For Blair, being held in James’ arms like this after an eternity in the silent darkness, was so overwhelmingly wonderful that if he’d been able, he’d have told James anything he wanted to hear. That he revered the fae, that the night terrors were just the story James believed them to be. He’d have given anything, at that moment, to have things back as they were, before this madness had overtaken the world.
But of course, it would all be a lie. And, sentinel as he was, James would perceive it. He would look at Blair with disappointment and walk away, perhaps never to return.
The thought made Blair hold James fiercely.
“Hush,” James murmured to him, one hand stirring Blair’s hair comfortingly while the other held him close. “Blair, I love you. Be easy.”
“Don’t leave me here,” Blair ground out, feeling broken by James’ tenderness in the midst of this nightmare. “Please!”
“Not yet,” James assured him, clearly not bothering to deny what they both already knew – that Blair would not be leaving this place, no matter how hard he pleaded to do so. “I’m not going yet. Hush.”
Gradually, in the circle of his sentinel’s arms, Blair’s panic quieted
They moved apart finally. Blair felt James hand touch his face, stirring the hated beard which grew there. “Do you wish to shave?” James asked.
Blair nodded his head fervently. “Yes,” he said.
“Come,” James told him, taking Blair by the hand. “Sit down.”
Blair found himself led towards the chair by the fire, the chain at his ankle jingling as he moved, and urged to sit. A moment later, a quilt from the bed was tucked around his knees as though he was an invalid.
Dazed – trembling a little with emotion, which was perhaps why James had covered him with the quilt – Blair watched as James moved over to the door, and banged upon it thrice. The door opened, and James spoke quietly to Peter in an undertone. Then, leaving the door ajar, James moved around the room lighting candles, illuminating the gloom which persisted despite the half-open door. Finally he rekindled the fire, which Blair had not bothered to tend since Peter had set it this morning.
By the time James was done Peter had returned, and Maeve with him. James met them at the door and, taking several trips, relieved them of their burdens. A bowl of warm water, steam rising into the cool air; soft towels, and tray bearing soap, scissors, a straight razor and a small shaving mirror.
James set the bowl and the tray on the table beside Blair. He reached out again, and touched Blair’s beard. “This will need to be trimmed before you can shave,” he said. “Would you like me to help you?”
Blair nodded. “Please,” he said. He did not think his hand was steady enough, anyway; plus he felt oddly reluctant to look at himself in the mirror, as he must if he were to do this himself. He was terribly afraid of what he’d find staring back at him.
To his relief, James did not make a big thing out of it. After wrapping a towel about Blair’s shoulders he picked up the scissors, and commenced snipping away weeks of beard growth, the wiry strands falling on Blair’s lap.
It was over quickly, James’ sentinel-fingers deft and sure at their task. Next, James picked up the soap and, after a questioning glance at Blair, soaped up his hands in the water and smeared the resulting foam on Blair’s face.
Trusting James far more than he would have trusted his own uncertain hands, Blair leaned back, baring his throat to his sentinel as James skilfully shaved him, the fearsomely sharp razor moving over Blair’s face in long, sure strokes. He sighed, relaxing into James’ hands as he allowed his head to be turned this way and that. And the feeling of being scrutinised in such an intimate way, after weeks of having no one look at him at all, made his heart pound a little faster.
All too soon, it was done. After wetting a washcloth, James wiped away the soapy residue and stray whiskers from Blair’s face. His fingers lingered lovingly on Blair’s smooth cheek afterwards, his eyes soft and adoring. And Blair felt a conflict of grief and love for him so profound he could not have uttered a word if his life depended on it.
As if in a dream Blair sat docile, watching as James moved away and over to the chest which held Blair’s clothes. The baron lifted the lid and rummaged deep within, coming out with Blair’s outdoor cloak – which he had not worn all the time he’d been here. Then, after laying the cloak on the bed and coming back over, James crouched down in front of Blair, a key in his hand.
Blair felt his ankle grasped, and the manacle which enclosed it came apart suddenly. Blair gasped, his heart pounding. Surely James was not setting him free?
As if he’d heard the question, James met his eyes, still crouched at Blair’s feet. “Give me your word,” he said in a serious tone, “that you will not try to run. I cannot guarantee your safety if you do.”
“I swear,” Blair promised hoarsely.
“Good.” James stood, and gave a hand to Blair, hauling him to his feet. Blair felt himself wrapped in his cloak, then James took his hand once more and led him towards the door.
Blair balked on the threshold, the daylight outside, grey though the day was, blinding to a man who’d spent weeks in semi-darkness. He closed his watering eyes and felt himself steered decisively out, the lack of the accustomed weight on his leg causing him to shamble in an uneven gait. He felt wind on his face, and smelled the shockingly-vivid freshness of cut grass and wet soil.
“Here’s the food you asked for, my lord,” he heard Maeve say.
Blair opened his eyes, blinking furiously as the outside world came into focus. Maeve had prepared a picnic, it seemed, which James now carried in a bag hooked over his shoulder. “Thank you,” James was bidding the woman. Then Blair was urged to move across the yard, over to where two horses stood.
He needed help to mount, so stiff and ungainly he was after his long absence from the saddle. Once they were both ready to go, James kicked with his heels without looking back, trusting Blair to follow.
Blair, of course, did.
They took their repast high on the moors, sitting on a blanket and leaning back against a rock as their horses grazed nearby. The sky was gradually clearing, with patches of blue showing amidst the cloud, and autumn sunlight peeking through at intervals to bathe them both in its warmth. There was a slight breeze – it would be a little chilly for a picnic if these were normal circumstances. But Blair didn’t care about that at all.
It was like a dream. Every moment he sat there Blair expected to wake to darkness, the cold weight of chain pulling at his leg. But no matter how often he blinked, the daylight remained, and James was still beside him, the comforting warmth of his body close against Blair’s side. Yet all the time Blair was aware that this was nothing more than a temporary respite – the spectre of his cell loomed constantly, taunting him with the awful inevitability of confinement.
They ate the food which Maeve had provided; delicious cold-cuts of meat and fresh crusty bread, followed up by fruit and cheese. There was a flask of ale, as well as fresh spring water to drink. Blair found that, in the outdoors and in James’ company, he had at last rediscovered some of the appetite which had long deserted him, though he did not manage to consume half as much as James.
At last, once they had eaten, Blair found his voice. “How does Grace fare, now that I’m gone?” he asked.
James’ face clouded a little. “She had some difficulty adjusting,” he admitted. “She missed you a lot.”
Blair’s heart skipped a beat. “You said ‘missed’.”
James hastened to reassure him. “No, don’t worry, she is quite well. But,” he sighed resignedly, “I decided, after much discussion with Megan, that it would be better for her to go to the
“Oh.” Blair blinked in surprise. “I thought you disapproved of the
James was obviously choosing his words carefully. “Grace needed more supervision than anyone in the barony could provide her with,” he said. “In your absence, there was no other option.”
The underlying message was clear to Blair – Grace had taken his banishment badly, and since enrolment in the Sentinel School was usually a long-term commitment, it was not envisaged that Blair would ever be in a position to teach her again. “Did Megan go with her?” he asked, trying to push to one side his sadness at one more, irrevocable loss.
“Yes. She and Rafe have gone to live in the capital. The School has been instructed that Grace must see them whenever she wishes. I will not have her separated from her family.”
You separated her from me, Blair couldn’t help but think resentfully. But he didn’t say it. Instead, he asked, “How did Grace take the move?”
“She was reluctant at first,” James confessed. “But once she got there, and saw her room, and met some of the other students – well, when I left she’d been at the school three weeks, and had enjoyed every moment of it.”
“I’m glad,” Blair said sincerely. Though the cracked pain of grief he always carried with him now increased a little bit more at the news that it was unlikely he’d ever again be her tutor.
“Blair,” James said presently, after a few moments of silence. “It would please me greatly to be able to allow you more freedom than of late. To allow you to take conversation with Peter and Maeve, for example, so that you do not feel quite so alone. And for you to accompany me on rides, like this one, when I visit – which, duty permitting, I will try to do at least once a fortnight; more frequently if my commitments allow. It should be safe for us to be abroad out here, so far from any other habitation – it is unlikely we will be seen and recognised. But there are some stipulations I must make, and promises I will need you to consent to, before I decide what I will allow.”
“I must not talk to Peter and Maeve about the night terrors, correct?” Blair guessed. “And I must not try to escape.”
“Yes,” James confirmed. “Do I have your promise?”
“Are you going to read me with your senses?” Blair challenged.
A look of pain crossed James’ face. “No,” he said. “Your word will suffice. I know you to be an honourable man, despite your infirmity.”
Blair almost laughed at that – ‘infirmity’ made him sound like an aging invalid. Then the humour faded. Given his inability to do something as simple and familiar as shaving himself earlier, perhaps it was not far off the mark.
Still, more freedom was most definitely to be desired. It might be possible for Blair to find some way to convince James of the truth, if he could only get his head on straight – his long sojourn in the dark the past few weeks, and his simultaneous fear that James had cast him off, seemed to have addled his wits more than a little, focusing him far too much on his own misery rather than the matter at hand. It was far easier to see that now, out here in the clear light of day, than while chained up in the blackness of his cell.
Thus decided, Blair gave his answer. “I give you my word,” he said sincerely. “I will never mention the night terrors to Peter and Maeve. And I will not try to run away.”
“I am very serious about these conditions Blair,” James reiterated. “If you were to find your way free, and if people were to discover your identity, you would most likely be killed. The heresy you speak is dangerous. In some places others, like you - similarly afflicted with a sickness of the mind which has turned them against the fae - have been summarily put to death. I don’t…” James’ voice cracked. “I can’t let that happen to you. And as for your silence, it is one of the conditions the Grand Council laid down. You cannot be permitted to spread your heresy to others. Peter and Maeve are good people who worship the fae. I will not stand for you upsetting them in that way.”
Considering the tale Rowena had told him about her great grandmother, Blair was not entirely unsurprised by what James told him, but he was dismayed at how ingrained ill-feeling against those with the Sight had apparently become. “I understand,” he said. “I told you, James. You have my promise.”
“Then we shall speak of it no more,” James said. “And now,” he stood. “It is time to go back.”
Blair’s heart sank. But understanding that it was inevitable nevertheless, he rose and made ready to go.
But the whole ride back he looked around him with starving eyes, memorising the landscape and the sky and the sunlight as if it was the last time he’d ever see them, feeling as if he was going to his execution.
For Blair, things improved a little after James’ latest visit. Though Peter more often than not didn’t speak – which Blair soon came to learn to be a natural facet of his personality – Maeve transformed from the silent jailor she’d been into a motherly chatterbox, who seemed obliged, once the interdict on conversation was lifted, to make up for lost time. Consequently Blair was regaled at every visit with a flood of babble which even he, with his considerable conversational abilities, could not match.
Blair was still kept chained, but he was no longer winched against the wall when they entered. He’d not realised the depth of his loathing for that particular facet of his captivity until it ceased, though he still eyed the chain warily, not entirely trusting that it was truly over. Desperately wishing for it never to happen again he made a point of keeping his distance from both of his jailers whenever they came into his cell, and he constantly treated them with extreme courtesy, hoping that by doing so they would never feel threatened enough by their captive to reintroduce that particular indignity.
Another improvement to his lot was that the door to his cell was kept open for longer intervals, allowing a modicum of daylight to enter even when Peter and Maeve were not bustling around inside. At those times, unimpeded from doing so, Blair would sometimes sit as close to the open doorway as the length of chain would allow, breathing in the fresh air; feeling the coolness of wind, the wet spray from rain bouncing off the cobbles or the warmth of the wintery sun on his face. It didn’t matter to him at all that the warmth which had built up from the ever-present fire would usually dissipate through the opening.
James kept his promise to visit again, coming back on the next occasion just five days afterwards. He brought with him a package of books – once again carefully handpicked to ensure there was nothing in them that might allude to the night terrors. Blair was grateful, nevertheless, for the distraction they provided - the worst aspect of his confinement now, he’d decided, was the unrelieved boredom which constantly plagued him.
James brought other things also. “Simon sent these to you,” he said, handing over a large bundle. “Parchments, pens, ink and other essentials.”
Blair unrolled the cloth-wrapped parcel and eyed his treasures eagerly. But shortly afterwards he gladly put them on one side, in readiness for their promised ride out into the countryside.
One thing that did not change was his access to a razor. Blair hated the fact that he was, seemingly, only allowed to shave when James was present and could supervise. So the next time that James visited, Blair made his case. “You can test me with your senses, James, if you like. You’ll know that way whether I truly mean any harm to myself or to anyone else.” He fixed his most pleading look on the baron.
But James shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know how much you hate to remain whiskered. But I cannot, in all good faith, allow you access to such a dangerous tool when I am not here.”
The refusal once again underlined the reality of Blair’s situation – James believed him mad, and as such would go so far and no further in making his captivity more palatable. Nursing intense resentment and despair, Blair let it go, knowing that fighting over the issue would gain him nothing.
Now that James had become a regular visitor, and their interaction had progressed beyond mere verbal sparring brought on by Blair’s anger and resentment, Blair tried hard to find ways to convince him of the truth. It was a difficult task though – the baron was a canny man, and constantly on his guard against such attempts.
As they walked out on the moors, more than a hint of winter in the air during these shorter days, Blair tried to attack the issue in a roundabout way. “So, apart from the recent meeting, the Grand Council had never met in emergency convocation since before you became baron?”
“No,” James confirmed. “They last met when my father was still alive, to formulate a plan to repel the invaders from the east. The result of that was the establishment of the Five Baronies Border Guard to defend the pass. I fought there myself for a time, with Simon at my side. It’s been scaled down now, of course; the barbarian tribes are no longer so much of a threat.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” Blair mused, “that the Council never met last summer?”
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“Well,” Blair said carefully, “when you look at how many people were killed, I would have thought that a Grand Council was warranted. Every baron was dealing with the same common threat, after all.”
James looked puzzled for a moment. “Even if we’d met, how could the barons have fought a plague?” he said. “Such things are not easily dealt with by a council of war.”
“But plague can be fought,” Blair insisted. “There could have been a meeting of barons to exchange knowledge. If it was a plague, then every barony has those within it who know how to treat such things. Apothecaries, people versed in the uses of medicines. That information could have been shared, for the common good. Do the Council only ever meet to discuss war?”
“No, they have met in the past to discuss other matters of import, too, when the need arises.” James was frowning. “I suppose, since the plague died away by itself, that none of us saw the point of holding a meeting.”
Blair let the matter drop at that, content to have sowed perhaps the smallest doubt in James’ mind. And of course he knew why the barons had never met at that time – James had attempted to send a summons out to his counterparts, but the night terrors had made the roads too dangerous to travel upon so a Grand Council had never been convened.
Blair would have been content to carry on his secret war of attrition, gradually forcing James to question the reality he perceived in the hope that, over time, he could be brought to see things as they really were. But matters after that soon came to a head of their own accord, and everything changed for the worse.
“My lord,” Physician Wolf was saying forcefully. “You must swallow your pride on this matter. Blair is your guide. You have a deep link with him and, if you refuse to draw on that link, your own health will continue to suffer.”
“I will not use him in that way,” James reiterated again, his head pounding despite the sour-tasting brew the physician had made him swallow to alleviate it. “Our pairing is based on mutual respect and equality. While he is indisposed, I will not take advantage of him.”
“Then you are helping neither him, nor yourself,” Wolf said bluntly. “If you carry on like this you will become as mad as your guide, simply due to the pain your senses cause you.”
“I managed fine before I paired with him,” James insisted petulantly. “I can manage now as well.”
“I will say this once more, in the perhaps futile hope that you will understand it,” Wolf said testily. “You have a deep link with Blair. You did not have that before you paired with Blair, which is why you functioned well, for the most part, without a guide. A deep link strips away some of your defences, allowing you to communicate without words. The drawback is that it leaves you vulnerable, if your guide is not there to fill the gap. You need your guide, or this will never go away.”
“There has to be another way,” James said. “Maybe I could send to the Academy, and ask them to send me a temporary guide.”
“The Academy are unlikely to help,” Simon, who’d been standing by worriedly, put in. “You are already paired, my lord. While your guide lives, they will hardly supply you with another.”
“Then what should I do?” James said despairingly. He looked at his physician. “I will need you to find something for me to take. Something that will suppress my senses.”
Wolf looked supremely unhappy. “This is not my area of expertise,” he said. “
“What about a hedge-guide?” James asked, remembering something Blair had said to him once. “There is a woman in the town.” James shook his head. “I’ve forgotten her name.”
“Rowena,” Wolf said shortly. “She’s a midwife. Calls herself an apothecary, and fortune teller too.” He shrugged. “It’s rumoured she has some training as a guide. You could do worse, I suppose, than ask her for help. Though I have my doubts about her credentials.”
James looked at Simon. “Find her,” he ordered. “Ask her to come.”
Simon bowed his head. “Yes my lord.”
Lying back on the bed and closing his eyes, James prayed to the fae that the painkilling drug would start to work soon, and that the pounding in his head would cease.
Disturbed from a deep sleep and opening his eyes to almost total darkness, Blair had no idea how far advanced the night was, or what had woken him. Yet he was suddenly wide awake, his heart pounding and a sense of dread consuming him.
Lying still, Blair listened. As usual he could hear very little other than the wind whistling through the tiny window – the walls of this chamber were several feet thick, and the small opening high up the wall usually allowed in only the loudest sounds from outside, yet all seemed quiet.
Then he heard it - a sound within the cell itself. A faint scratching sound; an almost inaudible scrabbling.
Hoping against hope that the source was merely something innocuous, such as a family of mice seeking shelter from the encroaching winter weather, Blair slipped soundlessly out of bed and crept towards the fireplace. The fire had died down to embers, casting little light, but there was flame enough to allow him to light a taper from it. Taking a deep breath, Blair picked up a candle, and touched the lit taper to the wick.
The circle of light cast by the candle revealed nothing out of its place. Until, that was, Blair held it aloft, and looked up.
The entire ceiling of his chamber was covered by a shifting cloud of darkness. Every so often bits of it broke away and reformed, the whoosh and flap of tiny wings, which he’d first mistaken for the sound of wind, coming from right over his head.
“No,” Blair whispered, frozen to the spot with horror.
The next moment he dove for cover, the chain forcing him to perilous slowness as the whole flock of fae swooped single-mindedly towards him, knocking the candle out of his hand and extinguishing the light.
A knock at the baron’s chamber door roused him from a fitful doze. “My lord,” he heard Simon say. “I’ve brought the woman, Madam Rowena, as you requested.”
James opened his eyes, casting away the damp washcloth which covered them. The woman beside Simon looked familiar – she’d been at the castle before… when? For a moment, James almost grasped the memory. His hall, full of people, a sense of ever-present danger, children crying...
Then it was just… gone.
Dismissing the odd thought – perhaps the tail-end of a dream since he’d been dozing – James stood to meet his visitor. “Madam,” he greeted. “Thank you for coming.”
Rowena’s expression was disturbingly direct. “Glad to be of service, my lord,” she said.
James thanked Simon, who exited unobtrusively, and then solicitously led the lady to a chair by the fire – the night was cold, and she was not a young woman. “Can I get you some refreshments?” he asked. “Some heated wine, perhaps?”
“I’d rather get down to business,” she told him, setting the bag she carried down beside her chair as James took the seat opposite. “My lord seneschal told me very little, except that you were in need of guidance from one who knows about such things.”
“People say that you have some training as a guide,” he prompted. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” she acknowledged shortly.
When no further information was forthcoming, James got to the point. “I need something to help me control my senses. Something which will suppress them so that I can avoid over-extension. I cannot fulfil my duties as baron, plagued by headaches and sensory spikes as I am.”
“What of your own guide, my lord?” she asked. “Surely if you spend time focusing your senses on him, your problems will disappear.”
“That is not an option,” James said. He had no intention of elaborating why.
The finality of his statement must have communicated itself. “Then I will give you what help I can,” Rowena said. And as she rummaged in her bag, looking for what she would need, James could not help wondering why she sounded so sad - after all, he intended to pay her well for her services.
Blair flailed his arms above his head, frantically trying to fend away the things dive-bombing him in the darkness. One of them got tangled in his hair, its claws bright needles of pain in his scalp. Furiously he wrested it free, then raised both hands reflexively to protect his eyes when two or three of its fellows swooped far too close, their wings brushing his face. As he backed up, the back of his knees bumped something hard – the bed, he realised. Not knowing what else to do, with the things flapping around his head and bumping repeatedly against his back and shoulders, he quickly knelt down and lay flat, rolling himself hastily under the bed, the chain at his ankle rattling all the while.
Crammed tight into in the space under the bed and unable to see a thing in the blackness, Blair lay still for a moment, breathing hard. Then he cried out in horror when he felt the unmistakeable sensation of claws hooked in his pants leg, pricking right through to his skin. Kicking out he managed to dislodge his tiny attacker, only to have it replaced by another, and yet another. Squirming furiously he brought his hands into play, wresting the things off and flinging them back out into the room.
Then one he seized dug its claws into his hand, red-hot pinpricks of stinging agony erupting right up his arm. Razor-sharp teeth sunk simultaneously into the flesh between his first finger and thumb, the thing clamped on in an agonising death-grip. Worse was to come – the thing began to chew, as though it would bite a chunk right out of Blair’s hand. In mindless panic, Blair pounded it hard over and over into the stone floor, not stopping until the creature went limp and released its hold.
The assault halted after that, although Blair could still hear them all around him, their claws skittering across the floor and the whoosh of their wings forcing him to remain on high alert. Afraid they would go for his feet – he was still barefoot straight from the bed – he tucked his legs up as far as he could in the limited space available, curling on his side into a self-protective ball with his wounded hand cradled, throbbing and wet with blood, against his chest.
His respite was destined to be short-lived.
Whatever had been in the potion which Madam Rowena had given him to drink seemed to have helped. James slept well and rose refreshed for the first time in months, and the ever-present headache which plagued him was muted and tolerable. The woman had promised to return, should he have need of her again, which caused the sentinel no end of relief.
Part of his good cheer that morning was due to his improved health, but the rest of it was rooted in the fact that he would ride to see Blair today.
James’ visits to see his guide were still bitter-sweet occasions. He prayed fervently to the fae, every time he made the journey, to see some evidence of improvement, and for Blair to somehow magically have regained his reason in the days since their last meeting. Yet it was never the case – Blair always seemed as mired in delusion as ever. Yet despite that ever-present disappointment James looked forward to seeing him, nevertheless. He began to plan how the day would go; first he would ensure Blair’s comfort by allowing him to shave, and afterward they would ride out on the moor to eat together under the open sky, taking simple pleasure in each other’s company.
As he rode, James made no attempt to extend his senses, and was pleased to note that they stayed under control, the unpredictable flarings of ability he’d become prone to lately nowhere in evidence. The hedge-guide, it seemed, truly knew her business. He breathed deeply of the fresh air, feeling optimistic for the first time in ages. The situation was far from ideal, yet perhaps both he and Blair were beginning to find an accommodation with it which was possible to endure. And that, he decided, was most definitely an improvement in itself.
James had set off early, so it was well before noon when he rode into the yard at the estate house, his horse’s hooves clattering loudly on the cobbles. To his surprise the door to Blair’s stone chamber – which was kept open more often than not of late – was closed, and there was no sign of either Peter or Maeve.
It was not until he’d begin to stable his horse himself that Peter appeared. “You’d best talk to my wife,” the man said as he moved in to take over James’ task. “You’ll find her in the kitchen, my lord.” The grim set to his mouth confirmed James’ suspicion that something had gone terribly wrong, filling him with dread.
Damping down an almost irresistible urge to go straight to Blair, James made his way into the house, his steps leaden. He found Maeve sitting stiff-lipped and dry-eyed at the kitchen table. As he entered, she turned her accusing, devastated gaze upon him. “Up until now, I believed him simply to be the poor, sick boy you told me he was. But not any longer.”
“What do you mean?”
Maeve cast grieving eyes towards the door which led to the private parlour she and Peter had taken for their use in this big house. “Look in there, my lord,” she said.
Filled with a sense of impending doom, James did as she asked.
The room was dim, the curtains drawn. Four candles had been set and lit on a table placed in the centre of the room, one at each corner of a small, ornate box which James vaguely recognised as having once been in his mother’s possession – a treasured heirloom, which had been gifted to her handmaid when the baroness passed on.
Drawn like a moth to the flames, James moved forward to look within.
The box had been lined with soft, rich fabric. And lying within it, almost unrecognisable since the features had been so badly damaged, was a fae. It was dead; no doubt about that, its tattered, broken wings straightened carefully, the blood which must have covered its poor, abused body washed away by Maeve as lovingly as if it had been a member of her own family. Grief consumed James at the sight – such a precious being; an irreplaceable member of the magical race which protected them all. Its loss was a tragedy of epic proportions.
His grief twisting inside like a live thing, James stepped away and back into the kitchen. Sitting down, he took Maeve by the hand. “Tell me what happened,” he urged softly.
“When we went in, Blair was raving,” she said, her eyes brimming but stubbornly refusing to spill over. “About the fae, calling them all manner of awful names, cursing them…” She shook her head. “Such terrible things, my lord, I cannot repeat them.”
“Go on,” James urged.
“Peter was forced to use the winch,” she said. “We were afraid of what he might do otherwise. He’d…” she squeezed James’ hand, “he’d already hurt himself, my lord. Scratched his own flesh, made himself bleed. There was no telling what he might do to us.”
“Blair would never hurt you,” James soothed; though the certainty he usually felt at that assertion had somehow deserted him.
“You were not there, my lord,” she retorted angrily. “You did not see how wild he was, or hear the things he babbled. And it turned out we had good reason to be afraid.”
Swallowing down the emotions which threatened to overpower him, because this was most definitely not the time to indulge himself in any kind of weakness, James prompted, “What happened, Maeve?”
“I found it when I was sweeping,” she said. “The poor little thing was concealed under his bed. It must have got in during the night, separated from the flock and seeking shelter from the rain.” Her eyes overflowed at last. “Its poor little broken body – he admitted to its murder, my lord. He expressed no remorse. He said he pounded it into the floor, not stopping until it was dead. He claimed it bit him before that, but what else could the poor little thing do? What other defence could it possibly have against a grown man, determined to destroy something of such fragile beauty?”
A fierce anger had been growing in James as Maeve spoke. Love of the fae was firmly lodged in their hearts and minds, every good thing that happened granted by their bounty. James’ heart ached for the beautiful little being, so brutally deprived of life. Such a callous slaying of one of their little benefactors, defenceless and trusting, and simply seeking shelter with a human who should have protected it, filled him with a rage so intense he wanted to kill. He dreaded to think what repercussions such an evil act might herald for his people, in terms of the loss of the faes’ bounty, if swift retribution was not delivered and recompense made.
But another emotion warred with James’ rage: the deep protectiveness any sentinel felt for his paired guide. Blair, by rights, should die for what he’d done. Yet James did not think that he’d ever be able to permit that to happen, and remain sane himself.
There was only one other recourse. Blair must be punished, and James knew exactly how to do it, even if the thought of what he must do filled him with sorrow almost sufficient to overwhelm his desperate need to avenge the poor, murdered creature.
Blair was still chained close to the wall where he’d been left. Sitting on the cold floor with his knees drawn up, and biting his lip against the pain of multiple scratches and the throb of the bite in his hand, he thought back over the events of the past few terrible hours.
After the initial attack, he’d remained under the bed for the rest of the night. Any attempt to venture out from underneath had been met with concerted flurries of claws and fangs, which mercilessly raked any bit of exposed flesh they could find. Unable to see in the darkness and therefore not easily in a position to defend himself, Blair had soon given up on any notion of moving from where he’d taken shelter.
Every so often, one or more of them would creep underneath into Blair’s sanctuary, the sensation of their claws latched into his clothing and pricking right through to his flesh a periodic, agonising torment. Blair was forced to remain vigilant, kicking and pulling them off as soon as he detected their presence. Thankfully they never came en-masse, seeming to prefer smaller forays. If it had been any different, Blair did not know how he would have dealt with it.
He tried several times, as the interminable night shifted towards morning, shouting for help, in case Peter was up and around in the dark hours before dawn. But it was to no avail – even if the old man was out there, the walls were so thick that it was unlikely Blair’s voice would reach him anyway.
Finally the moment Blair had been praying for came – he’d been moved to entreat even the old gods of his ancestors in his extremity. The sound of hundreds of tiny wings moving aloft filled his cell, then gradually dissipated as the flock of fae flew, one-by-one, out of the window. Blair remained where he was for a while longer, just to be sure that they had all gone, judging it safe to emerge only when the greyness of what passed for daylight in this dark cell began to lighten the interior.
After that he’d managed - using his one good hand, his teeth and sheer desperation - to tear strips from his bed sheet. By dipping it in the jug of cold water, which was usually left for him overnight, he did his best to clean the claw marks which covered all of his extremities, as well as his face and scalp. He made an attempt also to clean the ragged bite on his hand; though he expected it would need more attention than he, single-handedly and without adequate materials, could provide. After that he wrapped it in a clean strip of linen to stanch the blood which had begun to flow again. And he waited, desperately, for his jailers to arrive.
He must have dozed off, exhausted by the night’s events as he was, because when he came to it was to Maeve’s frantic screams. Apparently she’d seen him lying asleep on the bed and decided not to waken him, going about her morning tasks quietly while he remained there. And while sweeping under the bed she’d discovered the body of the night terror he’d killed, in his desperate attempt to stop it from gorging on his hand.
He’d tried to explain, both to Maeve and Peter, what had happened. That the night terrors had come upon him as he slept and attacked him, causing him to take cover under his bed for the entire night. That he’d been forced to kill that one, single creature in self-defence as it tried to eat his hand.
But they hadn’t listened. Instead, Peter had winched Blair to the wall brutally fast, so that he was forced to hop quickly after the retreating chain lest he fall over and be dragged. Following that, Peter and Maeve had tenderly picked up the body of the fae and carried it out, their faces lined with reverent grief. Neither of them had looked at him or acknowledged anything he said. And as they left they’d closed and locked the door behind them, leaving him in semi-darkness and abandoning their usual tasks - they’d not even remade the fire.
Blair’s stomach rumbled, and his head swam – he didn’t know whether that was because they had failed to bring him any food, or because the pain in his hand and a dozen other lacerations was making him feel faint. The chain had not been released, so Blair was forced to sit here on the cold floor, still winched tight against the wall.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the cell door opened, and Blair’s heart leapt when James stepped into his cell. Relieved beyond measure, Blair pushed himself painfully to his feet to greet him.
But hope died a stony death when he saw the expression on the baron’s face.
James couldn’t look at Blair. If he did, it would make what he had to do all the more painful so, instead, he took the coward’s way out and focused his gaze on a spot on the wall, high above Blair’s head. He could not afford to allow his weakness for this man to distract him from what he must do. He was baron. This was his responsibility.
James was aware of Blair getting to his feet. “James,” the man began. “I-”
The honeyed tones of the guide almost undid him, but James refused to listen. Instead, cold, hard anger came to the fore. “What you’ve done is a crime against all of us, human and fae both,” he said, stemming the flow of excuses which would no doubt ensue in the next moment if he did not put a stop to it. “If you were any other man, I would execute you for murder without a second thought.”
“James, please,” he heard Blair protest. “The night terrors attacked me! I had no choice-”
“You will address me,” James barked, “as ‘my lord’!”
Shocked silence resulted.
Into it, James pronounced sentence. “Because you are my truly-paired guide, I cannot put you to death without suffering consequences myself. Because of this – and this only – I will grant you clemency. Instead, you will be confined here for the rest of your days. Those charged with your welfare will not speak to you, and you will refrain from speaking to them. Break this condition even once, and you will be muted.”
Out of the corner of his eye, James could see that Blair staggered and leaned against the wall, as if for support. Forcing himself not to show pity, James carried on. “You will never set foot outside this chamber again. You will never be unchained. The window will be blocked up, to ensure that no other unsuspecting fae wanders into your grasp.”
Finally James looked at Blair. A long, final look, taking in the ragged man’s appearance; bearded, scratched and barefoot, his long hair unkempt and his hand wrapped in a bloodied rag. And at last he saw the murderous lunatic he’d tried so hard not to see during all the weeks Blair had been confined here, instead of the rational man who lived in his memory.
Staring Blair right in the face, James said with finality, “I will not come here again.”
“What if you need me?” White faced, trembling and afraid though he was, clever, manipulative Blair played what he clearly believed to be his winning card. “You said it yourself. I’m your guide, my lord. Your senses are rooted in our pairing.”
But it was, of course, James who possessed the victorious hand. “I have engaged the services of a new guide,” he said. “She will provide what help I need from now on.”
The agony which resulted was plain to see. Blair closed his eyes, his face contorting as if he was mortally wounded. If James had truly been a vindictive man, he might have revelled in taking revenge for the poor, murdered fae in such a way. As it was, his rage at Blair’s brutal act was tempered by sorrow and an immense pity he could not manage to subdue; although he knew better than to show it.
Then Blair looked back at him accusingly, and at last there was fury in his eyes. “You told me this wasn’t punishment,” he said.
James turned, a treacherous part of him celebrating that, even brought to this, Blair was still unbroken; still willing to fight.
But that didn’t change a thing.
Pausing in the doorway, James looked over his shoulder and said softly, “It is now.”
Then he motioned to Peter to close the door and bar it.
For a long time afterwards, James felt oddly as though he’d died that day.
The business of the barony went on as usual, with James holding council each day, adjudicating petty disputes and meting out justice. But his evenings were filled with emptiness, the cosy little family he’d drawn about himself now scattered to the four winds. And despite believing strongly that Blair’s punishment was justified, he suffered from bouts of intense guilt at having sentenced his own guide to darkness and silence for the rest of his days.
The nights were the worst. His sleep – when he managed to get any – was filled with nightmare images. Fearsome creatures devouring him and those he loved; darkness and death spilling across the land. And worst of all one recurring dream, from which he awoke, time and time again, crying out and covered in sweat: Blair buried alive, screaming and crying in his coffin, scratching and pounding at the lid until his hands were reduced to bloody scraps of flesh and bone.
Not unsurprisingly, given that he had not had any real sleep for days, James found himself beset once more by sensory problems. The tiniest sound was amplified a thousand times, his head aching from the noise of it. His skin itched constantly, irritated by even the softest of fabrics. And his food tasted like dung, while dung smelled like venison.
At last, unable to stand it any longer, he summoned Madam Rowena. “I need you to give me some more herbs,” he said. “Something that will make my senses behave just like any common man’s.”
“Repeated use of those herbs can cause irreversible side-effects,” she told him. “Are you sure you can cope with that, my lord?”
“Anything,” James ground out between clenched teeth, the pain so bad that he could hardly see straight. His vision kept soaring out of his control, making the tiniest spider lurking high up on the ceiling seem like a monstrous behemoth. “I’ll cope with anything, just so long as it stops this torture.”
“As you wish,” she acceded; then began to prepare her potion.
Presently a goblet appeared at James’ lips. “Drink,” the hedge-guide ordered. And, having no other recourse, James did as he was bid, draining the whole cup.
The relief was almost instantaneous. Sighing, James leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, the pain behind them receding to a tolerable, dull ache. The booming noise of footsteps in the castle corridors faded, and James felt his whole body relax as his clothes ceased, at long last, to itch and chafe. He was dimly aware of the hedge-guide’s voice, urging him to relax and focus inwards, to open his inner eye, to see…
As his relaxation became more profound, his senses retreating and settling into tolerable bounds, James became aware of an unfamiliar sensation within. A strange tickling in his mind; a curious, beckoning thing. Intrigued, he followed the summons, and found himself standing in the courtyard, the sun low in the sky. Something caught his eye – a spider’s web fluttering in the breeze - and, fatigued from the intense stress of one more endless, hopeless day, he focused in on it, transfixed, losing himself in the shape, the colours…
The next thing he knew he was lying flat on his back, with Blair’s weight lying heavy atop him and the darkening sky above eclipsed by the guide’s face. “Keep still, my lord!” Blair told him urgently, wild, desperate eyes boring into James’. “I beg you!”
Then James watched in horror as a nightmare winged-creature appeared over Blair’s shoulder, its claws outstretched as it descended pitilessly on its prey. Powerless to stop it, time slowing to a terrible, inexorable crawl, James could not look away as it got bigger and nearer, its wingspan filling his entire peripheral vision, its mouth open, fangs dripping with saliva as it reached its target. Blair’s face twisted suddenly with shock and agony, a dreadful cry, strangled with exquisite pain, forcing its way out of his throat.
James came back to the here-and-now with a bump, Blair’s anguished voice still echoing in his ears. “What’s happening to me?” he gasped, gripping the arms of his chair for fear he would topple out of it. Other images were filling his mind; the pitiful, skeletal remains of men, women and children, murdered in their own houses as they slept. The great hall, filled with people and a tangible miasma of grief and fear. He and dozens of others standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlements, preparing to die defending humanity from the monsters. A cave in the far north, filled wall-to-wall with the dead bodies of the night terrors. “What have you done to me, witch?” he demanded in panic, lost in a sea of shifting experience.
“I’ve done nothing but open your eyes,” the woman said. “Which, if I’d only had the courage, I should have done a long time ago. May the gods of my ancestors forgive me for my cowardice.”
Memories continued to flood through James, holding him immobile with the force of it. It felt as though he was living months of life in the scant space of minutes, the false suppositions and inventions of his subconscious, inspired by the machinations of the night terrors, flushed away on the tide and dissolving into nothingness. Gradually the memories filled him, every corner of his mind awash once more with the true experiences of his life, the manufactured ones banished forever.
When at last it was over and his vision had returned to normal, James fixed his shocked gaze on Rowena, who was sitting serenely in the chair at the other side of the fire, looking as comfortable as if she belonged there. “It’s all true,” he said; knowing irrefutably, deep in his heart, that it was so. The implications of what that meant were so unbearable he found himself almost unable to face it. “Everything that Blair said – the night terrors, everything. It’s true.”
Rowena shrugged. “Of course it is. Those of us with eyes to see have known it all along.”
“Blair,” James whispered, pain rushing through him. He’d drugged his guide and locked him up in the custody of people who would sooner tend to a dead fae than a man wounded by the creature. He’d chained him in the dark, accused him of being a madman and a murderer, and threatened him with muting if he so much as made a sound. James stood abruptly, his heart pounding with urgency and need. “I have to go to him!”
“Don’t be a fool, my lord!” Rowena snapped. “You go rushing in now to free him, proclaiming that you know the truth, and you’ll end up decried as a heretic too. Fat lot of good that’ll do him, when you get burned at the stake!”
It was an astonishing way for a commoner to speak to a baron, but James had to concede that she had a point, protocol be damned. If the barons objected to one of their number being paired with a heretic guide, the fact that he himself was also a heretic would not sit well at all.
Sitting slowly back down James tried, but failed, to get a grasp on it all. Everyone believed the lies that the fae – the night terrors – had perpetuated. His trusted seneschal, his guardsmen, the town officials, the entire populace of the Five Baronies – everyone. James felt like he’d woken from one nightmare and fallen headfirst into another.
Beseechingly, he looked at the woman. “What should I do?” he begged.
“You’re asking me?” she said incredulously.
“Who else do I have?” The realisation of how very alone he was hit James hard. “There is only you, Blair and I that know the truth.”
“There are more than just us,” Rowena asserted, “but most of them have the sense to keep it to themselves. I warned Blair to be careful, but he didn’t listen. Like any young, idealistic fool, he thought he knew better.”
“Blair came to you about this?” James asked, astonished that his guide had confided in this woman.
Rowena grinned, without humour. “Who else did he have?” she echoed.
Feeling totally adrift, James buried his face in his hands, rubbing them over his face tiredly before looking back at Rowena. Now that his true memories had returned, he remembered Blair saying that this hedge-guide had made him feel more than a little uncomfortable. James, for his part, found her thoroughly obnoxious and totally lacking in respect.
But she had given him back his sanity, and for that he owed her his life.
“Madam Rowena,” he said sincerely. “I will do anything I can to keep you safe – you have my word as baron, and as a sentinel.”
“I’m hearing ‘but’,” she said boldly.
James didn’t even try to deny it. “I need your help. There is no one else I can confide in.”
“Then take my advice,” she said, “Do not rush off to tell the world you know all about the night terrors. Catch up on sleep, take my herbal concoction when you need to, and avoid extending your senses until you are properly reunited with Blair. These are the things a simple hedge-guide like me has knowledge of.”
James snorted – he did not believe ‘simple’ to be an adequate description of this woman at all. “And after that?” he prompted.
“You’re the baron,” she said bluntly, “not me. Use the brains your ancestors gave you.”
Blair knew that he was dying.
Forbidden to speak - even to ask for help - lest he be relieved of his tongue, visited only once each day by silent, hostile jailers who avoided so much as a glance his way, Blair nursed his swollen, throbbing hand in painful silence. Apart from the cursory cleaning he had given his wounds himself, he’d received no treatment either for the bite or the scratches which had covered him. The latter had, for the most part, healed up themselves, but the bite was another matter altogether.
After James renounced their pairing and left, Blair had remained leaning in shocked grief against the wall, too devastated even to cry; unable to move even when the heavy links of his chain pooled noisily on the floor beside him. A while later the grey daylight, which had been filtering in through the high window, was extinguished forever; the sound of hammering heralding an eternity in darkness.
And darkness it was, apart from a brief time each morning when his jailors came in to see to his most basic needs, leaving the door open as they did so to enable them to see. The daily visit was short and perfunctory. Peter and Maeve did no more than take away his waste, replenish his water jug and bring a tray of food – simple, cold fare designed to last all day. No longer was a fire lit to warm the chamber, and all candles had been removed – Blair supposed that fire was regarded as too dangerous a weapon for a fae-killer to have access to. And at no point did they look at him where he crouched in misery, winched against the wall for the duration of their visits.
He’d noticed this morning, during the brief time that the door had been open, that bright tendrils of infection had begun to creep up from his obscenely bloated hand and up towards his wrist. He’d seen such a thing before – an infection so well-established that only amputation of the affected limb could save the person thus afflicted. He could feel the onset of fever already and knew that, once it set in, he would not last long.
Now it had come to this, Blair found that he welcomed the end willingly. The beckoning comfort of death called to him – a place where there would be no more pain, no more sorrow. Perhaps it would be like slipping into sleep, falling into peace and darkness for a senseless eternity. Or maybe, he mused, there truly was an afterlife, like in the tales told of the gods of his ancestors. A world bathed in the gentle warmth of sunlight, those who had gone before welcoming Blair amongst them with laughter and kindness.
Maybe his mother would be there waiting for him, holding out her arms to embrace him. Blair had been dreaming of her lately; longing for her. He didn’t know if she still lived or if she had long-since died. Was it selfish of him, he wondered, to imagine she’d be there in the afterlife to meet him? Because truly, he hoped that she really was alive and well, and had found whatever it was that she’d been eternally seeking. Blair smiled softly, fantasising about the life she might have led. Maybe she was married – though she had never, during Blair’s childhood, expressed an urge to settle down in any such way. Maybe she’d had other children, to replace the one taken from her. Maybe Blair had brothers and sisters, somewhere.
He wondered if they had the Sight, like him. And he fervently hoped they had the sense to keep it well-hidden.
It helped, Blair had found, to think about his imaginary siblings. To fill his thoughts with characters dredged up from his subconscious and given breath by his need. It was the only thing which came close to fending off the deeper pain which ambushed him at darker moments.
During the times that pain found purchase, twisting him this way and that like a multi-tailed whip with its fiery lashes of betrayal, grief, and despair, Blair blessed the fact that the end was near. Because the nauseating agony of his infected hand was but a tiny pinprick by comparison.
In one respect the old witch had been correct – a night of blessed, unbroken sleep was exactly the restorative that James had needed. Waking clear-eyed in the early morning, to senses well within the bounds of tolerance, gave rise to a clarity of purpose that, if handled badly, could result in his immediate censure as a heretic. Not even those close to him could be trusted, so James fully understood the need for extreme caution and careful deception.
His first priority was Blair. Fighting to subdue an almost crippling sense of remorse for what he’d done to his guide – for such an indulgence would solve nothing – James immediately began to make plans.
First of all he called a meeting with Simon. “Peter and Maeve have been through enough,” he told his seneschal. “I wish to grant them the retirement they deserve. I want you to arrange for them to take possession of the vacant smallholding on my uncle’s old land. While they wait for it to be made ready, they will be hosted here at the castle, and granted every comfort. I will travel to tell them today, and send them on their way. They should arrive here by this evening.”
“Who will guard Blair, my lord?” Simon asked, his brows furrowing.
“I have a replacement in mind,” James said. “Someone who will not only guard him, but attempt to rehabilitate him. He is, after all, ill.”
After that James met with Rowena, who he’d asked to return to the castle to speak with him this morning. True to her word she’d arrived at dawn, and was waiting for him in the great hall while he conversed with Simon.
They retired to his private apartment to ensure they would have privacy, and James told her his plan. “Blair must stay at the estate – it is not safe for him anywhere else. He will live in the house, and I wish you to stay there with him and see to his needs. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, you will be his jailer and physician.”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully at the news. “I have one condition,” she said. “My family must go with me.”
James frowned. “Are they, like us, free of this madness?”
“I wish they were,” Rowena said. “My daughter, Gwen, is affected, as are her two oldest sons. But she trusts my judgement, and the effects have been mitigated by the fact that I drove out the night terrors that were roosting in our attic. Gwen has reclaimed some of her true memories, though she still feels more well-disposed towards the fae than I would like. The madness seems worse with their proximity, especially if they are great in number. If I can get her out of the town and away from the buildings where they gather, I think I can clear her head of the nonsense.”
James thought back, remembering with horror the plates of food he’d seen Maeve put out for the creatures, and the sound of countless tiny heartbeats in the barn and other outbuildings. “There is a whole flock of them at the estate,” he said. “Perhaps hundreds of them.”
“Leave them,” Rowena directed, “to me.”
Making his decision, James nodded. “Go back to your house,” he said. “Get your family ready, then come back here. Aim to travel light – I will ensure you are supplied with whatever you need once we arrive. We will ride out as soon as you are ready.”
Blair stirred uncomfortably. He was far too hot, even the cold stone against which he leaned not providing relief. He ached in every joint, the agonising throb in his hand and arm pounding a constant rhythm through his body. His mouth was dry, but he was too exhausted to move, even to find water to drink.
There were voices speaking, and a light moved beyond his closed eyelids - a candle-flame, he thought, brought close to his face. “He’s burning with fever,” one of the voices said. He recognised the speaker as Maeve. “I doubt he’ll last long, sick as he is. Perhaps we should send for the baron.”
“Best just to leave him be,” said another voice – Peter’s. “It’ll be a mercy if he dies, both for him and for the master. And it’d be easier on his lordship if he doesn’t see him like this.”
“You’re probably right.” Maeve sounded wistful. Then her voice hardened. “A life for a life. This is nothing more than his due.”
Tuning out the voices, which were filled with nothing but blind hatred for him, Blair sought solace from his pain and grief in the beckoning darkness; hoping that, this time, he’d be able to stay in it forever. He was only barely aware, after they left, of the fact that the chain remained taut.
Rowena and her family were ready surprisingly quickly. In deference to her age, James had prepared a carriage – a coach and six - which would be able to make the journey almost as quickly as his own favourite stallion. He planned to drive it there himself, tethering his own horse to the carriage so it would trot alongside the team; then later have Peter drive the carriage back to the castle, along with Maeve and their belongings.
To his surprise Rowena hauled herself into the driving seat with Gwen by her side, after ushering the little boys inside the cab and admonishing them, quite firmly, to sit still. “I didn’t always live in the town,” she told the baron as she took the reins in her wrinkled hands. “I’m from a travelling family, born and brought up in a wagon. I was driving teams like this almost before I could walk. It’s not a skill you forget.”
Gwen caught his doubtful look. “My mam knows what she’s doing, my lord,” she said. “I’ll be here to help her if she needs it.”
Rowena, it seemed, was full of surprises. James watched her closely for a while, riding alongside on his own horse and ready to step in if she found herself in difficulty. But it seemed she had not lied about her skill, despite her obvious exaggeration about how young she’d been when she’d learned it – it took a fully grown man or woman to properly handle a team of six. But it was certainly the case right now, even in her old age, that she retained the strength and skill to drive the horses as efficiently and confidently as any of his own groomsmen.
They made good time, reaching the estate in the early afternoon. James galloped ahead during the last few miles, to alert Maeve and Peter to the impending arrival of their replacements. Or at least that is the reason he gave – in actuality his desperate need to be closer to Blair made it impossible for him to wait any longer.
Schooling himself to calm as he rode into the yard, James took several deep breaths, reminding himself firmly not to give rise to any suspicion. He was worried enough already that Maeve and her husband might be reluctant to leave, or might question his decision to have them do so. The last thing he needed was to give any hint that he shared what they believed to be Blair’s delusions.
Peter came out to meet him as usual, a grim set to his mouth. James wasted no time on pleasantries. “I need to see the two of you now,” he said. “There has been a change of plan.” As he spoke he could see Blair’s prison out of the corner of his eye, and he firmly avoided looking at it. Now was not the time – he wanted these two gone from here before there could be any reunion with his guide.
A short while later, he sat with Maeve and Peter in the house. “I have employed new staff to take over your duties here,” he said. “In thanks for your service, I am making you a gift of a house and land for your retirement. I hope you will accept this as a token of my gratitude.”
To his surprise, Maeve burst into tears. “I’m so glad, my lord,” she sobbed. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
James caught Peter’s eye questioningly. The man, blunt as ever, explained. “This duty has been hard on my wife, my lord. I can’t say either of us will be sorry to see the back of this place. The death of the fae hit Maeve hard. We’ve neither of us been happy here since.”
Forcing himself not to react – it was emphatically not the fae he was concerned about – James said, “Can you be ready to leave soon? There is a carriage coming which you can use to travel to the castle. My seneschal, Simon, awaits you there, and will see to all your arrangements. The bulk of your belongings from here will be sent direct to your new home.”
“Give me half an hour, my lord,” Maeve said, sniffing and composing herself. “It won’t take longer than that to pack a few clothes, then we’ll be ready to go.”
Their discussion was disrupted, then, by the arrival of the carriage. Rowena and Gwen were cursorily shown around, the roundhouse prison carefully not alluded to at all. And true to her word Maeve emerged from the house less than thirty minutes later, with several bags at the ready. As she and Peter loaded them into the now vacated carriage, she eyed Gwen’s children, who were playing tag in the yard, disapprovingly. “This is not a suitable place for them,” she remarked to James. “Though I suppose soon it won’t matter.”
James gave her a hand up into the carriage, as Peter got into the driver’s seat and took the reins. James paused after closing the door, one hand resting on the window sill. “What do you mean?” he asked, the woman’s words filling him with sudden foreboding.
“The boy took a fever overnight,” Maeve told him, looking at him sorrowfully through the carriage window. “If he lasts another day I’ll be surprised.” She reached out and patted James’ hand. “I know you cared for him, my lord. And I’m sorry for that. But it will be better when he’s gone, you’ll see. You’ll be able to get a new guide – a fit guide – then.”
James stepped back as Maeve closed the window. A moment later Peter cracked the whip and the carriage trundled off, disappearing out of the yard in a cloud of dust.
The second it had gone, James turned and bolted towards the roundhouse.
Fumbling with the bunch of keys that Peter had relinquished to him a few moments ago, James unlocked the door of Blair’s prison and flung it open. The blackness of the interior was barely relieved by the winter sunlight, the place smelling, even to James’ unextended senses, of death. Terrified, he moved with leaden steps inside, praying for his eyes to quickly adjust to the gloom, and seeking the beloved figure within.
He found Blair lying on his side on the stone floor against the wall, unmoving. Questing fingers - almost afraid to touch - reached out to encircle Blair’s bare ankle, and discovered flesh that was far hotter than it should have been in the interior chill. To James’ immense relief, a pulse still beat there. His hand nudged up against the encircling manacle, and a killing rage filled him when he found the restraining chain still taut, keeping Blair from the comfort of the bed.
He heard a movement behind him, and knew without looking it was the old woman – he could hear her daughter outside admonishing her sons to go into the house. “Help him,” he gasped, the sick smell of infection informing him that Blair was deathly ill. James felt paralysed – he had done this to Blair. This was his fault.
The woman crouched down beside him, and he heard her fumbling with something.
“Get a hold of yourself, man,” Rowena snapped, as James made as if to retch. She motioned towards the chain. “And get that thing off him.” As James obliged, mastering himself ruthlessly as he unlocked the manacle with trembling hands, Rowena reached out and stroked Blair’s hair gently. “There now, sweetheart,” she crooned softly, as though to a child – James had never guessed that this irascible old witch was capable of showing such compassion. “All will be well, now. You’ll see. You’ll see.”
After that Rowena left them for a moment, going to stand in the open doorway. “Gwen!” She called out to her daughter. “Find me a decent bed in the house as quick as you can, and plenty of clean linens. And get some water on to boil.”
Then she was back at James side. “Can you lift him?” she challenged.
James nodded. “Of course.”
“Then do it,” she told him. “Steady, now,” she said as his hand slipped underneath Blair’s bony shoulders, the other one under his knees. “This might hurt him, but you’ve got to do it. We need to get him indoors.”
Sure enough, Blair groaned painfully when his grotesquely swollen hand was jolted as James lurched to his feet; though the awful sound died away and he remained blessedly insensible thereafter. Blair weighed, it seemed, next to nothing – James had once had occasion to lift him before, after Blair’s collapse in the great hall, and back then he’d been a substantial burden to carry. It filled James with unimaginable remorse and grief to think that in his blindness he’d brought Blair to this terrible, depleted condition.
His steps guided by Rowena, who harried him urgently outside into the open air, James studied Blair as he carried him across the yard and into the house. His hair had fallen aside, revealing the gaunt, white face of a stranger. But for the sweat beading his skin and the pained breaths which puffed in and out of his open mouth, Blair would have looked like a day-old corpse.
Gwen had commandeered a bedroom on the ground floor – it was the one, James realised, recently vacated by Peter and Maeve, and therefore had been kept dusted and swept. Fresh linen had already been put on the bed, and James lay Blair onto it carefully, hating the way his guide’s head lolled floppily as he was lowered down.
As soon as Blair was settled, Rowena shooed James out of the way. “I need room to work,” she said, all her attention already on her charge. She looked up at James. “You’ll have to wait outside.”
“I won’t leave him,” James said stubbornly, planting his feet firmly on the spot. “I’m no stranger to the physician’s craft – I can help.”
“I’d far rather you stay out of my way,” Rowena snapped. “You might have treated a war wound or two, but this situation calls for finesse that an amateur like you can’t possibly understand.”
If anyone else had spoken to him in that way, James would have had them thrown out of his presence, and possibly whipped for good measure – it was only the fact that Blair’s life was in the balance which made him hold his tongue. And though James hated to admit it, Rowena had a point. She touted herself as an apothecary of long standing, while James’ experience had mostly been gained by watching others work on the battlefield, his power to diagnose and treat ailments coming mostly from his senses rather than medical learning. And right now, thanks to the herbs he’d imbibed, his senses were far from working at an optimum level.
Briefly he assessed the only other alternative - riding back to the castle to fetch Physician Wolf. The man might be thoroughly under the influence of the fae, but James knew him at the very least to be an exemplary surgeon. But the journey would inevitably take several hours, and James did not think Blair would survive that long without help. The fact was, right now, Rowena was all he had.
“Will he lose the hand?” James had to ask, obediently keeping well back from where she bustled around, and stepping out of Gwen’s way as she entered, carrying a pot of steaming water. Averting his eyes from the blackened, swollen flesh of Blair’s hand, James could not imagine any other outcome, apart from death - and that latter he refused to contemplate while Blair still breathed.
“It’s too early to say,” Rowena answered. “Put it over there, girl,” she motioned to Gwen, who hastened to set her burden on the nightstand. Then Rowena glanced back at James. “It’s possible, though I will do my best to save it.”
Time slowed to a crawl, James gradually gaining a reluctant respect for the old woman as he watched her work. Short-tempered and irascible though she was, he could not deny that she knew her craft.
A set of surgical knives were produced and taken away by Gwen to be purified by flame, and juice of the poppy and some other substance James could not identify were mixed with water and trickled between Blair’s lips, Rowena speaking softly to him all the while as she stroked his throat and encouraged him to swallow. The surgery that followed, as the foulness was released and drained from Blair’s hand 9the infection scraped away right down to the bone) was performed with a quiet, methodical subtlety James had never previously witnessed during all the times he’d seen battle-surgeons at work. Physician Wolf, James suspected, would have simply progressed straight to amputation, rather than wasting time on this neat delicacy.
Mercifully, Blair remained insensible throughout the whole thing, though James was worried by his pallor. Once the surgery was over the wound was bandaged lightly, though left unstitched to encourage the infection to continue to drain. With that done, Rowena looked across at James, her face lined with fatigue. “He must be given a draught – the same as I gave him earlier, though with less of the poppy - every four hours. If he continues to ingest it and keep it down, the spread of the infection should be halted. He’ll also need to take water, as much as he can tolerate. And in the meantime, he needs to be bathed and kept cool. Gwen will nurse him for awhile.”
“I’ll do it,” James said firmly.
But Rowena shook her head. “There is something else you and I must do first. There will be time for you to minister to your guide once it is done.” She moved to the door. “Gwen?” she called.
Gwen appeared in short order. “What is it, Mam?” she asked.
“Where are the boys?” Rowena asked.
“I gave them supper and sent them to bed,” Gwen said; and James was surprised to note that it was already dark outside. “They’re still awake, though I threatened them that Gran would be in to see them if they didn’t settle soon.” The words were uttered with wry humour; James had no doubt that Rowena could be a fearsome ogre, but her love for her grandchildren was clear.
“Hmph,” Rowena acknowledged. “Take over here then, will you, girl?” she asked. “His lordship and I have a duty to perform.”
At Rowena’s urging they lit some lamps and, splitting up, James and the old woman went through every room in the house, ensuring that the windows and external doors were tightly shuttered and barred. They met up again on the top floor, and Rowena indicated the trapdoor above their heads, which led to the attic. “Have a listen up there,” she said. “Tell me if there are any fae.”
A little afraid to extend his senses since they’d been giving him such trouble, James obliged nevertheless, trusting that Rowena would be able to provide him with something to alleviate the effects if he needed it. Casting his hearing upwards, he perused the attic, seeking in every corner, bringing his sense of smell into play also. “They’ve been there,” he concluded after a few moments, “but they’re gone now.” The flock had no doubt fled their coop as soon as the sun had gone down, flying off into the countryside to feed.
“Good,” Rowena said. She handed him a small jar, the lid sealed tight. “You need to go up there and spread the contents of this around. Make sure to suppress your senses of smell and taste as you do so. And avoid getting the stuff on your skin – if you do, come back down immediately and wash your hands.”
“What is it?” James asked, taking the jar from her.
“It’s powdered crystal, similar to the kind used to repel vermin,” she told him. “It comes from the mines in the east. I’ve found, in this concentrated form, that it deters the fae from roosting. It’s what I used to clear our attic in the town.”
Hooking open the trapdoor with the pole made for that purpose, James pulled down the ladder and ascended into the darkness under the roof. Taking extreme care, as directed, he thinly scattered the white powder everywhere he could reach. The skylight up here was open a little, and so he took a moment to close it. The beasts would need to find another method of entry if they came back and, hopefully, the stuff he’d spread around would dissuade them from attempting to do so.
Then, his urgent need no longer to be denied, he went down to return to the bedside of his guide.
The night proved to be a long and stressful one.
Blair had roused once or twice – a positive sign, Rowena assured James, despite the lack of recognition or sense in his eyes. He’d docilely taken the potion Rowena had given him without difficulty, and swallowed enough water that the sallowness of his skin – a sure sign of dehydration, according to the woman - had begun to recede.
At last as the night progressed, with one or the other of them taking turns to frequently bathe him with tepid water, Blair’s temperature had dropped to a safer level, and Rowena had finally declared him on the path to recovery, and the danger past. Fortifying him once more with poppy juice to dull the pain, she deftly stitched up his hand, which was considerably less swollen and no longer weeping pus.
Desperately wishing that matters were otherwise, James went to fetch his outdoor cloak. “It’s almost first light,” he said reluctantly to Rowena when he returned. “I must leave. I can’t afford to take any more time away from my baronial duties – spending too long here would look suspicious.”
Rowena was ensconced in the chair beside Blair’s bed, her fingers stroking gently through her patient’s hair. Blair slept, oblivious; his face a healthy colour once more and his breathing slow and steady. “I understand,” Rowena said, not looking at the baron. “Come back when it’s safe to do so – I will take good care of him in the meantime.”
“Thank you,” James said sincerely, “for all that you have done. I… I don’t know how I’d have coped if you hadn’t been here. I owe you for his life.”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Rowena said, though the words were without rancour. Her eyes, focused on Blair’s face, were oddly soft.
James felt the stirring of a puzzle. “What is he to you?” he asked wonderingly.
Rowena turned to smile at James, her face losing years of careworn labour as she did so. “Is it that obvious?” She shook her head. “Blair said you were a perceptive man. He was right.”
She turned back to look at Blair, her fingers maintaining their gentle movement across his scalp. “I had another daughter once,” she said, the words adopting the tone of a confession. “Older than Gwen by nearly a decade.” She laughed shortly. “Ah, but she was a rebel, that one. Wild as a bird and just as impossible to cage.”
“What happened to her?” James asked softly.
“Like a bird, she needed to return to the wild places,” Rowena said. “When she reached marriageable age, she declared her intent to go to live among the travelling people – my people. Her father, town-bred as he was, didn’t approve – he’d tamed one wild gypsy woman, he didn’t want to deal with another. But she wouldn’t listen, even when he threatened, in the heat of his anger, to disown her. She ran away after that. We kept expecting her to return with her tail between her legs, but we never saw her again.” She sighed sadly. “My husband never forgave himself. He died with her name on his lips.”
James, perceptive as Blair apparently believed him to be, found it easy to work out the rest. “Blair’s her son,” he said. “Your grandson.”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“Does he know?”
Rowena shook her head. “I only found out recently myself, after making a few discreet enquiries of my own. I was suspicious, of course, right from the start. The son of an unmarried traveller woman called Naomi, who went by my old clan-name ‘Sandburg’. The fact that he possesses the gift of Sight. And he has a look of her – in the way he smiles, sometimes, and the turn of his head. But by the time I knew for sure, the fae had twisted everyone’s minds – everyone except for Blair, my littlest grandson Fernie, and me. I thought it would be safer for Blair, in case my antipathy towards the fae became known, if no one knew we were related. And likewise, when the stories about Blair being a heretic started, I didn’t want the rest of my family harmed by association.” She looked at James. “Gwen and the boys have no idea, and I’ll thank you not to tell them. Not yet.”
“Will you tell him?” James asked, indicating Blair.
Rowena smiled sadly. “One day, perhaps,” she said. “When it’s safe.”
Moving over to the bed, James leaned down and kissed Blair softly on the forehead, then laid his hand over Rowena’s. “I’ll protect you – all of you – with my life,” he vowed. “For Blair’s family is also mine.”
He went after that; but not before he’d seen the tears in the old woman’s eyes.
Even though he’d woken to comfort and light, lying between clean, crisp sheets with sunlight filtering through glass and bathing the room with a soft, golden glow, the itchy discomfort of Blair’s hand and the uncomfortable pressure in his bladder informed him immediately that his hopes of a sunny afterlife had been dashed.
As he lay there, trying to find the strength to rise and hunt for something to relieve himself in, Blair tried hard to remember how he’d come here, wherever here was. After a few moments he discovered bare flashes of memory. He’d heard James’ voice – “Will he lose the hand?” he’d said. Blair glanced at his bandaged limb, elevated on pillows beside him. Clearly, by some miracle, he had not done so, yet had managed to survive all the same.
He remembered other, darker things – Peter and Maeve, determining to leave him, untended, to die. He supposed James had come along anyway, only to discover how close Blair was to death, and then insisted he be nursed back to health before his imprisonment could continue. Blair closed his eyes in despair. He’d truly rather die than be chained in the stinking darkness once again.
The thought of the unbearable future that awaited him gave Blair the impetus he needed to move. He pushed himself painfully upright, the soft bed trying desperately all the while to swallow him back down. Trembling with weakness that he ruthlessly tried to overcome, Blair slid out of bed and onto the floor on his knees, needing first of all to deal with a pressing matter of business. His questing fingers found, to his intense relief, the chamber pot he was searching for.
After that was dealt with, Blair feeling a hundred times lighter in the aftermath, he pushed himself to his feet. His legs trembled like those of a day-old calf as he stumbled, using the furniture for support, over to the window to look out.
His heart sank when he got there. Just as he had assumed, the dark spectre of his prison could be seen across the courtyard. He’d been brought into the main house to be tended, and his jailors no doubt had every intention of returning him to the unrelieved blackness of the roundhouse just as soon as they could be certain he would not die.
Hopelessness filled him at that prospect.
Blair looked away from the window and cast his eyes around the room. The furniture – the big, comfortable bed, a rocking chair, a dresser – was crafted from pine undressed in the country manner, the sunlight catching golden whorls in the oiled surfaces. Blair smiled sadly at the sight. For a man who had spent what felt like a lifetime in the dark, there was beauty even here, right on the edge of nightmare. Then his eyes alighted on something on the small, round table beside the chair, and he breathed more quickly. Surely they had not been so careless?
Making his way over, purpose lending his steps a surety entirely lacking a few moments ago, Blair sat down on the chair, almost afraid to touch. A knife lay there beside him; a small paring knife, of the kind used for fruit. Traces of peel were still upon it, so he guessed a watcher had sat here, absently eating an apple as they took vigil.
It was like an omen. Blair thought that if he’d truly believed in the gods of his ancestors or the bounty of the fae, he’d be giving thanks right now for this gift.
With shaking fingers, Blair reached out with his good hand and picked up the knife. This would be his deliverance from the blackness, he determined, and the living hell his life had become. The instrument by which he would excise the agony of being renounced by his sentinel, and treated like a felon for speaking nothing but the truth in a world where every other person was living a lie.
The trick, of course, was to do it before his jailers returned, because if they could save him from the infected bite, they could save him from this too. The cut would need to be swift and sure, and he’d have to manage it without sound, so as not to alert them to what was happening until it was too late. His hand shaking, Blair held the knife up to his throat – there was a big channel of blood there, he knew; one which, if severed, would drain him dry in minutes.
Yet even here, on the verge of salvation, Blair hesitated, heart pounding in dread, striving to find his courage. For a moment he allowed his longing and grief to blossom unchecked. James, an inner voice cried, over and over; Blair wishing with all his heart for his sentinel to look at him once more with love. To feel that indefinable connection which had already been renounced between them, and would, in a few moments more, be extinguished forever. James.
But thoughts of James and hope destined to remain unfulfilled did not help bolster his resolve or calm his fear. So instead Blair focused again on the golden sunlight while he waited for his hand to firm up to its purpose, picking out the glinting hues of wood. Strange, he mused, how such a common thing held such beauty when light shone upon it. And he listened for a sound to take with him into eternity – birdsong, perhaps; though birds were noticeably fewer now since the fae had come. But what he found instead were the voices of children, laughing and playing outside his window.
That pulled him abruptly back from the knife’s-edge of his own destruction. Children? Here?
A second later Blair realised he’d left it too late, when his door opened. But to his astonishment, it was neither Peter nor Maeve who entered, but the old hedge-guide from the town.
Rowena came straight over to him, and wasted no time in prising the knife from his stiff fingers. “You’re safe now, child,” she told him earnestly. “Your man came to his senses, and brought me and my family here to take care of you. He knows the truth, now. He sees the night terrors for what they are.”
Unable to speak, his breath hitching in inexpressible, thoroughly unforeseen relief, Blair didn’t resist when the woman pulled him forward to comfort him at her breast, holding and soothing him every bit as tenderly as the mother he’d imagined in his most desperate dreams.
In the hours and days that followed, while Blair slowly recovered his health and vitality, he learned what had transpired to bring about his liberation.
As he lay in bed, listening to Rowena telling him the tale of how James’ true memories had returned, Blair couldn’t help asking the question which was inevitably raised. “If you knew that giving him those herbs would work, why did you not tell me that before, when I first came to you for advice?”
“I didn’t know for sure they would work,” Rowena confessed. “They simply dull the senses. In the case of you or I, they would render us unconscious. For a sentinel, they simply bring overextended senses within the bounds experienced by other humans.”
“I would have taken the chance,” Blair said. “What would I have had to lose?”
The old woman sighed miserably, clearly annoyed with herself. “You’re his guide, Blair,” she said. “I thought I’d already given you what you would need when I told you to reel in his senses, and guide him towards his own gift of Sight – which is what I managed to achieve by using those herbs. What I had forgotten was that while you are a trained guide, Sight is not something you have much knowledge of or experience with. How could you know how to guide him to true vision, when you are a novice in that area yourself? Especially when you hardly seem to have any faith in the gift at all.”
“It’s not your fault,” Blair protested, remembering how frantic he’d been during that terrible period to find a way to convince James. “You also advised me to proceed with caution, yet I paid no heed to either matter. I thought that knowledge gleaned from books and other sources would be sufficient to sway him, so I delayed until I’d amassed the knowledge I thought I needed. I just never…” Blair faltered. “I never believed,” he went on, his voice hoarse with pain, “that James would do anything to hurt me. It never occurred to me that he would be having me watched, or be making plans to lock me away. I thought… I thought he trusted me. That he’d just believe me, if I gave him enough evidence of the truth.”
Rowena reached out and patted his arm comfortingly. “The illusions woven by the fae,” she said, “are very powerful. I am certain he believed he was acting in your best interests, as well as those of the barony.”
But now Blair’s bitterness had found an outlet, it was not to be so easily stemmed. “He renounced me as his guide,” he said miserably. “All I did was defend myself from the fae, but he didn’t even listen. He left me in the dark to die. He threatened to have me muted if I spoke so much as a word!”
“And knowing what he knows now, how do you think it makes him feel, that he did those things to you?” Rowena challenged. “You did not see his face when he found you near death. You didn’t see the tenderness in his hands when he sat up all night with you, bathing away your fever. And you didn’t see his grief when he was forced to leave you, to go back to lead a barony full of people who would kill him if they knew his secret, baron or no.”
Blair turned his face away. “I don’t… I don’t know how to deal with any of this,” he admitted, his voice thick with tears.
“Give it time,” Rowena said. “I know it is hard, but you must try to find some forgiveness for him. If it is any consolation I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it will be a long time indeed before he forgives himself.”
Blair spent several days in his room, still too weary and sick at heart to venture out from its shelter. But gradually the lure of company and sunlight drew him into the open, although he stayed within the bounds of the estate itself. Remote though this place was, he did not want to chance anyone coming upon him in the open, thus putting all of them at risk of discovery by someone enamoured of the fae.
As for the beasts themselves, Rowena had made a concerted effort to drive them away, venturing out several times just after nightfall to scatter the foul-smelling crystals she’d brought with her anywhere they might roost. And as a precaution, given the attack that Blair had endured, the shutters of the house were closed tight every night.
Gwen, it seemed, since her mother had driven the remainder of the flock from the outbuildings on the estate, had completely recovered from the faes’ influence. She explained it to Blair, when he wondered aloud whether such a cure might be possible for others if the fae were to be driven off. “I don’t have the Sight,” she said. “But Mam says I do have a bit of guide-skill – not enough to ever become a real guide, like you, but enough that with Mam’s help I was able to shake off the illusion once I got away from the fae.” She shuddered. “Horrible, nasty creatures, they are. It makes me sick that I used to think they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.”
“So,” Blair asked, “are you saying that it’s only people like us – those with the Sight, or with sentinel and guide gifts – who are able to see the truth?”
“Well,” Gwen answered, “neither Jem nor Tomas have been totally cleared of their attraction to the fae, despite all our best efforts, even though they’ve got a little better now there are less fae around us. And they don’t have even a spark of a gift between them; take after their dad, they do, in that regard. Little Fernie, now, he’s got the Sight as good as Mam does, and he’s always seen things as they are, right from the start. I’d say, going by that, that it’s only the likes of us who can be completely cured while there are still fae in the world.”
That knowledge filled Blair with a sense of deep pessimism. Unless they could find a way to get rid of each and every one of the creatures, they would be destined to live out their lives like this – in hiding, knowing each moment that they might be taken as witches and murdered. In a world where a guide was not even safe from his own sentinel, what chance could they possibly have at the hands of others?
As Blair’s hand gradually healed, becoming fully functioning once again despite the impressive scar that marred it, he took every opportunity he could to spend time outdoors, hating the necessary confinement they all were forced to endure at night. As soon as he was able he took over some of the heavier tasks necessary for keeping their household running – chopping wood, hefting bags of vegetables from their outdoor larder, looking after the small herd of livestock they kept, and performing whatever maintenance and repairs were necessary before the hard frosts set in. But each time he crossed the yard he averted his eyes from the stone prison where he’d been held for so long, and he never once set foot inside it.
Once a week a cart visited the estate, bringing provisions from the nearby village. On those occasions Blair made himself scarce indoors, keeping well out of sight and leaving canny Rowena and her daughter to deal with the pleasantries. The locals had no idea of the supposed madman in their midst, knowing only that the current occupiers had been employed as caretakers to keep it running. It was imperative, for the safety of them all, that everyone in the vicinity continue to believe exactly that.
A month passed and then another; winter solstice now just around the corner. Blair found himself longing constantly for James to return. Yet he found that he dreaded it, too, and not just because there was so much left unsaid between them. What if the herbs had worn off, and the cure was only temporary? What if, now that James had returned to the castle with its stonework and stable-block full of nesting creatures, he’d forgotten the truth once more?
Blair fretted about the opposite scenario, too. How would James cope, alone amongst people who worshipped the fae? What if he could not maintain the deception? Blair knew, from bitter experience, exactly how it felt to be sane in the midst of madness. And there was an even worse possibility than that – what if James’ heresy had been discovered? What if, even now, he was dead? How would they know?
Rowena, of course, had an answer for that. “You’re his guide,” she said. “You’d know.”
But that was cold comfort to Blair, considering all else that could have gone wrong and that none of them could possibly be aware of, short of venturing to the castle to find out.
There was an odd peace to be found, however, in their perilous, introverted existence. They were bound strongly together by the danger they were in and their common secret, Blair unexpectedly finding himself accepted into Rowena’s little family as though he belonged there. The children were a hyperactive joy, as unlike serious little Grace as anyone could be; their frequently naughty antics constantly lightened the dourness of Blair’s thoughts with amusement. It was hard, he had to admit, to remain depressed for long with them around.
Still, there was a growing sense of waiting, of expectation, amongst them all; and Blair turned his thoughts more and more frequently towards the road, hoping with all his heart to see a familiar visitor upon it soon.
Three days before winter solstice, the waiting came to an end.
The news of an approaching rider, who Jem had spotted while the boys played in the lane, mobilised them all. Blair retreated, as he usually did when the carter visited, to a room on the top floor, to conceal his presence for the duration.
Blair could hear little up here where he waited, heart pounding, hoping that it was simply a traveller innocently passing by their homestead, and not someone with a more ominous motive for seeking them out in this remote place. But deep in his heart he wished for the visitor to be someone else altogether – someone he both yearned and dreaded to see.
Blair did not have to wait for long to find out. He heard footsteps on the stairs, then Gwen knocked and entered, her face flushed with excitement. “It’s him, she said. “The baron – he’s come at last.”
Blair felt weak-kneed at the news. He took the hand Gwen held out to him and followed her out of the room.
Descending the stairs after Gwen, with her gripping his hand all the while as though she suspected he might bolt back up them, they reached the lower flight where, at last, he heard James’ voice in the kitchen. “It wasn’t safe to come sooner,” James was telling Rowena. He sounded, to Blair’s ears, weary and unhappy. “As it is, I can only stay for one night.”
James’ voice faltered as Blair reached the ground floor to stand, heart pounding, just outside the kitchen door. Contradictory emotions – dread, need and a deep, painful anger he’d never managed to rationalise away despite all his efforts - threatened to root him to the spot, but Gwen did not allow it. She tugged on his arm relentlessly, pulling him after her despite his reluctance. A moment later, Blair found himself inside the room.
The baron was sitting at the table, his boots – which Blair saw first, since his eyes were cast downwards – dusty from the road. Blair could feel the baron’s eyes upon him but dared not meet his gaze, afraid both of what he’d see and of how he might himself react.
Rowena spoke. “Come on, girl,” she said, and Blair was aware of her moving past to usher Gwen out of the door. “We’ve got work to do in the yard.” A moment later they were both gone, the door closed firmly after them.
Finally, after an eternity of silence, Blair raised his eyes to look into the face of his sentinel: the man he loved beyond life, who had doomed him to a living death.
Even without using his senses James could easily sense Blair’s anger and misery. The deep link that lay between them, once so vibrant and wondrous a thing, had long-since dwindled into dormancy. But the expression on Blair’s face as he at last raised his eyes to James’ - a face James had once known so well, before the lines of pain and grief that now aged and disfigured its beauty – spoke of unmistakeable torment. Betrayed by the man who professed to love him, cast into the silent darkness, committed into the hands of people who wanted him dead.
Worst of all, Blair’s despairing eyes spoke of his deepest anguish; renunciation by the sentinel he’d pledged his life to, who should, by right and custom, have placed his guide’s welfare and happiness above all things.
James felt stripped to the bone by Blair’s barbed gaze, and he accepted it all, denying nothing. Slowly he rose, Blair’s hurt, accusing eyes upon him all the while. And before he’d taken two steps towards Blair he sank to his knees, his head bowed in supplication. His own grief and remorse so immense he thought he’d die from it, James uttered the trite words which would never be enough to atone for his crime. Nothing would ever be enough. “I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes downcast. “I do not deserve your forgiveness but…” his voice broke, “I beg for it nevertheless.”
James was aware of Blair moving nearer, and his hands clenched into fists at his side as he steeled himself for a blow. He would not defend himself if it came to that, for it was Blair’s right. And if Blair chose to flay him with words instead, then James would accept each and every syllable of blame, and gladly bare his back for more.
The hand which fell upon his head, stirring his hair gently and lovingly, was far worse than any beating.
Anguish consumed James. Ever since he’d recovered his wits, he’d wanted to die for what he’d done. To suffer as he’d made Blair suffer; to know the same despair, magnified a thousandfold, that he’d inflicted upon his guide,. For the past two months he’d buried his guilt deep down, locking it in the darkest depths of his own mind lest it escape and betray his secret to those who would condemn them all, if they but knew of its existence.
Yet now, the soft touch of Blair’s hand set it free, bringing it ravenous and raging to the surface. It boiled up from the depths, erupting in a strangled cry James was powerless to control, his body convulsing with pained gasps as it broke the bounds of its prison; yet he remained kneeling on the spot.
James’ felt his head cradled against Blair’s flat stomach; his guide’s hands, calloused from hard work and every bit as gentle and sure as those in his memory, alternately stroking over his head and shoulders and holding him close. He didn’t deserve such tenderness, James knew, as he fought to breathe through the terrible sobs that threatened to choke him. Yet Blair continued, relentlessly, to provide it. It was far, far more than James deserved but oh, how he hungered for it. And despite his unworthiness, the magic of Blair’s touch gradually infused him, the flood of pain easing and at last slowing to a trickle.
Then Blair knelt down too, his hands cupping James’ face and forcing him to make eye contact. “Link with me,” Blair commanded hoarsely, his own eyes full of tears, but with a fierce determination on his face which held nothing of cowed submissiveness. Blair was thoroughly unbroken, James acknowledged admiringly, despite everything that had been done to him. Rightfully angry, yes; and desperately hurt too. But so incredibly strong, so resilient, that James wanted to worship at his feet for the wonder of it.
Able to deny Blair nothing, James retreated to that area of his mind from whence he could reach out to his guide. Stepping out into the void he moved decisively onward, his footfalls sure and confident, boards appearing magically beneath his feet to arc over the chasm. And at the apex of the bridge he and Blair met, their outstretched hands joining to complete the span.
At that moment they were one, their thoughts and memories exchanging in a rush of images and sensation. James felt Blair’s dread and fear at a world gone mad. He remembered, as though the memories were his, Blair’s rage and horror when he was unjustly confined, and his anguish at being chained in the relentless darkness, enduring day-after-day in a state of tedious, perpetual hopelessness. And he felt with wonder the decision Blair had made – never to run, and to make James see the truth or else die in captivity. Where else would I go? He heard Blair say in his mind, when he questioned such unwavering loyalty. You are my life, James.
Their link went both ways, of course so, unbidden, James shared with Blair the horror and grief he’d felt back then in the midst of his own madness, when he’d believed Blair – his beloved, cherished Blair – not only to be insane, but also a danger to others. And James’ shock and bottomless remorse at what he’d done to Blair, which had consumed him ever since he’d come to his senses, flooded the space between them with its potency.
James felt, then, an echo of the impasse Blair had ultimately been brought to. A knife, sharp and glinting in the sunlight; the scent of apples heralding a dark path to be taken alone. And at last knowing the depth of despair he’d engendered in a man he loved beyond life, James wanted nothing more than to die himself.
No! Blair’s voice ordered in his head, forcing that image decisively away. Look at this.
James saw himself, kneeling at Blair’s feet, neck bared as if to an executioner. He felt love and sorrow so profound for the proud, devastated sentinel that it moved him to tears. He saw the innate goodness in the man; the desperate wish to atone for actions which had been inspired by an influence entirely outside his control. And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that nothing the sentinel had done had been out of any desire to cause harm or distress, but had simply been a matter of striving to do the right and just thing both by his guide and his people, even at a time when his judgement had been so grossly impaired.
Back in the present James looked deep into Blair’s eyes, and found them full of the same fierce, protective love that he’d felt though their link. Blair still cupped his face in his hands, and James could not look away, not even when the words his guide spoke set him free.
“I forgive you,” Blair said.
This time when James wept, his tears were borne of gratitude and joy.
~ The tale of The Night Terrors resumes in Part the Third - The Winnowing ~
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