NO GREATER LOVE

by Becky Bain


Greater love hath no man than this,

that a man lay down his life for his friends.

-- John XV, 15

 

Vincent returned to awareness slowly. He lay motionless and tried to force his sluggish brain to alertness. The inside of his mouth tasted thick and foul and there was a persistent buzzing in his ears. His entire body felt unnaturally heavy, but at last he found the strength and the will to drag himself upright. He shook his head to clear it and forced his eyes to open.

His vision and mind began to focus, and the wavery lines before him solidified into vertical steel bars. He was in a cage. A large, roomy cage, but a cage nonetheless.

With a roar, he threw himself toward the door. An instant later, his feet were jerked violently from beneath him and he crashed heavily to the ground. Snarling in fury, he rolled instinctively to face his assailant. His mind, working much more slowly than usual, finally told him that no one was there.

He rose to his knees and noticed for the first time that his every movement was accompanied by a dull, metallic clank. The reason for his fall, and the heaviness of his limbs, was the tempered steel chains which bound him.

Still snarling softly, in frustration now as much as rage, he retreated to the back of his prison and began to examine his fetters. Heavy steel bands, connected by short lengths of chain, encircled wrists and ankles. The one between his wrists was joined, midpoint, with one around his waist, limiting the movement of his hands. The chain between his ankles was linked to a longer chain leading to a steel ring firmly embedded in the rock wall. The shiny newness of the shackles and chains made Vincent suspect this had all been prepared especially for him. He wasn't surprised when he heard a malicious chuckle from outside the cage.

He turned slowly and held himself with dignity as he faced his old enemy. "Paracelsus." He acknowledged the man coldly.

"So, Vincent." Paracelsus seemed to enjoy the sight of Vincent behind bars and in chains. "You are awake at last. I began to fear I had given you too much of the drug that made you sleep."

Vincent did not reply, but fury smoldered just beneath the surface.

Paracelsus chuckled again. "You won't be alone in your prison for long," he said, with malevolent glee. "Your Catherine and my old friend Jacob will be joining you soon."

He spun sharply and left the small chamber; Vincent couldn't stop the low, rumbling growl that followed, but when he was alone again, he fought to contain the part of him that wanted to rip at his bonds in mindless frenzy.

At last the fury retreated to lie simmering just beneath the surface and, in control again, Vincent knelt in the dust and meticulously examined his chains. He tested each link and fastening in turn, twisting and tugging. All was solid.

He turned his attention to the ring set in the wall. It appeared to be firmly anchored, but, as he had tested the rest of his bonds, he had to test this one. He braced himself solidly, let out a roar of pure animal rage and wrenched at it, letting the fury fuel his efforts. He kept it up until his breath burned in his throat and his head swam, but it was no use. Neither the ring nor the chain showed any sign of weakening. Breathing hard, Vincent was forced to recognize that for now, at least, he must remain a prisoner.

He arranged his chains and lowered himself to lie on a wide stone shelf that ran across the rear of the cage. His back, shoulders, and arms ached from his strenuous efforts and he needed to rest.

His mind couldn't be still, though. There was danger for Catherine and Father and he was helpless to protect them. The risk was especially great for Catherine, isolated as she was from his world. But surely when as Father realized Paracelsus was behind Vincent's disappearance, he would take special steps to guard her. With a shudder, Vincent remembered how, once before, Paracelsus had managed to kidnap Catherine from her home. Silently, he begged Father not to let it happen again. No matter what happened to him, Catherine must be kept safe.

At last, exhausted by his struggles against his restraints and still fighting vestiges of the sedative in his system, Vincent sank into a restless, nightmarish sleep.

He awoke some time later to a heavy feeling of apprehension -- apprehension approaching fear. He surged to his feet, tugging at his chains in helplessness. Catherine was afraid...

 

* * * * *

 

She had begun to fear for Vincent the moment she received the message from Father. Her anxiety grew as she hurried along the now-familiar path through the tunnels to Father's chamber; her pace quickened to a half-run down the last long passage, and she stopped outside the short entry to Father's study only long enough to gather her courage before going inside.

"Catherine!" The look on Father's face confirmed her fears as he came toward her.

"What's wrong? Where's Vincent?" Her throat felt tight with dread.

"We don't know," Father replied gravely, taking her arm to guide her to a chair. "He's missing."

She yanked herself from his grip and stared at him in horror. "What do you mean, missing? How long has he been gone?"

"No one's seen him since yesterday morning," Father admitted. "Mouse saw him then, on his way to an area where we're making some repairs, but he never arrived.

"Please, Catherine, sit down."

"I don't want to sit down! What are you doing to find him?"

"We've started organizing..."

Father's explanation was interrupted when Geoffrey burst into the chamber and clattered down the short flight of stairs. "Father! Father!" he cried, his voice shrill with excitement. "I found this! It has your name on it!" Carefully he placed a small brown paper-wrapped parcel into Father's hands.

"Thank you, Geoffrey," Father said automatically, his fingers already opening the bundle. Inside lay two things... a small leather pouch on a long drawstring, and a shiny gold coin.

"Paracelsus," Catherine said softly, touching the coin. "Paracelsus has him."

"Yes." Father lifted the pouch, letting it dangle from trembling fingers. "Vincent's rose. He would never have parted with it willingly."

He hesitated, as if seeking the right words. "Catherine..." He paused again, searching her eyes. "Through your bond, your connection... would you know? Is Vincent... alive?"

She blinked in confusion. "I... I don't know," she faltered and stepped back. "It's not as strong with me. I can't feel him the way he can me." She looked at Father and knew he shared her fear. She closed her eyes and tried consciously to determine if anything was different. "It feels the same," she whispered finally. "Surely, if he were... gone, I would sense a change?"

Father shook his head helplessly. "I understand it even less than you do." He sighed. "We must believe he is all right. We need to find him and get him away somehow."

He glanced warily at Catherine. "You must remain below until this is resolved."

"No!" Her protest was automatic.

"Catherine, Vincent would never forgive me if I allowed anything to happen to you. I cannot protect you above and we know that John has the means to reach you there. You must remain here. For Vincent. Please."

Catherine wavered. Her first impulse, as always, was to remain above, independent and self-reliant, but deep down she knew Father was right. Reluctantly, she nodded. "For Vincent."

Father's relief showed in his eyes. "Good. I'll have Mary prepare a chamber..."

"Please," Catherine interrupted. "I want to sleep in Vincent's chamber."

"Of course," Father agreed instantly.

Her gaze went past him to the small leather pouch he'd laid on his desk. She picked it up and held it almost reverently. "I'll keep this for him 'til he gets back," she whispered.

Father nodded, all his attention fixed on the gold coin in his hand. Catherine wondered briefly if he even saw her go.

In Vincent's chamber, Catherine sank down on the bed. She loosened the drawstring, slipped Vincent's rose from the pouch, and held it gently cupped in both hands. It was doubly precious to her, not only because it had once been her mother's, but now, because it belonged to Vincent.

"I'm thinking of you, Vincent," she whispered, remembering the night she'd given it to him. "I love you." She hoped, with all her heart, that wherever he was, Vincent could feel her thinking of him, and loving him.

 

Two agonizing days passed. The search parties found no trace of either Vincent or Paracelsus, but planned to go deeper, further, with new searches. The problem, Catherine had been told, was that there were literally miles of tunnels and chambers and caverns; it could take weeks to search them all.

Father refused to even consider permitting her to join one of the search parties, and though she recognized the validity of his argument, it didn't make her exclusion easy to accept. As a result, she'd spent most of the two days pacing Vincent's chamber restlessly.

She'd shortened the drawstring on the pouch for Vincent's rose and wore it now around her neck, under her clothes. The feel of it against her heart somehow made Vincent seem closer. She wasn't sure why, exactly, but she had gradually become convinced that wherever he was, he was all right, at least for now.

Still, she slept only fitfully at night, waking over and over again to the dreadful knowledge that he was not there.

By the afternoon of the second day, she could no longer bear the confinement of Vincent's chamber. Father had cautioned her about venturing beyond the guarded perimeter, but she could walk the tunnels and passageways that connected the living areas, and she thought perhaps a short walk would relieve some of the agonizing tension.

As she passed an unfamiliar side tunnel, she heard a child's voice calling for help. She paused, listening. Yes, there it was again, more clearly this time. She started down the passage, straining her eyes and ears for signs and sounds from the distressed child.

"Someone help me, please!" The cry was louder and Catherine broke into a half-run.

Someone rushed at her from a niche in the tunnel wall and she smelled a familiar sweet odor as she was seized and a cloth was pressed to her face. She fought wildly, but her assailant was much stronger, and she felt herself slipping into blackness.

When she came to, she was being carried, slung uncomfortably over someone's shoulder. Instinctively, she began to struggle. Immediately she was set on her feet and a dirty, leering face looked down at her.

"If you're awake, little lady, then you can walk."

The man's teeth were bad and his breath worse; Catherine turned her head away and shrank back in revulsion. He didn't seem to notice or care as he picked up a short length of rope dangling from her tightly bound wrists and dragged her along.

She stumbled along in his wake, her mind still fogged from whatever had been on the cloth. By the time she felt truly alert, they had already passed through a seemingly endless series of tunnels, caverns, ladders, and chutes.

Eventually they arrived in a vast, torchlit chamber. Her captor pulled her to a desk, where Paracelsus sat writing. He looked up at their approach.

"Ah, Catherine! How nice to see you again!" His invidious smile sent a cold shiver down the back of her neck.

"Where is Vincent?" she demanded, ignoring his pleasantries. "What have you done to him?"

"Vincent is fine, fine," he assured her smoothly. "A bit unhappy, but that's to be expected. I'm sure having company will cheer him up." He jerked his head and her captor tugged on the rope. She followed him into a short passage that ended in a smaller room, a room taken up almost completely by a cage.

Vincent was on his feet to meet her as they entered and Catherine stared in horror at the chains which bound him. Paracelsus's henchman untied her wrists before he opened the cage door and gave her a rough shove that sent her sprawling inside.

Vincent snarled viciously and Catherine rolled, scrambling to her feet to glare defiance as the man impassively locked the cage and left the chamber.

Only when she was sure he was gone did she turn and fling her arms around Vincent with a small, glad cry. His return embrace seemed awkward but he placed his hands on her waist and pressed his cheek against her hair.

"Are you all right?" she asked at last, drawing back to look at him.

He nodded briefly, obviously torn between joy at seeing her and dismay that now she, too, had been made captive.

A sound outside their prison made both turn; Vincent caught Catherine's arm, drawing her behind him as a man Catherine didn't recognize entered, carrying a wooden tray.

The man knelt and slid the tray through a narrow space in a corner of the cage and used a long wooden pole to push it within reach of Vincent's chains; it joined four identical trays on the floor there.

The man looked up and caught her eye. She stared at him; oblivious, he nodded once and went out. Vincent stood quite still in the center of their prison. Catherine eased around him and approached the tray.

It held two large wooden bowls. One was filled with a thin, grayish stew; the other held water. The other trays were the same. None of the bowls had been touched.

She spun accusingly. "You haven't been eating? Vincent, you must not give up! Father has parties out looking..."

Vincent shook his head gravely, cutting her off. "It isn't that," he said quietly, his voice sounding hoarse. He lifted his hands and showed her how the manacles he wore kept him from raising them any higher than mid-chest. "I cannot feed myself, Catherine," he said, his voice hard. "And I will not let him reduce me to eating like an animal."

She stared at him for a horrified moment. No wonder his face was gaunt, his eyes hollow. She suspected only stubborn pride was keeping him on his feet. She turned to the tray and reached for the water bowl.

"Sit down," she commanded, carrying the bowl back to him. He sank down on the wide stone shelf and she brought the rim to his mouth and tipped it.

He drank greedily. The water was tepid, its surface filmed with dust, but he didn't seem to care. He made a small, instinctive sound of protest when Catherine took the bowl away.

"If you drink too much too soon, you'll be sick," she reminded him. "Let's wait a few minutes." It was a full half-hour before his thirst was quenched. By then, he'd managed to down most of the water, a few sips at a time, and she went for the other bowl.

The stew was accompanied by a small, flattish loaf of bread. There were no utensils, so Catherine broke off a small piece of bread, dipped it in the broth, and raised it to Vincent's lips. "Eat," she urged him. His gaze never left her face as he took the morsel gently from her fingers.

Slowly they shared the scanty meal. Catherine fished out the solid bits with her fingers and paused often to offer Vincent more water. She fed most of the stew to Vincent, eating herself only when he insisted.

When only the broth remained, she lifted the bowl so they could take turns drinking from it, and used the last scrap of bread to sop up the final drops of gravy and shared that, too.

She returned the empty vessels to the tray and used her foot to push it out of the cage before turning to the other three trays. The bowls of stew were congealed and probably spoiled, but the flat loaves of bread, while stale, were still edible, so she gathered them up. She kept the water bowls too, placing them carefully against the wall so they wouldn't spill, and pushed the trays out.

With the housekeeping chores finished, she turned back to Vincent. He still sat where she'd left him on the stone shelf, watching her every move. She curled close beside him and linked her arm through his. The closeness helped dim their bleak surroundings. His hand gathered hers in, enveloping it in warm security.

"I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth," she said presently, "But why is Paracelsus allowing us to live? I know he wants you..." She broke off, unable to finish the sentence.

"It is no longer enough for Paracelsus simply to win," Vincent said slowly. "First he must demonstrate his cleverness. He must be able to tell us that victory is his before he kills us."

Catherine nodded in thoughtful agreement. "That is his weakness, then."

"Yes. His need to parade his triumph gives us time." Vincent looked down at his manacled wrists. "Does Father know it's Paracelsus?"

"Yes. He sent a package. A gold coin, and this..." Releasing his arm, Catherine ran a finger inside her collar, catching a long leather thong. She drew out the pouch that held Vincent's rose and pulled it over her head.

"I kept it for you." She felt almost shy as she untied the knot that had shortened the drawstring and moved to place it around his neck.

Vincent fingered the pouch tenderly. "Will Father know you are gone?" he asked presently.

She nodded. "I've been staying below. Father was afraid he couldn't protect me above." She laughed shortly, almost bitterly. "It doesn't seem to have made much difference."

Vincent reached for her hand and immediately she felt ashamed. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't mean to blame anyone. Even if Father had sent someone to guard me, it wouldn't have helped."

Vincent listened patiently as she described what she could remember of her kidnapping. At the mention of the child's cry for help, he stiffened and Catherine looked up in sudden realization.

"He used that to lure you, too!" she exclaimed.

Vincent moved his head in a brief gesture of agreement. "And used a much stronger drug. When I finally awakened, I was here, like this." He shook his chains.

"They're looking for us, Vincent," Catherine tried to reassure him. "They won't stop looking. We just have to stay alive..."

"Yes," he agreed softly. "Alive."

Catherine shivered in the chill and burrowed closer to Vincent for warmth. His chains kept him from putting an arm around her, but he pulled part of his cloak over her legs, and eventually she fell into an uneasy sleep.

She was jostled awake when Vincent moved away from her. Rubbing her eyes, she saw that the chamber was brighter; another lantern stood outside the cage, close beside the one that had burned all night. It must be morning.

The same man who had brought their supper the night before appeared, carrying another tray. Again, he knelt and slid it under the door. The other trays were already gone -- she guessed that was what had made Vincent stand up. She yawned and crossed the cage to bring back the food.

It was more of the lukewarm stew with another hard chunk of bread, and again Catherine used her fingers to feed them both.

She had just returned to Vincent's side after pushing the dirty dishes out when Paracelsus came in with his two followers. Vincent put himself between Catherine and the men outside, shielding her.

"So." Paracelsus's smile could only be described as sinister. "I trust you had an uneventful night?"

Vincent stood silently. Behind him, Catherine rested her hand on his back, feeling the faint tremor of the fury coiled within.

One of the men unlocked the door and opened it. Paracelsus spoke almost pleasantly. "Catherine. You will step outside the cage now."

"No." Vincent's voice was harsh and definitive. Catherine didn't move.

"Come, now." Paracelsus ignored Vincent and spoke only to Catherine, coaxing. "Vincent can't protect you, bound as he is. If we must remove you forcibly, he's sure to be hurt. If I must, I will drug him. I have done so before..."

Vincent's low growl said that he remembered the earlier occasion all too clearly. Catherine remembered, too, and before Vincent could stop her she had stepped past him, out of his reach. The look she gave him was regretful as she joined Paracelsus outside.

"Don't hurt him," she warned in a low voice.

"My dear!" Paracelsus sounded surprised. "I have no intention of hurting him. Indeed, I'm going to make him more comfortable. Vincent!" Paracelsus shifted his attention. "It may be difficult for you to believe, but I did not intend to humiliate you with your chains. I had no idea that you could not feed yourself. Maddock," he indicated the man who had brought Catherine to this place, "will come in to adjust your bonds. Culver," he nodded toward the man who had brought their meals, "will ensure your cooperation."

At his signal, the man he called Culver stepped behind Catherine, seized a handful of her hair, and yanked her back against him. Before she could resist, he had produced a knife and pressed the point lightly against her throat.

For an instant there was shocked, motionless silence. Then Vincent let out a strangled roar, straining at his chains.

Patiently, Paracelsus waited until Vincent's rage wore itself out and he stood braced against his fetters, lip curled in a silent snarl. "Your struggles are useless, Vincent. You cannot escape me."

"Let her go." Vincent's voice was low and furious. "It is me you want. Catherine is not part of our world. Let her go."

Paracelsus's scarred face twisted bitterly behind his mask. "You forget, Vincent. She has worked against me, helped obstruct my plans. There is a debt to be paid. But for now, she is simply a tool. A method to control you, Vincent. You will be perfectly still while Maddock adjusts your chains. If you move so much as a finger..."

Paracelsus signalled again and the knife against Catherine's throat moved quickly, precisely. She flinched from the blade's touch; it was a moment before the place began to sting and she could feel the wet oozing of blood from a newly inflicted cut.

Vincent snarled softly between clenched teeth. A tremor shook him and then he was still. Maddock entered the cage cautiously, glancing apprehensively at his master before squatting in front of Vincent to begin working on the chains.

Vincent ignored him. His entire consciousness seemed focused on Catherine, his gaze fixed on hers. Slowly, her fear dissipated. Though her head was held forcibly back and Culver's knife pricked her skin, she was almost relaxed -- she knew Vincent wouldn't move, no matter what Maddock might do to him. Not if it endangered her.

She concentrated, sending him her trust, knowing her confidence helped Vincent keep his dark urges contained. Gradually the wrath in his eyes faded; for a moment she thought he almost smiled.

Maddock gave a grunt of satisfaction. He picked up his tools and stepped outside the cage, pulling the door shut behind him. Culver released his grip on Catherine's hair and took her arm.

He tugged and, with horror, she realized he meant to take her away. She balked.

Vincent roared and threw himself forward, fighting the chains and she used the momentary distraction to twist free of Culver's grip. She scrambled back, giving herself room, and settled into the defensive stance Isaac Stubbs had so carefully taught her. There were three of them, but maybe, if she was lucky...

Vincent roared again, furiously. No one else moved.

Paracelsus waited until Vincent's rage subsided into a soft, frustrated snarl. "Come, my dear," he said persuasively, when the noise died away. "This won't do any good. You can't escape and after all, I still have Vincent."

Involuntarily, Catherine's gaze flicked to Vincent, now standing motionless in the center of the cage.

"Go, Catherine," he urged. "Run."

"If you run, what happens to Vincent will be your responsibility," Paracelsus countered ruthlessly, and her fighting spirit faltered. Just as he had been unable to risk harm to her, so she must protect him. Deliberately she relaxed and dropped her hands to her sides; she made no effort to resist when Culver took her arm again.

Vincent growled, low in his throat.

"You needn't worry, Vincent," Paracelsus said. "I won't harm her. She's still useful to me."

Culver led Catherine to a corner of the large chamber and fastened a single manacle around her wrist. With a grimace that could almost pass for a friendly smile, he left her there.

An outcropping of rock blocked her view of the rest of the chamber; this place was really more like a small alcove, but there was nothing here to harm her. Paracelsus must have wanted to separate her from Vincent, but she couldn't imagine why.

Unless...

An agonizing thought burst upon her and she surged to the end of her chain, straining to see the opening to the chamber she'd just left. She heard Vincent's answering roar and fought to contain her terror -- not for herself, but for him. What if Paracelsus wanted her here because he meant, in some way, to harm Vincent?

Heart pounding, she stood at the end of her fetter and listened. Vincent was growling, but she could detect no signs of activity in or near the chamber where he was held. The sharp edge of her panic faded and Vincent's sounds of frenzy -- a response, she realized, to her own momentary panic -- quieted as well.

A kind of silence descended, broken only by the slow, steady drip of water from somewhere high above her, but even though she was reasonably sure that Vincent was safe, it was a long time before Catherine was able to turn away and examine her corner. The steel bracelet on her arm was lighter than the ones Vincent wore, as was the chain, but the shiny new tempered steel was still far too strong for her to have any hope of breaking.

The other end of her chain was fastened to a ring, set in the wall at eye level. The five-foot length of chain allowed her to sit or even lie down and gave her a small radius of floor to walk over. She paced restlessly for a while, but there was little to see and the irregular, amorphous sounds she heard told her nothing.

Time passed slowly. She had given up pacing and was crouched against the wall, eyes half-closed in drowsy boredom when Maddock approached. She snapped to alertness when he squatted down beside her and put his hand out to touch her face.

"Pretty," he murmured, leaning closer. He smiled a horrible smile.

An icy finger of horror trailed down her spine.

"I haven't had a woman in a long time," he continued, leering.

She jerked away from his hand. "Don't touch me!"

"Aw, what do you want to be like that for?" he crooned, stroking her cheek. "I just want a little lovin'."

"Go away," she ground out through clenched teeth. "You're repulsive."

"And that thing in that cage in there ain't?" His voice turned ugly. "You'd better be nice to me," he threatened. "I can hurt him. I can hurt him bad." His eyes gleamed with malevolence.

Catherine glared defiance, but she felt suddenly sick as all the morning's terror came flooding back. As long as they had Vincent, she would have to submit to anything they wanted. Anything.

Desperately, she reached for the inner strength that Vincent maintained she had, keeping her hands rigidly at her sides when what she wanted was to lash out at Maddock's face with the extra length of chain.

He grinned lasciviously and his hand left her face, stroking down her throat. He slipped a grimy hand inside the collar of her shirt, tracing along her collarbone; she closed her eyes and tried to detach herself from what was happening. If she could stop herself from feeling anything, then Vincent wouldn't know, and suddenly protecting him from knowing seemed most important.

Maddock's hands grew bolder and he leaned close, his breath fetid on her cheek. She tried to will her consciousness away from her body. "This isn't happening to me," she whispered, but panic was rising unbidden; she couldn't stop it.

A sudden, outraged roar from the other chamber brought her eyes open again and she clenched her teeth. "Don't, Vincent," she whispered. Maddock ignored her, intent on his own pursuits, and she stared sightlessly past him. "Don't fight. It's all right. I'll be all right."

Soothing Vincent gave her a focus and she clung to it, willfully shutting out reality.

"Maddock!"

Paracelsus's voice cracked like a whip, bringing her abruptly back. He stood over them, his expression savage. Maddock cowered and Catherine used the opportunity to edge away.

"I told you to leave her alone!" Paracelsus thundered, ignoring her.

Maddock peered from behind upraised arms. "I just wanted..."

"What you want is of no consequence. The woman is mine, just as Vincent is mine. And I will decide what is to be done with them. Do you understand?"

Maddock nodded miserably.

"Good. Now get out of my sight!"

Maddock scuttled away in terror and Paracelsus watched him go, his eyes cold and hard. Only when the other man had disappeared did he turn to Catherine.

"I apologize," he told her formally. "He will not bother you again." He turned sharply and strode away.

Limp with relief, hardly able to credit what had just happened, she sank back against the rock wall. It was a few moments before she summoned the strength to straighten her clothing. Her flesh crawled where Maddock had touched her and she wished fiercely for soap and water to wash away the memory. Vincent's roars had died to occasional snarls of impotent rage and she set herself to calming him, sending him all the serenity she could muster.

More hours passed and she guessed it must be evening when Culver came to unlock her shackle and lead her back to the cage. She waited until his footsteps had died away before turning to Vincent.

His chains still kept him from putting his arms around her, but the mere touch of his hands at her waist, his cheek on her hair, was enough to reassure and comfort. She lingered there, pressed against him, knowing their embrace, hampered as it was, strengthened him as much as it did her.

Only when footsteps sounded in the passage did she step back. It was Culver, bringing more of the stew and bread and she went to the door to meet him. He offered her another of his hesitant smiles as he pushed the tray through, nodding happily at her whispered, automatic, "Thank you."

She brought the food back to the shelf and set it down between them. "You'd think they could give us a spoon," she muttered under her breath, and was rewarded with the soft, breathy sound of Vincent's laughter. After a moment, she saw the irony herself, and smiled back.

"At least I can feed myself tonight," he said, and showed her how Maddock had fixed his bonds so the chain between his wrists ran freely through a ring at his waist. Now he could raise one hand at a time.

Catherine still had to hold the bowls for him to drink broth or water -- they were too large and clumsy for him to manage with one hand -- but, even so, the meal went more quickly.

"I feel positively grubby," she said, after they'd eaten. "A hot shower would feel good about now."

"I can't provide a shower, but we have water," Vincent reminded her, indicating the bowls left over from the meals served him before she came. "You could wash." His gaze went to her throat. "You should bathe that cut. It might become infected."

She touched her neck; flecks of dark, dried blood came away on her fingers, reminding her of the small wound Culver had so casually put there. "I'd forgotten," she confessed.

Vincent rose to his feet and produced a small square of cloth -- torn from his shirt, she guessed. He dampened it, squeezing out the excess liquid.

The touch of his hand on her chin was gentle and she allowed him to tip her head up and a little to one side. The cloth was cool, the movement of his hand tender, but there was a hardness in his eyes that disturbed her. He was upset that she had been hurt, but whether he was angry with himself or with their captors, she wasn't sure.

"It's only a cut, Vincent," she said. "It'll heal."

He didn't answer.

She reached up, stilling his hand. "Vincent..." She broke off when he gasped softly and flinched. "What? Did I hurt you?"

He started to turn away and she caught his arm. He resisted her first efforts to draw his hand into her lap, but she persisted and at last he yielded.

Beneath the manacle, his wrist was gashed and torn, his shirt cuff stained with blood. Some of the wounds were dried; others still oozed wetly. She gasped in horror and reached for his other hand. It was the same.

"Oh, Vincent. Why didn't you tell me?" She looked up and saw the answer in his eyes. To him, this was the price he paid for his inability to protect her.

"These need attention," she said softly. "Sit down." He hesitated and she tightened her grip on his fingers and tugged. "Sit down, Vincent."

He bowed to her insistence, sat on the low shelf and pulled back his cuffs. Catherine brought back the cleanest of the four bowls of water, wishing she had some way to heat and sterilize it. Failing that, she searched for something to use as bandages; the scrap from Vincent's shirt was far too small.

But thinking of Vincent's shirt reminded her of something else and she reached for the leather ties that held the front of her overshirt together.

"What are you doing?" Vincent's voice held more than a little alarm, but, fixed on her task, she didn't look up.

"I'm taking off my shirt."

"Why?" He started to his feet and she took one hand away from the laces long enough to push him back down.

"If you don't want to see, close your eyes," she advised briskly. "But sit there."

Something in her voice must have made an impression; he sank back and studiously turned his head away. She spared a small smile for his innocence. "I'm sorry, Vincent. I don't mean to embarrass you." She pulled off the light, embroidered overshirt and followed it quickly with the heavier sweater underneath.

When she'd dressed the other morning, she'd been below, so she was wearing several warm layers. The innermost layer was a soft cotton t-shirt, and it was this she wanted. It wasn't exactly sterile after lying against her skin for two days, but it was easily the cleanest thing she had on. She pulled it off, shivering a little in the cool air, and set it aside before putting the sweater and overshirt back on.

"You can look now," she said, and turned her attention to the t-shirt. Worn as it was, it still resisted her efforts to tear it and she turned to Vincent. "Help me."

She expected him to use his claws. Instead, he caught the hem of the shirt in his sharp teeth and jerked, and it tore with a loud ripping sound. "More?" he asked.

"No, I can get it now that it's started." She set aside a sizable rectangle and swiftly reduced the rest of the shirt to a pile of two-inch wide strips.

She knelt beside him and bathed the lacerated flesh of his wrists, steeling herself against the knowledge that she was hurting him; when the wounds were clean she patted them dry and bandaged them thickly, hoping the extra layers of cloth would protect him from the steel bracelets.

Vincent suffered her ministrations in silence; when she finished, he shook his cuffs down over the bandages and moved to the end of his fetters. Catherine rinsed out what was left of her shirt and hung it over a small protrusion of rock to dry.

"Vincent?"

When he didn't turn, she moved close, touching his shoulder.

"Are you all right?"

Long minutes passed before he spoke. "Catherine. This afternoon something happened to frighten you."

"Yes," she agreed quietly. She pressed close to his side. The muscles of Vincent's arm were rigid beneath her hand and she rubbed gently, trying to get him to relax.

"You tried to shut me out." His voice shook. He turned his head to look at her.

"I didn't want to upset you," she whispered. "I thought if I could keep you from knowing..."

Vincent rounded on her. "Keep me from knowing...?" he repeated. He caught her arm. "Tell me."

She shook her head. "It was nothing."

"The truth, Catherine."

She tried to look away from his implacable stare and failed. "It was Maddock," she confessed, finally, her voice no more than a whisper.

"Did he hurt you?" he asked, his voice low and savage.

"No."

"He touched you." There was danger in his voice, a barely leashed rage that frightened her.

She managed a tiny, reluctant nod.

"And you did nothing to stop him."

Again she shook her head.

"Why?"

"He threatened you. If I didn't cooperate..."

His arm felt as if it had been carved from marble; his eyes were glacial.

"It was Paracelsus who stopped him." She forced a smile. "I never thought the day would come when I'd be glad to see him."

"He protected you." Vincent sounded as if he could not quite believe it.

"No, Vincent. You protected me."

Her statement, simple and sincere, seemed to bleed away some of the unbearable tension, and he allowed her to guide him back to the low stone shelf. She sat, pulling him down beside her, and lifted his elbow to duck underneath and nestle in the protective curve of his arm.

"You drew Paracelsus's attention to what was happening," she went on. "You saved me."

"I endangered you, simply by my existence," he countered. His arm tightened around her shoulders and she twisted to face him.

"You know better than that, Vincent."

After a moment, he looked away from the challenge in her eyes and she knew he was past that simmering, helpless rage, at least for now. She put her arms around his waist and held him hard.

Too soon, he pulled away. "Catherine, there is something else we must do."

She looked at him curiously in the dim glow of lantern light. "What's that?"

"This morning you had an opportunity to escape."

"No, Vincent. I won't leave you. Not after what Paracelsus said." She forced a laugh. "Besides, I wouldn't know where to go. I'd get lost."

"Catherine, if another such opportunity arises, you must not think of Paracelsus's threats. There is too much at stake... the safety of my world... your life..."

"My life means nothing without you," she reminded him stubbornly. "But you're right about your world... they should be warned..."

"And Paracelsus is not likely to kill me just yet," Vincent observed. "Only make me extremely uncomfortable."

She suppressed a shudder, thinking of the ways in which Paracelsus could make Vincent's prediction come true.

He squeezed her hand and rose from the shelf to kneel in the dust. "Come here. I believe I know where we are. I'll show you the way back."

Catherine spent the next two hours kneeling on the cold, dusty floor, watching as Vincent drew out a map of the route between their prison and the community tunnels. Because of the distance involved, the map was intricate and Vincent was painstaking with details, carefully including all side tunnels, spurs, and chambers. When it was complete, he made her trace it with a finger, over and over, repeating the landmarks aloud.

"Good," he said simply, after she'd gone over the route, error-free, for the third time. "Do you know it?"

She rubbed her tired eyes with a grimy hand and nodded. "I think so."

He ran his hand over the map, erasing it. "Show me."

"Vincent..." She looked up. His expression held regret for her weariness, but determination was there, too. Clearly, he would push her on this, if he had to. She swallowed her protest and bent over the newly smoothed surface. "We're here. I go this way; there will be two passages going off to my left and one to my right; when I reach the third passage going left, I take it. Follow it until it starts to climb..." She ticked off each landmark as she marked it in the dust; when she finished, she sank back, exhausted.

"Good." He rose to his feet and reached down to help her up. "You should sleep now," he told her.

"What about you?" she asked. His face was drawn with fatigue and she touched his cheek softly.

"I must watch."

"If Paracelsus means to harm us, he doesn't have to wait until we sleep," Catherine pointed out rationally. "Besides, you'll wake up if anyone enters. Lie down here with me."

His look of vague protest gave way to the wisdom of her argument and he yielded, stretching out along the stone shelf. On the floor of their cell was a grimy blanket Culver had shoved through the bars earlier. Catherine picked it up, shaking it to remove the worst of the dirt, and joined Vincent on the shelf.

The chamber was cooled by constantly moving currents of air and she snuggled close, seeking to share his warmth. He still wore his cloak, unable to remove it because of his shackles, but there was plenty of fabric in the body of the garment and he pulled it over her, trying to augment the dirty, threadbare blanket.

Slowly she relaxed, letting drowsiness creep over her . "Vincent?" she murmured. "What's going to happen to us now?"

He shifted, drawing her closer. "I don't know."

"If we don't get out... if no one comes to free us..."

"Shhh. You mustn't think of that. Someone will come."

"But if they don't..."

"We aren't going to die, Catherine." Vincent sounded very certain.

"I know, but... I just thought... If something happens... if we do... tomorrow, or anytime, I want you to know..." She moved her head to look at him. "...how much I love you. How much I wanted..." She let the sentence drift away, unfinished.

He held her very tightly, his cheek pressed hard against her hair. "I know."

 

Safe in his arms, Catherine slept, and did not wake until Culver brought breakfast. Afterward, Culver and Maddock came to remove her from the cage, but when she rose to accompany them, Vincent caught her arm.

"No, Catherine," he said forcefully. "No."

He held her in a grip so tight it made her wrist ache. Outside their prison, Culver and Maddock watched with open interest.

"Let me go, Vincent," she argued in a fierce whisper. "I have to go with them. You know that."

His eyes pleaded with her. "Whatever Paracelsus might do to punish me cannot be as bad as what might happen to you, alone out there..."

"It could easily be worse, Vincent. Please. I have to do this. I couldn't bear to watch you being hurt..."

"And what do you think it is for me, to stand here and watch you go, unable to protect you..."

"You're asking me to accept a certainty to protect myself from a possibility. I can't do that." She looked at him. "And if the situation was reversed, neither could you."

Slowly his grip eased. "No," he agreed softly, finally. "I couldn't."

She could see, by his eyes, what effort it took for him to let go of her; she wouldn't offer him any physical consolation with Culver and Maddock outside the bars watching, but she could let her love, her trust show on her face and after a moment he nodded briefly and stepped back.

"Go carefully, Catherine."

"I will."

She stepped outside, careful to avoid Maddock, and Culver took her arm to lead her into the larger chamber. Instead of returning her to the corner, though, he escorted her to the large desk where she'd seen Paracelsus the first night, and, with a series of gestures, invited her to sit down. Hesitantly she did, keeping a firm hold on her apprehension. There was no point in agitating Vincent if she could avoid it.

It wasn't long until Paracelsus emerged from a side passage and took his seat across from her. "Good morning," he greeted her cordially. "I trust you slept well?"

"Not particularly," she answered him coldly. "What do you want?"

He rubbed his hands together in a familiar, if somewhat sinister, gesture. "Information," he informed her. "Jacob has changed the defenses. You were there. Tell me what he's done."

She stared at him. "I don't know."

"You were there," he repeated smoothly. "Am I to believe that you took no interest in the steps being taken to protect you?"

She leaned forward. "I don't care what you believe," she hissed, feeling fully capable of lunging across the desk and squeezing the life from him with her bare hands. Culver's presence a few feet away stayed the impulse. "I'm not a member of the community. Nobody asked for my opinion."

He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers thoughtfully. "Perhaps Vincent knows," he mused.

Her hands were suddenly cold and she squeezed them between her thighs to keep them from trembling. "Vincent knows nothing," she said, trying to keep the desperation from her voice. "He was here, remember?"

"Ah, but think, dear Catherine. One of Vincent's main duties is the protection of Jacob's world. Wouldn't it be odd if he had no idea what their defense plans were?"

"Even if he knew, he wouldn't tell you. No matter what you do to him."

Paracelsus leaned forward, his expression suddenly deadly. "But he will. If the threat is not to him, but to you."

Behind her, she heard the low rumble of Vincent's growl, his response to the icy terror she could no longer keep at bay. Paracelsus jerked his head in an angry signal and Culver came forward to take her arm.

He dragged her up, pulled her to the far corner of the chamber and shackled her to the wall. Cold with fear, she huddled, waiting. Beyond the stone abutment that blocked her view, she could hear someone -- perhaps several someones -- moving about.

She understood, now, what Paracelsus was doing, saw his purpose in separating her from Vincent and the reasons behind everything he'd said. It was a form of psychological warfare, building their fears for each other, allowing them time together and then separating them in a cycle designed to feed Vincent's rage.

She wondered what his ultimate purpose was. They'd assumed he wanted what he'd always claimed to want -- to replace Father as head of the tunnel society -- but now she wondered if his real intent was not far more deadly than that.

Vincent's sudden snarl of fury brought her out of her thoughts and sharply to her feet. The roar that followed echoed eerily through the chamber, bouncing back on itself before fading away. In the interval that followed, she could hear the quick rattle and clank of chains and the low, insistent voice of Paracelsus.

The sounds continued for more than an hour, building until the roars were a continuous noise, drowning out all else, seeping into her skull until she thought she might go mad, visualizing the torment he must be enduring.

The silence afterward was almost worse. There was no sound at all beyond the soft shuffling step that she had identified as Culver's. When at length he came to escort her back, she followed him anxiously, squinting in the dim wavering light of the single lantern.

The sight of Paracelsus and Maddock waiting just outside the cage stopped her breath and her step faltered. Culver moved on, oblivious, and she stumbled after him.

Vincent stood as close to the bars as his fetters allowed. He was dusty, disheveled, and bore a long scrape across one high cheekbone; his stance was defiant, his lip curled in a silent snarl, but his eyes... his eyes held only terror.

"What have you done to him?" she hissed furiously.

Paracelsus didn't bother to answer her question. "I'm very sorry, my dear," he said instead. "I tried to persuade him to tell me what I need to know, but he refuses. So this becomes necessary..."

At his signal, Maddock swung open the cage door and Culver pushed her inside. As the door clanged shut, she whirled, keeping an uncertain eye on their captors. "Vincent? What's happening?"

As if in answer to her question, Maddock raised what looked like a rifle to his shoulder; before she could move to interfere, he fired.

Catherine spun around in time to see Vincent yank something from his arm and drop it on the floor.

A tranquilizer dart.

"I'm sorry, Vincent," Paracelsus said. Incredibly, his voice held what seemed to be genuine regret. "You gave me no choice." With a jerk of his head, he signaled Maddock and Culver out of the chamber and followed them.

"Catherine." Vincent's voice was jerky, a product of his uneven and accelerated breathing. "You must stay away. As far as you can. Don't move. Don't do anything that might..."

Attract your attention, she finished for him, silently. "I will," she agreed swiftly, sinking down against the bars, making herself small.

"Catherine... forgive me. I couldn't tell him... they're my family..." His sentences were fragmented; whether from the substance in the dart or simply from agitation, she couldn't tell.

"I know, Vincent. I understand." And she did. All too well. Because he'd refused to give the information Paracelsus required, he was being punished. Drugged.

She had been placed in the cage to create an additional fear for him; that, if the drug somehow made him able to break free of his restraints, he might strike out at any living thing. In a hallucinogenic frenzy, he could kill her, and never even know it.

He stumbled to the far side of the cage and crumpled there, a huddled, formless mass, waiting for the worst.

She watched anxiously, heart pounding. Irrationally, she wished for water to moisten her suddenly dry mouth, but the water bowls were on Vincent's side of the cage. And then she wished she'd had the presence of mind, before the drug took over, clouding his reason, to tell him she loved him.

Long minutes passed in dreadful silence. Outside the bars, a pair of lanterns glowed brightly, casting sharp-edged shadows against the rough walls.

At last Vincent stirred. "Catherine?" he whispered, sounding, for the first time in her memory, small and lost.

He'd told her not to attract his attention, but he showed no signs of violence and somehow she knew he wanted an answer. "Yes," she whispered back. "I'm here."

Slowly he lifted a hand, holding it up in front of him. It was steady and as she watched, he turned it and flexed the fingers. "I... feel nothing."

"You mean you're numb?"

"No. I feel normal. As I usually do." He lifted the other hand and gave it the same examination as the first. Only then did he lift his head to look at her. His eyes were clear and focused, if a little puzzled, and impulsively she rose.

"Don't!" he warned, but already she was there, taking his hands in hers.

"You're all right, Vincent. The dart must have been empty."

He studied her face for a moment before nodding. "Yes. He meant it as a warning. Of what could happen if I do not cooperate."

"He meant to frighten us."

His fingers tightened on hers. "He succeeded."

A noise outside silenced them and after a moment Culver came in carrying their dinner tray. He didn't seem surprised to see them sitting together; with his usual vacuous grin he pushed the tray under the door. Catherine had grown used to the bland, unvarying menu and she brought the tray back without even a sigh of resignation.

Vincent studied the bowl of stew uneasily. "He could have put something in the food," he said. "Or the water."

"Yes," Catherine agreed. "But then he'd be drugging me, too. What would be the point? Besides, he could have done it before now, if he wanted."

"Yes." He looked at her. "Shall we risk it?"

Catherine looked down at the thin, grayish concoction and shrugged. "I don't think we have a choice." She dipped her fingers in and brought out the first morsel -- a chunk of unidentifiable vegetable. With a here-goes-nothing quirk of her eyebrows, she popped it into her mouth. "See? Delicious."

Some of the tension ever-present in the lines of Vincent's face eased; for a moment, she thought he might smile. Instead, he broke off a chunk of bread, dipped it into the broth, and ate it.

Between bites, she told him of the morning's interview with Paracelsus and what he had threatened.

"Yes. I had much the same conversation with him, myself," Vincent admitted. "And yet I do not think he really wishes to know about my world's defenses."

"What, then?"

"He's dealing in fear. He wants you to fear me; he wants me to fear myself." He looked away, his expression dark.

She touched his arm. "Vincent, he can't make me fear you. You could never hurt me. I believe that."

He pivoted so fast that the ends of his hair, matted and dirty as it was, whipped out behind him. His eyes blazed fiercely. "Do you think, if the dart had not been empty, I would have had a choice? Any one of several drugs might have given me the strength to break free, despite what the effort might do to me." He held out his wrists so she could see how the bandages she'd so lovingly wrapped around them were now torn and blood-soaked. "It could easily blind me to you, Catherine. You would become simply an obstacle, perhaps a threat..."

She wanted to argue, to blunt his fury and refute the words that were so obviously tearing at him even as he said them. But she could not. Because they could be true.

"Perhaps he won't try again," she whispered. "It's like a game to him. Maybe he won't want to do the same thing twice."

He had gone quite still and the new look in his eyes chilled her. "We cannot risk it. You must leave. Tonight."

She blinked at him. "Tonight? You mean now? How?" She gestured wildly at the bars that surrounded them.

"There is a gap..." His gaze shifted and she turned to look.

The vertical steel bars of their cage touched the rock ceiling in most places. Some spots showed signs of being chiseled away to make room for the bars. Vincent indicated a corner where the natural ceiling was a little higher and the crossbar on top of the cage didn't quite meet it.

Catherine looked at the narrow opening, glancing from it to Vincent and back again as understanding dawned.

Slowly she approached the corner, assessing the small space above it. She seized the section of bars and shook them vigorously to be sure they would support her weight. They were, as she expected, solid.

She stepped back, judged the height of the crossbar, took two quick running steps and jumped, grasping the vertical bars and pulling herself up. Her fingers just brushed the top bar before she lost momentum and dropped back down.

She dusted her hands against her thighs and tried again. This time she managed to catch the top bar with one hand. She swung her other hand up and dangled for a moment, catching her breath, before bracing her feet against the bars and hoisting herself up. With one hand, she measured the space, assessing, planning.

The ceiling rose abruptly from the corner, dropping gradually, then sharply to meet the bars again. The gap it left was almost rectangular, about three feet long. It was eight inches high on one end, dwindling to about five inches on the other.

Satisfied with her examination, she jumped down and dusted her hands again.

"Can you get through?" Vincent asked quietly.

"I'm not sure. I think so." She looked at him. "I don't want to leave you."

He shook his head gently.

"I know, I have to," she went on doggedly.

"No one will come until morning," he reminded her. "You must go now."

She nodded. "I know that, too." She came close, slipping under his elbow to stand within the circle made by his arm and the chain. She hugged him fiercely, trying not to think of Paracelsus's threats. Vincent responded, crushing her to him, tight and tighter, and she rose on tiptoe to press her cheek against his.

"Be well, Vincent," she whispered, as if saying the words could cast a spell to protect him from their enemy. "Be safe."

It was hard to step back from him, harder to turn away.

"Take the blanket," Vincent advised. "You may need its warmth."

She nodded and placed the blanket and her jacket near the bars. Again, she had to make two leaps before she grasped the top bar.

She hung by her hands and secured her grip before starting to rock sideways. When she had gained enough momentum she swung herself hard, twisting her legs up to hook one heel over the crossbar. That gave her the leverage to pull herself higher and push her legs through the opening.

Her body followed more slowly; the gap was a tight fit and it was hard to force herself through. She was halfway when her foot slipped, upsetting her balance; Vincent's sharp gasp cut through her own muffled grunt as she bruised a shoulder against the rough rock ceiling.

She couldn't spare the concentration to reassure him, though. Her balance here was too precarious. Kicking blindly, she found another foothold and braced feet and knees against the tempered steel bars.

Only when she was steady again did she glance at him. Vincent held his breath, fists curled tightly and she tried, without much success, to smile.

Her moment's rest over, she renewed her grip on the crossbar and began to ease her shoulders through the narrow opening. This was easily the most dangerous part of the maneuver. If she slipped now, her head would be trapped between the bar and the ceiling. It would probably break her neck. If it didn't, Vincent, chained as he was, would be powerless to help her, and she would slowly strangle.

She dared not dwell on the possibilities, dared not hesitate, and a moment later she was through, dropping safely to the ground.

Vincent let out his breath in audible relief and she knew he had recognized the danger. She managed a triumphant grin, rubbing at some of the scrapes and bruises she'd acquired as she pushed her body through a space scarcely large enough to accommodate it. His expression softened and he nodded, encouraging her to go on.

She bent and pulled her jacket and the dingy blanket through the bars, donning the jacket and tying the blanket loosely around her shoulders. Culver had left two lighted lanterns tonight and she picked one up, hefting it. It was heavy, full of oil. Only when her preparations were complete did she turn back to Vincent.

Despite the chains which bound him, he wore an air of dignity and long-suffering nobility. For a wild instant, Catherine wanted to climb back through that painfully small opening and hurl herself into his arms, never to leave, but she knew the impossibility of that. Instead, she gave him a look which said more than mere words ever could. His eyes answered eloquently.

"Go with care," Vincent said finally, breaking the spell.

"I will," she answered, her voice soft. "Vincent..."

There were no words for what she wanted to tell him. He tilted his head. "I know." His hand went to the pouch that held his rose. "Go now."

She went.

There were two passages leading from the small chamber which held the cage. One led to the large chamber where Paracelsus was; Catherine took the other one, walking as quickly as she dared. Haste was important because Paracelsus would be in pursuit as soon as he knew she was gone, but caution was necessary because the floor of the tunnels was rocky and uneven. The lantern swinging from her hand threw shadows everywhere, making it difficult to see.

Following the advice Vincent had given during their map session, she made herself stop and rest for five minutes of every hour. Impatience made her want to press on, but the brief rest periods would help conserve her strength.

That strength began to wane, though, after hours of walking, and she found herself increasingly leg-weary, hungry, and thirsty. According to Vincent's map, which so far had proved accurate, there should be a chamber with a spring not far from here. Catherine stumbled on.

The light from her lantern had begun to flicker, making the shadows swell and fade in time with her steps. Puddles of darkness wavered at her feet and she stepped carefully, trying to avoid them.

Suddenly, the solid ground beneath her broke away, and she stumbled. She threw her hands out instinctively and there was a crash of breaking glass as she dropped the lantern. The light went out. She fell, striking hard against the rough granite wall.

Moaning, she rolled over on the rocky floor. Hot, stabbing pain shot through her right ankle; for a few incredibly long moments it was all she could do not to cry out.

The pain finally began to subside and she sat up, breathing hard. In the uncertain light provided by the burning pool of oil from her smashed lantern, she gingerly removed her shoe. Rolling down her sock, she examined the ankle in the near-darkness. The side of her foot was already dark with bruising and the sharp bone of her ankle had disappeared beneath puffy flesh.

She touched it lightly, testing. The skin was numb and didn't register the feel of her fingers. She wriggled her toes experimentally. Her ankle ached with a deep, fierce ache, but she didn't think it was broken. In any case, she had to go on.

With dogged determination, she tore strips from her grimy blanket. She pulled up her sock and gently replaced her shoe, lacing it loosely. Using the strips of the blanket, she wrapped her ankle securely, shoe and all. It felt better with the firm support and she pushed herself up, leaning against the wall, putting all her weight on the good leg.

The small pool of oil had almost burned itself out, and with a sickening lurch of terror she realized that in her fall, she had completely lost her sense of direction. She had no idea which way she'd come.

Fighting panic, she forced herself to stay still until she could think it out. Her right foot had twisted away from her and she had fallen to her right, coming up hard against the wall. Her shoulder still stung from the impact. That same wall supported her now as she leaned against it, so she had come from the left and needed to continue down the tunnel to her right.

She hoped.

Panic rose again.

She closed her eyes and reached for Vincent, suddenly realizing he must be frantic, wondering what was wrong. "I'm all right, Vincent," she murmured aloud. "I'm going to be okay." Thinking of him, speaking to him even though he couldn't hear, comforted her and at last she was calm.

Using the wall as both a support and a guide, she resumed her journey. Her ankle protested vigorously every time she moved it, but it would bear her weight, so she forced herself on, her goal no longer the chamber where the spring should be, or even help for Vincent, but only to travel five more feet, ten more feet.

She moved in utter blackness now, concentrating on the next painful step, and the next. She did not know how far or long she had been struggling when she suddenly realized she could see, dimly. She looked up.

Pale light outlined an opening ahead and to the left. She hobbled faster.

The opening led to a large, domed chamber, faintly illuminated by an unseen source. She recognized it from Vincent's description. She had been trying to ignore her parched throat and dry, cottony mouth, but now the thought of water gave her new energy. She listened for the faint bubbling of the spring and scrambled toward it recklessly. The water was icy cold and tasted wonderful.

She gulped it in feral haste until her first, fierce thirst was slaked. Then, afraid of making herself sick by drinking too much too soon, she pushed away from the spring and lay on her back, breathing hard.

Her too-rapid movement had started a fresh crescendo of pain in her foot and ankle. What the injury needed was ice to slow the internal bleeding and swelling, and rest to allow it to heal. Catherine might have laughed if she had not been hurting so badly. Rest was out of the question as long as Vincent was Paracelsus's prisoner, and ice did not exist this far below the surface.

She rolled over for a few more gulps of the numbingly cold water and paused, stunned by her blindness. The spring water was icy cold. In lieu of actual ice, it should do nicely.

With painstaking care, she unwrapped the strips of blanket which bound her ankle, eased off the shoe and peeled off her sock. Rolling up the leg of her jeans, she gritted her teeth and plunged the injured foot into the frigid water. The active pain of the sprain was rapidly replaced by the numbing ache of cold.

Catherine endured it as long as she could before withdrawing the foot, warming frozen toes with her hands before thrusting her foot into the water again.

Her foot was immersed for the third time when she heard the rattle of a dislodged stone behind her. Cursing herself for carelessness, she rolled quickly to the side, groping futilely for anything she could use as a weapon as she frantically scanned the chamber.

Movement caught her eye and she focused on it. Gradually, she made out a shock of disheveled blond hair. One wary blue eye peered at her from behind a rock and recognition struck simultaneously.

"Catherine!"

"Mouse!"

 

Half an hour later, Catherine warmed herself by a small fire, her injured foot propped up and a tin mug of hot tea in her hands. Mouse, she'd learned, was part of a search party; the other members were Jamie, Philip, and Zach.

Zach had been dispatched to the nearest pipe to relay a message and summon help. Philip, a young man Catherine knew only by sight until today, was in the tunnel she had come from, standing watch. Jamie was efficiently caring for Catherine's injury, soaking compresses in the icy-cold spring and wringing them out before packing them gently around the swollen, discolored ankle.

Mouse crouched beside her, intently studying the design Catherine traced in the dirt as she tried to reconstruct the maps Vincent had made her memorize and the route she had taken.

Mouse was no less exacting than Vincent had been, requiring her to go over and over the maps until he was certain he knew where Vincent was being held.

"Sure?" he asked skeptically, eyeing her latest map. "Long way." He looked pointedly at her sprained ankle.

"Mouse," Catherine said with weary patience, "I walked for hours before I fell. I know I don't travel as quickly as you do, but I know I came a long way. The map is just the way Vincent drew it for me."

Mouse had to accept her word as Jamie brushed him aside to serve Catherine a simple meal of canned stew and crackers. The similarity between this and the meals provided by Paracelsus made Catherine wonder if Vincent had anything to eat. It had been a long time since they'd shared the last bowl of stew, however, and Catherine was ravenous. She ate the stew as quickly as manners allowed.

Meanwhile, Jamie wrapped her injured ankle firmly with strips of cloth torn from an extra shirt in Mouse's pack. With her hunger sated and the pain in her ankle muted to a dull throb, Catherine stretched out beside the fire and closed her eyes.

She didn't know how long she'd slept before Zach returned. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, as the boy squatted by the fire and reached for the crackers.

"They're coming," he announced and stuffed a cracker in his mouth. "Twenty-four hours."

"Twenty-four hours!" Catherine exclaimed, the last vestiges of sleep vanishing in the face of her indignation. "Anything could happen to Vincent before then!"

Mouse was gone and Philip sat in his place. "You have to remember," he told Catherine kindly, "everyone was searching. They're scattered. It will take time to contact them all and bring them here." He reached across the fire and placed a hand on her shoulder. "We care for Vincent too, and we're prepared to fight for him." He nodded toward Jamie's crossbow and Catherine realized that the stout staff Philip carried was more a weapon than a walking support.

"I'm sorry," she said, helplessly contrite. "I'm just worried..."

"We all are," Jamie interrupted. "But Vincent's tough. He'll be okay."

Catherine struggled to her feet.

"Where are you going?" Jamie asked suspiciously.

Catherine reached for her jacket. "I'm going back," she said, pulling the grimy garment on.

"Catherine, twenty-four hours..."

"Are too many!" Catherine shot back, cutting Jamie off. "I've done what I was supposed to do. You know where he is now, and maybe I can help him if I'm there. I have to go back."

Jamie exchanged worried glances with Philip. He shrugged.

"Okay," Jamie agreed reluctantly. "But sit down first. You should eat again and I'll have to change the bandage on your foot. We don't want Paracelsus to know you found us."

Catherine admitted the wisdom of that and swallowed a few mouthfuls of stew while Jamie replaced the clean cloth from Mouse's shirt with the grimy blanket strips Catherine had originally used.

The cold compresses and a few hours of rest had helped, and with her ankle firmly supported, Catherine was able to limp along with a manageable level of pain. Philip picked up his staff and joined her, offering his arm as support.

Catherine accepted his assistance gratefully and both Philip and Mouse accompanied her back the way she had come.

"We'll stay with you as long as we can," Philip said firmly, when she tried to protest.

"You get lost, Vincent'll be mad," Mouse added brightly.

"He's going to be mad, anyway," Philip muttered, not quite under his breath. Catherine thought it very likely he was right, but still she had to go.

A half-hour's slow progress took them to the spot where she had fallen. The smashed, blackened remnants of her lantern lay among glittering shards of glass.

They stopped there for a brief rest and Catherine told them how, in the dark following her fall, she had lost her sense of direction.

"That's good," Philip said. "Tell them that, if they ask. After you fell, you got turned around and went the wrong way."

"Okay." Catherine could see the sense in that. Above all else, Paracelsus must not know she had been able to pass on a message.

With a groan, she let Mouse help her to her feet again and leaned on him heavily as they resumed their slow progress.

It was several rest stops later when Philip came back from a scouting expedition waving his hands for silence. "Someone's coming," he breathed, extinguishing their lantern. In the sudden blackness, a faint golden glow could be seen from the tunnel ahead.

"Tell Vincent it won't be long," Philip whispered, close to Catherine's ear.

Mouse squeezed her arm in encouragement and they both melted silently away. Catherine sank down against the tunnel wall and tried to look despondent.

A moment later, the man with the lantern appeared around a curve in the passage and stopped at sight of her. She was relieved to see it was Culver. It had only occurred to her in the last few seconds that it might be Maddock and she didn't know if she'd have had the courage to go with that horrible man without calling out for the help which she knew hovered nearby.

Face buried in her arms, she waited. Culver came to her slowly and dropped to his knees. He pulled her hands together and bound her wrists tightly, all while smiling his gentle, vacuous smile. As Maddock had done at her earlier capture, he left a length of rope to use as a leash and pulled on it stolidly.

With painful effort, Catherine climbed to her feet and fell into step behind him. Culver habitually moved slowly, but his pace was still too fast for her injured foot. She pulled on the rope and stopped.

When Culver turned, she pointed down. "I can't go that fast," she explained, slowly and clearly. She didn't know if Culver was deaf or simple, or perhaps both and she wanted to be understood. "I'm hurt. I can't go fast," she repeated.

He glanced down at her heavily wrapped ankle and shrugged. He turned and walked on at the same, too-rapid pace.

Catherine couldn't keep up and when she tried to stop again, the pull on her wrists upset her balance and she fell. Culver waited patiently while she hauled herself to her feet, but she was scarcely up before he set off again.

The rest of the trip was nothing short of a nightmare. Catherine tried to ignore the stabbing pain in her ankle, straining to keep up with her captor, but her best efforts were not enough and she stumbled frequently.

Each step, each fall aggravated her injury and increased her fatigue, and as time went on, she fell more often, absorbing the impact with knees, hips, elbows and shoulders. Her coordination decreased in direct ratio to her exhaustion and she began to fall more clumsily, striking and scraping against rough rock walls and floors.

Each time she fell, Culver waited for her to regain her feet. If she was too slow, he prodded her with his filthy boot.

Dazed by unremitting pain and the need to stay on her feet, Catherine was only dimly aware when Culver stopped and released the rope around her wrists. His hand on her shoulder sent her stumbling forward and, as she put her weight on it, her ankle gave way. She fell again, and this time, with no boot jabbing at her side, she was content to remain in the dust, half-propped on bloody elbows.

For the last few minutes, her ears had been filled with a roaring and, afraid of losing consciousness altogether, she shook her head to clear it. The roaring stopped and she heard someone softly call her name.

From somewhere, she found the strength to lift her head. Vincent crouched just out of reach, one hand stretched toward her.

"You have to come to me," he said, pleading. "I can't reach you."

She would have been happy to just put her head down in the dirt and go to sleep, but of course Vincent wouldn't allow that. So she dragged herself across the four vast feet which separated them and finally felt the tender strength of Vincent's hands as he pulled her into his lap, cradling her against his shoulder and rocking gently.

There was little of her body which had not made painful contact with floors or walls during one of her many falls. The elbows of her jacket hung in tattered shreds and her hands and forearms were scraped and gashed, bleeding in scores of places. Her knees were raw and bloody and her hips, thighs, shoulders and ribs were bruised and sore.

During some of her later, more clumsy falls, she had been unable to protect her face. Her upper lip was split and swollen, making it difficult to speak. The whole left side of her face was a raw, stinging scrape and rivulets of blood from a gash above her ear had clumped and dried in her hair.

She could feel his fingers probing gently, finding each injury in turn and she tried not to flinch from his touch. The sounds he made, deep in his throat, were of pain and regret. Her painfully mumbled reassurances did not seem to penetrate as he lifted her with exquisite tenderness and placed her on the stone ledge.

A movement near the door made him spin defiantly and Catherine opened her eyes in time to see his upper lip raised in a low snarl. It was Culver, who ignored Vincent and slid a tray beneath the door, pushing it within Vincent's reach. Vincent waited until the man was gone before he abandoned his protective stance and brought the tray close to the ledge.

He dampened a cloth in the bowl of water and began to bathe her face, washing away the blood and dust. After her face, he worked on her arms and knees, bathing the wounds tenderly, covering the worst gashes with strips torn from his own shirt. Only when he had made her as comfortable as possible did he turn to the bowl of stew. She shook her head faintly when he offered her some and while he ate, she gave in to the exhaustion that tugged at her.

She had no idea how long she'd slept, nor did she remember Vincent lying down beside her but she came startlingly, heart-poundingly awake when he twisted suddenly away from her, lurching to his feet with a low, savage snarl.

It must be morning, she decided, struggling to sit up. Paracelsus and his men stood on the far side of the bars.

"Good morning, Vincent," Paracelsus said. "I told you we would bring her back." His gaze moved to Catherine and he viewed her bruised face dispassionately. "I am sorry for your injuries, my dear, but I'm afraid they were quite unavoidable. You should be grateful. I've decided there's no need for further punishment this time..."

Vincent's low growl cut through Paracelsus's speech and he stepped forward, reaching the limits of his chains. "You will not touch her again," he snarled. "Catherine stays here today."

Paracelsus's one visible brow rose in mock astonishment. "Why, Vincent. You are quite protective this morning. But as it happens, I have already decided to allow you and your Catherine some time together. Perhaps, after you've spoken with one another, you will stop this foolish resistance. And if not..." He didn't finish the sentence, but behind him, Maddock hefted the tranquilizer gun and grinned.

Paracelsus and Maddock left the chamber; Culver, burdened with their breakfast tray, bent and pushed it under the door before following them out.

The tray was beyond the scope of Vincent's chains; Culver had forgotten to push it within reach. With a muffled groan of pain and stiffness, Catherine rolled off the shelf and hobbled across the cage to bring it back. Vincent took it from her as soon as she was close enough, placing it swiftly on the shelf and turning back to assist her slow progress.

"I don't suppose you have an aspirin," she tried to joke as he helped her to sit.

"No." His expression was grave. "Catherine, I would never have asked you to go if I had known... if I had imagined..."

"I would be hurt," she finished for him. "It doesn't matter, Vincent. I'll be okay. Paracelsus didn't hurt you?"

He shook his head. "I had no breakfast yesterday; when Paracelsus discovered you were gone, he refused to feed me until you returned, but beyond that, nothing. I think Maddock and Culver were both out searching for you; they had no time to think of me."

She nodded her relief. "Good. That's good."

"But you, Catherine... and for nothing."

"Not for nothing, Vincent."

His head came up, his eyes meeting hers.

She nodded. "I found them, Vincent. Jamie and Mouse and some others. Mouse knows this place. They'll wait for help and come for us."

"When?"

"Twenty-four hours. From... whenever Zach sent the message." She looked at him helplessly. "Maybe eight or ten hours before Culver brought me back?"

"It's close to twenty hours now, then. Soon."

"Yes. Soon."

He brought the food close. "You must eat. You'll need your strength."

Paracelsus didn't seem concerned about Catherine making another escape attempt; he seemed to assume her injuries would be enough to discourage her. There was no sign he suspected she'd actually reached help; no one was sent to guard them and the morning passed uneventfully.

The bobbing light from several lanterns was the first sign that help was here; Vincent noticed it first and Catherine, who had been lying down, pushed herself up. Seconds later, a handful of their friends emerged from the tunnel, moving soundlessly to prearranged positions.

Mouse was at the cage door, grinning, a silencing finger pressed against his lips. Jamie, crossbow at the ready, guarded his back. Mouse picked the lock on the door and when it swung open, went straight to Vincent and knelt to work on his chains. Jamie laid her crossbow aside and came swiftly to the low stone ledge, offering Catherine a supportive arm.

Catherine gave her a wan smile.

"What did they do to you?" Jamie asked in horror. Even as she spoke, her hands were busy removing the ragged blanket bandage from Catherine's ankle and rewrapping it with clean strips of cloth.

Vincent watched this over his shoulder as Mouse worked on his right manacle. "Jamie," he asked quietly, "why did you allow Catherine to return?"

Jamie glanced up from her work. "Are you kidding? How were we supposed to stop her?"

Vincent's glance went to Catherine's face and she touched it self-consciously. The places that weren't scabbed with dried blood felt tender and swollen.

Jamie grinned at her. "She wanted to come back," she said, shrugging, and Catherine knew that Jamie, at least, understood.

While Mouse worked on Vincent's chains and Jamie worked on Catherine's ankle, some of the others -- Philip, Sidney and David -- had moved through the other passage, into the larger chamber. Now a disturbance in the passage could be heard, and all turned to look.

Philip and Sidney were not alone when they returned. Paracelsus's man Culver was with them; Sidney gripped his arm roughly.

"Look what we found," Sidney said. "Hiding."

Free of his fetters, Vincent moved toward Culver purposefully. Panicked, Catherine tried to scramble after him. "Vincent? Vincent, don't!"

His steps didn't falter and she was suddenly very afraid that she knew what was going on inside him. Insult had been heaped upon indignity these past few days, stretching his tolerance to its limits; fear for Catherine and the future of his home had further depleted his self-control.

He wouldn't have forgotten that Culver was the one who had held Catherine in an iron grip and used a knife to cut her neck, and who had brought her back from her escape attempt bruised and bleeding. His hands were half-curled in the manner he used for attack and she could hear a vicious snarl as he advanced.

It was Jamie who moved, finally, to block his path. "Vincent, stop," she said.

He stopped, but his gaze was still fixed beyond her. Catherine was still trying to get to her feet, was still calling his name.

"Vincent, don't," Jamie said, but he was oblivious, staring over her head at Culver. For Catherine, the terror in Jamie's eyes was as good as a mirror.

Jamie swallowed hard, and did what was obviously the only thing she could think of to gain Vincent's attention -- she drew back her fist and punched him hard in the chest.

Startled, he growled, and his head came down as his focus shifted to her. Instinctively, Jamie stepped backwards, fear clearly reflected on her face. Catherine's heart pounded, counting time until Vincent's shoulders slumped and she knew the humanity had returned to his eyes.

She had reached him now, her stance unbalanced as she tried to keep weight from her injured foot. She swayed and Vincent began to turn, but already Mouse was there, reaching out to catch her.

"Shouldn't do that, Vincent," he chided. "Make Catherine hurt herself."

It was Mouse who helped her back to the stone shelf; after a moment and a long look at Vincent, Jamie followed. "Are you okay?" she asked, examining the wrapped limb.

"Yes. Jamie..."

Jamie looked up.

"Thank you."

"Jamie's brave," Mouse added, sotto voce, glancing at Vincent, who stood with his back to them. His head was bowed and his fists clenched, as if he fought some inner battle. "Vincent was mad," Mouse added.

"I've never been so scared," Jamie admitted. "I've never seen him look like that before."

"I have," Catherine murmured quietly, to no one in particular.

Jamie nodded. "I just had to stop him. I couldn't let him do..."

Catherine didn't realize Vincent had moved until he hunkered down beside her. "Is Catherine all right?" he asked, speaking only to Jamie.

Jamie nodded. "Vincent, I'm sorry I hit you..."

He stopped her with a look. "Don't be sorry, Jamie. You did what was necessary, and kept me from something I would have regretted."

"It's Paracelsus who needs to be brought to justice," Catherine added, through bruised lips. "Culver is only a tool."

"Yes," Vincent agreed. There was a hard edge to his voice and Catherine caught his hand.

"Vincent. What are you thinking?"

"You said it yourself, Catherine. Paracelsus must be brought to justice." He rose swiftly to his feet.

Despite the soreness of her bruised and abraded palms, Catherine kept hold of his hand. "Not by you."

"If we refuse to take action now, we may not have another opportunity," Vincent said. His eyes held a frightening glint. "He could have killed you," he added relentlessly. "I will not leave him free to try again."

He turned swiftly toward Paracelsus's large chamber, cloak flaring. Catherine watched after him, distressed.

"Philip, Sidney, Andrew, go with him," Jamie directed. "Help him."

The men moved to obey, following Vincent down the passage toward the vast, torch-lit chamber.

Jamie waited until they had disappeared from sight before she spoke again. "Come on," she said. "Let's get out of here." She helped Catherine up, supporting her weight as she hobbled to the cage door.

What was left of the rescue party reformed into a travelling group; Zach came to brace Catherine's other side and they set off.

Catherine moved slowly despite being half-carried by Jamie and Zach, straining all the while for the sounds that would mean Vincent had found his prey. All was silent behind them, and soon they had travelled too far for any noise from the cavern to reach them.

When Jamie judged they'd gone far enough, Mouse found a fresh-water spring and they made camp beside it. Blankets were arranged to make a rough bed for Catherine and Jamie tended her many scrapes and cuts, smoothing on an antiseptic salve she carried in her knapsack.

Because she hurt in so many places, Catherine allowed herself to be cosseted but she refused to sleep, keeping her eyes open until, at last, Vincent and his three companions stepped into the flickering circle of light cast by the small fire.

Philip shook his head in answer to the questioning glances. "Nothing," he said. "Paracelsus was gone, and so was his second man. We looked, but found no trace." Tiredly, he and the others sank down beside the fire.

Vincent came to kneel at Catherine's side and she attempted a crooked smile. "Part of me is glad you didn't find him," she whispered.

He touched her face lightly. "Is that the same part of you that made you come back after you'd found safety?" he asked.

"It's the part of me that wants to protect you. The part of me that needed to be with you." She felt an extraordinary tenderness for him. "I couldn't leave you alone."

"But the cost, Catherine," he answered. "The pain you suffered..."

"It wasn't intentional, Vincent. Culver never meant to hurt me. He just didn't understand why I couldn't keep up with him. I think he must be mentally impaired in some way."

"Perhaps," Vincent conceded, his eyes bleak. He glanced across the fire to where Culver sat, closely guarded. "It is Paracelsus who means us harm," he continued. "As long as he is free, there is danger. For you, for Father..."

"For you, too," she added. "I'll be careful, Vincent, and Father will, too." She lifted her hand and winced as her battered body protested. He bent to make it easier for her to touch his cheek.

"Paracelsus will come back," Mouse announced suddenly, with authority. "Hurt Catherine, put Vincent in a cage. Bad man. Terrible man." Neither of them had seen him approach, but Vincent turned now to include him in their conversation.

"I'm afraid you're right, Mouse," he agreed. "He is evil, and will surely try again to destroy our world."

"Won't do it, though," Mouse said firmly. "Won't let him. Mouse will fight. Jamie, too."

"You were very brave today, Mouse," Catherine told him. "Thank you."

He grinned his pleasure and moved back toward the fire.

"You're exhausted," Vincent observed softly. "You should sleep."

Weariness was already dragging her down. Catherine nodded. "I will. Now that you're safe..."

She woke much later to the realization that the muted voices around the campfire were gone. The only sound now was the even breathing of her companions and the soft pop and crackle of the fire itself. She turned her head toward its dull orange glow in time to see a tall shape gliding silently across the chamber.

Vincent.

She watched him kneel beside the fire and stir it with a long, blackened stick before adding another of the driftwood logs Mouse and Zach had scrounged from the banks of a nearby underground river. When the new log was burning cheerily, he moved to a place near the fire and bent, reaching down.

It was a moment before Catherine realized he was waking one of the sleepers. They must be taking turns keeping watch, a wise thing with Paracelsus still on the loose. The sleeper mumbled something and sat up, stretching and rubbing his head. Catherine recognized him as Philip. Vincent moved to another of the fireside pallets, and this time it was Zach who got sleepily to his feet.

Only when the two new lookouts had been dispatched did Vincent turn away. To Catherine, the lines of his neck and shoulders and the apathy in his step spoke of his discouragement, his utter weariness. And, perhaps, something else. Her heart ached for him and she wished, with all her might, that there was something tangible she could do to ease his burden.

Despite the closeness of the past few days, she expected him to choose a sleeping place on the far side of the fire; Vincent never showed physical affection in the presence of others. But to her surprise, he picked a careful path among the other sleepers and came to her side.

With a softly muffled groan, he stretched out and wrapped his cloak around him. He was close enough for her to feel the heat of his body, but it seemed odd he hadn't spoken. Surely he knew she was awake.

He was very still, but when she closed her hand on his, his fingers tightened in response.

"Mouse is right, you know," he said softly, his voice bleak.

Moving hurt, but she needed to see his face, even in the flickering half-light cast by the fire. She raised herself on one battered forearm and peered into his eyes. They were open, the focus fixed on something beyond her shoulder.

"Right about what?" she whispered.

"About Paracelsus."

"Coming back?" she guessed.

"Yes."

She wished he would look at her, wished his expression, his voice, wasn't so flat and deadly. "You're afraid," she realized softly.

His answer was a long time coming. "Yes," he breathed finally, seeming relieved to be admitting it out loud.

"But not of Paracelsus," she went on, watching him.

For the first time his distant gaze flickered, shifting swiftly to her.

"I know, Vincent," she said, answering his unasked question. "I know what you fear. I fear it, too."

His full attention was on her now; his eyes seemed almost to plead.

"It's not what Paracelsus might do... to me, to you, to your world. It's you. It's what you might have to do to him."

Something very like panic flared in his eyes in the instant before he turned away. She moved closer, resting her weight against his side and lifting one hand to caress his cheek. "It's all right, Vincent," she murmured, close to his ear.

"I would have hurt Culver," he said, his voice low. "If Jamie hadn't stopped me..."

"I know."

"If I had found Paracelsus..."

She knew that, too, and wished for words to comfort him.

"I would have killed him, Catherine," he went on, relentless. "With these hands. I would have rejoiced in the killing."

"You were very angry, Vincent," she temporized. "Look at what he did to you, to me."

"Does he not deserve justice, then?" Vincent asked, his voice rising. "Should he not be brought back to be tried in council? Who am I to decide his fate?"

"He's already been tried by the council, Vincent," she argued. "Years ago. You told me that yourself. He's already been exiled; there's nothing more the council can do to him."

Vincent was silent; he didn't acknowledge the truth of her words.

"You are one of his victims, Vincent," she went on, pressing her point. "If you had found him, if you had loosed your anger... it would be only justice. Only what he deserved. He has no regard for human life. He's dangerous."

"If I had followed him with those thoughts in mind, you might be right," he conceded tiredly. "But I did not. I had no thought of protecting my world from further harm. I thought only of your face, bruised and swollen. I thought only of my own frustration. I would have killed him, Catherine, simply because he made me angry. And that is no justice at all."

His words struck piercingly close to the truth and Catherine had no argument to refute them. She put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. "What I know is that if you had found him, if you had dispensed your own justice..."

"Killed him," Vincent supplied mercilessly.

"Killed him," Catherine agreed reluctantly, "I would have been glad, Vincent. Not glad you killed him, but glad he was dead."

"No."

"Yes. Because what I said before is true. He's dangerous. To me, to the helpers, to your world. And most of all, to you. He must be stopped, Vincent, and I don't know of any other way to stop him."

"Would you hunt him, then?" Vincent asked.

She thought about it. "No," she admitted with a sigh. "I guess not. If I'd had a gun when we were down there, when he was threatening you, I could have used it easily, but to hunt him down in cold blood? I couldn't. I might wish I could, but I couldn't." She lifted herself again, capturing his attention. "And neither could you."

It was a moment of revelation for them both. "No," he admitted softly. "Without the rage... no. I couldn't." Immeasurable relief shone in his eyes. "Thank you, Catherine, for showing me..."

"Of course." She leaned forward and touched her forehead to his cheek before sinking back down beside him.

"It leaves us at an impasse regarding Paracelsus," he murmured, after a moment. "He's still at large. He's still, as you keep reminding me, dangerous."

"That's a truth we can't change," she whispered. "Maybe, when we get back, the council will have some ideas. Maybe there is some action we can take as a group. But for now, all we can do is be watchful."

"And wait."

"Yes," she agreed softly. "And wait."

The echoes of their whispering voices died gradually against the high ceiling of the chamber; light from the fire danced with shadows on the walls. Around them, their friends slept, or kept watch against their common enemy.

And somewhere, deep in the bowels of the earth, that enemy began to plan anew.