Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!
Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.
Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.
Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.
“I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.
She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.
She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.
That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.
But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.
She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.
It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.
And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.
I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.
Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.
Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.
The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.
Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.
With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.
Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.
“Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”
Nothing answered her.
Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?
A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.
But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .
“Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.
Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.
“Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”
The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”
The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”
“Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”
The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”
“I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”
“You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”
The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.
Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.
She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.
Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.
Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.
The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.
First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?
She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.
But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.
“I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”
Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.
As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.
How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.
It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.
“It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”
Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”
“You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”
Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”
“Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”
“It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”
“Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.
“No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”
“You’re so elegant.”
“I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”
“You move with such grace.”
“So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”
“Your hair is lustrous.”
“If you like horsehair.”
“Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”
Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”
“You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”
Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”
“Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”
Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.
They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.
She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .
The courtyard was so far below.
With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.
That she didn’t risk death for nothing.
“Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”
Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”
“Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.
“What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.
She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.
Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”
“I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”
“Did they feed you?”
“A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”
“Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.
“I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”
She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.
“They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”
“Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”
A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”
“Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”
“And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”
The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”
Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”
“They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.
“And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.
Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.
“Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.
Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”
“I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.
“Just . . . Please.”
“Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”
As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.
She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—
A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.
Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.
Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.
“What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.
“I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”
“What did they do? Tell me!”
Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.
“Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”
“To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”
Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”
“Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”
“You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?
“Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”
“Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”
The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.
She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.
“Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.
“You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.
If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.
With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.
It came free with a clanging pop.
She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.
The ground swam so far below.
“Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.
The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.
“Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”
“The what?” Lily asked.
Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”
“Rope?” Lily asked.
Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.
The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.
“Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”
Lily gave a tight nod.
With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.
Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—
But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.
The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.
She choked on her scream.
The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.
And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.
“Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”
“Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”
Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.
“Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”
Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”
“I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.
Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.
Lily gasped beneath.
Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.
“We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”
“You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.
Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.
Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.
“You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”
“Where will we go?”
“Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”
A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.
“What was that?” squeaked Lily.
Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”
A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.
“Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.
If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.
Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.
They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.
“It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.
“As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”
“Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”
“Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”
Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.
“We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.
“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”
Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?
“Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”
The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”
Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.
Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.
“Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.
“Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.
“I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.
The sword hissed.
Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.
Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.
A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.
Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.
She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.
Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.
She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.
Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.
She looked in the direction Lily pointed.
Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.
Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.
“Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.
Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.
I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.
And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.
Putting all his weight on his right leg.
His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.
She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.
“Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.
She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.
She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.
The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.
But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.
“Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.
“Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”
Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.
This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.
Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.
“Mount up!” the princess shouted.
“You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”
She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.
“Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.
She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.
She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.
The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.
Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.
They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.
“Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.
“Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”
“I won’t stop!” Lily said.
Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.
Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.
So long as they didn’t falter.
As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.
A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.
They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.
“Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.
The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.
They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.
“Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.
Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.
The knights’ thunder dwindled.
She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.
The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.
Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.
They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.
“I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.
Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”
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