09-The End: Aurora

1096-1097

The months that followed the departure of two thirds of the men of Huntingdon under the command of the Earl were hell for his Countess. As much as she wanted to shut herself up in their room and cry, she had a responsibility to their people. Far too soon the responsibility would be her son's.

Alexander was taking his father's words to heart; even if she hadn't forced herself out of her funk he would have. He exuberantly woke her up every morning, kept up a line of patter all through breakfast which never failed to draw her into the here and now instead of dwelling on the past. He applied himself to all his lessons with a renewed vigor. Whenever he saw Aurora staring off into space with that look on her face, he pulled her out of it and re-engaged her in the living world around her. His father had been proud of him when he left, and he was determined to not let him down now.

Her son became her focus again. Aurora was impossibly proud of him and loved him without reservation. When she wasn't dealing with the affairs of nobility, she was either with him or observing. He was growing up so fast. One day he had been her light-hearted and laughing boy, then she had just turned around and he was suddenly this strapping young man nearly as tall as she was, looking more and more like his father, and starting to win the same archery tourneys Julian once had. It pained her that his father was missing it, that he would never know the man his son would be become.


1098

Aurora was wrenched from her painting in mid-stroke with a strangled gasp. Something was wrong; something was missing. She stumbled against the wall, her skin growing pale, cold as she searched herself for the cause. It felt like her heart had been torn from her chest.

A heartbroken wail carried over the courtyard from the tower as she sank to the floor; the grief so heavy and thick in her wrenching sobs that the retainers pounding up the stairs to check on her were in tears themselves before they made it to her. Aurora didn't hear them; didn't see when they tried to get her attention; didn't notice when John picked her up and carried her back down to her bed where she curled up around a cold pillow, inconsolable and incoherent.

Her link to Julian had been severed. Suddenly, completely, and without warning. He was gone.


Every day was a new pain for Aurora. This had been Julian's house before it was their home. Everything in it reminded her of him. The loyal retainers of the Lord and Lady had known for years that Aurora experienced visions, so when she told them the Earl no longer walked this plane, they believed her. The household mourned quietly, and Aurora sent for a stone mason. She knew she would never see his body. But if he was laid to rest in the lands of the culture they both held such admiration for, she didn't think he would mind. Huntingdon may not have his body, but they knew that it held his heart.


1099

Here lies not my body, but my heart.

That was the engraving over the door. Everyone thought it was a reference to the fact that Julian's final resting place was not where it should be. But Aurora knew they were only half right. It was hers that would never lie here, but it was here that her heart would always belong.

She stood in the quiet of the elegant mausoleum newly completed in the corner of the gardens. Carved from white native rock, the small structure had room only for four because people would have questioned any less. Stone sarcophagi stood empty and lidless for the moment. Alexander was unusually solemn at her side as they faced one of them.

His mother silently laid a journal bookmarked with a braid of her hair, and a three white roses tied with black ribbon inside one of the coffins. She clenched her eyes closed and gritted her teeth to keep from breaking down completely. This would be so much easier if she honestly believed in an afterlife.

She gave her son a tight smile and stroked her hand through his hair reassuringly. Hesitantly, he too stepped up and beside his mother's tokens, laid his own; the last bow that his father had made him that he had since outgrown, along with two arrows fletched in black.

The pair turned and stepped back out into the early evening air. Aurora couldn't stand to watch the workman put the lid carved with Julian's likeness on its final resting place. Not yet. Alex's hand found his mother's as they walked through the garden in silence, back to the house and up to the tower; a room they both identified strongly with their lost loved one.

Aurora sank down into the large chair facing the open air. Alex, despite being all of twelve summers and almost as tall as she, crawled into her lap and laid his head on her shoulder.

"What will Daddy find in the Summerplace, Momma?"

Aurora smiled against his tossled raven mop of curls and wrapped him in her arms. "Whatever he wants," she murmured. "A great forest with lots of hunting and place to ride, and a warm house with a library full of all the books in the world."

He shifted in her lap so he could see her face. "All the books in the world? Why so many?"

"It has to keep him occupied until we get there, my darling." Aurora said and kissed his forehead.

"We will all be together again?" he asked pensively as he laid his head back down. Aurora had lost count of how many times he asked her that question.

"Yes," she reassured him with an ache in her soul. "Someday."


1100

She called the Bishop a liar to his face when he came to Huntingdon with his lies about the glorious victories of her Lord Husband against the Infidels when the Holy City was retaken months previously. The same Bishop who had first come to deliver the Papal Bull to Julian. The same Bishop who had grown fat and rich, and who looked at Aurora in a way that made her skin crawl. His condescending tone when he told her she simply did not understand the importance of this great Crusade because she was a mere woman nearly earned him the honor of being the first man of the cloth to have his eyes scratched out by the Countess of Huntingdon. It was only Alexander entering the room that stayed her hand. But the priest knew he had found no friend in the Heir of Huntingdon judging by the look of icy disdain on the young face that was so like Julian's.

She quietly cursed him in the back when he left. He was dead as soon as he crossed out of their lands.

Aurora never felt a moment's guilt for the action. The Church had made a mortal enemy in Aurora, Countess of Huntingdon, and she would spend the rest of her days in thwarting them whenever she could.


1104

She hadn't slept in days. A sickness she was unfamiliar with had swept through Huntingdon. She could treat the symptoms, but not the root of it. She couldn't isolate the disease and her people were dying. Already she had put the sick and dying into isolation, using one of the large unused rooms of the manor as a makeshift hospital.

Using strict protocols for cleanliness and hygiene, Aurora had accepted some of the volunteers who had for unknown reasons, escaped the infection. She had refused to allow John to help in this; she needed him alive and well, for he was the one she was leaving the reins of rule to until Alex was ready. She knew she could only stay a few more years in this place. She would only be able to return when everyone now living had died, and Alex would need someone like John even after he took his place as Earl.

Where were those thrice damned visions when she needed them?

She peered at the small pots boiling merrily along and made some notes in her book as the door opened behind her.

"Momma?"

Alex hadn't called her that in a few years now. Too old, he said. Aurora looked over her shoulder and smiled at her son in spite of a sudden surge of fear. He looked like he had been sparring with John and the boys again. "You should get cleaned up, baby. Dinner will be soon."

With the thud of a teenage body hitting the floor Aurora's world fell apart.


Despite all the knowledge at her fingertips in a library unrivaled in this part of the world; despite all she knew about medicine; despite sorcery done in the dead of night on the sly, Aurora was helpless in the face of this disease that had now sought to claim her beloved son. She had tried everything, even sending to the Druids who now hid in the woods around Huntingdon from the purges of the accursed Church. She had prayed to the barely remembered serpentine god of her Home until she was hoarse, and then railed at the Heavens when no inspiration was forthcoming. Desperation had driven her to trying against her better judgment to summon the spirit of her husband to intercede on Alex's behalf. She was almost relieved that it hadn't worked. She wasn't sure she would have been strong enough to let him go; or resist the urge to join him.

In the end, all she could do was hold Alex's hand, make sure that he knew how very much he was loved, ease his pain, and reassure him that he would see his father again. She told him of her own parents, grandparents he had never known who would welcome him with open arms and love him enough to fill the time until she could join them.

As his end neared, Aurora held him against her chest as she had when he was younger, carding her fingers gently through his hair. His last request had been for a lullaby she used to sing him when he was small. That she managed to get through it was a testament to how much she loved him. He faded as the song did, and with him went any spark that Aurora had managed to hold on to after she had lost Julian.


She prepared the body herself; washing and dressing him in favorite leathers. Part of it was a mother's need to take care of her child as long as possible. The other was so no one would see the runes she painted on him. They wouldn't last forever, but for a time they would protect him in his final rest. She didn't trust the damned Church not to try something after she was gone because Alexander hadn't been baptized in their mockery of a religion.

Now a ghost of her former self, Aurora laid her son to rest beside the bodiless sarcophagus of her husband. The Druids had counseled the survivors to burn the bodies of the stricken, and even though she knew it was a reasonable thing to do because of how they died, she simply could not do that to her beautiful boy.

The Druid that had blessed his birth now officiated over blessing his departed soul and commending it to the Summerlands. Aurora didn't hear a word he said, so deep was she in her grief.


1105

It had been nearly a year since the death of the young Lord. Almost a decade since she had lost Julian. With no tears left to cry, the Countess drifted through her days, rarely seen outside the library or the tower unless it was to visit the mausoleum. She had written another letter and slipped it inside Julian's sarcophagus, pouring out her failure to save their son despite the brilliant mind her husband had so admired. It had eased her soul to do it, and no one that was aware of it said a word.

They were surprised to see the group of Saracens ride into Huntingdon. For a moment, Aurora grabbed on to a wild hope that her husband was among them. Even as the thought entered her head she knew it was not true. He was gone. She had felt him leave this world.

She discovered that many of them had been Julian's prisoners at one time. Unlike the others, he had chosen to not kill those he was victorious against. She had given the men a small smile then; it was so like him. They had come to thank him; to meet "the most beautiful woman in all the world', and the son he spoke so proudly of; to introduce him to some of their families who had traveled with them. They had no idea he hadn't made it home. It nearly killed her to explain, and they had mourned with her at the news. She invited them to stay as guests of her household as long as they needed. They shared stories of the noble hearted Earl with his widow; stories that eased her pain while reopening the wounds of his loss.


1106

Most of their visitors had long since left, but some stayed to help out, to repay the debt they felt they owed to the late Earl. Aurora spoke to them often, finding a kinship among the intelligent and well read foreigners that shouldn't have surprised her. Through Julian and his books she had learned to admire the culture that made them what they were. She spent several evenings in the company of the women. It was there her plans started to form.

Aurora spent an afternoon behind closed doors with John. When she left, he held the keys to the keep and the title of Earl. He had tried to refuse, but Aurora wasn't taking no for an answer. He was the only one she trusted Huntingdon to. It's what Julian would have wanted, and she had forged his signature more times then she could count; what was one more? John and his sons would see to it that their dreams for this place were carried on. But Aurora knew she would go mad if she stayed any longer.

With a vision of the future to guide her, Aurora picked out all the books that would have been slated for confiscation and burning by the increasingly violent Church. After not getting them when she needed them most, the return of the visions had made her bitter. But their library was a source of pride for Julian and Aurora, and she would be damned before she let the people she blamed for the death of her husband have one page of their collection. Some of them she felt should stay to aid John and the rest of the household, and she showed John where to hide them.

The rest were wrapped carefully and packed in the false bottom of the wagon she would be taking, as well as false bottomed trunks that hid a multitude of Aurora's accumulated pre-Julian secrets. She made no secret to the household that she was leaving. John was convinced she was going somewhere that would allow her to die in peace, where no one would try and stop her from joining her husband and son. Aurora convinced the people of Huntingdon that she was going to the Holy Land herself; to find Julian's body and bring him home. She wasn't traveling alone; she would be traveling with their foreign guests when they returned to their occupied homeland.


1116

After ten years, Sir John accepted that the Countess was not returning. He hoped she had found peace finally. In his mind she had found the Earl's final resting place and was even now at his side where she belonged. The people of Huntingdon mourned, and Aurora's carved likeness was placed over a sarcophagi that was as empty as her beloved husband's.


1187

The Countess of Huntingdon had a very long memory, and when the Muslims reclaimed their Holy City, there was a red headed sorceress among Saladin's forces. As the people around her celebrated, Aurora stood on the city wall and gazed up at the stars, fingering the wedding ring she now wore on a chain around her neck. "That was for you, Beloved," she whispered.

It was just the beginning of a life long personal campaign to be a thorn in the side of the Church that would she never forgive for taking the great love of her life from her too soon.

10-The End: Julian

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