This is darker than I usually write, but I needed to get this scene visualized in my head. It occurs sometime after "A Revelation" but before "Ready to Run". So, right now it is 2nd in the "Freedom" series. I will be writing more about the story after "Within Our Grasp," but I have signed on to do a Big Bang story on LiveJournal. A Big Bang is a creative collaboration between writers and artists. A writer agrees to write a certain number of words (in this case 40K – yes, I'm nuts) and an artist will do either cover art or a fanmix for the story. I am writing a story that takes place some time in the future – after "Within Our Grasp" – for my entry. It is due to be posted in January, and I will put it on right after that. So, I hope you will enjoy some one-shots to help me flesh out the universe as I go. Disclaimer: Nope, I still don't own…and I still want to borrow one Wyatt Cain.

A scream tore through the palace, dragging people from the deep sleep of the predawn hours. As the tormented sound repeated, the entire place seemed to come alive like an angry beehive. Half-dressed figures raced towards the point of origin, weapons at the ready. Men and women alike had risen and grabbed whatever weapon came to hand. Faces grew pale and eyes narrowed as they realized the continuing screams poured forth from Princess Azkadelia's bedroom.

Jeb Cain had reached her door first, with his father mere steps behind him. With a practiced move, Cain caught DG before she could barrel into the room. He pushed her towards Glitch and Raw with a sharp look. Folding her lips in annoyance, she still nodded and stayed put, but her entire being vibrated with the need to get to her sister. Other guards had restrained the Queen and Consort from moving any closer until someone ascertained what was going on.

With a silent countdown, the men burst into the private quarters of the eldest princess. Each move precise and exacting, they strode through the sitting room, guns shifting to cover every potential hiding place. Reaching the bedroom entrance, Jeb kicked the door in and swung into the room. He crouched down to stay out of his father's line of fire. Cain stalked in just behind him, standing at his full height to examine the situation.

Another scream came from the writhing form of the princess as she remained trapped in a nightmare. Having confirmed the room was empty, Cain stepped back out to gesture for DG. Like an arrow, she shot directly for her older sister. Jeb nodded at his father and then stepped back out into the hallway to send the guards back to their posts or their beds.

"Nightmare," he said shortly. "We're trying to wake her now."

The guards exchanged glances, concern and sorrow dominating their expressions. Several shook their heads in pity.

"Poor girl," whispered one…a Northern rider by his accent. "After having the Witch stuck in her head for all that time, who knows what might be haunting her."

Jeb's mouth twitched. His family had suffered by order of the Witch and her Longcoats, as had so many in the O.Z.. However, perhaps nobody had suffered more than the princess. To have the visions and memories of what the Witch had done from within the same body? He would not wish that on anyone, let alone the young girl who had been released from bondage, only to find that more than a decade had passed.

When the halls had cleared, he reentered the bedroom, nodding in respect to the family gathered around Azkadelia. He moved towards the knot of men at the window, and joined his father, Glitch, Raw and Savoie, highest ranking of Azkadelia's personal guard. Ginger, her other personal guard, stood watch in the sitting room in order to prevent any interruption from the servants while the princess was so emotionally vulnerable.

As he came up to them, Raw was shaking his head, tears standing out in the Reader's large expressive eyes. Intense sorrow and a low burning anger sat uneasily on his face.

"Such fear…such pain. Witch liked to make her suffer…fed on despair. Just enough rope…not enough room," he said, voice broken and stretched.

Cain's lips folded.

"So, she taunted Az as much as she did anyone else?" he asked, and Raw nodded.

When Savoie and Jeb both frowned in confusion, he gave an impatient shrug and had to visibly bite back a nasty remark.

"Foul, bloodless…" Glitch muttered before giving a jerk and shaking his head. "The Witch got her kicks in making people suffer. Who better than the very girl whose body she had possessed?"

Cain nodded.

"She probably could have destroyed Az's very existence, but that would have ruined her enjoyment. She gave Az just enough freedom to hope for salvation, but not enough room to fight for it. She kept her there, alive and present, able to see and feel everything, but not able to do anything."

As Cain fell silent, the men glanced over at the tearstained face of their princess. As they watched, fresh tears pooled in her eyes and glided down her cheeks. She pressed her face into her father's shoulder, and clutched her sister's hand as her mother petted her long dark hair and rubbed the back of her neck.

Raw twitched and they turned back to him.

"Greater hurt she did. Fear, terror, despair…loss…Witch forced her…to watch…to feel…evil men helped…held her down…"

Savoie grew stiff, his eyes burning as Jeb's heart stuttered. Glitch closed his eyes, head bowing in grief, while Cain's entire figure went completely still. Ice blue eyes shifted from the Royal family back to the Reader, burning with a deep cold flame.

"She…that...of all the…" Cain stopped, and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and forced himself to put his thoughts in order. He rolled his shoulders, and opened his eyes once more. The flames were now banked, but they smoldered in righteous, but helpless fury. With the Witch gone and the remaining Longcoats in hiding, he had no focus for his anger. Even as the fury faded into sorrow, he turned back to Raw, his eyes an open wound.

"Raw," he said, voice soft, but straightforward. "Are you saying that the Witch forced Az to be a witness…almost a participant in her own rape?"

Raw's shoulders hunched.

"The Witch…reveled in the flesh. Stuck so long in cave, she could not touch. When she took over Princess, she had new body…young one…pretty one. Never had that before…found she could play new games…with the men…with the little spirit she held so tightly."

Savoie's eyes snapped to his charge. His deep brown eyes hollowed out in impotent rage, he could see another face imposed over the face of the Princess. This face had an olive complexion and caramel colored eyes, but shared the same rich dark hair. His daughter had suffered greatly at the hands of a gang of Longcoats before they had finally killed her, and when he had sworn to wreak vengeance for her death, he had also taken a vow to give aid and protection to all other women in his daughter's name. Now, to find that his princess had suffered in the same way? He had been surprised but grateful when Wyatt Cain had approached him about becoming a Royal Guard, and astonished when they trusted him with the safety of Princess Azkadelia. He had taken oath to defend her, and had done his job well – living up to the trust and loyalty that the Cain men had expected. With this new revelation however, his allegiance had shifted and crystallized.

Fine tremors shook Jeb's frame as he tried to temper his wrath with common sense. At that moment, he had no greater desire than the one encouraging him to ride out and find any man that yet remained who had played a part in Azkadelia's torture. He had a burning need to hit something, but could do nothing here and now without scaring her. He knew that she had been young when the Witch had first possessed her. She had still enjoyed playing childish games with her sister; preferred letting her mother brush her hair and tell her stories; wanted to work with her father in his craft shop instead of learning the formal dances. According to the stories he had heard over the dinners he had shared with them, they talked of skipping stones, toying with their dolls, or playing hide and seek in the maze at Finaqua. Barely a teenager when she had been possessed, and not yet sixteen when the Witch used her form to unseat her mother from power…how old had she been when the Witch started playing a nastier game?

"Savoie," Jeb said once he had managed to get his voice under control. "Go and let Ginger know what we have discovered. She needs to know to be extra vigilant when any males start paying too close attention to the princess."

The Guard gave a sharp nod and stalked out of the room. Cain gave his son an approving look, but did not speak. The four men stayed by the window, but remained silent as the Royal family continued to soothe and calm Azkadelia. Another fifteen minutes passed before the Queen and Consort rose from their daughter's bedside. With final kisses and blessings, they left their daughters to rest and withdrew, nodding at the men as they passed.

"Glitch, Raw, you two go back to bed," Cain instructed. He glanced at Jeb and raised an eyebrow in question. Jeb nodded.

"Do me a favor?" he asked his father's friends. "Would you ask Savoie and Ginger to bed down in the sitting room? I want them nearby just in case, but let them know that Dad and I will stand guard in here."

The two males nodded, and left the room after stopping to give their farewells to the girls. As the bedroom door closed, the two of them made their way slowly to the bedside. Az sat against her headboard, eyes focused firmly on her hands. She would not look up or meet anyone's eyes. As DG turned haunted, despairing eyes to Cain, Jeb pulled a chair over to Az's side. She stiffened almost imperceptibly. He paused; acknowledging her response, but still took a seat next to her. Reaching out slowly, letting her watch his every move, he placed his hand on the bedspread next to her, palm up. He made no move to take her hand; he did not try to speak or even encourage her. He simply waited, eyes trained on her face as the other two witnesses held their breath.

Azkadelia's eyes drifted from where her hands rested in her lap to his hand next to her on the bed. She examined the strong, lean hand with caution. Unlike the soft, weak hands of the nobles who vied for her attention at court, Jeb's hand had calluses and scars – evidence of hard work and effort put forth in service to the O.Z. Like the rest of him, his hands betrayed no weakness; gave no quarter to those who caused evil. However, he had never treated her with anything less than respect. He had been a bit distant, maybe even cool, but always kind. His hands had been gentle and protective the few times he had reason to touch her; when she had been tripped in the city; when he had found her weeping in the library. Every time he had been strong, but tender; distant, but soothing.

She bit her lip, almost to the point of drawing blood, as she stared at that hand; that hand waiting on her choice. Ever so slowly, her right hand lifted from her lap and moved to hover over his. For a long moment, her hand remained suspended in air, a fine trembling shaking the long delicate fingers. As she took a deep breath, she lowered her hand to his.

Jeb let out a soft sigh and folded his fingers over hers. As she turned to meet his eyes, he gave her a direct look, sincerity and conviction pouring out of him.

"You're not alone anymore."

Tears filled her eyes once more. This time however, the tears were those of relief; of gratitude. She knew her family would stand beside her; they loved her and wanted to help, but it had not occurred to any of them that she needed to hear the words. While words alone could not bring healing, sometimes actions alone could not give ease to a heart. He had given her the most basic of assurances…she no longer had to face the demons in her mind alone. Her lips curled slightly even as a single tear spilled over.

"I'm here."