Knight Falls
By T.J.

Chapter 8

The next few days as they continued their journey toward London were uneventful. Annika and B’Elanna had little chance to talk alone together as Annika’s mother took it upon herself to stay close to her daughter just in case her obedience to her father’s demands was less than complete. B’Elanna could see that Annika was suffering from their distance and in truth she had barely slept since their conversation, worried that perhaps she was causing harm to the woman she loved by her admission of feelings. She wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply take the family as far as London and then never see Lady Hansart again, but she knew she would never have the strength to do such a thing. She couldn’t bear the thought of Annika married to a man who didn’t love her, and the thought of another man touching her caused her blood to boil. There had to be a way for them to be together. Surely she hadn’t waited her entire life to find a love like this only to have it denied her. She had put her life to the hazard when she decided to pose as a knight, and so the thought of being discovered courting Annika held little terror for her, but she was worried on Annika’s behalf. She would rather die than cause harm to the beautiful young woman.

When they finally reached London the Hansarts informed Harry and B’Elanna that they would be staying in the castle outside of the city. The city of London at that time was a cesspool of refuse and raw sewage, overrun with rats and disease. Thus the nobles tended to present themselves to the Royal court and stay within the castle battlements outside of the city where the chances of contagion were greatly reduced. Harry and B’Elanna were going to stay in the King’s forest outside of the city and B’Elanna managed to tell Annika where they would be before the family disappeared over the drawbridge and into the castle courtyard.

As they had traveled B’Elanna and Harry had continued to make their plans for the future. They had made several inquiries into the best place to find a horse suitable for jousting, as well as the best place to have armour and lances fashioned for the endeavour. They ventured into town on their first day and purchased a wagon to carry their new equipment as well as a tent in which they would live while they trained and traveled. They were both happy to be living in the woods again, but neither of them would miss sleeping on the cold hard ground and being soaked by the nighttime rains. They set up their tent and their bedrolls and went off in search of the horse breeder they had heard so much about from the merchants in town.

It was nice to be alone together once again, and able to travel at their own pace without plodding beside the much slower carriage. They laughed and talked louder and longer then they had in days as they made their way to the breeder’s land. A low stone wall made taller by piles of cut hawthorn trees began to run alongside the path they took when they turned off the main road. The path and fence ran for several miles and in the distance they saw several large outbuildings used to house the brood mares when they were foaling. They rode into a large open yard where dozens of men were working busily with horses in various stages of training. Some were simply being lunged in wide circles on ropes and others ridden through a series of obstacles.

In the middle distance no fewer than 8 men were breaking a horse for riding. There were 3 ropes around the animal’s neck and 2 men had hold of each rope. The horse’s eyes were wide with fright and the animal’s hide was covered in a thick lather of white foam. The animal thrashed and bucked as the man riding held on for dear life. Several other men attempted to control the animal with long whips. They moved as a mass of seething bodies wherever the horse pulled them in its attempt to free itself from its captors. Finally the animal fell to the ground, rolling completely over the rider before staggering to its feet again, standing with heaving flanks a sheet of viscous fluid streaming from its drooping lips in its exhaustion. B’Elanna closed her eyes and looked away, unable to watch the training continue.

“Looks worse than it is,” came a voice from beside her. “I’m Norton, the breeder here, can I be of some assistance.”

B’Elanna climbed down from her horse and extended her hand to the tall thin man standing beside her. His face was weather beaten and as worn as old leather from a life lived out of doors.

“I’m looking for a horse suitable for the joust,” she replied.

“Well, this is the place where you’ll find one then. I supply King Henry himself with his horses. Now do you want an older horse, trained or untrained, broken to saddle or not?” The man wasted no time with small talk and got straight to business.

B’Elanna was uncertain as to the answers to his questions so she merely asked to be shown around the facility. Norton took her through the brood stalls, all the time listing the various attributes and lineage of each horse B’Elanna admired. A horse already trained for tournament was terribly expensive but not out of their reach, however when they emerged from the barn to see the stable hands once again fighting with the bay stallion in the yards she made up her mind instantly.

“I want a green horse, I’ll break him myself.”

Harry’s cough of disbelief told the breeder everything he needed to know about B’Elanna’s experience in this area, but his attempts to dissuade her were to no avail. She couldn’t bear to see the rough treatment these men were doling out.

They walked to a paddock further out from the barns where several young colts were awaiting their training. B’Elanna’s eye was immediately drawn to a huge black stallion whose mane and tail were slightly wavy as opposed to the more usual straight manes of most horses. The animal was spirited and when the breeder yelled out to startle the horses the young animal ran like the wind, muscles rippling under coal black hide.

B’Elanna told the man this was the horse for her; both he and Harry attempted to talk her out of her decision as they felt the animal was too large and too strong for one her size.

“At least let him train the horse,” Harry begged, but B’Elanna would not be swayed and she struck a bargain with the man on the spot.

Several of the stable hands rode into the paddock and cut the huge beast from the herd, roping it and leading him over to where B’Elanna and Harry were waiting. They handed the ropes over and walked away shaking their heads.

“A fool and his money are soon parted,” she heard one of them mutter.

They attached one rope to either side of the animal’s halter; Harry was relieved to find at least the beast was trained to a halter and lead. Each one of them took a rope and secured it to the pommel of their respective saddles and they began the journey home.

“You have no idea what you’re going to do with this horse do you B’Elanna?” Harry inquired as they turned onto the road to London.

“Nope, but whatever it is it won’t be as repugnant as what those men were doing back there.”

“But that’s how horses are broken, there is no other way I know of to get a horse to accept a rider.”

“I refuse to believe you have to break an animal’s spirit like that. There has to be a better way and I’m going to figure out what that is.”

“You mean you’re determined to break your neck,” Harry replied.

“We’ll see,” was all B’Elanna would say, although secretly she was wondering if she hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

When they arrived back at their encampment they hobbled the horse along with the other three and the two of them spent hours collecting fallen branches and brush with which to construct an enclosure to hold the animals. It was after dark when they felt they had a sufficient pen, but they left the animals hobbled just to be certain.

B’Elanna was up well before dawn and she went out to the pen to observe the animals. An idea was taking shape in her mind and she was anxious to set her plan in motion. She went for a run through the forest and returned to find Harry already cooking a rabbit they had caught in the snares they set around their campsite. She informed him of her plans and the two of them saddled their horses and rode toward the marketplace of London as soon as breakfast was finished.

When they reached the city they stabled the horses and entered the marketplace. B’Elanna sought out the armourer’s guild and began to make arrangements for a suit of armour for jousting as well as the purchase of several practice lances and a quintain. When she returned to the open-air market she was delighted to see Annika and Kate admiring several bolts of cloth at one of the tables. She was even happier to note that Annika’s parents were nowhere in evidence. She walked to where they were standing and pretended to be engrossed in the wares on the table until Annika’s gasp told her she had been seen. She turned with a wide smile, gratified to see that it was mirrored on Lady Hansart’s beautiful face. Taking her delicate hand she kissed it, lingering over the kiss, reveling in the contact. When at last she straightened up, still holding Annika’s hand, she smiled again to see the blush that had spread over Annika’s features. She offered her arm to the Lady and the couple spent several hours wandering through the marketplace together while B’Elanna regaled the younger woman with her plans. Since the tournament season around London did not begin for another month Annika was pleased that the search for a suitable husband had effectively been put on hold for a similar period of time. She was happy to see Lord Beyla again and to be in his presence. She had missed the feel of his strong arm when she walked, and missed the feeling of someone listening to her every word when she spoke.

Tom and Harry soon found them and the group once again took their noon meal together. B’Elanna explained to Tom where their encampment was and Annika casually mentioned that she thought she might begin riding in the afternoons to pass the time. Tom’s grin told her that he wasn’t fooled at all, but he agreed to ride with her and B’Elanna knew that she would be seeing the three of them often in the woods. Once again everything seemed to be going smoothly, and B’Elanna took it as a sign that this was meant to be.

After saying a heartfelt goodbye to Annika, B’Elanna finished purchasing her supplies and she and Harry returned to their encampment.

B’Elanna wasted no time in beginning her plan. Taking some of the grain and sugar she had purchased at the market and placing in it her pockets she slipped into the horse pen. The black colt rolled his eyes and shied away at her approach, but eventually the smell of the sugar in her pockets brought him close. B’Elanna walked away at his approach and pretended not to notice he was following her. She took a deep breath and turned her back, leaning on the poles they lashed together as a gate and pretending to stare off into the distance oblivious to the animal. She heard his feet dancing on the ground behind her as he approached and shied away. He was leery of her, but the scent of the sugar and grain was pulling him close…eventually her patience was rewarded as she felt his muzzle nudging at her pocket. Still she did nothing…allowing him to smell her and root in her pockets at will. She slowly moved her hand into her pocket…as soon as she moved the colt danced away, but returned quickly this time…scenting the air and coming closer. She stood motionless, the grain in the palm of her hand, eventually she felt his nose shove into her palm, withdraw and return again, this time to eat the treat she held. She turned her head and he leapt away from her … dancing away to the other side of the pen. This time she turned around to face him, keeping her eyes on the ground as he returned again to eat from her palm. She put out a hand as he ate, and although he shied away at first eventually she was able to run her hands over his head and neck as he ate.

She began to follow him in his perambulations around the pen, all the time allowing him to eat from her hand and she began to talk to him in low even tones, a constant stream of encouraging words and touches until he was calm in her presence. After several hours of this she left the pen and had her dinner. Once she had eaten she climbed back into the pen, gratified to see that he took only minutes to allow her to get close to him this time. Her days became a rhythm of exercise; jousting practice on her current mount and hours spent talking with her new friend. The animal got so he would respond to the sound of her voice and come to the gate of the pen to see her when he heard her approach. Slowly she introduced new concepts to the animal. Laying a blanket over his back, all the while keeping up her steady calming talk, she tied a leather strap loosely around his belly, gradually tightening it to simulate the feel of the girth of the saddle. He slowly learned to tolerate all of these new stimuli. She was constantly touching him, running her hands over his flanks, legs, and eyes, picking up his hooves until he was no longer nervous at her touch. She leaned on his back gently to get him used to the idea of weight, and then after a time she placed a saddle there, allowing him to throw it off several times, but always replacing it until he tolerated its presence as well. Slowly she introduced him to the bit, coating it with sugar at first as she introduced it to his mouth. Finally the day came when he would tolerate all of the tack being placed and tightened on his body. She led him around the paddock for an hour by the reins until she was satisfied he was used to the sensation of pressure on his mouth.

“Tomorrow is the day,” she told Harry.

As skeptical as he had been in the beginning Harry had to admit that the animal seemed to have bonded with B’Elanna. He had never imagined that she would get this far with the beast, but he was terrified that his friend would be killed the next day when she attempted to mount him.

Beyla’s handling of the huge destrier mesmerized Annika. She watched as he talked to the horse and was amazed at his gentleness and how the beast responded to it. Every time she saw the Lord and his animal she fell more deeply in love with him.

Her jousting practice, however, was a source of great amusement for Harry and the others, for indeed Tom, Kate and Annika were frequent visitors to the camp. She could hold the lance all right, she was strong enough for that, but it was two straight days of practice before she hit the quintain’s target shield for the first time. The quintain was a tricky piece of equipment, if you struck it soundly in the centre it would simply swing harmlessly aside, but if you struck it off centre the heavy counterbalance would swing around and take you off your horse as it struck you in the back of the head. After two days of trying she finally hit the target, only to drop her lance as the vibration from the hit shook her to the core and then to add insult to injury the counterbalance unhorsed her neatly several seconds later. She spent most of the next few days picking herself up off the ground, and by the time she could strike the target with any regularity she was more battered and bruised than she had been after any sword fight. But no matter how battered and tired she became she always found time to bond with her horse and time to spend walking and talking with the beautiful Lady who had so completely stolen her heart. She loved walking through the sun-dappled forest in the afternoon holding Annika’s hand in her own. They would walk to a clearing in the woods and sit upon the boulder there to talk, Annika would rest her head on Beyla’s shoulders as they chatted, feeling safe in his arms, and the two gradually grew even closer than they could have imagined.

The entire group knew that the next day B’Elanna was going to attempt to ride her new horse, and they were all anxious to be present. Tom had agreed to assist Harry in handling the ropes that would hopefully control the beast. B’Elanna hadn’t shared her entire plan with her friends, but she was confident that she would be successful. There was no way she would allow herself to fail in front of Lady Hansart.

The next day she was up before dawn as usual and she did her exercises and ran for an hour before returning to the camp to prepare the horse for the day. She saddled him and fed him, all the while talking to him in the same low tones. She led him out of the pen and walked through the woods with him, throwing her arm over his neck as far as she could while they walked. Finally she came back and left him saddled in the pen while she waited for the others to arrive. About a half-hour later she heard them coming through the woods and she walked out to greet them. Annika and Kate were riding sidesaddle as always and as always B’Elanna felt her breath catch and her heart beat faster at the sight of Lady Hansart. She chatted with Annika as they walked back to camp. Not wishing to waste any daylight she had Tom and Harry ready the ropes immediately. She entered the pen and tied the two long ropes one on either side of the halter, looping the excess rope over the saddle before she led the animal out of the pen and urged the group to follow her as she walked with the horse toward the river.

She had chosen a spot where the river was relatively deep, up to the chest of the horse. She sent Tom with one end of the rope to the other side of the river and handed the other end to Harry. She instructed them not to pull on the rope or attempt to interfere with the animal’s movements in any way unless it was to stop the beast from escaping or harming itself. It took almost a half-hour to coax the horse into the river, but finally it was standing calmly in the water with B’Elanna beside it. She ran her hands over the animal and talked to it, feeding it several handfuls of grain before she returned to its side and put her foot into the stirrup. In one fluid motion she swung herself into the saddle. There was a moment of complete stillness while the fact that someone was on its back registered in the animal’s brain, and then it exploded into action. It tried to buck and twist as all horses do, but the water slowed its motion down, tiring the horse quickly. B’Elanna took a few moments to feel safe on the animal’s bucking back and then she started again with her stream of steady and comforting talk, sparing one hand to stroke the animal’s neck and using the other to hold herself firmly in place. In about ten minutes the beast calmed down enough to stand still with B’Elanna still astride. She didn’t moved for several minutes, but simply kept talking; then, telling Harry and Tom to follow, she lightly touched her heels to the animal’s sides and urged it forward. This brought on another minor fit of bucking and pitching, but it calmed down quickly and moved forward through the water.

Nobody could believe that she had done it. Annika had never taken her eyes of Beyla the entire time. This was a man like none she had ever dreamed of, his gentleness and strength making a stunning combination. She knew that no one would ever own her heart and soul the way Beyla did. Truly he was magnificent astride the huge animal as they moved as one through the water.

Finally when they had gone as far as they could she called to Tom to ride back over the river and she urged the horse out of the water and onto dry land. The horse shook itself furiously when it cleared the river, but otherwise remained calm as Harry and Tom led it alongside the river and back in the direction of their camp. B’Elanna draped herself over the horse’s neck, talking and cooing to the beast as they went, and when they rode into the pen she leapt down and made sure the animal had more than its fair share of sugar and grain as a reward. There was still much to be done, but the worst was over with, the animal had accepted her as a rider. Over the course of the next few days she taught the animal to obey her commands; several times she was thrown to the ground, but overall her plan had been a huge success, and the beast was as devoted to her as she was becoming to it.

Chapter 9

The next few weeks were a blur for B’Elanna as she continued her training for the joust, now using her new mount. Her armour was ready--complete with a reinforced pauldron on the shoulder to her protect her from the lances of her competition and a small cradle mounted on the left elbow to steady the lance as she charged. She spent several days convincing her new horse to accept the armour he needed to wear to protect his face and chest from errant lances. In particular she worked for hours at a time coaxing him to accept the chamfron over his face without becoming agitated. When she practiced with him now, she had Harry try to distract the beast while she charged by leaping out, shouting, or waving a white cloth in the air until she was certain the animal would not react badly in the lists and throw her before the competition even began. She also rode into town several times to ensure that the noises and smells of crowds would not adversely affect his concentration. Wherever she went with the animal heads would turn to admire the handsome knight on his powerful mount. The young maidens were already whispering his name about town and he had yet to even compete. B’Elanna was well aware of the effect she had on the young women in London, but, although it was flattering, her only thoughts were of Lady Hansart.

An offhanded comment by Annika had prompted B’Elanna to name her new horse Goliath, and indeed she appeared as a diminutive David when she stood beside him, however the bond between them meant that the difference in size was unimportant; he obeyed her slightest command without hesitation. Indeed, for B’Elanna, the name held a deeper meaning as her quest for glory and riches often led her to feel that she was fighting a much stronger enemy than simply the knights she fought in the lists. Her battle had become had become a larger one somewhere along the way. She was fighting against a world in which she would never belong. She was a woman in a man’s world, a peasant in a noble’s world and she knew it was the fight of her life. If she were ever to be happy in this world it was a fight she could not afford to lose.

With only a few days left until they needed to leave for the first tournament of the season B’Elanna was practicing furiously. Her skills were finely honed and she almost never missed her target. Goliath’s smooth stride made settling the lance into the cradle on her elbow much easier than it had been on the other horse. She was nervous, as she had never been struck with any great force, although Harry and Tom had done their best with practice lances. She knew that only the first hit she took in competition would tell her whether or not she would be able to withstand such punishment. As frightened as she was however she was also looking forward to her first joust. She knew that Annika’s family would be there and she hoped that if she were to become tournament champion that Lady Hansart’s father might begin to accept her as a suitable mate for his daughter. What Annika might think when she found out the truth about Beyla was something B’Elanna put resolutely out of her mind and refused to think about.

The night before they were to leave for the first tournament of the season B’Elanna and Harry lay in front of the fire finishing their dinner and talking. They were all packed even down to the tent, so they would sleep in the open tonight just as they had when their adventure started.

“Are you nervous,” Harry asked B’Elanna.

“Most assuredly. I can’t even begin to conceive of what it will be like to joust against a real knight, and to take my first hit. What if I’m unhorsed by the first lance I take and I lose Goliath?”

“Maybe you should use one of the other horses until you are more certain of your skills.”

“No! If I don’t believe in myself absolutely I will never succeed. I will ride Goliath and trust that I will prevail.”

“Perhaps it is unwise to tempt fate,” Harry said, worried about the possibility of B’Elanna losing the horse she had worked so hard to train.

“Fate would be unwise to tempt me,” B’Elanna replied with a grin forcing herself to feel more confident than she was.

“We should get some sleep B’Elanna, we have a long journey tomorrow, and little time to rest before the tournament begins.”

“I suppose so,” B’Elanna replied. She rolled over onto her back and pulled her blanket up over herself. She lay staring at the stars and dreaming of victory in the lists until she fell asleep.

The next day was a long and dusty journey for them and it was after dark when they approached the tournament grounds. They pitched their tent and stabled their horses before taking a walk around the grounds to find some food. They ran into many people that they recognized from other tournaments and soon they were drinking ale and feasting with about twenty knights who were all eager for the competition to begin. B’Elanna felt completely at home in this company and gave as good as she got when it came to the rough teasing the warriors visited upon one another. Finally the party broke up and B’Elanna and Harry returned to their tent for the night. B’Elanna fell asleep with a smile on her face feeling once again as though she were in her element now that she was back on tournament grounds.

In the morning they registered and B’Elanna fought several sword fights which she won handily. She was gratified to see that Annika, Tom and Kate were among the spectators, as she hadn’t seen them up until this point. She could make out Tom’s voice over the din as he cheered her on to victory. When she exited the sword lists she removed her helmet and was happy to receive a kiss on the cheek from Annika in honour of her victory. They spent the afternoon watching some of the other competitions, careful to remain out of sight of Annika’s parents. Finally it was time for Beyla to change into his armour for the joust and Annika and the others left to find a place in the stands from which to watch. Annika had meant to give Beyla a scarf to wear on his sleeve as a token of her favour for him as a knight, but in the Lord’s haste to go and get ready she had not had the chance. She felt a bit saddened that Beyla would not be jousting in her name, but promised herself that she would rectify that fault at the next match.

B’Elanna and Harry walked toward the arena, Harry was carrying the lance and B’Elanna was leading Goliath, who was dancing nervously at the unfamiliar sights and sounds. He was sensing B’Elanna’s nervousness and appeared to be feeding off of it as well. Her heart was pounding with both fear and anticipation as she peered at the crowds gathered to witness her match. She could see Annika sitting with her family near the royal box and was gratified to see that they were sitting alone, at least for now they did not appear to have found a suitor for Annika’s hand.

The trumpeters sounded a flourish to notify the crowd that the heralds were about to announce the combatants and Goliath nearly bolted at the sound. B’Elanna worked furiously to calm him down and eventually she managed to mount up and take the lance from Harry’s hand. Goliath nearly threw her several times as he reared up, dancing on his hind feet, until she soothed him sufficiently to line up for the signal to charge. When the signal came she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks and they were off, she felt his powerful muscles bunch beneath her and she fought for control with one hand while attempting to get the lance into the cradle on her elbow with the other. She was so focused on her tasks that she barely looked up in time to see the oncoming horse and rider before they were upon her. She managed to get the lance into the cradle, but the position of her arm was all wrong as she was too busy trying to control her horse to aim properly. Her lance missed her opponent completely at the same moment that the other knight’s lance crashed into her chest with the force of thousand hammers. She felt the breath forced out of her in a gush and it seemed as if she would never again be able to fill her lungs. A bright light seemed to explode behind her eyes and for a moment she could not see. The roar of the crowd mingled with the roar of her blood and filled her ears; she only managed to stay in her saddle by luck.

Goliath returned to the other side of the ring and Harry took his bridle, holding the horse still and desperately trying to see if B’Elanna was still conscious or not. Eventually she opened the visor on her helmet and managed a small smile in response to Harry’s panicked questioning.

“I’m fine, really, it just knocked the wind out me…I wasn’t ready for the hit. I can’t control Goliath and aim at the same time…it’s too much.” She continued to pant for breath as Harry handed her a water skin and she drank deeply, pouring some of it over her face as well.

The herald was announcing the commencement of the second run and B’Elanna once again lined up for the charge. This time she kept her head up and tried to get the lance into the cradle without looking down. Once again her aim was wide and the opposing knight broke his lance on her shoulder without her scoring a blow. The impact wasn’t as great this time and she was more prepared, so the blow glanced off her shoulder and she had no trouble saying in her seat… but the humiliation of her failure was a worse blow to her than any lance could ever have been.

She lost that match and her next one without ever scoring a hit, and so she was out of the jousting competition straight away. She still had the sword fights to prepare for so she gave Goliath to Harry to take to the stable while she went to her tent to change her armour for the sword fights. She managed to win all of her matches in the sword ring but that was of little consolation to her; the joust was what mattered and she had no idea how to correct her problems.

After the presentation of awards, B’Elanna was leaving the arena when she was approached by a much older man with a graying beard and a bald head. He spoke with a northern accent and introduced himself as Ulrich.

“I watched you joust yesterday,” he said with a smile.

“Oh, is that what you call it?” She smiled bitterly.

“I can help you Lord Beyla, if you’d like.”

“Why would you help me.”

“Let’s just say you remind me of someone I once knew and leave it at that shall we. Do you want my help or not?”

It was on the tip of her tongue to reject his offer, but there was something about the man that made her trust him and so she merely nodded her acceptance. He told her to get dressed, saddle her horse and meet him in a field outside of the tournament grounds where the knights sometimes practiced together before the tournament. She went to the stables and told Harry of her plans and that she would not be attending the banquet tonight…for once he didn’t argue with her as he could see her mind was made up. He merely wished her luck and went off in search of food after helping her secure her armour.

She walked with Goliath over to the practice grounds and found that Ulrich was already there and ready to work. He wasted no time in beginning his critique of Beyla’s jousting abilities.

“To begin with you worry too much about the way you are supposed to joust and not enough about what you are actually doing while you are in the lists. Forget technique for now, you need to keep your head up, and don’t try to rest the lance in the cradle, it is an affectation for nobles too weak to hold their lance in one hand, trust your arm and your strength. Watch the lance all the way into the target.” He said while pulling her arm up and showing her how to hold the lance single-handed.

“You’ve trained your animal well and it knows its task. Let the horse do its job; guide him with your knees and the weight of your body…you should only use the reins if he is out of control…you taught him to trust you, now it is time for you to trust him. Once he is in motion concentrate only on the aiming of your lance.”

B’Elanna’s head was swimming with the wealth of information Ulrich had imparted in such a short time, but she tried to file it all away nonetheless. The older knight was already climbing onto his horse and heading to the far end of the practice ground, so B’Elanna mounted and quickly readied herself for the task.

She missed completely again with the first lance, and, although Ulrich was carrying a lance of his own, he made no attempt to strike her with it, content to merely pass by close to her.

He rode up to her shaking his head.

“You are still thinking too much my lord. This time simply loop the reins over the pommel and guide the horse with your body. I will not strike you…I believe you’ve had enough of that for today,” he said with a grin.

B’Elanna who felt as if her body was one giant bruise merely smiled at this comment.

“All you need to do is concentrate on hitting me with your lance, nothing else matters,” he counseled before galloping back to the other side of the field.

It was several more passes before B’Elanna finally struck Ulrich in the chest with her lance. She whooped her triumph and was gratified to hear Ulrich do the same. They practiced for hours until B’Elanna’s arm was shaking with the strain of holding the lance. Finally they did two more passes and this time Ulrich told B’Elanna he was going to strike her. To her delight she took the hits and still managed to guide the tip of her lance unerringly into the pauldron on Ulrich’s shoulder. The older knight seemed as happy with B’Elanna’s success as she was herself and as they rode off to the stables he invited her to come to his tent and share a meal. They spent the evening telling tales of glory and honour until Ulrich’s beautiful wife came and hinted that it was time for the older gentleman to be getting to bed.

B’Elanna returned to her tent and found Harry waiting for her. He helped her remove the bindings from her chest and rubbed the lineament they used for her aching muscles into her back and shoulders. While he was working over her body he informed her that Annika had inquired as to where he was and why he did not attend the banquet. Harry assured her that he had smoothed things over with the Lady and that she had informed him that they would be leaving for the tournament in Sussex the next day. B’Elanna was happy to hear that Annika and her family were intending to attend that tournament as well as it would give her a chance to speak to her Lady once more.

The next day B’Elanna was more stiff and sore than she had ever been in her life, but as they worked at tearing down their camp she gradually loosened up enough to be able to work without pain. Still it was a relief to be on the road again, and to be able to rest in the saddle of her horse.

Several days later they arrived in Sussex and set up their camp within the confines of the tournament grounds. B’Elanna was anxious to try her new skills in the ring and she was fairly buzzing with excitement as she went about her preparations.

Annika, on the other hand, was feeling a great deal of anxiety. She accepted Harry’s explanation as to why Beyla had failed to attend the banquet at the last tournament, but she couldn’t help but feel that perhaps the young Lord was losing interest in her. She had seen the flocks of young women who vied for his attention before his battles, and although he had never accepted a token from one of them since she had known him, she was worried that he might soon decide to do so. She knew that many of the young women sought out the beds of the triumphant knights after a battle and she was worried that Beyla might one day accept such an offer as she had allowed no more than a chaste kiss on the hand from the handsome young knight. She did not wish to lose the young Lord but was unsure of what to do to keep his interest in her. She knew that she loved him, and although the church had no official policy on marriage and sex as yet, she knew her father would be furious if he found out. Part of what he was offering along with money for her dowry was her purity…this seemed to matter to the ancient men he was talking to, as their desire to keep their bloodlines pure was great.

She had no one but Kate to talk to about this and so she approached her handmaiden on the day before the tournament was to begin. When she explained her predicament to Kate the older woman smiled indulgently. Frankly she was surprised that the young couple had waited this long to consummate their relationship. She knew the rules were different somewhat for the upper classes than for the lower, but she also knew that very few woman of any class in this day and age went to their marriage beds chaste. She knew of several tricks Annika could use to fool her husband into believe she was a virgin on their wedding night, and she shared them with the young woman now. She advised Lady Hansart to think deeply about what she was contemplating doing, but said that in the end if she wanted to hold the young Lord’s attention, a visit to his tent after the banquet was an age-old method of doing so. Annika was a little shocked at Kate’s words; her sheltered upbringing had kept such things from her. She had, however, overheard the whispered conversations of many of the Ladies, single and married, in the viewing stands and knew that the practice of bedding a favoured knight after a day of fighting was not entirely uncommon even among the upper classes.

Annika was determined to speak to Beyla before he entered the lists to joust for the first time in this tournament. She had tucked a scented scarf in her bosom and she wished for Beyla to wear it on his sleeve as a token of her affection for him.

She had never sought out a knight in the marshalling area before and she was frankly nervous about braving the crowds, but her desire to speak to Beyla was greater than her fear. She didn’t trust Tom not to reveal her secret to her father, so it was only herself and Kate who made their way through the press of bodies toward Beyla and Harry.

Having spotted her friends, Annika found herself overcome with shyness. She simply stood and watched as the two men worked at preparing Goliath for the joust. They were just finishing placing the barding over his neck when Beyla looked up and noticed Annika standing nearby. Annika’s heart leapt when she saw the smile that spread over Beyla’s face. In two quick steps Beyla was at her side, taking her hand and pulling her closer. As happy as they were neither of them could speak for a moment and finally it was Annika who broke the silence.

“Lord Beyla, I have come to wish you well in the tournament.”

B’Elanna smiled at Annika’s obvious nervousness.

“I find I have missed you as well Lady Hansart,” she replied bringing Annika’s hand to her lips for a lingering kiss.

“I…I have felt your absence quite keenly my Lord,” Annika felt silly being so formal with a man she harboured such intimate thoughts about, but her upbringing was difficult to overcome. She paused for a moment before speaking again.

“I wish to give you something Beyla.”

B’Elanna looked expectantly at Annika until the woman, blushing furiously, drew Beyla over to stand next to Goliath in such a way as to shield them from prying eyes. Looking deeply into Beyla’s dark brown eyes for a moment she slowly unbuttoned the top of her bodice and drew out the scarf.

“I thought perhaps you might wear this in my honour today.”

B’Elanna was unable to breathe, let alone speak, but she managed to nod her acceptance as Annika tied the scarf around her arm.

“I, uh, thank you.” Beyla stammered.

“Beyla, they are calling the bans for the joust, you need to finish getting ready,” said Harry, poking his head under Goliath’s neck to find his friend.

“Yes, I’ll, uh, I’ll be right there.”

Annika smiled at Beyla’s befuddled expression and slowly rebuttoned her bodice before kissing Beyla’s cheek and whispering in his ear.

“Good luck my Lord,”

B’Elanna could only stare at Annika’s retreating figure until Harry grabbed her arm and urged her back to the task at hand.

Finally she was ready and standing in the lists. The crowd was huge, but as ever she could pick out Annika’s white blonde hair easily in the crowd. Her hand went unconsciously to the scarf tied around her arm. She knew that many women gave such favours to a different knight daily, but her instincts told her Annika would not do such a thing lightly. This was a declaration, B’Elanna was certain of it. Unbidden her mind wandered back to the image of Annika unbuttoning her bodice. Her heart constricted and her stomach felt as if it had fallen to her feet. She had never experienced such intense emotions before…just thinking about the beautiful young woman left her breathless.

“Beyla, if you don’t get your head into this fight you are going to lose it,” Harry chided as he placed her helmet over her head and began to fasten it tightly.

“You’re right, I’m here…I’m ready.”

Beyla vaulted into the saddle and grabbed her lance. Goliath danced to the starting point and B’Elanna prepared for her charge. She snapped the visor of her helmet into place and when the signal came she dug her heels into Goliath’s flanks and they surged forward. Remembering Ulrich’s advice she let Goliath have his head and leaned toward the centre rail as she lowered the lance, steadying it with her right arm only, never taking her eyes off the target.

Goliath followed her motion perfectly, tracking closely along the centre rail. B’Elanna focussed only on the chest of her opponent, not his lance, and as they closed with one another she leaned forward and thrust her lance forward with a snarl, feeling a surge of triumph as she felt it shatter against the other knight’s shoulder. The force of her blow knocked her opponent off balance and his lance missed her entirely. For the first time she led a jousting match!

She raised her shattered lance in triumph as she rode back to Harry, tossing it aside and grasping her new one, now totally focussed on the joust.

She won all of her events that day and was enthusiastically looking forward to seeing Annika that night to talk over the events of both the morning and the afternoon.

However, it was not to be. As luck would have it Annika’s father had found a prospective suitor for her that morning and insisted that Annika have dinner with the family and the nobleman he was considering for her marriage. Annika was in agony as her father and the older gentleman droned on about land and business throughout dinner and long into the night. She only managed to get a moment alone with Kate to ask her to send a message to Beyla telling him only that she would see him tomorrow at the banquet and that she was happy for his success today. It was cold comfort indeed as she pictured her knight celebrating his victory without her.

B’Elanna was disappointed when Kate delivered her message, but her mood was so good that she simply assumed that Annika’s parents were about and that she couldn’t slip away. She quickly forgot her disappointment as she and Harry went to a local tavern for their meal and got caught up in a group of competitors who spent the night drinking and swapping tales with them.

The next day B’Elanna won several more jousts before being retired, but she was happy with her performance. Each time she tilted she felt a little stronger and a little more confident. She was certain that before long she would be tournament champion. She performed as always in the sword matches and handily beat all comers both on foot and on horse. She was certain she had the love of Lady Hansart and her pockets were growing heavy with her winnings. Life could not have been better for her.

She took special care with her dress that night, causing Harry to shake his head at her unusually fastidious attention to detail, and then she left for the banquet.

To Annika’s great relief neither her parents nor her prospective suitor were attending the banquet that night and she was allowed to attend with only Kate for company. She was gratified to see that Lord Beyla continued to wear her token on his sleeve as he entered the hall. She made her way to his side and they spent the evening dancing and talking together until the banquet ended.

Not wishing for Kate to know of her plans Annika said goodnight to Beyla and went home with her handmaiden. She said goodnight to her parents before pretending to retire for the night. In reality she waited only as long as she felt was necessary to ensure the household was asleep before she placed a veil over her head and slipped out into the night.

B’Elanna had had a bit to drink that night, and she was feeling an overwhelming sense of happiness as she wandered through the tents on her way back to their camp. The dance music from the banquet was still echoing in her head and she hummed softly, dancing a few steps as she wove her way home. When she reached the tent she was surprised to find that Harry was not there. She was unable to remove the bindings from her chest without his help so she poured herself a cup of water and wandered around her section of the tent looking at the prizes she had won and the things she had accumulated since she had become Lord Beyla. It was amazing to her how much had changed in such a short period of time. She undid the scarf from around her arm and buried her nose in it, closing her eyes and drinking in the sweet scent of Lady Hansart.

So preoccupied was she with her contemplations that she didn’t even notice the curtains to her room parting and the Lady herself enter her quarters. It was only when Annika made a small sound that Beyla started and turned to see Lady Hansart removing a veil from her beautiful face.

“Lady Hansart… Annika, what are you doing here?” B’Elanna’s heart was pounding both with fear and with excitement at the sight of her love.

“Kate tells me that when you wish a man to know how you feel about him words are often insufficient but actions may suffice. I…I wish for you to know how I feel about you.” She blurted the words out quickly afraid if she did not she would never have the courage to speak them.

“Kate told you this?” B’Elanna asked as she found Annika somehow in her arms.

“Yes,” was all Annika said as she raised her lips to Beyla’s cheek.

B’Elanna felt soft lips brush her cheek and then seek out her mouth in a gentle kiss. Her heart was pounding as she pulled Annika closer and returned the kiss with increasing pressure. They stood thus for several moments until Beyla came to her senses and moved Annika gently away.

“We cannot….”

“You do not desire me.” It was a flat and inflectionless statement and Annika’s liquid blue eyes were filled with pain as she said it.

“I assure you I do, but your honour my Lady. I hold it in the highest regard.”

“Honour means nothing without love. I value not my honour if I have not your heart Beyla,” said Annika as she once again pressed her lips to B’Elanna’s.

B’Elanna could feel the blood roaring in her veins, drowning out all thought and reason. She returned Annika’s kiss, gasping as she felt the younger woman’s hands moving over her shoulders and pulling her close. She allowed herself to deepen the kiss, gently begging entrance to Annika’s mouth with her tongue. A request that was eagerly granted. Feeling weak in the knees, B’Elanna moved them to the bed, where they sank down together, drowning in one another’s embrace.

Annika, emboldened by her success thus far, was also feeling the effects of their passionate kisses. She longed to explore Beyla’s body with her hands and to touch his skin as she could feel his finely muscled body moving beside hers. Beyla’s hand was tracing along her side, brushing the gentle swell of her breast. This elicited a gasp of pleasure, and B’Elanna began to trace the contours of Annika’s neck with her lips, as she began to undo the fastenings of Annika’s dress to allow her access to silky white skin.

Annika reached out and allowed her hand to feel the muscles flexing in Beyla’s leg, her head swimming with desire she moved her hand up his leg slowly until she reached….

B’Elanna was so engrossed in Annika’s body that she failed to notice what the younger woman was doing with her hands until it was too late. She felt Annika press against the juncture of her legs and although the feeling caused her to groan with desire the rational part of her mind knew that this was serious trouble.

Annika sprang back in horror at her discovery, stumbling in her haste to get away from Beyla. Her mind was refusing to accept what she now knew to be true.

“You… you are a woman…. But, this cannot be. How…how could you do this to me? Every word from your mouth has been a lie,” she cried wiping furiously at her lips with her hand, as if she would erase every trace of Beyla from mouth.

“No,” B’Elanna cried in an agony of fear, “I never lied to you Annika, I love you, I swear it.”

“Do not speak to me of love…you cannot possibly have any conception of the word.”

“I do love you Annika and you love me also…. I know you do or you wouldn’t have come here tonight.”

“This cannot be love; it is an aberration. It is wrong.”

“How can our loving each other be wrong and your father’s attempts to sell you to the highest bidder with the proper last name be right. Tell me Annika, is that your idea of love?” B’Elanna’s heart was in her throat as she desperately sought the words to explain the inexplicable. She knew what she wanted and she tried desperately one more time to convince Annika.

“Break with them and come with me…”

“I cannot abandon my family.”

“But they can abandon you to the servitude of a loveless marriage! They don’t love you Annika or they wouldn’t be doing this to you. You were strong enough to come here, be strong enough to take the next step. We can have a life together you and I…I know we can. Have a little faith in me…in us. I beg you!”

“You’ve broken faith with God himself, how then can you ask such a thing of me?” Spat Annika, turning to leave. B’Elanna hurried after her.

“Wait, I beg you!”

Annika stopped, but did not turn around. The set of her shoulders told B’Elanna that further protests would be futile. Accepting this she asked quietly.

“Will you tell them about me?”

“No Beyla, I will keep your secret and you will stay away from me and my family.” Her voice was low and broken and she again moved off into the night.

B’Elanna made as if to follow once more but Harry, who had arrived back at the tent in time to hear the last part of their argument, grabbed her arm and stopped her.

“Let her go B’Elanna, you will only do more damage if you pursue her.” Harry was terrified at the thought that Annika now knew about B’Elanna’s secret. He thought for a moment before speaking. “Perhaps we should leave this place. We could go back to France and live there. It is not safe for you here now that your secret is out.”

“She will keep her secret, she gave her word.”

“If she does not the crows will pick your body clean as you hang from the gibbet.”

“She loves me Harry, I know it; she will not allow harm to come to me.”

“If you are wrong you will pay with your life.”

“I know her Harry, she will keep her word.” B’Elanna sank to her knees and for the first time in her life felt completely defeated.

Chapter 10

Annika had no idea how she got home that night…she managed to walk upright and with purpose until she was out of sight of Beyla and Harry, only then did she allow her knees to buckle, grasping a torch pole to remain on her feet. Anger quickly turned to sorrow as tears streamed down her face. She pulled the leather thong from around her neck and made as if to cast Beyla’s ring into the night, but instead she closed her fist around it, holding on so tightly the gemstones drew blood from her palm. She finally understood the term broken heart; it felt as if her heart was shattered into a thousand pieces. Silent sobs wracked her body and she stumbled blindly into the night. Somehow she managed to find her way back to her parent’s lodging and she collapsed onto her bed, crying silently until her mind shut itself down and at last she slept.

Harry helped B’Elanna to her feet, her face was a study of pain and tears fell unnoticed down her cheeks. He took her inside their tent and sat her down on her bed. He gently removed the clothing and binding cloths from her unprotesting body. She seemed to be in a fugue state; as if her mind was incapable of taking in any more information and so had shut itself down. The only evidence of comprehension were the tears that continued to fall. Harry lay her gently back onto the bed and, not knowing what else to do to comfort her, simply lay fully clothed beside her and wrapped his arms around her.

In the morning B’Elanna woke up and dressed with Harry’s help; it broke his heart to see the dull emptiness of eyes once so fiery and bright. He did his best to be supportive and understanding at the same time as he urged her to get dressed and help him strike their camp. He was uncertain as to whether or not B’Elanna would have the strength of will necessary to enter the next tournament, and so he suggested that they skip the next few tournaments until she as feeling more up to battle. In truth he was worried that the Hansart family was going to be following the tournament circuit all season and that sooner or later B’Elanna or Annika would crack under the strain of such constant painful reminders and that B’Elanna’s secret would be revealed. But when he made the suggestion B’Elanna shook her head furiously and insisted that she was going to continue with her campaign to become tournament champion; no attempt on his part to dissuade her was successful. So it was that in a few hours they were packed and on the road to the next town.

Annika opened her eyes to the light that was streaming in through the window of her room. For one brief moment she forgot the events of the previous evening and she experienced a moment of happiness, until she glanced at the ring still clutched in her hand and her memories came crashing down around her. Her eyes filled yet once more with tears but still she could not bring herself to cast away the ring and almost reluctantly she placed it back around her neck. Its familiar weight between her breasts was of no comfort, but she could not bear to part with it as yet.

She felt a flash of anger at Lord Beyla for toying with her emotions so callously. Certainly he had never loved her…but he was not a man, even now Annika could hardly believe it. She had been completely taken in. It was not possible for a woman to love another woman in that way…and yet she had fallen in love with Beyla…but she hadn’t known he was a woman when she fell in love. Her mind was in a turmoil of emotion and confusion. She loved Beyla, and yet she couldn’t possibly, he didn’t even exist. How could she have imagined his feelings for her were genuine…and yet she had heard the anguish in his, no her, voice when she was pleading for her to stay, surely that could not have been an act…whoever the woman pretending to be Beyla was she genuinely felt love for Annika…but it was wrong, against God, and Annika would have no part of it. Her resolve was firm now…she would become the dutiful daughter her parents deserved and marry the man they found for her. Whether or not she loved Beyla and was loved in return by her was of no consequence and didn’t bear further thought. If her father decided that Charles Kotay was the proper husband for her then she would smile and marry him, despite how her heart was breaking at the thought. That decided she began to clean herself up to face the day.

Harry and B’Elanna rode without talking for most of the day. B’Elanna was slumped in the saddle and showed no interest in her surroundings or where they were going. It was up to Harry to lead the way, and he knew if he didn’t stop and eat that B’Elanna would simply ride mindlessly onward until she fell off her horse in sleep. He took care of her, ensuring that she drank water and ate the food he prepared for her, and he worried that her heart would never recover from losing Annika. He knew that she loved the young woman deeply and that she had always been convinced that they would find a way to begin together despite the reality of their situation. Harry’s heart ached for his friend as he watched her ride along lost in the mists of her thoughts.

Annika’s father had arranged for the family to take their evening meal with Charles Kotay and Annika was dreading another dinner of boring talk about land and the benefits of the feudal system in England. Lord Kotay was older than she was, although not nearly as old as some of the men her father had met with regarding her marriage. He was handsome in a rugged way, his looks only marred by a fan shaped scar over his left eye, received when he was splashed with burning oil at the siege of Harfleur while he was fighting with King Henry in France. He had been rewarded for his service to the King with large land holdings in the north of England and it was this land, and his connection to the king that made him such an attractive prospect to her father. His land notwithstanding, he was cash poor and it was this fact that made her father’s proposal that they marry so attractive to Kotay.

Dinner was as tedious as Annika had expected it might be, her father and Kotay talked at length about land, money and other issues that held little interest for Annika. Although Lord Hansart was feeling that Lord Kotay might be a good choice for his daughter he felt it was a little early in the game to limit his choices and so he refrained from making any promises to the gentleman, content for now to feel him out on the subject of money, land and marriage. Kotay took little notice of Annika other than to make a polite greeting when he arrived at the inn. Annika wondered if it were possible that she would ever be able to talk to Kotay the way she had with Beyla. Judging by his lack of interest in her she rather doubted it. She shook her head and forced herself to not think about Beyla. That was a chapter of her life that was closed and it would do her no good to dwell on it. As far as she was concerned Beyla, whoever she was, was dead to her.

The evening ended at last and Kotay placed a perfunctory kiss on her hand as he took his leave. He was going to the next tournament as well and although her father made no firm plans to spend time with him he definitely implied it might be to their mutual benefit to continue their discussions further. Kotay agreed and then he was gone. Annika’s father seemed happy with the way things were going and so he was in an uncommonly jovial mood. He didn’t seem to notice that Annika was pale and drawn, or that she had hardly touched her meal. He kissed her on the forehead as he made his way up to his room and told her they would be leaving early in the morning. Annika returned to her room only to be confronted by Kate who wished to know what the matter was with her tonight. Annika could not bear to tell her handmaiden the truth about her humiliation at the hands of Lord Beyla so she made up a small lie about not feeling well and retired for the night. Once again thoughts of Beyla, his face and his laugh, the way he listened so intently to every word she spoke returned to taunt her. Firmly she reminded herself that it had all been a lie, that he was a she; Annika turned her face to the pillow as bitter tears flowed once more.

B’Elanna was faring little better. She had not cried since the first night, but the spark that had made her so compelling, such a force of nature, was gone. She plodded through the day and night without speaking, her world was completely bleak now. She had found the perfect love and it was to be denied her because she was a woman. Such considerations seemed trivial to her when she thought about how powerful her attraction to Annika was. Surely the girl wasn’t immune; she must still feel this love and be suffering as well. B’Elanna knew that they would see one another soon and her soul cried out at the thought of seeing her love but being unable to talk to her or touch her. She briefly contemplated following Harry’s advice and leaving for France, but she squared her shoulders and resolved to carry on with her quest. If she could not have Annika she would become the greatest fighter England had ever seen. Perhaps the pain of her broken heart would be eased through her physical exertions. She could only hope so. When she dressed for her first fight of the tournament B’Elanna hesitated, holding the scarf Annika had given her in her hand. She knew she couldn’t wear it openly, but found herself unable to put it aside, finally she settled for tucking it inside of her shirt, next to her heart, before she put on her armour. She wasn’t sure if its presence made her feel better or worse, but it somehow seemed essential so she accepted it. Harry was worried about her ability to keep her mind on the fight; worried she might be hurt. A small part of him however thought perhaps if she were retired early some time away from the tournament and the sight of Lady Hansart might do her some good. He was surprised then by the fury B’Elanna displayed in the sword ring during her first match. It was the shortest fight he could remember seeing so far. B’Elanna showed none of her usual grace and finesse with the blade, rather she wielded it like a hammer and beat her opponent into submission. It was the same with every contest. Her style was gone, replaced with an implacable fury that seemed frightening and unstoppable. As she stood just inside the arena waiting for her first jousting match she couldn’t stop herself from glancing up into the stands to see if Annika was there. She spotted her right away, sitting with her entire family. Her father appeared deep in conversation with a knight that B’Elanna had noticed at several other tournaments, Kotay she believed his name was. She felt a chill steal over her heart as she pondered what his presence might possibly mean. So distracted was she by her thoughts that she charged into the first tilt without remembering to put the visor of her helmet down. It was only a second before contact that she realized her error and used her left hand to snap the visor into place. She still managed to break her lance on the other knight’s chest, although she was so unbalanced that she was nearly borne to the ground by the force of his strike. She returned to Harry and received her next lance without raising the visor or speaking, and this time she charged faster than she ever had before; thrusting the lance into her opponent’s body with all of her strength she unhorsed him with the power of her blow ending the match.

The rest of the tournament was the same as the first day and B’Elanna won every event she entered. She was tournament champion for the very first time and yet she found it meant little to her. In fact she felt completely dead inside and barely acknowledged the congratulations of her fellow knights as she left the arena with her trophies. She returned to her tent to find Harry making preparations to leave that night for the next tournament.

“What are you doing?” She asked seeing Harry dismantling the tent.

“I thought perhaps you would wish to get a head start on the road to Hastings.”

“Well you thought wrong. I’ll be attending the banquet as usual.”

“B’Elanna do you really think that is wise. You will only end up being hurt. I heard from Tom that Charles Kotay has entered into talks with Lord Hansart for Annika’s hand. They will be attending the banquet together tonight…you really don’t want to see that do you. Let us skip the banquet and go to the tavern with some of the others if you don’t wish to depart this evening…we’ll drink too much and forget this mess with the Hansart’s.”

“I know what you’re trying to do Harry and I appreciate it, but I’m going to the banquet so you might as well save your breath.”

Harry knew when he was beaten so he stopped his work and went to help B’Elanna prepare for the evening. Shaking his head as he watched her walk away into the night he sat down to wait for her return.

The gossip channels on the tournament circuit were well informed and they were swift. By the time B’Elanna reached the banquet hall everyone there knew that Lady Hansart was as good as engaged to Charles Kotay. This explained the behaviour of Lord Beyla during the tournament, and it also meant that for once his attentions would not be exclusively on Lady Hansart during the banquet. So it was that more than the usual number of young ladies were on hand to greet Beyla at the door to the hall. B’Elanna paid little attention to the flock of woman who surrounded her and her eyes immediately sought out Annika who was standing next to Kotay while he talked with several of the other competitors. Annika looked bored to tears as she stood there pale and drawn. She seemed to sense Beyla’s scrutiny and their eyes met as she turned to watch his progress through the hall. She blushed at his gaze and turned her eyes to the ground. B’Elanna allowed herself to be led to the other side of the hall where she positioned herself to be able to keep an eye on Annika. The crowd of young women was not daunted by the knight’s apparent disinterest in them and they continued to chatter and flirt with him. When the band finally began to play B’Elanna allowed herself to be led onto the floor by the first woman who suggested dancing. They lined up for the Pavan and the dancing began. It was not long before B’Elanna found herself taking Annika’s hand after a partner change. She felt Annika shiver as their hands met and they bowed to one another.

“Hello Lady Hansart,” B’Elanna said, keeping her eyes on Annika’s as she spoke.

“Please Lord Beyla, do not speak to me,” Annika pleaded afraid she might burst into tears.

“Annika, please give me a chance to explain why…”

“I am begging you Lord Beyla…if you ever truly cared for me you will leave me alone. I cannot bear this.”

B’Elanna saw the tears welling up in Annika’s eyes and so she turned her gaze away, falling silent until they changed partners again.

Annika had not thought it was possible to feel more pain than she had at the moment of her discovery of Beyla’s deception, but she had been terribly wrong. Just the sight of her when she came through the door and was surrounded by all of the young ladies of the court had been bad enough, but when she actually touched her hand and felt all of the passion she thought was gone come welling up inside of her she had thought she might die. She couldn’t stop herself from shivering at Beyla’s familiar touch, and when she heard his voice she thought she might lose her mind if she did not get away from her. She was gratified when Beyla obeyed her wishes and stopped trying to talk to her during the dance. She watched as she left the hall immediately after the dance ended and although she had thought she would be relieved she was shocked to feel a sense of loss when Beyla disappeared from her sight. She once again found herself standing beside Lord Kotay as he talked to the other knights about the relative merits of horses for the joust. Finally, unable to stand it any longer she begged his forgiveness and left the hall citing a terrible headache as her reason. He appeared unconcerned and merely wished her well and returned to his conversation.

B’Elanna didn’t know what to make of her interaction with Annika tonight. She had been expecting anger or disinterest, but not the pain she saw clearly displayed on the younger woman’s beautiful face. Annika was suffering as well, and this thought pained B’Elanna greatly. She had never wanted to hurt Lady Hansart. She could see no way out of this mess. If Annika couldn’t accept her as she was then they could never be together. Since Annika appeared to be going along with her father’s choice of husbands it would appear that there was little possibility of reconciliation between them, and yet B’Elanna couldn't bring herself to accept that decision. There had to be a way; if only she could talk to Annika she felt certain she could make the younger woman see that their love transcended such mundane boundaries as gender. If only she could make her see why she had chosen to live her life the way she had, make her see the logic in her reasoning, perhaps then she could convince her to break with her family and make a life with her. Her mind was spinning, vacillating wildly between hope and despair, pain and joy. As much as it hurt her to see Annika with someone else, it was preferable to the thought of never seeing her again, and so she returned to her tent to make ready for the next tournament on the circuit.

Chapter 11

The next few tournaments passed by in a blur of faces, matches and pain. B’Elanna saw Annika everywhere she looked and even danced with her on occasion despite her efforts to line up for the dance so that they would not intersect one another. She never again attempted to speak to the Lady, however, she did notice that whenever she looked over at her Annika always seemed to be starring back, although she never attempted to make further contact. B’Elanna noticed that Annika was almost constantly in the company of Charles Kotay and the rumour mill had it that the talks of marriage were almost concluded between Kotay and Lord Hansart. Kotay had ceased competing in the joust since the talks had begun and B’Elanna was disappointed that she did not have the opportunity to take his measure in the arena. She would dearly have loved to unhorse him in front of Lord and Lady Hansart, not to mention Annika.

B’Elanna was in the sword ring facing an opponent that she had met several times before. She was having no difficulty in scoring her points, and since her fury had faded somewhat over the course of the last few tournaments she was allowing the match to go longer than the few minutes it would really take her to defeat the fellow. The crowd appreciated her showmanship and so she allowed her competition time to make a show of it. She was distracted suddenly at the sight of a flash of white blonde hair near the side of the ring. Upon further inspection she saw that it was indeed Annika, alone and standing cheek by jowl with the crowd who came to watch the sword on foot contests. Losing her concentration she did not see the thrust coming until it was almost too late, she managed to get her sword up in time to deflect it somewhat, but unfortunately the blade slid along her armour and managed to pierce the leather articulation at her shoulder and the tip of the blade sunk into her skin. Twisting aside in pain the blade was pulled out, the tip of it covered in blood. B’Elanna felt the pain in her shoulder begin to pulse, but she managed to finish the fight despite it.

As she left the ring she saw Annika keeping pace with her and Harry, remaining slightly off to one side in an effort not be seen. She attempted to make her way over to her, but upon seeing her approach Annika veered off and disappeared into the crowd. When they got back to the tent Harry helped B’Elanna remove her armour and he inspected the wound. It did not appear to be all that deep, but it seemed like it might require the attention of the surgeon.

“B’Elanna you need to have the surgeon look at this and sew it back up.”

“I can’t Harry, you’re going to have to look after it yourself.”

“But why, you’ve had the surgeon before, why not now.”

“Look where the wound is Harry, I’d have to remove my tunic and shirt for him and that would be the end of me. Just wash it out and bind it up as best you can. I’ll be fine.”

“Perhaps if we went to another town you could see the surgeon as a woman….”

“And explain how a woman came to have a sword wound in her shoulder…. I think not Harry. Just do the best you can.”

Harry washed the wound as best he could and bound it tightly. They were short on time before the joust and so B’Elanna quickly dressed and hurried to the arena. She mounted up and grasped her lance and charged as always…when her opponent made contact with her shoulder she almost cried out in agony. She made it through to the end of the match, but when they removed her armour the blood was already soaking through her shirt, and so she had Harry go and inform the officials that she was withdrawing from the tournament. She returned to her tent and attempted to wash and bind the wound again before she lay down to sleep.

The next day her shoulder was worse…the throbbing was almost continuous and the wound felt hot to the touch. It was obvious that despite their efforts to keep the wound clean it had become infected. B’Elanna was frantic as she knew she needed to see a doctor but at the same time knew her life could be in greater danger if she did. The only bright spot to the day was Harry’s information that Annika had sent Tom around to inquire if Beyla was all right as she was terribly worried about him since she had heard he had withdrawn from the tournament. It was cold comfort however as B’Elanna was at a loss as to what to do about her injury.

Harry left her while she was sleeping and made his way through the tournament grounds…talking to various people he had met over the course of the tournaments. Finally his inquires were rewarded and he was sent to speak to an older local man who may know of a solution to his problem. The man gave Harry directions to an encampment outside of town where there may be someone who could help them without questions and Harry returned to the tent to rouse B’Elanna and pack up their belongings. B’Elanna was skeptical of his plan but having no other options agreed to go along with it for now. It was not long before they were packed up and on their way out of town, as they passed through arches leading away from the tournament grounds B’Elanna saw Annika standing by the side of the road. She raised a hand in greeting and received a quick nod in reply before Annika hurried away, back toward the arena. Well at least that was something, it appeared that Annika did in fact care whether she lived or died. That thought cheered B’Elanna somewhat as they wound their way out of town and toward the King’s forest.

They had to cast back and forth several times on the road before they found the faint track that led back into the forest. The going was rough and several times they were afraid they might have to abandon their wagon when the path disappeared into the thick underbrush. By dint of much effort they finally managed to win their way through and eventually they came to the encampment the local man had described. There were several hovels built from mud and sticks and a central area with a large fire pit that appeared to be a communal cooking and meeting area. Chickens, pigs and goats wandered freely around the small enclave and there were several healthy looking children laughing and playing in the clearing. They stopped just outside of the camp and tied up their animals, proceeding on foot toward the nearest hut. They were greeted by a huge bear of a man, who demanded to know who they were and what business they had here. Harry gave the name of the man who had sent them and made his humble request to meet with Mary, the woman who was recommended to him as a healer of some renown.

The man was clearly unhappy about having a nobleman in his encampment but Harry’s earnest entreaties eventually won him over and they were taken to meet the healer. Given the stories that B’Elanna and Harry had been told as a child about the pagan witches who lived in the forests they were expecting a wizened old crone with a humped back and warts on her nose. So it was that they were shocked to meet a beautiful woman only a few years older than themselves. She was soft-spoken and they immediately felt at ease with her. B’Elanna explained her injury to the woman who simply asked that she remove her tunic and shirt and sit in a chair by the fire. When B’Elanna was finished removing her clothes the woman raised an eyebrow at the sight of the bindings around B’Elanna’s chest but said nothing. She merely made and examination of the wound and then began to prepare her medications.

She first had B’Elanna drink a tea that had her feeling sleepy and relaxed. It dulled the sensation somewhat as the woman probed into the wound. B’Elanna gritted her teeth and bore the pain as the woman spread the edges of the wound wide and used a fine knife she had heated in the fire first to dig out a tiny splinter of metal that had been left in the wound. It must have shattered off the end of her opponent’s sword when she twisted away from the blow. Once the splinter was removed the woman bathed the wound in a foul smelling potion and then proceeded to sew it up with as much skill as any surgeon. She applied a healing poultice to B’Elanna’s shoulder and bandaged it loosely before immobilizing B’Elanna’s arm for the time being. In all of the time she was working she never spoke a word, and neither did B’Elanna.

When she was finished her work she helped B’Elanna to redress and took her arm, leading her outside into the clearing.

“Why do choose to live out here so far from everything,” B’Elanna inquired. “With your skills you could be a surgeon in any town.”

“We used to live in the city in harmony with the rest of the world. My mother was a village healer for years and her mother before her, but now as the hold of the church goes stronger we are driven into the woods, and are no longer welcome in the cities. The priests preach against us from their pulpits and condemn us as devil worshippers. It is no longer safe for us to practice openly, and so we hide here in the forest.”

“I hide as well, but in plain sight,” B’Elanna replied.

The young healer gave her a smile at that.

“It would seem we have much in common then.”

“I suppose so…neither of us would fare very well if our secrets were revealed to the wrong people.”

“Your secret is safe with me B’Elanna,” the healer replied.

The two of them continued walking and talking through the woods. Mary described their life and their beliefs and told her how the villagers still snuck into the woods to dance around the Beltanne fires and celebrate the solstice in the old way, but then returned to church to pray for their mortal souls on Sunday. B’Elanna was surprised to hear of such things, as she had never worshipped in a Cathedral. She was however intrigued by Mary’s description of her beliefs and they spent several hours discussing such issues until the sun was sinking in the west. Mary invited Harry and B’Elanna to spend the night with them and they happily agreed.

They slept under the stars near the village fire after sharing the evening meal with the inhabitants of the camp. After dinner they enjoyed the singing of several of the young men of the village before they retired for the night.

The next day Mary gave B’Elanna several vials of healing potions and instructed Harry on how to care for the wound. She also gave B’Elanna some herbs to brew in a tea and suggested she drink it once a day for at least a week. The last thing she did was to show Harry how to remove the stitches from B’Elanna’s shoulder after the proper time had passed. She gave them the names and locations of several other pagan enclaves in the areas they would be visiting in the future and assured them that if they needed help with anything they had only to ask. B’Elanna had enjoyed her time in the village and she found that she was saddened to depart the company of such compassionate and honest people. Still, she knew that they needed to keep moving in order to keep up with the tournament circuit, and she was anxious to see Annika again, if only from a distance.

Part 12

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