Stay True

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Chapter 5

Colin set out the next morning after a quiet breakfast with Clara. She told him about how she had had to move Eve to a bed because her shoulder felt hot. Clara was worried that something had happened to Eve's shoulder and the heat was a sign of dislocation or a sprain. That was what Margaret had always taught her. If people have a spot of unnatural heat somewhere then it is likely they have pulled something. Colin nodded politely, but he was really concentrating on his task ahead. How am I going to search homes without disturbing people? How am I going to get them to trust me? Clara trusted me pretty fast at first, but who knows? She had no choice, after all.

"I'm sorry for upsetting you last night," she murmured, breaking him out of his thoughts. Colin supposed he must have looked pretty moody again, but he tried to brighten up at least a little for her sake.

"Oh, you didn't do anything. It was late, and I was tired. I'm sorry I worried you so much." He gave her a playful grin, and she smiled back, but it did not quite reach her eyes. She was still worried about him. Colin was actually rather touched, but he did not let it show. "Would you like to come to the stables with me?" he invited.

"Sure. I wonder if the horses have been affected," she said.

"No, they weren't. I checked on the first day. You know, after today, people-" He stopped. Are going to die, he finished in his head. He had not meant to start telling her that. No use worrying them both more. But it was too late. Clara had already realized what he was going to tell her. She shuddered.

"Let's just go. The horses will cheer me up," she finally said. Colin could tell the pressure was taking its toll. She had deep shadows under her eyes, and it seemed like her shoulders would never relax. How could you be so stupid? He berated himself. She's already stressed-don't give her more things to be tense about!

They headed down to the stables. Colin showed her the real way to get there, not the secret passage way. He thought that both he and Clara would probably never want to use that passageway again unless necessary. Also, should she ever want to go to the stables once she was pretending to be Melanie, there was no sense in her continued use of the secret passage.

Once at the stables, Colin quickly tacked up a horse that was not Clopfish. Clopfish was fine for a pleasure ride, but he had work to do. The horse he chose was named Ihora, for the far-off land from where she came.

Clara watched him ride off into the city as she slowly walked through the stables. She wanted to learn all the horses' names, but there were easily fifty or more and she did not think she could keep that many names in her head at once. It was especially difficult to remember when there were horses that were brothers, or just looked similar. Take Starlight and Shadow, for example. Both were a lovely dusky grey, and they had the same father, Scribe. Starlight's mother was Charisma, and Shadow's was Cloudy. Something like that. Anyway, the horses could have passed for the same horse. The first time Clara walked past their stalls (which were right next to each other) she got very confused. Then she looked back and realized that it was two different horses that just looked the same.

There were a great many horses named after foods. There was Apple, Plum, Walnut, Pomegranate, Grapes, Lemon, Carrots, Sugar, Raspberry...just learning their names made Clara's mouth water. There were also a great many flower names. There was Lily, Rose, Daisy, and so many more Clara just could not remember. And that was not even including the other half of the stable, with exotic spice names, like Sage, things in nature, like Moonpool, and names that could be given to people, like Clara's own horse Roxanne. There were so many to keep track of, and so many more to learn, that Clara was amply busy until Colin returned at around two. He sent his thoughts ahead. Clara! I will be with you in ten minutes. Meet me in the library. And do not forget to hide yourself well!

She was shocked out of her learning, bid a hasty goodbye to the stables, and ran to the library. She had to get there before Colin and find a good hiding spot! As she ran, Clara started thinking of and eliminating places to hide. Between the shelves...no, too obvious, and I would still be visible. Maybe behind something...?

*****

They got extremely lucky with the magical population of the city. Colin found two more people who were willing to help. He was riding down the street and listening carefully. It was rather difficult to hear much over the eerie clip-clop of the horse's hooves on the cobblestones, but once his ears adjusted, he tried to stay on the lookout for conversation. If someone was speaking to someone else, they were awake. Or at least chances were good they were awake. James talked in his sleep sometimes.

After riding through the city, checking things only cursorily, Colin reached the forest and doubled back around the outskirts of the city to see if the spell had reached beyond that boundary. It had not. Finding that out made him feel slightly more confident regarding their chances of success in not allowing anyone to die.

As he rode back along a path on the edge of the forest, a boy stumbled out of it and almost collided with Colin's horse. He pulled Ihora back and she shook her head angrily. Colin looked over the boy carefully. He looked to be about fifteen; his ears stuck out from his head and he had a short haircut he was clearly trying to grow out. He had wide green eyes and was rather skinny, even for someone in those parts. He also had two rabbits slung over his back and Colin saw the bulge of a small hunting knife in a little pack he was carrying.

Startled, he backed away slowly. Colin dismounted and held up his hands. "Hey, it's okay. Sorry to have scared you like that."

"I'm not a baby. You didn't scare me," the boy spat, clearly disgusted with Collin's attempt at a soothing tone. But his eyes told a different story. He may have been putting up a wall, but his eyes were darting around, looking for a way to escape, and he was still backing away. Colin had no choice but to advance, towing Ihora along with him.

"Look-" Colin began, but then he realized he did not know the boy's name. "What's your name?"

He stopped backing away, but he continued to look anywhere but Colin's face. He seemed to be struggling with something. Colin knew he was going to lie. "Mouse," he finally said, clearly drawing inspiration from the tiny, well-disguised holes on either side of the path.

Colin sighed quietly. This is going to be harder than I thought. If he does not even trust me enough to tell me his name, he is never going to come to the castle and cast a counter-spell. "Okay. Look, Mouse, have you noticed that everyone is asleep?"

He snorted. Colin was doing his best to be as not condescending as possible, but Mouse did not see that. He still probably thought that Colin was treating him like a baby. "Obviously I have," he responded, finally meeting Colin's eyes.

"Well, you're not asleep." Colin realized that his tone was the one he would use if he were teaching a particularly stubborn dog to sit. He tried to pretend he was talking to James, or Clara or Eve. "Do you know why?"

Mouse shook his head and dropped his gaze to the ground again. "No," he said quietly, and Colin heard how scared Mouse really was despite the front he put up. Colin decided he could try to use that to get him to help.

"It's because you have magic." Colin did not bother dancing around the subject, but came right out with it. Mouse looked up at Colin again, and Colin could see Mouse knew of his own magic. He might not know how to use it, but Colin felt that he was smart enough not to let it use him. He would not become consumed.

Mouse's eyes widened. "How do you know?" he whispered.

"Your magic is the only thing fighting off this enchantment. That is why everyone is asleep - someone attacked Theorden. Will you help me get your town back?" Colin asked. When Mouse hesitated, he rushed to add, "I have magic too. I am awake, aren't I? Besides, how would I know this much about magic if I didn't have it?"

Mouse finally noticed the royal crest on Ihora's saddle. In Colin's haste, he had not grabbed an unmarked one, but a brightly colored one decorated with the crest. "You're from the palace! You want me dead!" Mouse shouted, and he started to run.

Mouse. Colin spoke in his mind, and Mouse stopped dead and turned to face Colin. If I have no magic, how is this possible? Colin made sure Mouse could see that his mouth was not moving.

He clapped his hands over his ears. "No! I cannot hear you! You're not in my head!"

Mouse, I am not "in your head", as you put it. I am merely speaking to you, magical mind to magical mind. Colin had gotten him. Mouse removed his hands and tentatively spoke, or rather thought, back.

You are sure this is not some trick? You can't really hear what I am thinking?

His mind was rather badly protected, so if Colin had tried he could probably tell what Mouse was thinking. But Colin did not tell him that. No. This is just like talking, only you can speak from very far apart. That just depends on the strength of your mind. I can only hear what you tell me.

Okay. I will help you.

Colin grinned. "Wonderful! Is there anyone else you know of who is awake that might be able to help us?"

Mouse looked at Colin strangely, but said, "Yes. There is someone else. Follow me."

Colin jumped back on Ihora and followed the boy as he ran.

They soon reached a small hut in the village. Mouse told Colin to wait a moment while he went inside to ready something. Colin pressed for Mouse to tell him more, but the only response was the door slamming in his face.

Colin tied Ihora to the hitching post closest to the house and took his time walking back. He was just contemplating knocking on the door to see if Mouse would let him in when the door opened a crack and a hand beckoned. Colin walked into the house, trying not to grimace at the state in which the house was being kept. He could infer that Mouse's mother was either elsewhere or ill. No housewife would dare leave her home in such a state.

He followed Mouse into the kitchen, where there was an elderly man siting at the small wooden table. The man turned to face them at the sound of their creaky footsteps, and Colin saw that he looked to be about eighty, had little hair and huge flat ears on the side of his head. His eyes were unfocused, and Colin saw the thick milky cataracts and realized, with a shock, that he was utterly blind.

"Who's there?" he asked, groping in front of him without making the effort to get up. "I hear two of you."

Mouse walked up and took the old man's hand. "Grandpa, there's a man here to help us. He says he knows why everyone is asleep and he thinks we can help him."

"Oh." Mouse's grandfather seemed disappointed about something. "Well, he should have come sooner! We're awake when everyone else isn't, so of course we can help them wake up!"

"You know what's going on?" Mouse was confused and ready to feel betrayed.

"Haven't the faintest!" the old man trumpeted happily. "But it's common sense, that's all."

"What's your name, sir?" Colin asked politely.

"Marcus, at your service."

Colin explained the situation to Marcus as quickly as he could, which proved difficult, as Marcus was a rather inquisitive fellow. Every time Colin got a sentence into what he was saying, the old man would ask something else.

Colin did finally finish, however. Marcus tilted back in his chair and folded his hands over his belly. Colin leaned towards him across the table, hoping against hope that he would agree.

After a few minutes of silence, Mouse piped up. "You know, this is happening right now. There are people out there we need to help. And I already agreed," he added quickly.

Marcus mused a little while longer before announcing, "Well, I'll help you. But I insist that you let me ride your horse."

How did he know I rode a horse here? Answering Colin's unspoken question, Marcus stood up and said, "I can smell it on you. When you lose one sense, the others intensify." He tapped the side of his nose. "And that includes my sense of humor."

Colin smiled uncertainly, unsure if that statement was meant as a joke or not. Marcus sighed at the irony before reaching an arm out, which Mouse took. Colin led them both to Ihora and, after helping Marcus mount, notified Clara that they would meet her in the library soon, and that she should hide.

*****

Clara was dashing around frantically when Colin thought, Okay, things are taking a little longer than I anticipated. Stay where you are. I will let you know when we get a bit closer.

Clara decided to keep looking for a hiding place. Who knew when their problem might be resolved?

She eventually decided on a small broom closet in the library. She enfolded herself in between the mops, brushes, and feather dusters, then shut the door and waited in the complete darkness. Soon, she found herself seated on a bucket and leaning up against the wall. She fell asleep and rested her stressed mind.

Clara awoke to a scuffling noise just outside the closet. She snapped to attention. She heard some muffled voices and carefully contacted Colin.

Are you here?

Yes, came his instant reply. Where are you?

In the closet.

Oh. He paused, and Clara could make out his voice, telling someone something. That is a good hiding place. I have two people with me, a boy who calls himself Mouse and will not tell me his real name along with his grandfather Marcus. I think this just might work.

Clara resisted the urge to let out a sigh of relief. They could actually save people! That is really great.

I thought so. Lucky we found people. I was not sure we would.

Clara rolled her eyes and was glad that Colin could not see her at that moment. Well, there are bound to be other people besides us that are magical! King Woden only kills the ones foolish enough to parade their skills or trying to prove something. Not everyone is stupid enough to do that.

Of course. How could I have been so narrow-minded?

Indeed. Clara paused for a moment and listened. She heard a groan as someone settled into a chair, followed by a loud complaint. "When are we going to begin? I am very old, you know. I haven't got all day just to pander to unexpected requests of strange people!"

Clara could imagine Colin's reaction, trying to mollify the old man while regaining some of his lost composure, and she had to stifle a laugh. She waited until the noises quieted before asking So how are things?

Oh, shut it.

Clara smiled. Never. Question - did the old man give you trouble?

Yes. He agreed initially but seemed to forget that we were going to go to the castle to cast the counter-spell. Either that or I neglected to mention it.

I think it is the latter.

Clara...

What?

I think it is best if you stop.

But I do not want to!

I do not mind, but we have a kingdom to save and if we are to succeed in our rescue I need to concentrate. Okay?

Fine.

Things outside the door remained silent for a little while before Clara heard Colin begin to speak. "Okay, Marcus and Mouse, you sit over here." Colin gestured to the other side of the table. Of course, Marcus began complaining immediately.

"Why should I have to move? I am eighty-three! When you are my age, you should be treated with respect and honor! I am not going to stand for you ordering me around like I am a dog! I demand you remove me from here at once!" Marcus bellowed, seemingly without pause for breath. Colin waited until Marcus stopped long enough for him to get a word in edgewise before piping up.

"You do want to help all these people, don't you? If we do not do this before nightfall, people will start dying. They have not gotten food or water for days. They need our help, and if you want to help them, you need to listen to me. I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be," Colin said firmly. Marcus silenced for a moment before he dragged his chair around to where Colin told him to sit, grumbling the whole way.

"Thank you," Colin said. He glanced down at the sheet of parchment he was holding that encompassed the entire nature of the plan. "Now then. If you will read this, it has the spell on it. Memorize it as best you can, because we will all need to cast it in order for it to take effect." Colin slid the parchment over to them. It had the spell he and Clara had finally decided on, the nature of the spell, the meaning, the pronunciation, and so forth. While they were reading, Colin reached out to Clara.

Are you ready?

I suppose. At least, I am as ready as I will ever be.

Colin took a deep breath. Okay. Keep your mind where it is - I will get to you and take whatever of your mind you share into mine.

That does not make any sense.

It is not supposed to. At least, I understand it. You have no need to.

If you say so.

Hush for a moment. I need to concentrate.

You said that before.

And I needed to concentrate then too. I mean it, Clara. Hush up for just a little bit.

She finally stopped communicating with him, and Colin reached for that wisp of consciousness she was using. He finally caught hold and pulled it into his mind, trailing the end so that they were still connected. He could feel her racing through his thoughts, then trying to burrow deeper, into his memories. When she got there, Colin imagined a hard, thick wall, infinitely high and impenetrable. You cannot go in there.

He contacted Clara again. Okay, we are -

Ready, she thought at the same time he did. I am inside your head. I know what you want to think even before you tell me.

Colin was sure she felt the explosion of concern that ran through him, though she would not know the reason why. That quieted his instantaneous reaction. Maybe having Clara in his head was a bad idea.

You cannot start having doubts now, Colin! We need to save everyone!

He shook his head to clear it. It was so strange having her be able to read his mind more than usual. Her thoughts were clearer to Colin too, almost like hearing someone whispering in your ear as opposed to them shouting to you from across the room.

Call me strange all you want. I am ready for some magic! Let us go!

All right, all right.

Colin alerted Marcus and Mouse that if they were ready then they could begin. Marcus grumbled a bit, but he eventually agreed that it was time. They were staring at Colin rather curiously, and that made sense, since he had just retreated into his mind for a moment, but it was not any of their business.

"Send your consciousness towards me. I will help guide you through the spell," Colin said. Of course, Marcus did not want that to happen. He argued that he should do everything by himself and despite the fact that he was eighty-three he was still more able than Colin and how can he trust Colin we're in the palace and we could get killed and...He never seemed to need to stop for breath. Colin prodded his consciousness gently.

Marcus, please. Be professional.

Who else is there? I feel more than one of you.

His mind was so sensitive it could feel Clara within Colin's mind?

Well, that's not good.

Clara, I do not need this right now.

Sorry. I would say let me know when I can help, but I will know.

Yeah.

Who is that? That would be Mouse. He probably felt rather left out.

Who is what? It is rather difficult to be nonchalant or lie when speaking to someone telepathically, but Colin thought he had pulled it off rather well. He had Mouse fooled, at least.

Can we get on with this? Marcus again. He probably would have launched into a rant inside their heads, but Colin took advantage of the fact that they were both extended.

Focus.

I am focused!

Marcus, that is not focusing.

Focus on what?

Focus on the spell, Mouse. Now make it happen.

"Nanceawá naremam fram sapealsefo," they intoned together, with their minds and their mouths. Colin felt Clara put forth effort into the spell, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought he heard her whisper the mystical words.

A shock burst out from where they were standing. Everything Colin could see rippled before him, and he stumbled into something as everything twisted in on itself. When the world righted itself, it found Colin clinging to a chair and gasping. As soon as he could, though, he made his way to a window and watched as lightness spread from the castle across the surrounding land.

Colin let out a weak laugh. "Ha! We did it!" He turned to share his joy with his conspirators only to find Mouse staring at him, green eyes large and damp.

Oh, no. "What? What is it?"

Mouse shook his head. "How could you? You lied to us!"

"What have I done?" Colin asked. He was not sure what he had done to provoke Mouse's ire, but Colin was determined to fix it no matter what.

"You said everything would be fine, and people would die if we didn't help. Well, look! You've killed him!" Mouse shouted in Colin's face. They may not have gotten off on the right foot but Colin was pretty sure he did not deserve that.

"No I haven't! I am sure - " Colin stopped. Marcus was slumped in his chair. Colin ran to him and felt for a pulse the way Didacus had showed him. He could not find one.

No, no, no! He cannot be dead. I felt him cast the spell, I know he did it...he cannot be dead!

What is it?

Clara?

Yeah, it is I. It is weird, not being in your head any more. And I am glad of it too; it is a dark and scary place in there!

Knock it off. We have a serious problem.

Nothing that Colin the Great cannot fix! We just saved the kingdom, we can do anything!

I think Marcus is dead.

That quieted her for a moment, at least. Are you sure? she finally responded.

Not quite. I can't find a pulse in his wrist, but -

It was the same with Eve. I found her pulse in her neck. Try there next.

I just did. Nothing there either.

Are you absolutely sure?

Yes.

Would you bet your life on it?

What kind of a question is that?

I figured I should ask, just to be sure.

I don't know. Maybe. I need your help.

Mouse cannot know I am here!

If you can help his possibly dead guardian then I think he will welcome your presence. He already thinks I betrayed him and I think he found you were in my head as soon as we began the spell.

Colin could not hear her, but he knew she sighed before answering. Okay. I am on my way out.

Wait! Colin heard a couple of seconds later.

Now what?

How are you going to explain the other stranger that suddenly appears? Mouse is already out of his mind with worry and fright - we do not need to institutionalize him.

You are right. I can just tell him he is hallucinating, or I could... Colin's heart sank. He did not even want to consider that other option, but Clara pressed him, just as Colin knew she would.

You could what?

I could cast a spell on him that would make him complacent with anything we do to him, and forget why he was upset.

Oh, yes! Do that!

Why are you so excited by this prospect?

Because it will make him feel better!

Only for the duration of the spell. And by the way, once the spell's power has ended he will forget everything that happened while the spell was on him.

After a slight pause, Clara replied I do not understand.

That is fine. But I would feel so guilty...

And your sentimentality and politeness are greatly appreciated by the poor boy that would probably like nothing more than to forget the last couple of hours ever happened. Just cast the spell.

My, my, Clara. Are we turning into a monster?

She grumbled under her breath at him. One would think that was rather difficult to do when you were speaking through a mental link, but no, she did it rather well.

Fine, I will do it now.

Took you long enough.

Well, so much for her good mood. Colin stood up and looked over at Mouse, sitting in his chair next to Marcus with his head in his hands.

Colin murmured, "Natealá, naissilb, naméwca, nateigrefo sendómigna."

Mouse's head popped up. "Hello!" he said brightly. Colin grimaced. He hated using spells like that on another. It made him feel so dishonest, like he was taking advantage of them by making them compliant.

"Hello," Colin said uneasily.

It is done. You can come out now.

On my way.

Colin heard a loud clang and a shriek. He winced.

Clara? Everything okay?

Obviously not. Didn't you hear that?

Yes, that is why I am asking.

Oh. Well whose bright idea was it to keep a great metal bucket in a broom closet?

Probably the same person who invented the broom closet to store cleaning supplies, like, I do not know, brooms.

Ha ha.

I actually did think that was rather funny.

Colin heard the door creak open. Mouse turned, a blankly happy look on his face. "What's that?" he asked.

"It's a person. Here she comes," Colin responded.

"Oh. Okay!" Mouse said.

Colin shook his head slightly. He hoped that Clara was over-exaggerating about hurting herself badly on the bucket. Mouse was starting to get on his nerves too. Colin rationalized that if you are going to be extremely happy about the world, there had better be a good reason why. For example, he was always so cheerful around Clara because he enjoyed her company. There, see? Perfectly rational.

Clara stepped through the shelves, and said, "Hello there," fairly naturally. Colin had gotten to know her enough at that point that he alone noticed the unusually high set of her shoulders and that she never used the greeting "hello there" unless she was talking to someone she did not particularly enjoy meant that she was very nervous.

Clara immediately came to Colin and stood very close to him. He was not sure why until she tilted her head up and whispered in his ear, "This is what your spell did? It's awful, him being so happy like that."

"It was your idea," Colin whispered back. Mouse was following their conversation with the same vapid look as before.

"I'm starting to regret that choice." Well, that came as a shock. Clara always was so opinionated and always so sure that she was right that it was strange to hear her regretting a decisive decision of hers.

"Now you know why I hate using that spell," Colin said, trying to brush off the strangeness of Clara's statement. He had only used it once before, on James, during the donkey episode actually, so that when Colin turned him back he did not remember anything. As a bonus, James actually listened to Colin, and that made the ruse that much more effective.

"Yeah, it's...weird." Clara made to head towards Marcus and Colin stepped out of her way.

Mouse stared straight ahead for a little while as Clara went and tried to find a pulse in Marcus's neck and wrist. She pulled back after about five minutes. Colin leaned towards her. Has she found anything? he thought hopefully to himself.

"He's definitely dead."

Attempting to find a stranger's pulse when they may or may not be dead? Not as fun as one may expect. It was not exactly expected to be fun, but...anyway. Colin was right that Marcus had died. Clara was pretty positive. Not completely positive that someone dead was in the library, but she was pretty sure.

After she gave Colin her verdict, he rocked back on his heels, disappointed. "Well, if he wasn't dead when I checked him, he probably would have been dead by now anyway. Do not blame yourself. There's nothing you could have done."

From the way he said that, Clara thought he was berating himself nastily. He had a bad habit of telling no one else to take the blame and then shouldering it all himself. She hated it when he did that.

"Colin," Clara said, placing a hand on his shoulder gently. He looked up at her touch and she saw the guilt in his eyes. "There was nothing you could have done either. He was old. He probably just put too much into the spell or something."

Colin turned away. Great, now I feel guilty too. All she wanted to do was help, but it seemed that she had only succeeded in making things worse for Colin's inner struggle. Clara took her hand back and said, "Well, in the meantime, what are we going to do with this?" She gestured to Mouse. He was still staring at her, but not in a you-just-walked-out-of-a-closet-what-are-you-doing-here way, more of a whoa-the-whole-world-suddenly-makes-sense-and-boy-am-I-glad-to-see-you kind of way. This was weird, considering that she had appeared out of what must have seemed like thin air, but Clara assumed it was just the spell's effects on the poor boy.

At any rate, Colin and Clara decided that they were going to carry Marcus through the castle on the pretense of taking him to Didacus and see if he woke up. If he did not, they would take him back to Mouse's house and give their apologies to the family, he died in the horrible sleeping plague. If he did wake up, they would still take him back to the house, just skip the humble apologies for his death and such since he wasn't, in fact, dead. Clara was concerned at first, as she did not know how to act like Melanie yet and she wasn't even meant to be there, but Colin reassured her that everyone would be still feeling the effects of the spell, which were wearing off slowly.

They made it through the castle without raising too much alarm, Mouse following complacently behind them. When they reached the courtyard, Clara set her handle down as gently as she could. Marcus was very heavy, despite the makeshift wagon they had found. Colin urged Clara to keep going, to stay unnoticed while everyone was still disoriented. Clara stayed where she was for a moment, hands on her knees, trying to breathe. Colin let go of his side of the wagon as well and helped Clara stand up straight, claiming it would help her breathe better. It did, and before anyone noticed them, they set off again. As they passed huddled figures that were only beginning to stir, Clara wanted to check on them, but they were short on time as it was. They had to keep going and finish what they had started.

Once they arrived at the stables, they saddled an elderly horse called Cranberry for his rich, dark coat, which was hardly of import, and strapped Cranberry to their little wagon. Colin decided that he and Clara should lead the horse and make sure that Marcus stayed attached. They were being as reverent as they could be given the time restrictions. Clara would have to get back to the castle before everyone was fully awake, or else the entire plan for saving the kingdom would fall apart. Mouse would have to fend for himself a little longer.

The usual hustle and bustle of the kingdom was beginning to get underway again when they led the horse through the courtyard. They slipped out under cover of a shepherd trying to herd his group of goats that had eaten most of their rope and moved on to other food sources around the enclosed courtyard. His feathered cap signifying his rank as a worker was askew, and Clara realized that half of the brim had been eaten and would not stay on his head properly. She would have laughed if they had been in a different situation.

Once out of the castle grounds, Colin urged Cranberry into a trot. The horse champed the bit in complaint but picked up the pace. But only barely. He had a large, lumbering gait that was easy to sit through but extremely difficult to run with. If Clara was not careful, she could be stepped on. She had had that happen to her many a time before, and it was not an experience she was eager to repeat.

In their strange little procession - Clara and Colin and the horse attached to a small, lumpy wagon covered by a sheet, Mouse happily jogging along behind - they made their way to Marcus and Mouse's house. Colin and Clara carried Marcus inside and laid him on the table, the very table at which Colin had first met Marcus. Mouse was still in the doorway, watching the proceedings with a confused expression. Colin worried aloud to Clara that the spell might be wearing off. It had been nearly a half hour since he cast it.

Sure enough, Mouse took a few staggering steps into his house and put a hand to his head. "Where am I?" he asked. Then he looked around and noticed where he was. "But...this is my house! How did I get here? I thought I was still in the...castle..." He trailed off into silence. As more of what happened before returned to him, his face gradually grew stormier and his hand dropped from his forehead. "You," Mouse finally said. "You!" he shouted at Colin. He seemed furious. Then he saw Marcus laying on the kitchen table and burst into tears. "You brought him back. For a proper sendoff," Mouse sobbed, his voice breaking several times. Taken aback by the quick, startling reaction, Colin had taken a step backwards into Clara. She shoved him away, having been just as startled and on-edge as he was.

Mouse stumbled to the table and threw himself into a chair. He was crying so hard he could not speak. He grabbed one of Marcus's hands and let his head fall onto their joined hands.

Since Mouse showed no intention of lifting his head from the table anytime soon, Colin thought it was safe enough to approach him and gently pat his shoulder. Mouse did not even shy away, although that could probably be attributed to shock rather than a particular affinity towards Colin. "Mouse," Colin began. "Sorry can't even start to encompass how awful I feel right now. Obviously if we'd known this would happen I never would have asked."

Mouse's small shoulders only shook more violently. Colin looked at Clara for support, an idea of what to say next, anything. She just shrugged.

Oh, thanks for that, Colin thought at her bitterly.

Don't you dare take your frustration and hurt out on me, Colin. She was as bitter as he, maybe even more so. Although her bitterness could have been from a number of things, such as her shining savior moment destroyed. Pull on your big-boy boots and deal with it. You brought them to the castle. It is your responsibility, and no one else's to make this poor boy feel better.

Colin opened his eyes. The force of her mental onslaught was such that he had had to shut them rather than look at her simultaneously disappointed and infuriated expression.

"I'm not as good at this as you are," Colin pleaded softly. Clara's expression faltered. "Please, Clara. You are just a part of this as I am. I can't do this alone." Normally, Colin would have been mortified that he had said that last bit aloud, but he needed Clara's help. Clara's expression softened completely and she ran over to help Colin with Mouse.

"Mouse," she began quietly, so quietly that Colin almost could not hear her. "Mouse, I am so sorry for your loss. We only want to help you get through this, but we can't if you won't let us." She paused and glanced up at Colin for reassurance. He nodded, motioning her to go on. Clara granted him a tiny smile, then returned her attention to Mouse's slumped figure. "Please, Mouse. We need you to stay with us."

As she spoke, Mouse started to raise his head. Before Colin could comprehend what had happened, Mouse met Clara's eyes. Clara's eyes suddenly changed to flat black, like a pool of ink had spread within her eyes. Colin started, banging his knees and elbows on the table, and through his pain, he almost missed Mouse and Marcus's joined hands glowing. Mouse turned to face Colin, and Mouse's formerly green eyes burned like two little golden suns. Colin inhaled sharply. He did not know what was happening...

And, like time had stopped, Colin could see everything clearly in an eternal instant. Mouse and Clara had unconsciously joined forces to revive Marcus. Colin shouted, "No!" But before the word had even left his lips, before it had even become more than a mere thought, the endless, glass bubble of an instant shattered, throwing Colin to the floor.

As Colin opened his eyes, Marcus's chest rose in a deep breath and Mouse tipped out of his chair and onto the floor.

Clara was just opening her eyes.

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