Sookie leaned over to pick up the extra pair of slippers from the floor. Almost everything was in the new suitcase that had shown up in her room that morning: All the bed clothes and personal toiletries; the hairbrush and paperbacks. She wondered whether the cost to repay her hosts would be more than she could bear.
It ran against everything she believed in to be taking charity. When the kings had come to see her the previous evening, she had a hard time not breaking into tears. “I don’t want to look ungrateful. I’m grateful for everything – the clothes, the room… everything. I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done. I’ll pay you back if it’s the last thing I do. Every single cent.”
Bartlett and Russell had been gracious. They had assured her that there was no repayment necessary. Lydia had been smiling and assured her that this was the case. But Sookie knew that in this world it was rare; okay, pretty much non-existent to receive random acts of kindness. Someone would be paying something sometime and no one could convince her otherwise.
Earlier that evening she had met the Queen of Minnesota. If Lydia reminded her of her Gran, Maude was something entirely different. She had been bawdy and snarky. At one point Sookie had found herself laughing; really laughing like she hadn’t in a long, long time. When she realized it, she broke into tears again. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so good. Probably not since Eric; since the time before.
That was how she was starting to think of her marriage to Sam. The Time and the Time Before.
Maude had told her some stories about Pam during the time she spent in Minnesota. Sookie had shared some stories about things they’d done together in Shreveport. Before she even realized it, Sookie found herself telling the story of how she and Pam had killed Corinna and Bruno. She wanted to stop, but her mouth just kept running and running. She told how it had been raining that night. She told how frightened she had been. She told how she had staked Bruno in the mud and how Pam had hidden the car. She told how they had to warn Eric off, but how all she wanted was to have him there to hold her and let her know she was safe. “Boy, I’m nothing but a big old bawl baby!” she had told them as she bit her lip and wiped her eyes.
She told them how she just felt numb both during and after the killing. She remembered how later she had stopped thinking of vampires as real; that somehow killing them was less terrible than killing a human. She wondered if that made her a bad person.
‘Sookie, you are not alone. Others have had this experience. When we get to Sanctum we are going to talk about this, and all the other experiences you’ve had that felt like it.” Lydia squeezed her hand. “You know that it’s okay to feel bad about it. And we can talk about it as long as you like.”
Sookie looked first at Lydia and then at Maude. “Are you sure?” Lydia looked so surprised that Sookie added, “No one ever wanted to really talk about it. They just shrugged it off. Or they celebrated like it was a good thing.”
“Vampires?” Maude asked. Sookie nodded. “Well,” Maude continued, “I can understand why they had that reaction. When you are as old as me you’ve been through this kind of thing so much you just start accepting it. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just saying that after the 100th time it gets a little old.” Maude looked down, breaking eye contact with the younger woman. “Things will change for us, Sookie. And that change will not be easy. It will be especially hard for those of us who are older.” Maude settled back. “Think about how old we are. When I was first made the frontier was Albany, New York. We were a colony of England. Human lives were short and brutal. If they didn’t die of disease they were the exception. Even humans were pretty callous about death then. As a young woman, you were lucky if one in three of your babies made it out of infancy. If your baby was born in the winter and it survived, it was a miracle. Now think about living as a vampire. If you were caught you were staked or worse. You had to hide in the dirt and keep moving. We couldn’t form any relationships with creatures other than our makers. To become attached was to risk everything. There was a time that if you were traveling with a companion and that vampire showed signs of being close to a human you were obligated to end the threat.”
Sookie looked closely at Maude. She could see the extreme loneliness that lay behind the woman’s eyes. “That seems such a terrible way to live.”
“Yes. It was terrible in many ways. But it was the only way. Now slap that against all the changes humans have made in what is acceptable. I remember when a great Sunday afternoon was taking the family to a hanging on the green. You know they used to sell snacks? “
Sookie found herself smiling in spite of the grim image she had in her head.
“Yes,” said Maude. “It is strange. But imagine how much stranger to be your friend Eric Northman? Why in his day…” Maude stopped when Lydia placed a hand on her arm. Maude noticed that the blood seemed to have drained from Sookie’s face. Her lips looked pinched and her eyes suddenly looked too big for her face.
“You know Eric?” She was smiling a wide almost frantic smile, but her lips were trembling.
“I’ve known Eric a long time.” Maude remained quiet, simply staring. Lydia walked over to Sookie and put her arm around her.
“Why don’t we say goodnight to Maude? She is expected back at the main house and we have a lot to get ready.” The smile that Sookie had plastered on her face never changed. But she nodded and turned around in response to the pressure Lydia exerted.
As Maude turned and let herself out, she heard Lydia tell Sookie, “One of the things I can promise you is that you won’t have to face these things alone anymore. You will always have someone to call who knows what you have gone through and who understands your feelings. I will never shrug off your experiences. I have walked in your shoes.”
Lydia and Sookie bundled around the room. Lydia gave the telepath time to pull herself together. Then Lydia stilled and said, “Thalia and Bubba will want to come to say goodbye. Are you up to that?”
Sookie looked at Lydia, and then nodded. “I’m sorry about earlier. It just took me by surprise.”
Lydia tilted her head to the side. Sookie thought how in that moment she looked like a curious bird. “What was surprising? That Maude knew of the Viking?”
Sookie swallowed quickly, then looked down and got busy again. “No. How much hearing his name hurts. I haven’t heard anyone speak about him in a long time.”
Lydia waited. When it was clear Sookie wouldn’t say more, Lydia asked, “Do you want to talk about it now?”
“No,” the telepath said.
“Ok, what about Thalia and Bubba?”
“Of course,” Sookie said and she lifted her face to show her slightly crazed smile again.
In the end, the farewells with both Bubba and Thalia were brief. Thalia was due at the main house to welcome the arriving monarchs. Bubba was dressed in his favorite white jumpsuit with rhinestones. His hair was precisely styled. He looked very much like how he had been. Sookie hugged Bubba, and he smiled his crooked smile.
Sookie took a step toward Thalia. “Don’t even think about it breather. “ Then Thalia gave her one of her rare smiles. “Get better. Come back to us soon. Things are too boring when you aren’t around.”
“I promise,” said Sookie and the door shut behind them. Sleep came quickly and morning came all too soon.
The next morning the sedan dropped them at the airport. Lydia and Sookie would fly in a private jet to LaGuardia in New York. From there a livery car would take them the rest of the way to the small town in northwest Connecticut where Sanctum was nestled.
Lydia had considered using commercial airlines. Sookie needed to strengthen her shields and being among disinterested crowds could give her that opportunity. Once they reached Sanctum it was likely that Sookie’s shielding would not work. The facility had been warded by witches to protect it from any who carried ill will toward the place or the guests. In addition, there was a dampening spell that caused any and all magic to be dispelled. If you were trying to glamour, it wouldn’t work. If you were trying to send dreams, they couldn’t be sent. Beings could not teleport or fly within the borders of Sanctum. You could not materialize objects or cause objects or persons to stop, change or transport someplace else. There were some things that could not be stopped because they were things that were too deeply placed within a person’s DNA. Two-natured could still shift. Vampires would still be damaged by sunlight. Creatures could still die within the walls or on the grounds of Sanctum. But creatures were restrained by unseen hands from trying to kill or harm each other. Lydia suspected that Sookie’s telepathy would continue to function at Sanctum. It seemed just too much a part of her to be considered magic.
What she hoped would stop were the random things that she had glimpsed manifesting themselves around the telepath. Lydia had entered the room one morning to find an empty bed. She had sat down to wait for Sookie’s return. When she settled and looked back toward the door, Sookie was in her bed sleeping. Lydia couldn’t explain it, but she didn’t dismiss it either.
Another time they had been talking about a book they had both read, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Sookie had mentioned that she had searched the shelves hoping that it might be in her room but had been disappointed. She had hoped to re-read it. When Lydia checked in on her later that evening, she found Sookie reading the book. Lydia asked where she had found it and Sookie told her she thought Lydia had sent it. Sookie had found it on the bedside table when she woke up from her nap.
Lydia suspected that Sookie had brought the book to herself, using powers she tapped into her dream state. Tracking and bringing objects were fae traits as was shapeshifting. It could be that either Sookie had grown into her powers or her ordeal had somehow kick started something that allowed her to tap into the essential spark that she embodied. If this was the case and Sookie was not emotionally stable, this could be an extraordinarily dangerous time for both herself and those around her. Fortunately her abilities only seemed to work when she was sleeping. Since they would be traveling during daylight hours, there should be no concern. Lydia decided to not take unnecessary risks by being among too many people. When Russell and Bartlett had offered the use of their private jet, Lydia accepted it.
The car pulled into the private hangar at Jackson International Airport. There was a steward to open their door. Lydia drew Sookie toward the jet awaiting them. The pilot made an effort to shake their hands, and the steward stowed their bags. Within a half hour of arriving, they were airborne and on their way. The entire flight was scheduled to take about four hours and the two women spent their time reading and looking out the windows.
The weather was blustery. December in New York was always a toss-up. Sometimes it was snowy and cold. Other times it was sunny and mild. Today you felt how close it was to the ocean. The wind felt raw-edged. Sookie shivered as she rushed into the waiting car. She had no winter clothes suited for northern temperatures. Once Lydia was seated, she pointed to clothing that was on the bench seat that faced their own. “There is a winter coat there and gloves. Once we at Sanctum you will find clothing for the climate. Berkshire is in a snowy, windy corner of New England. It’s beautiful, but for someone who has lived their whole life in the south, it will take some adjusting.” Sookie nodded and reached for the coat. “There are boots there as well. Might as well trade out those flats for something that will keep your toes warm.”
“Well, how cold does it get here?” Sookie asked. She knew that she suffered from chills at home when the winter rolled around. There were days it was really nippy and she remembered what snow looked like, although she hadn’t seen any in a long time.
“Right now it’s in the low teens. There’s snow on the ground that’s been there since Thanksgiving. We sometimes get a thaw in January, but mostly it stays below freezing until March or so.”
Sookie couldn’t think of what to say. She found herself thinking that this place would be a prison to her just because she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to step outside the door. Lydia caught the woman’s panicked face. “You get used to it. Wearing the right clothes makes all the difference. You’ll see. You’ll be making snowballs and playing in it before you know.” Sookie somehow doubted that.
The drive to where they were headed took almost as long at the plane ride. There was no direct highway that took them where they were headed. It seemed that they had no sooner left New York then they were on a series of one and two lane roads winding through little villages of two story wood houses surrounding white churches with high pointed steeples. More often than not, there was some sort of green space that served as a circle around which all the buildings were placed. There were Christmas wreaths and ribbons and Sookie felt sad thinking that this would be another Christmas without her family around her. Then she remembered that terrible Christmas that she had gone to see Michele and Jason; the Christmas that Sam had punished her. Sookie decided not to think about Christmas anymore.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Lydia asked her.
“Ain’t hardly worth that much,” Sookie mumbled and kept her face to the window, watching the landscape slide by.
When they pulled into the drive between the two dark stone pillars, Sookie noticed how there were low stone walls that were on both sides of the road. On one side were woods that seemed to stretch out for some distance, although it was hard to see too far. Even with all the leaves off the trees the area was dense. On the other side the lands was sloping and open like a field. In the distance it dropped off and Sookie could see another hill rising beyond it. There were more woods on that far hill and what appeared to be more stone walls in between. Everywhere she looked the ground and trees were covered in white. When the late day sun came out from behind the clouds it would reflect off the surfaces like hard diamonds. It hurt her eyes to look directly at it.
It took almost 10 minutes before they came around a curve to see the building in front of them. It was a two story wood structure painted white. There was a large barn off to the back and more buildings scattered around. There were wings that extended from both sides. The drive made a circle that passed under a covered carport. The driver stopped there and the double doors into the building opened.
When the car door was opened and Sookie stepped out, she felt her breath was almost stolen from her chest with the sharpness of the cold. Lydia climbed out and stood beside her. She inhaled deeply through her nose. “You smell that quality in the air, Sookie? That sharpness?” Sookie shivered and nodded. She wasn’t sure what Lydia was talking about, but if it got her closer to the door faster she was willing to agree to anything. Lydia continued. “That smell is snow in the air. It’ll snow tonight. It’s how you know.” Then with a smile on her face, Lydia linked her arm through Sookie’s and brought the younger woman into the building.
The doors were closed behind them and a second set opened into the large hallway of the main building. A lovely woman dressed in a tweed skirt and low boots came forward.
“Welcome home, Miss Lydia!” She hugged Lydia, and then turned her gaze to the telepath. “And you must be Miss Sookie. Welcome to Sanctum.”
Sookie nodded. She couldn’t help but sweep her eyes around her. There was a large round table set on a colorful oriental rug. There were greens and holly in a colored glass vase. A tall grandfather clock ticked off the hours from its place along the wall. There was a room to one side that had seating and a fire; to the other side there was a formal dining table with a fancy breakfront full of china.
“Sookie, this is Barbara. She is my best right hand.”
Sookie extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Barbara took her hand and squeezed it. “We are so happy you have come. I hope you will be comfortable here for as long as you wish to stay.” When Barbara smiled it seemed to go all the way through Sookie, and she found herself smiling back. “Why don’t I show you to your rooms? You can settle and then we’ll see about getting you something to eat.” She glanced back at Lydia. “Was it a good flight?”
“Yes,” said Lydia. “But we’ve been traveling for almost eight hours. I don’t know about Sookie, but I’m exhausted!”
Sookie nodded. “Me too. I’d love to see everything, but do you think we could wait for tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Barbara said. “Let’s get you settled. If you want to eat dinner down here, that would be fine, or I can arrange a tray to be sent to your room.”
Sookie closed her eyes. Suddenly everything seemed overwhelming. She felt a rush of heat flow over her followed by cold. She felt light headed. Her eyes popped open and she looked at Lydia. “A tray would be good,” she said in a voice that sounded small.
Lydia stepped forward and took the telepath’s arm. “Come on Sookie. I’ll show you where you’ll be staying. Barb, why don’t you get that tray started. And have the bag sent over.” Lydia half supported Sookie and they took the passage that led from the back of the entry hall and bore left. Sookie registered that they were in a connecting hall that had windows along one side. There were doors at intervals along the other wall. Lydia stopped at the third door to the right. She opened the door and turned on the light.
Sookie stepped into a large comfortable bedroom. There was a lovely old fashioned canopy bed to the left. There was a chest at the foot of the bed and a double set of closet doors in the wall beyond. To the right was another door and an arched opening that led to a separate sitting area. There were windows in the sitting area and what looked like a door to the outside. Beyond the windows everything was dark.
Lydia moved around the room, turning on lights. She opened the door that was across from the bed to show Sookie a lovely private bathroom complete with a shower. Sookie noticed the floor was wide-board wood. All the furnishings seemed like antiques, but not fussy antiques. She was reminded of her home in Bon Temps and how comfortable everything was even though it was old. She felt homesick.
The women turned as the door to the hall opened and a man brought in Sookie’s suitcase. He bowed to Lydia then touched his forehead in an old fashioned gesture. “Happy to have you with us, Miss,” he said. Then he left just as quickly as he’d come.
Lydia crossed to the closet doors and opened them. Behind the doors was a combination of shelves, hanging rack and drawers. There were clothes already in place. Lydia met Sookie’s questioning look. “Of course we anticipated you wouldn’t have the right clothes for this climate. Everything here was provided by the kings. I think you’ll find everything fits.” Sookie opened her mouth to protest, but Lydia continued,” There are rules here. You are not the only guest. There are two others who are visiting us. One will leave us soon and I don’t anticipate anyone else joining us.” Sookie nodded to show she understood. Lydia brought Sookie to the two chairs. Together, they sat down. “Now tonight you will have a tray here for dinner. But you will be expected to join us in the dining room for formal dinner every night. Breakfast is a buffet. Lunch is whatever you choose. You can eat here in your room or in the dining room.” Lydia paused to make sure Sookie was listening. “You will need to get up every day and dress yourself. We don’t allow our guests to lounge around in their pajamas. Your work will start tomorrow. You will have a combination of physical and mental activities every day. Most of your time here will be spent in sessions; both individual and with your fellow guests.”
Sookie couldn’t help herself. “I’m not sure I want to see anyone else. I won’t know what to say.”
Lydia gave her a stern look. Sookie thought that in that moment she could almost see her Gran standing behind Lydia scolding her about being a cry baby. “Sookie, everyone who comes here has had the same kinds of experiences you have had. They have found themselves on the receiving end of terrible things. They’ve witnessed more than their minds were prepared to see. They’ve had to kill to defend themselves. Never doubt that here you are among friends.”
Pam and Maude sat on the bench by Indian Mound within the confines of the National Cemetery at Vicksburg. Its location marked a no man’s land between the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. The quiet space surrounded by white markers somehow seemed fitting.
It was a dark night but both women could see perfectly well. Although it was late in the season, the night was filled with sound; frogs and screech owls reminded them that they were never truly alone.
Maude reached over and took Pam’s hand in her own. “You look good, Pamela D. Being a boss agrees with you. Although I never doubted that you were meant for big things.”
Pam squeezed her hand back. “I’ve missed you Maude. Maxwell is a good partner and I trust him. But it’s different. Eric is really gone from me. He closed off his end of the bond and it’s like walking around with a big gaping hole inside. It’s like I can feel that he’s there. I mean I think I would know if he were to be killed. But it is so lonely.”
“Have you heard from Karin?” Maude asked.
Pam nodded. “It’s the same for her. Only I think it’s worse. Karin was so happy Eric called her back. He had left her to her own pursuits for a much longer time. You know how attached she is to him. I think it was doubly hard when she realized she’d been called just to be left behind again.”
“Yes. Guarding the woman who was meant to be our mistress.”
Maude turned her head then and gave Pam a searching look. This was news. Pam nodded then continued. “Eric loved her. He was crazy with worry. It’s the only time I think he found himself in a place where no matter what he tried it just came up shit. Even I couldn’t believe it. Every time he tried something; every move he made would go wrong.”
“Where was Sookie in all this?”
Pam smiled in a way that was not happy. “She was just making everything so much harder. They weren’t living together. She had fairy relatives; male relatives living in her house. She was telling people that they weren’t married.”
“Well, that could explain her reaction when I saw her this week,” Maude said.
“Who? Sookie Stackhouse?” Pam took Maude’s hand. “Do I want to know where she is?”
Maude smiled. “Well, by now she’s in Connecticut in Sanctum. But when I saw her she was a guest of Russell and Bartlett.”
Pam looked away before she asked, “How was she?”
“From what I heard a lot better than when she’d arrived. Lydia came herself to collect her. She’d been there for a while.” Maude linked her arm around Pam and drew her close. “She looked good. She told me some stories about some of the crazy things the two of you got up to in Shreveport. She was laughing. I got the impression she hasn’t’ done much laughing lately. She was kind of rusty if you catch my meaning.” Maude paused for a while. Both women looked ahead, listening to the night sounds.
“She told me about Corinna and Bruno.”
Pam started. “She did?” Pam thought back to that terrible night. “She was so level headed that night. She staked Bruno herself. She thought of things I didn’t.” Pam shook her head. “She was so calm; like she’d been doing this all her life. You should have seen how straight her back was when she walked into her house after. No tears. No trembling.” Pam snorted. “Eric told her over the phone that he was proud of her.” Pam captured Maude’s eyes. “I owe her my life.”
“When I said his name she looked like she’d seen a ghost.”
“What do you mean?” Pam’s brows came together as she considered this information.
“I thought she might faint. Lydia swooped in and changed the subject and I got the bums rush to get out the door.”
Pam looked at her friend. “What do you think it meant?”
Maude shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Maude drew an unnecessary breath. “But I am here to ask you about your maker. Pam, if he was given an opportunity to get out of his marriage and come back to Louisiana, do you think he’d consider it?”
“How would that happen, do you think?” Pam felt something start to grow within her. It might have been hope.
“Amun Clan would like to see him return. They want him to become a King.”
“Felipe would never consider that. It would mean Eric would have to betray his pledge.”
“Yes. He would.” Maude waited to allow this to sink in. “He might consider that the pledge he took was under duress. He either pledged or he would meet the same fate as the other Louisiana sheriffs. That might count for something. Of course, there is still the contract. I know a little about your maker and the time he came from. It will mean much more than just signing paper to him. It will be his word and the word and honor of his maker.
Pam looked at Maude. “But that will be null if there is proof that one of the parties broke the accord.”
Maude looked at her. “You know something.”
Pam nodded. “Felipe came to see me. He told me that Freyda broke the contract. He is headed to Oklahoma to tell Eric.”
Maude squeezed her hand. “Oh Pamela D! The gods must be happy that they play with us so!”
Angie straightened from her bow. She smiled brightly at the seated Queen, and then raised her eyes to the tall figure that stood behind the throne. “Eric Northman, greetings from my Master. I hope that you will have some time later for me. I have some personal messages that I have been asked to relay to you.”
Eric’s eyes widened. “Yes,” Angie thought. “That got his attention.”
“What kind of messages?” Freyda half rose from her chair. Her voice took on a whiny quality. “I’m sure you can just tell both of us. After all, we’re married. It’s not like we have any secrets from each other.” She looked back at Eric, her mouth in a tight line. “Right?”
Eric looked at her. He didn’t respond. Freyda hurried on. “See, my loving consort doesn’t have any objections.” And Freyda sat back, looking expectantly.
“Oh noble queen, I wish I was at liberty to do as you ask. However, my master was most specific. I am to relay this information to Eric Northman alone. His words were, ‘I wish the consort to have privacy in his contemplation of this news.’ I must comply with my master’s wishes.” Angie bowed again. From her position she added, “I’m sure the consort will share with you later.”
Freyda’s fangs descended. She was actually snarling. “You will tell me. You will tell me now. Eric doesn’t have secrets from me. What is Felipe trying to do?”
Angie looked up and allowed her fangs to descend as well. “If you have a problem with the King, I suggest you take it up with the King.” She pulled the phone from her jacket pocket. “Perhaps you would choose to call the King now.”
For a moment Angie thought the Queen would do just that. Then she seemed to pull herself together and sat back. She settled a prissy look on her face. “No. No of course not. It just took me by surprise. Of course, I’m grateful that you have come to help arrange for his visit. And of course you can have some time with Eric.” She looked over her shoulder at the Viking. “If you are amenable, husband.”
During this whole exchange, Eric Northman has remained impassive. He replied to Freyda’s question with a single nod of his head.
Freyda bit her lower lip, and then turned back to Angie with a smile. “See? All settled!” She stood up and walked down the steps to Angie. She held out her hand for Angie to kiss. Then she signaled that Angie should walk with her. “Well, let’s talk about the welcome ball for our dear friend, Felipe.”