Emeric stood over the body of the dead soldier, captured sword clenched in one fist. Blood oozed from a deep slash on his arm as he gazed across the body toward Balian.
"Now," Balian replied, "you run. Landsedge Farm is that way. Take the women, keep them safe. We'll see about giving you the time to get there."
From where they stood, the sounds of fighting grew louder, Uthrancian soldiers forcing Balian's small force to fall back. Close by, disheveled and clutching their own bloodstained blades, Sabelina and Isolda stood panting. Their running battle, which by now had lasted nearly an hour, had spared none of them.
"Keep them safe," Balian repeated.
"I will," Emeric vowed, "I promise. Good luck."
"And to you, little Lord."
With that, they parted, Balian plunging into the trees toward his remaining men, while Emeric led the women toward safety. Staggering, panting, they thrashed through the trees, finally breaking through onto a barren field. Ahead, the buildings of the farm beckoned, a group of armed men approaching in response to the sounds of battle. Seeing them, Emeric hailed them.
"Protect the Princess," he commanded, turning back toward the trees. Sabelina grasped his arm, halting him.
"Where are you going?"
"Balian needs help," Emeric replied.
"But you're wounded!"
Emeric smiled. "A mark of honor, Your Highness," he replied. "A mark I wear proudly, as it was earned in the service of one for whom I would gladly give my life."
A crashing sounded behind them. Together, they turned just as Balian and his surviving men burst from the trees. Behind them, Utrhancian soldiers emerged, only to fall back as the armed group from the farm crashed into them. Surprised, and now outnumbered, the Uthrancians fled. In the field, the small group stood, weary but alive.
"It's done then," Balian panted. Beside him, Isolda slipped her arm around his waist, leaning against him.
"Can we go home now?"
Balian laughed. "Yes, pretty one, now we go home."
In the palace, consternation reigned. Nobles and their ladies, clad in fine cloth and jewels, stepped back as the small, ragged group passed. Nearing the throne, the others paused, so that only Sabelina and Isolda continued.
Rising from his throne, King Hardwin stared at the two women. "You live," he whispered. "By all that I am, you live."
For a moment, there was silence. Then, rushing forward, Isolda threw her arms around Hardwin's waist. "Oh, Father," she cried, "I thought I would never see you again!"
Behind her, Balian and Emeric turned to stare at each other, their stunned voices raised in unison.
"Yes, father." Freshly bathed, her cuts and bruises tended to, Isolda relaxed in a comfortable chair, Sabelina beside her. Facing them, Balian and Emeric sat in matching chairs, the only other occupants of the small room.
"So you're the Princess," Balian said slowly, "and she is the decoy."
Isolda nodded. "She's been carefully trained to assume my name. We didn't enjoy deceiving you, but..."
"But it needed to be done," Balian finished for her. "You had to fool us to be sure of fooling anyone else."
"So you're the maid," Emeric said, staring at Sabelina. Under his gaze, she flushed slightly.
"I'm the maid," she replied, rising and taking Emeric's hand. Drawing him to his feet, she led him toward the door. "A maid," she continued, "who wishes to feel a soft, firm grip on her breasts. Would you care to help me with that?" The door closed behind them before Emeric could reply.
"She gets all the fun," Isolda sighed, then glanced at Balian. "Are you mad at me?"
Balian shook his head. "I could not be mad at you, Your Highness."
"Please don't call me that."
"And what would you have me call you?"
Isolda rose from her chair. Eyes never leaving his, she slipped off her robe, sliding naked into his lap. "I prefer 'pretty one,'" she replied, resting her head on his shoulder. Grasping his hand, she guided it onto the juncture of her thighs.
"Some services," she whispered, "are not yours to command. They are, however, mine to offer. If you wanted," she added, flushing slightly, "you could even bind me."
Balian's eyes widened slightly. "Would you like that?"
"That first night," Isolda replied, "sitting bound beneath that tree, I remembered how you looked at me. I imagined it was you who had bound me." She shivered slightly. "And it was you who ravished my dreams."
"What would your parents think?"
Isolda laughed. "My mother will do anything I ask, seeking forgiveness for the escort she sent for me. Although," she added thoughtfully, "Emeric did turn out well in the end. I think he and Sabelina will be happy together".
"As to my father, that matter is settled. While I was bathing, I sent a message to him asking that you be made my personal guard. He trusts you, he likes you. And he did," she added, "leave us alone together."
"Have you been with a man before?" Isolda shook her head. "Your first time should be with someone special."
Smiling, she kissed him softly. "It will be."
"Isolda, wake up. His Majesty has...." Sabelina fell silent, freezing just inside the door.
On the huge bed, Isolda lay naked. Rope bound her arms behind her, forearms pressed together. More rope held each leg bent at the knee. A band of soft cloth encircled her face, holding a wad of more cloth within her mouth. Seeing Sabelina, she grunted into her gag, her body twisting in its bonds.
"Oh, Isolda!" rushing forward, Sabelina plucked at the knotted cloth, releasing the knot and removing the gag. "I'm here," she said softly, "and I'll get you out of this."
"Out?" Isolda glared up. "Do you have any idea how long it took to get into this? I practically had to beg. Now put that back and get out of here before Balian sees you."
"But His Majesty wishes to speak with you," Sabelina protested. "He wishes to discuss how to best reward Balian for his service."
"Tell father that Balian is quite happy with the reward he has already received. Tell him I will explain later, when I'm not so occupied. Now, hurry. Balian only left to give me time to enjoy this. Gag me and get out!"
Shaking her head, Sabelina carefully poked the gag back between Isolda's parted lips, knotting the cloth band back in place. Rising, she slipped from the room, just as an adjoining door opened.
"Well, pretty one," she heard, "are you enjoying yourself?" A soft moan answered.
"That looked like fun," she whispered. "Maybe, once I've delivered her message to His Majesty, Emeric will help me have just as much fun." Smiling at the thought, she turned away.
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story continues in Homecoming 6: Silent Witness