Warning: This is the next chapter, and while it is not a cliff hanger, the bad guys are still on the loose. The final chapter is in progress, but not expected to be posted until the middle of January.
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.
Many thanks to Shallan for being the beta for the entire series and to Anna for her suggestions, any remaining errors are mine alone.
Lord William's servants were scampering all around the courtyard, making preparations for the arriving guests. Trying to find a polite way of avoiding William and all his questions, Blair found a quiet corner in the stable, where Burton was being housed. A special stall and paddock had been built after Jim was chosen just for Jim's companion or for any other herald and companion that may be visiting for which Burton was extremely grateful.
At first, Blair sat in the hayloft, which had a view of the road leading to the front gate. His patience was running thin. He wanted for the others to arrive soon. He never felt quite comfortable in the opulence of Bethyl Wood. Then, Burton politely pointed out that a little grooming was just as good a way for Blair to pass the time. With a smile for his Companion's shrewdness, Blair climbed down from the loft and grabbed the equipment he would need to give Burton a good grooming and rubdown.
"Are they getting close?" Blair asked, as he ran the brush over Burton's back.
"Probably another quarter candle mark. Incacha says they are making good time," Burton answered.
"I still think it was a mistake not warning Lord William that Grace is with the party from White Gryphon. At least he'd have time to prepare himself."
"Or would he just work up a head of steam, or even worse, avoid the situation entirely, which may offend the rest of the White Gryphon party. Besides, he is preparing for the arrival of foreign diplomats, which is what he should be doing. He is too well trained to let any personal feelings he may have toward Trondi'irn Grace to interfere. Please, there is an itchy spot a little lower, Chosen."
Running his hand over Burton's coat, Blair soon discovered some the dry caked mud, which was causing the itch. He used the brush to wipe the dirt away. "Still, this is going to be really hard on Jim. He's going to be caught in the middle between his parents no matter what happens. It's bad enough that we have an unknown adversary and that his relationship with his father is still shaky, now we're got the added complication of his mother's presence."
"He is not facing this alone. We are with him and Incacha will provide all the support she is capable of giving."
"But, will it be enough?" Blair asked as he set down the brush and picked up the comb to work on Burton's tail.
"It must be. We cannot allow ourselves to become distracted from our primary mission of stopping whatever is attacking the holders. I know you usually defer to Jim's direction because he was chosen before you, but in this case, I believe you may want to consider acting as Senior Herald."
"You mean take charge?" Blair asked doubtfully. Because of his abilities as a healer, he was generally asked to stay away from the front lines of a battle. This would be the first time he would even consider acting as the Senior Herald in charge of this type of situation.
"I think your abilities of empathy and diplomacy would be of more importance than Jim's tactical skills and military background. He would serve better being in charge of the attack once we have decided on a course of action. You should take charge of the overall operation."
"It makes sense. This should prevent any accusations of Jim being accused of playing favorites."
Burton laughed. "It won't prevent it, but it will help minimize any such problems. I'm feeling much cleaner now. Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to change your tunic as this one is now covered with hair and mud, particularly since the others should be within sight in a few moments."
"Thanks for the warning. I'd better get outside before they arrive," Blair replied, slapping Burton's long neck. Blair had been shown upon his arrival where he and Jim were going to be housed during their stay at Bethyl Wood. Their rooms were on the ground floor of the west wing. Each had a window facing the large field where the horses spent most of the day. Jim's room had its own separate entrance that allowed easy access to the barn where the Companions were housed. He hurried to his room to change into his more formal whites.
He wanted to be sure to be in the courtyard before the others arrived. He was not as sure as Burton that Lord Ellison would respect his wife's new status as a foreign diplomat. When it came to matters of the human heart, a Companion didn't have the quite the same perspective.
Blair hurried across the courtyard to join the small group of people waiting at the gate for the new arrivals. He stayed to the side of the group, ready to react to the events about to unfold. Looking around the courtyard, he could sense the presence of many more people, but they were watching from hiding places with a view of the area. Whether they were afraid of the new arrivals or afraid of their Lord being angry with them for shirking their duties was anyone's guess, but word had spread quickly that gryphons were soon to arrive and everyone wanted a peek at the myth about to come alive before their eyes.
The group from White Gryphon entered the courtyard with little fanfare. Drake was at the head of the group along with the two gryphons. At first, Blair didn't see either his partner or Grace, until he spotted them at the back of the group. Jim was walking next to his mother. Incacha, her reins looped loosely onto her saddle, was walking with Bryon just in front of them, the two probably conversing mind to mind.
As William stepped forward to greet his guests, Blair watched as Grace remained at the rear of the crowd, clearly not having any desire to see or be seen by her husband in this very public setting. Blair winced at the look on his partner's face. It was clear he wasn't sure what he should do, continuing to remain with his mother or if he should move forward and greet his father.
The decision was taken out of his hands as William's booming voice was heard across the courtyard. "James! Where are you! Come here and introduce your new friends to me."
As Jim moved forward, he unfortunately drew attention to Grace's presence next to him. Blair noticed that a glazed look appeared in William's eyes for a split second, which was then replaced with a intense rage as he recognized the woman standing next to his son. Without a moment's hesitation, William angrily strode across the distance between them and grabbed Grace by the arms, calling for his guards. Shaking her several times he said, "I warned you. I warned you what would happen if I ever laid eyes on you again."
Grace was almost the only one not caught completely by surprise by William's actions. The moment William had seen Grace, Blair had felt only a brief surge of recognition and amazement. All of a sudden, these feelings were instantly replaced by waves of hatred and disgust emanating from Lord Ellison. He acted as quickly as William, moving to stop anyone from being hurt. Breaking the grip William had on Grace, he stepped between the two of them. "I don't know what has passed between you and this woman, but she is here as an emissary from another kingdom who has offered to aid us. I strongly advise you to rethink this course of action."
As Blair spoke, Jim stepped forwarded to stand at his side, between his mother and father. Neighing loudly, Burton made his opinion clear from his position in the paddock.
The house guards moved into position along side their Lord, weapons drawn, awaiting further orders. The two gryphons had moved into flanking positions, ready to defend their Trondi'irn. Blair shuddered as he noted that unless something was done soon, there would be a fight between the two parties.
Incacha moved away from Bryon and was standing in front of the gryphons. Her intention clear, the gryphons would have to move her out of the way before attacking anyone else.
"She is not welcome here!" William said angrily, his teeth clinched, refusing to back down.
"Then none of us will remain, for we are one people," Drake answered firmly. While he had known that Grace had fled from the estate, he hadn't considered the possibility that her husband had been the reason.
"Stop it!" Grace shouted moving out from the protection Jim and Blair had provided. Pointing one finger at William, she continued. "I remember all to well the circumstances that required my departure from this estate. However, I also know whatever evil is growing around this area threatens every living thing in our world. This evil must be stopped here and now. We need to put aside our differences, Lord Ellison."
Turning to face Drake, she added, "I know I can no longer hide from my past, but if Lord Ellison is unwilling to allow me to stay here then the rest of you must still remain. I will scout ahead with some of the others. I know that it will take all of us working together to stop this evil from destroying us. If my presence here will prevent that alliance from happening, I will leave but you must not."
Drake nodded respectfully to Grace, recognizing that if she was willing to not confront Lord Ellison, the remainder of the group had no cause. He turned to stare at Lord Ellison, awaiting his answer.
It was clear to everyone standing near Lord Ellison that he was struggling to contain his anger. His face was bright red, his fists were clenched at his sides, but his arms were shaking with the effort to control his temper.
"Father, they have information to share with us and are willingly to work with us. I've seen first hand the resources they have. We would be foolish not to work together." Jim smiled sadly at his mother before adding, "With all of them."
Arthur moved to stand behind Lord William. "I would recommend that we listen to what they have to say. Where is the harm in that, my Lord?"
William glared angrily at first his weaponsmaster, then at the group from White Gryphon, but he finally waved away the guards. "Arthur, show them to the quarters arranged for them. We'll meet in a candlemark at the banquet hall. I will listen to what they have to say and make my decision then."
William turned away from the group without another word, stomped his way through his retinue and entered the house.
Arthur watched him leave and turned to face the party from White Gryphon. Tensions were still running high, but there were no further signs that a fight was about to begin. He bowed respectfully towards Drake and introduced himself. "My name is Arthur. I am the weaponsmaster here at Bethyl Woods. I, for one, am thankful for any assistance that you are willing to provide. This is Serge Deva. He is the senior healer on the estate," Arthur continued, pointing to the man on his left.
Serge Deva stepped forward and offered his hand to Drake. His gaze moved to where Blair was standing. "Herald Blair, I'm pleased to see you here. My young patient has need of your special gift. I'm sorry I was not available to greet you when you first arrived, but I was with a patient."
Drake smiled. Those with the gift of healing were the same, no matter where they lived. Their first thought was always for their patient. "Perhaps I can also be of assistance in this matter Healer Deva. I have some small talent in that area myself."
"I would be grateful if you could help this child. She is far too young to be locked away from the world," Healer Deva answered.
A burly, blonde haired man stepped forward. "I am Berd, the stable master here."
Drake bowed politely then introduced the members of his own party. Once he was done, Arthur again took up the role as host. "We have kept your party standing here long enough. There is food awaiting you in your assigned quarters. We have done our best to provide accommodations for all members of your party. Berd will show Bryon and Incacha to the stable we have set aside for use when Heralds are visiting with their Companions. I believe Bryon would be most comfortable there."
"I would. I have greatly enjoyed conversing with Incacha and Burton. We have a similar perspective on things." Byron answered so all could hear.
Startled by the announced response, it took a moment for Arthur to continue. "We have set aside a large meeting room for the gryphons. We have emptied all the furniture, but were not sure what we should place in the room for your comfort. Several servants are awaiting you there. You may tell them what you require and we will do our best to provide what you request."
"I'm sssurrre sssomething will be easssily arrranged," Dren replied.
"The human members of your party have been assigned quarters in the east wing of the manor house. Two adjourning suites have been set aside for your use."
"The rooms by the garden?" Grace asked, pleased at the thought of seeing the garden again.
"Yes, Lady Grace, though the garden is no longer there," Arthur answered respectfully, but with a hint of regret.
She nodded, sadness evident in her eyes. "Lady, no longer either, my old friend."
"A Lady always, Lady Grace. No matter what others may say, you'll always be Lady Grace in my heart," Arthur replied. "If you'll follow me."
"I remember the way, Arthur. I'm sure you have other duties to attend to before the meeting," Grace answered, nodding in the direction Lord Ellison had taken.
"If you're sure," Arthur replied hesitantly. He did want to have words with Lord Ellison before the meeting, but duty demanded that he see to the comfort of the party from White Gryphon.
"We are sure, Weaponsmaster. We are accustomed to providing for ourselves and if Grace can show us the way, there is no need to take any more of your time right now," Drake said politely.
The group soon dispersed in several different directions, leaving Jim and Blair standing in the middle of the Courtyard. To Blair's trained eye, Jim was being torn in several directions. Should he go with his mother? Try to calm his Father? See that Incacha was settled properly? Blair could still sense the presence of some of the hidden watchers. Servants were notorious gossips and the last thing that Jim needed right now was to give them something to talk about.
Blair solved the issue for him, by practically dragging Jim in the direction of their quarters. "Don't say a word. We'll deal with this together. Once we get to our quarters, we can talk." Away from the prying eyes of others, they would deal with this before it became a problem to the mission.
The next few moments had been nothing but a blur for Jim. He was content to allow Blair to take the lead. He had no idea how to react to the confrontation that had taken place between his mother and father. Equally surprising was Arthur's reaction to his mother.
Only when he felt Blair handing him a glass of wine did he his mind begin to clear.
"Just drink it, Jim. It will help relax you a little," Blair instructed.
Jim sipped at the wine as Blair pulled another chair over, so he could sit face to face with his partner.
"Better?" Blair asked, one eyebrow raised.
Jim simply nodded, not ready to speak yet.
Sighing deeply, Blair knew he needed to get Jim talking about his family. If he didn't, Jim would pay for it later, in the form of nightmares most likely.
"Jim, I know you've never talked to me about your mother before, but I need to know whatever you can tell me right now. We've got to find a way to work out a truce between your mother and father. If we don't, someone's gonna get hurt."
Before replying, Jim gulped down the remainder of the wine in his glass. A brief thought flickered that his father would be displeased, one was never supposed to gulp a fine wine. "I can't tell you very much, Blair. I have almost no memories of my mother. What few memories I have are very vague."
"Didn't you talk to your mother on the way here? You've had several candlemarks with her on the way here. Didn't she tell you anything?"
Shaking his head, Jim answered, "No, we mostly talked about me and Steven. Recent history, she was asking a lot of questions."
"Didn't you ask any?" Blair asked, trying to keep his frustration out of his voice. Jim didn't need to hear that right now, but if it had been Blair's mother he would have been the one asking the questions.
Jim couldn't sit still in the chair a moment longer. He climbed to his feet and started pacing as he talked. "I tried, but she avoided giving me any answers. All she would say was that destroying the evil that was coming was more important and we needed to concentrate on that. When I pushed, she said that if she told me why she left it would make the situation more difficult. I should have realized that it had something to do with my father when she wouldn't talk about it."
"Jim, you're in a difficult position right now, both as a Herald and as a son. Right now, I think you need to concentrate on acting as a Herald and let the family issues wait until events are a little calmer."
Jim chuckled slightly, "That's exactly what Joel said before I left and he didn't have a clue that I'd be running into my mother on this mission."
Blair could sense that his partner was calming down, starting to think about the situation as a Herald rather then as the son of William and Grace. "Well, it was good advice. After the mission is over, I promise to help you sort out what happened to cause your mother to leave. Even if we have to tie her up. Okay?"
"Nah, that won't be necessary. The one thing that she did say, actually promised, is that she would not leave me this time without saying good-bye and explain why she had to leave. It was the only way she could get me to stop asking her about it."
"Good. Then things are looking up. So, what do you remember about your mother, during your childhood?" Blair asked. There was still time before they had to head for the banquet room.
"Like I said, not much. I remember her singing me to sleep at night. I can still remember some of the words. I remember that she always smelled pretty, like roses. I have a few memories of her and I sitting together in a huge garden, she was telling me stories about a princess," Jim said, his voice fading slightly as he struggled to pull the images from his memory. "An unhappy princess."
"Unhappy? What kind of story is that to tell a child?"
"Something about being forced into... a marriage maybe. No, the princess was forced to do something while her prince was away. I don't remember," Jim said frustrated.
"Maybe it wasn't a story. It may be part of the reason why she left," Blair suggested.
Jim rubbed his forehead. The more he talked; the memories were coming back to him. "I'm not sure. I have a few more memories. Mother taking Steven and I on a picnic, even though Steven was still a baby. A really vague one in a church, something bad happened though. Mother was angry, then crying, but I don't know why."
Judging by the growing headache Blair could feel forming behind Jim's eyes, he knew that Jim was approaching dangerous and painful memories. "Enough for now, Jim. Maybe we should talk about how we're gonna convince your father to declare a truce?"
"First, we're not going to convince my father to do anything he doesn't want to do. He doesn't share authority very well and I think he considers my mother's return a threat to his authority. Judging from Arthur's reaction, she had a great deal of influence over the people here. I'm hoping that he will calm down once he gets over the shock of her being here."
"Do you really believe that?"
Jim shrugged, half-heartedly. "I wouldn't bet on it. I'm also hoping that he'll listen during the meeting and come to the conclusion that we all need to work together. He's angry about the holders being killed and that might be enough of a reason for him to ignore my mother's being here."
"So we wait here until its time for the meeting?"
"I think so. You might also want to eat something. This meeting could go on for a long while," Jim suggested, grabbing a plate of fruit and cheese from a tray that had been left for Blair. He tossed an apple across the room to Blair.
Catching the apple, Blair replied, "We've got a plan." Blair leaned back and took a bite from the ripe fruit. Now, if only the rest of the participants fell in line with the plan, the mission would be back on track.
The group gathered in the banquet room at the manor house. It was the only place big enough to hold Aramen, Dren, Bryon, and all the human participants. The two Companions had decided not to attend, but to hear what was discussed through their link with their Chosen.
Jim and Blair were the last to enter the room. Actually, Blair almost ran over Jim, who had stopped moving in the middle of the doorway. He peeked around Jim's large frame and winced at the sight before him. The party was clearly split into two sides.
The Kingdom members had claimed the right side of the room, lead by William. Arthur was present, along with a man Jim didn't remember, who was wearing the robes of a clergyman. Also included were Deva and Berd. The group from White Gryphon had claimed the left; clearly lead by Grace. Drake was with her, along with the other two human scouts, Bryon, Dren and Aramen.
"You've actually got to move inside the room, Jim," Blair whispered, giving Jim a slight shove forward.
"You're a Herald, Chosen. It is your duty to remain neutral in these circumstances," Incacha added. "Remember, Herald then family."
Blair moved around Jim to the far side of the table, pulling a chair to the dead center of one side. Thankful for his partner's inspiration, Jim did the same on the side of the table closest to the door. As he sat down, his eyes darted side to side, checking for a reaction.
He saw the disappointment in his father's eyes. His mother seemed to understand, even appeared pleased by his actions. Jim swallowed hard, searching for the words to open the discussion. Collegium classes aside, diplomacy wasn't his strong suit, especially when it was his own family that was divided.
Blair, seeming to read the unspoken plea in Jim's expression and recalling the conversation that had taken place earlier with Burton, took charge of the meeting. "We have all gathered here because there is a growing evil in the Pelagiris Forest. If it is not stopped, it will become a threat to all of us. I think it is best to pool our information. William, why don't you begin by speaking about what has already happened, and the information gathered by your patrols. Grace, you can add what your people know of this."
William shifted forward in his chair, slamming his hand down on the table. "No! I'm through talking. I want to hear what these diplomats have to offer then we need to take action!"
"Take action against what?" Grace retorted calmly. "We still aren't sure what we are up against. How can we take action against the unknown?"
"How do we know that it isn't your group of misfits that's behind these disappearances? Just how long have you and your friends been skulking about my estate?" William retorted.
Grace's face turned bright red with anger at her former husband's accusations. However, before she could answer, Blair took charge of the situation. "Lord Ellison, we don't need accusations like that flying across the table. I believe we need all the help we can get in this situation, which includes any information or support the party from White Gryphon is able to provide." Seeing William was not convinced, Blair continued. "If you don't believe my opinion, then know this: our Companions have also indicated that we can trust our new friends from White Gryphon. Do you wish to discount their opinion also?"
Lord William shook his head. Doubting the word of a Companion was almost unthinkable.
"Excellent. Shall we continue now? I believe Grace raises a good point. We still don't have any idea what we are up against. We need to find out all we can about this menace. Before I examine the child, I would like to hear all the facts first."
Blair stopped and stared at Lord Ellison, waiting for him to open the discussion. He was bitterly disappointed when it was Arthur who opened the dialogue.
"From what little information we have managed to gather, it appears these attacks begin just before sunset. In the first attack, a peddler reported seeing no problems when he passed through the holding at noon. In the second attack, the Home Guard had performed its check around two candlemarks before sunset and everything was all right. Just after sunrise the following day, during their next check, they realized everyone was gone."
When Arthur stopped, the senior healer, Deva added what little information he had discovered from his young patient. "I couldn't understand much of what I saw in the child's mind. From the images I did manage to see, the sun appeared to be setting. She was opening up the main barn doors while the older children were on their way in with the herd. From her perspective, the whole world seemed to darken in a manner of seconds, as if a giant storm was gathering over the holding. The images became very disjointed after that. A lot of screaming was occurring; adults in a cornfield were disappearing before her very eyes. Something seemed to surround them, but with the dimming sunlight, I couldn't tell what. She was running for the barn, and that was the last image I saw before the child became hysterical and threw me out of her mind. I couldn't get back in after that."
"The timing makes sense. Just before sunset, most of the holders would be outside, finishing up their work in the fields," Jim added.
"So, the child that survived was found in the barn. Was there something special about the barn compared to the structures in the first two attacks? How did this child survive, when every other living thing on the other two holdings had disappeared?" Drake asked.
Arthur thought for a long moment before he answered. "Actually, to be more specific, she was hiding in a metal silo used to store corn seed. It was only dumb luck my men found her. They were looking for feed for the horses."
Grace leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. "Was that the only metal structure on any of the three holdings?"
It was William who answered this time. "Yes. Most people considered it a waste of money to have the blacksmith construct a costly metal silo when so much wood was available for free just a short distance away in the forest." It was plain to the others at the table that William disagreed with what his holder had done.
"But metal silos are a lot safer, particularly when storing seed corn. The dust created when the corn is stored can cause an explosion under the right conditions," Jim said. "I know a lot of the farmers around Haven are starting to build them. They're keeping the blues at the Collegium pretty busy."
William glowered at his son, who was looking at the maps on the table in front of him, oblivious to his father's wrath.
Blair changed the subject, hoping Jim didn't notice his father's anger. "So whatever this thing is, it can't penetrate metal."
"Why wouldn't it be able to get past metal? It could get past everything else. I know for a fact that in the first holding, one member of the family was bedridden. There was no way he would have been outside, yet he disappeared along with the rest," William asked.
Grace shifted uncomfortable in her chair. It was time to share the content of the dreams that had forced her to leave her adopted home and return to Bethyl Woods. "I think it may have something to do with the fact that metal is something that was never alive. It has no life force. I believe that whatever this thing is, it has learned to move through anything that is alive or was once alive. That may be why it is attacking. It needs the life-force of other living things to survive."
"How do we fight something that can do that?" Arthur asked. He was more accustomed to battling bandits and mercenaries than shadows. This was out of the realm of his experience.
"This is all conjecture!" William said angrily, slamming his hand down on the table. "We need facts, not theories."
"Which may be difficult to gather and stay alive long enough to tell others. One small child is the only living being to survive one of these attacks. Besides, how are we to know where it will attack next?" Drake replied calmly.
Jim was looking at the maps and thought he saw a truly horrifying possibility. "Up until now, we've assumed that we awakened some beast in the forest and it is simply attacking the outermost holdings, but what if it's something more sinister than that? What if there is an intelligence behind this?"
"What are you saying, Jim?" Blair asked.
"Look at what it's doing. It's traveling in a straight line. The three holdings that it attacked are in a straight line. This thing bypassed the other holding that lies against the forest boundaries. If it was simply attacking in response to invasion of its territory, that holding would have been the logical second target, yet it didn't attack there."
Arthur rose from his seat and crossed the room to where Jim was sitting, the maps on the table in front of him. Following Jim's theory, he used his finger to trace the projected path of the attacks if they were to continue in a straight line. His finger moved across the map until it came to rest directly on the manor house of Bethyl Woods.
"If James is correct, it's coming here," he announced to the room.
Lord William was speechless, all color drained from his face at the weapons master's announcement. Grace, on the other side of the table, was nodding, a tear running down her cheek. It was almost as if she was expecting that answer.
Blair immediately noticed her strange response. "Grace?"
"The reason we came here from White Gryphon was because I recognized the taint that seems to be behind this evil, or at least controlling it. I remember all to well the person who made me feel like this a long time ago."
Lord Ellison found his voice at his former Lady's words. Through gritted teeth he replied, "It's not possible. He's dead. He's been dead for almost a year now. You don't know what you're talking about."
"I know what I'm feeling. I tried to warn you back then of the danger we were in, but you wouldn't listen to me!" Grace shrieked back.
"Perhaps one of you would like to tell the rest of us what the two of you are talking about?" Blair requested.
"Father Lee Brackett," Grace replied, much more calmly. "It is his evil hand that I felt in the dreams that led us here. I'm sure it's him. I know all to well just what an evil man he is."
"Was! It can't be him. He's dead," William reiterated.
"But we never found a body," Jim said for the benefit of the others, again unintentionally angering his father, by refuting his words. "We assumed he was dead after he fled into the Forest. What if he found a way to survive?"
There was no more discussion for several minutes, as the potential reality of their situation weighed heavily upon those who had already experienced just how evil Father Brackett could act.
The clergyman, who introduced himself as Brother Marcus, entered the discussion for the first time. "After I was assigned here by the temple, I examined several of the writings Father Brackett had left behind in his room. He was definitely studying the forbidden knowledge, the black arts. I suppose it is possible that he managed to survive where any other mortal man would have been killed. I'll study the rest of the documents he left in his quarters and see if there is any clue as to what he has done."
Dren was the next to speak. "If we are corrrect in our asssumptionsss and the evil isss coming herrre, following a ssstrrraight line, we ssshould be able to backtrrrack the path it hasss taken to reach thisss far."
"I agree," Drake said, nodding vigorously. "James, Blair, do either of you have any idea where this Brackett entered the forest when he was supposedly killed?"
"Northeast of here. I couldn't be much more specific than that without talking to the guard unit that pursued him into the forest," Blair answered.
"Simon will be here soon. He'll be able to provide further information on their pursuit," Jim said.
Dren shook his feathers, "Betterrr that we do not wait. Norrrtheassst is a good enough essstimate to trace the trail backwarrrd. We know forr surrre where to begin ourrr searrrch. Arrramen and I will trrry to trrrack itsss passst movementsss. Therrre ssshould be sssome sssignsss of dessstrrruction in itsss wake if it hasss drrrained enerrrgy frrrom the land it passsesss overrr. We should be able to ssspot the trrrail frrrom the airrr."
"Let us know as soon as you can. While you are doing that, I will examine the child. See if I can retrieve any more information from her mind as I try to help her heal," Blair said.
"I'd like to help, Blair. I have a strong gift of empathy, besides foresight, myself. I may be able to help," Grace offered.
"I would like to volunteer my services also," Drake added.
Blair smiled at the group from White Gryphon. "Thank you. It may take all of us to help this child, and get the information we require."
Arthur waited for his Lord to say something, but William was too angry to be reasonable. He had completely lost control of the situation. His intention had been to reject the any offer of help from these so-called ambassadors, but he had no logical reason to do so. His son had been correct; the gryphons were a resource he couldn't duplicate.
Hoping he wasn't going to anger William any further, Arthur said, "I'll speak to the blacksmith about constructing some metal boxes large enough for some of the guard. We'll need it at the holding it should be attacking next. This way, perhaps we can get some useful information if we can observe the beast directly."
"I'll head out to the next two holdings in this thing's path. I'll evacuate the holders back to here, just in case we can't stop it before it reaches the next holding," Jim volunteered.
"No, Steven can handle that. As their future Lord, it is time the holders recognized that Steven is my heir. I'll send a messenger out to the holding near the woods. Steven is waiting there with most of the home guard for the beast to attack," William said, entering the conversation for the first time, glaring at his eldest son. He may have had no control over the others, but his own retainers and his sons were his to command.
This time Jim realized just how much anger his father was pouring in his direction. He looked down at his feet, not completely sure why his father was directing all this anger at him.
"James, we've received word that the Queen has sent three of the regular army units to help us here. They should be arriving in the next few days. I think you're the best man to be liaison between the army and the Estate," Arthur said, waiting to see if his Lord disagreed.
Jim nodded in response to Arthur's suggestion. Normally, it would have been the Weaponsmaster's role to coordinate with the military. Jim took it as a sign of respect from the weaponsmaster that he was being asked to fill the role.
Blair waited to see if there were any other comments. When nothing more was said, he suggested they meet the following day at noon to gauge the progress.
"I would sssuggessst that Arrramen and I leave immediately. The sssooner we confirrrm the identity of ourrr enemy, the betterrr we may all plan for hisss demissse," Dren replied.
Blair nodded in agreement and adjourned the meeting. The large gathering quickly separated into several smaller ones. William stomped out of the room without a word to anyone, but Brother Marcus called after him, following him toward the direction of William's study.
Arthur pulled Jim out of the room, taking the opposite direction from William and his hostility. Arthur knew all too well the family history and had decided to act as a buffer between Lord William and his eldest son. He had regrets concerning both James and his mother.
Having been away from the estate, he had no knowledge that could have refuted the accusations leveled at Lady Grace by Father Brackett and prevented her exile. Although he had expressed his doubts, all that had done was anger William and set Brackett against him. He had not been in a position to aid James as a child, without the possibility of losing his place, though he had suggested to Simon that the boy had potential.
With Grace's return, it was obvious that James closely resembled his mother's side of the family and some of William's rage was focused on Jim solely because of his appearance.
The two gryphons followed them out, wanting to leave on their mission as soon as possible. Gryphons did not enjoy the planning sessions in general. They were created to be beings of action and were happiest acting as scouts or as soldiers in the thick of a battle.
Grace and Drake remained seated, waiting for the others to clear the room. Blair joined them at their end of the table, along with the senior healer.
"So, when would you like to see the child?" Healer Deva asked.
"As soon as possible," Drake replied. "The longer she is left locked away from the rest of the world, the harder it will be to draw her back."
Grace rose to her feet. "Lead the way, Healer Deva."
Blair lost track of the number of turns they passed through as the healer led the group to his small infirmary.
The room was bright with the afternoon sun, having a window that faced the west. Lying on the bed was a small child, curled up in a ball, her head facing the window. Under one arm was a rag doll, the face half faded away. Blair and Drake waited at the doorway, allowing Grace and Deva to approach the tiny patient.
"Come closer. There's no need to wait in the hallway," Deva said softly.
"I'd hate to frighten her with all these strange faces," Drake whispered in return.
"Blair, what do you sense from her?" Deva asked.
Blair hesitantly lowered his shields, then dropped them completely. He could sense nothing from the child. She had walled her mind off from the rest of the world. Shaking his head as he approached the bed he answered, "Nothing. I'm not getting anything from her. It's as if she isn't aware of anything happening around her."
Running his hand over the little girl's long blonde hair, Deva said softly, "I was hoping that I couldn't sense her emotions because my own gift is so weak in mind healing. She is in a much worse state than I originally thought if you are sensing nothing either."
"I may be able to reach her if I touch her," Blair said moving over to sit down next to the little girl. "What's her name? Does anyone know?"
"Elsbeth. Her parents called her Elly."
Blair looked at where Grace was standing on the opposite side of the bed from Deva. "Grace, why don't you sit behind Elly and hold her against you. This way, if I can manage to reach her, she'll feel safe if I can bring her back."
As Grace, sat down at the head of the bed, Deva lifted the child. He then carefully lowered the child into Grace's waiting arms. Blair sat down on the edge of the bed next to them. "Drake, why don't you stand behind me. Just rest one hand on my shoulder and help ground and stabilize me. I may need some energy from you, if her walls are too solid."
"My pleasure, Blair." Drake moved to the indicated position.
The instant Drake placed his hand on Blair's shoulder, Blair felt a sense of calm pass over him. "Deva, you can monitor all of us. Break the physical connection between us if you think something is going wrong."
As soon as everyone was in position, Blair slowly reached out both hands and lightly touched his fingertips to Elly's temple. He closed his eyes tightly and reached out to see if he could find the spark of life that felt like a child.
When he opened his eyes, he no longer saw the infirmary room. He was within the child's mind, seeing the images that had been the cause of her retreat from the world. He was saddened to see that the horror that she had experienced had become part of her dream world. The place was dark, desolate. Death was visible everywhere, dead trees and grass, there was no sign of anything living.
Everywhere except for one very small corner to his right. Shimmering in the distance, he could see a bright spot, where the sun was shining. A tall oak tree with several birds sitting in the branches was also visible. Surrounding the area was a huge stone wall. As soon as Blair moved a single step towards the wall, he heard the sound of howling coming from his left.
Deciding that reaching the sanctuary soon was a very good idea, Blair ran toward the stone wall. It seemed that whatever creatures lurked here were coming closer with each step Blair took.
"Elsbeth!" Blair called as he approached the wall. "Elly! Where are you?"
Now that he was standing at the wall, he realized that it was at least ten feet high. He walked the entire perimeter of the wall, but there didn't seem to be a door. Suddenly, Burton was standing next to him. At least he thought it was Burton. The outline was similar to that of a Companion, but instead of a white horse, Burton appeared as a glowing energy form, swirling in colors of blue and white.
"Burton? What are you doing here?" Blair asked puzzled by the presence of his Companion.
"You need me, my Chosen. You'll not be able to enter the child's sanctuary without my help and you must not stay out here. The demons the child's mind has created can do you harm. I can create a door for you but it will not last long. It will be up to you to convince the child to lower it again."
"And if I can't?" Blair asked, not liking the ominous tone he heard from Burton.
"Then, both of you will remain trapped with her mind. There will be nothing any of us can do."
"Is there something you're not telling me? How do you know this?"
"The terror of the attack woke her gift extremely early. Had this not happened, she would have been Chosen in a few years and her gift brought under control. Now, without a Companion to help her, her gift is being used in a defensive manner."
"Her gift?" Blair thought about it for a few seconds. "Fetching! Her gift is fetching, but instead of moving objects to her, she forces objects away, keeps them at a distance. Since we're inside her mind, it takes the shape of a stone wall, something her mind can comprehend. Is that how she survived the attack?"
"I honestly don't know. I know only that she has a very strong gift. If you can convince her to lower this wall and bring her out with you, Incacha and I can help the child control her gifts until her Companion is ready to Choose."
"Ready! Are you telling me that her Companion isn't ready to help her just because she's trapped here, traumatized." Blair asked angrily.
"Perhaps old enough would have been a better phrase. The problem is that the Companion ordained for this little one isn't even a year old yet. He would not be any help to us at this point."
"Sorry," Blair said over the howling that was getting even louder now. "Get me inside. I'm not leaving her here in this pit."
"Be careful. I would hate to lose you now," Burton replied.
"You won't, you can't ditch me that easily. As Blair waited, a section of the wall became almost transparent. He was so busy watching with wonder that he forgot what he was supposed to be doing until Burton said, "I can't hold this for long. Move through!"
Blair found himself standing in the most beautiful garden he had ever seen. Sitting underneath the tree, her head resting on her knees was Elly. She was trembling, holding her knees with her arms. Tucked tightly underneath one arm was a doll.
"Hello, Elly. My name is Blair," he said as he walked over to where the child was seated. He was disappointed when the child pulled into an even tinier ball.
"Elly, please look at me," Blair said as he knelt down next to the child. "Nothing can hurt you now. I won't let it," he added, waiting for a response from the child. His patience was rewarded as he saw the little head tilt and one blue eye peek out from behind her arms.
"It's okay. You're safe here," he repeated, waiting for her to answer him.
"Promise?" Came a shaky whisper from the child.
"I promise," Blair said solemnly.
This time, Elly raised her head and looked up at him, but she didn't release the tight hold she had around her legs.
Blair sat down on the ground next to her, waiting to see what she would do next.
She rubbed her eyes with one hand and sniffled. "Everyone's gone," she whispered. "The bad things came, but they can't get me in here."
Blair nodded. "I know. But, they're gone now." Just as he spoke, a high pitched howl could be heard. The screech of claws against stone filled the air.
Elly started to shake. "Not gone," she whimpered and started to cry.
Blair pulled her into a hug. "The bad things that hurt your family are gone and I won't let anything hurt you. I promised, remember?"
Elly looked up at him again, with tear filled eyes and nodded. As she did, the scratching noises disappeared.
A theory formed in Blair's thoughts about the origin of the creatures outside the wall. "Elly, we need to leave here. We have friends waiting for us."
"No! No! I can't. The bad things will get us," Elly whimpered. The scratching sounds returned as she spoke.
"No, they can't hurt you unless you think they can. I promise if you lower the wall, we'll be safe and can go home. Don't you want to leave?" Blair said softly, then realized this wasn't the smartest thing he could have said as Elly didn't really have a family to go back to anymore.
Elly shrugged. Looking up to him, her eyes wide open she asked, "It's okay out there?"
"I told you nothing can hurt you now."
Elly seemed to study him carefully, thinking about his answer. "You're not very big. The bad things will hurt you. They hurt daddy and he's much bigger than you."
Blair shook his head. "I'm a Herald, and I have a Companion out there who will also protect us."
"Really?" Elly said, questioningly.
"Yes, really. He's waiting for us, out there."
Blair watched as the little girl's glance quickly darted between the wall and himself, probably trying to decide if she could trust him. She leaned in close to him and whispered softly, "But I don't know how to. The wall just is."
Blair closed his eyes and pulled the child back into a tight hug. He hadn't anticipated this outcome. "That's okay. I think I can help you with this," he whispered back. "Just close your eyes." He looked down to see if he was being obeyed and was pleasantly surprised. He seemed to have won the little girl's trust.
"Okay, now I want you to picture the stones in the wall. Can you see them?"
Elly nodded vigorously.
"Good, now I want you to reach out with your hands and push the stone closest to you right out of the wall. Can you do that for me?"
Elly nodded as she reached out with both arms. Even though they were some distance from the wall, a hole appeared in the wall.
"Very good, now do it again with the stones on either side of the hole you made."
Before his eyes, the hole grew large as Elly knocked down the wall her gift had created to keep her safe. Even though Elly had only removed a couple of stones in her mind, the entire wall in front of them collapsed completely.
"You can open your eyes now, Elly. You did a good job." Blair stood up, gathering the child into his arms, turning so that Elly could see only the garden behind them and not the bleak world outside her safe haven. He was afraid that the creatures that were prowling outside of the walls would now attack.
As he carried Elly toward the wall, he noticed something strange. The garden that Elly had created was now spreading outside the confinement of her sanctuary rather than the desolation moving inwards. It was as if Elly's nightmare world was being destroyed, by her faith in Blair and his Companion.
"Elly, look at this place. I told you the bad things couldn't hurt you any more," Blair said, shifting the little girl so that she could see what was happening.
"Just like you promised," she said, lowering her head down on his shoulder and closing her eyes.
It was then that Blair felt Drake's pull on his mind, guiding him back to reality. He felt Elly disappear from his arms. Frantically, spinning around, he searched for her. Darkness closed in on him as Burton pulled him back from the child's mind.
When Blair could see again, he found himself sitting on the floor of the infirmary. Drake hadn't been able to keep Blair from falling of the bed, but had managed to prevent him from falling hard enough to hurt himself. The room was still spinning slightly, so Blair closed his eyes again. He could feel both physically and mentally that Drake was sitting behind him, supporting him. Deva knelt down next to him and feed him an energy line to replace that which he had lost.
Only the sound of a tremulous little voice forced him to open them again. "Blair?"
"I'm right here, honey. The lady holding you is Grace. She is a very good friend of mine and she'll take care of you." Blair remained where he was on the floor. Even with Deva's help, the room was still spinning. He heard Grace asking Elly about her doll. It seemed the child was in good hands, though he would have to have a discussion about Elly's future at some point with Deva. For now, all he wanted to do was stay where he was for a while.
After spending a few minutes on the floor, Blair quickly decided that it would be better if he could rest in his quarters than on the cold hard floor. He didn't really want to remain on the cot in the small infirmary and Elly needed Deva's care more than he did.
With Grace leading the way, Drake assisted Blair back to the room that had been assigned to him. Just as they reached the door, Jim entered the hallway, blocking their path as he reached for Blair.
"He's exhausted. He needs some food and drink and then to bed with him," Drake answered.
"I'm right here. I can speak for myself."
"Yes, but can you stand by yourself?" Drake quipped.
"Bring him in here. There's a little bit of food left from lunch in here, and some wine," Jim said, waving them into his room.
"I'll slip down to the kitchen and bring up our evening meal. It will be much easier on all of us if we stayed here rather than having dinner in the main dining room," Grace said, heading towards the hallway down to the kitchen.
"If you can manage Blair without me, I believe I should lend Grace a hand bringing enough food up here for the four of us. It's probably more than she can manage alone," Drake added.
"I'm fine," Blair said as he pulled away from Drake's supporting arm and promptly buckled at the knees.
"I can manage him," Jim answered as he grabbed hold of his friend before he dropped to the floor.
Drake hurried after Grace, leaving the two men alone in Jim's room.
"So, how did it go, Chief?" Jim asked as he helped Blair to sit down in the large rocking chair by the fireplace.
"Well, Elly should be just fine. She's awake, and she's aware of her surroundings now."
"That's great news."
"Yeah, we didn't try to get any information from her. I figured it would be better to give her a chance to adjust before we ask her to talk about what happened."
"First things first, you helped the kid come back to reality, right?"
Blair nodded. "She'll need some additional time with the healers, but she's definitely on the road to recovery."
"That's what's important. Elly will be happy here. I'm sure father will find a place for her. I think Deva told us what was important and we can see for ourselves when you reach the next target."
Remembering what Burton had told him about Elly's gift, Blair said, "Actually, when we're ready to head back to Haven, Elly'll travel back to the Collegium with us. Her future is waiting for her at the Collegium. For now, you're right it's best that we leave her here in Deva's care."
"What? Why the Collegium?"
Blair chuckled. "Let's just say that I have it on very good authority that Elly has a four footed friend waiting for her at some point in the future. So what have you been up to?"
Jim smiled at Elly's good fortune. The happiest day of his life had been the day Incacha had Chosen him. He then shrugged in answer to Blair's question. "Not much. There's no word yet from Simon. Arthur had me sparring with a few of his more advanced students. He's getting too old to beat up on them himself."
At Blair's raised eyebrow, Jim continued, "They needed to be taken down a peg, Chief. If they went into a real battle with a cocky attitude they'd be dead within the first minute of the fight. Too much confidence is not a good thing when it comes to fighting."
"How bruised are you?" Blair asked with a smirk.
"Barely, individually neither of the kids could land a single blow, but then Arthur had them double team me. I got a little tired there at the end and took a glancing blow to the ribs. I'm fine. It's just a little black and blue."
Blair bit back his laughter. Not wanting to give Jim the opportunity to remind him that he was probably in worse shape from his healing session than Jim was after a weapons practice session. He noticed a puzzled look cross his partner's face. Jim headed for the door sniffing the air as he went.
"That was fast. I hope you're hungry. It smells like they've brought enough food to feed an army," Jim said as he opened the door.
Blair didn't have Jim's sense of smell, but the aroma of the food set his stomach to grumbling. It was a good thing that Drake had gone to assist Grace with the food and even that hadn't been enough help. There were two servants, a boy and a girl, each carrying a heavy tray of food in addition to the ones carried by Grace and Drake.
One of the servant's trays held place settings for four. The rest of the food was spread over every flat surface in the room, including the bed. As the young woman began removing the covers from the dishes, Blair's stomach rumbled loud enough for all to hear.
"Pull that chair of yours up to the table, Blair, before you faint from hunger," Grace said with a laugh as she sat down at the table herself. Drake took the seat next to her, leaving a place for Jim between himself and Blair.
The young man reached for the dish of appetizers to begin to serve, but Jim took the tray from him. "We are capable of serving ourselves. I'm sure you have something better to do with your time," Jim said with a wink. He knew both of the young people from his earlier visit to the estate. Actually, he had heard them in the hayloft above Incacha's stall.
"Thank you, sir. We do, I mean I do," he replied with a blush. He reached for the young lady's hand and pulled her from the room.
"You don't need an empath's gift to know what those two are going to be up to," Jim said with a slightly evil smirk as he joined the others at the table, passing the tray of food to Blair.
Grace laughed and started to pass the tray of venison that was closest to her.
Conversation over the course of the meal remained light. Blair managed to pry several stories out of Drake about Grace during the last few years at White Gryphon. They were just about to cut the apple pie when a loud voice could be heard in the hallway, calling Jim's name.
"Jimmy! Where the devil are you! I know you're around here some place, big brother."
"Steven?" Jim called as he headed for the door to let his brother inside.
Steven bounded into the room, full of good cheer and pulled Jim into a bear hug. "I saw these pretty white playmates of yours in the field as I rode in. I had to come see for myself that you were actually here. I'll have you know I tracked you down first, haven't even reported into father yet."
Jim slapped his younger brother on the back as he pulled out of the hug. "Nice to see you too, bro. I was beginning to wonder when you'd get in. Should have known it would be just in time for dessert."
"Mere coincidence, I assure you. I see you dragged Blair along as peacemaker again. Why don't you introduce me to your other new friends?" Steven replied waving at Blair.
Jim stood there speechless for a moment. He had almost forgotten that Steven had been a toddler when their mother had left them. It should not have been a surprise that Steven didn't recognize her, but Jim was still a little shell-shocked.
Steven's lack of recognition seemed to trouble Grace as well, because she paled noticeably.
Drake rose from the table and offered his hand in greeting. "My name is Drake. My friends and I have come to aid your family in stopping the evil that is murdering your holders. We shall have plenty of time to talk, for now I believe that it would be a good idea to move Blair to his own bed. He's had quite a day."
Blair started to object, then relented. It might be better for both Grace and Steven if there were introduced without witnesses. "You could be right. I'll talk to you later, Steven. Jim, if you need me..." Blair's voice trailed off, not sure how he wanted to complete that sentence without alerting Steven that something was potentially wrong.
"We'll be fine, Chief. I know where you are. Now, go get some sleep. Tomorrow around noon we're going to start for the next holding in the path of this thing."
Drake assisted Blair to his feet and helped him to his own room.
Steven looked at Jim, his eyes wide. "Was it something I said? I haven't ever cleared a room this quickly before."
"No, it wasn't you. They're were trying to give us a little privacy," Jim said. He took a deep breath. The time had come to introduce Steven to their mother.
"Stevie, I'm not sure how to tell you this."
"Uh, Jim. You're starting to scare me a little here. What's going on?" Steven asked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, rocking slightly.
"What your brother is trying to say is my name is Grace, formerly Lady Grace Ellison. I'm your mother, Steven," Grace said rising from the table, but not moving closer to her sons. She wanted Steven to make the first move.
Jim could feel the muscles under his arm tense. He was half-sure his brother was going to bolt. He stepped between his mother and young brother, blocking his view of her. "Steven, are you all right?"
Steven nodded once, slowly, his mouth hanging open.
Jim wanted to laugh at the dumbfounded expression on his brother's face. It wasn't often that Steven could be rendered speechless. At least, there were no indications of anger, like there had been with his father.
"You might want to close your mouth then. You're doing a great impression of a frog."
Steven's mouth snapped close. And he snuck a peek at his mother over his brother's left shoulder. He whispered, "Are you sure that's her?"
Jim turned back to smile at his mother. "I'm sure. I remember. Now go over there and greet her properly."
Moving out of the way, Jim stood back and watched as Steven walked over to their mother. Grace pulled him in for a hug, but released him quickly. Her son felt so stiff with tension or perhaps a little fear. She wasn't convinced he was really ready for her yet. She looked over at her older son and was puzzled by the expression of anger she saw there. As she lowered her arms, she realized that her son had seen the bruises on her arms from when William had grabbed her earlier in the day. She pulled down on her sleeves to ensure that the bruises were covered.
Steven ran his hand though his hair. "I'm sorry. I'm trying, but I just can't remember you. This is so hard."
Grace reached out one hand to cup Steven's cheek. "I do understand, Steven. You were only two when I left. I would have been very surprised if you could remember me. It doesn't mean that we can't get to know each other, right?"
Steven nodded as he backed away from this stranger who was his mother, tripping slightly over the leg of one of the chairs. "I think I'd like that, but I need to report to father about the holdings."
Jim grabbed his brother by the arm, turning briefly to his mother saying, "I'll be right back."
He led his brother out into the hallway, not wanting to embarrass either his mother or his brother. "Are you really all right with this, because you are acting a little strange."
"I don't know what I'm feeling. I just know that I'm not ready to call that woman mother. I never had a mother, Jim, not that I can remember. I'm not sure I need one now."
Jim sighed. "I guess I did have a few more years with her than you did. I just think you'd regret not talking to her, getting to know her a little."
"I will, just give me a little time. Besides, you know what father will say if I don't go to him right now about the holding."
"Yeah, about seeing father. He's not exactly happy that she's here. You really shouldn't mention that you've met."
"What do you mean not happy?" Steven asked, gesturing with his hands for more detail.
"I mean he was going to have her arrested by his guards. We almost had a battle between the group from White Gryphon and father's guard," Jim explained.
"It wouldn't have been much of a battle. The Home Guard is pretty good," Steven answered proudly. He had trained several of the units himself.
"I forgot that you haven't seen the gryphons yet. They're pretty formidable by themselves. It was a close call."
"Gryphons? You're joking. There are actually gryphons here?"
"Well, they're off on a mission right now. They left right after the strategy meeting we had earlier today, but they'll be back in a few days. I'll make sure to introduce you," Jim promised, slapping his brother on the back.
"Promise? Good. Uh, look, I shouldn't be too long with father. Are you and Grace going to be here for a while?" Steven asked tentatively. He still couldn't bring himself to call her his mother.
"We'll wait for you," Jim answered, with a broad grin.
"Sounds fine. Just promise me that you'll be here. I want to talk to her, but I'm not ready to be alone with her yet. It may sound stupid, but I'm just not ready."
"We'll be waiting and we might even save you some pie. Go! Talk to father and get back here as soon as you can."
With a wave, Steven hurried away. Jim squared his shoulder and entered his room. Hopefully, his mother would understand.
It had taken almost a full day of continuous flying to follow the trail. The path of destruction the creature had left in its wake was easy to follow by air. It wasn't a continuous line. It started and ended from time to time. It was like the destruction was almost a byproduct of its need to feed, but it was clearly a straight-line path to the north.
Dren and Aramen studied the ground beneath them as they flew. It was several hours after noon of the second day after leaving the estate before they discovered the location where the creature had been born. It had been so obvious from the air; a wide clearing could be seen. It was ten-foot wide, almost a perfect circle of burnt vegetation.
Dren landed first followed by his mate. He awkwardly walked across the ground, the urge to take flight almost to strong to fight. There was a black taint to the land. It made him ill simply walking across it.
"Therrre," Aramen said, lifting one claw and pointing at a soil mound in the center of the clearing. Spots of white were visible amidst the dirt.
Dren hopped to where his mate was pointing. Using one claw, he cleared away some of the soil, pawing at the bones that were now uncovered on the ground.
"Thisss isss all that isss left of the man, beforrre he became the beassst."
"But, how? And what causssed thisss much dessstrrruction?" Aramen asked.
"That isss not for usss to know. We ssshould rrreporrrt back to the otherrrsss what we have dissscoverrred. At leassst we have a name to put to ourrr enemy now."
"And knowing that ssshould help usss figurrre out how we can defeat it," Aramen added, resting her head across her mate's neck."
"That isss my hope. Now, let'sss go. I want to put asss much dissstance asss possssible between usss and thisss sssite beforrre it getsss darrrk. Thisss place jussst doesssn't feel rrright to me."
Aramen was slightly surprised by her mate's tone, but she soon realized that there were no sounds coming from the area surrounding the clearing. No bird song, no sound of animals moving within the forest, only an eerie silence.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Grace left her room to watch the sun rise. She and her sons had talked long into the night and had only gone to bed shortly after midnight. She was a little disappointed that Steven hadn't given her a warmer greeting, but she understood and was happy about the bridge that had been started last night between them.
She looked over at the pack she had just finished putting together. Even though the promised guard units had not arrived, today the selected group would be leaving for the next holding in the path of evil.
She had used the doorway, which lead directly from her bedroom to the garden as not to disturb anyone else in the house. She looked at the barren ground and mourned the loss of her beautiful rose garden. The area had been allowed to run wild, nothing but weeds grew here now. The stone pathways had been broken, leaving only small shattered pieces poking up through the weeds. The bench where she had sat with her small children was gone.
As she stood there, arms wrapped around her, she realized she wasn't alone. "Lord Ellison," she acknowledged her husband's presence. "Can I help you with something?"
William seemed embarrassed that he had been seen. His intense anger at the group from White Gryphon was gone. He wasn't completely sure he understood how it had happened, but after Brother Marcus had cornered him in his study after the strategy session, he had realized he had no idea why he had reacted to his wife the way he had. Brother Marcus had mumbled something about an unholy influence that wasn't a believable explanation.
He knew he owed his wife an apology for his manhandling of her at their greeting, but the words just wouldn't come out. "No, I just thought... I don't know... I figured you'd be here. I remember you'd spend many early mornings watching the sun rise."
Grace nodded, looking around her at the ground where her garden had been. When the garden had been destroyed, nothing had been replanted. Weeds now occupied the space where her roses had been. "Did you have to destroy the garden? Others had found it just as enjoyable as I."
William seemed afraid to look her in the eye as he answered. "I destroyed everything that you had ever touched. Every painting of you, your books, your possessions, everything. I erased all signs that you ever lived here. I forbid everyone from even speaking your name. I was bitter and angry and hurt because of what you had done."
"By what you thought I had done," Grace corrected.
William shrugged. "Perhaps, looking back at my actions, with the knowledge that Brackett was working for the darkness, I admit it was possible I was wrong about you. Somehow, the reason I was so angry over you has blurred over time. I have no explanation for why I hurt you yesterday. My behavior was inexcusable."
"You were wrong about me all those years ago. I always loved you, William. I never would have betrayed you like that. You were my prince," Grace replied sadly. Tears were forming in her eyes, but she did not want to cry in front of him.
"I can't explain what happened back then. Why I felt the way I did. Why I said and did the things I did. Brother Marcus asked me to consider if I was angry at you for returning or if I was angry at me for sending you away," William said, looking Grace in the eye for the first time. "I'm not sure I like the answer."
Grace didn't know how to answer that. She turned to watch the sun coming into view over the horizon. The sky seemed alive, dancing with the colors of blues and pinks and yellows. "A brand new day begins," she said with a sigh.
"And where does that leave us?" William whispered, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
Grace thought for a while before she answered. "I'm not sure. To be honest, I never stopped loving you William, but I'm not sure I can forgive what you did."
"I understand. But know this, I never stopped loving you either. Perhaps I loved you a little too much and why Brackett's words so inflamed my behavior. I can't change the past. I wish I could."
"We were so young when we got married, William. And having children within a year of our being married was so quick. We just weren't ready for the harsh realities of married life. At least, I wasn't ready for what it meant to be married."
"My going off to fight the war on the border didn't help the situation any. I always wonder what would have happened, if I hadn't listened to Brackett's recommendation that I volunteer to fight."
"Don't. Don't ask those questions because it doesn't matter. We can't change what happened." Grace closed her eyes and listened to the world around her. The beginning of a new day, birds were singing and the cooks were starting to cook breakfast. She listened to her own heart. Perhaps it was the beginning of a new life. She had just been thinking how she wished Steven had been happier to see her, could she not give William the same chance she was asking for from her children?
"William, once we have defeated Brackett, I think I'd like to stay around for a while. Get to know my children again. Get to know you again. What do you think?"
"I'm very happy to hear that Grace."
"I'm not making any promises to you. As I said, I'm not sure we can go back to the way things were between us, before Father Brackett."
"I'm not asking for that. I wouldn't mind trying to move forward though, start fresh," William replied.
"I'm willing to give it a try, William."
Grace and William stood together watching the sun rise higher into the sky. Soaking in the pleasurable feeling about having new possibilities.
The journey to the holding had been a quiet affair. Grace seemed lost in her thoughts, ignoring Drake's efforts to speak with her. Jim and Blair rode together at the front of the group, keeping an eye out for any sign of Simon and the guard units. It was unusual for Simon to be late when undertaking a mission. They arrived at the holding only a candlemark before sunset.
The plan was in place. The sun was sitting just above the horizon when everything was finally put into place. Soon it would be setting and they would have their first look at the beast that had attacked the holdings. The blacksmith had gotten everything completed today, just in time to be delivered to the next holding in the path of the creature. Each box was slightly bigger than a coffin, allowing just enough room so that the person inside could close the viewing slit closed if attacked. There was a small ledge positioned along the back of the box, allowing the occupant to take their weight off their feet.
Arthur had asked for volunteers to shut themselves within the metal boxes and make observations on what happened during the attack, though he refused to allow either Jim or Blair to step forward. He soon had four recruits, two of which had lost family members to the creature. It had taken three wagons with a team of the Shire horses to haul the contraptions to the holding. Each of the men driving a wagon was one of the volunteers.
Drake volunteered for the White Gryphon group, saying that at least one of the volunteers should have the skills of an empath.
Grace, Jim and Blair made their way up a ridge to a clearing overlooking the holding. They had led the teams of Shire horses here, hoping they were far enough away from the action to be safe. From the height they were at, they had a bird's eye view of the events transpiring below.
The boxes had been laid out in a circle, the occupant facing outward, unable to see any of the others. Three of the boxes had a view of the one paddock that still held a few sheep. These particular animals were well past the breeding age and were about to be slaughtered for meat. By leaving them in plan sight, they hoped to learn just how the others had disappeared.
The other boxes were facing the house and the barn, the first places the creature should search for its victims. Drake chose the box facing the house. He hoped to get a feeling for how the creature felt when it realized that the holding had been evacuated.
The sun had just started to disappear below the horizon when they first noticed a black, shapeless figure, forming near the front door of the house.
As they watched, the figure took human shape and looked around. While the creature was semi-transparent, the face it wore was familiar to the three people on the hill. Without a doubt, Father Brackett was the enemy behind the attacks. They watched as the creature raised its arms and a flash of light appeared, blinding everyone for a brief moment.
When they could see again, they immediately noticed a shadow spreading around the holding. From the cliff, it appeared that the normal evening shadows were appearing. But all too soon it became apparent that the shadows were not naturally occurring. They had formed a circle around the holding that was closing like a noose around the house and barn. Individual black specks could be discerned upon careful inspection. This was no shadow. It was better described as a pack.
"Oh god, he's unleashed the Horde from the other side," Grace said, when she recognized the little creatures swarming over the paddock.
"The what?" Jim asked
"The Horde. No one knows exactly what the things are. Ancient scholars have referred to them as the Horde because of the way they attack, always in large numbers. They surround the victim and tear them to pieces, devouring every last scrap."
Jim look down as the black swarm headed for a paddock holding a flock of sheep. The individual members of the horde could be seen as they attacked the animals. Their appearance was shocking, completely black round shaped creatures, one eye was placed directly over a large mouth that was filled with row after row of razor sharp teeth. They were small, probably no bigger than the size of a man's hand, but their small stature didn't matter. They overwhelmed their prey by sheer numbers.
They watched with disgust as the sheep were completely consumed by the black swarm. Not even a drop of blood was left behind by the Horde. Brackett hadn't moved since he had first appeared by the house.
"I don't sense any intelligence coming from the creatures, nothing that would indicate that they have a purpose for attacking, much less a destination in mind. All I can feel is mindless hunger," Blair said, his eyes closed as he concentrated on sensing the emotions coming from below.
Once the sheep had been consumed, the Horde broke up into several smaller groups. Each group formed a circle around one of the metal boxes. They didn't move to attack the boxes. It was as if they were trying to keep them from going anywhere, probably not intelligent enough to realize that the boxes were not alive, but somehow knew that some form of life was contained inside.
"What's going on? What are they waiting for?" Blair asked nervously.
Before anyone else could speak, they had their answer. They watched as the creature almost floated to the metal box that contained Drake. It moved slowly, an ordinary man could out run the creature, which explained the need for the presence of the Horde. Brackett's victims could outrun him with little difficulty, but not the Horde.
Though they wanted to help, there was nothing they could do but watch as the shadow slunk all over the box, attempting to make entry. When it became clear to Brackett that there was no way to open the box from the outside, he stepped back a few steps and waited.
As if there had been some unspoken command, the Horde outside began pounding against the metal boxes. The terrible screech of teeth against the metal made it difficult for those on the hill to remain calm. For those trapped inside the containers, it was impossible.
One of the guards was the first to panic, fleeing the confinement of the box. Grace looked away from the scene below, not wanting to see the young man get torn to shreds by the swarming Horde.
Jim and Blair, knowing they needed information, braced themselves to watch the carnage about to unfold below them. To their surprise, as the young man was able to move a few feet away before being forced to stop by the Horde, though they did not swarm him. They simply hovered close enough to keep him from moving, nipping the skin but not ripping him apart.
Grace looked back into the valley, expecting it to be over, just in time to see Brackett was moving in the young man's direction. "No," Grace whispered.
Each time the guard tried to move away from Brackett, the horde would attack. The young man's face and arms were bleeding heavily now. Unable to stand, he fell hard to the ground, yet still tried to crawl away from the approaching evil.
It would have been easier to watch the Horde at work than what happened next. The Horde made way for Brackett to move next to the guardsmen, before closing the circle again. As they watched, Brackett shifted his form, engulfing his victim.
Before their eyes, the creature that Brackett had become was absorbing the guardsman. It was as if some essential component of life was being drained from the man, leaving behind only the lifeless husk that was once a human being.
When he was finished, Brackett's appearance reformed allowing the dead husk of shriveled skin and bones to be left on the ground. As one large mass, the Horde swarmed over what Brackett had left behind, leaving nothing to waste. Fighting the urge to rush down the side of the cliff, Jim yelled in frustration at his old enemy.
For the first time, Brackett seemed to realize he had an audience. A look of immense hatred appeared on the creature's face as he beheld the faces of the two heralds who had thwarted his plan to release Ma'ar into the world.
Grace grabbed hold of Jim's arm to prevent him from launching himself down the hill. Blair was the only one to see the expression on Brackett's face change as Grace whispered for Jim to calm down. This wasn't a look of hatred, though it was just as intense. No, what Blair was sensing seemed more like desire, or perhaps a feeling of lust.
Brackett waved his arm in salute at Jim before it too became transparent before their eyes, going back into whatever world from which it lived when not able to manifest in this one. As soon as Brackett disappeared, the Horde began a loud squealing cry as the sun sank below the horizon. Though it was clear the Horde was trying to flee the area, none of them succeeded. Entire sections of the Horde soon faded into the shadows until only an echo of their cries remained.
It took only a few minutes for Jim, Blair and Grace to ride down into the holding. By the time they had arrived, Drake was already free along with one of the other guardsman. Drake was attempting to calm the man who had been in the box watching the sheep. The man was paralyzed with fear and would not open the box and leave.
The other guard was attempting to free the remaining guard. When his box had fallen, it had fallen forward, trapping him inside. Jim and Grace moved to assist him as Blair went to aid Drake in calming the other guard.
It was a very subdued group that made camp that night. None of them wanted to remain on the holding, so even though it was a pitch-black moonless night, they made their way to the next holding to the east. The holder was aware of the situation and was making ready to move his family to the manor house the following morning, but allowed the group to stay in his barn for the night.
Blair volunteered to take the first watch, knowing he would be unable to sleep anytime soon. He sat wrapped in a blanket, listening to the snoring coming from Jim and the other guards. He thought Grace and Drake were also asleep. Blair's gaze traveled from the fire to Grace's sleeping form. He wished he didn't know what he had sensed from Brackett. He wasn't sure what he should do with the knowledge.
So lost was he in his thoughts, that he didn't realize Drake was moving until the man was sitting down next to him.
"You're troubled, Blair."
Blair glanced quickly at Grace, trying to decide if he should seek Drake's advice on the matter without speaking to her first.
"What were you sensing during the attack today? You were much closer than I was." Blair asked, turning so that he was facing Drake.
"From the Horde, nothing but hunger and touches of fear. Those things have no purpose in life but to feed and once they are well fed, they divide. Then, there are two hungry instead of one fat Hordeling. They aren't even distracted from feeding by the normally innate necessity of finding a mate, reproduction is self-contained. They have but one purpose and that is to feed. That creature that Father Brackett has become is the only thing they seem to fear. When they see him coming, they are afraid and I sense that is an unusual sensation for them. It seems Brackett killed many of them at some point and now they fear him, but follow him all the same."
"Anything else?" Blair asked, not sure if he wanted to mention what he had sensed.
"At White Gryphon's library, we do have a few references to the Horde. Only a few mind you, it is not often that someone survives one of their attacks. They must be commanded here and can only stay in our realm for a limited amount of time."
"What's limited mean?" Blair asked.
"That is dependent on the strength of the one who commands them, so I can't give you a definite answer. The only other thing that they fear, besides Brackett, is fire. They will not approach if fire is in their path, but it does not help much. If there is anyway past the fire, they will find it if they are hungry enough."
"Is that all you can tell me?" Blair had been hoping for a little more information.
"That is all concerning the Horde. I also sensed that for some reason, this Brackett strongly detests the sight of you and Jim, probably you more so than your partner," Drake said with a knowing smile.
"That's a long story, that I'm really not willing to talk about while it's dark. I thought I sensed something different. I guess I'm looking for confirmation before I stick my foot in my mouth," Blair said, looking over at where Grace was stretched out.
Following Blair's line of sight, Drake nodded. "Oh, you're referring to Brackett's perverted reaction when he recognized Grace."
"Yes," Blair said with a sigh of relief that he didn't have to say the words. "I wasn't sure if it was just my imagination. I could sense a strong urge of desire stemming from Brackett. He wants her and has for a very long time."
"Not only desire. Equally strong was his desire to possess her. Lust is a better term to use than desire, I believe. I wonder if we now know part of the reason why she left this area so long ago."
"You'd be right," Grace answered rolling over to face the two men who were now embarrassed by being overheard. "It was part of the reason why I was forced to leave the estate." Grace joined them so that she could discuss her past without waking the others. She particularly did not want Jim to hear what she had to say.
"The first time I had any understanding that Brackett felt something for me was almost three years after Jimmy was born. William was away. There was all that trouble on the border at the time and he had volunteered to lead a unit from our holding and join the guard. Anyway, I was alone on the estate with most of the other women whose men had been called to duty. I had always found it suspicious that Brackett did not volunteer to serve with the other men."
"He had everything that he wanted right here. All the women he could possibly want without having to worry about a jealous husband or father," Blair said angrily, recalling the story Jim had told him about his childhood experiences with Brackett.
"At first, Brackett was very formal around me, probably because most of the time I was surrounded by my maids. But, I'd notice him finding excuses to remain in my presence. He knew better than to try to touch me, but he'd always hover close by. I found it most annoying."
"He would take that as a challenge. You would have been the ultimate in forbidden fruit on the estate for him, so to speak, not to mention that the rejection would have been difficult for him to take," Drake said.
"After almost a month of his constant presence, I was on edge. Finally one day, when we were alone in the Chapel, I made a comment about how he was worse than the palace cats, always underfoot. His response was obscene, making reference his wish to spending time in my bed rather than underfoot," Grace said angrily, her voice growing louder.
The three of them held their breath as Jim rolled over and murmured something unintelligible for a moment, before seeming to settle back into a deeper sleep.
Blair reached for Burton, mentally asking, "Is Jim listening?"
Incacha answered him directly, "He is. Do not say anything. His mother will not speak if she knows he is listening. Jim needs to hear this as much as she needs to tell her story."
Reducing the volume of her voice, Grace continued her story. "After that, I avoided him. I made every excuse I could think of to remain out of his presence. Unfortunately, my strategy backfired in a most spectacular manner. One afternoon, when I thought Father Brackett was gone, I went to the chapel to light a candle for my mother. I had brought Jimmy with me. He was such a curious child, but always very quiet. He hardly ever cried or shouted, which was unusual for a child his age. I guess that was why I was so surprised when he started crying a few minutes after we entered the chapel. Yelling that he wanted to go."
"He knew? How was that possible?" Drake asked.
Though Blair knew the answer, he held his tongue. It was up to Jim to decide if he wanted the others to know about his gifts.
"I don't know, but I'm glad he did. It turned out that Father Brackett had lied about having to perform a wedding and was lurking in the confessional waiting for me to come. He knew that every year on my Mother's death, I'd light a candle in her memory."
"You don't have to say any more, Grace. Jim's told me just how much evil he was capable of inflicting on women," Blair offered. Blair could see Jim's fists were clenching as he tried to contain his anger without letting his mother know he was listening.
"Thank you, dear, but it's alright. Though I wasn't expecting him, I dealt with him in a way that kept him bedridden for the next few days. You see, my father had been an officer in a merc company, called the Hawks. When I was younger, several of his female recruits gave me a few lessons in how to deal with unwanted attention."
"I wish I could have seen that," Blair said with a laugh. He thought he saw a smile form on Jim's face also.
"As I said before, things didn't work out the way I thought. William returned shortly after that incident. On the day he returned, I was away from the Manor House, assisting one of our holders to deliver her first child. Brackett spoke with William before I did."
"I think I can imagine what happened. For a priest, the man held few moral values of his own," Drake said dryly. He was relieved that Grace was finally letting go of her past. He had a great deal of respect for the lady, but she needed to get passed the memories of her past life before she could be truly happy in her current life.
"He told all sorts of lies about how I was the one who was attracted to him, never leaving him alone. He used the fact that I was avoiding him to imply that I probably had other secret lovers on the estate. How I was acting unfaithful to my wedding vows. I tried to tell William what really happened, but he didn't believe me. For the next few years, he kept me under constant watch."
"I'm so sorry, Grace. It must have been a terrible way for you to live. But, you must have reconciled eventually, I mean..." Blair turned bright red as he tried to think of a polite way to mention that Steven was born somehow.
Grace patted his hand, understanding to what he was referring. "William came back to our wedding bed, only because he began to believe that something was wrong with Jimmy. Sometimes, he would just sit and stare at things for hours at a time. It didn't matter how long his father called for him, Jimmy just didn't seem to hear him. Surprisingly, my son always responded to the sound of my voice, which probably angered William even more. Also, for some reason, Brackett hated Jimmy. I never really understood why, perhaps it was because he looked so much like my side of the family."
"So, William wanted a spare heir in case he was right about his first born being unfit to lead," Drake summarized.
"After I was pregnant with Steven, he never came to me again, never touched me other than with the back of his hand. And I still had Father Brackett lurking close to me, after all William trusted him completely. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. The spying, the lack of trust, and the presence of that foul priest. I made plans to leave the keep and take Jimmy and Steven with me. I thought I had managed to keep my plan secret, but somehow William found out."
Tears were streaming down Grace's cheeks as she finished her story. "When I entered the nursery to take the children, he had guards waiting for me. He had me beaten that night, and cast out beyond the estate boundaries with nothing but the clothes on my back. His last words to me were never to return or he'd have me killed."
"I'm surprised at that. I would have suspected the priest to have other suggestions for your punishment. Something that would have put you under his direct control," Drake said thoughtfully.
"I'm sure William hadn't consulted with Brackett on his decision, because the next thing he said caused chills to run down my spine. He said that he didn't believe that locking me away as Brackett had suggested wasn't an option, because he didn't think that even the church could save my chance at reaching the Havens at this point."
"How did this man ever manage to become a priest?" Drake asked amazed. "And was your husband so truly blind to realize that once you were out of sight of the estate, Brackett could have done anything he wanted to you?"
"I don't think William cared at that point. Brackett had completely poisoned him against me. But, I knew he meant it, which is why I never returned for the children. A part of me always regretted that they never woke when I entered the nursery. If they had, I would have had a chance to say good-bye. But, I'm glad they never knew what their father said to me and as far as I'm concerned, they never will. William and I had a long talk before we left. I'm not sure if it will lead anywhere, but he and I have managed a truce. A truce that may lead to something more."
"How can you forgive what he did to you? He almost killed you?" Drake asked, incredulously.
"Brackett was evil, even then. Probably practicing the black arts. How am I to know if William was acting on his own, or if Brackett had done something to him? William changed when that priest arrived at the estate. I never thought about it before, but the timing is perfect. William's attitude towards me started changing shortly after Brackett arrived."
"Why was Brackett assigned to the estate? Do you know?" Blair asked curiously, wondering if there had been a deeper conspiracy even then as he recalled the glazed look that had appeared in William's eyes upon seeing Grace for the first time. If Brackett had been using black magic on William to convince him to hate his wife, it might explain the unthinking rage William had experienced.
"According to him, he was assigned to counsel us and perform the wedding by the temple. Though he did spend a great deal more time speaking with William than he ever did with me. William requested that he be assigned to us permanently."
As Grace talked, Jim rolled back over, facing away from the rest of the group. Again, Blair reached for his Companion asking, "Should I say something" How much more of this can he listen too?"
Blair could tell that Burton was speaking with Incacha. After a moment, Burton answered, "He knew. He was awake that night. He didn't know about the things his father said, but he knew that his mother was dragged forcefully away from the nursery."
Hearing the rage in his Companion's voice shocked Blair, "What else? There's something you're not telling me."
"Jim is remembering things, fractured images of his childhood. He just flashed on a memory of Brackett telling him that unless he behaved, he'd be sent away like his mother was. He blocked away more memories like that and now they are all flooding back, but he's not ready to deal with them yet. Incacha is helping him."
Blair turned his attention back to what Grace was saying in time to hear her say, "In a way, he was as much a victim of Brackett's manipulations as I was. I made my way south, trying to get as far away from William and Brackett as possible, knowing this decision would cost me my children. I don't know for how long I wandered through woods and meadows. I tried to travel only at night until I left the borders of Valdemar. I was so afraid someone would recognize me." All the years of pent-up emotion were being release, and Grace couldn't continue speaking through her sobs.
Drake wrapped one arm around Grace, and pulled her into an embrace. "One of our long range patrols found her and brought her back to White Gryphon. She was ill for a long time after that, but we nursed her back to health and asked her to stay with us when it became clear she had no place else to go."
Grace managed to regain control over her emotions, clearly drawing strength from Drake. "I've always regretted not getting word to my children about what happened to me, but it was so far to travel and I truly believed that William still loved his sons even if he hadn't cared for me any longer."
"And it seems even after all this time, Brackett still longs for you. Even in his current disembodied state, his attention was drawn to you," Blair said.
"We should return to the Manor House as quickly as we can tomorrow. There are only two more holdings between here and Bethyl Wood. We don't have much time to take action. For now, we should all try to sleep," Drake suggested.
Drake and Grace moved back to where their sleeping bags were laid out. Blair stretched his back. His watch was only half over, which was fine because there was no way he could fall asleep. There were too many images and questions floating around in his hand, of both the past and the future. The most important one being how they were going to be able to kill something that didn't have a body to destroy?
He wasn't too surprised when a moment later Jim sat up and rubbed his eyes. He doubted that Jim would have any luck trying to sleep after what his mother had revealed. He waved his partner over.
Jim picked up his blanket and moved to where Blair was sitting. Dropping the blanket onto the ground, he sat down on it and stared at the surrounding trees.
"Jim, I know you're not ready to talk right now. But, when you are, I'm ready to listen."
"I know, for now it's enough that I'm not alone right now," Jim answered. A comfortable silence settled between the two men. Neither felt much like sleeping. They were content to pass the remainder of the evening keeping watch together.
To be continued...
Author's note: Due to a series of family/work related emergencies the conclusion will be slightly delayed. Promise! Probably close to the middle of January!
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