I don't blame anyone for feeling this way, but don't forget, Liz has technically known Tess for a few days. If Max, Michael, and Isabel, who have known her much longer, trust her, why shouldn't Liz? But it is very frustrating. Worry not! It all comes to a head soon.nibbles2 wrote:Wow, great story. Am I the only one who wants to smack Liz upside the head for believing Tess? I guess I can't fault her for trusting Tess but when it's so obvious to the reader it's really frustrating.
The small cottage appeared so suddenly in the dense forest, Mary was still half-asleep against Max’s back before it even became clear to her that their steed had come to a halt. She was absolutely exhausted, realized that it had been close to forty-eight hours since she had slept. Adrenaline had kept her going during their mission, but the minute the horse had settled into a steady pace, she had started to drift off.
"Thank God you’ve returned." Isabel’s worried voice penetrated the fog in which she found herself. "Michael is hurt, Max. You must heal him."
Max slid of the horse, swung Mary down beside him. "Thank you," he said quietly, kissing her lightly on the forehead, before following Isabel into the cottage.
Mary blinked after them, wondered why she couldn’t seem to focus on anything, why she wasn’t following them.
"Mary? Are you quite well?"
She realized that Alexander had exited the cottage, was pulling her against him.
It took her a full minute to realize what was holding her back. She was <i>scared</i>. Petrified. Absolutely frightened to find out how badly Michael had been hurt, to hear about what Sir Kyle had done to him. And, so, her body was rebelling - was trying to make it so that she wouldn’t <i>have</i> to know.
It was not until that instant that she finally realized that she had been suppressing the truth ever since Michael had left with Elizabeth.
She was in love with him.
She had tried to fight it, had tried to deny it, particularly after finding out that he was betrothed to Isabel, but she could not dispute it any longer. She <i>loved</i> him.
And, if he was going to die, she would not be able to bear it.
"Alex?" Her voice came out weaker than she intended. She rested her forehead against her brother’s chest, willing him to understand the plea without her having to elaborate.
"He’ll be fine, Mary mine. He has had some superficial wounds and a fairly large knock to the head, but after witnessing what Maxwell was able to do for Lizzy, when she was shot with that arrow, I doubt it will take much more than a very simple healing." He was stroking her cropped curls comfortingly. "Would you like to go in?"
She swallowed. What would she do if he looked at her like he didn’t care? What if he ignored her? She would not put it past him…
But she was no coward. Was she not the person who had defied the Queen of England by entering the archery contest at the Fair only days ago? Was she not the one who had just rained hell down on the sheriff’s men? She would not fear the person she loved - even if he didn’t feel the same way.
"Yes, let us go in."
The cottage burned brightly with light, the hearth fire blazing merrily, many tallow candles scattered around as well.
Mary noticed Tess first. The blonde was huddled in a corner, her blue eyes slightly wild, Isabel tending to her soothingly. "You are safe now, Tess," she was telling her sister calmly. "No one will hurt you again."
Mary could see Max bent over Michael, who was slumped in the only chair in the small room. She could not see his face, but she could almost <i>feel</i> his pain and weariness from across the room. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "Where is Elizabeth?" She was ashamed that it was the first time she had thought about her closest friend since they had arrived at the cottage.
"They could not save her." Alex’s voice was strained as he replied. "Tess managed to use her gift to spirit Michael away. She hasn’t elaborated beyond that, insisted that she would wait for Maxwell before telling her tale."
Mary frowned. "Why could she not use her <i>gift</i> to help Lizzy as well?" Her eyes narrowed. "What <i>is</i> her gift again?"
"She can make people see things that are not there," Max replied, straightening and turning around. Mary glanced back at Michael, felt her heart skip a beat. He was staring right at her, his eyes clear.
She could not read his expression. He was definitely tired, obviously upset, but there was something else on his face that she could not identify. It was enough to set her cheeks flaming.
A good sign indeed. She almost smiled.
Max had moved to crouch beside Tess. Isabel laid a hand on his arm. "Careful, brother. She is still overwrought. It took much of her strength to save Michael from the dungeon."
Max reached out a hand, gently took Tess’s chin between his fingers and moved her face so that she was looking at him directly. "Are you well, sweeting?"
Mary flinched when Tess suddenly let out a wail and threw her arms around Max’s neck. "I <i>tried</i> to save her! I swear I did, Max. But she would not come with me!"
"Michael, what happened?" Max asked quietly, although Mary could tell by the sudden straightening of his spine that he had not expected his wife to come up so quickly, particularly in a conversation with Tess. He was looking over Tess’s shoulder, as the girl was still sobbing against his chest.
Mary looked back at Michael, who was slumped in his seat, although there was clearly nothing physically wrong with him anymore. "I know not, Maxwell, and that is the truth. The last thing I remember clearly is Elizabeth and I on the road to the convent. Everything after that is a blur, although I do know that Sir Kyle came for a visit," he added wryly, rubbing the back of his head lightly. "I don’t even recall Tess coming for me or how we got here."
"It’s true, Max. They both came stumbling out of the forest a couple of hours ago, neither seeming to have any idea how they had gotten here," Alexander spoke up. "Isabel had already contacted you, as we knew we had to go in for them immediately. Michael was to be executed this morning. We were both waiting anxiously for you, and then suddenly they were here."
"Why would Elizabeth not come with you?" Mary asked Tess quietly, sympathetic to the other girl, who had clearly been through a horrible ordeal. She could not pretend to like Tess - she was quite an unpleasant person - but no one should have to suffer what the blonde had. Mary knew how female prisoners were treated by most men. She was actually surprised that the innocent girl had survived it.
"I know not," Tess replied, hiccuping slightly around a sob. "I recall going to her however. And she turned me away."
Mary looked at Max. "It is clear that she was trying to protect Michael and Tess, likely felt that Sir Kyle would perhaps let them go if she stayed."
Max closed his eyes briefly, then said grimly. "It is <i>more</i> than likely that is how she saw it. It is most typical of my wife." He sighed. "We will go after her, of course. Immediately. My only consolation is that Sir Kyle will not hurt her to avoid the queen’s wrath."
"I know it will be difficult, Maxwell, but I suggest that we wait at least until darkness falls again," Alex said. "The cover of night will be an advantage. It will also give Michael and the Lady Tess time to rest. We will likely need their gifts if we are to succeed."
Max seemed to want to refuse, but one glance at Michael appeared to change his mind. "Very well. But we cannot simply sit idly all day." He glanced towards the door, where the new day’s sun was <i>just</i> beginning to filter through the trees. "I could not bear it." He ran his hands through his dark hair in frustration after setting Tess gently away from him.
"There are many things we can do." Tess’s voice was gaining in strength. "We must find Lord Edmund."
Isabel and Mary exchanged pained glances. Isabel moved closer to her sister, brought her arm around the smaller girl. "Sweeting, do you not know? Lord Edmund has passed on. He was killed when you were captured."
Tess scowled. "I know it, Isabel. But Lord Edmund <i>cannot</i> die. It was what he told me privately when he first found us in the forest, before much of this even occurred." She paused, looked pensive. "Perhaps he had a premonition that he would be hurt, but he told me that we could bring him back if anything were to happen to him."
"Bring him back?" Michael said in disbelief. "But <i>how?</i>"
Mary could feel her heart beating unnaturally. She was constantly amazed by every new power her friends revealed, but to bring back the dead? It was beyond amazing. It was god-like - and frightening to even contemplate.
"With the healing stones that are hidden in our birthplace," Tess replied calmly. Mary stared at her. How could this be the same hysterical girl from minutes before? She felt suspicion beginning to penetrate her earlier sympathies, but listened quietly as Tess explained the process.
Max was also listening, a slight frown on his face. Mary saw it when she glanced impulsively towards their leader, as everyone else seemed to be doing as well. In fact, Tess was basically addressing him alone. They all waited breathlessly to see what he would say.
"It sounds fantastic," Max finally admitted. "But I do not think that Lord Edmund would lie about such a thing." There was another long pause. "Very well, here is what we shall do. Alexander," Max looked at Mary’s brother as he spoke. "You will take the evidence that Mary and I uncovered and go to London to see the queen. She must be brought here to put down the rebellion that is in the making against the king."
Alex did not look convinced. "But, Max, you will require my sword when we rescue Elizabeth this night."
Max answered his friend sternly. "Nay. I will not have you recognized should anything go awry, Alex. There are still many who would doubt that a baron would have turned outlaw. We will protect your position and your lands for as long as possible. You will not participate."
"I do not <i>care</i> about my lands!" Alex flared, annoyed.
"I am sure you do not." Max smiled gratefully. "But I care. I will not have you give them up on our account."
"It is for Lizzy!"
"There is to be no argument, Alexander. She <i>will</i> be saved. Do not doubt it," Max replied firmly. "I will not rest until it is so. You must not worry about that. We need the queen to return to take care of the sheriff and Sir Kyle once and for all."
This seemed to appease Alex, because he knew without a doubt that what Max said was the truth. They <i>all</i> knew it. The young king would not stop until he had his wife safely back at his side. "Very well," he agreed grudgingly.
Max nodded. "Michael, you shall take Mary with you to the pod chamber." Mary’s eyes widened at those strange words. She exchanged a look with Alex, who merely shrugged and rolled his eyes. The strange world of their friends was not even worth amazement any longer. "Get the healing stones and bring them back here." He looked at Isabel and Tess. "We will go fetch Lord Edmund." Mary grimaced as she remembered the guardian hanging lifelessly from the tree where she and Max had been forced to leave him. If these four could bring life back to <i>that</i>…well, she would never doubt in miracles again.
"If we can do this all quickly enough, there will be time for a rest prior to the activities of this evening," Max continued. He looked at them each in turn. "And then we will end this once and for all."
Mary felt a shiver descend her spine. Max’s words seemed to indicate that, at least in Sir Kyle’s case, the queen’s judgment might not be required at all. Because Mary did not doubt that Sir Kyle DeValence was unlikely to survive their <i>evening activities</i>, as Max so casually called them.
She knew as well as the rest of them that, as long as Sir Kyle lived, Elizabeth would never be safe. Max knew it better than any of them. And he would no longer tolerate his wife’s life in constant jeopardy, nor would he forgive what had been done to Tess and Michael, both of whom would suffer long-lasting memories of their ordeals. They both appeared capable at the moment, but it wasn’t when they were busy that the horror would haunt them. No, Mary knew it would be when they were supposed to be the most happy, in the quiet moments, in their dreams, for the rest of their lives.
For the first time ever, Mary Delucie felt a pang of sorrow for Sir Kyle, because she truly did not think he knew what he had unleashed. As she looked at Max’s grim face, she only began to understand it herself.
Sir Kyle DeValence would die this night, if it was the last thing Maxwell DeHarding ever did.
"Good morning, milady."
Elizabeth opened her eyes, blinked as her lady-in-waiting, Parkyla, came into the room. She had a large bucket of water over one arm, which she quickly set on the fire to heat. Sighing wearily, Elizabeth sat up and stared at the maid, a little unsure as to why Parkyla was there. She hadn’t expected Kyle to bother about her comfort.
She had barely slept, even though she was exhausted. Her stomach was in knots over Max, especially because she knew that Michael and Tess must have reached him by now. He had to be aware that she did not intend to return to him, that she planned to annul their union. Even if he didn’t believe Tess immediately, which Elizabeth did not think he would, he had to be upset. And it was only going to get worse. Because once he saw her in whatever position Tess was going to create with her gift…He would be devastated.
But he would also be safe. And, at this point, it was all Elizabeth could hope for her beloved. She had never imagined that Sir Kyle DeValence could turn out to be so determined and so hateful, but Max was too vulnerable because of his secret to withstand a long-standing feud. She had to protect him, even if he didn’t want to be protected.
And she had to protect their son, who, even now, was growing in her womb.
She watched Parkyla move around the room efficiently, if carefully, clearly unsure of her lady’s state of mind. But she wasn’t thinking about the maid or about the empty existence her life would become as the wife of Sir Kyle. Instead she was thinking about Max and about how happy he would be if he knew about the baby. She allowed herself to imagine for an instant a world where they could live openly together, where Max’s secret heritage would not matter to anyone, where they could raise their son together and live happily ever after.
But it would not happen in <i>this</i> world, which was full of suspicious and fearful people. They would persecute Max, would support Sir Kyle. Max and his three siblings would be hunted as demons if the world at large knew the truth about them. Not even the queen would be able to protect them if the Church went after them in earnest. It was why Elizabeth had come to the conclusion that Sir Kyle would win in the long-run, no matter how much stronger and more capable Max had always seemed. Max’s secret endangered him and she could not allow herself to endanger him even more. Tess was right. He was obsessed with her - and the sooner he got over it, the more secure he would be.
Elizabeth knew that she could be happy with her dream of him, as long as she knew that he was safe and living, and that he would have the chance to return to his home to reclaim his throne one day. It was his destiny. She was not. But she would have his son to comfort her, a small piece of him that no one could ever take away.
As long as Sir Kyle never knew that the baby was not his. Which meant that she had to have her marriage to Max annulled as soon as possible and that she had to marry Sir Kyle immediately. Tess had promised that she could have a marriage in name only, that she would make it so that Sir Kyle believed that they had consummated the relationship. Although Elizabeth was a little unsure as to how this would work, she believed Tess that she could make it happen. Elizabeth knew that she could trust the other girl, because all Tess wanted was Max and teaming with Elizabeth would make it so that she would have him eventually.
"Would you like to bathe, milady?" Parkyla asked quietly, coming closer slowly, as though afraid Elizabeth might burst into tears at the first sign of kindness. After all, Parkyla was one of the few in the castle who knew what Elizabeth had been through in the past few days. She knew about Max, but even she was unaware how far things had gone. Only the people closest to her in the world - Mary, Alexander, Max’s siblings - really knew. And that’s how it would stay. For Max’s sake. "Sir Kyle has requested your presence in the Great Hall as soon as you are ready."
Elizabeth swallowed, closed her eyes. "Very well. Let us get this over with." She was not looking forward to another confrontation with Kyle, particularly since he was bound to be in a foul mood now that Tess and Michael had escaped. The entire castle had been in an uproar for most of the night, while Kyle had sent guards out in search of the fugitives. And, yet, for the past few hours, things had been surprisingly quiet. Maybe her plan with Tess was already working! Maybe Sir Kyle was giving up his vendetta now that he had Elizabeth exactly where he wanted her!
Suddenly eager to begin the charade that the rest of her life was to be, eager to assure that Max was safe, Elizabeth hurried through her toilette and was descending the stone staircase to the Great Hall within a quarter hour. She had dressed simply, unwilling to enrage Sir Kyle with any show of defiance, and so also kept her eyes demurely lowered and her hands clasped in front of her while she waited for him to notice her.
Kyle was sitting on the dais at the far end of the Hall, reading some proclamation or other. Elizabeth watched him through her lowered lashes, frowning slightly. She wondered momentarily where Sheriff James was, for it seemed that Kyle had taken up the regular duties of the shire.
After what seemed an inordinately long period of time, Kyle raised his head and noticed Elizabeth. He seemed momentarily surprised to see her and, then, a boyish grin broke across his face. Elizabeth blinked, glanced behind her briefly to make sure that no one else was standing there - someone Kyle would be more likely pleased to see. But when he called to her, she realized that he was indeed smiling at <i>her</i> in that friendly manner. "Milady! Good morning!"
Elizabeth walked the length of the Hall at his beckoning gesture, and was even more surprised when he jumped off the dais to meet her half way. She stared at him in astonishment when he picked up her hand and brought it to his lips. "Hello, my love. Did you sleep well?" The gleam in his eyes when he looked at her made a shiver run down Elizabeth’s spine. There was something strange there, something she did not like. He was looking at her like a husband would look at a wife - as Max had looked at her after their first night together, after they had bound themselves physically as well as spiritually. This was not the reception she had been expecting at all!
"I have spoken to my father," Kyle was telling her in a low tone, still with a half-smile on his face. "He is most pleased that we have worked things out and agrees that, due to the circumstances, we shall exchange our vows quietly later this day. He has gone to the abbey to take care of the…<i>problem</i>. Since I now know for certain that it was unconsummated, it should not prove difficult." He smiled at her, making her stomach turn over. Elizabeth knew he was referring to the record of her marriage to Max. Kyle brought his hand down, touched her gently on the stomach. "One can never be too careful that any possible heirs are assured that their parents are wed."
Elizabeth swallowed, stared at him. Could this be real? Had Tess truly succeeded? Did Kyle believe that she had shared his bed and that she had been a virgin as well? This was a miracle beyond anything she could have imagined! It was not until that moment that she realized that she had half-expected Tess not to honour her end of the bargain - that the other girl, who so hated her, would not do anything to make Elizabeth’s life easier. And, yet, Tess had come through. Everything was up to Elizabeth now. She could not spoil this chance. For if Sir Kyle had been <i>welcomed</i> into her bed once already, at least in his mind, he would certainly expect to be welcomed again. The thought was enough to make her physically ill.
No one would <i>ever</i> touch her that way again. Her body belonged to the husband of her heart and since she would never be with him again, she would be chaste. She would play along with this ruse as long as necessary, until the queen arrived, and then she would retire to a convent, as had always been her intent. But, for now, she must play along.
"Indeed," she replied weakly. When Kyle continued to stare at her, as though expecting more, she added a perfunctory, "My love," although she almost choked on the words.
"It is a new start for us, milady," Kyle said quietly. "I will be a good husband, Elizabeth. I promise you. I have made plans already that will ensure my position under the new king and we will make a successful life together. You have pleased me inordinately."
Elizabeth frowned slightly. "The new king?" she asked, unsure to what he was referring.
"King John," Kyle replied. "Have not heard, my love? The messenger came only this morning. King John has gathered the support of enough barons. He has made a play for the throne and it is entirely likely that he will succeed."
She was horrified. "But King Richard will return! There can be no doubt of it. The queen was close to ransoming him. We cannot have two kings in England!"
"Since your former love stole those taxes, my sweet," Kyle frowned, "The ransom never reached London. Richard will never return to England now."
Elizabeth’s heart ached for the queen. Her favorite son appeared on the verge of losing his throne, despite all the efforts the elderly lady had made to hold it for him. And now there would be civil war between Richard and John, which would break Eleanor’s heart. "Kyle, I must go to the queen. She will need me."
Kyle’s eyes narrowed. "Perhaps soon, my <i>dearest</i>. But not immediately. We will be newly married. I could not do without you so soon."
Elizabeth bit her lip, ready to put on the performance of her life. "But, Kyle, surely you are aware…" She trailed off, grimacing prettily. "We cannot be together again anytime soon."
Kyle stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"We must wait, my lord." She smiled at him. "I am delicate and if I bear your child, I must assure that I keep it safe." She looked away, pretending shyness she certainly did not feel. Mary would be impressed were she here. She might even tell Elizabeth she should join the next troupe of entertainers that came through Nottingham. "I can not…<i>be</i> with you again until I am certain I am not with child. Surely you know this about ladies?" Elizabeth was counting on the fact that Kyle would know nothing of the sort. He had rarely been in company of gentlewomen since his mother had died when he was but a young boy. And while she knew now that he certainly wasn’t as stupid as she had once thought him, he was fairly <i>uneducated</i> when it came to women, as his behavior over the last week had shown.
Kyle appeared dumbfounded. "But… but, this is intolerable, Elizabeth!"
"It is the way things are done, my lord." She crossed her fingers behind her back and said a silent prayer that Kyle would be too embarrassed to discuss this matter with his father. "And, while I know that I pleased you last night, it was…" She trailed off, let her voice tremble slightly, which wasn’t difficult considering what she was about to say was the truth. "Last night was difficult for me." It had been more than <i>difficult</i>, Elizabeth reflected. It had been devastating to know that the only way to keep Max safe was to give him up.
She smiled at Sir Kyle again. "I pray you are not angered my…<i>husband</i>," she finished quietly. His eyes brightened slightly.
"How long?" Kyle demanded, apparently willing to accept this story. Elizabeth felt her heart pound with pleasure.
"Oh, not more than three months," she replied breezily. "I will know for certain in that time I am sure." <i>I will be long protected in a convent by that time as well,</i> she thought. It would be plenty of time to contact the queen and to throw herself on Eleanor’s mercy. If her guardian knew how truly wretched she was, Elizabeth did not doubt that she would allow her to retire from secular life. And then she would be able to raise her child in peace.
"<i>Three months!</i>" Kyle exclaimed. "Elizabeth, I really do not think…"
"I thank you, my lord," Elizabeth stammered, cutting him off smoothly. "But I think I will return to my chamber now. I am most fatigued." She curtsied prettily. "I will see you later my lord <i>husband</i>." She barely managed to contain the sneer that wanted to invade her voice.
And, with that, she turned on her heel and swept away, leaving him gaping after her.
"What <i>is</i> this place?" Mary asked quietly, as Michael took her hand and led her carefully around the boulders which hid the cave where he had been born. "You called it the pod chamber, but what does that mean?"
Michael grimaced slightly. He had not been pleased when Max had paired him with Mary for his morning task. It was not that he was unhappy to be with her, but he was slightly ashamed of this place and he was not looking forward to having to explain to her exactly how he had been born. He did not know if she would even be capable of understanding how his second life had come to be. It was surprising enough that she accepted that he was not human so readily. They were pushing their luck, he felt, by letting humans know about the pods.
But Max had said something to him before they had parted on their separate ways the hour before. Pulling Michael aside, he had quietly murmured. "Unbend, Michael. You will never receive the true joy that can be brought into your life unless you do. You deserve happiness, brother."
Michael stared at him, unsure what Maxwell was saying. "I am perfectly happy with my lot in life. It is my pleasure to serve you, my king."
Max just stared at him for a long moment, and then had said, "Michael, I do not understand why you cannot remember your ordeal, but, at least, try and recall why you fought so hard to stay alive." He grinned slightly. "No matter how hard you try and convince yourself, I do not think it was because of <i>me.</i>"
Now, as Michael swiped his hand across the stone face that hid the cave, he realized what Max had meant. As the silver hand- print appeared, he heard Mary gasp slightly, but when he turned to look at her, she was gazing steadily at him, unafraid.
It was in that instant that a flash of himself in the dungeon below Nottingham Castle nearly brought him to his knees.
He remembered the cold. He remembered the damp. He remembered being afraid, wondering if he should just throw himself on the mercy of the Church, whether he should just take whatever penalty they assigned demons in this day and age. It was why he had forced Isabel out of his head. He had not wanted her to see that he was ready to give up, that he <i>wanted</i> to let go, that he was tired of being afraid. He did not belong in this world and perhaps it had been time to accept it once and for all.
It had been after all this had gone through his mind that it had seemed as though he was no longer alone. She had come to him - and she had saved him.
Because, suddenly, without warning, Mary Delucie - the same Mary who now stood at his side waiting for whatever wonder would greet her next - had appeared before him. And she had spoken to him, repeating the words she had said to him when he had first kissed her in the forest only days before. It was strange to realize that he had known her for so little time. It felt like forever. Even then, in that dungeon, when he had never felt more alone or far from those he loved, he had felt her warmth wrap around him.
<i>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.</i>
Her words had returned to him and it was in that moment that he had decided that he would <i>live</i>. He wanted to live - for her. Nor would he be ashamed of who he was any longer.
He had forgotten all of this until now. Michael frowned, unsure why that was. Everything about his time in the castle was just <i>gone</i> from his mind. It was supremely frustrating. But <i>she</i> had come back to him. Mary had saved him.
And, now, he was about to show her their deepest secret. He <i>wanted</i> her to know. He was no longer shamed by it. Michael placed his hand firmly on the hand-print and the entrance to the cave slid open. He reached back, took Mary by the hand again and said, "Come."
"You speak!" she exclaimed. When he looked back at her in surprise, she elaborated. "You do know you have not said a single word to me since you escaped, Michael."
"I have so!" he returned sharply, although, as he reflected on it, he thought that perhaps she was right. It had not been a long trip to the pod chamber. It was located fairly near to Lord Edmund’s hunting lodge after all, one reason their guardian had built the small cottage where he had.
"No, not one single word." Michael frowned when he heard her voice tremble. "I am sorry if I am a nuisance. I merely want to help you…all." She added as an afterthought.
"I know it," Michael told her, gentling his voice. "I am sorry."
"You have been through much," Mary replied. "It is fine."
"It is <i>not</i>," Michael replied. "I have been nothing but cruel to you since we first met." He paused. "Why are you still here?" he asked, not critically, but simply because he wanted to know. He wanted to know for sure that he was not the only one on the verge of feeling things that were insane, things he knew should not be.
"You know why," she whispered, her lashes suddenly wet with tears.
He felt his heart contract. "I do not know, Mary. Tell me." How could this be happening? How could he have met this girl - this human - and she just changed <i>everything</i> he believed in, everything he knew to be true about himself? He was supposed to be a king’s right-hand, was supposed to marry a princess, was supposed to be the one who most wanted to return to their home to make things right. And, now, here he stood in the middle of a forest, his heart pounding, desperate for this girl to tell him that she <i>loved</i> him, that she wanted him.
How had this happened?
Mary was staring at him, her expression unreadable. Her eyes were bright, but she did not seem upset any longer. Instead she reached out a trembling hand and brought it up to cup his face. "You are afraid."
Michael did not answer, simply stared at her. He could not admit it - that he could not make the first move. He could not risk that she did not feel the same way, although he already knew she did.
"When you were gone, Michael…" Mary closed her eyes. "I am ashamed to say, that while I worried for Elizabeth, it was the thought of <i>you</i> in danger that made my heart break. I know it is absurd, that we barely know each other, but I…"
He cut her off abruptly, unable to stop himself, not quite ready to hear the words. Grabbing her around the waist, he pulled her against him and brought his mouth down onto hers. He felt her melt against him, her hands winding through his hair, bringing them closer together.
After what seemed like mere moments, but was surely longer, she finally pulled back, her eyes twinkling. "Well, that was better than words. You don’t have to ever talk to me again if that’s the result."
Michael felt his lips twitching. "If we don’t speak, how are we to argue?" he asked, pressing another light kiss against her full lips.
She laughed. "You are right." There was a long pause and, then, "Michael, what of Isabel?"
"Isabel is my sister," he replied. "I love her and I always will. But…I am starting to realize that it is unlikely that we will ever all end up married to each other. If Max does not have to marry Tess, I do not see why I should be forced to marry against my will."
"Will she be upset?" Mary asked, although her tone seemed to indicate that she expected his answer when he said,
"Nay. I doubt it very much."
"Because of Alexander." She was pleased. He could tell.
"Perhaps, but that is for them to decide," he told her warningly. "We will not interfere."
She looked pensive. "I think it has already been decided. Did you not see the way they looked at each other when he left for London?"
"I saw," Michael told her. "But, we do not have time to stand around gossiping like a pair of fishwives. There is work to be done."
He saw her eyes flit over his shoulder and into the darkness of the pod chamber behind him. "Do you really think this is going to work, Michael? I have witnessed many marvels since I met you all, but to actually bring someone back from the dead…"
Michael shivered, remembering the way he had been forced to take deep breaths to avoid illness when he and Elizabeth had stumbled across Lord Edmund in the forest three days ago. His grief had been strong, but more because of the finality of their guardian’s death than any particular sadness. He had never loved Lord Edmund as Tess had, had respected him, but did not miss him particularly. He had always followed Max first after all. In spite of his many threats to his brother that he would go to Lord Edmund to set Max straight, they had mostly been just that - threats to get his king to think more carefully about whatever plan he was setting out on at the time.
In the end, Michael was unsure if he even wanted Lord Edmund back. It was not that he did not regret the awful way their guardian had died, but as he led Mary through into the pod chamber, he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that bringing Lord Edmund back would change everything again. And Michael knew for certain that he did not want things to return to the way they had been before. Not at all.
Before, there had been no Mary. There had been no girl who made him feel like perhaps he could live out his life on this planet happily, that he could accept once and for all that he was more human than anything.
But there was no time to think about that now. They had to return to the others with the healing stones of which Tess had spoken. Because, in the end, there was truly no question that if they could, the would bring their guardian back. He had died in a bid to protect them. Twas all he had ever done. They <i>owed</i> him another chance at life.
"Michael?" Mary asked, squeezing his hand. He realized that he had not answered her question.
"I know not," he told her honestly. "But we will find out soon enough."
They had been wandering through the long tunnel that led to the chamber proper, which threw a light glow into the corridor, and now he paused. "Are you sure you are ready to see this?" he asked. "It is likely not what you are expecting."
Mary grinned. "Nothing has turned out as I expected over the past few days. I am ready."
Michael dropped his gaze. "It is mildly disturbing, Mary. It is…unnatural."
She lifted her hand and stroked his face. "Michael, anything that brought me you will simply awe me, not disgust me."
When their eyes met for a brief second, he allowed himself to believe her. He was ready to show her everything, to let her <i>see</i> who he truly was, once and for all.
"Very well, then."
They stepped through into the dull light.