"Do not fear us, friend Charles. No doubt the patriot truly believes what he says," Aro chuckled lightly, and Charles's eyes narrowed.
"That is our witness," Makenna said. "We're leaving now."
She and Charles backed away slowly, not turning before they were lost from view in the trees. One other stranger began to retreat the same way, then three more darted after him. I evaluated the thirty-seven vampires that stayed. A few of them appeared just too confused to make the decision. But the majority of them seemed only too aware of the direction this confrontation had taken. I guessed that they were giving up a head start in favor of knowing exactly who would be chasing after them.
I was sure Aro saw the same thing I did. He turned away, walking back to his guard with a measured pace. He stopped in front of them and addressed them in a clear voice.
"We are outnumbered, dearest ones," he said. "We can expect no outside help. Should we leave this question undecided to save ourselves?"
"No, master," they whispered in unison.
"Is the protection of our world worth perhaps the loss of some of our number?"
"Yes," they breathed. "We are not afraid."
Aro smiled and turned to his black-clad companions.
"Brothers," Aro said somberly, "there is much to consider here."
"Let us counsel," Caius said eagerly.
"Let us counsel," Marcus repeated in an uninterested tone.
Aro turned his back to us again, facing the other ancients. They joined hands to form a black-shrouded triangle.
As soon as Aro's attention was engaged in the silent counsel, two more of their witnesses disappeared silently into the forest. I hoped, for their sakes, that they were fast.
This was it. Carefully, I loosened Renesmee's arms from my neck.
"You remember what I told you?"
Tears welled in her eyes, but she nodded. "I love you," she whispered.
Edward was watching us now, his topaz eyes wide. Jacob stared at us from the corner of his big dark eye.
"I love you, too," I said, and then I touched her locket. "More than my own life." I kissed her forehead.
Jacob whined uneasily.
I stretched up on my toes and whispered into his ear. "Wait until they're totally distracted, then run with her. Get as far from this place as you possibly can. When you've gone as far as you can on foot, she has what you need to get you in the air."
Edward's and Jacob's faces were almost identical masks of horror, despite the fact that one of them was an animal.
Renesmee reached for Edward, and he took her in his arms. They hugged each other tightly.
"This is what you kept from me?" he whispered over her head.
"From Aro," I breathed.
His face twisted with understanding and pain. Had that been the expression on my face when I'd finally put together Alice's clues?
Jacob was growling quietly, a low rasp that was as even and unbroken as a purr. His hackles were stiff and his teeth exposed.
Edward kissed Renesmee's forehead and both her cheeks, then he lifted her to Jacob's shoulder. She scrambled agilely onto his back, pulling herself into place with handfuls of his fur, and fit herself easily into the dip between his massive shoulder blades.
Jacob turned to me, his expressive eyes full of agony, the rumbling growl still grating through his chest.
"You're the only one we could ever trust her with," I murmured to him. "If you didn't love her so much, I could never bear this. I know you can protect her, Jacob."
He whined again, and dipped his head to butt it against my shoulder.
"I know," I whispered. "I love you, too, Jake. You'll always be my best man."
A tear the size of a baseball rolled into the russet fur beneath his eye.
Edward leaned his head against the same shoulder where he'd placed Renesmee. "Goodbye, Jacob, my brother... my son."
The others were not oblivious to the farewell scene. Their eyes were locked on the silent black triangle, but I could tell they were listening.
"Is there no hope, then?" Carlisle whispered. There was no fear in his voice. Just determination and acceptance.
"There is absolutely hope," I murmured back. It could be true, I told myself. "I only know my own fate."
Edward took my hand. He knew that he was included. When I said my fate, there was no question that I meant the two of us. We were just halves of the whole.
Esme's breath was ragged behind me. She moved past us, touching our faces as she passed, to stand beside Carlisle and hold his hand.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by murmured goodbyes and I love you's.
"If we live through this," Garrett whispered to Kate, "I'll follow you anywhere, woman."
"Now he tells me," she muttered.
Rosalie and Emmett kissed quickly but passionately.
Tia caressed Benjamin's face. He smiled back cheerfully, catching her hand and holding it against his cheek.
I didn't see all the expressions of love and pain. I was distracted by a sudden fluttering pressure against the outside of my shield. I couldn't tell where it came from, but it felt like it was directed at the edges of our group, Siobhan and Liam particularly. The pressure did no damage, and then it was gone.
There was no change in the silent, still forms of the counseling ancients. But perhaps there was some signal I'd missed.
"Get ready," I whispered to the others. "It's starting."
"Chelsea is trying to break our bindings," Edward whispered. "But she can't find them.
She can't feel us here. . . ." His eyes cut to me. "Are you doing that?"