A favorite author of mine named Mercedes Lackey created the Kingdom of Valdemar. She has several wonderful series of stories about Valdemar published by DAW books. A warning to you Gen-only fans, her novels discuss and often include slash relationships (completely non- graphic mind you). This particular version of my story is Gen.
I have shamelessly stolen snippets from Ms. Lackey's own prologue to introduce this wonderful world to Sentinel fans. The story that follows is all mine. Of course, the concept belongs to Mercedes Lackey and most of the characters belong to Pet Fly, UPN and the Sci-Fi Channel, so basically only the plot is mine.
If you are familiar with her books you can skip straight to the story.
Companion mind speech is italicized.
Warnings: I don't think so.
Disclaimer: They are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN and Sci-Fi Channel, but since they don't seem interested in them anymore. I'm playing with them. No money made. Please don't sue.
Thanks to my wonderful editors, Laurie, Kathy and particularly Shallan who loves the world of Valdemar as much as I do. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
The Kingdom of Valdemar was founded by the once-Baron Valdemar and those of his people who had chosen exile with him rather than face the wrath of a selfish and cruel monarch. In part, due to the nature of its founders, the monarchs of Valdemar welcomed fugitives and fellow exiles, and the customs and habits of its people had over the years become a polyglot patchwork.
The one rule by which the monarchs of Valdemar governed their people was "There is no one, true way." Governing such an ill-sorted lot of subjects might have been impossible had it not been for the Heralds of Valdemar and the Companions who chose the Heralds.
To the unknowing eye, a Companion would seem little more than an extraordinarily graceful white horse. They were far more than that. It was the Companions who chose new Heralds, forging between themselves and their Chosen a mind to mind bond that only death could sever. While no one knew precisely how intelligent they were, it was generally agreed that their capabilities were at least as high as those of their human partners were.
The one commonality among the Chosen (other than a specific personality type: patient, unselfish, responsible and capable of heroic devotion to duty) was at least a trace of psychic ability. Contact with a Companion, and continued development of the bond, enhanced whatever latent paranormal capabilities lay within the chosen.
Laws laid down by the first King decreed that the Monarch himself must be a Herald. This ensured that the ruler of Valdemar could never be the kind of tyrant who had caused the founders to flee their own homes. Second in importance to the Monarch was a Herald known as the King's (or Queen's) own. The Queen's own held the special position of confidant and most trusted friend and advisor to the ruler.
Vrondi are air elementals, beings from the other plane that when summoned are capable of revealing when someone is telling the truth. Mages and Heralds could both use the vrondi to force someone to tell the truth.
Candlemarks - unit of time similar to an hour. Named for the length of time it takes a specially made candle to burn down from one mark to the next.
Palace-Collegia at Haven(Capital City of Valdemar)
This complex in the middle of Haven, consists of the Companion's Field, the Palace, the Royal Guard Army Armory, the Herald's Collegium, The Healer's Collegium and the Bardic Collegium, the Herald's Wing (where all Heralds are housed by the kingdom) and the House of Healing (a hospital).
trainees wear a silvery gray uniform. Upon graduation, they wear white.
Healer trainees wear a pale green uniform. Upon graduation, they wear dark green.
Bardic trainees wear red-brown uniform. Upon graduation, they wear scarlet.
Children of nobles and other smart children wear a light blue uniform. They attend classes at any of the three Collegium according to their interests and talents.
Captain James Ellison was quietly slipping between the stands of small trees. He was listening carefully and separating the sounds of human voices from the sound of the wind whistling through the branches. He was seeking out the direction of the harsh voices that the wind had carried to him a few moments earlier. He had to find a place to hide before his pursuers spotted him. This area was too open, the trees were too small and the branches too sparse to hide him. Ahead he spotted a small thicket of briar bushes. He crawled beneath the thorny branches wishing that he were somewhat smaller as the thorns caught hold of both his clothes and his skin. The woods were getting darker as the sun was lowering in the afternoon sky. Hopefully, those who chased him would lose the trail. He rested safe for a little while hidden by the thick undergrowth. He could not fail his mission. He was Valdemar's last hope.
He was the last survivor of his team sent to investigate disturbances in the forest. He had to report to Haven what they had discovered, having been sent here almost six months earlier by the Queen herself. Here was the Forest of Sorrows, lying on the northern most border of Valdemar. After the meeting with her advisors, the Queen and the Lord Marshall had taken him aside. Though there was no indication, the Lord Marshall had suspicions that they were spies in Haven. James was to tell no one but he was to investigate that possibility as well. Full two generations ago, the last Herald-Mage Vanyel had destroyed the evil mage Leareth and his Dark Army here. But, some of Leareth's followers had survived and the Darkness had been perpetuated. Rumors had been uncovered indicating that the Dark Forces were gathering again north of the Forest of Sorrows.
James had been ordered to lead a specially trained unit of seven guardsmen here to find out what was rumor and what was fact. He had the experience to assess the threat to the Kingdom. The first three months, they had tracked down and destroyed several small bands of soldiers; all of whom were headed north around the forest. They had also found the remains of several other groups in the forest. Some looked as if animals had attacked them. Others as if the trees had assaulted and destroyed the group. It was a mystery and the men in the unit did not like mysteries. While most of his men were very nervous about camping in the Forest of Sorrows, James found it a very peaceful place.
During the fourth month they had tracked another small band of soldiers who wore the symbol of Leareth. This time James and his team had been hopeful that they would be able to follow the group to where the main army was assembling. The team had become overconfident and sloppy as a result of their previous successes. What they didn't know at the time was that one of the dark mages had detected their presence and the purpose of their mission. These soldiers were leading them into an ambush. The nightmarish images still haunted him, every image clear as a bell in his memory.
Several Weeks Earlier
Serris was on point. He was a good soldier and the best tracker in the group, but not the most cautious of men. James was bringing up the rear. Though the tracks from the enemy led into the clearing, the area in front of them didn't look safe to James. It was too open. Surrounded by tall trees and thick undergrowth, it was the perfect place for an ambush. Before he could signal halt, the trap was sprung. Several waves of arrows flew forth from the trees surrounding the clearing. Two of his men died instantly during the volley, multiple arrow strikes making them appear to be pincushions. James felt the sharp pain as an arrow hit his shoulder. He heard a scream as Serris took one in the leg. No one in the group had escaped the arrows unscathed.
Once the arrows stopped falling, the swordsmen charged. James was knocked to the ground after receiving a glancing blow from the flat of a sword to his head. Blood poured down his face from the scalp wound. More blood flowed from the arrow wound to his arm. His eyes were open, but unfocused. He could hear the clanging of swords, the screams of dying men. He could smell the stench as large amounts of blood were spilled. He watched as his remaining men, outnumbered almost three to one, were quickly executed. Mercifully, James lost consciousness as the enemy was robbing the dead of weapons and anything else of value.
When he awoke, it was just before dark. James opened his eyes and struggled to focus on his surroundings. On the edge of his field of vision, he spotted the first signs of trouble. Scavengers, scenting the blood from the battle, were gathering at the edge of the clearing. They were awaiting the cover of full darkness before venturing into the clearing.
James knew that he had to move from the battle site. Generally, scavengers were cowards, but they tended to be braver when gathered in large numbers. James attempted to get to his feet. He was unsteady. The pain in his head was blinding. He managed to stumble about the clearing, checking on each of his men. James realized that he was the only member of the group to survive the trap. He dropped to his knees, weakened both by his injuries and the knowledge that he was now alone. He screamed, for how long he didn't know, but by the time he was done, his voice was gone. Looking around at the growing darkness, knowing that he was severely injured, he could not take the time or the energy to properly bury his men. He was forced to leave them where they had fallen and evacuate the area before the scavengers gained the courage to attack. In his weakened state, he was not capable of fighting off the hungry pack.
He gave the blood-soaked clearing a final glance before leaving. He was sickened by what had been done to his unit here, and the further indignities that would be visited upon the bodies of his men by the scavengers. He got to his feet. He had to move away from the area. He couldn't allow himself the time to mourn now. He pushed away all his emotions. Locked them away deep inside his mind, knowing that he would pay dearly for this decision later. His mission had to come first, no matter the cost to himself. He left the clearing and backtracked along their trail to a small cave he remembered passing a candlemark ago. He spent several days in hiding, venturing out only long enough to gather food and water to stay alive. This gave his body the necessary time to heal and his brain time to plot his next move.
After leaving his hiding spot, he attempted to complete his mission. As he was making his way north, the same band of soldiers that had ambushed his men found him. They'd obviously been searching for him and caught sight of him as he was drinking from a small stream. Looking around, James could not see any place to hide. Though he attempted to run, they were quickly upon him. A blow to the back of his head knocked him down. The soldiers tied his hands behind his back and a rope around his neck. The rope was rough and ground deep into the tender skin around his neck. It was tied tight enough that it rubbed his neck raw and bloody. If he didn't keep pace with the group, he was choked as they pulled on the rope hard enough to cut off his air supply. If he stumbled to the ground, two soldiers kicked him until he got to his feet. They gave him no food or water during the journey. Every three candlemarks, the group rested for one- quarter candlemark. James found himself wondering why they didn't kill him as they had mercilessly slaughtered his men. He didn't understand why he still lived, but during the trip, he had received a whole new collection of painful bruises to add to those from the fight. After a full day's march north, he learned that he had been brought to the assembly place of the Dark army for questioning. It was almost funny. By being captured, he had completed the mission that had caused the death of his men. Now, all he had to do was survive, endure long enough to escape and report back to his Queen.
He was led into a system of caves. Two brutal looking guards took custody of him from the patrol. They went further into the maze of poorly lit passageways until they stood in front of a wooden door. Releasing his bonds, they threw him into a dark, cold cell. He rubbed his raw wrists as he examined his place of confinement. There was straw piled onto the dirt floor substituting for a sleeping pallet and a bucket in the corner. The purpose of the bucket was obvious from the stench coming from the corner.
As he looked around, James shivered. He could feel the cold seeping into his bones. He knew he was going into shock, but he didn't care. James lay down on the pile of straw. Alone in the dark, the negative emotions that until now he'd held at bay, overwhelmed him. The grief over the pointless deaths of his men, and the anger at the realization that their sacrifice had been in vain, threatened to engulf him. Chances were good that there would be no warning to his people. He would die in this cell, far away from his own people. Exhausted from the long tiring march, and the emotional overload, James finally slept.
When the mage appeared in his cell, James thought he was still dreaming. "Stand up," ordered the mage. Stiff and unable to rise fast enough, one of the two guards who had accompanied the mage pulled him to his feet. The mage stared at James for a moment, then appeared to stare through him. Looking puzzled and not a little frustrated, the mage turned and ordered the guards, "Bring him." The two guards dragged James down the hallway to another room.
In the center of this room, stood a stone pillar. The guards shackled him to the pillar, with his arms over his head and his chest against the post. One of the guards ripped away the back of his shirt, exposing his back. The other picked up a long bullwhip. He uncoiled the whip, snapping it once against the floor. James flinched at the sound of the crack, then prepared himself mentally for what he knew was about to happen.
The mage started to speak, "You will answer my questions. Attempt to lie to me and you will feel the bite of the whip. Now, tell me. Does your Queen know the location of my army?"
James recalled one of the special training sessions he had attended concerning what to do if captured by the enemy. The instructor's advice was simple, to lie and lie frequently, with a bit of the truth thrown in occasionally. No one can withstand a determined interrogator forever, the instructor had explained. The best you can hope for is to be rescued. If no one knows where you are, the next best hope is to die quickly. However, before you die, it is your duty to give as many confusing and contradicting answers as you can.
James turned his head so he could look the mage straight in the eye and answered, "She knows everything. Dispatches were sent back to the Queen every two weeks." The mage shook his head and nodded to the guard. The whip fell across James' bare back leaving a thin bloody trail. James locked his jaw against the pain, refusing to grant the enemy the satisfaction of hearing a sound.
"Tell me what I want to know."
"Not only were the dispatches sent back, Serris was a thought projector. His thoughts were being relayed to Haven every other day," answered James, glaring at guard as he felt the second lash across his shoulders.
"Tell me what I want to know."
"I'm not telling you anything," James grunted out through gritted teeth, as the whip fell for the third time. Deciding that it didn't matter if he said anything or remained silent, he picked silence. They weren't going to believe anything he did say anyway, not this early in the interrogation, besides he was a terrible liar.
"You will. Eventually everyone does," sneered the mage.
"I'm not everyone," James answered. He held true to his word.
On the twentieth strike of the whip, he lost consciousness without ever having said a single word or making a single noise. The guards were forced to haul his lifeless form back to the cell. The next day James was again interrogated. This time they used branding irons on his chest, legs and the soles of his feet. Again, he held on. He told them several different stories of messenger relay systems and mind magic. Then, again, he remained silent and refused to answer any of their questions. The guards again had to haul him down the hall back to his cell. James listened carefully as he heard one of the guards speak as they carried him.
"Why doesn't the mage cast a truth-spell upon him, force him to talk."
The other guard replied, "He tried that the first day in the cell. For some reason, this man appears immune to the influences of the vrondi."
"Still, why are we bothering with him. Our sources at the Court report that the Queen is still completely in the dark."
"Because unless you want to wind up where he is, we follow orders. "
The guards dropped him to the floor of his cell and left. James groaned as he rolled over onto his side. Tremors of pain wracked his limbs as the dirt from the floor was ground into his burns. He had to figure out a way to escape now. The Queen knew all about the army, but she had been only guessing at the possibility of traitors in her court. Now that guess was confirmed as fact.
On the third day of his captivity, he was questioned by the mage again. Each time he refused to answer a question, a lightening bolt shot from the hands of the mage that would leave him convulsing with pain for several minutes. He didn't even bother to tell any lies this time. He just glared at the mage, never closing his eyes, never looking away. The mage actually appeared to be afraid of him at times. When James decided that the interrogation had gone on long enough, he feigned passing out.
As he was being taken back to his cell, one guard on either side of him and his arms draped over their shoulders, he managed to trip one of the guards. Once the man was off balance, he simply tightened his arms around their necks. He then knocked their heads together and rendered both men unconscious. He stripped the uniform off the taller of the two to replace his own torn and tattered clothes. He gagged them, then locked both men inside the cell that had been his and headed for the entrance to the caves.
Upon exiting, James did a quick recon on his way back to the forest. He was horrified to find several thousand soldiers gathered in the mountains and camped in a small valley between the two tallest peaks. As he made his way through the enemy camp, he was able to overhear plans being made. The soldiers were camped while they awaited several more contingents of warriors before invading the borders of Valdemar. James knew that he had to return to Haven as soon as possible to warn the Queen. In only a month or two, the army would be organized and ready to invade. They had much less time than the Lord Marshall had believed originally, and the army was twice as large as predicated.
As he made his way back towards Haven, he discovered evidence that during the time he was held captive, the enemy had sent several advance groups into the Forest of Sorrows to scout the way for the main forces. They had established several caches of supplies and hidden outposts. There was an old saying, 'only those with no evil intentions may enter the Forest of Sorrows and live,' but it wasn't holding true any longer. Again, James found evidence that several large groups of the enemy had been killed. He also found entire sections of the Forest had been completely destroyed. Exactly what had happened to cause the destruction, he couldn't tell. The force behind the destruction had to be very powerful in order to overcome the protection that had been present in the forest since Vanyel's death.
He knew that there were several groups tracking him now. James found himself constantly having to backtrack and hide his trail to avoid detection. He could not allow any sign of his passage south to remain. He had run out of time and the Kingdom was almost out of time. It was taking days to return to the edge of Sorrows when it should have taken only candlemarks. He was getting weaker and weaker with each passing day. He could not afford to take the time to lay snares or traps for food. Hunting would be too noisy. He stuck to traveling along small streams and rivers, both for the water supply and to catch the occasional fish for dinner, eating it raw.::
The sounds of pursuit seemed much closer now. James heard the excitement in the voices as they had spotted his trail that led into the thicket. As he crawled out the far side, he saw that unless they followed him into the briars, they would have to backtrack. This would give him a good head start. He listened and determined that two different groups were now closing in on his current position from opposite directions. He leaned against a tall oak tree. His whole body felt like it was on fire. Exhausted and weakened by blood loss, he knew he could run no more. He drew his sword and waited for them to come to him. If he were to die, he would die fighting. They would not take him prisoner again.
Suddenly, he heard the pounding noise of thunder. The sound hurt his ears. The pain forced him down to his knees. He pressed his hand tightly against his ears to block out the noise. No, it wasn't thunder. It was the sound of hoof beats. Coming to a sliding halt in front of him stood a Companion. She appeared to be glowing, a swirling blue, in the darkness of the Forest. She was sweating badly and breathing hard. James had never seen a Companion this exhausted before. She had obviously come a long way in a short period of time.
"My name is Incacha and I choose you. Hurry my Chosen. They are coming quickly, but they are not as close as you believe. We must go now if we are to escape their grasp," the Companion ordered.
James leaned heavily for a brief moment upon the Companion's shoulder. Then, using the last of his strength, he pulled himself onto her back. Much more quietly than anyone would have thought possible for her size, the Companion glided silently away from the pursuit. James tried hard to stay awake, but he found himself dozing, resting his head on his Companion's neck.
Incacha knew she had to get her Chosen to help quickly. There was not one inch on his back that was not bruised or bleeding and he was running a high fever. Berrybay was the nearest city. There was a healing temple there where she could get help. As she entered the outskirts of the city, James became very agitated. As Incacha attempted to calm James through their bond, she picked up on what he was sensing. James had spent almost a fortnight in isolation as he had fled from his captors. Constantly on alert, his senses had been reaching farther and farther for any sound or smell out of place in the forest. They were now heightened out of his control.
The Companion hastily erected shields around her Chosen from the onslaught of input bombarding his senses. She turned around and left the city. They remained sheltered in the forest until James was calm again. Incacha knew that her Chosen could not travel through the major towns until he had control over his senses and learned how to shield himself. Their bond was not strong enough yet that she alone could shield him enough to withstand all the noises and smells of a large town. They would have to stick to back roads and avoid people. She could not even ask the help of another Herald or Companion. In the dire state he was in, James needed a strong healer. She traveled both day and night, stopping only long enough to force her Chosen to drink when he had the strength.
Though Companions, like their Heralds, did not often mate permanently, Incacha was bonded to the Companion Burton. She mind sent a brief message to her lifemate. "It was as you predicated. We are coming. Be ready."
After four long days of travel, Incacha reached Companion's Field. Companion's Field was several acres in size, set in the middle of the capital city of Haven. In the field was a stable for the Companions when the weather was bad, a granary and the tack shed. In the middle of the field was the Grove, the origin of the first Companions and the location of the Temple tower containing the Death Bell. Incacha headed straight for the Grove. No one but Heralds ever came to the Grove and even they mostly avoided the area. They would only gather at the Grove if a Herald died. Her Chosen would be safe here, in the peace and shelter of the Temple.
As Incacha came to a halt beside the temple, James awoke. Extremely disoriented he asked, "What's wrong? Why have we stopped?"
"We are home," Incacha answered.
James dismounted, somewhat unsteadily, needing to lean against Incacha for support. He looked around, not recognizing his location. He attempted to take a few steps away from his Companion, but he lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground.
"Do not worry. Just rest. We are safe here and help is on the way," Incacha suggested as she folded her legs beneath her and lay down on the ground beside James.
James, still running a fever and too tired to argue, moved closer to the warmth of his Companion and allowed the darkness to overtake him once again.
Healer-trainee Blair was walking along the paths of the gardens on the Collegium grounds. He loved the smells coming from the flowerbeds when they were blooming. It smelled of life to him. His caseload in the House of Healing was very heavy right now. Though called the House of Healing, most often it smelled of sickness and death. When the work got to be too much, he sought out the sanctuary of the gardens.
There were several hidden grottos with benches placed throughout the grounds. Blair found one that was unoccupied and sat down. He felt so tired and out of place. He had half a candlemark to find some peace before the start of his next class. His fellow classmates didn't understand him or his goals. Mostly, they avoided him. Blair knew they sensed something different about him. Blair felt the same way, but he couldn't tell what it was that made him different. Even his teachers mostly left him alone. Some did it because the strength of his gifts scared them, other were just jealous of his natural abilities to reach out to the patients.
Blair closed his eyes and let his mind wander. After a few minutes, he sat up with a start as his mind was filled with the image of a Companion standing at a fence. Slowly, he closed his eyes and let his gifts roam. Again, the same image appeared. Blair left the grotto and crossed the grounds of the Healer Collegium, heading towards Companion's Field. He wasn't sure why he was going there. He had a class in less than a quarter of a candlemark, but the image he had seen was drawing him like a moth to the flame. He quickened his pace and was soon standing in front of Companion's Field. There at the fence stood the lone Companion stallion he had seen in his mind. As Blair came close enough to look into the companion's deep sapphire eyes, he lost awareness of his surroundings.
In his mind he heard a gentle voice. "My name is Burton. I choose you. You must come with me right now. Mount quickly. There is someone in desperate need of your special gifts."
"But I don't know how to ride," Blair said hesitantly.
"Climb up on the top fence rail and pull yourself onto my back using my mane for a grip. Don't worry, I will not let you fall."
Blair followed the instructions provided by his Companion. Once Blair was mounted, Burton turned away from the fence and headed to the Grove in a smooth gallop. Blair tightened his grip on the mane and held on for dear life.
The Companion's gait was so steady that as long as he remained centered, Blair didn't lose his balance. After a few moments, when he had concluded that he wasn't going to fall off, he asked the Companion the questions uppermost on his mind since he had left the grounds of the Collegium. "Who is it that needs my help? Do they require healing of the mind or healing of the body?"
"Both and more," answered the Companion. "Let me explain. Listen carefully. Out at the Grove is a man who has been only recently chosen. He was badly injured physically by those who sought to prevent his return to Haven. A long time ago, he was granted special gifts. He is, or will be, a Herald-Sentinel. All five of his senses are heightened well beyond that of an average person. Right now his gifts are out of control. It will cause him great pain if he is brought any closer to the grounds of the Palace. We must go to him."
"All five," repeated Blair. "In the House of Healing at the Collegium, I've examined people who have one or two heightened senses. Once I examined someone with three, but I've never seen anyone with all five."
When Blair had first arrived at the Collegium, he was determined to become a new kind of healer. Most Healers either remained at Haven or were assigned to a healing temple in one of the cities, waiting for patients to come or be brought to them. Blair wanted to go to the sick. Usually, it was one of the Royal Guard units who brought the injured to the temple. If he traveled with a guard unit, he could get to the injured sooner, saving more lives.
He knew he would have to be capable of taking care of himself out in the field in order to ride with a guard unit. Blair couldn't request permission to take riding lessons, there was no justification. But if he succeeded in the other classes, he was sure he could convince one of the Guard Captains to teach him. Blair had taken every class that the Herald trainees had taken, except those related to the Companions and self-defense. He had actually tried the self-defense classes, but he had to drop out after the first few days. When it came to actually attacking someone, he couldn't do it. His gift of Empathy got in his way. When he struck a blow, the pain fed back to him though his gifts. He was forced to drop out. Not soon after though he met the one patient that had changed the entire course of his studies.
Blair recalled the trouble he had gotten into with one of the senior healers about that one patient. This particular senior healer had a very weak gift of mind-healing. Yet, he had diagnosed a patient as suffering from a mental defect rather than listening to the student-trainee he was supposed to be mentoring. The patient had reporting hearing voices when no one else was present in the room. Blair could not detect any problem in the poor man's mind and then, contrary to the instructions of the senior healer, had proceeded to prove that the voices the patient was hearing were real, just present a few rooms away. Blair had since made it his personal mission to locate others that had been similarly misdiagnosed. They had often been secured away from other patients because of safety concerns.
"I know, Blair, I knew everything about you the instant we bonded. The Companions are well aware of everything that occurs in Haven. Remember that." Blair felt the strong feelings of pride and love coming from the Companion.
"Because of the pain both physical and emotional, he is retreating into the nothingness. He can't protect himself from his gifts. Right now they are completely out of his control. He is also retreating emotionally. He has suffered greatly during his life, particularly the last several months. If left unchecked, the guilt, grief and pain will destroy him. That is partially why you have been Chosen, you will be his guide. Only a strongly talented empath will be able to reach him now. And only someone with ALL your gifts will be able to help him gain control of his gifts and use them, as he must in the future to protect and serve the Kingdom. The bond between him and his companion will help you both in the future, as will my bond with you. But right now, none of the bonds among the four of us are strong enough yet to provide the aid required."
"All my gifts?" Blair asked, slightly confused. "What do you mean all my gifts? Which gifts are you speaking of? I'm not sure I understand and what do you mean by I will be his guide? I've never heard about guides before. What does a guide do?"
"So many questions." The Companion tossed his head and laughed. "You will understand eventually, Blair. When the time is right, you'll know what to do. This you must understand right now. You must have great patience with this man. He has not yet accepted his gifts. He rejected them once before and buried them deep inside. But nothing can remain hidden forever. They have now reappeared, stronger than before. He must face his greatest fears if he is to be able to use his gift, as he must. You must go slowly with him. Do not push. We are almost there. Are you ready?"
"One last question. I mean at least for right now. I'll save the others for later. What is his name?"
"Captain James Ellison of the Royal Guard."
The Companion slowed to a walk as they came around one corner of the Temple. In front of them, lying on the ground was another Companion curled around a man like he was her foal.
The injured man never stirred as Blair dismounted his Companion, which was a very bad sign. Most soldiers Blair had treated remained alert even when injured. Healers had to be very carefully when approaching soldiers or mercenaries because they tended to attack first if startled. Blair dropped to the ground next to him. Reaching out one hand to the man's forehead, Blair lowered his shields and started a healer's scan, which would show him the location and severity of any injuries.
As he started the scan he spoke, "James, can you hear me?" At first, James did not respond. His eyes were open but empty. For several minutes, his only expression was a blank stare. As Blair watched, the man's respiration grew shallower with each passing moment. He knew he was losing his patient, but Blair refused to give up. He had never lost a patient before and he would not allow this man to be the first. He continued to call to the man louder and louder, both verbally and with mind speech. Blair, using his other hand, gently rubbed up and down James' uninjured arm. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity to Blair, James blinked at him. Then, as the pain struck, he closed his eyes tightly, covered his ears with his hands and moaned.
"I'm sorry. So very sorry, take it easy. Breathe through the pain," Blair responded in a much softer tone of voice. Blair thought for a moment about the information he was receiving from his scan. The man had several severe injuries that were only partially healed, not to mention the dangerously high fever. But a large portion of the pain appeared to be the result of his heightened senses.
"Go away! Please, it's too loud. Please, stop the pounding. It's getting louder. It's hurting me. The sounds are hurting me," James gasped, as he tried to move away from Blair.
"Easy!" Blair answered sharply but quietly, preventing James from moving away. Motion would only cause more harms to his already weakened system. "I'm not about to leave you out here alone. I want to help you. Please let me try."
Thinking quickly, Blair figured out that the pounding that was getting louder was the sound of his own heartbeat and that of the Companions. "James, listen to me. If you focus, the only sound you will hear will be the sound of my voice. I want you to picture a wheel in your mind. You can use this wheel to turn each of your senses either up or down. Turning the wheel to the left will decrease the input. Turning the wheel to the right will increase the input. Got that?" Blair grabbed hold of James' hand, rubbing his thumb back and forth across the knuckles.
James' only response was to curl onto his side in a tight fetal position. So tight he was almost in a ball. Laying his head against his Companion's shoulder, he moaned softly at the pain. His Companion nuzzled his neck attempting to comfort him. "Listen to him, my Chosen. He can help you, if you'll allow him."
"Come on, James," Blair spoke softly and soothingly as he eased James out of the awkward position. He maneuvered James so that he rested more comfortably against him. "Try for me, please. Trust me. I can help you. Picture the wheel. Written underneath is the word 'Sound'. Turn the wheel to the left and the pounding will stop."
Blair expanded his own mental shields around both James and himself. As James felt the additional shields form around him, he was able to picture the wheel being described to him. As he followed Blair's instruction, the pounding he was hearing and feeling started to decrease.
"Better now?" asked Blair gently as he felt James relax slightly. James nodded.
"Good. Let's try to reduce the pain level now. Picture the same wheel with the word 'Touch' underneath. Again, turn the wheel to the left." Blair felt the tension leave the body resting against him as James took partial control of his senses. "That's enough for now. We'll work on the rest of the wheels later. For now, just relax, rest." Blair ran his hand across James' forehead and, using his gifts, enforced his order for sleep. He watched as slowly the eyelids fell. James dropped off into a deep peaceful sleep.
Removing his hand, Blair looked down at the man slumbering beside him. The sun had just gone down a short while ago. The moon had only just appeared in the sky. In the serene stillness of the evening, he watched over his charge. Blair felt strongly drawn to James. He had never felt this way before about any of his previous patients. The strength of the emotions he was experiencing startled him a little.
Remembering that there were other injuries that hadn't been tended to yet, Blair resumed the scan he had started earlier and began the process of healing the physical injuries. Unshed tears tightened his throat as he found and healed the deep cuts and burns inflicted on James during his recent captivity and daring escape. Underneath these recent injuries were the deep scars of old ones. In fact, most of the skin on James' back was covered with scares. Blair recalled his Companion's words, 'he has suffered greatly'. Goddess, what had been done to this man? As Blair expended the last of his stored energy, he stretched out beside James knowing that James needed the physical contact and the additional body heat. "No one will ever hurt you again," Blair promised the sleeping man as he finally gave in to the need for sleep himself. "Not while I'm around. I swear it." He pulled James's head against his chest and took James's hand in his, and drifted off to sleep.
Burton watched the two new heralds and his own lifemate as they slept. He took up the position of watchman, to keep his new expanded family safe, knowing full well, that the danger was closer than any of the Circle dared to believe.
Though it was a little before dawn, Dean Lyssa Edwards from the Collegium of Healing entered the office of her counterpart from the Herald's Collegium, Dean Joel Taggert. The House of Edwards was a well-respected family in the Kingdom. The family had long provided a strong defense on the southern border of the Kingdom. Renegade mage-priests from Karse using an unknown magic had murdered most of the family as they slept several years ago. Dean Edwards had been in Haven when the attack occurred. In honor of her family, she no longer used her first name. Everyone in Haven referred to her only as Dean Edwards. Dean Joel was surprised to see her in his office at this early hour. "I need your help," She stated without bothering to knock. "One of my trainees has been missing all night. So far he has missed two of his afternoon classes, dinner and his evening rounds in the House of Healing. This particular student has never been anything but completely reliable. He hardly ever leaves the Collegium grounds. He is dedicated to his patients and would not have missed rounds unless something was very wrong."
Dean Joel looked at her with a weary smile. "Would you happen to be referring to a trainee named Blair?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"I'm sorry. I apologize on behalf of the Herald Collegium. You should have been notified earlier, seeing that you are responsible for all healer-trainees. Things are just very confusing right now. Blair was Chosen late yesterday afternoon. Right now he is out in the Grove looking after another one of our newly Chosen who was badly injured. His Companion brought him in from the north. The situation with these two men is the reason why the Heraldic Circle is in such an uproar. We find ourselves with two new Heralds, both well beyond the usual age of thirteen years old for a Herald-trainee. The standard training protocol cannot be applied to them. The Circle is meeting in a candlemark to discuss the issue.
The Dean appeared confused as she attempted to absorb what he was telling her. " You must be mistaken. Blair couldn't have been Chosen, he is to be a healer. No, you must have misinterpreted the situation. Blair simply went out to the Grove to help this Herald. That would be very much like him. Blair's gifts are the strongest the council has ever seen. Though he is still only a trainee, Blair would have drawn by his gifts to this injured Herald," Dean Edwards answered firmly.
Joel was puzzled by his counterpart's reaction to the news. She appeared to be angrier with Blair for being chosen than happy with the knowledge that he was all right. "His Companion says otherwise. Come with me. I was headed out there anyway. I'll take you with me so you may see with your own eyes what has occurred," Joel said, as he picked up a pack sitting by the door and waited for Dean Edwards to join him.
"This couldn't be happening. This has to be a mistake," Dean Edwards muttered under her breath.
The sun was just coming up as Dean Edwards viewed the scene in front of her. James was still asleep propped against his Companion. Resting peacefully, his physical injuries having been almost completely healed by Blair. Dean Edwards then stared at her star pupil who was also asleep against James' Companion. Pinning the woman standing at the edge of the grove with a glare, Blair's Companion assumed what was obviously a protective stance in front of the two men and the Companion lying on the ground.
Her voice was shaking as she spoke to the man standing next to her. "Only once before in our history, has a Companion chosen a healer. I thought the Companions understood that the people of the kingdom need healers badly. Particularly needed are the mind-healers, like Blair. That particular gift is still very rare."
"Your statement concerning the Kingdom's history is correct," answered Dean Joel. "During the reign of King Randale, Healer Sharvi was chosen to be King's Own. The Heralds believed that she was selected because the Companions knew before everyone else how ill the King would become during his reign. They knew that Sharvi's gifts would be necessary to prolong the life of the King and to ensure the stability of the Kingdom while the heir was being trained."
"It was my understanding that Sharvi was a special case. She was Chosen because she was lifebonded to the King. Those with the gifts of healing should simply not have their talents wasted by becoming a Herald," Dean Edwards responded, snidely.
Dean Joel paused, considering his words carefully before continuing. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean by your statement that gifts are being wasted. The services provided by the Heralds are the foundation of our kingdom. The Companions may have a special reason for choosing Blair of which we are unaware, similar to what occurred during Randale's reign."
"That is not the situation we are facing here today. James Ellison is a simple Captain in the Royal Guard, not a King," Dean Edwards replied, pointing to those by the temple in front of her with a wave of her hand.
"But the situation now may be just as dire as the one faced long ago. James is the youngest Captain in the history of the guard and the best we have ever trained. The queen herself selected him to be sent to investigate rumors of a second Dark Army on our northern border. We had not heard from him or his team during the six months that they spent on the border. Our Foreseers report that there are too many possibilities right now for any of them to have a clear vision of the future. Yet all report that they are experiencing dark, gloomy and frightening foreshadowing visions of terrible battles and enemies hidden within the court. Evil wearing dark robes whose faces are hidden, thus hiding their identities."
Joel thought for a moment whether to continue with his current line of reasoning. Dean Edwards did not appear to be in the mood to hear it. For Blair's sake, he continued.
"You must understand that as a rule, Companions do not interfere with the decisions made by their Heralds or with the politics of the court. Yet the same message has been passed from each Companion to his Chosen. The Darkness is coming, and these two men are our best hope for standing against it. It is the conclusion of the Circle that we must provide them whatever aid we can. I understand that Blair still has two years remaining in his studies as a healer. The Herald Circle has already agreed that his training as a Herald can be structured so that he may continue those studies."
Dean Edwards turned bright red with anger. "That decision is not up to the Herald Circle. The Council of Healers will decide Blair's future as a healer, if indeed there is any future for him there. Our Council must meet and decide his fate," Dean Edwards replied haughtily, turned away from him and headed back to her Collegium without another word. It was time to call the Council of Healers together and call in a few favors as well.
Joel waited for her to disappear from his sight. He dropped the pack over by the two men sleeping and knelt down on one knee. He scanned both men. Joel was sensitive to those with gifts. He could immediately tell what gifts a newly Chosen possessed. Once that was known, training plans were developed. Stunned by what he had found, he said, "This is going to be harder then I thought." Joel was not looking forward to having to explain this to the Heraldic Circle. He wasn't sure he understood it himself. The meeting was due to start in half a candlemark now. He had to get back. He rose to his feet and started out of the Grove. He turned back to the Grove for a final glance before leaving. "Don't worry," he projected to the two Companions who were both looking worriedly at him. "Your Chosen will be protected." He headed back to the Collegium. Time was short. Decisions would have to be made quickly to protect those two. Their position as Heralds-in-training had been placed them in his care. This was not a responsibility he took lightly. He would provide whatever protection was required.
As Joel was walking back to the Palace, he recalled the last foreseer he had spoken with. Megan was one of the most talent Heralds with the gift of Foresight. She had seen in one of her visions, several persons in dark robes plotting against the queen. She had been sure that two of them had worn dark green robes, while the others had all worn black. Most of the Heralds had assumed that these had been enemy mages. Part of the army gathering in the North. Now, he wasn't so sure. It appeared to him that the evil was already among them.
About two candlemarks after dawn, James awoke. He felt safe and warm, protected by the shields provided by his Companion behind him and the young healer beside him. What an interesting development, James thought to himself, his own Companion. As a boy on his father's estate, he had once dreamed of being a Herald. But when he wasn't chosen as a boy, he had run away from his father's house at fifteen to join the Royal Guard. Now at age twenty-five, his Companion had finally found him and the only thought in his head was that he was too old for this now.
"No, Chosen, you are not too old. I have been waiting a long time for you. You were not ready to be Chosen when you were young. But since leaving you father's house, you have learned what you needed in order to be one of the Heralds."
James wasn't sure exactly what he had learned, but he wasn't about to argue. He looked down at the young man who was still sleeping next to him. Reaching out one hand, he gently pulled back the long black curly hair that was hiding the face from his view. "I don't even know his name."
"His name is Blair. He is to be your guide. And if you let him, he will become that which you have always wanted."
"Right now, all I want is some food and something to drink."
"Open the pack by your feet. Everything you need is there. And while you're at it, open the packages of grain I smell in there. Burton and I are hungry too."
James opened the pack and found a large sack of grain, several bottles of water, and some sandwiches. "Who do we have to thank for the picnic lunch?"
"The Dean of the Herald Collegium. He dropped by earlier but he decided it was better to let us rest. Please, wake Blair. He exhausted himself healing your injuries last night. He needs to replenish his energy before he becomes ill."
James nodded then reached over and gently shook Blair's shoulder. Calling softly to him, "Blair can you wake up for me?"
Blair groaned, but didn't really wake.
James tried again, a little louder. "Wake up, Blair. Lunch is ready." James tried waving a sandwich under Blair's nose.
Blair opened one eye, then reached for the food. "That smells good. Does there happen to be anything to drink?"
James laughed and handed Blair one of the bottles of water. Blair sat up, a sandwich in one hand and the bottle of water in the other, and looked at the man sitting beside him. "How are you feeling this morning, James?"
"Call me, Jim. We're not being formal here, and I'm feeling fine, thanks to you," Jim answered as he bit into one of the sandwiches. Silence fell over the Grove. The only sounds that could be heard were the munching of sandwiches and the crunching of grain being consumed.
After finishing eating, both men remained silent, each contemplating the circumstances that had brought him here. Finally, Blair broke the quiet. "When did you first notice that your senses were heightened?"
"I don't remember for sure. I think it was during the time I was recovering from the ambush, hiding in the cave. I do know when they got out of control. I was OK when we were traveling in the forest, but when Incacha took me into the city, I lost it. All the sounds, and the smells, on top of the pain I was already feeling were too much. I couldn't keep it all out."
"Eventually you will get control. For now, remember to use the wheels."
"I will. Not much about the last couple of days is very clear in my mind. But that is one of the three things that is."
"What are the other things?"
"The other two things that are clear in your head."
"Well, she's the second, probably first in importance through," Jim answered, nodding at Incacha. "She saved me. I thought I was going to die in that forest and she came out of nowhere and saved me."
"I can understand that. I feel the same way about Burton. What's the third?"
Jim turned his head away, blushing lightly as he mumbled something.
"What was that? Remember, I don't have your hearing," Blair asked.
"You. You're the third thing. Particularly the sound of your voice," Jim answered, clearly embarrassed by the revelation. "I can't explain it, Blair. I know we have just met. Yet, I feel that I've known you a long time. I can trust you. It's like, I can tell you anything, and you'll understand."
Blair nodded. "I know what you mean. I've been at the Collegium for five years, yet I feel closer to you than any of my fellow students. When Burton chose me, he said something about how I was going to be your guide. I don't understand what he meant by that though."
"Incacha said something similar to me. Guess we'll just have to wait and see what develops. Sounds like someone has a plan for us, which is good. Even if we don't know what it is. One more thing is clear to me, Blair. I'm not sure how I know this, but I do. I need you to help me with these senses."
"I know that too. I can feel it. I'm here for you, Jim." After a slight pause, Blair asked, "Jim, do you have any idea of the strength of your senses. What your range is?"
"No, I haven't really had time to think about it."
"How about we try a couple of tests?" Blair asked.
"Tests, no way. I hate tests. Always did," Jim responded, shaking his head.
"I'm just talking about turning the wheels up and down. See what you can hear, smell and see with each turn of the wheel. We can't really do anything with taste out here, and until you're fully recovered I want you to leave the wheel for touch turned down."
"I'm not going to get out of this am I?" Jim asked, with a grin.
"Nope," answered Blair, firmly. . "How are you supposed to learn control when you don't understand your abilities. Trust me, Jim. I know what I'm doing. At least, I feel what I'm asking is right. It's kind of hard to explain."
"I trust you, Blair, and you don't have to explain. I'm familiar with following orders without any explanation whatsoever, Chief."
I'm the Chief, huh. The guy who gives all the orders?" Blair asked already starting to plot.
"Within reason, Chief. Within reason," Jim answered smiling.
For the next couple of candlemarks, Jim and Blair worked on the wheels. With the help of their Companions, they were able to define the distances that Jim could see and hear. After the Companions were done processing their breakfast, they did a couple of long distance smell tests. Very long distance, Jim had demanded. They only quit after Jim's head started to hurt.
After, they lay on the ground, talking about inconsequential things, just getting to know each other. Jim spoke of some of the skirmishes he had fought as a member of the Guard. Blair was telling several stories about his travels with his clan during his childhood. Jim wasn't sure if Blair was either the most well traveled man he had ever met or just the best storyteller. As Blair was winding up one of his more outrageous tales, Jim spotted someone out of the corner of his eye. "Someone is coming," Jim announced, climbing to his feet, searching for something to use as a weapon.
"Jim, the Companions would not allow anyone this far into the field unless they belonged here," Blair replied. "I wonder who it is?" Blair could only see a small speck on the hill coming towards them. "I thought you had your senses turned down."
"If I'm not paying attention, they sneak back up on me. I guess I still feel like I'm on combat alert status, like during my escape." Jim focused his senses on the man who was approaching. "He appears to be unarmed and I don't recognize him, but he's wearing a green robe," Jim added.
It was several minutes before the man came into range of Blair's view, and several more before he was standing before the two men.
Ignoring both Jim and the Companions, the healer spoke only to Blair. "Healer-trainee Blair Sandburg, you have been order to appear before the Council of Healers. They are waiting for you now. Please follow me." Blair didn't move. He looked nervously towards Jim and the two Companions.
"I said now, Trainee," the healer ordered with a glare. After a final glance back at Jim, Blair fell into step a few paces behind the man. Burton moved into place next to Blair, staying close to his Chosen.
Blair's face lost all its color and his legs felt weak, but he managed to fall into step a few paces behind the man. Burton moved into place next to Blair, staying close to his Chosen providing essential support.
Jim watched them crossing the field until they disappeared from his view. Turning to Incacha, he placed one hand on her neck. "This doesn't feel right to me. Let's head back to the palace grounds. Maybe I can find out what's going on."
"Do you think your senses are ready to handle the Collegium?"
"I'll be fine," answered Jim. "Blair tests have actually helped me with the controls. Right now I've got everything turned down. But don't tell him I said that or he'll think up more tests."
"It will be our secret, my love." Jim mounted and Incacha headed for the Collegium. Halfway across the field, they meet Joel riding his Companion towards them.
"Hello, Herald James," Joel greeted. "You're looking much better." Joel remembered Jim very well from the days when Jim had attended classes at the Collegium when he had first arrived at Haven. All members of the royal guard attended basic classes in weapons, self-defense and tactics along side the Herald-trainees. James had been quite intelligent compared to the other members of the guard. He hadn't been afraid to challenge the ideas of his teachers.
"Do we have to be so formal?" Jim asked. Horrified by the idea of hearing Herald James everywhere he went. When Joel smiled and shook his head, Jim sighed in relief. "Then call me Jim. Let's try this again. Hi, Joel. Do you know what the Healer Council would want with Blair this morning? Why did they send for him? Isn't he a Herald trainee now? " Jim asked, with a very concerned tone in his voice.
"Slow down, Jim. I didn't know that the Council had decided anything about Blair yet. I had a brief conversation with Dean Edwards that admittedly went very poorly. I was just on my way out to speak with both of you. Blair is already with the Council?"
"Yes, and I'm worried. Judging from the expression on the messenger, it's not going to be pleasant experience for Blair."
"Damn, they should have spoken with me before saying anything to Blair. The fact that they have deliberately circumvented proper channels concerns me greatly. I have more news that you aren't going to like." Joel reached for the saddlebags behind him. He removed two bundles of whites and an official looking parchment. "This is a summons for both of you to appear before the Queen and Court in one candlemark."
"Why summon, Blair? He wasn't a part of the mission."
"Truthfully, it was the Companions's idea. They have indicated that it would be a good idea to keep the two of you together as much as possible."
"Did they say why? Jim asked, hoping Joel had more information.
"No and since they generally don't offer advice, this didn't seem like a good time to question the issue. I brought you each a set of whites for you to wear to the meeting."
As Jim reached for the packages, he said with a grin, "I thought Herald-trainees wore gray."
"Technically, both of you are considered Herald-trainees. But the two of you aren't exactly our average trainee."
Incacha snorted her agreement with that understatement.
"Hey, you're supposed to be on my side," James laughed.
"Always," Incacha answered.
"You have as much field experience and tactical training as most Heralds currently riding circuit. Blair is one of the most intelligent students it has ever been my pleasure to meet. Certain dispensations have been granted. I think the two of you will be taking the accelerated version of Herald-training, but all the details haven't been worked out yet. The meeting with the Circle has been moved until after the meeting with the Queen and Court. The uniform is just one of the exceptions that have been made for the two of you. I'll meet with you and Blair after your appearance before the Queen. We can talk about what I plan on recommending to the Circle. But keep in mind, nothing is written in stone. Things may change once we hear what you have found out. In the meantime, why don't you go get changed. Then I recommend you try to catch up with Burton. I saw him at the gate as I rode out. He'll know what happened to Blair before anyone else. We can plan whatever damage control is necessary for Blair once we know what happened." Joel's Companion turned and trotted off back in the direction of the Collegium.
Burton was still standing at the gate. Staring forlornly at the building where the healers were meeting. Incacha trotted over to his side and Jim dismounted. Not sure of the proper manner of speaking to a Companion not his own, Jim just asked his question out loud. "Burton, do you know what is happening with Blair right now."
Burton stared at him for a moment, then Jim heard Incacha answer, "The Council meeting is just now ending. Things have gone very badly for Blair." Jim reached out his hand to Burton to provide comfort to the mate of his own Companion. As soon as Jim touched Burton's neck, a multitude of images flashed before his eyes. He saw a group of men and women in green robes turning their backs on Blair. Jim felt the anger inside him start to grow as he saw the Council of Healers shun his friend.
Then, there was a picture of a dorm room, books and papers everywhere. Next, there was a pretty red-haired woman lying on the ground in front of a burning wagon. The signs of death and destruction were visible all around. Finally, there were no more pictures, just emotions. Jim knew, without any doubt, that he was feeling what Blair was feeling, hurt, fear and most of all, loneliness. Jim overwhelmed by the power of the negative emotions coming from Blair, from Burton and not to mention himself and Incacha, fell to his knees as everything went dark.
"What was that?" Jim asked when he regained consciousness.
Blair stood nervously before the Council of Healers. The last time he had been called before the Council, it was a celebration of his ascension from apprentice to journeyman. This meeting was not going to be a happy occasion. Even fully shielded, his gift of empathy was telling him that the healers before him were very upset. He couldn't tell whether they were upset at him or on his behalf. He looked each of the council members in the eye, not allowing his growing fear to show in his face. When he faced Dean Edwards, the feelings of hatred, loathing and, surprisingly enough, fear overwhelmed his shields.
Dean Edwards had already started to speak as he fought to reestablish his shields. "The Council has met to consider you status, Blair. You have been a student here since you were sixteen. In the last five years you have learned much, but there is still a great deal of information that you haven't learned. You now have a choice you must make. You cannot continue your studies here and remain one of the Heralds. If you wish to continue your studies to become a healer, you must repudiate your Companion."
Blair interrupted. "I can't do that."
"Wait, Blair. Before you give us your answer, hear the consequences of your decision. If you choose to become a Herald, the doors of the Healer Collegium will be forever closed to you."
Dean Edwards left her position at the table and approached Blair. Face to face with her, Blair could still feel her hatred of him. But he was confused. The feelings he was sensing did not match the words he was hearing. "Blair, you are one of our most gifted students. You have the potential to be one of the strongest mind-healers in the history of our Collegium. When Healer Stoddard found you in the remains of the caravan destroyed by the raiders, he could sense the strength of your gifts. Your grief over your dead mother called to him from miles away. He brought you here when he discovered that you had no other family. We gave you a place to live, food to eat and the clothes you wear. We provided the education that will enable to you to become a great healer. Think carefully about what you will be losing before making your decision."
"With respect, Dean Edwards, I have already made my decision. I cannot repudiate my Companion. That is impossible. We are bonded. Equally as important, I need to stay with Jim. I wish I could tell you what I am feeling. But, I am sure something terrible will happen to the Kingdom if I don't help him. There is something that we have to do, both of us together. I can't explain how I know this but..." Blair's voice trailed off as he realized that he couldn't put into words what he was feeling.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Blair. Collect your belongings from your room and leave within the next candlemark. You are no longer welcome here." Each member of the Council stood and turned their back to him.
Blair nodded, squared his shoulders, turned and marched away. He tightened his shields. He refused to allow the hurt he was feeling to leak through. He wouldn't give that satisfaction to the people who had just abandoned him. The only family he had since the death of his mother. The second family he had lost. As he headed for his dorm room, he felt his Companion reach out to him. "Don't be afraid, Blair. You will never be alone again. I promise I am here for you. I will never leave you."
Blair climbed the stairs to his dorm room. This room had been his alone for the last five years. The only permanent place he had ever had stayed at for this long a period of time. His mother had been one of the Travelers. Her family, the Sandburg clan, had been traders. They traveled from town to town in wagons, never staying in one place for very long. He had been on the road with her from the first moment he could remember. He never knew who his father was. His mother had refused to discuss the matter with him whenever he had brought it up, saying the he wasn't old enough to understand. She had promised to tell him on his sixteenth birthing day. She died two days before she planned tell him.
He hadn't been with the caravan when the raiders attacked. He had been hunting in the forest. He didn't remember most of the events of that day. He vaguely remembered seeing the smoke in the sky as he was searching for game. He could recall only brief flashes of his mad dash through the forest, trying in vain to get back to camp in time to help. His only clear memories were of his mother, dying in his arms, placing her necklace into his hand, closing his fist around it. It was the only legacy she had left to give him.
When he had lost her, and the rest of his clan, he thought his world had ended. Healer Stoddard had found him still holding his dead mother. Recognizing the strength of his gifts, Stoddard had brought him to the Collegium. It was here that he had a roof over his head for the first time in his life. Now he had to leave again. For just a moment, he felt a tremendous wave of anger sweep over him, then came sadness and finally darkness. He shook his head, attempting to clear his mind.
He removed the light green robes that had identified him to the world as a healer-trainee. He put on the only other suit of clothes he owned. The rest of the clothing belonged to the Collegium. Blair realized that the only thing that truly belonged to him was his mother's necklace. Not even the notebooks were really his. They had been provided by the Collegium. He placed his mother's necklace around his neck and exited the Collegium forever. Not knowing exactly where to go, he headed for Companion's Field. Burton would be there, he had promised. As Blair ducked under the fence, he realized that Burton wasn't alone. Standing beside him was Jim and Incacha.
Jim was wearing the standard white uniform that only full Heralds wore. In one hand he held a parchment with the Royal Seal. In his other hand, he held a second bundle of whites. Blair approached the group. When he was close enough, he threw his arms around the neck of his Companion, burying his face in the warm soft neck seeking comfort.
Jim watched and waited until Blair had let go of all the emotions forced to the surface by the Council of Healers. Jim could feel the fear and the sadness emanating from Blair's torn soul.
Incacha spoke to Jim. "He cannot shield himself from you. Nor can you shield yourself from him. This is the way it was meant to be. Speak to him. He needs to hear what is in your heart. He needs to know that he still has a purpose, that he is not lost and alone as he now believes."
Jim reached out his hand to Blair's shoulder. "Blair, I know what's happened. I know what the Council has done to you and we will talk about it, but not right now. Just know this. You are not alone. You have Burton and you have Incacha and me. We're a team. I know there isn't any problem we can't solve if we stick together."
Jim looked down at the bundle of whites in his hand and almost stopped there. He wasn't sure Blair was ready for this. But he didn't stop. He could feel that Blair was calming down, and listening to him, even though Blair hadn't turned his face from his Companion.
"I wish I didn't have to ask this of you right now, but I don't have a choice. WE don't have a choice. We have been summoned to appear before the court in half a candlemark. Both our names appear on the summons. The Dean of the Herald's Collegium delivered the message in person after you left, along with the two bundles of whites. This set is meant for you."
Jim gently rubbed one of his hands across Blair's shoulders and down his back, while awaiting Blair's response. After a moment's hesitation, Blair reached for the bundle in Jim's hand. "I understand. It's OK, Jim. I'm OK. We can do this, just let me get changed. I'll use the tack room over there. Be right back."
Jim watched as Blair headed for the tack room. His shoulders were hunched and his head was down. Jim whispered, "You're not OK, buddy. But you will be, I'll see to that."
Jim felt the feathery mind-touch of his Companion, "Burton says to tell you, thanks."
Half a candlemark later, Jim and Blair found themselves standing in the antechamber to the throne room. Blair was very nervous. He had never been this close to the Queen. Jim remembered how he felt when he had met the Queen for the first time six months ago.
"Relax, Blair. She's very nice. Just think of her as another Herald. That's how she will see you."
"I'm trying, Jim." Blair replied, taking a deep breath. Eyeing his friend, he continued, "Remember to keep the wheels turned down. There are going to be a lot of people in there. Most of these nobles don't realize that a bottle of perfume is supposed to last longer than one application."
"I've got it under control. You'll be the first to know, if I start having a problem. I give you my word."
A voice from behind the two men interrupted. "Jim, admitting that he has a problem. It will never happen."
Jim turned and smiled at the man standing behind them. "Blair, this is the Lord Marshall, Simon Banks."
Blair turned and shakily offered his hand to the Lord Marshall. "Nice to meet you, Sir."
Simon reached out and took Blair's hand. "The pleasure is mine, Herald Blair. Please, call me Simon when we aren't in a formal situation."
Blair nodded, a large smile brightening his face. "It's just Blair, Simon."
"Why are we here, Simon?" Jim asked. "The summons was not very informative."
"Word has spread very quickly through the court of where you were and what you were doing. The City's Council has demanded that your report be given to the entire Council instead of just the Queen and her advisors."
"Simon, we still have not determined who the spies are within the court. We both know that there are several traitors in our midst."
"That can't be helped. The Queen has agreed to the Council's demand."
Just then, Jim and Blair were announced to the court. The doors opened and the two men entered the throne room. Jim and Blair approached the throne and kneeled before their Queen.
"Your Majesty, I have the information we were seeking."
"Please give your report, Herald James." The Queen ordered.
"As we feared, the Dark Army is gathering on our northern border. I judge that we only have only one-maybe two months at the outside before the invasion begins. I'm very sorry, but we must prepare for war. The enemy numbers over several thousand strong and they were awaiting the arrival of more allies. I only saw one mage, but I heard tell that the coven of mages number seven." Jim paused.
Blair noticed that one of the nobles on their left had started sweating profusely. As Blair stared at him, he realized that the man was shielded, but he was not gifted. That was very unusual. There was no need for someone without gifts to be shielded. Blair had seen the noble in court before, his name was Lord Daniel Freeman. He was actually the noble Blair had been referring to about not knowing how much cologne to use in one application. Someone else must have placed the shield upon him to hide something. Something was very wrong here. Blair tried to inconspicuously move a little closer to the noble.
"What about the other rumor you were sent to investigate?" asked the Queen.
"I'm afraid that one is also been confirmed as true. There are traitors among us. They know too much about our Court and our noblemen."
"Were you able to discover any of their identities?"
Before Jim could answer, the noble that had attracted Blair's attention drew his dagger and lunged towards Jim. Blair saw that Jim would not be able to defend himself in time. He stepped in front of the attacking nobleman, reaching for the blade. Jim watched in horror as the man overpowered Blair and thrust the blade deeply into Blair's chest. Two of the Royal Guards grabbed the attacker. Jim caught Blair under the arms before he could hit the floor. Lowering his friend gently into a tight embrace, Jim put pressure on the wound to lessen the bleeding.
"Blair! Lie still. Don't try to move," Jim said as he lowered them both to the floor.
Blair looked deep into Jim's eyes seeking comfort for the pain that left him unable to speak. Jim examined the wound. The blade was deeply embedded in Blair's shoulder. He couldn't attempt to remove it until a healer was there to repair the damage as it was removed.
"Somebody fetch the palace healer!"
"Hold on, Blair. Help is on the way," Jim encouraged as the pool of blood was spreading rapidly around them. The Lord Marshall knelt down beside them, gently slipping a cushion beneath Blair's head.
Blair nodded weakly before closing his eyes. He thought he didn't have much time left, but then he felt strength being channeled to him first from Burton, then more from both Jim and Incacha. He sensed the arrival of the Palace healer who immediately started to supply the healing energy as he lost consciousness.
Joel stood before the Circle, ready to report what he had discovered. The earlier meeting with the Heraldic Circle about Jim and Blair had been postponed due to the demand of the Court for the public report of Jim's mission. Even though Blair hadn't awakened yet, decisions had to be made.
"As everyone would expect, Blair's strongest gift is that of mind-healing, though his gift of empathy is almost as strong. In slightly lesser strength is his healing gift. But Blair also has a channel of a gift that I do not recognize. I have never seen this channel in any other of the Chosen. Academically, he is at the same level as most of the other Heralds. During his years at the Healer Collegium, he took every class possible. However, in two areas he is dangerously deficient, self-defense and equitation.
In the case of James, his strongest gift is also a channel I have not seen in other Chosen. But, I believe that it is the cause of his heightened senses. He is also showing signs of having minor gifts in Foresight and Thought sensing. Academically, James' formal educational background isn't as diverse as Blair's, mostly concentrated in the arts of war, tactics and defense, not much in the way of diplomacy or court politics. In the short term, this will not be a problem, but we must take the long term into consideration."
Joel paused, looking at the faces of his fellow Heralds. "I don't fully understand it, but I sense a bond growing between these two men. The Companions have all said that it will take these two men working together to defeat the Darkness. The Queen has already ordered the mobilization of the Royal Guard and all available Heralds to head north by the end of next week. I would recommend that Jim and Blair be included in this duty, assuming that Blair is fit by then. With Blair's lack of self-defense training, I would request that two other Heralds be assigned to them as both trainers and as additional protection. Heralds Brian Rafe and Henri Brown have already volunteered for this duty. Lastly, I would suggest they be assigned the suite at the top of the tower in the Herald's wing. Jim doesn't yet have complete control of his senses all of the time. The farther away they are kept from the large concentration people in the court, the better off he will be."
Joel sat down and awaited the vote of the Circle. He didn't have long to wait. There was no disagreement with any of his suggestions. They needed every advantage they could get. Now the plan for the war would have to be discussed. It was going to be a long night.
Elsewhere in the Palace
Four hooded persons stood round a large mirror, two of them in green robes, two in black. In the mirror, looking back at them, was the face of pure evil. Right now, the face was extremely angry. "You have failed me. First, by losing control of the Empath. Second, by failing to destroy the Sentinel. This is your last chance. Do not fail me again. These two together are very powerful. They threaten the Grand Plan. Kill the Sentinel and bring the Empath to me." The face faded away and the mirror went black.
"Well, now what are we going to do," asked a female voice.
The Queen's Library
Jim sat next to Blair's bed. The healer wouldn't allow Blair to be moved very far after the attack. It had been too dangerous to his health. While the wound itself was closed, he had lost a great deal of blood. At the Queen's order a bed had been placed into the Queen's library adjoining the Throne Room. The attack had occurred two days ago, and though much improved, Blair hadn't yet awakened. Between the shock of being expelled from the Healer's Collegium and the trauma of the injury, he lingered in a semi-conscious state.
Jim found himself praying. He couldn't remember the last time he had prayed. Jim believed that praying meant asking someone else for help. Jim had never asked anyone for help before. Not since his mother had left him as a small boy. Not since he had fled in anger from the abuse on his father's estate. Not during his early days in the guard, when as a result of his young age, his lack of size and strength had made him a target of the bullies in the group. Not even when he had been captured in the Forest of Sorrows, believing he would die failing in his mission. But James could pray now, partly because he wasn't asking help for himself. He was asking it for his young friend, his guide, who had given up everything to remain at Jim's side. Mostly, he could ask because he had learned that there was no shame in needing help.
Jim took Blair's hand in his. Gently, he allowed his fingers to encircle Blair's. Jim hadn't left Blair's side since the attack. He was exhausted, but he couldn't let Blair wake up alone. Not with all that had happened at the Healer's Council. Blair had already felt isolated after the shunning. Jim couldn't stand the idea of Blair waking without a familiar and friendly face present. As he was dropping of to sleep, he felt Blair's fingers flex within his light grasp.
"Blair?" He questioned, not sure whether the fingers had actually moved or if it was just wishful thinking on his part.
A faint sound rose from the bed where Blair lay. His left arm was immobilized in a sling. The knife had missed his heart, but it had done serious damage to his shoulder. His face appeared so very pale against the blue bedclothes. Slowly, his head turned and his dazed eyes opened. Blair was dizzy with the pain from the wound. Though he knew he was lying flat on his back, the room appeared to be spinning around him.
"Blair, can you hear me?" Asked Jim standing over Blair.
Blair blinked his eyes twice, as if he wasn't sure whether he was awake or still dreaming.
"Jim," he uttered faintly. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Blair. You protected me, kept me safe. You rest now. Go back to sleep. When you're feeling better, I'll take you home." Jim smiled at his friend as he tucked the blankets a little closer to Blair's still form.
"Home, I don't know where that is anymore," Blair answered softly, a single tear running down his cheek.
Jim reached out, gently wiped the tear away and then answered the fear he saw in his friend's eyes. "Your home is with me, Blair. They have arranged for us to share one of the suites in the Herald's tower. We're going to be far enough from the main population, that I shouldn't have too many problems." Jim paused for a moment, his own eyes glistening with unshed tears. "I don't know where this Sentinel deal is going to take us. But wherever it leads, we'll go together. But first you need to get your strength back."
"Home," whispered Blair with a sweet smile, as he closed his eyes and started to fall back asleep. "I have a home now."
"Always, Blair." Jim answered with a hushed tone. "You'll always have a home with me."
Each time Blair awoke that day, Jim was right by his side. Making sure that he was warm enough, or giving him something to eat or drink. Although Blair felt better each time he opened his eyes, he saw that Jim was looking a little worse.
Early that afternoon, he woke to hear Jim arguing with two other Heralds. Blair didn't recognize either of them. The taller of the two was about the same size as Jim only dark-skinned. The other was just under six-foot tall with brown eyes and short brown hair.
They were trying to convince Jim to take a break. He was refusing, loudly, actually, very loudly. When the voices became louder enough for the entire city of Haven to hear the discussion, Blair decided to enter the fray. "Jim, I'll be okay for a while without you. Go take a shower, shave, get something to eat. I promise not to go anywhere without you."
Jim looked like he was going to be stubborn, then the smaller of the two Heralds promised he would stay. Blair watched as the other Herald escorted Jim from the room. Relieved, Blair closed his eyes.
He opened them when the Herald started to speak. "My name is Rafe. Do you need anything?"
Blair shook his head.
"Okay, let me know if you do. I'll be right here until Jim comes back. Why don't you try to sleep again. Don't worry about your partner. Henri will take good care of him."
Blair mumbled his thanks before drifting off to sleep again.
The healer came to check on him that evening. He was pleased by the progress Blair was making under Jim's watchful eye. He indicated that Blair would be ready to return to his own quarters the following day.
Blair paused for a moment at the second landing on the staircase. He needed to catch his breath. It had been four days since the attack in the throne room. The Palace healer had finally granted permission for him to move from the library into his own quarters. Blair knew that he was still slightly pale, but he felt much better, at least physically. Emotionally, he still had a lot of issues to resolve in his own mind, the attack and the end of his healer-trainee status. He hadn't had the energy to deal with those incidents yet. Mentally, well, Jim was driving him absolutely crazy. It was like he was a mother hen and Blair was his newborn chick.
Okay, Blair admitted to himself, it had been a close call. Frankly, he hadn't minded the protective attitude that Jim had taken, at first. Blair remembered feeling very isolated when he had been living at the Healer Collegium. Jim had rapidly become the big brother that he had wished for as a child. Growing up in the caravan had been wonderful, but very lonely. Now, the overprotectiveness was wearing a little thin. At least Jim hadn't volunteered to carry him up these stairs. That would have been the last straw. Blair resumed his trek up the winding staircase, trying not to be too obvious about the necessity of leaning on the railing.
"Just a one more flight of stairs. We've almost made it, buddy," Jim called encouragingly from behind him. Jim was staying a few stairs behind, just in case Blair lost his balance.
"Cluck, Cluck," muttered Blair under his breath.
"What was that? I didn't understand what you said," Jim asked, knowing exactly what Blair had uttered. He knew that he had been hovering lately, but it was hard to stop. He also wanted to see what Blair would say.
"I started to say that we are going to be in really good shape after a few months of living in this tower," Blair answered, with a blush, not really wanting to explain the original comment.
Jim let Blair slide with a wide grin. "Yeah, it will also be pretty quiet. No noisy neighbors and very few visitors are just going to be dropping by if they have to climb this many stairs, but the view is worth it," Jim added as they reached the final landing. Jim took an extra couple of steps so that he could get in front of Blair.
"This is it, our new home." Jim reached for the doorknob before Blair.
Jim opened the door to their suite and turned so that he could watch Blair's face when he saw their new home. Simon had laughed at Jim's 'frog' imitation when he had seen it for the first time the day before. Before the new palace had been built, this section of the tower had housed foreign dignitaries and ambassadors. All the original opulent furnishings were still in place. Much nicer than the barracks where Jim had lived for almost half his life and the dormitory where Blair had spent most of the last few years.
Blair's reaction was similar. His mouth opening and closing without issuing a single noise, much less an entire word. Jim chuckled, "Come my little guppy, let's check out the new homestead."
Blair was still silent as he entered the suite. After spending the last five years in the dorm, this suite seemed like heaven. In front of him, there was a large living area. This area was designed so that the resident ambassador could hold private informal meetings. On the far side was a large fireplace, which would keep the room nice and warm even in the coldest of winter. There were several shuttered windows and a clear glass skylight. On cloudless nights, they could stargaze from the comfort of their living room.
On his right was the privy area. Inside was a large bathtub, which was supplied like the rest of the palace, with running hot and cold water from large cisterns on the roof. Blair was very fond of nice long hot baths. He found them to be very relaxing and very hard to come by when he had lived in the dormitory.
Blair investigated the small alcove that led to the bedrooms on his left. The bedroom closest to the living area was smaller than the one in the back. Most ambassadors traveled with a secretary or an assistant. Someone wishing to speak to the ambassador had to get past his assistant first.
He vaguely heard Jim saying something about taking the front bedroom, giving Blair the more defensible back bedroom but he really wasn't playing close attention. He couldn't take his eyes off the wall in front of him, the wall that was lined with bookcases. Almost all the shelves were already full. As Blair examined the notebooks, scrolls and books on the shelves he realized that most of them were his, from his days as a healer-trainee.
Amazed and grateful, he looked to Jim, unable to find the words to ask how all this had happened.
Jim saw the question in his eyes and answered it unasked. "Joel arranged it. Common curtsey dictated that they were yours to take with you in the first place. When Joel learned that you removed nothing from your former dorm room, he went with a couple of Heralds to collect your stuff. When Dean Edwards tried to stop them, he told her and this is a direct quote, "this is the property of Herald Blair Sandburg. First, the request from the Queen, then his injuries, have prevented him from removing them himself. His colleagues in the Circle are more than happy to assist him during his time of trouble."
"I don't know what to say," Blair whispered as he lovingly touched several of the handwritten scrolls. "I thought I had lost all this."
"Just say thank you to Joel, Brian and Henri when you see them. Joel is the Dean of the Herald Collegium. Brian and Henri are the two Heralds who helped him move your stuff. I've gotten to know them pretty well over the last couple of days. They were nice enough to bring me food and fresh clothes while I was waiting for you to wake up. They also kept me company when I needed it. I'm pretty sure they had help from Incacha with knowing when it was necessary. Their timing was just way too good for it to be random chance."
"Just a little," Jim heard from Incacha as she made her presence known.
Grabbing the opportunity to tease his Companion a little, Jim said, "You know, Blair, I think Companions gossip more than the women of the court."
"We do not," Incacha answered indignantly.
"Just the female Companions," Blair heard as Burton put in his two cents.
Once Jim got his laughter under control he continued, "You'll get to know them very well over the next several weeks. Henri is going to be working with you on your riding skills. Brian will start to teach you some basic self-defense moves. Actually, we're supposed to be meeting the two of them for lunch at the noon bell. Are you feeling up to it?
Blair nodded, absently. None of this seemed real to him. He felt that at any moment he would wake up in the library, the dream ending, and he would discover that this place had been induced by the pain medication the healer had forced on him.
Jim was also caught up in his own chaotic thoughts, though his were more in the nature of nightmares. The hours after the attack had been just that. He had refused to leave Blair's side, determined not to allow any other harm to befall Blair. He had even challenged the palace healer. The poor man had to work around him as Jim stared at everything he did making him all the more nervous. Joel had come to him in the library after the Circle had met. He had wanted Jim to move his stuff over to the Collegium, but Jim had made it very clear that he wasn't going to leave Blair alone while he was still unconscious. Joel had to make arrangements with Simon to have Jim's property moved by several of his comrades in the Guard.
Then Joel had made the mistake of asking the location of Blair's belongings. Jim, his anger clearly visible, had relayed what he knew, but his ire was nothing compared to the wrath Joel had expressed when he heard what Dean Edwards had done. Joel had said right then that he personally would arrange to have Blair's property transferred to his new room.
Jim chucked aloud as he recalled the absolute glee on Joel's face when he had told the story about the confrontation he had with Dean Edwards to Jim.
Blair stared at him, puzzled by the sudden laughter.
"Joel really enjoyed verbally putting Dean Edwards in her place. Personally, I would have put her into the ground. It was good that Joel handled that particular situation. The Circle was deeply angered by the attitude of the Healer Council. No one understands why they responded as they did."
"Jim, just how did you and everyone else know what the Council had done? I didn't have the chance to tell you and none of the Council members are allowed to say anything about what happens during the meetings. So, how did you find out?"
"I'm not sure I can explain it or if I completely understand what happened myself." Eyeing Blair's face, he realized that answer wasn't going to be enough for Blair. "But, I'll try. After you left the Grove, I followed you. I had a really bad feeling about what was happening. I met up with Joel who told me about the summons from the Queen. When I asked him about the meeting the healers were having, he didn't know anything about it. He was the one who suggested that I find Burton."
"So, Burton told you what happened."
"Yes, no, well, sort of," Jim answered slowly, trying to find the words to explain.
"Sort of, well, that clears everything right up, thanks," Blair said with a smile.
"I'm trying, but it's really difficult to explain what I don't completely understand myself. Anyway, Burton was standing by the fence. I asked him if he knew what was happening to you. Incacha relayed his answer, but things got a little strange after that."
"When I touched Burton, I saw all these images and felt different emotions in my head. I think I was seeing what you were seeing. But that's not all. In addition, I think I was also seeing some of your memories and all the emotions associated with them. It was amazing and powerful, a little more than I could handle. I actually blacked out for a moment."
"I'm sorry," Blair answered quickly as he remembered what had happened in the Council room and the direction his thoughts had led him while standing in the dorm room.
"Why, you have nothing to be sorry about?"
"I must have been projecting. I haven't done that since I was an apprentice. I'm supposed to be better trained than that. Besides, you shouldn't have to deal with my emotional problems."
"Why not? You have to deal with mine. Besides, I don't think you were actively projecting like a broadcast. I think it's a private channel between the two of us or maybe I should say the four of us. We both have been sending and receiving each other's thoughts and emotions. Incacha said something to me after your meeting with the healers about the two of us not being able to shield our thoughts and emotions from each other."
Blair looked thoughtful for a moment, reviewing what he had been experiencing for the past few days. "Well, that would explain what I felt in the dorm room that day. Just for a moment, I felt really angry and I didn't know why. But, that wasn't my anger, it was yours. Burton said something similar when he Chose me. He said something about the bonds among the four of us. That's probably why what you experienced was so strong after touching Burton. This makes things a lot clearer. Man, I've got to write this down. I've never heard of this happening before. I wish I still had access to the Healer's library. They have lots of case studies on file," Blair said, oblivious to the pain on Jim's face at the last sentence.
"They shouldn't have kicked you out. You didn't do anything wrong."
"I'm not sorry for the decision I made. I know it was the right one," Blair answered, as he was searching for something to write on.
Jim nodded, still bothered by the fact that the decision had ever had to be made.
"Why don't you go check out your room. We put the more personal looking papers in there. We tried to keep everything the same way you had it, but you might want to do some rearranging. We couldn't quite figure out the logic behind your organizational system, so things may be in the wrong place."
"That's because there isn't any logic involved in my file system," Blair quipped.
"Well, that explains a lot."
"Thanks, Jim. I'll take a look." Blair headed for his room. Jim could hear papers rustling for almost half a candle mark. Then, there was complete silence. Concerned, he peeked through the doorway into the room. Lying on the bed was Blair, fast asleep, surrounded by numerous scrolls and papers. Picking up all the scrolls, he placed them safely on the desk. Jim reached for the blanket at the foot of the bed and covered the sleeping man. "Rest easy, my friend," Jim whispered, reaching out one hand to move a lock of hair that had fallen over Blair's eyes. "Something tells me things are about to get really interesting around here."
Blair woke from a sound sleep, unsure for a moment of where he was. Looking around, he recognized his new room and moved out from under the blanket. He shook his head, smiling to himself at the thought that Jim had tucked him in like his mother had done when he was a child. He went out to the living area, looking for him. Instead, he found, propped on the table, a note along with several sandwiches and coffee.
Blair quickly ate the sandwiches and headed for the salle. It was only a little after two. As he entered the building, he could hear the clashing of swords. Watching from the doorway, he saw Jim sparring with another Herald. Leaning against the wall was a second Herald observing the match. Jim called for a halt the instant Blair entered the doorway.
"Come on over," Jim yelled, waving to Blair. Once Blair was standing next to him, Jim introduced the other two Heralds.
"Blair, the man trying to take my head off is Henri Brown and the guy holding up the wall over there is Brian Rafe."
"Nice to meet you both," Blair greeted, "Jim's told me a lot about both of you. Thanks for moving my stuff for me."
"No problem," responded Brian. "You're looking much better."
"I'm feeling pretty good."
"So, I assume you're ready to get to work," Henri said as he slapped Blair on the back.
"Depends on what you have in mind."
"Nothing today, tomorrow morning is soon enough," Brian interjected before Henri could respond. "Henri will get you started on the obstacle course. First thing in the morning meet him at Companion's Field with your Companion.
"I'm glad you added Burton to that. I suddenly had this vision of me jumping over the fences. It wasn't a very pretty image."
Brian laughed then continued, "Meet me here tomorrow afternoon, I'll see what your basic fighting skills are."
"I can't fight offensively. My gifts get in the way. I've tried to before," Blair offered, tentatively.
"I know, that's a common problem for those gifted with Empathy. We're gonna work on self- defense first. A couple of simple throws, how to break holds, things like that, strictly defensive. At the same time, I'll also be teaching you how to redirect you gift. The healers never had to teach you those techniques because, as a healer, that wasn't something you needed to be able to do. As a Herald, that particular trick will be essential. With your gift directed away from your mind, you'll be able to take the offensive during a fight if you need to. In the meantime, let's watch my partner beat up on your partner."
"I don't think so. My money's on Jim," Blair said with a laugh.
"Put up or shut up, Herald Blair," Brian challenged.
"How much can you afford to lose, Herald Brian?" Blair retorted, his eyes sparkling with a slightly evil glint.
Jim winked at Blair, and resumed sparring with Henri.
Blair didn't know much about swordplay. But even he could recognize two talented swordsmen. Both men were very good. They were going at each other full speed. A very dangerous thing to do even with the protective guards on the blade edge. Jim was a little quicker than Henri, which gave him the advantage during the match. After Jim disarmed Henri for the third time, he was ready for a break. "Hey guys, why don't we break for dinner. I'm starved."
After a quick wash and change of clothes, the four men headed to the dining hall. They quickly found a table. Rafe and Henri spent a lot of dinner laughing at the antics of the other two men. Jim was constantly sneaking food onto Blair's plate. Blair was so busy telling more stories that he didn't notice until Jim's third attempt.
"Jim, what are you doing?" Blair said half laughing at the silly look on his friend's face when he was caught.
"Chief, you are so thin, I can almost see through you. You need to eat more. Get your strength back," Jim answered as he slipped a little more meat onto Blair's plate.
"Hey, Jim. Are you going to eat anything besides those meat and potatoes? How about adding some vegetables to that plate of yours? Didn't anyone explain the concept of a balance diet to you before?"
"Did you guys hear what happened to the noble that tried to kill Blair?" Brian asked. Noting the negative head shakes from around the table he continued. "The Lord Marshall had him locked away, but before he could be questioned, something killed him."
"Don't you mean someone?" asked Blair.
"No, this was definitely a something. The guy was torn to shreds, literally. Pieces of the body were everywhere. The two men who were guarding him say they didn't see what had attacked him. They were even questioned under the truth-spell. All they heard was the man screaming. By the time the Lord Marshall got the door open, he was already dead. There was only a minute or two between when they heard the last scream versus when they got the door opened. Nothing got out past them and they didn't see anything in the cell when they opened the door. It had to have been some type of magical construct. The enemy consumed a lot of magical energy making sure that our prisoner didn't tell us anything."
"So that's why the security has been increased around the Palace," added Henri. "That would be an easy way to assassinate the Queen and throw the court into complete chaos."
As the men started eating, Blair and Jim exchanged worried glances. Whoever the enemy was, he was well informed, very powerful and still completely unknown. Without knowing who the enemy was, they were not any closer to stopping him.
For the next three days, Blair followed a strict schedule. During the mornings, he worked on his riding skills with Henri. He was getting quite good at riding. Burton had a very smooth and even gait and Blair had a good sense of balance. While they didn't have the best time on the obstacle course, it was among the top scores.
Afternoons were spent working out with Brian in the salle on the self-defense techniques. Blair was very frustrated with these lessons. They were not going as well as the riding lessons. Brian had been trying to teach him several flips and holds, but Blair couldn't seem to get the hang of it. He had spent most of this session on the floor, flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling, which was the exact position he was in right now. It didn't help matters that Jim and Henri were working out together on the other side of the room. Spectators to my complete humiliation, thought Blair.
"Are you OK, Blair?" Brian asked, concerned that Blair hadn't moved after the last flip.
"Fine, just noticing that the ceiling needs a new coat of paint," Blair answered, still not moving from his prone position on the floor.
"Well, are you going to get up soon?" Brian asked firmly, crossing his arms and raising one eyebrow.
"No, I've decided since I'm just going to wind up right here in the next couple of minutes anyway, I'll save you the trouble of throwing me back down here," Blair explained, disgusted by his inability to master this particular lesson.
"Come on, Blair. Don't get discouraged. You're getting the hang of it. It just takes time to learn all the responses to different types of attacks. Right now, you are your own worst enemy. You're trying to out muscle me. I've got the advantage of both height and strength. It will never work. You've got to use your opponent's size and strength against them."
Jim, noting that Blair was continuing to lie on the floor stopped his match with Henri to watch what was going on between Blair and Brian.
"How?" Blair questioned, frustrated by his lack of success.
"Bend, appear to weaken, then use your quickness to turn the tables on them." Blair shook his head, not understanding what Brian was trying to say. Brian, watching the various expressions crossing Blair's face realized that he wasn't getting anywhere. He decided it was better to end the session for the afternoon. "Look, I think we both have had enough for today. Let's pick up where we left off tomorrow. Okay?"
Blair nodded in agreement. Brian headed for the doorway, followed soon after by Henri. Jim put away his equipment and walked over to where Blair was now sitting on the floor, his arms resting on his knees.
"Need a hand up?"
"Nah, why don't you get going. I'll catch up with you later for dinner."
Jim lowered himself to the floor, settling next to Blair. "What's the problem?"
"Haven't you been watching? I think the problem is pretty obvious. I suck at this and I'm going to get both of us killed," Blair answered, his voice getting louder with every word, his frustration evident in his tone.
"That's not true. I've been watching. You're just trying too hard. Don't try to use the same style of fighting as Henri and I. Brian's right. You're not going to be able to fight hand to hand with someone my size, but you don't have to. I've seen you. You're wiry and you're quick. You can also outwit practically everyone on the Palace grounds. Those are your strengths. Start using them. Instead of locking your feet in one place, put your weight on the balls of your feet. When you opponent charges you, let his momentum work to your advantage. Duck out of the way. Trip him, if you can. Don't fight fair. Fight with every dirty move you know. You're not here to learn how to become a great warrior. You're here to learn how to survive an ambush, a sneak attack or an assassination attempt. Your goal here is to stay alive and escape."
"What makes you believe that quickness and brains can beat brute strength?"
"I didn't always have this size and strength. You should have seen me when I first joined the guard. I was the smallest new recruit they've ever had, a lot smaller than you are now. I was also probably the youngest recruit they've ever had at age fifteen."
"I thought you had to be eighteen to join the guard," Blair asked, noticeably relaxing as he was now nicely distracted from his own problems.
"Normally, you do. If it hadn't have been for Simon, I wouldn't have gotten in."
"Lord Marshall Simon Banks, that Simon?"
"Yeah, but then he was only a captain. He knew my father very well. He had been to my father's estate many times on patrol. He had dinner with the family whenever he was close enough. He and my father had served together in the guard. Simon took an interest in me even back then. I'm not sure why."
"He knew you were underage and let you in anyway," Blair asked, slightly stunned by this discovery.
"He vouched for me with the Sergeant. When I showed up looking to join, he told the Sergeant that I could ride anything with four legs and would be a good messenger. He saw what life was like for me at home. He knew I'd be safer in the guard."
"How could you possibly be safer in the guard?"
"It's a long story."
"Well, I don't have anything else planned for tonight. Tell me. I really want to understand," Blair stretched out his legs, getting as comfortable as he could on the hard wood floor.
Jim was very tense as he started the story. "My father is Lord William Ellison. I was his eldest son, his heir and his biggest disappointment. I have a younger brother, Steven. My father was very hard on the both of us. We felt the back of his hand more than once as children, but when I turned twelve things really started to go bad, more for me than Steven. On my twelfth birthday, my father told me it was time I started taking responsibility as his heir. I was to inspect all the holdings on the estate and collect the harvest tax with him. The family priest, Father Brackett, also accompanied us. He recorded all the pertinent information for the Queen's tax collector.
It had been a bad year. A drought during the summer had ruined half of the harvest. Several of the families were hit very hard by the drought. My best friend Matty, and his family, had been hurt the worst. They couldn't afford to pay their harvest tax. Three times before on that trip, when a holder couldn't pay the taxes, my father had offered the alternative of taking the eldest son into an indenture agreement for one year. But this time, Father Brackett suggested taking Matty's twin sister Cassie into service. I didn't like the way he was looking at her. So, before my father could answer, I spoke the words that accepted Matty into my father's service for the coming year. There wasn't any way for father to retract the words once I had spoken them. Father Brackett had never really liked me, but after that he hated the very sight of me."
"What did you do to cause a priest to dislike you?" asked Blair, hoping to hear tales of a wild childhood.
"He was responsible for teaching all the children on the estate. I asked a lot of questions in class, and I didn't always agree with his answers."
"Knowing you, you probably disagreed loudly and in public, right Jim?"
"Yeah," answered Jim sheepishly before continuing with the story.
"After the first couple of months that Matty served in the manor, I caught him sneaking out of the servant quarters at night. None of the servants were allowed to leave the house without permission. That was one of my father's house rules. The next day, I cornered him and demanded an explanation. That was when he told me that his family's holding wouldn't make it without his help. His father had become ill. His mother wasn't strong enough to farm the land by herself, even with his sister's help, so I let him go. I didn't know that Father Brackett had overheard us talking. He went to my father and told him the whole story. The next day Father Brackett whipped Matty as his punishment with the other servants and my family watching. My father held me equally responsible, but handled my punishment himself in private."
"I saw the scars, in the Grove that first day. I wondered how you got them." Blair spoke calmly, though that wasn't how he was feeling.
"That was only the first time I was whipped. There were several other occasions. Matty was still determined to help his family. So I helped him the best way I knew. I arranged it so that on seventh day, he had messenger duty. I took half the messages, he took the other half. When we were both done, we'd meet at his family's holding and spend the rest of the day helping out there. I loved spending time with his family. My own mother left my father when I was very young. I don't really remember her. Matty's mom always made me feel at home. We got away with it for several weeks before Father Brackett figured out something was going on and had us followed. This time, Matty was safe from punishment. He had done his duty and he had tacit permission to be on his family's holding since I was with him."
"But you weren't safe, were you?" Blair asked softly, afraid to hear the answer.
Jim shook his head. "No, this time Father Brackett got his fondest desire. He was the one who punished me. As my father lectured me on how it was wrong to help the weak, he got to wield the whip. My father believed that nature only allowed the strongest to survive and I was going against nature by helping others. He sent Matty away after that, to serve with one of the guard units on the border. I never saw him again. He was killed." Jim's voice faded away as he become lost in the memories of that day.
"This isn't the end of the story, is it?" Blair was sure it wasn't, but voiced the question anyway.
"No, but how about I finish this after dinner. I'd like to be sitting comfortably at home, preferably with a beer in my hand when I finish telling you this story."
"Sounds good. Let's head back to our quarters, I really need to change. I don't think there is one inch of the floor that my uniform hasn't swept clean. We can grab a quick dinner in the dining hall at the Collegium."
Jim's mood still somber, nodded in agreement. "Let's go."
There almost wasn't any room left when Jim and Blair got to the dining hall. In addition to all the students, it looked like all the Heralds who were supposed to be riding their circuits were here. Jim nudged Blair's arm. Pointing to a table over by the windows, "It looks like Brian and Henri saved us a couple of seats. Come on, follow me."
Jim and Blair wove their way through the occupied tables until they reached the table where their friends were seated.
"Hi guys, where did all these Heralds come from?" Blair asked.
"All the Heralds are being recalled from their circuits. Everyone is getting assigned to a guard unit to act as a coordinator during the battles when we go north. The Lord Marshall has already left with the first couple of guards units and a group of Heralds," explained Brian.
The meat platters were now circulating through the hall. Henri passed the plate to Jim, "Here Jim, eat up, you're going to need your strength. Tomorrow, I'm finally going to beat you. I can feel it."
"It's not going to happen," Jim laughed in response, as he handed the vegetables over to Blair.
"Wanna bet on that?" Rafe asked.
"Sure, you still haven't paid up from last time," Blair replied.
"Let it ride?" Rafe suggested.
The conversation at the table remained light as the men started eating. Just after they finished, Joel walked over to their table. "Good evening gentlemen, how are you doing tonight?"
Each man answered, the general response being fine.
"I'm glad to find you all here together. You have saved me the trouble of having to track you down individually. As you probably all ready know, the first units have already left for the Forest of Sorrows. I'd like the four of you to leave the day after tomorrow. Since you all will be riding Companions, you should be able to catch up with the Lord Marshall before he reaches the forest. Jim, Simon requested that you meet with him as soon as you catch up with them. You're the only one with any recent knowledge and experience with the area. I suspect that will be very important in the coming days. Good luck gentlemen, I'll be riding north with the Queen at the end of the week. I seen you then." Joel nodded to each man and left the table.
"Well, I guess that's it," voiced Blair, turning several shades whiter at the news and his thought that he was not ready for this. It was too soon.
"Yeah, just when I had Jim on the run. Saved by the war, just wait 'til we get back," said Henri as he rose from the table. "Guess we spend tomorrow packing. Let's plan on leaving at dawn, day after tomorrow. We'll meet at the tack shed. If you guys need any help, let us know. You know where we live, Jim."
"Yeah," added Brian. "Blair, don't worry, you're ready. Whether you believe it or not, you are ready. I was the one that told the Dean we were ready to move forward."
Blair nodded, rendered speechless by Brian's admission. Jim reached a hand over and grabbed the back of Blair's neck, rubbing gently. Jim, making sure he had Blair's attention nodded to add his support to Brian's assessment. Blair's eyes raised to meet his gaze, Jim didn't look away until he saw acceptance there.
"Come on, Blair, let's head back to our quarters. I have a story to finish telling you, remember?"
Jim and Blair were walking down the corridor leading to the tower. As they turned the corner, Blair was almost knocked down by two men coming from the other direction. Jim turned angrily towards the two, but the words died on his lips as he recognized them.
Blair quickly regained his balance and stared first at his friend, then at the other two men. He didn't recognize them but Jim obviously did. Both men were much older than himself and Jim. The taller of the two looked familiar to Blair, but he couldn't quite place the man, not until he realized that he looked like Jim. Blair's agile mind quickly supplied the answer. This must be his father. The other man was wearing the robes of a priest, the infamous Father Brackett, Blair concluded. Across the man's cheek was a long ugly scar.
No one said anything. Jim and his father just stared at each other. Finally, the older Ellison turned and walked away, without ever saying a single word. Father Brackett didn't say a word either, but he wasn't staring at Jim. He was staring at Blair, his expression one of hated and contempt. Then he too, turned and walked away.
Blair heard his friend speaking softly. "He disowned me. He doesn't even admit that I'm still alive. He is the representative from our home district on the Council. We've been in the same city for the last three years and he still refuses to acknowledge my existence."
Reaching his hand out, he gently rubbed circles on the small of Jim's back. "Come on, I can hear those beers calling to us from here. Let's go home."
After Jim was seated on the couch in their living quarters, Blair brought him a beer. Sitting down next to him Blair was the first one to speak. "You know, if you don't want to talk about this right now, I'll understand. It has been a pretty difficult afternoon."
"No, that's ok. Besides, you're like a cat. The curiosity would kill you before tomorrow morning. I can't allow that to happen."
Jim took a drink, before he started to talk. "For most of the next two years my father and Father Brackett both watched me like a hawk. If I showed any signs of mercy or kindness towards the holders, I would be punished. I especially stayed away from Matty's family. It was my fault that Matty got killed. I couldn't face them."
Blair didn't interrupt, but he was tempted to do just that. Instead, he put one hand on Jim's knee and shook his head. Jim acknowledged the gesture with a sad little smile but didn't stop talking.
"Sometimes, I think Father Brackett lied to father just to get me in trouble. I spent most of that time with bruises and welts. Nothing I did was good enough. Simon saw what was going on. Well, at least he saw the aftermath. Every time he visited, he always spent some time with me. He taught me most of what I know about battle tactics. He was the one that gave me my first sword and he taught me how to use it. That's how he found out about the beatings. During practice bouts, the pain and stiffness kept me from moving properly, but he couldn't do anything to interfere in my father's affairs. There wasn't anyone on the manor that would interfere or speak on my behalf. I got to the point that I didn't care about anyone else. I just shut down. I put up walls around me so that nobody could reach me. I figured that if I didn't feel anything for anyone, no one could hurt me." The pain and hopelessness in Jim's voice even after all these years hurt Blair to hear. He couldn't imagine anyone who would treat a child as Jim had been treated.
"Jim, you also closed yourself off from the positive emotions as well as the negative." Starting to realize just how deep a wound was being open up, Blair took a drink from his own bottle, contemplating discontinuing this discussion for the evening. As he was swallowing, he heard Burton speak. "He needs to speak of this. It is a burden that must be discarded. He must face the Darkness within before he can fight the Darkness outside."
"I know. I've learned better. Simon taught me that there were people out there I could trust. It just took a little while for it to happen." Jim paused, rolling the now empty bottle in-between the palms of his hands. Jim put the bottle on the table then grabbed another bottle for himself. Blair shook his head when Jim offered him a second drink.
"Back to the tale of my sordid past. I followed my father's instructions to the letter. I tried not to give him any reason to punish me. Just before I turned fifteen, that all changed. I was riding across one of the fields when I heard a female voice screaming. I followed the sound into a small grotto. That's when I saw them. Father Brackett had Cassie pinned to the ground. I had gotten there too late. He had already raped her. He was just refastening his robes when I rode up. I hit him with the riding crop. I was the one who gave him that scar on his face. He ducked away into the forest. I couldn't pursue him. Cassie wasn't moving, I had to make sure she was OK first."
"Oh man, was she all right?"
"Not really. She was shaking and crying. She couldn't speak. I took her home to her parents. Told them what had happened and that I was sorry for not getting there sooner."
"Jim, it wasn't your fault."
"I know that now." Jim paused for a long drink then continued. "I headed back to the estate, to tell my father what had happened, but I was too late. Father Brackett had talked to him first. He had told my father that he was straightening up the temple when I just walked up and hit him. Some story huh, but father believed him as usual. When I told my father my version of the events, he didn't believe me."
"Cassie could have told them the truth."
"She was gone. She and her family had fled the holding. I think they knew what would happen, that Father Brackett would be the one everyone believed and that sooner or later, he would come back for Cassie."
"Do you know what happened to them?" Blair asked solemnly, deeply sadden by the tragedy of a situation long past.
"No, I tried to find them after I left home, but I never succeeded." Jim took another drink from the bottle in his hand before he could continue.
"As Father Brackett wielded the whip, my father kept calling me a liar. He said it wasn't possible for me to have heard her screaming. He wanted me to admit that I had made the whole thing up. He said the only way that the whipping would stop was if I admitted that I had lied."
Jim was so tense by this point, his tightening grip broke the bottle in his hand. Dumbfounded, Jim could only sit there and stare at the broken bottle as a mixture of blood and liquor dripped from his injured hand. Blair quickly grabbed a towel. After first removing the glass that was embedded in Jim's hand, Blair bandaged the injury. As he finished the job, he realized that although he had never wanted to kill anyone before, if William Ellison were standing in front of him right now, Lord or not, he would be dead.
Jim's voice was shaky, but he had to finish this. "At first I refused to say it, but after a while the pain got so bad that I did. I said I made the whole thing up. But that didn't stop it. The last thing I can remember was the sound of Simon's voice. He heard the sound of me screaming and once he saw what was happening, he stopped Father Brackett. He was the one who arranged for me to be taken to the healer in town to take care the injuries. He knew I would be safe at the temple. The healers were not about to allow harm to anyone in their care. There wasn't much my father could do while I was recovering, but I knew what would happen the minute I stepped foot in my father's house. When the healers released me, instead of going home, I went to where Simon's unit was bivouacked. The rest is history.
Burton's words flashed through Blair's head. He has not yet accepted his gifts. He rejected them once before and buried them deep inside. Jim had heard Matty sneaking out of the servants quarters. He had heard Cassie screaming from across a field and a grotto. It all made sense now. "Jim, how did you hear her?"
"I don't know. I never really thought about it. I guess the sound echoed from the sides of the grotto."
Before Blair could say another word, he heard Burton speaking to him. "He's not ready to admit it yet, don't push now. Give him time." Then to his astonishment, he heard what had to be Incacha. "He's never spoken to anyone of these incidents before. Give him time to heal."
"I failed them, Blair. Both Cassie and Matty, I couldn't help them. I should have been able to save them. They were my responsibility. More importantly, they were my friends. I should have done more." Tears were running down Jim's cheeks.
"There was nothing more that you could have done, Jim. Goddess, you weren't much more than a child yourself." Blair reached for Jim, offering whatever comfort he would accept. It didn't take long for the tears to stop and for Jim to fall asleep on the couch. Blair grabbed the pillows and blankets from his bedroom. Gently Blair slipped one of the pillows under Jim's head, then spread the blanket over the sleeping man. Taking the other pillow and blanket, Blair settled down in the chair opposite him. Now it was Blair's turn to watch over his friend through the night.
There was no place else he would rather be.
Elsewhere in the Palace
Three hooded persons stood round a large mirror, two of them in green robes, one in black. In the mirror, looking back at them, was the angry face of Darkness. "Once again, you have failed me. Kill the Sentinel but allow no harm to come to the Empath. I need him alive. Bring him to me." The face faded away and the mirror went black.
"Time for plan B," said the man in black.
The morning sun felt warm on Jim's face as he slowly opened his eyes. He had fallen asleep on the couch. He sat up swinging his legs onto the floor, rubbing his eyes with one hand. Blair was still sleeping, slumped in the chair across from him, looking very uncomfortable. As Jim rose and started to move towards the chair, to return Blair to his own bed, the sound of a sleepy voice stopped him.
"Don't bother with whatever it was you were about to do, I'm up," Blair announced with a groan as he attempted to sit up properly in the chair, his stiff back not exactly cooperative.
Jim had to think about the meaning of that statement for a minute. Blair laughed at the perplexed expression on Jim's face. "How are you feeling this morning, Jim?"
"Better," replied Jim, aware that Blair was asking about his mental state as well as the physical. "It felt good getting that off my chest. I feel like a heavy weight has been lifted off my shoulders."
"Good, it was about time that particular guilt trip came to an end. Jim, you expect way too much of yourself. You can't take responsibility for everyone else's problems, fight everyone else's battles for them."
"But I think that is what she meant by what she said in the Grove."
Now it was Blair's turn to puzzle out what Jim had just said. "Huh, who's the she that said what?"
Jim rolled his eyes, then replied, "You know, Blair, we shouldn't have these conversations until we have both have had a least one-cup of coffee."
Blair laughed and nodded.
"In the Grove, the day after Incacha brought me back, she said that I was not ready to be Chosen when I was young. She said that I learned what I needed to know to become a Herald after I left my father's house. I didn't understand what she meant then, but I think I just figured it out."
Blair shrugged his shoulders, still not understanding and said, "Spell it out for me."
"While living under my father's house rules, I didn't care about anyone, Blair. That attitude continued even during the first few years I spent in the Guard. For the most part, I didn't really care about anyone else in the unit. I was fighting because I was angry and hated the world, not because I wanted to help or protect others. There were only a couple of people I let get though my walls. I kept everyone else at arm's length. It was a long time before I let myself feel again, before I could trust others not to hurt me again. A Herald cannot be like that. Part of being a Herald is taking responsibility for others. I understand that now. It means using my gifts to the best of my abilities to protect those that can't protect themselves."
Jim heard Incacha soft voice, "Very good, my Chosen. You have learned. Just remember, there is such a thing as overcompensation."
Blair laughed, overhearing the comment made by Incacha, as he was about to express the same sentiment. Jim, startled, asked, "You can hear my Companion?" Then, to Jim's amazement, a male voice in his head answered. "You can hear me too, now that our bonds are stronger."
"Burton?" Jim asked in mind speech, stunned by this new development.
"Yes, Jim," the Companion answered, his tone rich with suppressed merriment.
"Wow, this is very cool. Where's my notebook?" added Blair excitedly, as he stood up letting both the blanket and pillow hit the floor.
"I really need that cup of coffee," Jim lamented, holding his head in his hands. After hearing the sound of three different voices laughing, Jim continued, "Hey, no ganging up on me. That's not fair."
After breakfast, they headed over to the Quartermaster's office. The Heralds and the Guard shared the same Quartermaster, so Jim knew exactly where they had to go and whom they had to meet with to requisition the equipment they would need on their journey. Blair was slightly behind Jim as they approached the desk in the Guard's office building.
"Hi, Jack. How are you doing today?" Jim greeted the man.
"Just fine, Slick, or do I have to call you Herald James now?" asked Jack, as he sloppily saluted then bowed to Jim.
"Very funny, you old dog. How many times do I have to tell you that your forehead is supposed to touch the floor when you bow to me?" Jim asked in an obviously feigned exasperated tone. "Jack, this is my partner, Blair. Blair, this is Jack Pendergast. This guy is the best scrounger I've ever seen. There isn't anything he can't get his hands on..."
"For a price," Jack interrupted.
"...for a price. He also is the number one gossip on the palace grounds. If you need information, this is the man to see."
"Well, Slick, what are you here for, gossip?"
"No, not today. We both need a messenger travel kit. We're headed north tomorrow at dawn and we need to make up some time, so we want to travel light."
"I hear the north is a dangerous place to be right now, Slick. You watch your back, you hear me? I'm not around to do it for you anymore," Jack warned, his affection for Jim evident in his voice.
"I'll watch his back," Blair interjected, determinedly. "That's my job now."
"Same way I'll be watching yours, Blair," Jim answered.
Jack nodded his approval at the pair. Jim was in good hands. "You two make a good team. If you want to wait for a few minutes, I'll put two kits together right now."
"We'll wait," answered Jim, as Jack went into the storage room, mumbling to himself about the equipment required.
"Slick?" Blair asked as soon as Jack was out of range, swallowing a chuckle.
"Don't go there, Blair," Jim warned. "Let's just say, it wasn't one of my finer moments. It involved me, a horse and a lot of mud, so let's just leave it at that. Deal? Jack has known me since I first joined the Guard. He was in charge of the communications, until he lost his foot and was confined to a desk job.
I remember the first day we met. He took one look at this scrawny little kid, rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then, he immediately took me under his wing. I think Simon knew he'd do that. Simon was the one who suggested assigning me to him. Jack was the first person to break through the walls I had built, besides Simon. I wouldn't have made it in the Guard if it wasn't for his help."
"He sounds like a really good friend," Blair replied. "You know, Jim, it's silly for both of us to be standing here waiting. Why don't I go check to make sure all the tack is ready for Burton and Incacha while you wait here for the kits? I'll meet you back here to help carry this stuff back to our quarters. It'll save us some time."
Jim thought it over, then agreed.
Blair headed for the tack room, plotting on a way to find out how 'Slick' got his nickname. Blair decided that the best way was to get to Jack without Jim being around. Once in the tack room, it didn't take very long to locate both Burton's and Incacha's equipment. Blair quickly checked over the leather on the harnesses and the saddles. This was one of the first lessons that Henri had taught him. Any weakness in the leather could be very dangerous for both Companion and Herald. Everything looked to be in good shape. Just as he was about to return the tack to the storage area, he heard a faint squeak, as if someone was attempting to open the door without alerting anyone inside.
Blair ducked behind the half wall that separated the stalls from the storage area. Peeking through a convenient knothole, he saw a man dressed in black from head to toe and wearing a hood to mask his feature. The assassin had a dagger in one hand and was lurking in the shadows, staying close to the wall, moving silently as he searched the room.
Blair frantically mind-called for assistance. "I need some help here. This guy is armed and I'm not."
Blair calmed as he heard Burton answer, "Help is coming, remember your lessons. You are never without a weapon."
Jim was still waiting at Jack's desk for the two kits. It was taking twice as long as it should have to gather up the equipment. Jack was telling a story about how one of the Healer council members was having an affair with the wife of a court official.
"I can't believe that a healer would think that it was possible to keep his affair a secret. Most of these nobles ignore their wives at court. Those women have nothing better to do then gossip all day long. Half the court is sleeping around with each other and everybody knows it. Not to mention, that the guy is surrounded by empaths most of the day. Emotions like that are kinda hard to keep hidden. Healers don't necessarily have the same set of scruples that you Heralds have. The Companions would never Choose someone without a high moral standard. Ya know, someone who would take advantage of the situation. But, Companions don't pick the healers, now do they? No. I feel sorry for the poor schmuck. He really loves her, but she was just using him. There's this rumor, going round the court that bedding a healer is like being in the Havens. I heard that they can..."
Just as Jack was getting to the good part, Jim's vision wavered as he heard Blair's plea for help.
"Blair, watch yourself. I'm coming." Jim spoke aloud as well as sending the thought through their bond.
Without another word, Jim quickly turned and headed for the door, mind calling for Incacha as he went.
"I'm coming. Meet me at the fence. It will be quicker," Incacha requested, as she went to meet her Chosen.
"Damn Heralds, they forget most of world can't hear mind speech like they do. Don't say where you're going out loud, just indicate that someone's in trouble," Jack voiced his displeasure with the situation as he dispatched several guardsmen after Jim and grabbed a weapon himself.
As he watched the assassin approach his hiding place, one of Brian's earlier lessons flashed across Blair's memory. He could almost hear Brian's voice.
::"Remember, there are always weapons around you, no matter where you are. Look around this salle. The bench you are sitting on can be used as a weapon. Kick or throw it into the path of your attacker. Slow him down. It'll give you valuable time to escape. Break any one of the mirrors in the room. The resulting shards will be as sharp as any knife. When fighting outside, a simple handful of dirt thrown into the eyes of your opponent will give you an advantage. Be alert at all times for a potential weapon."::
Blair looked down and realized he was still holding Burton's hackamore. He positioned himself at the edge of the wall, waiting for the assassin to come down the aisle way. Holding his breath, not moving a single muscle until finally, the arm holding out the knife came into his field of vision. With a quick jerk, Blair used the hackamore to entangle the man's arm and the knife so that it was no longer a threat. A split second later, he pulled the assassin in half a circle, using the gained momentum to toss him, head first, directly against the wall. Without a moment's hesitation or even a glance back to check on the condition of his attacker, Blair ran for the door.
In his haste, Blair didn't see the second attacker hidden by the doorway. The assassin wasn't fast or strong enough to prevent Blair from passing through the doorway, so they wound up continuing the struggle outside. But, he did managed to grab hold of Blair from behind, wrapping his arms around Blair's chest. Blair intentionally dropped down onto his knees, using his opponent's momentum to flip the man over his head. The attacker was experienced enough that he still managed to take Blair down to the ground with him. Both men struggled to gain the upper hand during the fight. As the two men rolled on the ground, Blair was able to grab a handful of sand and pebbles from the path leading to the tack room. Though his attacker wound up on top during the struggle, Blair was able to pitch the sand directly into the man's face. Blair scrambled to his feet, moving away from his attacker who was distracted by the dirt in his eyes.
By this time, Burton had arrived on the scene. Using his powerful hindquarter, Burton kicked the assassin high in the chest. He flew five feet through the air, landing with a sickening thud against the tack room wall. Judging from the angle of the man's neck to the rest of the body, he had been killed instantly.
Burton pivoted so that he was between Blair and the tack room doorway. Blair was out of breath from the exertion of the fight and he continued to experience waves of adrenaline, but now was not the time to try to relax. Blair knew that the first assassin was still alive in the tack room. He had to lean heavily against Burton's back as he attempted to calm his breathing, to be ready to face the other attacker.
He heard another Companion approaching from behind him. Without turning, he knew it was Jim with Incacha. The presence of the mental bond between them was tangible at this short a distance. A sudden movement in the doorway caught Blair's attention. The first attacker had pursued him out of the building.
No one moved. The assassin quickly assessed the situation. Escape appeared to be impossible. His quarry was now very well protected by his own Companion and by the arrival of the second Herald on another Companion. His mission was a complete failure. His master did not tolerate failure. If left to his master's devices, the assassin knew his death would be long, slow and agonizing. He could not even allow himself the luxury of being captured. The Heralds were not capable of keeping him safe even if they were so inclined. They would not stop his master from reaching him. There was one option left that he could take. Without hesitation, he slit his own throat.
After witnessing the death of the assassin, Jim walked over to check on Blair. As soon as Blair had realized the man's intentions, he had lowered his head, not wanting to see the actual act, so he didn't see Jim approach. Jim gently placed his hands on Blair's hunched shoulders, turning Blair so that his view of dead bodies was blocked, asking softly, "Hey buddy, are you okay? They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"No," answered Blair, then as he realized that answer wasn't clear, he clarified his response. "No, they didn't hurt me. I'm okay." Both men turned as the sound of others approaching became clear. Several other Heralds, along with members of the guard unit stationed at the palace, were running towards them. Among the Heralds were Brian, Henri and Joel.
Quickly appraising the situation, Joel assumed control of the site immediately. "Megan, take charge of the Guardsmen and fan out. Make sure this area is secure. Brian and Henri, check out the bodies. See if you can recognize either of them." Joel looked over at the two men at the heat of the incident. One look at Blair and Joel knew better than to order Jim away from him right now. Although physically unharmed, Blair was very pale and starting to shiver, obviously on the verge of full-blown shock.
Joel smiled at the two men. His new trainees were coming along quite well. Joel's greatest concern had been Blair's safety, which was tied directly to Jim's sanity. It appeared that Blair had several hidden talents that had led to his managing to stay alive against two experienced opponents.
Joel didn't understand why, but he was thankful that the Companions were apparently keeping an eye on the pair, too. That was how Joel and the others had known to come to Blair's assistance. When Blair mind called to Burton, he relayed it to the other Companions, who in turn, told their Heralds.
Joel walked over to where Jim and Blair were standing with their Companions; inwardly smiling at the way Jim continued to block Blair's view of the dead bodies. Getting close enough, he put one hand on Blair's arm and asked, "How are you doing, son?"
Hearing the word son coming from the Dean brought a big smile and a little color to Blair's face. "I'm fine, Sir. I wasn't injured."
"You did a fine job here. You performed admirably."
Blair shook his head in disagreement.
"Blair, I'm being very serious here. You held your own against two professional assassins. You should feel very proud of yourself. I'll need a full report from both of you, but that can wait until later."
Joel turned away to check on what Henri and Brian had found. Jim made out the words of the next statement, though Joel probably hadn't intended it to be heard. "I know I am."
"He's right, Blair. You did good."
"Burton killed that man, not me."
"Yeah, but you had already gotten away from him before Burton helped you out. From what I could see, you had the situation under control. Think about it. You remembered everything that you've been learning the past week and used it automatically. I know several guardsmen that couldn't have gotten away from two assassins and they have had a lot more training and experience than you have. I'm impressed."
Jim stared at Blair who had remained silent. Jim didn't say anything more, allowing the younger man to process everything he had seen and heard. His color was much improved. Jim listened as Blair's heartbeat and breathing settled into normal. He was going to be just fine.
Relived, Jim was ready to figure out what had happened. "Right now, I want to go have a look at those men. See if I can recognize them. I've had a lot more experience fighting mercenaries and assassins then anyone else here."
Blair agreed, "Okay, I'm with you."
"Blair, why don't you stay here? There's no need for you to look at the bodies. You haven't left the Collegium grounds in the past 5 years. I doubt that your usual hangouts would be the types visited by assassins. Haven't you had enough excitement for the day?"
"Jim, I need to see their faces in order to put this behind me. It's easy to fear the unknown, which is what they are to me right now. I have to see who they are and that they can't come after me again. I need to let go of this in my own mind or I'll always be afraid."
Jim didn't like it, but he could see the logic in that statement and nodded.
"Joel, I don't recognize either of them." Jim heard Henri saying as he and Blair approached the little group. The hoods had been removed from the two assassins. Jim didn't recognize the smaller of the two, but he was sure that he had seen the one that had killed himself. He just couldn't remember exactly where he had run into him before."
"Jim?" Blair questioned, as he saw a lost look in his partner's eyes.
Jim shook his head, trying to remember the face. "I've seen him some place before. I just can't remember exactly where."
"Relax, Jim. It will come back to you. Don't try to force it."
"Dean Joel?" A woman's voice caught the attention of the group.
"Yes, Megan," answered Joel as he turned to face her.
"I found signs that there was a third party that was watching what was happening to Herald Blair from the bushes over there. There are three different tracks leading into the glade, but only two the headed for the tack room," Megan explained, pointing at a small glade to the left of the tack room. "The third person headed back towards the Palace. I tried to follow the trail, but whoever it was knew what they were doing. The trail leads straight back into the Palace Garden, the main path. There were too many other tracks to separate out one individual. I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Megan. I think we are through here. We'll let the Guard handle the bodies."
"Jim, we ought to see what your senses can pick up," Blair asked excitedly. "I'll bet you can pick up on signs that the others missed. Megan, you were the only one to enter the glade, right?"
"Yes, Blair. I tried to keep the scene as uncontaminated as possible. I was hoping that maybe a better tracker could follow the trail further than I could."
"I'm willing to try anything at this point. We need to find out who these people are," Jim answered, frustrated at the lack of information that they had about the enemy."
"Let's start with the glade. See what we can find out there, then we can follow the trail," Blair ordered, with a determined expression across his face."
"Gentlemen, I'm not going to dissuade you from investigating, but I would like to suggest that the two of you remain together for the remainder of the day. Also, I would suggest that you stay in well-traveled areas. For whatever reason, it's obvious that the two of you are targets. Give your enemies as little opportunity as possible to get to you," Joel advised.
Both men thought this was a very good idea and verbally agreed before heading to the glade. Blair led the way, but Jim prevented him from entering the area. "I'll go first. I'm a pretty experienced tracker."
"Jim uses your senses first. The tracks are obvious, but can you pick up on anything else?"
Jim turned up the wheels on both his senses of smell and sight. "I can smell someone's cologne. It's faint, but it's definitely here."
"Are you sure it's not Megan? She was here too."
"No, it's not Megan, her perfume is here too, but this is a different scent, a man's cologne or musk, not a women's perfume. I think I can follow the scent as well as the tracks."
The two men quickly reached the point were the tracks joined the main garden path. "Where now, Jim? Can you still follow the smell of the cologne?"
"Yeah, the tracks are confused, which makes them useless, but I can still smell the guy." He headed off in the direction of the Palace.
Blair followed closely behind Jim, making sure that Jim didn't run into anyone, as he was too focused on not losing the trail to pay attention to where he was going. They soon found themselves in the wing of the New Palace.
"Jim, do you know where we are?" Blair questioned, as their presence was being noticed by several of the noblemen and council members who were housed here. It least they were in uniform, thought Blair, though his was a little dirty from his earlier fight.
"Yeah, I know. I've lost the trail. Actually the scent is still here, but there are several different people in the hallway right now who are wearing that scent. I can't tell which one it is or if it's any of them," Jim answered as he looked for anything or anyone that was out of place.
"It's not like we can question the nobles or the Council members," Blair added, as he grew more nervous from the stares coming from the nobles. "Not without causing major trouble for the Queen."
"I know. Let's go back and pick up our stuff from Jack. There's nothing more we can do here. I let Joel know where the trailed ended. At least we now know that there is another traitor among the court."
As they left the wing, neither man noticed that Father Brackett was staring at them from the doorway of one of the rooms.
They returned to their quarters with the equipment that Jack had put together for them. It didn't take long for the two men to add a few personal items to the packs. They grabbed a quick dinner at the hall. It wasn't very crowded. The number of Heralds present was decreasing with each meal as individuals were assigned to a Guard unit. They decided that even though it was early, a good night's sleep would be a sound idea. Both men turned in early.
Jim tossed and turned in his bed as the nightmare began.
Jim was twelve years old, again, watching his friend Michael about to be whipped. One of his father's guards was dragging Michael, kicking and fighting as he struggled to escape, towards the hitching post at the center of the courtyard. "Don't do this, please. It wasn't his fault. It was mine." Jim called out pleading as Father Brackett raised the whip. Jim couldn't move. He thought he remembered his father holding on to his arms, forcing him to watch. But now, in the dream, there was no one preventing him from moving. Yet, he was still frozen in place. He could only watch in horror and scream as the whip fell repeatedly against his friend's exposed back. When it was over and the guard released the shackles, the broken body fell to the ground. His paralysis gone, Jim ran towards his friend. When he reached for his Michael's shoulders, it wasn't his friend's brown eyes staring blankly towards the sky, it was Blair's empty blue eyes. "NO!" Jim cried in horror, as he fell backwards, onto the ground. Looking up at the guard, Jim saw him evilly smiling down at the two helpless boys beneath him. Jim tried to scramble backwards, as the guard raised his sword to strike him down.
Jim woke with a start, sitting upright in his bed. Now he remembered the man. Claus Zeller, how could he have forgotten that man? His father's bodyguard, Father Brackett's chief lackey and most importantly, he was the assassin who had killed himself earlier today.
Jim looked around his bedroom. His pillows had been thrown across the room. The bedclothes were soaking wet and twisted around his legs. Goddess, what a nightmare. As Jim was freeing himself from his sheets, he heard the sounds of moans then screams coming from Blair's room. Focusing his senses on their suite, he quickly determined that they were alone. There was no outside attack. Looks like I'm not the only one having nightmares tonight, Jim thought to himself, as he finally freed his legs from the blanket.
Jim rushed into Blair's bedroom. Blair was still asleep, trapped within the nightmare. His screams were now very hoarse and not understandable. Suddenly, Jim realized that Blair wasn't breathing. He grabbed Blair by the arms and shook him hard. "Wake up, Blair, right now!" Without warning, he gasped, then inhaled, but the nightmare continued. Blair was struggling with him now, still not awake. The harder Jim tried to hold him down, the more Blair fought against him. Finally, Jim let go of him physically and reached for him mentally, attempting to break the grip the nightmare held on Blair's mind. "Come on buddy, you're safe. It's okay now. Time to wake up." Slowly, the tension eased from Blair's body. Jim slowly rubbed Blair's arms. "That's it. Wake up." Blair woke up and scrambled away from his friend, not recognizing him in the dark. "Blair, it's me, Jim. You were having a nightmare."
Blair nodded, then leaned against the headboard of the bed. "I know. Believe me, it was a nasty one. Sorry that I woke you."
"Don't worry about it. I was already wide-awake. I had a nightmare of my own."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really, but I need to tell Joel."
"Well, the least you could do would be to tell me first."
"There's that curiosity again, buddy. It's going to get you into trouble."
"Quit stalling and tell me what your dream was about," Blair ordered.
"I finally remembered who he was, Blair. The assassin, I know where I had seen him before. The man worked as a bodyguard for my father, and he did errands for Father Brackett when I was a kid. I had block out my memory of him. He was cruel and sadistic. He took a perverse pleasure in inflicting pain, on animals, or on people."
"Jim, Father Brackett and your father have a suite in that wing of the Palace."
"I know, that's why I have to talk to Joel before we leave tomorrow. Someone has got to keep an eye on them."
"You think your father is involved?" Blair couldn't imagine how much Jim was hurting right now, his father being a potential traitor.
"I don't want to believe it, but it is possible," Jim paused, eyeing his partner with a thoughtful look. "Your turn, what was your nightmare about?"
"The attack today, only this time I didn't get away from them. They tied me up and took me to this dark room. I couldn't see anything, at first. Then, there was this light that came from a mirror. A face appeared, and I swear, it was the epitome of evil. It hurt just being in the same room as the image, so much evil and hatred. I heard a voice, actually a single word, 'Finally'. That's when you woke me up." Blair took a deep breath before continuing. "Jim, they could have killed me before I even went into the tack room, or when I came out, I mean from a distance. They didn't have to get as close as they did. I don't think that their intention was to kill me " Blair's voice faded before he spoke the rest of his thought.
"I know, Blair. They were trying to take you alive, for some reason. I just wish I knew why. That dream of yours sounds like more than an average dream. It almost sounds like a foresight dream."
"Man, I hope not. That is not a future I would look forward too."
"The future isn't fixed, Blair. We won't let that happen. I promise. We'll talk about it more in the morning. I don't want to talk about this any more tonight. Do you think you can get back to sleep? Dawn is still a few candlemarks away and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
"I don't think so. How about you?" Blair asked as he nervously plucked at the blanket still covering him.
"I don't know, somehow I don't think so," Jim answered, honestly.
"Well, why don't the two of you gather your gear and come down to the field? You would feel safe enough to sleep down here with us. Who better to guard your safety than a field full of Companions?" Burton suggested.
"Sounds like a good idea to me, Jim," Blair said, hopefully.
The two men quickly gathered their gear, extinguished the lamps in the quarters and headed down the stairs. After they were about halfway down, Jim heard Blair laughing quietly behind him.
"What's so funny?" Jim asked, curiously.
"I feel like I'm ten years old and heading to my mom's wagon so she can protect me from the boogie man," Blair continued to giggle as they went down the stairs.
Jim smiled at the image. "I know what you mean. Growing up, I had Sally, my father's housekeeper. I would hear strange noises all night long when I was little. She wasn't afraid of anything. She would come into my room at night and lecture the monster that lived in my closet about how he should be quiet now because I had to sleep. She would always stay with me until I fell back to sleep."
The sound of laughter filled the staircase, as the two quickly headed for Companion's field.
Once they reached the Field, they only went a short distance until they came to a small glade that was sheltered from the wind. Both Incacha and Burton lay down on the ground. Nestled between them, Jim and Blair arranged a nest of blankets. As they settled down to sleep, several other Companions, rather obviously, took up sentry duty around the glade.
"Unpartnered Companions," Burton informed the two men. "They are young enough to consider this a grand adventure. They will learn, and the loss of a night's sleep won't bother them."
Jim laughed, remembering how exciting he had found the guard before he actually had to fight in a battle. He learned very quickly that adventure could be gruesome and terrifying. A lesson all young beings must learn for themselves. Jim yawned and lay his head down upon Incacha's shoulder. Blair had already fallen asleep, exhausted by the events of the day. Jim closed his eyes and quickly dropped off to sleep. Neither man was disturbed by nightmares for the remainder of the evening.
Just as the sun was appearing over the horizon, the Companions woke the men sleeping peacefully on the ground. They gathered their packs and equipment and headed for the tack room. When they arrived, they were amazed to find the Henri, Brian and Joel were already there, waiting patiently for their appearance.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Joel greeted, "Would someone care to enlighten me as to the reason my Companion woke me at this early hour and requested my presence here."
"That would be me," Jim said. "I remembered where I had seen that assassin before. He worked for my father a long time ago. Mostly he worked for Father Brackett, if I remember everything clearly. I thought you ought to know before we left. I thought you might want to assign someone to watch them."
"Jim, are you sure? Your father has served this kingdom since he was old enough to fight in the Guard and Father Brackett is very well respected by his peers. This is very difficult to believe."
"I'm not sure my father is involved. I'll admit that Father Brackett has always made me nervous, and Zeller seemed to report to Brackett most of the time, not my father. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. We traced the watcher in the glade to the wing of the palace housing the council members. I just thought that you would want to know."
"Thank you, I'll put someone on both of them immediately," Joel paused, then took a deep breath and continued. "I know you and your father have never gotten along, but I hope your wrong about him. The Queen has trusted his advice and judgement for the past several years."
Jim simply nodded, not really sure how he felt about the situation. There was still this little part of him that needed his father's approval. As the men started to saddle their Companions, Jim's nose started to twitch at the wonderful aroma of coffee. "Okay, you guys, where are you two hiding breakfast?" Jim asked Brian and Henri.
"There's toast and coffee for the two of you sitting on the floor by over the door. Your Companions were busy spreading the gossip about the busy night the two of you had, and my Companion, suggested I bring breakfast. Seriously, you guys didn't have to camp out, next time come over to our quarters, we have plenty of room," Henri admonished, with a smile.
"Hopefully there won't be a next time, but thanks," Blair said gratefully as he finished fastening his pack to Burton's saddle.
After finishing a quick breakfast, the men mounted. Jim took the point and, as single file, the four men left the Collegium grounds. They made quick progress out of the city. At this early hour, very few people were on the road. Once they left the villages surrounding the city, the Companions increased their pace. The Companion's alternated between a quick gallop and a smooth canter. Blair rode by Jim's side. Brian and Henri rode a few paces behind.
They had been lucky in picking this day to start their journey. It was a nice warm day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. If the weather held, they should be able to catch up with the Lord Marshall in only three days of hard riding.
The morning was uneventful, as only a few traders were on the road. It was almost two candlemarks before noon, when Jim heard the sound of growling. He asked Incacha to stop and the others also stopped. Brian cautiously reached for his crossbow. Jim looked around for the source of the danger, then figured out it was coming from Henri. Jim stared at him for a long moment with a knowing grin. This time, when it rumbled again, Brian heard it and started laughing.
Henri responded indignantly, "Hey, I'm hungry. Breakfast was a long time ago."
Blair quickly added, "I wouldn't mind stopping for lunch. This is the longest I've ever ridden. I could use a break. "
"Brian, isn't there a Waystation close by?" Jim asked.
"It should be just up ahead. There will be fresh water at the station so let's stop for lunch once we reach it."
A quarter of a candlemark later, Incacha turned off the road and headed for a small building with a well in front.
After a brief lunch break, they quickly remounted and resumed the journey North. Blair dropped back to ride with Brian while Henri moved up to ride with Jim. Brian wanted to work with Blair on his shielding before they caught up with the Guard.
"Blair, I'm sure you were taught to shield, like most other empaths, by visualizing a wall all around you, right?"
"Yes, but as a healer, I was taught to leave openings so that I could use my gifts while still keeping my shields up."
"That's unusual. Most of the time we teach trainees how to raise or lower their shields, like a curtain or how to vary the density of the shield. Those openings are probably what are preventing you from being able to fight. Let's try something different. Have you ever seen a dam, Blair?"
"Yeah, up at White Foal Pass, there is one in the mountains."
"But do you know how they work?"
"You mean besides holding back the water, to prevent the spring floods? Not really."
"It's important. This is the visualization technique I want you to try. Built into most dams are pipelines for the water. Some of these pipelines are just built so that they can release the water from the dam in a controlled fashion. They release the pressure built up on the dam by the water. So, part one of your lessons will involve adding pipes to the openings in your walls. These pipes will have a shut-off valve, to keep anything from getting in or out without being under your control."
"That sounds relatively straight forward," said Blair.
"Try it," instructed Brian. "When you're ready, I'll try projecting at you. We'll see what gets through."
Blair closed his eyes, knowing that Burton would be careful about his movements with his rider distracted, and concentrated on building his shields with the changes that Brian had recommended. A short time later, Blair thought he was finished.
"I'm ready. Do your worst," he added confidently.
For the next candlemark, Brian projected different emotions at Blair. Sometimes the emotions were positive and sometimes they were extremely negative. Blair had to do a little repairing now and then as Brian found holes and weak points, but for the most part, the experiment was a success. Blair started getting a headache, so both men agreed to take a break.
It was clear to Brian that someone had spent a lot of time and energy teaching Blair the foundations of shielding. Blair could center himself quickly and then use his ground to drain off every attack that Brian had thrown at him. But why had they taught him to leave holes in his shields? That technique would make him vulnerable to attack. It didn't make any sense.
"Blair, who taught you the basics of shielding?" Brian asked, expecting to hear the answer Dean Edwards.
"Healer Stoddard, when he first found me after the raiders had killed my mom. He was the one who brought me to the Collegium."
Brian hated a mystery and there were already too many players in this game.
The sun had set almost a full candlemark ago. Brian had said that there was another Waystation a short distance away, so rather than camping out for the night, they pressed ahead through the darkness. Blair hoped that they would get there soon, he was more than ready to stop. He hadn't considered that riding half a day was a lot easier than riding all day. The aches in his legs and his back were increasing rapidly. All four men were tired. Conversation had ceased about the same time that the sun had set. Finally, off in the distance, Blair could see the dim outline of a small building.
Blair was so stiff by the time they reached the Waystation he could barely dismount. The other were watching discreetly and came to the conclusion that Blair was going to be of little help in setting up camp for the night. Brian spoke first, "Why don't Henri and I get all the Companions settled for the night. Blair, Jim, why don't the two of you take the packs inside, get a fire going and get dinner started."
Jim and Blair each grabbed two of the packs plus their saddlebags and headed inside. Jim located the water buckets and immediately went back out. Blair laid wood from the small pile of kindling into the fireplace. Jim had returned with the fresh water just as Blair managed to start a very cozy fire.
"Blair, I'll bring in enough firewood to last us through the night. Why don't you work on getting dinner started? You do know how to cook over an open fire, right?" Jim asked.
"Sure, Jim. My mom absolutely hated to cook. I had to learn very early how to cook over an open fire, unless I wanted to starve. I can manage, you get going," Blair ordered, gesturing Jim out the door.
"I'm glad one of us can cook, I've been told I ruin boiling water when I try," Jim retorted as he head back out.
Still laughing at Jim's lack of culinary skills, Blair opened the pack containing their rations and decided to prepare a stew for dinner. Very efficiently, Blair prepared the dried vegetables and meat for the stew. After he had put the stew over the fire, he made the mistake of sitting down and leaning back on one of the two small cots in the room. Blair was asleep before Jim got back with the first load of wood. Jim dropped his armful of wood by the fireplace, and gently, without waking Blair, arranged his pliant limbs so that he was lying in a more comfortable position.
Jim made two more trips to the woodpile before having enough wood to last the night. After dropping off the last load, Jim reached for the spoon to stir the stew that Blair had prepared. I may not know how to cook but I do know how to handle a spoon, Jim thought to himself as he stirred the mixture in the pot. The food really did smell good. Blair really did know what he was doing when preparing meals. Jim arranged his bedroll over by the cot Blair was resting on.
Jim heard Henri and Brian approaching the station and he opened the door for them. Whispering, and pointing at the quiet figure lying on the cot, "Hi guys, Blair's sleeping, but he did manage to get dinner going first. It should be ready shortly. The two of you can fight it out for the other cot. I'll sleep on the floor over by Blair."
"Brian, you can have it. You're short enough to fit on it," Henri said flippantly.
Brian's only answer was to smack Henri on the back of the heard. The two men quickly arranged their bedding for the night while they waited for the stew to cook.
"Do you think we ought to wake Blair so that he can eat?" Henri whispered, as the aroma rising from the stew was causing his mouth to water and his stomach to grumble.
"Yeah," Jim replied, "as soon as dinner is ready."
"Do you know how much longer we have to let this simmer?" Henri asked. "I'm hungry."
"We know, we can all hear your stomach. But I think the only one who knows when the stew will be done, is the one currently sleeping like the dead," Brian replied.
"Okay guys, I get the message. Time to wake Blair," Jim answered with a smile. Jim reached for Blair's arm, "Wake up, Blair. Dinner is ready, we think."
Blair opened his eyes and groaned. He rolled over onto his side, but that was as far as he could move. "Oh man, will somebody please help me up?"
Jim chuckled as he helped an unsteady Blair to his feet. "Ready for me to let go?" Jim asked cautiously.
"Yeah, I'm awake, but I'd kill for a hot bath right now."
"Can't help you with that, but I do have this fantastic muscle salve you can try," Henri answered as he reached for his pack. "I brought along a couple of jars. I figured we all might need it."
"If you have extra, I wouldn't mind using it myself," Jim requested. "It's been a long time since I've been in a saddle this long, too."
The bottles of salve were quickly passed around and liberally applied to aching muscles. Not long after, Blair announced that dinner was ready and passed out the bowls of hot stew. Blair watched, amused as the other three quickly devoured, first their bowl, then the remaining stew from the pot. With a satisfied grin, Jim announced, "I vote that Blair gets cooking duty for the rest of the trip."
"Seconded," mumbled Henri around a full mouth of stew.
"I like to cook, I don't mind that duty at all," Blair agreed. "Much better than having to clean up."
"I'll handle that," Jim volunteered.
The dishes were cleared away quickly, and the men settled down to sleep for the night.
Halfway through the night, Blair was awakened by the sound of moaning. His partner appeared to be caught up in another nightmare. He reached down and lightly rubbed Jim's shoulder. Jim quieted immediately, then rolled over so that he was facing Blair.
"What is it? Jim asked sleepily.
"You were having a nightmare."
"I was? I don't remember."
"Go back to sleep, Jim. Everything is okay."
Jim went right back to sleep. Blair watched to make sure the nightmare didn't restart before going back to sleep himself.
Just after the dawn, and Blair's breakfast of porridge sweetened with honey, they broke camp and started north again.
"Are you ready for part two of the lesson, Blair?" Brian questioned.
"Sure, tell me what you want me to try now."
"Remember yesterday when I told you about the pipes? Well, there is a second type of pipes. When there is too much water behind the dam, and it is not possible to release the water downstream because it would cause flooding, there is a second system that comes into play. The water is removed from the behind the dam and piped a long distance back upstream," Brian explained.
"But that's not going to stop the problem," Blair stated, confused by the explanation.
"No, but it does postpone the problem, hopefully long enough for the pressure to reduce or it becomes possible to send more water down stream. That's the next lesson. If your opponent knows that you are an empath, he is likely to project nasty images and emotions at you during a fight as a distraction. You can block them, but it would be better if you can redirect the stream back at him, without being affected yourself.
"That makes sense," Blair answered. "Give me a minute."
When Blair said that he was ready, Brian projected a very nasty image of a massacre that he remembered from his first circuit. Brian wasn't ready for what happened next, though. Blair was completely unaffected, but what was sent back by Blair was twice as strong as what Brian had originally sent. Brian's vision grayed out has the waves of emotion crashed over him. He doubled over grabbing tightly to his Companion to keep from falling off.
"Shit! JIM, HENRI, stop, please!" Blair yelled, as he reached for Brian. "I'm so sorry, Brian. I don't know what happened."
"I'm all right, Blair. I wasn't ready for that."
"What happened?" Henri asked.
"I was trying to teach Blair how to deflect a mental attack back at his opponent. Somehow, he not only reflected it, he amplified it. I wasn't ready for that. You did great, Blair. Let's try that again.
"Brian, I don't think that's a good idea," Blair stammered, shaking his head.
"It was my fault, not yours. I'll be a little more careful about what I'm projecting and with my own shields. Remember, if you can do this to me and I was expecting it, it will work great against anyone stupid enough to attack you this way."
"Yeah, Brian, why don't you try projecting what you feel when looking at that cute little blonde Herald from the south that was just reassigned to Haven. You might enjoy that being amplified back at you," Henri said with a smirk.
Both Brian and Blair blushed before starting to laugh. Brian and Blair continued the lessons for the rest of the morning without another incident.
This second night of the journey, there wasn't a Waystation in which they could spend the night. Shortly before the sun started to set, the group found a secure site to set up camp. There was a small stream nearby that was supposed to be a good fishing spot. Henri and Brian volunteered to set up a small lean-to. Jim had brought a fishing line and offered his services to try to catch something for dinner. Blair went with Jim to gather some roots and grasses that would go well with baked fish.
Jim, with a little assistance from his heightened senses, quickly caught enough fish for dinner. As the two men were heading back to camp, Jim was moving much slower than usual, distracted by something.
"Hey Jim, are you all right? There isn't anyone out there, right?" Blair asked apprehensively, looking around the area.
"No, I don't sense anyone here beside us. This place seems familiar to me. I think I was here before."
"You mean on that scouting mission a couple of months ago?"
"Yeah, it just occurred to me that we are travelling on the same route I took with my men."
Blair didn't know how to answer that one. He had read the official report that Jim had filed about that mission. Jim hadn't given any details about how his men had died, just that they had been ambushed. The two men headed back to the campsite in silence.
Henri and Brian decided to call it quits for the evening right after dinner was cleaned up. After spending a second day almost entirely in the saddle, everyone was very tired. Jim had fallen asleep not long after. Blair was unable to rest yet. He moved a little closer to the fire, wrapping a blanket around him. The night air was getting a little chilly. He couldn't stop thinking about Jim's comment earlier about following the same route as Jim's former unit.
There was at least another day and a half of hard riding ahead of them before they reached the Forest of Sorrows. That afternoon, they had passed one of the Lord Marshall's messengers who was in route to Haven. He informed them that the Command Headquarters was being established just south of the Forest boundary. They expected the Lord Marshall to arrive at the Headquarters the following morning. There had already been a couple of minor skirmishes between the advance scouts and the enemy. So far, there were only injuries, no one had been killed yet.
Blair poked at the fire with a long stick, listening to the sounds of the crickets. He closed his eyes and let the peacefulness of nature's music wash over him. When he opened his eyes, he was no longer sitting by the fire. He was standing in a clearing. On the other side of the clearing, he could see six guardsmen entering. Then Blair noticed another figure standing directly opposite from him. It was Jim. Blair called out to his friend, but Jim never moved, never responded. Blair started to move into the clearing, but a wave of arrows started falling all around him, striking several of the men.
As soon as the arrows stopped, Blair ran towards the injured men to try and help. He was leaning over one of the men and was getting ready to do a scan, when a group of men armed with swords rushed the clearing. Blair reached for a weapon, but his hand passed right though the hilt. He stood up and faced on of the attackers, but the man didn't see him. In fact, the man ran right though him and killed the man on the ground that Blair had been trying to help.
It's a dream. Blair realized. It's only a dream. He looked around him at the chaos that was unfolding and then his eyes found Jim, still standing in the same spot. It's not my dream. It's Jim's. Somehow I'm inside Jim's dream. Blair ran towards Jim, calling his name, but Jim remained unresponsive. Once he was standing next to Jim, Blair turned and watched the dream unfold. He watched as Jim's unit was slaughtered, every man, and the bodies stripped of anything valuable. He watched as the scavengers came and tore the bodies to pieces, and wondered when the nightmare would end. Jim had remained frozen in place, the events emerging before him. But, Blair could hear the softly uttered moans and occasional whimpers coming from Jim's throat. Then, the worst happened, one of the corpses became animated and walked over to where they were standing.
"This was your fault, James. You were the Captain. You could have stopped this from happening."
"No, Serris. There was nothing I could do. It happened too fast. I couldn't stop it," Jim denied.
"You tell him, Jim," Blair urged, even if he couldn't hear him.
"You left us here. You left our bones to rot and our spirits were doomed to wander," Serris accused.
"There was nothing more I could do. I was seriously hurt in the attack. I had to get away before dark. I had to finish the mission," Jim explained, though Blair wasn't sure who he was trying to convince Serris or himself.
"You should have died here. You should have died here with us."
"NO!" shouted Blair.
"I know," Jim whispered, his head hanging down, staring at his feet.
Blair was horrified by Jim's admission. He didn't really believe that. No way, could he? Blair wanted nothing more than to be able to knock some sense into his friend, but he couldn't touch him.
"Then join us now," demanded Serris, as he raised a sword, ready to strike. Jim didn't even attempt to defend himself.
"I've had enough of this," Blair announced. He closed his eyes, clenched his fists and tried to force himself to wake up. When Blair re-opened his eyes, he was sitting by the fire again. He moved towards Jim, who was tangled up in the bedroll, muttering in his sleep.
"My fault. I'm so sorry. It was my fault."
"It was NOT!" yelled Blair, angrily. Forgetting that he wasn't on the dreamscape any longer, and the others would hear him now.
Henri and Brian both woke at Blair's shout, but Jim remained trapped in the nightmare.
"What's going on?" Henri asked.
"Jim's having a nightmare. Sorry, I woke you guys. Go back to sleep, I'll handle it," Blair answered as he sat down beside Jim. Blair held Jim's head between his hands and mentally reached to pull him back.
"Jim, you need to cut this out and wake up right now," Blair commanded, anger obviously present in his tone.
Henri tapped Brian on the arm and whispered, "He's mad at Jim for having a bad dream? That doesn't make any sense."
Brian shook his head and murmured back, "There's a lot more going on than that. I'm not sure exactly what, but there is."
Blair ignored the conversation that was occurring across the fire, focusing all his attention on his partner. "Don't make me come after you, Jim. I'm telling you to wake up," Blair ordered again, as he slid his hands down to Jim's chest and shook him hard. That was enough to break him free of the nightmare. Blair shifted backwards, sitting on his heels. Jim raised his head and upper body, placing his weight on his elbows.
"What's wrong, Blair? Why did you wake me up?" Jim asked not quite aware yet.
Blair stared blankly at Jim for a moment, then shoved Jim backward onto the ground as he got to his feet and started to pace, all the while muttering, " I can't believe the guy is asking me what's wrong. He's the one, sitting there, blaming himself for an ambush he couldn't have prevented and he asks me what's wrong."
As Blair continued to pace and mutter, Jim eyed Henri and Brian across the fire and mouthed, "What's going on?"
The two men stared at each other, briefly. Then looked back over at Jim and shrugged. They didn't have any idea why Blair was so upset.
Meanwhile, Blair had stopped pacing and was standing in front of Jim. He placed his hands on his hips and glared. "I don't care what some stupid corpse says. It wasn't your fault, you should NOT be dead and I NEVER want to hear you say that again. Do you understand me."
Brian glanced at Henri, raised his eyebrows and mouthed, "What some stupid corpse says?"
Henri shrugged, just as lost as ever about what Blair was talking about.
Jim, at least, now knew why Blair was so upset. "Blair, come here and sit down for a minute?" Jim asked, calmly, patting the ground beside him.
When Blair didn't move, Jim added, "Please, sit down. We really need to talk about this."
Blair crossed his arms over his chest, grabbing the back of his neck with his hands. For just a brief moment, Jim thought that he was going to be stubborn, but then the anger that had been clearly visible in Blair's expression was gone. The only emotion remaining that Jim could recognize was fear. Blair nodded and sat back down next to Jim.
Jim sat up, cross-legged, rubbing his hand across his face, not quite sure how to start. "Blair, how did you know what happened in my nightmare."
Henri and Brian faced each other and mouthed 'aha', then waited for Blair to explain.
"I was there, at the clearing. I was watching from the other side and saw the whole thing. I don't know how I got inside your dream though. I was sitting by the fire, I closed my eyes and then I was at the clearing."
Jim nodded his suspicions now confirmed. "Blair, it was only a dream, a pretty nasty dream, but that's all it was. You can't hold what I say in a dream against me. It's meaningless."
"But dreams are a reflection of our subconscious, so somewhere in that thick head of yours, you think you deserved to die," Blair argued.
"No, I never said that I deserve to die. I agreed that I should have died in that ambush and I believe that is true. I don't know how I survive the initial onslaught. It had to have been a miracle that the raiders mistook me for dead. Then I regained consciousness just before the scavengers arrived and managed to get away before dark. Well, that series of events is something well beyond just being lucky. I don't believe that I deserved to die, but I do feel guilty about being the only one who did survive. I do feel guilty about not being able to properly lay my men to rest. They deserved a full military funeral. Can you understand that?"
Blair wanted to say no, but he couldn't. He simply nodded, "It scared me, hearing you say that. It's just that I feel..." Blair's voice trailed off, unshed tears had tightened his throat so that the words could not get out.
"What, Blair? What do you feel?" Jim asked, dropping one arm around Blair's shoulders.
"You're my family, Jim. My big brother and I don't like the idea of losing you," Blair finished softly as he watched Jim's face for his reaction.
"I feel the same way about you, little brother. You know that, don't you? I don't plan on losing you either," Jim answered, pulling Blair into a gentle hug. "Are we okay now?"
"We're fine," Blair answered with a smile as he pulled back enough so that he could see Jim's face.
The noise of a loud sniffle reminded the two men that they had an audience.
"That was beautiful," Henri sniffled again and wiped away an imaginary tear. Blair picked up a clump of dirt and threw it at Henri at the same time Brian punched his arm.
"Why don't we all just go back to sleep now?" Jim suggested feeling better than he had felt since leaving Haven.
The last leg of their journey was uneventful. On the morning of the fourth day, right before noon, they rode into the Command headquarters. They were shown directly to the Lord Marshall's tent. Two herald-trainees were waiting to take care of the Companions. Several pages were also present to take care of moving their equipment and packs into the tents that had been assigned to them.
Simon was listening to the morning's scouting reports. There had been a large battle earlier that morning. Several of the guard units that had been patrolling in the eastern sector of the forest had been completely wiped out, including a Herald with his Companion. They had been attacked so quickly and with such efficiency that the Herald had only been able to broadcast a single word before he had been killed, Mages.
Jim looked at the large map that was hanging on the side of the tent. He knew that sector well. It was the same area where the enemy had captured him after the ambush. Maybe they hadn't been looking for him. Maybe they were protecting something that they didn't want discovered.
Several of the Captains were trying to convince Simon to send a large number of guard units to the area in order to decimate the enemy. Each Captain was yelling, trying to get Simon's attention. Jim raised his voice so that he drowned out the others present.
"Lord Marshall, with respect, I don't think that a good idea," Jim said firmly.
"Why not?" retorted one of the Captains, who obviously didn't think much of Jim.
"I know that area. There isn't much cover. A large group moving into that area would quickly attract attention and be very easy to hit. If you want to seek revenge, it would be easier to set fire to that entire section of the forest. But, if you want information about what they are hiding there, send in a scout," Jim answered.
"or two," added Blair, knowing exactly who Jim had in mind for the proposed scouting mission.
Simon concurred, "A small group, I think four would be a better number, two teams of two. That will increase the chances of getting a message back here. Do you have any recommendations as to whom I should send?" Simon asked, already confidant about whom two of them would be.
"I'll go. I'm already familiar with the area," Jim volunteered.
"Me too. Where he goes, I go," Blair added ignoring the frown Jim was sending his way.
"We can't break up the team now," Henri interjected, looking at Brian before continuing. Brian nodded, "Count us in also."
"Well, Heralds, thank you. I think we have a plan. Herald James, you're in charge of the group. Once you have scouted the area, I want you to report straight back to me. Plan on leaving first thing in the morning. Anyone capable of taking a Companion and a Herald by surprise is a formidable enemy. We need information and we need it now. You have two days to report back, that is all the time I can give you. It appears that the enemy is getting ready to move. The advance scouts have reported that they are starting to break camp. We have run out of time. Captains, have your units ready to move out in the morning. Herald James would you please remain for a moment after the other retire?"
The other Captains quickly exited the tent, with Henri and Brian bringing up the rear. Blair was still trying to decide whether he should leave or request permission to stay. Before he made up his mind, the Lord Marshall words made the decision unnecessary.
"You're welcome to stay also, Blair. It's become apparent to everyone that the two of you are inseparable. How was the trip, Jim?"
"It was fine, Simon. Actually, it was uneventful."
Blair scoffed at that remark.
"Blair, you have to get used to what I affectionately call 'Jim reports'. Unless there was complete chaos, mass destruction, or a beautiful red headed woman, that's the extent of a Jim report," Simon explained with a wink and a grin.
"Great, someone else tormenting me, just what I needed."
"Let's have some lunch and catch up on old times, while I have an hour or two to spare. Blair, I have some wonderful stories you can use for blackmail about this guy," Simon suggested, leading the two men to the far side of the tent that was his personal quarters.
"Do you know how he got the nickname, Slick. He won't tell me," Blair asked with an evil smirk.
"Of course I do, I was there."
"I wouldn't repeat that story if I were you, Jack has provided me with some interesting stories about some of your finer moments also," Jim threatened.
"All right, Jim. No need to repeat any of that. How about we just have a nice hot lunch? Then when we are done eating, Jim, I want to pick every ounce of information that you can remember about this area. By our estimates, we are outnumbered almost two to one. We need every advantage we can get."
The next morning at dawn, the four men met at the clearing where the Companions were stationed. They quickly mounted and entered the Forest of Sorrows.
As they traveled east, the men noticed that entire sections of the forest were dying. The father east they went, the more the damage increased and the paler Blair's face got.
"Blair, what's wrong?" Jim asked, concerned at how white Blair looked.
"I don't know, Jim. I just started to feel really bad. It's like the feedback I can get if I'm not careful when using my healing gift. The sickness in a person can flow back through the link. But no one here is sick."
"It's the land itself that is sick. The enemy has caused a great deal of damage to the land by removing all the energy," Burton explained. "Every living thing contains energy that flows like streams to a river. Those with the ability can channel these flows for their own purposes. The Tayledras people that live to the far north are capable of doing this. They drain excess energy from one section of the land, and restore it to another area, which is damaged. This is not their work. Others people are also capable of draining energy for their own selfish powers. That is who we are dealing with here. Someone is draining the all the energy from the Forest."
By mid-morning, Henri was on point and Jim brought up the rear. The Companion's moved quickly and quietly through the forest. Henri led Brian and Blair into a small clearing. They stopped when they realized that Jim had halted Incacha before entering and was frozen in place.
Blair was the first to figure out what was wrong. He had Burton pivot and position himself along side Incacha.
"This is the place, Blair. This is the clearing where my unit was ambushed."
"I know, Jim. You have a really good memory. I recognize this place from your dream."
Blair could see several places where human remains were lying about the clearing, obviously have been chewed on. Henri and Brian both dismounted and were walking around the clearing.
"We can't leave them here, not like this. I can't abandon them again," Jim whispered, plaintively.
"We won't, Jim. Let us take care of this for you," Blair answered, reaching for Jim's arm.
"No, I have to help. I need to finish this. I'll start digging a grave, will you help Brian and Henri prepare my men, please?"
Silently and with great reverence, the three men gathered what remained of Jim's unit. Once Jim was done preparing the mass grave, he walked the clearing one last time. He was checking for any remaining bones that the others had missed, but he was also saying good-bye to his men. Thanking them for their sacrifice, and swearing that it would not be in vain. These men had trusted him, and he was going to live up to that trust and put an end to the Darkness.
The other three men were already mounted, waiting for Jim to finish. When Jim joined the group, Blair quietly offered, "They are at peace now, Jim. Time to let go."
"But I'm not," without another word, Jim took the lead and continued travelling east.
That afternoon, Jim heard the first signs that they were not alone in the woods, he could detect one heartbeat off to the left, trailing them. He called for a halt when they came to a small stream. As the others were allowing their Companions to drink and filling their canteens, Jim slipped away into the undergrowth. He backtracked along the trail until he had the stalker in sight. The man was frantically searching for something. He had noticed that one of the group was missing. Before he could sound an alarm, Jim had him in a headlock.
"Don't make a sound, or I will kill you," Jim warned as he dragged the man out into the open.
"It's already too late for you, the Coven is here and they know you are coming. They are ready for you," the man squeaked, as Jim tightened his lock on the man's neck.
"Hold him, Henri," Jim ordered, as he handed the man off. Jim walked a little ways away from the group followed by Blair. Jim closed his eyes and turned the wheels up on all his senses. He felt Blair's touch grounding him as he searched for the location of the enemy. They were easy to find. They were waiting just over the next rise. He heard approximately nine different heartbeats, and several voices.
"Damn, he's right. They have an ambush set up," Jim explained. We should turn back. We know what they are hiding."
"Jim, what are we going to do with the spy? We can just let him go." Blair thought he knew what they were going to have to do. He just wasn't sure that he was ready for it.
"I'll handle it, Blair. You get mounted."
Jim took custody of the prisoner back from Henri, and told the other two men to mount up. Jim dragged the man off into the underbrush. The others heard the sound of a snap, then nothing. Jim emerged from the forest, alone.
"Split up, Henri and Brian, you go left along the stream bank and head back to headquarters. Blair and I will go right and head straight north. We'll circle around to the west and then go south."
Before he finished speaking, he heard the approach of the enemy. "Too late, they figured out that we know about the ambush. Move it people. The group split, as instructed, the Companions fled at full gallop. The noise the pursuers were making was close enough that Blair could hear them. Arrows started to fly past them. Blair hunched down in the saddle, making a smaller target.
Jim was too large to do that. He was struck in the lower back by one of the arrows. The force of the blow knocked him from the saddle. He landed hard, and the shaft of the arrow broke off. Blair who had been a little ahead of him ordered Burton to turn back. Incacha was already in a protective stance in front of Jim. Burton took his place beside her as Blair dropped down beside Jim. With trembling fingers he checked for a pulse. It was weak, but it was there. The arrow was buried deep into Jim's body, but it appeared not to have hit any of the vital organs.
Blair remembered his training, he pushed the head of the arrow all the way through, pulling the arrowhead and remaining shaft clear. He then worked on stopping the bleeding. That was all he could do for now, he had to get Jim to someplace warm.
He heard a voice call out behind him.
"What do we have here? If I'm not mistaken, it is the empath that the master has been searching for. Come with me, boy. Your master is waiting."
Blair watched as their attackers finally caught up with them. There were five of them, four of them were clearly soldiers, mercenaries, but the fifth was something different. He radiated with power, but it was a tainted power, black and evil. Blair increased his shields and waited for them to come closer.
"No," answered Blair firmly. "No man is my master, and I'm not leaving my friend."
"Ah, but the master is not a man and your friend will be dead soon enough. You will come with me, willingly or otherwise. It matters not to me. You have been trained to serve the Master from the beginning, even though you were kept unaware of this."
"I will not serve. I will fight you every step of the way, and it will cost you dearly," Blair warned.
While the mage was talking, Blair watched as the other four men spread out. They were attempting to encircle him, ignoring the Companions. These had to be outland mercenaries. They obviously had mistaken the Companions for ordinary horses and had dismissed them as a threat. They were in for a big surprise, as soon as they were stupid enough to come within range of those hooves. Both Incacha and Burton continued to be on alert, waiting patiently for the right moment.
Blair discretely moved away from Jim, just enough so that he wouldn't be caught up in whatever it was the mage was about to do. But remained close enough to protect him from the mercenaries. Blair felt pressure increasing against his shielding. He increased the thickness of his shields only enough to keep the Mage out. Blair needed the mercenaries to come closer to the Companions.
"Is that the best you have. Try something else, Mage," Blair laughed at the expression of frustration on the Mage's face.
"You learned a few things from the Heralds, haven't you. No matter, I've power at my command beyond your comprehension."
"I've a few tricks of my own. Let's see what you've got," Blair taunted, hoping that the mage would make the mistake of attacking him. It didn't matter what spell the mage would attack with, whatever it was would go straight back at him. Blair was ready for him, and the Companions were ready for the mercenaries.
"Foolish whelp, you cannot stand against me. Take this."
Blair felt the mage gather power from within and launch it at him. Blair closed his eyes and focused on the dam image that he and Brian had created. The mage had sent enough power that a small amount of energy did spill over into Blair's mind, forcing him to his knees, but the majority of it was redirected back at the Mage.
He heard the screams as the Mage was consumed by the energy that Blair had amplified and returned. The two angry Companions quickly dispatched the mercenaries who were distracted by the sight of the Mage bursting into flames.
Blair opened his eyes and staggered over to where Jim was laying. His vision was blurred, and his head was pounding. He recognized the symptoms of a reaction headache. But, he thought he saw another man on a horse coming towards him. He reached for Jim's sword, determined to defend his brother at any price.
Burton moved to stand between Blair and the stranger. "Hold, my Chosen, he is a friend."
The man came close enough so that Blair could see that he was wearing a Herald's uniform, though it was somewhat old fashioned. The fact that he was riding a Companion was unmistakable. Blair's vision continued to give him trouble. The man was fading in and out. Sometimes, he appeared to be transparent. Blair could see the Forest through him.
"I'm here to help," the stranger explained. "Blair, you must help Jim onto Incacha's back, and fasten him on tightly. We cannot stay here. The Coven will be coming to investigate the death of one of their own."
"Help me," Blair begged. "I won't be able to lift him by myself."
"I'm sorry, I can't help you here. If you can get him and yourself mounted, I will take you to a place of sanctuary where I can help. This you must do yourself."
"I can help, Blair," Incacha said. Incacha lay on her side, close to Jim. Blair managed to position Jim so that when Incacha stood, he was able to steady Jim in the saddle. Once Incacha was standing Blair used the straps built into a Companion's saddle to tie Jim onto his Companion. By the time Jim was securely fastened, Blair was shaking. He really needed to lie down.
"Not yet," ordered Burton. "We must go now."
Burton went down on his knees, making it easier for Blair to mount. As soon as Blair was on, Burton and Incacha followed the stranger and his Companion away from the area. Blair drifted in and out of consciousness the entire trip. He woke briefly, as someone was lifting him from his saddle. He struggled momentarily, but calmed as gentle fingers rubbed across his forehead and a soft voice lulled him back to sleep.
The next time he remembered waking, a young man with fiery red hair was holding a bowl of soup in front of him.
"Here, Blair, you need to eat this. Get your strength back."
Blair wiggled out from under the blankets in which he was enveloped and reached for the bowl.
"Thanks. How do you know my name?"
"Van told me. Your Companions told Yfandes and she told him. My name is Stef."
Blair practically inhaled the bowl of soup. He looked around the cave where they were hiding. Jim was sleeping across from him. Blair checked him over. His injury was healing well and Blair was sure that it was sleep and not unconsciousness.
"He hasn't been awake yet," confirmed Stef. "We thought it best if he woke up on his own."
"Where are we, and is it safe here? There are some very nasty people looking for us, well, mostly for me."
"It's safe here, this is my sanctuary," answered Van as he entered the cave. "This area is shielded against any magical attack."
Blair was trying to remember where he had heard the names Van and Stef before. "Wait a minute, Van and Stef as in Herald-Mage Vanyel and Bard Stefen."
"But you're dead," Blair blurted out, his eyes opening wide.
"Not completely," Vanyel answered laughing.
"Wow, Jim isn't going to like this. He is not into the mysterious."
"What aren't I going to like," asked Jim, his voice weak but clear.
Once Jim had finished off a bowl of the soup, the group moved out of the cave and into the warmth of the sunlight. Burton relayed that Henri and Brian had made it back to camp and reported what they had found. Now, Jim and Blair wanted to hear the explanation of how two dead men were guarding the northern border of Valdemar.
Stef started the story, "When a Herald dies, he is often given a couple of choices. Because of the power that Vanyel has, and because there were not going to be any more trained Herald- Mages, he decided to come back in this form to watch over the kingdom."
"Because, Stef and I are lifebonded, he was given the same choice when he died. Blair, I couldn't help you when you were attacked because the Dark Coven has drained too much of the energy from that section of the forest. It takes a lot of energy for me to stay substantial, tangible to the real world. But here, in our sanctuary, there is enough energy stored, that I can maintain this form."
"You didn't have to do as much as you did. Jim and I appreciate your assistance," Blair responded gratefully.
"I look after my family, Blair. It's very important to me."
"Family as in all the Heralds?" Blair asked.
"No, the two of you are relatives of mine."
"No way," Blair said. Jim was also shaking his head.
Vanyel explained, "You are both descendants of mine. That is why you each possess the channel for mage gifts although only as potential, in addition to your other gifts. It seems that one trait is always passed down the family tree."
"But, the historical records didn't indicate that you had any children, "Blair stuttered, confused by the disclosure.
Bard Stefan smiled and explained. "Vanyel had four children. There were several close friends of his that for a variety of reasons couldn't have children of their own. Two of his children lived with the hawk brothers far to the north. Two retired palace guards raised a little girl. Blair, your family are part of her descendants. Vanyel also fathered Queen Jisa. Jim, as you know, Jisa was your great-grandmother.
"Hey Jim, we're family by blood as well as by soul. Isn't that great?"
Jim smiled at his friend and nodded.
"Most of the abilities the two of you have can be traced back to my bloodline. Jim has the ability to see and to feel where the ley lines of magic runs, even if he can't harness the energy. Blair has the ability to focus and redirect magical energy. He can't use it himself, but others would be able to use it through him. That's why the Darkness wants to possess him. It can destroy Blair's mind, remove his free will, and then it would have complete control of Blair's gifts. The Darkness needs him alive in order to do this.
Blair turned as white as the uniform he was wearing after hearing that statement. The dream he had right before they had left Haven flashed across his thoughts. The Darkness was going to capture him and destroy his mind.
"It's not going to happened, Blair. I won't let it," Jim firmly answered the unspoken words, but had seen the image clear as a bell in his head.
Vanyel continued, apparently unaware of the exchange, "Blair, you can also redirect the energy back into nature where it belongs. Only he can restore the energy that has been stolen from the forest, healing the damage caused by the Dark Coven. You are a healer in all facets of the word. You have the ability to heal both people and the land. These abilities are very rare.
I'm not sure who or what is behind the face of Darkness but I know what it is attempting to do. Mages are capable of building reservoirs of power. The force behind the army is building such a pool. They are collecting the energy from the Forest right now. Once they are done, they will move to the next large concentration of energy. I think the final target is the palace at Haven, or more specifically, what is under the palace. Whatever is in charge of the Coven exists on the other-plane. I think it is trying to collect enough energy so that it can enter our world.
Jim and Blair exchanged confused looks.
"One of the last acts I performed as the First Herald-mage with the help of the other three guardians, was to build a Heart-stone, a large store of energy, under the palace. There was a web of energy that connects all Heralds together. Where there were stilled trained Herald-Mages, four of them called guardians powered the web using their personal energy. When the Herald-Mages were murdered, I changed the spell so a pool or node of energy that lies under the Palace would power it.
The vrondi draw their power from the same web. My Aunt Savil and I made a deal with them, which is probably why the two of you are immune to their influence. They recognize the two of you as my heirs and respect that.
This web is what enables the long distance communication system of the Heralds. The Companions use this energy to enhance their own talents and those of their Chosen. It feeds the gifts, the far-seers and the foreseers in particular have their abilities increased. If the Darkness succeeds in reaching Haven and draining the energy from the Heart-stone, it will enter our world. Not only will its powers be increased, but the abilities of the Companions and of the Heralds will be severely restricted.
"We have to stop them here," Blair interrupted, both fear and determination present in his voice. "We can't let this get any further."
"Here is what we must do. Let the Guard and the Heralds deal with the army that is gathering north of the forest. A few candlemarks ride from here, as you already found out, is the location of the Darkness' coven of mages. It is the easiest point at which to gather the magical energy of the Forest. Yfandes and I are holding them off as best we can, but sooner or later, they will succeed. A small group must be sent to deal with them. Four Heralds that you trust implicitly must execute the physical attack. The mages won't be expecting that. You must go with them, but you cannot be part of the group that attacks. You must be prepared to deal with what happens after they are dead. When you can destroy the coven, the energy will be released from their control. It will seem wild, untamed and powerful. It will take both of you to stop the Darkness.
Jim is the focus. He is responsible for knowing where the energy has to go. Blair is the funnel. He must return the energy to the land. The two of you together are strong enough to do this, but it must be a joint effort. There can be no walls between you. There are many ties between the two of you, Sentinel and Guide, Heralds, family by blood and family by soul. Acknowledge each of these bonds and draw strength from them.
Blair was shaking his head. "The power of one mage overwhelmed me before, how can I handle the power release by six mages?"
Yfandes and I will be there to help shield both of you from the effects of the magic, as will your Companions. Basically, we will shield the outside with a circle of power. Yfandes and I will stand for the North and the South axis points. Your Companions will stand for the East and the West. The four Heralds with their Companions will stand at the midpoints.
"Who do you think we should ask, Blair?"
"Henri, Brian, Megan and Joel, they would come and I trust all of them."
"Rest now, the message is already being relayed via their Companions. They should be here by morning. Then, we will attack.
Blair woke the next morning before Jim. As quietly as possible, he slipped out of the cave hoping the he would stay asleep. He heard the arrival of their friends.
"Hello Blair," Joel hailed as Blair came outside. "We got your message. Glad to see you in one piece."
"You know what's happening? We have a plan of attack," Blair answered.
"We've been informed of the general plan, we just need to finalize the last couple of details."
"Well, let's do that right now," Jim suggested, joining the group. "Blair, a piece of advice, stealth isn't one of your better talents."
The plan was quickly finalized. The Coven would begin a ritual to send the stored energy into the other plane at noon. They had until then to get into position. Jim, Megan and Heri were going to circle around to the north. Blair, Brian and Joel would enter from the south. Once everyone was in position, they would wait for the ritual to begin, before the Heralds would launch the physical attack using crossbows. Jim and Blair would be the only two that had to move into the clearing. The rest would establish a shield perimeter. Vanyel had run them through a fast lesson of how to mesh their individual shields. The group worked well together. They were ready.
They managed to get into position with several minutes to spare. They watched as the Coven started the ritual as soon as the sun reached its zenith. The six mages stood round a small pool of water. Once the doorway to the other plane was opened, a face appeared above the pool. Immediately, events shifted out of their control.
"Vanyel, my old enemy, how nice of you to be here. Come out where I can see you," the face commanded.
Blair watched in dismay as Vanyel stepped out into the clearing. "Leareth, I thought I sensed your presence."
"Now, who else is here?" Leareth laughed, as one by one each of the Heralds moved forward into the clearing, moving jerkily, like puppets on a string. He watched as they attempted to raise their weapon, but failed. He felt an invisible hand pulling him forward also. "My empath! Thank you for bringing him to me, Vanyel. Come to me, boy."
"I'm not your boy," sneered Blair. Blair felt Jim's mind reaching out for him, trying to give him some support.
"I said, come here!"
Blair felt the energy coming towards him. It was up to him, he had an idea how to free his friends but there was a large risk. He amplified the energy as before, but instead of sending back towards Leareth, he sent it at his friends. At the same time, he mentally reached for Jim. The energy Blair sent disrupted the force that was holding his friends in place.
"Nooooo!" The face in the pool screamed as it rippled and wavered.
For a split second he saw the arrows fly at the Mages, striking three of them with deadly force. He saw the remaining mages lose control of the stream of energy. Then, there was nothing but blackness and Jim's voice.
"Blair, I can see it. I can see where the magic is supposed to go. Can you?"
"No, but I can feel the energy and I trust you. You're the focus. I'm the funnel, remember? So let's do this."
Blair allowed all his shields, all the walls inside his mind to drop and reached for Jim. The two men felt their minds join, the energy poured through them and returned to the places from which it had been stolen. They held on to each other until the flow was but a trickle. Blair felt Jim moving away from him. He was moving towards a tunnel of light. Blair ran as fast as he could, so he wouldn't be left behind.
Brian knew what Blair was trying to do. He was ready to fire the instant he was freed. The others were also ready. Megan and Henri had let their arrows fly at almost the exact same time. Brian saw the expression of fear and surprise cross Leareth's face as he watched three of the mages die. Brian extended his shields to merge with others to keep the energy from escaping.
Brian observed Jim and Blair moving closer to each other. Their hands were extended, reaching out for each other. As each stepped forward into the pool and touched hands, there was a blinding flash of light.
The last thing he remembered was falling to the ground.
Once the magical energy was restored to the land, the Forest of Sorrows came alive again and started to hunt the enemy. Several Guard units with a small group of Heralds were retreating in the western sector. The enemy was closing the distance between them. The Heralds dropped down a steep ravine crossing a dry streambed. Just as the last of the group was climbing up the opposite bank, the enemy caught them. The Heralds arranged a defensive line at the top of the ravine. The goal was to slow the enemy down enough to allow the guardsmen to escape. Just as the enemy started to cross the bottom, the angry roar of rushing water was heard by all. Not one of the enemy soldiers survived the wall of water that rushed down the ravine. It was as if someone upstream had dammed the water, then released it as soon as the Heralds were across.
In the eastern sector, the Guard was driving a large group of the enemy back towards the north. The enemy was driven into a large open area where the ground was soft. As soon as the last enemy soldier was crossing the open area, it was if the ground had turned to quicksand. The enemy sank rapidly due to the heavy armor they were wearing. Not one of the scouts who had passed through this area could recall the clearing having quicksand.
The Lord Marshall sent forth the word through the Heralds and their Companions that all Guard units were to assemble at the Headquarters on the southern border of the Forest. Similar stories were reported by most of the Heralds as they reported in. Rock slides that occurred, striking only the enemy. Large packs of wolves that only hunted the enemy, turning aside from any Herald or Guardsmen they came across. The only group that hadn't reported in yet was the small group that had attacked the Dark Coven. Simon knew that they had succeeded. Nothing else could explain the events being reported. But what price had been paid to achieve that success?
Joel was the first to wake from the blinding burst of energy that had been released when the doorway to Learth's wold had been shut. He stood, looking over each of his comrades. Megan, Brian and Henri were all in the process of either sitting or standing up. Even Jim, was weakly moving one arm. Stef was kneeling next to him, talking softly. It was Blair that concerned Joel. He wasn't moving at all. He was deathly pale, almost transparent.
Vanyel was kneeling beside him, his countenance extremely concerned. He looked over at Joel, "Backlash shock, it's bad. We need to get him warm right now or we're going to lose him."
Joel gathered every blanket that he could find. Henri and Brian were gathering firewood. As quickly as possible, Blair was moved into a nest of blankets next to the fire. Burton had served as the pillow for Blair's head, but as soon as Jim regained consciousness, he had moved him into his lap and was using Burton as a backrest. Blair color began to improve as soon as he was in physical contact with Jim. He seemed to draw strength from the older man. It was several hours before Blair's showed significant improvement and Vanyel declared him out of danger.
Joel managed to find where the Mages were storing their supplies and prepared a hot stew for dinner. He filled up two bowls and sat down next to Jim.
"Jim, take this. You need to eat something." Jim reached for the bowl with his free hand and slowly started to eat. Occasionally spooning some of the soup into Blair's mouth instead of his own. It wasn't long before the bowls were empty and the group resumed their vigil. Jim left Blair's side twice during the night, only long enough to take care of necessary business. During those times Burton and Incacha would trade places so that one of them would be in physical contact with their Chosen at all times.
Blair's unconscious state continued through the next morning. The group had gathered by the fire waiting for breakfast and watching Blair for any sign of waking. Joel was sitting with Jim and Blair. Rafe and Henri were sitting across from them and Megan was tending the porridge at the fire. Jim broke the silence and quietly asked, "When do you all plan on heading back? Blair's not able to travel, but there is no reason the rest of you have to stay here."
"I think we all need to see Blair awake and talking before we are going to leave you two." Joel answered, as he gently touched Blair's forehead. Joel noticed a strange expression crossing Jim's face. The Sentinel's eyes appeared to dilate and lose focus. "Jim, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I think you're about to get your wish," Jim grinned, rubbing his hand down Blair's arm. "Hey little brother, would you like some stew for dinner?"
"As long as you didn't cook it," Blair answered hoarsely, as he opened his eyes.
Blair had needed a few more days to recover from the backlash that restoring the magical energy to the land had created. The others had returned to Haven already. Jim had stayed with Vanyel and Stef as Blair recovered. Blair seemed to need some time alone to process everything that had happened. Jim was amazed by the strength of the bond that now existed between he and Blair. All he had to do was close his eyes and reach. He could find out exactly where Blair was and what he was doing. Right now, Blair was watching the sunset from the top of the hill and he needed some company. He had stewed long enough.
Jim climbed the bluff and sat down beside Blair. "What are you thinking about?"
"The Dark Coven is gone, but Learth is still roaming freely on that other plane. He could come back."
"I've also been thinking about Dean Edwards and Healer Stoddard. They intentionally fouled up my training, Jim. They got away with it. They are still back at Haven and I can't prove a thing."
"Not to mention that Father Brackett and maybe your father are plotting against us, too."
Blair rolled his eyes, "Jim, can you say anything besides 'I know'? You are so not helping here."
"Are you ready to go home and put them away? Because I am."
"I know," Blair answered with an evil grin. "Let's go home, Jim."
Jim climbed to his feet first and offered his hand to Blair. It was time to go home. They had both recovered from their excursion to the other plane. Now, they had to destroy the evil that had plague both the Collegium and the Palace. Together they walked back to the campsite. Their Companions were contentedly grazing in the small clearing. Waiting by the fire was Vanyel and Stef. Vanyel got to his feet as he acknowledged their approach.
"So, you are ready to leave now, " Vanyel said, eyeing them carefully, accessing their fitness. He said it not as a question but as a fact.
"Yes, Blair and I must return to Haven. Learth may be banished for now, but he still has followers on the loose. They brought him back once before. We must track them down before they can regroup and do it again."
Vanyel nodded. "I have a few suggestions for you. If you are willing to listen?" He stared at them, awaiting their reply.
"We would be happy to listen to any input you have concerning this situation," Blair answered. "History recorded your abilities as a more than capable tactician.
"We'd be fools not to listen," Jim added, gratefully.
"Good," Vanyel said as he started to pace. "I think I should tell you how I know Leareth and how he knows me. I have faced him several times during my life or should I say existence because I'm not sure this qualifies as life. I should start at the beginning though about how I became the Last Herald-Mage. Most Herald's gifts open gradually and possess only one or two of them. All my gifts were blasted opened accidentally and were at full force from the moment they appeared. None of the Heralds had the power to deal with me, so my Aunt took me to stay with the Hawkbrothers. They were the only ones capable of containing my powers and teaching me how to use them. It was during the time I was training with them that I met Leareth for the first time, though he had a different name. I defeated him with what a mage calls a Final-Strike, or what should have been a Final-Strike."
"You mean a magical attack that kills you if you use it," Blair interjected.
Vanyel nodded. "Yes, I should have died, it was only because Moondance, a healing adept, was close enough to keep me from dying that I was able to survive."
"So the Final-Strike failed, because Leareth didn't die," Jim said, confused.
"No, he died. He just came back to life later on as Leareth. I'm not sure exactly how he managed that. I suspect he had followers willing to give up their own life so that he could assume their body. We met again, at the pass just north of here. He had come to invade the Kingdom with an army of the northern tribes. This time, I didn't survive the Final-Strike."
"And now, he's returned again," Blair summarized.
"Yes, I believe he had been reborn many times. He has too much power and knows too many of the ancient secrets. He has had many different names. A few years ago, he tried to rally the northern tribes again. He was reborn as a shaman in one of the clans, but a rival clan killed him before he could cause any harm to the Kingdom."
"So what do we have to do to kill him for good?" Jim asked logically as the soldier he was.
"I don't know if you can. My best suggestions is that if you eliminate his followers, he has no direct connections with this world. No way back. We will contact you if we figure out anything else."
Jim and Blair nodded dejectedly. It was going to be a long time before they would root out all of Leareth's followers.
"Now, on to the next topic. Bear with me, this does relate. Tell me what you know of the Shin'a'in people," Vanyel requested as he sat down in front of them. Jim and Blair, following his lead, made themselves as comfortable as possible on the hard packed ground.
"Other than they live on the Dhorisha Plains, nothing at all," Jim answered first, not seeing how this topic related to the current situation.
Blair started talking as soon as Jim finished, "They are nomads who guard the Dhorisha Plains. Exactly what they are guarding, no one really knows, but they allow no one who is not of the clans to enter the territory. They raise and train the battlesteeds, who happened to be the ugliest horses anyone has ever seen but supposedly more intelligent than some people I know. They also have a very close relationship with their goddess. They call her the Goddess of the Four Winds, or the Star-Eyed one. The first name is because she shows four different faces to her people, The Maiden, the Mother, The Warrior and The Crone. The second because it is said that her eyes are as dark as a moonless sky, no white visible. Shamans swear allegiance to The Crone. Those that are sworn to The Warrior are called the Kal'enedral. I don't know anything about the other two faces, but "
Vaneyl was quietly laughing as Blair was lecturing. Jim was not so quiet with his laughter, which was getting louder with each new fact his partner added.
"What!" Blair exclaimed. "What's so funny? He did ask, you know!"
"Ever the scholar, Blair. I should have known you would know a great deal about the Shin'a'in," Vanyel answered mysteriously after he had regained control of his mirth. "I learned about the existence of Sentinels and Guides from one who was born a Shin'a'in. His name was Iceshadow when I had met him. He had been guide to a Sentinel born to the clans. I understand that this was a rare occurrence, both greatly celebrated and greatly feared."
"Why feared?" Blair asked nervously. "What is there to fear about being either a Guide or a Sentinel?"
"Because only during times of great upheaval was a Sentinel and Guide born to a clan. They were said to also appear in the same tribe, usually within a few years of each other. The Sentinel's gifts were easy to identify, as babies they had to be kept an area which kept them isolated from sensory assaults and overloads until the guide had been identified. The guide was harder to distinguish. The usually method was to watch the babies and young children interact. The Sentinel usually immediately recognized their Guide, became very protective and often refused to be separated from them. The gifts possessed by a Sentinel and Guide are considered a wonderful addition for the tribe, but their appearance also foretold the coming of a great evil."
"An evil like Learth?" Jim added.
Vanyel nodded. "Among the Shin'a'in, if a child has mage or mind magic powers, he must either swear to The Crone and become a Shaman or leave the clan forever. All Guides have this potential within them. Iceshadow had chosen to leave the plains and join the Hawkbrothers in the forest. I met him during the time Aunt Savil and I lived among them. He had been Guide to a Sentinel, but the Sentinel had been killed during a raid when they were children. He was the one who told me the stories about the honored place that a Sentinel and a Guide held within the clans."
"I don't suppose there are any written records?" Blair asked, wistfully.
Vanyel shook his head. "The Shin'a'in do keep written records in the form of tapestries, but few Outlanders are permitted to view them. In a few months, most of the clans will be gathering for the Horse-trading Fair at Kata'shin'a'in. I would recommend you request permission to go there. The Shaman will recognize what the two of you are immediately. I believe they would be willingly to help you. No one at the Collegium will be able to help the two of you with these gifts. The Shin'a'in are the best hope you have to study your gifts and receive the training you will need to control them. That is my first suggestion. I have mentioned this possibility to Dean Joel before he left. He was curious if I knew of any Sentinel/Guide pairings among the Heralds during my time. He seems to be quite concerned about the two of you."
Blair was excited by the idea of meeting with the clans of the Shin'a'in. Neither Collegium had very much information about this excessively secretive closed society. Jim was pleased by the prospect of learning more about controlling his senses.
Vanyel continued, "Secondly, the two of you must remain together. Iceshadow's Sentinel died when they were children, before their gifts had grown strong enough so they could bond. Iceshadow had explained that if they had been bonded, he would not have survived the death of his Sentinel. Sentinels and Guides cannot survive without each other. There is no way to replace what is lost if one of them dies. No way to heal the survivor of the gaping emotional wounds caused by the death of the other. If a Sentinel doesn't have a Guide, he will become lost in the maelstrom of his overloaded senses. Without the presence of his Guide to ground him, he will retreat into the grayness where he is protected from painful stimuli. If a Guide loses his Sentinel, he will be unable to maintain his shields against the emotions of others. Eventually, madness takes over as the guide is unable to separate his own emotions from others."
Blair gasped at the image Vanyel's words drew in his mind. He remembered how difficult it had been to draw Jim out of the grayness the first time they had met. As a healer, he knew how easy it was to become lost in the emotions of his patients. Jim was remembering what a frightening place the grayness had been when his senses had first overloaded in Companion's Field. He remembered hearing Blair's voice, pulling him back into reality. Instinctively, he focused his senses on his partner now, listening to Blair's rapid heartbeat, his shallow and quick breaths of air. He reached over and placed one hand on his shoulder, smiling as Blair turned towards him, visibly calming.
Unaware of the effect his story was having on the two men, Vanyel continued to speak. "He told me that before the death of his sentinel, his name had been Dancinghands because whenever he spoke, his hands moved with the flow of his words. He had changed it to Iceshadow because he no longer could feel anything. His heart felt as if it was encased in a block of ice. His life had become one with the darkest of shadows, the light gone from his life. He no longer felt like speaking or dancing."
"Why didn't he end it? I thought that was an accepted decision among the clans."
"He told me that the Star-eyed One had appeared to him. Said that his purpose in this life was not yet completed. She had instructed him to leave the plains and join the Hawkbrothers. All she would say was that his story was important and must be told. She said his Sentinel was waiting for him and would be there when he had completed his ordained task."
"Did he ever complete the task?" Blair whispered, enraptured by the tale Vanyel was weaving.
"I was there when he died, several moons after we had arrived. We had fought a mage battle with several of the Dark Minions. He had been severely injured and at first was in great pain. Before I could even attempt to try to heal him, he got this look of such joy and happiness. The pain was gone. Right before he died, the last word he uttered was the name of his Sentinel. Then it was over, he had crossed over."
Vanyel's eyes were bright with tears. It was if he was reliving the moment. Stef reached for Vanyel. An arm draped protectively over his shoulder, rubbing his arm and continued the story for him. "There is a bond between Sentinel and Guide that is unbreakable, not even in death. Iceshadow referred to it as a soul bond. The fates of those that are soulbonded are intertwined. The phrase he used to describe the relationship was that between those that are soulbonded joys are doubled and sorrows are halved. In the clans, families of those that are soulbonded become one big family, living in a communal tent."
Vanyel clasped Stef hand in his, silently asking to continue the explanation. "We sense this bond between the two of you. It is stronger than even our lifebond. The bond between the two of you is clear to all with mage or mind magic. Learn how to use the bond. Apart the two of you are very formidable, but together, well, the power at your command is the most powerful I have ever felt. Remember that your enemies can see this for themselves. They will try to separate you, either by imprisonment or by death. It will be the only way they can defeat you." Vanyel paused, waiting for a reaction from either of the two men.
"It won't happen. There isn't anything or anyone in this Kingdom strong enough to keep me from Blair." Jim replied vehemently.
"Same here, Jim. Same here," Blair agreed as Jim's voice dropped off.
"Hold that thought in your hearts. Stef and I understand what you are feeling. Our history is similar to yours. Stef had no living family and my relationship with my blood-kin was strained to say the least. We make you this offer. When you need a place to heal either physically or mentally or if you simply need someone to listen, come to this grove. This has been our sanctuary for generations. We wish to share it with you." As the two men watched, Vanyel and Stef slowly faded away.
"Wow, that was intense," Blair said, staring at the place as if he was waiting for them to reappear.
"...And somewhat intimidating. I don't know what to say or feel. What do you think about this soul bond?" Jim asked, slightly apprehensively.
"I think it's great. Why is it upsetting you?" Blair replied, his gifts picking up on Jim's fear.
"It's not the concept or the presence of the soul bond. I guess I don't like the idea if something happens to me, you'll die too. I already have this intense need to keep you safe. It just got magnified times ten. It's a little overwhelming," Jim answered honestly.
"Are you planning on letting anything happen to you?"
"No, not on purpose. It's just that my job has always been high risk. I've always taken the high-risk assignments because there was no one to miss me if something went wrong. Now... well... everything is changed. I'm not sure what I should be doing any more."
Blair was horrified at Jim's self-perception. How could this man possibly believe that no one would miss him? "We'll talk about that statement later, in great detail. For now, what WE should be doing is getting back to Haven. WE have a job to do."
"We, huh?" Jim asked with a smile.
"Yes, from here on out, it's going to be WE!"
"I think I like the idea of WE. It's a nice feeling. So, since WE need to hit the road, Buddy. How about WE start packing up," Jim suggested.
The two men quickly packed up their belongings and mounted their Companions. Jim took a final look at the Grove. It was as if no one had stayed there. All traces of their campsite had been removed, which was as it should be. He felt the light touch of Blair tapping his arm. "Are you ready to go home?"
"Yeah. Do you feel it, Blair? A sense of peace envelops this place. I feel so safe here. I feel I belong here, not back in Haven. I don't remember ever feeling comfortable in the city. I'm not explaining this right," Jim mumbled, frustrated by his inability to find the words to express what he was feeling.
Blair focused inward; searching for what Jim was experiencing, before answering a moment later. "I feel something, but it may be an echo of what you are feeling. Jim, according to Vanyel, sentinels and guides seem to be born more frequently into the more primitive societies. Perhaps because their abilities are needed there. A Sentinel would be able to guard the boundaries of a tribe easier than the rest of the guards. He would be capable of hearing invaders long before they were a threat to the clan. A city is a difficult place for a Sentinel. Too much noise, too many scents and far too many people for a Sentinel to function with the ease of one who is born on the plains. Which is probably the reason that historically there haven't been Herald-Sentinels born to the Kingdom," Blair added thoughtfully.
"I guess that makes sense. Well, are you ready to go home too, my lady?" Jim said aloud to his Companion.
"Yes, I miss Companion's field and the other Companions. Not to mention, there is much work for the two of you to do back there," Incacha replied.
"Whenever you're ready then," Jim answered.
As Burton moved to Incacha side, Blair took a final look around the Grove. He could have sworn that he saw Steph waving good-bye to them with Vanyel standing behind him. For just a moment he could see the light that surrounded them, felt the peace and security present in the Grove. But after he blinked, they were gone, but the feelings remained.
Under his breath, he softly muttered, knowing his Sentinel could hear, "I feel it, too, Jim. I feel it, too."
They rode hard all afternoon, not stopping to rest other than for water until just before nightfall. Blair was exhausted. He literally was shivering with both the chill of the evening and the fatigue. He had only enough energy to keep his balance on Burton's back. He was relying on his Companion to follow Jim's lead. His mind had gone numb a candlemark ago.
He didn't even recognize where they had stopped until Jim had already helped him down from the saddle and was busy removing his pack. As he was sitting on the ground, watching Jim unpack their bedrolls, he realized where they were. It was the same clearing where Jim's men had died. He could barely see the memorial marker they had left denoting the site of the mass grave.
"Jim, we can't stay here. I mean, you can't want to camp here. This is where... well... you know... where they..."
"...died, Blair. You can say it. This is where my men were slaughtered. I know. Something tells me that I have unfinished business here. We aren't in any danger, I swear. I sense the same sense of peace that I feel everywhere else in the Forest of Sorrows. Do you mind? If you can't handle being here, we can keep going, I'll come back later by myself."
"No, that's okay. I mean, I'm okay with staying here with you. Blair glanced around him nervously. "Are you sure about this?"
Jim answered as he finished setting up the camp, "I'm sure. It's important we stay here tonight. Are you hungry?"
Blair shook his head and managed a small smile before yawning, "Not really, but I'd better eat something anyway. I think I'm going to need the energy later on."
Jim set up a small fire, getting out a small battered cooking pot from his pack. "I have another packet of that dried meat and vegetables. Use the water from my canteen. There should be enough to last us the night. Can you manage to get a stew going while I collect enough firewood to last us through the night or are you too tired?"
"I can manage, but do me a favor. Stay within calling distance. This place gives me the crawlies, okay?"
"No problem, Chief. I'll be back as quick as I can."
Both men were beyond tired. They ate quickly. Jim cleaned up the remains of the meal, watching Blair's eyelids closing then opening as he forced himself to stay awake. "Blair, why don't you get some sleep. We are safe here. I don't even hear any animals near us. Trust me, nothing is going to hurt us here. The protections on the Forest are at full strength again."
Blair didn't need any further encouragement. He wrapped himself up in his blanket and rested his head on his pack. He fell asleep almost immediately after he lay down. Jim built up the fire a little more when he noticed the occasional shiver from his worn-out partner. He took his own blanket and covered his partner with it. It was a pleasant evening and he didn't feel the cold as easily as Blair did.
Jim stretched out on his bedroll, looking up at the stars. It was a full moon this evening. The sky was clear and with his enhanced sight, he could see the twinkling of each individual star. He wasn't tired yet. Something was going to happen tonight. He was sure of that, he just needed to wait for it to occur. He relaxed, the tension leaving his muscles as he focused on a falling star. He didn't realize when he fell asleep.
Jim opened his eyes with a start. He could no longer hear Blair's heartbeat. In fact, he couldn't hear anything. All the normal sounds he associated with being in a forest were gone. He scrambled to his feet drawing his weapon. He blinked, at the bright sunlight pouring down into the clearing. He spun in a tight circle, expanding his senses, searching for the enemy. He lowered his sword when he recognized his former guard unit standing in the middle of a large pool of light at the center of the clearing. He was amazed to see that they appeared to be unharmed. It was as they all looked at the start of the mission, before they entered the forest. He moved forwarded into the clearing until he was standing before his men.
"Took you long enough to get here, Captain," Serris said as he offered his hand.
Jim reached for the hand, gripping it tightly. It was firm and warm. He laughed. "Where are we? How is this possible? Am I dead too?"
"You're not dead. The rest of it is kind of complicated to explain and we don't have much time. There is something you need to understand. I know about the other dream, Captain. There was nothing we could do to stop him from forcing us to appear to you. We were trapped in between worlds, at his mercy. We weren't alive, but we weren't released to journey to the Havens either."
"So it wasn't a lie. I thought it was just a dream because of my guilt." Jim whispered sadly.
"It was a partial truth, which can be worse than a lie. But, it was not because of what you did or because you survived. His Dark Mages did it to us, intentionally. They tied us to this clearing to do His bidding and to feed upon us."
"You're talking about Lea..." Jim interrupted.
Serris held up one finger to Jim's mouth. "Do NOT speak his name aloud. Not here, anyway. You are closer to His world than your own when you are walking the moonpaths. He can reach out and hurt you here. Speaking his name will draw His attention to us. He is even capable of causing pain when you are dreaming normally if you're not prepared."
"Walking the moonpaths? What do you mean by that? How did I get here?"
"He guided you here, same as before. He can be here without you, but you may not be here without him," Serris responded with a wry grin.
Jim didn't know when it had happened, but Blair was now standing at his shoulder, completely speechless. Jim leaned over and whispered in Blair's ear, "Nice of you to join us, buddy."
The guardsman looked around nervously before speaking again. "The darker emotions give them strength. Despair, sickness, fear, guilt, pain, suffering and death, these are what the Darkness feeds on. By trapping us here, they gave themselves a long term feeding ground. It was the only way they could gain control of the protections of the Forest. They had to change the balance of power, change those of us who served the Light into a source of power they could feed upon. When you destroyed the Coven, we were freed from His restraints, which kept us from moving on. Thank you both, for bringing us peace."
"If you're free to move on now, why haven't you?" Jim asked, puzzled.
"The Havens are calling us home, but we needed to warn you. Watch your back, Captain, particularly when you sleep. He who shall remain nameless is very angry with the two of you."
Serris faced Blair before continuing to speak, "Watch his back, Curly. He is stubborn. The walls he has built around his heart are higher than those protecting the palace and thinks he doesn't need anyone else. He's wrong. We are passing the responsibility of protecting him onto you. Maybe you can get through to him."
"HEY!" Jim yelled, glaring at Serris as Blair snickered at the all too accurate description of his partner.
"I'm willing to accept that responsibility. I'm pretty good at getting around his walls." Blair looked over at Jim's stubborn expression before adding, "Be happy, at least this trip is going much better than the last one."
"The dream is over for you, Curly. You need to return now. You are too tempting a target to be walking here without learning the proper protections first." Serris said firmly. Blair started to fade away, with an indignant yell.
Once Blair had completely faded away, he continued, "You need to be particularly careful with that boy, James. The enemy wants him badly. He has several powerful gifts the enemy covets. His very presence here on the moonpaths attracts the attention from both the Darkness and the Light. Shamans have ways of hiding themselves here. Though untrained now, he has the potential for being a mighty Shaman. He needs to find himself a mentor."
"Vanyel said that the Shin'a'in might be willing to help us," Jim offered thoughtfully.
"Approach them with respect, Captain. They are a prideful people." Serris placed one hand one Jim's shoulder. "You need to be at your fighting best. What happened to us wasn't your fault, Captain. There was nothing you could have done differently. The result would have been the same. The enemy had us outmaneuvered. We were lucky you survived. All would have been lost if you had died or had not managed to return to the Kingdom. You need to accept that and let go of this guilt you are determined to carry around. Remember, He will use your darker emotions against you."
Jim smiled. "It's a lot easier now to let go and accept what happened."
Serris looked at the clearing behind him for a moment before turning back to Jim. "Time for us to go, Captain. You and your partner have a job to do and the two of you are the only ones with any possibility of success." Serris took one step back and saluted. The rest of the men standing behind him immediately came to attention, also.
Jim took a step back himself and returned the salute. He then watched as Serris rejoined the rest of the unit. In perfect formation, they headed to the far side of the clearing. Jim saw a woman standing there, intently watching him. She was wearing a long black cloak that hid most of her features. Her skin was golden. Then, he noticed her eyes. Those eyes that were best described as a midnight sky filled by only twinkling stars. She nodded her head once. She reached down with her hand to pet a large black Grass-cat that was sitting by her feet. She turned and disappeared into the shadows, followed by the cat, then by Jim's former unit. Serris was the last to vanish. He smiled and waved to Jim before fading from sight.
As Jim stood in the clearing, alone, the sky darkened into night and the normal sounds that usually accompanied the midnight hours returned. Jim could again hear the sound of Blair's beating heart, slow and regular confirming he was still deeply asleep. Jim banked the fire for the remainder of the night. It was only a few candlemarks before dawn, he was determined to sleep while he could. He quickly settled back down on his bedroll and slept peacefully without dreaming for the rest of the night.
Blair opened his eyes to the sounds of a woodlark greeting the rising of the sun. He sat up. The blankets, which had been keeping him nicely warm, dropped to the ground. He chuckled as he picked up the second blanket. Jim was still sleeping peacefully on his bedroll across the fire. He was curled up on one side facing the fire. Blair smiled sweetly. It was strange but Jim looked years younger when he slept. He seemed to carry the problems of the Kingdom on his shoulders when he was awake, which would age anyone. Only in sleep could the man let go. Blair knew he would have a difficult task ahead convincing his friend to accept that he didn't have to face the world alone anymore. No time like the present to begin, Blair thought as he gently draped the blanket over the older man.
He added more wood to the fire, putting a pot of coffee over it before he started to work on preparing a quick breakfast. As he sat quietly waiting for both breakfast to cook and his partner to wake, he tried to recall the dream he had the previous night. The memory was elusive and what he could remember was a little confusing. He had found himself standing next to his partner. Jim was having a discussion with a guardsman who Blair hadn't recognized. How exactly he had arrived there he didn't know, but he had heard the guardsman talking about the Darkness. Something about how the darker emotions gave them strength. He had mentioned despair, sickness, fear, guilt, pain, suffering and death.
Jim had been right. It had been important for them to spend the night at the clearing. This was information they could use in the battle that was coming between the Light and the Dark. As a healer and an empath, Blair knew from experience how powerful these emotions were. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't hear Jim speaking to him until he felt hands on his shoulders shaking him.
"Blair! Answer me!"
"Sorry, Jim. I was thinking about what happened last night and wasn't paying attention. Do you want breakfast?" Blair asked as he reached for the pot bubbling merrily on the fire.
Jim had been kneeling in front of him. When Blair had answered he sat heavily onto the ground, muttering exasperatingly, "Breakfast. He sits there like a zombie and then asks if I want breakfast. Sure, I'd love some. What are we having?" Jim continued, rolling his eyes.
"Coffee and oatmeal with honey." Blair responded as he handed a bowl over to his slowly calming partner and started filling a bowl for himself. Hunger drove both men to focus their attentions on the hot food.
"Do you want to tell me what happened after I was sent outside to play?" Blair said flippantly as he finished the bowl.
"Huh?" Jim mumbled around a mouthful of oatmeal.
"That's what it felt like. When I was a kid and the adults want to talk without the children overhearing, they used to tell us to play outside the wagons so they could discuss something they didn't want us to know about. I accepted that as a kid, but I'm not taking that from you. So you might as well tell me what happened after I was sent out." Blair fixed his firmest scowl expression and threw in the puppy eyes for good measure.
"You? Passively accepting not knowing what was going on. Really? Why don't I believe that?" Jim answered with a twinkle in his eye, scraping the last of the honey from the bowl with one finger.
Blair couldn't maintain the scowl, not in the face of his partner mischievous grin. "Okay, so usually I crawled under the wagon and listened anyway. But I didn't know how to sneak back inside a dream, so spill it."
"Okay, you already know the Enemy wants to use you for some evil purpose. Serris explained that your presence on the moonpaths would draw his attention to us. You weren't safe there. Blair, it just became even more important to seek out the Shin'a'in shamans. He said that you needed to learn protections to move around on the moonpaths safely."
"Moonpaths? Moonpaths? I think I remember reading a brief reference to them in one of the books at the Collegium. So that's where we were last night. I knew those were something more than your average dream, but I thought only Shamans could walk those. I'm not a oh goddess... I'm not, am I," Blair mumbled, not so clearly at first, but he got louder as he started to panic when he figured out what had occurred.
"You're my guide, buddy and obviously you are a Shaman, or at least a Shaman in training." Jim rinsed out both bowls before he started packing up his bedroll.
Blair packed up his own belongings, his hands moving automatically through the motions because his head was concentrating on just what being a Shaman implied. Jim was already in the saddle and moving out of the clearing as he was still finishing fastening the pack behind Burton's saddle.
A movement off in the distance caught his eye. Blair noticed two shapes moving among the shadows cast by the undergrowth. The first was barely visible, moving into the growth like a big Grass-cat. The second animal he saw plainly. It was one of the Kyree. A Kryee, at first, appeared to be a wolf but that was where their similarities ended. A Kyree possessed an intelligent equal to and sometimes greater than people. Some of them are capable of both mage and mind magic. This one was gray colored with deep blue eyes. Across the clearing, the Kryee starred at Blair, before following the Grass-cat back into the undergrowth.
"Are you coming?" Jim asked turning back in the saddle to see what was delaying him.
Blair nodded, checking the undergrowth one final time before climbing into the saddle and allowing Burton to catch up with Incacha.
The overwhelming need to return to Haven grew stronger with each village they passed through. They were riding continuously, pausing only for water breaks, eating and sleeping in the saddle. The journey was made more difficult as the weather got worse the closer they got to the city. A severe thunderstorm was raging almost continuously. They were riding into the strong winds. The thick mud resulting from all the rain challenged even the Companion's sure-footed gait. If they had been riding horses rather than Companion's they would have had to seek shelter.
Unfortunately, both men could feel that the storm wasn't occurring natural. Magic had upset the balance of nature and something or someone was forcing the storm down upon the city. It was cold and wet and dark as they finally passed through the gates into the Collegium grounds.
They had been surprised when the doors to the tack room had flown open before they could dismount. Without any urging the two Companions moved forward into the warmth of the room. Two Trainees were waiting in the tack room and had opened the doors for them when they arrived. One of them nervously stepped forward as the Companions came to a halt.
After Jim and Blair had dismounted, the taller of the two stepped forward and took hold of Incacha's halter. "Heralds, Sirs, we have been instructed to tell you that you are requested to meet with Dean Joel as soon as you arrive. We have been assigned to take care of your Companions and return your equipment to your quarters." The boy took a deep breath at then end and exhaled noisily. His memorized instruction now delivered, he could relax.
Jim swallowed his laughter and the boy's attempt to appear more mature. He pasted a serious expression on his face and answered firmly, "Thank you, trainee, for delivering the message. Is Dean Joel in his office?" After the smaller boy nodded, so vigorously that Jim thought his head would fall from his shoulders, Jim handed the reins over to the speaker. "Make sure that they are both fed some warm mash. They had quite a workout getting us back so quickly through this storm."
Blair handed Burton's reins off to the smaller boy with a quick nod and a whispered 'thanks' before exiting the tack room. As soon as they were both outside, even with the wind blowing and the icy rain pelting them, the men started laughing. Each had their own fond memories of being both that young and so eager to please.
Jim led the way through the maze of corridors at the Herald's Collegium, having visited there several times. A short while later, they were standing in front of the office of the Dean. Jim knocked on the door before reaching for the handle.
"Come in," Joel invited warmly, loud enough the even Blair could hear him through the closed door.
Joel was moving books and papers that were stacked as tall as Blair from the chairs placed in front of his desk. Jim smiled, whispering to his partner, "Looks just like your room, you should feel right at home here."
Blair whapped his arm and glared before acknowledging that Jim was correct. "You didn't have to say it, man."
"See what happens if I have to leave the Collegium for a few days. More than half my job is dealing with the paperwork. I remember the good old days when I was actually able to teach the students here. Sometimes I wonder why I ever became an administrator," Joel explained as he found new places to build stacks of paper. "Have a seat, gentlemen. I went through all this trouble to clear you a place, so you might as well use it."
Jim pointed Blair to the seat furthest from the door. Blair grinned, wondering if Jim realized exactly how protective his actions were. Deciding it was better not to mention it, he took the offered chair and asked, "You wanted to see us, Sir?"
"Yes. A lot has happened during the last fortnight the two of you were away. I wanted to tell you personally what has occurred."
"Does this involve my father?" Jim questioned, expecting, but afraid to hear an affirmative reply.
"Only indirectly. It does appear that you were partially correct. We believe Father Brackett to be involved in the dark conspiracy. Several times, he has managed to give both my people and Simon's people the slip. He is well aware that he is being watched, so he has become even more secretive. According to our watchers, it appears your father is completely unaware of what Father Brackett is doing. I'm not sure if this is good news for you to hear or not."
"Truthfully, I'm not sure how I feel about this situation, Dean Joel."
"Father Brackett does get much of his information from your father about what occurs during the Council meetings. We know he is manipulating several other members of the Council based on information he has gleaned from Lord Ellison. Until we are sure about where your father's loyalties lie and have more substantial proof about Father Brackett's dealings with the dark forces, all we can do is watch and wait. The Queen has been made aware of this situation. She will be much more circumspect in her discussions with the Council in general and your father in particular until we have resolved this."
"What do you expect us to do? I assume you have a plan," Blair asked, covertly glancing at his friend who was unknowingly projected strong feelings of both guilt and anger. Blair started projecting counter waves of comfort back to his partner.
"About this situation, nothing. I have other people already in position to watch what is occurring. No, that was not the reason I had asked to see you. Initially, I had wished to speak with you about your gifts. I don't like to admit this, but we have no knowledge or history with the gifts with which you have been blessed. We have no way of teaching you how to control them, other than through trial and error. I spoke at length with Vanyel about this situation. His recommendation was to send you both to the Dhorisha Plains. He was sure the Shamans of the clans would be willing to help."
"He strongly suggested the same to us right before we left. We have confirmed the need through another reliable source. You used the phrase, initially. Has something else happened?"
"Yes, another situation has arose that requires our investigation. But before we are through here I want to hear about this other reliable source." Dean Joel firmly ordered as he searched his desk for several dispatch cases. "Ah yes, here they are. They have been several reports of a deadly illness infecting several of our smaller villages. Heralds on circuit have reported the loss of five villages, all the residents were found dead. Most of the time, the bodies were found in the designated house of healing established in each town. Whatever this illness, it affects the animals too. Not one living thing has been found in any of the villages."
Joel paused before continuing, "It does not appear to be a contagion that passes through in the air or the water. Heralds have found wild animals living comfortably in each of the villages after the death of the residents. It is a puzzle. The Queen has already sent word via the Heralds that travel between villages is now prohibited by anyone other than Heralds or Healers. She was hoping this would stop the illness from spreading, but we just received another report several hours ago that another village was affected."
"That is not the normal pattern for a sickness to spread," Blair interrupted, confused by the news.
Joel nodded. "The Queen requested assistance and guidance from the Council of Healers in dealing with this plague. So far, they have not been very forthcoming with any additional help. Under a great deal of pressure, they finally have agreed to send out the two most senior healers to assist in the investigation. Healer Stoddard left four days ago, heading south towards the Rethwellan border. Herald Rafe went with him along with a guard unit. Dean Edwards herself agreed to go North towards the forest. Herald Henri is watching her along with another guard unit."
Blair's head shot up at the names Edward and Stoddard. In fact, what better way to raise the darker emotions in the people of the Kingdom then by sending a plague into their midst. "Jim, are you thinking what I'm..."
Joel held up one hand, "Rafe has already reported his concerns about Healer Stoddard and I had my own concerns about Dean Edwards. We had already planned on placing a watch upon Stoddard and surveillance was already in place watching Dean Edwards. We know that she has met on at least two separate occasions with Father Brackett."
"That wasn't what I meant, at least not completely," Blair said still waiting from Jim's answer. At Jim's nod Blair explained the situation to the puzzled Dean. "Remember we said we had another reliable source. Well, this is the story."
The two men took turns explaining both the story, which Vanyel had relayed to them, and their experience on the moonpaths.
Dean Joel stood and started to pace as he processed the information that his newest team of Heralds had just provided. "You think this plague is magical. That some dark force enters a village, inflicts the plague on the inhabitants and feeds off the emotions generated?"
Jim nodded, but Blair was not so sure that was completely correct. He didn't want to admit to the others what he believed, but he knew it was his duty. "It might not be a real plague," he said softly in the silence.
"What do you mean, Blair?" Joel asked, sensing fear and anger in the younger man.
Blair was trembling. When he started to speak, Joel strained to hear the words being spoken while Jim moved to stand behind his partner as he figured out for himself what theory was about to be presented. "A healer uses his gift to project positive energy directly into a wound or to attack an illness. Sometimes he uses his own energy, but often he collects then redirects and focuses energy the patient already possesses. Each person has their own varying supply of energy, which is why some people will survive an illness that kills another. For whatever reason, some people possess more of this energy than others."
Blair stared deeply into the comforting brown eyes across from him before speaking the word that would damage the reputation of every healer in the Kingdom. "It's possible that a group of rogue healers are draining the energy from the villages. Outwardly, they would appear to sicken over time if the drain was done slowly. Besides collecting the energy from the healthy, the terror and fear the rumor of a deadly plague creates would be an additional source. Now that the dark coven is no longer draining energy from the forest, well, this may be Plan B for them."
Dean Joel couldn't believe what he was hearing. He didn't want to accept this, but he had to admit it was a good theory. He sat down in his chair as Blair expanded his thoughts.
"Healer Stoddard has been out traveling for years. The story has always been that he is searching for potential healers, but what if all this time they have been draining energy and he has been sending it to the other plane as kind of a supplement to the energy provided by the Coven."
"We would have noticed people dying all over the kingdom long before now."
"They wouldn't have needed to collect enough energy so that their victims died. People hadn't started dying until we destroyed the coven. What if it was their destruction that had triggered an immediate need for much more energy in the other plane? They would have had to dramatically increase the rate at which they were collecting the power."
"So Stoddard and Edwards are out there doing what? Warning the other rogue healers?"
"Probably, and making sure that neither the Heralds nor the Guard finds any evidence of what has been causing the deaths." Blair proposed. "This is only a theory. I could be completely wrong about this. I'm hoping I'm wrong about this, because there would have to be several more healers involved to cause the number of deaths you have mentioned. It would be too much energy for an individual healer to handle."
"What do you think, Jim. You have been pretty quiet," Joel asked.
"I think Blair is right on target and I think that we need to catch up with Healer Stoddard right away. Rafe is already suspicious of him. If Stoddard picks up on that, Rafe could be in great danger."
"How soon can the two of you get back out into the field?" Joel asked, knowing full well that the two men were exhausted.
"Tomorrow night, we need to give Incacha and Burton time to recharge. They had to do all the work getting us back here so quickly," Jim answered, but was quickly overruled by two mind voices speaking in a broadcast mode.
"We'll be fit to leave tomorrow after the two of you have had a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast," Burton sent.
"Guess he told us," Blair said with a smile. "Tomorrow morning it is."
Three days later
They rode through the forest, the trees providing some shelter from the rain that had been falling steadily ever since they had left Haven. It was as if the skies were weeping also for the loss of life suffered by the Kingdom. Most of the villages they had traveled through had been holding memorial services of one sort or another. Almost everyone had lost a relative or a friend because of the plague. But due to the ban on travel, those who had died were being laid to rest in mass graves rather than being returned to their families. The Heralds were keeping record of the names of the dead, then circulating those lists between the villages on their normal circuits.
Blair was forced to keep his shields on full at all times while they were riding because of all the strong emotions he came in contact with during the memorial services. Incacha and Burton were helping out by applying their own shields at night to allow him a little time to rest and recharge.
Though the situation was terrible, they had been lucky the plague had struck when it did. It had started just after the spring planting had been completed. The ban on travel had not hurt the farmers because the seed was already in the ground. They needed to be working in their own fields. Travel was now a luxury not a necessity. Everyone knew they would need a good harvest in the fall to keep the people from starving during the coming winter season.
The loss of the livestock was even more damaging to the Kingdom. Those that raised the livestock knew what animals remained would be needed as breeding stock to keep prime bloodlines from being lost. Meat would be expensive and hard to find in the coming months. It was as if there was intelligence behind the outbreaks. The villages that had been destroyed were the primary breeders of both cows and sheep.
The Queen had already begun negotiations with both Karse and Rethwellan for more breed stock to both expand the existing bloodlines and provide animals for slaughter. The treasury of the Kingdom would be hard hit, but her people will survive. The Council had already passed several temporary restrictions preventing the raising of prices of goods, but so far they had not been necessary. Most of the people were remaining calm and working together. Trusting in the promises of the Heralds that everything possible was being done.
Jim and Blair did their best to encourage this hope and trust in the people of the villages, knowing that somewhere the enemy was feeding on their Kingdom's terror, growing even stronger. They reached the first village that had been decimated by the plague about mid afternoon.. The death toll was so high that the Royal Guardsmen were now acting as burial crews. They were still working diligently to put to rest the remains of the souls that had formerly resided in the village. This village had lost over one hundred fifty people and thousands of animals. One of the fallow fields was being put to use to destroy the remains of the livestock that had also died from the sickness.
They had not planned on stopping here. There was no trace of the cause of the plague. Several heralds and healers had already searched, but Blair spotted Jack Pendergast on the far side of the field giving orders. He nudged Jim's elbow and pointed.
They turned off the road, moving into the field. When Jack turned to greet them, Blair observed the red-rimmed eyes and the droop in the shoulders. He lowered his shields slightly then quickly slammed them back up as the grief from the man engulfed him. There was more going on here than the aftereffects of the grim detail Jack was overseeing. He was about to ask his partner, but the expression Jim was wearing was equally as somber, so he held his tongue. He knew he would find out soon enough.
Jim was sure he knew what had driven Jack to take this duty. He had fond memories of both the field and the house. "Were they here, Jack?" he asked sympathetically, gesturing to the small house behind them.
Jim had spent several leaves during his stint in the Guard with Jack's parents. They had welcomed the lonely boy into their family, providing the love and support that his birth parents had never given him. Jim had blossomed under their loving attention and visited the elderly Pendergasts more frequently then Jack had.
"Yeah, Jim. They were here. I handled their burial myself behind the house. Didn't get the marker up yet." Jack stared at the house for a moment, lost in the memory of happier times.
"Remember this field, Slick? It would have been mine eventually. Actually, it would probably have been ours. My parents always thought of you as their second son, you know." Jack turned back to face the fire, tears making his eyes glisten. "My Da was too stubborn for his own good. Told him they should have retired years ago. But would they listen? No. He always said he'd die behind the plow, same way he was born. Guess he was right." Jack's voice trailed off has the flames leaped higher into the sky. He sighed and wiped his eyes tiredly as the Guard added more of the dead to the fire.
"I'm so sorry, Jack. They were good people. If there is anything I can do, just ask," Jim offered, his voice breaking at both their loss.
Blair remained silent, knowing words would not provide any comfort in this situation.
There was a hint of madness in Jack's eyes when he looked up at Jim and Blair. "Find the source, Jim. Figure out what is causing this and destroy it. If it is a person do it slowly and painfully." The anger and need for vengeance was evident in his tone. Jim couldn't remember ever seeing his friend like this, not even in the heat of battle had there been this much anger. It was more than a little frightening. Jack paced as he continued to speak.
"Whatever it is that's causing this, well, it should experience the pain and suffering it has inflicted on my family, my village, my Kingdom. If anyone can figure this out, it's the two of you." He turned away, staring into the flames, his body shaking with grief and anger.
"I'll do my best, Jack. If it's at all possible, I'll get it dont7." Jim waited for a reply but his words didn't seem to register with his friend. He tapped Blair on the shoulder. "Give me a minute, okay? I need to say good-bye to some old friends," Jim asked, tilting his head towards the house.
Blair nodded and stayed where he was as Jim headed for the cottage. Jack had not moved. His gaze still locked on the dancing flames. Blair sighed then cautiously re-opened his shields. He touched the grieving man's mind. Deftly, he used his gifts to relieve some of the self-destructive grief Jack was experiencing and attempt to bring a small sense of peace to the man's mourning.
He was so intent on jump-starting the healing process within Jack, he didn't notice Jim was ready to go until a warm hand rested on his shoulder, shaking him slightly. Neither man spoke as they headed back to the road leading out of the village.
When they were a few furlongs from the village, Jim came to a halt, "Thank you, Blair. For what you did for Jack back there."
"How did you know I did something?" Blair asked shocked by the acknowledgment. He though he had been discrete. His former teachers would have frowned upon his actions.
"His blood pressure dropped, his heart rate slowed, and the tension left his muscles. I figured you did something to help him cope with this. He's family to me, same as you. I couldn't help him, but you did, so thank you."
"It's what family does, Jim. I think of you as my family too. I wish I could have met them. I like Jack and I couldn't stand there and watch him suffer without trying to do something to help him."
"I know that. It's not in your nature to witness someone in pain without trying to ease it, but I'm still grateful."
They started moving down the road again.
"Besides, I still need to get that Slick nickname story out of him," Blair teased.
"No way! He's sworn to secrecy on that little incident," Jim said, waving a finger at Blair. "I was thinking, there's a large town with a nice inn not that far away. I know it's early, but let's stop for the day."
"How's the food?" Blair asked as his stomach rumbled in agreement.
"Great food, cold beer and soft beds."
Jim rolled his eyes, but nodded.
"Well, let's get moving then. Sounds too good to pass up."
Hurral stopped for a drink at the river. He knew those he had sought were coming soon. He had almost caught up with them at the Forest of Sorrows. He had been about to approach the smaller dark hair one when the Star-eyed one had appeared to him in a vision before he could converse with him.
She had explained they were not ready to hear him yet. She had sent him to this place far to the south, saying only that they would need his gifts and his protection when they arrived. The Darkness had laid a trap here for them. A trap they would need his knowledge to defeat.
He made himself comfortable on the soft ground under one of the large weeping willows. He groomed his fur as he contemplated how his curious nature had gotten him into this fight so far from his pack. He was Hurral, Historian of the Kryee Keroon pack. He was assigned by the pack to collect the oral history of the Tayledras Mage, Starfire. He had spent several moons, living with the man and learning his story. When Starfire had explained his vision and requested his help, he hadn't known how far he had agreed to travel. A warrior, not a historian such as himself, should have handled this quest. He still didn't understand the message Starfire had asked him to deliver. He hoped the two-legged ones did not question him about the message because he had no answers.
He raised his head and checked the area around him for danger. This place was evil. He could sense the evil growing stronger with each passing day. He kept his shields high, knowing the enemy would destroy him if it discovered his presence. He settled down to sleep for the night. Starfire had said if the Evil were not stopped soon, the entire world would be engulfed in the flames of war. If such a war began, few would survive and the forces of Light would be overcome by the Darkness, of that he was sure. He would be patient and conserve his strength. The battle would begin soon enough.
Jim and Blair were making very good time. The weather was extremely warm for it still being mid-spring. The road they were travelling now was running parallel to the river, which provided a convenient source of fresh water. On the side of the river by the road, there was a gentle slope down to the water granting easy access. The far side had a steep bluff, which even the Companions were not capable of climbing. The road ahead wove away from the river into a small woodland area with several turns hidden by the large trees. The village of Sweetsprings was just on the other side of the woodland. It was the last village before they reached the Holderfolk people and the border between Valdemar and Karse. The Holderfolk did not approve of Heralds. They would find no welcome there. They needed to replenish their supplies before continuing their search for Healer Stoddard.
They knew they were close to finding Stoddard's group. The last village had a Guard supply house. They had reported that Herald Rafe and two guards had reported in and restocked their group just two days prior to their arrival.
They had taken a break for lunch and were sitting down by the river where it was shallow and slow. Between Jim's eyesight and Blair's quick reflexes, they had caught several fish for their lunch. Jim had just finished disposing of the remains when he turned back towards the road. His keen hearing had picked up the sound of hoof beats, pounding hard and fast, coming from the woodlands in front of them.
"Stay down and be quiet, buddy. Someone is heading this way in a really big hurry. Since no one is supposed to be on the road, something is seriously wrong."
They crept up the slope lying flat on the ground. They were well hidden in the tall grass, but could see the road clearly. The approaching rider was getting closer. The hoof beats had a familiar tone to them. Only Companion's hoofs struck the ground with that clear a ring. They were surprised to see another Herald coming up the road, even more surprised to see it was Herald Megan. Both men stood up and waved to her. She came to a sliding stop right beside them. Both Blair's gifts and Jim's senses revealed she was starting to get ill. She was already running a low- grade fever and her complexion was several shades lighter than her normal coloring.
"I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach the two of you. We have a big problem. Healer Stoddard has escaped our watch. The men from the Guard who were with him are almost all dead."
"What about Rafe?" Jim asked, concerned about the Herald who was their friend and strongest supporter among the circle.
"He's still alive, but he's very weak and it doesn't look good. Healer Lash is caring for him at the temple. Rafe was so weak from the blood loss by the time he arrived at Sweetsprings he almost couldn't speak. He mumbled a few disjointed words. The only ones I understood were Stoddard and gone. Healer Lash tried to help by feeding him energy, but he was too late."
Megan wiped the tears from her eyes at the memory of Rafe's eyes rolling back in his head as he lost consciousness as she held him in her arms. "His Companion tried to explain. Supposedly, Rafe and the other two guards were away from camp on a supply run. When they got back, everyone was already dead. They couldn't find Stoddard's body, though. The Companion did see Stoddard one more time. He was exiting the tent where the other two guards had been sleeping while Rafe had the watch. Rafe pursued him into the woods, but he lost him in the dark. The next morning the two guards woke up very sick. While he was attempting to help them to mount, he was struck in the back by an arrow. He held on long enough to tie the reins of the Guards horses to his saddle. His Companion did the rest. None of them have regained consciousness so we don't know exactly how the guards got so sick so quickly. The Queen has sent out her best trackers to find Stoddard, but they aren't due to arrive for another day."
Blair could feel Megan was very nervous about something, "Why did you come all this way to tell us that? Not that we don't appreciate the information, but I don't think you should be out riding right now."
"It's just a guess. I mean, we don't know exactly what happened, but who else besides Stoddard would have shot Rafe. I needed to warn you that Stoddard is definitely involved in the conspiracy. My Companion sensed the two of you were close by. I wanted to let you know what had happened. The plague is spreading rapidly in Sweetsprings. There have already been fourteen deaths in the last two days. I'm heading back there now."
"Not alone you're not. We'll be coming with you," Blair replied vehemently.
Megan shook her head. "The two of you have your own mission. The only reason I came to meet you was because we are sure this plague isn't contagious by casual contact. I can't infect you. But, we also know that no one who has caught this plague has survived. You can't help us now. You risk becoming sick yourselves if you return to Sweetsprings with me. People are still getting sick. The source is there, somewhere. The Queen is sending a group of healers from one of the border temples to investigate. So your presence isn't necessary."
Blair was shaking his head during Megan's speech. "Our mission is to find out what is causing this plague and put a stop to it--"
Megan interrupted, "But if you enter the boundaries of the village and become ill, who will complete your mission? Stay here. My Companion can relay to yours now that we know exactly where you are. There is no need for you to risk your own health by coming to Sweetsprings."
Blair continued as if Megan had not said a word. "Not to mention that I have healer training. With my gifts combine with Jim's gifts, we are the ones most likely to be able to determine the cause of this sickness. We are the best chance you and Rafe have so we're coming along," Blair said determinedly, heading for his Companion.
Jim could hear him continue to mutter under his breath, "Besides, I'm tired of staying in Waystations and having to do all the cooking. I had to pick a partner that can't even boil water. I know you're listening, Jim. Get a move on, I'm not waiting around for you."
Jim didn't laugh aloud at Blair's exasperated tone, but it was a close thing. Megan took a deep breath, but before she could say anything Jim held up his hand. "I wouldn't bother arguing with him. I know that look on his face right now and you are gonna lose this argument so don't waste your energy. Trust me on this. We'll just be a minute." He took off back down the hill to help his partner pack up their gear.
Megan sighed, she couldn't argue with both of them. She was a little surprised Jim had given in so easily. They were ready to leave before she could come up with another argument.
Blair stared at her, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. He waited, challenging her to disagree with him again. She raised her arms in surrender and gestured for him to take the lead.
Normally, it didn't matter what time of day Heralds entered a village, they were always greeted warmly by the residents. The streets were usually busy, filled with people moving about on business or visiting others. Such was not the case as the three Heralds left the woodland and were entering the outskirts of Sweetsprings. There was an eerie silence surrounding the village, no sounds of children playing or adults working. There weren't even any animal sounds, wild or domesticated, just the sound of silence. Blair leaned over in the saddle, mentally asking Burton to stop.
"Blair, are you all right?" Megan asked, as she moved beside him. She had been bringing up the rear and saw Burton stop.
"Just need to re-enforce my shields. You wouldn't believe the amount of pain and fear I'm picking up here."
His voice was shakier than she would have liked to hear. She touched his arm, offering her support.
Blair forced himself to straighten up, but his face remained several shades lighter as they moved forward. They had stopped by the small inn on the edge of town so that Blair could concentrate on his shielding. Jim was a few paces ahead, but had turned up his hearing so he heard Blair's answer to Megan's question without going back to them. His heightened hearing also picked up on the sound of someone crying close by.
Blair was about to speak when he saw Jim's attention was focused elsewhere. He urged Burton forward, "What are you hearing, Jim?"
"Someone is crying, sounds like a child." The lines of concentration deepened along his brow and under his piercing blue eyes as he attempted to locate the cries.
Blair sat up a little straighter in his saddle and listened himself but he couldn't hear anything. "Megan, why don't you go back to the temple and rest for a while. We'll check this out and join you shortly," he suggested.
After Megan had moved off, Jim pointed at the inn. "I'm pretty sure, it's coming from in there. I can only hear one heartbeat though." Blair climbed down. Halfway to the door, he stumbled and fell to the ground. When he didn't get up right away, Jim went over to him. He didn't say a word. He just put one hand on his partner's back and used the other to lift his chin so that Blair's eyes were visible. His partner was obviously having trouble focusing.
"I don't understand why I'm reacting like this, Jim. I feel so overwhelmed by all sickness and the grief, not to mention the terror. I spent years in the Collegium's House of Healing and never once had a reaction this bad. And there I was actually touching the patients who were ill. I'm not even close to a sick person right now and I can't keep it out. It just doesn't make sense."
Jim didn't have an answer. He gave a helpless little shrug and helped Blair to his feet and over to the door. Blair knocked on the door. When no one answered, he tried to open it himself. It was locked. He saw a determined glint in Jim's eyes. Anticipating Jim's solution, Blair moved out of the way as his partner threw himself against the door, breaking it open.
The stench of rotting food and death was strong in the common room. Jim was so focused on tracing the sound of crying he heard outside that he didn't notice, but Blair gagged on the aroma. He opened up all windows in the room while Jim located the last survivor in the building.
He traced the sound to a little room off the kitchen. Lying on the bed in front of him was a little girl whose face was wet with tears. She wasn't more than five. She looked up at the large man who had just burst into the room and was beginning to cower back against the wall, tears continuing to streak her face.
Jim froze in the doorway, trying not to appear threatening to the child. "No sweetheart, don't be afraid. My name is Herald Jim and I just want to help," he explained before he slowly approached the bed. He smiled at her and knelt down to appear smaller and friendlier.
The little girl seemed to consider him carefully before speaking shyly, "My name is Kayla. Do you have a Companion outside?"
Jim moved a little closer until he was able to sit on the side of the bed farthest away from her before answering, "Yes, I do. She is very special. Would you like to meet her?"
She started to nod and move a little closer, but then stopped. She sadly shook her head. "Mommy says I have to stay in bed, so I won't get sicker, but I haven't seen her in a while. Do you know where she is? I've called and called, but she won't come."
Before he answered, he heard someone else entering the room. Recognizing the familiar heartbeat, he introduced his partner before Kayla could become frightened again. "Blair, this is Kayla. Kayla, this is my friend, Blair. He is a Herald too. He'll help me find out what happened to your mother."
Finally deciding it was all right to trust him, Kayla launched herself across the bed and into his arms. "Thank you, thank you. I've been all alone and I'm hungry and I think Mommy forgot about me..." The rest of her words were lost among the sobs and the tears that had started to fall. Jim rocked her slowly, holding her tightly, and wiping her tears away until exhausted she fell asleep in his arms.
Blair watched as the tough as nails, former Guard Captain, comfort the little girl in his arms. "Mush, nothing but mush," he mumbled as he reached out to comfort the child smoothing her tangled curls.
Jim turned at the words, but with a smile on his face. It was then he heard Blair continue to whisper softly before leaving the room, "Jim, I found both her mother and father in the other bedroom. They didn't make it. I'll be outside when you're ready."
Jim waited until the child was sleeping deeply before wrapping her in the blanket and taking her outside. Blair was already mounted on his Companion. Jim carefully handed Kayla to him before mounting Incacha.
"Jim, can you hear any one else in this part of the village?" Blair asked quietly so not to disturb the sleeping child.
He closed his eyes and listened. "No, but there is a large gathering of people over there," he answered, pointing in the direction Megan had headed to reach the temple.
"That's where we need to go then," Blair said as Burton without instruction, moved in that direction.
It only took them a few moments to reach the temple. Blair handed the child down to Jim before dismounting himself. Megan was waiting for them at the door. Jim carried the child into the temple and placed her on a pallet near the door. He noticed the healer over by the temple altar, leaning over a patient.
It was only when Blair entered the temple that the healer noticed their arrival. The Heralds were so consumed by caring for the child that none of them saw the demented look cross Healer Lash's face as he stared, fixated on Blair.
Jim gently laid his hand on Kayla's forehead, noting the rising temperature. "Blair, stay here. See if you can help Healer Lash. I'm going back to the inn. I can't do much here, but I'll start on a burial detail."
A voice from behind startled them. "Before the plague spread, I had some of the able-bodied prepare a burial pyre on the east side of the temple. Between the dead people and animals, it burns almost continuous now. Any help you could give would be appreciated," Healer Lash explained.
"I'll see to it, Healer," Jim said before leaving the room.
"So you are Herald Blair. I've heard so much about you when I was studying at the Collegium. I know we are going to be great friends you and I. I'm sure of it. We have so much in common." Lash moved a step closer to Blair reaching out to touch his arm. Instinctively, Blair ducked away without understanding why. Lash looked disappointed and angry before turning away saying, "Excuse me for a moment while I check on my newest patient." Healer Lash touched the child's forehead, then indicated Megan should place the child on the pallet closest to the altar.
Blair didn't know exactly why, but something about Healer Lash frightened him. Something was just not right about the man. He could sense something was out of balance in the man's mind, but he couldn't pin it down because the man's shields were the strongest Blair had ever seen.
He shook his head. He had patients to care for, people who needed him. There were a few villagers who were brave enough to help care from the sick in the temple, but they had no formal training. They needed all the help they could get. He knelt down beside an elderly man who was calling for water. He would worry about Lash later.
Jim added the last of the bodies to the flames. It had been a painful process, using his senses to locate those that had died in their homes. So many had died here. The few still living had barricaded themselves in their homes. Afraid of the plague, they had refused to leave the safety of their homes to aid him in his task.
He had kept a list of what bodies he had removed from which house and a brief description of the person. There were a few people left alive in the village. Hopefully, someone would be willing and physically fit enough to help him identify the dead. Their families needed to be notified of the deaths and given the chance to mourn.
Jim wasn't a religious man, but he said a prayer to the Goddess, asking that she watched over these poor souls as they journey to her domain. As he was watching the flames grow, he heard a scream from the temple. It was a voice he recognized easily as his partner's. He ran back towards the temple.
Jim had been gone for almost four candlemarks and Blair was starting to get worried. What if his Sentinel had gotten lost trying to use his gifts without his partner to ground him? Blair wasn't going to wait any longer. He rubbed his hands on his tunic and stood up, planning on tracking down his wayward partner.
He looked around the room. He saw Megan was kneeling next to Rafe, whispering softly as she tried to lower the fever that wracked his body. He saw Lash standing by the Temple altar working on a patient. He walked towards Healer Lash intending to let him know he was taking a break. He noticed that as Lash touched the child's forehead, instead of getting stronger, the little girl visibly got much weaker. Lash pulled his hand away and moved to the altar, fondling a small idol that was displayed there. As he watched, energy seemed to flow from Lash into the idol. Blair was drawn closer to the altar by the power.
Healer Lash turned from the idol and stared fascinated at Blair. The look on his face was horrible to behold. It wasn't the look of a healer. It was covetous, hungry for something, and truly evil. A twisted smile appeared on Lash's face.
"You figured it out? Didn't you, Blair? I knew you would eventually. They told me you were very smart. It's time now. You're gonna become one of my friends now." Lash grabbed Blair and threw him onto the altar.
Blair screamed, calling for his partner, for Megan, for anyone to help him. Megan tried to pull Lash away from him, but she was too weak herself. Lash kicked her in the stomach. She stumbled backward from the force of the blow tripping over one of the pallets on the floor.
Blair tried to maintain his shields against Lash's attempts to drain his life force, but Lash was too strong. He was drawing additional power from the idol, which Blair could not withstand. He was losing the battle. Then, he heard the voice he had hoped to hear. Jim had returned.
Breathless, Jim stood in the doorway to the temple. Lash had his partner pinned to the altar. One of his hands splayed across Blair's face. Whatever Lash was doing it was causing Blair a great deal of anguish.
"Let him go!" Jim yelled as he rushed past Megan who was slowly getting back on her feet to get to his partner. He pulled Lash away from Blair and threw him against the wall. Blair rolled off the altar and landed hard on the floor. He was too dazed and in too much pain to get to his feet. He crawled away from the altar.
Jim could see Blair fighting to keep from collapsing completely. He wrapped his arms around Blair's chest and pulled him over so that he was partially leaning against his chest. Blair moaned as his entire body started to shake.
"Blair! Easy, buddy," Jim murmured softly into his partner' ear, holding him a little more securely. Blair was still fighting to hold onto his shields. The idol had an evil presence within it that was very strong. It was reaching out, trying to break through Blair's weakening shields. Pain wracked his body. The emotions he could no longer block out finally overwhelmed his shields. He was unable to speak, unable to explain to anyone that the plague was coming from small, carved wooden idol. The very place that should have been healing these people was causing their deaths.
Jim positioned himself between Blair and Lash as the healer approached. Blair shifted to hide further behind Jim. Megan was now kneeling next to him, another shield between himself and the Darkness. Drawing on her strength, he found the energy to speak though it was difficult to hear.
"Don't let him! Don't let him touch me. Please, keep him away! The Darkness, the madness within him is too strong, too many, too many within him, all in pain, all afraid, don't let him near," Blair babbled, shaking all the harder in his panic.
Reluctantly, Jim moved away from him, getting to his feet as Megan took his place both supporting and protecting Blair.
Lash got to his feet and started moving towards the group, the madness in his eyes plain to see. "Let me touch him. I must touch him," Healer Lash pleaded, trying to move around Jim who was now blocking his way. "I will make him one of my friends. He will become one of the many if I touch him. I cannot disobey him. He demands I do this."
Lash took one more step closer to the two Heralds on the floor. Blair screamed at the pain and gasped for air, his panic making it too difficult to draw air. He succumbed to the encroaching blackness, slumping into Megan's arms.
Jim didn't know what to do. He was torn between the need to go to his partner and the duty to stop Lash from hurting anyone else. Then, he heard Burton screaming in his head. "Bring Blair outside. Quickly or we will lose him to the Darkness."
"Take him and go, Jim! I'll take care of things here. You need to get him away from here, now!" Megan said, hearing what Burton had said, transferring Blair from her embrace towards his partner.
There was no longer any doubt about which choice to take. Jim gathered Blair into his arms and exited the temple. Waiting on the steps was Burton. "Climb on. We need to get him away from here or that thing in there will continue to drain him. Hang on tight." Burton warned as he galloped away from the temple with Incacha right on his heels.
As they rode away, he could hear Lash, "It doesn't matter, I have other friends here. There are lots of others who want to be my friend."
"I don't think so, Lash. You are finished making friends here." Megan said. She watched her opponent closely, knowing that sooner or later he would attack. He had to incapacitate her before he could finish off the others. She didn't have to wait long.
"You! I'll make you one of my friends," Lash declared as he lunged for her. Megan easy sidestepped the charge. While Lash was off balance she was able to thrust the knife deep into Lash's stomach and pulled upward. Lash stared down at the deadly wound.
"No, it's not supposed to be like this," he said sadly falling to his knees. "You're supposed to be my friend."
Megan shook her head as Lash fell onto his face, wondering how a healer could have killed all those people. She rolled him over, making sure he was dead. She reclaimed her knife, wiping the blade on the green tunic.
She looked around room, hoping that with Lash's death, the energy would return to those he had stolen it from. Nothing happened though. She turned to one of the villagers who was acting as a nurse. "I have to check on my friends. I'll be back shortly. Just keep doing what you have been doing all along."
She called to her Companion. She had not seen which direction Jim had taken, but that didn't matter. She could follow the trail that two Companions, at full gallop, would leave behind with one eye closed and one hand tied behind her back.
With one hand, Jim held onto Blair, the other was holding them both to Burton's back. Jim used his senses to examine his unconscious guide. He was deathly pale and continuing to shiver. His heart was pounding so quickly Jim couldn't count the beats and his respiration was so shallow it was barely detectable even to Jim's hearing. His temperature had shot up to dangerously high levels. There wasn't much time.
Burton did not slow down until he reached a shallow river. He waded then swam right to the middle of the slowing moving current. "Lower him into the water and hold on to him," Burton ordered, but Jim was so focused on monitoring Blair's vitals that he didn't move.
"Follow his instructions, my Chosen, and he will be fine. We don't think he was not exposed to the evil long enough to cause permanent damage," Incacha sent softly.
"What happened? Why was he affected so quickly and so severely?" Jim asked as he followed his Companion's instructions. He gently lowered Blair into the cold water holding on to him as he too sank below the surface of the water. His feet barely touched the river bottom.
"Because of the spell that was left on the statue sitting on the altar in the healing temple. Because he is an empath, he was affected much more than the people of the village..." Burton paused. Blair was starting to struggle as he fought his way back to consciousness.
"Easy, Blair. You'll be all right," Jim said. He tightened his arms around Blair's chest, providing comfort and support. "You're safe now. Nothing can hurt you here."
"So evil. I couldn't block it. It was so strong," Blair mumbled, his body moving restlessly. They stayed in the water for almost half a candlemark. When Blair's temperature and heart rate both returned to normal, Jim swam them both to the shore. He was pleasantly surprised to see Megan had left them a fire burning merrily and the bedrolls already arranged. She had scrawled a note onto the soft ground saying only 'Lash dealt with, gone for supplies'. He carefully settled Blair down on his and placed both blankets over him before seeking Burton.
"Burton, shouldn't we get him back to the village. He needs food and warm place to recover. Will it be safe to return as long as we don't enter the temple?"
"No, not until the evil in the temple has been dealt with. Lash may be gone but the idol is still feeding on the people in the temple just much slower. If he enters the boundaries of the village the magic will be drawn to him and attempt to steal the energy from him until he is dead. But do not worry. An ally has offered his assistance. Be prepared. Despite his appearance, he is a friend. Do not be afraid."
A large beast stepped into the circle of light generated by the fire. In spite of the warning, Jim reached for his belt knife anyway. He couldn't believe he hadn't heard its approach. It was built and moved similar to one of the Plains grasscats, but he had the coat and head of a wolf. It was obviously a predator of some sort. It was carrying a dead rabbit in its mouth. Jim was startled as an unfamiliar voice spoke in his mind.
"Peace, Herald. My name is Hurral. I am a Kryee from the Pelegir Hills. I'm here to offer my guidance and whatever assistance is within my ability," the Kryee mind spoke as he paced over to where Blair was lying. He dropped the rabbit by Blair's feet. "While I am capable of hunting, I cannot prepare what I catch. You were correct that your friend needs both food and warmth. So instead of standing over there, with your mouth hanging open, why do you start cooking?" The Kryee padded over to where Blair was resting. He circled the spot twice before folding down to partially lie across Blair's legs, adding the body heat which could only help Blair at this point.
Closing his mouth with a snap, Jim efficiently gutted and placed the rabbit on a make-shift spit above the flames. He may not be able to prepare it as wonderfully seasoned as Blair, but it would be filling. Megan arrived back at the campsite shortly before the meal was ready. Jim laughed when he caught her expression when she first saw Hurral lying next to Blair by the fire.
"Join the party, Megan. Our guest is Hurral from the Pelegir Hills. He was kind enough to bring the evening meal with him."
"Well, I guess we don't need these then," Megan said, holding up a couple of tree-squirrels.
"A trade perhaps, since I prefer my food raw and the rabbit has already prepared for your taste, the squirrels could be mine?" Hurral suggested, his tongue drooping from the side of his mouth at the tasty meal dangling in front of him.
Megan shrugged. "Sounds fair to me," she said, holding the squirrels out to the Kryee.
Blair woke with a start, yelling and throwing his hands up in front of his face. "NO, don't touch me." He cried as he felt arms close around him holding him tight.
"Blair! It's okay," Jim spoke into his ear, not letting go until he felt the body in his arms calm as Blair realized he was safe.
"Jim?" Blair said weakly.
Jim released him and moved around to his side, propping a bedroll underneath Blair's head to raise him up a little to look around. "Yeah, we're outside the village. We're safe here, according to Burton and our guest."
"Our guest?" Blair asked puzzled, looking around him before spotting their four-legged guest.
"Blair, meet Hurral from the Pelegir Hills," Jim introduced.
"Wow, a Kryee. Wait a minute, weren't you at the Forest of Sorrows two fortnights ago? I thought I saw you slipping into the forest that morning," Blair asked excitedly.
"Yes, that was me, but the timing was not right for us to meet," Hurral answered.
"Great, do you mind if I ask you some questions later. There is very little information in the library about your people. I've always been curious about some of the stories, I've heard. Some of them seem a little far-fetched and is that rabbit I smell cooking? Okay, why are you all laughing again?"
"No reason, just happy to see you awake," Jim said. "You had us pretty worried there for a while."
Blair's expression darkened as he remembered the reason he had been unconsciousness. "Jim, we need to get those people out of the temple. Lash will kill them using that idol to drain them completely if we don't stop him.
He tried to sit up, but both Jim and Megan held him in his reclined position. "I've already dealt with Lash. He's dead, but the people in the temple are still very ill," Megan explained.
Blair thought about that for a moment before answering, "He's already stored their energy in the idol. If we can destroy the idol, it should flow back to the people it was stolen from."
"Let's come up with a plan first, before we go rushing in, okay?" Jim suggested.
Blair's eyes widened. "Who are you and what have you done with my partner?"
"I think I was just insulted. I am capable of planning you know," Jim replied, rubbing the top of Blair's head.
Blair chuckled at his partner's antics, but quickly turned serious again. "We also need to figure out how to deal with the idol. There must be a way to recover the life-force that has been stolen from the village."
"Fire has always been the preferred method for purification of evil objects," Hurral offered, joining the conversation.
"Are you suggesting that burning the carving will solve the problem?"
"No, the entire temple would have to be destroy in order to release the energy. The idol is the source of the spell, but the entire temple has been shielded to contain the stored energy. In order to heal the inhabitants of the village, the temple must be destroyed. Blair was correct in his supposition that the energy should flow back to the place it was stolen from. Within a few days everyone should recover their strength."
"What I don't understand is how someone as crazy as Lash ever become a Healer in the first place?" Jim questions, recalling the madness in healer's gaze.
"It was the theft of the energy that made him like that," Blair explained softly. "I think I have it figured out. The plague or spell is contained within the idol. When the Healer touches the idol, it enables him to drain the energy out of the people he is supposedly healing much faster than the idol alone. It's normally for a healer to touch the patient during a scan, from the outside to a layman everything appears normal. He drains their energy and stores it within himself until the next time he touches the idol. The spell then allows the energy to flow back within the carving. Unless you are a healer, you wouldn't see the energy flow."
"Why the madness?" Megan asked, not understanding the explanation.
"A person's energy is part of their personality. They are connected, inseparable. When Lash drained their energy part of it would always stay within him rather than transferring to the idol."
"Along with each victim's personality?" Megan said horrified.
Blair nodded. "All vying for domination and control of the body within his mind. He couldn't tell anymore where his mind stopped and the others began. I don't think anyone could have helped him. It had been too long. Killing him could probably be considered a merciful act."
"Will we be able to tell if we succeed by destroying the temple and the idol?" Jim said as he grabbed his sword from his pack.
"I will come with you," offered the Kryee. "My gift is strong enough to determine if the spell has been broken and I can use magic to shield myself from the effects of the spell."
"I'll stay here with Blair, I'm still strong enough to protect us," Megan offered.
Blair looked like he was going to protest, but as he tried to sit up even the small effort drained him. He settled back down before admonishing, "Be careful and watch your backs. Somehow Stoddard ties into this and he is nearby. I can feel him."
The trip back to the temple seemed to take forever. But soon enough, they were standing in front of the temple door. "See if you can find some skins of lamp oil. If we spread that on the floor, the fire should burn hotter and destroy this place completely," he asked the Kryee.
The Kryee slipped off into the darkness as Jim entered the room.
"Any of you who are mobile, help those who are not. Everyone must leave this building if you wish to recover from this plague. The inn is probably the best place to let everyone recover. Take nothing from this temple with you. It has all been contaminated," he ordered.
Several wagons and handcarts were located. Incacha along with Rafe's Companion volunteered to pull the wagons back and forth to assist with the evacuation. The injured were placed within those conveyances and efficiently relocated to the inn. Jim helped with the move as he awaited the Kryee's return. He was very pleased to see that Rafe was still hanging on.
The Kryee had located several small flasks, which he brought to the temple. It wasn't long before Jim was able to spread and ignite the oil. The fire was burning brightly when suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light from the building and the flames roared even higher into the night sky.
Jim didn't need the Kryee to tell him that the spell had been broken. He could sense the energy that was now flowing back into the villagers and the land. Whatever the spell was, Hurral had been correct in stating that it would be broken by the flames.
From the forest, on the other side of the flames from where he was standing, he heard a cry of rage. He focused on a man dressed in green standing in the trees. Healer Stoddard! It had to be him. For a moment, the man was too fixated on the burning building to notice, but all to soon he saw the Herald through the flames.
"You! I should have known that it was you who ruined this. Just as you and that ungrateful little trainee have slowed our plan for conquest from the very beginning. A plan that was initiated before you were even born. Don't you get it? The Master had a vision showing him of his success. Why do you fight destiny?" Stoddard voice rose above the crackling of the fire.
"Until I take my last breath, I will fight the forces of evil. What makes you think that this Master of yours is infallible? I do not know my destiny, how can you?"
"Not your destiny. Blair's! The Master has seen it. Blair's place in history was ordained before he was born and it is not to be a Herald at your side. You can't change his path. He should not have forsaken the Healer's Collegium. We were setting him on the path to his destiny. It was you who turned him away."
"What destiny?" Jim snorted.
"My Master showed us his vision, years ago. It was of a boy, who traveled about in wagons or on horseback, no permanent home. He possessed the most powerful gifts of healing and empathy I have ever experienced. The vision showed the boy at the Master's side as they crushed the last resistance of the Kingdom. I searched for years for this boy along with several other trusted members of the group who had sworn themselves to the Master. I knew the Blair was the one as soon as I came upon the caravan. Blair's power was obvious, even untrained. Blair's training was only to prepare him for our Master's will. Once he is at my Master's side, our victory is assured."
"You can't have him. He will never go with you willingly. He is a Herald now, and Guide to the Kingdom's Sentinel. He has found his destiny and it is not with you." As Jim spoke he was working his way around the flames in Stoddard's direction. The shadows made it difficult for Stoddard to see him, but Jim's enhanced eyesight gave him the advantage.
Jim was already halfway around the fire before Stoddard saw him and retreated into the forest. Sparing only a brief glance at the Kryee, Jim started running after him.
"Stay with him, Sentinel. I'll try to cut him off before he reaches the river," Hurral sent.
Jim opened up his senses as far as he could. He could not afford to lose Stoddard now. If he escaped their grasp now, more of the Kingdom's people would die and Blair's safety was at risk.
Stoddard could hear the Herald behind him, gaining rapidly. How was he moving so quickly when it was pitch black? He was constantly tripping over tree roots and being slapped by overhanging branches slowing drastically his escape. He could also sense someone else had gotten almost in front of him on his right, probably one of those damn Companions, though he couldn't hear hoofs striking the ground. He angled more to his left still hoping to lose his pursuers.
He knew his Master was due at any time now to collect the energy promised to him. If he could remain free long enough, surely the Master would aid one of his most humble servants. Stoddard felt the fear growing within him as his trackers closed in. He felt the presence of the Dark One strengthen. He slowed his pace and waited. The Master hated the Heralds who had thwarted his original plan, Stoddard recalled. Hopefully, he would be angrier with them for spoiling his plans then at me for failing to deliver what I had promised him. They had not sent enough energy across for Him to fully manifest in this world. He still needed the healers to send him more energy.
Though Stoddard had a head start, Jim was using his senses to track him easily. It was a full moon tonight and it was approaching its zenith in the night sky. To Jim's eyes, the woods were as bright as daylight. He quickly picked up the trail and was surprised when he heard voices, or more specifically, Stoddard's voice in the distance.
"Master, I have failed you. The Heralds came upon the temple and annihilated it before I could remove the idol. Please, give me a little time. If you will help me get away from these Heralds, I will send you the energy you need. I will serve you now and during your reign, faithfully and without question. Please, assist me now in my time of need," Stoddard begged.
Using the cover provided by the trees, the Sentinel approached a clearing. He could see Healer Stoddard clearly. In front of Stoddard was someone, or something, else. It was pure black and shapeless, floating a foot above the ground. When it spoke, its voice was grating and high pitched. Even to enhanced eyesight, it appeared to be fading in and out.
"You made a deal, Stoddard. You swore blood oath unto me. The price for your freedom, position and power was to serve me and provide the energy I require. You know the price for failure."
"No, Master! Please! There is another village a few hours away. I'll provide double what was promised this evening. Just give me a little time," Stoddard pleaded, falling to his knees before the Shadow.
"You know the price and payment is now required." The shadow attacked the Healer. Stoddard was writhing on the ground, screaming and wailing. The shadow seemed to suck the life right out of him. This wasn't a draining of energy like what was occurring to the villages. By the time the Shadow was done with the body, there was nothing left but a stack of bones, which turned to dust before Jim's eyes.
The Shadow was glowing now and moving in Jim's direction. He felt a warm nose at his hand. Hurral was standing at his side. The Shadow stopped and floated before them. "Soon, Sentinel. Soon, I will have enough power that nothing will stand against me. You and your people will be my first conquest. The one you protect will be mine. Bring him to me. I give you a choice. Join me now or stand against me and die later. Choose!
"I choose option three," Jim answered calmly. The Kryee snorted aloud.
"You mock me. You fool," the Shadow answered.
"No mocking here. I plan on kicking you back to whatever rock or astral plane you crawled out of."
"You'll regret this decision. You should have joined me. Now, your death is a certainty," the Shadow threatened as it faded away.
"Not today," Jim said as he headed back to the village. "Not today."
Blair was the first of the group to wake. The sun hadn't even risen yet. He vaguely remembered Jim and Hurral returning the previous night well after midnight and hearing Jim telling Megan that the plague and Stoddard had all been handled, permanently.
While he was overjoyed about the end of the plague and the demise of Healer Lash, his emotions concerning Stoddard's death were not so clear. The man had been his mentor. He had helped Blair cope with the slaughter of his family and his newly awakened powerful gifts. Now he would never know if Stoddard had truly cared about him or had he been a servant of the enemy even back then.
The sky to the east was slowly brightening. He watched the spectacular display of color fill the sky as the sun rose. A new day was beginning. It was time to let go of the past. Stoddard was gone. There was no point in dwelling on what could not be changed.
"Wow, that was beautiful," Jim whispered reverently.
"I love watching the sunrise. Helps put things into perspective," Blair answered.
The two men continued to watch the sky, each unwilling to break the spell woven by the beauty of nature. It was only when Hurral cleared his throat when their attention was drawn back to the present.
"I must return to the hills, tell my people and the Tayledras people what has occurred here. I am the historian for my pack. I was collecting the history of the Tayledras people from the Mage Starfire when he underwent the strongest foresight vision he had ever experienced. It frightened him badly enough that he was going to call a council of all the clans. The two of you were part of his vision, which is why he sent me to you. He has a message for you."
Hurral closed his eyes and when he finally started speaking, the voice was not his own. "You must travel as quickly as possible to the city of Kata'shin'a'in. In order for all our peoples to survive the coming crisis, we must act as one people with one purpose. Three peoples must become one, led by the four with the gifts to defeat the Darkness. On the knife's edge is the boy born to the people with no permanent home. On one side of the knife, darkness, on the other, light. The fate of the world depends on which side of the knife the boy falls upon." The kyree reopened his eyes, but did not say another word.
"What does that mean?" Jim asked, finally breaking the silence.
"Three people becoming one probably means the Kalad'a'in, the Shin'a'in and those of us from the Kingdom. Sounds like an alliance of some sort is needed to be formed," Blair proposed.
"And the part about the four with the gifts? Admittedly, we are probably two of the four, but where are the other two?" Jim said, scratching his head.
"Perhaps we'll find them in Kata'shin'a'in," Blair said sagely. "At least we know why the enemy has been seeking me. That part about the boy born to the people with no home sounds like me," Blair added.
Jim remained silent on that point. He much preferred Starfire's version of the vision to Stoddard's explanation. If Blair truly was the boy in the vision, the future may have already been partially changed as the result of Blair's decision to become a Herald.
Megan joined the conversation. "I will stay, until the villagers are back on their feet again. The Queen's trackers are due to arrive within a few hours. They can carry the message back to Haven about the carved idols. Those with the gift of empathy are obviously sensitive to the spell. We will search out any remaining idols and see they are destroyed."
"Until the Enemy comes up with another method of attack," Blair said pessimistically.
"Healer Stoddard is no longer a threat. Dean Edwards can do little now that we know how to stop the magic causing the plague. The destruction of a few temples is a small price to pay. The two of you should go south as fast as you can. It seems pretty clear that the next attack the Enemy launches is going to be there. Find the allies we need to stop this. There has already been too much death this season," Megan ordered.
"We'll leave in the morning," Jim answered.
"I'll return to Starfire and explain what has happened here. See what advice he has to offer. If there have been any changes, I will seek the two of you either on the Plains or in Kata'shin'a'in." Hurral said.
Dean Joel slammed his hand down on the desk. "How could she have gotten away? I thought we doubled her watchers after Stoddard managed to give his guard the slip?"
"We did," Simon answered calmly. "We are still on her trail. We know she is heading south. There wasn't anything my men could have done. Once we received the word that the cause of the plague was identified, her mission was officially over. She could not continue with her private conspiracy without the official cover of investigating the plague. We had no reason to hold her."
"I know," Joel said sadly, rubbing his now numb hand. "At least there haven't been any more deaths. We stopped them from killing more of our people."
"I'm not so sure about that," Simon began. "Did we stop them or had they collected a sufficient amount of energy for the next part of their plan? I expected there to be a least one or two more outbreaks in the border areas. Either they have gotten all the energy they require or word has already spread that we have uncovered their plan. If it is the former, we are in even more danger. If it is the latter, this tells me that they have a very efficient method of passing information within their group of which we are completely unaware."
"I hadn't considered those possibilities," Joel replied thoughtfully. "You think there are more healers involved in this conspiracy?"
"I hope not. The villages to the south were all the work of that Healer Lash. But, I still want to question Dean Edwards under the truth spell. I believe she is the mastermind to this scheme. I'm heading south personally to assume command of this investigation. "
"I was assuming that was Father Brackett was the leader of this conspiracy."
"I can't see Brackett working closely with a woman. He has little respect for them in public. I can't imagine him ever taking orders from one. No, I believe that there were several minor conspiracies working independently within the Palace before Learth made his move. Learth was strong enough to unite them into one plot under his command. When our people defeated the dark coven thwarting the original plan, the members resumed their own original initiatives. We still have our work cut out for us in rooting them out."
"I wish I could join you, but I cannot leave the Collegium right now. The Companions have Chosen new Heralds in record numbers. Right now the only unpartnered Companions are those that are less than two years old. Normally, Companions do not selected their Heralds until they are at least five. I'm not sure if this is in response to the Heralds we have already lost or if there is some new danger on the horizon."
"I'll see to it that you receive regular reports back. Henri has already requested permission to accompany me. We plan on meeting Rafe and Megan in Sweetsprings. They should be recovered enough to head south with us by the time we get there."
"Thank you, Lord Simon. Good luck to you. Give my regards to Jim and Blair when you see them."
That statement puzzled Simon. "I believe you misunderstood. We are going after Edwards not Jim and Blair."
"Edwards is going after Jim and Blair. My guess is you will all meet up together," Joel explained with a grin.
One Month later
It had been a long journey, but they had finally arrived at the city of Kata'shin'a'in. They stood on the hill, looking down on the brightly colored city. Blair stood up on stirrups to get a better view. As he examined the city, he noticed that the roof of each building was a different color.
"Why would anyone paint the roof on a house?" he said with a laugh, settling back down.
Jim's enhanced eyesight had revealed what Blair couldn't discern at this distance. "They are not buildings, they're tents," Jim replied. "Hundreds of tents, I can only see a few permanent buildings."
"I guess that makes sense. Most of the Shin'a'in people spend their entire lives travelling the plains. They probably feel more comfortable in tents than within stone walls."
The Companions picked their path along the crowded streets. Merchants selling every different type of merchandise were hawking their wares as they passed by. Jim led them onto a side street. He had spotted an inn just off the main market area. It was the only permanent buildings in the area.
As they entered the courtyard, the innkeeper with a young boy met them at the gate.
"Welcome, Heralds. Do you wish a room?" The innkeeper asked jovially.
The two Heralds were speechless. They had not expected to be recognized here, so far from Valdemar. The innkeeper chuckled at their faces.
"Yes, I know all about you Heralds. If those silly white uniforms hadn't already clearly identified you in this city of color, these beautiful Companions are a definite give-away. The abilities of your Companions are legendary here and they are often compared to the Shin'a'in battlesteeds. This is my son, Rone. He will care for your Companions. I have trained him well and he has spent the last two summers with his Shin'a'in friend while they travel with the herds. Why don't you come inside and tell me what brings two Heralds to our fair city."
The Heralds hid their amusement as the boy smiled and bowed slightly before the two Companions. "My Da tells me that your Companions are smarter than most people he knows. I'll take good care of them. I promise, Sirs."
Blair dismounted, looping the reins loosely around the saddle horn. The boy knew enough about Companions not to bother to reach for the halter. "If you'll follow me, Lady and Sir Companion, we have big paddock with a really nice lean-to for you to take shelter under when the sun is out. I know that you wouldn't like being kept in stables like regular horses so it's the best place for you to stay. The Hawk clan uses it to stable their battlesteeds when they pass through here. I think you'll like it. Okay?"
Burton tossed his head and snorted while Incacha nuzzled the boy's cheek fondly. Jim nodded to the boy, "Sounds perfect. Lead the way. They'll follow."
They watched the boy lead their Companions around the inn until they disappeared from view. The three men proceeded into the inn. The common room was lined with tables and benches. The wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread wafted from the kitchen.
"The price of a room is five trade silvers per day, which includes bed, breakfast and dinner. Sorry, but there is only one room available, but it is large enough for the two of you. There is a bathhouse out back. Cost is two pennies. It's another silver for each of your Companions, but that includes feed. How does that sound, Heralds? Oh, and my name is Harrold."
"Sounds just fine. My name is Blair. This is Jim." Blair reached into his belt pouch for the silvers. "I don't know about you, Jim, but a hot bath sounds good to me right now. Wash some of this dust off us."
"Count me in. Pay the man, partner," Jim said flippantly, earning a dirty look from his partner.
Blair raised his eyebrows and shook his head, but he paid the man.
Jim smiled and reassured, "Next one is on me. Swear!"
"The bathhouse is free right now. Dinner will be served in about a candlemark, so you have plenty of time. Maybe over dinner, you'll be willing to tell the tale of your journey?" Harrold asked wistfully."
Jim and Blair looked hesitantly at each other, discussing the idea without the necessity of words. Blair nodded once slightly before Jim responded, "Over dinner, and perhaps you'll be able to help us with our search."
"I'll have Rone take the rest of your belongings up to your room. Go up the stairs and turn left. It is the last room in the hall on the right. I'll just let the wife know there will be a few more for dinner," Harrold said.
They took their time in the bathhouse, soaking their aching muscles. All too soon, they heard the approach of others heading their way. Regretfully, they went to their rooms to unpack before the sound of the dinner bell drew them into the common room. They sat down at an empty table in the corner furthest from the fireplace, knowing that their host would join them eventually. They wished to keep a low profile here, not drawing attention to themselves.
They didn't have to wait long. Harrold brought them plates and utensils before sitting down with them. He didn't speak. He just stared, expectantly at them. A serving girl appeared shortly after with the food.
"We are here to hopefully meet with one of the Shin'a'in clans. We have a matter of great urgency that we need to discuss with them. I wish I could explain further, but I'm not permitted to speak freely of the situation," Jim said as he cut up the meat on the platter in front of him.
Blair reached for the bread and cheese with a sly grin at the pretty young serving girl. She blushed at his attention and fled back into the kitchen.
"Well, the most likely place to find a Shin'a'in is in the beast market. They trade goats and sheep in addition to their infamous horses. If you don't have any success there, you might want to try the textile section. The Shin'a'in produces some of the most colorful weavings I have ever seen. The textile area is south of the main market. The Beast market is on the southern edge of Kata'shin'a'in so it's right on the way. They are always very careful to set up the beast market upwind of the city. During the heat of the summer, the smell can get a pretty overwhelming."
"We aren't here on a trade issue. We are here seeking information. Specifically, we are seeking the counsel from a Shin'a'in Shaman. We have been told only a Shaman is likely to possess the knowledge we seek."
Harrold scratched the underside of his chin. "Well, that's a different situation. Those religious types, they gather in their own special area on the plateau. They don't like the noise and clatter from the bazaar. They mainly keep to themselves during the fair. This year, I hear rumors of problems among the clans. All the Shamans from each of the clans have representatives up there this season. I've never heard tell of this before. I'd start with the beast market first. Seek out the Tale'sedrin. They are more open to you Outlanders than most of the other clans. I'll draw you a map out of how to get there. There are a few twists and turns when it comes to navigating through the bazaar."
Tra'heren looked down upon the bazaar from her vantage point high above the city. She saw the two strangers dressed in white wandering from stall to stall. They were not buying. They were not even haggling. They were asking questions about the location of the Tale'sedrin.
Normally the idea of two outlanders seeking her clan would have caused great distress and concern. But, the aura surrounding these two men was of pure white light. Each had a spirit guide. A wolf that was playfully bouncing after the two men followed the smaller, dark haired one. The larger had a midnight colored Grasscat following him at a more sedate pace.
She now understood part of the puzzle the Goddess had challenged them with this season, but her answer would not soothe her people. She turned back into her tent. Her two young charges were still sleeping peacefully amidst the scattered cushions. The older boy protectively wrapped around the younger.
They appeared so innocent, yet they were the cause of so much strife among her people. There had never been such discord among the clans before. Tempers had not been this volatile since the days when the Shin'a'in people and the Kaled'a'in people had been united. She was the oldest of the Shamans who were gathered this fair. Though she did not agree with their assessment, the others recognized her as the wisest among them. At least, they would grant her the respect of hearing her out, but would they listen and accept? She sighed as she tucked the children back under the blanket.
She reached for her cooking pot. The children would wake hungry. Boys this age were always hungry. As she added the water to the pot, she felt the Darkness arrive. It was here, only the purest evil would cause this strong a reaction in her soul. She headed outside, opening her gifts to its widest. It didn't take long for her to find the Darkness. It was stalking the two Outlanders. They were unaware of the danger that followed them.
There was no time left to tell the council her suspicions. She would have to act now and ask their forgiveness later. She called for a messenger and requested the presence of Devan. As one of the Swordsworn, he would be capable of protecting the Outlanders and bring them here under her protection.
Jim leaned against the retaining wall as his partner spoke with the Shin'a'in silk merchant. Blair smiled as he shook the man's hand, but the smile quickly faded as he moved away from the booth in search of his friend. When their eyes met, he shook his head. "Damn," Jim muttered. This was getting them no where. They had spoken with five different merchants in this section of the fair and none of them could or were willing to help them.
"No luck. He said that the Shaman of his clan did not make the trip this time," Blair said when he joined Jim. "I guess we are going to have to head for the beast market."
They were not having much luck getting anyone to help them find a Shaman. The excuses were always different. Either they had left already, or they were yet to arrive, but the result was always the same. No one was willing to help them.
They wove their way through the increasing crowd. Blair could tell they were closing in on the beast market. The smell was distinct and if he could smell it "Jim, turn the wheel for smell all the way down, buddy. Turn it as low as you can."
"Trying, but it's hard to concentrate. It's so crowded and noisy," Jim answered with a grimace, his hand moving to hold his head.
Blair looked around for a quiet place. He saw a little alleyway to their left and pushed his larger friend over into the entrance against the wall.
"Concentrate on my voice and the other sounds will fade to the background. Now, find the wheel that says smell. Do you have it?" After Jim nodded, he continued, "Okay, now turn it all the way, until you can't smell anything."
He waited, watching Jim concentrate on following his instructions. Finally, his Sentinel smiled, "Thanks!" Blair fell in behind him when they left the alley so he didn't actually see what happened until he ran into Jim's back.
"Hey, what did you stop for?" he asked indignantly as he was bounced back a step.
Jim didn't answer. Instead of turning around, he slumped over, his shoulder hitting the wall. Blair moved around in front of him. It was then that he saw the knife handle sticking out of his partner's stomach.
"What? How?" Blair cried out as his hands immediately put pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding. Jim's knee's buckled and he slid down the wall. Before he could follow his partner down to the ground, a hand shoved him away from his friend. He found himself staring up at the assassin, who was holding another dagger similar to the one stuck in this partner.
Blair climbed to his feet, pulling out his own knife, assuming the defensive stance Rafe had pounded into him several months previous. It was his turn to defend his partner.
"So, little wolf pup, you think your teeth are sharp enough to hurt me do you," the assassin sneered. "Why do you run from your destiny? Surrender now! Do not force me to hurt you, because either way you are coming with me. I can inflict a lot of pain without doing any permanent damage, so drop the knife."
Blair dodged the lunge the assassin used, counterstriking catching the man's clothes, but doing little damage to the man.
"Close, pup, but not good enough," The man said surprised by Blair's quickness. He sneered as he feinted with the hand holding the dagger, but instead of striking he backhanded Blair across the face with his bare hand.
The blow was powerful, knocking Blair to the ground, again. He got to his feet more slowly this time, rubbing his sore cheek. He knew the man was playing with him, but it didn't matter. He would defend his Sentinel or die trying. He would rather be dead then be forced to go with this man.
"I'm more your speed Dark one. Why don't you try me?" Said a deep voice from behind the assassin. Blair looked over the killer's shoulder to see a man dressed in deep brown clothes wielding a blade with great skill and precision.
The assassin's eyes widened as he recognized this new opponent. "This is not your fight, Swordsworn. Leave now and I'll let you live," the assassin taunted, but Blair could sense he was nervous battling the other man.
"Ah, an interesting offer, but I must turn it down. However, I'll make the same offer to you," The Swordsworn offered as he twirled his blade.
While the two men were bantering, Blair moved back towards his partner, who had regained awareness and was now curled up in a ball. His bloody hands holding his ears as he rocked back and forth.
"Too loud, can't control it! All out of control," he muttered through clenched teeth still holding his head.
Blair took a hold of his partner, pulling him over to lean against him. He pulled one of Jim's hands away from his head and started rubbing his fingers back and forth across the knuckles. "Okay, listen to me. I want you to concentrate on my voice and my touch. Don't talk anymore, close your eyes, and try to breathe only through your mouth. Limit the input to your senses as much as you can. There is nothing but the sound of my voice and the touch of my fingers on the back of your hand. Got it?"
He had never deliberately tried to force Jim into the grayness before, but he didn't see any other options. Jim's rocking was causing more damage with the knife still embedded in his stomach. He felt the muscles under his hands relax as Jim drifted away. He continued to speak softly to his partner.
"Nicely done, my Chosen. Incacha and I are almost there. Hold on a little longer," Burton's voice spoke inside his head.
"That's it, buddy. Nothing but my voice and my fingers." He hoped that by having Jim focus on two of his senses, he would not become completely lost in the grayness. He took his free hand and removed the knife, healing as much of the damage as he could as he pulled the weapon free. He succeeded in stopping most of the bleeding, but there was obviously muscle damaged and he could not drop into a healing scan with losing track of the outside world to determine how deep the blade went. They were not out of danger, so he couldn't afford to do that yet.
Now that Jim was stable, Blair's attention returned to the two men who were continuing their duel. If their advocate lost, Blair knew he would have to continue the battle. He need not have worried. The battle lasted only a few minutes with their champion being the victor. He cleaned his sword upon the assassin's tunic before turning to the two Heralds. He started towards them, but stopped when Blair flinched backwards, raising his own blade.
"Fear not, little brother. I'm here to help. My name is Devan, and my clan's Shaman asked me to bring the two of you to her. She wishes to speak with you."
The Swordsworn sheathed his sword before kneeling down to check Jim's wound. Using his blade, he cut one of the sleeves from Jim's tunic. "Use this as a bandage. It will hold until we reach our camp. Your Companions are close, are they not?"
Before Blair could answer, the Companions arrived. Incacha reached them first. When she was close enough, she went to her knees before them. With help from the benefactor, Blair was able to climb on her back with Jim in tow.
"Continue as you have begun, little brother, and all will be well." Devan said as he helped Blair maintain his balance as Incacha stood.
"Why do you call me little brother?" Blair asked, continuing to rub circles on the back of his partner's hand.
"You are a Shaman, are you not? That role makes me your brother and I am older than you can image, which make you little brother. May I have your permission to ride your Companion? We need to reach our camp as quickly as possible. That one was not alone, he was only the first to find you. The others are coming this way."
"Burton?" Blair asked, leaving the decision up to his Companion.
Burton moved closer to the Swordsworn, then pivoted allowing him to mount.
"My thanks, Shining One," Devan said, nodding his head to Burton.
"No," Blair replied, "It is we who are in your debt."
"There is no debt between friends and Tre'heren has said that you are to be our friends."
Devan led them out of the city. Blair whispered softly in Jim's ear, keeping him focused on the two senses, afraid that if he stopped, Jim would lose his way. He opened a channel between them, feeding Jim all the energy he could spare and managed to keep pressure on the bandage, minimizing the blood loss the best he could.
He hadn't realized they had arrived at their destination until he held Devan's voice calling to him.
"Blair, you can let go now. We need to move him inside. You have to let us help him now."
"Don't You can't separate us You don't understand," Blair stuttered, unable to concentrate enough to find the words to explain. He lost his balance as Incacha went to her knees. Devan and another man he did not recognize lifted Jim away from him. A gentle hand helped him down from the saddle.
Even in the semi-conscious state he was in, Jim knew the instant that he was separated from his guide. He struggled against the hands that were supporting him, not able to comprehend they were trying to help.
"We understand better than you realize, little brother. Continue to speak to him. Let him know you are still here and come with us," said the elderly woman at this elbow. He felt her, more than heard her. He felt the sincerity of her words, but more importantly, he felt her connect to his shields and increase the healing energy he was able to send to his partner.
"Easy Jim, It's okay to relax now. We're among friends. Don't fight them, buddy. Let them help."
As soon as he spoke, Jim calmed immediately and drifted back into the grayness. Blair continued to speak as the two men laid Jim upon a pallet of soft cushions inside the tent. The man who had rescued them moved aside and gestured for him to take his place at Jim's right side. Blair knelt down on the cushions reaching his hand out to determine just how serious the injury was and the extent of the damage. The other man blocked his motion.
"You no longer have the strength, little brother. Please permit me to help. For now you must be the Guide. Keep your Sentinel from becoming lost in the grayness. Allow me to be the healer," he ordered firmly.
The healer took Blair's silence as agreement and finished healing the wound inflicted during the fight. Blair continued to speak softly to his Sentinel, not sure anymore if Jim was capable of hearing him or not.
The healer shifted back on his heels with a smile. "He lost a lot of blood, but he was quite fortunate. The blade penetrated none of the organs. He'll need a few days of bed-rest, but he'll be fine."
He heard the sound of his partner's voice, arguing with a woman. He moaned, raising a hand to his head.
"Jim? You awake?" Blair asked softly.
"Where are we?" he asked without opening his eyes, feeling the soft silk of the pallet he was lying on instead of the woolen blankets that covered the beds at the inn.
"The Shin'a'in Shaman found us, just in time too. How are you feeling?"
He opened his eyes and blinked several times as his vision wavered, "Which one of you should I answer?"
"How many of me are there?" Blair frowned.
"Sometimes two, sometimes three, varies," he said drowsily, waving his hand back and forth.
Blair chuckled. "Why don't you go back to sleep then. We'll talk again when there's only one of me."
"Sounds good, don't think I can handle two of you at the same time," he mumbled as he drifted back to sleep again.
Blair sighed and checked again for the fever, but it appeared to be gone for good. He adjusted the blankets covering his partner, before he stood up and moved back over to the fire.
"Do not worry so. He will be fine. Now, will you refresh yourself? Tre'heren asked. "You have seen that he is doing much better, or am I going to have the healer force you to rest."
"No need for violence, Shaman. I surrender to your demand that I rest," Blair said with a smile as he rubbed a painful spot tension had formed between his eyes.
"You are old enough to know better than to question your elders. Eat first, then sleep, remain next to your Sentinel. He will rest more peacefully if you are close by." She shook her head, muttering under her breath as she moved to the fire, "More stubborn than the young ones you are. Guides are all the same. Care more for those in your charge than yourselves," she muttered as she spooned soup into a bowl from the kettle over the fire.
He chortled at her commentary. She reminded him of his grandmother who had died when he was six. "Have you known many guides?" he asked curiously as he accepted the bowl offered.
"Eat first, sleep next, all your questions will be answered later," she said sternly, pointing at the bowl.
"Yes, Mother," Blair teased, but with respect.
Tre'heren regarded him with a steely-eyed glare before smiling and patting his cheek before heading outside.
The next time Jim woke, he heard the sweet music of his friend's snoring. He opened his eyes and looked to the right. Blair was stretched out a few feet away, sleeping peacefully. One of his arms was stretched across the small gap between them, maintaining physical contact between them. Jim gently removed Blair's hand from his arm. He brushed his hand across the cheek mottled with an ugly bruise. He couldn't recall when Blair had been hit, which bothered him tremendously.
He sat up and slowly stretched. He winced, as his stomach let him knew that motion was not a good idea. He was startled to hear a woman's voice, "Move slowly, it was not that long ago there was a hole in you. How are you feeling, Sentinel?"
"Much better, and please, call me Jim."
"As you wish, would you like something to eat? There is oatmeal."
"Yes, thank you," Jim said, glancing worriedly at this guide.
"Hmph, at least you are not as stubborn as your Guide. I thought I would have to tie him down in order to feed him and get him to rest."
"He does have a one-track mind at times," Jim said, chuckling.
"So do you," retorted a sleepy voice from the pallet next to his.
"Morning, Blair," Jim said sweetly.
Blair sat up rubbing his eyes, before glaring at the man across from him. His eyes came to rest on Tre'heren, "Is it time for answers now?" He asked with a wry grin.
Her response was to roll her eyes and hand over two bowls of oatmeal. "Finish eating and then we will talk."
When Jim had finished eating, he tried to get up, but the twinge in his stomach indicated this was not a good idea.
"I don't think a lot of movement is a good idea for you just yet," Blair said.
"I'm not gonna argue with you. I'll just sit here and listen for a while."
Tre'heren narrowed eyes and said, "For now both of you will listen. Do you know our history?" Both men shook their heads. "The old records document that once there were nine clans that lived on the Dhorisa Plain. After the Great War, there was an argument among the people. Five of the clans believed in the necessity of continuing to use magic, even after the destruction it had wrought during the War. Four of the clans did not. Those that wanted to continue to use magic left the plains, forbidden to return."
She cleared her throat before continuing, "The forty clans that make their home on the plains are all descended from these original four clans that forbid the use of magic. There was Tale'sedrin, who are the Children of the Hawk, the Liha'irden, who are the Deer-sibs, the Vuysher'edras, who are the Brothers of the Wolves, and finally, the Pretera'sedrin, who are the Children of the Grasscats. Each clan is considered an independent unit, gathering only to trade. Each has their own Shaman and Council of Elders. Competition is fierce between the young. Fights are common as each clan tries to prove they are the strongest."
The occupants of the tents could hear the sound of two boys playing by the tent opening. Their raised voices discussing who was faster supported the statements made by the Shaman. She rose to her feet and moved to the entrance. "Kaleny, fill the bucket with fresh water and bring it to me," she called.
"Recently, a difficult puzzle was presented to the clans. It has generated much anger between the clans. The Council of Elders has yet to discuss the matter without parties leaving in anger." The arrival of the two boys carrying the bucket between them interrupted her story.
As the two boys set the bucket down before them, Jim was surprised to see a small buck standing next to the taller boy. Blair saw the Hawk swoop into the tent and take up position by the younger boy. The puzzle that Hurral had given them was solved. They were looking at the next generation of Sentinel and Guide.
There were even more amazed when the taller boy moved closer to Jim and stared, "You're like me, aren't you?" the boy asked.
"Yes, I am the same as you. I'm very pleased to meet you," Jim replied, sitting up and offering his hand.
The boy shook his hand with a firm grip. "My name is Kaleny. This is Hibil. He's my best friend."
"That's my friend, Blair. He is my best friend."
The boy nodded politely to Blair before turning to Tra'heren. "Can we go down to the bazaar? Velan asked us to help with the herd."
She nodded and waved the two boys out of the tent.
"Each summer all the clans gather here to trade. This summer there is anger between the clans. Kaleny was born to the Liha'irden ten summers ago. Hibil was born to the Tale'sedrin seven summers ago."
"But I thought that Sentinel and Guide were always born to the same clan," Blair said.
"They always have in the past. The Star-eyed one had her own reasons for doing it differently this time. I believe Her intention was to have the four clans unite for some purpose."
"That explains two of the four clans. Why would the other two clans be involved?"
"Because. Blair, your familiar is the Wolf. James, yours is the Grasscat. I have seen them. The other Shamans will see them too when I bring you before the Council. Two Sentinels and two Guides, each from a different clan."
"At least we know who the four are who will led the fight," Blair said. At Tre'heren's questioning look, he explained, "A puzzle a friendly Kryee put to us not that long ago."
"Before the Star-Eyed One healed the Dhorisha Plans after the Great War, she demanded a price be paid. Each of the remaining clans swore an oath. We must keep all strangers out of the Plains, no matter the cost to the people. There were two exceptions made to this oath. The first was those willing to pledge themselves into the Clans. The second are prospective allies. She said they would be marked in ways we could recognize."
"Like you being able to see our familiars," Blair added excitedly.
"I believe so. You will be tested and judged though," she warned.
"How?" Jim asked warily. He didn't like the sound of the word tests.
"Not by us, but by Her. You will enter the tent-shrine. When you exit the shrine, she will have given us our answer. Do not worry, you will not be harmed. That is not our way."
"There is another piece of this puzzle which does not appear to be known to you. Our sources suggest that there is a third group that must join this alliance," Blair warned.
The Shaman thought about this for a moment, "The kalad'a'in. Do not mention this to the others yet. It will be difficult enough for them to accept the two of you. Give me time to soften the blow. I have not explained any of what I just told you to the Council yet. I'm not sure they will accept this as easily as you have."
"I don't think we have a lot of time here. The forces of Darkness have been plotting a long time. We stopped them the last time, but it was very close. They are much better prepared and organized then we are."
"The Council is already gathering. I will present my arguments. Then, we will all do what we must."
Tre'heren sighed before pulling back the flap to the tent. This would be a difficult meeting. Most of the other Clan Council members had gathered in the tent before her. Since this was a gathering of the full Council of Elders for all four clans, there was little room to move around inside the tent. It was stiflingly hot and stuffy. She was glad she had worn her thinnest robes.
She moved across the tent to the area set aside for her clan, the Tale'sedrin. She studied the others already present. She was fairly experienced at judging the temperament of a gathering even without invoking her gift, which was forbidden during Council meetings. In this case, the mood was clearly not in her favor. Her own people were displeased by her actions. Not that it mattered. Things would have to change. There was no time for individual egos to be stroked or placated. The Clans must be united if they were going to defeat the Darkness, which was once again casting its shadow across the Plains.
As soon as she took her designated place, the questioning began. "Why did you bring the Outlanders among us, Tre'heren? They have no place here. We have enough problems of our own without including those of the Outlanders. Devan should not have been sent to assist them. The assassin would have dealt with them without getting us involved. You have overstepped your authority as our Shaman." The speaker was Morar, leader for the Tale'sedrin.
Tre'heren studied his face and stiff posture. Her eyes narrowed as if she was displeased by what she perceived. "Is the cause of your anger my actions in bringing the Outlanders here, or are you angry because I did not include you in the decision ahead of time?" she asked. Morar 's face became bright red with anger. His lack of a response was answer enough.
Devan also was not pleased by Morar's attitude, "It is true, Tre'heren requested my help. But, I had the permission and the blessing of the Star-Eyed One or I would have not gone. She has indicated to me, these two Outlanders are very important to the Shin'a'in people. I would have aided them without Tre'heren's request. "
"Why did you bring them among us? You do nothing without reason, Tre'heren," Rosha declared calmly. She was the Shaman for the Pretera'sedrin. She was young and lacked practical experience, but her power of analytical and logical thinking was a tremendous asset to her people. Right now, Rosha was in the late stages of her pregnancy and prone to mood swings. Her reaction to this situation would be unpredictable. If Tre'heren could convince Rosha, most of the others of her clan would be willing to listen.
"Have you seen them, Rosha?"
The Outlanders had caused much curiosity among her people. The majority of them had never left the Plains, therefore had no idea how an Outlander looked. Most had tried to catch a glimpse of her guests when they had arrived. She also recalled an off-handed comment Blair had made about feeling like he was on display each time he had ventured out into the camp.
Rosha nodded. "Yes, and before you ask, I have seen that the taller one is tied to a midnight hued grasscat," she answered with a smile. "Another part of the puzzle has been given to us. Has it not, Wise One?"
Tre'heren smiled, please by Rosha's perceptive response. It appeared she had allies within the tent as well as enemies. Someone beside herself was seeing the larger picture. Rosha did not need to be convinced. She had already seen the potential ramifications for herself.
Council meetings were tedious affairs. Though the hierarchy of the Shin'a'in government was very strict, the system had worked successfully for thousands of years. Someone would present an idea. Each clan would discuss it amongst themselves, then argue the position before the group. Several such individual discussions began as soon as Rosha finished speaking all around the tent.
A Clan Chief sat with three main advisors who represented their clan. The first was the Shaman who was selected by the Goddess. The second was the War Leader of the clan, who wore only shades of red. This identified them to people and to the young whom they instructed in the art of war. The third advisor was the Clan Healer, who like their counterpart in the Kingdom dressed only in green. In addition to these four, the Clan elected five elders to serve on the Clan Council. The Clan Chiefs with their three advisors each sat in a circle around the fire pit in the middle of the tent. The five elders sat behind them, they had to remain silent during the meetings because they were there only to observe.
All total, there were thirty-six people present during full meetings that represented the interests of the four clans. Anyone who was Swordsworn also attended the Council meetings, but as guardians, and if necessary, as enforcers to prevent blood from being spilt. Debate often became very hostile and no Shin 'a' in was ever without at least one weapon, even the children. Recently, that was the role they performed most often as the clans fought over the future of two little boys.
"I do not wish to discuss these Outlanders. They are secondary in consideration to the other issue on the table. I want Morar to release Hibal from his birthplace among the Tale'sedrin, so that he can assume his place beside his Sentinel." A short but bulky man slammed his riding crop onto the ground before climbing to his feet. Tifera was the leader for the Liha'irden clan. The riding crop was his symbol of office, which he waved around like a banner each Council meeting. He was relatively new to the position. His pride and arrogance in response to his recent advancement often got the better of him during most meetings.
"The Tale'sedrin has no other Shaman born to its people beyond Tre'heren. Hibal is to be her inheritor. He cannot be released. In the years ahead, the Tale'sedrin cannot be without a Shaman to guide us," Morar yelled in response. "The solution is for the Liha'irden to release Kaleny. He will be adopted into my clan. Sentinel and guide must be raised together. It has always been so." Before anyone could stop him, Morar moved across the circle until he was face to face with Tifera.
"Unacceptable! My people live on the land that borders on those of the Outlanders. Having a Sentinel will help prevent any incursion onto the Plains. We cannot release him, we need his gifts to protect the Plains," Tifera retorted, pointing his finger at Morar. Before the two men could come to blows, one of the Swordsworn moved between the two Clan Chiefs giving a clear instruction to both men to return to their seats.
The muttering among the individual clans rose again. This was an old argument, one that had been brought up several times over the last several days. Neither side would give an inch. Having a Sentinel and Guide pairing in a clan brought power and wealth. The proposal to foster both boys to a neutral third clan was also unacceptable to both Tifera and Morar.
"Be quiet all of you. We have discussed that issue to impasse. None of the available options is acceptable to all," said the Shaman for the Vuysher'edras. His name was Protea.
"Protea, have you see the Outlanders?" Tre'heren asked calmly.
"I have and, like Rosha, I have seen the animal totem of our clan with one of them. The smaller man is tied to a gray wolf. We have another Sentinel and Guide pairing on our hands. Is that not correct, Wise One?"
Tre'heren almost fell over at the shock. This was two of her counterparts who had seen the larger picture beyond individual clan objectives. "So, you see the puzzle pieces, but do you see her reasoning for giving us this puzzle?" Tre'heren asked.
"Not completely, two sentinels and two guides have been brought together at this time and place for a purpose. Each clan is represented by one of the four. To me, the message is clear. Danger is coming to the Plains. The four clans must unite to battle whatever is coming in our direction," The Shaman for the Liha'irden replied. "Petty power plays between the clans must be put aside for the greater good of all the people."
Rosha nodded her agreement. "I concur."
"As do I," Protea added.
"Two of them are Outlanders. We cannot allow their ways to contaminate our people," Morar voiced.
"Outlanders have been our allies before, when it was necessary for our survival. Outlanders have become accepted into the clans before if they were willing to swear to the clans. These two have valuable information about the evil that is coming. They have fought it before and our willing to do battle at our side. We cannot turn away this aid," Tre'heren said forcefully.
"They are Outlanders. They cannot be trusted. Their motivations are not in line with our interests," Morar yelled stubbornly.
"The Star-Eyed One said the prospective allies would be marked in ways we could recognize. They have familiars that are the totems of our people. Both Rosha and Protea confirm this. What more do you want? What will be acceptable proof for you to accept them as our allies," she asked her Clan Chief.
"Let them go before the Star-Eyed One. They should enter the shrine and be judged by her," Morar suggested. "If She blesses them, I will be the first to declare allegiance."
"Outlanders would desecrate the shrine. I do not agree," Tifera shouted, mostly to take the opposite position from Morar. "Drive them from the plateau."
Tifera's Shaman placed a hand on his arm. "Let the Star-Eyed One decide if the Outlanders intend to do us harm."
Tre'heren watched in silence as her people argued. She had presented her case. The other Shamans of the clans were in favor of her proposal. She would allow them to convince their leaders.
Only if they did not find in her favor would she tell them of her most recent moon path journeys. She had gone to find answers in the realm of the Star-Eyed One. It had confirmed her worst nightmare. The days of the prophecy were upon them. They were no longer fighting for the safety of the Plains. They were fighting to save their world from the encroaching Darkness. Her people were not ready to face the threat looming before them yet. The alliance with the Kingdom must be finalized first.
Jim was standing outside the tent, staring up at the night sky. Blair was inside, getting the boys to sleep. He was telling them stories about the Kingdom. The two little boys who had lived all their lives on the Plains as nomads did not believe the tales of cities with stone walls. Jim had listened for a while. Blair was an adept storyteller. Amazingly enough, he hadn't embellished any of the tales, not that his charges believed a single word he had said.
Tre'heren had left the tent early this morning and had not returned. He didn't know if this was a good omen or not. Shortly afterwards, he had heard the raised voices coming from the Council tent. It hadn't required Sentinel hearing ability. Blair had heard it too. It was obvious from the brief snatches of the discussion he had overheard that the clans were divided upon how to deal with both sets of Sentinels and Guides. Both Heralds had been heartbroken when Hibal had sat down beside them and asked if they could take him and Kaleny away from their homeland when they left. He was afraid that blood would be shed over them and he didn't want anyone to die.
At that point, Jim decided a 'tracking exercise' would be good for all of them. He led them out into the grasslands until he could barely hear the sounds emanating from the camp. Blair was visibly excited about the trip. Jim didn't admit it aloud, but even he was curious about how powerful a Sentinel was during childhood. They discovered Kaleny had about half his range, but Hibal explained that he was twice as strong as the previous year. It appeared a Sentinel's gifts grew stronger with age. When the angry voices had died down, they had returned to camp.
The voices were more peaceful now. He wondered what was being discussed, but refrained from eavesdropping. Those thoughts quickly turned darker as he wondered how he and Blair had managed to get this far from home and those that would support them, which led to more thoughts about why they were fighting this battle. It seemed the Shin'a'in didn't want their assistance. He and Blair were even closer to the danger now without any support. How was he going to get his Guide safe?
He was so intent on finding answers in the night sky, he did not notice Tre'heren's approach. She was staring at him from a few feet away.
"You are worried about something. Speak your concerns," she ordered firmly
"Why him. He was a healer trainee and very good at it. Now, he has assassins after him. We have been constantly moving ever since we were Chosen. Me, I was in the Guard willingly. This is the life I had selected. It's just not fair to him. He shouldn't have to live like this. He should be traveling around healing the sick, helping those who need his gifts."
"Sentinel, think on this. Did you truly choose to be what you are, or were you born to be this way? As for the presence of your guide, he could have turned down the honor of being Chosen, correct?"
"He did not. He also elected to live this life. He is traveling around, helping those who need his gifts. Can you not see this? Do you truly understand what a Sentinel and a Guide are, both to each other and to their people?" Tre'heren crossed arms across her chest and raised one eyebrow. She gazed at him, tapping her foot while she awaited his answer.
Jim felt as if he was back in school, hadn't done his homework and now the teacher was calling on him for an answer. "A Sentinel is someone who possess enhanced senses. The ability to see, to hear, to smell, to taste and touch better than others. A Guide is someone with the gift of empathy. He keeps the Sentinel anchored, provides the support, the control a Sentinel needs to function.
Tre'heren shook her head. "That is a very small part of what a Sentinel and Guide are. They are two people whose lives are dedicated to protecting others. A Sentinel uses his talents to watch out for his people. To make sure no one from the outside gets close enough to attack. He is the dispenser of justice within the tribe. He can tell when a falsehood is being told. His word is never doubted because the gift is never given to one without honor. The Guide is a healer and a teacher not only to the Sentinel, but also to all of the people. His desire to protect is equal to that of the Sentinel. The Guide is the arbitrator for the clan. During disputes his wisdom is honored and obeyed. Do you understand? Blair was born to be a Guide the same way you were born to be a Sentinel. The paths your lives took was Fate's way of training you for what you both have become, for what your people need you to be."
"I'm not sure I believe in Fate. I believe we control our own future."
"Let me put this another way. In the Guard, you learned to understand the meaning of words like duty, honor and sacrifice. You give of yourself freely to serve others. Now you must learn that there are those who would serve you in the same manner. Would you lay down your life for your Guide?"
"Then accept he would do the same for you."
"No! There is no but, it simply is so. Accept the gift of another's love. Your need to protect him is instinctive. His need to protect you is just as strong. It's a symbiotic relationship. Each one needs the other. You must learn the difference between being protective and being overprotective."
"So, in other words, I have no reason to worry over this," Jim replied.
"Your concerns are the result of your caring nature," the Shaman smirked. "You can't help yourself."
Jim and Tre'heren both jumped at the sound of Blair's voice entering the conversation.
"In other words, don't try to wrap me in cotton and put me on a shelf, preventing me from doing what I need to do, what we both need to do," Blair interjected.
"How long have you been standing there?" Jim asked.
"Not long, I just got the boys off to sleep. Takes a lot of energy to get them to go to bed. Just long enough to know you've been brooding again." Blair moved to stand next to his friend, reaching out to grasp Jim's shoulders, massaging them gently. "You really need to quit doing that. It's not healthy."
"I'll try and get it under control. I know you are more than capable of taking care of yourself. It's just hard sometimes, you know?" Jim replied, blushing a little.
"Been there too. I promise, if you go over the top with that mothering nature of yours, I'll let you know. I hate to admit this, but most of the time I rather enjoy someone taking care of me for a change."
"It's what family does, right?"
"Wow, you have be listening to me," Blair said flippantly, slapping him on the back.
Jim retaliated by whapping his guide on the back of his head. "Looking for a fight, little brother?" Jim asked as he danced away, pausing just out of reach of Blair's quick hands.
Instead of launching an immediate counterattack, Blair turned to Tre'heren and whined pathetically, "Mom, he's picking on me!"
She shook her head at their childish behavior, but there was a sparkle in her eye. Even adults needed to play sometimes. "I wash my hands of both of you children. When you have settled this, I will tell you of the Council's decision," She said walking back into the tent.
Blair lunged for Jim, punching him in the arm before taking off around the corner of the tent.
"You'll pay for that one," Jim yelled, running after him.
Inside the tent, the Shaman laughed quietly under her breath as she listened to the two grown men run circles round the tent. Dodging and playing with as much intensity as the two little boys in her care. They needed this release. The days ahead would be difficult with little time for laughter.
Out of breath, the two men re-entered the tent. Sitting down on the cushions by the fire, they made themselves comfortable. She offered a cup of water to each of them.
"You said the Council has made a decision?" Jim said after taking a long drink.
"They have. The Council has decided that the Star-Eyed One will judge your sincerity and your worthiness. You should rest. Tomorrow will be a long day for the two of you."
"Can you tell us anything about this test?" Blair asked.
"I cannot. It varies from person to person. Sometimes She refuses to come in answer to the calling. Sometimes the supplicants are in there for several days being evaluated. What I can tell you is that She will look into your heart and soul. She will force you to see yourselves as you truly are. For most people, it is not a pleasant experience. We all have facades that we hide behind. In Her presence, they will fall away. You cannot hide anything from Her nor from yourselves during the trial."
The two men settled down to sleep, but both were restless. Tre'heren's words were unnerving both men. Each knew they had things they were hiding from the other. Their Companions provide comfort by mind speaking to both of them simultaneously.
"Sleep, my Chosen ones. You're souls and hearts were already found worthy once," Burton said.
"You would not have become Heralds otherwise, so rest. We are here," Incacha added.
The entire Shin'a'in people appeared to have gathered outside the shrine tent belonging to the Star-Eyed One. Apparently, word spread quickly concerning the trial of the Outlanders. Tre'heren led the way to the tent and stood outside the entrance.
"Give me your weapons. You many enter wearing only the clothes on your back. It is our way."
The two Heralds did as she instructed without argument. Now was the time to demonstrate their peaceful intentions to the clans, to show they were worthy of an alliance.
"The two of you must enter alone. No one will be allowed to enter the tent until the trial is complete. Have faith in Her and yourselves," she said as she reached for the entrance flap to the shrine.
They entered together and examined their surroundings. There were four wooden altars, one on each wall of the tent. On each altar was a symbol of the four faces of the Goddess. For the Maiden was a fresh blossom. For the Warrior there was a burning flame. For the Mother, there was a sheaf of grain and for the Crone there was a smooth black stone.
"So, Blair. What do we do now?" Jim asked softly as he studied the shrine.
"How should I know? I don't know any more than you do about this ritual." Blair fidgeted as he searched the layout of the shrine, seeking some hint as to what they were supposed to be doing.
"Sorry, I'm used to you having all the answers," Jim apologized.
"Well, I do have an idea or two." Blair guided him to the very center of the shrine facing the Warrior's flame. "Close your eyes and clear your mind. Think of Her and ask for Her blessing." Blair watched as his partner followed his instructions before doing the same
Neither man was sure for how long they stood, but suddenly there was a breeze wafting through the tent, though the opening to the outside had been closed tightly. It carried the scent of the blossom. When it died, another even stronger breeze came with the scent of grain. There was a slight pause before another wind came from behind them from the Crone's altar. This one was much stronger and carried with it a biting cold. It was powerful enough to push them off balance.
Jim opened his eyes, providing a steady arm to his partner. He saw Blair's attention was focused elsewhere. He was staring at the woman who was now standing by the Warrior's altar. Jim recognized her from their mutual vision back at the clearing. The Star-Eyed One had come to test them personally. He didn't know if he should feel honored or afraid.
"No, Sentinel. You have already passed the test. Both of you have by choosing to leave your homeland and journey to a people you do not know to stop an Enemy that you do know possesses the ability to destroy you both. You are more than worthy of the gifts that have been bestowed upon you."
"You read our minds?" Jim questioned.
"No, I read your hearts and know what is in your souls. This is the final step. Time for both of you to choose. Each of you has fears. Speak them here. All must be out in the open in order for the two of you to succeed. The decision must be made with full disclosure of your doubts. Anything that remains hidden will become a weakness the enemy will exploit."
"Me first, Chief," Jim volunteered as he turned to meet his friend's eyes. "Sometimes, I think I would be better off if I were doing this alone. Not because I don't want you around, but because I may not be able to protect you someday. It hurts so much knowing that I have put you in danger because I need you by my side. I don't think I could live with myself if you were hurt because of me. I want you someplace safe, with a nice wife and a few dozen children running around. Someplace that I can drop by and beg a free meal, play with the kids before moving on to the next assignment. You don't deserve to be out running round the Kingdom with me, deliberately seeking out danger. You deserve so much more. You should be safe and happy. I can't give you that."
Blair started to speak, but the Goddess raised her voice, "Do not answer his concerns, present your own first," she ordered.
Blair shuffled his feet, looking down at the ground. Taking a deep breath, he raised his head until his eyes locked with his partner's. "I worry that I'm not good enough to be by your side. I wish I were taller and stronger, better with weapons, someone who could truly watch your back from people like that assassin. I wish I was someone who you could trust to protect you without having to worry that I might fail you."
Jim started to answer his friend's fears, but again, the Goddess raised her voice, "Now is not the time to answer his fears either. Think first about what you both have learned from the other this day. What do your concerns have in common?" she asked.
"It sounds to me like we both are insecure about continuing our partnership," Jim answered dejectedly.
"No, we are both insecure about our own place. We each believe the other is worthy, it is faith in ourselves that we lack," Blair exclaimed as he grabbed his Sentinel's arm. "Jim, do you trust me? I mean, really trust me? Think first before you answer. It's important."
"Blair, I've thought about this every night for the last couple of months. Of course, I do. There isn't anyone else I trust at my back or with my senses..."
"...or with your heart?" questioned the Goddess.
"...or with my soul," Jim added, with a little glare at the Goddess for speaking the words before he could. "You are my family, Blair Sandburg. For the first time in my life, I understand what that means, to be part of a family from the inside. Before, I was always on the outside looking in, wanting to be a part of it. Now, I'm on the inside and I won't lose that."
Blair understood exactly what Jim was feeling. "I won't ever let you down, Jim. I think... No... I know that now. Same way I know that my place is at your side. That is the only place I want to be in my life. It's what makes me happy and feel safe," Blair answered, turning to look at the Goddess. "I choose him, to be his Guide, to be his protector and to be his family."
Jim's eyes blurred with unshed tears as he heard Blair pledge his life to him. He could do no less. He also turned to face the Goddess. "I choose him, to be his Sentinel, to be his protector and to be his family."
She smiled brightly at them. The wolf and the grasscat walked into the tent together and settled at her feet. "Together you are stronger. The Enemy knows this and takes advantage of your insecurities. Remember this Sentinel, your Guide was a target for the enemy long before he met you. Had your gifts not awakened, he would be dead. The healers had control of his life and were directing his fate."
Jim had never looked at the situation from that point of view. Stoddard and Edwards both had been manipulating Blair's life for a long time before Jim even knew he was alive. He was glad that Stoddard was dead and wished the same fate upon Edwards's head.
"Understand this Guide, the path your life took was always at the direction of others. When you chose to accept Burton, you took control. Now, have the confidence in your own ability to control your fate. The choices from here on will always be yours. Your friends will aid you, but the final decisions will be yours to make. You have found the family you have longed for since losing your own. You will never be alone again."
Blair smiled as he felt the truth in the Star-Eyed One's words. He realized he had been given a gift his partner had not. He had a family that loved and accepted him his entire childhood. Jim's blood family had rejected his as a young boy. It was a wound that still troubled his Sentinel. One he wished he had the power to heal. For now, it was beyond his ability to repair.
"When you are ready, join your right hands here." The Goddess gestured about a foot above the flame.
Jim moved to the far side of the altar and held out his hand over the flame. It was warm, but not uncomfortably so. Blair swallowed hard, but he stepped forward and clasped the offered hand. The Goddess did not speak again. She placed her own two hands around theirs and held them together. The flame shot up and surrounded them. They each felt the burning but only in the palm even though the flames engulfed the entire hand. Each man closed his eyes through the pain. Neither made a sound. A strong wind twirled around them and it was over. When they opened their eyes, the Goddess was gone.
Jim stared down at his palm. There was a crescent-shaped scar on the palm. The wound had only occurred a moment ago, but it was completely healed. He looked over at Blair who was holding his hand up with a silly grin on his face.
"Wow! That was incredible. Wish I had a notebook here to write this down before I forget the details."
Jim laughed at his partner. Nothing seemed to faze the man. "Wow is an understatement for this experience. Ready to face the crowd outside?"
Blair gestured for Jim to take the lead. Jim reached for the flap and pushed it aside to exit the shrine. The crowd had not dispersed during the time they had been tested. The sun had not moved much further across the sky. Less than a candlemark had gone by since they had entered the shrine. The two men stood proudly before the group. Tre'heren moved to face them. A smile lit her eyes as angry voices rose from the crowd.
"They failed the test."
"They look no different."
"She has refused them."
"Remove them from our midst before we are contaminated by their ways."
Morar stepped forward to stand beside Tre'heren and face the two Outlanders. "She had rejected you, you must leave the plateau before the sun reaches its zenith in the sky."
From inside the tent, came the fierce roar of a grasscat. Shortly after the sound died away, a midnight black grasscat came from the shrine. He padded over and stood by Jim's side, licking the scarred hand. He snarled at Morar who immediately rejoined the crowd. Jim dropped his hand to the cat's neck, soothing the beast. Immediately after, came the howl of a wolf. The crowd retreated another step as a large gray wolf followed the grasscat from the shrine and bounced over to Blair, nuzzling his scar. The wolf whined until Blair reached down and scratched his ears.
"Show them," Tre'heren commanded. Both men revealed the mark of the Goddess to the mob facing them as again the cat roared and the wolf howled.
The Shaman moved to the front of the crowd. "Does anyone doubt the will of the Goddess now? Her blessing is upon these men. I call for the vote, an alliance with those of the Kingdom. Who agrees?"
If any one disagreed, Jim could not tell. The cries of approval were staggering loud in favor of the alliance. Though no longer visible, the approval of the grasscat and the wolf was heard above the crowd.
The Shaman turned to face the two men. "You are now she'enedran, which translates into your language as 'two-made-one.' It is the strongest bond that can exist between two people. The Star-Eyed One is the only one who may bestow such a blessing. It is unusual in the extreme for Her to bless TWO Outlanders. However, we have learned over time not to question Her wisdom. I believe that the evil you have fought once before is striking again. This time, the attack will be here against my people. I believe I know what the enemy desires. It is a secret my people have guarded since the Great War. Now is the time for that which is hidden to be revealed to you Outlanders. You may not speak of this to anyone who is not a Shin'a'in. This is a confidence that cannot ever be written nor even discussed once you leave the Plains. Can you agree to that?"
Both men nodded.
"Then come to the Council Tent. Refresh yourselves and hear our secret." The crowd parted before them, the Shaman leading the way with the elders bringing up the rear.
Once everyone had gathered in the Council Tent, Tre'heren began to speak.
"As you know, the Shin'a'in people were given the task of guarding the Plains, keeping all away but those sworn to one of the clans. What I am about to tell you is the reason why, more specifically, exactly what we are guarding. In the center of the Plains, lie the ruins of Urtho's Tower. Urtho was a powerful adept who fought the powers of Darkness who were led by another Adept named Ma'ar. They battled for control of the world ages ago during the Great War. Urtho created many powerful magic objects and constructs. He is the father of the Gryphons that fly today."
Protea continued the story, "He cared deeply for his people and believed they should not become Ma'ar's slaves. To protect them, some of the objects he created were powerfully destructive weapons. Most of them were only to be used as a last resort in the event the forces of Light failed. Urtho refused to allow the weapons to be used until the circumstances became dire. He knew the effects of these weapons would have been terrible for both sides. Though the Tower was damaged during the final battle, most of the weapons remained intact. Urtho saw to it that they were well shielded to prevent accidental discharge."
Rosha finished the tale, "Only the Sworn know the location of the site, or so we wish to believe. It is possible that our enemy has heard the legends of the Tower and now seek to gain access to the remaining weapons. He must be stopped before he can unleash any of the weapons that are stored there. The last time, one of those weapons was used, the devastation extended for hundreds of miles. The Kaled'a'in are still working to repair the damage. Tell us what you know of this enemy. Tre'heren has told us that you have faced him once before."
Blair leaned forward, "It calls itself Leareth. It resides on another plane, but periodically, it seems to move into this one. Its sole purpose is to conquer and dominate the people of this world. Vanyel, one of the Heralds, fought him several generations ago. During a final-strike mage battle, both were killed."
"Sorta of," Jim muttered.
Blair rolled his eyes, not wanting to explain how they had met Vanyel. "Vanyel explained that this Darkness has been reborn several times and continues to attack this world during each incarnation. He has had many names. Leareth is the latest version."
"I don't remember Vanyel telling us this," Jim interrupted.
"You weren't there at the time, Jim. I was curious about why Leareth called Vanyel, 'my old friend' and..."
"...and you backed him into the proverbial corner until he gave you every little sordid detail."
"Well yes, but I've been thinking, is it possible that he was once this Ma'ar?"
Several of the Shin'a'in gasped at the possibility of Ma'ar return.
Rosha spoke aloud as she considered the truth of Blair's theory, "Urtho died during the Great Cataclysm, this we know from our own recorded history. Legend says that although Ma'ar's body died, his spirit did not. He supposedly had found a way to hide his soul in the void between worlds and lies in wait to claim the body of a voluntary servant or a properly prepared sacrifice. If this is true and the enemy known as Leareth is the reborn soul of Ma'ar..."
"...then, the enemy already knows the location of the Tower and what is inside," Blair finished.
"We must increase the border patrols," Tifera said as he rose and left the tent. His people were the first battle line against invasion.
"Leareth needs a large amount of energy to move between the planes. He tried once, by draining the energy from the Forest of Sorrows far to the north. With a little help from Vanyel, the Heralds defeated his army and the Coven of Dark Mages he had gathered. His second attempt was more recent. He spread a plague across the Kingdom, collecting the life force of the living while feeding on the fear and sadness resulting from the deaths. Again, we uncovered his plan and destroyed the method he was using to gather the energy."
"Now, he plans on detonating one of those weapons and use the released energy to cross over to this realm," Rosha predicted.
"We have to locate him and his servants before they can reach those weapons," Jim voiced.
"Tomorrow, the council will gather and plan. Tonight, we will celebrate the alliance with the representatives of the Kingdom. Her blessings are to be celebrated, they occur rarely these days," Tre'heren said firmly.
Food and drink were brought into the tent. Musicians entered and the mood of those in the tent lifted. The Darkness was out there. But for a short while, it could be ignored.
The celebration was a noisy affair. The Shin'a'in people enthusiastically enjoyed their gatherings. Jim noticed a commotion at the entrance as someone appeared at the flaps. He and Blair had been granted the places of honor near the center of the tent, which made it difficult to see what had people so stirred up at the entrance. He was surprised to see it was Devan.
His clothing was now black, an obvious contradiction to the festive atmosphere. None of the Shin'a'in people they had seen ever wore black. They adored colorful things, the brighter the better. Something had gone seriously wrong.
"There was an attack on our border guards on the northern edge of the rim. They were all killed. The report is unclear, but it appears magic was used during the attack. The enemy has arrived and is heading south. I have just returned from the moonpaths. She has declared blood- feud. The Sworn is already pursuing the trail of vengeance. Death shall be visited upon those who have killed our people." Devan left the tent without another word.
Jim and Blair searched for Tre'heren to explain what had occurred. It soon became obvious she was not in the tent. Jim opened up his hearing using Blair as his anchor. He found what he was searching for and gestured Blair to follow him outside.
Tre'heren was standing on a rock. On her arm was the biggest falcon that the two Heralds had ever seen. She appeared to be speaking with it. As they approached, the falcon launched into the air. Tre'heren watched until it was a small speck in the sky. When she faced them, she didn't look upset at being interrupted.
She listened carefully as the Heralds explained what had happened and repeated Devan's words. "A Swordsworn only wears black when blood feud has been declared. The enemy has moved faster than we had anticipated. It appears they know the location of Urtho's Tower, but will have to move slowly. Travel through the high grass of the Plains is difficult with knowing the few landmarks. We know the location of the landmarks, but must travel an indirect route to our destination. The third people are not represented with us as yet. Without them, we are doomed to failure. They wait for us at the Rim of the Plains."
Blair was amazed at the power of her knowledge. "How do you know they are waiting? Do you know who is joining us?"
"Yes, a powerful Mage whose name is Starfire. You have already met his representative."
"Hurral," Jim smiled remembering the Kryee who had helped them. "He told us a little about Starfire. It was on his advice that we were seeking your people at Kata'shin'a'in."
"He is waiting at the Rim with Starfire. He will accompany us on our journey. As a historian for his pack, he will document the coming battle. We must leave first thing in the morning. Devan will accompany us, along with one warrior from each clan. The other Swordsworn are already on the trail. They will attempt to slow the enemies progress." She moved off in the direction of her tent.
"I guess the party is over," Blair replied, looking forlornly back at the main tent.
"Sorry, buddy. It's bedtime." Jim looped his arm around Blair's neck and pulled him after the Shaman.
After half a day's travel to the northwest, they reached the northern most part of the Rim. They faced a large cliff with a switchback trail leading downward that ended at a small grove. There were several trees for shade along with a small spring. Waiting for them was a man with a falcon resting on his shoulder. At his feet, was Hurral, stretched out comfortably in the grass under the shade of one of the trees. Tre'heren dismounted her battlesteed and moved towards the Mage. The falcon flew to one of the low hanging branches joining an even larger Great Owl. Tre'heren hugged the man tightly.
Blair could not help staring at Starfire even if it was being rude. He was very tall. His skin was golden with silver eyes and hair. Blair had never seen anyone with silver eyes before. It gave the man an otherworldly type air to him. His hair was long, worn in a braid with feathers woven into it. His clothing was a multi-colored green. It had clearly been designed to blend with the forest, but did little for him here on the grassy plain.
Jim was also staring at the Mage. He could sense the tremendous power the man possessed. It surrounded him, flowed around him like a wave of water, swirls of blue.
Blair looked thoughtfully at the pair as they whispered too softly for him to hear. "Jim, do you see the resemble between Starfire and Tre'heren?"
Jim focused on the two. "Now, that you mention it. Yes, I do see it."
Hurral climbed to his feet and padded over to stand between the two Companions. He snorted. "You should see a resemblance. After all, they are twins."
"But, why are they not together?" Blair spluttered, eyebrows rising in surprise.
"Starfire was not happy following the path of a Shaman. He chose to leave the Plains and join the Kaled'a'in people in the forest. They are using their gift of magic to cleanse the land that was damaged by the ancient evil. Starfire's gift is very powerful. He is a healing adept, but for the land, not for people. He knew that his gift would be better utilized off the Plains."
"The falcon that we saw Tre'heren talking to the other night..."
"...Is his bond bird. Similar to your Companions in loyalty, but not nearly as intelligent." The bond bird turned to stare at the Kryee and squawked.
"He understood you!" Jim exclaimed, pleased by the exchange. He had been very fond of the falcon master at the estate during his youth. Those birds were nothing in comparison to the falcon before him though.
"Yes, he understands a great deal when he chooses to listen."
Starfire and Tre'heren moved back over with the rest of the group.
"Tre'heren has brought me up-to-date on the recent events. We have very little time. We must travel tonight if we are to have a chance of reaching the Tower ahead of the enemy. With Taya to guide us, we will head directly for our goal. She will keep us on course." The Great-Owl flew across the grove to perch on Starfire's shoulder.
"This is Taya. She belongs to a close friend of mine who convinced her to help us. I'm afraid falcons are terrible night flyers and Mer would be of little help." The falcon squawked again, sounding very upset.
Starfire turned and smiled at his bond bird. "I'm sorry, but it is the truth, my friend. You will be of tremendous assistance when the sun rises." The falcon stretched out his wings, preening. He chirped several times sounding much happier.
Starfire launched Taya into flight as he moved to the battlesteed that had been brought for him and mounted. "We must leave." He turned the battlesteed so that she was following the flight path of the owl. The Companions followed, keeping pace with the Mage.
They had set up camp a few miles from what remained of Urtho's Tower. By traveling through the night and most of the next morning, they had succeeded in arriving in the vicinity of the building well before the enemy. Halfway through the night, Taya had relayed via Starfire that there was a group of five individuals zigzagging through the grass to the south. There was one woman and four men all dressed in green clearly searching for something. Silently, they succeeded in slipping past the enemy without being detected.
They did not want to tip their hand to the enemy by settling at the base of the Tower. The Swordsworn who had left before them had already taken up positions inside. The plan was to catch the enemy between the two groups as they approached their goal. If the enemy continued at the same pace since entering the Plains, it would be nightfall before they arrived at the Tower. There was time to eat and rest before having to fight.
Jim had gone out with the hunting party, which had included the Sentinels, Devan, Hurral, Starfire and Hibal. Blair and Tre'heren had remained at camp. Their gift of empathy was too strong for them to be comfortable hunting. They felt the animal's pain at its death. They volunteered to guard the camp along with four sentries.
The hunting party was closing in on a small herd of deer. Jim was moving closer to the herd along with Hurral. They were to startle the herd in the direction of the gauntlet the others was forming with Starfire.
Jim looked over at Hurral and gestured at him to start circling to the left. He would come in behind the herd causing them to bolt. Jim would turn them towards the hunters. He had just started to move to the right when the ground seemed to drop out form under him. A wave of intense pain washed over him. He screamed in pain as he felt half his soul ripped away from him.
The herd scattered in all directions causing chaos. The Sentinel's senses betrayed him, the vibrations caused by the retreating herd made his legs unsteady and he dropped to his knees. The cries of the others, trying to determine what had gone wrong pierced his hearing like knives. Even the sun seemed to grow brighter burning his eyes. Jim lost touch with the living world around him. His guide was gone. The bond between them severed. He willed himself deeper into the growing grayness, into the only peace available to him until a high pitched voice lured him back.
"No, Sentinel, your guide is not gone. The bond has been blocked from your awareness, not severed. There is time for you to save him if you come back now."
Jim opened his eyes, regaining minimal control over his rampaging senses. He was kneeling on the ground. Starfire was supporting him on one side and Kaleny was on the other. Hibal was in front of him, his hands cupping Jim's face. It was Hibal's voice who had called him back.
"Thank you, Hibal," Jim said gratefully as he tried to get to his feet. With Starfire's support, he regained his balance. "Something's happened to Blair. I can't sense him anymore."
"We know. Hibal felt his pain. We must return to camp, Sentinel. Hurral is already on his way to see what has occurred. Since it was your guide who was taken, you will be able to track the enemy easier than Hurral," Starfire explained.
"We will both track them," Kaleny interjected. "Death is the only punishment acceptable for those that would steal a guide. No Sentinel can stand by and allow a guide to be harmed."
They made their way back to the campsite and found that the sentries were dead. There was no sign of either Tre'heren or Blair. All the animals within the boundaries of the camp were sleeping, including the two Companions.
"Blood Magic!" Starfire announced angrily as he studied the area with Mage-sight.
"What is blood magic?" Jim asked Hurral.
"It is magic that is performed by someone who does not truly possess the mage-gift. A Blood-path mage gains his or her power through the pain and death of other living things."
"This particular Mage is not very powerful or well-trained," Starfire added. The others watched as he closed his eyes and concentrated, banishing the evil spell with his own power. The battlesteeds and Companions immediately woke from the effects of the spell.
Jim's attention was being drawn to the Tower by a brilliant flash of light barely visible in the distance even to his eyes. He could see a group of people entering the doorway. He didn't hear Devan tell the others that the Swordsworn inside were also dead. Primal instincts flowed to the surface of Jim's consciousness, forcing the civilized Herald to the background. Those who had stolen his Guide would be punished.
Without a word to the others, he started running to the Tower. Hibal and Kaleny were right on his heels. Starfire sighed at this demonstration of the impatience of youth. He mind spoke to the two Companions politely, requesting permission to ride.
The Sentinel drew on the strength of his spirit guide, arriving at the destination well before the others. Hurral was the only one who had managed to stay with him. The primitive Sentinel instinct maintained control as he entered the tower. Each one of his senses was as high as it could go, but still under his control.
He noted the two bodies of the Swordsworn. Actually, all that remained were the bones. Their deaths didn't stop him though. His guide was close. Their bond was blocked, but the Sentinel could sense him. Right now, his guide smelled afraid, his heart pounding, his breathing labored and that was unacceptable.
The Kryee tried to mind speak with him, but was rebutted. The Sentinel accepted his presence in silence, his focus entirely on his guide. There was no energy to spare for anyone else until his Guide was safe. The others of his tribe were close, but not close enough that he could afford to wait for them. He moved down the hall where his Guide was waiting. Vengeance was close at hand for those who had dared steal his Guide.
Blair had turned down the invitation to go hunting with the others. He wanted to spend some time alone with Tre'heren. He wanted to discuss the moonpaths with her. He had so many questions. The memory of Serris telling him he needed to learn protections when walking the moonpaths remained clear in his head. He hadn't had the opportunity until now to broach the subject with her. He walked over to where she was sitting by the opening of the tent she and Starfire shared.
"Tre'heren, would you mind answering a few questions for me? It's about the moonpaths."
The Shaman gestured for him to sit down beside her.
"After Jim and I fought Leareth in the North, we shared a dream. One of the men from Jim's former unit was there. He said it wasn't a dream, but that we were walking the moonpaths. He said it was very dangerous and not well advised because we were without protection. He sent me back saying that I needed to learn how to protect myself there before returning. Would you be willing to teach me what I need to know?"
"Of course, little brother. But you must understand I can only teach you the basics, the general guidance of beginning such a journey. The moonpaths appear differently to every Shaman. The trail one travels upon the moonpaths are dependent upon one's experiences in life," she cautioned.
Blair carefully considered her words. "Which is why when Jim and I were there, the setting was the glade where his men had been killed. There was unfinished business there for us to resolve. What did he mean by protections?"
"A Shaman's life force is a bright beacon that shines upon the moonpaths. If not protected, it attracts the attention of those that gather strength by stealing the powers of others. Leareth is not the only one who does this. There are many evil mages who grow strong by taking this Dark path. They lie in wait for those like you with the power to reach the moonpaths, but lacking any training or instruction. You are easy prey for these Dark Mages who lurk in the shadows waiting to attack."
"So, if I learn to hide my energy with barriers or with shields, they won't be able to touch me?"
"No, that will not work. You cannot disappear completely. The energy level needed for such a shield would also attract unwanted attention. No, you need to find a way to blend into the background rather than try to hide from sight. What did you say was the setting on your first journey to the moonpaths?"
"A forest clearing," Blair answered.
"Then you should project an image of something that would live in the forest. Mute your energy level and appear to those seeking energy as something small and harmless. Something they would ignore but it appeared to belong in that setting. This is not always a problem. Most of the time, a journey on the moonpaths is a solitary trip unless you are there seeking guidance from the Star-Eyed One or one of Her servants. With the power you possess and a little training, you should be able to sense someone who means you harm long before they will sense you."
"Are you saying I could find you and talk to you on the moonpaths, even while I'm back at Haven?"
"Yes, the physical distance between us in the real world makes no difference."
"Where do we begin?" Blair's voice cracked with dryness on the last word.
"Perhaps with something to drink. Then, we will begin our first lesson," Tre'heren suggested.
Blair set a kettle of water over the flames. He was leaning over the campfire, preparing the tea for himself and Tre'heren when he felt something strange. The hairs on the back of his neck were rising. He called over to the Shaman, who was already on her feet. She was scanning the grassland. There was no sign of the sentries. She had time to call two words, 'blood magic' before the world suddenly went black.
He woke to find himself being carried over someone's shoulder bound and gagged inside a gloomy building. It had to be the tower. It was the only structure for miles. What had happened to the Swordsworn? Whoever was carrying him was wearing Healer greens. He couldn't move. He moaned as he recognized he was living the nightmare he had dreamed so long ago, not long after he had met Jim.
They entered a large room. He was lowered onto an altar in the center of the room. He squirmed, trying to free his hands, but the knots were too tight. The rope was too thick to break. His eyes searched around the area in panic, for some means to help him escape. The altar was at the exact center of a circle embedded in the floor. Compass points appeared to be part of the design. The purpose of the circle was unclear, but probably was related to containing energy. The mirror was right where he had remembered it to be from his dream. Another Healer was dropping Tre'heren onto the floor across the room. She appeared to be unconscious, but Blair couldn't see any serious injuries.
A light appeared from the mirror, the feeling of evil was strong. The pain in his head increased as the evil grew stronger, just as he had foreseen. The face of evil appeared. As Blair watched, a shadow seemed to step forward from the mirror into the circle.
Blair recognized the voice of Leareth as the shadow exclaimed, "Finally! The prophesy begins, just was as foretold." The shadow was pleased. His servants had finally obeyed his orders. The time of his rebirth was close at hand. The next time he entered this world, he would assume possession of Blair's body as the ritual destroyed Blair's soul.
"I have waited a long time for this moment. Your gifts are powerful. When I add them to my own powers I will be unstoppable. I wish I could tell you this wasn't going to hurt," Leareth leered. "But it will be extremely painful. The soul fights to hold on to life, but I cannot allow your soul to remain." As the shadow spoke, it placed one hand on either side of Blair's temples. "Hold him steady," he commanded to the others in the room.
Two of the healers moved forward. Strong hands held him firmly in place upon the altar. Blair cried out as the pain increased to unbearable levels. Blair fought to hold his shields in place, but Leareth was too strong. Blair's mental walls fell under the onslaught of evil contained in the shadow's touch. He lost control of his empathy gift. He could sense nothing but the evil surrounding him. He screamed at the pain he was no longer capable of blocking out.
Leareth appeared to be pleased by the suffering of his captive. He ran a single finger down Blair's cheek and across his chest, then down his right leg.
Blair tried to pull away, but with no success. It felt like a knife was being dragged along his skin. The screams continued until his throat closed up. The screams reduced to intermittent whimpers as Leareth continued to inflict pain upon the defenseless body bound before him.
The shadow lost most of its interest when Blair no longer had a voice. "He is ready. Prepare him for the first stage of the ritual," ordered Leareth.
As he moved back into the mirror, Dean Edwards moved into view. "Hello, Blair. You led us on a merry chase, but even you cannot escape the hand of destiny. Bind him to the altar."
Blair recognized all four healers in the room with Edwards, all Senior Healers and Council Members. With no mental walls, he felt the evil within them. Nothing remained of the Light in any of them. They followed Edwards's instructions without hesitation or question. Each healer held onto one of his limbs. The ropes were removed, but he was too weak to act. He felt the bite of the metal cuffs as they were cruelly fastened tightly around his ankles and wrists. The cuffs were attached to chains, which were pulled excruciating tight before being secured to the four legs of the altar. His captors seemed determined to make this process as painful as possible for him to endure.
When they were done, Blair quickly discovered he couldn't struggle, couldn't move a muscle or even attempt speak. He knew he was projecting his feelings of panic and terror. He could feel the others feeding on his emotions. Dean Edwards gleefully explained what was happening. "The cuffs are spelled, preventing you from even twitching. The ritual of casting out a soul into the Darkness is exact. The runes we will cut onto you skin must be perfectly formed, which is why we will use surgical blades. Leareth cannot successfully assume control of your body and your gifts unless everything is perfect down to the last detail."
Edwards moved out of his view, but returned quickly holding a long sharp blade. "My sweet Blair, I wish you could have become one with the Dark. The power is incredible. Once I had my first taste of blood magic, I could not turn back. You would have understood what it means to have true power over life and death. But, your destiny is much greater."
She started to cut away his tunic. "We must be careful, you must remain unmarked until the ceremony begins. The Master will be pleased. Your body is in very good shape. I look forward to using it when the Master takes possession."
Blair wished he could close his eyes. He did not want to see what was going to happen next, but even that simple desire was denied by the magic.
Just as she finished with the tunic and was about to start on his trousers, the sound of growling drew her attention away from Blair. He felt the power of the Light enter the room. The Darkness was forced away from him and the pain was reduced greatly. Jim had found him. With his empathy blasted wide upon, the presence of his Sentinel filled his soul with hope even though the bond between them remained defunct.
"You're too late, Herald James. He belongs to the Master now. He has for many years. The beginning of this ritual was performed a long time ago when Blair had first arrived at the Collegium. It is his destiny," Edwards cackled, pointing the tip of the blade at Jim while caressing Blair's chest possessively with her other hand.
The sound of growling got louder as the Kryee leaped into the room, landing on the far side of the altar. The Sentinel was right behind him, moving further into the room, stalking Edwards. Drawing his weapon, he moved to protect his defenseless Guide. Edwards attempted to use the sleep spell upon him as she used on the sentries, but it had no effect on the Sentinel. She retreated before Jim's raised sword.
"Kill him, so the ritual may begin uninterrupted," Edwards ordered of her men. When no one obeyed, she whirled to face the other healers who were standing against the wall. Hurral had moved between them and Blair. None of them had a weapon larger than a belt knife with which they could attack the Kryee.
"Obey me," she ordered angrily, actually stamping her foot like a child during a temper tantrum.
No one moved for several minutes. It was a standoff. The Sentinel could not afford to drop his guard for as long as it would take to free Blair. The Healers were not accustomed to physical violence and were not willing to attack, but could not retreat from the room.
Suddenly, The Sentinel grinned and said, "Surrender now! You are outnumbered."
"Why? Have you lost your mind? The way I see it, it is five against two!" She screamed.
"Count again," Starfire, called aloud as he entered the room with Devan, Kaleny and Hibal in his wake. "I will not permit you to do anymore harm to this man. This obscene ritual ends now." With a wave of his hand, the chains binding Blair to the altar were annihilated.
Even though Blair was free, he did not have the strength to even speak much less move. He could not get his shields back up and the emotions in the room were continually battering his mind. The Sentinel sheathed his blade and moved to his Guide's side, placing his hand over his Guide's heart. The instant they came into physical contact, the bond between them flowed again. With the restoration of their bond, the Sentinel released his hold and allowed Jim to regain control again.
Jim shook his head. It was if a fog in his mind had lifted. He was not exactly sure how they had reached this point. The last thing he could remember clearly was standing in the camp, looking at the Tower, trying to find his Guide.
Now, his Guide was stretched out before him. Through their bond, he could feel his partner's pain. He forced his own shields to surround Blair. Burton could also reach his Chosen's mind now that the bespelled chains were destroyed. The Companion added another layer of shields around Blair's mind protecting him from further harm.
Jim reached one hand under Blair's neck and helped him to sit up. Blair rested his head upon Jim's chest. He needed off the altar. It was tainted with evil, but he couldn't get the words out of his mouth.
"Jim, help him to stand away from the altar. He can't handle being in contact with it. It was infused with pure evil," Burton mind sent for him.
Jim pulled Blair to his feet with him leaning against his chest. Jim kept one arm around his waist, the other around his shoulders. The Sentinel closed his eyes and searched for the bond between them. Once he found it, he began sending energy to his weakened friend. Incacha and Burton were doing the same. After a minute, Blair pulled away, finding his balance.
"Blair?" Jim wasn't sure what he was asking, but he needed to hear Blair's voice.
Blair understood what he needed. "I'll be all right, Jim," he said hoarsely.
With another wave of his hand, Starfire froze Edwards and the other four healers where they stood within the circle. They could not move but they could speak.
"Release us," squealed Edwards.
While the Sentinel was focused on caring for his Guide, Starfire gestured at Tre'heren and the ropes binding her also disappeared. Starfire stepped forward onto the circle surrounding the altar at the point marked north. Tre'heren stood and moved to stand opposite Starfire, keeping Edwards between the two of them.
"You will be transported back to the Clans to stand trial for the murder of our people. If you are found guilty, the punishment is death," Starfire decreed.
"The Master will not permit that to happen. You forget, he is the one with all the power," Edwards retorted.
"He will also be held accountable for his crimes," Tre'heren replied.
At that point, Leareth seemed to figure out something had gone wrong with the ritual. The shadow figure stepped from the mirror. His voice filled the room as he pointed to Blair who was now standing on his own next to Jim. "He is mine, you cannot interfere. The prophecy says..."
Starfire raised his voice over that of the shadow, "Yes, let us discuss the prophecy. How did that go? Three peoples must become one..."
"The Kingdom," Blair said with a smile as Jim helped him move to the northwest point.
"The Shin'a'in," said Tre'heren with a nod from the south.
"The Kaled'a'in," added Starfire. "Led by the four with the gifts to defeat the Darkness."
"Two sentinels," Kaleny spoke as he moved to the southeast point on the circle.
"And two guides," Jim voiced as he moved opposite of Blair.
Starfire continued to speak, "On the knife's edge is the boy born to the people with no permanent home."
"Yes, Blair Sandburg!" shouted Edwards.
Starfire shook his head as he continued, "On one side of the knife, darkness, on the other, light. The fate of the world depends upon which side of the knife the boy falls upon."
Hibal took the dagger away from Edward's lax grip, before moving opposite Kaleny. "I choose the Light," Hibal said in a clear voice. He used the point of the blade to prick his finer. A single drop of blood fell upon the circle embedded in the floor.
"NO!" Leareth screamed as he watched his plan fall apart again.
Starfire gathered the power that was being generated by the bonded pairs of Sentinel and Guide. He began to weave a spell that would confine Leareth to the other plane. Leareth fought back, drawing energy from the only source left to him, Edwards and the other four healers.
"No, Master! Please!" Edwards shrieked as the life force was sucked right out of her. Jim had seen this before with Stoddard, but the others had not. Horrified eyes watched as the five bodies writhed in agony. The flesh melted away, exposing the skeletons before those too turned to dust.
Starfire pressed on. The four spirit guides appeared on the circle next to their chosen ones. A wolf, a grasscat, a deer and a hawk, as one power, moved forward forcing the shadow back into the mirror. As the shadow retreated, Starfire expended one final burst of energy, shattering the mirror completely. The room was silent for a moment.
"Did we succeed?" Kaleny asked, breaking the silence.
"It will be hundreds of years before Leareth can gather enough power to even attempt to communicate with this plane of existence," Starfire announced to the group.
"We didn't kill him?" Hibal asked sadly.
"No, young guide. He cannot be destroyed while he resides on that plane. He possesses the old magic. None that walk the world today control the power or possesses the knowledge to kill him."
"So, he will be back some day."
"Yes, but not for many generations to come."
"Then the Covenant remains. The Tower must be closed again. No one can be permitted entry here. The guardianship must be continued." Tre'heren turned to face the two Heralds. "You may not speak to anyone of this place, nor what you have seen here. No record, oral or written will be kept, so the council has ordered. That goes for you as well, Hurral."
"No one would believe us anyway," Blair muttered.
"With respect, we must inform our people that Dean Edwards is no longer among the living. We will not discuss anything more than that," Jim answered firmly.
"That much is permitted," Tre'heren said finally. "The Tower must be guarded until the entrance can be resealed. My people are sending new watchers, but they will not arrive until after tomorrow. We must take turns keeping watch overnight."
Starfire disagreed, "I have the energy to do one last act of magic, if one of your Companions will consent to riding double on the return trip to camp."
"Burton says it would be his pleasure," Blair volunteered after conferring with his Companion.
The group exited the building and watched as Starfire invoked one last spell. It appeared to sink into the ground. The only entrance quickly disappeared beneath the soil. The surface of the Tower appeared to melt. As they watched, every window and upper opening was sealed as the stone melted like a burning candle. Starfire sank to his knees once every possible access point was blocked. "We must return to camp now."
Dinner was a quiet affair. Discussion was held off until the food was consumed and the dinner was cleared away.
"So what happens now?" Blair asked curiously. He had recovered from the ordeal in the tower, though he was not looking forward to sleeping this night.
Starfire spoke first, "Hurral and I will return to my clan in the hills. Our role here is done. You and your Sentinel will accompany us. There is a gathering of your people at the Rim. They came in search of the enemy, but were too late to prevent them from entering the Plains. My people stopped them from pursuing the trail Edwards left behind them. Even with the alliance agreed to by the Clans, your people could have been killed as invaders. No physical harm was done to any of them, though at first they had to be strongly dissuaded to abandon the fugitives."
Jim and Blair could only wonder about who would be waiting for them at the rim.
"Hibal and I will remain here. We will guard this place from those who seek to use the weapons remaining inside." Kaleny said confidently.
Tre'heren shook her head. "You are too young to be sentries. You must return to the people and--"
"And what? To which clan should we return? The clan of his birth or of mine? No, if we return, the clans will declare blood feud and undo all She as attempted to accomplish. We will assist the sentries assigned here. There must be two sent from each clan. That will keep the balance of power. You were the one who taught us we are not here to serve any particular clan. We are here to protect the entire Shin'a'in people and to serve the covenant. Our people need to be reminded of our duty as sworn by the ancient Shamans to Her." Kaleny waited for Tre'heren to disagree with their decision.
"Who shall become the Shaman for the Tale'sedrin when I have journey to Her arms?" Tre'heren asked.
Hibal smiled, "Rosha is having twin boys, both will be gifted Shaman. She shall release one to you to become your inheritor. The other will be hers. She loves and respects your teachings and the time you have given to assist her training. You will live long enough to see both boys assume their mantle of responsibility and the bond between the clans grow strong."
Tre'heren bowed to the words of Sentinel and Guide. So young, yet they were already using their strength and wisdom in their roles of protectors of the tribe. "I will explain your decision to the Council."
"Tre'heren, we never got the chance to start that first lesson about the moonpaths. How can I learn what I need to travel there safely?" Blair asked.
"I told you, physical distance does not matter. Your lessons must occur while travelling on the moonpaths to learn properly. When the time is right, I will meet you there and your training will begin. I give you my word, Shaman to Shaman," she answered cryptically
The question 'how am I supposed to reach the moonpaths safely' sat on the tip of his tongue. But instead of speaking, he smiled and nodded. If there were any doubt concerning his ability to reach the moonpaths, she would have told him.
"If you have need of us, send word. We will come," Jim said sternly to the next generation of Sentinel and Guide. Though Sentinel and Guide served their chosen people, there was also a strong bond between the pairings. There was a brotherhood between Sentinels and their Guides that could not be denied.
The following morning, they traveled north again, to the rim of the crater. There was a switchback trail that led to the top. Jim's keen eyesight saw the banner of the Lord Marshall waving at the top by one of the tents. "Simon is here," he informed Blair.
"I wonder what he is doing here? Do you think the Queen sent him after us or did he really follow Edwards all this way?"
"Probably in pursuit of Edwards. He's very stubborn when it comes to tracking down enemies to the Crown. I wouldn't have wanted to be the one who told him he couldn't go after her. An angry Simon is a scary sight."
"We'll find out in a few marks," Blair replied as he headed up the trail.
Simon was waiting for them at the crest of the hill, along with several of the Kaled'a'in. "Welcome back gentlemen. Can I assume that the situation has been dealt with?"
"It has, Simon. Glad to see that you are in one piece," Jim said.
Starfire nodded, "It will be generations before that particular situation could become a problem, if ever again," as he spoke, his own people moved forward to greet him
After greeting his own people, he turned to face Jim and Blair. "I must return to my own Vale. You both are welcome to visit at your convenience. I was honored to fight this battle by your side."
"The honor was ours," answered Blair. Jim nodded.
With a little wave, Starfire followed his people into the tree line and disappeared from sight.
Simon led his friends into his tent where there was food and wine waiting for them. He told them his story as they ate. "We had picked up Edwards trail as she crossed over into Karse. We managed to stay with her as she traveled south. Right on the border of Karse and Ruvan, we managed to witness a most interesting meeting. Edwards was talking with Brackett."
Blair almost choked on his sandwich. "Could you hear what they were saying?"
"No, we weren't close enough, but they were not agreeing on whatever it was they were discussing. Edwards slapped Brackett across the face and walked away. She continued moving south, but Brackett traveled to the west. We split the group. Megan, Rafe and Henri agreed to follow Brackett, while the rest of us stayed with Edwards."
"Have you heard anything from them?" Jim asked. Brackett was a dangerous man. He didn't like the idea of his friends following him alone.
"They lost him when he entered the Pelegir Hills. Our group was turned back by what they called the Guardians of the Uncleansed Land. From what they were told, Brackett couldn't possibly survive the evil magic that tainted that particular area. From what I understand, the group was travelling back to Haven. We made it to this point a few days ago. We could see Edwards and her group moving deeper into the grasslands. But just as we were about to start down the trail, a wall of fire appeared in front of us and we were forced to turn back. Each time we attempted to pass the wall returned."
"Bet that was frustrating," Blair said with a laugh.
Simon glared, "You have no idea. Finally, one of the mages appeared at the camp and explained the situation to us. He said that even though we came to fight the evil, the Shin'a'in would perceive us as invaders. He then explained that Edwards had been taken care of and the two of you were already on your way back here. When I asked how he knew, he got this extremely annoying inscrutable look on his face and pointed at this hawk sitting in a tree. He smiled, then moved back into the tree line, disappearing completely. Would one of you care to explain how he knew what was going on?"
Jim and Blair stared at each for a moment before Jim answered for both of them, "Not really."
It took almost two months for Jim and Blair to make their way back to Haven. They had left Simon behind with the Royal Guard Unit. The Guard could not travel as fast as the Companions could and both Jim and Blair longed for home. They had been away far too long.
They entered the Collegium grounds about three candlemarks after the sun had set. The door to the tack shed opened up for them before they could dismount. Both men smiled as they recognized Dean Joel was waiting for them. He was holding a lantern for them to light the way. Henri and Rafe were also waiting inside the room. With their assistance, they had everything unpacked and turned Incacha and Burton loose in Companion's field in record time.
"I'm sorry, Heralds. I know you must be exhausted, but I need your report tonight. I have arranged for some food and drink to be brought to my office," Joel apologized.
"Rafe and I will take your packs up to your suite for you. We made sure everything was freshened up and aired out earlier today," Henri said as he picked up two of the packs and headed for the door. Rafe grabbed the other three packs and staggered out after him.
"He's going to make Henri pay for that one," Blair said with a smile.
Dean Joel led the way to his office. Once the men were comfortably seated, the debriefing began.
Joel began the discussion, while the Jim and Blair started to eat. "Megan has told me everything that happened while the three of you were in Sweet Springs. You both did a fine job tracking down and eliminating the cause of the plague. She also informed me of the message the Kryee brought to the two of you from the Mage. Did you find a Shin'a'in Shaman that was willing to help?"
Over the next several candlemarks, Jim and Blair took turns telling the story of their journey after leaving the borders of the Kingdom. They glossed over exactly where and how Leareth had been defeated. Once they explained that they had to give certain oaths to be accepted by the Shin'a'in, Joel accepted the information with very few questions. Particularly, once they assured him that the contents of the oath would not affect their duty as Heralds in any way. It seems Vanyel had to do something similar with the Tayledras people. Joel was much more curious about the Shin'a'in and Kaled'a'in people than the demise of Edwards.
"So, the two of you managed to negotiate an alliance with the both peoples. I'm amazed. The Shin'a'in are famous for their antagonism towards Outlanders and very few people have even met the Kaled'a'in. The Council will have to determine what the next step will be in formalizing the discussions the two of you have begun." Joel smiled as he noticed Blair yawning while Jim was rubbing his eyes. "I have kept the two of you long enough from your rest. Queen Selene will probably wish to speak with you herself on what has happened. However, she is tied up in Council Meetings during the morning so you'll have at least that much time free. Rest while you can, the Circle is also meeting in the morning to decide what will be your next assignments."
After saying good night, the two Heralds plodded across the courtyard to the tower that was their home. Both were looking forward to some well-deserved sleep. "Remind me again why we decided to roost in the top of this tower," Blair grunted as they trudged up the final set of stairs.
"The peace, the quiet, the incredible view, need I go on," Jim answered gasping slightly as they reached the landing to their home. He opened the door to their suite, grinning widely as he entered the main room.
Blair dropped onto the couch, "Home sweet home," he whispered, exhaustion evident in his voice.
"You can say that again. Maybe this time, they'll let us stick around for a while," Jim answered.
"Hey Jim, would you do me a favor before you crash?"
"Would you put all the mirrors outside?" Blair said jokingly.
"Go to bed, Blair," Jim ordered, shaking his head, gesturing him off to his room.
The sound of the lunch bell woke Jim from a sound sleep. He washed up quickly and entered the living area. He could hear Blair sleeping in his room, showing no signs of waking anytime soon. He noticed a piece of paper had been slipped under the door. He shook his head. He was slipping. He hadn't heard anyone approach the room. Of course, those pages were trained to slip in and out of rooms without disturbing anyone. He picked up and read the parchment. Just as Joel predicated, Queen Selene was requesting their presence at a meeting at two bells. He could allow Blair to sleep for a little longer. He clearly needed the rest.
Jim slipped down to the kitchen to grab a late brunch for the two of them. By the time he returned, Blair was shuffling out of the bathing room. "Afternoon, Chief. Don't take too long, we have been ordered to present ourselves at the Council Room in about one candlemark."
Blair stood for a moment processing that message before heading back for his room. Duty called and he needed his best whites if they were having an audience with the Queen.
At the appointed time, they were standing outside the Council Room doors.
Jim could hear many voices inside the room. He quickly realized that the debriefing would be more of a celebration, the smell of hot food and cold ale was tantalizing to his senses. Dean Joel slipped through the doorway. "The Queen and Consort are on their way. It will only be a few moments delay."
Someone inside the room knocked on the door. Dean Joel led the way into the room and down the red carpet to the Queen. Most of those in the room wore Herald Whites, but there were also several Nobles and those wearing Healer Greens. The three Heralds bowed before their Queen.
She rose from her chair, speaking to the crowd gathered before them. "We welcome Herald James and Herald Blair home. The Darkness has been banished from our Kingdom along with those human servants who brought the evil into our midst. We have these two Heralds to thank for saving our people. It was through their efforts that the source of the plague was uncovered and destroyed. I do not know what words can be spoken to express the gratitude that the Crown feels for the devoted service of these two Heralds. There was an ancient title bestowed upon those that served the Crown above and beyond normal duty. It is my pleasure to resurrect this custom and bequeath the title of Protectors of the Crown upon these two Heralds. My thanks to you both and welcome home. Now, I know you are all gathered here not to hear me speak, but for the fine food and wine. Let the celebration begin!"
The Queen and Consort left the room. They would return once the party was well underway and they could be two more Heralds in the crowd rather than the Crown heads of the Kingdom. Once they had left, Jim and Blair found themselves surrounded by their friends. Megan, Rafe and Henri were the first to offer their congratulations and much teasing along with two plates of food with a very fine wine.
Blair watched some interesting signals passing back and forth from Megan and Rafe. During Rafe's convalescence, it looked obvious that Megan's nursing of Rafe had turned to friendship, then to romance. Jim also noted the changed body language between their two friends. He wondered how long it would be before they were betrothed.
Jack Pendergast was next to offer his compliments. He had found his peace since they had seen him last. He was retiring from the guard to run the farm his parents had left him. He invited Jim and Blair to visit any time they had leave. The fishing was very good not far from the farm.
Dean Joel crossed the room to speak with Jim and Blair. "I'm sure you are both curious about your next assignment," Joel stated, taking a sip from his glass and eyeing the two men with a twinkle in his eye.
"Yes, Dean Joel, we are. Care to enlighten us," Blair replied when it became obvious Joel was not going to explain until asked properly.
"Under the Queen's orders, every healer and trainee was questioned under truth spell to determine the extent of the conspiracy against the Crown. We were pleased to discover only a few healers were involved. Most of them were either council members or senior healers. To make a long story short, a new Council was selected. Blair, you will be permitted to finish your studies as a Healer-trainee. We do expect you to continue attending the occasional classes with the Heralds. James, there are several classes that we would like you to attend, mostly geared towards diplomacy and Court etiquette. We would also like you to teach first-year trainees the basics of sword work. Henri recommended you for the position. You will be the second assistant to the Weaponsmaster along with him."
Joel smiled at the same dumbfounded expression the two men wore. It was obvious that neither of them had expected to be assigned to the Collegium Complex. Joel made sure he had their attention before continuing, "I'm sure there will be the occasional assignment that requires the unique abilities of Sentinel and Guide. We will work the class schedules around them when problems arise. The next academic session starts in two weeks. You should consider yourselves to be on leave until that time." Joel smiled and moved off to circulate among the crowd
"I can't believe they want me to teach. What are they thinking?"
"Jim, you are very good with kids. Kayla trusted you instinctively. I think you'll be a very good teacher."
Jim waited for the punch line, but it never came. Blair was serious.
"Trust me, I know you, better than you know yourself," Blair said seriously.
"We've covered this ground. I do trust you. Aren't you excited about returning to the Healer's Collegium?"
"I don't think it has really hit me yet. I'm too tired to get excited. Tomorrow, watch out," Blair answered heading back to where the buffet was arranged.
Jim and Blair refilled their plates. It had been a long time since they had eaten this well. They watched the celebration from the sidelines. It wasn't long before the crowd turned their attention from the food to dancing. Both men were too tired to do anything other than watch.
"Do you think anyone will notice if we sneak out of here," Blair whispered at Sentinel level hearing.
"No, I don't think anyone would care and Joel did say we should consider ourselves on leave. What can they do to us for obeying his orders?" Jim answered with a chuckle. "Let's go home then see if we can convince Incacha and Burton to take a little trip tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan," Blair laughed as he put down his glass and led the way to the exit.
It was difficult moving through the crowd. Between avoiding those with the energy to dance and the well wishers stopping to talk to them, their progress was slow. They were almost to the door when Jim was almost knocked over by a well-dressed nobleman. He started to apologize, but the words got stuck in his throat as his eyes locked with those of his father.
The two Ellisons stared for a moment in an awkward silence. Blair watched, allowing them to work this out for themselves. He was picking up on some interesting vibes from William Ellison.
"I'm sorry. I haven't been paying very close attention to what's been going on around me, James, not for a long time. It was entirely my fault," William Ellison said finally.
"Sometimes we can't see what is right in front of us. It happens," Jim answered.
Blair wasn't sure if they were discussing the current collision or the years of estrangement. He didn't think either of the Ellisons knew for sure either, judging from their expressions.
"I realize that you are probably exhausted. You've been traveling for some time, under very difficult circumstances, but when you have some time available I'd like to talk with you," William said nervously, half expecting to be turned down on the spot.
"I think I'd like that, Father," Jim said without hesitation. But the word father was spoken quietly, as he if expected to be punished for using it.
William glanced at Blair. "I understand that the two of you are on leave for the next two weeks. I'm returning home for a small vacation. The two of you would be welcome for a visit. I know Steven would love to see you again. He has spoken of you often."
Jim turned to see how Blair felt about the invitation. Blair could see as well as feel the hope of reconciliation in Jim, the yearning for peace with his blood kin. He nodded and spoke for the both of them. "We'd be happy to come, Lord Ellison. We have a few details to wrap up here. Perhaps we could arrive in two days?"
"That would be fine, wonderful. And please, call me William, Herald Blair."
"I'm only Herald Blair when I am on duty, William. When I'm on leave, it's Blair."
William smiled back, "I'll let you go. I look forward to seeing you both in a few days." William stepped away from them with a wave of his hand, disappearing into the crowd.
"Jim?" Blair looked at his friend who seemed frozen in place.
"He acknowledged me. After all these years, he finally spoke to me."
"Maybe now that Father Brackett has been exposed as a traitor, he is seeing things differently."
"You think that's it? You don't think it's because his son was just named 'protector of the crown'?"
"No, Jim. That's not what I felt coming from him. Mostly, he was feeling very guilty and ashamed, with a little bit of fear thrown in there, also."
"Afraid of me? I don't believe that," Jim said searching the crowd for another glimpse of his father.
"Afraid that you would reject his apology, his request to speak and most importantly, his invitation to return home. Jim, if you wanted to hurt him, all you had to do is turn him down."
"I don't want to hurt him. Actually, I'm not sure what I want from him. Blair, I have you for my family now. You've taught me exactly what it means to be part of a family. But, I have to admit, there is a part of me that needs his approval, even after all these years. You're not feeling threatened by this, are you?"
"No, Jim. Not at all, I'm hoping this all works out for you. Family is important. Judging from your father's behavior, he already recognizes the closeness you and I share or he wouldn't have invited me along, too. I have no reason to feel threatened."
"So you're okay with this?"
"Yes. But keep in mind, if this doesn't work out, I'm not helping you bury the bodies," Blair said as he scampered out the door.
"But, I thought we were family," Jim whined, catching up the brother of his heart, of his soul.
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