The Wynter Lioness - Part 8

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The Wynter Lioness
Part 8 (Chapter 7)

 

by Tychonaut

 
 
Prince Henry Wynter was the Heir to the High Throne of the Heptarchy and prophesised to one day lead his people to unparalleled greatness. Twenty two years after he abandoned his destiny and his throne for the chance to be the person he felt he was meant to be, he finds that Fate has not yet finished with him. The events surrounding the proposed appointment of a new Heir to the High Throne have consequences that reach as far the remote farmstead refuge of the former prince and threaten to destroy the new life that she has built for herself.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Golden Hall, The Wynter Palace, Isle of Avalon

The Coronation Anniversary Masked Ball, 15 May EY2446 (25 Years Ago)

The sky was so full of stars that Daniel thought if he had asked the Woden himself to show him all the stars in the heavens there would not be so many as were in the sky tonight. Intellectually, he knew that this was a once in twenty-five year occurrence when Fædera was in a new moon phase and Módrige was in a dark moon phase but romantically he preferred to see it as a blessing from the Ése, a gift to the boy with his head in the heavens.

Reaching out with his hand in front of him, he lazily traced the outline of the constellations... Beowulf... Thunor's Hammer... the Grendel... and more. He knew the names of them all and as a small child he had enjoyed spending evenings camped out in the Palace Gardens back home in Canterbury gazing up at the stars trying to imagine where in the distant heavens lay the Old World from which his distant ancestors, the ælfe, had travelled to settle Eorðe. He knew from his mother and other wiser heads than he, that the Old World's star wasn't visible to the naked eye in the night sky but as a child he had believed that if he looked long enough and hard enough that one day he might by rewarded by Woden with a glimpse of it. Even now, at the age of seventeen years, whenever he had the chance Daniel still gazed hopefully at the stars.

Taking a long swig from the open bottle of wine in his other hand, Daniel listened to the soundtrack accompanying his stargazing, the beat of the Bodhrán and the gentle buzz of a thousand conversations from the ballroom behind him. The edge of veranda overlooking the Summer Gardens may only have been five metres away from the French doors to the ballroom but the acoustics and still night air made it feel a lifetime away.

The ball had been an impressive event even by the standards of the Wynter Palace and it was the first time that Daniel could ever recall that all seven of the kings of the Heptarchy and their heirs were present in the same place at the same time. While Daniel had enjoyed seeing so many of his friends at the ball, that pleasure had been outweighed by the apparent declaration of the opening of hunting season on eligible heirs and he'd spent much of the evening dodging the most persistent of his would be suitors. He'd felt particularly sorry for Harry, who as the Heir to the High Throne had been a powerful magnet for those looking for a socially advantageous marriage. Knowing there was nothing he could to help his friend, Daniel had grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and retreated to the peace and quiet of the dimly lit veranda. That had been nearly two hours ago.

Alone with his thoughts, the wine and the stars, Daniel pondered the future. His time as a yeoman cadet officer would come to an end in just over two years and he would have to make a choice between accepting a full commission or leaving the Yeomanry to return home. In his heart though, Daniel knew that the mantle of yeoman was ill fitting at best to his temperament. His heart yearned for adventure, excitement and romance, not discipline, duty and orders. He wanted to be a hero like in the tales of old and overcome daunting odds to rescue beautiful damsels in distress. And the Yeomanry didn't offer that any more than being the heir to the richest of the seven kingdoms did. The world of his father was all about commerce, laws, responsibility and Latin. And he hated Latin. With a deep sigh Daniel took another drink from the bottle.

The sound of the French doors opening behind him interrupted his thoughts and he turned to see an agitated young woman closing the door hurriedly behind her before pushing herself into the ivy that climbed the exterior of the palace walls. Like all those with large amounts of ælfe blood in their lineage, Daniel was able to see clearly in low light conditions and the faint illumination from the palace gave him sufficient light in which to see. Even pressed into the shadow of the ivy covered walls and wearing an ornately decorated half mask, the woman couldn't hide her beauty. A sly smile tickled the corners of Daniel's lips as he thought that perhaps tonight he would have a beautiful damsel in distress to rescue.

"My Lady?" called Daniel softly as he took a step away from the stone balustrade running along the edge of the veranda. "Do you require any assistance?"

Before she could reply however, the French doors were thrown open and Daniel watched the woman press herself even further into the ivy, screwing her eyes shut as if to deny the existence of the silhouetted figure standing in the doorway. Blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted to the bright light from the ballroom, Daniel's heart sank when he saw who the new arrival was.

"Amherst," growled the figure.

"Repton," replied Daniel.

"Should have known a misfit like you would be out here. Frankly, you'd do us all a favour if you just went back home."

"It's always a pleasure to see you too Lawrence," said Daniel, taking a swig from the wine bottle in his hand. "To what do I owe this visitation from the youngest and least pleasant son of the ruling house of Mercia?"

"Are you drunk?" asked Lawrence, wrinkling his nose in disapproval.  

"Not anywhere near enough to endure your company for any longer than the bare minimum that I have too. What do you want Lawrence?"

At one hundred and ninety-three centimetres in height, Daniel knew he was far from short yet in front of Lord Lawrence Repton he couldn't help by feel small next to the veritable bear of a man. Lawrence not only topped him in height by a good ten centimetres but also in width by what seemed a similar amount and Daniel half-expected the ground to shake with every step Lawrence took to close the gap between the two of them. Not wanting to expose the woman hiding in the ivy any more than he had too, Daniel quickly advanced on Lawrence ensuring that he had only gone a few steps onto the veranda before he pair stopped within sword distance of each other.

"Are you looking for trouble, Amherst?" asked Lawrence, lightly fingering the ceremonial rapier hanging from his belt. 

"I'll ask the question again, slowly so you might understand. What. Do. You. Want. Lawrence?"

The two locked gazes for a moment, before Lawrence looked away with a snort of derision.

"I'm looking for a woman."

"The ball's full of them. I'd suggest you try there," said Daniel. "Alternatively, you have the coin to procure what you need assuming you can't find a lady at the ball who hasn't met you before or heard of you."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Exactly what it sounded like. You have a reputation Lawrence and not a good one. If I ever find out that it's true..."

"You'll what?" asked Lawrence, once more touching his sword hilt.

"Whoever you're looking for, she's not here," stated Daniel.

"You never answered my question."

"Let us hope for the sake of peace amongst the seven kingdoms that I never have to Lawrence," replied Daniel taking another drink from the wine bottle. "Just go Lawrence. Just go..."

The two young men once more locked gazes, measuring each other's resolve. This time Daniel broke the stare, turning his back on Lawrence and returning to the balustrade looking out onto the Summer Gardens.

"The day will come when you can't hide behind the shield of Cantia or the protection of the heir to the High Throne, Amherst. I look forward to that day..."

Daniel didn't reply, instead focussing his gaze firmly on the orderly patterns of the flower beds of the Summer Gardens. When he heard the retreating footsteps of Lawrence and the click of the French doors closing, he finally released the tension from his body leaning heavily against the balustrade.

"Wait a few minutes longer," he said hearing a rustling from the ivy. "He'll take another pass by the doors in a few minutes to check that I'm not lying."

Hearing the rustling stop, Daniel took it as confirmation that she'd heard him.

Taking a deep breath Daniel placed his trembling hands flat on the balustrade, letting the feel of the cool stone calm him. The adrenalin high receding, he knew it was foolish tempting fate like that by annoying Lawrence. The older boy was not only physically bigger than him but also by all accounts a very gifted swordsman. Added to that the man's grip on sanity was tenuous at best if the rumours were true. Daniel silently thanked the Ése for the fortunate blessing of Cantia not sharing a land border with Mercia.

The light from the ballroom dimmed slightly and mustering his best devil-may-care smile, Daniel turned waiving his bottle in salute to the silhouetted figure on the other side of the French doors. Watching Lawrence stalk off back into the ballroom he cocked his head towards the woman in the shadows.

"He's gone now. I wouldn't recommend returning to the ball unless you have some friends who can protect you from Lawrence. He's going to be in a bad mood for a while, which unfortunately is my fault. I'd offer you my sword but I fear I may be a trifle intoxicated." Or not intoxicated enough to fight Lawrence, added Daniel silently.

Stepping hesitantly out of the darkness, the woman nodded her head in acknowledgement. Daniel watched as she chewed the corner of her kissable plump rose coloured lips in thought for a moment before hiking the folds of her ball gown up slightly to approach him. The expensive ornate dress, though clearly not tailored for the beautiful woman in front of him, was vaguely familiar leading Daniel to wonder if she was the younger daughter from one of the lower rungs of the aristocracy reusing an older sisters clothes. As she neared Daniel his eyes drifted towards the plunging décolletage of the gown, a sight he found pleasing to more than just the eyes. Maybe risking a slow death at Lawrence's hands was worth it after all he thought to himself with a chuckle.

As the woman neared Daniel he tore his gaze away to more respectfully meet her eyes. Resting her hands lightly on his arm she leant upwards on tip toes and pressed her lips softly against his cheek.

"Thank you," she whispered breathily in his ear, her breath causing his skin to rise in small goosebumps. With a smile she turned and with a rustle of fabric hurried off into the darkness of the veranda leading to the gardens below, leaving only the memory of the touch of her lips and the faint smell of strawberries in the air.

Daniel smiled goofily at the darkness as his fingers absently stroked the spot on his cheek that she had kissed.

"I'm going to start rescuing damsels more often if that's the reward," he whispered to himself.

~O~

The faint smell of strawberries haunted Daniel even as he weaved between the ornamental flower beds in the Summer Gardens and not for the first time he found his thoughts returning to the damsel he had rescued earlier that evening. He had not seen her further during the night much to his disappointment but given the mood Lawrence had been in when he saw him it was probably for the best. With a frustrated sigh Daniel slumped heavily against one of the palace exterior walls and upended the wine bottle in his hand, taking a deep drink from the bottle. Wine running from the corners of his mouth he discarded the now empty bottle and closed his eyes as he relaxed against a trellis laced with ivy that clung to the cool stone walls.

"Hey!" exclaimed Daniel as an object bounced off the top of his skull, shaking him from his stupor. Bending down he picked up an ornate rose coloured shoe.

"Hello?" called Daniel looking around but seeing no one. Peering inside the shoe he saw the signature symbol of Mason and Willow, royal dressmakers by appointment. A chuckle worked its way out of Daniel as he recalled an Old World fable his mother would tell him as a small child.

"I shall marry the fair maiden who doth fit this shoe," he said, theatrically holding the shoe aloft, adding sotto voce "Who knowing my luck will turn out to be covered in warts and have a face like the back end of a cow."

"Ow!"

Daniel bent down to pick up the matching shoe to the one already in his hand. Standing up he glanced around noting he was still alone and he desperately wracked his brain for any knowledge of tales of evil shoe throwing wights, absently wondering if it possessed more than two feet. Being pelted by a centipede like wight, each foot adorned with a rose coloured shoe had little appeal he concluded.  

A startled feminine squeak from above caused him to look upwards to be greeted by the sight of dainty bare feet swinging frantically from the trellis several metres above him. His aelfe enhanced senses allowed him a reasonable view of the woman suspended above him, though the angle prevented him from getting a good look at her features. The gentleman in Daniel blushed as he followed the swinging feet up long stocking clad legs to an array of petticoats but the teenage boy in him kept looking.

"Hello?" he called out. "Do you require assistance?"

"Piss off!" hissed the swinging figure above him. Stepping back slightly, he could see she was trying to work open a window leading to the royal bed chambers.

"That wasn't a particularly ladylike response," said Daniel with a smirk.

"Like it is gentlemanly to stand their looking up my dre--"

The woman's sarcastic retorted turned in to a distressed scream as with a loud crack, the trellis supporting her weight came apart from the wall. Discarding the shoes, Daniel braced to catch the woman only for her momentum and his inebriation to drag them both to the ground in a tangled heap. 

After recovering his breath from the knee he took to the stomach as they collapsed in a heap, Daniel peered at the figure laying prone across him, the hem of her ball gown lying around her waist to reveal an abundance of undergarments. Reaching to pull her dress back down to restore her modesty, Daniel found his hand being slapped away as the woman struggled to turn over and sit upright.

"What sort of catch was that you idio..."

The words died on the woman's lips as she got a good look at Daniel.

"Danny?"

Not believing his own ears, Daniel reached out and gently pulled her ornately decorated rose half-mask up to her forehead so as to better see her face.

"Georgina?"

The two friends stared at each other stunned for a few moments before Daniel broke the silence.

"It was you earlier at the ball!" he exclaimed taking in a good look at the woman sitting in front of him. "What in Woden's name are you doing going to the ball like that?!? For Ése sake suppose someone saw you?"

"Lots of people saw me," hissed Georgina in an angry retort. "And why should they not have? I am an attractive woman I will have you know."

Daniel snorted in response to Georgina's pout. "An attractive woman who also happens to be the very male Heir to the High Throne."

"Do I look like the male Heir to the High Throne?"

Daniel had to mentally admit she didn't. Blushing a little, Daniel shifted uncomfortably where he lay and sought to untangle their legs.

"Wait a minute...you were at the ball as Harry. How did you manage to change? Where did you even get that dress?"

It was Georgina's turn to blush now and she focused her attention on the her hands resting in her lap when she spoke.

"Matilda. Matilda gave me this dress."

"Your sister? She knows?"

Georgina nodded her downcast head in response.

"You told her?" asked Daniel, surprised at how hurt he felt about Georgina sharing her secret with someone else, even if it was her sister.

"Not exactly..." said Georgina in a soft voice. "She...she walked in on me changing from Harry to Georgina in my chambers six months ago. I did not really have much choice in the matter about sharing my secret."

"She's...she's okay with you... with Georgina?"

"Surprisingly so actually," said Georgina, looking up at Daniel with a shy smile. "We have spent a lot of time together in the evenings when you are off doing boy things..."

Daniel couldn't help but smile at that comment. 'Boy things' was Harry's phrase for any traditionally masculine activity or pastime. It was the use of such common phrases that always reassured Daniel that Harry and Georgina really were just the same person in different packages.

"This is one of her gowns in fact. It's a little tight in the bodice but fits surprisingly well," said Georgina as she tugged at the top of the bodice to make it sit more properly after being disturbed by her fall.

Daniel's face burned as he looked at where Georgina's hands were. He knew that seventeen year old girls had curves in places that seventeen year old boys didn't. What his brain was struggling to rationalise right now though, was that his best friend was a seventeen year old girl with all the developing womanly curves that entailed. Intellectually, he knew Georgina was a girl. They had grown up together after all and he'd spent nearly as much of his leisure time with Georgina as he had with Harry. However, in all the time he had seen Georgina to date she'd been wearing Harry's clothes. Harry's oversized, slightly baggy clothes on her slimmer and shorter frame. And the older Harry got...the taller Harry got...the broader Harry got... the more Georgina was lost in a shapeless mass of fabric and chainmail. Sitting before him in a ball gown, a slightly tight ball gown if anything, this was the first time he had seen Georgina in clothing appropriate to her gender. In fact, seeing her for the first time in a dress he had to admit that she filled it out in a way that he found very pleasing.  

"Danny?" asked Georgina.

"Hmm?"

"I asked if you were okay?"

"Oh. Sorry. Yeah fine," said Daniel struggling to meet Georgina's quizzical gaze as his gaze kept being drawn to the ample cleavage framed by the bejewelled décolletage of her gown. 

"You seem distracted," said Georgina with a smirk, noting where his gaze fell.

"Errrr... well, you've got bony knees that kind of knocked the wind out of me," said Daniel, rubbing his stomach as an afterthought.

"Yeah," giggled Georgina. "I'm sure that's what it is."

Daniel stuck his tongue out at Georgina in response.

"Very mature."

"Yeah well, what were you doing up there anyway?" asked Daniel.

Untangling their legs, Georgina carefully moved to sit next to Daniel smoothing out her gown as best she could when she sat down.

"Matilda figured that if I slipped out from the ball after establishing my presence there that I could return as Georgina. If anyone asked where Harry was, she would claim she just saw me and send them in some random direction. The plan was I would spend an hour or so like this and then slip back and change but then I bumped in Lawrence..."

"I meant to ask. Where did you go after we met?" asked Daniel.

"I had intended to return to my chambers and change but my mother had one of her 'headaches' and retired early. Every time I approached the royal chambers they were swarming with maids and the like, so I spent the last few hours sitting in a pergola one of the gardens. Matilda was supposed to leave one of the windows open for me just in case anything went wrong but either she forgot or someone helpfully closed it."

"You could have asked me for help you know," said Daniel with a sad smile. "I would have helped."

"I know. It's just that...I thought you might tease me dressed like this," replied Georgina blushing.

"Oh, I'm going to tease you about it," chuckled Daniel. "But I would have helped. You're my best friend, either way, and I will always sta--"

Daniel stopped at the sound of raucous laughter from the garden.

"Down!" hissed Daniel, pulling Georgina to the ground. A small cry of protest died on her lips as Daniel cupped his hand over them. The friends laid there silently listening to the sound of footsteps echoing on the paved pathway some metres away. After waiting a few minutes Daniel craned his head from left to right searching for any sign of the third person in the gardens, ignoring the muffled squeaks of protest from Georgina.

"I can't see him," whispered Daniel. "He must have headed back towards the ballroom. We'll give it a few more minutes and then see about moving on, okay?"

An indignant squeak from Georgina reminded Daniel that he still had his hand over Georgina's mouth.

"Sorry," mumbled Daniel, noting the anger dancing in his friends eyes. As he removed his hand, he felt a stinging slap on his arm from Georgina.

"Will you be quiet," hissed Daniel as he glanced around them. Holding himself slightly above Georgina by his arms, Daniel drank in the faint sweet odour that seemed to emanate from her. Bending down he took a deep inhale from close to Georgina's neck, noting the goosebumps that appeared on her skin as he exhaled.

"Strawberries..." he whispered.

"It's a side effect, I think, of the magic," replied Georgina in a quiet voice, blushing profusely. "Besides, I like the scent of strawberries."

"I kind of like the scent of strawberries on you too..." said Daniel, blushing when he realised he had said that out loud. Clearing his throat, he clambered unsteadily to his feet to ease their mutual embarrassment. Observing the problems Georgina was having with her ball gown, Daniel extended a hand to help her up and pulled her to her feet. 

"Danny, how much have you had to drink?" asked Georgina as she canted her head noticing for the first time Daniel's impaired balance and the bottle of wine lying on the ground near them. 

"Given that I'm intent on sneaking a member of the fairer sex into the royal bed chambers, probably not enough," said Daniel adjusting his clothing. "Now where is my sword?"

"Over here," replied Georgina, hooking her foot under the centre of the scabbard before kicking it up into the air and catching it. Accepting the sword from her, Daniel slid it back into the belt loop that held it.

"Show off."

"A true swordsman is an artist, a performer...a show off," said Georgina sticking her tongue out at Daniel.

"Right, let's get out here," said Daniel grasping Georgina's hand. "As quickly and as quietly as possible too."

"I need my shoes," said Georgina looking around for her discarded footwear.

A deep baritone chuckle stopped the pair in their tracks as a figure stepped out of the darkness from behind a nearby sycamore tree. The dim light glinted off the edges of his drawn rapier as he raised it.

"If this is you two sneaking off quietly, I'd hate to see how noisy you were when you weren't trying to be quiet."

"Lawrence," said Daniel releasing his grip on Georgina's hand to grab the hilt of his sword.

"Amherst," replied the figure stepping out from the shade of the tree.

"You have something of mine Amherst," growled Lawrence nodding towards Georgina.

"I think no one owns the lady but the lady herself," replied Daniel, noting that his mouth had gone dry and he suddenly felt a lot more sober than a moment ago.

"Larry?" called a slurred, slightly whiney voice and Daniel noted the presence of a young woman leaning heavily against the tree as she emerged into sight. "Can we go now?"

"Be quiet woman," snapped Lawrence as he moved his rapier to an en-garde position.

"So do you intend to fight?" asked Lawrence pointing to Daniel's sheathed blade. "Or are you going to give me that teasing harlot?"

"I suggest you apologise to the lady for impugning her honour and leave Lawrence," replied Daniel, an unnatural calmness to his voice in the circumstances. "Before I do something I won't regret."

"Now wait a minute," interrupted Georgina from beside Daniel. "Stop this foolishness."

"Madam, the defence of a woman's honour is never foolishness," said Lawrence. "Even one as lacking in honour as you clearly are, bare foot and dress all askew from your recent liaisons."

"It's okay Gina," said Daniel placing a hand on Georgina's arm. "He doesn't care one way or another about your honour, do you Lawrence?"

Lawrence chuckled in response. "Truthfully...no. I actually hope you have no virtue to defend for it would make things much easier for you later on. Not that it matters even if you did have virtue. I've grown up in the royal palaces of the Heptarchy and know every woman of note. You are not one of them... and therefore you mean nothing to me. I will take what I want...one way or another...and as an added bonus I find myself with the opportunity to rid myself of a particular annoyance."

"If you intend to lay a finger on her you'll have to come through me first," said Daniel pulling his sword free of the belt.

"That was the plan. You've had this coming for a while Amherst."

"En garde!" ordered Lawrence bringing his blade up. Daniel responded into a similar position before Lawrence lowered his blade chuckling. "Amherst, your blade...it's still sheathed."

Daniel lunged forward slapping Lawrence hard across the side of his head with the flat of his sheathed blade.  

"If you think I'm risking war by killing you, you're dimmer than I thought," said Daniel. "Doesn't mean I'm not going to beat some sense into you though."

With a roar, Lawrence charged at Daniel thrusting at his chest with his blade. Shoving Georgina to one side, Daniel clumsily parried the blade before slapping Lawrence's arm with his own blade in response. Stepping back a couple of paces, Daniel returned his weapon to an en-garde position as he waited for Lawrence to re-engage. 

The two men moved more cautiously now, the initial rush of emotion subsiding to be replaced with a colder, more calculating approach. Lawrence circled his sword lazily as he stamped his foot loudly on the stone path, causing a startled Daniel to stagger backwards, before probing Daniel's defence for weaknesses through a series of controlled feints. Breathing hard from the effort of defending against a flurry of blows, Daniel sought to turn his latest parry into a riposte, twisting his sheathed blade under his opponents in an attempt to disarm him. Momentarily finding their blades bound together as Lawrence's snagged on the leather of Daniel's scabbard, Lawrence used his superior physical strength to wrench Daniel's blade from his grasp. With a flick of the wrist Lawrence sent Daniel's blade spinning away from the pair as Daniel back peddled quickly out of range.

"Cheer up," said Lawrence, a lecherous leer on his face. "I may let you watch me have my fun before I finally kill you."

Scrambling out of the way of Lawrence's thrust towards his stomach, Daniel dodged under the follow up slash and charged headlong at his opponent. Briefly grappling with his opponent, Daniel struck Lawrence's sword hand hard against his lower thigh causing him to lose his grip on his weapon.

"Yeah, well I'm going to enjoy this," snarled Daniel, slamming his fist into Lawrence's jaw with a sharp upper cut. Daniel cursed clutching his sore knuckles as the bigger man took the step backward and spat out a small amount of blood.

"Almost felt that."

Lawrence's punch spun Daniel round and he collapsed face down into the ground. Rolling onto his back, Daniel was greeted to the sight of Lawrence scooping up his rapier.

"Any last words?" asked Lawrence as the tip of his sword pricked the skin of Daniel's throat. The look of delight on Lawrence's face as he stood over his defeated opponent faded as he saw the look of relief that replaced the mixture of confusion and horror that had been there moments before.

"Three actually. She's. Behind. You."

Lawrence turned his head just in time to see the tan leather scabbard encasing Daniel's sword swing for his face. With a shout of pain, Lawrence staggered backwards as his nose received the brunt of the impact.

"Bitch!" cursed Lawrence looking at the blood that covered the palm of the hand that he had cupped over his broken nose.

With a flick of the wrist, Georgina discarded the rapier's scabbard and beat her sword against Lawrence's in a torrent of blows. The sound of steel ringing against steel echoed around the gardens as Lawrence desperately sought to defend against his opponent. Spotting an opening, Lawrence used his height advantage to launch a slashing attack only for Georgina to duck under his blade and thrust her own blade through his thigh. With a scream of rage, Lawrence stamped down hard on the retreating hem of Georgina's gown causing her to stumble as the fabric pulled taught and fall to the ground.

"No scream?" asked Lawrence mockingly. "I like it when they scream."

Gazing up at him, it became apparent to Georgina just how much Lawrence liked it.

"Gina!"

Lawrence spun around slashing at the charging form of Daniel, a crimson scar of blood indicating where his blade had passed. His moment of triumph was short lived however as Daniel's momentum carried him into Lawrence, sending the pair tumbling to the ground. Pushing Daniel clear, Lawrence clambered to his feet only to feel a sharp pain as the point of Georgina's rapier emerged from the front of his shirt where it had pierced his side just under his rib cage.

"If you've hurt him..." snarled Georgina, leaving the rest of her statement unfinished as she pulled her blade clear.

Turning to face Georgina, Lawrence dropped his sword as she thrust her blade through his body again, this time on his other side. Falling heavily to his knees, he watched as Georgina's raised her weapon in a preparation for a decapitating strike that was stayed by a cry from Daniel.

"Stop!"

"He deserves it," said Georgina in an angry tone.

"Yes. Yes, he does. Not just for now but for half the things he's rumoured to have done."

Her blade which had started to dip at Daniel's intercession once more raised to a striking pose.

"Good. Then we're agreed."

"No! I said he deserved it. I didn't say you should do it."

"There's a difference?"

"Yes. We call it the rule of law," said Daniel pulling himself gingerly to his feet. Placing a hand over his wound, he staggered forward to stand beside Georgina. "This isn't the heat of battle. He's disarmed and incapacitated."

"A law which the likes of him flout with impunity."

"Because the High Court turns a blind eye to his transgressions unless it affects one of their own. Something he well knows."

"Then we're back where we started. The law is an ass and he deserves to die."

"The law isn't an 'ass', as you so delicately put it. Those that apply it are. A good man...or woman...on the High Throne could change all that. She could restore meaning to the law but only if she was not tainted with the excesses of wrongdoing," said Daniel, gently lowering Georgina's sword. "Taking one life, the life of a man who may even deserve to die, may not seem a bad thing but it is. If you decide who lives and who dies without recourse to the law you are as bad as him. It's also the start of a slippery slope. What happens the next time you encounter someone who you think deserves to die? What happens if that next man is me?"

"I would never kill you. Could never kill you," whispered Georgina.

"And already you have started applying the law unfairly. You've just given me carte blanche to do what I will without the same sanctions as others who would commit the same crimes that I might."

"I..."

"Debates as to the balance between law and justice are better served another time," said Daniel, noting the distant sound of voices approaching. "Right here, right now, all I'm asking is for you to be the better person and spare his life."

Georgina let out a scream of frustration as she punched Lawrence in the face with her swords hilt guard, sending him tumbling to the ground unconscious. Letting Daniel take the blade from her hand she spat at the prone form of Lawrence and kicked him hard in the ribs for good measure.

"I hope that never heals!" shouted Georgina, noting the deep scar the hilt guard had left on Lawrence's cheek.

"Feel better?" asked Daniel as he staggered over to check on Lawrence's companion lying against the nearby sycamore tree.

"Yes, thank you. I do. How is she?"

"I think she passed out. She reeks of wine," said Daniel, wincing as he pulled himself up from kneeling in front of the woman. "Probably for the best really."

A rattling of distant gates to the Summer Gardens caused the pair to glance at each other nervously.

"Grab your shoes and let's go," ordered Daniel. "The yeomen should be able to get medical attention in time to Lawrence but we need not to be here when they arrive. I'm sure you wouldn't want to answer questions as to your identity."

Georgina nervously nodded her head in reply.

"I have a room in a set of ground floor chambers Cantia maintains not far from here for state purposes. We should be able to find you some alternative clothing there," said Daniel gesturing away from the direction of the yeomen. "Let's go."

~0~

The Downs Forest,  Kingdom of Cantia

Woden's Day 24 April EY 2471 - Early Evening (The Present)

Georgina wrapped the coarse woollen blanket around herself as she sat on a fallen log staring up at the brightest stars visible in the late twilight sky. The trees around her blocked any view of the setting sun but from the deep crimson tinge to what light was visible from the last of the sun's rays she knew it had been a mockingly beautiful sunset. What right she wondered, did the sun have to taunt her with the hint that there was still beauty in the world when her husband was lying cold and dead some miles away, not even given the respect of a decent burial.

Glancing around the clearing she noted the burley yeoman hovering some metres away keeping a wary eye on her, his hand not far from his sword. A pleasure less smile alighted her lips briefly when she made eye contact with him and she noted with some degree of happiness he subconsciously rubbed the bandage on his forearm. She knew it had been a foolish move on her part but she had allowed the rage roaring inside her to guide her actions the moment they had first placed a knife in her hand. Had it not been such a blunt cutlery knife and had the yeoman not squealed like a stuck pig she was pretty certain she could have killed him before the others could have stopped her. Still, it had underlined a point she had been keen to make and it had certainly decreased the amount of general lustful leering she'd been the subject of when she first regained consciousness, particularly from the now wounded Yeoman Lang. She would need to be smarter next time though and she regretted that she had wasted the element of surprise.

Pondering her situation, the rich plumy tones of her former swords master, Sir Hugh Leyton, regarding unconventional warfare sprung unbidden from the depths of her memory.

"There is no advantage to attacking by the expected means and methods."

They would expect her to attack them directly now, head on. She'd need to find a more oblique weapon than the blade now. Would they feel comfortable enough to let her make a meal for them she wondered? Ground glass always made an interesting special ingredient in the sauce after all.

"Momma?"

It was a tentative question, almost pleading for proof that she was who she said she was. Still it was enough to quench the rage inside her, turning a roar to a soft purr at the sound of her youngest son's voice and she opened the blanket enough to let him share its warmth as he slid onto the log next to her. As he adjusted it around his shoulders she flashed him a cheeky smile and snaked her free arm around his ribs to pull him closer to her.

"You are not too big for a mother to hug yet," she giggled at his brief discomfort as she pulled him to her. "Even if you are taller than me."

As a man, Georgina had been tall, standing a similar height to Daniel's impressive 193 centimetres but as a woman the only member of her family she was taller than now was her youngest child, Charlotte. The loss of nearly twenty centimetres of height was possibly the only thing she missed about being 'him'. Even sharing a log with Noah, she was conscious of his extra five centimetres of height. As she felt Noah settling into her hug, she returned her gaze back to the stars.

"Your father loved watching the stars. I would wake up sometimes and find him gone from the bed and he would always be in the same place, sitting underneath the oak tree in the courtyard. We would sit together and he would point out the constellations to me and tell me the stories behind them," said Georgina, her eyes misting slightly at the memory.

"I...I wish I'd paid more attention to what he'd told me," sighed Noah. "I never shared his passion for the stars in the same way Hal or Maddy did. And now...now, I'll never..."

"It is okay Noah," said Georgina tightening her grip on her son. "Your father was never one to force anyone to share his interests. He was always proud of your ability to walk your own path. Anyway, you were always more the artist than the star gazer."

"I'm not sure exactly what I am now," said Noah with a shrug.

"Noah?"

"The yeomen call you 'princess', momma."

Georgina hesitated, mulling her options before she spoke, her voice little more than a whisper.

"I know."

"Are you? A princess, that is?"

"Yes," said Georgina, a hint of resignation entering her voice.

"You said that you had married father against the will of your parents which is why we never saw them. The coat of arms you said was your family's. The one Hal never used at tourney. It's a white lion on a blue background. The personal crests of members of the Wynter family have white heraldic beasts on a blue background don't they?"

"..."

"Don't they?"

"Yes."

"You're the missing princess."

It wasn't a question but a statement from Noah.

"Yes," said Georgina, the twilight hiding a single tear as it ran down her cheek.

"What does that make me?"

"My son."

"Am I a prince?"

Georgina let out a deep sigh. When she spoke again, the strain of the emotions she was trying to control could be heard in her voice. 

"I turned my back on that life a long time ago, Noah. I will tell you everything before we reach our destination should we not find a way to escape from our captors, that I promise you. For now though, you only need know that you are Noah Amherst not Noah Stockbury. Whatever I am, nothing changes the fact your father is...was... the heir to the throne of Cantia. You're an Amherst and you should wear that name with honour and pride. As for myself, you are going to hear some things soon that will make you question everything you know about me. The most important thing I need you to remember though is you are my son and that I love you very much. Nothing you will hear about my past changes that, okay?"

Noah bit gently at the corner of his lip for a moment in thought. When he released his lip, he nodded his agreement.

"Thank you."

"Momma... that sergeant... Ackers. She says that no one is coming for us. That they are all dead. Are they?" asked Noah after a few minutes of awkward silence during which mother and son had been lost in separate bouts of introspection.

"I will not lie to you Noah, it's most probably the truth. I pray to the Ése that Charlotte got away though, maybe even has made it to the Paxton's farm, but from what you say about Maddy and what I saw at the cottage, there is no one else left to come for us," said Georgina, unconsciously biting her lip nervously in a shared trait between mother and son.

"So, what do we do now?"

"We cannot help Charlotte if we are dead. First order of the day is to survive. The second order is to be free, so that we can go back for her. Someone your father and I studied under often quoted from the accumulated wisdom of the Old World. Right now the words of a man called Sun Tzu would seem to relevant - 'he who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious'. Tonight we bide our time, tomorrow we look to seize any opportunity that circumstances may gift to us. Until then, watch our captors. Learn their strengths and weaknesses. When the time comes we may need to move quickly and you need to be as prepared as possible for that, okay?"

"Okay, momma."

"I need you to be strong for me, Noah," whispered Georgina. "Your father...your father was an example who by his actions made me a better person than I was. I need you to keep his memory alive and be strong, so that I do not forget that I can be that better person he saw in me."

"I'll try," said Noah with a frown. "I guess as the man of the family now, it is my responsibility."

Georgina squeezed her sons shoulder affectionately and gave him a smile brimming with pride.

"I wish you had more time to grow up, Noah. Yet, while I know there is still so much more you need to learn about the blade, I have no doubt that where it counts you are a man," said Georgina, tapping her sons chest above his heart to underline her words.

Noah nodded his head briefly before looking up into the darkening nights sky.

"I...I know I shouldn't say it but...but..."

"I miss him too," said Georgina, kissing her son's cheek lightly. "I miss them all so much."

~0~

The Clan Blackthorn Refuge,  Kingdom of West Seaxna

Woden's Day 24 April EY 2471 - Late Night (The Present)

Digging with his thumbnail to work loose a scrap of meat stuck between his teeth, Lord Finn Einarsson lounged on his throne watching as his rangers dragged the beaten and bloody figure of a Dweorgas male into the chamber. Flicking the offending piece of meat away from him, Lord Finn turned to a courtier lurking in the shadows behind the throne and beckoned him closer.

"Let us see what our erstwhile allies think the future looks like," ordered Lord Finn.

"Yes, My Lord."

Lord Finn reached out to stop the courtier as he went to move past the throne. "Wait. Just in case, ensure my bodyguard stay close by."

"Yes, My Lord."

The courtier scurried down the dais and across the room to the central fire pit that warmed the royal chamber. The courtier whispered a message to a hooded figure whose face was partially obscured by the brightness of the roaring flames. Dismissing the courtier with a nod, the figure grasped a set of long handled blackened metal tongs with his thickly gloved hands and used them to remove a small unnaturally glowing stone from the centre of the fire pit. The cloaked figure advanced on the prisoner with the tongs outstretched before him leaving a trail of steam behind him as the stone hissed angrily in the cooler air. As the robed figure neared, a third ranger took a firm grip of the prisoners jaw and prised it open to allow the tongs to be inserted deep into the unresisting mouth. Ensuring the prisoners head was held tilted upwards still, a wine skin was poured into his mouth to force him to swallow or drown. Despite the prisoners choking struggles, the rangers kept pouring until the wineskin was completely emptied and they were satisfied that the burning stone had indeed been consumed.

"Let him go," said Lord Finn, moving forward to sit on the edge of his throne.

The rangers let the gasping prisoner fall to the floor, where he collapsed in a heap spitting up a mixture of wine and blood. As he prisoner lay there, the trauma of near drowning was soon replaced with an urgent clawing at his stomach and a quiet whimpering that slowly turned into an agonised scream as the lining of his stomach burnt under the heat of the stone. Pulling his hood back to reveal a grey haired Dweorgas male, the figure knelt in front of the prisoner.

"You can make the pain end with a single word. Would you like to know what that word is?" he said, in soft soothing tones.

His broken fingernails digging into the flesh of his stomach the prisoner could only nod in reply.

"Changement...you can say it. Go on."

"Ch-ch-ch..."

"Changement...come on, you are so close. So close to the pain ending."

"It b-b-burns," stuttered the prisoner, his voice hoarse and cracked from the effects of the burning stone he was made to swallow. "P-p-please help me, it b-b-b-burns..."

"Of course I will. I'm trying to help you remember? All you need to do is say one word and the pain will end."

"cha-chan..."

"C'mon, nearly there...say it with me...ch-ange-ment."

"ch-ch-ch-changement!"

"Thank you," said the grey haired Dweorgas smugly as he took a couple of steps backwards.

The prisoner emitted an ear splitting scream as the bones in his shoulder cracked from the force with which his left arm jerking upwards. Looking on in fascination, the assembled rangers saw the flesh rippling like a wave from the shoulder to the fingers. As the ripple passed, the skin that was left behind took on an black sheen ending in dark black pointed nails. The Dweorgas around the prisoner took a step back at the sound of bone cracking and grinding as the arm elongated slightly, taking on a more defined look as muscles reshaped. 

The arm hung unnaturally suspended in midair, loose at the wrist like some life sized marionette. For a moment silence reigned in the hall with the only sound a quiet panting from the prisoner lying face down on the floor with his arm suspended above him. And then with a final scream, his whole body jerked upwards into the air, the obsidian sheen creeping across his skin bringing similar changes with it as it had caused on the arm. The pitiful scream ceased as the flesh on his throat transformed and the noise that replaced it was much more guttural. Almost a growl. Next the skin on his face rippled replacing the naturally elegant features typical of the Dweorgas with something more rugged. Most strikingly the dip of the nose bridge rose to the same height as the brow ridge and the cartilage and bone thickened to create a flat, broad nose much like the nose guard on a helmet. Finally, his eyes changed to animal like slits before rolling backwards to reveal the off-whites of his eyes.

Lord Finn beckoned two of his bodyguards closer to the throne as he watched the prisoner fall to the ground.  All was quiet in the chamber as the newly transformed figure carefully rose to its feet and slipped into a dark robe that was held for it by one of the rangers present.

"My Lord?" asked the grey haired Dweorgas figure, peering carefully into the face of the transformed figure.

"Edmund my faithful retainer," he growled. "It is me not some perfect stranger."

Edmund nodded his head and took a deep breath before turning to face Lord Finn.

"My Lord Finn," said Edmund with a deep bow. "I have the pleasure of introducing you to my master, the Principal Weaver of the Order of Fire."

"Does your master have a name?"

"Names are power," hissed the transformed figure "And I would not want our relationship so soon to sour."

"Then we are at an impasse rhymer, for I will not do business with a man without a name," said Lord Finn.

"My patience you should not try, unless you have a desire to die."

"If I may be so bold my master," interjected Edmund. "Perhaps the solution is to take a name to be used once that has no spiritual connection to you? That way Lord Finn has his name and you have given up no power to him."

"You have a name in mind?" asked Lord Finn.

"May I suggest Obsidian?"

The newly christened Obsidian turned to face Lord Finn and nodded his head once in asset to the suggestion.

"It will do. Welcome 'Obsidian' to the Refuge of the Clan Blackthorn."

In response to Lord Finn, the black robed figure bowed deeply. Rising from his throne, Lord Finn descended from the raised dais, stopping before the last step so that he was face-to-face with the slightly taller Obsidian.

"This...this is what we will look like?"

"It is My Lord," said Edmund.

"And everything you promised?"

"Is there. This form is stronger, tougher, quicker and yet still retains the blood of the ælfeas promised," said Edmund.

"And the other thing?"

"You worry about your seed?" growled Obsidian, canting his head slightly as if to appraise Lord Finn. "Have no worry you will once more plentifully breed."

"I would have preferred it had you come to me in person," muttered Lord Finn. "This telepresence trick while impressive doesn't demonstrate trust, something of particular importance I would have thought given that your sort...rhymer...do not naturally engender trust."

"We trust you no more than you trust us," said Edmund with a chuckle. "This isn't about trust. This is about mutual needs and the alignment of goals. We will deliver you the means by which to save your people and make Clan Blackthorn dominant. No more will the likes of Lord Davlinnssonand the others belittle you, shun you...disrespect you. No, instead they will swear fealty to you or feel the force of your displeasure."

"And in return for me you will destroy," said the figure "The Wynter Lion's eldest child, that meddlesome boy."

"You know his location?"

"While others may be seeking him high and low, we know the route his party doth to go."

"He's heading from the eastern slopes of the Down's Mountain's for Canterbury," said Edmund.

"Nori's territory," said Finn, his face wrinkled in displeasure. "I'll need more than one unwilling transformee for this. You know what Nori's like about protecting children."

"Give me one score men, brave and true," said Obsidian "And in return the might of an army I will give to you."

"Do we have enough siden stones?" asked Finn turning to a court official hovering a discreet distance behind him.

"Barely my Lord. Our weavers have only just over two score."

Lord Finn chewed at a broken nail for a moment in thought, spitting the pieces to the floor.

"I want one score of a my rangers converted to stop the boy and another score converted so that I may have the means to get more stones," said Lord Finn.

"That was not the deal,"  said Edmund angrily. "You stop the boy first. The sun must set on all the ties that bind the Wynter Lion to her old life for the son to rise in his new life and prophecy be fulfilled. Only then will our aims have been achieved and only then will we give you the means to save the rest of your people."

A feral smile crossed Lord Finn's lips as he turned to face Edmund. "For whatever reason, you cannot stop the boy yourself. You need my involvement and if I understand things correctly if you don't stop the boy you don't achieve your goals. This makes my assistance much more valuable than originally thought, and in a seller's market..."

The words of a sharp retort died on Edmund's lips as Obsidian held up a hand to silence him.

"Lord Finn, beware you don't endanger my plan, or else you may just wind up a dead man."

"I do not take to threats well Obsidian," said Lord Finn, turning his back on Obsidian to ascend the dais to his throne. "I have chosen to change the deal. These are the new terms. Take it or leave it."

The fire pit in the room flared up, sending tufts of flame skittering across the flagstones of the chamber before they burnt themselves out. Calming himself, Obsidian gave Lord Finn a broad smile showing the points of his enlarged canine teeth.  

"Change the terms again... and I will end your reign."

"So you accept my terms?" asked Lord Finn seating himself on his throne.

"I accept," replied Obsidian. "Just do not give me cause to regret."

"Good. Then as soon as my men are changed you can send them whence they need to go."

Lord Finn picked idly at a scab on the exposed skin of his arm watching as Obsidian signalled to Edmund to step closer and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. Straightening up after their brief conversation, Obsidian bowed deeply to Lord Finn.

"Now I must leave you to your fun, for my time here is done. As a last gesture of goodwill you will find, when I leave this vessel he will be of loyal mind. I would advise that you do not give me cause to return, less in my enmity you do burn."

With a wave of his hand Obsidian caused a blue flame to engulf his body. As the flame dissipated Obsidian's eyes rolled back, showing the animal like pupils once more. For a moment the creature swayed slightly blinking as he became aware of his surroundings until his eyes settled on Lord Finn. Dropping to one knee, he bowed his head to Lord Finn.

"I am yours to command My Lord," he growled.

Edmund half-heartedly bowed to Lord Finn before pulling the hood of his robe once more over his head.

"I will return to my workshop, My Lord," said Edmund. "If you can have the necessary siden stones sent to me within the hour I will give you two score of transformed rangers for tomorrow morning."

As Edmund exited the room, Lord Finn beckoned an advisor to the throne.

"Ensure that Edmund has the siden stones within the hour," ordered Lord Finn. "And summon my war leaders to meet with me immediately so that we may review our plans for an assault on Clan Oak's mines. An army while useful will not increase the clans birth rate. We need more siden stones quickly and I will have the raw material for them in my hands before sunset tomorrow or the heads of my war leaders on a spike."

~O~

The Clan Laurel Refuge,  The Downs Mountains, Kingdom of Cantia

Thunor's Day 25 April EY 2471 - Early Morning (The Present)

Lady Ingrid Snorrisdottir swept her fringe of jet black hair from her eyes, once more re-reading the ancient scroll in her hands to satisfy herself that she had the sequence correctly remembered. High Ælfe was the language of her Old World forefathers, the basis upon which all the languages of Eorðe were derived, and had a complex phonetic structure that she needed to pronounce perfectly to allow her to weave the siden so that it had the desired effect. Letting the scroll curl back up around the slim wooden rollers at each end she cleared her throat quietly to attract the attention of Lord Nori standing nearby.

"I believe I am ready to proceed My Lord."

Lord Nori tore his gaze away from his adopted son and the small group of novice Weavers inscribing symbols in chalk on the stone floor of the room around him. The grimace on his son's face showed an uncertainty about siden that he had gained from his mother who was wringing her hands nervously just outside the chalk circle.

"Let's just run through this one more time," said Lord Nori with a tight lipped smile. "The scroll will rejuvenate my son restoring his health and giving him extra years of life?"

"That is my understanding My Lord."

"And this scroll, which you found late last night, was in your possession all along?"

"Yes. It was amongst my grandfather's journals. From the notes written in the margins of the scroll, I'm assuming he had removed it from his personal library sometime shortly before his death."

"And you'd never thought to check there before?" asked Lord Nori, his eyes narrowing.

Lady Snorrisdottir blushed slightly, understanding immediately what her clan chieftain was asking. He had sought her assistance on several occasions over the years as his adoptive human son aged in an effort to extend his quality and length of life. A life span which by Dweorgas standards was barely more than a fleeting handful of years.

"No. In fact, I've no idea what made me even think to look there last night..." said Lady Snorrisdottir with a frown.

"I think I've got a good idea," muttered Lord Nori. Noting Lady Snorrisdottir's raised eyebrow at his words he waved off any comment from her. "It's not important right now. Tell me Ingrid, honestly, what is the chance of it working?"

She exhaled loudly as she studied the floor intently for a moment before looking up to make eye contact with Lord Nori.

"You're what now? Fourteen hundred?"

"Just shy."

"And I'm a little younger but only by a few decades. If we're lucky, we've both got another four centuries in us if we live to a similar age as our parents generation..."

"Probably less," interrupted Lord Nori. "Whatever has affected our ability to reproduce seems to be shortening our life spans as well. Sixteen hundred seems to be a good old age for us now."

"Yes, yes it does... Nori, my grandfather was nearly three and half thousand years old when he died in EY134 and according to his journal, he had expected to still have best part of another thousand years of life in him. I point this out because most of our parents generation were either born during the journey from the Old World to Eorðe or in the early years following their arrival here. So much knowledge was lost when Meomer's Well was destroyed in the star fall of EY26, not least the cure for the illnesses that claimed so many of our parents and grandparents generation and still to this day limits our ability to bear life offspring."

Lady Snorrisdottir gestured with the furled scroll to Lord Nori.

"The wonders that my grandfather thought nothing of performing are simply staggering and his grasp of the mechanics of the Siden are breathtaking. He talks of changing reality just by the mere act of observing it. My grandfather was developing this spell in an attempt to save the surviving members of his generation from the sickness that claimed so many of them though he was hampered by the knowledge lost to them when Meomer's Well was destroyed. It appears he completed the spell but he was unable to tell anyone before he died. My father was little more than an adolescent, a mere one hundred and forty years old, when my grandfather died and appears to have just boxed his possessions without properly examining them. This scroll was found amongst others that were incomplete that my grandfather had been working on."

"Given its never been tested, do you think it will it work?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm certain it will. I'm just not sure exactly how it will work. The knowledge of siden here is far beyond my own capability to understand but the feel of the siden when I test manipulate it suggests it will work."

"Suggests?"

"I won't lie to you, Nori. There are risks in using it and risks in not using it. If we use it, you have to realise this scroll was designed for someone with our stronger constitutions in mind and the rejuvenation effect may kill him. If we don't use it, Gareth's health will continue to worsen. He's a seventy-five year old human with no ælfeblood in him. I've reinforced his heart on three occasions in the last two years and he has fairly constant pain in both knees. And finally, as our leader rather than his father, you will know that the Readers of the Path are becoming increasingly agitated that we will face a peril within a matter of days on a par with the pogroms the humans waged against us during Theodore's reign. If this is so, you will need my Weavers for more pressing things."

"The most common paths read in the last few hours show the emergence of a previously unforeseen threat that will destroy the Refuge and scatter our people across the land," said Lord Nori with a sigh. "If this is true then Gareth needs to be as fit as possible for the coming storm, not least so that he may guide Dorlin and our people to safety as I fear my destiny and that of the young human in our care are now interwoven."

"What aren't you telling me old friend?" asked Lady Snorrisdottir, resting a hand on Lord Nori's shoulder.

"Many things Ingrid. I fear that the time may well come when Dorlin and Gareth will need your wise counsel in the leadership of our people. For now though, I'm still Clan Chieftain and my son has agreed to undergo rejuvenation," said Lord Nori, placing his hand on top of hers. "I would be grateful if you could proceed at your leisure My Lady Snorrisdottir."   

"As you wish My Lord Nori," replied Lady Snorrisdottir. She briefly squeezed Nori's hand before pulling her own free from his and with a clap of her hands she signalled to the novice Weavers her intention to proceed. She smiled fondly at Gareth while she waited for the last of the Weaver's to finish their chalk inscribing and nodded respectfully to Lady Dorlin. When the novices were clear she took a deep cleansing breath and unrolled the scroll.

The air around Gareth sparkled as she began her barely audible recitation of the enchantment on the scroll and soon a ball of glittering light surrounded him. Slowly at first, the individual points of light drifted towards Gareth, flaring briefly as they touched him. As the volume rose in Lady Snorrisdottir's voice however, so the speed of the process increased and the points of light rained down on Gareth. From within the centre of the circle Gareth let out a light chuckle.

"It tickles," he said examining holding his hands up to examine more closely the changes being wrought by each point of light as it struck him.

"But it's working," breathed Lady Dorlin in hushed tones.

Lady Snorrisdottir noted the rejuvenated look to Gareth's skin as it plumped up with the smoothness and elasticity of youth. Releasing hold of the bottom of the scroll she swirled a finger in the air watching as a smattering of white points of light appeared rotating next to Gareth. Adding a second raised finger to her swirling motion she noted red points of light emerging amidst the white. Adding additional raised fingers to the swirling motion of her hand she added blue, silver and finally with her raised thumb, yellow. The resulting multicolour helix rotated lazily next to Gareth, who was staring at it with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Moving her hand in a fluid motion, she shifted from swirling it to a horizontal flick that batted the helix into Gareth, flaring in a kaleidoscope of colour as it merged with him.

"Remplacez!" shouted Lady Snorrisdottir throwing her arms wide. In response, Gareth's body shook and he collapsed to his knees gasping, his once thinning short cropped salt and pepper hair now a deep black as it fell across his face. The room remained silent for a moment, no one daring to breathe as they watched Gareth. Lady Snorrisdottir let out a sigh of relief when a much younger looking Gareth tilted his head up and gave them all a joy filled smile as he panted heavily getting his breath back.

"I feel...great...tired but...great," he rasped. "Let's...not...do that...again...anytime soon."

"Is it over?" asked Lady Norlin, nodding towards her son.

In reply Lady Snorrisdottir nodded as one of her novices helped her to a nearby chair and pressed a goblet of water into her hands which she drank from greedily. Passing the empty glass back to the novice, she smiled contentedly as she watched Gareth being embraced by both of his adoptive parents. It was moments like this where she could bring joy into people's lives that made all the training involved in becoming a weaver so worthwhile.

"Make sure this goes back to my personal library," Lady Snorrisdottir said, indicating to the scroll resting in her lap. "I think we will have cause to call upon it again for others in the nea..."

Her words died in her throat as she watched Gareth convulse, spittle forming on his lips as he slumped into his parents arms.

"Gareth!" screamed Dorlin as the larger form of the human threatened to drag both Nori and Dorlin down to the ground with him.

"Stop!" shouted Lady Snorrisdottir rising to her feet.

She frantically waved her novices away from the chalk circle lest the enter the maximum range of the enchantments effect. With concern she noted the multicoloured tendril of siden that had erupted from Gareth's back and speared first Dorlin and then through her, curved around into Nori, before re-entering the front of Gareth. 

"What is happening My Lady?" asked one of the Novices hesitantly.

Gareth once more convulsed, his long auburn hair sticking to his face as sweat poured from him.

"I don't know. The enchantment had worked. He was rejuvenated," said Lady Snorrisdottir, her face creased in confusion.

"Did the enchantment go wrong somehow?" asked another Novice. "Was it flawed in some way?"

Lady Snorrisdottir gestured for the scroll as she watched Dorlin and Nori struggle to lower their son to the ground. Unfurling the scroll, Lady Snorrisdottir read through the enchantment silently searching her memory to confirm that each section had been pronounced correctly by her during its casting.

"I read it correctly," she said with a frown. "And during the casting it felt right. I could feel the rejuvenating energy flow into Gareth."

"He definitely looked younger," said another novice, nodding towards the circle. "If he'd been one of us I'd have said he lost several centuries in fact."

"One of us..." whispered Lady Snorrisdottir with wide eyes. "One of us! The enchantment worked! Or rather, is working!"

"My Lady?" asked a confused novice.

"The enchantment was designed to rejuvenate one of us! A Dweorgas, not a human! Had Gareth had ælfe blood in him it would have completed but he didn't and the stimulation of that was a key part of the rejuvenation process. The siden worked the changes it could without that and appeared to finish. In reality it went dormant waiting on what it needed to finish the process. When Dorlin and Nori entered the circle they provided the siden with what it needed to complete the enchantment and create a rejuvenated, healthy Dweorgas. It is fortunate that they did in fact, as unfinished the enchantment may well have killed him trying to find within him that which he did not have."

"Then Gareth will become?"

"One of us. Not just one of us in fact. The very essence of Dorlin and Nori will be a part of him. He truly will be their son in more than law and name," said Lady Snorrisdottir.

A brief blinding flash drew everyone's attention back to the circle as the stream of siden energy pulsed rapidly before fading away. Blinking away the spots from her eyes, Lady Snorrisdottir moved to the very edge of the chalk circle.

"Nori! Bring him outside the circle! Quickly!"

Nori turned to face her, his face a mask of confusion at the changes taking place in his son.

"Damn it Nori! Do it now!"

It was Dorlin who moved first, grabbing her son by an arm and dragging him towards the circumference of the circle. Nori quickly shook himself from his momentary stupor and grabbed the other arm. As they cleared the threshold of the circle both sagged from exhaustion and fell into the waiting arms of Lady Snorrisdottir's novices.

Crouching next to Gareth Lady Snorrisdottir swept his long auburn hair from his face, the colour an almost perfect match for that of his adoptive mother. The face revealed underneath had changed even more so than the colour of his hair and it had the delicate beauty common to both genders of Dweorgas. The unfocused coal black eyes reminded her of Nori but the button nose and plump cupid's bow lips were most definitely that of Dorlin's. The jaw line though was neither Nori's or Dorlin's but something else, a fusion of two respective sets of genetics but the overall shape of the face made reminded her strongly of a young Dorlin. Delving into the long empty sleeves of Gareth's shirt, she sought his wrist to check his pulse.

"How is he?" asked Dorlin as she gently extricated herself from the arms of a novice.

"She's fine," said Lady Snorrisdottir with a sad smile. "A trifle disorientated at the moment but that should pass shortly."

"She?"

"She. I've not done a full physical check as I think that might be more befitting a mother - daughter conversation but noting the absence of an Adam's apple and the general appearance of her features, with their strong resemblance to yourself, and certain changes to her chest... I think it's fair to say you were the primary template the enchantment used to rejuvenate and as it saw it, 'heal' Gareth. The older she gets the more like you she will look I would guess, though some elements of Nori's family line will be visible in her features."

"She?" asked Nori, kneeling down beside Dorlin.

"Do try and keep up Nori. Yes, she," muttered Lady Snorrisdottir.

"He...she looks so young," whispered Dorlin, gently stroking her child's face.

"The rejuvenation spell took a couple of decades off her age. Rather than seventy-five, I'd hazard her to be little more than fifty. Going back to school's going to be an unpleasant shock," chuckled Lady Snorrisdottir. "As is waking up to find yourself both a girl and little more than a teenager, the equivalent of fourteen or fifteen in human years."

"Damn it Ingrid, this isn't funny!" snapped Nori.

"Forgive me, my gallows humour was not appropriate," said Lady Snorrisdottir with an air of contrition. "Still...don't you see Nori? This is the answer to our prayers. Those of us with adoptive human children no longer have to watch them wither and die, prisoners of their mayfly lives. They can become like us, with our life spans and even have our bloodlines running through their veins. Gareth is as truly your child now as if Dorlin had carried him to term. It resolves the issue of our birth rate and it will enable us to offer our adoptive children the chance for a real future. Imagine families of three or four children again! Our children in every way that matters! Your daughter is for all intents and purposes the first child of a new generation."

"She's my son," said Nori bitterly. "And I want him back."

"We'll work on that," said Lady Snorrisdottir, clasping her hands over her nose and mouth, almost in prayer. "I don't understand why this happened given you were both in the circle. There must be something in the enchantment that for some reason sees the subjects sex as something that needs to be corrected. Human and Dweorgas are biologically different in some very significant ways despite our external similarities, so maybe it's something to do with our very essence? The trouble is, as I said before, I don't truly understand half of the scroll. My grandfather's skill was far greater than my own."

"Someone must know of something, surely?" asked Dorlin. 

"I don't recall our people having had the need for such an enchantment, it's inherent in our nature as creatures of siden that our spirits and body are in alignment at birth. In that respect Gareth may be your child but he was not 'born' your child, rather he was re-born and not blessed with that balance between spirit and body. I've heard of it happening amongst the humans though, that of spirit and body not being in alignment."

"What about the practitioners of Earth Siden? I remember my parents introducing one to me as a child and seeing him..her...change between sexes," said Dorlin.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Their ability to change is inherent in their duality of spirit and only works on themselves as far as I know. The twisted practitioners of Fire Siden may have something but there is a price to be paid in using Fire Siden that I find unpalatable. My loyalty to my Clan Chieftain is almost limitless but using Fire Siden is that 'almost'. In fact, I know of no cases of the practitioners of the pure three elements changing another's gender...save one, little more than a rumour in weaver circles."

"The Wynter Lion," said Nori, mulling over Lady Snorrisdottir's words.

"I understand that the Lord High Weaver of the Wynter Court tried to change her sex back to male. If I could see the enchantment I would have a feel for its potential to work on Gareth. My skill at manipulating Siden is likely to be far superior to any humans and I should be able to resolve whatever flaw stopped the spell from working when the Lord High Weaver cast it. Sadly, given her proximity, the Wynter Lion herself is of no use because she overcame the enchantment likely removing all trace of it in that act."

"You...you mean...this could be temporary?" asked Dorlin a hint of hope creeping into her voice.

"Have no doubt My Lady, we are talking of an enchantment at the blurry outer limits between Earth and Fire Siden but I believe it might be safe enough to work on Gareth," said Lady Snorrisdottir. "But I need sight of that enchantment..."

"And therein lies the problem," sighed Nori. "Given the strained relationship between the Clans and the High Family since Theodore's Reign they aren't likely just to give us something like that. There will be a price...one I may not be comfortable in paying."

"Nori Davlinnsson!" snapped Dorlin, waving a finger at her husband. "You will do all that is necessary to restore our son, do you hear?"

"Dorlin, sweetheart, it's not that simple..."

"Yes it is! 'Our son' and 'Our people' come before the petty affairs of the humans! You promised to protect and honour our family when we were hand fasted and I'm holding you to it. Torhild Knutsdottir's adopted daughter died of old age last month, a mere 83 years. That could have been our son or Ingrid's daughter! And now, through the blessings of the Ése we have a way of giving our children the proper lifespan they deserve and our people the children of their blood that they deserve. The only thing standing in the way of our children's happiness is you, Nori Davlinnson! You!" screamed Dorlin, her face flushed with anger.

Lady Snorrisdottir watched carefully as Nori's face contorted between a range of emotions as he weighed up his options. Her breath caught in her throat as her thoughts drifted to her own adoptive daughter and she was surprised at the strength of the revulsion she felt at her child being placed in a similar situation to that facing Gareth without help, the anguish of living a millennia and half in a body she was not comfortable with.

"Nori...please," whispered Lady Snorrisdottir, her eyes blurring with tears. "Please."

"And you, Ingrid? And you?" he chuckled mirthlessly, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "Fine. So be it. You win. I will leave as soon as the Wynter Lion's daughter is fit enough to travel for the Wynter Palace. I don't however expect to hear a word from either of you in remonstration of the price that must be paid though. Are we clear?"

Nori's body rocked as Dorlin threw herself into his arms, whispering sobbed thanks of joy into his chest. Resting his chin on his wife's head, Lady Snorrisdottir met his gaze only to recoil at the sorrow she saw reflected back at her. A sorrow that silently spoke of tragedy yet to come.

~0~

The shore of Lake Vortigern,  The Great Plains, Kingdom of Cantia

Thunor's Day 25 April EY 2471 - Early Afternoon

Georgina gently tugged on the reins of her horse to slow it as the party emerged from the forest trail onto the sloping shores of Lake Vortigern. Ahead of her Corporal Wyndham rose slightly in his saddle to get a better view of the shore line.

"I don't see anyone Sergeant," he said over his shoulder. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

"It's the right place Corporal," said Sergeant Ackers with a smirk as she fumbled with the clasp on her saddle bags. "Fitzpatrick, Lang...stay here and keep an eye on the princess."

Ackers carefully urged her horse forward bringing it briefly level with Georgina. "The boy comes with me. For his safety you understand, given we do not yet know whether the weaver charm that has caused the poor princess to see us as enemies rather than friends is still in effect. She's been docile enough today but you never can tell."

With a knowing wink to Georgina, Sergeant Ackers spurred her horse on to the edge of the waters nudging the pack pony Noah was riding forward with her. Georgina nodded her head slowly at her sons questioning glance back at her and he reluctantly allowed Ackers to move him forward.

"Ma'am? If I may have your reins?"

Georgina turned to see Yeoman Fitzpatrick's horse pull to a halt next to hers and she let him take the reins when he reached for them.  Georgina found herself relaxing in the presence of the shy young yeoman who reminded her so much of her eldest son at times.

"Yeoman Fitzpatrick...that sounds terribly formal," said Georgina with a kindly smile to the young yeoman as he steadied his mount next to hers. "I am sure you must have a given name or a nickname of some sort rather than have to keep addressing you so formally?"

"I...Fitz...the men call me Fitz," said Fitzpatrick blushing deeply.

"Well, Fitz, I just wanted to offer you my thanks. You have perpetrated no harm directly on my family through your actions and you have always treated my son and myself with the greatest respect. I will not forget your kindness."

"Ma'am?" asked Fitzpatrick hesitantly. "I don't understand?"

"You do not need too," said Georgina with a genuine smile as she gently patted the yeoman's arm. "Just remember Fitz I bear you no ill will."

"I...I never liked Fitz to be honest ma'am. You could call me Dan or Daniel, the name my family call me if you liked?"

A small gasp escaped Georgina's lips at the mention of her husband's name.

"Ma'am? Have I said or done--"

Georgina held her hand to silence the yeoman, taking the time to blink away the tears that had welled up in her eyes as her thoughts had drifted back to the death of her husband. Taking a deep breath, she offered a strained smile to the young yeoman.

"It's fine. Really. It's just Daniel is...was...my husband's name."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Had you been married long?"

"It would have been Twenty-two years this summer."

Noticing the frown that crossed the young yeoman's face, Georgina gently brushed back her hair to reveal the pronounced points on her ears.

"I do not look forty-two do I?" asked Georgina, a little pride creeping into her voice. "A gift from my ælfeancestors."

"Truthfully ma'am, you don't look much more than a couple of years older than me."

"What are you? Nineteen? Twenty?"

"Nineteen, ma'am. Completed basic training and passed out from the School of Arms last summer," said Fitzpatrick proudly.

"It is not everything you expected is it, Daniel?" asked Georgina, recalling her own graduation from the Royal Academy as an officer and her disillusionment at the level of politicking in the yeomanry.

Fitzpatrick's eyes flickered in a sidelong glance at Sergeant Ackers before he spoke. "No, it's not at all what I expected. We all know something's not right but Lang says we shou--"

"Don't fraternise with our guest Fitzpatrick, you feckin' idiot," barked Yeoman Lang as he pulled his horse to a halt on the other side of Georgina, interrupting the young yeoman. "And make sure you've got a decent grip on those reins of 'ers for Ése sake, boy!"

"How is the arm Yeoman?" asked Georgina in honeyed tones as she favoured Lang with a feral smile that betrayed the true intention behind her words. "I can assure you that it was never my intention to injure you..."

"I've no doubt what you intended alright you bloody bitch..." muttered Lang under his breath as he pulled at the reins of his mount to put an arm's length distance between himself and Georgina.

With a satisfied smirk, Georgina leant forward in her saddle and gently stroked the neck of her mount while focusing her attention for the moment on Ackers. The Sergeant had pulled from her saddle bag a small metal tube inscribed with artificer marks and was unscrewing the top. She carefully tipped a smooth looking pale orange coloured stone from a small silk purse on her belt into the open end of the tube before rising slightly in her saddle.

"Fusée!" exclaimed Ackers, extending the tube as high above her as her arm would stretch.

With a loud fizzing noise, the stone shot straight upwards into the sky leaving a sparkling orange trail in its wake. The higher the stone rose the greater the fizzing noise become and the brighter the trail before with a loud crack the stone exploded in a burst of orange light high above the lake. Streamers of crimson red and golden yellow light spiralled away in all directions from the flickering bright light hanging in the air above them before the dimming orange light faded leaving just a faint smudge of colour drifting on the breeze.  

Georgina smiled to herself as she watched Noah's look of wonderment, remembering that her son has seen very little use of artificer made products in contrast to her upbringing at the Wynter Palace. In happier circumstances she would have delighted in watching his expression at what was to happen next. Now however, she hoped that he could keep his wits about himself to respond when the moment presented itself to them if she was right.

"They'll see that won't they Lang?" asked Fitzpatrick excitedly. "I bet you could see that from the whole lake!"

"Hope so lad. Hope so. Still it could hours yet before we see 'em depending where they are around the lake. If we're lucky they're close by, 'cause the sooner 'er highness here is someone else's problem the better for my liking."

"I will miss you too Yeoman Lang," said Georgina, favouring the yeoman with a wink.

A strengthening breeze tugged at the loose strands of Georgina's golden hair that weren't probably tucked into her braid. A faint rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance despite the blue sky overhead.

"Damn it," spat Lang. "Last thing we want is to get caught out in the open between a forest an' a lake in a thunderstorm."

"Sergeant Ackers doesn't seem bothered..." observed Fitzpatrick, nodding towards the calm looking woman gazing up into the sky. By now some of the smaller branches on the trees at the edge of the tree line were starting to sway.

"Well then, that'll be the proof that she ain't right in the head then won't it?" said Lang, rising in his saddle. "CORPORAL?"

"Hold fast," ordered Ackers in response, oblivious to the concerned expression on Corporal Wyndham's face next to her.

The gusts were now becoming a constant wall of wind and were accompanied by a loud deep rumble that seemed to vibrate through their bones. Either side of Georgina, the two yeomen had to fight with the reins of their horses to still the skittish beasts. In contrast Georgina leant forward gently stroking her mounts neck and whispering words of reassurance to it.  

"I don't see any thunderclouds!" shouted Fitzpatrick, the sound of his voice drowned out amongst the roar of the wind. Both hands gripping his reins he struggled to stop his horse from bolting.

"This ain't natural. It's weavery!" shouted Lang, an edge of panic creeping into his voice. Grasping his reins he turned his mount towards the direction of the forest. "We need to get to cover now!"

"HOLD FAST DAMNIT!" screamed Ackers. Reluctantly Lang circled his horse back to its original orientation after a  moment's hesitation, the deeply ingrained instinct to obey orders trumping his fear.  

Georgina pushed her head close to her horses neck for protection as a blinding maelstrom of dead leaves and dust buffeted the party, carried at speed through the forest and erupting on the lake shore.

"Lang? I don't like this. What's going on? WHAT DO WE DO?" shouted Fitzpatrick, his forearm shielding his eyes against the debris.

"I DON'T KN--"

A smug smile teased Georgina's lips as the noise and wind suddenly died leaving an unnatural stillness around them.

"--ow?"

The two yeomen exchanged confused glances at one another, neither daring to say anything least they tempt fate. Finally, a nervous chuckle of relief escaped from Fitzpatrick as he wiped the dust from his face.

"Whatever that was, let's not do that again."

"Damn right," laughed Lang warily. "I'd have seen you alright though lad. Unlike the Corporal and Sergeant you didn't see me freeze up wh--"

The yeoman's words died on his lips as the top of the trees near the shoreline shook violently scattering leaves like confetti down on the party. With a deafening roar of wind the prow of wooden ship came into view, its keel skimming just barely a metre or so above the tree tops as it passed over them throwing the shoreline momentarily into shade. The bark of orders high in the rigging could be heard as the lateral sails were trimmed and the ship slowed and descended towards the lake.

The party watched in silence as the vessel skimmed the surface of the lake before a loud thunder like splash signalled that the keel of the vessel had briefly broken the water's surface before rising clear. Large drag sails were unfurled at the stern and the second time it broke the water's surface the whole length of the keel submerged before re-emerging from the water. Finally, with a deep hissing roar the keel of the vessel broke the surface a third time and this time sank further into the water and didn't re-emerge.

"Is that?" asked Fitzpatrick, his voice hoarse as he gestured to the ship in silent completion of his question.

"Aye lad. It's a sky clipper a'right," replied Lang, spitting after he said the word 'clipper'. "Unnatural is what it is though if you ask me. Ships float not fly. It's the way of things."

"I...I've always wanted to see one," said Fitzpatrick. "Do you think we will get to go on it?"

"Don't know. 'Er highness will though," said Lang gesturing to Georgina who was still lying flat against the body of her horse between the two yeomen. "Make sure you've got a good grip of 'er reins lad. If she's going to try somethin' it'll be now or nev--"

Lang's stared in horror at Fitzpatrick as he noted that both of his hands were grasping the reins of his own horse.

Kicking her legs out into the side of the flanking yeomen's horses making the started beasts move away from her, Georgina dug her heels into the flanks of her own horse urging it at the gallop towards Sergeant Ackers. Unlike her own prized destrier, the rouncey the yeomen had was lighter and smaller and fought her as she slammed it into the side of the Sergeant's horse. While the Sergeant fought to stay in her saddle from the force of the impact, Georgina pulled Acker's cavalry sabre free from its saddle scabbard and turned in her saddle swinging it wildly at the nearby Corporal Wyndham forcing him to back away from her.

"Ride Noah! Ride!" screamed Georgina at the top of her voice as she spurred her protesting horse along the shoreline. Behind her she could hear Sergeant Acker's ordering her men in pursuit of them.

Georgina let Noah's slower pack horse in front of her on the muddy narrow shoreline, thanking the slippery surface for reducing the disadvantage the pack horse had over the less encumbered rouncey's of the yeomen.

"Make for the clearing up ahead!" shouted Georgina, knowing that their chances of escape were all the greater if they could make it into the forest. A couple of crossbow bolts whistled past her from the pursuing yeomen making Georgina smile as she knew they were little more than a warning as the yeomen would not risk killing her and this allowed her to use her body to shield Noah.

As the pair neared the clearing, Georgina's horse reared up in fright as an blinding orange ball of light fizzed past exploded in front of her. Tumbling from her saddle, Georgina landed heavily in the water dropping her stolen sabre and was forced to roll out of the way as her horse turned and bolted away from the flare.

Pulling herself to her knees, Georgina groped around her in the shallow water for her sabre unable to see clearly as she tried to blink the spots from her eyes.

"Momma?" called Noah from the other side of the rapidly dimming flare as her fought to control his own scared horse.

"Go Noah! Go!" cried Georgina as her hand grasped the hilt of the submerged sabre. "It's up to you now to find Lottie!"

Pulling herself to her feet she brought her sabre into an en-garde position as Lang and Wyndham warily dismounted ahead of her and drew their own long swords. Lang was the first to move, feinting a thrust to her right in an attempt to open her up her left for Wyndham. Georgina quickly parried Lang's sword away, spinning to block Wyndham's lunge towards her leg. Kicking a spray of water up at Lang causing him to momentarily shield his face, Georgina beat the middle of Wyndham's blade knocking it aside long enough to execute a slash at his chest as she pulled her blade back. Cursing her, Wyndham staggered back pressing his free hand over the wound in an attempt to staunch the bleeding.

Any advantage was short lived as with a grunt Lang lunged at her forcing her to take a step backwards as she parried the blade. Losing her footing in the muddy water, she stumbled backwards only just parrying a thrust at her arm at the last moment. Sliding the cutting edge of her sabre down Lang's blade Georgina twisted her blade forcing his arm downwards before spinning her own blade upwards and slashing across the back of his arm. With a shout Lang withdrew from the engagement bringing his blade back up in a defensive position.

Breathing hard, Georgina returned her blade back to its en-garde position as Wyndham once more rejoined. She feinted towards Wyndham driving him defensive before switching to a lunge at the injured Lang forcing him to stumble backwards as he frantically parried her blade. A counter thrust from Wyndham forced Georgina to take a few steps backwards under a rain of attacks from the corporal.

"Momma!"

The shout from Noah caused Georgina to spin around and parry an attack from Ackers who had managed to flank her without her noticing. The attack from Ackers forced Georgina to take a step backwards forcing her deeper into the lake, the water now lapping at her knees. 

"Noah, go!" she screamed, horrified to see her son hadn't moved from where he had stopped as a result of the flare.

Ackers pressed Georgina's distraction with a series of stinging blows, the sound of metal on metal ringing out across the lake. Binding her cross guard against her opponents, Georgina forced their blades up in a struggle of strength as both women sought to push the others blade away and create an opening.

"You might as well give up," snarled Ackers through gritted teeth. "You can't beat us all."

"Right now, I would settle for just killing you."

"You couldn't stop me killing your husband or son, so what makes you think you can kill me now, freak?"

With a roar Georgina twisted the cross guard of her sabre against Ackers blade, snapping it and pushing Ackers backwards with a shove that sent her tumbling to the ground.

"Die bitch!" hissed Georgina, tightening her grip on her weapon.

"No!"

Georgina spun around at the shout from her left to find herself enveloped in a tackle from Fitzpatrick that knocked the wind from her. Staggering under his weight the pair both fell to their knees, Fitzpatrick's iron grip pinning Georgina's arms at her side.

"Why?" asked Fitzpatrick, a look of confusion crossing his face as it drained of colour.

"I...I don't know," replied Georgina, a tear falling from her eye as she looked up into the young yeoman's face.

"You said you wouldn't..."

"I-I-I know. I'm sorry."

"Oh..."

Georgina struggled to keep Fitzpatrick upright in her arms as he slumped forward, the blood covered blade of her sabre coming into view where it projected through his back.

"I'm sorry," whispered Georgina, resting her chin on the top of his head as she held him tightly. "I'm sorry."

"Lang, get the boy," ordered Ackers as she pulled Georgina upright by her braid, twisting it painfully. "Wyndham, see to Fitzpatrick."

Ackers dragged Georgina to the shore where she threw her face first into the mud. Kneeling on top of her, she pulled some rope from her belt and tightly bound Georgina's hands together. Only when she was satisfied that the rope was tight enough that it was biting into Georgina's wrists did she move her weight off her.

"Ahoy the shore!"

Pulling Georgina to her feet, Ackers twisted her around to face the arriving long boat.

"Ahoy the boat," said Ackers with a smile.

"Is that her?" asked a young dark haired man, wearing the light blue diamond chequered tunic of the Angelcyn navy.

"It is."

Jumping from the boat with a small splash into the shallow waters lapping at the shore, the new arrival approached Ackers grasping her wrist in a traditional yeoman greeting.

"In which case, on behalf of Admiral the Lord Repton, may I welcome you on board the royal clipper Prince Henry. I know he is particularly keen to reacquaint himself with your guest."

 

To be continued..,