. Only she sensed so much more than merely the displacement of air, it was like Katherine had touched something deep within her soul. At the same time she had got a brief glimpse into Katherine’s heart. It took Anne’s breath away.
“You’re a ghost?” cried Katherine in despair as she turned back round, her voice rising in panic. “No, you can’t be…”
“Wait, no,” said Anne quickly, realising the conclusion Katherine had leapt to, “I’m not a ghost, I’m still alive.”
“You are?” queried Katherine, seeking reassurance.
“Yes, but I don’t have much time to speak to you,” explained Anne, “I’ve managed to leave my body in spirit form, but it won’t be long before I’m pulled back.”
Katherine was studying her in wonder, unable to stop her fingers snaking out to touch Anne’s shimmering form, even though it had no substance. “How…?” she asked, her eyes coming up to Anne’s in amazement.
“I’m not entirely sure myself, but that’s not important,” said Anne, knowing she had to hurry. She wished she could properly savour this moment, but she had to tell Katherine what she knew. “What is important is that you need to find Bronwyn and stop her, before dusk tomorrow.”
Katherine was shaken out of her stunned study, as if she had forgotten that there was any problem that needed addressing at all now Anne was with her. “Why before then?”
Anne quickly explained to Katherine about the gateway Bronwyn was going to open to the other realms, including why she was casting the spell to utitlise the power of other people.
“All right,” said Katherine, trying to take it all in, “We already have a plan to free you, we just need to know where you are.”
“You do?” asked Anne in surprise, “What is this plan?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Katherine dismissively, “Just tell me where you are, before it’s too late.”
“Why won’t you tell me this plan?” pressed Anne, suspicious of Katherine evasiveness.
Katherine meanwhile was getting increasingly frantic. “Anne! Quickly, we have no other way of finding you if you don’t tell me!”
“You’re going to do something stupid aren’t you?”
“Not stupid, necessary.”
“It’s dangerous though isn’t it?”
Katherine avoided the question. “Anne, please, tell me where you are!”
“Only if you promise to tell me your plan afterwards.”
“All right!” cried Katherine in exasperation.
“Three miles directly the east of the outlaw camp is a small stream that runs due north into an area of dense forest. Follow this stream for a mile northwards until you come to a single holly bush. From here you must branch off to the north-east until you come to four standing stones in a clearing. That is where we are.”
“And Bronwyn, where is her body?”
“It’s in a cottage nearby, about half a mile to the east of the stones.”
“Thank you,” said Katherine, letting out a long sigh of relief.
“Now tell me your plan.”
Katherine stared at her, her pale blue eyes searching Anne’s face. Anne could tell she was sizing up whether to attempt a lie at this point.
“Please, Anne, isn’t it enough to know I’m coming for you?” pleaded Katherine.
“That means more than anything to me,” agreed Anne sincerely. “Almost more than anything,” she suddenly corrected herself. “What matters more, though, is knowing that you’ll be safe and not doing something foolhardy in a vain attempt to save me.”
Katherine closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. When she opened them again she fixed them on Anne and solemnly told her of the plan to use the Stone of Gaia. She omitted nothing, perhaps sensing that she couldn’t hide the truth even if she wanted to.
When she had finished Anne shook her head. “I can’t let you do it.”
“We have to stop Bronwyn, you said it yourself!” cried Katherine, “That means saving you, whether you like it or not. I have to do this, not only to save you but the very world!”
“Saving me is not the only way to stop Bronwyn,” said Anne slowly.
Katherine stared blanky at her for a moment, before comprehension dawned and a horrified look spread across her face. “No! You can’t mean…”
“Yes, you, or someone, must kill me. If I die then Bronwyn dies with me.”
“No! That’s ridiculous, don’t even say that!”
“Katherine, please, your plan is fraught with danger for you and may not succeed anyway. My plan is guaranteed to succeed.”
“Killing you is not a plan!”
“At least consider it…”
“I will not!”
“Then get someone else to do it…”
“No! No one is going to be killing you!”
“And I don’t want to be the one responsible for killing you!”
Both women fell silent as they stared furiously through the night at one another. The only sound above the crackle of the fire was Katherine’s impassioned breathing. Anne herself had no breath.
Finally Katherine broke the silence, her voice soft now. “Anne, I have to try this first,” she started slowly, “I love you so much - I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try everything in my power to save you. And I couldn’t live without you.”
As Katherine’s eyes offered up their silent plea, Anne’s ghostly fingers reached up to brush against Katherine’s cheek. If she closed her eyes Anne thought she could almost feel the warmth of it, like her fingers were real as they glided down the soft, smooth flesh as they had done so many times before. She could also feel something else, something wet.
Opening her eyes she could see the couple of tears that were slipping down Katherine’s face. If she had the power to, she knew she would be crying too.
“All right, try your plan,” allowed Anne, “But you have to promise me that if it doesn’t work and you…you…” she broke off, finding it hard to continue when faced with the implication of what might happen if the plan failed.
Katherine stepped in to finish for her. “If it doesn’t work, someone will carry out the other option.” It seemed she also found it hard to voice what the other option was.
Suddenly Anne felt the pricking sensation at the back of her mind again.
“No!” she wailed, “Not yet!”
“What is it?”
“My body, it’s pulling me back!”
Without thinking Anne darted forward to place her formless lips against Katherine’s. It was nothing like it was normally. It was a simple delicate brush, yet at the same time the connection was still palpable. She fought against the tugging in her mind with all her might, wanting to prolong this moment for as long as she could.
As her whispery lips floated over Katherine’s, Anne started to feel something else beyond the actual physical touch. The touch itself was only slight, yet this other feeling was much more powerful, bubbling up from within her, an unstoppable cascade of emotions. Only those emotions weren’t her own, she realised in wonder – they were Katherine’s. Anne let them flow through her, overcome by the mixture of love and anguish that lay in Katherine’s heart.
Yearning to be even closer, Anne subconsciously stepped forwards so that her whole body encompassed Katherine’s. The other woman’s eyes were closed now, a look of serenity on her face, and Anne followed suit. To begin with what she saw in her mind’s eye was hazy - a blur of white. Slowly it came into focus, centring round the red-haired figure that appeared in front of Anne there too.
There was still a slight haziness around the edges of Katherine’s form, like she too was some sort of apparition. Katherine merely smiled as her fingers hesitantly reached out for Anne, the young woman getting a shock as she felt the touch; amazed she could feel it at all. It seemed so real as Katherine’s fingers slid down Anne’s arm to her hand, taking it as she got there and pulling Anne towards her. In a way it was better than real, intensified by the emotional connection that Anne had somehow established, while having no idea how.
Then Anne stopped thinking and let herself be swept up into Katherine’s arms, pressing her lips urgently to the other woman’s. It seemed like they both knew time was short, that at any moment Anne could be ripped away. Their hands caressed one another in a frenzy of desire and need. Anne’s fingers danced across Katherine’s body – roaming, exploring and seeking out bare flesh.
The sensations when she found it were almost overwhelming. As she ran her fingers down Katherine’s spine and lower she could feel it too, their feelings entwined in duel ecstasy. It was hard to tell where Katherine ended and she began. Everything was intermingled, swept up in the great conflagration that was their fevered, ghostly lovemaking.
Anne could just about sense that Katherine’s hands were upon her too, a million sparks of bliss firing in her head as they slid over her skin. Somehow, in this dream state they were able to touch one another as they did in the real world, and in other ways they might never have imagined.
Just as in the real world, Anne could feel the familiar trembling building within her, starting somewhere deep inside and skittering out through her whole body until she was shaking uncontrollably with the fire sweeping through the both of them.
Slowly the amazing sensations ebbed away, and Anne opened her eyes to find herself back by the fire in the wood, now disentangled from Katherine’s body. The pair of them sat on the ground, Katherine breathing heavily as if what had just happened in their joined imagination, or dream or whatever it had been, had really occurred. Maybe it had. As Anne gazed into Katherine’s soft blue eyes there was a brief moment of calm, when it seemed like time itself was standing still.
Then all of a sudden the nagging pull on Anne’s mind was back. It was much more intense now, utterly incessant and irresistible. Anne just had time to cry out a last “I love you, Katherine,” before her consciousness was torn away, swirling back over the vast distance to come crashing back into her body.
When Katherine had awoken that morning she had wondered if the experience with Anne had been a dream. Yet it seemed far too real, too emotionally charged to have been something of her imaginings. Not only that, she had also still been able to feel the lingering touch from where Anne’s lips and fingers had caressed her.
So she had informed Tobias and Robin of the encounter, omitting some of the finer points. Both of them had looked at her sceptically as she described it. She didn’t really care if they believed her or not. She believed it, she knew where Anne was and nothing was going to stop her going there.
They were on their way to the shrine of Gaia now to fetch the stone. They made their way silently through the forest, all aware of the enormity of the task that lay before them. It was nearly midday by the time they got there, the weak winter sun as high as it got in the sky at that time of year.
As they entered the dark cavern that was the home of the stone, Katherine thought it seemed like an age ago that she was last there. In fact it was only seven months. It was hard to believe that so much had happened in that short time. As if her thoughts weren’t already consumed enough by Anne, being in the shrine brought back fresh memories. She recalled how impassioned Anne had been when her and Robin had brought Katherine to the shrine to try and persuade her to reveal the whereabouts of the stone. Anne had been furious with Katherine’s reluctance and Katherine couldn’t help the rueful smile that crossed her face as she thought of Anne’s flashing eyes boring into her. Of course shortly after that they had shared their first kiss and then she had been lost to Anne forever.
Bringing herself back to the present she went to the altar where the gem that had started it all sat, looking innocuous in its stone home.
“Shall we just take it?” she asked Robin.
“It seems there is no one here to ask, so I suggest we do, since we have no time to lose.”
Hesitantly Katherine reached out her hand, hovering her fingers over the green gem. When she had first come here she hadn’t believed in paganism or magic at all. Now she had seen more than enough to convince her otherwise. Slowly she closed her fingers round it, surprised by how cold it was. Picking it up she studied it for a moment, thinking it didn’t look like it held the power to release Anne, before she placed it carefully in her bag.
“Come on then, let’s find this set of standing stones.”
Using Robin’s intimate knowledge of the forest they set off to undertake the long journey to the location Anne had described to Katherine. Walking through the forest, they had to stay away from any obvious paths, just in case they met anyone that was under Bronwyn’s spell. As the day progressed the tiredness sapped at Katherine’s legs, but she forced herself on, unwilling to stop even for a moment. Eventually, however, she could see the wisdom of resting when Tobias suggested it.
“Just for five minutes then,” she allowed.
“There’s a stream nearby, we can get some water,” suggested Robin.
“I’ll go,” stated Tobias, “You stay with Katherine.”
He didn’t wait for confirmation, disappearing into the trees in the direction of the sound of running water.
“He certainly is the forceful sort isn’t he?” Robin remarked to Katherine as he sat down beside her on a tree stump
“Yes, but I know I can rely on Tobias completely.”
Katherine wasn’t particularly in the mood for conversation, so they sat in silence while they waited for the guard’s return. A dull aching was emanating from Katherine’s left thigh and she rubbed the old arrow wound that lay under the rough material of her trousers. It seemed everything was conspiring to remind her of Anne today. A silent longing was building in her heart now as she remembered fondly being carried in Anne’s arms after being shot in the leg all those months ago. The way she had cradled Katherine to her had made Katherine feel so completely safe. Nestling in that soft bosom Katherine had known without doubt that Anne wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
The sound of crashing through the trees brought her resoundingly back to the current situation. Robin was already up off the stump and Katherine quickly followed, knowing that Tobias must have run into trouble. Sure enough he was barrelling through the undergrowth, shouting at them as he did.
Katherine could see the other people now, tumbling haphazardly through the trees behind him. Both she and Robin hesitated, not wanting to leave Tobias behind.
“Go!” shouted Tobias again, still some distance off, “I’ll try to hold them off!”
Katherine exchanged glances with Robin, though she suspected he knew as well as she did that there was no way the three of them would be able to fend off the growing hoard if they stayed. She switched her eyes to Tobias once more and he met her gaze with his normal stoic expression. She mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ before turning and dragging Robin off through the trees with her.
They ran frantically through the forest, trying to go as fast as they could without falling. Katherine drew her sword so she could hack away the obstacles that littered their path as they crashed on without looking back. Her lungs burnt with each breath, but she continued to run, not wanting to stop until they were far away from the army of enslaved peasants. Eventually they slowed and came to a stop, Katherine resting her hands on her knees and taking in huge gulps of air. Despite the cold day she could feel the sweat tumbling down her spine where it was covered by her heavy winter clothes. She drew off her cloak for a moment, using the edge to wipe her brow.
“How much further is it to the stones?” she asked Robin, straightening up again to face him.
“Another hour or so,” he considered, panting himself from the hurried flight.
Katherine glanced up to the sky beyond the swaying branches, seeing that the light was beginning to fade already.
“We best get a move on then.”
Darkness was drawing ever closer by the time they got to the single holly bush by the stream, just as Anne had described it. The dense forest obscured the sky from view so Katherine had no idea if the eclipse had started yet. Somehow she thought they would know if it had.
Katherine turned to Robin, fixing him with her eyes. “For this to work, you need to go to where Bronwyn’s body is, while I perform the spell on Anne. You’ll have to…” Katherine trailed off. Despite all the terrible things Bronwyn had done, Katherine still had trouble ordering the execution of another person, even if they were barely human.
Robin relieved her of the need. “I have to kill her. I know,” he stated grimly.
Katherine reached out to stroke his arm, the pair of them sharing a look of silent understanding of what lay ahead for both of them.
“Good luck,” said Robin, squeezing her hand with his own, “I know you can do this. I expect to see you and Anne safe and well when all this is over.”
Katherine smiled at him, this strange contradiction of man – the outlaw with the heart of gold. She was proud to count him as a friend. With a final nod he set off through the trees for the cottage where Bronwyn’s body lay in a trance, it’s consciousness elsewhere. Katherine watched until he was out of sight, only then taking a deep breath and turning to the north-east.
The forest was thick and clawing in this area and she had to slice her way through. The sharp branches snagged on her clothing and she finally cast her long cloak off since it was slowing her progress. She was far too warmed by the adrenaline pounding through her to notice the cold anyway.
Katherine pushed the branches aside, the sight of the four standing stones off in the distance finally visible. She was still too far away to make out if there were any people there, but the sense of relief and achievement was immense. She couldn’t quite believe it – she had made it, she had actually made it. Only a bit further and she would finally find Anne. Now she had stopped moving through the brush for a moment she realised how quiet it was in the forest, eerily so. There were no sounds of birds or animals, not even the faint whisper of the wind pulling at the leaves and branches above that normally formed an almost imperceptible backdrop to Sherwood Forest.
The unnatural stillness caused a shiver to pass through her, a clammy gnawing sensation. Shaking herself into action she started off again towards the stones. She had barely taken two steps when there was a flash of brilliant white light from the centre of the stones that lit up the whole of the surrounding forest. Katherine froze at the suddenness of it, shielding her eyes from the harsh glare.
As the light subsided to a more viewable glow, a thunderous bang reverberated through the ground, shaking the trees. That was followed by a great out-rushing of air from the source of the light. It nearly knocked Katherine off her feet as it battered her, whipping her hair back and causing her to screw her eyes shut to stop the dirt and dust getting into them.
As the wave passed, the rumbling continued so that the whole ground was juddering now. Katherine staggering as she tried to maintain her feet on the bucking soil. A horrendous rending sound from behind her caused her to glance back. Her eyes widened as she saw the earth itself splitting apart, the grassy top disappearing into the newly forming chasm. That chasm was tracking rapidly towards her in a jagged line now as it grew, and she started running for the stones to escape. She could practically feel the earth sliding away at her heels as she sprinted for safety. She had no time to check exactly how close behind her it was. The nearest stone loomed ahead but the ground beneath her feet was already starting to crumble.
Making one last superhuman effort she flung herself forwards, catching sight of the black emptiness opening up below her spiralling feet. With a thump her arms struck solid ground and she clung on to the clumps of grass and mud as her legs dangled in the abyss. Katherine hauled herself up and flopped face first down onto the safe ground, breathing heavily.
“Nice of you to join us.”
Before she could even look up, Katherine found herself roughly dragged to her feet to stand face to face with Anne. Her heart soared ridiculously for the briefest of moments before she saw the look of pure malice behind the pale blue eyes. The four ugly nail marks on Anne’s cheek were also evident, and a pang of regret shot through Katherine. As before Katherine found it hard to meet Anne’s gaze, knowing that it was the dark witch responsible for the piercing stare that was fixed on her.
“What a shame it won’t be for long.”
Out of the blue Bronwyn struck her resoundingly across the face with the back of her hand, sending a dazed Katherine crashing back to the ground.
“And don’t think your beloved will be stepping in to save you this time,” continued Bronwyn, kicking Katherine in the ribs as she tried to get up, “She’s far too weak to do anything.” A few more blows swiftly followed, leaving Katherine gasping for breath on the bare ground. Bronwyn took a couple of steps back, surveying her handiwork.
“Dear oh dear, is this the sum of your resistance? It hardly seems like it was worth the trip.”
Katherine rose to her knees staring balefully up at the familiar face, contorted into an unfamiliar expression of disdain. Her own emotions were difficult to pinpoint – a war going on inside her between anger, love, despair, hope and a hundred other things. She decided it was probably best to try and ignore them altogether for the time being and just focus on what she needed to do – she would need all the power of those emotions soon enough anyway.
Katherine quickly cast her eyes around the quad formed by the stones assessing her surroundings. The chasm that had opened up encircled the stones to a distance of about ten feet. Baring an almighty leap there was no way to leave. In between the two furthest stones there was a circle of shimmering light, no doubt the gateway Bronwyn was attempting to open to the other realms. Squinting up at the sky Katherine could see that the eclipse had indeed started.
“What, no pithy comeback, no insults?” taunted Bronwyn, somehow managing to mangle Anne’s voice into a nasty sneering sound. “That’s not like you Katherine, dearest.”
“I am not your dearest,” Katherine finally shot back.
“Ah, so you do have a voice.”
Katherine clambered wearily to her feet once more only for Bronwyn to step in and punch her in the stomach again before she could react. All her breath flew from her body in a rush as she doubled over in pain.
“But, you’re right, you aren’t my dearest,” confirmed Bronwyn before following up with a stinging uppercut to the chin. As she hit the dirt yet again Katherine tasted the blood in her mouth.
Bronwyn wasn’t waiting this time, advancing on Katherine’s prone form. Katherine frantically fumbled in her bag, searching for the Stone of Gaia. While Katherine was still delving, Bronwyn’s hands grabbed the front of her tunic yanking her up.
“What’s wrong, afraid to fight back in case you hurt your beloved?” asked Bronwyn, grabbing Katherine round the throat and squeezing.
Katherine choked for breath as her fingers finally closed over the angles of the stone. As she pulled it out she allowed the emotions she had tried to subdue moments earlier free rein to pulse through her. The stone responded immediately, a faint glow emanating from its green depths.
Bronwyn had seen it too. “What is that? What are you doing?” She actually sounded worried.
Katherine ignored the question, thinking instead of Anne, of her love for the young woman. It was hard to concentrate, though, with the fingers digging painfully into her throat and she closed her eyes to fully allow the sensations to wash over her. The all-powerful emotion surged in her breast as she recalled everything that had happened over the past year, from their very first meeting in the castle at Nottingham, through their many adventures to the most recent joy of Anne’s birthday. When she opened her eyes again the stone was ablaze with colour, a myriad of different shades visible across the shiny surface. Bronwyn’s fingers actually slackened as she stared at it and Katherine seized her chance.
Grabbing Bronwyn’s hand Katherine forced the stone into it, holding on with her own hand to sandwich it between them. She started the chant the friar had taught her, repeating it over and over again. Bronwyn’s eyes flicked up uncertainly, perhaps sensing the power of the stone. Katherine could feel it too - it was sweeping through her, drawing on her own power. It was also hurting her.
The pain started off as a dull ache in her chest, but it was spreading now as the stone drew on her energy and pumped it into the other woman. Katherine gasped as a fiery tingling started down her arms causing them to shake almost uncontrollably. She gritted her teeth and tried to tighten her grip, grimly holding on to the stone as if her life depended on it. In a way it did.
Through the link of the stone, she could sense the consciousnesses in the body before her, the two distinct personalities warring for control. She sought out the one she wanted to retrieve.
From the softness of the voice Katherine knew immediately that this was Anne speaking.
“Anne!” she cried as the energy continued to flow through the glowing stone, “It’s working! Hold on, we’re nearly there!”
She just prayed that she too could hold on. The tiredness was like nothing she had ever known, so overwhelming that she just wanted to close her eyes and fall into a long, deep sleep. But her mind was still strong; knowing that to succumb now would be to lose everything. She could barely feel her legs or arms but still she gripped the stone with fierce determination.
She looked to Anne to gather the extra will she needed to continue her task. The young woman’s pale blue eyes blazed down at her with such total love that Katherine could feel her own heart swelling in her chest. With it a fresh intense burst of energy coursed through the stone. Katherine had no real way to control it and from the way it was draining her she realised that the friar was about to be proved right in his assessment of the risk.
As the last of her life’s energy started to ebb from her body, Katherine’s eyelids began to droop. She pushed them open again, needing to know she had succeeded in her task before the darkness came. At least then she could die knowing Anne was safe.
Gazing into Anne’s eyes again she wanted to speak, to tell her of her love before the end came, but the effort of moving her lips was too much to accomplish. She settled for a look of silent longing instead. Anne seemed unable to say anything either, but Katherine noticed that there was an indefinable sadness behind her eyes that Katherine hadn’t been expecting. Katherine’s concentration faltered, the flow of energy interrupted for the briefest of instants. It was all Bronwyn needed.
Suddenly Anne’s other hand grabbed Katherine’s arm, whipping it away from its steely grip of the stone. With an agonising tearing in her chest Katherine felt the breaking of the connection to Anne. She stumbled backwards, her legs finally giving way.
“I have to hand it to you, that was a spirited attempt,” said the woman that stood over her, who Katherine now knew was Bronwyn again, “A pity that it was ultimately futile.”
Great shuddering breaths rocked through Katherine as she tried desperately to gather herself and fight down the overpowering weariness that resided in every fibre of her being. She considered that maybe she could still use the stone if she could touch it again.
“I don’t think we’ll be needing this anymore will we?” noted Bronwyn, looking down at the green gem in her hand.
Katherine watched helplessly as Bronwyn threw the stone towards the gaping chasm.
“No!” she screamed, somehow finding the energy to fling herself after it, sliding through the dirt towards the precipitous edge.
The stone took one bounce on the ground and plunged over, evading Katherine’s grasping fingers that arrived there seconds later. Katherine peered over into the blackness that seemed to have no end, realising with agonising clarity that the stone was lost to her and with it all hope. She rested her head on the cold, unforgiving ground in despair as hollow laughter echoed round the quad from behind her.
“Now, I think it’s time to put you out of your misery, so I can get back to my gateway,” came Bronwyn’s words from Anne’s mouth.
Katherine heard the telltale sound of a sword being drawn. Bronwyn’s feet were stepping through the dirt towards her now, and Katherine thought it would be so easy just to do nothing and let the other woman impale her where she lay. Yet she had made a promise to Anne - a promise that ‘someone’ would carry out the alternative plan in the event of the failure of her attempt. If she could do nothing else, she would keep that promise. Staggering shakily to her feet she drew her own sword. Of course there was no ‘someone’ else here, there was only her. It was her responsibility.
Bronwyn’s eyebrows rose perceptibly. “Still some fight left in you then?”
“You’ll have to kill me before I stop fighting,” said Katherine defiantly.
“So be it!”
Bronwyn’s sword flashed at Katherine, the light from the vortex on the far side glinting off the metal. Katherine brought up her own weapon to parry it, the reverberations as Bronwyn’s clattered into it almost shaking it from her hand. She knew she was still incredibly weak after the stone had drained her, only hoping that it might have had an effect on Bronwyn too.
Another furious blow came in and Katherine realised she would need to make the fight short if she had any hope of winning. She tried to clamp down the part of her that didn’t want to win at all. Raising the weapon that seemed so much heavier than normal she swung for Bronwyn.
As they battled across the ground, Katherine had to constantly remind herself that it was Bronwyn she was fighting, despite the fact that it was Anne she saw before her. She had to stop looking at that face and seeing the woman she loved, but it was so hard. Everything was still outwardly the same – the loose strands of golden hair that whipped across her cheeks; the smooth, pale skin; the soft, red lips; the intense blue eyes. She even wore the same black clothes that Anne always wore. Katherine swallowed hard at the renewed sense of loss that was threatening to overwhelm her.
They had moved close to the swirling vortex now and Katherine could feel a strange pulling coming from it, like it was sucking in the very air from her side. It was unnerving and she side-stepped away from it, all the time furiously battling with the dark witch and her swiping blade.
Those blades became locked and suddenly Katherine found herself drawn up to the other woman, her snarling face mere inches away.
“You have no chance!” said Bronwyn scornfully as they twisted round trying to disentangle the weapons, “Give up now!”
“Never!” exclaimed Katherine.
Bronwyn took her free hand and drove it into Katherine’s stomach. As Katherine cried out her fingers loosened just enough for Bronwyn to be able to whip the sword from them. It spiralled away, tumbling off the edge of the quad to join the Stone of Gaia in the deep chasm. Katherine herself was on the floor following the blow. She had no time to mourn the loss of the sword, quickly bending to retrieve the dagger from her boot. At the same time she could see Bronwyn’s sword swinging in at her from above with deadly intent.
Katherine just had time to get her arm up in a futile attempt to ward off the incoming attack.
Only the sword didn’t hit her.
Peeking out from behind her arm she could see that Bronwyn was frozen with her sword held high, eyes tightly shut. Suddenly she drew back her arm again, but the sword didn’t sweep in at Katherine. Instead it was flung out of the stone circle, the weapon thumping into the grass beyond the chasm.
The other woman staggered slightly, her hand coming up to clutch at her head. “Katherine…”
“Anne?” replied Katherine, shocked.
“Yes,” said Anne through gritted teeth, the strain evident on her face, “I’m holding Bronwyn back, but I don’t have long. You must do it now!”
“What?” cried Katherine, searching Anne’s face and realising in one heart-stopping moment exactly what she meant. Of course she had intended it herself anyway when the fight started, but faced with the reality of it, she didn’t know if she had the courage. “No,” she said, her voice catching in her throat as she clambered to her feet, “There must be another way.”
“It’s too late for anything else!” insisted Anne, scrunching her eyes shut for a moment in pain, “Quick, I can’t hold her off for long…”
The young woman’s eyes flicked open again, boring into Katherine in a silent plea. Katherine could feel her heart disintegrating in her chest in the face of the agonising task before her. She knew exactly what it was Anne wanted her to do – she wanted Katherine to kill her.
“I can’t,” pleaded Katherine in dismay, over the sounds of the swirling vortex that was still growing between the two stones beside them.
Anne stepped towards her, taking hold of her hand that still resolutely gripped the hilt of the dagger. “We can’t let her open the vortex, we can’t let her win. It’s the only way to save everyone else, once Bronwyn is gone they’ll be restored, the gateway will be closed.” She spoke softly yet with determination.
Her blue eyes latched onto Katherine’s face and Katherine could once again see the woman she loved beyond measure deep within them, see all the love that had been missing before. Yet at the same time it was too much to maintain her gaze, knowing what it was those blue depths were asking of her. Katherine glanced down at Anne’s hand resting on her own, cradling it on the deadly blade. How could she do it?
“Please…” begged Anne desperately as she fought to maintain control of her mind, “Let me have the dagger if you can’t….”
“No,” begged Katherine, unwilling to surrender the weapon knowing the intended purpose.
“Then you shall die!”
Katherine’s eyes shot up. Anne regarded her harshly once again, all semblance of love gone from her face. The hand covering Katherine’s own tightened painfully, crushing her fingers against the unforgiving hilt. Bronwyn was trying to push the blade towards her, she realised, and she reached over her other hand to grab onto the weapon with that too in a vain attempt to hold it back. The tip inched ever closer to Katherine’s stomach as it quivered between them.
Katherine grimaced with the strain, beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead and tumbling into her eyes. She tried to blink them away, knowing that sooner or later she would lose the battle. Looking up into Anne’s angry face Katherine sought desperately for any sign that Anne herself was still in there, behind the evil façade of Bronwyn. The dagger was now touching the front of Katherine’s tunic, and she could feel the sharp tip poking through it, pricking against her skin. She shot one last pleading look at Anne.
With a swift jerk, Anne’s hand turned the blade around, pointing it at her own stomach. It hovered there for a moment with both Katherine and Anne’s hands entwined on it. Katherine could see the look of confusion on Bronwyn’s face as the hand acted independently of her control. Then her face contorted in pain as the dagger plunged deep into her body, buried in her flesh up to the hilt.
“No!” screamed Katherine as Anne’s blood sprayed hotly out over her hands.
The air swirled viciously around them, picking up the dust off the ground and whipping it around their bodies. The ground beneath their feet started to judder violently shaking right through Katherine’s bones.
As the maelstrom intensified, Katherine felt the dagger being twisted sickeningly against Anne’s insides. Anne tipped back her head, a heart-wrenching cry tearing from her throat, directed at the heavens. Katherine was buffeted by the fury of the focussed storm, unable to move away as Anne’s hands still gripped hers steadfastly against the handle of the dagger. She could only watch as an ethereal form flew out from Anne’s open and screaming mouth, disappearing off over the stones and out into the night.
A bright flash almost blinded Katherine as the vortex beside them collapsed spectacularly in on itself, leaving just the two of them in the now silent and still clearing.
Katherine swung her face back to Anne, trying to focus on her as the white spots danced before her eyes. “Anne?” she asked anxiously.
The barest of smiles flickered across the young woman’s pale face as her eyes met Katherine’s. “Yes, it’s me,” she confirmed in a ragged whisper.
Katherine felt the hands on hers loosening and she suddenly realised that she still held the dagger in Anne’s body. She carefully drew it out, flinging it away as if it were burning her palms. Freed of what had been holding her up, Anne tumbled backwards onto the ground.
“No,” cried Katherine, following her down, kneeling at the side of her fallen lover.
Hurriedly ripping a sleeve from her shirt, Katherine frantically tried to push against the rapid flow of blood from Anne’s stomach. It was everywhere, soaking Anne’s clothes. A spluttering cough caused Katherine to turn away from the sight of the river of red spilling freely onto her hands.
“Katherine…” Anne plaintively called out to her.
The small, pained voice caused fresh pangs of fear to stab at Katherine. She shuffled up towards Anne’s head, wiping her hands on her trousers as she did. She gently brushed the wisps of blond hair from Anne’s clammy face. “It’s all right,” said Katherine, her voice trembling, “You’re going to be fine,” she added, making her best attempt at a smile despite the fact that her heart was breaking inside.
Anne managed a wan smile in return. “I think we both know that’s not true.”
“No, no, you’ll be all right,” insisted Katherine, knowing the untruth of her words even as she said them, “We’ll just get you back to the friar and he’ll patch you up. You’ll be right as rain in no time.”
Anne’s continued laboured breathing was stark evidence of just how unlikely that was. She coughed again, and her face creased together as another painful spasm rocked her body. Katherine found her own breathing growing increasingly shallow as she looked impotently on. Anne’s shaking fingers reached up to brush Katherine’s cheek, and Katherine couldn’t help the tortured sob that issued from her lips at the delicate touch.
“I love you, Katherine,” said Anne simply.
Katherine choked back another cry, clutching onto the fingers on her face as if holding them there would mean she would never have to let them go.
“I love you too.” The four words were all Katherine could manage to get out past the mounting lump in her throat.
As she gently stroked Anne’s face with her free hand, Katherine could see the young woman’s eyelids fluttering and she appeared to make a supreme effort to force them open once more so she could stare up at Katherine. The pale blue orbs spoke directly to Katherine’s heart, saying all the words Anne was unable to force past her gasping lips as she struggled for breath.
The rush of love and pain was almost overwhelming as Katherine was captured in Anne’s gaze. Unable to vocalise her own tumultuous emotions, Katherine bent down and placed her lips softly against Anne’s, fighting back the tears when she felt how cold they were.
She wasn’t sure how long she kept her lips locked on Anne’s and she didn’t care. Her heart was telling her that maybe she could just hold Anne in this world by the sheer power of her love if she maintained the connection. Deep down, though, she had the horrific realisation that she could do nothing to save Anne now. The tears started to tumble from her closed eyes at that point, but she no longer had the will to hold them back.
Katherine eased back momentarily, wanting to look on Anne’s face and etch every last detail into her mind while she still had the chance. Anne managed another tiny smile of reassurance as Katherine’s tears plopped onto her face, trickling down her cheeks and onto dirt.
“Anne, please,” entreated Katherine in little more than a whisper, “Don’t leave me.”
Anne’s lips parted to speak but she didn’t manage to say her words. Instead a tiny hiss of breath passed between them before her head flopped listlessly to the side, her eyes closing for the last time. Katherine sensed the fingers she still held to her face go slack, Anne’s arm suddenly heavy in her grasp.
“No,” she begged wretchedly, clinging onto the lifeless digits, “Anne!”
She stared numbly down at Anne’s face, a terrible hollow sensation occupying the pit of her stomach. She was crushed utterly. She had nothing left to give, nothing left to feel.
Then the grief began to well up to fill up the space in her soul; an unstoppable torrent of pain and misery drowning her in its relentless onslaught. Opening her mouth she let out a cry of total devastation to the forest around her, wailing inconsolably to the night. She continued to scream silently at the trees long after her voice had given up making any audible sounds, finally slumping down onto the still body in front of her.
Anne looked around in confusion, taking in the sight of the monolithic stones that surrounded her.
Where Am I?
She brought her hand up to her head, rubbing at her temple to try and focus her thoughts that were strangely fragmented.
How did I get here? Why can’t I remember anything?
The sound of someone crying gradually permeated her muddled mind and she looked towards the source of the distressed sounds.
Anne felt a surge of relief that she was there too, before it registered that it was Katherine who was the one that was crying, huddled over something on the ground.
Why is she crying? What’s wrong?
Anne’s thoughts and memories were like a million different strands jumbled in her mind, yet she couldn’t seem to grasp even one of them. She stumbled in Katherine’s direction. Even if she couldn’t manage a coherent thought, the primal need to go to Katherine and comfort her was still able to drive Anne on.
Anne called out to her as she got closer but there was no sign of response. Katherine remained crouched on the floor, oblivious to the world around her. Anne could see her shoulders trembling as her wracking sobs reverberated around the clearing, tearing at Anne’s heart. Anne took another step closer and then she saw exactly what it was Katherine was desperately clutching at on the ground.
Anne staggered backwards in horror at the sight of her own face – pale, eyes closed, a small trickle of blood tracking from her lips. In a sudden rush, all her thoughts coalesced once more in her mind and she remembered everything – the spell, Bronwyn, Mark, the vortex, the fight, and…
Anne called out agonisingly to her again, dropping to her knees next to the other woman. Katherine’s eyes remained fixed on the still form in front of her, tears streaming down her dirt-smudged cheeks as her anguish consumed her.
“Katherine, I’m here.”
Anne tried to reach out only to see her fingers pass straight through Katherine’s shoulder. Pulling them back, Anne looked at the digits dazedly. She was reminded of how she had talked to Katherine in the forest, but knew deep down that this was something else entirely.
“She can’t hear you.”
Anne whipped round to see two figures behind her. They were standing silhouetted against the vortex that still seemed to have a lasting remnant in this place where she resided. It was only when they stepped closer to her that she could make out their features. Anne rose slowly to her feet, still at a loss for words by the time they had stopped a few feet from her.
All she could do was stare in bewilderment, her eyes flicking between each face trying to fathom how this was possible. “Mother…father…” she managed to croak, “But you’re…oh my god…” she trailed off for a second as the horrific realisation hit her, “…am I…am I…dead?”
She stared pleadingly at them, begging them to tell her it wasn’t true but her father simply nodded, a sad look on his face. Anne let out a sobbing cry, “No…,” she beseeched.
Her father took a step closer, placing a hand on her shoulder. She looked from it to him, into those eyes she still remembered even after fifteen long years. He hadn’t changed at all, looking exactly the same as he had done the day he died. He was still young, not that much older than Anne herself now, his hair still thick and blond his face still unlined. His blue eyes were regarding her more sorrowfully than they ever had done during her childhood years though.
“I’m afraid it’s true,” he said gently.
“No, no, I can’t be,” said Anne, pushing his hand away. She had dreamed of seeing her parents again so many times, thinking of all the things she would say to them, all the things she would ask them. Of course for a long time those words would have been angry, full of accusation, wondering why they had to leave her, why they had gotten themselves killed. None of those dreams had ever been like this though; this was a nightmare.
She looked back round at Katherine who was still hunched on the ground oblivious to their presence. “I have to go back!” she stated more forcefully, “I have to go back to Katherine – she needs me! I need her!”
She swung back round to the two spirits. “I’m not going with you! You can’t make me!” she said petulantly. She was suddenly reminded of similar words issuing from her mouth many years ago, whenever her parents had tried to convince her of the need to engage in some pagan ritual or other.
“Oh, Anne,” said her mother, joining the conversation at last, “We’re not here to make you do anything. You wouldn’t even have seen us like this normally when you…when you died. But we sensed there was this opportunity to speak to you, this rare chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“The spell that Bronwyn was casting, it was to tear down the boundaries between the realms,” explained her father, “That includes the one with the realm of the dead.”
“But the gateway collapsed, when Bronwyn was cast out,” reasoned Anne, before she glanced over at the shimmering portal again, “Didn’t it?”
“It did in the world of the living, but here it lingers on. That is why you are still here, why we are able to be here. But it won’t be for long, this gateway is fast fading too.”
Suddenly an idea dawned on Anne. “If these boundaries are weakened, maybe I can get back to the land of the living still,” she said eagerly, looking back to her body.
“Anne…” said her father warningly.
She stared fixedly at him, challenging him to deny her. “Well, couldn’t I?”
He sighed slowly. “There is a small chance…”
“I knew it!” cried Anne triumphantly, “How, how do I do it?”
“Anne, please stop and think for a moment,” said her mother, “It’s unnatural to do this which means it’s also fantastically difficult.”
“I don’t care, I have to try.”
“But if you don’t succeed you could be stuck forever between realms, neither living nor dead, an invisible spirit.”
Anne swung round to study Katherine again. She had gone quiet now, merely lying atop Anne’s body. She could almost be asleep if it weren’t for the tears that Anne could still see slipping from her closed eyes. Her heart longed to bridge the gap to her body so she could reach up and slip her arms around Katherine, comfort her, tell her everything was going to be all right.
Her mother’s voice broke her contemplative thoughts. “You don’t belong there anymore,” she said, her voice still soft and gentle, “You can come with us to the other side. We love you, Anne, we’ve never stopped loving you.”
Anne turned round to listen to the words she’d yearned to hear for so long, even in those hate-filled years before she met Katherine.
“We’ve been watching over you all these years,” continued her mother, “Watching you grow up from our little girl into an amazing woman. We’re so proud of you.”
“You are?” Anne’s voice was small, choked with emotion.
“Of course we are,” said her father.
She looked between them again now and she could see that they meant it. “I’m sorry I spent so long hating you…”
“No, don’t apologise,” her father interrupted, “We’re sorry we had to leave you so soon.”
Anne was surprised when he suddenly closed the small distance to her and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. She stood stunned for a moment her arms stiffly by her sides. Then she slowly slid them round his back, relaxing into the warm embrace. Another pair of arms encircled her from behind – it was her mother completing the family. The powerful feeling of unconditional love in those arms was potent and seductive. Anne could almost forget the cares of the world when protected so, but Anne had experienced such love before from another even stronger source and she wasn’t about to forget that no matter how tempting it might be to go with her parents.
She pulled back from them, regarding them seriously. “I have to go back,” she stated, “I can’t leave Katherine, not yet. I love her so much, I wish I could tell you…”
Her mother held up her hand. “We know,” she said in understanding, “We suspected you would choose this way, but we had to try and persuade you otherwise anyway. But only you can decide what’s right in the end, only you will know in your heart what it is you need to do.”
Anne nodded. “I need to go back. Or at least try. I couldn’t bear knowing that there was a chance, however small, and I didn’t at least try it. My heart, my soul, they belong with Katherine – that is where I should be.”
It seemed they weren’t going to try and dissuade her further. “Then that it is where you should go.”
“You’ll tell me how to accomplish it?”
“Yes,” confirmed her father, “Though it will require all your power, all your innate mystical ability.”
“I don’t think you do,” he said cryptically.
Anne looked at him quizzically before he continued. “When I say it will require all your power I mean just that. If you do manage to cross back over you will be like every other normal person. Your special powers, your link to nature, it will be gone.”
Anne swallowed nervously. Though she had bemoaned being different for a long time, she had recently started to explore that special link to the world around her she possessed. Being able to reach out and touch nature, be one with it and harness its immense power was an intoxicating feeling.
She fixed her eyes on her parents once more. “It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for Katherine.”
Katherine didn’t know how long she had been lying, clutching Anne, everything else had ceased to have any kind of meaning to her, including the concept of time. She forced her head up from the young woman’s still chest, sobbing yet again when she saw her closed eyes. She glanced away, unable to bear the sight, only for her eyes to come upon the bloodied dagger that still lay on the ground close by. Katherine stared at it. It was like it was almost taunting her with its garish red stains.
Beyond the dagger she saw that the ground was healed again, like nothing had ever happened. How she wished that was true. Further out she caught a flash of green in what was now moonlight – it was the Stone of Gaia, just sitting there on the grass. Beside it was her sword, both obviously having been disgorged from the chasm as it closed up.
However, she couldn’t stop her eyes tracking back to the closer mocking dagger. She crawled over and snatched it up.
“What do you want?” she screamed at the inanimate object. Of course it didn’t reply, but that didn’t stop Katherine questioning it further in her grief-stricken state.
“Haven’t you had enough blood?” she demanded of it. “What, you want more? You want me to do this?”
She raised the dagger to her own breast, pointing it towards herself in the region of her heart.
“Do you?” she yelled.
Katherine froze where she was, the sharp point of the blade touching her skin through her clothes. She considered that not only was she talking to a dagger, but also that she was now so demented that she was hearing voices.
“Katherine,” came Anne’s voice again.
Katherine dared not look round only to have her hopes dashed when she saw that the young woman was still lying immobile on the ground, still very much dead. Her trembling fingers continued to hold the dagger, wavering dangerously close to her heart. The voice had stopped now, as she knew it would have done once she realised it was all a delusion of her fevered imagination. All she could hear was her own frantic breathing and the blood pounding in her ears as her heart hammered below the dagger’s tip.
Suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder and Katherine dropped the dagger in fright. She spun round to see Anne kneeling in front of her, alive and well.
Katherine’s mouth dropped open in utter astonishment, her mind unable to comprehend what her eyes were telling her. The hairs on the back of her neck were prickling as her eyes tracked slowly up to Anne’s face, up to the pale blue eyes that regarded her not with a vacant stare of death as she might have expected, but with life. They were so full of life and love that Katherine actually gasped out loud. Then Anne smiled and Katherine was undone.
She flung herself at the young woman, clutching onto her body with such ferocity that she actually knocked the pair of them over onto the ground. Anne’s arms wrapped around Katherine too, hauling them up into a sitting position as Katherine buried her head in Anne’s shoulder and cried. She had thought maybe all her tears had been used up, but they came now in fresh unstoppable waves. But these were different tears. These were tears of joy, tears of relief.
Anne held her tightly the whole time, the pounding of her strong heartbeat driving the blood through the vein that sat below Katherine’s ear, its throbbing a source of immeasurable comfort. Katherine wanted to ask how this miracle had happened, but at the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to release her hold, just in case it wasn’t true and she would somehow lose Anne again if she did.
Katherine wanted to savour every single little sensation of the embrace and she suddenly became aware that her hair was starting to dampen as she clung to the young woman. Anne was crying too. In fact she was shaking and trembling as much as Katherine herself. Katherine slowly tore her head away from Anne’s shoulder to gaze up, though she didn’t relinquish her hold of the gloriously warm body.
A million questions rushed through Katherine’s mind, but none of them seemed to matter, all that mattered was that Anne was alive. By some blessed, wonderful miracle she was alive and looking down at Katherine with a smile flickering across her face. Katherine smiled back and Anne let out a little sob.
“How?” asked Katherine, finally finding her voice, though it was hoarse and ragged.
“I’ll tell you later,” replied Anne softly, the tears still tumbling freely down her cheeks.
Katherine reached up to brush them away with her thumb, caressing the skin as she did. Anne’s own fingers closed over Katherine’s hand where it cupped her face. Then slowly she was being drawn forwards, unable to resist the magnetic lure of Anne. Yet she paused before their lips contacted, suddenly hesitant and unsure. Anne’s eyes still held her gaze, unflinching, reassuring.
With aching slowness Katherine closed the remaining distance and gently pressed her lips to Anne’s, having to hold back the urge to gasp, such was her anticipation of the moment. That anticipation couldn’t have prepared her for the astounding rush of emotion that swept through her though, caused just by the delicate connection made by their lips. The tenderness with which Anne’s now so warm, soft lips slid against her own was sending her mind racing, her heart pulsing and her soul flying to a state of euphoria. It was all too much to take in, and Katherine succumbed completely to the intoxicating feeling, letting herself be swept up in the blissful tumult.
Anne’s arms encircled Katherine, pulling her closer as the kiss deepened with their need to reaffirm that all was as it should be.
Once again Katherine found that everything else around her had ceased to have any meaning. This time, though, she didn’t care if the moment stretched on for eternity.
Katherine watched the rays of the sun dappling over the fields from the window of her bedroom at Markham Manor, drinking in the welcome sight of this proof of a glorious new day. It was like the blessed calm after the storm, when the dust settled and you were thankful to be alive, suddenly realising that it was all over and you could start to live your life again.
She and Anne had remained in the clearing in the forest well into the night the previous evening, just holding one another, grateful that they could. Eventually Robin had joined them, ecstatic to see they were both all right. Katherine had to admit to no small sense of satisfaction when he had informed them that he had been successful in his task of dispatching the dark witch’s body before she could regain it. Katherine prayed that it really was the last they would be seeing of Bronwyn.
The three of them had then made it to the nearest village where they were thankful to find that the curse Bronwyn had deployed had dissipated upon her demise. From there they had borrowed some horses, Anne and Katherine returning to Markham and Robin going off to check on his band of outlaws.
Since it was the early hours, Katherine had no problem sneaking Anne into her bedroom via the window. They’d both found it amusing how readily they’d slipped back into the old routine now that Katherine was once again back in her rightful place as head of the Markham estate. Katherine wasn’t sure she would ever be comfortable with Anne going back to the outlaw camp, though, at least not any time soon. She had come so close to losing the young woman forever, that letting her go, even if temporarily, would be a painful wrench. At the same time, she knew she couldn’t wrap Anne up and hide her from the world, just in case something happened to her. That would be a recipe for disaster, with Anne no doubt growing to resent her. Katherine still pondered over whether there was a way to somehow allow Anne to stay round the manor house all the time. She supposed it was just something she would have to work on. For now she was more than happy to revel in the simple pleasure of having Anne with her alive and well.
Suddenly a pair on arms encircled her from behind and Katherine leaned back into the warm embrace as Anne’s chin came to rest on her shoulder.
“What are you doing up?” asked the young woman with friendly chastisement, following Katherine’s gaze out the window.
“Just thinking,” replied Katherine wistfully.
“Pleasant thoughts I hope.”
Katherine turned round in Anne’s arms seeing that the young woman wore just a white shirt the hem of which rested across her thighs. It matched Katherine’s own one. Her eyes swung up to Anne’s face and she couldn’t stop the small frown that creased her features when she saw the four gashes that still marred the skin of Anne’s left cheek. Absently Katherine brushed her fingers over the marks, wishing she could take them back.
Anne caught her hand. “They’ll heal,” she said softly, though what she really meant was that she didn’t hold Katherine responsible. She had told her as much already, but that didn’t stop Katherine’s continuing guilt.
“You had to do it,” Anne added, sensing Katherine’s uncertainty, “We all did things that we’re not proud of these past couple of weeks.”
Katherine could tell that Anne wasn’t purely talking about Katherine’s actions now, though there were plenty of those she rued, not least of which was killing Will. She’d briefly discussed her fight with the outlaw with Anne, who had seemed almost pleased that he was dead. At the same time Anne realised how distressing it was for Katherine to have killed someone and had reassured Katherine by describing some of her own experiences and emotions regarding it. However, they weren’t talking about Katherine now. “What’s bothering you?” Katherine asked the young woman.
Anne stepped away from her, sighing as she walked back over to the bed. Katherine followed her over sitting down by her side. When Anne didn’t say anything further, Katherine reached out to tilt the young woman’s head round with the fingers.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” she pressed gently.
Anne bit her lip, sizing up whether to confess whatever it was. “It’s just I can’t help wondering…wondering if I could have done something more, something more to stop Bronwyn. Something to stop her…killing Mark…”
“Stop right there,” interjected Katherine quickly, “That wasn’t your fault. That was all Bronwyn.”
“Was it though?” asked Anne imploringly, “I stopped her doing other things. And it wasn’t that I was too weak at that point - I stopped her hurting you after that. Why didn’t I stop her when it was his life on the line?”
“Maybe it was just too sudden for you to react?” offered Katherine, “It was rather out of the blue, one minute we were talking, the next…”
Anne shook her head. “Maybe, but there was part of me that still wanted to hurt him, you know,” she admitted, looking down at her hands, “So how do I know that wasn’t partly me, driving the sword in.”
Katherine took Anne’s face in both her hands, fixing her eyes on the young woman. “Of course you still felt some resentment towards him, that’s only natural” she allowed, “But I honestly believe you would never have consciously done anything to hurt him. You could have done that back in August if you’d really wanted to. But you didn’t, you showed him mercy.”
“I suppose…” said Anne doubtfully.
“Anne, I know you’re not going to suddenly stop feeling guilty about this but I want you to know that I don’t blame you in any way for what happened to Mark. It was amazing you managed to resist Bronwyn as much as you did.”
Katherine put her arm round Anne’s shoulders, giving them a reassuring squeeze.
“How about you?” said Anne, seemingly wanting to get off the subject. “How are you feeling after everything?”
Katherine decided to allow Anne the switch in topic, there would be plenty of time to discuss her remaining feelings of guilt, especially now Katherine was aware of them. “I’m fine,” she said, “Dazed, tired, emotional drained, but grateful to be alive and grateful to have you here with me.”
“I’m grateful too,” agreed Anne, “When you were using the stone and I thought I was going to lose you…”
She stopped recounting the painful memory.
“But you didn’t lose me did you,” Katherine reminded her, “And I didn’t lose you either and I would never want to. When I thought you were dead, it was more than I could bear.” Katherine found it hard to speak of it now without her voice cracking.
Katherine’s words appeared to spark a question in Anne’s mind. “When I came back, and you were holding the dagger…” she wondered out loud.
Anne seemed reluctant to continue and voice the question now but did anyway. “Were you…were you going to kill yourself?”
“Honestly?” asked Katherine, to which Anne nodded. “I don’t know,” she confessed, “I was thinking about it, it seemed so pointless to carry on without you…but I don’t know. Lucky for both of us you came back at that moment anyway.”
“You have to promise me you never would do that,” said Anne earnestly, “If something happened to me.”
“Well, nothing’s going to happen to you, because I won’t let it,” insisted Katherine, avoiding answering directly.
“But if it should,” pressed Anne.
“Can we please stop talking about death?”
Anne pinned Katherine in place with her eyes, still waiting for a response to her original request.
“All right!” said Katherine throwing up her hands, “I promise!”
Katherine winced as her hand fell back to the bed, jarring her damaged left arm.
Anne spotted the reaction. “Your arm still hurts?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” said Katherine dismissively. “Unless you want to heal it for me, of course,” she remarked jokingly.
However, it appeared the joke didn’t go down quite as it was intended. A troubled look passed across Anne’s features before she looked down to her hands again.
Concern sparked within Katherine. “What is it?” reaching over to place her hands on top of Anne’s.
“There’s something else I didn’t tell you,” said Anne tentatively.
“Go on,” prompted Katherine warily. She couldn’t help her mind wandering to all sorts of terrible possibilities for what it was Anne wanted to confess, most of them surrounding Bronwyn and Will, none of which she wanted to give any credence to.
“It’s my powers,” continued Anne, “They’re gone.”
Katherine had to gather her jumbled thoughts for a moment. This wasn’t one of the things she had been envisioning. “Gone?” she repeated dumbly.
“Yes, gone. I had to use them up, sacrifice them in order to cross back from the other side.”
“Oh, Anne, I had no idea,” said Katherine sympathetically, her brow creasing in pity. Anne had told her of the encounter with her parents on the other side, but she had omitted the details of exactly how she had got back. She didn’t think Anne herself really knew.
“It’s all right, I was never that keen on them anyway,” said Anne with a shrug, “I was happy to give them up if it meant I could be with you.”
A tiny half-smile flickered at Katherine’s face, just twitching at the corners of her lips. Though Anne was trying to dismiss it as nothing, she knew that in reality it was much more than that – what a gift having those powers had been. To know Anne would give that up for her filled her with such a great sense of being loved that she thought her heart might burst out of her chest it was swelling so.
“Anyway, how about we forget about what we’ve lost and celebrate what we have?” suggested Anne, trying to lighten the tone.
“Good idea,” agreed Katherine, getting up from the bed and crossing to the desk, “And I have just the thing.”
She twirled round holding a bottle and two tankards, bringing them back with her.
“What is that?” asked Anne warily, raising her eyebrows at the green bottle.
“I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth,” said Katherine, removing the stopper with a loud pop. “I got it from Pierre. You remember, the French Ambassador.”
“How could I forget?” replied Anne with a faint air of disapproval.
Katherine reached out and briefly stroked Anne’s undamaged cheek. “Now, now, don’t get all jealous on me again, darling” she said with a smile, “Anyway, he said that it was for special occasions, and I think this qualifies.”
She poured some of the golden liquid into the two cups that Anne held out for her, the drink fizzing audibly as it hit the bottom.
Katherine carefully placed the bottle on the floor, taking her cup back from Anne. “Now what was it called,” she tried to remember, “Ah yes, ‘champagne’ I believe it was.”
Anne sniffed suspiciously at her cup, drawing back suddenly when a bubble went up her nose. Katherine burst out laughing at the shocked expression.
Anne’s brow furrowed. “I’m not convinced I’m going to like this ‘champagne’. Are you sure it’s meant to fizz like that?”
“No, but why don’t we give it a whirl?” said Katherine, holding up her cup. “Since I can tell you’re dying to try it, I’ll keep the toast short and just say - to us!”
Anne clinked her cup to Katherine’s, tilting her head to the side as she repeated the toast. “To us!”
They drank in unison. Katherine found the fizzy drink was surprisingly dry when compared to ale or local wines, but not unpleasant. She took another swig to taste it again. In fact it was rather delightful she decided with a smile. She peered over her cup to see how Anne was finding it. Her brow was still furrowed, staring down at her mug in disgust. Katherine almost spat her current mouthful over the bed as she fought back another laugh.
Anne’s eyes flicked up at Katherine’s coughing and spluttering when the champagne disappeared down the wrong way. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” replied Katherine hoarsely. She took a moment to clear her throat properly. “What did you think?”
Anne considered her answer. “It was acceptable.”
Katherine laughed again, since it was obvious Anne had actually hated it. She put her cup down next to the bottle and slid back along the bed to rest against the propped up pillows. Anne sidled up to join her, snuggling up to her side, her head resting on Katherine’s chest.
Katherine absently stroked her fingers through the strands of Anne’s golden hair, just enjoying being able to take the time to do it. With all the recent reminders, Katherine found her mind wandering to everything that had happened since she had met the young woman.
“Well, it’s been some year,” she remarked as her thoughts drifted, “If someone had told me at the start of this year all the things that would happen to me, I would have thought them mad! Being chased round haunted castles, getting shot, stabbed and throttled, visiting spirit realms, nearly getting married, losing my manor, getting my manor back again…it’s certainly been eventful!”
“It certainly has been that,” agreed Anne, her breath warming Katherine’s right breast.
“But you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing, because this year has also brought me something infinitely precious and unexpected.”
Anne lifted her head to glance up at her and Katherine met the gaze with a look of pure, unadulterated love. Having nearly lost Anne, she realised she needed to tell her these things now.
“I love you, Anne,” she said as if that weren’t obvious enough, “And any trials or tribulations I might have had to endure have been worth it to have you in my life. I don’t think I could have survived everything without your support and devotion, which I cherish beyond measure.”
“And I love you too, Katherine,” replied Anne immediately and with such conviction that Katherine knew it was absolutely true, “With all that I am. When I look back to how I was at the start of this year, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come, and it’s all down to you. I want to thank you for loving me and believing in me, even when perhaps I didn’t believe in myself. You’ve brought me alive, helped me explore myself and my feelings.”
Katherine had to blink away a couple of tears at the heartfelt words. “Look, you’ve got me crying again,” she said with friendly admonishment, “It seems to have been all I’ve been doing for the past day!”
“Maybe I should try something to put a smile on your face instead?”
Anne crawled up the bed, lowering herself down next to Katherine. Katherine’s body was already tingling just contemplating what it was Anne was intending. Anne’s fingers brushed beguilingly through Katherine’s hair, ending up at the nape of her neck so she could draw her close. The hotness of Anne’s breath was fluttering seductively out over Katherine’s lips now, sending a matching heat to Katherine’s very core.
Katherine closed her eyes as the kiss came, so much slower than the feverish ones of the night before, both of them able to luxuriate into it, safe in the knowledge that neither of them was going anywhere.
After an indeterminable time, consumed by the heavenly embrace, Katherine leant back from Anne for a moment, propping herself up on her elbow. “Can I just ask one thing?” she pondered, trailing her left hand across Anne’s stomach.
“Mmm?” murmured Anne in response, turning her face to look at Katherine, her pale blue eyes soft in the dimly lit room.
“Can we perhaps try to have a quieter time of it from now on?”
Anne tipped back her head and laughed. The warm sound lifted Katherine’s heart even more, though she had thought that was scarcely possible. “I don’t know about that,” noted Anne, “Trouble seems to have a habit of following you around.”
“Me?” asked Katherine, her eyes widening, “What about you?”
“My life was perfectly quiet and normal before I met you,” remarked Anne innocently.
Katherine narrowed her eyes. “Now, I know you’re lying.”
Anne’s cheeky expression that met her words was too much, and Katherine dove playfully on her. The pair of them rolled back and forth on the covers for a moment as each tried to get the upper hand. Somehow Katherine found that she had managed to lose her shirt by the time they came to rest once more. She was now on top of Anne, pinning the young woman’s hands to the bed by her head.
“Actually I do have one more question,” noted Katherine as she gazed wantonly down on Anne, who was also now in a state of undress.
Anne’s left eyebrow quirked up, wrinkling the small scar above it that was a constant reminder of the very first time they had been in each other’s arms like this, nearly seven months previously. “Are you really sure you want to ask more questions now?”
Katherine studied the woman beneath her for a moment, her eyes travelling across the smooth flesh of Anne’s chest before they came up to her eyes. “I don’t know, seems like the perfect moment to me,” she replied with a sly grin, “While I have you here at my mercy.”
“If I answer it, will this be the last one?” asked Anne hopefully.
Katherine let out a small laugh. “Yes, just this one more question.”
“All right,” agreed Anne, “Then fire away.”
“Well, since I’ve been entirely hopeless at guessing the reason…can you please put me out of my misery and tell me why your nickname is Seven?”
Anne laughed again. Then seeing Katherine’s expectant expression she broke into a burst of giggles, seemingly unable to stop herself. Katherine maintained an even, intense gaze releasing her hold on Anne’s arms so she could fold her own ones across her chest. However, it was taking all her willpower not to break out into laughter too in the face of Anne’s merriment. She was determined to get her answer, though.
Finally Anne’s laughs subsided. “All right, all right, far be it for me to prolong your agony.”
Anne reached up, wrapped her hands round Katherine’s neck and pulled her down to her. The young woman’s breath was hot, whispering out past Katherine’s ear as she gave her explanation. Katherine listened intently, while trying to ignore the pleasantly distracting feeling of Anne’s breasts pressing into hers. Once Anne had finished she waited where she was for a moment, eventually pulling back, an incredulous expression on her face.
“Yes,” confirmed Anne nonchalantly.
“You let me stew these past months for that?”
Anne smiled, “It was so much fun watching you stew, though.”
“Right,” said Katherine, shaking her head, “You’re for it!”
As they collapsed back onto the bedcovers, Katherine thought that there was absolutely nowhere in the world she would rather be at that moment and no one she would rather be with.
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