Disclaimer: They're not mine. I'm not sure who they belong to anymore. No money made. Valdemar belongs to Mercedes Lackey, she still plays with this world quite a bit, check out the real thing published by DAW books.
Four-legged creature mindspeech is italicized.
PS -- I have broken one of the rule of Valdemar as written by Mercedes Lackey, in my stories everyone speaks the same language.
Warning: While this is not a cliffhanger, it is a to be continued later. The sequel to this one is only four scenes away from sending it off to my betas. I hope to get it finished before the end of November. It was getting too long for a single posting. Thanks to Rona and Anna for their help in making this a better story.
Slightly out of breath from the long hike up the stairs to his quarters, Jim entered the living room, inadvertently slamming the door behind him.
"Having a bad day, Jim?" Blair asked, without looking up from the text he was reading.
"Nah, sorry about the door, though. I didn't mean to distract you."
"So what's up then? You seem fired up."
"It's over. I'm done with that horrible class forever," he replied with a broad grin.
Blair raised his eyes after hearing the tremendous relief in Jim's reply.
"You passed? That's great! We need to celebrate." Blair flipped the book closed. With an evil glint in his eye, he decided to poke a little at his best friend. "Formal dinner at the Court is about to start. Now that you've passed your class in Courtly Graces, we can join the others at the high table without fear of you embarrassing the Circle."
Jim's answer was distinctly non-verbal. However, the rude gesture along with the devilish glare was answer enough for Blair to interpret correctly.
He held up his hands and laughed, "Just a suggestion. No need to get hostile." Blair waggled his eyebrows in a comical manner as he continued laughing at the image of Jim dining at the high table remained stuck in his head.
Refusing to acknowledge that Blair's gleeful attitude was contagious, Jim held the glare for a moment longer. He couldn't maintain it for long in the face of Blair's ongoing laughter. After a brief moment, Jim dropped the evil eye, and countered with, "I was thinking more along the lines of the Rose Compass for a cool ale and some fresh baked sausage bread. The classroom window was open and the aroma of that bread was driving me crazy."
"Jeez, Jim, sausage and ale? After a year of being here at the Collegium not to mention my good example, I figured you would have developed better eating habits."
Jim shook his head. "No way. I've had years of practice cultivating my tastes in food. Right now, I'm heading to the Compass. The only question is, are you coming or not?"
"Coming definitely coming. Just let me get changed." Blair paused before entering his bedroom. "Um, Jim, one of the Pages dropped off a letter for you earlier. It has your father's seal on it."
Blair pointed to the table in the middle of their living room. Jim moved around the couch and gingerly picked up the letter.
Blair held his breath, waiting to see what Jim was going to do. Though Jim was now on speaking terms with the rest of his family, things were still strained. "It's not gonna bite you. Go ahead and read it."
Jim turned it over and stared at the seal. "I wonder what he wants," he said softly, but loud enough for Blair to hear him.
"The only way to find out is to open it. I'll be right out. Just give me a minute," Blair added, before leaving Jim alone to read the letter.
Chuckling at the idea that Blair would only be a minute, Jim got comfortable on the couch. During the day, when Blair was attending classes with the rest of the healer trainees, he wore the pale green, which was their trademark uniform. Everywhere else he went, he wore his whites, indicating his position as a Herald.
He couldn't believe that it was only a little over a year ago that they had faced down Leareth at the ruins of Urtho's tower. During that year, the two of them had tied up a lot of loose ends in their respective lives. Blair had returned to classes at the Healer's Collegium and completed all the required formal class work to finalize his training. Now, only one requirement still remained. Usually, in order to be recognized as a full healer, he would have been sent to one of the healing temples outside of Haven for an internship, but Blair was a unique case.
First, he was a much stronger mind healer than a physician. Mind healers were very rare in Valdemar and were not usually risked by being stationed outside the city of Haven. Next, Blair's primary duties were as a Herald, complete with his very own Companion named Burton. Even while still being considered a trainee, he served as healer to most, if not all of the Heraldic Circle.
Heralds had a very difficult time admitting that they needed help, either physically or emotionally. The people of the Kingdom expected them to be infallible and indestructible, and many of the Heralds tried too hard to live up to this unreasonable image. And when they could not, it was almost impossible for them to admit it to anyone outside the Circle. Yet, since Blair was one of them, most felt quite comfortable coming to him with their concerns or needs.
Blair was equally devoted to helping others, and spent a large amount of time ministering to his fellow Heralds. Jim often wondered if Blair realized just how large a role he played in maintaining the health and well being of their comrades.
"Enough stalling," Jim muttered as he turned the envelope over one more time before reaching for the letter opener. He too had changed and grown over the past year at the Collegium. He had finished the required course work on diplomacy and dealing with the high borne of the Court, even the much dreaded Courtly Graces. All joking aside, he would be the first to admit that he had passed by the skin of his teeth. He was much better at teaching the first year trainees basic swordmanship and helping train the new recruits for the Guard units then practicing diplomacy.
Also, the first steps had been taken towards re-establishing communication with his family. At his father's invitation he and Blair had spent a week with his family after they had returned from the Dhorisa Plains. That trip had been very difficult for all concerned. Jim felt more like a guest at Bethyl Woods than the son of Lord William, but it had been a good start. Being able to re-establish the bond with his younger brother had been worth every awkward moment he had spent with his father.
Jim sighed as he thought about the changes that had been forced upon his father. Lord William had been cleared of any accusations of treason because of his former relationship with Father Bracket. He had continued to serve on the Council through the first winter after Bracket's disappearance, but had resigned shortly before spring planting was scheduled to begin.
The official story was that the Queen had requested William expand the family's holdings into the Pelagiris Forest. Unofficially, Lord William had sought the Queen's permission to resign and go home. He did not believe he could continue to serve the Crown as a council member. He no longer trusted his judgement after being fooled by Brackett for so long.
His only request was they allow his second son, Steven, to serve out the remainder of his term. He wanted his younger son to learn first hand the intrigues and betrayals that commonly occurred at the Court. Steven would one day be responsible for running Bethyl Woods, the Ellison's ancestral estate. His duty on the Council and his time at Court would be a better learning experience than simply being taught that these things occur.
Jim smiled at the thought of his younger brother. While there was much damage to repair in the relationship with his father, he had no such issues with his younger brother. The two of them had become very close when Steven had moved to Haven and assumed his father's position. It helped that Blair got along equally well with Steven, and both Burton and Incacha heartily approved of him.
With a much lighter heart, Jim opened his father's letter and began to read. His father's script was neat and concise. But while the words were easy to read, the subject matter was not.
I've put off writing this letter, thinking I could handle this problem myself. But, I now realize, I can't do this alone. I'm hoping that you can help. As you know we were making progress, expanding the holding into the forest. Five of my holders and their families volunteered to move into the area and start to clear the land. Two fortnight's ago they sent a message requesting seed corn. When the wagons arrived to complete the deliveries, there was no sign of the holders at the outer most farm.
All the people and the animals had vanished. There was no indication of violence. The people were simply gone. Then, a few days later, the second family disappeared. I've had the home guard out patrolling, but they've not found any trace of the holders or their animals, not even any tracks leading away from the property.
Just a few days ago, the third family went missing. This time was different though. There was a survivor. A little girl was found hiding in the barn. At first, she couldn't speak. She just sat and rocked, moaning if anyone approached her. After the healer examined her, he tried to force her to deal with the memories of what happened. But... it... words can't describe what happened next. She started screaming, son. Screaming something about the shadows coming alive and swallowing everyone up.
We awakened something in the Forest, something evil. The child hasn't spoken again since that outburst. My healer thinks that someone who is primarily a mind-healer could help her. His gift in that area isn't very strong.
To get to the point, I'm hoping that you and Blair would be willing to come. If you are, I'll make a formal request through the Council. I'll also be requesting that several of the guard units be sent. Hopefully, with their experience, they can find some trace of my holders.
On a happier note, as you probably know, your brother is on his way home as well. He will be my eyes and ears on the Pelagiris properties. I also expect that he will announce wedding plans soon. My sources at the Court have mentioned a lovely lady Steven has been pursuing with great vigor. I don't know anything about her. I'm hoping to corner your brother when he gets home. It's about time one of my sons thought about carrying on the Ellison name.
Send me word as soon as you can. I hope to see you soon.
After reading the letter, Jim sat frozen on the couch. So many thoughts raced through his mind as he reviewed his father's words. Caught up in his thoughts, he didn't realize he was no longer alone until he felt trembling fingers shaking his shoulder.
"I said, did you get bad news?" Blair said slowly, recognizing that Jim probably was not completely with him yet. He had been putting on his boots when Incacha had called to him that something was desperately wrong with Jim. He had closed her out of his mind halfway through reading the letter. She couldn't reach her chosen, so she had contacted Blair.
Jim nodded, and with a trembling hand, passed Blair the letter to read for himself. Taking advantage of the distraction Blair had provided, Incacha reached out to comfort her chosen. "We will go and find out what has happened. Have no fear."
Closing his eyes, Jim tried to calm himself. Shadows coming alive didn't provide much useful information. He leaned back, awaiting his partner's response to the situation. His immediate inclination was to head for Incacha's stall and leave at once. He was sure that the Dean would allow him to leave. The Crown would want this situation investigated as well.
After several moments of silence, Blair folded up the letter and handed it back to Jim. "So, when do you want to leave?"
Jim felt a little more of his tension release as he sensed waves of comfort coming from both Incacha and Blair. He also recognized Blair's Burton adding his support. "We'll have to talk to Joel first."
"I don't think he'll object," Blair replied. "This type of incident screams for the support of resources only the Crown can authorize."
"He's riding in the field. We've let him know that you're looking for him," Burton advised them, entering the conversation for the first time.
"He'll meet you in his office in a candlemark," Incacha added after a slight pause to allow for conversation with Joel's Companion.
Blair and Jim arrived at the Dean's office before him. To Blair's surprise, Jim couldn't stop pacing. Usually he was the one who needed to burn off restless energy.
After watching Jim make his tenth pass down the hallway he said, "Would you relax? I'm sure Joel will be here in a moment."
Jim reversed his direction and ceased pacing, though the restlessness he was feeling was evident in his face and the stiffness of his shoulders. Instead of the relentless pacing, he leaned against the doorjamb to the Dean's office. "Sorry, I just feel the need to get out there. Something is seriously wrong if my father had been forced to ask for outside help."
"Just be glad he did," Blair replied. "Your father has gone from ignoring your existence to asking for your help. Be thankful."
"What is the situation that your father needs help from you, Jim?" Joel asked as he came around the corner, having heard only the tail end of the discussion. He gestured from the two men to enter the office ahead of him.
"Read for yourself," Jim answered, handing Joel the letter after sitting down in front of the desk."
Joel quickly read through the letter, his face becoming more drawn with each passing moment. "I don't think we need to wait for a formal request via the council. I'm certain there will be no objections opposing the two of you from investigating this tragedy."
He handed the letter back to Jim. "Leave as soon as you can. I'll present this to the council at the morning meeting and request that the guard provide some man power as back-up for you."
"Thank you, Joel. I didn't think there would be a problem with you letting us go," Jim said gratefully.
Joel waved off Jim's statement of gratitude as he turned to face Blair. "Blair, you will need to discuss your absence with the Senior Healers. They should also be informed of this incident. If we have awakened a sleeping enemy, there may be more victims in our future other than this poor little girl."
Blair nodded as he rose from the chair. "I'll head over there right now. Surely somewhere in the healer's historical archives there's been a previous incident that was recorded. If we're leaving first thing in the morning..." Blair paused allowing for Jim to confirm this assumption.
At Jim's single nod, Blair continued, "...then I'll need to find out all I can tonight."
Laying one hand on Jim's shoulder, he squeezed his friend's arm, trying to instill what little comfort he could before leaving the room. Jim sighed and leaned forward, rubbing his hand over his eyes.
"Is there anything else I could do for you?" Joel asked hesitantly. While he hadn't known Jim for a very long time, he was sure something was bothering the man, beside the obvious threat.
Shaking his head, Jim straightened up and got to his feet. "No, but thanks for asking Joel. I just wish I was going home under better circumstances. My father and I... well... we're still..." Jim stumbled over the words. He couldn't seem to articulate what he was feeling.
"Give yourself time, Jim. There's a lot of negative history between the two of you. For now I think your best bet would be to concentrate on the threat to the Kingdom rather than worrying about strengthening familial bonds."
Thankful that Joel understood the situation, Jim gave him a crooked little grin. "I'll try it. Having Blair along should help."
"Yes, it should. Now, hurry along. If you want to leave in the morning, you've got a lot of packing to do tonight."
Even though it was only a little after sunrise, the streets of Haven were bustling with activity. Shopkeepers were opening up their stalls. Bakers, having started the day well before the dawn were putting out fresh loaves of bread and hot cinnamon buns. The Companions were forced to slowly weave their way down the main street.
Jim groaned in frustration at their slow progress. On the other hand, Blair's stomach growled in appreciation of the wonderful aromas that were wafting in the open marketplace and a small delay for food felt like a good idea to him.
"Would you like to stop, Chosen? You didn't have time to have breakfast this morning."
"Great idea, Burton. Hey, Jim? How about we stop long enough to grab some rolls. I know you didn't want to wait until they served breakfast at the dining hall, but we can eat in the saddle as we go," Blair suggested, hopeful for a positive response. He understood why Jim was in such a hurry to reach his family's home, but at this instant his empty stomach really didn't care about evil attacking the Kingdom.
"Jim?" Blair called out again, puzzled by the lack of response. Jim and Incacha were only a few paces ahead of him, well within hearing range, even for someone with normal hearing, much less Sentinel hearing, but Jim didn't respond.
"Yo, did you hear me? How about some sugar?" Blair called again.
After a little mental rebuke from his Companion, Jim turned slightly in the saddle and apologized. "Sorry, Chief. I was distracted. Now that you mention it, those cinnamon buns do smell tasty."
Without any prompting, Incacha paced over to the nearest stall where the owner was just setting out rolls fresh from the oven. Holding up four fingers with his left hand, Jim reached for his money pouch with the other.
The woman smiled as she placed the rolls into a travel bag. She handed over the bag, waving off Jim's offer of coin. "My pleasure, Heralds. Pleasant journey to you," she said as she moved back behind her counter.
"Thank you," Blair replied with a nod and a smile as he reached for his share of the provisions.
The two Companions carefully wove their way through the streets as their Heralds quickly polished off the hot rolls. As they moved out of the city limits, the two men had the room to ride side by side, which made it easier for the two of them to talk.
"What's got you so distracted?" Blair asked, licking the last of the crumbs off his fingers.
"Trying to figure out which situation I should be more afraid of; whatever is attacking the holders or my father finding out that Stevie's lady is actually one of the Queen's maids," Jim said with a wry grin, trying to make amends. Up until now, he hadn't been a very pleasant traveling companion.
"I know which one scares me. I vote for the shadows that swallow people whole. Besides, your father has mellowed quite a bit over the past year. I don't think Steven has anything to worry about. Clarice is a lovely girl."
"You didn't grow up in the same environment we did, Chief. You've got to remember that Steven is the heir to the Ellison estate, a long and highly respected family line. He's expected to marry well and provide heirs, preferably sons to carry on the family name," Jim said, his voice taking on the more pompous tone of a highborn.
With one eyebrow raised, Blair asked, "Is that you or your father talking?"
Jim chuckled. "My father. I heard the speech directed at me often enough growing up. In those days, Steven was a spare in case something happened to me. Father didn't spend much time working on him."
"And you think that since you've been Chosen, Steven is his last hope?" Blair questioned with a chuckle, before adding, "It's not like we Heralds are celibate. It's still possible for you to have children. I'm a Healer, trust me, I know these things."
"It's not that simple. Remember, I was publicly disowned. Until my father undoes that formally at court, any children I might have are out of the line of inheritance."
"So, the pressure is really on Steven," Blair summarized thoughtfully.
"I'm thinking it could be worse than that, Chief. My father could be considering reclaiming me into the family, re-instating my claim to the Estate. I'm afraid that he will try to play me off against Stevie."
Jim noticed immediately that Blair was shaking his head in response. "Not gonna happen, Jim. First, even if he tries that trick, you'll be ready for it and you're not about to play that game. Secondly, I really think your father has changed and just wants to make peace with his sons."
"Really? So, you don't think I have anything to worry about?"
"Nah, he is this close to having Steven married. You don't even have a steady girlfriend, much less are ready for marriage."
Hearing the sound of a relieved sigh coming from Jim, Blair continued, "Of course, I suppose it's possible that your father has someone in mind for you. You know what I mean, hedging his bet on Steven"
"Sandburg," Jim growled, ignoring the sound of giggling coming from his Companion.
"Really, I mean, think about it. In some circles you'd be considered quite the catch. All things considered, you're not bad looking," Blair continued to point out Jim's finer points, oblivious to the fact that Incacha was edging closer to Burton.
It wasn't until he felt the playful tap on the back of his head that he realized just how close.
"Watch it, Chief, or I'll see to it that I'm not the only one fending off potential suitors."
"What makes you think that I'd want to fend them off?" Blair retorted, before urging Burton into a gallop.
As they approached the main gates to the manor house, Jim heard a large commotion from inside the courtyard. Well attuned to her Chosen's mind, Incacha slowed to a stop, allowing Jim to focus his hearing.
"What's going on?" Blair asked, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
"The home Guard is calling for assistance. Every able-bodied man that is able to ride is being asked to report to the courtyard. Supposedly, they have wounded the beast." Jim shook his head as if to clear it. Holding his forehead, he continued. "It's hard to tell. There's so much yelling going on, but I think they're saying they have it cornered."
Blair immediately noticed the familiar pain coming from Jim, who was rubbing his forehead, trying to stop a growing headache. "That's enough, Jim. Instead of trying to listen from here, let's get to where they are," Blair suggested, with a wave of his hand.
Almost automatically Burton and Incacha leapt into a ground-eating gallop. Time was of the essence if they were going to join the hunting party that was gathering at the estate.
Burton, carrying the lighter of the two heralds, was the first to arrive at the courtyard of the main house, though Incacha was but a moment behind.
A large bear of a man entered the courtyard form the stables behind them. "Welcome Heralds! You've arrived just in time. One of the home guard patrols has wounded the beast and is tracking it down on the southern border of the estate."
Turning to face the man, Blair recognized the speaker as Lord Ellison's weaponsmaster, Arthur, who smiled broadly as he recognized them. "Blair, it's nice to see you again and James, your father will be pleased you've arrived this quickly."
"Where exactly did this occur?" Jim asked, turning Incacha's head to face the gate they'd just come through.
"The old McCoy place. You remember them, they were holders for your father when you were a boy. The old man and his two sons were out bow hunting when they saw the beast flying over the treetops. They started shooting and yelling. The home guard heard them and pursued the beast. McCoy sent his eldest here for reinforcements."
Arthur nodded to the man who was caring for his mount. For the weakened state of the horse, Andrew McCoy had come at a fast clip the entire distance between the holding and the manor house.
The weaponsmaster looked around the courtyard, assessing the fitness of the men who had come to his call. The party had swelled up to fifteen men, but most of them were holders or servants who didn't have any experience with this sort of thing. He shook his head, but called out, "We've waited long enough? Let's ride!"
Jim and Blair let the others ride out ahead of them. Both were well aware that in the excitement someone was quite likely to get hurt. Once the pack was just out of Blair's sight, Jim nudged Incacha to the gate.
"Does this sound right to you, Jim?"
"You mean the fact that they shot this thing in the wrong area of the estate, or the fact that the child mentioned shadows, not something as obvious as a flying monster," Jim replied.
A wry grin crossed Blair's face. He wasn't the only one who didn't believe they were on the right track. "It didn't seem right to me either. So what are we going to do now?"
"We'll follow them. I don't think they'll listen to either of us right now, but we'll make sure no one gets hurt either. This may not be what came out of the forest, but it should be investigated anyway. With the clouds of dust they're raising, they'll be easy to track. Once we get closer to the McCoy hold, we'll circle around and get a little ahead of them. Hopefully, that way we can keep everyone acting in a reasonable fashion."
Incacha and Burton set off across the field, Incacha taking the lead as she pulled the directions from her Chosen's mind. Both Companions avoided the dust clouds raised by the hunting party ahead of them.
Once they arrived at the McCoy hold, Jim and Blair joined Arthur in the conversation with Kel McCoy. Arthur agreed with allowing Jim to do most of the questioning.
"The beast was finally driven to the ground a few miles east of Errold's Grove. Actually, the thing crashed into the grove. We felt the ground shake when it happened. We found a lot of blood and some strange looking feathers, but the home guard lost the trail. They decided it would be better for the rest of you to catch up with them."
"What do you think?" Arthur asked Jim after the man was finished.
"I'm not convinced that we're after the right killer, but that really doesn't matter. We still need to find out what this thing is. If you don't mind..." Jim started to say before Arthur interrupted.
"I think I know what you want. I need to organize this group and it's not like those Companions of yours couldn't have you there at half the time anyway. Just watch your back. Don't corner this thing without some backup. The home guard may not be a regular army unit, but I've trained them well."
"I don't doubt their abilities. I'd just like to get a look at the area before all the signs have been wiped out."
As Arthur joined the rest of the group, Jim waved his fingers at Blair to move away from the crowd. "I don't want anyone following after us. I know a shortcut, so we'll beat the rest of them to the area by almost a candlemark if we can slip away without being followed."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
Once they were outside Errold's grove, it was rather obvious where the beast had crash-landed. Jim examined the site carefully, hoping to find some clue concerning what they were up against. Unfortunately too many people had already trampled the site for him to find anything useful.
Blair spent a few minutes searching the perimeter. He searched for any indication what direction the beast had fled, but without success.
"Have any luck?" he called to Jim, who was still searching the grove.
"Nothing other than these feathers," he answered, holding them up for Blair's inspection.
"These aren't like any bird feathers I've ever studied," Blair said after his examination of the feathers.
Jim examined the ground near where he had found the feathers. Seeing nothing he asked, "Did you find any tracks out there?"
"Not a thing," Blair replied, shaking his head.
"Well it couldn't have disappeared into thin air," Jim exclaimed, throwing his hands up in frustration at their lack of progress.
Blair paused before answering as he studied the grove one more time. There were a lot of open areas, surrounded by the occasional thicket. "Maybe not into thin air, but how about it jumping or gliding out of here? Depending on the location of its injuries, it might be capable of that."
Agreeing with Blair's theory, Jim carefully scanned the surrounding area. This time he was looking above the ground for signs of passage. "There," he yelled, pointing at some broken branches that were hanging down about a half-mile away, 20 feet above the ground.
They quickly set off in the direction the beast seemed to have taken. They were forced to pause frequently while Jim sorted out which direction to go at each clearing that showed evidence of a landing.
"We should be getting close," Jim muttered after the fourth stop.
"How do you figure that?" Blair asked. One clearing was starting to look very much like another at this point.
"Well, these landing clearings are getting closer and closer together. It's getting weaker each time it stops. Also, the amount of blood is increasing, and it's looking fresher."
Blair turned in his saddle, hearing the muffled sounds of shouting behind them.
"The rest of the party is gaining on us," Jim explained, having heard the noises well before Blair recognized them. "They have no idea where they are going. They're just following our Companion's tracks hoping to catch up with us, so we'd better get a move on."
After two more direction changes, the two heralds found themselves leaving the woods. Here it was no longer possible for Jim to see any trace of their quarry.
"Try listening for it, Jim. It might be in range of your hearing. Those last two jumps were very close together."
Closing his eyes, Jim attempted to filter out all the sounds of the forest behind them, trying to hear what was out of place and unfamiliar. He dismounted and faced the west. Something he didn't recognize was definitely out there. He reached for his bow and carefully notched an arrow.
"Shouldn't we wait for the others to catch up?" Blair asked, following Jim's lead as he dismounted Burton, pulling the crossbow from the back of the saddle.
Jim thought about it. They had left behind the rest of the group quite a while ago. He still believed that he and Blair, along with their Companions, were better equipped to deal with this situation than the mob that was trailing after them. An untrained group was more likely to get in each other's way than be an effective fighting force.
Besides, there wasn't a horse alive that could maintain the pace of a Companion; not even the Ellison-bred hunters. They could be done with this before the others arrived here. He shook his head, as he answered, "No, I don't want to wait that long. Besides, I know this area. There isn't anywhere for this thing to go. If Burton and Incacha will cut off the trail leading northeast and east, and you and I approach from the south, we'll have it trapped. The west side is a deep ravine and the northwest is a fast moving river with sharp rocks and a deep waterfall just downstream."
Blair nodded. While he wasn't as confident as his partner seemed to be that they could handle this situation by themselves, having an angry mob of amateurs seeking blood vengeance was equally dangerous. "Sounds like a plan."
"We agree, Chosen. We'll have this beast finished soon and be back to your father's estate before nightfall." Incacha replied. She and Burton set off to the east. They had a longer distance to travel and needed to pass through the area silently, which was difficult as they were headed back into the thickly wooded area.
"We will let you know as soon as we're in position." Burton called back.
Jim used hand signals to indicate for them to move out. From here, there would be no more verbal communications to alert their quarry of their presence.
Blair crept along the narrow deer trail, keeping a close eye on Jim's location. They still had no idea what they were up against. Blair raised his crossbow as he approached the thickest part of the undergrowth.
He paused, waiting for the signal from Jim to move forward. He saw Jim start to drop his arm, but Jim never completed the motion. He remained frozen in place, motionless, one arm upraised. To his horror, Blair found himself equally unable to move.
Before he could totally panic, he heard a warm and slightly amused voice inside his head ask, "Don't you think you should be sure of who is your enemy, or who might be a potential ally, before shooting them?"
"Who said that?" Blair mindcalled back, still unable to twitch, much less move a single muscle.
"If you agree to lower your weapons, I'll reveal myself. We're not your enemies," the unknown voice added.
Neither Jim nor Blair was able to determine the direction from which the mind speech was coming. Unable to even swivel their heads, they were hesitant to agree to leave themselves defenseless.
"Do as he asks, Chosen," Burton recommended, his voice faint due to the distance between them.
Blair was ready to comply with the request, but quickly recalled it wasn't completely up to him to lower his arm. "I'd love to obey, but..."
"Sorry," the unknown voice replied. "I just wanted to make sure we could talk first."
The feeling of total paralysis ceased just as quickly as it had come upon him. He noted that Jim was also able to move freely and was making his way through the branches to join him.
"Well, this didn't exactly work out the way we had planned," Jim said dryly.
The sound of hoof beats approaching on their left grew louder. Expecting to see Burton and Incacha, neither Jim nor Blair was alarmed by the noise. However, both men were surprised to see the third animal who was trailing the two Companions.
Although the animal looked similar to a deer, there were several obvious differences. The first was the head was clearly much larger than the average dear. Second, unlike male deer, this creature 's horns did not branch; they were only slightly curved. Finally, signs of intelligence were evident in the enormous brown eyes, which were placed forward on the head to allow a full range of sight.
"This is Bryon. He's from the race known as the Dyheli," Incacha mind sent to both Jim and Blair.
"Why didn't you tell us sooner who we were chasing?" Jim asked.
"We didn't know, Chosen. Bryon only mind called for help when he realized who had him cornered."
Bryon pawed at the ground, calling attention to him as he spoke. "I was very well shielded until now. My friend has been seriously injured and is unable to travel any further. He was mistaken for a monster by the residents of this area and was shot several times with arrows. I was attempting to lead the hunt away from where he's hiding, but I don't know the area very well and decided it might be better to try trusting someone."
"Did you use magic against us?" Blair interjected. "Was that why we couldn't move?"
"No, young healer. I'm not a mage as you use the term. I am the leader of my herd. The strongest stags of my people are the leaders, not because of their physical prowess, but because of our ability at mind control. In times of danger, I'm capable of taking control of the entire heard and leading them to safety."
"Why are you telling us this?" Jim asked, slightly suspicious of the story. "With your mind powers, you could keep people from hurting you or your friend indefinitely."
Bryon nodded, "But to use this power is exhausting, and my friend is getting weaker. One of his wounds is showing the early signs of infection and he desperately needs the abilities of your friend. I needed to get the two of you to stop so you would have a chance to listen to me."
Jim stared at Bryon, trying to determine the truth from the deep brown eyes, but was unable to read the alien expression. He didn't want to even try to invoke the truth spell, because he didn't want to offend a potential ally, nor was he sure that it would even work properly on such a different species.
Shrugging his shoulders, he turned and faced his partner. "It's up to you, Blair."
"You can trust him, Chosen. It's very difficult to lie mind to mind. It's almost impossible to lie mind to mind to a Companion."
The moment Blair understood that he and Jim had been correct in their assumption that they were not tracking the monster who'd attacked the holders, he'd been determined to help, particularly since this unknown ally was wounded without just cause. "I have to help, Jim. I can't walk away from anyone that is in pain."
Jim nodded and gestured for Bryon to lead the way.
Bryon started down the trail that Blair had been following, then turned to the east, taking them farther away from the rest of the hunters.
He paused for a moment, turning back to face the group. "I should warn you. My friend, he's a gryphon."
A little under a quarter candle mark later, they approached a large rocky outcropping. The sides were shear for a good fifty feet high. Bryon raised his head to stare up at a ledge that was barely visible from their perspective.
"Dren?" He mind called.
Jim and Blair watched as a large head popped into view. "Whoa," Blair muttered softly.
"Understatement, buddy," Jim replied, just as quietly.
Directly above the group appeared a living legend. Gryphons had not been seen in Valdemar for so long that most people believed them to be myths. The group ducked under the outcropping as the gryphon dropped down from the ledge to land in front of them.
He looked like a cross between an eagle and a lion. The head and wings were shaped like those of an eagle. The body and tail were similar to those of a lion, only black in color rather than golden. Dren extended his talons to help him keep his balance. Blair shuddered as he watched the talons dig into the ground with little visible effort. They were long and razor sharp, easily capable of killing a man with a single swipe.
Blair also recognized the signs that the gryphon was seriously injured. He had been unable to extend his left wing fully while airborne. His right leg had also buckled upon landing and even with his shield up, Blair could sense the waves of pain emanating from the creature.
"This is Dreneth, my partner in the Silver Gryphons," Bryon explained.
Surprisingly, the gryphon spoke to them directly, looking directly at Blair. "Pleassse call me Drrren, and if you could do sssomething about the pain I'm in, I would apprrreciate it, young healerrrr."
"How did you know I'm a healer?" Blair asked in surprise.
"Mossst grrryphons are gifted to sssome degree with mage sssight. The powerrr rrradiating frrrom you isss clear to thossse with the gift." The gryphon's eyes closed as he was talking. Between the pain and the fever from the infection, it was getting too hard for him to remain conscious.
"Rest, let me see what I can do," Blair said, resting one hand on the gryphon's shoulder. Blair closed his eyes, reaching out with his mind to assess the condition of the gryphon. He sensed the signs of multiple broken bones in the leg, probably from an awkward landing. The wing had several holes from the cross bolts, but luckily there was very little bone damage. Blair sighed in relief. The wings would be very difficult to heal even without having broken bones, particularly if he wanted to be sure the gryphon would fly again.
He opened his eyes to find both Jim and Bryon closely watching his every move.
Though he felt a little useless, Jim had known better than to interrupt Blair when in a healing trance, but now that Blair was aware again, he could speak to him.
"Blair, what can I do to help?"
"Get a fire going and some water boiling. Then gather whatever long straight pieces of wood you can find. We're going to need to splint that leg. While you are doing that, I'll work on clearing out that infection on the wing, and then I'll need your help to steady him while I splint the leg."
Jim nodded as he mentally took notes on everything that needed to be done. "You'll want some bandages then, for the wing."
"Yes, and hurry. It won't take much time for those broken bones to begin to set and I don't want to have to break them again to set them properly," Blair said as he moved away from Jim to begin working on healing the injured wing.
Blair closed his eyes and went to work on the injuries of the left wing. For now, he avoided working on the torn muscle fibers. Even though without repair Dren would never fly again, Blair was afraid he would do more harm than good. Right now it was most important that he work on burning out the infection that was threatening to take hold.
The slashes in the wing membrane he forced closed, prevent any further threat of infection. He used his own energy to facilitate the necessary healing much faster than if it had been allowed to heal normally. Just as he reached the limits of his own energy resources, he felt Burton slowly feeding him additional energy so that he could continue.
With Jim and Bryon's help in supporting Dren's weight, Blair was able to split the right leg without complication. It had taken almost a candle mark of hard work from Jim, Blair, Bryon and the Companions before Dren was resting comfortably. The others had gathered around the fire and just relaxed after the frenzy of the hunt and the healing. Blair was half asleep when Jim shook him slightly.
"Blair, do you need me here anymore?" Jim asked.
Blair rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up enough to speak coherently. "I don't think so. Where are you going?"
"I can hear the rest of the group approaching. I'd better head them off and let them know that this was a dead end."
Blair nodded. "I agree. You'd better get to them before they come in shooting." I'm so not in the mood to imitate a pin cushion today.
"I agree. I shouldn't be long. I took some of that dried fish we were carrying and started a stew for dinner. Try not to let it burn."
"What did you put in it?" Blair asked suspiciously. Jim wasn't any good at cooking. In fact, Blair refused to let him even carry the food because Jim had a knack for ruining it.
"Don't worry, Bryon watched to make sure I didn't put in anything poisonous."
Blair climbed to his feet. "Okay, I'll keep in eye on it. You'd better head out. I need to check on Dren's injuries."
Jim arrived back at the campsite just before dark, the tantalizing aroma of fish stew leading the way. It hadn't taken very long for him to meet the group from Bethyl Wood. Arthur had promised to head back to the manor house immediately and report on what they had found.
Jim had to do some fast-talking to convince the others not to come back to the campsite with him. He wasn't sure if it was because he hadn't been able to convince the holders that the gryphon was not a threat to them, or because everyone wanted to see what had been a mythical creature before now.
He quickly dismounted and removed his tack from Incacha's back, allowing her the freedom to join Burton. Blair and Bryon were sitting next to the fire, while Dreneth was sheltered under the outcropping.
As he approached the others, he could hear Bryon saying, "We live far to the south of here in a place we call White Gryphon."
"Interesting name," Blair commented. "Are gryphons a large part of your city's population?"
"In numbers? No morrre or lessss than the any otherrr. Human, herrrtassi, dyheli and grrryphons all live in harrrmony in ourrr city. Mossst of ourrr people live on a cliff face. From a dissstance, the cliff looksss like a ssshining grrryphon with itsss wingsss ssspread, hence the name," Dreneth answered.
"We have an alliance with the Haighlei King. We act as guards for their northern border. They are excellent trading partners," Bryon added.
"You're a long way from home," Jim said with a smile as he joined the group seated at the fire. He had heard of the Haighlei Kingdom, from another member of his former guard unit.
"We go where we are needed. Our foreseers have sensed a great disturbance in this area. One member of our council believed that the evil taint creating the disturbance felt familiar. She also was familiar with the area where the evil seems to be growing, gaining power."
Bryon's entire body shuddered once as he recalled the one and only contact he had experienced concerning the Evil. He had drawn the directions to reach this location from the mind of the council member. Along with the directions came the memories associated with the foresight dream. This close to the location, even he could sense the evil, and he wasn't gifted in that particular ability.
Dreneth eyed the dyheli carefully out of concern for his partner before continuing the story.
"The two of usss are the advance ssscouting parrrty for ourrr group. The othersss are about fourrr daysss behind usss. Our information about this area wasss not very recent, ssso we came ahead of the othersss to rrreconnoiterrr the arrrea."
Jim nodded. This made tactical sense to him, but there was more they needed to know. "When they arrive, we should hold a strategy session at my family's home. It's not too far from here."
Jim wasn't completely sure, but it seemed to him that both Bryon and Dreneth both seemed uncomfortable with his suggestion. "Look, Blair and I are going after whatever killed those holders. We have two guard units on the way here, and we don't need your group to be getting in our way."
"Or have us get in your way," Blair added tactfully, with a slap to the back of Jim's head.
Bryon nodded his head vigorously, causing both Jim and Blair to lean back out of range of his horns. "Yes, yes, I agree. But you must understand it is simply not our decision to make. When the others arrive, we will pass on your suggestion. It makes a great deal of sense for us to work together."
With a distressed look to his wounded wing, Dreneth added, "Asss long asss yourrr guard unitsss don't missstake me for a monsssterrr like thossse othersss did."
Jim relaxed at their quick, and, what seemed to be honest, response. "I don't think that's going to be a problem. The two units the Crown is sending here are mostly former mercenaries who are accustomed to working with other allies, though probably not as different as the two of you."
"Good. Now, I don't suppose you would mind helping out with a little hunting? This fish flavored water may be enough to feed you, but I'd prefer something more substantial. I'm getting a little hungry."
"You're always hungry," Bryon added tartly.
"True," Dren retorted, ignoring the tone.
Blair laughed at the exchange. At times, Bryon and Dreneth sounded a lot like himself and Jim. Maybe it was a sign of a good partnership. "Fresh meat would be good. It'll help heal those injuries. Besides, our dinner won't be ready for another candlemark. The key to a tasty stew is a long cooking time."
"I'll go," Jim volunteered, grabbing his crossbow from his packs. "I saw a lot of deer tracks down by the stream."
Incacha and Burton also volunteered to help. Once the herd was spotted, they could spook the deer in Jim's direction and afterwards, they could help carry the meat back to the campsite after the kill was dressed.
Blair shook his head. "I want to take another shot at healing a little more of that wing damage. I figure if I use your good wing as a baseline for proper muscle and bone structure, I may be able to repair the damage enough for you to fly."
"Pleassse," Dreneth pleaded. There was no feeling worse for a gryphon than knowing he was grounded.
It was an exhausted group that slept soundly through the night. Blair had done the best he could healing Dren's injuries. While the gryphon hadn't actually attempted to fly in the dark, he had no problem extending his wings fully. Jim had spent some many hours in the saddle, that neither Burton nor Incacha had the heart to wake him for his watch at midnight. The two Companions, along with Bryon, had split the watches along the others to sleep.
It was Bryon who had been standing the early morning watch, who awakened the entire group shortly after dawn.
"Look to the sky," he mind called.
High in the clouds was the wondrous sight of a gryphon in flight.
Dreneth rumbled happily. "My mate, Arrramen. The otherrrsss arrre clossser than we thought."
The Heralds watched with awe as the gryphon circled gracefully, spiraling downward with each successive pass until she landed just outside their camp.
Jim studied their new arrival closely. It was surprising, the differences between her and her mate. She was built slightly differently from Dren. Her wings were longer, but overall she was smaller than Dren. Her head appeared to be more like a falcon rather than an eagle. Her talons were much shorter, closer to human hands than her mate's.
Her bright eyes looked to her mate first, seeming to note each injury he'd suffered. She cocked her head to one side, carefully studying the two men. Bryon introduced Jim and Blair along with the two Companions.
"I am Aramen, leader of the Silver Gryphons. I'm please to make your acquaintance. Many thanks for helping my foolish mate, who seems to have forgotten how to duck."
"Forrrgotten! Pah! Therrre werrre jussst too many arrrrows in the airrr at the time," Dreneth responded in a good-natured fashion.
"How far behind are the others?" Bryon asked, preventing further exchange of the good-natured insults between the gryphon mates.
"Almossst a full day'sss journey. We mussst be carrreful skirrrting passst the morrre sssettled areasss nearrr that essstate if we wisssh to keep our presssence a sssecret."
"It would be faster if we could all meet at my father's estate," Jim suggested, curious to see what the gryphon's reaction would be.
Aramen's head shot up upon hearing Jim's offer, then spun to match her mate's gaze. Blair noted the exchange, both the look and the subtle shaking of Dren's head, answering the unasked question that had passed between the two of them.
"If Brrryon and Drrren are in agrrreement, I will make the suggessstion to the rrressst of the group. I can rrreturn herrre with their rrreply in a few candlemarrrksss," Aramen offered
"I see no reason why we should wait here. Even if the answer is no, we could meet the rest of your party halfway," Blair recommended. His instincts were screaming at him that the group from White Gryphon was hiding something. They clearly didn't mind working with himself and Jim, but as soon as anyone mentioned Bethyl Woods, they seemed to flinch.
"A sssound plan, young healer," Aramen agreed. "I ssshall rrrelay the messssage." The gryphon hopped away from the others before launching into the air, raising a cloud of dust behind her.
They watched her fly until she was only a distant speck in the sky. Blair was the first to move, breaking the spell. He extinguished the fire and began the process of packing up his gear. Jim continued to watch Aramen until even his eyesight could no longer find the gryphon in the bright blue sky. When she was gone from sight, he joined Blair with the task of breaking camp.
The group made remarkably good time. The Companions and the Dyheli set a quick pace. Dren was capable of making short flights and glides thanks to Blair's efforts at healing the previous day. Their only pause for a rest was when Jim spotted Aramen's return. True to her word, Aramen arrived back the promised few candlemarks later bearing her party's answer.
"The others have agreed to wait for us to meet them just south of the estate. They would prefer to meet with you prior to committing to continue on to the manor house."
Blair chuckled. "It would probably be a very good idea to send word ahead to your father, before descending on him with this diverse group of strangers."
"A human messenger," Burton added. "I don't think Lord Ellison would respond well to any other kind."
Jim nodded. Though his father seemed to be mellowing with age, he didn't want to push him too far.
"We should meet up with the others not long after the sun is at the highest point in the sky. They will probably be awaiting our arrival."
Jim looked up at the sky. They still had several more hours of hard riding before arriving at the rendezvous point. He took the point for those travelling on the ground. The two gryphons took flight together, flying above the treetops as forward scouts.
Jim took point for the land-bound portion of the group, riding almost ten feet ahead of the rest. Blair was bringing up the rear, his attention mostly focused on Jim. The ride was boring. They were mostly riding through open meadows. Even Blair could see for miles, so there was no way something could sneak up on them.
Every so often, Jim would look up at the gryphons flying ahead of him, shake his head and then turn his attention to where they were going.
"What is he doing?" Blair mindsent to Burton.
There was a long pause before the answer came. "According to Incacha, he's trying to listen to the gryphons. They don't say much when they're walking, but when they fly, they are arguing about something."
"Catch up, will you please."
It didn't take long before Burton and Incacha were matching paces. Again, Jim's focus was on the gryphons flying over them.
"What are they saying, Jim?"
"It's hard to hear. When the wind is just right, it carries their words back to me. Most of the time all I get is bits and pieces. I don't think they've realized just how good my hearing is or they'd be flying much further ahead."
"You still haven't said what they're talking about," Blair repeated, his curiosity growing.
"I think they're arguing about me. Sometimes they are debating telling me about a member of their group. Other times, the debate is warning her about me."
"Her?" Blair said. "I wonder who they could be talking about."
"No name's been mentioned, just that it is a her. Aramen thinks that she should have warned someone that I'm coming. Dren is sure that would be the wrong thing to do. Something about not being allowed to continue avoiding the past, but I can't catch enough of the discussion to be sure."
Blair remained quiet, allowing Jim to listen, but nothing more was forthcoming as he saw the gryphons were landing ahead of them.
"Damn," Jim muttered.
"We'll know soon enough. It's probably only a candlemark before noon. We'll join up with the other group soon enough."
"Not soon enough for me," Jim said as he watched both gryphons periodically glance back at him.
Blair's estimate had been a little overly optimistic.
Almost two candlemarks after noon, the group arrived at the appointed site. Their travel time had increased as Dren's physical limits had been reached during the journey. The last few miles of the trip, he'd been forced to walk, slowing their progress.
As Incacha and Burton stopped, Blair looked around for the others. "Where is everyone?"
"They're here, Chief. I can hear them," Jim replied, shifting in his saddle.
"You are correct Herald, we are here," said a voice from the tree line. An elderly man approached the group, dressed in a colorful, flowing silk robe. He bowed gracefully before the two Heralds. "I am Kestra'chern Drake, the leader of this mission. Thank you for assisting Dreneth and Bryon in their time of need."
Blair bowed slightly, though not with the grace that Kestra'chern Drake had demonstrated. "Kestra'chern Drake, thanks are not required for performing our duty. It is we who should apologize for the attack on him. In better times, he would not have been greeted so harshly."
The man grinned broadly at Blair's reply. "Kestra'chern is my title, my duty. You may call me Drake, and we are very pleased to meet you both."
While they were speaking, the other members of the group had appeared from different sides of the clearing. Jim's attention was immediately drawn to a tall silver-haired woman who was fussing over Dreneth's injuries. He could only see her profile, but he was sure he recognized her. He watched for a moment longer, hoping she would face him.
The longer he looked the more sure he was that he knew her, but couldn't see how was that possible if she was from White Gryphon. He noticed Dren whisper something to her, too quiet from him to hear. She turned to look at him briefly, before asking a final question of Dren. At his nod, she turned around to study him. It was then that he identified her.
Hearing that single word, the dazed woman raised one hand to cover her mouth, as she was now sure who was standing before her. She moved a few steps closer to him, asking in a tremulous voice, "Jimmy? Is it really you?"
She took another few steps towards the man she believed to be her son. The son she hadn't seen in almost twenty years. She hesitated when there was no immediate response to her query. It had been so long. Did her son hate her for all the years they had been separated? She knew her abrupt departure, without even saying good-bye, had to have hurt her children. She waited for some sign from her son that he was willing to meet her halfway in renewing their bond.
Jim was afraid to answer, afraid to move. This was a long cherished dream of his; seeing his mother again. Finally, after seeing his mother falter, he could only nod; the words to answer her were stuck in his throat.
The former Lady Ellison quickly closed the distance between them. Throwing her arms around her first born, she started crying on his shoulder. "I can't believe it's really you. You've grown so much."
Slowly, Jim realized that it was truly his mother's arms holding him tightly. With a contented sigh, he closed his own arms around her, all the while wondering when had his mother become so slight in stature. "Oh, Momma," he whispered softly in her ear, smiling as she held him even tighter.
Blair and the others watched with joy the reunion of mother and son. Even with his shields raised, Blair could feel the torrent of emotions pouring from both of them. He sighed. It was times like these when he missed his own mother.
Drake seemed to notice the direction his mood was heading and pulled him off to the side. "Now you know why we have traveled here so secretly. Grace did not wish for her family to know she was here."
Blair couldn't believe his ears. How could a mother not want to see her children? He looked over again at mother and son, who were still holding each other. "I don't know why Lady Ellison left them. Jim would never discuss it, but I do know he's missed her terribly. It would have been criminal for her to come all this way and not see him, or Steven for that matter."
"She has never spoken of her life before she joined us, nor did we press the issue. It wasn't until our foreseers were having terrible dreams of what may come, did she tell us about where she came from. Even then, there was very little personal information revealed. Only that she feared having her children see her again would be too painful for them to bear. She had no intention of remaining here after we have completed our mission"
"So what happens now? Does she want to see Lord William?"
"She didn't, but that may change now that she's seen her son. Our original plan was to divide the group. Several of us would have gone with you to the Manor House. The rest would have proceeded to the location we have foreseen. Now, I'm not sure we shouldn't remain together as a team."
"We should discuss it. See what Grace and Jim want to do. They are the ones most affected by the decision," Blair said. He was trying not to stare at the reunion. While he didn't want to interrupt them, sooner or later, someone from the estate was going to pass by. The entire group was out in the open.
"Perhaps we should move further until the woods until we come to a decision? Else the decision may be made for us," Blair suggested.
"A few moments won't hurt. We have scouts out. They will warn us if anyone comes," Drake replied.
Blair was so busy looking around for the hidden scouts that he jumped when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Somehow, while he had been distracted, Jim had approached where they were standing, one arm still wrapped around his mother's waist.
"Blair, I'd like you to meet my mother, Grace," Jim said proudly.
"It's very nice to meet you, Blair," Grace said, holding out her hand.
"I'm pleased to meet you too, Lady Ellison," Blair responded.
Grace frowned slightly at the title. "Please, I ceased being Lady Ellison a long time ago. My title these days is Trondi'irn Grace."
"Trondi'irn? What is that?" Blair asked.
"It is a title given to those who work directly with the gryphons. Dren and Aramen are my responsibility to care for. Gryphons need humans to assist them with certain tasks in maintaining good health. It has been my role since joining the White Gryphon community. Drake, we should probably move now. The longer we dally, the stronger this thing will become."
"And have you some idea which path you wish us to take, Grace?"
Grace swallowed hard before answering. "To the Manor House. I can't... I don't want to avoid it any longer. The time for running is over. If we are to defeat this evil, we must all work together, and that includes myself and William."
Blair volunteered to ride ahead and warn Lord William that he was about to have guests. At Grace's request, he was not to specifically mention that she was arriving with the others, but Blair would have to explain about Bryon, Aramen and Dren. Special housing arrangements would have to be organized quickly to accommodate the group. It was decided that they would give Blair a two-candlemark head start, before the others would follow him to the estate.
As Blair urged Burton into a gallop, he realized that their mission had just become a lot more complicated.
To be continued -- soon -- honest.
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