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ENCOUNTERS

The Human Story of Gareeth’s Integration




Copyright © by Carol Buhler, 2014

Cover Art by Les Petersen

A Standalone Novel of the Lillith Chronicles

Third Published in the Series

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are products of the author's imagination and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced for any purpose without the express permission from the author.



For my mother, who always encouraged me to read.



Contents:


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Glossary

Main Characters

Minor Characters

About the Author

More



Chapter 1

- Garard -

"What the hell's happened to my daughter?" Lord Metz roared. I watched the short, stout man I'd served for thirty years storm around the room, uniformed guards and brightly gowned ladies dodging his charge. His voice carried across the Grand Salon, but no one listened. Guards argued among themselves, accusing and defending failed actions; Lady Jill and her women twittered; and Cari, maid and constant companion to the missing Soer, wept copiously, surrounded by murmuring servants. So frustrating of him to allow anyone to talk at any time in his presence, I thought. Easier if they feared him.

I snatched a large brass bell off a side table and swung it three times; the loud ringing stopped the babble and all eyes turned toward me. Bowing smoothly, I said, "If you would allow me to present the information, My Lord, I believe everything will become clear." Unfortunately, although everyone else continued to gape, My Lord commenced stomping around the room again, cursing and waving bodies out of his way with wide flung arms. "I want to know what we're doing about it. My daughter is gone!" He stopped before me, jutted his head belligerently forward, and shouted directly into my face. "Lord Roark is on his way here for his wedding!"

Since he was finally immobile, I returned the bell to its table, cupped my hand under his elbow, and escorted him to a favorite armchair. "I've sent men out to search," I said keeping my voice low and calm. "If you will sit, My Lord, I'll tell you what happened and we can decide what to do next."

He glowered at me, then sent My Lady and her women out of the room with an imperious flick of his hand. An exchange of hard looks caused the head guard to order his men to parade rest against the walls. Then, he threw himself into the chair and I dismissed the servants, retaining Cari with a hand on her arm.

"Now, Cari." I softened my tone further as I led her to Lord Metz. "Please tell My Lord what you experienced."

She sank into a deep curtsy before his scowling face and stayed there, words rushing so fast she was hard to understand. "I'm sorry, My Lord. There was nothing I could do, My Lord. He was huge, My Lord."

"Be calm, Cari." Taking her hand, I brought her to her feet. "Lord Metz simply wants to know what you saw. You don't have to be frightened." I shot him a glance and, with effort, he smoothed his face into its public persona. "No one expected you to prevent what happened. Just tell us what you remember, slowly and clearly, please."

Large brown eyes awash in tears stared out of a round face framed in black curls. The blue ribbon matching her house uniform slanted askew across her forehead; she shoved it back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw My Lord's grip tighten on the arms of his chair and he clenched his jaw in forced patience. He knew not to interrupt as I coaxed out answers; he tended to shout and rave, scaring people into abject silence.

"Cari," I prompted gently.

"He just appeared in a hole in that wall, there." She pointed to the bookcases lining one side of the parlor. "One of them bookcases swung open and there he was. I don't know how he did that, My Lord." She ducked her head. "I must of fainted cause when I woke, he was talking with Soer Jaym." Her hands wringing her apron, her voice got weaker with every word. In a near whisper, she continued. "I must of fainted again cause when I woke up the second time, they were gone. I screamed and run to push the alarm. Honest, My Lord. That's all I know."

"Cari, can you be more detailed about what the intruder looked like?" I kept my tone soft, coaxing, my posture relaxed and my face politely inquiring. "What was he wearing? Was he tall, short, fat, thin? What color hair? What color eyes? Was he carrying anything? Things like that."

The girl gulped. "It happened so fast." She focused on my face, apparently to gain confidence. "All I can remember is that he was so tall. He seemed blue all over, like whatever he was wearing was blue, not dark blue or light blue, just blue, you know." She shook her head and her black curls bobbed. "Not a uniform. I didn't even notice boots." Then, she flung a triumphant glance at Lord Metz. "Yes, I know now. He was barefoot, long white feet."

Lord Metz grimaced at her, not quite a smile. "Thank you, Cari. If you think of anything else, would you please tell us?"

"Yes, My Lord." She gazed again at me, brown eyes beseeching. "Mr. Garard, may I go now?" I nodded; she dipped a quick curtsy, her head downcast, and fled.

I allowed my face to tighten into a more serious mien as I addressed My Lord. "I saw him, too, but I wanted you to hear from Cari first." Walking to the bookshelf, I pressed the lever cleverly hidden behind a particular stone. One bookcase swung away. "This is obviously how he got in."

"The old peep tunnel." My Lord gazed at the opening without surprise. The furious red had disappeared, his breathing had slowed, and his tone sounded more normal. "How did he get in there?"

"I sent Turl to investigate. He should be back shortly." Now that he was listening, I commenced pacing, hands behind my back, allowing him to see my distress. "My Lord, he did something to me—I don't know what—but I couldn't move except by his order." I sensed the guards stiffen and Lord Metz tensed as my voice rose. "He said he didn't know how to get out of the palace and I would have to help him. And he would take Soer Jaym with him. He ordered me to lead him to the top of the stairway—and I did! I couldn't disobey, no matter how hard I struggled." I fought down my horror, keeping my tone level as best I could. Against the wall, guard hands grasped holstered weapons, eyes searched the room as if the intruder were hiding behind something plotting to immobilize them all.

I hurried on, directing my words at the guards. "I don't think he could have controlled me if he hadn't touched me. My Soer yanked me into the room to get me off balance and distracted. He touched me on both sides of my head at the same time and my muscles locked." Tensions subsided and guards stepped back to parade rest.

I turned back to My Lord, my nerves again under control, my face dispassionate. "What I want you to grasp is how unusual this man appeared and acted. I think, then, you'll understand why I don't believe we'll find them. We have to wait until we hear what he wants in exchange for My Soer."

I gestured around the room. "Here in the Grand Salon, he appeared seven feet tall and slender. He was dressed in a tight blue bodysuit, had white hair and pale skin. No gloves, no boots. At the top of the Grand Stairway, he changed into a shorter, much stronger seeming man in ordinary trousers and shirt." I failed to suppress my shudder at recalling that transformation. "He slung My Soer over his shoulder and raced down the stairs. He overcame or evaded every guard. While carrying her in that enormous wedding costume! Not even our largest guard could have done something like that." I ignored the guards trying not to appear incompetent; I knew they weren't.

Again, I spoke to them. "He was incredibly quick and sure-footed. I could hardly see the sword moving he swung it so fast, and it wasn't light weight, but a true battle sword. Once they reached the ground floor, they seemed to shrink behind the shield as he flung up the door bolt and shoved the door open as if it weighed nothing." By deliberately emphasizing how more-than-human the intruder had seemed, I eased the guards' shame at their inability to stop him. My Lord had watched me closely for the entire recital.

I let my words sink in, then added, "The man told me the stasis would wear off in about an hour and it did. While I stood restricted, guards approached asking what they should do, and I dispatched search parties around the city." I motioned at an older guard, standing stiffly by the parlor door. "Jeml, show My Lord the sword and shield you found outside."

Jeml approached, dropped stiffly onto one knee, and presented the weapons. My Lord examined them. "They appear perfectly ordinary." He glanced around and exchanged a private look with me; he saw what I saw. The guards had tried. Their uniforms were scuffed and torn, their faces were bruised, one had an air-cast on his arm, and another held his leg cocked in pain. All slumped, crestfallen. A faint shudder swept through him. "This man ran down five flights of stairs carrying my daughter and no one could stop him?"

"Exactly, My Lord. Listen to their words." I waved them forward, one at a time, to tell their stories. One had caught a blow to the back of the head. Two had been tripped by the swinging sword and had rolled down the stairway. The two from the second landing apologized for not firing, saying the flash of the wedding costume stopped them, and the ones from the ground floor described their bullets bouncing away from the shield or missing altogether. Several had run out the front doors after the pair and failed to see them. It was as if they'd vanished.

Lord Metz, now calm and thoughtful, thanked them for their efforts, then sent them to quarters to clean up, get further medical treatment, or rest. The head guard he detained, giving orders. "Spread your men around the palace and question every person you see about a woman in bridal dress on the streets within the last two hours. Report back immediately if anyone has seen such a woman, no matter what she may have looked like other than the dress. Get details of whom she was with and what she was doing. I'll be in the Green Salon. Garard, accompany me. Jeml, bring the weapons. Plym, fetch the cognac."

My Lord walked silently with me to the Green Salon on the third floor, followed by Jeml. The guard deposited the weapons on the desk and as soon as the door closed behind him, My Lord turned on me. "What have you left out?"

I echoed his grim smile as I nodded toward the fireplace, away from windows and doors. We pulled armchairs close together to one side of the fireplace and I leaned forward intently. "I can't imagine how he discovered the old peep tunnel, but we'll find out. There are very few ways to get into and out of that tunnel. I thought we bricked it up long ago. But, right now, it's more important to consider this man's appearance and actions. Did the descriptions Cari and I gave remind you of anything?"

"The children's stories of the don."

I winced at his prompt response, hoping I'd been imagining things. "The height, the strength, the speed, the agility. Could it be possible they're not just old stories? Do don really exist?"

He didn't act surprised; he'd picked up all my clues. "I always believed they were only stories. But even if don do exist, they've stayed well hidden. What would make a don appear in the middle of my palace and kidnap my daughter—especially today?"

I sat back in my chair, thankful to have his mind focus on the problem. "I spent an immobile hour thinking about the why. Why now? Why Soer Jaym? Why kidnap her? Why appear at all? I know it makes no sense..." I paused, rubbing my forehead with one hand to ease a developing headache. "The kidnapper being don is the only explanation that fits. He did look human, but he didn't. Nothing specific made him seem non-human other than his height and his paleness. But the things he did! He carried Soer Jaym in full bridal dress as if she were light as air. He used a sword and shield to knock aside every guard, without a stumble."

I paused, sighed, and chose my words carefully, hoping to deflect his probable anger. "I have a confession to make, My Lord. I wanted to tell you alone, without the witnesses." He locked slit eyes on me but said nothing. "I was stuck stone still at the top of that staircase picturing this man trying to carry Soer Jaym through our guards and I just couldn't let them go unarmed." Raising my chin to bolster my courage, I plunged full steam ahead. "I told him about the arms history room. He went to collect weapons. When he came back with only a sword and shield, I was shocked. Over a hundred guns in that room and he chose those!" By the time I'd gotten all the words out, I was faintly trembling.

His strained face became incredulous. His words took a different direction than I was expecting. "He had no weapons before you told him about the arms room?"

"I asked him that... He told me the only weapon he had was himself… It scared me."

He sank back suddenly in his chair and studied me. The trembling had stopped but I felt white and drained. "I think it would have scared me, too," he said. He stared out the window for a moment; I watched him, breath held. Then, he glanced back. "We need to gather any information we can about don if that might be what we're dealing with." He paused and cocked his head to the right, brows crunched in puzzlement. "I get the notion you feel Jaym is safe."

I exhaled softly, the relief immense; he was listening and thoughtful; we could deal with this. "I do, My Lord. I can't tell you why except…as much as he scared me, he also gave me confidence that this happening today might be the answer to our overall dilemma." I stood and shook my arms out to relieve the tension in my neck and shoulders as I searched for a better way to state the feeling the man had left me with. Walking to the desk, I fingered the shield he'd used so effectively, then turned sharply back to My Lord. "I feel maybe our city-state, and Soer Jaym, are safe from Roark for the first time."

He scowled. "Let's hope you're right." I returned to my seat and we gazed together at the empty fireplace, my thoughts whirling with questions. His probably were, too.

After awhile I asked, "My Lord, may I have Plym send for Seth?"

He nodded his assent and Plym arrived shortly with the blond guard. Seth had changed his uniform and looked much neater than he had a half hour earlier, even with a bandage on his chin. I went to meet him. "Seth, bring Professor Talmadge from Pith University here. Don't mention what happened earlier. Only tell him Lord Metz needs his advice."

"Yes, sir." Good man, Seth. Prompt, careful, concise.

I sat down again and My Lord regarded me quizzically. "Talmadge is the fellow who's always spouting that don and reeth are real, not just legends, isn't he? Everyone thinks he's gone crazy chasing fairy tales."

"Perhaps he has, but I can think of no one else who might give us the information we need right now, can you?"

"No. But... do we have to just sit here doing nothing?" I sympathized. He'd never been good at waiting quietly for things to happen. But our running around searching the city would help no one and, as I explained, we needed to be available as guards brought news. The thought that Professor Talmadge might be useless, I didn't express.

"I guess you're right," he muttered, sounding disgruntled. After staring blankly ahead for a moment, he sighed. "Well, ask Plym to serve breakfast right away, in here. You'll eat with me, won't you?"

"Of course, My Lord."

Chapter 2

- Garard -

Breakfast came and went with no new information. I did what I could to keep My Lord's mind occupied, but he gradually fell into a glum silence. A jovial and easy going man by nature, he was also tender-hearted and quick to become despondent when faced with a situation he couldn't control. Although born and raised to the position, he'd never wanted to rule the city-state. Rather, he would have preferred being a simple farmer on the vast lands he'd inherited at his father's death just after My Lord's fifteenth birthday. His wise mother, aware of his character, had brought me into the palace right out of college and trained me into being his continual supporter. Over the years, I'd gone through every mood possible with him, including the death of his true love, his first wife, in childbed with his son. I loved the man like a brother, and respected him, too, even as I did my best to point him in the directions his mother would have wanted him to take.

A brisk knock brought his head up and Plym entered. "Turl has returned, My Lord."

"Send him in." My Lord met the guard with enthusiasm. "Turl, tell us what you've learned!"

The dark-haired, husky guard bowed gracefully, composed even in his dusty and bedraggled uniform. "I followed the tunnel to an opening into a small room in the servants' block," he said. That explained the dust. No one had been in that tunnel for years. "The door into the room was locked from the outside. We're still searching for clues as to how he got in."

At My Lord's nod, he continued. "Also, three blocks away, a couple in full wedding dress rented a car minutes after Soer Jaym was kidnapped. I sent a guard to check on the information the man gave—a false address and probably false names. The couple said they were going to Tahoe."

"Well done!" Lord Metz said just as I asked, "Have you already contacted Tahoe?"

Turl nodded thanks to My Lord, then turned to me. "Yes, Mr. Garard. We also sent out notice to all guard stations to watch for the license plate on the car."

"Thank you, Turl." My Lord smiled, his face had lightened considerably at the news. "Keep us posted. And go get cleaned up and get something to eat!" My Lord was always concerned that his people had plenty of food.

"Yes, My Lord."

Turl had only been gone a few minutes when Plym knocked again. "My Lord, Mr. Garard. Seth has arrived with Professor Talmadge." That was quick, I thought.

His eyes glinting with interest, My Lord came to his feet. "Good. Show him in and bring refreshments."

Plym ushered in a tall, middle-aged man, dressed in tweed jacket and wrinkled dark trousers. He clutched a hat in his hands and his short graying hair stood in all directions. As Metz extended his hand, I watched the professor's serious expression change to confusion, eyes darting around nervously.

"Thank you for coming on such short notice, Professor." My Lord gripped the man's hand with both of his. "It's a great pleasure to meet you. This is my majordomo, Garard, who is privy to everything I do." The professor nodded, quick and jerky, his brows drawing together.

"Please be seated," continued My Lord, signaling me to pull up another chair. "Would you care for refreshment?"

The professor had not uttered a word; when I placed a chair for him, he gazed at me as if bemused by My Lord's graciousness. Of course, he only knows the public image, I thought. Before I could reassure him, the man squared his shoulders and responded, "That would be most welcome, My Lord. It was a quick journey from the University and I'd not breakfasted before your man fetched me away."

"I apologize for the inconvenience, but we're desperately in need of your help." My Lord waved the surprised professor to the seat, then leaned forward and peered seriously at him. "Professor Talmadge, whatever is said here must not be spoken of outside this room without my permission."

Baffled, Talmadge glanced at me for help, then gulped. "Yes, My Lord. Of course. I understand." He didn't but I didn't interrupt.

"Good," My Lord continued. "My eldest daughter, the Soer Jaym, was kidnapped this morning. Garard and I have reason to believe it was a don who did the kidnapping."

The professor gasped and froze. Then, he jumped up from the chair he'd just taken, face flaming red. He glanced rapidly from My Lord to me. Finally, he focused on me, evidently as being less intimidating. "Why would he say such a thing? Is he making fun of me?"

Again, before I could answer, My Lord spoke, pulling the professor's attention back. "Please, listen to Garard as he recounts what happened. I assure you, I believe him completely. After he finishes, you'll understand." He motioned at me with his right hand. "Tell Professor Talmadge what you told me."

The professor subsided back into the chair and fidgeted anxiously. As I recounted the story, I saw his face pass from disbelief through recognition of details to belief. By the time I finished, he was leaning forward, trembling with excitement. "It could be none other than a don. Who else could do those things? It had to be a don. I wish I could have seen him myself!"

"You may yet get that opportunity," My Lord said dryly. "I appreciate that you’re excited about the validation of your studies, but my main concern is for my daughter. Garard says he felt, or maybe sensed is a better word, the don meant her no harm. He wanted out of the palace. Why he took Soer Jaym with him, we have no idea."

Again, I carried the conversation at My Lord's insistence. "We know how he got into the Grand Salon. We don't know why. We're hoping you can help with these puzzles and assist us in getting Soer Jaym back." My Lord and I conferred silently in a way we've often used: I raised my eyebrows in inquiry and he nodded his head slightly. Then, I focused on the scholar. "Are you willing to help us, Professor Talmadge, with the understanding that you may have exclusive rights to use anything we learn during this investigation?"

My Lord also leaned forward and looked directly into Talmadge's eyes. "I want my daughter back. I need your help."

The man sat still a moment as if shocked beyond any imaginings. Then, he answered, voice deep with sincerity. "You have it, My Lord. Where do we start?"

"I think you should examine this sword and shield to see if the don might have done something to them." I directed him to the desk and the weapons placed there. "Have you, in your research, heard of such a thing? These came from our own weapons display."

The professor first picked up the sword and then the shield. He pulled an eye glass out of a vest pocket and examined one small part of the shield. He moved over to the window to get natural light and we followed, watching closely, hoping for a shred of inspiration.

He raised his head and dashed our hopes. "I thought I saw something, but it was just a trick of the light, I guess. There are very old stories that came out of Fell. The don supposedly used a coating on their weapons to preserve the metal that also made the weapon repel whatever it came into contact with. They applied it to their armor so human weapons couldn't penetrate." He held out the shield. "If there's such a finish on this, I can't detect it."

"Are there stories of don being able to use their minds to move things?" I asked. "I read something about a mind trick called telekinesis where someone could move an object by staring at it and concentrating on where he wanted it to go. I thought at the time, it sounded impossible. But, I have to admit, just about everything I saw today should have been impossible."

Talmadge shook his head. "I've heard of the theory of telekinesis, never in connection with the don. I guess it's possible. From the stories I investigated, I concluded that different don possessed different talents. Maybe this fellow is capable of telekinesis."

"He definitely changed images." I reiterated what the intruder had looked like, both before he started down the stairs, and after. "I really don't think he shrunk himself. He made himself appear shorter to fool the guards. It's strange he allowed me to see him as he really was."

"But did he really?"

I shrugged. "That's a possibility I also considered."

"Do the other attributes Garard observed fit the stories you've studied?" My Lord asked.

"Yes, indeed they do." The professor walked back to the desk and put the heavy shield down. "All the stories I collected mention the extreme height, the strength from apparently slim musculature, and the speed with which the don moved. I would call those traits universal. The mental tricks, putting you in stasis, the visions he made everyone see, those are not prevalent in the stories but they do appear. In one story, a don lulled the pain of a serious injury by laying his hand on the victim's forehead."

I followed the professor's words closely but shook my head. "The don touched me just above my temples…" I indicated the places I'd felt the pressure. "…with both of his hands which doesn't sound like that lulling thing at all. He literally froze me in place. No pain, just frustration."

The professor nodded as his brows rose in question. "But it still suggests the use of some sort of mental power, don't you think?"

A knock at the door caused us to turn; Plym entered. "Turl is back with more information, My Lord."

Turl bowed quickly then stood at parade rest. He'd found time to change his uniform and comb his hair, maybe grabbed a bite to eat as he knew My Lord might ask. "We heard back from Tahoe. They haven't seen anyone resembling the couple from the car rental stand. We phoned all other resorts, motels, hotels or inns within three hours of Pith to inquire after them. Everyone's on alert and the men are continuing to contact places further afield."

His serious face slipped into a lopsided grin. "We had a bit of luck. An off-duty employee of the car rental place recognized the green car by the license plate. It was headed north, toward Neff Casino. The casino security team will watch for our pair. If they stop at the casino, the team will keep them in sight, but not interfere until we get our own team up there."

"Great work, Turl!" My Lord returned the man's smile, nodding to emphasize his pleasure. "You're probably ahead of him with your communications network. How will you stop him?"

"Guard Captain Roml is exploring the arsenal for something that might help. We know better what we're up against, now. And I have more information, My Lord. Four other newlywed couples rented cars today; two caught planes to Carn and one to Whay. The two going to Carn were traveling together, brothers marrying on the same day. I doubt they're anyone we need to follow, but I sent a man on the first plane to Whay after the other pair. We're also following up on the other four." Turl's smile dimmed and he shook his head. "We don't know how many couples might have left Pith in private cars. And we really don't know if Soer Jaym was still wearing her wedding dress. They might still be in the city."

"Wonderful work nevertheless. I'm pleased with your progress." My Lord turned to me. "What do you think, Garard, Professor? Should we send out the word on the networks?"

"I think we should hold off." I studied the guard's stance and expression. "The word is spreading fast, I'm sure, with this contacting of resorts. But Turl, tell me. Have you mentioned Soer Jaym?"

"We've not mentioned her name. We've sent out her picture. No one will recognize who she is because she's never seen in public."

"Good work, again, Turl." My Lord dismissed him, then went back to his chair by the fireplace. Talmadge and I followed and took seats to either side.

"I just thought of something I haven't mentioned earlier," I said once we were settled and had taken up our refreshments. "I asked the don if he had a safe place to take Soer Jaym. He said he did." Feeling the tension tightening my spine, I rubbed the back of my neck, then rolled my head around. The Professor was watching me, eyes round in awe. My Lord is used to my mannerisms.

"He couldn't have been thinking of Neff Casino," I continued. "I wouldn't think he would consider any human city to be safe for him to take her. Obviously, he could hide anywhere in human territory. He must have been doing so for some time. But he has to have some type of hideaway not known to humans where she could be hidden."

My Lord considered, gazing out the window, then glanced at the professor. "You do realize that Garard and I have accepted the existence of don very easily. What if there are many of them and they've chosen this time to reveal their presence? They could have a city back in the remote mountains that no one has discovered." He held out his hand to the professor as if asking for something. "What do you think, Professor? Do you know where they used to live?"

Talmadge slumped and shook his head. "No, My Lord. I've found no information anywhere about where they supposedly lived. That's one of the reasons my colleagues don't believe in their existence. There's no physical evidence whatsoever—only stories."

"Well, the Flagstone Plateau is also down the highway to Neff Casino," I pointed out. "The area northwest of there is remote. The mountains are rugged and not forgiving of intruders." I struggled for a moment chasing a fleeting memory. Then, I had it. "Do you recall last year when that mountain climbing party disappeared on the edge of Flagstone Plateau?"

"What're you saying? Maybe don have lived there all these centuries and we never even knew? How could that be?"

"I don't know what I'm saying, exactly. I guess I'm thinking out loud. Where could Soer Jaym be hidden from us? Nowhere among humans, I think. Our communication system is too good for her to just vanish. And, I can't believe he can keep her concealed behind his illusions forever!" My frustration threatened to overwhelm me. "We need more information!"

Chapter 3

- Garard -

An hour later, Turl arrived once more. "The green Auld was seen passing the entrance to Neff Casino," he said.

"Good. They're going to the Plateau just as you thought, Garard." My Lord jumped out of his chair and nodded at Talmadge and I. "Gentlemen, we'll take a plane to Flagstone Plateau." Obviously, he'd reached the end of his patience. “Turl, fetch two other guards. Full arms. Get Captain Roml, too. I want to discuss what weapons we have that can help us with this problem. Does anyone know if we'll need outerwear? What's the weather like there?"

"The Plateau?" Turl asked. "Warm jackets, hats. It'll be windy and cool."

I put my hand on the professor's arm and drew him aside. "Professor, come with me. I'll see what we can find that will fit you." He'd been pulled out of the comfort of his apartment at the University and although he'd agreed to help, he didn't need to be made sick by My Lord's impulsiveness.

"Thank you, Garard. I certainly didn't come prepared for a trip to the mountains."

**

We watched anxiously as the plane approached the Flagstone Plateau. A fairly flat broad expanse, it rippled with yellow grass while outcroppings of black rock surfaced sporadically above the wave. We didn't find a green Auld. At My Lord's insistence, I directed the pilot to circle several times, then follow the river. Finally, he allowed us to leave, crushed by disappointment. The plane had just reached the top of the canyon when I heard the radio chatter.

The pilot turned his head to me, seated as I was in the co-pilot's seat. "The highway patrol found the car but the passengers escaped into a draw. Do you want me to take you there?"

"Yes!" My Lord was adamant. We landed safely on the four-lane highway between police roadblocks and immediately saw the car as we deplaned. Making our way to an officer who seemed to be in charge, I introduced our party. I liked the officer instantly; not at all rattled by My Lord's bluster.

"Nothing in the car, My Lord," he informed us. "We're waiting on the forensic team now." The officer pointed toward a deep draw, filled with brush and trees. "First on the scene saw two figures go over the side of the bridge. They slid to the bottom of the slope, then ducked into the underbrush. We've officers combing the area, but the terrain is rough." He shrugged. "Sorry. Nothing else yet."

"Thank you, officer," I said before turning to My Lord. "We should go back. We can't do anything useful here unless you want to slide down into that gully."

He shot me an exasperated glare, then groaned. "I suppose you're right. Roml, stay here with your men and help search. Turl, come with us." He walked briskly back to the plane, still full of energy.

**

Once we regained the Green Salon, My Lord stared glumly out a window while Professor Talmadge and I spoke in low tones about the don and reeth stories the professor had studied in his quest to prove their existence. I buried my worry as long as My Lord kept still, and pumped the professor for any information that might help. Again, our conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door and Plym's entrance. The butler carried a silver tray with a white envelope lying innocently in the middle.

"This was just delivered for you, My Lord. The messenger said it was urgent and when I asked for more information, he ran." Plym held the tray out to My Lord who shot me a stricken glance. Carefully picking up the envelope as if it were a bomb, he opened it and read. Then, an odd expression on his face, he handed me the paper.

Greetings Lord Metz, Garard, and whoever might be with you. I am Joedon and I kidnapped the Soer Jaym. She is safe and well and will stay that way for now.

I demand that you meet me at the Flagstone Plateau at noon tomorrow for an exchange: Soer Jaym in exchange for the prisoner in cell twenty-three of your prison. He is ill and must be handled carefully. Do not try to treat him. You might kill him and that would not be good for Soer Jaym.

Until tomorrow. May wisdom be with you.



We were stunned into a moment of silence. "Who is the prisoner?" My Lord said, casting a baffled glance my way.

"Let's find out!" I said to Plym, "Send for Turl. Have him meet us at the front door with four others and bring the large car around." I shot the professor a look. "Going with us?"

"Of course."

In the car, I puzzled over the new angle. What on earth could it mean? The more we learn, the more confused I feel.

**

The heavy prison door swung open and My Lord barged in. "Take us to cell twenty-three," he ordered. A guard blinked at him, eyes squinting against the bright sunlight, and raised a hand as if to stop us. Tall, he wore an ill-fitting, stained blue uniform, and had an especially ugly face: bulbous nose and overhanging brows, frown lines etched permanently into his dark skin.

The frown lines deepened. "Now, hold on, fancy man," he growled. "I'm in charge here and I demand to know what's goin' on. Lord Metz don't want nobody in here what don't belong."

Before My Lord could explode, I stepped forward to talk to the unpleasant man. "Gruff, is it?" I read his name badge and held out my hand. "I am Lord Metz' majordomo, Garard. This is Lord Metz himself and these are his personal guards."

Gruff stood slack-jawed, dumbstruck. He finally shook himself, gulped, and grasped my outstretched hand. "Uh." He gulped again and stepped back several more feet, distancing himself from My Lord. "Welcome to the prison, My Lord, Mr. Garard." The big man attempted a bow. "What can I help you with, My Lord?"

"Gruff…" My Lord had himself back under control. "We need to see a prisoner of yours immediately. He's of extreme importance to me, and indeed to the safety of Pith. Can you conduct me to him?"

"Sure, My Lord. The hallways be cramped and the cells ain't big." His eyes wide, he appealed to me for help. "Do all these guards have to go?"

My Lord glanced over the group. "Turl, Professor Talmadge, Garard, and two others of your choosing, Turl. The rest of you stay here and guard the outer door." He turned back to Gruff and focused his considerable charm on the man. "There will be six of us."

"Yes, My Lord." He managed another disjointed bow. "Follow me. Where's this prisoner at?" Again, his eyes slid toward me.

"Our information says he's in cell twenty-three. We've also been told he's very ill. Is that right?"

"I don't know," the man mumbled so that I barely heard. Having no choice, he led us single file to the next doorway, unlocked it, passed everyone through, and locked it again. He repeated the procedure at two more doors. I stuck close behind Gruff, keeping My Lord between me and Turl. Prisoners evidently heard the tramp of our feet and called from their windows to know what was going on. When Gruff ignored them, the shouts changed to curses.

When he reached cell twenty-three, he unlocked the door and stepped back as if denying any responsibility for what we might find. I nodded my thanks but directed a guard to keep an eye on the man. Then, I gestured to Turl to enter with me, saying, "My Lord, Professor, please wait here until I'm sure it will be safe."

I followed Turl into the dim cell toward a figure on the bed, curled in the fetal position facing the wall. I approached carefully, hoping Turl would be ready for anything. I reached out and touched the body. It was warm. No response. I grabbed the shoulder and shook it. Nothing changed. Then, I had Turl take the hip and I took the shoulder as we pulled the man over onto his back. Legs straightened gradually so that the fellow lay prone, but we saw no other reaction. He was alive. He was warm. He was supple. He didn't seem to be aware.

"You can come in, My Lord," I called. "I don't believe there's any danger."

My Lord entered, followed closely by the professor leaving no room for the other guards. We stood gazing down at the prisoner on the cot, wondering what to do next.

"As far as we can tell, the being is alive," I said. "He seems human. I can see no signs of injury or disease. He isn't responsive. Something seems odd about this person, other than the coma, but I can't put my finger on it. Turl?"

"I felt something odd, too, but I can't say exactly what. As far as the coma goes, perhaps he has an injury of the mind. Once, I saw a man who was close to a grenade when it accidentally went off. He suffered some body injuries, but his mind was damaged the most. Physically, he healed just fine. His personality was never the same. Not quite as gone as this one, but similar."

Professor Talmadge stepped close to the cot and stared down at the body. "I've heard of such a thing." He glanced at Metz, leaving his hand on the being's shoulder. "I'd rather not discuss it further here, but this is something I've encountered in my research."

We awaited My Lord's decision.

He studied the being a moment, then nodded his head decisively. "Turl," he said. "Have your men fetch a rolling litter. Move the prisoner carefully to the hospital and keep close guard on him."

"My Lord," I said. "The doctors will want to examine him. You must not allow any treatments."

He paused, head slightly tilted as if considering my words, hand on his chin, eyes on the body. Then, he nodded. "I'll put instructions in a written message for Turl to present to the doctors. Nothing must happen to this, um, man."

"Yes, My Lord."

My Lord stepped outside the cell; Talmadge and I followed. He beckoned to the guard, who came forward and bowed his awkward best. "Gruff," My Lord said. "We're ready to be conducted out of the prison. Did you hear my instructions to Turl?"

"Yes, My Lord. I heard."

"Good. Give him the aid he needs. We're ready to follow you."

Silently, Gruff led the way to the outer entrance. At the door, My Lord looked the guard up and down. "Next time I visit, you'd better have a clean and neat uniform on!" His voice was pleasant, backed by the hint of steel he mustered on occasion. "And, get your hair cut." He swept out the door leaving the ugly guard with his mouth dropped open again.

"Back to the palace, Plym." My Lord climbed into the back seat of the long, low, black car and settled himself. "We've a lot to talk over and think about and I, for one, am hungry. When we get there, Plym, direct Mart to prepare an early dinner for us. Serve it in the Green Salon. We'll not be joining the ladies today."

"Very good, My Lord."

**

My Lord and I maintained a flow of inconsequential chatter during dinner while the professor remained quiet. I sympathized with the man. Within the last few hours he'd been transformed from a mocked historical researcher to a trusted confidant of My Lord himself and he struggled to fit into the rarified company. Before long, he would begin to understand how easy-going Lord Metz really was compared to his public image.

When the servants finally finished clearing the table and left, My Lord opened the discussion by leaning across the table toward Talmadge. The professor unconsciously straightened his back and looked back earnestly. He'll do, I thought.

"First, Professor," My Lord said. "Would you please comment on the message? Was there anything that would lead you to believe it was left by one of the don?"

Talmadge shook his head. "Only the name, which did end in ‘don', but I can't say it means anything. I never heard mention of a name in any stories."

My Lord glanced from him to me. "I was shocked by the message, as I'm sure both of you were. We need to rethink our assumptions. It seems the existence of the don is not the question. As long as we feel Jaym is safe, my next concern is Roark. He's due to arrive early tomorrow. What will we tell him?"

Talmadge's jaw worked, muscles tensing as he clenched his teeth. Then, he took a deep swallow of his drink to cover his confusion. "I'm sorry, My Lord, but I don't understand the significance of Lord Roark in this situation."

My Lord looked sharply at him. "Are you unaware, Professor, that my eldest daughter, Soer Jaym, is to marry Roark tomorrow evening?"

"Hesus!" The professor clapped his hand to his head, then jumped to his feet to pace. "I never thought of that in relation to this don thing. I didn't make the connection with Soer Jaym and the wedding tomorrow. That's why the message shocked you." He stopped walking to stand by me. "You thought Soer Jaym had been kidnapped because of the wedding and here it's just a coincidence! I can see your confusion. Why would don care anything at all about a wedding between two royal human families?"

"Exactly our thinking," I responded. "We couldn't come up with any reason a don would interfere." I paused, rubbing my forehead as I studied the professor. "But this don did interfere. If we return the prisoner in good condition, then supposedly we'll get Soer Jaym back and the wedding can proceed as planned. But, what do we tell Roark in the morning?"

Talmadge strode toward My Lord, energized by a plan. "We have the rest of today. I suggest we find out as much as we can about why the prisoner was arrested, and whether Joedon made any efforts to get the prisoner out."

My Lord blinked at the man's enthusiasm, then caught fire himself. "Good thinking, Professor. Garard, send for the Chief of Police, and find out why the prisoner was arrested."

Talmadge thumped his fist on the nearby desk as Plym stepped into the room to get my instructions. The imperturbable butler didn't flinch. "Someone should interview those prison guards to find out if anything unusual happened in the prison in the last couple of days. This Joedon knew exactly where the prisoner was and he also knew the man was ill."

"Another great question, Professor." My Lord shoved himself to his feet and started to the door with determination. "Let's go to the hospital and investigate our prisoner. Plym, send the Chief of Police there."

Chapter 4

- Garard -

A guard waited in the foyer of the third floor to escort our party to the prisoner's room. I also noted guards stationed at either end of the corridor and two more standing at attention just outside a door. Well done, Turl. I followed My Lord into the room where we met a short, grey-haired man with a white lab coat and clipboard hovering over the bed. The badge on his pocket said Lyle Grey, Chief Surgeon. The one Turl told me about! Trustworthy man.

Dr. Grey raised his head and smiled broadly. "Lord Metz. Come see what we've found!" He welcomed Talmadge and I with warmth after my introductions, and then directed us to arrange ourselves around the bed. His eyes twinkled like those of a kid with a new toy. "As you consider him, he's about your height, eh Garard?" Dr. Grey handed me the end of a tape measure. "Here, take this tape, please. I'll hold it here." The doctor placed his end of the tape at the very top of the figure's head. "Now pull it down to where you can feel his feet. Notice that the tape shows him much taller than you are. But he doesn't seem taller than you."

I checked the tape, then looked sharply at the doctor, having difficulty believing what I read. "An illusion!"

"Exactly!" Dr. Grey grinned and pointed. "Look at his clothes; he's wearing a loose shirt and trousers. Now, feel down his leg." I reached down and ran my hand along the figure's leg; My Lord and then Talmadge copied me. They both pinched and tried to rub their fingers together on the pseudo-trousers.

"It doesn't feel like trousers, does it?" Dr. Grey bounced on his toes. He's enjoying every second. "It feels like he's wearing a close-fitting body suit."

My Lord traded astonished looks with me, but Talmadge continued to feel along the body, noting the difference between what he saw and what his fingers told him he should see. The professor spoke reverently. "What we're experiencing is some sort of powerful illusion. What about his hair? It appears long and curly." He ran his hand over the patient's skull. "It feels short and bristly." He rubbed the prisoner's head; his eyes glazed as his mind obviously churned. I struggled with my belief.

"I made sure we did nothing that might injure him, My Lord." Dr. Grey watched Talmadge in his reverie. "According to my reading of the good professor's work, this illusion business is one of the purported abilities of don, but, how can this person project an image from a coma?"

"Did you do any other tests?" I asked.

The doctor walked around the bed and presented the body with hands held out to both sides as if it was his prize. "Temperature, slightly lower than normal; heartbeat, slow and regular indicating no stress; no response from lifted eyelids; blood pressure slightly higher than normal; pulse oximeter doesn't work at all. Don't know what that means in regard to his overall health. Physical exam by touch indicates excellent body tone. If he's ill, I can't tell from what. Can't see bruises or wounds, of course."

Again, Dr. Grey's eyes sparkled with mirth. "The most interesting thing of all is that this person has neither eaten, drunk, urinated, nor defecated for the three days he's been in our custody, meaning at the prison and here, of course. How is that possible? People in comas still go about living, even the messy parts!" His voice took on a serious, pleading tone. "This is something I must be allowed to investigate, Lord Metz. We need to understand this."

My Lord held up his hands to block the doctor's enthusiasm. "I understand your interest but we can't do anything that might jeopardize his health. Not until we get my daughter back."

**

Once back at the Palace, My Lord decided to take his customary nap and Talmadge confessed to feeling exhausted, too. I conducted the professor to a guest room on the same floor as my own and sent a guard to collect his things from the University. "We want you to stay here until we figure this out," I said.

With both of them settled for a while, I went quietly through the halls until I reached a small storeroom outside the ladies’ quarters. For years, I'd been monitoring Lady Jill. The death of his beloved Lady Jane had devastated My Lord and contrary to all counseling, he'd married Lady Jill within a year, hoping to rediscover the happiness he'd enjoyed. Lady Jill is not Lady Jane! Although beautiful, well bred, and having all the society manners one could want, behind the scenes she was avaricious, spiteful, and demanding. She constantly knocked heads with My Lord, and several times, I'd caught her planning mischief for him or his much-loved eldest daughter, Soer Jaym.

Unlocking the store room door, I retrieved a tape from the recorder fastened next to an air vent, replaced it with a new one, and relocked the door. Back in my own room, I hung my jacket carefully on a valet stand, kicked off my shoes, poured myself a glass of the red and sank into my favorite chair, slipping the tape into the player on the table.

Ladies prattled about the disappearance of Soer Jaym, pumping Cari for information. She embellished her story a bit with each telling but the central facts remained true. Then, the ladies' chatter stopped.

"We won't be dining with the gentlemen," Jill announced in her usual shrill tone. "Something has happened to Soer Jaym and the men are too busy dealing with it to enjoy our company. We'll have a light dinner served here, instead."

"Yes, it's so exciting! So romantic!" I pictured Flit with affection: thirteen, volatile, and addicted to romance novels. "Just think what it would be like to be kidnapped on the eve of your wedding by a tall, beautiful man. I'd just faint away and have to be carried tenderly by the kidnapper." I imagined Jaym's youngest half-sister with her long dark hair flying as she twirled around, hands folded under her chin, a dreamy smile on her face.

"Well, you wouldn't have gotten away then, would you?" Murr, fifteen and practical, probably scowled at her sister's antics. "If he had to carry you tenderly, he couldn't have run down the stairs with you fighting off the guards all the way, now could he?" She paused. "The fighting would be exciting, at least." Now, she's looking pensive. "And it wasn't the eve, but early in the morning." Always precise, our Murr.

Although Flit's personality obviously came from her father, both girls resembled their paternal grandmother more than anyone else in the family: delicate bone structure, dainty hands and feet, with pixie-like faces. Thinking of them, I thought of that grand old lady with gratitude.

"You two are silly fools," Kelt snapped. The oldest of Jill's three daughters was just like her mother: shrewish, arrogant, and grasping, although her curly black hair and snapping dark eyes came from elsewhere in that family; she resembled neither parent. I never questioned as she was born a correct interval after the wedding vows. She definitely considered herself better than us lesser mortals.

"This is neither romantic nor exciting. It's a disaster." Kelt didn't sound like she felt a catastrophe coming. In fact, she sounded rather smug. "Lord Roark will be here in the morning for a wedding and there won't be a bride. He's likely to be furious." And Jaym will take the blame.

"Soer Kelt is right, girls," Jill said, her tone far from motherly. The woman didn't expend emotions on people she couldn't use. "The happenings this day will cause problems for My Lord and our city. Lord Roark is powerful. We have to go through with this wedding. He's a warrior and not easily placated. I'm extremely concerned about the situation."

"Lady Jill." The gentle voice made me smile for mousy Marn, Jill's younger sister, trapped in the ladies’ quarters under her spiteful sister's thumb. How does she stay so calm? So caring? Jill treats her like a slave. "Aren't you worried about Soer Jaym? She could be in great danger." The warm mellow tone made me feel even more regretful for the woman than ever. "I hope they find her soon and rescue her. She's probably very frightened."

"Yes, Soer Marn." The shrill voice paused. "Where did you find that hideous dress?" When Marn didn't respond, Jill continued. "I am worried about Soer Jaym, but she'll get what she deserves. She's a headstrong girl always chafing against our ways. She doesn't want to marry Lord Roark; we all know that. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find she has somehow engineered this whole thing to cause us problems with Lord Roark."

"And get her own way!" Kelt's whine. So typical.

"But, Lady Jill." Warm, soft Marn again. My anger flared at the constant use of titles that Jill insisted on and I closed my eyes, struggling to disperse it. Marn had suffered dearly once for leaving off the title while addressing her own sister. "She couldn't have engineered this herself. She has fewer contacts outside the palace than even we do. How could she arrange for someone to kidnap her?"

"Then someone inside the palace helped her. I wouldn't put it past Garard to do something like that." With that, I was furious; I stabbed the player off. That bitch! I closed my eyes and struggled to center myself, finally getting my anger under control. Then, I turned the player back on.

"Mother, what about the man appearing in the hole in the wall like Cari said?" Flit sounded as if she were bouncing up and down. She probably was. "How could that happen? And how he put Garard in that statsis or whatever she said he did."

"The word is stasis, Soer Flit. And sit still!" Jill snapped. "Cari also said Soer Jaym was not the least bit frightened, or even surprised. I think she knew he was coming all the time. Besides, Garard could be saying that to justify his not rescuing Soer Jaym. No one else saw it, now did they?"

I slapped off the player, not willing to listen to any more of the hateful woman's words. Soer Jaym's better off anywhere, away from her.

**

My Lord sent for me at seven that evening during a light supper in the Green Salon. "Garard, I must invite Lady Jill to discuss what to do about Roark and the prisoner exchange tomorrow." He'd been worrying about the dark lord's arrival again.


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