Monday, January 12, 2015

Chapter 103 - The End



Having dined on a feast of facts I thought I had reached my limit but yet hesitated to say such because I knew it would mean leaving the Sheriff’s presence.  It was then that The Linder decided to discombobulate me one more time. 

“Leeda … I need your input.” 

“On what?” 

“On the terms of surrender.” 

“I … I beg your pardon?” I asked, sure that I must have heard him wrong. 

The Sheriff snapped, “Honestly Tomas, she’s had enough.  Leave her be.” 

Tomas shook his head sadly.  “I would if I could … and you can lay this at my feet for blame as I spoke hastily.” 

Fear gripped me and putting out my hand I said, “Stop.  Just explain it to me.  In words of as few syllables as possible if you please.  My brain is about to pop.” 

“It was the Convention of War convened by the Great Council.  There was some talk that I was out to subjugate the Borderlands so that I might … hmmm …” 

“They thought you were going to annex a portion of the Borderlands and upset the delicate political balance we all exist under.” 

The Linder nodded.  “Very good.  You see it.” 

“A blind buffalo with one ear and three legs could see it.  And having been exposed to some of those people during my first marriage some of them are akin to such an animal.  Few of them have even travelled more than a few feet, if that, into the Borderlands.  They have no idea of the …” 

James broke in and said, “We tried to explain it.  Darren even brought witnesses and proof but … they’d insisted on Tomas being present and he still wasn’t at his best.” 

Tomas said, “You’re being too kind James.  I should never have been let out of the nursery I was locked in at that point.” 

“And you said?” 

He sighed and his brothers looked away trying to not witness his shame.  “Among other things I said they were a bunch of cowards and didn’t seem able to see that if it could happen to someone of your status it could happen to someone of theirs.” 

“And exactly how did you walk out of the room without someone assassinating you?!” 

“It wasn’t easy.  It might yet have happened if Darren hadn’t been there was an entire unit of the Guards.  Then word got around.  Gossip had it that the war was over you … er …” 

“Oh for the love of …”  I groaned and felt ill.  “Do not say it.  Do not.  I may be a stronger person than I was but there are still some things that could very well overset my stomach to such a degree that …” 

“So Darren kindly explained to me once he’d gotten wind of the rumors.” I could tell from his tone that kindness really hadn't factored into the explaining at all.

Slowly I turned to the Sheriff and asked, “Was that the reason for your … warm … reception when you …” 

I got no further before The Sheriff had gathered me up and hauled me out of the room.  “I will not be thwarted by my own idiot brother.  I won’t.” 

“Oh do put me down before someone sees.” 

“I don’t care.  Now you listen to me Leeda Harper Linder.  If it takes me until the sun sets for the last time I will prove to you that my feelings have nothing whatsoever to do with anything but you being you and me being me.” 

There was a pause in the proceedings that I simply will not share but afterwards we returned to the Sheriff’s brothers’ company and The Linder, after giving us both an appraising look, explained that in order to right the political mess that had been made, now that I’d returned I was to have a say in the terms of surrender. 

“Preposterous.  What have I to say about such a thing?  I wasn’t even dead.  It was a mistaken belief.” 

“Yes m’dear and I am more thankful of that than I can express.” 

“But it makes no sense!”   

“Nevertheless our status must be brought forward and an end put to this situation so the whole of Tentuckia can move forward.” 

I could have cried out of frustration but then for some reason I thought of Old Solomon’s “ghost.”  I thought of the old priests of Nat’s order and the things they’d told me.  I thought of the lessons Nat have given me and the books I’d read at the town library.  Then I started asking questions. 

“How many survivors?” 

“What?” 

“Survivors?  How many?  The darkfriars … priests of the damned … whatever they are calling themselves these days.  How many survived the New Paduck tragedy?” 

“You call it a tragedy?” 

“Tragedy, coincidence, luck, blessing … people will call it whatever they will for decades to come.  But if we are to write the history books as the victors, lets make sure that it is a truthful history and with as good a resolution as we can create and some moral to it.” 

The brothers three looked at one another.  It was the Sheriff who said, “The destruction of New Paduck is complete.  We’ve found no survivors and we’ve honestly looked.  It’s been difficult to even find any bodies.  The entire area simply liquefied and swallowed everything.  You have to dig down over six feet to find the first evidence that New Paduck even existed.” 

“By all that’s Holy.” 

James nodded.  “Aye.  But there are enough certificated witnesses – academics, church fellows, and military – from this side of the river that we cannot be accused of covering up what really happened.” 

“Very well, but you’ve all heard the story of the original darkfriars.” 

“You mean are there enough left to rebuild?” 

“Yes.” 

James shook his head.  “We’ve no evidence of it.” 

“You should give it some more time.  Watch carefully.  The sect was dying but they’ve spread out from the borderlands enough that … it could still be possible.” 

The Sheriff nodded, “We are going through all the evidence left by Ceena and Tonya, as well as what we are learning by interrogating others that have been found connected to the Damned, and an investigation is underway.” 

“But don’t let it turn into a witch hunt.  It would be sad to turn into the very thing we are fighting against.” 

The Linder steepled his fingers and asked me, “What boon will you ask for your kidnapping?” 

“Boon?  For myself none, I have no need for such.  However, there are children that need to be given a choice – a viable one – that need access to education and training so that they can survive and prosper in the new world they are going to be faced with.  There are children like Damsie – the child you saw me carrying who is Rulie’s twin – that will never be able to fully function without some type of assistance.  There are children being begatted that need protection from death at the hands of those who would kill them … perhaps kill and consume … simply because they aren’t free enough of the curses left over from the Days of Destruction.” 

“You set no small task … and one that would bankrupt Tentuckia if we tried.” 

“We can’t do it on our own.  I suggest we enlist the Church and other private foundations rather than turn it into a political circus.  There are sects that would take these children in and care for them if no one else can be found.  I know of the whereabouts of a sect of the Compassionate that even have some experience with dealing with the behavior of the Damned who might even help to spearhead some of this along the river as an initial test.  Torm and Kizzie – the two oldest that came in with me – might even have some ideas on how to proceed.” 

“But they’re …” 

“Careful Linder … your status is showing.” 

After a moment The Linder inclined his head.  “So it is.  But these are not the conditions of surrender and that we must start with.” 

Without hesitation is said, “Complete and total unconditional surrender.” 

All three me stopped and sat up.  “What?  You expected me to beg for mercy on their behalf?  No.  The darkfriars, priests of the damned, all of them … it must stop and it must stop here and now.  Their way of life is abhorrent.  The belief system deranged.  Curses are blessings and blessings are curses.  The madmen are in charge of the asylum.  The way they live they could start a plague of unimaginable proportions and none of us would be safe from it.” 

James looked at the Linder and at the Sheriff.  “There is some legal basis for that last … we could take it before the Convention and with reasonable proof we could act on behalf of …” 

The discussion went on well into the night.  I must have fallen asleep at some point before the next thing I remember is hearing Nat’s voice.  “Has she seen a doctor?” 

“I was hoping that you would be the one to broach that subject with her.” 

“Oh ho … soon to be family you may be but you’ll need to toughen up if you wish to have Leeda do your bidding.” 

“All I wish is that she let me do hers for the rest of my days.” 

Nat snorted.  “You’ve got it bad my son.  Very, very bad.” 

“Whatever it is I hope there is no cure.” 

Barely able to swallow my throat was so dry I muttered, “I simply must find some way to exercise that romanticism out of you.  If anyone were to hear the Sheriff of Tentuckia talking such nonsense …”  A cup quickly came to my lips and a sipped gratefully.   

“No one but you – and perhaps occasionally your cousin here as it is a delight to actually find something that flusters the man – will hear it.  I do have some concern for my consequence you know.”  I heard the humor of his tone but also concern. 

“I’m fine.  But oh Nat, I have such a lot to tell you.  So much to tell you both.  The world is such a strange and wondrous place.  Both bigger and smaller than I ever thought.  So many consequences that aren’t consequences but fulfillment of destinies.  And … oh, there really isn’t a place that The Light doesn’t reach.” 
 

********** 
 

In due time Leeda had told all her tale with both men wondering at it, each one having their own ideas of how and why the events took place and were resolved.  They also wondered at the changes in Leeda herself.  On the surface she was the same but there was also a new depth to her … one that always sought a better understanding of things but also learned that sometimes she simply had to accept and have faith even when she didn’t understand. 

The rest of the tale can be recorded something like this.  Nat lived to be a ripe old age, eventually moving from the university to Linderhall where Leeda could look after him when he wasn’t studying the old texts of the Linderhall Library and other written artifacts brought in for him by the many Linder children that eventually populated the grounds.  He also became a favorite at the local school, with his tutoring sending many to university that might not otherwise have attained it. 

Marta continued to fail in health and mental faculties but was nursed by faithful Alice, who after Marta’s death, returned briefly to Linderhall to complete her training under Leeda and the new Linderhall Housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs. Dargen who turned out to be less of a dragon once Leeda came to know her.  In fact they became close friends for many years as Leeda continued to prefer Below Stairs to the drawing rooms of Linderhall. 

April was reunited with the young man her father had sent packing, both of them more mature and ready for the challenges they faced since they came from far different status levels and backgrounds … the young man being a half-begat of the tribe that had stolen April in her childhood.  April eventually moved to a farm gifted to her new husband by the Linder brothers and set up her own housekeeping and gave birth to a son before catching a plague and losing her ability to begat successfully.  She was depressed for a time until her husband suggested that they take in and raise some of the Borderlander children whose families turned them out as he had been taken in and raised by a family that had found him wandering after he'd been turned out for a birthmark he carried on his cheek.  It was a success and when eventually death found April – as it must find us all eventually – her marker was carved simply with the word “Mother” and she numbered dozens of children as those she’d loved and helped to raise. 

The younger sisters likewise grew up and carried on with life but it was to April they often returned to as she’d been a second mother to them all along. 

Chell Linder retired from public life for the remainder of her years.  Her husband outlived his addiction but never lost the weakness of character that caused it.  She distanced herself from his antics when she could but her brothers were called often to step in and clean up a mess that threatened her.  She tried to leave him numerous times but then fell for his pleas that he would change.  He never did.  Two days before their oldest child attained their majority the man became drunk and fell into a pond on their property.  It was the middle of winter and it was a while before he was missed.  Eventually he was found but not a person could be found that expressed great enthusiasm for his rescue.  Pneumonia set in and eventually Chell finally found peace that she couldn’t while the man still lived.  She never remarried but had no regrets and found solace in quietly helping behind the scenes of the local home for women looking to start a new and productive life. 

The Borderlander children that had saved Leeda were all given a solid education and training as she promised them, and were encouraged to seek their fortune and better their lot from their beginnings.  Torm, Kizzie, Hela, and Ropsy remained together to the end of their days, sharing in raising Hela and Rospy’s begats.  Some found it unusual but others took it as an example and years later you could still find communal homes where those formerly called Damned would join with a begetting couple to co-parent and share in the responsibilities of providing for and loving special children.   

Damsie did not live to adulthood but she lived many more years than she was ever expected to.  When she was laid to rest under a spreading cherry blossom tree the entire Linder family agreed that her headstone would read “Damsie Linder, Our Small Wonder.”  Her brother Rulie became Nat’s apprentice and after some years became a noted author in his own right, translating – and often embellishing – stories from the ancients into the prose favored by children and young people of his era. 

James Linder eventually remarried to a young woman introduced to him by his half brother.  He and his new bride were content in each other with both uninterested in anymore drama than was necessary.  Doctor Cummins and his wife continued on as The Linder’s personal physician, one of their sons eventually succeeding in that position.  Tomas and Gwendolyn continued in a monogamous marriage despite the pressure for Tomas to take up the practice of multiple wives as predecessors had.  Tomas however was adamant in his refusal as was several of The Linders who came succeeded him, all of them to a man stating vehemently that one wife was more than enough to keep any sane man entertained and busy. 

Leeda and Darren married and shared many years together and as the succession was secured by Tomas and Gwendolyn’s rather large brood they never had to worry about the burden of the politics of, as Darren put it, “being in line for the throne.”  Was Leeda and Darren’s life perfect?  No, no more than anyone’s life is perfect.  They were two strong-willed people with the added burden of a high status and lots of responsibilities.  It also took Leeda some time to overcome the fears she’d learn to have in her first marriage, but Darren was as patient as he had promised and with time their private times flourished and they begat a respectable sized brood of their own who could – if they were being honest – get into enough scrapes to make the mischief of their many cousins pale in comparison.  There were those times when Leeda and Darren were out of charity with each other but it only made those times that they were even sweeter.

 

The End

 

Chapter 102




“This is beyond ridiculous,” I muttered in agitation at the excess show of status given to me.  “Make them stop.”


The Sheriff did his best to shield me but with little success.  “I would if I could but this is Tomas’ show.” 

“What do you mean show?” 

“You’ll see.” 

And unfortunately I did.  I shan’t record it beyond saying that I was welcomed back to the fold with great ceremony, stood upon the dais like a fat pig at the fair, made much of a fuss over, and then put on display while The Linder and Guardian of Tentuckia – in full regalia no less – told everyone present that God had shown our land great favor.  He’d defeated our dark enemies, sending to a judgment no one could fail to understand, saved the goods of the merchants so that no one need suffer from lack that the destruction would have brought, and in the end even delivered me into the hands of one of the land’s greatest heroes.  The Sheriff snorted so loudly at that last bit that not even Tomas could have failed to have heard it even had his ears been stuck full of river mud. 

Right when he was in danger of getting smacked with cushions by both the Sheriff and I The Linder finally found the good sense to end the drama play and hustled us all off to a warehouse that had been converted for his use. 

I had thought to escape and pen a letter to Nat letting him know my fate but it was not to be to my great frustration.  I was looking around for the children and becoming agitated when Rulie popped up from beneath the cushioned divan that The Linder had just sat upon … truthfully almost from between Tomas’ legs … and informed me, “Just so you know Lady, they’ve got food here the likes of which I’ve never seen and I’m not too sure it bain’t be poisoned.  Though the girls be pleased to be getting all washed up, and primped like brides with new clothes and all.” 

“Oh really … and were you to be ‘washed up and gotten new clothes’ as well?” 

“Welllll …” 

“Deep subject sprat.  Now you listen hear.  I have not been saved by you upon numerous occasions only to lose my chance at repaying you.  You will go with …” I looked around and a rather formidable maid stepped forward. 

“My name’s Emer if it pleases the Widow.” 

“Hmmm.  As long as your name pleases you that is all I care about on that end.  However, Rulie here … may need a bit of encouragement to clean all his cracks and crevices.” 

“Got a ton of brothers m’self Widow.  M’brother Chaucey is a good ‘un and likes to help with the boys what are too old for nursemaids.  Rulie here, he’s no baby so Chaucey said he’d help him find his way about.” 

Rulie looked at me then Emer with some consideration but Emer sealed the deal when she said, “And after they get all cleaned up I’ve been instructed to make sure they get custard and milk both.  Boys need custard and milk so they can get along with the job of being boys.  Or so says m’mother who has been blessed with more than her fair share of ‘em.” 

I couldn’t even move for fear of putting my status as risk in front of such a large and prestigious company.  The Sheriff came to my rescue by saying to the maid, “Sensible girl.  Boys do indeed need custard and milk.  Lots of custard and milk.  But only after they are clean or they won’t be able to truly enjoy the taste of it.” 

“Wellllll,” drawled Rulie.  “I b’lieve I’d best be going to see how Ropsy and the others are getting along.  Don’t want ‘em to take on and worry none.  I’ll be sure and tell ‘em about that …”  Leaning over to me he asked, “Does custard and milk taste as good as sun lizards?” 

I just managed to squeak out, “Even better.” 

“Oh now you’re telling stories.” 

“Nope.  Upon my word.” 

Rulie crawled out and consented to investigate my statement – after a thorough cleaning – and after he’d left the room a soldier stepped forward and said to the Sheriff, “My apologies Sir.  He’s as nimble as a tree rat and as hard to catch as a hopped up jackthumper.” 

Putting some authority into my words I said, “Be gentle with them.  They truly did save me when they had no reason to and I will not see them repaid with darkness.” 

The soldier nodded and then saluted the Sheriff before quickly hurrying after the retreating back of the maid. 

“Really my Dear.  No reason to?  What of your … status?  What of the great reward that The Linder himself underwrote?” 

I turned to the speaker and it was Mrs. VanBuren Jr.  The look on my face was not one of polite disinterest in her comment and the senior Mrs. VanBuren realized her daughter in law had made a grave error in direction. 

Pointedly I told her, “Not everyone is so avaricious that they’d go looking for reward before doing a good deed.” 

There was a collective gasp in the room and then I turned coldly from the two women to stare at The Linder who had said nothing to me directly as of yet.  He was looking quite pale, as if he was ill.  Carefully I asked, “There has been no time for the Sheriff to apprise me of most of the family’s health.  Are you and the others …?” 

Gruffly he said, “We’ve suffered some losses, painful losses.” 

“Yes, I heard of Tosha’s bravery … and Ronald Nealy’s illness that has taken him from company.” 

Surprised at my wording when I could have shattered his political hold he nodded and said, “Then you’ve heard the worst of it.” 

Suddenly he leapt to his feet.  “Out!  Clear the room.  I’ll not wait another moment to … to …” 

The Sheriff went to his brother in an attempt to calm him and I saw James rush in from where he had been standing out of my line of sight.  The room was soon emptied and silence fell.  And then The Linder fell … at my feet. 

“My Dear … I’m … I’m … sorry.” 

Shocked almost to stupefaction I fell back.  “Stop.  Enough.  Stand up!  You are The Linder and the Guardian of Tentuckia!”  I looked at The Sheriff and Chancellor and demanded.  “Get him up!” 

Hesitantly they approached him but then a word I’d never thought to hear from such a man spilled from his lips.  “F … ffff … forgive me.” 

“What?” I asked caught between so many emotions that I could barely stand it. 

“Forgive me Leeda.” 

I looked helplessly for some assistance then realized something.  Carefully, trying to not overset the man further I said, “It is not my forgiveness you need, but your own.  Now enough of this.  What will Wendolyn say?  And while we are on the subject, please tell how she is.  I’ve scarcely dared to ask.” 

Ignoring my later question he said, “You … you don’t forgive me?” 

“For what?” I asked shaking my head.  “For a momentary failure of clarity brought on by a series of unfortunate events?  If you need it you have it though after my initial flash of anger followed by a better understand of what happened I’ve scarcely thought of it.  Your sister didn’t mean to poison you.  Certainly you would never have willingly ingested such a substance on your own.  In the process being torn in two by …”  I stopped, unwilling to say Tosha’s name.  “By witness of someone that was under terrible duress and being manipulated herself?” 

James’ voice broke in and said, “Tosha and I made peace.  She was sorry.  She was much … much weaker than I was aware.  I should have been aware but that is my burden and my lesson to learn.  In the end … my love wasn’t enough to save her but her love saved me.  I can … can go on with that.  Live to eradicate …”  He stopped but I understood. 

I nodded to him then turned to the Sheriff.  “Come.  Tell your brother …” 

“Tell him what?  That he was a complete and total ass?  I’ve been telling him that my whole life.  He hasn’t listened up to this point.” 

“No,” I said in some exasperation.  “Tell him that nothing that happened irreparably broke any of us.” 

“Didn’t it?” 

“No it didn’t and if you must know I’m all the stronger for it.” 

The Linder chuckled sadly and muttered, “God help us all.” 

“Best be glad He does because left to our own devices, apparently not even our status and supposedly inherited capabilities can stop us mucking our lives up.  Now truly, let us get passed this and tell me how the rest of the family is.” 

It took a while and I suspect I will always maintain some reserve where Tomas Linder, Guardian of Tentuckia is concerned, but for the Sheriff’s sake I made it easier for us to move along to the next part than I might have been inclined to when I first returned to Linderhall.

Chapter 101




Suddenly the Sheriff yelped and I realized that Rulie had kicked his shin.  I grabbed the boy before he could do any further damage.  “Easy Rulie … he is one of the good ‘uns.” 

“But he’s the Linder!” 

The Sheriff made such a horrified face and then snapped, “I, by God, am not!” followed by a string of curses saying what he’d do if he ever inherited said title that even Rulie was impressed.  

“Well, that tells it don’t it.  But he’s still an older.” 

That added to the look on the Sheriff’s face to such an extent that I dissolved into a fit of the giggles and sat down just managing not to squash Damsie.  “Oh … oh …. Ddddear.” 

Rulie, ever practical called, “Hela!  Kizzie!  Best get over here.  The Lady is being a girl.  Or at least sumpin’ close to it.” 

It took less time than it should have for introductions to be made though the explanations had to wait.  The Sheriff kept looking at me and saying, “They’ll never believe it.  Not for all the imports from across the ‘Cific and ‘Lantic combined.  Dear Creator Above, I don’t believe it.” 

I shook my head as he was being over familiar while placing me up on Charger.  “Do not take on so Sheriff.  In this heat it does your complexion no good at all.” 

He climbed into the saddle and for a moment looked outraged but then became so tendered it nearly melted my heart.  “I’ve missed you Widow.” 

Carefully, trying to maintain what little dignity I had left after making such a spectacle of myself in his arms I said, “There have been more than a few moments when I wished for your presence as well Sheriff.” 

“Good.  I’d feel a complete fool if I’d been the only one pining.” 

“Pining?  Surely not.  I’ve heard there is some ridiculous war going on.  For your safety you mind should have been on that.” 

His arms briefly stiffened and I noticed a disquiet in the other men.  “What?” I asked, all attempts at levity put aside.  “Was what I said in distates?” 

“No Love.  And don’t fly up into the boughs.  I’ll call you what you are and everyone else can go hang.” 

I sighed but it wasn’t for the romance of it.  “You shouldn’t speak like that.  It … politically …” 

“I’ll be demmed if I’m going to let politics get in my way.” 

I shook my head and Hela, riding up on a spare horse with Ropsy that was tied to one of the soldiers’ mares asked, “Ye sure this ‘un be the one you want this time around?  He seems mighty twitchy.” 

Trying not to laugh I said, “Yes, his nerves do often get overset, but only because he is so overbearingly protective.  I can’t imagine what he would have made of some of my recent exploits.” 

“Most likely would have wound up on a stretcher and blessing us all out.” 

“Most likely,” I agreed. 

I was growing weary and after a moment allowed myself to be more firmly pulled back into the Sheriff’s protection.  The children were all distracted by their first experience on a horse and I whispered, “I will not allow them to be hurt.” 

“They won’t be if I have to stand their protector myself.” 

“Truly?” 

“I give you my word Leeda.” 

I relaxed but then asked, “Can you tell me … this war … I … I am having trouble fathoming it.” 

“Wasn’t a war … almost was.” 

“Almost?” 

I felt the Sheriff shudder and whispered to him, “Tell me.” 

“Two days back we were all set for battle.  Both sides with no outcome certain.  We had the might of weapons but they had the might of numbers.  It was like looking at ants boiling for a mound.  Then …”  He shuddered again and all I could do was wait him out.  “It was just after daybreak.  Weapons poised on both sides.  Then there was a rumbling beneath our feet.  Nothing new, we’d been feeling them off and on since we’d arrived weeks back.  None on the east side of the river thought anything of it, just another in a serious of curiosities.  But from the west side … Dear Creator … Leeda, the wailing and screaming rose in such volume we at first thought it to be a battle cry.  It disappeared Leeda … it’s all gone.” 

“What is?” I asked fearing to hear of some new and terrible weapon found amongst the ancient ruins. 

“New Paduck.  It’s gone.  Swallowed up by the ground.” 

“What?!” 

He tried explaining it visually and I simply could not believe it.  Then he tried telling me what the Linderhall engineers had hypothesized.  “When the river split it revealed an ancient graveyard of ships and war machines the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Days of Destruction.  I saw it; it looked … hellish.  But you can get used to anything I suppose and watching the Damned and their allies crawl through it all took the fear of the thing away and left in its wake a fear of what they might find.  Most of the worry was that they’d unearth another sepulcher of disease to loose upon our world.  All in the name of their dark god of course.” 

“Of course,” I agreed quietly. 

“But a strange thing began happening.  All of that flotsam began to disintegrate.  It was slow to start but once started nothing would stop it.  Within a week the ancient debris was down to the water line.  With the university scholars that have been besetting my brother moaning and groaning enough he nearly threw them in shackles to get them out from under foot.” 

“Your … brother?” 

“I’ll get to that.  Let me finish this part first.” 

“Very well.” 

“That decay, though we thought it had stopped continued below the water line.  What we also didn’t know was how deep the decay went.  Apparently New Paduck was built upon the wasteland left over from a great battle over a large city, the rubble of which was covered up by time and the meanderings of the Great River.  That debris was disturbed first by the earthshaker that split the river and then by the weight of the decaying matter collapsing upon it.” 

“If I understand this correctly,” I said working it out as he explained it to me.  “The draining of the water out of some of the area, as well as the weight of the collapsing debris field accelerated what the earthshaker had started.” 

“You see it correctly my Dear.  My very Dear.” 

“Oh Dear,” I said, unsure of the feelings that he was causing. 

“Too much?  Too soon?” 

“It is not that precisely.  I just can’t …absorb …” 

“I’m a fool.  You’ve been traumatized …” 

“Shhhh.  It is not so bad as all that.  The children have been amazingly helpful.  There is just much to tell you.  And there is much I need to hear.  And I would prefer for the rest of it for us to have … privacy.” 

“I accede to that Widow … Leeda … just tell me there is still hope for my suit.” 

“You do not need to play a drama troupe act Sheriff.  In all honesty …” I stopped to clear my throat.  “In all honesty Sheriff there is not chance of anyone having hope besides you.  But I cannot … not in front of …” 

“Shhhh.  Hope is all I needed.  I can live with the waiting.” 

“Very well,” I said grateful he was more in control of his intensity.  “Tell me how you were so miraculously at hand.” 

“We were taking a looksee to ascertain whether the Damned had additional forces in reserve.  At the same time James bid me to survey the river enough to let us sketch in how far downriver the debris stretched.” 

“James?  I … I must know.  Is Tomas …?” 

“Tomas is still The Linder.” 

I was concerned at the frost I heard in his voice.  “Sheriff?” 

The Sheriff shook his head briefly.  “James and I have … reconciled if you wish to call it that.  But Tomas … he’s … dammit.  He’s the one that started this war.” 

“What?!” 

“Aye.  None of us have been able to talk sense to him since he took the notion.  He … he blames himself for your death.” 

“But I’m not dead.” 

“No, Thank all that’s Holy.  But … but the his own brush with death, then finding such a rift in the family … though … I suppose you must know some of it.” 

“Do … you speak of Ronald Nealy?” 

“Aye,” he said and I could hear the click as he swallowed. 

“Did he live or die of his wounds?” 

“He lived.  He’s mad as a fungus vapper though.  I’d almost wish him sanity so he could understand the fate his choice has brought him to but … but for his mother and sisters …” 

“Let it go Darren.  Don’t carry such a burden.” 

“You called me Darren.” 

“For this I will.  And for the answer to this question also … what … what of Tosha?” 

“We buried her a few days after the siege.” 

“Poor Chancellor.” 

“She redeemed herself you know.”  At my silence he explained, “She was barely conscious, in truth would not have lived much longer.  Then a borderlander came through the window where the family was hold up.  From somewhere she found the strength to throw herself across James’ back.  She took a knife meant for him.  She died almost instantly but with such a look of peace on her face that James …”  He cleared his throat.  “It was agreed that wish most of the participants dead that her calumny would not be recorded.  Unless you object.” 

“No.  Whatever beset Tosha … she’s gone to her Judgment.  I leave it in God’s hands.” 

“My sweet Leeda.” 

I felt my face heat up and was grateful that it was dark enough under the trees that no one could see it. 

I had many more questions as I am sure the Sheriff had for me but there were riders coming towards us.  It took only a moment to ascertain they were sent to meet us and add their protection and consequence to our arrival.  It appears that we were to be given the royal treatment.