Spellbinder (Chapter 16)

Thea started to let go of Eric. She could still try to save him.

But he wouldn't let go. And her own instincts told her to hold on to him.

They stood up together, holding each other, facing the Inner Circle as a unit.

"Well," Mother Cybele said, blinking rapidly. "Aradia brought us here thinking you might need help. But you've taken care of things yourselves. We saw the end, very impressive."

"I saw it, too," Aradia said. Her face was turned toward Thea, the faintest trace of a smile on her lips. "You did a good job, Thea Harman. You're a true Hearth-Woman."

"Yes, and where did that last invocation come from?" Gran said, shifting her weight to the cane Rhys gave her. "I've never in my life heard of anybody calling on their own power as a daughter of Hellewise." She said it in a grumbling way, but Thea had the strange feeling that she was almost pleased.

Thea faced them all. Maiden, Mother, and Crone of the Inner Circle. She was still holding Eric. "I don't know where it came from," she said, and was glad to hear that her voice wasn't shaking too badly. "It just… came."

"And what about you? What's your name, young man?" Gran said.

"Eric Ross." Thea was proud of the way he said it, quiet and respectful, but not cowed.

Gran looked from him to Thea. And back again.

"You're in this with my granddaughter?"

"He doesn't know anything. ,. ." Thea began, but of course that was hopeless. And ridiculous.

"I know I love Thea," Eric said, cutting her off. "And she loves me. And if there's some rule that says we can't be together, it's a stupid rule."

He sounded terribly brave and terribly young. Thea felt a wave of dizziness. Her fingers tightened on his until both their hands were shaking from the pressure. She realized for the first time that her right hand was fairly seriously burned.

"Please let him go, Grandma," she whispered. And then, as Gran stood silent, "Please… I won't ever see him again and he won't ever tell. All he's done is try to help me, try to save lives. Please don't punish him for what's my fault." Warmth pooled in her eyes and spilled over.

"He tried to uphold the law," Aradia said. "At least, I think so."

Thea wasn't sure she'd heard right. Gran didn't seem to be, either. She said, "How's that?"

"Hellewise said it's forbidden for witches to kill humans, didn't she?" Aradia asked, her face serene. "Well, that spirit was a witch who'd already killed a human-and who wanted to kill more. And he helped send her back. He helped Thea undo the forbidden spell, and he helped prevent witch law from being broken again."

Rhys muttered, "Neatly put," but Thea couldn't tell whether that meant he agreed or not.

Gran shuffled a step forward, looking at Eric. "And just what did you do to help, young man?"

"I don't know if I did help," Eric said in his quiet, straightforward way. "Mainly I just tried to keep her from killing me-"

"When did you light the fires?" Thea asked in an undertone, still clutching his hands.

He glanced at her. One side of his mouth quirked slightly.

"Nine o'clock," he said.

"Even though I wasn't there." Thea's voice was just slightly louder now. "And you knew Suzanne would come and try to get you, and you didn't have any magic to fight her. So why did you do it?"

He looked at her, then at Gran. Then at her. "You know why. Because otherwise she'd have gone over to the party."

"And killed more people." Thea looked at Gran.

Gran was staring at Eric, her dark old eyes very keen. "So you saved lives."

"I don't know," Eric said again, maddeningly honest. "But I didn't want to take the chance."

"He saved my life, too," Thea said. "Suzanne tried to kill me. And I could never have gotten through the spell to send her back if he hadn't kept her distracted."

"That's nice, but I'm not sure it's enough," Old Bob said, running a hand over his stubbly chin. His weathered face was quizzical. "There's nothing that says upholding one law makes up for breaking another. Especially Night World law. We could get in a mess of trouble fooling with that."

Gran and Mother Cybele looked at each other. Then Gran turned to Old Bob.

"I changed your diapers-don't tell me you know more about Night World law," she snapped. "I'm not about to let a bunch of bloodthirsty vampires dictate to me." She looked at the others. "We need to take this somewhere private. Let's go back to my place."

Somewhere private. Hope kept racing giddily through Thea as the jeep bounced and rattled home.

Eric was driving, and Thea was in the backseat, so they couldn't talk. Aunt Ursula was in the front beside Eric.

Gran's fighting for me. And Aradia, and maybe even Mother Cybele. They don't want me to die. I don't think they even want Eric to die.

But reality kept trying to push the hope away.

What can they do? They can't condone a witch and a human being together. They can't risk war with the rest of the Night World, not even to save me.

There's no solution.

The little caravan pulled up the back alley behind Gran's store.

And then Thea was in the workshop again, in the circle of chairs. Creon and Belfana had been waiting. So had Blaise and Dani, who were both sitting down.

"Are you okay?" Dani began, standing–and then she shut up. She was looking at Eric, her dark, velvety eyes huge. A human in the Circle.

"We put Suzanne back," Thea said simply. She took Eric's hand again.

The Inner Circle re-formed around the two of them, witch and human, standing centered.

"We have a situation," Gran said. And she explained even though most of them already understood the problem. She did it thoroughly, looking at each of the Circle members in turn. Aradia and Mother Cybele sat on either side of her, occasionally putting in a thoughtful remark.

Thea figured it out in a few minutes. Gran was recruiting each of them, appealing to them-and showing that the Mother and Maiden both agreed with her. She was working them all over to her side.

"And the end result is, we've got these two," she said at last. "And we have to decide what to do with them. This is a decision for the Inner Circle, for the daughters and sons of Hellewise. Not for the Night World Council," she added, looking at Old Bob.

He ran a hand through rough gray hair and muttered, "The Council might not see it just that way," But he smiled. "There was a time," Gran said, "when witches and humans got along better than they do now. I'm sure anybody who's gone far enough back with their family tree knows that."

Eric looked at Thea, who shook her head and looked at Blaise.

"She means," Mother Cybele put in, "that we used to take human husbands, a long time ago. To make up for the fact that there have never been enough witch men. That was back in the days when there was still the third Circle, Circle Daybreak. The one that tried to teach magic to humans."

"Until humans started burning us," Belfana said, her freckled face grave under its coil of deep red hair.

"Well, this one isn't likely to burn anybody," Aunt Ursula said acidly. At that moment, Thea loved her.

"Nobody is arguing that the laws should be changed," Mother Cybele said, putting her plump fingers together. "We can't go back to those days, and we all know the danger from humans now. The question is, is there any way to make an exception in this one case?"

"I don't see how," Rhys said slowly. "Not without all of us ending up accused of treason."

"It'll be the Night Wars all over again," Nana Bur-uku added. "Each race of Night People against the others."

"I don't wish them harm," Creon said from his wheelchair, his cracked voice barely audible. "But they can't live in our world, and they can't live in the human world."

And that, Thea thought, sums it up perfectly. There is no place for us. Not while one of us is witch and the other is human….

The idea came in a single flash, like the lightning from the balefire.

So simple. And yet so terrifying.

It might work….

But if it did, could I stand it?

Would you give up everything?

Everything-including Gran and Blaise. Dani and Lawai'a and Cousin Celestyn. Uncle Galen, Aunt Ger-deth. Aunt Ursula… Selene and Vivienne, everybody at Circle Twilight.

The smell of herbs, lavender mixed with rose petals. The kiss of cool stones in her palm. Every chant, every invocation… all the spells she'd learned. The feel of magic flowing through her fingertips. Even the memory of Hellewise…

Hellewise in her white shift, in the dark forest…

Would you give up everything… for peace?

For Eric?

This time the inner voice was her own. She found herself looking at Eric and knowing she already had her answer.

He was so good, so dear. Tender but intense. Smart and brave and honest and insightful… and loving.

He loves me. He was willing to die for me.

He'd give up everything.

Eric was watching her, his gray-flecked eyes concerned. He could tell that something was going on with her.

Thea smiled at him. And was so proud to see that even now, surrounded by people who must seem like

figures from some horrible legend to him, he could give her a wry half-smile back.

"I have an idea," she said to Gran and the Inner Circle. "The Cup of Lethe."

There was a silence. People looked at each other. Gran was startled.

"Not just for him," Thea said. "For me."

Long breaths quietly drawn in the silence.

Gran shut her eyes.

"If I drank enough, I'd forget everything," Thea forged on, talking to all the grave faces. "Everything about the Night World. I wouldn't be a witch anymore, because I wouldn't remember who I am."

"You'd become a lost witch," Aradia said. Her lovely face was calm, not appalled. "Like the psychics who don't know their heritage. And lost witches can live with humans."

"And neither of us would remember about the Night World," Thea said. "So how could we be breaking any laws?"

"The law would be satisfied," Aradia said.

Eric's hand tightened on Thea's. "But-"

She looked at him. "It's the only way for us to be together."

He shut his mouth.

This silence was very long.

Then Blaise, who had been standing with crossed arms, watching, said, "She told me they were soulmates."

For an instant, Thea thought she was saying it spitefully, to harm.

But Gran was turning in surprise. "Soulmates. That's a notion I haven't heard in a while."

"An archaic myth," Rhys said, shifting in his lab coat.

"Maybe not," Mother Cybele said softly. "Maybe the old powers are waking up again. Maybe they're trying to tell us something."

Gran looked down at the floor. When she looked back at Thea, there were tears in her fierce dark eyes. And for the first time since Thea had known her, those eyes looked truly old.

"If we did let you do this," she said, "if we let you renounce your heritage and walk away from us… where would you go?"

It was Eric who answered. "With me," he said simply. "My mom and my sister already love her. And my mom knows she's an orphan. If I tell her Thea can't stay here anymore-well, she'd take her in, no questions."

"I see," Gran said. Eric hadn't mentioned that his mom already thought Thea was living in an unstable home with an unbalanced old lady, but Thea had the feeling Gran knew.

Another pause, as Gran looked around the Circle. Finally, she nodded and let out a breath. "I think the girl's given us a way out," she said. "Does anybody disagree?"

No one spoke. Most of the faces were pitying. They think it's a fate worse than death, Thea realized.

Blaise said suddenly, "I'll get the Cup."

She clashed through the bead curtain.

Good. It's good to get it over with, Thea thought. Her heart was pounding wildly. She and Eric were holding hands so tightly that her burned fingers stung.

"It won't hurt," she whispered to him. "We'll be sort of confused… but it should come back to us… except anything about magic."

"You can transfer into zoology," he said. "And go to Davis." He was smiling, but his eyes were full.

Dani stepped forward. "Can I… I'd just like to say good-bye." She got through that much steadily. Then she choked and threw herself into Thea's arms.

Thea hugged back. "I'm sorry I got you in trouble," she whispered.

"You didn't-you told them it wasn't my fault. They're not going to do anything to me. But it's going to be so lonely at school without you…" Dani stepped away, shaking her head, trying not to cry. "Blessed be."

Blaise was back, little bells ringing. She had a pewter chalice in one hand and a bottle in the other.

Just seeing the bottle sent a shiver through Thea. The glass was so dark with age she couldn't tell what color it had been originally, and so misshapen it was hard to know if it was meant to be round or square. There was wax over the cork and all sorts of seals and ribbons.

Gran broke through the seals, pulled off the ribbons. She tried to twist the cork out of the wax, but Blaise had to help.

Then she tipped the bottle above the cup Blaise held.

Brownish liquid ran out. Gran poured until the cup was half full.

"When you drink this," Gran said to Thea, "you'll

forget me. You won't know anyone here. But we won't forget you." She spoke formally, an announcement before the Circle. "Thea Sophia Harman, let the record show that you are a true daughter of Hellewise."

She shuffled forward and kissed Thea's cheek.

Thea hugged her, feeling the fragile old body for the last time. "Good-bye, Gran. I love you."

Then Blaise came, offering the cup in both hands. She looked wild and beautiful, her hair a cataract of black tumbling around her, her hands pale around the chalice.

"Good-bye," Thea said, and took it from her.

Blaise smiled.

Now, Thea told herself. Don't hesitate. Don't think about it.

She lifted the cup to her lips and drank.

And choked slightly on the first swallow. It was- it tasted like…

Her eyes went to Blaise's.

Which were large and gray and luminous. They looked at her steadily. So steadily that it was a warning.

Thea kept drinking.

Tea. Watered-down iced tea. That was what the Cup of Lethe tasted like.

That bottle was sealed-she didn't have time- there was wax on the cork…

Thea's mind was churning. But she had enough sense to do one thing-she drank a lot of whatever was in the cup, so there wouldn't be any left over for the Circle to examine when Eric was done.

And she kept her face blank as Blaise took the chalice from her and gave it to Eric.

Eric drank, looked slightly surprised, and kept drinking.

"Finish it allll," Blaise said. Her eyes were still on Thea's.

And that was when Thea knew for sure.

You did it before, when you were first talking about giving human boys the Cup of Lethe after spilling their blood at the Homecoming dance. You poured it out and stashed it somewhere and put in tea and redid all those seals-of course you could reproduce them with molds. And now… and now…

As Blaise took the chalice back from Eric, it hit Thea in a wave that almost made her hysterical.

This is never going to work. They're never going to believe it. But…

Thea took Eric's hand and sank her nails into his palm. She didn't dare say a word to him, didn't dare even look at him. But she was thinking, don't speak, don't do anything, just follow my lead.

She made her face as blank as a wax doll.

Eric was just standing there. He didn't know what to expect, but he obviously felt Thea's nails. And he proved how smart he was by not speaking.

"We stand adjourned," Gran said tersely. "Blaise, take them out while they're still confused. They should be able to get home on their own." She turned away without looking at Thea.

"No problem," Blaise said.

Aradia said, "I'll go with you."