Claude rushed to Sookie’s side and bent down next to her. “You okay?” he asked.
She nodded and stammered out a question of her own. “You?”
“Yeah,” he answered with an impish grin as he looked over at Niall. “Very well done,” he whispered.
Sookie blushed and returned the grin.
Niall was chuckling as he walked over to them. “Now that was impressive, my dear,” he said as he straightened the collar of his shirt.
Sookie smiled a little as Claude helped her up.
“However,” Niall added, “you need to be able to do it without my having to elicit an emotional response from you. You must learn to use your power coolly and with control.”
Sookie sighed, a little crestfallen. With her great-grandfather, there always seemed to be a ‘however’ to spoil her little victories. She was tempted to once again put him on his ass. But, to tell the truth, she wasn’t certain that she could control her power enough to do it. And that meant that his ‘however’—though annoying—was completely justified.
Claude, who was brushing himself off now, gave Sookie a reassuring look, knocked, and then spoke to her telepathically. “Remember, Tanah, don’t focus on what you haven’t done today; just look at what you have done. I have never seen my father tossed about like a ragdoll.” He gave her a subtle wink.
Sookie smiled a little. “Thanks.”
Claude continued in her head, this time more seriously, “Your power is truly amazing, and I would be honored to fight by your side.”
Sookie’s smile brightened. “Me too, Tanu.” She looked at Niall a bit sheepishly. “I didn’t hurt you―did I?”
“No,” Niall said. Then he added with a wink, “I am ruffled enough to satisfy you both, however—I hope.”
Sookie and Claude shared a feigned guiltless look and then a laugh.
Claude transmitted telepathically, “You have to work on those shields, Tanah.”
She nodded and then looked back at Niall. “I’m glad I didn’t hurt you when I—um—ruffled you.”
“Do not worry, my dear,” Niall assured. “You did not harm me, but―then again―you did not really mean to. If your thoughts had been turned to harm me, however, I would surely be dead—just as that poor tree is now.”
“My gravy!” Sookie exclaimed, her choice of words eliciting a confused look from both fairies. Sookie ignored it. “How did you know that my thoughts wouldn’t be ‘turned to’ hurt you after the things you were sayin’ to me? I could’ve killed you!”
It was Niall’s turn to grin sheepishly, “I’m sorry to admit it, Great-granddaughter, but I was monitoring your use of magic and your thoughts. You’d dropped the shield keeping me out of your mind when you surrounded Claude with the protection spell. And I would have stopped pushing if I had sensed real danger for you or myself, and I wouldn’t have shot at Claude again if your protection spell fell completely.”
Sookie sighed, “I guess in that case―it’s okay.”
Suddenly, she looked at Niall with concern. “Is what you said about Eric true? Is he really gonna be in that position—near death—with only me to help? And if so, shouldn’t I get to him right now? I mean, what if it happens while I’m here?”
Niall exhaled loudly. “I admit to being torn by this as well. The A.P.―as you call her―has not told me everything, but she did say that Eric’s life would hang in the balance, and that it would be up to you―and you alone―to save him. If you can accomplish this, you will be able to defeat your foe together. If you cannot, he will die, and then you will likely die as well―killed as you grieve over the remains of your mate.” He added ominously, “Or worse.”
“Worse? How?” Claude asked, grasping Sookie’s hand. There was a decidedly concerned tenor to Claude’s voice.
“The ancient one would not tell me,” Niall said with a shake of his head.
“Why won’t we be able to help her?” Claude demanded. “Why must Sookie work on her own?”
“She would not tell me that either,” Niall said softly, though his own frustration at his lack of knowledge was clear. “However, I will try to aid Sookie as much as I can when the time comes.” Niall sighed loudly. “I have now told you most of what I know, Sookie. You will face a grave threat from a powerful enemy. This enemy will have Eric at his or her mercy. It will be your charge to save your mate and yourself; however, if you allow your emotions to control you, you will fail, and both you and Eric will be lost.”
“But I was emotional now, and look what I did!” Sookie insisted.
“Yes,” Niall agreed, “you demonstrated great power, but you have no idea if you could replicate it.”
Sookie started to interrupt, but Niall went on. “Do not try to tell me that I am wrong on this. I heard your doubts from your own head before I left it. And—do not forget—that the protection shield you placed over yourself had dropped before you shot your light at me or the tree.”
Sookie looked dejected for a moment, but then remembered something else that Niall had said. “What else do you know?” Sookie asked perceptively. “You said ‘most’ before; you said that you’d told me ‘most’ of what you know. What else is there? Do you know who the enemy is?”
Niall shook his head. “No. She was certain that I would tell you if I knew it. I know only that the enemy will be strong.”
“Then what else do you know?” Sookie probed.
“I know that I could guarantee that your life be spared,” Niall said quietly.
“Then do it!” Claude insisted.
Niall shook his head sadly. “No.”
“Why not?” Claude asked with confusion and anger in his voice.
When Niall paused, it was Sookie who answered. “You could save me by takin’ me into Faerie and forcin’ me to stay there—couldn’t you?”
Niall nodded. “I could, but I will not. If I did, the vampire would die, and you would lose everything that you love in the human realm. You would live a life without life. And I will not curse you in order to save your mortal life.”
Claude’s hopefulness that there might be a way to guarantee Sookie’s safety was lost, and his anger abated immediately. But he knew his father was right; Sookie’s happiness was not something that could be sacrificed as long as there was even a remote possibility that she and her vampire could defeat their enemy.
“Thank you.” Sookie reached out to touch Niall’s arm. “What else?” Sookie asked with a loud exhalation.
“Time,” Niall said sadly. “I know that if you do not learn what I need to teach you here, I will have to take you into Faerie once more so that the magic of the Fae can be fully awakened within you. I would try to keep that time limited, but you would once more lose a good deal of time with your mate—though your fairy bond would help to offset that a little.” He paused as if trying to decide whether to tell her the rest. “I also know that there is a possibility that your Eric may die while you are in Faerie—if we must go.”
Sookie’s throat tightened as tears burned her eyes. Needing the support, she held onto Claude’s hand a little harder. “Why didn’t you tell me all this before? I should be with Eric now. You saw the power I just had. I know that I can’t control it 100 percent yet, but if he’s not gonna be able to fight, then I have to try.”
Niall shook his head. “I do not know the exact time frame of the threat that faces you, Sookie, which is why I did not tell you all this before. I wanted to spare you pain, especially while you are still unable to conquer the threat you face. I did not want to bring up the possibility of your needing to go again into Faerie until it became necessary.”
“Do you think it’s necessary now?” Sookie stammered.
Niall shook his head. “No—we will continue your training here unless you stop progressing, child, and you should be heartened by the fact that you are progressing.”
Sookie nodded weakly.
The older fairy sighed deeply, and for a moment, he looked very old and tired. He continued, “The Ancient Pythoness has told me that you will tell me when you wish to go into Faerie—that you will know when the time is right.”
Niall paused, “As for the details I knew about the dire nature of the danger to Eric—well—I was hoping not to have to tell you those until you were ready to return to your realm. I wanted to explain them to you and Eric when you were together. However, I changed my mind because I deemed it necessary that you understood what you are truly capable of—the kind of power you could wield all the time if you could only control it. So I used my knowledge to raise the level of your fear, your anger, and your fire to a fever-pitch so that you could see.” He motioned toward the destroyed tree. “Once you can do that without relying on your emotions, you will be ready.” Niall again sighed heavily. “However, I cannot send you to your home now. You could not face a real foe right now.”
Sookie lowered her head. “But what if I never learn well enough, Niall? What if I’m not in time?”
Niall spoke gently. “I have to trust that you will be. I have to trust what the ancient lady has told me. She has faith that you can learn what you must learn. She has faith that you will be in time to save your mate and yourself. I have faith in you too, Sookie.”
“Faith?” Sookie half-asked and half-stated.
“Yes, faith,” Niall said.
“But if I have to go back into Faerie, then,” she paused.
“Then young Eric must face his world without you in it for a while longer. I am certain that he would—without hesitation—gladly trade that for your life, my dear,” Niall continued kindly.
“And it may not even come to that—right?” Claude added, looking at Niall.
“Correct,” the elder fairy agreed. “If Sookie can learn what is needed in this place, then all this will be a moot point.” He looked at Sookie. “It is my hope, dear child, that you can connect to your Fae power consistently enough while you are here without having to go into Faerie to truly feel it.”
“And just look at what you did today, and we are only starting!” Claude encouraged. “You could master your gifts here, Tanah. And if you do not, I promise you that I will watch over your Eric if you must go to Faerie for a short time. And if something does happen while you are there, I swear that I will try to help him in your place.”
Niall shook his head a little as he looked at Claude. This inevitability was what he had dreaded, but Niall could not blame his son. Like Claude, he too would fight next to the Viking if need be. He too would die next to Sookie’s mate in order to try to protect him. But Niall’s reasons were strangely different than Claude’s. His son would fight to spare Sookie pain. Niall realized that he would fight for the Viking himself now—even if Sookie were gone. Dwelling momentarily on how unlikely that notion would have seemed even two years ago, he smiled a bit. Life—Niall had discovered during his many years of existence—was a labyrinth of surprising turns.
Niall looked back at Claude and Sookie. He had seen this look in his son’s eyes before and knew that he could not stop him from risking his life to help Eric. And, in truth, he did not want to. He was more proud than he could say of both Claude and Sookie, but at the same time, he was fearful. If he had to take Sookie into Faerie to try to complete her training, he would not be able to monitor Claude or Eric, and that meant he could help neither of them. He said another quick prayer that it would not come to that.
Sookie looked at Claude. “You’d help protect Eric if I had to go into Faerie?”
“Yes, Tanah. My sword would be his sword. My life would be his life.”
Sookie gave Claude a big hug. “Thanks, Tanu.”
Claude smiled down at her. “We will do all we can to make sure it does not come to that—to make sure you don’t have to go back into Faerie.”
Niall added comfortingly, “You are a strong fairy, my dear, especially for a hybrid. Your fairy strength―if developed―would rival Claude’s, and he is very strong.” Niall looked proudly at his son.
He continued, “With the increased power from your bond and your vampire, however, your strength eclipses even mine, Sookie. It is remarkable to see and feel when you draw power from the blood and magic of your mate as well as from your own source. Because the fairy bond enables you to share in the power and strength of each other, your Eric’s magic is like,” he paused, looking for the right comparison.
“It feels like puttin’ a rocket engine into a car,” Sookie supplied.
Niall chuckled. “That seems as apt as any other analogy, Sookie. But you must learn to control it. Only then can you protect him—and yourself.”
A tear fell from Sookie’s eye, and she pushed it away harshly. Both Niall and Claude could see her disappointment in herself dripping off of her. “Eric is so strong, and he’s always taken such good care of me, and now when he needs me, I can’t,” she stopped midsentence and took a deep breath. “I just want to get home to Eric. He’s been in too much fucking pain for too long, and if it’s my turn to be the strong one, then I need to get to him.”
“Then you will, Sookie, but you must be patient with yourself,” Niall said kindly. “Trust that you will be in time, my dear. You are the only one who can save him, but all would be for naught if you left here now.”
Another tear fell from Sookie’s eye; again, she brushed it away like an enemy. “But it’s already taken so long.”
Niall looked at Sookie with concern. “Sookie—Great-granddaughter—I have been hard on you because I, too, fear for young Eric and wish to stop his suffering—and yours—but I realize now that I should have been showing you more patience.” He sighed. “Claude was being truthful earlier when he told you that it took him almost a year to master what I asked you to do today—to keep up your protection field as you fired. You have such lovely instincts and innate power, and when I thought of what you had done in Mab’s palace, I erroneously expected you to be able to recreate it again with relative ease.” He shook his head. “It has been too long since my own training, my dear. We both need to be more patient.”
“But Eric doesn’t have time for that,” Sookie insisted.
“I believe he does, my dear,” Niall smiled a little. “The ancient one—when she told me that you would have to come here in order to perfect your magic—was very clear that you are Eric’s only hope. Throughout the years, she has imagined many possible futures for your Eric, even one where she killed his enemy herself many years ago, but there was always someone else to take young Eric’s life. There was always another scenario to twist the future to his death. For many years, it seemed to the lady that it was simply his fate to die within the year.”
He reached out and lightly grasped Sookie’s shoulder. “However, she saw a glimmer of hope when you were in his life, Sookie, and because of you, she began to see a possible future where Eric did not have to die—where his life could go on and he would experience a kind of happiness that was beyond what most could even fathom. That happiness was with you, my dear. It seemed that you were his only hope for both his physical life and the life you have put into his spirit. But you will prevent his death only if you are prepared; if not,” Niall stopped mid-sentence and sighed. “The odds have always been against you Sookie, but I cannot imagine that you would be one to let that fact stop you from fighting for your heart’s desire.” There was a twinkle in his eyes now.