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Part the First - The Reaping is posted in two chapters due to length. Chapter 1 is on this page, and Chapter 2 is here. The story then continues in Part the Second - The Harrowing (also posted in two chapters), followed by Part the Third - The Winnowing (divided into three chapters). 

Summary: In a land beset by the fearsome, winged creatures known as the night terrors, a wounded guide with a mysterious past finds sanctuary at Baron James' castle. Humanity is on the verge of destruction, and not everything is as it seems...

Notes: A novel-length, fantasy AU, written for Moonridge 2007. This story expands upon an original snippet by the same name, which was previously posted to 852 Prospect and my personal journal.

Warnings: This story carries several warnings, some of which are potentially triggering. To see them, click here.

Rating: NC-17

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Sunglow66, who was the winning bidder for this story at the Moonridge auction 2007, and who has generously waived her 30 day period of exclusivity to allow me to post it straight away. This story is dedicated to her, with much love and gratitude.

Thank you also to Timian who inspired me to turn the original snippet into a full-length story. Blame him, it's all his fault ;-).

Thanks also to Ladydey, whose request for more influenced the direction the story took.

Enormous thanks to my initial betas, Rhianne and Luicat, who looked over and made corrections to the first two parts. Thanks also to Mab, Elaine and Jen who commented as the final part was being written, as well as to Fingers who brainstormed character names with me. Huge gratitude also to Knitty_Woman, for the final, comprehensive beta.

Finally, thank you to everyone who asked for more. Writing this story has been a true labour of love for me - that some of you have enjoyed it too is a wondrous thing :-)






The Night Terrors
By Fluterbev

Part the First - The Reaping

February 2008


Chapter 1

The sentinel and guide pair came in an hour before sunset, in amongst the latest batch of refugees. Embroiled in the midst of barked orders, humanitarian chaos and the hysterical bleating of sheep, James was aware of them only as a fleeting oasis of calm against his own heightened senses, the guide’s soothing voice reaching to him across the crowd to sharpen his own control.

Occasionally, as he worked with his household staff and guardsmen to get the latest influx of weary travellers and their livestock settled, James caught glimpses of them – a man and a woman, and a young girl-child. The girl was the sentinel, he could tell – no mistaking the distinctive prickle her proximity caused at the nape of his neck. The woman, an older version of the child – her mother, he guessed - had no talent, so far as his senses could determine. The guide he located in the form of a young man, head bent solicitously toward the girl; long, dark hair concealing his features as he aided the half-grown sentinel’s control.

James wished to talk to them; to determine their needs. Chaos such as this – the noise, the unwashed bodies, and the pervading aroma of grief and fear - could be hard on a sentinel’s senses, and he would perhaps need to find better accommodation for them than the great hall, where pallets were being laid down for their flock of visitors, could provide. But seeing to their comfort would have to wait. For now, it was all he could do to instil order in this mob.

And mob it was, to be sure, in part. Soldiers who had travelled with the band, their faces lined with the stress of marshalling nearly fifty men, women, children and animals for miles through countryside infested with night terrors, mingled now with his own men, their voices raised as they cussed the newcomers to order, some of their language coarse and offensive. He didn’t like the look of more than a few of them – there was something hard, something ruthless in their bearing. Mercenaries, he assumed, who had turned their skills to the aid of these people. He didn’t imagine for a minute that they had done it for purely altruistic reasons.

Moving over toward Simon, his seneschal and right-hand-man, he nodded toward the roughest looking half dozen of the bunch. “Watch them,” he murmured.

Simon gave him a look back which bespoke clear understanding. “Already on it, my lord,” he confirmed. As James watched, he saw other eyes upon them – two of his best guardsmen. “Rafe and Henri have them in their sights,” Simon informed him.

James clapped Simon on the back. “Good job,” he praised. Such intuitive understanding and ability to take action was the reason he’d kept Simon at his side all these years.

Time passed in a frenzy of activity; animals taken away to be housed in the outbuildings, and humans eventually settling in the hall. Food was procured from the kitchens, a simple meal of broth and good bread which had been destined for his own personal table before they were overrun with so many dispossessed folk on the brink of starvation. The noise level made a distinct nosedive as bowls were held in grimy hands and hungrily drained, and James guessed that it had probably been days since many of these people had eaten a hot meal.

It was during the lull in activity as people ate that a soft voice intruded. “My lord, I beg pardon.” It was the woman he’d seen earlier with the young sentinel and her guide. Her accent was unfamiliar, though cultured; and currently marred by tangible misery.

Solicitously, James asked, “What can I do for you, Madam?” He glanced over to where the child sat, supping broth hungrily. “Is your daughter coping? I can sense that she is a sentinel - I share that gift myself.” He smiled. “I can find somewhere more private for the three of you, if you wish.”

“Grace is fine, my lord. Thank you.” She sounded on the verge of tears. “It’s not her I’m worried about, my lord. It’s Blair. He left us, and went back out the gate. Please, I beg you, please find him.”

James frowned. The gates would be closing shortly, and would not be opened again until morning; and to stay out after dark alone was to invite certain death, with so many night terrors in the vicinity. “Blair? He is your daughter’s guide, yes?” Too young for a pairing of her own, he suspected that the child’s guide might be a friend or family member with the gift, helping out with her development as was the custom.

The woman shook her head slightly. “We met him on the road – he is not Grace’s guide, although he has been helping her as we travelled.” The dam burst, tears trickling down her pale cheek, but the woman maintained her dignity. “Please, my lord, please help him. He’s hurt - badly, I think, although he tried to disguise it. There… there were some men, who travelled with us. They wanted to hurt Grace, and… and me.”

Her voice shook and the true meaning of the word ‘hurt’ was not lost on James. His anger ignited, a red hot flame in his chest. The sentinel was just a child!

The lady was still speaking, unaware of his inner outrage. “Blair protected us, my lord. He sacrificed himself for Grace and for me. When they wouldn’t leave us alone, he made them take him instead. They took him into the woods, and kept him there for hours. When they let him return, he was in pain, but he wouldn’t let me tend him.”

James’ eyes strayed to the mercenary band, who were rolling dice at the far end of the room. Then he looked back at the woman. “And you are?” he asked.

“My name is Megan, my lord.” She had fearfully followed his gaze to the uncouth soldiers, and he knew he had guessed correctly the source of her unease.

“How do you know that Blair went out of the gate?” James questioned. As he spoke, he motioned Simon over.

Megan tore her gaze away from the men who had abused the guide. “He spoke to Grace before he went,” she whispered. “He said goodbye, and she saw him go out. I… I think…” She swallowed, the tears coming faster. “I think he wants to die.”

“My lord?” Simon appeared at his elbow.

“Keep up your surveillance of those men,” James directed. “Keep them here in the hall, if you can, without arousing suspicion. Try to keep them away from the other refugees. And find a private room, a safe space for Lady Megan and her daughter.”

“Yes, my lord,” Simon acknowledged.

As Simon moved off, James placed a hand on Megan’s shoulder. “You’re safe now,” he soothed. “You and your daughter will be taken care of – you have my word.”

“And Blair?” Guilt shadowed her features – she clearly believed, on some level, that she bore responsibility for the young man’s plight.

“I will find him.” James’ senses were already at work, roaming beyond the castle walls, seeking a lone heartbeat, which he found – just there. “I will bring him back,” he assured Megan. “And I will take care of him. And then?” A hard look was cast at the recently arrived soldiers, who appeared oblivious to his wrath. “I will avenge him. You have my word on that. My word as a sentinel.”

***

The days when sentinels and guides were revered and treated with respect were long gone, James considered ruefully. He doubted that, in his father’s day, a child sentinel would have been threatened with violation, and a guide taken in her place.

If any such thing had occurred during William Ellison’s barony, retribution would have been swift and decisive, James had no doubt. And, as he approached the figure of the brutalized guide, crouched in unmistakable despair in the lee of the castle, James vowed that he would be every bit as ruthless as his father would have been in bringing down this young man’s attackers.

The guide didn’t seem to notice James’ approach, lost as he was in silent desolation. From what Megan had told him, Blair had acted as though nothing had happened immediately after the assault, refusing to speak of what had occurred, and dedicating all his attention to the young sentinel in his care.

Now Blair had brought his charge to safety, however, it seemed, the reality of what had been done to him had come crashing in with a vengeance.

James stopped a few paces from the guide, to assess how best to deal with him. The man was, indeed, hurt – James could smell the copper tang of blood, as well as viler fluids, on Blair’s body. And Blair had to know that coming out here, so close to sunset, was effectively an act of suicide.

Damn those bastards – to bring a valuable guide to such an impasse.

Keeping his voice soft, James spoke up. “My name is James Ellison – this is my demesne. I offer you my thanks for what you did for the girl. I’ve given her and her mother sanctuary here - this is now their home, for as long as they need it.”

The guide raised bloodshot eyes; to look up at the darkening sky. “Then my work is done,” he said quietly. There was no hint of turmoil beneath his words; on the contrary, he sounded eerily calm.

“But you’re a guide,” James pointed out, hoping to break through his disturbing composure. “There is still much you can do. You are welcome to stay here too, to guide young Grace. Maybe you could even guide me.”

For the first time, the guide looked at James. “You’re a sentinel?” he asked.

James nodded. “I am. I’m surprised you can’t tell.”

The guide took a deep breath. “My… concentration is not what it was.”

“That’s not what Megan said. She told me that the whole way here, you focused on the young sentinel, kept her senses in check.”

Blair looked away, pain at last seeping through. “I’m tired,” he whispered.

“I know,” James acknowledged. “And you’re hurt. I know what happened to you.”

Blue eyes clenched shut in pain.

James held out a hand. “Come with me,” he urged. “Let me help you.” He glanced at the setting sun, aware of how little time they had before the gates would be locked – and before the night terrors would be out in force. “Come with me,” he implored again.

The Guide opened his eyes, and glanced at the hand which James held out to him, desolation in every line of his being. When he finally glanced up to look the sentinel in the eye, desperate need, and shame, and misery naked on his face, James nodded encouragingly. “Trust me,” he whispered.

After a few seconds, strong fingers grasped James’ hand, as the guide finally found, in the sentinel’s honest compassion, the will to live.

***

James’ own family physician tended the guide in James’ own chambers. The sentinel stayed throughout, providing comfort to the distraught young man, who had been so cruelly used in courageous defence of a child and her mother.

James was a fair physician himself, his senses giving him a natural advantage as a diagnostic tool. And his senses were also good for another reason which, as he helped to clean, and bandage, and soothe, he employed now in full force.

He blatantly identified and catalogued every alien smell, every handprint-shaped bruise and bite-mark which tainted Blair’s body.

After the physician left, James stayed with Blair, sitting beside him as the guide finally told him, in halting speech, what had been done to him, and by whom. He held the exhausted young man’s hand as Blair finally slipped into a fitful sleep, and he watched over him until his sleep deepened into dreamless oblivion, aided by the pain-killing narcotic which the physician had urged him to drink.

And then, armed with Blair’s oral testimony and the sensory evidence he had gathered, James went down to the hall to impart justice.

***

Ever since the night terrors had come to the land, it had been a categorical rule at the castle that the gate was never opened after sunset, no matter what the reason.

That night, James Ellison broke the rule for the first time in two generations. The gate was opened in the dead of night, and five bound men were deposited outside.

Up in his bed chamber, keeping protective vigil over the sleeping guide, James extended his hearing, and smiled in satisfaction at the desperate pleas of the cowards as they begged to be allowed back in.

And when the devouring began, and their screams rang in his hypersensitive ears, he looked at the brave, damaged young man in his bed, and felt not an ounce of regret at their fate.

***

Blair was tutoring Grace again, out in the walled sensory garden Baron William had installed when young James’ senses had first manifested. James was peripherally aware of Blair’s voice, as he so often was since the young man had recovered somewhat from his injuries; a soothing background to the task at hand.

James was very grateful that there was that one, small comfort to be had during the day-to-day business of administrating the barony. He rubbed eyes made dry by lack of sleep, and nursed a pounding headache in miserable silence, during a brief respite from his formal duties.

For as long as James could remember, this had been a land beset by threat from the night terrors, although in past times it was said that the simple expedient of staying indoors during the night hours had been sufficient to deter the creatures from eating human flesh. Livestock bred for that purpose, and tethered outdoors, had been more than enough food for the ravenous creatures back then, ensuring that men, women and children asleep in their homes were safe from their ravages.

But lately the night terrors had been getting bolder and hungrier, and coming in greater numbers, their habits more aggressive. Whole villages had been emptied of their inhabitants – the unlucky ones devoured in their beds, and the rest forced to flee for their lives; only to be picked off one by one, should they be unlucky enough to find themselves out in the open at nightfall. Terrified refugees crossed his land daily seeking sanctuary, herding their farm animals along before them; some of them moving on elsewhere after a night or so, others choosing to stay indefinitely.

The constant miasma of fear and grief which pervaded the castle wore at the sentinel’s nerves. Voices raised in bickering over small territorial disputes – a place to put a mattress, the size of a portion of broth – kept James constantly on edge, as did the constant stress of managing the crisis. While at the start James had managed to find new homes for the dispossessed in the nearby town (and he blessed the fact that his father’s father had initiated the custom of using stone from the local quarry for building rather than the fragile wattle and daub favoured in the lowlands), that option was daily decreasing. The demand for homes for the refugees and stabling for their animals, both permanent and temporary, was becoming impossible to meet; and tension between the original inhabitants and the newcomers had reached breaking point, both in the castle and out in the town.

It had culminated, yesterday, in murder – over possession of an extra inch of space.

Sitting in judgement had not been easy. In the current volatile climate, James had been forced to take a hard line, and make an example. As a result, one man had been sentenced to death; and all because he’d fought and killed another whose bedroll had encroached on his own.

James sighed unhappily, massaging aching temples with his hands.

“My lord, can I help?” The tentative voice came from behind James, and it was a measure of how exhausted he was that he started, not having heard Blair’s approach. In the next moment hands kneaded James’ shoulders, their touch firm and deft.

Leaning back into Blair’s very welcome touch, James groaned in shameless relief. “Thank you,” he said.

Blair ignored the gratitude, all-business as ever. “I want you to breathe deeply, my lord. Slowly in, and slowly out. Follow the pattern I set with my own breath. Let your tension flow away with every exhale.”

James was captivated, as ever, by the rich tones of Blair’s voice, as the guide continued to murmur instructions. He sighed deeply as his stressed body found blessed relief, his over-extended senses recalibrated by the expert voice and hands which soothed him.

Once again, James wondered what this taciturn man’s story was. No hedge-guide, this one, given the control he displayed, but someone clearly trained to mastery.

As Blair finished his ministrations, James caught his hand before he could move away. “I am glad,” he said sincerely, “that you decided to stay. I truly do not know how I’d cope in these circumstances, without your help.”

Blair’s hand stirred in James’ hold, like a bird poised for flight, and his eyes were averted. But his cheeks were flushed with pleasure at the praise. “I am happy to be of use,” he said shyly. “It is what I know how to do, after all.”

“You’re very skilled,” James said. “Did you train at the Guide Academy?”

Blair’s expression of shy pleasure was supplanted by a flicker of misery – quickly smoothed over into one of professional neutrality. “I did,” he answered shortly. His heart, to James’ observant ears, beat faster at the admission – evidence that, despite his trained ability to control his autonomic responses, this topic profoundly affected him in some way.

When no further information was forthcoming, James prodded, “I knew you had to be a Master Guide. You know so much.”

“I am no Master.” Bitterness infused the words. “Please, my lord, I’d rather not say more.”

“I am sorry,” James said contritely. “I have offended you – that was not my intention.”

“It’s no matter.” It clearly was, but Blair seemed determined to downplay it. “All that matters is that I have enough training to provide guidance for you and for Grace while I am here. And I am more than happy to do so.”

“And we’re very lucky to have you,” James asserted. He gently squeezed the hand he still held, then let it go. Then, looking more critically at Blair, he noted, “You look pale.” Extending his senses to envelop the guide, he added, “And you have a slight fever. Perhaps you have risen from your bed too soon.”

“Perhaps.” Blair looked tired and sad suddenly, the reminder of what had caused his illness this past week no doubt bringing back memories best forgotten. “Maybe I’ll go and rest a while.”

James stood. “Come on,” he said solicitously, steering the guide out of the room. He should get Physician Wolf to tend to Blair, he knew; after all, James had his own not inconsiderable responsibilities. But despite all of that, he felt impelled to look after Blair himself. And the fact that, this past week, Blair had seemed most comfortable with that arrangement also, made him all the more inclined to go with his instincts.

It was part of the old ways, after all; that sentinels and guides should take care of each other. And James was nothing if not a man of tradition.

***

Resting in the well-appointed room that had been allotted him, Blair sighed, desolation churning in his gut, despite the tender care Baron James had shown him.

The baron had given him a draught to relieve the pain of his still-healing injuries, and had gently soothed Blair’s slight fever with a cool cloth on the brow. Then he’d sat companionably beside him until Blair’s eyelids had begun to droop, talking comfortingly of inconsequential things in a soft voice; putting Blair at ease.

As Blair’s eyes had drifted shut the baron had silently left him alone, heading off to return to his duties. Baron James had a tough few hours ahead, Blair knew; although every day, it seemed, was tough, and for far more than just the baron.

In the ensuing peace of the room, the noise of a large crowd milling in the courtyard could be heard. Blair’s ominous realisation of what would soon happen down there made him shift uncomfortably and open his eyes; heart-pounding dread casting off the beckoning lure of sleep. Blair hated public executions – hated, in fact, any circumstance which inspired human beings to hurt and kill each other. But his sympathy for the baron – on whose reluctant shoulders justice rested – was profound, nevertheless. Such a responsibility, even for an important man like him, would not be without personal cost - because despite his clear dedication to the obligations of his position, the baron was truly one of the most compassionate men Blair had ever met.

Blair understood that fact, first and foremost, from personal experience. Since fate had brought Blair here, Baron James had shown him nothing but incredible kindness. Blair couldn’t remember, in fact, anyone ever demonstrating such concern for his welfare before – and it was such a contrast to the one other sentinel whom he’d had occasion to be close to. That realization brought a lump to his throat, the sunlight streaming in from the window blurring in a haze thereafter.

He deserved none of the baron’s kindness, of course.

Blair knew that he would have to leave soon. It would be too easy to stay here; to pretend the past had never happened, and become comfortable and complacent. But that was something he could never allow himself to do.

His attraction to the baron, in particular, was a dangerous thing, as was the baron’s apparently reciprocal draw towards him. Blair wanted to think that the baron was just being kind, and that his own feelings were born out of gratitude for the man’s benevolence. Part of it was that, of course. But he also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that there was something else - something far more insidious and profound - which underlay their interaction as well.

He had no choice but to put a stop to it now, before it could go any further. There were matters Blair had to face up to and deal with, and those matters most certainly precluded the kind of attachment they were beginning to form.

Blair sighed miserably. If only the thought of stepping outside this sanctuary he’d stumbled upon wasn’t so incredibly hard. The world beyond the secure walls of the keep dominated Blair’s nightmares, causing him to wake night-after-night crying out in fear. There was danger on all sides out there; some of it the pitch-black, amorphous shape of the night terrors themselves, and some of it wearing the faces of men, their faces metamorphosed into those of monstrous beasts, twisted by violence and lust. The knowledge that he must leave the safety and comfort of the keep to go out into that, filled him with complete and utter dread.

And that was not all. In a shockingly short space of time, he’d begun to associate this place not only with safety, but also with treacherous words like home. He had been offered a place here, it seemed. Guide to two sentinels; his tutelage helping the child to establish primary control, and his voice and hands enabling the adult to weather the unbelievably harsh daily assault on his senses which these difficult circumstances wrought. I truly do not know how I’d cope in these circumstances, without your help, the baron had said. And we’re very lucky to have you. But if the baron had known who he’d made so welcome in his household, such words would never have passed his lips.

The things Blair seemed to have stumbled upon here – security, belonging, trust - were not for the likes of him. He had no doubt that Grace and the baron benefited from his guidance, such as it was. But another guide – a real, qualified guide – should take his place; because when all was said and done, this was not his place.

It would never be his place. No sentinel’s side was, not anymore.

Exhausted and heartsick, Blair vowed that, as soon as he was able, he would leave. As soon as he no longer hurt all over. As soon as Grace had her developing senses under control. As soon as he could be sure the baron could cope without him. Soon... soon…

Unhappy thoughts eddied around and around, spiralling inexorably toward herb-induced sleep. The roar of the crowd outside merged into turbulent dreams, filled with guilt and regret, as well as sorrow for what could never be.

***

Days passed, and the steady flow of refugees slowed to a trickle.

News carried by the most recent arrivals was grim. Almost all of the lowland villages were empty of habitation – most people having fled, but a large number having been carried off from their homes and devoured. Convoys of travellers, heading for the stone-built safety of the uplands, arrived at their destinations with a third of their original number gone. Stragglers – frequently the very old, the very young, the sick and the infirm – had been picked off one-by-one, as they moved through open countryside which contained no shelter from the monsters once night fell.

The night terrors, it seemed, had become insatiable, their appetites having gone way beyond the regular sheep or goat. More than one traumatised villager fleeing his home had seen a single creature carry off two humans at once, one under each scaly, powerful arm. And their voraciousness, according to the distraught newcomers, showed signs of continued escalation, with night terrors who had already eaten coming back the same night for more, the blood of their previous victims still staining their inky skin.

They could be fought and they could be killed, although it was almost impossible to do so, even for trained soldiers, because the night terrors had the advantage in so many ways. They moved in the blink of an eye, were blue-black of hue and attacked only in the dark, so they were difficult to see, let alone fatally wound with arrow or sword. And they always came in great numbers, some using diversionary tactics while their fellows swooped in to take others unawares. Beasts they might be; but they betrayed a frightening level of intelligence and tactical ability.

During James’ lifetime, humans had lived in uneasy truce with the night terrors. Tales were still told of when they first came to the land, back in the days when James’ great-grandfather was baron. They were not called ‘night terrors’ then. Instead, people called them ‘fae’, as it was believed that they were some relation to the benevolent, mischievous imps of legend, come up from the earth’s dark places to bestow favour and luck on those who were lucky enough to see them.

In those days, householders would encourage the mythical visitors, leaving out a saucer of milk at night and perhaps some scraps from their table. Superstitiously, most people – especially down in the rural lowlands - still considered it bad luck to kill the creatures. The legend of their supernatural origins was too firmly engrained in hearts and minds.

After a few decades of co-existence with the fae, milk and scraps, so it was said, became no longer enough – if the fae were still hungry, they might steal chickens from the coop, or a new-born lamb from the field. Their preference for live animals as a food source translated into offerings of tethered beasts: fowl and rabbit at first, graduating up to lambs, calves and, in time, fully-grown sheep and cattle (though in the case of heavier animals, the half-devoured carcass would usually be found still tethered in place in the morning rather than carried off). It had also long since become the custom for livestock to be herded into barn and byre at night, since provision of tethered beasts for the creatures was no longer a deterrent from the rest of the herd grazing in the field.

The fae came only at night and, whereas in the past animals had been sufficient to sate their hunger, darker tales began to be told of them. Tales of how children, playing outside at dusk, were never seen again. Tales of drunken revellers, rolling home down dark, unlit country lanes, whose bones were found the next morning in ditches with the flesh gnawed completely off.

Dark, moonless nights were the faes’ element and so, in areas where they thronged, curfews after dark became the norm. The nocturnal predators acquired a new name, whispered as people sat around in fire lit buildings, their windows shuttered, hearing the terrified bleating of that night’s offering just outside the walls. And that name had stuck to this day, now that sheep and goats and even cattle were no longer enough to satisfy their hunger, and closed windows and doors no longer enough to keep them out.

The night terrors.

The creatures had tended, up until recently, to congregate mostly in the pastoral lowlands, where livestock was in greater profusion. Here in the upland hills, where houses were made of stone and grazing land was sparser, the night terrors had been found in smaller numbers; the local flock’s roost, reputedly, somewhere in the foothills to the north. But now, with their food source in the lowlands running completely dry, they were here in abundance, the local numbers swelled by others which had congregated here. The curfew in James’ barony – which had originally been enforced by his grandfather as a precautionary measure – was now a vital life preserver.

James was forced to wonder where it might end, and whether even stone walls would continue to be sufficient to keep the creatures out, if their ravenous appetites continued to escalate, yet remain unsatisfied.

So James spent his days overseeing the crisis; no longer just dealing with the day-to-day needs of the refugees, but also engaged in meetings with his senior men-at-arms, the Captain of the Watch and various town dignitaries. Arguments ensued about just about every aspect on the agenda, everyone fighting their corner. Overwhelming concerns included provision of lodging for people and their animals, public order, availability of fodder for the additional livestock, and the worry that the local harvest would be inadequate to feed a population which had grown so precipitously in such a short space of time. And the needs of the populace for food was weighed against the necessity of tethering beasts outside after nightfall, thereby turning the attention of the night terrors away from the tasty humans hiding inside.

On one issue, however, they were all agreed without exception.

Something definitive had to be done about the night terrors, now they had been brought to this impasse. The roost of the monsters would need to be located and the battle taken to them, because the alternative would ultimately result in the decimation of every last man, woman and child. And it was agreed that such a measure, given the numbers and resilience of the night terrors, was something that no single province could handle alone.

With a heavy heart at the danger to his men due to the many nights they must spend in the open, James sent forth a delegation of guardsmen to take a message to the neighbouring baronies. It was a first step in calling together a Grand Council, in which all five barons would discuss matters of import extending beyond their own individual demesnes - something which had only happened previously in times of dire need, and never within James’ own time as baron.

In James’ opinion, the dire situation in which they found themselves definitely merited such an exceptional measure.

***

Baron James was hurting again, Blair could see, as his fingers itched to give comfort and soothe the sentinel’s overstretched senses. The baron’s jaw muscles were visibly bunching under the strain, as though he was chewing on last year’s cured mutton, and the lines of stress at his temples were visible even to someone – like Blair - not possessed of sentinel-sight.

Yet, to Blair’s intense admiration, none of it sounded in the baron’s voice. As he sat in his hall, Baron James commanded the room simply by virtue of the measured, even tones by which he addressed the many people who had come to seek his counsel, as well as the piercing and forthright quality of his gaze. A natural born leader, this sentinel-baron; loved and respected in equal measure by his people.

Watching from the sidelines, Blair thought wistfully that, if things were different, he might have been content to follow him anywhere.

A small, warm hand found its way into Blair’s, and he turned his head to look down into the face of his student. Grace smiled up at him, the gap in her upper front teeth lending her a mischievous air. With the innocent guilelessness of childhood, she blurted out, “The baron likes you, and you like him. Will you be his guide for ever, like my granny was for Grandpa?”

Twin threads of sorrow and longing entwined around Blair’s vocal cords, and he swallowed them down forcefully before finding his voice. He smiled warmly at Grace, not wanting her to sense how much her suggestion hurt him. “I will guide the baron, and you too, little one, as best as I can. And one day, I am certain that both of you will find your own special guides, just like your grandpa did.”

But he might have known that Grace would not be deceived – her senses, which were still developing, were wide open, her childish curiosity lending her an almost uncanny gift of insight. “You smell like Mama did when Papa died,” she said. “Why are you so sad?”

That was a question Blair simply could not answer. Instead, he resorted to misdirection. “Where is your mama, little one? You should not be wandering around without her. See if you can find her. See if you can hear her voice, or find her scent, and tell me where she is, and what she’s doing.”

Obediently, easily distracted by the shiny, addictive lure of her senses, Grace screwed up her face in concentration and Blair watched, entranced, as the small sentinel did as she was bid. She had a strong gift, this one; growing into it naturally in the custom of her mother’s people, wholly unlike most sentinels of the Five Baronies who were commonly sent away at an early age to be formally trained; just as the most talented guides were.

Blair suspected, somewhat radically, that Grace’s upbringing had made her gift even stronger, uninhibited by rules and restrictions as she had been. James, he knew, had been raised the same way – learning from his grandfather, in the old tradition. The methods were unfamiliar to a classically trained guide like Blair, but he had to admit they were far more effective than he’d ever suspected.

It didn’t take the little girl long. She broke into a huge grin, her eyes sparkling with delight. “Mama is in the yard, fighting with Rafe!” she declared. “Let’s go see!”

***

Blair watched from the edge of the training yard as Megan, clad in breeches and a man’s shirt, circled Rafe, mischief in her gaze. Her confident bearing was even more apparent when contrasted with the expression of trepidation on her opponent’s face.

“Go on, Mama!” Grace squealed delightedly, bouncing on her toes beside Blair. “Throw him down again!”

“Grace, hush!” Blair admonished, but he couldn’t quite smother a smile. The child was irrepressible – just like her mother.

As graceful as a cat Megan pounced, the movement so fast Blair couldn’t see exactly what it was that she did. But in the next moment, the guardsman was flat on his back on the ground, much to the amusement of his colleagues, who stood on the edges of the training ground making cat-calls and laughing.

Looking unruffled, Megan reached down a considerate hand to help Rafe up. “Sorry, mate,” she said, her southern colloquialism betraying – as did her skill at unarmed combat – her foreign origins. “That’s three out of three. I suppose that means I won!”

Rafe took her hand and, as he came to his feet, shook his head. “My gallantry prevents me from taking advantage, ma’am,” he said, bowing. “I fear that I could not throw you down even if I wanted to.” He glared at his fellows, who had lost no time in mocking him for his excuses.

Megan simply raised a sardonic eyebrow in response.

The combat over, Rafe moving away to accept the good-natured teasing of his fellows, Grace ran to her mother, and was swept up in a hug. Engrossed as he was in observing the display of affection which followed, Blair didn’t notice the figure who had come up behind him, until he heard James’ voice. “It’s good to see them so settled,” the baron murmured. “I am glad they decided to stay.”

Blair swallowed, bittersweet emotion ambushing him for a moment. Ruthlessly, he suppressed it and kept his gaze on mother and child, who were now talking animatedly to each other. “I’m glad too,” he said sincerely. “Megan is like a new woman since she came here. When I first met them on the road, she was just a shadow. Grief stricken and broken, after the night terrors took her husband and her home from her.” He turned to look at the baron, trying not to flinch away from the intensity of the baron’s gaze. “You gave her this. A new home and safety. A fresh start for her and Grace, in a place where Grace’s sentinel abilities will be nurtured. I’m really grateful, for their sake, that you did.”

“I’ve tried to do the same for you,” Baron James said softly, his eyes steady on Blair’s face. “My dearest wish is that you know how much we value you, Blair; Grace, Megan and I. I know you’ve been through something terrible. But I hope, in time, that you will come to regard this as your home, too.”

I should tell him now, Blair’s inner voice insisted. Tell him I must leave. End it, now!

But what he said was, “Thank you, my lord. I do know. And I’m very grateful for your kindness.”

The baron smiled, the austere lines of his handsome face softening with the blinding force of it, and touched Blair gently on the shoulder. The telltale signs of pain around his eyes - which had earlier been so evident - had smoothed out, as though Blair’s presence for the few scant moments they’d spent together had refreshed and renewed him. Then James turned and was gone, heading back to his duties in the hall.

Left breathless in his wake, Blair felt more lost and desperate than ever. And once more, he hated himself for perpetuating the deceit, and taking the coward’s way out.

***

On the whole, life for James was fairly grim. He spent each long, stressful day dealing with the frightened folk who came by in a constant stream; adjudicating grievances, trying to ensure that order and safety were maintained in both the castle and the town, that sufficient food and shelter could be found to meet everyone’s needs, as well as seeing to the immediate requirements of any straggling refugees who might arrive. He worried about the men he had sent forth to the other baronies and, like an itch he could not scratch, felt a constant, urgent need to do something – anything - rather than hide indoors every night.

But there were also intervals during which he felt, paradoxically, more content than he could ever remember feeling – and that was all down to the presence of Megan, Grace and Blair.

They’d turned into an unlikely family of a kind, he and the dispossessed threesome he’d taken in and welcomed into his personal household. They took meals together in James’ private rooms in the morning and evening, the laughter and chatter of those precious times warming James in a way that dining alone or in the main hall with his men had never done. He grew to regard those occasions as little oases of peace and joy; looking forward throughout each long, difficult day to the respite they gave him from the stark reality which consumed the rest of his time.

As Blair had rightly pointed out, Megan had transformed from the pale, frightened creature who had stumbled over his threshold, to blossom into the confident, engaging woman who had bested Rafe in the training yard. There were still times, of course – the wounds were still so fresh – when she would gaze sightlessly into her memories, grief and pain in her eyes. But to James’ lasting pleasure, she too seemed to find much solace in the times the four of them gathered, as well as in the security she had found in her new life here. That her pain was lessened by those comforts pleased James greatly.

Megan’s southern customs – which she proudly adhered to despite the many years she had lived in the Five Baronies – both intrigued and delighted James. He longed to know more about her style of fighting, and perhaps learn something of it himself. Once the crisis had passed – and he fervently hoped that it would eventually pass – he looked forward to the day when he might find some spare time to persuade her to teach him her skills, as she had recently been doing by popular request for Rafe and some of the other guardsmen. James sorely missed the time he’d used to spend outside training with his men, instead of sitting all day in a busy hall, dispensing advice and judgement. He longed to get out there again and try out something new.

Megan’s daughter Grace was, quite simply, a delight. It had been many years since James had lived in such close quarters with another sentinel – his grandfather had died when James had still been young. But now, since the small sentinel had settled into her new accommodations, he and Grace had developed something of a rapport – almost a secret language. Oft times something might register with their senses – a particular scent or a sound, perhaps - and their eyes would meet across the table in understanding, the two of them remarking on whatever it was that had piqued their interest in a way that neither Megan nor Blair could truly share.

And the child brought something else, as well, to those interludes. Her insatiable, childish curiosity, her quick intellect, and her joyous laughter. It was difficult to dwell too much on the dire situation the barony and its people found themselves in, when Grace was in full-flight.

James often watched indulgently, a smile on his lips, as Blair dealt with the child’s latest enquiry in his role as her tutor. James was impressed by both the breadth and depth of Blair’s knowledge, as well as the gentle and firm way he guided Grace in the use of her senses. And for her part, the child clearly adored Blair, hanging wide-eyed on every word as he eloquently explained, with much gentleness and wit, the meaning of this phrase or the history of that idea.

It was obvious that Blair was similarly fond of Grace. Many times, as she expressed some notion in classically childlike - yet uncannily insightful - terms, Blair’s face would be transformed by the most beautiful smile James had ever seen, his startlingly blue eyes twinkling with mirth.

James often thought wistfully that he would have given anything to have Blair smile at him, just once, the way he sometimes smiled at Grace.

But sadly, whether he was fully occupied with his little student, helping James to recalibrate senses gone awry or simply spending time by himself in the great hall while James sat in council, Blair hardly smiled at all. Mostly, he looked and smelled sad and afraid; as though wracked by some secret grief and deep, desperate fear. But James only noticed those things fleetingly - Blair made a huge effort, James could sense, to keep strict control of whatever demons haunted him whenever the sentinels were in his presence. At those times, he carried himself with a quiet, reassuring professionalism, assiduously ensuring that his unquiet emotions would not impinge upon the work he did with those in his charge; although his control slipped at times, and James would be reminded that the guide was haunted by some desperate, inner trouble.

James longed to give Blair solace, but he respected the wounded guide’s apparent desire for space and privacy. Blair had been through a terrible ordeal during his journey here, suffering a brutal assault which had undermined his manhood in a fundamental way, and all because of his courageous and selfless defence of Megan and Grace. The least James could do for him, in the wake of that, was to give him space so that he could recover both his dignity and his strength.

Though James fervently hoped that the day would come when Blair would be healed enough – would trust him enough - to confide in him. He knew so little about the enigmatic guide – unlike Megan, Blair never talked about his past, or how he’d come to be on the road, fleeing the lowlands among the refugees. But the constant sadness in his eyes, and the nightmares which James knew plagued the guide night after night, caused him to suspect that the attack Blair had suffered on the journey was merely the latest - rather than the only - misfortune which had befallen him.

So James sat back and watched, and waited for the time when Blair might open up to him a little. And feeling each day the pull between them getting stronger, despite Blair’s reticence, he nursed in private his growing fantasy: that Blair might, one day, consent to join with him in a match, and that they would make a true pairing like his grandfather had known with his guide.

James was sincere enough in that desire that, early one morning, he sought out Simon, his knowledgeable seneschal, for advice.

Like James, Simon had been working tirelessly of late managing the crisis; making sure that the administration of the castle continued to run as smoothly as possible during these difficult times. James found him in a room near the kitchens, busily taking inventory of foodstocks in the massive, underground larders, in preparation for what was likely to be a difficult winter to come. Servants and other staff were running to-and-fro, doing his bidding and trying hard not to become the focus of his booming voice of displeasure.

Pulling Simon to one side, after the big man had directed his deputy, Joel, to take charge in his stead, James outlined the nature of his problem. “The time is not yet right, I know,” he confessed. “Blair is still recovering from his ordeal. And there are so many other important matters to consider right now, that seeking a pairing with Blair is the least of my priorities. But knowing the legal aspects as well as you do, I would like to hear your take on the matter, in case I decide, one day, to take it further.”

Simon frowned as he considered the question, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the law one of the many reasons James valued his advice. “I do not believe,” he said at length, “that there would be any impediment in a union with Blair. As an Academy guide, he is bound by an oath to them – to abide by the choice of sentinel they make for him. All you would need to do would be to petition the Academy and acquire their approval of the match. I do not see any reason why they would object, considering the strength of your sentinel gifts, as well as the fact that you are one of the Five Barons. They would regard that latter fact, I am sure, as a matter of prestige for them, particularly if you were to gift them with a generous donation at the same time.”

James grimaced – he took his role as baron very seriously, but sometimes he hated the politicking that went along with that position. Although, of course, in this instance, it could only serve his purpose.

Not knowing whether it made any difference, James pointed out, “He told me that although he studied there, he is not a Master.”

“Ah,” Simon nodded his understanding. “Then in that case, the Academy need not be approached at all. So long as his studies there are at an end, he is a free agent. The only possible impediment will be whether or not he is willing.”

James smiled. If what he had sensed from the guide was to be relied upon, then there would be no question about his interest in James, even if it might take time for it to come to the fore.

Simon, however, had more to say. “There is one other matter to consider,” he said. “If you take Blair as your guide, I am assuming you will no longer be in a position to wed?”

“No, I will not,” James confirmed. “I will not do to any woman what my uncle did to his wife – use her as nothing more than a brood mare upon which to get heirs, while he indulged daily in the pleasures of his guide.” The poor woman – James’ Aunt Helen - had died lonely and unmourned by her husband, put aside in favour of the guide Joseph had loved so well, unable, in the end, even to bear the children her husband wanted.

Simon nodded. “That is what I thought you would say. And of course, Blair being male puts you in a dilemma. You are baron, my lord James. You must consider the succession.”

The reminder brought a sharp pang of grief. James’ own wife, Lady Carolyn, had died several years ago in childbirth, their newborn baby son following his mother into death a short while later in James’ grieving arms. Carolyn had been a guide – not strong in the gift or trained at the Academy like Blair, and their match had not been a true pairing, as she had been too unskilled to forge a deep link. But James had regarded her with great affection, nevertheless, and still regretted what might have been if things had gone differently.

Forcing his mind away from unhappy recollections of the past, James noted, “There are my brother’s children, of course, assuming they still live.” Stephen had moved to the province of the Coastal Barony some time ago, and James had not heard from him for several years, although he knew that he had raised a family there. “Although I do not think,” he went on, “that Stephen would approve of me naming Robert or Sally heir, after rejecting the position himself. He has never forgiven our father for their disagreement, and declared quite categorically when he left, as you know, that he was washing his hands of the title and the barony for good.”

“Hmph.” Simon shook his head. “Your brother is a stubborn, selfish fool,” he said. “No offence meant, my lord.”

James smiled ruefully. “None taken. Though, in truth, I sometimes think that, of the two of us, he is the wiser one.”

“You’ve never been a man to shy away from your responsibilities, my lord,” Simon retorted. “I know which of the two of you has my respect.”

Touched by Simon’s loyalty, James brought their discourse back to the matter at hand. “There is another option I have begun to consider,” he said. “Though once again, I need a legal take on it.” He took a deep breath, then continued. “The Ellison line has always been strong in the sentinel gift. There is another sentinel here, a talented and intelligent one, in whom I have great hopes. I am considering adopting the child, Grace, and naming her my heir.”

“Hm.” Simon looked thoughtful. “And her mother? You will not wed her?” he asked.

“No, I will not,” James said. “I already told you why. Plus,” he smiled a little, “I have recently noticed that Megan and our young guardsman, Rafe, have developed something of a rapport. If that is where her heart lies, I would not stand in the way of her happiness. She certainly deserves it, after everything that she’s been through, and Rafe would be a fine match for her.”

Simon looked thoughtful but, to James’ relief, he did not raise any objections outright. “There may be precedent for an adoptive heir,” he said after a moment. “But I will need to consult the records before I can give you a definitive opinion.”

“Thank you, Simon,” James said. “I would be most grateful. But, of course, there is no hurry – we all have more important matters to deal with at present.”

“Indeed we do,” Simon agreed. “How are you bearing up, my lord? It seems that you and I never get time to converse like we used to. You are a capable leader, but these are stressful times for us all.”

“I am well. Having Blair nearby helps,” James admitted. “As long as I can sense him in the vicinity, my gifts have scarcely troubled me. And he helps me reset my control at the end of each day. My concerns, therefore, are mostly those of any man beset by managing such a disaster, rather than those of a beleaguered sentinel.”

“Then Blair has my thanks,” Simon told him. Then, at a commotion in the corridor, he grimaced. “It looks like duty calls, already.”

James nodded grimly. “I am not the only one beset,” he noted. “If there is anything I can do to relieve you of some of your burden, please let me know, Simon.”

Simon clapped him on the shoulder – such familiarity between the two of them, was rooted in their years of companionship, and the time they’d served together as soldiers on the eastern border. “Do not be concerned about me, my friend,” Simon said. “If I need help, I will ask. In the meantime, I will go whip my capable staff into shape. If I keep them busy, they are less likely to dwell on their fears.”

Bidding each other farewell they parted, James feeling encouraged and relieved by the discussion they’d just had. It was just a shame that the other pressing matters, which kept them all fully occupied, could not be put to rights so easily.

***

A few short days afterwards, things changed for the worse. Down in the town a whole family disappeared overnight, the front door of their dwelling ripped off its hinges by inhuman force, the claw-marks around the door frame leaving no doubt as to the culprits.

Once the news spread, it caused pandemonium.

In response, Baron James ordered all who could be spared from their duties at the castle to go down to help the townsfolk reinforce their houses against the possibility of attack. Trees were cut down from the surrounding forest, and fashioned into bolsters for doors and shutters for windows. Toiling gladly alongside the others in making, distributing and fitting the wooden reinforcements, Blair’s own concerns were thrust, by necessity, to one side.

Rationing at the castle (as well as of the foodstuffs available for distribution to the masses) had been enforced ever since the seneschal had finished taking inventory, in an attempt to ensure that existing stores would last throughout the winter. There were also serious fears that a shortage of livestock would compound matters, because so many beasts were having to be sacrificed each night to the night terrors. And a sense of encroaching doom pervaded everything; the frightened, hungry faces of the townsfolk haunting Blair throughout each long, difficult day.

Blair knew, every day that went by, that he should leave. But he found, as he chopped wood and fashioned barriers against the beasts, that he truly wanted to help these people – James’ people. And he looked forward at the end of each day’s labour to the welcome awaiting him back at the castle, from those he had grown frighteningly close to loving.

Dangerous thinking, for a man such as he. But seductive and difficult to resist, nevertheless.

Walking in though the outer bailey, just before sunset on the fifth day he’d worked down in the town, Blair was assailed by an armful of pint-sized sentinel. “Blairblairblairblair,” Grace exclaimed in delight, burying her face in his neck. “You’re home, you’re home! I’ve missed you!”

Meeting Megan’s amused eyes as he cradled the child, and seeing James striding across the courtyard towards him - smiling warmly as though his return had been long looked for - Blair felt the trap close around him even tighter.

In the evenings these past few days, once food had been taken, Blair had been sitting down to read to Grace, tutoring her at that late hour since his daylight hours were now fully occupied. James had made it a habit to sit close-by at those times, a look of contentment on his face as he listened to Blair’s voice, infused as it was with that essential, soothing quality which only guides possessed.

Blair had a strong gift; which was how, of course, he’d ended up studying at the Academy, his pauper origins notwithstanding. He was possessed of deep insight bordering on empathy, as well as a strong attraction towards sentinels and a compulsion to ease their pain. Even as a child, when he and his mother had first arrived in the city, his voice - subsequently fully trained at the Academy to perfection - had rung out like a siren, his natural gift drawing sentinels to their lodging from all over, all of them looking toward the day when the child would be old enough to be paired.

The Academy had swiftly followed up on the reports of a young, wild guide in the poor quarter of the city, swooping in to take him, kicking and screaming, from his mother’s arms. He’d seen her only a handful of times after that, until she’d finally left the city for good. They were from traveller stock, she and Blair; and staying in one place too long had only ever brought her grief.

Blair had to concede that the same thing had been true for him, as well.

It was not unheard of for one guide to tend two sentinels – it often happened in families, where the paired guide to an adult helped with a child sentinel’s development, until that child was old enough to join with their own matched guide. But in this circumstance, Blair and James were not paired. They could never be paired, in fact, despite Blair wanting to be the focus of James’ senses, and the recipient of his tenderness, so keenly that it hurt. The baron wanted it too – his longing for Blair was evident in every gentle touch, every soft smile, and in the ever-increasing tangible pull between them.

Blair had to put a stop to it soon, before it could go any further. He just had to.

Yet it still felt oddly, as Blair sat there in candlelight - the child snuggled close as he read to her aloud, her mother watching them indulgently and the adult sentinel listening raptly - as though he belonged here, with them. As though this was his place, his home, his family.

He knew it could never be. But perhaps he could be forgiven, now and again, for imagining himself safe and loved, and for selfishly taking comfort for just a little while longer, before heading back out onto the hard, dangerous road to face his doom.

***

Waking in the early morning light, James was consumed by a feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. Seeking out Blair immediately, he confided in the guide, and asked for his help.

“Breathe deep and even,” Blair told him, his reassuring tones helping James to find his centre. “Isolate your senses one by one, and examine what they tell you.”

James frowned, concentrating hard. Blair’s voice droned on, leading him flawlessly through the routine of using each sense in turn, but to no avail. “It’s no good,” James confessed. “There’s something – a hint of smell, a sound. But I can’t capture it.” He opened his eyes and looked at Blair, beset by a dire sense of foreboding. “If you don’t mind, Blair, I would prefer it if you were to remain here today, instead of going to the town with the others.”

Blair nodded, his expression serious. “As you wish, my lord,” he said. “I will stay close at hand, in case you need further guidance.”

Guidance was not the reason James wanted him nearby – he just wanted to be certain that Blair was safe. But he did not say that out loud – he could see how important it was to Blair to feel he was doing his part during this whole sorry mess. The guide had reclaimed much of his vigour and self-confidence this past week, so it appeared to James, employed in the effort to help the townsfolk as he’d been.

So instead of explaining his true reasons for needing Blair close, James urged him, “Please, Blair, when we are in private, like this, I’d like it very much if you were to call me by my given name. It seems silly to be so formal when we live in such close quarters.”

Blair blushed, averting his gaze for a moment and, once again James smelled, with a sinking heart, the sour smell of Blair’s secret misery. But after a few seconds the guide looked back at him, the disturbing aroma receding and a shy smile of pleasure on his lips, his eyes – fixed on James’ face – clear and blue as the summer sky. “As you wish,” Blair agreed. “James it is, then.”

Smiling back, James forgot, for that one, shining moment, the dire circumstances they found themselves in.

The report came up to the castle at mid-morning, confirming James’ darkest fears. More people had been taken, this time a little after sunup – a group of market traders, carried away screaming as they set up their stalls in readiness for the day’s business.

More reports drifted in throughout the day, all of them from different parts of the town. People of all ages picked off one-by-one as they ventured into the streets, when the hours of darkness had just given way to early morning. Hundreds upon hundreds of night terrors had been seen perched atop roofs and other high vantage points, silhouetted against the lightening sky, flying off to roost in a massive, dark flurry of wings only as the sunlight had fully crested the rooftops.

Word was sent out via the town criers that curfew would be extended forthwith, to include the hours immediately after dawn. And James threw the castle doors wide, for the benefit of those folk who were too afraid to remain in the town. Throughout the day, a steady influx of men, women and children trailed up to the castle, carrying their personal belongings, herding their remaining animals, and filling the great hall with their frightened chatter.

Others opted to stay in their own homes, hoping desperately that their locked doors and windows would be enough to keep the monsters at bay. The work crews, who were helping to secure houses against the night terrors, worked even more furiously, trying to ensure both safety and confidence.

Late afternoon found James still standing in the courtyard, having just ushered a few last-minute stragglers inside before sunset. His thoughts tumbled round and round as he stood alone in their wake, deeply depressed as he was by the latest turn of events. By all accounts, the night terrors currently haunting this vicinity were here in great numbers. The odds for fighting back were not good; yet James recognised that something had to give, or they were all done for. If the night terrors didn’t eventually kill them all, the coming winter and inevitable food shortages would.

Tomorrow, he intended to seek out craftsmen and fletchers, and set them to work making bows and arrows. If the night terrors were now being seen in daylight, then they could be shot at, and they could be hit. And it was long past time to make a plan to seek out their roost, despite the lack of response from the other baronies. If the monsters went to ground by day then, despite the severe disadvantage of numbers (since they were apparently on their own) James was fully prepared to risk his life butchering them as they slept.

Lost in thought as he was, exhausted and momentarily captivated by the filigreed intricacy of a spider’s web at the corner of a window embrasure, he did not hear the ominous flap of leathery of wings, high above his head.

***

Blair came out into the courtyard just as the black shape swooped down towards James. Transfixed with horror he realised, in one split second of indecision, two inescapable facts. The baron’s usual protectors were absent, since the guardsmen were all inside dealing with the crowd in the hall, and James’ senses were focused far away - as sometimes happened with sentinels who were overtired and overstretched – so he was therefore totally oblivious to the danger he was in.

That one second was all it took for Blair to come to a single, inescapable conclusion. If he did not act immediately, then James would die. And that possibility was too awful to contemplate.

In the next second, Blair moved.

“Yahhh! Yahhh!” he yelled at the top of his voice, running full tilt toward the baron, waving his arms wildly. “Get away from him! Yahhhh!” It worked, inasmuch as he attracted the thing’s attention, its almost-human, beastly face turning at his cry and its forward momentum, clawed arms outstretched toward the living statue James had become, slowing momentarily.

That was just enough of a respite to enable Blair to reach James before the night terror did. Barrelling into the baron, Blair knocked him to the ground, covering the other man’s insensible body with his own. Beneath him, James regained his senses in a rush, stiffening in shock to find himself upon the ground, with Blair atop him. Desperately, Blair pleaded, “Keep still, my lord! I beg you!”

Whatever words Blair meant to say subsequently were driven out, along with his ability to breathe, when fiery agony shredded his back.

Faint with the awful shock of it, dimly aware of commotion around him – voices shouting, booted feet stomping near his head and the clash of metal - Blair’s attention was monopolised suddenly by the ominous, deathly thud as a black, winged figure hit the ground with earth-shattering force right beside him. Its nightmarish face, jaw slack and fangs dripping saliva, stared sightlessly into Blair’s own, as the light slowly died in its red, slitted eyes, blood oozing from the gaping wound in its throat.

Then the world tipped as Blair was abruptly moved, the all-consuming pain which ensued robbing him of consciousness.

***

Sitting beside Blair’s bed and cradling the guide’s limp hand in his own, James relived over and over the horror he’d awakened to earlier, when he’d been brought so startlingly back to his senses.

The delicious surprise of Blair’s warm, heavy body on his had been immediately transfixed into horror by the desperate, agonised cry Blair had uttered. James’ sense of smell had been overwhelmed suddenly with the stench of Blair’s blood, and the awful sight of the winged monster hovering above had confirmed the terrible peril they had both been in.

James could only thank the gods of his ancestors that the guardsmen had responded so rapidly. Having overheard Blair’s noisy attempts to drive the beast away, they’d run out in force and despatched it swiftly. After that, several of them had scooped up the injured man and hauled the baron to his feet, swiftly manhandling them both inside, while the rest, armed with swords and crossbows, guarded their retreat. Once they were all inside they’d barred the doors and locked down the whole castle just in time. The sound of the rest of the flock’s arrival, heralded by the banging and scrabbling noises at every window and door, had filled everyone inside with dread.

Thankfully, the castle’s reinforcements had been enough, thus far, to keep the night terrors out. After several, terrible hours, the noises had ceased, the night terrors presumably heading off to find more accessible prey. But James couldn’t help but wonder whether the deterrent of heavy doors, shutters and stonework would be likely to keep them out forever.

As it was, Blair would bear the scars of the attack for evermore. The night terror had clawed right through his heavy woollen cloak and the layers of clothes he wore underneath, to score deeply into his skin. Thankfully, the wounds were, for the most part, not as deep as they could have been – the thick cloak most likely responsible for tangling in the claws of the creature and preventing them from reaching bone. But the ragged tears were painful, stitched together as the flesh now was, and Physician Wolf was concerned about the possibility of the wounds becoming poisoned, filthy as the creature’s talons had been.

James remembered Simon’s words of earlier. His seneschal had seen the whole thing, drawn, like the others, by Blair’s initial cries of outrage. “He was unarmed, yet he ran right at it, my lord, and shielded you with his own body. I do not think I have ever witnessed a more courageous act. He must have known that the beast would likely take him instead of you.”

Awed and moved beyond measure by such loyalty and bravery, James looked at the sleeping young man, and felt love and gratitude so profound, it robbed him of breath.

Lying face down to ease the pressure on his lacerated back, Blair shifted on the bed, a frown on his sleeping brow, and James leant over him, soothing his disquiet with gentle fingers. “Rest, Blair. You’re safe,” he murmured. “We’re both safe.” Physician Wolf had given Blair a draught to ease the pain and send him to sleep, but it seemed his slumber was disturbed by bad dreams, nevertheless.

James suspected that many others would suffer from such an affliction tonight.

Blair settled after a time, and James sank down in the chair by his side to maintain vigil, determined not to leave this young man’s side tonight.

If he had his wish, he’d stay by Blair’s side until the end of time.

***

Blair woke in the early morning light, to find the baron sleeping in a chair beside him. Wincing at the pull and sting of abused flesh as he rose, he quietly sweated his way into the garderobe.

James intercepted him on the way out. “Blair, you should have woken me. I would have helped.”

Blair couldn’t resist a smile. Despite the intense discomfort he was in, he felt drunk on survival. “I am most definitely capable of undergoing such a treacherous mission alone,” he quipped. Then peering more closely at the baron, and seeing the lines of stress, he asked, “Are you all right? And everyone else?”

“There were no fatalities, thanks to you raising the alarm,” the baron replied. His eyes were soft with gratitude as he looked intently at Blair. “You saved my life, Blair, at great risk to yourself. I will never forget that. Your home here was already assured. If there is anything further you desire which is in my power to give, then name it, and it is yours.”

The words caused a pang deep within, which Blair hurriedly suppressed. “I require nothing except your continued health, my lord. That is reward enough.”

The baron’s gaze on him was so intense that Blair found himself looking away abashed. After a few, charged moments of silence he spoke, diverting the subject away from himself decisively. “They came before sundown,” he noted. Blair looked back at the baron who was now frowning at the reminder of the more pressing matter at hand. “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”

“I fear so,” James told him. “Who knows how far into the daylight they will now venture. It seems that even the light of day is no longer a safe haven for us.”

“What can we do?” Dismayed afresh by the turn of events, Blair couldn’t help the plaintive tone in his voice.

James reached out to him and placed a warm hand against his cheek, the touch more than companionable, despite the baron’s enduring gallantry where he was concerned. “We must find a way to fight them, Blair.” the baron told him softly. “It is our only hope.”

Swallowing down the intense longing which assailed him, Blair could only nod in understanding. And after a moment, during which Blair made no further response, the baron smiled wistfully at him and moved away.

***

Disturbing tales, brought by the terrified people who crammed into the castle throughout the morning, highlighted exactly how much trouble they were in. Caught unawares when the beasts came unexpectedly in the late afternoon, many of the townsfolk had not yet tethered animals outside (as they usually did in preparation for the night ahead) to deter the predators. Once again doors, hastily barred, were torn off hinges and this time, dozens of people had been taken. The carnage had continued right through the night.

Many folk now sought shelter in the castle, and James was forced to make decisions about who could and could not stay – there was simply not sufficient space for everyone. Priority was given to those who were less able to defend themselves – mothers and children, the old, the sick and the disabled.

The rest were put to work gathering and distributing anything that could be found to use as weapons - swords and spears from the castle armoury, tools, implements and broom handles. Bowmakers and fletchers were set to work to fashion longbows and arrows, and the smithy fires poured out smoke all day long, as the blacksmith hammered ploughshares and other scavenged metal into swords and arrowheads.

In the late afternoon, the lookouts posted on the battlements sent out the alarm when a black cloud was seen approaching, and everyone scrambled for shelter. Below in the town, men huddled together in barricaded houses, clutching their makeshift defences in white-knuckled fingers. A large proportion of the livestock which had been earmarked for winter had been tethered in the streets, in the hope that it would prove sufficient this night to sate the hunger of the beasts.

Hiding inside just like the rest of them, James told himself that this would be the last time they dealt with the threat like frightened children. On the morrow, he intended to gather together everyone who could fight, and meet the beasts head-on as they flew from their roost.

It might be futile, he knew; and perhaps even an act of mass suicide. But even that was better than waiting helplessly, night after night, like lambs for the slaughter.

***

It was madness, Blair told himself, that he was still here. During the times he was not lost in denial of what he must do, he berated himself constantly for his stupidity and cowardice.

Now that the night terror attacks had escalated, it had become plain that Blair had left it far too late to leave. If he were to go now and head out on the road alone, it would be an act of suicide. Whereas in the past Blair had wholeheartedly contemplated that very thing, his hand was now stayed by the fact that he’d found something, no matter how impossible, to live for.

The baron had grown to rely on him so very much. And nothing could have induced Blair to turn his back on James’ need, when the sentinel was hurting and tired at the end of each long, hopeless day, having spent all of it in service and defence of his people. In Blair’s opinion, the necessity for James to have access to the services of a guide had been brought into particularly stark relief, when the sentinel had become entranced by his sense of sight in the courtyard and almost been killed.

As for Grace, it was plain to Blair that the child was deeply attached to him. Part of it was her burgeoning natural instinct to protect and cherish guides, and part of it was simply that she saw in him (as well as in her mother and the baron) the security she most sorely needed, after the awful tragedy of losing her father and her home, and the nightmarish flight to safety she’d endured.

How, Blair asked himself constantly, could he deprive her of any part of that security, by leaving her now? And yet, taking into account that it was likely only a matter of time before the truth was discovered, how could he not?

But even if he did leave, how could he be sure that there was any chance of him safely reaching his destination? As far as they knew, nowhere was currently safe from the ravages of the night terrors. The men the baron had sent out to the other baronies had still not returned, and he knew that James was wracked by guilt at the belief he had sent them to their deaths.

So, torn by indecision, and lured more strongly by the comfort, security and love he’d encountered here than the harsh reality he constantly feared to face, Blair had continued to do nothing. And at last he was forced to concede that he’d left himself no choice.

Still in some considerable pain from his injuries, Blair was woken later that night from an uneasy, nightmare-laden sleep by Megan’s soft plea. “Blair, please, can you come? It’s Grace.” In the light of the single candle she carried, she looked desperately worried. “I can’t calm her down.”

Blair wasted no time. Pulling on the rich over-robe the baron had given him against the chill, wincing a little at the discomfort which ensued, he followed Megan swiftly down the corridor.

Grace was sitting up in bed, rocking back and forth, her senses focused far away outside the castle walls. “Nonononono…” she was chanting. “Stopstopstopstop.” She must have realised, on some level, that Blair was nearby, because she called out to him blindly as he approached. “Blair! Please, oh please! Make it stop! Make it stop!”

“I’m here, little one,” he murmured, settling down beside the child on the bed. Whatever it was she was hearing it was not in the castle itself, because other than the soft coughs, snores and intermittent shuffling of the multitude sleeping fitfully in the hall below, all was silent.

Motioning Megan to get under the quilt and take her daughter in her arms, Blair laid a hand on Grace’s arm, and began to call her back. “Listen to my voice, Grace. Listen to it; follow it home. Your mama is here, and I am here. Come back to us, sweetheart.”

Finally, after much gentle coaxing, Grace shuddered, her senses recalibrating in a rush. Sobbing in her mothers arms, she cried, “They were screaming. And the bad things were crunching their bones, and they wouldn’t stop screaming…”

As Megan comforted her, gradually soothing the exhausted child back to sleep, Blair was startled by a hand on his arm. The baron had entered the bedchamber, his expression grief-stricken and pained. “I hear it too,” he gasped, clutching desperately at Blair. “I can’t stop hearing it. I was dreaming at first, and I thought the screams were... I dreamt that you…” He couldn’t finish. Instead, he looked at Blair desperately, his eyes haunted and unfocused. “Blair, please…” he begged.

Without a second thought, Blair pulled James over and onto the bed, urging him to lie down so that his head rested in Blair’s lap. He smoothed gentle fingers over the fine-boned features and short-cropped hair of the sentinel, giving comfort without hesitation. “Focus on my voice, he urged. “Focus only on me. You’re safe, here. We’re all safe, every one of us, and the castle is secure. Nothing out there can hurt us; nothing can reach us in here. Come back to us, my lord. Come back, James.”

“Blair!” James cried out, shaking with the horror of whatever it was he could hear. “Blair,” he cried, again and again. But as the guide continued to soothe him, he gradually quieted, his hand gripping Blair’s like a vice and his senses gradually reeling back in where they belonged.

Once sense had, quite literally returned, the sentinel stayed where he was, looking up at Blair with hopeless eyes. “I should be down in the town with them,” he said, his voice thick with guilt and sorrow. “What kind of baron am I, hiding in the castle, when my people are out there being butchered?”

“We need you here,” Blair insisted softly, his fingers still stroking gently across James’ head. “Your safety cannot be risked. Without your leadership, where would any of us be?”

James exhaled a long, shuddering breath. “I feel so helpless.”

Blair felt the baron’s pain as though it was his own, the two of them hovering on the precipice of a deep link as they were, forged by James’ desperate need and Blair’s answering compulsion to give comfort. Dragging himself back from the abyss with an effort, Blair murmured, “Close your eyes, my lord. Rest. I will stay here and make sure that you and Grace do not get lost out there again.”

Letting loose another anguished sigh, James closed his eyes. Eventually, still draped across Blair, he slept, wrapped in the coverlet that Blair positioned over him. Beside them, Megan had fallen asleep cradling her daughter, soothed likewise into slumber by the presence of those she trusted.

Wide awake in their midst, consumed both with dread of what was happening outside and a sense of fierce protectiveness for the people he loved, Blair remained alert. He stayed awake for the rest of the night acting as sentry, soothing the troubled dreams of the sentinels at intervals with voice and touch, the livid, throbbing pulse in his back forming a dissonant counterpoint to the rapid beating of his heart.

***

Morning came and, with it, revelation of the scale of the disaster.

Needing to see it for himself, James went down to the town, accompanied by various of his men-at-arms. He forced himself to look without flinching inside the ravaged houses, at the blood and gore staining their walls, and at the half-eaten corpses of both animals and people lying in the street. Because, when all was said and done, facing this horror was the least of his due. He’d been responsible for sending many of these people away from the castle yesterday – thus ensuring their violent, horrific deaths.

After the tally was taken, it became clear that more than half of the people who had remained in the town, during the past, dreadful night, had been taken and killed, the reinforcements which had been fitted to their homes proving to have been as good as useless. In the aftermath, those who had spent the night safe up at the castle - never having foreseen such an unprecedented level of atrocity on their fellows - could only look on in horror.

The survivors, most of them deeply shocked and many of them injured, were taken back up to the castle, where they would be well looked after. James fully intended to give up his personal apartments for their use if he had to – he would relinquish everything he owned before he would permit even one more of these people to become fodder for the night terrors.

The lowland villages were empty and, as from today, the town also. Now that the final survivors had taken refuge there, the only human inhabitants left in this entire province, so far as James knew, were in the castle itself. Ravenous as the night terrors were, and with their ready supply of food in the town exhausted, it was only a matter of time before they found a way inside the castle as well.

It stopped here. There would be no more cowering under beds, hiding from the monsters. It was time to fight.

The rest of the day was spent in preparation for battle, the smiths, the bowmakers and the fletchers redoubling their efforts. There was a sense of grim determination in the air, and conversation was muted, disturbed only by the frightened cries of children from the hall, and the uneasy bleating of the sheep which had been housed in the stables.

Word spread throughout the day. Baron James intended to stand atop the battlements just before sunset, sword in hand, to do battle and take down as many night terrors as he could. And every man and woman who felt able and willing to fight was welcome to take their place by his side, to make the stand with him.

Not one voice was raised in dissent. Every single person who could hold a sword, fire a bow or wield a rake armed themselves, and prepared to join him.

***

Determinedly ignoring the pain from his injuries, Blair spent most of the day helping out in the hall, ensuring that the multitude were fed and taken care of and giving comfort wherever it was needed. Many of the women who’d sought shelter the previous day had become widows overnight, and children had been deprived of their fathers. Grief and fear formed a living miasma, stifling with its intensity, as every single person inside the walls of the castle mourned those who had been lost, and dreaded the night to come.

As Blair worked to soothe and reassure, he kept himself constantly aware of the passage of time – because by sunset, he fully intended to take his place on the battlements at James’ side.

He and James had spoken earlier when the baron had come back from the town, full of guilt and despair at what had occurred. Blair had tried his best to give encouragement, but the fire of battle was in James’ eyes, and Blair had understood that the only satisfaction he would truly find would be in turning that fervour towards the night terrors.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” James had told him. “I had hoped to put together an army from the Five Baronies, and attack the creatures in their lair. But I refuse to hide behind closed doors any longer, waiting for them to break in and kill us all. And if we do not fight them, that is exactly what they will do.”

Blair was in no doubt as to their chances. With a sinking heart, he said, “We can’t win, can we?”

James had put out a hand, and gently stroked Blair’s cheek, his eyes soft and grieving. “No,” he said. “I don’t think we can.” He held Blair’s gaze with his own. “If things had been different…” he began.

Daringly, Blair had grasped James’ hand and raised it to his lips. “I know,” he said, putting all his regard into the words.

In answer, James had cupped the back of Blair’s neck and drawn him close, placing a kiss on his forehead before turning to leave.

There had been little else to say between them.

At Blair’s urging, Grace had been sedated; given a sweet-tasting drink, infused with poppy juice, by Physician Wolf to make her insensible to the horror to come. It was the kindest thing to do for a child sentinel like her; especially as all of those she loved – Megan, James and Blair – would likely die tonight. Sparing her the intimate sensation of their violent deaths while waiting helplessly for her own, was the best gift they could give her.

It was difficult, considering the dreadful events which had occurred and the hopeless impasse to which they’d all been brought, to remain in good spirits after that. But, for the sake of the youngsters and the other helpless souls who had sought sanctuary here, Blair did his absolute best. Some Academy-taught skills, he was forced to concede - as he smiled and imparted confident reassurance despite his own dark pessimism - were useful, after all.

He found himself embarrassed when, during the afternoon, one old lady caught his hand, and kissed it. “Thank you, child,” she told him toothlessly. “Such a brave, selfless guide for our baron. May your pairing be blessed by the gods of your ancestors.”

Abashed, Blair explained, “I am not the baron’s guide, Ma’am. I am just a traveller, brought here by circumstance like so many others.”

Her brown eyes were unblinking in her craggy face, and her gaze uncannily direct. “I have the guide gift myself, a little,” she insisted. “Not strong like you, but I do have the Sight. And any fool without that could see that you are meant for each other. Not even the light-haired lady can change that.”

The words pierced Blair’s armour, scoring a direct hit. Hastily he tore himself free of her grasp, his own bad manners a sour taste in his mouth. And for the rest of the afternoon, his neck prickled with the certainty of her gaze upon him, his gut churning with the superstitious fear that, somehow, she knew.

The sense of dread which pervaded everything on this dark day, compounded by his eerie encounter with the hedge-guide, began to consume Blair. He started to see movement at the extremities of his vision; dark, fearful, winged creatures, making him start with sudden shock, only to find that there was nothing there when he looked again. And several times he caught glimpses of a familiar blonde cascade of hair, which set his heart to pounding, only for him to discover upon further scrutiny that the bearer was no one that he recognised.

“Blair.” The soft voice almost caused him to jump out of his skin. “Are you well?” Turning, Blair found Physician Wolf behind him. The man’s brows were drawn in a frown – as well they might be, considering the dreadful injuries he’d had to treat today, and the grim night they all had ahead.

Relieved, however, that it was someone familiar, someone safe and not one of the shadows which plagued him, Blair smiled. “I’m fine. But you need to watch out – there are night terrors around. They don’t seem hungry right now, though.” Blair’s smile waned, the words he’d spoken not making complete sense even to him, and he swayed dizzily. “Whoa,” he said, flailing out blindly to grab at the physician. Suddenly the hall was far too hot. “I need some air,” he said faintly.

The world shimmered and swayed and, suddenly, James was there, holding him. “What happened?” James asked, sounding oddly far away.

Blair’s tongue felt huge, and he had trouble mustering up enough spit to make his mouth respond, but it seemed that the baron had not been talking to him, anyway. “He’s been here in the hall all afternoon, helping keep everyone calm. He seemed fine until a little while ago.” A hand, massive and misshapen, filled Blair’s vision, the subsequent touch on his forehead like ice on fire. “He’s fevered,” Physician Wolf said. “This is what I was afraid might happen.”

Blair felt himself tipped forward, and his layers of shirts and tunics untucked. “Easy, Blair,” James murmured. “I won’t hurt you.”

Of course you won’t, Blair wanted to say to him. I know that!

The draft of cold air on his burning-hot back caused Blair to shiver violently. He heard Physician Wolf speak again. “It is as I suspected. The wounds are poisoned.”

The physician’s words did not worry Blair; although he suspected, somewhere deep inside, that they should. But before he could properly grasp their meaning, the hot agony of a touch on his back seared through him, burning like a brand. The subsequent tide of pain which coursed through Blair’s body sent him careering helplessly away screaming, into horror-filled, turbulent darkness.

***

Time passed - and now, James was dead.

Blair had killed him with his deception and inadequacy, just as surely as the night terrors would have done had they caught him first. It had been totally wrong for Blair to stay here, sullying the sentinel’s trust with his lies and cowardice.

And not only that - Blair should have died with him, fighting at his side. Instead, the sentinel had been guideless, lost in his senses as the creatures swept down out of the sky and ripped him apart.

It was all Blair’s fault. All of it. Blair’s guilt at everything he had done and failed to do consumed him, desperate sorrow and grief wracking his body with exquisite, torturous agony.

The expression staring back at him from James’ dead, empty eyes – of betrayal, horror and hatred - made Blair want to die too. So he did, plunging down into the underworld to be bitten and scored with the claws of the huge, black beasts. Eaten alive by night terrors grown to gigantic proportions, always hungry, ever hungry…

Ripped asunder by their claws and teeth, he died again and again, over and over, until soft words soothed his torment. Hush, Blair. You are safe. Everyone is safe. But he knew it to be a lie. They were dead, all of them – James, Grace, Megan, him. Dead… dead… dead…

He died once again, losing himself in blessed darkness.

***

Blair was desperately thirsty, although moving seemed like too much effort. Licking dry, cracked lips, he lethargically opened sticky eyes and blinked.

The room was too bright, sunlight streaming in on a shining beam full of dust motes. Watching them dance, entranced, Blair’s heavy eyelids eventually closed again, the shimmering specks filling his dreams.

***

Another time, Blair woke with a start, prickling pain rippling like sparks across his back. As he gasped out loud at the uncomfortable sensation, a voice spoke to him. “Easy, now. Keep still, Blair. Let’s not undo all my hard work.”

Blair tried to speak, but all that came out was a wordless grunt. As if in answer, a thin reed appeared at his lips. “Suck,” the voice ordered.

Obeying without question, Blair took the straw between his lips and did as asked. The sweet fluid which filled his mouth was like nectar, thirsty as he was.

Once he’d drunk his fill, the reed disappeared. Drifting once again, numbness spreading across his body in a blessed wave, Blair imagined he heard James’ voice. How is he? The phantom baron said.

Blair fell asleep before Physician Wolf gave the answer.

***

The next time Blair awoke it was full dark A fire burning in the grate warmed the room with its rosy, comforting hue. There was a figure seated beside his bed – Megan, he could see that it was. She was asleep, curled up in the big armchair. Smiling to see her there, not finding her presence strange for some unfathomable reason, Blair closed his eyes again, feeling oddly safe and comforted.

***

Blair’s back itched terribly, and he desperately needed to empty his bladder. Pushing himself over from his front to his side with an immense effort, he opened his eyes.

He was alone in his room, and it was daytime. The bit of sky he could see through the window was grey and overcast, resonant of the type of late summer day which heralded the onset of rainy autumn.

Shifting uncomfortably, and contemplating the seemingly insurmountable distance between him and the garderobe closet, Blair tried, but failed, to remember how he’d come to be here in his bed. He felt as weak as a day-old lamb, shaking even from the minute amount of exertion it had cost him to turn over and raise his head from the pillow.

Reason told Blair, as he lay there, that he’d been ill; perhaps desperately so. He vaguely remembered having terrible dreams; about the night terrors devouring everyone he loved, and a final battle to defeat them which had resulted in all their deaths. A sense of deep foreboding insisted that he was right – they had all died. Yet here he was, alive, if not necessarily hale and hearty.

Maybe it was James who’d….

No, he didn’t want to think it.

That could not be true. It just couldn’t.

But something awful, something which set Blair’s heart to pounding, insisted that the baron might, indeed, be dead. There had been an attack, he was sure of that much. James, standing still as a statue in the courtyard, oblivious to the danger he was in. And yet – Blair had stopped it, hadn’t he? Or had he just dreamed he stopped it?

What if James really was dead?

Behind him the door opened, and someone entered. Blair’s heart thudded faster, his longing for it to be one of those he most cared about – for it to be James - frightening him with its intensity.

When the longed-for, beloved figure rounded the bed and came into Blair’s line of sight, he couldn’t help the tears of gratitude which leaked from his eyes that his wish had been fulfilled.

James’ expression – hopeful and tender – changed abruptly to concern. “Blair! Oh, Blair! It’s all right. Please, don’t….”

Blair screwed his eyes shut in abject relief. A few seconds later he felt James’ palm cup his face, and the bed dip as the baron sat beside him. Mastering himself with an effort, Blair opened his eyes. “I thought you were dead,” he admitted brokenly. “I thought we all were.”

James was looking down of him with intense concern. “I thought that too, for a while. But we’re not.” An odd sorrow plagued the sentinel’s gaze, as he studied Blair closely. “Though you came close to it, Blair. We’ve all been desperately worried about you.”

Blair wanted James to tell him more, but there was another pressing need to deal with first. “James, I have to…” Blair began, his eyes drifting across to the garderobe.

Correctly interpreting the path of Blair’s gaze, James smiled. “Ah, of course.” Getting up off the bed and reaching under it, he produced a chamber pot. At Blair’s aghast expression, he explained, a quirk to his lips, “You will need to regain your strength before you are ready to undertake such a dangerous mission as that, Blair. You have not left this bed for almost three weeks.”

Blair did, indeed, feel like any movement was an immense effort, but he was appalled at the revelation that he’d been ill so long, the passage of time having totally eluded him, lost in vague nightmares as he’d been. “Three weeks?” he queried, trying not to flinch when the baron – seemingly without any embarrassment – pulled back the covers and helped position him to use the chamber pot.

Sensing his discomfiture, James pointed out, “Blair, this is far from the first time I’ve dealt with your piss in recent days. And yes,” he went on. “Three weeks.”

“I don’t remember,” Blair said. “Just… dreams. Odd ones.”

“For much of it,” James explained, “because of the fever, you were simply insensible. At other times, Wolf gave you draughts to ease your discomfort, which kept you calm and free of pain, though mostly asleep. You were awake intermittently, taking sustenance when it was given, but you never seemed truly with us.”

Blair was speechless – such a long passage of time, yet he had little or no memory of it.

As Blair finally relaxed enough to let go in the chamber pot, James went on, “Wolf said you would have died but for your overall vigour – though he had more than a hand in keeping you alive, too. He gave you herbs and potions to drink, and applied poultices to keep the infection from spreading throughout your body. And he was forced to open the wounds twice to drain out the poison. The last time was only three days ago and, at last, it seems to have worked. You’ve come back to us.” Blair finished and, without any fuss, James put the full chamber pot down and covered Blair back up. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you awake and aware,” he said, his expression serious.

“I don’t remember much about my dreams, though now I think perhaps some of them were real,” Blair confessed, stunned. “Megan was here once. And I think I remember Wolf stitching me up.”

“Ouch.” James shared a rueful grin with Blair at the painful memory. Then he nodded. “We’ve all been here, taking turns to sit with you. Megan, Wolf and I. Grace has been allowed to come see you a few times – in truth, it would have been impossible to keep her out. And even Simon and Rafe took a few turns, when the rest of us were sleeping or engaged with other matters.”

Blair’s eyes widened. He didn’t remember that at all.

Some sound that only James could hear had him striding to the door. He opened it, and Megan came in, carrying a tray. She smiled at Blair. “Grace told me you’d woken up,” she said. “I’ve brought some food for you.”

A small whirlwind barrelled through the door after her. “Blair, Blair!”

“Easy, little one,” the baron urged Grace, as he intercepted her. “Blair is still very weak. You mustn’t tire him, all right?”

Her face grew very solemn. “Of course I won’t, Baron James,” she said haughtily, her familiar ability to go from eager to precocious in five seconds flat bringing a smile to Blair’s lips.

Beckoning her over, Blair caught her hand. She studied him with wide, serious eyes for a moment, and then declared, “You don’t smell quite so bad, now. I didn’t like it when you did.”

Blair smiled, the effort of this reunion exhausting him more than he could have thought possible a moment ago. “I’m glad,” he told Grace. “I would not like to offend your sensitive nose, little flower.”

Grace put out a hand and touched his face, exploring the slight beard growth on his cheeks and chin with her sensitive fingertips, an expression of wonderment on her face. Then, very carefully, she leaned forward and kissed Blair on the forehead. “I missed you, Blair,” she said, once again the child, rather than the sentinel. “Will you be able to read to me again soon?”

Blair nodded. “Just as soon as I am able, I promise.”

“Good.” Grace smiled, a dazzling, gap-toothed grin. Then she turned to take the hand that Megan held out to her.

Megan smiled at Blair. “I’ll leave the tray, and take this one away to give you some peace.”

His heart full, Blair just nodded.

After they left, James busied himself with propping Blair up in the bed, and spooning broth into him. After just a few mouthfuls Blair had taken enough, his long-neglected stomach not yet reacclimatised to solid food, fed mostly on liquids as he’d been. Blair’s eyes were already drooping with exhaustion, so the baron helped him to lie down and get comfortable.

Blair closed his eyes, feeling the bed dip as James sat down beside him, and the sensation of gentle fingers soothing his brow. And not even the vague memory of something he’d forgotten, something vitally important which required an answer, stopped him from descending into blessed, healing sleep.

***

Blair awoke sometime later that night, to find the baron sitting peacefully in a chair beside him, reading by candlelight.

Glancing over at the window, through which the darkness of the night sky peppered with stars could be seen, Blair lay and wondered at the unfamiliar sight. The last time he’d seen stars was when he’d been out on the road, on the way here with the band of refugees. He still remembered the terrifying vision of the pinpricks of light being blotted out by the black shapes as they swept down and…

Blair’s heart pounded in panic. “The shutters!” he cried out, somehow finding the strength to launch himself upright. “James, you’ve got to close the shutters!” Clearheaded suddenly - for the first time in an eternity - the memory of that last dreadful night and day came back to him in a rush. James and Grace overhearing the massacre in the town, and the sleepless night which followed. James’ determination to make a stand, and the determination of everyone else to stand beside him. Blair comforting Megan at Grace’s bedside, tears rolling down both their cheeks, as the child sank into drugged oblivion in her mother’s arms. And after that, the suicidal action they all meant to take together, which would almost certainly result in their deaths.

James moved and, in a thrice, was kneeling by Blair’s side, cupping his face. “Blair, it’s all right. It’s all right!” he insisted, looking intently into Blair’s eyes.

“I’m still dreaming, right?” Blair said. This didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. “Or I’m dead, and you are too and… and Grace, and Megan…”

James was shaking his head. “You’re not dreaming, and we’re all fine, Blair. You’ve got to believe me.”

“I don’t understand,” Blair insisted. “What happened? We were going to fight them. It was our last chance, you said!”

James nodded. “We went out to fight them, yes. After you collapsed and were taken to your room, the rest of us assembled outside. It was amazing, Blair. So many people, some of them shaking so hard they could hardly hold their weapons, and others who soiled themselves from fear. Yet not one amongst them turned to run. We all stood there, every single one of us, shoulder-to-shoulder together. And we waited for the night terrors to come.”

Blair glanced nervously toward the window, then back at James. “What happened?” He asked. “Did you beat them?” It seemed utterly unlikely, but it was all that Blair could come up with.

James shook his head. “We never fought them at all. Just before sunset, we heard them approaching. But instead of our local flock coming down from their roost in the hills, as they usually do at night to eat, the sound came from the east and the south. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, heading north to join their fellows. So many, that it took hours for them all to pass. And not once did even one of them pay us any heed.”

Blair blinked. That was totally unlike the usual behaviour of the beasts. “What happened after that?” he asked.

James shrugged. “Eventually, the last of them flew over, and that was that. And ever since that night, there have been no animals taken, and no people devoured. Nor has there been any sighting of them at all. The men I sent out to the other baronies – you remember?” When Blair nodded, James carried on, “They returned. They’d sought sanctuary in the Coastal Barony, unable to get any further. The same thing happened there – a dreadful massacre during a night of ferocious feasting, then the whole flock taking off from their roost late the next day, flying north.”

“How can you be sure they’re gone from everywhere?” Blair asked.

“The roads are already opening up,” James told him. “We’ve had messengers from some of the other baronies, all with identical tales to tell. No one else has been taken or killed since that last awful night, and there is no sign of the night terrors anywhere.”

Needing more reassurance than James’ account could give him, nevertheless, Blair demanded, “What do your senses tell you?”

James closed his eyes, breathing deeply. After a moment, he opened them and smiled. “My senses tell me they are gone. I can detect not the slightest sound or smell of the beasts – until recently, I had not realised that I was always aware of them, like a dark cloud a few miles north of here. But now it’s over, Blair. They’ve left their roost, and gone back to their home in the far north, just as my grandfather said the fae did in the ancient times.”

His gaze drawn back to the window, Blair looked out at the night sky nervously.

They were gone, or so James assured him, the baron’s faith born of the tales told by his grandparents.

Why couldn’t Blair believe it too?

***

The immediate period after the night terrors left was a busy time for James. So many people had lost so much, with whole families uprooted, decimated and bereaved. Along with the remnants of the town council and his own staff, James spent his days administrating repairs in the town, giving aid to those who had lost their families, facilitating safe travel back to the lowlands for those who wished to return, and organising resettlement of those who wished to remain. All in all the end of summer, the whole of autumn and the beginning of winter was entirely spent adapting to a life in the aftermath of the disaster, free of monsters.

As a matter of urgency foodstocks were reassessed, and rations distributed fairly among the populace to ensure that no one would starve. Trade agreements were entered into with other provinces, some of which had not fared so badly in terms of the loss of animals. In return, James’ barony exchanged some of the fruits of its surprisingly successful harvest for fresh livestock. Carts rattled up and down all day long on the roads carrying sacks of grain and rootstocks, and animals were herded along in clouds of dust. And mingled in among them, many of the lowlanders who had sought shelter at the castle at long last set off to embark on their journey home.

Down in the town wariness still abounded, many people choosing to barricade themselves inside at sunset just as they had all their lives. But others ventured gleefully out into the darkness, young revellers who, despite the ravages they’d suffered, were captivated by this new, amazing thing – safety under the night sky. For a time some of them ran wild, until the town bailiffs brought about a semblance of order – not curtailing all movement after dark by any means, but attempting to curb the worst antisocial elements that had ensued.

As autumn turned into winter and life in the barony began to settle into some sort of order, James turned his mind to business closer to his heart. He had hoped, given the clear declaration of feelings which Blair and he had exchanged when they’d been readying themselves to die fighting the beasts, that matters between them might, at last, be taken further. Spending his off-duty hours helping to nurse Blair through the lingering dregs of illness, compelled to remain close by his side, James had sometimes felt a glimmer of strong emotion from the guide, as though a deep link was beginning to establish itself between them. But to his dismay it never went any further, and Blair himself grew gradually more reserved and distant.

As time went on James chose not to push matters, understanding that the long malaise which Blair had endured – as well as the ordeal he’d suffered previous to that on the road - had robbed him of both vigour and heart, and that recovering would likely take time. He took pains instead  to be gently supportive, knowing all the time that ultimately he was responsible for Blair’s most recent injury – if he had not lost control of his senses in the courtyard, and if Blair had not come haring to his defence, the guide would never have been so badly wounded in the first place.

Blair gradually regained his health and, after an interval, returned to tutoring Grace. The four of them still took meals together, spending most evenings in companionable pursuits. Sometimes, at Megan’s request, Rafe would join them too and, when duty allowed it, Simon as well. It was a pleasant time for James, this peace after the storm, and he looked forward to spending the end of each busy day in the company of those he had grown to care about so deeply.

But as winter set in, James was aware that, despite the good cheer to be found, Blair’s eyes were often distant, absently focused on something far outside the castle walls. And James desperately wished to be able to follow the path of Blair’s thoughts too, and perhaps find a welcome inside the impenetrable barrier he seemed to have built around his heart.

***

As his convalescence passed and health returned in full-force, a growing, inescapable realisation began to plague Blair. The roads were open once again and travel was safe – or, at least, no more dangerous than it had been before, when the worst any daytime traveller had to fear were the cutpurses and regular vagabonds who traversed the land.

There was no longer, therefore, any impediment to what he must do – it was time for him to leave, and to face up to the consequences of what he’d done so many months ago. To continue to ignore and hide away from the truth was nothing more than the act of a despicable coward.

Yet Blair found himself procrastinating endlessly, losing himself daily in Grace’s lessons and continuing to use his skills to make James’ life easier. The two sentinels still needed him, he told himself. He needed therefore to stay just for a little while longer, just until he could be sure that they’d cope without him.

Feeling, like a craving which could not be assuaged, the longing James constantly directed his way, Blair ruthlessly buried his own reciprocal feelings. It was not to be – it could never be, despite the dearest wish of Blair’s heart. It would be cruel and unethical for him to allow the baron to maintain false expectations. So Blair pulled decisively back from the easy friendship they had developed, no longer indulging in or encouraging the lingering gazes and affectionate touches they had begun to exchange.

The baron’s bafflement and disappointment at Blair’s withdrawal, obvious to Blair despite James’ gracious compliance with the distance Blair had put between them, filled him with guilt and sadness, as well as an immense longing to give in to his deeper emotions. Berating himself for that weakness, Blair strove fiercely to remain aloof and self-contained – a difficult thing for any guide to do, when the attraction between a sentinel and guide was this strong.

But Blair truly had no choice.

The immediate crisis began to settle down, and life in the castle gradually assumed a regular, comfortable pattern. And feeling increasingly like an observer looking in at something he could never truly be a part of, Blair began secretly to plan. Soon, he decided, he would leave. At the end of the harvest, he vowed. Then, when harvest came and went, he set the autumn equinox as his target.

Autumn passed and the cold north winds began to blow, bringing frost and the scent of snow on the air, yet still Blair remained at the castle. He spent each day surrounded by people he had drawn closely around him like a blanket, luxuriating in the shelter of their warmth and soaking up the comfort of their kindness and regard.

The world outside - and the dire future which awaited him - seemed all the more cold and brutal in comparison.

As the winter solstice approached there was a sense of gaiety in the air, as the barony prepared to celebrate the season for the first time without threat from the night terrors. A little over a week before solstice itself - caught up, despite himself, in the festive spirit along with everyone else - Blair went out one afternoon into the woods and fields, with Grace skipping joyfully by his side, to gather trailing ivy and evergreens to help decorate the hall. Megan and Rafe strolled along with them, walking hand in hand, muffled in wool and furs against the chill.

They returned to the warmth of log fires and candlelight, the welcoming flicker holding off the encroaching late-afternoon darkness of near-midwinter, their arms full of bounty. As they walked into the great hall, Blair saw the welcoming eyes of James lift towards him, and thought that, perhaps, he might stay until spring, after all.

But then he saw who was standing before James, and discovered that he had already been here far too long.

***

Blair looked good, James thought with satisfaction, as he watched him enter, rosy cheeked, healthy and smiling after walking out in the cold air. Their eyes met, Blair’s gaze unerringly seeking James’ across the room, which made the baron smile too. Blair might be reticent about taking their relationship to another level, but there was no mistaking the satisfaction he took from returning to James’ presence, even if the guide himself would not admit it.

“My lord, you must arrest that man!” James’ visitor demanded, startling him with his vehemence. Master Lee Bracket, a tutor at the Guide Academy in the capital, had arrived a little while ago, and James had just sat down to ask him for news, and enquire as to what had brought him this far north.

“What man?” James asked, puzzled. The only people in the hall were those who belonged here – his surrogate family fresh in from their walk, a handful of his familiar guardsmen and servants, and Simon.

Brackett was staring across the room, a look of vehement hatred in his gaze, although like many Master guides that James had met, all other physical indicators of whatever emotion assailed him were tightly controlled and unreadable.

Following Brackett’s gaze, James saw that Blair had crossed the threshold and stopped. With little effort, James could sense the stench of fear and dismay which exuded from him. He was frozen like a hunted animal at bay, staring back at Brackett with horror.

Confused, James looked back at Brackett. “Surely you don’t mean Blair?”

Brackett didn’t take his eyes off Blair for one moment. “That’s exactly who I mean,” he said icily. “Guide Blair Sandburg is a sentinel abuser, my lord Baron. I have been travelling throughout every province, making it a point especially to visit remote areas such as this, to ensure that sentinels like yourself are on their guard against him. I see that my suspicions were well founded – the viper is already here, insinuated under your roof.” Brackett paused, his gaze finding Grace. “And with a child sentinel in your household too. My lord, you must arrest him now, before he can do her – or you - any further harm.”

Across the room, James heard Grace ask Megan in a puzzled tone, “Mama, what does ‘abuser’ mean?”

In the wake of Brackett’s outburst everyone in the hall had frozen into shocked immobility, including James. Shaking out of it with an effort, James broke the silence which ensued, after Grace’s perturbed question, by addressing his friend, who had not moved or said a word since he’d seen Brackett. “Blair, tell me this is not true.”

Blair raised pain filled-eyes, and his voice carried clearly across the room. “I cannot.”

In two strides, Brackett was standing before Blair. “You already broke your Oath of Pairing by committing the worst offence any guide can commit, and for that you will most certainly be punished. Additionally, I must remind you that your obligation of confidentiality to your sentinel, no matter that you have already abused her trust and brought her to near-death, is sacrosanct.” The man grabbed Blair by the front of his tunic and shook him, snarling into his face. “If I find out that you have spoken ill of her, or if you divulge so much as her name to anyone from this moment on, you risk having your tongue ripped from your throat even before you come to trial. Do you understand me?”

Even before James could give the order, the words your sentinel ringing in his head like a death knell, every guardsman in the hall had circled Brackett, swords drawn, with Simon in their midst. “Master Brackett,” Simon said in a dangerously calm voice. “Let him go, sir, right now, and stand back.”

Brackett stayed where he was for a moment longer, his uncompromising face a menacing threat just inches from Blair’s. Then, acceding to Simon’s order, he relinquished his grip and moved away. To his obvious and growing amazement, the swords of the guardsmen who had approached moved to point their weapons his way rather than at Blair. Simultaneously, a couple of them moved in between, putting their backs to Blair in an obviously protective gesture, as they levelled their weapons at the newcomer.

“My lord!” Brackett objected, unable to move in any direction due to the ring of sharp metal surrounding him “What are you doing? This man is a criminal, and yet your men threaten me?”

James rose and came over to where they all stood, keeping his eyes fixed on Brackett. “This is my demesne, Master Brackett,” he said. “Justice in this barony is delivered only by me, and by those I appoint my proxy. You have accused a member of my household, in my hall, of a crime. I will, of course, investigate your allegations. But in the meantime, you will refrain from assaulting Blair or anyone else.”

“In matters such as this,” Brackett said coldly, “The Academy has jurisdiction. An appropriate response would be for you to confine him in manacles, and allow me to take him immediately out of here to face justice in the capital.”

“Nevertheless,” James said evenly, “that is not how we do business in this barony, Master Brackett. I give you my word as baron that I will investigate this matter. In the meantime, my hospitality is at your disposal.” James motioned to Simon, the look which passed between them bespeaking their shared understanding. “My seneschal will see you comfortably accommodated,” James said, focusing back on Brackett. “I will come and talk to you privately in a little while to take your testimony.”

Brackett’s enraged expression had settled once again into the studied blandness of a Master Guide. Nodding in acceptance – clearly, there was nothing else he could do – he allowed Simon to usher him away, the guardsmen lowering their swords to allow him passage.

Taking a deep breath, James turned. Blair was standing where Brackett had left him, the front of his tunic still rumpled as though he had not even tried to smooth it down after the man had let go of him. He looked devastated and shocked, his eyes focused unseeing on the ground.

Hardening his heart by necessity, James moved over to stand before him. “Master Brackett has accused you of assaulting a sentinel,” he said. “I want to hear the truth from you, in your words.”

Blair’s voice trembled, his gaze still fixed at his feet. “As Master Brackett has just reminded me, I took an oath, a binding one, which prevents me from divulging any information about my… my sentinel.” Even though Blair said those last few words as though they hurt him, James felt their impact like a physical blow.

The world was ending all over again – or at least that’s how it seemed to James. Hurt beyond measure, he demanded, “So it’s true that you are paired, as well?”

Blair swallowed, keeping his eyes averted. “Yes,” he said quietly.

Feeling a deep, hollow pain at that admission, James said accusingly, “We’ve grown close, you and I – or so I thought. You must have known that I eventually hoped to join with you, and I thought – from your deeds, if not your words – that perhaps you might desire that too. Yet suddenly I find out that you are already paired with another. Were you ever going to tell me? Or did it amuse you to have me yapping at your heels, devouring the bones you occasionally threw me, yet keeping me ignorant of the fact that you would eventually leave me high and dry?”

A look of pain and anguish crossed Blair’s face for a moment, then he recovered his composure once more. “I intended to leave before it went this far. I would have gone sooner, but for what happened at the end of summer. And… and after that, I kept meaning to go, but time got away from me, somehow.” Finally, he met James’ eyes. “I swear, James. I never meant to hurt you, or Grace or anyone here. I could never hurt you. My feelings for you have always been genuine.”

Maintaining his calm demeanour with an effort, James thrust his pain to one side and insisted, “I accept that your oath binds you to confidence. But you must tell me if you are guilty of the charge Brackett has made, Blair. As baron, I am honour bound to investigate all such allegations fairly, no matter in what regard I hold you.”

“I turned my back on the fundamental principle that all guides live by,” Blair confirmed, his voice now quiet and controlled in the manner of a trained Academy guide; though he lowered his gaze to the floor once more, and he stank of misery. “I deliberately caused harm to a sentinel in my care, and abandoned her thereafter.”

James had heard enough, for now - anything else that needed to be said between them would be spoken in private. Motioning to Rafe, who was standing nearby looking utterly shocked, he ordered, “Escort Guide Sandburg to his chambers. See that he remains there, and that no one – apart from me – enters or speaks to him.”

***

Walking beside Rafe towards his chamber, Blair felt completely numb. His worst nightmare had come to pass, as he’d inevitably known it must. There was nothing to do now but face it, and endure.

Things might have gone differently if he’d left sooner, of course, and Blair silently berated himself for the repercussions that inability to act had caused for those he loved. James would not now be in the awful position Blair had put him in, and poor little Grace, Megan and the rest who were in the hall a few moments ago would have been spared witnessing the revelation of his misdeeds, and their subsequent disappointment at his betrayal.

But in the end regrets were useless, because the outcome for Blair would have eventually been the same. With the Academy on his tail there was only so far he could have run, and Blair believed that Brackett – tenacious as he was - would eventually have caught up with him, no matter where he’d gone to ground.

In any case, a large part of Blair – the part which was consumed by guilt and a deep sense of failure – knew that he deserved to pay the price. He had long believed that ill deeds done to others were fated to come back on the perpetrator tenfold - it was his fate to atone for what he had done, and there was no help for that, nor should there be.

They reached the door of Blair’s chamber in silence. As Blair opened the door to step inside, Rafe stopped him. “Blair,” he said. “If you need anything, I will be here. When I stand down I will ask Henri to take my place, as well as others who you know and trust. We will not let Brackett near you.”

Moved by Rafe’s solicitousness and finding it strange - though touching - that the guardsman apparently interpreted this duty more as protection than confinement, Blair responded simply, “Thank you.”

Rafe spoke once more, his expression unhappy. “I do not believe you guilty, Blair. None of us do. I was there when you saved the baron from the night terror, and I know what you did for Grace and Megan.”

Blair swallowed, numb acceptance being supplanted by deep sorrow and remorse. “Then your faith in me is misplaced, Rafe,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Without another word Blair stepped inside, Rafe’s shocked face the last thing he saw as the door closed between them.

***

To James’ satisfaction, Simon had housed Brackett in a wing on the opposite side of the castle, completely apart from James’ – as well as Blair’s – personal chamber. After leaving the hall, the baron headed up there straight away.

When James arrived in the sumptuous guest room, Brackett was waiting impatiently. The guide immediately rose, and went on the offensive. “There are matters of confidence, my lord baron, which only officers of the Academy are qualified to adjudicate. The facts of this matter must remain known only to those of us charged with maintaining discipline among the guides we have trained. I humbly ask that you release Guide Sandburg into my custody immediately, so that I can return with him to the capital. It will serve no purpose for you to go digging into matters which do not concern you.”

James looked at him coldly. “This matter does concern me, I assure you. And Blair will not be taken anywhere until I am presented with conclusive evidence of his guilt.”

“May I remind you,” Brackett insisted, “that in such matters, the authority of the Academy takes precedence.”

“May I remind you,” James retorted, “that this is not the Academy.”

Brackett pursed his lips in annoyance but, other than that, there was no indication of his emotional state. His heart rate was steady, and his aroma bland and unrevealing. As was often the case when he encountered guides who had achieved Masterhood - and who had achieved strong control of their autonomic functions - James found that trained ability both disconcerting and wholly unattractive.

After a moment, during which it became clear that James was not going to budge on this issue, Brackett relented. “I’ll tell you what little I am permitted,” he said. “Although the sentinel’s identity must remain confidential because of the nature of the offence.”

“Go on,” James urged.

Brackett sat down and, as though this was his domain and James his guest, he motioned the baron to join him.

As James sat down, Brackett began. “Blair Sandburg is one of those rare things to emerge out of the Academy – a failure,” he said. “When he was a child, we detected sufficient potential in him to disregard his pauper origins and sponsor him in his studies, yet he has gone on to become one of the biggest disappointments ever to pass though our doors.”

James stared at Brackett disbelievingly. “That is not the man I know,” he said. “I’ve found his guidance both skilful and invaluable.”

“Oh, don’t misunderstand me, my lord,” Brackett insisted. “He is extremely talented in many ways. But due to one single failing – his inability to achieve autonomic control - he was never able to qualify for Mastery. The pairing which we arranged for him, at great expense to our reputation, was a way of recognising his prodigious talents in other areas, and was his last chance at achieving true guidehood through the auspices of the Academy. It was a good match, or so we thought – a sentinel from a strong lineage, who was prepared to take him on, even though he would never graduate. It was a great honour for Sandburg to be paired with her, given his shortcomings.”

So, as had been intimated, Blair’s sentinel was a woman. Not that knowing that really helped. “Is the sentinel he was paired with the one he is accused of abusing?”

Brackett nodded. “Yes, more’s the pity. They were housed together in seclusion, with just a maidservant to attend them, as is the custom for the first month or so with a new pairing. I was assigned as Sandburg’s mentor and, as such, visited them periodically to ensure that things were going as they should. I am ashamed to say that initially, I did not see the warning signs. Sandburg is clever and devious, and in retrospect, I know now that he allowed me to see only what he wanted me to see.”

“And what was it that you think he was hiding?” James asked.

“I do not think,” Brackett said shortly. “I know.” He shook his head in seeming dismay, although absolutely no physical manifestation of that emotion impinged on James’ senses. “During the four short weeks of their initial pairing,” Brackett went on, “the sentinel suffered extreme sensory spikes and much pain and anguish at Sandburg’s inept and sadistic hands. Her suffering only came to light when the maidservant, at great risk to herself, confided her misgivings to me.”

James felt as though they were talking about somebody else. He could not, even in his wildest imaginings, envision Blair capable of causing deliberate suffering. “What evidence do you have that he hurt her deliberately?” James insisted.

“The signed testimony of the maidservant, for one,” Brackett said.

“And is she available to be questioned?” James asked.

Brackett shook his head. “The woman was found dead shortly after Sandburg disappeared. It is thought that her grief at what had happened to her mistress consumed her and stopped her heart. It’s really very sad.”

It was impossible to tell whether Brackett was lying – his calm, unemotional front had not wavered. But something oddly insincere about way he spoke about the maid’s death bothered James, nevertheless. Putting his misgivings about that to one side for now, James asked, “What other evidence do you have?”

“The sentinel herself has been able, since she recovered her wits, to give testimony. The account she has given me of the cruelty she was subjected to is disturbing in the extreme. I am, of course, unable to divulge any of it to you. But I assure you, she suffered greatly at his hands.”

“What do you mean,” James queried, “‘since she recovered her wits’?”

“Before he absconded,” Brackett said, “Sandburg caused his sentinel to become so deeply lost in her senses that she would be unable to bear witness against him. Then, breaking the oaths he made to her and to the Academy, he ran away, leaving her in a near-catastrophic fugue state from which she has only recently, months later, begun to recover. I believe, given the depth of the fugue, that he meant her to waste away and eventually die. It was only his ineptness which has resulted in her eventual - and, I am certain, unforeseen - recovery.”

Taking a deep breath, James asked, “If he goes back with you, what will happen to him?”

“That depends,” Bracket said. “Before I answer that, I must ask you something, My lord. Has he ever, to your knowledge, divulged any details about his sentinel to anyone here?”

That was easy to answer and, given Brackett’s threat to Blair in the hall, something that required James’ full and honest response. “Not a thing. Blair has been reticent to discuss any personal details about himself at all, let alone the circumstances which brought him here. Today, in the hall, was the first any of us had heard about him being paired with a sentinel.”

Brackett pursed his lips. “Well that is something to be thankful for, at least,” he said. “His victim might therefore be spared the humiliation of the facts of her ordeal being spread far and wide, which is a very good thing. As regards the likely penalty,” he went on, “you must understand that the sentinel suffered greatly and almost died because of Sandburg’s deliberate actions. For such a serious crime, he must be prevented from ever guiding another. He will most likely be struck dumb, and forced to live out his days in seclusion.”

Brackett’s account was certainly damning – the logical response to such a petition would be for James to allow Brackett to leave right away, thereby passing on the responsibility of judgement to the appropriate authorities.

But James’ gut feeling emphatically insisted that he should do otherwise. None of this sounded like Blair at all, no matter that the guide had confessed his guilt already. And many things about Brackett’s account did not sit quite right with James. The death of the only witness, for example, seemed just a little too convenient.

Keeping his voice and bearing calm with an effort, James said, “I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention, Master Brackett. I will think on what you’ve told me, and will need time to take counsel from my advisors before I can give you leave to take Guide Sandburg back to the capital. In the meantime, you are welcome to enjoy my hospitality.”

“I hope you do not take too long, my lord,” Brackett retorted. “It is imperative that I return with him as soon as possible. His sentinel has been left without justice for long enough.”

James nodded in accord. But he vowed inwardly to keep Blair here for as long as it would take to establish the truth, confidentiality or no.

***

Alone in his room Blair strove to find emotional equilibrium, utilising the training he’d received at the Academy to do so. But as usually happened with him at times of intense stress, his ability to bring mind and body into harmony had deserted him.

Blair had often wondered if that inability to fully control his emotional responses was at the root of why he had failed his sentinel so badly, as that particular flaw always been a potent trigger for her episodes. Worst of all, and most damning for Blair, his failure had eventually culminated in Blair committing an act he would regret for the rest of his life.

News had reached Blair, during that first terrible day he’d spent on the run that, due to his actions, the sentinel he had abandoned was close to death and might never recover. As the magnitude of what he’d done registered Blair had fled, his guilt and regret increasing exponentially with every step he’d taken away from the capital, and he had dearly wished, each mile he travelled, for death himself. It was only since he’d reached this barony in the far north, where other events had dominated everyone’s thoughts, that he’d managed to find any solace at all from the personal repercussions of his crime.

Here he’d managed to forget, just for a little while, what he’d been running from. But now it had caught him up once more, and at last there could be no more running.

Sitting on his bed in James’ castle, Blair hung his head in shame, his guilt at having committed that single, ill-advised act all-consuming. He’d known at the time that her senses were unstable, yet he’d sent her into a fugue anyway, assuming that, like any other sentinel, she could later be brought back to awareness without suffering any ill-effects.

He had been utterly, completely wrong to do such a thing to her, no matter the reason. There was no justification, no excuse, for what he’d done.

Blair had been in a position of trust, bound by an oath made at their initial pairing to put his sentinel’s well-being before his own or that of any other. But instead, she had been lost in her senses for months, wasting away, suffering, because the guide she’d entered into a pairing with - and who had been charged with her welfare - had been unequal to the task of enabling her to achieve control, and had blatantly and knowingly breached that oath.

Blair desperately regretted now that he had not approached someone else at the Academy for help with her, despite Master Brackett’s insistence that he not do so. That option, even if it had ultimately resulted in disciplinary action, would have been far preferable to what he’d actually ended up doing. Perhaps the opinion of a different Master, other than the mentor to whom he had been assigned, would have given him fresh insight in how to deal with the difficulties of their pairing before things had come to such a terrible impasse.

But instead Blair had soldiered on in the mistaken and conceited belief that if he kept trying just a little harder, he could make things work between them. And Master Brackett had urged him to do exactly that, telling him that the difficulties were all Blair’s own fault anyway, and that overcoming them was the true test of a guide.

It seemed, all in all, that Blair had utterly failed.

In all the months since, Blair had constantly been aware that he must one day return to the capital and confess his crime. That he should accept the consequences of his actions, and endure the punishment due to him for such a misdeed.

But now that Master Brackett was here Blair would be taken back in chains, instead of returning of his own volition. And he was forced to ask himself whether he’d ever truly have found the courage to walk to his doom with dignity anyway, if matters had not been brought to a head like this.

***

In the aftermath of his audience with Brackett, James needed to speak to members of his household who, like him, were personally affected by what had occurred. Both Grace and Megan had been in the hall when Brackett had made his accusations, and he had no doubt that they were as upset by this whole business as he was.

He had no sooner entered their rooms when Grace launched herself at him. “You locked him up!” she cried. “He’s miserable and scared and you locked him up!”

James had avoided monitoring Blair with his senses – such a distraction he did not need right now, when keeping a clear head was imperative. But Grace’s assessment of what she could sense was not unexpected.

Trying to calm the child down, James attempted his most reassuring tone. “Blair is safe in his room, Grace, and he will be allowed every comfort. But you must understand, sweetheart. If someone is accused of hurting another, then it is very important that the truth of the matter be established.”

“Blair would never hurt anyone! You know that, Baron James! You know that!”

Meeting Megan’s despairing eyes above Grace’s head, James had no idea how to answer. “Grace,” he attempted, “I know that you love Blair. He is very special to me, too. But I have to take seriously what I’ve been told, and investigate it fairly, despite how I feel.”

Grace pulled away. “You won’t let that man take him, will you?” She pleaded. Apparently, she read his indecision. “You can’t! Baron James, you can’t!” The angry tears which had been threatening overflowed, and small fists battered at James. “I hate you!”

As gently as he could, feeling each ineffectual impact as though they were powerful blows to the gut, James took hold of Grace’s hands and restrained her. “Grace, I’m promise you,” he told her, hoping the sincerity of his words would penetrate her distress, “that I will try my hardest to find out the truth. And if I will do everything I can to help Blair. I promise you.”

Grace began to sob and James handed her off to her mother, his own heart breaking. Megan looked at him over her child’s head as she held her tight, her eyes pleading, like Grace’s had done, for the exact same thing that James wished for in his heart.

***

To James’ relief, Simon was waiting for him in the corridor, the seneschal ushering him swiftly through the castle and into his large library-cum-office so that they could have privacy.

Once inside, James’ apprised Simon of what Brackett had said, and of his misgivings as to the veracity of the man’s account. “Simon,” he pleaded. “What can I do?”

Simon’s summing up of the straits they were in was succinct and to the point. “Brackett has given you the facts of the matter from his perspective, leaving out many of the salient details, and with the only unconnected witness conveniently dead of a broken heart. Blair has confessed to… something, although he is not permitted to discuss the matter or, indeed, defend himself, except to Brackett and his ilk. This whole thing stinks, my lord.”

James was forced to agree.

Simon’s advice was equally succinct. “Blair should remain confined to his room – and most definitely out of Brackett’s reach - while our enquiries continue. If Brackett chafes at the delay, then you should remind him who holds jurisdiction in this demesne.”

James smiled. “I already did that, Simon. Though I have no doubt, as time goes on, that I will need to do so again.”

Simon looked steadily at James, his expression serious. “This whole matter is complicated by the fact that Blair has readily declared himself guilty. Since he’s been with us he has proved himself, in my eyes at least, to be a good and courageous man, yet he was under no duress that I could see when he confessed to you, which would indicate that his guilt is already confirmed.”

“But how can we know for sure, without access to the facts?” James refuted. “He confessed to harming a sentinel – not under any duress, no, but I still have trouble believing it, nevertheless. From everything I have observed about him during his time here, I cannot believe him capable of causing deliberate harm, no matter what he said.”

Simon reached out, and laid a hand on the baron’s arm. “Then have faith, my lord, and stand firm. And remember that you are the best hope he’s got of a fair hearing.  Brackett has already judged him guilty, and has forbidden him to give any testimony in his own defence to anyone outside of the Academy. What chance has he got if he were to leave here, especially since he seems determined to throw himself, for whatever reason, on his own pyre?”

“So,” James said again, “What should I do?”

Simon leaned back in his chair. “Go to see Blair, and find out as much as you can. Try to obtain the sentinel’s name, if possible – I can make enquiries just as soon as I know where - and of whom - to inquire. And in the meantime, with your permission, I will instruct the guardsmen to keep an eye on Brackett. I do not trust him; not one little bit.”

***

Blair was sitting tense and still on his bed when James entered his chamber. The guide rose as James closed the door behind him, his eyes lowered, looking all in all the very picture of abject misery, and not at all the dangerous, predatory threat that Brackett had painted him to be.

Needing to understand, James broke the silence. “Why did you keep this terrible secret to yourself, all this time?”

Blair glanced up, then away. “Because I didn’t want you to look at me like you’re looking at me now.” His voice was calm and controlled although, unlike Brackett, his emotions were as clear to read as words on a page. “And, coward that I am, I did not want to be apprehended and sent back to pay for what I’ve done.”

“You’re no coward,” James refuted. “You’ve proved that time and time again since your arrival here. Yet in this one instance, you refused to stay and deal with the repercussions of something you say you did. What happened that was so terrible you felt your only option was to flee?”

“I caused harm to my sentinel,” Blair said. “I can’t say more than that.”

“Nevertheless,” James insisted, “knowing you as I do, I believe that you are the kind of man who would not turn his back on someone who needed help – especially a sentinel - no matter the circumstances of their injury. What was different in this case?”

“You seem to have missed the part where I admitted my guilt,” Blair pointed out, “as well as the fact that I am forbidden from divulging any details.”

James shrugged. “Master Brackett told me that your abuse of this woman was protracted over a period of weeks. That she suffered greatly at your hands the whole time you were with her.”

“He thinks…” Blair had gone white. “I didn’t…” he sat down heavily on the bed. “That’s not what happened,” he said faintly.

Sensing Blair’s shock, James said, “So, what he said is untrue?”

Blair didn’t answer, his face frozen with horror. “I’m not allowed to say. I’ve already said too much.”

“I can’t read Brackett with my senses,” James pointed out. “He is every inch the Master Guide – emotionless and controlled. If he was lying about any detail, I could not determine it, yet my instinct is to mistrust him. That mistrust is not helped by the fact that your bearing and reactions – which I have never had trouble reading – indicate you to be the same honest, honourable man I have come to know.” James gentled his voice reassuringly. “I will not let him take you away from here, Blair, until I am satisfied that he has cause.”

His voice infused with guilt, Blair whispered, “He does have cause.”

“But not because of any sustained abuse,” James reiterated. “There is only one further allegation, which I will put to you now. He said that you sent your sentinel into a deep fugue, which almost resulted in her death.”

Blair closed his eyes. His lack of answer was answer enough.

“So your confession of harm is related to that.” James confirmed, picking away at Blair’s evasion bit by bit in the hope that the truth might be revealed. “What cause would you have to do such a thing?” As Blair shifted uncomfortably, James stalled any reply he might make. “No, I know you cannot answer that without breaking your oath. But there is no such prohibition on me. I am fully entitled – and prepared – to find out whatever I can from you with my senses.”

James crouched before Blair, and forced eye contact. “Brackett told me that you caused her to become lost in her senses as a means of preventing her from divulging details of the other abuse you put her through. But if there was no other abuse, as your reaction just now would indicate, what would cause you to do something which goes so far against the principles you live by?”

Tight-lipped, Blair looked away, and did not answer.

But James was not done prodding. “Was it, as Brackett has accused, out of some perverted desire to cause harm?”

Blair’s gaze snapped back to James. “Is that what you think?” he asked brokenly.

James smiled sadly. “No, and neither do you, if what my senses tell me are correct. All right, then. Was it because you were trying to protect her in some way?” James sniffed the air. No, that wasn’t it, but there was a flicker of… something. “Were you protecting yourself?” Closer, that time. “Or maybe you were protecting somebody else?”

That was it. Blair’s heart skipped a beat, the scent of dismay which exuded from him constantly in waves flooding James’ nostrils with certainty. “James, please, stop,” Blair begged. “I cannot…” He tailed off, devastated.

James carried on, although he changed tack a little. “Tell me something else, Blair. You said earlier that you meant to leave. You recovered your strength some time ago, and the roads are safe to traverse again, yet you’re still here. Still tutoring Grace; still helping me to control my senses. Why? What could you possibly hope to gain out of remaining, knowing all the while that your past would be likely to catch you up, and your time here must one day end?”

 “I…” Blair seemed to have lost the power of speech. “I didn’t…. I couldn’t…” He buried his face in his hands, finding his voice again somehow, hoarse with misery as it was. “I knew all along that I needed to go back. I swear to you, I always meant to. But you’ve made me so welcome here. I didn’t want to leave this place, or you, or Grace, or Megan. I was weak, and I was wrong to stay and put you in this position. I’m sorry. Please, James. Please forgive me.”

There was no disguising that level of pain, or the stench of desperation and grief which exuded from the guide.

Hating to see Blair so distraught, James nevertheless felt impelled to answer the guide’s pain with his own. “I wanted you, you know. To pair with you. Yet that can never happen – you already belong to another.”

The stench of despair rising from Blair matched the misery in his voice. “I dreamed of that too,” he whispered hoarsely. “I used to pretend…” he stopped, and looked up at James. “Please forgive me,” he pleaded. “You’re everything a sentinel should be, and for a little while… I could pretend things were different. You’ve treated me with nothing but kindness and honour, and I was very wrong to give you that impression. I’m sorry.”

Blair’s regret found its echo in James’ gut, and he turned away until he could master himself. When he turned back, Blair had buried his face in his hands once more.

Deciding not to speak of what was between them any more, James moved on to the issue at hand. “This allegation goes against everything I know about you.” he said wonderingly. “Everything you’ve done – protecting Megan and Grace, even at the expense of yourself. Risking your life to save me. Your dedication and gentleness towards Grace and me. No matter what Brackett has said, I can’t believe that you would ever harm a sentinel – or anyone – deliberately, without just cause.” He put out a hand, and rested it on Blair’s knee. “Blair, if I am to help you, and I truly wish to do so, you’re going to have to trust me with the truth.”

“I do trust you,” Blair choked out. “But I can’t tell you anything, James. I’m sorry. My oath is binding.”

“Not even to save yourself?”

“Especially not then. Not at the expense of her.”

James continued to push. “Then tell me one thing, Blair. Just one thing. Give me her name.”

“I cannot.”

James spoke urgently. “Blair, please. I do not trust Brackett – he is hiding something and lying about other things, I am certain of it. But Blair, I do trust you. I have lived with you these past several months, and I know you. Give me that one thing; just so I can look into this matter further for myself. Just one thing. Give me the sentinel’s name, Blair.”

“I can’t, James. My oath-”

James overrode him. “Blair, please. Her name, that’s all I ask. Give me this one chance to help you.” At the lack of response, James had no choice but to play dirty. “I fear that if you do not, I will have to let Brackett take you. And if Grace were to see you hauled off in chains like that, I have no idea how she will ever get over it.”

Maybe James’ tactics had worked, or perhaps Blair had simply reached the end of his endurance. His tear-streaked face lifted, to look at James, and Blair met his eyes hopelessly. “I’ve broken every other rule - I may as well be an oath breaker as well,” he said bitterly. “Her name is Alicia,” he confessed. “She calls herself Alex.” He closed his eyes. “May the gods of my ancestors forgive me.”

***

Alicia. James was oddly familiar with that name, though he could not immediately recall the precise circumstances.

But, of course, he knew a man who would.

Even at this late hour Simon’s office was awash with documents and correspondence. “I know I’ve seen it, my lord,” Simon asserted, leafing through one of the stacks, “and not so very long ago. One mention came in a letter last winter from one of the other seneschals, in among the general news. Aha!” he held up a parchment triumphantly. “Here it is. It’s from Raoul, the seneschal of the southernmost barony.”

James made the connection. “I knew I’d heard the name before. Alicia is the name of Baron Bannister’s daughter. I remember learning, years ago, that his daughter was a sentinel.”

“A mad sentinel,” Simon added. “Or at least, that is what most people say. Though not to Baron Bannister’s face, of course.” He read aloud from the letter. “The Lady Alicia grows daily more unwell, her senses plaguing her constantly. A guide was brought in, and the Barony spent time in celebration when Alicia and he paired. Tragically, however, an accident befell him a few days afterwards. He was discovered at the foot of the main staircase, his neck broken. Lady Alicia was inconsolable.”

Something about that did not feel right. “Careless,” James remarked.

“Indeed,” Simon agreed sarcastically. “Especially as the same thing happened not long before. A maidservant of Milady Alicia’s, only if I recall correctly…”

“She drowned,” James finished. “I remember it, now. And there was another – a tutor, who mysteriously died a few years previously in Alicia’s service. I believe the staircase was involved in that incident, also. And wasn’t there a childhood friend, too, before that? All of them dying in unforeseen accidents, in the company of Alicia.” It was all coming back to James, now. “I met her, once, on a visit to Baron Bannister’s castle several years ago. Only briefly, however – she was mostly confined to her rooms. She seemed quite insane. Her parents were at pains to keep her away from my father and I.”

“And with good reason, I have no doubt.” Simon shook his head. “I’ve heard gossip lately about a younger cousin being named heir, instead of her, because of her infirmity.”

More detail came back to James in a rush – perfect recall, once the appropriate prompts had been digested, being one of the perks of being a sentinel. “I remember that her aunt shortened her name affectionately to Alex. Simon, this must be the same sentinel Blair was paired with.”

“I think, perhaps, you are right.” Simon held up a further parchment. “This one arrived just last week, also from Raoul. Most of it is about the obvious – how they’ve fared during the dark period we’ve all lived through. But there is this one little snippet of information.” Once again, Simon read aloud. “Lady Alicia has been living in seclusion for several months, at the house the family keep near the capital. A private agreement has been entered into to match her with a guide. We have received word that she survived the summer disaster, but is currently unwell.

James blinked. “A ‘private agreement?’”

“An odd choice of words, to be sure, if we are talking about the match between her and Blair,” Simon agreed. “Blair, as we know, is an Academy guide. You’d assume, wouldn’t you, that if she’d been paired through the Academy, her father would have shouted it from the rooftops?”

A pairing with an Academy guide was prestigious, to be sure, and certainly worthy of note; especially for a sentinel like Alicia, who’d had trouble controlling her senses – and her wits - for her entire life. And that was something else which did not add up. “Simon, Alicia has always been unstable, for as long as I can remember. Unless she has made a miraculous recovery, the Academy would never have agreed to pair her with one of their guides – let alone one who has failed to qualify. They have stringent selection procedures – Academy guides are purported to be the best, and they only match them with sentinels who meet the prescribed fitness criteria.”

“So I understand,” Simon agreed. “And I have more information for you, my lord. While you were speaking to Blair I studied some pertinent legal tracts. I can find no Academy rule which insists upon secrecy in circumstances where a guide has broken baronial law – and abuse of a sentinel, like abuse of anyone, comes under baronial jurisdiction. A guide’s oath of confidentiality to their sentinel is one thing, but Brackett refusing to divulge information pertinent to the case to a baron is quite another.”

“What do you mean?” James asked.

“What I mean, is that Brackett has no legal basis to withhold the name of the sentinel involved, or details of the alleged crime, or indeed anything which might prevent you, from adjudicating the case which, despite his insistence to the contrary, you are fully empowered to do. Academy guides who break the law are not entitled to trial behind the closed doors of the Academy. They are subject to baronial scrutiny – via the Baronial Assessor in the capital, in the absence of a baron - just like everybody else.”

Other things, which had not added up from the start, were beginning to fit the picture which was forming. “Brackett has come here alone, unattended by Academy guards, to apprehend a notorious rogue guide. Does that sound right to you, Simon?”

“Indeed, it does not.”

“There is also the matter of Alicia’s ‘private agreement’, as well as Brackett – and only Brackett – acting as Blair’s mentor. There is his clear misrepresentation of the law, and insistence on keeping Alicia’s name out of it. All the evidence combined points to Brackett acting on his own to pair Blair and Alicia. Yet,” James pointed out, “Brackett is definitely, so far as I am aware, a true Master from the Academy. Blair clearly knows him from there, and appears to be under the impression that the Academy arranged his pairing.”

“Hmph,” Simon snorted. “I wonder, if we were to ask the Academy about the whereabouts of Guide Sandburg, what they would tell us? Because if Master Brackett has been engaging in supply and demand outside of their auspices using, in this instance, an Academy guide as the commodity in question, he would need to make Blair disappear from official consideration first.”

James grinned. “I think, perhaps we should make some enquiries,” he said. “How long would it take, do you think, for a messenger to reach the capital?”

Simon grinned back. “I’ll send Henri, my lord,” he said. “He is trustworthy and intelligent, as well as a fine horseman. If my lord baron were to furnish him with his own swiftest stallion, plus his second-best horse as a reserve, I believe the journey might be made in just two or three days.”

“See it done,” James agreed decisively.

***

Eventually, exhausted and heartsick after James’ visit, Blair crawled into bed. Lying wide-awake and tense and staring unhappily into the darkness, he pondered the situation he found himself in.

First and foremost, he had wronged James terribly. He’d known full-well that the sentinel was attracted to him, and yet he had neglected to make the position clear. Instead, he had lost himself in pointless fantasy, cherishing each gentle touch and softly spoken word, and pretending shamelessly in the privacy of his thoughts that James was his. Yet all the time, he’d been betraying his oath to Alicia. That the matter between he and James had not gone further was most certainly due to James’ sense of honour, and not his own.

As to the crime he’d committed, well, Blair was guilty, no matter how James might attempt to justify it. For a guide to send any sentinel – let alone one he’d accepted responsibility for - purposefully into a fugue state without her consent was an act of violation, no matter the circumstances. That she had subsequently suffered harm from it – by the fact of her being lost thereafter in her senses for a period of months - simply compounded Blair’s guilt. There was no escape from that fact and, no matter how much James might wish to save him from it, Blair would be unable to escape the consequences – and nor should he.

Not for the first time, Blair wondered how Alicia fared now. When he’d first discovered that she’d become so lost in her senses as to be practically irretrievable, Blair had been appalled. He assumed that, in the time since, she’d been taken away from the country estate where they’d been together in seclusion, and back to the capital. Perhaps to the Sentinel Infirmary – part of the Sentinel School which abutted the Guide Academy campus. He fervently hoped that she had been well cared for.

Brackett had constantly informed Blair, throughout the long, hopeless month leading up to that tragic act itself, how very lucky he was that he’d been paired with Alicia. Unqualified guides were never matched by the Academy – that hallowed institution only ever arranged matches for Master guides, who graduated in full. Because of the rigorous standards, a large proportion of Academy undergraduates always dropped out along the way, condemned - once their studies were terminated - to operate as hedge-guides at best, unless they started afresh to pursue a new career altogether. Very few undergraduates had ever made it as close to Masterhood as Blair had done, only to fail in one single element – and certainly none within living memory.

The Academy had finally despaired of Blair, Master Brackett had told him. It had become clear that total autonomic control was to be forever beyond his grasp, yet other of his skills marked his ability as way beyond that of the failed guides who had never made it as far as him. Which, of course, provided them with a conundrum. Blair was not able to qualify as a Master, yet was too well-trained and skilled to be dismissed as a simple hedge-guide. Quite simply, they had no idea what to do with him.

Then, just one month before Blair was due to leave the Academy for good, they had been approached by Alicia’s father who, by sheer chance, was seeking a match for her. She had failed to meet the criteria necessary to be paired with a Master and, in normal circumstances, the Academy would have refused her request. But Blair’s situation had given them pause. He seemed to be the ideal candidate to guide her, and certainly close enough to Masterhood that he would be well able to meet her needs.

They had been so incredibly, utterly wrong in that assessment.

Brackett had made the position completely clear to Blair, right at the start. This pairing was Blair’s last chance of achieving guidehood under the auspices of the Academy – an aim he had worked towards all his adult life. That the pairing had been arranged for him at all, given his inability to achieve Masterhood, was an unprecedented honour.

One condition of the arrangement had been that, apart from his assigned mentor, Blair was forced to cease all contact with the Academy forthwith. Worst of all, Blair’s long-time mentor, Master Stoddard, had forbidden Blair to contact him ever again. For Blair, that particularly harsh prohibition had been rather like being disowned by a beloved father.

Master Brackett had informed Blair of the rationale for that seemingly callous ostracism. Blair was not a Master, yet the Academy had, at great risk to their own reputation, sanctioned his pairing. Any failure on Blair’s part would be likely to reflect extremely badly on them. It was essential, therefore, that Blair quickly prove himself able to cope without the prop of the Academy, relying for advice only upon the single Master who had been assigned to oversee the initial stages of their pairing. If he could not do that, then his fitness to be paired with a sentinel like Alicia was moot, and there would be no cause for him to remain in touch with the Academy anyway.

His fitness had, most certainly, been found wanting. Heartsick and wracked once more by guilt, Blair turned on his side under the quilt and lost himself in grief-stricken hopelessness.

But as he slipped at long last into sleep, his last longing thought was not of his paired sentinel Alicia, but of James.

***

Henri left just before dawn, riding the southern-bred stallion that was James’ favourite steed.

Up to see him off, having spent the previous hour ensuring that the guardsman was fully briefed as to the enquiries he was to make, James and Simon headed back to the seneschal’s office to discuss where they were going to go from here.

Simon pulled out the huge volume he’d been perusing and placed it before him on the sturdy desk which dominated the room. He looked tired, having spent much of the night engaged in perusal of the documents at his disposal. As always, James was impressed at Simon’s dedication when faced with complicated questions which required definitive answers.

Tired or not, however, there was a certain vigour about the seneschal which he often tended to exhibit when engaged in legal matters. “The problem we have right now,” Simon began, his eyes alight with enthusiasm, “is that the good Master Brackett will need to be detained here for as long as it will take for Henri to return with word from the Academy. There are, of course, two ways that can be done. Lock him up, or convince him that there is a good reason for the delay.”

James pursed his lips. “The former is an attractive proposition, but in the interests of maintaining impartiality, I will be forced to go along with the latter.”

Simon grinned at the baron’s dry humour. “Precisely,” he agreed. “So it will be up to you to convince Brackett, and to keep him entertained – and preferably distracted - for the duration of his stay. And if that fails…”

Now, James grinned. “Then we can go with the first option after all.”

“Indeed.” Simon opened the volume before him. “Now, going back to what we discussed last night, this collection of judgements from the High Court in the capital contains accounts of various cases during which guides were tried for their crimes. In one respect, Master Bracket is entirely correct – the penalty for causing deliberate harm to a sentinel is usually surgical muting, and confinement in such a manner that the offender will cease to come into contact with sentinels ever again.”

James sat down heavily. “Damn,” he said.

“Ah, but I haven’t finished,” Simon went on. “There is another case in here. A guide accused of putting her sentinel in danger by deliberately inducing a fugue – the very same crime to which Blair has confessed. In this case the guide admitted it, but was not prosecuted. And you know why?”

“No, why?”

“Because the guide had suffered years of abuse at her sentinel’s hands. Consequently, she went straight to the Academy to seek sanctuary and admit what she had done. As a result of the case coming to court – and it only did because the sentinel persisted in trying to get her back – the guide was not disciplined in any way. The oath guides take, in which they vow to put the sentinel’s safety before their own, is negated in situations where the sentinel is acting illegally; as is the oath made by sentinels, when their guide is likewise the malefactor. The law takes precedence, even over the promises sentinels and guides make to each other.”

“Do you think,” James asked, hope blossoming at last, “that Blair might be dealt with similarly?”

“It depends whether his actions were malicious or not. Whether the intent was to cause harm, and whether he had good reason to feel it necessary.”

“I am convinced, from the way he reacted,” James said, “that the safety of a third party was involved. Most certainly he did not do it out of any malicious intent.”

“It will depend on the exact facts,” Simon said. “But from what you have said, I believe, based on this precedent, that there is a good chance that he will not have a case to answer. At the very worst, he could perhaps expect some internal disciplinary ruling from the Academy itself. Though if what Brackett told you is the truth – that Blair was on the verge of expulsion anyway – then I would expect that the range of penalty he could incur would be limited.”

Relieved beyond words - assuming Blair had acted with good reason - that the likely repercussions might not be not as bad as James had feared, the baron took his leave.

***

As James had expected, Master Brackett was already chomping at the bit. No sooner had James taken his seat in the great hall to attend to the day’s business, than Brackett appeared before him. “My lord,” he said, “I really must insist that you turn Guide Sandburg over into my custody right away, so that I can get on the road.”

James eyed him steadily. As expected, there was not even a flicker of emotion emanating from the man. Evenly, James answered, “As I informed you yesterday, Master Brackett, I will need a day or so to adjudicate the matter fairly. Your patience in this would be greatly appreciated. Please do rest assured, however, that I take the allegations you have made very seriously indeed.”

Perhaps sensing James’ intractability, Master Brackett inclined his head in agreement. “And how long do you think this will take, my lord?” he asked.

“Perhaps until tomorrow,” James answered. When tomorrow came, he’d think up some other reason to delay Brackett’s departure. “It would speed matters along, of course, if Guide Sandburg were to be permitted to speak to me candidly.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Brackett reiterated. “And, in fact, I must ask that if you question him again, that you do so in my presence. I assume you spoke with him last night?”

“I did,” James confirmed. “But he refused to divulge any information at all.”

Brackett’s closely held control slipped just a little at that revelation, relief flickering through him before he reined the reaction in to become the bland Master Guide once more. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “My advice to you, if you have any fond feelings for Guide Sandburg at all, would be to steer clear of making any further enquiries of him. If he were to inadvertently breach his oath further, by confiding information to you under the guise of friendship, then the repercussions for him could be severe. I’m sure you would not want that on your conscience, my lord.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” James said. But inwardly he seethed – did the man think him an idiot, with no access to legal information or advice? James had long known that those born and bred in the capital tended to view remote baronies like his as wild, uneducated places, but he hadn’t realised that the prejudice went so deep as to assume such ignorance and gullibility on the part of its baron and his advisors.

The morning’s business commenced and James moved on to other matters. His staff came and went, attending to their own duties as James took discourse with various folk and dealt with administrative issues, but there was a subdued feeling among them. Word about Blair had spread, it seemed, and people were not happy at the turn of events. The guide had made himself immensely popular during his time here, especially after so many of them had witnessed him saving James, at great risk to his own life, from the night terror which had attacked him. And while the full details of what had happened on his journey here were not generally known, it was common knowledge that Blair had been hurt protecting Grace and Megan from the men James had subsequently executed. Many of them, therefore, were upset and angry about the situation he was in.

 

Later in the day, once open session in the hall had been concluded, James made his way up to the private apartments he shared with his household. He paused to speak to Rafe, who was once again on duty outside Blair’s door. “I want you to make sure that Master Brackett does not gain access to this wing unless I am accompanying him and especially,” he said, “that he does not have any opportunity to talk to Blair. If it means setting an extra guard detail, then so be it. The only people allowed in and out will be myself, Megan, Grace, Simon and the guards on assigned duty. Domestic staff will be permitted to deliver food and other items we require, but should get no further than the door at the entrance to our apartments – I want yourself and the other guardsmen you assign to bring those items to us personally. Additionally, apart from the delivery of food, no-one is to have access to Blair other than myself. Is that clear?”

“As crystal, my lord,” Rafe said.

“Good man,” James praised, trusting Rafe to do his job well, as he always did. The added bonus of him being sympathetic toward Blair did not hurt at all.

In the meantime, James was secure in the knowledge that Simon was discreetly having Brackett watched. Right now, he intended to speak once more to Blair, and he had absolutely no intention of allowing Brackett to be present while he did so. Knocking before he entered, James opened the door.

Blair looked haggard today, after a full night and day alone with his thoughts. He rose as James entered. “My lord,” he greeted respectfully.

James closed the door behind him, feeling strangely awkward. His head ached, stressed as he was, and he longed to take comfort from the guide’s presence. But to approach Blair for help in the present circumstances would be inappropriate, to say the least. Putting his own problems decisively to one side, he enquired, “Are you well?”

“As well as can be expected,” Blair answered. Then he glanced apologetically at James. “Forgive me, I don’t mean to be rude. You have… you have been, as ever, kind and courteous. I appreciate it very much.” Blair swallowed heavily, then asked, “When am I to ride out with Master Brackett?”

“Not soon, and not ever, if I have my way.” James held up a hand to forestall the protest that Blair seemed about to make. “I have some enquiries ongoing, which will not be concluded for at least a week. Until then, I must ask that you remain confined to your room, and speak only to me.”

Blair looked at him nervously. “What enquiries?” he asked.

“I would prefer not to say,” James answered, “in case they come to naught. In the meantime, I ask for your cooperation and your patience, difficult though I know it must be.”

Blair’s hands had crept to his stomach, which he hugged as though it pained him. I’ll do whatever you ask,” he agreed, though he looked haunted. “But I think, in the end, this is just delaying the inevitable. Maybe it would be better if you just let me go with him.”

“I can’t do that, Blair. I’m sorry.”

Blair looked down at his feet for a moment, then back at James. “Whatever you believe yourself able to absolve me of, there is no escape from what I did. I will be punished.”

Curious as to how much trouble Blair believed himself to be in, given the records he and Simon had perused, James asked, “What do you believe the punishment will be?”

“Muting and confinement,” Blair said. His voice was steady enough, but his hands, still wrapped around his stomach, had balled into fists.

“Did Brackett tell you that?” James asked.

Blair shrugged. “My actions caused the sentinel in my care to be harmed. I am clearly unfit to be a guide, and such a penalty will ensure that I never guide anyone again. I don’t need Master Brackett to tell me that – although he has said as much. I have no reason to doubt that it will happen.”

James shook his head wonderingly. “Did it never occur to you,” he said, “that it may not be your fitness that is in question?”

Blair looked away for a moment, then resignedly back at James. “You know her, don’t you?” he said.

James nodded. “Yes, I do. Her father and mine were friends, and I met her several years ago.”

Blair moved towards the bed, and sat down. “I tried, James. I tried to help her,” Blair said miserably.

Moving closer, James took a seat in the chair beside the bed. “I know you did,” he said. “But I doubt very much that Alicia is capable of being helped, even by a guide as good as you.”

Blair laughed mirthlessly. “Good. That’s not exactly the word I’d use.”

“Oh I would,” James assured him. “I can tell you from first-hand experience how good you are. I believe I have done so, several times.” James realised something else, as he spoke. “Even now, just sitting here in your presence, your voice has soothed away the headache I’ve had all day. In my view, you are an immensely talented guide. A natural guide, like my grandmother was.”

“None of this changes anything,” Blair insisted. “I still caused Alicia harm.”

“I’m sure you had reason. I’d be happy to hear what caused you to act in such a way, if you’d tell me.”

But, it seemed, to no avail. “I can’t talk about it. I’ve already said far more than I should. Every time I open my mouth I compound my guilt further.”

James shook his head incredulously. “In this barony, we call such a thing ‘speaking in your own defence’. You are entitled to have your side of the story heard.”

“Yes, I know,” Blair agreed. “But only once I am back at the Academy. I am forbidden from talking about it with you or anyone else.”

“I believe Brackett’s interpretation of the law as it relates to such matters is in error, as is yours. But I will not press you further, Blair.” James rose. “Suffice it so say, I do not believe that you are responsible for the straits in which you have found yourself. I cannot say more until my enquiries are completed. Until then, however, be reassured. Brackett will not be permitted near you, or to take you anywhere. In the meantime…”

Blair nodded in understanding. “I remain your prisoner. Yes, I understand. I will not give you any trouble.”

Blair looked haunted, and it was hard for James to leave him alone, knowing that he had nothing to distract him from the dark path of his thoughts. But there was no help for it. Much as James longed to give comfort, Blair was not his guide, and would never be his guide, no matter the unfit nature of the sentinel he was paired with.

Determinedly, James turned and walked out of the door.

***

Keeping Brackett entertained during his second night in the castle was a simple matter of providing him with dinner and conversation. Megan and Grace joined them too, Grace glaring at the Master Guide sullenly the whole while.

Simon was there as well, his presence an inestimable comfort to James whenever the conversation flagged or drifted onto topics he found it difficult to engage with. To James’ amusement, Simon also helped perpetuate the misapprehension that Brackett appeared to be under – that the barony was, essentially, a primitive, lawless place.

“Of course,” Simon was saying, “I trained as a soldier, not a courtier. In this province, we have rarely had to deal with matters of import to those in the capital. I do agree that such things are best dealt with by those with direct responsibility and appropriate experience.”

James almost laughed out loud. He and Simon had served together for six years on the eastern border. The combined army of the Five Baronies routinely patrolled the narrow pass which bisected the mountains there, due to the constant threat from barbarian tribes who occasionally sent raiding parties through the pass. But like James, Simon was far from just a simple soldier. When his service ended, Simon had spent several years in the capital studying estate management and law, before taking his place as James’ seneschal. Provincial and uneducated he was not.

Brackett, however, seemed to be swallowing every word, his preconceived notions to the fore. “I’m glad you agree, Seneschal.” He turned to James. “So, my lord, given the advice you’ve just heard, do you agree that I can leave in the morning?”

“All being well,” James agreed. But of course he would ensure that all was not well, even if he had to lie as shamelessly as Simon.

Grace, who had remained silent for the duration, finally found her voice. “I don’t want Blair to go with you,” she said resentfully to Brackett, despite her mother’s shushing. “You were mean to him. I don’t like you.”

Brackett turned his emotionless glance her way. “Poor child. Tell me, Grace. Did Blair ever do anything that made you feel uncomfortable? Did you ever find yourself waking from a fugue in his presence, not knowing what had occurred in the interim?”

“That’s enough.” James stood, Megan’s look of frozen horror at that line of questioning matching the cold knot of anger in his gut. “Megan, it is past time for Grace to be in bed. I will come to bid you goodnight presently.”

Without a word, Megan gathered up her daughter and left, Grace glaring hatefully at Brackett until the door closed between them.

Into the silence in their wake, Brackett said, “My lord, you see the danger that you have both been in – you and the child. If the law had already taken its course, Sandburg would never have been placed in a position of such intimate trust with two untrained sentinels. I fear for Grace’s well-being, especially. You, at least, are an adult, capable of rationality, and I am encouraged by your willingness to entertain the belief that Sandburg is guilty. But that poor child….” He shook his head as if in sorrow, though the emotion was evident in no other way. “She is a relative, I presume?”

“My ward,” James confirmed. “And my heir.”

“Then I urge you, as her guardian, to send her for training in the capital. If you agree, I could take her with me when I go, and see her settled into the Sentinel School.”

The retort James wanted to make died on his lips when Simon, thankfully, interjected. “I’m not so sure it would be a good idea for Grace to travel in the same company as a rogue guide in chains, Master Brackett. Especially given that you suspect there to have already been undue influence on her from that source.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Brackett concurred. He looked again at James. “Maybe, then, I could return at a later date, and take her with me then?”

“I will give it due consideration,” James said evenly, but of course he had no intention of agreeing to any such thing.

Brackett, however, was not done. “It is a great shame you never studied at the Sentinel School yourself,” he said. “That sentinels like yourself still exist in the provinces, who’ve gone all their lives without schooling, is a tragedy. You are too old to study there now, of course, but I would be happy to return and spend some time with you once Sandburg has been dealt with.” The guide’s hand crept over to rest on James’ knee, and he forced himself not to flinch at the hint of pheromones which drifted into the air. “And it is certainly not too late,” Brackett added suggestively, “for you to seek a pairing with a qualified guide.”

James, of course, considered himself anything but untutored. His grandfather had been a sentinel and his grandmother a guide, and he’d been taught by them back when he’d been just a child. He’d worked hard to master the techniques they’d shown him in the years since. It was the usual way things were done – part of the old ways that James preferred.

James considered Brackett’s insistence on formal methods - and his unthinking dismissal of the traditional ways - offensive in the extreme. And it was not only that which he found offensive – he would rather go guideless for the rest of his life than consider an emotionless, bland, prejudiced fool like Brackett as a partner.

But of course, in the interests of absolving Blair of the crime of which this man had accused him, he could not allow any of his disgust to show. So instead, he smiled, and laid his hand over Brackett’s. “That would be nice,” he said. “And I will consider your proposition,”

“Please,” Brackett insisted, his hand enclosing James’ in turn, his fingers stroking over the baron’s knuckles suggestively. “Call me Lee.”

“Of course, Lee,” James agreed. But his flesh crawled at the touch.

***

The next day, Brackett’s horse inexplicably began to limp, or so James’ farrier was quoted as saying. “He tells me,” James relayed, “that the horse will be fit if you leave it with him for a day or perhaps two. In the meantime, he will apply poultices to the affected limb. It is a complaint he is familiar with, and your horse should suffer no long-term ill-effects.”

Instead of making the protest that James expected, Brackett accepted the delay gracefully. And then again, three days later, when Blair reportedly developed a ‘fever’ which rendered him unfit to travel for two or more days at least, Brackett only showed mild impatience at yet another delay.

The reason for Brackett’s easy acceptance of being forced to remain at the castle longer was abundantly clear to James: Brackett was most certainly angling to make a match with him. And if Brackett was indeed the ambitious man that James suspected him to be, then he did not trust the guide’s motives or sincerity at all.

All of that was incidental to the fact that James found the man repulsive in the extreme. The contrast between Brackett’s deceitful blandness and Blair’s honest humanity made his presence even more objectionable.

On the surface, at least, Brackett was an exceptional guide - he’d never have achieved Masterhood otherwise. Controlled, calm and able, he began to make it a habit, when they took their evening meals together, to put James through a series of exercises which helped to settle his senses. Reluctantly, James had to concede that the man had a deft touch, even if he far preferred Blair’s rich voice and firm hands.

Simon, thank goodness, still accompanied them at mealtimes. Indeed if he had not, James would have found being alone with Brackett intensely uncomfortable, given the fact that, in an effort to delay Brackett from leaving for as long as possible, he had not disabused him of the notion that there was a chance for them to be paired. But both at Megan’s request and James’ wish, she and Grace kept to their own rooms. James missed them, just as he missed Blair and the cosy evenings they’d all spent together before Bracket had come and disrupted their lives.

James made a point of going to see Blair at least once a day, and became more and more concerned at the melancholic resignation that he exhibited. It didn’t help that, where before there had been an easy friendship between them, now there was little they seemed able to say to each other. And James was beginning to feel irrationally as though, by spending his evenings with Brackett, he was somehow being unfaithful to Blair – who in turn already belonged to another. It made James feel unreasonably angry during those visits, which he took pains not to show, but which he had no doubt, given Blair’s increasing withdrawal, that Blair could perceive anyway.

***

Blair felt, for most of the time he spent alone in his room, as though he was going mad. He sent back much of the food that was silently delivered to him, by Rafe and the other guardsmen, uneaten. And his sleep – what little he managed to get – was plagued by nightmares.

Simon had sent him, by way of James, some books from the castle’s comprehensive library to keep him entertained during his confinement. Blair spent most of his days engrossed in their pages, trying desperately to ignore the monster eating its way through his gut, but with only limited success. He would be lost in some ancient tale, transfixed by its twists and turns, when suddenly his anxiety and guilt would rise up to choke him, casting him out of the imaginary world in his head and back into stark reality.

James’ daily visits had become much shorter, and Blair could sense that the baron was beginning to tire of the situation. And well he might, since he’d had such hopes of a pairing with Blair, only to have them dashed in such a soul-shattering way.

Blair hated himself for that, as well as for the other things he’d done. He truly was unfit to be a guide – he’d failed with Alicia, allowed Grace to get attached to him, and permitted James to assume that there was a chance they might one day be paired. He’d known, almost since he’d arrived, that the baron was attracted to him, and yet he’d done nothing to discourage James’ obvious aspirations.

In his darker moments, Blair found himself fantasising endlessly about how his death would leave all three sentinels free of the blight he’d been on their lives.

During his more positive interludes, Blair began to hope only for one thing: that the forthcoming humiliation of his trial and punishment would be carried out as quickly as possible. If he was to be condemned by the Masters whose respect he’d lost, and muted and locked away for good, then the sooner the better. This endless anticipation was nothing more than torture, comfortable though his accommodations were.

As his thoughts turned to despair once more, Blair feared that, if this awful limbo persisted much longer, he’d lose his nerve and find some way to end his own life before justice could be enacted.

***

Finally, Brackett’s patience began to fray. “My lord, I really must insist. The sooner I deal with the problem at hand, the sooner I will be able to return to help you with your senses.”

James glanced at Simon, then back at Brackett. “I’m afraid Blair is still unwell.”

“My lord, he is a felon!” Brackett insisted. For once his control had slipped a little, and James could clearly sense the scent of irritation emanating from him. “Coddling him like this is unnecessary!”

“If he is unlikely to survive the journey, then doesn’t it defeat your object somewhat?” Simon put in. “For him to face trial and withstand the penalty which you believe will be levied, then you will need to deliver him fit.”

“As long as he is alive,” Brackett noted frostily, “then his fitness is not at issue.” But an undercurrent in his words raised James’ hackles – something told him that Bracket did not intend Blair to reach the capital alive, if at all. Then Brackett looked at James. “My lord, I will leave in the morning, no matter his condition. I have remained here long enough.” His voice softened, his uncomfortably intent gaze unwavering on James’ face. “I promise I will return soon afterward, and then perhaps we can discuss whether a more permanent arrangement between us might be in order.”

Henri had been gone for six days, and James expected that an answer from the Academy would be forthcoming by tomorrow or the day after. If not, there were other ways of detaining Master Brackett – which James was fully prepared to resort to, if necessary. Right now, though, the easiest way to pacify him for tonight was to capitulate. “Of course,” James agreed. “I fully understand. I will ensure he is ready to travel, ill or not.”

“And on the other matter?” Brackett pressed, his hand finding its way across the table to grasp James’.

James allowed his fingers to open, and enclose Brackett’s dry, firm hand in his own. The texture of it reminded him of snake skin. “I promise you, I will give your proposal the attention it deserves,” he assured the guide. For all of one second before I summarily dismiss it.

***

The next morning, it became plain that Brackett would no longer to be swayed in his ambition to leave. So at last James had no choice – he locked the man in his room, and set a guard upon it.

“My lord, this is unacceptable!” Brackett shouted through the locked door. “Sandburg has somehow turned your head. What of the attraction between you and I? Focus on that, James! Remember your promise to consider a pairing between us!”

“Open it,” James insisted of the guard on duty. At the dubious look the man gave him, James shook his head. “Brackett is no threat to me, I assure you.” When the guard complied, James entered Brackett’s chamber.

“James, what madness is this?” Brackett demanded, as soon as he was inside.

“First of all,” James said icily, “Do not presume to use my given name in such a familiar way. That honour is reserved for my equals, my close friends and family. And secondly, if you think that I would truly consider pairing with you, then you are either deluded or simply blinded by ambition. Since I have seen no evidence of the former – you are, indeed, an intelligent and devious man – I must assume the latter.”

Brackett returned James’ hard expression stare for stare. “You’ve been playing me all this time.” He laughed. “Oh, my lord. You and I would truly make a magnificent match. I have rarely been taken in like that.”

“So, now there is no further need for pretence between us,” James said, “I must inform you that you will be confined here until certain enquiries I’ve made are concluded. I have reason to believe that nothing you have told me about the circumstances of Blair’s pairing is the truth.”

“It seems I’m not the only liar here,” Brackett snorted. “What gave it away? I generally have very good control.”

“You have excellent control,” James confirmed. “The difficulty, for you, is that Blair has proved himself, time and time again, to be a courageous, honourable man. I never told you, did I, that he saved my life? I became lost in my senses, and was almost taken by a night terror. He threw himself in-between, and was nearly devoured in my stead. He also put himself at great risk to protect Grace and her mother on their journey here. He still bears the scars from both of those occasions. And he has worked hard in the service of this barony, especially during the terrible months before the night terrors disappeared. He is very popular, not just with me and my household, but in the wider barony as well.”

“He always was horribly idealistic,” Brackett remarked. “Sickeningly so, in fact.”

James shrugged. “You might think so,” he said. “In my view, he is one of the bravest and most selfless men I have ever known.”

Brackett grinned. “You’re infatuated with him,” he said. “But you can’t have him, you know. He is already paired, whether you like it or not. He is obligated to another.”

The intense pain in James’ gut indicated that Brackett had scored a direct hit, but James did not react. Instead, he said, “This has nothing to do with me. All I am interested in is establishing the truth. If what I suspect is correct, then Blair was lied to by someone who he should have been able to trust, and coerced into a situation which he was not equipped to handle. I mean to see him treated fairly, and the true perpetrator of harm punished. I do not believe it to be Blair, however, who is at fault.”

A knock at the door behind him caused James to abandon the other things he wished to say. He wanted to get some answers from both Brackett and Blair, now this thing was out in the open but, upon extending his senses just outside the walls, he could already determine why he’d been interrupted. The sound of several horses out in the yard, and voices – one of them Henri’s – alerted him to the reason a split second before he opened the door to find Simon standing outside.

“A delegation has arrived from the Academy,” the seneschal confirmed.

James paused only long enough to see that the door was locked behind him, with Brackett securely inside, before he strode off in the direction of the great hall to meet his visitors.

***

Blair watched despondently from his window seat, as the two Masters from the Academy dismounted in the courtyard below, leaving the Academy guards they’d brought with them to tend their horses. With a sinking heart, he saw that one of them was Master Stoddard – the man who had been like a father to him during his years at the Academy, yet who had cut him off without even a word of farewell when Blair had gone to be paired with Alicia. The other one was more ominous, but perhaps to be expected, considering the magnitude of Blair’s crime: Master Edwards, the principal of the Academy. It would be she who would be responsible for passing judgement on him.

Blair only hoped that they’d take him back with them, and – more critically – far away from James and Grace, before carrying out the first part of his sentence. It would not be easy for the two sentinels to witness the act and the aftermath of a guide being muted.

The reminder of what hung over him paralysed Blair with horror. He licked lips gone dry, then slid to the floor, holding his belly in anguish, allowing himself a few brief moments of panic before he was summoned to face them.

By the time Rafe opened the door to usher him down to the hall, he’d regained control. But his feet dragged like stone, and dread closed his mouth as effectively as if he’d already been deprived of his voice.

 

 

 Part the First - The Reaping concludes in Chapter 2

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