Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Story in Haiku Poetry

New light in the sky
announces a sacred birth.
Shine brightly young star.

Hallelujah song
carries on a gentle wind,
heralding a king.

Shepherds lift their heads,
not to gaze at a new light
but to hear angels.

"Unto you is born
in the city of David
a Savior for all."

Born on straw at night
under low stable rafters,
Baby Jesus cried.

Sheep and goats and cows
gather 'round a manger bed
to awe at a babe.

Wise men come to see
a child of greater wisdom
and honor divine.

Rare and precious gifts,
gold and myrrh and frankincense,
to offer a king.

Mary and Joseph
huddle snugly together.
They cradle God's son.

On this wise He came,
the Son of God to the earth.
A humble wonder.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Mine's a Wonderful Life

It was early in the morning, three days before Christmas.  I was in bed with my eyes closed, struggling to decide if my latest dream was less or more reality.  I had retired to bed late the previous night, having stayed up to wrap gifts and watch It’s a Wonderful Life all by my lonesome while the rest of the house snored peacefully in the background.  I had wept emotionally over George’s realization that the world was a better place with him alive.  Then I’d turned off the TV and gone to bed. 
Years ago when my children were young, viewing this holiday classic had been an annual tradition.  But ever since my four darlings had entered puberty, they’d unanimously agreed it was more torture than treat to watch a black-and-white rerun of some crazy, old, dead guy……no matter how many tears it cost their mother.  My husband had sided with the majority—a little too eagerly—so I now upheld the holiday ritual alone.   
Still in bed, I opened my eyes and stared up at a ceiling that resembled muddy tapioca.  The grogginess had lifted enough for me to realize I’d been dreaming, but the impact I felt from those realistic visions bothered me.  Sometime in the night I’d assimilated George Baily’s experience into my subconscious, and I’d become a ghost in my own home, invisible to my husband and four children.  I was painfully aware of them but unable to interact with anyone.  Though I stood directly in their path, they were entirely oblivious of me. 
The worst part wasn’t my sudden ghostliness.  Nor was it the fact that I couldn’t communicate with the ones I loved.  What weighed heavy on my heart in the dream—and now while awake—was the fact that my family didn’t appear the least bit troubled by my absence.  No one had stopped for even a second to question where I was, to call out my name or expend the slightest amount of effort searching the house for me.  They simply went on with their daily routines, engrossed in whatever selfish activities each had planned for the day. 
No one missed me.  It was disheartening. 
The fact that my entire family had opted out of movie night the evening prior only made my condition graver.  I may as well have been a real ghost for as little as I was wanted.  In truth, every other soul in the house was capable of taking care of him or herself; my family could go right on functioning without me.
My goal as a parent had always been to teach each child to be self-sufficient and independent; so I had succeeded.  That was good!  But I felt miserable nonetheless. 
Pulling the covers over my head, I curled up into a ball and fell back asleep, depressed and envious of the fact that Bedford Falls had fallen apart without George Baily.
I was jolted awake—startled upright.  A glance at the clock showed I’d overslept by a couple hours.  Five unsmiling faces surrounded my bed, all focused on me.  I realized it was my youngest daughter squawking, “Moth—er!” that had awakened me.  The silence accompanying four tight stares only lasted long enough for me to wipe at the mascara I imagined was smeared beneath my eyes. 
“What are you all…?” I started, only to be drowned out by sibling teens talking at once.
“Mother, I need a ride to Joslin’s house—stupid ‘Big Foot’ won’t take me.”
“Because I can’t, Bratilda.  I told you, I’m scheduled to work…”
“So drop me off first….Mother, tell him!”
“Mom, I’m short on cash, and I need gas money…”
“No, no, no way!  He hasn’t done one chore around here; I’ve been doing everything!”
“Forget them—I really need some money, Mom. We’re Christmas shopping at the mall…”
“Hey, Ma, did you get my red sweater washed?  You said you’d have it ready for my concert tonight…”
“Mom, please tell me you are not going to make me go to his dork concert tonight!  I have that Christmas cookie exchange—you said you’d help me make sugar cookies today…”
Just then, my husband squeezed his head in.  “Hunny?  Have you seen my car keys anywhere?”
If in reality I were to wake up and find myself a ghost, this beautiful family of mine would probably find a way to function.  But my dream had been wrong.  My family needed me, even if I was slightly taken for granted.  The truth felt radiant and clear—Bedford Falls was in chaos.  Good old George Bailey’s wonderful life had nothing on mine. 

This story is from "Making Wishes: Quotes, Thoughts, & a Little Poetry for Every Day of the Year".  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

By Virtue of Thanksgiving

Oh what marvels fill me with thanksgiving!
The deep mahogany of a leaf once green. The feathered fronds of tiny icicles coating every twig and branch in a wintry landscape. The feel of goosebumps thawing after endured frozen temperatures. Both hands clamped around a hot mug of herbal tea. The aromatic whiff of mint under my nose. The stir of emotion from a child's cry for mommy. A gift of love detached of strings. Spotted lilies collecting raindrops in a cupped clump of petals. The vibrant mélange of colors on butterfly wings. The milky luster of a single pearl. Rainbows reflecting off iridescence bubbles. Awe-struck silence evoked by any form of beauty.
Avocado flecks in your eyes.
Warm hands on my face.
Sweetness on the tongue.
The harmony of voices.
An answered prayer.
A pink balloon.
A caress.
A smile.
These have become my treasures by virtue of thanksgiving.


Monday, November 9, 2015

That There Indomitable Spirit

 That There Indomitable Spirit

Across from campus there’s a wooden bench that sits beneath a cluster of cherry trees.  From there one can look to the right and see a dignified university decorated with red brick and crème lattice.  On the left, a new playground sits in the middle of a green park, popular among children who giggle and shriek as if silliness were their universal tongue.
I found the bench, my favorite reading spot, occupied that afternoon by an older gentleman in a black ball cap.  The gold insignia above the bill was a badge denoting some military cavalry.  His smile was a more powerful draw for my attention; he seemed to be enjoying the nice spring weather. 
I took a seat on the far end of the bench, a couple spaces down from him.  He appeared lost in thought when I glanced his way, mesmerized by the youthful scene taking place a distance out on the playground.
“So, what’ve you been up to today, son?”
I squinted at the man, a bit startled by his raspy voice, uncertain if his question was meant for me.  There was really no one else within earshot.
“Um…”  It was the most intelligent answer I could manage in my befuddled state.
The old man twisted his neck to look at my face.  His wrinkled smile stretched even farther as he waited patiently for me to provide a better answer to his question.  I fumbled around with a physiology textbook and placed it in my lap.
“Well, I uh…”  I thought back to the beginning of my day and rehearsed it for him.  “I woke up late this morning and had to hurry to my seminary class—drove two miles on an empty tank of gas.  Luckily my old Ford manages pretty far on fumes.  Then, after class, I purchased breakfast from a vending machine before hustling to take a grueling calculus test.”
“You a math major?” the man asked.
I shook my head.  “No, sir, not really.  Pre-med.  But I’m good at math.  My other classes are organic chemistry and human physiology.”  I lifted up the textbook in my lap as proof.
The old man nodded.  “You a lucky young fella.  A religious boy?”
I gestured affirmatively.  “I wouldn’t drag myself out of bed at five o’clock every morning to attend seminary if I wasn’t, I suppose.”
“I s’pose not,” the man agreed.  “Did you fight for your seat in that class?”
“Fight?” I repeated, confused. 
“You pay for it?”
“Oh….no, no, no.  Seminary’s free of charge.  Anyone can attend if they care to rise before the sun and sanity.”
The old man chuckled, but I got the feeling it wasn’t because he found me funny.  Then he went on to make an announcement, pointing a finger at my nose as if it were important. 
“That there religion—that’s Andy Shindler’s right arm.”
I waited for an explanation, but none came.
“Oh,” I finally breathed and opened up my textbook.  There was a section on facial muscles I needed to read.  Another odd question hit my ear before I could find the right chapter.
“Someone force you to go to school?  They makin’ you learn what’s in that book?”
“Um, no.  No, sir, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.  I chose to take this class.”  Again, a rigid finger was pointed at me.
“Hmm.  That there choice—that’s James Kennedy’s legs, both of ‘em.”
I tried not to look at the man as if he were talking crazy, but….
“Oh,” I nodded.
“And that there book—”  His stern finger nearly reached to touch the colorful skull painted on the front cover.  “—that’s Donald Maccaby’s left eye.  Lost his left ear too.”
“From a book accident?”  I couldn’t help but ask.  I imagined a shelf in the library falling over, the edge hitting an unsuspecting man named Donald Maccaby in the face.  Ouch. 
The crazy old man chuckled again.  He didn’t answer me but kept right on talking.
“I call all this here Willy Whitman’s.”  His pointing finger gestured to our surroundings, mostly to the campus at the right of us.  I wondered then if the guy was lost.
“Sir, that’s not Whitman College.  It’s the University of Washington.”
The old man looked at me, smiling, staring patiently as if I were actually the lost one.  But I attended classes in those buildings every weekday; I was quite certain of the name of my own university.
I’d about decided to bury my head in my book and ignore the gawking madman when his features fell.  The smile that had appeared pinned from ear to ear collapsed, and his twinkling blue eyes glazed over, dull and sober.  His next words were not that of a madman at all, rather those of a wise, seasoned soldier.
“Andy Shindler, James Kennedy, Donald Maccaby, William Whitman—they were all privates who years ago served overseas under my command.  Those men made great sacrifices in war.  Lost limbs and other body parts.  In William’s case, his life.  Their sacrifices—their losses—paid for the rights you and I and all these here people take for granted.  The right to religion and school and books and writin’ and speakin’ and makin’ choices that freedom allows us to make.  That’s why every time I see a token of such freedoms, I think of my old friends.  They are those freedoms, son.  They spilled blood for ‘em, so you may as well call ‘em by their rightful names—Andy, James, Donald, William, Logan, Jacob, Ryan, Michael, and thousands more valiant soldiers.  Don’t you ever forget it.”
My head bowed, humbled.  I finally understood. 
“I won’t forget,” I promised.
“Good boy.”
The man’s smile returned as bright as ever.  I closed the pages lying open on my lap.
“Sir, may I ask your name?”
He seemed pleased by the request and immediately shared it with me. 
“Henry Starr, First Air Cavalry.”
I pointed to the throng of children twirling, jumping, and running on a green expanse of American soil without a care or fear in the world.
“That there indomitable spirit—that’s Henry Starr.”

This story is from "Making Wishes: Quotes, Thoughts, & a Little Poetry for Every Day of the Year".  

Friday, October 30, 2015

Here's Your All Hallows Eve Treat

Having received more than one request for the newest chapters in 'The Tarishe Curse' to be posted a day early.....'because Halloween is too filled with festivities; there's no time to read'......'I'm torn between wanting to curl up on the sofa and read vs getting into costume to go out with friends'....'I hate trying to speed read so I can be done before trick-or-treating starts....I've sucumbed to these valid arguments.  So, this chilly autumn day preceding All Hallow's Eve, I give you the next installment of the Queen of Werefolk's harrowing story.

But first, for those new to our holiday tradition, allow me to fill you in...

A few years back I thought it would be fun to write a short Halloween story for my friend, Cathie, who happens to be the holiday's biggest fan.  I posted my completed work on my blog—a grim tale about the cursed Queen of Werefolk—and let Cathie know to read it.  

She did.  

And then she asked, "So, what's the rest of the story?"  

Uh….what?  The rest?  You mean, you want to know what happens next?  Well, I don't know; I meant for it to end.

"You should extend the story for next Halloween."  

The idea appealed to me.  So I wrote more about the werewolves, their enemies and challenges, and posted the result the following Halloween.  That day a tradition was born.  Tah—da!  Read from the beginning by clicking here.

Now, sit back and enjoy what happens next...

Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.

           Year 2015 - 'Rock Beast'

     It was a much shorter journey this time being carried by a vampire bat, but the trip found its end in the exact spot as the night before—outside a dark cave dug into the high face of a mountain range.  I was dropped onto the same narrow ledge at the cavern’s mouth and immediately confronted by Jovani.  His velvety voice hit my ears before I could fully stand—a mutter of justification for his actions that had no persuasive effect on me.  He was nothing more than a ruthless killer in my eyes, the traitor who’d cut down my mate and brothers.  My own voice rose in reproach over the vampire’s hissing.
     “You treacherous, double-crossing, heartless monster!  How could you?  I gave you Evadine!  I showed you compassion!  Kindness!  I gave you your mate, and in return you murdered mine!
     Half-shaded by an overhang, half-lit by moonlight, his red lips parted as if he intended to answer me.  But I already knew what selfishness had prompted his actions; he’d meant to appease the witch in order to save himself and his clan—a plan he learned was futile after overhearing Thaddeus confess his mother’s deadly intentions for the vampires.
     “I offered you the werewolves’ allegiance!  I offered you our strength, our numbers, our assistance to destroy a mutual enemy!  I would’ve fought to defend you!”
     Jovani had the nerve to cut in just then.  “And will you still?”
     My stomach rolled, threatening to vomit at the bloodsucker’s feet.  How dare he ask such a thing after what he’d done.  I shoved at the immovable demon.
     “You killed my husband!  You slayed him with my own sword!” I screamed and shoved at him again, angered that the brute wouldn’t so much as falter in his stance.  Turning away, I cried out into the night, attempting to vent a portion of the fury tormenting me.
     “Jovani, you have no soul!”
     “That I will not dispute.”
     My fingers curled like claws, wanting to scratch out his crimson eyes, but I restrained myself and slowly turned to face him again. 
     “I showed you mercy by ordering Evadine returned to your side.  You told her you owed me a favor in return—I heard you whisper it.  So why did you kill him?  You could have extended an ounce of mercy in return and left Kresh alone.”
     “I owed that mongrel a heartless disservice; surely your snooping ears overheard those words as well?”
     “A disservice does not warrant murder!” I shrieked.  It was all I could do not to physically beat on the fiend, but I knew it would be wasted energy. 
     “You are too quick to assume, pet.”
     “I am not your pet!” I snarled.  But his curious remark seized my greater attention.  What had I assumed?  I’d seen the bodies with my own eyes—Kresh and his werewolf brothers discarded in a lifeless heap.  I’d seen the stab wounds, the flowing blood, the dead stillness.  They couldn’t have survived my silver blade; it’s lethalness to werewolves was no secret. 
     “Thaddeus said you slayed the werewolves with my sword.  He said you took possession of it.”
     “That is true.”  Jovani unveiled the hexed blade as if he were a magician pulling it out of a hat.  Before I could reach for the hilt, he tossed my weapon over the cliff’s edge, making it sing a shrill note while spinning through the air until the first clank reverberated, smacking against the mountainside. 
     “You idiot!” I ran to peer over the brink, searching for any moonlit gleam of metal.  The sword had come to a stop about ten feet down, wedged between a fat limb and the jagged rock face.  It would require a steep descent to reach it.
     I spun around to face Jovani, noticing for the first time additional pairs of crimson eyes gleaming at his back—vampires lurking inside the cave. 
     “Why did you do that?” I demanded, ignoring the watchful eyes of the others.
     “Your sword is a curse.  Why keep it unless you mean to slaughter more of your kind?”
     I felt my jaw lock, having no logical answer to his question.  Frankly, I wished the thing destroyed, an impossibility unless the witch too were destroyed.  Until then, I feared it falling into the wrong hands—like Jovani’s.
     “If you are finished with your pointless tantrum, pet, I suggest you cease yapping long enough to hear me out.”
     I squared my shoulders and copied how he stood as still as a tree.  My stare tapered while my jawed clenched so tightly it hurt my teeth.  I would let the bloodsucker talk; what choice did I have?
     “After carefully considering your offer to briefly join forces for the purpose of killing the witch of Tarishe……I accept.”
     “Denied,” I spat.  “The offer no longer stands.”
     Jovani gave the slightest tilt of the head.  A slender eyebrow rose barely enough to show doubt in his expression.  He went on speaking as if I had said nothing.
     “My one and only purpose for this alliance is to protect my clan—a circle that has dwindled in numbers thanks to the cruel coercion of the wolf you call Kresh.  It is his fault that we now suffer the enmity of the witch.  I hold him solely responsible; therefore, I expect the werewolves to do whatever it takes to fix this mess they’ve dragged us into.”
     “Kresh was right not to trust you.”
     “And I was right not to trust you,” Jovani countered, “which is why I made the attempt to appease a more advantageous ally.  For years that weathered enchantress has been a rare source of security for my clan, making rival clans blind to our whereabouts, casting desirable prey at our feet.  In contrast, what have the werewolves ever done for us?  Nay—nothing but prove themselves a foul-smelling nuisance.  Had the witch accepted my humble request for exoneration and held true to her terms for reconciliation, I would even now be in her service.  But it is clear to me that she is a devious and unforgiving creature indeed.  Therefore, my last hope, and yours as well, is to see her dead.  Our mutual need must outweigh the hatred between us.”
     “Mutual need is no longer enough.  You took my husband’s life, and I will never forgive that.”
     “An understandable and valid argument—if it were true.”
     His words, and the cocky way he spoke them, made me react.  Wide-eyed, pulse hastening, I commanded him, “Explain!”
     “Certainly, pet.  Your husband is not dead.”
     I was sure I knew what game he was playing.  “I’m not talking about that pigeon-brained son of a witch, Thaddeus.”
     “Neither am I.”
     Jovani’s half-illuminated smugness glinted with humor for a split second.  I was at a loss for words, fearful of being manipulated by false hope.  My brain scrambled to explain away his twisted ruse.
     “My favor to you has been repaid—a mate for a mate.”
     I glanced at the cave and yearned by some miracle to see Kresh step out of the darkness, but he didn’t.  Jovani’s words remained hollow to me, a sick scheme.
     “Did you or did you not use my sword last night to strike down my werewolf escorts?”
     His answer pained me, voiced without a hint of remorse.  “I most assuredly did.”
     “You killed them for that awful witch,” I groaned.
     “I did it for my clan,” Jovani corrected.  “It was the price of atonement—your lives to save ours.”
     I glanced aside, my eyes watering.  All those loyal wolves.  Their lives had bought him nothing. 
     “However, I did spare one mongrel for your sake.”
     My beloved’s name crossed my lips without thinking.  “But….but I saw him among the dead...”
     “Among them, yes.  Not one of them.”
     “But…he was wounded…gouged…I saw the open gash...”
     “Painfully wounded indeed!  I owed the conniving dog a heartless disservice; you do recall those were my words.  That debt too has been repaid.  The blade I used, however, was non-fatal to werewolves….although I imagine the healing process stung a bit.”
     “Where is he now?  Where?  I’ll not believe a word from a soulless bloodsucker—show me!  Show me my husband!”
     Jovani made the slightest jerk with his head, and four vampires emerged from the cavern, their alabaster skin reflecting moonlight like glass.  The group cast crimson glares my way before rushing over the cliff, transforming into massive bats in the process.  Their wings stirred up a cold breeze that caused me an unpleasant shiver.  I watched the bats dissolve into the night.  Jovani kept his focus on them far longer than my squinted gaze could detect even a speck of their existence.
     “And now we wait.” 
     I was left to stand alone in the moonlight.  Jovani joined those hidden within the pitch-black of the cavern.  I imagined Evadine among other vampires who made no noise at all.
     Folding my arms for warmth’s sake, I stepped closer to the cliff’s edge where my eyes dropped to look once again for the discarded silver sword.  It was still wedged next to a brushwood bough that had somehow found enough moisture to sprout from a rocky crevice.  I was determined to retrieve my weapon, but doubted the time was opportune.  And yet, it seemed unlikely that a second chance would present itself.  The unnerving silence pressured me to glimpse over a shoulder to check on my enemy, but my stubbornness refused.  I would not give them the satisfaction of even the smallest gesture of concern.  It would likely prove useless anyway; those demons would keep hidden until choosing to be seen.  They were watching me, though.  I was sure of it.
     I sat on the ground and swung my legs over the ledge, half expecting Jovani’s steel arm to wrench me from my seat and plant my butt on some hard boulder, commanding me not to move.  No such thing happened.  So I turned onto my stomach and felt for sure footing, keeping both hands flat on the dirt shelf.  Despite difficulty maneuvering (the majority caused by the full, white dress still adorning me) I managed to successfully climb down and retrieve my sword.  It was trickier scaling the rock, mostly due to the number of times I slipped on my own skirt.
     As soon as my hand reached above the ledge, I felt a cold clamp around my wrist.  Jovani pulled me partway up, took me by the waist, and then set my feet flat on the ground.  I pushed against him until he voluntarily moved away. 
     “You’re welcome,” he smirked.
     The sword remained in my possession, a fact that surprised me.  I hid it at my back and informed the bloodsucker, “I did not retrieve this for you.”
     My hostility seemed to humor him, yet he returned a powerful glare throughout the duration of our shared silence.  He appeared petrified, like a marble manikin, until something in the sky caused his pupils to dart upward.  I squinted but saw nothing.  A minute later, the faint silhouette of black wings caught my eye, and I automatically held my breath.
     My focus remained glued on the cloud of vampire bats drawing nearer and nearer.  The darkness made everything a shadow, but I could clearly distinguish a figure hanging from the hooks of two bats—shared cargo that appeared limp and sagging.  I dared to believe it was Kresh.
     When his furry form hit the ground mere strides from me, I ran and fell at his side.  His umber coat was caked in blood.  Some patches had hardened, spiked like black icicles.  Others were a mash of thick muck.  I put a hand against his side and felt him cringe at my touch.  It seemed a chore for him to lift his head, and I nearly collapsed when his weary eyes opened to see me.  He was alive but in bad shape. 
     “Oh, Kresh,” I cried.  My open arms hesitated, wanting to hold him but afraid of causing him further pain.  After a tentative moment of indecision, my hands went for his face, grasping it by each side.  Our eyes mirrored mutual anguish until Kresh’s gaze narrowed and shifted to the audience of vampires behind me.  He struggled to rise to his feet despite my protest.
     “No, no, don’t stand up; you’re hurt—please, Kresh.” 
     He ignored my pleading and managed an unsteady stance on all fours.  A vehement growl vibrated in his throat as if he were a live volcano threatening to explode.  Reluctantly, I turned to face the vampires too, but remained on bended knee close beside my mate.  I feared he’d be unable to stand for long, and figured he could lean against me if necessary.
     For the few moments my back was turned, more than a dozen vampires had stepped out into the open to watch us.  I recognized four from the night prior—Percival, Concetta, Evander, and the exotic princess, Araminta.  Evadine was not among them, a fact that surprised me.  But I doubted her hiding place existed very far.  Despite being ridiculously outnumbered, I spoke boldly to their leader. 
     “I want you and your rats to leave us.”
     “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
     “Leave.  Now.”  Kresh snarled loudly, underscoring my demand.  I felt anxious about his injuries.
     “I’m truly sorry, pet, but I cannot leave until we’ve come to an acceptable agreement.”
     “I will not help you—not after what you’ve done.  And I will not be bullied into anything.  Not by you or Thaddeus or anyone.”
     “I believe you.”
     “Good. Then we’ve nothing further to discuss.”
     The word had not been spoken by Jovani; it lacked his smooth, velvety tone.  It had been rasped by an individual concealed inside the cave.  I expected the emergence of a sleek vampire when a much taller, broader form stepped into view.  He had large wings folded on his back, the upper wrists and primary wingtips visible behind a massive body of chiseled musculature.  And though his movements seemed fluid, he looked as if he’d been carved out of stone.  I gawked at the granite monster, having no recollection of ever having laid eyes on this….thing…before.  Guardedly, I rose to my feet.
     “What in the netherworld…?” I muttered, tightening the grip on my sword. 
     It wasn’t until Kresh put a hand on my arm, seeking a crutch for stability, that I realized he’d taken on human form.  I worried in a whisper over my shoulder…
     “You’re not strong enough yet, Kresh, what are you doing?”
     He squeezed softly on my arm, continuing to use me for balance to some degree.  His nakedness was easily concealed by me; his weakened condition was not.
     “Don’t give into them,” he breathed. 
     “What is that thing—that rock beast?”
     “A gargoyle.”
     “A what?”  But there was no time to explain.  The vampires had stepped aside to allow the creature a pathway to approach me.  Jovani moved in closer as well.
     I brought my sword up until the tip pointed in the vicinity of this gargantuan’s heart, not that it could cut through stone (if indeed that’s what he was made of).  Jerking my blade the slightest bit to signal a halt, I barked out questions, demanding answers.
     “Who are you?  Where did you come from?  And how is it you’re in league with these bloodsuckers?”
     The gargoyle made no attempt to disarm me, and he remained at the opposite end of my sword, allowing just that distance between us.  The few words he used to answer my questions came out as gravelly as his appearance.  The voice haunted me, yet I had never heard speech as gritty as his. 
     “I am Baron.  I come from Tarishe.  Jovani is my brother.”
     I scoffed at the likelihood his statements were true.  “I come from the village of Tarishe, and in all my years inside those gates I have never laid eyes on the likes of you.  You are not Tarishian, Baron—if that is your real name and not another lie.”
     He repeated the same words as before.  “I come from Tarishe.  I was sent by my mistress, the sorceress—the one you call Grandmother.”
     “The one I call witch,” I corrected, but his words were cause for concern.  “How can you be from Tarishe if I’ve never seen you until now?  And why would she send you when she already sent Jovani and Thaddeus?”
     “You see things poorly, Cat.” 
     My heart stuttered.  He knew my nickname.
     “Her name is Duvalla,” Kresh interjected in a growl.  “Queen Duvalla.”  I felt pressure on my arm as he tried to stand up taller.  It was difficult for me not to turn and assist him.
     Baron went on talking without acknowledging my real name.  “I come for Jovani.  I want to protect him.”
     “Protect him…from whom—us?  You fear retribution from the werewolves?”
     “From the witch,” I guessed. 
     “And you want to protect him……because he’s your…brother?”
     “Good luck with that,” I laughed derisively.  “The witch means to repay him a heartless disservice,” I said, making use of Jovani’s own words.  “She will likely succeed.” 
     “This is true.”
     “But you say the witch sent you—certainly it wasn’t to protect him.”
     “Then why did she send you?”
     “To exterminate his clan.”
     The paradox stunned me.  I glanced over at the pack of vampires standing as calm and still as the night itself.  None of them showed any sign of fear. 
     “She sent you to wipe out his clan,” I repeated, thinking.  “Slay all but Jovani—revenge for the attack on her.”
     “But you won’t do it.”
     “I do not want to.”
     “Does the witch know this?  Does she know you consider this shameless traitor a brother?”
     Jovani cut in, both offended and tired of our game of twenty questions.  He expounded on what I had only just surmised. 
     “Baron and I share comparable afflictions to sunlight.  This fact served to unite us as brothers ages ago, a bond that was strengthened by a pledge to protect one another and our families.  Like myself, Baron was recruited by the Tarishe witch to serve her on occasion in exchange for considerable advantages.  He and I have done so faithfully for decades…..until now.  We are stuck in a grim situation—one I have put him in, the same one your mate has put me in—and the only solution appears to be eliminating the witch, an impossible task without the element of complete surprise. 
     “If it were practical to flee her hand, we would have done so and left the werewolves to endure on their own.  However, vengeance knows no bounds in this case.  The witch will stop at nothing to hunt us down.  She will recruit others—our enemies—and pay them generously to torment and slay us.  Like it or not, we three now share a powerful enemy.  One that must be destroyed.”
     “Then destroy her,” Kresh growled.  His grip on my arm tightened as he vocally attacked Jovani.  “Finish the job you vowed to perform!  Poison her with venom and rip her apart as you swore you would do!  Had you not failed as miserably as you keep your word…”
     “Had you not stolen my mate and threatened her life, I would never have made that foolish vow in the first place!  You forced my hand, knowing I’d swear to anything to protect Evadine.  You are the reason my clan is now in danger!”
     “Had I not abducted that unpleasant she-leech, your clan would have tried to murder us all!”
     “A less demanding task—one at which we would most-assuredly have succeeded.”
     “Over your ugly mate’s dead body.”
     “Enough!” Baron roared aloud.  His granite wings appeared to shudder edgily.  “Your arguing is pointless; what’s done is done.”
     “He’s right,” Jovani agreed.  “There is nothing to be gained from stewing over the past.”
     “Spoken like a real hypocrite.” Kresh said.  “You just slaughtered eight of my brothers as vengeance for past deeds!”
     “It was an act of penitence, dog, with the added benefit of evening the score.  And you’ve overlooked a great show of mercy on my part—the fact that you continue to breath.”
     “You can beg for mercy when my strength returns and I snap your…”
     “Silence him!” Baron insisted in a roar.
     Worried that one of Jovani’s clan might move to carry out the order, I sliced through the air with my sword as a warning to stay back.  No one budged.  Every gaze met mine as if they expected me to command Kresh’s silence.  I refused.  
     “He simply speaks my thoughts.  Would you rather hear them from me?”
     Baron contemplated me strongly and then wisely acquiesced.  “You have reason to be angry.  But we all have our reasons.” 
     “What he says is true.”
     “Shut up, Jovani.”  The vampire glared daggers at me, and I had no doubt Kresh was returning the kindness. 
     With a huff of annoyance, Baron took over speaking.  “I have a plan to stop the sorceress.  It will work.”
     I said nothing when he paused, trusting him less than his so-called brother; however, curiosity had me itching to hear this fail-proof plan.  No doubt Baron knew he had me by the ear.
     “If you mean to kill a master of magic, it must be done swiftly, and by the hand least expected.”
     “Which means Baron is the only one who can do the deed,” Jovani cut in, spelling out the obvious.  “The witch would be wary of anyone else.”
     I nodded once to convey my understanding.
     Baron continued, “An ambush will never work.  More is required.  The sorceress is old, yet alert and skilled at hurried spells.  Few hands are faster.”
     “That explains why my clan failed.  I assumed our numbers would easily overpower her.” 
     “Numbers do not matter,” the gargoyle said.
     “Then why do you need us?” I asked.  “My presence, and that of the werewolves, would put her on guard.  Surely, you’d be more likely to succeed without us.”
     The monster shook his stone head.  “No.  You are the more we require.”
     “Explain,” I demanded, feeling Kresh tense up beside me. 
     The gargoyle offered one self-explanatory word.  “Distraction.”
     “You want to use the werewolves as a diversion.  How so?”
     Baron finally laid out his entire plan.    
     “The sorceress believes that even now I am carrying out her orders, tracking down and executing the remaining members of Jovani’s clan.  I’ve been instructed to bring only him and Evadine back alive.  Thaddeus was to retrieve his new bride.  He will fail.  If I deliver all three of you to my mistress, it will confirm the depth of my loyalty.  She will assume I carried out her orders to the last, and her attention will either turn to Jovani—to watch him beg for Evadine’s life—or to you, Cat, in order to erase your memory and thus neutralize you as a threat.”
     It bothered me, the casual way this stranger used a nickname only my closest friends addressed me with.  Friends who, for the most part, were village hunters.  How often had our modest hunting parties tracked game in the forest, apparently watched from the shadows by gargoyles.
     Jovani immediately voiced a reservation; apparently he’d been unaware of one detail in his brother’s plan.  “I will not have Evadine involved.”
     “She must go.”
     “No.  I go alone.  Tell the witch you couldn’t find her.”
     “She’ll not believe it.”
     “Then make her believe it.” 
     Baron turned to the vampire, taking his attention off of me for the first time.  “Jovani, it’s unlikely I would find you without your mate.”
     “Then say she escaped—at the last minute she broke free and fled.”
     “No.  I’ve been ordered to return with you both.  If this plan is to work, I can’t give the sorceress a reason to doubt me.  Evadine will not be harmed.  I promise.”
     Jovani appeared as distressed as the night before when he was anxiously awaiting the return of his beloved.  I couldn’t help but feel touched by how he desired to protect her.  Being asked to put Evadine’s life in danger a second time had to be torture for him, not that he didn’t deserve a healthy dose of it.   
     “I don’t like this, Baron.  I’ll go mad if any harm comes to her.”
     “Evadine will not be harmed.  Trust me.”
     With no further argument, the gargoyle turned back to continue communicating his plan.
     “We will confront the sorceress inside the walls of Tarishe.  Meanwhile, the werewolves must gather outside and make their howling voices heard from every direction.  It will appear they’ve come to try and rescue their queen—a desperate act in the eyes of the sorceress, but one that will cause her concern.  Her attention will be divided in too many directions, making her uneasy.  Her response will be to cast a spell and subdue a portion of the threat.  Whether directed at Jovani or the werewolves, it doesn’t matter, for as soon as her energies are engrossed in forming a spell, I’ll strike from behind and thrust Cat’s sword through the sorceress’ heart.  She’ll never see it coming.  There’ll be no time for her to cease one spell and begin the defensive chant of another.  With everyone’s cooperation, this will work.”   
     “Not everyone,” Kresh objected.  “What about all the other leeches; where will they be?  You expect our pack to stick their necks out while Jovani’s clan runs off unharmed?”
     “It is vital the vampires keep their distance since my mistress will assume them dead.  The presence of even one unexpected survivor would rise her suspicions.  The error would be questioned, and the sorceress would keep me cautiously within view, ruining any possibility of our success.”
     “A convenient out, if you ask me.”
     “A necessary tactic.”
     Kresh growled disagreeably in his throat.  I didn’t like the risk any more than he did.  The questionable alliance even less.  As intensely as I sought the witch’s demise, as passionately as I yearned for my memory and life restored, I felt too uneasy.  Everything rested in the hands of a creature I had no reason to trust.  If this gargoyle failed, it would place me in enemy hands, my identity erased, my love for Kresh and our family supplanted by hatred.  I refused to go back there.
     “The werewolves decline,” I declared—a hard fact.    
     Jovani took a step forward, and his eyes widened so much I could see two ruby orbs staring at me.       “You are not the one putting your life on the line; you will live.  Evadine is meant to die!” 
     “Your mate will not die if this gargoyle succeeds at his plan.”
     “A plan that includes you and your sword!  My clan is meant to be ripped apart, burned, and forgotten—a fate only the witch’s demise will prevent.  Last night you asked me—no, you implored me to ally with the werewolves for this one mutual need.  You want her dead.  I want her dead.  This plan will work if we do what you proposed and ally forces.”
     “That was when I believed you were decent—before you slaughtered the bravest and strongest of the werewolves whose help you now shamelessly entreat.  Do you think I can simply cast that ugly truth aside?”
     “Did you not ask me to do the same?  Your mate, through duress, caused the deaths of beloved members of my clan, a tragedy that occurred only hours before you begged me to consider a mutually-beneficial alliance.  Did you think I felt nothing for the grave loss of my own?”
     He had turned the tables on me and there I stood, agonizing in his shoes.  My head shook contrarily—uneasy and untrusting and unwilling.  But I did want the witch dead; it appeared we all did.  And the werewolves had been over fourteen years failing at endeavors on their own.  Was mutual need enough to risk more lives trusting a calculated enemy in hopes of destroying a more powerful one?
     “My plan will work.”  Baron’s sure confidence made me wonder if he had witnessed our future in a crystal ball.  I studied his gray eyes, discerning no expression in them.  He was nothing but a sculpture carved from a block of stone until his mouth moved.  “When all is done, we part peacefully.”
     “I agree to nothing,” I said, adding before Jovani could protest, “I need time alone to consider the risks of this…..unusual alliance.”
     “Time is not something we can squander…” the vampire started.  He was muted by his brother’s spoken agreement.
     “One day.  I’ll come for you at sunset tomorrow.” 
     I nodded. 
     Jovani narrowed his eyes, clearly unhappy with the delay.  Without a sound, he and his followers vanished into the darkness of the cave.  I was hesitant to turn my back on Baron, but dared to whisper over my shoulder, “Kresh, can you walk?  I want to go home.”
     I would never have believed a boulder could fly, or soar for that matter, had I not witnessed the heavy gargoyle spread his wings and take to the air.  I didn’t mean to shriek when his thick arm clamped around me, and I glanced down with greater concern for Kresh.  The relief I felt at discovering him within Baron’s other arm was immense and yet absurd. 
     “What are you doing?  Where are you taking us?” I cried.
     “To the werewolves.”
     A glance at Kresh reflected mutual concern.  Was our pack’s whereabouts no secret to this creature?  Did he (and who else) know where my children were hidden?
     Being crushed within a cold, granite vise was worse than the steely embrace of a vampire.  I couldn’t move my arms to use my sword, but I doubted its effectiveness against a rock beast anyway.  As we soared, the air stung my face as if it were saturated with microscopic icicles.  The smell of rain I found pleasant enough to breathe in.  My greatest concern was for Kresh who had retaken his wolf shape.  I’d have done the same to keep warm, had I been able. 
     Glancing down, I stared into the abyss of purgatory.  Glancing up, however, showed the opposite illusion, a black velvet rooftop dangling glittery, white diamonds by the millions.  I chose to watch the night’s sky while squinting off the wind.
     The gargoyle eventually dumped us on a soft patch of long grasses located inside a circle of trees.  He said nothing, but retreated without delay, producing a stronger waft of air and more noise than any vampire.
     I discarded my sword and fell on Kresh, feeling at his fur in the darkness.  All celestial lights were blocked by the surrounding forest, leaving us nearly blind.
     “Are you okay?  Kresh, are you okay?” I repeated worriedly.
     His muzzle nodded against my leg until it became a whiskered jaw resting on my lap.  I bent over to kiss the face of my husband.  Feeling certain we were alone, I allowed my defenses to crumble.
     “I believed you were dead,” I admitted in a weepy whisper.  “I really thought you were dead….I didn’t know what I was going to do without you, Kresh.  I wanted to die without you…”
     Emotion closed up my throat while simultaneously warming my frozen nose.  I felt tears swarm and swell before spilling over.  They ran down my cheeks and then splashed onto Kresh’s bare skin.  I stroked his forehead, his tousled hair, his stubbly face, his thick neck.  I would’ve embraced him if not for the possibility of agitating tender wounds.  My heart rejoiced that my beloved was alive.  His hand cupped warm and soft against my cheek, but his attempt at wiping away tears only served to produce more.  When he tugged on my arm inviting me to lie down with him, I complied, stretching out my legs as I sank onto my side facing him.
     I felt the buttons pop off my dress as he ripped it open at the back and pulled the bodice apart.  With help, I squirmed out of the garment.  Kresh discarded it like a rotting hunk of animal carcass.  No doubt it smelled as bad to him, reeking of vampire scent.  It was a reminder of the lies we wished to escape, the nightmare we ached to awaken from.
     My husband pulled me close, and I hungrily kissed his lips while tears wet both my face and his.  My body burned with heat where our bare skin pressed together, elsewhere the moist air triggered patches of goosebumps.  Kresh accepted my excess of kisses, returning only a few.  I wanted him, to be one with him, but his lack of strength was evident.  He needed rest and a chance to continue healing from suffered stab wounds. 
     The brutal imagery once again made me sick to my stomach, and I questioned the sanity of even considering an alliance with a brood of murderous bloodsuckers.  I remembered the saying: it isn’t always true that a critical end justifies desperate means. 
     I had stopped tasting Kresh’s lips to think, and in one move I found myself on my back, the weight of my husband pinning me to the grass.  “I want you,” he breathed, planting a kiss on my neck.
     I had no desire to argue with him; every portion of me was willing to surrender.  But he was wounded and in no condition to…
     Kresh gently proved me wrong.
     He fell asleep first, holding me securely in his arms.  I drifted off after a while, staring at the only star visible through the thick covering of leaves.  Hope seemed a futile wish, but I troubled the lonely star to grant it anyway.

     I must have slept soundly.  It wasn’t filtered daylight but the sound of casual conversation that opened my eyes.  A jolt of panic had me attempting to sit up until Kresh shushed my fears with repeated whispers.  His hand pressed lightly against my chest, keeping me lying flat in our bed of grass.  Staring up into a pair of ochre eyes, I relaxed under the warmth of my husband’s smile. 
     My ears interpreted a mix of nearby voices as calm, friendly, ordinary chatter.  With that as background noise, I enjoyed the silent attention of my mate.  The way his hand brushed softly over every inch of my bare skin tempted my eyelids to close and my mind to wander, but I kept focused, not wanting to miss a moment of admiring this beautiful man and his seductive, wild look.  I felt a flood of emotion set in, born from absolute, interminable love for him.  I wished for the voices to cease, for time to halt, for the moment we were living to replay over and over and over again perpetually.  The world could have its gain and glory, its vengeance and victories—all I wanted was the enduring love and attention of this man who most assuredly was my soulmate. 
     My eyes flickered from his soft stare and landed on a length of red, raised scar tissue that ran from his ribs to his hip.  I examined at a glance other closed cuts and sallow bruises marring his torso and legs.  By human standards, the rapid healing of these wounds was an astonishing miracle.  Kresh read my mind, and in a hushed voice he answered the concern on my face. 
     “The scars will vanish in time.  I’ll be as good as new soon, you’ll see.”
     I frowned.  “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”  I couldn’t help but feel guilty.
     “It’s not your fault, Duvalla.  You didn’t do anything.  You had no way of knowing…”
     “But you did, you knew,” I said, speaking less quietly over him.  “You were aware of Jovani’s nature.  You knew what he was capable of.  I didn’t believe you; I didn’t listen.  I thought for sure he would help us.”
     “It’s not your fault.”
     “I should’ve listened to you.”
     “It’s not your fault.”
     “Our brothers are dead because…”
     “Duvalla, it’s not your fault.”
     Perhaps it wasn’t.  Perhaps not.  Yet what happened was the result of my gross error in judgement.  My ignorance.  Thus—my fault.
     I looked up to find Kresh regarding me strongly, his dark eyebrows drawn low and taut.  “Duvalla, will you listen to my advice regarding this rash plan concocted by our lifelong enemies?” 
     I nodded, though it was obvious what his advice would be.
     “Don’t agree to it.  Refuse them.  Stay here where it’s safe.”
     “Safe…” I repeated in a dismal sigh.  “Safe for how long?”
     “For as long as we run.”
     “Run……while she sends Thaddeus and vampires and gargoyles and who knows what other kind of unearthly creatures after us?  We’ll never be safe or free until that awful witch is dead.”
     “But we don’t have to ally ourselves with those self-seeking leeches.  Jovani’s concern is for his clan only.  He will sacrifice you—us—anyone else to protect himself.”
     “To protect Evadine.”
     Kresh agreed.  “Yes, her most of all.”
     “I know what you say is true.  I believe their motivation is purely selfish.”
     “Then refuse him.”
     “And do what instead?  Is there another plan?  Another reasonable option?”
     “We’ll figure something out given time.”
     “Kresh, it’s been over fourteen years!  Fourteen awful years and nothing’s worked; it’s hopeless.”
     “It’s not hopeless.  Never hopeless, Duvalla.  You can’t give up.”
     “I know, I know.  I’m not giving up.  But I’m not sure we can do this alone.  We’ve experienced so much death… many failed attempts.  Maybe we need help.  And Baron’s plan sounds like it might work.  He’s confident it will.  The witch trusts him.  I’ve thought about it, Kresh.  I’ve decided our pack doesn’t need to be involved; I don’t want to risk their lives.  Jovani, Evadine, and I are enough to distract that heartless, old hag.  As soon as she starts in with one of her evil spells, Baron can stab her in the back.  When the deed is done, my memories and the ability to transform will be restored.  I’ll change into werewolf form and race home to you.”
     “You’re not going without me—that’s not debatable.  I wish you wouldn’t go at all.  I have a bad feeling about this.”
     “I know.  Truthfully, I don’t feel good about it either, but a combined effort may be our one realistic chance at freedom.  Baron could be the one to save us; she trusts him.”
     “And what if he fails?”
     “Then we all suffer.  That’s why I’m willing to wager Jovani and his so-called brother will make this plan work.  We all gain from the witch’s death.  Her end benefits everyone.”
     “I still feel uneasy about this, Duvalla.  Promise me you won’t let your guard down.”
     “I won’t.”
     Kresh hugged me close and the nearby chatter played louder in my ears.  It dawned on me I was listening to my own people, fellow werewolves carrying about their daily business not far from our private hiding spot.  The trill of young laughter made me think of my daughter and infant son. 
     “Nehemia,” I breathed, longing to hold the babe and to see how much he’d grown in my absence. 
     “He’s safe with my sister.  Natasha too.  They all await you.”
     “They know I’m here?”
     “Yes.  Everyone knows.”
     I was suddenly aware of my nudity, and naturally inched closer to Kresh, wishing he were a blanket I could wrap around myself.  His humored grin made me blush. 
     “What’s the matter?  Are you feeling bashful?”
     “I need my dress.”  I reached feebly past his arm in the direction he had discarded it in the night. 
     “I’m afraid that stinking rag is gone for good.”
     Lifting up on my elbow, I looked past him.  The white gown had vanished. 
     My eyes were wide with concern as I informed him, “I am not walking out into plain view without a covering.”
     “Of course not,” he said before kissing my hair.  But any comfort meant by those words was lost in the impish grin on his face.  He was on his knees, holding back a laugh, before he announced, “Just put on your fur coat and follow me.”
     Had he not moved out of arm’s reach while transforming into a wolf, I would’ve hit him, despite his bruised flesh.  I called after him as he vanished between the tall grasses.  He answered with only a simple yap I had no way of translating.
     Sitting up—feeling both abandoned and exposed—I covered myself as well as possible by hugging both knees to my chest.  My certainty that Kresh would return (with suitable clothing) was beginning to wane until I heard my name uttered by a female.  A wave of relief eased my anxiety when I recognized the voice.
     “Yes.  Kresh asked me to bring you these.”
     Her hands pushed through the grass first, holding out a folded garment.  I waited for Sarti to come to me and then gratefully accepted what turned out to be a hand-stitched, wool wrap attached at the side by crisscrossed lacing.  Sarti tied the gown closed after I slipped it on.  I forced an awkward smile, but her attention focused on my hair.
     “Turn around….you’ve got grass and dead flowers…”
     My fingers naturally began to comb through my long, black strands, shaking things loose as Sarti carefully removed more stubborn pieces.  The flowers had been left over from my forced marriage to Thaddeus.  The grass, from a sensual night with Kresh the eve of my honeymoon.  Devilish irony.
     When satisfied that all unwanted debris had been removed from my hair, Sarti took the liberty of pulling loose strands away from my face and securing them in a braid at the back of my head.
     “You look beautiful,” she announced.  Her smile appeared sincere.  Still, I doubted any amount of hurried grooming would prevent me from appearing much more than the disheveled mess I was. 
     Sarti led me out of the grass into a larger clearing in the trees.  Kresh and I had spent the night less than a hundred strides from the werewolves.  It was frightening to realize Baron had tracked them to their exact location.  A quick look around captured a picture of fewer souls than anticipated, most moving about in human form.  I prayed that the werewolf population hadn’t decreased this dramatically in my absence and that the majority were simply hidden from view.  Maybe a half-dozen canvas tents stood erected along the perimeter, camouflaged by foliage and shielding timbers.  Individuals ducked to disappear inside these shelters while others stepped out hauling full shoulder bags, backpacks, or underarm rolls.  It appeared they were in the process of decamping.  The eventual awareness of my presence put a fast halt to all activity. 
     I heard my name uttered from multiple directions as werefolk performed a collective, drawn-out gesture of respect for their queen.  I felt unworthy.  Why bow rather than condemn me for my part in years of suffering?
     “Duvalla, come this way.”
     Avoiding eye contact with anyone, I followed Sarti across the open space and into the woods again.  I failed to notice a low, muddy shelter until the tarp door was pulled back.  Sarti held it open and waited, gesturing for me to enter in.  I ducked inside, my heart racing with anticipation.
     The first pair of eyes I met were as deep brown as my own.  Natasha’s eyelashes fluttered, desirously long, framing a gaze that worked hard at evaluating me.  Beside her, Kresh stood on bended knee wearing a wide smile and a fleece wrap much like the one his sister had helped me slip into.  The robe covered his entire body, arms and legs included, hiding evidence of his scars.  Bouncing a bundled infant in his arms, he looked to be a proud parent.  More so, he looked happy.  The infant gurgled, sounding as delighted as his father. 
     I paused, overwhelmed with emotion.  This was my family.  Mine.  The sharp pang of lost years hit me hard.
     Kresh held up our baby so I could see how the boy grinned.  His hair had grown into a wild black tangle like his father’s.  His cheeks had puffed up as well, resembling neither of us.  Apparently, he was being well-fed. 
     “Come hold him.”  The child was extended toward me in offer. 
     I glanced at Sarti and then at Natasha as if seeking their permission.  I wanted with all my heart to rush over and embrace my children, but my legs had gone stiff; I had no control over my own muscles.
     “Come, Duvalla,” Kresh said, encouraging me near.  “Your son wishes to be held by his mother.”
     “Me too,” squeaked a soft, angelic voice.  “Natasha shrunk closer to her father, glancing up at him before looking crookedly at me.  It seemed now my permission was being sought.
     I leaned my body forward, relieved when my feet naturally advanced to keep myself from falling.       Closing the gap between the tent entrance and my beautiful family, I bent down to their level and knelt beside my husband.  Nehemiah was placed directly in my arms.  He was heavier and more alert than I recalled.  His smile vanished for a moment as he examined me, eyes darting to study my face.  I bit my lip, worried my child might not remember his mother.  His eyebrows skewed and I thought he might cry, but then a little squeak burst from his mouth.  He squirmed, waving his chubby arms with excitement.  I laughed and cried at the same time as Nehemiah rounded his plump cheeks and beamed.  Kresh hugged Natasha and me close, a cherished girl in each arm.  If a spell could’ve trapped us in the moment, I’d have been eternally content.
     Pressing his lips against my hair, my husband informed me he had to leave for a while, but that we were in good hands.  My sour expression was response enough to cause him to utter reassurances.
     “Don’t worry, Duvalla.  Sarti will remain with you and the children.  I’ll keep within earshot, but it’s important I go assist the others.  Our young ones need to be as far from this location as possible by nightfall.  There are guards right outside and scouts patrolling the perimeter.  Everyone has been warned to stay alert.”
     I nodded my understanding, though I hated to see him go.  My gaze lingered on the fabric door after it fell closed behind Kresh; I longed to see him return to us.  When Nehemiah fidgeted in my arms, I looked down at him and saw Natasha’s face in the background.  She appeared to be scrutinizing me more intently than her brother. 
     With a smile, I invited her to come sit with me, an offer that earned her immediate consent.  We made ourselves comfortable on a pile of fleece blankets that I was certain had been laid out for our reunion.  I twisted my neck to look for Sarti and found her busily packing what few personal items existed in the tent.
     The word was a sweet song to my ears, and I turned my full attention on my daughter.
     “Yes, Natasha?”
     “Are you going to stay with us now?”
     The extent of her frown when I didn’t answer caught me off guard.  I was both heartbroken and touched to observe her disappointment.  Shifting Nehemiah to one arm, I placed a hand on my daughter’s shoulder.
     “Natasha, I would love nothing more than to stay here with you and never ever leave.  I’m sorry for how difficult things have been—for all the years we’ve been forced to live apart.  It pains me more than you’ll ever know.  I wish that you and your brother and all the others were living safe at home, carefree and happy.  I want things to be good and safe.  And that’s exactly why I can’t stay.  I have to fix matters; I have to put a stop to those who mean to hurt our family.  As soon as that task is done, I promise I will run home to you and remain forever.” 
     My daughter tried to force a smile through her disappointment.  “I wish you didn’t have to go.”
     “I wish I didn’t have to go either…..but I do.  I’m responsible for what happens to our pack and, more importantly, for what happens to you and Nehemiah.  I love you both too much to put your lives in danger.”
     “You staying here puts us in danger?”
     I nodded.  “More so than if I leave.  Until our enemy is destroyed, we’re always in a degree of danger.”
     “But especially you, right?”  The question took me by surprise; it was for her life I feared.
     “Who told you that?”
     “Father did.”
     “He did?  Well…..I suppose.”
     “In that case, you should stay here with us.  Father and the others will protect you.  They won’t let anyone hurt you, Momma.”  My little girl looked so certain, so confident.  I wished it were true.  I hugged her tight with my free arm, sorry that I couldn’t validate her simple faith. 
     “Oh, Natasha, if only it worked that way.  But the fact is, wherever I go danger follows, and I really don’t want our enemy to show up here.  That’s why I can’t stay; it would be wrong to do that.”
     “Oh.”  I had deflated her only hope and felt the need to replace it with something.
     “Listen, Natasha.  I have a plan to trick our enemy and finish her.  That’s what I’m leaving here to do.  Once the deed is done, it will be the end of all this awfulness.”
     “And then you’ll come home to stay?”
     “Yes, then I’ll come home to stay.”
     “I really hope your plan works, Momma.”
     “Me too, Natasha.  I really hope so too.”
     My baby boy made another loud squeak, seeking the attention he’d lost.  I lifted him up and helped his chubby legs attempt to stand.  When his knees buckled, he laughed and danced excitedly.  I sat him on my lap and made a cheery face, shaping my lips in the form of surprise.  Nehemia opened and closed his mouth trying to copy me.  Clinging to my side, Natasha watched us—mostly me—as we communicated with exaggerated facial expressions.  The whole time I could feel her stare as she pondered something.
     “What’s on your mind?” I finally asked, imaging a number of possible worries.
     “Nothing,” she mumbled.  A moment later, she timidly admitted, “People say I look like you.”
     “They do?”  I wondered if that bothered her.
     “Yes, that’s what they say.”
     “Huh.”  I wasn’t sure how to respond, nor was I allowed to.  My daughter spoke up right away, melting my heart.
     “I think you’re beautiful, Momma.”
     “Thank you.  That’s a very kind thing to say, but I think you’re more beautiful.”
     Natasha blushed, clearly pleased with the return compliment.  “I guess it’s true then,” she decided.  “We look just like each other.”
     “Is that okay?”
     I experienced a moment of pride when my little girl nodded most assuredly.
     The afternoon rushed by while I played with my children.  When Nehemiah began to fuss, Sarti cleverly distracted me with the chore of helping Natasha prepare lunch.  Meanwhile, she ducked outside with the babe.  It wasn’t until after three bowls of leafy herbs were topped with broken fruit and nuts that I realized Sarti had left to nurse my child, being sensitive enough to suckle him out of view.  She had correctly assumed the sight would cause me hurt feelings.  Upon their return, Nehemiah was bundled up, asleep in her arms.
     I took him and placed his head in my lap while Sarti, Natasha, and I shared lunch.  My daughter and her aunt recounted stories of pack life while I listened intently, learning how Natasha had lost three baby teeth in one day; how she could scale trees faster than her closest friends, Ronitta and Donshae; how she’d learned to make decorated bracelets and to weave willow baskets but not as well as she could form clay pots with her fingers.  It was bittersweet to hear that her father made up fairytales she fell asleep to almost every night.  My heart ached learning my child was a complete stranger to me.  I knew next to nothing about the precious, influential moments that had shaped her.
     It seemed too early when Kresh poked his head inside the tent; Nehemiah hadn’t awakened from his nap yet. 
     “How are my girls?” he asked.  There was forced cheerfulness in his voice meant to hide a strain of sorrow. 
     “We’re fine,” his sister answered right off, an automatic but accurate reply.  “How are things progressing?”
     “Nearly done.  The majority have left camp—all but a few who…..uh, they went to put some important things to rest.  They should be finishing up.”
     “Oh.  I see.”  Sarti rose to her feet and brushed off her skirt, donning the same artificial smile as her brother.  “So….how soon until we follow the others?”
     “Soon.  I don’t want the children to be far behind.”
     “Certainly not.”
     Sarti snatched up our empty wooden bowls and held them against her stomach.  “I’ll go clean these.  It will give you time alone.” 
     I watched her exchange places with Kresh, squeezing him tenderly on the arm in passing.  Turning to us, he once again forced a cheery tone.  I imagined the show was mostly for our daughter’s sake.       Taking Natasha by both arms, he lifted her up and took her spot beside me.  She seemed content to sit on his lap.
     “So, how was your afternoon?”
     “Nice,” I said, catching the melancholy in my own voice, “but not nearly long enough.”
     Kresh looked hard at me; I could read a thousand comments on his mind he wouldn’t voice in front of young ears.
     “I look forward to returning soon so Natasha can teach me how to weave a basket.”
     “And I’ll show her how high I can climb up a tree!” my daughter added excitedly.  The gloom we were struggling to conceal seemed imperceptible to her.  I was glad for that.
     Natasha moved closer to her father’s ear but spoke loud enough for me to overhear.  “Momma said when she comes back she’s going to stay forever.  I want to make a necklace to give her when she comes home.”
     “I think that’s a fine idea.  I’m sure Sarti would love to help you make one.”
     Natasha grinned at her father’s approval, but her eyes shot over, seeking mine as well.  I smiled as wide as I could for my little girl who glowed with satisfaction in return.  Kresh kissed me on the hair and squeezed my shoulders.  I knew by his gesture that my time for pretending happiness had come to an end.  The children needed to flee—to vanish before sunset.
     Kresh placed Natasha on her feet and then stood, pulling me up in the process.  I kept my napping son greedily close to my bosom; I feared Sarti would have to pry the babe out of my grasp.  Standing against the wall of the tent, I watched our final minutes slip away in a waking dream.  My husband rolled up the blankets (all that remained inside the shelter) and packed them into two backpacks.  The gear was handed off to men I didn’t recognize, but who respectfully gestured knowledge of my identity.
     When it came time to part, I found it difficult to hide the tears.  I hugged my children tight until Kresh distracted me with warm affection—a clever way of allowing him to transfer Nehemiah into his sister’s arms.  She slipped my son into a sling used to carry him against her chest.  With Natasha holding fast to Sarti’s hand, they started off, escorted by four physically-strong young men, all in a hurry to catch up to those who had hiked out earlier.  I watched their figures melt into the forest, listening until Natasha’s voice no longer carried.
     Kresh and I stood silent and alone. 
     At least, I believed we were alone. 
     After a timeless pause, my husband dared a verbal word.  “You can still change your mind.  It would mean more time with our children; they’re growing up fast, Duvalla.”  It was a persuasive, guilt-ridden offer not meant to hurt as it did. 
     “I can’t.  I told Natasha I would be staying for good the next time we met up.  To go to her now would make me a liar.”
     “No, not necessarily.  We could heighten our defenses and…”
     “Please, don’t do this.  You know it’s too dangerous.”
     Things fell quiet again, and we stood there waiting…….and waiting.
     My muscles tensed at an unexpected shiver, an unsuitably cold reaction to the warm midafternoon.  Nonetheless, I felt chilled to the core, as if my heart were receiving a transfusion of ice water for blood that had begun to pump through every vein and capillary.  My mind had come to a dead end contemplating past, present, and future decisions.  It seemed that every choice I made hoping to protect my family was tied to a consequence that inevitably injured them.  Harm was the result of everything I did—everything I’d done—regardless of selfless or heroic intentions.  The truth hit hard, suddenly horribly clear, as if stepping up to a full-length mirror.  The Tarishe curse had taken on my own likeness.  I had become the curse—the scourge to my family.  This had always been the witch’s plan.
     Kresh put his arms around me from behind, and my body shook more violently feeling his body heat.  I was freezing in an inward polar current, trembling on a tiny island of quaking ground, internally falling to pieces.  I swiveled around voluntarily and clung to my mate, grateful for the strong, warm embrace that held me close to his beating heart.  I feared the steady rhythm would stop, that I would make it cease by some awful choice.  I’d nearly lost the sound of his heart’s drumming once already; I couldn’t bear to suffer that loss again.
     “Duvalla, it’s going to be okay.  Everything will be okay.”  He held me against him, his heart pounding rhythmically, alive and strong.  His lips pressed against my hair—kind and compassionate kisses.  “Calm down, Duvalla, relax….you’re okay.  You’re okay.”
     He was lying to me; I wasn’t okay. 
     My strength of will had slipped away.  A sudden onset of sobbing evaded my ability to dam it.  I wanted to flee……to escape……to run and never look back.  I yearned to vanish with Kresh—just the two of us.  Together we could survive without anyone put in harm’s way.  We alone could evade the witch by living out our lives in dark shadows, never standing still, never looking back. 
But no.  No.  To flee would amount to another wrong choice.  A selfish choice attached to further hurtful consequences.  I would hurt Kresh and our children and Sarti.
     There was no escape outside of killing the witch.........or myself.
     Kresh held me tight as I grieved in his arms.  I was weary and terrified and sickened by years of senseless death and destruction.  The nightmare that was methodically destroying us couldn’t be allowed to go on any longer.
     At length the tears abated, and my body once again calmed by means of a slow transmission of body warmth.  All encumbering emotions were drained.  Mentally, I shoved my fears aside and wiped clean a tear-stained face.  Standing tall with renewed determination, I looked up in the direction of a setting sun.  The light was sinking but continued its steady downpour of golden rays.  A few hours remained until nightfall.  My hand naturally felt at the hilt of my sword, clasping ridges with fingers that formed to them perfectly. 
     “This ends tonight,” I declared, silently vowing that if Baron the gargoyle failed in his task, I would accomplish it—one way or another.
     “Very good.  You’ve made a wise choice.”
     Kresh and I reacted, startled by an unexpected visitor.  I drew my weapon instinctively, recognizing the voice a split second before the stone creature emerged from his hiding place.  A chorus of simmering growls amplified at the same instant—my werewolf brothers.  Apparently, they too had been taken off guard.
     With a critical look, I questioned Kresh about the wolves’ presence.  I’d been under the impression everyone had fled. 
     “You’re not going alone,” was all he said to justify it.
     “I thought we agreed…”
     “You’re not going alone, Duvalla.”
     “So much for following orders,” I grumbled.  He was needlessly putting more lives at risk.    
     “We’re sworn to protect you,” he countered, brazenly adding, “Following orders is by choice, not oath.”
     I gave up disputing the issue, more concerned about gauging the actions of the gargoyle approaching us.  Besides, the village of Tarishe stood miles from our present location.  Racing all night, those werewolves didn’t stand a chance of crossing the terrain before sunrise, and Baron couldn’t possibly carry more than two of us in flight. 
     My gut continued to warn me about the gargoyle when he stepped forward, his footfall bouncing pebbles and pulsating the grass. 
     “You’re early,” I accused, guardedly raising my sword.
     “No, I’m not.”
     I stole a glance at the lowering sun, noting how a portion of it shone through the trees to reflect off Baron’s granite skin.  Curious. 
     “I thought the sun was harmful to you.  It doesn’t appear to be.”
     “I’m not a vampire.”
     “Clearly you’re not, but Jovani said you and he share a similar aversion for sunlight.”
     Kresh cut in, voicing what he knew about Baron’s race.  “Gargoyles are rumored to turn to solid stone during daylight hours, unable to move or speak until the last rays of sunset vanish.  It is said they are entirely vulnerable at that time, helplessly frozen and yet fully aware.”  
     I looked to Baron for an explanation.
     “Alas, it is as he says.”
     “Then how do you continue to move despite a glaring sun?”
     His stone lips formed a devilish smirk, and I felt another guttural prodding to be cautious of this creature.  “Some curses aren’t all bad, Cat.” 
     I winced at his familiar use of my nickname, hating it the same way I hated hearing Thaddeus speak it.  “My name is not Cat,” I complained.
     “You will call her Queen Duvalla,” Kresh demanded, “or forego all werewolf assistance with this reckless plan of yours.”
     Baron lifted his chiseled chin toward the sky, appearing to defy the sun by basking in a beam of sunlight.  He ignored Kresh’s threat, but I noticed that for a while he ceased to address me by any name.
     “It’s time we go; the others are anxious.”
     I was trapped in a bulky embrace before I or any of the werewolves could react.  Sparks flew where the sharp edge of my sword scraped along my captor’s granite hide, having no more effect than if he’d been a sharpening stone.  I’d suspected all along that the weapon would prove utterly useless against him. 
     Baron easily disarmed me.  Resisting seemed a waste of energy. 
     He then reached for Kresh who remained in human form throughout our chilly flight that ended once again outside the same dark cave.  In my mind I’d begun to refer to this stale hole as Jovani’s Lair.  It seemed fitting. 
     Checking the horizon, I wondered how long it would take our werewolf brothers to reach the canyon below us.  By the autumnal coloring of the western sky, I was certain they didn’t have much time. 
     “I see the filthy mongrels have agreed to join us.”
     At the sound of Evadine’s cutting remark, my eyes narrowed and peered straight into the cave.  I correctly assumed she and Jovani were inside awaiting sunset; however, my sight wasn’t keen enough to pierce the blackness.  Kresh replied to the vampire mistress with a growled threat.
     “We can turn back; there’s nothing stopping us.”
     “Do not go…”  I barely made out Jovani’s features when he approached the cavern’s mouth, keeping just within its protective shadow.  “Please, forgive her.  She is understandably upset.  This evening promises great relief for us all, but at significant risk, especially to my dearest.”
     I nodded, feeling as much on edge as his ‘dearest’.  “We’re all at risk tonight.”
     “That we are, Queen Duvalla.”  Jovani’s use of my distinguished title was startling.  Clearly, he feared what was to come, and he didn’t care to face it alone.    
     “I pray our combined efforts end our troubles once and for all as promised.”
     Baron looked directly at me and repeated his assurance from the previous night.  “My plan will work.”
     “So says the only one in no danger,” Kresh grumbled.
     “That is not true.”  It shocked me how insistently I came to the gargoyle’s defense, but I felt the urgent need to be right about him.  “If Baron is discovered in his plan, he risks suffering the wrath of the witch as well.  She would destroy him for his treachery.”
     “Unless he means to hand over all three of you and remain a loyal servant to that vile hag.”
     Again, I adamantly argued in favor of the gargoyle.  “No, no, that would end Evadine’s life; he wouldn’t dare betray his brother that way.”  My eyes flickered to Jovani and then to Baron, checking.  Both acknowledged my words with a nod.  “And besides, if the intent was to hand us over, why waste time giving us a choice?  He could’ve subdued us one by one and hauled us in by force.  I’m not sure we could’ve prevented it.”
     “Well spoken.”  The monster seemed pleased with my show of confidence in him.  If only my churning gut felt as convinced. 
     Kresh kept silent beside me as Baron rehearsed his deadly plan.  I listened with my eyes aimed at the horizon, witnessing the night consume a final red vein of daylight.  It struck me that nightfall always drowned the sunset.  Never did the sun resurface from where it sank, nor would it ever. 
     When my eyes turned back, Jovani and his mate had moved outside the cave, their forms bleached gray by moonlight.  A host of vampires stood close at their backs, equally colorless.  I found their loyalty to Jovani and Evadine admirable; though, I wondered if I would continue to see it that way when my memory fully returned. 
     “It is time.”
     My heart faltered, but I braced myself, forcing courage to be my companion.  Death was assured this night.  It was a necessary end, like the sunset, warranting no fear.
     Baron took me in one arm and ordered two vampires—Percival and Traïsean—to carry Kresh.  I witnessed Jovani and Evadine change form, their black wings stretching taut in order to take flight.  They would fly nonstop to a half-mile point outside the Tarishe gates.  There Baron meant to bind and haul us into the village himself. 
     I was calm and determined until I heard the order given for the remaining vampires to backtrack and collect the werewolves presently headed in our direction.  I objected vehemently.
     “No, leave them!  You don’t need them.”
     “But we do.  They’ll provide a useful distraction.”
     “No, I don’t want them in harm’s way.” 
     “I’m afraid they’ve already chosen for themselves.”  The gargoyle took to the air, as did a vast flock of mammoth bats that veered off the opposite way. 
     “Baron, I never agreed to this!”  But all further attempts at protest on my part were drowned out by the wind.

     We soared just above the forest nearing our destination, eventually cutting through the treetops to land beside Jovani and his anxious mate.  Her wild eyes gleamed with suspicion as they darted between Baron and myself.  Jovani’s lips formed words at her ear, what I assumed were whispers of reassurance, but she refused to be soothed.  Clearly, and with good reason, the vampiress feared for her life.
     I grunted when my buttocks hit the ground.  Distracted by Evadine’s apprehensiveness, I’d failed to observe Baron unearthing sections of rope which he used to bind my ankles—after first shoving me down. 
     “That wasn’t necessary,” I complained, jerking my fastened legs from his hands, “and I don’t see why this is either.  You’re unquestionably stronger than I am; isn’t it believable enough you could haul me in unbound?”
      Baron didn’t bother to answer, he simply gestured for me to extend my arms.  Grumbling, I complied, wrists touching.  I imagined (correctly) that he would find the vampires less cooperative.  Jovani managed to convince Evadine to allow a loose wrap around her wrists.  She would not agree to anyone handling her ankles.  The rope proved peculiar, however, and as soon as she found it impossible to stretch, checking the tension with her supernatural strength, both Evadine and Jovani started in with fervent protests.  One rasped question shut them up.   
     “Could I honestly drag you to your death unrestrained?”
     The couple stiffened, their angered stares as bright as burning coals.  No doubt, they were questioning the wisdom of agreeing to this precarious plan.
     I gasped the loudest when the ashen pair were swept off their feet, caught up in a snare net trap.  Baron had slyly backed them into the trigger; I could see him smirking.  Jovani cursed up a storm more blistering than any in the netherworld, but try as he might, the netting proved unbreakable.  Its design had obviously been enhanced by the witch—created for the task her stone henchman had been sent to carry out. 
     Baron wasted no time taking to the air, gripping me in one arm, towing his vampire catch from behind. 
     We set down in the heart of Tarishe at an hour most villagers would be fast asleep and dreaming.  Jovani and Evadine were dropped from a safe-enough height, but they hit the ground hard.  They immediately began hunting for the opening in their snare.  When Baron landed, I remained wedged between his rock-hard forearm and chest.
     The partial moon had just begun to slip from the sky, but it provided enough light for adequate vision.  Smoldering fires delivered extra illumination, including a source for the formation of eerie shadows.  Baron’s silhouette appeared drawn-out and distended on the wooden shelter before us, reminding me of an angry demon encroaching upon some unsuspecting victim.  At the site of my old rickety dwelling—the witch’s hut—a powerful rise of affection slammed against my chest from within.  It was a feeling of adoration meant for the grandmotherly figure.  The intensity of emotion angered me.  It was false love—the malicious curse of a twisted heart.  I fought to suppress it.
     Baron opened his mouth and roared aloud for his mistress to appear.  I wondered why his trumpeting voice failed to awaken the entire village.  No candlelight flickered to life in any window.  No one but the deceptively-frail sorceress stepped outside.  Her beady eyes peered hard at us, as keen as those of a lion gauging the strength of its prey.  Baron released me, shoving me forward in the process.  With ankles bound, I took a painful dive to the dirt.  The gargoyle then dropped to one knee, head bowed.  He shifted my sword to keep it concealed at his side. 
     Meanwhile, Jovani and Evadine managed to free themselves from the netted snare, standing erect and frozen in place like slender icicles.  Jovani acted as a shield for his beloved, hiding her from view.  I couldn’t help but fret over what they were about to face.  
     Baron rose from bended knee and spoke to the witch. 
     “Mistress, I have returned.  I offer you the persons requested, and I bring another—the runaway bride of your son.” 
     The witch wrinkled her nose glancing down at me and then shifted her tight gaze to Jovani.  One moment he was a motionless pillar, and the next he was gone.  Vanished along with Evadine.  I sat up straight, alarmed and afraid they’d been obliterated without a word of warning, until I realized it was the vampires’ exceptional speed that had caused the illusion of evaporating.  Evadine had bolted with Jovani right behind her, but to no avail.  The cord binding the vampiress turned out to be enchanted, and with a single beckon from the witch, her captive was forced to return despite desperate efforts to pull away. 
     Jovani positioned himself in front of his mate and began to plead for mercy.
     “I did all that you asked of me: I led your son directly to her; I used the sword; I slayed the werewolves.  You promised leniency in exchange for an act of loyalty.  Leniency, you said!  Honor your own terms and give me a chance!”
     “Impossible.  I cannot trust you.”
     “But you can!  The unfortunate events that took place at the wedding were the result of a madman possessed by sheer desperation!  It was a mistake!”
     “A grave mistake indeed.  One deserving of graver consequences.”
     “I have lost too much already.  Please, show me mercy!”
     “The same mercy you meant to extend to me?”
     Jovani ceased pleading for himself at that point.  “Evadine played no part in it; she doesn’t deserve to be punished.  I beg you, let her go……she’s done nothing; she deserves no harm!  Deal with me—punish me—torture me if you must, but let her go!”
     The witch moved toward them, investing her full attention.  She appeared to grow taller as her spine straightened out in anticipation of delivering a lethal dose of vengeance.  I looked up at Baron, expecting him to see the perfect opportunity to approach our enemy from behind.  But he failed to budge, remaining too far separated and just within the witch’s peripheral vision.  He needed to get closer, to shift sideways and prepare to strike! 
     Rotating onto my hip, I reached with bound legs and kicked at the gargoyle’s ankles.  When his eyes dropped on me, I subtly gestured for him to sneak in for the kill.  He appeared to hesitate—a sign of unwillingness that bothered me considerably.  I had to assure myself he wouldn’t just stand there and allow Jovani to suffer the death of his mate.  He wouldn’t dare forsake his brother…..would he? 
     A sigh of relief crossed my lips when Baron advanced and withdrew my sword.  He took a ready stance, waiting for the prime moment.  Soon, the vile hag would attempt to conjure up a nasty spell.  I scuttled across the ground nearer to the vampires, in case I was needed as a distraction.
     All the while, Jovani continued to beg for leniency.  The witch was torturing him by means of dread, backing him into a cold, dead end.  Evadine fought fiercely with the rope cuffs that drew her inch by inch toward the witch.  As she strained to pull away, Jovani worked likewise to shove her back. 
     “As if your pathetic attempt on my life was not enough, you performed further treachery by abducting my granddaughter a second time from the arms of her new husband.”
     “I am not your granddaughter,” I hissed, but no one was listening.
     “It was not treachery,” Jovani insisted, “not the least bit!  You have been terribly misinformed…”       Before any further groveling could take place, Baron opened his mouth and attempted to explain why the vampires had snatched me from Thaddeus yet again.  I was shocked he would draw attention to himself, forcing my sword to his side.  It was a stupid, unnecessary move!
     “Mistress, if I may…..Jovani is sincere.  He only meant to demonstrate his worth to you.  He cut down the werewolves in Cat’s company, as you ordered.  Afterwards, he planned to bring the girl directly to you as a gesture of allegiance.  He would have done so had I not prevented it.”
     Suspicion continued to screw up the old hag’s features.  She appeared unconvinced of any worthy intent.  “Thaddeus was to bring her home; it’s what I sent him out to do.”
     “Yes, Mistress, but Jovani hoped to prove himself—to convince you of his earnest desire to remain in your service.” 
     I was getting nervous, wishing the idiot would shut up and stick to his own plan.  What did any of this matter?
     The witch kinked her neck to look up at the gargoyle.  “I will not forgive a traitor.  I cannot trust him.”  Her cold stare softened locking eyes with Baron.  A thousand wrinkles seemed to melt away as her skin relaxed.  “But you, my old friend, I do trust you.  We have been together a very long time.  The benefits of our relationship are profound.  We profit from the other’s talents considerably, do we not?”
     “Yes, Mistress, it is true.”
     “Yes.  Yes, indeed.  Such advantages would be sorely missed if that trust were to fail.  You would once again fall victim to the hardening rays of the sun, making you vulnerable day after day after day.  I fear it would be a death sentence.”
     Baron lowered his head as if receiving a reproachful warning.  I feared what this meant.  Did the witch suspect something?  Did she possess some uncanny intuition?  It couldn’t be so; she had never shown any sign of being able to read me.
     The sorceress twisted around to face Jovani once again.  I watched Baron bring my sword forward and stare hard at the blade. 
     Pulling my knees to my chest, I worked on unknotting the rope that joined my ankles.  The tie wouldn’t give.  Jovani’s cry made me glance up to find a bony hand bearing down on Evadine.  The witch was muttering a chant of black magic that triggered a bluish light from the tips of her fingers.  Baron had my sword in hand, but failed to strike at the heart of our enemy as planned.  He did nothing but stare blankly at the blade.  I wondered if he’d been turned to stone.
     “Stop it!” I screamed, scrambling to my knees.  “Stop your cruelty this instant!  Leave them alone!  Is vengeance all you know, you awful, haggard, old crone?”
     My outburst proved successful at putting a halt to whatever evil had been in motion.  The old woman turned her eyes full on me for the first time, looking genuinely shocked by my audacity.  I continued to struggle with my bands, desperate to slip free. 
     “Such insolence, Catherine?”
     “That is not my name, you barbarian!”
     “How dare you speak so disrespectfully to your own grandmother!”
     I felt a rise of endearing emotion constrain me—undoubtedly her doing.  It took great effort to defy her further.  “You….you……you are not my grandmother!  I know who you are…..and I know who I am!”
     “Oh, do you, child?  Then perhaps I should mend that corrupted memory of yours first.”
     I dared her with a steady glower, a dare she couldn’t resist.
     Instead of drawing near to me, her bony fingers beckoned the ropes to drag me across the dirt, depositing me at her feet.  She reached with one hand, meaning to place it on my forehead, when a chorus of howls stopped her in the act.  Her eyes scrunched, glancing about, hearing werewolf cries from all directions outside the Tarishe walls.
     She accused me first.  “You brought them here.”  Then she turned to accuse Jovani.  “I told you to get rid of those mongrels, you worthless parasite!” 
     “I did as you ordered; I slew her werewolf escorts.  There was no time to hunt down the entire pack.”
     The witch waved off his lies.  “Baugh!”
     “Mistress!  Mistress, let him finish the job now.”  We all turned to stare at Baron, every eye wide with incredulity.  He went on speaking….pleading.
     “Allow Jovani to track down the rest of those dogs and put an end to our torment.  He will do it.  I vouch for him……as a brother.”
     “What?”  The witch appeared as stunned by his turnaround as I did, though not half as outraged.       “You would foolishly call this traitor your brother?”
     “Mistress, please hear me out…”
     “Noooo!” I screamed.  The coward was tucking his tail between his legs.  He was risking our plan, putting everything on the line.  And for what?  To appease a heartless hag so he could remain mobile in the daylight?  Was that truly worth our lives?
     “You fool!  You weak, cowardly pigeon!”
     At my outburst, the surrounding howls increased in volume.
     The witch was visibly nervous, her attention drawn in too many directions.  “Shut her up!” she cried, pointing at me.  Baron’s plan was working as predicted….if only the stool pigeon holding the sword possessed the guts to strike. 
     Just then, a figure stepped out of from under the jutted roof of a storage shed, taking form once the shadows no longer hid him.  He’d been silently watching our little play the entire time.  I tried to yank my arm free when he took hold and pulled me to my feet.
     “Lovely to have you home again, wife.”
     “I am not your…”
     “Oh, give it up, Catherine.  Your dog mate is dead, and I’m the only one left alive who would have you.”
     I spit on his boots in an act of defiance that caused him to roll his dark eyes.  “You can spit shine them later…..wife.”
     “Over your dead…”
     “Uh, uh, uh!”  His finger was in my face, wagging like a puppy’s tail.  Thaddeus seemed pleased with himself for having effectively cut me off a second time.
     With narrowed eyes I huffed out my nose, half-tempted to bite off the tip of his finger.  Resisting the temptation, I tried to reason with him through gritted teeth.  “Untie my ankles or I will fall over.”
His bushy eyebrows sunk low, considering my wish. 
     “Thaddeus!” I barked, anxious to have the use of my legs.  I wobbled with a feeble attempt to shuffle my feet, proving the obvious need to have my ankles freed.  Thaddeus kept me upright.  His bushy eyebrows sloped with concern. 
     “I don’t think it's a good idea,” he said. 
     I groaned, both annoyed and impatient.  “Please, husband.”  I nearly gagged on the word.  “It’s not as if I can run away from you.  I tried that yesterday, remember?”
     He made a single chuckle recalling our game of cat and mouse.  I allowed myself to wobble helplessly again, letting him catch me. 
     “Oh, alright.”
     As soon as my ankles were untied, I shoved my hands into his chest, demanding he loose my wrists as well.  It was astonishing that he did so without argument.
     All this time Baron spent begging his mistress to spare Evadine’s life as a humble favor.  The witch listened to his appeal without mumbling a word.  Whether she was hearing him out or silently seething, I wasn’t sure.  The scene I looked back on showed my sword lying flat on the ground at her feet, the traitorous gargoyle on one knee pleading. 
     “….I’ve served loyally for as long as you’ve known me, Mistress, and I shall continue to do so for as long as you’ll have me, but it is a hard, hard thing you’ve asked of me this time.  Never have I questioned your orders or requested any favors above what you’ve generously offered.  But I beg of you this one small thing….to spare my brother.  Refuse him as a servant if you must, but please, for my sake, in return for years of loyalty, I ask that you allow him to return to DelVanporia with his mate.  It would cause me enormous grief to know he’d lost everything.  Nonetheless, I will do whatever you command, but….”
     Baron went on groveling while a chorus of howls sang continuously in the background.  He whined like a pig until the witch finally cut him off.  She appeared to have come to her senses—or at least to a decision.  She asked one simple question.
     “Did you destroy his clan?”
     The lengthy gap of silence was answer enough, but the witch waited patiently for a response.    
     “I had every intention of doing the deed, but…..he is like a brother to me.  I…..I beg your forgiveness, Mistress.”
     “Where are they now?” she asked.
     “They are near.”
     The witch pointed to a black alley and shouted a command.  “Go now!  Bring one here!”
     My eyes grew big when a second gargoyle stepped out of the darkness, spreading his granite wings as he took off with a jump that scarcely lifted him over the high walls of Tarishe.  The world came to a sudden stop as we all waited.  Kresh and the other werewolves sounded closer and louder in the silence. 
     With my wrists untied, knowing I had nothing to lose, I jerked my arm free from Thaddeus and leaned into a sprint, hoping against all odds to reach my silver sword and take one stab at putting an end to my curse.
     Thaddeus prevented it.  His mother glared daggers at me for the attempt.  Baron didn’t dare lift his double-crossing gaze in my direction, but Jovani looked straight into my eyes, exchanging mutual concern.  I could tell he’d expected none of this. 
     My would-be husband tried to haul me off, but I resisted, struggling, demanding to witness how things played out.  He eventually gave in and stopped at a spot where we could watch the others in the shadow of a wooden archway. 
     My heart thundered in my chest when the unknown gargoyle returned, holding a dangling figure by one leg.  He dropped the lone vampire beside the witch and then disappeared.  The captive scrambled to his feet, tossing back his head to remove lengths of charcoal hair from his face.  I recognized him as Percival—one of the pair who had carried Kresh here.
     We all looked up at the catwalk when a second vampire climbed over the wall—a petite, slender female with sunburnt curls.  Concetta (Percival’s mate) scanned the scene below, seeking answers.  Her worried gaze came to rest on Jovani.  She received nothing but a dire frown in response.
     Baron was ordered to rise.  He quickly obeyed.
The witch reached an arm sidelong with unexpected swiftness; no one would’ve guessed her capable of such hurried movements.  Whatever spell she summoned caused Percival’s head to roll back and his body to stiffen like it was being squeezed.
     “No, no, Thaddeus, don’t let her do this,” I breathed.  He held tight to my arm and warned me against interfering.  “I will drag you off, Catherine.”
     I didn’t move.  I could do nothing to stop it.
     Percival was alive but restrained.  Jovani continued to guard Evadine, more wary than ever.  Like me, he knew there was no preventing these events.  Concetta, however, jumped down from the wall and raced over to her mate.  She cried out, cursing the witch while tugging on Percival in a desperate attempt to free him.  The sight was heartbreaking.
     The result was a test.  A disgusting test.
     “Kill him,” the witch ordered. 
     There was no hesitation. 
     The cold-hearted rock fiend didn’t pause long enough to blink let alone consider the gravity of his decision.  He ripped Percival apart, tearing the defenseless vampire into pieces, limb by limb, with Concetta beating on him, crying out hysterically the entire time.  Jovani and Evadine looked away, unable to watch.  I wanted to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t.  It was incomprehensible why this gargoyle would betray his sworn brother and sink to such horrific depths simply to keep from succumbing to sunlight.  And still, there was no guarantee the witch would pardon his deceit.
     I lost all strength in my legs watching the barbarity ensue.  Thaddeus prevented my collapse by gripping tighter onto my arm.  He pulled me close to him, embracing me for stability, and I allowed it.  Concetta’s screams halted because the traitorous gargoyle turned on her next, dishing out the same fate her mate had suffered.  It was an evil he must have considered merciful by some warped reasoning—she wouldn’t want to go on alone.  A fate worse than death. 
     I knew the feeling. 
     With a flick of her twiggy fingers, the wicked witch caused a violet ball of fire to consume the mound of broken body parts.  The air distributed the raunchy stench of death; it made me want to vomit.  I resisted the impulse to turn and run.  Not yet.  Evadine’s fate remained to be seen.  I feared it would be similar to Concetta’s.
     At his mistress’ command, Baron again took to one knee.  He refused to meet anyone’s eye but hers.
     “You have done well, old friend.  And you see—it wasn’t as difficult as you falsely assumed.  For your sake, I have decided to extend a degree of mercy.  This I do for one reason alone—because you came to me and confessed your folly rather than trying to resolve a predicament well beyond your ability.  You have shown a morsel of good sense—unlike your pretended brother.  But make no mistake, to earn my complete trust again will take time.  I believe, with effort, it can be done.”
     “Yes, Mistress.  Thank you, Mistress.”
     The old hag rotated to face Jovani who continued to block Evadine from view.  One rotation of a bony wrist, accompanied by a mumbled line of magic, compelled the vampiress to lurch forward, shoving Jovani aside like he were nothing but a hollow reed.  The lady vampire refused to beg for her life.  She stood up straight, chin high, jaw taught, red lips tightly pursed.  Her gorgeous eyes were crimson slits glaring into the face of death. 
     Her mate, however, found it more difficult to compose himself.  He made a move toward Baron….as if believing their oath of brotherhood still meant something.  The gargoyle kept his gaze fixed on the dirt.  Forced to accept the monster’s betrayal, Jovani then looked right at me.  He saw me, despite the concealing shadows.  My heart bled with empathy, having tasted the same degree of misery and treachery, but what could I possibly do?
     On the other hand, what did I have to lose?
     With all my strength, I elbowed Thaddeus in the ribs and then kicked his kneecap sideways.  He let go of me and grabbed at his leg, squealing out in pain while stumbling to the ground.  I sprinted forward without a clear plan.  A picture of me clawing out two bulging, beady eyes flashed in my head, but the closer I got, the more clearly I could see my sword still resting on the dirt. 
     A glowing hand shot out in my direction, so I ducked to avoid whatever spell was meant to restrain me.  At the same moment, Jovani dared to lunge at the witch and knock off her aim, only to be caught by the throat.  He was lifted off his feet and tossed aside—an act of impossible strength for an old woman.  His hands grabbed at his neck as he sputtered and coughed, struggling for air. 
     Evadine went to attack next, but one magic gesture had the charmed cords about her wrists pulling her to the ground.  I ducked another hurled spell by diving headlong, sliding across the dirt to where my fingers met up with the hilt of my sword.  They clamped around the grooved end, managing a secure hold on the weapon.  I had it in my grip—for a moment.
     A scream shot from my lungs as I felt every bone in my hand snap and pop, being squashed flat.  Baron’s foot—his massive stone foot—stood on my hand, pinning it and my blade to the ground. 
     The werewolves’ howling increased in unison, mixed with vicious yapping and the sound of splintering wood echoing from various points outside the gates.  I continued screaming out in pain when Baron released my hand—bloody and mangled.  He swiped my sword and stepped aside, once again dropping to a knee like a trained monkey. 
     “I will deal with you next,” the witch warned me in a hiss.
     It was Thaddeus, however, who came to deal with me first.  He scooped me up while I continued to cry aloud.  Carrying me back into the shadows, his hand gently cupped my bloody fingers.  Every step we took was a throbbing pulse that tormented the enflamed nerves until they suddenly numbed.  My hand swelled, feeling nothing, before a flow of warmth accompanied by soft, blue light expanded and subsided.  It then felt normal.  It looked normal—the bones and bleeding healed.  I wiggled my fingers, finding them as good as new. 
     Astonishment screwed up my features.  “” I stuttered, “and why?”  I stared at the son of a witch—bewildered. 
     He studied me with a degree of puzzlement in his own eyes.  “Because you’re my wife.”
     I was not.  But that didn’t matter.  Thaddeus’ attention shifted when mine did, back in the direction of the vampire couple.  They were on their feet again, the witch controlling both.
     “Stop this,” I begged.  “Please, Thaddeus, make her stop.”
     He frowned for a split second as if experiencing an actual sting of regret—another utterly shocking occurrence.  “I’m sorry, I can’t.”  He set my feet on the ground but kept a good grip on me.       “If you knew their true nature, you would feel no sympathy for them.  Those vampires are your enemy; you’ve forgotten.”
     I believed what he said was true, but…  “No one deserves the degree of cruelty your mother inflicts.”
     Thaddeus started to walk me away from the scene before the final punishment was carried out.
     “No, wait.  I have to see what she does.”
     “Why?  It doesn’t matter; you won’t remember any of it.”
     His words sent a jolt of terror to my heart.  I wouldn’t remember any of it, including Kresh howling outside the gates for me.  And my dear children who were now running further away to find a corner of safety somewhere.  “It matters to me.  I want to see.” I said.  “Please.”
     We stood and watched the end play out. 
     Baron hadn’t moved, still a kneeling statue with bowed head.  Jovani and Evadine were also still, though I guessed their motionless state was the result of a spell.  The witch stood in Jovani’s face at this point, berating his choices, labeling him a dire disappointment and failure.  “I cannot trust you,” she repeated again and again.  “Grave mistakes deserve graver consequences.” 
     All eyes caught sight of her shriveled hand as it slipped out from beneath a sleeve, glowing iridescent.  The brightness about it increased by degrees as it stretched toward Evadine and landed on her red-brown curls, topping her head like a radiant crown.  A glare made it near impossible to look at the scene, even squinting.  I cringed, anticipating a cry of agony; however, the vampiress made no sound at all.  Not a whimper.  When the witch’s hand fell away, snuffing out the light, I was stunned to discover Evadine remained alive. 
     Alive…..but not well.
     As unmatched as her attractiveness had been, Jovani’s mate now appeared a hideous aberration, drained every wit of physical beauty.  Her appearance was repugnant enough to repel a troll.
     At the sight of her own withered hands, Evadine shrieked.  She felt at her face—the lumps, warts, and oozing sores.  “Noooooo!” she exclaimed in horror.  “What have you done to me?”  The vampiress attempted to go after the hag who had mangled her features, but her feet, now fat and heavy as bricks, were too awkward and clumsy.  
     Jovani moved swiftly to help his mate, no longer affected by an immobility spell.  She collapsed in his arms, weeping hysterically.  He seemed stunned for the longest moment looking down at her, but then his eyes narrowed, glowing red with anger.  He turned a hostile eye on Baron who had glanced up, overcome by curiosity.  If the look had possessed lethal power, the gargoyle would have crumbled right there into a pile of gravel. 
     “Go now,” the witch growled, sweeping a hand in no general direction.  “Leave before I change my mind.  But remember this: if any member of your clan is ever spotted near Tarishe lands, I will destroy you all.”  She began to walk away, hunched and shuffling like a typical elderly figure. 
     Jovani failed to move, keeping a fixed glower on his brother gargoyle.  The witch paused a moment and then turned back to issue one last command.
     “Oh, and on your way out, finish what I summoned you for in the first place.  Silence those annoying dogs.       Do it…..or your lovely bride dies.” 
     Jovani’s eyes flashed open, shifting to stare at the witch. 
     “Now be gone!” she growled.
     He looked at me and read the horror on my face. 
     “No,” I breathed, as her words slammed hard against my brain.  As if mangling Evadine wasn’t enough, she had placed the woman’s life on a scale next to the lives of my pack.  I shouted at the vampire.  “No! Please, Jovani, no! Don’t!”
     The vampire made no sign; he agreed to nothing.  He would protect Evadine regardless of the cost.  I was certain of it.  His previous actions had proven it. 
     I continued to shout, begging for the bloodshed to stop and for the werewolves to be left alone.  When Jovani and his mate transformed into bats and disappeared over the wall, I began cursing the witch, fighting to jerk free of her son’s grasp.  She looked at him with annoyance, ignoring me, telling him to drag me to the hut where I would again be blinded into loving my enemies, tricked into hating my family, and forced into betraying my husband.
     I nearly yanked free, more desperate than ever to get away, when I heard the witch order her boot-licking gargoyle to assist Thaddeus in dragging me to the hut.  Then the world turned crazier still, and for a moment I was too stunned to fight.  The witch had called the monster by name.  Not Baron.  She had called him Dompier.
     I watched his figure diminish as the witch passed by, transforming him under a drizzle of violet sparks from gargoyle to man.  It was Dompier.  My eyes blinked a dozen times, but the huntsman I knew as a comrade in arms, the man whose wounds I’d shed grief-stricken tears over, the friend who had mesmerized me with heroic stories—it was this man now stepping toward me——smiling.
     “It’ll be right as rain again soon, Cat.  You’ll see.”
     I stomped on Thaddeus’ foot more than once and then tore away from him, racing around the corner to the darkest side of a shed.  Cutting directly through a narrow alleyway, I weaved my way toward the town hall.  I ran hard, avoiding moonlit spaces.  Keeping out of sight meant a few more precious seconds; I would need every one. 
     At the rear of the largest and tallest building, I scrambled up a wide chimney flue, using cavities in the brick as holds.  Once I reached the rooftop, my arms stretched over the edge and pulled my body weight up to where I could fling a leg over.  I jumped to my feet and dashed toward the nearest stretch of catwalk that circled the fortress wall.  With a running leap, I cleared the gap below and lifted myself up on the wall itself, clambering higher onto a support post. 
     It was the highest point in the village. 
     I heard a shout from below and recognized Thaddeus’ pathetic petitioning; he was insisting I climb down, demanding my immediate compliance.  My toes shoved off the wooden post, knowing any hesitance would give them time to stop me. 
     I dove headfirst. 
     I understood my death wouldn’t end the vampires’ afflictions, but it would defeat the curse that was methodically destroying my werewolf family.  I pictured heaven for a split second—the heaven I had tasted earlier that day with Kresh, cuddling our babies. 
     It hit me then that the werewolves had ceased howling. 
     The ground hit harder.
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Copyright 2015 Richelle E. Goodrich