TAT: Destiny's Circle (TEEN)Conclusion Sept. 5

Finished stories set in an alternate universe to that introduced in the show, or which alter events from the show significantly, but which include the Roswell characters. Aliens play a role in these fics. All complete stories on the main AU with Aliens board will eventually be moved here.

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Kath7
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Post by Kath7 » Sun Aug 14, 2005 2:52 pm

<u>Part 19</u>

"I do not think that I can leave you, Max." Elizabeth could feel the tears welling in her eyes. She did not mean to be weepy. It would not help Max's situation to be worried about her when he already had so much about which to be concerned.

She almost could not bear to be parted from him, however. The vision that had come to her on the previous night kept filtering through her mind. The image of Max lying in a pool of his own blood was so upsetting, she did not want to leave him.

The thought that she might never see him again was almost unbearable.

"I wish that you did not have to, my love." He kissed her gently. "But I must know that you are safe. It is dangerous here." He lifted her chin with his finger. "Liz, you must promise me that you will not take another chance like this. I will come to see you next time."

Liz's eyes narrowed. "Max, it is even more dangerous for you to come to me. I must be able to return to you with any information I learn as well."

"No, Liz. I will come to you."

Liz sighed, but did not argue again. She did not want to spoil her last moments with him in a quarrel. He was just as stubborn as she was, so it was pointless anyway.

Max lowered his head again, kissed her lightly. Liz threw her arms around his neck, deepening the kiss. She knew that she was trying to stall, but she couldn't help it.

She just knew that something terrible was about to happen.

Liz heard Parkyla discreetly clear her throat in the far reaches of her mind.

Max pulled away, kept his forehead touching hers as they spoke. "Be safe, my love. I could not bear it if anything were to happen to you."

"I love you, Max." Liz did not know what else to say to him. The parting was so painful, her thoughts were in a turmoil.

"I love you, too. And I swear that we will be together."

Max gently grasped her around her waist, lifted her up onto her saddle. Parkyla was watching them, her expression sympathetic. The servant turned her horse, beginning to ride off into the forest. She clearly wanted to give them a moment more of privacy.

Liz stared down at Max sadly. He was staring back at her, his dark eyes loving. Neither spoke. Words were not needed.

"I will send Mary or Alexander to you on the morrow, Liz. I do not want you to be alone in that castle for much longer," he finally said.

She nodded, could not form the words to reply. Elizabeth knew that she was about to break down. She quickly sent her horse after Parkyla's, looked back only once.

Max was leaning against his bow, watching her until she was out of sight. He raised his hand when she turned.

<i>Goodbye, my love!</i> Elizabeth thought to herself as he disappeared into the forest.

Neither noticed the pair of eyes watching in the foliage. Tess slipped away, her expression unreadable.

***

Meanwhile, Michael threw another stone into the stream, watched it skip across the surface several times before it sank.

His stomach was in knots. Why did Max insist on putting them in danger for the sake of a small, insignificant slip of a girl? Why was Tess acting like a screeching banshee? Why was Isabel turning into a simpering lady in the presence of Alexander of Whitfield? Why could not Lady Elizabeth have left them all alone?

Why did his thoughts keep returning to a certain reddish-blonde haired wood-sprite, whose skill with the bow was only outshone by her smile and her laugh? And finally, and most infuriatingly, why was he hoping that Max had told her the truth?

His brooding was suddenly interrupted. Michael turned around in astonishment when another pebble was thrown from somewhere behind him. It skipped at least twice more than his had.

He was not at all surprised to see Mary Delucie standing there, leaning against a tree, a cocky grin on her face. "Well, so far I'm better at archery, hunting, and, now, stone-skipping. Is there anything you <i>can</i> do right?"

"What are you doing here?" he growled. The girl was going to drive him insane - either with her constant attempts to bait him, or with the way that his heartbeat quickened every time he was in her presence.

Mary walked forward, seated herself gracefully at his side. "Well, I am obviously here to see you."

"What do you want?" Michael demanded.

"My, aren't we polite this evening! I guess there is one thing you will always be better at - rudeness." Mary's eyes were twinkling at him. His tone did not seem to bother her at all.

Michael could feel his face heating up with annoyance. "Well, do you want something or are you here just to harass me?"

She was suddenly serious. "Maxwell told us the truth, Michael."

Michael heart was suddenly in his throat. "Maxwell is crazy," he managed to choke out.

"It is too late for falsehoods. I just wanted you to know that I don't care and I am not scared of you. Whether you're a human, or whatever else it is you are, I still don't care. You are you. And I like you." Mary was watching his face carefully.


Michael did not know what to say to her. He realized that his mouth was likely hanging open, but he did not care. This girl did not beat around the bush. It was one of the things he liked. He squashed that thought. "Why?" he demanded.

"I certainly do not know why," she replied lightly. "You are terrible at everything - but I like you anyway."

Michael felt like he was completely losing control of the situation, just like he always felt when he was with her.

He could not control his feelings. He liked her too.

He more than liked her.

He trusted her.

"Well, don't you have anything to say?" Mary finally asked him, clearly becoming slightly unnerved by his continued silence and by the fact that he was staring at her.

"No," Michael replied, staring at her lips.

"Well, I mean, really! Would it kill you to say something? You could even say that you thought I was irritating. I wouldn't even mind, because I know that I am. Alexander always tells me so, and I know that you think it. I've seen it. Just say something! Please, anything will…"

It looked like she was planning to go on for a while. Michael realized that there was only one thing to do.

He grabbed her and cut her off by kissing her.

Michael saw her blink before he closed his eyes. Her hands tentatively moved up his arms, until they were clutching at his shoulders.

He had never felt such a surge of emotion in his life. Her lips were like velvet under his.

And the best part of it was the blessed silence. Although, he sort of liked it when she talked too.

Michael had thrust his hands into her short, curly hair and was gently guiding her down onto the ground when the moment was broken by a shrill screech.

Michael and Mary broke apart instantly. They both whipped their heads around to see Tess standing behind them, a look of outrage on her pretty face.

Michael saw Mary's head lower thoughtfully. She did not appear at all embarrassed, which pleased him inordinately. "Tess! What the..." he began before his sister cut him off abruptly.

"Michael! What are you doing with her? Are you all going crazy?" Tess pointed back towards the camp. "I thought that I could trust at least you to be able to see through their machinations. Max and Isabel have always been reckless, but for you to be so stupid..."

"He's not stupid!" Mary defended him instantly.

"Yes, he is. You are all incredibly stupid and reckless."

Michael, Mary, and Tess all turned to stare at the man emerging from the wood. He was glaring at them.

Michael groaned to himself. The man he had most wanted to see since the catastrophe of the day before had finally appeared - and he could not have picked a worse time.

It was Lord Edmund.

<u>Part 20</u>

Elizabeth and Parkyla paused at the castle gates, glanced around cautiously before leading their horses through to the stables. Elizabeth could still not believe that they had managed to find Max and the others <i>and</i> return to the castle without being caught. Her heartbeat returned to normal for the first time that day.

"Thank you for your aid today, Parkyla," Elizabeth said to the maid-servant as she made to curry her animal.

"Let me do that, milady," Parkyla insisted, taking the brush out of Elizabeth’s hand. "You had better retire to your chamber before Sir Kyle and the sheriff return from the forest. If they catch in your present attire, the truth will come out." Parkyla motioned towards the boy’s clothing that Elizabeth was still wearing.

"Yes, the truth <i>will</i> come out, won’t it? It does have that nasty tendency."

Elizabeth and Parkyla both whirled at the sound of the familiar voice.

Sir Kyle was standing at the entrance to the stable, leaning casually against the door frame, although no studied pose could mask the way he was eyeing Elizabeth with a combination of disgust and fury.

Elizabeth felt Parkyla begin to tremble next to her. Aiding Elizabeth in her deception this day could get the maid dismissed.

And if Sir Kyle suspected that she knew where Max, Michael, and the others could be found…

The disaster would be immense.

It was time to put on the performance of her life. "Sir Kyle! What are you doing here? Was your mission a success?" She moved closer to him, smiling serenely.

His expression did not change. "I could ask you the same question, milady," Kyle replied tonelessly.

"Parkyla and I have just returned from a ride in the forest," Elizabeth replied, hoping she sounded like she had nothing to hide.

"Unescorted and dressed thus?" Kyle raised an eyebrow at her, looking unconvinced. However, his tone had softened. Not for the first time Elizabeth thanked God that her betrothed did not possess the sharpest mind in the kingdom.

"We knew that you needed the help of all your men to find out the truth about the outlaws from yesterday - that there was no man to spare to escort us," Elizabeth replied smoothly. "I dressed thus so that I would not be accosted."

Kyle continued to stare at her, his expression unreadable. Finally he said, "The ease with which you lie, Elizabeth, astounds me. You are not at all the lady I took you for."

Elizabeth blinked. She heard Parkyla gasp behind her. "What do you mean, milord?" Elizabeth tried to add a note of hurt to her voice.

It was no good. Kyle stepped forward, grabbed her roughly by the arm. "I am not a fool, whore! I know you were with him!"

"My lord!" Parkyla came forward, tried to intervene. Elizabeth flinched as Kyle’s grasp on her arm tightened.

"Leave, Parkyla!" Elizabeth ordered her friend.

"Milady!"

"You’ll leave now if you know what’s good for you, wench!" Kyle snapped at Parkyla.

Elizabeth could sense Parkyla’s indecision, but she finally edged past them and out the door. Elizabeth knew that she was likely going for help.

Elizabeth realized that she had lost control of this situation entirely. Somehow Kyle knew that she had been with Max today - maybe had even seen her with him? She had to repair the damage as quickly as possible.

Elizabeth had no idea where to even start though. Kyle was dragging her out of the stable and across the castle courtyard. "I cannot believe that I trusted you!" he was yelling back at her.

"Sir Kyle, please!" Elizabeth tried to suppress the pleading tone of her voice, but she was desperate. She ignored the stares of the guards and other castle servants they passed, as Kyle hauled her into the keep. She had to protect Max and the others from Kyle’s wrath. "Let me explain!" She had to calm him down at all costs.

"I am not particularly interested in hearing more of your lies, Elizabeth," Kyle replied evenly.

She decided to use another tactic. "The queen will be most displeased when she hears how you have treated me," Elizabeth told him. "She will break the betrothal!"

"You are probably right, milady," Kyle replied as he thrust open the door of her chamber and threw her down on her bed. Elizabeth could not help but rub her arm where he had been holding her. She was going to have a nasty bruise there. "Lucky for me, the queen left Nottingham this mid-day."

Elizabeth blinked at him. "What?" she gasped. "The queen deserted me?"

Kyle glared at her. "She received word from Prince John that she was needed in London. I am told that when no one could find you, she left word that she would return in time for our wedding." Kyle sneered at her. "Of course, she will be too late."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth asked, not liking the expression on his face at all, and still reeling from the news that she had lost the queen’s protection.

"I mean that you will not humiliate me again, Elizabeth. I do not plan to lose your dowry to a penniless outlaw like Maxwell of Huntington. My father is in agreement. We will marry tomorrow."

***

Max felt a shiver descend his backbone. He pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, sighed as he stared into the flames of the fire. His mind momentarily drifted to Elizabeth, hoping that she had returned safely to Nottingham Castle. Although he would have loved to have her at his side, it had been the right decision to send her back to civilization. She was safe there and likely much more comfortable than any of the rest of them.

Max glanced across the fire at Michael, who was staring back at him, his expression unreadable. Lord Edmund had finally stopped yelling at them about half an hour before. Michael had been the most upset, clearly guilty beyond belief that he had disappointed their guardian.

Isabel had been defiant, not at all apologetic. "What did you expect?" she had asked Lord Edmund evenly. "You treat us like prisoners. We have the right to a life."

"You have <i>no</i> rights!" Lord Edmund snapped back. "Not on this planet! I am in complete control of your destiny! Do you understand me, Isabel?"

Isabel pressed her lips together, turning her back on their guardian. She then stomped away. Max had seen that she had momentarily considered going to Alexander Delucie, who had been watching her with concern during the exchange with Lord Edmund, but she had decided against that unwise course. She had entered the shelter they had built the night before and had not emerged since. Several minutes later, Mary Delucie had gone to join her.

Lord Edmund had rounded on Max next. "I am extremely disappointed in you, Maxwell. What were you thinking?"

Max just sighed. "I am sorry, milord. But it is too late for regrets. We are in serious trouble here."

Lord Edmund had glared at him for a full minute before replying. "We must leave England."

Max heard Michael gasp behind him. "Will we return home? It is too soon!" he exclaimed, fear evident in his voice.

"You should have thought of that before you put yourselves in this ridiculous position," Lord Edmund snapped back. "Our mission here is totally off course. We will have to return to our home much sooner than was planned. You are not yet strong enough, but now we have little choice."

Max had felt his heart stop. Return home! That meant leaving Liz behind.

Unacceptable.

He had not said anything at the time though. Yet, his mind had begun to whirl, attempting to come up with a solution to their problem.

Lord Edmund had finally stopped berating them. He had taken Tess by the hand, leading her away from the group to talk privately with her. Tess had ever been his favorite, being biddable and loyal.

And, yet, now Max questioned that loyalty, at least in relation to himself. He did not trust her anymore. The way Tess hated Elizabeth - she would work against him and Isabel if it meant keeping him away from his love, and Isabel in captivity. He realized that, until this day, he had not known his betrothed at all.

As Max gazed at Michael across the fire, he also knew that he had no idea on whose side his brother stood at the moment. Michael had only ever wanted to return to their home, but he had not sounded particularly excited when Lord Edmund had decreed that it was where they were going. He wondered what was going through Michael’s mind.

Lord Edmund had decided that they would remain at the camp for the night and then return to the castle. He had not seemed worried about the possibility of the sheriff’s men waiting for them there.

Max moved aside in welcome as Alexander joined him on his log. "Is everything all right, Maxwell?" he asked, concern in his voice. "Mayhap it was not the best decision to fetch your guardian," he added wryly.

"No," Max agreed, laughing a bit despite himself. "He is most displeased."

"Should Mary and I leave?" Alexander asked.

Max turned to look at his new friend, feeling a stab of disappointment. "Do you want to?" he asked.

"No," Alexander replied. "We would stay with you - at least until you are safe."

"Thank you," Maxwell told him. "Likely you should return to Nottingham tomorrow. The sheriff might not even be aware, as yet, that you are with us."

Alexander did not answer, just turned to stare into the flames, his expression pensive.

The clearing was quiet. Max could hear Tess and Lord Edmund’s voices rising and falling in the trees. He wondered what they were talking about, although he could guess. He was sure that his betrothed was filling his guardian in on all of his so-called inappropriate behaviour of the last few days.

Yet, Max could feel no regret. If he and Isabel had followed the rules, he never would have met Liz. There was no way that could be wrong, no matter the trouble in which they presently found themselves.

Max’s reverie was interrupted a moment later by a crashing in the foliage nearby. Both he and Alexander jumped to their feet. Max’s sword was in his hand before he even thought of putting it there. He noticed that Alexander had done the same. Michael, across the fire, had an arrow knocked in his bow.

Max stared at the girl who came stumbling out of the forest, her attire in complete disarray. "My lord! Thank God I have found you again! Disaster has struck!" She threw herself at Max’s feet, grabbing at his legs in panic.

He blinked. He realized that it was Liz’s maid-servant, the one who had accompanied her earlier that day.

And then he knew that the chill he had experienced before had been more than just cold. It had been a warning.

Something had happened to Liz.

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Post by Kath7 » Mon Aug 15, 2005 1:06 pm

AN - Wow! Thanks for the great response, everyone! Here's two more parts. And I'll share a little secret. Part 22 is my absolute favorite part of this entire story. :wink: It just worked when I wrote it, and I still love it. Considering I usually think most of what I write is crap, this is a big admission. lol

Enjoy!

<u>Part 21</u>

The forest was completely still. Not a breath of air stirred the leaves on the trees. It was as though every living creature, including the wind, was waiting for something.

Lady Elizabeth de Parkeville knew exactly what they were waiting for - the end of her freedom and any potential happiness in her future.

It caused a shiver to descend Elizabeth’s spine, as the cortège, accompanying her to her wedding, wound its way down the King’s Highway.

The sheriff and Sir Kyle had determined that the wedding would take place early that afternoon at the Monastery at St. Stephen’s. The large and sumptuous nuptials that Queen Eleanor would have planned for her had been discarded in favour of small and quickly accomplished, the better for Sir Kyle to get his hands on her dowry.

They wanted the deed done before anyone became aware of their plans. This included the queen, but more importantly, Liz was aware, Maxwell of Huntington.

For, as Kyle had told her this morning, "He will not let a prize such as you slip through his fingers easily, Elizabeth. He has bewitched you to gain access to your wealth and you have allowed it to happen. You have brought this unseemly haste on yourself."

Elizabeth had gazed at him pityingly for a moment before replying, "You would like to think that, Sir Kyle. It is sad that you do not understand love. Max would have me whether I was rich or poor and I would have him - and do - despite your untruthful accusations against him and his brother."

Kyle’s face reddened with rage. "He is an outlaw, you stupid whore! A thief and a murderer!"

When Kyle had seen her visage darken at his accusation he continued, "Oh yes, he is, Elizabeth. For not only were my father’s men killed two days ago, the entire shipment of taxes en route to London to help ransom the king was waylaid as well, only yesterday. It does not seem farfetched that a man, who would convince a stupid girl to fall in love with him, would not feel a qualm about stealing money that is meant to save his king."

"You are lying," Elizabeth told him calmly, although her heart was thundering in her chest. She knew it was not true, and yet she also knew that Sir Kyle would convince his father to lay the blame on Max and Michael as well. Thus, they were not only now charged with murder, but also treason.

Kyle stalked forward, taking her chin in a rough grip, forcing her to look at him. "And <i>you</i> are ridiculous. He will not come for you. You have sacrificed any potential happiness that could have existed between us during our marriage. I will catch your lover and you will watch the demon hang." When she flinched at that, his eyes lit with malice. "Yes, you know it is true do you not, Elizabeth? Maxwell of Huntington is an unnatural freak - one who kills without weapons - and the Church <i>will</i> punish him for it. We may not have found the bodies, little witch, but my father has accepted that Father Desmond spoke the truth. He will hang or, if the Church has its way, burn at the stake. And not even a demon heretic can withstand the wrath of God."

Elizabeth managed to hold her composure until he had stormed from her chamber, barring the heavy oak behind him. It was only then that she allowed herself to cry. And, even then, she had refused to give up. She had been about to string the sheets on her bed together in order to climb out the window of her tower, when Parkyla appeared in her doorway.

Her maidservant had been nearly hysterical with worry over her. "Oh, milady! I was sure that he would kill you!"

Elizabeth helped Parkyla to her feet. "I am fine. And, yet, the worst has occurred. Kyle is going to force me to marry him tomorrow. I <i>must</i> escape. And you must help me. I have to get to Max and warn him that Kyle might know where he is. He implied as much. What I cannot figure out is why the sheriff and his men have not already attacked their camp. It is passing strange."

"It is too dangerous, milady. They will be watching the stables and the gate like hawks. There is no way of escaping without being caught." Elizabeth felt tears fill her eyes again at Parkyla’s words. Her maid was right. Parkyla’s gaze suddenly lit with an idea, however. "There is a way, though."

Now, as Elizabeth sat on her steed, her hands bound, yet hidden under her cloak so that no one was aware that she was going to her own wedding against her will, she wondered if Parkyla had been successful in making it to the camp unmolested. For, at this point, Max and the others were her only hope.

The thought of actually marrying Kyle - and the wedding night to follow - made her physically ill.

From the first moment Max had ever kissed her, she had vowed to herself that no one else would touch her in that way, ever. She would kill herself first.

"We are here, milady." The knight who had been riding close by her side pointed ahead. "St. Stephens is just around the next bend. The chapel is only slightly beyond there."

"Thank you, Matthew," Elizabeth replied sadly.

After that, things progressed much too quickly for Elizabeth’s peace of mind. Before she knew it, she was standing at the back of a small stone chapel, her hand on the sheriff’s arm as he made to lead her down the aisle. His grip on her hand was almost painful.

The sheriff had disappointed her in these proceedings. Where he had seemed so unwilling to accuse Michael and Max posthaste at the Fair, since he had discovered her betrayal of his son, he was now their staunchest enemy. He even seemed proud of the way Kyle had taken the initiative to claim Elizabeth as his own.

The chapel was decorated with flowers and greenery from the forest. For a moment Elizabeth allowed herself to envision the scene as though it was Max awaiting her at the altar. Yet, it was not to be. Kyle’s face came into her field of vision too soon to allow that fallacy to continue.

Her last hope was to refuse to say her vows at the altar. This was what she planned. She knew that the priest awaiting them there would not let her marry against her will.

It was at that moment that she caught sight of the priest and all hope disappeared.

It was Father Desmond, the one who had witnessed Michael destroying the sheriff’s men with naught but an upraised hand. There would be no succor there.

<i>Max! Where are you?</i> Elizabeth thought desperately, as she began to fight against the sheriff, who was now literally dragging her down the aisle.

It took several moments for the voice shouting from the back of the chapel to penetrate the panic that was beginning to set in.

"I refuse to allow this wedding to proceed!"

The entire company whirled as one to face the figure in the doorway.

<u>Part 22</u>

"I refuse to allow this wedding to proceed!"

Max watched Alexander stalk down the aisle of the church, his expression fierce. Max couldn’t help but smile to himself. Alex was doing his best to put on a show.

Thus far, the plan was proceeding smoothly. If only they could be guaranteed that it would continue to do so.

Max elbowed Michael, who was fidgeting beside him. "Michael," he reprimanded.

"This damn robe is beyond itchy," Michael complained in a grumpy whisper.

"Grow up," Max ordered. He had to agree with Michael though. He knew that monks enjoyed torturing themselves in the name of their god, but this was ridiculous.

"You do realize that this isn’t going to work, Maxwell?" Michael continued.

Max felt Michael bump into him, as he was elbowed on the other side. "It will work if you could keep your mouth shut," Max heard Mary whisper urgently.

"Alex!" Liz was exclaiming, her relief evident in her voice. Max felt a flash of anger that she should be so afraid, forced into a situation so clearly against her will.

"What is the meaning of this, Whitfield?" Sir Kyle demanded. He was glaring at Alex, who by this time had reached the altar. Max could see Liz trying to wrench her arm out of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s grasp, but he was having none of it.

"I might ask you the same thing, Sir Kyle," Alex replied calmly. "Is the queen aware of what is going on here? This entire wedding seems over hasty to me."

"The Lady Elizabeth is my betrothed," Sir Kyle snapped. "I can marry at my whim. And, might I add, that you have absolutely no say in this matter. You are not her brother, nor are you her guardian." Kyle grabbed Elizabeth roughly by the wrist, hauled her up beside him. Max felt Michael clamp his hand down on his shoulder. It was a good thing too. It was taking all of Max’s self-control not to go and punch Sir Kyle’s lights out. "Proceed, Father," Kyle said to Father Desmond, who was watching the whole proceeding with concern.

Max didn’t blame the priest. He was definitely caught between a rock and a hard place. Marry Elizabeth and Kyle or risk the sheriff’s wrath. Refuse to marry them or risk the displeasure of Alexander Delucie of Whitfield, one of the most important young lords in the kingdom.

Max flinched when the priest began to intone quickly in Latin.

"Wrong decision, you ungrateful bastard," Max heard Michael mutter under his breath. Max couldn’t help but agree with him. After all, it was Father Desmond who had gotten them into this mess in the first place, by exposing them to the sheriff.

They had to give Alexander a chance to resolve this situation without blood-shed though. There was still a chance they could manage this without compromising themselves. Max knew that this would be Elizabeth’s greatest concern - that he might be captured. He wasn’t about to give her anything else to worry about.

Besides, if it didn’t work, there was always Plan B.

"Alex! I don’t want this!" Elizabeth was saying. "Please! Take me away from here."

Alexander had an expression of anger on his face. He grabbed Sir Kyle and pushed him away from Liz. "I have every intention of doing so, Lizzy." He stared Sir Kyle down. "I suggest that you let us leave and I </i>may</i> not tell the queen about this travesty." Alexander turned to the Sheriff. "You know this is wrong, my lord sheriff. Let me take the Lady Elizabeth away, and we will have the wedding in a few months as was originally planned."

Max saw Liz’s face darken at the last, but she stayed quiet, clearly trusting Alexander in whatever it was that he was doing.

For one happy moment, Max thought that Plan A might actually work. He watched the sheriff’s face carefully, could practically see the wheels in his brain turning.

It wasn’t really Sir Kyle they had to be concerned with anyway. It was the sheriff who held the balance of power in this church at this moment.

If the sheriff let Alexander take Elizabeth away, he, Michael, and Mary would just slink out the back of the church, their faces and forms concealed by their long, brown monk’s robes. They would meet Isabel at the horses, and he and Liz would be reunited, fleeing happily into the forest together.

They would leave the country. They would be happy together.

But if the sheriff didn’t cooperate…

"Proceed," he told Father Desmond curtly. Before Alexander could lodge a protest, the sheriff turned to two of his men-at-arms standing nearby. "Seize Lord Whitfield until the ceremony is complete."

"Alex!" Liz shrieked.

"Bloody hell," Maxwell heard Michael mutter. His brother grabbed Mary. "Be careful," he ordered her.

Max could almost see Mary’s face light up in her cowl.

"I’m always careful," she whispered back. "You’re the one liable to fall on someone’s sword, Lord Incompetent."

Max heard Michael snort, as he moved away from the bickering pair to take his position.

Max passed a small chapel in the outer wall of the church, casually picked up the sword concealed there, thrusting it under his robe. He saw one of the sheriff’s men glance at him, as he walked sedately past, but the soldier just frowned slightly and turned back to watch the wedding.

"Lizzy, just say no!" Alexander was yelling over the drone of the priest’s voice. "It goes against every tenet of the Church to marry you against your will. If you say no, it doesn’t count!" Max was pleased that the plan was proceeding smoothly. Everyone in the church was so distracted by Alex’s outburst, they did not pay attention to the three figures slowly taking up position.

"No!" Elizabeth began screaming.

"Not now, you stupid whore." Max could hear the amusement in Sir Kyle’s voice. "We haven’t gotten to that part yet."

Max could hear Father Desmond’s voice faltering. The priest paused. "Sheriff, perhaps it would be best to delay…at least until the queen…"

"Proceed, you coward!" Sir Kyle yelled. "Or I’ll finish what those demons should have let happen to you in the forest two days ago!"

Max was almost in position. If they could only stall a minute longer…

<i>Liz!</i> He sent it out on a tiny thought wave, not expecting her to answer. But, strangely, he was not surprised when she stopped screaming.

<i>Max?</i> The voice was tentative in his head, but it was definitely there.

<i>Just hold on a minute longer, sweeting. Everything is going according to plan.</i> Max felt Liz’s rush of relief flood through him. It almost made his knees weak.

Max had now reached the end of the chancel. He walked slowly up behind Father Desmond.

"Do you, Sir Kyle DeValence, take this woman, Lady Elizabeth de Parkevill,e to be your wedded wife?"

Kyle’s voice was confident and cocky as he replied, "Of course I do."

"Do you promise to love, honour and keep her, forsaking all others, keep you only unto her as long as you both shall live?"

There was a pause. Max stopped, stared at Kyle’s face. He felt a pang of sympathy for the other man. He understood why Kyle wanted to marry Elizabeth so much. He might spout about the dowry, but he was in love with her too.

Who could blame him?

"I do," Kyle said quietly.

"And, do you, Lady Elizabeth de Parkeville, take Sir Kyle DeValence to be your wedded husband?" the priest continued without even waiting for a reply. "Do you promise to love, honour and obey him, keeping you only unto him as long as you both shall live?"

There was a long moment of silence. Max was still moving, but he could see Elizabeth’s face. She was staring at Kyle, an expression of sorrow visible even from where he stood. "I am sorry Sir Kyle, but I canno…"

"Yes! Of course she does!" Kyle grabbed her, clamping a hand over her mouth. Liz’s eyes were wide with astonishment over his hand.

Father Desmond was staring at the farce playing out in front of him.

"Then, if there be no just cause why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony…"

Max moved into position. Concealed in the shadows behind the altar, he pulled the sword out hidden under his robe, and gently placed its point against the small of Father Desmond’s back. "I suggest that you do not finish that statement," he said quietly.

Father Desmond almost went into convulsions. "Er, uh…"

Kyle and the Sheriff were both staring at Father Desmond. "Father?" Kyle demanded, sounding annoyed. Max could hear Liz struggling to get away from Kyle. It seemed likely that he still had his hand clasped over her mouth, as she made no noise.

"End this travesty. <i>Now</i>!" Max ordered the Priest.

"I…I’m sorry Sheriff…but I have come to my senses," the priest said, his voice becoming stronger with every word. <i>A sword in the back has the tendency to do that to a man,</i> Max thought wryly to himself. "This wedding cannot proceed."

"You’re damn right it won’t!" Max heard Michael’s voice. He saw the sheriff and Kyle both whirl. Michael had knocked out the men holding onto Alexander and was now standing next to Alex, his bow in hand. The knocked arrow was aimed directly at the sheriff’s head. "Let her go," Michael ordered.

"You heard him." Mary was on the other side of the aisle, bow knocked as well, the arrow pointed squarely at Kyle’s heart.

"Mary of Whitfield!" Kyle yelled in fury. "I should have known a wench like you would get yourself mixed up with outlaws!"

Mary just smiled. "That’s Martin of York to you, Lord Supremely Boring." She paused. "Or was that Lord Ridiculously Arrogant, Lizzy?" She turned to Elizabeth with a grin. "I keep forgetting upon which we decided!"

Kyle blanched at the realization that the third place contestant in the archery contest two days ago had been none other than Mary Delucie. With that, he knew exactly how much danger in which he found himself. "Where is he?" he demanded instead, barely keeping control of his rage.

Max stepped forward, thrusting the priest aside. "I assume you are referring to me?" He glanced at Kyle, who still had a firm grip on Elizabeth’s wrist. Max’s eyes narrowed. "I suggest you let her go."

"Max!" Liz said in relief.

Kyle’s nostrils were flaring. "She is mine, you damned outlaw!"

Max raised an eyebrow. "Mary?"

Mary smiled like a cat with a new bowl of cream. "With pleasure. My finger was growing anxious." She let loose the arrow. It whistled straight and true, literally parting Sir Kyle’s hair, as it passed within inches of his skull.

"Hmmmm," Mary said assessingly. "I missed." The tone of her voice made it clear she had <i>not</i> missed - that her arrow had gone exactly where she had intended it to go.

Kyle’s face was even whiter. Max could not tell whether it was from terror or fury. He thrust Elizabeth away from him. She ran towards Max. He caught her around the waist, thrusting her behind him. "This isn’t over," Kyle ground out. His eyes were dancing frantically around the small church. "You idiots!" he yelled at the guards. "Seize them!"

Mary was clucking with disappointment. "You really are as stupid as I thought you were, Kyle." She looked at the collection of guards, all of whom were staring at her in astonishment. "Leave it alone, boys."

She loosed another arrow, which actually shredded Kyle’s cloak at the shoulder. Kyle bellowed in frustration. "And there’s plenty more where that came from," she told the room at large.

Max grinned to himself, as he took Liz’s hand and started backing away. Michael and Alex, both with bows in hand, were backing up the aisle, guarding their retreat.

"Mary! Get your butt over here!" Michael yelled at her.

"Coming, dearest!" She paused at the entrance to the church. "Thank you for having us, sheriff! We’ll repay the invitation very soon!"

Max and Elizabeth were the first to reach the horses. Isabel was already mounted. "Lady Elizabeth! I am pleased you are safe!"

Max practically threw Liz onto Evander’s saddle. "Not quite safe yet!" he said, climbing up in front of her. "Hold on, my love!" He felt his heart skip a beat as Liz’s delicate arms clutched him around the waist.

They barely left the clearing in time. The guards were beginning to stream out of the church. Max heard an arrow whistle over his head. He felt Liz tense up against his back.

Max plunged Evander into the dense foliage of the forest which surrounded the church. "Max! You cannot return to the sanctuary!" He could hear Liz talking in his ear. "Kyle knows where it is!"

Max felt his heart stop. "But we left Tess and Lord Edmund there!" he called back.

He reined in a few minutes later. Michael, Mary, Alexander, and Isabel all did the same. "Michael, you need to go back to Sanctuary and tell Tess and Lord Edmund what has transpired. Bring them to the waterfall and we’ll find a new hiding place from there."

"What? Maxwell, we agreed that Lord Edmund was not to know about this little adventure!" Michael exclaimed.

"I don’t have time to argue with you, Michael. Either they find out or they die!" Max snapped back. Michael’s face whitened.

"Very well," he ground out.

"I’m going with you!" Mary exclaimed.

"No," Michael said firmly.

"Michael! You can’t go by yourself! It’s too dangerous!" Mary screeched, sounding on the verge of tears.

"<i>No</i>!" Michael bellowed.

"Mary, I’ll accompany him," Alex decided. And then… "Wait a minute. Lizzy! What’s wrong!"

"Nothing. I’m fine, Alex." Liz’s voice was strained. Max realized that she was clutching his robe tightly.

"Oh, God!" Isabel had moved her horse up near Evander. She gently pushed Liz’s cloak aside. Max inhaled sharply at the sight that greeted him.

There was an arrow imbedded in Liz’s side. "I’m fine!" Liz insisted, her breathing now erratic "We must keep going!"

But, with those words, her eyes rolled up into her head and she fainted. Max barely caught her before she fell off his horse.

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Post by Kath7 » Tue Aug 16, 2005 1:04 pm

AN- Thanks, everyone!

<u>Part 23</u>

Mary felt her heart stop. It began to beat in an uneven rhythm as Maxwell managed to catch Elizabeth before she tumbled off his horse. His grip on her was not firm, however. Isabel was helping to hold her up.

Max’s face was as white as Mary was sure her own was. "Bella! There’s blood everywhere!" Mary had never heard Maxwell lose his composure - not through any of the disasters which seemed to be piling one on top of the other. She had not seen it up until this point. He was a born leader, but he was also, now, clearly terrified. For the first time Mary truly understood how Max felt about Elizabeth. That concern for her should bring him to his knees - it was unlike anything she had ever seen before.

"It’s all right, Max," Isabel told him firmly, taking charge of the situation. "You can heal her." She slid off her horse, helping Max to do the same. They gently laid Elizabeth on Alex’s cloak, which he had removed for the purpose.

Elizabeth moaned. She was still unconscious, but Mary was sure that the pain must be excruciating. They had been riding for a good half an hour. How could her friend have hidden her condition for so long?

Michael had joined the others on the ground. He was looking down at Elizabeth in horror. Mary saw him glance up at her, his expression unreadable. "I’ll go find Tess and Lord Edmund. She’ll be fine, Maxwell," he said gruffly, when Max managed to pull his eyes off of Isabel, who was ministering to Elizabeth, preparing her for healing. She had removed Elizabeth’s cloak and ruthlessly ripped her wedding gown, exposing the arrow where it penetrated Lizzy’s delicate skin. It was deeply imbedded. Mary felt bile rising in her throat. "You don’t have to worry about them. We’ll meet you at the waterfall."

When Alexander made a reluctant move to join him, staring at Elizabeth in concern, Michael stopped him with an upraised hand. "You are needed here. I’ll be fine."

Mary pursed her lips, about to protest, but the expression of barely controlled rage on Michael’s face halted her. He didn’t even look at her, as he swung up onto his stallion and disappeared into the foliage.

"Be careful," Mary whispered to his disappearing back.

"Mary! Stop daydreaming and come help!" Isabel ordered shrilly. "This is not going to be pleasant for Lady Elizabeth. We have to take the arrow out before Max can heal her." She glanced at Max, who was clutching Elizabeth’s hand tightly. "We have little time, Max. They are still after us. They could stumble across us at any time."

"Liz has even <i>less</i> time," Max replied evenly. He turned to Mary. "Can you hold her head?" he asked, clearly beginning to get back on the road to capability, which was generally his permanent path.

Mary fell to her knees at Lizzy’s head. She gently lifted her friends shoulders, began to stroke her hair lovingly. "You’ll be fine, Lizzy dearest." Elizabeth’s face was pale and her breathing was beginning to shorten.

"You’re going to have to remove the arrow, Alex," Isabel told him. Mary watched her brother’s face blanch. "Max needs to conserve his strength for the healing," she explained. "It takes a lot out of him." She paused, glanced at Max. "And this is the biggest injury he’s ever had to heal."

"<i>What</i>!" Mary shrieked.

Max frowned at her. "It will be fine." He gentled his voice. "I will <i>not</i> let her die Mary." The quiet confidence and certainty that had appeared on his face made Mary feel better.

"We’ll hold her down," Isabel said. "Max, hold her shoulder there. I have this side."

Alex slowly fell to his knees beside Isabel, staring at the arrow in consternation. "This is going to hurt her so much," he said finally.

Mary watched Isabel reach out and touch his shoulder. "You love her, Alex. You can do it." Mary wondered suddenly when Isabel had started to call her brother ‘Alex.’"

Alex nodded with determination. He put his hands on the arrow, flinched when Lizzy moaned again, trying to twist away from the pain.

"<i>Hold her</i>!" Max yelled at Isabel. Isabel’s grip on Elizabeth tightened.

Mary’s gaze flitted to her brother’s face. He was breathing hard. He swallowed…and then yanked on the arrow with all his strength.

Elizabeth’s scream of agony filled the clearing.

Mary’s eyes had closed in horror. She felt tears trying to squeeze through her lowered lids. She angrily brushed them away. She continued to stroke Elizabeth’s hair gently. "It’s all right, Lizzy. The worst is over." When she managed to open her eyes, she breathed a sigh of relief to see the offending arrow safely in Alexander’s hands. He was staring at it in astonishment.

Mary looked at Isabel when her friend said, "You must hurry, Max! That scream is going to bring Kyle and his men down on our heads!"

But Max had already begun. "Liz. <i>Liz</i>! Open your eyes, sweeting. You must look at me." Mary felt her heart contract at the tenderness in his voice.

She was not at all surprised when Elizabeth’s eye-lids began to flutter. "Max…" she moaned. Mary bit her lip. Blood was now flowing freely from the wound in her side.

Mary watched as Max gently placed his palm face-down on the horrifying tear in Elizabeth’s body. Was this really going to work? Mary knew that Maxwell had done something to Tess that Elizabeth had witnessed - something that had let Elizabeth know that he was not normal - but she had not yet come to fully accept that her new friend had miraculous healing powers.

And, yet, Isabel did not look concerned. There were tears in her eyes, but Mary felt that they were more for the pain Elizabeth was enduring, than over any concern that Max wouldn’t be able to heal her.

Mary heard Alexander gasp, as Max’s hand began to glow, but she could not tear her gaze away from the miracle that was taking place in front of her eyes.

As Mary watched, the blood on Lizzy’s side began to disappear. The hole in her side began to disintegrate. Mary felt her mouth fall open, glanced up at Max.

He had a slight grimace on his face. It looked for all the world like all of Elizabeth’s pain was being transferred into him. Isabel reached across Liz’s body, putting her hand on Max’s shoulder. The expression of agony on Max’s face eased slightly, as Isabel’s body began to tense. She was clearly deflecting some of the pain away from Max and into <i>her</i> body.

And then it was over. Max, who had been crouching, balanced on his heels, collapsed onto his knees, fatigue evident in every part of him. He did not tear his gaze from Elizabeth’s face, however. Isabel looked drained as well.

Elizabeth still had not moved. The foursome gathered around her continued to watch her tensely.

Mary felt her heart leap with joy as her closest friend’s eyelids began to flutter. Lizzy opened her eyes, stared up at Max in shock. "Max," she said clearly, her voice melting with emotion. She reached up a hand, touched his face. "My love."

Mary began to sob. She had just witnessed a miracle. She could see that Alexander was trying hard to maintain his composure as well.

Elizabeth sat up, looking for all the world like she had just awoken from a refreshing nap. Her face reflected her concern though. "Max? Are you all right?"

Mary glanced at Max, saw that his face was still whiter than it should be, but the smile that illuminated it more than made up for it. "I am now, sweeting." He pulled her gently into his embrace, closing his eyes in relief.

Alexander was helping Isabel to her feet. "Thank you," he said to her, his voice cracking with emotion. She stumbled slightly. Alexander steadied her, pulled her into his arms. Isabel looked tense for a moment, but gradually relaxed.

It was then that Mary allowed herself a stab of concern for Michael. He was all alone in a forest crawling with men who wanted to kill him, commanded by a man who hated him almost as much as he hated his brother.

But she had no time for her concerns. Max was gently lifting Elizabeth back onto his stallion. Isabel had already mounted, and Alexander was soothing his own horse before he swung up onto its back.

"Mary!" Maxwell called out. "We must ride."

<i>You better be safe you big oaf!</i> Mary thought to herself. <i>For if you are not, I will have to save you and then kill you myself.</i>

She hurried to her steed and followed closely after the others.

<u>Part 24</u>

Michael thrust his sword into the smoldering ashes, then looked up, scowling.

Where the hell were they?

He had left the others more than three hours ago, making it back to Sanctuary in record time, despite having to avoid the sheriff’s patrols more than once. He had expected them to be waiting, had been anticipating a tongue-lashing from Lord Edmund, had expected Tess to weep and wail about how they were all betraying her, but he had not expected to find them completely gone.

There was no sign of either their guardian or their sister, not even any sort of message to relay to where they had disappeared. It made Michael supremely uncomfortable. He wondered again whether he should have let Max talk him into the rescue of Lady Elizabeth. They had just infuriated the sheriff and his son even further. Now there was no question that neither man would rest until he got his hands on Max - in reality, on all of them.

The hatred Michael had witnessed on Sir Kyle DeValence’s face when he had looked at Max back in the chapel… It had frightened Michael in a way nothing had ever frightened him before, and Michael had <i>always</i> been frightened on some level, ever since the day he had been old enough to realize that he and his siblings were different, that if they were ever found out, they would be killed, no questions asked.

But Michael had been unable to say no. He had seen the hopeful expression on Mary’s face, had been unable to deny Max the right to claim the lady he loved when that same lady had brought Mary Delucie into his life.

She was a like a burr in his side, like a worm in his mead, like a frayed string on his bow…

She infuriated the hell out of him, and, yet, at the same time, inflamed him like no one else ever had.

And, for some strange reason, he found that the last thing on this planet he wanted to do was disappoint her. So, he had graciously let himself be convinced, but not before he had amused himself by making Mary think that he wasn’t going to help. Her cheeks had become flushed, her enraged breathing causing her chest to heave in outrage. She had managed to berate him verbally for a full five minutes, Maxwell, Bella, and Alexander all watching this with surprise, interest, and amusement respectively.

He had finally shut her up by planting a kiss on her full lips. She stared at him in full shock for a minute afterward, her mouth, for once, mercifully quiet. The silence that had fallen over the group gathered secretly near the waterfall, hidden from Lord Edmund and Tess, who would try and stop them, had been shattered when Isabel started to laugh.

"That was amazing," Alexander later told Michael. "You’re the first person who’s ever been able to get her to stop talking for more than three seconds."

Michael smirked to himself now, as he remembered. It made him want to climb back onto his steed and hurry to the rendezvous point, to see her again. He had not liked the fearful expression on her face when he had left her. She had been frightened for her friend, whom Michael knew without a shadow of a doubt that Max would save. But there had been something else as well.

She had been frightened for <i>him</i>.

Unfortunately, Michael was not going to be able to return to his friends immediately, however. He had to find Lord Edmund and Tess. No matter if they were both acting strangely of late, they were still his family. He had a duty to them. If Sir Kyle had found them, they were no doubt in grave danger. Sir Kyle would use them as bait to lure Max out of the forest, which would result in complete exposure.

It had to be avoided at all costs. Lord Edmund had already made it clear that their presence on Earth had been completely compromised, that they were going to have to return to Antar far sooner than had been planned. But they still needed time to arrange for passage off the planet.

Michael felt a pang. For the first time ever, he realized that perhaps he was not ready to leave Earth yet.

He flinched. This was not a good sign. He knew what his destiny was. He had no choice! He had to find Lord Edmund and Tess, had to get that cursed Delucie wench off of his mind! What was becoming of him? He was a warrior, one with a sworn duty to save his planet.

Michael swung up onto his horse, his jaw set.

He was <i>not</i> going to turn into Maxwell, mooning and wailing over a human female.

His resolve lasted about five minutes. That was how long it took for Mary Delucie to return to his thoughts. Michael clenched his fists on the reins, cursed a blue streak.

And heard a whistling sound that was all too familiar…followed by a loud <i>twunk.
</i>

Michael threw himself off of his horse, then plunged into the foliage. His heart was beating at double-time. He took a great gasp of air, closed his eyes, awaiting capture.

He realized suddenly that arrows were still whistling through the air and that not one had come anywhere near him. He could hear yelling nearby.

He frowned, quickly tied the horse’s reins to a nearby tree, swinging his bow down off of his back and knocking an arrow as he followed the sound of the din.

He practically broke into a run when he recognized Tess’s shriek. "<i>My lord</i>!"

Michael forced himself to slow down, made himself think rationally. He was alone. If he was going to save his sister, he needed to plan carefully. He couldn’t let his instincts rule him, as he had when the original outlaws had attacked them two days ago. It was that foolishness, the open use of his powers, that had landed them in their current debacle.

Of course, all the planning in the world would have done no good had he stumbled into the clearing like a thundering stag, which he nearly did, before he stopped abruptly.

Taking a deep breath, Michael peered around the tree he had barely concealed himself behind in time.

His eyes lit on Tess immediately. She was tied to a tree across the clearing, her gown in rags, her blonde hair streaming around her face, which was streaked with tears. In fact, she was currently sobbing uncontrollably.

Michael saw the reason why a moment later.

Lord Edmund was lying flat on the ground, his eyes open and staring up at the sky vacantly. An arrow stood straight up from his chest, having pierced his heart.

Good Lord.

Michael felt a stabbing pain behind his eyes, swallowed hard. This was no time for sorrow. He could mourn his foster father later. He had to save his sister!

But, he knew almost instantly that he couldn’t do it by himself, that he needed to go find Max immediately. He could use his powers and take out every single one of the sheriff’s men in the clearing, but without Lord Edmund they had no way of escaping the planet.

And, if he used his powers in front of the sheriff, every single lawman in the country would be searching for him.

Michael felt intense rage squeezing his heart as Sheriff DeValence came into view. "We’ll string him up on the London Road," he was saying to Sir Kyle, who started poking at Lord Edmund’s body with his sword. Michael pressed his lips together, lowered his forehead against the trunk of the tree behind which he was concealed.

"<i>Why</i>" Tess was shrieking, her sobs barely under control. "He was innocent! Why would you kill him?"

Sir Kyle lifted his head, eyed her for a moment. "Maxwell of Huntington stole my betrothed," he replied coldly. "It should be him lying on the ground under my sword. But until that happens - which it will, mark my words - I will kill every single being dear to him in this world."

Michael forced himself to stare at Tess, as her blue eyes widened in terror. "Are you going to kill me?" she asked in a small, frightened voice. He barely managed to control himself from barreling out of his hiding spot when Kyle grabbed Tess roughly by the chin and lifted her pretty face so that he could stare right into her eyes.

"I’m not done with you yet, sweeting." The endearment sounded more like a curse. "You are what is going to bring that heretic right to my keep."

"He won’t come," Tess said, her voice sounding weary. "He has tired of me. She is all he cares about now."

<i>Good Tess!</i> Michael encouraged her silently. <i>Make him believe it!</i>

Michael narrowed his eyes as he looked more closely at his sister’s posture. For one horrible moment he thought that maybe she <i>did</i> believe that Max, that Michael and Isabel, would leave her in Sir Kyle’s hands.

The expression on utter despair on her face…

But, no, she would never believe such a thing. She knew that they had always been most protective of her. She was their beloved Tess. The rest of them could take care of themselves, Bella included, but Tess had always seemed so fragile and innocent in comparison. She had to know that they would come for her!

"We’ll see," Sir Kyle replied, not sounding convinced. He motioned one of the guards forward with a gesture from his mailed hand. "Put her on a horse. We return to Nottingham."

Michael didn’t move a muscle until he had seen Tess thrown face-down across the guard’s horse, still bound hand and foot. He didn’t dare start breathing until the last of the guards had ridden out onto the King’s Highway and had started to gallop off in the direction of the town.

He was back on his mount moments later, thundering off in the direction of the rendezvous point.

***

Max lifted Elizabeth gently off Evander, held her briefly against him before letting her fall to the ground. "My love, I am so sorry that I have brought you to this," he whispered against her hair. He felt her bring her arms around him, heard her sigh of contentment as she pressed her cheek against his chest.

"I am with you. That is all that matters to me," Elizabeth replied quietly. "Why are we here though?" She stepped away from him, her hand still in his, started to look around. "We cannot be gone for long. We are both responsible for this disaster, my love. We must assure that our friends are safe."

Max pulled her back against his chest, kissed her lightly on the temple. "But first I must assure that <i>you</i> are safe." He felt Elizabeth flinch against him, knew that she thought that he was planning to abandon her again, that he thought that she would be safer away from him. He smiled slightly. It, of course, could not be further from the truth.

They had left the others back at the waterfall a few hours before.

It had not taken Max long to realize what needed to be done as quickly as possible to keep Elizabeth out of Sir Kyle’s hands. He had taken Alexander aside immediately to tell him what he planned.

Alexander smirked after he had finished speaking with him. "Well, I cannot say that I am surprised," had been his only response. "Mary is not going to be happy to be left out of this, you know."

"We’ll make it up to her," Max replied. He looked seriously at Alex. "I need you to protect Bella, Alexander. Please promise me that you will do this."

Alexander’s eyes flashed momentarily. "You don’t even need to ask, Maxwell." Max watched the young baron’s eyes stray to his blonde sister, who was foraging in the nearby bushes for some berries with Mary at her side. The expression of adoration on his face was all the convincing Max needed.

And, so, Max spirited Liz away. She had gone with him willingly enough, once he had promised her that he was not planning to desert her in some forsaken castle in a misguided attempt to keep her safe.

"I will never allow you to be away from my side again," Max had told her. "I have made that mistake once and it almost resulted in disaster. I will never do it again, sweetheart."

Liz stepped away from him again now though, still looking around with an expression on her face that could only be described as suspicious. "Max, this looks disturbingly like a convent to me," she finally said accusingly.

"It is a convent," Max told her, trying to sound innocent. "You have a good eye, sweeting."

She frowned at him, pulled her hand away from his, then placed both on her slender hips. "I do not like the sound of this."

"There is only one way to keep you safe and it is here."

An expression of hurt flashed across her face, but was instantly replaced by anger. "You promised me! You promised that you were not going to abandon me again!" She whirled, stormed back over to Evander. "Take me back immediately," she told him imperiously, the slight tremble in her voice the only indication of how hurt she was.

Max felt a pang of guilt, but forced himself to say lightly. "I suggest that we go in at least. The good sisters are expecting us. You can see if you like it."

"No," Liz said mutinously. She folded her arms across her chest, stared past him, her expression stony.

"Liz…"

"No!"

"Very well then." Max sighed heavily, turned and pulled the bell near the door to the convent. "I will just tell them that we are leaving."

"Yes, you will," Liz replied, sounding extremely angry.

The door opened after a few moments. A veiled nun smiled out at them. "Yes, my son?"

"Hello, sister." Max bowed slightly. "I am afraid that you will have to tell Father William that there is to be no wedding today. Please convey my apologies that my message forced him to travel here to meet us, but my bride has decided that she does not like the looks of me after all."

He barely managed to keep a straight face when he heard Liz gasp following the word "wedding." He had regained control of himself by the time she shrieked his name. "<i>Max</i>!"

"Yes, my love?" He glanced over his shoulder. She was staring at him in astonishment.

"Why are we here?" Liz demanded, glancing at the nun, who was beginning to look amused now, too.

"To get married, of course," Max returned calmly. "Why else would we be here?"

Liz blinked. "But, why?" She sounded totally astounded.

"Because I love you," Max replied. "And because, when you are my wife, Sir Kyle will have no legal right to ever lay hands on you again."

He felt a lump beginning to form in his throat when tears filled her dark eyes. He felt another pang of guilt. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. He had wanted to surprise her, but had not expected that she would be so upset.

Max hurried back towards her. "Liz? I’m sorry. We don’t have to if you don’t want to." He stopped about a foot away from her, reached out and gently brushed away the tear that was trailing down her soft cheek.

She sniffled. "Of course I want to," she told him, her voice soft with emotion.

He pulled her into his embrace. "Then why are you crying, sweeting?"

"Because I didn’t believe it was possible to love you more than I did before we entered this clearing, but I now know that I was wrong," she replied. "It frightens me, Max. I could not bear to lose you."

He lifted her chin with his index finger, gently kissed began to kiss her tears away. "You never shall, my love."

"But, Max," Liz glanced over his shoulder at the nun who was still watching them, a tolerant expression of amusement on her face. She lowered her voice. "What about when you have to go back."

Although Max knew exactly what she was talking about, he pretended ignorance. "Back?"

Liz frowned at him again. She was clearly irritated that he was being so difficult. She raised her index finger up to the sky. "</i>Back</i>."

He took her hand gently in his, brought her knuckle to his lips. "Oh, back." He grinned at her.

"Will you stop being so ridiculous?" Liz asked, although Max could tell that she was beginning to melt again. "Can you not be serious for one instant?"

"Well, I see two possible solutions to that," Max told her finally, when she looked like she was truly ready to explode. "One, I don’t go back."

"Max!" Liz stared at him. "You <i>have</i> to go back. It is your home. I will not stand between you…"

He put a gentle finger against her lips, cutting her off. "<i>Or</i>," He continued. "I <i>will</i> go back someday."

He felt her stiffen against him.

"You will?" she asked in a small voice.

"With my queen by my side," he finished quietly. "I have told you, Liz, that I will never leave you alone again and I mean it. If I go back, you go with me. That is all there is to it." He paused. "If you want to that is." He brushed his lips against hers. "Will my queen agree to return to my world and rule by my side?"

Liz bit her lip, smiled up at him, her smile like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. "Only if her king agrees to allow her to love him for the rest of his days."

Max felt his heart skip a beat. "She does not even need to ask," he told her, completely serious for the first time since they had arrived at the convent. "He will allow it for much longer than that." He brought his lips down onto hers again.

The nun cleared her throat delicately. "My lord? My lady? Father William awaits you. He must return to the Abbey before dark."

Max and Liz smiled at each other for a moment longer and then allowed themselves to be lead into the convent.

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Post by Kath7 » Wed Aug 17, 2005 12:52 pm

AN - Thanks for the wonderful feedback, everyone. It is much appreciated. This story really holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first one I ever started. It ended up in a place I never expected, but I still do love it. :D



<u>Part 25</u>

Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly after lighting the candle. Her heart was beating so rapidly, she was sure that Max, who was across the chamber fiddling with the fire, would hear and wonder at it.

The wedding ceremony had been short, but sweet, so different from the unholy sacrament Sir Kyle had tried to force her into much earlier that day. It had ended with a kiss from Max that had been full of promise and love. Even the stern priest had been beaming at them both when they left the small convent chapel.

Had it only been that morning that she wondered if she would ever see Max again? Now she was his wife, bound to him for life. And she was not only his wife. She was his queen.

For this was one of the many things they had talked of on the long ride through the forest from the convent.

It had not dawned on Elizabeth, until he had started to tell her the truth of his origins, that she really knew nothing about him. She knew the most important things: that he was kind and loving, intelligent and devoted, but she did not know about his life. What he shared was astounding. She had been sure that he had only been using romantic endearments when he had called her his queen.

She could not have been more wrong.

She knew already that he was from another world, that he had been sent to <i>her</i> world to protect him for some grander purpose. The fact that he was a king on that other world had come as something of a shock. She remembered how he had insisted that he was not a nobleman when they had first met, had seemed uncomfortable with that idea. He was, it turned out, much more than that. She had gotten the idea from the way he spoke of it that he was not particularly pleased with his heritage.

"I don’t feel like a king. I wish I were not. I do not remember who I was on Antar," he told her, kissing her lightly on the temple. She had been seated in front of him, her back pressed against his front. It was most pleasant and his touch against her hair caused a shiver to descend her backbone. Thinking that she was cold, he tightened his arms around her, bringing his cloak more closely against her so that he shared his warmth. "Earth is my home now. It is the only home I recall," he continued, sounding sad. "But I know my duty. I will return there someday…soon, if what Lord Edmund says is accurate." He paused, running his hands down her sides lovingly. "But I do not dread it so much now. Not with you by my side."

Elizabeth had felt hot everywhere, his breath on her neck only increasing the feeling, warm as it was in the cool evening air. She had wondered if it was possible for a woman to burn alive with desire.

That was the only way to describe the way she felt about him. She <i>burned</i> for him.

And, yet, it was sweeter than that too. At times her heart swelled at the thought of him, bringing her so much joy that she barely avoided weeping at the feeling.

Max brought her to a small cottage near the waterfall where they were to meet the others. He gently lifted her off Evander, carrying her through the door and setting her on her feet only after kissing her thoroughly.

Her knees were weak when he had moved away from her to light the fire.

Now he turned back, his dark eyes smoldering as he gazed at her. Elizabeth bit her lip, swallowed convulsively.

"We do not have much time, my love," Max told her finally, after Elizabeth briefly wondered if she would burst into flames from the expression on his face. His tone was regretful. "I wish that we could stay here forever but we must go make certain that the others are safe."

"I know it," Elizabeth managed to reply, although her voice sounded strangely breathless to her own ears.

Max walked slowly towards her. Elizabeth saw him take a deep breath before he reached out and pulled her into his embrace. She leaned her head against his shoulder, her head barely grazing his chin. She could hear his heart thundering beneath her ear.

Instantly all her nerves vanished. He was nervous too. He wanted her just as much as she wanted him. They were meant for each other. It would be perfect. Had her dreams not told her so?

It still amazed her that she had found him, but it only convinced her even more that they were destined to love each other.

Tonight would be the beginning.

Elizabeth pulled back slightly, gazed up at him. He was breathing unevenly now, his eyes hooded.

"Liz."

Hearing her name on his lips, the love he felt for her resounding in that one single syllable was her undoing. She reached up, ran her fingers through his soft, dark hair.

"Max. My love. Make me truly yours."

He swallowed again, but smiled slightly. He lowered his lips down to meet hers, brought his hands up to cup her face. It was not long before he was lifting her into his arms and laying her gently down on the bed.

And, then, they were both lost.

***

"Where the hell are they?" Michael stormed, pacing back and forth in front of the log on which Mary and Isabel huddled together for warmth. Alexander had resisted lighting a fire, warning that the smoke and the light thrown by the flames would be a beacon for Sir Kyle’s men.

Michael had returned moments before, the expression of grief and anger on his face a mask that had sent a chill down Mary’s spine.

"Maxwell assured me that they would be back before sunrise," Alexander explained patiently for the third time. He was leaning back against a tree, his arms folded over his chain-mailed chest. Mary could tell that he was beginning to get worried too, though. Max and Lizzy had disappeared into the forest many hours before. Although Mary had an idea that Alexander knew where they had gone, he was not telling, but he was also becoming concerned at the lengthy span of their absence.

"I did and we are." Max’s voice caused them all to whip their heads around. He and Elizabeth were suddenly there. They were holding hands and both looked a little peculiar as a matter of fact. Guilt was written all over both of their visages.

"Where’s Evander?" Michael snapped, asking, in Mary’s opinion, the least important question. Something had happened between these two, that much was evident. Who the heck cared about Maxwell’s stupid horse? But Mary had the feeling that Michael was trying to avoid having to find out where they had been because he knew he wasn’t going to like it.

Mary’s own curiosity was practically eating her alive.

"I left him at Lord Edmund’s hunting cottage," Max replied. "I will fetch him when I need him. He is safer there."

"Max." Isabel was on her feet, her voice concerned. "What have you done?" There was no avoiding it now. Mary had the strange feeling that all four of them knew exactly what Max and Elizabeth had gone, but were scared to find out for sure.

It changed everything.

Max glanced down at Elizabeth lovingly. She smiled slightly at him, something secretive passing between them. "We are married," Max finally said shortly.

Isabel collapsed back onto the log. "Max." She sounded shocked and horrified.

Michael was not nearly as composed. "Well, you have well and truly done it now, haven’t you?" Mary exchanged a wary look with Alexander, who did not look at all surprised by the announcement. She had known that he had been in on the secret. She was going to have to punish him soundly later for keeping her in the dark.

"Michael," Max said warningly.

"Maxwell, you know that we can’t have any attachments on this world!" Michael continued his rant. "Are you planning to bring her with us, when we go home?"

"Yes," Max replied evenly.

"Max! It is impossible." This was from Isabel, who still sounded completely shocked, but not nearly as angry as Michael did. Mary believed that she understood Bella enough to know that, while she did not entirely approve of Max’s actions, she would be brought around to support the newly wedded pair. She loved her brother. Anyone could see that she only wanted him to be happy. Mary was also fairly certain that Isabel was not adverse to the idea of marriage to a human herself. The looks she sent in Alexander’s direction, when she though no one was looking, seemed to support this idea.

This made Mary realize that Michael’s anger could only mean that he had never had any honourable intentions towards her. And his next comment made her realize why.

"What about your betrothed?" he spat out, fury in every line of his stiff stance. "What about Tess, Maxwell?"

Mary saw Max flinch at that. Elizabeth did too, but brought her arm up to hold him, in support. "You know that I do not love Tess, Michael. Not in that way. I only ever accepted what was to be because I did not realize that I was capable of loving anyone else." He brought his arm around Elizabeth. "I love Liz."

"You know that doesn’t mean a thing," Michael snapped back. "You are meant for Tess, I am meant for Isabel. End of story."

Mary glanced at Alexander in shock. He looked as astonished as she did.

They always called each other brother and sister! How could they be meant for each other?

"I don’t care," Max responded stubbornly. "Tess is my sister. Nothing more. Being King of Antar does not depend on marrying her."

"How do you know this, Max?" Isabel asked quietly. Mary could see her eyeing Alexander sadly, probably wondering how he was taking the news of her betrothal to Michael.

"I know it, Bella," Max asserted firmly. "It does not matter. Lord Edmund only ever told us this because we were lonely here. He was trying to help us to see that we would always have each other." He looked at his sister pleadingly. "And we still do Isabel. It doesn’t matter if we bring others into our circle. We will always have each other."

"I know it, Max."

"Funny that you should mention Lord Edmund so carelessly, Maxwell," Michael said. "Do you even care why he and Tess are not with us?"

Max stared at him for a moment, his expression unreadable. Mary saw Lizzy gently take his hand, stroking it soothingly. It made her sad to see them that way. The love they exuded was beautiful, but something about it was frightening. Something deep within told Mary DeLucie that none of this could last. They were on road into the unknown and the destination was still undetermined, but in her heart of hearts she was afraid.

It could not last.

"Tell me," Max finally ordered softly.

Michael’s tone was cold when he said, "Lord Edmund is dead, Maxwell. While you were off marrying your <i>human,</i>" Michael made it sound like a curse, "Our guardian was being murdered by her jilted lover. And our Tess has been kidnapped." He stared at Max in disdain for a moment and then stormed off into the woods. "I wish you great joy with your whore," he yelled over his shoulder. "I am going to save our sister." The tone of his voice frightened Mary even more.

A rift had been created here that might not be capable of healing, not even with Max’s miraculous touch.

Mary watched passively as Isabel rose from the log again and hurried after him, but not before she shared a long meaningful glance with Max. She would support him, but in the meantime, she had to go after Michael.

But, as for her, Mary knew that whatever it was that she had shared with Michael of Huntington was over before it truly began.

<u>Part 26</u>

"Michael! Please stop!" Isabel called after her betrothed. She could hear him crashing through the green wood ahead, clearly too upset to even take care that he was making so much noise. It was only a matter of time before the sheriff’s men fell down on them. "Michael! Please!"

She stumbled upon him so abruptly, she gasped. He had stopped, was leaning up against a tree, his forehead cradled against his forearm. It was the exact same pose he always took when he was on the verge of completely losing it. It was the stance he had held after having killed the sheriff’s men. It was impossible to believe that that life-altering event had only taken place three days before. Isabel felt as though she and her siblings had lived a lifetime since then.

"I am not going to apologize, Bella," Michael finally said, after she had stood behind him for several moments, searching her mind for what to say to him. "I cannot believe that he has done this to us. Our entire purpose has been compromised because of his obsession with that… that human."

"Michael, her name is Elizabeth and she is now our queen. Even now she could be carrying Max’s heir. Whether you like it or not, you have to accept it," Isabel replied quietly. "You don’t have to apologize to Max, but I do think you should try and be nicer to her. None of this is her fault. She has only ever tried to help us. Don’t forget that it was she who was responsible for your escape from Nottingham and it was also she who sent us Mary and Alexander. Please don’t try and tell me that we could have survived this long without them."

Michael turned around suddenly at the mention of Mary and Alexander. His eyes blazed while he listened to Isabel. Finally he ground out, "They have been helpful , yes, but we would have survived without them. We have Lord Edmund…" Michael stopped abruptly. "We <i>had</i> him, I mean." Isabel felt her eyes widen as Michael’s dark gaze filled with tears. She had never, not once, seen him cry in all the years she had known him.

"Michael!" Isabel moved forward, wrapped her arms around him, bringing his head down onto her shoulder. "It will be all right. I promise. We have to believe that as long as we stick together, we will survive."

Michael let himself be comforted for a moment, but then wrenched away again, swiping angrily at his eyes. "We are meant to do much more than survive, Bella. You know it, I know it, Maxwell <i>should</i> know it. We are the Royal Four and we have a duty to return and liberate our people. It is the only reason for our existence."

Isabel smiled softly at him. "But, Michael, if it the only reason for our existence, then why do we feel that we want more? Max and I have never denied that to ourselves." She brought her hand up, touched him on the shoulder. "You have always said that all you want is to return to Antar. I believe that is true, but I also believe that the past few days have opened your eyes to the joys that life on <i>this</i> planet can bring as well."

Isabel saw Michael’s eyes flash again. She knew he was thinking about Mary. "Whatever I want is insignificant," he said mutinously. "I have a role and I intend to play it. I will marry you and we will return to Antar and free our people."

"Why do the two have to be intertwined?" Isabel demanded, frustrated by his stubbornness. "Just because we were married in our previous lifetime, it does not mean that we have to be in these lives. Why can’t we still free Antar and marry others?" She paused, moderated her voice, which was beginning to rise hysterically.

She had had this argument with him many times before - not necessarily about marriage, but about why returning to their planet eventually had to mean that they could not make lives for themselves on Earth in the meantime. Michael had always ever been about waiting for his destiny to find him. Isabel wanted a hand in the making of hers.

"Can you really tell me that you have ever wanted to marry me, Michael? Me, Isabel, not Vilandra, not who I once was, not who you were told I was and what I meant to you <i>then</i>, but who I am now."

Michael frowned down at her. "Of course I do. I love you, Bella."

Isabel reached up and stroked his face. "I know you do, Michael, but you don’t love me in the way I want to be loved. And don’t tell me that you don’t know what I mean." Isabel held her hand up and covered his mouth. Michael snapped it shut, as it had been open in an attempt to protest. "You do know what I mean because you feel it for someone else. You don’t feel for me what you feel for her." Michael scowled at her. "Please don’t try to deny it, Michael. I see the way you are around her. She brings you to life in a way I’ve never seen before. With Mary, instead of waiting for life, you are <i>living</i>."

Michael stared past her, his eyes softening. "She is driving me crazy."

"She has brought you to life," Isabel replied, hugging him again. "And I think that after you apologize to Elizabeth, you should also apologize to Mary. Because what you said - it was designed to hurt Max, but I think you hurt our three human friends much more than you could ever hurt him. He knows you, knows that you don’t mean half of what you say when you flare up like that. They don’t."

Michael whitened at her words. "I did not think, Bella. I was just thinking about our Tess. She must be so frightened."

"I know, Michael. And we are going to save her, but first you must reconcile with Max and the others. We all need each other."

"What are we going to do without him, Bella?" Michael asked, sounding frightened. Isabel was glad that he was finally letting down his defenses. Michael’s anger was always designed to hide his fear. He had ever been that way since he was a small boy. Lord Edmund’s death had hit him harder than any of them because their guardian’s presence had been the only thing that had ever made him feel safe on this planet. Lord Edmund’s knowledge of their destiny had reassured him that he would not make a mistake, that he would not betray their people.

And, now that Lord Edmund was gone, Michael’s destiny was all on his own shoulders.

For Isabel it was a release from the years in which she had felt confined. For Michael, a prison of fear had risen in the stead of the confidence his guardian gave him.

"We will survive. Max is our king. He has grown into that role more in the last three days than in the entire time we were under Lord Edmund’s control," Isabel told him. "And, Michael, whether you like it or not, it is Elizabeth who is responsible for it. She is his inspiration. Max would never have been happy with Tess. Just seeing the way he looks at Liz - how could he have ever been happy with our sister when she did not make him look that way? Not even once, Michael."

Michael sighed heavily. "I have tried to ignore it, Bella, because of what it meant. But you are right."

"You have to let go of your fear, Michael. I know that you are afraid of what you feel for Mary Delucie, but if Max can claim his happiness, then so can we. I have a feeling that Mary would be perfectly willing to follow you to the ends of the universe, if only to make sure that you didn’t lose your way," Isabel teased, taking his hand and leading him back towards the camp, where she knew the others awaited them.

Michael snorted as they started back. "If there is one thing she likes, its to order me around," he admitted wryly.

"She is a caring girl, Michael. I think she is one who has never wanted a day in her life and, instead of it spoiling her, it has made her more generous and outgoing. She is special. They are all special that way."

Michael and Isabel did not speak again until they were almost back at the camp. They were still holding hands, companionably rather than romantically, which was why Isabel’s arm was almost pulled out of the socket when Michael stopped abruptly. "What about Tess?"

Isabel frowned at him, not understanding. "We will save her, Michael. All of us. Together."

"I know, Bella, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, what about Tess and <i>Max</i>? She is going to be devastated by this." He grimaced. "Because whether you, or I, or Max has ever wanted to marry each other, I know Tess loves Max. I think it has become more than clear in the past few days that Tess loves him in the way <i>he</i> loves Elizabeth - and more than any of us ever realized."

Isabel’s eyes widened. "She will be upset, Michael, but will she not be comforted that Max is so happy? I cannot believe that she will not see that Elizabeth will never replace her in Max’s heart. She is one of the Four, one of us. We will always be bonded in a way that others can not break."

Michael shook his head. "Bella, I admire you for thinking so highly of Tess, but I don’t think that she is going to look at it in that way at all."

Isabel felt a shiver descend her spine. While she did not want to betray her sister by thinking that she could ever try and hurt Elizabeth or Max, she had seen changes in Tess over the past few days that did not deny what Michael was saying.

All Isabel could do for the moment, however, was hope that they were wrong.

***

Mary watched Maxwell pace the length of the clearing, his face deeply reflective. Elizabeth was standing nearby, watching him as well, and as Mary observed, her friend moved over to join him, smiling up at him sympathetically.

Max’s expression softened immediately. He reached out, pulled Lizzy into his embrace, seemed to calm down instantly. Mary bit her lip, felt tears well up in her eyes. She knew that she would never have that sort of relationship with Michael. While Max and Elizabeth’s love had burned brightly and steadily from the moment they had met, she and Michael flared in fits and starts of passion.

It was a passion that was not healthy, Mary saw now. Max and Liz were meant for each other because they became complete in each other’s presence. She, Mary, just upset Michael, disrupted his calm, interrupted his goals, rather than bringing him peace as Elizabeth did for Maxwell.

"Are you well?" Alexander had been standing near the spot where Isabel had disappeared after Michael ages ago, but now he came to join her on the log she had been sharing with Isabel earlier that evening. He was clearly concerned for Isabel’s welfare, but also did not want to interrupt a conversation between two whose relationship Mary and her brother were only beginning to understand.

Mary swallowed, smiled at her brother. "I am just sad, Alex. It is hard to see people you care about in pain. And I know that Michael’s outburst was less about hurting Max and Lizzy than it was about concern for Tess and grief for their foster father."

Alexander reached out, put his arm around her shoulders, bringing her head down upon his own shoulder. "It is difficult, dearest." He paused. "I do not think that he meant to hurt you with what he said, Mary. I think your Michael would be most upset if he knew you were in pain."

Mary sighed. "It does not matter, Alex. He is not mine anyway. He and Isabel are to marry." She frowned. "Why would they not tell us so? I do not understand why they hid it."

She felt Alexander shrug under her cheek. "I don’t know, Mary. Maybe it was such an accepted fact for them that it did not even cross their minds that we should know. I know that Isabel has never said anything to me that implied that she wanted to be with me. I have only myself to blame for seeing something more in our relationship than was really there."

Mary pulled back, stared up at her brother. "I do not think you were mistaken, Alex. Isabel does have feelings for you. I have seen the way she looks at you. I think, perhaps, they are trapped in a betrothal that neither wants." Mary began to speak more earnestly. "Perhaps they just need <i>us</i> to make the first move so that they know that they will not be alone if they break from each other. It takes courage to do what Max and Lizzy did, both denying marriages they did not want to claim their happiness. Neither of us knows the courage that it would take, both being in control of our own fates."

Alex smiled affectionately at her. "Does nothing ever dampen your optimism, my sister?"

Mary grinned back. "It is sometimes hidden, Alex, but I am not one to give up something I want easily." Mary realized that it was true. Not matter how hopeless it seemed to have any sort of relationship with Michael of Huntington, she was not willing to give up so quickly - at least, not before she knew for sure that Michael and Isabel <i>wanted</i> to marry each other. "You should know that by now."

"Oh, I know it, <i>Martin</i> of York," Alex replied wryly, kissing her lightly on the forehead. He looked at Max and Elizabeth across the clearing. "I think we should go talk to Maxwell," he told Mary. "We must begin to formulate a plan for a rescue of the Lady Tess, so that we do not waste any more time once Michael and Isabel have returned."

Mary shook her head. "Let’s leave them in peace a while longer, Alex." She paused, admitted quietly, "I have a feeling that soon there will be very little peace for those two. "

Alex looked at her, one brow raised, but did not dispute what she said. While Max and Elizabeth had boldly claimed the right to be together, there were going to be a lot of people who were very unhappy about this union. Michael’s reaction was going to be minor in comparison to that of Sir Kyle DeValence, and perhaps Tess as well. Mary only hoped that Tess did not suffer because of Kyle’s anger. While Mary did not like Tess at all, she knew that Max and Elizabeth’s guilt about her was great enough without having to bear the sorrow of actual, physical harm coming to her because of their marriage.

Mary’s thoughts were interrupted when Michael and Isabel appeared suddenly from the forest. She frowned slightly, glanced at Alex, when she saw that their hands were joined. She climbed slowly to her feet, took Alex’s hand in hers when he followed her, for comfort and to lend him strength as well. She felt him squeeze her hand in response.

Mary looked at Max and Elizabeth, who were both staring at Michael tensely. Elizabeth whispered something to her husband, but Max shook his head sternly.

Michael let go of Isabel’s hand, marched forward resolutely. Mary gasped when he fell to his knees in front of the newly wedded pair. Max was scowling down at him, but Elizabeth just looked shocked.

"Please accept my apology, my queen. I should not have reacted in anger, but should have welcomed you to our family with all the joy in my heart that you have brought to my king’s. And, let me tell you, you have brightened up his dour personality quite impressively," he added, winking up at her.

Liz just continued to stare down at him. Mary saw Max roll his eyes, glare across the clearing at Isabel. Max’s sister looked amused.

"Get up, Michael," Max snapped. "Your apology is accepted. Stop being so ridiculous. We have work to do."

Michael looked up. Mary was surprised to see a teasing grin on his face. "Are you saying I don’t need to apologize, Max? Because I wasn’t apologizing to you…or did you not notice? I am still angry with <i>you</i>." Michael’s gaze was momentarily challenging, but he quickly returned his attention to Elizabeth.

Lizzy relaxed visibly. "Michael, please. Stand up. I accept your apology." She let go of Max’s hand, moved forward and knelt down in front of her husband’s brother. "Please stand up. I appreciate where your anger came from and I share your concern for Tess. It is important that we put all of this behind us and move forward. Her welfare is our only concern at this point."

Mary watched Michael’s expression gentle from mocking to one of actual respect. "I mean what I say, milady, even if my brother does not believe it."

Elizabeth smiled at him. "I believe you, Michael."

Michael stood up, reaching down and pulling Elizabeth to her feet. "Good. Then since you’re the only one he listens to, maybe he will believe it too." While the words were confrontational, Michael’s tone reflected the teasing nature of his comment.

Mary felt the first glimmering of hope she had experienced since Michael had returned from his failed mission to retrieve Tess and Lord Edmund. When Michael suddenly turned and stared at <i>her</i> across the clearing, his dark eyes smoldering, it blossomed full-fledged.

It was no longer three and three. They were six now. The expression on Michael’s face told her that he now knew it too.

And together they could do anything.

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Post by Kath7 » Thu Aug 18, 2005 5:03 pm

AN - Hi everyone! Yes, this was indeed my first story, started way back in the summer between Seasons 1 & 2. It took me a couple of years to write though (as anyone who reads who reads my work regularly knows, I usually have too many stories going at one time, and thus some get neglected :roll: but I do finish everything eventually), and I did edit it heavily at one point, later in my fanfic writing career. So, thank you for the compliments. As stated, I have always had a soft place in my heart for this one, because it was the first story I was ever inspired to write, due to a Roleplay I was involved in way back when. If you're interested in that, I can send you a link to the archives for it, which are really quite interesting in and of themselves. :D

I should probably rate this part Mature, just for safety's sake. It's not dirty or anything...but, well, lol You never can be too careful.


<u>Part 27</u>

"Are we just going to give up then?" Michael demanded, jumping to his feet and pacing the length of the clearing. "There is no way to get her safely, so we give up?"

"Of course not," Max snapped. He rubbed his hand across his face wearily. Elizabeth watched him with concern. She could tell that he was holding in his own frustration, but just barely.

They had been trying to devise a plan to rescue Tess for almost a full day now. It did seem virtually impossible.

It had been confirmed that Tess was being held in Nottingham Castle. Alex had returned only an hour before, having ridden hard to his estate just north of Sherwood. He had sent one of his retainers to Nottingham to listen in the taverns and on the streets, and word had already leaked out to the public that Sir Kyle had brought a blonde girl in chains to the stronghold the day before. The story had been well in circulation, because it was a rare enough thing in these times to see a woman bound hand and foot and under heavy guard, so even those who had not seen Tess themselves had heard of it.

The fact that Tess had been so heavily guarded only confirmed Elizabeth’s fear that Sir Kyle no longer underestimated Max. Having his bride stolen right from the altar had not only humiliated him, it had made him more careful and less cocky.

And, so, it seemed hopeless. There was no way the six of them could sneak unimpeded into a stronghold of the magnitude of Nottingham Castle. Elizabeth knew that the way Max had infiltrated several nights before was most likely completely shut off now.


Because there was no doubt Sir Kyle expected them. What Michael had overheard guaranteed it.

There was also no doubt that the sheriff had his guards out in full-force as well. They were still combing the forest in search of the outlawed Max and Michael. Alex had not yet been outlawed because of his close ties with the queen, but he had still feared for his life when he had almost run head-first into a contingent of them on his way back to their hiding spot. The forest was becoming increasingly unsafe for them now, because they had to stay close to the city for Tess’s sake.

Elizabeth suspected that Max and Michael had spent the time Alex was gone plotting ways to get them all to France, once Tess was back. Fleeing meant that Alexander and Mary were going to lose everything. Alex would lose his lands and his title unless he found some way to appeal to King Richard directly. The king’s no-good brother, Prince John, was presently the regent of the country, but he would support the sheriff in this. He needed all the allies he could muster, because rumours were circulating in the city that the prince was about to try and usurp his absent brother’s throne. The king was completely out of reach and unavailable since he had been captured by the German emperor on his way home from the Holy Land. His ransom had yet to be set, and it was possible that he might not have a throne to return to when he was released.

Liz felt guilty about Alex and Mary. It was she who had placed them in this position after all, having asked them to accompany Isabel and Tess into the forest. Alexander would have the king’s ear upon his return, but if the king didn’t return, it was a different matter entirely. She knew her friends did not blame her though, nor were they sorry. Seeing the way Mary acted around Michael, and the way Alexander looked at Isabel, the Delucies had no regrets.

"There is one piece of good news." Alex spoke into the tense silence that had fallen, snapping Elizabeth back to attention. "Although I am unsure if it will help our cause or not."

"What is it, Alex?" Isabel asked. She had gone to stand with Michael, her hand on his arm in an attempt to calm him. Elizabeth frowned slightly when she saw Alex’s eyes planted firmly on that hand.

"The king is to be ransomed. The emperor has finally set the price." Alex tore his gaze away from Isabel and Michael looked directly at Elizabeth. "The queen will return to Nottingham to collect the taxes to use in that effort."

Elizabeth jumped to her feet from boulder on which she had been perched. "This is wonderful news!" She looked at Max, who was staring at her, his eyes shadowed.

"And this helps us how exactly?" Michael inquired. Elizabeth was still looking at Max, slightly disconcerted by the strange expression on his face. She forced herself to look at Michael. She could tell from the tone of her brother-in-law’s voice that he was doing his best not to make a snide comment, although he desperately wanted to. He was keeping his pledge of treating her like his queen, even though Liz suspected that he still was not completely comfortable with the idea, despite his graceful apology of the day before.

Elizabeth could understand his wariness. None of their new friends understood her relationship to the queen.

"She will help us! I know she will," Elizabeth explained quickly, willing Max to see that all their troubles were over. "I will go to her and I will explain what Kyle has done and she will order him to release Tess."

"Liz…" Max began, clearly not believing it could be as simple as that. She had to convince him.

"I know her, Max. She loves me! She will do this for me."

"After you defied her will by not only refusing to marry Sir Kyle, but by then eloping with a known outlaw?" Max asked gently.

Elizabeth looked at Mary and Alexander for confirmation. "Explain it to them. They don’t understand. If there is anyone who understands following your heart, it is Queen Eleanor. She divorced the King of France for love of the King of England after all!"

Mary was leaning against a tree, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Alexander did not look convinced either. "Mary! Alex! It is the queen!"

Mary moved forward, put her arm around Elizabeth. "Lizzy, she was going to marry you to Sir Kyle against your will." She frowned slightly, glanced quickly at Michael before continuing, "She was going to marry <i>me</i> to some old baron next. The queen does what she believes to be right for her wards. She is Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in Europe. What she does is not necessarily suitable for every girl. If it were, our society would be in anarchy!" Liz’s mouth dropped open. "I’m not saying that I am agreeing with it, Liz. Of course I don’t. But the queen will be angry. You must see that!" She paused. "She is also preoccupied with ransoming the king. She will not look kindly on being asked to deal with what she will consider insignificant."

"Marrying Kyle was <i>not</i> against my will!" Liz returned sharply, upset by what Mary was saying, because she knew it might be true. There was dead silence following that statement. She could have kicked herself. "At least not at first," she amended hastily, not daring to glance at her husband. "I didn’t know I could ever have anything more," she continued passionately. "None of us did until three days ago! The queen will help us when I explain it to her! I know she will. I just need to go to her."

"No." Max’s voice was harder than Elizabeth had ever heard it, at least directed at her. "It will not work, Liz. Mary has given a valid argument. You will not put yourself in danger like that." Elizabeth still did not look at him. She was scared of what she might see on his face. That comment about Kyle had hurt him - she knew it had.

"I don’t know, Maxwell," Michael said, sounding interested. "I don’t see that we have many other options."

"At least it will get one of us into the castle," Isabel added. Elizabeth smiled at her friend, thanking her silently for her support. She didn’t know why it was so important that she be able to do this for them, but it was.

She needed to get Tess back for them. For him.

"No," Max repeated. "Even Mary and Alexander see it for foolishness. I will not allow it."

Elizabeth’s head snapped around. "Foolishness?" she asked dumbly.

Max’s expression softened. "I know that you want to help, Liz, but putting yourself anywhere near Sir Kyle again is just that - foolishness."

Elizabeth stared at him. She could feel tears beginning to well up. He thought she was a fool. Actually he thought she was worse than a fool. He thought she was a weakling who needed protecting.

It was why he had married her after all. To protect her from Kyle, because she was too foolish to do it herself.

She thought she heard Alex muttering under his breath. "Uh oh…" But she couldn’t be sure. The blood was rushing in her head, causing her hearing to be slightly off.

She wanted to protect <i>him</i>. It was all she had ever wanted to do. And he thought she was a fool.

"Lizzy." Mary spoke directly into her ear. "Don’t. Don’t freeze up. He didn’t mean it the way it sounded."

Elizabeth drew herself up to her full height, which, annoyingly, was very little and spoke to Max coldly. "I apologize, your highness, if my foolishness has wasted your time. I also apologize that it has put you all in this position in the first place, because I couldn’t save myself from Kyle. If it wasn’t for me, Tess would not have been taken. If I am a fool because I want to make amends for that fact, well, then, so be it."

She grasped her cloak tightly, meeting Max’s eyes squarely. He was staring at her in shock, clearly unused to seeing a less than pliable side to her.

But, then, why should he not be? She had been nothing but pliable since she had first met him and had fallen head over heels in love with him.

And, yet, he didn’t really know her at all, did he?

Elizabeth whirled, stormed off into the bush. She heard Alex calling after her, heard Isabel tell Max to follow her, heard Mary tell him not to, to let her cool off.

<i>He better not follow me,</i> Elizabeth reflected venomously. <i> I will toss him into the waterfall if he tries to follow me.</i>

The thought of Max dripping wet in the stream was enough to make her anger fade. She could just imagine the look on his face. It would be horribly similar to the one he had just displayed - shock, but with an underlying affection and love that would result in her throwing herself into his arms.

He might think she was foolish, but she did not doubt that he loved her.

Elizabeth sighed heavily, leaned against a tree and slid until her bottom hit the forest floor.

What kind of witch was she anyway? she reflected guiltily, now that her icy rage had melted. Max was only concerned for Tess’s safety, concerned for <i>her</i> safety. He certainly didn’t need her throwing temper tantrums at the moment. He had enough to deal with.

She wondered momentarily how Tess would have behaved in similar circumstances - if she was Max’s wife as she had been meant to be.

<i>Probably like the queen she was born to be. Instead he has me.</i> Liz felt her tears welling up again. She swiped at them angrily.

<i>But it’s you he loves,</i> another voice, deep in her heart, argued. <i>He would give up his planet for you.</i>

Which only makes it worse, Elizabeth reflected glumly. She now understood why she was being so unreasonable, why she had taken offense where Max had intended none, why she so desperately wanted to be the deciding factor in liberating Tess.

It was good old-fashioned guilt. It was guilt that she, Elizabeth, had stolen the other girl’s place. A girl she disliked, yes, but Liz could not blame Tess for fighting tooth and nail for Max. He was a king. He was her intended mate. He was <i>Max</i>.

She also felt guilt that he might not be the king he was supposed to be because of her. He had already put his own life in danger several times in his quest to keep her safe.

She was beginning to understand how her husband saw her - as something pure and perfect, to be admired and protected. While that was romantic and gratifying, it wasn’t really her. She had many flaws.

She had a tendency to freeze people out when she was angry at them, as Mary had just warned her against doing. She could be stubborn and headstrong when she felt that she was right. Her behavior over the last three days had more than shown this. She had believed in Max and, so, had pulled her two best friends away from their comfortable lives to help him.

She could be selfish. She had married Max on a romantic whim, not knowing beforehand that he was a king with responsibilities to an entire planet. But she <i>had</i> known that he was betrothed and she had married him anyway. She had done it because she loved him and wanted him for herself.

Now Tess was paying the price for her faults and Elizabeth was beginning to wonder if Max would still love her when he found out about them. When she fell off the pedestal upon which he had placed her, would their marriage become a disaster in his eyes? Would he regret it? Would he wish that he had married the one who was meant for him all along?

The fact that she was worried about this during the current crisis was just more evidence of her selfishness. Poor Tess! Who knew how Sir Kyle was torturing the poor girl because he could not get his hand on the true object of his wrath - Elizabeth herself.

All of this was why she wanted to go to the queen, wanted to fix some of the disaster for which she was responsible.

"Liz?" She had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts, she had not even heard Max approach until he was directly behind her. "It is not safe for you to be out here alone, sweetheart."

She felt him ease tentatively to the ground beside her, could sense his unease, his concern that she would send him away.
Elizabeth felt a lump rise in her throat. She was responsible for that too. When he should be worrying about Tess, instead he was being forced to deal with a difficult wife.

"Liz, I am sorry. Sometimes I say things before I think how they might sound. You might ask Michael about that," he added wryly. "He surely has much to say on the matter." He paused, waiting to see if she might say something. If she spoke she would start to cry, so she remained silent. Max continued, "You know that I don’t think that you’re foolish."
The end of the comment was raised like a question, as though he was unsure that she actually knew this, and that if she didn’t, he felt awful.

"Please don’t apologize to me," she managed to whisper back, through the lump that wouldn’t go away.

"Liz?" He sounded truly confused now. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He had plucked a blade of grass and was twisting it nervously.

She realized that he had never apologized to anyone before. Of course he hadn’t. In his small society he had always been acknowledged leader. Even when Michael had been angry about their marriage, Max had never apologized. He had been sorry that his brother was upset, but he had not felt the need to feel sorry about his actions.

He was a king. Kings did not apologize.

Liz acknowledged to herself that if he didn’t know her, she still had much to learn about <i>him</i> as well.

"Tell me the worst thing you ever did to another person," she blurted abruptly.

"What? Why?" He sounded completely dumbfounded.

"I want to know everything about you," Elizabeth insisted, finally looking right at him. His face was shadowed in the twilight, but she could still see the wariness and uncertainty. "The good <i>and</i> the bad. You’ve already seen <i>my</i> bad side tonight," she added guiltily.

"Well, I once locked Isabel in the privy overnight." He looked embarrassed. "Is that what you mean? And I beg to differ about seeing your bad side," he continued. "You don’t have one."

Elizabeth sighed, let herself lean back against him. She felt him relax, as he breathed a matching sigh of relief. His arms came around her, holding her tightly against him.

"Max, everyone has a bad side," she told him. "We need to acknowledge each other’s faults if this is ever going to work."

"Are you saying I have faults?" he demanded in mock outrage. He squeezed her lightly to let her know that he was not serious.

Liz rolled her eyes, held up her hand and began to list them on her fingers. "Impatience? Stubbornness?" she asked sweetly. "Overprotectiveness? The complete inability to take anything I say seriously?" Her tone was light, but she could feel him tense. She knew that he was <i>now</i> taking her seriously.

"Is that what you really think?" he inquired quietly. "That I don’t take you seriously?"

"Well, I don’t blame you," Liz replied quickly. "I have been a tad impulsive over the span of our acquaintance."

"Are you telling me that you don’t jump on the bishop every week? That you don’t wed complete strangers after three days acquaintance all the time?" he asked teasingly. "I may have to rethink this whole marriage thing," he said, pretending to be disconcerted. "I was very much looking forward to the weekly bishop thrashing."

Liz elbowed him soundly in the ribs. He kissed her lightly on the temple in response, but only after giving a satisfying grunt. "I’m serious, Max! This is not <i>me</i>. I am usually very steady in temperament." She twisted around so that she could see his face. "It was why I did not protest my betrothal to Sir Kyle overmuch at first. I am steady, predictable and boring." She paused. "My guess is that the queen will not even believe that I have eloped. She would believe it of Mary, but never of me."


Max was listening to her seriously now. "I fear that you are beginning to regret your impulsiveness." He paused, causing her to open her mouth to protest. The last thing she regretted was marrying him! Her main concern was that he should regret marrying <i>her</i>.

Max gently placed a finger on her lips to silence her, then looked away briefly. "Do you truly understand why I fear to send you to the queen?" Liz shook her head, frowning. "I think I am afraid that if you go back to her, she will remind you of all you are giving up to be with me."

Elizabeth stared at him in astonishment. His shadowed gazes showed that he was really serious. "What I gave up?" she asked in amazement. "What about you?"

Max started. "What do you mean?"

"You gave up the queen you were meant to rule with! You gave up your secret and your freedom and you may have to give up your throne!" She shook her head at him when he scowled. "You cannot deny it’s true, Max. Your people might not accept me. We know that your guardian would not have. You even lost <i>him</i> because of me. And Tess is in captivity because of me as well."

"Liz," Max interrupted firmly. "I would be rotting in the dungeons of Nottingham Castle or swinging from a rope right now if it wasn’t for you."

Elizabeth smiled gently at him. "And I would be married to Sir Kyle, miserable and lonely and destined for a life without meaning if it wasn’t for you." She shuddered at the thought.

Max’s arms tightened around her. She buried her face in his neck, inhaled his scent, the combination of the forest and wool and just <i>Max</i>. Her heart began to thump irregularly. "I would never have known what happiness was," she whispered.

"Well, we certainly are a pair," Max finally said after she had stopped shivering. "We are both so guilty about what we’re making the other lose, we both forgot that all that matters to either of us is the other."

"Flaws and all?" she asked quietly.

"Flaws and all," Max agreed. "Not that you have any. And I am having a hard time remembering mine." He grinned at her teasingly.

"<i>Max</i>!" Liz glared at him. "I want you to admit that I have flaws and that you love me in spite of them."

He continued to smile. "Well, you do have the extremely irritating tendency of talking when I want to kiss you. Will that do?" he asked innocently.

Liz rolled her eyes. "I will not allow you to kiss me until you accept that I am going to the queen." He was trying to kiss her as she said it, but she had turned her head firmly aside and he ended up kissing her ear instead. She turned back to see his expression darkening as her comment penetrated.

She refused to back off. "Max, I am not some pretty flower that is to be protected. I am your wife - your queen. It’s my fault that Tess is where she is. Let me do this one thing."

She saw him open his mouth to protest. She melded her lips to his instead, bringing her hands up to cup his face. "Say yes," she murmured several moments later when she had him breathing heavily. Her own breath was coming quickly, but she was not to be sidetracked from her mission.

"No," Max gasped when she began to trail light kisses down his jaw. She was fumbling with the laces on his tunic.

"Say yes, Max. You know I’m just going to go anyway." Liz helped him pull his shirt over his head. She swallowed, licked her lips at the sight of his muscular chest and abdomen.

All guilt about stealing him away from Tess fled her mind.

He was hers. She would feel no more shame for loving him so completely.

Elizabeth looked up at his face. His dark eyes were watching her, shadowed still, but with desire now rather than hurt. His hands were snaking through her braids, unwinding them mercilessly until her hair hung around them both.

"No," Max said quite clearly, considering the current expression on his face. "I will not risk you." It startled her. She had thought him well beyond their argument, had been sure that it would only be a matter of time before she convinced him. But he sounded just as adamant as he had at the beginning.

She frowned at him for a moment, then sighed. "Well, then, you leave me little choice," she told him, trying to sound grieved. "I’m just going to have to convince you."

"You can try," Max smirked, although his eyes were hot as he watched her begin to unlace the ties on her gown. His voice was a little raw, but he did manage to say, "You listed over-protectiveness as one of my flaws, my queen. In my opinion it is not a flaw. It is a virtue." He grabbed her suddenly, burying his face in her long hair. "I cannot lose you, Liz." His tone was now completely serious.

She pulled back gently. "And I cannot lose <i>you</i>, Max. Can you tell me that you will be the same if we do not save Tess? The guilt will eat you alive. It will torment me. It will <i>kill</i> us. Can you not admit that this is the only way?" She touched his face, pleaded. "Let me save her. To save us."

"Liz, I can’t." She could hear the fear in his voice, underlined by a note of hard resolve. He was not going to budge on this, she realized.

Elizabeth sighed, brought her mouth up to meet his again, determined to erase his fears, willing to give in for the moment.

"It will be all right, my love," she whispered. "We will find another way."

And, as she let him make love to her, she could feel his relief and fear for her making him urgent. She gave herself over to him completely, as she had done since the first moment they had met.

But, as she lost herself in the love she felt for him, she reflected very briefly on one more flaw she possessed, of which her beloved would soon be aware.

She was a liar.

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Kath7
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Post by Kath7 » Fri Aug 19, 2005 10:15 am

AN - Thanks, guys! Liz running away is going to be trouble? Now whatever gave you all THAT idea? :roll:

<u>Part 28</u>

"Going somewhere?" The voice was familiar and the tone wry, but Elizabeth’s heart still jumped into her throat as she whirled. It was not yet light, but the grey of pre-dawn was beginning to invade the glade within the forest, making his position easily identifiable. She pulled Max’s cloak, the one she had borrowed earlier, more closely around her, breathing in his scent to try and calm herself before facing the owner of that voice.

Michael was leaning against a tree, his arms folded across his chest, one eyebrow raised, a half-annoyed, half-admiring expression on his handsome face, although Elizabeth wondered if she was imagining the latter.

She had been so sure that she had gotten away without waking anyone.

It had not been easy to evade Max. After they had made love, she had pretended to fall asleep in his arms. She allowed him to wrap her in his cloak and felt him lift her, carrying her back towards the clearing where their friends waited. She knew it was because he felt they were safer near them all, but internally she had been cursing, wondering if there was any way she was going to be able to sneak away with the other five all around her.

Fortunately, Max had still wanted some privacy. He gently laid her on the far side of the banked fire, disappeared for a few moments (she watched him through lowered lashes as he spoke quietly with Michael on the other side of the fire) and then returned, lying down next to her and pulling her into his arms. It seemed to take him forever to fall asleep, but she had finally been convinced when his breathing became deep and even for a fairly lengthy period of time.

It had taken almost an hour to gradually wiggle out of his embrace. He only stirred once though, murmuring her name in his sleep. She had watched him sleep for several moments, her heart contracting at the dark circles under his eyes. He was clearly exhausted. She had been breathless with tension, but also breathless with love.

There had been one heart-stopping moment when she had wondered if she would ever see him again. And, if she did, would he ever forgive her? It was almost enough to make her lie back down, to throw her arms around him, to even wake him so that he would again join with her and take her to the plain of existence that only he opened to her.

But she was doing this for <i>him</i>. She would save Tess and then they would begin their lives together without sorrow and without guilt.

She had avoided the other four by skirting around the fire and heading straight into the underbrush. She had not even looked in their direction, which was obviously the reason that she had not noticed that Michael was not sleeping at all. Max must have ordered him to stand guard. She cursed herself for not realizing he would do such a thing - not because he didn’t trust her, but because they <i>were</i> wanted outlaws after all. It would have been careless for them all to fall asleep, and Max was anything if not level-headed when it came to their protection.

Which was what had led her to lie to him in the first place, because she knew she was right and he would never admit it.

Michael had obviously been following her for the good hour that she had been traipsing through the forest, hoping that she was headed in the direction of Nottingham. She was fairly certain in which direction the King’s Highway lay and so had intended to follow it along the edges.

Michael had only made his presence known when she had paused to get her bearings. She continued to stare at him now, but finally opened her mouth to reply. "Clearly." It was all she said. He had to know where she was going.

"I thought Maxwell told you that you weren’t going to do this," Michael told her, sounding merely curious, rather than angry.

"He did," Elizabeth returned, raising her chin slightly.

"And you chose to ignore him?" Michael inquired, his tone still wry.

"He was wrong." She eyed him, wondering what game he was playing at. Why hadn’t he just thrown her across his shoulder and hauled her back to Max for the tongue-lashing he would likely enjoy seeing her receive? He might even be hoping that Max would set her aside, would have their marriage annulled because she had disobeyed him. He could do it after all. Many marriages had been annulled for less.

"Hmmmm." Michael continued to smirk at her, seeming to be enjoying her nervousness. And so her shock was even greater when he finally said, "I agree."

"You do?"

"Did I not say before that it was a good plan?" Michael asked, scowling slightly.

"Well, yes, but…" Elizabeth just continued to stare at him.

"But Michael would never go against Max?" He grinned openly now. "We’ve all seen that is <i>not</i> true."

"Are you saying that you want to help me?" she asked in astonishment. "But, Michael, you are still a wanted outlaw! If Kyle catches you, he will hang you!"

"Then we will not let him catch me, will we?" Michael replied calmly. "I am trusting in your confidence in your Queen Eleanor. I will <i>not</i> let Tess remain in the hands of that madman for a minute longer than necessary. If Maxwell wants to rest on his laurels, then I’m going to go with the monarch who believes in action before caution." He grinned again. "Not to mention, I have to make sure that you stay out of trouble long enough for Max to thoroughly thrash you when we return."

Elizabeth felt a rush of affection for her brother-in-law. It was so sudden and unexpected, she gave into it, throwing her arms around him. "Thank you."

Michael stiffened, took a step back, but didn’t seem displeased when she looked up at him again. "So, then. Shall we my queen?" He motioned in the opposite direction from the one in which she had been headed. "By the way," he whispered, as though he was telling her a great secret, "The road is <i>that</i> way."

Elizabeth felt the heat rising in her face. "I knew that," she muttered, kicking her skirt out of the way and heading back in the direction from which she had just come. Michael’s amused snort reassured that he was following.

***

"<i>Liz</i>!" And then, several moments later. "<i>God damn him!</i>"

Isabel’s eyes snapped open. She sat up abruptly, nearly toppling over onto Mary, who had been curled up against her back in an attempt to share her warmth. Mary’s eyes were staring straight up, as though she was trying to get her bearings.

It was Max of course. It was obvious that Michael had done <i>something</i> to their new queen - again. Isabel sighed heavily. It had been too much to hope that her betrothed would get over Max’s marriage so easily.

And Michael had seemed so earnest when he had recognized Elizabeth as Max’s consort.

"What’s wrong?" Mary asked wearily, sitting up as well. They were both still under the small shelter Alexander had constructed for them while Max and Elizabeth had been off together the evening before. It was into this space that Alex poked his head a moment later, concern etched on every feature. Isabel felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of the handsome knight despite herself.

But for once, Alexander reserved his admiring looks. "Good. You’re awake. Bella, you had better get out here. I think Max is going to bring the whole of the sheriff’s guard down on our heads if he doesn’t compose himself."

"What has happened, Alexander?" Isabel demanded as she crawled out into the bright morning sunlight. She stared around her in amazement. It was at least mid-morning. Max had ordered Michael to awaken them at first light.

Which meant that Michael had to be gone.

This surmise was only accentuated by the sight that greeted Isabel’s astonished eyes. She had never seen her brother in such a fury. He was pacing back and forth on the far side of the clearing, his hands clenched at his sides, his expression ferocious. He actually wasn’t making any noise, but he looked like he was truly about to explode in rage.

Mary stumbled out after her, paused next to her in amazement. "Well, someone certainly got up on the wrong side of the pine-needle encrusted floor," she murmured, sounding a little frightened.

Max stopped pacing, glared at her. Isabel felt Mary jump next to her. Bella took her friend’s hand in reassurance, but also to bolster her own courage. She had never had to face Max down in such a state - <i>ever</i>. And that was saying a lot.

"Did any of you know he was planning to do this?" he growled.

"Who?" Mary asked in confusion.

"Do what?" Isabel demanded at the same time.

"Elizabeth is missing." Alexander informed them under his breath. "Michael is gone as well."

"Where did they go?" Isabel asked. She looked at Max. "Max, you don’t think that Michael did something to her?"

"Oh, no," Max replied, his voice suddenly <i>too</i> calm. He was moving towards them, making Isabel back up despite herself. "I think he <i>took</i> her somewhere. Namely to Nottingham to find the queen."

Mary, Alexander and Isabel all exchanged looks. "You think he took her against her will?" Isabel inquired incredulously.

"That’s impossible!" Mary exclaimed. "He would never do such a thing!"

Max continued to speak in that frighteningly calm tone. "She told me that she would not go to the queen. She would not lie to me and, thus, Michael took her."

Isabel saw Mary glance at Alexander. He was grimacing, as though he knew something that the others might not. When Isabel saw the expression on Mary’s face, she realized that her friend knew whatever it was too.

Mary moved forward slightly, her face crinkled. "I think you had better tell us exactly what Lizzy said to you last night, Max."

Max stared at her for a moment. "Why?" he demanded.

Alex rolled his eyes. "Our Lizzy has a way of saying one thing and meaning quite another, Maxwell. My guess is that she never told you that she would not go to the queen, but rather something that made you think that’s what she meant."

"I told her that I could not let her go and she told me that we would find another way," Maxwell replied impatiently. "What double meaning could that have?"

Mary tentatively smiled. "Er, perhaps the other way was by sneaking off, so that you wouldn’t <i>have</i> to give your consent?"

Isabel watched her brother’s face become one of absolute dumb-founded amazement. "Are you telling me that she <i>lied</i> to me?"

"She didn’t lie," Alexander insisted. "She never <i>said</i> that she was not going to go."

Max stared at him. "This is ridiculous!" he bellowed a moment later. "She <i>lied</i> to me."

"She did not," Alex yelled back. "She told you what you wanted to hear."

"Stop it!" Mary shrieked. Both Max and Alex whipped their heads around to stare at her. "It doesn’t matter. The point is that that they are gone and they are falling into danger." Isabel could hear the tears in her voice. "How could Lizzy do this?"

Max sighed heavily. Isabel could see that his anger was beginning to burn itself out and that now he simply seemed resigned. "She is desperate to save Tess. She has convinced herself that our marriage is doomed to failure if she does not rescue her herself." He shook his head. "How could I have believed her?"

Mary went to put her arm around him. "You are only just learning how stubborn our Lizzy can be, Maxwell. You may love her, but you are still getting to know her." She paused, continued gently. "Lizzy will not be content to be a pretty ornamental queen, you know. She will expect to be your partner, consort and helpmeet in every sense of the words. But I think you did know this about her . It’s why you love her. Because if she wasn’t so stubborn, she never would have hazarded all to be with you anyway. I think you convinced yourself you believed her, but you knew what she was going to do all along."

Max rubbed his eyes wearily. "Although I hate to admit it, I think you are right." He shook his head again. "Which does not negate the fact that she and Michael have both foolishly thrown themselves right back into Sir Kyle’s clutches."

"Not necessarily," Alexander replied. "If I know Lizzy, she will try and rendezvous with the queen before Eleanor ever makes it to the city."

"Which also means that we will never find them." Max sighed again. "They are all alone wandering through this forest in search of a queen who may never come, in danger of stumbling across the sheriff’s men at any moment." Isabel could hear the fear in her brother’s voice. She knew better than anyone how little he liked to be out of control.

But it was the price he paid for his marriage to Elizabeth. Because, whether he would admit it or not, the thing he most loved about his bride was her courage and the fact that she had a mind of her own.

"Well, at least they are together," Isabel spoke up, trying to reassure him, although her stomach was clenching at a sudden vision of Michael in chains in Nottingham Castle’s dank dungeon. "What do we do now?" She directed the question at the other three, knew that no one had any better idea than she.

For, in the end, there was only one thing to do.

Wait.

<u>Part 29</u>

Isabel brought her arms up to wrap around her middle. She was trying not to shiver, because she knew it would just worry Alexander more. He had already insisted on giving her his cloak, and while he seemed perfectly comfortable in his mail, it would be dark soon. The last thing she wanted to do was make him cold.

It was difficult enough sitting on the hard ground behind a bush, watching an empty road. It was getting colder every night that they stayed in Sherwood, and it was taking all of her effort to hide her discomfort, now that the sun had finally set.

It had been almost a full day since Michael and Elizabeth had disappeared, and at least six hours since they had all decided they had had enough of sitting still, waiting for them to return. When Max’s pacing reached the point of literally almost driving Isabel insane, she suggested that they split up and go watch the highway, in hopes of finding their two wayward friends sooner.

Isabel had not intended that she would end up with Alex, but it was he who had suggested it, insisting that it would likely be important to have one human and one visitor together, unforeseen circumstances having the tendency to arise and the aliens’ powers making them a necessary presence in each pair.

She was not unhappy with the development, however. Isabel had longed to talk to him alone since she had seen the look on his face when she had returned from the forest, hand in hand with Michael, the evening before - after Alexander and Mary had been made aware of the fact that she and Michael were betrothed.

But, now, after they had been seated quietly together for nigh on an hour, she still had not had the courage to speak to him about it.

"I wonder how Max and Maria are getting along," she asked, grimacing to herself when she realized how stupid it sounded. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t just say what she wanted to say to him. Clearly Max and Maria were getting along fine - unless they had been captured. The thought sent a shiver down her spine, one which Alexander noticed because he glanced at her sideways.

She wondered why she couldn’t tell him that, although she had known for her entire life that Michael would one day be her husband, she had never loved him in the way she wanted to love the man she married. That she had never felt for him what Max felt for his new wife, Elizabeth.

That she believed that she might, someday, be able to feel that way about Alexander.

"Are you cold?" Alex asked, sounding concerned. "Perhaps we should return to the camp. I don’t believe that they will be returning tonight anyway."

"No," Isabel stated. "I am frightened and worried."

Alexander looked at her. "It does you credit, Isabel." He grinned slightly. "But I do think you are cold as well."

She did not deny it. "I do not think we should return yet." She did not add that she liked being alone with him, although it was on the tip of her tongue to do so.

His expression was shuttered as he turned back to stare out at the road. "Very well." There was a moment’s silence. "Mary and Elizabeth are often cold." The comment was so abrupt, Isabel stared at him.

"Oh?"

"Aye." Isabel was surprised to see him swallow, hard. She tensed when she realized what he was about to do. "I often warm them thus." Her heart began to beat strongly as his arm came up and wrapped itself around her shoulders. The heat that ran through her body <i>did</i> instantly warm her up, but Isabel did not think that it was what Alex meant when he said that it helped Mary and Elizabeth.

She forced herself to relax against him. "It helps. Thank you." She realized that she could feel his heart beating almost as quickly as hers against her back. Now that she did not have to look him in the face as she spoke, saying what needed to be said did not seem as difficult. They had settled into a companionable silence again, one which she was loathe to break, but she would never have a chance like this again.

"Alexander, I would speak to you about Michael." She instantly regretted it, when she felt him tense against her back.

"You are concerned for him," he finally choked out. "You may tell me of him if you wish."

"You do not understand," Isabel replied quietly. "Of course I am concerned for him. He is like my brother. I love him." She paused. "But you do understand that our betrothal was fixed from our births? I do not love him like a wife loves a husband."

There was another long silence. Isabel could hear Alex breathing quietly as he took this in. "I was betrothed once," he finally said.

Isabel jumped in surprise. "Really?"

"Yes. To the daughter of the Earl of Kent. I was only ten years old when the betrothal was consecrated. She was five."

"What happened?" Isabel asked. He had said "once," which meant that the betrothal was no longer in effect. But she knew that betrothals were often stronger than marriage contracts. Once formalized, the wedding ceremony was merely a formality.

"She died." His voice was sad. "She was only seven years old."

"I am sorry." And she was. It sounded like he had grieved for his little wife.

"I did not know her well," Alex replied. "But I have always believed that a husband is meant to love his wife. My father loved my mother very dearly. Mary and I have always wanted that for ourselves as well, and, yet, in our world, marriage is often nothing more than a contract. But I convinced myself that Adela was destined for me. I was a foolish boy, of course, barely a squire when she died, but I missed her."

"It does you credit." She echoed the words that he had spoken several minutes earlier. They seemed trite and ridiculous to describe Alexander, however. Everything he was did him credit. He was the kindest, gentlest, most trustworthy person she had ever met. She even included Michael and Max in this. She loved her brothers but they were often self-centred and did not think of others. It came from their acknowledged positions of power, of course, but it could be tiresome. While Isabel loved Max, and was happy that he had found his Elizabeth, there could be little doubt that his actions had put them all in jeopardy, most particularly Tess. Michael, on the other hand, was often so stubborn, he threw himself into danger, dragging others along with him, this time Elizabeth.

"I do have a point," Alexander added. "It is a happy thing that you love Michael, whether as brother or not. Many marriages are formed on much less." He snorted. "Imagine the disastrous marriage that would have formed between Sir Kyle and Lizzy for example. They would have both been miserable, and it would have ended in tragedy for certain."

Isabel sighed. "I am pleased that we managed to save Elizabeth. Not only for her sake, but the sakes of all who love her." She paused. "This discussion of betrothals has left me wondering…there was a formal betrothal between Elizabeth and Kyle, was there not?"

"Yes."

"Is her marriage to Max legal?" Isabel inquired, still uncertain of exactly how the Church functioned. She and her brothers and sister had never attended Church, Lord Edmund deeming it too dangerous, but the Christian faith had long intrigued her.

Alex did not reply immediately. "Kyle <i>may</i> have some grounds for complaint about the legality, but I believe that Max would be proven to be her husband." He paused again. "The consummation of the marriage may be thedeciding factor, and despite my comments about Queen Eleanor yesterday, I do believe that she will support Lizzy’s choice in the end."

Isabel felt herself blush scarlet, not hearing this last bit about the queen at all. She had not allowed herself to reflect too much on the physical aspect of marriage, although she had acknowledged that it was possible that Elizabeth already carried her brother’s heir. And, yet, she had not wanted to think about her brother in that way - it was just too, too embarrassing.

Thinking about it now, however, made her acutely aware of how close she was sitting to Alexander. In fact, the back of her head was resting against his shoulder, her cheek very close to his. They were of a height. Isabel knew that she was tall for a woman, but she liked it, liked being able to look men directly in the eye. She had never been the simpering type, but at the moment, she wished that she knew how to ask for what she wanted.

Alex’s comments about her impending marriage to Michael showed her that he would never make the first move.

"Max and Elizabeth are very brave," she blurted out. "They knew what they wanted and they took it. While, I am angry with Maxwell for hurting Tess, I cannot blame him. I envy him in fact."

Alex did not answer, but she could hear him beginning to breathe a little more erratically. It was almost completely dark by now and even if she could see his face, she was thankful that she would not be able to read his expression.

"I do not want to marry Michael, and I know that he does not want to marry me." She said it so quickly, she wondered if Alex would even understand what she was trying to tell him. She knew that it was coming out all wrong, but she could not very well tell him straight out that <i>he</i> was the real reason that she was now unwilling to go through with her betrothal. "We are not even legally betrothed," she added for good measure. "At least not in Earthly terms."

"Isabel…" Alexander trailed off. She could feel him moving behind her, as though he had thought better of the way they were seated and was trying to get away from her. She closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and turned her head. Her lips lightly grazed his cheek. She heard his breath hitch, and he froze.

Their lips were a breath apart. He was staring into her eyes, his expression masked by the deepening shadows of the forest, but she could feel his heart thundering under her hand. In fact she could hear it thundering in her ears, although she realized that it might very well be her own heart.

It took her a full moment to realize that the pounding was external rather than internal. Horses. Many, many horses.

Alexander recognized the sound before she did. She was already lying flat on her stomach, his body covering hers in the foliage, before she understood what was happening. "Shhhhhh," he whispered against her ear, sending her heart into crazy palpitations yet again. "It is the sheriff’s men."

She felt her heart almost stop, and this time not due to Alexander’s proximity, when the leader of the horsemen suddenly pulled up directly in front of their place of concealment. They had been found. There was no other explanation.

Her terror was so piercing, it was long moments before she saw that the guards were not looking in their direction at all. Instead they were heading into the woods on the far side of the King’s highway. Several remained on the road to watch the horses.

Isabel’s body was beginning to cramp, up due to lack of movement, although Alexander was doing his best to keep his full weight off of her. It seemed like a millennium before the men, who had disappeared into the green wood, returned.

Her eyes widened when she realized what they carried.

It was a chest and it was clearly full.

The leader - Isabel could see now that he was a captain - motioned for the chest to be brought to him. "Open it," he commanded.

Another guard knelt next to it and smashed the lock with the butt of his sword. It was all Isabel could do to keep herself from gasping as the torchlight that surrounded the men illuminated more gold than she had ever seen.

"The sheriff will be pleased." The captain smirked. "Despite all the strangeness that has occurred over the past few days, the taxes are still safe."

"We are to take them directly to London, milord?" one of the other men asked.

"Yes. Prince John is waiting for it."

"To ransom the king?"

"No. To secure himself a throne."

Isabel felt Alexander flinch above her. "Holy Mary…" He barely breathed it, but she could hear his shock. "That traitorous bastard."

He did not speak again until the guards were long gone, half headed back in the direction of Nottingham, half south to London.

"We must find Maxwell. It is imperative that I alert Queen Eleanor immediately." He climbed to his feet, pulling her lightly after him.

"I do not understand, Alex. What has happened?" Isabel asked as he led her carefully back towards their camp.

"The sheriff is not the man I took him for," Alex replied. "He is in on the plot to usurp King Richard’s throne." He paused. "It is no wonder he has allowed Kyle to pursue Maxwell so ardently. You four were the only witnesses to the theft of the shipment of taxes that the sheriff was supposed to protect."

"But he seemed so reasonable!" Isabel exclaimed. "Well, at least until Max broke up the wedding."

"He is a traitor," Alex replied simply. "And I fear now what he will do to Tess even more. Not to mention Lizzy and Michael if he gets his hands on them. He will do anything to hide his secret. He will not rest until he has hunted us all down."

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Kath7
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Post by Kath7 » Sat Aug 20, 2005 6:19 pm

AN - Thanks for the feedback, everyone!


<u>Part 30</u>

<b>Nottingham Castle</b>

Sir Kyle marched down the steep stone stairs behind the servant with the torch, his steps sure. Three days ago, he probably would have tripped and fallen to the bottom. But that was ancient history. He was no longer that Kyle. He was no longer the whining, puny whelp who had embarrassed his father and had lost his betrothed.

For the first time in a long time, his pathway was clear to him. He was no longer faltering. He knew that he was making his father proud.

Revenge. It was sweet and it was powerful. And it was turning him into the man that he had never thought he could be.

Strong. Feared. Triumphant.

It was enough to almost make him consider thanking Maxwell of Huntington, when he finally had him in his power.

Almost, but not quite.

Instead he would kill him, slowly. But only after he had allowed him to witness the torture and deaths of all he held dear. The death of Lord Edmund DeHarding had only been the beginning.

Oh, and he might let him attend the wedding. In chains of course.

Kyle smirked to himself at the unbidden thought of even having the bastard forced to watch him make Elizabeth his in every way.

But, then, a lady’s wedding night was sacred. Even if Kyle now despised his betrothed, she would be the mother of his heirs. That might be pushing it a little. His father had always believed in treating ladies with respect. While Kyle now knew that Elizabeth was no lady, she would still be his wife.

No, the sheriff would not approve of allowing Maxwell of Huntington’s presence to soil the sacredness of the marriage chamber.

Damn it.

Kyle had paused on the stairs during these reflections. He took a deep breath, forcing the image of Elizabeth, white and naked and writhing beneath him, out of his mind.

He allowed what he imagined Maxwell of Huntington’s expression would be in that scenario to remain. He wasn’t a saint after all.

He and the torch-bearer reached the bottom of the stairs. Kyle shivered involuntarily in the damp. He motioned to the guard who had climbed to his feet wearily upon Kyle’s appearance. "Show me."

The guard stumbled to the heavy oak door, fumbling with the iron keys momentarily, before he inserted the correct one. The door swung open. The shadows of the cell forced Kyle to adjust his eyesight before he grabbed the torch out of the hands of his servant and thrust it in.

So she had not lied. She had done it, had not betrayed him.

Michael of Huntington had been captured.

The outlaw was sprawled on the dirty straw, his arms in chains. Those hands were deadly weapons Kyle now knew. He was taking no chances.

Even now, Kyle could see the dark bruising all over Michael’s face. He had been informed that once Michael had realized what was happening, he had been a force to be reckoned with.

Father Desmond had not lied. Maxwell of Huntington and his kin were demons. The three men who had finally brought him down were the only three still alive. The other twelve did not have a mark on them. And yet, they were no less dead for that fact. From what Kyle had heard, the only reason the trio of survivors still lived was that one of them had intelligently thought to hold a blade to Lady Elizabeth’s throat.

It was the only thing that had stopped the demon.

It caused another shiver to descend his spine. Kyle shrugged it away impatiently. He was not afraid. Demons could still die. Had not Lord Edmund gone down quite easily?

Kyle moved forward, kicked Michael, hard, in the side. "Wake up, outlaw."

The taller boy simply moaned, rolled over, but did not open his eyes.

Kyle scowled, kicked him again. "Get up, you piece of filth!" He motioned behind him. The servant and the guard moved forward, pushed and prodded Michael until he was leaning up against the damp stone wall. The guard threw a gourdful of water into his face.

Michael sputtered, painfully opened his eyes. It took him long moments to focus on Kyle. When he did, Kyle could see him inhale sharply. "You bastard! Where is she?"

"Are you referring to your slut of a sister or to my wayward betrothed?" Kyle asked, enjoying the scowl of outrage that appeared on Michael’s face. "They are both safe - for now," he added ominously.

Kyle had not yet seen Elizabeth. She was imprisoned on the far side of the castle. When he had ridden in, the dungeon was closer and, so, he had come here first.

Besides, dealing with Michael was fun. He hated Michael.

The encounter with Elizabeth was going to be far less pleasant, for while he despised her, he certainly did not hate her.

He wish he did. But deep down inside of him, he was forced to admit that a small piece of his heart was still hoping that she could come to love him, that she would see him as someone of worth.

As for Tess, well, she was definitely safe. In fact, she was presently ensconced in his own chambers, likely still wrapped naked in the furs on his bed, where he had last left her.

Kyle wondered if she had been lounging thus when she had created the mind-warp that had brought her own brother into his power.

It had been a pleasant surprise to discover that his bait was such an evil little whore. But, then, her need for revenge was almost as great as his. Too bad he was going to have to kill her when this was all over.

Kyle smirked to himself as he recalled Tess’s first words to him when he had visited her in this exact same dungeon the morning before.

"I want to help you."

Kyle had tilted his head to the side, admiring despite himself the way her long blonde curls tumbled around her small bare shoulders. Her gown barely existed by the time the guards had been through with her. She was filthy, but she was still pretty. She was no beauty on the level of Elizabeth, but she was charming nonetheless. Maybe he should not have allowed his guards to have their way with her. He did not enjoy sloppy seconds after all.

"How can you help me, little slut?" he asked, amused. "And why should I believe you?"

Tess did not reply, simply closed her eyes. The next thing Kyle knew, he felt his own arms being twisted behind him. Maxwell of Huntington’s voice, dripping with malice, was close to his ear. "You are going to die, DeValence. Slowly. I will punish you for what you did to my Tess."

In that instant, Kyle had known that he was not long for this world.

In the moment after he accepted that fact, Maxwell was suddenly gone, as though he had never existed.

Which he had not of course.

Tess related that she had done it, a saucy little grin on her face. Kyle stared at her in open astonishment as she explained about her power, about how she could make people see things, feel things, that were not real.

How could this girl be the same innocent dove he had met at Castle DeHarding the month before, the girl who had held onto every word out of Maxwell’s mouth? The girl who had clearly lived for his enemy’s love and approval? The girl he was supposed to use as bait because the others thought that she could not look after herself?

But, she had proven her worth, in more ways than one. He could still feel the scratch marks on his back from the hours they had spent in his bed while they had plotted how to bring her betrothed and his brother to their knees.

Well, the brother had been defeated now. It was only a matter of time until he had conquered Maxwell DeHarding as well.

He was so busy gloating to himself , Kyle almost missed the disdainful grin that had appeared on Michael’s face. "Your betrothed? I don’t care about your betrothed. Who did you convince to marry you? Elizabeth has come to her senses after all."

Kyle stared at Michael, uncomprehending. What was the villain talking about? Had all those smacks to his face addled his wits? "I am speaking of Elizabeth, you imbecile. As far as I am aware, we are still legally betrothed. The queen has made no break, in fact, likely still has no idea what is occurring here."

A flash of shock crossed Michael’s face, but he quickly suppressed it. "The queen was never coming to Nottingham, was she?"

"No," Kyle allowed, trying to resist a self-satisfied smile. Gloating was not powerful. Michael should think that these events were all inevitable, after all. He, Kyle, was more intelligent and more worthy than either Maxwell or Michael. "I know how my betrothed’s mind works. She would have seen the queen’s arrival as the answer to all her prayers. I knew that it would bring her out of that damned forest."

"I wish you would stop calling her your betrothed," Michael replied, now sounding bored. He flinched but didn’t cry out when the guard cuffed him, hard, on the shoulder for his impertinence. "She cannot be your betrothed and Max’s wife at the same time," he continued, his dark eyes glinting maliciously.

It took a moment for what the outlaw had just said to penetrate. Kyle felt rage building within him. It was so great, he realized that he was on the verge of losing all control. "What are you saying?" he managed to sputter, even more angry when he realized that he had been taken by complete surprise.

"Just what I said," Michael replied, his head tilted, as he seemed to enjoy watching Kyle’s face turn red. "They are married. In fact, they have been so for more than three days. In every way, might I add. You have no claim on that girl now. It would be in all of our best interests for you to just let her go."

Kyle did not answer. He simply smashed his fist into Michael’s face. Since the prisoner had no way to bring his hands up to protect himself, the full brunt of the punch forced his head back against the wall, where it struck, hard. Kyle watched in satisfaction as the demon sank back into unconsciousness.

He would deal with Michael of Huntington later. It would be a pleasure to take that smug attitude of his and thrust it down his throat, using various torture devices at Kyle’s disposal.

But for now, he had to see Tess. Their plan was going awry. He could not quite grasp the concept that Elizabeth had actually defied him, and in consequence the queen, by marrying Maxwell so precipitously. She was turning into an unacceptably flighty bitch. When he finally killed Maxwell, he was going to have to beat that out of her.

With that, he turned on his heel, his cloak swirling around his mail-clad body, as he took the stairs back up to the center of the keep two at a time. He stormed across the courtyard, sending chickens and urchins flying, as he kicked them out of the way.

The heavy door leading to his chambers bounced back against the wall. The blonde witch stood motionless in the center of the room, fully dressed, her head having whipped around upon his entrance. She stared at him with her guileless blue eyes, those eyes which hid more evil than even he was capable of understanding.

"They are married!" he bellowed, his voice ricocheting off the stone walls and almost echoing in its intensity.

Tess did not move, just continued to stare at him. For a moment, she looked as though he had punched her in the gut, but the mask descended over her pretty features almost as quickly, when she opened her mouth. "And so my plan will only work that much more easily," she replied, her voice weak at first, but strengthening with each word. "Her seeming betrayal will destroy him - a marriage between them will only reinforce it. He will be infuriated that he trusted her that much and that she turned on him."

Kyle could feel his heart beginning to slow under the silky assurance of her words. "Are you sure of it?"

"I know Max. If there is one thing he will not stand for, it is a traitor," Tess replied. She smiled, not seeming a bit fazed by the fact that she was, in fact, a traitor as well. "Which is why it is even more important that he never know that we are working together." She moved towards him, trailed a finger up his chest. Kyle could barely feel it through his mail, but it caused a frisson of desire to claim him nonetheless. "You will have your Elizabeth and I will have my betrothed back. We will leave this forsaken country and you will never hear from us again."

Kyle looked away briefly. He had told Tess that he would not hurt Maxwell should he catch him, had in fact told her that both he and Michael would be released once Kyle had Elizabeth returned to him. It was, of course, a bald-faced lie, but he had to be sure that she never realized that he intended to kill them all. The last thing he needed were her demon powers turned on him.

He would return them all to Hell before that could ever happen.

"Michael does not suspect at all?" Tess inquired, moving away from him and pouring him a flagon of wine.

"Your boast that you could change his memories of what occurred seems accurate," Kyle replied, taking the wine and beginning to breathe heavily as she trailed her hand over his, and, then, up his arm. She began to untie the straps that held his mail to his body. "I just do not understand why it was him with her, and not Maxwell."

"Good," Tess said, taking the flagon back after he had taken a long swig. She watched him through shuttered eyes as he pulled his mail shirt over his head, followed by the wool tunic underneath. "And as for your question, I am wagering that Maxwell did not even know what she intended." She scowled momentarily, but returned to running her hands over his chest a moment later. "He would not have allowed her to put herself in such danger," she said disdainfully. "And, so, she has already betrayed him by allowing herself to be captured. The next step will only put the final nail in the coffin."

But Kyle was not even listening to her anymore. All he was aware of were her hands, everywhere, seemingly, at once.

"I should really go see Elizabeth," Kyle told her, watching as she began to untie the gown he had taken from Elizabeth’s chamber for her use. They were of a size, the two girls, which only emphasized all the other differences, physical and personality-wise. He did not care for Tess as a person, but there was no question that she was a tasty little morsel, one he fully intended to enjoy as long as he could.

"Not yet," Tess replied, bringing her hand up behind his head and pulling him down so that their lips were a mere breath apart. "Not yet."

***

<b>Sherwood, near Nottingham</b>

Max came to an abrupt stop, his eyes wide. "Mary. Stay where you are," he managed to order before bile began to rise in his throat. He quickly stepped to the side to block her view of what they had just stumbled upon, swallowing hard.

The fact that he hadn’t lowered his voice seemed to indicate to his companion that they were in no immediate danger, however, because she simply stepped around him, then gasped. Max shook his head in exasperation, but could not take his eyes from the sight of the body hanging from a tree in the middle of the King’s Highway.

"It is Lord Edmund, Max! Is it not?" she asked, her voice low.

"It is," Max replied shortly.

"We must cut him down!" Mary told him. "We must give him a proper Christian burial!" She placed her hand on his arm, clearly trying to comfort him. Max felt her hand tighten on his arm as a sudden realization hit her. "Oh, Max! Do you think Michael saw this?"

"If you are correct that the queen will rest for the night at the convent before entering Nottingham tomorrow, and if Liz knew this, then it is highly probable that they saw it," Max told her. He knew his voice sounded hollow. But grief for his guardian, and fear, now that he had concrete proof that he was really gone, were rising within him so rapidly, he was having trouble standing up.

When Michael had told them that Lord Edmund was dead, Max had believed him, but it had been a concept far from his realm of understanding. Death was something foreign to him. He and his siblings had always been sheltered from it growing up at DeHarding Castle. While they had always been aware that their very lives were a miracle, until this moment he had not understood how large of one. How had they been reborn from <i>this</i>?

Death was emptiness. Staring at his guardian’s body, swinging gently in the evening breeze that ran through the forest, Max could see that whatever spark there had been within that shell was gone.

Lord Edmund was gone. They were really alone on this planet. They were alone with no true understanding of how to return to Antar or how to protect themselves.

How could he and Isabel have been so foolish as to wish for freedom from Lord Edmund? How could they not have understood that he represented security and the future?

And his death was all Max’s fault. His recklessness had brought this on. His complete disregard for his duty and what his very existence meant had led to this.

His love for Liz had led to this.

This wasn’t even the worst part. Because Max could not even be sorry. He would have traded Lord Edmund’s life a thousand times over, for even one moment in Elizabeth’s presence.

What kind of king, what kind of <i>person</i>, did that fact make him?

"Max?" Mary sounded frightened now. "Are you well? What are we going to do with him?"

"We will leave him," Max said, his tone harsh. "We can not allow the sheriff’s men to know that we have passed this way. If we remove his body, they will know."

Max could feel Mary’s shock, rather than see it. He didn’t look at her. "Lord Edmund would have wanted it this way," he added. "His only purpose, his only goal ever, was to protect us."

He turned abruptly, began crashing his way through the underbrush. He knew Mary was following him, although, for the first time since they had separated from Alexander and Isabel hours before, she was completely silent.

Max realized that he missed her chatter. Her conversation had not allowed him to dwell over-long on his own thoughts, on his own guilt. But now they came flooding back with a vengeance. He had caused this. All of it. Lord Edmund’s death, Tess’s capture, Michael’s confusion, Isabel’s torn loyalties. They had all been innocent, had simply followed him, as they had been born and bred to do. Mary and Alexander were even more innocent and they were now outlaws who were on the verge of losing their lands and their position.

And Elizabeth. His beloved wife. His soul. She was in danger simply because she loved him.

For the first time, he realized that perhaps she would be better off without him.

He had told her that he had married her to protect her from Sir Kyle. He was still astounded that she had not seen this for the lie it was. But then, even <i>he</i> had not recognized the falsehood.

He had married her for inherently selfish reasons. He had married her because, having found her, he did not think that he could live without her. Her safety, what was best for her, had not mattered to him.

He did not deserve her.

It was all becoming clear. He had been denying it for too long, but the sight of Lord Edmund’s body had made it completely unavoidable. There was only one thing to do.

He had to give her up.

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Post by Kath7 » Sun Aug 21, 2005 12:19 pm

AN - Thanks, everyone!

<u>Part 31</u>

Elizabeth paced the length of the chamber, glared at the heavy oak door, then turned and marched back towards the far wall. She had stopped wringing her hands hours ago, dreading when Kyle would appear to confront her. Now she was simply angry, and was looking forward to it.

She was trying not to think about what might be happening to Michael and nursing her outrage was helping her with that. She knew that his accommodations in Nottingham Castle were surely not as comfortable as her own. He could even be dead by now.

If Michael was dead, she would never forgive herself.

She had enjoyed the time that they had spent together on the journey to find the queen. Max’s brother had a dry sense of humour, of which she had been unaware. He had even reassured her that Max would forgive her for disobeying him.

"He’ll simply blame it entirely on me, as usual, and everything will return to normal," Michael joked, not sounding the least bit intimidated by this fact. Elizabeth had started to recognize that, while the relationship between Michael and Max was complicated, the brothers would never stay permanently angry at one another. They depended on and trusted each other more than any others she had ever known.

It was right around this time that they had become aware of the sound of horses approaching. They were hidden in the forest near the Convent of Saint Mary, where Elizabeth knew that the queen would stop to rest and refresh herself before entering Nottingham, as she always did.

Still, they waited until the cortège appeared fully, and Elizabeth had actually laid eyes on the queen, before they stepped out of their hiding places.

Elizabeth approached Eleanor warily. None of the guards tried to stop her, most of them apparently recognizing her. "Your grace?" She knew that Michael was immediately behind her, his hand resting casually on the sword at his belt, although Elizabeth surmised that his sword was not the weapon he would use if her life was truly endangered. He was not as completely convinced as she that Eleanor would not be angry at her, and so had told her that he was ready to defend her with his life.

Elizabeth laughed at that. "Michael, two days ago, you would have cheerfully killed me yourself."

"Two days ago you were not my queen," Michael snapped back.

It was when Eleanor raised her head to look at Elizabeth that Liz had first realized that something was wrong. The queen’s eyes had been missing the spark that made her who she was - the most intelligent and powerful woman in Europe. "Your grace?" Elizabeth repeated, trying to understand what was wrong.

It was then that all hell broke loose. One minute Elizabeth was looking at her guardian, the next the elderly woman was gone, had disappeared right in front of Liz, as though she had never existed.

"What the…" Michael’s gasp behind her was so shocked, she whirled to look at him. "Oh my God! It’s a mindwarp!"

The guards were already advancing on her and Michael. The arms on the tabliers over their mail were suddenly those of the Sheriff of Nottingham, not those of King Richard.

"What is a mindwarp?" Elizabeth shrieked, but Michael ignored her, having already thrust her behind him, his sword in his hand.

"There are too many of them. I’m going to have to blast them." He sounded resigned.

And he had. Elizabeth clutched at her brother-in-law’s cloak as he raised his arm. She watched in amazement as his had started to glow, felt the despair coming off Michael in waves as he swept the clearing, knocking guard after guard to the ground in uncontrolled blazes of light.

Somehow though, Elizabeth was still unsure how, one of the guards snuck up behind them. One moment she had been safely protected behind Michael’s back, the next she felt the cold blade at her throat.

"Put your arm down you demon, or the wench dies," the guard snarled.

Michael turned, took in the sight of Elizabeth threatened and lowered his arm. Elizabeth felt her heart break when he sighed heavily and said a single name. "Tess."

"I am sorry!" she sobbed. "We’ve failed." And they had. Max and Michael’s sister was lost to them for certain now.

But Michael had not heard her for the two other guards descended upon him in a fury, knocking him out and chaining his arms behind his back in case he should awaken. Elizabeth had been able to tell that they were completely terrified by the display to which her brother-in-law had treated them.

Elizabeth almost didn’t blame them. If she had not known the truth about Max, Michael, Isabel, and Tess, she too might have wondered if Michael’s power was not from the Devil. The destruction of which he was capable… It was the complete antithesis to the healing gift possessed by Max. For the first time Elizabeth recognized the balanced unit the four visitors created.

Now, as she remembered, she felt another stab of guilt. By stealing Max from Tess, had she irreparably harmed the effectiveness of their foursome?

Of course, if Tess and Michael died in Nottingham Castle, then the foursome would forever be destroyed. She had to somehow convince Kyle to let them go. She would promise him anything.

She would even promise to leave Max, if it meant seeing his sister and brother freed.

Elizabeth clenched her hands together against her stomach at the sick feeling that rose within her at the thought of giving Max up. She couldn’t even be sure that he would want her back after the disaster she had rained down upon him ever since he had first laid eyes on her - but to imagine that she might have to be the one to turn from him… It was almost unbearable.

She was so overwrought, it took several moments before she realized that something peculiar was happening to her. A feeling of calm release was settling upon her. It seemed to be originating from her middle and was weaving its way down her limbs and up to her heart.

Glancing down in amazement, it was then that she noticed that her hands were glowing. She lifted them from where they rested against her stomach, stared at them. They looked perfectly normal again.

Elizabeth felt her heart rise into her throat. She carefully lowered one hand again, brought her palm flat against her middle. Beginning slowly, the glow began to regenerate itself, until her hand burned brightly, reminding her of the way Max’s hand had glowed when she had witnessed him healing Tess’s ankle that day in the forest - the day she had discovered the truth about him.

Instinctively she closed her eyes, concentrated on what was happening within her body.

<i>FLASH*

A small brown-eyed boy, one who looked exactly like Max, toddled towards her across a field of waving grasses.</i>

Elizabeth gasped, her eyes flying open, caressed her stomach in amazement.

She was carrying Max’s son.

She knew it with such certainty, the joy of it almost overwhelmed her. The despair of moments ago was replaced by the firm knowledge that she could no longer feel regret for what had occurred between her and Max. She could feel sorrow and fear, but hope was the strongest emotion of all.

They would survive this. They had to. Their son would live.

She would see to it with every breath within her.

Elizabeth’s head snapped up as the door to the chamber came flying open. She immediately lowered her hands, as Sir Kyle came sauntering into the room.

He must not know. The last person who could ever know was Kyle.

"Well, well." He advanced on her, his eyes blazing with some emotion that Elizabeth could not identify. She could tell that he was attempting to pretend that he was not affected by the sight of her, but she also guessed that this was not so. "If it is not my prodigal betrothed, returned to me from her sojourn in the forest."

"I want you let Michael and Tess of Huntington go," Elizabeth said immediately, not even bothering to greet him.

"What you want is of little to no interest to me, Elizabeth," Kyle replied mildly. "They will die, as will their brother when he comes for them."

Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly. "Please, Sir Kyle. I know that you are angry with me, but do not take it out on innocents."

"Innocents?" He almost bellowed. Elizabeth’s eyes flew open. She could see a vein pulsing in his throat as he struggled to bring his anger under control. "Innocents?" he repeated more calmly. "I think not. I feel that it has been more than proven that, at the very least, Michael of Huntington is a demon. This would lead me to believe that his siblings are likely so, as well."

Elizabeth bit her lip, decided to lie flat out if it would guarantee that Michael and Tess would be released. "I will marry you willingly if you let them go. I will also forget to tell the queen that any of this ever happened."

Kyle tilted his head to the side, smiled in such a way that it was more of a grimace and said, "Will you indeed?"

Elizabeth crossed her fingers behind her back, hoped that the Holy Mother would forgive her for the lie. "Yes."

Kyle just stared at her for several long moments. "So you would add bigamy to your list of crimes, milady?" he finally asked, sounding disdainful.

She felt her heart stop. "What do you mean?" she whispered, terrified at what this meant. If Kyle knew that she had married Max, they were finished. He would kill her rather than see Max have her.

While she would willingly die to keep Max and his siblings safe, she had to stay alive at all costs. Her son must live. She wanted desperately to bring her hand comfortingly to her womb, but she refrained. Kyle could not know.

"I’m afraid your little secret is out, my dear." Kyle was moving towards her again. "Your brother-in-law has a very big mouth." He shrugged. "But it is of little import. I will still marry you. I just need to assure that you are a widow first." He sighed heavily. "I do not enjoy the idea that Maxwell of Huntington has had you first, but we can not have everything we want in life. It will be my sons that you will carry."

"Please, Kyle." Elizabeth fell to her knees in front of him, completely desperate and unable to think of any other way to save Tess and Michael other than to beg. "I will annul it. I swear I will. If you release Michael and Tess."

"I wonder if your husband is aware of the ease at which you are willing to cast him aside?" Kyle chuckled. "Well, he will be. I am sure the Lady Tess will be happy to tell him."

Elizabeth glanced up at him hopefully. "Do you mean that you will release her?" She felt her heart lighten marginally. Making sure that at least Tess was safe was the first step. Then she would work on making Michael so.

"I think I might. I would like to see how he reacts to having her back, knowing that you chose to stay with me."

Elizabeth closed her eyes again. She knew how Max would react. He would not rest until he had freed her from Kyle, whether he had Tess back or not.

Unless he no longer wanted her. There was still that worry knawing at the back of her mind, remembering how she had disobeyed him, had gone against his wishes. All of Michael’s assurances that he would forgive her… She did not quite believe them. Only she knew how adamant Max had been against this plan.

And he had been right. She had walked right into the arms of the enemy, bringing Michael with her.

But at least Tess would be free. It was a beginning. She would not rest until Michael was as well.

For as long as Kyle believed that she would marry him, her son would be safe. She had absolutely no intention of going through with it, but if she had to, she would.

Elizabeth would protect Max’s child at all costs. Even at the cost of the chance to be with her love, were he never to forgive her for what she now realized she had to do. If she could somehow contrive the release of Michael, she could convince him that he had to convince Max to let her go.

She knew one thing with the utmost certainty. Sir Kyle would never allow them to be together. He would hunt them for the rest of his days. He would kill Max and would most likely marry her anyway.

He would kill their son.

She would do anything to keep him alive - even give his father up.

She had to get Max to forget her. And there was only one way to do so.

"So be it," Elizabeth said wearily. "But first I must be allowed to speak with Tess."

<u>Part 32</u>

Mary watched Maxwell closely, as he moved carefully into the road. They were at the spot where Michael and Elizabeth had likely tried to meet up with the queen’s cortège, right at the fork in the road which led to the Convent of St. Mary in one direction and Nottingham in the other.

She still could not believe that they had left Lord Edmund’s body swinging from that tree. She had not even known the man and it had been difficult to do so. Seeing Max turn his back on his guardian like that, it had reinforced two things in Mary’s mind - one, that Maxwell was willing to do anything to assure the safety of those most dear to him and, two, he could be as cold as any king she had ever known of when he was forced to be.

Mary had only met one king - King Richard - and that had only been one time. Even before he had taken the throne, upon the old king’s death, the queen had not spent a lot of time with her son, though he was her favorite. Richard had been off fighting for his inheritance, constantly on the verge of being disinherited by his father, in favour of one of his brothers. When he had finally taken the throne, his first order of business had been to go on crusade to the Holy Land, partly to assuage his soul of the fact that he had constantly rebelled against his own sire, partly because making war was his life’s work.

But that one time that she had encountered the golden god many called Coeur-de-Lion… It had stayed with her since. She had been a mere maid of thirteen at the time, but his very presence had practically hummed with power and confidence. She had thought, "Here is a man who knows what is his, but also knows what he wants to <i>make</i> his. And he will do whatever it takes to do so."

Maxwell’s very being reflected the same understanding of who he was, of what he was capable of, and of what was important to him. While the Lionheart’s goal was victory in battle and the conquering of foreign lands in the name of his God, this new king’s desire was much simpler, but no less significant.

He wanted to hold those he held most dear close, and keep them safe at all costs.

And, now that the situation was completely out of his control, through no fault of his own, he was slowly losing his focus. The supreme irony was that the one person who could bring that focus and the person who had disrupted it were one and the same. Elizabeth clearly still had no idea how much her well-being, merely her <i>presence</i>, meant to Max.

But how could she? She had not witnessed the healing in the forest, had not seen his complete desperation when he thought he might lose her, had not seen him pull himself together to assure that he did not. She had not witnessed the complete loss of control when she had run off to the queen against his express wishes. In fact, Elizabeth had not been in Max’s company nearly as long as even Mary and Alexander had, of course, had never seen him when she was not around. Not to mention, Elizabeth inherent modesty would make it unlikely that it would even occur to her that she could be so important to the man she loved.

Losing her would kill this man - this king. And Mary had the feeling that even Maxwell was only beginning to truly understand this.

"They are not here," Max said unnecessarily now, turning back towards the spot where she hid. "And, yet, I see no sign that any sort of company has passed this way."

"Do you think mayhap the queen had already passed and they followed her into the city?" Mary asked, gesturing for him to return to the safety of the tree cover. But Max’s eyes were not on her. He was gazing at something just off the road on the other side. "What is it?" Mary demanded in a loud whisper.

Maxwell ignored her, moved forward and then leaned over and picked up whatever it was that lay there. Mary was beginning to see him more clearly in the brightening light of dawn, which was just coming to the forest. "What is it?" she repeated more insistently.

Max turned slowly, held it up for her perusal. It was a simple circlet of gold, one that Mary didn’t immediately recognize.

It wasn’t until she saw the expression on Max’s face that she realized what it was. It was Elizabeth’s wedding band.

"Oh my sweet Saviour…." Mary gasped. "It was a trap?"

But Max was paying her no mind. His eyes closed abruptly and he gasped, almost seemed to stop breathing. Mary ignored the fact that being so exposed on the road was dangerous to them both, darted out of the forest and grabbed him before he keeled over.

"Max! Maxwell! What is it?" The only thought that passed through her mind was that if something happened to Maxwell, she would be all alone. How could she save Michael and Elizabeth if she was all alone?

But Max seemed to be recovering already. He was staring down at the ring, his face white, but he didn’t not seem on the verge of losing consciousness any more. "What happened?" Mary demanded, starting to get angry. She always reacted that way, when she was frightened beyond comprehension. Anger was a much easier emotion to deal with than fear. Anger she could control to a certain extent.

"On occasion, in tense situations, we - Michael, Isabel, Tess and I - can get flashes," Max explained, still gazing past her as though trying to recall something. He focused on her briefly, saw her look of confusion and elaborated. "Visions - of what has occurred and of what might occur." He twisted the ring between his fingers. "I saw a vision. The sheriff’s men have them. Michael fought well, but there were too many of them. I could not quite get a read on what happened exactly though. The flash was somewhat muddled." He was frowning in concentration, as though trying to pull the information he had received together into some sort of workable solution.

"You saw all that from a little ring?" Mary demanded, amazed. But, she shook her head, just decided to accept it. It seemed that every time she turned around her new friends were demonstrating some different, miraculous gift. "Are they still alive?" she asked breathlessly.

"They were when they left this clearing," Max replied firmly. "Which means that, the sooner we get them out of Nottingham Castle, the less opportunity Sir Kyle will have to change that."

"We must find Isabel and Alexander!" Mary exclaimed. "We can’t do this on our own."

And, for the first time in a long time, something finally went right. Just as she voiced the words, her brother and Max’s sister melted from the trees further down the King’s Highway. Mary almost rubbed her eyes, believing that they were a trick of the light.

But, moments later, when her brother had pulled her into a tight embrace, she knew that they were real.

"We came at once," Isabel explained, after hugging both Max and Mary. "The sheriff is working for Prince John. We saw them leave with the stolen taxes. The men who accosted us days ago, Max must have been trying to hide what they were doing."

Mary gasped. "I can’t believe this of the sheriff. He has done many evil things over the past few days in support of his son, but he is no traitor."

"I saw it with my own eyes, Mary," Alexander argued.

"As did I," Isabel added.

"Alexander, you did not spend nearly as much time in Sheriff James’s company as Lizzy and I did. He is no traitor," Mary insisted. "In fact, he spoke of plans he had for the shire upon King Richard’s return. He refused to undertake any of them without the king’s direct approval, even with Queen Eleanor’s permission. My guess that if anyone is behind this plot, it is Sir Kyle, using the sheriff’s good name to advance it! Think Alex! It is the only thing that makes sense. No baron in his right mind would betray the king. Not for that weasel John, especially with Richard on the verge of being ransomed."

"But if the taxes never reach London, Richard will not be ransomed," Alex countered, still clearly sure that he was right. "And there are many who believe that John would be a much better king. Richard does not care about England. He does not even speak the language, only wants the crown and the money that goes with it. John was born in England, is a good administrator. He might be the better choice."

"Bite your tongue!" Mary snapped back. "Queen Eleanor would have your head if she heard that!"

"Queen Eleanor is somewhat blind when it comes to those she loves," Alex returned wryly. "Present company excluded, of course," he continued, glancing at the bow in Mary’s hand meaningfully. Mary felt like slapping her brother for his treacherous words. He apparently finally seemed to notice this, because he backed up a step and grinned. "Mary mine, you know I am simply playing Devil’s advocate. I would never support John against the rightful king."

Mary could see that Max’s eyes were narrowed in thought, as he listened closely to their argument. "This does all seem slightly odd," he allowed. "But it is of little import who is behind the plot. The important thing, for now, is that we now have information to use as a bargaining tool."

"A bargaining tool?" Isabel asked. "For Tess?"

"Not only for Tess." Mary sighed, explained what Max had seen in his flash.

Mary saw Alex raise his hand to rub the bridge of his nose in exasperation, trying to hide his worry. "Lizzy," he sighed wearily under he breath. "What have you done?"

"What has come before is of no consequence," Max interjected firmly. "All that matters is getting them back. There are many things to be done." He turned to Alexander. "You must ride to London with all haste, my friend. You are the only one who will be able to get to the queen. You are also the only one she will believe regarding what is happening here."

"I will go at once." Alexander bowed slightly. Mary blinked. It still amazed her how, under dire circumstances, they all listened instinctively to Max. Based on her brother’s gesture of a moment before, loyalties were constantly shifting in their small band. Perhaps her brother’s lack of true concern over who possessed the throne of England had little to do with John or Richard at all.

It seemed that Alexander of Whitfield had a new liege lord.

"You may ride Evander," Maxwell added. "He is still at the hunting lodge, which is quite near here." Mary followed his gaze as he turned to Isabel, who was staring at Alex, concern on her visage. "Bella, you are going to dreamwalk Michael. We must know if he is still alive, must try and understand what happened to him and Liz. If they both still live, then they are likely safe for the moment. If Sir Kyle intended to kill them straight off, it would be done already." Mary could tell by his tone of voice that he was trying to ignore what it would mean if they <i>were</i> dead. She was trying to ignore that possibility herself. It was too, too horrible.

Losing Lizzy…Inconceivable.

And Michael…

The thought of never seeing Michael again, of never finding out where their tumultuous, yet exhilarating connection was meant to lead…

She squashed the thought mercilessly. No time for doubts.

"Dreamwalk?" Mary inquired instead, for the benefit of both herself and Alexander.

"It is Isabel’s gift," Max explained quickly. "She can enter the dreams of others."

"Oh." Mary closed her eyes, shaking her head again. Just accept it Mary and move on, a small voice in the back of her head advised her. "And what will I do?" she asked.

"You are with me, Martin of York." Max quirked a grin at her. "I’ll need your bow for what we are about to do."

"Which is?" Mary felt a shiver of anticipation, mixed with a healthy dose of dread, descend her spine.

"We are going to turn truly outlaw," Max replied with relish, "and steal those taxes back."

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Post by Kath7 » Mon Aug 22, 2005 4:06 pm

AN - Thanks for the feedback, everyone!



<u>Part 33</u>

"I do not feel comfortable leaving you here alone." Alexander stood close to Isabel, not touching her, but near enough that she could feel the warmth of his body. "I do not understand why Maxwell is allowing it. You are going to be defenseless asleep."

She smiled slightly, allowed herself to reach out, taking his hand in hers and squeezing lightly. "I am not really asleep when I dreamwalk, Alex," she explained. "And I will be perfectly safe here." She gestured behind her at the small cottage to which Alexander had accompanied her. It was Lord Edmund’s hunting lodge, the one where Maxwell had left Evander on the day he had married Elizabeth.

It was also where she was going to enter the dream plain to locate Michael, in order to reassure them all that her brother and sister and Elizabeth still lived.

"Maxwell and Mary will be back as soon as they find out where the sheriff’s men have camped for the night. We cannot let those taxes slip through our fingers," she added. "Bargaining with them might be our only hope."

Alexander sighed heavily, looked away for a moment. He obviously knew that she was right, but it still displeased him. She tried to ignore the way her heart skipped a beat.

Isabel knew that her relationship with Alex was still undefined in any way. She had kissed him that one time, but he might have misinterpreted it as sisterly, or some such nonsense. They <i>had</i> ended up in each other’s arms because he had been trying to keep her warm after all, in the way he had admitted he often warmed Mary and Elizabeth. It might have meant nothing more than that to him.

She also knew that he was deliberately keeping his distance because of her betrothal to Michael. She had told him it meant nothing to her, but he was an honorable man. He would not interfere, not while any sort of understanding still existed between her and Michael. She would have to be the one to pursue things with him, if any sort of opportunity ever presented itself.

And, now, there was no time to pursue anything. He was leaving in moments to ride hard for London, in search of Queen Eleanor. All of her energies had to be expended on the others, on saving her siblings and her new queen.

"Very well." Alexander shook his head. "I will return as soon as is humanly possible. I only pray that the queen is following her usual yearly custom and is presently keeping court at the Tower."

"Godspeed." Isabel smiled at him, squeezed his hand once more and then stepped back to allow him to mount Max’s stallion, which he did in one smooth motion, despite his heavy chain-mail.

He stared down at her for a long moment before saying quietly, "Be careful. I implore you, Bella."

"I will."

She watched him until he disappeared into the dense foliage, headed back towards the King’s Highway.

It was only then that she allowed herself to raise her hands to her face. Shudders racked her body. She had never been more afraid in her entire life.

Every person she cared about in this world was presently in danger and she felt helpless to do anything. Dreamwalking seemed like such a small contribution. Not for the first time, Isabel wished that she had paid more attention to Max and Michael’s admonishments that she should learn to use a bow or a sword, for self-defense if nothing else. At least then Max would have taken her with him in pursuit of the gold. But she had understood his reasoning that she would be a liability. Mary’s steady bow was all he needed and if his plan went well, he would not even require that.

Taking a deep breath, she shook back her braids and straightened her back. Perhaps her gift would only be a small help, but if she could bring comfort to Michael in his time of need, at least it would not be in vain.

Several minutes later she had a fire started in the hearth within the small cottage, taking some of the chill from the air. It threw light across the room, ridding it of the shadows the darkening sky outside was creating.

It was time.

It had been many a month since she had dreamwalked. She enjoyed her gift, but having been acquainted with very few people until recently, it had lost some of its charm. Visiting her brothers, Tess, Lord Edmund and every servant at Castle DeHarding in their dreams had lost much of its luster after the thousandth time.

And, so, she felt slightly unsettled and nervous as she lay down on the bed, could feel her heart racing as she tried to envision her betrothed - her brother - wherever he might be. It took the utmost concentration to enter another’s consciousness, and she could not even focus on her own.

Closing her eyes tightly, Isabel tried to picture Michael’s face in her mind, but all she could find was a great white space.

<i>Michael!</i> She tried calling out to him with her heart. All she heard in return was a deafening silence.

She was concentrating so hard, her heart almost flew out of her chest when, after what seemed like moments, she heard an answering cry. <i>Isabel!</i>

<i>Michael! It is I! Are you safe?</i>

<i>Isabel!</i>

It took her a full minute to realize that the voice was not coming from her mind at all. In fact, it was coming from very near her ear.

She could feel his breath on her neck as she sat up with a gasp.

Alexander was on the edge of the bed, a concerned expression on his face.

"Isabel! Are you quite well?"

She felt a moment of utter joy at the sight of him, and then the completeness of her failure struck her like a blow. "I can not find him!" she exclaimed, heard her voice crack as tears filled her eyes. "He is nowhere!"

Alexander took her hands in his, drew her close, until she felt his arms come around her in a comforting embrace. "I waited for what felt like forever before I disturbed you. But when you started crying in your sleep, I could not refrain from waking you. I am sorry if I spoiled it."

Glancing through the open door, Isabel could see that she had been lost on the dream plain for far longer than it seemed. It was full night now, the moon hanging low in the sky and throwing light across the cottage. The fire that she was sure she had just set moments ago had burned to mere ashes in the hearth.

"He is nowhere, Alex! I think…" She threw her arms around his neck desperately. "I can’t help but think that he no longer exists."

Alex pulled back slightly, lifted her chin with his finger. "He is fine, Bella. I am sure of it. You are just overwrought. I am here to help you."

She frowned slightly at that. "You <i>are</i> here! Why? You should be on the way to London!"

"I could not do it. I had barely left here, when I realized that I could not just leave you here all alone," he admitted, looking down, sounding ashamed. "I went to the convent of St. Mary and I asked them to send a messenger. The queen is the convent’s patroness. She will accept their word that she must come to Nottingham."

Isabel closed her eyes briefly, understood his embarrassment. Because the way that her heart jumped at his words was entirely inappropriate considering the circumstances.

And, yet, she could not be sorry. "I am glad," she whispered. His head shot up and she smiled at him. "I need you, Alexander of Whitfield. I never need <i>anyone</i>, but I find that I do need <i>you.</i>"

He looked astonished, but she barely noticed because she had closed her eyes and tentatively brought her lips to his.

His mouth was warm and comforting. His hands came up to cup her face as he gently returned the pressure.

"I have wanted you from the moment I lay eyes on you," he admitted against her temple after they had broken the kiss and sat comfortably wrapped in each other’s arms.

"I have waited for someone like you for my entire life," Isabel replied, smiling slightly. "You make me feel safe, Alex, in a way I never thought would be possible on this world."

"I will always keep you safe and close, my angel." Alex’s voice faltered slightly with emotion. "And now you can try to dreamwalk Michael again, because I will stay with you and pull you back should anything go awry."

"Thank you."

Moments later, she lay with her head cradled against his chest. She could feel his hand stroking her hair lovingly as she closed her eyes and went in search of her brother.

This time it was so simple, it literally took her breath away.

One second she was with Alexander, and the next she was not.

She was standing in the corner of a dark, dank dungeon. Isabel’s heart entered her throat as the smell of the place entered her nose, as shapes began to form from the blackness.

"Michael."

He was chained to the stone wall across from her, his chin buried against his chest, clearly unconscious. Isabel realized that this must also be his state in real life. The ease with which she had visited him, after she had let go of her fear in Alex’s arms, told her so.

But, this was not real. She was not truly with Michael and he could <i>not</i> stay unaware in his mind. She knew that she could make him speak to her if she really tried. "Michael! Wake up." She hurried across the cell, fell to her knees beside him, gently stroked his bruised face. "Michael! It is Bella. Please wake up!"

He groaned, shook his shaggy head, slowly opened his eyes, blinked several times, as though trying to focus on her. "Bella?" he croaked.

"Oh, Michael! What have they done to you?" Isabel knew that she already had tears on her cheeks, although she was trying to hide her panic at the state he was in, even in his subconscious. "How did this happen?"

"We were captured." Michael replied, staring at her in confusion. "I don’t know how. One minute Elizabeth was speaking to Queen Eleanor, the next I awoke in this cell to Sir Kyle’s ugly face."

"How can you not remember what happened, Michael?" Isabel asked gently. "You must think, dearest. We have to know what occurred so that we can help you."

Michael closed his eyes, appeared to be thinking. "There’s nothing, Bella. It’s all just a blank."

Isabel frowned slightly, wondered if perhaps the wall Michael was encountering in his mind was also the reason she had had such difficulty gaining access to his dreams earlier. But the question remained, what was blocking his memory?

"Do you know if Elizabeth and Tess are well?" she asked, thrusting the concern aside for the moment.

"I have heard nothing," Michael told her, sounding incredibly guilty. "I cannot believe I was so stupid as to allow Elizabeth to endanger herself like this." He paused. "Is Maxwell very angry?" he asked, sounding like he was preparing for the worst.

"He was at first. All he cares about now is getting you all back," Isabel reassured him. "We will save you, Michael."

They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment and then Michael closed his. "Don’t, Isabel. I want you to concentrate on Elizabeth and Tess. You cannot help me. There is no way you will be able to penetrate the dungeons. Just leave me here. It will be better this way."

"Don’t be ridiculous!" Isabel snapped, reaching out and shaking him. "We would never leave you. Just as you were willing to risk your own life to save Tess, do you not think that we would do the same for you?"

Michael swallowed convulsively. "There is no point, Bella. It is too late for me."

He closed his eyes again and turned his face away from her. "Michael! Look at me! What are you saying? What are you not telling me?" She could feel her fear rising within her, knew that she was right. He was keeping something from her, some vital piece of information.

But he refused to look at her. In fact, she could feel him pushing against her now, not physically of course, but mentally. He was forcing her out of his mind.

"Michael!" She fought desperately against him, but his will was too strong.

The last thing of which she was aware in his mind, before she came back to awareness, was his voice, as though from a great distance, calling after her. "I love you, Bella! Be happy!"

She could feel her breath coming in great gasps as she slowly opened her eyes. Alexander was still gently stroking her hair, seemed unaware that she had returned.

"Michael," she whispered.

"Isabel?" Alex jumped beneath her. "Are you awake?"

"Yes."

He heard the note of panic that was beginning to creep into her voice, as she began to recall the details of what had just transpired in Michael’s dream. "What is it?" He sat up slowly, bringing her up with him.

"We must find Max," she told him, beginning to rise. "Something is horribly wrong, Alex! Michael is alive but I think he was trying to hide from me that that would soon not be the case!"

"What do you mean?" Alex demanded, although Isabel was sure he knew.

"We must go to Nottingham immediately." She jumped off the bed, smoothing her hair down, forcing the desire to completely lose control to return to the deep recesses of her heart. "He tried to hide it from me, but I felt his fear, Alex." She swallowed, glanced at him, clenching her hands in front of her. She could not explain how she knew, likely something Michael had betrayed in his thoughts when she had been connected to him. But she <i>knew</i> that she was right. She took a deep breath and simply blurted it out.

"They are going to execute Michael."

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Post by Kath7 » Tue Aug 23, 2005 10:22 am

AN - Hmmmmmm...however is Michael going to be saved? :wink: Let's not forget...Kyle's not exactly acting on his own. :D

<u>Part 34</u>

Elizabeth sat on a stool before the blazing hearth in her chamber, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
She was trying to appear calm and composed, but knew that her expression would fool none that knew her well.

Fortunately Tess DeHarding had never made any effort to know Elizabeth. She had despised her from the moment she had laid eyes on her and had taken no pains to hide it. Elizabeth could not blame the other girl either. If she had had Max and someone else had taken him away from her, she would not have been particularly pleasant to that person either.

But now Tess was Elizabeth’s only hope. They had to work together if they were going to keep Max safe and her baby alive.

It did not please Elizabeth that Tess would be the one there to pick up the pieces when she broke Maxwell’s heart. And, yet, perhaps this was how it had been meant to be all along. Tess would have her betrothed and Elizabeth would have his son.

It was almost unbearable that Max would never know, but Elizabeth knew that if Sir Kyle even suspected the truth, he would never rest until he had hunted them all down, until he had murdered Max’s child, and everyone else her husband held dear.

But Max would not be her husband for much longer. She had to stop thinking of him in such terms. He could not be hers. They had stolen the time they had had together and now it was over.

The door to her chamber slammed open and a small, bedraggled figure was thrust through. Tess stumbled, her long, blonde curls covering her face, as she was thrown down on the floor in front of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth felt her heart go out to the other girl. If she had doubted that Sir Kyle’s vengeance would be swift and brutal before, the sight of Tess now dispelled any such qualms. That this virtually innocent girl should have been treated so harshly, simply because Kyle hated her betrothed…It literally made Elizabeth ill to her stomach.

And this was the man that she was going to be tied to for the rest of her life. But she would do it – if it meant keeping her child safe. Even Max would understand…if he knew. Which he never would. She forced aside the flash of grief at the thought, forced herself to focus on Tess.

Elizabeth’s attempts at appearing dignified flew away, as she fell to her knees in front of the other girl, pushed her hair back from her face. "Oh, Tess! I am so sorry!"

Tess flinched away from her. "It is knowing you that has brought this on," she snarled back, her once innocent blue eyes flashing with an anger and a despair Elizabeth knew was going to kill Max to see.

"I know it," Elizabeth replied, could feel tears rising in her eyes despite herself. Tess’s expression changed slightly as she too seemed to become aware of Elizabeth’s grief.

The blonde girl bit her lip, appeared unsure how to respond to it. "Why am I here?" Tess finally whimpered. "Why will they not kill me? I am useless now. They have used me. Max will never want me now."

"He will," Elizabeth insisted. "He will want you even more, now that you have endured what you have, for his sake." She gently brushed the other girl’s hair back behind her ears.

"He only wants you." Tess closed her eyes in anguish.

"It was a mistake." Elizabeth swallowed, forced the lies past her lips. "You must make him see it. As long as he wants me, he will never be safe."

"It is too late." Tess shook her head. She looked up at Elizabeth, accusation once more on her face. "He has married you! I have heard the truth from Sir Kyle’s own lips. He has used it to torment me." This last statement came out as a sob.

"It will be annulled," Elizabeth told her. "I made a grave error. I was caught up in the romance of the experience, never reflecting on how it would affect so many others. I feel awful that my game has resulted in so much heartache."

Tess raised an eyebrow. "You are lying. You are trying to pretend that you don’t love him." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Why?"

"I do not love him." Liz wished that her voice had not cracked halfway through that statement. Because lying did not come easily to her, even though she had had to do it so often in the past week.

"You are <i>lying</i>," Tess argued. "Tell me the truth. Why are you doing this? I was gone. He has chosen <i>you</i>. Why are you turning your back on him?"

Elizabeth could not control the tears any longer. Because if anyone understood loving Max with every ounce of one’s being, it was the girl who sat before her. "I cannot bear for his life to be endangered any longer. Sir Kyle will not rest until he claims me. Max has a much more important purpose in life. He must return to his world to liberate it. I cannot allow him to be caught up here. It just cannot be."

There was a long silence. Elizabeth’s face was buried in her hands and, so, Tess’s light touch on her shoulder caused her to jump slightly. "I cannot blame you for loving him as you do, milady," she whispered. "But what do you want of me?"

"You must help him to move on, Tess. I have agreed to marry Sir Kyle, as long as he frees you. I tried for Michael as well, but Kyle has said that it is up to the Church to deal with him. He has no proof that <i>you</i> are…what you are. And, so, he has agreed to release you."

"But Max will not stop," Tess replied. "You know that, Elizabeth. He will not rest until he frees both you and Michael. He does not want me anymore. I cannot control him or convince him. He would not believe me were I to tell him that you no longer want him."

"Max once told me…" Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath. "He once told me that you could make people see things that are not there."

Tess nodded. "Yes, I can." Her eyes widened. "You want me to show him something which will convince him?"

It took all of her strength to say it, but she forced the words past her lips. "I want you to make him see me with Kyle. To make him <i>believe</i> it."

"When am I to do this?" Tess asked, sounding unconvinced. "I am taking Michael with me when I go. I cannot leave without him," she admitted. "I will be mindwarping the guards."

Elizabeth frowned slightly. The word mindwarp…so strange. She had heard it before though, although she could not quite remember when. She shook her head impatiently. Now was not the time.

"He will come for me, once you are released." Elizabeth smiled slightly, despite herself. "We both know he will. There is no way to stop him. You must make him see it then."

Tess stared at her for a full minute before saying quietly, "There is more to this than simply wanting to protect Maxwell, Elizabeth. I cannot believe that you have suddenly come to this plan. It makes no sense. What are you hiding?"

Elizabeth looked away. "Nothing. I have just come to my senses. Max and I are not meant to be."

"Then why don’t you just annul Max and <i>marry</i> Sir Kyle?" Tess asked logically. "Would that not convince Max just as easily and accomplish the same goal?"

"I cannot do it," Elizabeth replied softly. "I cannot marry Kyle. The very thought of it is enough to make me want to kill myself, which is an impossibility. This way, there is time for me to convince the queen to allow me to retire to a convent. If she sees that I am truly opposed to the marriage, she will allow it."

"So you are only doing this to keep Max safe?" Tess inquired. "You did not seem so concerned when you went flying into the forest after him twice before."

"I have grown up since then." Elizabeth gently touched a bruise visible on Tess’s shoulder. "I cannot allow Kyle to hurt another person because of my own selfishness. And he will never stop, Tess. I see that now."

"You are a good woman, milady," Tess finally stated, sounding grudging, and, yet, impressed, despite herself. It made Elizabeth frown. She was not seeking Tess’s approval, simply her aid.

‘Then, you will help me."

"How can I not?" Tess asked sadly. "You are giving me back the only thing I have ever wanted. I would be a fool to throw this chance away."

Elizabeth felt slightly nauseous at the lovesick expression that crossed Tess’s face. She was clearly thinking about Max. She suddenly had a vivid image of Max and Tess entwined in each other’s arms, of Max making love to Tess in the way he had loved Elizabeth such a short time ago.

She pressed her hands against her face again, tried to force the vision away.

"Go now, Tess," Elizabeth almost snapped, unable to control the jealousy that was beginning to sweep through her. "You must free Michael before anyone realizes what you have done."

Elizabeth did not quite understand how Tess’s gift worked, but she believed her when she said that she could free Michael.

Tess stood slowly, clearly in pain, but the expression of hope on her face appeared to give her strength. "Thank you, milady. May God’s blessings find you. I hope that you find some way to achieve happiness."

Elizabeth did not reply. There was no point. Both she and Tess knew that she was throwing away her only chance at joy.

And, yet, as she gently laid her hand against her stomach after Tess was gone, as the slow glow spread outwards and up into her heart, she could not regret it. She would always have a piece of Maxwell DeHarding. She would live for this child.

She lay down wearily upon the bed, did not even rise when she heard the commotion as the castle became aware of Tess and Michael’s joint disappearance.

Her job was done. Max’s loved ones were free. They would soon be safe.

She did not understand Tess’s gift, had not truly learned much about it. It was clearly impressive if she had been able to spirit both she and Michael away with a minimum of fuss.

It was not until much later that it even occurred to her to wonder why Tess had not used her gift to free herself.

***

Max crept carefully through the underbrush, his bow knocked with an arrow, listening for the telltale sign that Mary was in position.

It came several minutes later, a light owl call, barely heard above the laughter and jocularity of the men gathered around the fire of the camp where the sheriff’s guard had paused for a respite on the journey to London.

For men on such a vital mission, it surprised Max that they had not managed to travel further. But they didn’t appear to be taking their task very seriously if the amount of mead and wine that was being passed around the fire was any indication. Max rolled his eyes slightly at his own disdain. Who was he to argue if they wanted to make his life a little easier?

The aura of inebriation that seemed to hover over the camp only helped them in the end. Reaction times were slower as Mary began to rain hell down on them from her perch high in a tree across the clearing.

"Bloody Hell!" He heard the captain of the guard yelling as he stumbled to his feet. "Outlaws! Weapons, men!"

But it was too late. The distraction had been more than enough to cause the panic Max had envisioned. The fact that Mary’s arrows were beginning to drift dangerously close to swords and bows lying on the ground meant that it took that much longer for them to be in the hands of the men who needed them.

It was time for phase two.

Max crouched where he stood. With his hand placed firmly on the soft ground, he sent a pulse of energy coursing through the underbrush. Within seconds the entire western portion of the clearing – where Max had seen the tax chests under heavy guard after his first cursory examination of the campsite – was on fire.

The guards were instantly distracted. He had seen them tensing as they had watched their comrades trying to avoid the arrows that still continued unabated. Max could see that Mary was going to have to stop soon though. The guards were finally getting a line on where she was hidden, were beginning to shoot crossbow arrows into the treetops.

As this thought crossed his mind, the storm stopped entirely.

But the fire continued. Within seconds the whole wagon containing the chests of gold and other treasure was in flames. The firefighters were forced back by the heat. They were soon cowering on the far side of the campsite.

Max did not notice this though. He was already on the move, running lightly through the foliage, so that he came up directly behind the burning wagon.

As Max prepared to put out the flames and to take control of the wagon, another shout arose from the southern side of the clearing where the horses were hobbled. The fire had already panicked the horses, which were pulling restlessly against their ropes.

And, suddenly, they were loose. Max knew that it was Mary who had started that chain reaction, having neatly shot arrows through the hobbles of several. When she had shown him that she could do it, he had simply grinned in amazement. If he didn’t know for a fact that the girl was pure human, he would have wondered if she didn’t have a little Antarian in her blood. Her accuracy was otherworldly.

It had not been difficult to determine that there was no way that Max and Mary were going to be able to take the whole shipment with them. Even with the horses loose, they were not going to be able to outrun an entire contingent of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s guards.

But all they needed was proof. Making the rest of the gold useless to Prince John was also part of the plan.

Leaving a firm fire-wall between himself and the rest of the encampment, Max waved his hand through the air and watched in satisfaction as the worst of the flames disappeared.

He examined the contents of the wagon, grabbed several different pieces of treasure from the pile, including a tablier displaying the arms of Nottingham that some careless guard had left sitting on the seat.

With that, he laid his hand lightly against the wagon and started to change the molecular structure of the vehicle. He did not want the gold to be completely destroyed, simply <i>protected</i> so that Queen Eleanor would have access to it for the ransom for King Richard.

He heard Mary behind him as he concentrated. She was panting slightly, but her step was light. He shook his head ruefully. He had a feeling that this had probably been one of the more enjoyable experiences of her life.

He could hear her gasp as the wagon started to melt. Within seconds, the wood wagon and all the chests that had been sitting upon it, had faded into the ground. To the naked eye, it looked as though they had completely disappeared, but Max knew that their molecules had simply been shifted. He would be able to pull them back together at a later date in order to reform them.

Quirking a grin over his shoulder at Mary, who still stood with her mouth hanging open, Max grabbed her by the hand and pulled her after him into the forest, the shouts of horror and anger of the sheriff’s men fading quickly behind them. He was forced to snort as he envisioned their reactions when they finally managed to put the fire out, only to discover that their cargo had simply ceased to exist.

His smile quickly faded though as a flash suddenly hit him so hard, he stumbled. It did not take him more than an instant to realize that it was more than a flash.

It was Isabel. And she was completely panicked. It was all he could decipher from whatever connection she had managed to make with him over the distance that separated them, but it was enough to tell him that they were running out of time.

He swallowed, glanced at Mary, who was clutching his arm with concern. "Max! I wish you would stop doing that!" she exclaimed, sounding terrified. "What happened?" Looking around, she turned back to him perplexed. "You didn’t touch anything."

"Isabel just connected with me," he explained quickly. When the expression of befuddlement did not leave her face, Max sighed. "Never mind. The important thing is, we need to get back there as quickly as possible. Something has happened."

Mary’s eyes widened, but she nodded.

It was only another five minutes before they reached the spot where Max had concealed the horse Tess and Isabel had ridden into the forest days ago. He practically threw Mary up onto the saddle, swung up in front of her, and they were off, the feeling of relief and triumph from their successful mission completely forgotten.

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