His voice came to her from somewhere in the dark.
"Thank you, Lady."
She could not see him. She could not see anything, so absolute was the blackness that enveloped her. But she knew he was close. She could feel his presence. "Gry? Where are we?"
"In the emptiness between my time and yours. I just wanted the chance to say goodbye."
"Gry, I'm so…" Tears fell down her cheeks. "I should have found another way."
"Lady, in my eyes, you stand with the heroes of any age."
"Will I see you when I get back home?" she asked, though she already guessed the answer.
She felt him smile. "No, thanks to you I died at the end of my natural life. No, do not cry for that. Such is the way of man and that was what I was. No more, no less."
He added with a laugh, "At least I'll not have to live through that disco thing again."
"Gry, what happened after I left"
"The Knights hunted Selma down and she paid for her crimes. With her death, the last remnant of her guild faded away."
"No, I meant what happened to you."
"Ah, that's a story best left for the book to tell."
"The book? It still exists?"
Gryffon laughed. "Books are a wonderful magic. I doubt you'll be rid of that book for some time to come. As for me, I've stayed too long and-"
"Wait Gry. At least tell me why the Rose failed the first time. Why couldn't she break the curse like she thought?"
"Well, oaths are strange things. Break one and they remember. After I broke my oath to Adan by killing the bishop, what other oath would trust me? No one knew of my past until the Rose tried to defeat the curse. That failed, they were forced to wait through the ages for another chance. As did I.
"Farewell, Penelope of the Sunset Knights. In my life, I had no higher honor than to call you friend."
She whispered his name but he was gone.
A soft breeze brushed her cheek. Penelope opened her eyes to find herself in her dorm room. It was morning. The sun shone through the half open window, casting the room in a bright yellow light. She sat up in the bed, the sheet falling into her lap and revealing the pink pajama top she was wearing.
Laurie burst into the room, dressed in her school sweatshirt and fading dungarees. "Still in bed? Geez, the game starts in two hours. Don't you wanna see the first quarter?"
Penelope jumped from the bed and wrapped her friend in a tight hug. "It's so good to see you again."
"Uhhh…Pen, my ribs."
"Sorry," Penelope said, releasing her friend. "Are you alright? You look alright."
"Yeah, I'm great. Hey, what's got into you?"
"Nothing," said Penelope. "Everything's cool. Everything's just cool."
"Cool. Now, we going to the game or not? Ben says we're gonna cream State this year."
"Game? Yeah, sure. Just give me some time to get ready. Then we'll head over together. Okay?"
"I got some laundry to do anyway," said Laurie. "How's an hour sound?"
"Perfect," said Penelope. "I'll be ready."
After Laurie left, Penelope searched through the room, finally finding the book hidden away in her underwear drawer. She flipped through the pages until she came to the last story. She sat on the edge of her bed and began to read…
Samantha climbed the stairs into the tower and met Ar-Kane outside Gryffon's chambers. "Any change?" she asked.
The mage shook his head. "The wounds have healed but he remains the same."
"I want to see him," Samantha said.
"Sam, I'm not sure that would be wise. I've sat with him during the night when he sleeps. He screams your name in his nightmares. Seeing you could make him worse." Ar-Kane's voice dropped to a whisper as he added, "If that were possible."
Samantha stepped to the door. "I will see him."
Both Ar-Kane and Samantha turned to the call of her name. Wildboy followed by several Knights left the stairway and approached them slowly.
"It's good to have you back in the castle, Sam," said Wildboy. "When I heard of your return, I thought you'd meet with the council first. But I see you decided otherwise."
"I saw no reason to involve the council in this," Samantha answered.
Wildboy arched an eyebrow. "And what exactly is 'this' then? Forgive me, Sam, but you've been gone for three weeks without word of where or why. And your return…If it were anyone else I would say you were trying to sneak back like a thief in the night."
Samantha started to object but Wildboy asked to finish. "These times have been hard on all of us and your absence has added to the burden. Would you tell us now of your intent in this?"
Samantha held her breath for a few moments to regain control over her emotions. "I'm sorry for any difficulty I caused you," she said, eyeing all the Knights in turn. "But there were matters meant for my hand alone. In time, all will be explained but for now I'm afraid your trust in me must suffice."
Samantha moved so that she stood face to face with Wildboy. "Will you keep me from him?" she asked.
The two Knights stared at each other for what must have seemed an eternity to the others. Finally, Wildboy answered with the slightest shake of his head.
"I wish there was some way to prepare you for what you will see," he told her.
Samantha hesitated for only a second before she pushed the door open and entered the room. Bright sunshine beamed in through the open window and the fragrance of the fresh flowers on the table filled the air.
At first she thought someone had placed a scarecrow on the bed, so skinny were the arms sticking out from under the blanket. An iron shackle bound one wrist to the wall with a short chain. The skin of his face stretched so taut over the bones that she could almost make out the skull beneath. His eyes stared wide open at the ceiling. The only sign of life was the rise and fall of the blanket on his chest.
Samantha put a hand to her mouth to stifle the sob in her throat. "Oh Gry," she cried, "what has happened to you?"
"He will not eat," said Wildboy behind her. "It's all we can do to get him to take water."
"Was there nothing that could be done?" she asked.
"We keep his strength up with magic but he refuses any offer of food. Some have talked about possessing his mind just to get him to eat but after…Well, we are loathe to make the attempt."
Samantha walked over to the bed. Gryffon showed no sign he was aware of her presence. Even his eyes did not move. She grabbed the heavy chain and tugged. It held firm to the wall.
She spun on Wildboy. "And this? Is he a prisoner now?"
Wildboy did not flinch. "It is necessary. He wishes to die and knows we will not allow that. Three times we removed the chains, three times he ran from us. Last time it took us two hours to find him in the forest. Even in such a state, he retains his expertise of the woods."
"You will release him now," Samantha said. "And make him ready to travel. I wish to leave before the hour ends."
"Travel?" said Ar-Kane. "Sam, even with our magic to sustain him, death creeps toward him. Do you wish to hasten his end?"
"No," said the Lady. "I wish to open another door for him. After that, the choice will be his."
The other Knights started speaking all at once. Samantha struck the stone floor with the heel of her staff, commanding everyone to silence.
"Hear me now, Knights," she said, "my decision will not be denied. He will not rot away before our eyes while we remain afraid to act. Whether the end to this story be life or death, the end it shall be."
Slowly, the other Knights bent to her will. They all knew that there was nothing any of them could do to save him. Nothing that would not risk destroying his soul.
So they cast spells to give temporary life to his limbs and dressed him in the colors of the guild, the cloak and tunic hanging from his depleted frame like window drapes.
As Gryffon followed Samantha through her blue gate, the Knights left behind whispered a prayer that the fates be kind to the man they called their brother.
Once Gryffon was clear of the gate he ran.
Samantha had been ready for him. He barely made six strides before she wrapped him in her magic and bound him in place. She walked around to face him.
"Gry," she said, "I spoke truly before the Knights. Whatever happens after I've had my say will be your choice. But do not believe for a moment that you can escape me before that."
Samantha sat down on the soft grass. She hugged her knees to her chest and lifted her face to the warm sun. "Will you sit here beside me or stay hanging in the air, the wind whistling through those bones of yours."
He was quiet for so long that when he spoke, she almost jumped out of her skin.
"I'll sit," he said.
Carefully she unwound the ties around him. He lowered himself beside her.
The silence returned with neither of them saying a word. Samantha started to sing a ballad about the soft breeze of a summer day. Her voice ran smoothly over the words, a sparkling brook winding its way through the countryside.
As she started her third verse, Gryffon cursed. "Why did you bring me here?" he said.
They sat on a little hill overlooking the wonderfully blue lake he and Octal had discovered so long ago. Together, they had driven the orcs from the vale surrounding the lake and dedicated the site to peace and beauty in Samantha's name. In all the years after, there was no place in all the land more adored by Gryffon.
The lady smiled at him. "No matter how we begged, you chose to ignore the forgiveness we offered, suffering the wound to your soul until it brought you close to death. Why? That was the mystery. Why would a man without blame still not be able to shake free from the guilt that plagued him?"
She shifted so that they were, once again, face to face. He tried to look away but she turned his face back to hers.
"Then I remembered something from the night the Rose attacked. Selma said you were missing a piece of yourself. That's why you could not break free of her control. The same reason you could not forgive yourself. So I set out to return what you had lost. But what was I looking for? Another mystery. Until I realized Penelope had already given me the answer. Nothing left but to search it out."
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"Someday I will tell you all about your role in bringing Penelope to us. I think it will make a fine story for you to write. For now, it is enough that I return what is rightfully yours." She stood and smoothed her robes. "On your feet, ranger. A man should not regain the missing piece of his heart while sitting on his arse."
Reluctantly, Gryffon climbed to his feet. "Lady, I don't know-"
"Hush, my friend. They come."
She took hold of his shoulders and turned him to face the nearby forest. Two cloaked figures stepped from the trees and walked slowly toward them.
The shorter figure was obviously a woman by the shape of her. The other, tall and broad-shouldered, carried a lute slung across his back. The hoods of their cloaks hid their faces in shadow.
They stopped feet from the ranger.
Gryffon looked to Samantha for answers but she shook her head, saying that her part was done.
He turned to the strangers. "Who are you?"
"I could ask the same of you, Kinethson," said the woman. "Is the man I loved hidden somewhere in the skin and bones before me?"
He knew that voice.
The woman removed her hood. A little older now, a few wrinkles around her mouth. But her dark eyes still burned with the fire and laughter that had never failed to make his heart ache to touch her.
Gryffon struggled to breathe. "Jocelyn? I don't…How?"
"Isn't it enough that I'm here?" Gently she pulled him close and kissed him.
At first he hesitated, his mind spinning. Then, the hunger that had lain dormant for all those years overwhelmed him. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her with all the strength left in his limbs.
The other figure cleared his throat. Gryffon and Jocelyn broke apart with embarrassed smiles.
Gryffon had almost forgotten that the man stood there. The hood still hid the man's face but if Jocelyn were next to him, then…
The ranger stepped forward, Jocelyn holding one arm to support him. He reached a shaking hand to the man's hood and pushed it back.
He could almost be staring into a mirror.
"Well met, father," said Jerek Gryffonson.
Gryffon collapsed into his son's arms.
Jocelyn screamed with worry and Samantha came running to help. But as they turned the ranger over onto his back in the grass, Gryffon was laughing uncontrollably, tears of joy streaming down his face.
"Well met indeed," squealed the ranger. "Here son, help me up."
Back on his feet, Gryffon held Jerek at arm's length. "A handsome lad," he said, still laughing. He looked the young man over. "But where's your sword and armor?"
"I don't carry a sword, father." He nodded to the lute on his back. "I'm a bard."
"A bard? Of songs and poems? That kind of bard?"
Jerek avoided his father's eyes. "Aye, of songs and poems."
Gryffon embraced his son in a tight hug and kissed both of his cheeks. "Do you hear that, Lady? My son, a bard."
"I hear you, Gry," answered Samantha. "I've heard him sing. He possesses a truly wonderful voice. I can not wait to hear him perform in the castle."
Gryffon turned to look at Samantha, one arm still around his son's shoulders. He smiled at her. "Nor can I, Lady."
"I must take my leave of you," Samantha said. "I'm sure the others are awaiting word of your return to us."
Gryffon knelt before her. "Lady, I…I can not say how…" He began to cry again and could not continue.
She took his hand and kissed it. "Stay here and regain your strength. I will send Knights to watch over you and yours. When you are ready, come back home."
She helped Gryffon to his feet and they shared a warm hug. When the Lady disappeared through the gate, Jocelyn led father and son down to the lake's edge.
"I've a basket of food and drink," she said. "I thought a picnic would be nice."
"That sounds wonderful," said Gryffon. "I'm starving."