Someone banged really loud at her door, the sound echoing painfully through her whole body. The sound was everywhere. But it was more than a sound she could even feel it right at her forehead like someone was pocking her with something really sharp.
And then Clare realized that someone WAS pocking at her forehead with something pointy. Something painfully pointy.
Without opening her eyes her hand reached up to wipe the intruder away. Even the small movement sent a new wave of pain through her body. She felt like a giant horse had chewed and spat her out. A horse with sharp teeth.
With a sight Clare rolled onto her back and took a deep breath. She rested her arm over her eyes to shield them from the sudden light that shone through her closed lids.
"Oh good, your awake. Finally." A cheerful voice next to her ear announced much too loud, eliciting a new groan from the redhead.
Even with closed eyes Clare recognized the voice.
"It's boring to watch you sleep and that drool there it's just....ewwwww." the voice continued.
Clare didn't take the pains to open her eyes. "What do you want here?" She asked Anyanka, her voice hoarse.
"I was worried about you." Clare laughed out at the joke, paying for it immediately as her body ached again and small stars started to dance before her eyes.
And suddenly everything was back. Tasha, the trial, the riot.
With a jolt she sat up ignoring the new rush of pain that threatened to burst her brain. She grabbed the maiden's wrist pulling her near her.
"What happened?" she asked breathlessly, her mind fearing the worst.
"You fainted." Anyanka answered slowly as if she was talking to an idiot. "Fainting, like in everything turning black, falling down and hitting your head really heard." She explained further at Clare's puzzled gaze.
"Not me idiot." Clare took a deep breath to get her emotions under control. Don't offend the one person that can tell you what happened. You still can offend her later but not now. Now play nice to get the information.
"Sorry." She wrung herself out and managed even a little false smile, more like a grimace. "I'm just ......... I'm a little tensed and confused after the trial. Do you know what happened? The sentence?"
"Of course I remember." The brunette answered. "I'm not stupid and my memory works just fine."
Clare decided to pass over the last comment. "How is Tasha, my maiden?"
"Let's see?" Anyanka tried to remember. "There was the tumult, you passed out, the guards brought your maiden out of the court then the room was cleared...... it was really a mess, believe me and after that I think the judge spoke the sentence behind closed doors." She counted the events with her fingers. Suddenly the brunette's face lit up as she remembered something important.
"The Count, he was there and he told me to give this to you." Anyanka rummaged in her pocket. "Well I don't think that it's an appropriate present between fiancées but I always knew that you're special." Her special sounded more like 'crazy' but Clare ignored it to get more information. "There." The lady-in-waiting triumphantly held up her hand.
Curious Clare gazed at what Anyanka placed into her hand. Only when the brunette withdraw her hand Clare got a clear view at the object. As soon as she realized what she was holding a wave of sickness rushed through her, tightening her stomach into a knot and rising the bile in her throat.
As if she was holding a burning coal she dropped the present to the ground. Through a tied up throat Clare tried to inhale deeply to have enough air to breath.
Anyanka tilted her head inspecting the neglected present closely. "I knew you wouldn't like it. You look more like the diamond-kind of girl, not like the...... broken-stick-kind of girl."
A broken stick. The Count knew exactly what he had given her. Tasha's death sentence. It was the same stick that had laid at the judge's table. The same stick that represented the judge's sentence. Tasha's death.
Clare had to lean back as the world crumbled around her. Against all odds there had always been hope till now. Now it was 'official'. Tasha would die. She had lost her, her world. and she was trapped here with a maiden from hell cheerfully chatting at her side.
"Leave me alone." She whispered to the girl next to her bed.
"Hey I just brought you the present but it isn't from me." Anyanka said indignantly, her hand resting hurt on her chest.
"Just....go." Clare hissed. She had closed her eyes barely containing the emotions that rushed through her. She had to stay calm or otherwise she would have started to cry unable to stop. She already could feel the tears well up in her eyes but she wouldn't give anyone the satisfaction to see her cry, especially not the hated lady-in-waiting.
"Is this your wish?" Suddenly there was a hint of new interest in the maiden's voice.
"My wish?" Clare sat up to face the other woman. "What do you know about the things I wish?" The sheer impertinence of the brunette drove her mad. What did she know about her or her wishes, her dreams that lay broken at her feet. Her love that would be killed. What did that woman know at all about her.
"You want to know what I wish?" In her rage Clare didn't notice the enthusiastic nod of the brunette. "What I really want? I tell you what I wish."
"I wish I could save Tasha. That somehow through a miracle I could get her out of the dungeon."
The sudden bright smile that lit up the brunette's face confused and scared her but before Clare could stop her Anyanka had thrown her arms around her and hugged her closely. "Thank you. You don't know how much it means to me that you told me your wish. I thought I would never ever get away from here. Thank you, thank you."
Clare freed herself from the other's woman embrace and pushed her back more forcefully than necessary. "Get off me."
"Oh don't worry." Anyanka waved her hand dismissively. Conspiratorially she leaned forward. "I'm not interested in this kind of........." she stopped leaving the silence open for interpretations. Then she looked out of the window. "Oh it's late..... I have to go. See you... or not." The brunette jumped up and rushed to the door.
"Wait." Clare stopped her just before she was to open the door.
Anyanka turned and looked at her questioningly. "Why did the guard let you in? I thought nobody was allowed to visit me."
"I have my ways." The brunette smiled and opened the door.
Just as the door was about to close behind the maiden Clare was sure she had heard some words. It sounded like 'done'.
The screams, demanding Tasha's death still ringed in her ears. Shouts and yells hammered against her mind. Clare turned around in bed, closed her eyes tighter and covered her ears with her hands to keep the hurtful noise at bay. She didn't want to go back to the trial not even in the state between wake and dream.
After Anyanka had left her the dizziness and nausea had returned. Her strength had been drained after the sudden outburst. Clare hadn't even found the strength to remove the stick. She couldn't bear to touch or even look at it. So she had turned around in bed, pulled the blanket over her head and prayed for the day to be nothing but a bad dream.
Then she must have fallen asleep.
But now she was awake. More or less.
Clare heard feet running over the floor, furniture falling down or being thrown over as bodies crashed against them in their hurry. Screaming people sounded in her ears. The noise was everywhere. It came from above her, from beneath and crawled through the slit under her door into her room. She crawled deeper into the blanket and covered her head with her pillow. She didn't want to deal with the world outside.
But the noise was different this time. It was different from the one in court.
And then she heard it.
Even through her thick pillow with her nose burrowed into her mattress she heard it.
The castle's bell. It only rang when something terrible had happened. A king's death, war or fire.
With still closed eyes her nose emerged from under her pillow to sniff.
And she smelled it.
First it wasn't more than a faint smell. More the imagination of a smell than a real one.
But the sensation grew, transforming into the smell of a fireplace. Spicy and thick. A smile played around her lips as she remembered the nights in front of a hot fire, holding Tasha in her arms. These nights had always been very hot, she mused.
But then the bells that rang in her head were not the ones from the castle's tower.
Finally she open her eyes to face the painful reality.
Her head still hurt and even the small blinking stars behind her eyes were back as she sat up. Her sore muscles screamed at her as she stood up and crossed the room. She rolled her head to the left and right, relaxing at least her shoulder muscles before she laid her ear against the cool surface of the wooden door. Maybe she was still dreaming and there was no fire at all.
But even after she pinched herself the noises wouldn't stop. She could hear them much clearer now, the panic instead of the hate earlier in their voice audible as they ran down the corridors. Ran for their lives.
Clare could smell the fire now. She even thought she could see the dark gray smoke crawling through the gap under her door. Definitely a fire.
She reached for the doorknob and pulled it but nothing happened. Of course not, they had locked it behind her. But the guard had to be there. Shouldn't he have already reacted if there was a dangerous fire? Shouldn't he have freed her to get her out of danger?
He should've but obviously he hadn't.
She had to get out of here.
She had to find the others.
She had to make sure that the blonde was unhurt and safe. Scenes of horror flooded her mind forcing the sweat out of her pores. What if the fire had started in the dungeon? What if Tasha was.......... no she couldn't even think the word.
She knew deep down in her heart, that Tasha was alive. Had to be.
But alive didn't mean well. She could be hurt, from the fire or torture. She could be unconscious while the fire closed around her.
'Stop' she admonished herself. These thoughts weren't constructive right now.
She needed to stay calm and do the right thing now. Like hammering against the door and screaming for the guard. "Guard! Open the door. Let me out!" She stopped her shouting listening for an answer. But there wasn't one.
"Open!" she tried again, more desperate this time.
"Please?" Clare pleaded in a tiny voice as her fists slid down the wood.
The guard was gone the redhead realized. He had abandoned his place to save his own life, not bothering what would happen to her.
Leaving her behind trapped and alone.
Even the noise fainted, grew more distant. With the fainting voices the smell grew heavier and heavier, conquering her room slowly. It tickled her nostrils and scratched in her lungs as she inhaled deeply.
Clare rattled at the door, hoping to loosen the lock but it stayed in its place.
Suddenly it was silent. Her hammering heart was the only sound she could hear. The princess took a deep breath, ordering her heart to slow down. Unfortunately with the air she sucked in more of the smoke. It burned down her windpipe, leaving behind a sharp and dirty taste in her mouth.
"Help!" she slammed against the door again. Someone had to hear her. The castle was always full of people. She didn't need more than a single person, she didn't ask for more. But only the distant noises of panicking people and collapsing walls and wood ceilings answered her.
Then she remembered Nana's room. Maybe that door wasn't locked. With a few steps she crossed her room trying that door. But it was locked as well.
"Oh god." She whispered as she slid down the door till she sat on the floor. Clare coughed as more smoke penetrated her nostrils. This was a dead end. No escape. No way out. No matter how hard she tried to come up with a plan, her mind went blanc on her, abandoned her in her most needy time.
"That's it?" It couldn't be. The panic rushed through her veins, electrifying every single part of her body. "come on brain." She slapped with her palm against her forehead. "Think, think, think. Now isn't the time to be lazy."
She had to open the door, somehow. Maybe with an instrument. Maybe she could splinter the wood, or cut a small hole into it. It didn't have to be big, just big enough for her to put her hand through. If the key was still in the lock she could turn it and open the door.
But even in her desperate state she knew that the idea wasn't realistic. She had to come up with something new. Clare looked around in her room searching for an inspiration but only chaos looked back at her. Finally her eyes rested again at the door or more precisely at the hinges and suddenly she knew what she had to do.
Frantically Clare searched through the remains of her room for anything she could use to loosen the lock or the hinges.
The broken leg of a chair, broken glass, a book, some shredded dresses but not what she was looking for. It had to be somewhere. Her hands dug through the piles, ignoring the pieces of glass that cut into her fingers as she searched for her scissors.
They had to be in there. They was her last hope.
Clare stopped in mid-motion but didn't look up, not sure if her mind played a trick on her or if she had really heard the question.
"Milady?" the muffled voice asked again.
She turned around to find a battered guard, his face barely visible behind a rag that covered his face from nose to chin, at her threshold. He looked scary, even more as behind him the dark smoke forced itself into her room surrounding him like a cape.
Clare shrieked and stumbled back with sudden surprise and amazement. She had been occupied with her search and hadn't even heard him open the door.
The figure in front of her made a small bow and lowered his rag to expose his face. "Milady."
"Stephen." A sigh of relief escaped Clare's throat, as she recognized the young guard who had let Nana in earlier and who had helped her to save Tasha from the farm.
"Milady, I'm sorry I didn't mean to startle you but you didn't answer my knocks and calls." He explained his sudden presence.
Clare waved dismissively her hand. "Oh, I'm glad that you're here." She stood up and dusted her dress. "Very glad." Clare could sense that he felt uncomfortable for entering her room without her permission. Even in this life and death situation. She gave him a little smile.
Stephen inhaled deeply, relaxing at least a little bit. Then he remembered the situation they were in. He looked back into the corridor, before he entered her room.
"Do you have water here?" he asked her.
A look of surprise was on Clare's face as she answered him. "There." She coughed and pointed to the small bowl on her dresser. Now that the door was open the smoke took possession of her room too. Breathing became difficult. The smoke crept into her nostrils and her mouth slowly choking her.
The guard dipped a piece of fabric he picked up from the floor into the water and handed it to her. "Here. Hold this over your mouth and nose. It'll help you to breathe."
Clare nodded and took the rag thankfully. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with fresh air. "What happened?"
Stephen looked at her uncomfortable before he answered, unable to meet her eyes. "A fire broke out and we can't get it under control. It's like....... everywhere. We put it out at one place and two other places start to burn instead." He opened his mouth, wanting to say more but he decided against it.
"There's something else, you're not telling me." Clare stated. The sheer though of what this else might have happened sickened her.
"We have to go." Stephen watched the floor suspiciously avoiding an answer.
The redhead shook her head. "Not before you have told me. Oh my god it's Tasha. What has happened to her." Her fingers dug into the young man's arm.
Stephen watched her intensively before he answered. "No, it's not Tasha. It's the queen."
"My mother? What's up with my mother?" Now she was really confused. What did her mother have to do with it.
"I'm sorry, Princess. She, she is dead. The fire started in her room. Her dress ......... it caught fire." He stopped.
Clare shook her head in disbelief, her world started to spin again and she wanted to sit down till it stopped. This couldn't be real. Her mother, she was like unbreakable, indestructible. She was the queen. Her mother. She couldn't be dead. Not like that. She was her mother.
"Princess." Stephen shifted uncomfortable form foot to foot. "I'm sorry, but we really have to go." He suspiciously watched the smoke filled corridor.
"Come." Tenderly he took the princess' hand and guided her down the floor.
She followed him, her mind still occupied with her mother's death, she couldn't process. As soon as they stepped out of her room, the world around them changed completely. Thick darkness greeted them and breathing became an issue as the gray impenetrable smoke closed around them, suffocating every sound around them. There was nothing but deathly silence as her feet stumbled over the floor and only Stephen's tight grip around her wrist kept her from getting lost for ever in this labyrinth.
Finally they reached the stairs and Clare was able to orientate herself once again. She inhaled a deep breath as the smoke around her became thinner.
"Where are we going?" she used her newfound breath to ask.
"To Nana. She told me to bring you to the stables. You'll be safe there." Stephen told her, causing Clare to stop abruptly.
She shook her head. "No, we first have to get Tasha."
"It's too dangerous." Stephen shook his head an apologetic expression on his face. "We don't know where the fire is and the shortest way to get out is to go to the stables." He could see that he hadn't convinced her. "and Nana told me to get you there as fast as possible." he mumbled his gaze downcast.
"No." Clare vehemently shook her head. "I won't go there not before I've got Tasha. No matter what Nana said. You have to knock me out to stop me."
A look on his face and she realized that he was thinking about this possibility. He might not like this idea but he was considering it.
She swallowed. That was something she hadn't thought of considered. But lately nothing went like she had planned.
Thinking hadn't gotten her anywhere these past days. Maybe it was time for action. Suspiciously she examined the stairs, nothing but blackness staring back at her. It was dangerous but she had to take every chance she had and hold onto it. The fire might be the distraction she needed to get to the dungeon unseen. No one would care about her with the all-consuming fire around them.
Stephen watched her carefully. Like he suspected her to do something stupid and force him to do something stupid too. He didn't know how true he was.
In front of him she suddenly ripped down her dress till she stood only dressed in her under dress before him. His eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets and his face turned crimson red. He looked cute and innocent; his sight would have won a lot of women's hearts. But hers was already taken and she didn't want it back.
"Ohm...sorry." he stumbled over his words and turned around, his back facing her now.
"The dress is too heavy to run." She explained her action as she stepped out of the remains of her dress. Clare jumped up and down, testing the newfound freedom. "Much better." She muttered to herself.
She looked at the dark gray smoke at the bottom of the stairs. Clare took a breath and without looking back at Stephen, who had his back still turned at her in embarrassment she ran up the few stairs and vanished into the darkness.
Clare heard him calling her name as she run farther and farther into the smoke, her eyes burning and her lungs screaming at her as she inhaled the soot. He couldn't follow her, she knew. There were too many possible ways she could take and in this darkness he could walk right next to her without seeing her.
Now all she had to do was find the next way to the dungeon.
The air burnt in Clare's lungs as she run through the castle. With every breath new soot penetrated her lung, making it difficult for her to inhale deeply. Even the still wet cloth she held in front of her face didn't help much. Tears ran down her dirty cheeks and she had to blink several times to clear her blurry vision. The scratching in her eyes grew worse and she had to stop herself from rubbing her eyes.
Even worse was that she had reached a dead end two times as she tried to find her way to the dungeons. Two times the fire had forced her to search an other way. Clare really wondered that the castle was still standing. The fire was fast, faster than she had expected, devouring everything in it's way.
As a burning joist fell down right next to her she had just enough time to jump to the side to prevent being hit. She was unharmed except for a small burn at her left hand. With a short prayer and an unsure glance up the ceiling Clare thanked god for the deathly scream the wood had given just before it crushed down.
Every nerve in her body screamed for Clare to turn around and find the next way out of here and into safety. But she didn't listen. She didn't listen to the small voice in her head calling her stubborn and mentally-ill and she didn't listen to the fire's seducing whispers as it relished the wooden ceiling.
She was glad as she left the inferno behind and entered a floor that was still nearly unharmed by the fire. But she knew that the burning monster followed her on her heels. She had to be fast.
Finally she reached the cellar. It was still untouched by flames and smoke. Like a different world at all. And it was very different Clare realized.
She hadn't been here since her only visit as a child, back then with her father and even now, after all those years the chills run down her spine as she ran through the narrow corridor only lit by a few flickering torches. After the heat and only dressed in her thin under-dress the cool air down here blew over her sweat-covered body. She hugged herself tightly as her body began to shiver uncontrollable and her teeth clattered against each other.
At least she could breathe again, without filling her lungs with small dirt-particles. The redhead pulled the cloth from it's place and put it carefully on her burnt hand. A small hiss escaped her throat as the cold fabric touched the sore skin, sending a new chill through her body.
Finally she reached the dungeon, stopping abruptly. She pressed herself against the cold stone wall out of sight, forcing her breathing to slow down.
She wanted nothing more than to rush into the dungeon and get Tasha out of there but she had to force herself to stay calm even though everything in her screamed to get rid of her stupid circumspection and storm in.
But she didn't know what to expect. On her way through the castle not a single person had crossed her way but that didn't mean that the luck would stay on her side. She had to be careful, the jailor and executioner (all in one person) could still be down here, watching over his prisoners.
Clare listened carefully but heard nothing except for her own hammering heartbeat. Slowly she peaked around the corner. The dungeon, at least the part she could oversee, seemed empty. With one last deep breath she strengthened herself and went through the first room.
The dungeon had always scared her and it wasn't different now. Suspiciously she gazed at the chains and weapons hanging at the walls. She didn't dare to call out for Tasha, afraid that someone else would hear her. But every cell she passed had been open and empty like someone had freed all prisoners in sight of the danger.
Her heart missed a beat as she hoped that Tasha might be with them, free and outside, while she was down here, searching for her with the fire above her devouring the castle. But 'maybe' wasn't good enough for her, it never had been. She had to be sure that Tasha was alright and the only way to know was to cross this corridor and find out by herself.
Clare was about to turn the next corner when she heard a noise. It sounded like metal smashing against metal, the jangle echoing through the room. Over and over again, the metals hit against each other frantically.
Clare listened to the sound, her back pressed against the cold and wet stonewall, wondering what to do next. Someone was there in the room in front of her. There was no doubt about that. But what should she do next?
It was the last room she had to search for Tasha. She remembered the castle's ground plan good enough to know that much.
Nervously her right foot tapped against the floor. She was wasting precious time standing here while in the other room god knew what happened.
The sound of metal smashing against each other was driving her crazy giving her thousands of images. And most of them were bad.
From her position she could see the right corner of the room, not different to the others she had passed. Weapons in all sizes laid against the wall. Swords and spears. Back in her mind a little voice mused if it was smart to hoard weapons next to prisoners in case of a riot.
She told that voice to shut up. The weapons were there and she wasn't interested in new-modelling the dungeon.
Right now the weapons would come in handy.
Without thinking she rushed over to the weapons, grabbing the first one she found. She didn't bother that she gave the whole stack a push, sending them to the ground in a loud jangle.
She flung around and had crossed the room even before the man with the axe, who stood in front of the only closed cell, could react.
The jailor had heard the sound and had turned around but he was too late. Clare was already in front of him, pointing her sword at his chest.
Her hands quavered and she closed her grip around the sword's handle to stop it from shaking.
"Where's Tasha?" her angry and hoarse voice conveyed more strength than she had.
Suspiciously she starred at the man. She couldn't see his face as it was covered by the mask he always wore at work.
For a split second she wondered what his life looked like outside these walls and without the mask. If he had someone he loved, even a family. Someone like him with a job like this, a job that included hurting and killing other people. He wouldn't be able to live his life outside without his mask to ensure him anonymity at work.
Even before the man could answer her, a new voice from the small barred window in the wooden door caught her attention.
"Clare?" At the sound Clare's head snapped around. She would have recognized that soft voice everywhere. Even if it wasn't more than a whisper like now.
"Tasha?" her own voice turned soft as she looked at the small slender hand that reached through the window out to her.
The man in front of her was forgotten as she stepped closer eager to touch the hand, to feel her and to know that she was real. She didn't see anything but the hand, the fingers that had caressed her so often as she reached out.
Their fingers were only inches apart as suddenly a force smashed against her sword, tearing it from her hands forcefully. Clare was painfully thrown to the ground. As she looked up, the masked man loomed over her, the axe still in his hands.
"Clare?" She heard Tasha call out for her but she couln'd answer. Too big was her fear of what would happen next. She had been so close. And now everything was over because she hadn't been careful enough.
Clare lifted her hand above her head in a futile attempt to protect herself from the deadly hit she expected.
But instead the man lowered his axe and sighed.
At this sound Clare dared to look up through her still protectively raised hands.
"Milady." He offered her his empty hand but Clare just stared at him unable to move. She had been sure that he would kill her. He was the executioner after all. And she was down here in his kingdom to free a prisoner. And she had threatened him with a weapon only seconds ago. But he didn't seem to mind.
"I'm sorry." He answered. "But I had to disarm you. You could have hurt someone with this sword." When he realized that Clare still stared at him with open eyes and mouth he pulled his mask down, revealing his face.
"You?" Clare expelled in disbelief. She knew him. But she had never expected to find him here and under these circumstances.
She knew him as loving father and worried husband from her first night at the city. Back then she had accompanied Tasha as the blonde had visited his poorly home. She had played with his children, Peter and Susan while Tasha had been with his wife, examining her. And she remembered that she and Tasha had worn masks. Back then he had explained to his children that sometimes people had to wear masks.
"Clare? What's wrong?" Tasha's scared voice calling out for her, brought her back from her memories.
"I'm fine." She answered as she accepted the man's hand and let him pull her up.
"And you?" She grabbed her hand through the bars clinging to them. Tears filled her eyes as she looked at her lover. She looked thin and her red rimmed eyes told her that Tasha had cried a lot.
"I am now." Tasha gave back breathlessly, a smile enlightening her face. They looked at each other. Green eyes traveled over the well known face like she was seeing it for the first time and had to memorize every little feature. For Clare it felt like a century since she had seen Tasha the last time. And even longer since she had touched her. Her hands felt hot where Tasha's fingers touched them. Even hotter than the now forgotten burn on her hand.
They were together, nothing else mattered.
"Shouldn't you be in the stables?" The jailor interrupted them, pulling them back into a world were they were still seperated by a heavy wooden door.
"Why, how do you know?" Clare stammered confused, her eyes still fixed at the blonde angel before her.
"You were supposed to meet her there." The jailor answered. "Nana and I arranged everything. She would get you from your room and I would free Tasha. But the priest took the key with him and this door is really good handy-work." Clare looked at the deep notches around the lock where the man had worked with his axe to open the door.
"The fire?" This time Clare turned her head to face as she asked him but he shook his head.
"No. We had planned to get you both in the night but with the fire..." He shook his head.
"We have to get her out." Clare first looked at the jailor, then over to Tasha. Her fingers travelling over the notches before she pulled the knob without success. Till now the fire hadn't reached them but she didn't know how much time they had left to get Tasha out.
"Try this." A male voice sounded from behind them as a key was thrown in front of their feet.
They turned around to find the Count standing in front of them. Before anyone of them could react he had grabbed Clare, yanked her around and into his arms. His grip closed around her neck, pulling her against his chest. The princess struggeled to get free but the Count was stronger.
Clare felt the cold steel of his sword against her throat, scratching the skin as she swallowed.
"Nice dress." He whispered into her ear, his hot breath burning on her cheek. She wanted to turn her head away from his awful breath but couldn't, the sword was too close for any movement.
"I knew you would come to save her. So predictable." He laughed. "You two are inseparable."
"Open the door." He ordered the other man, motioning him to pick up the key.
The jailor bent over slowly to get the key, carefully watching the Count. He was estimating his chances to disarm the Count but realized that there was no possibility without harming the princess. He couldn't do anything else but to follow his orders.
The door opened revealing Tasha. The blonde had stepped back as the door opened and was now standing in the middle of the room, her arms protectively wrapped around herself. She hadn't seen what had happened outside. Even though Phillips voice had her convinced that it was bad, she wasn't prepared to see Clare in his deadly grip.
"Clare!" She stepped forward but Phillip stopped her with one move, pulling the sword closer up to Clare's throat and forcing the redhead to stand on tiptoes.
Clare didn't know how long she could manage to stand like this, her whole body screamed for being held in this sprained position but it was a better position than to be beheaded.
She saw Tasha's scared expression and wanted to calm her down but the sword was too close on her throat for her to even whisper. She had to settle on an encouraging gaze. At least she hoped it was encouragement that was shimmering through her own fear.
"Go in there." The Count grunted, looking at the jailor. "To the corner." He continued as the other man stopped close behind the threshold.
After the jailor had followed his instructions Phillip returned his attention to Clare. "Look at her." He urged Clare. "You gave up everything for her. Was it worth it?"
Green eyes locked with blue ones. Clare saw her own fear reflected in Tasha's eyes. But Clare was sure of one thing and she wanted Tasha to know it.
Of course she was worth it. She was worth this castle, the kingdom, her own life and even more. The redhead would have given everything for Tasha and she wanted to yell just that at Phillip and the world.
But Phillip didn't need or wanted an answer as he rambled on, not waiting for a reply.
"Love is eternal, isn't it?" he mocked her. "Love until and beyond the death. Well the choice is yours. Safe your life or stay here with your little love-toy in this cell till the fire comes."
Tasha pleaded her silently to choose life but how could she? Her life was down here mere feet away from her. There wasn't any possibility to choose from because for her to choose there had to be alternatives. And since Tasha had stepped into her world everything had been set. She couldn't do anything else than fall in love with the blonde. And she would never fall out of it. There were no alternatives.
Phillipe lowered his sword giving Clare at least enough space to breathe. She coughed as the fresh air hit her lungs.
"Her." She rasped, her eyes locked at Tasha.
Vehemently the blonde shook her head. "No! I don't want her." She cried out through her tears in a desperate try to save Clare. But the redhead didn't want rescue. She wanted to stay in love.
"Oh how sweet." Phillip laughed. "But futile. It's not your decision."
His nose dipped into Clare's red hair and he took a deep breath. He sighed as he exhaled in one long breath. "Hm, you smell like strawberries."
Clare shivered as his breath hit her neck, the bile rising in her throat. She turned her head away from him, her face contorted in disgust.
"Well," Phillip continued oblivious to her emotions. "You shouldn't separate lovers." Without hesitation he shoved Clare into the cell.
With a cry of surprise Clare flung forward. The redhead hadn't been prepared for the sudden push but Tasha's strong arms caught her and kept her from falling down.
The jailor used that moment to step forward in the attempt to overpower Phillip as he let go Clare but the Count held him at bay with his sword.
Clare closed her eyes as she felt Tasha's arms around her. The old feeling of safety and home returned as she felt the known closeness. She had missed these strong arms around her that could keep the world at bay so much. Even now her fear subsided, making place for the much more pleasent feeling of calmness. Being in the blonde's arms ereased the world around her. Her world consisted only of the arms around her and the chest her head rested on. So small and yet bigger than the biggest kingdom.
All she needed.
As she looked up their eyes met, Clare's feelings reflected in the other girl's eyes. Finally she was with Tasha. Together. Only them. Just the connection of their bodies sent shivers of joy through her system.
But the present assailed them to soon as they heard the Count's voice behind them. "Ohhh, how sweet. I'm really sorry but I have to leave this sweet reunion. With the fire coming closer I prefer to be at a more fire-less place. See you in hell."
The Count was about to close the door as suddenly his eyes grew big, starring into emptiness. He opened his mouth but instead of words only a gurgled sound escaped his throat. His legs gave away under him, forcing him onto his knees. He still stared at Clare and Tasha and lifted his right hand, pointing at them. Then he fell face forward onto the ground.
As Phillip's body fell limb to the ground another figure, holding a now bloody spear emerged behind him.
"Clare, why can't you follow my orders, just for a single time?" Nana sighed. She supported herself on the spear, panting heavily.
A weary smile on her lips she opened her arms for Clare. The redhead exchanged a gaze with Tasha, who nodded in agreement before she followed the invitation happily.
The redhead rushed over to her old nurse, throwing her arms around the thin waist and burying her head into her chest.
Nana patted her hair, soothing the little girl. "It's over." She whispered into the hair whilst she looked over the princess' head, locking eyes with Tasha. They knew that there was enough place in Clare's heart for both of them.
"You should go." The jailor told them after he had examined the body at the ground, making sure that the Count was dead.
Nana nodded and tried to separate herself from Clare but the girl had her in her tight grip.
"Your heart's racing." Clare stated, her ear pressed against the chest. Her human pillow raised and fell much too fast and she could hear the old woman's rasp breathing. She looked up to get a closer look at the old woman, loosening her grip. Nana's eyes looked glassy at her, her face pale.
"I'm fine." Nana gave her a little reassuring smile, but her actions gave away the lie as she swayed. This time it was Clare who caught her as the spear, that Nana had used as support, fell down unnoticed.
"You're not." She turned to Tasha who stood at her side. "We have to get her out of here, fast." Her eyes were watery again, this time not because of the soot.
The blonde nodded and turned to the jailor.
"Go." He told them.
"But…" Tasha began looking at the dead Count. She couldn't finish her sentence.
"I'll take care of that. But go, now!" The executioner waved his hand, motioning them to hurry.
Before Clare could ask him, Stephen laid his arms around Nana and lifted her up, into his arms. Much to the princess concern the old woman didn't protest but leaned against Stephen and closed her eyes wearily.
"Thanks." Clare took Tasha's hand and was about to follow Stephen out of the dungeon, when the blonde stopped abruptly and turned around to the jailor.
"Thanks." Tasha put her hand onto the man's arm, squeezing it.
For a second the man laid his much bigger hand on top of Tasha's. "I told you once that I'll help you if you need help."
Tasha nodded. "But you didn't have to, I didn't ask for it. It could get you into trouble."
"You didn't have to ask." He answered before he let her hand go and walked over to the dead body.
They made it to the stables unseen. Even a conspicuous group as them, Stephen with Nana in his arms, Clare only in her under-dress barely covered with Tasha's shawl, the two of them in each other's arms stayed unnoticed as everyone around them was occupied with saving their own lives and possessions or trying to put out the fire.
The stables weren't harmed by the fire as they were separated from the castle through the garden. They were enlightened by the fire, big angry shadows playing at their walls.
As they entered the stables they were greeted by Elizabeth and Stephen's father, the coachman that had been with them at Tasha's farm. They were too exhausted to share any words. They hugged each other and while Tasha stayed in Elizabeth's arms and the older woman examined her carefully, asking her about her time in the dungeons, Stephen laid Nana down into the straw.
Clare rushed to her side, knelt down and put a rolled up blanket under the old nurse's head. Another blanket was pulled up over Nana.
Elizabeth joined Clare, talking soothingly to the other old woman as she examined her. Their eyes met and they communicated silently. Nana grabbed the other woman's hand and squeezed it. She held her hand till Elizabeth nodded and sighed sadly.
Clare had watched the exchange scared. She didn't like the looks at the women's faces and their sad expressions.
As Elizabeth stood up to go back to Tasha, Clare knelt closer.
"Are you comfortable." Clare asked softly, fussing around the old woman.
A cough racked Nana's body. "I'm fine." She smiled at Clare apologetic. "It's just ... too much soot."
A hand at the princess' shoulder caused her to turn around. Tasha was standing behind her, offering her a mug with water. The redhead clasped the hand on her shoulder, squeezing it thankfully. 'I love you' she mouthed silently, before she took the mug to hand it Nana.
Tasha stepped back into Elizabeth's arms, giving Clare and Nana the needed privacy.
After she had drunken greedily from it, the old woman addressed Clare: "Honey, do you remember that I once told you, that the castle and I are connected, that we belong together?"
Clare nodded. But only as she found Nana's eyes looking at her in search for understanding the full meaning of her words hit her. She backed up, trying to get away from this hurtful truth.
"No." she vehemently shook her head. "No."
"Honey, it's alright." Nana tried unsuccessfully to calm down Clare.
"But you don't need the castle. You can come with us..." she turned around to look at Tasha and Elizabeth in search for help. "Or you can stay with Elizabeth. I'm sure she wouldn't mind. You have a lot in common, you know. You could help her helping the poor people. You'd be good at helping."
"I'm not going anywhere, Clare." Nana stated calmly and closed her eyes tired.
"It's my fault." Clare blamed herself. She sniffed as tears fell freely down her cheeks. "I should have listened to you. I should have followed Stephen to the stables. If I'd followed him nothing of this would have happened."
"It's not your fault, sweety." Nana grabbed Clare's hand, pulling it to her fast beating heart. "You didn't know what we had planned. We should have told you, but it was too dangerous. And none of us had thought of the Count. Without you, we couldn't have saved Tasha." Nana explained slowly
But Clare wouldn't listen. "Without me..." She began but Nana interrupted her harshly.
"Without you, a big and important part of my life would be missing." Her voice grew softer. "I had a good life, and a big part of it was because I have seen you growing up into this wonderful woman. I don't want anything different than what I have. I want you to be happy, happy with Tasha. And don't you ever forget that I love you." With every word her voice grew smaller, costing her more strength than she had left. The last word had been nothing more than a whisper. But it had been loud enough for Clare.
"I love you too." Clare whispered as Nana's eyes closed slowly, fighting against the heavy tiredness the old woman felt. She smiled at the princess before she sighed heavily and closed her eyes forever.
"Nana?" Clare asked in a tiny voice as she shook Nana's shoulder gently but the other woman didn't react.
Her hand still rested on Nana's chest, the nurse's hand now laying loosely above hers. There was no raise and fall of the chest, no beating heart drumming against her palm.
"No." Clare threw her arms around the slender figure and rested her head at Nana's chest as her tears began to flew freely.
She cried about the death of the only real mother she ever had known. The woman who had raised her and had loved her like her own. The woman who had been with her all her life and had shared her most important moments.
And she weeped for her other mother. The one who had given birth to her and who's love she had tried to achieve her whole life but had miserably failed.
Once the tears had started she couldn't stop them as sob after sob racked her body. Not the soft hand at her shoulder which turned her around nor the livid and breathing chest she rested her head against, as Tasha once again pulled her into her arms, could stop them.
"She left me." Clare hiccuped between sobs.
"Shhhhh." Tasha rocked her forth and back. "She'll never leave you." Her hand brushed over Clare's head.
Clare didn't know how long she cried, maybe hours maybe only minutes before Tasha pulled back and cupped her cheeks, wiping the tears away with her thumbs.
"Honey, I want nothing more than to hold you for the rest of the day and for the rest of my life. B-but ..." She fought with the words as she searched for a way to tell her lover, that they had to go.
In lack of words she bent forward and kissed the redhead. First it was a tender kiss filled with all the love and care she felt for the girl. A kiss to heal wounds and doubts. But as Clare responded to the kiss it grew and turned.
Clare moaned as she felt the lust and desire of the kiss. She parted her lips, giving Tasha's tongue entrance. They had been seperated for what seemed like eternity. An eternity of fears and tears, scared never to be together again like this.
And for the length of that kiss Clare allowed herself to forget everything.
But it ended way too soon for her as Tasha pulled slowly away. Clare followed her, trying to prolong the moment but her lover kept her at distance as she laid her hands at Clare's shoulder.
"We have to go." She whispered.
"I know." Clare nodded. She didn't want to. She wasn't ready to leave Nana and everything she had lost in the last days but the rational part of her mind told her that she had to.
She could cry tonight at Tasha's shoulder and where-ever they would be at least they would be together.
"That's my baby." Tasha said proud as she wiped the last tears at the redhead's face away replacing them with small kisses.
Elizabeth who had wachted them form the distance came over, a dress in her hand.
"You should change." She gave Clare the dress and motioned her to go over to the last box, where she could freshen up and get dressed.
When Clare returned she found Elizabeth and Tasha talking, the older woman giving Tasha last instructions. "You rembemer where to find other soulhouses." she asked her, satisfied as Tasha nodded. "Good. They will give you shelter and board. Don't rest tonight, you have to get as far away from the castle as possible, before the king returns from his hunt."
Clare left the planning to them, she was too exhausted to do more than slide her arm around Tasha's waist and rest her head at her shoulder as she listened to them.
"What about the priest?" Tahsa asked scared.
But Elizabeth shook her head. "As soon as the fire is put down, they will start to search for both of you. But the guard left the princess locked up in her room and the jailor will declare that the priest locked you into the dungeon and took the key with him. They'll conclude that you're both dead." She looked intensily at the blonde, and for the first time in her life Tasha saw tears welling in the other woman's eyes. "Thank god that they're wrong."
The old woman had never before been that emotional. Since Tasha knew her she had always been loving and caring but never emotional. It warmed the blonde's heart to know that she meant that much to the wise woman.
"What about you and the others?" Tasha asked worried.
"With you dead how should anyone know that there was a conspiracy to rescue you?" The tears had vanished and once again Elizabeth was her old self, not caring about what would happen to her as long as she could help.
To Clare's surprise the coachman appeared, guiding a white horse at its rein. It was the same horse she had to thank for finding Tasha and for throwing her off in that process. Clare recognized the bags that were thrown over its back. One of them belonged to Tasha, the others the ones she had packed and left at the library. The same bags Nana had went for later.
It was then that she realized how good Nana and the others had planned their escape. Every single one of them had risked their lives for them. A dept she could never repay.
Stephen's father handed the rein to Tasha. "It's my best one. Maybe a little slow but it's kind and strong and I know it's your favorite." He winked at the blonde and pinched her cheek. "Take good care of it."
"Thanks." Tasha blushed. Her hand brushed lovingly over the horse's forehead. "Hi, sweety." She greeted it and it responded her with a soft snort.
Then it was time to say good-bye. As Elizabeth and Tasha hugged for the last time, Clare walked over to Nana. Once again she sat down next to the nurse. "I already miss you." The tears threatened to fall again and Clare had to look away to compose herself.
"You watch over me, right?" She asked before she lowered herself to place a kiss at Nana's forehead and tucked her in carefully.
Reluctantly she stood up and gazed a long moment at the fragile old woman before she turned around and headed to the others.
As she reached Tasha, the blonde knelt at the ground, greeting a new arrived figure. Her fingers brushed over black fur as her cat rubbed itself against her thigh.
Tasha looked up as Clare stettled down next to her. "She's here to say goodbye." She grinned.
"Isn't she coming with us?" Clare asked confused, as she patted the animal's head. Why would Tasha leave her cat behind?
But the blonde shook her head. "She never was mine. She just stayed with me as long as I needed her. But I don't need her any longer. I have you now." She nudged Clare gently.
Clare grinned mischieviously as she leaned closer and whispered into Tasha's ear. "I like it to be scratched behind my ear too." She was satisfied as a blush covered her lover's face.
Seeing that she had made her girlfriend speechless she stood up and pulled her with her. "We should go."
For a last time words and hugs were exchanged before Tasha mounted the horse. And with a little help from Stephen Clare manged to get up behind her. She wrapped her arms around her girlfriend's waist and rested her head at her shoulder.
"Ready?" Tasha asked, her hand clasping over Clare's.
"Oh yes." the redhead gave back.
And without looking back at the still burning castle and everything they left behind, they rode into the sunset.
"And they lived happily ever after." Tara ended softly. She looked down at Willow who rested with her back against the blonde's chest. Willow had been silent for some time now as she brushed lovingly through the red tresses.
The hacker shifted her position and looked up at her lover with big eyes. "And that's it? What about their journey? Was it dangerous? Did they find a nice place to stay at?" Willow asked.
A smile built around Tara's lips as she watched her girlfriend. Always full of questions, never satisfied with less than everything. "Oh they faced a lot of dangers during their journey. But there were funny moments too and they met a lot of new people. But that's a totally different story."
"A story that you'll tell me?" Willow asked hopefully, her eyes lit up at the possibility of staying longer in this comfortable position with Tara's soft voice speaking to her and telling her of different lives.
"Yes a story I'll tell you sometimes. But not now. This is a story for another time. For now the tale is over." Tara explained.
"Do I have to get sick again to hear it?"Willow asked suspiciously with a frown.
This time Tara couldn't hide her heartfelt laugh. She closed her arms around the redhead and rocked her gently form side to side as she rested her chin at the redhead's head. "Don't worry, you don't have to get sick again. For me you don't have to get sick ever again." She grew more serious. "I don't like to see you suffer."
They stayed silent for a moment, enjoying their closeness.
"And did they find a nice place to stay?" Willow asked in a small voice.
"Oh yes, the best place. A small farm at the foot of a hill were through the centuries witches had gathered. And from the top you had the best view over the surroundings. The 'view of thousand villages' they called it back then, because you could see all the small farms and villages of the environs from there. They were very happy there." Before Willow could interrupt her Tara added "and yes they had a watchcow."