Ok...In this I've made an attempt to gather together my main storylines from what was once called The Glen on Russell Crowe Fan Fiction,

the sister site to Libriscrowe. As RCFF is not currently viable and I'd thankfully saved these in files, I decided to put them up now

on Libriscrowe.  There used to be links to them on Libriscrowe but now those links lead nowhere so I've taken them down.

 

The Glen was a setting in northern New South Wales where most of Russell's characters ended up sooner or later and were written

by various authors.  I had my favorites, Maximus, Cort, Robin, and a new one I invented, a pastor from England whom I

named Alistair Harris. I became very fond of him and don't want to lose him entirely. That's him in the top picture below and I gave

him a tender love story.  Fitting together the various storylines is intricate as Maximus and Alistair were early arrivals, but

Cort came later and Robin still later, but very often their stories overlap. I've left out some parts they were in because they

were mostly about characters I was not writing but I've included a few others because they advanced the development of my own characters.

If you read them before, you might enjoy them again, and if they are

new to you, I do hope you enjoy them the first time around. There are a LOT of adventures and peril in them and all of them have

love stories as well. Robin was started before the movie came out and we didn't know if he were going to be Sir Robert

or just who he might be. So he starts out here as Sir Robert, but later folks call him Robin and his look changes accordingly.

What I like about his stories is that he tells his new lady what it was like to be on crusade and you get a whole lot of backstory thusly for him

 

JO'S STORYLINES AT THE GLEN

 

A Healing Balm

Reverend Alistair Harris stood on the little bridge that crossed the pond behind the stone mill that had become his home. Leaning his forearms on the thin railing, he stared down into the dark, calm water, remembering the small koi pond Jenny had tended so carefully back in Tunbridge Wells. Jenny, with her untamable brunette locks, her long curls always falling over her forehead. His Jenny. It had been three years since she didn't come back from a trip to the market, three long years since the constable had come to the parsonage with word of the fatal wreck.

After that, after she'd so suddenly gone, he found himself needing a change and with nothing really to tie him now to England, had moved to Coffs Harbor where for the last two and a half years he'd been the pastor of a small non-denominational church just west of town. Then, a week ago he'd been approached by Bridgid Morgan, who invited him to lunch and talked at great length about the new community called the Glen that was rapidly developing in the country. He'd been interested enough to do a day trip out to see the place and been pleased with the peaceful atmosphere and beauty of the area. The church building was an absolutely classic, simple white structure with a steeple and plain glass, green-shuttered windows. He was quite taken with its utter simplicity.

When he accepted her offer to come and be the Glen's pastor, Bridgid had also offered him several choices for his residence. He had decided on the old stone mill, not the most practical, surely, but the most appealing to his heart. Jenny would have adored it.

So, here he was, standing on the bridge, with a whole new chapter of his life about to begin. He was 34 now and had never loved any woman but his Jenny. The thought of her still clutched at his heart but here, in this place, perhaps the waters of this pond would be a healing balm to his soul. He wanted more than anything to be able to feel the flow of that coming in to him so he could then pour it out to those given into his care.

A small fish broke the smooth surface, sending ripples spreading out. He watched it, thinking how we're all like the little fish, sending our ripples out, affecting everyone around us. He closed his eyes. "Lord, make all my ripples healing ones here in this Glen."  Then a cooler evening breeze picked up, ruffling his hair, and he went inside to make himself a peanut butter sandwich for his supper.

 



A Place in the Mill


Alistair finished his sandwich then lit a fire on the old hearth. It wasn't really all that cool, he simply liked the company of the fire, the comfortable, homey sounds it made, the smell of the burning wood. He was too newly-come to this place for it to seem like home. He wasn't actually sure just where home was any more. The little parsonage near Coffs had been a completely adequate place, but its white-washed walls had never seemed like home to him. Home was a word that had lost the heart of its meaning the moment the constable had knocked on his door back in Tunbridge Wells. Everything in that house spoke of Jenny and without her presence its voice had fallen silent. After that, he'd spent more time in the stone church than in his house. Alone, on his knees at the altar, was the only sense of homing he could find.

The fire popped and crackled as he sat back in the big oak rocker, pushing it back and forth with the tip of one foot.
The mill wheel still turned, though currently more for ambience than use, and he focused on the creak of the old board, the sound of the falling water. There were ducks, too, on the pond, and they conversed among themselves with muffled quacks.

He hadn't realized how tired he was until he woke up in morning sunbeamed light, his neck stiff from a night spent at an odd angle in the rocker. After a shower with rather iffy pipes, he walked into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. The mill was old and the kitchen had been upgraded some decades ago to what would have been modern in the 40's. Bridgid had warned him nothing worked quite consistently, but still he'd chosen the mill.

What to eat? He'd brought a small sack of groceries with him and decided on eggs. He liked them over easy and Jenny had been a master at that. This morning he broke both the yokes and they instantly solidified in the too-high heat he had the stove set on. There was no toaster and rather than attempt burning something in the oven, he simply broke off a chunk of bread and ate it plain. He'd forgotten to bring butter.

Carrying his teacup, he wandered out into the garden. There were a few iris planted near the pond. He'd like more. He might not know how to cook, but he'd always loved the soil. For him, planting an ugly, peeling, brown bulb and then watching it sprout green in the spring, grow in the sunlight until it made a blossom, for him that was a consummate parable. If he remembered right, Bridgid had said something about a new nursery opening just down the lane. After he finished his tea and had washed the pan he'd made the eggs in...there were no dishes as he'd eaten them right out of the pan...he headed off in what he hoped was
the right direction.



JASMINE IN THE EVENING

Joimus knelt in the grass beside the long, narrow garden that backed up against the wall of the L-shaped house, digging in the dark, rich
soil with a small trowel. This would be the fifth jasmine vine she planted in the area closest to the door. She wanted them eventually to
climb up over the small peaked roof above the entrance so that as he came and went, the scent of jasmine would remind him that he
was home.

Patting the soil around the roots and using her large watering can to soak the plant in well, she then stood and walked back further into the
large yard just so she could stand there and gaze at the house. It was two stories high and every bit of it was rust-colored, roof, walls, chimneys.
She liked that. For her, rust had always been his color. It was why the house had so appealed to her, why when Jack had suggested his good
friend, General Maximus Decimus Meridius, join them in Australia, she had arranged for the old house to be shipped piece by piece from Kent.

She and Maximus had settled there in south-central Kent only last year in the centuries-old house her great grandmother had left her. He had
taken a great fall when his horse had stepped in an unseen burrow and during his recovery, the house in Kent had seemed the perfect place.
But everyone they knew was far away and the the small parcel of land upon which the house was seated did not permit for horses or crops
or any of the interests Maximus had known during his earlier life in Spain.

Then Jack and Bridgid had stopped by, anxious to see their old friends, and after listening quietly to them speak of The Glen and all their plans
for settling there, Maximus had turned and looked at his wife. "Would you perhaps consider...?"

"I would!" Joimus had smiled, knowing exactly what he was thinking. She had always adored the whole concept of Australia and when Bridgid
had elaborated on the amount of land that would be available to them, there was no doubt but that a move would be just what the doctor ordered.
Maximus had a slight, lingering limp that would, hopefully, disappear with use, and she could see that glow of anticipation in his eyes at the thought
of what he could do if he only had sufficient land.

It was the house, though, that also tugged at her heart. She'd grown to love it during their months there, but it was nothing compared to seeing
that glow in his eyes. Bridgid, always sensitive to such things in a woman's heart, had been the one to suggest that the entire house could be
moved. Jack, bless him, had instantly jumped on the idea and made shipping arrangements. The house had been carefully dismantled, each piece
laboriously labeled and packed, and then the crates put on a cargo ship for Australia. During the time it had taken for the transport, she and
Maximus had toured Sydney, then driven up the coast and from a hotel suite in Coffs Harbor, had overseen the digging of the foundation, the
paving of a small lane, the beginning of construction of a large stable and several out-buildings. She had haunted all the garden centers in the
countryside for miles around, making plans for vast gardens after the house was reconstructed.

Every evening they'd drive together back to their hotel. She couldn't quite remember when she'd last felt so completely happy. A large part of
that, she knew, was due to his happiness. When he was not overseeing the construction around their homesite, he was off scouting the horse
farms, choosing his stock. The whole process had taken a good four months so that by the time they were able to leave the hotel and actually
move in to The Glen, several other couples had also arrived and a real sense of community was already forming.

Now, here she was, having just planted jasmine for him. Near her grew yellow roses and pink ones, daisies of all sorts, lilies had sprouted tall
and boasted fat buds. Never had she seen plants grow so fast or so well. She bent, smelling a particularly large pale yellow rose.

That was how he saw her as he topped the low rise on Legion, the white stallion he'd chosen as his personal mount. He sat there a long moment,
his hands crossed in front of him, just watching her delight in the rose. "Joimus," he murmured softly into the air. His eyes then traveled slowly from
his wife to the house then over to the stables and the broad fields beyond. "Home."  He ran a palm down Legion's neck, then rode down the
slope, a quiet smile on his face.

Interview with the General

by Bridgid and Jo

Colleen knocked on the door of the rustic cottage belonging to Maximus and Joimus. She'd sent a message to the General to ask him if she could interview him for her "People of Interest" column for the new paper that she and Cal were publishing. It made her a bit nervous to be around a man of such stature but it was her job and she'd get used to it. There were plenty of people around who had some interesting stories. The General was just the first.

She stood there with her pen and pad in hand,

Maximus had never really been 'interviewed' before and had no real  idea what to expect. Joimus was off at a garden store looking for Exbury azaleas and so he was alone when he opened the door to the young female journalist.  He also had no notion of what to wear for such a thing and as he had to be out and about in the fields shortly, simply dressed in jeans and a light blue denim shirt, its sleeves rolled up. His wide belt was well-tooled leather with a buckle in theform of a wolf's head. Joimus had given that to him for his birthday a few years back.

"Good day, Miss O'Hara. Please come in."

"Good morning, General. Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you." She stepped inside. "Could we use your dining table perhaps?  It would make things easier for me."

"Certainly." He led the way to the  oak table and pulled out a chair for her before seating himself. "What do you wish to know?"

"Thank you, General. Please call me Colleen as we are neighbors." She smiled. "I'll get right to it. You and your wife were one of the first families to move to the Glen. It doesn't seem you are having any trouble adjusting. Your home is lovely." she paused to take a breath "Have you made many friends since you arrived?"

"We came at the invitation of Bridgid Morgan and Captain Aubrey, you probably realize. My wife and I have known them for several years, but I am only now getting to know many of our newer  neighbors."  He did not mention Sid, whose strange house lay over the far rise of land. Sid he had known for far too long. He turned the topic back to the house. "This home has been in my wife's family for generations and was brought over from England. The taste in decorating is hers, though she does so with my background in mind." 

"Ah yes, The Captain and Bridgid are on my list to interview." she grinned. "I find it amazing that you were able to move your home here. It must make you feel more settled. Tell me then; are there any plans for additions to your family? If you find that too personal of a question, feel free to refuse to answer." Being a reporter, it was her job to dig into personal issues though she realized they made people uncomfortable sometimes.

For Maximus, children were still a painful subject. Never would he forget the sight of his son's burned body, hanging crucified and trampled in the remains of the doorway to his villa. A darkness passed briefly over his eyes, then restoring control, he smiled at Colleen.  "Children are a true gift from the gods. I should be most happy if they decided to bless me in such a manner. We leave that to them."  He knew, of a certain, that Joimus would love to give him a child. But so far the gods had not seen fit. It was a thing one must accept.

"I wish for the gods to bless you and your wife, General." she could see the passing pain in his eyes and figured she'd better change her line of questioning. "I noticed that you have a stable. Are you fond of horses and are there any here yet?” His face brightened considerably. "Fond? One might say that. I grew up among the horses of Spain then, as you know, spent many years in the Roman cavalry. My last battle was, in fact, a cavalry charge. But that is another story, is it not? To answer your question, yes, there are nearly a dozen horses here now. I had chosen the ones I wished to purchase well before my stables were finished. Now we are starting a breeding program." He smiled. "The gods seem to favor Legion in this way."

She smiled a little. "I take it Legion is your stallion then. Are you breeding horses to sell? I'd be very happy to mention it in my article and perhaps drum up some business for you."

Truth be told she'd love to have a well bred horse herself. A moment of remembrance hazed into her brain of her youthful times riding with a local hunt club. She looked up at the General, thinking about how magnificent he must look on a horse. Cal didn't seem to like equines. Maybe he would grow to love them here. "A picture of you with Legion would be good to head the article, too, if you don't mind."

"Yes, Legion is the stallion." It had been Joimus who'd suggested the name. He'd been somewhat reluctant at first, not sure reminders of the Felix  Legion were wise, but the longer he'd pondered it, the more he had grown to like  the name. The years he had commanded the legion had been good ones. That Commodus had brought it all to such an abrupt ending was no fault of the legion itself. So the name had received his assent and now when he was astride the great
white stallion, he felt some sense of reunification in himself that had been lacking. He and the legion were at peace. "I believe a photograph with him could be arranged." He smiled. "And I do, indeed, intend to breed horses for sale. I also have plans to open a small riding school for those unschooled in such matters. Would that be something your readers might find of interest?"
 
She nodded. "Yes, I'm sure they will and off the record, if you ever find the need for an extra riding instructor I'd be available. Hands together, heels down and all that." She would love to teach kids to ride again like she'd done on the weekends in the past. Maybe Cal would take some interest then. For now, back to the task at hand. "General, you said Joimus suggested Legion's name. How long have you been together? You seem to be soul mates." Did she phrase that correctly? He may misconstrue and think she was asking about the horse. His answer would...answer.


He paused a while, looking at the oil portrait of her above the mantel. She was wearing her favorite light creamy yellow and sat on a small stone wall over which hung masses of wisteria. "My soul mate? If you mean that she took the two broken halves of my heart and sealed their wounds by the offering of her love, then, yes, she is that. If you mean that the mere fact that she lives gives meaning to my life, gives me a purpose and a reason for remaining on this side of Elysium's gate, then, yes, she is the mate of my soul. She carries my soul in the palms of her hands and plants it like a seed in the soil of her being, and it is there that I bloom and fruit and lift my face to the skies."

"We have been together seven years, she and I, and yet I am only still beginning to touch the depths of all she has meant to me, means to me. I inhale her like my very breath and she fills me to my brim and sends life through all my limbs."  He stopped and looked away, suddenly aware he had said much more than he'd intended. "Forgive me, Miss O'Hara...Colleen. When I think upon such things I forget myself and speak too lengthily." He smiled. "It is ever thus with my wife."  Clearing his throat, he added, "You mention riding instructors. You have the skill?"

"You are so lyrical." she smiled wistfully. I think I've managed to get everything I need to tell the other residents what a wonderful man you are. Joimus is a lucky woman but she too sounds like someone that everyone would love to know. As for riding, I do pride myself on my ability. Perhaps sometime soon you would allow me to demonstrate. I've always seemed to have a kind of affinity with horses.

Colleen jotted a few more things down on her notepad then she gathered her stuff up. "General, I'd like to thank you for being my very first interviewee for the Glen Daily News. It has been my pleasure." She stood and offered her hand to him. "You are an interesting man, sir."



Ahnna and the Greenery

It amazed her how quickly it all came together. Maximus, Bridgid and Jack had all gone out of their way
to help her make the arrangement, to contact all the right people, and now there it stood, her very own
greenhouse. She walked up and down some of the many aisles of plants. It was a really good beginning.
She wanted to add more of the local Australian varieties when she became more familiar with them.

The greenhouse had only been partially built when it hit her that she would need help running it, taking
care of it. Maximus was busy with the horses and the fields he was planting. The greenhouse was her
venture and so she went into a nearby town and placed an ad for an assistant.

The day after the ad appeared in the paper, she got a phone call from a young woman who was
interested in the position. And so it was that Ahnna Ayreland had come out to the rust-colored house
and had tea with Joimus.



Ahnna was in her late 20's and had explained that she'd been the nanny for the last year at a large
estate just north of the Glen. The family had suddenly decided to move to Sydney, leaving Ahnna in need
of employment. "I'm quite good with flowers," she had explained to Joimus. "My grandmother had
extensive gardens and taught me everything she knew. I found myself helping take care of the enormous
grounds of the estate just because I liked doing so."  She shrugged. "I would imagine you understand that."

Joimus smiled. She did, indeed. She liked Ahnna right off the bat. She was a lovely woman with long dark
hair and a hint of sadness lingering about her eyes. Ahnna had a small flat in a neighboring village and would
easily be able to motor over to work at the greenhouse.

She began coming every day even before the greenhouse was finished, going with Joimus to pick out supplies,
bedding plants, hanging baskets, and all the other things that would be required. Joimus had decided to call
her greenhouse Rose Hill Greenery since the short walk from the rust-colored house to the nursery took her
along the path through the large rose garden she'd made. As she approached the greenhouse, which was on
a slight rise, it appeared as though it were rising out of a hill of roses. Maximus had arranged for the parking
area to be behind the greenhouse, unseen from the main home.

She found she really enjoyed Ahnna's company. There was something rather old-fashioned about the young
woman and the almost Bohemian way she liked to dress, her shirts often made of elaborately-patterned material
with draping sleeves. She was obviously well-educated. Joimus had found out Ahnna had a degree in literature,
and yet she had spent the last year as a nanny for three small children. What she had said about knowing her
plants proved quite accurate, and Joimus relied on her for guidance with the local flora.

Maximus' happiness was increased by the happiness he saw on Joimus' face. As his land, his stables were for
him, her greenhouse was for her. It was good. It was the best of times.



The Touch of Tears

Alistair enjoyed the walk through the wooded areas of the Glen. He passed a couple more ponds and some small streams. Everything was green, lush with life. That was it, was what he felt filling him...the livingness of the place. As he walked, he began to sing the old hymn, "This Is My Father's World."  Yes, he could do it, he could rest him in the thought of that. "The rocks and trees, the skies and seas, Thy hands the wonders wrought," he sang in his well-rounded baritone.

Ah, there was the greenhouse. Hadn't Bridgid said it was brand new? He was surprised at the size of it and the complex around it of stable and large old home. He stopped and stared at the rust-colored house. If he didn't know he was in Australia, he'd swear he was back in England. The building just shouted 'England' into the air of New South Wales. How strange. It also looked a lot older than the mill, though much better kept up. He figured the mill was probably the original building in the Glen area.

He was distracted from his thoughts by the scent of roses. Then he saw the sign. "Rose Hill Greenery" he read aloud with a smile. "Perfect!" Movement to his left caught his eye where three riders were returning to the large stable. A woman, who had been tending the house garden, also saw them and waved and one of the riders, the man mounted on a white horse, cut away from the other two and rode in her direction.

Alistair continued on around to the front entrance to the greenhouse. Entering, he discovered row upon row of nearly every flower he could name and many he could not. He had been reared in the gardens of England and English flowers remained his favorites. That was what had pleased him to see the yellow and purple iris growing by the millpond. It was also why he'd come to see if he could purchase more to plant.
He needed to dig in the soil, to plant something that had roots so that in the plant's growing into the land, he would also grow into it, become a part of it like the plant. The parsonage near Coffs had had only the tiniest patch of land and it was all tall hedges with a spot of lawn. There had been nothing for him to do there, nothing to connect him to it. Now here he was on his second day in the Glen, standing in a nursery with
iris dancing in his soul.

He went down two or three of the rows but didn't come across any iris. Surely there were iris somewhere in all this bounty? Was there no one who worked here he could ask? Four people had left the greenhouse just as he'd entered, but all of them were customers. So far he'd not seen anyone who looked liked they worked here and now the greenhouse seemed empty but for him. He wandered along, making mental notes for future purchases of flowering plants, finally coming to a far corner past where huge hanging baskets had blocked his view. Ah, there was
someone here! She had her back turned and the hood of her grey sweatshirt jacket was up and pulled forward, which he found a bit odd on such a sunny day. Her face was turned away from him and he thought she might be leaning her forehead against the glass wall.

"Miss?" he called softly, hoping to get her attention without startling her. "Do you know where the bearded iris are?"

The slender woman straightened, seemed to hesitate, then turned her head. He didn't mean to, but he gasped. He was looking into the most lovely, hauntingly sad blue eyes he'd ever seen.



 

Suddenly An Ocean

She looked at him quietly a moment then turned her head away again. In that moment, though, he found he felt nearly dizzy with feelings flooding so rapidly through him. It was like he'd been walking through a great forest, thinking there was only forest in all directions, when suddenly he'd cleared a line of trees and found himself on a bluff above a great ocean. There was no choice but to simply stop, to breathe if one could manage, and adjust oneself to the fact of it. No face had ever done that to him before. But, then, what he had seen was more than merely a face somehow. He felt as if he'd just looked into a pool where all the pain of the ages had gathered itself and he was pierced to his very core by the fact that such pain lay amidst such beauty. And because he was who he was, he was instantly awash in the meaning of the symbiosis between great pain and great beauty and everything in
his considerable soul rose up to meet it.

When he was able, he said very softly, "I'm sorry. I hadn't seen you were there. I didn't mean to...."

But he paused again because she turned her face back. This time, however, her eyes were closed. It was too late, though, because even through her lids he could see the pools that lay behind them. She was exquisite in her sorrow, like Mary on Golgotha, and in an unconscious gesture his hand came up to cover his heart. All that still ached inside of him flowed toward her, knew it was a part of her nameless sorrow in that ungraspable wholeness of ageless pain. A mental image formed for him of two clear puddles on dark pavement and the one that he was ventured so close to the other that in that attraction of water molecules, a path snapped open and the one became joined with the other. He blinked, sucked in a great lungful of air, and let it out in small, ragged gasps.

It was obvious she had thought she was alone and even in the lines of her quiet face, he could see she was gathering herself to meet his interruption of her private grief. He marveled, though, that she, not knowing his response, yet allowed him the grace of watching her gathering. He stood, waiting, the thought of leaving not crossing his mind. He could not have left even if it had.

The smell of the greenhouse came to him again as he stood there silently, that distinct scent of wet soil mingled with the meshed fragrances of multitudes of flowers. Paradise would smell like this, he knew. This was the scent of life and, therefore, it must smell like this. And somehow even the grief of the woman in front of him was a part of that, was the grief of a tree fallen to the forest floor, becoming once again a substance that would give forth, in its time, new life. She belonged here, in this place, this woman did. He belonged there, too, and almost more than anything it was his awareness they shared that which kept him in his place.

All this passed through him and she had yet to say a word.



A Standard of  Blue



"You were looking for bearded iris?"  Finally she spoke, asking the question as though she had merely turned and found him there.

"Yes," he said, his voice catching slightly as he attempted to shift back into his reason for being there. "Blue, if you have them."

"Blue," she repeated, leading him to another section of the greenhouse. "You have other iris?"

"Purple and some yellow ones. They were already there by the millpond."

"The millpond?" She stopped and turned to look at him. "You've moved into the old mill?"

"Just yesterday." He smiled. "And I find myself in need of blue iris."

"Y...yesterday? Then you're...you're...."

"Alistair," he replied. "Alistair Harris."

"The pastor? You're the pastor?"

He dipped his head slightly. "At your service."

"I didn't expect...."

"Me? You didn't expect me?"

"No, I...I only meant I thought...."

"And I did not expect you, either."

"Iris," she said firmly. "Let me show you the iris."  A couple of rows over she paused. "Do you want container-grown ones or bare root rhizomes, Reverend Harris?"

"For now, container-grown would be splendid. I'd like the color on the spot. I'll probably plant some rhizomes later, though." He bent to examine a large pot of tall iris. "Alistair," he said, not taking his eyes from the flower.

"W...what?"

"Alistair," he repeated. "My name."  He ran a fingertip lightly down the standard of a dark blue iris. "Do you have any in a lighter blue?"

"O...over here," she said, pulling a pot out from behind some deep purple iris. "Are these what you're looking for?"

Little crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. "Perfect. Blue like the sky in mid-summer." The beards on the falls were
white and there was almost no hint of purple anywhere. "Have you more? I'll take all you have." 

She found six pots of the blue iris. "All these? You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

Just then Joimus came in the door of the greenhouse. "Ahnna?" she called.

"Over here," the young woman responded. "The new pastor is buying iris for the mill."

Joimus came around a corner and down to where they were standing, a big smile of greeting on her face. "Hello," she welcomed, "I'm Joimus Meridius. Welcome to the Glen and to my greenhouse specifically."  She looked at the cluster of pots Ahnna had gathered. "Ah, blue, I see. My favorite, too."

Each of them carried two pots up to the front counter where Alistair paid for them. "Looks like you'll need help getting them out to your car," Joimus commented.

"I walked," Alistair replied. "I completely forgot I walked."

"Well, there's no way you're getting those 6 big pots back to the mill in your arms," Joimus grinned. "I'd take you in my little truck, but I'm expecting my first delivery of cut flowers any time now and I need to be here for that. Looks like you'll have to drive the truck, Ahnna, if that's ok?"

"Oh, I don't want to be that much of a....," Alistair started to protest, but Joimus shushed him and so each of them carried two pots again out to the truck that was parked just to one side of the greenhouse.

"You know where the mill is, Ahnna?" Joimus asked when the young woman got into the driver's seat.

"I used to play there as a little girl," Ahnna said quietly.

"Good then! I'll see you when I see you. Ah, here comes the delivery truck now."  She smiled at Alistair. "There's no florist in the Glen so I decided the other day to add a cut flower section to the Greenery. Let me know, all right, if you need anything for the church."

As Ahnna drove, Alistair tried to keep from staring at her profile. "You've worked at the Greenery long?" he tried.

"I only just started. The Greenery is brand new." Ahnna kept her eyes on the lane.

"Was that Mrs. Meridius I saw, then, in the garden of the big house?"

"Probably. She and the General had it brought over from England when they came."

"General?"

"Yes, Joimus is married to a former General. He breeds horses now, though, and is starting a riding school."

It only took a few moments in the truck to get to the mill. "You played here? As a child, you said you played here?"

"A long time ago." She pulled up near the water wheel. "It all looks very much the same, though." He sat silently, trying to imagine what she'd have looked like as a little girl by this pond. "I'll help unload the iris," she said, opening the truck door. "Do you want them over there by the other iris?"

"Iris? Um, oh, yes, that will be good."  He got out and hurried to the back of the truck. "Here, let me..." his hand brushed along hers on the edge of one of the pots and she let it drop. The iris plant came loose from its container and spilled out onto the lawn, dirt ball fairly well intact, but the tallest of the blue iris had broken off. "Oh!" she cried, "I'm so sorry!" She popped the plant back into its container, avoiding his eyes.

Alistair picked up the stem of the broken iris. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" he said, not in the least upset.

"I've broken it," she whispered.

"And now it gets to come inside the mill and sit on my table in a glass of water. A not-unhappy fate for an iris, I think."

"I'm sorry," she repeated, lifting her eyes slowly to meet his.

"It is not a matter that requires your sorrow," he replied. "It is still beautiful and I will still enjoy that about it. There is no loss."

"No loss." Her voice was barely audible.

"No, not here, not now. There is no loss."

Looking in his green eyes, something in her almost began to believe him.

 

Well and Firmly Planted

Alistair stood there, holding the broken iris stem, then said, "Come. Let's go find a glass for this before it wilts."

"In the mill?"

"Yes, in the mill. It'll just take a second."  He paused. "If that's all right? Have you ever been inside the mill...when
you were a child, I mean?"

"It was always locked back then, but I...I used to peer in its windows and...."

"And?"

"Imagine stories. It seemed a perfect place to set a fairy tale."  The corners of her mouth quirked up in a bit of a smile.

"I agree," he added, his own smiled widening. "I think that's why I chose the place. Happily ever after and all that."

"Is...is Mrs. Harris inside?"

His smile faded but his eyes were still kind. "There is no Mrs. Harris, not for the last three years."

She couldn't imagine anyone divorcing a man like Alistair. His wife must have died. That had to be it. "I'm sorry," she murmured. Then trying to change the subject, she asked, "That's an English accent, isn't it? Did you come here all the way from the UK?"

His smile returned. "Two and a half years ago...from Tunbridge Wells. I've lived near Coffs Harbor until just this week." He started toward the mill, pausing just enough to encourage her to follow. "Are you a native of the area?"

"All my life," she explained, "except for when I went off to college, of course, and a little bit after that."

"And what did you study, Ahnna, in college, if I might ask?"

"Literature. I've always been...," her sentence was cut off because they'd entered the mill and she saw the mounds of books stacked everywhere. Her lips parted at the sight, then she continued, "...very fond of books."

He laughed. "Then you're in the right place! There'll be a small library opening soon in that vacant building near the church and most of these will be going over there. After that I might even be able to walk from the living room into the kitchen and not trip on them."  He led her on into the kitchen where he opened a cupboard, closed it, opened another and closed that. "Now let me see. I know I have glasses somewhere."

Ahnna looked around the quaint old kitchen. It didn't seem to be very well-stocked at all and most of the appliances looked a bit iffy as to their reliability.

"Ah! I'll just use this one!" he said, retrieving a tall glass from the sink and washing it out. When it was full of water, he made a neat slice with a knife through the broken stem and put the iris into it. The glass was too wide for a single stem and the iris tilted way to one side. He straightened it, but it tipped right back over. "Oh, well," he said, and set it in the middle of the kitchen table. "It looks nice there, don't you think?"

It did bring a nice spot of blue into the otherwise rather brown space. Still, she wished she hadn't broken his plant. "Yes," she nodded. "It's very pretty."
She reached out and touched one of its falls very lightly. "I should be getting back to the Greenery. Joimus is there all alone."

He walked with her back to the truck. "Thank you, Ahnna, for driving my iris and me home. We appreciate it, all of us, and when you come back, those of us who are blue, will be well and firmly planted by the pond."

She drove slowly on her way back to the greenhouse. 'When you come back.' He'd said that, but she wondered when that might be and found herself hoping it was soon. She wanted to see his iris, wanted to see them as he'd also said, 'well and firmly planted.' Even if he were entirely new, she'd never encountered any man who was so well and firmly planted in himself. She felt entirely rootless, had for a good while now, and the phrase kept repeating
over and over in her head as she drove until she finally said it aloud. "Well and firmly planted."  What a splendid concept. If only....

 

Christmas Eve

Alistair spent the time after his dinner, or what passed as his dinner, sitting on the large rock across the pond from the mill, watching as the setting sun changed the colors of the old stones from which it was constructed. In England there would be a deep chill in the air, possibly snow. After two and a half years he was still not really used to the fact that in Australia, Christmas came in the warm season. But it was so lovely here in his garden that he found he truly did not wish to change the flowers for ice. In his mind he had come to think of his new residence as Peacefield Mill. Just beyond it on the other side lay a gently-sloping meadow filled with wild flowers where he often walked in the evenings and would stop from time to time and look back at the mill. A great peace always lay upon the land and so the name had come easily to him.

Tonight would be his first sermon in the Glen. He liked that it was to be on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve had always been even more special for him than the Day itself for it was then the reality of Bethlehem most filled his heart. It was that he intended to speak of tonight.

Going back inside the mill he changed into a neat, dark suit and then walked down the path that led to the church. He had both a bicycle and a compact little car, but preferred to walk in the Glen whenever the weather permitted and often when it did not. It was only seven when he arrived and the service was scheduled for eight so he took his time and let the presence of the little building seep into him. Earlier today Joimus and her husband had brought over quite an array of wreaths, garlands, and flowers. He smiled at the memory, for Ahnna had been with them and the four of them, together, had decorated the building.

Now in the gathering dusk, he sat alone in the back pew and looked around at their handiwork. Every window had a central wreath; every ledge was covered in greenery with a tall candle waiting to be lit. He wouldn't do the lighting until just before people began to arrive. The simple altar at the front was banked with pots of poinsettias and an arrangement of boughs and candles on the altar itself was punctuated by both poinsettias and white lilies. That was because for him, Christmas was the beginning of Easter. The two were inextricably connected. A pair of matching candelabra flanked the altar, each holding seven tall white candles. There needed to be candles on Christmas Eve. It was when the Light had come.

Quietly he rose from the pew and went to the front of the church, kneeling on the low step there, praying for a long time in the silent places of his soul. Hearing the main door behind him open, he stood and turned to greet Bridgid and Captain Aubrey. They were the first to arrive since Bridgid was going to play the piano tonight to accompany him. He hadn't had a chance yet to discover who might be interested in singing in the church and so on this first day, he was simply singing himself.

The two of them helped him with the candles. He kept the electric lighting turned down low so that the candlelight was dominant, creating a lovely sense of warmth in the room. As more people arrived, he stood at the door, greeting each one, asking and committing to memory the names of those he'd not yet had the opportunity to meet. When Ahnna entered by herself, and he took her hand in welcome, he was not even aware that as he held it, he placed his other atop it, nesting it between his palms.

When it was time, he took his place at the front but stood beside and not behind the small wooden pulpit. He never liked the sense of separation that standing behind a pulpit gave him. As his eyes traveled down the pews, his lips curved into a smile. "Welcome," he said, "to a celebration of the night in which the unbegotten God demonstrated His love for us by becoming the only begotten Son. You will find that I am a man of uncomplicated, straight-forward faith, quite in love with the beauty of the great simplicity that is found in God.
This is the first service we have had in the Glen and it is my hope that as I come to know all of you and you come to know me, that we do so in this same straight-forwardness of relationship. Most of us are still in the beginnings of getting to know one another and I believe that creates a special atmosphere of newness in which all things are possible."

The door opened and Sid slipped in, taking the same seat Alistair had occupied earlier in the back pew. He had heard of this man who came bearing such an unbelievably bad reputation. This was a complicated man, who could perhaps use a touch of simplicity. Sid had obviously not wanted to be left out this evening, a fact that Alistair did not miss. "All things are possible," he repeated, "even those we may not believe to be so."

Bridgid left her seat on the front pew next to Jack and came up to the piano on the left side of the raised section of the church. Alistair walked over to it, too, and standing beside it said, "This piece is called simply 'Joseph's Song' and sets the tone for what I'd like to talk with you about tonight. My father died when I was just a baby and I was raised by a wonderful step-father so this song has great meaning for me personally. Joseph was not Jesus' father, nor was he His step-father in the literal meaning of that, but the comparison is there nonetheless.
I have found myself through the years thinking quite often of what it must have been like for Joseph to raise the child that he had placed in his care." He nodded to Bridgid, who began to play and Alistair's beautiful, deep voice filled the church. In the words of the song, Joseph is holding the newborn baby in his arms, lifting his prayer, his concerns up to God. Partway through, Alistair closed his eyes as he sang and raised his chin. "Lord, I know He's not my own...not of my flesh, not of my bone...still, Father, let this baby be, the son of my love."

Watching him, Ahnna's eyes filled with tears. How had it happened that this man had simply appeared so near to where she lived? Her eyes never left his face as he continued, "Father, show me where I fit into this plan of Yours. How can a man be father to the Son of God?
Lord, for all my life I've been a simple carpenter. How can I raise a king...how can I raise a king?"  He sang as if he knew the deep heart of Joseph, as if he were Joseph, and it was so piercingly beautiful she began to tremble.



Silent Night

Alistair finished his song, still standing there with his eyes closed and his chin lifted. He always sang to God directly and tended to lose himself in it. Whether alone or in front of others, he did that and he was so lost in the reality of that that without the piano his voice continued on into, "I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice...to worship You, O my soul rejoice. Take joy, my King, in what You hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear."  That was always his prayer, always why he sang. Take joy, my King. That was the whole point in it all, that he might give back some of what flowed out to him, that he might not simply take, but also give.

Opening his eyes, he found Ahnna's face in the congregation. "Bless this woman," he murmured under his breath as he walked back to stand beside the pulpit again.


"Bless them all."

He never used notes to preach. He didn't actually even like that word. He wanted to talk to the people who'd come. That was all. Just talk to them. And if he didn't have it in his heart, he was not at all sure it was really worth saying.

"Bethlehem," he said, "so beautiful in all the manger scenes on Christmas cards. I would like us to take a moment, though, and get past the cards and down into the reality of the night. And as my song was about Joseph, I'd like to continue with this reality from his point of view. He was not only quite tired, you know, from walking all day; he was entirely desperate as he attempted to find a place for Mary to deliver her child. How many times did he hear 'No' that night, heard it over and over from grown men, lying in the health of their manhood, who would not give way for her. And so it was with a sinking heart he followed the rutted path into the cupping hills with the dotting campfires winking in the wind. He lifted his eyes to the canopy of stars; thinking how the campfires reflected that, reflected it as earthly things, made by human hands, a series of tiny glows beneath the spread of galaxies. Even the grottoed caves were full this night and the disinterested eyes of men followed as he walked, stumbling on the unseen rocks that lay upon the pathless path leading him away from town, leading him to the ruins at the very end.

"It was a hole, no more than that, a den among the crumbles of some shed, an excavation in the sloping hill where once foundations held a wall. Only rubble was there now, coarse trunks of trees supporting what served as its roof. He paused, sighing, the burn of rope stinging across his palm, the burn of failure stinging across his heart. 'Wait,' he said to the quiet woman drooping on the little beast, and, dropping the leading rope, he entered all alone the place determined from before the creation of the world to receive the coming of its King on this clear and frigid night near Bethlehem.

"Taking free the sack he'd carried across his shoulders all this way, he pulled his flint and tinder forth, lighting a small lamp, finding only one large ox chewing hay far in the rear. It will do. It has to do. There is simply nothing else. And so, gently, he led her in. Trembling with cold, she went near the ox, laying hands on its warming neck. He stood a moment, looking at the vault above, ancient cobwebs glimmering in his lamp's light, stretching from rock to rubbled rock, spanning all the cracks and holes. Then his eyes turned downward to where the floor was covered with cast-off trash, with excrement of animals. How could THIS be the appointed place? He could such a One as Mary carried come here to find His gate?

"She sat now on a broken seat made from two big rocks, watching with her silent, large brown eyes as he bent to gather hay from just beside the ox. She needed a bed, a place to lie, and his thoughts raced, bumping together in the dark. He stood; both hands filled with the hay, and looked at the pale starlight on her face, then at the filth that covered the dirt floor. His heart lurched, squeezed with pain, and he set the hay in a heaping pile. With a little bunch of twigs for his tool, he scratched at the dirt, in bent awkwardness, pushing excrement far off to the side. How could he lay the straw upon such a base as that? How could...He...be born atop the world's filth?

"The straw, regathered, was damp in his strong hands, the rain of yesterday having fallen on it through the cracking roof. In a blackened corner, used to shepherd fires, he took his twigs and lit them with his lamp, then squatted, holding out fistfuls of straw. He would not have her lying on the damp. His thigh muscles strained and ached, but still he squatted, holding fistful after fistful, turning, drying by the little blaze till he was satisfied and piled it up for her, a little bed, all that he is able to provide."

Maximus squeezed Joimus' hand. He was a Stoic, but he was relating to this story as a man who loved, who cared, who protected.

"A shadowed shape passed by the door, some other looking for a place to spend the night. No, he would not have eyes peering in, not as she does what she must, not as He in blood and tears makes His way into the world. Shivering, he removed his mantle, finding means to hang its woolen brownness over the holed door, sealing them inside with its thin protection, billowing slightly as the wintered breeze came and went, within, without the cave.

"Huddling now beneath her mantle on the straw, her brown eyes watch his slumping back, knowing his manhood is offended that he cannot offer her more than this, that he was not able to lay her in a better place. 'Joseph,' she says the word softly as he turns, wanting him to see the love-light in her eyes, wanting him to know it is enough that he is here with her in this moment and all she needs surrounds her on this night.

"As quietly as possible he broke the little sticks, feeding them slowly to the tiny fire, the feeling long-gone from his frozen toes. Closing tired eyes, he heard the chewing sounds of his burro bedded now close beside the ox. In the little flickering light, she watches him, his hands pressed tightly to his face, lost now in deep prayer. Her own hands on her mounded self, felt now the heaving, tightening of her inner being, as He made His way into the human world.

"Then it is done, as is the way of such as this, that way that women know when even those more ordinary leave the round, warm safety of the womb and by the tearing of the flesh enter into worlds, fresh and new. Joseph, kneeling beside her, received into his workman's hands the Maker of everything that was ever made. No aunt, no mother, no elder was there that night to fulfill the womanly task usual then at birth. Only he...he with his large hands scarred from work. He looked, utterly dumbfounded at what he held, the tiny, wriggling form of God now in the flesh. His hands burned with his own unworthiness that he, of all men in the world, should be the first to hold the form of God.

"Overwhelmed, he held Him, arms stretched out, not knowing what to do. What DOES one do when newborn God is squirming in one's hands, a thing in all creation's time that no one else would ever know like this. But the tiny form, still warm from Mary's belly, rapidly began to chill in the winter night, the little feet cold now against his hand. And, so, he tucked Him inside his tunic, close against his chest, against his beating heart, and folded his arms across the newborn form of God. It is then he knew that his heart is flowing...his own heart has turned into liquid bands of light and stretched itself from out his chest and circled round the little being cuddling close. Lifting up his bearded chin, the morning star shone through a hole, puddling on his face, turning the cobwebs into diamonds strung, each rubbled rock into some silvered throne. And he saw with his spirit's opened eyes, the royal canopy of the grotto's spanning vault. Then he knew that everything was right...wet straw, the webs, the ox, and broken roof...all of it, every single part, was right...for the Kingdom comes when and where it wills, turning cobwebs into silver in the night."

Alistair paused, looking again at the people who had come this night. "It is more beautiful, I think, in its reality than in all the versions where everything is clean and neat and warm. God came to turn our cobwebs into silver with His light. His birth is His statement of that." He smiled affectionately at these people he was only beginning to know and led them in singing Silent Night while Bridgid played the piano.




A Golden Christmas Morning

Alistair had stayed for a time at the church after everyone else had left, mostly in pairs, for their homes.
He let the candles burn down as low as he dared without the flames getting too close to the arrangements
that surrounded them, then he quietly went from candle to candle, blowing them out. Standing a while at
the front end of the central aisle he...waited. Everything was dark around him, the night truly silent. Then
the full moon sailed out from behind a bank of clouds and silvery light poured in through the tall side
windows.

"Thank You," he murmured. For him there was always some moment, some how, on Christmas Eve when
the Door opened. So many people thought of it as a star, so many scholars tried to track it down, give it
a name, explain which conjunction of what had caused a brighter light. No, for him it was not Venus close
to Jupiter, it was something much deeper than that, something hands could never be laid upon. He didn't
consider it a thing that hands should be laid upon. On Christmas Eve, on THE Christmas Eve, there had
been some rift between realms created and uncreated and it was through that that the Light had shone.

He didn't really need the sudden burst of moonlight to feel that in his spirit on this night, but that such a
moment happened as he stood alone in the darkened church, was received by his open heart as a gift.
So, limned in silver, he knelt again at the step and poured out his heart to his God. Then, leaving the
church unlocked, he walked alone back to the mill.

Sitting for a while on the stump Michael had used for a seat, he watched the moon's reflection on the surface
of the pond, lost in thought of life in Tunbridge Wells, of the mill itself and the people he'd met in the short
time he'd been in the Glen. When he finally looked at his watch, it was two minutes after midnight. "Merry
Christmas, Jenny," he whispered, then went inside the mill.

Christmas morning he sat at his kitchen table, a cup of hot tea in one hand as he read the book by Watchman
Nee that lay open in front of him. Since the community was so small and everything was still so new, there
was only the Christmas Eve service he'd needed to attend to. There would be a carol sing at the church later
in the day, but this morning was simply quiet and restful. He had no one to give presents to nor anyone to receive
a present from, so he'd made his tea, burnt his toast but put peanut butter and honey on it anyway, and sat there
immersed in his book. When his cup was empty, he walked to the stove and poured himself another cup, standing
there, looking out the window.

Hearing an odd sound at his door, he opened it, finding a lidded picnic basket on his stoop. The basket was rocking
back and forth a bit and when he lifted the lid, a pale golden head popped up. "What have we here?" he said, lifting
the basket's occupant up with both hands.

The very wet tongue of a golden retriever pup swept across the tip of his nose. He laughed. "Where did you come from, young...," he turned the pup slightly, "...lady?"  The puppy wriggled and Alistair changed the way he was holding it, cradling it in his arms against his chest. He looked around, even walking down the path a bit to see if someone might be there, but could find no trace of anyone. Then from around a bend where he couldn't see, he heard the engine of a car start up and
drive away.

"Have you been left on my doorstep, little girl?" He stroked a fingertip over the top of the puppy's head and down between its eyes. The pup looked about four months old and was a coiled ball of energy. He set her down and she practically ran around in little circles, so excited she was to be out of the basket and loose. Watching her, he chuckled, until she started to bite the stalk of one of his newly-planted iris. He scooped her up, with a bit of a reprimand, but the golden retriever was just so darling- looking he chuckled again. He had no idea who might have left her for him. Someone, though, obviously thought the young pastor living alone in the old mill needed companionship.

Studying her face, Alistair pondered names. "Eve?" he tried. No, she was a Christmas morning dog, not an Eve. A broad grin spread over his face. "Merry! That's it! That's your name, girl."  Merry licked his nose again and he laughed and carried her inside.

The Foundling

By Jo and Bridgid

Very early Christmas  morning, Maximus went out to the stables to check on the horses. His animals  always were tended before he took care of his own needs of the day. The sun  was still low behind the trees and long shadows lay down the row of stalls. He  went to Legion first, as was his habit and an acknowledgement of sorts of the 
white stallion's rank. As he stood, stroking Legion's neck, he thought he  heard a sound from
one of the empty stalls.

On silent feet, he made  his way past several of the occupied ones, stopping just outside the empty  stall. A man lay there, half covered by straw, and as Maximus watched,  he turned again in his sleep. Narrowing his eyes, the General studied the  man. He'd never seen him before. Finally, with the toe of his boot, he  prodded the man's
foot.

"You, there," he said, "what are you doing here?"  

Oh no! East had overslept and he reckoned he was in for it now. He should  have been gone an hour ago. The man who stood above him was about as imposing as they come and East was still in a post sleep stupor. He rubbed his eyes to
make sure he was not dreaming. No such luck.
 
East stood slowly, brushing himself off. He trembled a bit but managed to  maintain most of his composure.
 
"I'm sorry. I was just passing through. Got no place to stay and, well, mate, the horses said it would be okay."
 
Bending down to pick up his pack, East cleared his throat to conceal the  sound of his stomach growling. "I'll be on my way, sir. Didn't mean to trespass  on you. Just needed a place to lay my head'sall."

Maximus sized up the man with long years of practice in judging character. One corner of his mouth twitched just a bit. "Did the horses happen to mention breakfast up at the main house in half an hour? If you will help me with the feed, of course." He smiled disarmingly.

The man's offer stunned young East. He blinked a few times before it sunk in. "I'd be chuffed to help you with the feed, mate. My name's East Driscoll, by the way. Grew up around horses and to tell you the truth they didn't say nothing bout any brekkie but I'd be obliged. Can't remember the last time I had any tucker 'cept for a handful of your sweet feed."

Looking down at the floor he kicked at the straw. "Sure is a good mix. You know your stuff, ma...sir."

Smiling at the man kind of sheepishly he nodded. "I'll get to work. I know where the feed is and I figure you give em two flakes of hay for brekkie too, right?"

"Right," Maximus nodded. The man did seem to know his way around a horse stable. "Are you just passing through the Glen, East, or are you considering staying on a while? I ask because I could use a good man to work with my horses. Would you be interested in a job?"

East's eyes widened. He hadn't thought about staying in this place when he wandered in but there was something in the air that told that he could deal with it for awhile.

"I can shoe horses. Reckon I'd like to stay for a bit if you could use me. I'd earn my keep, sir. Promise you that," he affirmed with a nod. "Can bunk in the tack room if it's okay but there's just one thing. I don't know your name and I never worked for anyone I didn't know by name before."

"Meridius. Maximus Decimus Meridius," the General answered. "And I have been looking for a farrier. There has not yet been one in the area who needed the job, so I shall be most grateful to have you stay on."  He looked toward the tack room. "You are sure that will be sufficient? I could make other arrangements if...."

"I don't need much, Mister Meridius. Never had much but I don't need it. The tack room would be a palace for me compared to some places I been and besides , I get along with horses better than I get along with people. Better off sleeping out here with them."

East made quick work of the mucking and feeding. He was raking the shed row like any good horsman would before the sun began to warm the tops of the trees. Stopping to lean on the rake he thought for a moment then he spoke. "Mister Meridius. I reckon I should say Happy Crimbo. Bout near forgot it was. Reckon I got a nice pressie today. Thank you."

"Happy Christmas to you, East. There is a wash room just off there." He indicated a door beside the tack room. "Please come have breakfast with us. I would like my wife to have a chance to meet you."

Maximus left East to his ablutions and walked back up to the main house. Joimus was in the kitchen pouring orange juice when he entered. "I hope it is not an inconvenience on such a special morning," he said, "but I found a young man asleep in one of the stalls just now. He is a farrier and I have offered him work. He wants to stay in the tack room but I thought it would be good to invite him for breakfast."

"A young man in the stable?" Joimus said. "And on Christmas Eve? He had no where else to stay?"

"It does not appear he did."

"Yes, I should very much like to meet him. I'll add some more eggs to scramble."  She smiled at her husband and turned to the refrigerator. She had made a large batch of fresh blueberry muffins and bacon was cooking. There was plenty of coffee. The timing of the young man's arrival interested her. She was a great believer in the entertaining of angels unaware. Not that the young man was an angel, of course, but that he had come to them on Christmas Eve was, for her, a matter that boded well. And if Maximus already considered him worthy of employment, that, too, was enough for her.


A few minutes later Maximus went to answer a knock on the door and escorted the new arrival to the kitchen where he introduced him to his wife. Joimus extended her hand. "I'm so glad you could join us, East. Christmas morning is a good time to be together with those we know and an even better time to get to know those we don't. Please, have a seat at the table there. Would you like some coffee?"

"Please." he smiled at the lovely woman who offered. East took her hand lightly in his but he released it quickly. It's not that he was uncomfortable but he never had a sheila offer a handshake before. Mostly they wanted something else from him.

 "It's very kind of you to invite me, Missus, being a stranger and all." His eyes traveled over the ceiling of the cottage and he tried to remember if he'd ever seen such a place. "It's peaceful here. Feels good to me."

A blush rose up to his cheeks as he sat down. He was not sure if that was a proper thing to say but it was honest and innocent. "I ain't used to having a meal like this. Lately its been bush tucker or whatever I could scrounge. Ain't got no family." He was well aware that his lack of education hung on him like a badge too.

Joimus found herself really liking the young man. His innocently frank way of speaking was appealing. "Merry Christmas, East," she said, her lips curving into a smile. "I'm really glad you've come."

He felt a blanket of warmth cover him. How did he get so lucky as to end up in this place? Growing up alone and living the same way, East never knew what sincerity and love felt like but he sensed this place was full of it. For once God had smiled on him.

"Merry Christmas, Mum." he replied, not really realizing what he just said.

 



The Knapsack...part 1

Alistair had had to stop and talk with another of the Glen residents and so didn't notice when Ahnna came out of the bathroom at the Meridius' New Year's Eve party. She'd seen him engaged in conversation, was glad, and quietly slipped out the kitchen door into the rear garden. He was too kind, too good, and all the damaged parts of her soul rose up, screaming at her that she was a fool for thinking about him the way she'd begun to.

She sat heavily on a garden bench, burying her face in her hands. Everything in her life had gone wrong. And she'd done it herself. There was no one else to take the blame. She would never get past it. There was simply no way. It was something she'd have to carry with her the rest of her life. You couldn't put something this big down. But, oh, how it weighed. Her back curved forward under the weight of it. Sometimes she thought it might crush her.

There were times when she looked in Alistair's eyes that she almost forgot about it. The clear beauty in them as he met her gaze did things inside her...until she remembered. Tonight had been like that. They were talking, everything was fine, then the memory of what she carried on her back welled up and she simply had to get away. She was too shriveled of a soul and his presence made her aware of that.

Her eyes screwed tightly shut, she tried desperately not to think of what she'd done. But it was there; it was almost always there. And it should be! She should suffer because of it. The rare occasions when she still encountered her younger sister, the look in those eyes affirmed that. Her sister was all she had left, and Marce would barely speak to her. She'd ruined Marce's life as well, sent her off into places that the mere thought of made Ahnna shudder. But she couldn't blame Marce. Her sister was right. She'd ruined everything.

She hoped to find some quiet, some bit of peace, working in the Greenery. But even there reminders came. She'd been looking at a pot that contained a small rhododendron plant, a yellow one, very, very rare. It had been her mother's favorite bush in the yard of the house where Ahnna had grown up in Armidale. She'd pampered that bush, watched over it like a hawk, and when it bloomed her mother was in seventh heaven. She photographed it endlessly, even keeping an enlargement of it on the wall in their breakfast room. Ahnna hadn't expected to find a small version of it in the Greenery. It was so rare and the Greenery so newly-opened. She'd been surprised to find it sitting there beside a golden azalea plant. Fingering its blooms, tears had sprung quickly, and memories flooded through her, all the yearning that what had happened had not happened, the irrevocable fact that it had. That had been the moment when Alistair had come up behind her, asking after blue iris.

Alistair. Something in her yearned toward him as she also yearned toward the life she had lost. But she didn't deserve someone like him. She was crippled inside, broken in a way beyond healing, and he was more whole that she'd imagined anyone could be. So she sat there alone on New Year's Eve in Joimus' garden, her face buried in her hands, not seeing how the brilliant light of the sailing moon tipped all the blossoms with silver light.

His conversation done, Alistair located Joimus in the kitchen. "Have you seen Ahnna," he asked, concerned over the manner in which she'd left him.

"A while ago." She nodded toward the kitchen door. "She went out that way, I believe."

Alistair opened the door and stepping onto the side patio, looking for her. The scent of the garden was almost heady and he inhaled deeply, lifted his eyes briefly to the irresistible pull of the moon, then headed down the flagstone pathway that led around a curve into the center of the garden. He stopped when he saw her there on the bench, the moonlight limning the top of her dark head. Quietly he approached, squatting in front of her, placing a hand gently on her knee.

"Ahnna, are you all right?"

It took a moment for her to lift her head and when she did, the misery he saw in her eyes clutched at his heart. "Oh, Ahnna," he breathed.

"You shouldn't have come," she whispered, her voice breaking. He was like some wave of light, breaking over her darkness, and the glow of him...hurt.

He smiled the barest smile, keeping his hand on her knee. "But I have come, Ahnna."

She knew. She just didn't know...why. There was no place for someone like him in the wreck of her life. She straightened, lifting her head toward the moon, her dark hair waving over her shoulders. "It...it's not right," she murmured, not looking at him.

"How can it be made right, Ahnna?"

She looked at him then. "It can't be, Alistair. There are some things that can never be made right. Ever."

"I'm not sure that's completely true," he said softly.

"For you, maybe. I can see that. But it is true for me."

"What is it, Ahnna, that cannot be made right?"

She gazed at his earnest face. No one ever spoke to her as he did. "It doesn't matter," she sighed.

"I think it must matter more than anything."

She closed her eyes. "It's too late, Alistair. Far too late."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not." He stood then sat beside her on the bench. "I'd like to know what it is."

She stared at her feet. "No, you wouldn't."  No one who knew ever looked at her the same again. She couldn't bear to see that in his eyes, too.

"Ahnna. Please?"

She shook her head. "I ruined everything. You don't want to hear about that. Believe me, you don't."

"I do, Ahnna. Truly."

Turning her head to the side, she studied his eyes, reading a calm patience in them, a genuine concern. He was too beautiful. He wouldn't understand her ugliness.

Her hands were clasped now in her lap and he placed a palm over them. "Truly, Ahnna," he repeated.

Lifting her face upward again, she closed her eyes. "I killed them. I killed them all."

That wasn't quite what he'd expected, but he'd heard so many things in his pastorate that he didn't even blink.

 "Who, Ahnna?"

"My family," she groaned. "All of them except my sister."

He increased the pressure of his hand over hers. "Tell me, Ahnna."

"I had a new car," she said, her voice little more than a whisper, her head turned away from him. "I was driving them up to Brisbane for a day trip. We usually always went in my father's station wagon, you know, but my car was brand new and I absolutely insisted we had to go in that. Pop sat in the front seat beside me, and my Mum was in the back, between my two little brothers. I was so...happy...that morning."  She paused, breathing through her mouth. "Then I got all full of myself and started acting silly, doing stupid things with the car just to show off. " A ragged breath cut through her words. "Stalled it on the railroad tracks at a tight curve. Kept saying it would be all right, that I'd get it going again. Just stay in the car, I said. I can handle this. Then it came. Around the curve. Didn't know it was there until the whistle started to blow." She shuddered, the whistle still haunted her dreams. "I don't know what happened. It's all blacked out. But somehow I was standing there beside the tracks and my car was nothing but crushed metal, screeching along in front of the engine."

She turned to look at him. "I got out. Don't you see? I got myself out...and they didn't. I don't know how that happened.
But I saved myself and all of them died. Horribly. I did that. Me. I killed my parents and my little brothers and the weight
of it is killing me! There's no way to stop it! I don't deserve for it to stop! It's my fault. All of it." She made little guttural
sounds in her throat. "I'm so ugly!" she gasped. She felt like a murderess. She felt like she'd defiled her spirit.

He licked his lips and slid an arm around her back, just holding her while she sobbed. After several minutes she quieted
and leaned her head wearily on his shoulder. He prayed silently for guidance as he held her, waiting quietly for the right
time, the right words. She was obviously being crushed. Often, he didn't know what he would say in a time like this,
but he had learned to rely on the passage that promised, "Open your mouth and I will fill it."

He started to speak, his voice low, even. It was a story, something he'd begun to see clearly in his mind as she cried.
Something Ahnna needed to hear, needed to know.

It took her a moment, but his voice was something she couldn't ignore and she stopped the last of her sobs, listening
with her eyes closed. He was saying:

As he saw her coming along the lane, his handsome brow furrowed in concern. He had been walking in the evening, the breeze cool upon his face, the rising moon casting a soft sheen on his glorious tuxedo with its long tails, its wide cummerbund, its silken shirt and tie.  She had no shoes on her cut and bleeding feet, and the fibers of her old dress were worn and caked with the dust of her long journey. Bits of hay clung to her knotted hair, gotten he knew, from the barns in which she spent her nights. The evening air blew toward him, carrying clearly the scent of dried manure.

Tears furrowed in little tracks down her dirty cheeks as she made a half-hearted attempt to wipe them away with her hand, her nails cracked and filthy. Her back was bowed under the weight of a great, canvas knapsack that shifted as she walked, keeping her constantly off balance.  His own eyes welled with tears as he watched her stumble, falling hard, skinning both knees.  She knelt there in the dirt, her stringy hair draping forward over her face, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

He wanted to go to her, to lift her to her feet, but he knew that should she see him dressed as he was, she would be shamed and not let him near. Turning, he ran quickly into the large, stone country club, shedding his tailed coat as he went, dropping his cummerbund on the marble floor, unknotting his cravat. He slipped out of his patent shoes, left his gold brocade vest draped over a chair, undid the pearl buttons on his satin shirt. In the broom closet, he found the janitor's change of clothes, old and all in shades of brown and tan. He smiled as he pulled up the baggy pants and buttoned the frayed flannel shirt, then turned once again and ran toward the shadowed lane. 

She was there, her forehead now bent to the ground as great sobs wracked through her.  He inhaled deeply, then knelt beside her in the dirt, placing his right palm gently on her shoulder. She shuddered, then brought her head up a little, pushing back her hair.  Her eyes took in his shabby clothing, then rested themselves upon his eyes where moonlight reflected in his brimming tears. Her lower lip trembled and no matter how hard she clamped it with her teeth, she could not make it stop.

"I'm so...tired," was all she managed to say.

"I know," he replied as he half-stood, extending his hand to her, palm up. 

She studied it a long while, then gasped, "I...I can't."



The Knapsack...part 2

Alistair's voice broke through her pain. He'd caught her up, taken her out of the garden, away from the crushed car, and she was the woman on the road, the knapsack crushing her.

He continued the story....His eyes slid down to her knapsack, knowing its weight kept her from lifting her hands off the road. Silently, he grasped its thick shoulder straps, pulling it off her back.  It was, indeed, very, very heavy and unpleasant, musty scents rose from its confines. In the silvered light of the night, he stood there beside her on the lane, gripping it in his hands. Again he inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, pressing his lips together tightly.  He had known it would be heavy, but this...this was already straining the sinew of his shoulders. 

She watched him, not yet able to discern fully his intentions, but strangely attracted by the moonlit beauty of his face.  Slowly, his lids opened, his lashes starred with his own unshed tears.  The corners of his lips turned up in the tenderest of smiles as he shifted the weight of the knapsack, moving it around and onto his back, settling the straps over his shoulders. 

"Why did you do that?" she asked in barely a whisper.

"So you could stand," he replied, once again extending his hand to her.

She felt his fingers, warm and strong, curl around her palm as she lifted it hesitatingly out of the dirt. At his touch, something inside her that had been pulled tightly all the long years, snapped, making her gasp. Her other hand flew to her mouth, clamping there, trying to muffle a cry that seemed half pain-half something else. Breathing rapidly, shallowly, she let him lift her to her feet.

"Where are you going?" he asked quietly.

"I...I'm going to the bridge," she replied, nodding down the lane.

He knew of the old stone arch that crossed the narrow stream a mile further on and said, "Ah, I am going that way, too. May I walk with you?" 

Side by side they made their way to the bridge, its dark arch resembling a cave in the night.

"I am resting here," she said, stepping off the lane. "You can give me back my knapsack  now."

"Is it not too heavy for you?" he asked, looking at her frail form.

"I have carried it all my life," she explained, "adding to it little by little and am very used to its weight." She looked at him carefully. "Do you not have a knapsack of your own?" she inquired.

"No," he responded, "I've never... needed...one." He followed her off the lane, down the bank to where a wide shelf of grass went under the bridge on one side.

"You are coming?" she asked.

If I may," he said. He stopped beside her, looking at her seriously in the soft light. "Do you wish me to come?" 

She turned her eyes from his to the darkness of the arch, imagining being alone. She was familiar with aloneness, yet somehow the thought of his leaving her now made the darkness seem strangely darker and solitude an unbearable thing. "With all my heart," she murmured, surprising herself with her sudden depth of feeling.

He sat, then, at the edge of the small stream, patting the grass at his side. "Come, sit," he invited...and she did.

Tearing off a piece of his shirt tail, he dipped it in the rippling water and began to wash the dirt and grit from her bleeding knees. Never had she been touched so gently and again her chin trembled as a silent tear tracked down her cheek. Then he gathered leaves, making her a bed just a bit under the curve of the arch. He sat down outside, leaning back against the stones.

"You did not lay down my knapsack," she commented, nestling into the leaves.

"I know," he replied.

An early morning sunbeam found its way under the bridge, waking her with its rosy brightness. She saw him then, standing in the grass near the stream, a loaf of bread in his hands. "You have bread?" she asked, amazed.

"I do," he replied, breaking off a large piece and handing it to her.

Just then a jogger passed by on the lane, his outfit new and expensive. "You have bread?" he, too, asked when he saw the man by the stream.

"I do," the man repeated, giving the jogger the rest of the loaf.

"You gave...him...your bread?" she said, frowning, when the jogger had run on toward the country club.

"He needed it," was all he said.    

Together, then, they walked as the day came. Without the weight of her knapsack, she carried herself taller and straighter and for the first time noticed there were pear trees along the lane. She laughed as he reached up, plucking her a piece of the fruit. She bit into the pear, letting its juices run down her chin. He smiled, delighting in her happiness, his eyes dancing with joy.

Seeing his face, she paused. "You...you...love me?" she whispered wonderingly.

He took a step toward her, wrapping his arms about her shoulders, kissing the top of her head. "I do," he replied, his heart filled.

She tipped her head up to look at him. "But you have no reason to love me." 

"Love both has and is its own reason," he said, but she did not understand.

She was, though, beginning to love his love for her. Now when they walked, she slid her arm through his, drinking in the sound of his voice, wanting him near. They sat in a field of daisies and she said, "I think I love you."

"I know you do," he replied.

"You know I love you or that I think I love you," she pursued.

"Yes," he said, closing his eyes.

She laughed, shaking her head fondly at him. "But you love me?" she went on.

"Without boundary...without end," he said.

She liked that. She wanted to be loved like that. "Thank you," she said playfully.

"You are welcome," he replied, but a sudden shudder shook his body. She was too happy, too in love with his love to notice.

They walked more and he picked grapes for her, and figs. "I didn't know there was so much fruit along this lane!" she cried delightedly. Then she smiled at him again.

"Not until you came," she added. "Not until you began to carry my knapsack."

"It is often that way," he said.

"I think I love you," she giggled.

"I know," he said, a tear welling.

"Will you love me no matter what?" she asked, dancing in a small circle.

"No matter what," he said, thinking of the meaning in 'what.'

A single lily grew beside the lane, its scarlet petals shading into peach. She plucked it, putting it in her hair, unaware of a brief pain crossing his face.

"It was lovely," he said, looking at the severed stem.

"I needed it," she replied, "to make me lovely, too."

"No," he whispered, touching one of its petals. "You were arrayed in love."

"I needed more," she said.

"There is no more," he smiled.

"No more than love?" she frowned.

"It is everything," he said, "the beginning...and the end."

"Love has an ending?" she asked, her frown deepening.

"Sometimes it may...appear...that way," he said so softly she could barely hear.

Throwing the lily to the ground, she stepped upon it.   "I do not like these words!" she cried.

"I know," he said.  

Looking across the stream, she saw a man in golden robes, holding a bouquet of lilies in his arms. "He will give me lilies!" she snapped at her companion.

"Yes," he agreed, "he will."

"Do you CARE that he will give me lilies?" she almost shouted.

"I care more than you can think or imagine," he said.

"How can that be so?" she replied, her eyes narrowing.

"It has been so...forever." 

"I doubt that," she said sharply.

"I know."

"STOP!" she cried. "I want no more of your knowing! Give me back my knapsack!"  She looked across at the dark-eyed man clothed in gold. "He," she said furiously, "will give me lilies and never say, 'I know.'"

Turning her back to the stream, she grabbed her knapsack, stumbling and surprised at its forgotten weight. She did not see the man in gold drop his lilies and draw his bow, aiming between her shoulder blades. Her companion did, and moving quickly, stepped around her, the feathered shaft lodging in his chest. As he fell, his hands gathered up her knapsack, holding it as he crashed to earth, its weight driving the arrow completely through his body.

Stunned, she looked down at him. "You would carry it for me even now?"

"Even now," he gasped, his mouth filling with blood.

"Why?" she shouted. "WHY?"

"It's why I came," he whispered.

"I thought you came to love me," she said.

"I loved you...before," his voice was fading.

"Before when?" she begged.

"Forever," he said, and died.

The man in gold across the stream had regathered his lilies and was holding them out toward her. How beautiful they were! How beautiful they would make her!

Her companion lay still now, his blood puddling beneath him on the grass, her knapsack lying on his chest, bearing its weight for her even in death. "I think I love you," she said, blowing him a kiss, then struggling to lift the knapsack in her arms.

The waters were cold on her feet as she waded across the stream, but the man in gold came forward, smiling, handing her dozens of lilies.

"You are beautiful now," he said, his black eyes glittering.

But the lilies seemed somehow to add to the weight of the knapsack and when he said, "Come, walk with me," she could barely stand.

"Please," she asked, her voice almost a moan, "will you carry it for me?"

Arching an eyebrow, he replied, "I do not carry knapsacks, my dear."

She looked back across the stream at the quiet form. "I know," she whispered, "I know."


 

 

The Knapsack...part 3

Alistair paused a moment in the story, as if listening for the words that would come next.  Then he began to speak again. She could not take her eyes off his face.


For the next two days she walked with the man who wore the golden robe. Well, more accurately, she followed him as he seemed to walk too fast for her and her knapsack was heavier than ever with the addition of all the lilies.  Finally, she collapsed onto the ground and, frowning, he stopped, turned back, and walked to where she lay.

"Can you not keep up?" he chastised. 

"It...it's the weight of my knapsack," she whimpered. Looking up his tall, splendid form she asked again, "Could you help me carry it....just a little while?" 

He laughed, showing perfect, white teeth. "It's not in my job description." 

"It's so....heavy," she sobbed.

He studied her with glittering eyes. "But you knew that all along....didn't you."  It was a statement, not a question. 

Closing her lids tightly, she sighed, "He....carried it for me." 

The man sneered, his lip in a sharp curve. "He had nothing better to do with his time."

She looked at him again then, and he smiled. "While I....I have work to do, places to go, people to see." 

"You are busy then?" she asked, not understanding really.

He looked back over his shoulder in the way they had come. "Because of him." 

Then he snapped, "Get UP! I have no patience for your weakness! Here!" And he handed her another lily, deeply scarlet with its center shading into black.

She took it, fascinated by its rare beauty. "Put it in your hair," he commanded. 

She did as he asked, but the weight of it caused a terrible pain in her neck and shoulders.  "I...I don't think I can wear this lily!" she gasped.

"Of course you can, " he said, looking at her, his eyes narrowed and hard. "You chose it." 

"I...I chose it?" she asked, confused.

"Did you not?" he almost laughed. "Did you not choose to cross the stream and come to me, taking my lilies?"

"Yes," she whispered, tears welling in her eyes. "I did."

She had fallen near a large pine tree, and digging her fingertips into its bark, used it pull herself upright. Swaying unsteadily, she looked at her hands, cut and bleeding from the rough bark, one nail halfway torn off.  She remembered the warm gentleness of hands that had lifted her to her feet on the shadowed lane, and her chin trembled.

"Tears," he said, "will get you nothing but wet cheeks. You have delayed me long enough! Walk!"  

Inhaling a ragged, deep breath,  she trailed after him.  For two more hours she trudged, barely seeing where she was going as her thoughts were so filled with memories of a hand patting the grass beside the stream, a voice inviting, "Come, sit."  She recalled how he had looked standing in the morning light, holding the bread. Even now she could taste it on her tongue.     

The man in the golden robe stopped and she walked right into him, so unaware had she become of her surroundings.  The knapsack shifted and she fell hard.  He crouched beside her as she tried to get her breath back and when she could focus somewhat again, noticed he was holding out a lily in a flaming dark orange color. 

"Do you want it?" he asked, a knowing smirk on his face.

She looked at it long and carefully. Surely it was beautiful and were she to wear it would be....  Suddenly she saw a face...a face filled with joy as she had eaten the fruit he gave her. Blinking, she looked again at the lily, aware for the first time that these lilies had no fragrance.  In his hand, the orange lily seemed almost to flame and burn, becoming an ugly, horrid thing.

"No!" she said, "I do not want your lily." 

His eyes grew blacker as he stood, glaring at her. "Do you think...he...would have given you better? You have made your choice, my dear. " He poked at her knapsack with the tip of one elegant shoe. "I have proof of your choice." He smiled. "Besides, he is dead and you...you have come to walk with me." 

It was true, she knew, it was...all...true. "I have...rights...you know," he continued, "when you make your choice. You are quite stuck with me, now and forever." 

"He lies," a familiar voice said firmly from behind her.

Both heads jerked around quickly at the sound. A man stood there upon the grass, garbed in a marvelous tuxedo, a smile upon his lips but a truly fierce look in his eyes.

"Who...who...?" she stammered, not recognizing him at first. 

"She is MINE!" the robed one snapped.

"So it would...appear," the man in the tux replied levelly, coming forward, standing near her.  He looked down at her, his eyes filled with galaxies, with wings, with things for which there are no names. 

"No matter...what," he said, "without boundary...without end." 

He rested a palm on her head and she felt a strange awareness of every cell in her being and that each of them was being filled with some great charge of positive light that changed their very molecular structure.  It was then she noticed the white satin of his shirt was stained with blood and she knew him for who he was. Her hand reached out, fingertips touching the large, red stain. Then, turning her palm, she looked at it, looked at his blood upon her flesh.

"NOOO!" cried the golden-robed man.

She moved, turning toward him, holding out her hand between them. "Yes," she said.

His face a mask of rage, he pointed at her knapsack. "What of THAT?" he shouted.

The other man bent and in one smooth motion, lifted it off her back, dropped it on the ground and placed his foot on it. It disappeared.

"Knapsack?" he smiled. "Was there a knapsack?" 

His eyes turning suddenly lion-like, he said sternly, "Now...GO!" 

Taking hold of her arms, he lifted her to her feet. Pulling the lily from her hair, he crushed it in his hand, though he never once took his eyes off hers. A smile grew and grew upon his lips even as tears of joy welled in his eyes.

"Oh," he said, nodding slightly, "HOW I love you!" 

"Why?" she said, "Why would you love me?"

"It is why you were made," he replied.

"Why I was made?"

"Yes," he continued, "for me to love...to...to...be loved."

He looked at her seriously then. "Do you think you love me?" 

A great light shone in her eyes as she answered. "No." Then she threw her arms about him and cried loudly, "I KNOW I love you!"

Sweeping her lightly up in his arms, he walked swiftly over a long rise, coming out at the entrance to the country club.

"Here?" she said, puzzled, when she saw where they were. "But we...began... here."

He smiled. "It is when we return to where we had our beginning that we know where we are."

"But," she protested, "I...I can't go in THERE!"

He had by then carried her up the stone steps and had stopped just outside the great, carved entranceway.

"Look," she pointed out, "there is a security pad. You see, I can't go inside. You have to have an approved fingerprint to gain entry." 

"Try," he said, turning her so her hand could easily reach the pad.

"No," she cried, "it won't work...it can't possibly work!" She buried her face in his neck, ashamed.

"Try," he repeated.

Hesitatingly, she reached out her right forefinger, but kept it hovering just above the pad.

"Try," he urged again.

Reluctantly, she pressed it firmly on the pad, her teeth clenched down on her lower lip. As though it had been a mere hologram, the huge door simply melted away, leaving a wide open entryway.

"How...?" she marveled.

"Look at your hand," he said simply.

She did and saw that her fingerprint was covered in his blood.

"My God," she said, looking at it, stunned.

"Yes," he murmured.  

Still carrying her in his arms, he stepped over the threshold and into the enormous room, all oak-paneled and with candled chandeliers everywhere. A table was set, close to a large bay window that overlooked the gardens. He walked to it and stood her gently on her feet. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the magnificent dinner that was spread upon the table.

"For...me?" she whispered.

"For us," he said. "It was all prepared but could not be eaten alone...so I went outside to wait. I knew you were coming down the lane."

As she remembered that night, she suddenly recalled how she was dressed, how out of place she was in this glorious hall. She clutched the front of her dress with both hands, shamed by her appearance.

"Look," he said, knowing.

Tremblingly, she let her eyes gaze down her front. All her dirt, all her grime, were gone. She was not only clean, she was spotless, and her dress fell in soft white folds to the floor.

"My God!" she said, amazed.

"Yes," he replied, smiling, "yes."

Alistair's voice stopped, and he simply sat there, gazing into Ahnna's eyes. He had taken her on a journey with
him without ever leaving the bench. Something deep inside her, hard and sharp, began to fuzz around its edges.
"Y...yes?" she repeated.

"Yes, Ahnna," he smiled, reaching out to run a fingertip down her cheek.

"Do...do you think you could...hold me...for a little while?"

He circled his arms around her and she rested her head against his neck. In a few moments a cheer went up from inside the house.

"I think the New Year has begun," he whispered, kissing the top of her head.

She moved enough to lift her face, looking up at his. "Yes," she murmured, the single word filled with meaning, and ever so softly, he leaned, kissing her lips.


 

The Picnic

by Jo and Layne

 

When Ben came down the stairs on Saturday morning, Liana was busily packing two large baskets full of food. He stood in the kitchen doorway and watched for a moment, as she added napkins, salt and pepper and a few other items. Looked like she'd been up for quite a while.

"Mornin', darlin'," he drawled, as he finally stepped fully into the kitchen. "You look busy. Can a man get any breakfast around here, or do I gotta wait on that lunch?" he asked teasingly, as he poured coffee.

"Good morning to you, too." Liana teased him back, saying, "You can have some breakfast. But it might cost you."

"What?" He looked at her appraisingly, his eyes narrowed.

"A good morning kiss."

"I don' know," Ben pretended to think about it. "That sounds like a mighty steep ransom for some bacon an' eggs."

"Then, maybe I'll just do what you'd do," Liana walked toward him slowly. "Maybe I'll just take my kiss, whether you want to give it to me or not." Taking his face between her hands, she raised herself on tiptoe and kissed him long and hard.

Dan Evans witnessed their last few exchanges from the doorway. He shook his head. He'd never in his life thought he'd see Ben Wade acting like this. Just then, the doorbell rang.

"I'll go," Ben said, putting Liana away from him slowly.

 

Maximus and Joimus had stopped by the mill to pick up Alistair and Ahnna, who'd arrived at the mill shortly before that. The four of them got out of the Meridius' larger car and walked together toward the impressive log home.

"I like the look of this place," Maximus commented, stopping to let his eyes roam over the structure.

When they rang the bell, Ben opened the door. Alistair was glad they'd come. This should prove to be an interesting day. He and Ahnna were slightly in front of the Meridius' as, once again, Maximus had paused, letting his hand run over one of the logs.

"Good morning," Alistair greeted Ben. "Looks like we'll have good weather for both the picnic and a ride."

"Mornin', folks." Ben greeted all of them at once. "Don' think we could ask for better weather, Preacher. You folks come on in."

Seeing Maximus running his hand over the log walls, he grinned. "Fine wood, ain't it Meridius?" Ben immediately found something else to like about Maximus. The man appreciated good materials and craftsmanship.

"Fine, indeed," Maximus replied. "I look forward to seeing the interior of your structure." The Roman army had constructed many temporary forts and small buildings from felled logs on campaign, but this was the first real home he'd been in. As he stepped through the door he was quite taken with the atmosphere of warmth and home all around. "Fine, indeed," he repeated.

For Alistair, too, it was the first time in a spacious log home. "This is wonderful," he smiled. "Isn't it, Ahnna?"

"Very beautiful," she murmured, staying near Alistair's side, still somewhat uncomfortable around Ben. She was glad when Liana approached, a welcoming smile on her face.

"Welcome everyone. Come in. Sit down." Liana was happy to see them, glad they were at last getting to know more people in the Glen." And thank you, Ahnna, and all the rest of you for your kind words about the house. It was my first attempt at putting together anything except a small apartment. I was scared to death it would be a mess!"

"Anything but," said Dan Evans, who had followed Liana in from the kitchen. "Maximus, Alistair, ladies." He nodded at Ahnna and Joimus. "It's good to see all of you again."

"Can I get anyone something to drink?" Liana offered.

"Maybe just a little water," Ahnna replied. The other three indicated they were fine.

"So," Joimus asked, "are we riding first or having the picnic first?"

"Well," Liana replied. "The picnic I've made is a lunch picnic, but if anyone would like any breakfast, you're welcome to it before we go."

"Lunch sounds good to me," Joimus said. "We had breakfast before we left."

"I'm eager to see your horses," Maximus added.

"And the western saddles," Alistair chimed in.

"Well, why don't we get goin' then?" Ben asked with a grin, the breakfast he had been asking about for himself already forgotten in his hurry to show off his horses.

"We'll go through the kitchen," Liana said. "I can get Ahnna's glass of water and we can pick up the lunch baskets."

As everyone went through the dining room toward the kitchen, Liana hung back slightly with Ahnna. "You don't have to be nervous around Ben," she whispered to the other girl with a smile. "He's harmless."

"Well, most of the time anyway," Liana amended silently to herself.

Ahnna smiled gratefully at the other woman's attempt to put her at ease. Maximus was a formidable presence, but there was something entirely reliable about him. With Ben she had this sense of underlying danger, of unknown capabilities. She slipped her hand into Alistair's, needing the awareness of his calmness. "I...I'm probably just nervous about the horses," she murmured.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, Ahnna," Alistair reassured her. And if you decide to ride, Liana and I will stick close by, all right?"

Ahnna took a long drink of the water Liana had handed her. "I'll be fine," she said, more to herself than to the others.

"Of course you will," Liana told her. "We'll all be there with you."

Ben picked up one basket and Dan the other. On the walk down to the stables, the men walked together, Ben and Maximus talking horses, Alistair and Dan discussing the Glen and the other residents.

Liana walked with Joimus and Ahnna, asking about flowers. What kind would grow best in the Glen and what should she put where? The next thing she knew, Ben was speaking her name.

"Liana. Look, darlin'. Major an' your Ginger seem to be gettin' along just fine again." The two of them watched as the black stallion and the palomino mare stood near each other, nudging one another occasionally.

"Ginger. Oh, she's just lovely!" Joimus exclaimed. "I've always been partial to palominos." She took Ahnna's free hand. "Look, Ahnna," she urged. "Isn't she beautiful?"

"She's really pretty, yes," Ahnna replied. "Do you have a really gentle one for me?" She was a bit disgusted with herself. The closer they got to the horses, the more nervous she found herself feeling. She was afraid she'd make a fool of herself in front of the others, but couldn't seem to help herself. If it hadn't been for Alistair's presence here, she'd never have come just to ride. It was the being with him that mattered. Now she devoutly hoped it mattered enough so that she'd find the courage to mount one of these huge beasts. It had been years since she'd ridden and the last time she had, she'd fallen off and sprained both wrists.

Ben saw real fear in Ahnna's eyes. He knew how to read people and fear was a weakness he could recognize anywhere. Something had happened to her around horses.

"Look here, darlin'." He motioned to Charlie Prince, who led over a grey horse with soft eyes. Ben took the reins and motioned to Ahnna. "This fellow here's name is Peanut. Gentlest horse you'd ever wanna meet. He balks if you say the word "run" and the word "rear" ain't in his vocabulary." Ben smiled.

Liana looked at him with pride. She knew Ben was capable of gentleness. Not everyone else believed it, but she had always known.

Alistair, Maximus, and Joimus were all pleased with Ben's discernment and manner concerning Ahnna. There was nothing he could have done to make a better impression on them. They were, truth be told, somewhat surprised at it.

"He...hello, Peanut," Ahnna said, tentatively approaching the grey. He certainly did have a nice face. His eyes reminded her of a cocker spaniel she'd had as a girl, large and soft and dark with a kind and mild expression.

Alistair stepped close to Ben. "Thank you," he whispered.

Without acknowledging Alistair's thanks, Ben spoke quietly. "Don' like seein' anyone afraid of horses," he said.

Then, meeting Alistair's eyes, he continued, "Everybody's got somethin' they're afraid of, wouldn't you say, Preacher?"

"People are complicated beings, Ben. There's a lot going on inside most of us at any given time and not all of it is something we particularly wish to share. Though," he added, "sharing is easier for some than others. I guess that all depends on what we've been through, what our experience of life has been."

Ahnna had been distracted from the horse by listening to Alistair. He simply said things that most other people didn't and she was fascinated by the way he said them and the expression on his face as he did.

Ben continued to meet Alistair's eyes. "Sharin' ain't somethin' every mama teaches her child, Preacher. No matter how much people wanna think it is." He searched the pastor's gaze a moment longer, then turned back toward Ahnna.

"You feelin' more comfortable now miss?" he asked, as she continued to stroke Peanut's nose.

With a grin at Maximus, he said, "Between the two of us, Meridius, we can have this girl ridin' like a pro in no time."

Maximus had been studying Peanut. Horses generally knew what the people around them were feeling, especially if they were nervous or afraid. There were horses who liked to take advantage of that, but he read none of that on Peanut's face. The gelding seemed to be just what Ben described. He would never let her mount him if he sensed otherwise. So he spoke up, saying, "It will be fine, Ahnna. This fellow is not going to give you any trouble." He touched Ahnna's arm lightly. "And we will all be close by."

He turned his gaze back to Ben. "And which mount do you suggest I try?"

Joimus held her breath. She knew well there was no finer horseman in the world than her husband, but sometimes she still remembered the terrible fall he'd taken back in England when the sinkhole had suddenly caved in beneath his mount's hooves. The horse had toppled sideways onto some logs, taking Maximus with it, fracturing his leg in three places. She had been following not far behind. It was not a sight easily gotten out of her mind. So she held her breath, not knowing what this Ben Wade would come up with. Were there horses who breathed fire? If so, Ben probably had one and Maximus would merely laugh as he vaulted into its saddle.

Ben motioned to one of the other stable hands, who came over to the group leading a large brown horse with white markings, which looked to be about sixteen hands. "This is Apache," he told Maximus. "He's an American Paint. They're agile and athletic, and they have a nice, steady temperament. Thought you might not have had a chance to ride a good American breed before, Meridius."

Ben was right. Maximus had never ridden a paint before and he was immediately enthralled by the prospect, his delight showing clearly on his face. "I relish the opportunity," he said softly, walking up to the horse, letting it get his scent, and then moving his hands expertly over it. The paint responded to his touch and, watching,

Joimus blew out a sigh of relief, feeling silly for her momentary concern. Her husband knew horses. The fall had not been his fault. There had been no way to foresee the cave-in.

Alistair was interested in what was being explained about the differences between the English saddle and a western one. He was a good horseman and wasn't really worried about it. All he wanted was for Ahnna to be comfortable.

Liana was helping Ahnna get better acquainted with Peanut, and explaining to her that he had once belonged to a riding academy for children so he had always been a gentle horse.

Leaving Maximus to look over Apache, Ben walked over to Alistair. Charlie Prince was explaining some of the differences between the Western and English saddles to him. The lack of padding necessitating a blanket between horse and saddle for a better fit. The horn on a western saddle and it's original use. The differences in the stirrups.

" You learnin' anythin', Preacher?" Ben asked with a grin.

"I am, indeed," Alistair nodded, "and I'm most appreciative of the instruction." He smiled, never too proud to admit when he was unfamiliar with something. "This is good for me to know, as I imagine, from what I've seen both here and at the Meridius', the Western saddle is the one of choice."

"For anyone who spends any amount of time on a horse, yeah, it is." Ben had the other horses brought out, a brown Morgan stallion for Alistair, a beautiful bay mare for Joimus and another bay for Dan Evans, who was also an experienced rider.

"So, we all ready to go then, folks?" he asked, with a smile for Liana. He knew she'd been looking forward to this almost as much as he had.

Both Alistair and Maximus hovered around Ahnna as she mounted. When they were satisfied she was well seated, they turned to their own mounts. The rest of the riding party waited quietly. Alistair turned his Morgan so that he was immediately beside Peanut. "Just nice and slow and easy," he smiled. He was still getting used to the unfamiliar feel of the western saddle, and that, coupled with his first time on this particular horse, was requiring a great deal of his attention. He was pleased when Liana came up on the other side of Ahnna.

"We'll just ride slowly, Ahnna," Liana told her. "It'll give all of you a chance to get acquainted with your horses." She knew the others didn't need as much time, but she also knew they'd all want to give Ahnna as much time as she needed to get comfortable.

"Lead on," Liana told Ben, grinning at him. Returning her look, he headed for the riding trail on his black stallion, Major, sharing the lead with Maximus riding the paint. They were followed by Joimus and Dan Evans. Alistair, Ahnna, and Liana brought up the rear.

Maximus turned in the saddle so he could get a good look at the rest of the riding party. Ahnna was lagging behind a bit, but both Alistair and Liana were carefully watching over her and the tightness around her mouth was slowly relaxing as Peanut proved to be entirely easy to handle and not at all in a hurry to get anywhere.

Joimus and Dan were engaged in a conversation about cattle and seemed comfortable with one another. Apache was coiled beneath him, eager to stretch his muscles, so he caught Joimus' eye and said, "Just a brief gallop, darling. I shall circle around and rejoin you in a moment."

Joimus nodded, understanding, and then Maximus exchanged a few words with Ben and he two of them took off side by side as though shot from cannons. She slowed her bay to a walk just so she could watch.

Ben was exhilarated as he felt Major stretch out beneath him. Like Ben, the horse didn't get challenged a lot these days. Major and Apache were neck-and-neck as they raced across the open field. Ben knew they'd stay that way. As far as speed went the two horses were well matched.

He and Maximus were also well matched as riders. Being the experienced horsemen they both were, it was fitting, Ben thought to himself. If he had any slight edge, it was only that he and Major were already well-acquainted with one another. But Apache was responding perfectly to Maximus' knowledge of horses. Ben couldn't remember when he'd enjoyed himself so much. It had been a long time since he'd ridden with someone who was his equal with horses.

The whole group had halted to watch as Maximus and Ben raced off. Dan, an experienced horseman himself, was enjoying the sight. Liana's look was one of pride in her husband, and happiness that he was finding so much pleasure in this outing. She'd had the feeling that he and Maximus would get along.

This was what Maximus loved...riding full out with the wind in his face. Without armor, without weapons, just the gallop for the sake of the gallop. He could have gone as far as Apache was capable, but he did a wide turn, not wanting to be away from the others too long. Responsibility always came before self-indulgence and he had said he would watch over Ahnna. He also wanted to offer Alistair some pointers.

Regretfully, Ben turned when Maximus did. He would have loved a full-on race between the two of them. Maybe one day, when they got a chance to ride alone...

As they pulled even with the rest of the group, Ben rubbed Major's neck, praising him at the same time. He had the broadest smile on his face that Liana had ever seen. Looking over at Maximus he grinned, "Now, that was a good time, Meridius! Mebbe' we'll get a chance at a real race sometime!"

"Perhaps," was all Maximus said as he reined up beside Joimus' bay.

"You enjoyed yourself," she said. It was a statement, not a question.

"I did," he grinned, patting Apache. "He is a fine horse. How is Ahnna faring?"

"Better than I thought," Joimus replied. "Peanut was a perfect choice and Alistair and Liana seem to be giving her confidence. I think she may actually end up enjoying herself!"

Maximus sized up the riders behind them. "I am not sure we have a horse at our place quite in the same league of docility as this Peanut is. He seems exceptionally mild of disposition."

"She's welcome to ride him here any time," Ben said, having overheard Maximus. "I'd let you have him, but if all goes accordin' to plan, we'll be needin' him here pretty soon. But I can put you in touch with the place where I got him. It's a ridin' academy for kids back in the states. Could be they have another like him they'd be willin' to sell."

"Thank you, Ben," Maximus said. "I think, though, I shall check more in New South Wales and Queensland. It takes fairly long to get stock here from the States. If you locate any such places over here, I would appreciate your letting me know, however. You were very fortunate to have found Peanut. I would like at least one like him." He looked back again at Ahnna. "Ahnna, however, seems to be coming right along." He smiled at the look of confidence that was steadily building on her countenance. "Today has been good for her."

Indeed it had. She had never felt so comfortable on any horse before and had begun to relax into the fact that she was not going to fall off. With Alistair so close beside her, too, the day was proving to be filled with happiness. They rode for a while, enjoying the scenery, enjoying each other. Alistair had had his usual burnt toast and tea just before Ahnna had arrived at the mill and his stomach suddenly growled rather loudly. He looked across Ahnna to Liana. "Any chance of that picnic coming up soon?"

"I wondered when someone would ask that," Liana replied to him with a smile. "Ben!" she called out to her husband, who had been talking with Maximus for the entire ride. She herself had kept her place close to Ahnna, not only to make the other girl feel comfortable, but because she was enjoying the company. "Some of our guests are getting hungry, and it's nearly lunchtime!"

"I could eat myself," smiled Dan, who had been chatting with Joimus.

"Well, Meridius. Guess some people prefer eatin' to ridin', unlike us. We prob'ly should get back and feed 'em," Ben said, with real regret.

The ride back to the stables was covered with a little more speed, several members of the party anxious to get to their picnic. When they had left their horses with the stable hands, Liana led them all to a small picnic area near a little creek, which was a short distance from the stables. She began spreading cloths and taking out food, plates, and utensils.

Alistair's mouth began to water at the sight of all the good food. It was all too seldom he got to eat well-prepared, tasty meals. He sat on a cloth beside Ahnna, commenting, "You did well today. Did you enjoy it at all, the ride?"

She had. The horse couldn't have been more perfect. She'd fallen quite in love with Peanut. And then, well, Alistair had been at her side the entire time. She'd liked talking with Liana, too. Making friends made her feel ever more connected to the Glen. "It was lovely," she smiled. "The whole thing."

Maximus still had a little trouble bending his leg in the manner necessary to sit all the way down to the ground. Joimus watched as he pressed his lips together during the process. Once he was seated, though, he turned a smiling face toward her. She leaned close and whispered, "I love you."

His eyes lit up a bit more and he murmured, "I know."

Sitting beside Liana as he ate and drank, Ben noticed Maximus' problem, wondered what had happened to cause it. Ever observant, he also noticed the smiles, whispering, and loving glances between Maximus and Joimus. Liana gave him those same looks, he thought to himself. But how did she interpret the looks he gave her? Somehow, he couldn't imagine himself ever looking as tender and romantic toward her as Maximus was toward Joimus.

Dan Evans also noticed Maximus' trouble with his leg. Having had his own injured several years before and problems with it ever since, he found himself speaking out of curiosity, "If you don't mind my askin', Mr. Meridius, how'd you hurt your leg?"

"Back in England, my horse fell through a sinkhole and I landed on some logs off to the side." He shrugged slightly. "It is almost completely well now. Some actions, like sitting on this cloth, are harder than others, but I am fine."

"Broke my own in a couple of places in an-accident-a few years ago," Dan replied. "I know how you feel."

Liana, Joimus, and Ahnna had put their heads together and were discussing plants and flowers again. Ben had noticed Alistair sitting on his own, smiling at Ahnna. Leaning toward the pastor, Ben murmured, "Preacher, I wonder if we might take a short walk together. There's somethin' I'd like to speak with you about."

"Of course, Ben," Alistair said, getting to his feet, wondering what Ben might be wanting to talk about. He found Ben to be a most complex and interesting man and hoped to learn more about what had gone into the making of him.

When he was sure they had gone far enough down the bank of the creek to be out of earshot of the others, Ben turned to Alistair. "I don't know how much Liana's told you, Preacher. About her and me. How we met."

"She didn't talk about that, Ben, so I know nothing about that, nothing of your background. Is there anything you'd like to tell me? I assure you, I keep private everything anyone shares with me."

"Oh, it ain't about me, Preacher. It's about her. Well, I guess it's about both of us." Ben was having a little trouble getting the words out, but he'd come this far.

"See," he went on. "When we met, it was just a little while 'til time for her to leave to come here. Well, the two of us got together," he went on with a little knowing grin at Alistair. "One thing led to another and we found ourselves down here and married. Real sudden-like."

Ben saw that Alistair was listening intently and he continued. "We were married by a justice of the peace. Nobody there but us and him. Thing is, I promised her a real weddin' and I wanna give her one. As a surprise. In March, on the first day of spring."

"I think that's a fine idea, Ben, and that it would mean a great deal to her, sort of a reaffirmation of the foundation of your marriage. I don't know what you might have in mind for a location, but please know that the chapel is completely at your disposal should you want to use it." Alistair smiled to himself, realizing that in Ben's newness to New South Wales he was thinking in American terms about the seasons. Here in Australia they would be going into Autumn at that time. But it was the meaning of the date to Ben and also to Liana that counted, its connection with a new beginning, and he liked that.

"Well, I was comin' to that," Ben drawled. "She does love that church of yours an' I think she'd like havin' it there."

He kept his eyes steadily fixed on Alistair's. "I've never been much for church, Preacher. There's a lotta reasons for that, an' I'd just as soon not go into 'em. 'Sides, I always thought there was more of God in nature than inside any buildin'."

"You'll not get any argument from me on that, Ben. I've always been from what I call the 'rock' school of theology. I'd much rather sit on a rock and talk with people than stand up at the front of some building. It's why I don't use a pulpit. Don't want anything between me and the ones I'm talking to." He smiled. "I think our Lord was of the same mind."

"But the chapel has its charms and a lot of people feel somehow closer to God when they're in a place like that. So if it means something to Liana, that's good of you to let her have it there. That's what married love is all about, you know...thinking more of what's good for our loved one than what's good for ourselves. That's what all true love is about."

Somewhat taken aback by Alistair's use of the phrase "true love", Ben covered it by grinning at him and saying, "Well, Liana's been good for me, Preacher. I've stayed outta trouble longer since I met her than I ever have before in my life."

Then, thoughtfully, "Didn't think I'd ever find a woman that'd love me. Too much in my past."

"You've been blessed, Ben. Being loved, no matter what, that's a treasure. I'm really happy for you." He let Ben see into his eyes again, let him see he meant it when he said he was happy for him.

The preacher obviously meant what he said. But Ben was starting to feel uneasy with all this talk about love and blessings. "I take it that means you'll do the ceremony for us then?" he said with his customary smile, as though he'd never expected anything different.

"It definitely means that," Alistair said softly, aware of a certain more firm closing up in Ben. "I'll just wait for you to let me know what your plans are and won't say anything to Liana." He looked back toward the picnic area. "I expect we should be getting back to the others now."

Everyone else had finally finished eating and had cleaned up the remains of the picnic. Liana gave Ben and Alistair a long look, wondering what they had been talking about. Both of them were wearing a smile-Alistair's a look of almost hope, she thought, and Ben's one of secrecy.

The group walked back toward the house, past the stables. As they drew even with the paddock, one of the hands, a man Liana had met before, was putting a bay mare named Belle through her paces. The horse reared slightly and, with a scowl on his face, the man struck her several times with the ends of the reins. The horse shied and reared again.

Before any of them knew what was happening, Ben was over the fence and striding toward the hand, whose name was Luke. Following Ben on some instinct, Liana saw what happened next, as did everyone else in the group. Grabbing Luke's collar and spinning him around, Ben backhanded the man to the ground with all the force of which he was capable.

Charlie Prince had moved in and was calming Belle. Ben Wade stood over the man on the ground, whose mouth and nose were bleeding profusely. The cold, hard look in his eyes said everything. He was going to kill the man right then and there.

Dan Evans had seen that look in Wade's eyes before and when he had, someone had died. As the rest of the group looked on in shock and astonishment, Dan started toward the two men. Wade had to be stopped.

Then Dan saw Liana. With a look of fear in her eyes, but still determined, she had rushed up to stand in front of Wade.

"Ben," she said, as softly as she could, making sure that he could hear her, but Maximus, Alistair, and the others could not.

"Ben." Putting up her hand, Liana laid it gently against his cheek. "I know what you want to do, but you can't. Not here. Not now. Look at me."

Maximus had scowled deeply at the sight of the ranch hand hitting the horse, but this was Ben's spread and he watched, his lips clamped, as Ben strode over and then knocked the man down. Ben was radiating an intensity that Maximus hadn't seen since Rome. He took a step forward but stopped when Liana came up to her husband.

Ahnna had clutched Alistair's arm, her eyes wide. She had no idea what was going to happen, but she didn't want to watch it. Turning her face to the side, she buried it in Alistair's sleeve. He turned her all the way into him, staring himself over her head at the drama unfolding in the paddock. Ben was not covering up, not hiding himself from his guests. In the moment he had forgotten he even had guests.

Ben heard Liana's hushed voice speaking to him, but just barely. Rage had taken him over at the sight of one of his horses being beaten. His fury made him forget his surroundings--forget the presence of Maximus and Joimus, Alistair and Ahnna. Even of Liana. Until he felt her soft hand against his cheek.

Her voice and her touch brought him back to himself enough to remember where he was, and who else was present. His anger was still there, but it was more controlled now.

Ben took Liana's hand and removed it from his face, holding it in his. "Luke," he said, in a cold, deadly tone. "I want you out of here now. No packin' anythin'. No tryin' to explain anythin'. Not a word. Just leave."

Wiping at the blood on his face with the sleeve of his shirt, Luke got up slowly and seemed about to speak. Before he had the chance, Charlie Prince said, "Don't. You heard the boss. Just go."

As they watched Luke walk away across the paddock toward his truck, Ben continued to hold Liana's hand. She winced once. His grip was like iron. It was as though he were using her as an anchor to keep him from going after the man. She kept silent, sensing that he needed her to hold on to. When Luke's truck was out of sight, she felt that grip relax a fraction.

Quietly, the small group of onlookers waited as Ben and Liana walked slowly back in their direction. Despite her fondness for Peanut, Ahnna was not at all sure she ever wanted to return to the Wade ranch. Maximus had been a careful observer of how Ben had begun to regain his control, of Liana's effect on her husband. He was glad for that, but he'd clearly seen what he'd always suspected lay just beneath the surface of the man. In his mind he transposed Ben's garb into that of a gladiator. He would have been deadly in the arena...or in the army. He wondered if Ben had ever been in the military.

As Liana and Ben turned and headed slowly back toward the group, he kept his grip on her hand. Now, she gripped his as well, trying to reassure him of her presence, her support. She saw the look on Dan Evans' face. Of relief and surprise. Maximus looked as though he were assessing Ben in an entirely new light.

But the one Liana was most interested in was Alistair Harris. He'd counseled her about love. About holding someone's hand and taking one more step into the darkness with them. Would he still feel that way, with some idea of what Ben could really be like? She searched his face, trying to discern his expression, his feelings.

Alistair, too, had watched the proceedings with avid interest. He was actually glad Ben had revealed a bit more of himself. It had been easy to tell that without Liana, Ben would have at least terribly injured Luke, if not more. Liana had done exactly the right thing at the right time in the right way. When he saw that she was looking at him, he smiled at her and nodded his head slightly as if to give her his silent approbation. As he had said to Ben, her love was a blessing to him. He only hoped Ben had, at least, some awareness, some appreciation of that.

Like Ben, Liana had never considered herself to be very religious, but now she breathed a silent prayer of thanks as she saw Alistair's nod. He seemed to understand. At least, she hoped so. It felt good to have at least one other person here in the Glen who could understand her love for Ben.

As they told their guests goodbye, Ben had recovered most of his control and was once more his usual charming self. But Liana could tell that Maximus, Joimus, and Ahnna seemed a little more wary around Ben now. Alistair, however, remained more relaxed. As she watched them drive away, Liana couldn't help but wonder if any repercussions would come out of this day.

 



WE...THE GUILTY

It had become almost a daily routine now that when Ahnna finished at the Greenery she would drive over to the mill and spend the evening with Alistair. More often than not, she brought some groceries and would cook dinner for him. His ineptness in the kitchen was just another aspect of him that endeared him to her. Often during the day, he would show up at the greenhouse on the pretext of needing more plants for his garden. Indeed, his garden now nearly rivaled Joimus' own in the scope of its plantings. He found that receiving a plant from her hands then taking it home and making it a part of the beauty of the millyard, engendered in him such a sense of belonging of becoming a part of something worthwhile and lovely. During the times when Ahnna was not present, he tended the garden, quite happily on his knees, pouring his heart out to God. It all went together...the garden, God, Ahnna, and him.

Some part of him was a bit surprised at just how content he had become there in the Glen. His time at Coffs had not been like that. Grief was fresh and everything Australian was new and unaccustomed. God had been there, though, in Coffs. There was for Alistair
no place that God was not.  Still, he had had a certain sense of loneliness. Jenny had filled his tangible world with her presence and her love and the sudden loss of that simply took some time to adjust to, even for him.

Trowel in hand, he sat back on the lawn, smiling now in the late afternoon at the nodding heads of a patch of Shirley poppies he'd just finished weeding. He liked them for their sheer delicateness, for the transparency of their petals, the ferny slenderness of their
long stems.


He'd stretched out his hand and was lightly running a fingertip along the edge of  a rose-colored bloom when Ahnna's car pulled up. He stayed where he was as she walked across the lawn toward him, holding out a hand to her. Taking it, she settled beside him, and he turned a beaming smile toward her.

Her heart quickened at the sight. He was often so quietly serious that when his smile came forth, it was sudden sunlight from behind a cloud and so beautiful to her that sometimes she thought it might be more than she could bear. Sudden beauty was always like that for her, catching away her breath completely.

"The poppies are happy today," he said, tipping his head down just a bit and looking up at her through his lashes. "I am happy today."

"You look happy," she returned. "I'm glad."

Everything was still so new between them and neither could quite yet believe the presence of the other. It was all so...unexpected...and all the more precious for it. Alistair, too, was very aware of her struggle with the car crash. She seemed much better about it since he'd told her that story on Australia Day, but he knew such depth of guilt did not simply wash away quite so easily. It had been the defining part of who she'd been for some time now and she'd hugged it to herself in that way people have when there is nothing left but guilt.

"You make me happy, Ahnna," he continued, his voice low, very soft.

"I didn't think," she said, looking intently up at a small cloud, "that I would ever do that for anyone, not ever again."

"It's there inside you, Ahnna. You have much of it to give."

"It's only there," she inhaled deeply, "because of you."

His lips curved again into a small smile. "I'm glad you've found it again, that happy part of you."

She pulled up a blade of grass, her fingers fiddling with it distractedly. "It was gone, you know, completely gone, for so long."

"I know," he said, touching her knee. "I know."

"I...I'm not sure...sometimes I'm not sure it's all right."

"What, Ahnna?"

"To let go of the guilt. I sometimes think I should hold on to it." She split the grass blade and let the pieces fall to her lap. "It's not like I didn't do it, you know, that I didn't cause the crash. It's my fault. It will always be my fault. I can't get away from that, not ever. The guilt is mine."

"Guilt is an interesting thing, Ahnna," Alistair said, touching a poppy again. "God especially finds it so."

"God has to deal with guilt?"

"All the time, Ahnna, constantly. Humanity is quite fond of it."

"What do you mean? I don't understand."

"From the very beginning, Ahnna, it's been the main thing that, in the mind of man, separates him from God. It is, ultimately, why Jesus needed to come."

"Because of guilt?"

"Because of mankind's need for guilt, yes. Something had to be done about that."  He turned his eyes from the poppy to her. "It's what happens to our relationship with Him when we feel guilty. It's how it changes the way we feel toward Him."

"I never thought about it changing the way people feel toward Him."

"He has. What is guilt, Ahnna?"

"What is...? I suppose it's the feeling people get when they've done something wrong, when something bad is their fault."

"That's pretty much it, yes. It's the sense of failing another or others, the, well, the failure of love, and it creates a sense of...of unworthiness which we transpose into dislike of the other. For instance, if I steal my brother's inheritance but yet I must see him every day, I soon begin to dislike him because of the guilt I feel when I am around him. I stop wanting to be around him, begin keeping my distance so I don't have to encounter him, encounter the guilt that rises in me when I see him."

"That makes sense," she nodded.

"It's what we do to God. When we have guilt because we have sinned against Him, and all sin is ultimately against Him, we try to cure it by making God look ugly or angry or somehow fearsome."  He picked up the two pieces of the grass blade, folding his hand around them. "Sin, in its essence, is the closing up of the self, an inner decision to be absolutely myself for myself alone. It is a willed isolation, though seldom discerned as such."

The sun was getting lower in the sky and a slight evening breeze made the poppy heads nod as though they, too, were listening to his soft voice. "To forgive sin, truly to dissolve its guilt, is to enable the sinner to come out of his willed isolation into love. It is the other, become lovable again, who dissolves guilt and forgives the injury."  He watched the poppies a long moment as Ahnna studied his face. It was possibly more beautiful than anything she had ever seen. It seemed to her he wasn't really watching the poppies at all, but was looking inward to some place of deepness and wisdom and...communion.

"Jesus was the only living Being ever completely free from guilt, the only One Who had a total, unimpeded intimacy with God, free from self-unworth and aware of being God's beloved."  He closed his eyes. "If only we took the time to understand, truly to understand, the significance of His death to man's understanding of God." 

Eyes still closed, he lay back on the grass, stretching his arms above his head, the broken blade still in one hand. "It's so simple," he murmured, "so very, very simple that we can't see it for its very simplicity."  She leaned back on one elbow, watching him as he continued to speak. She'd never really heard anything like he had to say, not even in church, and she waited quietly, opening herself so that his words might drop into her heart.

"Man's relationship with God has ever been draped, covered, burdened by the trappings of all the traditions we heap atop it. All He's ever wanted is to be intimate with us and yet when He offered to come and dwell among them there in Sinai, they shut Him away behind the thick curtain in the tabernacle. We always, always shut Him away somewhere, wanting Him to keep His distance so we can protect ourselves from His presence. Then Jesus came, God in flesh, and the God His followers experienced was incomparably more real, more present, than the God of traditional religion. It was as though they saw through the hallowed symbols and rituals to the burning reality itself. If THIS God fails, if Jesus fails, if this movement piles up against the stone wall of the world, then God is finished. The only God now believable would have proved powerless and there simply would not, could not be any going back to the traditional God."

He smiled, a wry little smile. "There is, you know, in all religiousness the lurking suspicion that we invented the story that God loves us. The unique thing about the Christian belief in God's love is that it arose only after the execution of Jesus had produced in His followers a total disillusionment with all religion. God had involved Himself so much in the life and movement of Jesus that the failure of the movement was much more like the death of God than His mere absence." His smile changed, broadened, then settled into some sort of deep introspection. "With the death of God, something deep in the soul and very difficult to recognize and acknowledge, also comes to an end. It's what is aroused in the soul of man by the thought of God's huge power compared with our weakness. Envy, resentment, guilt...all these are woven into human religion and have been since the beginning. The metaphysical inequality between the creature and the Creator translates in our emotions into the master/slave inequality."

He wiped his empty hand across his chin, looking straight up at the evening sky where the first stars were dimly twinkling into view. "With God dead, with God...powerless, God no longer God, this movement of the soul also ceases. This created a totally new possibility in these people, the possibility of hearing a new message from the Mystery. The one obstacle to hearing the words, 'I simply love you and want you with Me forever,' has been removed, so the words could be heard...if there were a God to speak them. Just as Jesus 'buried' God for them, so Jesus made God alive again. Psychologically there was a...a displacement, yes, of divinity from the old God Whom guilt kept remote and overpowering, into Jesus. This was their first experience of what it felt like for their God to be alive again, and alive as never before. You couldn't go through the experience of investing everything in a man during His lifetime, of being robbed by Him of all your old concepts of religion, of being reawakened by Him as though from a sound sleep, and still keep the old God in place with Jesus merely as one of His prophets."

He rolled onto his stomach and she lay fully back, her eyes never leaving his face. "The old God," he smiled, "the God shadowed by guilt, is much more congenial to the powers which rule this world. The Jesus revolution threatens those powers in opening up to us a freedom beyond this world. While a person is still in guilt, God is TO HIM the jealous, all-dominating One, the threat to a man's fragile existence. For the disciples of Jesus, this 'God' dies with the collapse of the Jesus movement." He let the split grass blade fall, then plucked another, holding it out to her. "The 'God' they next encounter is Jesus as a power greater than death. As the meaning of this sinks in, they are able to experience the original God not as jealous or domineering, but as loving, as bringing us into His own immortal life. Only that God could be experienced as dead who had been experienced, beyond all belief, as living...and being with Jesus had been like that, like stepping through the ancient words and images into the thing itself. It was not a case of believing something different; it was a case of believing something MORE."

He looked at Ahnna and when he saw that she was following, continued. "Of believing more because now they saw, as they could not when Jesus was still alive. It was the virgin soul, never touched by religiousness, that opened puppy eyes to see what they saw...God IS this Man. This Man had come to epitomize all their hope...then when He was in the grave...all their emptiness...and when that space became alive, God became alive. After Easter, when God is not only alive again, but alive for the astonished soul as it were for the first time, then and only then is the meaning of His having died understood. It is the behavior of the Lover." His eyes locked tightly on hers, holding them fast. "Human guilt, since the beginning of human time, has conceived the infinite as infinite power over against human weakness. This is the great projection which permeates human society. It is so strong, it enters so deeply into and reshapes the very conviction of God's reality, that only the surrender, the death, the...the non-self-insistence of God Himself can break it."

He clasped his hand over the one of hers that held the whole grass blade. "At that crucial moment when human psychology is floundering in a new and bewildering experience of God's weakness, infinite Love capitalizes on that experience and confirms it as an encounter with Himself as the surrendering Lover. Only after the resurrection can this death of God be understood as the act of the Lover. Only before the resurrection can this death of God find its entry into the soul. The bewilderment of Golgotha is its necessary climate. No instruction, Ahnna, no intuition, no vision even, can dislodge guilt from its central position in the human soul, from where it directs the soul's perception of God. Nothing short of catastrophe can do that. When the catastrophe has done its work, and left the soul in pieces, no longer holding itself together under the dreaded infinite power, then...at last...the Absolute can be encountered not as power...but as Love."

Alistair moved himself more closely to her, his intensity a tangible thing. "Ahnna, this is the simplicity of it all, the sum of not less than everything. Jesus is humanity's first sight of Who God REALLY IS after God, as humanity saw Him, has died."  He looked through her eyes to the depths of her soul, needing to see her understanding of that.

Her hand had gone to her mouth as she blinked back tears. In that moment it was for her as though Jesus Himself were there beside her, needing her to know, and the flood of pain and guilt that had remained inside her welled up and burst through her eyes as she began to shake in deep sobs. "Oh, my God," was all she was able to murmur and Alistair wrapped her in his arms and pulled her to him. 



GARDEN PEACE

Alistair was leaning his forearms on the top railing of the little arched bridge that curved over the narrow part of the mill pond, intently
watching the bubbles a fish was making just under the surface. Ahnna was close at his left side, also looking down.

"There," he said, "did you see him?"

"Him?"

"George. I don't know yet what sort of fish he is, but I've named him George," Alistair smiled. "There! There he is again...the one with thebig dark splotch on his head."

"I see him," Ahnna laughed. "But George? Why George?"

"He's the Father of the Millpond," Alistair grinned, straightening and turning to face her. "At least I've decided that since he's the only fishI tell from the other ones." 

Taking her hand, he walked with her to a bentwood seat on the far side of the pond with a view across it back to the mill house itself.  He kept her hand on his lap as they sat side by side just silently enjoying the day, enjoying each other. She dipped her chin briefly down to her chest then looked up at him, her face blooming like a rose. "I'm happy," she murmured. "For the first time in years I feel completely happy."

He lifted her hand, kissing her knuckles. "You are the most beautiful, the most radiant thing in my garden, Ahnna. I can't begin to tell you what your smile, what the light in your eyes, means to my heart."

Merry, who had been chasing a dragonfly near the edge of the pond, suddenly came running up, putting her paws on Alistair's lap and looking up at him with a drooling grin and adoring eyes. With his free hand he ruffled her fur. "You're beautiful, too," he laughed, then turned his gaze back to Ahnna. "But nowhere near what you are." 

Merry spied another dragonfly and went off in hot pursuit. "Ahnna, I...," Alistair began, then simply leaned toward her, his lips, softly, warmly, taking hers.

 



LOST IN A SEA OF GRASS


He closed his eyes. Nothing made any sense. The single fact about himself he was sure of was that he was thirsty. If he didn't get water soon, he didn't know how much longer he could go on. But, then, he had no idea of how long he'd been walking. Forever seemed about right. That was the truth of it. He had been walking for as long as he could remember.

He leaned forward a moment, his hands pressing on his thighs, trying to drum up enough energy to continue. But where? Where was he going? This field was huge and it encompassed his known life. There had to be an edge to it, somewhere there had to be a beginning, an end. Didn't there? Didn't everything begin and end somewhere? He wasn't sure of that. He wasn't sure of anything but that his tongue almost stuck to the roof of his mouth in its dryness.

Sucking in a great gasp of air, he forced himself to walk. The grass was tall, with little puffy seedheads of something scattered thickly through it. He had no idea what they were. As he passed through them, little bits of white puffs clung to his tattered brown pants. How much further? He squinted his eyes, looking at the horizon. The field went up a long slope, disappeared down its far side. Perhaps it had no ending? That seemed quite possible. What if he simply stopped, just stopped right here and lay down in the tall grasses? Would that matter? Did anything matter?

No, something in him said press on. Each step harder than the one just taken, he slogged up the slope. Pausing at the top, he listened. What was that? The wind made a sighing sound as it moved through the grass, but there was something more. Water! It was water flowing over rocks somewhere in that line of trees at the bottom of this side of the slope. Oh, God! Water! He began to run, stumbling, falling on the steep ground, struggling to his feet, running again. His toe hooked on a small rock, sending him flying forward. He landed hard and began to roll. Over and over his body turned, almost hurtling down the slope, only stopping when the ground flattened not far from the trees. He lay still, lost in the grasses, lost now in the arms of darkness.



ALWAYS

Legion snorted, jerking his head to the side. Maximus had been on one of his inspection rides around his property, had taken his time crossing this particular field so he could think about what he might want to plant there come next spring. "Ho!" he said, stoking the white horse's neck. "What has you upset, boy?"

Alert lest it was a snake, his eyes combed through the tall grasses. His breath sucked in when just where the land flattened near the treeline, he saw a man lying face down. Dismounting, he walked toward the form, his head cocked, his muscles tensely ready. The man lay sprawled and motionless, so Maximus squatted beside him, placing a hand on his neck to feel for life. His touch was greeted by a muffled moan, so he gently turned the man.

Looking up through half-lidded, glazed eyes, the man mumbled, "Wa...water."

Maximus quickly fetched a canteen from Legion, kneeling and holding it to the cracked lips. "Slow," he said, "take it nice and slow," as the man gulped at the liquid.

He'd slid one arm under the man's shoulders, lifting him enough so he wouldn't choke as he drank. "How did you get here? Did your horse throw you?"

The man looked at him blankly. "H...horse?"

"Yes. Were you riding?"

The man seemed to think about that. Riding a horse. That seemed vaguely familiar, but he knew he'd been afoot all day. "N...no. No...horse."

"Are you injured? Can you stand?"

The man thought about that, too, not exactly sure if he were injured or if he could stand. "D..don't know," he managed.

"Shall we try?" Maximus offered, mostly lifting the man to his feet. The man swayed dangerously.

"T...tired," he whispered. "So...tired."

"Here, let me help you. We can both ride my horse."  With some difficulty, Maximus got the man mounted in front of himself and, holding one arm firmly around his waist to keep him from falling, rode toward his house. The man's chin sagged down to his chest, his hair falling forward, and the two men rode in silence. Maximus was not even sure if the man were conscious.

At the gate closest to his house, Maximus found two of his ranch hands repairing a rail. "What'cha got there, Boss," Paul asked, hooking the claw of his hammer over a board.

"I found him in the fallow field, near the stream. Help me get him off Legion then we can carry him into the house."

Mac took Legion to the barn to turn him over into East's care while Maximus and Paul carried the stranger through the gate and down the path to the main house. Joimus, in her garden, saw them coming and hurried over, thinking one of their hands had been injured. "Who is it?" she called.

"I do not know," Maximus replied, pausing at her approach. "He was in one of the fields. I want to get him inside the house."

"I'll get the door," she said, running ahead to open it for them.

The two men carried the stranger to a small sitting room off the main living area, laying him on a long couch. His eyes were slightly open, but he seemed unaware of what was going on around him. Joimus went to the kitchen to get a basin of cool water and some cloths. Kneeling beside the couch, she began to wipe the man's face and neck. His eyes opened more, green eyes, very like Maximus'. "Thirs...thirsty," he mumbled, his voice cracking from
the dryness.

"I'll fetch him some, Mum," Paul said, heading for the kitchen.

Maximus slid a pillow behind him, propping him enough to drink. The man held the glass between two shaking hands, gulping at it, water dribbling down his chin. "Here, let me help," Joimus said gently, putting her hands over his to steady them.

The man lay back, his head against the arm of the couch, and she wiped his face some more. "Feels good," he murmured.

Joimus tipped her face, looking up at Maximus. "Is he injured. Do you know?"

"He does not appear to be injured, no. I think he is mostly tired and in need of water." Again he tried, "How did you get to that field?"

"Always," the man replied, closing his eyes. "Was always in field...always."

"What in heaven's name does he mean?" Joimus asked.

"What is he wearing?" Maximus asked Joimus, having no answer to his wife's query.

Her eyes took in the worn brown frock coat, the tattered pants, terribly scuffed shoes, coming to rest on the dirty white collar around his neck. "I think I should call Alistair," she said quietly.
 



WHO...?

Totally puzzled as to what he might find, Alistair entered Maximus' home. "He is in here, on the couch," Maximus said, leading Alistair toward the small room.

Alistair saw a man fully reclined, his head resting against the padded arm of the couch, his eyes closed. He took in the man's attire, especially the dirty white collar. "My goodness!" he murmured, turning to look at Maximus. "And you found him lying in one of your fields? Did he say how he got there, how long he'd been there?"

"Always," Maximus replied. "He said he had always been in the field."

"How strange."  Alistair knelt beside the man, who seemed profoundly asleep. "This is definitely the attire of some sort of clergy," he nodded. "I don't know that I've ever seen quite the like of it, though, unless in some book."

"What do you mean, Alistair?" Joimus asked.

"No one, not in any denomination I know, wears this kind of clothing any more."

Joimus lifted the man's left hand, which hung partially off the couch. "And this...what do you make of this?"

"I can answer that," Maximus spoke up. "He has been in irons."

"Manacles?" Alistair's eyebrows shot up. "He's been...chained?"

"I believe so," Maximus nodded. "I know of such things."

Alistair did not ask the General how. His attention turned back to the man, whose frock coat was unbuttoned. Beneath it he wore a matching vest and a dirty white shirt. Alistair rested his hand on the frock coat, feeling something hard just over the man's left chest. There had to be a pocket there with something inside. He looked back up at Maximus. "Would it be all right?" he asked, indicating the pocket.

"In these circumstances, I should think so."

Alistair pulled out a very worn, very small New Testament, his lips curving into a smile when he saw what it was. He opened the cover and there on the title page was written "To Reverend Cortland Wells from Pedro. Thank you for all you have done for me and my three sisters."

Alistair read the inscription aloud, then let his gaze rest on the man's quiet face. He shook his head wonderingly. What had this man been through that he would end up here and in such a condition? There were, in addition to the wide, raw marks of the manacles, a number of scrapes and bruises on the man as though he had been hit, had been dragged.

Just then the sleeping man turned his head and moaned, mumbling something. "No," he said, his voice unutterably weary, "no, not the mission. Please, not the mission. Don't...don't burn it...please...don't."

Alistair's lips clamped together as he listened to the quiet litany. Over and over came the entreaties not to burn the mission, to leave some place for the children  Then suddenly the man's eyes flew open and he sat up, his lips parted in a last entreaty.

Shocked at the sight of the faces around him, he hissed in a sharp breath. "What? Who?" He let his shoulders settle back on the pillow, putting a forearm over his eyes.

"The mission?" Alistair said gently. "What happened to the mission?"

The man lowered his arm, inch by inch. "Mission?"

"You were asking that the mission not be burned. Was it your mission?"

The man shook his head. "I...I...what mission?"

"That is what we should like to discover," Maximus said. "Are you clergy?"

The man blinked his eyes several times, looking up at Maximus. "I...I've seen you...before."

"In my field. It was I who found you in the grass."


"Grass? Yes, grass." He remembered grass. "Your grass?"

"My grass," Maximus affirmed. "How did you get there? Where is this mission?"

The muscles in the man's jawline twitched. "Just grass," he whispered.

"What do you mean 'just grass'?" Alistair asked.

"All there is," the man sighed. "All there ever was. Grass."

Joimus touched his arm lightly. "Your name? Who are you? Are you Cortland Wells, Reverend Cortland Wells?"

He looked at her blankly. "I...I...don't know."



NOT AS OLD AS SOME THINGS

Maximus and Joimus went into their living room to speak privately. "We can't just turn him out with no place to go," she stated.

"I agree," Maximus nodded. The man, whoever he was, had been on his property, seemed to think he had always been on his property, and it was Maximus himself who had found him and brought him to his house. That was enough for him to feel that watchful concern that came so naturally to him. Besides, the man had been in chains, had lost everything that anchored him in life. Maximus could relate to that.

"The guest room. I think we should let him stay there for the time being. He looks like he needs some care."

"I thought you'd say that," she smiled, standing on tiptoe, lightly kissing his lips.

When they told Alistair, he offered to drive back to the mill and bring some pajamas and clothes for the man, who was much slimmer than the General. Their "guest" had fallen back asleep and they let him lie there on the couch until Alistair returned half an hour later. He was still quite groggy as Maximus and Alistair got him up the stairs. Joimus closed the door so the two men could get the strange arrival in pajamas. He didn't seem entirely aware of what they were doing and was soon sound asleep and tucked under the covers.

"I expect rest is the best thing for him right now," Alistair commented. "Looks like the reverend has been through quite an ordeal. That may explain his loss of memory."

Joimus was already on her computer doing a search for a Reverend Cortland Wells. She found nothing. "He didn't sound Aussie to me...from the little he said," she offered.

"Not to me, either," Alistair, in his English accent, agreed.

Joimus was the only American in the room at the moment. "I think I detected a soft hint of Southern in his voice. He's got to be from the United States, but I searched for him in the records there, too, and he simply doesn't exist."

"Perhaps he himself is not Wells," Maximus ventured.

"I somehow feel like he is," Alistair replied. "I just...do."

"A man out of his time," Maximus breathed.

"Why would you say that?" Alistair asked, looking curiously at the General.

"His clothing, something about him." Maximus looked at his wife, thinking of the rust-colored cape in the cedar-lined wardrobe in their bedroom. She smiled lovingly back at him.

"His clothing surely does add to the puzzles around him," Alistair nodded. His eye found the small New Testament he'd lain on an end table by the couch and he picked it up, looking for a copyright date. "1881," he read. "It's quite old."

"Not as old as some things," Maximus replied, his voice very low.

"Could he be some sort of...re-enactor, do you think?" Alistair asked, his brow wrinkling.

"I doubt that."  Maximus turned, looking up the staircase, the protectiveness in him growing by the moment.

 




A PLACE FOR YOU TO REST


While Alistair and Maximus talked downstairs, Joimus slipped back up to the guest room. He was still asleep and
she simply could not continue calling him 'the man' or 'the stranger' when she believed he was, indeed, Reverend
Cortland Wells. She had also seen the look on Maximus' face and knew what he was thinking. Alistair, of course,
had no experience with such matters, not like Maximus did. But with Reverend Wells, something...different...had
obviously happened, something very traumatic.

Quietly she pulled a small chair close to the bed and sat, watching him sleep. Despite his bruises and abrasions,
he was almost beautiful in a very masculine way. Except for the hair, he made her think of how Maximus might
have looked when he was younger and that, in addition to his plight, engaged her heart in his well-being.

His left hand lay across his chest and she studied the rawness of his knuckles. Had he gotten that fighting to
protect his mission, or was it from being thrown around and dragged? His clothes lay folded on a bench near
the window. She wasn't sure what to do with them. They needed cleaning, of course, but they were not something
one could just toss in a washer. And would he want them cleaned? She decided to wait on that.

His head turned on the pillow and he began to talk softly in his sleep again, reliving the burning of the mission.
Who would do such a thing, and in a place where there were obviously children? Could Rev. Wells possibly
have been a missionary to some poverty-stricken country? That was possible, surely it was, but somehow not
likely. She made sure he had a glass of water on his bedside table, then went back downstairs.

"Still sleeping?" Maximus asked.

"Yes...and dreaming again. He seems to remember things in his sleep that he doesn't when he's awake."

"He may not wish to remember them when he's awake," Alistair said.

"I can understand why," Joimus nodded. "He spoke again of the mission burning...of the children. I think he may
have been in charge of an orphanage. Some things he said rather indicated that."

"Since his mind remembers when asleep, it's very possible his waking memory will return. The memories are not gone altogether," Alistair commented. "Though he may wish them to be."

He looked at Maximus. "That still doesn't explain how he got to your field. In his condition, he probably couldn't have come from very far."

Maximus turned his gaze to Joimus, not Alistair, as he replied, "I think he has come from very far."

He awoke in the bedroom and realized he was alone. Letting his eyes travel slowly over the room, he knew he'd never seen it before, had no idea how he'd gotten there, had ended up in somebody's bed. His hand touched the pajama top. Or in somebody else's clothes. His heart was beating faster the more he became aware of all he didn't have any explanation for. Grass. What he knew was grass, tall and filled with white puffy weeds. Then...something else. A man. He didn't know the man. A house. He was in a house, but whose...and where?

The glass of water on the bedside table attracted his attention. He reached for it but only succeeded in knocking it to the floor where it broke with a loud shatter of glass. Within seconds the door opened and three people hurried in. "The...the glass," he said, looking over the edge of the bed.

"It's all right," the woman said. "I'll get you another and clean this one up."  She left the room and he let his eyes travel from one man to the other.

"Your...your field?" he asked.

The man nodded. "Yes, my field."

"Who...?"

"Maximus Meridius," the man answered in a cultured English accent.

The man with him smiled. "Alistair Harris, Reverend Alistair Harris." He added the latter in hopes it might mean something.

The reverend had a cultured English accent, too. He felt even more confused. "Eng...England? Here?"

Alistair smiled. "Sounds like it, doesn't it, but, no, this is New South Wales."

"New...? Where?"

"Australia," Maximus supplied.

He felt like he was going to pass out. No, that didn't sound right at all. Not at all! He wasn't sure why it wasn't right, it simply wasn't. "N...no," he half-moaned, clamping his hands over his face.

Joimus came in just then. "What happened?" she asked worriedly.

"Australia," Alistair said softly. "He asked where he was."

"Go easy," Joimus said, setting the water glass on the table. "We have no idea what he can or can't handle." With a dustpan and a small brush, she swept up the glass shards on the hardwood floor then wiped the area with a towel. Picking the glass up again, she sat on the edge of the bed. "Here, let me help." 

With her assistance he drank about half the glass, then she pulled it away. "More later, all right?"

He nodded, looking at her gratefully. "You...?"

"Joimus." She tipped her head toward Maximus. "He is my husband. You're in our house."  When his brow knit a bit, she added, "And you're most welcome. Please know that. You're safe here. It's a place for you to rest."

"Rest," he repeated, his lids heavy.

"Yes," she said. "Rest now. Rest."

 


ONE COW COMING UP

Joimus made tea for the three of them and they sat at the big kitchen table drinking it and talking about Rev. Wells. Alistair asked Maximus, "When
we were getting on his pajama top, did you notice those round scars? He must have had four or five of them."

Maximus wiped a hand across his chin. "Bullet wounds."

"What? Really?" Somehow Alistair hadn't expected that.

"They were old, though. Had to have been made some years back."

"But so many?"

"I know. You do not usually find clergy with such a number of them."

Alistair sat back in his chair, an odd expression on his face. "I should hope not."  He shook his head.

"So he couldn't have gotten those when the mission burned," Joimus commented. "Something bad happened to him back before that."

"Makes one wonder just what sort of life the man has led," Alistair whistled.

"He's definitely a puzzle," Joimus nodded. "I hope he's getting some rest."

He had slept briefly, but now lay awake, raking through every memory he had, trying to find some explanation, any explanation of why he was there. But his memories were so few and most of them involved the field, that not a single thing fell into place for him. Then he realized he needed to relieve himself and got up, looking around for a chamber pot. He even checked under the bed. Frustrated, he opened the door and peered down the hall. He could hear voices rising up the stairs. Sounded like the folks he'd just met. Should he ask them where a chamber pot might be?

He decided to walk down the long hallway, check in the open doorways. The house was large. Surely at least one of the rooms up here would have something as necessary as a chamber pot. He found a big bedroom and searched quietly around. No pot. Not even a wash stand. There hadn't been one of those in his room, either. Another door proved to be a large closet filled with towels and linen. He was just closing the door to that when
Maximus appeared at the head of the stairs.

"Would there be something I might assist you with?" he asked.

Hesistating a moment, but urged on by rising necessity, he replied, "Chamber pot? Can't find one."

Maximus smiled, coming up into the hallway and opening the door to a large bathroom. "In here." All too well he remembered his early confusion with modern plumbing. "I will wait for you in your room."

Maximus was standing by the bedroom window, staring out at his land when the man returned and sat on the edge of the bed. Slowly Maximus turned, holding out the small New Testament. "I believe this would belong to you."

He didn't take it, just looked at it in Maximus' hand. "Why?"

"It was in the pocket of your coat." He opened it to the title page, holding it close. "Does the inscription mean anything to you?"

He shook his head. "Who's Pedro?"

"I was hoping you might be able to tell me that."

"Nothing about it looks familiar to me."

"And the name...Reverend Cortland Wells?"

"No. Never heard of him."


"It has to have been in your pocket for some reason."

"I...I don't know. I don't know."

"Would you mind, though, if I addressed you as Cortland since we have nothing else?"

"Cort," he replied quickly, and when Maximus' eyes widened, he added, "Cortland seems too long. Cort's better."

"Cort it shall be, then. For the time being at least. Are you hungry, Cort?"

"I think I could eat a cow," Cort replied.

"Well, just do not nibble on the ones in my pasture," Maximus grinned, "and we shall see what we can do about getting some food into you." He nodded toward the neatly stacked clothing Alistair had brought. "Reverend Harris thought those might fit you. You may, of course, dress again in the ones in which you arrived. I think, though, they could use a good cleaning. Would you like them cleaned, Cort?"

Cort looked at the brown attire feeling no particular relation to them. "Those are mine?"

"They are, indeed, all you have at the moment...other than this, of course." He set the little Bible on the bed near Cort.

"Guess I'd be much obliged then," he nodded and Maximus gathered the bundle of them in his arms. "I'll just wear these right now," he said, looking at the jeans and shirt.

"I shall be downstairs. Please, come down when you are ready."

"Much obliged," Cort mumbled again. "For everything."


"One cow coming up," Maximus smiled, then closed the door behind himself.



NO OTHER EXPLANATION

The jeans fit him very well as did the shirt. Looking in a mirror, he combed his fingers through his hair. Didn't help all that much, but was the best he could do. As soon as he opened his door, the smell of cooking food hit him and he almost staggered under the sudden power of his hunger. He had no memory of when his last meal might have been, but whatever it was, whenever, he doubted it had smelled as marvelous as this.

Hurrying down the stairs, he found the only three people he knew in the world in an enormous kitchen. The one known as Maximus was choosing a bottle of wine from an ornately-wrought rack and the other, what was his name? Oh, yes, Reverend Harris, was just finishing setting the table. The woman, Joimus, was by a large device that he figured must have something to do with cooking and which was the main source of the delightful scents.

"Afternoon," he said, dipping his head slightly.

"Ah, Cort, come on in," Joimus greeted as though she were entirely accustomed to his arrival at dinnertime. "Have a seat there at the table."

He pulled a chair out on one side and sat, feeling rather awkward. "Smells fine."

"Beef," Joimus smiled. "Genuine cow."

Maximus chuckled and began to open a bottle of red wine. "Do you like wine, Cort?" he asked.

"I don't know. I'll sure give it a try, though."

The large stove had a built-in grill in its center, and Joimus had three large and one small steak on it. Potatoes were baking in the microwave and a large salad already sat on the oak table. Giant, flaky biscuits were rising, golden and hot in the oven. His mouth was watering and he could hardly bear the few minutes longer it took to prepare the meal. When it was all on the table, his steak already on his plate, he bowed his head.

Alistair smiled. The man was used to grace. Quietly, Alistair said a short one, then quickly opened his eyes just in time to see Cort cross himself. Ah, some things were so ingrained that even trauma did not erase them. Cort seemed entirely unaware of what he had done and eagerly cut off a large bite of his steak.

Joimus filled his salad bowl for him, moving a selection of dressings closer. There was butter and honey for the biscuits, butter and sour cream for the baked potatoes. Cort ate intently, not interested in polite conversation. His belly felt almost concave and he set about filling it with pleasurable determination. He worked at it for some minutes then seem to realize he might be being impolite.

"Sorry," he said. "Guess I'm not all that much at being a dinner companion right yet."

"No matter," Maximus smiled. "You need nourishment more than talk."

Swallowing a large bite of biscuit, Cort nodded toward Joimus. "Mighty fine cooking, Ma'am. Mighty fine."

"Thank you, Cort. Would you like another biscuit?" She held the basket out toward him.

"Don't mind if I do," he grinned, taking two.

"There's pie," she said. "I made a peach pie this morning."

He closed his eyes. This was too much. He was adrift, lost, and these folks were being so kind. He pressed his lips together a moment then murmured, "Thank you. Can't tell you folks how obliged I am for what you're doing for me."

"We just want to help, Cort, in any way we can," Joimus said softly. "This has to be unimaginably difficult for you."

"You can stay here," Maximus added. "We have plenty of room and it would be our good pleasure to have you accept the hospitality of our home."

"I...I don't know what to say."

"Just say you'll stay, Cort," Joimus smiled.

"Doesn't seem like I have much of any place else to go right now," he replied. "This...this is everything."

"We shall work on finding more for you, Cort," Maximus stated. "When it is time. There is no hurry. You just stay and we shall see what fate brings."

Cort blinked, sudden tears stinging his eyes. "I...."  But his throat closed up and he couldn't speak.

Joimus, at the end of the table to his right, put her hand over his. "You're among friends, Cort. That will do for now, all right? "

"Thank you, Ma'am," he managed.

"Joimus," she smiled. "Please."

"All right, Ma'am. Joimus."  Somehow it didn't seem right, calling a married lady by her first name. He didn't know the why of it, but it just didn't seem right. He'd have to work at remembering to do that.

After dinner they took pie and coffee, tea for Alistair, out to the patio. The evening air was cooling nicely, a full moon just beginning to rise. The scents of dinner were replaced by those coming from the surrounding gardens. Cort, his hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee, inhaled deeply. He'd never smelled so many flowers all at once. That was something else he knew, though he didn't know the how of it. He had died and this was paradise. There was no other explanation.

 



HERE, IN THIS PLACE


"He's got to have more clothes," Joimus stated, stirring the scrambled eggs with cheese the next morning, "and personal items."

"I know," Maximus agreed. "I have already thought of taking him into the mercantile today."

Cort appeared in the kitchen entrance. Again the air smelled delicious. "Eggs?"

"Eggs," Joimus smiled, scooping them out into a large bowl. On the table already were a platter of bacon, two kinds of muffins, hash browns, orange juice and coffee.

Cort took his seat, hungry again after a good night's sleep. As the last of the coffee was being drunk, Maximus broached the subject of outfitting Cort somewhat more completely. "There is a small town not far away. We should be able to find everything you need."

"I don't have any cash, Maximus," Cort protested, "nothing to pay for things with."

"You let me handle that for now, all right," Maximus smiled.

"But...."

"It is my good pleasure," Maximus insisted, "and no burden on me, I assure you."

"Well, soon as I'm able, I'll be paying you back."  How that might be, he had no idea, but it was how he felt and he knew it was the right thing.

Maximus led the way out to their roadster and opened its door for himself. Cort stood staring at it. "How's that thing work? Don't see any place to hitch the horses."

"The horses are under the hood," Maximus chuckled. "It has an internal combustion engine."  He turned the ignition and the vehicle roared to life.

Startled, Cort stumbled backwards, almost falling. "You...you...ride...in that?"

Maximus nodded. "I know it takes a bit of getting used to." He remembered that himself.

Cort saw some horses out of the corner of his eye. "You suspect I could ride one of them?" he asked hopefully.

Maximus turned off the engine. "I suspect that could be arranged." He got out of the car. "Come along this way."

Gratefully Cort followed Maximus toward a large barn, was introduced to East, and was soon astride a dark bay gelding. Maximus had noted the ease with which Cort swung himself into the saddle, though he made no comment. East opened the gate for them and they rode side by side down the country lane toward the Glen.

"Mighty pretty country," Cort ventured. "Nice and green."

"Yes, this part of Australia is quite beautiful. I like it better than the Outback by far."

"Outback?"

"Most of Australia is desert, empty desert. But here there is enough rain for trees and grass."

"Australia," Cort murmured wonderingly. "How in the name of all that's holy did I...?"

"You are here, Cort," Maximus said seriously. "Let us deal with the immediate fact of that and the needs it presents. The rest will come when and if it comes."

Cort studied Maximus' profile as they continued to ride. There was something very composed about the man, almost extraordinarily so. "Have you been here long?"

"In the Glen? Only a few months. My wife and I left southern England to come here at the invitation of her cousin. I have been quite pleased with how everything has worked out." He smiled. "I am, you see, a farmer by nature."

Cort, though, somehow felt there was a lot more to him than just a farmer. Since there was no way right now to find out about himself, he set out to find out what he could about his host. "Were you always a farmer?"

"No, not always. I spent many years in...in the military."

"Ah, you were a soldier then?" That seemed to fit.

"Cavalry," Maximus volunteered.

"English cavalry?" he asked.

Maximus sighed. "Not English, no." How to put this? "I was in the...Italian...army."

"You're from Italy?"

"Spain," Maximus smiled. "I am from Spain."

Cort was puzzled. "I thought...."

"Ah, here we are!" Maximus interrupted, more gratefully than Cort had any idea. "The Glen. Small but growing quite rapidly." As they dismounted, he explained, "The entire town has been built from scratch within a few months. Everything is new, just getting started." He looked meaningfully at Cort. "It has proven a good place in which to find a new start."

Entering the mercantile, he greeted Kim and Cindy, introducing Cort to them as his guest, and then set about guiding Cort to areas where he could choose several sets of clothing as well as grooming supplies. "This...all this...it's too much," Cort protested.

"You have need of it, my friend," Maximus replied.

It took both Cort's and his own saddle bags to hold it all. Cort eyed the different vehicles parked along the street with a wary eye. His and Maximus' were the only horses in town right then and it made him feel rather uncomfortable. This Australia place was terribly different. Different from...what? All he knew was that the vehicles were not something he was in the least familiar with. It didn't dawn on him to ask what the year was. He simply presumed
it was due to the foreign culture.

On the way home, Maximus stopped by the church. Alistair was sweeping off the front steps and stopped, leaning on the broom and smiling at their approach. "We have been shopping," Maximus announced, dismounting.

"Good morning, Maximus, Cort," Alistair greeted. "I see the clothes fit."

"Yes, thank you kindly, Reverend Harris."

"Alistair. I'm not much on formality."  He caught Maximus' eye, realizing the General had brought Cort by for a reason. "Come in, please. I'd like to show you our little church."

Inside, it was cooler, darker, with a quiet peace that always lingered in the air. Cort turned his head as he walked down the aisle, looking at the ceiling, the windows, the simple front altar with its plain cross. He stood there, quite still, at the front staring a long time, then closed his eyes, feeling...something...some pull he could not name but which lay very strongly just out of his grasp. Finally he looked at Alistair. "Would...would it be...all right...if I came back here sometime?"

Alistair smiled. "The door is always open, Cort. You come whenever you like."

"Thank you," Cort sighed. He felt strangely...comfortable...here, in this place.

Behind him, Maximus' lips curved into a small smile.

 

Peace of Mind

Liana and Alistair

By Layne and Jo

Looking around at the grass and trees surrounding the small white chapel, Liana Wade was already beginning to feel the same peaceful feeling she'd had the first time she'd come here. Inside, she had sat in a back pew and talked with Alistair Harris about her life and her relationship with Ben. About fate. His insights, his words, had given her a new perspective on things. Had made her see that she and Ben were meant to be together. That their relationship was God's doing, not hers or Ben's.

She looked forward to talking with him again now. Now that he had seen something of the darker side of Ben's nature on the day of the picnic. It wasn't necessarily that she was looking for advice. Liana's mind had been made up for awhile now. Her life was with Ben and she'd stay with him no matter what. She wasn't really sure what she was looking for from Alistair right now.

Maybe just that peaceful feeling, she thought to herself. The recent murder in the Glen had frightened her. What frightened her even more, though, was the Sheriff and his deputy. They had revealed an interest in Ben. Suspicions about him. Not for the murder, but seeming to stem from the Wades' contribution to the Park Fund. To Ben's financial background. Both Ben and Dan assured her that there was nothing to worry about. That there was nothing about Ben's finances that could condemn him.

Still, Liana worried. Not about losing the money. Having it was nice, but she didn't care about it in the long run. But, if she were to lose Ben... That, she didn't think she could bear. She began to realize that, in the few short months since she had met him and married him, he had become the most important thing in her life.

Opening the door of the church quietly, Liana entered and sat in the back pew. Exactly where she'd sat on her first trip here.

"Oh, hello, Liana," Alistair smiled, coming in through a back door. "It's always good to see you.

Anything I can help you with?"

"Hello, Pastor." Liana returned his smile. "I'm not sure you can actually do anything. Maybe it's just more that I'm looking for some- some peace and quiet maybe. There have been some frightening things going on in the Glen lately. The murder and..."

She trailed off, not mentioning the picnic or any of her fears about the Sheriff.

After all, she still had no right to tell him anything about Ben. Sometimes she thought that was the hardest part about life with Ben. The fear of losing him.

"The murder was a terrible thing, Liana, I can understand why it's got you upset. I'm hoping they catch the man soon. I don't like having him still on the loose in the area. In fact, I think I'd feel better if when you leave, you permit me to drive behind you on the way. I don't like women alone in the Glen right now."

"That's nice of you, Pastor." She smiled at him. "But I really don't think it's necessary. I'll be in the car, and I would never stop for anyone I didn't know. I don't want to put you to any trouble."

Still smiling, she continued, "Ben would be worried if he knew I was out, too. He told me I shouldn't go anywhere without him. Not even just outside in the yard, until the murderer is caught."

"I'd feel better, Liana, if you let me follow you. There are ways people have of stopping cars, you know. Now, what else is going on in your life?"

Not really sure what to say, she stumbled a little. "I- I-" Then, screwing up her courage, she burst out, "I haven't talked to you since the picnic. I'm really just wondering how you felt about...what happened. How you feel about Ben."

Alistair sat in the pew beside her, clasped his hands in his lap and looked down at them a moment. "I find him," he raised his head, looking now directly at Liana, "a very complicated man. Please don't think I don't like him. From what I've been able to discern when I'm around him, he's been through a lot in his life and he has his defenses up and well locked into place. This is why I think you're good for him. What I witnessed there by the corral of his response to you completely reassured me about that. He's got a lot of anger pent up inside him, probably a lot of hurt, too, and a certain bravado has been made by him, likely very carefully made, his defining characteristic...or at least that's what he wants people to think. Most times he seems like he's got a tight rein on himself, keeping himself under control just as though his insides were some unbroken stallion that needed that sort of thing. But when he loses that, as he did there in the corral, he can be very dangerous. I think perhaps he's quite skilled at being dangerous. But you," he smiled at her, "you went right up to him in the midst of that and you handed him back the reins he'd dropped. I doubt there's another person in the world who could have done what you did. And the simple fact that he let you do it...Liana, he LET you do it...says to me that he truly does love you."

Liana smiled a little at his reference to an unbroken stallion. When she'd first met Ben, they hadn't been around horses but, since coming here, seeing him with them, she'd formed the same impression herself. In some ways, he was wild--life his way by his rules--and that attracted her, excited her. Loving him was dangerous, and she'd always played it safe in life until Ben.

"It's strange how you seem to always say something that I need to hear. Something that comforts me, puts me at peace," she told Alistair, sincerely. "After talking with you, I know that I'm doing the right thing."

Choosing her words very carefully, she went on. "It's that dangerous side of Ben that scares me. Oh, I'm not scared of him," she said quickly, seeing the questioning look on Alistair's face. "It's- It's more- I'm going to trust you with this, because I have to talk to someone."

Liana reached out one hand and laid it on Alistair's arm. "There are things in Ben's past--things that dangerous side has done--that could cause a lot of trouble for him. What I'm afraid of is that all that could catch up to him. To us. That I could lose him because of it." Her gaze at Alistair was almost pleading. That was what she needed reassurance and peace with right now. That she wouldn't lose Ben.

It was very obvious to Alistair what Liana wanted him to say, but he had to say the truth of the matter, not just what she wanted to hear. "Liana, I don't know what Ben may or may not have done and so I have no right to speak to the issue of whether it will, as you say, catch up to him. That all depends on just what he's done and how easily he might be made accountable for it. I wish I could say something more reassuring than that, I really do, but I simply do not know nor do I have any way of knowing." He shook his head. "If he is still engaging in these...activities...it would possibly be easier for him to end up in trouble. Things done long ago and back in the United States might be too far removed from his situation today. But if he is still...." His eyes met hers, serious and quiet.

Standing up quickly, Liana blurted, "I'm sorry. I've said too much already. These things are Ben's to share, not mine. I'm his wife. He trusts me to keep his secrets." Her face had acquired a reserved look, similar to one Ben himself might have worn.

Turning toward the door, she said, "I apologize for bothering you."

Alistair stood, too, his eyes still kind in the face of her sudden reserve. "Liana, you never have to worry about anything you might tell me. Nothing ever, ever gets repeated. And you haven't bothered me, not in the least. Please know that, all right. And it's best if you can remain who you are and not close yourself in like he does. He needs you to be who you are. That will, believe me it will, prove of vastly more benefit to him, to both of you, in the long run. You are a lovely, open, giving young woman. He needs that from you. You need that from you." He looked in her eyes, waiting to see if she were able to understand what he was trying to convey.

The thought that Ben needed her calmed Liana, steadied her. "Sometimes it's so hard not to close in. Sometimes it seems as though there's so much to bear up under. So much that is uncertain and might change at any moment."

"I understand," he said softly. "I really do. We like to keep things as they are, keep them

familiar. Life becomes more comfortable. But that is simply not the way of life. Change...," his eyes went far away for a moment, back to a day in England when nearly everything in his life had changed in a single instant. He blinked, then looked at her again. "I have found, Liana, in my own experience of such matters that the way I get through is to remember there is a Bearer who has been given to us. If the weight becomes too heavy and my shoulders ache under it, then I am bearing alone. It is then I must stop, must take stock of what I am attempting to do, and then let go. It takes practice, as do all things that really matter, but it's available to us if we care to let it be. Don't lose sight of that, Liana, no matter what life brings your way. You are in the midst of loving even when it might not always be so easy. You are strong inside yourself. and there is One who is willing to be strong with you, for you, in you. Don't forget that. No matter what, don't forget that." He smiled again. "I'm glad you came today. I always enjoy our talks. I hope you'll come again."

"Thank you." She smiled mistily at him, through a haze of tears. "I will. It helps to have someone to talk with about these things."

Alistair drove just behind Liana back to the ranch. When she had parked in their driveway, he waved and headed back toward the church. She appreciated his kindness and was beginning to realize that she had much work to do on the attitude with which she faced the world.

She must stop worrying and being afraid of losing Ben. She had to cherish every moment they had together. Be strong for Ben and allow him to be strong for her.

Besides, there was always what Alistair had told her about Ben's feelings. That he truly did love her. Ben had never said so. There were times when she was sure she saw it in her eyes, felt it in the way he touched her. But it was very different from hearing it. Even hearing it from someone else was better than not hearing it at all.

 

 

A THOUSAND THOUSAND TIMES, AND MORE

April 7th. Joimus smiled, looking at the calendar. It was the 4th anniversary of her and Maximus' wedding. She thought back over all they had been through in the three years before that, the places they had been, the things they had suffered. And since. Yes, it had not been easy since, either. Yet there was always the one thing that mattered. She loved him with her entire heart and being, as he did her.

He came up behind her while she was still lost in thought, sliding his arms around her waist, resting his chin atop her head. "Where were you?" he asked softly.

She settled her body back against his, enjoying as always the feel of his strength. "I was going through the years."

"The years?"

"Um hmmm. The years of you and me."

"Will you marry me?"

She laughed lightly, turning in his arms. "A thousand thousand times, and more." Pressing her face into his chest, she listened to his heart. "Since Alistair," she said quietly, "since all that Ahnna has been through this past week, I...."

With the side of his forefinger he tipped her chin so he could see her eyes. "I cherish you all the more," she continued. "All the more."

"I understand," he replied, his eyes roaming her face. "To come so very near to losing the beloved...."

Her arms went around his back, holding on. "You are everything to me, everything."

"And I am here and well and you are in the circle of my arms."

"Happy Anniversary, my love," she whispered, lifting her lips for his kiss.

His reply was to scoop her in his arms and carry her up to their bedroom, carefully closing the door behind them with his boot. Cort was out riding the fencelines. They were quite alone in the house. He lay her on their bed and stood a moment, looking down at her. It was late in the afternoon and she had just bathed after her day at the Greenery, was wearing a filmy white dressing gown, having intended on putting on something else shortly. The curve of her breasts, hips, thighs were clearly outlined as she lay quietly, her eyes on his face.

After seven years she still could not get enough of the way he looked at her and when he knelt and curved a hand over her thigh, she loved the look of his strong, tanned fingers against the white of her gown. He was completely, utterly male and all her femininity rose up her core as she beheld him. His hand moved, sliding up the hem of her gown, and she gasped at his touch. He smiled, resting his cheek on her stomach, looking himself as his hand moved up her leg, something in him still in wonder that he had the rights he did, smiling more as her thighs parted to welcome him. Lifting his head, he used his left hand to push the light material still further up, revealing her torso which he began to cover with his kisses, then tracing little paths across it with the tip of his tongue. Easily, the loose gown slipped entirely off and she lay revealed to him, his wife, his beloved. Still kneeling beside the bed, he loved her, his hands and mouth moving over every part of her as she arched and moaned beneath his sure touch.

Then she lay there, watching, as he stood and let his own clothes fall to the carpet. Soon he was beside her on the bed and they loved again as two will who know well the depths of passion and of sorrow, of joy and of pain, of togetherness and separation, of the nearness of loss and the unutterable happiness of being joined. They rested there a long while in that peace where words were too lacking to utter, where they had become unnecessary in the presence of such oneness.

After a time, he led her by the hand to their private bathroom and as he leaned against the inside of the large tub, she sat between his legs and he soaped her breasts and kissed her neck and loved her again.

They dressed together, just in comfortable slacks and shirts, then padded barefoot down to the kitchen where she had a dinner all prepared in the refrigerator that just needed sliding into the oven to warm. She lit candles, lots of candles, wanting only their light this evening. He poured wine, sitting at the table, watching her move about the kitchen, the candlelight reflecting on the curve of his glass and in his eyes.

Joimus lifted a package off a side table, setting it in front of him with a smile. "For me?" he asked and she nodded silently. The box was wrapped in metallic copper-colored paper and tied with a wide chocolate brown ribbon. He slid the ribbon off the edges without untying it and opened the package, lifting out an entirely unusual sculpture.
 



As he held it in his hands, turning it slowly, she explained that it was a mixture of bronze, crystal, and amethyst. "It was just so...different. I wanted something equine for you and this just caught my eye with its uniqueness." She smiled at him. "Unique...as you are unique."

"It looks like it is rising out of something, being formed somehow from the elements of the earth," he commented.

"That, too, made me think of you, of the way you rub the soil between your palms, as though you are creating the answer to your request from the substance of your reality."

"Thank you, my darling," he said, rising and setting the sculpture in the center of the table. He kissed her then went to a tall cabinet and brought back two packages wrapped in creamy yellow with white ribbons.

She sat down to open them, picking up the smaller package first. Inside lay an exquisite powder jar. "Limoges," she recognized instantly, for she was a collector of antique hand-painted china.
 

 

"!894," he said. "Not very old, really, but when I saw the yellow roses, I knew it must be yours."  He pushed the second, larger box closer to her. "Now this."

Inside was a plate, also Limoges, and older than the powder jar. "I cannot resist light yellow roses," he grinned, "not when they speak to me of you."
 



Setting the plate down, she came around behind his chair, sliding her arms about his neck. "Will you marry me, Maximus Decimus Meridius?"

"A thousand thousand times, and more," he whispered, pulling her around and down onto his lap.

 

 

Fences and Good Neighbors

by Jo and Atonia

(with Cort, Maximus and Jimmy Kelp)

 

It was Jock the elder of the two hands Jimmy Kelp worked that came riding up to the barn in a hurry. He jumped down from his horse and called out for Jimmy.

"Boss, the upper pasture…fence cut…cattle are out," he said breathlessly

"Fence cut!" Jimmy quickly saddled up and rode out with Jock.

"Yes sir see here and about fifty feet along its cut again," Jock pushed his hat back hands on hips.

Jimmy got down from his horse and examined the fence, "it’s cut all right…deliberately cut…where’s the herd?"

"Ian’s gone lookin’ looks like they headed for the ridge," he pointed up the hill.

"Shit…that’s Meridius property," Jimmy mounted followed by Jock they rode toward the hill.

The cattle had ploughed up a trail making it easy to follow over the ridge where the land gently sloped down and flattened out into cultivated fields. Jimmy could see Ian desperately trying to head off about fifty head of cattle from a wheat field. Soon Jimmy and Jock had joined him racing around and turning most of the herd.

Busy as they were they didn’t notice the lone rider approaching from the direction of the Meridius Stables

Cort had just gotten saddled when he'd seen the cattle heading for Maximus' wheat. The General had left a narrow riding path through the center of the huge field and Cort spurred his mount into a gallop. Out of the corner of his eye he saw three men trying to turn the herd. Good! He didn't think he could manage it all on his own. By the time he reached the far side of the field, only three or four of the cattle had actually gotten down into the wheat. He rode smoothly, expertly, aware how comfortable he was doing what he was doing. Curving in front of the cattle, he stopped their forward progress, turning them back toward the fence line that marked the boundary of the Meridius land. One of the riders approached him, helping guide the cattle into the main herd.

With the help of the stranger Jimmy had the herd together and Jock and Ian drove them over the ridge back onto McGee property. He rode over to the man, "Sure 'preciate the help," Jimmy looked around the wheat field where the cattle had been, "Sorry 'bout the damage. Somebody cut the fence.. I'm Jimmy Kelp, foreman at the Glenridge Station."

"Cort, Cort Wells. I'm staying at the Meridius house. Doesn't look like they trampled all that much. Think we got to them just in time. I'd better let the General know what's happened, though."

"Yeah, mind if I ride with you I'd like him to know any damages are paid for and also about the cut fences in case it spreads over the hill. I noticed you knew what  you were doin'. Have you worked cattle before?"

Damn, there it was again. A question for which he had no sure answer. "Not droving specifically, but I'm used to bein' around them." He guessed he was. It seemed like he might be anyway. "But come on with me and I'll introduce you to the General. You'll find him a fair and honorable man."

Jimmy rode behind him down the narrow path through the field. He thought he might have seen the General when that scumbag Sweeny was shot. After living in Australia for five years an American accent caught his ear, "You're from the southwest somewhere, ain't ya, Cort? Reason I ask is cause I'm from Arizona myself. I recognize the drawl."

"Somewhere, yes," Cort replied vaguely, really uncomfortable about answering questions for which he had no answers. The man did speak in a similar way. Maybe he could be from Arizona himself? Maybe? This not knowing was beginning to get to him. Something in him didn't like the dishonesty he felt with his own unsatisfactory answers.

"Look, Kelp," he said, reining his horse in. "The plain truth is I don't know how to answer you.

I would if I could, but I can't. I simply don't remember where I'm from, what I used to do."

He turned his gaze from Kelp, staring off across the tops of the wheat. "I simply don't remember."

Jimmy looked at him, "Sorry I didn't know...some kind of amnesia I reckon,"

Jimmy was a little embarrassed now. "Anyhow I know you must be from my neck of

the woods...the accent ya know."

"I appreciate that," Cort sighed. "Any little piece of my puzzle is a help."

Jimmy decided not to press it, poor guy must be awful not remembering anything.

"I seem to know my way around horses," Cort added, "so landing here at the Meridius' has been perfect for me. Ah, there he is!" Cort pointed to the stable door where Maximus was standing, watching them ride across the field. 

"Maximus," he said as they reined in near him, "there's a bit of trouble on the far side of the wheat near the boundary fence with the McGee station. Jimmy Kelp here works for McGee. Says somebody took down a section of fencing and about 50 head of their cattle got onto your land."

"The wheat?" Maximus asked quickly.

"Not bad. Only 3 or 4 of them got down that far. Kelp and two other McGee hands managed to head the other off."

Maximus looked up at Kelp. "You have my thanks for that." He turned and called into the barn for East to saddle Legion.
 

Jimmy nodded his head, "a bit of mischief I reckon goin’ on I just wanted you to know Mr. McGee is good for whatever damage has been done. The fence was cut in two places…second time we’ve had a strange happening on the station, somebody let the calves out one night…just wanted you t be aware Mr. Meridius in case it spills over the ridge."

  "Thank you for the warning," Maximus nodded. "I shall keep my eyes well open." East brought Legion out and Maximus swung easily up into the saddle. "Thank you," he said as East turned back into the barn. "I would like to ride out and see for myself just what has happened."

There wasn’t anything else Jimmy could do so he rode back over the ridge. Later he rode the entire length of the fence double checking it was intact. He was beginning to think they might be targeted for some reason…by somebody.

Showdown

By Atonia, Jo and Bridgid
 

Travis had informed the deputy about some blood-stained clothes he'd found at his guest house. Siobhan and John delayed their trip to talk to Ahnna about her sister to pick up the evidence.  

The thought of telling Ahnna the bad news pained John. This little diversion gave him more time to think about it.  

He pulled the prowler to a stop then he grabbed an evidence bag from the trunk. John and Siobhan walked up to meet the new resident of the Glen.  

"Are you Travis McGee?" John said to the first man he encountered.

"Uh no, I'm his father, this is Travis...Travis...some people here." Bill called bringing Travis and Kyle from the guest house.

"G'day, Travis McGee, good to meet you." Travis extended his hand to John. 

"John Biebe," he took the man's hand "..and this is my deputy, Siobhan Hennessy. Nice to meet you, just wish it were under different circumstances. "Let's see what you found and where you found it."  

Travis tipped his hat to the deputy. "My maid actually found it and she's available for questions...I don't know what you'd get out of her...she's speaking in foreign tongues right now. It's some bloodstained clothing in the trash bin. I believe the clothes belong to a feller that was staying in my guest house, his name is Joe Sweeny." This was hard for Travis to even think about. His brow was furrowed as he led the way to the guest house bathroom. 

"You see this Sweeny guy around lately?" John had to ask even though he could have guessed the answer. "Only think I'll need to ask your maid is if she touched or moved the stuff from where she found it. I'll need to know about anyone who has had their hands on it. Tell me what you know about this Sweeny guy, too, Travis."  

This took a lot of the suspicion off Hando in Siobhan's mind and she was starting to feel a bit sorry for jumping to conclusions about him.


"I only got back early this morning, I've been in Sydney. I saw Sweeny two days ago. My, uh, Dad says he saw lights here in the guest house last night but he hasn't seen him since the day I left. He'd been going off for hours on that four wheeler that's sitting out side. That's what I know to be true before I left for Sydney." Travis paused. "I don't really know that much about him, Sheriff. I met him about a year ago in a pub in Sydney. He was out of beer money and offered me half a lotto ticket for a beer. I took it and bought him a beer...we won. I kinda went my way and he went his. I ran into him again in the same pub about a week ago, I told him I'd bought a ranch...he invited himself out here.....said he had plans and was waiting on something...I have no idea what, Sheriff." He looked at Siobhan, "Not the kind of fella I normally hang out with." Travis put his hands on his hips and took a breath.

"The only people that's been in here is me, my dad and Kyle Corvin. Kyle is...well, I guess he's my bodyguard, and my maid of course. I know we didn't touch nothing."


Ever the professional, Siobhan's eyes met Travis' and she saved a thought for later. There was something more than familiar about him to her.  

"I'll bet the tracks on the four wheeler match the tracks at the scene," Siobhan stated. "We'll have to impound it for forensics, Mister McGee, but we'll see to it that i's returned. I'll give O'Brien's a call."  She gave an unconscious smile to Travis before she looked away.  

John noticed but he said nothing about it. It did bother him for some reason. "Let's just get the evidence and move on to the Meridius' property. We have to talk to Ahnna before she hears anything through the grapevine."  

If this Joe Sweeny was any kind of career criminal he was a piss poor one. He certainly didn't make much of an effort to cover his tracks. The blood on the clothes would be checked and blood typed for starters.  

"Travis, I need to ask you something else before we pack up," John added. "We found this cell phone at the scene."  

He brought the bag of evidence back to the prowler and fetched the one with the cell in it. Showing it to Travis he asked, "This look familiar?"

Travis looked at the phone and up at John, rather surprised to see Joe's phone in a plastic bag, "Yeah, that's his, I'm surprised he'd let that get away from him...took it everywhere...even to the fucking john. You found it at the scene..." Travis' throat threatened to close up.

Siobhan touched his arm. "Not your fault, so don't think that. We have to get going but we'll be back if we have more questions. O' Brian's towing will be here shortly, too. Hey, don't beat yourself up over this.." 

Travis met her eyes, his unreadable, hers soft and he smiled slightly. "I'm good at that," he said quietly and stepped back for them to get into the vehicle.

Joe Sweeny had a powerful thirst on him. He was sweating profusely and wiped his face with his sleeve. Sweat was pouring into the gash on his cheek and stinging. He stopped near a row of hedges and turned up the bottle. Finishing the liquor, he threw the bottle aside and sat back in the shade. It was mid-day he figured from the angle of the sun and the heat…damn it was hot! He’d been wandering for what seemed like hours on this god forsaken piece of land and still hadn't found a road. He had spotted a roof top down below him and he kept his distance. If there was a house surely there had to be a road to it, so he decided to make his way down the hillside. Probably past that field he could skirt around the house. If he could make it to the field the alcohol and heat were beginning to get to him. The weight of the bag was dragging him down but he couldn't let go of it. That was his ticket out. People would do anything for enough money and he had enough.

He thought he was hearing things at first and then he heard it again, someone was singing. He had made it to the edge of the field and stumbled down by a pile of rocks. He shook his head and wiped his eyes...it couldn't be...it wasn't possible. Reaching in his bag he pulled out a small pistol and stuck it in his belt. She must be a tough little sheila, he thought.

The wild daisies grew in a small swath along the edge of one of Maximus' fields. She'd noticed them yesterday and today was determined to gather some to take to the mill after work. Something about daisies made her happy, their sunny simplicity, the way they lifted their faces to the sky, undemanding, uncomplicated. So she sang as she gathered them, anticipating how they would look later on Alistair's table. A suddened movement near a pile of rocks caught her eye and she turned, finding herself facing an unkempt man she'd never seen before. He was looking at her strangely, as though she shouldn't be there. He wasn't one of Maximus' workers. She recognized them all by sight now. He reeked of liquor and sweat poured off him. Her body tensed and she looked quickly around, hoping to catch sight of someone she could call. No one was anywhere about.....only the man. Quietly, she took a step or two away from him, trying to decide if she should make a run for the greenhouse.

John and Siobhan had just pulled into the driveway by the greenhouse. There didn't seem to be anyone around at the moment then they heard a screech. It was Ahnna and she was running toward the building but she was not alone. In fact the man on her heels was so close to her that they appeared as one being.

John drew his gun and shouted, "Stop, now!"

Siobhan drew hers and moved behind the door of the prowler. It was unknown if this man was armed and she was not taking any chances.  

Ahnna had never been so frightened in her life. She could feel the man's breath on her neck as she ran, smell the liquor. She screamed once, but then the man grabbed her hair, jerking hard, and she lost her footing. His hands went roughly around her neck, squeezing hard. She tried to scream again, but jagged lights shot across her vision and she fell on one knee, the man looming over her, his fingers crushing her throat. Her own fingers clawed feebly at his hands, but large black spots had joined the jagged flashes, and her lips parted, sucking vainly for air.

You fuckin' bitch," Joe screamed into her ear,, "this won't hurt you at all...you're all ready dead, Marce." he said in her ear. He heard the shout from the lawman turned toward him and pulled Ahnna up in front of him, "she's already dead," he shouted back.


Only vaguely and as though from very far away she heard the man say Marce's name. What? How? But it was too hard to think, too hard to make sense of what the man was saying about her already being dead. The blackness was growing as her air supply was cut more and more and all she could hear was a loud roaring in her ears as though a storm had descended all around her. She sagged completely, being held up from the ground now only by the man's hands clenched around her throat.

"Let her go now!" John shouted as he moved closer. Siobhan called to stop him but he kept going. John leveled his piece at the man. "I said let her go or I'll shoot you son of a bitch. Let her go now!"


Ahnna felt herself fading, heard John's command only very, very vaguely. Her breathing was so cut off she'd gone beyond feeling the terror that had been gripping her. One face floating through her dimming brain. Alistair.

"Fuck you Marce's playin' games here...she don't die easy you know...I got to do it again...I got to do it," Joe pulled the gun from his belt and pointed it again at her temple. He looked back at the lawman...and grinned......

"She ain't Marce. You've got the wrong girl. I know what you did, pal. Let's end this on a more peaceful note."

Siobhan moved from behind the car door and took a wide berth to distract the man. She called to him to distract him.

"Let her go now, Sweeny or I'll shoot. I'm not kidding..."


Joe blinked his eyes, sweat pouring down his face his vision wasn't right now he was seeing double, he focused back on the Sheriff. "There ain't no peace Sheriff not for me and not for this bitch she's going with me," Joe cocked the gun  his hand wet with sweat and it slipped as he fired, "fuck."

There was no time to think. The sound of another shot rang out and Joe Sweeney dropped to the ground. John stood there for a moment before rushing to Ahnna. When he reached her, he kicked Sweeny's gun away then he kneeled down to pick Ahnna up, to cradle her. When he turned to look at Siobhan she'd already holstered her gun. The barrel of hers was cold. John had ended Sweeny's life.

Jimmy Kelp watched Travis and Kyle until they were out of sight, he walked around the hut again and saw where the earth was disturbed just beyond the hut, looked like he was headed for the ridge. Jimmy had no desire to confront Sweeny he was just curious so he mounted his horse and followed the trail.

Due to the trees and growth on the hillside he had to skirt around a little ways but picked it up again near the top of the ridge. He rode along the ridge looking down at the land beyond. Nice looking layout he thought, Meridius land…horses. He turned quickly in the saddle that sounded like a gunshot to him.

Another shot rang out and Jimmy went down the hillside in the general direction he’d heard it come from. Once on fairly solid ground he picked up his speed soon he could see the roof tops of the house and out buildings. He slowed not wanting to run into a gunfight and rode on down toward the house.

There was a police vehicle parked up side of a greenhouse and people running around so he held back and watched and waited to see what was going on.

Maximus came, darting out of the barn, running hard toward the Greenery. Joimus! That was his one thought. Was his wife all right? He skidded to a halt as he saw her hurrying out of the greenhouse door, her attention riveted on something she saw at the edge of the near field. Jerking his head around, he saw Sheriff Biebe standing, holding a limp Ahnna in his arms, some man lying quiet at his feet.

"John!" he called as he began running again, arriving at the same moment Joimus did. "Ahnna? Is she...?"

Biebe shook his head. He turned to Siobhan and said, "Get a bus here and call White. We’ll need him to work now."

Siobhan knew what that meant. She called Tom Young to bring the ambulance for Ahnna, to check her out then she called Bud White to the scene. He could at this point abandon the murder scene. All was pretty much solved.
 



IN THE ARMS OF LOVE


Alistair had been in Coffs, doing the funeral for the husband of a couple who had been very fond of him during the two years he'd
been their pastor. He'd just turned his car westward, heading for the Glen when his cell phone rang.

"Alistair." It was Joimus. "I need you to come to our house as soon as you can."

Something in her voice clutched at his heart. "Maximus? Has something happened to Maximus?"

"No, Alistair." There was a pause on the line for a moment. "It's Ahnna."

He pulled off the road onto a wide space, suddenly afraid to continue driving as he listened to her. "What?" he breathed, his voice hoarse.

"The man who killed Marce. Turns out he was staying out on Travis' ranch. He...he came on our land today, just a bit ago."

Alistair closed his eyes.

"Ahnna, she was out picking daisies for you. He saw her. Thought she was Marce still alive."

"Why? Why would he think that?"

"Did you ever meet Marce?"

"No. I don't think Ahnna did, either."

"Alistair, Marce was Ahnna's sister. They looked almost like twins."

"Did...did he...?"

"No, she's alive. But he grabbed her, tried to choke her, then attempted to shoot her in the head."

He began to feel sick. "Where is she?"

"In one of my extra bedrooms. The medics were here, checked her out. She's got some deep bruising on her neck."

"What about the man? Where's he?"

"John killed him, Alistair. When he tried to shoot Ahnna, John had to kill him."

"Does...does she know about Marce?"

"She does now. She needs to identify the body, I'm afraid. John said it could wait till morning but not longer than that." She paused again. "I'm really worried about her, Alistair. She's just lying there...like some part of her is gone. She needs you."

"I'll be there," he said, pulling out onto the two-lane road again. "I've just left Coffs, but I'll be there really soon."

He didn't even remember how he got to Maximus' house, couldn't recall the road or the traffic, just that he had to get there. He left the door of his car open and ran through the front doorway, not stopping to knock. "Which room?" he gasped.

"Upstairs, second on the left," Joimus answered. He was halfway up the stairs before her sentence was out.

He paused outside the closed door, gathering himself, whispering a prayer, and lay his palm flat on the door panel a moment before opening it. She lay on her back on the bed, her dark hair spilling over its edge. Her eyes were closed, her face so white and composed his breath hissed in. She looked like someone in a coffin.

"Ahnna, darling," he whispered, kneeling beside the bed, taking her right hand between both of his. There was no color in her face at all.  Slowly her lids opened, just barely, and a large tear rolled out of the corner of her eye, tracking down her cheek.

 



"Oh, Ahnna."  His kissed her hand, gently, over and over.

"They're all gone now," she whispered. "Every one of them. She was here, right here, and I never even saw her. I never saw her." She closed her eyes again. "I didn't know."

He slid his arms around her, laying his head on her chest. It was then he really saw the marks on her neck, large angry bruises were forming, making a pattern in the form of a man's fingers. She had nearly been killed and at the same time had found out her sister, her only remaining family, had died. His heart wrapped around her, anguished to pull her inside himself, to take away her pain, her fear, her loss. Suddenly she shuddered from head to toe and a convulsive sob wrenched its way up her throat.

There was room on the other side of the bed and he moved around, lying beside her gathering her to himself, just holding, holding, holding and rocking her slightly as he whispered into her hair. She cried desperately for a long, long time, her fingers clenched in the material of his shirt.  Even though it hurt her throat terribly, she couldn't stop, and she sobbed and sobbed, overwhelmed by loss, by remembered terror. And even when her crying lessened, she clutched his shirt. The look in the man's eyes, the unbearable pressure of his hands on her neck, they were there, right there. "I...I was so scared," she gasped. "I thought...I thought...." She couldn't form the words.

So he held onto her as she held onto him, wrapped as closely into each other as they could get. The reality of his presence, the sound of his heartbeat, even his breathing was all that was keeping her attached to earth. Shudders still tore through her from time to time, and drowning in them, she clung in absolute desperation to him as he kept up a constant murmur of endearments and assurance.

He was wrenched to his core by what had happened to her. He'd been in Coffs, good Lord, he'd been all the way in Coffs! Jenny came
flooding into his mind. He hadn't been with her when she died. Eight and a half months pregnant and she'd driven out alone, both he and she confident in her return. But she never came back. His son was never born. If Ahnna had died while he was in Coffs....

His whole soul ached with the love he'd found again, found with this quiet, gentle woman in a land so far away from England. He closed his eyes, damming in his own tears. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you beyond all measure."

Opening her eyes, she looked up at him. "I don't...don't want to go back to my flat." A huge sigh flowed through her. Alone, there, no, she couldn't manage that. "Jo...Joimus says...I can stay here...but...but...it's so...so close. Close to where...."

"I know, I know, darling. I understand." His mind was racing.

She sighed again. "I'm so tired. So...tired." In a few moments she sagged against him, her breathing evening out.

"Sleep," he murmured. "Sleep, my love."

Joimus poked her head in the door to check on Ahnna and met Alistair's eyes. Very, very carefully he settled Ahnna on the bed and tip toed out into the hallway, closing the door behind him. "She doesn't want to go back to her flat," he said seriously.

"I've told her she's welcome to stay here with us as long as she likes."

"I think it's too close, Joimus, to where she was attacked. "She feels nervous about it."

"I don't know where else she can go, Alistair."

"I could take her to the mill."

She smiled fondly at him. "I'm sure that would be all right, except for the fact that you are an unmarried minister and, though I would
understand completely as would anybody who knows you, still for you to take a young, unmarried woman into your home, just the
two of you...."

He knew she was right. Pastors were not permitted things the general public accepted in other people. "All right, then," he nodded, coming to the conclusion he knew he'd been heading toward all along. Without a further word, he went back into the room, lay beside her again, and held Ahnna as she slept. Yes, this was what he wanted. Not just because of circumstances, but what he truly wanted. Satisfied, somehow released from his tension, he, too, fell asleep as the quiet hours of the afternoon ticked away.

 



HOLDING FOREVER
 

Ahnna's eyes fluttered open. She lay there, trying to remember where she was, how she'd gotten there. When she did, she wished she hadn't. Remembering was a knife blade, ripping at the raw parts of her being. Her upper teeth bit down hard on her lower lip, hard enough to draw a small welling of blood. Then she became aware someone's arm lay across her middle and turned her head to her left. Alistair. His head lay on the pillow just a few inches away. He was asleep. Her eyes roamed over his quiet face and something in her soul settled into his presence.

He had come and he had gathered her into himself. She recalled the sound of his voice murmuring in her hair, the feel of his arms holding her. Such a depth of love rose in her as she gazed at him that the inner ripping was dulled, lulled into something bearable. His face, his being, were the most beautiful things she'd ever known. And he was all she had in this world. That last thought brought the loss of Marce flooding back through her and she closed her eyes as new tears welled.

Marce. She'd been right here in the Glen. How could that be? How could she not have known? Where...where had Marce been staying, and with whom? And why had she been killed? Where? There was just too much she didn't know! But she would. She would find it out, all of it. And the Sheriff, he'd said she must identify Marce's body in the morning. She bit her lip again. How could she do that...how could she bear the doing of it?

The last time she'd seen her sister, only 13 months younger than herself and so similar in appearance they were more often than not mistaken for twins, the last time had been when Marce looked at her, accusation and disgust in her eyes, then turned and slammed the door behind her. Marce blamed her for everything, for the loss of her family, and wanted nothing more to do with her sister. Ahnna hadn't seen her since, had no idea where she'd gone, what she was doing. Marce made sure of that. But somehow...someway...they'd both ended up in the Glen. If only...oh, God...if only she'd had a chance...one more chance...to make things right between them. Now she'd see Marce in the morning. Only Marce was dead. Now they were all  gone, her parents, her brothers...and Marce.

Alistair awoke suddenly. The room was dim in late twilight hours and he blinked several times. Ahnna. He turned his head on the pillow and saw her lying there, eyes closed, new wetness on her cheeks. Propping himself on his right elbow, he leaned over her, touching a tear with his fingertip.

She opened her eyes and he said softly, "I love you."

There was nothing that could have dipped itself with more meaning into the vast pool of her aloneness than his three words. "Oh, God!" she moaned, flinging her arms around his neck. He buried his face in her hair, saying over and over, "I love you. I love you."

"Don't let me go," she whimpered. "Please, Alistair, don't let go of me!"

"I won't, my darling. I'll hold you forever. I promise. I promise."

Gently, he began to brush long strands of hair back from her face, then found her lips with his. His kiss was soft and warm, protective and loving, yet light, as though he didn't want to hurt her. She, though, pressed her mouth into his in a desperation of needing him, but he tasted her blood and pulled back, alarmed lest he had caused it. "Ahnna...did I...?"

The barest knock sounded on the door and he quickly sat up on the side of the bed.

"Come in."

"It's just me again," Joimus smiled. "It's getting quite late and I thought you might be hungry." She came in and set a tray down on a side table. "I hope you've gotten some rest, Ahnna. I brought you some chicken broth, thinking it would be easier to swallow. There's some jello, too, if you feel like it."

"Thank you, Joimus," Ahnna murmured. "I'm feeling a little better." Her eyes darted to the side toward Alistair.

"I'm so glad. Call me if there's anything either of you need, all right?"

"Thank you for everything," Alistair added. He met Joimus' eyes. He intended to stay the night and he could see that she knew that and would not say anything. There was no way he was going to leave Ahnna alone.

"If you wouldn't mind letting me borrow your keys, I'll drive out and pick you up some fresh clothing for tomorrow," Joimus offered. Her gaze went to both of them. Slightly diffident, Alistair reached into his pocket, handing his keys to her.

"My...my purse is still in the Greenery office," Ahnna explained.

"I'll take care of everything," Joimus said, going to the door. "You two just take care of each other." With a last fond smile, she closed the door behind her.

Alistair got up and moved the tray to the bed. "Let's see what we've got here." He helped her prop up with pillows then sat beside her, spoon-feeding her the broth.

"You don't need to do that."

"Not even if I want to?"

She smiled at him and opened her mouth.

He enjoyed the simple process of it, the nurturing aspect of it all, and she was touched by his earnest carefulness. Not until she'd eaten both the broth and jello would he look to see what there might be for him. A fat lettuce, tomato, cheese, and bacon sandwich lay on a small plate, along with a glass of cider and a slice of lemon cake. He suddenly realized he hadn't eaten a thing since his burnt toast breakfast and his stomach let out a loud growl.

Ahnna laughed. She actually laughed and the sound of it delighted him. He smiled widely in return, his sandwich almost to his mouth. "Do you have any idea, Reverend Alistair Harris, how adorable you are?"

He set the sandwich back on the plate and took both her hands in his. "Adorable enough that you would marry me?"

Her eyes widened. "Ma...marry?"

"Ahnna, come and live with me in the mill. I want you there. I need you there. Will you, Ahnna, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

"Alistair...really?"

"Really," he said, beginning to kiss her palms.

"You...you truly mean that?"

"With all my heart...yes."

"Oh, Alistair!" Tears began to course down her cheeks, but she was smiling. "Yes! Yes, I'll marry you!"

He leaned forward, almost tipping the tray entirely. But he needed to kiss her and he needed to do it now.



HERE IN MY ARMS

Alistair held her in his arms all night, often lying awake because of his nap that afternoon. Ahnna slept restlessly, waking from time to time herself and snuggling into him. His wife. She was going to be his wife. They'd decided, since he had to drive her into Coffs in the morning to the morgue, to stay at a hotel there until the marriage license could be processed, then the pastor of the church where he used to be minister would perform a quiet ceremony for them. It was what they both wanted, quiet and simple. Then he would bring her back to the mill. Yes, back to the mill where she belonged.

"Let us know," Joimus said at breakfast the next morning, "and if it's all right, Maximus and I will drive down for the ceremony. You both are very dear to us."

"I'll give you a call," Alistair nodded. "I'd like to have you there."

Ahnna agreed. "Oh, yes, please do come." She'd hardly touched her breakfast, the dread of going to the morgue hanging heavily over her since she'd awakened. Joimus had packed each of them a bag at their respective dwellings, and they simply took those with them to Coffs.

"After you get back, we can all go together to your apartment, Ahnna, and help you move your things to the mill."

She thought Alistair's solution to where Ahnna should stay was perfect. For some time now she'd witnessed the two of them falling ever more deeply in love. And, she smiled to herself, a side benefit would be that Alistair would no longer have burnt toast for breakfast.

As she sat in the passenger's seat beside Alistair, Ahnna grew steadily more tense the closer they got to Coffs. Alistair drove with one hand, keeping the other curved around hers that lay nearest him on the seat.

"I couldn't do this without you," she said, "I couldn't do it at all."

"I'll be right there with you, darling. I'll always be right there with you."

He'd lived in Coffs for two years and knew right where the morgue was. Siobhan was there, waiting for them when they arrived. Ahnna stood outside the door, closing her eyes, trying to breathe slowly before Siobhan opened it. The drawer had already been pulled out and Marce lay there, covered by a simple cloth. Coming closer, Ahnna started to tremble, and Alistair tightened his arm around her. Siobhan pulled the cover back just enough to reveal Marce's face. Alistair's breath hissed sharply in. Even he might have taken her for Ahnna. He'd heard they looked alike, but hadn't expected it to be so remarkable.

Ahnna pressed against his side, staring at her sister. Marce had bruises and scratches on her face as though she'd fought hard. Ahnna blinked, trying to replace the image before her with the living, smiling face of her sister. "It's her," she murmured. "It's my sister."

Such a vast pit of loss and horror opened up at her feet, she couldn't help herself. She fell headlong into it. Alistair's grip on her was all that prevented her from crashing to the cement floor. Lips pressed tightly together, he caught her up in his arms. Siobhan pulled the cloth back over Marce's face and guided him to another room where there was a couch.

Instead of laying her on it, he sat, still holding her in his arms. Pressing her to his chest, he bent his head over her, closing his eyes. He was quite shaken himself, thinking how close Ahnna had come to joining Marce in this very place. Seeing Marce in there had made that even more real to him.

Ahnna began to stir, and he kissed her face lightly here and there. "It's over, darling. You did it. I've got you. I've got you right here in my arms."

 



THE LIGHT SHINING THROUGH THE WHEAT

That afternoon, Alistair took Ahnna down by the sea where they sat together a long time just watching the boats come and go. Gulls wheeled above them and the air, bright and fresh, seemed to blow away some of the morning's pain. She had dated a young man once who talked all the time, but in Alistair she'd found a man who could enter into her deepest silent places and commune with her without the need of words. She nestled against his shoulder, held his hands, and let herself settle into the comfort his mere presence always brought to her.

Later, he took her to the parsonage where he'd lived for two years so she could meet Willis Todd, the minister who lived there now. They had applied for their license and planned to be married day after tomorrow. Willis, a pleasant, rather non-descript man in his mid-forties was delighted that he could be of service to them.

"Ahnna," he said as they sat in his small parlor, "I cannot begin to tell you of all the wonderful things my congregation has to say of the time your Alistair was pastor here." He smiled fondly at Alistair. "You remain dear to the hearts of all of them."

"I can easily understand that, Reverend Todd. He's already been such a blessing to me and to the community in the Glen."

"It's only that I find people so easy to care about," Alistair said softly, "so worth the caring."

"Well, they know that about you, Alistair," Willis nodded. "They really know." He looked from the man to the woman who sat side by side on his small sofa. "So you want a simple ceremony, is that right?"

"Yes," Alistair replied, his hand covering Ahnna's. "Other than the two of us and you, there will only be two friends there. It seems best ...right now...you know."

"All I want," Ahnna spoke up, "is to be this man's wife. That's all in the world I want, all I need. Just the words to make that so." She turned her face up to him. "It's all I want."

"I love you," he said, and she closed her eyes, her lips curving into an utterly content smile.

"I'd like to use that little side chapel if we might," Alistair continued. "The sanctuary itself is too large and the chapel would be more intimate for what we have in mind."

"Perfect!" Willis agreed. "About two o'clock then?"

The next day was passed with Alistair showing her all his favorite places in Coffs. They ate at quiet, out-of-the-way places, walked in parks and along the shoreline, just simple being-together sorts of things. And they shopped for rings. Ahnna didn't want a diamond, just a gold band, and they found a matching set with very tiny gold-beaded edges that she felt was perfect. Alistair had a suit with him, but wanted her to have a special dress. She chose a flared, knee-length one in off-white with the barest watercolor hint of pale pink roses.

Maximus and Joimus arrived at noon the next day and the four of them had lunch at a restaurant with a view of the sea. At 1:30 their two cars pulled up by the brick church. "Just a minute!" Joimus sang out. "There's something I need to get out of the car. You two go ahead. We'll be right in."

Willis came to the door to greet them, leading the way to the chapel Alistair had mentioned. Just before the door to it opened, Alistair paused, looking down at Ahnna. "This was my special place to come pray," he said. "I wanted you to know that, to know that this small space is very dear to me. It's why I wanted it to be here that I make my vows to you."

He opened the door, letting her pass through first. There were only two short rows of pews and in the front a two-stepped platform with a carved oak table upon which rested a plain gold-colored cross. It was the window behind the table that caught her eye immediately, tall, curving up to an arched point, made of leaded glass in which had been worked a field of ripe wheat with a large bunch of purple grapes above it. In brilliantly golden glass lettering curving over it were the words, "This do in remembrance of Me." The early afternoon sun streamed through it, casting the colors of the wheat, the words, and the grapes all over the room, lighting the cream-colored walls with themselves in glorious splashes.

Alistair watched her response, a small smile on his face, both of them so intent they didn't notice Maximus' arrival in the doorway. He paused, his eyes suddenly bright, and whispered, "Wheat."

Joimus slipped around him so she could see. "Oh, perfect!" she breathed.

Alistair and Ahnna turned to find their friends standing there, both of them with arms full of flowers. "Oh, Joimus!" Ahnna exclaimed.

"I couldn't let you be married without flowers, now could I?" Joimus smiled. She had a bouquet for Ahnna of mixed flowers, primarily white and light pink, but even with blue iris highlighting it. She remembered it was his search for blue iris that had brought Alistair to the Greenery that first day. There was a single blue iris for his lapel, and a glorious array she arranged quickly behind the cross.

"There!" she announced, stepping back in satisfaction. "Flowers."

The chapel was, indeed, very small, but it sang with color and even more so with the joy in the hearts of the few people within it. Rev. Todd came in, smiled broadly at the flowers, greeted Maximus and Joimus and took his place at the front. The ceremony was not long, and Alistair and Ahnna said their own promises to each other. Joimus wiped away a tear or two and Maximus stood, his arm around his wife, his eyes traveling from time to time upwards from the wedding couple to the light shining through the wheat.



SAFE IN ALL HER FALLINGS

Alistair and Ahnna spent one more night in Coff's. Maximus had insisted on renting them the bridal suite at the best hotel in town. One night. One night for a honeymoon. But it would have to do. Marce's funeral was scheduled early in the evening the following day. A wedding and a funeral. As hard as tomorrow would be, Ahnna knew now that she could make it through. Because of Alistair. Because she was no longer entirely alone in the world. Because of his love. Because of how much she loved him.

Joimus had brought Ahnna a white silk nightgown, knowing, since she'd packed the suitcase for her, that Ahnna had nothing special for her wedding night. Alistair was sitting on the side of the bed when Ahnna came out of the hotel bathroom in the gown. She paused halfway across the room as he looked up, catching his breath. Her long dark hair hung in waves over her shoulders, contrasting beautifully with the gown. Only one small bedside lamp was still lit and in its glow her exquisite features were so heart-grabbingly perfect that he could barely breathe. She had on only the thin gown and through it her breasts were clearly defined as were the curves of her hips, her thighs.

"My wife," he whispered, holding his hand out to her.

Her eyes glistened with sudden wetness as she returned his gaze, staring at him in almost unbelieving wonder that this man...this man...was her husband. She crossed the rest of the carpet, stopping so that her legs pressed lightly against his knees. He rested both palms high on her hips, letting them slide slowly down the silk to her upper thighs. For a moment he closed his eyes, then touched the fingertips of his right hand to his own lips, but only briefly before the hand went back to her, slipping behind her, and guiding her with him as he leaned back across the bed.

In the morning she lay in his arms, the length of her bare against him, and when he woke he loved her again, wanting her to start this day with a gentle tenderness. His hands, his lips, moved over her, adoring her, stirring every nerve ending into awareness. In the night he had loved her with an intense passion, but now his every touch was a quiet gift of himself as he brought her exquisitely and slowly to the edge of the world. And he held her as she rose and as she fell so that she might know that he would always be there for her, for all her risings and all her fallings, and that she would be safe. She would be safe, because of him, even this evening.

 


FOR US, THE LIVING

By Jo and Atonia

The closed white casket sat on its support at the front of the church, just below the step to the altar. Joimus had its top covered in white roses and baby's breath. Alistair paused just outside the main doors, his arm firmly around Ahnna's waist. No one else had arrived yet. He wanted her to have a chance to get used to the sight of her sister's coffin before others came for the service.

"I'm here," he said softly. "I won't let go."

She tipped her chin up to look at his face. "Ever?"

"Not ever. We can do this thing together." He smiled encouragingly at her. "You and I...together."

She blew out a long breath, closing her eyes a moment before he opened the doors. This shouldn't be as bad as the morgue. Could anything ever be so bad as that? Marce on the table in that cold and sterile place. Marce. Marce was really gone. And now she had to say her final good-byes.

"Are you ready, darling?"

She nodded, her hand clutching into the front of his suit coat. She opened her eyes as he opened the doors and there it was, right in the front. The coffin. Her sister's coffin. Her breath caught in her throat a moment and she could feel Alistair's arm around her tighten. He's afraid I'm going to faint, she thought. But she realized she wasn't. The morgue had been like a sudden, stunning blow, but this was a quieter, gentler place and, hard as it was, Marce's death was beginning to settle down inside her in some deep place cushioned by Alistair's unswerving love.

It was white. She liked that. Alistair had arranged for that, though she didn't know he had. And the whole interior of the small church smelled like roses. She knew Joimus had done that. The two of them walked side-by-side, arm-in-arm, down the short aisle, stopping just in front of the coffin. She rested her right hand on the curve of the lid, letting her thumb rub back and forth over its cool smoothness. "Good-bye, my darling Marce," she whispered. "I love you. I've always loved you."

Alistair guided her to a seat on the front row and sat beside her until the church began to fill. It seemed like the entire Glen had come. Ahnna was glad to see that so many people cared about her sister. A lot, though, had come because they cared about Ahnna, too. Vaguely she wondered if that young man Marce had been staying with would come. She couldn't remember his name right now.

He wasn't going to come and wasn't until an hour ago when Miss Peeg showed up at his door insisting that he come with her. He didn't know why he let her tell him what to do. She stepped into the pew beside him in the back of the church. Hando had never been to a funeral before and had no idea what was to happen. He saw the white coffin covered in flowers at the end of the aisle. White...Marce was in there...no, she wasn't; she would never be in a white coffin...she hated white.

When it was time for Alistair to move to the front, Joimus and Maximus came and sat with Ahnna, one on either side, surrounding her with their protective care and friendship. Ahnna's eyes followed Alistair as he stepped up behind the small table that held the cross. Joimus had put more white roses there, and a single white taper burned in their midst. The low conversations in the chapel ceased and Bridgid left Jack's side, going to the piano and playing Amazing Grace. Looking straight down at his wife, Alistair sang the words, sang them for her.

She thought he was finished, but Bridgid started again and as he sang, Alistair moved around the table and down behind the coffin, resting both palms on it, singing, gazing into Ahnna's eyes, "I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."

The music, the song, stopped there. "So often that is the way of it," he said. "We come only to the understanding of what is there for us to see when our closed eyes open in the realms of Heaven. All unforgiveness ceases, must cease, because it can no longer exist, not there. And it is for us, the living, to know this, that our loved ones harbor no ill will, no misunderstandings toward us. It is for us to take this knowledge into ourselves and find there our rest and our peace." His voice continued for a while, his words directed at Ahnna's heart, and nearly everyone in attendance recognized the utter intimacy of what was passing between a man and his wife.

Hando stared at the ceiling, half listening to what the man in front was saying. None of it touched Marce or who she was...the guy didn't even know her...none of these people here knew her. He felt cold in this place, a coldness that reached his heart. He closed his eyes and shook off  Miss Peeg's attempt to take his hand.

Alistair paused, looking down at the coffin. "Marce became my sister-in-law yesterday," he said, "and I didn't have the privilege of letting her know how glad that would make me. She was a beautiful young woman, lovely like her sister, and what I know of her is what my wife has shared, mostly stories of two girls growing up together in Australia, of how their father would take them to the river to swim, of how they liked to picnic up on the Dorrigo Escarpment, or go into Coffs and watch the sun rise over the ocean. I wish I'd known her myself so that I could speak of the sound of her laughter and of the things that made her smile. But God has made me the gift of Marce's sister and what I can now do for Marce is promise her that I will always love and cherish the girl Marce spent her childhood with and in the doing of that, honor the memory of the young woman who meant so much to my wife.

Marce's sister was here? Hando looked toward the front but had no idea which head belonged to her sister. She'd never mentioned a sister, only that her family was dead. Sound of her laughter...no, you never heard it...Hando thought, looking straight at the man in front...but I did.

Across the aisle from Hando sat Travis McGee and Kyle Corvin. Travis glanced over at the man who had been pointed out as Hando, occupier of the squatter's cabin and boyfriend of the deceased. He wanted to speak to him after the service. He was feeling the weight of guilt today. Without a doubt it was his fault that girl was lying there in a coffin. Without a doubt. It welled up in his throat when he first entered the church and sat down, blinking away tears that threatened.

Alistair said a prayer for Marce then Ahnna stood, walking around to join him behind the coffin, taking his hand, looking directly out at the main part of the church. "I'd like to thank each one of you who came today to honor my sister, Marce." Her voice cracked a little and Alistair's arm went around her waist. "I wish...I...." She couldn't seem to make more words come out of her tightened throat.

Alistair stepped in. "As the newest member of this family, I'd like to add my personal thanks to all of you. I am so pleased about and grateful for the sense of community that has developed so rapidly in this small place. Marce was the first one of us that we lost. My hope is that those of us who remain will draw even more closely together now, appreciate one another even more, and never hesitate to let each other know the fact of that. Again, thank you for coming."

Hando found himself standing. What was this, some kind of fucking joke? No...no, "NO!" It came out loud and the church went silent. "Who are you...what are you...?" He stumbled trying to get out of the row and into the aisle. Righting himself, he looked again at Marce's sister and ran out the door. He couldn't breathe...he had to get some air! He ran over to a tree and held on. Dry sobs wracked his throat...he did not cry, could not. Whatever produced tears was long buried and dried up in him. He was in physical pain.

Miss Peeg ran out behind him. "Hando...Hando! What...are you alright?"

"Get away from me!" he croaked.

She stopped and looked back toward the church where people were coming out and staring.

Inside, both Ahnna and Alistair had been completely taken by surprise. He could feel her trembling from head to toe and led her back to the front pew, helping her sit. "Who was that man?" he asked Maximus, his mouth set grimly. This had been hard enough for his wife and then that man had to go and do some crazy outburst.

"Hando," Maximus answered. "He was the one Marce was liv...staying with. I don't think he had ever seen Ahnna before."

Richie pushed his way through the crowd at the door and ran to Miss Peeg, "Will you please come away from him...leave him alone. He's had a shock...evidently Marce and Ahnna looked a lot alike." Richie led her back to the church.

It took all Hando had to pull himself together and stand up straight. His assumed mask back in place, he turned around and became aware he was the center of attention. His mind was straight now that was her sister he'd seen inside.

 Marce...was...dead.

 

THOUGH NOT FROM ASSISI

"I wish they had more than one night," Joimus sighed as Maximus drove them home from Alistair and Ahnna's wedding in Coffs Harbor that afternoon.

"I cannot be helped," Maximus replied, his lips a bit tight. "Marce's funeral is tomorrow."

"I know...still I wish." She looked out the window at the passing trees for a while. "In the morning I want to make up an arrangement for the top of Marce's coffin. I want there to be a...a...padding of flowers
on it before Ahnna has to see it."

Maximus smiled to himself. Sometimes his wife used flowers very much as he had used his sword, as a weapon against the vagaries that life brought one's way. "What about the Greenery?" he asked. "Now that Ahnna does not wish to work there so soon after the attack. You cannot run it all alone, not even you."

"Ahnna mentioned a young woman who has the flat across the hall from her, well, from where she used to live. She thinks she might be interested. I suppose I'll give her a call this afternoon. If that doesn't work out, I'll try an ad in the paper."

"What do you know about this person?"

"Not all that much. Ahnna likes her, which is a recommendation in itself."

"And her name...?"

"Claire. Claire Francis." Joimus grinned broadly. "Though not from Assisi."

 



A MOVABLE TREE 


Claire opened the door to the Greenhouse, sending the delightful sound of a windchime singing through the interior space. Joimus came out of her office, smiling at the new arrival. "I rigged that up," she explained, "since I'm here alone right now. You must be Claire." The young woman matched Ahnna's description quite well.

"Yes, I've come about the job you mentioned."

"Come," Joimus said, "let me show you around, see what you think of the place."

It was bigger than Claire had expected and with a much more diverse array of plants. As the two women walked, Joimus asked Claire questions and she explained about her grandmother and how she was currently working at a small florist shop. Joimus took an instant liking to the young woman and guided her back out front and around to an outdoor section where there were young trees and larger shrubs for sale.

Claire could see the top of a tree bobbing along several rows over. Joimus caught where she was gazing and laughed, "Oh, that will be Cort. He's helping me with some heavy lifting today. Come on and I'll introduce you."

Cort's sleeves were rolled up nearly to his elbows and he had on jeans, boots, and a pair of thick leather gloves. The root ball of the tree he was moving was heavier than he thought and he paused, bending his knees a moment to let the burlap rest atop his thighs so he could shift his grip. It was thusly that Claire first saw him.

"Cort!" Joimus called, and he jerked his head around, trying to locate where her voice was coming from. She stepped out from behind a row of birch trees, followed closely by a young woman. As the woman moved out from the shade of the trees, sudden sunshine caught her hair, making it glow with brilliant light. His breath hissed in, his grip slipped, and the burlapped root ball slid down his legs, leaving him standing there, his face buried in young eucalyptus leaves.

Slightly mortified, he closed his eyes, then pushed aside some of the branches and peered out. She was smiling at him, not really laughing, but with a definite merry twinkle in her eyes. The heavy root ball was perched on the front of his boots and he pulled them out, one by one, taking a step back, still behind the tree.
 



Joimus put a hand quickly to her mouth to cover a chuckle. "Um, Cort," she said, clearing her throat, "I'd like you to meet Claire Francis. Claire is thinking about coming to work at the Greenery."

Cort stayed behind the tree a moment more, rubbing his gloved hand across his chin, forgetting about the dirt on the gloves and quite successfully transferring a fair amount of it onto his lower face. He sighed, unaware of what he'd just done, blew out a long
breath and stepped out into the hard-packed dirt aisle. "Mornin', Joimus." He dipped his head a bit. "Mornin', Miss."

Again both women tried to cover their amusement. He was simply, utterly adorable as he stood there, looking so discomfited. And then, to make matters worse, the root ball rocked and tipped, sending the seven-foot tree into his left side. Grabbing for it, he tripped, his boot getting entangled in a flapping bit of loose binding twine, and he and the tree fell together backwards on the path. He lay there, unmoving, waiting for the earth to open and swallow him, but the women thought that meant he'd been hurt and they both ran forward. Joimus gripped the trunk of the tree, pulling it off him and propping it against some others to one side, while Claire knelt in the dirt beside Cort.

"Are you all right?" He had his eyes closed and she put a hand lightly on his right shoulder.

He sighed again, briefly squeezing his eyes even more tightly shut before opening them. She was leaning over him, the sun directly behind her head creating a halo effect. He blinked, something new and almost sharp, piercing through his body. Claire saw the quick expression pass over his face. "You ARE hurt!" she exclaimed.

"No," he said quickly, his voice cracking a bit, "no, miss, I'm...fine." He sat up and she leaned back. Taking off his gloves, he slapped them against the tight denim over his thigh.

Joimus looked down at him. "You're sure you're all right?"

"Very sure," he said, giving his head a toss to flip his hair out of his face. With what was actually a very graceful motion, he got to his feet, then extended a hand to help Claire up. Pressing his lips tightly together, then licking the bottom one, he gathered what was left of his dignity. "Glad to meet you, Miss," he said. "Sorry about the tree."

Claire thought it the most remarkable first meeting she'd ever had with anyone. "Claire," she repeated, smiling again.

"Claire," he said, his deep voice doing marvelous things to the single syllable.

"Cort lives in the house with us," Joimus explained. "For the time being," she added. "He's been helping me with the Greenery lately and also works with my husband's horses and cattle."

Cort's green eyes flicked over to Joimus then back to Claire. "You're thinkin' of workin' here, too?"

"I am working here," Claire nodded. "That is, Mrs. Meridius, if you're agreeable."

"Quite agreeable," Joimus smiled. "I can really use your help."

"I...I can start Monday, if that's all right."

"Monday's fine. Would you like to look around some more, get acquainted with the place?" A car pulling into the parking lot caught her attention. "Cort, will you show Claire around? I see I've got customers."  Without waiting for an answer, she hurried down the path back toward the greenhouse.

 

 

NOT AT ALL AUSTRALIAN

"Have you been here long?" Claire asked Cort. They'd paused by a split rail fence and were leaning their arms on it, looking out across the fields.

"As long as I can remember," he replied, tipping his chin up a bit as he said the words.

"That long? I was given to understand the Meridiuses were fairly new to the valley. Were you born here then?"

"They are fairly new," he said. "I don't know about the rest?"

"You don't...? What do you mean?"

He turned to face her. "I don't know. Plain and simple as that. I don't know."

"You don't know if you were born here? Is that what you're saying?"

His eyes shifted toward the side. "I find this mighty awkward, Miss Claire."


"Please don't," she hurried to say. "I didn't mean to pry into your affairs, truly I didn't."

"I don't take it as pryin', Miss Claire. 'Specially not from you."

"Is...is there some problem, then?"

"With me, Miss Claire. Only with me."

No one had ever called her Miss Claire before and the way he went about it in that quiet, respectful way of his, touched something in her. "I'm sorry, Cort. It's not my business."

He looked back at her with open, frank eyes. "I wish it was."

"What do you mean?"

"I guess I mean I wish I knew whose business it was."

"I don't understand."

"Makes two of us," he said, smiling wryly.

"Please, Cort...."

"I'm sorry. I'm not used to it is all. Or maybe I am. That's somethin' else I don't know."

"What do you know, Cort?"

"I know this place is in Australia and that it's owned by good, decent folks. That's it."

"That's all you know?"

"Pretty much the sum of the thing, yes."

"But...."

"Sorry, Miss Claire. I know you just met me and I shouldn't be goin' on about this. Not right. Just not right and you have my apologies."

"Cort, I have no idea what you're apologizing for. I certainly don't feel like you owe me one. Not at all. You live here and this is my very first visit. You haven't done a thing except take time out from your work to show me around. I just wish...."

"What, Miss Claire?"

She smiled. "I wish I knew what you were talking about."

"Doesn't really make all that much never mind," he shrugged. "I'm here. Not much more to the thing than that."

"Do you like it here?" She found she didn't want to end their conversation, didn't want to go back to her car and leave, so she asked the first thing that popped into her mind.

"I like it fine, especially the horses. I think I must know a thing or two about horses."

"You think...? Cort, don't you know?"


"No, Miss Claire, I don't actually know. Just seems to come kind of natural, what they like, how to handle them. And East, he's the guy lives in the barn, tends to the groomin' and the shoein', he fills me in on what the General likes done with his horses."

"The General?"

"Yes, Mr. Meridius. He's a general...or was. Guess he still is pretty much. Guess once you are, you always are. Cavalry, over in Europe. Couldn't ask for a finer man to take you under his wing."

East came out of the barn and signaled when he saw Cort. "Well, Miss Claire, nice to meet you but it looks like I've got to be goin' now. I sincerely hope to see you again." He gave her a shy smile and loped off down the lane.

"Cort." She repeated his name softly as he neared the barn. "An unusual name for an unusual man."  Definitely not like the local boys she'd known in the area. And his accent was not at all Australian.

Joimus' customers were just loading the last of five small shrubs in the trunk of their car when Claire arrived back at the front of the greenhouse. "Cort give you a better idea of the outside portions of the nursery?" she asked.

"Yes, he was a good guide," Claire smiled. "Does he help out at the Greenery often?"

"Quite a lot. It's been good to have his help the last several days."

"He hasn't been here long then?"

"Just a few days, Claire, that's all."

"Hmmm? I asked him about that and he said he didn't know how long he'd been here. Said it was for as long as he could remember."

"That's true, Claire, it is for as long as he can remember."

At her puzzled look, Joimus added, "He has amnesia, Claire. Maximus found him in one of our fields a few days ago. He doesn't remember a thing."

Claire shot a quick look toward the barn, her mouth forming a silent Oh! "So that's what he meant. I didn't understand." She looked back at Joimus. "But his name. He knows his name."

"Not really," Joimus sighed. "He had a little Bible in his pocket with Reverend Cortland Wells written inside. We don't know for sure, but we believe that's who he is."

"A pastor?"

"Yes. It actually has come to seem more likely than not."

Claire turned away, staring intently at the place just outside the distant barn where Cort was talking with another man. "Oh, my goodness," she breathed.

Sherwood Down Under

(written way before the movie came out)

l

He'd folded the map, sitting quietly at his desk, lost in thought. It was a long way, a very, very long way, but still he'd
felt this ineffable draw in him to go. All day he'd studied the map and when he found the large Sherwood National
Forest just east of the Orara River and slightly north of Nana Glen, he took it as a sign and his decision was made.
 



That had been two weeks ago. Now he stood in the doorway of the home he'd chosen. It was a steeply-gabled cottage so nestled in the trees and shrubs that its full appearance could not be clearly seen. He liked that. There was a small pool nearby and a sense of quiet isolation lay over it all. He liked that, too.

Sir Robert Tornham was in his mid-forties and was tired of the double life he'd been leading. There were too many about who still remembered him as Robin and not Sir Robert at all. Perhaps it was time for him to move on, move to a place where he simply could...be...Sir Robert with no questions asked. He planned to keep mostly to himself for a while, to slide gently and mostly unperceived into the small new community. He'd made arrangements for a small wood-working shop adjacent to the house and intended to occupy himself with wood carving and some basic cabinetry and simple furnishings.

He ran his right palm down the wood of the door frame. Home. It would be if he made it so, if he let it be so. Shouldering his leather bag, he turned the knob and went inside.

Two Recluses in a Wood

Robert drove into Coffs for the supplies he needed, not ready to announce his presence with a public appearance in the small shops by the Green. All he wanted for the time being was to keep to himself, to wander in the woods and find branches and stumps and small trees that might lend themselves to carving or shaping into some object. This morning he'd set out on one such walk, and had located several nice pieces which he carried in the crook of his left arm, when he came out from behind a clump of tall bushes and stopped, frowning. A house. He had hoped there would be none within such easy walking distance of his own.

 



It was white, rather oddly-shaped with a cut-off gable, and was nearly buried under swaths of climbing roses in full bloom. It was also somehow entirely...female...in its aura. He frowned again, unpleasant memories of how it had ended so badly with Marion back in England flooding through him, turned on his heel and headed more deeply into the woods in another direction.

Julie St. John had just filled an antique vase with roses and stood surveying it, pulling up a rose here, tucking one in more there, then setting the arrangement in the center of her mahogany dining room table. The moment the real estate agent had shown her the house, she'd known it was perfect. Isolated, utterly charming, clean and neat, and filled with antique furnishings the elderly woman who'd owned it before had left behind. And the best thing about it was how far it was from London.

Her most recent novel had shot to the top of the best-seller list and her picture was plastered all over every bookstore in the city. It was the seventh in a continuing series of novels and by now her name was a household word. The first three had already been made, quite successfully, into movies. With the release of her latest book, she found she couldn't go anywhere without lenses following her, and so had made arrangements to get as far as possible from all of it and settle in to write her 8th in the series. All she wanted was peace and quiet and to be left alone. The rose-covered house relatively in the middle of nowhere, suited her purposes perfectly.

Leaving the dining room she walked to her study, picking up a copy of her book and staring a moment at the picture of her on the back of its dust jacket. It was a bit arty for her taste, but she'd gone along with her publisher's request to use that particular shot. At least the lighting didn't reveal any of the fine lines that had begun to show at the corners of her eyes when she smiled. A bit of air brushing, too, and she looked several years younger.

 



She'd brought at least two weeks' worth of groceries with her from Coff's and, hopefully, no one would even know she was there in the house she'd come to think of simply as Rose Cottage. Roses had always been her favorite flower and for a time she'd even considered naming her heroine Rose, but thought the better of it. Everyone would probably think it was that girl from the Titanic.

Sitting at her computer, she smiled. No one knew where she was except her publisher. That was how she wanted it. Not even Reginald, who had pursued her for the last three years, knew how to find her. She had no intention of ever marrying him. He was rather much of a stodge and she found him unutterably dull in his persistence for her hand. Rural Australia was the last place anyone would think of looking for her.

 

Unattended And Yet Found

He was aware there was a big gathering that evening, but Robert wasn't the least interested in going. Mingling with a large group of curious folk, all of whom would wonder who he was and why he'd come to the Glen, was at the top of his list of things to avoid. Taking his axe, a smaller hatchet, and several knives, he headed out alone into the wood. He'd been having luck finding great pieces of branches and gnarled old trees that lent themselves perfectly to his carving. He was also gathering longer, thinner branches which he soaked and planned to make some bentwood furnishings from.

Julie was stuck. The next paragraph in her new book simply wouldn't come. She looked out her front window, partially obscured by dangling rose canes. The sky was blue with moundings of white, puffy clouds. Perhaps a walk might clear her mind. Yes, she'd do that then come home and make pot of tea. Possibly her muse would resurface then.

She pulled on a pair of good English walking oxfords as she intended to explore the woods near Rose Cottage. The distant sound of a stream had reached her ears as she sat quietly by the open window and she wanted to find it and maybe sit by it a while and just think. The beginnings of what might be called a path headed away from the cottage and she followed it until it completely petered out in a tangle of underbrush. The stream sounded closer now, though, and so she struggled through, getting several scratches on her hands and one long one down her left cheek for her troubles.

Finally coming out into a small clearing, she found her oxfords sinking into wet, boggy soil. But now she could actually see the stream as it rippled through lots of rocks and she was determined to get to it come hell or high water. Her next step sank her right oxford in mud up to her ankle and when she pulled her foot out, her shoe remained.

"Damn!" she breathed, bending and exploring with her fingers to release the shoe. It was stuck fast and she tugged hard, losing her balance and falling. She twisted to avoid the bush behind her and ended up  on her side in the mud. Startled by her fall, she lay there a moment to catch her breath, but the mud coated the left half of her face and was in her eye and most of her nose. Her left arm was pinned
beneath her. She pushed with her right hand, but it, too, just sank deeply in the mud. Pulling her right hand free, she wiped at her face, only succeeding in smearing the mud over the other half of it, too. She tried wiggling her legs as hard as she could, one foot finding a buried piece of stump to push against and with great effort, heaved herself up into a half-seated position. Spitting mud from her mouth, she
swiped at her long blonde hair which hung now over her eyes. She had to keep her left eye closed or it stung terribly. "Happy New Year's Eve, Julie," she mumbled, then spat more mud.

It was thus that Robert happened upon her. He stood silently by the bush while the woman repeatedly spat brown goo from her mouth. Never had he seen quite so bedraggled a human before. He would have simply faded into the forest but for the fact she seemed unable to free herself from her predicament. Robert sighed. There was no getting around it.

"Good morning," he said, stepping out where she could see him.

Julie peered at the man through her half-open right eye. How long had he been there? No matter, he was there now. She straightened her shoulders, vainly attempting to recover some vague semblance of what might pass as dignity. Lifting her chin, which only made a glob of mud slide down her jawline and plop into her lap, she tried to speak, but found her throat too raspy with mud particles to form clear words. So
something garbled and almost animalistic came out.

"You wish help?" Robert asked.

Damn him! Of course she wished help!

Gripping a small tree with his left hand, he leaned out over the mud, extending the handle of his axe to her. She gripped it, but her hands were both too slipperly with mud for the grip to hold and the both simply slid off. Robert frowned. Getting himself covered in mud had not been on his day's agenda. He pulled back his axe and looked at the woman a while. Her head had drooped down, her shoulder sagged, and she appeared utterly wretched. Sighing again, he stepped out into the mud and slid both hands under her armpits, tugging her free and hauling her rather like a sack of flour onto drier ground.

Eyeing the distance to the stream, he asked, "Do you think you can make it to the water?"

His movement of her had made mud slide from her hair into her right eye and she had to keep both of them closed. "Can't...can't...see," she managed to mumble.

The stream was only about 20 feet away, so he lifted her again, half-dragging, half-guiding her to it. "Sit," he ordered, directing her bottom to a mid-sized rock right on the edge of the stream. Reaching into his pouch, he pulled out a cloth, and squatting to wet it, began to wipe her face.

She squinched her eyes tightly shut. "Hurts," she said, so he scooped up a handful of the clear water and let it wash over her eyes. It took several of those to clear enough mud away for her to open them. He rinsed the cloth and wiped softly over her lids again.

"Better?"

She nodded then leaned way forward to scoop water into her mouth, rinsing and rinsing until the feel of grit was gone. She was afraid she'd swallowed some mud as her stomach was feeling queasy. She made a feeble attempt to wipe more mud off herself with the cloth, but she was simply too entirely coated and her arm dropped limply by her side.

Robert scooped her up and sat her in the stream. "What?" She was confused and didn't understand, but then the warm water flowing around her waist began washing the mud from her lower body and she relaxed and sat quietly. Robert knelt in the stream beside her and, using his hands, began to wash down her arms. He even lifted handfuls of it and let it run from her throat down her chest. She closed her eyes, sitting silently, letting him do his ministrations. He didn't speak, he just kept pouring water on her body. When he moved around to her back to do the same thing, his hands followed the water, wiping down her spine, over her shoulders.

She hadn't gotten a good look at him and had no idea who he was. At the moment she didn't care. What he was doing felt too good to care about such matters. Suddenly she felt one of his hands supporting her back while the other was leaning her toward the water. He'd tipped her backwards enough so that the stream could run through her long hair. Still supporting her to keep her head above the stream, he used his free hand to wash water over the top of her head, too. She was amazed that she could simply lie there and let a complete stranger do that. With her eyes closed, she listened to the movement of the stream, the sound of the water he let fall on her head, his breathing. She felt like she'd fallen through some crevice and were in another world and her author's mind began
to form the sensations into sentences she might use at some future time. It was how her brain worked. Everything she saw, she thought, she did was transformed into invisibly written sentences.

When he sat her up again, she kept her eyes closed. She'd imagined him in her sentences and wanted to keep him that way. He couldn't possibly be as good as she'd imagined him to be and she didn't want to lose that.

"Are you all right?" His voice was deep, very masculine, yet soft as he asked his question.

She took three slow breaths then let her lids open. The man was kneeling in the stream directly in front of her, wet to his waist, his sleeves wet to the elbow from where he'd dipped into the water. He had a neat, short beard but it was his eyes that captured her attention. Bluish green they were, and lit from within by some deep intelligence and expressiveness. They were better eyes than she'd imagined. She had no idea what to say to him. Their circumstances were just too strange. She licked her lips and his eyes followed the movement of her tongue.
That disconcerted her even more.

"Tea?" she asked, her voice breaking on the single syllable.

He smiled, a closed-mouth, lip-curving smile. "You are English," he stated, his own accent proving he was, too.

"London," she nodded. "Would...would you like some tea?"  She had no idea why she kept mentioning tea. Her brain was fried. That had to be it. When one's brain was fried, tea was always a good thing. Her throat hurt from the grit. She wanted hot tea and lots of it.

"Do you live in the Glen?" he asked. He did not want to go there.

"The...the cottage...with the roses."

Ah, there. The house that was too close to his own, yet still way away from the Glen in the woods. "I know the place," he said. "Let me assist you in getting there."  She didn't look like she was capable of making it on her own. The mud washed off her face, her skin was very pale. Standing, he held out his hand.

She looked at it a moment. It was a fine hand, large and strong, and she put one of her own slender ones in it, feeling the warmth of his close around her fingers. As he helped her to her feet in the stream, her stomach lurched and she turned quickly to the side, throwing up into the swiftly-flowing water. She felt terrible and swayed and he caught her in his arms, carrying her out of the stream. He eyed his axe and hatchet  as he passed. He'd have to
retrieve them later. Without a word, he carried her through the woods, her head cradled on his shoulder.

 

 The Possibilities of Tea

Robert made his way easily through the woods. In just a few days he'd become completely familiar with them for some distance around. He chose the most direct route to Rose Cottage. He would see the woman home safely then retrieve his axe and hatchet. Aware there was water in his boots, he also wanted to return home and change clothes.

As he walked, he looked down at her face. She still seemed very pale to him and he noticed how the red of the scratch on her cheek stood out against the whiteness of her skin. She kept her eyes closed the whole way, which concerned him as to the state of her health. Perhaps a husband awaited her to whom he could transfer responsibility for her care?

Reaching her door, he asked, "You have the key?"

"I didn't lock it," she murmured, feeling so comfortable with her head on her shoulder she didn't want to lift it.

Shifting her slightly, he managed to open the door and walked in to her living room. All the furnishings looked old and very expensive, with exquisite upholstery and he didn't know where to set her in her wet things and not ruin something. "Where?" he asked.

"Hmmm?" she opened her eyes. "Oh, near the bathroom, I guess. It's tile there."

He carried her down the hallway and began to stand her on her feet. She still felt as though she were beyond that crevice, on the other side of somewhere, and blinked at him vaguely, swaying slightly. It looked to him like she might simply topple over, so he lifted her again and sat her on the side of the large bathtub. "Will you be all right?"

"Hmmm? Me? I just need tea. Yes, that's what I need."

"You need a warm bath first," he stated, turning on the faucets and holding his hand there until the water was a temperature he liked.

She saw what he was doing and some part of her began to wish he would bathe her here like he'd done at the stream. Maybe if she wrote the sentences in her head, he'd actually do so? She shook her head. What was she thinking? She didn't know him. Why did she want his hands on her? It was, she knew, because of the way they'd felt on her back in the stream. "Do you like tea?"

"I'm English," he stated. "Yes, I like tea. But you need a bath. I suggest you take advantage of the tub filling beside you." "Will you have tea with me after I bathe?" What an idiot she was. This was not how she ever acted! She just felt...strange. Alice in Wonderlandish.

"I am wet. I need to change clothes."  Actually, he thought, I need a bath now almost as much as she does. For a moment she actually considered inviting him to share hers. That was how strange she felt. "Do....do you live far?"

Not far enough, he thought to himself. "No," he replied. "Just beyond that copse of trees."

"Really?" She had no idea another house was over there. She thought she was pretty much by herself out this far.

"Really," he repeated, impatient to be on his way. He was not ready for entanglements of any sort. "If you think you
can manage, I'll go now."

"Bath," she said. "Yes, I do need a bath." Her blouse was sticking to her breasts and she was aware that mud grit remained uncomfortably here and there about her person. She pulled at her buttons.

He turned to leave. "Please," she said, "will you come back and have tea with me?" Who WAS he? She didn't know his name.

"I was...," he began evasively.

"Please." She lifted large, pleading eyes to him.

Damn! The woman was too appealing like that. "You are home, and safe. Is that not enough?"

"I...I don't know why. But...but it's not."

"Will your husband not be home soon? You should have your tea with him."

"There's not one. A husband, I mean."

He licked his lips. This was not going the way he wanted. "You live here alone? Way out here?"

She nodded, her wet hair clinging to her neck.

"Why?" he asked.

"To write. I write books. I...I need quiet."

"I also require quiet," he replied enigmatically. "I shall be on my way. Good day."

"Would you?"

"Would I?"

"Please consider having tea with me?"  How dreadfully idiotic she felt. But now he'd become a story in her mind and she simply had to find what came next.

"Why is that important?" He was being blunt.

"I don't know. But...will you?"

"It matters that much?"

"It seems to, yes."

He sighed deeply. "I will go home and change. Possibly I shall return." That was as much as he could grant her.

She didn't press him more. She simply wrote sentences in her brain in which he did come back.

 

Creative Sentences

He walked home slowly, feeling the unpleasant squish in his boot with every step. What he wanted was to drop
the woman off and just forget the whole thing. She was very...odd. He found himself smiling. Odd in a strangely
appealing sort of way, however. And she had a fine throat. He'd wanted to touch his lips to it more than once.
But what was this fixation with tea? Well, what he'd do was take a bath and change clothes. He'd wait until
after that to decide about the blasted tea.

She was definitely English, had that well-educated accent he preferred in a woman. A writer, was she? He
hoped it was only books she wrote and not something unpleasant like investigative journalism.

He decided on a shower, not the tub, and stood a long while, his palms on the shower wall, letting the hot
water beat down on the top of his bent head. Little streams of light brown water from the mud washed
down the drain between his feet. So much of life had washed down the drain lately. He watched the
brown fade into paler shades and then into clear water as his skin cleansed. "Gone," he whispered,
"all of it."

Stepping out of the shower he toweled himself dry rather roughly then pulled on jeans and an emerald
green shirt. He blew dry his hair, still not sure about what to do with the tea invitation. The woman lived
in such damn proximity to his house, he figured it might be best to find out a bit more about her so he'd
know how much he'd need to avoid encountering her in the future. Yes, that was reason enough to return.

Julie unbuttoned her blouse, letting her wet clothes simply fall in limp piles on the tile floor. She'd tend to
them later. Pouring half a bottle of bubble bath under the faucet's fall, she slipped into the big tub and just
lay there for a while, leaning her head on the back edge and closing her eyes as her brain filled with
sentences of his return. He would come and he'd be wearing green. Somehow the thought of him in
green was right. He'd been dressed in tans and deep brown before, but he would come in green.

And what would his name be. Leicester? No. It would be something solid, like William or Richard
or John. Solid. That was a good word. He was solid like the trees of the woods. He'd lifted her,
carried her, so easily. She felt feminine in his presence. Yes, that was it. His masculinity made her
feel extremely female.

Julie, a part of her brain, the practical part, insisted. You came all the way here to be alone, remember.
So you could write.

I AM writing, the other part of her mind parried. I'm writing Richard...or William...whoever he is. I'm
writing him. So bugger off and leave me be!

She picked up a large sponge and began to wipe it down an arm. It was nice, clean and soapy, but his
hands in the stream had been nicer. She paused in her wiping, remembering the feel of his touch on her back.
The whole experience had been like living a chapter in a book. She would, in fact, use it. She'd alter it a bit
and put it in the book she was writing. She'd thought to go for a walk and come home to find her muse, but,
no, she'd found him in the mud and in the water of the stream.

Dried and dressed in a soft peach-colored silk dress, she made tea. He would come. Please, please, he
would come. The sentences she'd mentally written were clear as memories in her head. She filled a small
plate with an array of sweet biscuits, got out two cups, two spoons, sugar and cream.

When a hand knocked on her door, she closed her eyes in relief. "Hello again," she said, opening it to him.

"Robert." He said his name, inclining his head slightly.

Solid. She had been right. Her eyes took in his deep green shirt. "Come in, Robert," she said. "The tea is
steeping."

 


A Formal Tea


Julie could tell Robert was on guard as he entered. She wasn't sure why so she smiled, hoping to set him
more at ease.


He paused there in the doorway. It was his first sight of her clean and wearing fresh clothing. He hadn't
realized until that moment just how entirely stunning the woman was. But he kept his lips in a straight
line, not at all ready for her to see his appreciation. He still had much he needed to find out and that
she was a writer was of some concern to him.

"Good day," he said, slightly stiffly. "I've come for tea."

His mouth might not have betrayed his thoughts, but his eyes were more expressive than he intended
they be. An intelligent woman and now in full possession of her faculties once more, she knew better
than to respond to the eyes so soon, so let his lips set her tone. This was a man who would simply
leave if it thought it best.

"Robert," she repeated his name. "I'm Julie. Short for Julianna." She didn't try to take his hand in greeting
as he didn't offer it. "Please come in."

Julianna. It suited her in his mind better than Julie. It was more formal and he felt formal right now. "Thank
you, Julianna. I trust you are somewhat recovered."

"The bath did wonders," she replied. "It's so good finally to have all the mud off. Thank you for what you did
for me at the stream. I...I'm not sure I would have made it home caked as I was."

He tipped his head in acknowledgement of her thanks. "I was passing by. You needed assistance."

Ok, she thought. He's really being formal here. Why? "Tea is in here," she said, leading him to a small nook set in a
bay window where a little round table with two chairs was set for tea.

When they were seated and she'd filled his cup, she asked, "Have you been long in the Glen, Robert?"

Damn! The woman was going to pry. "Not long."

"And you came from England?"

"I did." He took a sip of tea. "Very good." He set his cup down, resting his wrists on the edge of the table, trying not
to look as uncomfortable as he felt. What he needed was to find out just who this woman was and why she was here.
"And you? You are only recently arrived, I believe."

Ah, good. He wanted to know about her, too. That was a good sign. "Yes, just a couple of days ago, in fact."

"Why did you choose such a...remote...location, if I may ask?" If she truly were a woman alone, that seemed a bit odd to him.

She looked across the table at him. There was not a glimmer of recognition in his eyes, despite his being English, that he had
any idea of who she was. He must not have ever come across any of her books or watched the celebrity stalking news shows
on the tellie. "It can be a good thing," she replied carefully, "for a writer to be in a place where there are few...interruptions."

So, she wanted no interruptions, but yet practically waylaid him to come for tea? "Do you intend to stay long?"

"At least until I finish my book. And I've only just started it."

"A novelist? Do you do...other...forms of writing?"  Please, he thought, please don't be a journalist.

"Just that. It's kept me quite busy. This is my eighth book, in fact."

"Eight? That's impressive to have seven books published."

"I was lucky. The first one was a hit and just paved the way for the rest. It's all a continuing series."

"Very nice," he said with the slightest smile, relieved she didn't write for the papers or a magazine. "Did you not consider, though, a flat somewhere in Sydney in a private high-rise building?"

Great. He didn't want her in his neighborhood. Why was he so damn set on being the only resident out here? "No," she answered, "I have such a flat in London. I wanted something completely different. And...," she looked out the window, "I love roses."

"It does have lovely roses," he granted, "but is it not rather isolated? You already landed yourself in a bit of a pickle this morning. What if no one had come along? That is a real possibility in such a location as this."

"But you did come along," she replied, her chin beginning to set at his continued formal way of indicating he wished she weren't there. "And I am fully capable of getting myself out of...pickles...all alone if you had not."

Her eyes flashed with a spark of anger, making her seem even more lovely somehow. Quickly he sipped his tea again so his own eyes could lower with excuse. He liked her flare of temper in response. He would, though, have liked it better had Rose Cottage not existed. "You have lived always in London?" He changed the line of conversation, wanting still to discover more about her without revealing anything of himself.

"I was born there," she said, not completely unriled by him yet. "And I live there now."

"And in between?"

"Why does that matter?"

"It does not matter. I am merely making conversation over tea." His lips curved into that closed-mouth smile again. "You seemed to wish that I come."

Right now she was not sure why she had. He was completely infuriating and she was having to struggle terribly to maintain any freshness of memory of how his hands felt on her body in the stream. And even though she told herself she loathed all her fame, she was somewhat stung that though he was her countryman, he had never heard of her when she was known all over the world.

"And you, Robert," she asked, almost gritting her teeth, "why are you out here so far from civilization?"

He paused, considering how best to answer that. "I am on, shall we say, a Sabbatical?"

"A Sabbatical? You teach?"

"Not exactly, no, but the term will do."

The term would DO? Damn the man! He spoke and yet he said nothing. Inhaling deeply, she tried, "And why were you out in the woods this morning?"

"To rescue you, of course."

"I could have rescued myself," she said, narrowing her eyes in irritation.

"You did not appear all that successful when I arrived."

"I had only recently fallen. Given time, I'm sure I could have managed quite well."

"Quite possibly," he said, rising. "Thank you for the tea, Julianna."  He began to walk toward the door.

She followed quickly behind him, catching up just as he put his hand on the inside knob. "Robert...wait," she said, and without thinking, put her hand over his.

He gasped. Instant electricity flowed through him at her touch and, all unbidden, parts of him awakened. It was nothing more than her hand on his. How could that be enough? He paused, breathing through his mouth, waiting.

She kept her hand there. "I'm sorry, Robert. We seem to have gotten off to an awkward beginning. Truly, I am grateful for all you did for me today." He maintained his silence, so she added, "And since we simply are neighbors, would it be at all possible for us to live in peace?"

He looked down at her upturned face, into her large, beautiful, pleading eyes. Without a word, he moved both hands to her shoulders and kissed her, kissed her long and...well. Then he opened the door and strode rapidly away.

 

Twice Off a Log

Robert walked rapidly through the woods, his heart pounding, unsure of everything but that he should retrieve his axe and hatchet. Arriving at the spot where they lay, he picked up the axe and began chopping down the nearest tree. It wasn't that he needed the wood, just that he needed the action of the chopping. Damn! *Chop!* Damn!* Chop!*  He didn't want to be so attracted to her. She was nothing more than an unwelcome intruder into what he'd desperately hoped would be an entirely private space. And she was English, too! She might put two and two together someday and then what? How could he have come so bloody blasted FAR and end up with an Englishwoman just past the copse? Damn! *Chop!*

He hadn't put on his woodsman's gloves and the axe sliding through his palms began to rub his flesh. Pausing, he looked up at the canopy. He'd picked a much larger tree than usual. Well, he couldn't leave it half-chopped. It would be dangerous that way. Taking off his green shirt, he returned to the matter at hand, swinging the axe with an easy rhythm. At last the trunk cracked, began to splinter on its back side, and one last swing sent it toppling. It fell across the stream, not blocking it, but balanced across sections of rocks on either side. Wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of a forearm, he dropped the axe again and walked to the stream. He was hot, his shower completely undone.

The trunk was wide and he hopped up atop it, walking out to the middle of the stream. The stream here was almost completely shaded by the closely-knit canopies of the trees along either of its banks. It was getting on in the afternoon and he stretched himself out on the trunk, folding his hands on his chest, and watched the movement of the leaf patterns above him. They whispered forest secrets from branch to branch in the rustle of their leaves and the stream rippled its water song as it passed beneath the trunk. This was good. He was comfortable here, alone, him and the forest. After a while he closed his eyes, internalizing the forest sounds, merging them with the beating of his heart. He fell asleep.

Julie watched his back as he strode to the forest path, soon lost to her sight behind the undergrowth. Her fingers went to her lips, still warm and tingling from his. He had taken her utterly, utterly by surprise. He was formal, leaving after clearly indicating her presence was not welcome, then...this? In all seven of her books, she'd never written something quite like this. 

Quietly closing the door, she went slowly back to the table and carried the tea things into the kitchen. She set the tray on a counter and stared at his cup a long while. A fingertip came out and ran along the rim of his cup where his lips had touched, then she moved the fingertip across her lower lip. The cups were a very thin, delicate china and she never put them in the dishwasher. She took her cup and the teapot to the sink, carefully washing them, but left his as it was, not yet ready to remove the traces of him from it. 

She didn't even know his last name. And he didn't know hers. But...Robert...yes, solid. She liked his first name. Robert. He would never be a Bob. No, not ever. He was a Robert. Nicknames were not meant for some men. Sitting at her computer, she wrote for a while. Even though she was not using the day's events right now, they had, in some mysterious way, unlocked the flow of her words and her fingers flew over the keyboard. 

Around four o'clock, she realized she hadn't eaten and went to the refrigerator, slicing off a piece of cheese. She stood leaning against the kitchen sink, nibbling it, looking out the window at the copse of trees he'd said his house lay beyond. What would it look like? It would not be white and smothered in roses. That much she knew. Perhaps she could take a peek? Not get really close, just enough to get some concept of its appearance?

Her mind was so full of that she knew it would be useless to return to her computer. Changing into slacks and tennis shoes she went out her door, heading across the small lawn toward the copse. Half way there she stopped. No, if he saw her...no, that wouldn't be right. She looked back over her shoulder at Rose Cottage, not really in the mood simply to go back there. Her oxfords were still in the mud. Maybe she could fish them out with a branch or something and clean them off? They were, after all, her favorite walking shoes and the surrounding forest simply did beckon one to...walk. So she passed by her house and began to follow the path she had earlier in the day.

When she came to the tangle of underbrush where she'd scratched herself that morning, she carefully took a more circuitous way around it, coming out at the edge of the mud. There was no trace of her oxfords. Damn! They were completely buried in mud. She began to search nearby for a long, thin branch she could use to poke down into the mud when a bright flash of green caught her eye. A shirt was draped over a small bush. It was his. She remembered it well. But why would his shirt be out here? Just a bit to her left, a large tree had been
freshly cut down and there was an axe lying near the stump. Curious. Turning, her eyes followed down the length of the trunk, noting it had
fallen across the stream. She didn't remember a tree across the stream this morning. Walking toward the stream, the green shirt still in her
hands, she came close to the bank, her breath hissing sharply in. Robert! He lay along the trunk over the stream and didn't seem yet aware
of her presence. 

Leaning out as far as she dared, she tried to see his face, but the angle was wrong. She sat on the same rock he'd seated her upon that
morning, taking off her tennis shoes and socks, rolling up her slacks as far as they'd go. Trying not to make a splash, she waded gingerly
out into the water, coming quite close to the large trunk before she stopped. His hands were laced across his chest, his head tipped just
a bit toward her, his lashes fanned across his cheeks. She smiled. He was sleeping. She simply stood there a long time, absorbing the
picture he made in that setting. "You are better, Robert," she whispered to herself, "than anything I have ever written."

His hands rose and fell with his breathing. She had his shirt, so he was bare to the waist. "Voyeur," she scolded herself with a smile and no
intention of stopping her gaze. No, quite shamelessly she studied his parted lips, the straight line of his brows. 

Perhaps her gaze was almost too tactile of a thing because he woke with a sudden start, jerking up to a seated position so rapidly he lost
his balance and fell off the far side of the trunk. She was so startled she lost her footing and sat down hard in the stream. Everything was
silent a long, long moment, then she could see his eyes peering at her under the trunk. 

He cleared his throat. "Did we not already do this once today?"

"I...I...," she stammered, "I guess I wasn't...wet enough."

She had no idea what his response would be and her eyes widened when a hearty laugh rolled toward her from under the tree. 

His jeans and a second pair of boots were sopping. At least his shirt was safe and dry on the bush where he'd left it. It was when he looked under the trunk and saw her sitting there, and his green shirt came floating toward him on the current, that he began to laugh. The whole situation, the whole day, had been utterly ridiculous, completely strange. His thoughts then ranged back to an earlier log across a larger stream. He'd ended up in the water that day, too. And he'd made a friend. A good and loyal friend. He smiled. Perhaps the similarity boded well for today's wetting? There wasn't space for him to pass under the tree, so he stood, rivulets coursing down his chest, placed both palms on the trunk and lightly vaulted over it, landing with somewhat of a splash at her side. Immediately his brow knit in concern. Silent tears dripped down her cheeks.

"Are you injured, Julie?" he asked, quickly kneeling.

She looked at him and hiccupped. "What is it?" he pressed. "Did you hurt yourself when you slipped this time?"

She hiccupped again. "N...no," she sniffed. "You laughed."

"I laughed? You weep because I laughed?"

She nodded. "I...I never k...know if...if you are going to grump at m...me, or l...laugh." Damn the man! He made her feel completely out of control! She was being a ninny and she couldn't stop herself.

He looked completely bewildered, trying to grasp the concept that his laughter had made her cry. She must be injured. That had to be it. He put his hands under the water and began to feel down her legs, looking for broken bones. 

"Oh...God!" she moaned and he was certain he must have pressed on a break.

"I'm sorry, Julie," he muttered. "I didn't mean...."

She closed her eyes, knowing she was about to die on the spot.  Every single nerve ending in her body had sprung to life.

He took the closing of her lids as affirmation she was in pain so he slid one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, and stood, lifting her out of the water. He'd get her to his car and...what? Coffs was too far. He'd have to take her into the Glen. 

She slid her arms around his damp shoulders, her damn brain making sentences. He carried her, in them, to a softly-turfed meadow, sprinkled with wild poppies, and laying her on her back unbuttoned her wet blouse, making slow and marvelous love to her. Descriptive sentence after descriptive sentence of how that would be filled her mind.

Opening her eyes, she looked up his jaw line as he struggled to find a way up the slippery bank. Soon, she thought, it would all happen soon, the meadow, the poppies, the slow unbuttoning. "OOOF!" he gasped as he gained the top of the bank, a mossy rock turning under his boot. He toppled forward, Julie in his arms, straight into the deepest part of the mud. 

 

For All We Know


Julie landed on her back in the mud, Robert atop her, his added weight making her sink even more deeply than before. She was nearly completely covered and his front was layered thickly. He was horrified, thinking still she had a broken leg and that he'd fallen not only with her, but atop her.

"Julie!" he cried, putting his knees down on either side of her legs and sliding his hands under her shoulders to lift her enough to get her head out of the mud.

She was shocked, totally taken by surprise and jarred brutally from the poppy-laden meadow in her mind. The world went suddenly brown and she gasped in a mouthful of mud as she landed, instantly choking. Only under the mud for a second or two, it was still enough to fill her mouth and eyes. She felt herself being pulled up and she coughed and gagged and coughed some more.

He saw immediately what was wrong and grabbed her the rest of the way out of the mud and almost toppled with her into the stream. The water was clean and pure; he'd drunk from it before his nap and  he rapidly scooped handfuls of it over her face, into her mouth. He forgot about her leg in his concern to get the mud from her face so she could breathe. It seemed to take a long time for her to get her breath back and when she finally did, he wrapped his bare wet arms around her and pressed her to his chest.

Instantly she fell through that crevice again, Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Her brain felt delightfully vague, both from a bit of oxygen deprivation and the presence of his chest against her breasts, so vague, in fact, that her head wobbled on her neck. One of his hands came up to support that, with the result that the crevice opened wider and she fell further into it.

"No," he whispered, and she had no idea what he meant.

Robert thought she was going to pass out and he was urging her to hold on to her consciousness. Her head bobbled against his chin and when he looked down at her face, her eyes were closed, her lips parted. He'd hurt her more. My God, he'd hurt her more. His hand on the back of her head felt the mud and grit that still remained in her hair. He leaned her back again, not so much for the hair this time but in hopes that the water flowing around her might revive her. He was kneeling, straddling her hips, as he held her.

She was in the meadow with Robert bending low over her. It was raining, though the sky was brilliant blue. It must be raining because she was so wet. He was wet.  No matter. Robert was bending over her. She could feel his breath on her face, his lips brushing hers as he whispered his love. In a moment his fingers would find her buttons and then....

He was worried. Her face seemed too pale to him and she kept her lids closed. "Julie," he whispered, bending closely enough to tell if she were breathing. His lips were a mere fraction above hers.

He was magnificent, this man whose body was touching hers. The wet grass blades almost rippled under her, her soul felt so light in his presence. He'd lain her in the poppies, was about to make love to her. She felt like the princess of some lost kingdom and the dragon-slaying knight had arrived at last. She smiled and murmured, "Sir Robert...."

Good God! She KNEW!! Astounded, he released his grip and her head submerged.

She spluttered, sitting so abruptly her forehead smacked into his chin with great force, enough that he saw stars for a moment and slumped to his side.

What had happened? She'd been in the meadow. A flood must've come. All the poppies were gone. Stream water had replaced the mud in her lungs and she coughed so hard she couldn't cough and think at the same time.

As soon as his face went under the water, Robert came to himself, bursting upwards, great coughs wracking their way through his chest. He flopped over, his back against the bank, still coughing and gasping. As his lungs cleared, he became aware she was sitting in the stream beside his legs, her head hanging limply, completely drained from her second coughing fit. It took him a moment to find his voice. "You KNEW!" he accused. "All along you knew. Is that why you invited me to tea?"

Blearily, she opened her eyes, looking at Robert propped against the edge of the stream. Had he been coughing, too? Vaguely she thought she'd heard coughing other than her own. It had to have been him. He was glaring at her. Yes, glaring was definitely the right word. "W...what?"

"You pretended like you didn't know, damn you!"  It was all too convenient. Rose Cottage so near his own hidden retreat. It couldn't be coincidence. And it wasn't. Somehow he'd been tracked down.

Had he said 'damn you'...and to her? "I...I don't...."

"You can stop all the pretending, Julianna. I know why you're here."

"Why...why I'm here? Robert! I'm here to write my book!"

"You think I'd believe such a cock and bull story NOW?" he roared, struggling to his feet.

"What are you TALKING about, Robert?" She'd never felt so at a loss in her life.

"Sir Robert, Julianna. That's what! You called me Sir Robert!! How did you find me?"

"Find you? I wasn't looking for you, Robert. I was looking for a tucked-away place to write my book. That's...all."  She breathed rapidly in and out.
"And what do you mean I called you Sir Robert?"

"In the stream, just a moment ago. You called me Sir Robert."

"The MEADOW!" He meant her sentences in the meadow. He'd come to her as a knight, as Sir Robert.

"The meadow?" he repeated. "What in hell do you mean by that?"

"Sentences. They...they were sentences...in my mind. I...I write sentences. All the time, Robert. It's how I think...written sentences."

"What does that have to do with a meadow?"

"We...I...," no, she couldn't tell him that.

"Well? What does a meadow have to do with your calling me Sir Robert?"

She didn't understand. "Why would that upset you?"

"Why would...? All this way, damn you! All the way to the other side of the world and I'm here a couple of days and there you come!"

Her head was almost spinning with the harshness of his tone, and he was saying one thing after another that made no sense to her. "What does it matter if I came? I don't...."

He narrowed his eyes, intensifying his glare. It was a powerful force, that glare, and she recoiled physically from it. "What does it matter?!?" he bellowed. "You've ruined everything!"

What was he saying? She'd ruined...everything? What, what had she ruined? The contrast between the meadow and his glare was too swift, too jarring, and a few tears slipped down her cheek.

"This is too serious," he said, lowering his voice a bit. "Crying isn't going to undo a thing."  His brow knit in a deep frown.

"I...I...have no...no...idea what I d...did," she sniffed, "so...so...how c...can I undo it?"

"So you know who I am. Ok, is there any way you'd consider just leaving quietly and not writing about it?"

"Writing about...what? Writing about WHAT?"

"My God, woman! When are you going to stop pretending you have no idea what I mean!?!" He was getting even more irritated, if possible. He really liked this place, the house he'd found, the resources for his woodwork. He had no need for an income and this forest had been absolutely perfect for his purposes...until she showed up.

She pressed both wet palms over her face as her response. "You can stop the pitiful act now," he growled.

Slowly, she let her fingers slide down her face and drop to her submerged lap. "I can't do this," she whispered. "I'm too tired." Her chin drooped dejectedly to her chest.

"Bollocks!" he snapped and turned away to leave. A deep sob sounded behind him and, reluctantly, he looked back at her. She still sat there in the stream. For a hard-nosed reporter, she did look pretty pitiful. "Come on," he said, trying to sound normal. "Get up out of the stream."

She didn't move, just sat there choking back sobs. "Crying on the job will get you fired, you know," he tried, his male heart softening just a bit at the sight she presented.

Lifting her chin, she looked at him. "Job? What job?"

"Your story, your exposé about me. What do you think I mean? That is your assignment, isn't it?"

She continued her gaze. "Who...are...you, Robert?"

"As if you didn't know!" he snorted, his voice hardening again.

"I don't know. I don't know how to make you believe me, but I don't KNOW!"

His eyes became mere slits. "Sir Robert, remember? You called me by my title, damn it!"

"You...you're a...a...Sir?"

"Of course I...."  His eyes widened a bit. "Who are you?"

"Julianna St. John," she sighed, "novelist."

"Julianna St....."  His mouth dropped open somewhat. He'd heard the name. "You....you're not...?"

"A reporter? Is that what you think, that I'm a reporter?"  He nodded and she let out a laugh that bordered slightly on the hysterical. "The last reporting I did was on a school newspaper when I was 14. I write books, Robert. BOOKS! That's all. I told you before that was what I did."

He steepled his hands under his chin, staring at her. Julianna St. John. It was the first she mentioned her last name. You couldn't be alive in any intelligent fashion at all, and especially not be English, and not have heard of her. "You...you're here to write? Truly?"

"Truly," she sighed. "And why are you here, Sir Robert?"

"You called me that...a few moments ago you called me that. I need to know why."  He had revealed himself in response to her calling him that. Had he done so needlessly? He pressed his lips together, waiting.

"I tried to explain, Robert. I'm an author. I write constantly. My thoughts are often written sentences. In...in the stream, when you...you...were leaning over me?"  He nodded again.  "I...I was writing. I...liked it...and I was writing sentences."

"About a meadow?"

She chewed her lip. "Yes, about a meadow. And...and you came. And you looked like...like, well, like a knight. And so I called you...."

"Sir Robert," he finished for her, his shoulders sagging. What had he done?

"Are you...Sir Robert?" her voice was very low.

He closed his lids, blowing out a long breath, and nodded.

"But...but why is that a secret?" He'd been almost wild at the thought she knew.

"You really don't know?"

"I don't." She studied the look in his eyes. "But I don't have to know, Robert."

"You don't have to...?" he repeated. She was offering him a gift. As much of a brute as he'd been, she was still offering him a gift. It took him a moment to take it in. "Oh, Julie," he almost moaned, stepping completely back into the stream and kneeling in front of her again. "Julianna St. John, famous author, who needs a quiet place to write."  He took her face between both his hands, placing his warm lips atop her rather cold ones, parting them with his tongue.

 

A BOOK YET UNWRITTEN

Robert moved back, standing in the stream. If he didn't, he knew he'd make love to her right there. He stood, taking deep breaths, looking down at Julie. Her eyes, even larger than usual, were looking back up at him.

The kiss had taken her by surprise at first, then rapidly become all that she'd dreamed in the poppied meadow. Only he ended it, standing, and she opened her eyes, wondering why. Did he not actually want her? No, he did. That was rather evident as he stood so closely in front of her. She tried to keep her lips from curving in a smile.

He seemed so caught up in his thoughts that he was unaware of her awareness, and after a moment extended a hand. "For the second time we are in need of a bath and a change of clothing." That reminded him of his green shirt and he turned his head, looking down the stream. Ah, there it was, caught on a root that protruded from the bank.

Splashing, he made his way to it and, wringing it slightly, proceeded to slide an arm into it. Julie watched as the soaked shirt covered his bare torso, the material clinging to every line and curve. He didn't button it, just came back to her and extended his hand again. This time she took it, letting him help her to her feet. "Perhaps we should refrain from further visitations to this stream?" he said softly.

"Or not," she murmured.

"Why did you return?" he asked.

"My shoes. They were left in the mud that first time."

"Ah," he said, assisting her up the bank, "I shall see if I may then locate them."

Within moments he had found them and using a long stick, gotten them out. Large clumps of mud dripped off them so he waded back into the stream and washed them for her. Not that that made them really clean, but at least they could be carried with no further mud falls.

She studied his fine, strong hands as he worked on cleaning her shoes in the water. He was concentrating rather intently on what he was doing as though not entirely sure what to say next to her. What a strange day it had been, she mused, and what a way to meet somebody. He was amazing... appealing and secretive all at once...and he fascinated her. The best heroes in her novels always had some sort of something they were less than eager to share. She liked that he did. Never had she felt quite so strongly the sense of being a character in a yet-unwritten book. This tale, though, had a life of its own and she seemed more the reader than the writer of it. The pages filled as she turned them, no outline, no awareness of what might come next.

 

COMING BACK AT SEVEN

Robert accompanied Julie through the woods back to Rose Cottage. At the doorway, she set down the pair of shoes he'd
retrieved for her from the mud and also slipped off the ones she had on, which were in just as bad condition as the others.
Her eyes traveled down to his boots, also in very sorry shape.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"What?"  He'd been thinking about how the late afternoon sunlight made golden streaks in her hair.

"Your boots."

He looked down at his feet, then back into her eyes. "Meeting you has been rather hard on the footwear."

"I know," she laughed. "Would," her voice grew serious, "you consider coming in?"

"Not like this," he replied. "I have an appointment with a shower as soon as I get home."

Her mind went into gear, writing a scene in which he was in her shower and she joined him. She smiled absently as the
feel of lather became almost tangible in her hands. Suddenly she was aware he'd said something, but all she'd heard
were the last two words..."for now."

"You...you're going?"

"Shower's waiting," he smiled, which only brought back the image of that again.

She shook her head. "Ummm...."  She needed to say something. What? "Dinner. Would you come back for dinner this evening?"

He paused. This woman was not in his plans. He wanted isolation, quiet, anonymity. How could she be here, so close, so very appealing? Damn! There was that sunlight on her hair! He wanted to be with her. He did. It was as simple as that and as complicated. She had said back at the stream she didn't need to know. Perhaps he could chance it this evening, see if she really meant that. Perhaps.

She saw the indecision in his eyes, lay her hand on his forearm. "Please? About seven?"

"All right," he said. "Seven."  He touched her cheek lightly with a fingertip then turned to go. What the hell was he getting himself into?

He scrubbed himself rather roughly, disturbed by this unsought draw to her. This could prove his undoing. He was all too well aware of that. "Moth to the flame," he murmured. But something about the woman had gotten under his skin. Naked, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, staring into his own eyes, going back step by step over the day's events. It was all too strange. Twice in the stream with a delicate tea in between. "Mud and tea," he said aloud, then shook his head and grabbed a towel.

At precisely seven he knocked on her door. Timing had always been important in his life and since he'd agreed to seven, he'd be there at seven. She opened the door and he simply stood there a moment letting his eyes take her in. Her hair was loose, parted in the middle, and just slightly waving hung down over her shoulders. She had on an ivory tunic top, its deep V neck outlined in black ribbon and a lace insert. Her legs were covered in softly draping black silk pants so wide it appeared she was wearing a skirt. Indeed, he thought that's what it was until she moved.

She blinked, trying to still the writing her mind was doing at the sight of him. He was wearing form-fitting dark blue jeans with a blousy burgundy silk shirt, his collar-length hair brushed and shining. All he needs is a sword at his side, she thought. Somehow he'd look right with one. There was just something...something...about him that made that so.

"I'm glad you've come," she greeted.

He took a deep breath, glad himself that he had, though not at all sure he wasn't laying his head on some invisible chopping block.



HOW COULD IT POSSIBLY BE PERSONAL?

Neither had spoken and she suddenly felt she must fill the silence. "I...I've made lamb chops. I hope that's all right."

He tried not to smile. She seemed slightly flustered and her cheeks had flushed pink. "I like lamb."

"Oh...good," she breathed, feeling like a teenager. His presence did that to her, made her feel somehow...inexperienced. The utterly masculine intensity that radiated from the man was breath-taking. She continued standing where she was, just staring at him.

After a moment he asked softly, "May I come in?"

"Oh! Oh...yes...certainly," she blurted, reddening a bit more. "Dinner's ready. If you are, that is. I mean, we can wait if you like. Or eat."

"I am rather hungry. Eating is fine."

"Of course you're hungry," she laughed awkwardly. "You've had a busy day. All that mud and all. Falling off logs. Very busy."  Good Lord! Couldn't she even talk any more? She led the way to her dining room, biting her tongue, never having felt so inept in any man's presence.

"Falling off logs is very easy," he said as they walked. "It's the staying on that can be difficult."  He smiled again. "At times," he added.

"You...you fall off logs....often?" God, she was five years old again!

"I've been known to," he said quietly, taking in her cozy dining room. It wasn't large but was decorated with exquisite feminine taste. "Did you do this?"

"Oh, no, it was already done. I've only added a few personal items to it. I'm just renting so I can write my book."

"Number eight?" He pulled a mahogany chair out for her at the table.

"Eight. Yes."  She sat and then realized she had to go to the kitchen to get the lamb. Rising again quickly she cracked his chin with the top of her head. "Oh...NO!" she gasped. She'd done that once already today.

Robert staggered two steps back and clamped his hand to his chin. "Are...are you all right?" she asked, holding her head and hovering near him.

"I think I shall live," he replied. "I wasn't expecting you to stand again so soon."

"Lamb," she said, pointing toward the kitchen. "I need to get the lamb."

"Ah," he murmured. "Do you need assistance?"

"No...no, you just sit there, all right, and I'll get it."

He took his seat and, still rubbing his hand across his chin, watched her hurry off to the kitchen. She was a beautiful woman, indeed, but evidently very dangerous to one's well-being, not to mention one's attire. Closing his eyes briefly, he wondered if she might also prove dangerous to his identity.

In the kitchen, she pressed her palms to the countertop and leaned forward. "Get a hold of yourself, Julianna!" she whispered. "So far this evening you've been a total ninny."  She sucked in a long breath then arranged the chops on an oval platter, spooning mint sauce over them. Thank goodness the side dishes were already on the table. As she returned with the platter, he stood in that gracious way men used to do. She liked it.

Seated again herself, she nodded toward the bottle of wine. "Would you...?"

"My pleasure."  His hand slid beneath the bowl of her goblet, its stem between his fingers, and she found the movement oddly erotic. Her breasts ached in response and she bit her lip as he lifted the glass smoothly and began to pour the wine. "Is that good?" he asked, holding it back toward her.

Her hands were clasped in her lap because her fingers were trembling. She kept them there rather than reaching for her glass. He held it out for a while, waiting, then she finally murmured, "Very good," her color rising again. A moment more passed and when she still didn't take it, he set it back on the table near her plate, cocking his head slightly.

"Are you all right, Julie?"

"I...," she cleared her throat. "Yes, I'm fine."

The food served, he made an attempt at conversation. "Would you tell me about your books? They are novels, right? Where and when are they set?"

Oh, that was good! She could always talk coherently about her books. "England, in the late 12th century, "she began, then stopped when his eyes widened. "Do you not like English history?"

"I am quite, um, attached to English history," he said, his tongue licking across his lower lip. "Why that particular place and time?"  His heart was beating faster, his muscles tensing.

"King Richard," she smiled. "I've been obsessed with Lionheart since I was a little girl."

"In, um, what way?"

"If I'd been a man back then, I'd have gone on crusade with him." She sat back in her chair, folding her napkin in her lap. "But being a woman then would have been...interesting...too. The men of that time always seem so...special...somehow." She laughed lightly. "Oh, I know I've probably got it all romanticized! My books are centered around a young noblewoman who loves an Englishman who goes off on crusade with Richard."

"The crusades were not very...romantic," he whispered, looking toward the window.

"You...you're interested in crusade history?" she asked, her voice eager.

"Once," he smiled wryly. "Not any more."

"Why not?" she pursued.

"Blood and...pain." His voice was barely audible, his gaze turned completely inward. "And death. So much death."

She stared at him, studying his gone-away expression, and her mind wrote furiously, setting him with that very expression upon some dusty hilltop in the Holy Land after a battle. It was amazingly easy to put him there.

He was lost in his thoughts for a long time, then blinked slowly, and looked back at her as she asked, "What do you think of King Richard?"

"What do I...?" He could hardly believe she'd asked him that. Blowing out a long breath, he said, his voice low and very deep, "He was a great warrior." Again he looked toward the window. "Not so great a king and even less as a husband."

"Ah, yes," she added. "Berengaria. She hardly ever saw him, did she?"

"Hardly ever...yes. She became a nun...later...you know."

"I know, but she did have an exciting life most of the time. She even got to go on crusade with him."

"He didn't love her. Not really."

"He captured Cyprus to set her free!"

"She was his property, yes."

"I like to think it was more than that! I mean, she was on her way to marry the guy!"

"A king needs a wife," he shrugged. "He doesn't have to love her." He looked at her seriously. "It is rumored that he may have loved her brother Sancho, however."

"That's all that is. Rumor!"

"As you say...rumor."

"Well, you've got to admit that when her ship ran aground on Cyprus and Comnenus held her prisoner, he came and took the whole island, overthrew its ruler, and whisked her off to the Chapel of St. George to marry her, that sounds pretty romantic!"

"It does sound that way. However, for the men who took Cyprus with him, it was not romantic at all."

"She must have cared for him, though. When he was taken prisoner on his way back to England later, she tried desperately to raise ransom for him."

"But when he was free, did he take her to England with him?"

"Well, no. She never even got to set foot in England while he was alive."

"His mind and heart lay elsewhere after he was freed. She was of no concern to him. His focus was on his kingdom, not on his queen. So much had been lost by John or taken by King Philip of France."  His eyes turned inward yet again and he murmured, "John."

"I take it you are no fan of John."

He looked at her, his lids half lowered. "I have no reason to be."

"You say that almost as though it were somehow personal, Robert."

Smiling wryly, he replied, "How could it possibly be...personal?"

"I...I don't know. You...you just...."

"The lamb was excellent," he said firmly. "Could we have tea?"



LIONHEART


She and Robert settled in comfortable chairs in the parlor, several candles on the windowsill and more on the mantel casting a soft glow through the room, which she liked to keep dimly lit with electricity. As he sipped his tea, she studied him. He'd cut off their dinner conversation rather abruptly and she didn't understand why. Not one to let go of her favorite topic so easily, she sat down her cup and said, "You seem to know a lot about the third crusade."

"More than I care to," he replied, his eyes on his tea.

"I find the whole thing fascinating myself," she persisted, "especially their march across France on the way."

"July 4, 1190," he murmured, "the day we...they...left Vézelay."

"Correct," she smiled, pleased. "I understand it was quite a happy time."

"Happy, yes. I expect you could call it that. A hundred thousand men then, with battle very far away, impossibly far for it to seem real. The villagers would run out as they passed, offering wine and bread or cool water. The men sang, thousands of voices singing crusader songs, a thousand black-robed priests marching with them. An impressive sight."

"And Richard, resplendent and handsome," she added.

"Resplendent? Yes, he was that. Handsome, too, and taller than anybody else at 6'4". He always cut quite a figure. But, then, he knew that."

"With red hair and blue eyes."

"Grey," he corrected. "Richard's eyes were grey."

Julie looked at him curiously, but let it go. "I've heard he inherited his mother's good looks."

Robert nodded. "He did, and his father's temper."

"What do you think of the mounted statue of him outside Parliament?"

 



"A fair likeness, actually. He had long limbs, was very athletic, always carried himself like a king, was always aware he WAS a king." Again the wry smile curved his lips.

"If you had known him, do you think you would have liked him?" she asked.

"If I...?" What questions the woman asked! "He was a brilliant military strategist and fought right along with his men. Very brave. He was very brave."

"That's not quite what I asked."

He studied her a moment. "It is good when a king fights alongside his men. I like that."

"What about Messina?"

"Sicily? It took him a long time to get there. After Genoa he seemed like he was on vacation. Toured Portofino, took his time going down the coast, was in no big hurry. Ten full days in Naples."  He shook his head. "Ten full days. But when he got to Messina and saw the fleet, he changed. Suddenly he was no longer the tourist in Italy. He took on the stance of a conqueror. The fleet," his eyes no longer saw the room, no longer saw her, "...the fleet, all 250 ships
was ordered to wheel together and make for the harbor. He had the men, soldiers, sailors, it didn't matter...if you were on a ship you were supposed to holler and shout. The clarions and trumpets blared. Such a sound." He closed his eyes. "So loud. The white walls of Messina shook with it as though it were one of their earthquakes." Again he looked at her. "When Richard wanted to make an impression on a populace, he knew how. They were simply
terrified by the sight and the sound."  He did not mention that the admiral in charge of the fleet was one Sir Robert Tornham nor that among the shouters stood a certain bowman.

"And Berengaria was there, with his mother."

"Yes, but by the time she and Eleanor got there there wasn't time for a big wedding and he wanted a huge, impressive wedding. He enjoyed himself, though. Adventure followed after him like some pet hound."

"What do you mean?"

"The Messinians had closed their gates, you may recall, and while the English were attacking outside, Richard and two of his soldiers walked around the walls, found an unguarded postern gate and merely hacked it down with a hatchet." He grinned. "It was dark and the three of them crept along the inner curtain wall, reached the main gate and...opened it, so his army could come in."

"I wish I'd known about that," she sighed. "Sounds like a movie."

"It was very real," he said, leaning back in his chair. "Very real."

 



ACRE THE TERRIBLE


The more Julie was with Robert, the more he fascinated her. "You know a lot a details I've never read about," she commented. "I like hearing them."

He took another sip of tea. "Details? Yes, there were many details."

"What about the winter he had to spend in Messina? What do you know about how that went?"

"For him, for the knights, it wasn't so bad. But he'd made a set of 'laws' to entertain himself before he left Chinon and rather enjoyed enforcing them."

"Laws?"

"If, for instance, a sailor murdered another, he would be bound to the dead man and cast into the sea. You've heard of being tarred and feathered? Richard loved that. If a seaman stole anything, his head would be shaved, boiling pitch would be poured over him and chicken feathers shaken over that. A soldier who was found gambling would be whipped naked through the army for three days or thrown into the sea on three mornings.
Richard, you see, enjoyed punishing."

"What about Cyprus then? You really think Richard didn't go there just because of Berengaria?"

"The treasure, Julie, he had loaded her ship with the treasure he intended to use to buy supplies in the Holy Land. When the ship wrecked in the storm, Comnenus got hold of Richard's treasure. He traveled on a separate ship from Berengaria and his sister, Joanne, and during the storm her ship and two more were blown far to the south. He lost 25 other ships in that storm, all without a trace. It was a terrible storm, terrible." A slight shudder took him. "Comnenus was still sending rowboats out to gather more hostages when our...Richard's...fleet appeared on the horizon. He smiled. "I like to imagine what Comnenus thought when he saw that. And Richard, he was among the first to reach the shore. He used an axe that day, not a sword. Swung it like the wrath of God Himself, he did."

"Three days later," he continued, "Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, arrived with a small fleet from Acre. Guy wanted Richard to leave immediately for the Holy Land but Richard had several matters of import to himself he wished to attend to first. Berengaria's coronation, for one. She was crowned Queen of England there in the castle chapel at Limassol with two kings observing, as well as all Richard's officers of state. Half the nobility of the Holy Land was there, too. He liked that. Then there was the wedding ceremony, long, complex, spectacular. After that he went off to track down Comnenus. King Philip sent envoys to ask him to stop and come help with the siege of Acre. He didn't ask. No, Philip demanded. Richard was not one to have something demanded of him."  Robert grinned. "He was furious, furious. Called them fools and sent them away...then went after Comnenus again. Once Comnenus got close enough to Richard to fire poisoned arrows at him. Didn't hurt him. Bounced off his armor. But when he found out they had been poisoned he dug his spurs into his horse and gave chase. Comnenus, though, was riding Fauvel, the fastest horse in Cyprus. Richard was ill for a while after that with one of the sicknesses that constantly plagued the army, but when he finally caught Comnenus, the man threw himself on his knees and begged that he not be put in iron chains. Richard agreed."

"Oh," Julie spoke up, "I know about that! Richard had chains of silver made for him. He ended up in the dungeon of Margat, a Templar fortress."

"He did, indeed. A few days later, Richard's fleet set sail for Acre at last. June 5, 1191. His reputation preceded him...as it always did. The crusaders already at Acre seemed to think its walls would fall just because of his presence."

"Acre turned out to be a terrible place, though, for both sides."

"It was. More terrible than you can possibly imagine."


"But you can? Imagine it, I mean?"

He didn't answer her directly. "Richard himself was very, very ill through much of his time at Acre. There was once, though, he was simply so very...Richard. The military commander directly under the king, Alberic Clements, had sworn he would enter Acre that day or die in the effort. He took Richard's standard and was using a scaling ladder on the wall when the Saracens pulled him up with a giant grappling hook so they might have the pleasure of killing him. One of the Saracens paraded along the wall, wearing Clements' armor. Richard was sick and lying on a silk mattress, but he picked up a crossbow and shot the man through the heart. He was like that." His mind seemed to drift for a moment on a cloud of memories. "But the siege was long, very long, and everyone was reduced to exhaustion and desperation. The Christians constantly battled on two fronts, hemmed between the hills behind them where Saladin's army waited and the walls of Acre in front of them. It was misery, misery and squalor for them. Grass, bark, leaves, even dirt became food. Boiled leather was a delicacy, a stew of horse entrails a dream. Starvation, sickness. Yes, it was a terrible place." Absently, he rubbed a place on his upper arm.

"Even that wasn't the worst, though, was it? When one thinks of Richard at Acre, one thinks of...."

"The massacre," he finished for her with a deep sigh. "Yes, there is no getting around the fact of that. And Richard carefully arranged it as a showpiece for Saladin. He knew exactly what he was doing. After Saladin seemed to have no intention of keeping the agreement he'd made with Richard, Richard lost all patience. He intended to march next to Jaffa, seventy miles to the south, and couldn't take his 3000 prisoners with him. So on August 20th he placed them on a hill called Ayyadieh in full view of the Muslim army. Men, women...children. Three thousand of them, bound together with ropes. Then the parade of armored knights, infantrymen by the thousands. Richard himself directed it all. The sky was so blue that day, just intensely blue and clear." Robert closed his eyes again. "Swords flashing in the sunlight, lances, axes, bodies falling. All of them. Every one." His hand came up, clamping over his eyes. "Every one. I can still...." 

Abruptly he stood. "I thank you for the dinner, Julianna. It was excellent. I must be going now. Please excuse me." With nothing further, he strode to her door and let himself out. She watched him, her mouth slightly dropped open.


ALONG THE COASTAL ROAD



Julie sat there, stunned, after Robert's sudden departure. What had he said? He'd described the sky the day of the massacre. How could he know what the sky looked like?

Robert closed the door firmly behind him and strode rapidly toward his own house. It was dark now, though a full moon easily lit his way. As he crossed his lawn he paused, tipping his head back, looking up at the moon. Then with a quiet moan he threw himself down on the grass, lying on his back, arms folded across his face. The screams were still there, would always be there. Mothers twisting their bodies, trying vainly to protect their children from the falling swords. Thank goodness for the Saracen blade that had sliced through his right bicep the week before. Weak with fever, he had been unable to participate in the massacre, but he had seen the whole thing, had heard the cries of the helpless. He had hated Richard in that moment. But he was an Englishman and though Richard had no loyalty to England, as an Englishman, he himself was loyal to his king.

Richard had been Duke of Aquitaine, his mother's lands in France, since he was fifteen and it was there his affection lay. When his father, Henry II, died at Chinon, Richard acquired England. England was for Richard nothing more than booty, nothing more than a source to loot to raise money for the crusade he'd set his heart on. News of the disaster that had befallen the Christian army at Hattin had stirred something in him, some mercy and sympathy grounded in absolute determination. With England now his, he could empty it of revenue and fighting men, of horses and shipwrights. He went, then, to England to be crowned at Westminster and the English mistakenly thought their new king had come to stay. He stayed four months, four months during which he raged through the country like a giant predator, one thing alone on his mind. To the highest bidder went all the offices, all the titles. Every sheriff in the land was removed from his position and under the threat of imprisonment, had to buy his sheriffdom back from the crown. Once someone pointed out to him his flagrant use of England and Richard simply replied, "I would sell London if I could."

Lying there on the ground, Robert murmured aloud, "I would sell London if I could." He shuddered. Still, Richard had been his king and he was among those who left England to follow him on crusade. The man was a magnificent, magnetic presence and thousands upon thousands rallied to his call. But there on the hill of Ayyadieh on August 20th, he had hated his king.

For four days after Ayyadieh, Richard had let his army rest. At dawn on the 24th, the king led his army out of Acre along the coast, heading south to Jaffa. Richard's fleet sailed just off the shore, paralleling the army. Saladin, in the hills with his own army, paralleled them to their left. Robert lay there under the moon, the sight of it just as clear in his mind as though he were encamped after a day's march.

Nearly 85,000 men were in Richard's army, one of the most powerful ever put in the field by the Crusaders. Well-equipped, well-armed, well-organized and under the command of a single well-wrought military mind. Richard knew Saladin's equally-sized army marched just to his left, out of sight in the hills. He knew Saladin would try and cut his army by the sea into sections, making it easier to destroy. Richard gave considerable thought and planning into the order of march so that no part would be weaker than any other part. Near the sea, he placed the pack animals and the humans who carried huge weights of goods on their backs. He never had enough animals to carry all he needed transported. The cavalry he placed in the center of the three columns, with the infantry on the outside. Templars formed the advance guard, Hospitallers the rear. Richard himself rode constantly up and down the lines. His mount was Fauvel, the bay horse he'd taken from Comnenus.

Robert's fever had not yet broken and his arm ached nearly beyond endurance. Nearly. He had to endure it. There was no choice. The wagons with the wounded were one of the Saracen's favorite targets. No, he would march with his fellows. The first few days passed for him in pretty much of a fog, just one foot in front of the other. Several times he fell, but his friend Geoffrey always hauled him back to his feet.

Saladin's light cavalry made almost constant hit and run attacks on Richard's lines. On the fourth day, a Saracen arrow had pierced Geoffrey through the neck. After that, there was no one interested in hauling Robert to his feet. He marched in absolute bone crushing fatigue. But he marched. Thank God Richard had decided they should march only for the first three hours of the day. It took 19 days to reach Jaffa. Richard was in no hurry. He
studied the lay of the land, the available maps, talked with those who had been there before, and decided where it was that Saladin would stage his main assault. He was exactly right.

A millennium before, the Romans had built a paved road along this route, a great highway so their chariots and carts could drive quickly along it. Lost now under the burning white sands, only traces of it remained. Thorny bushes now grew along much of the way, and the foot soldiers were torn by their thorns, or their faces cut by the reed forests that grew so thickly along the shore. Sometimes the sand was so soft they sank up to their knees. And it was hot, blisteringly hot. When they camped, fatigued beyond belief, the tarantulas would come out, stinging the men who were trying to rest, causing painful swelling. Only the knights could afford the balms and oils that helped. The foot soldiers relied on something else they had discovered. Tarantulas detest loud noises. So all night long the soldiers banged drums, beat on basins or helmets. No one slept on the nights the tarantulas came. Like the screams, like Geoffrey's gurgle as the arrow took him down, the sound of the banging in the night remained in Robert's ears.

There were prayers, too. Sometimes the nights were so filled with those, sleep could not come even for the most weary. One of the king's heralds would come among the tents, crying out, "Sanctum Sepulchrum, adjuva!" The whole army would take up the cry, responding in turn to the herald's three cries. Thousands upon thousands of voices, calling it in the night. In the times of gravest danger, prayers and cries could be heard the entire night. Robert could hear those, too. "Sanctum Sepulchrum, adjuva!" he whispered there on the grass.

At Arsuf, about halfway to Jaffa, the woods came all the way down to sea. It was here Richard expected Saladin to attack in force. That morning, indeed, he even issued a proclamation through the encamped army that he expected to do battle that day. For some time now Arsuf had been the place he knew he would have to stand and fight. His spirits were good that morning as he looked forward to battle. Robert ate his ration, checked his quiver, his spirits somewhat less buoyant than his king's. His right arm was still stiff, still sore, the deep wound having been roughly, quickly stitched with no medication. It was healing, but very slowly. Pulling on his bowstring was nearly impossible and he'd taken possession of Geoffrey's crossbow.

Robert took his position with the Anglo-Normans in the center where the cart with the royal standard was. He was tense and though it was yet morning, sweat rolled down his brow and he wiped it away repeatedly with the arm of his jerkin. He tried to watch Henry of Champagne, who rode near the hills, charged with signaling the army when the Saracens would emerge. At 9, with the blasting sound of horns, trumpets, clarions, gongs, cymbals and high-pitched yells, they came out of the woods. It reminded Robert of the fleet's approach to Messina...only louder, more fearsome. Richard's whole army felt the weight of the attack, though the main charge was directed at the Hospitallers in the rear guard. Saladin had been joined by Nubians, Bedouins, and javelins as well as arrows rained down on the first line of infantry. An arrow tore through the shoulder cloth of Robert's jerkin, but didn't touch his skin. Desperately he got off bolt after bolt, ignoring his throbbing arm, trying to do his duty to protect the cavalry behind him. Wave after wave of the enemy army poured out of the woods until it seemed there was no room for all of them to stand. For two miles not an inch of empty ground could be seen.

Richard, determined to keep his army all in once piece, to keep them, too, from being pushed into the sea, continued the forward march during the battle, so his men fought as they marched. The crossbowmen in the rear guard actually fought while marching backwards. The sound of battle filled the air like the battering of countless hammers upon blacksmith's anvils. For Robert, almost more than anything else, it was the sounds of the crusade that filled his being.

Horses screaming. There was that, too. The Saracens tried to kill as many of the horses as possible so Richard's knights could not charge. The Hospitallers, in the rear, and more exposed, were losing way too many of their mounts. Desperate, they sent messages to Richard, begging him to let them charge while they still could, but he refused, wanting to hold all his cavalry until he would let them loose at once.

Robert dropped his arms to his side, looking up at the silver-limned treetops, moving slightly in the gentlest night breeze. How could the heat of the day at Arsuf still be so real even now? The skies had been unremittingly blue, not a cloud anywhere, the morning sun blazing furnace-like on him as he used his last bolt and tried to gather more from fallen comrades. Richard pounded past him on Fauvel, heading to join the Hospitallers. He threw himself with absolute recklessness into the thick of battle and with the extraordinary reach of his long arms, cleared a wide path for himself, his sword swinging in enormous arcs. For a moment, Robert watched him, magnificent, fierce, and a gladness that this was his commander, his king, swelled in him again. Richard not only did not ever ask his men to do something he himself would not do, he did more than they did...or could do. If only, he sighed, the King of England loved England.

Seven thousand Saracen died that day. Richard lost perhaps a thousand men. As he watched the Saracen flee back into the woods, Robert sank to his knees, exhausted, his arm screaming with pain. Some of the crossbowmen were ordered to follow the enemy, many of which had hidden in the branches of the trees. Robert tried to rise to his feet, but could not manage the task. All his bolts were gone anyway. A priest, traveling with the army, got him up, got him to a cart where he lay back, letting it carry him to the small seacoast village of Arsuf. Richard gave them the next day to rest before continuing on to Jaffa.

Robert, on the lawn, closed his eyes, suddenly very tired, and drifted off to sleep.



MUFFINS IN THE MORNING DEW

Early the next morning Julie sat sipping her tea, staring out the window as the sun peeked through the low branches of the trees. For a good part of the night she'd lain awake, thinking about Robert, about how he described the events of the crusade. He'd have made a fantastic history teacher. But there was more to it somehow than that. She wanted to call him, to ask him to come back or if she could come to his house, but she had no phone number for him. Well, there was no help for it! She needed to see him. She'd just take herself over to his house, maybe bring some muffins as an excuse. She'd been up before the crack of dawn and had made banana walnut ones. Yes, that would do.

Quickly she popped about six muffins in a napkin-lined basket, stopped by the hall mirror to brush a stray lock into place, and with a slightly nervous smile, went out her front door. His house wasn't far, so she soon rounded the last clump of trees and stepped out on his lawn. Instantly her eyes were drawn to a form lying on the grass. It was Robert! Good Lord, had he fallen on his way home last night? The muffin basket slipped from her fingers as she ran to him, flinging herself to her knees on the dew-wet lawn. She didn't know why she didn't call his name; she just didn't. He lay quietly, his hands at his sides, his face tipped a bit toward her. He was breathing. The even rise and fall of his chest beneath the burgundy shirt was proof of that. Had he hit his head? There was nothing, though, where he lay but smooth lawn, nothing to trip over, nothing to hurt one in a fall.

Sitting back on her heels, she studied him. It looked like he was sleeping. Why in heaven's name would he be asleep on his lawn? That made no sense, none at all.
Perhaps he'd had some sort of attack, had passed out? She couldn't hold back any longer. Placing a palm on his chest, she leaned over. "Robert? Are you all right, Robert?"

His eyes flew open. "Geoffrey!" he called, still lost in some confusion of time and place.

"It's me, Robert...Julie. What happened?"

He looked straight up into her eyes. "Happened? I...I was walking home last night...from your house." He let his lids close again. The coastal road. He'd lain down, reliving the days along the road between Acre and Jaffa. "I must have fallen asleep."

"But on the lawn, Robert? Why would you sleep on the lawn?"

"I needed to think. I looked at the moon, then I just lay on the grass." His eyes met hers. "I needed to think."

"You're not hurt? You didn't fall?"

"I'm fine. A bit damp from the dew, but otherwise fine. Why are you here?"

"I brought you muffins, I...oh, dear...the muffins!" She looked back, seeing them scattered on the grass. "I dropped them."

"Why would you bring me muffins, Julie?"

"I...I just...I wanted to see you."

Her hair was hanging forward, brushing his cheeks, her eyes large, very close. My God, she was beautiful! One of his hands came up, sliding behind
her head, pressing her gently the rest of the way down so his lips could find hers. She needed to be kissed. He needed to kiss her.

Julie was surprised by his sudden smooth movement, but when his mouth closed around hers, she forgot the surprise of it, forgot the dew, forgot the muffins. Her breasts pressed against his chest and she yielded herself completely to his kiss. What if there were no poppies in the lawn? Muffins would
serve just fine. So taken up in his kiss was she that she even forgot to write the scene of it.

He kissed her for a long time and very thoroughly, then taking her by her upper arms, held her where he could look at her eyes. She seemed slightly dazed and he smiled. "You, Julianna, are a woman who should be kissed often...and well."

"Ok," she murmured, tipping her face toward his again despite his hold on her arms.

He chuckled and kissed her again before holding her up once more, needing to read what lay in her eyes. Had he said too much at dinner? Never...not ever...had he spoken so much to anyone about such matters. Her own enthusiasm for the time had drawn it out of him, made it all too easy. He was usually on his guard more than that. But Julie, she affected him differently.

Aware that he was studying her, she asked, "What? What are you looking for, Robert?"

"No matter," he breathed, and kissed her again.



CARVINGS IN WOOD AND IN THE HEART

Robert led Julie around to the side of his house where a large studio/workshop was attached. "In here," he said, opening the double doors.
He'd had no intentions of ever letting anyone see his shop and yet here he was flinging the doors wide for her. Life was so strange. Then, for
him, it had often proven so.

Stepping back, he let her enter first. "Oh...my!" She was speechless. The most amazing door she'd ever seen was propped against the far
wall and she walked immediately to it, her hand going toward it yet hesitating barely out from its surface as though it would somehow be profane
to touch it.

"It's all right, Julie," he smiled. "Go ahead."
 



The door had a curved top and was set in a wide framing of ridges and leaves. The top panel of the door itself had a scene carved on the
entire thing, horses in a meadow, evergreens behind, and more of the leaves that matched those on the framing. She allowed a single fingertip
to trace the outline of the closest horse. "It's just beautiful, Robert. Just beautiful."

Then her eye was drawn to a nearby door with a single golden eagle on it, perched on a branch, looking intently at something in the distance.
 



She turned, discovering bowls, birdhouses, archways, chairs and small tables. "All this, Robert? You have done all this?" She picked up a bowl,
polished to a gleaming finish, smooth and masterfully done to showcase the grain of the wood.
 



"Maple," he said softly, "a central slab of maple."

"I hadn't...expected. Is...is this your...profession?"

"No," he smiled. "I do it because I love it, I love wood, the feel of it in my hands. It is why," he looked briefly out the open doors, "I now live
in a forest. I am, shall we say, at home here."

"Where you always a woodworker?" she asked, unable to resist sliding her hand across the smooth surface of the bowl.

"No," he replied. "I was not always a woodworker." He took her free hand and she set the bowl down, moving past a mantel with oak leaves
carved down its front, and back outside. He led her to his back yard where an array of furniture sat on the grass.

"These, too? I've always loved this sort of lawn furniture."

"Then you must pick one and I shall carry it for you to your house."

She walked slowly among the chairs, deciding on one not just because she was enthralled with its graceful lines, but because it sat two.
"Would...would that one be all right? You really wouldn't mind?"


 



"I do not make them for financial reasons, Julie," he replied, "but simply for the love of the making. Yes, I would like very much for you to
have this one. If we go in for a moment, we could have tea and after I shower, I will carry it to your house."

Had he just invited her...inside? He was getting lax here, way, way too lax.

"I'd love that. I'm sorry about the muffins, though."

As they walked back around the house, numbers of birds were already happily eating the muffins. "We shall make do," he said. "There are
bound to be things other than...muffins."


BLACK SWORDS AND MISTY SHAFTS OF LIGHT

He'd met her, what, just yesterday? Was that...all? And here he was, escorting her right inside his house, and that after having shown her his woodshop. Funny, he didn't feel delirious. He knew what that was like, knew it well from Acre. No, he wasn't fevered, not right now. Or was he? Did this woman have some power that robbed him of all good sense, all caution?

There was a dim quietness to his house, Julie mused, as though shadows of thoughts, of times and places hung about it in every corner. His woodshop had been a delight, his craftsmanship and artistry an amazing surprise. He led her to a seat in what looked like a small library, dark shelves lined with leather-bound books, even some scrolls.

"Perhaps, being a writer of books, you might find this the most appropriate place to wait while I shower?"

"I think I shall be most content," she smiled, trying to distract herself quickly by letting her eyes roam down the nearest shelf rather than giving her mind free rein to write another shower scenario.

Then he was gone and she was alone, alone in a place that was nigh overwhelming with his presence despite his having gone. How did he do that? How was his presence that intense? Other than the bookshelves, there was only a desk in the room and a single chair, upholstered in chocolate brown leather. On the desk lay, yes, it was...a sword and its scabbard...as though he had been examining the blade and left it abruptly when called away.
 


Both hilt and scabbard were black with silver-colored furnishings intricately worked. She let her fingers run down the scabbard. Having no personal knowledge of such things, she had no idea if it were a reproduction or authentic. With Robert's taste, it was most likely authentic.

Above the desk hung an oil painting of huge old beech trees, the violet shadows and the smooth grey green of their trunks blending so that one was not quite sure if there were a man somewhere there or not. She studied it for a while, lost in its quality of stillness. It seemed to her it must be an English forest for she had often noted such huge beeches along the roads. She liked it, felt drawn into it, as though if she but spread her arms, one of the misty shafts of light in the painting might surround her and lift her into the trees. So taken was she by the experience of that she lost her hold on passing minutes and was startled when his voice came from the doorway.

"You find the painting interesting?"

"Very much so," she breathed, turning to where he stood in a somewhat lighter green shirt and brown slacks.

"Shall we make tea and see what might be found as muffin-replacements?"

His kitchen was smaller than hers and, again, not so well-lit. The ceiling was low, darkly beamed, and the half-timbered walls gave onto a matching dining area. "Orange and spice?" he asked, not in the mood this morning for Earl Grey. She nodded and he put a kettle on to boil, then set honey on the table. With a large knife he cut thick slices of crusty bread and set them out for her, along with fresh peaches and grapes.

He searched out a cup for her with an intricately-worked, rather Arabic pattern around it and out of habit set out the cup he always used for himself.  At the moment he didn't even think about it.
 



"What an interesting cup," she commented as he sat down.

"This? Oh, you mean the Robin Hood scene on it. Yes, I'm quite, um, a fan of the old legend."

"I almost thought I saw someone in that painting in your den." She smiled. "It could even have been Robin Hood."

"So it could. Would you like butter?"

"Do you think, Robert, there might have been a real Robin?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I just prefer to think there was. It's much more romantic that way."

"Being outlawed by your King, having to live in the forest...." His voice trailed away.

"Errol Flynn," she grinned, "all bright and green and swinging down on some vine."

"Sherwood vines are seldom so strong."

"You've been in Sherwood?"

"Not for some time."

"Did you like it there?"

"Did I like...? I am not sure 'like' is a word that springs to mind."

"But it's beautiful, isn't it? It...is...beautiful?"

"In it's way, yes." He looked into his tea. "And much preferable to the desert."

She sighed. "I do think about the good Englishmen following Richard on Crusade, you know, what it must have been like for them to leave all their native greenness and make their way through the heat of the desert on the way to Jerusalem."

"It was cold, too," he whispered, "in December when Richard turned what was left of his army inland from Jaffa. And wet."

"I've heard how it rained on them, yes."

"Almost without stopping. Buckets, torrents of cold rain, mixed with sleet and hail."

She studied his face. He'd gone away somewhere again. Perhaps he got into books very much like she did, so much that they became utterly real to him?

Robert was looking into his tea, not seeing it, only aware of the puddles under his weary feet, of how he sank in mud now, not sand, mud up to his knees. "So cold," he murmured, "so very, very tired and cold." 

 




ONCE IN A GOLDEN SUNSET

Julie sat across the small table from him, observing him carefully as Robert stared into his tea. She knew most of the stories of the Third Crusade, but the way he spoke was so different from merely reading some historical tome. She loved the bare reality of his words, the way his deep voice phrased them, emphasizing certain ones. It was somehow as though she were hearing them for the first time, as, indeed, some of the more specific details he knew were new to her despite her research for her books.

"Please," she said softly when he'd paused and didn't seem as though he intended to continue.

He looked up at her, puzzled as to her meaning, and she added, "Tell me of Jaffa...and of Beit Nuba."

Closing his eyes, he tried to keep the flowing images away, but they were still as fresh as this morning in his memory. One simply did not live through, did not...endure...such things and forget them, not ever. "The way you tell of them, Robert," she urged, "it would help me with my book. Please?"

He had not spoken of them, not like he did with her. They comprised his dreams, lived on the very insides of his eyelids, but he did not speak of them. Yet she, with her soft, eager interest drew them from him and he found a certain release in the speaking of matters so long kept tightly shielded. Drawing in a long, slow breath, he tipped his chin, eyes going to the low ceiling beams.

"Saladin's tactic was to destroy the towns and cities Richard's army would pass through, to burn the crops, but Jaffa still had fruit, and after the wall was rebuilt and a trench dug, there was room for a man to stretch his legs. The army, after the long march south from Acre, liked it there, was content to stay there as long as possible. But Richard," he smiled, "Richard hated leisure. He never rested unless he were too sick to rise from his bed. He had a javelin wound on his left side from the third day of fighting to take Jaffa, but even that did not stop him. Almost continually he was on the move.

"King Philip had left, taking many of his French knights with him. He had come more as a duty, hoping for a swift, showy campaign, and when too much death, too much weariness set in, he sailed away. About half his nobles were shamed by their king's going and stayed with Richard, which meant he now had to feed them, pay for their care." He smiled wryly. "Richard had known Philip Capet most of his life, but after that, he never spoke to him again. Philip's going cost Richard Jerusalem. He never forgave him. The army simply was not strong enough after that and Richard had not come for the show of the Crusade. He'd come for Jerusalem, come to see the Christian flag flying above its walls, come because that truly meant something to him. He had a simple, uncomplicated but rather vital faith and to wrest the Holy Places from Muslim hands meant the world to him. The army," he shrugged, "had shared much of that in earlier days, but the unbearable heat, the torrents of rain, the sand and the mud, the death and injuries beyond imagining were wearing away at the foundations of that. It was hard, so hard, to keep going on and on and still on some more, and keep alive the songs of the marching south through France."

He paused, looking again at her through half-lowered lashes. "What is it that interests you the most, Julie?"

"Richard," she replied, her lips curving into a smile, "always Richard."

"Of course," he murmured. "Richard. You know the story of the hawking incident?"

"Somewhat, but tell me again."

"Unable to be still, he went out from Jaffa one day with only a small escort to go hawking. Of course, for him there was always the possibility he might just happen upon some group of Saracens on the way. They rode quite far and after a while, dismounted to rest, and he fell asleep, as did his companions. It was then the armed Saracens found them. It all happened very quickly and all he had time to do was gird on his sword and swing into Fauvel's saddle as the attack began. Richard charged directly toward them, swinging his sword, and the Saracens broke and fled, with Richard not knowing the whole thing was a set up to lead him into ambush. The Saracens had Richard, who was always in the lead, surrounded when William of Pratelles, one of Richard's closest friends, shouted in their language, "I am the king!" and the Saracens turned their attention to him. Such was the loyalty the king inspired."

Julie had always loved that story, had spent much time imagining Richard asleep and then suddenly grabbing up his sword and springing into the saddle. Once he had even ridden close enough to Saladin's tent to salute it.

"Then, of course, there was the incident of the foraging party," Robert continued. "The Earl of Leicester and the Count of Saint-Pol had set out with an escort of Templars to see what supplies they might find for the army, but were surprised and completely surrounded by a large body of Turkish cavalry. As was their way, The Templars dismounted and formed a square. The numbers of Turks were such that none of them expected to survive, but they were prepared to fight to the last man.

There was something almost magical about Richard's way of arriving on the scene when his men were most in peril. He came upon the scene just as the attack was beginning. His small escort begged him to keep away, saying that he would surely be killed, but Richard drew his sword and replied, 'I sent these men here. If they die without me, may I never be called king again!' And he spurred Fauvel and charged the mass of men who were attacking his knights. The mere sight of his coming, the sunlight gleaming on his golden crown, his sword flashing, sent the Turks into panic and they scattered away." Robert thought silently a moment. "Alone among all the kings of all the Crusades, Richard followed heroic words with heroic acts."

Julie sighed contentedly, picturing the scene Robert described. "How magnificent," she murmured.

"He was that," Robert nodded, "quite possibly the most magnificent king ever to bestride this world. He earned in deed every tale that has ever been told of him, every one."

"I hear even Saladin held him in great admiration."

"This is true. And Richard returned the sentiment, finding Saladin the most worthy opponent he'd ever faced."

"And Beit Nuba? What do you know of that, Robert?"

Robert knew too much of that, far too much. "A mere 12 miles from Jerusalem. That's how close Richard's army came. Twelve miles. So very, very far and then so close. But Richard had sent out scouts, spies, and had he attacked, his diminished army would have been caught between two armies of the Saracens. There was no way, simply no way it could be done, or, if somehow done, no way to hold the city after." He shook his head. "No way. And it rained. Always it rained. How maddening it was to have come so far across burning deserts only to have his army sunk into the mud of the ceaseless rains.

"It was nothing less than the death of all his personal dreams. To walk the streets of Jerusalem, to BE there within its walls, meant more than life to him, but not more than the life of his army. So Richard never got to Jerusalem, not ever."

"But he saw it, didn't he? I've read that he saw it."

"That he did. He'd been out with a small escort, as he so often did, hunting boar and Saracen patrols, and Fauvel had gotten him ahead of the rest. Saladin knew the way of this and was always setting traps for him, had offered a reward for any man who could capture Richard alive. But Richard still rode out on the fastest horse in the army, that roan gelding from Cyprus. He was chasing one particular Saracen when the going got too rough for Fauvel, so he dismounted and continued up the slope afoot. At the top of the ledge he found the man waiting behind some rocks and when he had dispatched him, he was tired from the climb and the battle and simply stood there, leaning on his sword a while. When he looked up, the bare plain spread before him, then more hills, and in the far distance, he saw Jerusalem. The sun was setting behind him and the whole plain, the city itself, were lit by it with a golden glow. It moved him to the greatest depth of feeling he'd ever known and in that moment he knew he'd never take the city, never walk its streets with his own feet, so he raised his shield to block the view of it and turned away."

She, too, was moved by the thought of that moment, of what it must have meant to Richard, and by the fact of the reality that such a moment had had its existence as a present 'now' in time.

"The next day he came down with fever again. He was very, very ill. So many were ill. The sick and wounded were sent from Beit Nuba back to Jaffa, but most of them were massacred on the way, in the mud and the rain that came again. Massacre was the way of things there. Richard was not alone in what he did at Acre. Christians, too, were constantly massacred. Richard, though, was always haunted by Acre, by Acre and Jerusalem, though in different ways, and his heart bled for them both the remainder of his life."

"I've heard Richard almost died from the fever this time."

"Richard had always wished that he might meet Saladin  and Saladin wished the same. While Richard was so ill, Saladin had peaches sent to him and sorbet made from mountain snows. There was even a strange man who came, swathed in robes and headgear so full that none could see his face. It was said that Saladin, concerned for Richard...yes, actually concerned...had sent his own healer. The man made a potion for Richard to drink, and though his attendants were fearful it might be poison, Richard drank it. Within hours his fever began to break and the man simply disappeared. The rumor among the army was that it had been Saladin himself. No one will ever know the truth of the matter."

"How wonderful if we could know."

"So much of history is lost, Julie, even in the best-recorded times, so much of it is lost. But Richard was no myth. He was as splendid in the reality of himself as he is in all the books and stories. Possibly more."


A DEADLY COMBINATION

Alistair was tired. He'd been up most of the night back in Coffs with a member of his former church who wanted no one but him to come to the hospital when his wife had been in a car accident. It hadn't been until 10 AM that he got back to the mill. Ahnna was visiting at the Meridius', so he took Merry for a short walk then attached her to the 50 foot long cable he'd rigged between two trees. It had a pulley kind of wheel that ran along the cable so that Merry could dash back and forth across the grass with a certain freedom she adored.

"See you in a bit, girl," he said, patting her fondly on her head. He was going to go stretch out in his recliner in the little room he used as a home office. It had been added on as an afterthought to the old structure and though not as old as the original mill, was far from new. It was small, a perfect square, and just big enough for his recliner, a desk, some bookcases, and a rather moth-eaten couch that had come with the mill.

He paused in the kitchen to down a glass of orange juice, yawned expansively, and made his way wearily to the office. Sighing, he settled into the big chair, raised its footrest, and nodded off into a deep sleep almost immediately.

The wiring in the mill had been done quite some time ago, and along with the insulation, the plumbing, and appliances, was in imminent need of replacement. In the wall behind the old couch, a frayed section of the wiring suddenly sparked, smoldering into the fibers of the insulation. When the little room had been added on, the dividing wall had been jury-rigged out of thin vinyl that was made to look like wood paneling. That quickly started to melt, pieces of it falling outward against the back of the old couch. There wasn't much in the way of actual fire, but the polyurethane foam in the couch heated and began giving off hydrogen cyanide gas. Combined with the vinyl in the walling, the different materials smoldered and melted, making a deadly cocktail of toxic gas and smoke that filled the room. 


Alistair never even woke. 

 

THE TASTE OF SOOT

By Jo and Bridgid

It was a beautiful morning and Robert decided he would scout a bit further than usual. He circled far around the outskirts of the Glen, keeping as much as possible to thicker woodlands. He was surprised as he went at the nice homes nestled here and there, some of them quite separate from the town. Stopping at the edge of a particular section of woods, he smiled at the sight of an old mill by a pond. It looked entirely English and he stood there, admiring the structure.

A young woman drove up and parked so he faded just a bit more back into the shadows. Her arms were full of flowers and she called out to a young dog on a cable, "Hey, there, Merry! Let me put these inside and then I'll come get you."

Ahnna, arriving home from her visit with Joimus at the Greenery, figured Alistair would be in his office and as that had a separate door, she went there to show him her flowers. She opened the door and a thick, black smoke billowed out. Immediately she began coughing and dropped the flowers, screaming, "Alistair! ALISTAIR!!"

He had to be in there since his car was home and he'd never go off and leave Merry on the cable anyway, not unless he was right inside. She tried to take a step in the door, still screaming his name, as the smoke began to rise up and out into the blue sky.

Bridgid had just stabled Skipper when she noticed the smell. Smoke in the vicinity of a barn was bad news. She began checking around the Meridius barn and within moments ran into East who was doing the same.

They came through the front doors of the barn together and it was hard to miss. Black smoke billowed from behind the trees and they both knew it was the mill.

"Go get Joi, East! Tell her to call the fire department and have them bring my gear with them! I'm going right over there!"

He ran toward the house and she pulled Skipper from his stall. Mounting him bareback and bridled she brought him to a gallop toward the mill. The sound of sirens could be heard the moment she arrived on the scene.

As soon as the woman opened the door and he saw the smoke, Robert was sprinting across the yard toward the mill. He grabbed the young woman by her shoulders, pulling her away from the door. "My husband!" she moaned, out of her mind with fear. "My husband's in there!!"

Robert turned his head away from the door, sucking in a huge lungful of air, then lunged into the small room. In less than a second his eyes stung so terribly he could barely keep them open. The smoke filled the area and he could see nothing. He fell over a small table, landing hard on his knees. Where was the man? Where?? His hands found the footrest of the recliner and feeling up it, came to a pair of shoes. Quickly he stood, leaned over and grabbed the man up, slinging him over his shoulder. Robert was coughing hard, trying not to breathe, but the gas was starting to get to him and he felt dizzy, disoriented. He moved straight into the desk, almost fell again, then found the open doorway.

Bridgid had come up behind Ahnna, holding her back from trying to enter the room.

"Oh, Bridgid!" she cried, her voice cracking with hysteria. "Alistair’s in there! He’s IN there!" Her whole body was shaking. "Some…some man went in."

"Who?" Bridgid asked.

"I don’t know! I don’t know! I never saw him before. He…he just was…was…here, and…and he went in."

Ahnna watched, her hands clenched into tight fists, waiting for the man to come out with Alistair. It seemed to be taking forever. Then she became aware of the sounds of sirens getting closer. "Thank God," she moaned. "Oh, thank GOD!"

Just then Robert staggered out the door onto the small stone stoop. He swayed there a moment, then simply fell off to the left side, Alistair sliding from his shoulder and landing on his back in the phlox. Robert found himself on his hands and knees beside the man, coughing and vomiting over and over.

Ahnna ran up, flinging herself down beside Alistair just as the rescue truck screeched to a halt. "A...Alistair?" she murmured, touching his face. There was no response so she leaned closer. Oh, God...he was barely breathing. Was he breathing? She lost all awareness of Bridgid, of the man, of the medics running up. There was only Alistair, and sobbing, she put her mouth on his, frantically intending to start some sort of CPR but entirely forgetting in her desperation just what it was she was supposed to do. In the mere second before Bridgid pulled her back, she tasted the soot from his lips. That was all. Soot. Then someone was guiding her gently back and away from Alistair.

It was Tom and Steve's day off.

Two medics, Jerry and Angela who had been stationed at the Glen Fire Department arrived with the ambo and the fire engine. The firefighters went to work on the mill while the two medics took care of Alistair.

"He's in respiratory arrest, mate." Jerry said to his partner.

"Any burns in the airway?"

"Negative."

"Let's tube him then."

Angela handed the implements to Jerry. He inserted the laryngeal scope into Alistair's airway, placing the stylet and tube that would be used to fill his lungs right between his vocal cords. He got it in one shot, then he inflated the little cuff to keep the airway open. Angela listened to Alistair's lungs to make sure there was air going into them as Jerry squeezed the ambu-bag to force some air in. She nodded her head, indicating that he'd positioned things just right.

Jerry kept Alistair breathing while Angela started an IV to keep him hydrated. With the help of one of the volunteer firefighters they got Alistair into the ambulance and prepared to take him to the hospital in Coffs, letting Ahnna ride along in the front seat.

The rest of the team made quick work of the small but smoky fire which had been confined to Alistair’s office.

Bridgid had pulled the portable oxygen off the engine and attempted to give the stranger some help.

"You need to go to the hospital, too. I've called for another ambulance to transport you to Coffs," she said as she placed the non-rebreather over his face, helping him to a seat on a near-by stump. He seemed quite dazed and sat there, slumped, sucking in the oxygen, while Bridgid went briefly to check on the progress with the fire fighters.

BATTLE IN THE ER


Robert sat on a tree stump, the oxygen mask on his face, as the woman who’d attended to him stepped briefly away. She'd told him to wait, to just sit there and breathe deeply, that they would be taking him shortly to the hospital in Coffs. He had no intention of going to any hospital anywhere. His airways and lungs still hurt like crazy and he couldn't seem to get his mind to concentrate for very long, but one thing he knew...he was not going in any ambulance.

Sucking in a last few lungsful of the oxygen, he pulled off the mask and quietly disappeared around the back of the mill, making for the nearest section of woods. Damn, but he was wobbly! He rather made his way from tree to tree, hanging on to them, to low-hanging branches for support. After about half a mile of this, he was exhausted, his vision blurring. He was going somewhere. Where was that? He shook his head, trying to clear it, only succeeding in making himself go into a paroxysm of dry heaves that tied his stomach in knots and sent him, gasping and wheezing, to his knees.

He stayed there several moments, trying to gather enough strength to stand, trying to remember just where it was he'd been and where he was going. Blind instinct drew him on toward home. He fell over and over now, his ability to keep to his feet failing him. Finally he stumbled out of the woods into the front yard of Rose Cottage, not even really knowing where he was. Again he went to his knees, leaning forward, his hands on the ground, his head hanging low.

Julie came out her front door to water the potted pale pink geraniums and saw him just as he fell. Quickly setting the watering can on a bench, she ran to him, kneeling beside him, her hand on his back. "Robert? What's happened? Are you hurt?"

His arms folded suddenly and he fell forward, his left shoulder hitting the ground, and rolled over onto his back, gasping like a landed fish. He smelled of smoke and soot and there was black smeared on his face and hands. "Robert?" He was frightening her now with his efforts to breathe.

"Have you been in a fire?" she asked. "Robert...a fire?"

Had he been in a fire? He wasn't sure. The Saracens had come, burning tents in the night. He'd pulled a man out. Was it the crossbowman from Wessex? "Man," he gasped. "Inside. Had to get man out. Had to...."

"You got a man out of a fire? Is that it, Robert?"

"Man," he nodded. "Yes, fire."

"You need medical attention, Robert. You do!"

He shook his head 'no'.

"I could take you into the Glen. They may have something there that could help."

"N...no!" he whispered. "No Glen."

"But...Robert!"

"No!" He shook his head adamantly, making his nausea worse.

"What about Coffs, then? Will you let me take you into Coffs? You can't just lie here on my lawn, for Pete's sake, Robert!"

"I...I..." The dry heaves took him again and he doubled up.

"That does it, Mister!" Julie said firmly, running into her house to get her purse and keys.
She pulled the car up as close as she could to where he lay, driving heedlessly across her lawn, crushing several foxgloves. Opening the passenger door, she managed to get him to push himself enough to haul him up onto the seat. He didn't seem quite sure what she was doing and so she had him before he could even protest. He leaned his temple against the side window and she roared off toward Coffs.

Speed limits be damned, she drove as fast as she could and still keep control of the car.
"Wh...where?" he asked once.

"You just breathe, Robert. Let me worry about where."

He kept his eyes closed most of the way, his hands lying limply at his sides, his head wobbling back and forth against the window as she took the curves. Pulling up at the emergency entrance, she got out and dashed up to a policeman standing by the glass doors. "I've got a man in the car who's having trouble breathing. He was in some sort of fire. Get me some help!!"

She ran back and opened Robert's door. He nearly fell out onto the pavement. Julie held him in his seat with her arms until a gurney burst through the ER doors and was pushed hurriedly toward them by a couple of attendants. People were grabbing at him. He didn't like it and swung an arm, striking one of the men across his chin with the back of his hand. Where was his bow? He fumbled, but couldn't seem to find it. The Saracens grabbed him, forcing him onto his back. He was so tired, too tired to fight. They had him this time. He lay quietly a moment while they wheeled him into the ER. They paused briefly in an entrance area and one of the men reached into Robert's pocket, pulling out his wallet. "Here, you'd better keep this with you, Ma'am. The hospital prefers a relative hold onto personal items if at all possible."

"But...," she started to protest, "I'm not...."

A woman seated at a desk behind an open sliding glass window, spoke up. "Ma'am, we're going to need his insurance information. Can you step over here a moment, please?"

"But...," she protested again.

"Patient's name?"

"R...Robert," she stammered, then realized she had no idea what his last name was. Good Lord, how could she have never found that out? "Just...just a moment. I'll give you his insurance card." With shaking fingers she opened his wallet. The card was right on top. She stared at it blankly. Robert Loxley it said. "Loxley? How could...?"

"What was that, Ma'am? I couldn't quite hear what you said."

"Loxley," she repeated, clearing her throat. "Robert Loxley."

"May I please see his card, Mrs. Loxley?"

"But...I...," she stopped. There was a sign on the wall behind the woman's desk stating that only relatives of patients could be with them in the ER. "H...here," she said, handing the card to the woman.


"Address?"

"Um, I, um...." She looked in his wallet, finding his driver's license. Robert Loxley. It said the same thing as his insurance card. Of course it would say the same thing!
Robert had been wheeled behind the first curtained off area to the left. Suddenly a loud bellow roared its way out of it and one of the attendants came stumbling backwards through the blue curtain, almost falling before he managed to right himself.


"Robert?" She stepped quickly around the corner, peering into the cubicle. Robert was on his feet, glaring furiously at the remaining man, his body tensed, slightly crouched. The man who'd been pushed through the curtain headed back in, accompanied by a burly male nurse.


Good God, how many Saracens were there? They just kept coming! His head was pounding and the nausea was rising again up his throat. He blinked repeatedly, trying to clear his vision, trying to make some sense of what was going on.

"Listen, Mister," the male nurse was saying. "We've got to get you on oxygen for your own good. Do you understand me? You need oxygen." In one hand he had a syringe with a sedative the doctor had quickly ordered.


Robert had his left arm up as though he were holding a shield. The Saracens were trying to back him into a corner. He swayed on his feet, knowing he couldn't hold out much longer, and his left hip hit a metal table, toppling it over, sending instruments clattering to the floor. Two of the men made a grab for Robert, but he twisted his torso, and one fell against the wall, the other into the side of the gurney and then to his knees.

A deep male voice spoke up from just behind Julie. "What is going on here?" It was Maximus, who had come to the hospital, bringing Joimus with him.

"Richard?" Robert gasped as Maximus stepped around Julie to get a better view.

"Damn it!" the man on his knees gritted, grabbing Robert's legs. Robert overbalanced and fell, not exactly what the man had intended.

Oh, God, the king was here! Robert saw the arrow heading for Richard and as he fell, forced his body forward, twisting desperately so that the barbed end embedded itself in his side and not in his king's. He fell hard, still fighting, not certain Richard was all right. The male nurse was practically atop Robert now and Robert grappled with him, trying to keep his blade from his throat.

Maximus took in the scene, recognizing it for the battle it was. "HOLD!" he shouted, coming further into the room. Every movement stopped. He looked down at Robert, who was still gripping the nurse's arms. "It is done," he said. "The day is won."


Robert released his grip, propping himself on one elbow, staring up at Maximus in wonder. "You are safe, my liege?" he panted. "Unharmed?"

"I am unharmed," Maximus replied. "Rest now, soldier."

The nurse took advantage of Robert's preoccupation and quickly injected the sedative. Robert still had an arm extended toward Maximus and kept it there a moment, his eyes locked intently with those of the man he perceived to be his king. Then he began to blink and the focus went out of his gaze. Julie hissed in a sharp breath as she watched him. His arm dropped limply and Robert lay back on the floor, his eyes closing. The three hospital personnel all let out a collective sigh of relief then moved to get Robert hefted up on the gurney again.

"Careful there!" Maximus said sharply as one man let Robert's head brush against the gurney frame. They plopped him atop the mattress and before they had even straightened his limbs, the nurse clamped on an oxygen mask.

Julie's eyes were wide, unbelieving, at what she'd just witnessed. When the man with the commanding manner and voice stepped back into the main waiting area, she followed. "How...how...did you know what to do, what would stop him?"

Maximus smiled. "Experience." He looked from the closed-again curtain to the woman. "Who is he?"

"He just saved someone from a fire," she said, not giving his name.


It was Maximus' turn to widen his eyes. "Alistair," he murmured. He turned, looking for his wife. "Joimus," he began, "we have found the man who...."

But Joimus was staring at the woman beside Maximus. Could it be? She'd read all seven, seen the jacket photos many times. "Miss St. John?" she asked. "Julianna St. John?"

 

A KNIGHT’S TALE

Julie looked at the blonde woman who was obviously with the imposing man she'd been talking to. Her own head was whirling. She hadn't had time to process Robert's last name nor what had just happened in the cubicle and now she'd been recognized. She sighed. Did that really matter right now? Did anything matter but what was going on with Robert?

"Yes," she nodded distractedly, too worried about Robert to avoid a certain rudeness, "but that's neither here nor there." She looked back at Maximus, opening her mouth to ask him who he was, why Robert would have taken him for....

"General Meridius!"

Maximus turned, frowning at a reporter from a Coffs newspaper. "Not now, please. I have a friend here in grave danger. Please, not now." The way he said it was not a request and the expression in his eyes made the man back off across the room.

"General Meridius?" Julie repeated. "Are you a...?"

"He is," Joimus smiled, "but that, too, is neither here nor there at the moment. I'm sorry I...."

"Her husband," Maximus spoke up, his eyes going again to the curtains, "I believe he was the man who pulled Alistair from the mill."

"Is...is this mill near the Glen?" Julie asked, never having seen it.

"Not far at all," Joimus supplied.

"Then, yes, it is most likely Robert. He, I, um...we...live near there, too."

"You do?" Joimus was surprised. "I thought I knew every...."

"Oh, um, we've not been there long." She looked back at Maximus. "I was just coming out the door a while ago when he collapsed in the front yard. Said he'd pulled a man from a fire. He's...he's not doing all that well, I'm afraid. Do you know anything about what happened?"

"Only that a man went into the mill and carried Reverend Harris out. The medics were giving him oxygen but he disappeared while they were getting Alistair into the ambulance."

"Reverend Harris?"

"Yes, he is the Glen's pastor and lives with his new wife in the mill."

Julie was on information overload. "Why," Maximus continued, "would he leave like he did when he still needed medical attention?"

She herself was not sure of that. She hadn't even known Robert's last name until a moment ago. Oh, God...Loxley. How in heaven's name could his last name be Loxley?  "He...he's a very...private...man," she offered lamely.

A nurse came up to Julie. "You can go be with your husband now," she said. "He's asleep, but you can sit with him if you like. They'll be taking him for tests shortly."

"Tests?"

"Chest x-ray, that sort of thing."

As she approached the curtain, another nurse was just leaving, several vials of blood in her hands. "You can go on in. I've finished."

The head of the gurney had been elevated to help with his breathing and Robert lay there quietly, his eyes closed, breathing oxygen. Several monitors beeped, rather irritating her jangled nerves, and she stood by the railing on his right side a while, looking down at
him. They'd gotten him in one of those horrid hospital gowns. She always hated those things, but on him, it was just terribly...wrong. A thin white blanket was pulled halfway up his chest, his arms lying at his sides, an IV hooked up to his left arm. "Oh...Robert," she sighed, brushing a lock of hair off his face.

Pulling her hand back, she let it rest high on his bare right arm, her attention then attracted by the feel of the scar that crossed it diagonally. She ran her fingertip down its length, a good nine inches or so. How could he have gotten such a thing? And what had been going through his mind when he'd tried to fight off the three men earlier?

What no one knew was that during the battle for Jaffa, Robert had been surrounded by Saracens. Richard himself had been caught in the sudden onslaught, had been unseated from Fauvel and was struggling to gain his footing just to Robert's right. A Saracen archer, finding position on a broken wall, let fly his arrow at the king. Robert, struggling with a knife-wielding Saracen, had seen the archer release his arrow, had thrown himself in front of Richard, taking the shaft in his right side. Mounted Templars had ridden up just as Robert collapsed into Richard's arms. The Saracens left alive fled back into the hills, and Richard, still kneeling, supported the form of the man who'd just saved his life.

It was that moment that had changed everything for Robert. Richard himself had carried him to his own tent, sending for his own surgeon. Robert remembered no more than the carrying, the arrival in the tent, for the surgeon's pulling out of the barbed arrowhead had
sent him spiraling down into darkness. When he came back to himself, it was night and for a long moment he lay there, his side still screaming in pain, trying to remember where he was and why. Turning his head on the small cot where he lay, he looked across the
interior space of the large tent, his eyes coming to rest on a man seated at a small table, studying what appeared to be maps, his head backlit by a torch. Who...? But there could only be one man with such a burnished glory of red-gold hair.

He tried to raise himself on one elbow to see better, but the beginning of the effort sent hot pain searing through his side and he lay back with a low moan. Richard heard and got up, walking to stand near the cot. "I am here," the king said, "because of what you did today. I shall not forget it."

And he didn't. During their time of rebuilding the wall, which Richard himself participated in with his own hands, carrying heavy stones, the king would come back to his tent, hot and tired, and when he was clean would sit and talk with Robert. A close friendship developed between the two men, and in Robert, Richard found a man with whom he could share his inmost thoughts. It was, thus, that Robert had eventually come to know what that moment on the hill as Richard had seen Jerusalem meant to the king.

As their friendship grew and the battles with the Saracen continued, Richard discovered Robert knew how to fight with a sword as well as his longbow. Eventually Richard had knighted Robert somewhere halfway between Jerusalem and Jaffa.

"Time to take him to x-ray," a male technician said, pulling open the curtain.

Julie wandered back out to the main waiting area. Ah, the couple from the Glen were still there. "How is the reverend?" Julie asked.

Maximus looked up at her, his jaw grimly set. "Not well. Not well at all," he sighed. "They fear he may not last the night."

 

 

A DEFINITE UNDERSTANDING

When Robert was done with all his tests, the doctor decided to admit him at least for overnight, explaining to Julie that he wanted to keep him on oxygen longer and also to be able to check his blood oxygen levels. "Your husband was completely disoriented by
the toxic levels of the smoke he inhaled and has quite a lot of tissue irritation, though he seems to have escaped thermal damage. I did a bronchoscopy and I think he's going to be all right. It's just a good thing he wasn't inside the building longer than he was."

"And the man he saved?"

The doctor wasn't sure 'saved' was the right word. "Well, the man he pulled out is not quite so fortunate, I'm afraid."

"Is Robert awake?"

"No," the doctor replied, a bit of a strange expression crossing his face.

"Not because of the smoke?"

"No, not that."

"But the nurse explained it was just a light sedative he gave him earlier."

"It was. Obviously too light." Again the odd expression.

"What are you saying, doctor?"

"He began to wake up during the x-ray. Seemed to think he was being attacked or something, almost choked the tech. Kept hollering something in some language I couldn't understand. Sounded like some form of old English a bit, though. Never heard the like. Anyway, when I got there, the tech was starting to turn blue so I had to give him something a lot stronger than he'd been given previously. He'll probably sleep through the night now. I hope," he added.

"Do...do you think he'll be all right, then, when he wakes up again?"

"His mind?" She nodded. "Yes, he probably should. A lot of hours of concentrated oxygen will make a big difference. His airways will be irritated for a while, though. No strenuous exercise, nothing like that. He'll need a lot of rest and it would be best if he had someone with him." He looked at Julie. "Do you have to work or will you be able to stay home with your husband?"

"I...I work from home," she stammered, trying not to look guilty at her repeated sin of omission in not stating she was not Robert's wife.

"Good!" he said. "I can probably release him a bit earlier since he'll have someone with him. We'll just wait and see how his levels are doing tomorrow and make our decision then."

"May I go to his room now?" she asked.

"Certainly," the doctor nodded, giving her directions to the floor to which Robert had been moved.

She stood in the doorway of his room, looking at him, then pulled a small chair close to the bed. Resting her forearms on the bedrail, she leaned her chin on her hands. "Oh, Robert, I hope you'll forgive me for not disabusing them for what they're thinking here. But I just couldn't have you left all alone, you know. There doesn't seem to be anybody else in all of Australia who even knows you're on the continent."


His chest rose and fell regularly, but it seemed to her there was some indefinable 'flatness' to him that came with a deep level of sedation. She wasn't sure just why that was, but she'd noticed it before with other people. Something about their presence was either deflated a bit or perhaps just sunk somehow into the mattress. Robert was such a vital man that it bothered her to see that in him and she suddenly needed to touch him, to feel his warm aliveness beneath her fingers.

She let her palm slide down the full length of his right arm then curve under his hand. Lifting his hand, she explored his fingers, one by one, it having dawned fully on her that she could freely do so. Her mind began to write as her fingertips made their way very slowly over his knuckles then turned his hand, tracing the lines of his palm. Turning it again, she studied the patterns of the veins in the back of his hand. He had several smaller scars there as though his right hand had been forward in some scene of danger.

A nurse popped in to check his monitors. "He's resting nicely, Mrs. Loxley. Just what the doctor wanted."

Loxley. There it was again. Robert Loxley. There was no way she could write of late 12th century England and not be familiar with the name of Loxley. "It can't be your actual name, your real name, Robert...can it?" she whispered. It was just too...strange. He worked with wood, lived in a forest, guarded his identity...and that identity was... Loxley?? No, that was strange, stranger than anything she'd ever thought of in her wildest authorial imaginings.

"Stop it, Julianna," she berated herself. "Next you'll be dressing him in green, for Pete's sake!" Her mouth dropped open at the thought. Robert did seem to like to wear a lot of green, now didn't he? "No," she shook her head. "No."

She studied his quiet face. Perhaps the man just had some sort of intellectual, historically-based fascination with the time period? After all, he knew more stories of the Third Crusade than anyone she'd ever met. That must be it. He was a 12th century scholar gone a bit over the top. She breathed a sigh of relief, having come to that conclusion.

Maximus knocked lightly and opened the door part way. "How is your husband?" he asked. "He has my gratitude for what he did for my friend today."

"Sleeping," she said. "They had to give him more sedation, I'm afraid."

"Did something happen?" He came more into the room, studying the man on the bed.

"In x-ray. Seems like he tried to choke the tech."

"He and modern hospital technology do not seem to get along," Maximus smiled.

She turned so she could see Maximus' face better. "The smoke, they say, affected his mental state. I'm not sure why, though, it's made him feel like he's being...attacked."

"Memories of battle can remain most vivid long after the fact."

"Battle? You really think he thought he was in the midst of some...battle?"

"So it would appear, yes."

"And you knew that?"

"I did."

"But...but you are a general, right? It would make some sense if you were in his position, but him...."

"You know, then, that he has not been in battle?"

"I...I...."  No, she did not know that. She suddenly remembered his desk. "He...he has a sword on his desk...at home he has a sword."

"Would you describe it for me?"

She did and he nodded. "Ah!" he murmured. "That makes sense."

"Makes sense? WHAT makes sense?"

"The timing."

"Timing?"

"Of why he called me Richard."

She felt dizzy. Robert had called the general Richard. "But...but he couldn't possibly have thought...."

"Could he not?"

Her mind was turning flip flops, sliding hither and yon and back again, but the man standing in front of her seemed utterly composed, as though none of this were any big deal. Indeed, he was looking at Robert with a definite fond understanding in his eyes.

"I heard you refer to your husband once as Robert," he said, turning his gaze to Julie again. "May I ask for the rest?"

"Loxley," she croaked. "His name is Robert Loxley."

A smile widened Maximus' lips. "Ah," he murmured again. "I see."

"What do...?" she began, but he turned on his heel, heading for the door.

"I must go. I do not wish to be away from news of Alistair for long."

She ran to the door, watching after him as he strode to the stairs, thinking that she'd never seen a man walk with such a total yet natural air of authority.  He turned the corner and she looked back at Robert. "What do you see, General. What in God's name do you SEE?"

REALIZATIONS OF TIME

Julie spent the night in Robert's room. There was a recliner there that was made to fold down nearly flat so someone could sleep in it and since everyone believed she was his wife, there had been no problem with her staying. She woke early, quite starved, realizing she hadn't eaten since early the day before, and so went out in search of the cafeteria.

Robert's mind was slowly swimming toward the shore of awareness. He had no idea, though, of where he was or why he was there. His eyes still closed, he lay there listening to the annoying beep of something just to his left. Moving his left hand, he discovered it had some sort of thing clamped over one finger. Using his thumb and another finger, he pushed it off. Now, where was he? His side didn't hurt from the arrow. What did hurt was his chest and throat when he breathed. That's when he became aware of the thing over his mouth and nose. That, too, ended up lying on the bed beside the finger thing. What had people been doing to him that he was not aware of? He tried to think, lying there, lids shut, trying to figure all this out.

The cot in Richard's tent. He had to be there. The last he remembered was Richard carrying him there. He'd tried to protest that it wasn't fitting for the king to be carrying him, but Richard had simply scooped him up in his long arms and walked off the battlefield. He well recalled the pain of the deeply embedded arrow and the increase of that with the jostling involved in being carried. Richard had had to make his way over crumbled walls, fallen bodies, around dead horses. He remembered the doctor pressing his palm against his ribs while he pulled the arrow's shaft with his other hand. Then pain so excruciating that a bottomless pit of it opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole.

How much time had passed since then? He seemed to have lost all track of it. But Richard was all right. He knew that much. He'd seen him, spoken with him...hadn't he? Something wasn't right. Richard had looked different, sounded different...but yet. What? It had to have been Richard. No one else had such a commanding presence, spoke with such authority. He'd been fighting off the Saracen whose curving blade was seeking his throat. Yes, that much was sure. Then he'd fallen, the arrow piercing his side, and Richard had said it was time to stop fighting. That must be when the king had carried him here. Something about it all just didn't make sense, though.

He moved his hand high on his chest. No wound had been given him there. Why did it hurt so?  Then he began to cough and that made it hurt more. His throat felt raw. He must have gotten ill while he was recovering from his wound. When the coughing stopped, he lay quietly again, listening to the sounds around him.

Julie arrived back in the room at the same time as a nurse. "Good morning, Mrs. Loxley," the nurse greeted. "Did you sleep all right in the chair?"

Mrs. Loxley? Robert stiffened, more confused than ever. Marian? Was Marian here somehow in Jaffa? No, that couldn't be right.

"Well enough," a female voice replied. "I do hope Robert gets discharged today, though."

Robert peeked out under his lashes, seeing a woman with long golden hair standing just inside a door. She looked familiar but was certainly not Marian. He hadn't thought Marian was in Jaffa anyway.

"Just let me check your husband's vitals, Mrs. Loxley, then I'll be on my way. He should be waking up any time now."

The nurse turned toward the bed and gasped. "Oh! He's taken off his oxygen mask."  Quickly she leaned across him, retrieved it, and was about to clamp it on him again when his eyes opened and a hand gripped her arm.

"Mr. Loxley!" she exclaimed, startled. "Please, just let me get this back in place."

"Why?" he asked, frowning at her.

"You need the oxygen, Mr. Loxley, after the fire and all."

"Fire? What fire?"

"Oh, Robert, don't you remember the fire at the mill? You saved the Glen's pastor." Julie was getting concerned again.

He did remember a fire. The Saracen had set some of the army's tents aflame in the night. Peter from Wessex had been trapped in one. "There was no priest in the tent," he growled.


"Not a tent, Robert, the mill...the mill at the Glen."

"The Glen?" He'd heard that term before. "Where is this place?"

"It's where we live, Robert, the Glen."

"Not that. THIS place! Where is this place?"

"The hospital? You mean the hospital? It's in Coffs Harbor, Robert. I drove you here yesterday after you collapsed on the lawn."

"Coffs? Australia? This is Australia?"

"Of course it's Australia, Robert. Where did you think you were?"

"I...I saw...Richard," he almost moaned, leaning his head back, closing his eyes again. Oh, God...Australia. Of course he was in Australia. It had been his choice to come here. But he had seen Richard. He knew he had!

"Richard? Oh, yes, Robert! Yesterday in the ER you called General Meridius by that name."

He squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. "Can you both just leave me alone?"

"But Robert...."

He turned his head away from them. Julie and the nurse exchanged looks. "His oxygen...," the nurse murmured.

"Check with his doctor, ok?" Julie suggested. "He doesn't seem to like the mask."

She went up right beside the bed, laying a hand lightly on his right shoulder. "I'll be just down the hall in the waiting room. I'll...." She didn't know what else to say.


When they had gone, he lay flat again, his left hand encountering the two objects that lay beside him on the cover. He swatted them off onto the floor. It was 2009. Richard had been dead since 1199. How could he so easily find 800 years ago more real, more present than now?


Ah, yes, the mill. He'd paused at the edge of the woods, enjoying its simple Englishness. Then there had been a woman opening the door, and black smoke. That was why his throat hurt, that breathing was still somewhat of an effort. He'd gone into the smoke. After that, everything rather blurred together. Julie. Julie said she'd driven him to Coffs. That he did not remember at all. There were fleeting images, sounds. Why had he thought Richard had been there? "I must have wanted it so," he said aloud.

"And what is it you wanted so, Robert of Loxley," a deep male voice asked from the doorway.

"Who...?" Robert looked toward the source of the words, startled by the 'of' put between Robert and Loxley.

"General Maximus Decimus Meridius," the man said, stepping into the room. Maximus deliberately used the title. He and Joimus had spent the night at a hotel near the hospital and had come back this morning. Joimus was still in the ICU talking with Ahnna.

"General?" Julie had mentioned a general had been in the ER, that he had thought the general had been Richard. "We...we have met?"

Maximus inclined his head. "In a small cubicle yesterday."

"You were there?"

"I was nearby in the waiting room. You pulled my friend from the fire and my wife and I were awaiting news of his condition. I heard sounds of, shall we say, battle and that attracted my attention."

"Battle?"

"Yes, you were being attacked."

"In the ER?"

"Battles may take place, I find, in the most unusual locations." Maximus smiled.

"Saracens," Robert whispered.

"Indeed."

"There were three of them, all coming at me. I...I...saw Richard...you? I saw you?"

Maximus inclined his head again. "It had to be stopped. There was danger of injury."

"To me?"

"More likely to the three Saracen," Maximus replied with a small laugh.


Robert stared up at the imposing man. "Your...your name is...Roman?"

"Quite so."

"But...but...."

"And yours is Saxon, true?"

Robert nodded, his mind racing beyond his ability to keep up with it, to separate into any reasonableness the thoughts flashing through it almost painfully. "You...you are a Roman general?"


"I was. Now I am a farmer. I raise wheat and horses in the Glen."

"You live in the Glen?"

"Not far from the mill where you saved my friend. Your wife says you also live near there?"

"My wife?" He'd almost forgotten! The nurse had referred to Julie as Mrs. Loxley. He pressed his hands to his face. Was there more he did not recall? Something as big as having a wife?


"Are you all right, Robert?"

"I...I think I'm still confused. There seems to be a lot I don't have straight yet."

"It will come. I have spoken with the doctors about the smoke. It seems to have been particularly toxic."

Robert stared again at Maximus. "How can you be a Roman General?"

"Not easily, I assure you. It took many years, much experience."

"I meant...."

"I know what you meant, Robert. I am a Roman General in the same way you are a Saxon."

"No one, not ever...."

"It is a difficult concept, I know," Maximus smiled. "But you are not alone."

Julie had come back down the hall, had been standing just outside the door after she'd seen Maximus enter. She'd meant to announce herself, but when the two men had begun talking, she found herself glued to where she stood, her hand braced against the wall, a slow trembling beginning deep inside her, growing by the minute.
 

Robert was...a Saxon?

Turning, she leaned her back against the wall, her knees feeling weak, closing her eyes as she continued listening to them.

"Mrs. Loxley?" It was the nurse, returning with a canula for Robert instead of the mask. "Are you faint? Come back into the room and sit down." She took Julie's arm, pulling her through the doorway.

"Mr. Loxley, I'm afraid your wife is feeling faint."

Robert and Maximus both looked quickly at the two women. Julie croaked, "Saxon," and keeled over, neatly caught by Maximus before she hit the floor.

 

IDENTITY CRISIS

'Saxon' Julie had said just before she fainted. Robert inhaled a deep breath, bringing on another attack of coughing. It was one thing for this Roman General to know but quite another for Julie.

The nurse looked back and forth between Robert coughing deeply on the bed and Mrs. Loxley lying now on the recliner. Quickly pressing the call button, she handed the cannula to the young male aide who hurried in the door. "Get this on him," she ordered, then turned back to Julie, who was already coming around. She took Julie's pulse...way too rapid.

The aide approached Robert with the cannula in both hands, expecting to slide it easily in place. Robert, clutching his upper chest and still coughing, sat up and glared fiercely at him. "Don't you even *cough* think about it *cough*, " he managed.

The nurse had about had it. "Get his wife some water," she snapped, taking the tubing from the aide's hands. "Now see here, Mr. Loxley, your lungs still need a greater amount of oxygen than the air in this room is giving them. You MUST let me put this in place."

Robert narrowed his eyes, tensing his body.

"Robert," Maximus said calmly, "consider letting it be so...for now. You may find it will result in your leaving this place sooner than later."

It was not a command, just spoken with a quiet authority backed by logic. Like Richard spoke with him...had spoken with him. Glancing quickly at Maximus, he let his muscles relax. "For now," he murmured, allowing the nurse to complete her task.

The aide had Julie sitting up, sipping water. "Are you all right now, Mrs. Loxley?" the nurse asked.

"I...I'm fine," Julie murmured, not really able to meet Robert's eyes right now,
knowing he'd heard what the nurse was calling her.

The nurse looked back at Robert. "Your wife has been by your side through this whole thing, Mr. Loxley, even spending last night right here in your room. I think the stress and lack of sleep is getting to her."

"I'm quite all right now, thank you," Julie insisted, still avoiding Robert's eyes, letting her own follow the nurse and the aide as they left. That took her glance past the General, whose lips were curved in the slightest grin.

"I should be getting back to the ICU," Maximus said. "Alistair has not recovered consciousness yet."

"Alistair? That was the man in the mill?" Robert asked.

"Yes, Reverend Alistair Harris. He was only married quite recently and his wife just lost her sister. There has been much for Ahnna to handle, I fear. My wife and I are trying to offer all the support we can."

"Do they think he's going to survive?"

"Nothing is certain. Not yet."

"Would...would you let me know?" Robert asked softly.

"Certainly." He dipped his head toward Robert, then looked levelly a moment at Julie, recalling well the identity his wife had given her. "Good day," he said, nodding to her.

Robert watched Maximus leave then slowly turned his gaze toward Julie, still in the chair just off to his right. "Have...have I married you, Julianna?" Truly, the way he was feeling, he might have done so and just not be able to recall it at the moment.

Julie licked her lips, sitting more on the edge of her seat, but not standing. "No, Robert, you have not."

"Then may I ask...why...?"

"When...when they brought you in, the attendant handed me your wallet, presuming because I drove you here and was by your side, that I was your wife."

"And you did not...?"

She shook her head. "I was going to, Robert, I was, but then they wanted to know your name and your insurance information and all that and...and...and there was a sign on the wall, you see, that only relatives could be with patients while in the ER... and...and...you would have been alone, you see, and...and...I, well, I didn't want that. I didn't want you to be alone. So...so...I didn't...I didn't tell anybody different...that I wasn't Mrs. Loxley." She sighed deeply. "I just...didn't."

"And you stayed with me all the while?"

Julie nodded mutely.

"Even during the battle?"

"You...you remember the battle?"

"General Meridius spoke to me of it, yes. You were there?"

"I, yes, I was."

He closed his eyes, not knowing just what it was she might have seen, but whatever it was, wishing she had not.

Julie stood, coming next to the bed, touching his right shoulder. "It's all right, Robert. I don't really understand, but it's all right."

He opened his eyes, tipping his head to look up at her. "What do you understand, Julianna?" His voice was little more than a whisper.

An odd sound escaped her throat. "I quite possibly do not understand a single thing, Robert. I heard...."

"You heard?"

"You and the General talking. I heard you talking."

He cocked an eyebrow and she continued. "You...you asked him if he were a Roman General."

Ah, she'd heard more than he'd thought. He pressed his lips together.

"And...and...he said he was. And...and...he said you...you were a...a Saxon." She stared straight into his eyes. "ARE you, Robert? Are you a Saxon?"

"And what if I said I am not?"

"I wouldn't believe you. Not now."

"So you find it easier to believe that I am Saxon?"

"I...I'm not sure 'easier' is the right word, but, yes. I'm not sure why, not at all. But I do."

He smiled. "And believing that, where does that take you?"

"Take me? Umm? It, well, let me see. It takes me someplace where there's no ground any more under my feet."

"Is that a place you think you can deal with?"

"I...I'm not sure, Robert. I'm not at all sure. "But I think I...I...might like to find out."

"Why, Julie? Why?"

"Because, because, because...of me. That's why, Robert. Because of me."

He looked faintly surprised. "Yes. Definitely. Because of me. Because of who I am, what I do, how I think, what I write. Because of all that and...and...because of more."

"There is more?"

"There hasn't been." She looked away. "But, Robert, you...you're more."

GOING HOME

By late afternoon when the doctor came around to check on Robert's progress again, he was told he could be discharged. "But I want you to rest up the next several days, ok. Let your wife here take care of you."

Robert's lips twitched as he listened to the doctor, but he merely nodded and glanced over to where Julie sat in the recliner.

She was still slightly mortified that he knew what she'd done, but his look bore only humor in it. He was looking himself again now that the cannula had been removed. She hadn't liked that on his face. He was so vital a man that having that in place disturbed her.

When the doctor had gone, she asked quietly, "Will you?"

"Will I what?"

"Let me take care of you."

He sat up straight in the bed. "Do you think I really need all that much taking care of?"

"The doctor said...."

"He did, true, but then he thought...."

"I know what he thought, but, still, you shouldn't be on your own. Not quite yet."

"You would worry about me?"

"I would." In fact, her brain had been most uncooperative the last hour, writing scenarios of him collapsing, unable to breathe, and all alone in his house. The sight of him doing just that in her front yard would not go away. Most of her life, her adventures, her drama, had been all in her head, which she then put down on paper. But Robert, well, he brought it all right there, right into reality, and though she loved it, she was still getting used to the fact of it.

"My house or yours?"

"What?" She'd been distracted a moment by her thoughts.

"You wish to do this taking care of me at my house or yours?"

"I...I get a...choice?"

"Would you like one?" His lips were twitching again.

Her mind raced, running scenarios of her in his home, him in hers. "Does it matter to you? You have a preference?"

"I am quite open at the moment."

"Well, I do have a guest room...and...and I know where everything is in my house...so I...so I could, um, probably take care of you more easily, um, there.   If...if you're sure that would be all right?" 

"I would need to pick up some clothes, a few other things, but it sounds manageable." 

Just then the phone beside Robert's bed rang. It was Maximus, wanting to get his phone number so he could contact him in the Glen. Robert started to give him his home phone, then realized he wouldn't be there to answer it. "Just a moment," he said, putting his hand over the receiver, "what is the number at Rose Cottage?"  She gave it to him and he passed it on to the General.

"Now we've done it," she sighed.

"He knows."

"You're sure?"

"Quite sure."

"Is...is that all right? That he knows I'm not your...your...wife?"

"It would be inevitable, given time, would it not?"

"I suppose so. It's just I feel so awkward about it." Then she remembered what had happened in the ER waiting room. "His wife, she knew my name. I met her while you were still in the ER and she recognized me, said she'd read my books."

"It would seem our cover has been blown, if only with the Meridiuses."

"Will...will they...talk about it?"

"The General seems a most discreet man."

He began to push back his sheet. "I think I am supposed to be getting dressed."

"Oh! Um, yes, well, I'll just...just...go get a cup of tea...or something."

"Not terribly wifely," he smiled, swinging his bare legs over the side of the bed.

She got quickly out of the chair, trying not to stare, and hurriedly pulled his clothes from the closet. "Ooo," she sniffed, "They smell like smoke!"

"They seem to be all that is available, however."

She brought them to his bed, laying them beside him. "I'll wash them when we get home."

"Home," he repeated, looking up at her through his lashes.

She blushed furiously. "I'll...I'll be back shortly."  Then she was out the door. Halfway down the hall she leaned against the wall. "What are you DOING, Julianna?"  But she knew quite well. She was living one of her stories. 

 

 

IN THE FLESH

On the way home, Robert sat up straight, looking out the window, far different from when Julie had driven him into Coffs the day before. She couldn't actually believe all that had happened in such a short time or that he was permitting her to take him home to Rose Cottage. She'd never advanced a relationship in one of her books quite so rapidly. But, then, how advanced was it? She wasn't sure at all. She wasn't sure of anything, not really. A sudden thought crossed her mind and she acted on it, often being a creature of impulse.

"Robin," she said and his head turned.

Without thinking, he replied, "Yes?" Then he realized what she'd called him.

"Why did you do that?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Why did you answer so easily?" she shot back.

"It is the nickname for Robert. Why shouldn't I answer?"

"No reason. None. Oh, look! Kangaroo off the port bow!"

"You are still probing," he said quietly.

"Do you mind?"

"What is it you wish for me to say more clearly, Julianna?"

"I wish for you to say you are Robin." She kept her eyes on the road ahead.

"I already said it was the nickname for Robert," he answered. "You wish more than that?"

"Um hmm." 

Reaching out, he put a hand on her shoulder. "Julie, you know who I am."

"I think I just want to hear you say it, Robert. Say it aloud so I can stop thinking I've gone and fallen off the crazy cart."

"What if I said you had? Fallen off the, what did you call it, crazy cart?"

"Too late, Mister. I do think I've got your number now."  At least she hoped she did. And she DID have possession of his person. At least for a few days.

"You want me to say I am Robin of Loxley, is that it?"

"Are you, Robert?"

He sighed. "I have been."

"Are you not now?"

"Yes, I am now."

She pulled off the side of the road and turned to face him. "How?"

"How? That's who I was born as."


"How were you born as him?"

"Um, the usual way...I suppose."

"That's not what I mean. You know that's not what I mean."

He smiled. "I do know that."

"Then...how?"

"It's why, Julie, I prefer no one know...so I do not have to explain how."

"Maximus knows. Did you explain it to him?"

"He needed no explanation."

"You are a difficult man, RobinRobert."

"Thank you."

"I didn't really mean that as a compliment."

"I know, but thank you anyway."

"You're not going to answer me, are you?"

"Not yet."

"Some day?"

"Perhaps."

"I can wait."

"I imagine you could quite possibly do that. You seem to be a woman of somewhat tenacious will."

"Thank you."

"I didn't really mean that as a compliment."

"I know, but thank you anyway."  She smiled and pulled the car back on the road, ignoring him now as she drove, her mind full of her own wildly creative explanations for how the very real man beside her could possibly, possibly be Robin Hood in the flesh. 

 

THE PORTRAIT

Robert and Julie walked into his house so he could gather some clothes and bathroom things to take over to Rose Cottage. As he stuffed his brush, toothpaste and so on into a small kit in his bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror over the sink, running a hand through his hair.

Coming back out into the living room where Julie was waiting he surprised her by asking, "Do you know how to cut hair?"

"Whose hair?"

His hand went to his head again. "This hair."

"You want to cut off your hair?"

"Most of it, yes."

"But...why? I love your hair! Er, I mean, I think it's quite...um...nice. Why would you want to cut it?"

"I could show you," he said softly and went to a large closet, fished behind a rack of coats, and brought out a painting, which he kept turned away from her.

"What's that?"

"A portrait."

"Of...?"

Silently, he turned the painting so she could see it, his eyes intent on her face. She stared at it, her eyes widening.

"It's...it's...."

"Me. Only a bit younger."

She took several steps closer to him. It certainly did look like him, or like he might have looked several years ago. "You...you're in costume?"

"It is not a costume."

"Um, Robert, how, um, old is this painting?"

"Quite old."

She came close enough to touch it with a fingertip. "Sir Robert Loxley?"

He nodded and she sat heavily on the arm of the nearest chair. "It's...real?"

"Entirely."

"You're real?"

"The last I checked."

"Are...are...you really Sir Robert Loxley then?"

"No."

"No? What do you mean 'no'? I thought...."

"Robin Hode."

She slid off the arm of the chair into its seat. "Hode?"

"Spellings change, given time."

"How much...time?"

"A lot of it."

"But...but...you said this was Sir Robert Loxley, didn't you?"

"I did and it is."

"I'm lost. Are you a 'sir' or not?"

"I was knighted, yes."

Something in her was oddly relieved at his answer. She sort of needed him to be a knight...her knight.

"Truly?"

"By Richard himself."

She smiled. That was good. She liked that. "But you're not Robert Loxley?"

"Only for a time. It suited my purposes."

"I've gotten used to thinking of you as Robert, Robert."

"So did a lot of people."

"Should I call you Robin?"

"If you choose. It is my name."

She stared at the portrait again. "Do you have any idea how much you look like General Meridius in this painting?"

He turned it so he could see it himself. "True, though there are differences I can see."

"Not much, Rob...Robin."

"But this is how I wore my hair. This...," he ran his hand through his locks, "...this is too much fluff for my taste. It makes me feel as though I've lost my real self."

"Has it been a, um, disguise, Rob...Robin?"

"After a fashion. But I am tired of it. So I ask you again, do you know how to cut hair? I do not wish to seek out a barber in the Glen, nor even in Coffs, for that matter."

"My grandfather was a barber."

His eyes brightened. "And does this mean...?"

"It means, yes, he showed me how to cut hair when I was still quite young."

Robin strode to the bathroom, coming back with a pair of barber scissors, handing them to her.

"Now?"

"If you would." He went to the kitchen, sitting in a smaller wooden chair, waiting.

She gulped. She actually did love his hair the way it was. That was how she dreamed of him, the only way she knew him, and he wanted to completely change it. Following him at last, she stood in front of him, studying his head. "Perhaps," she whispered, more to herself than to him, "it would help me begin to think of you as Robin."

He tipped his head in a slight nod. "Exactly as in the portrait, if you can."

Sighing, she went around him and lifted one of his waves. "Oh...my," she moaned, and lopped it off, holding it in her hand, not wanting to let it fall to the floor. As she was behind him and he couldn't see what she was doing, she quickly slipped it into a pocket.

 

 

RIGHT…FOR MANY REASONS

As Julie worked on his hair she paid more attention to her careful
cutting and to the long waves that she now let fall to the kitchen
floor than to him himself. It was not till she was done that she took
several steps back and almost let the scissors drop from her hand when she beheld him.

"What?" he asked, noting her wide eyes. "Have I been butchered?"

"Robin," she gasped.

"What?"

"You...you're...Robin."

"Of course I'm Robin," he said, brushing remaining strands of cut hair
from his shoulders, and walking toward a small mirror in the hallway.
When he saw his reflection, he smiled and ran a hand over his smooth
head. "Ah," he sighed. "I'm back."

He returned to the kitchen, standing in front of her, cocking his head
as he saw her continued wide-eyed gaze. "Is something the matter?"

"Rob...Robert," she whispered.

"What about Robert?"

"He...he's gone."

Robin laughed. "You preferred him to me?"

"I...I...I'm just not used to...you."

"It is only the hair that is gone, Julie. I am the same man."

She wasn't at all sure about that. Even the face of the man who stood
before her seemed different, more rugged, more...more...battle-hardened. And definitely more like Maximus. "You look like you could be his brother," she murmured. "The General. Like his brother."

"A not unflattering comparison," Robin smiled.

"I need to think about this," she muttered, sitting in the chair Robin
had vacated.

"Have you then changed your mind about taking me home with you?"

She looked up at his smiling face, then down the length of him, easily
transposing his garb into leather pants and a tunic. Changed her mind? Not hardly! Robert's going might take a bit of getting used to, but this Robin, with his mere intense presence, was doing things unseemly to her insides.


"N...no," she stammered, though he hardly looked like he needed taking
care of at the moment. The close-cropped hair gave him an air of
strength and power that was almost overwhelming her.

"I shall be finishing my packing then," he said, and she watched his broad back as he walked away.

He was going home with her, not Robert, but Robin Hood was going home
with her. Her tongue ran across her suddenly-dry lips. She needed a
drink and wasn't sure tea would quite be enough. Weren't there novels where the heroine or the writer, even, got sucked into the pages of the thing? She just didn't know if she'd been sucked into his story of he'd been sucked into hers. Whichever, now that it had happened, she wasn't going to let go of it.

Robin returned with a small leather bag. Julie was still sitting where he'd left her, looking slightly dazed, so he set the bag down and began to sweep up his hair. She watched him distractedly, only focusing enough to flinch when he emptied the dustpan into the trashbin. Her hand went to her pocket, glad she'd saved that first shorn lock. Loxlely's lock. She giggled and he cast an odd look in her direction.



"I'm ready," he announced, not quite sure why he was letting himself be taken to her house other than something in him rather wanted to go.

"Oh, um, yes. Me, too," she said, getting to her feet, unable to remember where she'd set her purse. Ah, there, on the little table in the hall.

She drove them the short distance to Rose Cottage. "Here we are," she said lamely.

"Indeed, here we are." He waited for her to do something, but when she just stared at her hands curved over the steering wheel, he added, "Shall we get out of the car?"

"Oh, um, yes...yes, good idea. Get out of the car." Her mind was off, following the scandalous lead of her body, and there his hands were already touching her. She blushed. "Yes, let's get out of the car," she repeated.

Getting his bag, he followed her up to the door, waiting while she fumbled with her keys. Damn, she couldn't concentrate. He was right behind her, so close his breath was on her neck. How was a woman supposed to be expected to know which key fit in the damn lock!! At last...the right one...and she was opening the door and stepping into the refuge that Rose Cottage had become for her. Only he was still close behind her, and at her invitation, too, so that 'refuge' wasn't exactly the right word any longer.

He followed her into the living room, setting his bag down, taking a seat on the couch and blowing out a long breath, which made him cough. Oh, right! She'd been so distracted by his transformation from one man into another that she'd completely forgotten about the smoke and the hospital.

"You...you're probably tired?" she ventured.

He nodded, surprised himself at a sudden draining of his strength.

"Let me show you your room, then, Rob...Robin, and you can rest a bit while I see about supper."

He'd almost forgotten what it was like to have a woman watching over his well-being. Not that he'd ever known all that much of it, but it was nice, and he let her guide him up the stairs to a small guest room across the hall from her bedroom. It was all done in shades of blue and had belonged to the grown son of the older woman who had lived in the house before.

Slipping off his shoes, he lay atop the bedspread. "Thank you," he said, watching as she went to the door.

She left the door ajar and went to her own room a moment, a contrast to the blue room as it was all in pinks and mauves and white, liberally sprinkled with patterns of fully-blown cabbage roses. Sitting on the side of her bed, she looked at herself in the wide mirror across the room. Mirror. Yes. Alice through the looking glass. Rabbit holes and looking glasses. Her undoing.

Getting up, she brushed her hair, then walked quietly across the hall, pushing his door just a tad more open with the tip of one finger. He was asleep. Tip-toeing in, she gently spread a blanket over him, then sat in a padded chair, watching him. Yes, it was right that she'd asked him to come to Rose Cottage. Right for many...many reasons.
 

JUST TO...BE

She stayed in his room about ten minutes, trying to get accustomed to his new look. Asleep, his face relaxed, he looked still younger than the haircut already made him seem. She decided she liked it, though it was not something she'd ever have thought of for him herself. At least, with the way they kept plopping into rivers, it would dry a lot faster!

Going down to the kitchen, she found a whole chicken in the refrigerator, stuffed it, and put it on to roast. What else? He'd probably eaten more than his share of wild rabbits skewered on some spit over an open fire. Hmmm? Baked potatoes? Yes, potatoes were
always good. And, and...string beans. Some sort of bread? That would do.

After a while, the scent of the chicken roasting wafted up the stairs, waking him. He sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, looking for his shoes and inhaling the savory smell deeply. The sucking in of the air, though, brought on another spasm of deep coughing. Julie heard and flew up the steps, finding him leaning way forward, his arms clamped around his chest.

"Oh, Rob...Robin," she cried, kneeling worriedly in front of him.

"Fine," he croaked, still hacking, "I'm fine."

She went to the bathroom, bringing him back a glass of water. "Maybe this will help?"

He tried a sip, coughed again, almost spitting it out. Gradually the spasm passed and he took several long swallows.

"Thank you," he said as she took the glass from him, crouching in front of him again, her hands unconsciously resting on his knees as she worriedly studied his face.

Did the woman have any idea, any idea at all, of how appealing she looked gazing up at him so closely like that? His hands had been resting on the bedspread on either side of his thighs and he lifted them slowly, bringing them up, cupping her face. He said nothing, just stared intensely into her eyes a long moment, then leaned forward and took her lips with his.

Julie's mind reeled. She had once, somewhere in her third book, written a scene very like this. While the room around her blurred, there remained this one oddly, piercingly sharp memory of herself sitting at her computer, rereading what she'd just written, and
smiling rather sadly because such things just didn't happen in real life.

Her legs unable to support her crouch any more, she settled forward on her knees, leaning into his kiss, which he then deepened and slid his right hand behind her head, his left under her chin, gently tipping it further up.

When he finally released her lips, he moved back just enough to see her eyes again, probing them as deeply with his own eyes as his tongue had just probed her mouth. There were layers and layers to the woman. She was educated, cultured, successful... even so famous that she needed to hide herself away... yet he saw an unfulfilled yearning in her, saw a heart that despite great beauty still searched. She moved him, touched a longing in himself, and he kissed her again then pulled her head to his chest, holding it softly there.

Her arms went around his waist as he held her and she closed her eyes, trying hard not to think, not to write, just to...be.

 

ALL THAT MATTERS

Robin liked holding her there to his chest, but he was feeling again like he was going to cough and his attempts to stifle that cost him the moment. Releasing her, he turned his head to the side, unable to keep the coughs contained any longer.

Julie sat back on her heels, waiting for it to pass. It seemed somehow long ago that he'd gone into the burning building. Hadn't it been...weeks? How could it possibly have been just yesterday? That couldn't be right. So much had happened, too much for so few hours. But watching him struggle with the coughing brought it into focus that, yes, it had been truly only yesterday.

When he quieted again, he asked, "Chicken?"

"Ah, yes, it is. Do you think you're up for a bit of dinner, Robin?" There, she'd called him Robin without first almost calling him Robert.

"I'm hungry enough that I might be able to eat it even if it's still slightly alive."

Julie smiled, getting to her feet, holding out her hand toward him. He took it, kissed it lightly, softly, then stood, returning her smile. "Shall we go down?"

She nodded, not completely certain she was not dreaming this whole thing. When he held his arm for her to take, and she turned, sliding hers through his, she lost all uncertainty. She was, of course, dreaming.

Then there he was at her table, gratefully lifting the cup of hot tea she'd made him to his lips. "I...I thought it would be good for the cough...you know."

She enjoyed watching him eat, especially the way he broke off chunks of his bread and wiped it through the gravy. "It's good," he said, "all of it."  He had, indeed, been hungry.

After dinner, she made a fresh pot of tea and the two of them settled on the couch. That seemed natural somehow that they do that and not sit in separate chairs. "How strange," he commented, shaking his head, not finishing his thought aloud.

"Strange? To be in my house?"

"Strange that I would have to come to the far side of the world to find the loveliest Englishwoman of them all."

"You make me glad I'm English," she murmured.

"I, too, am glad you're English," he smiled. "I have spent much time in France, though mostly at war, and much time also in the Holy Land, almost completely at war, and I have seen women of many kinds but your Englishness takes my heart and makes it feel as though it has come home."

She loved the line, wanted to remember it for possible future use in her book, but at the same time one part of her mind was thinking that, another was quite lost in the fact that he had said it, even more lost in the sound of his voice as he said it.

Setting down his cup, he leaned toward her, smiling just slightly as he noted the instant parting of her lips in response to his movement. His mouth found hers again and he felt himself grow full with the wanting of her, but he was also aware of a great tiredness that seemed to go down into his bones. No, not tonight. Not when he was not fully returned to himself. So he contented himself with the kiss, with sliding his left hand around her body. She gasped as his hand brushed along the outside of her breast and he wanted her more than he thought he could bear. Pulling back, he wiped a hand across his face.

"Are you all right, Robin?"

He nodded mutely, closing his eyes. "Tired?" she asked, and at his second nod, she touched his shoulder. "Rest here," she suggested, her mind skittering with mounds of words as she imagined his head in her lap. When he actually did it, leaned sideways, settling his head across her thighs, the words in her brain crashed into each other, splintered, fell downward, their shards filling her throat so that she lost all power to speak. All she could do was look down at his profile, managing to breathe a little here and there, but nothing more.

She felt his head grow heavier as his body relaxed into sleep and his lips parted. Lowering her head, she kissed his shoulder. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the Glen," her mind sang soundlessly. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood...come now to me from then."  She didn't even care how. He was there and that was all that mattered. She let her hand run lightly over his close-cropped hair. "Robin," she whispered hoarsely. "Oh, my
God...Robin."

DESPERATION

He lay there all night, asleep with his head in her lap, and she didn't disturb him. She propped a pillow behind her head, sleeping herself off and on. Since she couldn't reach the lamp to turn it off, it was the light on his face more than anything that kept her awake. Simply, she could not get enough of looking at him.

About three she woke up from a short sleep, immediately her eyes looking down to him. The house was very quiet here in the wee hours and quiet always set her mind free to roam the passageways of words, gathering them in large woven synapsual baskets to string together into the fancies of her heart. So the lamplight was transposed into the flickering flames of their campfire somewhere in the heart of  England.  John's men, hired mercenaries, had been tracking her and Robin all day.  The wound he'd gotten two days ago as he'd come to the castle, fought his way down the long corridor and up the
curving stone steps to her chamber where Sir....Sir....ah, yes, Sir Guy had kept her hidden away, the wound had caused a great fever to descend upon him and now here, alone in the depths of the forest, he'd finally found rest in her arms.

Her fingers touched his brow and Robin stirred slightly in his sleep. That was good. She'd put that in the imaginary tale, too. He was most cooperative. He turned his face somewhat more into her body and damned if her nipples didn't respond.  Funny how strongly the nerve lines connected from there to lower regions.  She'd never felt anything quite so strong in her own body before.  She'd never get to sleep now. In fact, parts of her seemed more awake than they'd ever been before...ever.

Ok...ok...back to the imagination. The battle in the castle had been frightening in its intensity. Robin was all alone and Sir Guy had at least five men-at-arms blocking the corridor.  She had watched through the metal grating over the small window in her locked door.  A sixth man had come unseen behind Robin, his pike thrust into the back of Robin's left shoulder. Twisting, bleeding, he dispatched the man with a single blow of his sword, his eyes finding hers through the grating. Despite his pain, he'd smiled. "A moment more, beloved," then turned to deal with the five still facing him.

He had, of course, killed them all, retrieving the keys handily from one of them, and unlocking her door. Julie sighed. She knew she'd seen that in a movie sometime, a long time ago, but, hey, it worked for her even if it was a bit simplistic for her book.  Robin tensed at the sound of numerous men, Sir Guy's men, large, hairy and merciless, pounding up the stairs. His arm around her waist, he guided her to the tower window, looking down at the moat. How far? Oh, heck, why not make it really far! Far was good. Crocodiles? Ah, drat, no crocodiles in English moats, not even ones that went *tick tock*.  Double drat. Well, how would they get down? Vines? Flynn liked to use vines. Vines would work.

Thick ivy grew all the way up the side of the castle wall, all the way to the highest tower. "Do you trust me?" Robin said, holding her eyes with his own.  "With my life!" she replied, wrapping her arms around his neck as he lowered them out the window. His left arm was useless, leaving him only with his right to cling to the vines as he tried to make his way as quickly as possible the several hundred feet to the dark, murky waters of the moat. She looked up the way they had come. Two crossbowmen leaned out the window, sending bolts whizzing closely past. One tore through the lace of her long, artfully-draped sleeve, ripping the delicate material. Julie chuckled. This was better than having to write seriously. And her nerve-endings didn't seem to mind at all that it was a bit over the top. All she had to do was look down at his face turned into her body and the things shot their own form of crossbow bolts to her, um, lower regions.

About fifty feet above the water, the vines broke, sending them plummeting down into the moat. It was deep and she sank beneath the dark waters, her arms still around his neck as bolts sliced through around them. A little cloud of his blood rose up, making a floating halo that seemed almost to encircle his head for a moment. Robin clamped his jaw tightly and swam with her underwater toward the arched stone bridge that crossed the moat. Darkness was falling rapidly, would soon obscure them from the sight of Sir Guy's mercenaries in the night. Yes, Julie thought, mercenaries in the night was always good. Horses pounded across the planking of the drawbridge as he held desperately on to the stones, moss-covered and slippery beneath his desperate fingers. No, she'd already used desperate in the sentence once. Hmmm? Oh, well. Desperate in the night with mercenaries was always good, too.

Night came at last. Robin had been leaning his cheek against the rocks for some while now, his blood draining out into the murky waters of the moat.  She'd torn off one of her long, artfully-draped sleeves and tried to press it against the wound, but the thin lace didn't staunch all that well and soon her fingers were wet with the blood of the man she loved. Cripes! Was she getting ahead of herself here? Maybe not. Maybe...not.

Painfully, with small, stifled gasps, he'd managed to claw his way up the bank, helping her, too, as her wide velvet skirts were heavy with the weight of the dark, murky moat waters. Together they'd rolled over the edge of the bank, and she lay atop him, their chests rising and falling in unison.  Something long, hard, pressed against her upper thigh but it was, alas, his knife. She smiled, looking down at him there on her couch. "And would you be happy to see me, my dear Mr. Hood?" she whispered.

He gained his feet and his one good arm around her slender waist (why did fictional waists always have to be so damn slender?), he guided her to a stable where he quickly and expertly stole a horse. Bareback, together, they rode then through the night, into the limitless forest. As the hours passed, she could feel his weight behind her sagging more and more into her. Twisting as far as she could, she looked back at him. His eyes were nearly glazed with exhaustion, pain, and the steadily-rising fever. It's the old hurt-comfort syndrome, she excused herself. Hurt the man in your story and then comfort him. Females liked that sort of thing. She actually did use it and fairly often in her books. She got a lot of fanmail about it, in fact.

They rode all night and through the next day, not stopping for food, water, or bathroom facilities. He was barely conscious by the time the second night finally rolled around and when they stopped in a small glen...yeah, Glens were good places to stop...she'd stopped in this one and he'd stopped in this one and now look...he was asleep with his head in her lap. Good...definitely, definitely good. And she didn't even care there were two definitely's in that thought!  She slipped off the horse's back, standing beside his leg. He didn't seem quite able to dismount but merely sagged toward her like a sack of flour a mouse had eaten a large hole in and all the flour was sifting out. Ack! That was terrible! She'd never write such a horrid sentence and shouldn't even really indulge in thinking one, for Pete's sake! He merely sagged toward her and she put her hands up, trying the best she could to lower him to the grass.

Gathering small twigs, she started a fire, added larger branches, until she had a place to warm him and keep the wolves away. Julie shrugged. She wouldn't deal with how the fire got started. That was up to her, wasn't it, and she blasted well didn't want to deal with the actual method used in getting a fire going.  She dragged him close to the fire and, propping her back against an oak...pine...beech....ack, tree...she pulled his head into her lap, watching as the flames cast their shadows across his handsome face. Her fingers traced the line of his straight brows, moving down to his lips, utterly mesmerized by their movement on his flesh.

"Julie?"

"Wh...what?"  Oh, goodness! She hadn't realized she'd actually been DOING it! She looked down at his face and her fingers were definitely on his lips.  The tip of his tongue came out and lightly touched one of her fingers and she gasped in a sharp breath, startled, pulling her hand away.

His lips curved into a small smile and he slid an arm behind her neck, guiding her head closer to his. Without another word, his mouth claimed hers and an instant barrage, an absolute barrage of crossbow bolts shot to their goal. "Robin, you...you're awake" she sighed, reaching out with a hand to balance herself, discovering inadvertently just how awake, indeed, he was.

It was his turn to gasp, his breath hissing in, and he turned himself and her at the same time, so that he lay atop her on the couch, his left hand finding inerrantly the curve of her breast. Lifting his head, he studied her eyes, looking for any sign she did not want this, then he smiled more widely at his findings and lowered his mouth to hers, lost in sudden and, yes, desperate need.

A HUGE MOUND OF TECHNOLOGY


Ahnna sat numbly beside Alistair's bed in the IC unit, turning the wedding ring on his left hand around and around. He had promised her...promised her...that he would always be there, would never leave her, and yet a rather blunt doctor had told her not to get her hopes up too much about her husband surviving the night. The one simply did not fit, could not fit, with the other.

The ride to Coffs in the front of the ambulance had been a nightmare beyond all nightmares. She couldn’t see him! He lay there in the back of the ambulance and she couldn’t see him, couldn’t touch him, couldn’t know how he was doing. She’d watched, absolutely horrified, while the medics intubated him. It wasn’t right that such a thing was having to be done to him. It wasn’t RIGHT! Then they’d bundled him into the back of the ambulance and before she knew anything, they were racing down the road toward the coast, lights flashing, sirens screaming through the countryside. They were in a hurry. They were in a hurry because he might die right there in the ambulance. She buried her face in her hands, the sirens spiraling down through her being, each cycle of their sound repeating, "Hurry, hurry, hurry, he’s dying, hurry, hurry, hurry."

Then when they arrived at the hospital, they’d rushed him away from her, not letting her follow. Didn’t anybody know she needed to be with him, had to be with him? It had seemed days before Joimus and Maximus arrived and Joimus had simply folded her in her arms and let her cry. Then, finally, they had let her go back to the ICU.

They had taken him from her again twice already for 90-minute sessions in the hospital’s brand new hyperbaric oxygen chamber. She had been able to look in through a small window, watching as they slid him inside a seven foot long acrylic tube. Seeing him in that she could not shake the image of Snow White in her glass coffin. It was just way too similar. If only she could go in there, open it as the prince had done, lean down and kiss him awake. He lay so still, so pale, that she had to turn away. The chamber was too coffin-like to bear.

The doctor had explained they liked to do three sessions in the first 24 hours, especially with the significant exposure to carbon monoxide Alistair had. The chamber was the most efficient way medicine had of reducing the amount of carbon monoxide in his blood and he had added, "It may reduce the risk of cognitive problems, like lasting damage to memory, attention, and concentration."

That was when it had first dawned on her that he could have brain damage. It was his lungs she’d been worried about, but his continued loss of consciousness was of great concern to the doctors.

Slowly she raised her eyes, not even able to count how many wires and tubes went from various formidable-looking machinery to his body. The worst of all, though, was the large tube that was taped to his mouth. She wanted to see his lips, but the tape obscured them. She wanted him to open his eyes, but he was unconscious. She wanted...him, but he seemed buried under this huge mound of technology, separated from her by it more thoroughly than merely by his unconsciousness.

Her tongue ran across her lower lip. She could still taste the soot from where she'd pressed her mouth to his so briefly there just outside the mill. She wanted the sweet warmth of his breath, but all there was was soot and the repetitive sound of the ventilator that was breathing for him, breathing for him because he couldn't breathe for himself. She closed her eyes, his recent singing of Amazing Grace at Marce's funeral so utterly clear. And now he couldn't even breathe.

Horrid words came, replacing the lovely lyrics; words, phrases, whose meanings she wasn't at all sure of but only that they had something to do with why Alistair lay there so profoundly still. Tissue hypoxia, shift in the oxyhemoglobin saturation dissociation curve, decreased myocardial contractility, chemical asphyxiant, high lactate acidosis. Horrid, ugly words, words that wanted to take him from her, leave her bereft beyond all endurance.

She lifted his hand to her mouth, kissing his ring. "You promised," she whispered, leaning closer to his ear. "Alistair, you promised me. Please, darling, please don't go, don't leave me. Oh, Alistair, please don't go...don't go." She began to cry silently, rocking back and forth in the chair, kissing his ring and rocking. The pain inside her grew and grew until she had to let go of his hand and wrap her arms around her own middle to stop herself from splitting apart.

Willis Todd had been called and, quickly arranging an all-night prayer vigil at his church there in Coffs, hurried to the hospital. He paused in the doorway of Alistair's room, his heart breaking at the sight of the couple he'd married so very recently. Ahnna appeared on the verge of collapse. "Darling girl," he said, coming up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders.

She jumped, startled by his touch, then when she realized who it was, turned her face into him as he put his arms around her shoulders. "Oh, Ahnna, I came as soon as I heard."  He looked over the top of her head at Alistair. The doctor had told him how he was just barely clinging to life. Ahnna was trembling in his arms, her nerves strained beyond breaking. "You need to rest," he murmured. "You can't help him, Ahnna, if you're falling apart yourself."

"I...I can't leave him alone," she gasped. "He can't be here...alone."

"Let me get you someplace where you can rest a moment, maybe have something to eat, and I'll come and sit with him."

"But I...."

"Please, Ahnna. If you keep on like this, you'll end up in the hospital yourself."

Very reluctantly she stood, and with his arm around her, let him lead her to a small, private ICU waiting area. Maximus and Joimus were there now and just as Reverend Todd got Ahnna to the doorway, her knees started to buckle. Maximus was beside them in an instant, scooping her up into his arms. "I'm so...tired," she murmured, her head against his shoulder.

No one was in the room but them, and he lay her on the couch, putting a pillow under her head. "I'm not sure how much more she can take," Todd whispered to Joimus, shaking his head. "She is almost completely undone."  He sighed heavily. "I told her I'd sit with Alistair while she rests. I'll...I'll...let you know...should anything...happen."

Joimus asked a nurse for a blanket and a glass of water. "Here, darling," she said, "drink a little of this."

Ahnna took a few sips then lay her head back on the pillow, large tears tracking down her face. Joimus covered her with the blanket, kneeling beside her, stroking her hair. "Rest now, all right. Just rest."

Ahnna reached a hand up, covering one of Joimus'. "He can't die. He simply can't...die." Then she closed her eyes.

Joimus looked up at Maximus, her eyes bleak. They both knew all too well that Alistair could die.

Just when they thought she’d dropped off to sleep, her eyes flew open and she sat up, pushing back the blanket. "I can’t stay here," she said firmly. "I can’t be away from him."

Getting up, she hurried out of the waiting room and down the hall toward Alistair’s room.

Maximus opened his mouth to call after her, but Joimus put her hand on his arm. "I’d do the same," she said softly, "if that were you. Nothing would keep me from your side. Nothing." Turning, she moved into his arms, needing to feel their strong warmth surrounding her.

 

THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN

Ahnna looked wearily at the wall clock. Two AM. Nobody had been able to pry her loose from Alistair's side, not when she'd been told he might not make it through the night. And now it was two. The wee hours. She'd heard that people on the verge of death often died in the wee hours. But not Alistair. No. Not him. That's why she was there, why she was holding on to his hand so desperately. She would sit with him, hold him fast to this world with the sheer power of her love, and he would make it through to the dawn. He would. He had to. He simply...had to.

The minutes seemed to stretch forever, long, solid, heavy minutes, marked by the sounds of his monitors, of his ventilator. Mechanical, impersonal sounds that had nothing to do with her struggle with the forces of life and death. Those forces were sharp, pulsing like the vein in her temple. Primeval forces more akin to splitting continents and heaving seas, darkness being divided from light. Every ounce of her went into every minute. He would not die. He would not.

Nurses came and went, soft nebulous shadows brushing past her, checking the monitors, checking him. If they spoke to her she neither cared nor remembered. Nothing existed but that he not die.

She remembered him as he was, as he should be, as he would be again. He sat on the edge of the bed on their wedding night, looking at her as she stood before him, that expression of gentle, tender awe on his face. He stood with her on the bridge over
the millpond, staring down at that single fish he'd named. He lay on his back in the grass near the blue iris, Merry standing with her paws on his chest, licking his face while he laughed. He stood on Christmas Eve at the front of the church, telling the story of Joseph's heart that night. She remembered them all, all the scenes of his alivenesss, and she sent them through her hands into his, each a little piece of why he must hold on, why he must not go, must not leave her in a world unbearable without the light of his presence.

There were no windows in the ICU room. It lay somewhere deep in the innards of the hospital. So her eyes, watching for the coming of the dawn, had only the sterile black hands on the white face of the plain, round wall clock by which to judge the slow passing of time. Black and white. Yes, it all came down to something as simple as that. Death...or life. And Alistair was trapped somewhere in between, a foot on either bank of the small stream that marked their boundary. She stood on the side where tiny yellow buttercups nodded among the grasses, holding onto his hand, straining backwards in her attempt to
tip his balance toward her, to keep whatever held his hand in the darkness of the opposite bank from taking him away.

Black and white as the second hand jerked its way around and yet around again, marking all the smallest intervals of her battle. And, outside, a filmy pink finger of hazy cloud began to spread across the sky, backed by palest aqua in which the morning star still shown. A nurse came in, checked the monitors, and turned to Ahnna, saying something she didn't hear. The nurse lay a hand on Ahnna's shoulder, "Mrs. Harris?" she tried again. "Did you understand what I said?"

Ahnna tipped her head up toward the nurse. "His vitals have improved," the nurse smiled. "Looks like he's taken a turn for the better."

Ahnna simply blinked slowly then turned to look again at the clock. Six AM.

 

WITHIN THE LATTICE


The nurse looked at Ahnna, who was simply staring at the wall clock. "Mrs. Harris, I know you've been here all night. Why don't you go get a bit of rest now?"  She didn't like the look of the young woman at all. Dark smudges of fatigue lay under her eyes and she seemed quite pale. "I could arrange a bed in an empty room for you," she added hopefully.

Slowly Ahnna turned her gaze from the clock to the nurse. "Where is the hospital chapel?"

The nurse sighed. There were some people who just refused to know when they needed to rest. "If you go back up to the main lobby and take the hallway to the left, it will be right before you get to that first crossing hall."

She lifted Alistair's hand again, kissed it, then whispered, "I'll be right back, darling."
The nurse shook her head, watching Ahnna walk out of the room and head for the bank of elevators. With a final check of Alistair's IV drip, she went back to the nurse's station.

Ahnna found the door to the chapel and before opening it, lay both palms and her forehead flat against its smooth wood grain.

"Are you all right, Ma'am?" a passing orderly asked.

She straightened and murmured, "I'm fine, thank you. Just a bit tired."

She entered, stepping off the tiled floor of the hallway onto soft, deep blue carpeting, and found herself in a small passageway facing a curved wooden wall that had been carved into an almost lattice-like design. She could see through it into the chapel itself, which also had curved, wooden walls. Trailing her fingers along the lattice, she followed the passageway around until it opened onto the chapel. It was even smaller than the one she and Alistair had been married in and with a totally different look to it. Whereas that one had been all light because of the large window and the sunshine streaming in, this one was dimly lit, soft and curved and reminded her somehow of a nest or a womb. It was a place for curling up on the lap of God when one's beloved lay in some other part of the the glass and tile sterility of the rest of the hospital.

Ahnna walked slowly around to the center of the room, just standing there, looking at the main wall. A three dimensional dove, carved of wood and about two feet wide, had been placed there, with lights behind it that radiated small beams across the wall. She smiled at it, going to it and tracing one of its wings with her fingertip. Then she turned, looking at the two wooden benches with their thickly-padded seats of blue velvet. Again her head turned toward the dove and she simply sank to her knees, then lay on her face on the carpet. She folded her arms, clasping her fingers tightly behind her head and let the tears come, strained beyond the end of her strength. "Thank You," she mouthed soundlessly over and over. "Thank You, thank You." Then her arms slipped to the sides of her head and she fell asleep.

Reverend Willis Todd had spent much of the night praying for Alistair and at dawn had left his church and come back to the hospital. He stopped by the nurse's desk, asking after the young pastor's condition, pleased to hear of his slight improvement.

"Is his wife with him?" he asked.

"She was there all night long, Reverend Todd," the nurse replied. "I told her she needed to rest, but she went off toward the chapel just a while ago instead. You might look in on her. She seemed ready to drop."

Todd immediately went to the elevators and on to the chapel. Quietly he opened the door and looked through the lattice. "Oh, no!" he gasped. Ahnna was there, face down on the carpet. He hurried around the lattice and knelt beside her. "Ahnna?" He rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Mmmmm?" she murmured, turning slightly.

"Did you fall?"

"Mmmmm?" she repeated sleepily.

"You...you're sleeping here?"

Ahnna blinked, the reverend's face slowly coming into focus, and rolled onto her side. "Wh...what?"

"Are you all right?"

"Oh, hullo, Reverend Todd," she said. "I'm just tired. That's all. Just tired." She closed her eyes again, starting to drift off. "He didn't go," she murmured. "Alistair. He didn't leave." Then she was asleep.

Willis wasn't sure what to do. Finally he decided to let her lie there a while longer and so he sat on one of the benches, not wanting to leave her alone. It was, after all, such a peaceful place to rest, so mindful of being in the arms of God. He leaned his head back against the lattice and drifted off himself.

 

THE TUNE WITHOUT THE WORDS

When Ahnna woke up in the chapel, she looked around and smiled, seeing Rev. Todd asleep on the bench. She only vaguely remembered his coming in earlier. Sitting up, she brushed her hair out of her face, and with a brief stop by the restroom, hurried back to ICU.  Alistair lay just as she'd left him, still and quiet.

"You'd think I'd be used to it now," she whispered, standing in the doorway, a hand on either side of the framing.

"It's not something our hearts ever want to get used to," a nurse said, coming up behind her.

Ahnna lowered her hands and turned. "Is it...do you think...something I'll have to do?" She remembered the doctor's frightening words about possible brain damage.

"It's too soon to tell, Mrs. Harris. When he wakes up, we'll know more."

Ahnna looked back at Alistair over her shoulder. "How is he doing...really?"

"The hyperbaric treatments were the best thing he could have had," she explained. "But any long-term prognosis will, of course, depend on how long and how completely he went without sufficient oxygen. That his vitals improved overnight is a good sign. Don't give up hope."

As Ahnna walked to take her seat by the bed, she kept hearing that last sentence. Don't give up hope. No, she wouldn't do that. Curling her fingers around his hand, she suddenly remembered an old poem she'd learned years ago and whispered it aloud close to his ear. "Hope is the thing with feathers...that perches in the soul...and sings the tune without the words...and never stops at all." 

She sighed and repeated, "...and never stops at all."  Yes, she would never stop, not ever.

Throughout the entire day, she sat at his bedside, holding his hand, whispering to him from time to time. "Alistair, I need you to come back to me, my darling. Please, darling, wake up and be all right." 

She wouldn't have had lunch had not Rev. Todd come by and literally walked her to the cafeteria. Being away from Alistair wasn't right. She needed to be, had to be, by his side. She picked at a salad, ate a cup of jello, and was back in less than ten minutes.

At dinner, Rev. Todd brought her a tray to Alistair's room, giving up on getting her to eat anything away from him. She sat there, mostly silently, staring at his face. What if he were gone, the Alistair whom she'd fallen in love with, the Alistair who had always known just what to say to her, known just how to be for her? What if the smoke had already taken that away? No, she refused to think about that. She tried to refuse to think about that, but the thoughts of it kept creeping up over and over and once in a while large tears rolled down her cheeks.

One at a time, for that was all they were allowed, Maximus and Joimus came and went, but mostly she was alone with Alistair. He was here and he was still alive, still in her world, and she grasped on to that with the fingers of her soul so tightly that her very being ached.

Around 11 that night, she was exhausted and about to nod off there in her chair, when she felt a slight twitch of his fingers in her hand. Sitting up straight, she stared at his hand. It seemed as if he were trying to tighten his fingers around hers. His eyes were still closed, but his fingers were definitely doing something. "Oh, Alistair," she almost moaned, "I'm here, darling, I'm right here!"

Something on his monitors must have alerted the night nurse because she came hurrying in. "He's trying to hold my hand," Ahnna said excitedly.

After a moment's examination, the nurse smiled. "It looks like he's trying to wake up. Give him some time. He's been pretty far away for a long time now."

Ahnna was crying and smiling at the same time. Alistair was coming back. He was really coming back!

UNREACHABLE

It wasn't quite a conscious thought, more a feeling that kept growing and as it grew, his fingers moved, grasping for something, an instinctual reaching out. Finding warmth and softness, they curled around it, seeking some anchorage in a vast sea of lostness. The feeling that all was not right, that a terrible wrongness, a thing that had no name but lay on him, in him, expanded until its very unbearableness forced his mind into a vague semblance of thinking. He hurt. His chest, his throat, his head. Pain, that's what it was. No, more. More than that. Something...some thing...that didn't belong. Panic began to rise, blind, nameless panic arcing through a fog-laden mind. His other hand rose with heavy, weighted effort to his face, finding the thing that had invaded him, had filled his throat and mouth. Feebly, he grasped at it, trying to make it go away.

"No, Reverend Harris! NO!" a voice said firmly, pushing his hand away. "You must leave it alone."

The words, the voice...none of it made any sense. The thing was taking him over, swallowing him alive, overwhelming him. He struggled to get his hand back up, to make the thing go away.

"Alistair, darling! Stop! Please, darling, please stop!"

More words, words that flowed over him, not stopping by long enough to be sensed as words. He had to get the thing out of his mouth, out of his throat. The need of that was all there was. Pulling hard, he managed to free his hand, grabbing for the thing, unaware that a doctor had been summoned, was injecting something into his IV. His hand grew too heavy to lift and fell back beside him. It had won. Whatever it was, it had won, and he had no more strength to fight for his freedom from it. The fog grew thicker and his ability to think at all was lost in its cloudy folds.

"What happened?" Ahnna moaned. "I thought he was just going to wake up."

"He was waking up, Mrs. Harris. Sometimes there's a reaction like that to being on a ventilator. He doesn't know what happened to him. You've got to remember that," the doctor explained. "He was just becoming aware and then the sensations of being on the ventilator were more than he could handle."

"But, what if he wakes up again? Will this happen then, too?"

"It's quite possible it might. I've given him a light sedative that will keep him just slightly out of it. We may have to maintain that while he's on the ventilator. Mechanized breathing is not always well tolerated."

"How...how long, doctor, will he have to be on the ventilator?"

"I can't say for sure just yet, Mrs. Harris. It all depends on the levels of oxygen in his blood and how quickly the swelling in his airways goes down. The hyperbaric treatments should have shortened the time he'll need this. Perhaps just a day or two more. We'll have to wait and see."

"A day...or two...," she repeated heavily.

"But it's a good sign that he was waking up, a very good sign. Don't lose sight of that."

"He...he didn't seem to know what was going on, though. I thought...."

"How could he know what is going on? You said he was probably napping when the fire started. It's likely he never woke up. The toxic gases in the smoke incapacitate their victim very quickly. I understand a polyurethane couch was involved. That produces a gas that was used in the Nazi death camps. He's very lucky he's still alive. I think it may be best if we keep him lightly sedated at this point, at least until we can wean him from the ventilator. His blood pressure spiked drastically a moment ago and what he needs right now is rest and oxygen."

"But his mind...is he...?"

"It's still too early to tell for certain. He couldn't talk while on the ventilator any way and just now he didn't wake fully enough for us to discern anything definitive. Be patient a while longer, Mrs. Harris. I don't think there's any other choice."

When the doctor had gone, she picked up Alistair's hand again. His fingers lay limply in the curve of her palm. "Oh, Alistair. You almost held my hand just now. You almost did. Did you know it was me, darling, did you know I was here?"  That brief, warm pressure had meant everything to her and now, here she was, back at the beginning, back with him in a place she couldn't reach, and once again the noises of the many machines and monitors beat a relentless tattoo against her temples.

Rev. Todd stopped by one last time for the day and she told him what had happened, how she felt about it. "He's not as far away as he was, Ahnna. He was waking up, all by himself he was waking up, coming back from very far away. Now he's just a little away, not far at all. Hold onto that, dear one."

Alone again with Alistair, she leaned close, talking softly to him. "How close are you, darling? Can you hear me? I'm right here, my love, right here. It's going to be all right. You listen to me...it's going to be all right. You're going to be all right."


And he slept, floating in the fog where the thing couldn't reach him.

 

JUST LIKE THE FIRST TIME

Since Alistair was not suddenly going to wake up and find her not there, Ahnna let herself be talked into going to bed in an empty room. Her head had barely touched the pillow before she was sound asleep. All the next day she sat by his side, waiting for reports on how his levels were doing. The next day was the same. Uninterested in eating, she was losing weight but didn't care. During that night, though, they had begun to wean him from the ventilator and by lunch time had extubated him and he lay there with a cannula rather than the horrid tube taped to his mouth.

"He'll be waking early this afternoon," the doctor explained. "We've stopped the sedation."

"Then we'll know?" she asked, her chest tightening a bit.

"We'll know a lot more, yes," he nodded.

She sat then beside him, tensed, waiting for him to move his hand, for an eyelid to flutter. He had to still be there, still be Alistair. Two hours passed before his head moved slightly on the pillow. She stood, gripping the bedrail tightly with both hands, watching his face intently, almost dizzy with the level of her concentration.

The tip of his tongue came out just a little, running across the top of his lower lip. She got a tiny ice chip between her fingers and touched it to his lip, his tongue following as she moved it. "Alistair?" she whispered, leaning low. "Alistair?"

His eyes were still closed, but he made a little sound down in his throat which made him cough. The doctor came in, quickly checked the monitors, then opening Alistair's mouth, shown a small light down his throat. Turning to Ahnna he said, "Your husband will be coughing some, so don't be alarmed." 

Alistair made another sound, coughed again. The doctor waited, giving him time to wake up. Slowly Alistair's eyes began to blink, as though the lifting of the lids involved heavy effort.

He couldn't seem to focus at first, two blurry things were leaning over him. It was easier just to let his lids close again and he started to do that, jarringly interrupted by a firm male voice saying, "Reverend Harris. Wake up now. Time for you to wake up."

No, he didn't want to wake up. It wasn't...comfortable. He grabbed at the fog with what remained of his will power, but there was nothing to hold on to, and the voice kept saying, "Wake up!"  He tried to turn his head away from it, to make it stop, but the voice was insistent, like sharp little hooks in his consciousness, not letting it drift away. He made a sound of protest, then his lungs turned inside out and someone was sitting him up, holding his head, which was far, far too heavy for him to hold up himself. It was the pain and effort of the coughing that drove him out of the fog and when he finally lay back on the now-raised head of the bed, he was exhausted, wanting nothing more than to know the oblivion of the friendly fog again.

A female voice was saying a name, was it his name, over and over, the sound of it jagged and breaking with emotion. He opened his eyes half-way, drawn somehow by it but not knowing why. A white face, surrounded by thick, dark hair hovered just out from his and he tried to concentrate, to look at it, make some sense of it. It was beautiful, sad and pale, and...beautiful. He closed his eyes again. So this was dying. An angel had come for him. He'd always wondered how that would be. He drifted a moment in the vestiges of the fog fingers that still wafted in his mind. What had happened to him that he was dying? Had he been in the car with Jenny after all?

The male voice came again. "Reverend Harris, try to wake up!" it pressed irritatingly.

Ahnna was going downhill fast. He'd looked at her, for a moment there he had looked straight at her, but she'd seen no recognition in his eyes, none at all. She bit her lip, her chin trembling. "Alistair, PLEASE!" she almost sobbed.

Blinking his eyes open once more, he stared at her again. "Beau...beautiful," he murmured, then coughed hard.

"Well, he hasn't lost the ability to form words," the doctor said, trying to be encouraging.

"But he's looking at me like he's never seen me before," Ahnna moaned. "Alistair, please remember me, darling. You know who I am. I know you know who I am!"

He smiled slightly. "A...angel. Beau...beautiful angel."

She gripped his right hand, pressing it to her cheek. "I'm YOUR angel, Alistair. Yours!"

His smile widened. "My angel." He nodded just a bit. "Yes. Come for me. Yes."

It dawned on her what he must be thinking. "No, Alistair. Not like that! Not that kind of angel. I'm Ahnna...your wife. Alistair, I'm your wife." Tears were dripping down her cheeks.

Jenny? He strained to see this face so close to his. Jenny? He didn't say the name aloud, an inadvertent blessing for if he had, Ahnna's heart would have cracked in half right there on the spot.  No, not Jenny. Jenny had died. In the crash, yes, she had died, along with his unborn son. The reality of that rushed in on him, more present than where he actually was, and several large tears welled up, tracking down his face.

Ahnna didn't understand. "Oh, darling, you're crying!" She looked desperately at the doctor. "Why would he be crying?"

"He's very weak, very vulnerable right now, Mrs. Harris. Any emotion will be very raw for him, right at the surface. But we'd have to know what he was thinking to know the reason for his tears. He's probably still very confused, disoriented." Ahnna had straightened and so the doctor leaned over the bed. "Reverend Harris, you are in the Coffs Harbor Hospital. You were in a fire at the mill where you live. You're not burned, but you've suffered severe smoke inhalation. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

He turned his head toward the doctor. What? "Hos...hospital?"

"Yes, the Coffs Harbor Hospital. You've been on a ventilator for some days. Your wife is here, Reverend Harris."

He looked again at Ahnna. "Wife," he said and she couldn't tell if he meant it as a statement or a question.

"Alistair, I love you, darling. I love you with all my heart." She kissed his hand over and over.

He stared at her, blinking slowly, and she held her breath under his scrutiny. He remembered that face, remembered it as it had turned, regarding him for the first time with its enormous sad eyes. She was doing that again, just like the first time. "I...iris?" he asked. "Do...do you have blue iris?"


The laugh that burst out of her was wet with the sound of her tears. "I do, my darling. I have tons and tons and tons of blue iris...and all for you. All of them, all for you!"

He coughed several short little coughs. "Ahnna?"

"Yes, it's me, Alistair."  She kissed his cheeks, his lips.

"The mill...burned?"

"Just your office, darling, and it was mostly smoke." She wiped the tears off her cheeks. "We've been so worried about you. All of us, we've been so worried."

He looked at her, his love there, shining in his eyes. "My wife," he whispered.

 

CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE CILIA

Later in the afternoon, they moved Alistair to a regular room. Ahnna breathed a sigh of relief when they left the ICU behind. A regular room meant he was on the mend, was moving steadily out of danger. She watched happily from an out of the way corner of the room as they got him settled in bed. He was awake and with the ventilator gone, he could talk. He knew she was there. Her cup ran over and she smiled, grateful when she and he were alone again.

His voice was still hoarse and he wheezed and coughed from time to time, but it was still so much better than before. He still had several monitors connected to him by wires, as well as the IV and the cannula for oxygen. She had just gotten a chair pulled up beside his bed when the doctor came in.

"He's going to be all right now, isn't he?" she asked.

"He is definitely doing significantly better," the doctor nodded, "but we need to keep a close eye on him for a while longer."

"What do you mean?" She felt her body tighten.

"Four to five days after inhalation injury," he explained, "is when bacterial pneumonia often complicates matters." He didn't add that the additional cellular damage often caused significant mortality. "Your husband currently is showing no signs of that," he continued, "but it is something we must watch carefully."

"But I thought when he regained consciousness...when he was off the ventilator...I thought...."

"Don't go and worry about it yet, Mrs. Harris. We may not have to deal with it at all."

Her hand found Alistair's and she held on tightly. When would this nightmare be over? "Is...is there...anything...?"

"Hot tea and chicken soup," the doctor smiled. "What they say about them is very true in the case of smoke inhalation especially."

"Chicken...?"

"Yes, it's what he's having for dinner tonight. You see, the respiratory tract has millions of tiny little things called cilia that beat to remove foreign material out of the system. The chemicals in smoke impair their function, but large amounts of tea and chicken soup, stimulate them,make them active so they can do their job. When you get him home, I suggest you continue that for a time."

"When I get him home," she repeated, loving the sound of the words. "When, do you think, that might be?"

"Several more days at least, but if he doesn't develop pneumonia, it shouldn't be longer than that."  He checked a few things, smiled, and left.

"I promise," Alistair said.

"What, darling?"

"I won't develop pneumonia."

"Can I hold you to that?"

He smiled, a bit worn out from the change of rooms, his eyelids heavy. "Rest," she said, "I'll be right here."

He let his eyes close. "I'll be right here, too," he murmured as he drifted off.

She sat beside him as he slept, holding his hand the whole time. Early in the evening he was brought a tray with the chicken soup and the hot tea. Despite being still quite weak he thought he could probably have managed a spoon, but he saw that it gave her pleasure to feed him, so he sat quietly, opening his mouth as she lifted the soup to his lips. In truth, she did need the doing of it, the sense that she could help him in some way, do at least some little thing to make him better. Sitting so helplessly for so long beside the ventilator

had taken its toll on her. Reverend Todd stopped briefly by with some food from the cafeteria for her and to visit with Alistair now that he was awake.

That night Ahnna slept in the recliner in his room. The next day Alistair felt a bit strongerand was still showing no signs of pneumonia. They spent the hours quietly together, him napping from time to time, a few visitors stopping by, among them Maximus and Joimus.

She could feel her tension relaxing. He had promised. Alistair always kept his promises. She could take him home soon. Yes, she just knew she could.

 

Two Visitors

by Jo and Bridgid

 

The hospital in Coffs didn't look like anything Jack would have related to a medical facility. There was no blood on the floor or sand, everything was clean and the smell reminded him of the offensive scent of the stuff Bridgid cleaned with on occasion. It reminded him of the smell pitch mixed with a seasoning that Killick would use to make souse.

The couple stopped to inquire at the desk as to which room Alistair was in then they made their way onto the lift to his floor.

"Warning, slight pitching deck." Bridgid said to Jack as she pushed the button to go up.

He gave her one of those looks and she cleared her throat with a smile in response. Shifting the bouquet of flowers that she carried to the crook of her left arm, she took his hand with her right.

"Are you okay, Jack?"

"I am, Siren. My concerns lie more with Alistair than anything else."

A few minutes later, Jack tapped on the door of Alistair's room. He pushed it open slightly to call in.

"Reverend Harris, would you be up for visitors, sir?"

"Captain? Is that you? Certainly, please come in!" 

"Aye," he replied. Shuttling Bridgid in front of him, they both entered the room.

Bridgid smiled and waved at Alistair. "Hello you. You're looking much better. I was going to sneak some tuna casserole in for you but I wasn't sure if you'd have any special dietary restriction. Anyway, we brought some wildflowers for you."

Setting the bouquet on the table, she bent to give Alistair a kiss on the cheek. "From now on, I'm calling you Smokey the Alistair, which kind of rhymes with bear."

Jack chuckled a little as he took Alistair's hand. "On some occasions she even amazes me with her humor, Vicar, but I have learned to live with it."

Bridgid placed the flowers in a vase that was on the window sill and after the fact, she put some water in it , splashing some on herself. "Drat."

"You seem to have an effect on her as well. She has curtailed her sailor's tongue in your presence."

"It's the 'reverend' thing. It does that to people." He smiled, truly pleased to see them. They were a breath of fresh air in a heavy hospital environment. "Thank you for the flowers, Bridgid. Ahnna will enjoy them, too. She's gone down to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat right now. Reverend Todd manages to drag her away from time to time for her own good."

"You are most welcome and, I'm sorry I missed her but when things are settled and you feel up to it, Jack and I would like to have you both over for tuna surprise."

"Ah, my favorite dish!" Jack added but the look on his face said otherwise. He actually waved his fingers in a back and forth motion as his eyes grew wide. He was nearly caught in the act as Bridgid turned to smile at him.

Directing herself again at Alistair she asked, "Any idea when they re going to spring you from here?"

He sighed. "It does seem like I've been in here a long time, but I think one or two more days will do the trick. I admit, I will be very glad to see the mill again." He looked from Bridgid to Jack. "I also understand I have a new wall thanks to your talents."

"I should take the opportunity to thank you in a way, Reverend. It was during the construction of your wall that I was able to present Bridgid with a token of our engagement."  Jack stated

"Yes, see!" she held her left hand up. "It's official. I am soon to be the future Mrs. Aubrey."

Something about that didn't sound right.

"I was the soon to be future Mrs. Aubrey but now I am the future Mrs. Aubrey."

Jack harumphed. "Not to be confused with my mother."

Raising a brow, Bridgid chuckled. "One day, you'll have to tell me about her. For now, though, I think we should leave this man alone so he can get better. We'll need him to be strong to marry us. I'm sure there will be such things as cannon fire and ramparts at our wedding."

"Indeed." Jack said. "A fragile man would not survive the day."

"I'm not sure that was complimentary but no worries. You'll both live to see our first anniversary."

"I'm glad," Alistair smiled. "I should definitely like to do that. And, congratulations, Captain. You're a lucky man to have such a lovely future Mrs. Aubrey. It will be my honor to assist in the endeavor, cannon or no cannon."

"On that note, sir, we should let you be to recover."

Jack clasped his hand again as gently as he could.

"Oh yeah, we have ulterior motives. The sooner you are better the sooner we'll be married."

She gave Alistair another kiss and a squeeze, being careful not to disconnect him from anything. "Honestly? You just get better for you and Ahnna, my friend. I love you, Alistair."


"I'll hold you to the promise of tuna," he said as they went out the door. "Thank you again for coming. You've brightened my day."

 

STOPPING BY

Zack paced back and fourth in front of the hospital entrance. He'd found out from the article in the Times which hospital they had brought Alistair to after the fire and he wanted to stop in and check on him and Ahnna and see if there was anything he could do to help. He still couldn't get over the fact that such a terrible thing had happened to such a good man. In his line of work, the death of others was sometime inevitable and often a regular occurrence, but when it happened to a friend or loved one, well, that was something entirely different and harder to get past.

Taking one last puff from his cigarette, he stumped it out in the large, cement ashtray and made his way through the sliding glass doors. After a quick stop by the nurses station, Zack made his way up the elevators and finally found Alistair's room. The door was closed, so he paused outside of it, listening for the sound of voices inside the room. Hearing the faint sound of a woman's voice, "most likely, Ahnna's," he thought to himself, he lightly knocked on the door.

Ahnna came to the door, opening it to see who was there. "Zack!" she said with a pleased smile. She'd come to like the quiet man during the time he'd spent on their couch. "Alistair's awake. He'll be delighted you've come."

Zack hesitated, "Sure it's alright? If he's not up to it... I mean... I could wait..."  

"No, no, it's fine. Please come in."

Alistair recognized Zack's voice and called from the bed. "Zack? Is that you?"  Calling out made him cough a little, but he got it under control and smiled in welcome as Zack came somewhat hesitantly  into the room. "It's good to see you."

"You too," Zack replied, smiling. "I wasn't expecting to find you awake and talking." The last he had heard, Alistair was still in critical condition, so he was quite pleased to see the man had made somewhat of a recovery. He stood a bit awkwardly next to Alistair's bed, thinking of the last time he'd seen him.

Alistair coughed some more, then asked, "How has it been going for you, Zack? What's going on in your life? I'm afraid I've been a bit out of the loop for a while."

Zack chuckled a bit, "Um... yeah, under the circumstances, I'd say you would be."  Feeling a bit more at ease, he ran a hand through his hair and added, "Things are going well, I suppose. Got myself a room up at Millie's... for now, anyway. How are you feeling?"  

"A little better every day. So long as I don't develop pneumonia, the doctor says I'll be able to go home in a few days." He looked over at Ahnna and smiled. "And I promised her I wouldn't."

"That's great news," Zack told him, smiling. "I have to admit, when I saw the paramedics and fire engine at your home...I....well..." he looked down at his hands, thinking about that day, seeing Alistair being carried out on a stretcher. He swallowed hard, then looked up at Alistair and continued, "I'm just very glad to hear you're going to be okay. If there's anything I can do for you two... anything, just ask. I mean it. You were both so kind to me the first night I arrived in town... letting me crash on your....um... couch..."  

"Ah, yes, the old couch," Alistair smiled wryly. "I understand it was the source of much of the toxic smoke. I'm glad, though, it was there when you needed it. Are you thinking now you may stay in the Glen? If so, I hope you'll come by the mill often, maybe for dinner sometimes. We enjoyed having you, you know, and you're always welcome."

Zack was surprised by Alistair's positive take on things. That damn couch... the couch he had slept on... the couch that had nearly cost Alistair his life... and still, the man was 'glad it was there' when Zack had needed it? He stared a moment, then answered, "Yeah, I think I might just stick around. Aside from the fires and murders, seems to be a nice place to live. About dinner...thanks, I'd like that a lot. Haven't had a home cooked meal in... well, a long time. But for now, you just work on getting healthy again."  

"I'll do that," Alistair replied, then had an attack of coughing. "Sorry. It comes and goes." He wiped his hand across his face, then smiled again, trying not to let his weariness show. "I'm glad to hear you'll be staying, Zack."

"Umm...maybe I should let you get some rest," Zack said, a look of concern on his face. It was obvious Alistair still had quite a bit of healing to do.

Ahnna could see how tired Alistair was. "Thank you again for coming, Zack." She stood, walking toward the door with him. Looking back over her shoulder, she could see Alistair had already closed his eyes. "It means a lot, you know, to both of us that you came all this way." She lowered her voice. "I think it means a lot to him, more than he'd ever say, that people there care about him." She continued with Zack on into the hallway. "He's always giving and giving of himself and his time. It's good to see him getting a little of his back. It means a lot to me to see that, so you truly have my thanks."

Zack nodded. "He's a good man and a definite asset to this community. If there's anything I can do, if you need anything while he's in here, just let me know. I'm staying over at Millie's, and I'd be more than happy to lend a hand." 

Ahnna watched him as he walked down the hallway. "He's a good man," she said softly to herself, "but too alone."

 

MERRY AND CORT

Cort laughed as Merry licked his face. He was lying in fresh straw in the Meridius barn and had been rolling around, playing with Alistair's pup. Immediately after the fire, Cort had gone to the mill and taken the young golden off her cable, bringing her back to the Meridius house as Joimus had asked him to do. He liked dogs. Well, it seemed he did, anyway, but what surprised him about taking Merry into his care was just how much he liked the pup. She was about half a year old now, frisky as all get out and slurped up all the attention he showered on her.

He started taking her everywhere with him, even when he rode horseback across the Meridius land. He knew she wasn't his, of course, would never be his, yet he couldn't seem to stop himself from getting whole-heartedly attached to her. There was something so fresh and clean-spirited about her, something that made him feel more a part of this place where he found himself, something that made him feel he belonged.

At night in the Meridius house, Merry slept up on his bed with him, her chin resting on his thigh. When he'd wake up in a sweat from some unremembered nightmare, she was right there and he held onto her while she wagged her tail and licked his chin. She seemed to sense he had a need for her and responded to that, quickly bonding to him and developing a sense of protectiveness toward him. Within two or three days an observer would have thought the two of them had always been together.

There was, however, the fact that she liked to eat his socks. First she'd shred them and then gobble down all the little pieces. She went through three pair in the first week.

 

WHO I REALLY AM

Maximus and Joimus spent two days in Coffs then returned home, planning on driving back the following evening to check on Ahnna and Alistair. Several of the Glen residents had been out to the mill, getting the inspection and repairs underway. Maximus had put his plans for the thermae on hold, arranging instead for Jeff to redo much of the plumbing in the old structure. An electrician had also been hired to tend to the wiring. The General wanted not just the office addition, but the entire mill rewired before Alistair and Ahnna might return.

This morning Maximus and Cort were planning on repainting the interior of the office while Joimus and Claire restored the garden just outside where Alistair and Robert had fallen and where the firefighters had had to walk and drag their hoses.

This was the first time Claire had seen the mill and as she stepped out of Joimus' stationwagon, she was immediately taken by its rustic charm. "It looks like it's out of another place and time," she commented to Cort, who was unloading a large can of paint nearby.

"It does, doesn't it," he agreed, nodding, Merry weaving between his legs, almost sending him sprawling. "I'm glad we can help fix it up. Alistair has been very kind to me. He's a good man."  Cort had been truly concerned about him, more than he'd expressed to anyone.

There had been a heavy rain the day before and the soil was still damp with it as Joimus and Claire set about pulling out ruined plants, piling them off to the side. Joimus remembered exactly what had been growing where in the mill gardens and wanted to recreate them as near to that as possible. She and Claire had developed a quiet camaraderie at the Greenery and worked well together.  Plant after plant was unpotted and set into the ground as the two women worked steadily at their task.

Cort had had to put Merry back on her cable to keep her out of the paint. It was a warm morning and he stripped off his shirt as he climbed up the stepstool, stretching to paint the upper part of the new wall Jack and Bridgid had built. The door to the office had been left open to aid in ventilation and from time to time as she worked in the garden just beside it, Claire would look up and catch sight of him, pausing to watch his movement, the ripple of muscles in his shoulders as he painted. It could be very
distracting and she'd find herself holding the rootball of some plant and not getting it into the ground at all.

The painting was done just at lunchtime and Cort came to the door, still shirtless, and with splotches and dabs of paint here and there about his torso and arms. Claire, pressing the soil around a newly-planted phlox,  stopped and stared at him. He wiped his forehead with the back of an arm, succeeding in smearing a small swath of paint across it. Her lips twitched in amusement. "Are you going on the warpath?" she asked, unconsciously wiping her own cheek with a muddy-gloved hand.

Joimus sat back on her heels, chuckling. She'd been aware of Claire's glances into the office all morning. "You two are becoming a matched set with your smears. I suggest you go down to the bridge and study your reflections in the pond water." She was a smart woman. She knew what she was doing.

"Would you like that?" Cort asked Claire, smiling fetchingly.

"I do believe I would," Claire replied, slipping off her gloves. When she tried to stand, she found her left leg had gone to sleep from being in a rather cramped position too long and she tottered precariously. In a smooth, graceful motion Cort was off the little porch and had hold of her elbow before anybody realized he'd moved.

Maximus came out and set on the stoop, rubbing his leg, watching as Cort and Claire went down the path to the little arched bridge. "They seem to get along," he commented, smiling then at his wife, who was coming up to him.

"Your leg hurt, darling?" she asked, sitting beside him, curving her arm through his.

"Just a little. Too much standing for too long. Nothing of concern, though."

"Everything about you is of concern to me. You know that."  She nuzzled against his shoulder.

"I do know that." He kissed the top of her head.

Cort paused at the edge of the pond. "What are those?" he asked.

"Iris," Claire replied. "Are you not familiar with them?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think they grow where...."

"Where?"

"Wherever." He shrugged. "I don't think they grow there." He turned, looking at the whole panorama of the extensive mill gardens. "I don't think much of any of this grows there."

"You don't remember flowers?"

"I don't seem to remember...green. It all strikes me as very different. But I like it," he hastened to add. "And I like that you know how to make this sort of thing happen."

He had, indeed, the last few days spent more time at the greenhouse and its environs than out in the barn or the fields. There was always something he could offer to help with, something heavy that needed lifting or moved. And he found this delicately beautiful young woman the loveliest flower he'd ever seen.

They walked up to the top of the arch and stood, looking down into the pond whose smooth surface did reflect their faces. They both burst into laughter at the same time, seeing their smears. He turned, leaning his hip against the railing, looking at her. It was noon and the sunlight beat straight down atop her pale blonde hair so brightly he had to hood his eyes a bit. "Tell me about Claire," he said softly.

"What would you like to know about Claire, Mr. Wells?"

"Anything. Anything at all."
 

"I haven't been many places, had many adventures, I'm afraid. I basically grew up with the flowers in my grandmother's garden. I like simple things, beautiful things, like tulips and poetry."  She kept her eyes down toward the pond, realizing again just how uncool she was.

Cort, however, who had no concept of the modern term of coolness, thought she was exquisite and something deep in him knew he'd never encountered anything as rare or beautiful as she was. He was quiet, studying her down-turned face, appreciating its loveliness. His quiet made her lift her eyes, needing to see his expression after what she'd said. She caught him off guard, caught the fullness of his thoughts plainly writ on his features. No man had ever looked at her like that before, with a respectful yet very open regard. Her lips parted in surprise and he turned quickly away. "I...I'm sorry," he murmured.

His hands were on the railing and she lay her palm on the nearest. "Sorry for what, Cort?"

"I...I was staring. I shouldn't...."

He made her feel beautiful, something she'd struggled with for the last couple of years during her illness. "Thank you," she said quietly.

He lifted his eyes again, not understanding.

"For the way you make me feel about myself."

He was very, very aware of her hand atop his, of how entirely he was drawn to her. But then his mind flooded with the fact of his circumstances and he gently slipped it out from under hers, stuffing it into a pocket in his jeans.

She stiffened, afraid she shouldn't have said what she just had. "I...I was too...," she began.

"It's not you, Claire. I find myself wanting to know you, to be closer to you but...then." His eyes locked onto hers. "Then I realize I have no right to do anything of the sort, not when I don't even know who I am, what I might be, whatever I've done. I have no right to anything, not in this place."

"Oh, Cort!" she responded, quick tears stinging her eyes. "You are here. You! And the you who's here has every right to be happy, to make a place for himself."

He shook his head. "It's not that easy, Claire, not for me. There's something I have no name for weighing me down, something that wakes me in the night, shaking with the darkness of it. Until I know what that is, I can't settle into anything new. I may not like who I really am. You may not like who I really am."

"I'm not worried about that, Cort, truly I'm not. I'm pretty sure I see who you really are."

"There's something there, though, Claire, something big, something that changed everything, and I don't know what that thing is. I don't...know."  He put both hands on the railing and leaned his forehead down on them.
 

She took a step closer, resting her hand on his shoulder, instantly aware of the feel of his sun-warmed flesh. "You will, Cort, when it's time. You will.  She felt his back lift as he took a deep breath.

Alistair had said something very similar to him at the Wade's wedding reception...that he would remember when he could bear to remember. Why couldn't he bear to remember the thing? WHAT couldn't he bear to remember? 

 

 

MOST OF ALL

Cort leaned his back against a tree, his horse grazing nearby, Merry lying with her chin on his thigh. He was chewing a blade of grass, staring at the horizon, just thinking. Time was passing and he still had no grasp on the reality of who he was. When he was busy, and he did try to keep busy, he managed to tuck the fact of that into a corner of his mind and concentrate on what he was doing. It never, however, went entirely away, but was always right there in that corner and if he paused even a moment, thrust itself out, demanding to be seen.

Now, though, he'd gone for a ride with no particular purpose other than to ride. He liked the Meridius land with its wide fields, its areas of woodland, its ponds and streams. The General and his wife had been nothing but kind to him and he'd grown quite fond of them both. Still, he needed time alone once in a while, time just to be and think.

He thought of Claire and how he wished he had more of himself to offer her. Always between them there was that hesitation, only on his part, only because the thing in the corner never fully came into the light, was never fully resolved.

The nightmares came quite steadily these days. More than once a night any more. It seemed what haunted him was right there, just below the surface, like a fish in Alistair's pond making a shadow in the water then darting under the bridge. Merry was still there for him in the nights. He hadn't expected that but fully realized that the longer the young dog was in his care, the harder it was going to be when the inevitable day of parting came.

He reached out, ruffling Merry's neck fur, and she got up, flopping herself entirely across his lap. "You knocked the reverend over, you roughneck," he chastised fondly. "You could've hurt him, you know." He held her face, looking into her eyes. "No, I guess you don't know that, do you?"  But the result of that unfortunate event had been to grant him a reprieve from parting with her. He wrapped his arms around her golden body, burying his face against her, trying to sort out just why she was so important to him.

Unlike with Claire, he never held himself back with Merry. Between man and dog lay only a pure openness of relationship. Merry knew him, cared for him, for what he was and neither lack of past nor present uncertainty was a matter of any import. Cort liked that, liked Merry's blissful unconcern with the fact that he had been ripped from somewhere and deposited here lost and directionless. She licked his face and he laughed. The dog filled some empty space in him with the simplicity of her devotion to him, her desire to be his companion whether he sat under a tree on a peaceful afternoon or woke sweating from a nightmare.

"I love you," he murmured into her fur. It was true. He did. Right now in all his unknown
world, he loved her most of all.

 

 

WELCOME HOME

Four more days passed and still no sign of pneumonia. Though Alistair was quite weak and tired easily, the doctor was letting him go home, with certain cautionary instructions in place as well as being accompanied by an Inogen One. "I still want you to have
oxygen therapy available," the doctor explained. "Not that you'll need it constantly, but use it at night for a while and during the day if you feel you need to."

The Inogen One was an Intelligent Delivery Technology for oxygen, very portable as it was 11 1/2 inches by 6 and weighed less than 10 pounds. "It's a concentrator that makes its own oxygen so it never has to be refilled," he smiled, showing Alistair and Ahnna how the device worked. "It's also very quiet, which is nice when you want to rest, and is so intelligent it detects shallow mouth breaths while you're sleeping and increases or decreases the oxygen flow according to your needs."

Getting dressed was more activity than Alistair had had for some time and wore him out. By the time he'd been discharged and wheeled to the patient pick-up area, he was sagging markedly. Maximus and Joimus had come to take him and Ahnna home in their station wagon, and the General held carefully on to Alistair's elbow during the transfer from the wheel chair to the back seat of the car. They weren't even out of Coffs before Alistair had sagged to the side and was sleeping on Ahnna's shoulder.

She was feeling very uncertain by now that he was truly ready to leave the hospital, but the doctor had said what he really needed now was a lot of rest, a lot of chicken soup, and a lot of tender loving care. As he sagged more, she pulled his head down to her lap, loosening his seatbelt enough to accommodate that.

Cort had spent the morning on a walk with Merry, then brushing her till she shone. He sat a long time with her, rubbing behind her ears, leaning his forehead on hers. "It's time, girl," he whispered, "time to go back to your Master." It had been not much over a week and a half that he'd been taking care of her. How could he so completely have lost his heart to her so quickly? He'd known better than to let himself love another man's girl. At least he'd thought he had. Obviously it wasn't the case, however. Looking up at a wall clock, he sighed. "Time, Merry, time to go," and got to his feet, going with her out the Meridius' front door. He was going to walk with her to the mill, stretching out the moments remaining to him.

Maximus pulled the station wagon as close as possible to the door of the mill, then went around to help Alistair out. Alistair had woken about five minutes earlier, and smiled as he looked out the window, glad to be back, glad to be away from the sounds and smells of the hospital.

"Take it easy," Maximus urged, holding his arm tightly.

"Easy is all I do any more," Alistair smiled wryly.

They were steering him toward the bedroom but he protested that he wanted to see his office first. "After all the community has done to restore it," he said, "I owe them at least a quick look."

His eyes widened as he went through the doorway. Everything, absolutely everything, was fresh and new and clean, much better than it had been before. With the money from the sidewalk sale and Andy's jar, Joimus had been able to buy new furniture for the room. "It...it's just like the one I had," Alistair said wonderingly, resting his hand on the back of a new recliner.

"That was deliberate," Joimus explained. "The relationship between a man and his recliner is a nearly sacred thing."

Alistair was walking on his own now, admiring the newly-built wall, the paint job, the curtains and carpet. There was a magnificent antique roll-top desk with dozens of cubbyholes. "Where...?" he asked.

"Maximus," Joimus said. "He saw it at a shop in Coffs and said you needed it."

"Than...," he began, his eyes still lingering on the desk as he just began to turn.

The front door opened and Merry thundered through the living room, immediately scenting Alistair. She ran headlong into the office and leapt up on him. He was totally unprepared for it and she completely knocked him off balance, sending him falling sideways into the table beside the recliner, both him and it landing on the floor.

Cort, horrified, and hard on Merry's heels, grabbed her collar while Maximus and Ahnna bent over Alistair, who seemed slightly stunned. "Are you all right? Are you all right?" Ahnna kept repeating frantically.

Alistair couldn't talk for a moment and just pressed his hand to his chest. Maximus slipped his own hands under Alistair's arms and got him into the recliner. Merry, aware she had done something less than circumspect, tucked herself behind Cort's legs. "I'm so sorry," Cort said. "I...I didn't think she'd do that."

Joimus had fetched the Inogen One as Alistair seemed to be gasping a bit for breath. When Ahnna had him settled and his cannula in place, she looked from Cort to Merry to Maximus. "I think it's too soon, maybe way too soon, for Merry to be around Alistair." Her eyes went back to Cort's. "Would...would you mind keeping her for the time being? We just can't have a repeat of this." She turned to Alistair, who was pale, had his eyes closed, and was just quietly letting the oxygen flow into him.

"Of course," Cort replied, nodding as he still maintained a tight grip on the pup's collar. "Are you all right?" He repeated Ahnna's question that Alistair had not yet answered.

"I...I'll be fine," Alistair wheezed. "No harm done."

"Not this time," Maximus said, "but we'll not have another."

When Cort had gone, taking Merry with him, Maximus and Ahnna helped get Alistair to bed. He slept again immediately, the oxygen still in place. As Maximus went to the bedroom door, Joimus appeared on the other side. "Ahnna, I've stocked the refrigerator with home-made chicken soup. Should be better than what he's been getting in the hospital." Taking Maximus' hand, she added, "We'll leave you two now but we're only a phone call away, Ahnna. Day or night."

"Thank you both," Ahnna replied appreciatively. "You are the best friends we could possibly have."

She heard the station wagon drive away. She and Alistair were home and he was in their bed where he belonged. For the first time there was room, was freedom from wires and IVs. The Inogen tube went off one side of the bed, a small matter compared to all she'd been dealing with for so long, and for the first time there was room for her on the bed beside him, beside him where she belonged. Slipping her shoes off, she lay down, cuddling against him, tears of gratitude stinging her eyes.

 

AN ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME

Robin spent the week at Julie's house, staying well after he could have gone home. They slept together, ate together, walked together, talked together, and made love several times a day. His coughing had stopped, his strength fully returned, yet he stayed. A second week began and still he did not go. She filled him in a way he'd not known for, well, quite some time. That week passed, too, and their delight in one another did not abate. Then the rains came and he stayed because...he stayed. He wanted to, she wanted him to. It was as simple as that.

Even when he watched her across the room making tea, his hands tingled from remembered memory of her touch. He lifted his right hand now, looking down at his open palm, smiling slightly. There were several things his hand remembered, the fletch of an arrow sliding through his fingers, the ache after battle when the hilt of his sword seemed merged with his palm, the reins of his great white horse, but among all these familiarities now remained the softness of her skin, the curve of  breast, the long slope of thigh. A man's hand was like that, knowing both leather and metal, hip and breast. That was the way it should be.

Julie filled the tea kettle, watching him through half-lowered lashes. She'd not written, not on paper nor on the computer, since his coming. It was all in her mind, in her heart, and she overflowed with the words of him. It was not an impatient overflowing, not in any way, more of an endless fountain pouring into some vast reservoir. It was all there, all of it. There was no sense of hurry, no need. Hurry would be out of place, inappropriate, in these days of speaking softly, of meshing bodies. She wanted no more than him, his presence. Was there, in fact, any longer anything other than that remaining in the world? She neither knew nor cared.

They had just returned from a walk through her gardens when the phone rang. She handed it to him. "Maximus."

"Good day, Robin," the General greeted. They spoke a while about Robin's returned health, then Maximus continued, "I have been waiting for Alistair to recover sufficiently to suggest this to you, but now that is so and he wishes very much to meet the man who saved his life. If you would consider it, my wife and I would like for you and Julianna to come for dinner tomorrow evening. Alistair and Ahnna will be here and it may be that the time has come for you to meet some of your fellow residents."

His hand over the receiver, Robin looked up at Julie. "The General would like for us to come to dinner at his house tomorrow. The reverend and his wife will be there as well. What do you think?"

She nodded yes. An island out of time such as they'd been having could never last. Besides, she liked the General and knew Robin did, too. If they had to take an outrigger to the mainland, this would be the best place to land.

"It will be our good pleasure," Robin said into the phone. "I look forward to talking with you again and meeting Alistair."

So it was settled. For the first time since either of them had come to the Glen, they would be going to someone else's house. Well, Robin had been in Alistair's, but that hardly counted as a visit.

 

SIMILARITIES

"I'm really glad, Ahnna, that I'll be meeting him at last, have the opportunity to thank him in person," Alistair smiled as he slipped on a tan sports coat.

"Well, my dear, I have a lot of thanks for the man myself!"  She couldn't even quite remember what he'd looked like. All she'd been able to see was the thick, black smoke pouring out of her husband's office. Then Robin had staggered out with him and they'd fallen into the phlox beside the steps. After that there was nothing but Alistair's still form, the taste of soot on his lips, the bundling into the ambulance. "If...if he hadn't...."

"But he did, my love. He did. We don't need to wander around in the land of 'if's'. It's past and I'm here."

She slid her arms around his torso, holding on. "It...it just frightened me so, that I might lose you, almost lost you."

He rested his chin atop her dark hair. "I love you, too," he whispered. "Always."

Robin and Julie had arrived a bit early at Maximus' suggestion so that they might walk down and look at the horses. Maximus had not seen Robin since the hospital, and when he and Joimus opened the door, both were startled by his appearance. Joimus had never seen him, but her husband had described him to her with his waving brown hair. But there on her doorstep stood, good Lord, her husband, for all intents and purposes! The resemblance was more than striking.  If you looked closely, you could tell he was a few years older than Maximus and his hair was not coal black, but those were minor details to the presence of the man.

Even Maximus tipped his head back and chuckled loudly. "Robin, good to see me!"

Robin ran a hand over his short hair. "This is how I always wore it...before."


"I've been telling him," Julie spoke up, "that he looks like you now, General. Seeing you side by side proves the truth of that."

The four of them walked down to the stables, with Maximus leading the way to Legion's stall. He stopped, turned, and waited for Robin's opinion.



Robin simply stood there, staring a long moment. "What is it, darling?" Julie asked.

"Rusty," Robin murmured, stepping closer to the large, white horse. "He is the image of my Rusty."

"Rusty?" Julie said.

"Oh, he had some fancy, long name, but I called him that for short. He was my horse, both in France and back in England."

"His name is Legion, Robin," Maximus supplied. "It would give me great happiness should you come and ride him when you like."

Robin had let the stallion smell his hand and was now stroking his neck, nearly mesmerized by the horse. "I would like that, Maximus." He turned to the General. "I was going to add 'more than you know' but I think you do know."

Maximus inclined his head in acknowledgement.

The four of them looked at some of the other horses and were just about up to the gate to the main house when Alistair's car pulled up. He sat there behind the wheel gazing in wonder at the two men walking side by side. "Did you know?" he asked Ahnna softly.

She looked past him out at the men. "Oh, my! I had no idea, darling. From here, in this evening light, it's hard to tell which of them is which."

Alistair wiped his hand over his mouth. "I didn't think there could be someone else with the presence of our General."  He shook his head. "I'm quite astounded."

Getting out of the car, he went around and opened Ahnna's door, a gesture he liked to perform for her. Taking her arm, they approached the two couples who had stopped next to the gate, awaiting them.

"Alistair," Maximus greeted, "and the beautiful Ahnna. I am so glad you could come. It has been way too long."

"General, Joimus," Alistair responded, then looked at the couple beside them.

"Alistair," Maximus said, "this is Robin. It is time you two officially met."

Alistair took Robin's hand, holding it between both his own. "There are no words to thank you enough. You risked your life, your health, to save mine. It is an act of bravery and kindness I shall never forget."

Robin smiled at Alistair, liking his quiet, sincere manner. "You are well it seems. That is all that matters."

"It matters that you, too, are well."  Alistair returned Robin's smile. "May I present my wife, Ahnna."

Ahnna smiled shyly. "Thank you," she murmured. "In saving my husband's life, you have also saved mine."  She meant that in every way possible.

Julie liked the line, made a mental note of it for further use. Ahnna looked to her like the heroine out of some book, a beauty regal yet fragile. Everybody greeted everybody else then they all went toward the house. "Your gardens," Julie sighed, pausing by some tall foxgloves, "they are exquisite."

"She owns the greenhouse...just there." Ahnna pointed to where the top of the Greenery stuck slightly up above some tall shrubs.

"Julie lives in a home swathed in roses," Robin said, his fingers curved through hers.


"Rose Cottage. It has a name," Julie explained, "though I am merely renting it for now."

"I'd very much like to see it," Joimus said. She still wasn't exactly certain just where it was either Julie or Robin lived.

Julie blinked. There it was. Her coming out party, no less. "Please, I'd like that. You, too, Ahnna."  See, she told herself, you can do it.

Robin's lips twitched. He knew how extremely private Julie was.




As they came up the brick walk toward the Meridius' house, Robin paused again. "It's quite...English, General."

"It is entirely English, Robin. Brought from Kent brick by brick."

Robin walked up, laying his hand flat on an outer wall, closing his eyes. England. He sighed, then turned and smiled at the others.

 

ROYAL CONVERSATION
 

As Joimus looked around her dining room table at the faces of her husband and their guests, she couldn't help smiling. She'd come to know Alistair and Ahnna very well already and now here were Robin and Julie, come at last out of their hidden bower somewhere on the other side of the Glen. She caught the sparkle in Maximus' eyes as he talked earnestly with Loxley, a clear bonding of understanding forming quickly between the two men.  They spoke a common language of the knowledge of the hardship and danger of battle, of endless rides, of seemingly insurmountable odds. Glancing at Alistair, she could see his interest in watching the other two men at the table, his awareness of their shared experience of life. He had had no part of such things himself. His battles were different in nature. Her eyes prickled with sudden tears as she observed him, thinking of what he had been through, of what a genuinely good man he was. Ahnna was seated just to her left around the corner of the big table, and Joimus reached under it to squeeze Ahnna's hand. When Ahnna turned to look in her direction, Joimus nodded slightly toward Alistair, whose eyes were on Robin, and she smiled and squeezed Ahnna's hand again.

Ahnna smiled back, understanding that Joimus was commenting in silent appreciation of Alistair. She mouthed, 'I know,' and turned to look at him herself.  How good it was to see him looking so healthy again. Except for a little cough now and again, he was pretty much back to normal.

Alistair was interested in the Crusades and asked Robin, "King Richard, this was a genuine quest for him then, not just politics?"

"He meant it, all of it, Alistair," Robin replied. "It was a thing he wished to do for his Lord, get back the Holy City. It was a simple, straight-forward desire but also gnawed him inside like a fire."

"I can't even imagine the logistics of such an undertaking," Julie commented.

"He was on top of it all, too. He was aware of everything, every aspect. I doubt there's ever been such a hands-on king." Robin sat back a little, his lips curving at the memory of his great monarch. "But he knew well that 'the show' was a big part of everything, of getting the loyalty and enthusiasm of others to be what was needed. The motto of the Plantagenets was, you know, 'As we are seen, so are we esteemed.'  He knew better than anyone how to enter a city and make it adore him."

"His appearance didn't hurt, either, I suspect," Julie smiled.

"He was, yes, the ultimate warrior-king...tall, well-built, strong, extremely handsome. Even the day he was finally freed from his Austrian captivity, he was attired in scarlet velvet and green, emblazoned with gold and pearls. It was the second of February and he entered the cathedral in Mainz in full shackles, hands and feet, came down the aisle and up the steps to the platform. Never was a man in shackles so unconquered. He stood there and raised his chained arms over his head, tipped his chin far up, and the people began to shout, 'Long live the king! Long live Richard!'  When his mother, then in her mid 70's came up to his side, he bent and kissed her and everyone stood and began to holler 'We love Richard! We love Richard!' over and over and over. Silently his lips formed, 'I love you' and wild cheers broke out and continued so long it seemed they'd never stop."

"Oh, my!" Julie breathed. "How I wish I could've seen that!"

"Emperor Henry, though, read a letter from King Philip of France, a terrible and accusing diatribe of hatred and manufactured crimes. The mood in the cathedral changed to angry muttering as the letter ended with a demand that Richard not be freed, that he be turned over to Philip and to Prince John instead. There was such a rustle of swords as I've only heard before at the start of battle. Richard had had a flashing smile on his face earlier but as the letter went on, the famous Angevin rage supplanted that."

"I imagine so," Maximus said softly.

"Then," Robin continued, "Archbishop Walter said that the king would conduct his own defense and such a roar of approval went through those gathered there. Richard, still shackled, took a step forward, robed in absolutely authority and said that as an anointed king he was accountable to no one but God. How his voice rose as he said the word 'God'. He was magnificent. But then he went on that he would voluntarily and cheerfully answer all the charges in the letter so the world might know his innocence." Robin smiled, his eyes half closed. "Then he stamped his shackled foot and all the English in the cathedral stamped theirs in response. He spoke for a long while, his words eloquent, captivating, and he ended with his voice reverberating through the dome, 'Forget the calumnies of my foes! Put faith in my actions! With God as my witness!' It was as though a great lion were roaring, and he raised his long, shackled arms above his head again. The crowd then screamed, howled for justice for their king, even all the bishops, and Emperor Henry was alone with his accusations. Still the Emperor had one last barb for his victorious prisoner. He demanded that Richard kneel and do homage to him. Richard's face bore clear evidence to what he thought of that, but his counselors advised him to consent, and so he did. Immediately his shackles were unlocked and everyone rushed up to embrace their freed king. We hoisted him up on our shoulders and as we carried him from the room, he reached down to touch fingers with those he passed."

So caught up was he with his description, he failed to notice he'd switched from 'they' to 'we'.

Joimus saw Maximus look at her and they exchanged understanding glances. Dinner conversation, Joimus thought. One never quite knew where it might lead.


 

 

THE THIRD SUNDAY

Alistair was feeling restless. A Sunday had passed while he was in the hospital and another after arriving home. Now yet another Sunday was approaching tomorrow and he was determined the church would not be pastorless three Sundays in a row.

"It's too soon, darling," Ahnna protested. "You know it is."

"I need to be there," he said.

"You need to be well. That's what you need."

"Three is too much." He shook his head. "I need to be there."

"Everyone will understand," she continued. "Didn't they all rally for the sidewalk sale and for young Andy's jar? Not one of them will mind if there's no pastor for a third Sunday."

"I will mind."

"You are stubborn, you know."

"My grandmother was a Scot," he smiled.

"I'm not sure that's a good enough excuse to endanger your health."

"I doubt a few minutes in church will endanger it all that much."

She sighed. "I'm not going to change your mind, am I?"

"No," he smiled, "but I love you for trying."

She came and knelt beside the swivel chair he was sitting in at the rolltop desk, turning it so she could lay her head in his lap. "Just take it slow, all right? Don't overdo."

"I will." He moved his hands over her hair. "I'll be molasses on a winter day."

 

 

A THOUSAND MAY FALL AT YOUR SIDE

As soon as Alistair got to the front of the platform, he knew this wasn't going to work, but there he was and now he had to make the best of it. Always he stood on one side so there was nothing between him and the people he was speaking to, but he moved over to the pulpit like a ship to its dock and held on, knowing he needed the support. Just showering and getting his suit on this morning had taken more energy than he'd expected.

Ahnna, on the front pew, watched anxiously as Alistair stood behind the pulpit. He never used the pulpit, didn't like being behind it, but today on his first attempt to do a Sunday service, he not only stood behind it, but gripped its top edges with both hands. That worried her. She could see his chest rising and falling in a concentrated effort to breathe evenly without his oxygen  pack.

"Good morning," he said, managing a smile. "I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am to be back here with all of you again. I have missed your faces, all of them, and I am so thankful that...."  He began to cough. He was wearing a lapel microphone but still the strain of trying to project his voice brought on enough irritation that the coughs began to rise up from his core. "Ex...excuse me," he murmured, turning away for a long moment, trying to bring it under control. He had a glass of water on the pulpit shelf and took a sip. "...thankful that today I can once again...*cough*  *cough*...once again speak to you of the things dear to my heart."

He did like being back there, but kept shaking his head slightly from time to time, feeling like he needed to clear it. And the coughing hurt. It simply...hurt. He could feel himself starting to tremble with fatigue.

For ten minutes he spoke, coughing once in a while, but Ahnna was aware she was growing tenser with each passing minute. She was watching his hands as they gripped the pulpit. He was increasing the pressure of that so much that his knuckles were becoming white with it. His face, too, was paling and she knew the effort it was taking for him to remain standing there. Turning her head briefly, she noted many of the faces in the church were beginning to look concerned.

"And so it is," he continued then stopped, spreading his right hand over his chest, lowering his eyes. "And so...." He made a rather gasping sound. "I...I'm sorry," he murmured. "I...I thought I...could...."  His legs were shaking and suddenly didn't want to support him any longer and he began almost sliding down the back of the small pulpit, landing on his knees.

Instantly both Maximus and Cort were on the platform. Alistair would have toppled over onto his left side had they not gotten to him in time to gently lay him down. He was coughing and gasping and saying, "I'm sorry...," over and over.

"Nothing to be sorry about," Maximus soothed. "It is simply too soon."

Cort sprinted to the little office where Alistair's portable oxygen was and by the time Ahnna had gotten it fastened in place, Alistair's eyes were half open and he seemed on the verge of passing out. Maximus and Cort carried him through the door behind the altar. There were only two small chairs in his little office and no place to lay him down but on the floor in the short hallway. Maximus took off his suitcoat, folded it and put it under Alistair's head. Ahnna crouched beside him, smoothing his hair back, whispering to him.

 

Maximus looked at Cort, "There is a church full of people out there who came for a Sunday morning service, Cort. It looks like you are going to be the one to give it to them."

"Me? But...but...."

"You, Cort," Maximus repeated. "You can do it. I know you can."

"I...I...don't...I...."

"Try, Cort. For Alistair. Please...try."

Cort sucked in a long breath, his heart beating faster, and looked down at Alistair.
For Alistair, Maximus had said. He couldn't do this for himself, but perhaps he could
do it for Alistair. Turning, he opened the door to the sanctuary. Half the people were
on their feet, talking in little groups, casting looks toward the doorway where he stood.
Taking another long breath, he stepped through and walked out to the pulpit, needing the
slight bit of shielding it offered. "Be seated, folks," he said, "please. Alistair's going to be fine. Was just a bit too early in the game for him to be out here doin'...this." He lay a palm atop the pulpit. "So you get me. As most of you are aware, I don't even know that this is what I do so I'm askin' you to bear with me."

His eyes found Claire, who had moved up to the front to where Ahnna usually sat. She was looking at him, smiling encouragement with her whole face. A closed Bible lay just to the right of his hand and he let it open where it willed, grasping for some sense of direction, some guidance as to what to do. It was the 91st Psalm. "Psalms," he said aloud, closed his eyes briefly, then surprised himself entirely by adding, "Of the 283 times the New Testament quotes from the Old, 116 are from Psalms." He blinked. "They were made to be sung, you know, sort of the national hymn book of Israel."
 

He said that and then the world around him exploded with a flash of light and through his
eyes he could see the stars, clear and bright in their millions like they were in the desert
night. He was sitting on a horse and was singing the 23rd Psalm as he looked up at the vast, sparkling panoply.
 

What...?

Shaking his head, he looked desperately down at the Bible and began to read. "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."

Another flash came, almost staggering him and he was seeing a small stuccoed room, candlelight yellowing its whitewash, and right in front of him instead of the pulpit and the open Bible, he saw his own clasped hands, a string of beads draping over his fingers.

Blinking several times he continued to read, skipping several verses as he'd lost his place.
"You will not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day...." He blinked. "A
thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will...."

Again the flash blotted out what actually lay before him, replaced by gunfire, the sound of breaking windows, of children screaming, running. His head hurt terribly from where a gun butt had impacted his left temple and his view was from ground level where he lay in deep dust, his hands lashed behind him so tightly his shoulders were pulled almost out of joint. A boot kicked his ribs several times, doubling him up so that his face went into the dust, filling his mouth as he gasped in pain. He choked, coughing, and the boot kicked him again, sending him rolling back onto his side.

 


"You ain't gonna die in no dust, preacher," a voice laughed. "Someone waitin' fer you has got hisself a better way for you to die than that."

More laughter came, more gunshots, and then he heard the crackling sound of fire. Straining, he craned his neck. The orphanage, it was ablaze. The children! My God, some of the children were still inside! He tried to call out, but his throat was too caked with dust and a mere croak was all the sound he could make. The roof caught, tall spires of flame shooting up into the pure blueness of the sky. Then it began to collapse just as he caught sight of Maria and little Pedro at a broken window. "No!" he croaked. "Oh, God...nooo!"


Elena, the old nun who helped him teach the children, came running across the courtyard toward the door. Someone shot her in the back just as she reached it and she fell into the building, the roof coming down atop her, atop the children. He moaned, tears streaking down the dust on his face. More laughter roared in his ears and then the little mission church caught fire, too. He watched, helpless, as the stained glass window, brought from Philadelphia and the only decorative thing the simple little church had boasted, he watched as it burst outward from the flaming interior.

A lasso curled through the heated air, settling around the wooden cross that graced the peak over the doorway, and accompanied by whoops and shouts, it toppled into the dust.
 

Young Michael, an older teenaged boy who assisted him, saw him lying there and sprinted toward him. Again he opened his mouth, trying to shout to him to stay back, but he couldn't shout and Michael kept coming, coming to within a few feet of him and another shot rang out dropping the boy. Michael lay there, his face close to Cort's, his eyes wide open, startled, dead.


"C'mon, preacher," one of the two men said, "you got yerself an appointment to keep."

 


He turned his head, glaring up at the man. "Well, lookie that," the other man laughed. "We done got ourselfs a preacher knows how to hate." He laughed and Cort felt a rifle butt slam against the back of his head and the world disappeared into merciful darkness.


Then there had been the field, the field and the white puffy seed heads. He looked desperately at Claire, who was staring at him, her eyes wide, almost round. He felt ill and pushed himself back from the pulpit, sending it crashing over off the platform, the water glass shattering wetly on the floor. Then he ran. Blindly he ran, tripping, almost falling, down the aisle, out the front doors. Half way across the lawn he went to his knees, vomiting and vomiting, as people began to come out of the church behind him, not quite able to believe they'd lost two pastors in one Sunday.

 

OUT OF THE DARK CORNER

Maximus had been standing just inside the hall doorway, watching Cort, and when he knocked over the pulpit and ran out the far entrance, Maximus made his way past Alistair and Ahnna and through the side door of the church. Joimus, seeing her husband's head pass quickly by the large window to her right, hurried up to where Alistair lay.

"What's happening?" Ahnna asked, still crouched beside Alistair.

"Something's up with Cort. I'm not sure what. Maximus went to check." She looked down at Alistair. "How is he doing?"

"It was too much. I tried to tell him yesterday, but he was determined to have a service today."

Alistair lay, his eyes closed, breathing the oxygen. He made a little sound down in his throat, something that sounded like 'sorry.'

"He keeps saying he's sorry," Ahnna sighed. "It's all right, my darling. Like Maximus said, there is nothing for you to be sorry about. You tried. It just hasn't been that long since you left the hospital."

He said something else that sounded vaguely like 'sit up.'

"You want to sit up?" Ahnna asked and he nodded his head.

Joimus and Ahnna helped him lean his back against the wall. "Cort?"

"I don't know," Joimus answered, shaking her head. "He was reading from the 91st Psalm and suddenly looked ill."

Maximus reached Cort just as Claire did and they knelt, one on either side of him. He had his elbows on the ground, his fingers clenched tightly around his forehead as though it might explode. When Maximus lay his hand gently on his back, Cort straightened, his eyes full of tears. He looked blindly from Claire to Maximus. "Dead," he gasped. "They killed them, the children, the nun, Michael."

"Oh…Cort!" Claire murmured, not knowing what to do for him.

"Fire," he continued. "Burned it...with the children inside...burned it." He began shaking his head back and forth. "Oh, God...oh, God...oh, my God."

He shouldered he way to his feet, scrubbing his hands across his face, his eyes desperate, filled only with the image of Michael's staring dead eyes. "No," he gasped. "No...." and before either of them knew what he was doing, he began to run, cutting across the lawn, disappearing into the thick line of trees just beyond.

"What...what happened?" Claire cried.

Maximus stood, looking at where Cort had disappeared. "He remembered."

"He remembered...that? That's what happened to him?"

Maximus nodded and began to walk slowly in the direction of the trees. "Hurry!" she urged. "Find him!"

"I will follow," he said, "but not closely. He needs time."

"Don't let him get hurt!" she cried.

"He is as hurt as it may be possible for him to be," the General said softly, crossing the grass. He paused, looked back at her. "Please, Claire, tell my wife what I am doing."  Then he, too, disappeared among the trees.

Claire went around to the side entrance, trying to avoid the clumps of people by the main door. She made her way to the little hallway and as soon as Alistair saw her, he asked again, "Cort?"

"Maximus says he has regained his memory. He...he spoke of...of children being killed...of something being burned. Then he ran into the woods. Maximus is following him, Joimus. He wanted me to tell you that."

Alistair closed his eyes. He'd figured that whatever Cort was suppressing was terrible and his lips began to move in a silent prayer for him.

Cort stumbled, not caring where he was going, only wanting to leave Michael's eyes behind him. But he couldn't. They had come out of that dark corner and spread themselves in the light of his day and he could never not see them again. He crossed the road, crossed a small stream, aware of neither, fell once, fell twice, unaware of that as well. A burning roof was crashing down. That he was aware of. And screams. And pain and the laughter as the cross toppled. Finally he fell at the edge of a little meadow, fell hard on his face then rolled to his back, lying there his fists pounding on the sides of his head. "No," he repeated over and over and over. "No...no...no."

That was how Maximus found him. Coming quietly up beside him, the General sat in the grass, waiting. After a few minutes he said, his voice low and even, "You are not alone."

Cort stopped his pounding, but kept his fists pressed to his head, not able yet to respond. "You can't...possibly...understand," he muttered after a while.

Maximus smiled to himself. "I know it does not serve to take away your pain, my friend, but I can."

Cort dropped his hands, opening his eyes. "I'm not from here," he almost moaned. "I'm not from anywhere near here."  His brain was being flooded now with his very alienness to this time and place.

"Nor am I," Maximus said calmly.

Cort turned his head to look at the General, whose eyes revealed, in truth, an understanding that baffled Cort. Then Maximus repeated, "You are not alone, my friend."  He'd said that very thing recently to Robert.

"You...you lost your memory?"

"No, but I lost my time and my place. I lost," he tipped his head, looking up at the sky, "not less than everything." His gaze returned to Cort. "As you have." And then, without self pity, he told Cort about the dark smoke of his burning villa on the horizon, of finding the hanging, blackened bodies of his wife and his son, of being sold into slavery.

Cort listened quietly, taken for a moment out of himself until he realized that somehow his pain had merged in a strange commonality with that of the man who was speaking and the words 'you are not alone' took on value and meaning. Then he told Maximus of the mission and the children and the fires and all the senseless killing.

Maximus extended his hand and Cort took it, gripping it hard. "Out of all the world," Cort said, "I found myself on your land...you found me on your land. There has to be some...reason."

Maximus smiled. "There is always some reason, my friend. We may not know it, may never understand it, but the reason is always there."

 

 

LIFTING HIS HEAD INTO THE RAIN

Cort did not want to go back toward the church, not with so many people there. He wasn't ready yet to deal with the scene he'd caused his first time there standing in front of them all. He had enough on his plate at the moment. Maximus offered to accompany him home, but Cort wanted to be alone for a while, so the General headed back to the church.

Cort was still a mile out when it began to drizzle, then rain lightly. That didn't make him pick up his pace at all. In fact, he slowed it even more, remembering now the desert and the dust, enjoying the feeling of the wetness on his face and shoulders. He was cutting through the wooded areas still, avoiding the roads, and finding a small clearing with several large rocks in it, climbed up on the largest rock and simply sat, lifting his face to the rain.

He was Reverend Cortland Wells. There was a great relief in knowing now the surety of that despite all the memories that accompanied the revelation. He was feeling somewhat calmer after his talk with Maximus and the quiet rain on his body increased that for him. That last day at the mission did want to replay itself over and over in his mind, but it wasn't quite the flaming fire that had nearly consumed him in the church. He hated every minute of all that had happened at the mission, was horrified by the barbarous senselessness of it, and still had no idea of what had happened to him after the rifle butt had slammed into his head. The General, though, had forged some connection with him that restored to him, at least to some degree, his ability to stand in the midst of it.

Alistair had told him he would remember when he could bear to remember. At the pulpit, in that blast of first remembrance, he wasn't at all sure he could bear it, why he'd finally let himself remember. The 91st Psalm...that was the trigger of it all. "A thousand may fall at your side," he repeated aloud. It had been like that. Everyone dying around him. The day had been so normal, so peaceful, the laughter of the children earlier in the yard where they kicked the old leather ball around and played games, the adults quietly going about their duties. So entirely normal. Then the tornado of destruction, man-made destruction
and death, had swept through, and it was gone. All of it...gone. He knew it would take him some time to work through this, but lifting his head into the rain was a beginning somehow.

THE MILLPOND

When Maximus had gotten back to the church and found Alistair still sitting against the hallway wall, he'd helped him to Ahnna's car. The first spatterings of rain had sent the clumps of people talking in front of the church scurrying to their own cars. Joimus had told Claire to go along to her apartment as she wasn't opening the Greenery that afternoon. Maximus and Joimus had followed Ahnna's car so he could make sure Alistair got into the mill all right, then the two of them had gone on home.

Alistair slipped off his slightly damp suit coat, then made his way into the bedroom, lying on the bed, watching Ahnna as she set down the Inogen pack nearby on the floor. "It was stupid of me to try that," he said softly.

She sat beside him on the bed. "No, it was just you not wanting to let anybody down. That's who you are."

His brow creased deeply and she quickly asked, "Are you in pain?"

"It's not that," he replied. "I'm quite concerned about Cort."

"Cort has Maximus right now, my darling. And you need to tend to you at the moment. You look like you could use a good nap."

"I am tired," he agreed, and had the dark smudges under his eyes to prove it. "I seem to have left my strength somewhere back in that old recliner. I wish I...."  But his eyes closed and he drifted off before finishing what he wished.

Ahnna touched his cheek then moved to undo his tie and his belt. Slipping off his shoes, she let him lay as he was, covering him with the comforter that was folded atop a trunk. Going to the kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea and stood a while, looking out the
window as the raindrops made ring-patterns on the water of the millpond.

After an hour and with Alistair still sound asleep, she curled up beside him on the bed. He made one soft little sound, curved his arm around her, but didn't wake. There was something very cozy about being with him there, listening to the rain on the roof.

In the early evening he roused and changed into more comfortable clothes, then came with her to the living room where she'd gotten the fireplace going. She made him tea and a light dinner and they leaned together on the couch, watching the flames.

The lighter rain lasted for two days and then it began to pour and the wind picked up. All day and into the next the rain came down steady and heavy. One or the other of them was always going to the back windows of the mill, checking on the level of the millpond, which wasn't all that far from that side of the house. Thank heavens just on the far side of the little bridge, was a sharp drop-off and the pond drained fairly well despite the increased inflow of water.

Between the millwheel and the back chimney was a small vegetable garden with a wattle fence and the ground there completely disappeared, but the mill itself stayed above the water, though only by a couple of inches. They watched the pond, not knowing if they would be forced to evacuate.

There was also a closeness to it for them, isolated, contained as they were, just the two of them, and she read to him from his favorite books, cosseted him with tea, with crumpets and jam, with muffins and honey, and by the time the rains finally stopped and the wind died down, he was actually feeling somewhat stronger again.

 

 

 

THE FLOOD…PART 1:

AUTUMN ANEMONES

By Jo

Maximus sat on the wooden bench just inside his front door, pulling on his tall boots. After a day and a half of straight, steady rain he was worried about their pond. His land lay in what was almost a series of large terraces coming down from the foothills of the mountains to the west. Several small streams flowed into the main, big pond, nestled in a wide dip in the center of the second to bottom terrace. The bottom terrace contained his main pasture with a rise at its far end leading up to his stables and barn. The house and the Greenery lay on higher land beyond that. He'd been out on Legion earlier in the day and was concerned about how close to the top of the earthen edge of the pond the water was rising. Cort was already out in the stables, getting his horse saddled while East resaddled Legion for the General.

Joimus watched as he strode down to the stables, glad for the scattered rays of sunlight that had broken through the thick grey clouds. It had rained lightly for two days even before the heavier downpours had come, keeping her from completing a project she had in mind. At the far end of the top terrace near where the Meridius land joined Travis' station, she had discovered a band of autumn anemones growing in a narrow swath along the bank of a stream so small it was more of a trickle than an actual stream. When Travis' cattle had gotten lose on Meridius property, they had trampled about half of the plants and she had had the plan ever since of transplanting some of the remaining ones down to the greenhouse. She'd even devised a special carrier that hung much like saddlebags over Buttermilk for use in containing their dirt and roots as horseback was the only way to get up to that rather remote location.

Standing in the doorway still as Maximus and Cort rode out, her eye settled on the carrier propped against the garden wall. Once again she noted the sunbeams, which seemed now to her to be brighter and more numerous, and so she made the decision. Usually East would have Buttermilk saddled for her, but today he was tending a mare who was foaling breech. He was aware she was taking Buttermilk out, presumed she would be following the General, and didn’t watch as she rode off, didn’t see the plant containers she put across her horse.

She enjoyed riding Buttermilk but the Greenery had kept her so busy she had had far too few chances of late. The air was still heavy with the week's moisture, but a wind blew her hair back. She'd forgotten to put it up in the long pony tail she usually wore when riding.

Maximus' wheat grew in the highest terrace and she rode through its narrow path, smiling because it was just so perfect that he was able to grow wheat once again. Reaching the fence line, she followed along it, then up a steep, rocky ridge, riding through a sparse copse of trees and coming out where the little rivulet ran. Still mounted, she studied it. "Not a rivulet today, Buttermilk," she said aloud. The tiny stream was running red with soil, running fast, and much wider and deeper than she'd ever seen it. The streambed lay 15 feet down in the bottom of a rather steep ravine. The anemones grew, scattered through the wild grasses and several large outcroppings of rock on the Meridius side.

Dismounting, she left Buttermilk to graze, took her plant carrier, and walked into the anemones. More of them had been damaged than she'd thought at first and she decided to gather as many of them as she could. She had one pouch filled and about half the other when the sky darkened again. The clouds were rolling down out of the mountains, heavy with rain, blown quickly by a stiff wind. She sighed. "Well," I'll just hurry up and fill the last pouch and be on my way."

Maximus and Cort strode back and forth along the edge of the big pond. "It will not hold more," the General said, looking up at the rapidly darkening sky, "not if it rains again."  As if on cue, the first large raindrop hit his cheek. "Better go back and tell Paul to bring out the small bulldozer. We are going to be needing to move some rocks and earth as fast as we can."

Cort nodded and rode off toward the stable. "Tell Mac to come, too," Maximus called after him. Cort waved his hat in acknowledgement and kept going.  Maximus mounted Legion and rode slowly along the far edge of the terrace, looking for the easiest mounds of rocks for the dozer to move over to the end of the pond.

 

 

THE FLOOD…PART 2:

JUST A LITTLE MORE…

 

Joimus liked saving the plants she could. They were delicate things, with long, thin stems that bent in the strengthening wind and those which had survived the cattle had already been beaten down rather badly by the recent pounding rains. Their petals were fragile, almost transparent, and she wanted to transplant them to a more sheltered area. A particularly large, fine plant grew between two big slabs of rock right at the edge of the bank. That one she wanted to save especially as she was studying pollination and the production of her own seeds.

She'd already slung the carrier over Buttermilk's back because the rain had started to pelt down in earnest, but when she saw that one plant, she figured she might as well get it, too, as she couldn't get any wetter than she already was. "Wouldn't you know," she said to the plant in that way she had of often addressing inanimate things directly, "that you'd be growing in the most awkward place of all."

Indeed, she had to go right to the edge of one of the rock slabs and lean down to dig carefully around the plant’s roots with her trowel. "Just a little more...," she murmured, stretching to dig on the far side of the flower without damaging it.

The rain paused, not more than a hiccup of a few minutes, but it encouraged her to reach further. The sodden ground under the rock slab gave way and she, the anemone, the rock, and a huge portion of the bank all slid abruptly down toward the stream. Everything was a whirl of motion, punctuated by a sharp blast of pain, then she found herself lying on her back, almost completely upside down, the top of her head mere inches from the stream.

Blinking, she tried to make sense of what had happened. The wet dirt of the bank covered her up to her collar bones and atop that lay the slab itself. The deep layer of dirt acted as a buffer between her and the weight of the rock, but her right arm seemed to be pinned beneath her body. Her left was free and she pushed at the rock, a futile effort as it was a foot thick and almost four feet long.

"HELP!" she hollered several times, but knew she was way too far away for anyone to hear. The yelling hurt, too, hurt the middle of her body and she figured she must have bruised several ribs. At least that's what it felt like.

Then the rain began again and the entrapment yielded a new and more terrifying horror. The rain sluiced down the relatively smooth top of the flat rock right into her face. Quickly she covered her lower face with her hand, pinching her upturned nose shut, trying to make a tent with her palm so that she could still get some breaths of air through her mouth. The rain poured over her hand, across her eyes, forcing her to shut them and making her hair stream downwards into the swirling red of the waters below.

Minutes passed, long drawn-out minutes, and the rain only grew heavier. The minutes became an hour, then two, then three. She felt on the verge of passing out but knew if she did, she would simply drown, drown upside down in the rain. So she willed herself to stay aware, fought for it with each heavy minute. From time to time her arm cramped, letting her hand slip and her mouth and nose were flooded with water.

Paul drove the bulldozer and Maximus, Cort, and Mac used shovels, desperately trying to raise the level of the ground along the end of the pond. They worked steadily in the pouring rain, backbreaking hour after backbreaking hour. The rain simply would not stop and the streams feeding into it brought with them the downpours from the mountains as well. Their boots slid in the mud and Maximus' leg began to throb with a deep ache. Night came and still they worked in the beams of battery-powered lights.



Losing his footing, Maximus fell heavily to his knees, and Cort gripped his upper arm. "Maximus, you can't do this all night!" he shouted over the roar of the bulldozer and the pounding rain. "Let Paul and the dozer keep on if you must, but you've got to rest...at least for a little while...let Joimus feed you something."

Maximus looked up at Cort, whose face was streaked with mud, lined with fatigue. He sighed. "Perhaps you are right, my friend. For just a moment, though. Just a moment."



They rode side by side back to the stable. "I shall check on the foaling before going up to the house," he said once they were inside and unsaddling. When the horses had been rubbed down and settled in with grain, Cort walked with Maximus back to where East
was proudly watching over the just-born foal. Maximus smiled wearily, pleased that the difficult birthing had come out well. "We shall be going up to the house for something to eat," he explained to East. "I am sure Joimus will be relieved to see us."

East was surprised and asked if Joimus had come back with them. "No, she was not with us," Maximus replied. "Is she not in the house at this time of night?"

East explained how she'd saddled Buttermilk some hours ago and that he'd thought she was riding after them. Maximus strode to Buttermilk's stall. Empty. His hand gripped the top rail tightly. East had been tending the mare, had not seen her ride away, had no idea of the direction she'd taken, only that she had not come back. He hadn't worried, presuming that she was with Maximus and Cort. Silently, his jaw set grimly, Maximus turned back to Legion.

 

THE FLOOD…PART 3:

EDGE OF THE HIGH BANK

It was harder in the night. The waterfall over the rock came in darkness, making her feel entirely isolated, entirely entombed. She was getting very tired and the pain in her middle seemed to be growing as the hours passed. Then, too, the water just below her head was rising as it carried rain down from the mountains. She could feel it touching the top of her head now. Frantically she tried to wriggle her body, but the weight of the rock atop the dirt permitted her no movement at all.

The rain kept up all night. There had never been a night so long. She'd feel herself begin to drift, her hand would fall away, and instantly she'd be choking and gagging. I am going to hang on, she willed. I am!  Maximus would not find his wife dead. No, she would not have that. Not him. Not…again.

Maximus was exhausted, yet he rode all night long, shining his light into the darkness. Where would she go? Why? His head jerked forward and he found Cort afoot, retrieving his light. "Sorry," he mumbled, taking it from Cort's hand. He'd fallen asleep in the saddle.

Cort knew better than to suggest they wait for daylight. If Joimus were out here, then Maximus would be out here. They were riding slowly now through a broader expanse of woods that would put them out nearer the house again. "Just check," Cort suggested. "Maybe she's come home."

At the gate, Maximus assented and they went inside, going from room to room, calling her name. It was empty except for Merry, who had peed on the kitchen floor and had shredded five of Cort's socks. While Cort let her out and then fed her, Maximus brewed some coffee, filling two thermos bottles. Stuffing some bread and cheese into their mouths, they led their mounts down to the stables to check there. Buttermilk's stall was still empty and East was gone, out looking for Joimus himself. The distant sound of Paul's bulldozer came to Maximus' ears, but he'd stopped caring about the pond. He had to find Joimus. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Mounting, he found himself thinking of his desperate ride from the Danube to Spain. No, this night’s journey would not be like that, would not end like that. There were no Praetorians paralleling him. There was merely the rain. He would find her and she would be fine, but he could not seem to keep his teeth from gritting together as he rode.

He and Cort went back toward the wheat field. They'd been there once, finding no trace of her, but were running out of places to look. The rain was still steady, but somewhat less heavy as dawn came, a weak, watery, grey dawn with no color to it. Maximus shivered, soaked to the bone. Had she found some shelter, he wondered? At least in some trees possibly? There was that one area of trees up the ridge beyond the wheat they hadn't checked yet. Could she have gone that far? Why would she go there? What could...? Then he remembered the carrier she'd been making for the anemones and spurred Legion to a faster pace.

There in the middle of the wheat stood Buttermilk, still saddled. Maximus practically flung himself off Legion. "Joimus!" he called. "Joimus!" He reached Buttermilk and looked all around for some sign of his wife in the wheat. Had she fallen? But there was only her horse, nothing else.

"What are these?" Cort asked, touching the carriers across Buttermilk's back. The containers were filled with plants, beaten by rain, and muddy water dripped in a constant flow down the horse's sides.

"For her flowers," Maximus whispered. "She was gathering plants." It was what he'd thought just a moment ago. He broke one of the blossoms off, looking at it, not knowing its name. She'd spoken to him of some sort of wild flower she'd seen up near that far copse, how she'd wanted to save them before they were all ruined. Lifting his head, he looked in that direction, barely able to make out the trees in the far distance. "Up there," he said, his voice hoarse. "That is where these grow. Up there." His chest tightened.

Buttermilk had been on her way home…without Joimus.

The two men mounted, Cort leading Buttermilk, and headed quickly along the path through the wheat. Before they reached the copse, the rain stopped and a single finger of morning sunlight poked through.

It took a minute for Joimus to realize the rain had stopped. She was so exhausted, so foggy by then, so enclosed into the tight little world of her own mind, of her concentration on the effort of surviving the night, that the ability to breathe through her nose again seemed absolutely removed from her reality. Finally she blinked her eyes open, greeted by the sight of the one sunbeam. She almost smiled, but then realized
the stream waters had risen up to her eyebrows. As she waited, she could feel it steadily creeping higher and knew she'd be forced to close her eyes again soon. Then what? She'd survived the waters from above her. Would she now drown in the waters from below? There was nothing she could do to prevent that, not like she had with the waterfall off the rock.

"Maximus," she murmured, spent. "Oh, Maximus." Oh, God…not a second time, not for him. Her left arm fell to her side, her forearm and hand floating on the water by her head. She couldn't fight any more, not even had there been something for her to do. Too worn even to be afraid, she let her will go, let it float away with the other debris on the red current, her head lolling to the side.

Maximus and Cort reached the edge of the high bank above the rivulet, which had become a swiftly-flowing stream. They dismounted, looking both ways along the banks, seeing nothing. Maximus sank to one knee in the grass, covering his eyes with his hand, Cort standing immediately to his right. Suddenly Cort sucked in his breath with a sharp gasp, gripped Maximus' shoulder, his fingers sinking deeply into flesh.

"There," he said, his grip tightening even more.

 

THE FLOOD…PART 4:

THE WETNESS ON HER FACE

Maximus dropped his hand, his eyes following Cort's pointing finger. "Oh, gods," he moaned. It was worse than anything he'd conjured in his mind. All he could see was her face and her arm, but it was her. Springing to his feet, he dashed upstream along the bank toward her, stopping where the rock ledge had broken loose. From straight above, he couldn't see her at all, so he went to the side a little bit and he and Cort slipped and slid down the bank into the stream, now mid-thigh on them.

She looked dead to him and as he waded toward her, his heart was turning to lead. Her long blonde hair floated out toward him on the current, as did her arm. Very little of her was exposed, only part of her face, her neck, her upper shoulders and the one arm. A little

sogged piling of leaves and small bits of debris mounded against her right temple where the current had lodged them.

"J...Joimus," he groaned, lifting her head as much as he could so the water didn't cover her eyes, brushing away the leaves. Almost hesitantly he sent his other hand to her throat, his knees nearly giving way when he felt signs of life there.

"She's alive?" Cort asked.

Mutely, he nodded. His gaze fastened on the large rock. Cort already had his fingers curved under it, trying to lift it, not succeeding. It would take both of them, if not more. Maximus knew he'd have to let go of her head, knew that would mean letting it go back into the rising waters. They would have only moments to get the rock off her before she drowned. His eyes locked with Cort's, both of them silently understanding. Carefully he lowered her head, his jaw clenching and a muffled little ‘ooo’ escaping his lips as he saw her eyes disappear again beneath the red.

Moving beside Cort, he pushed against the rock, trying to lift it enough to flip it over off her. His shoulders and arms screamed with the effort of it, his feet slipping in the mud of the streambed and the awkward position he was in next to Cort. His face turned red, neck muscles cording, teeth sinking into his lower lip. He must do this thing. He must!

The rock budged a little, coming loose from its wedged place on the steep bank, sliding an inch more down toward her face, horrifying him that it would continue downward, crushing her. Maximus and Cort gathered themselves again, pushing harder, and with an ugly, sucking sound the big rock rose up and started to flip. Maximus gasped for a breath, pushed again, and the rock arced almost in slow motion away from where it had lain. That left the sodden earth beneath it free to slide again down the bank, taking Joimus with it, and before they could fully let go of the rock and grab her, she'd gone with the dirt into the stream and was being carried headfirst with the current. She was so limp she merely floated along atop it like a piece of flotsam with the branches and other bits of debris.

"NO!" Maximus bellowed, letting the rock fall. He turned, launching himself into the water, half-swimming, half-falling, grasping desperately for her. She went about 20 feet before snagging on a fallen trunk. Reaching her, he grabbed her up into his arms, collapsing onto the base of the bank. Cort came up, standing quietly as the General rocked back and forth, holding his wife in his arms, his tears adding to the wetness on her face.

 

THE FLOOD…PART 5:

SWEPT ALONG

For a while Cort wasn't sure if Joimus had survived the removal of the rock and the time in the stream, but after a few moments she stirred in Maximus' arms and the General pressed her to his chest, burying his face in her wet hair. Opening her eyes, she gazed up at him, not realizing what had just happened, seeing only the tears on his cheeks. She wanted to touch the tears but didn't seem to have the strength to raise her arm.

"Love...love you," she managed to murmur. She had no idea how she'd gotten into his arms, only that she was and that the fighting to live was over, the dying had not come.

Maximus could barely speak, hoarsely whispering endearments into her hair, kissing her face. Finally he was able to ask, "Are you injured, my darling?"

"I...I think maybe...my ribs." There was a definite pain in her right side. She saw his jaw tighten and added, "Not...not bad. Just tired."

Indeed, she was so worn it was difficult to remain awake despite the fact that her legs were still in the cool water rushing past where he sat. Maximus turned his head, looking up the steep, muddy bank behind him. His eyes then found Cort's. "We have to get her up
that," he said with a heavy sigh. He was already past the end of his own strength, operating now on will power alone.

The bank here was not quite so high, maybe only eight feet, but completely saturated with water. A few rocks and one or two fairly large roots jutted out here and there. Cort studied it carefully. "Let me go first," he suggested, "and then you can hand her up to me."

He put his boot on a small, low rock, intending on using it as his first stepping stone, but as soon as his weight went on it, it came loose from the soil, sending him stumbling back, almost falling into the stream. Gritting his teeth, he tried again a few feet further upstream, and practically clawing his way, slipping and sliding, he made it to the top, rolling over the edge. He lay there a moment, gasping, completely used up by the events of the last day atop this sudden burst of extreme effort. Then he turned onto his knees and scrabbled down until he was directly above where Maximus sat. "I'm here," he called down, lying on his belly, stretching his arms toward them.

It took Maximus a while to get to his feet with her in his arms. He tried to find a firmer place to stand, but there simply wasn't such a thing. The rising stream had eaten away the base of the bank and there were only slippery rocks and a tiny bit of mud on which he
could put his boots. Looking at her face, he whispered, "I am going to have to lift you up, my darling, and I fear it may strain your ribs."

She smiled weakly. "It must be done."

A sharp sound burst from him. "After all these years you are becoming quite a stoic."

"Some things are...necessary," she replied.

He was holding her at his chest and began to lift her higher. His left boot slipped and in saving them from a fall into the stream, he jerked both of their bodies sharply. Gasping in pain, he squeezed his eyes shut a second, opening them to find she'd passed out. Clamping his jaw, his arms trembling with fatigue, he lifted her as high as he could toward Cort's straining arms. Cort managed to get a grip on her at last and with Maximus pushing from below, pulled her up beside him.

Maximus needed to sit down again but the little place he'd sat while holding her had crumbled into the water and he was left with nothing to do but stand thigh-deep in it, leaning his back against the bank, his chin resting on his chest. After a couple of minutes, he sucked in several deep breaths. Now he, too, had to make it up the bank. He turned, looking up at Cort's concerned face staring back.

"Do you think...," Cort began.

"It must be done," he said. He struggled up about four feet, then the ground gave way and he fell backwards into the stream. Unable to gain his feet immediately he was swept sideways along in the furious current. With a shuddering jar his left hip impacted an uprooted tree and he grasped at it, leaning over it finally, not able to move for a time as the waters swirled around him. He felt his fingers sliding, losing their grip on the wet bark, and he gritted his teeth, determined he would not be swept further from Joimus.

A large branch banged against his lower back, held there a second by the current, then dragged away, curving around the top of the fallen tree.

Cort had run along the top of the bank and where Maximus was now, some fifty feet further downstream, there was a dip in the height of it, taking it down a mere two feet above the water. He slid down it on his boot heels, wading out to where Maximus was and grabbing him under his arms, not at all sure he had the strength to help the General from his position. Maximus, though, shoved himself up, then steadied by Cort made it to the bank where the two of them fell over together, sprawling in the mud.

It took about five minutes before either of them could move, then supporting one another, they staggered the fifty feet back to where Joimus lay on her back in the muddied grass. Maximus fell to his knees beside her, touching her face, assuring himself that she still lived. Lifting his head, he whistled, and Legion immediately moved toward him, followed by Buttermilk and Cort's horse, when Cort, too, whistled. Neither man needed to say it. They had to get her back to the house and that meant getting her up on Legion so Maximus could hold her. Talking at this point took too much effort. Cort led Legion close to Maximus, who stood, resting his forearms across the saddle a moment, his head down, gathering himself to mount. He slid his left boot in the stirrup and when his weight went on that leg, it began to tremble, but nothing was going to keep him from getting up on his horse.

When he had his seat, Cort lifted Joimus up so Maximus could take her in his arms. Cort stood there a moment, his hand against Maximus' side as the General swayed, blinked, then shook his head. Going then to his own horse, Cort heaved himself into the saddle, gathered up Buttermilk's reins, and the bedraggled little procession headed carefully down the ridge toward the path that led through the wheat.

Joimus roused somewhere halfway through the second terrace, finding herself in his arms again. "Where...?"

"Home," he said, bending to kiss her face.

She sighed, leaning her cheek against his wet shirt, closing her eyes, letting herself drift off because he had her and she was safe.

The fields were sodden, huge puddles of water lying everywhere. Much of the wheat would be lost he knew, but didn't really care. She was in his arms and he had not lost her. Anything else could be replaced. As they descended to the third terrace, he vaguely
noticed that a section of the jury-rigged dam had given way and when they skirted the edge of the main pasture below, about two-thirds of it was underwater. The stables, though, were high enough that the pond had not reached them, but the ground all around
was so saturated from the rain that their horses' hooves sank deeply into it.

He reined Legion just outside the stables, aware that East, Paul, and Mac had all come to its entrance and were staring at him. He had no idea, really, of the picture he presented, entirely wet, covered with mud, his shoulders curved with fatigue, his head hanging
down as though it were too heavy for his neck, his wife lying limply in his arms.

"East," he croaked, having to clear his throat before he could add, "I am going to ride Legion up closer to the gate by the house. Will you follow me and take the horses back to the stables?"  He turned the horse's head and rode slowly up the hill, swaying once in the saddle.

 

 

THE FLOOD…PART 6:

SO WE CAN SLEEP

Afoot, all three men had followed him and Cort up to the gate. It was a good thing as neither he nor Cort had the strength to take Joimus from his arms and dismount. His men were all too respectful of the General's obvious exhaustion to ask him questions yet
about what had happened. Mac and Paul simply quietly received her into their arms and East steadied Maximus a bit as he slowly dismounted. His boots on the ground again, he leaned his right shoulder against Legion’s side, closed his eyes, and put his left hand over his face. East’s forehead creased in concern. He’d never seen the General like this.

As they entered the house, Paul offered, "Road's flooded, General. Three, maybe four foot of water's got it blocked for maybe a quarter mile. No way we're going to get the Missus to the hospital right now. Phones are all out. 'Fraid we're stuck here for a bit.
Heard on the shortwave that Coffs is pretty well cut off, too. Nobody gettin' in or out. Where you want us to lay her?"

"On our bed," he said, knowing there was no way he himself could carry his wife up the long flight of stairs. Holding onto the railing, dragging himself up each step, he followed them to the master bedroom, Cort right behind. Pausing outside the door, he put a hand on Cort's shoulder. "You have my thanks," he whispered, "for everything."



Cort went down the hall to his own room, dropped his clothes in a muddy heap on the bathroom floor, and stood for a while in the shower, letting hot water stream over his head and body, watching vaguely as the muddy flow gurgled down the drain and some sense of warmth seeped back into his bones. Drying himself after a fashion, he walked across the carpet and fell, still naked, into bed, asleep before his head hit the pillows.

Paul and Mac were hesitant to lay the muddy Joimus on the exquisite spread on the large bed. Maximus pulled a quilt off a chair back to cover it. Not that he himself was concerned with the spread at the moment, but he knew Joimus liked it and for the sake of that alone he covered it.

"I can take it from here," he said, even his voice weary. "Thank you both."

Paul looked at the General, aware the man could barely stand, but this was his wife and he had no right to offer advice. So he and Mac left for the stables to help East with the three horses.

Maximus sat on the edge of the bed, cupping his hand around Joimus' cheek. She roused again, blinking her eyes open, looking up at him. "I...," she began, but then shivered.

"We must get these wet clothes off," he said, wanting only to lie beside her but knowing there was more that must be done first. He felt very cold himself. They were both completely filthy as well. "I should get a basin," he suggested, thinking to wash her off a bit.

"I'm beyond that," she said, looking down her own torso. "Do...do you think...," she looked toward the open door of their bathroom, "that we could manage the tub?"

He was surprised at her suggestion, but the thought of soaking in hot water seemed good. "Just a moment," he said, going into the bathroom and starting water running into the big tub. He stripped his clothes off, not an easy thing as they clung wetly, sticky with mud, to his body, then came naked back to the bed.

She looked at him, managing a weak smile. "You are a dirty General but you are, even so, the most beautiful man I've ever seen."

Standing was a big effort, so he knelt beside the bed, pulling her boots off. She tried to help with her clothes, but the strain of it made her grimace. When her shirt was off, he saw a long bruise was forming over her right side. "As soon as possible, we shall need to get that x-rayed."

"But now," she said, "we need to get this dirt off so we can sleep."

"Sleep," he repeated. "Ah, yes. Sleep."

With him supporting her, they managed to get to the bathroom and into the tub. She lay against him as he washed her body, her hair, himself. The warm water felt marvelous and he let the muddied fill flow out while they remained in the tub, then refilled it with fresh, clean, warm water. He rested his head against the edge of the tub and she lay atop him, the back of her head on his shoulder, his arms around her. And they both slept.

 

THE FLOOD…PART 7:

WHAT HAD NOT BEEN LOST

 

Maximus woke as the bathwater cooled. Lifting his head, he saw that Joimus was still asleep, but he was concerned about her getting chilled as the water cooled further, so he touched her cheek, waking her.

"Mmmmm?" she murmured sleepily.

"Time to retire to the bed, beloved," he said, kissing her brow.

She sat on a stool, letting him dry her. As he turned a bit sideways at one point, she saw a large bruise on his hip. Very, very lightly she touched it. "How...?"

"I was swept down the stream some ways," he replied, continuing with his careful drying. "A fallen tree stopped my progress."

She looked up at him, realizing how much she did not know of recent events. "We need to talk."

"In bed," he smiled. "Let us dry ourselves first."

He went to the closet to pull out a nightgown for her, but she said, "No. I want nothing between you and me. I...I was so very...alone there...for so long. I need the feel of you beside me."

Once he'd removed the muddy quilt, he pulled back the covers and they both slid gratefully beneath them. Finding positions that did not hurt her side too much nor his hip, they lay together, his length warm against hers. She told him of the one large plant and her attempt to dig it up, of how the bank had given way and she'd found herself trapped beneath the rock. "The rain," she explained, "flowed down over the rock, into my face like a waterfall. All the rest of the day, all night, I fought to breathe. I saw your face," she
rested her palm on his cheek, "and holding on to the sight of that, I knew I must survive."

Because the rain had stopped by the time he found her, he hadn't thought of how the water would have streamed into her face. The realization of what she had endured went through him and he gathered her more closely to himself. If only he'd known where to look sooner, had been able to spare her even a moment of that. How close, how terribly close he'd come to losing her. Then he told her of the fight to keep the pond from overflowing, of discovering only very late that she was missing and how they'd looked all night for her in the pouring rain. He told of finding her and of their struggle to move the rock and get back up the bank.

And when each knew of the suffering and the pain of the other, they lay quietly, wrapped together, her listening to his heart beat, he to her breathing, and knew the gift they had been given of the continued presence of the other. Not once, not ever in their seven years
together had that been taken for granted, but there were times, as now, when the reality of vulnerability , the fragility of life, was utterly, utterly present. For now, they would sleep, nested in what had been given, what had not been lost.

WOULD THEY…?

They slept, wrapped in each other, the rest of the night and well into the afternoon of the next day. "You are better, my love?" he asked, watching as her eyes fluttered open.

"Much...I think," she smiled. "Let me sit up and I'll know more surely."

Her side ached as she pulled her body up, but it wasn't too bad. The covers dropped down to her waist and he leaned over her. "Let me see."  He wanted to examine the bruise over her ribs.

She turned enough to make that easier for him. "I don't think they're broken, really I don't. Doesn't hurt quite like that."

"Still...," he said, frowning, "an x-ray might be a good idea."

"Perhaps...perhaps not."

"You are a stubborn woman," he smiled. "Make me happy. Do it."

She giggled. "I know ways to make you happy that have nothing, not one thing, to do with x-rays."

"Now?" he replied, truly worried she might have broken bones.

But she giggled again, pushing his shoulders back onto the bed, and beginning to kiss his bare chest. "I am," he sighed, "helpless before your onslaught."

"Good," she grinned, lifting her head enough to grin widely at him. "Even Generals should be helpless from time to time."

He folded his arms under his head. "I promise not to put up a fight."

"Not even when I tell you that I plan to ravish you completely?"

"Not even then," he said, his eyes sliding down to her breasts as she leaned above him.

"You surrender?"

"My flag is already raised."

She pushed the covers down some more. "So I see."

"What do you intend to do about that?"

"This," she smiled...and showed him.

Later as they lay entwined again, he whispered, "Surrendering is not always so bad a thing."

"Not when you surrender to me. Only then."

"Only then," he repeated.

They slept another fifteen minutes or so and when he woke again, his eyes sought the window. "Sun is out," he said.

She turned, following his glance. "I wasn't sure the thing still existed."

"We might possibly be able to get you into Coffs," he suggested hopefully. "I imagine the water has gone down considerably by now."

"Or...," she countered, "we might check and see how Bridgid and Jack managed the storm."

"Are you concerned?"

"I just don't like being out of communication with them, you know. I'd like to give her a call."

She reached for the phone on the bedside table, glad for the dial tone, and punched in her cousin's number. It rang and rang. "No answer," she frowned. "Maybe they went into Coffs to check on the condition of their boat."

"That is possible," he nodded. "Do you want to go over to their house? They might just be outside, or checking on the Glen itself."

"You up for that, General?"

"I believe I may be."  He swung his legs over the side of the bed, standing to head for the bathroom. "Aah!" he cried softly, when putting weight on his leg hurt.

"I could go alone," she said quickly. "I'm quite all right."

"You will not go alone," he replied, straightening, his eyes firm.

"Yes, my Lord," she smiled.

They dressed, each ate a muffin, then they were out the door and into the station wagon, heading for Jack and Bridgid's. Maximus drove slowly, shaking his head at the damage they passed by. The road itself was mud-coated with debris scattered here and there that caused him to have to guide the car carefully, but at least there was no longer water atop it. He parked near their house, but no one answered their knock, not even Jason. A quick circuit around their land didn't turn them up, either, so he drove into the Glen itself, asking several people if they'd seen either Jack or Bridgid. No one had.

"Well, I guess they did go into Coffs," Joimus said. "You know what that boat means to them."

"That leaves a big question hanging," he sighed. "Did they go to the boat during or after the storm?"

"Oh, gosh," she replied. "I hadn't thought of that. Surely they wouldn't....would they?" But she knew them well enough to know they would.

(There was a small bit more with the Aubrey's but it wanders off into something that never got continued and I didn't save all of that, so this part ends here.)

 


 

TOMATOES IN THE SUNSHINE
 

Alistair sat on a lawn chair, watching Ahnna planting some new tomatoes. They'd bought large plants at the Greenery to replace the ones drowned by the flood. Alistair had been helping but a coughing fit had sent him to the chair a few minutes earlier.

"I'm feeling rather useless," he sighed, dropping his gloves on the grass beside the chair.

"They also serve who only sit and watch," Ahnna smiled. "Besides, you're still recovering. I'd rather you be busy doing that. I enjoy planting tomatoes, anyway. The leaves have such a unique, odd smell, but I like it somehow."

"I'm glad the Greenery wasn't flooded," Alistair commented. "That would have been a great loss."

Ahnna nodded. "And Joimus. I can't believe how close she came to being killed."

Alistair shook his head. "Such a peaceful place, the Glen, for the most part. Yet life is like that and the vagaries of it find us no matter where we are."

"I found you," Ahnna said, turning to look at her husband, her eyes filled with light.

He got up, walking back to her, sitting in the grass near her side. "Chair was too far," he murmured. "I need to be closer to you."

"Good," she replied, "I like you near."

"From what I hear," he continued, but now with his hand on her leg as she planted, "the Glen is growing. New people all the time. I must get around and meet them."

"All in good time, my love. Everyone knows you are still getting well."

"After the spectacle I made of myself in church, they do," he smiled ruefully.

"You did no such thing!" she protested. "You were simply trying too hard too soon. They all understand."

He sighed, looking at her with an undisguised yearning in his eyes. "There are other things I think I may be ready to try."

"Why, Reverend!" she laughed. "Whatever do you mean?"

He leaned more closely toward her, turning her face completely to his. Without replying, he let his lips drift, warm and soft, over hers.

 

Meeting at the Mill

(This is necessary as it sets the stage for a big storyline that's coming.)

by Jo and Stacey



 

This is the place,” Abby told Dwayne as they pulled up in front of the old mill that Reverend Harris made his home in.

Beautiful, isn’t it?” She got out of the side of the truck and walked towards the mill, smiling as she stood and took in every detail of it.

Not sure I’d go and refer to this old hunk ‘a stone as ‘beautiful’,” Dwayne chuckled, “but if you say so, darlin’.” He walked up behind her, slipping his right arm possessively around her waist and pulling her close.
 

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she replied, sighing, then said, “Well, c’mon then, let’s get this over with before I go and change my mind again.”
 

Aw, you wouldn’t go and do a thing like that now, would you darlin’?” he asked her.
 

For some reason, when he said this, a cold chill ran through her, and she thought she detected something slightly sinister in his eyes. She flinched, then quickly recovered herself, blowing it off as just nerves about their upcoming nuptials.
 

Of course not, Dwayne,” Abby replied, managing a smile.
 

Good, then let’s go work our charm on the good Reverend in there.”
 

Dwayne led her up to the front door and knocked loudly on it, waiting for someone to answer.
 

Alistair opened the door and seeing the couple smiled. "Well, hello, there," he greeted. "How may I help you?"
 

"Well howdy there," Dwayne drawled, with a wide grin on his face, "You Reverend Harris?"
 

"I am, indeed," Alistair replied. "Are you from the Glen?"
 

"Why, yessir, we are at that," Dwayne told him, "Name's Dwayne Campbell and this here lovely is my beautiful wife, Abby."
 

Abby smiled warmly at him, "Nice to meet you, Reverend Harris."
 

"Please come on in. Ahnna, my wife, was just making some lemondade. Would you like some? Fresh oatmeal cookies, too."
 

"Don't mind if I do," Dwayne told him, as he led Abby into the house with him.
 

"Thanks, Reverend, for seeing us today," Abby said, "I hope it's not too much trouble having us just pop in like this. Dwayne here is, well, in a bit of a hurry to get things done," she chuckled nervously.
 

Alistair had a way of studying people closely but with an entirely open, pleasant expression on his face. Something was 'off' here. He'd get to the bottom of it. It seemed from first impression, the young man wanted something, but had said they were already married, so a hurried-up wedding couldn't be it. Just what was he in a hurry for, then?
 

"Ahnna, I'd like you to meet a young couple from the Glen. Dwayne and Abby Campbell. This is my wife, Ahnna. Please, have a seat here at the table so we can talk."
 

Ahnna looked at Abby. "Hello, Abby," she smiled. "I've seen you around town. You work for Cal, don't you?"
 

Alistair watched Abby's face. She made a definite small grimace when Dwayne said, 'error of her ways' and 'come back home to me.' "There is some hurry about this?" he asked mildly, passing Dwayne the plate of still-warm cookies.

"Only that I just can't wait another minute to be with my darlin' wife again," Dwayne grinned at him, as he took Abby's hand in his.
 

Abby sat quietly, smiling nervously at him, slightly embarrassed by the whole thing.
 

"Does this mean, then, that you're planning on staying in the Glen?" Ahnna asked. "I've heard a lot of good

things, Abby, about how valuable you've become to the Glen Times."
 

"Oh yes, I... I mean, we... are definitely planning on making the Glen our permanent home. Isn't that right, Dwayne?" she asked, letting him know she had no intentions of him moving her off somewhere after the ceremony. Dwayne or no Dwayne, she already thought of this little community as her home and nothing was going to change that.
 

"Of course, darlin'," Dwayne replied, smoothly, "Anywhere my sweet darlin' wife wants to live, we can live." A wide smile played upon his lips as he thought about the huge estate he'd just purchased for them to live in. He hadn't told her about it yet, it was meant to be her wedding present - one of many he had planned.
 

"I'm glad to hear how happy you are here, Abby," Alistair smiled. As Dwayne had Abby's gaze on him at the moment, he looked quickly at Ahnna and the two of them exchanged a look. "It's good that you're staying, then. Our community is all the better for people like you."
 

"What a sweet thing to say," Abby replied, "I was just sittin' here thinking the same thing about the two of you. I um... am a member of the volunteer fire department, and I was here... that day...," she trailed off, afraid her mentioning the fire Alistair had recently survived might bring back some bad memories. "I do hope you're okay now, the whole community - myself included, was really worried about you."
 

"I'm almost back to my old self. Still get tired a little faster, cough sometimes, but I'm quite fine. I'd like to thank you for any help you were that day. It's due, no doubt, to the new fire department that this entire mill didn't burn down."
 

Ahnna looked down at her hands. She still had a raw place inside from that day, from how close he'd come to dying. Alistair, always aware of his wife, reached his hand under the table and cupped it over both of hers.
 

Abby smiled at them, thinking how lucky they were to have such an obvious bond with one another and wondered if she'd ever have that with Dwayne. True, he was trying really hard and was growing on her, but still... there was just something...missing, and even though she did have feelings for her husband, she still questioned if their relationship would ever be as strong as Alistair and Ahnna's obviously was.
 

Dwayne, however, was thinking of different things... such as how he liked the way Ahnna seemed to dote on Alistair, baking him cookies and making fresh lemonade, taking care of him the way a wife should take care of her husband. Yeah, he'd have to make sure Abby treated him like that once they were re-hitched. First things first, she'd have to quit that job of hers, stay home, take care of him and the house and have babies. Yeah, that's how a wife should be, and he, of course, would be the king of the castle, so-to-speak, and would therefore be treated as such. He smiled slyly as he rubbed the back of Abby's hand with the tips of his fingers, counting the days until she'd be fully his again. Finally, when the chatter had come to a pause, he looked up and said, "So, Rev, you up for re-hitchin' us or what?"
 

Alistair paused. Marriage was a sacred thing to him and vow renewals came under the same heading. He didn't ever want to be a participant where he wasn't completely sure it was right for both the man and the woman. "I'd like to speak with each of you...privately...first. It's the way I do things." He kept his face, again, smiling and pleasant.
 

Abby tensed up, cleared her throat, looked over at Dwayne to see how he was going to react to the Reverend's request. To her surprise, Dwayne just smiled and nodded, saying, "Fine by me, Rev...lead the way."
 

"If you have time now, we could just step into my office." He stood and led the way. "The people of the Glen pitched in and almost rebuilt this whole part of the mill. We've got a lot of wonderful folks here in our town. I'm sure you'll enjoy living here, Dwayne."
 

He indicated the new couch. "Have a seat." He smiled and added, "And it's not even on fire." It was, he hoped, to be a bit of a hot seat for this young fellow, though. "So, tell me a bit about yourself, what you do for a living, where you're from, what you want to do to take care of Abby when you're all settled in town."

Dwayne leaned back on the couch, making himself quite comfortable, a cocky grin on his face as he listened to Alistair's question. "Oh, I dabble a bit here and there... online investing, real-estate, businesses, hotels and the likes. Not to toot my own horn here, Rev, but my family's quite loaded, always has been, going way back to my great, great grandparents. I'm pretty well set for life, only work so's I got somethin' to keep myself occupied. And, well, makin' money is in my blood - wanna keep up the family tradition... have somethin' to pass down to the kids and grandkids some day. So, no need to go worrying... Abby will be well taken care of, just as she has been for the past 5 years we been married."
 

"Why have you two been separated?" Alistair decided to be direct.
 

Dwayne knew this question was bound to pop up sooner or later and was, therefore, quite prepared for it. "Sometimes a person don't know what they got 'til they been away from it for a while. Abby had some thinkin' to do off on her own, and now that she's done that she's ready to come back to me." Well, with a little prodding from him, anyway, he thought to himself, smugly.
 

"All right, Dwayne. Thank you for speaking with me. Would you mind going back out for some more cookies and sending Abby in?" She was the one he mainly wanted to talk to anyway.
 

"No problem, Rev," He grinned, and smugly sauntered out into the next room.
 

A moment later, Abby hesitantly walked in, sat down on the couch, her hands fidgeting with the hem of her shirt.
 

"The room looks really nice now, doesn't it?" he began, trying to put her at ease. "I'm just so grateful for so many good people all pitching in together to help. And that you were a part of it all means a lot to me, Abby. I hope I can return the favor." He smiled at her with genuine fondness. "You like living here in the Glen, don't you, Abby. I can see that." He paused a moment. "How do you think Dwayne will like living here? Do you think our village has what it takes to keep him happy?"
 

Abby was surprised by his question. She smiled, thought for a moment, "Truthfully? I'm not sure, I mean, Dwayne is kind of a paradox, he seems happy enough no matter where he is. Of course, even when I know deep down that he's angry, he's still usually has a smile on his face. That's just... Dwayne."
 

"He hides what he's really feeling? Is that what you're trying to say, Abby?" He knew it was. Dwayne was actually rather obvious in his way of going about saying what he thought people wanted to hear even though that wasn't what he was really feeling. "He said you had some thinking to do about your relationship with him. What did he mean by that? What did you need to think about?"
 

"Um... well," Abby replied, "Dwayne and I got married pretty quickly, didn't really know each other, decided we'd try and make it work anyway. He's a great guy, handsome, rich, treats me well...tends to spoil me even," she chuckled nervously, "I just... wasn't sure, ya know? If he was the one for me, if I wanted to be his wife. Dwayne kept blowing me off, sayin' I just had cold feet and all, but I needed time to think things out, try and find myself, I guess, on my own terms. So, when Dwayne was on a business trip a couple months ago, I packed up my belongings, bought a ticket to the farthest place away from Texas I could get, and well, here I am."
 

"How did he feel when he found out you were gone, Abby? And how did you feel when he found you again?"
 

"He said he missed me terribly, looked everywhere for me," she thought for a moment, wondering if he really did miss her or just miss the idea of her being around. "When he found me, well, he was really happy to see me, least he acted like he was. Bought me a new wedding ring and everything, apologized for whatever he said I thought it was he did to cause me to leave him. He's been trying really hard to win my heart back, and truthfully, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt." Saying it outloud like this for the first time, it dawned on her that she really did want to be with him, try and make a marriage out of it. She hadn't really given him the chance before, felt she owed him at least that.
 

"Well, Abby, you are the only one who knows what your heart feels about your marriage. If it's telling you to stay with him, then that's what you should try. It's not my place to tell people whether they belong together or not. They have to come to the knowledge of that themselves. Making marriage promises to another person has to count for something. But if you're ever afraid, then it becomes another ballgame. It seems to me that there may be a lot you two need to find out about one another, a lot that's not really spoken. Maybe you should do that first, really, really get to know the truth of how the other one feels, what the other expects out of a marriage, see if that's something you truly can live with before you go making more promises to each other. Find out what the first promises mean to you, then you can renew them, add to them. But there has to be a foundation, Abby, for a renewal to be built on or else it's nothing more than mere words. You need to mean them when you say them, mean them with all your heart. Why don't you two take a little time and make that foundation first?"
 

"That's great advice, actually," Abby replied, "thank-you, Reverend, for taking the time to sit and talk with me about this. Hopefully, Dwayne and I can sit down and have a good talk about things and then." She stood, heading for the door, took a deep breath, then walked out to where Dwayne was waiting.

 


Alistair with Lucy & Andy

 

Andy swallowed hard as Lucy parked the car by the old mill. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with Lucy, he loved her above all, it was the actual marrying part that had him sweating. For Lucy’s part, she’d had enough of his procrastinating and made the appointment with Alistair, told Andy what time it was and picked him up from the restaurant and brought him here.

She reached across the seat and squeezed his hand, “It’s going to be all right Andy, relax.”

Andy turned his azure eyes on her followed by a weak smile, “Let’s get this over with.”

They got out of the vehicle and walked hand in hand to the door and knocked.

Alistair opened the door with a smile. "Welcome," he said, looking from Lucy's determined face to Andy's forced smile. "Is there something you two would like to speak with me about?"

Andy cleared his throat looking for his voice, “Yes sir, we ah, er...”

“Want to get married,” Lucy finished for him.

Alistair's smile widened and he locked his friendly gaze on Andy. "You're quite sure about that, are you?"

Andy took a breath, “Yes sir um,” he looked over at Lucy, his eyes soft, “I am, I’m sure.” He was sure he loved Lucy.

"And you, Lucy, you're sure, too?"  He could see by her expression she was, but he decided to ask anyway.

Lucy’s face lit up with a wide smile, “Oh yes, I’m sure.” Lucy was sure from the first time she’d ever gone out with Andy back in Sydney when they both worked at the same restaurant. She’d always dismissed his claims that he’d never get married and over the past year since they came to The Glen he’d settled down and she was there waiting for him. He surprised her with an engagement ring but getting him to the altar had been a chore.

"All right, then. Why don't the two of you come inside and we can talk about this, see just what it is you have in mind?" He opened the door wider and guided them to the table in the kitchen, putting the tea kettle on to boil. "Ahnna's over at Joimus' right now, so it will just be the three of us."

Andy held Lucy’s chair and sat down beside her watching as Alistair put the kettle on. “I don’t think we want a real wedding…” Andy began.

Andy,” Lucy poked him in the ribs. “What he means Reverend is that we don’t want a big ceremony. We actually thought after service on Sunday if we could just walk in and you could marry us. Steve and Millie are going to stand for us, and Jeff is going to give me away.”

"I am a firm believer," his lips twitched just slightly, "that a couple should be able to have whatever sort of wedding they want, what works for them, is right for them." He felt a surge of fondness for the two sitting across from him. "Do you mean this Sunday?"

“Well…” Andy began.

“Yes, this Sunday if it will work for you,” Lucy answered her eyes wide.

"I do believe this Sunday will be quite fine. Will anyone be attending other than Steve, Millie, and Jeff?"

Lucy and Andy looked at each other and grinned.

“Reverend Harris, ya might have a pretty big congregation on Sunday, sir.” Andy looked at him smiling.

“All our friends know we’re getting married and we told them they were welcome to come to church and stay.” Lucy felt her hand being taken by Andy.

“You know we didn’t want a big wedding or anything but everybody said they wanted to come, and then Lucy got this dress and I had to buy a suit, and Jeff and Stevo got matching outfits, it just got…big so we said come to church, hope it’s okay.” Andy thought maybe he should have asked Alistair first, now he was a little worried.

"Well, now," Alistair said, looking thoughtfully out the window a moment, "so you told your friends they were welcome to come to church, did you? And now," he gazed directly at Andy, "you're worried I might have a problem with that?"  He tipped his chair back a bit. "I'll tell you what, Andy." He grinned. "I think I just may be able to handle the concept of that. Sounds great to me!"

Andy breathed a sigh of relief and looked at Lucy, “So we’re on for Sunday?”

She could barely contain herself, “Yes and Rev. Alistair you will never want for blueberry muffins again.” She jumped up and ran around the table and hugged Alistair and then hugged Andy.”

“Hey Lucy, maybe he don’t like blueberry muffins,” Andy laughed, he felt so much better now.

"I do like blueberry muffins," Alistair added, pleased at their happiness. "I just may hold you to that, Lucy!"


Thanks so much Reverend, I guess we’ll see ya on Sunday,” Andy stood up to leave and grabbed Lucy by the hand bringing her to his side. 


"See you Sunday then." Alistair walked them to the door. "I'm glad you stopped by. It will be a happy day, always is. And you two will make it especially so."


 

Who To Trust?

by Jo and Stacey


 

Dwayne hated the idea of leaving Abby alone, but with the house locked up tight and with the pills the doc had prescribed for her he was pretty sure she'd be fine until he got back from his errand. Still, something kept nagging at the back of his mind that maybe he was taking too much of a risk here. Twice he nearly turned the truck around and headed back home to make sure she was okay, but then talked himself out of it.

As he rounded the bend he could see the old mill come into view. Reverend Harris was expecting him, he couldn't turn back now - he had to go through with this. With his mind set on his goal and a determined look in his eye, Dwayne parked his truck in front of the mill and quickly strode up to the door. He took one last deep breath, then knocked.

"Dwayne," Alistair said, a slightly wary look in his eyes.  It made him feel rather strange when he was face to face with this man. He tried, he really did, to like everybody, but something about Dwayne set his teeth on edge. "Please, come inside."  He hoped the man didn't sense his feelings. He didn't want that, didn't want that he should make anybody uncomfortable.

"Afternoon, Reverend," Dwayne drawled, as he walked slowly into the home. He could tell the man was a bit uncomfortable, so he tried to put on a warm friendly smile to ease his nerves. "You get that gift basket my wife Abby sent you the other day?"

"Um, yes," Alistair nodded. "How is Abby doing? I haven't seen her around for a bit. Is she feeling all right?"

Dwayne shifted a bit on the couch, trying to decide the exact words to say what he'd practiced in the car ride on the way over. "Umm... well, Reverend, sir, that's kinda why I asked to meet with you today. See, Abby is... well... she's having a bit of a hard time of it, you might say. She ain't quite... how do I put this..." he paused, looking up into Alistair's eyes, "She ain't exactly in her right mind most of the time lately. She's had blackouts in the past, but was taking meds back home to control them. Only problem is, once she starts feelin' good again, she gets off them and then... well... that's when all the trouble starts. I love my wife and I really want to stand by her, but it's been... hard. Real hard. I got a real good doc to fly in and see her - got her back on her meds again. But... oh hell, I hate keepin' her locked up but it's for her own good. She's pretty down about not havin' any visitors other than me and her doc. I was just kinda hopin' maybe you could stop by for a bit, visit with her, maybe it will bring her spirits up a bit." He smiled nervously, wiping the edges of his eyes where tears had begun to form. "What do ya say? Just for a bit maybe? Would mean a lot if you could."

Locked up? Abby was locked up? He had no idea. "Dwayne, this sounds really serious," he said. "Yes, I'd like to see her as soon as I can. What did you have in mind?"

Dwayne licked his lips, let out a sigh. "Well, Reverend, I was hopin' you'd be able to ride over to the house with me now. She was doin' okay when I left her a while ago, but as the day gets on she starts kinda... well... losin' touch, ya know? I'd be more than happy to give you a ride there and back afterwards, if you like." Dwayne looked hopefully up at him.

"Ahnna is at the store. I guess I could leave her a note. All right then. I'm really concerned about Abby and would like to see her quickly."

 

He got up and went to a drawer for a piece of paper. "Thanks for the offer of the ride, Dwayne."  He scribbled a quick note, mentioning he had his cell with him and to call if she needed anything. Leaving it on the kitchen table, he went to the door, Dwayne following him.

"No problem, Reverend," Dwayne told him as he followed him out of the house and unlocked his truck. "I really appreciate you takin' the time to come and look in on Abby like this. I know you and I didn't exactly hit it off before... now, don't you say otherwise, I could tell. And I have to admit I wasn't none too happy when you went and turned us down on renewing our wedding vows, but I had a good think on it and came to the conclusion that you were only lookin' out for us." He smiled as he waited for Alistair to get into the truck then slipped into the driver's seat and started the ignition. 

Alistair figured Ahnna wouldn't be home for another hour, maybe two. That should give him plenty of time to visit with Abby and be home before his wife returned. Ever since the fire, she'd watched over him, wanting to know that he was all right, that he wasn't coughing much or feeling tired. He'd always been the one to watch over other people...as he was trying to do right now with Abby...and he wasn't used to having someone do the same for him. He smiled as he thought of Ahnna, fastened his seat belt, and gave a look back at the mill as Dwayne started down the drive.

 

"It's just a ways down the road a bit... past the McGee ranch a ways," Dwayne told Alistair as they drove. He felt a bit awkward sitting next to the man and began to babble on a bit. "Abby's gonna be real surprised to see you. I didn't mention to her where I was going in case you turned down the invite. Didn't want to give her hopes up or anything. I hope she's awake, her pills tend to knock her out and she's been spending a lot of time sleeping lately."

Just then his ranch came into view and he sped up a little, wanting to make the trip there shorter. "Here we are, Reverend," Dwayne said, as they pulled up in front of the huge spread that was the Campbell estate.

Alistair had never seen the place before. "It's...large," he commented. "And Abby's inside?" That's all he really cared about, getting to Abby, making sure she was all right.

"Yep, she sure is," Dwayne replied, "C'mon, let's see how she is." He walked up to the door, Alistair following behind him, punched in a series of numbers on a keypad and opened the door. "This way, Reverend," Dwayne told the man, holding the door open for him.

Alistair wasn't entirely sure why, but the hair on the back of his neck started to stand up.

As Dwayne followed him into the front foyer, he quickly locked the door behind them and turned back to his guest. "Safety precaution," he said, "don't want the missus, well... best if we just go have a look in on her now."

As they walked down to the end of the long hallway they stopped dead in their tracks. There in front of them stood Abby - eyes wide with fright, still clutching the blood-covered paring knife in her tiny hand.

Alistair had been trying to prepare himself for what he might find when they came to Abby, but a scene like this was no where in his mind. He didn't know if he'd ever seen a face so totally shocked and frightened. "Oh...Abby," he sighed, then his eyes rested on Alex, lying in his own blood right in front of the young woman.

"Abby, darlin'," Dwayne said softly, as he slowly inched his way towards her, trying not to make any sudden moves that may set her off, "put down the knife. We're not gonna hurt you, we just wanna talk."

"Don't come any closer!" Abby yelled, raising the knife towards him. "I'm not afraid to use this!"

"I can see that, darlin'," Dwayne told her, as he slowly inched closer to her - his hands raised in front of him to show he wasn't armed. "But I think you're scarin' the good Reverend here, darlin', so if you'll just be so kind as to drop your knife we can have a little looksee at what you've done here to Mr. Ross."

"Reverend... Harris?" she asked, her eyes trying desperately to focus on the man standing to the side of her husband. "Oh... Alistair! Thank goodness you're here! Dwayne has been keeping me locked up and I think I've killed Ross!" she wailed.

Alex lay on the floor in front of them, bleeding from the chest wound. With the mention of his name, he let out a soft moan, though his eyes remained closed.

Alistair looked desperately from one to the other, wanting to tend to both of them at the same time. But Alex's blood was still flowing and that had to take priority. He dropped quickly to his knees, bending over the man, then pulled out a handkerchief and pressed it, wadded, over the wound. "Alex?" he called. "Can you hear me, Alex?" 

Alex let out another soft moan but remained still.

"I need to call for help," Alistair said, reaching for his cell, his bloody hands getting marks on his own clothes.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Reverend," Dwayne said, as he picked up a large ceramic vase and brought it crashing down over Alistair's head - knocking the man to the floor next to Alex.  He picked up the cell phone and shoved it into his pocket and smiled sweetly up at Abby. "Now, darlin', I suggest you put down the knife before I do what the good Reverend here was about to do, only my story will be much more convincing to the cops.

Abby stood staring at the two men lying on the floor, then slowly let the knife fall from her hand as she collapsed to her knees.

"Good girl. Now, you just sit right there while I go get some rope to tie them up."

Abby nodded her head and quietly watched as Dwayne walked down the hallway and disappeared into one of the back rooms.

"Oh Alistair... Ross... I'm SO sorry... this is all my fault!" she cried, wondering to herself how she was ever going to get out of this.


 

 

Captives - part 1

by Jo and Stacey

 

Abby wiped at her tears as she knelt beside the two men lying unconscious in front of her. In the distance, she could hear Dwayne rummaging through boxes and drawers, looking for something to tie Alistair up so he couldn't get away. Alistair, sweet, kind Alistair... "He's been through so much," she sobbed quietly to herself, "so very, very much." She gently touched her fingers to the back of his head. There was a rather large bump already forming there she could feel.
 

Pulling her fingers away she saw that they were covered with blood. She turned his head slightly then was relieved to see only a small bit of blood. He'd be okay and most likely wouldn't even need stitches.

The meds were still pulsing through her system, though their hold on her was starting to lessen. She knew once Dwayne got back in the room he'd most likely restrain her as well, if not worse, so she'd have to act fast. She looked down at Ross, felt his pulse. It was weak, but steady. Blood was still oozing from the knife wound. If she didn't do something quick, he'd be dead. Looking around the room, she quickly snatched a small throw from the couch and pressed a wad against his chest. Ross let out a groan, louder than the ones he'd made before. "Stay with me, Ross," she whispered in his ear. "Stay with me."

Working quickly, Abby grabbed the other end of the throw and managed to rip a large strip off using her teeth and all her might. Quickly, she wrapped it around Alex's chest, tightly covering the wad of throw she'd pressed against his wound.

"You bein' a good girl in there, darlin'?" Dwayne called out to her from the back of the house.

Her heart raced when she heard him, fearful he'd catch what she was going to do next. She closed her eyes, swallowed, then answered, "Yes, Dwayne."
 

She heard his muffled voice say something in return, though she couldn't make out just what. She looked down the hallway towards where he'd called out to her.

Suddenly, there he was - standing in the hall just outside the back room - his cell phone pressed to his ear. He smiled and waved to her, then walked slowly back into the room and closed the door so that it was just cracked open a bit.

Shit, who was he calling? she wondered to herself, panicking even more so now. She needed to get help and fast! Dwayne had taken Alistair's phone and she'd left hers back in the crawl space. Ross! Surely, he'd have his cell phone on him! Acting quickly, she began rummaging through his pockets until she found what she was looking for.
 

She heard Alistair let out a moan about that time. He was starting to come around. She touched his hand, let him know she was there and he was okay, then pressed the number for emergency on the cell phone.

"Sheriff's department," the voice on the other line said.

"Oh, thank God! This is Abby Campbell, my husband Dwayne has me locked up and..."

"Yeah, we know all about what going on with you, Mrs. Campbell," the voice on the other line said. "Your husband told us that you haven't been feeling well. Best hang up the phone and get some rest; your husband is just doing what's best for you."

"No! No! You don't understand! I... I... need an ambulance..."

Click. Dial tone.

A fresh batch of tears streamed down Abby's face as she realized help wasn't coming. Dwayne had made sure the whole town thought she was crazy and now no one would believe her. Just then, Dwayne opened the door and came strolling back down the hallway towards her. She panicked. If he caught her with the phone he'd take it from her. She leaned over Alistair, pressed the phone into his hand. He gripped it as she whispered in his ear, "You'll have to call for help - they won't believe me, but they'll listen to you. Wait until he's left the room again, press the redial."

"Oh now darlin', what are you doin' to the Reverend there?" Dwayne asked as he walked up behind her and grabbed hold of the back of her arms and pulled her to her feet. "Not whispering sweet nothings to him, I hope. You're supposed to save that for me, darlin'." He smirked, then looked down at Ross and Alistair. "Looks like our guests are still a couple of sleeping beauties. Good. I'll deal with them in a moment. First, let's get you back to your room. Time for your meds, too."

Abby nodded, then walked along as Dwayne led her to her room.

Alistair lay there, still dazed, his mind trying to fumble through what he thought he'd heard Abby say about pressing redial. Redial? Was there someone he should call?  His head hurt too much and he kept his eyes closed. Something was wrong, desperately wrong. He remembered that much. But what had happened? Alex! His eyes shot open and he turned his head, the simple motion sending waves of nausea through him.

Oh, my Lord...yes! Alex had been stabbed. He'd been going to call for help. That was the last thing he remembered. Alex needed help. How long had he been out? Someone had tied something around Alex's chest, trying to stop the bleeding, but Alex needed way more help than that.  He realized his cell phone was in his hand. Still lying flat, he lifted his arm so he could see the phone. It was a bit blurry but he somehow managed to dial Maximus' number. He didn't stop to think why he'd done that, just that Maximus would know what to do.

"Max...Maximus," he gasped when the General's voice came on the line.

"Who is this?" Maximus couldn't recognize the voice.

"M...me, Maximus. Alistair."

"Alistair? Are you all right?"

"N...no. Been...been hit.  Listen, Maximus. It's...it's...Alex. He's been stabbed in the chest. Needs...needs help. Fast."

"Alistair, where are you?"

"Dwayne's new place. Abby...Abby's here...drugged I think. Don't...don't come alone. Don't...not safe. I'm going to try...try and help
bleeding. Hurry. Don't know if I...."  He dropped the phone, too woozy to hold it longer.

Instantly Maximus called the local rescue squad, giving them the small bit of information he had, telling them, too, that the situation
was still dangerous.   Then he called local law enforcement. Biebe was out, Bud must be home with his wife. Only Zack was available.

"Joimus," he said, walking into the den where she was reading, "You need to go stay with Ahnna until I call you." He told her what
had happened and explained that Ahnna didn't know yet. "You will have to tell her," he sighed. "I think Alistair is going to be all right.
He was speaking with me on the phone, so do not let her worry too much."  He shook his head. That was, of course, not going to
happen, not with Ahnna when it came to Alistair.  "Just do not let her go to Dwayne's. The danger seems still to be there and she
cannot be in the middle of it."

"And you? I presume you are going?"

"Yes. I have called town and Zack is meeting me outside. I need to leave."

"What's up?" Cort asked, coming down the stairs.

"Oh, good, Cort!" Joimus breathed. "Will you go with him?"

"Go where?"  He looked from Joimus over to Maximus' grim face.

Quickly Maximus explained about Alistair and Abby. "Just a sec," Cort said, running up the stairs for his guns, buckling his holster
as he came back down.

Maximus kissed his wife, then grabbed his rifle off a rack as he strode to the door. Joimus stood in the doorway a while, watching the
two men leave, whispering a prayer for their safekeeping. She got her purse and headed for her stationwagon.  How was she going
to tell Ahnna that Alistair had been hurt, was in danger again?
 

Captives – part 2

by Jo and Stacey

 

Cort looked at Maximus' grimly-set profile as the General drove rapidly towards Dwayne's house. He hadn't seen him look quite that way since Joimus had been lost during the flood. He himself was very fond of Alistair and hated the thought the reverend had been hurt again and might still be in danger. His hand moved to the handle of his gun. There it was, a question of force again. He was coming to terms, at least somewhat, with the fact that sometimes force was necessary when evil threatened good folks. And they didn't come any better than Reverend Harris.

Maximus stopped his car some ways back from Dwayne's house, pulling it off the road behind some tall shrubbery. He and Cort got out, looking through the leaves toward the house, waiting for Zack. There was no sign of activity they could discern in or around the house from where they were.

"You think Alistair's ok?" Cort asked.

"I am not sure. He was having a hard time speaking. Said he had been hit. I do not know exactly what he meant by that...or who hit him." Or why, he added silently. Why would anyone want to hurt Alistair? The man never gave offense to a soul. But Alex had been stabbed. Someone in the house was bent on doing harm. That much was sure.

Meanwhile, Dwayne had gone back out into the foyer to where Alistair and Alex were still lying side-by-side on the floor. He frowned, spotting the tiny cell phone lying in Alistair's hand.

"Well, well, well," he said, bending down and snatching the phone from Alistair's outstretched hand. "While the cats away, the mice will play, huh?" He checked the call-log and frowned again. He rolled Alistair over onto his belly. The man let out a moan as Dwayne pulled his arms behind him and quickly began tying them together with a long piece of nylon cord he pulled from his back pocket.

"Now, don't you go gettin' any crazy ideas about escaping, Reverend," Dwayne told him when he'd finished tying him up, "I'll be back in just a bit with the little woman and we can get a move on before your friends show up and try to put a damper on the fun we're havin' here."

Vaguely, Alistair was aware he was being moved. He was having a hard time concentrating and his head had sharp pains shooting through it from the back. There was something he needed to do, something important...something...what? Alex! Alex was bleeding. That was it. He needed to help Alex. He tried to move and was startled by the fact he couldn't. His arms were behind him, uncomfortably, tightly, behind him and he couldn't seem to pull them to his sides. Had he called Maximus? He'd wanted to, but had he? He couldn't remember. Then he tried lifting his head. His cheek was resting on something sticky. The motion sent a sharper pain through his head and he gasped, letting his head fall back to the floor.

"Ahnna," Joimus said, smiling at her friend as she opened the door of the mill, "come and sit with me a moment. I've got some news."

Ahnna looked at Joimus' smiling lips then at her eyes. The smile was not in her eyes. Instantly her heart started to pound. "Is something...?"

When they were seated, Joimus continued, "There's a... situation... over at Dwayne's new house, you know that big place he bought out of town. I don't know any details, but Maximus and Cort have both gone over there and Zack is on his way, too, so there should be nothing to worry about, all right?"

"What...what sort of...situation?"

"Alistair called Maximus just a few minutes ago."

"I saw his note when I got home. He said he was going with...with
Dwayne. Something about him needing to talk with Abby."

"Well, he said he'd been, um, hit and that Alex was there, too, and Alex had been stabbed. We don't know by whom or why, but Alistair was able to call and speak with Maximus. They'll call as soon as they know anything. I'll stay here with you."

Ahnna had stood, looking toward the door. "I need to...."

"No, Ahnna, no you don't. Maximus specifically asked that we stay here at the mill until he's had a chance to discover what's going on over there. We don't want to make the situation worse for them by charging in."

Ahnna sat back down, clasping her hands tightly. "I...I don't think I can go through this again."

"It's not like the fire. He's already been able to use the phone, said he was going to try and help Alex."

"You think he's really all right?"

Joimus had no idea, but she said, "Maximus will take care of things. Trust him."

Zack had been filling in down at the sheriff's when Maximus' call came in. Bud, who'd gotten Zack a part-time job there while they waited for their security business to get off the ground, was out on a call with John, so Zack was there on his own to handle things. As soon as he hung up the phone, he was out the door running – quickly grabbing a couple of shotguns and his berretta, and his vest.

On his way out to Dwayne's, he put out a call on the radio to the sheriff and let him know what was going on and that he'd had to leave the station unattended. When he pulled off the main road and headed up the drive to the Campbell ranch, Zack could see Maximus' car parked off to the side, hidden behind. Pulling up next to it, he quickly jumped out of his vehicle and made his way over to where Maximus and Cort were talking.

"What's the situation here?" he asked, carefully watching the front door of the house in case anyone inside made a move.

"I do not know anything more, Zack, than when I called you," Maximus replied. "It is quiet right now but from what Alistair said, Alex was bleeding pretty badly from a knife wound. He was going to try to help him, but," he sighed, "he dropped the phone."

Cort hadn't realized that. "He dropped...? You mean he might be hurt bad?"

"I do not think we can stand around out here and wait very long to find out," Maximus said, his voice low. "I called for the medics, too. We cannot have them walking in on something that is still dangerous." He gazed deeply at Zack.

Zack nodded. Assuming Alex and Alistair were both still alive, they would be their number one priority. "Alright, we need to find out exactly how many are in there and if they are still alive. I'm assuming if this was a true hostage situation that someone from inside would have made contact already to place their demands. Since that hasn't been done, we've got to assume this is all being played out on the fly. That's even more dangerous a situation, however, could work to our advantage depending on how armed they are in there.

He was well aware of Maximus' capabilities, had heard the rumors about him being an ex-general in the military. Cort, however, was a bit of a mystery. He looked up at the young man and asked, "I assume you know how to handle a gun?"

"That'd be correct," was Cort's reply.

"Do not worry about him," Maximus added. "He knows what he is doing."

"Good," Zack replied, "Then let's get going. I'll sneak around to the side, peek in the window over there - see if I can see anything. Maximus, you go around to the opposite side.Cort, you keep lookout, signal if there's trouble. Once we know what we're dealing with we'll have to find a way inside - possibly
from the back. Sound good?"

Maximus merely nodded and headed to the side of the house.

Zack nodded to Cort, then crept slowly around to the right side of the house, his shotgun at the ready. Ducking behind some low shrubs, he peeked inside the first window he came to. He found himself looking into a small den. The lights were off, however, the door was pushed ajar and just outside he could make out the front foyer. Someone was moving around in there, but he couldn't make out more than just their feet.
 

As quietly as he could, he crept over to the next window and peeked in. He was in luck! This gave him a clear view of the living room which opened up to the foyer. He pulled out a small pair of binoculars, adjusted the view, and let out a quiet gasp, then shoved them back into his pocket and quietly made his way back to the front of the house to meet back up with Cort and Maximus.

"Did you see something?" Maximus asked, noting the look on Zack's face.

Zack licked his lip, nodded, "It doesn't look good," he told them, "I could make out 2 bodies - one was definitely in bad shape. Blood everywhere. Most likely, Ross. The other - I assume, Reverend Harris - was lying next to him, face down. His hands bound behind him. Dwayne had his wife tied up as well, set her down next to the two men." He looked Maximus and Cort in the eye, "We need to work quickly. We don't know what he's planning. We've got to get him isolated somehow from his captives and take him down."

Cort's hand hovered over his gun butt. He'd been thinking about this ever since they'd left Maximus' house. Herod. The name kept repeating over and over in his mind. Someone was inside and they were acting like Herod, with no concern for human life. He looked at Zack, who was the official lawman here. "What do you need?"

"I'm going around to the back of the house, get his attention," Zack said, checking the ammo in his side-arm. "You and Maximus go in through the front, break the door in if you have to, but do it quickly. In and out. Get Ross out first, then the other. I'll take care of Campbell." He looked up at them, "Ready, gentlemen? Then let's do this."

Dwayne was putting the final touches on his plan, completely aware of the three new arrivals that were outside creeping around his house. Unbeknownst to them, Dwayne had the entire compound set up with hidden surveillance cameras. At that very moment he was watching their every move from a tiny portable monitor.

"C'mon, darlin'," he told Abby, pulling her to her feet. "Time to blow this joint; it's gettin' a might too crowded here for my taste."

Abby wobbled a bit on her feet, the drugs in her system having taken full effect on her now. Dwayne wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her, then kicked at Alistair. "You too, padre!" he said, then kicked at him again when the man didn't move. "Let's get a move on here! Time's a wastin'!"

Alistair moaned, his eyes mere slits.

Dwayne let out a sigh, leaned Abby against the wall beside him. "Stay here darlin'," he said, then bent down and picked the man up and threw him over his shoulder.

Once he was upright, he grabbed his gun and put it against Alistair's head, then pulled Abby by her restraints. "You stay with me, darlin', you hear? Make one move or one sound I don't like and the padre here gets it. Comprende?"

She nodded, her eyes glazed over and tear-filled.

"Good," he told her, dragging her along to the rear of the house, "then let get goin'. Doc will be here to pick us up any moment."

Meanwhile, Zack had just reached the back of the house and was now in position to make his move when suddenly a black SUV came barreling around from the front of the house.

He couldn't make out who the driver was but knew it couldn't be one of his men. Without thinking, he pulled out his sidearm and raised it towards the front of the vehicle. The driver must have seen him because he swerved and floored it - aiming right at Zack.

Zack jumped out of the way just in time as the driver pulled around, opened the door a crack and began firing an automatic weapon at him. Zack managed to duck down and took cover on the side of the barn before the driver hit him. He waited a moment, peeked around, then quickly ducked back when another barrage of bullets came spraying at him. He counted to three, held his breath, then began to return fire - his bullets making no impact on what was obviously a bullet-proof vehicle.

The driver began honking his horn wildly, and Zack saw the back door of the house fly open. Dwayne was moving towards the vehicle as quickly as he could - Alistair draped over his shoulder, a gun aimed at his head. Abby was being dragged along by her wrist-restraints - completely out of it, Zack thought.

Zack watched as the driver helped Dwayne get his two captives into the back of the SUV, then climbed in behind them and shut the door. As they sped off towards the front of the house, Zack stood cursing to himself. He'd blown it. They'd gotten away. He only hoped Maximus and Cort were okay and had been successful at least in getting to Alex.

Maximus' vehicle screeched around the corner, the passenger side deeply dented in. The black SUV had plowed into it, spinning it so that it's rear fender slammed into Cort. Clutching his ribs, Cort had hollered, "Go!" to Maximus. "I'm ok. I'll go inside and check on Alex!"

Out of the corner of his eye, the General had seen Dwayne's getaway. "You are sure?" he asked, already halfway in the driver's seat.

"I'm sure," Cort nodded. The pain told him he probably had some broken ribs, but what had to be done had to be done.

Not really stopping at the rear of the house, Maximus leaned across, opening the door for Zack.

Leaning way forward, holding his ribcage, Cort went in the front door. Alex lay quietly, his eyes closed, blood everywhere. Beside him, more blood was smeared as though someone had lain in it and then been dragged away. Cort hoped to God that Alistair wasn't bleeding, too. He crouched painfully beside Alex, moving back the wrapping someone had covered the wound with. The knife had gone in right in Alex's chest. Cort blew out a long breath, laying the cloth back over it and applying pressure. Before long he heard the sound of a siren coming up the long drive. "Hang in there, Alex," he urged. "Help's here."

Alistair felt himself being carried. Whoever was carrying him was in a hurry and none too careful about his methods. Twice the side of Alistair's head smacked into doorways, then he was tossed into the back of some vehicle, his torso twisted, his hands lashed behind him. When his feet were shoved in, his head slid down to the floorboards and the sounds and the pain stopped as he was lost in the darkness.

 

The Chase is On

by Beej, Jo, Marie and Stacey

 

"Don't lose him!" Zack yelled, as he jumped into the passenger side of Maximus' car. His heart was pounding. He knew if they didn't catch Dwayne now he'd surely try and flee the country. "Cort with Alex? He okay?"

"Hurt some," Maximus replied. "Car hit him. But he was able to go inside." He was trying to clamp his teeth, to keep the speeding SUV in sight. There were so many curves, so many clumps of trees, that it was hard. His car was making a strange rattling noise, too, from where the SUV had rammed it. All he cared about, though, was that it still operated so that he could stay behind Dwayne's car.

Zack checked the rounds in his sidearm. Empty. As he pulled out a fresh clip and reloaded, he decided he'd better call Bud and John and let them know what was happening. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed Bud's number. He just hoped that one of them would be able to come and help out in the situation.

 "White here.  Is this you, Grant?"  Bud recognized the number of his new business partner. 
 

"Yeah, it's me. Bud, listen, we need back-up, stat! That Campbell fellow has a couple of hostages, at least one of them is injured, the other - his wife, is pretty heavily drugged, it appears. He's got some accomplice working with him, tried to run me over then started shooting. He's pretty heavily armed - automatic weapons. Maximus and I are in pursuit now. Think you can rendezvous with us?"
 

Bud was back in the Sheriff's office.  He grabbed a shotgun and a couple of extra clips for his handgun.
             
"Oh, my way, Grant.  Where are you?"  They needed more backup, but when he left Biebe and Bonnie they were off to Coff's.  They'd be too far away.  "I'll be alone."  Bud stuffed shotgun shells in his pocket and headed out the door.  He was still on his phone.

 

Zack braced himself as they rounded a sharp curve, swore under his breath, "We're just coming up past that weird glass house - you know the one - that looks like an alien ship crash landed? Think you can take a short-cut, maybe head the fucker off?"

Bud jumped into his cruiser.  "Yeah, I know that weird fucker of a house you're talking about.  The shitbird who lives there is as weird as the house."  Bud peeled out of the driveway with tires screeching.

"I'm coming your way.  ETA is 5 minutes.  Vehicle description?"

"Black SUV," Zack replied, "Can't miss it! It's the one doing 100 fucking miles an hour through town!"

Mentally Bud went through where all his girls were.  They should all be home and safe except Marie who was working safely in Coffs. 

"Right.  How many hostages versus dirt bags are in the SUV?"  Bud finished with the last Velcro strap on his vest.  At that speed he should rendezvous with the vehicle soon.

 

"Two hostiles in front, the two hostages in the back," Zack told him, as Maximus pushed the car harder, trying to close the gap between the two vehicles.
 

Up ahead in the SUV, Abby was trying to make sense of what was happening. She couldn’t understand why Dwayne was doing this and why he’d brought poor Alistair there in the first place. She knew he’d been angry about him turning them down when they’d asked him to perform the ceremony to renew their wedding vows, but this? This was taking things way too far!
 

She struggled a bit, trying to get the cording around her wrists to loosen without Dwayne noticing, but they were tied too tightly and she didn’t have much strength in her to get the job done. She quietly began to sob, looked over to see how Alistair was doing. His eyes were half open, she thought he may be conscious now, though maybe not fully aware of what was happening. He looked as confused as she felt. Dwayne was talking into his cell phone, barking orders to someone, though she couldn't make out who or what. She leaned over, closing her eyes so that it would look to Dwayne as if she'd gone to sleep and just slumped over, and whispered to Alistair, "Are you okay?"

It took Alistair a moment to reply and then he felt as though he were trying to form words underwater. "I...I...Abby? What...what...happened?" He desperately needed to untwist his torso but was jammed in so tightly he couldn't move.  His head was down, his neck bent, and the extra blood flowing into it had his head pounding and splitting even worse than before. "Dwa...Dwayne...did this?"  He had no idea why and that only added to his sense of confusion.
 

"Yes, though I'm not sure why," she told him, keeping her voice in a low whisper. "I have no idea where they're taking us, either. Oh Alistair, I'm afraid," she cried softly. "There were gunshots, some men were there outside trying to save us I think. I just hope they were able to follow us."

Maximus? Maybe he had been able to call the General after all? He hoped so. But shots? He didn't like that, didn't want to be the cause of getting Maximus in some sort of danger. His shoulders were pulled back way too tightly by the bonds that held his wrists. Every bit of him seemed to be hurting. It was so hard to keep his thoughts clear. "Abby," he breathed, "I think we..."  But then his voice faded away.

Maximus swerved, narrowly missing a roo crossing the road. From what he'd heard of Zack's phone conversation, Bud's car should be joining them any moment. The damn SUV wasn't slowing at all, no matter what obstacles loomed before it. A mailbox went down, then a trashcan, then a row of flowers. He hoped no people were walking along the road.

Bud saw the SUV in the distance.  His sirens were blaring and his lights flashing on the cruiser.  He went on the intercom.

"You, in the black SUV.  This is the Glen Sheriff's department.  Stop immediately."  As expected the SUV kept barreling toward him.  Bud made a quick decision.  He had to stop the SUV before it went through the more populated part of town or he'd kill pedestrians or other citizens in their vehicles.  He executed the perfect PIT maneuver.  The SUV spun around several times before coming to rest in a ditch on the side of the road.  There was no sudden movement from the SUV.  Bud grabbed his shotgun and jumped from his cruiser.

With cover from his cruiser he trained his shotgun on the front seat of the SUV.

"You, in the SUV.  Campbell.  Step away from the vehicle with your hands in the air.  Now!"

In his peripheral vision Bud saw Grant and the General pull up.  He could use the back up.

No response from the SUV.  "I repeat.  You in the SUV.  Step out of the vehicle NOW with your hands in the fucking air."
 

Maximus got quickly out of his car, getting his rifle in position as he moved. Why was there no answer from the SUV? His eyes narrowed as he closed the gap between himself and Bud, aware that Zack was circling around to the other side of the vehicle. The silence was broken by a shot and he dropped his rifle, falling to his knees, clutching high on his left shoulder, making small grunting noises between his clenched teeth.
 

Cort sat back against the wall, one hand pressing atop Alex's wound, the other to his own side. "Damn!" he muttered. It hurt like blue blazes. And he hated it, too, that Maximus was off after the bad guys and here he sat.  Then the sound of hurrying footsteps came across. He'd left the front door open for the medics.
 

Ahnna's ears perked. "Was that an ambulance?" Her eyes were wide, filled with fear.

Joimus, trying to remain calm for Ahnna's sake, replied in as steady a voice as she could manage, "It might have been, but, then, the Glen is full of pregnant women, Ahnna. Maybe it's just that a baby has decided to be born this afternoon?"

 

Tom slammed on the brakes as Stevo turned off the siren. They both jumped out of the ambo, leaving the engine running and the doors open. All was quiet in the house and they began to worry that this might be a body bag situation. Tom, ever the ex-policeman, held Stevo back while he glanced through the open front door. He saw Alex, not moving, in a pool of blood, and Cort, sitting on the floor with pain etched across his face.

"Stevo, you take a look at Cort while I see if there's anything I can do for Ross."

 

Inside, Alex was lying very still, the strip of throw that Abby had wrapped around him now soaked with blood. He was cold, real cold and his mind was in a hazy fog. In the distance, he could hear voices as they came closer to him. He tried to speak but it only came out like a strangled moan. He faded in and out consciousness, the pain in his chest that had once been so intense now began to numb a bit, as did his whole body.
 

From the way Cort was catching his breath, Stevo could see that some ribs were cracked, if not broken. Easing off his shirt he began strapping Cort's chest to support the ribs. When he finished, he helped Cort rest against the wall once more. "Okay, mate?" he asked. He was glad when Cort nodded in agreement; it left him free to help Tom with Alex.

"How's he going, Tom?"

"It doesn't look good, mate. We need to stabilize him before we think of moving him to the ambo. It's gonna be touch and go. Wonder what he did to deserve this?"

 

Cort watched the two men working over Alex. The strapping was helping him some, but his side hurt pretty bad. "I think," he said softly, "I think he was trying to help Abby."  He took too deep of a breath and winced. "See the broken vase," he pointed out, nodding toward the large, scattered shards of the thick, heavy vase that lay about on the floor. "Alistair. Said he'd been hit. I think it must've been with that."

"Abby," Alex suddenly managed to say weakly, "N...nooo..." He tried to move, but the medics quickly held him in place. They were saying something to him, but he couldn't make out what. He tried to open his mouth to speak to them again, but felt the fog coming back, overtaking him.  Who were they? What did they want? What were they doing to him? Suddenly, the sharp pain in his chest was back and he screamed out, trying to fight them off, but they easily subdued him and his body gave in, relaxed, as his mind drifted off into black nothingness.

 

 "Alex, you need to keep still, mate," Tom said, holding him down by his shoulder. It didn't take much pressure as Alex seemed as weak as a kitten. He cried out in pain and fell unconscious once again.
 

"Now might be a good time to move him, Tom, before he comes round again. I don't think he'll stand the pain if we jolt him while he's awake," Stevo said. Turning his attention to Cort, he spoke softly to him. "Hey, mate. Think you can make it to the ambo, or should I bring out a chair for ya?"
 

Cort closed his eyes. Looked like Alex was on his way out. Who knew how long the man had lain there bleeding like that? He himself was now breathing in short gasps, trying to get through the pain each breath cost him.

"Give me a hand up, Stevo. I think I can make it." Trying to stifle a groan, he leaned on Stevo, curving forward to ease his ribs. It seemed a long way to the ambulance, a very long way, and he was breathing raggedly only half way there. He'd waited while the medics got Alex loaded first, leaning against the side of the ambulance, sweat beading his upper lip, and was glad when he was helped inside and able to sit again. It would take a while to reach the hospital in Coffs and he leaned forward, his face in his hands, not even noticing when Tom slid a blood pressure cuff on his arm. 

 

It all happened in what seemed like slow motion. Before Zack knew what was happening, the driver in the car had begun firing on them and Maximus was hit. He quickly called out to him, "Maximus! You okay?"

Maximus' teeth were clenched so tightly it was hard to reply. "Shoulder," he managed, then sat over on his hip, letting his grip over his wound go, feeling beside him for his rifle.  One thing he'd learned, and learned at dear cost, you didn't give in to pain, not when there was something that needed doing.
 

Zack came around to the passenger's side, hoping to take out Campbell before he could do anything to the two hostages. The driver was still firing but Bud had begun firing back. Zack saw the driver get hit, grab at his neck. That was his chance to move in. With his weapon raised, he jumped out and aimed his firearm at the front passenger's seat and yelled out, "Get the fuck out of the car... now!"

Instead of doing as he was told, however, Dwayne jumped into the back seat, grabbed Alistair by the back of the neck and pulled him up out of the vehicle next to him.  Dwayne had a shotgun aimed at the man's head, a scared but determined look on his face. "Don't make me shoot him!" he called back to Zack. "I will, if I have to."

Alistair was aware he'd been grabbed and hauled up. The sudden jerking motion of being pulled upright sent his head spinning wildly. He felt something hard and cold pressed against his temple but was in too much pain, too dizzy, to determine just what it was. If his neck hadn't been being held in some horrid grip, his head would have fallen forward. A long, sighing sound escaped his lips and he let his eyes close.

Zack stood back a distance, looked over his shoulder at where Abby was lying down on the floorboard of the car. Good, she was out of range, he thought to himself, then his eyes found Bud. He'd taken out the driver. Zack called out to him, "You got this, Bud?"

Bud nodded to Grant.  The driver was no longer a threat.  This shitbird Campbell had to go down.  No fucking way he was hurting any more hostages on his watch.  Not now, not ever.  And not the Reverend.  He aimed his shotgun at Campbell's head and waited.  The right time would come.  Both he and Grant had given him ample opportunities to disarm and surrender.  Negotiations were over.

Steady.  The Reverend's head listed to the side.  Bud squeezed the trigger of his shotgun and felt the recoil slam into his shoulder.  The shot blew off half of Campbell's head and he crumbled to the ground along with his gun.  Brain matter splattered over the immediate surrounding area.

Bud lunged forward and caught the Reverend as he went down, pulling him out of the way.

"Reverend, you okay?"  Bud peered anxiously into the Reverend's pale face.

Alistair's lips moved, but he made no sound. Blood and bits of bone from Dwayne covered the side of his face.

"His hands," Maximus gritted. "Still tied. Hands."  He slid a knife out from the top of his boot, keeping one there a habit he'd not broken, and with some effort tossed it close to Bud, who cut Alistair's bonds.

Alistair's chin fell to his chest. He couldn't hold his head up, not any more. He hung there, completely sagging, in Bud's arms until the cop lowered him gently to the ground. Maximus managed to get to his feet, coming close, dropping down again beside Alistair. When Zack came over, he looked up at him. "Need...need to get him to the hospital." 

Zack let out the deep breath he'd been holding, his shoulders slumped as he lowered his weapon. "I'll drive," he replied, then rushed over to check on Abby. She was in the back of the SUV, huddled on the floor.

"Mill. Stop by mill," Maximus breathed, clutching his shoulder again. "Joimus, Ahnna, there." His eyes met Zack's. "You know," he said, his meaning clear without adding more words. He knew Zack had visited Alistair in the hospital before, and was aware of Ahnna's response to the result of the fire. Maximus wanted to stop there long enough to pick up the two women.
 

Zack turned back, nodded. He wasn't about to argue with Maximus, knew the Mill was on the way to the hospital and there was no real life or death situation for them not to be able to make the quick stop. About that time, the sheriff and his deputy pulled up alongside of the road. Bud was filling them in on the situation as Zack stooped down in front of Abby, wrapped an arm around her back, and whispered, "It's okay, sweetheart, it's over. It's all over."

Abby was shaking pretty badly, her eyes fixed on where her husband lay dead on the ground in front of her. She was cold and tired and confused by what had happened. This was a nightmare - one she couldn't seem to wake up from no matter what she did. Dwayne was dead. Her husband was... dead! She couldn't believe it had all happened, didn't understand why he'd taken them hostage and tried to run from the cops. All she wanted to do was to sleep and make it all go away. She closed her eyes, tears flowing freely down her cheeks.

Zack held onto her, trying to comfort her. He knew she was probably in shock, needed medical attention soon. "Hennessy," he called out to the deputy, "you take care of the girl? Make sure she gets to the hospital while I drive the others?

She nodded, made her way over to where Abby was still crouched in the car. After a moment, she had her on her feet and was helping her into the sheriff's cruiser.

Zack, with the help of Bud, managed to get Alistair in the back of their police car, then went back to help Maximus. "Sure you don't just want to call them on the way?" he asked, helping the general into the back seat next to Alistair.

"No," Maximus replied firmly. "It is best we stop."  He bit his lip as he slid into the seat, using his right arm to prop Alistair, who had started to slump to the side. Damn, but he wished he had something to wipe Alistair's face before Ahnna saw him, but there was nothing to use.

Within moments they had arrived beside the mill, parking next to Joimus' station wagon. "I think it will be better if we switch to that," Maximus nodded, indicating the larger car with three rows of seats.  He waited quietly still in the back seat of the cruiser while Zack went to the door of the mill and knocked.

Ahnna started, making a little gasping sound. "They're back!" she cried, getting up and running to fling the door open, closely followed by Joimus. "Zack?" She hadn't expected him. "Where's...where's Alistair?"  She looked past him, noticing the police cruiser next to the station wagon. "Is...is....?"

 

"He's fine, just a bump on the head," Zack quickly assured her, "I'm on my way to the hospital with them, but Maximus insisted I stop by here first to pick up the two of you." He moved aside so she could see the two men sitting in the back of the cruiser.

"Alistair," Ahnna breathed, running toward the cruiser. As she got closer, she called his name more loudly, but he didn't turn and look at her as she'd hoped.

Joimus followed, walking quickly, but not in Ahnna's full-out run. Zack had not mentioned any harm coming to Maximus, but she was terribly concerned for Alistair. Ahnna had paused just outside the open rear door of the cruiser, her hands clamped to her mouth, her face gone all white. Seeing that, Joimus hurried up behind her, putting her hand out to support her friend.

"Ahnna, what's...?" Then she, too, got to a place where she could see inside. Maximus sat quietly, his jaw set, trying to keep Alistair partially upright. The upper sleeve of his light blue shirt was stained with blood.  She felt an instant tightening in her guts, but it was the sight of Alistair's face more than anything that shocked her.  His eyes were closed and something... something horrible... was splattered over one side of his face.  Had he been injured that terribly?

Her eyes flew back to her husband's, her silent question loud.  "Dwayne," Maximus bit out. "Shotgun."  He shifted a bit then asked, "Can you and Zack help me get him in the station wagon?"

Ahnna hadn't moved, had barely breathed, had not been able to stop gazing in absolute horror at Alistair's face. "It's not his, Ahnna," Joimus said almost in her ear. "It's Dwayne's...not his."

Alistair opened his eyes part way, blinking slowly. "Ahnna?" he whispered hoarsely.

That was enough to get her moving. "I'm here, darling, I'm right here."  Between Zack, Joimus, and her, they got Alistair into the third row of seats in the adjacent stationwagon, Ahnna sliding in beside him, her arms wrapped around him as he leaned into her.

Joimus turned back to the cruiser where her own husband remained. "You?"

"Shoulder," he said, managing a very slight smile. "Bullet."

She supported his right elbow as he got out and moved to the middle row of seats in Joimus' car.  Now that his right arm was free from helping Alistair, he was clutching his shoulder again. Joimus had on an ankle-length skirt and she ripped a large piece off its hem, then tore that in half, handing one section back to Ahnna and then folding the other into a fat compress. She guided Maximus down on the seat, his knees bent, his head in her lap, and she pressed the cloth atop his wound. Leaning close over his face, she kissed his forehead, whispering, "Close your eyes, my love. Rest for a moment."

Ahnna was wiping at Alistair's face, tears running down her own, but whatever it was that coated it had dried and wouldn't come off.  "I...I'm ok," he murmured, his eyes barely open. "Head hurts."  His head was, indeed, wobbling rather badly and she pulled him into her. He sighed loudly.  "Love you."  She let out a huge sob she couldn't keep inside any longer.

Once everyone was in the car, Zack quickly grabbed the police light from the top of the cruiser and attached it to the roof of the station wagon, then started the engine and sped down the road en route to the Coffs hospital.


 

 

The Road to Coffs

By Stacey and Jo
 

The station wagon's tires squealed loudly on the pavement as Zack came around the curved road at full speed. It was near nightfall now and the sun had already begun it's slow descent on the horizon. More than the darkness, Zack was hoping to outrun the storm that was brewing off in the distance ahead of them. The ominous thunderclouds loomed closer and closer - lightning rippling across the Australian sky. He looked into the rearview mirror at the two men cuddled up with their wives. One barely conscious and the other still losing too much blood for Zack's liking. If he didn't reach Coffs soon their condition would surely become more critical.

"About halfway there now," he said to his passengers, trying to reassure both them and himself.

"Hurry, Zack," Joimus urged. "Maximus' wound doesn't seem to be clotting. I'm worried the bullet might have nicked an artery."

Zack gritted his teeth. He was pushing the poor station wagon as hard as it could handle and was afraid to go any faster without blowing the engine. "I'll get him there in time, Joimus," he replied, "You have my word."

Unfortunately for those in the car, they were completely unaware of the fact that back at the crime scene all had not been quite as over as they had thought. For the driver of the SUV - Dwayne's accomplice - had only had a minor flesh wound on the neck where Bud had shot him. When the local mortician from Coffs finally arrived to pick up Dwayne's remains, the driver - whom Bud had slapped a bandage on, handcuffed, managed to get loose and take off in the sheriff's car. They'd put out an all alert bulletin, but the driver managed to elude them all and a half hour later the sheriff's car turned up in a ditch on the side of the road just out of town. Along side of the car, just a bit further down in the ditch, they found the body of a traveling salesman - shot in the head. The man's wallet was missing and it was assumed that the escaped prisoner had used the stolen police car to pull the man over, then shot him and fled the scene in his car. Without his identity they had no idea who he was or what his vehicle may have looked like.

Dr. Stanley Branagan, who'd lost his license to practice medicine in the U.S. some time ago due to his highly questionable extra-curricular activities, the most notable of them being his illegal sales of certain highly addictive prescription drugs, came barreling up behind the station wagon. He'd been following them since they'd left the mill, keeping a safe distance behind until he knew they were far enough out of town where he could take them down. Now that he also had the cover of darkness and the rain to aid in his plan, he decided to make his move and came up close behind the car with his high-beams on so that they were blinding to the driver of the car in front of him.

Zack squinted when the lights reflected into his eyes, pulled over to the side of the road a bit and motioned for the car to pass. When it didn't, he let out a barrage of swear words aimed at the driver and sped up again.

"What's happening, Zack?" Joimus called out, shaken by what Zack seemed to be doing. She didn't understand what was going on. Maximus' face was growing whiter and that's all she could focus on.

Zack muttered something under his breath, then recovered himself and said, "Not sure what this asshole's up to, Joimus. Hang on and make sure your seatbelts are tightly fastened, I'm going to try and shake him."

He pushed down as hard as he could on the accelerator, the car lurched forward, smoke beginning to rise from the engine. The car behind him was still right on his bumper, easily keeping pace. "Shit!" Zack swore again, swerving the station-wagon to the left and right in order to keep the Ute from colliding with its back bumper. His efforts were useless, however, and the Ute came up beside them and swerved into the passenger side of their car, knocking them halfway off the road.

Up ahead, lightning flashed and the rain began to pour down in buckets, causing the roadway to become quite slick. Dr. Branagan decided to use this to his advantage and came right back at the side of the station wagon with full force. Suddenly, the station-wagon spun around out of control. Zack tried to hold the wheel steady, but it was too late. They went flying off the main road, over the ditch and flipped, rolling over and over until finally landing upside down in a field.

Joimus had been in the act of trying desperately to buckle Maximus' belt, but the way he was lying on the seat made it impossible. Ahnna had been luckier in that Alistair was mostly upright, though slumped, and had gotten both of them in their seatbelts just before the car began to
flip. 

Joimus lay on her back in the field, rain pouring into her face. Spluttering, she sat up. She'd landed in an area of deep soft grass and was only terribly shaken. Frantic, though, she searched through the gathering darkness for her station wagon. It's headlights were still on, sending shafts of light through the heavy rain and she scrambled to her feet, running toward it. Oh, Lord...it was upside down!

The passenger's side door where she'd been sitting was missing. She stuck her head inside, calling, "Maximus!" and groping for him with her hands. He wasn't there! A moan from the back attracted her attention. "Ahnna?"

"I'm...I'm all right...I think."  Ahnna shook her head, trying to clear it, then realized she was hanging upside-down. She felt dazed, disoriented, and ached in several places.  "Alistair!" She twisted to her right where he was hanging beside her. "Alistair?"  With her hands, she found his face.  He wasn't moving, wasn't responding and an anguished moan escaped her lips. She couldn't tell if he were alive or dead.

"Help me!" Ahnna cried, fumbling for his buckle. "Help me get him down!"

Joimus stretched further into the car, found the seat belt and traced along it. "I've got it! Hold onto him, Ahnna." She undid the buckle and Alistair's body slumped heavily down to the roof of the overturned car.

"Can you get out of your seatbelt?" she asked Ahnna.

"Think so." And in a moment she had freed herself and was on her knees, trying to turn Alistair.

"I've got to find Maximus!" Joimus said, every nerve in her body on edge. Quickly she tried to see how Zack was, but it was too dark and he was very quiet.  She pushed herself away from the car, stumbling through the field back the way the car had rolled. He had to be here somewhere. He had to!

She zigzagged across the field, trying to follow the path the car had rolled, hoping to come across Maximus in the dark. The rain beat down on her so hard her hair kept streaming into her face and she pushed it constantly away, blinking, trying to see. Then she was at the edge of the road and hadn't found him, so, sick at heart, she turned, heading back out into the field, searching, searching. About halfway back she fell over him. Shocked, she lay there a brief moment, not realizing at first what had made her fall.  Her hands moved, encountering his right hip.

Scrambling to her knees, she felt up his body.  He was lying so far over on his left side he was almost facedown.  Turning him, her fingers fluttered over his face.  "Oh...Maximus," she moaned.

"Co...cold," he murmured.

His skin was, indeed, cold under her hands. He'd lost too much blood! She touched his upper shoulder but it was too wet with the rain and she didn't know how much it might still be bleeding since she could barely see him.  Tearing off more of her skirt, she wadded it, pressing it against his bullet wound, straining to look back at the car.  There was no one there who could help him and he needed help desperately.

Her phone? Was her purse in the car? No, both she and Ahnna had left the mill in such a hurry neither one had thought to bring a purse with them.  With her free hand she patted Maximus'  pockets. No phone.  Had he been more interested in taking his rifle than his phone? Zack. Maybe Zack had a phone on him?  She judged the distance to the car. The headlights would lead her to that, but then she wouldn't be able to find Maximus again in the dark field, and she'd have to stop her pressure on his wound as well.  With a little sighing sound, he passed out. 

"Oh, GOD! Maximus! Don't you die! Don't you even THINK of dying!" 

Zack was only slightly aware of the fact that he was hanging upside down. The impact had been hard and swift and it took him a few minutes to recall what had just happened. He opened his eyes, trying to see into the darkness. The rain was still coming down strong, pouring in on him from both sides of what was left of the station-wagon.
 

He let himself hang there for a few more moments, trying to clear his head, which was throbbing where it had been pounded against the side of the door when the car had rolled off the road. He tried to move, attempting to free himself from the seatbelt, but a sharp pain shot through him and he let out a gasp. The seatbelt, though had kept him from being thrown through the front windshield, had obviously crushed a few of his ribs. He could hear soft moaning coming from behind him in the back seat.

"Everyone okay back there?" he asked, hoarsely, trying again to free himself from the seatbelt.

"Zack?" Ahnna was terribly uncomfortably twisted, but she had managed to pull Alistair's head into her lap. Every little while he made a low sound, like he was trying to wake up but couldn't quite manage. "Joimus helped me get Alistair out of his belt, but I don't think he's doing very well. And she's gone to try and find Maximus. He was thrown out when the car rolled."  Alistair groaned again and she leaned close, covering his face with little kisses, murmuring endearments to him.

Concerned for his friends, Zack managed to release his seatbelt and quickly righted himself. "Stay here until I get back," he told Ahnna, then carefully crawled out of the car.
 

It was dark - real dark, and Zack couldn't see more than a couple feet in front of him. The rain was coming down in sheets, obstructing his vision even more so. Up ahead of him he thought he could just make out the form of someone. Maximus maybe? he wondered to himself, as he shielded his eyes from the rain and quickly made his way towards the figure.

Just then, lightning flashed, illuminating the person standing in front of him - along with the gun the man was aiming at him. Zack dove out of the way of the bullet just before it could make impact, landing near where Joimus sat with the unconscious Maximus. "Stay down!" Zack ordered them, as he quickly reached for the gun that was still in his shoulder holster.

Joimus threw herself across Maximus, trying to shield him with her body, her heart pounding from the close impact of the bullet. NO! she thought. No more gunshots at him tonight!  Still managing to press the wad of cloth over his wound, she rested her cheek on his. It was so cold.

"Why the fuck are you doing this?" Zack shouted at the gunman, trying to distract him while he got into a better position to fire on him.

"Payback for what you bastards did to my buddy Campbell back there," he sneered back. Zack saw a glint of metal as the gunman took aim at him, moved to the left just out of the way as more shots rang out in front of him, just missing them by mere inches.

Zack pointed his gun at the direction they had come from, took aim, then waited for another flash of lighting. That's when he fired on the gunman. His first shot only gave him a flesh wound - hitting him in the left shoulder. The gunman grabbed his arm, lightning flashed overhead once more, giving Zack the opportunity he needed. He fired his weapon once more, this time hitting the man dead center in his chest, knocking him back to the ground.

Zack held his breath, waiting for a moment to be sure the man was down for good. Satisfied he wasn't getting back up, Zack scrambled to his feet and ran over to where the man lay on his back in the mud. He kicked at his side - no movement, then bent down to check his pulse. 

"He's dead," Zack told Joimus as he trudged through the mud back over to where she was huddled next to Maximus. 

"I'm losing him, Zack!" she moaned. "Oh, God, I'm losing him!"

Just then a car came down the road, heading in the direction of Coffs. "Look, over there!" Julie said, pointing off into the dark field. "Isn't that the headlights of a car out there?"

Robin slowed, leaning a bit to look, a frown creasing his brow. "Seems to have been an accident." He pulled off to the side of the road, backed a bit, then turned his car so its headlights shown across the field. 

"Oh, Robin," Julie exclaimed, "It's...it's upside-down!"

In the high beams, they could see someone standing in the middle of the field, one or two other people lying beside him. Paying no attention to the pouring rain, they both got out of the car, running out into the field.

Zack looked up, shielding his eyes as the headlights suddenly lit up the entire scene. Two figures then appeared in front of him and he let out a sigh of relief when he recognized who they were.

Robin, ahead of Julie, stopped close to the man. "I know you," he said. "Met you in the Glen at the barbecue."

"That's right," Zack told him, bent over and clutching the side of his chest where his ribs had been broken, "Name's Grant, Zack Grant."

"Sorry about that, Zack. There were so many people there that day, most of them new to me. What happened here?"

"Ro...Robin?" Joimus lifted her cheek off Maximus'. "Is that you, Robin?"

"Joimus? My Lord! Julie, it's Maximus!"

Instantly he was on his knees. "How's he hurt?"

"I...I don't know about...he...he was thrown from the car...but, oh, Robin, he's been shot and he's losing so much blood...I...."

"Shot? Where?"

She nodded to where she was pressing on his shoulder. "Here, let me." And he took over pressing for her, looking up at
Zack.  "Good God, man, what's going on?"

"Earlier today... back in the Glen...Alistair was taken hostage... the details are still a bit fuzzy, but long story short, he was able to use a cell phone, called Maximus, who called the sheriff's office. He and Cort met me out at the perp's ranch, a shootout and chase occurred. I called for backup, Bud got there, shot the driver, and took out the kidnapper - but not before Maximus here was shot. I was just taking them them to the hospital in Coffs when that bastard lying dead over there in the mud," he paused, pointing at the dead gunman, "came out of no where and rammed our car, knocked us off the road. Pretty sure he was the kidnapper’s accomplice, must have escaped somehow, followed us here.” He paused again, thinking about what they’d just gone through, how lucky they were, then continued, “Our car rolled several times before landing here upside-down. I left Ahnna with Alistair, went to find Maximus and Joimus... he’d been flung from the car and she’d gone looking for him. The guy wasn't done with us, though, tried to shoot us... I got him first. "

"In the car? Alistair and Ahnna are still in the car?" 

Zack nodded, "I told them to stay put ‘til I came back for them."

Julie had pulled out her phone and was already calling the emergency number in Coffs. "Hurry!" she ended. "We'll need two ambulances...and the police."

Robin asked Zack to take his place so he could check on Alistair and Ahnna.  Julie crouched near Joimus, resting her hand on her shoulder.

"Ahnna?" Robin called as he knelt to peer into the car. "It's Robin."

"Robin? Oh, thank God! Thank God!"

"Help's on it's way. Can you move just a little over so I can see how Alistair is?"

She shifted as much as she could to the side, giving a little cry as the movement sent a pain through her back. "Are you hurt?" Robin asked.

"Don't worry about me. Just see what you can do for Alistair."

He felt for Alistair's pulse, which seemed a bit erratic.  "There's no point in pulling him out of the car yet, Ahnna. He'll just get soaked. An ambulance should be here within minutes. He'll be all right. You just hang tight right now. I'm going back to where Maximus is."

"Joimus found him? How...how is he?"

"Lost a lot of blood, but he's alive. That's about all I know." 

Zack reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone. He needed to call Destiny before she panicked.
 

Dead.
 

He sighed, shoved it back into his front pocket, turned to Julie, "Mind if I use your phone? I should call my girl, let her know I'm okay."

Julie  absently handed him her phone.  Maximus looked really bad to her and she was terribly worried.

"Thanks," he told her, then quickly dialed the number.

Destiny picked up on the first ring, the panic in her voice let him know she had indeed been worried. He kept the call short and brief, letting her know he was okay and he'd see her in the morning. No use for her to try and make the drive to Coffs tonight; he'd feel much better knowing she was safe at home and not out driving after dark in the storm.

When he’d finished, Zack hung up the phone and handed it back to Julie. He stood there for a moment, in kind of a daze, then collapsed to the ground. He sat there – in the mud and rain, shaking his head and laughing out loud, recalling the words Bud White had told him just a few short weeks ago about how Zack would be surprised at all the things that went on in the Glen and how it was rarely boring. The big man had been more right than even he probably ever thought he'd been.

Robin, on his way back to where Maximus lay, looked at the man strangely, concerned he was losing it.  Julie was thinking the same thing.

Zack noticed the others starting to give him sideways glances. He let out another chuckle, then said to no one in particular, "Who the fuck would have ever thought my quiet day in the office would have ended up like this?!"

 


BATTLEFIELD
 

By Jo

Robin's hands clenched the steering wheel grimly as he followed the two speeding ambulances along the two curving lanes of road leading into Coffs. Maximus and Alistair had become his two best friends in this new continent so far from England and he was
worried he might lose both of them tonight. Evidently no one had been aware for a while just how much blood Maximus was losing. He'd seen men that white on more battlefields than he cared to remember. He only hoped with modern technology the
outcome for the General would be different than it had been for those men.

Julie watched the hard set of his profile. "They'll take good care of them."

"They better," he replied without unclenching his teeth.  He was speeding despite the heavy rain, determined to stay right behind the ambulances with their lights and sirens slicing through the night. His thoughts strayed to his own stay in that hospital. He hadn't
liked the experience at all, what he remembered of it.

He took a sharp, hilly curve at high speed and his car hydroplaned, spinning around on the pavement three times before its front bumper impacted a sign post and the car came to an abrupt halt. Instinctively, his right arm had gone out, stretched over Julie's upper body, but his forehead snapped forward, hitting the top of the steering wheel, opening up a long gash just inside his hairline. Blood flowed down his face, getting into his eyes, and furious with himself for letting the car get out of control, he wiped at it with both hands.

"Julie? Are you all right?" He turned, trying to see her but the blood obscured his vision.

"I'm fine," she replied, turning on the overhead light so she could see him better. "Robin, my God, your face!"

"It's nothing. Just can't see to drive. You'll have to take us the rest of the way. I'm so damn sorry."

She had a scarf tied over her hair because of the rain and took it off, handing it to him. "Press it up there, Robin. Maybe it will help."

They changed places and she was able to back the car away from the post, though the front bumper fell off. "Don't worry about that," Robin said, "just go."

The ambulances were completely out of sight now and though Julie drove faster than the speed limit, she didn't floor the accelerator like Robin had been doing. He sat in silence, his temple resting against the side window, holding the scarf to his forehead with one hand. The other, red with his own blood, rested in his lap.

In addition to the fact they were the spouses of the patients being transported, the medics wanted both Joimus and Ahnna to come along as they'd been in the flipping car and needed to be checked out themselves. In the interior lighting of the two ambulances, it became evident that all four of them had been more extensively bruised than at first had seemed evident. Ahnna's back muscles had been sprained and it took a great deal out of her to sit there on the jumpseat and hold Alistair's hand, but nothing was going to make her let go of him. He was semi-conscious but not really responding to what was going on around him.

Cort had just come out of the treatment area, having been x-rayed and receiving confirmation that three ribs on his left side were badly cracked. An enormous bruise was already starting to color his skin above them. He'd been strapped and given some pain med, but the hospital wasn't going to admit him. Ambulatory, he headed for the waiting room, intending to call Maximus to see what had happened. He also needed to arrange for a ride back to the Glen.

He'd halfway punched Maximus' number into his phone when the ER double doors slammed open and a gurney was pushed through, closely followed by a second. It was Joimus' face he saw first as she hurried alongside the first gurney. There was an absolute horror of desolation in her eyes and he dropped his gaze to the man on the gurney. "Maximus!" he gasped, staring at the still, white face.

The medics wouldn't let Joimus go where they were rushing the gurney and she stepped miserably aside as Alistair's was wheeled through, also disappearing down a curtained hallway.  Ahnna could barely stand and a nurse got her in a wheelchair and took her off for x-rays of her back. Cort, not able to stand fully erect, still placed both his hands on Joimus' shoulders. "What happened to him?"

"He was shot, Cort. He's almost bled out. I...I...."

"Come, sit," he urged, leading her to a row of chairs, startled by the deep bruise forming on her left cheekbone and several others on her arms. "And you?" he asked.  "Ahnna?  What  happened?"

Joimus sat, taking a deep breath, trying to control the trembling that kept taking control of her person. "Bud stopped the SUV, Cort, and Dwayne was killed. He almost killed Alistair, from what Zack said, and Bud had no choice. But Maximus was shot and...and...
no one thought it was very bad...his shoulder...so...so...they came by the mill, got Ahnna and me so we could come to Coffs with them... you know? We...we used my station wagon...more room...Zack drove. It was dark...dark in the car...and he was bleeding... Maximus was...but we couldn't see...didn't know. I tried to stop it, but I think the bullet hit...hit something important."  She closed her eyes, pressing her hands over her face and Cort curved his arm around her shoulders.

"Then that man...the one driving the SUV...he got loose somehow...I don't know...he was just there...following us...ran us off the road. Car rolled...just rolled and rolled...and the next thing I knew I was lying in a field. It was raining so hard...so dark. I couldn't find him, Cort." She dropped her hands to her lap, turning to look at him. "He...he wasn't in the car...and I tried so hard...back and forth across the field...back and forth." She shuddered. "Then...then...I fell over him...in the dark, Cort, I fell right over him. He was cold...so very cold. And the man came...tried...tried to shoot everybody. But Zack killed him. Then Robin was there. I don't know how he was there, but he was there."

"Where is Robin now?"

"He's not here? He was right behind us. I...I...don't know where he is. Julie's with him."

The doors opened again and Robin and Julie came in. Cort looked up, seeing blood all over Robin's face. "Good Lord!" he gasped. A nurse came to take Robin back and Julie, seeing Cort and Joimus, came to sit by them.

"You, too, Cort?" She hadn't heard the full story yet.

"Ribs," he said. "Car got pushed into my side."

"So, tell me what you know."

He told her about the call from Alistair and how he and Maximus had gone to Dwayne's meeting Zack outside. "And I think it was that big vase Dwayne must've hit Alistair with," he ended.

Joimus' fingers were clasped together so tightly her knuckles were white. A nurse came up to her. "Mrs. Meridius?"

"Yes! What news of my husband?"

"Nothing yet. They've got him in surgery. But it's you I've come for. Doctor wants to check you out, too."

"I'm all right."

"Your cheekbone might be broken. Could be other things. You've got to come with me, all right?"

Sighing, she stood up. "You'll let me know, wherever I am, you'll let me know about my husband?"

"Sure thing," the nurse smiled.

"What about Alex?" Julie asked Cort.

"I don't know. He was really bad off. I haven't heard a thing since the ambulance arrived here. They whisked him away damn fast." He leaned forward, folding his arms around his middle, his jaw muscles working.

Within a few minutes, Robin came back out, his face cleaned, the long, thin split just in his hairline glued. "Maximus?" he asked, stopping in front of Cort and Julie.

"No news. They took Joimus back to check on her," Julie said.

When Robin sat, they told him what they knew of events. "Damn battlefield," he growled.
 

A SMALL SERVICE

By Jo



The bullet had, indeed, nicked the main artery of Maximus' left arm where it curved up into his shoulder. And though he'd been bleeding a lot, the pressure Joimus had been putting on the wound as he lay in the back seat of the station wagon, had slowed it considerably. It was when he'd been thrown from the rolling car and landed heavily on his left shoulder in the dirt, that the small tear in the artery had increased in size and with
every beat of his heart, more of his blood pooled under him in the rain-soaked field.

By the time the medics got to him, he was suffering from a massive blood loss and was rapidly going into hypovolemic shock with organ failure imminent. All Joimus had known as she sat miserably watching him in the back of the speeding ambulance, was how white he looked despite his deep tan. She'd never seen him that color and it profoundly affected her.

Now she sat even more miserably on the side of an exam table, her legs dangling, all alone as she waited for the results of her facial x-ray. Outside the pulled, blue curtain, two doctors paused, discussing a case. Lost in her thoughts and worries, she wasn't paying attention until the name 'Meridius' pierced through her consciousness. "...and with 45% of his circulating blood volume lost and the way his BP was plummeting, no wonder we lost him there on the table...."

She ripped the curtain open, staring at the two doctors with a ghastly expression.
"He died? Maximus DIED??"

Her voice, loud and shrill with horror, came around the corner into the waiting room. Robin, hearing, made a dash for it, arriving just as she began toppling forward, almost taking down the blue curtain with her. He managed just barely to get his arm behind her head before it would have hit the tiles.

On one knee, he looked up at the startled doctors. "General Meridius? He is dead?"

"Who is that?" the older of the two doctors asked, squatting.

"The General's wife. You did not answer me, sir. Is he dead?"

"For a moment during surgery, but only a moment." He realized what he'd been saying earlier. "I didn't know his wife was right here."  He took her pulse, noting how the side of her face was swelling and turning purple. "What happened to her?"

"She was in the car when it rolled. She, too, was thrown out."

They got her back up on the exam table. "Has this been x-rayed?" the doctor asked.

"I don't know," Robin replied. "I think they planned to."

She moaned and started to come around, clamping her hands to her face. "Oh God, no!"

The doctor gently pulled her hands away. "You'll only hurt that more, Mrs. Meridius."

She didn't care. Her entire world was spinning off its axis and she didn't care about her face at all.

"He's not dead, Joimus," Robin said, leaning close. "The General still lives."

"But...but...I heard...."

The doctor spoke up. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Meridius, I didn't know you were in here. What you heard was me discussing how his heart stopped for a moment during surgery. But I assure you he's quite alive and we are engaged in restoring his blood volume."

She tried to sit up but a great weakness seemed to wash over her and unable to help herself, huge tears began sliding down her face. "Here, here," Robin said, smoothing back her hair. "You have him still."

But she couldn't seem to stop crying, couldn't quite get her world to continue on its way. The sheer enormity of that moment she'd thought she'd lost him enveloped her, smothering her with its dreadful loss. The doctor whispered to his younger companion and soon he was giving her a shot. In a moment her tears stopped and her eyes closed. "Let her rest here a while," he said.

"May I be permitted to remain with her?" Robin asked.

The doctor, studying him, thought how remarkably he resembled his patient and figured he must be Meridius' older brother. "That will be fine," he nodded.

The doctors left and Robin pulled a chair near where Joimus lay. Keeping guard over his wife…it was a small service he could perform for the General. 

 


BELOVEDS

By Jo

Julie was getting restless. Robin had been gone for a long time. As unobtrusively as possible, she made her way past the registration desk, slipped around the corner and pulled aside the curtain of the small exam room where Robin had gone. He was sitting in the chair beside the narrow bed, his face buried in his right hand, his right elbow on the chair's arm. With his left he held an icepack to the side of Joimus' face.

"Robin," she whispered, and he looked up.

"Ah, Julie," he sighed. "I didn't mean to leave you for such a while. But Joimus overheard the doctors talking about how the General had died for a moment during surgery and was most distraught."

"How's she doing now?""

"They gave her something to help her rest." He lifted the ice pack so Julie could see her face. It was swollen terribly from her left eye all the way down to her jaw-line. "There's a small fracture in her cheekbone," he explained. "When she was thrown from the car, this happened."

"Oh, Robin, so much pain and suffering tonight."

"It is all too familiar, my love, and I do not like it. I did not think to find so much of it in this new land."

"Bad men do bad things no matter where one is."

"That is God's simple truth, though it be a shame and a blot upon humanity."

She came up behind him, sliding her arms around his shoulders, kissing his hair. "How's your head, darling?"

"It pains sharply, but is of no matter."

Joimus woke rather suddenly, looking at them groggily, her left eye now almost swollen shut, making it harder to focus. "Maximus? Is he...?"

Robin put his hand on her arm. "He is still in recovery, still being transfused. But he lives."

"I must see him!"  She tried to sit, finding her entire body ached with the movement.

"I'll get someone," Julie said quickly, hurrying out of the room. In a moment she returned with a male nurse.

"Mrs. Meridius, I think the doctor was hoping you would rest longer."

"I can't rest. I need to see my husband. I need to see him NOW!"

"You must hearken to this lady's request," Robin said, standing and looking imposingly at the nurse.

The nurse looked at him a moment, a 'what...the?' expression on his face at the man's choice of terminology. "I'll check with recovery," he said and left.

Robin helped Joimus sit on the side of the bed. "You are highly bruised," he commented, noting her arms and legs. The lower half of her long skirt had been raggedly ripped away and mud and bits of grass clung to her clothing and hair.

Julie went out again, finding a pleasant-looking female nurse. After speaking with her, she and the nurse came back with a set of green scrubs for Joimus to change in to. Robin and Julie went back to wait with Cort while the nurse helped Joimus change.

Cort looked at them with intensely concerned eyes. "Tell me," he said. And so Robin explained about the Meridiuses. Cort sighed deeply, squeezing his eyes tightly shut when it hurt his ribcage.

"Does Claire know you're here?" Julie asked him.

He shook his head wearily. "I don't want her driving here in the night and the rain. I'll still be broken in the morning. Time enough then." He managed a wry grin.

He'd been thinking about Claire a lot as he'd sat there alone. The lovely soft gentleness of her face as he saw it in his mind provided a needed contrast to the ugly brutality of the night. He wanted to bury his face in the curve of her neck, smell the sweet scent of her flesh.

"You are tired, my friend, and in need of rest," Robin said. "I must remain until I know the outcomes for Maximus and Alistair, but when Julie and I leave for the Glen, consider that there is a place for you in my vehicle."

"You had a collision, didn't you...on your way here?"

"A small incident, yes, the loss of a bumper. The Mercedes is still drivable, though I fear I must take it to Colin's garage upon our return."

"I'd be mighty obliged for the lift," Cort said. "Thanks."

When Joimus was in the scrubs and had hospital slippers on her feet, the male nurse returned with a wheel chair. "Doc says you can go see your husband but he doesn't want you to walk."

As she settled painfully into the chair, she asked him, "Do you know anything about Reverend Harris?"

"All I know is they took him off for scans. Haven't heard anything yet, Ma'am."

She sighed and motioned down the hall with a slight movement of her hand. "Please."

He wheeled her down several long hallways, around corners, and then into a room where Maximus lay. Her teeth sank into her lower lip. He was still much too white. "How long...?"

"It takes a while," the nurse said. "I'll leave you now. Be back in a while."

"I want to stay," she said.

He smiled, not replying, and turned to leave.

The bed was too high and the railings were up. Sitting low in the wheelchair, she felt shut off from him, so got to her feet, standing there, her hands gripping the railing. He lay quietly, monitors on his chest, an oxygen cannula on his face, the IV in his right arm, the upper left part of his shoulder and chest swathed in thick bandaging. "Oh, my darling, darling," she sighed, touching his cheek, "this was so close, so frighteningly close."

His eyes opened, small slits of his green showing. "I am...here."  His voice was low, very weak.

"It is only because of that that I still live," she smiled, curving the backs of her fingers tenderly down his face.

He was barely able to keep his eyes open even that much, but he saw her face. "You...you...?" A frown creased his forehead.

"I'm fine, beloved. Truly. Don't worry about me. Just rest...rest...and grow strong again."

He blinked, opening his eyes more widely. "Oh, Joimus."  Tears brimmed as he looked at her.

"Shhhh!" she murmured. "This is only temporary. I'm not in any danger. There's nothing for you to worry about, my darling."

He tried to lift his right hand, needing to touch her, but only managed two or three inches before it fell back to the bed. She took his large hand in both hers, lifting it for him, pressing it to her lips as she leaned close. "I love you with everything I am," she said almost fiercely.

He smiled a little, then his eyes closed and he drifted off.

She remained standing there, holding his hand, just filling her eyes, her soul, with the sight of his livingness and even when her body protested loudly and her legs began to tremble, she stood because the will to stand was stronger than the need to sit.

Alistair was awake but his head hurt like the hounds of hell were fighting furiously inside his skull. He felt confused, disoriented, and couldn't figure out how he'd gotten where he was. Had the smoke done this to him? Was he in the hospital because the mill was burning? Someone was fiddling with an IV beside his bed. He was aware, too, of a band of liquid fire across his hips and lower abdomen. That was from the seat belt as the car had rolled across the field and then suspended him upside down. He had no memory of any of that, could find no reason for the pain there. Whatever the person with the IV was doing, was beginning to help somewhat and he looked blearily at them, asking, "Ahnna?"

"I'm here, darling."  Ahnna came through the doorway and he tried desperately to focus on her.

"Ahnna?" he asked again. She was being pushed in a wheelchair up close to his bed. No, that wasn't right. That couldn't be right. He tried to lift his head again but waves of bilious green nausea washed through him and he lay back, gasping.

"Lie still," Ahnna said quickly, urgently. "Please, darling, lie still."

"What...what's....?"

She slid her arm through the bed railing, curving it over his shoulder. "You've got a concussion," she explained, "a really severe one." She blinked back tears as she remembered the doctor saying how lucky he was that he didn't have bleeding into his brain.

"Cold. Head's cold."

"You have ice packs around you. They're trying to keep your brain from swelling. So far you're doing really well."

Cort had explained to both the doctors and police about the thick shards from the vase he'd found where Alistair had lain in the entryway of Dwayne's house. The impact had fractured Alistair's skull but hadn't depressed the bone. His scalp had split somewhat, but had been repaired.

"Hurts," he said then tried to look at her again, though sometimes there seemed to be two of her overlapping. "Why...why chair?"

"Do you remember Zack drove you and Maximus to the mill? Joimus and I came with you to the hospital."

"Not...not much. No."

"Dwayne hit you with a big vase, but you somehow managed to get word to Maximus."

Very vaguely he recalled that. "All right? He...all right?"

An odd looked passed over her face. "Tell...tell...what happened?"

"Bud killed Dwayne. He, Dwayne, had a gun to your head."

"I...don't...."

She was glad he didn't remember. "Maximus was shot, worse than anyone knew. He nearly bled to death."

"Oh...God! I called...him.  My...my fault."

"None of this is your fault. It's all Dwayne's doing. So you stop that right now, you hear me?"

"You...chair...why?"

"At the mill, we all got into Joimus' station wagon because there was more room. Zack was driving and somehow Dwayne's man got loose and came after us, made us run off the road. The station wagon flipped over and over." She closed her eyes. "I thought it would never stop. Then it did, but it was upside down." She breathed deeply then looked at him again. "I'd gotten seat belts on you and me, but Joimus didn't have a chance
and she and Maximus were thrown out of the car."

His eyes widened, making his head hurt worse. "She...?"

"She's hurt some. Not too bad I think. I haven't seen her since we got here. I've been...."

"You? Hurt?"

"My back mostly. Sprained pretty bad when the car rolled. I've got this sort of temporary brace thing on." She touched her middle above her hospital gown.

"How...?"

"There's more. Zack had to kill the man who ran us off the road. Whoever he was tried to shoot him, maybe us, too. I don't know. Then Robin and Julie were there and Julie called for help. That's how we got here."

He couldn't believe so much had happened he had no memory of. "Maximus...he's...?"

"I don't know, darling. I saw him briefly as they wheeled him into the ER. He was very white. But don't worry. I'm sure he's getting good care here."

He closed his eyes and she thought he'd gone to sleep, but then she saw his lips moving and leaning close found despite his own horrid pain he was lifting Maximus in prayer. Her heart almost burst with how much she loved this man and tears slid down her cheeks as she sat quietly, watching him, silently thanking God that He had let her husband live.

After the Battle
 

by Jo and Stacey

 

Zack signed the hospital release forms and handed them back to the nurse. Just as soon as the doctor signed off on them he'd be able to leave - something he couldn't wait to do. He hated hospitals, hated being in them. No matter how much time had passed, they always seemed to bring back bad memories for him... memories he'd just as soon forget.

Luckily, he only had suffered 3 broken ribs and a concussion - nothing as major as what Maximus had endured. Though the doctor had wanted to keep him there over night, Zack had insisted he be released, was quite verbal, in fact, on the matter and in the end the doctor had agreed - on the condition that he took it easy and got some rest.

Rest. Yeah, he could use about a week of that, or more. Unfortunately, his mind wouldn't let him. He couldn't stop thinking about everything that had just happened... the shootout with Campbell, the car chase and accident, and most of all... when he was forced to shoot and kill the driver, Campbell's accomplice.

Zack stood up, ran his hands through his hair. He wondered how Maximus was doing... and all the others. He'd heard both Maximus and Ross had survived, barely, and the others were a bit banged up like him, but were okay for the most part. Abby... Abby was another matter. She'd been in shock when they'd brought her into the hospital, and he found out she was still there, too.

Once the nurse came back with his signed release forms, he found out where Maximus had been moved to and went to check up on him. He saw Robin and Julie sitting with Cort in the waiting area and slowly approached them.

"How's he doing?" Zack asked them, quietly.

"He'll make it," Robin said, looking like he had a pretty bad headache himself. "It was close, though."

Cort noticed the way Zack was walking, leaning a bit forward, just as he walked. "Ribs?" he asked, his palm curving over his own side.

Zack nodded, "Seems we're a matched pair." He couldn't help but notice the bandage on Robin's head, pointed to it and raised an eyebrow at him questioningly.

"Steering wheel," Julie volunteered. "Following the ambulances turned out to be more perilous than it looked."

"What about you, Zack?" Cort asked. "You were driving Joimus' station wagon, I understand. Heard it took a pretty bad roll into the field."

"I'm fine," he replied, "Got a bump on the noggin, hadda have a couple stitches. Broke a few ribs, too. How 'bout Joimus? Alistair and Ahnna? They weren't too badly injured I hope?"

"Joimus landed on her face in the field," Robin said grimly. "Cheekbone's fractured and she's all swollen. I think Ahnna hurt her back. I don't know how Alistair fared in the car crash, but he was pretty hurt when Dwayne hit him with the vase. I'm hoping we get some news soon." He leaned his head against the wall behind him, letting his eyes close.

Julie reached over and took his hand. "It's been a long evening," she sighed, looking at Zack. "I imagine both Maximus and Alistair have
been admitted. What about you, Zack? Are you going back to the Glen?"

Zack sat down in a chair across from her, clasped his hands together in front of him, "Yeah, in a while. My girlfriend, Destiny, is on her way here to pick me up. Just wanted to check on all of you. One hell of a night it was, that's for sure."

"Glad you've got a ride," Robin said, looking at him through only half-raised lids. "I was going to offer you one, but I'm here for the
duration...until I've got the all clear on both Maximus and Alistair." He opened his lids a bit more, gazing deeply at Zack. "I hear you
acquitted yourself most honorably in battle tonight. Good man!"

"Battle? Um... yeah, I guess it was a bit like a battle," Zack told him, resting his elbows on his knees as he rubbed his temples. His head was throbbing again, damn pain pills were wearing off. "Thanks to you two, we were all able to survive. If you hadn't of shown up when you did... I hate to even think about what might have happened to us all."

"We were just on our way into Coffs to have dinner," Julie explained, "then it began to rain so hard we almost turned back."

"Almost," Robin repeated. "Very close, in fact."

"Now we know Maximus would have died if we hadn't arrived when we did."  A little shudder went through Julie.

"If there's ever anything I can do for either of you... and you, Cort," Zack told them, "I'm in your debt."

He pulled out his cell phone as it began to vibrate in his pocket, read the text message. "If you will all excuse me now, my girlfriend's waitin' outside in her car. Please let Joimus and Maximus know I was here and that they're in my thoughts."


TO SIT IN THE SHADE OF YOU

By Jo


It was dawn by the time Robin and Julie dropped Cort off at the Meridius house. The rain had finally stopped and Cort paused, his hand on the gate, watching Robin drive away. It wasn't until he was ready to turn back toward the walk to the house that he noticed Claire's car coming up the long drive. He waited, leaning on the fence.

"Cort!" Claire cried, getting out of her car and running to him.

He saw that she was going to hug him and shifted his position, putting his arm in the way.

"You're hurt?"

"Some broken ribs, bruisin', not mor'n that." He managed a small smile.

"I heard that a car hit you. Oh, Cort!"

"It was Maximus', Claire. Nobody was in it. The SUV just rammed it and it got pushed into me."  He reached out, touching her tousled blonde hair with his left hand. "But I'm home now."

She stood on tiptoes to kiss him lightly without leaning against his body. "Have you slept?"

"Dozed some at the hospital, a bit more on the way back here. Robin drove me."

"What about food? Have you eaten?"

"Not really. Bag of chips from a machine. Amazin' things those food machines."

"Is...is it...do you think...all right if I come in and make you some breakfast?"

"I'd be mighty beholdin', Claire, if you'd do that."  He hadn't really eaten since lunch yesterday.

He held the gate open for her then walked beside her down the brick path to the door of the big rust-colored house. "I doubt Joimus will come back, not until Maximus can come, too."

"I'll manage the greenhouse for her until she does," Claire stated. "How are they? I was so worried when I heard the news this morning."

"I saw her briefly before we left Coffs. Can hardly recognize her face it's so swelled up 'n all. General's doin' some better. Needs a lot of blood replaced and he's still mighty weak."

"Well, you come on in here," she said, heading into the big kitchen, "and sit yourself down while I see what I can whip up."

He lowered himself gently into a chair at the table, watching her buzz around opening cabinets and drawers. She made him coffee first and he used it to down a couple of pain pills. Despite how he was feeling, he liked watching what she was doing. Half closing his eyes, he let himself begin to imagine that the two of them did this every morning. He'd been taking things really slow with Claire since he'd met her. First there'd been the small matter of his not having his memory of who he was, then he'd spent most of his time trying to help Maximus with the huge spread while Claire worked busily in the greenhouse then drove back to the little town she lived in each evening. They'd talked some, had a couple of picnics, taken a good number of walks. He liked her. He liked her a lot, in fact.

She was easy to talk to, easy to tell things to about how he felt about where he'd come from. Nothing he told her seemed to bother her all that much. She smiled at him a lot, seemed to like being with him about as much as he liked being with her. Why had he never moved on beyond that? Watching her now, he could find no reason for his holding back the way he had.

"Claire," he said, his voice low, soft.

She turned, egg carton in hand, looking at him with a little shining light in her eyes. It hit him how she almost always had that little light there when she looked at him. "Claire," he repeated, "I...I just want to...thank you...for what you're doin' for me. You," he looked away then looked back, "you make life easier...better...for me, you do."

She smiled, showing her pretty, even teeth. "I can't begin, Cort, to tell you what you do for my life."

He rubbed his hand along his jaw. "What?"

"What?"

"Yes, tell me what."  Last night Joimus had come close to losing her General, Ahnna to losing the reverend. He was tired of holding back, tired of being alone.

Claire set the carton down on the table and sat across from him, reaching to take his hand in hers. "It's hard, like I said, to put it into words. It's...it's like I have this big field...wide and flat and green...and that's where I walk in my life, in that field. Then you were there carrying that tree and, ever since, you've planted yourself right there in the middle. Sometimes I walk around you and I see how graceful you are, how you bend in the strong winds and don't break...and...and I want that. I want to sit in the shade of you and have you spread yourself above me, between me and the heat of all the day."

Suddenly she was embarrassed and stood, gathering up the carton and hurrying to the counter by the stove, her back to him. Very slowly he stood, kind of supporting himself, and crossed the room, stopping right behind her. She was busily cracking eggs into a bowl, keeping her head averted, and he used his fingers to move the hair away from the back of her neck, letting his lips then find her skin, warm, soft, and very alive. With one hand he reached around her, moving hers away from the eggs, turning her, gazing into her eyes a long, long moment before his mouth covered hers.

 

HOMING

Maximus and Alistair both spent the next full day in the hospital. During that time Joimus and Ahnna stayed in their husband's rooms, sleeping in the recliners. That second night Maximus lay awake for a long while, watching his wife sleep. Her face was turned toward him and it caused him deep pain to see how swollen the one whole side still was, and now the deep bruising had turned shades of dark purple and blue so that she looked as though she'd been beaten. In her sleep, she turned that cheek into the pillow, instantly waking from the discomfort.

Her eyes met his and he said softly, "How I love you."

Her own eyes misted over and he held his right arm out toward her, so she tossed aside the light blanket that had been covering her and came to his bed, lying along his right side, his arm curving around her, pulling her close. This was better, he thought. He needed her at his side. It was where she belonged. She nestled into him, her good cheek against his good shoulder, and soon drifted back to sleep in the comfort of his nearness. He curved his arm up more so he could rest his right palm over her cheek, just barely touching its surface, and left it there a while, closing his eyes as though he were imparting some blessing to his beloved, as though he would draw her pain out into himself. Then he, too, slept.

Later, a nurse came in and, seeing her in his bed, moved to awaken her, to ask her to go back to her recliner, but something in the way they lay dissuaded her and she merely smiled and left them as they were.

In the morning, when they were both awake, Ahnna came into the room, still looking drawn and rather pale. "You didn't sleep well?" Joimus asked.

Ahnna shook her head. "I couldn't find a comfortable position for my back."  Then, too, Alistair had tossed and turned most of the night, his head still hurting him too much to rest. The doctor had said for him to take it really easy for a while and his remaining symptoms would gradually disappear.

"How are you today?" Ahnna asked Maximus, noting how much improved his color was.

"On the mend," he smiled, thinking of how wonderful it would have been if back in the second century surgeons could replace lost blood. How many of his men could have been saved? "And Alistair?"

"Still a lot of pain, I'm afraid, but at least he can go home."  She frowned slightly. "And how are we getting home...any of us?"

Just then a nurse popped her head in the door. "Mr. Meridius, there's, well, there's a limo waiting for you near the main entrance, for you and the Harrises."

"A limo?" Joimus repeated, surprised. She looked at Maximus. "When did you...?"

"I did not," he said, puzzled. "Who arranged for it?" he asked the nurse.

"The driver didn't seem to know, sir. Just said he was supposed to come here and drive the four of you back to the Glen."

"Do you think it was Robin?" he asked Joimus.

"I don't know. Either him or maybe Jack. I'm glad, though, as we'll all fit better this way."

When they'd completed their discharge, they headed to the entrance, Maximus, having refused a wheelchair rather effectively with a deep knit of his forehead and a lowering of his eyebrows, walked, holding Joimus' hand. Alistair was in a chair, though, as he'd felt dizzy as he'd gotten dressed.

The uniformed driver opened the limo's side doors, helping Alistair get in. Ahnna, watching, sighed in a whisper to Joimus. "He's been through so much lately. He worries me."  Her whole life had become centered around this gentle man who'd reached down into her abyss and pulled her up.

In the car she helped him with his buckle and he winced slightly, still very tender from where the seat belt had bruised him as the car had rolled. "I'm all right," he said to her, seeing her expression. "And I'm with you."  He moved his arm around her shoulders and they leaned together.

No one really talked on the drive back to the Glen. As they approached its outskirts, the driver asked, "Where to first?"

"The mill," Maximus spoke up. "Take the left up ahead and you will see it about half a mile down."  He wanted to be sure Alistair and Ahnna got safely inside before he himself went home.

Several minutes later, the limo pulled up in front of the Meridius' house. "We seem to be down two cars," Joimus commented.

"There is still the roadster," he replied.

"Which seats only two. Fairly soon I'd like to replace the station wagon. I need it for the Greenery."

"Yes, soon," he nodded, "but now I would like to enter our home and just be close to you."

"I can deal with that," she grinned, a bit of a sloppy, one-sided grin. "Ow! I think I'm beginning to have great personal empathy for Jim Braddock right about now."

 

TILL THE END OF TIME

(The dog mentioned here was one that attacked Sid's wife, Kate. I'm not including my Sid parts in this collection but as this has so much to do with Cort and Claire, I wanted to put in this part.)

By Jo

Cort had left the dead dog with the vet in the little town where Claire

lived. It was her day off and he kept his eyes peeled for her as he came back out on the sidewalk. The vet had said the tests would take a few hours so he'd decided to leave the office, maybe get a bite to eat, see if he could find Claire.

He walked several blocks without sight of her then noticed a small park

with a duck pond and turned in there, thinking to sit on a bench a while and watch them. He smiled when he caught sight of a blonde head, glowing in the sunlight. Claire. It had to be. Nobody else had hair quite like hers. She was sitting on the bench nearest the pond, her back to him and he came quietly up behind her, stopping about two paces out. She was humming a tune even he recognized as she tore a loaf of bread in her lap into little bits which she tossed one by one to the ducks.

He was surprised as most music he'd heard since arriving in the Glen were pieces he'd not known existed, but this, this had been popular since the War Between the States. Silently as possible, he cleared his throat, leaned forward a bit and sang:


As the blackbird in the spring 'neath the willow tree

Sat and piped I heard him sing, praising Aura Lee.

Aura Lee, Aura Lee, maid of golden hair,

Sunshine came along with thee and swallows in the air.


Claire was startled at first, not having realized anyone was there, but after just a few words she knew it was Cort. "Aura Lee," she said, smiling as he came around the bench. She patted the seat to her left and he sat.

"One of the few I know." His eyes wandered over the sunlight on her hair, a light breeze wafting a few strands out like silk.

"I was actually singing Love Me Tender, an Elvis song." The corners of her eyes crinkled as she looked at him.

"Elvis?" He was puzzled. "But I know the tune...."

"Yes, the tune is Aura Lee. Elvis just took it and put new words to it."

"New words? What sort?"
 

Love me tender, Love me sweet,

Never let me go.

You have made my life complete,

And I love you so.
 

Love me tender, Love me true,

All my dreams fulfilled.

For my darlin I love you,

And I always will.
 

Love me tender, Love me long,

Take me to your heart.

For it's there that I belong,

And well never part.
 

Love me tender, Love me dear,

Tell me you are mine.

I'll be yours through all the years,

Till the end of time.
 

She sang the words to him, meeting his eyes, then at the end dropping her gaze to her hands.

Cort slid one of his brown ones over hers. "Beautiful."

"They are lovely words, aren't they." She was looking at his hand, tanned and strong atop her small white fingers, a slight blush on her neck and cheeks. He hadn't meant only the words and she knew it.

Lifting his hand, he brushed the back of her cheek with his fingers.
 

In her blush the rose was born,

There was music when she spake,

In her eyes the light of morn,

Sparkling, seemed to break.
 

"Oh, Cort," she murmured, closing her eyes, as he continued, his voice audible only to her.


Take my heart and take my ring,

I give my all to thee.

Take me for eternity,

Dearest Aura Lee.
 

Moving his head closer, he brushed his lips, soft and warm across hers, then sliding his arm around her back, pulled her into him as his kiss deepened. The loaf fell off her lap onto the grass and the ducks, all eight of them, came up from the edge of the pond, gathering around it, batting their wings, quacking at one another as they jockeyed for position to gobble it down. They bumped against Cort's and Claire's legs, stepped on their feet in the process and even though she was most thoroughly enjoying what Cort was doing, she began to chuckle.

Still keeping his mouth on hers, Cort angled his eyes way down to his left. "I suppose," he sighed, finally pulling back, "the ducks have won the day."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," she smiled. The largest duck grabbed a huge chunk of the bread and fled about five feet with it across the grass, chased by four other ducks and Claire laughed aloud.

Cort took her left hand and lifted it to his lips, kissing her fingertips one by one. "You taste like bread."

"Is that bad?" she grinned.

"I like bread." He placed her forefinger part way in his mouth, his eyes meeting hers.

She blushed again and he liked that. Women he'd known from, well, before...didn't tend to blush. A group of children came down to watch the ducks and Cort let go of her finger, straightening.

Claire, tucking a strand of hair behind her right ear, asked, "I'm glad to see you. How come you're in town?"

"I'm waiting for some medical test results."

She was instantly alarmed. "Nothing's wrong, is it? Your side...."

"My side's doing fine. Ribs are almost back to normal. No, these are tests on a dead dog I brought in to the vet."

"Dead dog? What happened?"

"Maximus shot it in the woods at the edge of his land. It had attacked a woman. Sid's wife, Katherine."

"But she's pregnant, isn't she? Is she all right?"

"Sid came and took her off, I presume to the hospital in Coffs. I'm waitin' to find out if the dog was rabid."

"Oh, my goodness, I hope not! Did it bite her?"

"She had blood on her in several places. I think it would've killed her if we hadn't heard her scream."

"When will you know?"

"Not for a while yet. I was thinkin' of gettin' some lunch. You eaten yet?"

"I was going to get a bite after the ducks finished the bread." She looked over to where the last bits of it were disappearing down greedy gullets. "Seems like that's now."

"Good," he said, standing and holding out his hand.

Together, his arm around her waist, they walked out of the park. Ever since the whole kidnapping episode he hadn't been of a mind to waste more time. She showed him a cafe with a small outdoor patio where small tables were placed on nice days. "Will this be all right?"

"More'n all right," he smiled, pulling a chair out for her.

They spent a good two hours over lunch, smiling, talking, holding hands. Cort felt himself settling into his new life more completely than he ever had. He was here, somehow he was here, and here had become where he wanted to be, where he wished to stay. Maximus, Joimus, Alistair, they had started that for him, but it was Claire, this beautiful, wonderful Claire, who filled him up.

"Thank you," he said, his voice low, soft.

"For...lunch?"

"For bein' you, for bein' here. Thank you for it all."

"Cort, it's...it's so easy...being for you. Don't you know that?"

"I think I'm beginnin' to." He closed his eyes a minute, quietly breathing in and out, aware she was watching him. His right hand moved to his chest, rubbing slowly back and forth. Without opening his lids, his voice came again. "Here." His lips curved in a smile. "You fill me here." Then he opened them, meeting her gaze, his eyes deeply green, very serious. "I...," he licked his lips, "I love you, my Claire."

Tears sparked in her eyes. "Oh, Cort!" Her chin trembled and she reached out, touching his face with her fingers. "I've loved you since the first moment I saw you."

"With that tree?"

"Yes, with the attack tree. Since then. More and more every day since then."

He stood, needing some place more private than this table right by the sidewalk with its many people walking past. "Come," he said, taking her hand, hurrying blindly down the street. There was a small, narrow alleyway right next to the vets and he pulled her into it several feet, leaned his back against the brick wall and proceeded to kiss her as thoroughly as any woman had ever been kissed. His hands moved down her hips, cupped around her bottom, lifted her, pressing her into him, his need for her nearly more than he could bear.

An elderly woman, leaving the front of the veterinary office with her Maltese on a leash, stumbled, let go of the leash and the small tan dog darted into the alleyway, yapping shrilly at the couple there.

"Mopsy!" the woman called. "You come back here right now, Mopsy! Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. "I, um, I'm, um, sorry. Mopsy! Come here!"

Reluctantly the dog returned to its mistress. Cort shook his head, groaning. "We need a place where animals are not allowed."

"I guess we'll just have to see what can be done about that," Claire said, looking at him with a longing that matched his own.

He sighed. "Well, we're right here by the vets. Not a good place for no animals, I guess, but I should go in and see if he's got the rabies results yet."

"We should," she agreed. "The Harbours are going to need to know."

He leaned in for another brief kiss, then took her hand again and they walked around to the front of the office.

"Ah, glad you're back, Mr. Wells," the vet said. He was coming out a doorway into the waiting area. "I have the results now and I'm afraid they're not good. The dog definitely had a full-blown case of rabies."

"Damn!" Cort sighed. "May I use your phone?" He wasn't much for cell phones yet. He called the Meridius house and when Joimus answered, gave her the bad news, which she said she'd pass on to Sid.

"I'm sorry the news isn't better," the vet said.

"Thank you for your help," Cort replied. "'Preciate it." The mood from the alley had been broken for the time being, so he looked at Claire and said, "Walk with me?"

"Always," she smiled, taking his hand. "Till the end of time." Sometimes lyrics said it all.

 

Alas, this is basically where everything got left.

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