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.

Moderators: Anniepoo98, Rowedog, ISLANDGIRL5, Itzstacie, truelovepooh, FSU/MSW-94, Hunter, Island Breeze, Forum Moderators

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Wed Aug 24, 2005 12:53 pm

AN -
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.
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? :wink: But it is very frustrating. Worry not! It all comes to a head soon.



<u>Part 35</u>

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.

<u>Part 36</u>

"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.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Thu Aug 25, 2005 10:38 am

AN - Thanks, everyone!

<u>Part 37</u>

Isabel swallowed and briefly closed her eyes as she followed Max and Tess out onto the road through the forest. "Oh my stars. Max!" She turned around sharply, so that she could no longer see Lord Edmund’s corpse. Tess had rushed forward, was waving her hands through the air to send the ravens gathered around his body flying away. Isabel saw a glimpse of the fury in her sister’s blue eyes before she turned.

It was only right that Tess would be the most upset at the sight of what had become of their guardian. She had always been his pet, had always loved him like the father he had never tried to be to them. Isabel knew that Lord Edmund had not loved them, had seen his care of them to be nothing more than his duty, but he <i>had</i> protected them with everything that he was. While she had fought against his constraining ways for most of her life, she could not be anything but sorry that he had met such a horrifying end.

"I know, Bella. Just try and remember that we’re going to bring him back." The flat tone of her brother’s voice made Isabel look at him. He was moving toward their guardian, his face expressionless. She wondered if Max truly believed that Tess was right - that they could revive Lord Edmund. She knew that <i>she</i> wasn’t so sure. She thought that she and her brothers and sister had depths of power of which they were unaware, but to bring back the dead? It seemed beyond impossible. His jaw stiffened as Isabel watched him. "Let’s get this over with."

Close to half an hour later they had Lord Edmund’s body down and secured over Evander’s broad back. Max led the horse into the foliage along the side of the road. Isabel’s heart was beating unsteadily as she looked around nervously. They had been out in the open for far too long. It was extremely nerve-wracking, particularly as the fact that neither Tess nor Michael could remember anything about their captivity in Nottingham Castle made it so that they had no idea what Sir Kyle and the sheriff were planning for them. Because there could be little doubt that neither man would give up their search for the <i>demons</i> haunting Sherwood Forest just because Sir Kyle had Elizabeth back in his clutches. It did not seem unlikely that they would be keeping a close watch on their guardian’s body, expecting one of them to return to give Lord Edmund a proper burial.

As Isabel pushed Tess lightly ahead of her, her small sister beginning to falter with exhaustion, she realized that she had been right to be concerned. They had barely managed to conceal themselves back in the shadows of the trees when the thunder of horses’ hooves started to shake the ground. Max paused, turned and shot Tess and Isabel a warning glance. They both came to an abrupt halt, knowing that movement of any sort was bound to attract attention. It did not stop Max from using the darkness of the forest to his advantage though. He pushed his way back towards the road, a slight frown on his face. Isabel guessed that he wanted to see what was happening, because, hadn’t they discovered much of what had aided them over the past few days quite by accident?

Isabel’s neck straightened as a bell began to toll in the distance. She guessed that it was coming from St. Mary’s Convent which was very close to where they stood hidden. But the ringing was far from the slow, steady clangs one expected from a nunnery when it was calling its sisters to prayer. Instead it tolled quickly, the sound almost panicked. "Max?" Isabel whispered, afraid. Why would the feeling that everything was about to change again - and not for the better - not go away?

"Stay here," Max murmured in a low tone. "I will return."

"Max!" Tess’s voice raised itself, panicked, but Isabel put her arm around her to quiet her quickly.

Her brother seemed to be gone forever. Isabel had just about made up her mind to go after him when he returned, melting from the shadows. One look at his face and she knew it was bad - <i>very</i> bad. "Max?"

"The Sheriff of Nottingham and his men just burnt the chapel at the convent to the ground," Max told them evenly. He took up Evander’s reins and began to lead the horse again. Isabel grabbed Tess by the hand and pulled her sister firmly after her, ignoring the fact that Tess was so tired she was beginning to trip over her own feet.

"Why? To what purpose? Max, that is sacrilege!" Isabel exclaimed quietly. "According to Mary, the sheriff is a God-fearing man. Why would he do such a thing?"

"Liz and I were married in that chapel," Max replied, his tone dark.

Isabel gasped, understanding immediately. "They are trying to erase your marriage?"

"Indeed. With no record that we are wed - and the only proof was in that chapel - my wife will be free to marry again." Isabel looked at her brother’s face. She could see a vein beginning to pulse in his neck, his rage barely held in check. It was only then that she began to realize how personal the rivalry between Max and Sir Kyle was becoming. Max was going to <i>kill</i> Kyle the next time he saw him. There could be no doubt of it. And it was also not until that moment that Isabel truly understood how much Sir Kyle DeValence hated her brother. He would not <i>stop</i> until he defeated Max, having convinced his own father - the rightful law in the shire - to commit the crime he just had.

"Max, I am sorry." Isabel and Max both looked at Tess in surprise. "That this is happening I mean." Isabel narrowed her eyes. Tess noticed and scowled at her. "I am, Bella! I may not like Elizabeth, but I certainly do not want Max to be miserable." There was a long pause and, then, "But maybe this is all for the best."

Isabel rolled her eyes. "I was waiting for that."

"You know that Lord Edmund is going to be furious when we bring him back and he discovers that Max has wed without his permission!" Tess exclaimed defensively. "This will make sure that he need never know."

"And the fact that Max fully intends to rescue Elizabeth? That we <i>know</i> that Elizabeth will refuse to marry Sir Kyle, just like last time?" Isabel asked, wondering why her brother was not intervening, why he had not said anything to naysay Tess. She looked at him. He was staring unseeing into the trees, a strange look on his face. "Max, is this not true?"

He did not answer Isabel. Instead he addressed Tess, his voice soft. "Tess, do you truly not remember anything of your conversation with my wife?"

Isabel watched in surprise as Tess blanched at the question. "No, Max. I swear it!"

"Tess, I must have the truth," Max insisted sternly. "You <i>do</i> remember, don’t you?"

Tess’s hands were twisting in front of her in dismay by now. "Yes," she finally admitted quietly. "I didn’t want to tell you, Max!" she wailed. "I hoped I wouldn’t have to, hoped that you would forget her when we brought Lord Edmund back, when we returned to Antar. Because there is no choice now you know. We <i>must</i> go back! As soon as we revive Lord Edmund, we must!"

Max let out a long breath. Isabel could tell he was trying to stay patient but that he was on the verge of grabbing Tess and shaking the truth out of her. "Tell me," he ground out through clenched teeth.

Tears were streaming down Tess’s face. "She…she told me that she had made a mistake. That she did not want you anymore. That now that she was back in the castle, she realized that she was not made to be the wife of an outlaw and that she was too practical to want to live the life we have been forced into any longer."

Isabel felt her mouth fall open. These words did not sound like the Elizabeth she knew at all. She agreed with the assessment that Max’s bride was practical, but all of her common sense flew out the window when it came to Isabel’s brother. Why would she so suddenly change her mind? She stared at her sister suspiciously. "Tess, are these untruths?"

She was forced to take a step backwards when Tess whirled on her, her expression fierce. "You would think so, would you not, Bella? You <i>would</i> believe in a girl you have known for less than a sennight over your own sister! You barely <i>know</i> the lady and, yet, <i>I</i> must be lying." She turned to Max, pointing an accusing finger at the man who had been her betrothed all her life. "And <i>you</i> threw me over without a single care for my feelings or for the fact that she is not <i>right</i> for you! Yet, I still love you and care for you and tried to keep this from you so that you would not be hurt! I hoped that we would return to Antar without you ever knowing that she is a flighty bitch who lived out her courtly dreams, but when things became too difficult, she chose to return to her comfortable life. Max! She is a noblewoman! Do you truly believe she could ever have been happy in the forest?"

Tess was panting in rage by the time she was finished. Isabel stared at her, unsure what to say. She could feel the shock coming off Max in waves as well. Their shy, malleable sister had never shown this side of her character. It made Bella almost afraid of her.

But Tess’s words could not be ignored, mainly because it was so uncharacteristic of her to lose complete control in this way, to attack Max of all people in such a way. She and Tess had had their squabbles over the years, but Tess had <i>never</i> been anything but submissive and gentle in her dealings with Max. Isabel stared at her brother, could see the same thoughts passing through his head.

Because, in the end, what did they really know about Lady Elizabeth de Parkville? What Tess said was true. They had only known her for a little over a week. Had both she and Max only seen what they wanted to see because they both so craved society with others, because they had both been so lonely in their exile at Castle DeHarding? Isabel had been attracted to Elizabeth’s friend, Alexander, and, so, had she ignored what Tess was saying about Elizabeth’s nature? Because, after all, if Max, their king, did not have to follow his destiny by marrying Tess, than why should she and Michael? It had freed her to follow her heart with Alex. Had that been the reasoning behind her blind faith in the young noblewoman? In the end, all of them - Max included - had actually spent more time in the company of both Delucies than they had Elizabeth. There could be no doubt that Elizabeth’s friends were worthy and loyal, but could the same be said for the lady herself?

And, yet, Isabel could see her brother’s face hardening even as she watched. He had listened to Tess and, yet, he still believed in his wife. Deep down, Isabel knew that she did too. They could not have been so mislead. It was impossible! Isabel had <i>seen</i> the way Elizabeth looked at Max. There could be no doubt that she loved him. She practically glowed in his presence.

She and Max exchanged a long look. Not for the first time, she was pleased that she and her brother always understood each other so well. Max’s expression was telling her not to show Tess that they did not believe her, that there was something else going on, something that neither of them even wanted to contemplate, but which this little outburst was going to force them to confront later, in private.

Because Michael did not remember what had happened in Nottingham Castle. He did not remember how he had ended up there, nor how he had escaped. And now it had been revealed that Tess <i>did</i>. That she had lied and that she did know the whole story. It had never even occurred to Isabel before that Michael’s memory lapse could be because of anything other than a sound bump to the head at the hands of Sir Kyle or his soldiers. It had not crossed her mind that Tess’s gift could somehow be responsible.

It had never crossed her mind that her sister might be capable of treachery on the level that Isabel was now imagining. But looking at the fiercely possessive look on Tess’s face as she stared at Max, waiting for his answer, Isabel <i>could</i> believe it.

"I am sorry, Tess," Max said quietly, his voice betraying nothing of what he had just said to Isabel with his eyes. "You are right. I had forgotten how much I have hurt you in all this. Will you forgive me, sweeting? We will know the truth about Elizabeth soon enough, I am sure." This last bit was said so fiercely, Isabel wondered how her sister could not see how furious Max really was under his calm facade.

Tess continued to eye him, her expression wild, but finally she wilted and fell against him. "I’m sorry, Max! I didn’t want to tell you. I <i>love</i> you!"

"I know it," Max replied, pulling her closer gently, carefully. Isabel did not miss the shudder of revulsion that ran through him as he did so though. There could be no doubt then. Max believed just as she did. Tess had betrayed them. She didn’t know exactly how, but Isabel was almost positive it was true.

It frightened her more than anything else yet had. Had they a viper in their own nest? She forced herself to follow after Max and Tess quietly, willed herself not to betray her new knowledge to her sister. She could not accuse her until they had spoken with Michael, until they had figured out exactly <i>why</i> he could not remember.

Until then, she would hold onto the hope that she and Max were mistaken. She <i>loved</i> her sister and did not want to believe it, did not want to know that everything she thought to be true about Tess was a lie.

And, yet, as she watched Tess clutch at Max’s hand desperately, Isabel knew that everything she had ever known was about to come tumbling down around her anyway.

<u>Part 38</u>

Alexander had been riding for close to half the day, when he stopped to water his horse. By nightfall he would have left the forest, but even continuing at the pace he was currently setting, he knew that he could not reach London in less than three days. He had absolutely no desire to kill his horse and, even if he traded him at the next town and rode straight through without sleeping or eating, this journey would not end soon enough to be of any real help to his friends, or even the king. It was true that at least Queen Eleanor would be aware of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s treachery, but by the time Alex reached her, Prince John could already be in firm control of the country. All John needed to do was seize the treasury and any hope of ransoming Richard would disappear, leaving the throne empty and John, as regent, in charge.

As he remounted, Alex reflected bitterly on the fact that the treasure Mary and Max had hidden in the forest would have made all the difference in saving the king. But, until he reached Eleanor, it was useless and Richard would continue to rot in his German prison. When Alex had told Mary that he really didn’t care whether it was Richard or John on the throne, he had not been lying. At least John cared enough about England to stay on its shores. But, because of his loyalty to Eleanor, Alex would continue to support her favorite son, and for that reason, he was angry that Nottingham’s taxes had been saved for naught.

His main concern in all of this though was, of course, Lizzy. If the queen only knew the disaster she had set in motion by betrothing her ward to Sir Kyle, he was sure she would regret it. She might even agree to allow Maxwell and Elizabeth to stay married because of the sheriff’s perfidy and Max’s loyalty. Maxwell of Huntington had no real reason for that fidelity after all. He was a king in his own right, but he knew how important Eleanor, and consequentially Richard, were to his wife, and so he had risked his own life to save those taxes. The queen could not overlook such an act.

Of course, none of this made a shred of difference, considering the fact that there was no way that Alexander was going to reach the queen in time for her to help. By the time they returned to Nottingham, especially considering the slow pace at which the elderly Eleanor’s cortège tended to travel, Kyle could have figured out a way to marry Elizabeth, in spite of the vows she had already exchanged with Max. Alex would not put it past their enemy to ignore the first wedding completely. He had no qualms at raping and pillaging after all. What was a little bigamy when a fortune the size of Lizzy’s was involved?

Alexander reflected grimly that he should have allowed his sword to take Kyle’s head during their mock battle the week before. Had he done so, none of this would have occurred. But, then, without Kyle’s infernal interference, it was unlikely that Alexander would have ever met Isabel either. There was no way Alexander could ever regret that. Even now he remembered the sweetness with which she had kissed him, remembered lovingly the bravery she had shown in her dream searches for Michael.

The chance to love Isabel DeHarding was worth any price and Alexander was determined that he would not fail her. This had to work out somehow. It simply had to!

So it was that Alexander Delucie was feeling slightly more optimistic as he broke through the final trees and emerged on the southern plain that marked the entrance to Sherwood. And well he should have, because arrayed before him was an extensive camp, dominated by a large pavilion over which flew Eleanor of Aquitaine’s standard. He actually felt tears fill his eyes at the sight of it and crossed himself, saying a silent prayer of thanks to his Lord and Maker.

The battle was far from over.

***

Mary breathed a sigh of relief when Maxwell, Isabel, and Tess broke through the trees and into the clearing marked by Lord Edmund’s hunting lodge. She was holding Michael’s hand, seated beside him on a bench outside the cottage. She felt the spasm that had gone through him at the sight of Lord Edmund’s body tied face-down to Evander. She knew that Michael still regretted that he had been unable to save his guardian from the fate that had befallen him, nor Tess from the ordeal she had undergone in Nottingham Castle.

There was no time left for sorrow, however. Mary knew from the conversation that she and Michael had held on the return from the pod chamber, as Michael called the place of his birth, that Michael did not regret meeting her any longer, nor Elizabeth or Alexander. From the way Michael spoke of Elizabeth, Mary understood that her beloved held her closest friend in a great deal of respect now, and not simply because she was his queen through her marriage to Maxwell. He had recognized Lizzy’s true worth during their time together prior to their capture and was just as determined as any of them to rescue her.

It was why he jumped to his feet now, pulling Mary up after him. Mary did not miss the way Tess’s blue eyes sparked with annoyance at the sight of her hand still in Michael’s, but she ignored it. Mary did not care a fig what Tess thought. She was the only one whose attitude towards the humans had not changed. Mary could not blame her, after all the small blonde had undergone at the hands of Sir Kyle, but she could not like her, not even out of loyalty to Lizzy. Tess was not a kind person and that was all there was to it.

"Did you get them?" Maxwell asked, drawing Mary out of her analysis of Tess’s character. He too seemed to notice how closely Michael was holding Mary, but he did not appear at all surprised, nor displeased. His dark eyes were, in fact, unreadable at the moment. Mary glanced at Isabel and saw that her friend was also holding herself quite stiffly, as though something of great meaning had taken place in the forest. Mary frowned and wondered at it.

"Yes," Michael replied. He looked at Tess. "Although I still don’t think this is going to work."

"The healing stones were where Lord Edmund said they would be, were they not?" Tess demanded, sticking her nose in the air. Mary watched Michael press his lips together, but he nodded.

"Very well then," Maxwell sighed. "Let us try this." He addressed Tess. "Did Lord Edmund explain to you how to do it?"

"Yes," Tess replied, her tone softening because she was now speaking to Max. "It must be done outside so that we can use the power of nature."

Mary stared at Tess, felt her heart beginning to flutter nervously. She was actually going to watch her friends try to bring someone back to life. While she had already witnessed Max’s healing of Elizabeth, she still could not quite grasp the concept that anyone besides their Lord and Savior would even attempt such a thing. She had been raised all her life to believe that no one had the power of life and death other than the Father in Heaven and it was only now that she understood that everything she had ever been taught was, in some ways, a lie. She had never cared as much for learning as Elizabeth, or even Alexander, but at least she had hoped that what she was being taught was the truth.

Mary realized that Maxwell was regarding her seriously. "Mary, you need not watch this if you do not like to." She met his gaze, saw that he seemed to understand what was running through her mind.

"No, I want to," Mary replied.

"Your God still exists, in spite of what we can do," Maxwell continued quietly. "We are <i>not</i> gods, but simply different because of the gifts we possess. We are not all powerful and certainly not all-forgiving." His tone darkened, making Mary frown slightly because she saw Isabel flinch at that last comment.

Was it her imagination or was Maxwell making a concerted effort <i>not</i> to look at Tess? Mary’s eyes met Isabel’s. The tall blonde looked upset. Mary raised an eyebrow at her questioningly, but Isabel simply mouthed the word <i>later</i>. Mary nodded, understanding. She felt warmth enter her heart that Isabel felt close enough to her to even share that much.

"I want to," Mary repeated when she realized that Maxwell was still waiting for an answer.

"Very well then." Max moved to Evander and gently lifted Lord Edmund’s body to the ground. Michael hurried away from Mary to lend a hand. When they had settled their guardian’s corpse, Max, who was crouched over the body, glanced up at Tess. "You will lead us through this, Tess."

Mary took a step backwards, in order to not get in the way. She watched Michael hand the velvet bag they had found in the pod chamber to Tess, who opened it carefully. She removed the amber stones within and handed one to Michael, before moving toward Lord Edmund’s body and giving a stone to Max and then Isabel, as well.

"We should all take our places around him," Tess explained. "One of us at each of the four points of the wind. His head should be facing North." She looked at Max. "You will be placed there, and Isabel at the south, as you are the two of us who carry royal blood."

Mary saw Isabel jump at that. She looked at Tess in shock. "Then it is true? Maxwell and I are siblings?"

"Yes," Tess replied grimly. "Zan and Vilandra were brother and sister." She did not elaborate.

"How long have you known this?" Michael demanded.

"Not long," Tess said. "I swear it."

Mary did not miss how Isabel and Maxwell’s eyes met and locked from their respective positions. She frowned slightly, wondering again what in the world was going on between the three who had retrieved Lord Edmund’s body. It was becoming ever more clear to her that it was something monumental. It was as though every word out of Tess’s mouth was being judged and weighed by either Max or Isabel and that they were looking to each other for agreement on the conclusions they drew. Very strange. What had Tess done? This could not be a result of the simple bad-mouthing of Elizabeth for which Tess was commonly guilty.

Mary glanced at Michael, saw that he seemed to be watching the interplay between Max and Isabel as well. He was scowling, but managed to focus on Tess again when she continued, "Michael, you will take West and I will take East."

Mary tried to ignore her curiosity about the tension in the air and focused on the stone in Michael’s hand. How could a simple rock, even one from another world, bring someone as lifeless as Lord Edmund back to life? It seemed completely impossible and, yet, from the expression of determination that was now appearing on Tess’s face, the small blonde had no doubts.

"Close your eyes," Tess instructed quietly. Max, Isabel and Michael complied immediately. They had all automatically clasped their hands together and their stones were resting on their palms in almost exactly the same position, although Tess had not told them to do so. Mary felt her heart skip a beat, wondered if some inherent knowledge of what to do was not overtaking her friends.

"Now concentrate on connecting to each other," Tess continued. "Once that is done, Max will take control of our essences through the stones and will use them to force Lord Edmund awake."

Silence fell over the clearing. Mary could hear her own erratic breathing, but as she continued to watch the other four, it seemed to her that all of their chests stopped moving. Just as she was wondering if she should intervene, completely unwilling for them to sacrifice themselves in the attempt to resurrect someone already dead, she noticed that the stone in Isabel’s hands was beginning to glow. Mary felt her eyes widen as her gaze skipped to the other three and saw that the same thing was happening.

Time seemed to stand still. Mary looked at Lord Edmund’s face and was, thus, the first to see a spasm of movement cross its placid expression. She gasped and stumbled backwards when the grey-haired man suddenly took a deep breath and, in the next instant, sat straight up, his eyes meeting hers.

It had worked. By all that was holy, they had brought him back from the dead. Mary crossed herself quickly, but when she next glanced at Michael she saw that his eyes were open and that he had seen her do it. His expression darkened, but he didn’t say anything, merely joined Max in helping their guardian to his feet.

It took Mary a moment to realize that Lord Edmund was speaking, mainly addressing Tess, but it was clear that he was talking to all of them. "I am proud of you."

Tess threw herself at her guardian. "Thank the stars you are back. Everything has gone completely <i>wrong</i> since you left us."

Lord Edmund frowned, looked at Max. "What has happened that could possibly be worse than what occurred before?"

Max did not cower under the older man’s fierce regard though. Instead he met his gaze steadily and replied, "Nothing that I have not willed. I am king here and it is time that it is recognized, milord. I am glad that we were able to bring you back, but it will not change anything that we still intend to do."

"What does this mean?" Lord Edmund demanded, setting Tess away from him and looking to Michael next. "Michael, I expect I can depend on you to tell me the truth."

Mary felt a flash of pride when Michael simply folded his arms and went to stand beside Max. Isabel was already there, of course.

"My wife has been captured," Max told Lord Edmund. "And we fully intend to go after her."

"Your wife stands right here," Lord Edmund flared. He indicated Tess, who was glaring at Max. "No human ties you create can change that Tess is your queen, Maxwell." He glanced at Mary disdainfully, causing a flash of fear to descend Mary’s spine. She took another unwilling step backwards.

"No," Max replied. "I refuse to acknowledge Tess as anything other than my sister. She may have been my wife in another life, but I am a different person now. I am half human and I choose to take a bride here." He softened at Lord Edmund’s look of befuddlement, it being as though he couldn’t quite believe that Max was openly defying him. "It does not change that we will return to Antar, milord. I promise that we will, but without Elizabeth I have no heart for the fight. I <i>need</i> her," he finished simply. Mary could hear the plea in his voice for Lord Edmund to understand, so that they would not have to break from him entirely.

The resurrected Lord Edmund stared at Max for what felt like forever, glancing at Isabel and Michael, examining their expressions closely, before finally sighing. "Very well then. You are right that, in the end, as long as the Royal Four are united and strong, it makes little difference."

"What?" Tess shrieked. "My lord! Do not do this to me! You are my only hope! You cannot allow that bitch to take my place!"

"Calm down, Tess," Lord Edmund said flatly. "You will still be queen on Antar. A human cannot hold that position. She will be Max’s wife, but you will rule."

Mary saw a bevy of emotions cross Tess’s pretty face. They ranged from shock to rage to despair. Mary almost felt sorry for her because she understood the one thing that Lord Edmund did not. Tess did not care one bit about being queen. She wanted to be Max’s <i>wife</i>. She wanted him to love her the way he loved Lizzy.

And it was the one thing she could never have.

Max was obviously slightly displeased with the news that Elizabeth would not be his queen, but Mary could see him decide to ignore it for the moment. They had more important things to worry about at the present time. He looked at Tess. "We still need you, Tess. Please say that you will help us."

"Why should I?" Tess sneered.

"Because, without you, we will never return to Antar. You heard Lord Edmund. The Royal Four must be strong, but it need not be through marriage," Isabel put in, sounding seriously annoyed. "Tess, stop thinking about yourself for once and think about our people. We will not be able to focus on what needs to be done until we know once and for all that Elizabeth is safe."

"Was Max thinking of our people when he married <i>her</i>?" Tess demanded.

"No," Max admitted. "I was not. Nor have I thought of them for years. I do not <i>know</i> them, Tess. I do not remember anything about being king of Antar. But being with Elizabeth makes me want to. You must begin to understand this and accept it."

Tess stared at him for so long, Mary wondered if she was trying to set him afire with her glare. She swallowed nervously, remembered that the line that ran between love and hate was very narrow. Tess spurned was dangerous indeed. If she now hated Max, there was no telling what she would do to hurt him - or Elizabeth.

"Very well," she finally muttered, turning away.

Mary saw Michael breathe an obvious sigh of relief, but it was not shared by Isabel or Max. She frowned, wondered again what they had happened between the three of them before.

"We must plan," Max said into the stillness that had again descended.

"I will not help to decide what is to be done," Tess snapped, turning back. "Just tell me what my role is to be." She stormed away.

Lord Edmund was scowling again. "This does not seem like unity to me, Maxwell."

Max raised his eyes to the treetops and sighed again. "I will speak to her anon." Mary felt a pang of sympathy for him. Since he could not understand how Tess felt about him, being as he did not return the sentiment, he really did not understand why she was being so difficult.

"I will try," Lord Edmund told him. "She will listen to me."

Max looked at his guardian with the first glimmering of affection for the other man that Mary had ever seen. "Thank you."

Lord Edmund continued to eye him for a moment before turning away. "You truly have become a king in my absence, Maxwell." He paused. "I look forward to meeting this Elizabeth at last."

With that, he went after Tess.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Fri Aug 26, 2005 11:04 am

AN - What IS Tess up to, I wonder? :wink: What's really going on becomes a lot more clear in this part.



<u>Part 39</u>

Sir Kyle stared out over the town of Nottingham from his position above the castle’s gate, a slight frown on his face.
The sun was just beginning to set over the forest. He narrowed his eyes. If Maxwell DeHarding made a bid to retrieve Elizabeth, as Kyle knew deep in his gut he would, tonight would be the night. The unnatural freak would wait until full darkness and then he would come. And, then, Kyle would be able to kill him once and for all.

Now that he had made Elizabeth fully his, Kyle did not intend to lose her again. She had finally accepted him and he would not have her face Maxwell again, which Kyle knew in his heart would throw his bride’s emotions into turmoil. She was sensible, his new wife, as she had demonstrated through her careful and deliberate pronouncement of her vows earlier this day, but Kyle would not risk a face to face meeting between her and his enemy, even if it was for her to tell her one-time husband that she had finally made the right choice.

In spite of her submission over the past day, Kyle did not doubt that should Maxwell will it, Elizabeth would succumb to his advances again. She had turned out to be much more romantic in her sensibility than Kyle had ever anticipated. While she had won out over that detrimental side of her nature upon her return to Nottingham Castle, he would not have her struggle with it again. In spite of all her claims that she no longer cared for Maxwell DeHarding, Kyle would not force her to confront him again.

Kyle would not risk her. Despite of all that had occurred between them over the past day, he still did not entirely trust her. Because, although he had memories of the night they had spent together - of Elizabeth coming to him the night before, pleading with him and begging for another chance, which had resulted in him taking her to his bed - something was still amiss. He could not put his finger on what it was, but something was still not <i>right</i> - and it wasn’t just that Elizabeth had told him that she would not be with him again until she was sure she was not with child. He was willing to accept that. While his satisfaction with her had been great, due to the fact that he had finally gained the final triumph over Maxwell - that even though they had wed, Elizabeth had never given Kyle’s enemy the prize of her virtue - he could wait for her. There were plenty of doxies around the castle just for that purpose after all.

No, it was not his bride’s chastity that vexed him, but something deeper, something that he could not conquer. It was a fear that not everything was as it seemed. Because, every time he focused his thoughts on the night he had shared with the dark-eyed beauty he had craved and loved since his father and Queen Eleanor had first betrothed them to each other, Elizabeth transformed somehow into Tess DeHarding. While, in his memories, he caressed Elizabeth’s soft skin or silky hair, his mind changed it slowly but surely to Tess’s fairer flesh, her blonde curls.

He was losing his mind. He would not have put his hands on that slut. He thought he knew himself at least that far. And, yet, Kyle stared down at his mailed hand in dismay as his fingers began to tap impatiently against the curtain wall over the gate. He willed the nervous motion to stop, felt a frisson of fear when it would not.

What had that blonde witch done to him?

It was only then that he became aware of movement at the far end of the city. From his high vantage point over his father’s domain, he could see directly to Sherwood’s fringes and the sight that greeted him made his blood run cold. The entire forest seemed to be coming to life as a large train of horses and carts began to emerge from the green wood. But it was not that to which Kyle’s eyes were drawn in horror. The queen’s return to Nottingham, while unexpected, was not necessarily unwelcome. The old hag could not yet be aware that it was Sir Kyle’s interference with the taxes on behalf of Prince John that had resulted in her younger son’s bid for the throne. Eleanor would also accept Kyle’s marriage to Elizabeth. It was she who had arranged it after all.

No, it was not Eleanor he feared. Not yet. It was the banner which flew slightly behind hers that caused his heart to stop. The arms of Whitfield - Alexander Delucie’s domain - were blowing in the slight breeze, tangling with the queen’s. It reminded Kyle abruptly of how closely Eleanor regarded Alexander. She would believe Alexander Delucie were that young baron to tell her all that had transpired since she had left. But did Alexander know about the taxes?

Kyle quickly searched his mind, tried to figure out how the young lord could have discovered the truth, if indeed he had. He knew that the other man was somehow linked to Maxwell DeHarding. His interference at Kyle’s original wedding to Elizabeth proved that. But where had Alexander of Whitfield been since then? It was not rare for the young lord to lay low on his own lands when he was not traveling with Eleanor, but, then, circumstances had been anything but normal over the past fortnight.

And, if his arms were flying with the queen’s, it meant that Alexander <i>was</i> with Eleanor. Which meant that he had gone directly to his guardian upon his successful bid to end that original, over-hasty wedding. Because what else would the queen doing in Nottingham anyway? The old bitch was supposed to be in London. Prince John had assured that his mother’s interference would not be a problem by calling her there the week before. Why was she back?

It had to be connected to Alexander Delucie, which could not be a good thing. No, not at all. Alexander had raised her suspicions somehow and it had to be over more than simply Elizabeth’s wedding. The queen would not have returned for that. She had been the one to contract the betrothal after all, even though she had likely not expected the marriage to take place so quickly. No, it had to be the taxes. Somehow Alexander had found out the truth about them and he had gone directly to Eleanor.

For the first time since Kyle had received the message that morning that Prince John had successfully taken the throne, he wondered if he had been misled. Because the closer the cortège came, the more Kyle knew that John must have failed.

The final proof of it was impossible to ignore. For his eyes suddenly lit on a standard that he had not noticed before, the slight wind not having picked up its fabric until the last possible second. Kyle’s heart stopped beating.

It was the banner of Prince John of Mortain. Richard’s younger brother was traveling with his mother. It could only mean one thing. The rebellion had failed.

"I am sorry, my son."

Kyle whirled, stared at his father in horror. James DeValence was watching him sadly, having come up beside him without a sound.

"Father? What…I don’t understand!"

"I sent the messenger this morning. It was the only way to prove to myself once and for all that you were behind the treasonous plot."

"<i>What?</i>"

Kyle’s father closed his eyes, took an unsteady breath. "You are a traitor, Kyle. I could not allow our house to be labeled as such."

"You tricked me!" Kyle bellowed. "I am your son! How could you do this to me?"

"Richard Plantagenet is the rightful king of England," the sheriff replied quietly. "I sent a message after the queen upon my investigation into exactly why those false outlaws had been sent into Sherwood. Once I understood that the tax shipment was being waylaid by Prince John’s followers, I had no choice." His disappointed gaze caused shame to enter Kyle’s heart, in spite of himself. "My son, I will protect you. The queen will understand that you are young, that you were led astray." His gaze darkened. "Just as she is sure is the truth with her youngest boy, the king’s brother." The sheriff was obviously not as convinced of John’s intentions.

"She has forgiven John?" Kyle gasped in disbelief.

"Of course," the sheriff shrugged. "No real harm has been done and he is her son. And now she knows to keep a closer eye on him. The king’s brother is perfectly safe. She will never kill her own child, not even in the name of her favorite son. Richard will deal with him when he returns, but John will not die." James’s jaw set. "Nor will my son. Which is why there is a horse waiting for you below. The queen will not wish to see you right now but I am sure, because of my loyalty, that I will be able to convince her to pardon you. She is already inclined that way."

Kyle could not believe that this had happened. All of his father’s declarations that he was proud of him over the past days, that he was glad that Kyle was finally taking a hand in his own destiny, that he was becoming a man, had been lies. His father had been investigating him the entire time, had betrayed him.

He felt his world crashing down around his shoulders. Where an hour ago the entire shire had been at his feet, where he had been finally sure that Nottingham would respect him, it was all gone. All because of the one man he had trusted above all others.

"I cannot believe you would betray me thus," Kyle said quietly, pressing his lips together.

"I still have hopes that you will become the man I want you to be," James replied sadly. "But treason is not the way, my son. You must see that. For now, accept your limitations and leave this place. I will call you back after I have secured the queen’s forgiveness. I burnt that church to assure your marriage to Lady Elizabeth." Kyle could see his father’s guilt at the mortal sin written on his face and, yet, he had done it - for him. He felt himself softening. "You can start to rebuild a life with your young wife and the queen’s affection for her will help your cause. Soon, all will be right again. You will be able to return and it will be as if none of this ever happened." DeValence’s satisfied gaze moved away from Kyle and back to the spectacle below.

Kyle followed his father’s gaze back to the cortège, now slowly winding its way through the heavily packed streets below, the citizens of Nottingham apparently not wishing to miss an opportunity to lay eyes on their king’s mother, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, even if it was a surprising appearance.

"I will never forgive you for this," Kyle told his father. "You are dead to me." Kyle blinked, unsure why he had said such a thing, surprised at the venom in his tone. He was not thinking it after all. His father was doing all of this <i>for</i> him. He was beginning to realize that perhaps his plot with Prince John had been a foolhardy one. And, at least, he still had Elizabeth. They were legally wed now.

But he had said the words anyway. He had not thought them, but he had said them.

He did not miss the spasm of grief that crossed his father’s face. "I hope that you will reconsider that, but if it must be true, that you will leave and save your own life, so be it."

Kyle stared at his father for another long moment, fighting to say what he really meant - that he would follow his father’s plan, that it all would work out. His father must have seen this as a slight willingness to forgive him because he reached out a hand and clasped Kyle’s shoulder.

With that simple act of affection, in spite of a slight softening towards his father, his rage was rekindled and Sir Kyle could not stop what happened next. Upon later reflection, he was almost positive that it was not his own will that made him do it, but some other power that he could not even begin to explain. But, he could not deny the truth of it, in spite of the fact that he refused to blame himself.

In the end, it was he who took his father’s life.

Because, without a thought, his dagger was in his hand and then in his father’s chest. He watched James DeValence’s eyes widen with shock as he managed to lower his chin, to stare down at the destruction his betrayal of his son had caused. It had ended his own life.

"Kyle…" he gasped, clutching at his son’s shoulders. Kyle wrenched away in horror, watched his father fall to the ground. Their eyes met once more and he felt a spasm go through his entire frame as the light went out of the sheriff’s blue eyes.

His own eyes.

What had he done?

It was only then that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Kyle watched in horrified fascination as a wraith emerged from the shadows, the fading sunlight catching the gold in her long locks. She stared at him with her cold blue gaze, then raised a hand, beckoning him to come to her.

He did, unable to resist, stepping over his father’s fallen form to do so. He did not look back.

***

"This is the stupidest plan I have ever heard," Michael muttered to Isabel, as they both pulled hoods over their heads and emerged from the forest. "The only other time we have asked Tess to mindwarp under such circumstances, she failed. Isn’t it how we got into this mess in the first place? When she tried to change Father Desmond’s memory? We should have taken Lord Edmund’s advice. We should have waited for Alexander to return, to make certain that Queen Eleanor would not help."

Isabel sighed, did not disagree. This plan wasn’t exactly fool-proof, especially since neither she, nor Max particularly trusted Tess at the moment. But Isabel also understood why they had to proceed. Their queen - in spite of everything Lord Edmund had said to Tess about that, Isabel knew that she and Max and Michael all considered Elizabeth to still be such - was in danger and they could not allow her to stay that way a day longer. "Tess did manage to mindwarp the guards at the castle long enough to get you both out," Isabel reminded him. "And Max is desperate. With his marriage to Elizabeth nullified by the burning of the chapel, Sir Kyle will make haste to bind her legally."

"But Elizabeth will not agree," Michael said, still annoyed. "We know that. They cannot force her. We have proven that once. And I do not like the role Mary must play in this. It is too dangerous. She should not be in that castle. They will make her stay."

Isabel shook her head, her understanding suddenly that Michael’s concern in all of this was mainly for Mary, which softened her response and her impatience with her brother and his incessant arguments. "Something is amiss, Michael. I think Max believes that Elizabeth refused to leave with Tess. We <i>must</i> get her out of there. And you know that Mary would be angry to even hear you question her right to help."

She felt Michael’s eyes on her. "Why would he think such a thing?" he asked, ignoring her statement about Mary, likely because he knew it was true.

"Tess admitted to us that she lied about not remembering," Isabel told him. "She knew everything about it. She met with Elizabeth and Elizabeth would not leave. She insisted that Tess get you out and leave her behind."

"Tess remembered?" Michael demanded, stupefied. Isabel could almost <i>hear</i> him searching his own mind for the memories that still would not surface.

"Yes." She paused, then tentatively broached her and Max’s suspicions to her brother. "Michael, we wonder if perhaps Tess has not <i>made</i> you forget what happened."

"What?" he practically yelled. They were still a considerable distance from Nottingham’s walls and, yet, Isabel flinched in spite of herself.

She looked around carefully. No one else on the road to the town appeared to be looking at them. They were well covered after all. "Michael, quiet yourself," she insisted anyway.

"What?" Michael demanded again, although he lowered his voice. "Tess saved me. Why would she make me forget it?"

"We are not entirely sure," Isabel admitted.

Michael stopped walking. "Are you sure this is not a way for Max to convince himself that he was right to set Tess aside?" he finally asked, sounding suspicious.

"Michael!"

"Well, you know as well as I do that he will feel guilty about it for the rest of his life, in spite of the fact that Lord Edmund has approved his match with Elizabeth," Michael muttered. "He still loves Tess, as a sister, if nothing else. I do understand that he did not want to hurt her in any of this, though his actions seem to indicate otherwise."

Isabel sighed again. "I know it seems that way, Michael…" She trailed off. "I just don’t know how to explain it to you. Things have not been right with Tess for many days now. Have you not noticed how swiftly her character has changed for the worse since we met Elizabeth and the others?"

Michael was pensive as they began to walk again. "Yes," he admitted grudgingly. Isabel could hear his reluctance to believe anything negative about Tess though. She was still his sister, in spite of the fact that they argued constantly. Isabel understood that Michael felt protective of Tess, as they all did still - even Max, in spite of his recent questioning of her loyalty. And she <i>had</i> saved him from the dungeon in Nottingham Castle.

They had been raised together. The four of them were bonded, not only through childhood ties, but also through the mission their planet had set for them. The idea that one of them might betray the others to enemies outside the group - no matter what any of them did to each other - was just as foreign and distasteful to Isabel as it apparently was to Michael.

And, yet, she could not help but believe it. Even in spite of the fact that Tess was currently mindwarping herself and Max into the castle, disguised as servants to the Lady Mary Delucie.

"She has a right to be upset, Bella," Michael continued, making all of Isabel’s own arguments. "Max <i>did</i> toss her aside. And, as we have already discussed, she has no one. You and I have made the choice to go our separate ways. Tess never got to make that decision."

"I know it," Isabel replied. "It is why I am inclined to forgive her, if she will only admit that she has made you forget." She paused. "Because the problem lies in that there is no reason for you not to remember. If it is simply to help you move beyond your ordeal, that is one thing. But I feel like she is trying to hide something altogether different. Why is she lying?"

"We don’t even know that it is she who is responsible for my memory loss," Michael reminded her. "Sir Kyle did make me hit my head very hard."

"I am aware of that," Isabel snapped. "I just feel that she is. It is all too coincidental. Isn’t it a bit strange that you remember Sir Kyle beating you, but nothing else?"

"Yes," Michael admitted. There was another long pause as they came to the great gates of the town. "We will melt in with that merchant caravan," Michael whispered, taking her hand and pulling her close to his side. Isabel felt the blood in her veins begin to pump more quickly. This was the first test. They needed to get into the town without alerting the guards and they did not have the benefit of Tess’s mindwarp. They both knew that Michael’s description would have been circulated to all the guards and many of them had already seen him after all, during his captivity in the castle.

They could not be captured. They were responsible for securing the escape of the others once Elizabeth was freed. If they failed, the entire enterprise failed. Isabel silently agreed with Michael that the whole plan was extremely weak, but there was little else they could do. They did not have an army to storm the castle, nor did they have a guarantee that Alex would convince the queen to support them. It was true that Max had saved the taxes for King Richard, but as far as any of them knew, Richard was no longer king. The queen might even be supporting her younger son now. The loyalties of noblemen and women were notoriously changeable. John was just as much Eleanor’s son as Richard was, after all. Isabel could not understand why she loved one more than the other, felt a pang for the old woman that, because a kingdom lay in the balance, she was forced to choose. But, perhaps she did understand. Perhaps the only way to do it was to love one more. Yet, Isabel pitied the queen. It would be like asking Isabel to choose between Max and Michael. Impossible.

Isabel breathed a sigh of relief when no one stopped to question them as they passed through the gates in the shadow of the merchant’s cart. It was only once they were in the walls that she understood. She could sense the excitement in the air as she took in the inordinate amount of people still circulating in the streets. It was getting dark. Most of these people should be in their beds! Something had happened.

"Bella?" Michael spoke in an undertone.

"I know," Isabel said quietly. She reached out, gently grasped the arm of a passing woman. "Excuse me. Can you tell me what has happened? We have only just arrived in town."

The woman paused, then bobbed a curtsy. She seemed to recognize Isabel and Michael’s bearings as those of people above her in station. "Certainly, madam. The queen and Prince John have taken up residence in the castle. The town is in an uproar because they will need to be entertained. There will likely be another fair, or perhaps a market. It is good for the town you see. The rich noblemen will swarm upon us in order to petition her grace and the prince. Already they begin to come. Alexander of Whitfield even rode in with her."

"Thank you." Isabel turned away, her heart thundering in her chest. Alex had succeeded! How had he managed to bring Eleanor to Nottingham so quickly? He was brilliant! She felt warmth spread through her at the thought that she would soon see him again. She had not expected to for more than a fortnight. This was joyous beyond belief.

"Michael! Is it not wonderful?" Isabel clutched at her brother’s arm.

Of course, Michael was not so easily convinced. "It would seem our luck is turning," he allowed, although his tone was still suspicious. His next words betrayed what he was still worried about. "Bella, I do not understand why Elizabeth would not leave with Tess and me. Do you think, if she’s doing it, which I am still not convinced she is…" He trailed off, then plunged on. "Do you think that is what Tess is hiding? Elizabeth’s reason for staying behind?"

"She told us it was because Elizabeth has chosen Kyle," Isabel admitted, brushing aside his concern. There was no need for it any longer. "We both know that is impossible. I think she was simply trying to make Max doubt his wife. I am convinced that Elizabeth did not think you would escape easily if she accompanied you."

"That does sound more like her," Michael replied, obviously wanting to be convinced. "And, yet, she has undergone so much trouble to be with him before. What changed the last time?"

"I am sure we will find out soon enough," Isabel told him. "Let us find Max. He must not try and spirit Elizabeth away. We must allow Alex to have time to petition our cause."

"Very well," Michael returned. "I would see that Mary is safe anyway." He took her hand and started to lead her through the crowded streets in the direction of the castle.

As Isabel followed behind, she wondered at the shiver that descended her spine. Michael was right. Their luck was turning. Everything was going better than planned. Much better.

And, so, why was it though that she still suddenly felt that things were going to get worse?

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Sat Aug 27, 2005 11:15 am

Emz80m wrote:
I'm not sure who is worse Tess or Kyle at this point
Tess. Trust me. As we shall see. :wink:

Thanks, as always, for the feedback everyone! We're getting to the climax now.

<u>Part 40</u>

"She should be back by now," Mary whispered. Max frowned, but knew that it was pointless to reprimand her. Mary had been quiet for too long now. It went against her very nature. If she didn’t let some of it out, she would likely explode.

He didn’t blame her actually. They had been waiting for Tess for a very long time now, fairly secure in their hiding spot in a little used part of the castle’s vast stables. Of course, the fact that Mary was sneezing every few minutes because of the hay was not helpful, but, in general, they were safe.

If only Tess would return. She <i>had</i> been gone far too long. When she had suggested that she would go investigate by herself, that she would find Elizabeth before he and Mary entered the castle, it had seemed like a good plan. Despite her first tantrum about not wanting to join the mission to rescue Elizabeth, after her talk with Lord Edmund, she had seemed amenable enough. He had even wondered if his suspicions about his former betrothed were even justified. Had he jumped to conclusions about Tess because of his concern for Elizabeth?

But, now, as he listened to Mary’s breath hitching in her impatience to proceed with the plan, he began to wonder if he had let his guilt about abandoning Tess convince him to trust her again. He and Isabel had been in silent agreement in the forest that something was amiss in Tess’s behavior since her return from the castle the first time. They had not had a chance to discuss it though and now he wished they had.

Max felt a pang of sadness when he realized that his impatience for Tess to return was not because he was worried for his sister. He knew he should feel bad that he was beginning to trust her so little, that his first thought was that she was betraying them, not that she was in jeopardy. And, yet, somehow he knew that he was right. They never should have depended on Tess’s mindwarp at all. It was a mistake and somehow he knew it might be a fatal one.

Mary seemed to feel him tensing beside her. They were both leaning against a stall in the far corner of the stables, near the castle wall. Max and Tess had manipulated the stone to allow them access, and then had closed the opening created behind them. If they were found, Mary had her bow at the ready to defend them, while Max reopened the wall. He was still hoping that they would not need to escape though. He knew that if he left Elizabeth behind this time, it was likely that he would never see her again. And, despite the fact - that he still thought that perhaps she would be better off without him - she certainly would <i>not</i> be better off married to Sir Kyle. Max could not desert his love to that fate.

He thought about what Tess had told him and Isabel in the forest - that Elizabeth had wanted to stay behind with Kyle, that she had decided that life in the forest was too difficult for her. He didn’t believe the reason Tess had given, but he did believe that Liz had chosen to remain in the castle. The most logical conclusion was that she had wanted to distract Sir Kyle, so that Tess and Michael could escape. But, in his heart, Max knew that there was another explanation altogether. Now he just needed to see Liz face to face to find out what it was.

He could not leave without her. Not again.

"Max?" Mary’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts. He glanced down at her, his eyebrows raised warningly. "I’m sorry," she continued, still whispering, "But I must speak. It has been too long." She bit her lip. "You are thinking that we were wrong to trust Tess, are you not?"

Max swallowed. If he actually said the words, then there would be no going back. He would have accepted once and for all that the innocent girl he had been raised with was no more - that perhaps she had never been what he believed her to be at all. It was hard for him because, although he knew Tess no longer believed it, he did love her. Just not as she wanted him to, unfortunately. "I am." He closed his eyes, actually admitting it almost a relief.

"Then we must proceed without her," Mary said firmly. "We can’t stay here any longer. It is a waste of time."

"I agree," Max replied, glad, that for once, someone else was taking charge. He felt inexplicably weary. It hurt more than he would have thought to know that Tess was somehow a traitor. He still didn’t know exactly what she had done, but he knew it had something to do with Michael’s missing memories and with why Liz had stayed in the castle.

"How will we do this?" Mary asked in a low tone. "Without Tess’s gift, you will be recognized immediately. Your description has been all over Nottingham this past sennight."

Max frowned, thinking hard. "Perhaps you should go in alone," he started. "Someone must get to Liz, must prepare her to depart. I will follow. I have my ways to make sure that I am not seen, but I cannot take care of both of us."

Mary was nodding, but her eyes widened when a great deal of noise at the entrance to the stable suddenly caught her attention. Max brought his finger to his lips to silence her, but she already had her mouth pressed tightly closed.

"…bloody nobles." Max listened to the stable-boy, who was muttering to himself as he stomped through a nearby stall. "They expect to stable all of their horses for the night, do they? A little warning would be appreciated. Oh! Your pardon, my lord. I didn’t see you there!"

"You may leave my mount saddled. I will be leaving again, as soon as I am sure the queen and Prince John are settled." Max felt Mary gasp next to him. That voice, its amused tone…it was extremely familiar.

Max met Mary’s joyful eyes. He felt the same flash of pure gladness run through him. For that voice belonged to none other than Alexander of Whitfield. "Go," he mouthed to Mary.

She narrowed her eyes, seemed to understand that he would stay concealed until she had figured out why Alex had returned so precipitously. She was not outlawed after all. Max was the one who would instantly be clapped in irons were he caught. Mary thrust her bow at him, so excited she was hopping from one foot to the other. She gave him a quick hug and then moved away.

"Alex!" Mary raised her voice as she raced through the stable, away from Max, in search of her brother. "Alexander! Where are you?"

"What the devil?" Max heard the stable-boy exclaim in dismay. "Milady! What are you doing in here?"

"I was feeding my horse. Who are you to question me?" Mary replied, so haughtily, Max was impressed. For the first time in a while, he remembered that she had been raised even more nobly than he and his siblings.

"Forgive me, milady," the stable-boy replied hastily. He raised his voice as well, calling after Alexander. "My lord! My lord Whitfield. Wait sir!"

The next five minutes seemed like five hours to Max. He wondered how Alexander had managed the miracle of bringing the queen to Nottingham so quickly. He could feel his heart starting to beat nervously as he wondered if Queen Eleanor would pardon him. It would be the first step in securing her good will for his marriage to Liz. While it was no longer legal, due to the destruction of the chapel where they had wed, in his heart they were still wed. Would he be able to convince the queen of it? Even if she did lift the wolf’s head off his shoulders, she may not believe him worthy of Elizabeth’s love. Would he be forced to let the queen in on his secret, to prove that, in fact, he far outranked even her? And, if he was pushed so far, would the queen denounce him to the Church?

Even were the worst to occur though, Max was not overly concerned. With Lord Edmund restored to life, the return to Antar could be arranged. Their guardian was still certain it was too soon to go back, but if they had to, they could.

Max just hoped that Elizabeth was still willing to go with them. He did not believe Tess that his wife no longer wanted to be with him, but it had been so long since he had laid eyes on her, perhaps she had reconsidered? Even if she still did not want the marriage to Kyle, would she decide against Max as well?

He shook his head firmly, refusing to allow any doubt in Liz to torment him. She loved him. He had seen her soul when they had connected in the forest and she would not forsake him. He knew it. Even now, the mere thought of her, not to mention being in close proximity to her again - she was so near! - made his blood run more quickly through his veins, the bond they shared strengthening his resolve. He could almost <i>feel</i> her presence, could almost <i>hear</i> her thoughts.

Where was Mary? He was going crazy just waiting here. He heaved a sigh of relief when he heard voices again, one male, one female. Finally! He prepared to step out of the stall, to join his two friends…

"…my love. I know it will be difficult for you, but I will help you as much as I can." Max’s heart started to thunder in his chest, this time in horror. That voice did not belong to Alexander of Whitfield. It was Sir Kyle DeValence!

The soft answer was too low for Max to make out immediately, but he knew in his heart who it was. He could <i>feel</i> her presence. Elizabeth - his wife - was only a few steps away. He clenched his fists at his side, barely able to contain himself. He could not go to her though. He <i>had</i> to wait for Alex. This had to be done properly or all hope would be lost. Max pressed his forehead against the wooden stall, listened, trying to understand how these two came to be in the stable together.

"I will not leave you behind, Elizabeth. Not again. I will not allow that damned outlaw the opportunity to get his hands on you again. No! There is no need to apologize, my dear. I believe you that you were bewitched. But we must spirit you away. Now that Alexander Delucie has fooled the queen, he will come for you openly. You will not have to face him again. I have promised you."

Max frowned, rolling his eyes. He waited for Elizabeth to dispute what Kyle said, but there was no answer at all. The silence went on for so long, Max didn’t know what to think. What the hell were they doing out there? Where were Mary and Alex?

"How I love you, my dear." Kyle’s voice was melting with emotion, making Max grimace.

"I love you too. You are the best of men for forgiving my waywardness."

Max blinked, unsure if he was hearing things or not. That had certainly been Elizabeth’s voice. Was she unaware that her deliverance was at hand? Why was she playing along with Kyle?

There was another long pause. Max couldn’t help himself. He moved carefully towards the stall’s entrance, poked his head out from behind one of the posts supporting the roof of the stable.

What he saw literally made him ill. He could actually feel the bile rising in his throat. Elizabeth was locked in Sir Kyle’s embrace, kissing him as though she never intended to stop. Max stumbled backwards into the stall, hitting the stone wall and sliding to the floor in a heap.

<i>No!</i> His heart was screaming in agony. Max forced himself to ignore it, tried to focus, tried to understand how this had happened. What was Liz doing? There must be some reason for why she would be pretending so fervently to love Kyle. How could she not know that Alex had arrived with the queen?

He had to tell her! He could not just stand here, knowing that she was so desperate that she was forcing herself to play such an elaborate game with Sir Kyle. She would be sick were she to know what he had just witnessed.

Max pushed himself up off the ground, cursing himself for being such a weakling. Of course it was all a ruse! It did not matter that he did not understand what the point of it was, it could not be real. How could he have doubted for even a moment?

And, then, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was not. For the instant he stepped through into the stable proper, he found himself face to face with Tess.

"So, now you know," his former betrothed said quietly.

Max’s fury was so intense, it took all of his self-control not to grab her and shake her until her teeth rattled in her head. "I know that you are as I suspected. My enemy."

A flicker of pain crossed Tess’s face as she shook her head. "No, Max! You know what I was trying to tell you. That she has turned from you!"

Max glared at her, brushing past her. "It was a mindwarp. I know it." He stopped abruptly when he realized that they were alone in the stable. Where was Elizabeth? How had she and Kyle disappeared so quickly? He had only moved back into the stall for a moment. He would have heard them if they had left.

"There was a mindwarp, but not of them," Tess exclaimed, grabbing him by the hand. He wrenched away from her, repulsion his only reaction to her touch. "I stopped you from going after them."

"What?" He whirled on her. "What do you mean?"

"For you it felt like moments that you sat on the ground. In fact, it was many minutes," Tess admitted guiltily. "I could not bear for you to hear it from her treacherous lips, Max! I let them go."

Max stared at her, still uncomprehending. "I don’t understand."

"They are gone, Max. They are gone because Sir Kyle killed his father and the queen has called for his head. You heard them! He took Elizabeth with him. She wanted to go."

"You are lying," Max said coldly, turning again and stalking away.

"Max!" Tess called after him. "You <i>felt</i> her, didn’t you? You know it was her! She betrayed you! You must accept it."

He ignored her, ignored the fact that Tess was right - he <i>had</i> felt Elizabeth. He pushed his way out into the courtyard and stepped into chaos.

The castle guard were mounted, listening to Alexander, who was also astride his horse. "Make sure that no harm comes to the Lady Elizabeth," he was ordering. "The queen demands Sir Kyle be returned to Nottingham, dead or alive."

Max stared at him, shaking his head, not understanding this scene at all. He glanced down when he felt a hand slip into his. Mary’s light eyes met his, shock and disbelief clearly visible. "Max, where have you been?"

"I was where you left me, Mary!" Max replied. "Why did you not come back for me?"

"I did, Max! Alex and I both! You were not there."

"What?"

Tess’s voice from behind him made his blood run cold. "You had to see it for yourself, Max. You <i>had</i> to."

He turned slowly. He could feel the rage within him. It was like a living thing. This time he really would kill her. Mary’s hand clenched his more tightly. "Max, don’t. You will never forgive yourself."

He forced deep breaths, calmed himself slightly. "Explain," he told Tess tersely.

Tess lowered her blue-eyed gaze, spoke quickly. "I went to find out what was going on. When I saw Alex, I knew that there was no reason for our plan at all, so I came back for you and Mary. Just as I was about to rejoin you, I saw Kyle and Elizabeth sneaking across the courtyard. No one else saw them because of the queen’s retinue settling in. They hid when Mary and Alex came back out and when I went to find you, I heard what you heard." She looked at him, sympathy on her pretty face. "I saw what you saw." She swallowed, raised her chin. "I do not regret making it so that you could not go after them. You need time to accept what you know is true. I could not allow her to play her games with your mind again. I mindwarped you so that you felt little time pass, so that she would be gone for good. I would do it again."

There was a long silence. Even Mary did not say a word, did not try to dispute what Tess said.

Finally, Max looked down at his friend. "Where is she?"

"She is gone, Max. The queen sent for her after she was settled and she was nowhere to be found. The sheriff really is dead. Kyle’s dagger was found in his chest." Mary’s eyes were shadowed. She was clearly waiting for what Max thought. He knew that she did not believe Tess, but she was not as certain of him.

"Then he has taken her against her will," Max said quietly. "We will go after her."

Mary sighed, clearly relieved. "We cannot, Max. The queen wants to meet with you." She sighed again, seemed to know he was not going to be pleased by this news. And he was not. But he could not deny the queen. He needed her good will if he ever wanted his marriage to Eleanor’s ward to be accepted. "I knew you wouldn’t be fooled," Mary continued. She looked at Tess. "I don’t know what you have done, but I know that you are somehow responsible for this."

"You know nothing!" Tess shrieked. "You will all regret this when I am proven right!"

"What are you going to do with her?" Mary asked. "We can’t just leave her here."

Max’s eyes narrowed. "We need to find Isabel and Michael. They can take her back to Lord Edmund. Unfortunately, we do still need her for when we return to our home."

"Max!" Tess was sobbing now. "What has she done to you? Why can you not see the truth?"

Max ignored her, turned his head at the sound of horses entering through the drawbridge. He felt keen satisfaction when his eyes lit on Michael and Isabel, accompanied by one of the guards. At the sight of him, Isabel slid off her steed and ran to him, throwing her arms around him. "Is it not wonderful, Max? Alex has saved us all! Michael and I just approached him in the town and he sent us up here to you." She paused, frowning. "Wait a minute! Where is he going? I never got a chance to ask him!"

"That’s because you were too busy kissing him," Michael put in lazily, coming up beside her at a more leisurely pace. He glanced at Max and Mary, who were still holding hands. "Is not one human enough for you, Maxwell?" he asked, barely managing to hide a grin as Mary snorted and moved towards him, her hands outstretched. He took them, lowered his head and brushed her lips lightly with his.

Isabel was blushing prettily as she retorted, "You are one to talk!"

Michael wrapped his arm around Mary’s shoulders, grinned. "Well, I didn’t say I blamed you." He sobered, looked at Max again. "Where <i>was</i> Alexander going, Maxwell?"

"To find Liz," Max replied, itching to mount one of the horses Michael and Isabel had just ridden in on to go after her as well. "Sir Kyle has fled, taking her with him."

Michael stared at him. "And you’re still standing here why?"

"Because the queen is waiting for him," Mary answered before Max could. "And we really shouldn’t keep her waiting much longer. She will not like it."

"You are right," Max said. He felt extremely anxious, wanted this meeting over with so that he could still take part in the retrieval of his wife. It galled him to no end that someone else was doing his heart’s desire. It was his responsibility to protect Elizabeth. He had not done a very good job of it so far, but as soon as she was back with him, he would spend the rest of his life making up for the trials she had endured.

"Where is Tess?" Michael asked.

Max blinked, turned. "Oh for…" He had forgotten completely about Tess in his surprise and joy at Isabel and Michael’s arrival. Somehow she had managed to slip away while he and Mary had been distracted. "She was here a minute ago. She is definitely a traitor," he added, looking directly at Isabel. "She mindwarped me. I would have been able to stop Liz and Sir Kyle had she not." He clenched his jaw. "If anything happens to Liz out there…"

"They can’t have gotten far, Max," Mary told him. "Alex will find her. You know he will. Things are finally going our way. Sir Kyle’s hours are numbered. He made a grievous error in hurting his own father. The sheriff was a good man in the end and the queen will not allow the death of one of King Richard’s loyal servants to go unpunished. Elizabeth <i>will</i> be found."

For one horrible moment, an image of Elizabeth in Sir Kyle’s arms invaded his mind. Max pushed it firmly aside. It had not been true. What he had witnessed had either been a mindwarp or a part of Elizabeth’s plan. His wife would not betray him. He had not known her for long, as he was constantly being reminded, but he knew her heart. None of the others understood the depth of the bond they shared.

They were soul mates. He knew her better than he knew himself.

And it was in that instant, while this truth wound its way through his heart, that he abruptly felt his blood run cold. A shiver ran through his body, freezing in its intensity. He knew absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, what it meant. He was unsure if it was a premonition or whether it was happening at the present time. The idea that it might be the latter made him shiver again.

Her life was in danger. It was so certain, his knees went weak.

He did not know how he knew, or how it could be, since without her Sir Kyle had nothing, but there could be no doubt. If he did not get to Elizabeth immediately, she would die.

The queen was going to have to wait.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Sun Aug 28, 2005 12:12 pm

<u>Part 41</u>

Elizabeth opened her eyes, but was instantly made to close them again as a wave of nausea ran through her. She forced herself to take deep breaths, then managed to pry her eyes open again. It did not take her long this second time to figure out what was making her ill.

She was lying face down over the lap of someone wearing very uncomfortable chain mail. The armour was pressing into her belly, hurting her beyond belief. Not only that, but the steed on which said knight was riding was moving at such a speed that the position was even more uncomfortable than it normally would have been.

Her next thought so terrified her, she flinched despite herself. Her baby! This position certainly could not be conducive to keeping her child safe in her womb. She was not very far along but she did know enough about pregnancy to know that the first few weeks were the most delicate. The very thought of losing Max’s son, especially after all she had sacrificed to keep him safe…she reacted, plain and simple, moaning in despair.

It was only after that she realized she might have stayed safer had she pretended to still be unconscious.

"She’s awake."

Elizabeth recognized Sir Kyle’s voice immediately, although he sounded strangely distant and monotone. She was trying desperately to figure out exactly how she had ended up in this position, how he had spirited her away from the castle without her even being aware of it, when the sound of the person responding made her blood run cold.

"We are almost there. Just keep her still. Lord Edmund will take care of the slut once and for all."

<i>Tess</i>.

It was in that instant that Elizabeth finally understood exactly the lengths to which her nemesis would go in order to assure that Maxwell remained hers. Because, in the moment that she heard her voice, one word – one word she knew she had recognized but could not place – returned to the forefront of her mind, explaining so much.

Mind-warp.

An image of Michael standing in front of her, his hand raise in a desperate bid to protect her, his shocked tone reaching her ears as he said it: <i>Oh my God! It’s a mind-warp!</i> And, then, before he was struck down…<i>Tess!</i>

Max’s brother had not been mourning the loss of his sister at all. Rather, he had been accusing her. Tess DeHarding had been working with Kyle all along. It was the only explanation.

Elizabeth still did not quite understand exactly what it was that a mind-warp did – her grasp of the visitors’ gifts was still hazy at best, as she had not spent as much time in their company as she might have wished – but it was clear to her that it involved mind control somehow, involved making people see things that weren’t there. It had been done to both her and Michael so that they would expose themselves at the convent, and had been obviously been done to the guards at the castle when Tess had liberated her and Michael the day before.

And now it had been used on Liz again to get her out of the castle. Which could only mean one thing. The castle was exactly where she wanted – where she <i>needed</i> - to be. Max <i>had</i> come for her and, when he had arrived, he had found her gone. There could be no doubt.

Elizabeth felt tears of despair fill her eyes. She did not understand why Tess had taken her, although Kyle was obviously working in league with her, but she did realize that if Tess was coming out into the open, it likely meant that she, Elizabeth, was not long for this world.

All of her attempts to protect her child, and Max, had been for naught. She was doomed to die this day.

<i>Max!</i> Her heart wailed his name, as she tried to focus her entire being on his memory. If she was to perish, she wanted to do it with her heart beating for him, just as it had done since the moment she first laid eyes on him – which it had done since even before that. She had always loved him after all, had recognized him as her soul mate in her dreams long before ever meeting him the flesh.

And, it was then, in the moment when Elizabeth DeParkville finally gave up hope, that it happened.

She felt a tiny tendril of heat begin in the region of her womb. It spread through her to the extremities of her toes, her fingers, warmed her heart.

Her baby was trying to comfort her.

But it was not until she heard the voice distinctly in her head that she understood completely. Her son was not only attempting to give her strength, he was also connecting her to the one person she needed above all others.

<i>Liz! Sweeting! Where are you?</i>

Her heart stopped beating in shock, then resumed abruptly, pounding so hard, she was again light-headed.

It was Max.

She almost didn’t believe it. Yet, she grasped desperately at this last tendril of hope, wondered if she had indeed finally lost her sanity. Perhaps she had been crazy for the past fortnight. Perhaps Max, the visitors, Sir Kyle, and all of it were merely figments of her imagination. She would awaken in the bed she shared with Mary, would sigh wearily that he had seemed so real, and, yet Max would remain but a dream.

<i>Liz!</i>

This time Elizabeth answered him, finally able to convince herself any that the Lord had actually heard her prayers. <i>Max?</i> She sent it out tentatively, fully expecting silence in return.

Instead, a great rush of relief ran through her entire body, making her tingle with heat. It did not take her more than a moment to realize that it was not <i>her</i> relief, but, rather, Max’s.

<i>Liz! Thank God! Are you all right? Where are you?</i>

<i>Max, I don’t understand! What is this? How is this possible?</i>

There was a long pause and then, <i>I’m not sure, Liz, but I don’t care at the moment. You have to help me, sweeting. We’re coming, but the trail is not easy to follow.</i>

Elizabeth closed her eyes, tried desperately to accept that this was really happening. <i>I don’t know anything, Max. I’m lying face down. I can’t see.</i> She paused, took a deep breath, steeled her courage. <i>I’m going to try and make Kyle let me sit up.</i>

She struggled to block out the fury that ran through Max, and consequentially her, at the news of her present position. She prepared to again attempt to play on Sir Kyle’s lingering feelings for her.

"Sir Kyle…" Her throat was so dry, it was barely recognizable as a word, let alone a name. Elizabeth licked her lips, tried again, her heart pounding. "Kyle!"

"She’s talking!" Kyle exclaimed, sounding frightened. In spite of herself, Liz felt her heart go out to him. Sir Kyle DeValence was obviously in over his head at this point. He was apparently more terrified than she was at the moment.

"We’re almost there!" Tess retorted, sounding annoyed. "Just hold her."

"Kyle, please! Can I not sit up? I’m going to be ill." Elizabeth made one last effort to get the information that Max needed. She whispered, hoped Tess would not hear, "Kyle, I may be carrying your child." She grimaced at the falsehood, hoped that God would forgive her. She was not proud of the fact that lies rolled off her tongue so easily these days.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she felt Kyle’s knees move beneath her, as he brought them together to slow the horse’s movement. "I’m going to let her sit up," Kyle said, trying to sound braver than Elizabeth suspected he felt.

Tess sighed in irritation, but finally said, "Fine. But if she gets away, Kyle, you are going to die far sooner than I promised you earlier."

It took Elizabeth a moment to acclimatize herself to actually being right side up again. She closed her eyes, forced her head to stop spinning. When she opened them, she was not surprised to see they were in the forest. Now the question was, where in the forest?

Elizabeth raised her chin, attempted not to flinch when her eyes came to rest on Tess, who was staring at her, a smirk on her face. "I hope you had a good sleep, slut. It will be your last before you take your eternal rest."

Elizabeth pressed her lips together, forcing herself not to reply. She merely shifted her eyes away.

But now that Tess had started, she seemed unable to stop herself from gloating a bit further, her glee in her triumph too much for her. "You thought you had won, didn’t you, Elizabeth? I played your little game, made Kyle think that you had bedded him, tried to make Max see you for what you really are, but none of it was enough to make you let go of him. I know now that you have truly bewitched him. It is almost poetic that I, the supposed unnatural monster, am the one to expose you."

"I am no witch, Tess," Elizabeth replied calmly when Tess seemed to be waiting for an answer. "Max loves me. It is as simple as that. It is a blessing I know that I do not deserve, but one that I now see I was foolish to throw away. It is a gift from God and the reason that we have both been made to suffer so is that neither of us felt worthy of it. But I must accept it. In fact, I have - and so has he now, I think." She smiled despite herself, thinking of Max. "If it were not the case, then he would not have come for me."

Tess smirked again. "Oh he came and he <i>saw</i> you in Kyle’s arms. As I said, Elizabeth, I kept my end of the bargain. You are a fool if you think he will come for you now."

Liz felt her blood run cold, remembering the request that she had made of Tess – that she make Max fall out of love with her. What had Tess made him see? Would he believe that it had not been her?

In the next moment, she was ashamed. Had she just been spouting words to Tess not minutes ago? Of course not. Max was already coming for her. He had not believed it. He recognized the great gift they shared as much as she did. Elizabeth felt tears fill her eyes, as love for him swelled in her heart. He had never doubted it, unlike her. If she was unworthy of him in any way, it was because of that.

He had not forsaken her, in spite of everything, and she would not longer forsake him – not even to protect him.

"Only death will part us," she replied quietly. "Whatever you made Max see, he did not believe it. And you know it, Tess. It is why you have brought me with you." She raised her chin again, stared Tess down.

"It is not the only reason, milady. Whatever Tess has told you , it is not guaranteed that you will die this day. "

Elizabeth wrenched her head around to stare at the figure melting from the trees. It was an older man with graying hair and fine clothes. He stared up at her with dark, emotionless eyes. They were eyes that sent a shiver down Liz’s spine. They were merciless eyes, worse even than Tess’s, because they were perfectly sane too. Tess’s blue eyes could no longer hide the glint of madness that burned within them, but this man….he was in no way crazy, and that was more frightening than anything Elizabeth had yet seen.

"You have caused us much trouble, Lady Elizabeth," the man said, almost amused. "But, in the end, you will serve your purpose."

"This is Lord Edmund," Tess interjected. She sounded irritated again. "I told you I’d bring her to you. You did not need to come."

Elizabeth did not quite hear this last bit though. She was still trying to process the news that this was Max’s guardian, back from the dead. How was it possible?

"I know it," Lord Edmund replied. "But I found myself unable to wait. I was eager to lay eyes on the girl who has stolen the heart of my king."

"My lord!" Tess whined. "His heart belongs to me."

Lord Edmund chuckled. "All in good time, Tess. It will be this girl, after all, who brings your Max back to you. His love for her will make him yours. I told you that I would take care of you. Have I not always done so, sweet child?"

Elizabeth’s blood ran cold. She did not know what Lord Edmund was plotting, but she knew that she did not like it. She flinched back against Sir Kyle in spite of herself, for he was, in truth, the closest thing she had to a friend at the moment.

Bringing Max into this would be a mistake. Inherently, Elizabeth knew this. She knew that she should not find out where they were taking her, that she should meet her fate with equanimity, in order to protect her love from whatever his "guardian" had planned for him.

As her doubts assailed her though, the warm glow emanating from her womb returned, reminding her of the promise she had made to herself only minutes ago. She could not forsake Max. No matter what, she had to trust that he would be able to handle this situation.

After all, in the end, was he not their king? What could they possibly threaten that would make him bow to their whim? She knew that she was as good as dead anyway. Max had to be aware that there was no way that Tess would allow her still to be living when he appeared. Tess herself would die before she permitted it.

"What do you mean?" Liz asked, trying to mask her fear. "Tell me, please. Max is one of you! Why are you threatening him?"

Information. She needed information.

Lord Edmund tilted his head, obviously weighing how much to tell her. "We’re not threatening him, my child. We’re merely going to remind Maxwell where his destiny lies. He will accept it, marry Tess according to Antarian law in your presence, thus severing his bond to you, and then he will return to our planet with us. If he does not do this, then you <i>will</i> die - before his eyes. It is as simple as that."

Elizabeth closed her own eyes, tried to keep her confidence high. This would not happen. Max would come and it would be fixed… somehow. She trusted him. As many times as she had failed him, he had never turned from her. This was merely the final battle and he needed to know what he was coming up against.

"Might I at least know where we are going?" Elizabeth inquired innocently.

<u>Part 42</u>

"They’re going to the pod chamber."

Isabel turned her head to look at Max, who had been quiet for too long. She had been worried, beginning to wonder if her brother was contemplating the most satisfying way to deal with Sir Kyle. Isabel didn’t like to think of her brother having those kinds of revenge-filled thoughts. Although, as a king hoping to reclaim his throne from those who had usurped it, she had always known there were some things he would have to do during his life that might be contrary to his nature, none of it would have ever harmed Max’s soul. None of it would have been vindictive, but simply what had to be. But the antipathy that Max felt for Kyle…Isabel knew that her brother was going to kill the other man, and there would be nothing impersonal about it. And, in the end, Max would suffer for it. He was a gentle person at heart and he would feel guilt about it. Possibly not for many years, but he would eventually. Isabel could not like this. No matter how worried she was about Elizabeth, no matter how she knew that Max would be destroyed without her, she also knew that Liz of all of them would be the last one wishing for Max to change himself in any way - particularly for her sake.

Which meant only one thing. Isabel was going to have to protect her brother from his own rage, from his own determination to seek revenge on Kyle for what he had done to Elizabeth. She was glad that Max had asked her to accompany him on the search for his wife, because she would make sure that he would not do anything that could jeopardize who he was or the king he would be someday. Michael and Mary were elsewhere, in search of Alex, who had no hope of finding Elizabeth himself now that they knew that Tess was involved. She would be able to hide Elizabeth and Kyle from the sheriff’s men too easily.

But Tess wanted Max to find them. There was no confirmation that their sister had slipped away to help Sir Kyle, but Isabel knew absolutely that it was true, that she was behind this whole thing somehow. Whatever their traitor of a sister had planned, it was all for Max’s eyes alone. It made Isabel feel a bit better. She knew that Tess would not harm Elizabeth until she had Max exactly where she wanted him.

Which it had seemed might never happen until Max spoke up. They had been winding their way slowly through the darkened forest for hours, their only light the glow from Max’s hand. Isabel was also keeping in close contact with Michael mentally. Since they had all connected to bring Lord Edmund back from the dead, Isabel had been surprised by how much stronger her powers had been. While she could not communicate with Michael directly, with words, she could do so superficially with some images and feelings. She hadn’t had much time to reflect upon it, but it was definitely true that they were all more closely connected. She could feel Max’s proximity, not only because he was right beside her physically, but also because his presence hummed lightly in her brain, in a way it never had before. Michael’s essence did as well, although Isabel knew that he was quite far away.

It was also another reason that she knew that Tess had indeed betrayed them. The connection that she had always felt to the other alien girl no longer existed. While her bond to Michael and Max had only strengthened since the resurrection of Lord Edmund, whatever closeness she had once felt to Tess had been completely extinguished. Isabel was unsure whether Tess herself had cut her off in order to hide her crimes, or if there was some other reason for it. Perhaps fate had intervened and had severed Tess from the four square, knowing that she could no longer be trusted? Or maybe it was nothing so grandiose as that. Perhaps Isabel’s heart had finally severed the tie that she knew no longer really existed anyway.

"How do you know?" Isabel asked Max now, sending a small call in Michael’s direction, encouraging him to hurry up and find Alex. All three of them needed to be together when they confronted Tess.

"I can <i>hear</i> Liz," Max told Isabel, sounding slightly awe-struck, as though he still couldn’t believe it himself. "I have been talking with her for several minutes, but did not want to say anything until I knew for sure it was her."

Isabel blinked, felt her heart start to pound in her chest. "Max, how is it possible? Elizabeth is human! I can’t even communicate that effectively with you and Michael!" If she had never had any doubts about the strength of the love which existed between her brother and his wife, she had none now. It was beyond anything she had ever heard of. Not even regular Antarians had the abilities she and her siblings possessed. It was their combination of human and Antarian DNA that allowed them to possess such gifts. That a human could manage a connection of this magnitude…Could a bond of the depth of that shared by Max and Elizabeth truly change everything so completely?

Isabel frowned slightly, wondering how Alex would feel about this. A connection like the one between Max and Liz might be more than he had bargained for. In fact, she felt slightly frightened at the thought of sharing such a thing with anyone. While she knew that she cared about Alex more than she had ever thought she could care about anyone outside of her small circle of loved ones, could she really open herself so completely, so finally?

"And you are now sure that it <i>is</i> her?" she asked, realizing that this was no time to worry about her own love life.

"Yes," Max nodded, his certainty clear on his visage. "Sir Kyle is with her, but Tess is as well. She is the one controlling Kyle."

Isabel felt a pang of relief. It had always seemed strange that Sir Kyle had changed from the incompetent, bumbling fool she had first known, simply because of what had happened between Max and Elizabeth. That Tess was using her mind control on him made perfect sense. Isabel wondered why Max continued to gaze at her steadily as though waiting for her to realize something else.

Her eyes widened as the truth dawned on her. "Max, if Sir Kyle is being mindwarped…" Isabel trailed off, surprised that she could still feel pain as the truth about Tess kept getting worse.

"It means that Tess betrayed us long before we ever knew," Max finished grimly. "Likely from the very beginning, from the day you first met him the woods."

"But <i>why</i>?" Isabel exclaimed, her mind in complete turmoil, her memory going over every moment she had ever spent in Tess’s company, trying to see this side of her sister in her behavior. But she could not remember a single instance where she had ever suspected Tess of being anything but an innocent, eager to play her role in the reclaiming of their planet. She had been Lord Edmund’s pet because of her complacency, had been all of their favorite because of her sweetness. How could they have been so fooled?

Isabel met Max’s eyes, unable to hide her shock. "Max, this is unbelievable!"

"It is extremely upsetting," Max agreed. His face hardened. "But it is worse than you can even imagine, Bella."

"What? Why?" Isabel stared at her brother.

"Lord Edmund is there as well."

Isabel closed her eyes, wondered why this did not surprise her as much as Tess’s perfidy. Perhaps because she had never truly liked their guardian, had always chafed under his rule? Had she always known, deep down, that he did not have their best interests at heart? But Tess…Isabel swallowed, tried not to let the tears fill her eyes as all of her affection for the other girl over the years - the only person who was truly <i>like</i> her - crumbled to dust. She realized that, deep down, she had been willing to forgive Tess, in spite of everything. She had thought that it only had to do with Max and losing him, that if Elizabeth did not exist, Tess would not have changed. But she could see now that it had all been a lie. Tess had <i>never</i> been one of them.

"Max, what are we going to do?" Isabel whispered, as her brother reined his steed to a halt and reached out to take her hand, in an attempt to comfort her. She felt his warmth and determination wind its way up her arm and, as their eyes locked, she knew that they did not need Tess. As long as she had her king and brother, as long as she had Michael, as long as she had their new friends, they would win.

She could tell from the expression on Max’s face that he was in complete agreement. "We are going to save my wife," Max told her quietly, confirming it. "And then we are going to find out the truth about exactly who we are."

***

Elizabeth did not struggle as Lord Edmund lifted her off the horse she was sharing with Kyle. Now that she knew that Max was on his way, she did not feel the least bit afraid any longer. She wondered how she could have ever doubted that he would be able to protect her and their child, that somehow she owed it to him to let him go. The connection they now shared through this baby…it was warming her from within, giving her courage where none had existed before.

Abandoning Max had been the easy way out. Not trusting him to know what was right had been unworthy of their love. She could continue to tell herself that she had been trying to remain unselfish, that she had been trying to protect their baby, that she had been trying to allow Max the freedom he needed to reclaim his throne, but she knew now that it would have all been a giant lie. She had been afraid of the depth of the commitment she was making to him, someone she barely knew. She hadn’t even recognized it until the final connection had been created between them through their son, but now she knew it to be true.

While she might not feel like she deserved him, might feel that he would be better off with someone else, she did not have the right to make that decision for him. And it was what she had been trying to do. The worst part was that she had been satisfied with the knowledge that she would always have a piece of him through their child. But he would not even have had that. That she could have even contemplated leaving him all alone…

No, she might not feel worthy of him, but he loved her and thought she was. It was now enough.

"You do not seem afraid." Lord Edmund’s voice was quiet, as he led her behind a few large boulders. Tess was before them, holding aloft a torch that had been waiting for them at their stopping point. Sir Kyle was stumbling behind them, his exhaustion and confusion no longer hidden. Elizabeth could not hate him anymore, knowing that he was just as much a victim as the rest of them. The only question remaining was what game these two were playing. Why had Lord Edmund and Tess turned on their king?

"I am not," Elizabeth told him firmly. "I know that whatever happens, it is what is meant to be. As much as you are trying to stop it, Max and I are meant to be together. Everything will work out for us. We would not have ever met if it was not so."

Lord Edmund’s dark eyes stared at her, even more shadowed by the torch-light that danced across his face. "We shall see."

Elizabeth raised her chin. "Indeed we shall." She saw something flicker through Lord Edmund’s eyes. It might have been fear, it might have been anger, but whatever it was, she knew she had gotten to him. She smiled slightly, in spite of everything.

This man had betrayed Max. She hated him with every fibre of her being. Even if she was meant to die here this day, she would make sure that Lord Edmund knew exactly what she thought of him.

"He is coming." Tess’s soft voice from further ahead caught Elizabeth’s attention. She could hear the excitement in the other girl’s voice, the confidence that she was destined to get her own way. There was now no question that Max’s former betrothed was insane. But Elizabeth also knew that she was not the true villain in this piece. The man pulling her along after him, no longer gently, was the real traitor. Now if only she could find out how.

Elizabeth also knew that Tess was right. She could feel Max’s approach in every part of her, knew that he was now only minutes away.

<i>Max, be careful!</i>

She sent the thought spinning out, hoping that he would hear her, but the fact that her baby was now quietly resting in her womb made it unlikely. This actually reassured her though. Their son knew that he was no longer in danger. His father was coming and everything was happening as it was supposed to. They were not fated to die here this day.

Elizabeth tried not to shelter her stomach as Lord Edmund pushed her roughly to the ground. They could not know her secret, could not use her son against Max. For the first time she looked around, felt her eyes widen at the four egg-shaped containers gleaming in the corner of the large cave. She realized that she recognized them from her first connection with Max. Her eyes were drawn to one in particular, knew instinctively that this was where her husband had been born. The calm she had been feeling, since their true enemies had been revealed, increased. Nothing bad could happen in this place. It just could not. Anywhere that had brought her Max just had to be good.

"Elizabeth…"

She turned her head, met Kyle’s eyes. He had sat down beside her, while Tess and Lord Edmund had gone over to the large egg-shapes. Her former betrothed’s gaze still seemed hazy, but she could see a faint glimmer of awareness underneath. "Kyle."

"I am sorry," he whimpered. "I…" He swallowed, tears filling his blue eyes. "She made me kill my own father."

And, in spite of everything he had done to her, Elizabeth felt her heart go out to him. "I am sorry."

"I am afraid. I am going to hell, Elizabeth." He seemed to be searching his mind, as though trying to understand what he had done. "I didn’t want any of this. I wanted <i>you</i>, but not like this."

"Tess has powers none of us even suspected," Elizabeth told him reassuringly, reaching out and taking his hand. "I don’t think Max and the others even knew." She paused, then said, "I’m sorry that things could not be different between us, Kyle."

He closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the stone wall of the cave. "I hope he kills me quickly. I am still a coward, Elizabeth."

"He will not kill you," Elizabeth said firmly. "When he understands the truth, you will live and you will have time to save your immortal soul. God will not wish you punished for something beyond your control."

Kyle opened his eyes again. They were finally completely clear, Tess obviously not bothering to control him at all anymore. "But it was within my control, Elizabeth. If I had been a stronger person, she never would have been able to use me like she did. I would have known right away what she was doing to me."

Elizabeth squeezed his hand. "It does not mean you are weak, Kyle - or a coward. She did it to even Michael, and you can not think <i>him</i> weak. She is an evil witch. You are not to blame."

The next thing Elizabeth knew, her head had been smashed back against the cave wall. She almost passed out from the pain of it, but finally managed to focus her eyes on a furious Tess, whom she had not even seen coming. "You are right, Elizabeth," she snarled. "<i>You</i> are to blame. For all of this. I am not the evil witch and I will have you shut your lying mouth."

Elizabeth recoiled against Kyle’s shoulder. The absolute hatred in Tess’s eyes…In spite of herself, she felt a healthy flash of fear run through her. She could feel Kyle trembling beneath her, his horror and terror of Tess making him shudder.

Tess dropped to her knees, pushed her face right into Elizabeth’s. "You think you are safe, you little whore. But trust me, you are not. Lord Edmund is not the person who is destined to rule Antar. He may think that I am under his thumb, but in this one thing, he is sorely mistaken."

"What are you talking about?" Elizabeth demanded, forcing herself to stop flinching, straightening her spine and glaring right back at Tess.

"Even if Max agrees to return to Antar in order to save you, it won’t matter, because you will already be dead." With that, Tess placed her palm firmly against Elizabeth’s forehead, in spite of Liz’s attempts to move away from her. Up against the wall as she was, there was nowhere to go. And, then, there was no more thought of escaping at all, because the red hot stabbing pain that shot through her skull pushed all other thoughts aside.

Elizabeth did not fully understand that the agony had ended until her eyes seemed to open of their own volition and she stared at Tess. The blonde girl was just climbing to her feet on the other side of the pod chamber, her blue eyes wide in horror.

"What did you do?" Kyle asked under his breath. "Elizabeth, she went flying across the room! You did not even touch her."

But Elizabeth knew that she had done nothing. It had been her child. Even now she could feel the warmth he always brought slowly retreating from her extremities.

And, as her eyes met Tess’s across the large room, she knew that Tess now knew it too. She knew about her baby.

"You slut!" Tess screeched, raising her hand again. "If you think that your little bastard is going to stop me from killing you, you are sadly mistaken!"

"You are with child?" Kyle demanded, sounding incredulous. "Is it…"

"Of course it’s not yours, you weak-minded fool!" Tess screamed. "Although I wish it was." Elizabeth watched in fearful fascination as the blonde shook her head. "I am a fool too, for not allowing you have your way with her. I try and show a little kindness and look what happens to me! Betrayed again!"

"I’m surprised you even know what that word means, unaware as you are of the fact that you are the only traitor here."

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and her heart jumped as she turned her head at the sound of the new voice. She recognized it immediately, was surprised that she had not been instantly aware of his arrival. Of course, she had almost been knocked unconscious, but it was still no excuse.

Max. Her heart began to sing simply at the sight of him. It had been too long since she had laid eyes on her beloved. The strong feeling of relief that swept through her was enough to make her sag back against Kyle again.

He had come up behind Tess, was now standing at the entrance to the pod chamber, his arms folded across his chest, his expression absolutely fierce. It sent a shiver down Liz’s spine, made her glad that she knew that she would never be on the receiving end of such a look. Isabel stood slightly behind him, sadness on her beautiful face, her hand on Max’s arm, as though in an attempt to control him, if even only slightly.

"Max!" Tess exclaimed, the tone of her voice changing instantly from threatening to sweet. Elizabeth could not believe it, barely managed to control the bile rising in her throat. "You’re finally here. Look! I caught her for you."

"Don’t even try it, Tess," Max snapped. "Just shut your mouth and get Lord Edmund." He looked around. "I assume that he is here somewhere."

"That I am, my liege." Elizabeth watched in surprise as Lord Edmund seemed to emerge from the pods themselves. She realized abruptly that there was another room beyond them, and that it was why Tess had felt secure enough to threaten her again. Lord Edmund had not been nearby.

Max did not even look in the direction of Lord Edmund’s voice though. He had shifted his gaze to her, his eyes raking over her form as though to assure himself that she was in one piece. He smiled slightly, as though to give her strength, then turned his attention to his guardian. "Why are you calling me that? You obviously don’t consider me to be your king. Your actions seem to indicate quite the contrary."

"I will always consider you my king, as long as you behave as you ought," Lord Edmund replied mildly. "I am sorry that it has come to this, Zan, but if I have to threaten your little doxy to get you to act like you are supposed to, I will." It was only then that Elizabeth realized that her life was still in danger, in spite of Max’s arrival, for Lord Edmund stood much closer to her than Max, the pods from which he had emerged standing exactly between the entrance to the cave and where Elizabeth and Kyle were sitting. Considering Lord Edmund’s alien gifts, there was no way that Max would be able to get to her in time to stop whatever it was that Lord Edmund intended.

Max’s eyes narrowed. "And how am I supposed to act?"

"You are supposed to marry me, you complete and utter fool!" Tess shrieked.

"Why?" Max’s eyes had not moved from Lord Edmund’s face. "Why is it so important that I marry her? I can rule without her." But, as he continued, Elizabeth realized that he knew already. "She is not my wife, never was my wife, was she? It is why you are so desperate to marry me off to her before we leave Earth."

"Of course she is," Lord Edmund began soothingly.

Max cut him off. "Stop <i>lying</i>! Tell me the truth. Now. I demand it."

"I <i>am</i> telling you the truth," Lord Edmund snapped, his patience clearly at an end. "You must marry Tess or you will never be accepted as king of Antar. There is no choice, Maxwell. It is destined and it shall be. You are the one who has brought us to this impasse." He pointed at Elizabeth menacingly, which made Max’s jaw tighten. "I do not want to hurt her, but I will unless you do as you are told."

"Why did you pretend to agree to my marriage to Liz yesterday? And why did Tess bring Sir Kyle into this?" Max ground out, obviously attempting to keep his rage in check. Elizabeth wasn’t really sure why this mattered at the moment, but she finally realized that Max was trying to buy time. Michael was not with them.

At the mention of his name, Kyle had flinched, but when Elizabeth turned to look at him, she could see that he was no longer cowering. His blue eyes met hers, and she felt her own widen. Kyle had made his decision. He was ready to face the consequences of his actions. He was no longer afraid. Elizabeth felt her heart go out to him. He truly believed he was going to die. How could he not know that Max was not like that, that he would never kill someone innocent?

Lord Edmund sighed wearily, but did not answer. Elizabeth could almost <i>feel</i> Max’s rage coming off of him in waves. "Tell me!" her husband yelled.

"That was <i>my</i> doing," Tess said, sounding triumphant. "I am tired of waiting to go home." She glared at Lord Edmund. "<i>He</i> kept saying we weren’t ready, but I knew we were." She shrugged. "I only meant for Sir Kyle to pursue Bella, for it to worry Lord Edmund, and for him to decide it was time to go home because of it." She glared at Elizabeth. "How was I to know that <i>she</i> would somehow get mixed up in all of this?"

"Are you really trying to blame Elizabeth?" Isabel spoke up for the first time, sounding incredulous. Elizabeth could see her shaking her head in disbelief. "Who <i>are</i> you? You are not my sister."

"I am your rightful queen," Tess snapped back. "I cannot believe how quickly you and Michael were willing to turn on me, Bella." Tears filled the other girl’s large blue eyes. "How could you do it to me?"

"You sent Michael to prison!" Isabel shot back fiercely, not sounding the least bit guilty. "Admit it, Tess. It is why he remembers nothing of his captivity or his rescue."

"That was an accident!" Tess flared. "How was I to know that he was going to be there when the sheriff’s men went to pick up his son’s wayward fiancée? It was too late not to have him taken. Besides, he deserved it. And I saved him, didn’t I?"

Isabel looked like she wanted to hit Tess, but Max spoke up again, easing the moment. Elizabeth realized that he was still focused on Lord Edmund. "You have never wanted me to feel at all in control of my own destiny," he said quietly. "You have not raised me to be king, but to be your puppet, and I want to know <i>why</i>."

"You are wrong, Maxwell," Lord Edmund replied firmly. "I am the only one who knows what is best for you. Once you come to accept it, your return to Antar will only be a formality. You will be ready to rule upon your arrival, as long as you are married to Tess and the four square is strong." He looked beyond Max at this last statement. "Where is your brother?"

"That is none of your affair," Max returned. Elizabeth watched his face, could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Finally he said, "You are not our guardian. Bella and I have both always known it, and your actions of late have more than proved it."

"You may choose to believe what you will. I cannot stop you, but you are wrong." Lord Edmund sounded extremely weary. And, so, it was an even greater surprise when he was suddenly beside her, hauling her to her feet. He had his hand firmly on the side of her neck and it was only then that Elizabeth understood what he was going to do. He did not intend any sort of alien death for her. She wondered if he even thought her worthy of such a thing. He would kill her like the human she was by simply breaking her neck.

She saw Max’s nostrils flare, but he did not make a move in her direction. Her heart started to pound, suddenly unsure. What was he waiting for? Could he truly be calling Lord Edmund’s bluff? Did he not really believe that his guardian intended her harm? Or did he just not care?

Elizabeth felt immediate shame at the last thought. Of course it wasn’t that. Even at this distance, she could see a vein pulsing in the side of Max’s neck, as he barely managed to keep his emotions in check. One false move and Lord Edmund would end her life and the life of her baby along with it.

"What do you want me to do?" Max finally demanded, trying not to reveal his fear for her in his voice. Elizabeth heard it though, and she knew that his enemies did as well.

"You will claim Tess as your wife here and now in front of this girl, so that she will know once and for all that she has lost her great prize," Lord Edmund told him firmly. "We will wait for Michael, and then we will all return to Antar - tonight."

Elizabeth could feel her heart fluttering in her chest, but she was still strangely calm. She was not going to die. Max would never allow it. But would he really leave her to assure it? After all they had been through, mostly through her own stupidity, were they still destined to be separated after all?

Her eyes met Max’s. He was breathing quickly, as though trying to work his mind around how to solve this problem. She tried to tell him without words that she trusted him, that she would go along with whatever he decided. If he left, she knew that he would come back to her. If it was what he had to do, she would support him.

"She is carrying his child."

Elizabeth felt Lord Edmund jerk in shock behind her. She turned her head in surprise to see Kyle on his feet, standing straight and looking right at Tess, his hatred palpable to all in the chamber. "You cannot kill your king’s heir. Elizabeth is carrying his child."

"He is lying!" Tess screamed.

But no one was listening to her. Elizabeth lowered her lashes, swallowed. This was not how she had intended for Max to find out about their child, by any stretch of the imagination. And, while Kyle had been trying to help, somehow Liz knew he had just made things worse. Because now Max knew that he not only had to worry about <i>her</i> safety, he also had to be concerned about their baby’s life.

"Liz," Max’s voice was gentle. She raised her eyes and met his again, unable to hide the truth any longer. She saw his dark gaze soften, then harden again, as he looked back at Lord Edmund.

"Let her go."

"This changes nothing," Lord Edmund told him. "Tess’s child will be your heir. I cannot allow another to take her place. I cannot betray what I was sent here to do."

"Elizabeth is my wife. I cannot take another," Max replied. "You know this. But I also know that you are a good man at heart. You will not kill my child."

"I have no choice!" Lord Edmund’s voice was quavering . Elizabeth could feel him loosening his grip around her neck. Another moment and she would be able to wrench herself free, would be able to fling herself at Max and end this once and for all. "If I go back there and Tess is not your wife, they will kill me."

"Who?" Max asked gently. "Who will kill you, my lord?"

"Kill her!" Tess shrieked. "Do it! She is nothing to us. He will accept me if she is gone. You know this to be true!"

"I am sorry." Elizabeth could hear the despair in the guardian’s voice as his grip tightened around her neck once more. "You will forget her in time." She closed her eyes, waiting for the end. Then she realized that, once more, she was taking the coward’s way out.

She needed to be with him. And, so, she opened her eyes again and met his. They were shining desperately, as he frantically searched his mind for a way to save her. But she knew there was none. She tried to tell him with her eyes that she forgave him, that he needed to save his world so that she wouldn’t die in vain.

<i>I love you!</i>

"Liz!" Max’s anguished cry was the last sound she heard.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Mon Aug 29, 2005 8:22 pm

AN - Thanks, everyone! We're in the home stretch now.

<u>Part 43</u>

The only thing Isabel knew when the light went out of Elizabeth’s eyes was that she had to prevent her brother from reacting swiftly and without mercy. Somehow she knew that it would not be what Elizabeth would have wanted. His wife’s murder could not be allowed to change her brother from what he was meant to be and, if he was allowed to act within those first moments, there would be no stopping that. Lord Edmund’s untried blood would be on his hands and, while she knew that Max would be able to live with it, Elizabeth would not have wanted it.

They had failed Max’s wife in every way so far. Isabel would not fail her now.

Lord Edmund and Tess would be punished for the loss of Antar’s queen and its heir, but it could not be at Max’s hands. His entire reign would be blackened were his people not allowed to render justice on his behalf.

She was trying to control her own tears as she moved in front of him. "Max, stop. Think."

"Get out of my way, Bella." His tone was even, so controlled that Isabel truly feared for what he planned to do to himself after he finished with Lord Edmund and Tess.

"Max! Think of Elizabeth. She would not want this," Isabel pleaded. "You know it in your heart. Everything she did was to protect you, to preserve your position, and if you do this - if you kill them without trying them first - we will never be able to go home."

His eyes met hers. She felt her heart break at the emptiness that existed there. "I am not going home, Bella."

"Max!"

"Isabel, my wife is dead. They are going to pay for it." His voice gentled as he said quietly, "I have to do this, Isabel. But worry not, my sister. It will be justice. I will not sully her memory by having it any other way."

She bowed her head, finally understanding that her brother had absolutely no intention of letting go of his steadfast control. Not until he had accomplished this final act. "Very well."

Max kissed her gently on the forehead than moved past her, pulling the sword at his side from its scabbard. "Arm yourself," he told Lord Edmund, who was standing over Elizabeth’s crumpled form, looking bemused, as though not quite understanding why he was still alive. Isabel realized that he had truly expected to die moments after Elizabeth, that he knew his king would never allow him to live and, yet, he had done it anyway.

"Max," Isabel called urgently. "Max, wait!" She hurried forward, grabbed her brother’s arm. He shook her off impatiently.

"Isabel! If you cannot stop interfering, I command you to leave."

She blinked, unsure if he had ever before used that tone with her, but she refused to be swayed. "Max, he is ready to die for what he did. He is not going anywhere. We need answers, my brother."

"Tess will provide them," Max snapped. He turned his head, looked at her directly. "Do not let her escape, Bella."

Isabel looked over at the small blonde, astonished to see that she wasn’t going anywhere. Sir Kyle had her firmly by the arm, and had his dagger at her throat.

"Kyle!" she exclaimed in astonishment.

Sir Kyle glanced at her, then returned his steadfast gaze to the matter at hand, while saying, "It’s amazing really. Hatred has the most potent ability to counteract mind control." Isabel watched him tighten his grip on Tess, whose face was scrunched up in fury, as she struggled to reestablish her power over Kyle. He pressed the knife closer against her skin, ordered her firmly, "Stop it, you evil wench. You can’t control me any longer."

Isabel could see that indeed it was true. Ironically, committing his father’s murder had started Kyle back on the road to redemption, and Elizabeth’s death had completed the journey. He would not let Tess escape. And, when he was through with Lord Edmund, Max would make her talk. Tess seemed to know it if the terror which was slowly dawning on her face was any indication.

"Arm yourself," Max repeated firmly, his sword now held at readiness.

Lord Edmund’s confidence seemed to be returning, as he realized that Max had no intention of killing him in a fit of rage, that he was actually going to be able to defend himself. "Really, Maxwell, you don’t think you can beat me this way? I taught you everything you know."

Max did not flinch. "Isabel, get him his sword."

She hurried to comply, seeing Lord Edmund’s jeweled weapon leaning against the cave wall near the pods. She moved towards their guardian, thrust the sword at him, hilt-first.

"Thank you, Bella," he said, now sounding amused. "This is all unnecessary, Max. You have to see that I could not allow her to live once I became aware that she carried a child. She was no longer merely a pawn and could not be left behind. The child might have served as a figurehead to some rebellion in the future. There can be no claimant to the throne other than Tess’s child."

"That is going to be slightly difficult to achieve," Max ground out. "Considering I would sooner bed every forest creature in a ten mile radius than my former betrothed."

Tess screeched in outrage, making Isabel struggle not to snort in horrified amusement. She wished that Max would end this farce quickly. The tension was becoming unbearable.

Lord Edmund sighed. "Very well then." He raised his sword. "If you insist on dying this way, when all I have done has been to secure your throne, than I am too tired to argue any longer."

However Max did not wait for his wife’s killer to stop talking before he was on the offensive. Lord Edmund barely managed to block Max’s first blow. Edmund stumbled backwards, almost tripping over Elizabeth’s body. Isabel gasped in dismay, could feel Max’s fury increase as his attention was refocused on the fact that Liz was really gone. He moved forward, grabbed Lord Edmund by the front of his tunic and thrust him away from his wife.

Isabel hurried over and gently eased Elizabeth away from the centre of the cave, out of the way of the two dueling men. Edmund was playing with Max now, using her brother’s anger against him. Max had been more distracted by the sight of Elizabeth’s body than was entirely normal. It was only then that Isabel understood that, until a moment ago, her brother had not yet looked directly at his dead wife. How could she have not realized it? He would not have been able to function at all had he truly looked at her.

And, indeed, that one glimpse of Elizabeth under Lord Edmund’s feet was becoming Max’s undoing. He was fighting valiantly, but his grief was slowly seeping through his veins, weakening him. Isabel could feel it through the connection that was still open between them.

The least she could do for her brother was to protect his wife’s body and so she held Elizabeth tightly in her arms, watching the sword-fight continue, keeping her eyes on Tess, in case Kyle lost control of her, although there didn’t appear to be any danger of that.

Isabel tried not to reflect on the fact that her queen was still warm. Tears filled her eyes, her grief for her sister-in-law finally cracking the shock she knew had been shielding her heart from the brunt of her despair over Elizabeth’s loss. It was accentuated by the fact that she felt Max’s grief mingling with her own.

It was in that instant, when she allowed herself to feel again, that she felt it. It came in the form of a flash, the sudden knowledge, but when she placed her hand at Elizabeth’s neck, felt the pulse beating there, faint but absolutely there, she knew that it was true.

Elizabeth lived.

It was then that she made the mistake that she would regret for the rest of her life. Wanting to give her brother back his resolve, his hope, she called his name. "Max! She lives! She is still alive."

But instead of helping him, she ended up distracting him. He had been regaining the upper hand, swiping hard thrusts at Lord Edmund’s torso, his gift for swordplay winning out over his momentary weakness and his guardian’s experience. If she had just kept her mouth shut, her brother might have triumphed on his own.

As Isabel watched in horror, Max’s attention jerked towards her, his flash of hope running through her simultaneously, and Lord Edmund took advantage of his lack of attention, thrusting out one of his legs and tripping Max. The young king fell hard, jarring his sword out of his hand.

Instantly, his enemy was upon him.

Lord Edmund clucked in disapproval, staring down at Max, who was now pinned at the neck under Edmund’s sword. "I taught you better than that, Maxwell. You do see why this girl is no good for you? Your preoccupation with her has proven to be your downfall."

Isabel could not bear to watch. She simply could not bear it. She turned her head and closed her eyes, sobs already wracking her body.

Even Tess screamed in horror as the final blow came.

***

Michael, still more than a mile away, felt his brother’s anguish run through his entire body. It was so intense it almost knocked him right off his horse. He reined in his steed, closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and turned to Mary, who had pulled up beside him. Alexander was behind her, having finally been tracked down at the burnt out remnant of the chapel where Max and his Liz had exchanged their vows only days before. They had sent the shire’s guard back to Nottingham, knowing that what was about to transpire had to be done in the utmost secrecy and had started to the pod chamber, Isabel’s call still clear in Michael’s mind.

And now they were too late.

How on God’s green Earth was he going to tell them that Elizabeth was dead? They were both staring at him, their expressions trusting and hopeful, both now sure that their new friends were gifted with powers which would assure their victory, confident that the new relationships they had formed would see them through this betrayal by one of their own. But, in the end, treachery had won out.

Elizabeth was gone. Michael knew it absolutely, his bond with Maxwell and Isabel stronger now than it had ever been, aware as they were that because of Lord Edmund’s perfidy, they were truly alone on this strange world.

But, for a time, they had not been. For a time, one small lady - one Michael had been hard-pressed to trust at first - had created ties to this planet that he and his siblings were loathe to break. Tess had ruined it all and, somehow, he knew that it wasn’t merely because she was jealous. Jealousy and heartbreak he might have understood, but this went beyond it. Because what she had done to Max could not in any way be justified.

For the life of him, Michael wished he could understand why. What had happened to his sister that she had become something so unrecognizable?

"What is wrong?" Mary asked quietly. Both she and Alexander were holding themselves very still, apparently aware now that something was amiss.

Michael swallowed, met her gaze. "Elizabeth…"

Mary’s eyes widened. Michael saw a tremor run through her slender body, felt a flash of love beyond anything he had ever experienced when her spine straightened and she said, "Let us go to them." Her confidence that they could survive this humbled him. Her compassion for them all, when her own grief must be staggering…Mary knew that they would blame themselves. What had he ever done right in this world to deserve this girl?

He glanced at Alexander, whose face was white, but who nodded resolutely. "Mary is right. We must hurry. She…" He swallowed, pressed on. "She would want it. They won’t know what to do. She would not want Max to do anything that would jeopardize his immortal soul."

But Michael did not hear this last. He jerked again, horror washing through him as Isabel somehow connected to him in an unguarded moment. He could feel his heart beating irregularly in his chest as he told them softly, "It is too late. It is done."

Elizabeth had been avenged. He knew it inherently. But it was only when they finally arrived at the pod chamber that he understood that no soul had been lost with the action. Rather, someone had been saved.

<u>Part 44</u>

For one horrible instant, only moments after his sister had given him what should have been the best news of his life, Max stared mortality in the face. He watched in strange fascination as Lord Edmund’s sword rose over his head, unable to even move in an attempt to save himself.

It was amazing how many thoughts one has time for when death is imminent. He wondered briefly if he had been privy to so much insight into where his life had failed prior to his <i>first</i> murder.

To begin with, he cursed himself roundly. He was going to die, and Isabel and Michael would be left at the mercy of Lord Edmund and Tess. He didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen to Alexander and Mary. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they would be killed. While Michael and Bella might continue to live, he didn’t doubt that they would be firmly under Lord Edmund’s control again. Their so-called guardian would never underestimate them a second time.

His next thoughts were of his wife. How could he not have known that Elizabeth still lived? How had the connection that bonded them been severed so drastically that he could no longer feel her and, so, had not even tried to heal her? It was this fact alone that led him to understand that, while his wife might still be breathing, she was no longer truly alive.

It had to be the child in her womb that was keeping her body still breathing and, yet, it was no longer <i>her</i>. Elizabeth was gone. He knew it with every inch of his soul. He could not feel her and he did not think that he could continue to exist in an universe that did not burn with her gentle spirit. It was why, much to his shame, he did not try and stop what was about to happen to him. In spite of his love for his siblings, his affection for Alexander and Mary, and his concern for his planet, he simply <i>knew</i> that he would not be able to go on without his Liz anyway.

She was his heart and soul. He could continue to breathe without her, but he would not accomplish anything. His death would be a blessing. Antar could move on without him.

Afterward, Isabel told him that she did not blame him for his momentary lapse, for the cowardice that had almost cost him his life. Michael said he understood. Alexander and Mary certainly forgave him. He never quite forgave himself, but he also understood that, from the first moment he had laid eyes on Elizabeth - from the first moment he had ever dreamt of her in fact - his destiny was sealed.

They were one soul. They were each other’s strength. His weakness without her could not be denied.

It was for that reason that, in future years, he blessed the day that Sir Kyle DeValence had entered his life. Because, in the end, it was his nemesis who saved him.

It was over so quickly, Max did not even have time to roll aside before Lord Edmund’s body crashed down upon him. He could hear Tess screaming, then felt bile enter his throat as the smell of burning flesh reached his nostrils. He swallowed, hard.

Shoving Lord Edmund’s body off of him, Max managed to climb to his feet, stared in astonishment at the dagger that was still quivering in his guardian’s back.

"Max!" Isabel’s scream forced him to take rapid stock of the situation. Isabel had her hand raised and was holding Tess against the cave wall with some sort of force-field. He raised his own hand, no longer having any resistance to using his powers, and joined his sister. He felt Isabel’s relief through their connection.

"What happened?" he asked his sister through a clenched jaw, all of his strength focused on keeping Tess in place. She was struggling like a madwoman, her teeth bared, clearly now completely insane.

"She killed Sir Kyle," Isabel replied, sounding appalled. "He threw his dagger at Lord Edmund’s back to save you and she turned on him and burnt him from the inside."

Max struggled against the sickness he felt rising within him again as he took in what remained of Sir Kyle DeValence.

"He was a hero," Max said, knowing that, in this final act, Sir Kyle had saved his own soul. Finally, he had achieved his life’s goal of making his father proud. He had saved his greatest enemy, with no thought to himself, and he would live on in the heaven he had believed so firmly closed against him.

"Max, what are we going to do with her?" Isabel asked. "We cannot control her. She is completely insane."

He knew that his sister was right. There was only one thing to do, now no choice at all. Without Lord Edmund to at least keep some sort of authority over her, Tess would be unmanageable. They were going to have to kill her.

But, first, they needed information. And there was only one way to get it.

"I’m taking her back to Antar," Max said, loudly enough that he knew Tess would hear him.

Tess stopped struggling. She focused on Max, her eyes burning. "We are going home?"

Max attempted not to display his hatred as he replied, "Yes, Tessie. I’m taking you home."

Isabel sounded shocked as she murmured, "Max, we should just kill her."

Max looked at her sharply. "Trust me," he muttered. "Just go along with me, Isabel. I’ll explain." He turned back to Tess. "There is nothing standing in our way now, Tessie. I am going to marry you and then we are going home. You just have to promise me that you are not going to hurt anyone else."

"I promise." Tess’s voice was child-like, as she smiled beatifically. "I knew you would finally understand, Max. I had no choice."

"I know it, sweeting." Max clenched his jaw, still nervous, but knowing that the chance had to be taken. He lowered his hand. Isabel hesitated, but eventually followed his lead.

Tess moved toward the pods. "Come, Max. The granolith will take us home. Lord Edmund told me how to make it work." She looked at Isabel, her blue eyes wide and guileless. "Are you going to come too, Bella?"

Isabel looked at Max, who shook his head imperceptibly. She narrowed her gaze, seemed about to argue, but Max glared at her, and she finally said, "I am to stay here, Tess."

"Go on, sweeting," Max said to Tess, making his voice coaxing. "Go through. Don’t start the granolith," the strange word rolled off his tongue awkwardly, "until I am with you. I need to speak with Bella for a moment."

Tess’s eyes narrowed slightly, but she eventually nodded, lowered herself to her hands and knees and crawled through the bottom right-hand pod.

"Max, what are you doing?" Isabel hissed, once Tess was out of sight. "You’re not actually going with her!"

"Of course not," Max replied firmly. "I just need to know how this granolith works. Plus, as long as she thinks we have finally seen the light, she will be obedient. As long as Tess gets her own way, she is perfectly submissive," he reminded Isabel.

"But what about when she knows that you’re not going?" Isabel demanded. "This doesn’t seem thought out, Max." She moved away from him, went to kneel beside Elizabeth. "You need to be with your wife. She is still alive. You need to heal her!" Isabel sounded concerned that he hadn’t already thought of this.

He wondered with interest if his sister thought he was going insane too. The expression on her face seemed to indicate this.

Maybe he <i>was</i> crazy. Maybe that explained how he knew that Liz was gone, even if she still breathed.

Maybe he was crazy and so he was wrong. His heart skipped a beat.

Max felt a lump enter his throat, as he allowed his gaze to rest for a moment on the countenance of his Liz, looking peaceful in her eternal slumber. His sister was right. He could not deal with Tess until he knew for certain that Elizabeth was truly lost to him.

His brain knew it and, yet, his heart still hoped. Yes, he was certainly insane.

"Watch for Tess," Max told Isabel. "I will try."

Isabel nodded, getting to her feet and moving toward the pods, standing stiffly.

Max knelt at his wife’s side. He could not tear his eyes from her beloved face, paler than before, but still lovely. He could see a small bruise on her lip where she had obviously gnawed on it in concern at some point during her ordeal. It was this small imperfection that finally caused the seal on his emotions to break.

He fell back on his haunches, his face buried in his hands and struggled to control the great wave of grief that threatened to overtake him.

"Max!" Isabel’s whisper of concern floated towards him.

Max straightened his spine, forced his hands down and gently touched Elizabeth’s face. He closed his eyes, searched for any way into her mind, any path still open.

He could feel her thin breath against his hand.

<i>Liz!</i> He called to her with every fibre of his being, hoping against hope that she would answer him - that he would find her, that she was simply lost and needed help to come back to him. <i>My love! Please!</i>

There was not even a flicker of awareness from Elizabeth. In fact, the emptiness was so complete, it was beyond painful.

Max opened his eyes, raised his head and looked at Isabel. "She is gone, Bella. She is still here in body, but her spirit…"

But Isabel was not looking at him. She had obviously been watching his attempt at making a connection, but now her eyes were glued to Elizabeth’s form. "Max! Look!"

He lowered his gaze, felt his eyes widen. An unearthly glow was spreading across his wife until she was completely encased in it. He stared in astonishment, knew instinctively that he should try again.

Max gently placed his hands on his wife’s face and instantly the scene around him changed. Isabel disappeared, as did the glowing pods, and the cave itself.

He was back in the forest. Max searched the trees frantically, sure that he was meant to find Elizabeth here. He pushed into the dense foliage and broke through to a sunny glade. He stopped, his heart pounding and stared.

She was sitting on a boulder, her dark hair tumbling around her shoulders, no wimple or veil necessary in such a casual moment. She was dressed in a simple gown, her delicate toes peeking out from under the hem, as she wore no slippers upon her feet. An embroidery hoop lay forgotten in her lap, as she laughed merrily at something he could not see.

Max realized that he had never beheld his wife in such a domestic pose. Their entire relationship had been shockingly dramatic, from the first moment they had met. And, yet, this was not unfamiliar. It was something right out of his dreams in fact.

He took a tentative step forward, disbelieving that it was really her. But, as she became aware of him, her head turning, a shocked and then delighted expression crossing her face, he knew that it was.

He took another step, then felt a firm hand clamp down on his shoulder.

"Not yet."

Max turned his head, startled. He regarded a tall man with dark hair and strangely familiar eyes. His countenance was sad.

"What? My wife! I must go to her!"

"Father, you cannot."

Max felt a shiver run down his spine. "Who are you?" he whispered. He looked back to where Liz had been sitting and could see that she was already gone.

"I am your son," the young man replied quietly, although Max somehow already knew. "And this is what you must do to save my mother."

***

"Mary, stay here," Michael ordered firmly, as he swept his hand across the glowing hand-print on the rock face. "Alexander and I will go assess the situation, and then you may join us."

Mary opened her mouth to quarrel, but then decided now was not the time. She really could not think of a sound argument anyway. She did have her bow with her, but knew that it would likely be of little use within the confines of the cave. Michael and Alex both had their swords drawn, would be much less able to deal with whatever circumstances they might encounter should they also be worrying about her.

"Very well," she replied wearily. She truly did not have the energy to say anything else. She was trying not to allow her grief over the loss of Elizabeth, her closest friend - really her sister - affect her. There would be time for sorrow later. For now, they had to assure that Lizzy had not died in vain.

Michael placed his hand palm down on the glowing symbol and the hidden gateway slid open. Mary heard Alex’s sharp intake of breath. That her brother could still be amazed at the wonders of which their friends were capable surprised her. Mary was astonished by nothing now.

"Be careful," she commanded, as the two boys melted into the shadows.

Mary truly had intended to stay where she was. Really. But when the yelling began and strange blasting noises emerged from within the pod chamber, she found herself running towards them, rather than away. It was only later that she realized that were her friends to lose, then she wanted to be with them. There was no way that she was going to stay alive alone.

She broke through into the chamber proper, stopped abruptly, unable to understand immediately what her eyes were telling her.

The first thing she saw was Lord Edmund’s body, a dagger sticking out of his back. Michael was in front of her, his hand raised, pointed in the direction of the glowing pods. Isabel was on the ground, Alexander on top of her, Mary’s brother obviously having shielded her friend with his body. Max was across the room, sitting cross-legged at Elizabeth’s side, his eyes closed and his hands on her face.

And Elizabeth was glowing.

"What happened?" Mary exclaimed. She was still looking around, unsure what was wrong with the tableau presented here - other than the obvious fact that her best friend had never glowed before. Something was <i>different</i> from the last time she had been there, but she could not put her finger on it.

Michael’s head whipped around at the sound of her voice and he glared at her. "Did I not tell you remain outside?"

"Yes," Mary allowed, waving her hand in the air as though brushing aside a pesky fly. "I did not do so however. Now tell me what happened!"

"Tess tried to kill Elizabeth," Alexander said. He was on his feet and was helping Bella to join him. Isabel’s expression was resigned. "Michael killed her." When Mary looked around for a body, her brother said quietly, "She is completely gone, Mary."

Mary glanced at Michael, decided not to touch that one with a ten foot pole. Michael did not look the least bit sorry, but Mary knew that would not last long . He had killed the girl that he had considered a sister, however justified. He would feel it.

"I thought Lizzy was already dead!" Mary felt her heart speeding up with joy as she moved forward to join Max at her friend’s side. How could it be? But Lizzy must be alive, for why else would Tess try to kill her again?

"She is not." Mary could see that Max’s eyes were now open. His tone was grim, which did not match his words. Shouldn’t he be overjoyed?

"I am sorry, Max," Isabel said quietly. "There was no choice. I know that you wanted information, but she came out and saw Elizabeth and knew that she lived. She was going to kill her."

"It is not your fault, Bella," Max replied, sounding inexpressible weary.

"But we won’t be able to go home," Isabel reminded him, although Mary did not think she sounded particularly regretful of this fact. She saw Alexander’s arm tighten around Isabel’s shoulders.

"It does not matter," Max said, shaking his head. "If they truly want us, they will come for us someday." He did not sound exceptionally interested in whether <i>they</i>, whoever they were, came or not.

"Max, what is it? If Lizzy lives, this is wonderful news! Tess is gone and so is Lord Edmund! You are free!" Mary did not understand the expression on the young king’s face. What was wrong?

"Elizabeth lives but she will not wake up," Max said, his tone even. "There is only one way to do it and my wife would never allow it. Were I to sanction it, she would not forgive me." Mary felt a frisson of dread descend her spine.

"Max?" she whispered. "What?"

"If I kill the baby, then its essence would revitalize Liz." His voice was dead. "But I cannot do it. She would not want to live that way." Mary started at the news that there <i>was</i> a baby. This was getting worse and worse by the minute.

"Max!" Isabel sounded horrified. "There must be some other way to wake her! There must!"

Max closed his eyes, took a deep breath and replied, "I believe there must be as well." But to Mary’s ears he did not sound convinced. "We will try the healing stones, but I fear all of their power was used to revive Lord Edmund." Max grimaced. Mary knew that he was thinking that if they had never healed the shapeshifter, it was unlikely that any of this would have happened.

"What about the baby, Max?" Isabel finally ventured. "Can it still be born?"

Max lowered his head. "It is why Liz lives. Our child saved her life when our <i>guardian</i>," this last was said as a curse, "Hurt her. But he is still far too little to do anything else. He will be born if we take care of Liz. And when he comes, she will slip away…permanently."

"How do you know all this, Max?" Michael demanded.

"My son…he told me." Max’s voice cracked. Isabel hurried away from Alex and threw her arms around her brother, as Max finally broke down.

There was a long silence as Mary, Michael, and Alexander all stared at each other in dismay. Mary glanced helplessly around the room, wishing for some sign of hope. It was then that her eyes lit on the pods. One was now dark, obviously Tess’s, no longer glowing because it’s former occupant did not live anymore. But it wasn’t that which caught Mary’s attention.

Resting on the floor, bathed in the otherworldly glow of the pods, was a silver book.

"Michael?" Mary whispered. "What is that?"

Michael looked where she was pointing, moved towards it and picked up the slender volume. Mary could see from where she stood that it was made of some metal she had never before beheld.

Michael frowned, flipped through the book impatiently. He stopped abruptly, as something seemed to catch his eye. He then turned back to the beginning and stared down at the first page carefully.

"Oh my God…"

"Michael! What! What is it?" Mary demanded, going to stand beside him and staring at the book in his hands. It was engraved with a series of squiggles and strange symbols of which Mary was incapable of making heads or tails.

But Michael ignored her. "Maxwell! Bella!"

Isabel was still embracing Max, trying to comfort her brother, who had stopped crying, but was still holding onto his sister as though she was the only thing keeping him sane. However, they both turned and regarded Michael at the urgency in his voice.

"What is it, Michael?" Isabel asked, clearly distracted and uninterested.

Michael held up the book and told her, "I can read it!"

"What <i>is</i> it?" Isabel demanded, this time impatient.

"It is a way home."

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Wed Aug 31, 2005 5:37 pm

AN - Thanks, everyone! Only a few parts left.

<u>Part 45</u>

"Are you sure this is wise, Alex?" Isabel was pacing in front of the heavy door, but she stopped abruptly and glared at the solid piece of English oak. "Why must they meet in there? We cannot hear a thing!"

"I think that is what Maxwell intended. The fewer ears that hear his discussion with the queen, the better," Alex replied quietly, leaning back against the stone wall. "It will all work out for the best, Bella. Queen Eleanor is a woman more modern than most, and she has a healthy disdain for the sweeping pronouncements of falsely pious men. She will judge Max according to his actions, rather than prejudice." He paused, then added, "She will not forget that Max saved King Richard’s throne by stealing those taxes back. It was providential that he chose to do that."

Alexander could see that his words had done little to soothe Isabel’s fears when she began to pace again. He breathed a sigh of relief that Max had ordered Michael to stay behind at the cottage to watch over Elizabeth. If Isabel was so restless, Alex did not even want to imagine how Michael was presently behaving. He did not envy his sister one little bit. Although, Alexander reflected ruefully, if Michael was being particularly pig-headed, Mary was undoubtedly enjoying it, likely baiting him to make it worse. Though he knew for a certainty that his sister was in love with the short-tempered visitor, it did not seem to stop her enjoyment at making him explode.

Which Michael almost had the night before when Maxwell had announced to them all that he was going to the queen and that he was going to tell her the truth about everything. For a long while, they had all truly believed that, in his grief, he had finally taken complete leave of his senses. Even <i>after</i> his explanation, Alexander was fairly sure that Michael, and perhaps even Isabel, <i>still</i> believed it.

"What do you mean <i>everything</i>?" Michael had demanded suspiciously. By the time Max made his pronouncement, they had all returned to the small cottage in the woods, unwilling to stay a moment longer than necessary at the pod chamber, the site of so much death and destruction. The litter they fabricated for Elizabeth had been set on the floor close to the fire, and Alexander found his eyes straying to her still form throughout the conversation, willing with every part of his being for his friend to open her eyes, if only to stop Max from committing this act of complete folly.

And, yet, Alexander was the first to allow himself to be convinced. Because, in the end, he did know Eleanor of Aquitaine and he knew that she loved Elizabeth de Parkeville.

"If my child is born, he will be special," Max reminded them all. His tone was completely emotionless. Whatever breakdown the young king had allowed himself in the pod chamber, it was over. He was now a man with a plan, even if hope was still in short supply. "When we are gone, Elizabeth will need someone with strength and authority to watch over her. And…" He paused, swallowed, forcing his voice to remain strong as he continued, "Should the worst happen, the baby will need the queen." Alexander flinched, in spite of the fact that he was already fully aware that Elizabeth’s death was almost a certainty. The fact that she still breathed at all was a miracle in and of itself. While Max fully intended an attempt to save his wife, by bringing a healer from his world back to her, they all knew that it was most likely merely a foolish dream.

"We told you already that we would take care of him, Max!" Mary exclaimed. "Nothing will happen to your child. I swear it on my eternal soul."

Max smiled gently. "I place my complete confidence in your capable hands, Mary. You and Alexander will be his true guardians. But this child will be the heir to my throne, and I want the most powerful woman in the kingdom to know exactly who he is." His eyes narrowed. "And exactly who she and King Richard will be dealing with should anything befall him." He looked away momentarily, obviously struggling for control. "He is all that I have left of my wife and he will be safe."

"I still don’t understand why we don’t take them with us!" Michael complained from the corner. "They will be safer with us."

"Under any other circumstances, I would agree," Max said. "However, Lord Edmund’s treachery has made it clear that the situation on Antar is a complete mystery. We do not know what we will be walking into when we return there, Michael. It will be hard enough for us, and we are of Antarian heritage. I will not bring any human there until we know that it is safe." He looked down at Elizabeth’s peaceful visage, a sad smile crossing his lips. "Liz trusted in the queen and I truly believe that Eleanor will protect her child, whatever his father might be."

"Why don’t we just tell Eleanor that it is Kyle’s child?" Alexander asked. "She does not need to know the whole truth."

"He will be special," Max repeated patiently. "We do not know that the birth will be entirely normal, and I cannot have the queen changing her mind when I am no longer here to intervene. She must know and she must know <i>now</i>."

The glint of hard resolve in Max’s eyes stopped any further arguments, although Michael had seemed inclined to continue his, until Mary spirited him off into the forest in order to distract him. Which was why Alexander now found himself waiting with Isabel, trying to forget that this was likely the last day he would be spending in her company for a very long while.

There had been a brief discussion that perhaps one of the Antarians should remain behind, but it was finally decided that it could not be risked. While Tess was gone, Max now convinced that she had never truly been one of them anyway, the three aliens had always been intended to operate as a team. They needed to assure that they were as strong as they could possibly be when they arrived on their home world.

Which meant that Alexander and Mary would be responsible for keeping Elizabeth and her child safe until they all returned. Alexander had absolutely no doubt that, at least, Max would come back. Whatever he faced, Max would not forsake his son.

He also secretly hoped that the other two would come back for an entirely different reason.

Michael’s feelings for Mary were now completely out in the open. What had happened to Elizabeth seemed to have broken down his last walls regarding what he wanted from Alexander’s sister. They had disappeared into the forest for a lengthy period of time the night before and, while Alexander knew that he should be concerned for his sister’s virtue, he also knew that it was completely unlikely that Mary would ever accept a human husband now anyway. He would allow her what happiness she could find in the short period before the trio, who had so changed their lives, left.

As he watched Isabel now, Alexander wished that he had been courageous enough to request some time alone with the alien princess as well. But, despite how close they had become, and the indications that she felt as strongly for him as he felt for her, he was still uncertain that, were it not for the fact that they were the two odd members out of their sextet, she would ever be interested in him. Certainly she had not seemed to have any great desire to see him privately. She had spent her evening at Max’s side, planning the first steps they would take to reclaim their planet upon their arrival. Alexander watched the firelight dance across the spun gold of her hair as she tossed her long mane in exasperation at something Max said at one point, his heart practically breaking.

He knew for certain that he would never love any woman the way he loved Isabel. Should she choose not to return with Maxwell, Alexander also knew that he would spend the rest of his life in a monastery, his duty to his title and his lands be damned. After one kiss from those perfect lips, no other woman would do, and he was not the type of man who could doom an innocent to a loveless marriage. Because, were his wife not Isabel, it was what would happen to the poor girl.

It took him an instant to realize that Bella had stopped pacing and was staring at him. "Alexander, you are entirely too quiet. You are supposed to be keeping my mind off the fact that the queen could declare my brother a demon and order him burned at the stake at any moment."

He blinked, forced a grin. "I do apologize, milady. What shall it be then? A joke? A saucy tale?"

Isabel tilted her head, then said quietly, "I am not in the mood to laugh, Alex."

He swallowed, a lump entering his throat as he thought of Elizabeth and he felt his stomach clenching at the remembrance that Isabel would soon be gone from his life. "Nor am I," he admitted.

"Why?" Isabel’s eyes were strangely bright as she regarded him. "Tell me why, Alexander."

He did not speak for a long moment but then decided that he could ill afford to lose this chance. Even were she to reject him out of hand, he <i>needed</i> to tell her how he felt. "I fear that you will not return."

Isabel’s dark eyes shadowed. "Would it sadden you should I not?"

Alexander reached out, taking both of her hands in his. "Of course it would, Bella."

"Why?" she repeated. "Tell me why, Alex."

"Because I love you and I cannot bear the thought of a life without you." He smiled sadly. "I know that you do not know what lies ahead for you, Isabel of Antar, but I would that you understand that I will wait for you forever."

There was a long moment of silence. Isabel lowered her eyes, causing Alex’s heart to sink. When she raised them, they were shining with tears. Yet, in spite of that, her lovely face shone with a joyful light he had never once, in his wildest dreams, hoped to cause. "I will come back if it the last thing I ever do," she whispered, leaning forward and touching her lips lightly to his. "For no one else, on this planet or any other, will ever touch my heart as you have, Alexander DeLucie."

***

"Step into the light where I can see you. I am an old woman and my eye-sight is not what it once was."

Maxwell complied, dropping to one knee and bowing his head. "Your grace."

"Well, you are certainly as handsome as I remember. It is no wonder that my Elizabeth has become completely uncontrollable since encountering you."

Max kept his eyes lowered, trying not to grimace. This was not a positive beginning.

"But, then, I too ran off with a totally unsuitable man," she continued, sounding amused. "Stop bowing and scraping, young man, and look me in the face. You are at least owed that much for preserving my son’s throne, even if you have been entirely too forward with a royal ward."

He raised his head and met the eyes of Elizabeth’s guardian.

"That’s better." Eleanor tilted her head and narrowed her gaze. "Where is my ward, Maxwell of Huntington? Alexander informed me that it was best that I hear the story from you."

Max swallowed, the perpetual lump that had lodged itself in his throat since Lord Edmund had hurt Liz causing his voice to crack slightly. "She is unwell, your grace."

"But she lives." He could feel Eleanor searching his face for the truth and Max knew that he had been absolutely right in his assessment that the queen would have been able to sniff out a lie at a hundred paces. If he was to gain this woman’s trust and favour, he could not keep anything from her. He was depending on Elizabeth’s judgment that she could be trusted. Had his Liz not been the most sound judge of a person’s worth after all? Were it not for her, Michael would not have found his Mary, nor Isabel her Alexander. Thankfully his siblings would one day be happy. Even if he was destined to be the loneliest man in the universe for the rest of his life, he could be grateful for that. He was not jealous and did not begrudge them their joy. Even if they had not yet fully claimed it, he knew that they would.

The only joy left in Max’s world would hopefully be held fast by the strong woman in front of him.

"Yes. But perhaps not for long," he said quietly.

He watched a spasm of grief cross the old woman’s face. "I feared as much. I made a grievous error, young man. Sir Kyle DeValence was an unworthy match for Elizabeth."

"Sir Kyle redeemed himself in the end, your grace," Max replied firmly. "I am here to tell you the true story of what has transpired and I hope that you will be able to accept it."

Eleanor regarded him for a long moment, then patted the stool at her feet. "Come." Max did not move, sure that once he told her what he really was, she would not want him so close. The queen tilted her head again and then said, "The bishop’s accusations were well-founded then?"

Max straightened his spine. "Yes, your grace."

What she did next so surprised Max, he blinked to make sure he was not seeing things. But when he opened his eyes again, Queen Eleanor was indeed still smiling. "Well, it is nice to know that he can actually be right about something, although I’m going to have to make Richard give him a promotion and send him to another bishopric to make sure he never knows it." She paused, then continued, "I do not think that he was quite correct after all though. You are not a demon, are you, Maxwell of Huntington?"


"No, your grace. I am not." He met her eyes and said clearly, no longer at all afraid. "My true name is Zan of Antar and I am a visitor to this world. And your ward, Elizabeth de Parkeville, is my chosen queen and the mother of my heir."

***

<b>Two Days Later - Sherwood Forest</b>

Michael stared down at the silver book, turning it over in his hands. While this slim volume had provided the answers they needed, he could not help but hate it. And, yet, he would not take this chance from Maxwell. If they could somehow save Elizabeth, he would leave a thousand times over.

"The sooner you leave, the sooner you will return."

He raised his eyes, met Mary’s blue-eyed gaze. He could see that she was struggling to keep a cheerful countenance. He knew her so well at this point, he could practically read her mind. She did not want his last remembrance of her to be a face streaked with tears. It irked him. She should know by now that he did not care what she looked like. All he knew was that he did not want to have a last memory of her at all. Or at least not one that was not her wrinkled face staring down at him and yelling in annoyance as he died in his bed at an extremely old age.

He knew <i>exactly</i> the image of her he would carry in his heart for all eternity anyway. It would be the picture of her standing in the aisle of the chapel in the forest when they had saved Elizabeth from her precipitous first wedding to Sir Kyle.


<i> "Hmmmm. I missed."</i>

That was what she had said after deliberately parting the hair of one of Sir Kyle’s minions with her loosed arrow. The mischievous glint in her eye at that moment, when she had practically made Sir Kyle drop at her feet in fear…To him, it was the essence of Mary of Whitfield. It had taken him a long while to recognize it, but now, as he stood facing her, trying to gain the courage to say good-bye, he knew with absolute certainty that it had been the moment in which he had fallen in love with her.

"And I will return," Michael told her gruffly now, hauling her against his chest and kissing her fiercely. "There is not another man in this universe who can handle you, and so I owe it to my sex."

"You think that you can handle me do you?" Her eyes flashed. "Well, we shall see." She kissed him again, murmuring against his lips. "Be careful. And know that, wherever you are, when you look at the stars, I will be looking at them as well and willing you back to my side."

It had been decided that Alexander and Mary would not accompany them to the pod chamber. Max did not want Elizabeth left alone for so long, and it would be a long journey for the humans to the convent where Queen Eleanor had arranged for Maxwell’s queen’s care during her long confinement. They would leave as soon as the Antarians did.

In the end, as always, Max had been right. The queen had listened to the truth and she had accepted the responsibility of caring for Elizabeth and her child while Max was gone. Even Alexander and Mary had seemed slightly taken aback by how completely Eleanor had accepted Max, but, finally, they had realized that it was not so difficult to believe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine had recognized her equal in Maxwell DeHarding. He was a king and she was a queen and they understood each other.

Maxwell was in the cottage with Elizabeth now, saying his good-byes. As difficult as this parting from Mary would be, Michael knew that in comparison to his brother, he had it easy. Max had to know in his heart that it was unlikely that his wife would still be among the living when he returned.

And, yet, they all hoped. The trip they were about to take depended on it.

Isabel and Alexander were huddled together close to the door of the cottage. Michael was pleased that his former betrothed would be leaving behind such a devoted suitor. Isabel deserved the best and there was no question that she and Alexander DeLucie were made for each other.

Just as Maxwell and Elizabeth were made for each other, had been destined to find each other and bring them all together. He pulled Mary more tightly against him, ashamed of his relief that he was not his brother.

And, yet, he knew that he could not be sorry. Because, as much as he loved Maxwell, were he given the chance to give Mary up in order to save Elizabeth, he would not do it.

"Yes, you would," Mary whispered, startling him so, he jerked against her.

"What?"

"You would, Michael."

"What are you talking about?" he demanded, although he knew. He was unsure how it had happened, but she had heard him. She had read his private thoughts.

"You are not as selfish and unworthy as you would like to believe because you <i>are</i> giving me up to save her." Mary smiled up at him lovingly. "Which is why I know that it will work and one day we will all find the happiness we deserve. You will never be rid of me, Michael of Antar. We are indelibly stuck."

He smiled. He couldn’t help it. "For eternity," he agreed before kissing her again.

***

Max was holding Elizabeth’s still body in his arms, his head bent, his face buried in her silky hair. He was trying to forget that, when he came back, it was unlikely that he would even have this much of her left to cherish. He refused to think that way. He and his siblings were embarking on a mission of hope. They would return in triumph to Antar, reclaim their rightful places, and then they would come back to their real home to reunite with their chosen mates.

It was a dream of his that Liz would be waiting for him upon his return, whole and healthy - that the healer he meant to bring for her would prove unneeded. He could not forget the image branded in his brain, could not eradicate the vision his son had shown him of his wife in that forest glade. While he had been unable to kill their child to see it come true, he still hoped that it was their future.

He was trying desperately to ignore the small voice in the back of his mind that was warning him to prepare himself - that this would be the last time he would lay eyes on her in this world. His own healing skills had not worked, nor had the healing stones. Why was he so sure that someone from Antar could make all the difference?

Max knew why he refused to think anything else though. Without even a thin ray of hope that Liz would survive, he knew that he could not go on. He would not be able to reclaim his throne, nor would he live for his son. He would allow himself to fade away and he knew absolutely that it was the last thing that Liz would want. He was living now for her, and without the hope that she would come back to him, it would be impossible to continue doing so.

<i>Wake up! Please wake up!</i> His mind, his heart, his soul were willing her to hear him, willing her to at least give him a sign that this journey was not in vain, that he would not be coming back merely to claim his heir, but also to claim his wife.

He could feel her thin breath against his neck, but she did not stir. Max closed his eyes, releasing a weary sigh before gently laying his beloved wife on the pallet. He sat back on his haunches, picked up her hand and brought it to his lips.

"The last thing I want to do is to leave you, my love. I hope that you will forgive me for it. But it is the only hope left. I will bring you back to me if it is the last thing I do." He whispered it, knowing that she could not hear him, but hoping still that she could. "When I come back, you will awaken, and we will return to my home with our son and live happily ever after. Nothing will ever part us again." He kissed her palm. "This is my pledge to you."

Max reached into his pocket, pulling out the necklace Michael had brought him from Castle DeHarding, where Max had sent him and Alexander the day before, wanting them to bring anything back that might identify that they were not from this world. It was the betrothal pendant that had been meant for his queen. Lord Edmund had intended it for Tess, of course, but Max knew with certainty that he had found the lady to whom it had always truly belonged. He ran his thumb over the image of the whirlwind galaxy, the symbol of his house, kissed it lightly, and then reached down, fastening it around Liz’s neck. It fell against her breast, rising and falling gently with each breath.

He felt a lump enter his throat at the sight. He could not lose her! Max picked up her hand again and spent the precious last few moments with his wife, silently praying that he would see her again.

***

It was quiet in the clearing around the cottage as Mary exited, closing the door firmly behind her. She threw her head back and stared up at the trees, which seemed to be reaching for the stars twinkling above.

She jumped when Alexander spoke at her elbow. He was closer than she had expected. "Do you think they have arrived?" he asked quietly.

Mary pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders, then shivered. It was a chilly night, but then the entire world seemed colder since they had left it. And she knew they were gone. She had felt the tearing deep within her when Michael left her.

But she was not alone. He was still there, safely ensconced in her heart. With every beat she felt him saying her name, sometimes sounding annoyed, sometimes amused.

<i>Mary. Mary. Mary.</i>

No, she was not alone.

"I hope so," she said to her brother now. "If so, it means they are already on their way back." Mary looked around the clearing, then frowned. "Where are the men sent by the queen?"

"I sent them ahead," Alexander replied, shrugging. "They await us on the king’s highway." He seemed sheepish when he elaborated, "They did not belong here, Mary mine. This place will always be <i>theirs</i>."

"Maxwell and Lizzy’s." Mary nodded, in perfect agreement. "But we will need them to help with the litter, Alex."

He sighed. "I know. There are a couple of men waiting within the trees. We will set out on our own and meet them."

"Very well." Mary moved forward, raising her chin. "I’m just going to poke my nose in once more to check on Lizzy."

She pushed the curtains aside, blinked. "Alex!" she exclaimed, her heart suddenly thundering in her chest.

<i>Oh my God. Oh God! No!</i>

"What?" Alexander was at her shoulder an instant later. "What is amiss?"

"What is that around her neck?" Mary demanded. "Alex, what <i>is</i> that?"

"I think it’s something Maxwell gave her," Alex replied, his tone horrified. "Michael found it amongst Lord Edmund’s possessions when we went to close Castle DeHarding."

"Alex, it’s glowing! What’s wrong with it?" Mary knew that she was panicking, but she could not control herself. There was an alien necklace with a strange swirling symbol on it around her best friend’s neck and, for all she knew, if she touched it, it would burn her up from the inside, as Michael had Tess.

The siblings watched in terrified fascination as the necklace seemed to take on a life of its own.

"Alex!" Mary screeched. "Get that thing away from her!"

Alexander reached forward, tried to grab the necklace, but was thrown backwards by some sort of invisible force.

"Alex!" Mary screamed.

Alexander stumbled to his feet. "Mary, be quiet! We cannot allow the guards to come back! Should they see this, our friends will be betrayed. They will never be able to return."

"But, Alex…"

Alex was no longer listening to her though. "Mary, I do not think this is a bad…"

Mary turned her head, felt her mouth drop open. It could not be!

And, yet, it was.

As Mary and Alexander stared at their friend, Elizabeth de Parkeville opened her eyes.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Thu Sep 01, 2005 12:16 pm

AN - Hi everyone! Okay, I have to admit. I love this part. lol How I managed to wrap up Antar in one part? I'll never know, but because I did, and I feel in a satisfactory way, I just love it. Call me arrogant, but there it is. :wink: Enjoy! One more part, and an epilogue after this. Then you can all start breathlessly anticipating A Man of Good Fortune, which will be my next contribution to this series. I'll give you a preview after the Epilogue of DC.

<u>Part 46</u>

<b>Antar - Six months later</b>

"The king will see you now."

Max raised his head, stared at the guard in disbelief. The tall being was truly addressing him - in halting English, yes, but addressing him nonetheless. It had been so long since he had heard a voice, <i>any</i> voice, it took him a moment to even understand. "Pardon me?"

The guard continued to stare at him, his expression emotionless, as was always the case with these creatures, although Max was quite sure he had detected flashes of sympathy from some of them on occasion.

"King Zan will see you."

Max stood, narrowed his eyes. "What? Why now?"

"I do not speak for my king," the guard replied quietly, turning away. "Please come."

It spoke volumes that he had not been shackled. Had the king finally believed that he was who he said he was?

"Wait! Where are my sister and brother?" Max hurried through the cell door after the guard, not daring to hope for more answers, but trying for them anyway.

"Max!"

He whirled, his heart leaping with joy at the sight of Isabel, who was just emerging from another door further down the long white corridor.

"Bella!"

Moments later she was in his arms, sobbing. "I am so happy to see you!"

He pulled away slightly, stared into her face. "Are you well? Have they hurt you?"

"No." Isabel shook her head quickly, setting her long braids dancing. "But I have been so scared, so alone. I did not know what had happened to you or Michael!"

Max hugged her again. "Nor I you." Since his sister and brother had been wrenched away from him upon their landing so long ago, he had been half-convinced that they had been killed. He could think of no other reason for why his guards had been so reticent about telling him where they were.

"Why do they finally want to see us?" Isabel whispered. She was gripping his hand firmly, following Max’s guard towards a doorway at the far end of the hall, the guards having grown impatient with their reunion and gently prodded them into movement again. Isabel’s guard fell in behind them. "I was sure that they just wanted us to rot away down here."

"We will know soon enough," Max replied, squeezing her hand.

It had come as a great shock to learn, after they had been taken off their ship, that King Zan of Antar already existed - that he was, in fact, presently sitting on Antar’s throne. Just as he had done for the past thirty generations.

Needless to say, the guards confronting them upon landing had not been particularly ready to believe him when he had claimed to be King Zan too.

It seemed that the throne of Antar had never been usurped, although that was all Max had been able to learn before he was thrown into solitary confinement. Why Max had been told by Lord Edmund that he was the king, he still did not know. Nor did he know who he really was, in Antarian terms, if he was not King Zan.

But, in the end, he did not particularly care. At heart, he had always been Maxwell DeHarding, and Max was the only person he had ever wanted to be anyway.

All that mattered to him, finally, was getting back to Earth and every day he had spent in his cell had been sheer torture. He knew that his child was close to his birth now, if everything had progressed normally. He had tried not to think about Liz and how she might be faring. It was simply too painful and would have resulted in him giving up altogether.

Even if he was no longer king, and his child was no longer his heir, his son needed him, and he would <i>not</i> give up.

"Max, I am frightened," Isabel told him softly as they paused in front of a pair of double doors engraved with the symbol of the whirlwind galaxy - the symbol he had always believed was the sign of his house, his family. He knew now that he had left behind his only family on Earth.

"I am too, Bella," Max said. "But it will soon be over. We will either go home or we will die. All I know is that I cannot bear another day in that cell."

Isabel’s eyes widened, but she finally nodded. "Do you think they will let us go?" She paused, lowered her gaze. "Max, what if they won’t? What if we can never get back to them?"

Max swallowed, raised his chin, and stared at the double doors. "We will," he stated firmly.

The doors swung open. Max felt the tremor that ran through his sister’s body as the huge, darkened room on the other side appeared.

Max and Isabel stepped through slowly. Max felt his eyes attempting to adjust to the dim interior.

"Come forward."

The voice was feminine and commanding. It was, however, not unkind. It reminded Max briefly of his audience with Queen Eleanor, back on Earth. He only hoped that this interview turned out as well as that one had.

Max gently tugged on Isabel’s hand, pulling her after him as he strode purposefully towards the dais at the far end of the hall. Beings dressed in long robes lined the path, all staring at them, as though they were freakish curiosities on display at the Nottingham market. Which, of course, here, they were.

They were stopped ten feet from the dais by the sight of Michael in front of them, kneeling, his head bowed.

"Michael!" Max exclaimed, as Isabel gasped.

Max’s brother turned his head slightly and urged through clenched teeth, "Get it over with, Maxwell."

"Get what over…" Max did not have a chance to finish speaking before he felt a weapon thrust at the back of his knees, effectively dropping him to the floor.

"I tried to warn you," Michael muttered, although he sounded slightly amused, rather than angry. "Just keep your eyes down. They’re not crazy about us looking them right in the face."

"Silence!"

Max raised his head in spite of Michael’s warning and found himself staring into large dark eyes. He felt his own gaze widen. Because, in spite of the fact that he was staring at a being with a completely different visage, who was tall and grey-skinned and dressed simply in a long white robe, he <i>knew</i> those eyes.

He felt like he was staring into his own soul. Because, to a certain degree, he was.

And, finally, he understood.

He was still a clone, he was <i>still</i> Zan of Antar. The only mistake that he had made was in believing that he was the only one who could claim that name.

He could see from the slight narrowing of King Zan’s eyes that the other Zan knew it as well.

Finally, after what seemed to be the longest pause Max had ever endured, the king spoke. "I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to see you." He paused again. "My advisors have warned me I should not, but I think I know myself well enough to know that I will find no threat in you." Zan sounded amused.

"Let me wager a guess," Max suggested quietly. "Rath?"

Zan’s eyes sparkled as he nodded, "I see that you have experienced it as well." He glanced at Michael, his gaze narrowing. "He may not look the same, but it is clear that he is the same man." Another pause, and then, "A good man."

Max saw movement to Zan’s right. Another tall alien seemed on the verge of exploding, but was obviously making every attempt not to do so in public. A lovely, willowy being, possibly female, although it was hard to tell, had a slender hand on his arm, which seemed to be calming him down.

Vilandra.

Max nudged Isabel lightly. His sister’s sharp intake of breath indicated that she understood.

"Where is Ava?" Max asked, deciding that directness was the best route to take. They did not have any more time to waste and the more answers they got immediately, the sooner he could formulate a plan as to how to convince his other self to return them to their real home.

"Ava?"

"Your wife," Max elaborated, although the words were enough to choke him. He would be a happy man when he never had to think of Tess in such a way again.

"I have no wife," Zan replied. "There is no need. Through the cloning process, I am my own heir. A wife would be redundant, nor do I have time for one."

"My brother is married to his planet." Max recognized the female voice as that of the woman who had first beckoned him and Isabel forward, and it was indeed from the woman standing near Rath.

"Rath and Vilandra choose their own path," Zan said, apparently annoyed at his sister’s barely veiled dig. He ran his gaze over Isabel and Michael, his curiosity evident. "Although I have learned that they do not always choose the same destiny. None of us do. Perhaps in some future lifetime I will find a mate I will feel is worth the effort." He looked directly at Max. Max wondered if he knew about Liz and the others. He certainly seemed to be implying that he did.

Max glanced at Isabel, who seemed just as confused as he felt.

"I can see your bewilderment," Zan continued, his tone kind. "It is understandable, given what your false guardian told you."

"So he was not truly our guardian?" This came from Michael, who had obviously been attempting to let Max do the talking, but could not stop himself from speaking any longer.

"No," Zan replied. "From what we have been able to discern through our investigation on the planet to which you were sent, the man who stole you from us intended for you to believe his lies so that when he returned with you to Antar, you would be firmly under his control. He was a member of a rebellious sect that our loyal followers wiped out years ago."

"We were stolen?" Max demanded, trying to understand exactly how far back Lord Edmund’s crimes extended.

"Yes," Zan acknowledged. "We are always cloned in our seventeenth year so that, by the time we are ready to die, our replacements will be trained and ready to take over the government. Your pods were stolen from their nursery over twenty solar years ago."

"Why are we more human than anything else?" Isabel asked, obviously now feeling she could speak as well.

"Your false guardian injected your cloning pod with human DNA so that you would be able to blend in more effectively on your new planet. He eradicated your ability to shapeshift, likely believing that he would be able to dominate you more firmly without that gift. He also cloned his own daughter with human DNA and likely intended for Zan to marry her to even further solidify his power over you all." Zan sounded sad as he said, "I am afraid that we were forced to replace your pods. We could not jeopardize the line of succession. Nor could we depend that you would be at all useful to us if we found you. Your minds might have been corrupted. It is why we have kept you locked up until we were able to guarantee that you were not dangerous."

The mention of the line of succession made Max think instantly of his son, and Zan’s further comments seemed to indicate another truth as well. "You have been to Earth since our return."

"Not I," Zan corrected. "But my agents, yes." He stared at Max, long and hard. "You are wondering what has become of your wife."

Max swallowed, closed his eyes. "Yes."

"I will tell you," Zan replied. "But first I must know where your intentions now lie. You are no longer my heir, Maxwell of Huntington. I am sorry for it, but it simply cannot be any longer."

Max opened his eyes and stated firmly, "I would have ruled had the planet required it, but I see now that we are not needed." He paused, then admitted, "I cannot deny that I am glad of it."

Zan’s expression softened. He did not address Max, but his own sister instead as he said, "You see, Vilandra. Apparently there is a facet of me capable of loving another being more than my throne." His eyes met Max’s again. "I am glad that you found our soulmate, Maxwell." He paused again, then, for the first time, truly smiled. "Your Elizabeth yet lives."

Max heaved a sigh of relief. It was good to have it confirmed, although breathing and <i>living</i> were still two completely different things.

"I do not think that he truly understands, my brother." Vilandra stepped forward, addressing Max directly for the first time. "You gave your bride a pendant, did you not?"

Max frowned, unsure how she knew this, but nodding in the affirmative.

"Did you not know what that was?" Vilandra asked.

Max shrugged. "I was always told it was meant for my bride and so I gave it to Liz."

Vilandra shook her graceful head. "No, Maxwell. It was the royal seal, marking you as Zan’s heir. Your traitorous guardian stole it when he stole you and intended to use it to solidify your claim to the throne when he brought you back. By giving it to your young lady, you chose her over your kingdom."

"I don’t understand. Why does that matter? I did not know what it was and so it should not be significant."

"But it is," Zan said. "Our clones have always known their roles instinctively. Whether you understood intellectually what you were doing or not, your essence knew. You changed your destiny with that one act and, thus, you changed that of your chosen mate as well."

"Are you telling me that had I not given Liz that pendant, she would have died?" Max demanded, feeling sick, the near miss being so frightening, he almost could not contemplate it.

"Yes. You changed your path with the act of choosing her and, so, she was reborn." Vilandra reached behind her and took Rath’s hand in her own. "It was your heart that led you, which reinforces what you have always known, my beloved Zan. Following your heart will always bring you to your true destiny."

Max looked at the king, who seemed to understand his sister’s words far better than Max could ever hope to. Had the other Zan once had to make a similar choice - and had he chosen wrong?

Silence reigned for several long moments. Max and Zan continued to stare at each other, as though trying to understand the life decision the other had made. Finally, Zan said, "Are you displeased with your choice? Would you change your mind, had you the chance?"

"Never."

"I thought not." Zan’s deep voice was almost wistful, making Max feel a flash of pity for this incarnation of himself who would never know love.

Max smiled slightly. A choice between Liz and anything else was no choice at all. "I want to go back."

"Very well then. We will not meet again. Return to where you belong with my blessing. Go home, Maxwell of Huntington, and live the life you have chosen."

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Fri Sep 02, 2005 10:07 am

tequathisy wrote:So if Max isn't really the King, then Liz isn't the queen. So why were Michael and Isabel bowing to her and obeying her? I can't believe this is almost over already, I've really enjoyed reading it again. Looking forward to your next installement in the series.
As far as Michael and Isabel knew at the time, Max WAS the king, thus making Elizabeth the queen.

Last part! Epilogue to follow, but I'm away for the weekend, so it wil be up on Monday. Enjoy!

<u>Part 47</u>

<b>Whitfield Castle - Nottinghamshire, England - Fall 1194</b>

"Where is Lizzy?" Alexander asked as he descended the stone stairs into the great hall. He held his helmet under one arm and handed his sword to a servant when he reached the bottom, having just finished training the squires under his tutelage for the day.

Mary was seated near the fire, the tapestry she and Elizabeth had been working on for months on its frame in front of her. Alex’s sister was biting her full lip, her head tilted to the side as she frowned at the design. She brushed her red-blonde hair, now past her shoulders again, off her face in annoyance as she continued to glare at the tapestry, which in Alexander’s humble opinion had likely done nothing to merit such disdain. "I think she took Dickon outside. She didn’t tell me though, so I’m not certain. Lizzy’s angry with me, so I came down here to work on the tapestry and sulk."

"Why?" Alexander demanded, removing his mailed gloves and thrusting them behind him, where they were quickly caught by the same squire who had taken his sword.

"She wants me to go to court with her for Yule, but I won’t. The queen is only going to try and sell me off to some old, fat baron again," Mary replied, standing up abruptly and moving towards the fire. "I knew that I should have made Michael meet the old bat before he left. I don’t think she believes he really exists."

"Mary mine, Eleanor knows he exists," Alexander replied patiently, settling down on the bench near the tapestry and running his eyes over the intricate weave. "Nor is the queen trying to sell you off, as you know. She is only giving you options. And Lizzy would not ask it of you if she did not need you. You know that she does not feel comfortable in London alone, and the queen insists on seeing her godson. Lizzy has no choice." His gaze came to rest on the blonde lady in red peeking out from behind one of the many trees Mary and Elizabeth had included in the pattern, using the rich greens and golds of the forest in the fall. He felt his heart skip a beat, just as it always did, and always would, when he thought of Isabel, who the figure in the tapestry was meant to represent. He raised his gaze and met Mary’s blue eyes. "Is it almost done?"

Mary snorted, tossing her head. "How can it almost be done, Alexander? We don’t know how it ends yet, do we?"

Alex sighed. "No," he admitted, his gaze straying again to the portrait of Bella before him.

"The queen believes they are dead."

Alex’s head snapped up and he stared at his sister. "What?"

"I know she does, Alexander. It is why she wants me to marry. You may not believe it, but I know the old bat. She hasn’t said it straight out yet, but it is only a matter of time. The longer I stay away from her, the less likely she is to push me."

Something in Mary’s tone froze the blood in Alex’s veins. "Mary, you don’t believe it too, do you?" he asked quietly, standing and going to stand near his sister.

None of them had ever voiced such doubts to each other. It had been a silent pact between him, Mary, and Elizabeth that they would never even contemplate that the others might not return.

But, with each passing month, he had felt the doubts beginning to creep in. They had all refused to acknowledge them, but it had been more than two years since Maxwell, Michael, and Isabel had left. Their goal had been to find a healer for Elizabeth. Although the healer had not been necessary in the end, there was no way the alien trio could have known this. Bringing one now would be slightly ridiculous.

If they were coming back, they should have been back long ago. The three left behind were all thinking it, but none of them wanted to admit it. Because, if the alien three did not return, it could only be for one of two reasons. Either they <i>couldn’t</i>, because something horrible had happened to them.

Or else they didn’t want to.

What if their friends had gone back to their real home and had figured out that it was where they belonged? What if they had also realized that the three humans had no place in that world? What if they had decided that, because Elizabeth was likely gone, going back for the other two was not worth it?

"I know Michael isn’t dead," Mary whispered now, her eyes bright with tears. She raised her hand, touched it to her chest over her heart. "I would know it here if he were. But, Alex, they should have returned long ago! Their only goal was to find a healer for Lizzy. It has been far too long for that."

"We cannot give up hope, Mary. It is unfair to them. We know that they had many things about which they had to concern themselves. Perhaps they must get their kingdom in order before they can return." Alexander played his role, allowed himself to stay the voice of reason. And, yet, he knew that Mary understood that he was merely saying the words. He did not believe them anymore either.

Mary came to lean against him, sighing. "How much longer must we be alone, Alex? I am so tired of being alone. I never knew how alone I was until I met him. And, yet, I have never felt more lonely since either."

"You love him. And I love her. And so we must wait, my sister."

There was a long silence as the siblings contemplated the flames together. After a while, Alexander’s gaze strayed back to the tapestry in spite of himself. He started, then blinked. He looked back at the fire, blinked again, then looked back at the tapestry.

What had captured his attention was still there.

The tapestry had been designed by Elizabeth, meant to be a permanent record of the adventure the three of them had shared in the forest with the loves of their lives. Alex’s friend had used the Bayeux tapestry as her model, each picture on the long piece of fabric representing one moment during the few short weeks they had known the visitors. All the most important scenes were there: the original betrothal of Kyle and Elizabeth, the fair in Nottingham where they had all first come together, the archery contest, the rescue of Elizabeth from her hasty wedding, the marriage of Max and Lizzy, the return of Eleanor to Nottingham, the defeat of Lord Edmund by Sir Kyle, and the seeming death of Elizabeth. The only thing that had been left out were the magical elements, so as to not draw undo attention from the retainers. Reliving it all through her art had been a way for Lizzy to feel close to Max during the long winter of her pregnancy and, after her confinement, she had returned to her work, asking Mary to join her.

For months now the two young ladies had been almost finished, merely refining the details, unable to complete the tapestry because Mary was right. There was no ending. Alexander had enjoyed watching it take shape over that same period, wishing with every part of him that the design would someday be finished.

And, now, for the first time, he noticed something he had never seen in the intricate design, as many times as he had looked at it.

Alexander moved away from Mary and went to kneel next to the frame. "Mary, what <i>is</i> this?" he asked, lifting the fabric trailing off the right side.

Mary came up behind him. "It’s nothing. We have stitched the background to the end of it but there are no figures because we don’t know how it will…" He knew the exact moment his sister realized what he was talking about. "Alex! There are pictures there!"

Alexander’s heart started to beat more quickly. He stood, lifting the weave with him and staring down at it in disbelief. "Did Lizzy do this?"

"When? Alexander, there is no way she could have done it! I would have noticed!"

"But, Mary, it is <i>here</i>."

They both stared down at the tapestry, at the three separate images that had appeared upon it, as if by magic.

Mary was the first to move. "We need to go to the pod chamber, Alex. Right now." She grabbed him by the arm and practically hauled him after her. Not that he needed any urging after he understood exactly what this meant.

"What about Lizzy?" he asked as they hurried to the stables.

"You saw the picture, Alex. He will find her."

***

Elizabeth threw back her head, sighing with pleasure as the sunlight danced across her face. It was strange for it to be this brilliant so late in the year, but she certainly was not displeased. The winter would be long and hard, just as the last two had been, and the more time she could spend out of doors before being shut away for months, the happier she was. Besides, if she really did need to honour the queen’s wishes and make the journey to London for Yule, she preferred to get as much fresh air as possible before leaving.

"Mama…"

Elizabeth lowered her face, smiled at her small son, who was toddling towards her, his arms outstretched. When he reached her, she scooped him up, and buried her face in his neck. "Are you ready to go back, precious?"

Dickon shook his head stubbornly, making her laugh. "Pretty!"

"Very well. Go look for more flowers." Trying to tell a one and a half year old that flowers didn’t grow this late in the year was a near impossibility after all.

She set him down on his sturdy little legs and watched him carefully as he began to investigate the fringes of the forest for his "pretties." She perched herself on a large boulder nearby, wrapping her cloak more securely around her shoulders. It was indeed sunny, but a little colder than she had first realized.

Being cold always made her remember the freezing night she had spent wrapped in Max’s arms in the forest. She had not felt any of it then, only aware of his steadily beating heart at her back, of his warm breath on her neck.

And, yet, she had still left him that night, in spite of his wishes, had gone off to try and rescue Tess all by herself. That one act had resulted in all the catastrophes that had followed. Max had ended up leaving the planet because she had forsaken him that night.

It was when she was cold that she wished, yet again, that she had truly followed her heart then - that she had stayed safe and secure in Max’s arms on the night she was sure their son had been conceived.

Her son had come into the world on a colder than usual May night a year and a half ago. There had been no complications, although the pregnancy had been shorter than normal. She had feared for her baby when her pains had started, but when he was born hale and hardy, they had decided that it was just a quirk due to the fact that his father was not altogether normal, which had been reinforced by the fact that he had continued to develop more quickly than most children. He spoke his first word at seven months and had taken his first step two months after that.

He had been christened Richard Maxwell DeHarding, the former for his royal godfather, the latter for his equally kingly father. The English monarch had bestowed the lands surrounding Castle DeHarding upon his young ward, and had also decreed that the baby’s father should retain them under title of baron when he returned from "crusade."

King Richard still had no true understanding of what he owed Maxwell DeHarding, but his mother had made sure that Elizabeth’s husband received what he was due in his absence anyway. In their one meeting, Max had completely charmed the old woman. She watched over Elizabeth even more closely since his departure, although Elizabeth thought that the queen was beginning to believe that Max would not return and was making sure that those he had left behind were well provided for.

Elizabeth refused to acknowledge that she had started to question it herself. She never openly thought about it, had always believed in her heart and soul that, if he could, Max would come back. But it was not until she had risen with the sun that morning, had descended into the great hall of Alex’s castle, and had frantically finished the tapestry, the images so clear in her head she had to get them down on fabric before they disappeared, that she understood that it was so.

Now that she knew it was only a matter of time until he returned, she could allow herself to admit that she had wondered if he might not.

"Dickon!" Elizabeth called, when she realized suddenly that her son was out of sight. "Come back, sweeting." She hopped off the boulder, hurried over to where she had last seen him, only seconds ago. He had disappeared behind a tree.

The small boy came toddling back into the clearing, holding his hands out in front of him. Elizabeth felt her heart stop as she took in the single, perfect wild rose Dickon held before him.

"Pretty!" The little boy crowed with triumph.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. "Where did you get that, sweeting?" There was absolutely no way a rose could grow in Sherwood at this time of year.

She knelt in front of her son and pulled him against her, smiling in spite of herself as he thrust the flower under her nose. "Pretty. For Mama."

‘Thank you, my sweetheart," Elizabeth whispered, laying her cheek against his dark head and raising her eyes.

"From Papa," the little boy continued, oblivious to the fact that his mother had already frozen.

She could not move. If she blinked, or if she even breathed, the moment would be over and he would be gone.

In the end, she did not have to move because he did first, allowing her to gasp in disbelief, "Max!"

He fell to his knees beside them. She could see that his hand was trembling as he reached out and carefully traced the contours of her face. "I have dreamt this moment so many times, it almost feels unreal," he finally said, his voice whisper-soft, as if speaking more loudly would wake them both.

"I have dreamt it also." She turned her face so that she could kiss the palm of his hand - one of the magical hands that had saved her life so long ago. The hands that had touched her and had taught her what <i>living</i> really meant.

The hands that their small son already possessed.

"They told me it was true on Antar. Mary and Alexander confirmed it as well. But until this moment, I did not truly believe that you lived," Max admitted, pulling her gently against him. Dickon squealed in protest, making them both laugh and breaking the moment.

Elizabeth could feel tears streaming down her face and, yet, she could not stop smiling. "Until this moment, I did not," she whispered against his neck.

User avatar
Kath7
Administrator
Posts: 907
Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada
Contact:

Post by Kath7 » Mon Sep 05, 2005 6:12 pm

AN - Thanks everyone who followed this story again! It was fun to repost it. I am planning to start work on my next offering to the Time After Time series, A Man of Good Fortune, sometime in the fall. Check out the banner and the summary after the epilogue to DC. :D

<u>Conclusion</u>

<b>A month later</b>

"There. Perfect!"

Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances. Isabel noticed their unnatural silence and raised her head and catching them at it. "What? What’s wrong with it?" She turned her gaze back to the section of tapestry she had been working, tilting her golden head and examining it closely.

It <i>was</i> decidedly lopsided in comparison to the sections created by her sister-in-law and friend. She rolled her eyes in annoyance and waved her hand over the weave. "There! Is that better?" The threads danced into place.

The two other ladies started giggling. "I knew she wouldn’t be able to stop herself," Mary said cheerfully. "You owe me two pence, Lizzy."

Isabel glared at them. "If you two weren’t so judgmental, I wouldn’t have to use my gifts!"

"If you weren’t such a perfectionist, you wouldn’t have to use your gifts," Mary corrected teasingly.

"It is lovely, Bella," Elizabeth interrupted their bickering smoothly. She stepped forward, ran her hand over the colourful threads. "I am glad that you wanted to do this part yourself. Alexander will be touched."

"It is my wedding scene," Isabel replied. "It should be by my hand."

Mary reached down and squeezed her new sister-in-law’s shoulder affectionately. "I am glad that you are here to do it."

"But not as glad as I am, sister dearest." Alexander’s voice boomed down on them from above. The three ladies all turned their heads to watch their husbands descend into the great hall.

"Must you always be so loud, Alexander?" Mary complained, moving towards Michael, who was pulling his helm off his shaggy head.

"Yes," Alexander replied, quirking a saucy grin in her direction. He brushed past her and swept Isabel into a lengthy embrace. Isabel’s blood rushed through her veins and she could feel a blush rising on her cheeks as Michael stared at them, still clearly adjusting to another man touching his sister so intimately.

Michael was quickly distracted by Mary though, who had reached up to pull his head down for a welcoming buss. "You smell like a horse," she told him, wrinkling her nose.

"Probably because I have just been riding a horse," Michael snapped, although he obviously wasn’t truly annoyed.

"Hmmmm," Mary said, eyeing him critically. "No more kisses for you until you take a bath."

"Thank the Maker for small miracles," Alexander grumbled.

"You are certainly not one to be judging, Delucie," Michael snorted. "You stink to high heaven as well."

"PEACE!" Max ordered as he walked toward them. He had paused near the stairs in order to pick up his son, who had been happily playing in the rushes. He now went to stand beside Elizabeth, pausing to gently kiss her on the lips.

"Well, it does not matter who smells worse," Elizabeth declared, smiling up at her husband. "We are simply pleased that you are all back safely."

"We have been missed then?" Alex asked, grinning at Isabel, who blushed again. She could feel her toes curling at the expression on his face. She had not expected to enjoy the marriage bed quite as much as she did and she had truly regretted Alexander’s absence over the past sennight.

The three men had ridden to London to pay their respects to the king and his mother. It had been a necessary evil and it had been decided that the ladies would stay behind, because the cortège that would have been required for them all to go to court in the style that would have been expected of those in their positions would have taken far too long. The mere thought of it had been enough to make Isabel remember their stint in the forest fondly.

It was surely one of life’s great ironies that while born a princess, she cared not a whit for any of the pomp and circumstance that most would consider her due. She had never been as content as she had been on her wedding night, which she and Alexander had spent in the little hunting lodge in Sherwood. While she did not regret living in a castle, were she and Alex to live in the forest for the rest of their lives, she would be perfectly comfortable. All that mattered was that they were together.

She would never regret returning to Earth. While it had intrigued her that the other Rath and Vilandra had seemed content on Antar, she had not been the least bit tempted to try such a relationship with Michael. Because, in the end, Rath and Vilandra had never met Mary and Alexander Delucie.

They did not know what they were missing.

"You have certainly been missed," Isabel whispered, kissing him on the cheek.

"We have missed your strong muscles!" Mary interrupted. "This tapestry is ready to be raised."

"What?" Michael demanded, sounding outraged, although Isabel could tell he was teasing his wife. "This is what we have servants for."

"Michael." Mary’s hands were on her hips and she glared at him. "Are you telling me that you expect me to trust <i>servants</i> to raise my masterpiece?"

"Don’t you mean <i>Lizzy’s</i> masterpiece?" Alexander asked, smiling wickedly. Isabel elbowed him soundly in the ribs and, much to her satisfaction, he grunted, in spite of his chain-mail. He deserved it after all. He really should not take so much pleasure in tormenting his sister.

He had other things upon which to focus his energy after all. Namely her.

"What do I get if I do it?" Michael was asking slyly.

"What do you want?" Mary returned, her eyebrows raised in annoyance.

"I want another kiss. Before I take a bath."

"Very well." Mary sighed dramatically. "But I assure you, this is under duress." She marched forward and grabbed Michael by the back of the neck, kissing him so thoroughly, he was red in the face when it was over.

"Take it to your chamber," Alexander exclaimed, clearly on the verge of being completely traumatized.

"No!" Elizabeth interjected, laughing merrily. "We must get the tapestry up." She was leaning against Max, who still held Dickon in his arms, the little boy’s resemblance to his father even more pronounced due to their close proximity to each other.

Isabel moved forward and took her nephew from her brother. "Get to work, boys."

In the end, however, the servants did end up hanging the tapestry. Michael, Mary, and Alexander argued so hard and so long about where it should go, followed by how high it should be placed on the stone wall, that by the time they were done, Max had directed the attendants and it was up.

At the sight of the lovely weave finally in place, even the trio of good-natured arguers were silenced.

"It is beautiful." Isabel sighed with pleasure, admiring the masterpiece her sister-in-laws had created.

The story of how the six of them had been brought together spread across the castle wall, visible in all its glory for the first time. It was dominated in the centre by the woven symbol of the whirlwind galaxy entwined with the shining sun, representing the Earth’s solar system.

"It did turn out rather well, didn’t it?" Elizabeth agreed, sounding pleased. Isabel turned her head in time to see Max come up behind his wife and wrap his arms around her, whispering something in her ear which made her blush.

"It turned out perfectly," Mary murmured, her arm linked through Michael’s, her head on his shoulder.

Dickon, who had been sitting on the rushes near the fire, climbed to his feet and toddled over to the tapestry, his dark eyes wide with awe. The sight of her small, miraculous nephew, the true embodiment of the bond that had been forged between the six of them, standing in front of the story that had brought him into their lives, was enough to make tears come to Isabel’s eyes.

The past would never be forgotten, laid out as it was in coloured thread for the rest of their lives. But now, finally, they could look to the future knowing that it had at last been laid to rest.

The adventure in the forest was over.

The adventure entailed by the joining of their lives had only just begun.

The End

Image

Summary: Set during the Regency period in England. The Duke of Antar and Miss Elizabeth Parker are forced into a marriage due to unforseen circumstances. While his entire family is convinced that Elizabeth has trapped Max for his money, the truth proves to be quite the opposite.

Locked