posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:05:55 AM
Title: Destiny's Circle

Author: Kath7

E-mail: kath453⊕yahoo.ca

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters from Roswell nor from the Robin Hood legend. I am just borrowing them. Some original ideas by ddawn and Angel_Parker. The character of Parkyla was created by Sunnie D.

Summary: This story is based on an idea that came out of a RPG that is currently ongoing on the Fanforum Roswell Board called Detention Adventures (Detentioned Boswellians.) In it, two of our talented authors (Hi Angel_Parker and ddawn!) have created the idea that everything that happens in Roswell-land is on a continuous loop - meaning that Max, Isabel, Tess and Michael have been on Earth many times before, have returned to their planet and have been killed each time. Their "essences" have been re-cloned and they have been re-sent to Earth to try and get it right. Time on Earth continues to move forward with each loop, thus everytime our pod squad returns, they return to a different time period.

My story has added to this idea - basically I believe that two mistakes in the current, contemporary loop of the TV show have affected the destiny of the four: These two events are 1)Nasedo being captured after the Crash and consequentially losing Max, Isabel and Michael 2) Max's healing of Liz. I love the idea of reincarnation and soulmates, thus I have decided to create the story of Max and Liz through the centuries as they just miss changing Max' s destiny each time. I already know that the story is going to end in our time, with the healing of Liz at the Crashdown....where it is going to go to get there, I do not know...LOL...so, hopefully this will work! This first part of the story is set in Medieval England and is based on the Robin Hood legend.

Category: Other and M/L

Author's notes: This story is dedicated to my pals on the Detentioned Boswellians RPG. They are, in no particular order: pbwin, ddawn, Sunnie D, hookt, Maria, sjton, Ivy_English, Angel_Parker, cheetah, Phaedra and Shortiegirl. If I forgot someone, please just kill me.LOL

Part 1 - Revised

Castle deHarding, Nottinghamshire, England - 1192

"We're going to be in trouble if we're caught." Tess sounded scared. Of the four of them she had always been the one who least liked to defy Lord Edmund. "He is more powerful than he lets on Max."

"So are we Tess. And let's not forget that Maxwell IS our leader." Isabel was dancing around the tower room, holding up a gold girdle studded with rubies. It matched her red gown perfectly. She pouted her lips in approval and quickly attached it around her hips. She sat on her stool in front of the glass. "Besides, I promised Sir Kyle we would come and watch him win in the archery tournament." Tess quickly came to stand behind her, helping Isabel plait her long blonde hair in two perfect braids. Tess was so short she was only a few inches taller than the seated Isabel. Max watched both of them, an affectionate smile on his lips.

"You really should not be encouraging Sir Kyle," Tess lectured her sister. "I understand from the servants that the announcement of his betrothal to a wealthy heiress is imminent. Not to mention your betrothal to Michael. And what if we're caught by Sir Edmund? He was angry enough when you invited Sir Kyle to feast with us when we met him in the forest." Tess placed a slip of transparent silk on Isabel's hair after having bound her plaits around her head. She added a gold circlet with a ruby winking in the centre to hold the fabric to her sister's head. "Oh Bella! You are exquisite!"

Isabel turned on her seat and regarded Max, who was seated in an alcove in the wall. Behind him the sun filtered through an arrow-slit, lighting up his dark head. His eyes were in shadow. "Max? Will you please tell your betrothed that it will be all right?" She pleaded.

"I promised Bella, Tess. We'll be lost in the crowds in Nottingham today anyway and Sir Kyle will be suspicious if we do not arrive. He was suspicious enough when he stumbled across two unknown ladies in the forest. The Sheriff now knows we are here. We must keep up the pretense that we have only recently arrived in the shire. People are coming from all the neighboring shires for the Fair. I hear that Queen Eleanor herself will be in attendance. It will be strange if we are not in attendance."

Tess did not look convinced.

"But can we trust Michael not to enter the archery competition?" At the sound of his name Michael looked up from where he was sprawled on Isabel's bed, a scowl on his chiseled face. He had been turning an arrow between his fingers pensively, ignoring Tess' concerns as was his usual habit. He now looked offended.

"I know that I can't Tess...I'm not a complete imbecile you know. Even though I could beat any of those upstart lordlings sure to enter with one hand tied behind my back."

"Anyway Tess," Isabel interjected before her sister and her betrothed ended up in one of their usual arguments, "You've wanted to leave the castle as much as the rest of us."

"I meant that I wanted to be able to leave the walls. I didn't mean that I wanted to visit the busiest town in the shire." Isabel smiled at her sister, using the charm that always worked on her...

"But Tessie...imagine what the Queen will be wearing..." Tess smiled despite herself. Isabel always knew what to say to convince Tess to go along with one of her schemes. She sighed, knowing that as usual she would give in....

"Very well. I want to see the Fair as much as the rest of you. But I insist that we bring a guard with us."

Max jumped up from his alcove, light on his feet as always. "No guards. Today we are going to pretend that we are normal people instead of refugees from a planet none of us can even remember." Tess frowned slightly but finally nodded.

"Alright." She pointed a small finger at Michael, who had also climbed to his feet, replacing his arrow in the quiver at his waist. "But I mean it Michael...one word out of you about entering that contest and I'll tell Lord Edmund..." Michael rolled his eyes but nodded.

"What can possibly happen Tess?" Isabel continued to reassure the smaller girl as they left the room, trailing behind the boys. "No one even knows we exist...We'll be perfectly safe."

Nottingham Castle, Nottingham Town - That same day

Lady Elizabeth de Parkville sighed as she descended the stone staircase leading into the great hall of Nottingham Castle. Today was the day that the Sheriff planned to announce her betrothal to his handsome but boring son, Sir Kyle. Elizabeth had been thrilled when Queen Eleanor had decided to include her in her voyage to Nottingham. She had been shocked when her beloved Queen had then declared that her ward would not be returning to London with her. Elizabeth had never felt so betrayed. The Queen had engaged her to Sir Kyle de Valence without even consulting her.

"It's not that Kyle is that bad..."Elizabeth tried to convince herself, "He's steady and loyal and he appreciates me..." She sighed again. "It's just that he's not my ideal."

Elizabeth paused briefly on the staircase, closing her eyes, remembering the dream that had haunted her every night since she could remember...A tall, dark-haired man with dark, sun-burnished hair regarded her across a forest glade. He was dressed in the colors of the trees, all browns and greens and he had a bow slung over his shoulder. His dark hair curled across his forehead, just aching for Elizabeth to brush it back. But it was his dark eyes that claimed her. They seemed to penetrate her soul...He began walking towards her, reaching out his hands..."Come to me my Liz...I will never forsake you..."

Elizabeth knew that the man was only a fantasy. She had never seen him in reality and no one had ever addressed her as anything other than Lady Elizabeth since the day she was born. But she had liked it when the man had spoken that diminutive to her so seductively...it felt like she had heard it many times before...spoken from those same beloved lips.

She shook her head forcefully. Focus Elizabeth! She ordered herself sternly. You are cool, practical, logical. You do not believe in dream men... you understand that you are a wealthy heiress and that as the Queen's ward you are to marry where she chooses. Sir Kyle likes you and will treat you well. His father is the powerful Sheriff of Nottingham...Few girls could ask for better in a marriage...No one marries for love...


Elizabeth patted the veil on her head to assure that it still covered her long, dark hair. She entered the great hall and approached Queen Eleanor, who was seated with the Sheriff, James de Valence, on the dais at the far end of the room. They were watching Sir Kyle practice his swordplay with one of the Queen's men-at-arms. Elizabeth recognized him immediately as her childhood playmate Alexander Delucie of Whitfield.

When Elizabeth had been deposited in the Queen's household at the age of seven, she had been a scared orphan, afeared of her own shadow. It had been Alexander and his twin sister Mary who had pulled Elizabeth from her shell. The three had been inseparable friends from the beginning, constantly falling into one scrape after another...They had amused the elderly Queen with their follies and now the three sixteen year olds were her pride and joy.

Queen Eleanor was watching Alexander soundly whip Sir Kyle in the duel in which they were playfully engaged. The Sheriff was scowling slightly at his son's poor showing, but was trying to hide it. Elizabeth smiled to herself. The Sheriff was an ambitious man. He had arranged an advantageous marriage for his son, but there could be no doubt that Sir Kyle often disappointed him. Elizabeth pitied Kyle for it. She knew that no matter how hard Sir Kyle tried, he would never live up to what his father wanted him to be.

"Ah Lady Elizabeth!" Sir Kyle abruptly stopped parrying Alexander's blows, clearly eager to end the one-sided and humiliating battle in which he was engaged. Elizabeth winced as she saw Alexander barely manage to pull his last sword-swipe in time. Alexander looked horrified by the fact that he had nearly taken the Sheriff's son's head off...The Sheriff had jumped to his feet, terror written on his aging face. Elizabeth was relieved to see that at least the Sheriff loved his son enough to be concerned for his life.

"Kyle! You fool! Never turn your back on an armed man!" Elizabeth could tell that the Sheriff did not mean to be harsh with his son, but his concern rendered him unable to control his temper. Elizabeth saw Kyle tense up immediately. He did not understand this. All he heard was another lecture from his father.

The Queen was watching the exchange, amusement written on her still beautiful face. Eleanor of Aquitaine had once been the most famed beauty in the known world. She had also been the richest. She had divorced the King of France to marry the King of England and she was now the mother of the heroic warrior king, Richard the Lionheart, and his nefarious, scheming brother Prince John. She knew how to mediate with the best of them.

Eleanor smoothly ended the tension before it could take over. "Elizabeth! You have finally arrived! I have some pleasant news." She placed her wrinkled hand on the Sheriff's arm, urging him to retake his seat. James de Valence did so stiffly. "The Lord Sheriff tells me that there is to be a fair in Nottingham town this afternoon. We will all attend."

Alexander had come to stand next to Elizabeth, his dark hair wet from his exertion. He was still white from the tragedy that had nearly befallen them all moments before, but he played along with the Queen. "Imagine Milady! There is to be an archery competition!"

Elizabeth smiled at her friend. He only ever addressed her as "Milady" in front of the Sheriff and Sir Kyle. He was a stickler for the proprieties in public situations. Alexander often called her "Dizzy Lizzy" in private.

"We'll have to be sure that Mary does not bring her bow to the fair then." Elizabeth laughed. "She is sure to win!" Sir Kyle smirked.

"Oh surely you jest Milady! While there can be no doubt that Lady Mary could easily win a competition of beauty, archery is for men." Elizabeth exchanged an amused smile with Alexander.

"I'm sure you're right Sir Kyle." She murmured, her brown eyes twinkling. Kyle is not to blame for the fact that he does not know Mary. It is too bad that she cannot show him.

"Where is Mary, by the by?" The Queen demanded suddenly. "We will be leaving shortly and if she if left behind, she stays behind." Mary exasperated Queen Eleanor on a regular basis with her tardiness. But Mary was irrepressible. The Queen forgave her more often than she punished her.

"Oh, she is feeling unwell Your Grace." Alexander replied airily. "She has requested that she be allowed to stay behind." Elizabeth eyed Alexander suspiciously, but the Queen, the Sheriff and Sir Kyle seemed to accept the excuse readily enough. Elizabeth was unable to reflect on her suspicions however because Sir Kyle had changed the subject.

"I wondered my Lord," Kyle addressed the Sheriff nervously, "If we might announce my engagement to Lady Elizabeth at the conclusion of the tourney, after I've triumphed?"

"I think that is a marvelous idea," the Queen interjected. Alexander was eyeing Elizabeth, a mischievous expression on his face.

"I have an even better idea!" He announced. Elizabeth felt her stomach sink. She knew that she was not going to like whatever her friend suggested. He appeared to be in a teasing mood and she appeared to be his target. "I propose that you announce the betrothal at the beginning of the tourney and offer a kiss from the beauteous bride as the prize for the winner!" Alexander smirked at Kyle. "Then when you win Sir Kyle," Alex winked at Elizabeth, "Think how romantic it will be for you to claim your bride's kiss!"

Kyle looked pleased at the compliment to his athletic prowess. Alexander had played right to Sir Kyle's weakness, his vanity. Alexander knew that Kyle would never refuse the idea now. The Sheriff looked please at the idea as well. Eleanor smiled knowingly. She knew that Alexander was not pleased that Elizabeth was betrothed to Sir Kyle, that he was loathe for he and his playmate to grow-up. He would be most pleased to see Sir Kyle fail and have to relinquish his betrothed's kiss to another.

Elizabeth was simply annoyed.

"I think not!" She announced. "I am no man's prize!" But the warning look on the Queen's face told her that she would be giving in. The Queen appeared amused by the idea. Queen Eleanor wanted to see this little drama play out. Since very little truly interested the elderly Queen these days, Elizabeth knew that she would give in, if only to please her guardian.

Sir Kyle offered her his arm loftily. "Fear not milady. I will win your kiss. It will be a most pleasurable way to end the day."

With that, the Sheriff offered Queen Eleanor his arm and swept her out of the great hall. Sir Kyle and Elizabeth followed, Alexander on their heels, but not before Elizabeth muttered to her friend, "I'll get you for this Alexander of Whitfield. When you least expect it. Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Alexander just grinned.

Part 2

Maxwell DeHarding raced his horse through Sherwood Forest, the wind pushing the hood of his dark cloak off his head. * Sweet freedom! * The thought teased his mind as he pushed Evander to even greater speed.

Max was aware that Isabel was right behind him. Of the four of them, she was the one who most craved release from their virtual imprisonment in Castle DeHarding. Both Max and Isabel knew that it was for their own protection, but it did not stop either of them from rebelling against their guardian Lord Edmund at every opportunity.

• * Tess and Michael have always been more accepting of their fate. * Max reflected now. He always did his deepest thinking on horseback, for it was the one place he felt truly at home. * Michael has only ever wanted to return to our world, while Tess has always been happy with her place in the world, in her destiny to be my wife. Both Isabel and I want more. *

Although Lord Edmund had always told them that Tess and Isabel were sisters and that he and Michael were brothers, Max knew this for the lie it was. Isabel was the sister of his spirit, like him in so many ways there could be no question that they were of the same blood. But Max kept his counsel, knowing that Lord Edmund would reveal all when the time was right. * Michael is like my brother in all other ways anyway. *

While Max had always quietly obeyed Lord Edmund to his face, but then followed his own path behind their guardian's back, Isabel had always been more open in her opposition to their oppression. She had run away from Castle DeHarding numerous times as a young girl, always weeping with despair when she was hauled back by Lord Edmund's loyal retainers. Isabel was seeking something just beyond her grasp, as was Max. Max wondered briefly if they would ever find it.

• * Well today is a good start. *

Max reined in Evander, Isabel breezing past him on her mare Sunshine before she became aware of his stop. She glanced back at him impatiently, her dark eyes more alive then he had seen them in months. Her veil was askew and one golden braid had come unbound and was hanging down her back.
"Max, please! We're going to miss the tournament!" Max smiled reassuringly at her.

"We have plenty of time Bella. We must wait on Michael and Tess. They have obviously fallen far behind." Isabel sighed but nodded her understanding.

The pair were excitedly conversing about all they wanted to do in Nottingham that day when the silence of the forest was suddenly shattered by a scream. Isabel and Max exchanged frantic glances.

"Tess!" Isabel cried, spurring Sunshine back down the road they had just come up. Max followed, quickly passing Bella on his much bigger stallion.

"Wait Max!" Isabel called from behind him. "It's coming from off the road." Max glanced back over his shoulder and reined Evander off the road, plunging him through the lush, green foliage.

Max and Isabel broke through the underbrush almost simultaneously. They both reined in sharply at the sight that greeted them.

Michael and Tess were off their horses, backed up against a tree. Michael had his sword in his hands and was standing in front of Tess, obviously trying to protect her from the crowd that was gathered around them. What seemed like scores of longbows with knocked arrows were pointed straight at them. Max was surprised to see another man cowering behind Michael. He wore what appeared from this distance to be the attire of a man of the Church.

*Outlaws! * Max thought briefly to himself. Michael and Tess had obviously been held-up further back on the road. The outlaws had herded them off the road in order to rob them under cover. Many people would be passing on the road through Sherwood on their way to the Fair. The outlaws could not afford to have another party come upon them in the middle of their robbery. The priest had obviously been a victim of the outlaws as well.

Max realized that a large quantity of the bows were now pointed at he and Isabel, who had acted in haste and had ended up in exactly the same predicament as their siblings.

A tall thin man stepped forward and eyed Isabel appreciatively. Max felt his spine stiffen instinctively. Max knew that other men considered Bella to be beyond beautiful. He had often heard troubadour's compare her beauty to that of the angels. Of them all, she was certainly in the most danger. "Well, well. What have we here?" The leader of the outlaws smirked. "Another fine lord and lady have found their way into our hospitality!" He reached up, grasped Isabel by the arm and hauled her off her horse. "And a beautiful baggage we have uncovered too!"

Max was off his horse in an instant, his sword unsheathed and in his hand without conscious thought. "Get your filthy hands off of her!" He grabbed Isabel's other arm and pulled her away from the outlaw, thrusting her behind him.

The outlaw scowled at him. "Filthy am I me fine lord?" He advanced on Max threateningly. "We'll see how filthy you are when I'm done with you!"

Max glanced at Michael across the clearing. He could see that his brother was slowly losing control of his anger. The last thing they wanted was for Michael to expose them all because of a lack of control. But Max was not too worried. He knew that Michael would not act without permission from Max if he was able to hold on to his temper. If it came down to their lives or the lives of the outlaws, there would be no choice other than to allow Michael to use his power. But Max had not lost complete control of the situation yet.

"I beg your pardon sir." He ground out through clenched teeth. It went against every instinct in him to be polite to the man who had threatened Isabel. "My sister is most dear to me. I do not allow men to put their hands on her."

The outlaw eyed him assessingly. "Aye," he said finally, "I can understand that when one has a sister as lovely as yours." Max heard Isabel snort behind him. He hoped that she would be able to control her wicked tongue until he got them out of this debacle.

"My siblings and I are on our way to the Nottingham Fair. If you would be so kind as to let us pass, we swear that we will report none of this to the Sheriff." The outlaw tilted his head to the side, seemed to be considering. Max held his breath.

"Well, we only wanted a toll from your brother over there anyway." The outlaw conceded. "When he refused, we had no choice but to bring them here, in order to convince him." The outlaw grinned nastily, displaying several rotting teeth. "Mayhap you can convince him for us milord."

Max sighed. * Trust Michael to choose the most difficult route. Why could he have not just paid the outlaws and then been on his way? * "Very well sir! If you'd be so kind as to allow me to converse with my brother, I am sure we can reach an agreement that will be mutually satisfactory." The outlaw lowered his bow, nodding. He raised it again when Isabel tried to follow Max.

"The lady stays with me." Isabel's mouth straightened mutinously, but Max stared at her warningly.

"Fine, but I insist that she be allowed to mount her horse." * At least he will keep his hands to himself if Bella is beyond his immediate reach. * The outlaw looked as though he was going to refuse, but then he nodded.

As Max crossed the clearing he realized that there were not nearly so many outlaws as he had originally perceived. Only about ten men stood between he and Michael and Tess.

Michael was glaring at Max mutinously when he reached his brother and his betrothed. Tess threw herself into Max's arms. "Oh thank goodness! Max, are they going to kill us?"

Max disentangled himself from Tess' embrace. He always felt uncomfortable when Tess became too affectionate. While he accepted that he would marry her one day, he considered her more like a sister than anything else. Still, it was his duty to reassure her.
"We'll be fine Tess." He turned to stare at his brother. "But no thanks to you Michael. Why did you not just pay them and let it go?"

"I told him so my lord," this was from the priest, who looked relieved that it appeared that he was about to be saved. Michael rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to respond.

Michael had no time to speak though because suddenly a disturbance on the far side of the clearing caught all of their attention. Max whirled in time to see Isabel back off her horse and in the outlaw leader's arms. She was fighting him but he was quickly gaining the upper hand.

"Bella!" Max yelled, but was thrust back by the bows in the hands of the other outlaws.

"You just stay where you are milord." Max felt his anger mounting. Isabel was clawing at the outlaw's face and he suddenly thrust her to the ground.

"Think you're so special do you my lady?" Max could hear the outlaw as though he was Isabel cowering under him. Isabel had connected with Max and was sending him the information he needed to deal with the situation. But the problem was, Max had not idea HOW to deal with the situation. Ten brawny and cruel outlaws stood between he and Isabel.

Max's mind was whirling in a thousand directions. But all thought stopped as a bright light suddenly lit up the clearing. Max whirled to see Michael standing with his arm upraised, his palm glowing, an expression of absolute rage on his face.

"Michael...NOOO!" Tess tried to grab his arm, but he shook her off easily. She fell to the ground, sobbing. Max just stared, shocked disbelief on his face. "We are all betrayed!" He heard Tess cry.

Max could see the priest backing away from Michael, an expression of absolute terror mangling his wizened face. He started to cross himself frantically.

A moment later, it was over.

Where moments before there had been eleven threatening outlaws, there were now eleven bodies sprawled on the ground. Isabel was getting to her feet on the far side of the clearing, her face mirroring Max's own shock.

Max knelt beside the nearest outlaw, putting his ear to the man's chest. "He's dead." Max watched Michael's expression change from absolute conviction-filled anger to that of a scared boy, which he really only was.

The priest spoke up. "You are all demons!" He cried in terror, cowering against a tree, still crossing himself repeatedly. "Blessed Father, preserve me. Mother Mary, full of grace, save me!"

Max took a step towards the old man, his hand outstretched, "Father, please..."

"No! Stay back! I will call on all the angels of Heaven to preserve me from the likes of you." The priest fainted dead-away at Max's feet. Max let his arm drop.

Tess was on her feet, her arm around Michael. She was trying to comfort him. "You did what you had to do Michael. He was going to hurt Bella. You had no choice." Michael pulled away from her and turned his back, leaning forward against a tree, his forehead propped against his forearm.

"Max, what are we going to do?" Tess implored him. Isabel had picked her way through the scattered corpses and slid her arm around Tess, who had begun to sob again.

Max stiffened his spine. He was still shocked by the destruction that Michael had been responsible for. Until this moment, he realized, none of us knew the power we are really capable of.... *Be strong Max! * He ordered himself. * The other's are depending on
you. *

"First of all, we are going to bury these men. Then we will return to the road and finish the journey to Nottingham." Max told the other three.

"Do you really think we should Max?" Isabel asked quietly, after they had buried the outlaws, gathered their horses and had started to make their way back to the road. They had left the priest where he had fallen, but only after Tess had connected with him, erasing his memory of the past hour's events. "I think that Lord Edmund needs to know of this." Max knew how worried Isabel was if she was considering going to Lord Edmund. Michael was several feet behind them, a brooding expression on his face. Max knew that her main concern was for Michael's state of mind.

"We are going to the Fair." Max stated firmly. "Michael, you were not to blame." He told his brother. Michael raised his head and stared blankly at him. "We will all forget this ever happened." The other three all just stared at him. Max gentled his tone. "It has never been more clear than it is today; we are visitors on this world." They had reached the road. Max mounted Evander and looked down at Isabel. "We have to behave normally. If anyone were to ever discover who we really are..." He let the thought trail off.

Tess' eyes widened in terror. Max knew that visions of being handed over to the Church as heretics were foremost in her mind. It had always been her greatest fear, since the day they had all realized that they were not normal. Isabel nodded her understanding, while Michael just looked broken.

"This never happened." Max repeated as the other three mounted their horses. * If only it did not. * Max allowed the brief thought to wind it's way into his mind.



"It was you."

Edited by - Kath7 on 09/09/2001 22:08:59

[ edited 5 time(s), last at 19-Aug-2002 1:43:55 PM ]
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:12:23 AM
Part 3

Elizabeth had never seen such crowds in her life. Her life with the Queen had been sheltered to say the least and it appeared as if the entire shire had come to the capital for the Fair. Elizabeth gripped Alexander's sleeve and pointed to a mummer who stood on his hands a few feet away.

"I'd like to see you try that!" She teased him. Alexander looked down at her with twinkling eyes.

"So you've decided to talk to me again have you?" Elizabeth rolled her dark eyes and sighed.

"You know I cannot stay angry with you for long...You really should stop trying to embarrass Sir Kyle though." She chided. "You know that he has absolutely no chance of winning the archery competition." Alexander just smiled knowingly. Elizabeth frowned at him. "What are you hiding from me?" She demanded. "It has to do with Mary, does it not?"

Elizabeth had known that the story of Mary's illness was just that - a story. Now she was beginning to suspect what the story was meant to conceal. "She is not planning to..." Alexander placed a finger on her lips.

"Don't concern yourself Lizzy. You'll know soon enough." Elizabeth just shook her head. Alexander had only ever encouraged Mary in her rebelliousness. He was incorrigible. "Where did the brave Sir Kyle meander off to anyway?" Alexander asked.

"He went to procure me a sweet." Elizabeth responded, sighing again. "He is most attentive."

"Methinks you prefer it when his attentiveness means that he has to leave your side..."Alexander raised a brow teasingly.

"Now do not start." Elizabeth scolded, "You know I am not happy about this match, but the Queen only has my best interests at heart. It is time for me to grow up. True love is only a fantasy the troubadours have created to earn their supper." Alexander just smiled knowingly.
"Stop looking like that Alexander Delucie!" She smacked him lightly on his mail covered chest. "You are going to drive me to lunacy with your teasing."

Elizabeth's lecture of Alexander was cut off abruptly as someone bumped into her. The crowds seemed to be pressing ever nearer, some trying to get closer to the mummer, others trying to get to the stall selling ale and meatpies. Alexander and Elizabeth had inadvertently stumbled into the busiest part of the Fair.

Elizabeth felt herself being jostled and suddenly Alexander was no longer at her side. She could see across several other people, but then he was gone, swallowed up by the crowd. She could still hear him calling her name though.

She felt panic begin to overtake her. Strangers surrounded her on all sides. They all seemed to be trying to head in the opposite direction from her. Elizabeth felt herself swept along in a tide of people, all pushing and prodding for position. Small in stature and unused to such physical treatment, Elizabeth could feel herself losing her footing... *I'll be crushed! * She thought frantically, trying to stay on her feet.

She suddenly felt strong arms grab her. *Alexander! Thank the Heavenly Father. * She was swept up against a broad chest. Alexander began to push his way through the crowd, elbowing the crowd aside. They suddenly broke through the periphery of the mass of people.

It was only then that Elizabeth realized that the man holding her was not Alexander. His cloak was a different colour and he wore no chain-mail. Elizabeth felt herself stiffen. The stranger was instantly aware.

"Please do not be concerned milady." His voice was deep, but reassuring. She felt herself relaxing instantly. "I will set you down as soon as we are further away from the throng."

A moment later, the stranger set her on her feet. She looked up at him curiously. It was impossible to see his face as the hood of his dark cloak was over his head, but there was something infinitely familiar about him...

"Thank you Sir..." The gentleman did not respond, just stood where he was, motionless Although she could not see his eyes, Elizabeth knew that he was staring at her. "Would you be so kind as to remove your hood..." she whispered, her heart thundering in her chest. The stranger paused, but then very slowly reached up and pushed back his hood.

Elizabeth gasped. "You!" It was the man from her dreams. Every detail of his face was as familiar to her as her own. His hair was dark and curled on his forehead. And his eyes...they were the deep, soulful pools she had always seen in her heart. She reached out a hand to touch the beloved face.

Elizabeth suddenly realized what she was doing. Her hand snapped back to her side. The stranger was blinking, as though coming out a trance. He appeared to be trying to pull himself together.
"Do I know you milady?" He asked. From his tone, Elizabeth knew that he was forcing the words. He seemed to know her, just as she knew him. This is impossible! She reflected. He was a figment of my imagination!

Elizabeth shook her head, forcing herself to focus. "No! I mean, I apologize sir. I thought you were my betrothed." She saw the stranger's face tighten at her last words. "I am Lady Elizabeth deParkeville." She continued quickly, hoping to erase the sad expression that had appeared on his face.

"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance milady." He picked up her hand and pressed it to his lips. His eyes never left her face. "My name is Maxwell de...." He paused
briefly..."Um...pardon me...my name is Maxwell of Huntington." Elizabeth frowned slightly. She wondered why he had not given her his family's name. She knew of Huntington however. It was a small town on the far side of Sherwood. She had passed through there with the Queen's party the day before on their way to Nottingham.

"Lord Huntington, I am most pleased to meet you. Thank you for saving my life." Lord Huntington reddened slightly.

"I am not a lord milady." He seemed to be searching for words. "Please call me Max. All my friends do. And please do not think on my helping you anymore. It was my pleasure." Elizabeth could tell that he really meant it. She felt her own cheeks heating up.

"I know it is not proper," she responded, "But I would be pleased to call my rescuer by his Christian name." She had no time to sat anything more because suddenly Kyle was at her side.

"Lady Elizabeth! Are you quite well?" He asked, concern in his voice. "I saw you being swept up in the crowd but I could not get to you." He turned to Max and offered him his hand. "Thank you sir. I saw you..." He trailed off and recognition dawned in his eyes. "Maxwell...you have come!" Kyle looked around nervously. "Are your sisters here?"

Elizabeth saw Max's eyes narrow. She wondered what this was all about. She looked at Kyle curiously.

"Yes, Sir Kyle. Isabel and Tess are with my brother observing the jester." He pointed towards a large group that was gathered around the Sheriff's fool. Elizabeth saw a graceful looking blonde girl in red watching them with interest. The smaller blonde beside her was laughing at the ridiculous antics of the jester, while a boy with tousled dark hair fiddled with the long bow in his hands. Max turned back to Kyle and Elizabeth abruptly. "I really must join them." He bowed stiffly and started to walk away. Elizabeth felt disappointment invade her to the bone. "Good day Lady Elizabeth, Sir Kyle."

Elizabeth watched him go, shock sinking into her. * How can he possibly exist? What can this mean?*

Sir Kyle offered her his arm. "Come my lady. We are wanted at the tourney ground. My lord Father wishes to begin the competition." Elizabeth placed her hand on Kyle's arm, without conscious thought. She turned for one more look at Max as Kyle led her away. She felt her pulse speed up as she met his grave eyes. He watched her go, no expression on his handsome face.

Part 4

Max watched Sir Kyle lead Lady Elizabeth away, feeling his heart begin to slow down as she disappeared into the crowd. He had been on his way to the stall selling meat pasties to provide a mid-day meal for he and his siblings when he had suddenly seen the young lady in acute danger. Always protective of Tess and Isabel, he had thought that it was just a natural instinct within in him to aid a lady in jeopardy.

That idea had quickly changed after he had swept Lady Elizabeth into his arms. It had suddenly felt as though he had found exactly what he had been looking for his entire life. He had known that she felt the same way when he had removed his hood and she had looked at him as though she recognized him. And he knew that she had - from the same place he knew her.

From his dreams.

Max had had a recurring dream his entire life. In it he was not a stranger on this world, but a regular human man, with a wife and children. The wife in his vision had the face of Lady Elizabeth deParkeville, his children were all small dark-haired, dark-eyed versions of her. He did not know how it was possible, but it was true. He had never seen her before today, but her face was as dear to him as those of Isabel or Tess...perhaps, even more so. Neither Isabel or Tess had ever made his heart speed up as though it wanted to beat out of his chest, or made him short of breath, or made him feel that his whole world could end right at that moment if he could have just one kiss....

Max realized that Isabel was looking at him strangely. "Max, are you quite well?" She asked worriedly. The four of them had somehow been able to suppress the horrifying events of earlier that day and had actually begun to enjoy the Fair. Max forced himself to smile. He did not want to concern the others.

"I'm fine Bella. I just realized that I did not manage to acquire any food. We won't have time to eat before the tournament." Isabel did not look convinced, but she let it go. Tess turned away from the jester, a smile still lighting up her pretty face.

"Oh Max! Did you see the fool?" Max put an affectionate arm around her shoulders.

"No, I missed him. But I only want to see the archery competition anyway." Michael eyed him suspiciously.

"Was that Sir Kyle I saw you conversing with?" Max nodded, frowning slightly.

"Yes. He asked after you Bella." Max stared at her pointedly. Isabel tossed her head.

"Do you have a point Maxwell deHarding?" The other three all just looked at her.
"Fine." She acknowledged. "I know I should not be encouraging him. It just gets so lonely..." She trailed off, tears appearing in her dark eyes. Max knew that Isabel had no real interest in Sir Kyle deValence. He was just a distraction from her constant feeling of imprisonment at Castle DeHarding. Max decided to change the subject.

"Well, we'll just drop the whole matter and stay out of Sir Kyle's way." He decided aloud. Isabel nodded, and Michael and Tess looked relieved. They were both afraid of strangers to a certain degree. Tess, in particular, feared betrayal of who they were at all times.

Max led the way towards the tourney ground. He pushed his way through the crowd to the stands, securing seats near the front for Isabel and Tess. Tess was bouncing up and down in her seat with excitement, while Isabel was staring down the dirty man seated beside her, who was trying to get a little too close. Michael, as usual, was fiddling with his long-bow, an expression of longing on his face as he eyed the targets being set up on the field. Max knew that Michael was capable of winning the competition, but being the most careful of them all, he would not enter for fear of drawing too much attention to himself.

Neither Michael or Max had chosen to sit in the stands, preferring to lean against a fence closer to the targets. Isabel and Tess were in plain view. It would be easy for Max or Michael to be at their sides in an instant if any sort of trouble arose. Max knew that he could never be too careful with Bella. Her beauty but lack of position made her a constant target whenever she went into public, which was another reason that Lord Edmund refused to allow them to leave Castle deHarding. Tess was pretty enough as well to warrant unpleasant attention from men. The outlaw's attack earlier in the afternoon had only reinforced this.

Despite being on his guard, Max's thoughts began to drift. *Who is Elizabeth deParkeville? * he wondered to himself. How can I know her when I have never before seen her....What can this mean? Just the thought of her made Max's breath catch. She really was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Her dark hair had been covered by a transparent veil, but had still managed to catch the light, reflecting red highlights. Her skin had been perfect, not a blemish anywhere, which was almost unheard of. And her eyes....they had reminded him of those of the doe Michael had allowed to escape when the two of them had been hunting a few weeks before. Large and dark and shining with intelligence, he had felt as though they were penetrating his soul.

Max was pulled from his reverie, when Michael elbowed him in the ribs. "Wake up Maxwell! They're about to begin." Max watched the nobles beginning to collect in the gallery reserved for them across from where he and Michael stood. He recognized the Sheriff of Nottingham, who was guiding an elderly lady, presumably Queen Eleanor, to the throne in the centre of the observatory. Max's heart skipped a beat as he recognized the young lady in blue who followed close behind the Queen. Lady Elizabeth took the seat beside the Queen, arranging her skirts gracefully, and smiling when the Queen patted her gently on the cheek.

The crowd quieted as the Sheriff moved to the centre of the tournament field and raised his hands. "Welcome people of Nottingham! We are pleased to welcome Her Grace, the Queen Dowager, to our assembly!" The crowd cheered lustily for the brave Queen, who was a legend in her own time.

"Long live the Queen! Long live King Richard!" The Queen rose with help from Elizabeth and acknowledged the crowd.

The Sheriff again held up his hands. The crowd gradually settled. "The tournament this afternoon is to be an archery competition, as most of you are aware. However, entries have been short, so we have decided to allow a few more competitors to enter the field without registering. The prize is a golden arrow." The crowd began to murmur amongst itself. No one took to the field.

The Sheriff smiled. "Come now gentleman!" When no one moved, the Sheriff continued, "Well, it appears that more incentive is required. Therefore, I would like to make an announcement. My son Sir Kyle de Valence has recently become betrothed." The Sheriff indicated Sir Kyle, who was leaning on his bow near the noble's gallery, the few archery competitors gathered around him. The crowd cheered again and Kyle raised a hand in recognition. "His future wife is to be the beauteous Lady Elizabeth deParkeville."

Max's heart constricted painfully in his chest. She had mentioned that she was betrothed, but he had not realized that it was to Sir Kyle. How imbecilic are you? He asked himself bitterly. Was he not the one who came to lead her away earlier? Max glanced briefly at Isabel in the stands. He was surprised to see that she was staring at him, assessment in her dark eyes.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth had stood up in the gallery, and was pushed forward by one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting. Max could not see whether she was blushing from the distance at which he watched her, but he could tell by the stiff way she held herself that she was not happy.

"Lady Elizabeth has graciously agreed," the Sheriff continued, "To present the golden arrow to the winner of the competition...."he paused for effect. "Along with a kiss." A roar went up from the crowd. "Thus, the competition will take place in ten minutes. Any gentlemen who feel that they can earn a prize as wonderful as a kiss from a beautiful lady should present themselves on the field immediately."

Max stood frozen. A kiss from Lady Elizabeth! How could Sir Kyle have agreed to this! Max could see that Elizabeth had retaken her seat. Her hands were clenched in her lap, but she appeared composed. Deep down Max knew that she was not though. He could see her eyes scanning the crowd and was shocked when they suddenly stopped on him.

Even from this distance, he could see her eyes widen. He gazed at her, unable to pull away. Then she gave him a brief nod. And Max deHarding knew exactly what he had to do.

Part 5

The girl stepped from the tent, adjusting the hood that was pulled tightly over her head, assuring that it wouldn't fall down. She had wept a little when she had hacked off her long strawberry blonde hair with her dinner knife as few minutes before, but now her blue eyes were dry and determined. She wore a brown tunic and brown leggings and a long brown cloak that she was going to have to remove if she wanted to truly win.

And she did want to win. More than she had ever wanted anything in her life.

Mary Delucie of Whitfield had heard the Sheriff's announcement and had breathed a sigh of relief when she had heard him announce that the registration of competitors would be waived. Now she would not have to face him down at the table. She had waited until the last possible moment to leave the tent that Alexander had reserved for her. The least time she spent on the field, the better. She did not want to be caught before she even had a chance to begin.

As Mary caught up with the band of competitors being herded onto the field, she spared a glance towards the noble's gallery. She caught sight of Elizabeth seated quietly beside the Queen. Her friend was gazing intently at something, although Mary could not decipher what from this distance. She was quite certain, however, that it was not her betrothed, Sir Kyle the Supremely Boring.

Mary giggled quietly to herself as she reflected on the conversation she and Lizzy had had in the bed they shared the evening before. It had begun as a serious conversation about the chances of Elizabeth coming to love Sir Kyle, but had quickly disintegrated into a competition about who could come up with the most ridiculous title for the poor man. Elizabeth's best contribution had been Sir Kyle the Ridiculously Arrogant, while Mary had been partial to the aforementioned Lord Supremely Boring.

Mary forced herself to silence when the man walking in front of her turned and regarded her with interest. She lowered her head quickly, but not before meeting dark, questioning eyes. She forced back another giggle as she reflected: * That man has the messiest hair I have ever beheld. * Fortunately messy-head was quite tall. Mary decided that she would try and stay behind him as much as possible.

As the competitors reached the field, Mary began to assess her competition. Her brother Alexander had entered of course, but she had ever been able to best him with a bow. His talent had always laid in sword-play.

Lord Supremely Boring was no worry at all. He was as incompetent at archery as he was with the sword. He would be easily beaten.

There were several yeoman entered as well. Mary recognized Tom of Locksley, who might prove a challenge. He was quite handy with a crossbow, but she was not too worried. She knew his nerves were bad. He would never hold up under the pressure. The others would no doubt be competent, but no match for her.

That left the two well-dressed strangers, messy-head and his companion. Messy-head's companion looked determined, but distracted, which was a good sign. If his concentration was not totally on the matter at hand, she could beat him. She followed the direction of his gaze and realized that he was staring at Elizabeth, seated in the gallery. To Mary's surprise, Elizabeth was staring right back.

Mary took a closer look. Elizabeth's admirer was really quite handsome, in a serious way. She could understand Lizzy's interest. He's not as good-looking as messy-head, but then...

Now wait! Where did that come from !* Mary turned and stared at messy-head from beneath her hood. His chiseled features accentuated his dark, brooding eyes. He was tall and rangy but had the appearance of great strength. And he was staring right at her suspiciously!

Mary quickly turned away and focused on the targets at the far end of the field. There were currently three, but as the group of competitors dwindled, they would begin to use one...

She quickly dropped her head as the Sheriff came to stand in front of them for last minute instructions.

"Very well gentleman - the competition will begin forthwith. Every man will loose three arrows consecutively. The five competitors with the best three shots will move on to the second round. The last five will have one arrow each. The best shot will win the arrow and the kiss." Mary's head snapped up at the mention of the kiss. She looked at Alexander questioningly. He was watching her, a bemused expression on his face, but gave no clue as to the answer to the kiss question. * Oh well! I'll find out soon enough. *

The competitors ranged along a marked line in the grass. Mary found herself positioned between Alexander and messy-head. She could see that messy-head was watching her from the corner of his eye. * He's assessing the competition too! * She realized with delight. * Maybe I'll have some fun after all! *

As each man stepped forward to take his turn, Mary was horrified to realize that the Sheriff was asking for each of their names so that he could announce it to the crowd. * Heavenly Father! What am I to do! He'll recognize my voice for certain! *

Mary felt Alexander nudge her. "Courage! I'll take care of it." Messy-head looked at the two of them sharply, but then turned back to watch Tom of Locksley take his turn. He was leaning quite casually on his bow, showing little to no concern as Tom made three respectable shots, each a little nearer the bull's-eye. Elizabeth's admirer, on messy-head's other side, was watching the action intently. He stood quite stiffly and occasionally glanced towards the gallery, his jaw tightening with determination a little more each time he did so.

*Hmmmm.... * Mary reflected. *This is not a good sign about who that kiss is going to be from...Oh well, I'll just kiss her on the cheek. She is like my sister after all....Too bad we cannot choose who we win a kiss from... * She smiled to herself at the entirely foolish thought of kissing messy-head.... * Now that would be worth the price of admission. *

Finally it was Elizabeth's admirer's turn. He stepped forward cautiously. Messy-head nodded encouragingly at him. He spoke briefly to the Sheriff, who then announced, "Maxwell of Huntington." Mary watched Elizabeth in the gallery as Huntington stepped forward and planted his feet. She could see Elizabeth's hands clutching the arms of her chair. Her eyes were wide and Mary doubted that she was breathing.

Maxwell took his first shot, which was quite good, but still slightly wide of the bull's-eye. His second shot was better, but his third missed the target altogether. He stalked back to the group, an expression of annoyance on his face. * I think those will still be good enough to get him into the final five. * Mary thought. * Don't panic yet Maxwell of Huntington. * She abruptly cut off her thoughts. * Stop that! You do not want him to do well! He's your competition! * But Mary could not push away the expressions of longing she had witnessed on both Elizabeth and Maxwell of Huntington's faces.

Messy-head patted his friend on the back and then stepped forward to take his turn. "Michael of Huntington." The Sheriff announced. Before the last syllable had left his mouth, however, Michael of Huntington was done. Three perfect bull's-eyes greeted Mary's amazed eyes. The crowd erupted in cheers. * Show-off! * Thought Mary.

"Well done son." The Sheriff looked astounded and less than pleased. Mary knew he was thinking that there was no way Sir Kyle could beat that.
*And there is no way he'll beat me either! * Mary thought confidently. She realized thaat it was her turn. She turned and nodded at her brother to do whatever it was he was planning to do.

Alexander stepped forward. Mary heard him say to the Sheriff, "Your pardon my Lord. My friend Martin of York is mute. I told him I would give you his name." The Sheriff appeared to be still staring at Michael of Huntington's amazing shots. He just nodded and managed to announce "Martin of York," although his tone was somewhat strangled.

Mary placed herself in position and lifted her bow, knocking the first arrow. She casually pulled back the string and let loose. The arrow soared through the air and planted itself in the first bull's-eye. Her second arrow landed equally as perfectly in the second target. She carefully focused on her third shot. It landed an inch wide of the bull's-eye, exactly where she wanted it...* A little over-confidence never hurt anyone. * She thought as she returned to her position between Alexander and Michael of Huntington. * Let him think I missed. *

Alexander's shots were perfectly competent and would assure him a place in the final five. Sir Kyle's first arrow hit the target, but his second two were both wide. He was out.

Mary felt a surge of pity for Sir Kyle as he bowed his head and made his way to the side-lines. His father looked disappointed as well and did not appear to know what to say to his son. Sir Kyle went and sat on the far side of the gallery, his back against the wall, his knees pulled up to his chest, his forehead on his knees.

•Pity won't help him now Mary! * She told herself. * Concentrate - you only have one arrow.*

"Nice shooting." Michael of Huntington muttered to her as they repositioned themselves. His tone was quite arrogant, Mary thought. She smirked to herself under her hood.* We'll see who's arrogant when this is over.*

The five finalists were she, Alexander, Michael and Maxwell of Huntington and Tom of Locksley.

Just as she knew they would, Tom of Locksley's nerves failed him under the pressure and his arrow went wide. Alexander's shot was very near the bull's-eye but not close enough. Mary saw him wink at her as he went past. * He better not have done that shot on purpose! I want to win on my own merits. *

Needless to say, Michael of Huntington's shot was perfect. Maxwell managed a bull's-eye as well. Mary's shot bull's-eye assured her a spot in the next round.

"Move back the targets ten paces." The Sheriff ordered two men-at-arms. They quickly complied. Mary bit her lip as she eyed the target. It was not the furthest at which she had made a bull's-eye, but it was close.

Michael of Huntington did not even appear to aim. He lifted his bow, loosed his arrow and suddenly it was twanging in the target. Perfect again. Mary sighed. * Darn him! *

Maxwell was much more careful. He carefully aimed and was rewarded with a perfect shot. He looked a little surprised when he returned to stand beside Michael, who was again leaning casually on his bow. Mary watched Maxwell turn to gaze at Elizabeth again. Mary could see that her friend was smiling slightly, hope apparently beginning to dawn in her that Maxwell might win. When Mary turned back, Michael was following Maxwell's gaze, a slight frown on his face.

Mary felt bad that she was going to have to disappoint Elizabeth. * Kisses come and go. * She reflected. * I will never have another chance like this. When the Queen realizes what I have done she is going to lock me away in the Tower for a thousand years. *

Mary did not demonstrate overconfidence like that annoying Michael of Huntington. She matched Maxwell's care and gently aimed her arrow. She breathed a sigh of relief when the judge at the far end yelled "Bull's-eye!" Mary could see Michael of Huntington eyeing her with new respect. Maxwell looked disappointed, but managed to congratulate her. Mary was positive that he was sincere. She was beginning to like Maxwell of Huntington more and more. * It is too bad that Lizzy is betrothed. I could see her very happily married to this man. *

The target was moved back ten more paces. Mary watched it, tension beginning to tighten in her stomach. She had never hit a bull's-eye at such a distance, but she doubted anyone else could either. It was really very far. * Would not today be a wonderful time for a first! * She reflected wryly.

The Sheriff changed the order on this round. She was first. Mary forced herself to take deep breaths. She heard Alexander encouraging her with half an ear, 'You can do it Martin, old chap!" but she ignored him, closing down all senses except sight. She raised her bow, took aim and let loose, closing her eyes...

The crowd told her what she needed to know. She opened her eyes and a perfect bull's-eye greeted her. Mary let out her held breath.

She tensed again when Michael came forward. * I cannot possibly get another bull's-eye. If that target gets moved again, I'll lose. Please, please, please let his shot go wide. * She clenched her teeth together. She was pleased to see that the arrogant archer was actually taking his time for once. * This distance is difficult for him as well. *

Mary's hope was short-lived. Michael performed without flaw. She felt like crying when she saw his arrow in the centre of the target. * We're going to be here until Judgment Day!*

Mary was barely concentrating as Maxwell of Huntington stepped forward to take his shot.




"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:14:32 AM
Part 6

Max felt his heart sink as he watched both Martin of York and Michael competently achieve two more bull's-eyes. He knew for certain now that he was going to lose. His last shot had been achieved with pure luck. He figured that his luck must be running dry right about now.

Michael had been shocked, to say the least, when Max had hauled him away from the fence after the Sheriff's announcement about the kiss. "We're entering that competition." Max had told him firmly as they made their way through the crowd to the group of archers milling around on the tournament field. Max had noticed Tess and Isabel staring after him in shock as he pulled Michael after him, but he ignored them. He had only one goal in mind. He would deal with the repercussions - with Tess - later. Michael had narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but since he was getting to do what he had wanted to do all along, he didn't ask any questions.

Max had been relieved that for once Michael had gone along with him without arguing. How could he explain to his brother that he NEEDED to enter the competition; that he NEEDED to win the kiss of a complete stranger or he might as well just stop breathing right then. Even the thought of someone else claiming the prize had made Max ill to his stomach. He had no choice. He HAD to win.

Now the moment of truth was upon Maxwell deHarding. He knew that he could win if he cheated. Just a little nudge from his thoughts and the arrow would fly cleanly to the target...but he had made it this far on his own merits and he did not want to spoil it now. Somehow winning a kiss from Lady Elizabeth using underhanded means would tarnish the whole experience. His win had to be as clean and as pure as she was.

Somehow he knew that he was destined to win.

This however did not mean that he was any less nervous as he stepped up to the mark. If he simply hit the bull's-eye, the target would be moved back again and the whole process would restart. He had to end it - NOW.

Max raised his bow, knocking his arrow in one clean motion. He forced himself to shut out the din of the crowd. His eye was perfectly fixed on the point he wanted to hit. His arm muscles strained as held back the string on the powerful long-bow. One inch off and the competition would be over for him. It would come down to Michael and Martin of York - it could not be.

He suddenly felt a strange calm overtake him. It was as though someone was touching his shoulder, calming him down. He felt a warm breath against his neck. "Close your eyes Max...." He knew that it was Lady Elizabeth - his Liz - speaking to him.

He did what he was bid, closed his eyes and let the arrow fly.

His eyes snapped open again when the crowd erupted. Michael was slapping him on the back, Martin of York staring at the target in stupefaction.

He had split Michael's arrow. Automatic victory.

The Sheriff stepped forward, a grin splitting his craggy face. "That was unbelievable! Congratulations son!" Max stared at the target in shock...

And then he turned to look at Elizabeth.

Her eyes were wide, but she had a small smile of triumph on her face. She HAD spoken to him...he had heard her and the radiant smile that broke across her face as her eyes met his confirmed it for him.

"Go claim your prize Maxwell, you lucky, undeserving dog." Michael pushed him towards the gallery, a grin on his face. Max eyed his brother, realized that Michael knew exactly why he had entered the competition....he was letting Max enjoy the moment, thinking that it was just a moment in time, one that would not affect them permanently...

Max knew differently though...

It was a beginning....

Part 7

Elizabeth watched the Sheriff lead Maxwell of Huntington towards her, her heart in her throat....

From the moment she had laid eyes on him, she had known that their meeting was not chance...it was fate...was meant to be...His winning of the archery competition only seemed to reinforce it...seemed to be telling her, this man is your destiny, your future...

But now that the moment was upon her, she was frightened.

Elizabeth had urged Max onto victory, every part of her being had concentrated on sending positive energy in his direction. She KNEW, without any doubt, that he had even heard her thoughts at one point...his last shot had been THEIR shot, had been fate telling them that everything that followed that one flying arrow was meant to be...and it was terrifying...

And exhilarating....

She realized that the Queen was speaking to her. She forced her eyes away from Max, who was now only steps away.

"He is a very handsome young man. Every girl deserves to be kissed by a man like that once in her life." Elizabeth smiled at her guardian warily. Queen Eleanor was eyeing her, a speculative gleam in her expression.

"I don't know what you mean your Grace." Elizabeth twisted her hands in her lap nervously. Eleanor just smiled serenely and lifted a brow.

"Do you not?" Elizabeth swallowed with difficulty, slowly turning back to see the Sheriff leading Max to stand in front of the nobles' gallery. Michael of Huntington and the hooded Martin of York followed behind. Martin of York's head was still bowed. Michael of Huntington was grinning like he knew something the rest of them did not. His smile made Elizabeth nervous.

The crowd was still cheering wildly. The Sheriff raised his hands for quiet and the spectators gradually complied. "Long live Queen Eleanor!" The crowd cheered again. The Sheriff and the three archers sketched bows to the Queen Dowager, who acknowledged their tribute with a wave of her hand.

Elizabeth noticed that Max's eyes never strayed from her face. It did not seem odd, because she could not seem to stop staring at him either...

The Sheriff rose and looked at Elizabeth. "Will the Lady Elizabeth join us please?" The crowd erupted again, on the edges of their seats in delight, awaiting the romantic moment that was to follow.

Elizabeth wondered briefly if her legs would support her. The Queen was pushing her out of her chair, a wicked twinkle of amusement in her eyes. As Elizabeth carefully descended the wooden stairs, she noticed everything and yet, strangely, nothing....It was all just fleeting images that she would look back on later in her reflections...

Sir Kyle was staring at her sullenly from near the corner of the gallery, annoyance and embarrassment plain on his face.
Alexander was leaning against the fence, a wide grin of amusement on his handsome face. He was not looking at Elizabeth at all, but rather at Sir Kyle.

Elizabeth had known from the moment "he" had entered the field that Martin of York was Mary and had felt a little bad that for Max to win her dear friend had to lose a competition that was most important to her. Her friend's head was still lowered, but she was beginning to watch the scene unfolding with interest rather than disappointment.

The Sheriff still looked astounded by the whole business, disappointment in his son but impressed despite himself by the caliber of the archery that had won the day. He stood stiffly beside Max, the golden arrow cradled in his arms, ready for Elizabeth to present it to the champion.

And she noticed the two girls Max had joined earlier, after saving her, the astoundingly beautiful blonde and her smaller, but equally attractive counterpart pressed up against the fence, pride and wonder on the face of the former, bewilderment and dawning concern on the visage of the other. Kyle had called them Max's sisters when she had asked her betrothed about them earlier, but there seemed little doubt that the smaller blonde was something quite different from being Max's sister. Elizabeth wondered briefly what she WAS to him.

But then she was standing in front of Max and all other thoughts fled her mind. He was gazing steadily at her with his soulful dark eyes, shyness evident, but triumph as well.

And possession.

Elizabeth knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was claiming her today, before all these people, whether they were aware of it or not.

She was his - mind, body, soul.

She accepted this without a shred of uncertainty, for just as she was his, he was hers.

He was hers, betrothal, duty and tradition be damned.

The Sheriff handed Elizabeth the arrow and she approached Max shyly. The crowd was eerily quiet, all not wanting to miss a moment of the event about to take place...

"I..." Elizabeth faltered, licking her lips, and raising her voice. "I would congratulate you good sir on your impressive victory." She extended her hand, as was proper. Max gently enclosed with his own, bringing it to his lips. Her heart stopped.

She stepped forward slightly. "Claim your prize." She whispered to him, so softly it might have been the breeze.

Max did not hesitate. He brought his hands up, cupping her face tenderly, gently pushing back her veil and the tendrils of dark hair that had started to escape her coiffure. His dark eyes were bright, locked on hers, telling her more than a thousand troubadours could tell her in a thousand ballads.

And his lips were on hers.
It was a gentle kiss, but one full of promise.

It promised thousands of more kisses exactly like it, and thousands more nothing like it...

It made her heart race, her skin tingle, made her want more - things she had never dreamed of wanting.

It sealed the covenant of fate.

It was a beginning....

Part 8

As Michael watched Max kiss Lady Elizabeth, the grin he had been wearing gradually began to fade.

He had been a little upset that his brother, whom Michael ALWAYS beat at archery, just as Max ALWAYS beat Michael with the sword, had won the contest. But he had also not been particularly interested in kissing some snooty noblewoman - particularly one he had heard somewhere today was betrothed to the arrogant Sir Kyle DeValence...

It had been clear to Michael that Max had wanted to win though...more than he had ever wanted anything before. It was the first time Michael had ever seen his brother display any sort of selfish impulse and it had been refreshing. Not to mention the teasing mileage he was planning to get out of the whole affair would keep him going for months. It was not often that the stoic Maxwell deHarding displayed any sort of weakness...and he obviously had a weakness for Lady Elizabeth.

But as Michael watched his brother, a knawing worry began to work it's way into his belly. The way Max had gently touched her face before claiming her lips, the way the girl had gazed at him starry-eyed, the way neither of them had been aware of the crowd at all...it was disturbing...

And very, very unlike Max....

Michael saw Max break the kiss, his eyes opening slowly, a loving smile spreading across his face as he took Lady Elizabeth's hands in his. Max was still leaning very close to her...he was not saying anything that Michael could see, nor was she...but there was no question that something unsettling was happening between them...

Michael became aware of Martin of York when the other archer shifted the weight on his feet. His hood was still up, which Michael realized was a little odd...the sun was shining brightly and Michael could feel it's heat although he was using his powers to keep his own body at a moderate temperature...A regular human would have been sweltering...

The Yorkshireman had definitely impressed Michael with his skill during the competition...if Max had not gotten so damn lucky with that last shot, it was entirely possible that Michael might have had to concede the event anyway....he decided that he should shake the man's hand. It had been a good contest.

But just as Michael was about to address the other man, Martin turned on his heel and strode away. * That man is very strange. * He reflected. *And very short... *

He was distracted as the crowd began to leave the stands, milling on the tournament field, trying to get close to Max to congratulate him. Lady Elizabeth was still standing at Max's side, her hand on his sleeve. Michael's eyes narrowed.

Suddenly Tess and Isabel were at his side, both staring stony-faced in the same direction as he...."What is going on with Max?" Isabel demanded, her tone not concealing from Michael her concern about the reckless way Max was behaving.

"How should I know?" He snapped back, rudeness his usual defense against Isabel's snootiness. Tess stuck her nose in the air in a manner that only she was capable of.

"Well, I'm going to get him. If we're not back at the castle before sunset, Lord Edmund will know for sure that we left the keep." Michael and Isabel watched her push her way through the crowd to Max's side. Tess grabbed Max's arm, the one that Lady Elizabeth did not already occupy and pulled him aside, quite obviously giving him a tongue-lashing.*Tess will set him straight.* Michael grinned.

He turned back to Isabel, who was staring off into the distance, a perplexed expression on her face. "Michael, look." She pointed into the shadows past the nobles' gallery, her curiosity clear.

Martin of York was skulking near one of the tents, looking right and left, obviously doing everything in his power to not be noticed. Behind him, an urchin was sneaking up, clearly intent on robbing him.

"Wait here Bella." Michael told Isabel. For once his betrothed complied, clearly warned by the tone of his voice.

Michael made his way carefully through the crowd, keeping his eyes on the small archer and the villain gaining on him. Just as the urchin was about to attack Martin, Michael grabbed Martin and pulled him out of harm's way. The screech emitted by Martin was the most piercing Michael had ever heard. The urchin took one look at the expression on Michael's face and beat a hasty retreat.

"Let me go!" Martin was trying to push Michael off him, when his hood fell to his shoulders revealing a head of short, tousled blonde curls and a face that decidedly did not belong to a man.

She had the loveliest face Michael had ever seen. Her lips were full, her nose pert and her eyes the shade of blue of the sky. She stared up at him in horror for a full minute, her mouth hanging open.

"If you don't close your mouth, you're going to catch flies." Michael told her wryly. The girl's mouth snapped shut and she glared at him.

"I suppose you are going to tell the Sheriff about this?" She demanded indignantly. "You could not leave well enough alone could you?" Michael felt his temper beginning to rise.

"I just saved you from a pickpocket! You could show a little gratitude." He snapped. She lifted her chin, her eyes disdainful.

"There is nothing in my pockets to pick you knave! I could have easily dealt with him." Michael realized that he was still holding the girl by her arms. He quickly let go, causing her to stumble into him. He grabbed her again and set her straight, letting go as quickly as possible. His hands felt as though they had been burned. He used the only defense he could - sarcasm.

"Oh really? And I suppose you would have arrested him as well and handed him over to the Sheriff?" She pursed her lips in disgust.

"No, I would have reasoned with him." Michael raised his eyebrow, amused.

"I see." The girl stomped her foot in annoyance.

"You are most trying. Now please let me pass before anyone else sees me dressed like this. The Queen will murder me for certain if she catches me."

"The Queen? What does she have to do with you?" Michael demanded, more roughly than he intended.

"She is my guardian if you must know." She pulled herself up to her full height, which Michael realized was not significant at all. She barely reached his chin. "I am the Lady Mary deLucie of Whitfield." Michael raised his eyebrow again.

"Impressive." He muttered, just to infuriate her. And it worked.

"Ohhhh! You beast..." Lady Mary slammed past him, getting ready to stomp away. She whirled abruptly as she was about to enter a nearby tent. Michael had watched her depart in her fury, impressed by her quick temper. * She reminds me of myself. * "And you better not tell anyone about this..." She threatened him. "My brother can have you arrested and thrown in the Sheriff's dungeon."

"And your brother approves of this..." Michael indicated the boy's attire she was sporting and the bow swung over her shoulder, evidence of her entirely inappropriate behavior for a lady. She stiffened.

"I'll have you know that Alexander is a progressive man. He believes that woman are capable of anything men are..." Suddenly she smiled and Michael blinked, momentarily stunned by her sudden change of mood. "And besides...don't forget that a woman almost beat YOU today..."

With that she turned again and sauntered away. Michael stared after her, his eyes bright, impressed despite himself.

Mary deLucie of Whitfield was no ordinary woman.



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:18:53 AM
Part 9

Isabel had joined Tess and Max, who were still embroiled in an argument when she came up.

Or rather, Tess was arguing and Max appeared to be ignoring her. He was still watching Lady Elizabeth, who stood slightly to the side, her hands clasped in front of her pretty blue gown, her dark eyes staring at Tess assessingly.

Tess had worked herself into quite a lather as it stood. The crowd gathered around them was beginning to stir with interest, more and more of the townspeople and peasants gathered on the common halting their own conversations to listen to the small, blonde virago.

"Really Max! What were you thinking?" Tess repeated. "We were supposed to keep a low profile today. This will certainly get back to Lord Edmund now."

Isabel knew that Tess was truly concerned that Lord Edmund would hear about their trip to Nottingham, particularly about the near catastrophe that had befallen them in Sherwood. However, the peculiar light that had appeared in Tess' eyes was warning enough that Lord Edmund was not her main cause of anger with Max.

Until today Tess had never had any sort of competition for Max's affection. The four of them had always been aware that they were intended for each other, Michael for Isabel, Max for Tess. While they had always accepted it, there had never been any reason for them NOT to accept it either. Now, in Max's case, it appeared there was.

Isabel knew that while she loved Michael, it was not in the way in which troubadours sang of love. It was not with a passion so bright that it scalded, nor with an intensity so strong it ached....Michael was more like a brother to her...she knew that Michael felt the same about her, that Max felt the same way about Tess...to the point that Isabel had wondered if they were capable of romantic love. She had speculated privately that perhaps their hearts were not able to love in the same way human hearts were...

She had wondered this until today...until she had seen the way Max reacted to five minutes in the presence of Lady Elizabeth de Parkeville...until she had witnessed Tess change from cheerful, if careful, sister to a spurned, jealous betrothed wife...

Isabel had not immediately understood why Max had entered that competition, but Tess had...her blue eyes had narrowed and she had tensed on the bench beside Isabel. It was only then that Bella had watched her brother more closely, more assessingly...

Even Michael, who was by far the more competitive of the two boys, had not brought the same intensity to his archery that Max had....Max had wanted to win for one reason - to win the kiss of Lady Elizabeth.

Isabel now listened to Tess upbraid Max. In many ways she agreed with her sister. Max had endangered them by throwing off their anonymity....but as she watched him now, his eyes bright, his face alive as she had never seen it before, she could not blame him. She had always yearned for something that had seemed just beyond her reach. She had always known that Max felt the same.

She wondered now if Max had been the first to find it...

Isabel's reverie was interrupted, as was Tess' tirade, when Sir Kyle suddenly appeared at Lady Elizabeth's elbow. Bella saw Max tense.

"Gooday Isabel, Tess." Kyle addressed them cordially. Isabel flinched slightly when she became aware of the way the Sheriff's son's eyes settled hotly upon her. Perhaps Tess had been accurate in her assessment that Sir Kyle had taken her flirting a fortnight ago more seriously than Isabel had intended.

Isabel lowered her eyes demurely, hoping he would get the picture that she was uninterested. "Good afternoon Sir Kyle," she murmured. She watched through lowered lashes as Sir Kyle led Lady Elizabeth forward.

"Have you met my betrothed Lady Elizabeth de Parkeville ladies?" Although Sir Kyle's tone was friendly, the threatening look he sent in Max's direction was undeniable and made Isabel shiver. So, she reflected, even the numskull Sir Kyle noticed the interest between the two...Their anonymity would truly be sacrificed if the Sheriff's son decided they were his enemies...

"We are most pleased to make your acquaintance Lady Elizabeth." Isabel replied. Tess was no help, simply glaring at the other girl. "I am Isabel de..." She felt Max nudge her. "...of Huntington..." she inserted smoothly, "and this is my sister Tess."

Lady Elizabeth stepped forward, her eyes interested and kind. "I am pleased to meet you both. I was unaware of other ladies in the neighborhood so close to my own age." She smiled, although it seemed somewhat forced. Her next words betrayed why. "When Sir Kyle and I marry we must renew the acquaintance." Isabel was instantly aware from the other girl's tone that she hoped the event never took place - not visits with Isabel and Tess but, rather, and more importantly, marriage with Sir Kyle.

Tess at last spoke up. "I doubt that will be possible milady." The four others turned to stare at her. Lady Elizabeth blinked, Max's eyes narrowed, Sir Kyle looked suspicious, while Isabel tensed. "Our guardian is very particular about whom he allows us to see. It just seems unlikely...." Tess raked her blue eyes from the top of Elizabeth's dark head to the toes of her slippers and repeated, "No, not possible at all."

Isabel watched Max's lips compress to a straight line and his dark eyes reflected that he was about to say something he would later regret.

"Tess!" Bella grabbed her sister urgently by the arm. "Pray excuse us Lady Elizabeth, Sir Kyle." She offered a smile to the snubbed Elizabeth, hoping to erase the bewildered expression on the other girl's face. "We are most fatigued, unused as we are to such excitement." She motioned to the crowds around them. "Max, we will meet you at our horses in a few minutes. We would be most happy to meet you again milady." She smiled again at Elizabeth, but quickly hauled her sister away before she could get them in even more trouble.

When Isabel had managed to pull Tess out of ear-shot she turned to her sister in annoyance. "What were you hoping to accomplish with that little display?" She demanded. Tess raised her chin in defiance.

"I was making clear to that little simpering noblewoman that I am on to her." Her blue eyes flashed with barely concealed fury. "I saw the way she was staring at Max, playing up to him...He is mine." Isabel's eyes widened in astonishment. She had never seen this side of her sister...totally unreasonable...and totally oblivious to the fact that Max had been just as infatuated with Lady Elizabeth as the lady had been with him. This was dangerous. Tess had been reckless, totally unlike herself...and so had Max.

"Well," Isabel told her, trying to calm Tess down, "Max will never see her again after today anyway. When Lord Edmund hears of this he will lock us all away for a year."

Tess' face relaxed minutely. "Yes, I suppose that you are correct Bella." She began to tap her foot impatiently. "Where is he?" She demanded, her temper evidently beginning to rise again. "And where is Michael? We really must start home. It will soon be dark. We do not want to be waylaid in Sherwood again."

Isabel scanned the crowd. "I see Michael over there. He is joining Max. He'll get Max to leave." Tess followed her gaze, tensing suddenly.

"Bella! Look! It's that priest...the one from Sherwood...." Isabel followed Tess' gaze and felt her heart enter her throat as she watched the priest make his way through the crowd, his eyes intent on Max and Michael, who were still conversing with Sir Kyle and Lady Elizabeth. Her stomach clenched when she realized that the Sheriff of Nottingham had also joined the little group. She forced herself to calm down.

"It will be fine Tess." Bella reassured her sister. "You erased his memory. He will not recognize them..." She was not as certain as she sounded though. While Tess' powers were known to be mind-altering, she had never actually practiced them in the dire circumstances they had experienced earlier that day. Yes, Tess could make unicorns appear from the mist and stars seem to dance in the sky, but she had never before had cause to replace entire memories....and the priest had been unconscious when Tess had done it...there had been no proof that she had succeeded.

Isabel held her breath as the priest passed only five feet to the right of where Michael and Max stood, completely oblivious to the danger in which they found themselves...Isabel felt Tess grab her hand, clutching it until it was numb...

They both froze as the priest abruptly came to a halt, staring at their brothers...horror and terror began to dawn on his face, and, as though he was suddenly woken from a nightmare, he shook his head, raising his arm and pointing directly at Michael...

"Demon!" He yelled, his voice so loud and insistent it carried to where Tess and Isabel stood, helpless and frozen with terror, unable to help Max and Michael in any way...

Michael's head whipped around and Isabel could see him stumble into Max in his shock. Max put up his arms to catch his brother, his posture suddenly stiff...

"Stop the demons!" The priest pointed at them both now, recognition of Max clearly dawning as well. "They killed eleven men in East Sherwood this afternoon, with no weapons and without laying a hand on any of them..." Max was frantically looking around for an escape, his arm still firmly planted around Michael's shoulders. Isabel could see Michael struggling to escape, his shock quickly turning to anger.

"We saved your life you stupid old man!" Michael yelled, his fury evident in every line on his body. If Max had not had a firm grip on him, he would have attacked the priest.

Isabel noticed that the Sheriff had unsheathed his sword. He was staring from Michael to the priest, clearly trying to get a handle on what was occurring.

Sir Kyle was trying to lead Lady Elizabeth away, but she wrenched herself from his grasp, clearly unwilling to leave Max's side - particularly if he was in danger. Sir Kyle stepped away from her, annoyance and hurt plain on his face.

The priest was still yelling. Max was trying to make Michael walk away, but Michael stood rooted to the spot, his desire to murder the priest apparently rising with every moment.

"I suggest we adjourn to the castle and deal with this matter in private, " Max finally suggested, appealing to the Sheriff. The Sheriff looked inclined to grant the request, when Sir Kyle suddenly stepped forward, his tone cold.

"What is there to discuss? A man of the Church has accused your brother of murder." Kyle pointed at Michael, arrogance and disdain plain in his stance. "They belong in the dungeon until this is sorted out." Isabel felt her heart constrict as several well-dressed nobles who had gathered at the scene began to nod their heads in agreement. She saw Lady Elizabeth appearing to be about to step in and likely plead on Max and Michael's behalf when Michael cut her off.

"We will not be thrown in any dungeon." His hand went up. Tess gasped and Isabel nearly fainted. She caught her breath when Max grabbed Michael's arm and started to pull him away.

"We are leaving...right now."

The crowd parted suddenly and a man dressed in the attire of a bishop of the Church stepped forward, blocking their path. "I command that you arrest these men Sheriff. In the name of the Church they will be tried for witchcraft." He eyed the trembling priest, who was clearly beginning to lose his nerve. "A man of God does not lie and therefore his word must be heeded. Arrest them..."

Isabel could see that the Sheriff was torn. He clearly did not believe the priest, but did not want to defy such a high man of the Church in public...the crowd around the little group had grown to almost astronomical proportions...

The matter was suddenly and irrevocably taken from the Sheriff's plate when Lady Elizabeth suddenly threw herself on the Bishop, knocking the church leader to the ground. The crowd bellowed in astonishment at the sight of a refined lady seated atop the head of the Church in the region. As Sir Kyle moved forward to haul her off, Elizabeth appealed to Max, "Run Max!"

Isabel could see Norman soldiers beginning to push their way through the crowd....

Max was staring at Elizabeth, clearly undecided. Isabel knew that her brother trusted in justice. It went against every fibre of his being to run away.....

The decision was taken out of his hands by Michael, who hauled his brother away, grabbing the nearest horse and thrusting its' reins into Max's hands.

Max mounted quickly, clearly searching the crowd for Isabel and Tess. Isabel closed her eyes, frantically searching for calm....she connected almost immediately...

•**Go Max! We're safe! We'll follow later! **

**I can't leave you Bella! **

** Do it Max... getting yourself arrested will not help us. **

With that, Max wheeled his horse around, Michael close on the steed's heels, another pilfered horse under him.

"Sheriff!" One of the barons bellowed. "They're stealing my horses!"

The Sheriff stared after Max and Michael, forcing himself to concentrate. "Captain!" The captain of the castle guard quickly broke through the crowd...Isabel watched her brothers disappear through the gates of the city, Max looking back only once, Michael not at all.

Isabel grabbed a sobbing Tess' hand. "Come on!" With that, she pulled her sister away, getting quickly lost in the crowd.



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:27:41 AM
Part 10

Alexander caught Elizabeth's arm as she flew past him, her veil fluttering behind her, revealing her long dark braids. He had never seen his friend in such a state of disorder before. She frantically wrenched her arm out of his grip until he spoke. "Lizzie! What the devil is the matter with you?"

Elizabeth stopped abruptly and threw her arms around Alexander. "Oh thank goodness. Alexander, you must help me! Where is the Queen?" Her eyes were darting from one direction to the other, clearly searching the crowd for someone.

"She retired to the Castle after you kissed Maxwell of Huntington. The excitement was too much for her." Elizabeth seemed to calm down slightly.

"Then she did not see what I did! Alexander, I jumped on the Bishop!" She looked momentarily non-plussed, but then quickly gathered her wits again. "Thank goodness...I still have some time. If you see Sir Kyle tell him I went in the opposite direction!" Elizabeth turned as though to run off. Alexander grabbed her arm again, halting her in her tracks.

"Lizzie! Tell me what's wrong..." He had never seen her so scattered. Elizabeth did not pull away this time.

"Alex! Maxwell of Huntington and his brother are being chased by the Sheriff's men. I must find their sisters to help them. They must be beside themselves with worry."

Alexander's eyes narrowed. "Why is the Sheriff chasing them?" he demanded suspiciously
"And what pray tell does that have to do with you?" Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

"Really Alexander! Where have you been??? Michael has been accused of murder and witchcraft by Father Desmond." Alexander's grip tightened on Elizabeth's arm.

"Pardon me?"

"It is, of course, blatantly false." Elizabeth told him defiantly. "I just know that Max could not have been involved in anything like that." Alex raised an eyebrow at her.

"Max is it? And what do you know of Maxwell of Huntington Lizzie? You kissed him as the prize in a competition. He is a complete stranger to you." Elizabeth shook her head emphatically.

"No Alex! I know. I cannot explain it, I just do. Now if you are not going to help me, then let me go!" She wrenched her arm away from him again.

"Lizzie!" He called after her. She ignored him, pushing her way through the crowd at a dead run. Alexander had never seen his friend like this before. He followed behind, more concerned for her than he had ever been.

He nearly lost sight of her, when her blue veil was suddenly visible near the city gates. She was talking to two girls who were clutching hands. One of the girls, a tall blonde dressed in red, was listening to Elizabeth intently, while the other was trying to pull her companion away.

"....Isabel. Let me help you." Alexander heard Elizabeth say as he caught up. As she spoke, the tall blonde turned slightly, scanning the crowd. Her profile came into Alex's line of vision and he stopped abruptly, feeling as though he had just been kicked in the stomach.

She was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. Blonde braids framed a visage of exquisite proportion, full lips, perfect nose, dark full-lashed eyes. And the expression of pure terror on that ideal face brought the iron to Alexander of Whitfield's soul.

Alexander was a knight in need of a cause. And he had found it in the face of an angel.

"Thank you Lady Elizabeth," the angel was saying. "But you cannot help us...we must find Max and Michael ourselves. They are fugitives...they need us." The shorter blonde girl standing next to the angel broke in,

"Having you involved would just mean more trouble...Have you not caused enough already?" The expression of dismay that crossed Lizzie's face annoyed Alexander. Who was this girl to speak to his kind and loving Elizabeth in such a manner.

"I'll thank you milady to keep a civil tongue in your head!" This came from Mary, who had suddenly appeared at Elizabeth's elbow. "How dare you speak to Elizabeth that way when she is only trying to help." Alexander came to stand quietly behind his sister and his friend. He did not speak up, simply stared at the small blonde. Mary had always been capable of defending them all with her wicked tongue.

The angel spoke up. "I apologize for my sister." Alex saw her nudge the other girl with her elbow. She turned sad brown eyes on Alexander. They were pools of mystery, serious and wary....with an underlying hint of vulnerability that spoke to Alexander's heart. He felt it thump unsteadily in his chest.

Elizabeth replied, "I understand that you are upset Lady Tess, but at least let me send my friend Alexander to accompany you...he can protect you in the confines of the Forest until you find your brothers." Alex knew that Lizzie was aware that she did not even need to ask him to do so. His chivalrous nature would have guaranteed that he would have escorted the ladies unbidden.

Lizzie drew him forward, "This is my dearest friend, nearly brother, Alexander of Whitfield. You can trust him. I do, with my life." Elizabeth indicated the angel and her sister, "Alex this is Isabel of Huntington and Tess of Huntington...they are Michael and Max's sisters."

Mary was still next to Elizabeth, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes still sparking with annoyance at Tess of Huntington. Alex noted that she had changed from her boyish attire to a gown, but that it was typically plain. "I will go too..." she announced, tossing her newly cropped curly head.

"This is not a pleasure ride into the woods," Tess snapped, but Isabel nodded.

"I suppose we do need help." She reached forward and took Elizabeth's hand, "Why are you doing this?" Elizabeth just smiled.

"I do not know myself. I just know that we are meant to help you."

Isabel turned to Alexander and Mary. "I do not understand why you would be so kind to complete strangers, but I thank you." Tess snorted. Alexander noticed that Isabel gave her a perplexed look, but appeared to decide to ignore her sister.

"I hope you do not think you are coming with us. The least you can do," Tess directed her comment to Elizabeth, "Is to keep that imbecile Sir Kyle away from us." Elizabeth raised her chin, narrowing her eyes slightly. What is going on between these two? Alex wondered to himself.

"I was not planning on accompanying you." Elizabeth replied stiffly. "I will come to you tomorrow after I have gathered whatever knowledge I can about Michael's case."

Elizabeth pulled Alex and Mary slightly away from the two Huntington sisters. "Please care for them. I know that it is what Max would want." Alex and Mary exchanged glances.

"What is this Maxwell of Huntington to you Lizzie?" Alexander repeated his question from earlier. "All of this is most peculiar..." He felt himself turning back to stare at Isabel of Huntington. She was watching them all, her dark eyes assessing. She briefly met Alex's gaze, blinked and looked away, a faint blush appearing on her cheeks. Alex felt his own skin heat up but he shook his head, forcing himself to listen to Elizabeth.

His friend was staring off into the distance, her face serene and certain. "I only know that it is important to help Max and his family. I cannot say why, but it must be." She turned her dark eyes on her closest friends in the world. "It is MEANT to be...for all of us."

Mary nodded. "I feel it too. I met Michael of Huntington..." Her eyes narrowed slightly, "And while he is an arrogant pig, he is no murderer. This just feels right." Mary smiled suddenly. "Besides, it has been ages since we truly had an adventure!"

They rejoined Isabel and Tess. "It will be safer if you all hide in the forest until I find out exactly what the Church and Sheriff intend to do...I will also appeal to the Queen." Elizabeth told them. "Is there anyone I should contact for you?" She directed this question at Isabel and Tess. They glanced briefly at each other, seemed to come to an agreement.

"No, not just yet." Isabel replied. Elizabeth suddenly started.

"Oh for pity's sake! There is Sir Kyle...I will go waylay him while you make good your escape...I will meet you tomorrow at St. Mary's Convent in the forest....Lay low until then." With that, she disappeared into the crowd.

Alexander watched her go, wondering when his friend had become such a forceful woman.
He turned back to the other three girls, who had all begun to eye each other suspiciously again.

"Let us go...The fewer horses we take the better. We will be unable to properly care for them in the Forest." he stated. He helped Isabel climb onto her horse, Tess mounting behind. That left he and Mary to share the other one. They glared at each other momentarily. Alexander knew exactly what his sister was thinking. "Fine, you may hold the reins to begin with..." he finally relented sighing.

Isabel and Tess laughed despite themselves.

Part 11

They had left the King's Highway and were now winding their way through a deer run in Sherwood, Tess and Isabel following close behind Alexander and his sister.

Isabel was holding the reins. Tess was still behind her, having fallen asleep against Isabel's back. Bella was glad. Her sister had complained from the moment they had left Nottingham.

"I do not understand why they are coming with us, Bella." Tess had whispered to her an hour or so earlier. The whisper had been loud enough to carry to Mary of Whitfield however, as Isabel was now sure Tess had intended. "We know exactly where Max and Michael went. We do not need them and I do not like feeling at all indebted to that Lady Elizabeth."

Isabel had not replied, finding for once that ignoring her sister was the easiest course of action. She had briefly met Alexander's eyes as he glanced back at them. Mary had been muttering under her breath to him Isabel was almost positive, but he simply smiled at Bella and turned back.

Few words had been spoken since. A tentative trust existed between Isabel and the two DeLucies, although Bella could not really figure out why. Perhaps I did not want to have to take control of the situation, she reflected now. Alexander of Whitfield seemed more than willing to take on my problems.

As she stared at the back of his head now, she wondered what it was about him that she had found so immediately trustworthy...perhaps it was the concern with which he had treated Elizabeth earlier, or perhaps it was the way he just laughed whenever Mary snapped at him or tried to get him to do something her way.

Isabel noticed right away that Alexander of Whitfield did not do anything he did not want to do.

Perhaps it was the way he had looked at her when they had first met - like she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

But then, many men did that....it was something more...something that shone from his dark eyes....a wry humour and a joie de vivre that attracted her immediately.

The small group broke through to a clearing, which was graced by the large oak Isabel recalled from one of her many wild rides through the Forest during her attempts to escape her stifling existence at DeHarding Castle. She and Michael, Max and Tess had dubbed it "Sanctuary" long since, agreeing that in event of any serious situation, should they be parted, this was where they would meet.

Sanctuary was located deep in the dark heart of Sherwood, near enough to DeHarding Castle to be easily reached, but far enough that Lord Edmund was unaware of its existence. The clearing was wide and a stream meandered through the far corner, winding its way back into the green wood. As they rode in, a deer briefly raised its head, stared at them momentarily and then disappeared into the forest.

They could survive there - in hiding- for quite some time. Isabel had been positive that it was the place Michael and Max would head, knowing that the girls would think of it too.

Unfortunately, her brothers were nowhere to be found.

Tess awoke with a start when Isabel pulled her horse to a stop. She glanced around and Isabel could feel her sister begin to panic. "Where are they Bella?" Isabel could feel Alexander and Mary's eyes on her questioningly...

Suddenly Max melted out from behind the oak. His brown cloak had rendered him virtually invisible, something Bella realized he had intended. His bow was slung over his shoulder, ready for instant access.

He was staring at Alexander and Mary, wariness apparent in his dark eyes. "Bella?" He asked quietly.

"Lady Elizabeth sent them to help us Maxwell." Isabel told him quickly. She saw Max relax visibly.

"Where is the Lady?" Max's eyes had brightened at the thought that she might also be with them.

"Elizabeth is in Nottingham." Alexander told him, dismounting and bowing cordially. "I am Alexander of Whitfield and this is my sister Mary." Isabel noticed that Mary did not wait for aid in dismounting, but swung smoothly from the saddle, gazing around the clearing assessingly.

"Yes, I think this will do nicely." Mary commented. Max, Isabel and Tess turned to look at her in confusion. Mary noticed and grinned. "For our camp of course..."

"OUR camp?" Tess demanded. "You are not planning on staying here with us?" She asked, her tone suddenly horrified. Isabel could feel herself wanting to smirk despite herself. She noticed Alexander attempting to mask a smile as well.

"I believe I am in the mood for a little fresh air." Mary replied breezily. "We promised Lizzie that we would help you until all this silliness with the Sheriff is sorted out." She raised an eyebrow, an action that Isabel had noticed she and her brother shared. "Are you out of trouble yet?" She asked Isabel kindly.

"Well, no..." Isabel replied, feeling an uncharacteristic urge to giggle. She was finding that she enjoyed this girl's company more and more. Mary had already turned a dire situation into something almost amusing several times that day. She was definitely one capable of making real worries seem insignificant if they worked together.

Max stepped forward, his expression concerned. "I do not think that you understand milady. The accusations are not exactly unfounded..."

Mary's eyes widened momentarily. "I see."

"Did your brother kill those men?" Alexander asked suddenly. Isabel felt a stab of disappointment. They were going to leave them when they heard the truth. She just knew it...She squashed her feeling of sadness ruthlessly. You knew that you could not depend on anyone but each other, she told herself.

"He had no choice." Isabel inserted, using her most snooty tone. It was a vain attempt to mask her true feelings, of fear and disappointment. "They were outlaws. He was protecting
me." She stared at Alexander defiantly, waiting for him to turn away, to drag his sister after him, to leave them all alone - always alone.

"I can understand the urge to protect you." Alexander told her mildly. He did not move, just stood his ground, his gaze steady. Isabel blinked, confused.

"Well, we are all outlaws now." Mary decreed. "Alexander and I have aided and abetted wanted men...and women." She smiled at Isabel. She waggled her finger at Max, who she had apparently deduced was the real leader of the group. "You will not rid yourselves of us now. If you do, we'll just have to set up camp next-door anyway." She snorted. "Betimes, I have no desire to return to that Castle. I just know the Queen was setting me up for betrothal next." She wrinkled her nose. "And after the horrible taste she showed in choosing Sir Kyle for Lizzie, I'm afraid that I am going to have to insist that I be allowed to decide my own fate....Maybe a few weeks away from me will make the old bat miss me enough to allow it." The affectionate tone of Mary's voice told Isabel that she really did love the Queen.

As those words tumbled out of Mary's mouth, Michael suddenly appeared from the Forest, a brace of rabbits clutched in one hand. He stopped abruptly at the sight of Alexander and Mary.

"You!" He sputtered, staring at Mary, annoyance pronounced on his face.

Mary smiled at him. "Hello to you too..." She eyed the rabbits arrogantly. "Hmmmm. Only three..."

Isabel watched Michael's lips compress with irritation. She allowed herself a small smile.
•*Interesting. * She thought.

Max finally spoke again. "Are you sure?"

"Max! We do not need them!" Tess stated, her nose in the air. "We cannot trust them."

Max ignored her, watching Mary and Alexander closely.

When Mary nodded enthusiastically, Alexander more calmly, his gaze locked on Bella' s face, Max capitulated. "Very well. I do not like the idea of others becoming involved in our problems, but we can certainly use the help...particularly from an archer as capable as you - Martin of York." He smiled wryly at Mary, who sniffed.

Michael rolled his eyes and stomped off to the stream to clean the rabbits. She was not surprised when Mary trailed after him, telling him exactly how he should go about doing so. Tess flopped down in a pile of moss under the oak in a huff, clearly settling in for a good sulk.

Isabel was surprised to see that Max was preparing one of the horses.

"What are you doing Max?" She asked worriedly.

Max did not reply, just stared at Alex for a moment. Alexander nodded and Max turned the horse, pushing it into the dense foliage, pulling the hood of his cloak over his dark head as he went.

"Where is he going?" Isabel asked Alexander, annoyance at her brother's high-handedness apparent in her voice despite her efforts to hide it. She blinked when Alexander took her hand, gently squeezing it and releasing it. She felt her cheeks redden.

"He is going to see Elizabeth." Alexander told her with certainty.

"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:34:58 AM
Part 12

When Elizabeth joined the Queen, the Sheriff and Sir Kyle at the high table in the Great Hall for dinner that evening, she tried to avoid all their eyes...she knew that it was useless, that she was going to be berated for jumping on the Bishop that afternoon, but she hoped in vain that she might put it off for a time...Her worry for Max, Mary and Alexander, as well as the others, was such that she did not know if she would be able to keep her composure during a lecture.

She had tried to plead illness, but the Queen had insisted that she join them - and where Queen Eleanor commanded, there was no refusal.

Thus, she now made her way through the hall, circling around the lower tables, stepping over one of the Sheriff's hounds and trying to avoid the smoke from the fires in the two great fireplaces. Torches were lit along the stone walls, but the light was still dim.

Elizabeth had changed from the blue gown she had worn to the fair, having torn the sleeve during her fall with Bishop Waldemar. She was now wearing a gown of rose velvet silk, her girdle simple. She had chosen to forgo wimple and veil, her hair neatly braided and coiled around her head, bound in a gold circlet. A single pearl graced the middle of her forehead. Elizabeth had decided that demure and respectable was probably the most likely way of escaping too harsh a punishment from the Queen...

For with too harsh a punishment, she would likely be confined to her room, making it impossible to bring supplies and news to the fugitives on the morrow...she was desperate to join her friends and would do nothing jeopardize the opportunity.

She was desperate to join Max....

Elizabeth did not understand what was happening to her where Maxwell of Huntington was concerned, but she knew that she had to see him, had to find out why she was so drawn to him, so eager to help him she was willing to risk her relationship with the Queen, any hope of happiness with her future husband, break the law and the endanger the lives of her two closest friends...

She was frightened by the intensity of the way she felt about him...it was as though she had always known him - that they had always loved each other...

For this was what she felt for him - an almost complete stranger - love... She knew with utter certainty that he was the person she was supposed to be with, was supposed to love...

That it was meant to be...

"Well, look who has finally decided to join us..."Sir Kyle muttered snidely as she gracefully took her seat next to him. A servant hurried forward, providing a bowl in which she quickly washed her hands. She met Kyle's eyes briefly, was not surprised to see him glaring at her...she quickly looked away.

"I apologize for my tardiness Your Grace, my lord." She spoke to the Queen and the Sheriff.

The Sheriff nodded stiffly, clearly not sure what to say.
The Queen had no such dilemma. "Well Elizabeth, I have heard about your adventure this afternoon..." Elizabeth pressed her lips together, her eyes firmly on her lap. "It seems that we are going to need to have a little heart to heart later this evening." The kind tone of the Queen's voice caused Elizabeth to snap her head up and stare at her guardian.

Queen Eleanor's eyes were twinkling. "I do wish I could have seen the expression on old Waldemar's face when you trounced him." She snorted, not at all delicately. "If anyone deserves to be pulled off his high horse, it's that one." Elizabeth smiled weakly, unsure what to say. She glanced at Sir Kyle, who looked perplexed and annoyed. Clearly he had been hoping for some different comment from the Queen. The Sheriff just shook his head and rolled his eyes.

"I will apologize to him milady." Elizabeth finally replied carefully.

"You should apologize to my father and I as well." Kyle inserted nastily. "Thanks to you we lost those two outlaw Huntingtons. Not to mention you humiliated me...We couldn't even find their two sisters to hold as hostages..." He suddenly eyed her suspiciously..."Where did you disappear too so quickly after their escape?"

"I went to the Chapel to pray for forgiveness for my behavior. I lost my head Sir Kyle. Please forgive me?" Elizabeth decided to play along, although she practically had to force the words out through clenched teeth.

Kyle stared at her for several loaded moments, finally nodded arrogantly.

"There really are more important matters to discuss." The Sheriff cuffed Kyle on the head.
"Lady Elizabeth, her Grace informs me that Alexander and Mary DeLucie are nowhere to be found in the castle. Knows you anything of their whereabouts?"

Elizabeth feigned ignorance. "Alexander told me earlier that he had a small manor near Nottingham. Perhaps he and Mary went to pass the night there?"

"Without telling me?" Eleanor raised an eyebrow imperiously. "What am I to do with that girl?" She smiled despite herself. "She must have been aware that I planned to introduce her to a potential suitor on the morrow. Sir Guy is riding to Nottingham from York for the purpose."

Elizabeth smiled weakly. "I am sure that she knew nothing of the sort your Grace." She was sure the exact opposite was true however.

"Hmmm, I wonder." The Queen turned back to the trencher she shared with the Sheriff. He was still sizing up Elizabeth, an expression of curiosity on his craggy face. He finally spoke, changing the subject.

"As to those outlaws...you are sure you know nothing of either Michael or Maxwell of Huntington milady?" He looked annoyed suddenly. "I still must speak to the bishop this eve, must tell him something. He is determined that I pursue them." The Sheriff clearly thought the whole business ridiculous. For the first time Elizabeth began to feel hope that all would be well for Max and his siblings...She decided that she would do her utmost to hear the conversation between the bishop and the Sheriff... * I will do anything to protect them. * She thought fiercely.

"I know nothing Sheriff." Elizabeth bit her lip. She despised falsehoods. "Are you sure that they are guilty?" She asked suddenly, hoping to get a clearer picture of the Sheriff's intentions. Any news she could provide for Max would be invaluable.

The Sheriff just shook his head, sighing. "I hope not. I liked those boys." He indicated Sir Kyle, whose head was buried in his trencher. "Kyle and I will investigate the clearing tomorrow where Father Desmond claims the men are buried."

"But if they killed outlaws, what is the concern?" The Queen asked, clearly irritated by the whole business. "Those boys are heros, not villains. It seems to me they saved that idiot priest's life."

"And were likely only protecting their sisters." Elizabeth piped up, relishing any opportunity to press Max and Michael's innocence.

"It is the method of the killing that concerns us your Grace." This came from Sir Kyle, entirely too condescendingly phrased for Elizabeth's taste - and she was sure the Queen's. "The priest claims that no weapons, nor even physical means were used. Witchcraft, you see..."

Eleanor stared down her nose at him. "Indeed." She pursed her lips. Elizabeth could see that Sir Kyle was beginning to sour on her guardian. Elizabeth smothered a grin as Kyle blanched under the Queen's frigid stare. He quickly turned back to his food.

As the meal finished, Elizabeth began to strategize her plans for the next day. She had realized quite suddenly that she had no idea where her friends had gone. She knew that they were in the Forest, but Sherwood was vast and dangerous...after all, the whole disaster in which they found themselves embroiled had been the result of an outlaw attack...she knew that she could not venture to the Forest alone...

"Elizabeth." She was snapped out of her reverie by the Queen, who had stood up and was wearily leaning on the Sheriff's arm. Elizabeth felt a momentary pang. Her beloved guardian was becoming more aged by the day. Few people lived half so long as the Queen had - she was already in her seventh decade. Mary often commented that Eleanor's will alone had kept her alive so long.

"Your grace. May I accompany you to your chamber?" She asked now. Eleanor smiled affectionately.

"No my sweet. I am away to bed anyway." She glanced at Sir Kyle, her lip curling slightly. "Spend some time with your betrothed. Good night."

Sir Kyle stood, bowing courteously. He seemed to realize that the Queen was not pleased with him and was trying to make it up to her. She had, after all, been the instigator of his advantageous betrothal. She could just as easily end it.

After the Sheriff had led Queen Eleanor away, Kyle turned to stare at her. "Well, am I to have an explanation?" He demanded. Elizabeth blinked.

"An explanation of what my lord?" She asked warily.

"Of what is going on between you and that Maxwell of Huntington?" He glared at her. "I am aware that everyone sees me as a fool..."The bitterness in his tone betrayed to Elizabeth that it was not her opinion that really mattered to him, but, rather, his father's. His eyes were bright when he looked at her. She felt her heart go out to him - he looked like a lost, little boy. "I am not a fool Elizabeth."

"I know Sir Kyle." She realized that his desire to please his father made him potentially the most dangerous person involved in the drama unfolding. She had to keep him happy and unsuspicous, at all costs.

For Max.

"I swear to you now that nothing is going on between Maxwell of Huntington and I," She crossed her fingers behind her back, silently promising to say a few extra Hail Marys that evening for her lie...Sir Kyle stared at her intently for a moment, and finally nodded. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Later, after spending a quiet hour playing chess with her betrothed, Elizabeth was able to retire to her chamber. She wondered where the Sheriff was meeting with the bishop. She still had every intention of spying on their conversation...it was just a matter of finding them...

She stopped a servant in the upper passage leading to her chamber. "Pray tell, is the Sheriff in his solar?" The servant curtsied and nodded.

"Aye milady. He spends some time with his Seneschal. The bishop will be arriving shortly. Would you like me tell his lord Sheriff that you require to speak with him?"

Elizabeth quickly shook her head. "Nay...Thank you. I will see him on the morrow." The servant nodded and scurried away.

As she moved to enter her chamber, she suddenly felt a shiver descend her backbone.
She frowned slightly. It was not a chill, nor was it concern that caused it...

Rather, it was a sudden awareness that she was not alone.

Elizabeth quietly opened her heavy chamber door, wondering why she was unafraid...her heart was beating quickly, but she was not afeared.

The glow from the fireplace was the only illumination in the room. The shadows were thick, impenetrable...

She felt her heart stop as a figure melted from the velvet hangings shielding her bed...He was cloaked, his hood concealing his features, but she knew immediately who it was...

Her breath caught in her throat...

"Max..."


Part 13

Max watched Elizabeth enter her chamber, his heart pounding. The light was dim, but he could still see her exquisite beauty, which took his breath away.

In the few short hours he had been away from her, he had wondered if he had imagined the extent to which she affected him. But he knew now he had not.

It had been a relatively simple affair sneaking into Nottingham Castle. He was sure that the Sheriff would actually be quite peeved at HOW easy it had been. He had simply walked through the open gate, past several guards who had been well into their cups and hadn't even questioned him.

Finding Elizabeth's chamber had not been quite as easy. He had finally had to resort to opening every door along the corridor, knowing that all the inhabitants of the castle were at supper. Max had identified Liz' room by the faint scent of violets that had assailed him, as well as by the blue veil sitting on the bed, being the one she had been wearing that afternoon.

He had not had long to wait. She was now crossing the room, an expression of hope on her visage. He stepped out from behind the bed's hangings, his hood still in place and stared at her.

Elizabeth paused. "Max." She breathed. He swallowed, unable to say anything, simply shrugged the hood of his cloak off his head...her eyes were bright, causing him to go weak in the knees.

And then she was in his arms. His mouth claimed hers in a kiss so fierce it left both of them gasping for breath. There was nothing gentle in this kiss...it was completely different from the one they had shared that afternoon - that had been a kiss full of promise.

This one was one of possession.

Max broke away, ashamed of his lack of control. Her hands were on his shoulders, her fingers clutching at the fabric of his cloak. Her eyes were half-closed, shining with some emotion he could not identify.

They stared at each other. He brought his hands up, gently tucked a stray lock behind her ear, took her hand and led her to the bed. She sat down, blinked up at him, perplexed.

"I apologize my lady." He said. "I don't know what came over me." Elizabeth gazed steadily at him.

"I beg you not to say you are sorry.. Max, please! We both know that it has gone far beyond that..." Max blinked. He dropped to his knees in front of her, claimed her hand and brought it to his lips. She placed her other hand on his cheek, forcing him to look at her. "I do not know what is happening to me, but I know that we must never regret what transpires between us."

They stayed quietly like that for several moments. She stroked his cheek. Finally she said, "Why are you here? It is so dangerous Max! I told Mary and Alexander I would come to you on the morrow."

"I had to make sure that you were safe." He clutched her hand tightly. "Liz, you risked too much for us this afternoon. You must promise me that you will never expose yourself like that again." He was determined that she agree. He would not leave until he knew that she would never risk herself again.

Liz dropped her gaze. She looked as though she was hiding something. "I cannot make such a promise Max." Max felt his face tighten.

She quickly changed the subject. "I do not believe that the Sheriff wishes to pursue the matter Max, but the Bishop is insisting. Sir Kyle and my lord Sheriff will be in the Forest tomorrow to find the bodies...you must move them tonight."

Max nodded quickly, trying to brush aside her fears. "It will be all right my love. We have set up camp in the Forest until all this blows over. Alexander and Lady Mary have decided to remain with us. They are perfectly safe. Thank you for sending them to protect Tess and Isabel." He brought her palm to his lips again, still astounded that he was allowed to do so. The way he felt about her - he had never in a million years imagined that she could feel the same way...

But the way she gazed at him, her heart in her eyes...he knew it was true. She brought her hands up, cupped his face and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. He felt his heart begin to thunder in his chest.

He had never known that he could feel this way about anyone - he had always known that he was to marry Tess, but she was like a sister to him... she had never made him feel the way Elizabeth did just at the thought of her.

The thought of Tess gave him a minor pang of guilt, but he quickly brushed it aside. He could not waste a precious moment in the company of Liz with regrets.

She was right...they had moved well past the point of regret.

"You must go my beloved. You are in danger here." Liz told him. He didn't know when he had started to think of her by that name - he had realized rather quickly that no one else called her such. It just seemed natural to him - like he had always called her thus...

"I will not go anywhere until you promise me that you will do nothing to jeopardize your safety." He replied stubbornly. Liz gave him an annoyed look. "Promise me Liz... if not, I will go and turn myself into the Sheriff right now." She frowned at him. He thought she looked adorable, but he knew she would give in.

She pressed her lips together, clearly debating with herself. "Very well. I promise." She said quietly.

Max stood, pulling her to her feet. She placed her head on his shoulder, clutched him tightly. "I do not know why it is Max, but I love you." She pulled back slightly, smiling at him shyly. "I know that I am being most forward, but I cannot help myself. I NEED you to know."

Max lowered his head, kissed her thoroughly. He finally broke away, placed his forehead against hers and whispered. "You must always swear to me that you will never keep anything from me. For I love you too...From the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew that you were my other half."

She kissed him again. He felt her tears against his face. "Now, please go my love. I could not bear it if you were caught here."

Max managed to step away from her, although every part of his being was screaming for him to return to her arms...she was gazing sadly, but lovingly at him. "I will come to you again soon my love." She nodded, attempting to smile.

As he opened the door, he heard a flurry of movement behind him. He turned and she was in his arms again, placing kisses all over his face. "Please be careful Max! I could not bear it if anything bad were to befall you." He caught her lips in another deep kiss, trying to reassure her.

He pulled away, gazed into her eyes and replied, "You are like a May morning...I will never give you cause to weep my Liz." With that, he reluctantly disentangled himself from her embrace and disappeared down the corridor.



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:45:23 AM
Part 14

Elizabeth watched Max disappear down the stone corridor, a small smile on her face. She could feel her body still glowing where he had touched her so tenderly moments before.

How can I have fallen in love with someone I barely know? She wondered to herself as she crossed her arms, hugging them to herself as shiver suddenly went through her.

A premonition. The image of Max lying in a pool of blood suddenly flashed through her mind. She threw her hands to her head, tried to push the picture away.

She swallowed convulsively, took deep breaths.

"Milady! Are you well?" Elizabeth's eyes snapped open. She was still standing in the doorway to her chamber. A servant passing by with a tray in her hands eyed her worriedly.

"I am fine Parkyla..." She shuddered as the horrific vision tried to reassert itself. "Are you taking that to the Sheriff and the Bishop?" She asked Parkyla suddenly. More than ever it was imperative that she hear what the Sheriff was planning. She had to keep Max and the others safe.

Parkyla nodded her head. "Aye milady." Elizabeth reached out and took the tray from the serving girl.

"I will take it in to them. I must speak to the Sheriff this evening. They are in the Solar?" Parkyla nodded, curtsied and hurried away, glancing once behind her, her expression curious.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and hurried down the corridor, the tray balanced carefully in her hands.

The Sheriff's Solar was up a flight of stone steps in one of the castle's towers. As she approached, Elizabeth tried to make as little noise as possible. She was pleased to note that the Sheriff had left the door to the room slightly ajar. Had the heavy oak been closed there would have been no way of hearing...

"......insist that you take care of this Sheriff." Elizabeth gently set the tray on a nearby ledge, inched closer to the door.

"But Your Grace, the whole story seems somewhat outlandish. My men are occupied with collecting taxes for the King. They have no time to chase two likely innocent boys through the greenwood." The Sheriff replied.

"I trust Father Desmond to speak the truth de Valence. If he says that those boys used witchcraft, then I believe him." The Bishop replied in ringing tones. "Do you doubt ME?"


"No, of course not Your Grace." Elizabeth could hear the Sheriff sigh. "Very well, I will send my men out tomorrow, but I must insist that those boys be given a fair..." The Sheriff was cut off. Elizabeth heard someone tapping on a door. She recalled that there were two entrances to the tower. She crossed herself quickly, thanking God that the messenger had chosen the other one. She would have found it difficult to explain her presence in the corridor with her ear pressed to the door...

Elizabeth felt an hysterical giggle about to erupt. She quickly clamped a hand over her mouth, forced herself to listen.

"....some horrible news milord." Elizabeth recognized the voice of the Captain of the Guard.

"What is it?" The sheriff barked, clearly annoyed by the interruption.

"We fear that the outlaws that were rumoured murdered in the forest might have been our men in disguise..." Elizabeth threw her hands up, covered her mouth, sure that she was going to cry out.

"What does this mean captain??" The sheriff sounded confused and annoyed.

The captain's voice was sheepish as he replied, "We've been trying without success to ferry the taxes through the Forest milord. Every shipment has been stolen to date." Elizabeth heard the bishop snort, mutter what sounded like "outlaws..."

"We thought disguising the men as outlaws might cause other outlaws to leave them alone. There is a certain honour amongst thieves you see...We thought that if the real outlaws thought our men had already robbed the taxes, they would leave the convoy in peace..."

The sheriff erupted. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of!!! Why was I not notified that this was happening???Who originated this insane idea to begin with???"

"Well...." the captain trailed off..."It was Sir Kyle."

"Well deValence..."the bishop interrupted. "If you won't go looking for those demons for the Church, perhaps you will do so to avenge your men..."

"We do not know for sure that there were any murders!" The Sheriff yelled in frustration. Elizabeth jumped. "We are going to the clearing tomorrow - I refuse to make hasty decisions..."

"And if you find proof of what Father Desmond has said?" The bishop inquired annoyed.

"Then I will act by God..."The Sheriff replied coldly. "I cannot allow my men to be slaughtered, whether by demons or real men."

Elizabeth sent up a silent prayer that Max had heeded her warning, that they were moving the bodies. She knew that if the Sheriff found any proof whatsoever that his men had been harmed, there would be Hell to pay...whether Michael had been acting in defense of Isabel or not...

None of this makes sense...Elizabeth thought frantically. Why would the sheriff's guard, posing as outlaws, really rob someone? If the story that Isabel had told was true, then those guards had been robbing and threatening her and her siblings...

I must speak with Max. The thought appeared unbidden in her mind, but she knew it was true. She was going to have to break her promise to him, only one day after she made it.

She was going to have to go find them in Sherwood.

I must - I must warn them that everything has worsened.

"The Queen must be informed of these developments." The bishop was saying. "Where did that tax shipment disappear to? She will be furious if we do not let her know...King Richard needs that money to ransom himself from the Emperor..."

Elizabeth decided that she had heard all that was important. She needed to prepare for her journey into Sherwood.

She would leave at first light.

Part 15

Isabel blinked awake late the next morning.

They had gotten very little sleep during the night. When Max had returned from seeing Lady Elizabeth he had informed them that they had to move the bodies of the men Michael had killed...Isabel had shuddered at the idea of digging up the bodies, but the look of guilt and fear that had appeared on Michael's face had calmed her down. She had to be strong for him.

Isabel had been most impressed by Alexander and Mary. They had insisted on accompanying them, although Isabel had been worried that they would notice that there was no marks on the men explaining how they had died. Their two new friends had made no comments, however, had just helped to move the bodies until Isabel could see they both needed to fall over in exhaustion. While Max could covertly heal his sisters and Michael, helping them to work through their tiredness, he could not go near Alexander or Mary, for fear that they would discover the truth about them.

She had been curious enough at their unquestioning aid to broach Mary about it when they had returned to the camp. While Alexander, Max and Michael erected a shelter for the girls, with Tess alternating between ordering them around and demanding that Max tell her what he and Lady Elizabeth had talked about, Isabel had pulled Mary aside. "Why are you helping us? I don't understand...after you saw those bodies...for all you know we could all be murderers..."

Mary had replied breezily. "Lizzie trusts you...that's good enough for Alexander and I."

Isabel had crinkled her brow. "That's it?" Mary had arched an eyebrow at her.

"Well, let's just say that we have all been very lucky in our positions in life...we like to help people in need..." Isabel had followed Mary's gaze across the clearing, where Michael was arguing with Max about the roof of the shelter. "Besides, I don't think that messy-head over there would be capable of killing anyone for no reason. I believe that you were in danger and that he had no choice."

Isabel had nodded. "That is the truth milady." Mary had smiled back.

"Anyway, please do not continue with the miladying...call me Mary...everyone close to me does..."She had reached out and squeezed Isabel's hand. "And it appears that you, Tess and I are going to be very close in a few days, by the looks of that shelter..."

Now, as Isabel climbed to her feet in the shelter, she noticed that she was the last of the girls to rise. She passed a hand over her dress, sweeping away the wrinkles, and quickly rebraided her hair. When she felt satisfied that she was as neat as circumstances would permit, she ducked her head and stepped out into the sunny morning.

She was surprised to see only Alexander in the clearing. He was sitting near the fire, sharpening his sword. Isabel watched him quietly for a moment, admiring the way the sunlight filtered through the trees brightening his kind face. She admitted to herself that she found Alexander deLucie extremely attractive. Not only had he saved her yesterday, he was the first boy she had ever met who was open and unassuming - who said exactly what he meant. Max and Michael had never had that luxury, due the fact that they had to keep their secret...she found the trait in Alexander extremely refreshing...

Alexander heard her as she stepped forward. He looked up, a grin breaking across his face. "Good morning to you...Did you sleep well?"

Isabel grimaced. "As well as can be expected. I am unused to the ground." She told him wryly. "Where are the others?" She suddenly felt self-conscious being alone in his presence. He was gazing at her admiringly. It wasn't that she was unused to that - Isabel knew she was beautiful - but it was the first time she cared what the person admiring her thought of her.

She realized that she did not want Alexander to like her only for her beauty... Isabel wanted him to like her for who she was.

"Michael and Mary have gone hunting. They were arguing about who was better with the bow and Mary challenged Michael to a competition to see who could bring back the most game." Alexander replied, shaking his head. "I don' t think your brother has any idea what he's gotten himself into. Tess is off searching for berries with Maxwell." He continued. He patted the log beside him. "Join me. We have some rabbit left over from last night...would you like to break your fast?"

Isabel approached him warily, sat beside him, very aware that his arm was only a foot away from hers. "Thank you." She said, taking a piece of meat from the dagger he proffered. She smiled at him shyly. "Thank you - and not just for this..."

Alexander smiled at her. "You are most welcome Lady Isabel." Isabel felt herself blushing. I never blush! She reflected, indignant. "Are you new to the shire?" Alexander asked, clearly trying to lengthen their conversation.

Isabel paused, not sure what to say. "Not particularly." She replied carefully. "Our guardian is very protective." She explained. Alexander nodded.

"I see." Any further comment was cut off by the appearance of Michael and Mary on the far side of the clearing. Isabel smiled when she heard Michael bickering with her new friend. She had never heard Michael speak as much as he had over the past day - everything Mary of Whitfield said seemed to annoy him....Isabel was glad. Arguing with Mary seemed to keep his mind off of the catastrophe that had happened yesterday. She knew that he would only brood about the men he had been forced to kill if left to his own devices.

Not to mention, Isabel had noticed the way Michael had looked at Mary, when he thought no one was looking...his eyes had been bright with admiration. It made Isabel more comfortable facing the feelings she was developing for Mary's brother...

"I told you a snare would work better than a bow." Mary was saying as they joined Alexander and Isabel at the fire. She held up three rabbits and a quail for their perusal. Michael tossed his own lone rabbit on the ground in disgust. He stomped off in the direction of the stream. "Come back here Michael. I need to show you how to clean them properly." Isabel giggled as Michael slammed his hands over his ears and kept walking.

Mary looked at Bella, perplexed. "Was it something I said?" She asked. Alexander and Isabel exchanged glances and burst out laughing.

Elsewhere in the forest Max was trying to ignore Tess, who had been lecturing him all morning. He was fiddling with his bow as Tess picked berries.

"I just don't understand what you were thinking Max." She was saying for what seemed like the hundredth time. "We cannot trust anyone. Why did you allow those two twits to stay with us? If they were to discover the truth about us..."

Max cut her off abruptly. "They will not find out Tess. We are used to being careful." He frowned at her. "I would prefer that you stop referring to our new friends as twits, by the way. They have been nothing but helpful and you should be grateful."

Tess snorted, tossed her head and turned her back on him. Max stared at her, unsure what to say. He did not feel bad that he had defended Alexander and Mary...

But Max feel bad - and guilty - for wishing Tess away from him. It was not Tess' fault that they found themselves in the predicament in which they were currently embroiled - nor was it Tess' fault that she was not Elizabeth. He had realized quite quickly that his annoyance with Tess derived from the resentment he felt that he was tied to her - a girl he loved as a sister, but nowhere near did he feel for her what he felt for Liz.

Which in many ways was ridiculous. He knew that he could not be with Lady Elizabeth, for any number of reasons - not the least of which is that I'm not even from this world, he reflected wryly. There was also the not insignificant fact that she was betrothed to the Sheriff of Nottingham's son, the same Sheriff who was currently hunting he and Michael.

Yet, Max could not help the hope that existed in his heart. The time that he and Liz had spent together the previous night...it had demonstrated to him even more clearly how lucky they had been to find each other. Something that felt so right to both of them...it couldn't be wrong.

Could it?

Max was snapped out of his reverie by a shrill screech from Tess.

"What's wrong?" He demanded impatiently. He immediately felt horrible when he saw his betrothed across the clearing, clutching her ankle, her face white. Max hurried to her side.
"What did you do?" He asked gently, dropping to his knees at her side.

Tess blinked, clearly trying to hold back tears. "I fell over that rock." She told him, pointing at the offending piece of the landscape. "Is it broken?" She asked fearfully as Max pushed aside her skirts and felt the joint carefully. Tess flinched, clenched her lips together.

"I believe so." Max told her. "Don't worry Tessie. I can fix it." Tess pushed aside his hand quickly.

"But Max, it hurts you to heal..." She stared at him. "I do not want you hurt in any way." Max smiled at her.

"It is all right Tess. I have these powers for a reason. I have to get used to the bad part." He told her. Max gently placed his hand on his betrothed's ankle, raised his head to look into her blue eyes. "Concentrate on making the connection Tessie." Tess stared back at him.

Max was instantly in Tess' mind. Images assailed him...

Flash*

He had an image of Isabel, Michael and himself - along with Tess' fright that she could lose them.

Flash*

An image of Elizabeth - along with a feeling of suspicion and budding hatred.

Flash*

An image of Max and Elizabeth together yesterday at the fair...jealousy and fright accompanying it.

Max tore his gaze away from Tess', stared down at her ankle. His hand was beginning to glow. Max concentrated on knitting together the molecules that made up the bone, healing the crack that he could not see, but could feel....

Max could feel Tess' pain entering his own consciousness...he tightened his jaw, tried to ignore it...he was almost done.

Max lifted his hand from Tess' ankle, helped her to her feet, stumbling a bit. Tess grabbed his arm.

"Max, are you all right?" She asked worriedly. Max blinked, tried to clear his head of the images from Tess that had become HIS memories.

He raised his head, stared at her, for the first time wondering if he knew her at all. The hatred he had felt in her - it was terrifying. The way she had felt about Liz - Max KNEW that Tess would have no qualms about doing whatever was necessary to keep Max away from Elizabeth. "I'm fine Tess." Max quickly stepped away from her, feeling slightly ill.

Tess narrowed her eyes, watched him assessingly. Max knew that she would have no idea what he would have seen when he made the connection. She can never know, he thought now. It might push her over the edge.

Max and Tess both turned around when a snapping twig in the bush caught their attention. "Max?" Tess grabbed his arm, fright apparent in her voice. It took all Max's strength not to shake her off in revulsion. He frowned when he realized that his sword was back at the camp and that his bow was about ten feet away, where he had dropped it when he had come to Tess' aid.

Max decided that the best defense was a good offense. "Come out of there!" He called menacingly. "We know you are there."

His heart stopped when Elizabeth stepped out from behind a tree, her eyes wide. She was staring at him, her face white.

"Liz?" Max could tell by her face that something was very wrong. She opened her mouth to speak, seemed to be searching for the words...

"I saw you Max." She fumbled with her skirt, which was clenched in her fists. "I saw you heal her." Liz continued. "What are you?"



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:55:40 AM
Part 16

Elizabeth had set out early from Nottingham Castle. She had dressed in a pair of hose and a tunic that she had filched from Alexander's chamber. They were much too long, so she had taken her dagger and chopped both down to size. She knew that Alexander would not care, and although she looked ridiculous, it was better than trying to sneak out of the Castle in her "Lady Elizabeth" attire. She completed her disguise by braiding her long dark hair into two plaits and binding it around her head. The hood of her cloak shadowed her face effectively.

She had wanted to leave before the troop of the Sheriff's guard that were going in search of the bodies. She hoped to find Max before to make sure that they had disposed of the corpses. Elizabeth was not foolish enough to try and find her way through Sherwood alone. She had invited her servant Parkyla to accompany her. She knew that Parkyla had grown up on the edge of the Forest in the small village of Hathersage. Parkyla assured her that she had several ideas about where her friends could be hiding...

The girls had enjoyed their early morning ride. Parkyla was an amusing companion, telling Elizabeth several local ghost stories about the Forest. They had stopped once to allow the animals to rest, not only their two horses, but a donkey laden with supplies to make the fugitives more comfortable for what could be a lengthy stay in the Forest if the Sheriff decided to pursue the matter.

Elizabeth was eager to see Mary and Alexander...and, of course, Max. She knew that he was going to be a little peeved at her for breaking her promise to him, but it couldn't be helped and she had a feeling that he would be happy to see her anyway.

Parkyla and Elizabeth had left the King's Highway by late in the morning. Their horses were picking their way along the deer trails. They had already tried two potential sites that Parkyla knew had been used as outlaw camps in the past. They were now discussing how Parkyla knew so much about the Forest.

"But I don't understand..."Elizabeth was saying. "Why can the Sheriff not root out the outlaws if these camp sites are so well known?" Parkyla looked embarrassed.

"They are not well known my lady." Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at her questioningly.

"My father is an outlaw." Her servant finally muttered. Her head snapped up and she glared at Elizabeth challengingly. "He was caught poaching a deer milady. He had to flee to the Forest or they would have taken his hand." She explained defensively. "We were starving milady. He had no choice."

Elizabeth smiled at her, sympathetic. "It is all right Parkyla. I certainly understand. Queen Eleanor has told me many times that she is going to speak to the King about the antiquated hunting laws in the country. No Englishman should go hungry just so that the nobles can have their hunt uninterrupted."

Parkyla smiled at her, relieved. "Anyway, my father's band stayed at the Great Oak many times in the past. I visited there many times as a child."

"How long has your father lived in Sherwood?" Elizabeth asked concerned.

"For ten years milady." Elizabeth blinked, felt her heart sink. What if Max, Michael and the others were never pardoned? Would they have to live in the Forest for the rest of their lives?

Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard voices. "Are we there?" She asked Parkyla.

The servant looked confused. "Not yet." She looked around carefully. "It would not do to run across real outlaws milady. We had better take care." The girl quickly swung herself down off her horse. "I will go check this way, while you go that way. We will meet back here in five minutes." Elizabeth nodded, dismounted and carefully made her way into the green wood.

She heard the voices more clearly as she moved. She paused once to unhook her cloak, which had become entangled on a branch. The moment was enough for her to recognize the voice carrying through the Forest.

Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. It was Max. They had found them.

"Concentrate on making the connection Tessie." He was saying.

Elizabeth stopped abruptly, frowned. Suddenly she felt the need to stay hidden...she carefully hid behind a tree, gradually peeking her head out through the branches.

Max was kneeling beside his sister, his hand on her ankle...and his hand was glowing...

Her eyes flew to his face. It was white and pained....he was staring straight into Tess's eyes, a grimace beginning to form on his visage...

"By all that is holy..."Elizabeth breathed.

"Max, are you all right?" Tess was asking. She was standing, testing out her ankle, which had apparently just been healed.

"I'm fine Tess." Max replied wearily. He was moving away from her, looking slightly ill.

Just then, Liz set her foot down on a dry twig. It snapped, sounded like thunder in the still Forest. She froze.

"Max?" She heard Tess say in a frightened voice.

"Come out of there!" Max barked. Elizabeth jumped. "We know you are there."

She stepped out from behind the tree in a daze. She could barely breathe...she did not understand any of this...

"Liz?" Max sounded surprised, happy and panicked all at once. He took one look at her face, knew instantly that something was wrong with her.

"I saw you Max." Liz grabbed her cloak between her hands. "I saw you heal her." Liz continued. "What are you?"

She did not take her eyes from his face. She watched it tighten. Max swallowed convulsively. "Tess, leave us." Max said abruptly.

Tess grabbed his arm. "NO Max...let me stay with you..." She glared at Elizabeth. Liz felt her heart stop. "We have to take care of her...NOW!"

Max shook her off. "I mean it Tess...go back to the camp." Tess sniffed, obeyed though. She walked past Elizabeth, brushing against her, almost knocking her over.

Elizabeth was surprised that she was not at all frightened - rather she was numb. She realized that she was in shock.

But she knew that, no matter what, Max would not hurt her.

Max took a step toward her, clearly expecting her to back away from him. She stood rooted to the spot. "Max? Please..."

Max stopped, smiled tentatively. "Liz, it's not what you think."

"What do I think?" She asked confused - she didn't think anything...she didn't know WHAT to think.

"That I'm a demon." Max said simply. Liz smiled at that.

"I could never think that Max. Are you an angel?" She asked, trying to come up with an answer that would satisfy her logical brain. She knew that angels existed...she had been told so her entire life.

"Well..." Max said wryly "That might be one way of putting it."

"Why can you heal people Max? The only person I have ever heard capable of doing that was our Lord." Liz asked him. Max blinked.

"I am not Christ Liz." He paused, clearly searching for words. "What I am, I do not know whether you will be able to understand...your world is not at the point that what I am would even seem possible..." He trailed off, watching her face.

"MY world? What do you mean...please, just tell me everything." She smiled at him. "I know you Max...whatever it is cannot be bad..."

"No, it's not bad." Max took another step towards her. This time Liz did step back. He stopped abruptly, looked hurt. "Are you frightened?" He asked sadly.

"Not frightened," she replied. "I just cannot think straight with you so close to me." Max smiled at that, looked pleased. "Now stop changing the subject...tell me the truth."

"Liz, I've never told anyone this before." He explained. "It is most difficult." He gestured to a large boulder. "I think you should sit down milady."

Elizabeth sat down carefully, watched Max pace, clearly trying to get his thoughts in order. "Liz, have you ever looked at the stars before?"

"Of course..."she said, confused. What by heaven was he talking about?

"Well, the sun is a star." He continued. "And your world revolves around it." Liz blinked, nodded. She had always been told that the Earth was flat, but after seeing Max do what he had just done, she was willing to believe anything at this point. "I am from another world that revolves around another star many millions of miles away."

She stared at him, perplexed, feeling incredibly stupid. She hated to feel that way. Max smiled at her, watched her digest what he was telling her. "Why are you on my world then?" Elizabeth asked finally.

"My world is at war." He replied. "I was killed, but my soul was sent to Earth to be reborn..." Max stopped when he saw her eyes beginning to cloud over. "Never mind, it's not important. The point is, I am here..."

"Mmmmm." Liz replied, bringing her hand to her forehead and rubbing. She suddenly had a splitting headache. Max was watching her with concern.

"Are you all right my love?" She nodded. He moved towards her again, put his hands at her temples. She looked at him worriedly.

"Don't worry. I can take your pain away." Max told her. "Just look into my eyes and take deep breaths."

Liz did as she was told, finding it quite easy to lose herself in the depths of Max's beautiful dark eyes.

And then something very peculiar happened...

Flash*

She had an image of a small boy, breaking out of a strange glowing egg...he had dark hair and eyes and she knew it was Max...she could feel his fright...and then his relief as he found three other children: two small blonde girls and a messy-haired boy...

Flash*

An image of a stern looking man, his eyes cold, saying "You must never leave the Castle...you are in danger here...you can trust no one, only me..."

Flash*

An image of Max on a horse, flying through the forest, Isabel hot on his heels...a feeling of complete liberation...

Flash*

An image of herself, coming towards Max, a small smile on her face....a feeling of awe....and love.

Max removed his hands from Elizabeth's head, stared at her. "What was that?" She whispered to him.

"We connected." He replied, sounding equally as dumbfounded. "I don't know how it's possible...we are not supposed to able to do that with humans..." His eyes were shining at her in amazement..."I saw you Liz...as a little girl..."

Elizabeth smiled at him, felt tears beginning to well in her eyes. "I saw you too Max...It was amazing..." They continued to stare at each other, in a daze...

Then, suddenly, Max grabbed her, brought his mouth down on hers. Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck and kissed him with all her soul...

"I love you...I love you..."he was murmuring into her hair. "I don't understand how I can feel this way about you, but you are my heart Liz..." His lips trailed gentle kisses down her face to her neck. Elizabeth threw her head back, craving something she had never dreamed of wanting...

"What the hell is going on here?" They were snapped out of their private world, by a very displeased Michael. "Maxwell, what have you done?"



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:04:48 PM
Part 17

Michael's heart had stopped when he had stepped out into the clearing to see his brother kissing Lady Elizabeth as though he never intended to stop.

When Tess had come flying out of the forest, her face white, Max nowhere to be found, Michael had immediately run in the direction from which she had come, sure that something horrifying had befallen Max. He had not even waited to hear Tess' explanation.

What he had found was worse then anything he could have possibly imagined...

Instead of his brother at sword-point, he had found him declaring his love to a small slip of a girl he had met only yesterday.

And Michael knew that Max had told Elizabeth the truth.

Max had thrust Elizabeth protectively behind him while Michael advanced on them, unable to control his anger.

"Michael...stop." Max was scowling at him. An entire lifetime of accepting Max unconditionally as his leader was too much for Michael to ignore. He stopped, spoke through clenched teeth, struggling to control his fear.

"You told her - didn't you?" Max pressed his lips together.

"She saw me heal Tess." He explained, smiling reassuringly at Elizabeth, who did not actually look scared at all, just concerned.

Michael felt his anger drain out of him. Despair began to settle in. "I told you we had to stay away from humans Max. This was bound to happen."

Max looked momentarily guilty, but did not reply for Elizabeth spoke up. "I promise not to tell anyone Michael...not even Mary and Alexander."

Michael eyed her coldly, unconvinced. He could not like Lady Elizabeth, although she had really only ever been helpful to them. The way Max behaved around her...his brother had always been the centre of Michael's life, the one person he could count on for control and security. This one girl had changed all of it - in the space of 24 hours.

He scowled again when he saw Elizabeth take Max's hand, clearly trying to comfort him. "We better get back to the camp." Michael finally said grudgingly. Max was still staring at him, clearly unsure what was going on in his head. Let him wonder, Michael thought bitterly. He could feel his emotions closing down, trying to erase the pit of fear in his stomach.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

"Wait!" Elizabeth said suddenly. Max had been leading her after Michael, still holding her hand. Michael turned impatiently. "My maidservant is here as well."

Michael could feel a frown becoming permanently etched on his forehead. "Wonderful." He turned to Max. "Does she know too? Who didn't you tell Maxwell? Next thing we know the bloody king will be in on the secret."

"She doesn't know." Elizabeth inserted quickly. "I was alone. She is likely waiting for me at our horses." She smiled shyly at Michael. "I brought you some supplies." It was an olive branch - one Michael rejected immediately.

"We don't need anything from you." He turned on his heel and stomped off into the bush, leaving Max and Elizabeth staring after him. He needed to talk to Isabel and Tess right away. They were going to have to go back to the castle to see Lord Edmund, despite the risk of capture. They needed his help.

Michael flinched at the thought of the wrath their guardian was going to inflict on them. He knew it was going to gall Max and Isabel to no end that Lord Edmund had ended up being right. They should have stayed at the castle. The world was unsafe for such as them. One little mistake and they were betrayed...

He emerged into the Great Oak clearing, to the sight of Isabel and Tess in close conference near the shelter. Mary and Alexander were still seated near the fire, the former looking perplexed, the latter worried.

"What has happened Michael?" Mary asked him, concern on her lovely face. Michael ignored her, stalked past. He felt a moment of regret when a brief expression of hurt flashed across her face.

No regrets. She is not one of us. Michael told himself as he went to join Isabel and Tess.

Almost immediately he wished he had not. Tess was practically hysterical. "We are doomed I tell you. Doomed!"

Michael rolled his eyes. He was surprised to note that Bella did not look frightened. Rather, her expression was pensive. She was staring across Tess's shoulder, not doing anything to comfort her sister. Michael followed her gaze, sighed with annoyance when he realized that she was staring at Alexander.

"Bella?" He demanded gruffly. If she was actually considering telling the other two noble brats too...obviously he was going to have to make her see reason.

Isabel blinked. "I think that we should trust them." She said finally. "I have a feeling about him...er them." She amended quickly, a faint blush creeping up her neck.

"Are you insane?" Tess screeched. Isabel sighed.

"No, I am not Tess." She turned to Michael pleadingly. "This secret can't last forever Michael."

Max melted from the forest behind them. "And I don't want it too." He added to what Isabel had said.

"Where is she?" Michael demanded, ignoring Max's statement.

"She's coming." Max replied in such a calm manner, it made Michael want to punch him.

Moments later Elizabeth emerged from the same direction Max had. She was followed closely by a pretty young girl of about seventeen.

"Lizzie!" Mary shrieked with joy from the other side of the clearing. Michael felt annoyed. That girl was going to bring the entire Sheriff's guard down on their heads.

He hurried across the clearing, grabbed Mary by the arm. "Be quiet!" Alexander stepped forward immediately, his hand on his sword.

"Get your hands off my sister!"

Mary was staring at Michael, her mouth open. She closed it suddenly with a snap. Elizabeth had joined them, appeared to be on the verge of tears. Mary shook free, stepped away from him. "I apologize." She turned to Alexander. "Put your sword down Alex. He is right. I was being too loud."

Michael blinked, perplexed. Mary had tilted her head, was gazing at him questioningly. "Something has clearly happened." She said finally. "You must tell us. We are in this together now."

Michael was shocked by the sudden urge to tell her everything. What's wrong with you? He demanded himself. She'll be afraid of you. She'll betray you.

But Lady Elizabeth does not seem afraid, a small voice in the back of his head replied coaxingly.

Alexander was still glaring at him. Max and Isabel had rushed across the clearing, Isabel now standing in front of Michael protectively. Michael noticed that Tess had plunked herself down on a log near the shelter and was pouting. The maidservant was at the stream, washing her hands.

"Michael, would you please settle down." Max ground out, his annoyance clear. "I am very sorry milady." He addressed Mary. "Michael is a little overwrought." Michael felt his irritation at his brother increasing again and it doubled when he saw Max glance at Elizabeth lovingly.

"You do not need to apologize for me." He yelled. He realized that he was being just as loud as Mary had been minutes before. "I'm leaving." He muttered. "Tell them whatever the hell you want to." His gaze raked across Mary's face once more. The expression of sympathy and willingness to understand that he saw there was more frightening then anything else could have possibly been.

He could not trust her. He could not. They could not trust anyone.

He turned on his heel, grabbed his bow and quiver and went to get lost in the forest for a while.

Part 18

Mary watched Michael stomp off into the forest, her brow furrowed with concern.

He was so shut off, so withdrawn.

He was the most intriguing person she had ever met.

She turned back to the others, addressed Elizabeth. "What are you doing here Lizzie?" She asked the one question she was sure would garner her a straight answer.

Elizabeth smacked a hand to her forehead. She turned to Max sheepishly. "I almost forgot...with all that has happened." Mary wondered exactly what had happened to make Michael practically come to blows with her brother and had rendered Max at odds with his siblings. "Things are now worse." Elizabeth continued. "It turns out that the men that were killed in the forest yesterday were the Sheriff's men disguised as outlaws."

Mary watched Max's jaw set. Isabel looked even more upset. "I don't understand. Why were they dressed thus?" The tall blonde asked. "And why did they attack us?"

Elizabeth just shook her head. "It is unclear Isabel." She looked back at Max, her face reflecting her fear for all of them. "The important thing is that you are in even more danger. You did move the bodies?"

Max nodded. He looked thoughtful. Mary realized that everyone was waiting for him to make a decision. Max was without a doubt the leader of their little band. Even Alexander and Elizabeth deferred to him almost automatically and Mary realized that she herself had often done so in the day that she had known him.

For the first time she wondered: Who are these people really?

"Well, I guess we are still safe for now." Max finally concluded. He looked at Elizabeth with concern. "And you must return to the castle immediately my lo..." He cut himself off abruptly, glanced at Tess guiltily. The small blonde had finally stopped sulking and had joined him. Now she stared at Max, her expression unreadable. "Er, my lady." Max finished gracelessly.

Not at all obvious there Maxwell, Maria thought ironically.

Elizabeth did not look happy. "I do not understand why I cannot stay with you." She replied, sounding a little hurt.

"Because if your betrothed finds out you are aiding and abetting outlaws, he will force his father to come down upon us even harder." Tess snapped.

Max glared at her. "Be quiet Tess."

Elizabeth blinked, forced a smile. "No, she is right Max. I was not thinking."

Isabel broke in, clearly trying to ease the tension by changing the subject. "It is time to get word to Lord Edmund Maxwell."

Max nodded. "I just don't know how we can do it Bella. I am sure that the Sheriff will have soldiers at the castle."

Alexander, who had been silent listening up until now, stepped forward. "I am willing to go for you Max. They still do not suspect Mary or me."

Isabel and Max exchanged a quick glance. If Mary had not been watching for it she would have missed it certain.

If she did not know better, she would have said that some sort of silent conversation had just occurred between the two siblings. An expression of happiness had crossed Isabel's beautiful visage and Mary noticed that she briefly glanced at Alexander admiringly, but with a touch of fear as well.

"That would be wonderful Alexander." Max replied. "But first we must tell you the truth."

"What?" Tess screeched. "No! I forbid it!"

Max silenced her with a look. Tess tossed her head, stomped off into the forest after Michael. Max looked relieved to see the back of her.

All thoughts of Tess and her tantrum fled Mary's mind however when Max told them then the incredible truth.

She had never heard such an astonishing tale.

But she believed them. And she was not frightened.

Mary had already seen enough kindness in these folk - well in at least three of them she amended hastily - to believe that they were what they said they were.

They were visitors - not demons.

The clearing was silent for several long moments after Max stopped talking as the others waited for Mary and Alexander to digest the news. It was clear that Elizabeth had already known.

"And you knew of this Lizzy?" Alexander finally asked his friend.

Elizabeth nodded. "I only found out a few minutes ago Alex. I saw Max heal Tess."

Mary was interested. "What do you mean he healed her?" She asked curiously.

"We have certain gifts." Isabel inserted. "Max can heal people. Tess can make people see things that are not there. I can enter people's dreams."

Mary felt a momentary chill at that information. Her dreams were private! But she eyed Isabel, felt the trust that had already been built between them. She knew that Isabel would never betray her. "What can Michael do?" She asked instead.

Isabel and Max exchanged another glance. It appeared that another silent conversation was going on. Mary shrugged at Elizabeth, who was watching the whole process with interest.

Max finally sighed. "I think perhaps he had better tell you that himself."

Mary nodded. "Very well. Please know that none of this makes any difference. We still intend to help you. You are still the same people to me that you were before I knew this. Right Alex?" Alex nodded his dark head. Mary was not surprised to notice that he was gazing at Isabel with admiration. He seemed to actually like her better now that he knew she was different. Isabel was gazing back at him, her eyes bright with some emotion that Mary could not quite identify, but was certainly not far from the way that Alexander clearly felt about her.

She watched Max move forward, take Elizabeth's hand, leading her across the clearing for a private discussion. She was not at all surprised to see their heads moving closer and closer together, until their foreheads were nearly touching as they conversed.

Suddenly Mary had a great urge to go in search of the messy-headed brute, Michael. She imagined that he was off somewhere brooding.

She now knew why he had been such a beast. He was frightened - frightened of what they would do if they found out the truth about he and his siblings.

Mary had to find him, tell him that it made no difference to her.

She was unafraid of what he was.

The only thing she feared was the way she was beginning to feel about him.

While Mary had been trying to decide whether she should go after Michael or wait for him to return, Alexander had moved away to his horse. He was preparing to go to Castle deHarding. Isabel had followed him and was now talking to him quietly.

She eyed the two budding couples quietly for a few more moments and then made her decision.

Mary turned on her heel and quietly faded away into the green wood.


"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:10:31 PM
Part 19

"I do not think that I can leave you Max." Elizabeth could feel the tears welling in her eyes.

She did not mean to be weepy...it would not help Max's situation to be worried about her when he already had so much to worry about. She almost could not bear to be parted from him however. The vision that had come to her on the previous night kept filtering through her mind...the image of Max lying in a pool of his own blood was so upsetting she did not want to leave him. The thought that she might never see him again was almost unbearable.

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

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

"No Liz. I will come to you." Liz sighed, did not argue with him again. She did not want to spoil her last moments with him in a quarrel. He was just as stubborn as she was, so it was pointless anyway.

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

Liz heard Parkyla discreetly clear her throat in the far reaches of her mind. Max pulled away, kept his forehead touching hers as they spoke. "Be safe my love. I could not bear it if anything were to happen to you."

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

"I love you too. And I swear that we will be together." Max gently grasped her around her waist, lifted her up onto her saddle.

Parkyla was watching them, her expression unreadable. The servant turned her horse, began to ride off into the forest. She clearly wanted to give them a moment more of privacy.

Liz stared down at Max sadly. He was staring back at her, his dark eyes loving. Neither spoke. Words were not needed. "I will send Mary or Alexander to you on the morrow Liz. I do not want you to be alone in that castle for much longer." He finally said. She nodded, could not form the words to reply. Elizabeth knew that she was about to break down.

She quickly sent her horse after Parkyla's, looked back only once. Max was leaning against his bow, watching her until she was out of sight. He raised his hand when she turned.

Goodbye my love! Elizabeth thought to herself as he disappeared into the forest.

Neither noticed the pair of eyes watching in the foliage.

Michael threw another stone into the stream, watched it skip across the surface several times before it sank. His stomach was in knots.

Why did Max insist on putting them in danger for the sake of a small, insignificant slip of a girl? Why was Tess acting like a screeching banshee? Why was Isabel turning into a simpering lady in the presence of Alexander of Whitfield? Why could not Lady Elizabeth have left them all alone? Why did his thoughts keep returning to a certain reddish-blonde haired wood-sprite, whose skill with the bow was only outshone by her smile and her laugh? And finally, and most infuriatingly, why was he hoping that Max had told her the truth?

His brooding was suddenly interrupted.

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

He was to at all surprised to see Mary Delucie standing there, leaning against a tree, a cocky grin on her face. "Well, so far I'm better at archery, hunting and now stone-skipping...is there anything you can do right?"

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

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

"What do you want?" Michael demanded abruptly.

"My, aren't we polite this evening! I guess there is one thing you will always be better at - rudeness."

Mary's eyes were twinkling at him. His tone did not seem to bother her at all.

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

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

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

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

Mary was watching his face carefully. Michael did not know what to say to her. He realized that his mouth was likely hanging open, but he did not care.

This girl did not beat around the bush. It was one of the things he liked....He squashed that thought. "Why?" He demanded.

"I certainly do not know why." She replied jokingly. "You are terrible at everything - but I like you anyway."

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

He could not control his feelings. He liked her too. He more than liked her. He trusted her.

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

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

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

It looked like she was planning to go on for a while. Michael realized that there was only one thing to do. He grabbed her, cut her off by kissing her.

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

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

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

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

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

Michael saw Mary's head lower thoughtfully. She did not appear at all embarrassed, which pleased him inordinately.

"Tess! What the..." He began before his sister cut him off abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

Part 20

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

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

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

"Yes, the truth WILL come out, won’t it?"

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

Sir Kyle was standing at the entrance to the stable, leaning casually against the doorframe. He was eyeing Elizabeth with a combination of disgust and fury.

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

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

The disaster would be immense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was no good. Kyle stepped forward, grabbed her by the arm roughly. "I saw you whore! I saw you in Sherwood with HIM!"

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

"Leave Parkyla!" Elizabeth ordered her friend.

"Milady!"

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

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

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

And then an even more horrible thought occurred to her…if Kyle had seen her with Max - then he knew where they were hiding!

Elizabeth had no time to reflect on what she had just realized. Kyle was dragging her out of the stable and across the castle courtyard. "I cannot believe that I trusted you!" He was yelling back at her.

"Sir Kyle, please!" Elizabeth tried to halt the pleading tone of her voice, but she was desperate. She ignored the stares of the guards and other castle servants they passed as Kyle hauled her into the Keep. She had to protect Max and the others from Kyle’s wrath. "Let me explain!" She still did not understand how Kyle could have seen her without her noticing. Yet she had to calm him down at all costs.

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

She decided to take another tack. "The Queen will be most displeased when she hears how you have treated me." Elizabeth told him. "She will break the betrothal!"

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

Elizabeth blinked at him. "What?" She gasped. "The Queen deserted me?"

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

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

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

***************************************************

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

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

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

"You have NO rights!" Lord Edmund had snapped back. "Not on this planet! I am in complete control of your destiny! Do you understand me Isabel?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unacceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Should Mary and I leave?" Alexander asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Max could feel no regret. If he and Isabel had followed the rules, he never would have met Liz.

And there was no way that that could be wrong - no matter how much trouble they found themselves in currently.

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

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

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

And then he knew that the chill he had experienced before had been more than just cold - it had been a warning. Something had happened to Liz…



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:17:57 PM
Part 21

The Forest was completely still.

Not a breath of air stirred the leaves on the trees.

It was as though every living creature, including the wind, was waiting for something…

Lady Elizabeth DeParkeville knew exactly what they were waiting for.

The end of her freedom and any potential happiness in her future.

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

The Sheriff and Sir Kyle had determined that the wedding would take place early that afternoon at the Monastery at St. Stephen’s. The large and sumptuous nuptials that Queen Eleanor would have planned for her had been discarded in favour of small and quick.

They wanted the deed done before anyone became aware of their plans, the Queen, but more importantly Maxwell of Huntington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth had managed to hold her composure until he had stormed from her chamber, barring the heavy oak behind him. It was only then that she allowed herself to cry.

Even then she had refused to give up. She had been about to string the sheets on her bed together in order to climb out the window of her tower, when Parkyla had appeared in her doorway.

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

Elizabeth had helped Parkyla to her feet. "I am fine. And yet the worst has occurred. Kyle is going to force me to marry him tomorrow. I MUST escape. And you must help me. I have to get to Max and warn him that Kyle knows where he is. What I cannot figure out is why the Sheriff and his men have not already attacked their camp. It is passing strange."

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you Matthew." Elizabeth replied sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

It was Father Desmond, the one who had witnessed Michael destroying the Sheriff’s men with naught but an upraised hand…

MAX! Where are you? Elizabeth thought desperately as she began to fight against the Sheriff, who was now literally dragging her down the aisle.

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

"I refuse to allow this wedding to proceed."

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

Part 22

"I refuse to allow this wedding to proceed."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I might ask you the same thing Sir Kyle." Alex replied calmly. "Is the Queen aware of what is going on here? This entire wedding seems a tad shady to me."

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

Max didn’t blame him. The priest was definitely caught between a rock and a hard place. Marry Elizabeth and Kyle or risk the Sheriff’s wrath. Not marry them or risk Alexander Delucie of Whitfield, one of the most important young lords in the country’s, anger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But if the Sheriff didn’t cooperate…

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

"Alex!" Liz shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"NOOOOOO!!!!" Elizabeth began screaming.

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

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

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

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

**LIZ!** He sent it out on a tiny thought wave, not expecting her to answer. But, strangely, he was unsurprised when she stopped screaming.

*Max?* The voice was tentative in his head, but it was definitely there.

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

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

"Do you Sir Kyle deValence take this woman, Lady Elizabeth DeParkeville to be your wedded wife?"

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

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

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

Who could blame him?

"I do." Kyle said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"End this travesty…NOW!" Max ordered the Priest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Max!" Liz said in relief.

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

Max raised an eyebrow. "Mary?"

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

"Hmmmm…" Mary said assessingly. "I missed."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Very well." He ground out.

"I’m going with you!" Mary exclaimed.

"No." Michael said firmly.

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

"NO!" Michael bellowed.

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

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

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

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

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






"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:30:57 PM
Part 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Liz has even LESS time." Max replied evenly. He turned to Mary. "Can you hold her head?" He asked, clearly beginning to get back on the road to capability, which was generally his permanent residence.

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

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

"WHAT!" Mary shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

"HOLD HER!" Max yelled at Isabel. Isabel’s grip on Elizabeth tightened.

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

Elizabeth’s scream of agony filled the clearing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth sat up, looking for all the world like she had just awoken from a refreshing nap. Her face reflected her concern though. "Max? Are you all right?" Mary glanced at Max, saw that his face was still whiter than it should be, but the smile that illuminated it more than made up for it.

"I am now sweeting." He pulled her gently into his embrace, closing his eyes in relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:38:09 PM
Part 24

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

Where the hell were they?

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

There was no sign of either their guardian or their sister, not even any sort of message to relay where they had disappeared to.

It made Michael supremely uncomfortable. He wondered again whether he should have let Max talk him into the rescue of Lady Elizabeth. They had just infuriated the Sheriff and his son even further. Now there was no question that neither man would rest until he got his hands on Max…on all of them.

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

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

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

She infuriated the hell out of him, inflamed him like no one else ever had….

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

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

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

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

She had been frightened for HIM.

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

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

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

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

Michael swung up onto his horse, his jaw set.

He was NOT going to turn into Maxwell, mooning and wailing over a female.

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

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

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

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

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

He practically broke into a run when he recognized Tess’s shriek. "MY LORD!"

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

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

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

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

Michael saw the reason why a moment later.

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

Good Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Tess! Michael encouraged her silently. Make him believe it!

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

The expression on utter despair on her face…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz stepped away from him again now though, looked around with an expression on her face that could only be suspicion. "Max, this looks disturbingly like a convent to me." She said accusingly.

"It is a convent." Max told her, raising an eyebrow. "You have a good eye sweeting."

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

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

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

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

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

"Liz…"

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Max!" Liz stared at him. "You HAVE to go back. It is your destiny. I will not stand between you…"

He put a gentle finger against her lips, cutting her off. "OR…" He continued. "I WILL go back someday."

He felt her stiffen against him.

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

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

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

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

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

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



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:42:07 PM
Part 25

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

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

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

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

It had not dawned on Elizabeth until he had started to tell her the truth of his origins that she really knew nothing about him. She knew the most important things: that he was kind and loving, intelligent and devoted, but she did not know about his life.

What he shared was astounding. She had been sure that he had only been using romantic endearments when he had called her his queen.

She could not have been more wrong.

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

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

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

That was the only way to describe the way she felt about him. She BURNED for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And instantly all her nerves vanished. He was nervous too. He wanted her just as much as she wanted him.

They were meant for each other. It would be perfect. Had her dreams not told her so?

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

Tonight would be the beginning.

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

"Liz."

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

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

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

And they were both lost.
**************************************

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

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

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

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

Guilt was written all over both of their visages.

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

Mary’s own curiousity was practically eating her alive.

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

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

It changed everything.

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

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

Michael was not nearly as composed. "Well, you’ve screwed us over royally this time, haven’t you?" Mary exchanged a wary look with Alexander, who did not look at all surprised by this announcement. She had known that he had been in on the secret. She was going to have to punish him soundly later for keeping her in the dark.

"Michael." Max said warningly.

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

"Yes." Max replied evenly.

"Max! It is impossible." This was from Isabel, who still sounded completely shocked, but not nearly as angry as Michael did. Mary believed that she understood Bella enough to know that while she did not entirely approve of Max’s actions, she would be brought around to support the newly wedded pair. She loved her brother. Anyone could see that she only wanted him to be happy.

Mary was also fairly sure that Isabel was not adverse to the idea of marriage to a human herself. The looks she sent in Alexander’s direction when she though no one was looking seemed to support this idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I know it Max."

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

Max eyed him for a moment, his expression unreadable. Mary saw Liz gently take his hand, stroking it soothingly. It made her sad to see them that way. The love they exuded was beautiful but something about it was frightening.

In that instant, Mary Delucie knew that none of this could last. They were on road into the unknown and the destination was still undetermined, but in her heart of hearts she was afraid.

It could not last.

"Tell me." Max finally ordered softly.

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

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

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

And Mary knew that whatever it was that she had shared with Michael of Huntington was over before it had even truly begun.



"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:47:32 PM
Part 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why do the two have to be intertwined?" Isabel demanded, frustrated by his stubbornness. "Just because we were married in our previous lifetime, it does not mean that we have to be in these lives. Why can’t we still free Antar and marry others?" She paused, moderated her voice, which was beginning to rise hysterically. She had had this argument with him many times before - not necessarily about marriage, but about why returning to their planet eventually had to mean that they could not make lives for themselves on Earth in the meantime.

Michael had always ever been about waiting for his destiny to find him. Isabel wanted a hand in MAKING hers. "Can you really tell me that you have ever wanted to marry me Michael? Me, Isabel, not Vilandra, not who I once was, not who you were told I was and what I meant to you THEN, but who I am now."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******************************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And together they could do anything.


"It was you."
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:49:57 PM

Part 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She felt guilty about Alex and Mary. It was she who had placed them in this position after all, having asked them to accompany Isabel and Tess into the Forest. Elizabeth knew that Alexander would have the King’s ear upon his return, but if the King didn’t return…But she knew her friends did not blame her. Seeing the way Mary acted around Michael and the way Alexander looked at Isabel, the Delucies were not sorry and had not regrets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted to protect HIM. It was all she had ever wanted to do. And he thought she was a fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thought of Max dripping wet in the stream was enough to make her anger fade. She could just imagine the look on his face.

It would be horribly similar to the one he had just displayed - shock, but with an underlying affection and love that would result in her throwing herself into his arms.

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

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

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

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

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

But its you he loves another voice, deep in her heart, argued. He would give up his planet for you.

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

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

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

She was beginning to understand how her husband saw her - as something pure and priceless, to be admired and protected.

While that was romantic and gratifying, it wasn’t really her. She had many flaws.

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

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

And now Tess was paying the price for her faults - and Elizabeth was beginning to wonder if Max would still love her when he found out about them.

When she fell off the pedestal upon which he had placed her, would their marriage become a disaster in his eyes. Would he regret it? Would he wish that he had married the one who was meant for him all along?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was a king. Kings did not apologize.

Liz realized that if he didn’t know her, she still had much to learn about HIM as well.

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

"What? Why?" He sounded completely dumbfounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max started. "What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Flaws and all?" She asked quietly.

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

"MAX!" Liz glared at him. "I want you to admit that I have flaws - that you love me in spite of them."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was a liar.

To be continued…



"It was you."
posted on 3-Nov-2001 1:20:11 AM
Part 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she was doing this for HIM. She would save Tess and then they would begin their lives together without sorrow and without guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You do?"

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

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

"But Michael would never go against Max?" He grinned openly now. "We’ve all seen that that is NOT true."

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

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

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

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

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

****************************************

"LIZ!" And then, several moments later. "GOD DAMN HIM!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which meant that Michael had to be gone.

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

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

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

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

"Who?" Mary asked in confusion.

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

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

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

"Oh no…" Max replied, his voice suddenly TOO calm. He was moving towards them, making Isabel back up despite herself. "I think he TOOK her somewhere. Namely to Nottingham to find the Queen."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She didn’t lie." Alexander insisted. "She never SAID that she was not going to go."

Max stared at him. "This is ridiculous!" He bellowed a moment later. "She LIED to me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.


posted on 3-Nov-2001 1:21:48 AM
Part 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isabel jumped in surprise. "Really?"

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

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

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

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

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

"It does you credit." She echoed the words that he had spoken several minutes earlier. They seemed trite and ridiculous to describe Alexander however. Everything he was did him credit. He was the kindest, gentlest, most trustworthy person she had ever met.

She even included Michael and Max in this. She loved her brothers but they were often self-centred and did not think of others. It came from their acknowledged positions of power, of course, but it could be tiresome. While Isabel loved Max and was happy that he had found his Elizabeth, there could be little doubt that his actions had put them all in jeopardy, most particularly Tess. Michael, on the other hand, was often so stubborn, he threw himself into danger, dragging others along with him, this time Elizabeth.

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

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

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widened when she realized what they carried.

It was a chest and it was clearly full.

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

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

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

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

"Yes. Prince John is waiting for it."

"To ransom the King?"

"No. To secure himself a throne."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


posted on 3-Nov-2001 1:22:24 AM
Part 30

Nottingham Castle

Sir Kyle marched down the steep stone stairs behind the servant with the torch, his steps sure. Three days ago, he probably would have tripped and fallen to the bottom.

But that was ancient history. He was no longer that Kyle. He was no longer the whining, puny whelp who had embarrassed his father and had lost his betrothed.

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

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

Strong. Feared.

Triumphant.

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

Almost, but not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

Damnit.

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

He allowed what he imagined Maxwell of Huntington’s expression would be in that scenario to remain.

He wasn’t a Saint after all.

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

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

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

Michael of Huntington had been captured.

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

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

Father Desmond had not lied. Maxwell of Huntington and his kin WERE demons. The three men who had finally brought him down were the only three still alive.

The other twelve did not have a mark on them. And yet, they were no less dead for that fact.

From what Kyle had heard, the only reason the three still lived was that one of them had intelligently thought to hold a blade to Lady Elizabeth’s throat.

It was the only thing that had stopped the demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had been a pleasant surprise to discover that his bait was such an evil little whore.

But then, her need for revenge was almost as great as his. Too bad he was going to have to kill her when this was all over.

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

"I want to help you."

Kyle had tilted his head to the side, admiring despite himself, the way her long blonde curls had tumbled around her small bare shoulders. Her gown had barely existed by the time the guards had been through with her. She was filthy, but she was still pretty.

She was no beauty on the level of Elizabeth, but she was charming nonetheless. Maybe he should not have allowed his guards to have their way with her. He did not enjoy sloppy seconds after all.

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

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

And Kyle had known that he was not long for this world.

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

Which he had not of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****************************************

Sherwood, near Nottingham

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

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

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

"It is." Max replied shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His love for Liz had led to this.

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

What kind of king, what kind of PERSON, did that fact make him?

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

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

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

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

Max realized that he missed her chatter. Her conversation had not allowed him to dwell over-long on his own thoughts, on his own guilt. But now they came flooding back with a vengeance.

He had caused this. All of it. Lord Edmund’s death, Tess’s capture, Michael’s confusion, Isabel’s torn loyalties. They had all been innocent, had simply followed him, as they had been born and bred to do.

Mary and Alexander were even more innocent and they were now outlaws who were on the verge of losing their lands and their position.

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

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

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

He had married her for inherently selfish reasons. He had married her because, having found her, he did not think that he could live without her.

Her safety, what was best for her, had not mattered to him.

He did not deserve her.

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

There was only one thing to do.

He had to give her up.

To be continued…


posted on 2-Feb-2002 3:17:51 PM
Part 31

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

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

If Michael was dead, she would never forgive herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Two days ago you were not my Queen." Michael had snapped back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, as she remembered, she felt another stab of guilt. By stealing Max from Tess, had she irreparably harmed the effectiveness of their foursome?

Of course, if Tess and Michael died in Nottingham Castle, then the foursome would forever be destroyed. She had to somehow convince Kyle to let them go. She would promise him anything.

She would even promise to leave Max if it meant seeing his sister and brother freed.

Elizabeth clenched her hands together against her stomach at the sick feeling that rose within her at the thought of giving Max up. She couldn’t even be sure that he would want her back after the disaster she had rained down upon him ever since he had first laid eyes on her - but to imagine that she might have to be the one to turn from him… It was almost unbearable.

She was so overwrought, it took several moments before she realized that something peculiar was happening to her. A feeling of calm release was settling upon her. It seemed to be originating from her middle and was weaving its way down her limbs and up to her heart.

Glancing down in amazement, it was then that she noticed that her hands were glowing. She lifted them from where they rested against her stomach, stared at them. They looked perfectly normal again.

Elizabeth felt her heart rise into her throat. She carefully lowered one hand again, brought her palm flat against her middle. Beginning slowly, the glow began to regenerate itself, until her hand burned brightly, reminding her of the way Max’s hand had glowed when she had witnessed him healing Tess’s ankle that day in the Forest - the day she had discovered the truth about him.

Instinctively she closed her eyes, concentrated on what was happening within her body.

FLASH*

A small brown-eyed boy who looked exactly like Max toddled towards her across a field of waving grasses.

Elizabeth gasped, her eyes flying open, caressed her stomach in amazement.

She was carrying Max’s son.

She knew it suddenly with such certainty, the joy of it almost overwhelmed her. The despair of moments ago was replaced by the firm knowledge that she could no longer feel regret for what had occurred between she and Max. She could feel sorrow and fear, but hope was the strongest emotion of all.

They would survive this. They had to. Their son would live.

She would see to it with every breath within her.

Elizabeth’s head snapped up as the door to the chamber came flying open. She immediately lowered her hands as Sir Kyle came sauntering into the room.

He must not know. The last person who could ever know was Kyle.

"Well, well." He advanced on her, his eyes blazing with some emotion that Elizabeth could not identify. She could tell that he was attempting to pretend that he was not affected by the sight of her, but she could also tell that this was not so. "If it is not my prodigal betrothed, returned to me from her sojourn in the Forest."

"I want you let Michael and Tess of Huntington go." Elizabeth said immediately, not even bothering to greet him.

"What you want is of little to no interest to me Elizabeth." Kyle replied mildly. "They will die, as will their brother when he comes for them."

Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly. "Please Sir Kyle. I know that you are angry with me, but do not take it out on innocents."

"Innocents?" He almost bellowed. Elizabeth’s eyes flew open. She could see a vein pulsing in his throat as he struggled to bring his anger under control. "Innocents?" He repeated more calmly. "I think not. I feel that it has been more than proven that at the very least Michael of Huntington is a demon. This would lead me to believe that his siblings are likely so as well."

Elizabeth bit her lip, decided to lie flat out if it would guarantee that Michael and Tess would be released. "I will marry you willingly if you let them go. I will also forget to tell the Queen that any of this ever happened."

Kyle tilted his head to the side, smiled in such a way that it was more of a grimace and said, "Will you indeed?"

Elizabeth crossed her fingers behind her back, hoped that the Holy Mother would forgive her for the lie. "Yes."

Kyle just stared at her for several long moments. "So you would add bigamy to your list of crimes Milady?" He finally asked, sounding disdainful.

She felt her heart stop. "What do you mean?" She whispered, terrified at what this meant. If Kyle knew that she had married Max, they were finished. He would kill her rather than see Max have her.

While she would willingly die to keep Max and his siblings safe, she had to stay alive at all costs. Her son must live. She wanted desperately to bring her hand comfortingly to her womb, but she refrained. Kyle could not know.

"I’m afraid your little secret is out my dear." Kyle was moving towards her again. "Your brother-in-law has a very big mouth." He shrugged. "But it is of little import. I will still marry you. I just need to assure that you are a widow first." He sighed heavily. "I do not enjoy the idea that Maxwell of Huntington has had you first, but we can not have everything we want in life. It will be my sons that you will carry."

"Please Kyle." Elizabeth fell to her knees in front of him, completely desperate and unable to think of any other way to save Tess and Michael other than to beg. "I will annul it. I swear I will. If you release Michael and Tess."

"I wonder if your husband is aware of the ease at which you are willing to cast him aside?" Kyle chuckled. "Well, he will be. I am sure the Lady Tess will be happy to tell him."

Elizabeth glanced up at him hopefully. "Do you mean that you will release her?" She felt her heart lighten marginally. Making sure that at least Tess was safe was the first step. Then she would work on making Michael so.

"I think I might. I would like to see how he reacts to having her back, knowing that you chose to stay with me."

Elizabeth closed her eyes again. She knew how Max would react. He would not rest until he had freed her from Kyle, whether he had Tess back or not.

Unless he no longer wanted her. There was still that worry knawing at the back of her mind, remembering how she had disobeyed him, had gone against his wishes. All of Michael’s assurances that he would forgive her… She did not quite believe them. Only she knew how adamant Max had been against this plan.

And he had been right. She had walked right into the arms of the enemy, bringing Michael with her.

But at least Tess would be free. It was a beginning. She would not rest until Michael was as well.

For as long as Kyle believed that she would marry him, her son would be safe. She had absolutely no intention of going through with it, but if she had to, she would.

Elizabeth would protect Max’s child at all costs. Even at the cost of the chance to be with her love, were he never to forgive her for what she now realized she had to do. If she could somehow contrive the release of Michael, she could convince him that he had to convince Max to let her go.

She knew one thing with the utmost certainty. Sir Kyle would never allow them to be together. He would hunt them for the rest of his days. He would kill Max and would most likely marry her anyway.

He would kill their son.

She would do anything to keep him alive - even give his father up.

She had to get Max to forget her. And there was only one way to do so.

"So be it." Elizabeth said wearily. "But first I must be allowed to speak with Tess."

Part 32

Mary watched Maxwell closely as he moved carefully into the road. They were at the spot where Michael and Elizabeth had likely tried to meet up with the Queen’s cortège, right at the fork in the road which led to the Convent of St. Mary in one direction and Nottingham in the other.

She still could not believe that they had left Lord Edmund’s body swinging from that tree. She had not even known the man and it had been difficult to do so. Seeing Max turn his back on his guardian like that, it had reinforced two things in Mary’s mind - one, that Maxwell was willing to do anything to assure the safety of those most dear to him and, two, he could be as cold as any king she had ever known of when forced to be.

Mary had only met one king - King Richard - and that had only been one time. Even before he had taken the throne upon the old king’s death, the Queen had not spent a lot of time with her son, even though he was her favorite. Richard had been off fighting for his inheritance, constantly on the verge of being disinherited by his father in favour of one of his brothers. When he had finally taken the throne, his first order of business had been to go on Crusade to the Holy Land, partly to assuage his soul of the fact that he had constantly rebelled against his own sire, partly because making war was his life’s work.

But that one time that she had encountered the golden god many called Coeur-de-Lion… It had stayed with her since. She had been a mere maid of thirteen at the time, but his very presence had practically hummed with power and confidence. She had thought "Here is a man who knows what is his, but also knows what he wants to make his. And he will do whatever it takes to make it so."

Maxwell’s very being reflected the same understanding of who he was, of what he was capable of and what was important to him. While the Lionheart’s goal was victory in battle and the conquering of foreign lands in the name of his God, this new king’s desire was much simpler, but no less significant.

He wanted to hold those he held most dear close and keep them safe at all costs.

And now that the situation was completely out of his control, through no fault of his own, he was slowly losing his focus. The supreme irony was that the one person who could bring that focus and the person who had disrupted it were one and the same. Elizabeth clearly still had no idea how much her well-being, merely her presence, meant to Max.

But how could she? She had not witnessed the healing in the Forest, had not seen his complete desperation when he thought he might lose her, had not seen him pull himself together to assure that he did not. She had not witnessed the complete loss of control when she had run off to the Queen against his express wishes. In fact, Elizabeth had not been in Max’s company nearly as long as even Mary and Alexander, had, of course, never seen him when she was not around. Not to mention, Elizabeth inherent modesty would make it unlikely that it would even occur to her that she could be so important to the man she loved.

Losing her would kill this man - this king. And Mary had the feeling that even Maxwell was only beginning to truly understand this.

"They are not here." Max said unnecessarily now, turning back towards the spot where she hid. "And yet I see no sign that any sort of company has passed this way."

"Do you think mayhap the Queen had already passed and they followed her into the city?" Mary asked, gesturing for him to return to the safety of the tree cover. But Max’s eyes were not on her. He was gazing at something just off the road on the other side. "What is it?" Mary demanded in a loud whisper.

Maxwell ignored her, moved forward and then leaned over and picked up whatever it was that lay there. Mary was beginning to see him more clearly in the brightening light of dawn, which was just coming to the Forest. "What is it?" She repeated more insistently.

Max turned slowly, held it up for her perusal. It was a simple circlet of gold, one that Mary didn’t immediately recognize.

It wasn’t until she saw the expression on Max’s face that she realized what it was. It was Elizabeth’s wedding band.

"Oh my sweet Saviour…." Mary gasped. "It was a trap?"

But Max was paying her no mind. His eyes closed abruptly and he gasped, almost seemed to stop breathing. Mary ignored the fact that being so exposed on the road was dangerous to them both, darted out of the Forest and grabbed him before he keeled over.

"Max! Maxwell! What is it?" The only thought that passed through her mind was that if something happened to Maxwell, she would be all alone. How could she save Michael and Elizabeth is she was all alone?

But Max seemed to be recovering already. He was staring down at the ring, his face white, but he didn’t not seem on the verge of losing consciousness any more. "What happened?" Mary demanded, starting to get angry. She always reacted thus when she was frightened beyond comprehension. Anger was a much easier emotion to deal with than fear. Anger she could control to a certain extent.

"On occasion, in tense situations, we - Michael, Isabel, Tess and I - can get flashes." Max explained, still gazing past her as though trying to recall something. He focused on her briefly, saw her look of confusion and elaborated. "Visions - of what has occurred and of what might occur." He twisted the ring between his fingers. "I saw a vision. The Sheriff’s men have them. Michael fought well but there were too many of them. I could not quite get a read on what happened exactly though. The flash was somewhat muddled." He was frowning in concentration, as though trying to pull the information he had received together into some sort of workable solution.

"You saw all that from a little ring?" Mary demanded, amazed. But, she shook her head, just decided to accept it. It seemed that every time she turned around her new friends were demonstrating some different, miraculous gift. "Are they still alive?" She asked breathlessly.

"They were when they left this clearing." Max replied firmly. "Which means that the sooner we get them out of Nottingham Castle, the less opportunity Sir Kyle will have to change that."

"We must find Isabel and Alexander!" Mary exclaimed. "We can’t do this on our own."

And, for the first time in a long time, something finally went right. Just as she voiced the words, her brother and Max’s sister melted from the trees further down the King’s Highway. Mary almost rubbed her eyes, believing that they were a trick of the light.

But, moments later, when her brother had pulled her into a tight embrace, she knew that they were real.

"We came at once." Isabel explained, after hugging both Max and Mary. "The Sheriff is working for Prince John. We saw them leave with the stolen taxes. The men who accosted us days ago Max. They were trying to hide what they were doing."

Mary gasped. "I can’t believe this of the Sheriff. He has done many evil things over the past few days in support of his son, but he is no traitor."

"I saw it with my own eyes Mary." Alexander argued.

"As did I." Isabel added.

"Alexander, you did not spend nearly as much time in Sheriff James’s company as Lizzy and I did. He is no traitor." Mary insisted. "In fact, he spoke of plans he had for the Shire upon King Richard’s return. He refused to undertake any of them without the King’s direct approval, even with Queen Eleanor’s permission. My guess that if anyone is behind this plot, it is Sir Kyle, using the Sheriff’s good name to advance it! Think Alex! It is the only thing that makes sense. No baron in his right mind would betray the King. Not for that weasel John, especially with Richard on the verge of being ransomed."

"But if the taxes never reach London, Richard will not be ransomed." Alex countered, still clearly sure that he was right. "And there are many who believe that John would be a much better king. Richard does not care about England. He does not even speak the language, only wants the crown and the money that goes with it. John was born in England, is a good administrator. He might be the better choice."

"Bite your tongue!" Mary snapped back. "Queen Eleanor would have your head if she heard that!"

"Queen Eleanor is somewhat blind when it comes to those she loves." Alex returned wryly. "Present company excluded of course." He continued, glancing at the bow in Mary’s hand meaningfully. Mary felt like slapping her brother for his treacherous words. He apparently finally seemed to notice this, because he backed up a step and grinned. "Mary mine. You know I am simply playing Devil’s Advocate. I would never support John against the rightful king."

Mary could see that Max’s eyes were narrowed in thought as he listened closely to their argument. "This does all seem slightly odd." He allowed. "But it is of little import who is behind the plot. The important thing, for now, is that we now have information to use as a bargaining tool."

"A bargaining tool?" Isabel asked. "For Tess?"

"Not only for Tess." Mary sighed, explained what Max had seen in his flash.

Mary saw Alex raise his hand to rub the bridge of his nose in exasperation, trying to hide his worry. "Lizzy." He sighed wearily under he breath. "What have you done?"

"What has come before is of no consequence." Max interjected firmly. "All that matters is getting them back. There are many things to be done." He turned to Alexander. "You must ride to London with all haste my friend. You are the only one who will be able to get to the Queen. You are also the only one she will believe regarding what is happening here."

"I will go at once." Alexander bowed slightly. Mary blinked. It still amazed her how, under dire circumstances, they all listened instinctively to Max. Based on her brother’s gesture of a moment before, loyalties were constantly shifting in their small band. Perhaps her brother’s lack of true concern over who possessed the throne of England had little to do with John or Richard at all.

It seemed that Alexander of Whitfield had a new liege lord.

"You may ride Evander." Maxwell added. "He is still at the hunting lodge, which is quite near here." Mary followed his gaze as he turned to Isabel, who was staring at Alex, concern on her visage. "Bella, you are going to dreamwalk Michael. We must know if he is still alive, must try and understand what happened to he and Liz. If they both still live, then they are likely safe for the moment. If Sir Kyle intended to kill them straight off, it would be done already." Mary could tell by his tone of voice that he was trying to ignore what it would mean if they were dead. She was trying to ignore that possibility herself. It was too, too horrible.

Losing Lizzy…Inconceivable.

And Michael…

The thought of never seeing Michael again, of never finding out where their tumultuous, yet exhilarating connection was meant to lead….

She squashed the thought mercilessly. No time for doubts.

"Dreamwalk?" Mary inquired instead, for the benefit of both she and Alexander.

"It is Isabel’s gift." Max explained quickly. "She can enter the dreams of others."

"Oh." Mary closed her eyes, shaking her head again. Just accept it Mary and move on, a small voice in the back of her head advised her. "And what will I do?" She asked.

"You are with me Martin of York." Max quirked a grin at her. "I’ll need your bow for what we are about to do."

"Which is?" Mary felt a shiver of anticipation, mixed with a healthy dose of dread, descend her spine.

"We are going to turn truly outlaw," Max replied with relish, "and steal those taxes back."


posted on 2-Feb-2002 3:18:15 PM
Part 33

"I do not feel comfortable leaving you here alone." Alexander stood close to Isabel, not touching her, but near enough that she could feel the warmth of his body. "I do not understand why Maxwell is allowing it. You are going to be defenseless asleep."

She smiled slightly, allowed herself to reach out, taking his hand in hers and squeezing lightly. "I am not really asleep when I dreamwalk Alex," she explained. "And I will be perfectly safe here." She gestured behind her at the small cottage to which Alexander had accompanied her. It was Lord Edmund’s hunting lodge, the one where Maxwell had left Evander on the day he had married Elizabeth.

It was also where she was going to enter the dream plain in order to locate Michael - in order to reassure them all that her brother and sister and Elizabeth still lived.

"Maxwell and Mary will be back as soon as they locate where the Sheriff’s men have camped for the night. We cannot let those taxes slip through our fingers," she added. "Bargaining with them might be our only hope."

Alexander sighed heavily, looked away for a moment. He obviously knew that she was right but it still displeased him. She tried to ignore the way her heart skipped a beat.

Isabel knew that her relationship with Alex was still undefined in any way. She had kissed him that one time, but he might have misinterpreted it as sisterly or some such nonsense. They had ended up in each other’s arms because he had been trying to keep her warm after all, in the way he had admitted he often warmed Mary and Elizabeth. It might have meant nothing more than that to him.

She also knew that he was deliberately keeping his distance because of her betrothal to Michael. She had told him it meant nothing to her, but he was an honorable man. He would not interfere, not while any sort of understanding still existed between she and Michael. She would have to be the one to pursue things with him - if any sort of opportunity ever presented itself.

And now, there was no time to pursue anything. He was leaving in moments to ride hard for London in search of Queen Eleanor. All of her energies had to be expended on the others, on saving her siblings and her new queen.

"Very well." Alexander shook his head. "I will return as soon as is humanly possible. I only pray that the Queen is following her usual yearly custom and is presently keeping court at the Tower."

"Godspeed." Isabel smiled sadly at him, squeezed his hand once more and then stepped back to allow him to mount Max’s stallion, which he did in one smooth motion, despite his heavy chain-mail.

He stared down at her for a long moment before saying quietly, "Be careful. I implore you Bella."

"I will."

She watched him until he disappeared into the dense foliage, headed back towards the King’s Highway.

It was only then that she allowed herself to raise her hands to her face. Shudders racked her body. She had never been more afraid in her entire life.

Every person she cared about in this world was presently in danger and she felt helpless to do anything. Dreamwalking seemed like such a small contribution. Not for the first time, Isabel wished that she had paid more attention to Max and Michael’s admonishments that she should learn to use a bow or a sword, for self-defense if nothing else. At least then Max would have taken her with him in pursuit of the gold. But she had understood his reasoning that she would be a liability. Mary’s steady bow was all he needed and if his plan went well, he would not even require that.

Taking a deep breath, she shook back her braids and straightened her back. Perhaps her gift would only be a small help, but if she could bring comfort to Michael in his time of need, at least it would not be in vain.

Several minutes later she had a fire started in the hearth within the small cottage, taking some of the chill from the air. It threw light across the room, ridding it of the shadows the darkening sky outside was creating.

It was time.

It had been many a month since she had dreamwalked. She enjoyed her gift, but having been acquainted with very few people until recently, it had lost some of its charm. Visiting her brothers, Tess, Lord Edmund and every servant at Castle DeHarding in their dreams had lost much of its luster after the thousandth time.

And so, she felt slightly unsettled and nervous as she lay down on the bed, could feel her heart racing as she tried to envision her betrothed - her brother - wherever he might be. It took the utmost concentration to enter another’s consciousness, and she could not even focus on her own.

Closing her eyes tightly, Isabel tried to picture Michael’s face in her mind, but all she could find was a great white space.

MICHAEL! She tried calling out to him with her heart. All she heard in return was a deafening silence.

She was concentrating so hard, her heart almost flew out of her chest when, after what seemed like moments, she heard an answering cry. Isabel!

Michael! It is I! Are you safe?

Isabel!

It took her a full minute to realize that the voice was not coming from her mind at all. In fact, it was coming from very near her ear.

She could feel his breath on her neck as she sat up with a gasp.

Alexander was on the edge of the bed, a concerned expression on his face.

"Isabel! Are you quite well?"

She felt a moment of utter joy at the sight of him, and then the completeness of her failure struck her like a blow. "I can not find him!" She exclaimed, heard her voice crack as tears filled her eyes. "He is nowhere!"

Alexander took her hands in his, drew her close, until she felt his arms come around her in a comforting embrace. "I waited for what felt like forever before I disturbed you. But when you started crying in your sleep, I could not refrain from waking you. I am sorry if I spoiled it."

Glancing through the open door, Isabel could see that she had been lost on the dream plain for far longer than it seemed. It was full night now, the moon hanging low in the sky and throwing light across the cottage. The fire that she was sure she had just set moments ago had burned to mere ashes in the hearth.

"He is nowhere Alex! I think…" She threw her arms around his neck desperately. "I can’t help but think that he no longer exists."

Alex pulled back slightly, lifted her chin with his finger. "He is fine Bella. I am sure of it. You are just overwrought. I am here to help you."

She frowned slightly at that. "You are here! Why? You should be on the way to London!"

"I could not do it. I had barely left here when I realized that I could not just leave you here all alone." He admitted, looking down, sounding ashamed. "I went to the convent of St. Mary and I asked them to send a messenger. The Queen is the convent’s patroness. She will accept their word that she must come to Nottingham."

Isabel closed her eyes briefly, understood his embarrassment. Because the way that her heart jumped at his words was entirely inappropriate considering the circumstances.

And yet she could not be sorry. "I am glad," she whispered. His head shot up and she smiled at him. "I need you Alexander of Whitfield. I never need anyone, but I find that I do need you."

He looked astonished, but she barely noticed because she had closed her eyes and tentatively brought her lips to his.

His mouth was warm and comforting. His hands came up to cup her face as he gently returned the pressure.

"I have wanted you from the moment I lay eyes on you." He admitted against her temple after they had broken the kiss and sat comfortably wrapped in each other’s arms.

"I have waited for someone like you for my entire life." Isabel replied, smiling slightly. "You make me feel safe Alex, in a way I never thought would be possible on this world."

"I will always keep you safe and close my angel." Alex’s voice faltered slightly with emotion. "And now you can try to dreamwalk Michael again, because I will stay with you and pull you back should anything go awry."

"Thank you."

Moments later, she lay with her head cradled against his chest. She could feel his hand stroking her hair lovingly as she closed her eyes and went in search of her brother.

This time it was so simple, it literally took her breath away.

One second she was with Alexander and the next she was not.

She was standing in the corner of a dark, dank dungeon. Isabel’s heart entered her throat as the smell of the place entered her nose, as shapes began to form from the blackness.

"Michael."

He was chained to the stone wall across from her, his chin buried against his chest, clearly unconscious. Isabel realized that this must also be his state in real life. The ease with which she had visited him, after she had let go of her fear in Alex’s arms, told her so.

But, this was not real. She was not truly with Michael and he could not stay unaware in his mind. She knew that she could make him speak to her if she really tried. "Michael! Wake up." She hurried across the cell, fell to her knees beside him, gently stroked his bruised face. "Michael! It is Bella. Please wake up!"

He groaned, shook his shaggy head, slowly opened his eyes, blinked several times, as though trying to focus on her. "Bella?" He croaked.

"Oh Michael! What have they done to you?" Isabel knew that she already had tears on her cheeks, although she was trying to hide her panic at the state he was in, even in his subconscious. "How did this happen?"

"We were captured." Michael replied, staring at her in confusion. "I don’t know how. One minute Elizabeth was speaking to Queen Eleanor, the next I awoke in this cell to Sir Kyle’s ugly face."

"How can you not remember what happened Michael?" Isabel asked gently. "You must think dearest. We have to know what occurred so that we can help you."

Michael closed his eyes, appeared to be thinking. "There’s nothing Belle. It’s all just a blank."

Isabel frowned slightly, wondered if perhaps the wall Michael was encountering in his mind was also the reason she had had such difficulty gaining access to his dreams earlier. But the question remained, what was blocking his memory?

"Do you know if Elizabeth and Tess are well?" She asked, thrusting the concern aside for the moment.

"I have heard nothing." Michael told her, sounding incredibly guilty. "I cannot believe I was so stupid as to allow Elizabeth to endanger herself like this." He paused. "Is Maxwell very angry?" He asked, sounding like he was preparing for the worst.

"He was at first. All he cares about now is getting you all back." Isabel reassured him. "We will save you Michael."

They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment and then Michael closed his. "Don’t Isabel. I want you to concentrate on Elizabeth and Tess. You cannot help me. There is no way you will be able to penetrate the dungeons. Just leave me here. It will be better this way."

"Don’t be ridiculous!" Isabel snapped, reaching out and shaking him. "We would never leave you here. Just as you were willing to risk your own life to save Tess, do you not think that we would do the same for you?"

Michael swallowed convulsively. "There is no point Bella. It is too late for me."

He closed his eyes again and turned his face away from her. "Michael! Look at me! What are you saying? What are you not telling me?" She could feel her fear rising within her, knew that she was right. He was keeping something from her, some vital piece of information.

But he refused to look at her. In fact, she could feel him pushing against her now, not physically of course, but mentally. He was forcing her out of his mind.

"MICHAEL!" She fought desperately against him, but his will was too strong.

The last thing of which she was aware in his mind before she came back to awareness was his voice, as though from a great distance, calling after her. "I love you Bella! Be happy!"

She could feel her breath coming in great gasps as she slowly opened her eyes. Alexander was still gently stroking her hair, seemed unaware that she had returned.

"Michael," she whispered.

"Isabel?" Alex jumped beneath her. "Are you awake?"

"Yes."

He heard the note of panic that was beginning to creep into her voice as she began to recall the details of what had just transpired in Michael’s dream. "What is it?" He sat up slowly, bringing her up with him.

"We must find Max," she told him, beginning to rise. "Something is horribly wrong Alex! Michael is alive but I think he was trying to hide from me that that would soon not be the case!"

"What do you mean?" Alex demanded, although Isabel was sure he knew.

"We must go to Nottingham immediately." She jumped off the bed, smoothing her hair down, forcing the desire to completely lose control to return to the deep recesses of her heart. "He tried to hide it from me, but I felt his fear Alex." She swallowed, glanced at him, clenching her hands in front of her. She could not explain how she knew, likely something Michael had betrayed in his thoughts when she had been connected to him. But she knew that she was right. She took a deep breath and simply blurted it out.

"They are going to execute Michael."

To be continued…












[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Feb-2002 4:28:18 PM ]
posted on 10-Feb-2002 6:30:55 PM
Part 34

Elizabeth sat on a stool before the blazing hearth in her chamber, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
She was trying to appear calm and composed, but knew that her expression would fool none that knew her well.

Fortunately Tess DeHarding had never made any effort to know Elizabeth. She had despised her from the moment she had laid eyes on her and had taken no pains to hide it. Elizabeth could not blame the other girl either. If she had had Max and someone else had taken him away from her, she would not have been particularly pleasant to that person either.

But now Tess was Elizabeth’s only hope. They had to work together if they were going to keep Max safe and her baby alive.

It did not please Elizabeth that Tess would be the one there to pick up the pieces when she broke Maxwell’s heart. And yet, perhaps this was how it had been meant to be all along. Tess would have her betrothed and Elizabeth would have his son.

It was almost unbearable that Max would never know, but Elizabeth knew that if Sir Kyle even suspected the truth, he would never rest until he had hunted them all down, until he had murdered Max’s child and everyone else her husband held dear.

But he would not be her husband for much longer. She had to stop thinking of him in such terms. He could not be hers. They had stolen the time they had had together and now it was over. He was no longer hers.

The door to her chamber slammed open and a small, bedraggled figure was thrust through. Tess stumbled, her long, blonde curls covering her face as she was thrown down on the floor in front of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth felt her heart go out to the other girl. If she had doubted that Sir Kyle’s vengeance would be swift and brutal before, the sight of Tess now dispelled any such qualms. That this virtually innocent girl should have been treated so harshly, simply because Kyle hated her betrothed…It literally made Elizabeth ill to her stomach.

And this was the man that she was going to be tied to for the rest of her life. But she would do it – if it meant keeping her child safe. Even Max would understand…if he knew. Which he never would. She forced aside the flash of grief at the thought, forced herself to focus on Tess.

Elizabeth’s attempts at appearing dignified flew away as she fell to her knees in front of the other girl, pushed her hair back from her face. “Oh Tess! I am so sorry!”

Tess flinched away from her. “It is knowing you that has brought this on.” She snarled back, her once innocent blue eyes flashing with an anger and a despair Elizabeth knew was going to kill Max to see.

“I know it.” Elizabeth replied, could feel tears rising in her eyes despite herself. Tess’s own expression changed slightly as she too seemed to become aware of Elizabeth’s grief. She bit her lip, appeared unsure how to respond to it.

“Why am I here?” Tess finally whimpered. “Why will they not kill me? I am useless now. They have used me. Max will never want me now.”

“He will.” Elizabeth insisted. “He will want you even more, now that you have endured what you have, for his sake.” She gently brushed the other girl’s hair back behind her ears.

“He only wants you.” Tess closed her eyes in anguish.

“It was a mistake.” Elizabeth swallowed, forced the lies past her lips. “You must make him see it. As long as he wants me, he will never be safe.”

“It is too late.” Tess shook her head. She looked up at Elizabeth, accusation once more on her face. “He has married you! I have heard the truth from Sir Kyle’s own lips. He has used it to torment me.” This last statement came out as a sob.

“It will be annulled.” Elizabeth told her. “I made a grave error. I was caught up in the romantic nature of the experience, never reflected on how it would affect so many others. I feel awful that my game has resulted in so much heartache.”

Tess raised an eyebrow. “You are lying. You are trying to pretend that you don’t love him.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why?”

“I do not love him.” She wished that her voice had not cracked halfway through that statement. Because lying did not come easily to her, even though she had had to do it so often in the past week.

“You are lying.” Tess argued. “Tell me the truth. Why are you doing this? I was gone. He had chosen you. Why are you turning your back on him?”

Elizabeth could not control the tears any longer. Because if anyone understood loving Max with every ounce of one’s being, it was the girl who sat before her. “I cannot bear for his life to be endangered any longer. Sir Kyle will not rest until he claims me. Max has a much more important purpose in life. He must return to his world to liberate it. I cannot allow him to be caught up here. It just cannot be.”

There was a long silence. Elizabeth’s face was buried in her hands and so Tess’s light touch on her shoulder caused her to jump slightly. “I cannot blame you for loving him as you do Milady.” She whispered. “But what do you want of me?”

“You must help him to move on Tess. I have agreed to marry Sir Kyle, as long as he frees you. I tried for Michael as well, but Kyle has said that it is up to the Church to deal with him. He has no proof that you are…what you are. And so he has agreed to release you.”

“But Max will not stop.” Tess replied. “You know that Elizabeth. He will not rest until he frees both you and Michael. He does not want me anymore. I cannot control him or convince him. He would not believe me were I to tell him that you no longer want him.”

“Max once told me…” Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath. “He once told me that you could make people see things that are not there.”

Tess nodded. “Yes, I can.” Her eyes widened. “You want me to show him something which will convince him?”

It took all of her strength to say it, but she forced the words past her lips. “I want you to make him see me with Kyle. To make him believe it.”

“When am I to do this?” Tess asked, sounding unconvinced. “I am taking Michael with me when I go. I cannot leave without him.” She admitted. “I will be mindwarping the guards.”

Elizabeth frowned slightly. The word mindwarp…so strange. She had heard it before though, although she could not quite remember when. She shook her head impatiently. Now was not the time.

“He will come for me, once you are released.” Elizabeth smiled slightly, despite herself. “We both know he will. There is no way to stop him. You must make him see it then.”

Tess stared at her for a full minute before saying quietly, “There is more to this than simply wanting to protect Maxwell Elizabeth. I cannot believe that you have suddenly come to this plan. It makes no sense. What are you hiding?”

Elizabeth looked away. “Nothing. I have just come to my senses. Max and I are not meant to be.”

“Then why don’t you just annul Max and marry Sir Kyle?” Tess asked logically. “Would that not convince Max just as easily and accomplish the same goal?”

“I cannot do it.” Elizabeth replied softly. “I cannot marry Kyle. The very thought of it is enough to make me want to kill myself, which is an impossibility. This way, there is time for me to convince the Queen to allow me to retire to a convent. If she sees that I am truly opposed to the marriage, she will allow it.”

“So you are only doing this to keep Max safe?” Tess inquired, sounding impressed. “You did not seem so concerned when you went flying into the Forest after him twice before.”

“I have grown up since then.” Elizabeth gently touched a bruise visible on Tess’s shoulder. “I cannot allow Kyle to hurt another person because of my own selfishness. And he will never stop Tess. I see that now.”

“You are a good woman Milady.” Tess finally stated, sounding grudging, and yet impressed despite herself. It made Elizabeth frown. She was not seeking Tess’s approval, simply her aid.

‘Then you will help me.”

“How can I not?” Tess asked sadly. “You are giving me back the only thing I have ever wanted. I would be a fool to throw this chance away.”

Elizabeth felt slightly nauseous at the lovesick expression that crossed Tess’s face. She was clearly thinking about Max. She suddenly had a vivid image of Max and Tess entwined in each other’s arms, of Max making love to Tess in the way he had loved Elizabeth such a short time ago.

She pressed her hands against her face again, tried to force the vision away.

“Go now Tess.” Elizabeth almost snapped, unable to control the jealousy that was beginning to sweep through her. “You must free Michael before anyone realizes what you have done.”

Elizabeth did not quite understand how Tess’s gift worked, but she believed her when she said that she could free Michael.

Tess stood slowly, clearly in pain, but the expression of hope on her face appeared to give her strength. “Thank you Milady. May God’s blessings find you. I hope that you find some way to achieve happiness.”

Elizabeth did not reply. There was no point. Both she and Tess knew that she was throwing away her only chance at joy.

And yet, as she gently laid her hand against her stomach after Tess was gone, as the slow glow spread outwards and up into her heart, she could not regret it. She would always have a piece of Maxwell DeHarding. She would live for this child.

She lay down wearily upon the bed, did not even rise when she heard the commotion as the castle became aware of Tess and Michael’s joint disappearance.

Her job was done. Max’s loved ones were free. They would soon be safe.

She did not understand Tess’s gift, had not truly learned much about it. And yet, it was clearly impressive if she had been able to spirit both she and Michael away with a minimum of fuss.
It was not until much later that it even occurred to her to wonder why Tess had not used her gift to free herself.

***********************************

Max crept carefully through the underbrush, his bow knocked with an arrow, listening for the telltale sign that Mary was in position.

It came several minutes later, a light owl call, barely heard above the laughter and jocularity of the men gathered around the fire of the camp where the Sheriff’s guard had paused for a respite on the journey to London.

For men on such a vital mission, it surprised Max that they had not managed to travel further. But they didn’t appear to be taking their task very seriously if the amount of mead and wine that was being passed around the fire was any indication. Max rolled his eyes slightly at his own disdain. Who was he to argue if they wanted to make his life a little easier?

The aura of inebriation that seemed to hover over the camp only helped them in the end. Reaction times were slower as Mary began to rain hell down on them from her perch high in a tree across the clearing.

“Bloody Hell!” He heard the captain of the guard yelling as he stumbled to his feet. “Outlaws! Weapons men!”

But it was too late. The distraction had been more than enough to cause the panic Max had envisioned. The fact that Mary’s arrows were beginning to drift dangerously close to swords and bows lying on the ground meant that it took that much longer for them to be in the hands of the men who needed them.

It was time for phase two.

Max crouched where he stood. With his hand placed firmly on the soft ground, he sent a pulse of energy coursing through the underbrush. Within seconds the entire western portion of the clearing – where Max had seen the tax chests under heavy guard after his first cursory examination of the campsite – was on fire.

The guards were instantly distracted. He had seen them tensing as they had watched their comrades trying to avoid the arrows that still continued unabated. Max could see that Mary was going to have to stop soon though. The guards were finally getting a line on where she was hidden, were beginning to shoot crossbow arrows into the treetops.

As this thought crossed his mind, the storm stopped entirely.

But the fire continued. Within seconds the whole wagon containing the chests of gold and other treasure was in flames. The firefighters were forced back by the heat. They were soon cowering on the far side of the campsite.

Max did not notice this though. He was already on the move, running lightly through the foliage, so that he came up directly behind the burning wagon.

As Max prepared to put out the flames and to take control of the wagon, another shout arose from the southern side of the clearing where the horses were hobbled. The fire had already panicked the horses, which were pulling restlessly against their ropes.

And suddenly they were loose. Max knew that it was Mary who had started that chain reaction, having neatly shot arrows through the hobbles of several. When she had shown him that she could do it, he had simply grinned in amazement. If he didn’t know for a fact that the girl was pure human, he would have wondered if she didn’t have a little Antarian in her blood. Her accuracy was otherworldly.

It had not been difficult to determine that there was no way that Max and Mary were going to be able to take the whole shipment with them. Even with the horses loose, they were not going to be able to outrun an entire contingent of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s guards.

But all they needed was proof. Making the rest of the gold useless to Prince John was also part of the plan.
Leaving a firm fire-wall between himself and the rest of the encampment, Max waved his hand through the air and watched in satisfaction as the worst of the flames disappeared.

He examined the contents of the wagon, grabbed several different pieces of treasure from the pile, including a tablier displaying the arms of Nottingham that some careless guard had left sitting on the seat.

With that, he laid his hand lightly against the wagon and started to change the molecular structure of the vehicle. He did not want the gold to be completely destroyed, simply protected so that Queen Eleanor would have access to it for the ransom for King Richard.

He heard Mary behind him as he concentrated. She was panting slightly, but her step was light. He shook his head ruefully. He had a feeling that this had probably been one of the more enjoyable experiences of her life.

He could hear her gasp as the wagon started to melt. Within seconds, the wood wagon and all the chests that had been sitting upon it, had faded into the ground. To the naked eye, it looked as though they had completely disappeared, but Max knew that their molecules had simply been shifted. He would be able to pull them back together at a later date in order to reform them.

Quirking a grin over his shoulder at Mary, who still stood with her mouth hanging open, Max grabbed her by the hand and pulled her after him into the Forest, the shouts of horror and anger of the Sheriff’s men fading quickly behind them. He was forced to snort as he envisioned their reactions when they finally managed to put the fire out, only to discover that their cargo had simply ceased to exist.

His smile quickly faded though as a flash suddenly hit him so hard, he stumbled. It did not take him more than an instant to realize that it was more than a flash.

It was Isabel. And she was completely panicked. It was all he could decipher from whatever connection she had managed to make with him over the distance that separated him, but it was enough to tell him that they were running out of time.

He swallowed, glanced at Mary, who was clutching his arm with concern. “Max! I wish you would stop doing that!” She exclaimed, sounding terrified. “What happened?” Looking around, she turned back to him perplexed. “You didn’t touch anything.”

“Isabel just connected with me.” He explained quickly. When the expression of befuddlement did not leave her face, Max just sighed. “Never mind. The important thing is, we need to get back there as quickly as possible. Something has happened.”

Mary’s eyes widened, but she nodded.

It was only another five minutes before they reached the spot where Max had concealed Evander. He practically threw Mary up onto the saddle, swung up in front of her, and they were off, the feeling of relief and triumph from their successful mission completely forgotten.

To be continued…



[ edited 1 time(s), last at 15-Feb-2002 9:03:12 AM ]
posted on 19-Jul-2002 11:45:36 AM
Part 35

The small cottage appeared so suddenly in the dense forest, Mary was still half-asleep against Max’s back before it even became clear to her that their steed had come to a halt. She was absolutely exhausted, realized that it had been close to forty-eight hours since she had slept. Adrenaline had kept her going during their mission, but the minute the horse had settled into a steady pace, she had started to drift off.

"Thank God you’ve returned." Isabel’s worried voice penetrated the fog in which she found herself. "Michael is hurt Max. You must heal him."

Max slid of the horse, swung Mary down beside him. "Thank you," he said quietly, kissing her lightly on the forehead, before following Isabel into the cottage.

Mary blinked after them, wondered why she couldn’t seem to focus on anything, why she wasn’t following them.

"Mary? Are you quite well?"

She realized that Alexander had exited the cottage, was pulling her against him.

It took her a full minute to realize what was holding her back. She was scared. Petrified. Absolutely frightened to find out how badly Michael had been hurt, to hear about what Sir Kyle had done to him. And, so, her body was rebelling - was trying to make it so that she wouldn’t have to know.

It was not until that instant that she finally realized that she had been suppressing the truth ever since Michael had left with Elizabeth… She was in love with him.

She had tried to fight it, had tried to deny it, particularly after finding out that he was betrothed to Isabel, but she could not dispute it any longer. She loved him.

And if he was going to die, she would not be able to bear it.

"Alex?" Her voice came out weaker than she intended. She rested her forehead against her brother’s chest, willing him to understand the plea without her having to elaborate.

"He’ll be fine Mary mine. He has had some superficial wounds and a fairly large knock to the head, but after witnessing what Maxwell was able to do for Lizzy after she was shot with that arrow, I doubt it will take much more than a very simple healing." He was stroking her cropped curls comfortingly. "Would you like to go in?"

She swallowed. What would she do if he looked at her like he didn’t care? What if he ignored her? She would not put it past him…

But she was no coward. Was she not the person who had defied the Queen of England by entering the archery contest at the Fair only days ago? Was she not the one who had just rained hell down on the Sheriff’s men? She would not fear the person she loved - even if he didn’t feel the same way.

"Yes, let us go in."

The cottage burned brightly with light, the hearth fire blazing merrily, many tallow candles scattered around as well.
Mary noticed Tess first. The blonde was huddled in a corner, her blue eyes slightly wild, Isabel tending to her soothingly.

"You are safe now Tess," she was telling her sister calmly. "No one will hurt you again."

Mary could see Max bent over Michael, who was slumped in the only chair in the small room. She could not see his face, but she could almost feel his pain and weariness from across the room. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "Where is Elizabeth?" She was ashamed that it was the first time she had thought about her closest friend since they had arrived at the cottage.

"They could not save her." Alex’s voice was strained as he replied. "Tess managed to use her gift to spirit Michael away. She hasn’t elaborated beyond that, insisted that she would wait for Maxwell before telling her tale."

Mary frowned. "Why could she not use her gift to help Lizzy as well?" Her eyes narrowed. "What is her gift again?"

"She can make people see things that are not there," Max replied, straightening and turning around. Mary glanced back at Michael, felt her heart skip a beat. He was staring right at her, his eyes clear.

She could not read his expression. He was definitely tired, obviously upset, but there was something else on his face that she could not identify…It was enough to set her cheeks flaming.

A good sign indeed. She almost smiled.

Max had moved to crouch beside Tess. Isabel laid a hand on his arm. "Careful brother. She is still overwrought. It took much of her strength to save Michael from the dungeon."

Max reached out a hand, gently took Tess’s chin between his fingers and moved her face so that she was looking at him directly. "Are you well Sweeting?"

Mary flinched when Tess suddenly let out a wail and threw her arms around Max’s neck. "I tried to save her! I swear I did Max. But she would not come with me!"

"Michael, what happened?" Max asked quietly, although Mary could tell by the sudden straightening of his spine that he had not expected his wife to come up so quickly, particularly in a conversation with Tess. He was looking over Tess’s shoulder, as the girl was still sobbing against his chest.

Mary looked back at Michael, who was slumped in his seat, although there was clearly nothing physically wrong with him anymore. "I know not Maxwell and that is the truth. The last thing I remember clearly is Elizabeth and I on the road to the convent. Everything after that is a blur, although I do know that Sir Kyle came for a visit," he added wryly, rubbing the back of his head lightly. "I don’t even recall Tess coming for me or how we got here."

"It’s true Max. They both came stumbling out of the Forest a couple of hours ago, neither seeming to have any idea how they had gotten here," Alexander spoke up. "Isabel had already contacted you, as we knew we had to go in for them immediately. Michael was to be executed this morning. We were both waiting anxiously for you and then suddenly they were here."

"Why would Elizabeth not come with you?" Mary asked Tess quietly, sympathetic to the other girl, who had clearly been through a horrible ordeal. She could not pretend to like Tess - she was quite an unpleasant person - but no one should have to suffer what the blonde had. Mary knew how female prisoners were treated by most men…She was actually surprised that the innocent girl had survived it.

"I know not," Tess replied, hiccuping slightly around a sob. "I recall going to her however. And she turned me away."

Mary looked at Max. "It is clear that she was trying to protect Michael and Tess, likely felt that Sir Kyle would perhaps let them go if she stayed."

Max closed his eyes briefly, then said grimly. "It is more than likely that that is how she saw it. It is most typical of my wife." He sighed. "We will go after her of course. Immediately. My only consolation is that Sir Kyle will not hurt her to avoid the Queen’s wrath."

"I know it will be difficult Maxwell, but I suggest that we wait at least until darkness falls again," Alex said. "The cover of night will be an advantage. It will also give Michael and the Lady Tess time to rest. We will likely need their gifts if we are to succeed."

Max appeared to want to refuse, but one glance at Michael appeared to change his mind. "Very well. But we cannot simply sit idly all day." He glanced towards the door, where the new day’s sun was just beginning to filter through the trees. "I could not bear it." He ran his hands through his dark hair in frustration after setting Tess gently away from him.

"There are many things we can do." Tess’s voice was gaining in strength. "We must find Lord Edmund."

Isabel and Mary exchanged pained glances. Isabel moved closer to her sister, brought her arm around the smaller girl. "Sweeting, do you not know? Lord Edmund has passed on. He was killed when you were captured."

Tess scowled. "I know it Isabel. But Lord Edmund cannot die. It was what he told me privately when he first found us in the Forest, before much of this even occurred." She paused, looked pensive. "Perhaps he had a premonition that he would be hurt, but he told me that we could bring him back if anything were to happen to him."

"Bring him back?" Michael said in disbelief. "But how?"

Mary could feel her heart beating unnaturally. She was constantly amazed by every new power her friends revealed, but to bring back the dead? It was beyond amazing. It was god-like - and frightening to even contemplate.

"With the healing stones that are hidden in our birthplace," Tess replied calmly. Mary stared at her. How could this be the same hysterical girl from minutes before? She felt suspicion beginning to penetrate her earlier sympathies, but listened quietly as Tess explained the process.

Max was also listening, a slight frown on his face. Mary saw it when she glanced impulsively towards their leader, as everyone else seemed to be doing as well. In fact, Tess was basically addressing him alone. They all waited breathlessly to see what he would say.

"It sounds fantastic," Max finally admitted. "But I do not think that Lord Edmund would lie about such a thing." There was another long pause. "Very well, here is what we shall do. Alexander," Max looked at Mary’s brother as he spoke. "You will take the evidence that Mary and I uncovered and go to London to see the queen. She must be brought here to put down the rebellion that is in the making against the king."

Alex did not look convinced. "But Max, you will require my sword when we rescue Elizabeth this night."

Max answered his friend sternly. "Nay. I will not have you recognized should anything go awry Alex. There are still many who would doubt that a baron would have turned outlaw. We will protect your position and your lands for as long as possible. You will not participate."

"I don’t care about my lands!" Alex flared, annoyed.

"I am sure," Max smiled gratefully. "But I care. I will not have you give them up on our account."

"It is for Lizzy!"

"There is to be no argument Alexander. She will be saved. There is no doubt," Max replied firmly. "I will not rest until it is so. You must not worry about that. We need the queen to return to take care of the Sheriff and Sir Kyle once and for all."

This seemed to appease Alex, because he knew without a doubt that what Max said was the truth. They all knew it. The young king would not stop until he had his wife safely back at his side. "Very well," he agreed grudgingly.

Max nodded. "Michael, you shall take Mary with you to the pod chamber." Mary’s eyes widened at those strange words. She exchanged a look with Alex, who merely shrugged and rolled his eyes. The strange world of their friends was not even worth amazement any longer. "Get the healing stones and bring them back here." He looked at Isabel and Tess. "We will go fetch Lord Edmund." Mary grimaced as she remembered the guardian hanging lifelessly from the tree where she and Max had been forced to leave him. If these four could bring life back to that…well, she would never doubt in miracles again.

"If we can do this all quickly enough, there will be time for a rest prior to the activities of this evening," Max continued. He looked at them each in turn. "And then we will end this once and for all."

Mary felt a shiver descend her spine. Max’s words seemed to indicate that, at least in Sir Kyle’s case, the queen’s judgment might not be required at all. Because Mary did not doubt that Sir Kyle de Valence was unlikely to survive their evening activities as Max so casually called them.

She knew as well as the rest of them that as long as Sir Kyle lived, Elizabeth would never be safe. Max knew it better than any of them. And he would no longer tolerate his wife’s life in constant jeopardy, nor would he forgive what had been done to Tess and Michael, both of whom would suffer long-lasting memories of their ordeals. They both appeared capable at the moment, but it wasn’t when they were busy that the horror would haunt them. No, Mary knew it would be when they were supposed to be the most happy, in the quiet moments, in their dreams, for the rest of their lives.

For the first time ever, Mary Delucie felt a pang of sorrow for Sir Kyle, because she truly did not think he knew what he had unleashed. As she looked at Max’s grim face, she only began to understand it herself.

Sir Kyle DeValence would die this night, if it was the last thing Maxwell DeHarding ever did.

Part 36

"Good morning milady."

Elizabeth opened her eyes, blinked as her lady-in-waiting Parkyla came into the room, a large bucket of water over one arm, which she quickly set on the fire to heat. Sighing wearily, Elizabeth sat up and stared at the maid, a little unsure as to why Parkyla was there. She hadn’t expected Kyle to bother about her comfort.

She had barely slept, even though she was exhausted. Her stomach was in knots over Max, especially because she knew that Michael and Tess must have reached him by now. He had to be aware that she did not intend to return to him, that she planned to annul their union. Even if he didn’t believe Tess immediately, which Elizabeth did not think he would, he had to be upset. And it was only going to get worse. Because once he saw her in whatever position Tess was going to create with her gift…He would be devastated.

But he would also be safe. And at this point it was all Elizabeth could hope for for her beloved. She had never imagined that Sir Kyle DeValence could turn out to be so determined and so hateful, but Max was too vulnerable because of his secret to withstand a long-standing feud. She had to protect him, even if he didn’t want to be protected.

And she had to protect their son, who, even now, was growing in her womb.

She watched Parkyla move around the room efficiently, if carefully, clearly unsure of her lady’s state of mind. But she wasn’t thinking about the maid or about the empty existence her life would become as the wife of Sir Kyle. Instead she was thinking about Max and about how happy he would be if he knew about the baby. She allowed herself to imagine for an instant a world where they could live openly together, where Max’s secret heritage would not matter to anyone, where they could raise their son together and live happily ever after…

But it would not happen in this world, which was full of suspicious and fearful people. They would persecute Max, would support Sir Kyle. Max and his three siblings would be hunted as demons if the world at large knew the truth about them. Not even the queen would be able to protect them if the Church went after them in earnest. It was why Elizabeth had come to the conclusion that Sir Kyle would win in the long-run, no matter how much stronger and more capable Max had always seemed. Max’s secret endangered him and she could not allow herself to endanger him even more. Tess was right. He was obsessed with her - and the sooner he got over it, the more secure he would be.

Elizabeth knew that she could be happy with her dream of him, as long as she knew that he was safe and living, and that he would have the chance to return to his home to reclaim his throne one day. It was his destiny. She was not. But she would have his son to comfort her - a small piece of him that no one could ever take away.

As long as Sir Kyle never knew that the baby was not his. Which meant that she had to have her marriage to Max annulled as soon as possible and that she had to marry Sir Kyle immediately. Tess had promised that she could have a marriage in name only, that she would make it so that Sir Kyle believed that they had consummated the relationship. Although Elizabeth was a little unsure as to how this would work, she believed Tess that she could make it happen. Elizabeth knew that she could trust the other girl, because all Tess wanted was Max and teaming with Elizabeth would make it so that she would have him eventually.

"Would you like to bathe milady?" Parkyla asked quietly, coming closer slowly, as though afraid Elizabeth might burst into tears at the first sign of kindness. For, after all, Parkyla was one of the few in the castle who knew what Elizabeth had been through in the past few days. She knew about Max, but even she was unaware how far things had gone. Only the people closest to her in the world - Mary, Alexander, Max’s siblings - really knew. And that’s how it would stay. For Max’s sake. "Sir Kyle has requested your presence in the Great Hall as soon as you are ready."

Liz swallowed, closed her eyes. "Very well. Let us get this over with." She was not looking forward to another confrontation with Kyle, particularly since he was bound to be in a foul mood now that Tess and Michael had escaped. The entire castle had been in an uproar for most of the night while Kyle had sent guards out in search of the fugitives. And, yet, for the past few hours, things had been surprisingly quiet. Maybe her plan with Tess was already working! Maybe Sir Kyle was giving up his vendetta now that he had Elizabeth exactly where he wanted her!

Suddenly eager to begin the charade that the rest of her life was to be, eager to assure that Max was safe, Elizabeth hurried through her toilette and was descending the stone staircase to the Great Hall within a quarter hour. She had dressed simply, unwilling to enrage Sir Kyle with any show of defiance and so also kept her eyes demurely lowered and her hands clasped in front of her while she waited for him to notice her.

Kyle was sitting on the dais at the far end of the Hall, reading some proclamation or other. Elizabeth watched him through her lowered lashes, frowning slightly. She wondered momentarily where Sheriff James was, for it seemed that Kyle had taken up the regular duties of the shire.

After what seemed an inordinately long period of time, Kyle raised his head and noticed Elizabeth. He seemed momentarily surprised to see her and then a boyish grin broke across his face. Elizabeth blinked, glanced behind her briefly to make sure that no one else was standing there - someone Kyle would be more likely pleased to see. But when he called to her, she realized that he was indeed smiling at her in that friendly manner. "Milady! Good morning!"

Elizabeth walked the length of the Hall at his beckoning gesture and was even more surprised when he jumped off the dais to meet her half way. She stared at him in astonishment when he picked up her hand and brought it to his lips. "Hello my love. Did you sleep well?" The gleam in his eyes when he looked at her made a shiver run down Elizabeth’s spine. There was something strange there, something she did not like. He was looking at her like a husband would look at a wife - as Max had looked at her after their first night together, after they had bound themselves physically as well as spiritually. This was not the reception she had been expecting at all!

"I have spoken to my father," Kyle was telling her in a low tone, still with a half-smile on his face. "He is most pleased that we have worked things out and agrees that, due to the circumstances, we shall exchange our vows quietly later this day. He has gone to the abbey to take care of the…problem. Since I now know for certain that it was unconsummated, it should not prove difficult." He smiled at her, making her stomach turn over. Elizabeth knew he was referring to the record of her marriage to Max. Kyle brought his hand down, touched her gently on the stomach. "One can never be too careful that any possible heirs are assured that their parents are wed."

Elizabeth swallowed, stared at him. Could this be real? Had Tess truly succeeded? Did Kyle believe that she had shared his bed and that she had been a virgin as well? This was a miracle beyond anything she could have imagined! It was not until that moment that she realized that she had half-expected Tess not to honour her end of the bargain - that the other girl, who so hated her, would not do anything to make Elizabeth’s life easier. And, yet, Tess had come through. Everything was up to Elizabeth now. She could not spoil this chance - for if Sir Kyle had been welcomed into her bed once already, at least in his mind, he would certainly expect to be welcomed again. The thought was enough to make her physically ill.

No one would ever touch her that way again. Her body belonged to the husband of her heart and since she would never be with him again, she would be chaste. She would play along with this ruse as long as necessary, until the queen arrived, and then she would retire to a convent, as had always been her intent. But, for now, she must play along.

"Indeed," she replied weakly. When Kyle continued to stare at him, as though expecting more, she added a perfunctory, "My love," although she almost choked on the words.

"It is a new start for us milady," Kyle said quietly. "I will be a good husband Elizabeth. I promise you. I have made plans already that will ensure my position under the new king and we will make a successful life together. You have pleased me inordinately."

Elizabeth frowned slightly. "The new king?" She asked, unsure to what he was referring.

"King John," Kyle replied. "Have not heard my love? The messenger came only this morning. King John has gathered the support of enough barons. He has made a play for the throne and it is entirely likely that he will succeed."

She was horrified. "But King Richard will return! There can be no doubt of it. The queen was close to ransoming him. We cannot have two kings in England!"

"Since your former love stole those taxes my sweet," Kyle frowned, "The ransom never reached London. Richard will never return to England now."

Elizabeth’s heart ached for the queen. Her favorite son appeared on the verge of losing his throne, despite all the efforts the elderly lady had made to hold it for him. And now there would be civil war between Richard and John, which would break Eleanor’s heart. "Kyle, I must go to the queen. She will need me."

Kyle’s eyes narrowed. "Perhaps soon my dearest. But not immediately. We will be newly married. I could not do without you so soon."

Elizabeth bit her lip, ready to put on the performance of her life. "But Kyle, surely you are aware…" She trailed off, grimacing prettily. "We cannot be together again anytime soon."

Kyle stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"

"We must wait my lord." She smiled at him prettily. "I am delicate and if I bear your child, I must assure that I keep it safe." She looked away, pretending shyness she certainly did not feel. Mary would be impressed were she here. She might even tell Elizabeth she should join the next troupe of entertainers that came through Nottingham. "I can not…be with you again until I am certain I am not with child. Surely you know this about ladies?" Elizabeth was counting on the fact that Kyle would know nothing of the sort. He had rarely been in company of gentlewomen since his mother had died when he was but a young boy. And while she knew now that he certainly wasn’t as stupid as she had once thought his, he was fairly uneducated when it came to women, as his behavior over the last week had shown.

Kyle appeared dumbfounded. "But… but, this is intolerable Elizabeth!"

"It is the way things are done my lord." She crossed her fingers behind her back and said a silent prayer that Kyle would be too embarrassed to discuss this matter with his father. "And while I know that I pleased you last night, it was…" She trailed off, let her voice tremble slightly, which wasn’t difficult considering what she was about to say was the truth. "Last night was difficult for me." It had been more than difficult, Elizabeth reflected. It had been devastating to know that the only way to keep Max safe was to give him up.

She smiled at Sir Kyle again. "I pray you are not angered my…husband." She finished quietly. His eyes brightened slightly.

"How long?" Kyle demanded, apparently willing to accept this story. Elizabeth felt her heart pound with pleasure.

"Oh, not more than three months," she replied breezily. "I will know for certain in that time I am sure." I will be long protected in a convent by that time as well, she thought. It would be plenty of time to contact the queen and to throw herself on Eleanor’s mercy. If her guardian knew how truly wretched she was, Elizabeth did not doubt that she would allow her to retire from secular life. And then she would be able to raise her child in peace.

"Three months!" Kyle exclaimed. "Elizabeth, I really do think…"

"I thank you my lord," Elizabeth stammered, cutting him off smoothly. "But I think I will return to my chamber now. I am most fatigued." She curtsied prettily. "I will see you later my lord husband." She barely managed to contain the sneer that wanted to invade her voice.

And, with that, she turned on her heel and swept away, leaving him gaping after her.

******************************************************************************

"What is this place?" Mary asked quietly as Michael took her hand and led her carefully around the boulders which hid the cave where he had been born. "You called it the pod chamber, but what does that mean?"

Michael grimaced slightly. He had not been pleased when Max had paired him with Mary for his morning task. It was not that he was unhappy to be with her, but he was slightly ashamed of this place and he was not looking forward to having to explain to her exactly how he had been born. He did not know if she would even be capable of understanding how his second life had come to be. It was surprising enough that she accepted that he was not human so readily. They were pushing their luck, he felt, by letting humans know about the pods.

But Max had said something to him before they had parted on their separate ways the hour before. Pulling Michael aside he had quietly murmured. "Unbend Michael. You will never receive the true joy that can be brought into your life unless you do. You deserve happiness brother."

Michael had stared at him, unsure what Maxwell was saying. "I am perfectly happy with my lot in life. It is my pleasure to serve you, my king."

Max had just stared at him for a long moment and then had said, "Michael, I do not understand why you cannot remember your ordeal, but, at least, try and recall why you fought so hard to stay alive." He had grinned slightly. "No matter how hard you try and convince yourself, I do not think it was because of me."

Now, as he swiped his hand across the stone face that hid the cave, he realized what Max had meant. As the silver hand- print appeared, he heard Mary gasp slightly, but when he turned to look at her, she was gazing steadily at him, unafraid.

It was in that instant that a flash of himself in the dungeon below Nottingham Castle nearly brought him to his knees.

He remembered the cold. He remembered the damp. He remembered being afraid, wondering if he should just throw himself on the mercy of the Church, whether he should just take whatever penalty they assigned demons in this day and age. It was why he had forced Isabel out of his head. He had not wanted her to see that he was ready to give up, that he wanted to let go, that he was tired of being afraid. He did not belong in this world and perhaps it had been time to accept it once and for all.

It had been after all this had gone through his mind that it had seemed as though he was no longer alone. She had come to him - and she had saved him.

Because, suddenly, without warning, Mary Delucie - the same Mary who now stood at his side waiting for whatever wonder would greet her next - had appeared before him. And she had spoken to him, repeating the words she had said to him when he had first kissed her in the forest only days before. It was strange to realize that he had known her for so little time. It felt like forever. Even then, in that dungeon, when he had never felt more alone or far from those he loved, he had felt her warmth wrap around him.

I just wanted you to know that I don’t care and I am not scared of you. Whether you're a human or whatever else it is you are, I still don't care. You are you. And I like you.

Her words had returned to him and it was in that moment that he had decided that he would live. He wanted to live - for her.

He had forgotten all of this until now. Michael frowned, unsure why that was. Everything about his time in the Castle was just gone from his mind. It was supremely frustrating. But she had come back to him. Mary had saved him.

And, now, he was about to show her their deepest secret. He wanted her to know. He was no longer ashamed. Michael placed his hand firmly on the hand-print and the entrance to the cave slid open. He reached back, took Mary by the hand again and said, "Come."

"You speak!" She exclaimed. When he looked back at her in surprise she elaborated. "You do know you have not said a single word to me since you returned Michael."

"I have so!" He returned sharply, although, as he reflected on it, he thought that perhaps she was right. It had not been a long trip to the pod chamber. It was located fairly near to Lord Edmund’s hunting lodge after all, one reason their guardian had built the small cottage where he had.

"No, not one single word." Michael frowned when he heard her voice tremble. "I am sorry if I am a nuisance. I merely want to help you…all." She added as an afterthought.

"I know it," Michael told her, gentling his voice. "I am sorry."

"You have been through much," Mary replied. "It is fine."

"It is not," Michael replied. "I have been nothing but cruel to you since we first met." He paused. "Why are you still here?" He asked, not critically, but simply because he wanted to know. He wanted to know for sure that he was not the only one on the verge of feeling things he knew were insane - things he knew should not be.

"You know why," she whispered, her lashes suddenly wet with tears.

He felt his heart contract. "I do not know Mary. Tell me." How could this be happening? How could he have met this girl - this human - and she just changed everything he believed in, everything he knew to be true about himself? He was supposed to be a king’s right-hand, was supposed to marry a princess, was supposed to be the one who most wanted to return to their home to make things right. And, now, here he stood in the middle of a forest, his heart pounding, desperate for this girl to tell him that she loved him, that she wanted him.

How had this happened?

Mary was staring at him, her expression unreadable. Her eyes were bright, but she did not seem upset any longer. Instead she reached out a trembling hand and brought it up to cup his face. "You are afraid."

Michael did not answer, simply stared at her. He could not admit it - that he could not make the first move. He could not risk that she did not feel the same way, although he already knew she did.

"When you were gone Michael…" Mary closed her eyes. "I am ashamed to say, that while I worried for Elizabeth, it was the thought of you in danger that made my heart break. I know it is absurd, that we barely know each other, but I…"

He cut her off abruptly, unable to stop himself, not quite ready to hear the words. Grabbing her around the waist, he pulled her against him and brought his mouth down onto hers. He felt her melt against him, her hands winding through his hair, bringing them closer.

After what seemed like mere moments, but was surely longer, she finally pulled back, her eyes twinkling. "Well, that was better than words. You don’t have to ever talk to me again if that’s the result."

Michael felt his lips twitching. "If we don’t speak, how are we to argue?" He asked, pressing another light kiss against her full lips.

She laughed. "You are right." There was a long pause and, then, "Michael, what of Isabel?"

"Isabel is my sister," he replied. "I love her and I always will. But…I am starting to realize that it is unlikely that we will ever all end up married to each other. If Max does not have to marry Tess, I do not see why I should be forced to marry against my will."

"Will she be upset?" Mary asked, although her tone seemed to indicate that she expected his answer when he said,

"Nay. I doubt it very much."

"Because of Alexander." She was pleased. He could tell.

"Perhaps, but that is for them to decide," he told her warningly. "We will not interfere."

She looked pensive. "I think it has already been decided. Did you not see the way they looked at each other when he left for London?"

"I saw," Michael told her. "But, we do not have time to stand around gossiping like a pair of fishwives. There is work to be done."

He saw her eyes flit over his shoulder and into the darkness of the pod chamber behind him. "Do you really think this is going to work Michael? I have witnessed many marvels since I met you all, but to actually bring someone back from the dead…"

Michael shivered, remembering the way he had been forced to take deep breaths to avoid illness when he and Elizabeth had stumbled across Lord Edmund in the forest three days ago. His grief had been strong, but more because of the finality of their guardian’s death than any particular grief. He had never loved Lord Edmund as Tess had, had respected him, but would not miss him particularly. He had always followed Max first after all. In spite of his many threats to his brother that he would go to Lord Edmund to set Max straight, they had mostly been just that - threats to get his king to think more carefully about whatever plan he was setting out on at the time.

In the end, Michael was unsure if he even wanted Lord Edmund back. It was not that he did not regret the awful way their guardian had died, but as he led Mary through into the pod chamber, he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that bringing Lord Edmund back would change everything again. And Michael knew for certain that he did not want things to return to the way they had been before. Not at all.

Before, there had been no Mary. There had been no girl who made him feel like perhaps he could live out his life on this planet happily, that he could accept once and for all that he was more human than anything.

But there was no time to think about that now. They had to return to the others with the healing stones of which Tess had spoken. Because, in the end, there was truly no question that if they could, the would bring their guardian back. He had died in a bid to protect them. Twas all he had ever done. They owed him another chance at life.

"Michael?" Mary asked, squeezing his hand. He realized that he had not answered her question.

"I know not," he told her honestly. "But we will find out soon enough."

They had been wandering through the long tunnel that led to the chamber proper, which threw a light glow into the corridor, and now he paused. "Are you sure you are ready to see this?" He asked. "It is likely not what you are expecting."

Mary grinned. "Nothing has turned out as I expected over the past few days. I am ready."

Michael dropped his gaze. "It is mildly disturbing Mary. It is…unnatural."

She lifted her hand and stroked his face. "Michael, anything that brought me you will simply awe me, not disgust me."

When their eyes met for a brief second, he allowed himself to believe her. He was ready to show her everything, to let her see who he truly was, once and for all.

"Very well then."

They stepped through into the dull light.

To be continued…




posted on 19-Aug-2002 1:40:47 PM
Part 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, she would hold onto the hope that she and Max were mistaken. She loved her sister and didn’t want to believe it, did not want to believe that everything she knew to be true about her was a lie.

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


posted on 19-Aug-2002 1:42:27 PM
Part 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle was far from over.

*********************************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, I want to," Mary replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was the one thing she could never have.

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

"Why should I?" Tess sneered.

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

"Was Max thinking of our people when he married her?" Tess demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


posted on 19-Aug-2002 1:44:20 PM
Part 39

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

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

In spite of her submission over the past day, Kyle did not doubt that should Maxwell will it, Elizabeth would succumb to his advances again. She had turned out to be much more romantic in her sensibility than Kyle had ever anticipated. While she had won out over that detrimental side of her nature upon her return to Nottingham Castle, he would not have her struggle with it again. And, in spite of all her claims that she was over Maxwell DeHarding, Kyle would not force her to confront him again.

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

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

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

What had that blonde witch done to him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I am sorry my son."

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

"Father? What…I don’t understand!"

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

"What?"

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

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

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

"She has forgiven John?" Kyle gasped in disbelief.

"Of course," the sheriff shrugged. "No real harm has been done and he is her son. And now she knows to keep a closer eye on him. The king’s brother is perfectly safe. She will never kill her own child, not even in the name of her favorite son. Richard will deal with him when he returns, but John will not die." James’s jaw set. "Nor will my son. Which is why there is a horse waiting for you below. The queen will not wish to see you right now but I am sure, because of my loyalty, that I will be able to convince her to pardon you. She is already inclined that way."

Kyle could not believe that this had happened. All of his father’s declarations that he was proud of him over the past days, that he was glad that Kyle was finally taking a hand in his own destiny, that he was becoming a man, had been lies. His father had been investigating him the entire time, had betrayed him.

He felt his world crashing down around his shoulders. Where an hour ago the entire shire had been at his feet, where he had been finally sure that Nottingham would respect him, it was all gone. All because of the one man he had trusted above all others.

"I cannot believe you would betray me thus," Kyle said quietly, pressing his lips together.

"I still have hopes that you will become the man I want you to be," James replied sadly. "But treason is not the way my son. You must see that. For now, accept your limitations and leave this place. I will call you back after I have secured the queen’s forgiveness. I burnt that church to assure your marriage to Lady Elizabeth." Kyle could see his father’s guilt at the mortal sin written on his face and, yet, he had done it - for him. He felt himself softening. "You can start to rebuild a life with your young wife and the queen’s affection for her will help your cause. Soon, all will be right again. You will be able to return and it will be as if none of this ever happened." DeValence’s satisfied gaze moved away from Kyle and back to the spectacle below.

Kyle followed his father’s gaze back to the cortège, which was slowly winding its way through the heavily packed streets below, the citizens of Nottingham apparently not wishing to miss an opportunity to lay eyes on their king’s mother, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, even if it was a surprising appearance.

"I will never forgive you for this," Kyle told his father. "You are dead to me." Kyle blinked, unsure why he had said such a thing, surprised at the venom in his tone. He was not thinking it after all. His father was doing all of this for him. He was beginning to realize that perhaps his plot with Prince John had been a foolhardy one. And, at least, he still had Elizabeth. They were legally wed now.

But he had said the words anyway. He had not thought them, but he had said them.

He did not miss the spasm of grief that crossed his father’s face. "I hope that you will reconsider that, but if it must be true, so that you will leave and save your own life, so be it."

Kyle stared at him for another long moment, fighting to say what he really meant - that he would follow his father’s plan, that it all would work out. His father must have seen this as a slight willingness to forgive him because he reached out a hand and clasped Kyle’s shoulder.

And, with that simple act of affection, in spite of a slight softening towards his father, his rage was rekindled and Sir Kyle could not stop what happened next. Upon later reflection, he was almost positive that it was not his own will that made him do it, but some other power that he could not even begin to explain. But, he could not deny the truth of it, in spite of the fact that he refused to blame himself.

In the end, it was he who took his father’s life.

Because, without a thought, his dagger was in his hand and then in his father’s chest. He watched James DeValence’s eyes widen with shock as he managed to lower his chin, to stare down at the destruction his betrayal of his son had caused. It had ended his own life.

"Kyle…" he gasped, clutching at his son’s shoulders. Kyle wrenched away in horror, watched his father fall to the ground. Their eyes met once more and he felt a spasm go through his entire frame as the light went out of the sheriff’s blue eyes.

His own eyes.

What had he done?

It was only then that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He watched in horrified fascination as a wraith emerged from the shadows, the fading sunlight catching the gold in her long locks. She stared at him with her cold blue eyes, then raised a hand, beckoning him to come to her.

And, so, he did, stepping over his father’s fallen form to do so. He did not look back.

********************************************

"This is the stupidest plan I have ever heard," Michael muttered to Isabel as they both pulled hoods over their heads and emerged from the forest. "The only other time we have asked Tess to mindwarp under such circumstances, she failed. Isn’t it how we got into this mess in the first place? When she tried to change Father Desmond’s memory? We should have taken Lord Edmund’s advice. We should have waited for Alexander to return, to make certain that Queen Eleanor would not help."

Isabel sighed, did not disagree. This plan wasn’t exactly fool-proof, especially since neither she nor Max particularly trusted Tess at the moment. But Isabel also understood why they had to proceed. Their queen - in spite of everything Lord Edmund had said to Tess about that, Isabel knew that she and Max and Michael all considered Elizabeth to still be such - was in danger and they could not allow her to stay that way a day longer. "Tess did manage to mindwarp the guards at the castle long enough to get you both out," Isabel reminded him. "And Max is desperate. With his marriage to Elizabeth nullified by the burning of the chapel, Sir Kyle will make haste to bind her legally."

"But Elizabeth will not agree," Michael said, still annoyed. "We know that. They cannot force her. We have proven that once. And I do not like the role Mary must play in this. It is too dangerous. She should not be in that castle. They will make her stay."

Isabel shook her head, her understanding suddenly that Michael’s concern in all of this was mainly for Mary, which softened her response and her impatience with her brother and his incessant arguments. "Something is amiss Michael. I think Max believes that Elizabeth refused to leave with Tess. We must get her out of there. And you know that Mary would be angry to even hear you question her right to help."

She felt Michael’s eyes on her. "Why would he think such a thing?" He asked, ignoring her statement about Mary, likely because he knew it was true.

"Tess admitted to us that she lied about not remembering," Isabel told him. "She knew everything about it. She met with Elizabeth and Elizabeth would not leave. She insisted that Tess get you out and leave her behind."

"Tess remembered?" Michael demanded, stupefied. Isabel could almost hear him searching his own mind for the memories that still would not surface.

"Yes." She paused, then tentatively broached her and Max’s suspicions to her brother. "Michael, we wonder if perhaps Tess has not made you forget what happened."

"What?" He practically yelled. They were still a considerable distance from Nottingham’s walls and, yet, Isabel flinched in spite of herself.

She looked around carefully. No one else on the road to the town appeared to be looking at them. They were well covered after all. "Michael, quiet yourself," she insisted anyway.

"What?" Michael demanded again, although he lowered his voice. "Tess saved me. Why would she make me forget it?"

"We are not entirely sure," Isabel admitted.

Michael stopped walking. "Are you sure this is not a way for Max to convince himself that he was right to set Tess aside?" He finally asked, sounding suspicious.

"Michael!"

"Well, you know as well as I do that he will feel guilty about it for the rest of his life, in spite of the fact that Lord Edmund has approved his match with Elizabeth," Michael muttered. "He still loves Tess, as a sister, if nothing else. I do understand that he did not want to hurt her in any of this, though his actions seem to indicate otherwise."

Isabel sighed again. "I know it seems that way Michael…" She trailed off. "I just don’t know how to explain it to you. Things have not been right with Tess for many days now. Have you not noticed how swiftly her character has changed for the worse since we met Elizabeth and the others?"

Michael was pensive as they began to walk again. "Yes," he admitted grudgingly. Isabel could hear his reluctance to believe anything negative about Tess though. She was still his sister, in spite of the fact that they argued constantly. Isabel understood that Michael felt protective of Tess, as they all did still - even Max, in spite of his recent questioning of her loyalty. And she had saved him from the dungeon in Nottingham Castle.

They had been raised together. The four of them were bonded, not only through childhood ties, but also through the mission their planet had set for them. The idea that one of them might betray the others to enemies outside the group - no matter what any of them did to each other - it was just as foreign and distasteful to Isabel as it apparently was to Michael.

And, yet, she could not help but believe it. Even in spite of the fact that Tess was currently mindwarping she and Max into the castle, disguised as servants to the Lady Mary Delucie.

"She has a right to be upset Bella," Michael continued, making all of Isabel’s own arguments. "Max did toss her aside. And, as we have already discussed, she has no one. You and I have made the choice to go our separate ways. Tess never got to make that choice."

"I know it," Isabel replied. "It is why I am inclined to forgive her if she will only admit that she has made you forget." She paused. "Because the problem lies in that there is no reason for you not to remember. If it is simply to help you move beyond your ordeal, that is one thing. But I feel like she is trying to hide something altogether different. Why is she lying?"

"We don’t even know that it is she who is responsible for my memory loss," Michael reminded her. "Sir Kyle did make me hit my head very hard.

"I know," Isabel snapped. "I just feel that she is. It is all too coincidental. And isn’t it a bit strange that you remember Sir Kyle beating you, but nothing else?"

"Well, yes," Michael admitted. There was another long pause as they came to the great gates of the town. "We will melt in with that merchant caravan." Michael whispered, taking her hand and pulling her close to his side. Isabel felt the blood in her veins begin to pump more quickly. This was the first test. They needed to get into the town without alerting the guards and they did not have the benefit of Tess’s mindwarp. They both knew that Michael’s description would have been circulated to all the guards and many of them had already seen him after all, during his captivity in the castle.

They could not be captured. They were responsible for securing the escape of the others once Elizabeth was freed. If they failed, the entire enterprise failed. Isabel silently agreed with Michael that the whole plan was extremely weak, but there was little else they could do. They did not have an army to storm the castle, nor did they have a guarantee that Alex would convince the queen to support them. It was true that Max had saved the taxes for King Richard, but as far as any of them knew, Richard was no longer king. The queen might even be supporting her younger son now. The loyalties of noblemen and women were notoriously changeable. John was just as much Eleanor’s son as Richard was after all. Isabel could not understand why she loved one more than the other, felt a pang for the old woman that, because a kingdom lay in the balance, she was forced to choose. But, perhaps she did understand. Perhaps the only way to do it was to love one more. And, yet, Isabel pitied the queen. It would be like asking Isabel to choose between Max and Michael. Impossible.

Isabel breathed a sigh of relief when no one stopped to question them as they passed through the gates in the shadow of the merchant’s cart. It was only once they were in the walls that she understood. She could sense the excitement in the air as she took in the inordinate amount of people still circulating in the streets. It was getting dark. Most of these people should be in their beds! Something had happened.

"Bella?" Michael spoke in an undertone.

"I know," Isabel said quietly. She reached out, gently grasped the arm of a passing woman. "Excuse me. Can you tell me what has happened? We have only just arrived in town."

The woman paused, then bobbed a curtsy. She seemed to recognize Isabel and Michael’s bearings as those of people above her in station. "Certainly madam. The queen and Prince John have taken up residence in the castle. The town is in an uproar because they will need to be entertained. There will likely be another fair or perhaps a market. It is good for the town you see. The rich noblemen will swarm upon us in order to petition her grace and the prince. Already they begin to come. Alexander of Whitfield even rode in with her."

"Thank you." Isabel turned away, her heart thundering in her chest. Alex had succeeded! How had he managed to bring Eleanor to Nottingham so quickly? He was brilliant! She felt warmth spread through her at the thought that she would soon see him again. She had not expected to for more than a fortnight. This was joyous beyond belief.

"Michael! Is it not wonderful?" Isabel clutched at her brother’s arm.

Of course, Michael was not so easily convinced. "It would seem our luck is turning," he allowed, although his tone was still suspicious. His next words betrayed about what he was still worried about. "Bella, I do not understand why Elizabeth would not leave with Tess and I. Do you think, if she’s doing it, which I am still not convinced she is…" He trailed off, then plunged on. "Do you think that is what Tess is hiding? Elizabeth’s reason for staying behind?"

"She told us it was because Elizabeth has chosen Kyle," Isabel admitted, brushing aside his concern. There was no need for it any longer. "We both know that is impossible. I think she was simply trying to make Max doubt his wife. I am convinced that Elizabeth did not think you would escape easily if she accompanied you."

"That does sound more like her," Michael replied, clearly wanting to be convinced. "And, yet, she has undergone so much trouble to be with him before. What changed the last time?"

"I am sure we will find out soon enough," Isabel told him. "Let us find Max. He must not try and spirit Elizabeth away. We must allow Alex to have time to petition our cause."

"Very well," Michael returned. "I would see that Mary is safe anyway." He took her hand and started to lead her through the crowded streets in the direction of the castle.

As Isabel followed behind, she wondered at the shiver that descended her spine. Michael was right. Their luck was turning. Everything was going better than planned. Much better.

And, so, why was it though that she still suddenly felt that things were going to get worse?