Disclaimer: TS is not mine. I'm not sure who they belong to anymore. No money made. Valdemar belongs to Mercedes Lackey, she still plays with this world quite a bit, check out the real thing published by DAW books.
Four-legged creature mindspeech is italicized. I have broken one (okay at least one) of the rules of Valdemar as written by Mercedes Lackey, in my stories everyone speaks the same language.
Warnings: None that I can think of. Thanks to all of those who have waited so patiently for the conclusion to this series. I hope it was worth the wait.
I'd like to thank Ruth, Sue and CC for reading, providing quality comments and mostly correcting my strange wordings and use of punctuation. Also, many thanks to Rona for her comments and advice on my stories and... for keeping me from chucking this story after I thought it couldn't be saved.
Blair rode point along the main path, leading the group back to Bethyl Woods as fast as the horses could manage.
"Chosen, relax, it is better that we remain together. Worrying yourself is not going to get us home faster."
"I know, but so much as happened. I just wish this was over."
"We will defeat Brackett. It will just take a little time."
"I'm just as worried about Jim and Grace. So much pain and both of them are keeping what they are feeling bottled up inside."
Blair thought back over the argument that had occurred only a few candlemarks ago. It had been decided that the return trip to Bethyl Woods was to be completed as quickly as they could push the horses. The Companions could have gotten Jim and Blair back to the manor ahead of the remainder of the group. However, the group had decided it was better to stay together.
None of the party wished to remain on the trail for long. Having just seen how difficult it was going to be to defeat the enemy gave strength to the party to return as soon as possible. Brackett was clearly getting stronger with each appearance and the Horde was just as dangerous. It was clear they needed to immediately form and carry out a plan of attack.
"Is this a private discussion or can I join you?" Drake asked as he nudged his horse beside Burton.
"Was I talking out loud?" Blair asked, not remembering doing so.
"No, not really. I can sense your turmoil. I feel equally concerned by the silence that has developed between Jim and Grace."
Blair nodded. "It's obvious that Jim's gained more than his looks from his mother's side of the family. Mother and son seem to be equally determined to protect the other by keeping silent on last night's revelation."
"Which of them do you think is going to speak about what happened first?"
Blair chuckled slightly. "What makes you think either of them are ever going to speak about it? Unless, of course, you or I decide to push the issue."
Drake smiled and nodded. "I've always been amazed at the way Grace is so talented at convincing others to speak of their problems, but refuses to discuss her own with anyone. Perhaps we should tell Grace that Jim overheard her last night and she should speak to him."
"That's not a good idea. Jim's not going to talk until he's ready," Blair answered. Then he shook his head in surprise as he wondered how Drake knew that Jim overheard the discussion. "How did you know that Jim was awake? I wasn't sure until I asked Burton."
"It was your reaction that gave him away. Periodically during the conversation you would stare over at Jim. I could tell you were assessing his reactions. I began doing the same once I realized he was listening. Although Jim is very good at hiding his feelings in his facial expressions, his body language is easy for me to read due to my training." Drake pointed one finger at Blair as he continued, "On the other hand, your face gives away everything that you are feeling, Blair. I would advise you to stay away from card games."
"You'd be surprised how well I can play games," Blair replied. Looking ahead, Blair recognized the approaching intersection of the roads as being only a short distance from the manor house. "For now, I would settle for something cool to drink and a nice, long soak in some really hot water."
"Sounds good to me," Drake answered. "This has been the longest I've ever traveled from my home. I miss the hot springs that my ancestors had built into our homes. The springs were designed to be aesthetically pleasing as well as the obvious function. They are a wondrous sight, Blair."
Drakes' voice was filled with longing as he added, "One of the trials one must deal with when traveling far from home. Someday, you and Jim must visit White Gryphon, Blair. I think you would enjoy it."
The conversation ended abruptly as Drake's horse lurched forward into a gallop. Now that the horses recognized they were approaching home, they moved at a quicker pace.
Upon reaching the stable, they noticed another Companion had been set loose in the adjoining field. Blair smiled, as he noticed a half-grown foal frolicking with a familiar face.
"I see Elly has improved greatly in our absence," Grace said as she too saw the happy youngsters.
Both Jim and Blair could see the Companion's Herald standing by the fence, also a familiar face.
Blair dismounted next to Megan who was keeping an eye on the occupants in the field. Greeting her fondly with a bear hug, he said, "Megan, so it was your Companion's foal. I thought it was too early for Elly to be Chosen?"
"Technically, it is too early, but Elly has not been officially Chosen. We decided it would be a good idea to have Rupert get to know Elly. I'm here only until Elly is ready to travel back to the Collegium. My family will foster her until Rupert is mature enough to Choose her. In the meanwhile, my Companion can do a little unofficial training with Elly so that she can control her gift."
"And if she can't?" Blair asked.
Megan shrugged. "Rupert seems to think he can help her with control, without formally Choosing her. If he's wrong, we can have the healers temporarily seal her gifts until she is ready for them."
Blair stood next to Megan for a moment, watching as both child and foal ran out of energy and lay down in the grass to rest for a while. Elly rested her head on the foal's chest, while Megan's Companion moved closer to stand watch.
He sighed. "I wish I could be so relaxed. It wasn't that long ago that I wasn't sure whether Elly would readjust to the real world. Look at her now. It's almost as if nothing happened."
Jim spoke from Incacha's back, also watching Elly and the foal in the field. "She hasn't forgotten, Chief. It's just easier for children to forget the bad things for a time. Kids have a distinct advantage over adults; they can live only in the moment, without the burden of worrying about what the future holds."
"The voice of experience?" Blair asked.
Jim shrugged before dismounting to greet Megan properly.
"Why don't the two of you head inside," Megan suggested. "I'll look after Burton and Incacha for you. I believe Lord Ellison wanted everyone gathered together as soon as possible upon your return."
"Aren't you coming?" Jim asked.
"No, I explained to Lord Ellison that I was here only to get your report for the Circle." Megan held up her hands at the look of surprise from the other two Heralds. "I know. I know. Burton or Incacha could have relayed any message, but we didn't want to explain that my real purpose here was to take the child back to Haven because she has a powerful gift that we wanted to keep an eye on."
"As far as my father's concerned, that would have been a very good reason for you coming. He would not have been comfortable with Elly staying on the Estate," Jim said with a wry grin. He wasn't sure that his father was comfortable with his own heraldic gifts, much less those of a non-relative.
"We were just waiting until you came back. Elly wanted to say good-bye to you, Blair," Megan explained, a puzzled look crossing her face, "And someone named Grace."
Blair looked over the fence at the sleeping child. "I don't think I'll wake her now. You don't plan on leaving this late in the afternoon, do you?"
"No, we'll leave in the morning," Megan answered.
"Good, I'll make sure to speak with her tonight," Blair replied.
Looping the reins over the saddle, Jim and Blair left their Companions in Megan's capable hands and headed for the manor. The remainder of the party was already on their way inside, having turned their own mounts over to the stable boys.
Immediately upon entering the manor house, the group gathered again in the large banquet room. The invisible boundaries between the two groups had disappeared. Those from the estate and from White Gryphon were interspersed throughout the room. The only additions to the original attendees were Steven and Simon, who had finally arrived.
The only trace of animosity evident in the room was coming from Jim. He hadn't come to terms with what his mother had revealed the previous night. He hoped it wasn't too obvious to the others, and it wasn't as if he wanted to be angry with his father. His mother didn't appear to be holding a grudge, so why was he?
Incacha gently inserted her opinion into his thoughts, "She has had years to process the situation, you have had less than a day. Give yourself a little time."
Thankfully, Jim hid his feeling so well that only Blair had the slightest notion that something was wrong, and with the start of the meeting, the others were focused on the discussion.
Each of the teams reported on what they had found. Dren and Aramen described the skeletal remains perfectly, including a chipped tooth that William confirmed Brackett had.
Then Drake relayed to the group a graphic description of the incident at the holding. Knowing that Brackett was coming was horrible enough, but it was the Horde that truly had the group concerned. There were just too many of them to handle without being encased in metal or some other form of protection. Determining a way to contain or destroy the Horde would be a crucial part of any plan.
"It seems to me that the swarm can only stay in this world as long as Brackett is commanding them here. If we can prevent him from ever returning to our world, we don't have to worry about the Horde anymore," Drake said.
"But how do we do that?" Simon asked. He would have preferred some type of wild animal or ferocious beast to this form of enemy. There were very few military tactics his men could execute against this type of foe and none of them had a high percentage of success.
"I believe I can help with that. I have uncovered the means by which Brackett has survived in the other dimension and opened the doorway to ours. He used his mortal remains as an anchor to pull him into our realm," Brother Marcus announced proudly, but with an equal measure of disgust.
"So if we destroy his bones, he can't return any longer," Blair said.
Excited comments came from various speakers as the thought of an easy end to this situation crossed almost everyone's minds.
Brother Marcus cleared his throat, knowing what he was about to say would disappoint the rest of the group. "Unfortunately, it's not that simple. I believe that he has gathered enough power to open and close the door without needing his bones now, because he has no solid body. He is pure energy. However, the dark arts that Brackett used to leave his body behind can be broken. If we can trap the shadow in the same place as his mortal remains, there is a ritual that can be performed to join the two of them together. Once he is mortal again, he must be cast back into that dark dimension."
"Once he's mortal, why can't we put him on trial for his crimes?" Simon asked. "He's murdered a lot of people." The thought that the death of all those innocents would go unpunished gnawed at his sense of justice. Exile wasn't punishment enough for the crimes Brackett had committed.
"I said he would be mortal, having solid form, but this ritual will not limit his ability to drain the life force from all living things. He has gained both power and knowledge from this other realm. This is an indisputable fact. We have no way of containing that much power. No, he must be kept from gathering any more energy and that means cutting him off from all living things, forever."
"It seems cruel, even for something as evil as he," Blair said, shaking his head.
"I don't believe we have any other options. If we leave him in our realm, there always remains the possibility that he could escape. I do not see any way to guarantee the safety of our people if he remains here, no matter how we confine him. Now, if we send him back to that other place as a mortal, he would have his hands full keeping away from the Horde. And without the bones as an anchor, I believe he would have a difficult time finding the path to our realm again."
Jim's stomach turned as he read between the lines. "You said difficult, not impossible. So Brackett could come back?"
Brother Marcus shrugged his shoulders. "I am not an expert in these matters. From everything I have studied, it appears there are thousands of different dimensions that exist besides our own. Without a tie to ours, it would be very difficult for him to find his way back. However, he will retain the ability to open a portal to any of the other realms, we can't prevent that, but as I said before, he will become mortal again.
Blair snapped his fingers. "Which means he will age."
Brother Marcus nodded and smiled at Blair, impressed by the Herald's quick mind. "Correct and as he grows older his powers will weaken. I seriously doubt he would be able to gather, much less control, another Horde army."
"Not to mention that his ability to recharge his power will also be limited. This is our best hope for protecting ourselves," Drake added.
"Just how are we supposed to convince the creature to get anywhere close to his bones?" Grace asked. "I'm sure Brackett will know what we are trying to do. He may be amoral and absolutely evil, but he's not stupid." She knew Brackett better than anyone else in the room and knew this would not be easy.
"The ritual requires that the shadow remain within a few feet of the remains. Otherwise the rejoining will not take place," Brother Marcus said.
Bryon joined the discussion for the first time. "I may be able to force it into one of those boxes, using mind magic. I would have to be close to the shadow, though. I suspect that in a battle of wills, this Brackett and I will be evenly matched. I will not be able to fight him and keep the Horde away from myself. You would have to make one of those metal boxes big enough for me to enter and alter the mechanism for opening and closing it."
"I don't think that will be a problem," Arthur said. As Lord Ellison's Weaponsmaster, he would be in charge of ensuring the safety of the group. "I'll speak to the blacksmith about it as soon as we are through here."
"So even if we get him into the box, how do we keep the Horde from killing us while we close the box and complete this ritual?" Grace asked.
"Fire!" Blair exclaimed, vividly remembering how fire destroyed the attacking Horde at the holding. "We'll have to create a circle of fire big enough to keep the Horde away until we are finished." He swallowed hard before continuing, "And have something available to keep them occupied away from the action."
Simon, finding the discussion had come to a point where his tactics could provide assistance, volunteered, "I'll have my units collect enough wood along the way to build a massive fire around the area."
"It sounds as if we have the beginning of a plan. There seems to be much that can go very wrong though," William said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "Now that all the holders have gathered here with their livestock, it would be possible to cull an entire herd of the older beasts and use them to keep the Horde away from your chosen area. I can tell the holders that any animal given to the cause will be counted as part of this year's tithe. This should improve our chances of success. Steven, would you please make arrangements with the holders who have already moved their herds onto the estate?"
Steven nodded, mentally calculating the number of beasts that would be required and assessing if there were enough animals already on the estate. If they could not come up with enough animals, he would have to send some of his buyers to the market.
Jim swallowed hard. The thought of the Horde feeding was enough to make him ill. Even using older beasts, the value of the animals was high. Yet his father was willing to assume the cost completely. Jim felt most of his anger towards his father drain away. Perhaps he should follow his mother's example and let the past remain in the past. "Thank you, father. I was a little worried about how we were going to keep the Horde away from us."
"We must retrieve the bones," Drake added. "I will go with Dren and Aramen. They can use the carry-all to transport me. Once I'm at the site, there is a spell I will use to verify that we have collected all the remains. I have just enough of the mage gift to make this work."
"We can't make the jourrrney and be back beforrre the beasst will attack the next holding," Aramen said sadly.
"No, we will prepare at the Ridley holding," William said. "The Koven holding has already been evacuated by Steven. Nothing is left there for Brackett to attack. He can have the place. We'll make our stand at Ridley's."
"It's agreed, then?" Drake asked, slowly turning his head to look at each person sitting at the table.
"We're agreed," William answered. "I know it has been a difficult couple of days for most of you. I've arranged for dinner to be served in the main dining hall for all of us. I would be pleased if we could all gather there in about a candlemark."
Jim had just finished putting on a clean set of whites when he heard a hesitant knock at his door.
"Come in," he called, expecting to see Blair's face. Blair had wanted to say good-bye to Elly before she left with Megan. They were leaving before the dinner, so Grace and Blair were helping Elly pack for the trip. He was surprised to see his brother enter the room. "Hey, Stevie. What can I do for you?"
Steven entered the room but stopped just inside the door. He appeared hesitant, nervous.
"What's wrong, little brother?"
"I guess, I'm just feeling a little... I don't know... useless, I guess," Steven said, looking down at his feet.
"Steven, you're Father's right hand here. What you're doing is important."
"Not compared to what you are doing. You and Blair and the others, you're gonna be right there, stopping Brackett, while I'm back here doing the books," Steven replied, rolling his eyes.
"I should be out there with you and the others. Someday, I'm going to have to take over as head of Bethyl Woods. I should be out there, with you and Mo..." Steven's voice trailed off.
Jim understood what Steven was getting at. "With Mother, you mean. Is that what this is about?"
"I just got her back, Jim. I want to spend some time with her. Get to know her. But in less than a day, she's going to be gone again." Steven moved a little further into the room as he talked.
"Stevie, we'll be back in a few days," Jim said, meeting his brother half way, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him a bit. "Don't worry, I'll bring her back."
"You don't know that, bro. Anything could go wrong." Steven was still not looking his brother in the eyes.
"Wrong, with two heralds, two Companions, a Lord Marshall, not to mention everyone else. Mother will be well protected."
"You know, I'm worried about you, too." Steven raised his head, a sheepish grin on his face.
Jim pulled his brother into a headlock, and mussed his hair. Not releasing his brother, Jim pulled Steven to the door. "You've nothing to worry about. Now, let's go have a good meal and we'll see if we can corner Mother after dinner and find out what she's been doing the last few years. She sure asked us a lot of questions, but she hasn't said much of anything about what she's been doing. "
"Are you gonna let go or are you gonna make me hurt you?" Steven asked, his voice muffled from having his head stuffed under his brother's armpit.
"I'll think about it," Jim said, opening the door. He stopped short upon seeing his mother and Blair about to knock.
Seeing the raised eyebrow on his mother's face, he immediately released his younger brother.
The window of opportunity to destroy Brackett and his Horde before they reached Bethyl Woods was rapidly closing. The blacksmith had been unable to complete the box that would protect Bryon from the Horde, so there had been a slight change in the plan. Bryon would remain on the hillside with Simon and the Companions. They arrived in the middle of the afternoon at the last holding in line with the path of destruction Brackett left in his wake. The late arrival left them little time to set up.
Simon's guard units had collected enough wood to place a large barrier all around the clearing between the house and the barn. They made sure the animals they had brought as bait were placed well outside the fire line. The plan was not to contain the animals within a fence but keep them close to the barn by leaving enough grain and feed in the grass that they would stay in one place. When the Horde appeared, the animals would have the opportunity to flee and draw at least some of the Horde away from them. As soon as the Horde was in pursuit of a meal, a flaming arrow would be shot to ignite the wood that had been soaked with lantern oil. Hopefully, it would burn long enough for Brackett to be confined.
Grace and Blair were to be the bait for Brackett; they would be waiting just outside the house. Bryon, Drake and Brother Marcus would be on a hill waiting to spring the trap. Bryon would attempt to force Brackett into the box as soon as he arrived. Once the shadow was trapped, Jim had the most dangerous role to perform. He would be with Grace and Blair at the holding, but protected by metal casing. Bryon would have to keep control of Brackett's mind until Jim had the time to exit his box, flip the lid closed on Brackett's box and lock it. Only then would Brother Marcus and Drake combine their skills and power to complete the ritual and open the doorway. Only then could they toss the box containing Brackett into the doorway and prevent him from killing anything else.
The guard unit had arranged the circle of oil-soaked wood and had retreated from the area. Drake feared a concentration of humans would attract the attention of the Horde away from the rightful prey, the animals. Simon remained on the hill to fire the arrow. He wouldn't ask anyone else to perform this duty. If the arrow failed to reach its target, the entire plan would unravel in the blink of an eye.
It was about a half of a candlemark before the sun was due to set when Blair sensed something wicked was coming. He and Grace were spreading some hay for the animals to eat, waiting until the last possible second to enter the confined space within the metal boxes.
"Grace! Jim! He's coming. I can feel him. Head for the boxes," Blair shouted as he dropped his pitchfork and ran for the box closest to him.
"It can't be! It's too early," Grace yelled back. Before she could take a single step, Brackett's form began to materialize not far from where she was standing and unfortunately, between her and her protection from the swarm.
Jim came running out of the barn, carrying the last sack of grain. He realized his mother's predicament, and called out to Brackett, hoping to distract him long enough for his mother to reach safety.
Brackett didn't look away from the woman he had lusted over all these years. He was too close to taking her, although he was not so lost in his excitement to forget the threat that the Herald behind him posed. With a wave of his hand, he brought forth the Horde, who immediately attacked the closest target... Jim.
Blair had just reached his box when he looked back and realized that Brackett had cornered Grace. "This way, Grace. Hurry!"
Looking back at her son one last time, Grace ran for the box that Blair was standing beside. Her only thought was how could things have gone so wrong.
Blair stood inside the box with one hand on the door ready to pull it closed as soon as Grace was inside.
"There isn't room for both of us," Grace shouted as she hesitated just outside the box.
"Yes, there is," Blair answered as he pulled her inside and closed the lid tightly.
The door did latch firmly behind her, but there was no way either of them could move a muscle. Standing there in the dark, both of them could hear the screeching of the Horde and Brackett's scream of rage that Grace had escaped him.
Shortly after Brackett's scream, they felt the box tilt before crashing to the ground. Blair wound up on the bottom with Grace resting against his chest.
Trying to distract himself and Grace from the events unfolding outside, Blair whispered, "I think we've managed to get Brackett really angry. I'm glad the latch is on the inside. If he's got the strength to push the box over, he could probably open a latch."
He was concerned when Grace didn't reply.
"Grace?" Blair asked hesitantly.
Although Grace did not respond to his comment, Blair felt wetness increasing on his tunic.
"Grace, what is it? Are you hurt?" Blair's greatest wish at that moment was that the box was a little bigger. He couldn't move a muscle with Grace lying on top of him.
"No, not me. It's Jim. He was attacked by the Horde. I saw it," Grace sobbed. "My son is going to die!" She couldn't stop crying.
"BURTON!" Blair mindcalled to his Companion. It wasn't true, couldn't be true. "Grace, the Horde won't kill Jim. Remember, it..." Blair's voice trailed off as he realized this line of thought wouldn't exactly be comforting.
Through her tears Grace said, "No, Brackett will kill my son."
"Burton, what's happening out there?" Blair mind-called again.
Watching from their position, Bryon, Brother Marcus and Drake realized that the original plan was now out of the question. From their vantage point, they could see that Blair and Grace would reach the safety of the box designated for Blair. It would be a tight squeeze, but neither Blair nor Grace was very large. They should both be able to fit inside.
Jim was the one that desperately needed help. The Horde had already attacked and drawn blood from Jim's arms and back, along with a large wound on his forehead. Now, Jim was down on his knees, trying not to move, afraid of the ravenous creature's painful bites.
"Bryon! Can you keep the Horde off him long enough for him to reach safety?" Drake asked.
"I can try. Incacha, tell your Chosen to be ready to move. I won't be able to hold them for very long; tell me when he is ready."
The others could only wait as Incacha tried to reach her Chosen. It seemed to take forever, but only a few heartbeats had passed when Incacha finally answered, "He's ready."
"Tell him to move now!" Bryon ordered as he focused his will on the Horde that had surrounded Jim.
He managed to keep control over them long enough for Jim to stumble over to where his box was located and climb inside. The instant that the Horde was released from Bryon's control, they attacked the box where their target was now hidden. They tried for several long moments to break inside before heading towards the animals that were near the barn.
As they predicated, the animals bolted in fear, with the Horde in pursuit. Simon took the opportunity to shoot his flaming arrow into the oil-soaked wood and raised the wall of fire.
Jim knew that he couldn't reach the box before the Horde attacked, although this did not stop him from trying. He sought to protect his face with his arms to no avail. Teeth tore strips of skin from his arms and back. One of the beasts slipped past his arms to tear into his forehead. He fell to the ground, making himself as small a target as he could. There was nothing he could do to keep the Horde from finishing him.
The blood from the head wound was running down into his eyes. He couldn't see a way out of this. As long as he didn't move, didn't attempt to escape, the Horde would not attack. But, as soon as Brackett was done with Grace, Jim knew he would die the same way as that young guard had only a few days ago. The pain from his head and arms was incredible, making it very difficult to think.
He almost cried aloud with relief when he heard Incacha's voice calling to him.
"Chosen! Please listen. You must be ready to move when I tell you. Bryon will stop the Horde from attacking you, but he will not be able to hold them for long. You must move quickly. Do you understand?"
His Companion's instructions filtered past his pain and he understood what she was saying, but was not convinced he could do it. "Incacha? I can't see very well. My head, everything is blurred."
"Use my eyes, Chosen. I will guide you."
Jim heard her telling Bryon that he was ready. Then, came the instruction to move. Keeping his eyes closed, he climbed to his feet and followed his Companion's directions. He could see where he was going through her eyes, although it was a little disconcerting for there was a blind spot when he tried to stare straight ahead. He half expected that some of the Horde would attack, but he did not feel new pain.
He found the lid to his box and stumbled inside, pulling the door closed behind him. The pain level had increased to the point where he could no longer stand. He slid down the wall of the box, until he was sitting in a ball at the bottom.
Jim remained where he was, safely locked away from both the Horde and Brackett. Remembering what had happened to the young man who had panicked from the attack of the Horde, he steeled himself for the attack. All too soon he heard the sound he had feared, the screaming of the Horde, but then suddenly it sounded as if it was moving farther away.
"Incacha, what is happening?"
"The Horde is after the animals. The lure of such a feast is stronger than Brackett's orders to make sure that the people don't move. Now, Simon has the wood burning."
There was silence for several long moments before he heard Incacha speaking to him again. "Bryon is trying to force Brackett into the box."
Jim sat in the bottom of the box. Waiting for the word that he was needed to trap Brackett into the box forever, but no word came. The coppery smell of blood assaulted his nose as he continued to lose more blood from the open wounds inflicted by the Horde. He finally lost his battle to hold onto consciousness; his last thought before the darkness consumed him was that he had failed. Brackett would not be trapped.
"BURTON!" Blair called again. "Is Jim okay?" He closed his eyes, waiting for his Companion's answer, praying that Grace had been wrong.
He could tell that his Companion's concentration was elsewhere, so there was nothing to do but wait. He moved one hand until he was holding the back of Grace's head against his chest, hoping to provide some comfort. He felt his Companion reaching for him a few minutes later.
"Jim is alive. Bryon managed to hold them off long enough for Jim to reach safety, but not before they managed to hurt him."
"How badly hurt is Jim?" Blair spoke aloud, knowing the Burton would hear his thought, but Grace would hear that at least Jim was alive.
"Incacha is not sure. She knows he has lost a great deal of blood, and there was great pain in his head and arms. He is unconscious now and she cannot reach him."
"So what's the plan now?" Blair asked.
"Bryon is not close enough to force Brackett into the box He is too strong for Bryon. Perhaps if we were closer, but Bryon says he is simply too far away. He is trying, but the shadow has gotten too strong. Brackett has figured out that he is under attack and has called the Horde to him. Be ready, my Chosen, for this is going badly. The fire is starting to drop enough that the Horde will soon be free."
"Burton, tell Bryon that he must destroy the Horde. Even if Brackett is too strong, see if Bryon can't force the Horde into the fire. Better that we only have Brackett to deal with than both enemies."
There was a long silence, then more screeching could be heard from the Horde along with more angry shouting from Brackett.
"What's going on outside, Burton?"
"Bryon cannot trap the shadow, but he has taken control of the Horde, most of them anyway. He is forcing them into the fire, killing them. He managed to destroy about half of them before Brackett noticed. Now the two of them are battling for control over the remainder."
Wishing he could see what was happening, Blair closed his eyes and tried to picture it instead.
"Use my eyes, Chosen."
Although he was lying on his back in his box, Blair could suddenly see the Horde flinging themselves into the fire while Brackett moved towards the small knoll where Bryon was standing. It was clear that Brackett was still gaining power. He was moving much faster than in the last confrontation. It would be difficult for some to outrun the shadow now, but Bryon would have no difficulty.
Brackett paused suddenly, looking back at the Horde who were destroying themselves in droves now. With a wave of his hand he attempted some spell on the Horde.
There was a blind spot in Burton's vision, but he obliging swiveled his head so that Blair had a clear view. Surprising, Bryon was now aided by the Horde itself as they were fighting Brackett's command to return to the other realm, even though many of them had already been destroyed by the fire. After only a few minutes, the Horde had been obliterated, leaving Brackett alone, standing in the middle of the yard.
Once the Horde had been destroyed, Burton closed the connection between them and Blair found his sight focused on the metal lid above them. With Grace lying on top of him, his legs had gone to sleep. There was no way he would be capable of moving if Brackett was waiting for them outside.
The last few rays of sunlight could be seen in the sky. Brackett howled in rage, before slowly fading back to his other world. Drake ran down the hill until he was standing next to the box that held Blair and Grace. Simon and Brother Marcus were right behind them, but they moved to the box, which held Jim.
"It is safe to come out now, Chosen," Burton called.
Blair released the latch, allowing Drake to pull open the door. After that, Blair had to wait until Drake had lifted Grace off his chest to sit up himself and try to get the feeling back in his legs. Once Grace became aware that she was out of confinement, she pulled away from Drake, trying to move towards the box that held her son, but stumbled. Her muscles weren't ready to work yet. She cried out in frustration.
Drake offered his arm to Blair, pulling him to his feet, which now felt like pins and needles. Burton had moved as close as he could to his Chosen, ready to provide additional support. "Help Grace over to Jim, Drake. Burton can help me."
With Burton providing support, Blair made his way over to his partner. Simon was banging on the door, calling for Jim to wake up.
"No!" Blair shouted as he realized what had once been a source of protection from attack was now a liability. There was no way to get to Jim unless he opened the box from the inside.
Grace, standing with her arm looped over Drake's shoulder, looked over at Blair who was now leaning against the box containing her son. "How are we going to get him out of there? He can't open the door."
"I'll try and feed him some of my energy, to make him aware enough to open the door."
"I have a better way," Incacha interrupted. "I still have a link to my Chosen. Feed your healing energy through my bond with him."
"It's worth a try," Blair answered, moving over so that he could touch Incacha. Concentrating, he reached out for Jim, through Incacha and began sending a steady stream of healing energy. He could hear Incacha calling out to her Chosen to release the latch. He continued to feed as much energy as he could until he heard a familiar click of the latch being released.
It was Grace who lifted the lid, allowing Jim, who had been leaning against the lid, to roll out onto the ground. Brother Marcus knelt down, lifting Jim's head and shoulders out of the dirt. The last thing that Jim needed was an infection to form in his wounds.
Jim became a little more aware of his surroundings as he was moved into a more comfortable position. With Grace on one side of him holding one arm and Blair on the other side, feeding him directly with more healing energy, his condition was improving rapidly.
"Well, that didn't exactly work out as we planned," Jim said to the group, his voice sounding weak but with a hint of laughter. "Did we get him?"
Blair shook his head. Jim felt his mother's hands pulling his head away from Brother Marcus to lean against her shoulder as she hugged him slightly.
"I'll bleed all over you," he whispered.
"You hush. I don't care. I just need to hold you for a while," Grace answered.
Jim relaxed in his mother's arms, relying on both her love and Blair's healing abilities for strength.
Blair looked around at the others. While he knew they may have stopped the Horde, he didn't think that would prevent Brackett from returning again and the next time it would be the Ellison family's ancestral home that was under attack.
With a little help from Simon and Drake, they managed to get Jim tied to Incacha's saddle for the trip home. They could not afford to wait until he was stronger. Even at a full gallop, there was no threat of Jim falling from the saddle.
That knowledge did not stop Blair from riding along side of him. It had been quickly decided that Blair would take Jim back to the Manor House as fast as the two Companions could bear them. It would take most of the night, but by morning Jim could be resting in his own bed. Blair had expended all the energy he could afford without needing a healer himself, and would need a few hours of rest before he would fully recover himself.
It would take assistance from Deva to heal Jim to the point of being able to participate in the final battle when Brackett arrived at the estate. The others would follow as fast as the horses could be pushed.
Thankfully, Simon had issued orders that a messenger line be placed along the route between the Ridley holding and Bethyl Wood. Word was passed ahead that Jim had been injured, so Deva, illiam and Steven were all awaiting their return in the courtyard.
With little time to spare, William and Steven helped Jim dismount and carried him into the house. Deva waited as Blair slowly climbed out of the saddle. His knees wobbly, Blair leaned heavily on Burton for support.
"Blair?" Deva asked, waiting for Blair to acknowledge him.
"See to Jim, please. I need to get the Companions into the stalls. They've had a long ride and we pushed pretty hard to get here," Blair said, reaching down to loosen the girth on Burton's saddle.
"I can handle this, Blair. Why don't you let Deva see to your needs first?" a deep voice said from behind. The stable master, Berd already had Incacha's reins looped over her saddle and was waiting patiently to guide the two Companions inside the barn.
"But--" Blair started to stammer.
"I am well aware of the proper treatment for your Companions. You've got nothing to worry about," Berd insisted.
"Go inside with the healer, Blair. Incacha and I are in good hands," Burton said firmly, gently butting his head against his Chosen's chest.
Following his Companion's order, Blair started for the house, Deva walking next to him, ready to provide assistance if necessary.
After making sure that Jim was sleeping peacefully, Blair joined the others in the banquet hall. It was a little before mid-day and the rest of the party had only just arrived. It was a somber gathering.
Grace and William were sitting next to each other by the fireplace. Steven and Drake stood behind them. Brother Marcus had taken it upon himself to serve refreshments to the group as they waited to hear about Jim's condition.
Seeing Blair enter the room, Grace asked the question on everyone's mind, "How's Jim doing?"
"He'll be fine. The bite wounds have been healed. Mostly, he needs to recover from the blood loss. Deva's keeping an eye on him, but he should be up and around by this evening."
Simon entered the room a moment later, having been stopped in the hallway by one of his men. "I have some good news. The scouts I left behind delivered a message via the gryphons that Brackett made an appearance earlier this morning. Seems now that he's no longer required to expend energy controlling the Horde, he can manifest himself even in daylight," Simon reported.
"This is good news?" Blair asked, one eyebrow raised.
"In a way. First, it seems that we don't have to worry about a reappearance of the Horde or else Brackett would not be travelling without them. Second, Brackett is travelling in the direction of the estate, but he's going much slower than we anticipated. The gryphons have been taking turns doing some aerial scouting on his progress. I'm just glad they can fly so fast. We wouldn't have half the intelligence we do without there speed. Anyway, from their perspective, it appears that with each step Brackett takes, he collects the life force of all living things with a five-foot radius."
Brother Marcus nodded, "This makes sense. Without the Horde, trapping live prey for him, which would provide him with a greater supply, he must be in physical contact with the earth to increase his energy supply."
Simon continued, "But in order to collect this energy, he's not moving very fast. We'll have additional time to come up with a plan."
"What good does additional time do, if there isn't any way to stop him?" Steven fretted.
"We will find a way. The goal is still the same, to get Brackett into a confined space and join him to his mortal remains. It was the execution of the plan which was flawed the last time," Brother Marcus replied.
"Brother Marcus is correct. We were surprised when Brackett and the Horde appeared earlier than we had figured. Not to mention that Bryon was too far away and had to expend a great deal of energy protecting Jim from the Horde before even attempting to control Brackett," Blair added.
"We'll find a way to stop him from ever hurting anyone ever again!" Grace clenched both her fists, picturing that Brackett was standing close enough for her to hit and end this nightmare.
William nodded, reaching for Grace's hand, hoping she would release her anger. "You've all had a long trip back here. I'll arrange for a meal to be served and the water in the bathhouse to be heated. After you've had the chance to rest, we will have another meeting and find a way to stop Brackett for good."
After the servants had removed all the remains of the evening meal, the group lingered in the banquet hall. Jim had awakened from his healing sleep just before dinner and, although he had no appetite, joined them at the conclusion of the banquet, ready for the strategy session.
"Now that we have all eaten, are we ready to discuss the defense of our home?" William asked.
Brother Marcus was the first to speak. "I still believe our original plan is sound. We need to lure Brackett to where Bryon can trap him and we finish the ritual. We have learned from our earlier mishaps. This time we will succeed."
Though he was in the barn with the Companion's, Bryon was following the discussion as relayed through the Herald-Companion connection. "I do not know if I was closer to the evil that I can control his mind. Even if I am successful, I won't have control for long and the box is too small. Even if he can't fight me mentally, he can physically fight against being placed into the box. We should see if there is another alternative."
"He knows the estate. Brackett lived here for years and knows every inch of the place. He's too smart to be lured into the armory or the vault room where he could be trapped," William said. "I know what he is capable of. Even during the times he had clouded my mind, a small part of me didn't trust him. He has a twisted intelligence that is going to be difficult to fool."
"Then we need to use his knowledge against him. We need to modify an area that he would believe to be safe," Grace replied
William's Weaponsmaster, Arthur, rose from the table and paced for a moment. He always thought better on his feet. "How about the training salle? It would be easy to add metal sheets in that room. I know Brackett didn't spend much time in there, too afraid of me to enter the room. He once made the mistake of commenting about what a waste it was having all those mirrors in the room, and I taught him a lesson he did not soon forget."
"Why that room?" Blair asked curiously.
Arthur paced as he spoke. "Because those mirrors are sitting on tracks and are removable with a little effort. We can add metal sheets onto the walls and re-hang the mirrors in front of them. He'll never know they are there until it's too late."
Jim nodded. "That will work for the room, but we'll have to figure out something else for the door."
Coming to a halt by the fireplace, Arthur confirmed, "That won't be too difficult. We can leave the wooden door there, and once we have him trapped inside, we can slide an outer metal door shut. We can even put a false panel on the far side of the room. Hide Bryon inside so that he is close to the action."
"So how do we get him inside the room in the first place?"
"We use bait. As much as Brackett hates me and Jim for defeating his master plan the last time, there is someone else he wants more than us."
"Me," Grace whispered. "He always did and he wouldn't take no for an answer. It's the best way of making sure he doesn't hurt anyone ever again."
"No, Mother! Steven and I just got you back in our lives. I won't let you do it."
"Jimmy, there is no other choice. Bryon just isn't strong enough to take control of his mind for long enough to hold him. No, this plan stands a good chance of success. We just need the right bait and that's me." Seeing the doubt in her son's eyes she added, "We must stop him now, before he grows any stronger."
"We should move all the animals off the estate. I will instruct the stable master to take them all to the summer pasturelands. They should be safe there until this matter has been decided."
"He should also take the children with him along with any of the elders that are well enough for the journey. We have plenty of extra holders here from the holdings that were evacuated. That should keep them out of danger. Most of the children will be knowledgeable about the animals to give the stable master some assistance. The rest of the able-bodied holders should remain here, else Brackett may not linger long enough for us to trap him."
"I would also send all of the mothers with children under age five to the pasturelands. That way, neither the stable master nor the home guard unit will be responsible for keeping track of the children," Blair added.
"It seems we have a plan. Now it is time we put it into action," William said with a grim look in his eye.
Every able-bodied man remaining on the estate was put to work converting the salle into a trap for Brackett. Due to Steven's organizational skills and confident manner, the evacuation was conducted without panic. Dren and his mate were providing frequent updates of Brackett's progress, so that he could not come upon them unwares again.
Everyone was in place and ready when Brackett appeared.
Even though it was the middle of the day, the sky darkened as the shadow approached the front gate. A silvery, billowing fog preceded his entrance. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the shadow was truly evil. The air seemed heavy and cold to the few people who had been elected to be in the courtyard when Brackett arrived.
William waited with Berd in the front entrance to the house.
"Lord Ellison, how nice of you to be here, greeting my arrival. Have you missed me?" Brackett asked as he stood in the center of the courtyard.
"You are not welcome here. Leave now or we will be forced to destroy you," William answered calmly.
"You've changed so much over the years, Lord Ellison. Have you finally grown a spine of your own?"
Berd restrained his Lord, preventing William from attacking Brackett physically as the creature stood there and laughed at them.
"But where is Grace? Shouldn't she be here to greet me also, along with those two fine boys you raised? But wait a minute. Let me think. You didn't raise your oldest boy, now did you? I turned you against your own flesh and blood all those years ago. It was so easy." Brackett waited to enjoy William's reaction, but was shocked when it came.
William stood up straight and smiled, then started to laugh. Through his laughter he said, "To think I ever listened to anything you had to say. My son and I have made our peace. My wife and I are in the process of finding common ground. There is nothing you can say that can hurt me anymore."
"Ah yes, but there is definitely something that I can do to hurt you," Brackett said his face twisted with rage as he seemed to flow over the ground towards William and Berd.
William and Berd retreated into the house, leaving the door open as they entered the foyer. They stood in the hallway, waiting to see what would happen next.
Brackett stopped at the entrance to the house, pausing to look around for a moment. "Why are you waiting? You should be running in fear, cowering in your vault or that famed armory of yours. So why do you just stand there waiting for death?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of white. He turned to stare at the flash and recognized the two heralds who had been interfering with his plan. Running between the two men was the woman whom he sought.
"A decoy. You draw me into the house, as your son and his friend take my Grace to safety. Did you really think that I would fall for that? Have you forgotten so much about me?" Brackett turned away from William and Berd and followed the trio, who were fleeing behind the house.
William ran out of the house after him, calling out to his son. "Run, Jim. He's right behind you."
Berd stood next to William's right shoulder. "Do you think this is gonna work?"
"I don't know, but so far he's taken the bait."
"He's coming," Jim said as he heard his father's yell.
The three of them skidded around the corner and headed up the stairs that led to the salle where Arthur waited anxiously for them. As Jim and Blair entered the salle ahead of her, Grace turned to see how close Brackett was. He was only a few paces behind them. Startled, she tripped over the last step into the salle and fell to the floor, taking Jim down with her.
Arthur and Blair were already at the back of the salle, ready to enter the safe room that had been prepared for them when they saw Grace and Jim fall. Blair started back to help them, but was pulled into the safe room by Arthur and Drake.
"There's no time, Blair, we will have to rely on Bryon to keep them safe," Drake said as he closed the door to the safe room.
Jim helped Grace to her feet and pulled her to the back of the salle as Brackett entered the room.
"I don't remember this room being this small. What are the two of you up to?" Brackett said as he stood from the doorway. His gaze fell onto the small pile of bones lying on the floor in the center of the room.
Jim could see the recognition in Brackett's eyes as he looked at the skeletal remains. "Do it now, Brother Marcus!" he shouted, as he was sure Brackett was about to retreat.
From behind the wall, Jim could hear Brother Marcus chanting in a language he couldn't understand. The words may have not been clear, but the result was obvious to Jim and Grace. Brackett was being drawn to his remains, slowly pulled closer and closer to the pile of bones in the middle of the room.
"What is happening!" Brackett yelled.
Jim watched as Brackett struggled to move away from his remains, but this time, Bryon had a strong hold on the shadow's mind.
"Noooooo! I'll make you pay for this! I'll make all of you pay for this!"
The door to the salle slammed shut as William Ellison entered, sword in hand.
Jim and Grace moved along the walls of the salle until they were standing next to William. Both father and son stood protectively in front of Grace wearing similar smiles, watching, as their enemy was about to meet his end.
Though unable to see what was happening from his position in the safe room, Blair could still sense what was happening. He could feel what Brackett was feeling. It was overwhelming. Waves of anger poured from the shadow, but also fear and desperation. Blair fell to his knees, as he attempted to keep the emotions from taking down his shields.
An ear-piercing scream filled the room as Brother Marcus gave shape and form to the shadow of evil.
Blair gave a sigh of relief as the levels of emotions battering his shields ceased, as Brackett once again became a man. He felt Drake's hand under his elbow, helping him regain his footing again.
"I felt your pain, Blair, but I had to focus on the ritual."
"Don't worry about me, Drake. You and Brother Marcus concentrate on opening that portal, this isn't over yet."
"Chosen, Bryon could use your assistance," Burton said, drawing Blair's attention away from Drake.
"Bryon, what's wrong?" Blair asked, as he reached out with one hand to touch Bryon's neck.
Bryon answered weakly, "The effort of keeping Brackett from escaping took more out of me than I thought. I need a little time to recover."
"We may still need him, Chosen," Burton warned.
"What can I do to help?"
Bryon answered directly, "Nothing, Blair. I am not injured in any way. I just need to recover my strength."
Thinking quickly, Blair came to a decision. Before Drake could stop him, Blair opened the release to the safe room door and entered the salle. He wasn't hiding from Brackett any longer and the others may need his assistance in getting Brackett through the portal if Bryon couldn't help immediately.
The three Ellisons stood together as the chanting ceased and Brackett stood fully formed in the center of the room. He was breathing heavily, pain etched on his face, but the sneer on his face was plain for all to see. "Do you think this will stop me from killing all of you? There is nothing you can do to stop me. You are too weak," Brackett said as he launched a physical assault on the family.
Jim stepped forward to meet the attack, his reaction time much faster than his father could act. He raised his fist to take a swing at Brackett but with a wave of his hand, Brackett threw him across the room, shattering the mirror and revealing the metal walls behind the glass.
The blow stunned Jim, knocking the air from his lungs. On the floor, unable to move, he could only watch as his father challenged Brackett.
Brackett paused for a moment, staring at the metal room. Lord William raised his sword into an attack position and stepped directly in front of his wife. "It ends here, Brackett. You're not leaving this room alive."
Once Brackett realized that he was trapped in this room, his reason gave way to anger and he threw himself at William. Wrapping his now solid hands around William's neck, he began draining the life force from his victim.
Jim shook his head, trying to clear his eyesight. As his vision remained blurred, he again heard the sound of chanting from behind the wall. Drake and Brother Marcus attempted to open the portal to send Brackett out of their lives forever.
He felt hands on his forehead, healing energy clearing his vision. Then, Blair's voice in his ear, "You get Brackett. I'll look after your parents."
Seeing Brackett attacking his father, Jim pulled himself up, picked up his father's sword and swung it at Brackett's back.
Sensing the attack from behind, Brackett released William, allowing him to drop to the floor, as he faced the greater threat. Jim dropped into a fighter's stance, pacing backwards, drawing Brackett away from his father into the center of the room again.
"So, are you finally ready to get me on, little Jimmy?" Brackett sneered. "You're in above your head."
"Not any more," Jim shot back. "This time you are mine!" Jim swung the sword at Brackett again.
Jumping backwards with surprising agility, Brackett avoided the blow. "You'll have to do better than that if you plan on stopping me."
Blinded by his anger and hatred for the man who had driven his mother away from home and tortured him as a child, Jim swung the sword several more times, forcing Brackett backwards, but doing little damage.
"Calm and steady, Jim. You can take him." Blair called from where he stood against one wall. He hadn't been able to reach William or Grace. With the fight between Jim and Brackett, mobility was limited. "Just don't let him touch you."
Jim took a deep breath, regaining control over his temper. He had to take command of the situation, now. Brackett feinted to his left, but Jim saw through and managed to land a hard blow to Brackett's ribs with the flat of the blade.
The chanting was growing louder as Drake and Brother Marcus completed the spell that opened the doorway. The sight of the open portal was spellbinding. Time appeared to stop as everyone stared with fascination and perhaps fear at the portal. The portal was shaped very much like an actual door, but that was the end of any similarity. There was no clear picture of what lay on the other side of the portal. A variety of colors swirled in the doorway, changing intensity over time.
Jim was close enough to the doorway that he could feel an ice-cold wind blast though the portal. Suddenly, the wind changed and he felt himself being pulled inside the portal. As he braced himself against the suction, the wind shifted again and he was blown away from the opening.
Jim suddenly heard Incacha's voice in his head. "Chosen, Bryon is going to attempt to paralyze Brackett, but he's not sure he's got enough energy to succeed. If he does, you must knock Brackett into the portal. You must be quick, Chosen. Bryon will not be able to hold him for long."
Continuing to pace around the room, Jim watched Brackett carefully. Jim was facing the portal, eye to eye with Brackett. All he had to do was wait for the moment to act, the instant it appeared that Bryon was successful. He didn't have long to wait, Brackett managed to take two steps forward and then didn't move again, not a muscle. He wasn't even capable of making a sound.
Leaping forward, Jim used the sword hilt to hit Brackett right in the nose. The force of the blow knocked Brackett straight at the portal. Still stunned, he was unable to stop the wind from pulling him through the portal. A heartbeat later, the portal closed and the door to the safe room opened.
Grace was holding William into her arms, crying, "William! William, please don't die! Stay with me."
William opened his eyes, blinking furiously, trying to focus on his wife's face. He reached up and wiped away one of the tears running down her cheek. "I couldn't stand by and let him hurt you. Not again, never again," he added weakly, his hand dropping to the floor.
Jim stood in the center of the room, watching his mother cradle his father in her arms. He was exhausted after all the effort. Brackett was finally gone. It seemed too easy. After all the weeks of planning and failed attempts, this final confrontation had ended so quickly. He didn't know what to do now.
Only when Blair ducked around him to kneel beside his mother and father, did he move to his parent's side. Unable to do anything to assist, he could only provide comfort to his mother as Blair worked to heal the damage Brackett had inflicted on his father.
Jim and Steven stood together, waiting in the hallway outside William's bedroom. Drake and Arthur had carried William here from the salle as Jim ran to fetch Deva. Grace and Blair had not left William's side since they had placed William on his bed.
It had been almost four candlemarks and there was still no word from either of the healers. Steven had joined them about a candlemark earlier as word of their success had quickly spread throughout the estate.
Suddenly, the door opened without a sound, and Deva and Blair exited the room. Jim looked at his partner, trying to read the expression on his face. Blair looked exhausted, that was clear. But Blair's expression was unreadable, concerning Lord Ellison condition
Deva did all the talking. "He's alive," he explained, running his hand over his face.
"He's all right," Steven said with a sigh of relief. But Jim noticed something else in Deva's expression. "You're not telling us everything, are you?"
"He's alive, but there was some serious damage done to William's body from Brackett's attack."
"Will he ever recover fully, Deva?"
Sadly, the healer shook his head. "He'll never be the man he once was. He has lost a great deal of energy." Seeing the look on Jim and Steven's faces, he quickly added, "He's not in any danger of dying. I promise you, he's got years in front of him barring any serious illness. He just doesn't have the strength he used to have anymore. He's gonna have to adjust to the fact that there will be some lingering effects from the attack."
"Like what?" Steven asked.
"He will probably tire easily for a while, sleep more. Also, you might notice a general lack of muscle strength, but like I said before, it's not life threatening. He'll just have to take it easy for a while."
"I guess that's about as good as we can expect," Jim said, watching his mother holding his father's hand.
"He'll be all right. He won't let this keep him down. I know our father," Steven added.
"Let him rest for a while, you'll be able to see him later," Deva suggested.
It was several days before William was strong enough to leave his sick room. Much of that time he spent with either Grace or Arthur.
The entire group gathered in the banquet room one final time to celebrate. Now, that the Horde had been destroyed and Brackett sent into exile, everyone could relax for a while. Several smaller groups were distributed around the room.
Bryon, Incacha and Burton were standing quietly in one corner of the room. Drake was talking with Deva, exchanging information on herbal remedies.
Standing in the middle of the room, William called for everyone's attention. "I have a few things I'd like to say. First, I'd like to thank the citizens of White Gryphon for their assistance during this terrible time. Without the knowledge and rare abilities they brought, I'm not sure we would have been able to prevent Brackett from destroying us all."
A round of applause, long and enthusiastic broke out in several corners of the room. William paused until the sound had subsided.
"Second, I would like to thank our Lord Marshall for his assistance, along with Herald Blair. You are both welcome here at anytime. I hope to see you visit more often in the future, though on a vacation, not on the Crown's business."
"I also need to thank my eldest son, James. Things have been strained between us for much of your life, Jimmy. I think the cause of that strain is gone now, but I just wanted to say..." William's voice cracked as he tried to finish his speech, "...that I'm very proud of you, son."
Jim stood dumbfounded next to Blair. He couldn't believe his father had just said that, in a very public way. Blair nudged him in the direction of his father, whispering only loud enough for Jim to hear. "Go, give him a hug, or something. Don't leave him standing there."
Jim joined his father in the center of the room, giving him a hug to another round of applause from those present.
"Finally, Steven, would you please join us over here?" William asked. He waited until his younger son was standing next to him to continue, "I wish to announce that I have sought permission from the Queen to retire as Lord of Bethyl Woods."
Anxious murmuring could be heard throughout the room at William's announcement, as he continued, "I do not expect my request to be denied as it is for reasons of health that I must retire. All of you know that Steven is more than capable of taking over the estate, and I wish to spend my remaining years in peace."
"To Lord Steven Ellison!" Jim called out with a raise of his hand, first to pledge his support to his younger brother.
Steven blushed, but otherwise held up well during the scrutiny from the crowd. Blair seconded Jim's cheer and soon many of the holders were gathering around Steven. Jim and William both took the opportunity to leave the limelight.
Jim joined Blair and they both watched as William whispered something in Grace's ear and the two of them left the room.
"Where do you think they're headed?" Blair whispered.
"I have a pretty good idea," Arthur offered, walking up behind them.
Jim smiled. "Would it have anything to do with the fact that your hands look like they've been sliced to pieces? And not by a sword I might add, looks like thorns to me." Jim started laughing at the surprised look on Arthur's face.
Blair looked at the hand Arthur was using to hold his drink and added with only a few chuckles, "Besides the thorns, it looks like you've picked up a few splinters too. Would you like me to do something about that?"
Arthur hid his hand behind his back, stepping away from Blair. "Laugh it up, Heralds. Your turn will come soon enough. I was only responsible for gathering the materials. The project is just getting started and it has both your names written all over it."
"I don't think I mind very much," Jim answered. He saw a look in his father's eyes that he didn't ever remember seeing before.
Arthur smiled and laughed. "You say that now, but just wait a few days. You'll be wishing you were back in Haven." Raising his glass in salute, Arthur moved over to where Steven was standing. It was never too soon to discuss matters of security with the new young Lord of Bethyl Woods.
Jim was staring in the direction where his parents had gone for a few moments before Blair punched him in the arm.
"Stop what?" Jim asked, pouting slightly as he rubbed his arm.
"Trying to listen to what your parents are saying!"
"Or doing?" Jim said with an evil glint in his eyes.
"Jim! They're your parents. Don't do that."
"Don't worry, Chief. While I'm glad they're talking, I don't think I really want to know what else they plan on doing tonight."
"Good. So what's our plan?" Blair asked as the two men walked toward the buffet tables.
"I've sent a message back to Haven, asking for some leave time. Since Mother is planning on staying here for a while, I'd like to spend some time with her without anything trying to kill one of us," Jim said as he studied the food laid out in front of him.
"I think she'll love to hear that, "Blair replied.
"And Steven is going to need some help making the transition from heir to Lord. Father hasn't fully recovered and with all the damage Brackett caused the estate is short handed."
"I assume you mentioned all this in your request for leave," Blair said as he added some fruit to both his and Jim's plate.
"Did you happen to mention anything else?"
"I can't think of anything else I should have mentioned," Jim said, biting back a chuckle at the expression on his friend's face.
"You're really gonna make me ask, aren't you?" Blair said, shaking his head.
"Nah, I think you've suffered enough. Yeah, I asked if you could also have the same leave. Did you really think I'd leave you out?"
"No, I guess not. And besides, Joel knows better than to split us up. You get into too much trouble without me. But you didn't mention the most important reason you should stick around."
Jim looked puzzled for a moment. "What did I forget?"
"You're gonna have to keep your father from killing your brother when he explains that he wants to marry one of the Queen's ladies in waiting." Blair then started laughing at the look of horror that crossed Jim's face.
"Close your eyes, Grace. I have a surprise for you," William said as he led Grace down the hallway leading to her bedroom.
"William, what are you up to?" Grace asked, but closed her eyes as requested.
"I've been thinking. Now, that you've decided to stay on here for a while, I thought I'd make you feel a little more at home." Holding her hands, William walked backwards, carefully maneuvering Grace until she was standing at the door leading to the garden.
"That wasn't necessary, William."
"I think it was. This is important to me." William released one of Grace's hands so he could open the door and lead her outside. "Don't peek, we're almost there," he added.
Once Grace was in position, William moved behind her so she had a clear view. "You can open your eyes now."
"It's about time... ohh, William." Grace became speechless as she looked at the flowers laid out on the ground.
They were all small plants, without buds. Not yet planted, they sat waiting to be put into the ground. Also gathered were stepping stones, the same type that had been in the original garden many years ago. Off to the side, two benches leaned against the manor house, waiting to be placed once the stones were arranged.
A small gazebo was sitting in the middle of the barren ground. A swinging bench was suspended from the center beam. Grace had spent many hours sitting on just such a bench when James had been a baby. Always a restless child, the only way he would go to sleep was after being rocked.
"I thought you might enjoy having this be a garden again," William said.
Grace turned to face her former husband. "Why did you do this? I told you I wasn't sure if this would lead anywhere, if I'm going to stay here."
"I know. But Jim and Blair are going be on leave here for a while. Steven still has a lot to learn, but he will have a little time to spare here and there. I thought this would be a good project for them to help you with."
"Only them?" Grace asked.
William smiled as he reached out and caressed her cheek. "No, not only them. I thought I would help. Now that I no longer have an estate to run, my time is my own. Perhaps around the time the sun rises? And even if you decide not to remain here in the future, I'd like to have a garden here again, as a reminder of more pleasant times."
Grace leaned over and kissed William lightly on the cheek. "Thank you, my prince. I think we should rejoin the others now. I'd like to offer a toast."
"Yes. To new beginnings and hope for the future."
"Must we join the others? Can't we have a private toast, just the two of us?" William asked, pulling Grace into a tight embrace.
"That would be fine," Grace said. Though she pulled out of the hug, she held onto one of William's hands as she led him back into her bedroom.
Author's note: Apologies for the long delay in the publishing of this story. I've finally got RL back under control and the stories should be coming much more frequently now.
Next up -- A Place Worth Fighting For!
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