DISCLAIMER: Part 1
When Annika opened her eyes the next morning it was to the sight of the sun-dappled canvas roof of the tent. It took her a moment to get her bearings and realize where she was, and whom she was with. Glancing down she was treated to the sight of B'Elanna's face, peaceful in repose. She was shocked by how young and innocent her love looked when she was sleeping. The contrast between the peaceful woman she saw now and the fierce warrior she had seen B'Elanna to be was striking. It was hard to imagine that anyone believed that this sleeping beauty was a man, let alone a knight who ruled the tournament grounds and had taken the lives of three men in her short life. It was odd to note that the violence with which she lived had not left its mark on her visage. She could be any young woman as she slept here now.
Her body was a different story. Annika drank in the sight of her warrior wife's powerful body. She admired the planes and angles of her face, and the peaks and valleys of her rippling muscles. No woman looked like that, and Annika was quietly proud that she had managed to win the heart of such a one. She stretched out her body, and for the first time she was aware of how good it felt to stretch out her muscles. All of her life she had taken her body for granted knowing that its only purpose was decoration and childbearing. She had never paid attention to how it felt, had never been present in her own body before now. Last night had been a revelation of pleasure and sensation for her. It had awakened her to possibilities she had never before imagined. She stretched out again slowly, for the first time paying attention to how each movement felt. She was feeling stiff and a little sore from her exertions both on the road and in bed last night, but she was surprised at how pleasurable and satisfying even that slight amount of pain could be.
She was feeling restless and did not wish to disturb B'Elanna's sleep so she eased out of her arms and out of bed. She looked at her clothing strewn about the room and realized with chagrin that due to the nature of her clothing she was unable to dress herself without help. Spying the loose linen shirt that B'Elanna had been wearing at their wedding she slipped it over her head. It was loose and baggy and fell to midway down her thighs. The feeling of the clothing, and the fact that she was not wearing any of her customary restrictive undergarments was wonderful, as was the fact that the shirt was imbued with the wonderful scent of her wife's body. She padded barefoot around the tent, pouring herself a drink of water and sipping the cool liquid while she explored her unfamiliar surroundings.
B'Elanna drifted into wakefulness slowly; she felt a sense of loss, inexplicable until she realized that she was alone in the bed. She felt the covers beside her, still warm from Annika's body heat. Opening her eyes wider and looking around she saw her wife drinking a glass of water on the other side of the tent. She watched the beautiful young women tilt her head back, throat working as she swallowed. She noticed with a smile that Annika was wearing her shirt. Far from disguising her curves, the loose flowing material served to highlight the sensual beauty of her lover's body. B'Elanna felt a surge of desire as Annika moved, the sun coming from the tent walls backlighting her body so that she was treated to a perfect silhouette of Annika's form.
She levered herself up on to one elbow in order to have a better view of her wife as she moved about the tent. Noticing that B'Elanna was awake Annika smiled shyly at her lover. Upon seeing the answering smile spread over B'Elanna's face, she set down the cup and moved quickly back toward the bed, pulling the shirt off over her head as she walked.
Several hours later they finally managed to find the time to eat a simple breakfast of bread and cheese. They were both feeling tired and hot so they decided to walk to the river for a swim. Annika refused to relinquish the shirt she had purloined from B'Elanna so they dressed very similarly in tights and loose fitting shirts tied at the waist. Neither of them bothered with constrictive undergarments and so they both felt rather exposed as they walked, but the woods were deserted and soon they forgot to be self-conscious and merely enjoyed the sense of freedom this type of dress engendered.
They walked along the river until they found a secluded spot where the stream widened into a pool. It took several minutes but B'Elanna finally talked Annika into removing her clothing and stepping into the water. The younger woman did not know how to swim, but B'Elanna told her not to worry that she would look after her, and she knew B'Elanna would never put her at risk. She let herself fall back into B'Elanna's waiting arms and the young warrior held her on her chest and kicked back into the pool. Even though she couldn't swim she had absolute trust in B'Elanna's ability to hold her up and keep her from harm. She leaned back, feeling her wife's perfect breasts pressing into her back, her strong brown hands resting on her belly as she moved them around the pool.
After floating around the pond for a little more than half an hour B'Elanna guided them over to water shallow enough for them to gain their feet. Using a soapstone that she had brought along for the purpose they bathed in the slowly flowing water. B'Elanna then searched along the shallow water until she found the arrowroot plant she needed. Pulling several of the plants up by their roots she squeezed the milky juice from the roots and massaged it into Annika's scalp. The liquid turned into a sudsy foam that washed the dirt and oil from her beautiful blonde hair. While Annika was used to the sensation of someone else bathing her, to B'Elanna the feeling of Annika's fingers massaging her scalp was amazing. She leaned back and reveled in the feeling and Annika was more than happy to rub her new wife's head as long as B'Elanna was content to have her do so.
When they were both cleaned and rinsed they climbed out of the water and lay on the grass in the sunlight to dry. Annika was unused to the feel of the sun on her skin, as it was not considered ladylike to for a woman of breeding to have any pigmentation to her skin. She couldn't believe what she had been missing her entire life as she felt the warmth of the sun and of the ground soaking into her bones. She rolled onto her side and watched as the sun dried the droplets of water from B'Elanna's caramel coloured skin. Surprised at how quickly she became aroused just by looking at the muscular body of the woman she loved, she couldn't stop herself from reaching out to touch the sun-kissed skin of her lover.
B'Elanna kept her eyes closed as Annika explored her body with fingers growing ever bolder by the minute. She couldn't suppress a shudder of delight when she felt Annika's mouth join her hands in their exploration, and she could no longer keep still as she felt the weight of Annika's slight frame settle between her legs. She wound her arms around her Lady's body, drawing her ever closer until their lips mettouching off a storm of passion that would not be denied.
It was over an hour later when B'Elanna awoke on the sun drenched grass, Annika was asleep on her shoulder, the weight of her head a blessed burden on the warrior's arm. The raven-haired woman brushed the hair back that was covering her wife's beautiful face and when treated to a full unobstructed view of the face of beauty she once again marveled at her luck in finding and capturing the heart of one so perfect for her as Annika. In truth she could have laid on this bank all day and merely stared at the sleeping face of her wife and lover, but the growling of her stomach told her that she needed to make her way back to the enclave and find something to eat. She kissed Annika's forehead softly, feeling the beautiful woman stir under her caress; slowly she kissed her way down to her Lady's perfect lips and captured them gently, feeling Annika awake in her arms and slowly begin to respond to her touch. When they were both sated on the taste of one another for the moment B'Elanna moved her head back to get a better look at the beauty she held in her arms.
"Much as I hate to admit it I think we had better make our way back to the village my love," she said in a soft voice.
"Let me guess my warrior wife, your stomach is empty and you would rather fill its bottomless chasm then stay here and make love to your new wife?" Annika teased, kissing B'Elanna once again to ensure her wife knew she was only having a bit of fun.
"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak my love, and so will I be if I do not eat soon. You can't very well have your wife starve to death on the day after your wedding now can you?" B'Elanna gave back as good as she got, loving this new, more playful, side to her wife.
"Very well, then I suppose we ought to be on our way before I am forced to carry you back to the village myself," Annika said as he began to look around for their clothing which had been thrown haphazardly around the small clearing. As they dressed Annika's stomach let out a most unladylike growl that sent them both into gales of laughter.
They made their way quickly back to their tent where they ate the last of the bread and cheese that was left over from breakfast. Such a small amount of food was not sufficient for either of them and so they decided to get dressed and make their way back to their camp in search of a real meal. When they had polished off the last of the food they were both a bit shy about asking for help with dressing, although neither of them was capable of clothing themselves completely without help. Annika picked up the pile of cloth that B'Elanna used to bind her chest.
"Show me how to do this my love," she asked.
B'Elanna pulled the shirt she had been wearing off over her head and approached Annika. She told her how the cloth needed to be wound tightly and tied off in order that her chest appeared as flat as possible. Annika worked in silence until she was satisfied with the result of her work.
"Who performs this task for you normally?" she queried.
"Harry has always been the one to help me dress," B'Elanna replied truthfully.
Annika felt an emotion unlike any other she had experienced before. She knew that Harry and B'Elanna were like brother and sister, but somehow the thought of anyone but herself seeing her wife's body bothered her. A small frown appeared on her face prompting B'Elanna to inquire as to what the matter was.
"I do not like the idea of Harry seeing you without your clothing on," she admitted finally.
"Annika, honestly, its only Harry."
"Nevertheless, from now on I will be the one to help you dress in the mornings. I wish to be the only one who is lucky enough to touch your skin and see your beautiful body."
"As you wish my love, but you do realize then that you must show me how to dress you, for I will be the only one to have that privilege from this point forward."
Annika smiled at the thought of her warrior wife struggling with the stays of her corset, but she had to admit that B'Elanna had a point. It took them both much longer than usual to get dressed but in the end they managed make themselves presentable, although Annika was forced to wear her hair loose over her shoulders as B'Elanna was unable to master the art of putting it up in the regular style that Annika wore. When they were finally finished dressing they walked back along the path until it joined up with the road. They followed the sounds of voices until they found themselves in the village. They were both pleased to find that their entire group of friends had returned to the village from their campsite this afternoon and so they sat down to the evening meal surrounded by everyone they held dear.
That night they sat in the village around a huge fire and listened to the songs and the stories of the villagers. It was a night of happy and carefree laughter and joy. Both Annika and B'Elanna felt more at ease here with these people than they had ever felt, and it took some time and discussion before they realized that it was because these people were among the few on earth who knew them in their entirety. The villagers knew that B'Elanna was a woman, and they knew and accepted the nature of their relationship without judgement or disapproval. It was a rare feeling and one they both accepted they would find in few places on earth. The happiness and ease they felt here among these people would make their departure tomorrow all that much harder. Nevertheless they were both committed to the path they had chosen, and it warmed them to know that they would always be able to find sanctuary here among people of the forest.
It was well after midnight when they all decided to call it a night. Annika and B'Elanna held hands as they made their way by torchlight back to their tent. B'Elanna carried a package of food for the morning and they had made arrangements with Harry and Tom to meet in the village in the morning to strike both of their camps together. There was no shyness or trepidation between them this night as they reached their tent. Annika's hands shook with anticipation and not fear as she helped B'Elanna out of her clothing, and soon they were together on the bed and in one another's arms. Instead of falling asleep when their passion was spent however, they found themselves talking about the past few days and about their lives together. B'Elanna had never in her life been much for words, and she was shocked to find that conversation felt as close and as intimate as their lovemaking had. It was several hours before they finally fell asleep, safe at last in one another's arms.
The next morning they awoke at dawn despite the late hour at which they had finally fallen asleep. They dressed quickly, becoming as they were, more intimately acquainted with the methods required to put on one another's clothing. When they were finished dressing the two of them together took down the tent that had been their only home since they were married two days ago. While they were sad to be leaving the village behind them they were both looking forward to traveling to London for the last tournament of the season. They enjoyed time spent on the road in one another's company and in the company of their friends. When they finished with the task of striking camp they stood for a moment in one another's arms before walking back to the village to meet their companions.
When they finally reached the village centre they were surprised to find that Sarah was standing with the group and that she had a small pile of belongings in a sack at her feet. B'Elanna was unsure of what to do or say to this so she merely nodded to the group and waited for Harry to explain what was happening. As she expected the young man approached her quickly and asked that he might have a word in private. They walked a few feet away from the group and Harry took B'Elanna's arm and spoke in a hesitant voice.
"B'Elanna, I know we are bursting at the seams as it is, and I know that you are worried about money. But I was thinking that perhaps I could find some way to contribute financially perhaps I could sell some of the game I catch in town or something "
B'Elanna smiled at his earnest attempt to alleviate her fears.
"Harry it's all right I just didn't know it was this serious."
"It is," he replied simply.
"Then the best argument for having her along is that you love her. As to your financial contributions, Harry you already do more than your share of work on behalf of our little family. Don't worry, we'll be fine. The prizes at London are huge and should be more than enough for us to live on during the winter. I'm happy for you Harry, everyone should have a chance to be as happy as Annika and I are now that we are finally together."
Now that the issue was settled Harry and the others began the job of loading up the wagon which was already full to the brim now that they had an extra tent to carry along with them. Annika went out of her way to ensure that Sarah felt welcomed into the close-knit group. It was obvious the young woman was no stranger to physical labour and B'Elanna watched, impressed with the ease with which the slender girl tossed the awkward and heavy canvas into the wagon. She smiled to herself as she watched Harry and his new love work together. They shared the same secret glances and fleeting touches that she and Annika did, and she was certain that Harry had chosen well the woman with whom he would share his heart and his life.
In no time at all the wagon was loaded and the group bade a fond farewell to their friends and family. They exchanged embraces and promises to return soon before they were once again on the road toward London. B'Elanna dropped back to ride beside Harry and the two of them watched as Sarah, Annika and Kate chatted and giggled as they traveled. The group was indeed bursting at the seams, but bursting with love and happiness and humour. Rather than being more worried about their future now that their group had grown so large B'Elanna was in fact feeling calmer. As long as they had each other she was certain that there was nothing they could not face together.
Smiling she spurred Goliath forward until she caught up with Annika. With one arm she reached over and pulled her wife from her saddle until she was sitting sideways in her lap. Her strong arm kept her anchored there and she kissed her quickly.
"I thought you might like to ride with me for a while. I've missed you this morning," she whispered, her works for Annika's ears only.
Annika settled herself more comfortably in her new seat, resting her head on B'Elanna's shoulder.
"I love you too."
It only took them two days to travel the rest of the distance to London. They made their camp a half-hour's ride outside of the town one night before they had to register with the tournament officials. Sarah had proven to be an excellent addition to their group, and she fit in well with everyone. She knew more about the plants in the woods than anyone else, and their food tasted a great deal better with all of the spices and seasonings she was able to provide from her walks in the woods. Although she was generally quiet she was possessed of a quick wit and a gift for storytelling that kept them entertained at night around the fire. B'Elanna had never seen Harry looking so happy, and she couldn't have been happier for him if he truly was her brother. Each night the two of them took longs walks together in the woods and Sarah taught Harry the value and use of plants in the wild for eating and for the healing of wounds, and she taught him which plants to avoid as they would cause sickness or even death. Harry was a quick learner and he was fascinated by all of the uses Sarah could find for seemingly nondescript plants that grew everywhere in the woods.
Even though they were still a fair distance outside of the city they could see the fires of other travelers who were arriving for the tournament. B'Elanna began to get a little nervous at the thought of how many people would be there to witness this event. The King himself sponsored the tournament and she couldn't help but worry that she would not perform well under such circumstances. The King and selected men from several of his companies had returned from the war in France just for the tournament that bore his name. They would be returning to the battle after the tournament was over with supplies and gold in order to renew their efforts against the country across the channel. She knew that many of the King's own men who normally did not participate in the tournaments would be competing, and that she would have to be at her peak if she were to become champion at this most important of tournaments.
Annika sensed B'Elanna's nervousness and suggested that they retire to their tent early. They helped one another out of their clothing and then Annika urged B'Elanna to lie face down on the bed. She rubbed the oil that Sarah had prepared for her into the warrior's back. B'Elanna felt herself relax under Annika's loving touch. As she worked on relieving the tension she knew her wife was feeling, Annika talked to B'Elanna from her heart. She told her that she believed in her no matter what, and that win or lose B'Elanna would always be the champion of her heart. That as long as B'Elanna acted with the strength of character and honour that Annika knew she possessed she would always be victorious. B'Elanna felt all of her anxiety slip away as she listened to her wife's words and felt her hands on her body. She turned over and pulled Annika into her arms, holding her close as they drifted off to sleep.
The next day B'Elanna was up before dawn in preparation for the busy day ahead. Annika woke only long enough to help her into her clothes and then lay back down to rest. Today was a day for registration and for setting up their tents inside the tournament grounds. Only Harry and B'Elanna were going into the city this morning to register. They would return shortly to help strike camp and prepare for the royal parade into the city and to the tournament grounds. Tom was busy readying the armour and the horses so that they would be fit for presentation to the King.
The last time they had been to London they had done nothing other than visit the marketplaces in Eastcheap as well as the armourer's guild. They had never ridden deep into the city, and they had not seen the royal tournament grounds. Together they rode over London Bridge, marveling at the squalid houses that crammed either side of the road. They made their way down the streets that led past the royal palace and into the arena where the tournament would take place. There were hundreds of workers scurrying about the streets, hanging banners and making last minute preparations for the huge parade that would mark the beginnings of the games. B'Elanna felt her stomach tighten with nerves and she forced herself to remember Annika's words of the night before in order to calm herself down.
Finally they reached the tournament grounds and sought out the registration tent. Harry presented her papers to the registrar who studied them quickly before inquiring which events Lord Beyla would be entering. Harry picked up the baton and struck the shield for the joust, and for the sword on foot. The registrar took the pile of coins that constituted the registration fee and then handed back the letters of nobility.
"Welcome to London Lord Beyla," he said with a smile that didn't reach his eyes before turning to greet the next nobleman in line.
They followed a young lad of about 14 whose job it was to lead the knights to the place where they would pitch their tents and then inform his master that the spot was taken. The boy ran ahead of them, obviously enjoying his position of importance for the day. When he brought them to their designated area he carefully memorized Beyla's name and ran happily off to inform his master before retrieving the next Lord who required tent space on the grounds. His smile widened immeasurably when he caught the silver coin that B'Elanna tossed at him after he completed his official duty.
Their tasks complete for the moment, the two friends went in search of food before heading back to the campsite to move their family into town. There was much B'Elanna wanted to ask Harry about Sarah and how he came to fall in love so quickly, but she needed to keep her mind focussed on the tournament. She knew there would be time enough to talk after she was declared tournament champion.
They stopped by the marketplace to get some food to take back to the camp for the others and then picked their way through the labyrinthine streets until they made their way out of the city. When they returned the others had already taken down most of the camp. Meat was cooking over the coals of a fire, but their eyes widened with delight at the sight of the fresh fruit they brought back from the marketplace in London. Harry delighted in teasing the others with the sight of the succulent and exotic oranges and apples that they had purchased. In the end Tom chased him around the camp and pinned him to the ground while Sarah and Kate wrestled the bag of fruit out of his hands. When the excitement was over, they all sat down and ate the meat that Annika and Sarah had prepared before they ate the entire the bag of fruit in a very few minutes.
It took very little time for them to take down the rest of the camp and stow the equipment in the wagon. Soon they were all mounted and on their way to the city. Sarah was more excited than the others as she had never been to London before. Her entire life had been spent no more than a day's walk away from the village in the forest where she was born and raised. B'Elanna watched her chatter and gesticulate with a smile on her face.
"It is hard to believe that just a year ago I had no more experience in the world than Sarah," she remarked to Annika as they rode.
"I cannot imagine you ever being so young and inexperienced. When I met you you were already Lord Beyla and you seemed rather worldly and jaded to my eye."
"I was never so nervous in my life when I went to France to get my papers of nobility. And I had never in my life seen someone as beautiful and exotic as you. I guess I just hid it better."
"You had more to hide."
"Although I do remember the dashing young Lord falling over his own feet several times at the banquet in Rouen," Annika teased gently.
"That was a night I'd rather forget," B'Elanna laughed easily.
"I see, you'd like to forget the night you first danced with your wife. I can't say as it makes me happy to hear such talk after only three days of marriage."
"I can see that this is a discussion that will only lead me further into trouble." B'Elanna shook her head in wonder at the way that Annika could so easily turn her back into the callow youth she was a year ago.
"And it is just such astute powers of observation that cause me to love you so well my dear."
B'Elanna arched her brow in a meaningful way and growled in a husky voice meant only for Annika's ears,
"That is not the only reason you love me my beautiful wife."
"You're awfully sure of yourself this morning."
"For good reason my Lady. I believe that you told me not two nights ago how much you loved when I "
"Stop I beg of you. You win. I give up. What would the others think if they heard you talking of such things?"
"They would think that you are a lucky woman indeed," B'Elanna grinned in triumph.
"And they would be right."
Their verbal sparring was interrupted when Sarah gave a cry of delight at the first sight of London in the distance. Just the roofs of some of the stone buildings were visible over the tops of the trees, and Sarah had never seen anything remotely like this before. All of the buildings she had ever seen in her life had been made of wattle and daub or of wood. She was fairly quivering with excitement, and she held Harry's hand as she rode beside him on the increasingly busy road.
As they came closer and closer to the city the road became crowded with wagons and horses. B'Elanna recognized several of the people she saw as knights that she had jousted against in other tournaments. She greeted several old friends and as they exchanged news she was inundated with congratulations on her recent marriage. She deliberately kept the details of the ceremony vague and everyone she spoke to simply assumed they had married in a cathedral in a town outside of London. Once she had told a few people she was certain that word would spread on its own quite quickly.
When they finally rode into the city Sarah fell silent and took in all of the sights, sounds and smells around her in awe. The marketplace was more exotic than she could ever have imagined and the colourful clothing of its denizens drew her eye and held it long after they had ridden past. When at last she could no longer see the throngs of people crowding the marketplace she twisted back to face forward in her saddle and grilled Harry on the kinds of things one could see in such a remarkable place. It was only when he promised to take her there the next day that she once again fell into a silent contemplation of her surroundings.
They rode into the tournament grounds and quickly made their way to the area that had been set aside for their tents. It didn't take long at all to set up the camp and see to the horses. Soon there was little left to do but get dressed for the parade that would mark the formal beginning of the games. Annika helped B'Elanna put on her armour, while Tom saddled Goliath and smoothed the richly coloured caparison over his gleaming black flanks. B'Elanna would ride in the parade while Tom and Harry would walk in front of her with her coat of arms held aloft to identify her to the spectators. Annika, Sarah and Kate left early to procure a good spot from which to watch the ceremony inside of the arena itself.
When they reached the marshalling grounds for the parade B'Elanna was amazed at the sheer number of people who were lining up for the parade of champions. Even the tournament at Rouen seemed small in comparison. B'Elanna felt a familiar tightness in her stomach as she looked around at the warlike visages, and battle-scarred armour of the men around her. This would be the first time she had faced so many real soldiers in the ring. She knew she was quick and skillful with her sword and lance, but these were men who made their living by their weapons, and defeating them one after another would be no easy task. Her skills had not been honed on the battlefield, but nonetheless her physical prowess and sense of honour would drive her to win at all costs.
The start of the parade was announced by the blasting of the herald's trumpets and soon the knights on their horses began to make their way out of the marshalling area and through the streets of the city toward the arena. The din of the crowd was deafening and the multitude of banners and crests created a blur of colour and movement that had everyone's horse acting skittish. Until they were clear of the marshalling grounds and spread out along the street it was all B'Elanna could do to control her mount. Finally they were on the street and she could take a moment to drink in the sight of the crowd. Even though she had participated in several such tournament parades she had not become jaded to the feeling of awe that so many people would come out just to see her and the other knights ride by on their horses. The tournaments offered the citizens a glimpse into the lives of the nobility. It allowed them to participate, in a sense, in a life that was normally outside of the scope of their existence. It gave them a chance to forget the day to day to drudgery of their lives and to experience a spectacle the likes of which came but once a year. The week of the tournament was like a holiday to most, and although many shops remained open during the event, business was slow during the hours of the tournament and often shop keepers would close for several hours during the day to allow themselves a chance to see the knights do combat before hurrying back to serve customers after the tournament slowed down for the day.
When they entered the arena they all rode past the royal box in single file. As did the rest of the soldiers B'Elanna drew her sword just before she reached the box. She turned her head to the right and raised the hilt of her sword up to her face, sweeping it down to her side and then back up again in a salute to the King as she rode past him on her way around the arena. Finally they were all lined up facing the royal viewing stand, and the King spoke his words of welcome. It was almost impossible to hear what he was saying from B'Elanna's position near the back of the arena so she contented herself with looking around until she found Annika and the others in the viewing stands. Even from her vantage point she could see that Annika was looking back at her intently. She was taken back to the first time she had ever caught a glimpse of that white blonde hair in the viewing stands at Rouen. She was struck by a feeling of having come full circle, and being so much the richer for having made the journey.
When the opening ceremony was finished they made their way back to the camp and B'Elanna removed her armour before taking Goliath to the stables for the night. The others were anxious to go into London proper and have dinner at a pub that they had heard mentioned earlier in the day. B'Elanna wished to remain in camp and have a quiet and early evening before the start of the tournament. She and Annika had a simple supper by themselves and then sat quietly by the fire. Annika sat on a log that Harry and Tom had dragged over to serve as seating for meals and B'Elanna sat on the ground at her feet, leaning back against her legs. Annika ran her fingers through B'Elanna's hair, and rubbed her shoulders knowing that the physical contact between them helped calm the warrior down and allowed her to focus on the next day's task. In truth she was worried about B'Elanna's chances in this tournament. So many of the participants were professional soldiers and she was concerned that her wife might be hurt in her attempts to win at all costs. She never let on about her fears to B'Elanna however, she knew that the raven-haired woman needed her support and her confidence and she gave it completely.
When the fire burned down they went into their tent and prepared for bed. B'Elanna removed her own clothes before she undid the laces of Annika's corset and eased the restrictive material away from her lover's skin. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the feeling of Annika's skin beneath her fingers as she massaged away the marks left by the whalebone stays. She leaned in close, molding her body to Annika's back and nuzzled into her neck, breathing deeply of the familiar scent of her lover. Annika let her head fall back until it rested on B'Elanna's shoulder and surrendered to the feeling of the warrior's hands running over her body from her hips up to cup her breasts, massaging them gently. She let her hands drift back to rest on B'Elanna's hips, pulling her closer still. She turned to kiss the strong neck, her lips grazing the pulse point before seeking out wine dark lips. Unable to keep her feet any longer she sagged back into B'Elanna, knowing that her wife would never let her fall. She felt the familiar surge of desire when B'Elanna swept her up into muscular arms. They sank on the bed together, supple limbs twining, hungry hands and lips searching until their desire reached its zenith and they cried out together in passion.
The next day B'Elanna and Annika were up before dawn. They helped one another dress and then B'Elanna began to stretch and prepare herself for the sword fights in which she was scheduled to participate. When her stretches were complete Annika rubbed her shoulders and back before helping her into her armour. She tied one of her scarves around B'Elanna's arm as a token and then buckled her lover's sword around her waist.
"Good luck today my love," she said softly, kissing B'Elanna's cheek gently.
B'Elanna held her wife close; drawing strength from the love they shared. She picked up her helmet and then she and Harry left for the sword ring. She was relieved to see that her matches for the day were all against men she had fought and defeated many times previously. Getting a few fights out of the way to allow her nerves to settle was import if she were to be at her best to face the soldiers of the King's companies later in the tournament. The first matches were close as everyone put forth an extra effort to win here in London, but as yet nobody had found a way to defeat B'Elanna's superior speed and skill. The crowd began to roar her name after the first fight and once again she found herself touted as a favourite to win the event.
She watched several of the matches involving the King's soldiers and she was impressed with the strength of the men. She took hope however in seeing that none of them seemed particularly quick. She allowed herself a moment's hope before she forced her mind back to observing and preparing for the task at hand. She easily progressed through the preliminary rounds and she went to bed early that evening knowing tomorrow would bring far greater challenges.
B'Elanna's first match the next day was against her greatest rival from the outlying tournaments. They were friendly together outside of the sword ring and they chatted amiably while they waited for the bans to be called announcing their match. Lord Dumphries described his match against one of the King's soldiers and offered B'Elanna what advice he could on how to defend against the superior strength and savvy of the battle-hardened men. Dumphries had won his match, but only barely and he advised B'Elanna to attack swiftly and try to end the match before the force of their blows wore her down. She thanked him for his advice and knew that it would serve her well to follow it.
She and Dumphries squared off in the lists together and put on a masterful show of swordsmanship for the gathered crowds. B'Elanna could sense that Dumphries was tired after his matches the day before and she could have ended the match sooner had she chosen, but she knew that her friend deserved better than to be rousted so thoroughly in front of this crowd and so she allowed the match to go on and Dumphries to make a good showing. In the end she finished him off and accepted his congratulations as well as his gratitude as the crowd roared their approval.
She had an hour before her next bout so she decided to stay and watch some of the other matches. Harry and the others fetched food from the camp and they stood on the fringes of the crowd and watched as the other Knights fought their battles. B'Elanna was feeling good and the fact that her family was around her added strength to her conviction that she would be able to win even against the King's men.
When she entered the lists for her next match she took the measure of the man she was to face. He towered above her and his armour was dented and scored from fighting on the fields of France. She saw stains at the joints that looked suspiciously like dried blood, and she had to force herself to calm down and concentrate on the battle ahead. They circled one another slowly at first and she could tell by her opponent's leisurely feints that he was not taking her at all seriously. Her small stature and shining armour led him to believe that she was a mere dilettante and that he would easily defeat her. His overconfidence was to her advantage and she quickly scored two points before he realized that he had a real fight on his hands. He pressed her hard and she fell back in the face of his renewed onslaught. She parried and dodged for all she was worth, and, as she hoped, he was not quick enough to land a scoring blow. The match dragged on as his height made it difficult for B'Elanna to score another hit. Finally she took a chance and allowed him to step inside her defenses. He swung mightily and the hit nearly drove her to her knees, but she managed to keep her feet, and, as he was sufficiently off balance from the weight of his swing, she was able to score the winning hit before he regained his equilibrium.
The rest of the matches went much the same and although she remained undefeated at the end of the day, thus ensuring herself a spot in the finals, she paid a physical price that was much higher than usual. When Annika helped her out of her armour that night she was shocked to see the extent of the bruising B'Elanna had suffered even through the plate of her armour. She rubbed the liniment Sarah had prepared into the bruises and aches and B'Elanna felt better almost immediately. Annika had to bite her tongue to stop herself from begging her wife to withdraw from the finals. She couldn't bear to see the raven-haired woman hurt but she knew that B'Elanna would never consent to quit the tournament and that what she needed most was her unswerving support; she forced herself to put aside her own feelings and offer encouragement instead. She lay awake long into the night watching B'Elanna's peaceful sleep; hoping fervently that she wouldn't be too badly hurt in the days ahead.
The next morning was peaceful around the camp, as B'Elanna's final sword contest wasn't until the early afternoon. They sat around the site talking quietly while cleaning and repairing equipment. Sarah cooked a special stew that she insisted B'Elanna have two helpings of before her duel. The young warrior was afraid that she would feel overly full and too sluggish to fight, however her fears were unfounded, as she felt stronger and more energetic than ever after the meal was over. She tried to get Sarah to tell her the secret of her cooking, but the young woman simply smiled and demurred. Eventually B'Elanna decided to stop questioning her good luck and be grateful for it.
When she buckled on her armour with the help of Annika they spoke quietly about the upcoming battle, and as ever B'Elanna felt herself strengthened by Annika's love and faith in her abilities. She could sense that the beautiful blonde was worried that she would be hurt and she hastened to reassure her that she was able to take care of herself.
"Don't worry Annika, I'll be fine this afternoon."
"I know my love. I can't help but worry about you, but I trust in your skill. I have yet to see the man who can stand against you when you put your mind to a task."
"Indeed beloved, you are the only one I know who can stop me when I get an idea in my head."
"I'll believe that when I see it my Lord," Annika smiled.
"We'd better hurry or you won't get a good spot from which to see the fight."
"Yes it would be a shame if I couldn't get close enough to the lists to hear your grunting and be splashed with the sweat of the contestants. I so miss that when I have to take a seat further away from the ring." Annika finished tightening the buckles on B'Elanna's armour as she spoke, then helped her to her feet.
"Come on darling; its time for you to go win a championship."
They linked arms and walked toward the sword lists with the rest of the group falling in behind them as they made their way through the crowd. They did manage to arrive at the ring in enough time for everyone to find a place to stand close to the fence. All of her joking aside Annika liked to be close to sword ring so that she could keep an eye on B'Elanna as she fought. Harry doubled checked B'Elanna's armour while she watched her opponent as he performed the same ritual on the other side of the ring. He was a tall man with jet-black hair and darker skin that was marred by a long jagged scar that ran from his temple down his face and disappeared into his armour. His mail was coal black and was liberally dented; it looked to be the armour of a man who had faced and defeated many opponents on the field of battle.
When they entered the ring he barely returned her salute before he snapped his visor into place and swung fiercely at her head. She was forced to block his attack with her visor still open, and it was all she could do to parry his blows. She stumbled backward around the ring, unused to feeling so off balance and back on her heels. She was surprised when she felt the logs of the sword ring at her back. She had nowhere left to go. Her opponent raised his sword and brought it down with unbelievable force. B'Elanna took the blow on the blade of her sword and the two weapons slid the length of one another until they jammed together at the hilts. She took her chance and used the logs at her back to launch herself bodily against the dark knight. He couldn't hold her in place and she growled loudly as she gave him a mighty shove that sent him sprawling.
While he got to his feet she got her breathing under control and fastened her visor down, protecting her face. When he regained his feet he did not rush back into the battle straight away. This time he circled her slowly; finding himself flat on his back had given him a certain amount of respect for the diminutive knight he found himself facing. They both feinted lightly a few times, testing to see if there was a weakness that could be exploited. Neither of them found a chink in the defenses of the other and B'Elanna resigned herself to hard fought battle. The dark knight attacked again; his blows were a blur of metal and B'Elanna fought down a rising tide of panic. She fought to control her emotions and was successful when she heard Annika's voice in her head telling her that she believed in her. She was skillful in her defense and after a moment her opponent fell back to reassess his strategy. She took advantage of this lull and rushed forward on the attack. She constantly led him to the left, her weaker side. All of her thrusts came from that side and as soon as she saw him settle into a routine she thrust quickly from the right and was rewarded with the sound of metal on metal as her blow went home and she scored the first point of the match.
Once again they circled slowly and B'Elanna was content to let the older man bring the attack to her once more. She defended well, and was relieved to feel the fury of his attacks abating. Perhaps he was tiring. She renewed her efforts and was rewarded again when he misjudged her thrust and she managed to score a weak hit to his shoulder. Weak as it was, the hit counted and she was one strike away from winning the match cleanly. She allowed her jubilation to distract her for a moment, but that was all it took for the other knight to knock her sword aside and land a huge blow on the side of her helmet. For a moment her world went black, and then erupted in a fireworks of colour. The roar of the crowd seemed to fade away to an indistinguishable mutter, and then her head felt as if it exploded in a blinding burst of pain. She felt her opponent land another scoring blow before she could pull herself together enough to defend against his attacks. She was feeling dizzy and her vision was blurred, but she managed to hold herself together long enough stay in the game.
When she regained her senses she began once more to try to find a way past his defenses. With the score tied, the next hit would win and B'Elanna was determined to triumph. They clashed several more times with neither of them able to score a blow. B'Elanna was beginning to feel a bit desperate when he attacked once more stronger than before; he had fooled her with his tactics just as easily as she had him. She summoned up all of her strength and began to hack away at him as if her were a tree she was trying to fell in the forest. Her technique was completely gone and all she had left was her strength and conditioning. He parried her blows for some time, but always falling back before the fury of her thrusts. She brought a crushing overhead swing down onto the edge of his blade, very near the hilt and couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the sword fall from his hand. She quickly tapped him on the shoulder with the flat of her blade and the match and championship were hers.
The older man was shaking his head in disbelief that he had just been bested by a slip of a man who obviously only played at soldiers during the tournament season. Yet he had to admit the man had been unrelenting and skillful in his attacks. When fancy tournament techniques had failed the smaller man had relied on strength and will to win the battle. He picked up his sword with a hand still numb from the last blow, and saluted the young Lord respectfully before leaving the sword ring to seek solace in a pint of beer. Harry and the others were beside themselves with elation as B'Elanna made her way over to them through a throng of well wishers. Her helmet was badly dented and it took Harry a few moments to undo the buckles. Annika would not rest until she had thoroughly examined her wife to be certain she was not seriously hurt. She had been terrified when she saw the dark knight land the crushing blow to her love's head, and it was some time before her heart slowed down even after she saw for herself that B'Elanna was fine.
B'Elanna's first joust the next day was not until the afternoon so the entire group made their way into the city to the pub that was favoured by the tournament crowd and they had dinner and many pints of ale that night before they made their way back to the tents. It was always fun for B'Elanna to be among the soldiers and to take part in their rough teasing and humour. Annika was content to sit back and watch Lord Beyla with his friends. She knew that B'Elanna needed this time to herself to really savour her victory with others who would understand what she had been through in the ring this afternoon. For Sarah it was a revelation to watch the woman she knew as B'Elanna become the rough warrior Lord Beyla. Even though she knew B'Elanna was really a woman she had a hard time believing it as she watched her drink and boast with the other warriors.
The next day was rainy and cold, but the tournament continued regardless of the weather. As a group they decided not to attend any of the other events in this weather and so they remained in the tent for the morning, chatting and telling stories to pass the time. B'Elanna finally heard the story of how Harry and Sarah had met as they traveled the countryside to take care of preparations for Annika's and B'Elanna's wedding. Sarah had B'Elanna laughing until tears ran down her cheeks when she spoke of how awkward and shy Harry had been after he discovered that he was attracted to her. Harry had stammered so badly that she thought he was telling her that he was telling her he admired her carrots rather than her character. Later, when she sensed him standing close behind her she had turned to look at him and her cheek collided with his nose giving him a terrible nosebleed. Harry blushed furiously as his secrets were revealed. When B'Elanna started teasing him about his apparent addiction to carrots he retaliated by telling the story of their fireside dance lessons. Annika couldn't resist joining in and describing B'Elanna's bumbling behaviour at the first banquet. The little family laughed the dreary morning away and when they emerged from the tent to prepare for B'Elanna's first joust none of them even noticed the rain.
The joust was slightly less of challenge for B'Elanna than the sword competition had been, as jousting was almost solely a tournament sport and not used in battle. Only their strength and the training of their horses gave the soldiers an advantage. B'Elanna and Goliath had no problem overcoming the slippery conditions and they easily won the two matches they fought that afternoon. Tom took Goliath back to the stables and washed him and his barding thoroughly before putting him up for the night.
"You have certainly outdone yourself today my love. I don't think I've ever seen you quite so dirty," Annika teased as she unbuckled B'Elanna's armour.
"I work all day to earn a living for you and this is the thanks I get you nag me over a little bit of dirt."
"A little bit I find it hard to believe that there is any dirt left in the jousting arena judging by the amount you seem to have accumulated on your clothes."
"Well, a little mud never hurt anyone," B'Elanna said as she attempted to pull Annika into her filthy arms.
"Oh no you don't you stay away from me," Annika cried as she twisted away from B'Elanna's hands.
"Only a few days of marriage and already you are rejecting my affections. My friends warned me this would happen."
"And you'll be sleeping with your friends this evening if you get me dirty do you hear me," Annika squealed.
B'Elanna ignored Annika's warning and grabbed her into her arms. The mud from her armour was smeared all over Annika's dress. Annika continued to mock struggle for several more minutes before she relented and allowed her wife to claim her lips. Their hands became desperate as they struggled to remove the barrier of cloth and steel that stood between them and the skin they so longed to touch. When they finally removed the last of the obstacles they sank down on the bed and traced trails of fire over one another's skin with fingers and lips aflame with desire. Annika reveled in the feeling of B'Elanna's fingers deep inside of her and she felt her hips rocking hard into her lover's hands as she struggled to meld herself with her warrior love.
When their need for one another was sated they lay together stroking and caressing, enjoying their closeness. Annika looked down at the streaks of mud all over her skin, transferred there from B'Elanna's hands and clothing. She had never in her life been this dirty; she smiled when she thought of what her parents would say if they ever saw her like this. A smile that deepened when she realized that it didn't matter what others thought, only how wonderful she felt when she was with B'Elanna like this.
"You are carrying the water for my bath tonight my knight in filthy armour," she teased, "AND you are washing my clothes.
"Yes dear," B'Elanna replied with mock subservience. Despite the teasing nature of the conversation B'Elanna got to her feet and dressed quickly to begin to heat the water for their baths. Once they were both cleaned up and their clothing washed B'Elanna and Annika joined the others in town for dinner in the tavern. They held hands and teased one another like teenagers as they walked. Neither of them could imagine being happier, and yet once they were surrounded by family and friends they found that they were.
The next day was rainy and cold as well, and B'Elanna had only a few contests, which she easily won. Once again she found that she would participating in the joust final on the last day of the tournament. They spent the day with friends watching some of the other contests and had an early evening in preparation for the finals.
The last day of the tournament dawned bright and sunny. It was a welcome change from the dreary wetness of the past few days. B'Elanna oiled and cleaned her armour to be ready for her competition and was at the lists an hour before she was scheduled to enter. She watched the other knights as they competed for a spot opposite her in the final and she was not surprised to see that the dark knight she had fought in the sword ring was among the finalists. He unhorsed his last two opponents with unerring blows to the chest and as he rode past where she waited he nodded at her in acknowledgment of the fact that they would once again face one another for all of the honours. B'Elanna knew that he would be looking to win at any cost to make up for his defeat at her hands in the sword ring and she knew that it would require everything she had to give if she were to be victorious today.
She heard the crowd chanting her name as the herald announced the participants for the finals. She entered the lists and acknowledged the cheers as her opponent readied himself for the first tilt. She felt her stomach tighten as she watched the man across from her. His horse was larger even than Goliath and having felt the strength in his arm she knew she was in for the fight of her life. The starter walked to the centre of the rail and raised the flag. B'Elanna's entire world became the sight of that flag and when it was dropped she dug her heels into Goliath's flanks and they burst into the ring. She lowered her lance and sighted in on her opponent's shoulder; her concentration in moments like this was absolutely complete. Nothing else existed as she bore down on him. She could hear nothing but the beating of her own heart as the target grew larger and closer before her eyes. She thrust forward with her body and lance and felt the tip strike his armour at the same instant she felt the hammer blow of his lance as it shattered on her chest. It wasn't the hardest hit she had ever taken but it still took her several minutes to regain her breath. She circled back to where Harry stood and grabbed hold of her second lance. She watched while the young boys scrambled under the barriers to scoop up the splinters of the lances they broke as souvenirs. She looked across the arena and was gratified to see her opponent with his visor up and appearing as if he too were having trouble catching his breath.
The starter was once again in the middle of the arena and she snapped her visor into place and prepared for the next round. The roar of the crowd was immense as the flag dropped and Goliath reared up, taking two huge leaps on his rear legs before leaping forward into his charge. B'Elanna once again sighted her lance onto the dark knight's chest and prepared for the impact. Once again she felt her lance connect just seconds before her world exploded. His lance caught her right in the centre of chest like a hammer to an anvil. She was thrown backward onto Goliath's flanks, and only his smooth gait stopped her from sliding senselessly to the ground. Annika started to her feet, her hand over her mouth to stifle her cry of horror as she saw her wife nearly unhorsed before her eyes. As much as it would hurt B'Elanna to lose the match it would kill her to lose the animal that was more than just a mount to her, but rather more akin to a friend.
Harry was at her side in an instant, holding her in place on Goliath's back and trying to ascertain if she were still conscious or not. He got her visor open and was relieved to see that she was still breathing and that her eyes were open. He splashed water onto her face in an attempt to revive her. After a few moments she seemed to snap back into the real world. He got her take a drink of water and asked some simple questions like the name of her horse to determine that she was alert enough to continue. The judge gave them the warning that their time was up and that B'Elanna had to make another pass or forfeit the match. She grabbed the lance from Harry's hand.
"The match is tied Beyla," he advised, "you're going to have to unhorse him or strike him on the helmet in order to win. You just can't keep taking this kind of punishment or he'll wear you down and win, and maybe take your horse in the process."
"I don't think I can unhorse him Harry, he's just too strong."
"Then don't play his game. If you can't outmuscle him, out finesse him. A blow to the helmet will win if he doesn't unhorse you or strike your helmet in return. I don't think he has that kind aim Beyla. You can do this."
"It's a risky proposition Harry."
"I believe in you. You can do this."
The starter was in place and he dropped the flag just as B'Elanna fixed her helmet in place. She charged ahead her mind racing with the possibilities open to her. She sighted the lance in on her opponent's chest, hoping to make the hit and stay alive; at the last moment she remembered Harry's words and raised the tip of the lance, thrusting it forward into the helmet of the dark knight.
The crowd came to its feet with a roar as B'Elanna's lance tore the helmet off the head of her opponent. She hit him a fraction of a second before his lance would have slammed into her chest and it knocked his aim off so that his lance merely broke on her shoulder. The hit to the helmet put her ahead however and she was the champion of the King's own tournament. When she turned around to see the result of her blow she saw the knight slumped over the neck of his mount while his squire tried to rouse him. She was relieved when he finally sat up and took a drink from the water skin his squire handed to him.
Annika pushed her way through the crowd, much less afraid of contact with the mass of strangers than she used to be; she even used her elbows to good effect as she made her way through the masses of people between her and her wife. She was in such a hurry that she even ducked under the barrier around the ring so that she could make her way over to where B'Elanna was standing with Harry. Once again her heart did not stop racing until she had assured herself that her wife had suffered no lasting damage after the brutal match.
Since the jousting finals were the last event of the tournament there was not much time before the awards ceremony. She wiped the sweat from B'Elanna's forehead while Harry loosened her armour as they waited for the workers to finish assembling the dais where the King would stand when he made his presentations to the winners.
The heralds blew the royal salute announcing that the King was making his way onto the platform. B'Elanna was trembling with nerves at the thought of actually standing before the monarch. She forced herself to remain calm as she lined up with the other event winners. As overall tournament champion she would be presented with her prize last and so she had time to watch King Henry as he congratulated the winners of his tournament, all of whom save B'Elanna were soldiers from his regiments. He took the time to speak to each of them and still before she knew it he was standing in front of her. She swept a low bow and kept her eyes respectfully down while he presented her with her winnings and congratulated her on her superb performance. The awards over, he stood back and made his closing remarks and then the trumpets blew pronouncing the ceremony finished. B'Elanna was about to make her way back over to her friends when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"May we have a word with you Lord Beyla?"
She turned to find herself facing not only the dark Knight but also the King of England. She nodded wordlessly and followed them out of the arena.
Harry and the others saw B'Elanna leaving the arena with the King and several of his men at arms. Icy fear gripped their hearts as they realized what this could possibly mean. Harry wanted to follow the departing group and find out what was happening, to protect his friend if he could, but he knew that his first duty was to protect Annika. If their deception had been discovered then B'Elanna's life was forfeit and there was nothing he could do to change that. He would gladly die with his friend but he had long ago promised B'Elanna that if anything ever happened to her that he would ensure that Annika was safe and cared for no matter what. He fought back tears as he saw his best friend disappear around the corner of the arena and turned to Annika.
"My Lady, we must get you out of here. It may no longer be safe for you in London."
"I am not leaving B'Elanna."
"If she has been discovered then there is nothing that we can do to change her fate. I once promised her that I would protect your life with my own if need be and that is just what I intend to do. You and I are leaving London immediately. As soon as we are safely away I'll try to find out what is happening with B'Elanna and get word to you."
"If it is B'Elanna's fate to die in this god forsaken town then I will share that fate. The vows we made to one another on our wedding day demand no less."
"I'm sorry Annika, but I made a promise to B'Elanna and I intend to keep it."
They were at an impasse with neither one willing to budge when Sarah spoke up quietly.
"Perhaps we are being a bit hasty in our judgment here. The King and his men could simply be discussing the tournament with B'Elanna. I agree there may be cause for alarm, but I think we can find some middle ground. If things have gone ill then we should not return to our tent just yet, but perhaps if you and Annika just disappear into the city for a few hours while I try to find out what is happening we will find that there is no cause for concern. Meet me at the Laughing Donkey Inn in two hours and I will tell you what I can find out."
"No Sarah, it is too dangerous for you to stay here if our secret has been discovered," Harry protested.
"I don't think I'll be recognized as one of the group since nobody really knows me yet. I'll be careful. I know you have to keep your vow to B'Elanna, let me help you to do so."
Harry knew that Sarah was right; she had the best chance of anyone to gather information about what was happening without being recognized as part of B'Elanna's retinue. For once the fact that people never really took notice of women was going to play in their favour. She kissed Harry soundly and threw her arms around Annika.
"Try not to worry. It may be nothing yet. Perhaps we'll all have a good laugh about this tonight at the Inn."
Annika nodded as she fought back tears. She prayed to anyone who would listen that B'Elanna be all right, and she agreed to go along with the plan for now, but if B'Elanna had been discovered and her life was in danger there was no power on earth that would stop Annika from being by her wife's side and sharing in her punishment.
They parted ways; Harry kept glancing over his shoulder to keep an eye on Sarah for as long as he could, but eventually he lost her figure in the crowd. He knew he couldn't take Goliath back to the stables as the authorities might be there waiting for him, but neither could he ride the spirited destrier. He contented himself with leading the animal through the streets and stabling him beside the Inn. They went inside, took a table in the back and sat to wait.
Sarah was nervous at finding herself alone among all these strangers. Her entire life had been lived with a small group of people who loved her and watched over her well being. She loved Harry and trusted his friends and that had made it possible for her to leave the village and choose to live a life on the road with her new family. Every face she looked at now that she was completely alone for the first time seemed sinister; she felt that everyone was looking at her and that they wished her ill. She swallowed nervously and forced her feet to follow the path that B'Elanna and the King had taken. She knew that Harry loved B'Elanna as though she was his sister, and so she was determined not to let him down in this. She couldn't see B'Elanna anywhere so she was forced to wander about the tournament grounds in hopes of gaining some clue as to where she may have been taken. Finally she realized that she could wander around like this for hours and come no closer to discovering where B'Elanna was being held. More direct action would be required. She took a look around and found what she needed almost immediately.
"My Lord, could you tell me where I might go to catch a glimpse of the King. I missed seeing him at the ceremony and I do so want to gaze upon his face before I return to Eastcheap." She looked up through her eyelashes at the older man she had recognized as one of the King's soldiers. She knew he would believe that she was merely a peasant girl who wanted to say that she had seen the King and so he didn't see the harm in a little flirtation before he took her to the tent where he knew the King to be.
The man touched her face with his roughened hands as he asked her name and inquired as to where she lived. Sarah forced herself to be still and answer his questions, making up the answers as she went. She smiled up at the soldier, and was gratified to see him smile in return.
"I don't suppose there'd be any harm in letting you see his Majesty. Come with me little one."
Sarah followed the knight, happy that he seemed not to suspect that she might have an ulterior motive for her request. He led her to a tent that was draped with the royal colours. Knights and servants were coming and going quickly. The large tent seemed to be a hive of activity and Sarah realized that the King must have been staying here with the royal guards throughout the tournament. The stranger who had agreed to help her led her over to the left side of the tent where she could see through the open flaps to the table where the King sat deep in conversation with several of his soldiers. To her surprise she saw B'Elanna sitting at the table and talking with them; Sarah couldn't be certain but it didn't look to her like B'Elanna was in any immediate danger. She relaxed further when she saw B'Elanna take a drink from a goblet that was set in front of her. Surely they wouldn't be eating and drinking with her if they had discovered her secret. Still, Sarah wasn't about to leave until she was positive. She turned to her guide with an engaging smile and began to spin a tale about how thrilled her brother would be when she returned home with the news that she had looked upon the face of their King.
When B'Elanna heard the King ask if he could have a word with her she felt her heart stop beating in her chest. The fact that he was standing with the man she had defeated in battle not once but twice caused her blood to run cold in her veins. Perhaps, embittered by his defeat at her hands he had examined her letters of nobility and discovered her deception.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw Annika and the others staring at her retreating form. She knew they would be terribly worried about what was happening to her, but she hoped Harry would be smart enough to get Annika to safety and leave her to face her fate alone.
"I believe you've met John, the Duke of Gloucester," the King said by way of introduction after they had exited the jousting arena.
"Yes, twice actually," B'Elanna smiled. She may be in trouble but she wasn't going down without a fight and she certainly wasn't about to let them see her fear. To her surprise both the King and the Duke laughed at her remark. Perhaps her deception had not yet been discovered, but if not, what could the King possibly want with her.
"It was a remarkable performance for one such as yourself," the King remarked.
B'Elanna's heart clutched in fear at his words. So her deception had been discovered after all. She squared her shoulders and determined to die with honour. 'Please Harry get her to safety and take care of her,' she offered up a silent prayer.
"It isn't often that a tournament knight can so soundly defeat one of my best soldiers in not one but two events. You have remarkable skill Lord Beyla," King Henry continued.
B'Elanna felt her heart begin to beat again. She was beginning to believe that the King had no idea she was not who she claimed to be.
"Skills such as your own go to waste in the tournaments. Especially when your country is at war," he admonished.
They had, by now, reached the royal tent where the King was staying with his men for the duration of the tournament. He pulled aside the flap and motioned that they should all go inside. Once they were seated around the table a serving girl brought mead and meat for all of them. B'Elanna sat back in her chair and waited to see what the King had to say.
When B'Elanna exited the King's tent an hour later she was surprised to see Sarah standing and chatting with one of the royal soldiers. Upon seeing B'Elanna walk out of the tent alone Sarah quickly thanked her unwitting guide and left in a different direction than the one B'Elanna had taken. She was fairly certain that there was nothing to worry about but she was taking no chances. Once she was certain she was out of sight of the soldiers she turned around and circled widely back to catch up with B'Elanna as she walked.
"Lord Beyla!" she called.
B'Elanna stopped and turned around, waiting until Sarah caught up with her.
"Are you all right my Lord?" she inquired when she was at B'Elanna's side.
"Sarah, yes I'm fine. What are you doing here?"
"We saw you leaving with the King and we feared the worst. I was looking for you to see if I could find out what was happening."
"Where are the others? Is Annika all right?"
"I was to gather what information I could and meet them at an inn in two hours. They are waiting there for me now. I'll take you to them."
"Thank you Sarah."
"Neither Annika nor Harry wanted to leave you. They will both be sick with worry," she informed.
"Then we'd better hurry."
They walked swiftly through the streets. Sarah desperately wanted to ask what had transpired between B'Elanna and the King but since the dark-haired woman hadn't offered any explanation she didn't feel it was her place to pry. She was simply glad that everything seemed to be fine. She had to trot to keep up with B'Elanna, who was in a terrible hurry to reach the inn and allay Annika's fears.
Annika and the others were sitting at the back of the crowded Inn. Annika had to constantly wipe the tears from her eyes as she fretted over what was happening to her wife. She knew that B'Elanna was the other half of her soul; she couldn't bear the thought of living without the fierce warrior by her side. Every time the door opened her heart leapt into her throat. Harry had brought her a drink of mead to calm her nerves but she was unable to take even a single sip. At first Harry had tried to cheer her up with words of comfort, but soon enough they all fell silent as they kept their vigil. A shaft of sunlight fell over their table as the door was opened and Annika looked up quickly. She leapt to her feet at the sight of B'Elanna coming through the door. In two quick strides the raven-haired woman was at her side and she felt herself pulled into strong arms. She kissed her passionately as tears streamed down her face.
"My Lord I thought I'd lost you," she sobbed at last.
"I'm sorry you went through this Annika my love, but everything is fine. I'm here now everything is all right."
Annika allowed B'Elanna to bear her weight and comfort her. She held on as tight as she could pressing their bodies close despite the fact that B'Elanna still wore her armour. After some time had passed they realized that they were making quite a scene in the normally quiet inn and so they quickly decided to leave and return to the camp. Harry and Sarah went to get Goliath leaving Annika and B'Elanna alone to talk.
"What did they want with you?" Annika inquired still trying to calm her breathing.
"Nothing really," B'Elanna replied. "They just wanted to discuss the tournament."
Annika had the uncomfortable feeling that B'Elanna wasn't being entirely truthful with her, but she knew the street wasn't the place to force the issue. She was so relieved just to have B'Elanna back that she didn't want to make a fuss, so she kept quiet and hung onto B'Elanna's arm for all she was worth.
When they returned to the tent they had very little time to prepare for the banquet that evening so everyone had to content themselves with B'Elanna's evasive answer that the King had only wished to discuss her performance in the tournament with her that afternoon. B'Elanna was uncharacteristically quiet as they prepared for the evening, but all of Annika's attempts to draw her out were unsuccessful.
The King's banquet that night was the largest any of them had ever seen. The hall was huge and packed with people from the town and from all over England who were in attendance to cement relationships to the throne. Annika still felt apprehensive when she pictured B'Elanna being led away by the King and his men that afternoon, but aside from being rather quiet B'Elanna seemed no worse for wear and so she determined to try to enjoy herself this evening. The dancing started and they lined up and for a time were able to put the events of the afternoon from their minds.
At the front of the hall there was a long line of people who were waiting to speak with the King. He patiently spent a few moments with each of the people who came before him, neither eating nor drinking while his subjects required his attention. When the band took a break, Annika and B'Elanna drifted over to the side of the hall and had something to eat. Annika found herself in conversation with several women she had known slightly from previous tournaments. After a while she excused herself from the conversation and looked around to find B'Elanna. She frowned worriedly when she discovered her wife was no longer in the banquet hall. A quick glance to the front of the room assured her that the King and his men had not left and so she went outside to see if she could find her warrior.
B'Elanna had felt unable to breathe in the crowded banquet hall, and every time she looked at Annika's beautiful face she was reminded that she was keeping a secret from the one person to whom she had sworn absolute honesty. When she saw Annika preoccupied with her friends she took the opportunity to get some fresh air in the gardens. It was there that Annika found her a little while later. Seeing that her love was clearly in the throes of a dilemma Annika opted to be supportive and she simply took B'Elanna's hand and they walked together in silence for some time.
Finally B'Elanna could stand it no longer and she opened her heart to Annika.
"The King has asked me to come with him back to France. The war isn't going well and he feels that he could put someone with my talents to good purpose in battle."
"No," the word was torn from Annika's lips and she felt cold fear freeze the blood in her veins.
"Annika, in return I would be given land and money enough to support us for the rest of our lives."
"Should you survive the war," Annika said bitterly.
"I will survive, I'm a good soldier and this is the answer to all of our problems. If I do this thing I can finally give you the life you deserve. No more traipsing around the countryside living from one tournament to the next. You'll have a home and all of the comforts to which you are accustomed."
"Do not put yourself to the hazard thusly in my name," Annika cried. "I do not desire these things. All I want or will ever need is you alive, healthy and in my arms. I would rather live the rest of my life in a tent with you than risk losing you in the name of money or land. I beg of you do not do this my love!"
Tears were streaming down her face and her voice cracked with emotion as she begged B'Elanna not to take this awful risk.
"Don't you see Annika, I must do this for myself. You say you are content to live this life with me and I believe you but I am NOT content to have it be so. I cannot live with myself if I do not take care of the one thing in this world that I value above all others." B'Elanna tried to make Annika understand why she felt compelled to do this thing.
"If you truly loved me you would not do this," Annika begged.
"It is because I love you that I must. I owe it to you and to Harry, and yes, even to myself to see this through to the end. I am a warrior, and I can do nothing else in this world. So hate me if you must, but understand that I will NOT be deterred."
Annika sank to her knees at the sound of finality in B'Elanna's voice.
"I could never hate you, but you must know that you put my life to the hazard as well as your own, for if you die I cannot go on and I will die with you."
B'Elanna knelt and pulled Annika into her arms.
"I am sorry my love. It has to be this way."
"It does not," Annika cried, fire flashing in her eyes. "Tell yourself so if you must, but there is another way. There has to be."
"If you are asking me to stay behind and be safe then you are asking me to be someone I am not. I cannot back away from this Annika. To so would not be true to who I am I would no longer be the person you fell in love with. I value my honour above all else but you and if you force me to choose I will choose you but I pray you will not force this decision for in choosing to stay here with you I fear we will be damaged irreparably. I am asking you to accept this because you love me."
Annika's face was buried in her hands and so her words were almost unintelligible.
"Then go with my love. I could never ask you to be other than you are or lose your honour in my name."
"I would gladly sacrifice everything for you, but I fear it would only drive us apart in the end."
Annika took B'Elanna's face in hands.
"Please return to me. I cannot live without you."
"Nor I without you. You are brave beyond words my love. I will never forget this, and I WILL come home to you my most precious wife."
"Take me home," Annika asked simply.
B'Elanna stood up and helped Annika to her feet. They walked home together without speaking. When they entered their tent Annika grabbed B'Elanna in a fierce embrace, kissing her deeply. Her hands began to tear away the clothing that barred her access to her lover's skin.
"Make love to me," she breathed.
Annika's hands were desperate and rough as she pulled at the laces on B'Elanna's tunic. When she couldn't get them undone she tore the material away in her in her haste and her need. Her hands were everywhere on B'Elanna's skin; she wanted to possess every inch of her at once. Their lovemaking had always been passionate, but always gentle; B'Elanna was unprepared for this intensity, but she found that it inflamed her own passions and needs. They felt as if they were making love for the last time. B'Elanna managed to pull the dress off of her lover's body without damage but the laces of the corset were too much for her in her fevered state. She took her dagger and cut the laces from top to bottom, tearing the material from her body, the weapon falling neglected to the floor the second its job was done.
Annika pushed her roughly to the bed, removing the last of her clothing before staking her claim once again. She pulled cinnamon coloured nipples into her mouth, sucking on them until B'Elanna felt pain mix with passion. Annika's hands and mouth were everyone at once, touching, kneading and wanting. Her mouth and tongue plundered B'Elanna's until the warrior was groaning with want. Annika took B'Elanna's hand and pulled it down between her legs.
"Inside me now. I need to feel you inside."
B'Elanna parted the petals of skin, surprised to find that they were dripping with the evidence of Annika's need. With a quick motion B'Elanna flipped them over until she was on top of Annika; her fingers found their way inside her lover's core and she was rewarded with a moan. She began to ease her hand gently deeper, not wanting to rush anything. Annika's voice was husky when she spoke again.
"Harder," she moaned, pressing desperately against B'Elanna's hand. B'Elanna began to move more quickly.
"More, please fill me I need all of you."
B'Elanna was worried that she would hurt her wife but she complied with the demand, slipping two more fingers inside, moving quickly and roughly to satiate the need she felt pouring in waves from the beautiful blonde. Annika's fingers raked down B'Elanna's back as the warrior thrust deeply into her. She knew she was leaving marks, drawing blood, but none of that mattered now she needed this. Her mouth found its way to B'Elanna's neck, sucking hard on tender flesh, knowing that she was marking the skin of her wife and not caring that the marks would be visible for days. Finally she was unable to contain her need to be filled completely with her lover's essence and she bit down on B'Elanna's shoulder, tasting the copper sweetness of her blood.
B'Elanna cried out when she felt Annika's teeth break the skin of her neck, but the pain was fleeting and the feeling of her wife lapping at the wound inflamed her further. She was thrusting her whole hand deeply into Annika's core; Annika was pushing back hard, trying to deepen the contact. Tears were streaming down her face as her body began to convulse in a powerful release. Desperate arms pulled B'Elanna down on top of her and she sobbed as the warrior held her near, trying to comfort her with words and touch. Annika held her warrior wife close as she cried herself to sleep
The next day Annika and B'Elanna awoke both stiff and sore. Annika saw the marks on B'Elanna's skin and could not believe that she had been the one to inflict them. She poured out water and bathed the bite mark and scratches gently. B'Elanna's eyes were filled with love whenever she looked at her beautiful wife, and her decision to leave weighed heavy on her heart. She did not relish the fact that she was going to have to tell the others of her decision this morning.
They remained in their tent for most of the morning, talking and holding one another close. Annika did not want to miss a moment of time with B'Elanna, and for the first time she didn't want to share her with the others. But she knew that the rest of their family had a right to know what was going on and so they dressed slowly and made their way out to greet the rest of the group.
The others had torn down the camp, all except for the tent that Annika and B'Elanna had occupied, and now they were sitting around the fire waiting to see what was happening. The looks on the faces of Annika and B'Elanna were enough to tell them whatever had happened was serious. They all sat in silence for a moment until B'Elanna began to explain what had transpired between her and the King the previous day. She explained that while she was in France her entire entourage was welcome to stay within the castle walls, protected by the King's men. They would be fed, clothed and cared for over the winter in the castle while B'Elanna fought in France with the King's army. When she was finished explaining what she hoped to gain by this endeavor she was greeted with silence. It was Harry who finally spoke.
"I'm going with you."
His words were flat and inflectionless but they brooked no argument. Sarah's sharp intake of breath was heard by all, but she didn't say a word.
"No Harry. This is my task and I won't ask you to put your life at risk."
"I already owe you my life and so much more. If you are going then I am going with you. You need me to keep your identity safe at any rate."
B'Elanna knew that there was truth in his words, but she couldn't bear the thought of gentle Harry exposed to what she believed would be the horrors of war.
"I will travel with you and will fight with the archers. Don't even think about arguing with me B'Elanna, there is nothing you can do or say to stop me from taking my place at your side."
"Thank you Harry," was all B'Elanna could manage.
They had one week to prepare before they left for France and in that time they had to move everyone inside the castle walls and make arrangements for horses to be stabled and cared for as well as the myriad other personal arrangements they needed to make in case one or both of them did not return from France. A pall hung over the group as they realized that their time together was limited. Tom and Kate both found employment in the castle, Tom in the stables and Kate in the kitchen. Sarah was going to stay with Annika, as the bond that had been growing between them had been further strengthened now that Harry and B'Elanna were leaving for the war.
The rooms assigned to them were large and comfortable and B'Elanna took comfort in knowing that Annika would be safe, warm and protected while she was away. She hated to leave and she was more frightened than she let on about what might lie ahead of her, but she believed deep in her soul that she was doing the right thing.
Annika stayed close by B'Elanna's side for the entire week. She couldn't bear to let the raven-haired beauty out of her sight, and she fretted when B'Elanna and Harry had to spend time with the King making preparations for their departure. They made love several times each day, and neither one of them seemed to be able to satiate their need for one another even so.
The group had managed to take two days to ride back to the enclave so that Harry and Sarah could be handfasted before Harry left for France and war. They held a simple ceremony similar to the one that B'Elanna and Annika had used; despite their best efforts to make the wedding banquet a lively celebration, an air of solemnity hung over the evening. B'Elanna made Harry promise that when they returned they would hold the ceremony again under happier circumstances. Harry and Sarah remained in the village for their wedding night but B'Elanna and Annika rode all night to be back in London for B'Elanna's morning meeting with the King. They rode together under a blanket of stars, and had the circumstances been different it would have been a most romantic setting. Annika felt the need to be closer to B'Elanna and so she climbed up behind her on Goliath; they rode together, leading Jet by his reins. She rode with her arms tight around B'Elanna's waist and her head resting on her shoulder. As they rode they talked about what lay ahead and how difficult they were both going to find the separation. Annika extracted a promise from the warrior that she would take no unnecessary risks and that she would return safely home to her. B'Elanna gladly gave her word only hoping she would be able to keep it.
The week flew by and before they knew it the day had arrived when the King and his men, among them Harry and B'Elanna, were to march for Dover and the ships that would carry them to France. B'Elanna and Annika were up before dawn. They made love gently and tenderly, mapping every curve and plane that the memory would carry them through the lonely days ahead. When they were done they stood unclothed on the balcony to watch the sun rise together.
Annika bound B'Elanna's chest with hands that shook with emotion. She carefully dressed her wife, tying every knot reverently, kissing the sun dark skin as it disappeared beneath the material of her clothing. Finally she picked up B'Elanna's sword, holding it in her hands, praying to the gods that it would protect her wife in the trials ahead. She unsheathed the blade, now sharpened for battle, and kissed it by way of a blessing before fastened it onto the broad leather belt that circled B'Elanna's waist. They walked hand in hand down the stairs to the front of the castle where Tom was waiting with two horses each for both Harry and B'Elanna. They had packed the rest of their equipment in with that of the regiment the day before and there was little else to do but say goodbye and join the one hundred and fifty other men who were going to France with the King.
The order was given for the soldiers to mount up and B'Elanna leapt into her saddle with ease. Annika stood beside her stirrup still unable to relinquish her hold on her wife. B'Elanna leaned over and pulled her up with one arm and kissed her breathless.
"I'll be home before you know it my love."
"I love you B'Elanna. I always will."
"I love you too," B'Elanna said simply before she lowered Annika back to the ground.
The cry went up to move out and Annika stepped back away from the line of soldiers, walking beside B'Elanna and Goliath until they rode through castle gates and were gone. She sank to her knees and finally allowed her tears to fall freely. She barely noticed when Sarah and Tom came to draw her up to her feet, and she allowed herself to be led blindly back to her rooms in the castle. Her heart felt as if it were breaking when she saw the rooms now empty of B'Elanna and her belongings and so she begged Sarah to stay with her. Sarah's own heart was hurting with the absence of her new husband and so she was only too happy stay with her friend.
The column of men moved through the early morning gloaming with only the sounds of creaking leather and the soft murmur of voices to be heard. Harry rode beside B'Elanna but both of them were lost in their own thoughts and so they didn't speak. The column was not going to be stopping for food, eating as they rode as they were hoping to reach Dover in two days of hard riding. Despite B'Elanna's superior conditioning she was tired and sore when they finally stopped to sleep late in the night. The men bedded down beside the fires they lit, only stopping to eat a hot meal before they rolled up in their blankets and fell asleep.
A few hours later they were up and back on the road, not taking time for a hot meal before they once more set out for Dover. They rode hard through the day and into the night, arriving in Dover shortly before midnight. They loaded the horses and equipment onto the ships and then the men gathered down in the hold to try to sleep as the ships sailed out of the harbour with the morning tides. Being trapped in the hold with smell of animals and unwashed bodies in her nostrils B'Elanna began to feel ill. She was unable to sleep and eventually she and Harry took their blankets up on deck and curled up on the foredeck to sleep in the clean salt air.
They awoke hours later to the sounds of the deckhands hustling around to bring the ship safely into harbour. B'Elanna watched, fascinated, as the nimble young crewmen climbed swiftly to the top of the masts to adjust and lower sails as required. Had her life taken a different turn she could imagine herself happy as one of these carefree youth. They anchored in the harbour at Calais and took hours to unload the equipment onto the barges that were used to bring cargo ashore. The horses and other livestock had to be lowered into the water and left to swim ashore as it was too dangerous to try to load them into the smaller boats. B'Elanna held her breath the entire time that her animals were being offloaded and she was greatly relieved when Goliath staggered up onto the beach and shook the water furiously from his coat. He seemed none the worse for wear and soon he was stabled with the others in preparation for their march the next day.
The field of battle to which they were headed was over two days hard ride away, and so the next day began before dawn. The weather was cold and rainy and the soldiers made their way through mud and sludge very slowly, frequently having to stop and use poles and levers to get the supply wagons unstuck from the mud that often came higher than the axles as they traveled the tortuous route to the field of battle. At night they slept on the cold hard ground; the King himself did not bother with a tent choosing to join his warriors and share in their hardships. He took the time to make his way through the ranks of men at night; ensuring that they were as well as they could be under the circumstances. She had heard the stories of his misspent youth as Prince Hal and was impressed with the depth of change he had undergone. She could see why his men loved him so well, and she determined to do her best to justify his belief in her when she was finally tested on the field of battle.
They finally caught up with the main battle force two days later and that night she and Harry shared a tent with about ten other soldiers just south of the battlefront. She got no sleep at all that night and neither did Harry.
It was still raining the next day. The troops were up before dawn and Harry helped B'Elanna into her armour and went with her to prepare Goliath for the test ahead. She swung easily into the saddle and looked down at Harry clad in his new studded leather armour.
"You take care of yourself today do you understand me," she ordered.
"You too B'Elanna, no being a hero. I want you back in one piece tonight," Harry replied, swallowing hard to keep his emotions in check.
"I love you Harry," she said in a voice full of emotion, before wheeling Goliath around and joining the other mounted soldiers as they fell into battle formation.
The battalions lined up with the regiments of foot soldiers in front of the mounted rear guard. The archers were further back, hidden in the tree line, and B'Elanna took comfort in the fact that Harry would be far from the main battle and protected by the trees. Looking over the field of battle B'Elanna could see the French army lined up in a similar fashion. She adjusted the unfamiliar shield that she needed to carry to protect herself on the battlefield and waited for the order to charge. She could see toward the middle of the battle lines the banner of the King blowing in the wind despite its sodden condition. The King himself would lead the mounted soldiers into battle.
An eerie silence fell over the battlefield as they waited for the signal to commence hostilities. B'Elanna could hear nothing but the creak of saddle leather, the rattling of chain mail, the occasional snort of a war horse, and then oddly the sweet song of a sparrow. The tiny bird had not yet ceased its call when the air was filled with a sound like the hissing of a thousand snakes as a raft of arrows was released toward the French lines, the sky was further darkened by the deadly darts as they flew toward the enemy. B'Elanna saw several men on the French lines fall, and she raised her shield in order to protect herself against the inevitable return fire. The air was darkened once again as the French released a flight of arrows. The line of cavalry was too far back to be affected but she heard the cries of pain as several of the English foot soldiers were pierced with the deadly shafts. At some unseen signal the French and English foot soldiers began to walk across the field toward one another. They looked for all the world like men out for a leisurely stroll at first, but the closer the lines came to one another the faster they moved until the last few meters were covered at a full run. She heard the clash of metal on metal and watched the beginning of the battle.
She and the other soldiers on the line strained forward, wanting to go to the aid of their fellow soldiers.
"HOLD! HOLD!" was the call down the line, keeping them in check as another volley of arrows flew overhead. The tension on the line reached the breaking point when the order finally came.
"CHARGE" was the call echoed down the line, accompanied by the blast of the trumpet that signaled the order to advance.
She dug her heels into Goliath and the line of horses and men surged forward as one, moving full tilt across the field. She held her sword at the ready and took a tremendous swing at the first French soldier who came at her on the offensive. The battle was well and truly joined.
It was like nothing she had ever imagined; all around her were men wielding swords, pikes and spears. She could only hack viciously at those who came within her wheelhouse. She fought her way through the seething mass of soldiers and broke through the lines to engage with the French mounted troops. The battle was hot and fierce and she lost count of the number of men she battled, some falling before her sword and some withdrawing before they could be harmed. Slowly the French were driving them back toward the English lines and once again B'Elanna found herself surrounded by men fighting both on foot and on horseback. She felt rough hands grabbing at her legs and trying to haul her bodily from her mount. She kicked away one man, striking another with her shield to force him to give way, but the sheer volume was too much to cope with and slowly, inexorably she felt herself dragged from her saddle. She found herself on her back in the centre of a morass of legs. She parried a blow that would have pierced her through the chest and managed to fight her way back to her feet. Goliath was still nearby, waiting for his master to return, but she knew she would never be able to regain her seat on his back and so she struck him firmly on his flanks to signal that he should return to the lines. She hoped she would see him again as he wheeled and ran.
She fought furiously, swinging wildly at anyone who wore the French insignia on their uniform. She felt as if she had been fighting for days and her arms were growing tired with the exertion. She saw a man approaching from her left and she turned to face him, blocking his first blow and then cutting his throat cleanly with her sword. A gout of bright red blood burst from his severed arteries, covering her completely. Her stomach heaved at the sight and in that moment of lost concentration she lowered her shield and was snapped back to reality at the sharp pain of an arrow piercing her shoulder. She gasped at the sensation, but had no time to think about it as another wave of combatants was already filling the gap left by her fallen foe. She could no longer hold her shield, as that was the shoulder that had been pierced by the arrow, so she dropped it on the ground and turned to face her attackers. She saw the armour of the dark knight Gloucester nearby and fell back until she was close to him. When he saw her he also moved in her direction. They stood back to back and fought all who came against them until the tide of the battle began to ebb. The trumpets called the retreat and soon only a few minor skirmishes were still going on. B'Elanna looked at the carnage around her, the smell of hot fresh blood assaulting her senses and she dropped to her knees, barely managing to remove her helmet before she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the ground.
She felt strong hands pulling her to her feet and turned to see the scarred visage of Gloucester.
"You need to get that arrow out of your shoulder as soon as possible Beyla," he said, looking concerned.
"Go ahead, do it," B'Elanna replied, knowing what had to be done.
Gloucester took the shaft in his hands and broke it with a quick snap. A grimace of pain crossed B'Elanna's face, but she knew the worst was yet to come. She removed her leather glove and wadded it up, placing it in her mouth so she would have something to bite down on as he worked. At a nod from her, Gloucester began to push the shaft of the arrow through her shoulder. The arrow had pierced her at the shoulder joint of her armour and he had used his dagger to cut away the leather at the point where the arrow would exit her flesh. Tears ran down her face and her breath was laboured as he slowly moved the shaft through her body. When the barb was sufficiently out on the other side he grasped it firmly and pulled it swiftly from her body. She sank to her knees and spat the glove out of her mouth, gasping for breath as recovered from the searing pain.
"You bore that well Beyla, I've seen older, bigger men than you faint at the breaking of the shaft. We'll make a real soldier of you yet," he said as he gathered up his scattered equipment. "Here, you might want to keep this for a souvenir," he joked as he tossed her the broken shaft of the arrow.
"Thanks," was all she could manage as she began to walk with him back to the English lines. All around them were the wounded and the dying. They stopped to offer what assistance they could, but B'Elanna was losing blood and finally Gloucester insisted she return without further delay. The white flag was flying and all around her was carnage. The very ground itself was stained red with blood, and her stomach rolled at the sight of carrion birds perched on motionless bodies. Men were helping one another to stand, and soldiers and others offered what medical aid they could to the men who were not able to leave the field. She saw the stretcher-bearers as they made they way down to the wounded. She felt as if she were walking through the depths of hell itself.
She felt a strong arm go around her waist to steady her on her feet, and she looked up into the concerned eyes of Harry.
"I can't leave you alone for a minute can I?" he chided. "I was worried when Goliath came back to the camp without you."
"Is he all right?" She asked, her first concern for her mount.
"Not a mark on him," Harry replied. "Lets get you into the tent so I can see to your wound.
Harry led her into their tent, which was thankfully empty. He removed her armour, grimacing at the dents and nicks the previously shining equipment now sported. Removing her tunic he looked at the wound, which thankfully had passed through a relatively fleshy part of her shoulder. He dug through his satchel and found several bags of the herbs he had brought with him from England. He went out to the fire to fetch some boiling water in which to steep the medicines. When he returned from the fire he carried a tin of water and a poker he had dragged from the fire; the tip glowed red from being kept in the heat of the coals. Harry approached her slowly, setting down the water for the moment.
"B'Elanna, this is really going to hurt. I'm sorry, but I have to do this to stop the bleeding."
"Go ahead Harry, just get it over with," she said through gritted teeth.
She felt the heat from the poker increase as it came closer to her skin. When Harry finally made contact between the skin and the steel; B'Elanna felt a searing pain for an instant and then her world went black and she knew no more.
She awoke later to find Harry bandaging her wound. He helped her back into her clothes and supported her weight over to a bedroll so that she could rest.
"Harry, I'm fine; you should see to the other wounded. They need your help more than I do."
She desperately wanted Harry to become known as a healer among the soldiers and the leaders in particular as she knew he would then be perceived as valuable and would be protected in the upcoming battles. An archer was expendable, but a skilled healer was irreplaceable and would not be put in an exposed position that would put his life at risk.
Harry left her slumbering in the tent and tended to the other fallen soldiers. He worked tirelessly for hours and at the end of the evening many of the English wounded would owe their lives to him and the healing skills he had learned from Sarah. He returned to the tent well after midnight and after checking B'Elanna's wound and ensuring that she was all right he lay down beside her and fell into a dreamless sleep.
After the first battle B'Elanna was moved into Gloucester's regiment of cavalry and Harry was very carefully protected among the archers as he had indeed been recognized as a valuable and talented healer. Gloucester had been impressed with B'Elanna's skills and bravery and wanted someone near him who he trusted to fight at his back on the chaotic battlefields. B'Elanna was happy with the change as well for although Gloucester was a silent and taciturn man there was no else she trusted so well at her back in battle. It took her shoulder more than two weeks to heal sufficiently to return to battle and in that time she was required for many jobs in the regiment, such as helping Harry and the other medics and repairing equipment and arms for the other soldiers.
As soon as she was healed she was once more thrust into the heat of battle with Gloucester at her side. Over the course of months countless men were lost and eventually B'Elanna became Gloucester's second in command. The men learned to trust her implicitly and followed her willingly into battle. When the soldiers were camped for extended periods of time between battles she and Harry shared a private tent which suited her well as otherwise she was forced to sleep in her clothes for extended periods of time. She had gotten used to bathing infrequently and wearing the same clothing for weeks at a time. It was a luxury indeed when they had a night of privacy in which she could remove her clothes and bathe herself thoroughly.
At night when they were camped B'Elanna wrote letters to Annika in which she poured out her heart and thoughts regarding the life she found herself living. She didn't know if she would ever get a chance to send the letters back to England, but it helped her to feel closer to Annika and so she wrote them faithfully whenever she had the chance.
Several months after she arrived in France B'Elanna found herself once more riding toward Rouen; this time as part of an invading army. The landscape had been altered since last she came to the fair city. The trees had been cut down to clear battlefields for combat and to built machines of war and feed the fires that warmed the soldiers at night. The once beautiful landscape was barren, the ground churned into a sea of mud from the hooves of thousands of horses. The army made camp outside of the city and made itself ready for the battle ahead. B'Elanna was excited as she had learned from the King's squire that a courier was leaving for London the next day and would carry with him any personal correspondence the officers cared to send. B'Elanna prepared a bundle of her letters, including several from Harry to Sarah, and gave it to the courier.
Once again B'Elanna found herself at Gloucester's side as they rode into battle. She had never grown used to the carnage or the sights and sounds of battle, but she was always able to put aside her feelings and perform to the best of her abilities when the need arose. This day was no different from the others and an hour before dawn she found herself awaiting the command to charge. The battle was bloody and the footing treacherous. Neither side seemed able to gain ground and forward motion was stalled. B'Elanna found herself facing several soldiers at once. She cut down a swordsman and in the moment before she could recover a footman wielding a mace struck her soundly on the helmet. The headgear was torn from her head and it took her a moment to regain her equilibrium and dispatch her attacker. Both sides were growing tired with the interminable battle and it looked like once again like the day would end in stalemate. A final desperate wave of the French swept forward and engaged the English troops. B'Elanna was standing back to back with Gloucester as usual and other than losing her helmet they had come through the day relatively unscathed. It was in the dying moments of the battle that Gloucester found himself disarmed by French swordsman, B'Elanna came to his defense immediately and managed to protect him while he retrieved his sword from the ground, but in doing so she left herself open to attack from behind. The first two blows landed harmlessly enough on her armour, but the final blow sliced through her scalp thinly, peeling back the flesh. She was blinded as her eyes filled with her own blood. Gloucester was rearmed now and he pushed her to the ground, protecting her with his own body as fought back the French tide. Finally the retreat was sounded and the remaining troops retreated to lick their wounds and prepare for the next day's rematch.
Gloucester pressed his hand to her wound to stem the flow of blood as he called for a stretcher-carrier to bear her body from the battlefield. Harry was busy tending to the wounded as the litter-bearers brought B'Elanna into the tent. He cleaned the wound, shaving the hair around the cut so that he might sew it up more cleanly. The wound would heal and the hair grew back, but when it did it was pure white. The slash of white ran from her right temple six inches back over her ear, and would mark her appearance for as long as she lived.
Life for Annika in the castle was filled with routine that quickly became tedious for her and for Sarah. Her life on the road with B'Elanna and the others had rendered her unsuitable for a life lived indoors with other women. They rose late in the morning and took breakfast together, before attending to duties such as weaving and sewing to fill their hours. The talk was always of household duties of the wants and needs of their husbands. Annika found it boring beyond belief and for Sarah it was almost unbearable. They decided that they needed a break from this routine and determined that they would leave the castle and ride to Sarah's village in the forest for several days in order to escape the tedium of the castle.
They were free to come and go as they pleased and so they departed for the village only two days after hatching their plan. They loved being back on the road, and had no trouble setting up their tent and making a fire to cook the food they caught in the forest. They were very happy to have a sense of freedom again and the days they spent in the village went by all too quickly. It was with genuine regret that they said their good-byes and began the trip back to the castle in London
That night they lay in their tent talking quietly together when they heard a noise in the woods nearby. Annika picked up the short sword B'Elanna had left for her to carry with her and motioned Sarah to be quiet as she slipped out the back door of the tent. She moved as quietly as she could through the forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of the origin of the noise. To her horror she saw two men moving around the dying embers of the campfire. Fear lent wings to her feet as she hurried back to the camp. She saw one of the men enter the tent while the other, who was about to follow, turned at the noise she made as she ran through the woods.
He smiled when he saw a slip of a girl running through the woods toward him carrying a short sword. 'This is going to be fun,' he thought to himself.
"Get away from that tent," she growled.
"Oh come on little one no need to be testy. I'll make it good for you."
"You need to get your friend and get out of her before I cut your heart out with this sword," Annika postured trying to sound more confident than she felt.
The rough looking man pulled out his sword, holding it up so that she could see it clearly by the light of the dying fire. He feinted at her, laughing when she jumped in fright. Annika forced herself to calm her breathing and remember the things B'Elanna had taught her all those months ago. She gripped the sword tightly and slashed quickly, cutting him on the face. The man felt the sting of her blade and became enraged. He attacked viciously and was surprised when the girl managed to repel his thrusts. Annika fought desperately, pleased that she was able hold her own against the thug. Realizing that this wasn't going to be as easy as he thought he stepped back a moment. She was obviously able to wield a sword, but it was also evident that she wasn't skilled. He decided to fake her out and have his fun with her once she was disarmed.
Sarah heard noises in the forest and became terrified that something bad was about to happen. She sat up on her bedroll and was getting ready to leave the tent in search of Annika when the flaps were ripped open and large unshaven man thrust his way inside. He leered widely when he saw the defenseless young girl alone inside the tent. He lunged forward and grabbed her roughly, trying to force her back onto the bedroll. He hadn't counted on the fact that she had spent her life working outdoors at hard physical labour. She was able to push him back and stop him from grabbing her, but he was bigger than she was and soon she found herself tiring.
Outside, the man feinted one way and then the other in an attempt to throw Annika off balance. At first it appeared to be working, but then Annika forced herself to calm down and remember the lessons B'Elanna had taught her. She forced herself to look away from his weapon and from his shoulders and concentrate on his feet. He feinted to the left and then charged forward. It would be the last mistake he ever made, as Annika wasn't fooled; he ran straight onto the tip of her sword, bearing them both to the ground and driving the blade cleanly through his body.
Sarah felt herself being pushed onto her back, and she began to panic. She felt his hands start to pull at her clothes as she wiggled furiously in an attempt to get out from under his foul smelling body. She was in despair of being able to escape when suddenly the man stiffened and slumped forward lifelessly on top of her with Annika's sword protruding from his back. She scrambled out from under the body and launched herself out of the tent and away from the horror within. She screamed as she was greeted with the sight of yet another body lying by the fire. She threw herself into Annika's arms and the two of them cried for some time before they calmed down enough to assess the situation rationally. They decided that the wisest course of action was to simply leave right away and return to the castle immediately. Neither one of them wanted to touch the tent or the bedrolls after what had happened, but they forced themselves to tear down the camp and burn everything. There was no way they were going to be using any of this equipment again.
When the fire died down they covered the coals and caught the horses in preparation for their return to the city.
"What should we do about them?" Sarah asked, indicated the bodies of the two thieves.
"Let the animals have them," Annika said in a voice tight with anger.
When they returned to the city they could report the incident to the authorities, but as rough justice appeared to have already been served they both doubted the constables would even bother to ride out here to identify the body. It usually bothered her that the lives of some were held so cheaply while others were valued, but as she looked down on the bodies of the two men she couldn't find it in her heart to mourn them. Two such rough men accosting a woman of noble birth would have been put to death instantly had they survived the encounter, but even so it weighed heavily on Annika's mind that she had been responsible for taking their lives. She suddenly understood the sad and faraway look she sometimes saw on B'Elanna's face when she thought no one was looking. It was a terrible thing to take a life, even in self-defense.
They mounted their horses and turned toward the city, riding hard through the night until they were safe within the castle walls. They spoke briefly with the constable, whose only reaction was to berate them for their foolishness in leaving the castle walls. As they suspected he had no intention of riding out into the Kings forest to identify two criminals who were already dead. When she finally got into her room Annika was too busy drawing a bath to scrub away the memories of this night to notice the bundle of letters that was lying on the table in her bedroom.
She awoke the next morning, almost believing for a moment that she had dreamt the events of the night before. Sarah had been too frightened to sleep in her room alone and so the two of them had shared the bed in Annika's room. Sarah was still asleep and Annika got up and wandered aimlessly around her rooms. She spied the bundle of parchment lying on her table and pounced on it with a cry. She saw the letters in B'Elanna's handwriting addressed to her and her heart began to pound. Spying the letters that were addressed to Sarah she ran to the bedside and shook her friend awake. Sarah seized the letters in eager hands and quickly made her way back to her own rooms to read them in private. Annika clutched the letters to her chest, wanting to read them right away at the same time as she wanted to savour them and draw out the pleasure of reading her wife's words.
She opened the first one with shaking hands and began to read.
My dearest Annika:
I am waiting here in the tent I share with Harry for the trumpet to call us to arms again. The weather has been cold and rainy since I set foot on this cursed soil. It seems I haven't seen the sun since last I set my eyes on you my beautiful wife. My only memory of blue sky is the one I carry in my heart of your eyes. How I long to gaze into them once more.
This fratricidal war is brutal, slow, and bloody. When I started out on this path I thought that going off to war would be a great adventure, but I see how wrong I was now. I thought I had to come to war to find honour, but I see now that honour something you have, not something you earn in battle. I see now that the greatest adventure of all is simply to live! Something I find I cannot truly do unless you are at my side. I cannot wait until I can rest my head on your shoulder and feel my heart beat in time with yours.
I cannot believe it has been two months since last I saw your beautiful face. At night when I lie down and close my eyes it is you I see. You are my first thought upon waking and the last thing I see before I fall asleep is your beautiful face. You are my hope and the beacon that is guiding me home.
My body is fighting in France but I left my soul in England and my heart lives always with you my love. I ache to hold you in my arms again; my lips yearn to touch yours.
I've never been much for dreams, and yet somehow I have found my way to you, something, someone I could never have imagined. Now I believe in dreams; I know they can come true and now all I do is dream of you and holding you in my arms again.
Never doubt for a moment that I will be returning to you as soon as I am able. I hear the call to arms and as a soldier I know that I must answer it, but as the one who loves you I would give anything to be able to ignore the trumpet and set my feet back on the road to London, and to you.
Until we are together again, I remain forever yours.
She held the letter close to her heart as imagined the words being spoken in her wife's voice. She held out as long as she could before she opened the next letter in the pile. She lasted at least thirty seconds.
My Beloved Wife:
Can it really be four months since I gazed upon your beautiful face? I am fortunate in that I continue to see it every time I close my eyes. I hope this letter finds you in good health and that life within castle walls agrees with you. I often try to imagine what you are doing when I have a moment to reflect. You are never far from my thoughts and you are always in my heart.
You would not believe the changes in Harry over the last few months. He has become a wonderful healer. The knowledge he gained from Sarah has stood him in good stead and he is well loved and respected among all of the men. He has even stitched up the King himself, although the royal surgeon was less than pleased by that I can assure you. Poor Harry, the two sides of his personality are constantly at odds with one another. He came here as a soldier, but along the way he became a healer and he finds it difficult to reconcile the two. He fights because he has to, but in his heart her would prefer to do no harm and concentrate on helping others.
I have seen such terrible things over the last few months I can't even begin to describe it. And yet I have seen great kindnesses as well. I have seen soldiers on both sides rendering aid to one another once the retreat is sounded and the white flag flown. The war is going ill for both sides. We gain ground only to lose it again, but slowly we are advancing. The price we are paying is far too high; the flower of youth will be gone from both England and France if we do not find away to end this senseless slaughter. I know that there have been talks between both sides, but I am unsure of how far they have progressed.
I am almost too tired to keep my eyes open and so I will wish you good night. My dreams are always of you and so I go to sleep with hopes of seeing you soon.
Yours with love
Annika no longer pretended she could stop herself from reading the letters right away, so she picked up the next one in the bundle.
Annika my darling
Time moves on apace and yet still I am mired here in the mud of France. The weather is warming, but still I don't believe that I have been truly warm since I left your arms in England. My heart aches for home and for you. There is talk of ending the war, but I'm afraid I still don't know how or when. I pray to the gods every night that it will be soon.
I am now in command of my own regiment. I lead men into battle and they follow my every command without question, little knowing how my mind and heart are filled with doubts. I feel responsible for every man who has fallen under my command and yet I know there is little I can do differently. Their faces haunt my dreams and I despair of ever finding peaceful rest.
The King has demanded that the troops treat the French with respect; he has forbidden the soldiers from looting and making profit from our victories. He hopes to rule a united country and I believe his ideas are sound. He is an honourable man and demands no less from his troops. Some of the friends of his youth were caught looting a church in a small village and he did not hesitate to hang them. Some of the men thought that he was being harsh to treat old friends in this manner, and I could tell that his justice weighed heavily on him. Still this does not deter some of the rougher men from taking matters into their own hands from time to time.
Harry caught a man the other day interfering with a young girl in the village. It is the first time I have ever seen our gentle Harry truly angry. He beat the man soundly and I believe if I hadn't pulled him off the man he might have beaten him to death. I never dreamed that I would live to see such things. I wonder how did I come to be so old so quickly.
I must go now and so I bid you fond farewell.
She read eagerly as she sat on her bed, every word making her feel closer to B'Elanna. All too soon she came to the last letter in the pile.
How I have missed you these past months. I hope you are well. I wonder if you think of me as often as I think of you. Gods how I long to see you again and hold you in my arms. I ache for you my love. When I close my eyes at night I think of you. I can feel my lips pressed to yours. If I reach out my hand I can feel your silken skin beneath my fingertips. I trace the outlines of your full red lips, and pull you close, feeling the length of your body pressed to mine.
Annika brought her hands up to touch her lips in imitation of the actions B'Elanna described in her letter. She lay back on her bed and continued to read.
I can feel you moving against me, your body tight to mine, the smell of your hair fills my nostrils and I slowly undo the laces of your dress.
Annika slipped her nightdress off over her head and lay back down to read.
Your skin is so soft and it fills me with joy to be able to feel it beneath my fingers. Your skin is warm against mine and your lips are hard and soft all at once. I let my hands trace upward until I cup your beautiful breasts, feeling your nipples grow hard against my palms. I hear the tiny moans, like the mewling of a kitten, that you make in the back of your throat when you are aroused and I feel my heart beat faster, in time with yours.
Annika's hand slid up to cup her breast and she felt her nipple grow hard in her own palm as she imagined it was B'Elanna who touched her.
I move my hand down between your legs and feel the wetness there, a sign that you are as affected by our touching as I am. I slip my fingers between the slick, soft folds of skin and tease my way gently to the entrance of your most secret, sacred place.
Annika's hand drifted down between her legs
I look deeply into your eyes as I gain slow entrance, feeling the heat and moistness of your very centre as you surround me. I am inside of you now, and I can feel your pulse pounding as I begin to move in time with the beating of your heart, slowly at first, then more quickly until I hear you cry out and feel your body drained of tension, holding you tightly in my arms, as you feel the aftershocks of passion with every fibre of your being.
Annika cried out as the combined effects of B'Elanna's words and her own touch brought her over the edge of passion. She held the letter tightly in her hand, and it was some time before she was able to read the last few sentences.
I kiss you gently as the racing of your heart slows, and I tell you with look, touch and word that I love you more than you can ever imagine. I long for the day when I hold you in my arms again, and my body can be where only my thoughts are able to be right now.
I love you now and always
"My warrior poet," Annika said aloud as she pulled the covers back over herself and drifted off to sleep.
When Annika awoke several hours later she sat down to write a letter in return for B'Elanna as the courier had left a note with the letters informing her he would be heading back to France the next day.
B'Elanna dragged her weary body into her tent after another in a seemingly endless number of battles. Her body ached with weariness and she wanted nothing more than to fall onto her bed and sleep for as long as she was permitted. She changed her mind in an instant however when she saw a parchment laying on the covers of her bedroll, with her name written upon it in Annika's delicate hand. She seized the letter in shaking hands and broke the seal eager to read the words inside.
My dearest Beyla
You cannot know how wonderful it was to receive your letters and know that you are alive. I have never given up hope but after so many months with little or no word I almost began to doubt that I would ever see you again. My darling it was so wonderful to read your words, to touch something you only recently held in your hands. I have kissed every inch of the parchments many times over and told myself it was your lips I was feeling beneath my own. I particularly enjoyed the last letter you wrote. I am sure I will read it many times before you return to me at last.
My heart aches for you and for Harry so far away from home and in such terrible circumstances; I pray every day for your safe return. When I hold you in my arms again I fear that I will never be able to let you go, nor will I ever be content to let you out of my sight again. I miss your dear sweet face, and the feeling of your strong arms holding me close. My darling please return to me, I fear that if you do not my heart will forget how to beat in its sorrow at your absence.
Life in the castle is safe, but dull, and I long for the day when you return to me and we can once again set out together on the road to wherever our future lies. I know that your situation is a difficult one, and that you are faced with a reality that I cannot even imagine, but know that I am here, every day, thinking of you and loving you and holding you close in my heart.
You told me that you were full of doubts about leading your men into battle and as much as you may doubt it I'm certain that all good leaders are filled with such thoughts as well. I know that you are brave and true and full of honour and I can think of no one better able to lead these soldiers through the perils of battle than you my love. I am certain that your men give thanks every day that they are under your command and I know that their trust and their faith in you is not misplaced.
I have very little time as the courier is only waiting until I finish this letter before he returns to France. I wish there was more time for me to tell you all that is in my heart, but know that the courier returns with much more than words scratched on parchment, he returns with my love, my faith, and my heart which will not be returned to me until you are at last safe in my arms.
B'Elanna smiled to herself as she pictured Annika sitting at her desk and writing this letter out. She was relieved to know that the lengthy separation between them had not altered her wife's feelings for her and that Annika was as anxious to have her return home as she was to do so. She folded the letter carefully and tucked it inside of her tunic, next to her heart and fell immediately and deeply asleep.
B'Elanna's spirits had been buoyed after she received Annika's letter, and she always carried the oft-read missage inside of her shirt, next to her heart. It felt almost as if she had a piece of Annika with her now, and she was comforted by that feeling. Harry too had received a letter back from Sarah and while it did cheer him up it also served to make him long more keenly for home than ever before. Rumours flew among the soldiers daily that the peace talks were close to being finished, but still they marched into battle and more men died while royalty on either side talked. B'Elanna long ago ceased to lend any credence to the rumours she heard that the war was nearly over.
As time passed B'Elanna's reputation as a superiour soldier and leader grew steadily. Her first command had been of a regiment that was positioned at the very fringes of the battlefield, but as time passed she was moved further and further toward the centre of the action, until only Gloucester's regiment was between her and the King at the very heart of the battalion. Once again she found herself comforted by Gloucester's presence near her in battle. The size of the army had shrunk considerably, but new soldiers were constantly arriving from England. B'Elanna spent time with each new knight that joined her regiment and her men would gladly have followed her through the gates of hell if she had asked. They saw that she was a gifted soldier, and an inspiring leader, but more than that they saw in her a compassion that was missing from so many great leaders and they loved her for it.
The army had been camped for several weeks outside of the fallen city of Rouen while the King attended talks with the French Dauphin in the nearby city of Troyes. The men were growing restless, hoping to either return to battle or to their homes. Sitting idly by did not sit well with men who had spent a year in constant action. The King returned several days later but not one word was spoken of what had transpired during the talks. However the army was given orders to break camp and prepare to march the following day, so B'Elanna assumed that once again the talks had been unsuccessful.
Another month passed in which England's army began to gain ground against the French with greater rapidity. The fall of Rouen had cut the heart out of the French army and they fell back against the English tide. Burgundy was almost entirely in English hands and the mood among the soldiers was good; spirits were high, as they could not imagine the French holding out much longer against their constant assault. The two sides had been clashing for days over a key piece of ground outside of Troyes. The French appeared to have found some measure of resistance yet and the battle was hotly contested.
B'Elanna found herself once again unhorsed by the French hordes, and she had been battling for what seemed like hours against a seemingly endless stream of French swordsman. The English were pushing forward slowly and it seemed that the field might finally fall to the English. The apparent success spurred the English on to greater efforts and soon the armies were scattered and fighting minor skirmishes all over the field of battle. There was a lull in the fighting near B'Elanna and she took a moment to view the battleground and assess the situation. She saw the banner of the King nearby on her left and even as she gazed on it she saw to her horror that it was beset on all sides by the enemy. The King and his footmen had become isolated when the troops broke rank and charged forward. A small contingent of the French had seen this and taken advantage of the situation. As B'Elanna started toward the King's location she watched in disbelief as the banner fell; this could only mean one thing and fear lent wings to B'Elanna's feet as she ran toward her fallen leader.
There were at least five French soldiers surrounding King Henry and all of his guards had been killed in the battle to protect him. B'Elanna cursed herself for not paying more attention; she could have prevented this if only she had been watching out for her leader. She cut down two of the enemy swiftly from behind as soon as she arrived on the scene. She saw to her horror that the King was lying helpless on the ground at the feet of one of the French swordsmen. Without thinking she launched herself bodily at the man before he could bring his upraised sword down on the head of the fallen King. She rode the man's body down to the ground and leapt to her feet as quickly as she could given the encumbrance of her armour. She dispatched her opponent while he struggled to regain his feet and then turned with a snarl to impose her body between the King and the two remaining soldiers. She fought like one of the mythical furies and took the life of the fourth soldier in short order, all the while defending herself against the attack of both enemies. The fifth man turned and fled before the body of his companion even hit the ground.
B'Elanna leapt to the King's side; seeing with relief that he was moving slowly in an attempt to stand. She offered him her hand and pulled him to his feet.
"Are you injured you Majesty?" She inquired worriedly.
"Not nearly so gravely as I would have been had you not come to my defense Lord Beyla," he said, retaining a sense of humour even in situations like this.
B'Elanna quickly found his sword and handed it to him before she knelt down beside the standard bearer and took the King's banner from his lifeless hands. She hoisted the banner aloft and saw to her relief that Gloucester and several of his men were moving toward their position. The small group came together as a fighting force and B'Elanna handed the banner off to one of the younger soldiers so that she would be free to fight. The King ordered the rally to be sounded and soon the English regrouped and as a unified force finally pushed the French back until they laid down their arms and surrendered the field.
The King took Gloucester and several other of the royals closest to the throne and left to speak to the Dauphin who had also been injured on the field that day. B'Elanna walked slowly back over the field toward their tent lines, stopping to render assistance to the fallen where she could. It was some time before she made it back to her tent, and even longer before Harry made his weary way back to their temporary home.
"You look like Hell I don't mind saying," he joked as he saw her filthy, blood-soaked figure sitting exhausted in one of the chairs they had managed to obtain.
"You haven't even gotten all of your armour off yet."
"I'm so tired I can barely move Harry. Do you remember a time when I used to run and lift heavy objects just for the fun of it? What was that about a thousand years ago?" She was joking but Harry could hear the exhaustion in her voice.
"Let me help you out of those filthy clothes and I'll fetch some water so you can bathe properly before we eat. I think I even know where you have a suit of clean clothes."
"That sounds like heaven indeed," she replied, struggling to her feet so that Harry could remove the last of her armour and unwind the bindings from around her chest.
Harry had just removed the last of the bindings, telling B'Elanna he would boil them thoroughly before she put them back on. B'Elanna was standing stripped to the waist in the middle of their tent when the flap was pulled quickly back and Gloucester, the King, and one of his squires entered the tent. It took a moment for his eyes to register and interpret what he was seeing, but when he did his jaw fell open slackly. No one moved for what seemed like an eternity and then B'Elanna grabbed at the cloth in Harry's hands to cover herself.
"Don't move," the King barked. He turned to his squire.
The squire made a hasty retreat and now Harry and B'Elanna were alone in the tent with Gloucester and the King. The King walked in a full circle around B'Elanna and Harry, never taking his eyes off of her. Gloucester stood silently by the entrance to the tent with his eyes downcast.
"This cannot be. My eyes deceive me. I've seen you in the lists and on the battlefield and you are no woman."
Suddenly the King recalled himself with a start and motioned that B'Elanna should cover herself. She quickly picked up her discarded tunic and pulled it over her head. Still the King stared at her, shaking his head in disbelief.
"What witchcraft is this?" He wondered aloud. "Do you know the punishment for impersonating a member of the nobility not to mention the other matter," he finished lamely.
Harry had been standing at the back of the tent almost forgotten, but now he thrust himself bodily between B'Elanna and the King.
"I give my life in her stead Your Majesty," he cried. "I bear the lion's share of blame in this. I should have known better; she did all of this for me."
"And just who are you that you should know better than her?"
"I am Lord Harry Kim, the son and rightful heir of Lord Stanley Kim who fell in your service at Agincourt, along with his man at arms, her father, Jonathon Torrance."
Whatever the King had been expecting Harry to say it certainly hadn't been that. He was clearly taken aback by the young healer's admission. He remembered the two men in question very well. He had considered Lord Kim a friend, and knew the Lord had felt the same way about his squire Torrance. The two had died protecting one another not far from his position on the battlefield and he had mourned their loss.
"Perhaps you'd better explain just exactly what went on," he demanded.
B'Elanna began to speak, but Harry motioned her to be silent and he once again repeated the tale of the peasant uprising that had taken his mother from him. He described how only B'Elanna's quick and unselfish intervention had saved his life, and how she had assumed the identity of a nobleman in order to provide a living for the both of them. When the story was over the King remained silent for some time as he absorbed all he had heard.
"You are married are you not Lord Beyla," he inquired, "Is your wife aware of your deception?"
"Leave Annika out of this I beg you," B'Elanna cried, "she is blameless in all of this."
"It was only a question. I intend her no harm."
B'Elanna's mind was racing as she realized that she may never see Annika or England again. She knew the King valued right and honour above all; he had hung the friends of his youth for disobeying his orders, and she knew that he had also put to death Cambridge, Masham, and Northumberland for conspiring against him. She could only imagine what her fate might be now that he deception was revealed in its entirety.
"Your Majesty, she has saved my life on countless occasions on the battlefield, and I might respectfully remind you that she saved yours not four hours ago," Gloucester spoke quietly from the front of the tent. He too was a man of honour and though he couldn't comprehend how B'Elanna had come to fool them all so thoroughly it didn't sit right with him that she might be harmed in any way. "If need be I will offer my life in exchange for hers," he finished.
"I hardly think it will come to that John," the King spoke at last.
"I knew your father well Lord Kim, and yours as well," he said indicating B'Elanna. "They were both brave and honourable men. I did not know that you were still alive, I was told that the peasants had slaughtered you along with your mother. Lord Rhys assured me that he buried you himself."
The King was not a foolish man and he knew immediately why Rhys had wanted him to believe that Stanley Kim's rightful heir was dead. He would deal with Rhys in his own way later.
"I can hardly have you pretending to be a Lord under my command. It wouldn't be seemly for me to condone forgery and the impersonation of nobility."
B'Elanna's heart was in her throat as she heard these words. She was about to lose it all. The King drew his sword, holding up his hand to forestall the arguments he knew were coming from both Kim and Gloucester. He had to make this right honour demanded it. He reached out and pushed B'Elanna to her knees. Her thoughts were of Annika as she waited for her fate to be decided. The King stepped back and took his sword in both hands, raising it over B'Elanna's head; his hand trembled with the enormity of what he was about to do, but he could see no other way to put the situation right.
He looked down on the person to whom he owed his life; quickly he touched the blade on either shoulder, knighting her properly and legally. He gave her her nobility, and with it he gave her back her name, as she would henceforth be known as Lord Beyla Torrance. As to the matter of her sex the King could do nothing to change that, but he knew a warrior when he saw one, and he trusted his life to the warrior before him now. He sent Gloucester out to ensure that the squire who had witnessed the event would keep his mouth shut about it by order of his king. He also informed Harry that would be henceforth be known by his proper title. He didn't need to admonish either of them to keep these things a secret. He then took his leave of them to go and inform his scribe that some new and proper letters of nobility would be required.
He was halfway back to his own tent when he realized that he had forgotten to tell Harry and Beyla the real reason behind his visit to their tent. Not wishing a repeat of the first visit he decided to clean himself up and have his wounds looked at before he returned to their quarters. Even so he told himself he would announce his presence clearly before he ever entered their tent again.
Several hours later the King was cleaned up and freshly bandaged. He could face legions of enemies on the battlefield but he found himself nervous at the thought of interacting with Beyla alone and so he found John Gloucester and asked that he accompany him to the tent of the two Lords. He wanted to impart his news in person as well as offer Beyla a much overdue debt of gratitude for saving his life. He held in his hands two freshly completed scrolls, as well as one much older and well-worn vellum. When they arrived at the tent, he cleared his throat and called out; he shifted nervously from foot to foot as he waited to be granted entrance to the living quarters of the female warrior. Gloucester sensed his nervousness and had to fight back a grin at the sight of the King of England waiting to be granted entrance to the tent of someone who until very recently had been a peasant girl.
Harry drew back the tent flap and bowed low as the King entered the tent. B'Elanna also swept a low bow before her sovereign. The King wasted no time in presenting his gifts to the two young people. He had made up some of the history on Lord Beyla's papers himself, and he was quite proud of the job he had done. He had also had the scribe prepare letters of nobility for Harry, as he assumed, quite correctly that Harry's actual papers were lost in the fire of his family home. The older scroll he also handed to Harry, who had tears in his eyes when he realized that they were his father's papers that the King had kept upon his friend's death. Harry had never been particularly close to his father, but he still valued this tie to his past, and it meant a great deal to him when the King assured him that his father would have been very proud of the way his son had grown to be such a fine man.
It was then that the King imparted his biggest news. He had finally managed to conclude talks with the Dauphin of France. The war was indeed coming to an end and soon they would all be back in England. There was however one obstacle in the way of signing the treaty. He needed to persuade the sister of the Dauphin, Catherine de Valois, that she should marry him in order to cement the bonds between the countries and establish his right to ascend the throne of France.
"The problem is," the King explained, "I know nothing of women, or of romance. I am unafraid of facing death on the battlefield, but the thought of being alone in a room with this woman and having a conversation terrifies me beyond reason. Yet I can hardly allow my country to remain at war because her King lacks the wit to woo a woman." The look of abject terror on the face of the young King was absolutely hysterical, and it was all Harry and B'Elanna could do not to laugh out loud.
"It would seem Your Majesty," Gloucester spoke, "that Lord Beyla could perhaps be of some assistance in this matter. HE is after all somewhat of an expert in the area of women."
Now it was B'Elanna's turn to look frightened.
"Gloucester speaks the truth, you are married after all. How did you persuade your wife to marry you?"
"I believe that Annika loves me in spite of myself," she replied with a smile. "She also loves me despite all of the obstacles that stood in our way. I've never met a woman as brave or as true as my Annika."
"But how did you woo her how did you persuade her to love you?" The King asked earnestly.
B'Elanna smiled as she warmed to her favourite topic. She told of meeting Annika for the first time, and how much Annika appreciated and was drawn to the fact the she actually listened to her words and thoughts; that she treated her like a human being, not an objet d'art. Soon everyone present was chiming in with advice and telling stories of their own experiences with romance. Several hours passed before they knew it and the King was surprised to find that he had actually enjoyed himself. He had agreed to let Beyla live and to grant her letters of nobility out of a sense of duty and honour to one to whom he owed his life. Now, however, he found that he actually liked this woman and enjoyed spending time in her company.
"Perhaps you and Harry would come with me to Troyes where I'm to meet Catherine," he inquired, not wanting to make it an order.
"If you think it will help bring an end to this war we will accompany you to the gates of hell and back Your Majesty," Harry replied fervently.
"There is one other thing," the King spoke hesitantly, "There is to be a banquet in honour of Catherine and myself at Troyes."
They waited patiently to see what it was the King was asking of them now.
"I don't suppose either one of you knows how to dance?" He asked in a sheepish tone.
Harry almost fell of his chair he laughed so loudly at the King's innocent question. The King looked askance as his hysterical friends. When Harry finally calmed down enough to draw breath, he told the story of B'Elanna's dancing lessons in the forest. Soon they were all laughing at the images of the graceful warrior tripping over her feet by the light of a fire. Both Harry and B'Elanna agreed to help the King on this most secret mission. By the end of the night a bond of friendship that would last a lifetime had formed between all four of the soldiers in the tent.
Over the next few days the King and his new advisors, in the persons of Gloucester, Harry and B'Elanna, prepared for their trip to Troyes. They rode off into the forest alone for several hours each day where the King was schooled in the fine art of talking and dancing with women. The trips were often just an excuse to leave behind the camp of soldiers and have a moment or two of freedom with friends. Now that Gloucester knew of Beyla's true identity he was more determined than ever to defeat her in battle, and often the two of them would face off against one another, dueling furiously while Harry attempted to instruct the King in the finer points of the dance. So far Gloucester had never managed to best Beyla, but that fact only served to strengthen their friendship, not detract from it.
The four of them, along with the Royal bodyguard and several other nobles who were close to the throne rode to Troyes to finalize the details of the treaty. King Henry met with Catherine and was taken with her beauty, but his awkwardness and poor command of the French language were an impediment at first. It fell to B'Elanna and Harry to do much of the talking in the beginning, but soon the King overcame his shyness and was able to put forth his suit on his own. He heeded Beyla's advice and found that Catherine responded to his willingness to listen to her and to take her seriously. Their marriage was meant to be one of political convenience, but in the end would turn out to be one of abiding love--thanks to the intervention of one of the most unconventional soldiers the King had ever met.
The marriage and the treaty signing were to take place on the same day at the Cathedral of Troyes and the King wished for Beyla, Harry and Gloucester to stand with him during the ceremony. The French royal tailors created wondrously rich costumes for all of them. They were clad in crimson and gold tunics, and their shoulders were draped with ermine lined capes. Their swords were shone to a brilliant gleam and upon their heads they wore jewel-encrusted bands of gold.
After the wedding and the signing of the treaty that officially ended the war, all of them attended the banquet at the castle of Troyes. It was a sumptuous affair despite the fact that France had been decimated by the war. During the course of the evening B'Elanna found herself standing with the King and Catherine and several of the French royalty when she sensed that she was being scrutinized from across the room. She turned to see a familiar figure standing at the edge of the crowd. She made her way through the crowds and soon found herself standing in front of someone she had never thought she would see again.
"Lord Hansart," she said.
"Lord Beyla, how is this possible how did you come to be here with with the King?" He stammered.
"It would seem my circumstances have changed somewhat since last we met," she spoke coolly.
Lady Hansart had finally noticed to whom her husband was speaking and she came forward quickly and caught B'Elanna in her arms.
"Lord Beyla! I can't believe it is really you. What of Annika? Is she all right?" As ever, Lady Hansart's first concern was for her daughter and her happiness.
"She's fine," B'Elanna hastened to reassure the concerned mother. "We married shortly after you left England."
"Is she well is she happy?" Lady Hansart could not contain her joy at finally having news of her daughter.
"I believe she is, although it has been a year since we've seen one another. I had a letter from her recently and she seemed well. I know she'd love to hear from you; if you'd care to give me a letter I'd be happy to deliver it to her when I return to England next month."
Lord Hansart was not happy at being interrupted by his wife, and he was further incensed at the fact that he was being ignored, but the obvious change in Lord Beyla's fortunes made him reluctant to show his displeasure.
"I can see that Annika made a wise choice in husbands after all. Perhaps its time we paid our daughter a visit," he said pleasantly.
"Whether or not you visit Annika is a matter that shall be left entirely up to her. I'll carry a letter from you and if she wishes to contact you she will. You wounded her deeply Lord Hansart, and I'll not have her hurt again. You are to make no attempt to see her until you hear from her that she would welcome the contact." B'Elanna's voice was stern and Lord Hansart knew better than to argue.
B'Elanna chatted amicably with Lady Hansart for some time until she saw the King motioning her to come and meet one of the generals from the French army. She told Lady Hansart where to send the letter so that B'Elanna would receive it and she took an amicable leave from her parents in law.
The next few weeks flew by as the King took control of the French government and made arrangements for garrisons of English troops to be stationed at key cities for the time being. Gloucester was remaining behind for now to command the occupying army. He was happy to be entrusted with such an important command, but a little sad to see his friends preparing to depart for home without him. He promised Beyla that once he was back in England he would seek her out and demand a rematch of their, by now, famous duels. They parted fast friends and B'Elanna too looked forward to the time when they would recommence their contests.
B'Elanna and Harry were escorting the King and his new wife back to England along with a contingent of the royal bodyguard. The bulk of the troops would follow a few weeks later. Because they would be traveling with Catherine, this trip promised to be much more comfortable and leisurely than the one to France had been.
The day of their departure dawned clear and warm, and soon the royal retinue took to the road. They made the crossing back into England five days later. After resting for a day in Dover, they found themselves once more on the familiar road to London. B'Elanna could barely contain herself at the thought that in a few short days she would once again hold Annika in her arms.
Chapter 26 CONCLUSION
News had reached the castle in London that a treaty had been signed, ending the war with France. Several weeks later a rider had arrived to announce that the King and his new wife were only days away from arriving at the castle gates. Annika had not heard from B'Elanna since she had received the bundle of letters months ago. She believed that her wife was still alive and she hoped that the end of the war meant that B'Elanna and Harry would be returning soon. The news that the King was going to be home soon fanned the flames of her hopes that B'Elanna would return soon with the bulk of the troops. She couldn't help but be excited at the return of the King and she was anxious to catch her first glimpse of his new wife and so she and Sarah had decided to be on hand to greet the monarch on his return.
Two days later the tower guard caught sight of a cloud of dust in the distance on the road from London. A little while later the first outrider arrived to inform the castle that the King would arrive in a few short hours. The castle was quickly abuzz as everyone scurried to complete all of the last minute preparations. Even Annika found herself caught up in the atmosphere.
B'Elanna and Harry found themselves growing more and more excited the closer they came to London. The landscape grew ever more familiar, and at long last they caught sight of the city itself.
Soon enough a murmur went up in the crowd as the men on the parapets caught sight of the King's entourage in the distance. The castle emptied as nobles and servants alike lined up to greet their monarch and his wife. Annika and Sarah stood with the crowd that lined the roadway leading into the castle grounds through the main drawbridge. They heard the thunder of hoof beats on the planks of the drawbridge as the advance riders swung into the castle grounds.
Annika was certain that B'Elanna wouldn't be among the King's most trusted soldiers, nor among his bodyguard, but she hoped to find one of the returning soldiers who might have news of her wife, and some idea of when Annika could expect her home. Pair after pair of riders entered the castle through the gateway and soon she heard the rumble of wheels as the King's coach rolled over the drawbridge. She was straining so hard to catch a glimpse of the King that she almost didn't notice a familiar figure riding guard beside the door to the coach. It was Goliath that she noticed first; she couldn't believe her eyes as she realized that it was B'Elanna, home at last. The caravan swept past and came to a stop at the steps to the main castle entrance; Annika began to fight her way through the crowd her heart pounding in her chest. She was afraid that if she didn't get to her quickly that B'Elanna would somehow disappear and her return would all have been a dream.
She fought her way to the edge of the crowd with Sarah close on her heels, but there she stopped, suddenly shy and unsure of what to do--after an entire year of longing she suddenly felt as if she hadn't had enough time to prepare for this reunion.
B'Elanna vaulted from Goliath's back and moved to open the door to the coach, offering her arm in assistance first to the Queen and then to the King. The royal couple moved forward to begin to greet their subjects; it was then that B'Elanna turned and finally caught sight of Annika standing nervously at the edge of the crowd. She thought she had perfectly planned this reunion, but in the moment she caught sight of the beautiful blonde everything she had planned to do and say flew out of her head. She could only stare at what she had dreamed of for so long. All sound stopped for them both and the rest of the world flew out of existence when their eyes met at last. Unable to contain herself a moment longer B'Elanna broke ranks, running to Annika, she picked her up by the waist and laughing, spun her around, Annika's feet dangling over a foot off the ground.
There were tears streaming down Annika's face, and when her feet were, at least physically, back on the ground she took B'Elanna's face in both of her hands. Her eyes drank in the sight before her. Finally when it became clear that they had neither the words nor the ability to speak them, Annika pulled B'Elanna's face inexorably closer to her own and after over a year of unbearable separation their lips met gently. The sweet rub of velvet to velvet was exquisite, passionate, soft and everlasting. With a groan B'Elanna pulled her wife closer and buried her face in the sweet smelling neck of the woman she loved. Neither one of them could have said how long they stood there, or what went on around them while they did; nothing existed outside of the contact between their bodies, and the pure and simple fact that they were at last together.
After a time they were pulled from their reverie by the sound of a throat clearing behind them. When at last she opened her eyes Annika couldn't believe that the King himself was standing by her side.
"You must be Lady Torrance," he said. "I have long wished to make your acquaintance."
Annika curtsied nervously, keeping her eyes respectfully on the ground. She had no idea why the king would be addressing her with B'Elanna's former surname, or why he would have any idea of who she was, so she determined to simply let the moment unfold as it would. To her surprise the King grasped her hand and kissed it, drawing her up so that they could speak face to face. He introduced her to his wife Catherine and the small group chatted for a moment before he moved on greet the next people in a very long line of subjects who wished to welcome the King back to England. Just as he moved off he leaned over to them once more.
"I believe your duties are complete for the day Beyla if there is something you would rather be doing than standing in the courtyard watching the political drama unfold."
B'Elanna didn't need to be told twice. It took her less than a minute to make arrangements for Goliath to be stabled and for her belongings to be delivered to their rooms. Annika did not relinquish her hold on B'Elanna's arm the entire time.
When at last they were alone in their rooms they both grew quiet and shy. They were both acutely aware of how much time had passed, and how different they both were from the people they had been a year ago. B'Elanna pulled Annika into her arms.
"Tell me this is real."
Annika answered the question with a kiss.
"If I am dreaming I pray to all the gods that I will never wake, for I wish to live forever in this dream."
"It is no ordinary dream my love, but rather a dream come true, for I had begun to despair that I would ever see you again outside of my dreams. But you are here now and I need never sleep again for no dream can ever compare to this reality," Annika was crying as she spoke.
"Oh my love; I had so many words, so many phrases and sentences carefully marshaled with which, to greet you and yet the cowardly traitors have all deserted me in my time of need. For try as I might to rally them to my aid I find myself unarmed."
"Then let us breach the walls of silence together my wife, for I find I may have an arrow or two left in my quiver."
"Then let fly and may your aim be true for never was victory so important as in this most vital endeavour," B'Elanna replied, hiding the depths of her fear behind humour.
Annika raised her arm, brushing B'Elanna's cheek tenderly with the back of her hand.
"I love you," she said simply.
"I love you too. You can't imagine how many times I whispered those words to the winds and hoped that eventually they might find their way back to England and to your ears."
"Sometimes at night when I couldn't sleep for missing you so I would stand on the balcony and stare at the moon, wondering if perhaps you too might be gazing upon it in that moment. It made me feel as if I were somehow closer to you. I never wish to be apart from you again B'Elanna. I fear my heart would not survive another such separation."
"Nor mine. Whatever happens, whatever path our lives take from this moment forward we will be together. I promise you this."
As they spoke the tension between them eased. Annika unbuckled B'Elanna's sword and laid it on the table. She slowly began to undo the lacing on her tunic. B'Elanna stood still and willingly let Annika take the lead. When the laces had been vanquished, the tunic was quickly sent into exile on the dresser, to be followed shortly by the cloths that bound the warrior's chest. With hands that trembled in anticipation Annika removed the last of B'Elanna's clothing and then waited while her wife reciprocated in kind. She led the uncharacteristically shy B'Elanna to the bed, and, sweeping aside the covers pressed the muscular body of her wife down onto the soft and welcoming mattress. Before their passion escalated further she found she needed to examine every inch of B'Elanna's body; she touched the unfamiliar scars and listened as B'Elanna explained how she had come to receive them. She parted her hair to see the scar beneath the snow-white streak on B'Elanna's temple, frowning when she thought of how close B'Elanna had come to losing her life on so many occasions.
At last, feeling as though they had become at least moderately reacquainted, they allowed hands, lips and tongues the freedom to explore. Their ardor ignited in an instant. Nothing else mattered, not the time spent apart or the distances that had separated them all that existed was this moment, this connection, this lovemaking, and they felt themselves swept away on a rising tide of passion that threatened to consume them both with its intensity.
They barely left their room for the first week after B'Elanna's return. They talked and made love, trying to make up for lost time. After the first few days they found the unanticipated awkwardness had dissipated, and they were no longer self conscious around one another. B'Elanna explained what had passed between herself, Harry and the King, and once again Annika felt panicked at how close B'Elanna had come to being killed. She could not believe that the King had chosen to accept B'Elanna as she was, and was even more surprised to learn that he thought of her wife as a close friend and advisor. She also shared the story of that terrible night in the forest when she had been forced to take the lives of the two robbers. B'Elanna cried at the thought of Annika being put into such a terrible situation; her heart ached as she thought of her wife's innocence being so brutally destroyed. A deeper understanding was growing between them daily and it seemed that France and the war would soon be nothing but a memory.
When they finally left their rooms it was to go for a ride together in the forest outside of the city. Annika loved the feeling of being together again out of doors, and they talked about what they might do with themselves now that they had the freedom to choose.
The King had been very busy putting the affairs of state in order upon his return and so he had not had a chance to see Harry and B'Elanna since their return. He had ordered several of his trusted men to ride to Rhys manor and investigate the long ago murder of Lady Kim. What he found was deeply disturbing. It seems that Lord Rhys had played a much larger part in the uprising than anyone could have imagined. He had, in fact, instigated the riots that cost Harry's mother her life. He had purchased and distributed the mead that the peasants had been consuming and had paid several of the men to incite the others to take over the manor and burn out the Lady and her young son. When Harry had disappeared he had been furious and had taken steps to ensure that his part in the uprising would not be found out. He had arranged the deaths of many of the men he had used to carry out his plans.
The intervening time had not been kind to Lord Rhys. His three sons had all been killed in the war and his wife had succumbed to a lingering illness several months ago. The guilt of what he had done weighed heavily on his mind and he had slowly slipped into madness. He had taken over the land that had once belonged to Lord Kim, expecting to leave it to his sons, but now that they were gone the excess of land only served to remind him of his crimes. The land and the buildings of both estates had been ignored for over a year and were in complete disrepair. He believed that the death of his sons in the war was a punishment exacted on him by God. When the King's men arrived at his estate and began to ask questions about the events of over a year ago he broke down almost immediately and confessed to everything. The King had Rhys taken to the tower, but the man was so pitiful that he was eventually freed, and he spent the last of his days living with friends in London.
Finally King Henry had all of the information he required and he called a meeting between himself, Harry and B'Elanna to inform them of his intentions. He enlightened his friends as to what his investigations had revealed, and Harry was horrorstricken at the thought that he had tried to convince B'Elanna to ride with him to Rhys manor in search of help. Had she listened to him that terrible night it is unlikely either of them would have survived. The King informed them both that in honour of their faithful and good service to him in France that they were to be rewarded. B'Elanna was to be given the estate that had previously belonged to Lord Rhys, and Harry's lands were to be returned to him as well as several hundred extra acres that were to be annexed from the adjacent King's forest. In addition they were to receive a handsome sum of gold and silver in payment for their services both on the battlefield and in the facilitation of the signing of the treaty of Troyes.
That night all four of them had dinner and discussed their plans. Harry was thrilled to have his lands back, but his true love was medicine, and he was content to charge a modest tribute and allow the peasants to farm the land as they always had when his father was Lord of the manor. B'Elanna and Annika had talked at great length about what they might do, and now they had been given the means with which to achieve their goals. B'Elanna wished to breed and to train horses. She would use as much of the land as she required to do so and the rest would be let out to the peasantry to farm. They planned and schemed well into the night; happy to have their futures settled at last, and happier still that they would always be together.
They stayed another month at the castle while they made arrangements to take over their new lands. When the time came to depart London they bid a fond farewell to the King and his wife and their other friends. Tom and Kate were coming with them to work with B'Elanna and Annika on the horse farm. They set out together early one morning and spent a week riding back to the place where the entire adventure had begun. They were thrilled to be together again on the road, sleeping under the stars and eating only what they took from the forest.
Harry had his work cut out for him restoring his father's lands. He and Sarah lived with B'Elanna and Annika while the manor house and outbuildings were rebuilt. He immediately established a practice of medicine in town and found that his days were more than occupied in attending to the needs of the townspeople. Sarah was his partner in this practice and the two of them spent their days together healing the sick and caring for the infirm. They had never been happier.
B'Elanna and Annika worked hard to build a proper breeding barn and to construct enough fenced land to contain the breeding stock. It took them several years to really get the farm operating, and the work was hard, but they loved every minute of it. They were equal partners in everything that they did, and Annika enjoyed the freedom of dressing as she pleased while she shared in the physical labour. She was something of a genius at manipulating bloodlines, and the success of their operation was a combination of her ability to bring out the best traits in a foal and B'Elanna's ability to train the animals effectively.
The peasants on both estates were thrilled at the new ownership. They were no longer taxed outrageously and they found their new Lords to be meticulously fair in their treatment of the people. They were never denied assistance when it was required, and no matter what the problem they found that they could approach the owners without fear of being treated poorly.
Every now and then an outrageous rumour would circulate that Lord Torrance was actually the daughter of Stanley Kim's former man at arms, but nobody who had ever met Beyla lent the rumours any credence. No woman was capable of fighting as well or working as hard as the man they knew as Lord Torrance.
B'Elanna still attended the tournament at London every year, and every year she defeated John Gloucester soundly in both the sword ring and in the jousting lists. He had become a frequent visitor to the breeding farm although he was often away, consumed with the duties of running the King's army.
B'Elanna and Annika loved to jump on their horses and disappear into the woods for days together. They never tired of sleeping under the stars or making love by the light of the fire. They also never stopped fencing together. Annika became quite accomplished at the art and she pushed B'Elanna to be ever faster and smarter in order to keep winning. B'Elanna was secretly certain that her practices with Annika were the reason that she continued to best Gloucester when they met in the lists.
Annika reconciled with her parents and they eventually came to live in England. They visited the farm from time to time but both of them were happier in the city. Annika forgave her father for his treatment of her and although they were never close they enjoyed spending time together whenever Annika and B'Elanna were in London.
Harry and Sarah had numerous children and B'Elanna and Annika acted as second parents to all of them. Although they could never have offspring of their own, their house always echoed with the laughter of children. Annika had thought that she might regret being unable to have children, but she found that she was most happy when she was alone with B'Elanna. Their life together was filled with love and passion and it required nothing more than that they were together for their happiness to be complete.
"Sweetheart, wake up."
"What time is it?" B'Elanna asked in a sleepy voice.
"I'm not sure well after midnight."
"Is it time?"
"Yes, she's in full labour."
B'Elanna dressed quickly and they hurried down to the barn. In a large loose box Sasha, one of their prize dams was in the throes of giving birth. The animal's eyes were rolled back, almost completely white as she panted through the painful contractions. Her neck and flanks were a lather of sweat and it was obvious that she was in some difficulty.
"I think the foal is turned," Annika speculated.
B'Elanna removed her tunic and rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. She knelt beside the horse while Annika went to the animal's head and soothed it with hands and voice. B'Elanna slid her arm almost to the shoulder inside the animal and met with a tail rather than a head. Concentrating hard she moved the small creature around between contractions until it was ready to come into the world headfirst. With a firm grip on two front hooves she slid the foal part way out with the next contraction, reaching in with her other hand to slide the head down and out. In a rush of fluid the tiny animal came into the world. Annika helped B'Elanna clean up while the mother licked her child clean. Soon the mother was on her feet and the little foal was wobbling closer on unsteady legs to have its first meal.
Annika put her arms around B'Elanna from behind while they enjoyed the sight of mother and child before them.
"As often as we do this I never grow tired of seeing new life come into the world."
B'Elanna leaned her head back on Annika's shoulder; happy to be in the loving arms of the woman she adored.
"It is the second greatest miracle I've ever seen," B'Elanna replied.
"What is the first?"
"That after all of these years I can wake up every morning and love you just a little bit more than I did the day before, and that somehow every day you grow more beautiful."
Annika had no words to express her love in that moment and so she kissed B'Elanna on the neck and held her fiercely as together they watched the tiny animal take its first wobbling steps into the miracle of life.
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