"What can I get for you today?" The waitress asked pleasantly.
"The lunch special looks good..." Andrea began to respond, then noticed the waitresses confused expression.
The waitress followed her gaze, then slowly said, "I never noticed that being there before. Let me check with Arn and see if we have any chowder made up."
Before Andrea could protest and order something else, the waitress hurried away.
Andrea took the paper from her purse and verified for the thousandth time that she was in the right place. As with every time before, the typewritten print clearly said 'Waxell, Kentucky'. She had just arrived in town, so her stop at the Waxell Diner was the first step on her journey to locate her missing husband and children.
"Sorry, hon. Arn said that he doesn't trust the chowder today. Can I get you something else?" The waitress asked pleasantly.
Andrea looked at the waitress's name tag and saw that her name was Tracy.
"I can't tell from the description if this 'Roast Beef' is a sandwich or a dinner." Andrea said honestly.
"It's a sandwich on a hard roll, served with a bowl of gravy that you can use to dip or drizzle over the roast beef." Tracy easily explained.
"I'll have that. Then, if you have a moment, I'd like to ask you a few questions. I'm looking for someone and maybe you've seen them."
"Arn! I need a beefer!" Tracy called toward the kitchen.
"Beefer, heard." A man's voice immediately responded.
"What'd you wanna know, hon?" Tracy asked curiously.
"For most of the past year I've been in the hospital. While I was sick, my husband took our sons and moved away... I think they might have come here."
"Your husband ditched you and took your kids while you were in the hospital? That's cold blooded!"
"We had such a good marriage. I didn't have a clue that anything was wrong. For my own peace of mind, I need to know why he chose to leave. But regardless of what his reasons were, I need to be sure that my sons are safe and that they know that I love them."
"Do you have a picture of them or anything?"
"Yes. Right here." Andrea said as she turned on her phone and started scrolling through pictures.
"Just so you know, you're not going to get any cell phone reception here."
"My cellphone provider says that they cover ninety-nine percent of the United States." Andrea said as she continued to search.
"We're the other one percent then, because I haven't heard of a carrier yet that works 'round these parts."
"Here. This is the best picture I have of them." Andrea said as she held out her phone to be seen.
Tracy looked at the image and her expression became cold.
"Have you seen them? Are they here in Waxell?"
"That's Ares Brynner. I seen him in here 'round Halloween last year. Seen the boys, too."
"Do you have any idea of where they might be? I don't have anyplace else to look. This was my last chance to find them."
"Hon, you'd be best to just let them go. No good ever come from bein tangled up with one of them Brynners."
"I need to find my boys."
After a long silent moment, Tracy's resolve seemed to crumble and she reluctantly said, "Round these parts there's stories of a town hidden deep in the forest northwest of here. They may just be stories. I don't know of anyone who's ever seen anything. All's I know 'bout it is that the Brynners must come from somewhere."
"What can you tell me about them?"
"I knew Ares when he came to live here, in Waxell. People were skittish about him, being a Brynner and all, but he seemed to be a decent enough guy."
Andrea slowly nodded that she was following along.
"The whole time he lived here, Ares always seemed to be in a constant state of tension. It was like he was always looking over his shoulder to see if someone was watching him. Then, one day, some guys came into town looking for him, asking where he was. I don't know what happened next. No one does. The next day there were five people dead and Ares Brynner was gone."
"Do you think that Ares killed them?"
"I don't know 'bout that. But from the whispered stories I've heard 'round here, no good's ever come from havin dealins with a Brynner."
There was a moment of silence, then a voice bellowed from the kitchen, "Beefer up!"
Tracy walked away without further comment as Andrea thought about what she'd been told.
* * * * *
Andrea found that Tracy had been correct about the cell phone service, or the lack thereof. She didn't have access to any online maps or GPS. Regardless, she continued on, driving north and west, hoping that the unfamiliar roads would carry her to where she needed to be.
When Andrea reached the end of the road, it was literally the end of the road. The pavement ended at a small orange and white reflective fence. Beyond that there was nothing but trees and untamed forest.
Andrea got out of her car and looked around curiously. She couldn't see the point of there being a road if it didn't lead anywhere.
Since it was early enough in the day that she wasn't in danger of losing the light and since she'd had a filling lunch in Waxell, she decided to set off on foot to explore the area.
* * * * *
As Andrea walked down the side of the road, she noticed what appeared to be walking paths every so often, trailing off into the forest. They certainly weren't made with motorized vehicles in mind and couldn't possibly accommodate them. It occurred to her that the paths might even be naturally formed by the lay of the land or by the local wildlife. Regardless, the walk along the edge of the paved road seemed to be completely nonproductive, so she decided to take a chance and try following one of the paths, at least for a bit, to see where it took her.
Andrea felt an unexpected chill on her skin, the sunlight having been obscured by the covering of leaves and thought about going back to the car to get a jacket. But as she kept walking, she felt compelled to carry on to see where the path was taking her.
* * * * *
When Andrea reached what appeared to be a natural clearing, she stopped to warm herself in the sunlight. She looked around and honestly couldn't find any evidence that another person had been there.
She looked at her mostly useless cell phone to check the time and decided that she should go back to her car. She didn't want to take the chance of being in the forest after dark.
As she turned, she was surprised not to see the path that she had arrived on.
There wasn't anything blocking her from returning the way she had come, but there was also nothing resembling a path to follow. For the first time, she became concerned that she might not be able to find her way back. But since she had mostly been walking in one direction, it stood to reason that if she continued to walk in the opposite direction that she would eventually come across the paved road.
Trying to tamp down the sense of panic welling within her, Andrea set off, resolved within herself to get back to her car before she lost the daylight.
* * * * *
As Andrea continued to walk, she found nothing that looked familiar to her. There was no indication of a path as she trudged forward.
She checked her phone more and more often, carefully cataloging the passage of time as her anxiety increased.
She felt the urge to run, to make it to the road that much sooner, but reasoned that doing so would only make it that much more likely that she would trip or stumble and injure herself.
* * * * *
Tears were falling down her cheeks as Andrea finally had to admit to herself that it was getting too dark for her to see where she was going.
Reluctantly, she pressed the icon on the screen of her phone to project a light, knowing that it would only allow her to continue on for a short time before the battery would give out.
As she walked, she berated herself for ever leaving her home in search of the man who had abandoned her.
What did she hope would happen? Did she really think that Ares would have a reason for doing the indefensible thing that he had done?
That was her motivation.
She had to continue on.
She had to survive for her sons, Christopher and David.
If her husband were the monster that he appeared to be, she needed to save them from him.
And if he wasn't... they would still need her.
Just like she needed them.
* * * * *
A light in the distance, just for an instant, caught her attention.
The flashlight on her cell phone had mostly given out, but she turned it in that direction anyway, hoping to find a clear path.
Scrambling through underbrush and over rocky outcroppings, Andrea feverishly made her way through the forest.
Another glimpse of light, somewhat nearer revealed itself to her and she renewed her efforts to reach it.
As much of a struggle as walking in the forest had been, now it seemed to be deliberately impeding her progress.
Fallen branches tried to trip her. Vines wrapped around her ankles, trying to hold her back.
Even so, Andrea carried on, desperately seeking the source of the light.
When the effort of putting one foot in front of the other became almost more than she could bear, she saw the light again.
This time the light wasn't a glimpse or a flicker.
She could clearly see that the light came from a window, not more than one hundred yards away.
Her tears began falling again, but this time they were tears of relief.
Using the last little bit of light from her cell phone to see where she was going, Andrea scrambled with all her might to reach the perceived safety of the cabin in the woods.
* * * * *
The knock on the door was a surprise.
Living in the middle of the forest meant that the arrival of visitors after dark was beyond rare.
"Jim, get your gun."
Without a word, the teenager dashed out of the room.
"Tan, I want you to keep an eye on the young'uns. If they wake up, I want you to make sure that they stay back there in their rooms."
"Okay, Dad." The boy responded, then looked anxiously at the door as the knocking repeated.
"Get your gun."
"I will." Tan said before hurrying away.
When Jim walked into the room carrying his rifle, his father walked to the door and cautiously opened it.
"Thank God! I got lost. I don't know where I am! Can you help me?" A woman with tearstained cheeks asked frantically.
The man stared for a long moment in shock at what he was seeing, but finally snapped out of it enough to say, "Yes. Please come in."
He looked at his son and made a subtle gesture, indicating for him to back away.
"Thank you. I was so scared. I got lost and I didn't have any food or water with me and then it started getting dark..." The woman rambled.
"It's alright. You're safe now. Nothing bad's going to happen to you." The man said as he guided her to sit on the sofa, then pulled a quilt off the back of it and wrapped it around her.
"Thank you. I'm chilled to the core." The woman said as she huddled tightly into the quilt.
"Tell me what you're doing out here." The man said slowly, then glanced to be sure that his older son hadn't let down his guard.
"It's stupid. I left my car and walked into the forest... I don't know what I thought I was going to find, but it seemed like a harmless thing to do at the time. I never even thought that I might get lost." The woman said before breaking down into tears.
"Shhh. You're safe. It's going to be alright. What's your name?"
He was stunned for a moment, but eventually was able to say, "I'm Drake. Why don't you just sit here and get yourself warm while I make you something hot to drink?"
Andrea nodded and gave him a weak smile.
Drake gave his son a meaningful look, then tilted his head in the direction of the kitchen.
* * * * *
"I need you to get over to Lowell Brynner's place as fast as you can and let him know what's going on." Drake said quietly to his son.
"But what if Deimos' dad is there?"
"Then just tell Lowell that you need to tell him something privately. I'm counting on you, Jim. This could go really badly if we don't do things just right." Drake said as he prepared the teapot for use.
"Whatever you do, don't tell Cain and Deimos."
"And don't light any fires along the way. Just because you're hurrying doesn't mean that you have to go 'all out'." Drake warned as he poured hot water from the kettle on the hob into the teapot.
"I'll be careful." Jim promised before starting to undress.
"Why don't you take your clothes outside so you can get to them if she's in here when you get back?"
Gathering teacups, cream and sugar onto a tray, Drake braced himself before returning to the living room.
* * * * *
"I hope you like the tea. It's my own blend." Drake said as he placed the tray on the coffee table.
"You have a lovely home, but I noticed the kerosine lanterns. Don't you have electricity?"
"No. We're a little too remote for that." Drake said quietly as he began to pour the tea.
"So, I guess that means that you don't have telephones, either?"
"No. We tend to do most of our business in person, so it didn't seem to be worth the time and trouble to put phone lines in at every little house, dotted around the countryside." Drake said, then thought to ask, "Cream or sugar?"
"Yes. Just a little."
After adding a splash of cream and one teaspoon of sugar to the tea, Drake handed her a cup on a saucer.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need to check on my children."
"How many do you have?"
"Four. Three boys and one girl." Drake said before leaving the room.
* * * * *
As Drake walked into the hallway, he saw his second oldest son standing in the doorway to his bedroom, holding a shotgun.
"Everything's fine, Tan. How are the kids?"
Tan lowered his gun and replied, "They never woke up."
"Good. It looks like we're going to have company for the night. Would you mind bunking in with Jim?"
"I don't mind. Who's here?"
"It's a long story and she's waiting on me to get back in there. Just, if you meet her, don't say anything about Deimos and Cain or their father. It could cause all kinds of trouble."
"Okay. Do I need to make room in my dresser or closet or anything?"
"No. It looks like she didn't bring anything with her. But if you have anything like pictures or handwritten notes from Cain, be sure that you don't leave them where she can find them."
"Is she their mother?"
"It looks that way."
"I don't think I have anything of Cain's, but I'll be sure to look."
"Thanks, Tannis. I've got to get back to her now."
* * * * *
A knock on the door surprised Lowell and he hurried to answer it.
"Who's that, there?"
"Mr. Brynner? It's Jimson Brynnyn."
Lowell cautiously opened the door as he said, "Deimos isn't here at the moment, if that's who you're looking for."
Jim fought to calm himself enough to maintain his half-form. Even so, he still nervously stamped his front hooves in agitation as he said, "My pa sent me over to bring you a message. A woman just showed up at our house. She says that her name's Andrea Brynner."
"How was she able to get all the way out to your house?"
"I don't know. Just as soon as she showed up and said who she was, Pa wanted for me to come over here and tell you. I guess he thought it was important." Jim said as he fought to keep from dancing in place with nervous energy.
"Tell your father to expect me to arrive in the next half hour or so... do you think that he might have something that I can wear when I arrive?"
"I can carry some of your clothes back with me, so you'll have something that fits you. Or, if you're ready to go right now, I could give you a ride."
"That's very kind of you to offer, but I've always felt funny about asking others to use their gifts for my benefit."
"You're my best friend's great-grandfather and this is kind of an emergency... or at least that's what it feels like to me. If I can't use my ability to help someone at a time like this, then what do I have it for?"
Lowell smiled, then said, "I'm glad that Deimos has found such a good and honorable friend."
"Let me change, then I'll squat down a little so you can get on." Jim said before beginning to reform his body.
* * * * *
"This tea is wonderful. Did you say that you came up with this blend yourself?" Andrea asked curiously.
"Yes. I'm an herbalist, so I already have everything on hand to make a variety of different blends."
"An herbalist? I don't think that I've ever met an herbalist before."
"We're a rare breed these days."
Andrea looked around the room, before looking back at Drake and saying, "I can believe that you are."
"Are you warm enough? Can I get you anything? If you've been lost in the woods for a while, you must be hungry."
"I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble."
"As long as you don't mind reheated leftovers, it's no trouble at all."
"Anything will be fine."
"I'll be back in a minute."
* * * * *
"Ready for some more tea?" Drake asked as he walked back into the living room.
"Yes. Thank you."
"The oven was still warm from dinner, so it shouldn't take too terribly long for your food to heat." Drake said as he poured the tea.
"Oven? I guess I'm used to the microwave. Two minutes and it's heated."
"I suppose that would save time. I just don't know what I'd do with all the time that I'd saved. Reheating the food this way, we have time to sit and talk. There's no great rush."
"Well, maybe there's no 'great rush' here, but where I'm from, every minute of every day is a struggle, trying to get everything that you can done, before time runs out."
"Really? I was born here. I've never lived any other way. I work hard on my garden and sell my herbs and raise my kids. All of it's important, but everything takes as long as it takes to do it properly. I only rush if something extraordinary happens."
"What about your wife? Doesn't she have a million and one things to take care of around here?"
"My wife is no longer with us. But the older boys, Jim and Tan, both help out around the house. They're of an age where they need to learn responsibility, so I depend on them quite a bit."
"How old are they?"
"Jim is fifteen and Tan will be turning thirteen before long. They're both good boys. I couldn't be more proud of them."
"My boys turned thirteen while I was still in the hospital. I wasn't there to see it when they became teenagers. I miss them so much."
"Since you've been with them since birth, it's easy to think of them as fragile, always needing you to be there to watch over them. But if they're thirteen years old now, it's time for them to start becoming independent. What I'm trying to say is that maybe you can trust that what you've done so far for them has been enough to prepare them to take the next steps toward adulthood."
Andrea looked at Drake curiously.
"I'm not telling you that you shouldn't worry. But I'm saying that maybe you could try having a little faith in what you've done and a little hope that things will turn out well for them."
"They're good boys. I know that they'll make the right choices."
"I'm sure that they'll make some bad choices, too. They'll get stuck and hit dead ends and start to wonder why life isn't as easy as it used to be." Drake said with a smile, then continued, "And when no one bails them out and sets things right for them, they'll pick themselves up and figure out how to accomplish their goals on their own. It's called growing up."
"I think your children are very lucky to have you as a father. I have the feeling that they're going to grow up to be very stable and self-sufficient adults."
"We do our best to give them what they need and to get them going in the right direction. But after that, it's up to them. Sometimes they make you as proud as you can be. Other times... you just have to fall back on your love for them and hope that they'll eventually get it right."
"The room's ready." Tan said as he walked into the living room.
"Andrea, this is my second oldest son, Tannis." Drake said with a proud smile.
"It's nice to meet you, Tannis. Your father has spoken very highly of you."
"Thank you. Dad said that you might be staying here tonight, so I put fresh sheets on the bed and made sure that the room was cleaned up."
"Thank you!" Andrea said with surprise, then looked to Drake and continued, "I hadn't really thought that far ahead."
"Don't worry about it. There's no way that you're going back out tonight, so it just made sense."
Andrea slowly nodded her agreement to his reasoning.
"Tan, would you go and check on the food warming in the oven? Make sure that it's heated all the way through."
Tannis nodded, then hurried out of the room.
"One sixty-five?" Andrea asked curiously.
"Yes. He's going to use a probe thermometer to check the internal temperature of the chicken to be sure that it's hot enough to serve."
"Oh? Um, good."
"We may choose to live differently from the people in the cities, but that doesn't mean that we aren't aware of what's going on."
"So you're not stuck in the nineteenth century?"
"No. We're in the twenty-first century, we've just decided that some of the best things of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are worth keeping."
"It's ready." Tannis said from the kitchen doorway.
"May I escort you to dinner?" Drake asked as he offered his hand to help her stand.
"Before I do that, where could I freshen up?"
"The water closet is just through here. Let me light the lantern for you, before you go in." Drake said before hurrying ahead of her.
* * * * *
A knock on the front door surprised Drake.
"Tannis, would you see to our guest while I take care of this?" Drake asked as he went to the door.
Tannis nodded, then went the other way, toward the kitchen.
"Drake, it's Lowell."
Drake opened the door and stepped outside.
"I didn't expect you to come all this way. Is Jim with you?"
"Yes, he's around the side of the house, getting dressed. How is she?"
"She's a bit rattled. It appears that she got lost in the woods while searching for Ares and the boys."
"How much does she know about us?"
"Nothing, from what I can tell. But I don't know what we should do next. After she's gotten some rest, she's going to want to go and look for her husband and children."
"Does anyone know that she's here?"
"Lowell! This is Ares wife! We aren't going to do anything to harm her!"
"We'll do what we have to do. But I agree that it should be our last resort."
"So, what are our other options?" Drake asked, then smiled when he saw Jim approaching.
"I think that the only people who might be able to come up with alternatives are Ima and her sisters."
"I doubt that there's any way that I can keep Andrea busy long enough for you to check with them. She's going to want to begin her search as soon as she's rested."
"Although this might be a colossal mistake, I'm afraid that there's no time to waste. I'm going to have to go and see them tonight."
"Can you even do that?"
"Perhaps. With some help."
"What kind of help do you need?"
Lowell turned and asked, "Jim, do you think that you'd be up to a long excursion tonight?"
"Do you mean, to see the hags?"
"That's exactly what I mean. It's a long and arduous journey, but with your help I believe that we should be able to reach their home safely."
"What I'm most worried about is what's going to happen after we reach their house."
"That also has its perils. But this may be the only way that we can keep Deimos and Cain's mother alive. Whatever treatment Ima and her sisters came up with to give to Ares seems to have allowed Andrea to throw off the curse. Knowing that, there might be something more that they can do."
"Would it be better if I were to go with you?" Drake asked cautiously.
"I would welcome your help, but I can't see myself being able to make the trip perched atop an addax. Having ridden over here on Jim's back I feel confident that he will be able to get us through the most troublesome part of the journey."
"You could take one of our horses, if you think that would work." Drake quietly offered.
"No. There are places, one footbridge in particular, where Jim will need to be in human form."
"It's okay Dad. Grandpa Lowell won't ask me to do anything that's too dangerous." Jim assured his father.
"If I recall correctly, you have fire abilities, too, do you not?" Lowell asked slowly.
"Yes. I've even gotten to where I can call up flames in my human form, if I need to."
"That's good. Because there's a very real possibility that at some point you will need to."
"When are you planning on doing this?" Drake asked apprehensively.
Lowell turned to Jim and asked, "Do you need to do anything before we leave?"
"Just this." Jim said, then pulled his father into a firm hug.
* * * * *
"How are you doing? Do you need anything?" Drake asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"No. Everything is wonderful. Tannis has been taking very good care of me."
"Good. Just let me know if you need something."
"Actually, I was hoping that you might be able to sit down and talk with me for a few minutes. I have some questions that I was hoping you might be able to answer."
"Do you think that after the day that you've had, it might not be better to get some rest first? There shouldn't be anything urgently requiring my attention in the morning so we should be able to have a nice long talk when we're both fresh and revived."
Before Andrea could answer, Tannis hurried to his father's side and waited.
"Yes?" Drake asked cautiously.
"I turned on the hot water heater so that Andrea can have a bath, if she wants one."
"I should have thought of that. Thank you, Tannis. That was good thinking." Drake said as he put an arm around his son's shoulders and hugged him firmly.
"It should be hot enough in about ten minutes." Tannis said as he enjoyed the feeling of being held.
Andrea watched the scene of caring with a wistful smile and couldn't help but think about how desperately she wanted to have the chance to hug her own sons.
Drake released his son from the hug, then turned to Andrea and said, "I don't know if you enjoy such things, but as part of my work, I also make various scented bath oils and candles. If you would like, I could gather a few things and you could take a long bath to relieve some of the tension of a long and traumatic day."
Andrea was about to refuse the kind offer from the virtual stranger, but then remembered seeing the luxurious antique claw foot tub in the bathroom and imagined how nice it would be to just stop and relax for a short time.
"I know that you didn't bring a change of clothes or anything, but I'm sure that Tannis and I will be able to find something of Jim's that you can borrow. You're close to his size."
"If you're sure that I'm not going to be putting anyone out..."
"Jim's going to be staying at Lowell's tonight, so it turns out that it's not going to be any inconvenience at all."
Tannis looked at his father curiously, but knew better than to question him in front of their guest.
"I'm going to go and gather the things that you'll need for your bath while Tannis gets you something clean to change into."
"Thank you. I can't believe how nice you're being."
"I can see that you're consumed with worries and responsibilities so I'm doing my best to give you a chance to take a break, so you'll be ready to take on the world when you're revived and refreshed in the morning." Drake said simply before leaving the kitchen.
* * * * *
"You'll need to stop up ahead. This is the footbridge that I was telling you about." Lowell warned.
Jim slowed his pace, then came to a stop right at the edge.
Lowell was grateful that Jim was kind enough to get down on his haunches to allow him to slide off his back.
"Thank you, Jim. If I could get Dibbin to do that, I'd ride him more often." Lowell said as he was careful to keep the lantern he was carrying from swinging too wildly as he moved.
Jim's body began to lengthen and change as he transformed into his centaur form.
"Do you think that I can get across like this?"
"No. The old bridge is in such disrepair that I can't be confident that we can get across in our human forms."
"It's just such a bother to have to put my shoes back on for just a few minutes." Jim said as he willed his body to change back to completely human.
"You'll be able to change back to your equine form once we're on the other side."
"I can carry the lantern for a while, if you want. I know that your arm has to be getting tired." Jim said as he took the first few tentative steps on the bridge, following exactly in Lowell's wake.
"Yes. Thank you." Lowell said as he turned and handed the lantern back.
"I didn't realize that this gorge was quite this deep."
"Something about travelling at night can make you especially aware of such things."
"What can you tell me about what's ahead? I've never been here before."
"It appears that the mountainous area must have been formed when two continental plates collided, causing the bedrock to become exposed. The gorge must have also been formed at that time. The valley behind us is lush and green whereas the terrain ahead is rocky and supports very little in the way of vegetation."
"Do you want to ride me or are we going to walk from here on?"
"There's still a bit of a grassy area ahead, so if you have no objection, I'll ride until the vegetation becomes spotty. After that, it would be too dangerous for you to proceed."
"Someone should really fix this bridge. It looks like one stiff breeze could cause the whole thing to collapse."
"While I hate to admit it, I'm afraid that at my age, it just isn't possible for me to do certain things anymore."
"I didn't mean you."
"I know what you meant. But the fact of the matter is that this is my responsibility."
"I don't know much of anything about bridge building, but I can swing a hammer. If you feel like it sometime, I could help you."
"Thank you, Jim. Perhaps between us, we might also be able to talk Deimos into helping. So not only would the two of you be learning a useful new skill, but you might also enjoy doing something productive together."
"Yeah. I'll ask him. But you don't know if he's afraid of heights, do you?"
"He's never mentioned it when he's come back from flying."
* * * * *
"Jim, it's time for you to stop. We can't go any further like this."
After letting Lowell slide off his back, Jim transformed to his centaur form.
"You'll need to change all the way. The rocks are just too angled and slippery for you to be able to find reliable purchase with your hooves."
"This is one of the few times that I envy Tannis. That little sucker can climb almost anything in his animal form."
Once Jim had completely transformed, Lowell set down the lantern and handed him the bundle of clothes that he had been carrying in a backpack.
"I'm going to leave my shirt off, in case I need to use my fire for something." Jim said as he handed the shirt back to Lowell.
After putting the shirt back into the pack, Lowell picked up the lantern again.
"I can carry that."
* * * * *
"I see what you mean about these rocks. Are you alright?"
"Yes. Slow and steady wins the race."
"I'm not worried about winning as much as finishing the race. Is it like this all the way to the top?"
"No, no. The path is somewhat easier ahead. And Ima's house isn't at the top. We still have another half an hour or so before we'll reach it."
"What was that?"
"What did you see?"
"I don't know. Something moved, over there in those cracks."
"Those would be caves. What you saw could be any number of things. What you need to keep in mind is that most things that we encounter will be more scared of us than we are of them."
"Remember why you're not wearing a shirt?"
* * * * *
"Is that a road?"
"Where does it go?"
"Around the mountain to another bridge."
"Why didn't we go that way?"
"Because it would have nearly tripled our travel time. The road is easier, but so inconveniently placed as to be useless for our purposes. The only time anyone uses the road is when they're delivering supplies."
"So, does that mean that we're almost there?"
"Yes. Once we get on the road, it's just a few minutes of walking to their front door."
"Should I stay in my human form?"
"Ima and her sisters are far beyond being impressed by any of our transformations. If you're more comfortable in another form, do what you feel you need to. Ima isn't likely to notice in any event."
"Hang on a second so I can get out of my pants, then. I have better access to my fire in centaur form. I'd rather be in the best position to react if I have to."
"I would do the same, however I'm certain that Ima wouldn't be the least bit intimidated by my werewolf form. She'd probably just laugh."
"I can take the backpack, if you want."
"No. It's quite comfortable where it is. If you're ready, we should proceed. Time is of the essence."
* * * * *
"Were you waiting up for me?" Andrea asked as she walked into the living room.
"I was mostly just reading. But it occurred to me that we never told you which room you'd be using. If you're ready for bed, I can show you the way."
"Yes. And thank you for suggesting that bath. It was wonderful."
"Well, I can't take credit for all of it. Tannis actually came up with the idea. But I'm glad you enjoyed it." Drake said warmly, then gestured toward a door as he said, "This will be your room."
"Thank you again, Drake. Have a good sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
"Yes. Pleasant dreams."
* * * * *
"Okay, maybe I should already know this, but what are you doing?" Jim asked as he watched Lowell pull repeatedly on a heavy rope.
"It's the only way to let Ima know that someone's out here so that she'll open the gate."
"Do you think that she might be asleep, since it's so late?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure that she does sleep."
"From what my dad told us, Ima and her sisters are the women who didn't go completely crazy because of the curse. Is that right?"
"Sort of. Part of the curse is to compel women to become pregnant. Ima and her sisters never gave birth, so the next part of their curse never went into effect, the part that makes them homicidal monsters."
"But they still became hags, didn't they?"
"Yes. But it happened much more slowly than it does to the women who didn't resist. Up until the age of thirty-five or so, they looked relatively normal."
"Is there anything that I need to do or not do when I'm around them?"
"Typically, they travel as a group to keep each other in line. Be sure that you don't let any one of them get you alone in a room. Although I don't have any evidence to back this up, it is believed that if Ima or one of her sisters were to give in to their desires at this late stage of the curse, that they would probably kill both you and themselves."
"Good to know."
"As long as we stay together, we should be alright."
* * * * *
"Lowell?! It's so good to see you. And who is this lovely virile young man that you've brought with you?" Ima asked as she ushered them in through the iron gate, where three other crones were silently waiting.
"This is Jimson, he's Mandrake's son. You remember Mandrake, don't you?"
"Oh yes. I've spent many feverish nights thinking of him. Now what brings you out here after dark? I know you wouldn't have come all this way without a good reason."
"Quite right. Do you remember last year when Ares came to you asking for some sort of treatment for his wife?"
"Yes. That was an odd one. We'd never come across a case of the curse being delayed that long before. It was their twin sons' puberty that caused all their curses to awaken, wasn't it?" Ima asked as she led the group inside an enormous granite hall.
"That's the best explanation that we could come up with."
"So, let me guess. Has Jimson here found some sweet young thing and you're here to ask me if I can release her curse, too?"
"Actually, no. The problem we're facing is that Andrea, that's Ares wife's name, she's here, in Brynnhollow. She's searching for her husband and her sons. We were hoping that since you were able to successfully relieve her of the curse enough so that she could continue to live, that maybe there might be something more that we could do to give this family a happy ending."
"Has she made contact with her husband or sons?"
"No. Drake is doing his best to keep her at his house while I'm here. If we don't have an alternative for him by morning, the only choices we can see are to let her continue on and let the curse kill her, or to kill her ourselves, protecting Ares and his boys from the trauma."
"Giddyup." Ima said playfully as she slapped Jim gently on the rump as she passed by him.
Flames immediately sprang into being on Jim's hands and upper arms, fueled as much by surprise as his teenage bravado.
"I get a burning sensation, too. Do you want to see where?" Ima asked as she broke into a snaggletoothed grin.
Jim's flames withered to nothing as he suddenly looked queasy.
"We need options." Lowell said firmly, drawing all attention to him.
"You mean besides killing her or letting her die?"
Jim startled when he felt a hand begin to travel up the inside of his rear left inner thigh.
"Vera, leave that alone. Lowell brought us an unprecedented opportunity for study. We need to be careful not to squander it."
"What do you propose?" The crone, Vera, asked as she backed away from Jim.
"With the last treatment, we used the traditional spelling components of the Brynn to construct a counterspell. Something that we did seems to have worked, so given the assumption that this woman, Andrea, is halfway between cursed and not, what can we do to take her the rest of the way and remove her curse completely?"
"Well, there's always the chance that the curse has been completely removed already. If she hasn't had contact with her husband or children, then we can't know for sure." Vera said reasonably.
"But if she had been in contact with them, and the curse were still active at all, then she'd be dead right now." Lowell explained.
"But at least then we'd know." Vera immediately responded.
"Treatments or testing methods that involve Andrea's death are not really what we're looking for." Lowell said firmly.
"Agreed. Death isn't all it's cracked up to be." Ima said distantly, then let out a long sigh before saying, "We've been studying the elements of the curse for decades. I feel confident in saying that there's no possible way to completely lift the curse. That would involve lifting the curse from the entire Brynn bloodline, and I doubt that with the help of every witch alive today that we could manage that."
"So you know what we can't do. But do you know what we can do?" Lowell slowly asked.
"It appears that because Ares' curse didn't activate when it should have, and then it being passed on and split between his children might have caused its effect to have been reduced on the mother..."
"Does that help us in any way?"
"Maybe. As you said, this woman appears to have been pushed halfway between cursed and uncursed. The problem is, a curse is like fabric dye in a way. Once you've got it, it's fairly permanent. It's possible to bleach it and get it to fade slightly, but no matter what you do, you're never going to get back to completely pure white."
"So, are you saying it's hopeless?"
"No. Well, yes. Now that I think of it, getting rid of the curse is probably hopeless. But rather than try to get the yellow dye out of the white fabric, we might be able to cover it with a nice bold green."
"Although I work with fabrics quite extensively and have had over a century of experience working with fabric dye, do you think that you could drop the metaphors and just explain what it is that you want to do?"
After a moment, Lowell finally asked, "Which curse?"
"For this to have any hope of working, it would have to be very similar to the curse that we're trying to alter, like yellow is a component of green. Basically, we'd curse her to transform, like the men do and we'd probably also have to give her the ability to bestow the curse, so if she were to give birth or marry again, her offspring or new husband would also fall under the terms of our new curse."
"Is that really necessary?"
"I don't think we'll be able to alter the old curse without it, they'd be too different."
"Well, with that in place, there shouldn't be any need for the compulsion to procreate or to dispose of the mate. We could do away with that."
"What about making her a hag? Are you going to fix that too?" Jim asked suddenly.
"That's tied to the procreation compulsion. We should be able to do away with it." Ima said with a smile at him, which sent a shiver straight up his spine.
"You know, if this works, then we're going to have to be on the lookout for others who are showing signs of the curse weakening." Vera interjected.
"Or this could be a fluke. We'll just have to wait and see how it goes." Ima said resignedly.
"So, have you decided? Can you do it?" Lowell asked cautiously.
"It will take some time to conduct the ritual, but I'm fairly certain that it can be done."
"Are we going to have to bring Andrea here?"
"It wouldn't be much of a curse if it only worked where the ceremony was conducted."
"What do we have to do, then?"
"Let me see? An apple? A mirror? What would be the appropriate vessel for a curse such as this?"
"Let me have my clothes. I may have something." Jim said quickly.
All eyes were on him as he rummaged through the backpack and then worked to take something out of one of his pants pockets.
"What is it that you've got there?" Lowell asked curiously.
"It's a charm that I made. Actually, there are four of them. Tannis and I each have one of these with a thylacine and a wyvern. Deimos and Cain each have a charm of a goat and horse."
At Ima's questioning gaze, Jim felt compelled to explain, "The thylacine and the wyvern are her kids animal forms. If you curse this charm, then it's kind of a reminder for her of why she's going through all of this."
Ima considered for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. She walked up to Jim and took the charm from his open palm and replaced it with a key.
"This is going to take us some time and we're not going to be able to keep watch on each other. Lowell can show you where the cage is."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"You know, I've never really had a thing for horses. But after meeting you... I'm probably going to be thinking about them a lot."
"We'll just be going... now..." Jim said uneasily as he looked at Lowell urgently.
"I'll come and get you once we're done cursing the talisman." Ima called after them as they left.
* * * * *
"Dad?" A small voice called as the bedroom door opened.
"Tannis? What's wrong? Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"What? No. I mean, yes. It's always hard for me to sleep in human form. But it's also because I'm worried. What happened to Jim?"
"Climb in here with me and I'll tell you."
"I haven't slept with you in years."
"Then maybe we're a bit overdue. Come on."
"Your brother went with Lowell Brynner to visit the witches on the mountain to try and find a way to help Andrea."
"But won't they hurt him? Didn't you always say that the witches tried to trick men into going to their castle so that they could kill them?"
"Yes. I said that, and it's mostly true. But I think that you're old enough now to know the whole truth."
"Is it worse than the lie?"
"In ways. But it also helps to explain why the witches do what they do and why your brother would take the risk of going there."
"You know about the curse and the way that it affects women. The witches were able to resist the curse and have devoted their lives to learning about the dark arts so that they can hopefully find a way to undo the curse forever."
"So they're not really evil?"
"No. In fact, not many people are... unless you're talking politics. But that's a discussion for another time. You see, the witches are still operating under the influence of the curse which compels them toward certain behaviors. Some of the things that they are forced to do are dangerous and can end up killing people, so they have to live separately and be very careful."
"So Jim could really get hurt?"
"Yes. But Lowell has been dealing with the witches for longer than I've been alive. He knows how to protect himself and will do everything in his power to protect Jim, too."
"Do you think Jim will be alright?"
"I hope so, Tan. And I think that after going through something like this that he'll probably learn a few new things about life and possibly about himself. He'll be better off for having had the experience."
"Are you worried?"
"Of course I am. But I know that he's doing the right thing for the right reason, so I just have to let it happen and hope for the best."
"Is there anything we can do to help him?"
"We can watch after Andrea and make sure that everything that he's going through isn't in vain."
"She's nice. I can see why Cain and Deimos are such good people with parents like theirs."
"I agree. Now be quiet and try to get some sleep."
"Goodnight. I love you."
"I love you, too."
* * * * *
"Lowell, it's time to wake up."
"What? Oh, Ima. Have you finished your curse?"
"Yes. Although the magic turned out to be a little darker than I usually like, I think that this should do what we need it to."
"How do we make it work?"
"Keep it in the pouch until you're ready to use it. All you have to do is have her touch it and the curse will be bestowed."
"What happens when she lets go of it?"
"That's hard to say. There shouldn't be any remnants of the curse left on it, but I can't be positive. It would probably be best if she were to keep it with her."
"So we don't have to say any words or anything?"
"No. Everything you need is rooted in the talisman. By the way, my sisters and I noticed the style and quality of Jimson's work. If he'd be interested, we would very much like it if he'd make us some more."
"I'll be sure to ask him about it."
"You'd better wake him up so you can be on your way. From what you said last night, there is something of a time limit at play."
"Yes. Quite right. Is it safe for us to leave?"
"I have my sisters locked in and I'll be joining them straight away. Give us five minutes or so, then you should be safe."
"Thanks Ima. We owe you a debt that we can never repay."
Ima chuckled, then said, "You repay it a little each time you deliver food and supplies. We're not dim. We know that there are those who believe that we should have been killed decades ago. Thank you for all that you do to continue to include us in the outside world."
"Even though we're all cursed, that doesn't mean that we can't still be kind to each other."
"Truer words were never spoken. Be well, my friend." Ima said before hurrying away.
* * * * *
"Are you sure that they're not going to attack us?" Jim asked as he walked with Lowell toward the iron gate at a hurried pace.
"Do you have the lantern?"
"Yes. But I'm not going to light it until we have the gate firmly closed behind us."
"Are we going to take the road down or are we going to go back the way that we came?"
"Before I answer, do you think that there's any way that you could carry the backpack in your horse form?"
"No. Not easily."
"How is your night vision when you're in centaur form?"
"Actually, it's better than when I'm in full horse. Plus, I can always bring up my flames if I need to light my way."
"Good. Then I was thinking that we might try taking the road in our animal forms. It's probably going to take everything that we've got to run full-out all the way back to your home, but I think that it will probably end up being faster than clamoring over slippery rocks in the dark."
"What are we going to do with the lantern?"
"It can attach to the back of the backpack." Lowell said as he stopped to push the iron gate closed.
"So we don't need to light it?"
"No. Just give me a moment to strip and stowe my clothes, then we'll be ready to go."
"I'm ready when you are."
"Remember that you're wearing the backpack. Don't burn up our clothes."
"I'll do my best to keep that in mind."
"Let's do it!"
* * * * *
"Good morning. Did you have a good sleep?" Drake asked Andrea pleasantly when she walked into the living room.
"Yes. I can't believe how quiet it is here."
"I've heard that there are places where it's noisy all the time. I don't think that I could live someplace like that."
"You adapt. But the peace and quiet here is nice."
"Are you cooking something?"
"Tannis is. I'd better get back in there to supervise. He's still learning."
* * * * *
"How's it going, Tan?" Drake asked as he walked to his son and gave him a quick hug.
"Okay, I think. Does the oatmeal look right?" Tannis asked cautiously.
"Perfect. I bet that's going to taste good."
"Good morning, Andrea. Did you sleep well?" Tannis asked curiously.
"Yes. Very well." Andrea answered, then turned to Drake and asked, "Isn't he a little young to be learning how to cook?"
"No. I don't think so. It's a skill that will serve him well throughout his life, so I think that he should have adequate time, here at home, to learn as much as he can."
"Maybe it was the way that I was raised, but I never even thought about teaching my sons to cook."
"I'm cooking because I want to. If I didn't feel like it today, Dad or Jim would do it." Tannis said from the stove.
"Who's that?" A young voice asked from the kitchen doorway.
"That's Andrea." Drake said with a smile, then said to their guest, "Andrea, this is my daughter Viv."
"Hello." Andrea said with a smile at the girl.
"Is your brother awake?"
"Yeah. He's getting dressed."
"Good. Take a seat at the table. Breakfast will be ready in just a minute."
A sound at the back door drew all their attention.
As the teenager stepped in, Drake was immediately at his side, hugging him furiously.
"Are you alright? How did everything go?" Drake asked anxiously.
"Everything's fine, Drake." Lowell assured him as he walked past the hugging father and son.
Drake paused for a moment to gather himself before saying, "Andrea, this is one of my neighbors, Lowell, and this young man in my arms is my oldest son, Jim."
"Lowell Brynner." Lowell said as he looked her in the eyes.
"Brynner? Do you know Ares? Do you know where Chris and David are?" Andrea asked in a rush.
"Do you think that we might be able to sit and talk? I'm really quite tired." Lowell asked Drake hopefully.
"Good idea. Let's move into the living room." Drake said decisively, then turned and asked, "Tan, will you see that Ollie and Viv get fed and walk them to school? Tell Wyatt that Jim is going to stay home today. I need him here."
"Yeah." Tannis said slowly.
"What about my boys? Do you know where they are?" Andrea asked frantically.
"Come into the living room and I'll explain all of that." Lowell assured her as he started walking.
"Please try to be patient for just a moment. You're about to get your answers." Drake said to her quietly, then motioned for her to precede him out of the room.
* * * * *
"Can I get anyone some tea or anything?" Drake asked as everyone found places to sit.
"I'll take care of that, Dad. You probably need to be in here for this." Jim said before walking back toward the kitchen.
"What about my boys? Do you know if they're alright?" Andrea asked as soon as she was seated.
"They're fine." Lowell told her firmly, then held up a hand to forestall any further questions.
"You'll have to excuse me. I'm old, tired and not altogether patient to begin with. Please allow me to explain a few things and then you can feel free to ask any questions that I haven't already answered."
Andrea had to fight to hold herself back, but finally nodded her agreement.
"I'm sure that you probably don't believe in things such as curses and witches and the like. Most people don't nowadays. But, as it turns out, belief isn't required."
"What does this have to do with my boys?" Andrea blurted out.
"There is a curse upon our family, on our bloodline. The men become monsters and the women either go insane or die. When you married into the family, the curse fell upon you, too."
Andrea was surprisingly silent at the declaration.
"Ares will be able to explain to you why he made the decisions that he did. But what you need to know right now is that the curse is still in effect. If we do not proceed very carefully, your life could be in danger."
"What does this have to do with my boys?"
"Their curse forces them to transform into animals. Before you say anything, I know that there's no way that you're going to believe it unless you see it for yourself." Lowell said as he untucked his shirt and undid the first few buttons.
"What are you doing?" Andrea asked cautiously.
"Just giving you a little taste of what your sons are facing." Lowell said gently, then started to change, ever so slightly.
He didn't complete the transformation to his half-form, but enough of his wolfly features came into being so that they couldn't be denied.
"This has happened to your sons, and this is why your husband chose to bring them here, where they could grow up in safety."
"Why couldn't he just tell me?"
"It was thought that Ares somehow avoided the curse. For many years he lived his life without ever transforming. It's only when your sons approached the autumn of their twelfth year that the curse was activated in all of you."
"All of us? You mean, me too?"
"Yes. That was the source of your illness. The last time you saw your husband was when he was bringing you what he hoped would be a cure for you. However, one of the conditions of the cure was that if you were to see him or your sons again, you would most certainly die."
"No. It can't be." Andrea muttered, mostly to herself.
Jim walked into the room and quietly set the tea service on the coffee table, then moved to stand by his father.
"Andrea. The curse is on everyone here. I know it's hard to believe, but we all live with it every day. My children are growing up without their mothers because of the curse. We stay sequestered from the outside world due to the curse. None of us chose this, but it's the way things are and we have to do our best to keep on living."
"Are you saying that my choices are to either see my children and die, or to leave here and never see my children again, which will cause me to die a little inside every day?"
"With what you've seen since you've been here and what we've told you, there's no way that you would be allowed to leave. It would threaten the community."
"So, are you going to keep me prisoner here? Or are you going to kill me?" Andrea asked quietly as she continued to stare at the wolfman before her.
"Jim and I made a trip last night to see if we couldn't come up with a better option for you."
Lowell finally returned to his fully human form as he continued, "So far as we know, there's no way that the curse can be removed, but it has been suggested that the curse can be altered so that you can have contact with your husband and children."
"What does that mean?" Andrea asked in a daze.
"I can't say that I understand all of it, but it appears that the new curse would cause you to be able to transform, as our menfolk do. Beyond that, it's hard to say. If you were to marry or have a child, your new curse would likely befall them as well."
"So my choices are to be a prisoner, die or be cursed?"
"Yes. It seems that way."
"That's not much of a choice. But since I don't really believe in curses anyway, I suppose that I'll do that. What do I have to do?"
"Jim? Do you have the talisman?" Lowell asked as he looked at the teenager.
"Yeah. Right here." Jim said as he took the pouch out of his pocket and handed it to Lowell.
"All you have to do is take the talisman out of the pouch and be sure to keep it with you. It should allow you to be near your husband and children." Lowell said as he offered the pouch to her.
"Should I do it now?"
"Perhaps we should step outside. There's no way to know what type of transformation you might be compelled to make." Lowell slowly suggested.
"I still don't believe in this. But if this means that I can see my boys, I'll do it."
"Let's go outside and get this done, then we'll go and see them." Drake said to her gently.
* * * * *
The group had filed out the front door, then stood in a loosely formed circle and waited to see what would happen next.
"Just take it out of the pouch?" Andrea asked nervously.
"Yes." Lowell said simply.
Everyone watched as Andrea carefully extracted the small silver charm from the velvety bag.
There was a long moment of silence, then Jim finally asked, "Did it work?"
"We'll have to assume that it did. The only way to be sure is for us to go to Ares house."
"Then, if everyone's ready, I suppose that we should be going." Drake said as he looked around the group.
"Grandpa Lowell, if you'll carry my clothes, I'll give you a ride." Jim quietly offered.
"I'll be able to manage. You have to be tired after the long journey."
"Don't worry about me. I'm going either way, so I won't mind carrying you."
"You two go on and we'll catch up." Lowell said to Drake and Andrea, then motioned for Jim to walk with him around the side of the house.
"We're going to walk?" Andrea asked in confusion as Drake started out ahead of her.
"Yes. It's just the way we do things here. You'll get used to it." Drake said easily.
"I doubt that I'll ever get used to this. But I guess that I don't have any other choice."
"Please just try to keep in mind that Lowell, Jim and everyone else that you've met since you've been here have done everything in their power to make things turn out the best for you. You're among friends."
"It's funny, back home there aren't too many people who I would call my friends. There are people that I know and we speak when our paths cross, but I'd never expect them to go out of their way for me."
"It may take some adjustment, but I don't think you'll have too much trouble getting used to it. From what I've heard, life here tends to move at a different pace. But once you settle into it, all the important things are still there."
"Thank you, Drake." Andrea said sincerely.
"Would you like for us to go ahead and let Ares know that we're coming?" Lowell asked as he rode bareback on a beautiful red horse.
"I can't see how making him anxious in advance will improve anything. Let's just go and see how this plays out." Drake said decisively.
"That's probably best. Besides, I think that after the night that we've had, Jim will appreciate the slower pace."
Andrea looked at the horse curiously, then at Lowell uncertainly.
"Yes. This is Jim."
"Maybe I died in the hospital and this is all a dream... or a nightmare." Andrea said uncertainly.
"If it helps you to think of it that way, then I see no harm in it. Maybe you died in the outside world and were reborn here, in Brynnhollow." Drake suggested with a smile.
After a moment to think about that, Andrea quietly said, "Just as long as I can be with my sons and know that they're safe and happy, I don't care about the rest."
* * * * *
Drake's homestead was somewhat remote, although not nearly as bad as some others. The group ambled along without conversation for nearly an hour.
After walking across a wooden footbridge, Andrea quietly asked, "How much further is it?"
"We should reach Ares' place in about half an hour."
"You knew who I was from the beginning, didn't you?"
"Yes. Just as soon as you told me your name."
"Do you know my husband well?"
"Ares and I knew each other as casual acquaintances when he lived here before. But since he's been back we've gotten a lot closer because our children have become close friends."
"It's good to know that Chris and David are making friends here. For all of their lives they've mostly just had each other."
"When they came to live here, they changed their names. To us they're known as Cain and Deimos."
"Why did they change their names?"
"There are people here who hold onto their bitterness and prejudice about certain spiritual matters. I can't say that I really understand it, but I'm glad the boys chose to go through with it. Their lives will be easier as a result."
"As long as they're happy, I'll be happy."
"From what I've seen of them, they are."
* * * * *
"What should we do if Andrea starts having a bad reaction? Is there anything that we can do to help her?" Drake asked Lowell quietly as they walked.
"Everything that can be done has been done. All that's left is to see it play out."
"What about Ares? Is there anything we can do to prepare him?"
"Regretfully, sometimes it's necessary to endure certain emotional revelations to maintain one's perspective. Ares will make his decisions in the moment, then he'll have to face the consequences. If we try to shield him from those decisions, he might not behave true to his nature."
"What do you think will happen?"
"Who's to say? Such a thing has never happened before."
* * * * *
"This is it. Andrea, why don't you go ahead and knock on the door? We'll be right here if you need us." Lowell said gently as Jim came to a stop.
Andrea wanted to object, but forced herself to walk to the front door of the quaint little cottage.
It took every bit of courage at her command to raise her hand and knock.
She could hear her heart beating in her ears as she waited.
As the seconds passed, she felt her anxiety start to fade.
"He might be around back, in his workshop." Lowell cautiously suggested as he scooted off Jim's back.
Andrea waited a moment longer, then hesitantly took a step back from the door.
"I can take you back there, if you want." Jim quietly offered.
"Thank you, Ji..." Andrea trailed off at the sight of the teenage centaur.
"You need to be careful doing that in public." Drake warned.
"Ares doesn't mind. He says that we're far enough away from anyone else that it doesn't matter here."
* * * * *
As Andrea and Jim were walking away from the others, Andrea stopped Jim and quietly said, "Your father mentioned that you're friends with my sons. Can I ask you something?"
"Sure. I guess."
"Do they ever mention me? Do you know if they miss me?"
"That's not the kind of thing they really talk about much in front of me. But one time when Deimos and I were alone, he told me about how the last time he saw you was when you were in the hospital and he wondered if you were alright."
"Do you know if they're mad at their father for taking them away?"
"No. Since they've transformed they understand about what the curse is and how it means that they can't be around regular people anymore. They might be a little bit mad, but it's not at you or their dad, it's more at the situation."
"Thank you, Jim. It helps me to know that."
"Come on. The workshop's right back here."
* * * * *
"Here it is. I'm going to go back and get dressed. If you run into any trouble just give a yell, you've got all of us to help you." Jim said before turning to leave.
Andrea watched the young centaur trot away, then cautiously stepped up to the door and knocked.
"Just come on in! My hands are full!" Ares called loudly from inside.
Andrea glanced behind her and saw that Lowell and Drake were standing by the edge of the house, a respectful distance away, ready to step in and help her if they were needed.
Summoning all her courage, Andrea opened the door and stepped inside.
* * * * *
It took a moment for Andrea's eyes to adjust to the much dimmer light inside the workshop.
She looked around the various pieces of furniture for a moment but couldn't see any movement.
"Ares?" She called tentatively.
There was a long moment of silence, then Ares quietly responded, "Andrea?"
"I'm glad you still remember me."
"I never forgot you, not even for a minute." Ares said as he emerged from behind a set of tall, freestanding cabinets.
"Why did you leave me the way that you did?" Andrea asked as tears started to fall down her cheeks.
"I was told that it was the only way to save your life." Ares said honestly, then added, "But I was also told that if I ever saw you or spoke to you again, that you'd immediately die. How can you be here?"
"To be honest, I really don't know. It has something to do with curses and bloodlines or something, but you should probably talk to Drake or Lowell about that. I really don't have a clue."
"They found a way to contravene the curse?" Ares asked cautiously.
"It looks that way." Andrea said frankly, then quietly asked, "Are you happy to see me?"
"Yes! Of course! It's just such a shock." Ares said as he moved forward to pull Andrea into his arms.
The moment that they touched, it seemed that Andrea was falling.
Ares instinctively tried to catch her, but his arms caught only empty air.
Upon closer examination, it turned out that she wasn't falling, but shrinking.
Ares knelt down and moved her blouse aside to reveal a white swan, tangled in her clothes.
"Andrea..." Ares said with a regretful shake of his head.
The bird made a little squawk and ruffled its feathers at him.
"I don't know what to tell you... if your transformation is anything like mine, then you should be able to change back by remembering the feeling that you just had and willing it to reverse." Ares tried to explain.
There was a long quiet moment, then Ares noticed the swan was beginning to puff up and perhaps to change.
"That's it, you're doing it." Ares gently encouraged.
As Andrea started regaining her human form, she cautiously asked, "What just happened?"
"You turned into a swan."
"You're still halfway changed, see for yourself."
After a moment, Andrea quietly said, "It's all true."
"Believe me, if it weren't, there's nothing that could have kept me from your side for the past year."
"You don't know how much I want to hate you for leaving me. It's my right to hate you! You left me when I was at my most vulnerable!"
"I know. And I swear that If it weren't for the boys, I might have made some different decisions. You don't know how much I wanted to be there with you until the very end, and then to follow you."
"I understand what you're saying! But that doesn't make it hurt any less!"
"What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know! I'm just pissed off at you!"
"You have every right to be."
Andrea fought to regain control of her emotions, then finally said, "With all that I've learned in the past twenty-four hours, I understand why you did what you did. I guess the big question is, what do we do now?"
"Not that I'm complaining, but you might want to think about getting dressed."
"Oh, yeah." Andrea said as she looked down at herself covered in delicate white feathers, then cautiously asked, "How do I undo this?"
"Just remember what it felt like to be human and then what it felt like to be something else. You can internally push yourself to become one or the other."
It took a moment of concentration, but Andrea was finally able to force her body to return to its fully human state.
"As to what we should do next... I suppose the better question is what do you want to do next?"
"What do you mean? What I want is for us to go back to the way things were before."
"But things aren't the same."
"Are you talking about living here instead of back in the city?"
"That's only part of it."
"What are you saying?"
"I let you go. I've moved on."
"Do you mean that there's someone else?"
"No, Andrea. What I'm saying is that in the past year, I've gone through the stages of grieving over losing you. I'm not saying that we can't be together, I'm just warning you that none of us are the same people that we were a year ago. Please, let's just take the time to do this right. Not only will that be the best thing for the boys, but also the fairest thing that we can do for each other and for ourselves."
"Do you still love me?"
"Yes. Of course. I'll never stop loving you. But can you really see yourself living here in Brynnhollow with me and not being angry and resentful and bored out of your mind?"
"I don't know. This place is so completely different from everything that I'm used to that I don't know what I would do here."
"Then why don't we hold off on making any new commitments until you've had time to sort through your options? One thing that you'll learn about Brynnhollow is that there isn't any rush."
"Yes. I've noticed that."
"In the meantime, you can stay with us or with my grandfather... I suppose that we could even check in town to see if anyone has a room that they'd like to rent out."
"I just naturally thought that I'd live with you and the boys."
"If you want to, that's fine. Just as long as it's clear that that's not your only choice. In fact, if you wanted, we could even build you your own house, built to your specifications. As you can see, you won't have to worry about furnishings."
"You make furniture now?"
"My grandfather has been helping me rediscover the skills that I learned when I was growing up here."
"Do you think of us as not being married anymore?"
"We're not married like we were before. I'm not the person that I was back then, and I suspect that neither are you. If you'd agree to it, I'd very much like to get to know the person who you are now and if we find out that we want to be married, then we can make a marriage in the here and now between the people who we've become."
"I think that maybe you're right about it being too soon for us to be making any decisions. But right this minute, the only thing that I want to do is see the boys."
"Then let's go. I can't wait to see the looks on their faces."
* * * * *
"Is everything alright? We heard screaming." Jim asked cautiously.
Andrea did a double take, seeing Jim back in his fully human form.
"It's fine now. Emotions were running high and we had to decide how we were going to continue forward." Ares assured him.
"So what are we doing?" Lowell asked cautiously.
"Going to see the boys." Ares said simply.
"Dad's right. I don't need to be running around in my transformed state. Someone might see." Jim said timidly.
Andrea smiled at him, then looked to Ares to see what he was going to do next.
"Well, if no one has any other plans, let's go see the boys."
* * * * *
"Where are we going?" Andrea asked as they walked.
"Over to Marlon Cowbrynn's place. He hosts a school at his house for several of the local children." Ares said casually.
"Is that where Tannis took your younger kids this morning?" Andrea asked Drake who was walking at her other side.
"No. They're over at Wyatt Brynnford's house. It's basically the same arrangement except that it's nearer our house." Drake answered.
"Why don't you have one school for all the children?" Andrea asked curiously.
"There are a few reasons. The travel to and from the school would be unreasonably long for some of the kids. Plus, some of the parents hold some rather firm and controversial beliefs that they want to impress upon their children. Finally, a formal central school would likely be a hardship on some of the families who need their children near to home to help them at certain times of the year. We tend to work best when things are flexible and informal." Lowell explained.
"It's so different here." Andrea said distantly.
"Yes. But, at least for me, it isn't different in a bad way." Ares assured her.
"You grew up here. You're used to this. For me, it's like living in a foreign land." Andrea said anxiously.
"People move to foreign lands all the time, and some of them choose to stay and assimilate."
"I think that choice was already made for me."
"Maybe the choice about staying or not was denied you, but the choice of what you'll do now that you're here is entirely up to you." Ares said firmly.
"How do you mean?" Drake asked curiously.
"Earlier, I was telling Andrea that now that she's here, she has a choice about what happens next. What happened in the past can stay in the past and she's free to investigate all the possibilities before deciding what to do next."
"He even suggested that I could get a place of my own." Andrea added.
"I guess I just naturally assumed..." Drake began to say, then seemed to change his mind and said, "If you need a place to stay, you know where to find me."
"Thank you, Drake. I'll be sure to keep that in mind." Andrea said to him with a smile.
"No, really!" Jim interjected. "It'd be great if you'd stay with us!"
"Jim. It's her decision." Drake said in a low, warning tone.
"I know. I just wanted her to know it's not just because we're neighborly. She could stay with us and it'd be like a real home."
Drake nodded at his son, then turned his gaze forward as they continued to walk.
* * * * *
"I'd rather this not happen in front of all their friends and classmates. If you'll wait here for a minute, I'll go and get them." Ares said before walking ahead of the group.
"Don't worry, Andrea. The boys haven't stopped missing you or loving you for one minute since they've been here." Lowell said gently.
"Why did this happen? Why are things like this?" Andrea asked as she watched where her husband had gone.
"I wonder how many people in how many different parts of the world are asking the exact same thing, right this moment." Lowell said thoughtfully.
Andrea looked at him curiously.
"Life happens. Sometimes it's inconvenient. Sometimes it's unfair. Sometimes it's just plain wrong. It still keeps happening. All we can do is deal with it."
"Mom!" A voice called excitedly.
Andrea turned and her eyes filled with tears as she saw her sons racing toward her.
"Look at how you've grown! You're practically grown men now!" Andrea said as she held her arms open wide to invite her sons in.
"Mom! Are you alright? Are you all better now?" Cain asked tearfully.
"I'm fine, baby. The people in the hospital took really good care of me." Andrea assured him.
"How did you find us?" Deimos asked his mother as he hugged her.
"I just found some old paperwork of your father's with a Waxell address on it, so I decided to come here and see if anyone knew who he was and where he might be." Andrea said with a smile.
"Are you staying here with us?" Cain asked hopefully.
"From what I understand, I don't have much choice in the matter." Andrea said, then glanced at Ares, who was watching the whole scene.
"Why not? Did you get cursed, too?" Cain asked with concern.
"I was told that the only way I could see you again is if I were willing to accept being cursed. So of course, I did."
"It's not bad. In fact, we can do things that other people only dream of. I can run and hunt in the night and Deimos can fly." Cain explained excitedly.
"The longer I'm here, the more I'm seeing that this whole place is like a dream." Andrea said gently.
"Have you seen our house yet?" Deimos asked suddenly.
"Only from the outside."
"You're going to love it! Dad and Grandpa made all the furniture and they let us help!" Deimos said happily.
"I can't wait to see it." Andrea said warmly.
"There's no reason you should have to. If you're ready, we can go right now." Ares said with a smile.
* * * * *
As the group started walking back toward Ares house, Andrea quietly said to her husband, "I've been thinking about what you were saying before."
"What was that?"
"I came here with the intent of finding you and the boys, but I never really considered what I would do after that."
"Have you come to any decisions?"
"I think that maybe you were right. Too much time has passed. Too many things have happened. We can't pick up where we left off."
"What would you like to do?"
"I'm not sure, yet. But I think that I need some time to myself to consider my options."
"I'm sure that Grandpa wouldn't mind if you stayed at his place for a while."
"No. That's alright. Drake and his family have offered to allow me to stay with them. I think that I may take them up on it."
"You're not going to stay with us?" Cain asked in a stricken tone.
"I'm going to stay here in Brynnhollow and I'll be seeing you all the time, but your father and I discussed it and I think that it may be best that I take things slowly and make some decisions about what the right thing is to do going forward so that all of us can enjoy long and happy lives."
"But having you at home with us would make us happy." Deimos assured her.
"I'm sure that I would be happy there, too. But tell me, what do you think I'm going to do while you and your brother are at school or out with your friends? What am I supposed to do while your father is at work? Am I just supposed to wait for all of you to remember that I'm at home waiting for you?"
"We won't go out!" Cain immediately promised.
"That wouldn't be fair to you... or me. I'm going to take some time to see what they have here in Brynnhollow and what I can do to fit in here. I'll always be your mother and I'll always love you. I'll be right here whenever you need me."
"Think about it boys, after all the tough times we've survived and the changes that we've been through, your mom deserves the chance to figure out what she can do to enrich herself and find happiness in every day of her life. You're old enough now to be thinking of what you'd like your own lives to be like once you're out on your own. Maybe you can watch what your mother's going through and even talk to her about her decisions so that you'll have a better idea of what choices you'll be facing when the time comes." Ares said reasonably.
"Thanks Ares." Andrea said with a smile at him, then turned and asked, "Drake, were you serious about me staying with you for a while longer?"
"Of course! We'd love to have you." Drake answered immediately.
"Then I'd like to accept your kind offer." Andrea said with a smile.
"Are you going to need to go to town for clothes or anything? I'm sure that Jim won't mind you borrowing his clothes, but I can't see that working for the long term."
"I have some suitcases in my car... wherever that is. I left it at the place where the road suddenly ended."
"Jim? Do you think that you could run into town and ask Mason if him or any of the runners have picked up Andrea's car? If they haven't, make sure that they know it's out there so that they can get it. Either way, let them know that we're going to need her suitcases over at our house before the end of the night."
"Should I run or can I gallop?" Jim asked cautiously.
"Best run. We wouldn't want to give anyone a reason to complain about a 'wild teenager' running loose on the streets in broad daylight."
"If you want to 'change', I can ride you into town. No one should have any problem with that." Deimos quickly offered.
Jim looked at his father expectantly.
"Fine. Just don't be too obvious about it." Drake relented with a smile.
"We'll meet you back at the house." Deimos told his parents before dashing away with Jim at his side.
"Jim's got to be exhausted after being up most of the night." Lowell commented absently as he watched them go.
"You remember what it's like to be that age." Drake said with a smile.
Lowell looked at him dubiously.
"Right. I forgot. Maybe you don't." Drake chuckled
* * * * *
"Where is Chris?" Andrea asked her husband curiously.
"His name is Cain now. And I sent him to invite someone else to our celebration." Ares said simply.
"Oh. Then what about your father?"
"He's my grandfather, and he's in my room taking a nap. Apparently he was up all night."
"Is there anything I can do to help you prepare your celebration?"
"I think I've got everything covered. Why don't you keep Drake company until the 'party' can begin?"
"He had to go back to his house so that he'll be there when his kids get home from school. He'll be back with them in a little while."
"Well then, if you'd like to help, I have a crate of berries stored in the root cellar that need to be cleaned. They'll be great with the sponge cake that I'm making."
"That sounds good. Where's the root cellar?"
"Out the back door and about ten feet to your left."
"Look at us. Who would've ever thought that we'd end up like this?"
"Yeah. We really lucked out, didn't we?" Ares asked with a smile.
"It looks like maybe we did." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"Besides that, this isn't how we ended up. This is a new beginning."
Oh dear, I see those two ugly horrible words.
Well, at least Andrea didn't transform when she hugged the kids. I do hope there will be a sequel at some time.
I really do understand that we have had the finali, and unless we can come up with some new adventures, just writing a new chapter would be anticlimactic.
There are still a few things that need to be resolved, such as the people who get their shorts in a knot about certain activities.
Also, the relationship between Andrea and Ares. could be worked out.
Now, I am going to ask you readers to take a few minutes and let MM know what you thought of this story.
As we have said before, We authors' only payment is the feedback from our readers. We really do appreciate hearing from you.
Thank you, MM for another wonderful story.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher