Chapter 8

A startled cry roused Gloria from sleep, kneeling by Kayley's bed. The doctor was awake and screaming, running a hand over her stomach. "Kayley! Are you all right?"

"Better than all right!" Kayley answered incredulously. "Look!" She pulled up a bloody bandage to reveal healed skin. She began to get up, but then her arms shook and gave out under her weight. She collapsed awkwardly among the pillows. "Whoa! I suppose I shouldn't expect too much from miraculous healing."

Gloria began to think of what this could mean. She had dreamed of Flora. Could it be? Had her guardian actually been here? "Do you feel tingly all over?"

Kayley seemed to think about this, lying almost comically now among the mass of pillows she had knocked askew when she had tried to get up. "A little … like when your foot falls asleep …"

But before Gloria could question her further, Verdic came running into the room, panting for breath. "I heard … screaming … is Kayley … ?" Then he looked up when Kayley raised a hand in a friendly wave.

"Hello, Verdic. I seem to have been blessed. I guess the Land does not wish me to die quite yet."

"Ah—!" It was just barely a vocalization. Verdic was at the doctor's bedside in moments, gathering Kayley in up into his arms as if she was his own child, clearly forgetting everything he had ever said about her reputation. He was babbling with frantic relief. "I thought—I can't even—"

Kayley patted Verdic on the back with what strength she had and smiled. "Thank you, Verdic." Then a wry gleam lit her eyes. "But where will we be if my healing puts you into an apoplectic fit?"

The old man pulled away, not even trying to mask the tears of joy in his eyes. "You're as bad as ever!"

The doctor took a deep breath. "Well, actually, I'm afraid I'll need a little rest before I'm up to my usual mischief."

Verdic sobered. "Of course. We should let you sleep."

Kayley shook her head. "No," she answered despite her evident fatigue. "I think I would rather talk."

"Good." Verdic sat by her bed. "I confess I prefer to talk." Despite his good cheer brought on by Kayley's recovery, Verdic did not look well. It was clear he had not slept much, if at all. Still, when Gloria mentioned this, he waved her concern away. "It is nothing. Right now, I couldn't sleep for the world."

Kayley yawned. "Just don't be offended if I nod off."

"That's perfectly fine," Verdic assured her. "I should be ordering you to sleep, of course, but …" The fear from last night that she might never wake again still hung in his eyes.

"Go on, then, you old codger. Talk," Kayley coaxed as she reached for a cup of water on her bedside table. She understood his unspoken words.

First, Verdic wanted to know how she had been healed so completely, but Kayley could not provide an answer. They turned to Gloria, who was forced to admit that she did not know for certain either because, despite her promise to Verdic, she had fallen asleep. They both easily forgave her in light of the outcome, but Gloria still felt guilty.

Gloria thought about mentioning Flora and her power, but she could not be sure how her friends would react. If Flora had been here, she had chosen not to reveal herself. Gloria did not wish to risk exposing Flora to whatever her guardian was hiding from, particularly if she was so near, perhaps even in the castle.

Yet, Gloria could not understand how that could be. If Flora was in the castle, why was she hiding?

=Because she's no there,= Voice answered.

Voice! Where have you been?

=Where I always am, in your head,= he replied unhelpfully. =But I assure you that Flora's not in the castle. It was you. You healed Kayley.=

Impossible! That was Flora's power. Gloria would have accused Voice of lying if she knew it was possible. But all the emotions and intentions of a mind speaker were as clear as their words. It was not that Voice couldn't speak a lie, but his lies were always marked like a single glowing ember in a dark room.

However, Voice could easily withhold information, and he did so now, refusing to say any more about Flora or how Gloria could have healed Kayley.

Gloria huffed in irritation at Voice's secrets as Verdic asked Kayley about the monster, but the doctor had not seen it properly. She said all the torches had gone out just as she was running up from the dungeons after seeing Balin's empty cell.

"Do you think that the monster could have been involved in freeing the commander?" Verdic asked. Gloria could not help but question everything she had thought about the Arlian commander. Maybe Balin had not hurt Kayley, but what if he had summoned the monster that had?

Kayley shook her head. "It does seem an amazing coincidence, but I think it is just that. I do not think the monster was meant to free the commander. There were no signs of force in Balin's cell, and the cell door was still locked! If the monster was meant to help him escape, why was the door not ripped from its hinges? I suppose the beast could have attacked me because I had seen that Balin was gone. But there's no logical reason to attack only me and leave all the guards and knights untouched."

Verdic nodded as if he had already thought all the same things himself.

As they all pondered the mystery of Balin and the monster, Sir Max came back to relieve a surly lower guard of his duty watching Gloria. The knight was surprised but also gratified to find Kayley almost fully restored to health.

"I am just as happy to see you, Sir Max," Kayley said. "If Gloria must have a human shadow, I had much rather that it be you. Allen thinks he's too good for all of us. I suppose he's been spoiled by guarding the stables."

Gloria assumed Allen was the name of the unfriendly guard.

Max grinned. "What is too good for a stables guard is just fine for a retired head knight. I admit that normally I would find such work tedious, but the company is quite good. Besides, I have not truly had anything better to do for many years now. Even this business with monsters isn't what I would call worthy work. It is too mysterious. I like to see the men coming at me, not search in the dark for something I can't even identify. I hope that Gloria will not think that I wish her ill, but I confess that I almost wish Arlians would try to attack her, just so I might feel useful again."

"I think I can understand a little what it's like to miss familiar activities," Gloria assured Max. She missed learning from Flora, roaming the mountain trails, and simply feeling useful more than she missed home itself. She felt stifled in the stone walls of the castle. If she had at least been able to visit Alex in the forest, it might not have been so bad, but kind as Max was, she was not yet prepared to introduce him to the dragonwolf.

After some conversation, Max felt it incumbent on him to assume his former station at the end of the hall. "You like me now," Max said, when they protested that he should stay. "But if I were to spend every moment with you, I am sure you would tire of me." With those words he retreated, once again providing them with protection and privacy.

Not long after Max had gone into the corridor, Horatio came to visit Kayley, hardly looking like he had gotten any more sleep than Verdic. It was clear that he had devoted the entire night to searching for the monster to no good effect. But the sight of Kayley on the mend seemed to be as good of a restorative as it had been for Verdic. The duke did not rush to embrace her as Verdic had, but he stood up straighter, as if the weight of the sleepless night was lifted, and said with direct sincerity, "It is good to see you well, Doctor Crow."

Kayley smiled back. "Thank you, Your Grace. But I would feel even better if you would simply call me Kayley as I have asked many times before."

The mischievous light returned to the duke's eyes and banished the brief sober seriousness. "Using your poor health as way to garner favors? For shame! Besides, as one in the profession of health, you must know that it adds quite unhealthily to my ego to compliment my gracefulness every time you see me. I am certain the Grand Duchess Della would say it is impossible that one who merely saves lives should call me Horatio, so I would never ask such a thing. But may I recommend 'Your Presumptuousness' or 'Your Blue-Bloodedness'? If you call me one of those, then I think I could call you by your given name."

Kayley inclined her head, clearly fighting to keep a straight face. "My apologies, Your Grace, but I cannot."

"Then, Your Most Revered Healthliness," he bowed deeply, "I fear there is nothing I can do for you."

"Actually," Kayley said propping herself up on her pillows, "I was hoping there was something you and Verdic could do for me or rather …" she cast an awkward glance at Gloria, "our mutual friend."

"Do you mean the dragon, Storm?" Gloria asked when she sensed Kayley's reluctance to say more.

Kayley raised her eyebrows and turned to Verdic. "Was I out so long that it was necessary to train Gloria to take my place?"

"Yes," Horatio answered before Verdic could. "But you needn't worry. I offered her myself for surgery practice, and I fear she has misplaced my liver. So everyone will be quite happy to have you back instead."

Verdic smiled and said, "Gloria had already met the dragon. We simply explained what he was doing there."

"Everything?" Kayley asked.

"Everything," Verdic assured her.

"Very well," the doctor said briskly. "Then I need you two to go and check that Storm is well. I'm afraid the monster who attacked me last night might be the same one he always fights."

"You fear that he may not have fared any better than you," Horatio surmised. "Say no more, my dear doctor. Verdic?" They gathered a few supplies that Kayley indicated they might need. The doctor wanted to go with them, but they had watched her treat Storm so many times that she could not convince them that she needed to go.

"If you do have any trouble, you must carry me out there directly." Kayley ordered firmly, and Verdic and Horatio assured her that they would.

Verdic hesitated at the last moment. "Perhaps, just the duke should go. If the monster should return …"

Kayley waved her hand. "If the monster does return, then you will not be more protection than Sir Max."

"I suppose you are right." Verdic smiled tightly. "Us old men often forget our limits."

Horatio clapped Verdic on the shoulder as he guided him out the door. "Nonsense. I pray to the Land every day that I may age as well as you. Though, mostly it is to hope that my hair will turn so dashingly gray. You must be a devil among the ladies, Verdic."

Verdic's laughter faded with the sound of the corridor's garden door opening and closing.