The next time she saw Matt, it was at a formal meeting with Ryan. Matt sat in a chair in a corner badly beaten.
“I would like to ask that you not send any more of my people into this trouble,” Ryan started professionally. “Whatever this trouble is.”
For a moment the two Watchers simply pondered each other. Then, without warning, Ryan slammed his hand down on his desk.
“Damn it, Huggles. Why won't you tell me what is going on at the Mother House? Does it have to do with the boy?”
“The boy?” Isabeth questioned, then realized. “Oh, no. He's not there anymore. I moved him. I have a different problem locked up there now. Geese Ryan, I actually thought you were starting to worry about your wards.”
“Are you kidding,” Ryan laughed. “I love these guys, but I don't care what you do to them.”
Matt cleared his throat.
“Oh, Matt,” Isabeth said remembering he was there. “Could you go get Mark for me. There is no way he'll do this to him. Trust me, I know what he's becoming.”
“What who's becoming?” Ryan asked taking Isabeth around the waist from behind. “and what is he becoming?”
“Didn't your mother teach you not to flirt with pregnant women?” Isabeth let out.
“You're going to have another baby?” Ryan looked sad. “You're averaging one every five years. Where are you going to send this one?”
Isabeth looked hurt. “That's not fair.”
“Yes, I'm mean, but honest.”
“I need to go talk to my mom.”
She pulled away from Ryan, grabbed Mark's hand as he finally entered Ryan's office, and dragged the man with her. They got outside without a word, saddled up and headed for Italy.
“Stupid,” Isabeth repeated as her escort rode silently beside her. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“Can I ask who and why you're berating,” Mark interrupted.
“Myself,” Isabeth bleated. “I was so happy at my first shot at successes and everyone seems hell bent on reminding me of my last mistakes in this area. Given enough time, who knows what blunders I might manage to make.”
“Couldn't you just learn from those mistakes.” Mark offered. “Or repair them.”
They rode in silence for a while as Isabeth pondered over Mark's wise words. Could she repair them.
“Which way?” Mark asked.
Isabeth was confused for a moment then she saw the fork in the road.
“You go east to the Mother House. Find James, he'll fill you in. You are forbidden from speaking of what you learn there. I'm off to Castle Isaacs.”
“Have a pleasant trip, Huggles,” Mark said with a smile. “I know you'll do the right thing, being who you are and all.”
“Yes, thank you very much.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The road grew narrower and Isabeth had to release her horse to the wild, he'd find his way back to Castle Huntington on his own. It began to slope upwards, the angle increasing steadily. Isabeth was breathing hard now, even panting a little, and her legs ached. Whatever magic they had been given on day one was slowly fading as time went by and they were becoming more and more human everyday. It wasn't really noticeable yet, women felt it most when they were in the same delicate condition that she was in right now. Isabeth had to know that she was pushing herself to the limit and beyond, but she didn't slow down or give any quarter. She was determined to always be the same immortal she started out as.
It is okay, she thought darkly. She could keep it up as long as she needed to, and if she needed anything to keep her going all she had to do was remember she had powers and that she could use them at will. And if that didn't do the trick, remembering she could always appear at her destination in a second certainly would.
But she wouldn't do that. She had not once in over two hundred years taken the easy way out and she sure as hell wouldn't start now. Then Ryan's words came back to her - “Where are you going to send this one?” She still felt the imprint of that verbal slap. It had been bruising, even degrading. It was a slice that had nothing to do with playful ribbing and everything to do with trying to wake Isabeth up to herself. It had been a graphic, almost brutal reminder of her past mistakes.
Then another man's words came to her - “Couldn't you just learn from those mistakes.” Mark said. “Or repair them. I know you'll do the right thing, being who you are and all.”
Isabeth wanted to start crying, but she wasn't sure if it was because her best male friend in the universe had hurt her or if this ward she barely knew loved and trusted her so much that he's say something so beautiful about her. Finally giving into the pain of the hike and her need to cry, Isabeth sat hard on the stones and let it all go.
She wasn't given much time to feel sorry for herself before the rustling in the bushes began. “I am like a wolf, who ever you are. Left to my own devices, I bother no one. But force my back against the wall and you risk the danger of my fangs.”
Mark came out of the shrubs with a curious smile on his face. “What was that, some quaint unknown proverb?”
“What are you doing here,” Isabeth sighed. “I told you to go to the Mother House.”
“I don't know how to say this without sounding unkind,” Mark sat next her and put his arm around her. “Simply a reminder of your vulnerability. And I refuse to leave anyone to face that alone.”
While she was still struggling for a response, he rose to his feet and pulled her along with him. “Come on,” Mark urged. “We've got miles to cover before nightfall.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Isabeth and Mark worked their way up the Gargano mountains. Trying not to show that she was vulnerable, it became important not just to follow behind, but to match Mark stride for stride. Her footsteps quickened until she was at his side. Mark gave her a quick glance and if she hadn't been breathing so hard she would have laughed aloud at the look on his face.
“You'd be better off not with me,” Isabeth tried. “I get into some dangerous situations.”
“I'm better off right where I am,” he corrected.
Isabeth gritted her teeth and let Mark's presence give her strength to continue. And it worked, even after her legs turned to lead and her lungs to flame. She was completely exhausted and disorientated. Her eyes focused singularly on the path at her feet while she tried not to think about her aching muscles, thirst, and upcoming conversation she knew she had to face at Castle Isaacs.
They had not exchanged another word in the hours since, not even after they'd finally reached the mountain top and stopped to admire it. The mountains in this part of the world are like none anyone had ever seen. They are incredibly high and treacherous. Although the pass had been a steady climb, the going had been uneventful. Isabeth scrambled over them behind Mark, clutching at rocks and boulders, sometimes falling back a step for each two she took.
Suddenly Mark sat, then laid down on a small patch of grass that grew up this high. Isabeth sat next to him without hesitation and sighed. Mark opened his eyes and looked up at her. Isabeth kept her face emotionless as he watched her from under his lashes. She sat with her legs crossed, looking out over the valley but not really seeing any of it.
“Huggles,” Mark hesitated. “What is going on?”
Isabeth shrugged. “It's difficult to explain. Sometimes I feel...” she sighed again. “I told you it's hard to explain.”
“You might be surprised to know what I can understand.”
She laughed. “No, you can't. How could you, when I don't understand it myself? I'm still trying to figure that out.”
“Why don't we begin with how you feel.”
“How do you think I feel? I must not be too strong or assertive, nor too powerful or independent. If I want the people to accept me and not rebel I am kept unimportant, decorative, weak, and passive.” Isabeth's eyes darkened as she ranted. “I walk into a room and I'm the Head Watcher, and whatever I say is going to be taken apart.”
“Is that an explanation,” Mark eyed her. “I love what I do, the same as you. And I want to carve a niche for myself, the same as you. And I will, someday. All I need is a chance.”
“You'd better hurry,” Isabeth laughed. “Grigori will be over in just under three hundred years.”
“Yea, I can see my time running out,” Mark laughed with her. “I guess I'll have many chances. With such a long life to live. Did I ever thank you for that, because I should have at least every fifty years or so.”
Isabeth leaned over and gave Mark a big hug. “You don't need to thank me, just really live it, that's all I ask. But as far as chances go, whatever chance I had is long gone.”
“Why, Huggles, why,” Mark started sounding agitated. “You put these obstacles in your own way. Don't you see that. Any darkness you see in yourself, it is only you who sees it. Any mistakes you've made, you are the only one who can't imagine away to make amends.”
“Maybe I'm the only one who sees the truth,” Isabeth fought back.
“Maybe you're the only one with your head up your ass.”
Mark's swearing shocked Isabeth speechless for a second, speechless and frozen. She soon recovered.
“In any event, truth seeing or head up my ass - there is only one road a person can take, only one way anyone can ever be. How much choice he ever had is a matter for the philosophers and psychologist who debate about free will versus various sorts of determinism. If we are all being pushed around by an omnipotent omniscient God or by psychologically predetermined behavior patterns or by mechanistic socioeconomic forces.”
“If so, here we are not affected by it,” Mark said standing and stretching to continue the journey. “You made sure of that, because I've been at least six different versions of myself since coming here.”
Isabeth opened her mouth to say more, but Mark cut her off.
“Everyone has responsibilities,” Mark said his eyes blazing into hers. “I know it's not a popular word in Grigori, but it's the truth.”
Mark clamped his lips together and turned away, but it didn't matter. She didn't have to see his face to know that he was the one in the right this time. It had been right in front of her all along, and she'd felt it before every time she'd bumped into Catherine at seemingly random times. And yet she'd ignored it. The realization was dizzying. In one instant, everything in her life had changed. It was as if a fairy godmother had suddenly stepped down from the top of the mountain and waved her magic wand. Isabeth could hardly breathe. She knew what she had to do.
Her gaze went to Mark, standing rigidly ahead of her. At the same time she was desperate for freedom and privacy so she could think about her next move, and thankful that he had disobeyed her order to go to the Mother House. Her eyes swept over that proud, straight back. She could see the terrible tension in him, that stiffness of muscle and spine that told her he was in pain too. Suddenly she realized, he had disobeyed a direct order from a Watcher to be here and support her. He was suffering Rukito's obedience spell.
She thought of how he'd soothed away her fear that morning. She remembered how he'd protected her from her own failings. And she didn't even have the wit to give him the most basic kind of comfort.
“Mark,” she whispered his name as she reached out and laid her hand lightly on his shoulder. His muscles were bunched, taut as steel, and suddenly nothing in the world mattered but easing away his pain. “You don't have to go to the Mother House yet. You can stay with me or go on when ever you chose.”
His breath rasped as he spun around and grabbed hold of her in a hug.
“I wasn't even thinking of...” Isabeth began.
“It is okay,” Mark whispered. “We are all here for you in your time of need.
“No, it is my job to take care of you guys. And I'm going to do just that from now on.”
Her heart seemed to swell within her chest. The anguish and concern she felt minutes ago melted into a friendly love. She remembered why she came to Grigori in the first place, she remembered telling Rukito that she'd show her one day, promising beauty and peace to all the wards of this world. So many things she was supposed to do, to teach, to make come true, and she'd barely begun.
“Grigori is a place of love, but I haven't put much of my heart into it lately.” Isabeth confessed.
“But it's been in our hearts,” Mark soothed. “And so have you.'
That was too much for Isabeth, she was in tears again in seconds. He stared into her eyes while the seconds ticked away, and then he let go of her.
“Let's get started, then.”
Isabeth didn't know if he meant the journey to Castle Isaacs or changing the world with love, but she was up for anything now.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sunrise was different when you saw it from the top of Castle Isaacs. Isabeth had seen the rising sun paint the towers of Castle Huntington in pale gold; she's watched it blaze across the wheaten plains of Castle Monaghan. But noting could prepare one for the transfiguring glory of morning viewed from this lofty height.
The sun was a fierce golden ball, burning away the last remnants of the night. Below, mountain peaks burst into flames that spilled down into the valleys and banished darkness.
Isabeth sighed. It was a breathtaking way to greet the day. It was just too bad that she couldn't share it with Oliver. However, she did have her most recent friend with her, Mark.
Carefully she looked over at him. “Dammit, Mark, how do we do it?”
“Do you remember how you were the first two hundred years? Insane and wild, you made it obvious that you were happy as hell about everything that happened.”
“How do you remember that,” Isabeth was perplexed. “How do I be like that again anyhow. Do I laugh all the time? Do I go out there skipping? I don't understand what you expect...”
Nikki came bursting out onto the roof. “I heard you were here. You needed to talk to me?”
Isabeth clapped Mark on the back. “I think you are ready to head off to the Mother House.”
Mark nodded, knowing that Isabeth was right. Even if she still had her doubts, she too was ready for him to leave. She had a lot of work to do.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nikki took Isabeth to her office and they sat across the desk from one another as if they were business adversaries and not mother and daughter. Isabeth was the first to break the silence.
“What do you think of marriage?”
Nikki had never been the kind of woman who'd spent much time thinking about marriage. She'd assumed, if pressed, that she'd fall in love some day and marry, but it had all been hazy, the kind of misty stuff that would come with the future and wasn't quite as important as the present.
Her daughter on the other hand fell in love almost every couple of years. She knew it was only a matter of time before Isabeth came to her asking these questions. She actually thought she'd have given Isabeth away long before this; to any, or all, of her men. Anything Isabeth could come up with to describe as marriage, was beyond Nikki's wildest dreams.
“Are you considering marriage? Is that why you ask?” Nikki began carefully.
“I am not,” Isabeth said flat out. “I am only getting your perspective on it.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Nikki chuckled in relief. She stood and went to the window to peer out, licking her lips nervously. “I'm too tired to think about it right now. If you're not getting married right now than it can wait, right.”
To Isabeth's horror, her eyes filled with tears. What was going to happen in the next few minutes wasn't going to be easy. “I'm going to have another baby.”
Nikki's heart began to pound. She couldn't let her daughter go though with this again. “Paullette.”
Nikki was smiling, and it was a different smile from any Isabeth had ever seen on her face before. It was tender and welcoming, and when she put out her hand Isabeth hesitated only an instant before she took it. Nikki's fingers laced through Isabeth's and she led her daughter over to the couch for a real talk.
Isabeth moved slowly, her bare feet whispering against the soft carpet, her eyes on Nikki's face. No, Isabeth thought, this was not going to be easy. Isabeth's heart thudded as she thought of the man she'd fallen in love with. He didn't even know that he was going to be a father yet.
“No,” Nikki said softly as she hugged Isabeth. “It is out of the question.”
“Mom?” Isabeth was completely thrown off balance. This was the last thing she'd expected her mother to say. She was expecting a shouting match about responsibilities and past failures. She expected to have to defend her choice, but never to have it outright staunched.
“Paullette, you are an adventurer, a dreamer, you cannot stay in one place long enough to bring a child all the way to adulthood. It was on the shaky side of okay when you gave custody of Catherine to her father since you did not willingly make her. And thankfully no one even knows about that boy before her. It was bad enough to go through with that nasty spell giving Dominick his son, making a baby with a man who meant nothing to you. But, when you love the man as you do Oliver, how could you participate in such a thing and ever face yourself, or him, again?”
Isabeth's heart came to a stumbling halt. “I can't do this.”
“You can't, Paullette,” Nikki soothed. “You mustn't.”
“No, mom, no. Please...”
Isabeth's glance flew to her mother, Nikki's voice was as loving as possible but everything else about her was the same as she remembered, especially the stern, unyielding cast of her copper skinned face. Isabeth sprang to her feet.
“Are you crazy? If I don't go through with this, if I kill Oliver's baby, it would kill Oliver too. He would hate me, leave me, maybe even leave Grigori. And a world without Oliver is not a world worth living in.”
“Paullette?” Nikki looked worried. “I didn't know it already happened. I thought you were planning it. I'm sorry.”
“I'm not just going to take this baby to adulthood, I'm going to make amends with Catherine, and tell Little Nikki, Dominic Jr, DJ, whatever the hell they're calling him now...”
“I'm going to tell DJ that I love him with all my heart, and mean it. I'm going to tell Oliver about this baby and tell him I am eager to be his wife.”
“You're forgetting...” Nikki started to remind Isabeth.
“No, I didn't. I see him every year. Leave him out of this, he's always been cared for.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Isabeth came raging into Castle Monaghan like a storm. She used her pendant like an intercom and yelled into it.
“Alan, Dominic, Catherine, and DJ come to the front hall right now.”
Three of the four showed up in no time at all. DJ came running to Isabeth yelling “mommy” and jumped into her arms. Catherine didn't come, and after a half hour they went looking for her. The others trailed behind her not sure what was going on. Isabeth entered the guest hall where Catherine's room was and banged on the girls door.
“Hey you,” Isabeth demanded.
“Leave me alone,” Catherine shouted through the door.
“I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Well I don’t want to talk to you. Leave me alone.”
“Oh lord, pour out thy spirit upon thy servant, that she may do this work with holiness of heart,” Isabeth said praying for patients with her child.
Alan R groaned. “Don't you remember being a teenager.”
“That was like five hundred years ago,” Isabeth scoffed.
“Not quite,” Dominic corrected.
Isabeth began banging on the door again. “Why the hell do we have privacy locks on magic?”
“Don't use magic,” DJ offered.
Isabeth looked down at her five-year-old son and smiled. DJ and Isabeth had a much better relationship than she and Catherine ever did. Isabeth had nothing to do with his raising, as was her agreement with Dominic, however; she was not afraid of him as she had been with Catherine. Whenever they were in the same castle together she spent time with him as he wished and he called her mommy even when Isabeth asked him not to. He had his father's rebellious streak. Just like her real life child, Leona, who was now Castle Simpson and the Guardian of the Gates of Youth; all the children she'd made in Grigori looked like copies of their fathers.
So taking DJ's advice, she conjured a set of lock picks and began to unlock the door. When the knowing click sounded, DJ cheered.
“You did it.”
“Yea, I will go down in history as the one who opened a door.” Isabeth said offhandedly and went inside.
“I should have known you would not understand? You never do.” Catherine yelled.
“We'll wait out here,” Alan suggested.
“As it happens, Catherine, I understand more than you realize,” Isabeth began. “I'm going to lay it all out on the table for you now and then you can decide to hate me once you know the truth. But until you have all the facts, shut up.”
Catherine just glared at Isabeth but remained silent.
“The truth is that I did not want you, to be made at all, I was utterly wretched when it first happened. I was afraid that you would have magic, that you'd be different than the others who were made and raised here. We, your father and I, are not from this world.”
“I know all that. He already told me everything.”
“Do you remember the first time we met, when you were five?”
“Yes, you dropped me on the floor when you found out who I was. I thought it was my fault, that I did something wrong.” Catherine's image of Isabeth was still circumscribed by childhood boundaries, and she found it impossible to identify with her mother. She was still just a fearful fourteen-year-old.
“I was surprised to see that you were in fact five. I thought you'd not be. I thought you'd be still an infant.”
“After five years, how could I still be only an infant?” Catherine demanded.
“It has happened before,” Isabeth assured her. “I wanted to get to know you then, when I knew that you were not like us. That you were normal and would have a normal life. But it had been a long time since I raised a child. My first child and I were only together until she was your age then, and I didn't want to accidentally replace her with you. I needed to be sure I could separate my feelings for you and her.”
“I have an older sister,” Catherine was now interested.
“You turned her into a castle. Maybe I should be thankful that all you did was drop me.”
“Then there is DJ.”
“Yes, I see how wonderful you are with him. I guess you decided to just start over instead of sorting me out.”
Isabeth laughed so that she wouldn't slap the crap out of this pompous child.
Catherine flushed. “Do not laugh at me.”
“Believe me child,” Isabeth said wearily. “I find nothing remotely amusing about this.”
“I'm not a child. In three weeks I'll be...”
“Fifteen. I know, I was present at your birth, remember?”
“That was the only time you were present in my life.”
Isabeth could hear her own sarcasm reflected in her daughter's voice and finally saw how much she actually passed down to her. Her anger was rising. “I agreed to Dominic's request for many reasons, and many to do with you.”
Catherine flipped her black hair out of her face that looked exactly like her father's but softer. She scoffed as she plopped down on her bed.
“I am telling you the whole truth remember, girl,” Isabeth said forcefully. “I agreed with Dominic because it is my duty to make sure all of my Wards are happy and given everything they could ever want. But I also thought of this as a chance to practice being a mother again, so that one day when I was confident I could come to you as I have today. And the fact that Dominic lives here, in your castle, means that whenever I come to see DJ, I can see you too.”
Catherine had not said a word to Isabeth since she sat down, but then , she didn't have to. The set of her jaw, the stiffness of her spine spoke volumes. She resented her mother's presence, and she had no intention of pretending otherwise. The truth was, Isabeth had no way of knowing what this child would do. She was not only a stranger, she was an absolute enigma, the more so as time passed. Each time she thought she had Catherine figured out, she changed almost before her very eyes into someone else.
Isabeth sat next to her daughter and put her arm around her shoulder. “The memory lies in us of how it could be in a loving relationship with one another, how it could be happy, filled with gentleness, kissed by peace. And that love could be extended to everyone. There is somewhere within each of us a place where we remember and we know. It may have become but a faint whisper today, but when we are quiet, we hear it still. Through all the madness that has been perpetrated in the name of love, through the dysfunctional patterns and tears and fears, beneath it all lies this ancient knowing. We are not here to do battle and create a hell of the Gods holy ground; we are here to love one another, to experience heaven here together.”
Catherine looked at her mother as if she was beginning to understand her. “And what do you want from me? You want me to love you? I already do, you're my mother.”
“I want you to help me bring back the kind of Grigori that was once here, when all we knew was peace, love, and adventure. Travel with me.”
Catherine went to the still open door and smiled politely. “I decline. You are dangerous.”
Isabeth stood up and walked out the door. She turned back and caressed her daughter's cheek and gave the old Isabeth smile, the sickeningly sweet smile that used to put fear into people. “You’re coming with me if I have to drag you by your pointy little ears.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sitting down to dinner was almost the same as anytime that Isabeth had visited Castle Monaghan in the past. The only difference was that in stead of just Dominic bringing bugs to the table DJ had sat right next to his mother with a spider on his shoulder.
Isabeth squeaked out, “Is that a spider?”
This was no tiny little thing, the beast was almost too big for it's perch on the boy shoulder. Isabeth was frantically flicking at it while Catherine rolled her eyes and calmly picked it up and set in on a plant.
“Better, Mother,” Catherine chided.
“What is with the Mother all of a sudden,” Alan R questioned. “That is the first time since you were six that you've called her that.”
“I have decided, partly because she gave me no choice, to travel with her as she requests.”
A round of “What” came from about every person at the table.
“Is that safe?” Masako asked.
Hadaka laughed and Isabeth rolled her eyes. “I'm the Head Watcher, what could possibly happen?”
“Dragons.” “Goblins.” “War.” And many other mumbled responses came from all corners of the dining hall till a glass was thrown at the wall over their heads. For a second everyone thought Isabeth had done it till they saw Catherine standing.
“I have a personal reason for wanting to go with her as well,” she began. “Suppose you have no money. Suppose you have no friends who have power. Suppose you have no place to live except where this power person tells you to live. Suppose you cannot eat until you are told, cannot sleep except when you are told. Suppose you must ask for the clothes you wear and obtain permission to go wherever you go. Suppose that if you anger the power person, he has the right to swear at you, to humiliate you, to degrade you, even to beat you. Suppose you are not even permitted to worship as you please, but instead, the power person tells you who you will worship and how you will worship. Suppose you have no way to escape this place of horror? Entrapped there, you can only take what is given to you. That is the life of your children. I want to be free. I will be fifteen in three weeks and I want to marry and be treated as an adult and be free just like the rest of the women of Grigori.”
“There are many locals here to marry,” Sam J offered. “Why do you need to leave to get married?”
“I don't want a local,” Catherine insisted. “Nor do I want another ward's child. It has to be a ward. Like my father.”
“I'm guessing you've discounted all of us,” Ron posed.
“You are all like family to me, it would be awkward. And you've all seen me as a child, I fear that if I were to marry a Monaghan that it would be all you'd ever see of me.”
“Why does it have to be a ward?” LeVar asked.
“I want my child to have powers, more than I do.”
“You have powers?” Isabeth said confused and worried at the same time.
“Yes, Mother. As does DJ, he can talk to bugs.”
“But that is Dominic's personal power. A personal power means no other ward can have it,” Isabeth reminded.
“I'm not a ward,” DJ said.
“My power is not from my father, I'm not sure where I get it from. I can make new living things from dead things of the same kind.”
Isabeth's mind flashed back to the day in the woods with her favorite magical student, Adam B. The day they found Edward N had destroyed the forest and she brought it all back to life. “Yea, that would be my personal power. Damn. If the first stage is copying us, then the next stage may be becoming us. And I don’t want her becoming me.”
“Oh, and you’re so special?” Catherine yelled.
“As it happens, yes, I am,” Isabeth yelled back. She gave Vince a look that said she needed to talk to him and the two left the room together.
Even though they were alone in the hall, and Isabeth cast a protective bubble around them, she still whispered. “Do you remember the first...”
“Yes, I remember everything,” Vince growled. “That is my personal power.”
“Fine,” Isabeth hissed. “Did I lock an innocent up just for having a personal power?”
“Slow aging is not a personal power, it is something we all share.”
“I'm so unsure of myself right now.”
“Isabeth, you have never been sure of yourself. Not on day one, not after these past two hundred years, and I doubt you will be at the five hundred year mark.”
“Thanks, Vince. I love the way you make me feel better.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The two women were mounted on horse back and off on the trail by sunrise. Isabeth had given up trying to ride side saddle after her first failed attempt year one when she visited Castle Simpson for the first time. As she looked over at Catherine doing it so perfectly, she felt a little pride. The girl looked as if she could gallop at full speed like that.
“So what is the plan?” Catherine asked.
“We'll ride down to the doc at Hamburg and catch the ferry “The Watcher” down to Oviedo, Spain,” Isabeth explained. “I need to talk to someone there, privately. And we need to pick up Oliver Phelps. He is my, um... Boyfriend. I'm not sure how to explain that. It's a saying from our world.”
“I know all about your world,” Catherine reminded. “Father told me everything. It is a very different world than this one.”
“That it is. But you have an advantage over us, you grew up in this world and so you know how to behave when not at the castles. A failing the rest of us never solved. It has landed us in heaps of trouble far too many times to count.”
“Where are we going after we leave Spain?”
“We'll go to my castle, Castle Huntington, in Faro, Portugal. It will be our home for awhile till the baby is born. Then we'll begin my rounds. It's been so long since I've done my rounds, the other Watcher's will be surprised that I'm doing it again, but I'm determined to be the old me again.”
Catherine began to cry. Isabeth reined her horse and watched her daughter confused.
“Come on now, stop your crying. It will be all right, I promise I will protect you
from anything and everything around. I will not let you get hurt. I will be here, right beside you at all times. Please don't cry.”
“I'm not crying for me, Mother.” Catherine sobbed. “You are having another baby, and you are leaving it, for me. I can handle being left behind, I am strong like you, but it breaks my heart that I'd be responsible for another to have to go through what I went through.”
Isabeth could feel her heart break, “No, I'm not leaving her behind. Oliver and Aimee will be traveling with us on my rounds. She will grow up with us, together as a family.”
“And what about DJ?”
“I have no say in that. I have a signed, sealed, spell locked, unbreakable contract with Dominic in regards to DJ. I can't lay claim to him ever, even if he chooses me. I will have to wait till he is a man to take him traveling with me. But I am aloud to visit and spend time with him whenever I see fit.”
“And your yearly rounds have us going to Castle Monaghan every March?”
“Yes, every year. Unless some big event happens, like an evil wizard.”
“Tell me that story,” Catherine begged.
“You mean Alan never did,” Isabeth smiled. She was sure that no one ever mentioned that war. “Well when we began this world, we had a blond Watcher at Castle Tudyk, and her grouchy husband. She was my cousin and could be the best friend or the worst enemy depending on her mood that day.”
She continued the tale as they rode off into the day.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Isabeth came awake slowly, rising from a deep, peaceful sleep. “Mmm,” she'd murmured while she stretched languorously. She ached, her back felt stiff, and so did her legs. Her long journey from Castle Huntington to Castle Tudyk, to Castle Szmanda, to Castle Isaacs, to Castle Monaghan, back to Castle Tudyk was more than she thought it would be. It had been early morning when exhausted, hungry and tired from spending nights sleeping on the rocky ground had brought the mother daughter unit into the keeping walls of Tudyk Village. Catherine was disorientated and had changed her mind a thousand times about going with Isabeth on her rounds.
But now they were comfortable, Catherine in a guest room and Isabeth curled up with Oliver in his room. Her head was cradled on his hard yet yielding chest. “Mmm,” she sighed as she snuggled more deeply into the warmth of his body.
“Good morning, Isabeth,” Oliver whispered. His voice was soft as silk, sweet as honey. He kissed her temple, a butterfly's wings, gentle and cool kiss. “Did you sleep well?”
Isabeth's sleep fogged brain came awake immediately, eyes opening wide and fastening onto the dark, intense ones looking down into hers. Oliver was holding her closely in his arms.
“I sometimes miss waking up to those fake blue eyes you used to wear.”
Oliver smiled and changed them for her. The both laughed softly as he changed them back to normal. They were as intimately entwined as lovers could be, sharing the same space, even the same breath. Oliver smiled again. It was a slow, sexy smile, and it sent heat pulsing through her veins. He kissed her, his kisses heating her flesh even more, his touch turning her body into flame. His smile grew softer, hinting at secrets yet to be shared. His finger traced lightly along the contours of her mouth, and she had the sudden, almost overwhelming desire to touch her tongue to his skin.
“You have the most expressive face, Isabeth,” Oliver said. “I can almost read your mind.”
He bent and brushed his lips over hers ever so lightly, Isabeth closed her eyes as his mouth covered hers again and she could feel his desire for her.
“I want you,” he whispered. “You've been gone for many months.”
And she wanted him. It was pointless to pretend she didn't. She'd want to be with him, to go with him from that very first night after the Bicentennial.
His hand slipped under her blouse, she gasped as he cupped her breast and set her trembling. Her lips parted as his mouth closed on hers again. They breath intermingled and Oliver groaned and gathered her closer. He kissed her deeply, passionately, while his fingers stroked her nipple. Her head fell back in supplication as he kissed the long column of her throat and the soft rise of her breast. Her body felt molten, as if it had been waiting for the moment when Oliver's touch would shape it and claim it as his own.
“Do you want this?” Oliver whispered. “Because your body is saying yes while your face looks frightened.”
Isabeth brought her hands up to tunnel her fingers through his thick full hair, he wore it long just the way she liked it. “I do, but... I'm going to have a baby.”
“And you're not sure if it's safe to do?”
“You didn't react the way I was expecting,” Isabeth was suspicious. “Did you already know?”
Oliver laughed. “No. I figured it would happen eventually. We make love a lot, and it has been three years since we began.”
“How much time do we have to prepare a room,” Oliver asked getting up and starting to dress.
“That depends on where it's to be had. If the baby is born at the Mother House, we'll have to use magic to get there in time. Oh and I told your brother that you already knew, so pretend I told you first.”
“I wasn't the first to know,” Oliver tried to sound offended.
“I also told Ryan, Mark, Mom, Catherine, and Vince. Just act like you already knew.”
“Tell me that you belong to me,” Oliver said giving her a kiss on the forehead. “Tell me that you are my woman and love me no matter what.”
“I knew before you left,” he said in a husky whisper. “It wasn't hard to read your behavior.”
“You're a bad boy,” Isabeth played. “We could have it here, where DJ was born, or we can head to Castle Huntington, which is my first choice.”
“Then let's do that. When do we leave?”
“I just have to stop by the Gates of Beauty before we go.”
“Why do you call the Gates of Time that. It's confusing.”
“What's more beautiful than time.”
“I can think of something,” Oliver said pulling Isabeth into another deep kiss.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Three months later, as predicted, a little baby girl entered the world into her father's eager arms. Also as predicted, she looked exactly like her father down to the last birthmark. Those present, besides the obvious, were Nikki, Catherine, and James after much begging and pleading. Isabeth was amused by how the two brothers huddled so close to each other, unable to take their eyes off of the baby. If she hadn't just been the one to give birth, she would have thought they were both mother and father.
And then she remembered. Because of the spell, they were. James must have thought the same thing as he turned and caught her eyes.
“Are you okay,” James asked Isabeth, not removing his hands from his portion of Aimee.
“I'm fine,” Isabeth answered smiling. “How are you?”
“Much better now,” he smiled back at her. “I know I can't go home yet, but can I go with you and Oliver?”
“I think that will be alright. As long as it's okay with everyone going.”
“I don't mind, Mother,” Catherine said still holding out her arms for her turn to hold her little sister.
“I've been against him being locked up from the day you took him,” Oliver voiced. “If he has to be a prisoner than at least let him breath the air.”
Getting impatient for her turn, Catherine just took the baby from James and Oliver. “You are so small, but you are so strong already. You will be a great warrior, we will learn together how to be just like our mother. This family will be forever, you will always be safe and warm.”
“Come here,” Isabeth beckoned. “I'll show you some magic.”
“Not a good idea,” Nikki interjected.
“Please, Grandmother,” Catherine pleaded.
“Mom, every time you said something was a bad idea it turned out fine.”
Catherine sat next to Isabeth and handed her the baby. “Hold her hand like you are making an oath. Now, close your eyes and think of the bond that you want between Aimee and yourself.”
The girl did as she was told and everyone saw the pulse go like a bulge up both sister's arms. The baby started crying, this time it was Nikki's turn to hold her.
“This bond can't be broken,” Isabeth explained. “Not by you and not by her. You will always feel this way.”
“Okay, Princess needs rest,” Vivica urged everyone out the door.
“Can I stay a bit, I need to talk to her,” James asked
Vivica nodded but pushed everyone else out, even Amiee.
“I know what you want to talk about,” Isabeth started before he could.
“Not the way you think,” James corrected. “I don't want you to remove the spell anymore. No one can understand the way we feel. We also have a bond between us.”
“It's more like a possession, I took you over forcefully.”
“I know, and I know why you did. You were meant for Oliver. I don't know why I know this now and didn't then. And they just won't trust what they can't explain.”
“You will always be kind of an ass, cause I'm always going to be kind of a bitch,” Isabeth added.
“And ruthless, and cruel, and I could go on. I know we're different but...”
“Actually we're not,” Isabeth interrupted. “Deep inside us we're not that different at all. That is why it was so easy to convert you, because there wasn't that much to change. You were already so much like me to begin with. I think that is why I was drawn to you in the beginning.”
“That's why I needed to go with you, I don't care so much about being locked up at the Mother House, there is air condition and TV. We need each other, I at least need you.”
“In time, you'll want to be let free of the curse. I know, you must be strong when I'm not with you. Others will also try to convince you that it is wrong. When that time comes, I'll do what ever you want. You can hold on, or be free.