08-The Beginning of the End: 1094 - 1096

Aurora's visions didn't abate. Many of them were of her missing siblings in far flung places and indistinct times. The increasing power of the Church in the towns around them played into some and made her wary. Two more had dealt with Alexander and Aurora had been where she needed to be when they came to pass. Julian found himself pulled forcibly by his petite wife out of the path of a horse's hoof that would have impacted him in his spine if it had been allowed to hit. He would have eventually recovered, but it would have left him cripple for years before he did.

It was after that episode that Aurora finally came to a decision.

It had been a wonderful day for the small family. It was Alex's seventh summer, and they had packed a basket and rode out to a quiet grove in the woods for a picnic and to just be themselves. Aurora had been happy to sit and watch the two she adored most in the world have a father and son afternoon. Alex was worn out by the time they returned, and couldn't be convinced to stay awake long enough for supper.

It had been a perfect day, and Aurora was loathe to disturb it, but Julian deserved to know. She waited until they were alone to broach the subject. Put it off as long as she could. It was while he was brushing out her hair before bed that she turned in her seat and gently took the brush from him.

"You know that I love you above all things, oui?"

The Earl of Huntingdon had always respected Aurora's gift. He did not ask her about it too closely, but neither was he blind to the fact that she had a kind of precognition, the Sight some would call it. It did not bother Julian that she had the Sight, he understood that some folk in Shadow were gifted, it bothered him no more than her education and sharp mind did. He loved her and his son fiercely; nothing would change that.

"Oui. Other than our Son, your Heart is my greatest treasure." Julian eyed her speculatively. "You have something to tell me."

She smiled crookedly. "You have always been more observant then anyone else. I should have realized you would have figured out my visions on your own." She sighed and looked down at his hand that she held in her own. Her thumb traced circles over the back of it. "I have no control over them. Some of them I do not understand until the event is in front of me." She looked into his eyes and smiled. "It was a vision that brought me to Nottingham, to you."

"Was it? Then I have two reasons to be thankful that you have visions." Julian smiled, leaned over, and scooped her off the seat into his arms. "I have known for a bit that you had the Sight, or whatever is should be called. It does not trouble me. It saved our Son, and because we were so timely, it saved Alice as well." He kissed her fervently, and carried her to their bed. "You needn't hide them from me. If one confuses you, I will try to help. I do not understand the Gift, but that does not mean I will not believe what you tell me." He climbed into bed beside her, and gathered her into his arms.

"I know I should have told you before," she admitted as she snuggled against him. "Of all people, you would have understood and not seen them as a bad thing. But I spent so long hiding them that it was second nature not to discuss them, or even write them down." She ran a hand over the plains of his chest. She would never grow tired of that. Then she remembered her limited time left and swallowed the knot in her throat as she wrapped her arms around him and held him close.

"You told me when you were ready." Julian nuzzled her, "I considered it a part of your feminine mystique." He smirked and kissed her deeply. He relaxed by her side, enjoying her touch, and her closeness.

"Something bad is coming, Julian," she whispered. "I cannot be sure if it is to us or the world around us. But it is coming."

"We will deal with it together, Ma Petit Cheri, just as we always have." Julian assured her, rolling slightly to face her, and hug her close. "Have I told you today how beautiful you are?"

"Hmm…," she pondered. "Not since this morning. When I told you how staggeringly handsome you are."

"You are the most beautiful woman in the known world." Julian smiled, kissed her as passionately as he always did. A passion that had not waned since they were married. He tugged their comforters and furs into place, and did his level best to make Aurora forget about her concerns. He believed what she had told him, something loomed on the horizon, but they did not have to worry about that until it arrived. Julian was far more concerned about when he would reach that fine line between aging gracefully, and looking suspiciously good for his age. That was also a worry for another time.


1095

The moment she saw the Bishop ride into their Courtyard, she knew in her heart that the dark had reached its uncaring fingers into their lives. She was tempted to tell the staff to say they weren't home, but she knew it was only postponing the inevitable. Instead she told them to show the man into the receiving hall and went to fetch Julian herself.

Aurora found him with Alex in their son's classroom, dark heads bent over a history text written in Greek. She paused in the doorway, committing the image to memory as Alex tucked a stray curl impatiently behind his ear. She wiped the tear from the corner of her eye and cleared her throat.

"I hate to interrupt," she began, then smiled at Alex's look of relief. He loved lessons with his father, but he was only eight.

"Momma!" he exclaimed happily. He ran to her and hugged her around the waist. Aurora's hand smoothed his hair as she turned her worried eyes to her husband.

"There is someone here to see you, my love."

Julian got to his feet, and stretched his hands towards the ceiling arching his back. "I saw that look, Son." He smiled and walked up to his Wife and Son, giving the lady a kiss and tousling the boy's hair. "Tell you what, we'll take a break. After I see who's waiting, we'll go practice the bow for a bit." He lifted his eyes to meet Aurora's, and raised his eyebrows in question at the concern he saw there. "I will go and see who is calling."

He kissed her again, and headed down to the hall, his expression becoming one of impassivity, which was the usual mask he wore when dealing with other nobles or visiting dignitaries. Julian was already not at all pleased, he could tell that Aurora was worried in a way that told him she knew more than was said. Julian walked into the main hall, his sharp eyes picking out the visitor; the Bishop. The Church had crawled in over the years, and the Crown was largely owned by or indebted to that organization in one way or another. Julian had managed to keep their presence in Huntingdon down to a couple of missionary churches, and he did not adjudicate by Church Law, but by his own, as he always had.

He walked up to the Bishop with a nod, "Welcome to Huntingdon." Julian bowed politely to the King when appearances called for it, he would kiss no man's ring and call them 'Holiness'. "To what do I owe the honor?"

The man seemed briefly off balance for a moment by the complete lack of the usual fawning. But he had been warned, and the Earl was not breaking any protocol, so he couldn't very well reprimand him. But depending on how this interview went, there were other options.

The man straightened importantly in spite of the less then warm greeting. "His Holiness has decreed that the Holy Land of our Lord's birth is to be freed from the Infidels holding it," he said pompously. "He is calling on all Knights and Lords within the sphere of the Holy Church to answer his call." The man's eyes went over the understated wealth displayed in the receiving hall before they turned sly upon resting on the portrait of the Countess. "Of course, He understands that some might be unable to answer his call to arms and is willing to accept other forms of participation."

Julian eyed the man for a long moment, "Are you aware of the phrase 'ahl al-Kitâb'?" He shook his head, and took his usual seat. "Of course you are not. It is an Arabic phrase meaning 'People of the Book'. Are you at least familiar with that idea?" Whether he was or not, Julian pressed on. "The Caliphate allowed all the people of God to dwell, worship, and even thrive under their rule. This has changed somewhat, I understand that there are tolls, and there has been some persecution, but one could likely find men at arms or knights to defend the pilgrims. The dislike of Christians is not a universal. The Caliphate has its own internal problems, and an external threat will only serve to unite them, which would create a very costly War, in both lives and resources, for those Nations that engage in it." Julian raised an eyebrow, "The problem is the Sekjuk Turks, not the whole of Islam. Has there been any attempt at diplomacy with the Caliphate?"

The man looked at Julian as if he were mad. "You dare argue for the heathens against a Papal Decree? That land is the birthplace of our Lord Jesus, and should be in Christian hands, not held by those nonbelievers!"

"A heathen, by definition, is one that fails to acknowledge the God of the Holy Bible. Islam, in point of fact, wholeheartedly acknowledges that God." Julian stated evenly, "I argue for peace, which is the purpose of any good Christian, or am I misunderstanding Jesus Christ when he said, 'But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' " He regarded the Bishop, reading the other man by how he held himself and moved. "And I believe it is the Old Testament that clearly states, 'Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.' " Julian's hands rested on the armrests of his chair. "Surely you can see that I am as concerned for the souls of my people as well as their material well-being. I would be remiss if I did not raise my concerns. Do you have a copy of the Papal Bull with you? Or the decree of the King?"

The outraged man wordlessly drew a parchment roll from his sleeve and handed it to Julian with a snap. Through the open door behind the Bishop, Julian could see his wife, wide-eyed and pale. It was no secret to him that Aurora feared and loathed the Christian Church. She was well aware of the things they had done in the name of their vindictive God, hiding behind a fabricated Infallibility and doing everything to keep the people down trodden, poor, uneducated and dependent - especially the women, while the Church flourished and gained riches to make Solomon blush. But she could not deny the power and sway they had.

She fled as the Bishop started to turn and look over the hall again. He could hear the footfalls retreating swiftly towards the library.

Julian read the parchment carefully, and made the Bishop wait while he did so. He said nothing as he read it, nor did the expression on his face change. When he was done, he rolled up the parchment, and called for his squire and his two scribes. One scribe would record the rest of the discussion, his Squire would be his witness, though he did not say as much. The other scribe would copy the parchment, and Julian would get the Bishop's to seal it before he departed.

"What is it that the Church requires? 'Answering the Call' is a broad statement. Be specific." Julian handed the parchment over to John so the young man could read it as well, and hand it to the proper scribe. It would show the Bishop that he was not dealing with uneducated border lords, and that his words would be recalled and measured.

The Bishop had enough time to regain his composure, though he frowned as the scroll was handed off to another. "His Holiness' army will travel to the Holy Land and reclaim it from the Saracens holding it," he replied with a hint of the condescension that Aurora so loathed. "A glorious battle under the banner of the Church."

"Of course, if you are unable to make the journey, a suitable tax can be assessed against your holdings to fund the venture with your men and gold." He eyed the portraits of the Earl and his family again; Aurora's framed in gleaming gold, chosen for the way it highlighted her hair. "I imagine that Your Lordship's tax would be quite high."

"Hagarenes would be more accurate, but only a little. Are you familiar with the term 'usury'?" Julian rejoined, knowing that the Bishop would know that much. "Is His Holiness leading the charge? Or has he appointed someone to the task?" By then John had finished reading the parchment, and then carefully unrolled it for the scribe onto a board, so that it could be copied. His expression was as inscrutable as his Master's, a habit he had doubtless picked up from the Earl. He returned to stand behind Julian's chair.

"His Holiness will be appointing someone to lead. He himself must see to the spiritual welfare of God's chosen at home." The man brushed off his sleeve and eyed the scribe, ignore the other pointed question..

"My men will go nowhere without me." The Earl of Huntingdon declared, and the two men at arms at the main door came sharply to attention as a sign of their agreement. "Nor will the coffers be drained." Julian stared holes into the man's skull. "Be aware that your station is no excuse for poor manners. I suggest that you choose your words carefully." He glanced at the scribes as they worked, and idly inquired, "Will you be passing through Sherwood on your return journey?" Julian knew that he would, a road had been cut through the forest, which had, as Julian warned, increased the incidences of banditry. "When will we be expected to muster?"

"Most likely," the Bishop replied, studiously not looking at the large man in front of him. "The expected time of departure on the glorious Crusade is next year on 15th of August."

Julian nodded. "I will know the muster point long before then." He looked over at the scribe. The scribe gave him a nod. The text was transposed, but the illumination would still need to be done. However, it only needed the seal. "I would like you to put your seal on this document. Read it first, of course, it is just a copy of the decree." He eyed him, "I will wait. When that his done, you may have your scroll back." Julian steepled his fingers, "I am sure you are eager to move on and spread the news."

The man did just that, though it was clear he was suspicious by the great care he took in reading the copy before reluctantly placing his seal upon it. He accepted the original back hurriedly, returning it to where he had been carrying it.

"God Bless, Your Lordship," the man said as he made the Sign of the Cross over those in the room. Julian could almost hear his wife's hiss of anger had she been there. With no further business, the man took his rather imperious leave.

Julian contemplated putting an arrow into him, but then he would have to slay his guards, and they weren't really to blame. He glanced to John, and gestured at the scribes so his squire would make certain their jobs were complete. Then he got to his feet, and went to seek out his Wife. Aurora was not going to be happy, and Julian knew that his hands were tied to some extent. His people could not be allowed to suffer, there were more lives to think about than just his own. There was his Family, and his Staff. He took a deep breath, the years had been kind to Aurora, but she was beginning to age, their Son was eight, and he was approaching the age at which most men would already have expired.

He raked his fingers through his hair, pushed those latter thoughts from his mind, and went to comfort his Wife and enjoy the smile of his Son.

They were in the library, as he suspected. Alexander was playing with the small metal armies arrayed over the map table where he and his father had set them up last week for a history lesson. Aurora was standing at a window overlooking the courtyard, an embroidery project in her hands all but forgotten.

They both looked up when he walked into the room. Alexander's exuberant cry of "Daddy!" was followed by Julian being slammed into by the small body of his son. "Can we go shoot bows now?"

Aurora took one look at his eyes and closed her own as a tremor passed through her slight form.

"Oof!" Julian smiled, and ruffled the boy's hair. "Yes we can. I just need some time with your Mother." He smiled, "Why don't you run down and tell Thomas to get everything ready. John's a little busy, so Thomas can help you today."

Julian waited until Alexander was gone, and simply hugged his Wife without saying a word.

She was trying very hard to not cry, but he could tell she was failing miserably. Her needlework fell to the floor and her arms went around him to hold him in a fierce hug. She didn't trust herself to speak.

Julian held her, and then just scooped her up, so he could sit and hold her close upon his lap. He brushed her tears away with his sleeve, and kissed her fiercely. Change was in the air, and neither of them wanted to deal with it. Finally, nuzzling her, he spoke softly. "It is a call to arms by the Pope. We are to liberate the Holy Land from the people that have lived there for generation after generation. It is folly." Julian took a deep breath, "But I must go."

"Why?" she demanded tearfully. "Neither of us even follow the teachings of that Faith. Why must you go risk your life for a cause you do not believe in?"

Julian took a deep breath, "You know why." He answered softly, cupping her face wit his hand, a hand so much bigger than her own. His thumb caressed her tears from her cheek. "The Church of Rome holds sway over France and England, all Europe. What will become of Huntingdon if I refuse? What will become of our people? What legacy will these thieving clerics leave to our son?" Julian kissed her lips lightly, "For you, and for our son, I must go. I will not leave you undefended. John will stay with both of you, as will a third of our bannermen." He was never slow to calculate the necessities. "We have a little less than a year, Beloved."

"It is not long enough," she said thickly. "Forever is not long enough."

The lies of omission were like iron bands around Julian's stomach. They threatened to tighten, and make him ill. He would go to war, because it was a necessity, but he would never return — not in his sweet wife's remaining lifetime. He would not be there to hold her hand, and guide her gently into whatever end came to the people of this world. He fervently hoped that paradise would be Aurora's, she deserved nothing less. Julian only hoped his son did not hate him for it. His jaw clenched, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "I have no choice, Aurora."

She had known it was coming, but it had not been the same as it was to hear him say it. A few more tears slide down her pale cheeks as she lay her head back on his shoulder. "You should go spend time with your son then," she said quietly. "He will leave childhood behind in your absence."

Julian met her eyes, and nodded. He wished that there was some trick he could work to make Aurora immortal. Some bending of Shadow, some willful manipulation. He had even called his brother Caine, and had been told with a measure of sympathy that there was nothing he could do, that he should take his son and get out while the rose was still fresh. How he had loved and loathed his brother in that moment. Julian could not do that to Aurora; he knew her love was deep and sincere, losing both of them would kill her, losing only her husband was a pain she could endure. He loved his Countess, she was as strong as she was intelligent. Julian knew that in his heart.

Then he kissed her suddenly, desperately, deeply. His arms clasped her to him, and fumbled at his robes, and her own. His other hand sank into her hair, cradling her head as he sought to make his love and his desire known. Aurora would always be beautiful to him, always be his treasure.


1096

The next few months were filled and focused. The three nobles of Huntingdon spent as much time as possible together, making up for the time they were about to lose. Alexander was young enough not to question why he suddenly had so much time with his father, or both his parents at the same time. He just enjoyed it. It was only as spring turned into summer that they told him Julian was going away for awhile.

Aurora was under no illusions. Her husband was riding off to a foolish war half the world away. More people would die in the journey then in the Holy Land. Thinking on it at all caused her to burst into tears. She had known she couldn't have him forever. But she hadn't wanted it to end like this. The sense of finality that she felt in the air was not coming from her, but she recognized its heavy hand over Huntingdon. Aurora willed the movement of the Heavens to slow, and silently railed at the Universe with each passing sunset. Every night was spent reaffirming their love. She recommitted to memory every muscle, every line; the feel of his skin and the way he moved inside her, the way his hair felt in her hands and how his felt in hers; his eyes were seared into her memory, the timber of his voice resonated in her mind. His laugh, the way he said her name, even the sound of his breathing were more familiar to her as her own.

But it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. Time had been the opponent that had refused to let her find peace all her adult life; now it was the enemy moving too fast towards the end of her joy.

She refused to cry that morning; standing in the Courtyard with Alexander at her side as Julian and the men going with him made their final preparations for their journey out of Huntingdon, out of England, and out of their lives. He had put it off as long as they could, but they could do so no longer.

Over a thousand men were assembled beyond the walls of Huntingdon. Julian had called his banners in, and had been stunned and moved by how many men turned up. Most of them were armsman, professional soldiers, whose tours rotated regularly, as the Earl did not require much of a standing day to day force. There were several Knights, that would act as Julian's lieutenants, older men that had served with Julian in battles past, or had moved to Huntingdon and swore their swords to the Earl in exchange for small parcels of land and their Oath to protect the people. He had counted on only half the number that showed. He was an honest Lord, and had fully disclosed his reasons for raising the Call. He knew that men had families, children, and farms that would suffer in their absence. He knew that many would never return home. All counted, there were twelve hundred men, and nearly half that number were experienced cavalry and longbowmen. Julian had watched them arrive from the Tower, where he went every day after he sent out his runners and his ravens to every corner of his domain. Aurora could see how it touched him. He had been relieved to get five hundred, with John dashing in and out with the latest census, to get a thousand was more than he had hoped for.

The Earl of Huntingdon was a man divided. He had a campaign to plan; taking a thousand men cross country in an organized fashion was not a simple task. Julian had planned their route and their supply lines, and had continued to plan up until the Call went out. At the same time, he never had enough time for his Wife and his Son, even though any man or woman in his household could honestly say that the Earl spent most of his time with his Family, and planned — with heroic endurance — after his son had gone to bed, or after his Wife had fallen asleep in his arms. Julian had to go. He did not want to leave. He could change the world whole cloth, but with dangerous repercussions, so he did not. Julian could not keep his wife from aging and dying, and he was uncertain if he should watch her fade, or be gone before she realized that he would never grow old with her. He did not understand, until that day, why Caine had told him Love was a double-edged sword waiting to strike, and it always cut both ways. He had only half-listened, and when he found Love, it had been joyous, but then the sword swung back and brought the pain.

Julian called John to him. His squire was armed and armored, and prepared for the journey. The Earl told him to take a knee, and Knighted him in front of the host, and then extracted the most painful Oath John thought he would ever have to make. He would have to let his master leave without him, as Sir John Strongbow of Huntingdon swore to defend his Master's Family, his Home, and his Lands. With tears in his eyes, John gave his word, and went to stand with Aurora and Alexander, already prepared to defend them. Julian stood in full armor; silver scale over which he wore the white tabard with the black diving hawk upon it. His sword was at his hip, and his warhorse, a black destrier simply named Sable, by their son, was ready and carried his bow and quiver. He looked like a warrior out of legend, standing taller and broader than any other man, and stalking the yard giving his final orders.

He did not want to say goodbye. He did not want this to be the last time he saw his wife. Julian knew that it would be, and it planted the seeds of bitter pragmatism, that would blossom as he grew in experience. Putting a small smile on his face, he went to say goodbye to his Family.

Aurora's eyes never left Julian. She restrained herself when he moved towards them and hung back with the newly knighted John, nudging Alexander forward to meet his father. Alex understood what was happening, but the concepts of death and bloody battles were still only abstract ideas to him. His father was going on a trip and would be gone for a long time. Aurora saw no point in giving her son nightmares of what ifs. She would have more then enough for both of them. She had plenty of time to explain later as the months turned into years.

Alexander was understandably worked up over all the men and horses milling around. He was wearing his own white tabard, his child sized sword strapped to his hip. At his mother's touch, he had run to meet his father, but halted in front of him instead of throwing himself against Julian's armored form. He looked up at his father with wide eyes, blue-green hazel eyes that were as stunning as his mother had predicted. His raven curls gleamed with an almost blue sheen in the bright autumn sun as he waited for his father to come down to his level.

His hand reached out and patted the gleaming scale. He had never had to say goodbye for more then a day, and was clearly at a loss for words.

Julian's eyes found the gaze of his Wife, and held it as he approached. There was little in his expression that would give him away, save to those that knew him best. John recognized that his master was taking half-strides, delaying the inevitable farewell that was most certainly coming. He saw that his Earl had eyes only for his Countess, until Alexander stepped forward. John laid a hand on Aurora's shoulder; it was the first time he ever touched his Countess without being given some kind of leave to do so. Aurora could see her Husband's feelings in the way he looked at her, the way he looked at everything, for Aurora his eyes told her everything. There was a fleeting moment of pain in them just before he looked down at his silent Son. Julian had no words to soften the blow of his absence; how does one apologize for stealing their Son's childhood away in one terribly long day.

He did the only thing he could do, he scooped his boy up into his arms, and hugged him fiercely. "I want you to take care of Mommy while I'm gone. And help John with things, and listen to him. Remember to breathe when you take aim with your bow, slow and even like we talked about. Don't slump in the saddle." Julian hugged him again as he walked to his Wife, "I'm so proud of you Alexander, always remember that."

"Yes, Daddy," Alex said solemnly from his shoulder. His arm was around Julian's neck, patting his father's hair. "You be careful, okay?" His eyes shifted towards his mother and he whispered to Julian. "Momma made you something."

"I will be, Alexander." Julian ruffled the boy's hair, and looked into his eyes. At least Aurora would live on in their son. He saw aspects of his wife in the boy, and certainly in his remarkable eyes. "She has?" His eyes lifted to meet Aurora's as he stood before her. John took a step back, letting his hand drop, and turning partially away for what was surely a private moment. With his free hand, he reached out to touch Aurora's face, to caress her cheek for possibly the last time, and to feel her hair run through his fingers. His nostrils flared, as he took a deep breath, swallowed, and quietly said. "Alexander says you have something for me?"

Her eyes fluttered closed as she leaned towards him and into his touch. She hiccuped back the sob that she had been fighting all morning. When she opened her eyes, he could see the abiding love that would go on forever. Until the Earth crumbles and the Heavens fall. Julian looked into her eyes and he knew; she knew, or at least suspected that this Crusade would take him from her, and not just for the length of the battle.

Alexander looked warily at his parents. "If there is to be kissing," he announced. "Please put me down, Daddy."

Aurora smiled faintly without looking away from her husband. "That sounds like a wise idea."

John had to come over and help with Alexander, he was almost embarrassed to do so, feeling a bit like an intruder, though he had always been treated like family. Julian gazed into her eyes, and before her sentence was barely finished, he kissed her. Despite the public venue, there was no attempt to hide his desire for her, or to disguise the depth of his affection. He all but crushed her small form to him, lifting her clear off the ground as he kissed her deeply, passionately, with that edge of desperation that had been there since he told her about his very necessary decisions. He did not have to waste words on telling her how he felt; he showed her. The assembled staff shifted on their feet, more than a few began to cry, and not only the women.

Sir Charles Waterford, a man of more than thirty winters, bit his lip and turned away, swallowing the lump in his throat. A scribe wrote the scene down, with eyes blurred by unshed tears. Anne, one of Beth's daughters, comforted two of the Maids, and sniffled herself. Others simply watched in silent respect and a little melancholy, as their Earl and Countess remained locked in their embrace.

Aurora's arms were around him and her fingers buried in his hair. She poured everything in her heart into that kiss; all the love and desire that was in her soul. Her desperation was as acute as his, and she didn't care - had never cared -who knew how very much she loved this man, belonged to him and with him. He was her Heart.

Julian kissed her for a very long time, and slowly, reluctantly, let her down to her feet. His hands cupped her face, as he gazed into her eyes. He did not know what to say, he did not have the words to make this moment not come to an end with both of them in tears in front of their son. Julian brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, and kissed her lips lightly one last time. "It is time." He offered simply, his voice soft, low, and hoarse with the tears he refused to shed.

"I know," she whispered thickly, trailing a hand down over his shoulder and into the hidden pocket of her gown. Without stepping back from him, she tied around his left wrist a braided length of her red-gold hair. The ends were capped in gold and fastened with a leather cord. It was a common token between lovers, given to one who was leaving for a long journey. It was followed by a length of purple silk cut from her favorite gown that she tied around his upper arm; a lady's favor to be carried into battle. Stitched around the ends were green leaves and white roses winding around Alexander and Aurora's names.

Her maid stepped up silently and handed Aurora a leather-bound book the size of a journal. On the cover was embossed the flying hawk of his banner. She sniffed back the tears that threatened and reached up to squeeze one of his hands while she held out the book to him with the other. She didn't explain it. He would understand when he opened it.

"Je t'aime, mon Lord Longbow, " she murmured. "Pour toujours et partout."

Julian looked at his wrist, and his jaw clenched slightly. He looked at the purple ribbon, and blew out a breath through his nose, followed by a deep breath and the brief closing of his eyes. His lips parted to say something, but again words failed him. He took the book, his brow furrowing slightly as he accepted it, and squeezed her hand in turn. He opened the small book in his one great hand, and remembered the work she had done over the last year, only he had never seen them all bound together like they now were. He tucked it behind his belt, under his tabard. In a voice that only she could hear, because he did not trust himself to speak any louder, he repeated her devotion back to her. "Je t'aime, Aurora." He turned to Alexander, his voice not much louder, "And I love you too, son. Remember what I said." Julian ruffled Alexander's hair for what, unknowingly, would be the last time.

"Oui, Daddy," replied his son sheepishly as some of the other boys in the yard snickered at his now wild hair.

He looked at Aurora, and hugged her quickly, whispering, "Inis vitae sed non amoris." Then before he could not leave, Julian turned away. He made it five steps. Suddenly, he drew his dagger, reached his hand behind him to grasp his hair, which had been bound back by a silver and leather clasp, and cut the length of it free. He walked back to Aurora and pressed his ponytail into her hand. Julian met her eyes a final time, bit his lip, and walked back towards his captains, where one handed him his helmet. The Earl of Huntingdon donned the stylized Hawk-head helmet almost too quickly, the fierce hawk's beak shading his eyes, and his cheeks. "Onward men! To Victory! And a swift return to home and hearth!" He did not have the strength to leave his Family, not if he looked one last time. He was proud in the saddle, projecting an aura of confidence and strength, while breaking somewhere inside. He ignored the moisture on his face, thankful for the helmet that now hid his features in shadows.

Julian rode out of Huntingdon without looking back.

Aurora and Alexander watched him ride out. Bystanders could tell the young heir was very impressed with his father. The Countess couldn't tear her eyes away from her husband's retreating back. She clutched his token to her chest and didn't bother holding back her tears anymore.

Alexander looked up to ask her something, but stopped himself. He didn't understand the heartbreak on his mother's face, but he remembered his father said to take care of her, so he quietly leaned against her and hugged her. She carded a hand through his curls absently until she could no longer see Julian. Then she looked down at Alexander. "It is all right, poppet," she said quietly. "You can go."

"I love you, Momma."

"I know. I love you too," she replied with a watery smile.

"Daddy will be home soon," he assured her innocently with the faith of a child. He gave her another quick squeeze and dashed off with the other boys to go watch the departure of the horde of soldiers from the tower.

Aurora's eyes had gone back to the now empty gate after Alexander had left. "No," she whispered lowly. "I do not think he will."

Sir John's gentle hand on her elbow guided her back inside the manor house that suddenly felt far too big and far too empty.

9- Epilogue : Aurora

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