The New Life

a novel by Mark Robert Whitten

Chapter 30

Final Chapter

Jess shook with terror.

As he held Miss Edmunds, he could hear the desperate cries of soldiers calling for healers, the serving women sobbing and Leslie's constant cries of "Mamma!" He wished she would stop. He couldn't stand the thought of what was happening, but her cries were shaking him to his core. In a few minutes, everyone would be dead.

As the healers rushed in, the soldiers helped them to their patients. Jess called out for them but there were far too many people to treat. No help was coming. He looked down at Miss Edmunds, at her beautiful features, ashen and still. He stroked her cheek, trying not to cry. He was useless. He couldn't save her. Jess cursed himself a fool. After all those times he dreamed of saving Miss Edmunds from horrors, he now found himself unable to save her from the real horror of death.

He clutched her raven-haired head to his chest.

Tom's whisper brought him around. He looked up to see him nearby on his hands and knees, coughing. He reached out to grasp Miss Edmunds limp hand. Jess saw he couldn't reach. He looked into Tom's eyes, eyes that held a pain beyond that which was killing him. Tom's brown eyes stared back, silently pleading for help.

In that moment of shared understanding, Jess lifted her limp hand out to him and wept.

His blurred vision swept away from her pallid face, unable to bear the sight. He looked down the length of her elaborate lavender gown, and paused. Something was there, in her belt—something almost white. It looked like a stick.

Jess wiped his eyes with his free hand. He looked again, trying to see clearly.

Then he understood.

It was her wand.

With trembling fingers, Jess gripped the slender white stick and slid it out of her belt. He held it close, wondering at it. It felt cool in his hand. He didn't know why he had taken it, only that he had. He knew he couldn't use it to cure her, to cure anyone. He didn't know magic. He was just an ignorant peasant playing at being something more.

But there was something about the wand, something that nagged at him. Jess felt a tickling feeling in his mind, a memory of something that Miss Edmunds told him. Something about the wand. He squinted at it, trying to remember.

She told him that the wand had special properties because it was made from some rare thing, something few people ever gained.

It came to him in a flash.

Unicorn.

A Unicorn's horn—that's what made the wand special. It was carved from the horn of a unicorn. But why was that important? He tried to remember something about unicorns— about their horns, something that would help. Closing his eyes, he blocked out the sound of Leslie's panicked crying and forced away the shouts of desperate people, of thoughts of what would happen if he failed. Breathing deeply, he drifted back to the conversation again. Miss Edmunds said that unicorn horns had special properties, something to do with healing.

Jess gasped.

His eyes opened.

He remembered.

Unicorn horns could neutralize poisons.

Jess shot to his feet. His head spun. He was so excited, he nearly laughed maniacally. He held the answer in his trembling hand. The unicorn-horn wand could save them. He knew what to do.

Glancing about, he saw what he needed.

Now he only needed a knife.

"Tom!"

Tom lifted his head, shaking with the effort. "Jess…"

Jess knelt down beside him. "I need your knife." He reached down and pulled at Tom's belt, trying to find it. "I can save us, just please, give me your knife!"

Tom didn't argue—couldn't, Jess realized—just reached under his belly and pulled it free. He handed the knife over and as soon as Jess' fingers wrapped around the carved-bone handle, he raced toward the food table. He stopped over a large cut-glass bowl of spiced wine. He had to hurry. Holding the wand out over the wine, he stroked the blade across the white surface. Nothing happened. A few seconds passed and as he scratched the wand with the knife's edge, dust began falling away. He worked faster, running the edge up and down the wand, creating a shower of particles that rained down from the wand.

The scrapings sparkled with magic, and as they fell into the red surface of the wine, Jess called out to the servant girls. They didn't respond. "I have the cure!" Jess screamed. He didn't stop to look if they were coming, just kept screaming that he had it and scraped like mad as he listened to his piercing shriek echoing off the marble walls.

A presence at his side made him pause and suddenly towering over him was the Captain of the Griffon Guard.

"What is it boy," the captain asked gripping his shoulders. "What did you say?"

Jess swallowed. He couldn't make words come forth. One of the servant women spoke for him. "He said he has the cure!"

The captain shook him. "Is that true, boy?" He shook him hard. "Do you have an antidote?"

Jess nodded. He captain motioned to the wine with a questing glance. Jess stepped back, nodding. The captain snatched up a stray goblet and filled it. Tasting a sample, he waited a moment before dashing off to the far end of the room. Jess raced after him, stopping a respectful distance and watched transfixed as the captain held the King's head up and forced the drink into his mouth. The wine sloshed around his mouth running down his chin and at last the King sputtered, coughed and began to swallow.

A tense moment passed.

The King groaned.

His eyes opened.

Jess nearly leapt with joy. He had done it. He had cured the King.

Now he needed to cure everyone else. Vaulting over the colorfully swathed bodies of nobles, Jess raced back to the wine bowl. He tucked Tom's knife and Julia's wand in the waistband of his trousers and scooped up a goblet. Plunging it into the wine, he looked back over to where his adopted family lay dying. He pulled the goblet back out and ran as quickly as he could, nearly tripping many times as he wove amongst servants now rushing for the cure. As they distributed it to their lords and ladies, Jess fed it to Tom and Miss Edmunds, before rushing off to Leslie. He stooped before her. Her golden head was lowered over her mother's body. It didn't appear that Lady Judy was breathing. "Leslie," he whispered. She didn't look up. He lowered himself to his knees and took Judy's head in his hand. "We have to get her to drink." Leslie didn't acknowledge him. He took her hands and placed the goblet between her fingers. As he opened Judy's mouth, Leslie blinked. She looked at him as if seeing him from very far away. "Mamma's gone," she whispered brokenly. "She's gone…"

He heard the groans and coughing of many echo around the room. He ignored the thrill of saving them now rising in his heart. He had to concentrate. "Leslie, she's still alive. I can save her, but you have to hold her for me, okay?" She said nothing. "Leslie!"

She didn't respond. Her bluish-green eyes glaze as she stared at nothing. She seemed far away. Cradling Lady Judy's head in his lap, Jess snatched the goblet and poured the wine into her mouth. She began convulsing; she was shaking so violently that Jess almost dropped the goblet. He held her tight, continuing to pour the wine as Judy coughed and choked and swallowed what Jess hoped would be enough.

After a moment, her head rolled back. Her eyes came open. She looked about a moment and when she caught sight of Leslie, she smiled. "There's my baby girl…"

Leslie's eyes fell on her mother. Wailing, she threw herself over her mother, gripping her tight. "Mamma!" she bawled, "Oh, Mamma!" Leslie clung to her mother, weeping desperately as her mother's hand ran weakly down the length of her long, golden hair. Jess could hear her whispering soft words of comfort to her daughter. He sat back on his heels, running a hand through his thick dark hair. He paused, grimacing as he realized his fingers were sticky with wine and pulled them free of his matted hair. He looked around the great room. The servants were administering to the lords and ladies, still laying about the cold marble floor. With all the colorful gowns it seemed as if a rainbow had fallen. Everywhere he looked people groaned, sat up or waved a free hand to fan themselves and generally seemed to be waking from a long dream. Jess laughed at the sight.

Duke William was recovering as well. Jess was over-joyed to see Leslie's father cradling her in his arms, that he would live too.

Jess laughed with relief. He had done it. He had saved everyone.

The cure had worked.

As he breathed a sigh of relief, Jess saw everyone regaining their feet and the healers restraining them as best they could. Leslie continued to weep. He patted her back.

"It's all right, Leslie. It's all right."

He knew everything would be okay. Leslie's tearful smile told him so.

000

It took the better part of the next day for everyone to fully recover. Healers had treated everyone and it seemed there were no fatalities. Jess was glad for that. It seemed that through quick thinking and resourcefulness, he had saved everyone from the assassination plot. The entire palace was alive with conversations, from outlandishly loud to even-tempered about who was behind it. Popular opinion named the Owens family as the ones responsible for the poisoning. Many considered this an attempt by the rivals of the Owens to lay suspicion on them, but the counter to this argument was the fact that the Owens had disappeared during the event and hadn't been heard from since. The King and his trusted advisors were meeting to discuss a plan to investigate the Owens' presumed innocence. Everyone had different ideas of how it should be performed. The Warlock Union took the assault personally and wanted to lay waste to their entire duchy with terrible storms of magic while the Wizard Guild wished a more sensible approach, tempered with the even hand of the courts.

All that would have to wait.

There was one final event to resolve before the festival was drawn to a close.

As he stood trembling, the chamberlain called him forth. Jess took a deep breath and started forward. Everyone watched him approach. He felt completely exposed as he made his way across the grand hall. All noble eyes fell on him. At Leslie's advice, he ignored them and continued on his way to the far end of the room where the King waited.

He thought back to the townhouse where Leslie had helped him prepare for the ceremony. He was to be honored by the King for his brave act. He felt like a pretender.

"So what do I do?" He tugged his vest and smoothed down his hair, trying to make himself look more proper. "Am I supposed to speak or something?"

"No," Leslie told him. "You just smile and nod and accept whatever you're given."

He nodded that he understood. She told him it was a great honor to be thanked by the King and that everyone of importance now owed him their lives. Jess couldn't begin to count the number of people who had thanked him for his quick-thinking and cleverness.

Leslie was the most grateful. She wouldn't stop telling him how proud she was and how much she loved him. He reasoned it was only to be expected. She had been so terrified of losing her parents, and now, thanks to him, they were standing in the crowd watching him with approval as he strode toward the throne.

Jess stopped before the King and knelt bowing his head. He dared not speak.

"What is your name, my son?"

"Jess, your Majesty. Jess Aarons."

He swallowed his terror as he gazed up into the intense gaze of the King.

He was sure he was about to be executed for such a breach of protocol as gazing upon the King without permission. Jess trembled. As he cowered under the scrutiny of the most powerful man in the Kingdom, he locked his knees together for fear he might wet himself.

The King did something completely unexpected.

He smiled.

"Dear boy," he said in a voice barely audible in the massive great room, "you have saved all our lives."

Jess returned the King's smile. Under the circumstances, it wasn't easy.

"In gratitude, I will grant you one request," the King declared. "Be it land, wealth or position in my court, you have only to name your prize."

Jess couldn't believe his ears. Leslie had told him of favors bestowed to great heroes, but he never gave any thought to the possibility of receiving one himself. It always seemed an impossible dream. He was so stunned by the turn of events that he stood in stupefied silence for a moment. Miss Edmunds cleared her throat, bringing him out of his revere. He glanced over to her. She looked so beautiful. He wanted to ask the King for her hand in marriage but knew better than to speak such a thought aloud. He would have humiliated himself and her if he had. He turned to look out at the crowd, wondering what they would choose if they had the opportunity.

Everyone in the room was watching him: Nobles, lords, ladies, soldiers, servants.

And Leslie.

Leslie. The one person in the entire kingdom who had believed in him. The one person who had respected him. The one person in the world to whom he owed everything.

With sudden, calm clarity, he understood what he had to do.

He would use his one request to do something nice for Leslie.

He turned to the King, less cowed than before, and with certainty of purpose, he spoke to him of his one true desire.

"Your Majesty," he began in a voice that he was certain could be heard all around the room, "I am honored by your grace and humbled by your noble gratitude, but I would not be here today if not for my best friend and benefactor, Leslie Burke." He looked back at her. She stood out amongst the crowd, in her deep blue dress, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed red at having been mentioned to the King. As he smiled at her, he was sure she turned even redder. "I have never known anyone who cared so much for another person. I owe her everything I have become." He turned back to the King. "She is to be married to a man she does not love. I can think of no worse crime than to force her into a loveless marriage." He stepped forward. "I hereby request that you nullify her marriage and grant her the freedom to choose her own path." He looked back to her again and smiled. "She's earned it."

The Great Hall was as silent as a tomb. Jess looked up expectantly as he considered. He stole a glance back to Leslie. Even at this distance, Jess could see tears running down her ruby cheeks. Although he couldn't hear her, Jess saw her whisper his name. She looked overwhelmed by the events taking place and he wondered if he hadn't made a mistake.

Miss Edmunds subtle gesture made him return his attention to the king. Jess smile fell away as he saw that he did not look entirely pleased.

"What you have asked is highly unusual, young man." He leaned down close. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

Jess looked to Miss Edmunds. Her face was unreadable.

He looked back at Leslie.

He was sure.

"Yes, Majesty. I'm sure."

"Very well," he whispered. The King stood tall and spoke in a clear booming voice. "Let it be known that this day I do hereby nullify the marriage of Leslie Burke and grant her the freedom to choose her own path, by the request of Jess Aarons, the hero of Arkahna."

Jess looked back to Leslie. She suddenly erupted with a cry. He ran to her and held her as she sobbed. He knew she was crying with joy. He had done it. He had saved her.

"You freed me," she whispered in astonishment. "Thank you, Jess," she wept as she held him tight. Thank you!"

"Its only fair," he whispered back. "You freed me first."

000

Jess yawned. The festival was over and they were ready to head home. As they tok one last look back at the palace, Jess thought about all that had happened. His hand stroked the golden medallion at his chest, a gift from the King himself. He had been declared a noble. He was now Leslie's equal. The future seemed bright with possibilities.

As they stood watching the sunlight bathe the white towers in golden light, Tom's voice broke the stillness. "The story will be told for many years, around council chambers and campfires, temples and castles. From the bedside of noble children to the supper table of farmers, the people will speak of how the kingdom was pulled from the brink of disaster by a simple farm boy named Jess Aarons, who with courage and quick-thinking saved the Kingdom of Arkahna."

Jess blushed furiously at his words—for he did not delude himself that it was all his doing. He knew that he owed his success to everyone who helped make him a hero, from his parents who loved him, to the Lord and Lady Burke who took him in, to Tom and Miss Edmunds for teaching him so much and most of all to his best friend.

As he watched the sunlight cast her golden hair in shimmering light, she smiled at him, a smile of quiet pride. At that moment, he realized that Leslie was the one who deserved the most praise, for it was Leslie who had brought him out of the darkness and into his bright new life.