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Back to Part the First - The Reaping: Chapter 1

Chapter 2

When Blair reached the hall, he was surprised to see that it had been cleared of the usual throng of people who inhabited it during the day. Apart from the guardsmen at the door – presumably there to keep everyone else out – there were only four other people present.

Instead of sitting on the raised dais from which he generally held court, James was seated at the head of the long table which occupied the centre of the room. To one side of James, along one of the long sides of the table, sat Master Stoddard – who Blair had long known by the more familiar address of ‘Master Eli’ - and Master Edwards. Opposite them Simon was in attendance, sheets of parchment at the ready for him to record the proceedings. There was an empty seat in-between the seneschal and James’ place at the head. The baron rose as Blair was ushered close, and held out an arm in welcome. “Blair,” he said. “Come sit down.”

Feeling as though he was going to his doom, Blair complied, keeping his eyes lowered – he did not want to see the disgust and disappointment he would no doubt find on the faces of the two Masters. He could have wept when James took his arm and steered him carefully into the chair beside him – the baron’s gentleness had ever been his undoing.

“Blair.” Master Edwards’ voice, as it ever did, compelled his obedient attention. Blair looked up, dreading at what he would see there.

To his immense shock, it was sympathy and kindness.

“Blair,” Master Edwards said again. “There is something I must make clear, right at the start. The pairing you made with Lady Alicia was not sanctioned by the Academy. In fact, up until five days ago, we all believed you to be dead.”

Blair found himself gasping for air, black spots before his eyes. “Easy, now,” he heard James’ voice in his ear. “Steady breaths. You’ve gotten this far, Blair. Don’t fall apart on me now.”

Blair wasn’t sure he’d heard right. He wasn’t sure of anything at all. As soon as he could manage, he croaked out, “I don’t understand.”

Master Eli spoke up next, his voice tinged with the sadness he’d felt at having lost a student dear to him. “We believed that you’d committed suicide. That the shame of failing to achieve Masterhood had pushed you over the edge. There was a note left, to that effect, in your room. We found some of your clothes, torn and covered with blood, on the roof of the east wing. It was Master Brackett’s contention that you’d gone up there and offered yourself to the night terrors, and thus been taken.”

Appalled – despite suicide being an attractive option more than once in recent times – Blair blurted out, “But I didn’t do any of that. I left under Master Brackett’s orders – he told me he was to be my new mentor, and that he would oversee the pairing which had been arranged for me.”

Master Edwards spoke again. “As regards the sentinel you went to be paired with, Lady Alicia’s parents had petitioned the Academy several times, seeking a match for her. She was rejected on every occasion because of her mental instabilities. And, as you know, we do not traditionally arrange pairings for guides who have not achieved full Master status. We believe, from what Baron James has told us, that Master Brackett took it upon himself to arrange a private pairing between yourself and Alicia. At the time you were in seclusion with her he had taken a sabbatical. Now, of course, we know the reason why.”

Blair found himself totally out of his depth. Looking back and forth between the Masters and James, he pleaded, “But why? Why would he do that? Why would he do any of it?”

James shrugged. “We will, of course, ask him. But Simon and I suspect it has something to do with Alicia being a baron’s daughter. He’s far too clever to make a pairing with her himself, but if he could convince her parents that he’d managed to get her under control, then who knows what reward they might give him? The fact that it was another guide - and not he - who had done so would not necessarily be a problem for a consummate liar like him.”

“But I didn’t do so,” Blair admitted miserably. He glanced at the two Masters, then back at James. “Though I’m not sure how much I can say in front of you.”

“Blair.” Now Master Eli’s soft voice drew Blair’s gaze towards him. “Did you forge a deep link with Alicia?”

Blair shook his head. “No.”

“Given her lack of control, that is exactly what I expected you to say.” Master Eli smiled reassuringly. “As of now, if you wish it, your pairing is annulled and as such, you are released from your oath of confidentiality. It would help our adjudication of this matter – and that of Baron James – if you were to speak freely and candidly of what occurred between you and her.” He peered at Blair searchingly. “Do you wish it, Blair? Annulment?”

Before he could truly consider their pairing at an end – even knowing that he would never be allowed near Alicia again anyway – Blair had to ask, “Please, can you tell me one thing? How is she?”

The Masters exchanged a look, then Master Edwards said, “We visited the house the Bannister family keep near the capital on our way here, assuming we’d find her there. We were correct in that assumption. She was weak, though very much alive. We arranged for her to be taken to the Sentinel Infirmary in the capital, where she will be well cared for.”

Blair felt faint with relief at the news that she was in good hands. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.

“So, Blair. The annulment. Shall we proceed with it?” Master Eli reiterated.

Feeling as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders, no matter the hard road he still had to travel, Blair nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I think it would be the right thing to do.”

“Good,” Master Eli said. “Given the fact that you were paired under false pretences, Alicia’s consent is not necessary for the annulment to be ratified, although I am certain her family will agree that it is the correct course of action anyway. I will ensure that the paperwork confirming it is completed as soon as we are done here, and a copy passed to her parents, since she appears to be unfit to manage her own affairs. So now,” he said, “let’s get down to business.” He looked at his colleague. “Marcia?”

“Thank you, Eli,” Master Edwards said. She looked steadily at Blair, who shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. “According to what Baron James has told us, Master Brackett has alleged that you systematically abused Alicia, following which you attempted to send her into a catastrophic fugue before absconding. We will, of course, speak to Master Brackett in due course to hear his side of the matter. But in view of the unusual circumstances – in that Master Brackett is himself suspected of several counts of gross misconduct – we would like to hear your account first. And as we have the benefit of having a sentinel present, I must ask you not to mask your responses, so that Baron James can confirm whether or not we are hearing the truth.”

It was highly ironic that Master Edwards had asked Blair not to conceal his feelings, since the lack of that very skill had led him here in the first place. But Blair understood full-well that the request was an order rather than a courtesy, nevertheless. If he’d refused, there were other ways of breaking down a guide’s ability to exert control before giving testimony.

Blair looked down at his hands, folded before him on the table. Unlike a few moments ago, they were no longer shaking at all – in fact, he felt oddly calm, now it had come to the crux of the matter. Though he knew that, when it came down to it, the outcome would be the same. His pairing might have been annulled, but there was still no escape from the consequences of what he’d done at his parting with Alicia.

Taking a deep breath, Blair staunchly faced the piercing gaze of Master Edwards, and began.

***

Blair arrived at the country house Master Brackett had directed him to, almost two hours ride from the capital, just before nightfall. Eyeing the darkening sky (and the threat of night terrors that it held) nervously, Blair rang the ornate doorbell.

The maidservant who answered – diminutive and no older than her late-teens, Blair guessed, looked strangely nervous as he introduced himself and was ushered inside. “My mistress will be here tomorrow evening,” she said, at his enquiry. But other than introducing herself as ‘Katy’, she became tight-lipped and silent thereafter. Smiling at her reassuringly, nevertheless, Blair did his best to put her at ease as he ate the meal she provided him with, before retiring to the room which had been reserved for him.

And an incredible room it was, for someone of Blair’s limited experience. It came complete with a four-poster bed, and the softest mattress Blair had ever lain upon. A handsome leather chair and various other beautiful and expensive pieces of furniture completed the sumptuousness of the chamber. His window – which he shuttered swiftly due to the encroaching threat of darkness – looked out over manicured lawns, and well-tended flower beds full of the encroaching promise of spring. All in all, it was far more palatial than anywhere he’d ever slept before, during his years at the Academy.

The thought of what he’d left behind gave him a sudden pang of sadness. He was banished from there for good, it seemed. Master Brackett had made the conditions of this pairing very clear indeed. And leaving under such circumstances, with no opportunity to say goodbye, was difficult in the extreme. Ever since he’d been separated from his mother as a child, the Academy had been the only home he’d ever known.

Still, Blair was determined to succeed and make them proud of him, however summarily he had been dismissed after his years of dedicated study. This pairing, so he’d been told, had been arranged at great expense, and was an incredibly prestigious opportunity for a failure such as he. The sentinel, Lady Alicia Bannister, was a baron’s daughter. If all went as it should, Master Brackett had said that Blair and Alicia would be going to live in the southern province afterwards, in a private estate granted to them by Alicia’s father, Baron Bannister.

Tired out after his journey and more than a little homesick already, Blair blew out the lamps – another luxury, for someone used to a single candle in his room each night - and got into bed. And he determinedly pushed out of his mind whatever negative feelings lurked there. This is going to work, he told himself firmly. I’m sure of it.

At midmorning the next day, Brackett arrived at the house. “I’ve been assigned as your mentor,” he informed Blair. “This means I will remain on hand, staying in the gate lodge, to oversee the early stages of your pairing and provide advice. You are to cease all other contact with the Academy from now on, and seek counsel only from me.”

Needing to be sure that he’d interpreted correctly, Blair asked, “Once our pairing is ratified, will I be able to bid farewell to Master Eli before we leave for the Southern Barony?”

Master Brackett shook his head, his expression stern. “I’ve already explained to you - the Academy is closed to you forever. In particular, Master Stoddard instructed that you never approach him or contact him in any way again, for any reason. Is that clear?”

Blair couldn’t help the pain which he felt at that order, but at least he understood. “Yes,” he said, the lump in his throat impossible to easily dispel. “It’s clear.”

***

“Blair,” Master Eli said softly, stirring Blair out of the memories he’d begun to 

recount. “You must believe me – I never gave any such instruction. I would never do such an unkind thing. I’ve always held you in high regard – none of that has changed.”

Blair seemed to have lost his voice for a moment, so Master Edwards filled the silence. “That was the morning we thought you dead. Master Brackett rode out early, shortly after your remains – or so we believed - were found on the roof. His sabbatical had been scheduled to begin that day, and so we urged him to go, despite his expressions of grief at the loss of such a promising student.”

“He said I was going to fail. That the pairing with Alicia was my last chance of achieving an Academy pairing,” Blair said, misery at Brackett’s lies thickening his voice. “That I was regarded as a disgrace, and Master Eli was ashamed of me. He said that exile was a condition of the match. I… I had no reason not to believe him.”

“I’m sorry, Blair,” Master Eli said gently. “I wish you’d been spared that.”

James spoke up. “One thing that puzzles me is how a guide as talented as Blair could possibly fail to achieve Master status. During his time here, he has helped my ward and I immensely, often with nothing more than his presence.”

“Blair has very strong gifts,” Master Edwards answered. “He is quite an exceptional young man, as you have discovered – his voice talent, in particular, is especially prodigious, and he has many other fine qualities. But one of the necessary skills of a Master is the ability to control one’s own emotional responses, so as not to impinge on a sentinel’s senses when working. While Blair has achieved much, total mastery of that skill continues, even after all these years, to elude him.” She looked over at Blair. “Brackett was correct, inasmuch as your aspiration to Masterhood had not been successful. But we had no intention of pairing you with an unfit sentinel, Blair. Instead, we had plans to offer you a teaching position at the Academy.”

Astonished, Blair fought to master himself once again. Brackett had lied – about everything, it seemed, and Blair was not the outcast he’d believed himself to be for all these months. Fighting to recover his composure, Blair met the eyes of both Masters. “Thank you for telling me that,” he said. “That… that means a lot.”

“If you want my opinion,” James put in, “speaking as a sentinel, I far prefer being able to read the emotions of the guide I’m working with. Master guides might be fine for some, but I would far rather have Blair at my back than someone like Brackett.” He bowed his head respectfully towards the two Masters. “Your pardon. I mean no offence.”

Neither Master reacted other than gracefully, but Blair knew their views on the issue. They both believed Mastery essential for the provision of optimum guidance, and that sentinels who settled for less were selling themselves short; as had he, before he’d discovered the more relaxed standards which existed in the provinces. However, they did not exhibit any affront. Instead, Master Edwards turned her gaze back on Blair. “I presume Alicia arrived later in the day, you all settled in for the night, and the work of establishing a pairing commenced in the days thereafter.”

“Yes,” Blair agreed.

“In that case,” Master Edwards said, “I think we are ready to hear you answer the first allegation. Did you systematically abuse Alicia, over a period of weeks, while she was in your care?”

“No,” Blair said firmly. “I did not.”

Master Edwards glanced at James, who nodded obligingly – Blair had uttered nothing more than the truth. Then she fixed her forthright stare back on Blair. “In that case, I’d like you to tell us your perception of the time you spent with her. In particular, anything she did which might have caused you to doubt her fitness, and how you managed any difficulties she presented. And also, we need to know how Master Brackett dealt with his role as ‘mentor’.”

Nodding obediently, relieved beyond measure that, at last, he was able to share the true facts of his experience with someone other than Brackett - no matter how painful and incriminating some of it would be to relate - Blair threw himself headlong into the tale.

***

Blair’s first warning that things were amiss came when Alicia arrived. She had been transported by coach, driven by a single footman and a matronly servant. Bundled heavily in a woollen cloak as she was, Blair’s only glimpse of her was of a cascading spill of golden hair escaping her hood when the burly footman carried her inside and up the stairs. Blair was forestalled from following by Master Brackett who, accompanied by Katy, went up the stairs to see her settled.

“Wait a moment,” he asked the woman who had travelled with her, halting her from going back out of the door. “She’s unconscious? What’s wrong with her?”

“Lady Alicia does not travel well,” the woman replied, her eyes darting over Blair’s shoulder as she watched nervously for her companion to return. “She has spent the journey drugged and insensible. It was the baron’s express order.”

“What, the whole way?” Blair asked, appalled. The trip from the Southern Barony to this estate by coach would have taken at least five days or more. To keep a sentinel drugged that long was unheard of.

The woman shrugged, as though she did not regard it as her problem, and made her exit.

Blair surmised that she had a point. It was now very much his problem.

A few moments later the footman rapidly descended the stairs and, without a word or a glance, rushed past Blair. Soon after that, the sound of hooves and cobbles heralded their speedy departure.

Glancing nervously up the stairs as he waited for Master Brackett to return and give him some guidance as to how he should proceed, Blair felt suddenly as though something about this situation was very, very wrong.

***

It was three days before Blair was allowed to meet Alicia. In view of the condition she’d been in upon arrival, Master Brackett declared it preferable that she be attended only by Katy and himself, until she was fit to be formally introduced to her new guide.

Striving to be obedient to Master Brackett’s wishes, Blair nevertheless felt that he should be doing something to help. He hated to think of a sentinel being transported like a piece of baggage, sedated for such a long period of time. He worried about the repercussions for her health – had she taken enough to drink, or anything to eat, on the journey? Had the drug affected her negatively in any other way? Given her hyperactive senses, was there a danger of withdrawal being more severe for her than a non-sentinel?

Master Brackett answered all of Blair’s queries with a barely concealed impatience and thin-lipped annoyance, which Blair had never witnessed him express at the Academy. Of course Lady Alicia had been well cared for – the servants whom Baron Bannister employed were extremely competent and well used to dealing with her sensitivities. She had taken this drug before, without any ill-effects. And she was recovering well, so would he please stop it with all these stupid questions?

Blair didn’t think his questions were stupid – he was honestly just concerned for her welfare. But assuming, as a fully-qualified Master (which Brackett took great pains to remind Blair of at every opportunity), that he knew what he was talking about, Blair reined back his curiosity and unease with an effort.

On the second day of Alicia’s recovery, Blair was appalled to see that Katy’s right eye was swollen shut and massively bruised. It looked painful in the extreme. Halting her as she exited the kitchen, Blair asked, “Are you all right? What happened?”

“It was an accident.” Katy’s voice was flat and inflectionless, but she looked so upset that Blair suspected the worst.

Having witnessed Master Brackett’s bad mood the last two days, and the disdain with which he treated this poor young woman, Blair whispered, “Did he hit you?”

Katy shook her head. “It was the mistress,” she said. Catching his look of sympathetic horror, she soothed, “It’s all right, sir. I’m used to it.” Then she pulled free and was gone.

In her wake, Blair watched her head back upstairs to the lion’s den in stunned silence.

***

Blair was presented to Lady Alicia the next day, in the late afternoon. She was sitting regally in the drawing room, as though holding court, with Brackett by her side.

She was beautiful, Blair could see at first glance. A strong-featured woman, with high cheekbones and a curious, incongruous delicacy in her statuesque frame. Her hair glinted golden in the late afternoon sunshine, which spilled in through the windows. Blair thought that, if she were to stand, he would find that she was at least a head taller than him.

A slightly disdainful curl to her lip gave Alicia an intimidating appearance. She sniffed at the air as Blair walked into the room and bowed before her. “This is him?” she directed curtly at Brackett.

Blair pushed his initial reaction to her deep down as Brackett responded, striving for perfect calmness as he had been taught. “Yes, this is your guide, Alicia,” Brackett said. His tone was strangely condescending. “May I present Guide Blair Sandburg.”

“He’s pretty,” she remarked, and Blair squirmed under her direct gaze. Being the centre of attention for any sentinel was often a heady thing for a guide, but something about the way this particular sentinel looked at him was making Blair feel acutely uncomfortable.

“I assumed you’d like that about him,” Brackett said, and Blair blinked at the strangeness of the remark. “I thought he’d be perfect for you.”

“Oh, he is,” Alicia said. She rose, the movement predatory, and Blair forgot how to breathe as she came closer, frozen in place like a mouse caught in an adder’s thrall. She came to stand before him, and Blair craned his neck to look up at her. He had been totally correct in his assessment of her height.

Blair kept absolutely still as she put out one long finger, and stroked it gently down his cheek. “Dance for me,” she whispered, watching his face intently.

Confused, Blair asked, “What?”

“You can hear it, can’t you?” she went on, in the same soft, sibilant voice. “The music? I want you to dance to it.” Her voice hardened. “Now!”

Blair darted a glance at Master Brackett, who was watching expressionlessly. It seemed there was to be no guidance from that quarter. Striving, therefore, to pass whatever test this was, Blair said, “Alicia, what music can you hear? Can you pull back your hearing a little, and tell me how far away it is-“

The next moment, Blair was on the floor, the whole side of his face stinging from the aftermath of what felt like a punch. Breathing hard, shaking his head to dispel the ringing in his ears, he was unable to resist when he was hauled powerfully back aloft – her strength was far in excess of what Blair could have anticipated. Glaring angrily into his face from less than an inch away, Alicia shook him. “I told you to dance! Dance now!”

Turning his head dizzily, Blair appealed to Brackett in shock. He felt something warm and wet dribbling down his chin, and suspected that she’d split his lip. “Master, I don’t know what-”

Brackett cut him off as he rose. “She’s your problem now, Guide,” he said curtly. “Control her. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” And with that he disappeared out of the door, closing it behind him.

Left alone with the enraged sentinel, feeling himself shaken helplessly like a rag doll before being violently tossed once more onto the floor, Blair pushed himself back onto his feet, and did the only thing he could think of that might calm her down.

He danced.

***

It had been humiliating enough to go through it, but relating the tale to James and the two Masters was sheer torture. Unable to look at them as his account of that first meeting concluded, Blair stared fixedly at the table. On its surface, he could see that his hands were shaking minutely once more.

Blair supposed, in the silence which followed, that silent confirmation was asked for and received that he’d been truthful. Then Master Edwards spoke. “Blair, were there other occasions when Alicia assaulted you?”

Blair nodded, still unable to look up from the table. “Yes,” he said. “That was just the first time.”

“And what was your response, on those other occasions?” Master Eli put in.

Blair glanced at them both, feeling horribly embarrassed, and acutely aware of Simon sitting silently by his side, scribbling down Blair’s account with deft strokes of a quill. “Usually,” Blair admitted, “I went along with whatever it was she wanted me to do. It was the only way I could find to settle her, when she was in a rage.”

Master Edwards spoke again. “Did you ever physically retaliate when she attacked you? Did you ever use force to defend yourself?”

“No!” That suggestion brought Blair’s head right up. “I would never have done that! What you have to understand is that she is sick. She’s in constant pain. She’s had zero control of her senses for almost her entire life, and her parents’ answer to that was to lock her up out of the way. She’s never been properly schooled, has had almost no outside contact, and because she’s not had the guidance she needed from a young age, she’s never learned how to block out or process the constant sensory input. And when locking her away wasn’t enough, they gave her drugs to sedate her, like they did on her journey there. No wonder the poor woman is mad!”

“So,” Master Edwards pressed, “You say you went along with what she asked of you, when you felt it was prudent to do so. What else did you do?”

Blair took a few deep breaths. He had forgotten how angry the abuse Alicia had suffered – and he most certainly regarded it as such, whether her father was a baron or not – made him feel. “I tried,” he said presently, “to be a guide to her. She was often calmer and more lucid after I went along with her wishes. I started her off with relaxation exercises, trying to help her find her centre. It was difficult, because she has a very short attention span, but sometimes I felt as though I was getting through to her. And I tried to show her how much less she should be sensing, even though she had little sense of what normal levels were, having never experienced them.”

“Do you feel she improved at all, during the time you spent together?”

Blair shook his head despondently. “At the time, I looked constantly for indications that she was improving. Sometimes, I thought, perhaps….” He sighed. “But no. I’d have to say, given what happened before I left, that nothing I did really helped at all. ”

“And where was Master Brackett all this time?” Blair’s old mentor put in. There was more than a suggestion of anger in Master Eli’s voice.

Blair looked down again at his hands. They were, to his relief steady again. “He kept completely out of it. Whenever I approached him, he told me I had to figure it out myself. That if I was unable to prove myself fit to guide her, then I had no right to think of myself as a guide.”

“You could have left at any time,” James interjected. “The woman was insane, Blair. No true sentinel would ever treat a guide in such a way. Why stay and put up with that?”

Blair shrugged helplessly, meeting James’ incredulous eyes. “She’s a sentinel,” he explained, not knowing if James could truly comprehend the compulsion which had driven Blair all his life. “She was in pain. I couldn’t leave her.”

“And yet you did,” Master Edwards pointed out. “And it is alleged that, before you did so, you behaved in an unethical manner. I think it’s time we heard the rest of it, Blair.”

Nodding resignedly, Blair prepared to seal his fate.

***

The last several days had been particularly harrowing. Alicia had taken to ambushing Blair as he slept, finding it hugely entertaining to wait until he’d just drifted into repose before startling him with a loud noise, or dousing him with a pail of cold water. Her senses, it seemed, could be harnessed to her will at least some of the time - especially when doing so enabled her to catch Blair unawares, the moment his breathing and heart rate indicated sleep.

Sleep-deprived and jumpy as he was after a week of such torment Blair desperately longed to deny her entry, but part of their arrangement was that they were to share the master suite of rooms. Alicia occupied one bedroom and Blair the other, as they had not progressed to sleeping with each other yet - although Blair couldn’t honestly foresee a time when they would. There was a connecting door between the two, which guaranteed (due to the absence of a lock) that Blair, at least, had absolutely no privacy or respite from her pranks at all.

Constantly on edge as Blair had become, he tended to wake instantly now – if he managed to get to sleep at all - at the slightest sound. So when he heard the scream, he bolted upright. “Alicia,” he muttered desperately, as he got out of his bed – which was currently a jumble of sheets and blankets on the floor, due to the soaking his mattress had received the previous night. “What now?”

There was no need for him to waste time getting dressed – Blair had learned that retiring fully clothed afforded him some slight protection against Alicia’s humiliations. Bolting over to the door which divided their rooms, he paused to knock (ingrained manners were not easily relinquished, even when dealing with an unbalanced sentinel who habitually failed to accord him the same courtesy) and entered.

The chamber was empty.

Furrowing his brow, Blair tried to work out where the scream had come from.

A few seconds later, he heard another pain-filled cry, and dashed out of Alicia’s room and down the stairs, following the source of the sound. If he hadn’t been so exhausted, he would perhaps have recognised that the voice had not been Alicia’s.

When he reached the vestibule, he found Alicia towering above Katy, her face a mask of fury, and a walking stick from the stand in the hall held in her hand like a club. The maid cowered on the floor at her feet, her clothes ripped and bruises already forming on the exposed flesh Blair could see. The poor girl’s arms were held protectively over her head.

Moving swiftly towards them without hesitation, Blair nevertheless halted before he got too close. To put himself within arms’ reach of the sentinel when she was in a rage was most definitely not to be advised, as he had previously learned to his cost. “Alex,” he said softly, using the name that she preferred, and hoping his guide-tones would distract her from the young woman she was terrorising.

Alicia, it seemed, was in one of her rare lucid – though rather less-rare violent – moods, when it came to Katy. Blair had tried hard, the past few weeks, to keep Alicia’s attention away from the girl, since Alicia habitually targeted her for her maliciousness.  It seemed, on this occasion, that the sentinel had taken the opportunity to get to her while he slept. “Go away, guide,” Alicia ordered imperiously. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Alex,” Blair persisted, keeping his voice calm with an effort. “Katy needs to leave now and go about her duties. Don’t you, Katy?”

Katy didn’t answer, seemingly too afraid to utter a sound, until Alicia reached down and grabbed the maid by the hair. Katy squealed in pain, and Blair could see as Alicia hauled her aloft that one of her arms hung at an unnatural angle. Desperate anger and an urge to protect suffused him at the sight, and he moved forward to intervene – this had gone way beyond far enough.

Alicia, as ever, anticipated his actions. Letting the girl go, she rounded on Blair, stalking towards him menacingly. “I told you to go,” she snarled.

Difficult though it was, Blair held his ground. Striving for calmness and trying, with difficulty, to keep his heart rate under control and his breathing relaxed, he said softly, “Alex, let’s go upstairs. I can see that you’re hurting. I just want to help.” In actual fact, he just wanted to get her away from Katy and, to his shame, he didn’t truly care, at this particular moment in time, about Alicia’s pain at all.

Alicia laughed at him. “You stink of fear, guide. You’re pathetic.” She turned her back on him once again, and Blair moved to lay a hand on her shoulder, hoping that his touch might be a more effective way of getting her to comply than his calming tones had been.

That had been a huge error of judgement on his part - Alicia’s momentary dismissal of him had been nothing more than a ruse. She whirled swiftly as he came within reach, and the world went dark when the stick, wielded two-handed like a bat, cracked against the side of his skull.

Shocked awake sometime later by a cascade of freezing water right in the face, Blair spluttered and gasped for breath.

“About time,” Alicia remarked. “I want you to hear it as well.”

Blair blinked several times as the world came back into focus, the water which had drenched him dripping in rivulets down his face. Alicia was standing over him, the now-empty bucket still in her hands.

With a shock, Blair realised that he was trussed hand and foot, his arms secured behind him. Memory returned, and he looked around for Katy, the movement making his head spin sickeningly. But the girl was nowhere to be seen.

Alicia discarded the bucket disdainfully with a clatter. Crossing her arms across her chest, she tapped her foot with annoyance. “Come on, guide,” she said. She had never once, during the four weeks of their pairing, called Blair by his given name – it was as if he was not, to her, a real person at all. “If you don’t hurry up and wake up, you’ll miss it.”

“Miss what?” Blair asked.

“Miss her being eaten, of course!” Alicia looked at him scathingly, as though the answer was obvious.

Abruptly, Blair realised what was going on. Horror-struck, he said, “Alex – is Katy outside?”

“Well, what do you think?” Alicia asked sarcastically. “Who else is going to eat her? Us?”

Just outside the door, Blair could now hear it: the terrified sobbing and pleading of the frightened girl. “Please, mistress, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please don’t let them get me. Please let me in… oh please…”

“Alex,” he ordered, cursing the fact that the sentinel had overpowered him so easily. “Open the door. Open it now.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Alicia said.

“Alicia, I mean it!” Anger that Blair had kept tightly suppressed for four long, unendurable weeks came to the fore. “Open it right now, or this pairing is at an end, and I’ll leave you. I mean it. Imagine that, Alex. No more help from me, ever. Do you want your headaches to return?”

Alicia snorted. “The headaches never went away, you idiot!” she said. “You think you’re so clever, but you’re just as useless as the other guides Daddy has given me. I’m going to feed you to the monsters next.” She chuckled, her complete and utter amorality starkly obvious. “And as for her,” Alicia cocked a head towards the locked door separating them from Katy, “she’s such a whiny little toad. I hate her.”

A heart-wrenching scream from outside caused both Alicia and Blair to snap their heads towards the door. And Blair realised, in that split second, that nothing he could say would sway Alicia from this course. The woman was utterly without empathy, and totally fixated on her own sick gratification, exactly as she had been all along. In one respect, however, she was entirely correct: Blair’s certainty that he could help her if he only persisted had been utterly misplaced.

Since Katy had screamed a moment ago, Alicia was watching the door avidly, her eyes gone soft with pleasure as the maid sobbed and begged. Alicia’s rapt anticipation of what she was going to hear when the night terrors got here, gave Blair an idea. Even trussed up as he was, he was not totally without weapons of his own.

“I bet you’d like to hear it really well, wouldn’t you?” Blair said silkily, instilling every ounce of his guide-voice into the words, despite it almost making him sick to say such things. “Hear them getting closer, hear their wings flapping.” Blair swallowed down his gorge, ploughing on relentlessly despite the disgusting words. “Hear her begging for mercy. Hear them tearing her flesh and crunching her bones.”

Alicia had a far away look in her eyes. “I’d like that,” she said dreamily.

“Then focus on my voice, Alex,” Blair said. “Let’s get your senses really sharp. Listen to me, and you’ll hear it so well, it will almost be like you’re out there too, won’t it? Except you’ll really be safe in here with me, just listening to it all. Hearing it as clearly as if you were right there, watching. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

He had her, he could tell. Alicia was still gazing at the door but she was already drifting, caught up in the fantasy Blair was weaving for her. “Listen to me, Alex,” Blair said softly, trying to shut out the terrible cries that Katy was now making outside, and her declarations that she’d just seen a shadow move on the lawn. “Follow where I lead. Let your eyes become heavy, and your body settle down to rest. Put all your energy, all your concentration into your hearing, Alex, and we’ll make you hear really, really well. Follow my voice….”

Alicia slumped against the wall and slid down it to sit on the floor, legs outstretched before her. Her eyes closed, and her breathing gradually became regular and slow. Unyielding, Blair carried on, drawing her deeper and deeper, until he sensed the moment that she was so deeply lost in her sense of hearing that even the voice which led her there had ceased to register.

And then Blair did the unthinkable. He led her deeper still, to a place where she could no longer sense anything at all; ensuring without a shadow of a doubt that she would not be able to find her own way back.

***

In the wake of that confession, the great hall had gone utterly silent.

Presently, Master Edwards asked, “Was it your anger which made you push her so deeply under?”

“I was angry,” Blair confirmed. “I’ve never felt so angry at anyone in my entire life. I hated her at that moment.”

“But your anger was not the reason you did it. Am I correct?” Master Edwards prompted. Everyone else in the room had frozen like a statue, waiting for Blair’s answer.

Blair shook his head. “I was still tied up. I wanted to be certain I could get myself free and get Katy safely back inside without any possibility of Alicia waking up and preventing me.”

“I’d have killed her.” James’ face was as hard as his voice, and Blair looked at him in shock. “You’re a better man than me, Blair,” James went on. “If I’d have been you, I’d have led her so deep that it would have stopped her heart.”

Blair had no idea what to say to that. Especially as, at the time, the thought of doing exactly that had most definitely crossed his mind.

“The maidservant, Blair,” Master Edwards went on, drawing Blair’s attention back to the rest of the story. “What happened to her?”

“I managed to get myself free,” Blair said, “using a cleaver in the kitchen to cut through the scarves Alicia had tied me with. Then I opened the door and went outside to get her. Alicia had…” Blair closed his eyes, the memory still one which haunted his nightmares. “Katy was staked out on the lawn. She was terrified, in pain – almost delirious from it. I cut her free and got her inside just in time - I could hear them landing on the footpath behind me just as we crossed the threshold. They scratched at the doors and shutters all night after that.” He breathed deep for a moment, forcing himself under control. “Katy had been badly beaten, her arm was broken, and she was almost incoherent with shock and fear. I did what I could to take care of her.”

“And what of Alicia? Did you leave her where she was?”

Blair shook his head. “As soon as I’d looked after Katy’s immediate needs, and reassured her so that she could tolerate being left alone for a little while, I carried Alicia up to her room and put her to bed. I spent the rest of the night going back and forth between her and Katy.”

“Tell us about your decision to leave, Blair,” Master Edwards said.

Nodding, Blair complied, resigned to whatever might come.

***

Katy eventually drifted to sleep, reassured enough to do so only by Blair’s fervent promise that Lady Alicia would be unable to wake up unless he allowed it.

After that, Blair went to sit by Alicia’s bedside. Deeply insensible as she still was, the cruel twist to her lips was gone, and she looked deceptively young and innocent. Blair surmised that anyone seeing her like this, who did not know her as he did, would have no clue as to the murderous madwoman hiding under the surface of such perfect beauty.

But as for Blair, any illusions he might have been under previously with regard to Alicia were dispelled forever. It was over between them. There was no way their pairing could ever work and, now that Blair was finally being honest with himself, he truly did not want it to work. What he wanted was to get as far away from Alicia as possible, and never lay eyes on her again.

And therein lay the crux of his dilemma.

Pushing a sentinel into a deep fugue state without consent was regarded, under Academy rules, as a grave abuse of a guide’s power. Blair believed, once the full circumstances were taken into account and Katy’s testimony of the night’s events heard, that his actions would be regarded as justifiable. But that’s not to say that there would not be repercussions. Much as Blair’s first instinct was to run as fast and as far away as possible, he needed to stay here and face the consequences of breaking such a fundamental rule.

It was difficult for Blair to imagine what penalty might be levied, however, other than dissolution of their pairing (which he actually wanted), followed by expulsion from the Academy (which, in effect, had happened already). But the knowledge that he could never return there, except in disgrace to be punished for what he’d done, hurt Blair more deeply than anything Alicia had ever done to him.

Sadly, Blair had little hope of support or sympathy from Master Brackett. His mentor had made it abundantly clear, right from the start, the low regard in which he held Blair’s ability to guide Alicia.

The night progressed, Blair spending most of it in a kind of miserable fugue himself, thanks to his exhaustion and pounding head, the swollen knot where Alicia had hit him throbbing in time with his pulse.

As morning daylight began to filter through the cracks between the shutters, Blair was disturbed from his dark and hopeless thoughts by a sound. Going out of Alicia’s room he found Katy in the corridor, still wild-eyed and shivering after her ordeal. “Please,” she begged him in a tiny voice, her bound, broken arm held close to her chest by her other hand. “I can’t stay here. Please help me.”

Blair took hold of her shoulders, and guided her gently into a chair. “Katy, I understand you’re scared,” he said gently. “But I assure you, Lady Alicia cannot harm you any more.”

“I know. But oh, Sir, please take me home,” she pleaded. “I just want my mam. She lives just the other side of the village. I don’t want to stay here any more.” She lifted tear streaked eyes to Blair’s. “Please Sir. Take me home.”

Looking down into her desperate, bruised face, and seeing the frightened child there who just needed her mother, Blair did not have it in his heart to refuse.

***

“So, you left Alicia there, still in a deep fugue, and took Katy home,” Master Edwards said.

 “Yes.” Blair deeply regretted that decision now – perhaps if he’d stayed and revived Alicia before he’d gone, she might not have suffered such dreadful ill-effects. But he had not wanted to wake her, only to leave her alone and unsupervised in the house – there was no telling what she might have done in that circumstance, unpredictable as she was. And taking her along with him to Katy’s house had clearly not been an option. “I called in to see Master Brackett on the way out, but the manservant at the gatehouse told me he had gone out for a ride. He was expected back soon, but because Katy was so anxious I decided not to wait. I wrote a short note telling him what had happened, and asked him to go to Alicia urgently and stay with her until I returned. I assumed by leaving her in the hands of a true Master that I was assuring her care.” He sighed miserably. “I was wrong, and I’m sorry about that.”

Ignoring his profession of wrongdoing, Master Edwards asked, “What happened when you got to Katy’s mother’s house?”

“She was relieved to get her daughter home,” Blair said, the memory of that reunion the only good part of the whole ordeal. “When Katy had first gone to work as a servant at the Bannister’s summer house, Mary had been pleased that her daughter had obtained such a prestigious position in the local area. But when Katy came to visit her on several occasions covered in bruises, and she had told her that the baron’s daughter had done it, Mary had desperately wanted her to leave.” Blair shrugged. “Katy was stubborn and proud, and most of the time she liked her job – Alicia didn’t always come with them when the baron and his wife visited the capital, in any case.”

“Did Katy tell her mother what happened?” Master Stoddard asked.

Blair nodded. “Yes.”

“Did you?”

Blair shook his head. “No, I did not,” he said. “I was bound by my oath of confidentiality. Whatever Mary found out, she did so from her daughter, not me.”

Blair saw a glance exchanged between the Masters and James, once again ascertaining if he’d been truthful. Seemingly satisfied, Master Edwards pressed on. “Why did you not return immediately to the Bannister house?”

Blair looked away, abashed. “I… I hadn’t slept for days,” he said, “and I’d had a pounding headache, ever since Alicia knocked me out. I felt dizzy and sick - I must have looked pretty bad, because Mary offered me a bed. I only meant to lie down for an hour or so but… time must have gotten away from me. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon, and Master Brackett was banging at the door.”

 ***

Blair could hear Master Brackett’s voice downstairs, the sound carrying clearly up to the bedroom in which he lay in Mary’s small house. Startled out of a deep sleep, the pounding in his head back in full force, Blair felt so sick and limp with exhaustion that he could hardly move, despite knowing he should go downstairs right now and face his mentor.

As Blair lay there, an odd, nightmarish lethargy pressing him relentlessly down onto the mattress, Brackett sounded angrier than Blair could ever have imagined, given his usual impeccable control. “Is your daughter here?” Blair heard him demand of Mary.

“My daughter will not be returning to work for the baron,” Mary retorted. “After what that woman did to her-”

“‘That woman’, as you call her will not be able to do anything to anyone ever again, thanks to the condition she’s in,” Brackett interrupted. At those words, Blair’s heart pounded in stunned shock. Next he heard Brackett ask, “Was there a man with your daughter? A young man?”

Blair fully expected Mary to reveal his presence, but he was surprised when she answered in the negative. “She was alone,” Mary lied. “It was a miracle that she got home at all, hurt as she is.”

There was silence a moment, as though Brackett was gauging Mary’s truthfulness. “Very well,” he said presently. “But I must tell you, if this man – this guide – comes seeking help, I urge you to send word to me right away. Guide Blair Sandburg is a wanted felon. Because of him a baron’s daughter is lying close to death. It was not enough that he was an inadequate guide for Lady Alicia - he has sent her into a catastrophic fugue from which she will most likely never recover. It is a cruel death for a sentinel to suffer, especially when it is delivered at the hand of the guide who is charged with her protection.”

Blair’s heart pounded in shock and dismay. Catastrophic? Such devastating fugues were irreversible, and almost invariably fatal. To induce one was among the worst things a guide could ever do to a sentinel. But he hadn’t… he was sure… he’d been so careful….

Downstairs, Brackett spoke once again. “If you see this man – if he contacts you or your daughter – I must ask you to send word to me at Bannister House. There will be a rich reward for the person who turns him over,” he said. “I am certain you and your daughter could use the money, now that she has left her employment.”

“What will happen to him, if he’s caught?” Blair heard Mary ask.

Brackett’s answer, when it came, was hard and unyielding in its brutal simplicity. “His tongue will be torn out,” he said, “And he will never be allowed near another sentinel for as long as he lives.”

Listening to Brackett’s pronouncement, Blair could only lie frozen with horror.

***

“Mary came up after he’d gone. She told me she would die rather than hand the man who saved her daughter over to suffer such a fate,” Blair told the Masters. “She insisted I leave right away, and go into hiding.”

“You told us that you initially intended to stay and face the consequences of what you’d done. Why didn’t you make yourself known to Master Brackett, and return with him to Bannister House?” Master Edwards asked. “At that time, you still assumed your pairing had the sanction of the Academy. You must have understood that there would be an investigation, and that the penalty Master Brackett so blithely insisted would be carried out would not happen without a fair hearing.”

“I don’t know,” Blair admitted. “I… I was having trouble comprehending what Master Brackett had said – it was a few days before the magnitude of it truly began to sink in. I think… when Mary urged me to leave, I was just overwhelmed by it all. By everything that had happened. I just went, without really considering what I was doing or what direction I should go. I don’t even remember where I passed the first few nights, although I assume it was somewhere under cover, since I was not taken by the night terrors.”

“You hadn’t slept properly for over a week or perhaps longer, and had been constantly at Alicia’s mercy the entire time,” James pointed out. “And you had recently suffered a head injury, which no doubt affected your judgement. It’s no wonder you were not thinking rationally.”

“I suppose,” Blair agreed. “Or maybe it’s that….” He sighed, miserably admitting the truth. “I was scared as well. I admit it. I remember feeling terrified; hunted. And as time went on, and I found myself more able to consider my options, I was afraid to go back and face the shame of what I’d done. I was afraid,” he spoke more softly, trying hard to keep control, “to see what I’d done to Alicia. And most of all, I was afraid of what might happen to me, and that the people I respected,” he glanced Master Eli’s way, “would see what a disgrace I was to them.” Emotion overwhelmed him, and Blair put his face in his hands. The weight of James’ hand landed on his shoulder; warm and reassuring. But Blair knew he didn’t deserve comfort. Pulling himself together determinedly he sat up straight, and shaking his head apologetically at James, he shrugged it off. It was time, at long last, to face the repercussions of his actions.

 “What do you believe you might have done, which could have caused Alicia’s fugue to become so dangerously close to catastrophic?” asked Master Edwards, as soon Blair was composed once more.

The question caused a sharp pang of pain and guilt in Blair, even though he’d anticipated it. “I don’t know,” he admitted miserably. “I thought I’d done it right – taken her just far enough under to keep her there, but so that there was no question she could later be revived. She was breathing and relaxed, and not in any distress.” Blair shook his head unhappily. “Maybe I overestimated my ability to get it right, and misjudged how deep I took her. Or perhaps Alicia’s sensitivities made her more susceptible to catastrophic states than I had realised.” He looked up at the two Masters, every ounce of regret and remorse he felt infused in his words. “I truly don’t know, and that more than anything tells me how unfit I am to be a guide.”

Another silent, painful pause followed, during which Blair fully expected judgement to be forthcoming.

Master Edwards, however, was not quite finished with her questions. “I assume, once you had recovered your wits,” she said, “that wider events caught you up and prevented your return.”

Blair nodded. “The night terror attacks in the lowlands had already escalated, and they got worse while I was on the road,” he said. “I ended up travelling north with the refugees until I found myself here.” Blair didn’t look away from her dispassionate face. “Ever since the end of summer, when the roads became safe again, I’ve known that I must return to the Academy, and face up to what I did. I always intended to do so. But I kept putting it off. I’m sorry. I have no excuse. Good intentions are worthless, I know, when not backed up by corresponding action.”

“Indeed, it seems that there have been many good intentions exhibited here today,” Master Stoddard said inscrutably. Blair wanted desperately to believe that the unhappy expression on his mentor’s face was not borne of his intense disappointment in Blair, but really he knew better.

Feeling an odd sense of calm descend over him now that he was, at last, in the eye of the storm, Blair took a deep breath, and let it out. “I should have come to you before,” he said, looking between the two Masters, “I’m sorry that you had to find me hiding here instead. If I could go back and change what I did to her, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. And now,” he asserted, “I’m ready to pay the price.”

***

For James, hearing Blair recite the nightmare scenario he’d been forced to live though and perceiving the guilt and anguish Blair had carried with him ever since, was difficult in the extreme. Somewhat contradictorily (since what Blair was telling them was, inadvertently, the cause of James’ anger) it was only Blair’s close proximity – his voice, his smell, and the occasional touch – which enabled the sentinel to maintain a veneer of calm. But an enraged part of him wanted nothing more than to go the chamber Brackett was secured in, and beat the man to a bloody pulp.

Blair’s odour was tainted, throughout the torturous tale, with things other than his usual, wholesome smell. Odours that had always been there in traces, but which now overwhelmed James’ senses with their potency. It made James want to nurture Blair shamelessly, until he’d made him smell once again of contentment and safety.

But doing so – if, indeed, Blair would permit it at all - would have to wait.

It seemed, despite the overwhelming evidence in his favour, that Blair was still somehow convinced that he was guilty and should be barbarically punished. James supposed that, for a man as principled and dedicated to his calling as Blair, such long-term, deeply ingrained (though misplaced) guilt was not going to be easily or quickly dispelled.

After Blair’s astonishing profession of being ready to meet his fate, James and the two Masters exchanged meaningful glances. It seemed they were all on the same page – it was time to bring Blair onto it too. “Blair,” Master Edwards said. “Your guilt in this matter is by no means assured. Indeed, it is Master Brackett’s actions which most concern us, not yours. I am sorry I could not reassure you of this earlier – we needed to hear your truthful account without prejudicing your responses.”

Apparently confused, Blair protested, “But…”

“Blair,” Master Stoddard said, “Everything we’ve heard here so far has convinced us of only one thing. Lee Brackett has lied to all of us, and has acted in such a manner to put a much-valued student of the Academy in a hazardous position, most likely for his own personal gain. And from what we observed when we visited Alicia, I am certainly not convinced that the long-term fugue she suffered was anywhere close to catastrophic at all, or indeed entirely induced by you.”

Blair still looked confused, so Master Edwards stepped in to make the matter plain. “We have no plans to prosecute you, Blair. At the very worst, you acted to lose a sentinel in her senses without her consent. But it is our contention that you did so as a reasonable act of self-defence, as well as in an attempt to save an innocent life other than your own. You have done nothing wrong. On the contrary – it is you who has been wronged, by the fact that a Master you trusted deceived you and put you in such a terrible position.”

Simon, silent until now as he diligently recorded the proceedings, spoke up. “There are additional and more serious allegations against Master Brackett also, which will require baronial review. Because the pertinent witnesses live in that area, Brackett’s trial will take place in the capital, in the court of the Baronial Assessor. A transcript of the testimony you have just given will form a large part of the case against him.”

Blair tore his shocked gaze away from Simon, and looked towards James helplessly, as though he could not believe what he was hearing. James shrugged in answer. “The man is a snake,” he said simply. “And you have taken on far more than your share of guilt. It’s time for this to end.”

Blair seemed dumbstruck. After a few moments, he found his voice. “I… it’s a lot to take in,” he said. Looking back at Master Stoddard, he asked, “Master Eli, what did you mean, when you said Alicia’s fugue was not caused by me? And… I still don’t understand why Master Brackett would arrange for me to be paired with Alicia, and lie to me – to all of us – like that.”

“It would perhaps be easier to understand our findings,” the Master said, “if you were able to sit in on our initial questioning of Master Brackett. I think that the very least you deserve is to hear an accounting from him, as well as a fleshing out of some of the charges we wish him to answer. But I must warn you,” he said softly, and to James’ approval, the man exuded nothing but kindness, “that some of what you may hear will be distressing. I’m sorry Blair,” he said. “We learned, when we visited Bannister House, that Katy and her mother are both dead, burned to death in a fire at their home. After questioning some of their neighbours, we suspect that Brackett may be responsible.”

“Oh.” Blair squirmed a little in his chair, as if his instinct was to flee and vent his grief at that news in private. His face was a picture of twisted anguish before he buried it in his hands.

“Blair?” James queried softly, resting a hand on his trembling shoulder.

“I’m all right,” Blair declared, the words muffled. “Just… just give me a minute.”

Aching to take Blair in his arms, and give comfort while he grieved for the girl he’d tried so hard to protect, James nevertheless pulled away, giving him the space he evidently needed. After a few long moments of steady, deliberate breathing, Blair raised his head. At James’ unspoken query, he nodded. “I’m fine,” he said. But his lips were a thin, angry line.

“Do you feel up to hearing Master Brackett’s account?” Master Edwards asked.

His eyes hard and face set, Blair nodded. “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.”

***

The following interview went very much as James had expected it would.

The seating arrangement had been changed, so that James and the two Masters now sat along one side of the long table. Simon took James former seat at the head, quill at the ready to make a formal record. Blair, having no formal part in the proceedings, sat a little apart, his chair placed back from the table in the gap between Simon and James.

Brackett was led in, his hands manacled before him, and placed in a chair opposite James and the Masters. Right at the start he refused to voluntarily unmask his responses - as Blair had willingly done - citing James’ personal involvement as the reason. “I will do so gladly back at the capital, in the presence of a sentinel who is not infatuated with Sandburg. The baron’s impartiality in this matter is highly questionable.”

The Masters, however, refused to countenance his refusal. Brackett was made to drink a substance they’d brought with them for the purpose, which inhibited autonomic control. The effect was to render his truthfulness, or lack thereof, as readable as that of any common felon brought before James for judgement.

Once the drug had been administered, Brackett was a smart enough man to realise that lying further would not save him. So instead he brazened it out; bragging about his cleverness, answering questions with further questions, and blaming everyone but himself for what he’d done.

“You and I are all aware,” he addressed the Masters, “that for a Master to teach at the Academy and remain un-paired, is simply our way of retaining control and independence. Which of us truly wants to sign away our lives to a sentinel? Yet it is also an end to ambition. Stifling and dull, with no future apart from an eventual pension and a lonely old age. Well let me tell you, I want more out of life than those two unpalatable options. I’m worth far, far more than that, and I got tired of living my life surrounded by fools who were satisfied with their lot. So I decided to go get it for myself.”

“If it is money and status you want, why did you not offer to pair with Alicia yourself?” Master Edwards asked. “She is a baron’s daughter, after all.”

Brackett snorted disdainfully. “Why do you think? I was not about to attach myself to that. Even her own family don’t want her – she’s been an embarrassment to them for far too long.”

“Yet you had no compunction about coercing a student into a pairing with her,” Master Stoddard pointed out with disgust.

“I far preferred to style myself the wise and trusted mentor, and let Sandburg do all the work,” Brackett said haughtily. “I would have gone to live close to them, of course, in a very nice house on the edge of the estate the baron planned to exile Alicia to. I would have even visited them now and then, just make sure they hadn’t killed each other, but mostly I’d have got on with enjoying my new life and the wealth which came with it. The baron had promised to provide for me very well indeed, if I managed to get her under control and keep her out of his hair for good. He didn’t really care how I went about it, as long as he never had to see her again.” Brackett cast a dismissive look at Blair. “Sandburg seemed to possess the requisite talent to make my plan work.” Brackett shrugged. “Or so I thought. I was obviously wrong about that.”

“For the record,” Master Stoddard pointed out, “it was Alicia’s shortcomings, and most definitely not Blair’s, which caused the match to fail.”

Brackett shrugged again, as though the words were meaningless to him. James could sense that Blair, sitting beside and a little behind him, was tense with anger and hurt, but the guide held his peace.

His awareness of Blair led James to raise a question. “What did you mean to do with Blair, if you had been permitted to take him away from here?” James asked.

“Now James,” Brackett said. “What do you think I’d have done?”

“You were covering your tracks,” James guessed, bypassing Brackett’s provocative familiarity. “Removing the witnesses. He’d never have reached the capital alive.”

“Very clever,” Brackett said. “Although that is just supposition, of course. There is no proof that I intended any such thing.” He smiled approvingly. “You and I, James, we’d have made a fine pairing. You’re the only sentinel baron in the land - did you know that? For you, I’d have reconsidered my principles, and relinquished my autonomy. Why be an overseer for a baron’s mad daughter, already dispossessed of her inheritance, when I could be your guide, and influence the governance of an entire barony instead?”

“So you’d have murdered Alicia too, I take it?” James asked. “Considering that you had aspirations to return here and make a match with me.”

“Alicia was already near death when I left her,” Brackett said. “Such a long period of malaise has seriously impacted her ability to take in sufficient nutrients to maintain her health. It’s a wonder, really, that she’s still alive at all.”

“You did it.” Blair, silent until now, could keep silent no longer. “All this time, I though it was me. But you pushed her deeper into fugue, didn’t you?”

“What did you expect me to do?” Brackett exclaimed. “She is a madwoman, and I was left alone to tend her, while the night terrors banged at the windows all summer long. It was several months before I could find a replacement for the maidservant, thanks to your precious Katy spreading Alicia’s private business all over the area. In the meantime, I didn’t want Alicia to wake up and run around the house opening the shutters to let the night terrors in as I slept. Most of all, I didn’t want her fixing her lunatic desire for a guide on me. If the Masters, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that you acted in self-defence by sending her into a fugue, then they cannot, in good faith, argue that my motives were not exactly the same.”

“What about Katy and Mary?” There was no mistaking the anger in Blair’s voice now. “You’ve managed to find some sick justification for everything else you’ve done. What about them? How can you justify that?”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Brackett said. His voice was calm, but his heart pounded erratically.

“He’s lying,” James said easily.

“Well, all right, of course I know who you mean,” Brackett qualified. There was sweat on his brow. “You are talking about the maidservant and her mother.”

Blair leaned forward, coming into James’ line of sight, and James was taken aback at the uncharacteristic anger in his expression. “Did you kill them?” he demanded of Brackett.

“They died in a house fire.” James heard Brackett’s heart speed up minutely.

“It’s a yes or no question, Master Brackett,” Blair pushed. “Or are you simply too clever to give a straight answer like that, when your control is impaired?”

“You have my answer,” Brackett insisted. “I know who you mean. I know how they died.” His pulse still jumped. “That’s all I have to say, especially as I am not, in any sense, answerable to you.”

James was too busy at that moment busy monitoring Brackett, otherwise he’d have seen Blair’s next move coming. Before he could prevent it, Blair had launched himself out of his chair and straight at the prisoner.

By the time James got to them a few short seconds later, Brackett’s chair had been knocked over on the floor, with the Master guide still in it flat on his back, the chair impeding his attempt to get away and his manacled hands making it difficult for him to defend himself. Both of Blair’s hands were locked around his throat, a snarl of rage issuing from his lips.

Holding up one hand to forestall the guardsmen who had rushed over, swords drawn, James ordered, “Blair, stop it. Let him go now.”

The look of utter hatred on Blair’s face made James fear that, in the next moment, he would be forced to lay hands on Blair, or have his guardsmen do so, and remove him by force. But to his relief Blair allowed his grip to loosen, and he straightened up and stepped away. In his wake, Brackett sucked in mouthful after mouthful of air, his face as red as a beet and his legs poking in an undignified fashion up in the air.

Taking Blair by the arm, James steered him decisively away. He nodded at the two guardsmen, indicating that they should haul Brackett upright, then spoke urgently to Blair. “That,” he said sternly, “must not happen again. I understand your anger, but this is not the time or place to express it. If you cannot control yourself, I will be forced to have you removed from the hall. Do you understand me?”

Now the crisis had passed, Blair looked exhausted and grief-stricken, as well as more than a little shamefaced at his outburst. He nodded. “I’m sorry. I understand. I won’t give you any more trouble.”

James allowed himself to smile reassuringly. “Good,” he said, releasing the firm grip he’d taken of Blair’s arm. He raised his hand to cup the back of Blair’s neck, and enforced eye contact. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He will get what he deserves. Have no doubt about that.”

Blair nodded, clearly wishing desperately to believe James’ assurances.

Once they had all returned to their seats, Brackett having apparently suffered no serious damage, the rogue Master looked around at them all. “This whole interrogation is a farce,” he said hoarsely, the developing bruises on his neck a livid flush of red. “At most, I’m guilty of ambition beyond that of other guides. Arranging the pairing for Guide Sandburg was an act of mercy – he was about to lose his place at the Academy, yet I offered him a future in which he would be able to make use of his skills. And Alicia was placed in my care by Baron Bannister – you can assume that I had his sanction for everything I did with regard to her. As for the other allegations which have been made, I have already said my piece. If you wish to question me further, you will need to take me back to the capital to do so. At least there,” he glared at Blair, “I will be likely to get through the enquiry unmolested.”

There seemed little sense in pressing the matter further. Despite Brackett’s bravado, the evidence against him for his crimes, up to and including murder, was overwhelming. Summoning his guardsmen James gave the order, and the disgraced Master was taken away to be locked back in his room. He would remain there until the time came for the Academy delegation to leave for the capital.

***

After Brackett had been escorted out, silence descended upon the five people left in the great hall. Simon deftly packed up his writing materials, neatly arranging the stack of parchments he’d filled with his small, neat handwriting. Watching his seneschal perform the familiar routine, which signalled an end to the business at hand, James gave a sigh as he pushed his chair back from the table, and let go some of his stress in a jaw-popping yawn.

Now it was all over, and some of his anger already vented against the man who’d disrupted his life so comprehensively, Blair looked lost, James could see. Pale and gaunt, with dark shadows around his eyes after the anxious and mostly sleepless week he’d spent in isolation. His eyes seemed far away, focused in some deep, dark place within.

James supposed that it would take Blair some time to assimilate what had gone on here. This morning the guide had been paired to a mad sentinel, and had assumed himself to be an outcast and a condemned man. Now just a few hours later, none of those things applied, and Blair had discovered that the guilt he’d carried with him for so long had never truly been his in the first place.

“I think, Blair,” Master Edwards addressed him softly, summoning the guide back from whatever dark ruminations he had been engaged in, “that you should give some immediate thought to your future. As I said to you earlier, we intended to offer you a teaching position at the termination of your studies. That position is still open to you. And I want you to know, we will be very pleased to have you back.”

Blair’s face twisted as if in pain. James watched as he cast his eyes around the hall, grief haunting his features. Not once did he look at James. “That’s, ah…” Blair faltered. “Thank you,” he said, though he sounded anything but happy. “Your offer is very generous. My behaviour here today has not exactly been exemplary, so I am very grateful for your continued regard.”

“It is nothing more than your due, Blair,” Master Stoddard told him, his expression when he looked at Blair fond and concerned. “And your anger is a natural consequence of what you were put through. As regards the offer of employment, you have been a truly exceptional student in every way, bar one. It is our contention that, although you are not guide material in the classic sense of the word, you certainly have the ability to be a fine teacher.”

That, in James’ opinion, had gone far enough. While he wanted very much for Blair to hear that he did, in fact, have value in the eyes of his old Masters, he was not willing to stand by and have Blair told he was not fit to be a guide, when he knew that to be so patently untrue. “There is another option,” he put in.

“And that is?” prompted Master Edwards. She did not look pleased, and James suspected she knew exactly what he had in mind.

“Blair,” James said softly, ignoring her obvious disapproval. “Look at me.”

Blair did not immediately comply, but when he eventually did, James saw what he’d hoped – a longing which matched his own. Needing to be certain – Blair had experienced more than enough shocks today, and James did not want to pressure him while he was still so vulnerable – he asked, “If we’d met under different circumstances, if I’d requested you as my Guide through the Academy, would you have accepted me as your sentinel?”

Master Edwards chimed in, before Blair had a chance to answer. “We would not have sanctioned it,” she said. “Blair is not a Master.”

Ignoring her, James prompted, “Blair?”

Blair licked lips seemingly gone dry. “Yes,” he whispered. “I would.”

Something in James softened at the desperate, fearful hope on Blair’s face. “Would you be willing to have me, if I asked now?” he said.

Maintaining eye contact all the while, as though there was only the two of them in the room, Blair nodded.

James smiled. “Then I claim this guide,” he announced, “under the old laws.”

Master Edwards looked rapidly back and forth between them. “You can’t do that!” she said.

“Oh yes I can.” James clicked his fingers. “Simon?”

Simon was grinning. “The code of claiming, chapter five, states that any guide who is no longer associated with the Academy can enter into a pairing with any sentinel, so long as both parties enter into the union of their own free will.”

Master Edwards was frowning. “Then the matter is moot. Blair’s studies were never officially terminated, since he was coerced into leaving under false pretences. And he is now an employee of the Academy, so he remains very much associated. He is therefore not available to be claimed, or empowered to give his consent to a pairing.”

“As far as I’m concerned, my studies ended the day I left the Academy,” Blair contradicted. “And I have not yet accepted your offer of employment. I’m very honoured that you think me worthy. But… it’s not what I want.” He looked back at James. “What I want – what I’ve always wanted – is to be a guide. Your guide.”

“Guide Sandburg,” Master Edwards said forcefully, “think very carefully about what you are saying. Your status as regards the Academy aside, from your own recent experience you should be well aware that pairings are not to be entered into lightly. There are issues of compatibility to consider, which you are not qualified to evaluate for yourself, and which we will be unable to deal with on your behalf because you are not a Master. If you enter into a pairing with the baron, then find the match is not to your liking, there will be no turning back, and nothing we can do to intervene on your behalf.”

“I understand,” Blair told her. “And I’m certain.” He looked at the baron. “I want this, James. That’s if… if you truly want me.”

“I’ve never wanted anything, or anyone, more,” James said. Then he did exactly what he’d wanted to do for the past, few interminable days – he stood and hauled Blair to his feet, then took him in his arms.

***

Everything felt unreal to Blair. As though this was a dream, and that any moment he might wake up with the living nightmare still before him.

But James’ arms around him felt real enough, and the baron’s body pressed hard against his was a solid wall of inexpressible comfort. Blair’s breath hitched at that thought, and James murmured in his ear, “Be strong. Hold fast, just for a little while longer. As soon as matters are settled, we will take time to be alone.”

Blair nodded his understanding, and swallowed down the clamouring emotions which were fighting to be set free, drawing on the baron’s strength and belief in him to do so.

After a little while they moved apart, sharing a timeless, lingering gaze before they separated. But the baron decisively manoeuvred their two chairs close together, and the reassuring sensation of one proprietary hand on Blair’s back persisted, even after they’d finally sat back down.

Master Edwards was expressionless, but her disapproval was plain, despite any overt sign of it on her face. “You are set on this course then, Blair?” she asked.

Blair nodded, warmed right through by James’ desire for him in a way he’d never thought possible, so soon after everything that had happened. “I am,” he confirmed, certain of what he wanted, despite being considerably dazed by the rapid change in his fortunes.

Master Edwards rose, and spoke again. “I wish you good luck, Blair. But I cannot give you my blessing for this decision. You know my views on traditional methods of matching.”

Blair swallowed. “I understand,” he said.

She nodded, accepting his choice without another word. Then she turned to James.  “Baron, thank you for your cooperation and input with regard to the judicial matter.”

James inclined his head. “My pleasure,” he said. “The transcript will be ready… when, Simon?” he queried, looking at the seneschal.

“By tomorrow morning, at the latest,” Simon confirmed. He stood as well. “Master Edwards, I will see you comfortably housed until then, if you will follow me.”

Master Edwards nodded farewell and took her leave, following Simon out of the hall.

Blair didn’t dare look at Master Eli, who had remained in his seat. Given the man’s clearly expressed wish that he come back to teach at the Academy, Blair didn’t think his mentor would be pleased at this turn of events, and the possibility that they might still part at odds, despite everything that had been said and done here today, filled Blair with sadness.

Even with his gaze averted, Blair was aware when his mentor rose to his feet. He expected, with a pang of sorrow, that Master Eli would follow Master Edwards out of the room. But instead, the man moved towards them, and came to stand before Blair. Looking up, Blair was surprised to find a smile on Master Eli’s face.

Master Eli reached down and took hold of Blair’s hand, then the baron’s. He pressed them both together between his own. “May your pairing be blessed,” he said sincerely, “and may you find happiness and everlasting love with each other.”

“I thought you didn’t approve of traditional, unarranged pairings,” James’ amused voice came from beside Blair; although Blair didn’t turn to look, transfixed as he was by Master Eli’s indulgent expression.

Master Eli smiled. “Marcia is far more rigid in her views than I. Not everyone at the Academy dismisses the old ways - my own parents were untrained, and met each other quite by chance. Just because I have taken the classical path myself, does not mean that I lack respect for tradition.” He looked intently at Blair. “This is not an official blessing, my boy. I can’t give you that. But I can give you the good wishes of my heart.”

More emotion threatened, and Blair swallowed heavily. “Thank you, Master,” he said thickly. “For everything.”

Master Eli nodded, then let their joined hands go. “I will go to seek out Marcia, and find out where your good seneschal has located us.” He rested a hand, for a moment, on Blair’s shoulder in a fatherly gesture. “I will speak to you again, Blair, perhaps tomorrow morning. There are many things we need to say to each other before I leave. But, for now, I commit you to the capable hands of your new sentinel.” He patted Blair comfortingly before moving away, then turned and exited the hall.

Left alone at last with James, Blair turned his head to find himself regarded with such tenderness, it halted his breath.

James smiled at him. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Blair said. “I mean – yes, of course, I am.” He nodded. “I really am.” Then he shook his head in wonder, feeling more than a little out of his depth. “What happens now?”

“There are issues I must deal with,” James said, “to ensure that the castle will survive without me for the next few days.”

Blair’s heart stuttered in dismay. “You’re going away?”

James smiled and shook his head. “Only with you, Blair, and not truly away. We need to go into seclusion together.”

“Oh.” Blair blinked. “Of course.” It was usual for those newly matched to spend time alone together in the immediate aftermath, connecting at the deep level necessary to ensure a strong pairing.

James reached out and stroked Blair’s hair tenderly, before cupping the back of his head in a protective gesture. “Would you do something for me? Go to my chamber, and wait for me there. I’ll have food sent in for you. Eat, and rest if you can. I’ll join you presently, just as soon as everything is in order.”

Feeling a flutter of excitement at the thought, tempered only by his utter exhaustion, Blair nodded.

He was going into seclusion with James. He was going to be James’ guide.

Drinking in the handsome features of the man he would spend the rest of his days with, Blair felt utterly overawed at the magnitude of the gift he’d been given.

***

An inordinate amount of time was spent in reconnecting with the regular day-to-day business of the castle, before James managed to relinquish his duties to those he’d called upon to deputise for him. Longing, as he had for the past several hours, to go straight to Blair’s side, he nevertheless had one final duty to perform before retiring to his chamber to begin seclusion

Grace was bouncing up and down in glee when he entered Megan’s suite. It seemed she’d listened to every word, and relayed the news of Blair’s acquittal and their subsequent match to her mother.

James took the child on his knee, and spoke to her very seriously. “Do not listen to us any longer,” he told her. “This is the most precious and sacred time for a sentinel and guide. For the next few days, we must be alone with each other, and that means no little ears where they have no business to be. And when Blair is back in place as your tutor, I am certain he will teach you some lessons about eavesdropping in general.”

Grace was deliriously happy, despite his strict admonishment, her protectiveness for guides – even one like Blair so many years her senior – deeply engrained within. “I promise, Baron James. I won’t listen.” She patted him on the chest. “You’ll make him smell happy? I don’t like it when he smells so frightened and sad all the time.”

James smiled. “Of course I will, little flower.”

“And when you’re all properly paired, like my gran and granddad, you’ll let me see him, won’t you? Because I miss him so much.”

James pulled the child close, and kissed her on the forehead. “I promise, Grace. Now,” he said, putting her gently off his knee. “Remember your promise to me. I am very, very serious about this.”

“I won’t listen. Not even a tiny bit,” she solemnly declared.

“Good,” he praised.

On his way out, Megan pulled him close in a hug. “I’m so happy for you both,” she said. “And I’ve been so scared for Blair. Look after him, James.”

“I will,” he said. “He’s everything I ever wanted.” He looked down at her tenderly. “As are you and Grace. I’ve come to regard you all as my family, Megan. You know that, don’t you?”

Megan smiled hugely. “Remember that the next time I beat you in the training yard,” she said. “No more cursing at me, when I throw you flat on your back!”

“Oh, pity poor Rafe,” James said forlornly. “He is a courageous man to be sure- ow!” he rubbed his arm where she hit him. Thank goodness it was only a mock-punch – if the woman had truly meant business, James would have been in trouble.

“Go!” she ordered. “Your guide awaits!”

As if he needed the reminder. With a last, elated smile, James left, and headed to his own chamber.

The sight which met him within filled him with tenderness. He’d been right when he’d judged Blair exhausted and at the end of his endurance. The guide was sprawled across James’ bed, dressed only in his underclothes, his sleep deep and untroubled for perhaps the first time in days.

Moving slowly and carefully so as not to wake him, James manoeuvred the young man so that he was more comfortably situated among the soft pillows, covering him with the quilt. Then, slipping out of his own outer clothes, James slid into bed alongside him, and took a lungful of sweet, Blair-scented air.

It wasn’t long, soothed as he was by the security of Blair’s restful presence, before James matched his own breathing to that of his guide, and joined him in contented sleep.

***

For Blair, waking when it was full dark, it was only the realisation that he was in James’ chamber and not his own that convinced him he had not imagined the whole thing.

Blair had a vague recollection - little more than a peaceful awareness, really - of James asleep beside him. Reaching out a hand, he found the empty place at his side infused with residual warmth, but James was not lying there now. Instead, Blair could see him kneeling bare-chested at the fireplace, coaxing kindling and blocks of peat - their aroma resonant of the moorland bog outside the town - into bright, dancing flames. As Blair watched, James placed a log on top of the pile, the dazzling shower of sparks which resulted throwing his strong features into sharp relief.

The fire made, James looked over at him and smiled.

Captivated by the raw beauty of the man, his sleek, muscular lines enhanced by the flickering firelight, Blair could only watch, spellbound, as James rose. The mattress dipped when the baron joined him on the bed and leaned close to steal a kiss.

As their lips met, Blair realised with a shock of pleasure that this was the first time they’d ever kissed. Yet it felt so natural; so right. As if they had been lovers for ever, and had merely been reunited after a long separation.

The kiss was sweet and light, with just a promise of passion to come. They pulled apart at the same moment, and James moved to stretch out full-length on the bed beside Blair. He beckoned with a gesture, and Blair moved closer to find himself enfolded in James’ arms and cradled against the other man’s side, and the quilt tugged up to cover them both.

The moment was so tender, and Blair so mesmerised by the perfection of it, that he had no words to express it.

After a little while James spoke softly, his voice rumbling through the solid chest underneath Blair’s ear. “This is something to savour,” he said. “Our time in seclusion. Our pairing must happen naturally, without any pressure being brought to bear by either of us to rush it along. If the gods of our ancestors wish it, our souls will join and we will form a deep link. But even if we do not, I want you to know that you are more precious to me than anyone in this world, and I will cherish you until the end of my days.”

James’ profound words stirred something which had long been hoarded inside Blair – grief that was at least several parts joy, and an echo of anguish so great it bordered on ecstasy. Blair didn’t think he could bear it, this deep perfection after such an eternity of despair. It overwhelmed him all at once – James’ tenderness, the promise of togetherness, and a lingering residue of the guilt and fear he’d lived with for so very long.

As it all cascaded through him, a sound broke out of Blair, and then another; the noises harsh and raw with a long-denied amalgamation of contradictory emotion.

But James, it seemed, understood. His strong arms held back the tide, stanching wounds that Blair didn’t even know he had. “Let me take care of you, as you have so often taken care of me,” he murmured. “You have given me so much, Blair. Your kindness and dedication. Now it is my turn to do it for you.”

The fire had long since died down to glowing embers before the deluge slowed to a trickle and finally ceased. In the calm after the storm, exhausted and finally at peace in the arms of his sentinel, Blair slid effortlessly into sleep.

***

Blair seemed a little abashed the next morning; but James, conversely, felt nothing but relief.

Some wounds, James understood from his time as a soldier, needed to be lanced before healing could take place. He suspected that not all of the poison which had been set free during Blair’s emotional bloodletting had been fresh – there were wounds within his guide which James suspected he’d carried for far longer than those incurred during the nightmare he’d recently endured. And James hoped, during the course of their lives together, that he would eventually uncover and soothe every last one.

But the immediate crisis, he believed, was past. This morning Blair was clear eyed and positive, regarding this day, as did James, as the dawn of their new lives together. It was time now to lay the past to rest, and move forward with the business of becoming a paired sentinel and guide.

Tradition dictated that their seclusion would last as long as was necessary. James expected that they would spend, at the very least, this whole coming day and night together, as well as most of the following day. After that, the business of being a baron would become pressing enough that their seclusion would be forced to suffer periods of intermission, although there was little he could do about that, given the responsibilities he had. He intended, nevertheless, to maintain their seclusionary status, even if it was only in force for part of each day, for as long as they both required. A connection as profound as he believed theirs would become, could not be rushed.

James had complete faith that, by the time their seclusion ended, they would forge a deep link. Such a thing only happened in a minority of cases, and couples who attained it were known as ‘true pairings’. Captivated by Blair’s beauty and rich voice, and feeling the most profound sense of love that he could ever imagine, James could not foresee the two of them ever being anything else.

After they’d broken their fast and taken time to make themselves presentable, James had one unique matter of business to attend to which could not wait, despite the fact that their seclusion had scarcely begun. The delegation from the Academy – along with their prisoner – would be leaving this morning. James wanted to ensure that Blair would get to spend some time with Master Stoddard before he left. And after that he needed to personally oversee their departure, to reassure himself that the man who had hurt his guide so very much was securely removed from his demesne for good.

Word was sent, via the guardsman at James’ door, that Master Stoddard’s presence was requested. James had decided it would be better if the Master were to visit Blair here, in what would now become the private apartment they would both share. It would do no harm, James thought, for Blair’s former mentor to see that the baron already regarded Blair as his partner in all things.

As they waited, James embraced Blair. Holding his guide in his arms, James could feel the slight tension in his frame – Blair was not yet entirely comfortable with receiving physical affection from his sentinel, although he returned the hug readily enough.

That one-sidedness of affection was a facet of classical training which James found abhorrent. Pairings should be reciprocal; a meeting of equals, with the relationship between sentinel and guide a naturally tactile one. Instead, the Academy taught guides to subdue their own needs at the expense of their sentinels, and hold themselves aloof from casual contact unless it was necessary to their work. What wisdom or humanity was there in that?

Putting his negative feelings about Blair’s training to one side, James murmured in his ear, “After you’ve said your farewells, and the delegation has left, we will have a proper opportunity to spend time alone together. Remember what I told you – if we are to begin our match in the traditional way, this is a time for us to learn about each other, with no pressures and no obligation. Whatever happens, happens; and it should do so in a natural and unforced manner.”

Blair pulled away, but only slightly so that he could look up into James’ face. “This is so different than I expected,” he admitted. “Different from how I’ve been taught. Almost like you’re wooing me.”

“In a sense, I am,” James said. “I need to gain your trust in a way which goes beyond our regular interaction. And you will need to do the same for me – it goes both ways.” James smiled reassuringly. “Last night, you had matters which needed to be expressed, no matter how painful it was to do so, then cast away. It was no wonder, after the awful experiences you’ve had. There will be things, likewise, which I would like very much to confide in you. There is a certain emotional vulnerability which comes to the fore during seclusion – facing and sharing the things which have hurt us is part of what will tie us together in the future, and make us stronger as a pair.”

Blair looked awed. “I’ve heard of such ways of doing things, of course, but the Academy doesn’t exactly put it in such positive terms.”

“No, I’m sure it does not,” James said disparagingly. “Yet these traditional ways have served us well for generations. My grandparents, who encountered each other purely by chance, were the strongest pair I’ve ever met – a true pairing. How many true pairings have you met, who’ve been formally matched through the Academy?”

“Statistically speaking, it’s a minority,” Blair admitted. “But isn’t that true of traditional pairs as well?”

A knock at the door interrupted their discussion. James fully intended to demonstrate to Blair the superior aspects of traditional matching, but it would have to wait until later.

Master Stoddard and Blair greeted each other fondly. Smiling at the clear affection they exhibited towards each other, James exchanged brief pleasantries with the Master, then left them alone.

Various matters kept James busy for the next little while; although, to his relief, Simon and others of his staff had greatly alleviated James’ usual burdens by taking on much of the day-to-day issues he normally dealt with.

Very soon it was time for the Academy delegation to leave. As packhorses were loaded with supplies for the journey, and Master Edwards and her guards assembled in the bustling courtyard, Brackett was brought out, his hands manacled in preparation for the journey. All that remained now was for Master Stoddard to conclude his meeting with Blair, and they would be on their way.

Brackett was, once again, all smiling bravado. Much as he despised the man, James couldn’t help but be secretly bemused by his cocky confidence. “So, James,” the rogue Master said. “It seems you and I are not to be, after all.”

“There was never a ‘you and I’, Brackett,” James retorted, “apart from in your warped imagination.”

“Ah, yes.” Brackett nodded, his expression faintly approving. “You played me, of course.” He smiled. “We are more alike than you believe, baron,” he said. “I hope you don’t come to regret settling for second-best.”

James shrugged, not even bothering to dignify such an assertion with an answer.

But Brackett was not finished with his barbs, it seemed. “The difficulty now, of course,” he said, “is that Baron Bannister will not be very pleased with you. Effectively, you robbed his daughter of her guide, and of probably the only real chance she’ll ever get to live out her days as part of a matched pair. I would watch my back if I were you, James. The southern baron is not a man who deals with affront well. He’s also rather vindictive and underhanded. I wouldn’t be surprised if he found a way to deprive you of your little guide, just for spite.”

There was an ominous assurance of threat in the words, sufficient to raise James’ hackles. Moving closer, he spoke menacingly into Brackett’s face. “Anyone who hurts my guide, in any way, will suffer the consequences. If I were you, Brackett, I’d remember that during your journey back to the capital.” He grinned nastily. “If I have my way, by the time you’re hanged you’ll wish that you still possessed such a glib tongue to beg for mercy with.”

Even now, Brackett refused to give in to acceptance of his lot. “Oh James,” he said. “No wonder Blair wants you. You’re magnificent.”

James turned and moved away from Brackett – if he stayed in the man’s proximity any longer, he would be liable to execute him there and then, fair trial be damned.

As James strode across the courtyard, movement at the main door caught his attention, as well as a sense of calming presence which hinted at the deep link to come. Blair had come down to see Master Stoddard off and, as if drawn by a force neither of them could control, the eyes of sentinel and guide met hungrily across the space which divided them.

Brackett was forgotten in the instant.

***

Blair still felt more than a little bewildered by the sudden change in his fortunes. He thought that it would probably be a while before he managed to contain the conflicting emotions which battled within, and subdue them into something resembling a truce. Intense feelings – including rage towards Master Brackett, a lingering sense of guilt and failure at the events which had brought him here, and his profound relief that Master Eli and the Academy had not actually cast him off in disgrace - boiled around and around in a turbulent stew, ambushing him at intervals as they fought for primacy.

Most of all, there was James, and the fact that, in the shape of the sentinel baron, Blair had been handed everything he’d ever truly wanted. And despite his inner conflict, that one, overwhelming wonder constantly threw the other matters into eclipse.

Blair’s leave-taking with Master Stoddard had been an inexpressible comfort, after the months spent certain that his beloved mentor had rejected him. The Master was, effectively, the only family that Blair had. Master Eli had stepped in early on, when the miserable young boy had found life at the Academy – and his mother’s absence - so very difficult to adjust to. Blair would never forget the years of kind, firm guidance which had ensued from the gentle-hearted Master.

During their brief meeting, which mostly consisted of an exchange of reassurance and fondness, there was advice given, too, which Blair accepted gracefully. “Do not dismiss everything you’ve learned, simply because your sentinel is a champion of tradition,” Master Eli urged, as they made their way through the great hall towards the courtyard. “What may have worked for the baron’s grandparents may not necessarily work for you. Utilise your teaching, and apply it where you think fit.”

Blair nodded. “I’ve found that my knowledge of pressure points helps when James has tension headaches. And he’s barely explored the limits of his senses, so I hope to help him do so in a more structured way than he’s been used to.”

“Good,” Master Eli approved. They had reached the main outer door, and stepped out together into the bright winter sunlight. “It seems it is time for us to bid farewell, Blair.”

Blair nodded, feeling an immense fondness for the old man which made his eyes water shamelessly. They embraced, and Master Eli murmured, “Steady now, my boy. We will meet again, I promise.”

Overwhelmed all over again, Blair squeezed Master Eli back, unable to speak.

When they moved apart Blair turned to look out across the courtyard, and his eyes found James unerringly. The sentinel, likewise, had turned to seek out Blair, and Blair felt a thrill of connection between them as their eyes met. It’d  been there for a while, that innate awareness of each other - but Blair no longer had to suppress it. With a thrill of pleasure, he allowed the feeling to blossom,

As though drawn by a thread, James came closer, filling Blair’s vision along with his heart. The baron smiled at Blair; a promise shared. Then he turned to Master Eli, to bid him farewell. But Blair still felt the heat of James’ smile, and the strength of his regard. Not even Master Brackett, glowering at them across the cobbled expanse of the courtyard, could diminish that.

***

For Blair, who had been so unexpectedly given everything his heart desired, time passed after that in a dreamlike haze in which James was his only point of solidity.

Blair had long since despaired of ever again feeling comfortable enough in his own skin to tolerate physical closeness. Memories of the leering faces and intrusive hands of the men who’d abused him on the road haunted him still, and his body existed in a state of permanent, cringing remembrance. Yet James’ gentle, affectionate overtures, which he engaged in at frequent intervals now they were spending time alone together, prompted no revulsion or fright in Blair. On the contrary – it was as if the soothing hands of the sentinel were gradually healing him, replacing the horrific residue of that experience with something altogether the opposite.

In large part, of course, the comfort he took in James’ touch was because of the uncanny hyperawareness which was growing between them, and Blair knew that if it were anyone other than James touching him he’d never have tolerated it at all. James filled Blair’s senses and Blair his; each breath they took in each other’s presence resonant of the high regard in which they held each other. After a little less than a single day since they pledged themselves, their deep link was already forming; their innate awareness of each other’s thoughts and emotions infusing every touch with nothing but a deep sense of caring. They were a True Pairing indeed, just as James’ grandparents had been before them.

They spent the rest of the day, after the delegation from the Academy had left, in seclusion and close contact, talking quietly together of the mundane and the consequential, their lives unfolding to each other as their link gradually established itself and took hold.

During that opening of both their hearts, Blair learned a little more about James’ wife and former guide. He’d known, from talk he’d heard, that James had once been married and that his wife had died, but this was the first time that James had ever spoken of it himself.

It was clear that James had loved Carolyn, though he was at pains to reassure Blair. “She was a good woman; a worthy wife. But she was never the guide that you are. And may the gods of my ancestors forgive me.” James put out a hand, long-fingered and elegant, to stroke Blair’s cheek. “I never felt for her what I feel for you,” he admitted.

Most heartbreakingly, James confided in Blair about his infant son. In a voice cracked with old sorrow, he told Blair of how his boy had breathed his first and last cradled against James’ chest. “I named him William, for my father,” James said. “I often think of him; wonder what he’d be like now, had he lived. He’d have been seven years old this summer gone.”

Embracing the other man close and soothing his long-held grief with everything he had to give, Blair’s heart filled, broke and healed in concert with James’. Blair could never give James a second chance at fatherhood, but he would do his damnedest to ensure that, from now on, his sentinel was supported, loved and cherished, and that his sorrow would no longer be borne alone.

Later, as the dark, winter afternoon turned into night, they ate the food which was delivered to them, the peace of their meal disturbed only by the intrusion of servants who filled up a huge, iron bathtub which had been placed in front of the fire. Candles and lamps were lit and, when the servants withdrew, Blair found himself being drawn to his feet.

“It’s traditional,” James told him, as his hands began to divest Blair of his clothes, “that we bathe each other.”

Blair trembled a little, a mixture of anticipation and apprehension taking root in his belly as the cool air of the chamber penetrated through to his bare skin. “A symbol,” he acknowledged, as James smiled at him reassuringly, the baron’s hands still at work disrobing him. “Washing away the residue of our old lives, and purifying us in readiness for the new.”

“In part.” Blair was now bare from the waist upwards, and James pulled him close, his warm hands containing and banishing Blair’s shivers. “But mostly,” he said softly into Blair’s ear, “I just want to touch you, and show you how much you are cherished.”

James did that and more as they sat together in the hot bath, the scent of aromatic oils, swirled into the water and curling upwards in the steam, filling their senses. Blair sighed in relaxation as James’ wet hands moved gently over his skin, soothing and cleansing in equal measure. And his own hands, likewise, traversed James muscular, silky frame, exploring and learning the beautiful body of the man whose mind he was already coming to know as well as his own.

Inevitably, as time went on and the water gradually lost its steamy heat, their desire for each other came to the fore. They kissed, at first softly, then with more urgency, passion adding an edge to tenderness. By mutual, unspoken consent they rose and stepped out of the bath, their eyes feasting on each other the whole while as they dried off with soft, fire-warmed towels.

Blair’s heart pounded after that, as James led him to the bed; the contours of the baron’s nude, sculpted body all the more apparent half in shadow, half rosy with firelight as he was. James’ eyes were tender yet hungry and, breathless, Blair lay down when prompted, grateful that this time James seemed intent on taking the lead.

He should be afraid, he thought, as James knelt over him. Perhaps ashamed, since the last time his body had been so exposed to another he’d lost whatever innocence he’d once possessed in the most violent and vile of ways. Yet it was beyond him to fear this, to fear James. How could he, when he could feel James’ care for him – James’ need for him – as well as he could feel his own?

And he knew, as James’ hands resumed their endeavour and his mouth engaged in devastating caresses, that James would not take him further than he was able to go. No matter what lingering fears underlay his submission to this act, his belief that James’ love would protect him and bring him through it whole was profound and unwavering.

Blair was shuddering with need by the time that James’ heavy weight landed carefully atop him. He could only hold on, his fingers tightly pressing into James’ shoulders, as the baron pressed their slippery lengths together, his hand big enough to enclose them both in a tight, relentless rhythm. James’ face filled Blair’s vision, adoration shining in his eyes. “Let go, my love,” he murmured. “I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

Crying out helplessly at the perfection of it all, Blair felt the convulsive tide wash over him.  And he watched in ecstatic wonder as James was similarly engulfed, the sentinel’s sensations and his own merging in a torrent of rapture.

***

It was still dark, though it felt as though most of the night had passed when Blair was roused from a deep, sated sleep by a kiss, and urged to dress. As he complied – albeit a little reluctantly, since he would have far preferred for them both to remain in bed - Blair looked at James in wordless question. The answer came in the form of a smile and a sense of happy anticipation, conveyed across their growing link. Unwilling to break the tranquil peace that filled this room in the half-light from the fire’s banked embers, Blair forestalled his curiosity, trusting that James had good reason to disturb them thus. He permitted James to place a heavy cloak over his shoulders, before the baron wrapped-up in similar attire. Then, his hand engulfed in the baron’s, they went out of the room.

Various people nodded at them as they passed, the whole castle strangely a-buzz already despite the early hour. As they reached the hall, Blair could see that the great doors were open wide, and an air of festivity accompanied the yawns of the early risers most of whom, like Blair and James, were dressed for the outdoors. With a shock of realisation, Blair remembered. Today was the winter solstice. During the dark days of the past week, he’d totally forgotten about it.

Blair hesitated on the threshold, seeing similar nervousness on some of the other faces around him. Blair still did not truly trust the darkness. Travelling north with the refuges and sleeping in the open had instilled in him a healthy fear of what had once lurked there, as had the scars which still marred his back. But James was implacable, pulling him out into the pre-dawn courtyard nevertheless.

Once outside, Blair was instantly assailed by a small, squealing bundle. “Blair, Blair!” Grace cried out as she threw herself into his arms.

Crouching down to hug the child, muffled in furs and wool as she was, Blair caught sight of Megan, standing hand-in-hand with Rafe. The child’s mother was smiling at him warmly. “It’s good to see you, Blair,” she greeted. 

Grace interrupted, her gloved fingers stroking Blair’s face as she peered at him earnestly. “Mama and Rafe are going to be handfasted today,” she told Blair. “They’ll be a sort of pairing, just like you and Baron James. It’s because it’s the solstice today, isn’t it, Blair?”

Blair had cast out of his mind, during the upheaval of the last few days, that the solstice was upon them. The time of year that, traditionally, handfastings and promises were made. And before the nightmare had overtaken him, there had been talk that, now the night terrors had left, the ancient tradition of observing the dawn of the new year on solstice morning might be reinstated. It seemed, during Blair’s isolation of the past week, that arrangements to do so had been made, and that’s what this occasion was.

Blair nodded indulgently at Grace. “That it is,” he agreed. “And a happy solstice to you, little flower.” He looked up at the couple. “Congratulations,” he told them. “I’m so happy for you!”

Rafe and Megan looked at each other, love shining in their eyes. “We’re happy for you, too,” Megan told Blair. She smiled at James, who was watching Blair indulgently. “Both of you.”

Now that the baron had arrived in the courtyard, it was the signal for the procession to begin. James and Blair walked hand-in-hand at its head, with Megan, Rafe, Grace and Simon close behind, followed by just about everyone who lived in the castle. The train of people wended its way out through the gates, taking the north road which led up to the peat-bog. On the road others joined them; people coming up from the town, merging with them like tributaries feeding a great river.

There was already a glowing herald of sunrise in the eastern sky by the time they reached their destination. The ancient burial ground was limned with a layer of frost, the humps of graves both old and new turned into faery mounds of glistening, rosy-hued splendour as the sun gradually cleared the horizon.

As James stopped, turning to face the assembled, Blair made as if to move away; but before he could do, he felt himself tucked close to the baron’s side. “Stand with me,” James urged. Moved by the imperative need in his voice, Blair could not do otherwise.

When everyone had settled, an expectant hush filled the air, broken only by involuntary coughs and the intermittent cries of small children. As the sun rose further, its rays bathing James’ flawless face in light, Blair watched and listened, spellbound, as the baron’s voice rose above the crowd. “This is a day for new beginnings,” he said. “A new year, a new start for all of us.”

James raised an arm to point towards the newer mounds, many of which had been dug during the summer to hold the remains of those poor souls whose partially-eaten corpses had been left behind by the night terrors. “We honour those who have gone to join our ancestors, in whose memory we gather in this place,” he said. “And we embrace the never-ending cycle of life and death which binds us to the past, as we forge a new path into the future.”

James’ voice carried clearly over the crowd, as his eyes alighted on Blair. “It’s the end of the dark days,” he said. “The night terrors have gone, and the year has turned. Let light shine in all our lives from now on, as it has shone into mine.” And with that, Blair was pulled close, and he felt himself soundly kissed.

A raucous cheer went up from the crowd, as Blair enthusiastically, though not without a little bashfulness, returned the favour.

Later, after many public promises had been made and tears of farewell to those lost had been shed, they made their way homeward, the air humming with laughter and gaiety. As the train of people progressed, Blair’s attention was caught by a familiar figure in the crowd. Walking close-by was the motherly hedge-guide, who’d so unsettled him on the day they’d prepared to make their final stand against the night terrors.

Excusing himself from James for a moment, Blair approached her. “Madam,” he said politely. “Good solstice to you.”

She smiled at him, her face ruddy with the cold. “Good fortune to you and your sentinel,” she said. “It is good you have found each other,” she told him, her manner oddly conspiratorial. “You will need to be strong, if you are to weather it.”

Blair felt his own smile falter. “What do you mean?” he asked.

She looked at him unblinking, her brown eyes intent. “Can’t you feel it?” she asked. “A great storm is coming. One that could destroy us all.”

Blair did feel it then; a sense of ominous threat, emanating from the far north, reeking of the end of the world. “What is it?” he whispered. But the witch had already gone, drifting off on the tide of people. Left like a boulder in her wake, the crowd flowing left and right in rivulets past him, Blair stood in frozen shock in the midst of the stream until his sentinel came and swept him away.

 



~ Thus ends Part the First - The Reaping ~

~ The tale of 
The Night Terrors resumes in Part the Second - The Harrowing ~





Comments are welcome, but absolutely not necessary - all of my stories are offered freely and without obligation. If you do wish to comment below please sign your name/pseudonym if you are not logged-in to Dreamwidth or Open ID, or alternatively you can email me at fluterbev@gmail.com



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No chance of reading it tonight, alas.

Date: 2008-02-17 09:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gillyp.livejournal.com
Perchance tomorrow. I've just downloaded it to my Palm; hoping to get a quiet couple of hours tomorrow afternoon.

Oooooh. At last! I can hardly contain meself. ::is full of the squee!::

Re: No chance of reading it tonight, alas.

Date: 2008-02-17 10:08 pm (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
Hee! I hope you like it.

And I adore your icon!

Date: 2008-02-17 10:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mab-browne.livejournal.com
The fantasy set-up is a nice piece of world-building, and of course a resolution to the Terrors remains.

Hee. Poor old Brackett - how dare Blair make Jim suspicious of Lee's intentions by being so damned honorable and brave and kind. What's a bad guy to do? ;-)

Date: 2008-02-18 10:25 am (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
Wow, thanks - the world building is the fun part, for me. I'm really enjoying my efforts to make this universe fit together in a coherent way.

As for the terrors - aha, there is more to come, in the next two parts!

Brackett was fun to write. It seems that, even in this world, he's not satisfied with the organisational structure within which he operates, and wants to get something more out of it for himself. Some people are rogues in any setting! And he always did fancy Jim, IMO... ;-)

Thanks so much for your comments!

Date: 2008-02-17 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladydey.livejournal.com
I remember when I read the first section of this all that time I ago...It has only gotten better with a filling out of the universe and the more of it!

This was a wonderful read. I can't wait for the next parts - I am very interested in finding out more about the Night Terrors.

You did such a great job with this. I can't tell you how glad I am that you finally continued it.

Date: 2008-02-18 10:29 am (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
Aw, thank you so much - I'm delighted you've enjoyed this first part. And I really need to add you to my acknowledgments - when I wrote that follow up to the original snippet in my journal, a year ago now, it was in response to your request to see more of Blair's life in the castle, which directly influenced the direction it took after that. So thanks, once again, for the inspiration!

loved it loved it loved it

Date: 2008-02-18 09:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elewyiss.livejournal.com
I loved this when it was just a bunny. ANd I am so happy to see how it's grown. I was a little disappointed at how the Night Terror thing ended but the more I read and thought about it the more it made sense. They came with no warning then they left with no warning. And I bet they will be back.

Great story, I love how you got Eli and Edwards fitted in. I look so forward to the next parts.

Much much squeeeing going on. But now its 4:50 am and I have to work in the morning.

Rachel

Re: loved it loved it loved it

Date: 2008-02-18 10:32 am (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
Hey, there! I am honoured and delighted you stayed up so late to read it :-)

As for the nght terrors - ah, the story is only just beginning. I wish I could play ominous, scary music here... LOL

Thanks so much for your comments - very much appreciated!

Date: 2008-02-18 07:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] briarwood.livejournal.com
Interesting...very interesting :-)

Very well written and engaging - hell, that I read all the way to the end says a lot. I give up on fics all too quickly these days, simply 'cause I don't have a lot of fic-reading time.

It's an intriguing take on the characters. I can recognise parts of Jim and Blair from canon but these seem more like original characters than most AUs. Which is a compliment, BTW! Your fears that the language would be off-putting seem groundless; although your use of a couple of words seems weird to me that's mostly because they're words that mean something totally different to me at work. If anything, I think you could have gone a bit more "classical" with the language.

I will look forward to the next part.

One tiny thing on a please-slap-your-beta's-wrist note: you've got a reference near the beginning to a sentinel's senses "coming online". Kinda sticks out like a sore thumb in your pre-tech world :-)

Date: 2008-02-19 08:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
That's such a compliment, that you carried on reading when your time is limited. Thanks! :-)

I fully expected that people might point out Jim and Blair's characterisation in this :-). Though I am admittedly pleased that you see it as a positive thing! And I'm glad you don't find the language off-putting. The choice I had to make, right at the start, was to fit the dialogue to the setting, or use a form of modern American speech to simulate familiar cadences despite the setting. Both of which are valid approaches, but I'm glad you think the choice I made works. It feels to me to be the right way to go, too.

On the modernisms - eep, not my betas' fault, but entirely mine. It's amazing how difficult it is to entirely let go of modern colloquialisms - I've made a conscious effort to do so, and others *have* been pointed out by my betas. But the eye tends to drift over them, nevertheless, because they are so familiar. I will bear the one you have pointed out in mind, and probably edit it out :-)

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments - so very much appreciated! ::hugs::

Date: 2008-02-19 11:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] briarwood.livejournal.com
The choice I had to make, right at the start, was to fit the dialogue to the setting, or use a form of modern American speech to simulate familiar cadences despite the setting. Both of which are valid approaches, but I'm glad you think the choice I made works.

You seem to have found a middle way between the two, at least to my Brit "ears" in reading. It works. Did you ever see Deadwood? They faced a similar issue in scripting that: they wanted to make the dialogue period-realistic, but at the same time they felt that the blasphemies common to the rough speech of the period would be funny, rather than (c)rude, to modern ears. The choice they made was to "translate" the language, so instead of religious terms they subsitituted the sexual insults in common modern speech, peppering the script with f--k this and c--t that. Bad choice, in my opinion: it may have achieved what they wanted in terms of characterisation, but I couldn't listen to it. It was just too damned offensive.

Which is a long-winded way of saying your middle ground feels right to me, and that's why most of your modernisms don't stick out. "Wow" (which someone else pointed out, I see) comes across as a "translation" of some more archaic term, so it works. "Online" on the other hand is more of a specific referent, so it bugged me.

Date: 2008-02-18 08:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] knitty-woman.livejournal.com
This was terrific - and it does work as the first part in a trilogy. As I mentioned in another post, the characters do seem more like original than canon characters (especially Simon), and that makes the action less predictable. I agree that the formality of the language isn't off-putting; if anything, there are contemporary moments (like "Wow!" and "online") that seem out of place, rather than the reverse. The Night Terrors themselves are truly grim and scary, and in a way I'm looking forward to their return, since it's obvious they'll be back..... (shivers). In the meantime, though, I am thrilled that James and Blair have found one another, and now I can rest easy knowing that whatever awful things happen from here on out, they have their pairing to sustain them. Woo hoo! Now if only it were March somewhere in the world.... (lol)

Date: 2008-02-19 08:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for your thoughtful feedback - I really appreciate your input :-).

On the characterisation - well, that's been pointed out by others too, and I fully expected it to be an issue. Hopefully, as time goes on and the story progresses, more aspects of the characters you know will be evident. If not, ah well, it was fun to try and make it work! LOL

As I said to Morgan above, it's amazing how the eye tends to drift over modern colloquialisms which are out of place for the setting - they are so familiar! So any that get pointed out to me are very gratefully receieved - I am most definitely not beyond editing after the fact ;-). 'Wow' was, in fact, pointed out to me by one of my betas, but I never did find a way of changing it that I was happy with. I may reconsider my decision to leave it in, however :-).

It's gratifying that you find th monsters scary. And as for poor James and Blair - ah, a hard time is a-coming...

I'm thinking it will be *early* March, just so you know ;-)

Date: 2008-02-19 03:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] knitty-woman.livejournal.com
Please don't think that I'm criticizing the characterizations. They DO work. I like that they're not "exactly" on point. It really does make for a more interesting read. And I hear what you're saying about "Wow!" :-) Carry on, McDuff!

Date: 2008-02-19 04:29 pm (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
I honestly wouldn't mind if you were - I know I'm walking a fine line with this one. But I am thrilled that you think they work!

Righty-ho, carrying on as we speak! :-)

Date: 2008-02-18 08:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] admiralandrea.livejournal.com
This was just fascinating! I saved it up to read this evening as a reward for a day's studying and it was well worth the wait. I love your Jim and Blair in this, and all the other characters like Grace, Megan, Rafe and Simon. Lee Brackett is still Lee Brackett, even in this setting *g* I guessed Blair's sentinel was Alex.

Some nice hints of what's to come in the following parts - the return of the night terrors, the possibility of Baron Bannister causing trouble. And maybe Steven and family will turn up too?

The night terrors were creepy and kind of reminded me of those reapers in Doctor Who - in Father's Day.

Good stuff, thanks to sunglow for letting us share it now and to you for such a great story!

Date: 2008-02-19 08:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for your lovely coments - I am delighted you've enjoyed it so far. I know what you mean about the night terrors being like the reapers - in my mind, they are very much a similar thing :-)

Date: 2008-02-19 03:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] math-magician.livejournal.com
OOOOooo, I read most of this early this morning, but had to wait until tonight to finish the last little bit. This is so good. The characters are so well developed and have such depth. I'm eagerly waiting for the second part of the trilogy.

Joyce

Date: 2008-02-19 08:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much, Joyce, for your comments. I'm very pleased you liked it! :-)

Date: 2008-02-19 05:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] laurie-ky.livejournal.com
I really liked the story and I kind of recapped it, which will be too long to fit in the comment box,so I'm m going to email it to you.
Laurie

Date: 2008-02-19 08:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much, Laurie! I got your email - very insightful comments, as always. I will respond by email also :-)

Date: 2008-02-20 02:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] izzie7.livejournal.com
This was fascinating and engaging right from the start. I like the way you haven't spelt out exactly what the Night Terrors are (although I'm hoping for more exposition later!) but made us feel the fear they impart. It was also interesting to see your use of familiar characters, and the way in which you have retained enough of the core of the character to connect each one to his/her to the canon version, while making them slot convincingly into your chosen time and setting. The only exception to this is Master Edwards, who was just too nice & reasonable here - but I have what might be termed an unreasonable dislike of that woman in canon *g*

Dialogue & narrative is very tricky to get right in AUs, & is one of the reasons I often find them hard to read, however good the actual story premise is. You've achieved a good, neutral balance here (I don't mean that to be offensive, btw - while I'm reading fiction, I don't like to be made too aware of linguistic style). The use of "James" is one I do find a little jarring, certainly in non-AU writing, but it was unavoidable in this context & I found it worked well for me.

I'm looking forward to more :)

Date: 2008-02-22 07:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for your feedback!

As the subsequent parts progress there will be a gradual unfolding of information about the night terrors, so hopefully you'll find out about them in a more natural way than a big info dump :-). Ah, Master Edwards - I think you can probably assume that she was quite brutal and unpleasant to Brackett once she got him back to the capital. And if Blair had been found guilty - oh, the poor dear in her hands. Her evil claws were sheathed in this story, not clipped ;-).

I'm encouraged that you (and others) have found the dialogue palatable - it was one aspect I was concerned about. And I tried to think of a way to shorten James to Jim - even as an affectionate pet-name - but it just didn't sound right in the context, so James it remains.

I will hopefully have some more up in a week or two. The second part is written and currently being betaed, but I want to have the third part well on the way to being finished before I post it, in case unfolding events make retrospective corrections necessary. I'm glad you're looking forward to it! And I really appreciate your comments :-).

Date: 2008-02-22 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] janedavitt.livejournal.com
Decided to treat myself to this and have sat here reading while the housework was left for later.

Lovely, rich compelling story and the world was convincing and detailed. I liked the dialogue; it was old-world without being hokey and worked for me. You wove canon into it very neatly, too.

The Night Terrors were scary and menacing and I can well believe that they're coming back; they reminded me a bit of Hambly's creatures in the Darwarth series, who were equally terrifying.

Your James is so strong and kind in this; perfect for poor, brave Blair.

Date: 2008-02-24 07:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey there, Jane! Thanks so much for all your nice comments - I'm delighted you like it so far.

I must admit that Hambly's series probably did influence this idea a bit - ever since I read it, years ago, I've had an urge to write this kind of fantasy. The Night Terrors is the culmination of years of scribbled notes (now lurking in a box under my bed *g*) based on the idea of nightmare creatures who terrorise people in the dark. It's such a compellingly scary concept :-)

Date: 2008-02-24 05:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] janedavitt.livejournal.com
I enjoyed it very much indeed! Looking forward to the next part.

I posted this and then went into a dither because I in no way was suggesting that this was derivative of Hambly; not at all! It just had that same nightmarish, trapped, preyed on feel to it. It's a core concept, things that go bump in the night, one that taps into ancient fears and every horror story is a variant on using/exposing/prodding those fears.

Date: 2008-02-29 05:54 pm (UTC)
ext_9226: (Default)
From: [identity profile] snailbones.livejournal.com


I've been saving this up for an evening when I could read it all in one go, and I'm so glad I did (even though I was reading until 2 in the morning - oops!).

It's a wonderful read, and so AU that I found I was forgetting canon completely and getting totally immersed in your universe. The night terrors are nice and scary, and I'm dying to read more about them. I think! ::shudder::

And I know you were concerned about the use of language; I think you've found an almost-perfect middle ground - not too modern, not too olde worlde. It works really well.

I love longer stories, and I'm so happy this is part of something so much bigger. I loved it when it was just a wee bunny hopping around and knee-high to a buttercup - it's great to see it all grown up *g* Thank you so much for the great read.

Date: 2008-03-01 10:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for your lovely comments - I'm delighted you liked it!

Date: 2008-02-29 09:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] juneb.livejournal.com
Love it, love it, love it. This story works for me on so many different levels. Sometimes this formal type AU doesn't pull me in, unless it's very well written, as this is. I love how James and Blair are still the Jim and Blair we all recognize. Blair's bravery and sensitivity and Jim's strength and caring...Just perfect!! Can't wait to read the next part and find out more about these Night Terrors. I also can't wait to see what the other baron might try to do to get back at Blair...or Jim.

Date: 2008-03-01 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Aw, thanks so much, June, for your lovely comments. As for more - the second part has just this minute been posted :-).

read it all at once

Date: 2008-03-02 12:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] missfaeagain.livejournal.com
I had started this a little while ago, but when i saw the updates, I had to read it all in one sitting...brilliant.

I love the imagery, the tension, the characters, the plot... this is just an all around good read...

I look very much forward to seeing the next part of your epic... hugs...

Re: read it all at once

Date: 2008-03-04 10:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for your lovely feedback - very much appreciated! ::hugs back::

Date: 2008-03-03 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] juneb.livejournal.com
Thanks so much Bev....I'm off to read more.

Date: 2008-04-11 12:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marizilda.livejournal.com
Very good, I loved to read.
I am a slow reader, therefore I have short on-line time and still have that translate, but long stories are irresistible for myself.
I am fan of your stories.
Well we go to the next part then.
A great one weekend for you. : ))

Date: 2008-04-13 02:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hi Mari, thanks for your lovely comment. I'm glad you liked it, and hope you enjoy the rest! :-)

Date: 2008-09-07 06:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ifu-one.livejournal.com
I read what turned out to be the first chapter of this story at 852prospect and just today was thinking about it and wanting to re-read it only to find the story gone from their archive...
Turns out it was a lucky break! Because not only did I find it again HERE but that you continued it!
Thanks for sharing. I really like this one!

Date: 2008-09-21 06:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hello there! I'm so glad you like this, and hope you liked Part the Second too. I'm busy working on the final installment right now, so it's lovely to get this comment!

(Apologies for the late reply - I don't log into this LJ all that often) :-)

Date: 2010-03-02 07:49 am (UTC)
ext_2180: laurel leaf (squee // dr who)
From: [identity profile] loriel-eris.livejournal.com
Oh awesome. I wasn't sure about the AU setting when I read the summary, but it was awesome. Love the verse you created and how everyone fit in. Part of my delight in AUs is when the author takes canon events and twists them to the new setting, and I absolutely adore how you did it here! *g*

Date: 2010-03-03 07:06 am (UTC)
ext_14365: If you made this, tell me and I'll credit (Default)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev.livejournal.com
Thank you! :-)

Date: 2010-06-18 01:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rogue-psion2.livejournal.com
I am not sure how I missed such a great story. I loved how the characters interact in the universe you created, and the language is a good way to carry he tone of the world. :D

Date: 2010-06-20 06:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for letting me know what you thought! Very much appreciated. And also appreciated are your thoughts on the language use - it was something I wasn't sure about, so it's nice to know it worked for you :-)

Date: 2010-06-22 05:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] simplystars.livejournal.com
I came upon a rec for this at [livejournal.com profile] sentinelficfind and have spent the past few hours caught up in such a marvelous story! I thank you for the pleasure. :)

(I'd go on to part two immediately except I have to be alert and functional at an obscenely early hour tomorrow; but I will treat myself when I get back home, oh yes. *g*)

Date: 2010-07-04 08:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hi there, and apologies for the delay in responding - I'm not online much these days.

Thanks so much for letting me know what you think of it - I am very pleased you have enjoyed reading :-). And it's nice to hear it got rec'd too!

Date: 2010-08-24 09:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] timian.livejournal.com
That was wonderful! More wonderful than I had imagined it would be. (And I'm famous for getting my hopes up.)

The night terrors were right terrifying, creepily winged and snatching families away in the night. GAH. Also, man, I felt so bad for all those poor animals left out in the dark. Please tell me puppies and kittens were exempt, yes? :)

I'm just, wow, I'm so impressed by your world building. And I'd forgotten how quickly your writing flows. I never found myself skipping ahead a few paragraphs when the introspection got deep, as I often do with other writers. You kept me so intrigued by the personal/legal battles and by the outside threat of the blackness come to life.

I'm so looking forward to part two, which I think I'll start right about... now. :) Thank you so much for sharing such a rich world with us! I loved it.

Date: 2010-08-24 05:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Eeee! I cannot tell you how much it means to me that you have enjoyed it. Thanks so much!

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