S. Y. Thompson
Janeway's dreaming. Or is she? (Posted to the web May 2004)
And the world was overcome. Mankind had become a plague sweeping over its face and the plague’s companions were war, strife and grief. Man was cruel to its own kind, thoughtless of the land which nurtured it and ignorant of the other life inhabiting the same planet. Scores of wildlife disappeared from the world without a trace.
Mother nature suffered under the yoke as her skin was ravaged by the plow and her precious minerals mined for baubles and trinkets. She cried out to the great Gods for mercy from her burden and unable to bear her mournful cries they answered.
The answer came in the form of a young woman that sprang fully-grown from a mountainside in the Antarctic. She had the wisdom of the owl, the strength of the bull, the compassion of the deer, the courage of the lion and the heart of the lamb. She was the embodiment of all that was woman. But in this world ruled by the brutality of man, she was one that would not be downtrodden. Her identity was Grace.
Golden hair flowed around broad shoulders. Lips shaped like a perfect bow were traditionally stoic but would one day place the kiss of grace on the one that would alter the balance of the world. Eyes as blue as the artic wilderness would see the truth in the hearts of men and justice would be served by her blade, Kitani.
Katrina had heard the legends and knew that Grace would someday smile on the city. For now Triania was corrupt and oppressed under her father’s rule. But in the Land of Honui the male domination was not locked in stone. With no male heir Katrina would one day take her father’s command of the city and surrounding lands. When that happened Grace would smile on them. Katrina would change the laws, justice would be served and oppression would be a thing of the past. She didn’t believe in the stories surrounding Grace, didn’t believe she was a Goddess meting out righteousness. Katrina believed grace was a state of being; it was something that would be achieved when the human heart learned to embrace compassion, honor and virtue.
But when years had passed since the stories of Grace began and the city was still crushed under the weight of oppression Katrina began to grow weary. Her father was no longer a young man but he still ruled Triania with an iron fist. Unable to bear it any longer she decided that fate needed a push and she had to take matters into her own hands.
Her heavy skirts rustled busily as she crossed the dirt compound. Trying not to glance at the prisoners lashed in the courtyard, she passed into a darkened alleyway. The time had come for her to act and she had come to meet a contact… an assassin. Katrina’s advisor had told her the assassin would dispatch her evil father without leaving a link to her. The only stipulation being that the executioner would speak with her first.
In the gathering dusk Katrina could see only a vague shadowy outline against the buildings. The solitary form was tall and lean, yet the menacing air was unmistakable. Katrina shivered and tried to tell herself it was generated by the gathering night, but fear forced her tongue to cleave dryly to the roof of her mouth.
"You are the one," a woman’s voice pronounced with certainty. "You are the General’s daughter, the one that would be Queen."
The voice was familiar, yet that of a stranger. It was the voice of destruction, and the promise of chaos. It was the voice of change, and Katrina knew that as frightening as the prospect was it was a voice she had to embrace.
"I am," Katrina responded simply, surprised at the firm resolve carried in her own husky voice.
A gaze assessed the resolve in her stance; the weight so heavy the noblewoman who would be warrior felt it in the darkness. There was a test coming. Not one of weapons or stratagems, but one of character. If she failed the test she would be struck down where she stood. But Katrina was hopeful for she knew that if she passed a new age would begin.
"Why should he die?"
The simple question surprised her, but she realized there were many layers to what seemed a casual query.
"He is evil. He rapes the land and murders all who would oppose him."
"Many would say this is common for a ruler. A leader must maintain control."
Heating up to the challenge Katrina countered, "A true leader welcomes new ideas and leads through example. Mercy isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength, compassion."
"And you are the one to lead through mercy. Why you, and no other?"
"The people recognize me as the rightful heir," Katrina replied with a characteristic shrug.
"That is your answer?" The voice asked angrily. "Only the fact that you are next in the line gives you the right to replace the King?"
Katrina was treading a very thin line, but felt her own outrage rising in her chest.
"No, it isn’t the only reason, but it is the one that will place me in power. Why me? Because I will do whatever it takes to protect my kingdom and my people. They need to be free."
"Even if it requires you to commit murder?"
Katrina weighted the question carefully but quickly. They were discussing her father’s murder, yet she felt nothing. She hardly knew the man. He was cruel, oppressive and paranoid. Fearing plots from every angle he refused trade and closed the lands off with impenetrable armies, stagnating the population. This man was a bully and Katrina cared nothing for bullies.
"Even if," she affirmed strongly.
"Your journey will not be easy. Are you prepared for the peril ahead of you?"
"I’m ready," Katrina said carefully. "This is the first step in bringing my people home."
"Then step forward."
Katrina hesitated. This was the invitation she had coveted, but now that it was issued she was frightened. There was something telling her that this woman wasn’t all talk, she was dangerous. There was no guarantee the assassin wouldn’t kill her.
Think of the people. Hadn’t she just said she would do anything to bring them home?
Swallowing her fear Katrina stepped away from the building and into the center of the passageway. It was lighter there and Katrina felt exposed as the stranger lingered in the shadows. Fear trembled through her small frame as the figure moved and her cloak shifted. Light glinted off the metal of a blade as the woman unsheathed the weapon.
"Hold out your hand."
The intent was obvious and Katrina’s heart pounded even as her palms began to sweat. The cost of this pact would be one paid in blood and for a moment Katrina considered the notion of returning to her knitting and entertaining nobles at court.
Steeling her resolve, the redhead held out her right hand hoping that the stranger wouldn’t see her tremble in the moonlight.
"Do it," she ordered roughly.
"You are worthy," the assassin stated harshly as she stepped suddenly next to Katrina with the blade flashing, "to accept the gift of Grace."
Sharp steel cut quickly across the palm of her hand. Katrina felt the pain dimly, the largest part of her centered on the woman in front of her. Even in the darkness her beauty was overwhelming, but the only feature that struck Katrina’s mind was the ice blue of the woman’s eyes. Katrina thought she knew her, but from where?
Pain swirled in her head, blinding her vision and it was only after a long moment bent over and struggling to hold on to consciousness that she realized she was alone. Tempted to believe that she had imagined the entire exchange Katrina opened her hand. Blood welled visibly from the large gash assuring her that she had not hallucinated, but how had the woman left so quickly?
The sound of laughing partygoers suddenly found purchase in her foggy mind and she realized that she was alone in a dark alley, easy prey for any scoundrel that happened along. The night had grown quite late and she had to hasten back to the castle before she was missed. Holding her cloak around her face for concealment she hurried through the town trying to ignore the burning of her wound and hoping that she would not be recognized.
Katrina stumbled against the stone wall of the castle keep. The palm of her hand throbbed insistently although the bleeding had all but ceased. It was imperative that the guards not notice the wound as it would undoubtedly be reported to her father. Her guilt convinced her that the tyrannical patriarch would recognize the mark for what it was, the brand sealing her to a plot to take his life.
Fear at discovery caused sweat to bead above her lip as she attempted to hide her hand in the folds of her heavy skirt. Attempting to be casual she grasped the garment in her injured hand and strode casually through the portico. In the torchlight that illuminated the area, she could hardly make out the weathered features of the soldier on duty.
Logic comforted her as she realized the gloom would keep him from noticing anything amiss.
"There you are!"
Turning with a guilty start at the harsh tone Katrina spied her handmaiden stalking toward her across the cold stone floor. Torches were lit and hung against the walls to light the entranceway and shadows scurried ahead of the old woman. It was only then that Katrina realized how late it had become.
This was unusual behavior for her to be sure and would never do, she thought, otherwise someone would surely deduce something was wrong. As paranoid as King Lotar was he would leap to the conclusion that she was after his thrown, and he would be right.
"What’s the matter, Hannah? Am I now not permitted a simple moonlight walk?" Katrina asked lightly, attempting to supply an innocuous alibi.
Worry showed clearly on the wrinkled visage of the woman that had tended Katrina since her entry into the world. "M’lady, if you please! The nights are not safe for a noblewoman. You should have taken your personal guard or at the very least a chaperone. It’s not seemly!"
Snorting in frustration the redhead retorted sharply, "Honestly, Hannah. I feel like a prisoner in our own kingdom."
Recognizing an old argument Hannah calmed quickly. Katrina had always been headstrong, and free-spirited, but she was also highly intelligent. They were qualities that would someday serve her well as a ruler. Unfortunately she was also rash at times.
"It is not safe," she simply responded.
Immediately contrite Katrina rested her uninjured hand on the older woman’s shoulder. Releasing her tension in a sigh she said, "You’re right, of course, Hannah. I’m sorry I worried you. But I’m safe, and it’s late. Why don’t you get some sleep?"
"After I get you settled into bed."
"I think I can manage on my own," Katrina said smiling kindly.
Hannah could clearly see the leader Katrina would become and could only pray that the time would arrive soon. But it was not a thought she would ever voice aloud for fear of losing her head.
As she left for the servant’s quarters Katrina ascended the winding staircase to the third floor of the drafty castle. Her rooms were spacious with heavy furs covering the floors. A brocade curtain hung around the large circular bed, providing her a measure of privacy. They were not under constant guard as the King’s chambers where, and allowed her to feel as though she had a sanctuary in the world. Ignoring the lure of freshly laundered sheets, Katrina stepped over to the washbasin sitting on her dressing table and inspected her injured hand. A narrow slice ran across the palm of her hand. It was red but not inflamed, and would be barely perceptible. Still she would have to take care that it would go unnoticed until it healed.
After cleaning the wound, she decided not to bandage it lest it draw undue attention. Gratefully she headed to bed and drew back the heavy curtain. Seeing the multitude of cushions she was suddenly exhausted.
Knowing Hannah would fuss but too tired to care, Katrina striped her clothing off and climbed naked between the sheets. It was doubtful that the other servants would report the bloodstains on the cloth since it wasn’t always wise to draw the attention of royalty.
Though slumber hovered at the fringes of her consciousness, beating futilely like bat wings against a stonewall Katrina could not help but fret over the pact she had made. When sleep finally did claim her it was stealthily as a thief in the night, gradually, and completely taking her unaware.
Shadows crept across the old King’s bedchamber as the moon sailed steadily through the night sky. Lotar slept fitfully, tangled in the sweat-soaked sheets as he fought with his nocturnal demons; a nightmare of disjointed images and half-heard voices playing in his head.
A curtain moved softly, rustled by the night breeze. Although the King had many enemies he was never concerned with one taking him in his sleep. His chambers were located high in the tower, a circular room usually reserved for prisoners. Not even the mice in the castle were comfortable being so high. A single set of stone steps led to the tower room and four of the King’s Guard were posted at any given time. Even if he was conducting business elsewhere a guard contingent was always present lest an unknown assassin creep in and lay in wait for him.
A slightly stagnant odor wafted on the breeze, the scent created by the dirty, unmoving water held in the moat. Mist floated gently into the room and on the amorphous tendrils a figure emerged. Moonlight glinted off of a gold breastplate and heavy shoulder plates. A golden helmet covered the head, fitting low and concealing much of the feminine features.
Eyes glinting emotionless like stones on the bottom of a stream she stepped quietly into the room. Long fingers steadied the heavy sword at her side although she had no intention of using the Kitani. Grace would not bestow the gift of an honorable death on such a cowardly human. He ruled from the safety of his throne, crushing the people under heavy taxes and taking food from the mouths of children. He was not worthy.
Lotar was never aware of the presence that crossed silently to his side. He never felt the frigid hand of death that rested heavily on his forehead.
"Your time is done."
With the utterance of her words, Lotar’s final breath left his wretched body. He would be found by his servants who would attribute his death to natural causes.
Grace was sure of the path that Katrina had set them on, but it would not be as smooth as the other woman assumed. There would be strife; there would be chaos.
A small smile curled her lips, but it was a smile without joy or pleasure. It was the smile of a predator.
"But Galron, Katrina is the rightful heir," the white-haired old man’s hands shook slightly with palsy, but he was firm in his argument. King Lotar was dead, apparently of natural causes, and the last thing he wanted to see was another tyrant take his place. Obviously that was where Galron was headed and Marco was quite aware that he had a great deal of support from inside the court.
A messenger returning to court in the early morning hours just before dawn had found the King. Lotar had left orders that the messenger was to report on the results of new taxes levied against his outer cities immediately upon his arrival. When the man went to the royal chambers he had discovered the old man dead.
Since the rest of the castle was still sleeping no one else knew of the King’s demise. Only his top advisor had been apprised, and he had immediately called for the others to join him at this meeting. His intent was clear from the moment he spoke.
"Perhaps, but she is only a woman. What does a woman know?"
Galron was dark and swarthy with a full black beard, and shoulder length dark, curly hair. His dark features made him appear frightening to the older man, but Marco intended to stand up to him.
"She knows enough to realize that the people will follow her. The law is absolute, Galron, and not even someone as power hungry as you can change that."
"Have a care, Marco," Galron warned him in a dangerous tone. "Or I shall have your tongue cut from your insubordinate body. You should remember that I am not only the captain of the guard, but also the King’s brother. Since he had no other heir, I am next in line."
"But what of Katrina?" Marco asked carefully knowing full well that the other man was quite capable of carrying out his threat.
"The people cannot follow her if she is already dead!"
Absolute silence reigned in the chamber as all members of the consul realized what he was proposing. All in all there were seventeen men present, all of them advisors of some sort to the crown or members of Galron’s personal guard. Even though the statement was inflammatory, no one dissented. Marco hoped that another would speak out against the dark man, but when no one did he felt compelled.
"This is treason," he said softly, almost to himself but Galron heard and knew before the Lady Katrina was dealt with there was another more pressing obstacle to overcome.
Eyes narrowed in anger, he glanced at his second in command, Coltek. Coltek was a tall man who wore only dark clothing. Even his cloak was black; some speculated it was the same color as his heart. His broad flat face was complete with sharp-edged features. A two-inch dueling scar carved the left side of his face from the corner of his eye to his jaw.
When he smiled others trembled, as the smile imparted no warmth to his face but actually caused him to appear more threatening. With huge shoulders and massive arms he was capable of breaking a man in half, and he was loyal to no one save Galron.
In the glance that passed between them was a silent communiqué. Coltek’s dark eyes glittered in the dim illumination as he glanced wordlessly toward the white-haired Marco. Bringing his eyes back to his leader, he nodded almost imperceptibly. The exchange took only a few seconds and no one else noticed.
Of the others present, Galron felt he had their full support. "Suggestions?" he asked completely unconcerned that Marco was still present. He would be dealt with before he had the chance to warn anyone.
A quiet man with hair the color of straw spoke for the first time. He was one of Galron’s lieutenants and was as brilliant as he was ambitious. He would follow anyone who had power. Having listened carefully he knew exactly what they had to do. "You must be crowned as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there are certain formalities that must be observed before the people will recognize your authority."
"Yes," another spoke, "the bishop must be commissioned, invitations sent to heads of state…"
Losing his limited patience, Galron slammed a fist onto a wooden tabletop. "There is no time!" he shouted.
"M’lord, if I may?" Coltek interrupted in his gravelly voice. "I believe we shall have all of the time you require."
"Your main concern is the Princess. Once she is eliminated there will be no one to challenge your claim to the throne. We simply need to …dispense with her as quickly as possible."
Snorting at the flaw in the plan, the self-appointed leader asked, "And how do you propose we accomplish this fact? Don’t you think it will be obvious that it was treachery that would cause the death of both of the royal family?"
"Does it matter?" the question caused all others to look at Philip in astonishment, but the man merely continued calmly. "That is the great thing about a Monarchy. As long as there is nothing linking you to the Lady’s death, no one will dare defy you. The trick is to make it look like an accident."
"Yes," Galron agreed picking up the thread. "She likes to ride, and horses are very high-spirited creatures. Should a horse spook, she might fall…"
"You need to be far away," Coltek interrupted.
"But appearances must be maintained," Philip continued. "Let the Royal wake be held tonight and the King buried on the morrow. Katrina will believe that she is preparing to be crowned and when she takes her normal ride we will strike."
"And if she doesn’t ride for several days?" the man who would be King whined impatiently.
"Then you have more time to prepare your followers," Coltek responded simply.
Yes, Galron thought. Of course, he simply had to be patient. The accident had to appear to be without question.
"See to it," he ordered them all but fixed Coltek with a hard stare.
Coltek understood the dual order and dipped his head humbly before following the others from the room. Marco shuffled with the grace of the geriatric across the stone floor, unaware of the tall man that followed in his wake.
Crossing the great hall, the old man pulled his robes closer around him to ward off the chill. He had lived in the castle all his life, and only recently had the cold begun to affect him. Magnificent ornamental tapestries covered the walls but did little to prevent the wind from finding its way through the chipped, peeling mortar. Still he loved it here; it was his home.
Marco had been a young man when King Lotar was born. He had been appointed his counselor while Lotar had been young and served him faithfully all his life. Although Marco didn’t agree with Lotar’s tyranny he stayed loyal believing that he helped influence some of the man’s decisions. He tried to use that influence to keep things from becoming too unbearable. When Katrina had been born, Marco was overjoyed. She was like a ray of sunshine coming into a land that had seen darkness for all too many years.
He had looked forward to the day when the headstrong woman would rule. Even though she was the King’s daughter, she had been influenced by the people around her and rarely saw her father. She would be a just, compassionate leader. Now she was threatened and Marco had to find some way to warn her. Unfortunately he knew that Galron was just as paranoid as the King had been and was undoubtedly having him watched. He would have to be careful.
With that in mind Marco strove to act as natural as he could. The hour was late and the normal thing for an old man to do was retire to his chambers. There were few others moving in the eighty-three-room castle as he walked down the hallways toward his rooms that were located toward the back of the structure. As his years advanced, Marco had moved from his chambers near the King to the first floor. It was easier to get around with his arthritic knees if he didn’t have to traverse stairs, and his rooms were located near the garden. Though thinking about the heavenly scents that awakened him each morning, he was very aware of the mammoth presence following him through the maze of corridors.
Coltek was closing the distance to his target carefully. Although there weren’t many people around, there were still enough. Finally! An empty stretch opened in the corridors. The shadows were heavy here, and Coltek thought this his only opportunity to strike. Reaching into his robes, he wrapped his heavy fingers around the hilt of his knife. He would slip the blade between the old man’s ribs and be gone without a sound.
He was only a step behind Marco now, and pulled knife loose from his waistband. His arm tensed in preparation, but the unexpected prevented him from using it.
Laughing uproariously four youths came from around the corner. Although they were young, they would still be witnesses and Coltek couldn’t try silencing them all.
Undoubtedly, they would cry out or make enough noise in their struggles to bring others running to investigate. Cursing silently he fell back from his prey and watched through angry eyes as Marco reached the safety of his rooms. He listened as the door closed and the lock engaged. The rooms were on the first floor, but there were bars on the windows.
It wouldn’t matter. Coltek would still eliminate the old man, though it would mean waiting all night for him to re-emerge from the locked room.
"Majesty, wake up!"
Katrina was shocked awake by a male voice in her chambers. She was tempted to be outraged at the breach of privacy until the urgency in the voice registered. "Charles? What’s happened?" she asked groggily, pushing against the mattress with the palms of her hands to see the head of her personal guard standing beside her.
The pain in her hand was forgotten immediately when she saw the swarthy man’s expression. He was very nearly frantic as he unceremoniously flung open her closet and began digging through her wardrobe.
Flinging a leather jerkin and breeches onto her bed he replied hurriedly. "Marco was found by Thomas. He’d been stabbed and when Thomas tried to take him to a healer Marco refused. He said that you had to be warned."
"Warned about what?" Katrina asked pulling the curtain closed around the bed. Though she sensed time was of the essence she was a modest woman and would not dress in front of the man for any reason.
"I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Princess," The man said as he chivalrously turned his back, "but the King is dead. Apparently he died in his sleep."
Katrina paused buttoning the leather doe-hide shirt. She had expected the assassin to carry out her end of the bargain but not so swiftly. "I see," she said carefully trying to keep the nervous quaver out of her voice. "My father is dead, and you say it was natural causes. Yet Marco’s been stabbed, and you’re in a panic. What exactly do I need to be warned about?"
Punctuating the question by roughly pulling the curtain aside Katrina faced the burly man barefoot, but otherwise fully dressed. "And why does any of it necessitate wearing this ridiculous clothing?"
Turning to face his future Queen the bearish man had difficulty concealing his mirth. Lady Katrina was the picture of indignation with her tiny fisted hands planted firmly on her hips. Her fiery mane was sleep tousled and ire flashed in her stone gray eyes. No fear was visible yet he knew it was present. No good leader was without a sense of their own mortality. Fortunately for Triania Katrina’s will was counterbalanced by her unshakeable iron will and courage.
"Galron called a meeting as soon as Lotar’s death was discovered. He’s planning a fatal accident for you so he can claim the crown. Marco attended the meeting and spoke against him. While he was coming to warn you, someone attacked him. It was only fate that Thomas found him before he died. Thomas is organizing your guard now."
"Marco is dead?"
"Not yet, but I don’t think he’ll survive his wound. Now, I think we should find you some footwear and get out of here."
"Why not merely circumvent Galron and make the announcement now that the King is dead? I won’t leave the castle and I’ll have my guard present until I’m crowned."
Charles tossed the Princess a pair of heavy cotton hose and high topped riding boots. "That is our plan, Lady. However we must do so from a place of safety."
Katrina stood after pulling on her boots. "That’s the reason for the clothing. In case we have to ride hard. How many men are we taking?" she asked reaching for her cloak.
"Only your personal guard and a few serving women, ones that can ride."
"I’m sorry, your Majesty, but Hannah is too old. We have to be able to move quickly."
Katrina regretted the need to leave the older woman behind but realized the necessity. "So, twenty-three of us. That should be more than enough."
"Right," Charles agreed. "Now we must leave before Galron learns his plot has been uncovered."
The sound of booted feet pounding stone steps, shouts and the clang of metal on metal interrupted them. Katrina’s eyes widened in alarm and Charles drew his sword.
"I’d say he already knows," the princess observed. "And I’m unarmed."
"Get behind me," Charles shouted just as the door burst open.
A young fair-haired man with an upraised sword ran into the room. Blood had spattered his face and helmet, but a quick assessment assured Katrina that the blood was not his.
"Hurry," Thomas shouted. "The other are holding Galron’s horde at bay, but they will not last long!"
Katrina was hustled down the stairs flanked by the two men. The stairs weren’t wide and quarters were close. The princess slipped a little and glanced down to see blood on the steps. Since there was no body she could only assume the unfortunate victim had been pushed over the side.
They reached the bottom quickly and Katrina was relieved to see only a handful of Galron’s men.
"His main force hasn’t been alerted yet. We have to head for the tunnels," Charles shouted.
"You get the princess out of here," Thomas responded. "We’ll cover your track and follow you as soon as possible."
"Fine, we’ll meet at the old hunting cabin on the north border."
Running along beside Charles, Katrina headed toward the entrance to the catacombs near the kitchen. She could only hope they would encounter no opposition. The old tunnels had been built by laborers decades before when the castle was first constructed. Though lined with dusty torches they had never before been used. All of the castle’s residents knew about the tunnels but Katrina doubted anyone knew where they came out.
Unconcerned with the destination Katrina could only concentrate on the journey. A stitch began to form in her side as they descended endless steps into the bowels of the earth. Darkness reigned and dust tickled her nostrils tempting her to sneeze. Cool dampness crawled across her skin raising goose bumps in its path.
"Here, Lady. Take my hand. We cannot chance becoming separated."
The tunnel walls were close and Katrina had been told there was only one long corridor leading to escape. If that was the case the chances of becoming lost were minimal, but she clasped his hand grateful for the human contact. Striving to remain oriented Katrina trailed the fingers of her right hand over the slime-covered walls, unaware that Charles was doing the same on the other side.
"How far do these tunnels go?" she asked.
"I am unsure, M’lady. Perhaps meters, perhaps kilometers."
Katrina was fully aware that both of them had lowered their voices, almost as though concerned they would awaken some nocturnal monster intent on devouring them whole.
Shutting the door to those singularly unhelpful thoughts Katrina concentrated on what she could smell, hear and feel. Water dripped somewhere nearby, leading her to believe they were traveling somewhere beneath Triania’s lake. While frightening was the concept of hundreds of liters of water overhead, it also served to orient and encourage her. The lake was over a kilometer from the city’s gates.
Katrina stumbled in the darkness and went down hard, her grip on Charles’ hand the only thing keeping her from landing face first on the unyielding ground.
"Highness, are you injured?" The knight asked worriedly as he knelt beside her.
"No, I am fine." Feeling around Katrina discovered chunks of dirt and gravel. "It feels like the earth has shifted here. There is debris all around."
"Then we must be careful," he suggested as he helped her to stand.
"Agreed, but I would feel more confident if we could see."
Nodding unseen in agreement he took her hand and began walking again. At least the enemy could not see them if they were pursuing.
Katrina was accustomed to long walks after dark. It was her favorite time as she felt cloaked and protected in the gloom. But this darkness was far from comforting. Her eyes had no chance of adjusting to the gloom as there was no ambient light to aid them. After a time she began to feel that she had always been blind.
"You would think if these were escape tunnels someone would have planned on them being used in an emergency," she groused more as a distraction than from any real need to communicate.
"I don’t understand your point, Highness."
"Shouldn’t they have left some way to light the torches? As it is they’re only good for gathering dust."
Charles chuckled softly and asked, "What would you suggest, your Majesty? Should a fire be kept at the entranceway? This is the first time the catacombs have been used."
"My point exactly. You never know when they’ll be needed. When I become Queen that is the first command I shall give."
Knowing full well that Katrina need not be Queen to give such a mundane command Charles returned good naturedly, "When I become your chief advisor, I shall remind you of that."
"Who said you were going to be appointed chief advisor?"
Charles had no time to even grunt in surprise as the toe of his boot encountered resistance and he pitched forward. He let go of the princess as he fell onto his hands and knees abrading them on the stone surface.
Katrina froze when she lost contact with the man. She listened as he fell but when there was no sound of a struggle she asked, "Charles?"
"I am well, Lady. I think I just found the steps leading out of here."
"Thank the Gods," Katrina responded feeling for his hand as they began climbing.
Since they had been in the tunnel Katrina had heard no sounds of pursuit. She could only hope Galron’s men weren’t waiting for them to emerge.
In the darkness climbing stairs was extremely precarious. She felt as though she was losing her balance, she was wobbly and took the time to plant each foot firmly before putting her weight fully upon it. About halfway up the steps the absolute twilight began to lessen. Things became a cloudy gray, lighting perceptibly as they ascended.
Finally Katrina was able to see more clearly and happily released Charles’ hand. It wasn’t that she was repulsed by his touch. She trusted him implicitly and had chosen him personally as captain of her personal guard, as she had individually chosen all of her defenders. Katrina also liked the man and considered him a great friend, but she couldn’t tolerate any outward sign of weakness in a leader. As she would soon be Queen it was especially important that she show no frailty. Holding her protector’s hand was definitely a sign of weakness.
Daylight shown through in and around the edges of the stone door. For all that there was no visible pull on the door face Katrina knew that it was there. The door had to open inward as it would be tactically unsound to have a visible handle on the outside of the castle.
It was another delay to prevent them from leaving the subterranean tunnel, and she fought against the frustration that made her want to scream aloud. The constant gloom was beginning to grate on her nerves, and she felt the stir of a mild case of claustrophobia.
Heaving a resigned sigh Katrina buried her hands in three inches of earth, moss and squishy things that she decided were best not thought about. There had to be a way out through this door and the sooner she started looking for it, the sooner she would get out of this dank hole.
Following her example Charles did the same and a moment later discovered a large iron ring. It had become imbedded in the dirt and vines, requiring both of them to spend time scraping it free. Charles finally had to resort to prying the ring up with the tip of his sword.
"Not exactly good for the blade’s edge," Katrina observed.
"No, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made."
The princess chuckled slightly at the man’s attempted humor, feeling herself relax marginally. When the iron ring was freed Charles sheathed his sword and both of them prepared to open the door. Logic overrode his ego, and he didn’t protest the lady’s assistance. This door had been in place for unknown decades and any help would no doubt be necessary.
Katrina had been born into nobility but didn’t believe that precluded a decent amount of common sense. She knew the man wouldn’t be able to open the door on his own. Bracing her booted feet as best she could on the dirty, slippery steps she grasped the iron ring and prepared to throw her weight into it.
"Ready?" she asked, and at his nod both of them heaved at the same time.
The door didn’t budge.
"Pull harder!" Katrina directed helpfully as she grunted and strained. Raising one foot she planted it against the wall to acquire some leverage.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes Charles dug his feet in and strained until it felt like the muscles in his shoulders and back were popping free.
Sweat ran into Katrina’s eyes and she blinked at the sting, but pulled even harder.
Finally it moved. Scraping against the stone floor, the door slid only a few inches before catching on a rougher portion of the stone floor. It was enough to allow them to slip their fingers through the crack and grasp the edge of the door. Pulling was easier with the larger surface to grasp, and finally it slid open enough for them to squeeze through to stand blinking at the harsh glare of the sun.
Katrina raised a hand to block the sun and froze at the unexpected sight before her. They had emerged more than two kilometers from the castle. The exit of the tunnel proved to have been built into the side of a hill. Katrina considered it a stroke of genius to utilize the natural landscape as camouflage. They had emerged into a clearing in the woods, the trees standing fifty to seventy feet in the air. Birds sang in the afternoon sunshine and squirrels frolicked, leaping from branch to branch and tree to tree high overhead. All of these were to be expected, but what was not was the dark-haired woman at the edge of the clearing astride a huge white mare.
"It’s still quiet here. Perhaps Galron’s men haven’t yet discovered our escape." Katrina’s touch on his arm silenced the man and drew his attention to the swarthy young woman not twenty feet away.
Quietly observing them, her countenance showed no surprise at seeing two people emerging from a mound of dirt. For an instant the future Queen had the impression that they had been expected. The feeling didn’t fade as the stranger continued to stare, her eyes roving over Katrina’s form with a familiarity that felt more like a caress. Dark brown eyes surveyed her compact form slowly from the crown of her auburn tresses to the tips of her booted feet. Katrina struggled to suppress the blush that was beginning to rise along her throat and attempted to ignore her own intense attraction.
Katrina felt a shudder travel the length of her spine. It was a shiver of recognition. Somehow she felt she knew this woman or should know her, but she knew she had never seen the stranger before. This woman she would have remembered.
Dressed in greens and browns she obviously was a huntress, but her diminutive height belied that assessment. Hair the color of burnished sable parted in the middle and swept back in feathery tendrils to fall just below her shoulders. Large furs covered her shoulders and back. The hump at the top of her shoulder was evidence that the furs concealed a weapon strapped to her back, possibly a sword.
The woman’s skin was swarthy leading the princess to believe that the stranger could be from the Southern borders. Incongruous with this image were the intensely blue eyes. They riveted Katrina in place and almost caused her to dismiss the large crossbow that was trained on them…almost.
A smile tugged at the corners of the woman’s lips revealing slightly pointed teeth. "That was a very fetching arrival, but I would respectfully suggest that neither of you should move another muscle."
"How dare you? Do you have any idea who you are speaking to?" Charles began in outrage.
The crossbow fired and a bolt caught the top of Charles’ shoulder, throwing him backward as the point sank deeply into the hillside at his back. It was a measure of the young woman’s skill that only his cloak had been pierced.
"I shall ask the questions if you don’t mind," she told the bearish man calmly as she calmly reloaded the crossbow in an instant. When it was clear that she had their undivided attention, she said, "Now, that is my next question. Who are you?"
The question was directed to the redhead and Charles happily let her answer, choosing not to draw the attention of the trigger-happy huntress again.
"I am Katrina Dumond, Princess and heir to the throne of King Lotar."
Charles was pleased to note the defiance in the future Queen’s voice and would have been inclined to stand taller were he not been pinned against a dirt wall.
"Prove it," the young woman stated shortly.
Katrina floundered and sputtered in surprise. No one had ever spoken to her in such a fashion, with disdain and an air of contempt. Even as a small child when acting out against authority in an effort to get her own way, she had been treated with patience and no small amount of deference. She was royalty whether she was two days old or two decades or two centuries.
"My ring," she realized with abrupt clarity. Raising her right hand she indicated the royal crest stamped into the ring that adorned her middle finger. "It’s the Royal seal of Triania. May I approach?"
Ever the diplomat Katrina knew that the person in charge of this situation was the one holding the weapon. Waiting for the brunette’s nod she noticed that time had elapsed since their discourse had begun the crossbow had never wavered. This woman might be small in stature but she was obviously in fantastic physical condition. Not allowing her physical assessment to continue any further, she pushed any unwarranted feelings of attraction away and slowly walked toward the stranger.
Holding her hand up for inspection she was surprised when the stranger let go of the crossbow with one hand and grabbed her upheld hand. The touch was warm and sure, causing another shiver to travel throughout Katrina’s body. But this shiver wasn’t one of familiarity; it was one of sheer animal attraction. If the other woman noticed, she had the grace not to mention it.
Finally her hand was released but she found herself captured in another way. Their eyes met and locked-Katrina couldn’t have looked away if she had wanted to.
The huntress lowered the weapon and slowly dismounted without losing eye contact with the Princess. When she had finally dismounted Katrina was surprised to discover that the other woman stood a few inches shorter. She was taken further aback when the woman dropped to one knee and stated, "My name is Elana Tori, and I pledge my loyalty to you."
Katrina had the distinct impression that this woman did not make such an oath lightly. She also knew the reputation of the current hierarchy. "How can you be so sure I’m not like my father was?"
A small silence followed her words and she could very nearly see the wheels spinning in the younger woman’s, Elana’s, eyes. Then, "Was… so the King is dead?"
At Katrina’s nod, "Then you are not heir, you are the Queen. As for how I know you are not like your father…you’re reputation precedes you. You are known for being fair, but far from an easy mark. You are known for honesty, but have a flair for diplomacy. But most of all, it is known that you truly care for the people around you and that you have a fair amount of enemies."
"Enemies?" the Queen asked, not surprised that there were enemies of the crown, but that this young woman would know of them.
"Of course. Royalty always has enemies. And you shall need a champion."
"She has a champion," Charles interrupted in an offended tone. "I am her captain of the guard."
Elana grinned slightly at him and replied, "No offense intended to you, sir. I am sure you are very well trained, but you will have other tasks that will occupy your attention. I have no such distractions and I can assure you that I offer myself as more than bodyguard."
"What are you saying?" Katrina asked cautiously. "What exactly are you saying?"
Meeting the Queen’s eyes in her forthright manner the brunette stated, "I offer myself as bodyguard, friend, confidant and trainer."
Katrina swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to remove her tongue from the palate of her suddenly dry mouth. The only capacity the young woman hadn’t offered herself in was that of lover. Ignoring her rampant libido she responded, "And why would I need you as trainer? I can assure you that I have received a great deal of personal training in the royal courts."
"I’m sure you have, Lady. However, I will not be easy on you as I’m sure the royal guard has been. Undoubtedly to date your training was conducted with the assumption that you would always been surrounded by protection."
Climbing to her feet, the young woman continued. "I will not be so easy on you. Your life is actively in danger and your kingdom threatened by any who would murder you and take the crown for themselves. I also assure you that you will find no other better suited for this task."
"Are you saying that you are a better fighter than any of my personal guard?"
"I dare say that I am a better fighter than any one in this land."
The statement was made without arrogance or pomp. Katrina believed her without question. She also felt the rightness of the situation. She trusted this woman implicitly and would place her fate unquestioningly in her small, strong hands. It didn’t make sense, but that was the way it was.
"I accept your oath and your proposal."
Katrina could almost imagine the surprise her statement caused in Charles, and she couldn’t have explained to him exactly why it had to be this way, but she was sure of her decision. Beyond logic was instinct. This woman was more than met the eye. Possibly she was in league with the assassin. They had the same incredible eyes, but beyond that they were as different as night and day.
"But there is no time for training," Charles pointed out. "By the end of the week either Galron will have control of the throne or Lady Katrina will be crowned. If we are to retake the castle we must join forces with my men now and devise a plan."
He had a valid point. "He’s right," Katrina acknowledged. "Whatever training I’ve received will have to suffice but is your offer of bodyguard still valid?"
"Always." Elana met the Queen’s gaze directly.
Katrina didn’t think the other woman showed the proper respect for royalty; strange how that didn’t really bother her. It was nice to have someone talk to her as an equal.
"Good, then we should probably get moving."
Elana insisted that Katrina ride her mare and insisted further that she be the one to help the Monarch mount. The redhead was slightly amused to see that after assigning herself bodyguard Elana wouldn’t let Charles near the Queen. She deliberately insinuated her slight form between the man and the would-be ruler.
I wonder if she’s going to be like this around everyone, Katrina pondered. This is going to be interesting.
They traveled as quickly as possible through the dense trees and foliage toward the hunting lodge. All things considered, Katrina thought they were making good time even if Charles was grumbling under his breath and swatting at insects throughout the journey.
After a few hours Elana suddenly grasped the mare’s reins and halted her abruptly. "Do you smell something?"
"Smoke," Charles said. "Perhaps the men have lit a fire."
Surely that was a reasonable assumption, Katrina thought until her companion corrected him.
"Not all of the guard would fit in the cabin. If nothing were wrong there would be conversation…laughter."
Exchanging glances with the Katrina then with each other, Elana and Charles began to move toward the smell simultaneously. Surprising herself Katrina grasped the smaller woman’s hand before she had a chance to move away. "Don’t leave me."
She saw that she had startled both of them by her request. Katrina was not the wilting violet and it was completely uncharacteristic of her to make such a request. What she couldn’t force herself to admit was that she was more worried for Elana’s safety than her own. Blushing she kept her own counsel and allowed them to think she was frightened for her own well being.
"I’ll go," Charles said quietly. Unsheathing his sword he crouched down and disappeared into the trees.
Katrina prepared to dismount, but was stopped by her companion. "We may have to move quickly depending on the situation," Elana pointed out. "I have a better idea."
The Queen could not possibly have guessed that Elena would gently remove Katrina’s small foot from the stirrup. Then she stepped into that stirrup herself and swung into the saddle behind the redhead. Having the smaller woman’s breasts pressed intimately against her back caused her breath to hitch in her chest and her heart to pound in her throat, but she didn’t consider asking her to get down. A strongly muscled arm snaked around her waist pulling Katrina closer.
Charles re-emerged a few moments later with another warrior. "It’s all right," he stated trying not to blink at seeing the two women astride the horse together. "Thomas insisted on deploying the men for an ambush of Galron’s forces. There is no laughter or conversation because they are prepared to attack."
"Tactically sound," Elana complimented. "Now, lead us to the cabin."
Obviously grinding his teeth at the impudent tone, Charles simply turned away and slipped back into the trees.
Soon the three had arrived at the cabin and were given a ration of bread and dried meat. Katrina thought it the best thing she had ever eaten. Hunger was indeed the best spice for any meal. The food was finished quickly and her advisors and Charles’ lieutenants joined them. Much discussion and disagreement ensued as they attempted to devise a plan for retaking the castle. It was soon apparent that the only way to accomplish the task was guaranteed to be violent.
Throughout the ordeal Elana made it clear that no one was allowed within two feet of the monarch. If someone ventured too close they were met by a growl. Katrina struggled not to laugh at each occurrence. Finally, it was agreed that the sooner they responded the better. Galron could not be allowed to give the impression that he would be King.
At present Katrina had thirty-seven men. That meant that at least seventy had chosen to support her nemesis.
"Perhaps it is because he is another tyrant," Thomas suggested compassionately. "I do not agree with their choice, but people will always defy change. They are accustomed to tyranny and fear another way of life."
"Or perhaps they simply think he will reward them once he is King," Elana retorted shortly.
"In either case, he will lose," Charles stated firmly. "Thomas has already dispatched runners to the nearest villages apprising them of the situation. They have all promised fighters and will be here by dawn."
Weighing their options carefully Katrina was not overly optimistic. "So… we have a handful of trained soldiers and the promise of a lot of farmers and ferriers?"
"Do not discount them, my Lady," Elana spoke. "People will fight and gladly die to protect their families from oppression."
"That’s what I’m afraid of. That they’ll die."
There was nothing further that could be said. The meeting broke up shortly thereafter and everyone headed for sleeping rolls. Katrina was given a secluded corner near the fire. A curtain had been hung from the ceiling to allow her a measure of privacy. Elana however, saw no need to curtail her self-appointed task and joined the Queen behind the curtain. She insisted that they share the same bedroll, pointing out that she should be close in order to protect her Queen.
"How can I argue with that?" Katrina responded wryly as she climbed fully clothed under the blankets. A warm form followed behind her a moment later and curled closely against her back.
I’m expected to sleep like this, Katrina wondered inhaling the earthy scent of the other woman’s skin. She was asleep in moments. The next thing she knew a deep rumbling sound was awakening her she couldn’t quite identify. Then it came to her that Elana was growling at someone.
Opening her eyes she saw Charles’ head poking inside the curtain. With a look of relief he saw that she was awake. "I just wanted to let you know that the villagers have arrived. They’re ready to meet the new ruler."
"I’ll be right there," Katrina mumbled in a sleepy voice.
As soon as he had backed out Katrina lay back against the blanket and looked up at Elana. "You know that you really frighten them when you do that, don’t you?" she asked with a small chuckle.
The dark woman had propped up on an elbow and leaned over Katrina as she responded mischievously, "Why do you think I do it?"
Katrina laughed in delight, but the sound stopped abruptly when she caught the glint in the blue eyes. Tension between the two women was palpable, and Katrina offered no resistance as Elana slowly closed the distance between them. Blue-gray eyes slipped closed as the Queen anticipated an intimate encounter. Warm breath caressed her lips apprising her of the proximity of the other woman. She was startled a moment later when instead of a kiss, she heard a soft voice asking, "Shouldn’t we be going to greet your new warriors?"
"What? Oh, yes. Of course," Katrina sputtered sitting up and freeing herself from the blankets. Angry at her lack of focus, the Queen struggled to her feet and attempted to ignore the woman chuckling behind her.
Katrina missed the speculative look cast her way by the dark-skinned Elana as she pulled her boots on and rushed from behind the curtain. Curious in spite of herself she hurried to pull open the cabin door to see how many had responded to the call to arms. Caution invited her to expect only a smattering of farmers armed with hand tools, but she was in for a shock. Farmers as well as their sons and daughters surrounded the small cabin and covered an area that extended so far into the trees that Katrina could scarcely see them all. They were indeed armed with hand tools but there were also a fair amount of swords, pikes, and crossbows.
"Incredible," she breathed suppressing the sting of tears.
A deep, rumbling voice from behind reminded her, "I told you that your reputation preceded you."
Swallowing carefully Katrina replied, "They will be awaiting instructions."
"Then I would suggest that their Queen meet their expectations."
Turning to meet the ice-blue gaze Katrina felt an incredible sense that this was her destiny. She had the support of her kingdom, her guard, and fate. With everything in her favor it was strange that she felt a sudden sense of foreboding. Frowning Katrina struggled to ascertain where this feeling was coming from. Then it struck her. Elana… that’s what the problem was. She was an anomaly in the equation, not quite fitting into the picture but still an integral piece of the problem.
I will figure this out, Katrina promised silently. Somehow this woman was tied in with the assassin. Perhaps they were even working together and the huntress had been sent to keep an eye on her. What better way to accomplish that function than by being her guardian?
Still it was a chance she would have to take.
"Let’s not disappoint them."
Turning, the diminutive redhead stepped out the door and into the sunshine of a new day. A shout rose from somewhere in the crowd and was quickly picked up by the others until a loud chant rose from everywhere.
"Hail Katrina, Queen of Triania!" The chant was repeated over and over until Katrina’s ears rang with it. A proud smile curved the thin lips as she stepped out to meet her people.
She would not be a Queen that was set upon a pedestal and worshipped from afar. She would be a leader that would know the people; that would consider their needs first and foremost above her own. The morning became a flurry of activity as she grasped hands and was introduced to so many people that she could not possibly remember their names. Hands clapped her on the back and shouts wished her well, and swore fealty.
Finally Charles seized control and directed the guard to move the crowd into the large clearing for a general meeting. Promising that all would soon be explained he was able to quiet the people and establish control. Soon all was made clear and the peasants as well as the Queen’s guard were prepared for battle.
Galron was sure he had succeeded in the coup to seize the crown. Katrina and all those loyal to her had fled the castle grounds like a pack of whipped dogs. Lotar had been laid to rest at sun up and Galron had been the one to officiate the ceremony. As far as anyone knew the Princess was in mourning. At the moment it served his purposes to encourage the rumors. But Galron was no fool. Until Katrina’s lifeless body lay at his feet she was a threat.
"Eh hem," a voice said quietly but distinctly from behind him.
Galron had come out onto the circular court to gaze down onto what he now considered his domain. He felt no guilt for starting the uprising. It was only blind luck that he had been born second thereby making his brother ruler. Lotar had been an idiot. He had been a self-important half-wit that hadn’t begun to realize the resources available to be exploited in Triania. All he had accomplished after four decades in power was shutting off the borders and crushing the peasants under his heel.
Galron had no problem with the fate of the people. The people were simply another tool to be used as a King saw fit, but shutting off the borders had been a serious error in judgment. Without interaction with other lands their civilization would decay and resources would dwindle.
Turning away from the morning sunlight he asked Coltek, "What news of Katrina?"
"Exactly where we predicted, Sire. Our spies reported that she and her guard have set up camp near the northern hunting cabin. They also reported that many villagers have joined them."
"The villagers are no match for our guard," Galron dismissed easily. "Katrina and her men will pose a problem, but are destined to lose. The sheer numbers of our men will overwhelm them."
Coltek frowned as he considered alternatives. He didn’t understand why Galron hadn’t simply assassinated Katrina right after learning of Lotar’s death. In any case it wasn’t his concern. His task now was to destroy her small army before she could return and lay claim to the throne.
"I shall stage an ambush at Jadia Pass. There are many avenues of concealment in the rocks and fissures."
"I’m not sure that is a good idea," the tyrant said distractedly.
"Something troubles you?"
Ignoring the question for a moment Galron walked to the farthest end of the courtyard and placed his hands on the waist high stonewall.
"Princess Katrina is a very intelligent woman and a fine strategist." The complimentary appraisal of his opponent worried Coltek momentarily until Galron continued. "She will know that the obvious place for an ambush in the Pass."
"Perhaps if we lure her into a false sense of security."
"What do you have in mind?"
"Offer no resistance. Wait until Katrina and her men are inside the castle walls. Allow her to think you have no interest in the crown and then have someone pour poison into her drink."
"I wish it were that easy, my friend." Of course Coltek was no such thing, but Galron had curiously noted that when he used the designation Coltek puffed up and became even more fierce in his loyalty. "Unfortunately there are two problems with your suggestion. The first is our initial skirmish with her men. Why would there have been a skirmish if there was no quest for power? As for the second problem…I hardly think she would blithely walk into the castle and sit down to a cup of poisoned wine."
"But I do have another idea. Send a runner. Tell Katrina that I have no further desire for bloodshed. Tell her I wish to confer with her peacefully."
"She won’t believe you."
"Of course not," Galron snorted. "But she won’t ignore the possibility of peaceful negotiations either. It’s not in her nature."
"What are you going to negotiate? That one of you becomes ruler and the other chief advisor?"
"Hardly. There will be no negotiations."
"But you just said…"
"I said to have the runner tell her that I wished to confer. Instead there will be an ambush after they have cleared the pass. I shall lead the attack myself. Ensure that there are archers in the trees just after they cross the lake."
"Understood, I’ll see to it immediately." Coltek struck his right fist on his chest in the traditional Trianian salute then strode from the room.
Yes, Galron considered as he absently stroked his goatee. Inside the castle walls he could not seem to have anything to do with an untimely demise. Which was exactly why he insisted on leading the ambush. Nothing would give him more pleasure than personally disposing of his last obstacle to the crown.
Although it seemed to take forever the planning stage of their counterattack had lasted only forty-five minutes before Katrina began growing impatient. A sense of urgency began permeating her being and instinctively she knew that they had to act soon. Galron would not be waiting around and they had been fortunate that he hadn’t already attacked.
As a member of the royal family she had been schooled in tactics, especially the possibility of a trusted family member or friend making a play for the crown. To that end she knew that her uncle had to make sure she never returned to the palace. Unfortunately he was also a beneficiary of such training and would have some educated idea of how she must respond.
Glancing up at the sun overhead she realized that not much time had passed since she had awakened. The thought of waking up generated thoughts of Elana and a fond smile curved her lips. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was about the woman, but she trusted her completely, and there was more than a small amount of attraction as well.
Frowning she realized that she hadn’t seen Elana in some time. The huntress had been just behind her right shoulder, close enough to protect yet not so close as to impose. Katrina had become so involved in the discussions that she hadn’t realized when the other woman had left. The discussion was winding down and Katrina looked around in an attempt to locate her self-appointed guard. The brunette as only about ten yards away kneeling in front of a cooking fire but it was her posture that caught the Monarch’s attention.
Elana squatted on both knees and seated on her heels. Her small, brown hands rested quietly on her thighs and her eyes were locked on the dancing flames of the fire. She sat unblinking and Katrina felt a shiver pass through her as she realized that the other woman appeared to be in a trance.
Ignoring the curious look from Charles, Katrina stood and walked slowly over to the fixated woman. "Elana?" she questioned quietly.
Though she stood right over the other woman, the huntress didn’t respond to the query and Katrina wondered if she had been heard. Worried at the unresponsiveness Katrina squatted beside the still unmoving woman and placed a small hand on her shoulder. Still Elana didn’t respond. There was a decided paleness under the dusky skin and the blue eyes never wavered as they stared intently into the fire. Elana’s pupils were dilated and Katrina had just decided to shake her until she responded when the other woman spoke.
The voice was faint as though afraid of disturbing the vision that she saw if she spoke too loudly. "He is coming. The castle has been left under few guards and he brings the rest of his army." There was a pause as Elana gazed at the flames and Katrina waited knowing that there was more to come. "They will hide and wait to attack a just after we cross Jadia Pass."
Elana’s ice-blue eyes suddenly closed and she slumped toward Katrina as though exhausted. Small, strong arms encircled her as the other woman pulled her into an embrace and gratefully the huntress rested her head against a firm shoulder while she found her bearings.
"It’s alright," a gravelly voice purred in her ear. "I’ve got you now. Just take your time."
"No," Elana disagreed loudly as she suddenly pulled away. "I do not have time. We must go soon…now. Galron must not be allowed to lay the ambush near the pass. If he does you will die. I have seen it."
Grasping Katrina tightly around the upper arms Elana attempted to impress the urgency of the situation on her. "Do you not understand? He is coming."
Katrina had been surrounded by people all of her life that had proclaimed to have precognitive abilities but she had considered them all frauds. In fact she had never really believed in such ability at all, believing instead that if she could see it and feel it, then it was real. But staring at the blue eyes now, she felt as though she were falling into a well where everything that she had ever believed had been a misperception. That instead there were worlds and ideas previously unknown to her that could shake her to the very foundation of her soul if she would but open her eyes to the possibilities. It was in that very instant that she realized she was irrevocably, hopeless and unquestionably in love with this incredible stranger.
Placing a delicate hand against a soft cheek she smiled and said, "I believe you."
The world around them dropped away as she willingly fell into the other woman’s gaze. Katrina’s eyes fell to the full lips and her thumb traced the delicate bow with a will of its own. How wonderful it would be to taste those precious lips, to allow everything else to cease to exist and wrap this wonderful creature in her arms. Swallowing against a suddenly dry mouth her tongue darted out to wet her lips.
Would the other woman be receptive to her kiss? Glancing up Katrina was riveted as she realized that Elana’s eyes were now dilated for an altogether different reason. The other woman still held her arms tightly and they were close enough to each other that she could feel Elana’s breath drifting across her mouth. All she had to do was lean forward slightly.
The voice seemed to come from a very long way away, but finally it permeated the fog of desire she was mired in. The world came screaming back in a rush and along with it the weight of her responsibilities. Closing her eyes against the lure of those lips she said in a trembling voice, "It’s alright, Charles. But I fear that we’ve run out of time to debate the issue. Have Thomas organize the villagers. We move out in twenty minutes."
"I’ll see to it," he returned softly.
Katrina felt embarrassed that her emotions were so clearly displayed for the man to see. He was her subordinate and she considered it unseemly to be seen as merely human when she needed to project a larger than life appearance at all times.
Elana’s hands finally left her arms and Katrina opened her eyes to see that a mask had fallen over the other woman’s countenance. For some reason the expression reminded her again of the assassin in the alley. What was the connection between the two? Why couldn’t Katrina put her finger on it?
Without another word the huntress stood and offered her hand to assist the Queen to her feet. Had Katrina just imagined the exchange between them?
"I shall prepare the horse." With that simple explanation the other woman released her hand and strode away.
Forcing the unanswered questions to the back of her mind Katrina instead focused on the upcoming battle. There were still things to do in the next twenty minutes. Gathering her rampaging hormones under control she went in search of Charles to obtain a sword and shield of her own.
Word spread quickly around the camp and Katrina was amazed at how organized the villagers were. Perhaps once this situation was resolved some of them would consent to be part of the new guard contingent. Fires were extinguished and a skirmish line formed at the front of the main force. There were more squads dispatched to either side and at the rear to prevent any unexpected attacks. Then they were ready to move. Less than an hour had passed since Katrina had met the villagers and she was pleased at the efficiency.
Looking over at Charles who sat astride another mount she gave him a nod and then shouted, "Move out!"
Any other Monarch’s nod to the captain of the guard would have signaled him to give the order to move, but Katrina was a hands on leader and Charles knew it would instill resolve in the others to hear her voice instead of his at such a crucial time.
As one they stepped off together to take back the crown and see that the rightful heir took her place upon the thrown of Triania. During the journey there was much laughter, story-telling and in general high spirits. Katrina had questioned Elana about her visions and knew that they would reach the pass long before Galron. The huntress’ vision of her death had already been negated by the fact that they would pass the designated place for the ambush before Galron had time to implement the threat.
The journey to the castle proper should take approximately half a day, but with the opposing forces coming from the other direction, Katrina estimated they would clash in half that time. To conserve their strength she decided not to push them at a break-neck pace. Even at the slow pace they had crossed the pass without incident within the hour and she felt a small measure of weight lift. But she didn’t engage in the joviality, preferring instead to maintain her own counsel which involved absorbing the feel of the virtual stranger at her back.
Elana had insisted on them riding together, citing her ability to protect the future Queen. Katrina had resisted only minimally, and now reveled in the feel of the other woman’s breasts against her back and the soft exhalations against the side of her neck. She was so comfortable at the travel arrangements that she actually caught herself drifting into a doze with her head resting against the smaller woman’s strong shoulder.
The thought suddenly occurred to her that there was a very real possibility that she wouldn’t survive this encounter. She was by no means a shield maiden, her life had not been spent in the pursuit of combat training, and Elana had as much as foretold her death.
Although it was unlikely that the encounter would happen at the previously seen destination, it didn’t mean that she would survive the unavoidable battle.
"You are awake," Elana muttered softly, breaking into her thoughts. "Something troubles you."
"You could say that," Katrina affirmed.
"Do you wish to talk about it?"
Sighing heavily Katrina answered, "I’ve always heard that no good leader is without a sense of their own mortality. I seem to have a stronger sense of my own than I’ve previously thought."
"Perhaps that simply means that you are better leader than you have previously thought," the huntress suggested lightly.
Chuckling Katrina returned, "I hope you’re right."
Silence passed and then Elana surprised Katrina by saying, "There is something more. There is something that you wish to know but are frightened to ask."
"How do you know that?" Katrina frowned, wondering if she had given away her concerns somehow.
"It is apparent in the tension your body holds. Your expression is drawn when you look at me, and your respiration increases. I know that you have reservations. How can I alleviate them?"
Thinking furiously Katrina considered her options. If she asked the wrong questions she ran the risk of alienating the other woman. Yet she knew there was something, a connection between the two strangers in her life and what was happening now. It was something she needed to know, regardless of the consequences.
"Yes, it’s true that I have reservations…questions if you will. I’m just not sure how to ask them."
"Take your time," Elana suggested softly.
"Why are you here? Not that I’m not grateful, but I find it highly coincidental that I meet you now, in these circumstances."
"Can you not believe that I am simply here to protect you?"
"I wish I could," Katrina admitted. "Unfortunately, I believe that there is more to it than that."
Taking a deep breath she prepared to ask the harder questions. But before doing that she had to lay the foundation for a gentle interrogation. "Recently, I had occasion to meet secretly with an…agent in Triania. I asked her to perform a service for me. She relented, although probably with reservation, but left me with the distinct impression that a price would be required."
"There is usually a price required for services rendered," Elana countered. "What has this agent to do with me?"
"That’s the question," Katrina returned with a wry grin. "Do you know who I’m talking about?"
"Perhaps if you have a name or a description of this person I could answer more surely."
Thinking back Katrina realized that she had no name and only a vague description. It had been extremely dark in the alley and there had only been one feature that had stood out sharply. "She had your eyes."
The sudden tension in the form behind her was unmistakable, and Katrina closed her eyes as her suspicions were confirmed. There was some connection between the two. "I don’t know her name, and it was dark where we met."
"So you have no further description of this woman?"
"No," Katrina shook her head. "Only that she was tall, wore armor…and carried a sword."
Remembering the encounter she looked at the palm of her hand where it had been sliced by the sword. To her surprise only a faint line remained where the assassin had drawn blood. "She left me with the impression that I was lacking, that I was not worthy to be the next ruler of these lands."
"And you wish to know if I am affiliated with this woman?"
"Something like that," Katrina affirmed quietly, dreading the response.
"I wish I could answer you."
"That’s not a denial," Katrina whispered mournfully.
"No, but it will have to do. I fear that we are approaching danger."
Katrina realized that everyone had grown quiet. Even the woods were unnaturally quiet, seeming to hold its collective breath in preparation of some evil manifesting in the vicinity. Sitting up with her heart pounding in her ears Katrina reached for the sword strapped against her hip. It felt awkward to draw the weapon while mounted and she had to be careful not to strike the horse as she readied the blade. Galron was early. Obviously he had pushed his people hard and she hoped that their fatigue would count in her favor.
"Perhaps you would prefer to be afoot?" Elana suggested quietly, but there was something more in her voice. Glancing back she saw that the other woman was reaching over her shoulder for the crossbow.
Maybe she’s worried I’ll cut the horse’s head off.
Of course it was more likely that she simply needed room to draw the crossbow, Katrina realized. Then the pounding of running feet sounded throughout the quiet and a moment later one of the point guards ran into the clearing. Katrina forgot to pay attention to Elana’s movements.
"Galron’s forces approach," he reported loudly in his panic to no one in general.
Before he had even finished his announcement the clash of steel could be heard as the front skirmish line encountered the enemy. Since they were only a few hundred feet ahead Katrina could barely see them through the trees and knew they would all be engaged in combat in a scant few seconds.
Closing her eyes for only a second she prayed fervently; Grace, if you’re really there…please help me.
From her place on the fringe of the clearing Grace knew that the human woman would have to prove her worth at this pivotal moment. She had led her to this, shown her that the path would not be easy. But she could not steal her determination, nor could she interfere.
The enemy forces burst through the clearing and Galron personally led the attack. He was astride a great black beast, and covered with sweat and dirt from the initial skirmish. But now that he had fought through to the clearing he had eyes for no one but Katrina.
Galron smirked as he took in the diminutive woman standing on the dirt floor of the forest armed only with a sword. "Hardly seems fair, does it, your Majesty?" he asked sarcastically. Twirling his sword in the air he continued to address her. "I would hate for it to be said later that I didn’t give you a fair chance."
Jumping down from the horse Galron squared off with her on the ground. "Unfortunately, Princess, that’s as much leniency as I’m willing to offer a I intend to be King."
"Your jubilation is premature, Uncle," Katrina returned angered by his bluster. "Now shut up and fight."
Even through the clash of metal and shouts from the others Grace could easily hear the conversation. Apparently Galron had given the order that no one else was to touch Katrina because his men fought only her guard and the villagers.
Grace had indeed insinuated that Katrina wasn’t worthy, but it was amazing what thirty-six hours could do to bring out the hidden strength in a person. She was impressed at the confidence that the tiny woman showed in the face of a superior opponent, but it was that which was inside the woman that shown more clearly. When the tiny human had first approached her about bringing about the demise of her father, Grace hadn’t been sure of her. Katrina had the heart to lead her people to greatness, but did she have the courage?
A smile touched her lips as she realized that mankind’s fate hinged on thousands of possibilities. Such a simple thing as a woman standing and fighting against the odds for her people could shape the entire future of the species as a whole. What Katrina had set in motion she could have no idea, but Grace knew that she would be the mother of the future. The Earth would see a reprieve from being torn asunder and abused by these tiny creatures. The way would be paved for science and magic would slowly disappear from the world. But it would be a better world, war and famine would eventually cease to exist and human kind would travel to the stars. All of this held in the tiny shape of one incredible woman.
But fate was a creature of opportunity, not just for good but also for evil. Grace watched with dawning horror as one of Galron’s warriors fought with animalistic ferocity toward his leader. The man’s bare arms and legs were covered with the blood of his foes, as was his tunic and armor. His sword was coated with flesh and blood and a smile of avarice spread across his face. As he was cleaving one opponent in two he already had another in his sights. Grace could see from the trail of corpses in his wake that he had a specific target in mind. With her back to the warrior, there was no way Katrina could know that he was only a few yards from her and already swinging his sword over his head in preparation of the killing blow.
In a split second the last few days flashed through her mind. Grace had come to know the woman over that time, but her growing feelings for Katrina had more foundation than that. She had known the possibilities the future Queen represented and as such had been watching her for months. Katrina would relieve the Mother Earth’s suffering, but even more than that she had found a crack into Grace’s heart. That crack had become a great chasm, and though she had schooled herself to allow human kind to find its own path she could not stand by and do nothing while the woman she had come to love was murdered.
Katrina heard an inhuman cry of rage and glanced askance as Elana streaked by her and engaged in sword combat with a man she hadn’t even realized was about to strike. Galron was also surprised at the dusky woman’s appearance but didn’t recover as quickly as the Queen. Katrina believed in fair play, but she wasn’t stupid and took an opportunity when it was presented. Quickly she drove the tip of her sword into Galron’s chest. The look of utter surprise was one that would haunt her dreams, but there were other more pressing matters.
Worried that the small huntress would be unable to dispatch a man twice her size Katrina whirled to assist. Elana was a tempest of movement, dancing and parrying without pause and seemingly without the need to breathe. Fighting closely she refused the man any leverage and when she deemed the moment was right she placed her foot behind his knee and assisted him forcefully to the ground with a vicious shove. With a cry of rage the huntress raised the sword high over head and brought it crashing down, ending any resistance.
With the death of Galron and the warrior the tide of the battle seemed to turn. Galron’s forces were decimated and the few that remained scattered into the woods. The fighting was at an end.
"Elana? Are you alright?" Katrina asked the woman’s back as she stood over the fallen warrior.
"I am." The answer was simple, but her voice held a strange tone.
It was a tone she had heard before, one that Katrina recognized. She had heard it once before, in a darkened alley. She was positive because that meeting was one that she would never forget. Searching for answers Katrina’s eyes fell on the huntress’ sword. She hadn’t seen the weapon before since Elana always kept it covered with her furs. Seeing the unique engravings a memory flashed through her mind. It was the memory of the alley, of blue eyes and a sword flashing through the night. Her hand began to throb and she glanced at the red line across her palm.
"Elana?" she asked again, confusion color her voice.
The smaller woman finally turned to face her, and Katrina saw the truth. The blue eyes were clearer than ever, and to her astonishment Elana’s form began to shimmer and morph. The tiny, compact body elongated as the bust became fuller. The skin tone lightened to a milky white and the hair began to lighten to a fine corn silk.
"Grace," Katrina breathed with fear pounding in her chest.
Walking slowly toward the frightened woman Grace held up a hand, "I shall not hurt you. You must trust me," she assured her as she stopped only a few inches away.
"I thought you were Elana. How can I trust you? I don’t even know you." Tears of disappointment stung Katrina’s eyes. She had been attracted to Elana and all the while it was this other being generating these emotions. Grace was a mythological being, one of magic and superstition. How could Katrina possibly trust her own feelings?
Long, slender fingers reached to gently stroke her face and Katrina trembled at the heat the touch generated. "You know me, Katrina. In your heart you have always known me."
The words were almost whispered. Katrina would have thought she imagined them if not for the breath wafting across her lips as the words were spoken. And as the full lips finally closed over her own, she did know her.
Gasping as she awoke sweating and shaking Kathryn Janeway could whisper only, "Seven."