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The Runes of the Earth: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1


Chapter One: Mother's Son

"No, Mr Covenant," she repeated for the third time. "I can't do that."

Ever since he had entered her office, she had wished that he would go away.

He gazed at her as if he had not heard a word. "I don't see the problem, Dr Avery." His voice cast echoes of his father through her, flashes of memory like spangles off a surface of troubled water. "I'm her son. I have the right. And it's my responsibility." Despite the differences, even his features dragged a tangled net across her heart, dredging up aches and longing. "She's nothing to you, just a problem you can't solve. A burden on the taxpayers. A waste of resources you could use to help someone else." His eyes were too wide-set, his whole face too broad. The flesh of his cheeks and jaw hinted at self-indulgence.

And yet--

If he were clay, only a slice or two with the sculptor's tool, only a line of severity on either side of his mouth, and his cheeks would look as strict as commandments. A squint of old suffering at the corners of his eyes: a little grey dust to add years to his hair. His eyes themselves were exactly the right color, a disturbed hue like the shade of madness or prophecy. Oh, he could have been his father, if he had not been so young and unmarked. If he had paid any price as extravagant as his father's--

He was certainly insistent enough to be Thomas Covenant.

He seemed to face her through a haze of recall, reminding her of the man she had loved. The man who had risen in fear and fury to meet his harsh fate.

Avoiding the young man's gaze, she looked around the walls of her office without seeing them. At another time, the strict professionalism of this space might have eased her. Her displayed diplomas, like her tidy desk and heavy filing cabinets, served to vouch for her. She had found comfort among them on other occasions. But today they had no effect.

How many times had she held Thomas Covenant in her arms? Too few: not enough to satisfy her hunger for them.

She still wore his white gold wedding ring on a silver chain around her neck. It was all that she had left of him.

"I can reach her, Dr Avery," the son continued in a voice which was too bland to be his father's. "You can't. You've been trying for years. I'm sure you've done your best. But if you could have reached her, she would be sane by now. It's time to let her go. Let me have her."

"Mr Covenant," she insisted, "I'll say it again. I can't do that. The law in this state won't allow it. Professional ethics won't allow it." I won't allow it.

Joan Covenant was as unreachable as her son claimed. She might as well have been catatonic, in spite of every conceivable drug and therapy. In fact, she would have died long ago without constant care. But she was not "nothing" to Linden Avery. If Roger Covenant believed that, he would never understand the woman who stood in his way.

His mother was Thomas Covenant's ex-wife. Ten years ago, Linden had watched Covenant trade his life for Joan's--and smile to reassure her. That smile had ripped Linden's heart from its hiding place, rent away its protective lies and commitments. Sometimes she believed that everything which she had now done and become had started then. Covenant's smile had triggered a detonation which had blown her free of her own parents' hunger for death. The new woman who had emerged from that explosion loved Thomas Covenant from the bottom of her soul.

For his sake, she would not abandon Joan.

Yet now Roger Covenant sat across her desk from her, demanding his mother's release. If she had been the kind of woman who found the folly of the misguided amusing, she would have laughed in his face. Where did he get the nerve?

Hell, where did he get the idea?

"I'm sorry." Apparently he wanted to be polite. "I still don't see the problem. She's my mother. I'm her son. I'm willing to take care of her. How can the law object? How can you, Dr Avery? I don't understand why she and I haven't already left."

She turned away for a moment to look out the window. It gave her an unilluminating view of the parking lot, where her worn old car crouched over its rust, waiting for the day when its welds would fail and it could finally slump into scrap. She had kept it only because it had carried her to her first encounters with Thomas Covenant.

If Roger would not leave, surely she could simply drive away? Go out to her car, coax its engine to life, and return to Jeremiah?

No. If she had wanted to be a woman who fled whenever her job became difficult, she should have bought herself a more reliable vehicle.

Old habit lifted her hand to press the hard circle of Covenant's ring through her blouse. Sighing, she faced his son again.

"Let me try to be plain. Whether or not you understand is beside the point. The point is this. Unless and until you bring me a court order signed by a judge instructing me to release Joan Covenant to your custody, she stays where she is. End of discussion." She gazed at him expectantly. When he failed to take the hint, she added, "That's your cue to leave, Mr Covenant."

Don't you understand that you're not the only person here who cares about her?

However, she doubted that Roger Covenant cared at all for his mute mother. His oblivious manner, and the incipient madness or prophecy in his eyes, conveyed an entirely different impression.

He had explained that he had not come for Joan earlier because he had not been old enough. But he had passed his twenty-first birthday yesterday. Now he was ready. Yet Linden believed intuitively that he had some hidden purpose which outweighed love or concern.

In his unwavering insistence, he reminded her of some of the more plausible psychotics she had known in her tenure as Chief Medical Officer for the Berenford Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. But perhaps he suffered from nothing more treatable than terminal narcissism, in which case he was telling her the simple truth. He could not "see the problem."

This time, however, something in her tone--or in the conflicted fire mounting behind her eyes--must have penetrated his strange unction. Before she could offer to call Security, he rose to his feet as if he comprehended her at last.

Immediately she stood as well. She saw now that he was an inch or two shorter than his father, and broader in the torso. For that reason, among others, he would never evince the particular gauntness, the cut and flagrant sense of purpose--all compromise and capacity for surrender flensed away--which had made Thomas Covenant irrefusable to her.

He would never be the man his father was. He had too much of his mother in him. His carriage exposed him: the slight looseness in his shoulders; the tension which compensated for his poor balance. His arms seemed full of truncated gestures, expressions of honesty or appeal cut off prematurely. Behind his insistence, Linden heard hints of Joan's weakness, forlorn and fundamentally betrayed.

Perhaps his real desires had nothing to do with his mother. Perhaps he simply wanted to prove himself his father's equal. Or to supplant him--

When Roger had gained his feet, however, he did not admit defeat. Instead he asked, "Can I see her? It's been years." He offered Linden an affectless smile. "And there's something I want to show you."

In spite of her impatience, she nodded. "Of course. You can visit her right now." Strangely, his apparent emptiness saddened her: she grieved on his behalf. Thomas Covenant had taught her that ignorance--like innocence--had no power to ward itself against harm. Because Roger did not understand, he could not be saved from suffering.

When he saw Joan's unique plight, either his incomprehension would hold against her, or it would not. In either case, the experience might convince him to leave Linden alone.

For that reason, she gestured him toward the door. She had already done her rounds; and her paperwork could wait. Certainly her patients had no immediate need of her. At its heart, Berenford Memorial existed, not to heal its occupants, but to help them heal themselves.

Suddenly cooperative, as if he had gained an important concession, Roger preceded her out of her office. Now his smile struck her as reflexive; an unconscious expression of eagerness.

Closing the door behind her, Linden led him through the edifice where she did the work with which she attempted to fill Covenant's place in her heart. His place--and the Land's--

Inadvertently she remembered the sound of Pitchwife's voice as he sang,

My heart has rooms that sigh with dust

And ashes in the hearth.

At times the contrast between her experiences with Thomas Covenant and her years at Berenford Memorial discouraged her. Surely her contest with the madness of her patients could not compare with the sheer glory of Thomas Covenant's struggle to redeem the Land? Nevertheless she closed her throat and continued guiding Roger toward Joan's room. The ache which he elicited was familiar to her, and she knew how to bear it.

Her life here was not less than the one she had lived with Covenant. It was only different. Less grand, perhaps: more ambiguous, with smaller triumphs. But it sufficed.

A short corridor took her out of the Hospital's small administrative wing and across the lobby, past Maxine Dubroff's reception/information station. Maxine worked there nine hours a day, five days a week: an ageing woman who looked like a stork and smiled like an angel, responding to everyone who entered Berenford Memorial with unfailing solicitude. She was a volunteer who had simply attached herself to Linden one day after Linden, on call in ER as she was every third night, had saved the life of Maxine's husband, Ernie. He had been kicked in the chest by a horse: Linden had found and removed a sliver of bone from his left lung. He had recovered to teach the horse better manners; and Maxine had been at Linden's service ever since.

She smiled now as Linden and Roger Covenant crossed the tiled lobby. In spite of Roger's presence, Linden replied with a smile of her own--less seraphic than Maxine's, but no less sincere. Maxine reminded Linden that she was not alone in her dedication to her work. Like Linden herself, and most of Berenford Memorial's staff, Maxine had committed herself to a need which the county acknowledged but could not meet.

Ten years ago, Joan had been snatched from Thomas Covenant's care by a group of people who were--in the county's eyes--demonstrably insane. For weeks these individuals had nurtured their lunacy and destitution openly, begging for food and shelter and clothing, calling for repentance. Then, one night little more than twenty-four hours after Linden had arrived in town to accept a job at County Hospital, they had kidnapped Joan, leaving Covenant himself unconscious, his home splashed with blood.

They had taken her into the woods behind his home, where they had apparently planned to kill her in some bizarre ritual--a rite which included burning their own hands to stumps in a bonfire built for the purpose. Although no one except Linden knew the truth, that rite had achieved its intended aim. It had lured Covenant into the woods on Joan's trail. There he had exchanged himself for her, and been killed.

In the life which Linden had lived here, she had known him for scarcely thirty-six hours.

After his death, however, the people who had arranged his self-sacrifice had regained some measure of ordinary sanity. Their charred hands and starved bodies had been horrible enough. Those injuries had stretched County Hospital's limits. But the burden of their damaged minds, their aggrieved spirits, had proved harder for the citizens of the area to bear. Collectively the county felt responsible.

In public, most people admitted that they had failed to care for the most desolate and fragile members of their community. Surely unbalanced mothers and fathers would not have thrust, not just their own hands, but the hands of their children as well, into the flames if their destitution had not been neglected by the more stable souls around them? Surely those wounded men and women would have eschewed such violence if they had been offered any other recourse? No matter how many demented preachers urged them to fanaticism? Listening to children in cruel pain sob through the night taught the well-meaning people of the county to desire some form of prevention.

Yet this sense of communal guilt ran deeper than most people would acknowledge. On some level, the entire county understood that the terrible events which had led to Covenant's murder would never have happened if he had not been shunned and execrated, forced into the traditional role of the outcast, the pariah. He had been, inexplicably, a leper: he had what the doctors called a "primary" case of Hansen's disease, one with no known etiology. Such cases were rare, even by the standards of an illness as rare as leprosy, but they occurred often enough to suggest the wrath of God; punishment for sins so vile that they sickened the sinner.

Viscerally frightened and full of loathing, people had spurned Thomas Covenant as if he were a carrier of corruption. For over a decade, he had occupied Haven Farm on sufferance: seeing no one, never coming to town, avoided by his neighbors; occasionally harassed by the county sheriff, Barton Lytton; uncomfortably tolerated by his own lawyer, Megan Roman; befriended only by Julius Berenford, then Chief of Staff at County Hospital. Indeed, the county's repugnance for Covenant's illness would have driven him into exile if he had not once saved the life of a snake-bitten girl. In addition, however, he made significant contributions to the care of the county's indigents--money which he earned by writing novels about guilt and power. In effect, he had supported the very people who brought about his death: the same people, presumably, who had driven his ex-wife mad. Therefore he was tolerated.

Then he was gone, irretrievable, leaving only Joan and Linden behind.

Dr Berenford believed that he had been too silent while Covenant lived. Afterward he raised his voice. Impelled by her own regrets, Megan Roman acted on his words. And the voters and politicians of the county felt more responsible than they cared to admit. They lobbied the state legislature: they passed mill levies: they applied for grants.

Eventually they built Berenford Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, named for Julius when he had slipped away in his sleep one night five years ago. And they appointed Linden as Berenford Memorial's CMO. She was the only one among them who had accompanied Covenant to his last crisis.

Now she presided over a small facility of twenty beds, all in private rooms. Her staff included five nurses, five orderlies, one janitor, one maintenance man, and a coterie of part-time secretaries, in addition to volunteers like Maxine Dubroff. Berenford Memorial had two psychiatrists on call. And one physician--herself--with a background in emergency room medicine and family practice: trauma, triage, and pink eye.

From the lobby, she guided Covenant's son upstairs to the "acute care" wing: ten beds devoted to patients who were inclined to injure themselves, assault the staff, or run away at random opportunities. Instead of proceeding to Joan's room, however, she paused at the top of the stairs and turned to face Roger.

"A moment, if you don't mind, Mr Covenant. May I ask you a question?" When he had seen his mother, he might not give her another chance. "The more I think about it, the less I understand why you're here."

Again his smile seemed merely reflexive. "What is there to understand? She's my mother. Why wouldn't I want to see her?"

"Of course," Linden countered. "But what inspired your desire to take care of her? That's not as common as you might think. Frankly, it sounds a little"--the term she wished to use was de trop, existentially dislocated--"daunting."

In response, Roger's manner seemed to sharpen. "The last time I saw her," he replied precisely, "she told me that if she failed I would need to take her place. Until yesterday I didn't have the resources to do that."

Involuntarily Linden caught her breath as the bottom of her stomach seemed to fall away. "Failed at what?"

Long ago, Joan had sought out Thomas Covenant--no, not sought out, she had been sent--in order to teach him despair. Despite her terrible plight, however, and her thirst for his blood, she had failed absolutely.

"Isn't that obvious?" Covenant's son returned. "She's here, isn't she? Wouldn't you call that failure?"

No. For a moment, Linden's heart quailed. Memories beat about her head like wings: she felt harried by furies.

Her face must have betrayed her chagrin. Solicitously, Roger reached out to touch her arm. "Dr Avery, are you all right?" Then he dropped his hand. "I really think you should let me take her. It would be better for everyone."

Even you, he seemed to say. Especially you.

Take her place.

Ten years ago, empowered by all of those hands thrust into the flames, all of that ceded pain, as well as by the fatal rush of Thomas Covenant's blood, a bitter malevolence had pierced the reality of Linden's life. It had drawn her in Covenant's wake to another place, another dimension of existence. The psychiatrists on call at Berenford Memorial would have called it a "psychotic episode"--an extended psychotic episode. With Covenant, she had been summoned to a realm known as the Land, where she had been immersed in evil until she was altered almost beyond recognition. During the black hours of that one night, before Julius Berenford had found her with Covenant's body, she had somehow spent several months outside--or deep within--herself, striving to win free of her own weakness and the legacy of her parents in order to preserve the beauty of a world which had never been meant for corruption.

Now Roger's words seemed to suggest that she would have to face it all again.

No. Shuddering, she came back to herself. It was impossible. She was flinching at shadows, echoes. Roger's father was dead. There would be no second summons for her. The Land was Thomas Covenant's doom, not hers. He had given his life for it, as he had for Joan, and so its enemy, the dark being known variously as a-Jeroth, the Grey Slayer, and Lord Foul the Despiser, had been defeated.

Trusting in that, Linden set aside her alarm and faced Covenant's son.

Roger's implied threat she ignored. Instead she asked, "What do you mean, you have the 'resources' to take her place?"

"It's simple," Roger replied. He seemed to misunderstand her without being aware of it. "I'm twenty-one now. I'm of age. Yesterday I inherited my father's legacy.

"Of course," he explained as if Linden might have forgotten, "he left everything to my mother. Haven Farm. His royalties. But she was declared incompetent when she was committed here. Ms Roman--you know her, my father's lawyer--has been trustee of the estate. But now it's all mine." His smile hinted at self-satisfaction. "Once I've persuaded you to release her, she and I will live on Haven Farm.

"She'll like that. She and my father were happy there."

Linden swallowed a groan. Thomas and Joan Covenant had lived on Haven Farm until his leprosy had been diagnosed. Then she had left him, abandoned him; divorced him to protect their son from his illness. No doubt she had believed that she was doing the right thing. Nevertheless the knowledge of her own frailty--the awareness that she had broken her vows when her husband had needed her most--had given the Despiser a foothold in her soul. Her shame was fertile soil for the seeds of despair and madness.

And when she had been deprived of every conscious impulse except the desire to taste her ex-husband's blood, Covenant had cared for her on Haven Farm until the end. The idea that Joan would "like" living there again nearly brought tears to Linden's eyes.

And Roger had not answered her real question.

"That isn't what I meant," she insisted thickly. "You said she told you to take her place if she failed. Now you have the resources do that."

"Did I?" His smile remained expressionless. "You must have misheard me. Now I can take your place, Dr Avery. I have enough money to care for her. We have a home. I can afford all the help I need.

"She isn't the only one who failed."

Linden frowned to conceal a wince. She herself had failed Joan: she knew that. She failed all her patients. But she also knew that her failure was beside the point. It did nothing to diminish the value or the necessity of her chosen work.

And she was sure that she had not "misheard" Roger.

Abruptly she decided not to waste any more time questioning him. For all practical purposes, he was impervious to inquiry. And he had nothing to say which might sway her.

Surely he would leave when he had seen his mother?

Without challenging his falseness, she drew him forward again, toward Joan's room. Along the way, she explained, "This is where we keep our more disturbed patients. They aren't necessarily more damaged or in more pain than the people downstairs. But they manifest violent symptoms of one form or another. We've had to keep your mother under restraint for the past year. Before that--"

Linden temporarily spared herself more detail by pushing open Joan's door with her shoulder and leading Roger into his mother's room.

Out in the hall, the characteristic smell of hospitals was less prominent, but here it was unmistakable: an ineradicable admixture of betadyne and blood, harsh cleansers and urine, human sweat, fear, floor wax, and anesthetics, accented by an inexplicable tang of formalin. For some reason, medical care always produced the same scents.

The room was spacious by the standard of private rooms in County Hospital next door. A large window let in the kind of sunlight that sometimes helped fragile psyches recover their balance. The bed occupied the center of the floor. An unused TV set jutted from one wall near the ceiling. The only piece of advanced equipment present was a pulse monitor, its lead attached to a clip on the index finger of Joan's left hand. According to the monitor, her pulse was steady, untroubled.

On a stand by the head of the bed sat a box of cotton balls, a bottle of sterile saline, a jar of petroleum jelly, and a vase of bright flowers. The flowers had been Maxine Dubroff's idea, but Linden had adopted it immediately. For years now she had arranged for the delivery of flowers to all her patients on a regular basis, the brighter the better. In every language which she could devise or imagine, she strove to convince her patients that they were in a place of care.

Joan sat upright in the bed, staring blankly at the door. Restraints secured her arms to the rails of the bed. Her bonds were loose enough to let her scratch her nose or adjust her posture, although she never did those things.

In fact, one of the nurses or orderlies must have placed her in that position. Fortunately for her caregivers, Joan had become a compliant patient: she remained where she was put. Pulled to her feet, she stood. Stretched out on the bed, she lay still. She swallowed food placed in her mouth. Sometimes she chewed. When she was taken into the bathroom, she voided. But she did not react to words or voices, gave no indication that she was aware of the people who tended her.

Her stare never wavered: she hardly seemed to blink. Standing or reclining, her disfocused gaze regarded neither care nor hope. If she ever slept, she did so with her eyes open.

Her years of catatonia had marked her poignantly. The skin of her face had hung slack on its bones for so long now that the underlying muscles had atrophied, giving her a look of mute horror. Despite the program of exercises which Linden had prescribed for her, and which the orderlies carried out diligently, her limbs had wasted to a pitiful frailty. And nothing that Linden or the nurses could do--nothing that any of the experts whom Linden had consulted could suggest--spared her from losing her teeth over the years. No form of nourishment, oral or IV, no brushing or other imposed care, could replace her body's need for ordinary use. In effect, she had experienced more mortality than her chronological years could contain. Helpless to do otherwise, her flesh bore the burden of too much time.

"Hello, Joan," Linden said as she always did when she entered the room. The detached confidence of her tone assumed that Joan could hear her in spite of all evidence to the contrary. "How are you today?"

Nevertheless Joan's plight tugged at her heart. A sore the size of Linden's palm stigmatized Joan's right temple. A long series of blows had given her a deep bruise which had eventually begun to ooze blood as the skin stretched and cracked, too stiff to heal. Now a dripping red line veined with yellow and white ran down her cheek in spite of everything that could be done to treat it.

When the bruise had first begun to bleed, Linden had covered it with a bandage; but that had made Joan frantic, causing her to thrash against her restraints until she threatened to break her own bones. Now Linden concentrated on trying to reduce the frequency of the blows. On her orders, the wound was allowed to bleed: cleaned several times a day, slathered with antibiotics and salves to counteract an incessant infection, but left open to the air. Apparently it calmed Joan in some way.

Roger stopped just inside the door and stared at his mother. His face betrayed no reaction. Whatever he felt remained closed within him, locked into his heart. Linden had expected surprise, shock, dismay, indignation, perhaps even compassion; but she saw none. The undefined lines of his face gave her no hints.

Without shifting his gaze, he asked softly, "Who hit her?"

He didn't sound angry. Hell, Linden thought, he hardly sounded interested--

She sighed. "She did it to herself. That's why she's restrained."

Moving to the side of the bed, she took a couple of cotton balls, moistened them with sterile saline, and gently began to mop Joan's cheek. One soft stroke at a time, she wiped away the blood upward until she reached the seeping wound. Then she used more cotton balls to dab at the wound itself, trying to clean it without hurting Joan.

Linden would have cared for her carefully in any case; but her devotion to Thomas Covenant inspired an extra tenderness in her.

"It started a year ago. Until then we kept her downstairs. She'd been unreactive for so long, we never thought that she might be a danger to herself. But then she began punching at her temple. As hard as she can."

Hard enough to wear calluses on her knuckles.

"At first it wasn't very often. Once every couple of days, no more. But that didn't last long. Soon she was doing it several times a day. Then several times an hour. We brought her up her, tied her wrists. That seemed to work for a while. But then she got out of the restraints--"

"Got out?" Roger put in abruptly. "How?"

For the first time since he had entered the room, he looked at Linden instead of at Joan.

Avoiding his eyes, Linden gazed out the window. Past the institutional profile of County Hospital next door, she could see a stretch of blue sky, an almost luminous azure, free of fault. Spring offered the county days like this occasionally, days when the air reminded her of diamondraught, and the illimitable sky seemed deep enough to swallow away all the world's hurts.

Today it gave her little comfort.

"We don't know," she admitted. "We've never been able to figure it out. Usually it happens late at night, when she's alone. We come in the next morning, find her free. Blood pumping from her temple. Blood on her fist. For a while we had her watched twenty-four hours a day. Then we set up video cameras, recorded everything. As far as we can tell, the restraints just fall off her. Then she hits herself until we make her stop."

"And she still does?" Roger's manner had intensified.

Linden turned from the window to face him again. "Not as much as before. I can get you a copy of the tapes if you want. You can watch for yourself. Now it only happens three or four times a night. Occasionally during the day, not often."

"What changed?" he asked.

Gazing at him, she remembered that his father had done everything in his power to protect both Joan and her. Roger's stare conveyed the impression that he would not have done the same.

Her shoulders sagged, and she sighed again. "Mr Covenant, you have to understand this. She was going to kill herself. One punch at a time, she was beating herself to death. We tried everything we could think of. Even electroshock--which I loathe. During the first six or seven months, we gave her an entire pharmacy of sedatives, tranquilizers, soporifics, stimulants, neural inhibiters, beta blockers, SSRIs, anti-seizure drugs--enough medication to comatize a horse. Nothing worked. Nothing even slowed her down. She was killing herself."

Apparently something within her required those blows. Linden considered it possible that the Land's old enemy had left a delayed compulsion like a post-hypnotic suggestion in Joan's shattered mind, commanding her to bring about her own death.

Not for the first time, Linden wondered what Sheriff Lytton had said or done to Joan during the brief time when she had been in his care. When Julius Berenford had driven to Haven Farm after Covenant's murder, he had found Joan there: confused and frightened, with no memory of what had transpired; but able to speak and respond. Wishing to search for Covenant and Linden without interference, Julius had sent Joan to County Hospital with Barton Lytton; and by the time they had reached the hospital Joan's mind was gone. Linden had asked Lytton what he had done, of course, pushed him for an answer; but he had told her nothing.

"And she was getting worse," Linden went on. "More frantic. Hysterical. She hit herself more often. Sometimes she refused to eat, went days without food. She fought us so hard that it took three orderlies and a nurse to fix an IV. She began to lose alarming amounts of blood."

"What changed?" Roger repeated intently. "What did you do?"

Linden hesitated on the edge of risks which she had not meant to take. Without warning the air of Joan's room seemed crowded with dangerous possibilities. How much of the truth could she afford to expose to this unformed and foolish young man?

But then she tightened her resolve and met his question squarely. "Three months ago, I gave her back her wedding ring."

Without glancing away from him, Linden reached to the collar of Joan's nightgown and lifted it aside to reveal the delicate silver chain hanging around her neck. From the end of the chain, still hidden by the nightgown, dangled a white gold wedding band. Joan had lost so much weight that she could not have kept a ring on any of her fingers.

Roger's smile hinted at sudden hungers. "I'm impressed, Dr Avery. That was obviously the right thing to do. But I would not have expected--" He stopped short of saying that he would not have expected such insight from her. "How did you figure it out? What made you think of it?"

Committed now, Linden shrugged. "It just came to me one night.

"I don't know how much you know about the end of your father's life. For the last two weeks before he was killed, he took care of Joan." On Haven Farm. "She had already lost her mind, but she wasn't like this. In some ways, she was much worse. Practically rabid. The only thing that calmed her was the taste of your father's blood. When he needed to feed her, or clean her, he would let her scratch him until she drew blood. Sucking it off his skin would bring her back to herself--for a little while."

Behind Linden's professional detachment, a secret anger made her hope that she might yet shock or frighten Roger Covenant.

"Now she hits herself, Mr Covenant. She wants the pain for some reason. She needs to hurt herself. I don't know why. As punishment?" For her role in her ex-husband's murder? "It certainly looks like she's punishing herself.

"And she won't tolerate a bandage. Her own bleeding seems to comfort her. Like a kind of restitution-- It helps her regain a little balance. I tried to think of some way to sustain that. If restitution calmed her, I wanted her to have more of it.

"Her ring," the symbol of her marriage, "was the only thing I had that I could restore."

At the time, Linden had placed the chain around Joan's neck with acute trepidation. The language of that gesture could so easily have been misinterpreted; taken as a reminder of guilt rather than as a symbol of love and attachment. However, Joan had lapsed into her comparatively pliant trance as soon as the ring had touched her skin.

Since then Linden had often feared that she had made a terrible mistake: that it was precisely the reminder of guilt which calmed Joan: that Joan's catatonia endured because she had been fundamentally defeated by the touch of white gold. Nevertheless Linden did not remove the ring.

Joan's present trance was all that kept her alive. She could not have survived her battering desperation much longer.

Roger nodded as if Linden's explanation made perfect sense to him. "You did well. Again, I'm impressed." For the first time since Linden had met him--hardly an hour ago--he seemed satisfied. "I can see why you're reluctant to let anyone else take care of her."

At once, however, he resumed his irrational insistence. "But you've done all you can. She won't get any better than this unless I help her."

He raised his hand to forestall Linden's protest. "There are things you don't know about her. About this situation. And I can't explain them. Words won't--" He paused to rephrase his point. "They can't be conveyed in words. The knowledge has to be earned. And you haven't earned it. Not the way I have.

"Let me show you."

She should stop him, Linden thought stupidly. This had gone on too long. Yet she did nothing to intervene as he approached the bed. He had touched a forgotten vulnerability to paralysis deep within her.

Gracelessly he seated himself as close to his mother as the bed-rail permitted. A touch of excitement flushed his cheeks. His respiration quickened. His hands trembled slightly as he undid the restraint on her right wrist.

Flowers cast splotches of color into Linden's eyes, deep red and blue, untroubled yellow. A few minutes ago, she had known exactly what kind of flowers they were: now she had no idea. The sky outside the window seemed unattainable, too far away too offer any hope. The sunlight offered no warmth.

Joan stared past or through Roger vacantly. Linden expected her to strike herself, but she did not. Perhaps the fact that her hand was free had not yet penetrated her subterranean awareness.

Roger lifted his palms to Joan's cheeks, cupped them against her slack flesh. His trembling had become unmistakable. He seemed to quiver with eagerness, avid as a deprived lover. Unsteadily he turned her head until he could gaze straight into the absence of her eyes.

"Mother." His voice shook. "It's me. Roger."

Linden bit down on her lip. All the air in the room seemed to concentrate around the bed, too thick to breathe. In the bonfire where Joan's captors had destroyed their right hands, she had seen eyes like fangs look out hungrily at Covenant's impending murder. At the time, she had believed that they held malice. But now she thought that emotion in them might have been despair; an emptiness which could not be filled.


Joan blinked several times. Her pupils contracted.

With an effort that seemed to stretch the skin of her forehead, her eyes came into focus on her son.

"Roger?" Her disused voice crawled like a wounded thing between her lips. "Is it you?"

Suddenly stern, he told her, "Of course it's me. You can see that."

Involuntarily Linden recoiled a step. She tasted blood, felt a pain in her lip. Roger sounded disdainful, vexed, as though Joan were a servant who had disappointed him.

"Oh, Roger." Tears spilled from Joan's eyes. Her free hand fumbled to his shoulder, clutched at his neck. "It's been so long." Her face held no expression: its muscles lacked the strength to convey what she felt. "I've waited so long. It's been so hard. Make it stop."

"Stop complaining." He scolded her as if she were a child. "It isn't as bad as all that. I had to wait until I was twenty-one. You know that."

How--? Linden panted as if she had been struck in the stomach. How--?

How had Roger reached Joan?

How could Joan have known anything?

"I've been good," Joan responded, pleading. "I have." Her damaged voice seemed to flinch and cower at his feet. "See?"

Dropping her arm from his neck, she flung her fist at her bruised temple. Fresh blood smeared her knuckles as she lowered her arm.

"I've been good," she begged. "Make it stop. I can't bear it." "Nonsense, Mother," Roger snorted. "Of course you can bear it. That's what you do."

But then, apparently, he took pity on her, and his manner softened. "It won't be much longer. I have some things to do. Then I'll make it stop. We'll make it stop together."

Releasing her cheeks, he rose to his feet, turned toward Linden.

As soon as he left the bed, Joan began to scream--a frail, rending sound that seemed to rip from her throat like fabric tearing across jagged glass. As if in sympathy, the pulse monitor emitted a shrill call.

"You see, Dr Avery?" he remarked through his mother's cries. "You really have no choice. You have to let her go with me.

"The sooner you release her, the sooner I can free her from all this."


Over my dead body, Linden told his ambiguous smile and his bland eyes. Over my dead body.

Chapter 2: Gathering Defenses

"Outside," Linden ordered him aloud. "Now."

She was fortunate that he complied at once. If he had resisted, she might have hit him, trying to strike the certainty from his face.

As soon as she had closed Joan's door behind her, she wheeled on him. "You knew that would happen."

Joan's screaming echoed in the corridor, reflected by the white tile floor, the unadorned walls. Her monitor carried its alarm to the nurses' station.

He shrugged, untouched by Linden's anger. "I'm her son. She raised me."

"That's no answer," she retorted.

Before she could go on, a woman's voice called out, "Dr. Avery? What's wrong?"

A nurse came hurrying along the hall: Amy Clint. Her young, diligent face was wide with surprise and concern.

Roger Covenant smiled blandly at Amy. "Give her a taste of that blood," he suggested as though he had the right to say such things. "It'll quiet her down."

Amy stopped. She stared in dismay at Linden.

"Ms. Clint"-Linden summoned her authority to counteract Amy's shock-"this is Roger Covenant. He's Joan's son. Seeing him has upset her."

"She's never-" For a moment, the nurse fumbled to control her reaction. Then she said, more steadily, "I've never heard her scream like that." Joan's wailing ached in the air. "What should I do?"

Linden took a deep breath, mustered her outrage. "Do what he says. Let her taste her blood." To ease Amy's consternation, she added, "I'll explain later.

"Now," she insisted when the nurse hesitated.

"Right away, Doctor." With distress in her eyes, Amy entered Joan's room, shut the door.

At once, Linden confronted Roger again. "You didn't answer my question."

Still smiling as though his mother's screams had no effect on him, he held up his hand, asking Linden to wait.

Moments after Amy had entered the room, Joan suddenly fell silent. The abrupt end of her cries throbbed in the hallway like an aftershock.

"You see, Dr. Avery?" replied Roger. "I'm really the only one who can take care of her. No one else is qualified." Before Linden could protest, he added, "I knew what would happen because I'm her son. I know exactly what's wrong with her. I know how to treat it.

"You can't justify keeping her now."

"You're wrong." Linden kept her voice down. "I can't justify releasing her. What you just did is unconscionable."

"I reached her," he objected. "That's more than you can do."

"Oh, you reached her, all right," Linden returned. "That's pretty damn obvious. It's the results I object to."

Roger frowned uncertainly. "You think she's better off the way she is." He appeared genuinely confused by Linden's reaction.

"I think-" Linden began, then stopped herself. He was beyond argument. More quietly, she stated, "I think that until you bring me a court order to the contrary, she stays here. End of discussion.

"The front door"-she pointed along the hall-"is that way."

For an instant, anger seemed to flicker in his dissociated eyes. But then he shrugged, and the glimpse vanished.

"We'll resolve this later, Dr. Avery," he said as if he were sure. "There's just one more thing.

"Can you tell me what happened to my father's wedding ring?"

Without transition, Linden went cold. In the Land, Covenant's white gold ring was the symbol and instrument of his power. With it, he had wielded wild magic against the Despiser.

Roger wanted more than a chance to take his mother's place. He wanted his father's theurgy as well.

"I understand he always wore it," he went on, "but it wasn't found on his body. I've asked Megan Roman and Sheriff Lytton, but they don't know where it is. It's mine now. I want it."

Old habit caused her to raise her hand to the irrefusable circle of the ring under her blouse. Roger meant to bear white gold to the Land so that he could tear down the Arch of Time, set Lord Foul free. The Despiser had already renewed his assault on the beauty of the Earth, and an ordeal that had nearly destroyed Linden once before was about to begin again.

No. No. It was impossible. Such things had exhausted their reality for her ten years ago.

Nevertheless she believed it. Or she believed that Roger Covenant believed it.

And if he believed it-

He smiled his vacant smile at her.

-then she could not afford to let him know that she had guessed his intent. If he realized that his plans were endangered, he might do something she would be unable to prevent.

Already she might have given away too much. He could have seen the ingrained movement of her hand.

People were going to die.

A heartbeat later, however, she recovered her courage. "I have it," she answered. She did not mean to diminish herself with lies. And she would not disavow her loyalty to his father. "I've had it ever since he died."

Roger nodded. "That's why Sheriff Lytton didn't find it."

"Your father left it to me," Linden stated flatly. "I intend to keep it."

"It belongs to me," he countered. "His will left everything to my mother. I inherited it yesterday."

She shook her head. "No, you didn't. It came to me before he died. It isn't part of his estate."

In fact, Covenant had not handed her the ring directly: she had retrieved it when the Despiser had slain him with its argent fire. Nevertheless she considered it hers as much as if he had wedded her with it.

"I see." Roger frowned again. "That's a problem, Dr. Avery. I need it. I can't take her place without it. Not entirely. And if I don't take her place, she'll never be completely free."

He seemed unconcerned that he had revealed so much. Perhaps he did not consider Linden discerning enough to understand him.

"But it's not my problem," she said precisely. "We're done here. Good-bye, Mr. Covenant. The door is-"

"I know," he interrupted. "The door is that way.

"Doctor Avery"-now he sneered her title-"you have no idea what you're interfering with." Then he turned and strode away.

Oh, she had some idea. Despite his power to disturb his mother, he clearly understood nothing about the woman who opposed him. But she could not imagine that she had any advantage over him.

She could only guess what he might do next.

Urgently she wanted to know how he had earned his knowledge.

Her stomach clenched as she reentered Joan's room to explain the situation as best she could to Amy Clint.

By the time she returned to her office, her resolve had hardened, taken shape. She could not allow herself to be drawn into Roger Covenant's mad designs, whatever they might be. She had made her life and her commitments here: people whom she had chosen to serve and love were dependent on her. And Joan deserved better than whatever her son might do to her.

Linden had to stop Roger now, before he carried his intentions any further.

To do that, she needed to know more about him.

She also needed help. Joan was not her only responsibility. She had other duties, other loves, which she did not mean to set aside.

Clearing space on her desk, she pulled the phone toward her and began to make calls.

First she contacted Bill Coty, the amiable old man who ran what passed for security at County Hospital. He was generally considered a harmless, ineffectual duffer; but Linden thought otherwise. She had often suspected that he might rise to a larger challenge if he ever encountered one. Certainly he had made himself useful during the crisis following Covenant's death, when the hospital's resources had been stretched by burn victims, concerned citizens, and hysterical relatives. His characteristic smile twisted with nausea, he had soothed some people and shepherded others while shielding the medical staff from interference. And he could call on half a dozen volunteer security "officers," burly individuals who would rush to the hospital if they were needed.

"I know this is going to sound odd," she told him when he came on the line, "but I think there's a man in the area who might try to kidnap one of my patients. His name is Roger Covenant.

"You remember his mother, Joan. He thinks he can take care of her better than we can. And he doesn't seem to care about legal niceties like custody."

"That poor woman." For a moment, Coty sounded inattentive, distracted by memories. Then, however, he surprised Linden by asking, "How violent do you think this Roger is?"

Violent? She had not considered Joan's son in those terms.

"I ask, Dr. Avery," the old man went on, "because I want my guys ready for him. If he's just going to break a window and try to carry her off, any one of us can stop him. But if he comes armed-" He chuckled humorlessly. "I might ask a couple of my guys to bring guns. I'm sure you know we aren't bonded for firearms. But I don't want a repeat of what happened ten years ago."

Linden scrambled to adjust her assessment of Roger Covenant. "I'm not sure what to tell you, Mr. Coty. I just met him this morning. I don't think he's in his right mind.

But nothing about him seemed violent," apart from his emotional brutality toward his mother. "Guns might be an overreaction."

Could she be wrong about Roger's intentions? Was she inventing the danger? That was possible. If so, he hardly deserved to be shot for his dysfunction.

"Whatever you say, Doctor." Bill's tone suggested no disappointment. Apparently he did not fancy himself-or his volunteers-as gunslingers. "We'll start to keep an eye on her room tonight. Unless he's stupid, he won't try anything during the day. I'll make sure one of my guys is on duty all night."

Grateful as much for his lack of skepticism as for his willingness to help, Linden thanked him and hung up.

Could she leave the matter in his hands? she asked herself. Did she need to do more?

Yes, she did. Joan was not Roger's only potential victim. If something happened to Linden herself, Jeremiah would be lost. He was entirely dependent on her.

The simple thought of him made her glance out the window at her car. She felt a sudden yearning to forget Joan and go to him; make sure that he was all right.

Sandy would have called if he were not.

Roger did not know he existed.

Her hands trembled slightly as she dialed Megan Roman's number.

Megan had been Thomas Covenant's lawyer, and then his estate's, for more than twenty years. During much of that time, her diligence-as she freely admitted-had been inspired by shame. His leprosy had disturbed her deeply. She had felt toward him a plain, primitive, almost cellular terror; an innominate conviction that his disease was a contagion which would spread through the county as it would through her own flesh, like wildfire.

But she was a lawyer, a thinking woman, dismayed by her own irrationality. While he had lived, she had waged a running battle with her alarm, continuing to work for him because she was ashamed of herself. And after his death she had become a staunch and vocal advocate for the kind of tolerance and social responsibility which had eluded her during his life. The bloody events that had brought about his murder should not have been allowed to happen. Like Julius Berenford, she had made a personal crusade out of trying to ensure that they never happened again.

Linden considered Megan Roman one of her few friends. Certainly Megan had always given Linden her assistance unstintingly. After Jeremiah's maiming by his stricken mother, and his troubled history in the county's various foster facilities, his adoption had posed a legal tangle that Linden could not have unsnarled for herself.

While she waited for Megan's receptionist to put her call through, Linden had time to wonder why Megan had not already contacted her about Roger Covenant. As his father's executor, she must have been dealing with him for years.

"Linden." Megan had a professionally hearty phone manner that Linden disliked. It sounded false to her. "This is an unexpected pleasure. What can I do you out of?"

Vexed in spite of herself, Linden responded bluntly, "Why didn't you warn me about Roger Covenant?"

At once, Megan changed her tone. "Oh, God. What has he done?"

"You first," Linden insisted. She needed a moment to absorb Megan's immediate assumption that Roger had done something. "Why didn't you warn me?"

"Well, shit, Linden," Megan muttered uncomfortably. "Will you believe that it wasn't any of your business? He's a client. I'm not supposed to talk about him."

"Sure," Linden conceded. "But that's not the only reason you didn't tell me."

Clearly Megan distrusted him.

The lawyer hesitated, then asked, "Will you believe that I just didn't think of it?"

"No. That I won't believe. I've known you too long."

"Well, shit," Megan repeated. "What good is having friends if they know you too well to believe you?

"All right, all right," she went on as if Linden had objected. "I didn't tell you because"-she faltered momentarily-"well, because I was trying to spare you. I know, you're a big girl, you can take care of yourself. But he's Thomas Covenant's son, for God's sake. That means something to you, something I don't understand."

Deliberately Linden bit at her sore lip. That smaller pain steadied her.

"You don't talk about it," Megan said more harshly. "You hardly knew him. You've always said you just wanted to help him with Joan. But whenever I ask you about it, you don't really answer my questions. Instead I get the distinct impression that you had more at stake than you let on. He looms for you somehow. Your whole face changes when his name comes up.

"I don't know what his son means to you, but I thought it might be something painful." Her tone conveyed a brusque shrug. "So I wanted to spare you.

"Now it's your turn," she added before Linden could respond. "'Warn' you? Why should I need to warn you about anything? What has he done?"

But Linden was reluctant to describe Roger's encounter with his mother. She feared hearing the experience put into words.

"He came to see me an hour ago," she said slowly. "He thinks I should give him custody of his mother." Words would make it more real. "And he's very insistent . . . ," Linden trailed into uncertainty.

"Yes?" her friend prompted.

"Megan, you're going to think I've lost my mind." She touched Covenant's ring for courage. "He made me believe that he intends to take her if I don't let her go."

When Lord Foul put forth his power, people died. The beauty of the world was torn apart. He had to be stopped here.

"Oh, God," Megan groaned. "Made you believe it how?"

"I don't know how to explain it," Linden admitted. After all these years, she could not now suddenly tell Megan what had happened to her during Covenant's death. If she did so, she would lose all of her credibility. "Will you believe that he just gave me a bad feeling?

"I've been working with unbalanced people for a long time, and I think I have an instinct for it. He's off-kilter somehow. And I know for a fact that he didn't listen to a thing I said.

"He seems obsessed with the idea of taking care of Joan. Nothing else affects him. As far as he's concerned, she belongs with him. End of story. I'm afraid there aren't any ordinary social or legal or even practical considerations that will hold him back."

Megan did not reply for a long moment. During the silence, Linden heard a ticking sound like a heartbeat along the phone line. Then it stopped. At last Megan said slowly, "In fact, I do believe you. I have a bad feeling about him myself. And I can't explain it, either.

"Do you know?" She paused, apparently gathering her thoughts. "We started corresponding three years ago. He wrote to me when he turned eighteen. At that point he was still technically a ward of the state-his grandparents never actually adopted him, but the welfare people found it easier to let him start managing his own affairs.

"He wanted to know everything about his father's estate. How much money there was, where it came from exactly, how it was invested, what kind of real property was involved. He wanted to make all the arrangements to take possession of the estate the minute he turned twenty-one. He understood that much about the law, at any rate. And he wanted to know everything I could tell him about his father personally. Hell, he even wanted to know about you, even though you hardly knew Thomas Covenant."

Linden stifled an impulse to ask Megan what she had told Roger. Instead she looked out the window again. Her car seemed to call to her, insisting that she drive home; that Jeremiah needed her protection.

"But he never said a word about his mother," added Megan. "Based on our correspondence and conversations, I would have thought he didn't know where she was. Or care."

He had not discussed Joan with Megan because he had not wanted to forewarn anyone.

Linden forced herself to turn away from the window. "So what do you know about him? Has he talked about himself at all?"

"He doesn't volunteer much," Megan responded. "But he answers direct questions. You may know some of his background."

In fact, Covenant had told Linden a little about Joan's past; but she did not interrupt Megan to say so. When Joan had divorced Covenant, she had moved back to her hometown to live with her parents. For several years, apparently, she had striven to relieve her shame with conventional forms of exoneration: counseling, psychotherapy. When that approach had left her pain untouched, however, she had turned to religion: religion in more and more extreme forms.

"According to him," Megan began, "he doesn't remember much of his early life. But I got him to tell me a bit about that commune she joined. I guess that was about a year before she came back here.

"He says the commune called itself the Community of Retribution. Reading between the lines, they sure sound like a bloody-minded group. They didn't believe in salvation for people who acknowledged their sins and accepted God's grace. They thought the world was too far gone for that, too corrupt-" Megan muttered a curse under her breath. "It needed violence, bloodshed, sacrifices. Ritual murder to destroy sin.

"Anyway, that's how I interpret what he told me. According to him, they spent most of their time praying for revelation. They wanted God to tell them who had to be sacrificed. And how."

In protest, Megan demanded, "Where do people like that come from, Linden?"

Thinking about Lord Foul, Linden replied, "From despair. They're broken by their own hollowness. It makes them implode."

Roger and Joan had studied fanaticism in the same places, from the same sources. But his was of another kind altogether.

"I suppose you're right," Megan conceded. "I don't really understand it.

"The way he tells it," she went on, "he didn't understand it, either. It didn't touch him. He was just along for the ride. What was he? Shit, nine years old?"

She swore again, softly.

"Then?" Linden prompted.

Her voice heavy, Megan said, "After the better part of a year watching hysterics work themselves into a lather, Joan took Roger back to her parents and left him there. I guess she'd had her revelation. He never saw her again. And I got the impression that his grandparents never talked about her. He knew she was still alive. That's all.

"I asked him if he had trouble adjusting to a normal life after all that. You know middle school, ordinary teachers and classmates, clothes, homework, girls. Hell, he'd just spent a year helping the Community of Retribution pick its victims. But he said it was easy." Sourly Megan concluded, "He said this is a direct quote, 'I was just passing the time.' "

"Until what?" asked Linden.

"That's what I wanted to know. If you believe what he says about himself, the only thing he's actually done since Joan abandoned him is wait for his twenty-first birthday. So he could inherit his father's estate. That's it.

"Why it matters to him, I have no idea." Megan's tone conveyed her bafflement. "Or what he wants to do with it. He has nothing to say on the subject. He doesn't seem to understand the question."

Linden probed at her sore lip with the tip of one finger. It was no accident that she had become Joan's keeper, caretaker. With every nerve of her body and beat of her heart, she knew how Joan felt. She, too, had been paralyzed by evil; left effectively comatose by the knowledge of her own frailty. Like Joan, she knew what it meant to have her mind erased-

But somehow Roger had made his mother look at him.

Still groping for comprehension, Linden said, "I assume he graduated high school. What's he been doing since then?"

"Shit, Linden," Megan growled. "It's easier to get him to talk about the commune. But I pushed him pretty hard. He says he took some classes at the local community college. Pre-med, apparently. Biology, anatomy, chemistry, things like that.

"And," she added in disgust, "he worked in a butcher shop. Thomas Covenant was one of the most remarkable men I've ever known, not to mention a hell of a writer, and his son worked in a butcher shop. 'Just passing the time' until he could live off his father's accomplishments.

"You make sense out of it," she finished. "I can't."

He wanted to take his mother's place. And his father's.

"That isn't much help," Linden said distantly.

"I know," Megan sighed. "But it's all I've got."

As steadily as she could, Linden replied, "If you can believe it, he says he's been waiting all this time for Covenant's estate so that he'll have money and a place to live while he takes care of Joan. He's obsessed with the idea. It may be the only thing he thinks about. He believes he can reach her."

Abruptly she leaned forward against the edge of her desk. "Megan, he has to be stopped." An urgency which she could not control crept into her voice. "I'm absolutely sure about that. There's something about him that scares me. I think he's dangerous. With his background-" She shuddered. "We all know perfectly decent people who've been through worse. But this place," Berenford Memorial, "has plenty of patients who haven't been through as much. What only bends one person breaks another. And I think he's broken."

Unwilling to say more, she repeated inadequately, "He has to be stopped."

At once, Megan's manner became crisper, more businesslike. "You say dangerous. Can you give me anything more concrete than that? Anything I can take to a judge? I can't get a restraining order unless I have something solid to go on."

In response Linden wanted to shout, Tell the judge people are going to die! But she controlled herself. "I don't suppose you could just ask him to trust my instincts?"

"Actually, I could," Megan answered. "In this county, anyway. You have a fair amount of credibility." Then she reconsidered. "But even a judge who thinks you hung the moon will want some kind of evidence. He might give us a restraining order for a few days on your say-so, but that's all. If we don't offer him real evidence before it expires, we'll never get another one."

Linden sighed to herself. "I understand."

Again she considered dropping the problem, washing her hands of it. She could leave work right this minute, if she chose. No one would question her. God knew she was entitled to a little time off every once in a while. And Joan's claim on her did not run as deep as Jeremiah's.

He was her adopted son: he filled her heart. Nothing could replace him. Indeed, his irreducible need for her only made him more essential to her. Simply remembering the way his hair smelled after she washed it for him could bring tears to her eyes.

Anything that threatened her endangered him profoundly. Any attack on her would find him in the line of fire: at risk because she loved him, and he was dependent on her.

He had already been damaged enough.

But she also belonged here. All of her patients had already been damaged enough. And Joan did not deserve what Roger intended for her.

Quietly Linden asked Megan, "Can you think of anything else?"

Megan hesitated. "Well," she said uncertainly, "you could call Lytton-"

Linden had already thought of that. "He's next on my list." Barton Lytton had been county sheriff for nearly three decades. If anyone had the knowledge and experience to stop Roger Covenant, surely he did?

"Be careful with him, Linden," Megan cautioned. "He isn't what we might call a fan of yours. As far as he's concerned, Berenford Memorial is just a liberal ruse to keep crooks out of jail. From his point of view, that practically makes you an accessory."

"I know." Linden was familiar with Lytton's attitude. However, she hoped that he might feel otherwise about Joan. How could he not? Beyond question he had played a part in her condition. For the sake of his self-regard, if for no other reason, he might be willing to protect her now.

"Call me after you talk to him." Megan's voice held an undercurrent of anxiety. "I want to know what he says."

"I will." Now Linden was in a hurry to get off the phone. Her urgency had shifted its focus. She needed to get in touch with Sandy.

She was about to thank Megan and hang up when a new concern occurred to her: a possibility like a touch of foresight. Quickly she added, "Call my pager if you need to reach me."

Roger might call Megan, trying to enlist her aid.

"I will," replied Megan. "I always do."

Finally they hung up.

Staring blindly around her office, Linden looked for some way to contain her primitive alarm. She had made it clear to Roger that he could only obtain his father's ring by theft or violence. He did not know that Jeremiah existed. Nevertheless she understood obsession well enough to be sure that her own claim on the ring meant nothing to Roger. Inadvertently she had placed her son in peril.

A butcher shop?

Instead of calling Sheriff Lytton, she dialed her home number. Helpless to do otherwise, she counted the rings while she waited for Sandy Eastwall to pick up the phone.

Sandy answered after the third. "This is Sandy."

Brusque with concern, Linden asked, "Is Jeremiah all right?"

"Sure he is." Sandy sounded worried, troubled by Linden's manner. "Why wouldn't he be?"

Linden could not explain. "Has anything happened this morning? Anything out of the ordinary? Phone calls? Someone at the door?"

"Nothing important," Sandy replied defensively. "Sam called. He wants to know if Jeremiah can come Tuesday instead of Monday next week. I was going to give you the message when you got home."

Linden wished to soothe Sandy, but other considerations impelled her. "And Jeremiah?" she insisted.

"Sure," said Sandy again. "He's fine. Why wouldn't he be? I've done everything."

"I'm sorry," Linden put in hastily. "I didn't mean that. Of course you haven't done anything." In fact, Sandy's unquestioning regard for Jeremiah, like her cheerful attendance to his needs, was precious to Linden. "I trust you. I've just been worried about him this morning for some reason." Trying to account for herself in terms that would make sense to Sandy, she said, "You know those feelings you get sometimes?

Out of the blue, you suddenly think that something bad has happened to someone you care about?"

"And they're almost always wrong." Sandy's tone conveyed a mollified smile. "But that doesn't make you feel any better. I know what you mean.

"I'll be especially careful today," she assured Linden. "Just in case."

For a moment, Linden hesitated on the verge of telling Sandy about Roger. She wanted Sandy to understand her fears. But Sandy was easily frightened; and Jeremiah would not be better off if she panicked.

"Thanks, Sandy," Linden said instead. "I appreciate it."

Abruptly she stopped, caught by the same anxiety which had urged her to insist that Megan page her. Without transition, she asked, "Is there any chance you could be on call tonight? We have a situation here that might need me."

If Bill Coty's men caught Roger lurking around the hospital.

"Sure." The request was routine between them. Sandy often stayed with Jeremiah when Linden was needed at night. "I don't have any other plans."

Occasionally Sandy went out with Sam Diadem's son; but she always gave Linden plenty of warning when she would not be available.

Mustering gratitude to counteract her apprehension, Linden thanked Sandy again and put down the phone.

Thomas Covenant had watched over his ex-wife with all of his considerable strength and intransigence, but he had not been able to prevent her abduction. If Roger had designs on Covenant's ring, Linden hardly trusted herself to stop him. Sandy would pose no obstacle at all. And Jeremiah might be hurt in the struggle.

Grimly determined now to organize every possible resource, she put in a call to Sheriff Lytton.

Unfortunately Barton Lytton was "unavailable." Linden was promised that he would call her back. With that she had to be content.

For the rest of the morning, she struggled to concentrate. She wrote up her rounds; returned phone calls; read or reread a sheaf of advisory faxes on how to treat some of her patients; signed requisitions for medications and supplies. Studiously she did not look out at her car.

When the pressure to do something, anything, about her gravid fears became too severe to be pushed aside, she went to check on Joan. But she found no relief there.

Over lunch, she pumped Maxine shamelessly for gossip, hoping that some rumor of Roger's actions or intentions had plucked a thread in Maxine's vast web of friends. Uncharacteristically, however, Maxine knew less than she did herself. In a town as small as this one, it was difficult for anyone to visit a lawyer-or wander onto a long-abandoned property-without being noticed; remarked upon. Yet somehow Roger Covenant had escaped comment.

Afterward Linden tackled more of her procedural duties. But she cancelled her sessions with her patients, as well as her remaining appointments. The thought that Sheriff Lytton might ignore her vexed her too much for such responsibilities.

To her surprise and relief, however, he did call her back. As soon as she picked up the handset, he said, "Dr. Avery?" He spoke in a good-ol'-boy drawl, perhaps for her benefit. "You wanted to talk to me?"

"Thanks for returning my call, Sheriff." Now that she had her chance, Linden felt flustered, unsure of herself. He was decidedly not a "fan" of hers. Somehow she would have to persuade him to take her seriously.

"We have a situation here that worries me," she began unsteadily. "I hope you'll be willing to help me with it." Taking a deep breath, she said, "I believe you've spoken to Roger Covenant?"

"Sure have," he replied without hesitation. "He came to see me yesterday. Pleasant young man. Son of that writer, the leper who lived on Haven Farm." He stressed the word leper trenchantly.

"He came to see you?" Her voice broke. She had assumed that Roger had phoned Lytton. Had he known that she would call the sheriff? That he would need to forestall her?

"Sure. He's new in town," Lytton explained, "but he's going to be here from now on. He says he'll be living on Haven Farm. Seems he inherited the place. It's been abandoned so long, he didn't want me to think he's some vagrant squatting where he doesn't belong.

"Like I say, he's a pleasant guy."

Pleasant, Linden thought. And plausible when it suited him, that was obvious. No doubt to Lytton his explanation sounded perfectly reasonable.

Her sense of peril mounted, carried by the hard labor of her heart.

But she did not quail. Medicine had trained her for emergencies. And she was Linden Avery the Chosen, who had stood with Thomas Covenant against the Land's doom. Men like Sheriff Lytton-and Roger Covenant-could not intimidate her.

As if she were merely making conversation, she asked, "What did you tell him?"

Lytton laughed harshly. "I told him to burn it to the ground, Doctor. That leprosy shit isn't something he should mess around with. His mother did him a favor when she moved out of that house."

A flash of anger pushed away Linden's fear; but she kept her ire to herself. Calm now, settled and cold in her determination, she continued, "Did he happen to say why he wants to live there? Did he explain why he came back?"

"No, he didn't. And I didn't ask. If he wants to live in the house where he was born, it's none of my business. I told him what I think of the idea. We didn't have anything else to talk about."

"I see." For a heartbeat or two, Linden hesitated, unsure of her ground. But then she informed Lytton, "I ask because he came to see me this morning. He told me why he's here."

"Do tell," Barton Lytton drawled.

"He wants custody of his mother," she said, praying for credibility. "He wants to take care of her."

"Well, good for him," retorted Lytton. "He's a dutiful son, I'll give him that. Too bad you can't just release her, wouldn't you say, Doctor?"

"Not without a court order," she agreed. "That's why I called, Sheriff." Summoning all the force of her conviction, she said plainly, "He made it clear that he doesn't intend to wait for legal custody. If I don't release her, he's going to take her."

"Take her?" Lytton sounded incredulous.

"Kidnap her, Sheriff. Remove her by force."

"Don't make me laugh." Lytton snorted his scorn. "Take her where? He's going to live on Haven Farm. He's probably putting clean sheets on the beds right now.

"Suppose you're right. Suppose he sneaks her out of your precious 'psychiatric hospital' while Bill Coty is taking one of his permanent naps. Half an hour later, you call me. I send out a deputy, who finds Roger Covenant at home on Haven Farm, spooning Cream of Wheat into his mother's mouth and wiping her chin when she slobbers. That's not kidnapping, Doctor. That's an embarrassment." The sheriff seemed to enjoy his own sarcasm. "For you more than for him, maybe.

"Tell me the truth now. Is that really why you called? You're afraid Roger Covenant might kidnap his own mother? You've been working in that place too long. You're starting to think like your patients."

Before Linden could tell him why he was wrong, he hung up.

Chapter 3: In Spite of Her

Damn the man.

For a while, she stormed mutely at the unresisting walls of her office. Lytton was wrong: Roger Covenant was not a "pleasant young man." He was dangerous. And Joan was not his only potential victim.

But her outrage accomplished nothing, protected no one; and after a few minutes she set it aside. The sheriff could not know what his disdain might cost. He had never been summoned to take his chances against despair in a world which baffled his comprehension. He lacked the experience, the background, to react effectively.

Although she chose to excuse him, however, her anger did not recede. It had settled to a thetic hardness in the center of her chest. Damn him, she repeated, thinking now of Roger rather than the sheriff. His year with the Community of Retribution must have done him such harm- And of course he had been raised for weakness by his grandparents as well as by his mother.

Why in God's name did he want Covenant's ring? If he took Joan somehow, he would also gain possession of her wedding band. It, too, was white gold, no doubt essentially indistinguishable from her ex-husband's. Surely it was white gold itself that mattered, an alloy apt for wild magic, not any specific piece of the metal?

What difference could it make whose ring Roger wielded when he took Joan's place?

Thomas Covenant probably would have known the answer. Linden did not.

Was it possible that Lytton was right? Had she misread Roger? By any ordinary measure, this explanation made more sense. Anyone except Linden, anyone at all, would have accepted it without question.

And she had at least one other reason to believe that she was wrong: a reason she had not yet had time to consider.

Leaving her anger in her office, she went to the staff lavatory to splash cold water on her face and think.

With the door locked and her cheeks stinging, Linden Avery contemplated her wet features in the mirror over the sink. She was not a woman who studied her appearance often. When she did so, she was occasionally surprised or bemused by what she saw. This time she was taken aback by the alarm that darkened her gaze. She seemed to have aged in the last few hours.

In some ways, the past decade had marked her noticeably. Oh, her hair retained most of its wheaten luster, trammeled by grey only at the temples. The structural harmony underlying her features made her look handsome, striking, in spite of the years. She had what men called a good figure, with full breasts, slim hips, and no unnecessary weight-a womanliness which had seemed gratuitous to her until she had met and loved Thomas Covenant. The right light gave the ready dampness in her eyes radiance.

But her once-delicate nose had become prominent, emphasized by curved lines of erosion at the corners of her mouth. That erosion seemed to drag at her features, so that her smiles often looked effortful. And the knot between her brows never lifted: apparently she frowned even in her sleep, troubled by her dreams.

Nevertheless if she had examined her face yesterday she might have concluded that she wore her age lightly. Her days with Thomas Covenant, and her years with Jeremiah, had taught her things that she had never known about love and joy.

Now, however, she saw hints of Joan's mortality in her troubled scrutiny. Roger's intrusion had brought back more than her memories of struggle and pain in the Land. He made her think as well of her own parents: of her father, who had killed himself in front of her; and of her mother, whose pleading for release had driven Linden to end the suffering woman's life. Like Joan, if in her own way, Linden had known too much death, paid too high a price for living.

If she had been asked to explain why she worked for Berenford Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, instead of practicing some other form of medicine, she would have replied that she was here because she understood her patients. Their damaged spirits were eloquent to her.

At the moment, however, she had more immediate concerns. Her dilemma, she thought as she watched water drip from her cheeks and jaw, was that she might be wrong about Roger Covenant. Her time with his father gave her at least one reason to doubt herself.

She had seen no harbinger.

Before her first encounter with Thomas Covenant, she had found herself unexpectedly striving to save the life of an ochre-clad old man with thin hair and fetid breath. When at last he had responded to her frantic CPR, he had pronounced like a prophet, You will not fail, however he may assail you. There is also love in the world. Then he had disappeared into the strange sunlight on the fringes of Haven Farm.

Do not fear, he had commanded her. Be true.

Less than thirty-six hours later, she had fallen to the summons of the Land. At Covenant's side, she had been assailed and appalled past bearing. But in the end she had not failed.

And ten years earlier, Thomas Covenant had met the same prophet himself. Walking into town in a desperate and doomed attempt to affirm his common humanity, he had been accosted by an old man with compulsory eyes and an ochre robe who had asked him, Why not destroy yourself? When Covenant had responded to the man's manifest need by offering up his ring, he was refused.

Be true, the old man had instructed him. You need not fail.

Shortly thereafter, Covenant had been drawn to the Land for the first time. His devotion to Lord Foul's defeat had finally cost him his life. Nevertheless he, too, had not failed.

So where, Linden had to ask herself, was the old man now?

If Roger's intentions threatened the Land in some way, surely that ragged figure must be somewhere nearby? And if he did not appear to forewarn her, surely Roger could not be as dangerous as she feared?

Deliberately she chose to believe that. Roger might well attempt to take his mother. But as long as the old man did not accost Linden, the Land was safe-and neither she nor Jeremiah were truly at risk.

Pulling a couple of paper towels from their dispenser by the sink, she dried her face and hands. Then she returned to her office to call Megan again, as she had promised.

When she had done that, she warned her staff to call Security as well as her if Roger put in another appearance. But she could think of no other precautions to take.

If the old man appeared, she would have to choose between the Land and Jeremiah. She could not challenge Lord Foul in the Land's defense without abandoning her son; and that she would not do. No matter how many people died, or how much beauty was destroyed.

Driving home after work, she involuntarily scrutinized every face she saw, every figure she passed. Anxiety daubed her peripheral vision with ochre, added years and desuetude to every man whom she failed to recognize. Yet she saw no sign of peril.

And soon she reached her home: a small two-story wooden-frame house she had bought when she had decided to adopt Jeremiah. Parked in her short driveway, she remained in her car for a few minutes, granting herself that brief opportunity to set aside her concerns in order to concentrate on her son.

The gratitude that she so often felt when she came home helped settle her attention. She did not have to care for her house herself. A neighbor whose son she had treated after a crumpling car wreck tended the lawn for her. The family of a woman who had been one of her early successes at Berenford Memorial supplied her with maintenance, patching her roof when it leaked, conditioning her heat pump for the changing seasons, repainting her walls every few years. And twice a week an appreciative wife came in to clean, cook, and do laundry: simple thanks for Linden's attention to her disturbed husband.

Linden valued the help. It simplified her life enormously. And she was grateful that she lived in a community that honored what she did.

In addition, her gratitude for Jeremiah was too great to be contained in words. He was the center of her life. He gave her a use for the capacity for love which she had learned from Covenant; from Sunder and Hollian, the First and Pitchwife; and from the Land. His mere presence seemed to validate her. He was like a flower which had bloomed within her, fragile and inestimable. She could not have removed it, or turned away, without tearing herself open. The fact that its petals had been crushed in the Despiser's fist, and had never regained their natural shape and scent, only caused her to cherish him more. As long as he remained to her, she would never entirely lose heart.

Thomas Covenant had told her that some decisions could not serve evil, no matter how severely they appeared to harm the Land. When he had been summoned to Revelstone's last defense, he had refused to comply: not because he had no love for the Land, but rather because a little girl in his present world had been bitten by a rattlesnake and needed his help. That refusal had delayed his arrival in the Land by many days. And during those terrible days many of the Land's most valiant champions had fallen. Yet the conditions of the delay had enabled him to challenge Lord Foul in ways which might never have been possible otherwise. In the end, Covenant's rejection of the Land for the sake of a little girl had provided for the Despiser's defeat.

Fervently Linden prayed that Covenant's promise would hold true for her as well.

With that, she left her car, climbed the steps to the front porch, and let herself into her home.

The door admitted her to Jeremiah's domain; and at once she had to duck her head. During her absence, the short hallway which joined the living room on one side, the dining room on the other, and the stairway to the second floor had been transformed into the site of a high, ramified castle of Tinkertoys.

Turrets of wooden rods and circular connectors rose above her on both sides. If she had not ducked, she would have struck her head on the flying rampart stretched between them. Other ramparts linked the turrets to a central keep: more turrets proliferated beyond it. The whole edifice was at once enormously elaborate, thick with details like balconies and bartizans, and perfectly symmetrical, balanced in all its parts. Its strangeness in her entryway, a pedestrian place intended for the most ordinary use, gave it an eldritch quality, almost an evanescence, as though some faery castle had been half translated from its own magical realm, and could be discerned by its outlines in slim rods and wheels like a glimpse into another dimension of being. Seen by moonlight, blurred and indistinct, it would have seemed the stuff of dreams.

As perhaps it was. Jeremiah's dreams-like his mind itself-lay beyond her reach. Only such castles and his other constructs gave her any hint of the visions which filled his head, defined his secret life.

"Sandy?" she called. "Jeremiah? I'm home."

"Hi," Sandy answered. "We're in the living room.

"Jeremiah," she added, "your mother's home."

One of the things that Linden appreciated most about Sandy was that she consistently treated Jeremiah as if he were paying attention.

Smiling, Linden worked her way between the turrets to the living room.

Sandy put down her knitting as Linden entered. "Hi," she said again. "We were going to put the Legos away, but I wanted you to see what he made." She gestured around the room, pleased by what her charge had accomplished.

Linden was accustomed to Jeremiah's projects. Nevertheless this time she stopped and stared, stricken with shock. At first she could not grasp the import of what she saw.

Sandy sat in an armchair in one corner of the room. Opposite her, Jeremiah knelt on the floor as he usually did when he was not busy, feet splayed out on either side of him, arms across his stomach with both hands folded under them, gently rocking.

And between them.

From the floor up onto an ottoman in the middle of the rug, he had built a mountain of interlocking Legos. Despite the stubbornly rectangular shape of the Legos, and their uncompromising primary colors, his construct was unmistakably a mountain, ragged ravines cut into its sides and foothills, bluffs bulging. Yet it also resembled a titan kneeling at the edge of the ottoman with its elbows braced on the ottoman's surface and its crown raised defiantly to the sky. A canyon widened between its legs as its calves receded into the floor. The whole structure stood almost to the level of Linden's shoulders.

The mountain or titan faced the sofa; and there Jeremiah had been at work as well. He had adjusted one of the seat cushions so that its corner jutted outward; and out onto the floor from that corner as from a promontory he had devised another castle. However, this one was entirely unlike his towering, airy construct in the entryway. Instead it resembled a wedge like an extension of the cushion's corner-a wedge which had been hollowed out rather than built up for habitation. Its high walls were marked with tiny windows, clever ramparts, and delicate battlements, so lifelike in spite of the materials from which they had been formed that they might have been limned from memory. And at the tip of the wedge stood a sturdy watchtower, nearly half the height of the wedge itself, connected to the main castle by a walled, open courtyard. In the base of the tower, and again in the base of the high keep, he had built entrances like tunnels, guarded by gates that closed like teeth.

"Jeremiah," Linden gasped involuntarily, "oh, Jeremiah," while all her fears rebounded through her, and her heart labored in her throat as if she might choke.

She had seen such shapes before. She recognized them, even though they had been constructed of bright plastic, all flat sides and right angles. The resemblance was too exact for confusion. The mountain was Mount Thunder, ancient Gravin Threndor, its bowels full of Wightwarrens and buried evil. And the castle was Revelstone beyond question, Lord's Keep, delved from the gutrock of its mountain promontory by Giants millennia before she had known it during her time with Thomas Covenant.

She had seen them, but Jeremiah had not: never in his life. He had not accompanied her to the Land after Covenant's murder.

Yet somehow he seemed to know such places.

His knowledge alarmed her. During the years that she had been his mother, he had produced hundreds or thousands of constructs; but until now none of them had hinted at the Land in any way.

"Linden?" Sandy asked anxiously. "What's the matter? Is something wrong? I thought you would want to see."

Although Linden had gasped his name, Jeremiah did not look up at her or react to the sound of her voice. Instead he rocked himself gently, blankly, as he always did when he was not assembling one of his constructs-or tearing it down. He must be finished with this one. Otherwise he would have been difficult to deflect from working on it.

Dear God! she thought in dismay and outrage. He's threatening my son. Lord Foul meant harm to Jeremiah.

Ignoring Sandy for the moment, she moved to kneel in front of Jeremiah. There she put her arms around him as if her mere embrace might ward him from the Despiser's malice.

Passively he accepted her hug without touching her, or turning his head, or focusing his eyes. She only knew that he noticed her on some level-that his nerves felt her presence if his mind did not because he stopped rocking until she let him go.

Although she had known him for ten years, and had been his adopted mother for eight, he still gave her only the subtlest of indications that he was aware of her existence.

However, she had long ago accepted him as he was. Subtle indications were enough for her. She loved him intensely enough for both of them.

"Linden?" Sandy repeated. "Have I done something wrong?"

Linden closed her eyes, took a deep breath to steady herself. "I'm sorry," she told Sandy. "I didn't mean to scare you. There's nothing wrong. You haven't done anything. It's just another of those feelings. When I saw all this," she swallowed convulsively, "I panicked. I can't explain it."

"I understand." Sandy's relief was evident. She loved Jeremiah: Linden did not doubt that. "Don't worry about it." Then she asked, "Is there anything I can do?"

Linden tried to put aside the shock of seeing Jeremiah's construct, but it clung to her. Seeking reassurance, she opened her eyes and looked into his face.

He gazed past or through her exactly as Joan did, blankly, without any shadow or flicker of cognizance. Yet the effect on Linden was entirely different. He was so much more active than Joan, demonstrated so much more capability, and was at times so much less compliant, that Linden often forgot this one resemblance between them.

She had witnessed his growth since he was five, and had cared for him in every possible way since he was nearly seven, studying each increment of change over the years. She had brushed his teeth and washed his body, wiped his nose, bought him clothes, dressed and undressed him. She had seen him take on size and bulk until he was nearly as tall as she was, and weighed slightly more. She had watched his features shift from the starved and haunted shapelessness of the unregarded five-year-old who had placed his right hand in the bonfire at Lord Foul's command to the lean definition of a teenager. His eyes had the muddy color of erosion runoff. His first few whiskers marked his passive cheeks. Saliva moistened his open mouth. In spite of his blankness, he had the face of a boy on the verge of manhood, waiting for sentience to give it meaning.

When Linden had satisfied herself that the eerie impulse that had inspired him to construct images of Mount Thunder and Revelstone had not caused him any discernible distress, she rose to her feet and turned to Sandy.

Sandy Eastwall was a young woman, perhaps twenty-eight, still living with her parents and apparently content to do so. After high school she had trained as a practical nurse; but she had taken care of Jeremiah for seven years now, and exhibited no ambition to do anything else. Responsibility for one charge instead of many, and always the same charge, seemed to suit her emotional instincts and warm heart, as well as her natural complacence. Although she dated Sam Diadem's son, she showed no particular impulse to get married. As far as Linden could tell, Sandy was comfortably prepared to tend Jeremiah for the rest of her life.

That unlikely attitude was high on Linden's list of reasons for gratitude.

"If you don't mind," she asked, answering Sandy's offer to help, "can you stay long enough to get his Legos put away? I have something I need to do." Then she added, "You can leave the Tinkertoys. I like that castle. And it's not in the way."

"Sure." Sandy responded with an uncomplicated smile. "I'll be glad to.

"Come, Jeremiah," she said to the kneeling boy. "It's time to put your Legos away. Let's get started."

Crouching to the floor, she took one of the many cartons clustered at the side of the room and set it near Mount Thunder's ankles. Then she detached a piece from the construct and placed it in the carton.

That was all she had to do to trigger Jeremiah's hidden awareness. At once, he left his knees and moved to squat beside the carton. With the same unhesitating meticulousness with which he built his constructs, he began to disassemble Mount Thunder, arranging the Legos in compact rows in their carton as he removed them.

Linden had spent many hours watching him do such things. He never moved quickly, never appeared to feel any hurry or tension-and never paused for thought or doubt. She herself might have needed two or three hours to put away so many Legos-or to put them away with such precision, but he moved so efficiently, using his maimed hand as deftly as the whole one, that his Mount Thunder appeared to melt away before her eyes. He would probably be done in forty-five minutes.

Because she needed to speak to him, hear his name in her mouth, she said, "Thank you, Jeremiah. You're very good with Legos. I like everything you make with them. And I like the way you put them away when it's time."

Then abruptly she turned and left the room so that Sandy would not see the sudden tears in her eyes, or notice the lump of love and fear in her throat.

While Jeremiah took Mount Thunder apart, and Sandy resumed her knitting, Linden went upstairs to master her alarm.

He's threatening my son.

She had tried to believe that there would be no danger unless the old man in the ochre robe appeared to warn her. But she no longer trusted his absence to mean that anyone was safe.

Alone in her bedroom, she asked herself for the first time whether she should flee.

She could do that, in spite of her responsibilities. The necessary arrangements would require nothing more than a few phone calls. She could pack and drive away in an hour or two; take Jeremiah out of harm's reach. In fact, she could make her calls when she had driven far enough to avoid any conceivable peril.

Lord Foul was threatening her son.

Roger Covenant had no idea that Jeremiah existed. Nevertheless it could not be an accident that Jeremiah had created images of Mount Thunder and Revelstone on the same day that Roger had demanded his mother's release.

And if Linden was wrong? If Roger proved to be as harmless as Barton Lytton claimed? Why, then she could simply bring Jeremiah home again, with no damage done.

Aching to protect her son, she gave serious consideration to the possibilities of flight.

But the prospect shamed her. And she had learned the necessity of courage from the most stringent teachers. Love and beauty could not be preserved by panic or flight.

The ruin of Jeremiah's hand was in some sense her fault; and she did not believe that she could bear to see him hurt again. But he was not the only one who had been maimed that night. And Thomas Covenant himself had died for the same reason: because she had failed to intervene. When she had seen what was happening, she had been appalled by horror, stunned motionless. In dread she had simply watched while Covenant had smiled for Joan; while men and women and children had sacrificed their hands to the Despiser's malice; while the barriers between realities had been torn asunder by blood and pain.

Now she knew that that night's evil could have been prevented. When she had finally broken free of her dismay and charged forward, toward the bonfire, Lord Foul's hold on his victims had been disrupted. If she had acted sooner, that whole night's carnage might have been averted. Even the Land might have been spared.

If she fled now, no one would remain to stand between the Despiser and more victims.

She did not mean to be ruled by her fears again. Not ever. No matter how severely Roger Covenant provoked her.

Here, however, she faced a conundrum which she did not know how to untangle. To flee for Jeremiah's sake? Or to remain for her own, and for Joan's, and for the Land's? Trapped by indecision, she found herself sitting on her bed with her hands over her face and Thomas Covenant's name on her lips, listening as if she were helpless for sounds of danger from downstairs.

There were none. Occasionally the distant murmur of Sandy's voice reached her. At intervals a car drove down the street. Erratic gusts of wind tugging past the eaves of the house suggested a storm brewing. She heard nothing to justify her gathering apprehension.

Sighing, she told herself that in the morning she would make another attempt to enlist Lytton's aid. Or perhaps Megan could sway him. For tonight she would watch over Jeremiah with all her vigilance, and let no harm near him.

By now, he had probably finished with Mount Thunder and begun to separate the pieces of Revelstone. Nothing in his manner had suggested that Gravin Threndor and Lord's Keep held any significance for him. As far as she could tell, his life remained exactly as it had always been, despite the Land's strange intrusion into his lost mind.

This was how he had spent his time for years: he put things together and took them apart. Indeed, he seemed incapable of any relationship except with physical objects which could be connected to each other. No human being impinged on his attention. He did not react to his name. If he was not involved in making one of his constructs, he simply knelt with his feet angled outward beneath him and rocked himself soothingly with his arms across his stomach. He walked only if he were raised to his feet and led by the hand. Even animals found no focus in his muddy gaze.

Presented with Tinkertoys, however, with Legos, Lincoln Logs, or an Erector set, or any other form of nonmechanical object designed to be attached to or inserted into other nonmechanical objects, he became a wizard. The castle in the entryway, and the models of Revelstone and Mount Thunder in the living room, were only today's examples of his talent. By the hundreds, by the thousands, obsessively, he devised structures of such elegance and imagination that they often made Linden hold her breath in wonder-and of such size that they sometimes filled the available space. Perhaps they would have expanded indefinitely if he had not run out of materials. And yet they always appeared complete when he did run out, as if somehow he had calculated exactly what could be done with the Legos or Tinkertoys at hand.

Often Linden sat with him while he built his edifices. She had conceived a method of playing with him; of producing a personal reaction from his inattention toward her. She would take a piece a block or connector and place it somewhere in his construct. He would not look at her when she did so-but he would pause. If by his inarticulate standards she had placed the piece incorrectly, he would frown. Then he would rectify her mistake. But if by chance she had set the piece where it belonged, he would nod slightly before he continued.

Such indications assured her that he was aware of her.

Two years ago, guided by a flash of intuition, Linden had spoken to Sam Diadem about Jeremiah. Sam ran a small assembly-line business that produced wooden playthings for children, primarily rocking horses, marionettes, and various wooden puzzles in strange shapes which interlocked to form balls, pyramids, and the like. At her urging, Sam had discovered that if he left Jeremiah alone with a supply of ready parts, Jeremiah would quietly and steadily produce finished toys. He would not paint or package them, and never played with them. But they were always perfectly assembled.

Now Jeremiah "worked" in Sam's shop two mornings a week. His "pay" Linden spent faithfully on K'NEX, or 3-D jigsaw puzzles of palaces, or more Legos and Tinkertoys.

Some of the psychologists whom Linden had consulted called Jeremiah's condition a "dissociative disorder." Others spoke of "hysterical conversion reactions" and "somatoform disorders." His symptoms resembled autism-specifically, he appeared to be an autistic savant-yet he could not be autistic. Autism was congenital, and beyond question Jeremiah's condition had been induced by trauma. His natural mother had described him as "a normal boy" before the bonfire-whatever those words might mean in her deranged lexicon. Certainly none of the known therapies for autism had produced any change in him.

Memories of that trauma still woke Linden at night, sweating, with cries which she had failed to utter locked in her throat.

His natural mother was a woman named Marsha Jason. She had had three children, all adopted now by other parents-Hosea, Rebecca, and her youngest, Jeremiah, prophet of woe. She had chosen that name, apparently, because her husband had abandoned her during her last pregnancy.

For the first few years of Jeremiah's life, Marsha Jason had subsisted at the mercy of various welfare agencies. In one form or another, she had kept herself and her children alive through the charity of strangers. And then, when her self-pity and ineffectiveness had reached unendurable proportions, she had discovered the Community of Retribution.

From that point onward, as she proclaimed afterward, she had had no control over anything that happened. She must have been brainwashed or drugged. She was a good mother: without brainwashing or drugs, she would never have sacrificed her dear children to the Community's mad crusade against Thomas Covenant. Had she not been victimized of her own right hand at the same time? Surely she did not deserve to have her sons and daughter taken from her; placed in foster care?

Yet she had not been able to deny that in the last weeks before Covenant's murder soon after Joan Covenant's departure-she and her children, along with perhaps thirty other members of the Community of Retribution, had left the commune and made their way toward Haven Farm, supporting themselves by beggary when they could not gain donations by preaching. Entranced, perhaps, by some form of mass hysteria, they had snatched Joan from her ex-husband; had slaughtered a cow so that they could splash his home with blood. Then they had taken her into the woods behind Haven Farm and built a bonfire. When Covenant had at last appeared to redeem Joan, Mrs. Jason and her children had been the first to hold their right hands in the blaze, Hosea after his mother, then Rebecca, and then five-year-old Jeremiah.

With years to study the question, Linden still could not explain how ordinary adults, much less their uncomprehending children, had been impelled to endure the pain long enough to burn the flesh from their bones. But the fact remained that Marsha Jason, Hosea, and Rebecca had done so. Jeremiah had been damaged almost as badly. And after them, more worshippers had followed.

And in the bonfire, Lord Foul had emerged to claim Covenant's life.

Linden still too easily remembered the Despiser's eyes as they had appeared in the bonfire, carious as fangs. She would never forget his figure forming in the deep heat of the blaze. Alive with fire and offered pain, he had stopped her life in her veins. And she had remained paralyzed while the leader of his worshippers had set a knife to Joan's throat, intending to sacrifice her if Covenant did not surrender himself.

Then Covenant had retrieved Joan from her doom; and Linden had at last broken free of her immobility. She had rushed toward the bonfire, striving frantically to block the knife from his chest. But the worshipper with the knife had struck her senseless; and as she lost consciousness she had seen the blade pound into Covenant's heart.

A few hours or a lifetime later, in the dawn of a new day, Dr. Berenford found her where she lay beside Covenant's corpse. Mrs. Jason had rousted him from his home, seeking treatment for herself and her children. He and Sheriff Lytton had discovered Joan asleep in her bed in Covenant's house, all memory of the night's events apparently gone. While Lytton had taken Joan to County Hospital, Julius had searched the woods behind Haven Farm until he located Linden and Covenant.

Thus he had spared her any accusation that she had played some role in Covenant's death. Legally, of course, she had not. Morally, she knew better.

She had suffered acutely during the long months of that one night. Nevertheless she had gone into surgery as soon as Julius had driven her back into town. Together, they had spent interminable hours fighting to save as many flame-savaged hands as they could.

For Hosea and Rebecca, Linden had been able to do little except amputate. With Jeremiah, however, she had met somewhat more success. Through simple stubbornness as much as by skill, she had found a way to save half of his thumb and two of his fingers: the last two.

They remained shorter than they should have been. Yet they were strong now: he could use them. To that extent, at least, she could forgive herself for what had happened to him.

At the time, she had given no thought to other forms of restitution. The particular sense of responsibility which she had learned from Covenant and the Land had asserted itself slowly. After the initial crisis, she had occupied herself for months adjusting to her new life: to the county itself; and to her work at County Hospital. And then Julius had involved her in the complex efforts that had eventually led to the construction of Berenford Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, and to her appointment as its chief medical officer.

Nearly two years passed before she recognized the residual ache in her heart for what it was: not grief over Covenant's death, although that pang never lost its poignancy, but rather a hollow place left by the Land. Her parents had dedicated her to death, but she had transcended their legacy. Now she realized that her new convictions and passions required more of her. Her work with her patients suited her abilities; but it did not satisfy the woman who had sojourned with Giants, contended with Ravers, and opposed the Sunbane at Thomas Covenant's side.

She wanted to heal as well some of the harm which Lord Foul had done in her present world. And she needed someone to love.

She had heard Pitchwife sing:

My heart has rooms that sigh with dust
And ashes in the hearth.
They must be cleaned and blown away
By daylight's breath.

She could not allow the hollow place within her to remain unfilled.

Her own damaged childhood had taught her an intense empathy for children forced to pay the price of their parents' folly; and before long she remembered Jeremiah Jason. She had already done him a little good. Perhaps she could do more.

When at last she tracked him down and arranged to meet him, she recognized immediately the missing piece of her heart, the part which might make her whole. His little face spoke to her as clearly as a wail. She knew what it was like to be a conscious prisoner inside her own skull, defeated by power and malice. The Clave and Ravers had victimized her in that way. Indirectly the Elohim had done the same. The thought that Jeremiah might be in a comparable state, knowing and alone within his mental cell, wrung her utterly.

In the Land, she had been called "the Chosen." Now she did the choosing. Doggedly, with Megan Roman's help, she pursued Jeremiah through the legal and bureaucratic snarls of the county's floundering foster care until he was made her son.

At first, the task she had assigned to herself was arduous and costly, in spite of Sandy Eastwall's assistance. The closure of Jeremiah's mind rebuffed any penetration. He was lost, and her love could not find him. If he had so much as wept, she would have celebrated for him, rejoiced in that victory over an intimate ruin. But he did not weep. Nothing breached the hard stone wall of his plight. His only response to every situation was an unresisting absence of cooperation. He did not stand, could not walk. Voiceless and alone, he could not engage in a child's necessary play; and so she had no lever with which to spring him from his prison.

And then one day. The memory still brought tears of joy to her eyes. One day in his pediatrician's office, surrounded by toys enjoyed by other children, he had suddenly reached out uninvited to place one bright wooden block upon another. When he was satisfied with what he had done, he had positioned another block; and then another.

Within an hour, hardly able to contain her excitement, Linden had bought him a mountain of blocks. And when she had seen him use them to build an impromptu Greek temple, she had rushed back to the store to purchase Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.

There his life had changed; and hers with it. In a few short weeks, he had learned-or relearned-to stand so that he could reach higher, build higher. And mere months later he had regained his ability to walk, seeking to move around his constructs and position pieces more readily.

His newly discovered gift transformed him in Linden's sight. With every construct, he built hope for the future. A child who could play might someday be set free. And his strange talent seemed to have limitless possibilities. Connecting one Lincoln Log or Tinkertoy to the next, he might at last devise a door to his prison and step out into her arms.

She would not, she swore to herself now, would not sacrifice that hope, or him, for any purpose. Roger Covenant had to be stopped. But if she were forced to a choice between Jeremiah and Lord Foul's other victims, she would stand by her son.

Thomas Covenant had believed that the Land could not be damned by such decisions.

Linden was still afraid, but her indecision had passed. Deliberately she readied herself to go back downstairs.

On the way, she heard Sandy call, "Linden? We're done with the Legos. Is there anything else you need before I leave?"

In the living room, Linden greeted Sandy with a smile; tousled Jeremiah's hair where he knelt, rocking, beside a tall stack of Lego boxes. "No, thanks. You've done enough already." To Jeremiah, she added, "Thanks for putting your Legos away. You've done a good job. I'm proud of you."

If her reaction gave him any pleasure, he did not reveal it.

When Sandy had gathered up her knitting, Linden walked her to the door. "I can't thank you enough," she told the other woman sincerely. "I can't explain what came over me today, but it shook me up. I really appreciate everything you've done."

Sandy dismissed the subject with a comfortable shrug. "He's my sweetie." Over her shoulder, she asked, "Aren't you, Jeremiah?" Then she finished to Linden, "I'll see both of you tomorrow, if you don't need me tonight."

Refraining from more unnecessary thanks, Linden ushered her outside and said good night.

For a moment after Sandy left, however, Linden did not return to Jeremiah. Instead she leaned against the door and considered the castle which had transformed her entryway. It seemed to contradict her fears, as though it had the power to guard the sanctuary that she had made for her son.

Relieved for the first time since she had met Roger Covenant, she heated a casserole and fed Jeremiah while she ate. At intervals she paused to talk about anything she could think of-horses, Sam Diadem's toys, places of wonder in the Land-hoping that the sound of her voice would also feed him, in its own way. When he stopped opening his mouth for the spoon, she took him upstairs to bathe him. Afterward she dressed him for bed in his actually her favorite pajamas, the sky-blue flannel shirt and pants with mustangs ramping across the chest.

In his bedroom, she took a moment, as she often did, to marvel at how he had decorated it.

One day two or three years ago, she had purchased a set of flywheel-driven model racing cars that featured tracks which could be snapped together into structures as elaborate as roller coasters, complete with loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. She had been drawn to the set because it included materials like plastic Tinkertoys for building towers and pylons to support the tracks. And because Jeremiah appeared to prefer large projects, she had bought every set in the store, four or five of them.

He had shown no interest in the cars. In fact, he had disappointed her by showing no interest in the tracks, either. He had not so much as touched the boxes, or turned his eyes toward them.

Maybe he needed time, she had told herself. Maybe his occult, hidden decisions required contemplation. Reluctant to surrender her hopes, she had carried one of the boxes up to his bedroom and left it there for him to consider.

That night he had gone to bed still oblivious to the box. The next morning, however, she discovered that during the night he had opened it and used every available piece to build towers on either side of the head of his bed. Through the towers he had twined tracks twisted into implausible shapes. And-uncharacteristic of him the construct was plainly unfinished. He had run out of parts before he could connect the towers and tracks to each other above the head of his bed.

At once, she brought the remaining boxes up to his room. Like the first, they were ignored all day. And like the first, they were opened during the night; put to use. Now supports like drawbridges and catwalks extended along the walls, under the window, over the bureau, and past the closet toward the door. Sections of track linked themselves and their pylons like the ligaments of some self-proliferating rococo robot.

The racing cars themselves lay in a clutter on the floor, unregarded. And still he obviously had not completed his design.

After a fervid search, Linden finally found a few more sets. Fortunately they sufficed. When Jeremiah had used every last plastic beam and connector, every section of track, he was done.

Now towers festooned with curlicues of track reached up on either side of his bedroom door to meet in an arch at the height of the lintel. Raceways in airy spans linked those structures to the ones which he had already finished. Yet the design would have been useless to its cars. The track through all of its loops and turns and dives formed an elaborate Möbius strip, reversing itself as it traveled so that in time a finger drawn along its route would touch every inch of its surface on both sides.

She had never asked him to take it down. Surely it was special to him? Why else had he only worked on it late at night, when he was alone? In some sense, it was more uniquely his than anything else he had built.

Respecting what he had accomplished, she left it as it was. Cheerfully she ducked under its spans whenever she needed to reach his closet.

The racing cars remained where she had placed them, arrayed like a display on top of his bureau. She hoped that one day he would take an interest in them; but they were still meaningless to him.

Shaking her head now in familiar astonishment at his arcane gifts, she settled him into bed and asked him which of his books he would like her to read. As ever, he did not respond; but on the theory that the adventures of a lone boy triumphing over impossible odds might convey something to his snared mind, she took out one of his "Bomba the Jungle Boy" books and read a couple of chapters aloud. Then she kissed him, adjusted his blankets, turned out the light, and left him to sleep.

In one respect, at least, he was a normal boy, even a normal teenager: he slept deeply, unself-consciously, his limbs sprawling in all directions as though they belonged to some other body. Only on very rare occasions did she find him awake when she checked on him before she went to bed herself. And she never knew what had roused or troubled him.

If this had been some other night, she might have used her time to catch up on some paperwork, or perhaps read. But tonight she was not alone. A throng of memories accompanied her through the house: they seemed as restless and compelling as ghosts. In particular, she recalled Thomas Covenant's gaunt face and stricken eyes, as dear in their own way as Jeremiah's undefended slackness, and as precise as etch-work.

Others also she could not forget: Sunder and Hollian; the Giants of the Search; all her friends in the Land. Thinking that she would spend an hour alone with them, sharing at least in memory her gratitude and grief, she went downstairs to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Steaming mint might console her while she ached.

As she boiled water and prepared a teabag, filled a cup, she chose to concentrate on the Giants. She found consolation in remembering their open hearts, their long tales, and their ready laughter. She had not seen the First of the Search and her husband, Pitchwife, for ten years. No doubt in their own world they had passed away centuries or millennia ago. Nevertheless they had a healing power in her thoughts. Like Jeremiah's faery castle, they seemed to defend her from her fears.

They alone had willingly accompanied Linden and Covenant to their confrontation with the Despiser. They alone had stood with Linden after Covenant's death while she had formed her new Staff of Law and unmade the Sunbane; begun the restoration of the Land. And when she had faded away, returned to her old life, they had carried with them the hope that she and Covenant had made for all the Earth.

Thinking of the First and Pitchwife reminded her that her worries were like the difficulties of caring for Jeremiah, or of working at Berenford Memorial: transient things which could not disturb the choices she had made.

She would have gone on, drawing solace from her memories; but an unexpected idea stopped her. Perhaps it would be possible to hide Joan from Roger. If the nurse on duty, Amy Clint's sister Sara, moved Joan to another room-no, to a spare bed in County Hospital-Roger might not be able to find her. Certainly he would not be able to search for her without attracting attention. Bill Coty or one of his men-or even Sheriff Lytton-would have time to intervene.

Then what would Roger do? What could he?

He would have no difficulty discovering Linden's address.

The phone's shrill ring startled her so badly that she dropped her cup. It hit the floor as if in slow motion and bounced once, apparently held together by hot peppermint tea splashing past its rim: then it seemed to burst in midair. Shards and steaming tea spattered around her feet.

None of her friends called her at home. Neither did her colleagues and staff. They all knew better. When they wanted or needed to get in touch with her, they dialed her pager-

The phone rang again like an echo of the shattered cup.

Roger, she thought dumbly, it was Roger, someone must have given him her number, it was unpublished, unlisted, he could not have found it out unaided. He meant to impose his insistence on the private places of her heart.

And then: no, it was not Roger. It was about him. He had done something.

Something terrible-

The phone rested on an end table in the living room. She pounced for it as it rang a third time. Snatched up the handset; pressed it to her ear.

She could not make a sound. Fright filled her throat.

"Dr. Avery?" a voice panted in her ear. "Linden? Dr. Avery?"

Maxine Dubroff, who volunteered at the hospital.

"I'm here." Linden's efforts to speak cost her a spasm of coughing. "What's wrong?"

"Dr. Avery, it's Bill-" Maxine's distress seemed to block the phone line. What she needed to say could not get through. "He's Oh, dear God."

Linden's brain refused to work. Instead it clung to the sound of Maxine's voice as if it needed words in order to function. Still coughing, she managed to croak out, "Slow down, Maxine. Tell me what happened."

Maxine sucked in a harsh breath. "Bill Coty," she said in pieces. "He's dead."

The room around Linden seemed to veer sideways. Of course Maxine knew Bill: she knew everyone. But if the old man had collapsed at home-

Linden had asked him to protect Joan.

"Shot." Maxine's voice came through the handset, jagged as chunks of glass. "In the head. By that-that." She paused to swallow convulsively, as if her throat were bleeding.

"Maxine." Linden fought down more coughing. "Tell me what happened."

"I'm sorry, Doctor." Now Linden heard tears in Maxine's voice. "I'm just so upset. I should have called you sooner. I came as soon as I heard the sirens." She and Ernie lived only a block and a half from Berenford Memorial, "but it didn't occur to me that somebody hadn't already called you. I wanted to help. Ernie told me you were worried about trouble. Bill called him about it. But I never expected -"

"That young man. The one who was here this morning. He shot Bill Coty."

Ice poured along Linden's veins. Her hands started to shake. "What about Joan?"

Again she heard wind thrashing under the eaves of the house. One of the kitchen windows rattled plaintively in its frame.

"Oh, Linden." Maxine's weeping mounted. "She's gone. He took her."

Automatically Linden answered, "I'll be right there," and put down the handset.

She could not think: she was too full of rage. The old prophet had betrayed her. He had given her no warning at all.

Apparently he no longer cared what happened to the Land.

Excerpted from THE RUNES OF THE EARTH © Copyright 2004 by Stephen R. Donaldson. Reprinted with permission by Putnam Adult, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.

The Runes of the Earth: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1
by by Stephen R. Donaldson

  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • hardcover: 533 pages
  • Publisher: G P Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0399152326
  • ISBN-13: 9780399152320