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Like gossamer threads, pale green wisps of Spanish moss hung from the limbs of majestic pines. Water dripped in a steady cadence from the great canopy, running down time-weathered bark and forming droplets of silvery light on spider webs spun through the branches. The forest floor was littered with decomposing pine needles and moss; lichen and ferns crowded the base of trunks several feet around. Wild mushrooms fought for footing in the moist soil and the bark of every tree, big or small.
High atop a rocky crag and tail, on the far side of Summit Ridge, shrouded in mist and hidden from the eyes of modern man, Castle Hart blended into the surrounding woods. Built of local granite, the castle held fifty-six opulent rooms, designed and decorated by the lord of the manor, Sir Anthony Hart. Each room uniquely its own, in purpose, form, and function. Unless directed to its location, most people would pass by without ever noticing its existence.
Like King Arthur before him, loyal and brave knights protected Lord Hart, his subjects, and the castle. This hidden world, steeped in mystery, where old ways were honored and men controlled all things, was a secret realm created as an escape from a contemporary world. Each citizen of the palace believed the ancient ways somehow held more promise than the current lack of morals plaguing today's society.
This community of lords and ladies, masters and slaves, existed in complete separation and secrecy; where Sir Anthony Hart ruled with the might of his sword and the honor of his word. The world he created and controlled was his to govern as he saw fit.
It was midwinter and the storms had settled into theirnormal pattern, wind whipping the coast, as clouds raced inland over forests as old as the earth. This time of year palace life was slow, most choosing to stay in the warmth of their chambers until evening arrived. Each eve at seven sharp, a banquet was served in the great hall. This twilight feast was a time when everyone came together for companionship, good food, and to enjoy the pleasures of life.
Lady Elizabeth Cowen had lived at Castle Hart for two years. As first lady to Lord Hart, and a free woman, she was allowed more liberties than most ladies of the court. Her position in the palace permitted her to lead a pampered existence most women might only dream of.
Elizabeth enjoyed all the pleasures available to her. Anthony was a fabulous lover, who put forth great effort to make sure her needs were met. She was permitted to enjoy sexual encounters with unattached free men and knights if she chose. Lord Hart was a broad-minded man, who believed free persons should partake of sex in an open and honest fashion.
Hart also enjoyed the pleasures available to him here at the palace, although he'd never taken a slave, which was his right as lord and master. This arrangement worked wonderfully for Elizabeth because she didn't have to share his affections with another woman. All in all, life here was peaceful; she was loved and cherished.
Elizabeth felt satisfied. She'd had two years of uncomplicated living and happiness, two years of enjoyment and pleasure, two years of peace, until the fateful evening three months ago when Lord Thomas Wolfe returned from a raid. She'd known Wolfe, first knight to Anthony Hart, for a long time. And yet she'd barely really noticed him before. Never observed the way his hair hung over his collar or the deep blue color of his eyes. Never noted the way his mouth turned at the corners in a smile or the laugh lines around his lips. Nor the deep tenor of his voice as he spoke of the trials he'd endured during his raid on another castle, far to the south of this secluded valley they called home.
Anthony spent hours listening to Thomas recant the details of the attack, while Elizabeth sat close by, studying the face of Lord Wolfe. She knew Hart was pleased with the incursion and the capture of several slaves. These women would be trained in the art of a jakara, taught the proper way to enter and greet, the correct way to serve a meal and the intricate steps to the dances performed nightly for the enjoyment and sexual arousal of the audience. The knights also returned with a number of free men and women to join the family here. It had taken several days and many hours of reliving the finer points of the mission before the castle settled back into a normal routine, normal that is for everyone except Elizabeth.
No matter how hard she tried, it was impossible to keep her mind off Thomas Wolfe. She watched him each eve at feast. The way he stroked the breast of his slave girl made her wet and hungry for his touch. The striking way he controlled the conversation after banquet enthralled her. She hung on every word, wishing it were her body he played with absent-mindedly while telling stories to the assembled crowd.
And Lord Anthony Hart was aware of her distraction. It was two weeks after the knights returned in triumph when he finally reminded her, "You have my permission to seek out knights, Elizabeth."
Looking down at the plate in front of her, the food barely touched, she responded, "Yes Milord, I know this."
She felt his finger on her chin, as he gently lifted her head until her eyes met his. "Look at me, Elizabeth. It's been too many days that you've hungered for Wolfe, so why not just get on with it?"
"I can not speak of this here Anthony, not with everyone watching and listening. Please, can it wait until this eve in our chamber?"
She saw the surprise written in his eyes.
"This is not what I think it is." He paused to take a breath. "Is it?" His eyes bore into hers with such intensity she wanted to run away.
"Milord, please," she started to say, desperately wondering how to explain to Hart her desire to have more then casual sex with Thomas Wolfe.
"Stop!" His voice rose. "You will get yourself to our chamber and await my pleasure."
Elizabeth, afraid to do or say more, stood without answering this command. She curtsied deeply, a tear welling in the corner of her eye, as her look implored him to understand. Withdrawing from the great hall, she went directly to the chamber she shared with Anthony Hart to await his arrival.