© Copyright 2015 - Lobo De la Sombra - Used by permission
Storycodes: MF+/f; solo-f; hist; outdoors; discovery; naked; mute; rescue; majick; transform; bodyswap; revenge; capture; cons/nc; X
"Isolda!" The shout echoed through the dense trees, its reverberations seemingly swallowed by the huge trunks. Turning, Balian repeated his shout, as if hoping a different direction would bring a response. "Damn it, girl, where are you?"
Eyes raking the trees, Balian urged his horse into motion along the faint trail. "Damn girl," he muttered, "I didn't come this far to lose you now."
This trip had been her idea. A simple hunting trip, she'd said, to look for the wild boar and elk of the northern forests. It had seemed plausible enough, but Balian suspected it was also a way to return to those forests, where she'd played as a child. Still, he'd seen no reason to refuse her. Now, moving slowly down the trail, he deeply regretted that decision.
A sound from his right made him turn. His face brightened with hope, only to darken again as he watched Emeric guide his horse between the trees. Behind him, Sabelina rode easily, her own face dark with worry.
Emeric shook his head slowly. "One of your trackers found a trail," he replied, "but it was a dead end."
"Emeric," Sabelina protested, "please don't use that word while we're looking for her. We will find her, and she will be alive." Her large eyes dampened. "She has to be."
"She will also," Balian growled, turning away, "be taking her meals standing up for the next year or two. When I find her, I'm going to...."
Balian fell silent as he rounded a bend in the trail. There, standing in front of him, was a woman. Tall, lithe, with flaring thighs and bosom, her unkempt mane of raven hair made her seem as if a wild woman from legend. She stood staring at Balian intently, as if totally unmindful of her nudity. For a moment, he stared back. Finally, he swung down from the saddle.
"Now, then," he said softly, "who might you be?"
At the sound of his voice, something seemed to flair within the woman's eyes, something that died almost as quickly. Slowly, she approached, one hand held out to tentatively touch his arm. As if reassured by the feel of warm flesh, she threw her arms around him, pressing herself against him.
"Whoa, girl," Balian protested, gently trying to draw away. "You're a likely looking lass, but I'm a married man." Frowning, he finally unwrapped the woman's arms, stepping back a pace. "A man who's wife has vanished in these endless woods," he added.
Footsteps sounded behind him. The woman's eyes turned, and once again something seemed to flair and die within their depths. Turning back, she stared at Balian with an almost pleading look in her dark eyes.
"What's this?" Stepping up beside Balian, Emeric eyed the strange woman.
"I have no idea," Balian replied. "She was just standing there, looking at me."
"Well, what do you expect?" Sabelina brushed past the two men, a bundle in her arms. "She's naked in the wilderness, facing an armed man. She probably has no idea what to do."
Unshaking the bundle, Sabelina held up a simple dress. "This should do," she said softly, offering the dress. Almost eagerly, the woman snatched the clothing from Sabelina's hand, awkwardly fumbling her way into it.
"Much better," Sabelina smiled. "But we'll have to wait until later to do something about that hair."
"Later?" Balian's frown deepened. "Lina, we don't have time for this. We have to find Isolda."
Sabelina turned, her frown matching his. "And this means we just leave her here? She can ride behind me. Now, are we going to argue about it, or are we going to get moving? We have a Princess to find." Without waiting for an answer, she gently took the woman's hand, leading her back to the horses.
"Sometimes," Balian said softly, "she acts just like Isolda."
Emeric grinned. "Frightening, isn't it?"
Balian turned back to his horse, swinging into the saddle. "Still," he said, "she's right. We can't leave the woman here, and we can't spare the time to take her someplace safe. I guess she'll just have to come along. Let's get moving."
Slowly, the small group continued down the trail. Balian's mood seemed to worsen as the day progressed, his growls growing darker and more frequent. Then, just as the sun was beginning to set, they rounded yet another bend in the narrow trail to find Isolda seated quietly on a tree stump in the middle of a small clearing.
"There you are!" Swinging down from his horse, Balian swept Isolda from the stump, holding her tightly. Isolda returned the hug, her head resting on his shoulder, eyes nearly closed. Her eyes opened wide, however, when Balian released her with one arm, only to land a resounding swat on her backside.
What did you do that for?"
"For scaring me near to death," Balian replied. "What have I told you about going off on your own?"
"I'm sorry," Isolda said slowly, "but I thought I saw the most beautiful buck. I called to you, but you didn't answer, and I didn't want to lose it. So I followed it, but then my horse threw me and ran off. I've been sitting here ever since, waiting for you to find me."
As she spoke, Isolda nodded toward Emeric and Sabelina, then locked her eyes on the woman behind her maid. "Who," she asked, "is that?"
"We don't know," Sabelina replied, swinging down from the saddle. "Yet." Gently, she urged the woman to climb down as well, before leading her toward the stump. Strangely, the woman seemed hesitant to follow, only slowly allowing Sabelina to pull her along.
"We found her a few hours ago," Balian added, keeping one arm wrapped around Isolda's waist. "Standing naked in the middle of the trail, no less. She hasn't said a word since, and we didn't really have time to ask questions, but now I think we should." He looked toward the woman. "Who are you, girl, and how did you come to be here?"
The woman's mouth opened, but no sound emerged. Her body tensed, her face strained as if she were trying to physically force words from her parted lips. Finally, her body relaxed, her eyes falling.
"A mute," Emeric observed, drawing his knife. "Well, there's more than one way to answer a question. He bent, putting his knife to a bare patch of ground, scraping to create a layer of loose soil. Straightening, he offered the knife to the woman. "Write your name," he suggested.
Eagerly, the woman accepted the blade, bending and putting the point to the loose soil. For a long moment, she knelt there, unmoving. Finally, she let the knife drop, her shoulders shaking from silent sobs that seemed to wrack her body.
"Damn," Emeric said. "When she took the knife, I thought we'd get some answers, but it seems she doesn't know how to write, either."
"From the look of it," Sabelina observed, "she was more surprised than us to realize she couldn't write her answer. How can someone not know that they don't know how to write?"
"We'll get answers," Balian said, "but not tonight. Let's go ahead and make camp here. In the morning, we'll locate the rest of the group, and then start back. Maybe one of the palace healers can help her."
"Palace?" Isolda's eyes widened slightly. "Balian, you can't intend to take her with us."
"Well," Balian replied, "we can't leave her here. Alone, helpless." He shook his head. "No," he said, "she comes with us. Whoever she is, she's done us no harm. We'll do whatever we can to help her."
"Of course, my love," Isolda replied slowly, then smiled. "My hero."
Sabelina moved slowly forward, eyeing the princess. Then, smiling, she hugged Isolda tightly. "I'm glad you weren't hurt," she said. "Even your clothes didn't get a scratch."
Isolda smiled. "I was lucky," she replied. "I landed in a big, thick patch of moss. It made a nice cushion, but I still got the wind knocked out of me."
"Lucky, indeed. Well, I'm just glad you're back with us." Turning, Sabelina took the strange woman's hand. "Want to help me make camp?" At this, the woman nodded. "And while we're at it," Sabelina added, "maybe we can think of something to call you, at least until we find out what your name is." Together, the two moved off.
"Balian," Isolda said softly, "I know you think she needs our help, and I won't argue that. But I think it might be a bad idea to take her home with us. Why don't we leave her at the fortress where I grew up?"
"Because," Balian replied, "they don't have healers as good as the ones at the palace. There's something strange about that woman, and I intend to find out what it is."
Turning, Balian watched as Sabelina approached. Behind the maid walked the silent, dark haired woman from the forest. Seeing her, Balian shook his head slowly.
It had been barely a week since he and the others had discovered this mysterious woman. In that time, she had attached herself to Sabelina, following the maid everywhere during their return to the palace. Now, as Sabelina approached, the woman halted at some distance, her eyes never leaving Balian.
"Something on your mind, Lina?" As he spoke, Balian was careful to keep his attention on the maid, never letting his eyes move to the woman behind her. Something about her, something he couldn't identify, bothered him in ways he couldn't understand. Just looking at her, he could somehow feel her skin beneath his hands. It was as if, impossibly, he could vividly remember making love to this woman he'd never seen. Even as the thought swirled within his mind, Balian found his eyes locked with those of the silent one. Frowning, cursing himself silently, he turned his attention back to Sabelina.
"Balian," she was saying, her voice hesitant, "have you noticed anything, well, anything strange about Isolda lately?"
Balian's frown deepened. "What do you mean, strange?"
Sabelina glanced around as if to make sure they weren't overheard. "Well," she said slowly, "remember when we found her? She said her horse threw her into a bed of moss?" Balian nodded. "Well," she went on, "the moss is pretty wet this time of year, wet enough to stain anything it touches."
"So, Balian, there wasn't a single stain on Isolda's clothing when we found her. No moss, no mud, not so much as a wrinkle. And it gets stranger. Since we got back, every morning, she's had me dress her."
Balian's eyes widened at this. "Dress her? She's never done that before, has she?"
"Never," Sabelina replied, shaking her head. "Isolda's always insisted on dressing herself. 'You cover your body,' she'll say, 'and I'll cover mine.' But since we got back, it's like she has no idea exactly how she's supposed to be dressed. I just think it's very strange."
Balian nodded. "Now that you mention it," he said slowly, "she has been a bit off. She hasn't even suggested playing since we got back."
Now it was Sabelina's eyes that widened. "No play? But she loves that." She grinned. "Loves it so much she looks wrong without rope marks."
Balian returned the grin, then grew serious once more. "Anything else you've noticed?"
"Well," Sabelina replied, "I'm not sure what it means, but I don't think Ivy likes her."
"Ivy?" In response, Sabelina glanced at the woman behind her. Balian followed her gaze, quickly averting his eyes as the sight of the silent woman caused those strange feelings to surge up once more. "So that's her name?"
Sabelina shrugged. "It is for now," she replied. "The healers haven't had any luck with her, so I've let her help me for now. Yesterday, she was arranging some flowers. She's so good with growing things, Ivy seemed like a good name for her, at least until we find out what her real name is." She watched as Balian glanced once more at the woman, only to quickly avert his eyes. "Balian, what's wrong?"
"I'm not sure," Balian replied. "I know I never saw her before we found her in the forest, but, every time I look at her, it's like I have known her. I can feel her skin under my hands. I can taste her lips. I can smell her scent. The feelings are more vivid than when I touch Isolda. But that can't be. Isolda is the only woman I want. Why does this woman cause such strong feelings? Why does a woman I never saw before last week stir me more strongly than the wife I love with all my soul?"
"Something," Sabelina declared, "is definitely wrong. I think Ivy knows what it is, but she can't tell us."
Balian nodded, forcing himself to look into dark eyes. In their depths, he saw no wrong, no evil, only sadness and a strange longing. "Who are you?"
Only silence answered him.
"What is she doing here?"
Glancing over her shoulder, Sabelina gazed at Ivy. As usual, The voiceless woman stood as if waiting for something, her restless eyes seeming to devour every inch of her surroundings. Seeing nothing amiss, Sabelina turned back.
"She's helping me."
Isolda frowned. "Are you suggesting that you need help? Perhaps that you are no longer able to fulfill your duties as my maid?"
"Of course not, but I am the one who talked the rest of you into taking Ivy in. That makes her my responsibility."
"Your responsibility," Isolda replied, "your only responsibility, is to tend to my needs. You are my maid, not the keeper of strays."
"Isolda," Sabelina said, her voice concerned. "what's wrong with you? You have never turned away someone in need."
For a moment, Isolda simply gazed at her. Suddenly, she smiled. "You're right, of course. I didn't want to say anything, but I've not been well since we returned. I'm afraid I'm not quite myself."
"Say anything?" Sabelina frowned. "Isolda, did you honestly think I hadn't noticed?"
Isolda shook her head. "You notice everything, don't you?" For a moment, her face seemed to darken. "Everything." As quickly as it had appeared, the slight darkness vanished. "But I was asking about her."
Sabelina shrugged. "She needs something to do, and having her help me also lets me keep an eye on her. After all, we really don't know anything about her."
"Well," Isolda said, "let her help you elsewhere. I can't say what it is, but something about her bothers me."
"Of course." As she replied, Sabelina thought back on Balian's words earlier. Was Isolda also troubled by a strange sense of familiarity with this unknown woman? "When I'm with you, Ivy can clean in another room. That way, she'll still be close enough for me to keep an eye on her."
"Very well." Turning away, Isolda moved toward the window. "Now, if you don't mind, I think I'd rather be alone for a while. And don't bother bringing me anything for lunch. I'm not really in the mood to eat anything."
"As you wish." Quietly, Sabelina turned away, Ivy following her closely. At the door, she turned back to see Isolda staring out the window. Shaking her head, Sabelina let herself out of the room. Even if Isolda didn't want anything, there was still work to be done. With Ivy following her silently, she moved down the hall.
Later, as she was inspecting Isolda's clothing to make sure it had been properly washed, Sabelina was surprised to receive a summons from the king. After issuing quick instructions to the woman in charge of the laundry, she hurried to the king's day room. A silent guard admitted her, closing the door and leaving her, along with Ivy, alone with the king.
"Sabelina," Hardin said, glancing up from the documents littering his desk, "thank you for coming."
"Your Majesty commanded my presence," Sabelina replied. "It is my duty to obey."
Hardwin nodded. "Of course." With one and, he indicated a chair. "You've been a faithful and loyal servant of my daughter for her entire life. Even now, you serve her, a fact which has caused no small amount of confusion in the court. There are some who cannot understand why someone as important as Lady Wayholt would consent to be a simple maid."
For a long moment, Sabelina was silent. Finally, slowly, she said, "At the risk of giving offence, Your Majesty, I honestly could care less what the court thinks. Isolda and I have always been together, and only a direct command from you could hope to take me from her side. I was born a maid, and my whole life has been spent as a maid. Lady Wayholt is simply a title I received when my husband became Lord Wayholt. For me, all that matters is my two loves. My husband, of course, and Isolda."
Hardwin smiled. "Exactly the answer I expected, Lina." Sabelina's eyes widened, drawing a laugh from the king. "What, did you think I didn't know about your pet name? Your husband, I'll have you know, talks about you often, and always with the greatest of pride. Balian, also, speaks highly of you, though in considerably less detail. And don't think I've forgotten the part you played in bringing Isolda safely home to us. So, perhaps you can answer a question I have."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Sabelina replied. "If it lies within my knowledge, the answer is yours for the asking."
"My question is simple," Hardwin said. "What in the hells of Arwin is wrong with my daughter?" Seeing Sabelina's eyes widen again, Hardwin frowned. "You think I haven't noticed? This is my daughter, more dear to me than life itself, and yet, lately, I can't even talk to her. She's become distant, separated. And her mood has changed. Only yesterday, she had one of her servants flogged for displeasing her. And just moments ago, she asked for a new maid."
"A new....?" Sabelina was stunned by this news.
"Yes," Hardwin asserted, "a new maid. Of course, she didn't say this to me directly. She never speaks to me directly any more. One of her servants delivered the request, and the reason given was that being a maid was no fit position for someone of the rank and stature of Lady Wayholt."
Sabelina stared, her eyes growing moist. "She....she wants someone else?"
Hardwin began to reply, only to pause as Ivy stepped forward. As he watched, the silent woman grasped Sabelina's shoulder, turning her and enfolding her in a tight, almost fierce hug. Sobbing, Sabelina returned the hug, clinging tightly to the other woman as if for support.
After long moments, Sabelina stepped back. "My apologies, Your Majesty," she said, wiping her eyes. "It's just the thought that she doesn't want me with her any more....."
"I know," Hardwin said gently. "I know what she means to you. I also know what you've always meant to her. So what is wrong with her? What's making her act this way?"
"I'm afraid I don't know for sure," Sabelina replied. "All I do know is that she hasn't been well since we returned from that hunting trip. She only admitted it to me earlier today."
"What illness changes someone so completely?" Hardwin shook his head. "No," he said, "there's more to this than some illness. Something has changed my daughter, and not for the better. And I intend to find out what that something is."
For a moment, Hardwin stared at Sabelina. "Lady Wayholt," he finally said, "I cannot and will not command you in this. However, I do most urgently request that, as you no longer serve in the position of Isolda's maid, you remain here at court as my personal advisor on this situation."
Sabelina nodded slowly. "Of course, Your Majesty." She glanced toward Ivy. "May I request an assistant?"
"Done. The woman known as Ivy shall assist you. She answers only to you, and you answer only to me." Hardwin smiled. "And your husband, of course. I suggest you inform him immediately and ask his approval."
"Have I leave to go?" At Hardwin's nod, Sabelina moved toward the door, only to pause. "As to approval, Your Majesty, Emeric will of course say yes." Under the king's gaze, she reddened slightly. "If he knows what's good for him as a husband, that is," she added, then turned and swept from the room, Ivy close behind her.
Alone, Hardwin leaned back in his chair. "So like her," he said quietly, "you could be sisters. Go, Lina, find me a way to save our girl."
"She did what? No..." Emeric raised one hand as if to ward off a blow. "I don't want to hear it again. Once was enough."
Facing him, Sabelina nodded. "About the king's request..." She paused as Emeric's hand rose once more.
"Forget the king," Emeric said shortly. "Forget everyone and everything. This is Isolda we're talking about. Which means nothing I do or say will stop you, even if I wanted to. Which I don't. You do whatever you have to do and if anyone says anything, anything at all, you can tell them you have, not only the king's authority, but the support of your husband."
"Emeric," Sabelina said softly, "Lord Wayholt, commander of His Majesty's armies." Stepping forward, she hugged him tightly. "My husband, my love, thank you for understanding."
"There's nothing to understand," Emeric replied, gently freeing himself from her arms. Now, let me send someone to fetch Balian. Maybe together, we can find an answer to this riddle."
Later, the three sat together in Emeric's quarters. Behind Sabelina, Ivy sat watchfully, intent on every word spoken.
"Now," Emeric began, "what do we know?"
"Let's start at the beginning," Balian said. "We know Isolda was fine when we left for that hunting trip. In fact, things didn't begin to change until she got lost chasing that buck. It was when we found her that things started getting strange."
"And what," Emeric added, "did we find just before that?" Pointedly, he gazed at Ivy, who seemed to shrink slightly.
"What are you suggesting?"
"Nothing," Emeric replied. "Still, it does seem a bit strange that we find this one, silent and mysterious, just before Isolda began to change."
"Are you suggesting," Balian asked, his voice growing harsh, "that she had something to do with it?"
Under the gaze of the two men, Ivy stepped back, shaking her head slowly. Her mouth moved, but, as usual, no sound emerged. Finally, as if in desperation, she dropped to her knees beside Sabelina's chair, her arms encircling the other woman's knees and clinging tightly.
"Enough, you two." Sabelina glared at the two men, one hand softly stroking Ivy's hair. "She may have something to do with this, but she's not the cause. Whatever is happening to Isolda, it's evil, and this woman has no evil in her."
"Enough! You may be the high and mighty Lord Wayholt, and you may be my husband, but you will not touch her!"
"You believe in her that strongly?"
"I do," Sabelina said in reply to Balian's question. "I'm not exactly sure why, but I know she's good. Besides," she added slowly, "something in me can't bear the thought of her coming to harm of any kind."
"Would that," Balian asked, "be anything like the something in me that seems to know her?" He shook his head. "At any rate, your belief is good enough for me. Which means we need to check other things."
Turning his head, he gazed at Emeric. "We need to send people out to scour the countryside," he said. "If someone is doing this to Isolda, whoever it is has to be somewhere close. Between them, your men and mine know nearly everyone for miles. Let's send them out and see how many unknowns we find."
For two days, the men searched. Finally, near the end of the third day, a small group of soldiers returned. On hearing their report, Emeric, Balian and Sabelina gathered in the king's day room.
"What have you found?" Hardwin asked.
"Not what, Your Majesty," Emeric replied, gesturing through the door. As two of his men entered, he added, "Who?"
For a moment, Hardwin simply gazed at the slender figure in tattered robes standing between the two soldiers, then his eyes widened.
"Tivor!" At his words, the others stepped back a pace.
"The rogue wizard?" Even Balian's eyes were wide.
Hardwin nodded. "The same. The very same Tivor who once served this court, and who was banished for practicing the dark arts. Obviously, he has cast some kind of spell on Isolda. What have you done to harm my daughter?"
"Harm?" Tivor laughed. "Why, Your Majesty, your daughter is in perfect health. She's just..." He shrugged. "She's just not quite herself these days."
Hardwin nodded to one of his guards. "Bring my daughter to me." Silently, the guard slipped from the room. The rest stood silently until the door opened once more.
"Father, I was resting," Isolda said, sweeping into the room. "Why have you....." She fell silent as her eyes fell on Tivor, standing between the two soldiers. "What is he doing here?"
"He," Hardwin replied, "is about to reverse whatever it was he did to you. That is," he added, his voice hardening, "if he wished to keep his head attached to his body."
Isolda's eyes widened. "But you promised!"
Slowly, Tivor began speaking words only he could understand. At the sound of his words, Isolda stiffened, her body beginning to writhe. As Tivor's words grew louder, Isolda's contortions increased. Suddenly, even as Tivor fell silent, she collapsed. At the same time, behind Sabelina, Ivy also collapsed to the floor. Stunned, the small group stared at the two women lying limp on the floor. Finally, slowly, Isolda drew herself to a sitting position.
"Father? Balian? Lina, oh, Lina, I am so sorry!"
Leaning down, Balian gently lifted Isolda from the floor. For a moment, she clung to him, then gently pushed away.
"No," she said softly, "let me stand on my own." Reluctantly, Balian lowered her to the floor. Isolda wavered, steadying herself with an obvious effort before facing the others.
"Thank you for saving me," she said softly.
"But what was wrong with you?" Hardwin stared at her. "What illness did this wizard inflict on you?"
"No illness, Father," Isolda replied. "I wasn't ill. I just wasn't me." She glanced behind Sabelina, to where Ivy was only then beginning to rise. "I was her."
Isolda nodded. "That day," she said, "during the hunt, I'd chased a large buck far into the woods. Then, in a small clearing, I saw her. Naked, silent, something about her drew me from my saddle. Then, as I stared at her, everything became blurred. When my vision cleared, I was looking at myself. Somehow, we had changed bodies. I tried to speak, but I had no voice. Then my body drew a knife and moved toward me. I thought she was going to kill me, but then she seemed to hesitate. I did the only thing I could. I ran. Then Balian found me, and you know the rest."
Hardwin stared. "But why?" He turned his gaze toward Tivor. "Why would you do this?"
"I had power," the wizard replied. "Real power, the kind that only a king can provide. And you took that from me."
"You," Hardwin pointed out, "were practicing forbidden arts."
Tivor shook his head. "No matter," he replied. "You took the power that was rightfully mine. So I decided to take something equally precious from you. This one," he gestured toward Ivy, "I found as a youth. Voiceless though she was, she became the instrument of my revenge. She would become princess, and then Queen. Isolda would become a nameless corpse. But she let the princess get away, and then the others found her. Since then, her damnable maid hasn't left her alone long enough for me to deal with her."
"That's why I felt I knew you," Balian said slowly. "I was looking at her, but I was seeing you inside her body."
Isolda nodded. "And why Lina felt she had to protect me. Just as she always has."
"And she feigned illness," Balian said, "to keep us from realizing she wasn't really you."
"No," Isolda replied, shaking her head. "She did try her best to avoid those who really knew me." She nodded toward Balian. "That's why she didn't want to play." Her gaze turned toward Sabelina. "And why she requested a different maid. You both know and love me far too well to be fooled for long. But the illness was real. It was only chance that it began when it did."
"So what ails you, pretty one? Is this something else the wizard did to you?"
Isolda smiled. "No, my love, it wasn't something he did. As I came back into my body, I saw the cause. And it wasn't the wizard's fault. It's yours."
Balian's eyes widened. "Mine? But how.....?"
Isolda laughed. "Relax, my love, it's nothing bad. There's only one reason for the kind of illness I have. I am with child." She smiled. "Our child, my love."
For long seconds, there was silence, and then the room filled with glad cries. In the midst of the resulting clamor, Tivor asked quietly, "And what is to become of me?"
Hardwin raised one hand. Immediately the room fell silent. "You," he replied, "will be tried for high treason. I think you know what will happen if you are found guilty."
"And the girl?"
Hardwin gazed at Ivy, who stood staring at the floor. "She," the king said, "will be turned over to our healers. Perhaps there is still hope for her."
"Perhaps." Moving to stand in front of Ivy, Isolda folded her in her arms. Surprised, the silent woman hesitantly returned the hug. "And perhaps, if the healers can cure her, she can help Lina take care of my baby."
"Isolda?" Sabelina stared. "You forgive her already? She stole your body!"
Isolda shook her head. "She was simply a tool, someone Tivor used for his own purposes. Maybe, once she learns there are other things in this world besides hate, she will become someone we can trust. At the very least, she deserves the chance."
"So be it." At Hardwin's gesture, the soldiers led Tivor away. "Welcome home, my daughter."
Smiling, Isolda wrapped one arm around Balian's waist. "Thank you, Father. And thank all of you for not giving up on me." Her other arm slid around Sabelina's waist, drawing her close. "Especially you, Lina. I am so sorry she hurt you as she did."
"You," Sabelina said, her eyes moist, "are not forgiven. And once you have had your baby, I fully intend to spank you until you can't sit down for scaring me this way." Slowly, the corners of her mouth began to twitch upwards.
Isolda laughed. "After I've had my baby," she replied, "I might even let you."
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