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“So, Thalia’s sure they’ll have them tonight?” Hunter asked.
Sookie forced a smile. “That’s what her email says. Eric told me everything’s in place. Rick and Brigid should be on the plane before I rise tomorrow, headed home. Eric told me he spoke with Charles, the king over there. I heard there was some kind of bad blood between Charles and Thalia, but I guess it’s all good now. He said Charles wished us well and pledged any assistance we needed. Thalia said he ran some interference with vamps North Carolina sent. I can’t imagine why they’d be sending people to England to cause trouble, but they weren’t the only stateside vampires Thalia mentioned showing up in England. She killed another pair sent by Pennsylvania. If Charles hadn’t stepped in, Karin would have been on the next plane.”
“That would have gone over like a turd in a punchbowl,” Hunter snorted. When Sookie didn’t laugh, Hunter explained, “Karin doesn’t like being ordered around, and rescuing Rick? She’d have been bitching the whole way!”
“I think you’re wrong! Karin loves her brother!” Sookie scolded, although she was pretty sure Hunter was right. “Doesn’t matter now. Eric says Charles took care of it, and things should go smooth from here on out.”
“Guess that means y’all owe another favor though, right?” Hunter huffed, not bothering to make eye contact.
‘We’ve become a pretty cynical group,’ Sookie thought. Until they’d started this conversation, Hunter had been quiet. Sookie wasn’t sure if his reaction was a result of basking from his time with Heidi or the opposite, but she was too nervous to ask. “Well, Eric didn’t mention favors,” she said aloud. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t one, he just didn’t say. Expect I’ll find out once I get home.” She didn’t finish her thought aloud, ‘As long as I ask directly.’ It was something Sookie had come to accept. Eric’s habit of keeping things close to the chest was bone deep. As her husband and bonded mate, he should readily share these kinds of details with her, but unless she confronted him, he wouldn’t. It wasn’t personal, it was instinct.
They settled back, but within minutes Hunter was back out of the chair, pacing. “How much longer?” he groaned, glancing at the closed door.
Pam and Indira told them it would take some time to both round up and transport humans with a history of glamour to Indira’s headquarters. Hunter and Sookie hadn’t been waiting that long, only an hour. Sookie watched Hunter’s restlessness. He was glowing and his actions were sharp, almost shaky. ‘How much vampire blood have you had?’ she wondered. When Hunter stopped long enough to look directly at her, Sookie tried to lighten the mood, teasing, “Are you asking how much longer you’ll be here? Are you that anxious to get rid of me? Got somewhere else you’d rather be than with your loving Auntie?”
Hunter started, and then caught himself. His shoulders dropped and that lop-sided smile that looked like Jason’s made its appearance. “Yeah… maybe… I’m sorry,” and he glanced at the closed door again. “I’ve been thinking about all day. Heidi says…” and Hunter stopped.
Sookie waited, but when Hunter didn’t say anything more, she nudged him with her knee. “Well? What does Heidi say?”
He looked a little guilty before volunteering, “She says what we’re doing doesn’t sound like glamour. She thinks it’s something else.” He sighed loudly before glancing sideways, “Did you know people say you’re a witch?”
That gave Sookie pause. Things between vampires and witches weren’t the same now as they had been twenty years ago. The détente that existed between their species had eroded. Now, there existed a deep distrust and a vampire consorting with witches was a sure way of getting yourself in trouble. “Well, you know that’s not true,” and Sookie rose, crossing her arms, staring down her nephew to emphasize her words. Hunter still wouldn’t meet her eyes, and Sookie realized Hunter did doubt.
“Let me hit that notion on the head right now, Hunter Savoy,” and Sookie’s chin rose. “I’ve known witches for most of my adult life. When you were still a little boy, I had two witches who lived with me over in Bon Temps. I considered Amanda a friend, and Octavia Fant… well she became a friend, too. And, of course you know about Fran Miller up in Boston. Even the vampires admired her. When they talk bad about witches, they never include Fran, and Tania, the Queen that was up there? She protected Fran, as much as Fran ever needed protection.” Just thinking of her former mentor caused tears to form. Sookie squared her shoulders a bit more, pushing back memories. “So, yes, I’ve lived with witches and called some my friend, but that’s not the same as being a witch. I’m a vampire, and I’m getting some interesting vampire gifts, but I’m no witch!”
“Vampires and witches don’t get along,” Hunter mumbled.
“Well, why don’t you tell me something I don’t know!” Sookie uncrossed her arms, and started her own pacing. “I don’t know if you know this, but I was in the last war between the vampires and witches. Your Uncle Eric was cursed by one, and I fought on the side of the vampires.”
“Some folks say you had your bond with Uncle Eric broken by witchcraft, too,” Hunter added. “Said the witches did it as a favor.”
If Sookie could have blushed, she would have. “Well, that’s true. I did. That witch in Bon Temps I mentioned, Amanda, she was willing to try. It wasn’t my proudest hour, Hunter, but things were different then,” Sookie confessed. Of course, at the time, breaking the bond had been something she’d very much wanted. She’d no idea the chain reaction it would cause, or that it would become part of the legend that surrounded herself and Eric. “Aside from when Fran Miller was alive, I didn’t consort with witches, and anyone can tell you, Fran had pretty much given it up by the end.” Sookie stopped in front of Hunter, waiting until he met her eyes. “But let’s get one thing clear. If buying their services means safeguarding me and mine, I will. I’ve been on the bad side of prejudice, Hunter, and it’s never fair. Bad isn’t ever a whole people, it’s a person. Judging a whole group by the actions of one or two isn’t right.” She was pleased to see him look a little ashamed. “It’s easy to go along with popular ideas,” and Sookie laid her hand on Hunter’s arm, “But never give up your own judgment. You know what’s right and wrong. You make up your mind for yourself. Don’t just go follow the crowd.”
“I know you’re right, Aunt Sookie,” Hunter mumbled. He opened his mouth to say more, but at that moment the door opened. Indira came in first, then two humans and a Were. Their hands were bound and they were already glassy-eyed and compliant.
“Sorry it took so long,” Pam apologized as she entered, shutting the door behind her. “We had these two,” and she nodded at the humans who were being pushed into chairs, “And then we saw the Were.”
“The man you questioned in Fangtasia,” Indira said to Hunter, “The one with the odd trigger? He’s gone. No one knows where, but the Were was his friend. He was seen with him that night.”
“As soon as we started moving in on him, he took off. It took a bit to run him to ground,” Pam sniffed. “It’s going to cost me these pumps, but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it.”
“I hope so, too,” and Sookie moved toward the Were. “They’re nice shoes!”
They took their time. Sookie encountered the unpleasant snarl she associated with Were thoughts, but after she adjusted, she was able to find the library. “Now, you,” she signaled to Hunter. She wasn’t sure how he did it, but when she turned, Hunter was beside her, standing among Fran’s bookcases. “See how they’re organized?” she asked showing her nephew how memories were stacked, oldest to the front and newest to the back. She pulled books along the way, verifying Hunter was seeing the same thing.
The Were wasn’t that old, but there were more books than Sookie expected. She pulled a book that seemed nothing more than a series of impressions. ‘Of course,’ she thought. ‘He has both kinds of memories, those he collected as a human and those he collected in his animal time.’
As they reached what appeared to be a back wall, the now familiar bookcase came into view. Unlike the others, this one was messy, books lying on their side and some open-paged, face-up or face-down on the floor. “This is glamour,” Sookie explained to Hunter. “As least, how I see it.” Sookie leaned down to pick up a book that was lying on the floor. She opened the pages, but like before, it was as if a shadow lay across the pages, preventing her from reading.
“So frustrating!” Sookie sighed. “If only I could see it!”
“What?” and Hunter took the book from her hand. “You can’t see that?”
Sookie looked at her nephew. He was staring intently at the book. “You can?”
“Sure,” and he started turning pages. “See? This is where he woke up about two weeks ago,” Hunter told her, pointing at the blank page. “And there’s the phone call from the vampire he knows. They agree to meet near the state line. The vampire works for someone else and this guy,” and Hunter gestured at the library to mean the Were whose thoughts they were walking through, “He agrees to help the vampire meet folks without being seen.”
“A spy,” Sookie nodded. “Can you see him? The vampire?”
“Not here,” and Hunter closed the book, setting it on the shelf.
“He’s got to be here!” and Sookie picked up another book, glancing inside. If she found one she could read, she thumbed through and placed it on the shelf, but those that were blank, she handed to Hunter.
“Here!” he finally exclaimed. “I can see him!”
“I wish I could,” Sookie sighed. She thought for a minute. “Can you draw?”
“Not well,” and Hunter shook his head. “But…” and he looked around. “Suppose there’s paper and pencil around here?”
Sookie thought it unlikely. This wasn’t really Fran’s library, but she went to the table where she knew the witch had stored those things. She pulled the small drawer, and sure enough, both paper and penis were there. “I’ve found some,” she told Hunter.
Hunter joined her, laying the blank book on the tabletop. He brought over a bright light, and then laying the paper over a page, started drawing the image reflected through the page, the one only he could see. Strong features, dark eyes. The mouth was thin and hair curled, hiding ears. “I don’t recognize him,” Sookie sighed.
“You don’t have to,” Hunter told her. “You just have to remember the image and help draw it again once we’re out of here.”
Sookie’s mouth fell open. Hunter’s solution was perfect. With her perfect vampire memory, she wouldn’t falter over details. She would remember the picture perfectly. “There, as good as I can get it.”
“Now, all that’s left is getting out of here.” Sookie looked around, each wall looking the same.
“We just go back through the door,” Hunter told her, pointing at the far wall. Sookie didn’t see it, but as soon as Hunter touched her, she did.
It was a little disorienting. She blinked, and they were back in Indira’s residence. The Were was sitting in the same chair, staring off into space. The humans were sitting against the wall wearing the same bemused expression.
“How’d it go?” Pam stepped into Sookie’s range of vision and Sookie grinned.
“You draw?” Sookie knew Pam did. It was a skill every young Victorian woman was taught, and in no time, they were looking at a reasonable facsimile of the face Hunter had traced.
“I know him,” Indira confirmed. “He’s one of Russell Edgington’s.”
There was something about that connection that had Sookie staring harder. “You know, I think I may know him too. It was a long time ago, at Russell’s Palace. Do you think I could get a copy?” ‘Bernard,’ her brain supplied. He was the vampire who offered to share his coffin with Eric the time Sookie rescued Bill Compton from Lorena. “Do you remember his name?” she asked Indira.
Indira shook her head, “No. I saw him in Club Dead a couple times. He was in the retinue.”
“Guess this means Rubio’s cleared,” Hunter grinned. “I mean, that’s who we saw in the book, and now, we know he was send by Russell Edgington.”
“Book?” Pam’s eyes squinted. “I thought you were glamouring.”
“We don’t know it was Russell for sure,” Sookie reminded Hunter before turning to Pam. “We did glamour. Well, at least how I know how to glamour folks.”
“It was like walking through a big library,” Hunter described. “We were surrounded by all those books!”
“Library?” Pam looked sour and Indira laughed. “Sure, of course you can’t glamour! Oh, no! Instead, you get some super-power thought detector.”
When Sookie looked confused, Indira said, “No one sees anything when they glamour, Sookie! You stare into their eyes, tell them something and they do it! That’s it! That’s all there is to glamour.”
“No images?” Indira was poking Pam, telling her not to pout. She didn’t really need confirmation. Sookie’s gut had told her from the beginning that what she had was special. She thought of how Eric would react and smiled. ‘Clever,’ he’d praise.
“Do you think it will be the same with everyone we read?” Hunter asked. “The stuff we found, the books and things?”
“Only one way to find out,” Sookie told him. Together, they entered the heads of first one human and then the other. In each case, they found the library, but while the shelfs in back were shuffled, no books lay on the floor and none of the books appeared blank to Sookie. “A signature,” Sookie sighed once they found themselves back in Indira’s room. “I thought there was something different and now we know for sure.”
“We need to tell Eric!” and Pam was dialing fast.
“Combined with what you found with the human in Bon Temps, I’m satisfied. It’s enough to be considered important,” Eric agreed.
Indira left, returning with her guards. “Release the prisoners,” she instructed. “But keep an eye on that one,” and she pointed to the Were. “I’m calling Rasul to tell him about this,” and she left with her guards, shutting the door behind her.
There was something in the way neither Indira nor Pam were looking at each other. “Everything okay?” Sookie asked Pam.
“Fine,” Pam said shortly, then gestured toward the phone where Sookie realized Eric was still talking.
“Lover?” Eric said sharply. Sookie recognized the tone.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I was distracted.”
“Uncle Eric is wondering if we can place our own books, I mean thoughts, while we’re.. you know, in their heads,” Hunter supplied.
And just like that, Sookie was tired. She thought part of it was her need to feed, and maybe part of it was her trying so hard. ‘And being away from Eric,’ her mind whispered.
“Is this how it starts?’ He’d warned her. Sometimes bonding caused couples to become irrevocably linked, needing to stay in close proximity to each other. While she told herself bonding felt wonderful, the idea that she’d literally be bound wore away some part of the romance. “Please, excuse me,” and Sookie picked up the phone, leaving Pam and Hunter behind.
When she’d retreated far enough, she answered, “I don’t know, Eric. I don’t know anything right now.”
“What’s happened? You sound stressed.” She felt it, even from this far away, his probing.
“I am,” and sighing, she sank into the chair. “It’s okay. I’ll feed shortly.”
“I am proud of you!” he declared. Sookie welcomed the idea that they’d move on. Eric would praise her and they could talk of nothing, but Eric had other ideas. “If you can plant ideas as easily as you find them, our worries are over! We will be invincible! We’ll be able to use anyone, go anywhere! Our eyes and ears will be the world!”
“What are you talking about?” Sookie growled. “I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, Eric Northman! All I want to hear right now is that you’re convinced Rubio’s in the clear.”
“He should be cleverer, but yes, I agree this is not his fault. I will tell Rasul to let him go.” Sookie could tell her interruptions had irritated him. It’s how he got when he thought he was being clever and wasn’t being appreciated. Once more, he tried to steer her back to what he felt was important, “But, as I was saying…”
And once more, Sookie cut him off. “Did you hear from Thalia?”
There was a longer pause this time. Sookie almost chuckled, knowing her mate was grinding his teeth. “Yes,” he snapped.
“When?” Sookie asked.
“You are coming home tonight?” Eric asked. “They should be on the plane before our next rising.”
“My travel coffin is here,” Sookie confirmed before sighing. “I’m ready to be home, Eric. It seems so long.”
“This thing you do.” He said it carefully, waiting for her to steer the conversation away again, but when she didn’t, he continued. “You’ve tested it more than once?”
“I have,” and Sookie sighed again. “I don’t want to get into it. Let’s wait until I’m there. What I will tell you is I need Hunter. I can find the signs on my own, and I’m sure it’s a signature, something unique. We tested it out on some others who’d only been glamoured. Only the ones who’d encountered the vampire had the blank books… I mean thoughts. I could see them, but only Hunter can read them.” Sookie’s smile found her. “I think you know the one who’s doing it, too.” She waited for Eric to ask but he didn’t. “I have a sketch. Do you remember Bernard?”
“I know many Bernards,” Eric said carefully.
“The one from Russell’s Palace? Your coffin-buddy?” Sookie waited. When Eric didn’t say anything, she added, “That time with Lorena? So, did you break his heart?”
“I know you think that’s funny,” Eric dead-panned, and then, “You’re sure?”
“Not entirely,” Sookie confessed, “But Indira remembered his face from Club Dead and I’m pretty sure it’s him. I’ll bring the sketch home.”
“Not surprising that this trouble would be coming from Russell,” Eric sighed.
“But ‘not surprised’ and proving are different things,” Sookie pointed out.
“We need to test your new skills, but it will be as you say, once you’re home, Lover” Eric told her. “Bring your nephew. We must understand this thing you do.”
“I’ll bring him, but he may not be happy about it. He’s pretty attached to Heidi,” Sookie told him. “It was odd. There were things I could do, but there were other things that only worked when we were doing it together.” That gave Eric pause. “Still there?” she asked after a bit.
“I think you should bring that Were with you,” Eric answered. “I’m texting Pam.”
“That might cause some trouble up here,” Sookie pointed out. “I don’t think he’s a member of Mustapha’s Pack.”
“Mustapha can still run interference. Besides, if he’s aiding an enemy, his Packmaster should be grateful for the knowledge. No Supe should have divided loyalties, and if his Packmaster knows about this, we should know, too,” and Eric seemed to consider the matter settled. “What time is your flight?”
“Ten in the morning. They’ll have me in the enclosure with the rest of the cargo later tonight.” Sookie told him. “With what we’re paying for that jet sitting on the tarmac on stand-by in Liverpool, paying for another Anubis charter doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t like you flying on commercial airlines,” Eric growled.
“You never were much of one for living on a budget!” and Sookie laughed.
“If you can do what I think…” and Sookie felt a faint preening, “We’ll never worry about living on a budget again!” he purred.
“You’re counting chickens!” Sookie scolded.
“I do not understand you!” and it was there, that slight accent he got when she’d stumped him.
“Counting your chickens before they’re hatched!” Sookie said triumphantly. With Eric’s memory, she never got the chance to use a colloquialism more than once, so when she stumbled across a saying he didn’t know, she savored it.
“I miss you,” he told her.
“I love you, too,” she answered.
Her coffin arrived while he rested. It was in the outer chamber, and he opened it. He missed the rose in her cheek and the way she’d once shifted under his touch, warm and willing, but it was still her. “Lover!” he sighed, lifting her limp form and carrying her to their bed.
He’d already listened to the voice mail from Thalia. It was long and he’d listened twice, the first time for content and the second for inflection. He would need to recount the full message as soon as Sookie rose. There would be several hours before the plane landed and that would give his mate the time he was sure she’d need to come to grips with all that was said.
He focused on the information he should find most important. Thalia was attacked by Fae. It would seem Brigid’s relatives weren’t as harmless as they’d thought. Rick saved Thalia’s life. He’d beheaded the Fae. Eric found it hard to believe. Mr. Cataliades had judged Rick’s sword skills adequate, but his heart too human to truly wield the blade with authority. Of course, that was many years ago, and Rick was defending his woman. ‘His pregnant woman.’
It was a detail that shouldn’t matter. Brigid pregnant should make no difference, but Eric realized his thoughts kept creeping back to that part of the message. ‘Hövding,’ Thalia called him. “You are Hövding, now. Your son will have a son.” It was and old title, the one other had given his father. ‘Head Man.’ “Chief,” Eric whispered.
It meant nothing. It happened centuries ago, but Eric couldn’t shake the memory. His Father standing with him outside the great hall, watching their people go about their day. “You will do this,” his Father told him, meaning marrying his brother’s widow. “You will give your line to your people, and when I am dust, they will call you Hövding, knowing that through your line, their own continues.”
‘My line,’ Eric thought. He had never felt it was his line with Aude. She had been his brother’s. His brother’s son came first, before his own children with Aude. She’d never loved him. She’d come to like him well enough, but it wasn’t the same. He looked at Sookie. His life with Aude had never been this.
‘Mine!’ The word sprang into his head. He saw Rick’s face, and in the next, thought of Pam and Karin. They were his, too, but were not children in the way of his youth. Vampires didn’t recognize inheritance when it came to kingdoms. They spoke of bloodlines and loyalty, but it wasn’t the language of dynasty. It was a dangerous idea, a human idea. Eric recognized the danger, but in the same moment, he knew he was helpless to stop it. “I am Hövding. I have a kingdom and it needs to be deserving of my line.”
“What are you talking about?” Sookie asked. He’d been so focused, he’d missed her rising. He covered his distraction by turning his face into her hand.
“Our children are returning to us,” he said, although he knew it should have been the last thing he shared, but instead, it was the first.
“Rick’s okay?” Sookie sat up, as if to get out of bed, but Eric grabbed her hand, pulling her back against him. It had been too long and he wouldn’t give up the comfort of feeling her flesh against his own.
“Thalia says they are well, thin,” Eric whispered into her fragrant hair.
“Sixty days at sea,” and Sookie sighed before settling. “Well? What else? Might as well spit it out.”
“What are you waiting for me to say?” Eric asked.
Sookie eye-rolled him, then shifted so they could look at each other as they leaned against the headboard. “Is she pregnant?”
Eric knew he didn’t have to say it. It was written on his face, but after nodding once, he asked, “How did you know?”
It was in their bond, her disappointment. What surprised him was that Sookie wasn’t surprised. “I grew up in a small town in the South, Eric,” she explained. “Just watching the two of them together, I could see every quickie marriage I grew up with coming right around the corner. It wasn’t like they were hiding it. I can still smell it! Rick and Brigid were having sex every chance they got. You couldn’t be in the same room with them without knowing that! Sixty days at sea? Could be she’d had one of those shots, but I didn’t get the impression she was all that committed one way or the other to birth control. Of course, growing up in New England, who knows if they’re thinking marriage. Most of the baby marriages I saw growing up fended up in divorce, anyway.” Sookie shook her head. “Truth be told, I’d have been more surprised if you told me she wasn’t expecting.” Sookie leaned against the headboard, looking off into space. “Oh, Rick! This isn’t like the time he broke his leg! This isn’t going to be mended with a cast and a couple weeks of bedrest.”
“Thalia says he is very protective of her,” Eric told his mate.
Sookie nodded, “Well, at least that’s something. If they’ve come out of this little adventure still talking, who knows?” Eric didn’t bother hiding his curiosity. He’d expected railing and complaining, but Sookie seemed resigned, almost complacent. “What?” she asked before her lips quirked up. “Don’t think I’m not going to give Rick a piece of my mind, I am! But what’s done is done,” and then Sookie gasped. “Fuck a zombie!”
“What? What is it?” Eric asked.
“Gran!” Sookie exclaimed. Her mouth fell open and she looked at him with new eyes. “And you’ll be Grandpa!” She gave him a once-over, “Not like you look like any Grandpa I ever saw!”
He hadn’t worked it through yet, but instead of thinking about it more, the words tumbled out. “I will become the King Louisiana deserves,” he pledged. “I will dedicate myself, Sookie, so that my line, our line will rule in peace.”
It still didn’t make sense to him, but of all women, his Sookie understood him. “You never wanted the politics, Eric,” she reminded him. “You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s different, now.” He traced her lip and then the line of her cheek.
They just sat quietly, each content in their thoughts, but after a bit, she said, “I know that’s not all Thalia had to say. Maybe you should tell me the rest.”
“Of course,” and Eric did.
When he told her about the Fae attack, Sookie swore. “Those bastards!” Her eyes were burning as they narrowed. “I warned those Cranes that Brigid was under my protection! I’m going to have to do something about this. I can’t have them thinking they can attack her without there being consequences.”
It made Eric chuckle. “How bloodthirsty you’ve become, my Sookie! A true Queen!” and he tightened his hold, enjoying the feel of her against him. “We should ask Karin’s help. It might be worth simply wiping them out.”
“It would be final solution,” Sookie agreed too readily, before becoming the Sookie he knew again. “But that wouldn’t be right. They are related to Brigid. Killing everyone is never the right answer.”
“Our son might not agree,” Eric sniffed, and told Sookie how it was Rick’s sword that ended the Fae man in England.
“Oh, my poor boy!” Sookie exclaimed. “I can’t imagine how he feels about that! When did you say they were getting here?” and in spite of his trying to catch her hands, Sookie was out of bed, headed for the bathroom. He joined her in the shower, and while she laughed, she also batted his hands away. “Stop it!” she said shortly when his persistence wore out her patience. “Two hours? I’ve got all kinds of things I need to arrange. They’ll need a suite of rooms, and clothes. I think under the circumstances, it’s best if they stay here, with us in the Palace. There’s food to think about, and I’m sure Brigid needs to see a doctor.”
Eric had seen this Sookie before, but it had been a long time. This was Sookie the organizer, a woman of lists and duties. Her eyes flashed and she moved with purpose. Unfortunately, it was purpose that didn’t include taking care of his needs. “You will need your strength,” he purred as he flipped her a towel. “We should feed.”
“Feed?” and then her mouth dropped opened as he pushed his lust. Most times he backed off, but not this time.
“I can cut the bond off, Mr. Needy-Pants!” Sookie warned.
“But, you won’t,” Eric purred some more. “It has been a long time since I’ve seen you so alive, Älskade. You feel it, as I do.”
“Destiny,” she sighed, his clever, wonderful wife.
“A crossroads,” he agreed. “Our lives will change.”
“Forever,” and taking his hand, Sookie pulled them toward the hall. It wasn’t until the elevator door opened that she remembered they were naked. For one moment, Eric thought in this she’d change as well, but in the end, Sookie raced back for their robes. As they rode down Eric reflected that it was good. In times of great change one needed to know there was one constant thing, and in his world, it was the woman at his side.