The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 20

Lady Katherine And The Ares Weapon

By Sazzy





uber J/7

Rating :



August 1192, Nottinghamshire, England




As always to MercyCroft, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :)


I’d like to dedicate one particular scene to KathieGOTaGUN and her wonderful medieval manipulations of Janeway and Seven – hopefully you’ll know which one it is when you get there, KGG (we talked about including this thing on the V-C message board ;) ).  Plus thanks to zandarl for the crags! ;)


And finally thanks also to all of you who’ve come on this journey with me – hopefully it’s been worth it!



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.




Anne steeled herself as she saw the fist coming, but still it couldn’t take away the pain as it cracked across her jaw.   A metallic taste pooled in her mouth and she had to spit onto the floor of the dungeon cell.  The mixture of blood and saliva mingled with the other grime caked on the stone, the remnants of a hundred other such incarcerations.


“This would be so much easier if you gave me what I wanted.”


Anne craned her head up from where she was shackled to the wall, dangling half off it.  The Sheriff of Nottingham stood in front of her, rubbing his knuckles in readiness. 


“You haven’t actually asked me anything yet,” she pointed out with defiance.


“Ah yes, how remiss of me, I completely forgot.”  Another blow caught her on the side of the head this time, making her ears ring.


Anne wondered if he was actually going to bother with any questions, or whether he was just going to take glee in beating her to a pulp.  She knew he was capable of it.  He’d had a go the last time she’d been there.  Perhaps he didn’t need to ask her anything, perhaps he already knew everything if he was in league with Robert and the Syndicate.  She wasn’t sure either way yet.  She’d seen no obvious sign of a tattoo on him, but it could have been hidden.


“I suppose I ought to ask you about your merry band of outlaws,” noted the Sheriff before smacking her across the temple without asking anything.


Her head fell downwards and she focussed on the pendant dangling down before her eyes, swinging from the chain round her neck.  As she watched the blue crystal of Katherine’s pendant, Anne found her mind starting wandering as she tried to distance herself from the pain.  She thought it was funny how things came around.  It had all started here at the castle the previous spring.  Little could she have known when Robin sent her on that mission to recover the Stone of Gaia how her life would change forever.  It had seemed like a simple proposition – sneak in, locate the stone in some ignorant noble’s quarters and get out.  That was before she’d been disturbed during that very search.  As soon as she’d seen Katherine across that bedroom she’d known.  It was the eyes, always the power of the eyes.


Another punch brought her starkly back to the present.  “I guess I shouldn’t damage you too badly,” said the Sheriff taking a step back to view his vindictive handiwork, “Lord Robert claims you’re needed for some trial or something.  So I suppose we don’t want any obvious scars for now.”  He tracked a finger over her left eyebrow.  “I see you still have the one from last time though.”


Anne flinched away, took a deep breath and spat a great mucous glob of blood onto the front of his tunic.  She got another resounding blow to the gut for her trouble.  She was saved from further punishment by a knock on the cell door.  A guard entered and spoke to the Sheriff in hushed tones, too quiet for Anne to hear.  Eventually the guard left and the Sheriff came back to face her. 


“It must be your lucky evening, I have a new guest to greet and other plans to attend to.”


Anne watched him slamming and locking the door before finally allowing her head to loll forwards, no longer having the energy to hold it up.  As she hung there, she could only pray she hadn’t damned them all by her earlier actions.  She should have destroyed the crown.  That would have been the logical, sensible choice.  Yet logic hadn’t been foremost on her mind.  She just wasn’t willing to sacrifice Katherine to save countless others.  They didn’t matter to her, Katherine mattered to her. 


Where was Katherine now though?  What had Robert done with her? 


She pulled futilely at the chains letting out a cry of anguish and rage.  The harsh metal dug into her wrists, unyielding.  Eventually she gave up.  She could only hope there would be another opportunity to escape, find Katherine and stop Robert before he got the other crown from the Prince and quite possibly destroyed them all.  Those thoughts echoed through her head through the long night.






Katherine took each step on the stone stairs slowly.  She was hardly going to rush to her death after all.  Behind her the guard was getting annoyed by her stalling and gave her a prod in the back.  She made a show of stopping to glower at him, dragging things out further.  She was hoping against hope that the longer she took the more opportunity she would have to think of a way out of this.  Little else had occupied her thoughts through the night she’d spent locked in a cell in the castle dungeons.  Worse was she didn’t even know if Anne was alive, though something intangible told her she was.


Her deliberations had yielded nothing so far.  The odds were ridiculously against them since the Sheriff was seemingly in league with Robert and the Syndicate.  Whether he really knew of Robert’s true ambitions she was unsure, but it didn’t really matter - either way he was on the other side. 


As they reached the top of the stairwell, Katherine caught a glimpse of daylight outside.  It was another gorgeous summer’s day, not a day you wanted to die.  Then again was there ever a good day to die?  She had little doubt that was the fate awaiting her in the great hall of the castle.  She was a noble who had broken the law of the land and they were going to make an example of her.  That was if Robert didn’t unleash whatever the weapon was first.  She realised she still didn’t even know what the weapon did.  A crown certainly didn’t seem particularly menacing, yet her father had been adamant it held a terrible power in his letter to her. 


“Stop bloody dawdling, will you!”  The guard gave her another poke with the butt of his pike.  “They’re all waiting for you after all, m’lady.”  He gave a nasty leer as he said her title as if she was hardly deserving of it.


Yet she did still possess it for now and she resolved she was going to hold her head up high as was befitting of it.  At least her standing had afforded her the grace of walking unchained to her doom, or maybe they just assumed she was incapable of escaping given the large numbers of guards.  Two of them were on the doors to the hall and they pulled them open theatrically as she approached.


She heard the hubbub of voices from inside before she saw the people.  It sounded like she had drawn quite the macabre crowd.  Taking a deep breath she proceeded inside flanked by her escort.  The room immediately hushed, all eyes turning towards her.  Katherine met each set of them in turn as she walked down the centre of the room to the raised dais at the front.  A few of them were familiar to her, people she had thought friends or at least counterparts at one time or another.  Obviously the prospect of being incriminated by association quickly changed some peoples’ allegiances.


Halfway down the aisle one of the watchers broke from the ranks of the crowd.  Katherine thought she remembered him from one of her visits to Nottingham.  He took one disgusted look at her and then launched a blob of spit in her direction.  She flinched for a second as it hit her in the face.


“You’re disgusting!  You’ve brought shame to us all!”


Katherine simply reached up and silently wiped the saliva from her cheek.  She was determined to remain dignified to the end, and show she was better than the baying crowd.  Behind the man she could see Lord and Lady Chesterfield were there to gloat.  Lady Saskia met her eye, the look of smug satisfaction on her face confirming to Katherine that it was the two nobles who had betrayed her to the Sheriff.  Katherine held the other woman’s gaze defiantly until the guard shoved her back on her way.


Coming closer to the front, she could see there was a large stone chopping block off to the right with an executioner leering at her from next to it.  He gave a happy grin that belied his task.  It seemed she was to get a noble’s death too, rather than the more common hanging.  She hoped the blade was sharp.


In the centre sat the Sheriff, lording it over everyone from his grandly decorated chair.  Behind him sat a few other powerful nobles, including Robert.  There was no sign of the Prince yet.  Finally Katherine was able to see the left end of the raised platform.  Her heart skipped a beat.  Anne was there.  She was alive. 


For a moment she forgot what she was there for, the feeling of relief was so palpable.  Anne was with the other members of Katherine’s group – Tobias, Beatrice and the friar – all of them surrounded by guards.  On closer inspection, Katherine could see a small split in Anne’s lip, evidence of the Sheriff’s treatment.  What other injuries were there that weren’t visible?  Katherine felt a surge of anger at the thought, but kept her expression even as she continued her ponderous procession towards judgement.  Anne’s eyes were fixed on her from across the room.  Katherine was transfixed in return, unable to look away.  It was only a few seconds, but she felt the pain in her heart, raw and overwhelming as the reality of the situation hit her.  Surely it couldn’t end like this? She knew she was in danger of losing her determined composure and had to look away. 


There was a tug on her shoulder.  She realised the guard was directing her to stop short of the platform in a clear space at the front of the room where everyone could see her.  She was on display to all, the shamed noble.   A blast sounded from a trumpet and suddenly everyone was bowing.  Prince John might only have been standing in for his absent cousin, Richard, but he was still afforded all the respect the real king would receive.


He entered from a side door, taking a few steps up onto the platform.  Katherine risked an upwards glance to see what Robert was doing.  For now he maintained his position behind the Sheriff.  She wondered if she could vault up onto the stage and stop him should he try something.  The Prince passed by the treacherous lord, completely oblivious to the imminent danger, and took up a second seat next to the Sheriff.


He gave a small nod to the Sheriff as if he couldn’t be bothered with speaking.  Katherine had only ever seen the Prince from afar before, but she’d heard plenty of stories about his cruel nature.  She didn’t expect to get much of a hearing from him.  The Sheriff instructed one of his men forward to read the charges to all present.


“Lady Katherine of Markham is hereby charged with crimes against the King and Church.  Specifically that she did knowingly consort with outlaws, aiding them in the execution of their crimes and hiding them from capture…”


The man paused as if the next crime was too heinous to even speak out loud.


“…and also that she did engage in an unnatural relationship with another woman.”


There were some gasps from behind her.  Katherine could hardly believe the hypocrisy.  Most of them would have done far worse in their time.  Her only real crime was loving someone.


The Prince looked down his nose at her.  “Do you have anything to say in your defence?”


Katherine glanced behind him.  Was Robert going to make his move or was he going to wait until she’d been executed?  She didn’t exactly have much to lose either way.


“As a matter of fact I do.”


There were some more gasps from the audience.  The done thing was to say “no” and proceed quietly to your fate, but then Katherine had never been one for convention.  She locked eyes with Robert.  She thought she could see a nervous bead of sweat tracking from his dark hairline.


“But first I need to warn you about him.”  Katherine pointed an accusing finger at Robert.  Whatever he had been expecting, this wasn’t it.  He looked panicked. 


Suddenly he leapt to his feet.  Katherine started forwards too, her guard too shocked by the turn in events to stop her.   Everything seemed to be running in slow motion as she flung herself bodily up onto the stage.  Robert was reaching for a stunned looking Prince.  Katherine could see the glint of the Ares crown in his other hand.  She wasn’t going to make it in time.  Robert wrenched the Prince’s crown from his head amid shouts of disbelief from the other nobles on the platform.  He inserted it into his one, which moulded magically around it to fit.  He had time to give her a quick triumphant look before he placed them both on his head.  All the air in the room seemed to be sucked inwards towards him before blasting out in a great wave.  Katherine was knocked straight off her feet and everything went black.






The faint tickle of something against her cheek greeted Katherine as she stirred into consciousness.  Opening her eyes she found herself staring up at the sky from a prone position.  It was perhaps the bluest sky she had ever seen with not a cloud in sight.  Obviously she wasn’t in Nottingham Castle anymore.  Sitting up she discovered she was in fact in a grassy field.  Is this what Robert’s weapon did, she wondered, transported people elsewhere?  


Katherine was alone though, and as she studied her surroundings she couldn’t discern anything familiar about the landscape.  In fact she couldn’t discern much at all and that was what was so unnerving about it.  There weren’t any buildings or other signs of human life.  All she could see was the grassy field stretching out to where it was bounded by rolling hills.  It was quiet too, eerily so.  There was no bird song, no chirrup of crickets in the long grass. 


Supposing she wasn’t going to find out more sitting on her bottom, she got up and brushed herself down.  Her hand stopped in surprise halfway down the thighs of her trousers.  She hadn’t been wearing trousers in the hall at the castle.  Her top was different too, a loose summer shirt open at the neck rather the constrictive dress.


What the hell was going on? What sort of weapon dumped you in a field in a change of clothes?


Shaking her head in confusion she picked a direction and started walking, brushing through the grass that reached her knees.  It was hot under the clear sky.  Katherine guessed it was near midday if the height of the sun was anything to go by and she hoped the hills up ahead would yield a source of water as her mouth became increasingly dry.  Eventually the monotony of the walk was broken by a repetitive thumping sound.   Katherine turned to see there was a rider on a horse charging over the plain towards her.  They were a good distance off yet and she couldn’t make out who it was.


She stood where she was, waiting for them to reach her, hoping the rider might be able to shed some light on her location and possibly give her a ride to civilisation.  As they got closer though she started to feel uneasy.  For some reason she had the urge to turn and flee.  It was ridiculous, she told herself, but the feeling became more and more intense until her instincts were screaming at her – run!


She could ignore it no longer.  Katherine started running away from the rider, crashing through the grass frantically not really knowing why, only that she should.  Behind her she could picture the rider getting closer and closer but she didn’t look back.  An arrow thumped into the ground close to her dashing feet and she knew she had made the right choice.


The shelter of the hills seemed to still be achingly far away and not getting much closer.  Katherine’s lungs were burning now as a second arrow sailed past, close to her head.  Then finally she was there, gratefully ducking between the trees on the lower slopes.  Hiding behind one she risked a peek to see where the horseman was.  Her head was almost knocked from her body as he came crashing past.  Spinning away she beat an urgent path through the trees, taking a zig-zag course to try and put him off.


Who was he? Why was he chasing her?


Katherine ducked under some low branches and finally saw her chance up ahead.  Quickly shinning up the next tree she thanked her wayward youth which had been spent as much out in the fields as learning ladylike occupations at the manor house.  She thought it ironic that a good deal of those idle days had been spent in Robert’s company.  Safely enconsed up the tree, Katherine pulled back one of the branches and held it taut, listening to the sound of the horseman thundering closer.  Closer, closer.  Katherine let go.  The branch snapped back into position, catching the rider in the midriff and catapulting him from his horse.  Amazingly Katherine could see him quickly getting to his feet.  Now he was off the horse she could see he wore a hood to cover his face, leaving her none the wiser as to who he was or why he was after her.  Either way his intent was clear.  Katherine’s eyes fell on the man’s bow which had landed close to her and she snatched it up.  Meanwhile he was drawing a sword and running at her. 


An arrow, I need an arrow!


Katherine scanned the woodland floor, but there weren’t any to be seen.  She could sense him almost upon her.  Then she felt it.  There was an arrow and it was already between her fingers, notched in the bow.  Katherine stared down at her hands, unable to comprehend how it had appeared out of thin air. 


Was it a dream?


Yet it seemed too vivid to be one, dreams were normally much more fragmented and nebulous.  The sound of pounding feet told her she had no time to deliberate it now.  She quickly raised the bow, not having time to aim before she fired.  The man was so close the force of the arrow impacting his chest lifted him right up off his feet before he crashed down on his back.  Katherine took a fortifying gulp of air, closing her eyes for the briefest of moments. Only when she opened them he was gone.  She swung round on the spot but there was no sign of him or his horse for that matter.  It was impossible.  She knew there was no way he could have got up and run away in that fraction of a second.  As improbable as it seemed he had simply vanished as if he’d never been there.  Katherine rubbed at her head in confusion. 


What was going on?


Clothes that changed by themselves, arrows that miraculously appeared just when they were needed, mysterious attackers that disappeared into the ether when downed.  Those sort of things just didn’t happen, not in the real world.  It hit her like a smacking blow to the temple.


This wasn’t the real world!


She remembered now - she had been here before, a place where the laws of the world could be bent to your will if you were mentally strong enough.  It was the spirit realm.





It took Anne a moment to get her bearings as she came to.  She was lying on the floor and as she pushed herself up she saw she wasn’t the only one.  All around her the other occupants of the room were lying strewn haphazardly where they had fallen arms and legs at odd angles.  Her heart lurched as she spotted Katherine lying along from her on the platform.  She leapt up, vaulting over the bodies of the others on the way to her.  As she reached Katherine she was relieved to see the telltale sign of her chest rising and falling with each breath.


“Katherine?”  Anne gently shook the other woman’s shoulder but she didn’t wake.  “Katherine.”   She tried again, a bit louder this time, though she was wary of waking anyone else in the room too knowing it could be the perfect chance to escape.  There was still no response from the other woman though.  Fearing she would get none no matter how loud she shouted, she threw caution to the wind.  “Katherine!”  Her shout echoed round the otherwise quiet room.  No one stirred; they were all out cold. She wondered what had Robert done to them and why wasn’t she affected.


Looking for him, Anne saw he was sitting where he had been prior to the melee.  Both crowns were on his head and his eyes were closed.  Whatever had happened to everyone else appeared to be affecting him too.  She wondered if that was intentional.  Either way it gave her the perfect opportunity.  Assuming the crowns had caused whatever was afflicting everyone, then it stood to reason that getting them off him may undo it.


Anne reached over and drew the sword from the scabbard of one of the unconscious guards.  Striding towards Robert she raised it up, point first, aiming for his heart.  She was determined there would be no more second chances, no more mistakes.  Katherine could tell her off for killing a defenceless person later, for now he just needed to be stopped, for good.  Taking the last couple of steps at a run she was unprepared when the blade hit something hard before getting anywhere near Robert.  The sword catapulted from her hand, clattering noisily to the stone floor as she staggered back a couple of paces.


More slowly this time Anne reached out in his direction.  Her hand hit an invisible barrier halfway there.  She placed her hand flat on it, tracing over the surface which appeared to extend all around Robert like a defensive cocoon. 


What sort of magic was this?


A thought nagged at the back of her mind - she had seen such wizardry before.  Bronwyn had produced such a barrier in the spirit realm.  Anne ran back over to Katherine, kneeling down and gently lifting up one of her eyelids.  Katherine’s blue-grey eye stared vacantly up at the ceiling. 


Could they really all be on the spirit plane?


She supposed it might explain why she appeared to be the only one unaffected.  Yet she wondered what Robert hoped to accomplish by taking them all there and more importantly what he was doing to them there.  At least Anne knew Katherine must still be all right as any injury suffered there would have manifested itself on her real body.  Supposing there was only one way to find out if her supposition was correct, Anne sat down next to Katherine and tried to clear her mind.





Katherine wasn’t really sure where she was going.  She had only been on the spirit plane once before and on that occasion she’d had Anne’s help returning to the physical world.  On her own she had no idea how she was supposed to accomplish it.  Perhaps that was the point, she contemplated, maybe Robert’s weapon was supposed to strand her there.  If she was there, though, then maybe others from the hall were there too, including Anne.  If she could find the young woman and avoid getting skewered by malevolent riders in the process, then maybe she had a chance.


Katherine reached the top of the hill, hoping she might find some shining light of understanding up there, but all that stretched out before her was more green landscape without a building in sight.  She noted that the wind seemed to be picking up, the first time she’d sensed any kind of shift in the weather.  Up above a few clouds were starting to mar the perfect sky.  A movement in her peripheral vision caught her eye and she looked down to try and catch what it was.  For a moment she couldn’t see anything, the only thing of note nearby being a fallen tree trunk. Then she spotted the small object sat upon it.  She knelt down and tentatively reached out a hand to the small creature.


“Hello there,” she said, not really sure why she was talking to the lizard-like thing, only that it seemed the right thing to do.  It was the first sign of life she’d seen apart from the murderous horseman and she had to wonder if she’d actually conjured it out of her mind since this was the spirit plane.  Perhaps it was meant to tell her something, guide her in some way.


However, the animal seemed rather dozy and she wondered for a moment if it was actually alive.  She moved her hand closer to poke it and it fell off the log and plopped down onto the grass, four feet stiffly up in the air.  Obviously it wasn’t going to be telling her much.  The moment was broken by a scream from further down the hill.  Katherine immediately stood up and spotted another hooded rider darting through the trees.  A second figure broke from the treeline, tripped and started tumbling down the slope obviously fleeing the horseman.


The woman’s dress became snagged on some brambles as she tried to get up.  At the same time the rider had now emerged into the open and was bearing down on her.  Katherine raised the bow she still carried and willed for another arrow to appear.  It wasn’t forthcoming and the rider was getting ever closer to his target.  Katherine scrunched her eyes shut as if that would somehow help her focus on producing an arrow.  Sweat started to break out on her forehead at the effort.  Finally she felt something against her hands.  Opening her eyes, she had the briefest of moments to sight the rider before releasing the arrow.  Luckily her quick aim was true and it thumped into his side.  He made no sound as he toppled from his horse and went spiralling down the hillside.  This time Katherine kept her eyes on him, strangely relieved to see that he did indeed simply vanish.  At least she knew she wasn’t shooting real people.


The other woman was still tugging to free her dress as Katherine came down the slope to meet her.   “Thank you for…”  The woman stopped speaking as soon as her eyes came up.


Katherine had to glance over her shoulder, thinking maybe there was another rider approaching, but there was nothing behind her.  Turning back to the woman she could see it was she herself that had caused the woman’s surprise.  “Is something the matter?” asked Katherine.


“No, no,” the woman insisted, recovering quickly from whatever had vexed her, “I am fine,” she added in a soft French accent.


The woman avoided making eye contact and her odd behaviour perplexed Katherine enough to get her thinking.  She studied the woman’s elfin features, trying to place her.  “You know I don’t remember seeing you in the hall when Robert did whatever he did, and your accent…”  As soon as she had mentioned it out loud the realisation crept up on her.  “You’re Axia.”


The woman stopped her shifty evasion and met Katherine’s eyes.  “And you are Katherine.”  Katherine didn’t think she’d ever heard her name said with such an edge of distaste.  “I suppose we have you to thank for what is happening here?”


Katherine didn’t often take an instant dislike to someone, but for Axia she decided she would make an exception.  She didn’t bother answering the snide question, instead replying with one of her own.  “And what are you doing here?  Hoping to invade Anne’s thoughts again?”


“I sensed a disturbance on the spirit plane and came here, only now it seems I can’t leave.”


More’s the pity, thought Katherine.  “Well, it wasn’t me who caused the ‘disturbance’,” she explained, “You have Lord Robert of Stratford to thank for that.”


“A friend of yours?” asked Axia pointedly.




Axia gave a gallic scoff.  “You are all the same, you flat minds, all interested in how you can exploit something.  Only it seems your friend doesn’t quite know what he’s let himself in for.”


“He’s not my friend,” re-iterated Katherine, “And what do you mean about Robert?”


“He thinks he can control this place, control the Domnu, the riders you have seen.  But he will fail.”


“He’s here?”


“Yes, but his grip on this place is tenuous.  The madness will consume him sooner or later,” said Axia gravely, “We must find your friend and destroy his totem.”


“For the last time, he’s not my friend,” said Katherine angrily, “And by his totem I presume you mean the Ares crown.”


“Is that its form?  Then yes I mean that…”


Axia trailed off, eyes suddenly darting around.  Katherine followed her anxious look but couldn’t see anything.


“What is it?”


Axia closed her eyes as if trying to sense something.  “A disturbance…” she said vaguely.  “It’s nothing,” she suddenly added opening her eyes again.


For some reason Katherine didn’t believe her.  Meanwhile Axia was moving off already.  “Are you coming to stop your friend then?” 


Katherine bit her lip to stop from having to correct Axia yet again.  She knew the other woman was doing it deliberately to goad her.  “Let’s go.”





As soon as Anne opened her eyes it hit her – a sharp stabbing pain jabbing at her temples.  She had to hold her head in her hands for a moment, trying to force it away. 


What had Robert done to the spirit plane? 


Normally it was a place of quiet and calm away from the real world, but today Anne felt on edge, agitated by something indefinable.  Eventually the pain in her head subsided and she was able to take time to look around.  Anne had been hoping she might appear close to Katherine since she had been focussing on the other woman back in the real world, but it appeared whatever Robert had done had corrupted the normal laws of the plane.  She was alone.


The wind whipped across the field she had appeared in, ruffling at the grass around her feet and picking at her blonde hair.  She peeled it away from her face and tried to secure it back into the ponytail at the back of her head.  For the first time she realised her whole appearance was different.  Gone was the maid’s dress she had been wearing back in the castle.  It had been replaced by her more normal outfit of black trousers and shirt.  She supposed her form on the spirit plane was just a projection of her consciousness and this was obviously the way she wanted to project herself, the way she was most comfortable.


Thinking she may be able to locate Katherine using the fabric of the plane itself, she closed her eyes for a moment and tried to tune in to the rhythms of the place.  She winced at the discordant clamour that filled her mind.  Obviously she was going to have to do things the old fashioned way.  Above the general confusion, she had sensed an overriding imbalance in one particular direction and she chose that as the way to go.


She hadn’t gone far when the sound of a commotion filtered to her on the breeze.  Quickening her pace into a run, she crested a hill to find the unexpected source.  Below her in a small valley were two people being chased by third on horseback.  She immediately recognised the fleeing couple as Lord and Lady Chesterfield and actually found herself hanging back.  Should she really go to the aid of the evil couple?  Not only had they nearly killed her back in Chesterfield but also they had subsequently cost Katherine her estate and nearly her life. 


While she deliberated the horse rider was intent on his quarry.  A long spear glinted in the sunlight just before it pierced the chest of the lord.  Lady Saskia screamed as the hooded rider pulled it back out, allowing her husband’s body to flop to the ground.  The grass was quickly stained red from the blood oozing from the gaping wound while his eyes glazed over.  Saskia just stood there staring in horror, oblivious to the hooves of the horse kicking up dirt as it swung round to make a fresh charge at her instead.  Eventually she seemed to realise she was now the focus of the rider’s murderous intent.  She gave one terrified look and started running.  The rider let her go for a moment as if he knew there was no way she could escape before urging his horse into a gallop.


Anne sighed and supposed she couldn’t just stand by and watch.  As she started running down the slope she thought that this was all Katherine’s fault – she probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to allowing Saskia to be impaled by the horseman before she’d met the other woman.  She only hoped she was timing her sprint down the hill right as the horse approached at speed from her left.


Getting within range she launched herself from her higher position and cannoned bodily into the rider.  They were both propelled from the horse, landing in a sprawling heap on the turf.   Anne was quickly up on her feet, just in time to dodge a lunge from the rider.  The blade of a dagger glinted in the sunlight.   She leapt back from his next attack and caught hold of his arm, attempting to wrest the weapon from his hand.  They tussled for a few seconds until she managed to force the dagger round and into his gut.  He made no sound as it bit into him.  Suddenly he vanished, leaving Anne standing there with a dagger skewering thin air.


Anne supposed he was some sort of manifestation of the spirit realm, and turned her attention instead to Lady Saskia who was heading her way dusting herself down.


“Oh, it’s you.”


Lady Saskia couldn’t have sounded more affronted if it had been a pox-ridden, flea-infested latrine cleaner who had rescued her.  Not that Anne had been expecting much, but a thank you might not have gone amiss.


“You’re welcome,” she said to highlight the lack of one.


Saskia was ignoring her though, more intent on making her way back to her fallen husband’s body.  She knelt down for a moment to close his eyes, but seemed surprisingly calm given her initial hysterical reaction.  Anne remained at a discrete distance.  Eventually Saskia stood up, any emotion she might have been feeling gone from her face.


“So do you know where we are?”


“It’s what’s known as the spirit realm,” answered Anne, “It’s like another world where your mind exists separate from your body.”


“So it’s not real?” 


“Not exactly,” said Anne.  She could see Saskia glancing down at her husband.  “But I’m afraid anything that happens to you here is reflected in the real world,” Anne added. 


“You mean he’ll be dead there too,” stated Saskia bluntly. 


And Anne thought she was one not to beat around the bush.  Given the lack of emotion from the other woman she had no problem answering equally starkly. “Yes.”


Saskia shook her head.  “This is to do with Robert and his silly weapon isn’t it, I told Arthur we shouldn’t have gotten involved with those Ares people.  Still I suppose you should be happy, since it saved your darling Katherine’s neck for now at least.  I was hoping the Sheriff might have handed her over to us for punishment, given that she committed crimes on our land.”


Anne could just imagine what sort of perverted ‘punishment’ Saskia might come up with if their last trip to the Chesterfield estate was anything to go by.  She decided not to dwell on the point.


“Do you know any more details on Robert’s weapon and what it does?” she asked, supposing she may as well try for what information she could.


“That’s Lord Robert to you,” noted Saskia haughtily, “And what makes you think I would tell you of all people if I did?”


“Because if we don’t stop him, you might be stuck here forever,” she pointed out. 


“In that case I can find him on my own and get him to send me back.”


Against her better judgement Anne found herself challenging that idea.  “It might be better to stick together.”


Saskia made a derisive snort.  “With you?  I don’t think so, I’ll take my chances.”


Anne rolled her eyes, getting the feeling that it was pointless trying to dissuade the other woman.  Who was she to stop Saskia getting herself killed if she was intent on that course?  Not that she had much chance since Saskia was already striding away without so much as a goodbye.


Dismissing any sense of responsibility for the fate of the other woman, Anne turned back to her course.  The trees were much denser and the ground steep as she continued on up the other side of the valley.  Anne had to pick her way carefully up the slope constantly aware of the time slipping away.  More than ever she was keen to find Katherine and the source of the troubles on the plane.  For some reason she thought the two probably wouldn’t be far apart. 


When she did finally reach the top she quickened her pace, running through the thinning trees at full pelt.  She was going so fast she almost ran straight off a cliff that appeared out of nowhere.  Her boots kicked a few loose bits of earth off over the side as she skidded to a halt on the edge.  Peering over the treacherous drop she could see the cliffs dropped away for about fifty feet below her.  At the foot lay more uneven rocks that had obviously come away from the cliff at one time or another.  Beyond that was a grassy area bounded by trees and a small lake.


She was still wondering at the best way to get down there when all of a sudden she was shoved in the back.  Her feet went from beneath her.  Desperately she tried to twist her body and grab onto something.  Her fingers grasped at the loose dirt and rocks but there was nothing to gain purchase on.  As she plunged over the side she just caught sight of a satisfied looking Saskia above her.


Anne’s body whacked into an outcrop half the way down, driving all the air from her lungs.  There was no time to think, no time to act before she crashed into craggy rocks at the foot of the cliff.  Anne screamed as there was a loud snap from her right leg.  She hardly dared look at it to see the damage; the pain was more than enough to tell her it was bad.  Wary of her exposed position, she gritted her teeth and tried to drag herself across the rocks to cover.  Each movement caused a fresh stab of pain in her leg.  Block it out, it’s not real, she tried to tell herself, but it didn’t help.  As she hauled herself across the grass by the lake she cursed her good deed. 


Bloody Saskia!  Bloody Robert!  Bloody everything!


It helped to rant; it gave her some focus away from the agony in her leg.  Then she heard it over her own curses - the thump of hooves.  She renewed her efforts, clawing at the grass as she tried to drag herself out of view.  She saw a rider rounding the foot of the cliff.  Worse she could see he had spotted her too, urging his horse on faster in her direction, its hooves splashing through the water at the lake’s edge.  She knew it was hopeless; there was no way she was going to make it to the trees before he reached her.  Still she carried on fighting.  She attempted to get to her feet, letting herself cry out loud as pain shot through her leg.  She managed a couple of hops before she came tumbling down again on the turf in an ungainly heap.  He was almost upon her now.  All she could do was roll over to meet her fate head on.


She could see the dark space under his hood  as he bore down upon her.  Then suddenly the hooded head jerked to the side and Anne saw there was now an arrow protruding from the back of it.  The horse took a few more steps before the rider slithered lifelessly from his saddle.  Anne watched as his form hit the ground and dissipated into nothingness, his horse following suit.  In its place she could see two figures running towards her, the red hair of one of them distinctive as the sunlight bounced off it.  Anne felt a huge swell of relief, quickly overtaken by surprise when she realised the identity of the second person.


Katherine practically shoved Axia out of the way to be the first to kneel down at Anne’s side.   “What happened?” she asked as she saw the bone protruding through Anne’s trouser leg and shin.


“It was Lady Saskia, she pushed me.”


“Saskia?  She’s here too?”


Axia chimed into the conversation.  “There are lots of you here.”


Katherine’s head swung round to her.  “Why didn’t you say anything before?”


“You didn’t ask.”


From the frosty exchange Anne could tell Katherine and Axia’s first meeting hadn’t exactly gone well.  She supposed she should be grateful Axia was still in one piece given that Katherine had wanted to take a few lumps out of her last time they’d discussed the other woman.  For a moment they seemed to have completely forgotten the young woman lying injured in the ground.


“How many exactly?” enquired Katherine.


“I can’t tell,” said Axia, “It’s hard to pinpoint anything at the moment, but I would say at least a hundred or so.”


“Everyone from the hall,” deduced Katherine.


Anne made an involuntary groan that had the effect of focussing their attention back on her. 


Axia made to come closer.  “Let me take a look at it…”


Katherine was up on her feet, blocking the other woman’s path.  “You can stay back, you’ve done enough!”


“I can help her!” retorted Axia angrily.


Anne had to interrupt the brewing argument.  “It’s all right, Katherine, let her try.”


Katherine reluctantly moved out of the way, though Anne could see the deathly look she was shooting Axia from behind her back.  She wondered if things could get any more awkward.


“Don’t worry,” said Axia offering a calming smile as she knelt down, “I think this should still work even with the disturbance to the ether.” 


She made to stroke a hand across Anne’s forehead, but the young woman flinched back.  “I’m not hurt there,” she pointed out, aware of Katherine hovering close by.


Axia just smiled again, Anne thinking she was fully aware of the reaction she was provoking.  She placed her hands either side of the damaged shin and closed her eyes to summon the necessary healing energy.  As in Rouen Anne could feel the warm glow starting first in her leg and then washing through her whole body.  She desperately tried to keep her expression even and not give in to the temptation to sigh contentedly. 


Once she was finished, Axia sat on the grass for a moment, such healing being draining on the giver.  Katherine took her place by Anne’s side, verifying her leg was truly mended before she turned to Axia.


“Thank you,” said Katherine.  Anne knew the effort it must have taken to drag the words out.


Axia simply nodded an acknowledgement, her eyes then flicking to Anne who was now sitting up.  “Though I’m not sure how many more times either of us will be able to accomplish such an act until this damage to the plane is healed.  It was much harder than normal to draw the energy.”


“Then we should try and stay away from those hooded riders,” noted Anne.


“They are the Domnu.”


Anne sucked in a breath.  She had heard of them – soul stealers.  She had thought perhaps they were just a myth.


“Why would Robert summon the Domnu though?” she asked Axia.


“If he could control them….if…then they would work for him.  They would steal your soul and make it his.”


“Meaning?” prompted Katherine.


Axia rolled her eyes as if Katherine was stupid for not knowing.  “Your body would become a mindless puppet, free to do his bidding, though in some cases the change might not be that obvious.”


Anne could see Katherine’s jaw clenching where she was grinding her teeth together and thought it best she continue the conversation.  “But Robert’s here too?  What good would it do him in that case?”


“I am guessing he did not intend things to happen this way and is now having a similar problem to us – finding a way back.  He is inexperienced in the ways of the spirit plane, without proper training it can be an overwhelming place, especially if you are handed power over it.  Every moment he stays here, the further from reality he slips.  Eventually he won’t be able to tell the difference.”


Katherine let out a rueful laugh.  “Seems like a pretty poor weapon if you ask me!”


“In the hands of someone more in control of their thoughts and emotions it would be a formidable power,” continued Axia, “You would be able to bend whole armies to your will, just by looking at them.  Fortunately, or not, for us your friend lacks the necessary refinement or control as is the case with most of you flat minds.  He is too angry, too much in conflict with himself.  The power will slowly corrupt his mind.  When it is gone completely the Domnu will be free and unfettered.”


Anne knew that wasn’t good.  “It sounds like we don’t have much time.”


“We do not,” agreed Axia.  She didn’t say anything else and Anne found herself compelled to look at her, the other woman’s brown eyes seeming to draw her in.  “Can’t you feel it too,” said Axia in her sing-song voice, “The spirit plane is calling out to us for help.”


Before she knew what was happening, Axia hands were on her face, cupping it between them.  Anne found her mind drifting, her eyes naturally closing.  She was flying, up over the plane.  She continued to soar, free on the wind.  It was exhilarating.  Then she was swooping downwards, a dark object on the horizon drawing her towards it.  As she got closer she could see it was a giant tree, disobeying all the laws of nature in its immenseness.  Its gigantic trunk was dark and foreboding, and there were no leaves on its branches.  Near the top she could see there was a castle of sorts, perched within the branches.  She could feel the malevolence radiating from the walls and knew this must be where Robert was.  She continued to fly up the side of the tree, up over a natural ledge and into a dark opening in the side of the wood itself.  Through the dark she could sense the power, coming closer.  It was getting hotter, her heart was starting to pound, it was getting hard to breathe…


Anne’s eyes flew open as Axia’s hand was suddenly wrenched from its place on her face.  Anne had to take a few gulps of air to steady herself.  Meanwhile Katherine held Axia’s arm tightly at the wrist, anger sparking in her eyes.


“What were you doing to her?”


“Showing her…”


“Just you keep away!”  Katherine pulled on the wrist, forcing Axia to her feet.  The two women were of similar height and stood toe to toe.  “She’s had enough of your help already!” snapped Katherine, “Help such as stealing her life from her!”


“She told you then,” said Axia.


“Of course she told me!  We don’t have to share some mental link to understand one another.  You might have heard of this little thing called talking.”


Anne thought she better break things up again.  Sooner or later she could see the two women coming to actual physical blows.


“I saw where Robert is,” she said, waiting until they both looked at her before she continued, “But that still leaves the problem of how to stop him, I tried to get the crown off him in the physical world but I couldn’t get near him.  He had some sort of protective barrier surrounding him.”


Axia stared balefully at Katherine for a moment, who eventually released her hold on the other woman.  Axia rubbed her wrist as she turned to answer Anne.  “The crown does not want to be parted from its master.  You need to find him here in the spirit world and separate him from it.  Only then can you return to the physical world and destroy the crown…or him.”


“So we need to dodge the soul stealing riders, find Robert who wields goodness knows what power here and somehow get the crown off his head,” said Katherine sarcastically, “Sounds easy.”


“And you need to do it quickly,” added Axia.


Katherine rolled her eyes.  “I sense another revelation coming.”


“A mind is not meant to be separated from its body for long,” explained Axia, “Especially not an untrained mind.  If you and the others like you who have been banished here stay too long the link will be broken forever.  You will never be able to return to the physical world and your body will die.”







With the added impetus of Axia’s words to spur them on the three of them set a course for the citadel seen in Anne’s vision with fresh determination.  Katherine would have preferred to have foregone the ‘pleasure’ of Axia company on the trip, but was willing to concede that the other woman’s knowledge of the spirit plane could come in useful.  She was a little surprised Axia had agreed to come with them, though Katherine doubted helping her was high on her list of reasons.  She suspected restoring the spirit plane while at the same time trying to ingratiate herself with Anne were of more importance. 


Katherine could see Axia chatting with Anne up ahead as they climbed up another hill.  Katherine quickened her pace and as she approached Axia took one glance and dropped back, leaving Katherine alone with Anne.


“How’s the leg?” asked Katherine.


“It’s fine.”


“Good job we had Axia here to help then.”  Katherine just couldn’t help herself.  Every comment she made about or to Axia came out tainted by jealousy.


“Don’t worry, I don’t trust her either.”  Katherine suspected that was for entirely different reasons but didn’t say as much as Anne continued.  “I just don’t quite buy her helpful pagan act,” she said, “Even if she has healed me twice now.  Maybe I’m a bit wary of anyone offering to help me understand that side of me after what happened with Bronwyn.”


“You don’t think she’s actually a dark witch?” asked Katherine aghast.


Anne thought about it.  “No, I don’t think so, I didn’t get that sense when she…”  She trailed off, so Katherine finished for her.


“When she was busy sharing your thoughts and taking you on a guided tour of this place?”


Anne pulled up, waiting for Katherine to do the same.  “Katherine, you don’t need to be jealous of Axia.  I have absolutely no interest in her whatsoever.”


Katherine still felt the anxious stirrings in her stomach though.  “But what about in the past?”


Anne reached out to stroke her fingers lightly over Katherine’s cheek.  “The past is the past, and since I can’t even remember it I’m not going to worry about it.  Here and now there’s only one person I’m interested in.”


Before Katherine could raise any more objections, Anne closed the distance between them and drew her into a soft kiss.  Eventually an unsubtle cough disturbed them from their passionate clinch.


“We should be moving on,” said Axia.


Katherine felt an odd satisfaction at seeing the dark look on Axia’s face.  It convinced her more than ever she was right to be wary and that Axia’s interest in Anne was more than just friendly.







Anne’s foot slipped on some loose bark of the giant tree she was climbing and sent it cascading down below.  She glanced anxiously downwards, seeing both Katherine and Axia ducking their heads closer to the trunk to avoid the falling debris.


“Sorry,” called back Anne.


Neither woman replied, far too intent on keeping their footing.  Anne made sure of hers this time and started ascending again.  She wasn’t sure how long it had taken them to traverse the ground to the tree, since time had little meaning on the plane.  Back in the real world, though, she guessed it must have been at least half a day.  Now it seemed to be taking an age to get up the precipitous tree trunk and to the opening she had seen in her vision.  Every moment they dawdled lessened the chance that any of them would ever be able to return to the real world. 


Her arms were starting to ache with the effort of the climb.  Part of her knew it was only her imagination making them ache, yet the power of suggestion was a wonderful thing.  Or not so wonderful in this case.  Eventually she managed to haul herself up onto a wide flat branch and rest up for a moment.  


From below she could hear the sound of muttering and grumbling and she peered over the edge to see Axia complaining about something to Katherine. 


“Why don’t you just let me go first?” suggested Axia, “Since you’re having such trouble.”


“I would be going a whole lot faster if you didn’t keep moaning at me,” said Katherine in response.


Axia wasn’t taking no for an answer though, and made an attempt to force her way past.  She jostled into Katherine as she tried to climb by her. 


“Watch out, you’ll have us both off!” cried Katherine indignantly.


Anne wondered if they would ever stop arguing.  It had been the same the whole way there – if one said left the other said right.  It was like watching two stags going at it in the forest.  Anne considered that Katherine probably had the bigger horns though.  Eventually both women made it up to Anne’s level looking flushed and tired.


“I think the entrance I saw in the vision is round this ledge,” said Anne, “Why don’t you two wait here and rest while I check?”


Anne was reluctant to suggest it given that she would have to leave Katherine and Axia alone, but at the same time would be relieved to escape the bickering for a while.  She wasn’t sure who to feel more worried for.  She had visions of coming back and finding they’d dragged each other off the side.  Of course she knew neither woman would really do such a thing, they were both far too sensible to let their personal animosity get in the way of their mission.  At least she prayed they were.







Katherine sat on a handy stump on the ledge and unhooked the bow off of her back.  It was slightly cumbersome, climbing with it, but she preferred to keep it close, unsure whether her ability to focus to produce arrows for it would extend to fabricating the whole bow should she lose it.  She waited until Anne had disappeared from sight before she asked Axia something that had been bothering her.


“When I first rescued you,” she began, taking great delight in reminding the other woman of that fact, “You became distracted as if you were sensing something on the plane.  It was Anne wasn’t it?  You knew she had arrived.”


Axia just gave a shrug as she stood looking out over the plane that stretched out far below them now.


“And you didn’t say anything?” prompted Katherine.


“Is it my fault you are too narrow minded to be able to tune into the ebb and flow of the plane?”


Katherine felt her anger simmering.  She rose with deliberate slowness from her seat, fighting to keep it from boiling over.  She took a couple of deep breaths as she waited for Axia to turn and face her.    “I’ve just about had enough of your snide remarks,” she said, jabbing a finger at Axia’s chest, “This might be the spirit plane but it doesn’t mean I can’t crack you on the nose.”


Axia looked down that nose at Katherine’s finger.  “Charming, I can see what Anne sees in you.”


“That’s what you hate though isn’t it, that she does see something in me?”


“For now,” said Axia evenly, “Sooner or later she will come to realise you are not one of her kind.”


“And you are?” said Katherine with heavy scepticism.  She moved closer still to Axia, her nose almost touching that of the other woman.  “Let me make one thing absolutely clear to you, I may not have special pagan abilities or senses, but I will do everything in my power to protect her from anyone that threatens her.  That includes you.”


“And who’s to say it is us she needs protecting from?”


Katherine took a step back, afraid she might lose her temper completely.  “Just stay away from her.”


“Can Anne not make up her own mind?”  Axia obviously didn’t know when to let up.


Katherine rounded on her again.  “As long as you aren’t playing with it!” She clenched her fists at her sides.  “I’ve heard about your little chats on the spirit plane back in the old days.”


“Is that how she described them?”


Katherine could tell Axia was goading her with the insinuation in her voice.  “She doesn’t remember,” she said.




It was just a single word, but the way she said it as if Anne had been deliberately lying, made Katherine want to slip her fingers round Axia’s throat and squeeze hard.  She restrained herself.  Just.


Fortunately the sound of footsteps precluded the need for her to hold back any longer.  If Anne noticed anything untoward in the way the two women were squared up to one another she didn’t comment.  Instead she informed them that she had found the entrance to the Citadel.






“That was my foot!”


Anne rolled her eyes, wondering if she was the only one who remembered what exactly they were doing wandering around the lower reaches of the castle.  It seemed Katherine and Axia were far more intent on arguing than the task at hand.  It was near pitch black, the three of them having to feel their way along the cold walls as they made their way along.  The blind nature of their progress was what had obviously led to Katherine accidentally stepping on Axia’s toes…or maybe not so accidentally, considered Anne.


“Why don’t you use those powers of yours and magic us up a light then?” suggested Katherine.


There was a brief silence and then suddenly a light flared.  Anne had to wait for her eyes to adjust for a moment before seeing a smug looking Axia holding a burning torch.  She could now also see the passageway ahead in more detail.  Not that there was much to see.  The stone walls stretched on into the darkness, the only respite from their monotony being where branches from the giant tree had pushed and poked their way through the stonework.  The stone was unable to resist the inextricable force of nature and had crumbled under its power.


“I’ll take the lead shall I?” said Axia, walking on past Anne.  The young woman couldn’t fail to see the satisfied look she shot Katherine nor the tight-lipped response.


Along the corridor they came across the odd ancient torch suspended on the walls and Axia lit them as they went, providing a meagre light to navigate by.  As they moved deeper into the citadel the sense of imbalance that pervaded the place grew stronger, making Anne feel more and more unsettled.  The castle was an abomination to the spirit realm, something that shouldn’t exist and was breaking they very fabric of the plane. 


“Are you all right?”


Anne looked to her questioner.  “It’s just this place,” she tried to explain to Katherine giving an involuntary shudder, “It just doesn’t feel right.”


“I know what you mean,” agreed Katherine, casting an uneasy glance at the dark walls, “Ever since we…”


Katherine didn’t get to finish her sentence.  Instead she stumbled, having to reach out a hand to brace herself against the wall and stop herself from falling.  Anne was at her side in an instant.  “What is it?” she asked, wrapping a helping arm around Katherine’s waist.


The other woman rubbed uncertainly at her face, eyes closed for a second.  “I don’t know, I just came over all faint.”


Axia had noticed they’d stopped, turning back to the two women.  “We don’t have long, soon the bonds between this and the physical world will be broken.”  She glanced at Katherine.  “She is feeling it first given her limited mental capabilities, but we will eventually be affected too.”


Anne could see Katherine’s eyes burning into Axia for the disparaging comment, but that wasn’t important right now.  “Then we’d best hurry up and find Robert.”  She looked to Katherine.  “Are you all right to continue?”


Axia chipped in before Katherine could reply.  “Only you could stay here if you’d rather.”


Katherine drew herself up.  “I’m fine,” she stated with renewed determination.


Anne knew better than to question her further, even if the skin of Katherine’s face was currently a deathly white.  Katherine would need to have had both her legs ripped off before she gave up, and even then she’d probably be dragging herself along with her arms and snapping at her opponent’s heels.


Just when Anne thought the corridor might go on forever, the light from Axia’s torch flickered over some steps ahead.  They ascended to the higher level which opened out into an entrance hall.  There was some natural light dappling the stone floor, or what passed for natural on the spirit plane.  As Anne took the final step she felt something touch her ankle.  Then suddenly it was wrapped around it and tugging.  Anne fell forwards, only just about managing to stop her face from smacking into the floor.  The thing round her ankle yanked again and she found herself tumbling back down the stairs, the unforgiving stone banging into her body as she bounced downwards.


She finally came to a thumping rest back at the foot of the steps.  Looking at her ankle she could see there was a sinewy branch wrapped around her boot.  She made to untangle it only to find the movement of her arm impeded by a second branch.  A third wound its way round her other arm.  She tugged at them, trying desperately to reach the dagger nestling in her belt, but they were too strong.  Another vine shot around her throat.


Anne gagged, just hearing the sound of feet running down the steps over her frantic gasps.  An arrow zinged through the air, neatly chopping off the vine at her throat.  It was quickly followed by another cutting the one round her right arm.  Free at last she grabbed her dagger and slashed at the braches round her other arm and foot.  She was scrabbling to her feet as Katherine leapt down the last couple of steps, bow still at the ready.  Anne could see more and more branches darting from the walls at them and quickly turned, pushing Katherine back up the stairs.


“I suggest we get out of here!”


Katherine took one look at the grabbing branches and started vaulting back up the stairs, the two of them dashing out at the top with a few vines still nibbling at their heels.  Anne stamped a boot on the last one and it recoiled back down the steps.


“A lovely place Robert has here,” she noted sardonically.


She saw Katherine was studying the hall and the numerous stairways and doors that led off of it.  “Can you sense which way it is from here?” asked the older woman.


Anne tried to focus her thoughts, but once again the pounding rose up in her head until it was unbearable and she had to stop.  Regretfully she gave a shake of the head.  “I guess we’ll just have to search them all.”


“Then I suppose this way is as good as any.”  Katherine went to move towards the nearest staircase.  Suddenly the floor opened up below her and she dropped from view.


“Katherine!”   Anne was where she had been standing in an instant, but the floor slab had slammed shut again.  Anne pummelled it with her boot a few times, but there was no sign of it giving.  Anne cast her eyes frantically around trying to determine which way was likely to prove the best option in getting to where Katherine had disappeared to.


“You should just leave her.”


Anne whirled round and fixed Axia with a fierce look.  The other woman merely shrugged.  “I’m just saying, if we want to stop this Robert as soon as possible, then the prudent thing would be to carry on looking for him immediately.”


“Sod prudence.” 


Anne didn’t feel the need to say any more, instead running off down the corridor.  She could hear Axia following.  The other woman just didn’t seem to understand that finding Robert, destroying his crown and returning order to the spirit realm all paled into insignificance in comparison with the importance of making sure Katherine also made it out with her at the end of it all.  Otherwise what was the point of any of it?  Anne slowed as she reached a set of stairs that led downwards, checking there were no tendrils snaking out to grab them from below.   It gave Axia a chance to catch up.


“You don’t have to come with me,” Anne commented.


Axia had to catch her breath for a moment before answering.  “Yes, I do.”


Anne sighed.  “Once this is over are we going to be even?  Are you going to stop bothering me then?”


“I’m sorry?” Axia looked confused.


“The task you mentioned,” Anne reminded her, “The mission that I needed my powers back for.”


“Oh, you think this is it?”  Axia laughed though Anne wasn’t amused in the slightest.  “I’m afraid not,” said Axia, “As I said before this is her task, we are all unfortunate bystanders as she muddles through it.”


“I intend to be more than a bystander,” said Anne, “You stay here if you want to, but I’m going to help her do something about this.”


“No, I will come with you, she needs all the help she can get after all.”





Katherine rubbed her bottom where it had thumped into the hard floor, wondering how many more surprises the castle was going to throw in their path.  The room where she’d landed was near pitch black, yet Katherine got the sense it was large.  It was like she could feel the darkness stretching out to fill the vast space.  Feeling around her she found the remnants of her bow, now snapped in two from the fall.  Out of nowhere a shiver ran down her spine.  It wasn’t cold, in fact of anything it seemed unusually warm.  The anxious tingle was more to do with her sense of unease.  The feeling only increased as she realised she could hear the sound of breathing.  It wasn’t close by, yet that was the worrying thing.  If she could hear it from distance then the source must be big - really, really big.  Suddenly she felt the urge to get out of the room quick.  She went to move her feet and clattered straight into something.  A metallic clanging echoed around the room, harsh compared to the former silence.  Katherine froze.   The breathing had stopped.   Katherine held her own breath.  A rasping snort rumbled round the room.  Katherine could feel the sweat slipping down her back as she tried to remain stock still.  A weighty thud shook the floor as something shifted position. 


What was it?  Could it see her in the dark? 


Suddenly there was a large intake of breath from the creature.  Katherine’s instincts screamed at her to duck.  She flung herself to the floor just as a huge jet of flame scorched over her head.


A dragon!  It was a bloody dragon!


Katherine had thought such things only existed in fairytales.  Then again, she supposed anything was possible on the spirit plane.  Deciding an internal debate on the existence of such creatures could wait for another time, she scrabbled to her feet and started sprinting for the door.  At least she now knew where it was thanks to the light from the flames.  Another blast singed by her, crisping a few flapping strands of hair on the way.


The dragon was after her now, large, crashing footfalls making the whole room shake.  The door was only a few more feet away.  Katherine lunged for it, wrenching it open as she felt another blast of heat from behind her.  She skittered through the door and slammed it shut behind her, having to pat at the smoking material on the rear of her trousers.  


Wherever she now stood was equally as dark as the previous room and Katherine prayed it didn’t also have any fire-breathing occupants.  She listened out just in case and was thankful to note there were no breathing sounds.  Something flickered off to her right and it took a moment for her to realise it was a torch and it was bobbing in her direction.  She shielded her eyes for a moment, able to make out the two female figures behind it.


Anne looked mightily relieved as they dashed up to her, whereas Axia seemed slightly disappointed.  Katherine wondered why Axia couldn’t be the one to end up in a room with a dragon.  Preferably a locked one.  She had to banish the uncharitable thoughts from her mind.


“There was a dragon in that room,” stated Katherine matter of factly as they reached her.


“What?”  The two women just stared at her as she made a show of continuing to pat herself down before exchanging a quizzical look with one another.


“I’m guessing that’s not a normal occurrence on the spirit plane then?”


“No,” agreed Axia, “It just shows how Robert is losing his grip on reality if he’s now conjuring mythical beasts to protect him.” 





Fortunately there didn’t seem to be any more creatures to hinder them as they made their way back upstairs.  Apart from the three of them the corridors were deserted and quiet, the only respite from total silence being the crackle of the torches that lined the walls.  Who had lit them was a mystery.  Perhaps it was all part of Robert’s imagining of how a castle should look since he had obviously created the fortress.


Anne couldn’t shake the suspicion that they were walking into a trap.  Most likely Robert was aware of their movements.  Anne determinedly tried to block off her thoughts, hoping it would be enough to distract him from their position.  Her concentration was disturbed by an odd tickling under her skin, prickling up her arms and across her shoulder blades.  Something was about to happen.  A harsh grinding noise echoed off the walls.  Anne swung round, trying to pinpoint the source.  It came again and she realised it wasn’t just resounding off the walls, it was from the walls.  They were moving.


Her eyes met Katherine’s who had spotted it too.  They both spoke at once.  “Run!”


Anne grabbed a confused Axia by the arm, dragging her up the corridor as the walls started to shift.  They seemed to be defying any rules of viable architecture and Anne found it hard to look at the warping stonework without getting dizzy.  Instead she fixed on the door at the end and ran.  The floor started to tilt too and all of a sudden she found herself sliding sideways across the floorboards.  She tried to keep her feet but the floor just kept going up and up.  Once it was near vertical she fell off, hitting hard stone.  She didn’t know if it was a floor or a wall or a ceiling.  Clambering to her feet she was relieved to see the walls were stationary once more.  Unfortunately she was also alone in a newly formed room.


“Katherine?  Axia?”


Anne knocked on what had previously been the floor and was now cutting her off from where she had been.  A couple of faint raps echoed back at her through the wood.




Anne had to restrain herself from sighing in disappointment as the pagan woman’s voice came through faintly.


“Is Katherine there with you?” shouted back Anne.


“No.  I’m alone and there’s no way out of here either.”


They must have all been split up in the confusion of the malleable corridor deduced Anne.   Her best option was to carry on and find Robert and hope she discovered Katherine again on the way.


“Sorry, but I’m going to have to leave you,” she shouted through the floor come wall again.  “If we succeed you should be able to make your way off the plane yourself and back to your body in France.”


“That is true,” came Axia’s voice, “Then I guess it is au revoir for now.”


“Goodbye, Axia.”  Anne turned to go.




Anne considered not responding, pretending she was already out of earshot.  She relented though.  “Yes?”


“I will see you again.”


Something told Anne that whether she liked it or not that was most likely true.





For a moment Katherine wondered why she could feel the wind ruffling her hair.  Then she turned her head to the side and got stark evidence of exactly why.  Somehow she was outside the castle walls and perched on the tiniest of ledges.  Below her was open air, a lot of it, stretching down to the ground where the trees were tiny green specks.


Very slowly and carefully she got to her feet, resting her back against the stone.  A fresh gust picked at her clothes and she automatically tried to mould herself closer to the stonework, afraid of being blown off her precarious perch.  She started edging along, keeping her back to the wall, hopeful of finding some way back into the castle.


The last thing she remembered was the corridor starting to move alarmingly and Anne sliding off out of sight down a contorting floor.  Katherine herself had tumbled in the opposite direction cracking her head on the way.  When she came to she was communing with fresh air.  Continuing to pick her way along the uneven wood she quickly saw an obvious obstacle to her hopes of getting back inside - there was a huge great gap in the ledge.  The tree folded back into the walls for a good few feet before the natural ledge carried on.  On the other side she could see there was a window in the castle wall.  There was nothing for it, she was going to have to jump.


Summoning her courage on the edge she knew she shouldn’t look down but something about the drop was magnetic and she found her eyes drifting downwards.  She scrunched them shut immediately at the dizzying height.  At least if she didn’t make the leap she was sure to be killed outright.   Katherine took a few careful steps backwards; there wasn’t much room to get a run up.  Taking a last fortifying breath she ran and jumped.  For a moment her feet were spiralling in the air before one of them hit the solid wood of the other side.  Unfortunately the other foot didn’t follow suit.  It went from under her and then her whole body was following.  Katherine desperately darted out her arms as her body plunged downwards, grabbing at the ledge.  Her chin hit the wood, jarring her teeth together, but she clung on until she came to a halt.  She just hung there with her legs flailing suspended over the perilous drop.  She let out a frustrated cry unable to summon enough strength to actually pull herself up.


“Pull! God damn you, pull!” she berated herself out loud.


She could feel the muscles in her arms straining at the effort.  An enraged cry followed and then suddenly she was moving, dragging herself back up onto the relative flat of the ledge.  She could only lie there panting for a moment.  She knew there wasn’t time for relief though, there was a much more serious task at hand.  The window was a tight fit and for a second she thought she was going to get wedged in it, but with one final push she was through, tumbling in an ungainly heap on the floor inside. 


“Would you like a hand up?”


Katherine felt her blood turn to ice.  She found that oddly funny considering her blood was currently sitting somewhere back in Nottingham Castle along with her body.   She rose under her own power and dusted herself down before replying.


“Hello, Robert.”





Anne wondered if she was going round in circles.  She was sure she’d seen the door in front of her before, but then again the corridors and doors all seemed similar and never-ending.  It was getting harder and harder to sense what direction was the right one to find the source of the disturbance on the plane, to find Robert.   When she tried to open her mind it was filled with an ever-growing discordance, one it was becoming near impossible to cut through.  Obviously Robert’s grip was slipping further.


Opening the door, Anne was relieved to see a new section of the castle was revealed to her.  The corridor was much darker than the one she had just come from, the stone of the walls itself seeming to be black and sucking what little light there was from the surroundings.  It took her a moment to realise the walls were punctuated at intervals with doors containing small grills.  Anne walked up to the nearest one and peered inside.  It was so dark she had to wait for her eyes to adjust, but when they had she could just make out the figure huddled in the corner.




The figure didn’t move, still lying with their back to her.  Anne tried the latch on the door, unsurprised to find it was locked.


“Are you all right?” she tried again.  It was a faintly stupid question considering they were locked in a cell in the spirit realm.


Still the person didn’t turn or show any indication they could even hear her.  It was a voice further down the corridor that answered her instead.


“Anne?  Is that you?”


Anne swivelled round.  “Beatrice?”


“Yes, I’m down here,” came back the response.


Anne passed several more cells before she came to the one containing Katherine’s maid.   She was waiting standing at the grill, fingers clasped around the metal.   She appeared unharmed if a little grubby.


“Where the hell are we?” she asked Anne, “What happened?”


“It’s complicated,” said Anne, trying the door though she already knew it wouldn’t yield.  She remembered the dagger and pulled it from her belt to try and unpick the lock.  The blade was just a bit too big though.


“Have you seen any of the others?” asked Beatrice as Anne continued to rattle at the lock.  “Tobias?  The friar?”  Beatrice paused.  “Thomas?”


She had tried to add the last name casually, but it had been too obvious.  Beatrice still had feelings for the young man.  Anne supposed it was only to be expected, just because someone you loved did something awful didn’t mean you could instantly stop loving them. 


“No, I’ve not seen any of them.”  She could see the slight deflation of Beatrice’s shoulders at the news.  “Though I didn’t see Thomas in the hall anyway,” she recalled.


“He tried to help her ladyship escape when the Sheriff’s men ambushed us,” said Beatrice, “But I haven’t seen him since.”


It seemed Thomas was trying hard to make up for his mistakes, though from the sounds of it he could have paid with his life.  Anne decided it wasn’t the best time to point that out to Beatrice.  “I’m sure he’s all right,” she said instead with as much conviction as she could, “When we get back to the castle he’ll probably be right there waiting for us.”  She knew she was over-egging the optimism now, but her mouth seemed to running away of its own accord.


“And how do we get back there?”


“That’s complicated too,” said Anne, aware she was wasting time chatting to Beatrice, “Basically I need to find Lord Robert.  You haven’t seen him since you’ve been here have you?”


“No, I’m afraid not, not that I can see much stuck in here.”  She gave a frustrated bang on the door.  Anne looked apologetic about not being able to remedy that.  Beatrice noticed the look.  “It’s all right, I know you can’t get me out right now,” she added, “Go on, find Lord Robert and then we can all get out of this place.”


Anne placed her hand over Beatrice’s fingers where they poked through the bars.  “We will get out of here, I promise you.”   Anne just wasn’t sure how yet.





As soon as she looked in his eyes Katherine could see Robert was teetering on the edge of insanity.  They held a wild disregard she had never seen before, wide-eyed and staring at her, while the grin on his face seemed completely out of place.  Obviously the power of the crown perched on his head was too much for him to cope with, just as Axia had suspected.  Katherine felt her own emotions churning at the sight of him, anger and hate trying to fight their way to the fore.  She had to quell those negative thoughts knowing that everyone’s lives were at stake.  She needed to think clearly.


“I wondered where you’d gotten to,” said Robert, “You’ve been missing all the fun.”


He gestured to the room behind him and for the first time Katherine took in her surroundings.  On first impressions, the room appeared to be similar to any other castle hall, much like the one they had come from.  However, the cages lined up near the hearth broke the illusion.  Each one contained a person.   Katherine quickly realised they were some of the other occupants of the hall at Nottingham.  Some of them were slumped against the bars or collapsed on the floor, obvious signs of injury evident on them.  Others were huddled as far back from Robert as they could get in the enclosed space.  Katherine had to wonder what he had been doing to them, not really wanting to imagine. 


“Come, let me introduce you!”


Katherine just stared at him in disbelief.  Had he forgotten about everything that had happened?  He was acting as if they were friends once more and he couldn’t wait to show off his prize possessions to her.  Too stunned to object for a moment, she let him usher her across the room.  As they walked towards the cages, she spotted Tobias amongst them.  He was sitting upright and cross legged and appeared unscathed so far much to Katherine’s relief. 


“Robert, what are you doing to these people?” Katherine asked the man who was happily surveying his handiwork.  She managed to briefly catch Tobias’ eye and he gave an almost imperceptible reassuring nod to her questioning glance. 


“Whatever the hell I like!” Robert laughed with inappropriate heartiness.  He moved onto the next cages which contained the Sheriff followed by Prince John himself. 


“You’ll pay for this Stratford!” spat the Prince as Robert neared.


Robert knelt down by the bars.  His crown was tantalisingly close to the level of Katherine’s hand.  She tried to edge closer without him spotting her.


“And how do you plan on making me pay?”  Robert teased the Prince.  “No, I think it is you who must pay, in pain.”


Suddenly the Prince screamed.  Katherine jumped.  She had been concentrating on the crown and wasn’t expecting the outburst.  She could only watch in horror as Prince John writhed in agony on the floor of his cage.  Robert remained impassively staring at him the whole time, the only show of emotion being a slight smile that edged his lips.  Finally he stood up, a sickening look of satisfaction on his face.  “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m like a god here!”


Katherine didn’t think it was wonderful in the slightest.  “Robert you’re losing control.  Please, give me the crown before you lose it completely along with you mind.”  Katherine feared it may be too late to save that though.


“Never!” he shouted, anger suddenly flashing across his face.  He took a few steps away from her.  “You just want it for yourself!”


Katherine could already tell there was little hope of reasoning with the volatile and paranoid man.  “No, I don’t, I want to destroy it.”  She tried to keep her voice calm even though part of her wanted to leap at him and beat some sense into his addled brain.


Robert snorted in derision.  “Still trying to save me from myself?  Well, I don’t need saving.  You are the one who needs rescuing.”


He raised his hand and an invisible force cannoned into Katherine’s chest.  It picked her up and flung her across the room. She eventually came to a skidding halt against the far wall.  How could she fight back against this?  She had no weapon save her words. 


“Can’t you see what it’s doing to you?” she attempted, “Please, Robert, people are going to die!”


“Please, Robert, people are going to die,” he mimicked nastily.  “And why should I care?  They mean nothing to me.”


“What do you care about?”


Robert came towards her, kneeling down beside her.  The torchlight flickered off the enticingly close crown.  Katherine’s hand darted for it, but it was caught by an unseen force and ended up just hovering there by Robert’s head.  She couldn’t move it.  A nasty smile broke across his face, his eyes dark as they fixed on her.


“Power, Katherine, I care about power.” 


He reached out to touch her face, his fingers hot where they brushed her skin.  She tried to move back but found her whole body was frozen now.  “And once upon a time I cared about you, before you were corrupted by that woman.”


Suddenly Katherine got an image flashing unbidden through her mind, hauled out of her memory.  It was of the last time she had seen Anne, earlier in the castle.  It was gone just as quickly, Katherine finding herself staring at Robert’s grinning face once more. 


“What are you doing?” she asked him, an edge of fear colouring her tone.


“Since she has corrupted your mind, I’m going to remove all trace of her from it.  I just need to go back and find the first memory of her,” he stated, “Once I have the origin of the damage I can remove that and then proceed forwards from there to cleanse the rest.  When I’m finished maybe you’ll be able to see sense, maybe then you’ll choose me.”


Another image flashed in Katherine’s mind, this time from even earlier.  It was Anne staring at her across the hall in Nottingham Castle, her eyes maintaining their hold on Katherine across the room as she stood ready for judgement.   Again it was gone quickly, Robert bypassing it on his quest through her thoughts.


Katherine glared at Robert who seemed to be enjoying invading her mind.  “Even if you stole all my memories I would never love you!”


“We shall see.”


Katherine realised he was going to pick his way back through her thoughts until he found that first memory.  She couldn’t let him; she had to find some way to block him.


The memories were coming thick and fast now, dancing back over time.  One minute she was grinning on a boat to France, the next she was on a rooftop in Chesterfield, watching the setting sun play off a rose quartz pendant.  Still they went further back in a chaotic tumult of random visions and feelings flashing past getting earlier and earlier.  Katherine felt again the worry that had consumed her as Anne lay sick on a bed in Stratford, poison coursing through her veins courtesy of Robert as it had turned out.  Those anxious thoughts were quickly replaced with more seductive ones as visions of cherries on a birthday came to the fore.


Katherine tried in vain to close that memory off, hearing a laugh from Robert at her attempted resistance.  Amongst all of the other memories it was these intimate moments she most hated him seeing.  She cried out internally at the brutal invasion but could do nothing to stop it.


The images continued to flicker past.  Now she was listening to Anne sing at her sister’s home in Yorkshire.  Her voice enveloped Katherine in its beauty.  Anguished memories crashed through that serene moment as they reached the time when Katherine had held Anne’s lifeless body in her arms after forcing Bronwyn from it.   The urge to kill herself in that moment was as fresh now as if it had just happened.  Katherine could feel tears slipping from her eyes once more at the vivid recollection.


Fortunately a happier time came next, Katherine feeling the warmth fill her as she gave Anne a birthday present and received the most magnificent smile in return.  Then it was relief shooting through her as Anne saved her from Mark and Kirby in Sherwood Forest.


The ebb and flow of emotions was getting too much to bear and Katherine fought to gain some sort of control, knowing Robert was nearing his target now.  She had to find the power to resist from somewhere.


Meanwhile in her mind’s recollections she was giving Anne an imploring look across a barrier on this very spirit plane.   Earlier than that she felt her heart aching as Bronwyn taunted her, wondering if she would ever see Anne again.


Robert was almost there, she had to do something.  She had to draw on the power of those memories and force him out of her mind.  As the next one flashed before her she clung onto it instead, not letting Robert simply cast it aside.  In it she was sitting on a fallen tree by a lake, telling Anne she loved her for the first time.  She remembered how she had felt that day as she had nervously bared her soul.   After her declaration Anne had told her she loved her too and Katherine’s heart had just about burst from her chest.  She drew on those emotions to give her strength. 


The next one was earlier again, in a stable at Markham, rolling in the hay.  Katherine let the passionate energy of that moment suffuse her.   Her mind tripped back further to the first time they had made love, her movements tentative and unsure on that bed in Nottingham Castle.  That vision was quickly followed by their first kiss in Sherwood Forest after they had visited the Shrine of Gaia.  Once more Katherine could feel the initial startling mix of arousal and surprise as Anne’s lips met hers.


Then finally Robert was there at the beginning.  In the last memory Katherine was whirling round as she heard a noise in her room at Nottingham Castle some sixteen months earlier…


“Who’s there?” she called out into the semi-darkness of the candlelit room, “Beatrice, is that you?”


There was no reply forthcoming, so she surmised that it was not her maid that had made the noise.  She slowly turned back to the table and quietly drew the dagger that Tobias had given to her from its sheath.  She was glad the captain of her guard had insisted on giving her instruction in its use, as well as other defensive techniques.  He knew as well as she that the Sheriff was currently having some troubles with a band of outlaws, and had warned all nobles travelling through his territories to be on their guard.


A movement near the wardrobe on the far side of the room caught her eye and she rose from her seat, the dagger clutched tightly in her right hand as she held it before her.  Whoever was in here was going to have to get past her as the door was the only entrance and exit from the room, it having typically small slit-like windows.


“Surrender yourself, and I will see that the sheriff treats you with mercy,” she suggested to the unknown intruder, taking a couple of steps forward.


She thought she heard what sounded like a small laugh at her statement.  Momentarily perplexed, she didn’t react quickly enough as the assailant sprung from their hiding place and grabbed her right wrist.  She tried to retain her grip on the blade as they banged her arm against the upright of the bed, but they were stronger and much taller than her and she watched forlornly as the dagger clattered to the ground at her feet.  As her eyes came up she took in the form of her attacker. They were clothed head to foot in thick black garments, including their face and head.  The only visible part of them was a pair of ice blue eyes that now stared intently into her own blue-grey ones.  She stood transfixed as the rest of the room seemed to fade away in the presence of  the piercing gaze... 


In the here and now Katherine clung onto the memory of the gaze, drew on all the power she had harnessed on the trip through her thoughts and then let it go in one huge wave.   She felt Robert propelled from her mind and as her eyes flew open she could see he was lying panting on the ground. 


“How did you…?”  he said in some consternation.


Katherine was thankful to note she could still remember Anne and everything they had shared.  “Never underestimate the power of love.”


Robert scowled at her.  Suddenly Katherine found herself flung bodily across the room once more, crashing into a table and upending it.  As she pushed herself up and tried to catch her breath she saw him coming for her.


“You’ve wasted my time long enough.  If you will not join me, then you are against me.”  From nowhere a sword materialised in his hand.  “And I can’t have that!”


Katherine just managed to leap out of the way of the first blow.  His sword sliced through the table, cleaving through it as if it was made of parchment. He was going to kill her.  She could see it in his eyes.  Desperately she dodged again. 


I need to defend myself, I need a weapon!


There was a faint tingling in her right hand at the thought, and she stumbled under another swipe.


I really need a weapon!


The tingling built.  The next slash barely missed her left arm.




The tingling built into a solid form.  As Robert swung again Katherine brought up her hand and the sound of two swords clashing reverberated around the room.  Robert looked at the blade she had focussed her will to produce.  “Impressive.”


Katherine ignored his appreciative comment and made an attempt to grab his crown, but his sword was quickly across and she had to deflect it with her own again.  She took a couple of steps back as they sized each other up.


“But do you know how to use it?” questioned Robert. 


He darted for her, Katherine trying to recall everything she had learnt from Anne over the last year or so as she desperately tried to fend him off.  She was at an immediate disadvantage because of his greater reach, not to mention the fact that he was a knight with year’s of experience.  Her best hope was to surprise him in some way.


Someone has taught you to fight, he noted during a break in the duel.  He closed his eyes for a moment, no doubt sifting through the memories he had witnessed.  Katherine cringed at the thought of his newly acquired insight into her mind.  “Ah, I should have guessed,” he said, fixing his gaze on her once more, “Your special friend.  Where is she, by the way?  Deserted you has she?” 


Katherine didn’t bother answering the unsubtle attempt at goading her.


“Shall I see if I can find her for you?”  Robert put a hand up to his temple, a frown knitting his brow as his eyes slid shut once more.  “This isn’t right…I should be able to…”  Robert cried out in pain, staggering back a few paces as he rubbed at his head.   “Bloody bitch!” he cursed under his breath.


Katherine couldn’t help smiling at his discomfort.  The resistance to his power also meant Anne was still alive somewhere in the castle.


“There’s more to her than meets the eye isn’t there?” said Robert as he composed himself, “I shall enjoy dissecting her mind too.”


Katherine bristled at the thought of him invading Anne’s mind.  “Leave her out of this! This is between me and you.”


Robert offered her a nasty grin.  “Yes, it is.”  His sword hit hers hard again.  Katherine was amazed she managed to keep hold of it.  “Though not for long.”





Anne could hear the sound of the clashing swords as soon as she entered the room.  She was on a balcony at the back of a large hall and carefully she peered over the edge.  On seeing the events unfolding below, her first instinct was to dash down the stairs and help Katherine, but she held back realising that would ruin her element of surprise.  There was a brief glance upwards from Katherine, just enough to catch Anne’s eye.  Then the other woman quickly focussed on Robert again so as not to draw attention in Anne’s direction.  From the fleeting unspoken exchange Anne knew Katherine wanted her to take advantage of the fact Robert hadn’t spotted her yet.


Quickly taking stock of the scene below, Anne could see Katherine was having trouble keeping Robert at bay.  The man currently had his back to Anne, Katherine deliberately keeping him turned that way.  Anne knew she had to act quickly and decisively.  Her eyes settled on the chandelier suspended from the centre of the ceiling.  It was way above the heads of the battling pair and out of reach of Anne, but neither of those facts precluded its use there on the spirit plane.  Anne focussed on it, trying not to let the fight below distract her.  However, she couldn’t help her eyes drifting downwards as she saw Katherine stumble and almost get her head taken off by Robert.


Renewing her mental effort she stretched a hand out and willed the chandelier to come towards her.  There was a slight sway from the chain it was suspended by.  Anne grimaced under the effort, but slowly the whole thing swung up to her.  She latched onto it with a hand.  Below Robert’s sword crashed into Katherine’s again and the other woman fell to the ground.  Anne swung her legs over the banister, perching her bottom on top of it.  Robert still had his back to her, standing over Katherine as he raised his sword.  Anne pushed off, swinging down towards him.  At the last second Robert sensed something.  He was just starting to turn as Anne reached him.  There was a brief look of shock on his face and then her fingers closed over the tips of his crown and picked it from his head.


Suddenly the room exploded in a brilliant flash of light and an unseen force flung Anne away from Robert.  A pain flared in her mind as the realm cried out to her and she had to scrunch her eyes shut as she tumbled haphazardly away.  It took a moment for Anne’s disjointed senses to return and when they did she discovered she was lying on the floor, not entirely recalling how she had ended up there.  None of that was particularly important.  What was important was that in her hand, gripped with resolute tightness by her fingers, was the Ares crown. 


She tried to get to her feet only to find her legs were less than willing to oblige.  In fact her whole body seemed reticent to move, like all the energy had been sucked out of her in wrenching the crown from Robert’s head.  Unfortunately he didn’t appear to be having a similar problem.  He was back on his feet, having been flung to the opposite end of the room, and was now heading her way.  Anne managed to haul herself up enough to see Katherine had thankfully been propelled to Anne’s end of the room.


“Katherine, quick!”


Anne knew they had to get out of there fast, get back to the real world where they could actually destroy the crown.  Katherine dashed over, concern evident on her face as she saw Anne’s tired state.


“I’ll be all right,” Anne quickly dismissed, “We need to get out of here though.”


She took Katherine’s hand and closed her eyes, seeking the meditative state that would enable them to travel back to the physical world.  It wasn’t easy when she could hear Robert starting to run in their direction.   Anne felt so weak, but she knew she couldn’t fail now, Robert was almost upon them.  She risked a quick glance and then suddenly she felt the welcome sensation of the real world welling up to envelop her.  It seemed to start somewhere at the back of her mind, rushing forwards until it blocked the vision from her eyes.  For a moment there was nothing, only the darkness of the limbo between worlds.  Then light flared and she was back in the hall at Nottingham Castle, sitting next to a prone Katherine as she had been when she entered the spirit realm.  She didn’t stay upright for long, sagging into a heap as the last of her energy deserted her. 




The young woman could barely raise her head to see Katherine now sitting up.  “We…have to…destroy the crown…” she managed in between ragged breaths. 


Katherine hooked an arm around Anne’s waist and helped her to her feet.  She leant heavily on the smaller woman, her own legs unable to support her weight.  Anne could see everyone else was still out cold, still stuck in the spirit realm until the spell of the crown was broken.  Katherine tried to haul Anne along with her, but it was obvious they weren’t going to get anywhere fast.  A movement to her side caught Anne’s eye and she was more than a little surprised to discover its source.  Somehow Robert had followed them back.





As Katherine saw Robert rising unsteadily to his feet up on the platform she tried to speed up her and Anne’s progress.  Anne made to pull away from her though.


“Quick, you have to take the crown,” said the young woman, “Find a way to destroy it.” 


“And leave you here?” Katherine queried doubtfully.  “I don’t think so.”


Up on the stage Robert was rubbing at his head, trying to get his bearings. 


“Be sensible,” said Anne, watching him anxiously out of the corner of her eye, “I’m in no fit state to go anywhere and he’s going to spot us in a second.”


“Like you were sensible in the blacksmith’s workshop?” pointed out Katherine.


“This is no time for a debate, just go!”


Anne tried to shove Katherine from her but it was too late. Robert had launched himself off the stage at the pair of them.  His fist cannoned into the side of Anne’s head, propelling her into Katherine.  They both went down, Anne in unconsciousness and Katherine under the momentum of the attack.  As Anne hit the floor the crown was jarred from her hand, bouncing off across the flagstones.  Robert leapt over the downed women hoping to retrieve it.  A desperate outstretched hand from Katherine was enough to clip his heels and send him crashing to the floor too.


Katherine was on her feet quickly, bringing with her the sword from one of the nearby guards.  Robert had armed himself too and was facing her, waiting.


He weighed the sword in his hands with relish.  “Now where were we before your friend interrupted?”


Katherine purposefully gripped her own sword.  Though the spirit realm seemed real for all intents and purposes, and someone could be hurt of killed there just the same as in the physical world, there was just something more tangible about knowing she really was holding several pounds of sharp, deadly metal in her hand.  She raised it up before her in a challenging stance.  “I believe I was just about to beat you.”


Robert laughed, but it was cut short as Katherine’s blade smacked into his.  Robert repelled her attack but she came again, trying to press what little advantage she had.  He actually staggered back a couple of steps and she could see her chance.  There was a woman lying just behind his feet.  He hadn’t seen her.  Katherine ran at Robert, not concerned with trying to cut him, just hoping to gain enough momentum to push him back just that bit more.  Their swords banged together again and Robert swayed slightly.  It was just enough.  As his leg went back to steady himself it hit the woman’s prone form.  Then he was falling, landing on his back as he toppled over.  Katherine kicked his sword away and levelled her own at his chest, the point a fraction away from the material of his shirt.


Robert had the temerity to laugh at her.  “You won’t do it!  I know you.”


Katherine’s heart hammered in her chest as she stared at him.  His brown eyes were almost daring her to do it.  All she had to do was push downwards, the sharp blade and her weight would do the rest.  It would all be over.  Katherine’s arm shook on the sword but it stayed where it was. 


She couldn’t do it. 


Despite everything she just couldn’t take someone else’s life when they were helpless and at her mercy.  It had been the same with Kirby.  It was only the stormy English Channel that had saved her making the choice on that occasion.


Robert laughed again at her hesitation.  “Your father couldn’t get rid of me either and look where that got him.  I did him a favour by killing him, stupid old fool.”


Katherine felt the anger rising in her.  She could just picture him crowing as he killed her father, much as he was doing now.  Yet even that knowledge wasn’t enough to push her onto that final step.  It would be going past the point of no return.   The tip of the sword remained hovering above the front of Robert’s shirt.


Robert was on a roll now, sensing her inner conflict.  “And don’t think I’ll be languishing in some prison somewhere - the Syndicate has members everywhere.  It won’t be long before I’m out and haunting you again.  I’m going to make you pay for crossing me.  I’ll make both of you pay.”  His head turned to the side to look at the unconscious Anne.  The look of evil intent in his eyes was obvious as it swung back up to Katherine.  “And I’ll be sure to get the poison dosage right next time.”


The sword drove into his chest with surprising ease.  Katherine might have thought she hadn’t done it at all if it weren’t for the look of utter shock on Robert’s face.  Her own expression was a mask of impassivity as he looked to her in consternation.




His eyes fell to his body.  Already the blood was pumping out of it where Katherine held her sword firm in the flesh.  It was with some effort that he forced his widening pupils to her face again, still trying to comprehend what had occurred.


Katherine’s voice was cold.  “You don’t know me at all, not any more.”


His breath came in shallow gasps as the last of his life ebbed from him.  Startled brown eyes remained fixed on her and she supposed she should be more horrified by her actions than she was.  It seemed it really did get easier the second time around.




For a moment she could hear the boy she had once known in his voice.  He was frightened.


“Goodbye, Robert.”


His eyelids fluttered once.  There was a last rattling breath drawn past his lips and then they slid shut for the final time.  Katherine stared at his now peaceful face.  She did feel sad, sad for the boy he had once been, the one who had been lost long ago.





Anne felt a hand gently shaking her shoulder and slowly opened her eyes.  She still felt light-headed from her exertions as she sat up to see Katherine kneeling by her.  Anne’s eyes scanned the room for a moment.  “Robert?” she asked uncertainly.


Katherine shifted slightly to the side and Anne was able to see the Lord’s dead body behind her on the floor.  Blood was still oozing out over the stone from a large wound in his chest.  Anne could see Katherine was staring at him too, an indefinable look on her face.  Anne felt her heart lurch in sympathy, not because Robert was dead but because Katherine had been forced into that last violent resort.  Anne placed a simple comforting hand on Katherine’s arm.  “You had to do it.”


“Yes, I did,” answered Katherine without emotion.  She stared at Robert’s lifeless form for a few more seconds before seeming to mentally shaking herself out of her reverie.  She turned back to Anne and attempted a smile.  “And now we need to destroy this blasted crown,” she stated with more conviction, “And bring everyone else back from the spirit plane.”


Anne could see through the pretence of bravado, but the young woman decided to allow Katherine the sudden switch of topic for now.  There would be plenty of time for regrets and recriminations later.


“We could get out of here first,” Anne suggested, managing to get to her feet at last with a helping hand from Katherine, “Give us a chance to escape rather than have to face all these guards who are going to be awake in a few moments.”


“And carry Beatrice, Tobias and the friar with us?” asked Katherine doubtfully, casting a look in their direction.  “Anyway, hopefully Prince John will be grateful that we saved him from Robert’s clutches.  Not to mention we don’t have time, any longer and everyone could be trapped on the spirit plane forever.”


Anne glanced round the room, studying the forms of the many helpless nobles.  “It’s a shame we can’t be selective about who we have back,” she remarked as her eyes passed over Saskia’s unconscious body.  “Perhaps I could just give her a little memento of this day?”  Anne’s toe absently poked at the pike of one of the guards.  Katherine simply gave her a disapproving look.  “It was just a thought,” said Anne innocently.


Instead of exacting retribution on Saskia, Anne retrieved the joined crowns, surprised to find they came apart easily.  She held onto the Prince’s one and offered the other to Katherine.  “So how do we destroy it?”


Katherine surveyed the room, her eyes settling on something up on the stage.  “How about we put that to good use?” 


Anne followed her gaze to see she was looking at the executioner and his axe.  “You think it will work?” she asked doubtfully.


Katherine shrugged as she walked over to the chopping block that had been intended as a resting place for her own neck.  “Who knows, it’s a lot sharper and heavier than a sword.”


Anne found just how heavy as she tried to hoist it up off the ground.  It was obvious her strength was still lacking.  Katherine put the crown down on the block and placed her own hands with Anne’s on the handle.  “We’ve come this far together; we might as well finish this together.”


Anne nodded to Katherine before putting what strength she had into hefting the axe above their heads.  As Anne looked down at the innocuous golden crown a brief pang of regret flickered that they would be destroying the powerful item.  If someone who knew what they were doing could wear it...


Anne caught her thoughts before they got any further.  It was just that sort of temptation that her wormed its way into her mind back in the blacksmith’s forge.  She wondered if the crown itself was putting the ideas there.  It was just another reason to destroy it.  It was too dangerous to exist.


Gripping the handle tight she exchanged a quick verifying look with Katherine and then they swung.  The axe crashed into the crown.  Anne half-expected it to bounce off but instead the crown shattered under the force, splintering into a hundred tiny pieces, scattered over the stone in a shower of gold.  Anne was surprised; the axe should never have been able to inflict such damage.  She supposed it was more to do with the enchantment being broken and the release of power from the crown.   As evidence of that she heard the sound of stirring from around them as everyone found themselves back in their real bodies.


There were a lot of confused looks, including that of Prince John who had spotted the two women amongst those clambering to their feet.


“What dark magic was this?” he asked Katherine.


Katherine moved towards him, unhindered by the still befuddled guards and guests.  “A powerful weapon, m’lord,” she explained, “Fortunately it is now gone and I am pleased to be able to return this to you.”  She held out his crown.


“Thank you.”  He took it and gingerly placed it back on his head as if fearful it still held some magic that was going to ensnare him.  Anne noticed the Sheriff was behind the wary Prince, but not focussing on his monarch.  Instead his eyes were drawn to the body of Robert.  A mixture of emotions flashed across his face before he realised he was being watched.  His eyes fixed on Anne.  In that instant she knew the Sheriff and Robert had been in this together.  How she would ever prove as much she didn’t know.


In the mean time the Sheriff had turned his attention to the Prince, leaning forwards to address him.  “My lord, as much as I am gratified to see your possessions returned to you, I do believe we were about to have an execution.”


The Prince nodded.  “Of course you are right,” he agreed.


Anne stared at him in disbelief.  “But Katherine just saved you all!  You can’t still execute her!”


The room fell silent at her outburst.  You could have heard a squirrel crack a nut as the Prince stared at Anne like she had just murdered his mother and then spat on her lifeless corpse.  “How dare you speak to me that way, peasant!  He finally managed, barely able to contain his rage.  “Your head shall roll too!  Guards!”


Anne smacked away the first hand, and landed a punch in the stomach of the second guard who went for her.  With indignant rage she battered at the troops that were attempting to grab hold of her.  The ensuing fight tumbled down onto the main floor of the room, battering shocked onlookers out of the way.


“And she killed my poor husband!” came a shout from across the room.


Anne shot an angry look at Saskia as she continued to battle the guards.  “Liar!”


It seemed there was little hope for reason, though.  More and more guards were descending on Anne.  Katherine had already been captured, being held fast by a couple of the Sheriff’s men.  Anne couldn’t believe they had saved everyone for this.  Her resistance was furious but short-lived given the weight of the odds against her.  Finally a strong hand latched onto her arm.  Still she kicked out, catching someone on the shins and eliciting a cry of pain.


Anne was still struggling with the guards when a whisper started round the room.  It grew as it spread to all corners.  As it did, those who had heard it swivelled to the door and quickly dropped to their knees, heads bowed.  Finally the words reached Anne’s ears.  “The King! It’s Richard!”


The guards that had hold of Anne froze and then suddenly fell to the ground too, hauling the young woman with them.  For some reason Anne found herself automatically averting her eyes downwards, copying those around her.  She had never held much respect for tradition, but it was just what you did in the presence of proper royalty.  As the last remnants of the whisper died away an awed silence gripped the room.  It was as if a hundred people were holding their breath in eager anticipation.


The sound of a single pair of footsteps broke the calm, King Richard obviously making his way across the room.  A pair of boots came into the view of Anne’s down-turned eyes as he walked past.  All of a sudden he stopped and turned.   Now the boots were coming towards Anne, halting right in front of her.  The hand on her shoulder almost made her jump.


“Rise, please.”


The tone of authority in the deep voice gave her no alternative than to obey.  Slowly she got to her feet, the guards having let go of her in shock.  Her eyes tracked up the King’s clothes as she rose, taking in the chain mail and the white tabard with a red cross on it. Finally she reached a distinguished, bearded face.  It took only a second for recognition to dawn.  He was much cleaner and healthy looking now but it was definitely the man she had come to the aid of back in Calais not two weeks before.


“You?” she cried incredulously.


There was a collective gasp from the other bowed heads as she dared to speak out of turn.  Rather than appear equally affronted, a smile actually broke across the King’s face.


“Hello, again,” he said warmly.


Anne could only stare stupidly at the man before her.  This was the King?  


“All of you,” called Richard commandingly to everyone else in the room, “On your feet.”


The heads came up uncertainly at first, before everyone stood, some still averting their eyes from looking directly at the King.  One pair of eyes that weren’t on him were Katherine’s.  She was staring at Anne, a questioning look of bewilderment on her face.  Anne could only shrug, unable to speak up at that moment.


“Now I want to know what’s going on here,” continued Richard, looking at the Sheriff and his cousin Prince John. 


The Sheriff was the one to reply while the Prince looked a mixture of annoyed and scared.  “What’s going on is that this woman is an outlaw who has committed many crimes.  We were about to execute her and her accomplice.”


The King’s eyes narrowed.  “Even though, by all accounts, these two women just saved you all?” 


The Sheriff had no answer to that, no doubt wondering how the King knew as much.  It also wasn’t wise to argue with a beloved monarch who had just miraculously returned to his country after so long.  The King continued instead. 


“I met a young man on the road here who told me a very interesting tale.”  He gestured to the back of the hall where Anne could see the King’s guard waiting.  Amongst them was Thomas, resting heavily against the entrance.  He managed a weak smile.  So that was how the King knew.


The King turned back to Anne.  “So is this true?  Are you an outlaw?”


“Why are you asking her?” piped up Prince John at last, though his voice seemed more high-pitched and whiny than it had previously.  “I’ve already made my decision!”


Anne really wouldn’t have wanted to be in the Prince’s shoes at that moment as the King shot his cousin a ferocious look.  “Last time I looked, I was still the King,” he said with deceptive evenness.   He held the Prince’s eye until the other man wilted under the intense scrutiny.  Satisfied the small power struggle had been settled Richard questioned Anne once more.  “So?”


“I’m afraid it is true, sire.”


He nodded thoughtfully.  “Well, we can’t have that can we.”


Anne could only look at him in confusion.  The King leant forward.  “You did save my life after all,” he whispered just to her.


As he leant back again she could see a small smile on his lips.  Anne was too stunned to say anything in return, unable to quite comprehend the latest turn of events on an already unbelievable day.  The King raised his voice so he could address the room as a whole.


“Let it be known that from this day forward…”


He paused to look at Anne, the young woman realising after a moment that he was after her name.  “Anne of Oxton,” she quickly supplied.


“Let it be known that for services to her King and country, Anne of Oxton is hereby granted a full pardon of all crimes.”


For a moment Anne thought she hadn’t heard right.  Or maybe she was imagining things?   She blinked a couple of times, wondering if she was going to wake up from a dream.   Everyone else appeared equally as astounded, a hush having fallen over the room again.  One person who wasn’t confounded was Katherine.  In fact the other woman had the most enormous grin on her face.  Anne found the corners of her own mouth twitching uncertainly upwards as she saw it.  Then Katherine was bounding towards her and enveloping her in a joyous embrace.  Anne was still a little shocked and for a moment she stood rigid as Katherine wrapped her arms around her, able to see more astonished looks around them.  One particular one she was gratified to see was the look of near apoplexy on the face of Lady Saskia.  Anne couldn’t resist offering a smug wink in return.  The warmth of the body pressed up against her quickly made her forget any remaining sense of decorum.  Finally allowing herself a smile she relaxed into the hug, pulling Katherine close. 





With her feelings of elation bubbling over, it had seemed only natural for Katherine to run over and hug Anne.  Now though she was acutely aware of who was standing next to them and disentangled herself, the flush of embarrassment creping into her cheeks.


Richard didn’t comment on the embrace though.  “I’ll make sure you get an official written copy of that,” he said to Anne, “Just in case anyone questions you.”  His eyes flicked to a furious looking Sheriff.


“Thank you, m’lord,” said Anne.  Katherine didn’t think she had ever heard the young woman being quite so respectful to anyone.  The adherence to tradition didn’t last long though as Anne spoke up with a question.


“And what about Katherine?”


The King turned to her, a contemplative look on his face.  “Ah yes, we’ve met before, Lady Katherine of Markham isn’t it?” 


“Yes, m’lord.”


“Your husband was with me in Sicily,” he recalled, “My condolences over what happened to him there.  He was a good man.”


Katherine didn’t think it was the right time and place to bring up that Mark hadn’t actually met his end on the Italian island as the King assumed.  Nor that he wasn’t quite such a ‘good man’.


“And you’ve been causing trouble for my cousin as well have you?” asked the King.


“I’m afraid so m’lord,” said Katherine with absolutely no remorse.


The King nodded thoughtfully.  “Jolly good show.”  He raised his voice to the already bewildered crowd again.  “I hereby decree that Lady Katherine of Markham is also exonerated of any crimes she may have committed and that all her estates be released to her forthwith.”  His next remark was directed just at her.  “I’m sure there was a good reason.”


His eyes moved briefly to Anne at her side and for a moment she could have sworn he knew about her the two of them.  Had he deduced something from her reaction to Anne’s pardon and their slightly more than friendly hug?  If he had he didn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered.  In fact she got the distinct impression he was silently approving by the knowing look and sly smile on his face.


“Thank you, m’lord.”


Since Anne had seen fit to query on her behalf, Katherine supposed she might as well bring up the subject of the rest of her party.  Richard readily agreed that all of them were also cleared of any alleged crimes.


“Now I need to have a long talk with my cousin about the state of my country,” he added,  “I think all that’s left to say to you both is thank you and….you are free to go.”


Free.  Katherine tested out the word in her mind  They were free.  She had almost forgotten what it meant.  For the first time in a long time there was no weight of duty and responsibility on her shoulders, no onerous tasks to be completed, no syndicates to fight, no crowns to destroy, no one time friends to…   Katherine’s thoughts stalled and she subconsciously glanced behind her to where Robert’s body was being removed from the room. 


The barest of touches on her arm was enough to break her distraction.  “Katherine?”


Anne was watching her, uncertainty colouring her features.  Katherine turned her back to Robert.  Now wasn’t the time for looking to the past she resolved.  She had no use for remorse over someone who had made their choices long ago.  She had a whole future to look forward to instead, one that held all sorts of possibilities that before this day had seemed unlikely. 





The sun was bright as they came out into the open air of the castle courtyard.  Katherine closed her eyes and turned her face up, letting the warmth wash over skin.  It spread throughout her, lifting her already flying spirits further. 


What a glorious day it was to be alive!


She felt the touch of something against her hand, slender fingers working their way between her own.  She smiled to herself before she opened her eyes.  Another radiant smile met her look.  Anne was grinning broadly as she held Katherine’s hand, flouting all sorts of rules of propriety and not seeming to care in the slightest.  Katherine could understand that, today it felt like they could do anything.  The sun dappled gently over Anne’s golden hair and across her smooth face as Katherine merely stood watching her.  God, she’s beautiful, thought Katherine to herself.  It seemed like too long since she’d been able to take the time to think about such things, to allow herself such carefree thoughts.  She allowed her smile to broaden, fearing it might just break right off her face if it got any bigger.


It was prevented from doing so by Anne’s lips which were suddenly covering her own.  Katherine supposed she should be more shocked by the public display of affection, but all she could really think about was the luscious feel of the lips.  She wrapped her arms around Anne’s waist and drew her closer, deepening the kiss. 


“I guess you two think the King will pardon just about anything today!”


Katherine pulled back to see Beatrice regarding them, barely holding back from rolling her eyes.  Behind her were Tobias, Thomas and the friar all also staring at them as they blocked the exit.  Katherine couldn’t help laughing even though there was a serious underside to Beatrice’s flippant comment.  Anne might not be an outlaw anymore, but that still didn’t mean anyone would look favourably on an intimate relationship between the two of them.  Still, Katherine didn’t want to think about obstacles today, not when so many of them had been removed.  She was sure they could find a way round that last remaining one, it would just take some thought and invention. 


As the others manoeuvred past them in the direction of the gate, Thomas paused.  “I hope I upheld your trust in me,” he said.  He looked as if he was in some pain, clutching at his stomach where he had been shot the day before.  As he wobbled slightly Beatrice came back up the steps to offer a supportive arm.


“You did just fine,” Katherine said, touching his arm in gratitude.


Thomas simply gave a satisfied nod before hobbling off down the steps with Beatrice’s aid and across the courtyard.  Katherine and Anne stayed where they were on the top of the steps, smiling inanely at one another for what seemed like an eternity.  Katherine didn’t really care; she didn’t want this wonderful day to end.  It was Anne who was first to speak.


“Back to Markham then?” she asked.


“Yes,” agreed Katherine, “Back to Markham…together.”








Two weeks later


Katherine sat down at the desk in her bedroom at Markham Manor and tried for the third time to read the words on the pages before her.  They didn’t seem to want to penetrate her brain.  Her body may have been in the room, but her mind was still off out in the fields, enjoying the last few glorious days of summer in Anne’s company as she had done since their return from Nottingham.  Katherine forced herself to concentrate and stop thinking about blond hair tumbling over naked shoulders as they lay down in the grass while the warm sun caressed their bodies. 


Mentally shaking herself, she scanned the reports compiled by Tobias that sat before her on the desk.  There wasn’t much in them; things were quiet.  Katherine always worried when things were quiet.  It made her think people were up to something, people like the Sheriff.  Since the King’s return the Sheriff appeared to be behaving himself, but how long would that last?  Anne was convinced the man had been in league with Robert and Katherine was inclined to agree.  Given that suspicion she had resolved to maintain a close watch over him until he slipped up and gave her something to bring before the King.  That was if the King stuck around long enough.  There were already rumours that he wanted to go back to the Holy Land. 


The door opening saved her from having to contemplate that further.  She looked up too see Beatrice barging in backwards.  She dumped the bag she was hefting on the floor, turned and almost jumped out of her skin as she saw Katherine.


“Sorry, m’lady, didn’t realise you were in,” she said, putting a hand on her chest as if to still a racing heart.  “I thought you’d be off out again.”  Beatrice added a small wink to indicate what she was referring to as if it wasn’t plainly obvious.


Katherine let it go, just happy to see the maid was in good humour.  “No, I have some work to do unfortunately.  What’s it like out this morning?”


“Another scorcher,” replied Beatrice as she started to put the laundry away, “I think I might take a trip up to the river later to cool off.”


“On your own?”


Beatrice’s blush was enough of an answer. 


“I’m glad you two are on speaking terms again,” said Katherine, not having to mention who they were talking about.


“Yes, well,” grumbled Beatrice to herself as she finished up, “I couldn’t stay mad much longer.  All those doleful, pathetic looks he kept giving me…it was enough to drive me mad!”


Katherine smiled, knowing Beatrice would never admit that it was the fact she loved Thomas so much that had allowed her to forgive him.  After the young maid had gone, Katherine reluctantly turned back to her papers.  Pushing the notes on the Sheriff to one side, she came to a brief report on Lady Saskia.  It stated how the scheming noblewoman was now in charge of the Chesterfield estate after her husband’s untimely death.  Katherine didn’t think Saskia offered any immediate threat considering how her claims regarding Katherine’s relationship with Anne had been discredited following the King’s pardon.  However, Katherine wasn’t foolish enough to think those sorts of rumours and accusations couldn’t resurface, if there was sufficient evidence.  Unfortunately Saskia had been wily enough to avoid any provable connection with the Syndicate, but Katherine hoped the other woman would turn her scheming attentions elsewhere now rather than give them any further trouble.


There was another sound from her door, a knock this time.  Katherine sighed, though was secretly happy for the distraction.  The every day business of the manor was a welcome reminder of how things appeared to be back to normal, or at least what passed for normal in her life. 


“Come in.”


The friar’s bald head popped round the door.  “Ah, good, you’re in!” He breezed into the room and flashed her a grin.  “You’ve become quite elusive these past couple of weeks, but then it’s only to be expected after all you’ve been through, taking some time to yourself…or not as the case may be.”  His wink was even less subtle than Beatrice’s had been. 


Katherine tried to give him a withering look, but her heart wasn’t in it.   She couldn’t bring herself to be stern when she felt anything but.  “Did you want something in particular, or is it just a house call?”


“I just need you to look over the notes for the harvest festival service,” he said, adding to her pile of papers with some fresh ones.  “You’ll be expected to say something too.”


Katherine gave the notes a cursory glance internally bemoaning the ‘joys’ of being lady of the manor.  She realised the friar was still hovering.  “Was there something else?”


“I have a message from our mutual friend.”


Katherine rolled her eyes at the furtive tone.  “And what does Robin have to say?”  The friar flinched at the use of the outlaw’s name and started nervously looking round.  “There’s no one in here to hear anything,” pointed out Katherine.


The friar stopped his survey.  “Really?  No one hiding under the bed then?” he asked suggestively.


This time Katherine did manage something approximating withering in her look.  The friar looked somewhat abashed and wisely decided to get to the point.


“He has a request.”


Katherine felt a twinge of apprehension.  She hoped Robin didn’t want her to do anything illegal.  She had only just got a pardon after all and he had only just managed to elude both Barton and Robert’s men back in Nottingham.  Maybe now the King had returned she could see about getting the other outlaws a pardon too, even if Nicholas obstinately claimed he didn’t want one.  Anything seemed possible these days.


“Go on,” she prompted the friar.


He paused for dramatic effect before answering.  “He asked if you’d care to join him for dinner one day, you and Anne.”


Katherine was momentarily taken aback.  “Dinner?”  It wasn’t exactly what she had been expecting.


“Yes, a meal, with food…if you can call what Nicholas cooks up that.”


“Thank you, I know what a dinner is.”  Katherine suspected the friar had been deliberately obtuse explaining Robin’s offer, a small joke at her expense.  She supposed there was no harm in meeting with the outlaw, as long as she was discrete.  It wasn’t like she could avoid him since he and Anne were so close and his assistance may yet be invaluable in the future.  “I’ll need to check with Anne, but I’m sure she’d love to come, as would I.”


“She’s not around then?”  The friars eyes had drifted to the bed again, having made a questioning glance at the wardrobe on the way.


Katherine sighed.  “Honestly, she’s not in here.”  Though right about now Katherine was wishing she was. 


The friar excused himself and Katherine was left alone with her papers again.  She half-heartedly flicked through the remainder, happy to see that things seemed to be back to normal on the estate after her absence.  Yet there was one point of concern they didn’t cover.  It was the tiny glimmer of dark on her otherwise bright horizon - Axia.  Anne had told her what the pagan woman had said back on the spirit plane and Katherine knew Axia would come calling again sooner or later to collect on her perceived debt.  Personally Katherine thought Anne had already paid high enough a price.  As far as she was concerned Axia and her friends could go swing if they thought they were going to whisk Anne away at some point to perform their secret task.  She supposed they could worry about that if and when it happened. 


At least there had been no signs of communication from the pagan woman in the last couple of weeks.  Then again Anne had been too busy trying out a variety of jobs around the manor or satisfying her ladyship’s latest request for a “private walk” to have much time for re-developing her pagan abilities.  Katherine’s mind started to drift again to those “walks” that didn’t actually seem to involve much walking at all.  In fact they didn’t involve much time upright in general.   


A sound from the window drew Katherine’s attention.  What with the interruptions and her mutinous mind it was obvious she wasn’t going to get any work done today.  She glanced up to see Anne clambering into the room, stealthily dropping onto the wooden floor.   As she straightened up Katherine gave her a curious look.


“What are you doing?”


Anne shrugged.  “Sneaking in.”


Katherine shook her head in consternation.  “But you don’t need to do that anymore,” she reminded the young woman, “You’re free to move around the manor house like any other person.”


“What can I say? Old habits die hard.”  Anne moved closer, coming up behind Katherine where she sat.  A pair of warm hands found their way onto Katherine’s shoulders, gently massaging them.  Katherine felt her previous troublesome thoughts fading away.  “Talking of which, I’ve had an idea for what I can do around the manor house,” continued Anne.


“Oh yes?”  Katherine was finding it quite hard to concentrate on Anne’s words as the young woman’s fingers caressed her shoulders.  She found her eyes naturally slipping shut as she relaxed back into the touch.


“I thought I could join the guard.”


Katherine tried to hide her surprise.  “The guard?  That’s certainly an interesting idea.  I’m not quite sure what Tobias would make of it.”


“I’m sure he’d be fine,” said Anne as she continued her ministrations, “We’ve come to a sort of understanding ever since France.”


“That wasn’t really what I meant,” said Katherine, “I meant more to do with the fact that you’re a woman.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any female troops.”


Anne’s hand movements paused.  “You think I’m any less capable than any of your existing guards?”


“Well, since you put it that way, absolutely not,” said Katherine, “In fact I’m convinced you’re much better equipped for the task than most of them.”  She was satisfied when her reassuring words led to a resumption of the intimate stroking.  “Though whether they’d be quite so pleased to have a woman showing them up is another matter.”


“Who cares if I wounded a few overblown male egos?” said Anne dismissively, “I could always use my old outlaw name if they’d prefer, at least then they wouldn’t have to refer to me in a feminine way.”


“Though I presume you wouldn’t tell them what ‘Seven’ actually refers to?”


“Gods no!” stated Anne vehemently.  She leant forwards, her lips just brushing an ear.  It sent a tiny shiver of anticipation through Katherine.  “That particular gem is our little secret.”  Katherine could still feel the residual wisps of hot breath as Anne straightened up again and absently resumed her massaging as she spoke.  “Though actually I was thinking that I wouldn’t spend that much time with the regular troops.  I thought I could act more as a sort of personal guard.”


Katherine craned her head round.  “And whom might you be guarding?”


“I was thinking maybe the friar…”  Anne trailed off as she saw Katherine’s brow furrowing.  “All right!  I’m joking!  I would be guarding you of course.”


Katherine mulled it over - her own private guard…her own private…close…personal guard.  It had a certain appeal.  Especially if said guard continued to offer massages like she was currently getting.


“If I held such a position I might not feel the need to still sneak in your window,” added Anne, “Since I’d have a valid reason for being in here for extended periods.  At the moment if I come in the door everyone knows I’m in here, and then they might wonder why I didn’t come back out for…” Anne took a moment to consider, “…two hours?” 


Katherine looked over her shoulder again, her lips curving into a suggestive smile.  “Just two hours?”


Anne’s hands stilled for a moment, resting tantalisingly close to the neckline of Katherine’s dress and the bare skin beneath.  “Three?”


Katherine reached up and started to trace a teasing path over the back of Anne’s hand with a single finger.  “Keep going.”


“Will I get out of here while it’s still light?”


Katherine kept a hold of Anne’s hand as she rose to face the young woman.  Her voice slipped into a husky low purr.  It’s light tomorrow morning.” 


Anne smiled.  “Now how could I resist an offer like that?”


“Resistance is…”


Katherine found a finger on her lips stopping her mid-sentence.  She didn’t object to the interruption, especially not when it was swiftly followed by Anne’s lips replacing her finger.  Nor did she object as Anne guided her over to the bed and laid her down upon it.  As Anne started to kiss down her neck she thought she could get used to this personal guarding idea.  By the time she was tipping her head to the heaven’s and breathlessly taking the lord’s name in vain, Katherine wasn’t thinking about much at all apart from the sheer joyful bliss of the moment.