Part the Second - The Harrowing is posted in two chapters due to length. Chapter 1 is on this page, and Chapter 2 is here.
After that the story of The Night Terrors continues in Part the Third - The Winnowing
Part the Second - The Harrowing
Just as James had proclaimed, the turning of the year was a new start for them all.
As if Nature knew they needed respite, the winter snows which set in a few days after the solstice were short-lived, the temperatures mild throughout the rest of the slowly lengthening days. In the town most of the rebuilding had been done, and now rebuilding of a different kind – of lives at long last given hope for the future – commenced in earnest. It really was as though the darkness was behind them for good, replaced by a pervading sense of optimism and moving forward.
The deep link which had formed between James and Blair was strong and unbreakable. Blair often found himself cast up on the shore of the moment, flailing in dazed surprise at his own good fortune. He truly had been given everything he’d ever wanted – a home, a family, and a sentinel who loved him and who he adored in turn. It seemed almost too good to be true – yet at every turn he was faced with the amazing reality of it all.
The business of each day went on much as it had before they had paired. Blair spent most of his time tutoring Grace, while James sat as usual in council in his hall. But at frequent intervals they came together, both to reconnect and for Blair to ensure that James’ senses were functioning at their best. Blair derived great pleasure from seeing both James and Grace blossom under his guidance, their senses honed and optimised by his tutelage and care. For someone who had worked towards being the best guide he could possibly be for most of his life, there was no greater reward.
During the daylight hours and when not otherwise engaged, Blair and James would often walk outside together in the woods and fields, Blair’s natural guide gifts and the fresh air soothing the sentinel’s senses. And there was more time for play now, too, since the crisis was past. Time spent riding and engaging in other leisurely pursuits, as well as James resuming his much-loved daily exercises in the yard with his men.
Despite never having been much of an athlete or a fighter, Blair often found himself drawn into those games too. It was a relief, in any case, after the various incapacities he’d suffered, to be able to stretch his body beyond its normal limits. So Blair spent time learning swordplay from James, as well as Megan’s weaponless southern fighting style. With regard to the latter, he felt intense satisfaction one day when he managed to floor James as they wrestled, to the delighted whoops of Megan and their other observers, although the sentinel had accused him of fighting dirty to do so. “I’m certain,” James said with a grimace as Blair helped him up, “that you did not learn that move from Megan!”
Blair shrugged. “You use what you can. You may have noticed I’m not exactly in your league when it comes to stature. Yet, living in the capital, I had to know how to defend myself effectively.”
“You’re full of surprises,” James said, grinning and pulling him close, pointedly ignoring the suggestive catcalls of the guardsmen ringing the yard as he did so. “And all of them good!”
Their evenings were often spent together with their wider ‘family’ – the newly handfasted Megan and Rafe, as well as Grace, of course, and often Simon. Those times were treasured idylls of peace for all of them.
Upon retiring to the privacy of their chamber each night, Blair and James spent hour after hour engaged in exploration and enjoyment of each other. Blair gradually rediscovered, in James’ gentle, safe hands, the joy of giving and receiving pleasure, unmarred by painful memory. Their lovemaking was breathtakingly tender, infused always with the depth of feeling which could only be known through a deep link.
It was everything Blair had ever wished for and more. A perfect, flawless happy ending.
Yet no matter how much he tried to suppress it, Blair’s contentment was constantly marred by the ominous words of a hedge-guide, and a formless dark shadow far away to the north.
Seeing Blair like this always made James feel as powerful as if he were one of the kings of old, master of the entire landscape from horizon to horizon – which at the moment comprised Blair’s heaving chest, squirming body and passion-flushed face. Knowing exactly the right moment to do so, James adjusted his grip and speed, and he watched with immense satisfaction when Blair came apart beneath him. Experiencing Blair’s reaction as if it were his own, thanks to the gift of his heightened senses and their emotional connection, James followed almost immediately after, their combined ecstasy almost robbing him of his wits.
Then in the aftermath, just as had been the case ever since the solstice, James watched with disappointment as the sated contentment on Blair’s face was gradually supplanted by something darker. Blue eyes made drowsy with satisfaction drifted to gaze towards the shuttered window, and shadow marred the edges of their passion-softened ease.
Ever since they’d first consummated their pairing, James had hoped that his gentle loving of Blair would eventually banish the demons of his past. During their coupling itself Blair always seemed every bit as involved as James –the sentinel would have known if it were otherwise, because their empathy for each other was so strong at those intimate times. Attuned to Blair as he was, James took pains not to push him too fast or take him to places he was not yet ready to go and, so far, Blair had expressed nothing but pleasure at their mutual touches. Yet afterwards, instead of basking together in the glow as James always hoped they might, Blair often closed himself off, his attention caught by something apparently altogether more troubling.
James had refrained so far from broaching the topic with his partner, because he respected Blair’s need, as a man, to have privacy to deal with whatever preyed on his mind. They were sentinel and guide, their emotions forever opened to each other. But that did not mean they had a right to every corner of each other’s thoughts all of the time. Their commitment was a precious gift, which must remain unmarred by obligation except where it was freely given. Yet James nevertheless found himself unable, after holding his peace for so long, not to say something. “Blair, I… I’m so sorry you’re still so troubled. If you need to sleep in your own room, I’ll understand. I don’t want you to feel obligated to lie with me.”
James was expecting perhaps acceptance and gratitude for his understanding; not appalled shock. “What?” Blair said, obviously fully back in the moment. “Is that what you think?” Astonishment gave way to misery. “Is this your way of telling me you want to sleep alone?”
“Then why would you say such a thing?”
It seemed they were going to have this discussion anyway, despite James’ sincere intention to simply give Blair the space he needed. “You’ve been ill-used in the past,” he said, feeling an intense pain in his gut at the memory of what Blair had gone through when he first arrived at the castle. “It’s understandable that what we do in bed reminds you. I just want you to know, we can take this more slowly, if you wish. I’m just saying I understand. That’s all.”
Blair blinked. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he said emphatically. “Nothing about you, or the way you touch me, reminds me of what they did. Nothing. All right, yes,” he admitted, “there are some things I’m not ready for – I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. But that is beside the point. I’m not afraid of you, James. I love you, and I love what we do here together.”
The truth of Blair’s assertion was plain to James’ senses. “Then what,” he asked, confused by Blair’s response, “is wrong?”
Blair sighed and shifted, and James pulled away to give him room to sit up. The shadow was back in Blair’s eyes, and James watched as, once again, Blair’s gaze shifted to the shuttered window, before coming back to James’ face. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “I feel… something. Something strange. As though something bad is going to happen. It’s not to do with you and I – it’s something out there.”
With a flash of insight – he was from a long line of sentinels and guides, after all – James asked, “Do you have the Sight?”
“My mother used to say I did.” Blair shrugged. “That was a long time ago. It’s not a skill that the Academy approve of or encourage. They see it as a hedge-guide trait, and therefore unworthy of a true Master Guide. We’re taught from an early age to suppress it. Eventually it goes away.”
“And yet,” James pointed out, “you feel something is wrong, nevertheless.” He smiled, trying to reassure. “That sounds like the Sight to me.”
Blair didn’t seem comforted. “If this strange feeling is the Sight, and all it is telling me is that something bad will happen but not what it is, then it is not altogether much use. At least in that respect, the Academy was correct.”
“Can you describe what you see?” James prompted.
“No.” Blair shook his head, struggling with the words. “It’s just… a feeling. Someone – a hedge-guide in the town – described it as a storm. It feels like a black cloud in the north. It could destroy us all, she said.”
James shivered at the prophetic words. If another guide had sensed it too – and James had the utmost respect for hedge-guides as well as for Blair - then there was perhaps cause for concern. “Would you like me to see if I can detect it?” he said. “If you anchor me here, I will send out my senses, and see if there is anything that should not be there.”
“You’d do that?”
Blair’s obvious relief fortified James’ determination to do so. “Of course I will,” he said. He put out a hand and stroked Blair’s cheek. “I want to help you any way I can,” he said. “But also I have faith in your intuition. If you feel there may be a threat, then I must investigate.”
Blair looked a little sheepish. “I should have asked you before,” he said. “I would have done so, except I didn’t want to trouble you with something which might be nothing more than my imagination.”
James leaned forward and kissed Blair softly on the lips. “Even if it is,” he said, gazing at Blair tenderly, “I would do anything for you. You only have to ask.”
Over the next few minutes, Blair led James through a breathing exercise to ready him for what he was about to do. Then, secure in the knowledge that his guide was there to tether and protect him, James allowed his senses to fly out into the darkness.
Far he flew; through darkness and over trickling streams, his nostrils filled with the scent of bog and the damp promise of rain. The air was colder the higher he travelled, snow tickling his nose with its ice crystals when he turned his attention to the peaks. Night creatures scurried and flew in the wild places; great owls soaring over scrabbling prey far below in the heather. Still James’ senses travelled, further and further, following the north star like a lodestone.
At last, reaching the limits of his awareness, he listened; seeking that which should not be there. But he heard nothing, smelled nothing, sensed nothing.
And he realised, to his dismay, that the answer was deep within the nothingness itself.
Relaxing all control James allowed his guide to reel him back in, arriving back into his body and their bedchamber with a rush, to find Blair looking at him, his expression a mixture of dread and hope.
At the question in his eyes, James said hoarsely, “It’s there. The dark cloud.” He shivered, feeling again the sense of barrenness and threat. “Its breath is like a warm wind in the far north. It is surrounded by emptiness – there is not one single living creature within leagues of where it lies.”
James heard Blair’s heart jump and speed up but, guide-like, he maintained his composure. “What is it?” he asked.
James shook his head. “I don’t know for certain,” he admitted, intense despair filling him. “But I think I can guess.”
Blair’s voice broke. “I thought they’d gone,” he said, “like the fae did in the old tales. Back to their home far away, never to return.”
“I think they’re just biding their time,” James admitted, his self-recrimination almost too much to bear. How could he have been so wrong? “Sleeping, like rodents in the winter. I’m sorry, Blair.”
Wordlessly, Blair gathered him in. And, tense and fitful, they clung together throughout the rest of the night, their intermittent dreams filled with the flap of wings and scrabble of claws.
James agonised for most of that long, interminable night how best to deal with the threat. Clearly word would have to be spread throughout the other baronies. Precautions would need to be taken to protect people from the night terrors, in readiness for the time they might fly south once more. Better and more effective ways of keeping the creatures out would need to be devised, and houses suitably reinforced. And he would need to ensure that people were armed and ready to fight.
Rising in the clear light of morning to air filled with the promise of spring, and the hopeful faces of a populace who had lived through a nightmare they now thought gone forever, he found himself paralysed into inaction. How could he tell them that their new-found optimism and hope for the future was based on a false premise?
Yet, of course, he must. He was baron – it was his duty.
But as the morning advanced, with Blair constantly hovering equally devastated and white-faced at his elbow, James began to see another solution.
The creatures, if he’d sensed it right, were sleeping. Whiling away the winter months in hibernation, just like any common creature.
Maybe it was time to turn the tables, and show them what it was like to be slaughtered while lying vulnerable and unaware – just as they had done to so many of James’ people, who they’d mercilessly devoured in their beds.
Finally, knowing what he must do, James called a meeting with Simon to tell him what he’d discovered, and to plan their next move.
Even as James set the wheels in motion to deal with the night terrors once and for all, Blair was plagued by a constant, nagging sense of doubt. Something about this whole scenario did not add up, his odd prescience notwithstanding. Why, when they had never done so in living memory, had the creatures gone to ground this winter? What was different about this year than any other? Previously the night terrors had revelled in the longer hours of darkness which came about at this time of year, and the cold had not seemed to affect them at all.
While the seneschal and the baron sequestered themselves in the baron’s private apartment to take counsel, Blair found himself in Simon’s library, seeking in the ancient books he kept there the tales they had all grown up hearing – that the night terrors, just like the fae of ancient times, would one day flee north, and go from the land forever back to the magical place from whence they came. Poring over huge, dusty volumes, he found several allusions to the mythical tales, none of which helped at all.
Frustrated, Blair closed the latest book he’d been perusing with an irritated sigh. They’d all been so certain that the night terrors were gone. The old legends of the fae and the very real night terrors had become so entwined in their collective consciousness that, when the beasts had left, everyone had remembered the old stories and assumed the night terrors had gone the way of the fae. Yet it seemed they were merely beasts after all, and not at all magical like the faery creatures of old – they merely slept like any other animal, conserving their energy and warmth through the winter, biding their time before they came back to attack again.
Yet the two scenarios – the fae of legend and the night terrors – shared enough common characteristics that doubt remained. So much so that, when James emerged grim-faced from his meeting with Simon, Blair begged him not to act on their discovery just yet. “People will panic,” he pointed out, “and we can’t be certain that the night terrors will definitely return. Perhaps they are just biding their time before they continue their journey homeward.”
“Blair,” James protested wearily, “we have to act now. I can’t take the chance that they will wake and come back to kill us all. If they are insensible, I can take an army north to slaughter them while they still sleep. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity.”
Feeling deep unease, yet understanding nevertheless that James had a duty to act, Blair decided to ask for a little more time. “Give me a little longer, James. Please. Just one day to look into this further. You said it yourself,” he pointed out. “You have great respect for the teachings of your ancestors. I am certain that the old legends of the fae can tell us something – I just need time to find the right information. And James,” he said pleadingly, “what if you’re wrong? What if they’re not sleeping? How can you be sure that you’d not simply be leading your army to their deaths?”
James’ face was hard. “A soldier can never be certain of such things,” he said. “I am no stranger to making tough decisions, and taking responsibility for my actions.”
Another might have quailed at James’ icy demeanour, but not Blair – he knew his sentinel well enough to perceive the fear and doubt under the surface. “One day, James,” he reiterated softly. “That’s all I ask.”
James didn’t answer but, after a moment, nodded stiffly before turning away.
After he’d gone, Blair got dressed for the outdoors and headed out towards the town. The books had told him nothing he didn’t already know. It was time to get information from a different – and altogether more unsettling - source.
It wasn’t hard to locate the home of the old woman - the very first person Blair stopped to ask apparently knew the hedge-guide well. “You mean old Rowena? You’ll find her three streets down and to the left. Her house is at the far end of the row. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” Blair said politely and, following the directions, shortly found himself standing before a red-painted door. Inside a commotion of children’s voices could be heard, and Blair remembered that, when the old woman had been among those seeking shelter at the castle, she’d been surrounded by children. At the time he’d been so unnerved by her – as well as disoriented by the onset of fever – that he’d not paid the company she was with any more heed than that.
Above the door a faded sign could be seen: Madam Rowena, it proclaimed. And another sign beside the door indicated what manner of business could be found within:
Shaking his head disapprovingly – such superstitious practices were abhorred by the Academy – Blair lifted his hand to knock.
Abruptly, even before his hand made contact, the door opened; and Blair stepped back as several small boys ran out and pushed past him. “Hey there, mind your manners!” A woman’s voice called after them; and, in the next moment, she appeared at the door. It wasn’t the hedge-guide, but rather a much younger version of her – the same long-lashed deep-brown eyes, and wispy curls escaping the knot at the back of her head, although her hair was chestnut while the old lady’s had been mostly white.
The woman did not seem surprised to see Blair there. “Lord Blair,” she greeted, and Blair blinked at the unaccustomed honorific. “Mam said you’d come.” When he made no answer, stunned to silence, she took his arm and steered him inside. “Well, come in!” she urged. “You’re very welcome. Though I imagine you’re used to finer accommodations than our humble house.”
There had been an edge of humour in the woman’s voice, and something told Blair that her self-effacing remark was more reflective of her dry wit than an indication of the plainness of her abode. And indeed, although this woman was clearly not wealthy, her house was warm and homely, furnished tastefully and clean and neat.
Once inside the lady steered Blair into her kitchen. The hedge-guide he’d come to see was sitting at the kitchen table, a pile of winter greens spread over the surface in front of her as she wielded a knife to prepare them for the pot.
Madam Rowena looked up as they entered, and fixed a measuring stare on Blair. “I thought you’d come sooner,” she greeted bluntly, expressing no surprise as Blair, urged by her daughter do so, took a seat at the table. “Worked it out, have you?”
Blair had a feeling that courtly manners would be lost on this woman. “The night terrors haven’t gone,” he said, answering bluntness with bluntness. “Though if you’d told me that when we met on the road at solstice, instead of giving me vague hints, perhaps it would have given us more time to deal with them. Winter,” he pointed out, a little testily, “is almost over.”
“They won’t be back, child,” Rowena said, ignoring his rebuke. “Leastways not soon.” She shifted her attention to her daughter. “Some tea for our guest, eh, Gwen?”
“The kettle’s already on, Mam,” Gwen replied, her back to the room as she gathered cups from the dresser.
That business dealt with, Rowena fixed her direct gaze back on Blair. “Most of the time with the Sight, vague hints is all you get, especially when what you see is something far in the future. But having had that beaten out of you at the Academy, I’m not surprised you don’t know it.”
Blair bristled at her tone. “No one ‘beat’ me at the Academy,” he asserted. “They treated me with nothing but kindness.”
“They took you from your family and forced you to subdue your natural gifts, boy,” Rowena said belligerently. “Which is as good as having it beat out of you. I should know; they did it to me, too.”
Blair’s antagonism towards this strange woman withered in the face of his surprise. “You trained at the Academy?”
“Don’t sound so shocked,” Rowena said. “Many of us who have the gifts went there for training – whether we wanted to or not. Not all of us got as far as you, that’s all. When it was clear that I’d never be the ‘Master’ they wanted me to be, they washed their hands of me. Just as they did with you.”
“And you know that about me, how?” Blair demanded. “Because of the Sight?”
Rowena threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, that’s a good one,” she chuckled. “No, young man. I know that because you are the baron’s guide, and very little that goes on up at the big house is a secret. Gossip is rife in places like this; though, being raised as a city boy, I guess you didn’t realise it. Half the women in town pine after the romantic hero they believe you to be, and the rest want to comfort you at their motherly breasts.”
A little discomforted by the picture Rowena was painting, Blair nevertheless asked, “And how do you see me?”
“You’re a fool,” Rowena said bluntly. “You think your Academy training is all you need to be a guide. You have no idea, child.”
Stung by yet another hit at his professional ability, and from a charlatan, no less, Blair stood, fully intending to leave. He’d thought this woman could give him answers, but clearly he’d been mistaken.
Before he could take one step towards the door, however, Gwen appeared at his side. “Mam, don’t be so rude!” she chided the old woman. Then to Blair, she added, “She does this all the time. She thinks being an obnoxious old sow will make people respect her. It’s all an act, my lord, which she uses to impress her clients. Pay her no heed. And as for you,” she looked back at her mother, “this is the baron’s guide, not some poor lovestruck fool come in off the street to hear you tell their fortune. Stop it!”
Blair looked back at Rowena, who was glaring at her daughter. “I know,” she said icily, “exactly who it is.” Then she fixed her attention back on Blair. “Sit down, lad. You’ve dealt with worse than me in your time.”
More than a little discomforted, Blair did as she asked, but he watched the hedge-guide warily as he did so. They sat in silence, Rowena’s attention back on the vegetables she was preparing until Gwen placed steaming cups of tea before them all on the table, and took a seat beside Blair. “So,” the younger woman asked. “What brings you to our house, my lord?”
Feeling uncomfortably out of his depth in the lair of these women, Blair pointed out, “I am not noble born, Madam, so there’s no need to address me as ‘my lord’. My name is Blair.”
Across the table Rowena snorted.
“And I am no lady,” Gwen said, casting a disapproving glance at her mother. “So addressing me as ‘Madam’ is unnecessary – it’s Mam who likes such fripperies. Just call me Gwen,” she said. She raised an eyebrow. “Well, Blair? Why have you come to see us?”
“He came to see me, girl. Don’t flatter yourself,” Rowena put in. “Blair and I have had words before. He’s here now because it seems he’s finally learned to use the gifts he was born with.”
Deciding a direct approach would be the only way he’d get anywhere with Rowena, Blair pointed out, “When we met before, you seemed to take delight in being mysterious. Was that part of your act, too?”
“I meant every word I said to you,” Rowena said, her task cast aside and her disturbingly direct stare once again full on Blair’s face. “Every bit of it was the truth.”
“You said there was a storm coming, but you never told me it was the night terrors. Why be so vague, when it is such a serious matter?”
She shrugged, seemingly unconcerned by the criticism. “I didn’t know that it was the night terrors then. I only know it now because you’ve just told me.”
Blair frowned. “Then what do you know?” he asked. “It could kill us all, you said. What did you mean by that?”
“What did you feel, when I pointed you in the right direction?” Rowena countered.
Blair cast his mind back, and shuddered. “A sense of threat far away. Something huge and dangerous.” He swallowed, analysing more of the strange feeling. “It has its sights set on us,” he said, knowing it to be true.
“How do you know it is the night terrors?” the old woman prompted. “Have you seen them? I don’t mean with your eyes, now. I mean with your gift.”
Blair shook his head. “My sentinel cast his senses out - it was he who determined what it is. They’re sleeping, he believes. Biding their time for the winter, until they’re ready to return.”
“And what,” she asked, “do you feel now?” She softened her voice, her tone hypnotic. “Forget what your sentinel told you. Forget your fears and your dread, and the way you’ve been taught. Look for the storm on the horizon, and tell me what you see.”
Blair did as she asked, closing his eyes and, instead, turning his thoughts inward to open that strange inner eye, dormant since childhood and which he’d only recently become aware that he was still able to use. He turned his gaze toward the north, focusing on the dark cloud at the edge of his vision.
Something had changed.
“Tell me what you see.” Rowena’s voice brought Blair abruptly back.
He frowned. “The cloud has diminished. It is as if holes have been worn through it, somehow.” He opened his eyes and looked across at the old woman. “It’s dying,” he said with certainty.
“And the threat?” she prompted.
Blair struggled to make sense of what were, at best, amorphous feelings. “Still there. But… different.” He shook his head. “Yesterday I could clearly sense it – it’s been like that ever since solstice. But now… something still feels wrong to me. Dangerous. It is as if it is there, but invisible.”
“I see the same thing,” Rowena told him. “I thought the dark cloud – the night terrors - was the threat. But now I think it is something else entirely. Something my Sight cannot perceive.”
Deeply disturbed, Blair asked, “What is it?”
“I have no idea.” She shrugged, and went back to her vegetables. “Whatever it is,” she said, “it is a long way off. When those of us with the Sight are granted visions yet they remain unclear, as this one does, it is usually an indication of events to come in the far future. If the gods of our ancestors wish it, more will be revealed when the time is closer. In the meantime, it’s done us a service. The creatures – if your sentinel is right and the dark cloud is, indeed, them – are dying. It’s over.”
“Are you saying there is no current threat from the night terrors?” Blair asked.
“How you interpret what you see is up to you,” she said. Outer leaves were discarded, inner ones chopped and added to the pot. “There is, however, one thing I can see which you cannot.” She dropped her knife on the table, and turned toward Blair. Taking his hand in her gnarled one, she looked deep into his eyes, and he resisted a sudden urge to flee. It felt as if she was looking deep inside, finding places even his sentinel could not touch.
Holding Blair motionless with the force of her gaze and the claw-like grasp of her hand, Rowena told him, “I saw, long ago, that you and our baron would be paired. I saw the darkness in your past which you were afraid to face. Now, I tell you this. Stay loyal to him, whatever happens. Trust yourself and be strong. And when your eyes are the only ones open to the truth, use every resource at your command to open the eyes of others - because the lives of our children and our children’s children depend on it.”
“What do you mean?” Blair whispered.
Rowena turned away once more and, released, Blair snatched his hand back and cradled it to his chest. “If I knew any more I’d tell you, child,” she said a little testily. Clearly dismissing him, she went back to her task.
As if nothing of any significance had happened, Gwen pushed his cup nearer. “Don’t let your tea get cold, Blair,” she said. “Would you like some cake?”
Stunned, Blair accepted her hospitality by rote, his thoughts emphatically elsewhere.
Back at the castle, Blair headed once again for the library. Simon was there when he arrived. “Feel free to look around,” he told Blair, a quill in his hand and a frown on his brow. “But I’d appreciate it if you did so quietly. I need to finish writing out these messages to the other baronies so they can be sent at first light.”
Taking pains not to disturb the busy seneschal, Blair one again attacked the books. He needed to know what was strong enough to slaughter night terrors as they slept. Another, more fearsome creature, perhaps? Disease? Perhaps some unknown tribe of humans, who lived in the cold, far north? And more to the point – having killed the night terrors, was this same, mysterious thing the threat to them that Blair, deep in his heart, feared?
But the books, once again, did not help, despite the fact that the library James’ seneschal maintained was one of the most extensive and comprehensive that Blair had ever seen. Little had ever been documented about the night terrors, it seemed, despite the fact that the two species – humans and monsters – had lived side-by-side for generations. And muddying the whole issue was the tendency of histories and legends to conflate the night terrors with the fae; those ethereal, delicate creatures who their ancestors had believed to be visitors from a magical twilight world, the entrance to which was hidden deep in the ancient barrows and stone circles scattered all over the baronies.
It made no sense to Blair that the two were so confused. They were nothing alike – the night terrors were fearsome, man-sized beasts of terrifying aspect, while the fae were portrayed as beautiful, tiny beings, conveying good luck on all who showed them respect. And in the end, absent any kind of insight from the books he perused, Blair ceased his research with a frustrated sigh, and went to tell James what had transpired.
The news that Blair delivered to James – that in all likelihood the night terrors were no longer a threat - did not affect what he must do. While he had the greatest respect for those who possessed the Sight in general, as well as his own guide in particular, James could not afford to take chances with the lives of his people. Not after they’d all suffered so much already.
It didn’t help that Blair himself did not trust either his own visions or those of the old hedge-guide he’d gone to see. “This is why,” he told James, “the Academy discourages use of and belief in the Sight. It is an imperfect and unpredictable source of information – nothing like a Sentinel’s abilities at all. It just gets in the way of clarity. I can tell you nothing, except that I feel that the creatures are dying. Yet I know not why or how, or even if the thing killing them will likewise be a danger to us. Part of me feels that it will – yet Madam Rowena seems to believe that the danger is far in our future, and not current at all.”
James was far more inclined to believe what Blair had told him – that something unnamed was already in the process of decimating the sleeping night terrors – than Blair was himself. Nevertheless, he could not rely on that faith, and he knew that Blair did not expect that of him either. Whatever was happening, he needed to witness it for himself up close, rather than through the long-distance perception his senses lent him.
First thing the next morning, after yet another night of fretful sleep for him and his guide, James took decisive action. Couriers were sent out at dawn carrying the missives that Simon had written, to urge the citizens of the other baronies to take steps to protect themselves. Shortly afterwards the castle was roused, and James rode down into the town, with the majority of his household and men-at-arms following close on his heels. Down in the town, criers were sent out ahead to proclaim his coming.
Once all were assembled, James stood high on a makeshift podium in the public square and addressed the people. “The night terrors have gone to ground,” he said, his voice carrying strongly over the shuffling of feet and the hastily-silenced cries of children. “They are sleeping, and we must ensure they never wake to come back and do us harm. What happened last summer must never be permitted to happen again.”
Blair watched with a heavy heart, as the hopeful faces of the crowd, so recently having rediscovered safety in the darkness and the joy of survival, turned to shock and dismay at the baron’s words. And then he watched as James, having delivered the blow, followed up with stirring words of conquest and hope. A true leader of men, Blair’s sentinel. “Who is with me?” James asked at last, his face lit with the fervour of battle.
The cheers of the crowd were deafening, even to Blair’s non-sentinel ears.
The rest of the day was spent in preparation. James intended to leave at dawn the next day with his hastily assembled army. Weapons which had been forged in the summer - now hanging over fireplaces, destined to become heirlooms in memory of that time - were taken down and made ready once again. Those who would remain behind – mothers and children, the old and infirm - made their way up to the castle to take refuge there for the duration, in case the army failed and the night terrors were wakened prematurely, hungry after their long sleep. A handful of armed men would remain there to protect them.
Blair wondered aloud, as the day moved on into darkness and the castle smithy worked noisily on, why James wouldn’t wait for men from the other baronies to join him in the fight. “With greater numbers, surely there would be a greater chance of success?”
“We’ve already waited too long,” James told him. “I can’t risk even one more day – the creatures could wake at any time. We have to hit them now.”
And James had a further blow to deliver. “Blair, I need you to stay behind.”
“No!” Blair could not believe what he was hearing. “You can’t ask that of me. How can you say that?”
But James was implacable. “I need you here, Blair. If we fail-“
“No!” Blair turned his back, even the suggestion of James not coming back filling him with terror. “I won’t hear this. Don’t do this to me.” He swung around and channelled it into anger. “I’m coming with you, James. I’m your guide. You need me at your side.”
“I need you to stay with Grace.” The words, delivered in such a quiet, measured voice, punctured Blair’s arguments immediately, his breath escaping in a rush. James pushed on into the agonising emptiness that followed. “Before we leave, I plan to publicly acknowledge Grace as my heir and, in the event of my death, assign you as warden of the barony until she comes of age. If I don’t return she will need you to guide her to mastery of her senses, and help her grow into wisdom. There is only one man I trust with such a grave responsibility, Blair. And that man is you.”
“What about Simon?” The words were empty ones, Blair knew – Simon was not a guide, and so unable to take on that aspect of Blair’s responsibilities, yet Blair was not going to accept this without a fight. “He knows this barony better than anyone. He’d make a far more suitable warden than I ever could.”
“Simon will travel with me,” James said. “He and I fought together for several years on the border. He is a fine soldier, and I will need him at my back. Joel will act as Seneschal in his stead.”
Blair’s dismay lay heavy, like a stone in his gut. “You’ve got to come back,” he said, hating how his need made him sound as petulant as a child. “I can’t…” he took a breath, steadying his voice by effort of will, visualising his greatest fear – that his sentinel might never return, killed far away from the protection and succour of his guide, and that Blair himself would live on alone, deprived of the man he loved more than his own life. “I don’t want to do this without you,” Blair concluded, uncertain at this moment which of them he was more afraid for.
James smiled sadly, acknowledging with gentle eyes the words unspoken. “Then let us hope your vision and that of the hedge-guide was right. That the night terrors are already dead, and we will all return unscathed.”
“James-” Blair began, but ran out of words. The baron, it seemed, had this all worked out. Closing his eyes, his hands clenched into fists, Blair was paralysed by the pain and terror which consumed him.
Arms came around him and held on. And as he was crushed against his sentinel’s hard chest, Blair could feel that James’ grief at their parting matched his own.
Blair found, to his surprise, that he didn’t have much time to brood after James led his makeshift army up into the mountains. Being thrust into the position of de-facto warden of the barony, at a time when the castle was full each night of frightened people hiding from the possible return of the night terrors, kept him fully occupied right round the clock.
He was also not the only person desperately worried about a loved one who had gone into danger, and the need to give comfort to those souls similarly afflicted helped to keep his mind off his own problems. One such was Megan, whose beloved Rafe had accompanied the baron on the trip north. At least half of her frustration was rooted in being unable to fight by his side – it chafed her greatly to remain behind, skilled as she was in such matters. But even she recognised the fact that her daughter needed her here.
Blair found himself spending hours in the hall each night, soothing as many of those in similar straits as he could with his presence and encouraging words. Even worse was that many of those who sought shelter in the hall each night were already recently bereaved, so many of their family and friends having been taken during the desperate days of summer. There was an all-pervading sense of grief and dread in the castle and its locality, despite the fact that, night after night, the night terrors still failed to come.
It was only late at night, when the hall was quiet and Blair lay awake in the bed he and James usually shared, that the magnitude of his fear for his sentinel came to the fore. At those times Blair tried desperately to utilise his inner vision, in an effort to find out how James and the others fared. But it was all in vain – try as he might, he could sense nothing. Once again, he cursed the gift of Sight with all his might. What use to anyone could something so uncontrollable be, especially at critical times like this? The Academy had been entirely correct, he now believed, in teaching him to suppress it.
During each day Blair did his best to fill the shoes that James left behind, although he worried that, in comparison with the worldly-wise baron, he was a pretty poor substitute. He’d spent many months observing how James conducted himself during his daily court, and had engaged in much discussion with James about the way he deliberated the cases which came before him. So now Blair tried his hardest to emulate the baron’s approach, hearing each case without prejudice. And with reference to legal precedent, thanks to Joel’s presence, he did his best to deal fairly with all comers.
To Blair’s relief, most matters were less weighty than some of the daily issues the baron dealt with, so many of the townsfolk who might otherwise have added to his load having accompanied James on his quest to slaughter the night terrors. For the most part, Blair found himself dealing with people simply needing reassurance at the turn of events, as well as various matters of petty larceny and dispute, most of which were easily enough dealt with by reference to Joel’s knowledge of the law. Blair dreaded the day, however, that someone might commit rape or murder and come before him – those crimes were capital offences in the barony, and Blair hated to think that he might be called upon to enforce such a sentence. If he was not already having trouble sleeping at night, his worry about that issue would have caused him no end of nightmares.
Despite his already heavy load Blair took time out each day to spend with Grace, taking his responsibility to mentor the little sentinel and fledgling baroness very seriously indeed. It seemed the change in her status as the baron’s new heir had had little effect on her demeanour, as she remained the precocious, affectionate child she’d always been, soaking up knowledge like a sponge. The hours Blair spent with her were the single bright spot in each long, arduous day.
Days passed, then a week. The trek into the mountains was likely to be a hard one, and none of them knew how far James’ expedition would have to travel before they found the lair of the night terrors, therefore Blair had no idea how soon it might be before the army would return. Assuming, that was, they did return. And contemplating the possibility that James might suffer and die far away, and that Blair might never see him again, was something which filled Blair with constant, mind-numbing terror.
But dwelling on his ever present fear and need for James did not get the job done. Consequently Blair’s full attention was on the dispute he was adjudicating on the morning, almost three weeks later, when James and the army finally returned.
James could hear Blair’s voice even before the castle came in sight - his senses had automatically roamed out when they’d reached the fork in the road, unerringly seeking his guide.
Upon reaching that familiar landmark, most of their number had taken the path to the right which led to the town, while James and the rest carried on up to the castle. Understanding that his lord’s senses were firmly riveted on their destination, Simon moved in close and took James’ arm to guide his steps, leaving James free to listen to what was happening in the hall without fear of tripping over his own feet.
Blair, so it seemed, was about to pronounce judgement on the matter before him. His voice was measured and calm to James’ ears. “Hedger, you will pay your neighbour six silver pieces, to compensate him for the damage you caused.”
“That’s not good enough!” James recognised the angry voice of Jack the Carter, who had been engaged in a long running boundary dispute with his neighbour, Hedger Willow, for the past several years. The two of them had come up before James many times before, and it seemed that no end to their enmity was in sight. “I want him whipped as well,” Jack was insisting. “What he did ain’t right!”
“I have not finished!” Blair cut in, the unaccustomed steel in his voice startling James, as well (no doubt) as his audience. “Jack the Carter, the damage which Hedger did to your fence – which he will be obliged to pay for – was in retaliation for your own previous act of vandalism. Therefore you will likewise pay him in recompense for that. The amount is six silver pieces.”
“What? You can’t do that-”
Blair overrode the voices decisively. “Be silent!”
Impressed, James found himself riveted to the drama, even as their progress led them closer to their destination.
Now he had their attention, Blair’s voice was quieter but, tuned into it as he was, James had no problem hearing what he said. “This is what, about the tenth time in a year that you two have come to this hall for adjudication? And every time, it has been in relation to petty, ridiculous things like this. So many people have died; so many have been left alone. Yet you continue to squabble about just ten feet of land which divides your property. You should be ashamed of yourselves!”
Blair was correct, of course; and consumed by the crisis of the past year, James had tended to quickly dismiss each man’s complaint against the other with a fine and an admonishment to sort out their problems, before he’d moved onto far more serious and pressing issues. But Blair, it seemed, was determined to deal with this once and for all. James found himself holding his breath, intrigued as to how Blair would handle the matter.
“As of now,” Blair said firmly, “the disputed strip of land is forfeit.”
The outcries of the two men which inevitably resulted were silenced once again by Blair’s voice – the tone of command in it unmistakeable. “If you cannot control yourselves, then you will ejected from the hall! The verdict will not be changed.”
Once peace had resumed, Blair delivered the rest of his decision. “Hedger, under supervision of an appointed bailiff of this court, and at your own expense, you will erect a fence where directed on the boundary of your land. Jack the Carter, you will do the same on your side. The strip which runs down the middle will henceforth come within the purview of the baron and his agents. As a penalty for wasting the time of this court, you will both be obliged to devote a total of one hundred hours each to till the confiscated land and plant seed vegetables there, to tend them while they grow, and to harvest them and deliver them to the houses of families left bereaved by the night terrors.”
The stunned silence which followed was broken, for James, by the rising excitement of the men who accompanied him as they entered the castle gates. His concentration on the events taking place in his hall was broken as he turned to smile at Simon, striding dusty and tired beside him.
They were home.
Back in the hall, Blair’s pronouncement had caused chaos. “This is an outrage!” Jack the Carter was insisting. “That land belongs to my family!”
Beside him, Hedger was equally incensed. “His father stole that land from my father! And now you want us to give it to the baron?”
“He thinks he is the baron,” Jack said aside to Hedger; his enmity towards the other man momentarily forgotten in the face of this new, common enemy. “But the real baron,” he sneered at Blair, “would never dare commit such a ridiculous act!”
“The real baron,” came a voice from the doorway at the far end of the hall, “would never have been so clever or imaginative. Or so eminently fair.”
Blair’s heart leapt wildly, his eyes seeking and finding James as he stepped - bearded, dusty and smiling widely - into the hall.
James moved through the hall towards where Blair sat, cutting a swathe through the assembled crowd like wind through the barley. All eyes were upon him as he moved, and Blair could see nothing else. He ached with love and relief: here was his beloved, longed-for sentinel, home at last, safe and sound.
When he reached Blair’s side, James’ eyes twinkled with a mixture of understanding and amusement as he addressed Blair loud enough for everyone to hear. “You made a very fair decision in this case, Lord Warden. I see that I left the barony in good hands.” James’ hand descended on Blair’s shoulder, the touch quickening Blair’s breath with almost unbounded joy.
Then the baron turned to address the hall, his hand remaining in contact with his guide the whole while. “The night terrors,” he proclaimed loudly, “are dead. Every last one of them. We found the bodies of hundreds upon thousands of them, lying in a huge cavern more than a week’s hard journey from here, up in the high peaks. They were already dead when we arrived, their bodies half-eaten by scavengers. We stayed to set fire to the cave, and we burned what was left of them to ashes.” He grinned, the smile wide and happy. “It is truly over,” he declared. “They are gone forever, and every one of us is back safe.”
The hall erupted into cheers. And in the midst of celebration the eyes of sentinel and guide met, the gaze lingering and eloquent and full of long-denied promise.
“I knew,” James told Blair, later that night as they lay entwined in each others’ arms, “that you would be more than capable of administrating the barony in my absence. And then, when I heard you at work, you handled it so well. I’m so proud of you, Blair.”
Blair chuckled, his hair tickling James’ nose as he shifted in the bed. “I doubt that Jack and Hedger would agree.”
“Well,” James said, brushing the offending strands away and smoothing his hand across Blair’s skull tenderly before laying a kiss there. “They don’t have much of a choice. And it was amusing to see them both talking together afterwards, discussing how they planned to make an appeal to me when next I sit in council. You managed to achieve what I never could – unite them against a common cause. Not,” he added, “that it’s going to do them any good. I think your solution is a masterful one, and I fully intend to uphold it.”
Blair shrugged against James’ chest. “It annoyed me that they were being so petty at a time like this, like children fighting over a toy while the house burned down about their ears. I thought if they put the land and their time to good use, doing something positive for those who have been worst affected by the night terrors, that it might illustrate to them that the world does not start and end with their self-centredness.”
Feeling a rush of intense tenderness towards his clever, courageous guide, James tilted Blair’s head up with a finger under his chin. The room was dark so Blair couldn’t see him, but James could see just fine, his senses operating effortlessly due to his guide’s proximity. Blair’s beautiful blue eyes looked back at him, searching in vein for something to latch onto in the darkness. In answer, James touched his lips to Blair’s softly, then with more heat as the other man’s body surged towards him.
They took their time, having engaged already in frantic, hasty loving a little while ago. Hands and mouths touched, tasted and explored, and a fire built deep within James as Blair sweated and panted and strained to be closer and closer still.
They found a rhythm somehow, their bodies pressed tightly together, slipping and sliding against each other. It was maddening yet perfect, James wanting more and still more as he grasped on to Blair’s beautiful body and tried to become one with him. He ached to sink deep within Blair’s secret place or have Blair do that to him, but he knew his partner did not want that; not yet. So instead he endured this exquisite torture, his senses consumed with Blair’s need and want and desire, and the way that it only served to enhance his own.
Attuned to each other as they were, their mutual passion reached its peak at the same instant, the ecstatic release like nothing James had ever felt before. And in the peace that ensued afterwards he held Blair tight against him; never, ever wanting to let him go so long as he lived.
The next morning, as they dressed in their chamber in readiness for the day ahead, Blair learned a little more from James about what he’d encountered on the expedition through the mountains.
“There is considerable irony,” James told him, “in the fact that the night terrors were devoured as they slept. I could see the marks of sharp little teeth on their bodies – some of them were gnawed right down to the bone.”
Blair found it hard to envisage. “There were thousands of them, you said. And they were not small creatures. What could possibly have been voracious enough to consume every single one of them?”
James shrugged. “I suspect rodents, seeking to gorge themselves before their winter sleep. Perhaps bats as well – I could hear the flutter of tiny wings far back in the darker recesses of the cave – a huge swarm of them took flight, in fact, when we lit it on fire.”
“Still,” Blair said, incredulous at the scale of the thing. “Thousands of night terrors, and all of them eaten? I’d imagine that to be true of one or two dozen, if it were rats, bats or anything else. But all of them?” He shook his head in wonder. “I would not like to come across a colony of rats large enough to do that. And as for bats…” he shuddered. “Some people say they suck your blood while you sleep. They mostly live now in the southern continent, but I’ve heard that they were also found here in the Five Baronies before the night terrors came, roosting in the eaves of houses. It sounds like they managed to survive in the far north, in the shelter of the caves you found.”
“They were tiny, from what I could make out,” James said. “Without you there, I didn’t want to overextend my senses to take a good look at them. But they seemed harmless enough, and certainly too shy to come anywhere near us, even though they were great in number.”
Blair shuddered again. “I hope they don’t find their way back here, now the night terrors are gone. Ugh!”
James laughed, his arms reaching out to enclose Blair within their circle, before proceeding to tickle him unmercifully. “Bats, rats or night terrors – together we can defeat any foe, my little protector.”
Blair made an initial pretence of submission, then showed James exactly how well he’d learned Megan’s technique for toppling a larger opponent. “Well, my ‘little’ sentinel, he said, standing over James where he lay, dumbfounded, on the floor. “I think perhaps you may be right.”
On the ground at Blair’s feet James just groaned with embarrassment, supremely glad that on this occasion he had been bested in the privacy of their chamber, and not out in the training yard.
Renewed optimism swept across the land, now that they could all be sure that the night terrors had gone for good. Messengers were once again sent out to the other baronies, this time to spread the good news. And once again the dark hours were reclaimed by revellers of all ages.
In the castle life resumed its normal cadence, everyone falling back into their established duties and occupations with ease. Winter turned into spring, lambing season was fruitful and the barony appeared to be thriving.
One change that took place was that, in addition to his tutoring duties, Blair often sat with James in council, occasionally even presiding over cases by himself while the baron stepped aside to deal with other matters. He’d gained valuable experience during the three weeks he’d deputised for James, and the baron wished him to continue to do so. “You have the skill and the wisdom for it,” he’d said to Blair. “I trust your judgement, and it is my wish that, as my guide and consort, you act as my partner in such matters.”
James’ praise meant the world to Blair. Finally he was able to put the blows he’d suffered behind him and revel in his new-found confidence, secure in the belief that he had, by his own merits, earned his place at James’ side.
Only one thing marred Blair’s peace. He continued to feel a nagging, unspecific sense of threat, which had a tendency to ambush him at quiet moments. It was as if a clamouring inner voice rose up whenever Blair was alone, to cry, Danger! Danger! Yet no matter how much Blair tried to pin down the source of his unease, he could never get so much as a glimpse of its cause.
So he worked hard to suppress it, denying the existence of his own gift as vehemently as he encouraged James and Grace to develop and hone theirs. The Sight, he told himself firmly, was a misnomer, for he Saw nothing with any clarity at all. In comparison, the vision of sentinels was far-reaching and pure as crystal. The one gift was imperfect, misleading and worthless. The other was flawless, miraculous and priceless. Why struggle to peer through fog, when he could help the two sentinels in his care to reach the clear air above it?
It was perhaps the vehemence of Blair’s denial which helped to blind him to what was going on right in front of his face, until it was too late.
The summer solstice celebration had been planned for weeks. Feasting and revelry would go on right through the night, out in the open under the stars. Whole hogs and lambs would be roasted on the spits which had been set up in the great meadow behind the castle, and huge outdoor ovens would churn out a never-ending supply of bread and pastries. Ale had been ferried in by the cartload, and musicians, jugglers, acrobats and mummers were already preparing to give the performance of their lives in the various marquees which had been erected on the field.
Blair could certainly appreciate the symbolism. Reclaiming the night and embracing the coming darker days of winter without fear was a tremendously empowering act for them all.
It was odd, Blair mused, as he wandered through the site to see how the preparations were going, how quickly human beings could put fear and grief behind them and move on. The summer had so far been a golden time for them all; the all-pervading enthusiasm and zest for life which abounded in the barony such a contrast to the horror of the summer-past. There was something wonderful about that, something altogether stirring about the ability of ordinary folk to turn their backs on the dark days, and embrace the light with all their hearts.
No one talked about the night terrors anymore, Blair had begun to notice. Even during the meetings he and James had held with various town officials to organise the solstice celebration, there had not been one single mention of them. It was all about moving forward, celebrating the turning of the year, conveying luck on the harvest – which by every indication would be a bountiful one. And Blair could appreciate that willingness to embrace the positive and shed the negative very well indeed.
As the day advanced the field began to fill, the festival proper getting underway. People greeted Blair as he passed. “Lord Warden,” they called him, smiling – it seemed the temporary designation James had conveyed upon Blair had stuck. Others whom Blair had spoken to on numerous occasions when they’d sought safety in the hall, gave more familiar greetings. And one or two conveyed luck upon him: “May the fae bring you good fortune, my lord.” Bemused by the strange blessing – he’d never heard the old legends invoked that way before - Blair nodded graciously and went on his way.
Later, having met up with Megan, Rafe and Grace, Blair went to watch the mummers in action. They were acting out a well-known folk tale, one all of them there had grown up hearing: The Tale of Tom Carrow. The story was that the young man had inadvertently entered a faery mound, and been granted long life by the fae who dwelled within. Tom had never forgotten the debt he owed them for that gift, so when, in his old age, a great beast came which drove the fae from the land, he used his cunning and wits to defeat it. Henceforth the fae returned to the land once more, and by means of a reward they extended the gift of long life to Tom’s descendants in perpetuity. Even now, elders who lived to a ripe old age were often referred to as sons and daughters of Carrow, and old gaffers in particular were frequently called ‘Old Tom’, no matter their true given name.
It was an engaging performance, the young man playing Tom Carrow – who aged throughout the play thanks to the application of a false beard and an adopted stoop – was serious and comedic by turns. The fae were portrayed by fleet-footed, lithe young women, fluttering and dancing like little birds across the stage, who delighted Grace with their skill and beauty. The evil creature – dark-winged and sharply clawed – resembled to Blair’s eyes a night terror. And thrown out of his concentration on the drama for a moment, that comparison gave Blair pause. He’d never before considered that the beast in this tale might, indeed, be rooted in something so familiar and deadly.
Later, Blair joined James, where he sat entertaining various dignitaries from his own barony, as well those as from further afield who had accepted his invitation to join in the celebrations. As Blair took a seat beside him, the baron put an arm about Blair and leaned in close. “You’ve come at just the right time to save me from committing murder,” he whispered. “Lord Booth is the most irritating man I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. If you can think of a way to get me out of here without giving offence, I will reward you well.” James’ tone became lascivious. “I will reward you well on my knees.”
Blair swallowed, his loins stirring at the promise in James’ hoarse whisper. Then he turned to the others in the gathering, aware of James’ gaze upon him all the while. “I ask your pardon, my lords, for this interruption. As you know, my lord baron is a sentinel, and as such requires some time to prepare himself for the noise which the fireworks will make. I hope you won’t mind if he accompanies me for a while.”
The assembled nobility made suitable noises of assent and, without further ado, both he and James took their leave.
A short while later, as the firework display lit the sky with bangs and crackles punctuated by the excited whoops of the crowd, Blair leaned panting against the trunk of a tree a little distant from the field. James kneeled before him in the darkness, his senses on alert on the off-chance someone might approach, as he drove Blair relentlessly to explosive pleasure with his mouth and hands. After that Blair found himself crushed bruisingly close to James’ chest, pressing his mouth hard against his partner’s to stifle James’ cries and moans, as he used his hand to bring him likewise to shuddering completion.
In the aftermath, both of them aglow with satiety and love, they walked through the field hand in hand, mingling with their people and enjoying the festivities right through until sunrise.
Late summer was a beautiful time of year in the barony. Riding out alone on the moors a few mornings later, intent on clearing his head before an afternoon spent in council with James, Blair luxuriated in the aromatic air, his eyes finding rest and respite on the warm colours of the heather. The peace and tranquillity of the countryside consumed and renewed him, as it always did.
Life these days, Blair decided, was very, very good indeed.
Accustomed to peace and quiet out here, whether alone or accompanied by the baron, Blair was surprised to hear voices. In the next moment, their source came in sight: several young girls on the verge of womanhood, chattering and giggling together as they breakfasted beside one of the ancient barrows which littered this land.
As he rode past, Blair paused and nodded at them politely. “Good day,” he said. “It’s a beautiful morning to take the air.”
“We’ve been here all night,” one of the girls told him, the others watching him shyly from behind lowered lashes, reminding Blair – to his blushing embarrassment – that he’d become somewhat of an object of fantasy for some of the young women of the town.
Unaware of his discomfort, the girl who had spoken indicated the mound at their backs. “We’ve been playing with the fae. They are so beautiful, my lord. Isn’t it wonderful that they’ve returned?”
Blair frowned. “The fae are just a legend,” he said. “Though I’m sure your game has been a lot of fun.”
The girls exchanged a look amongst themselves, before another spoke up. “We’re not making it up,” she insisted. “The fae are real! Everyone knows that, my lord.”
Blair smiled, feeling oddly ancient amongst these children, despite his own relative youth. “Of course they are real,” he said, playing along. “And I will leave you to play with them some more.”
They all laughed at that, making Blair feel all the more out of his depth. “Don’t be silly, my lord!” the first one who’d spoken piped up once more. “They only come out at night!”
Blair bade them farewell and, with the laughter of the girls ringing in his ears, rode away, feeling strangely discomfited by the whole encounter.
When Blair was sitting with James in council later that day, yet more oddness revealed itself; although this time of an altogether more sinister nature.
“It’s a mystery, my lord, and that’s the truth.” Michael the Warrener had come before them to ask for help, since his entire colony of rabbits – his entire livelihood - had apparently disappeared overnight.
Beside James, Blair spoke up. “Could it have been a fox? Or a family of foxes, perhaps?”
Michael looked at Blair a little scathingly, despite his overall deference. “I know fox-sign when I see it, my lord, and that wasn’t it. It’s like they were never there. No hair, no bones, nothing left behind. They’re just gone.”
“I will have my own gamekeeper take a look,” James promised. “If there is a predator at large which is taking livestock, then others will need to be made aware so that they can take precautions.”
The whole matter was troubling, especially given the fact that the night terrors had only been gone for a year. As soon as Michael had been dismissed, reassured by promises of an investigation and baronial support to set up a new colony of rabbits, Blair turned to James. “What do you think did it?”
James shrugged. “Perhaps a mountain lion, or a bear. Maybe even a wolf – there are all manner of creatures living in the wild places, and one or several could have wandered close, drawn by the promise of easy food.”
Blair shuddered. “I don’t like it,” he confessed. “It reminds me too much of the night terrors.” He turned pleading eyes on James. “You are sure that they’re are all dead, aren’t you?” he asked, the question only half-serious.
James blinked. “What are you talking about?”
Blair laughed. “Come on,” he said. “Don’t joke about them, James. You know very well what the night terrors are.”
James’ act was a good one – Blair could almost believe he meant it. “Don’t joke about what?” James shook his head. “Blair, I have no idea what you’re talking about. What are ‘night terrors’?”
Pulled up short, Blair took a good look at his sentinel, then reached out through their connection towards him. The sincere bafflement he sensed terrified him. “James?” he queried. “Do you feel all right?”
“I feel absolutely fine,” James countered, but he was watching Blair intently. “I’m not so sure about you, though. Blair, your heart is racing. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Using every ounce of skill he’d learned at the Academy, Blair wrestled his turbulent emotions down deep, burying them well under the surface and forcing his heart rate and breathing under control. “Everything’s fine, James. I’m just teasing you.”
Frowning and perhaps unconvinced, James nodded, then turned his attention back to the hall and the next petitioner to come before them.
With an effort, Blair did the same. But deep inside, fear for James’ health and his apparently faulty memory consumed him.
As the afternoon wore on Blair could see that, in every other respect, James appeared to be absolutely fine. Blair watched him closely for the next few hours, ruthlessly damping down his own autonomic reflexes the whole time (his limitations on that score be damned) lest his surreptitious surveillance become too obvious. And during all of that time James appeared to be the same healthy, vigorous man of sound mind that he’d always been.
Yet James had absolutely no memory, it seemed, of the night terrors. And that lapse terrified Blair dreadfully.
Blair had known a Master once, back at the Academy, who’d suffered a form of creeping dementia. In a matter of months, the poor man’s sharp intellect had deteriorated from a slight absentmindedness, through to an inability to recognise anyone near and dear to him or even to remember what happened from one moment to the next. It had culminated, less than a year later, in him reverting to something close to infancy, unable to take care of even his own most basic needs. He’d died shortly after it had become that bad, cared for round the clock by staff in the Academy infirmary.
The thought that such a tragic, ignoble fate might be in store for his sharp-witted, dignified sentinel, filled Blair with absolute horror and grief.
Needing desperately to gather his thoughts before James confronted him in private about what was troubling him – because no matter his efforts, Blair was simply not capable of hiding his worry from James forever - Blair made his excuses when council ended, and made his way out into the courtyard. He went straight to the stables, needing to put some distance between himself and James so that he could sit down and process this whole thing.
A while later, having ridden out once again to his favourite stretch of moorland, Blair was no closer to coming to terms with his dreadful discovery. Sitting on a limestone rock, head in hands, his love and grief for James almost overwhelmed him.
Gradually, as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon, he regained control. Breathing deep, he forced himself to focus on what was important – that James needed him. And Blair vowed that, no matter what form James’ illness took, that he would remain strong and staunch at his side, ensuring that he got the care and support that he needed.
The time for grief would come. But that time was not now; from this moment on, Blair vowed to put his own feelings to one side. Control having been established, hard-won though it was, Blair rose. It was time to get back to the castle, and do his duty by the man he loved.
Blair’s horse had wandered off a little way. Blair could hear the jangle of bit behind a nearby mound so, whistling a summons, he walked around it, intending to recapture the beast.
What he found there stopped him in his tracks.
The whole side of the mound, round here in the shadows away from the setting sun, was covered with a moving carpet of darkness. Peering at it more closely, he could see that the shifting shadows were formed by what looked like hundreds of tiny creatures jostling for space on the surface of the barrow.
Baffled – Blair had never seen anything like it – he stepped closer, then reeled back in surprise as the whole lot of them lifted into the air. Like a huge, dark cloud they launched right at him, and reflexively Blair cried out and lifted his hands to cover his face; but they swerved away at the last minute and none of them touched him. Lifting his eyes cautiously, Blair watched as they soared to and fro in the air above his head, keeping in formation like a flock of starlings. But unlike birds they were utterly silent, the only sound made in their passing the whirr and whoosh of hundreds of tiny wings.
A final pass above his head had Blair ducking, then they wheeled about and away, flying far off over the moorland.
His anxiety for James momentarily forgotten, Blair stood stunned in their wake, the whole encounter filling him with unfathomable disquiet.
Blair’s concern for James – and his determination to keep his worry suppressed so that his sentinel would not perceive it – kept him fully occupied for the next few days. At times, however, he caught James watching him, a frown on his face. And it took every bit of skill at misdirection Blair possessed to keep James from asking him outright what was troubling him.
Blair was determined, however, for now at least, to keep his fear for James to himself. In every other respect, the baron seemed just as sharp as ever. If and when that changed, Blair would reconsider whether secrecy was the correct course of action. But for now he just watched and waited and hoped for the best, paying particular attention to James’ general health and diet, to ensure his sentinel’s continued well-being in any way he could.
As for the odd experience he’d had on the moor, Blair decided that the creatures he’d seen were probably bats. Though he’d not managed to get a good look at them, their flight pattern certainly fitted the description of the beasts James had seen in the far north. And, Blair theorised, since the bats’ habitat had been disturbed – the cave they’d roosted in set alight – it was only logical that they would seek somewhere else to live. Now that the night terrors had gone, the old barrows and tombs of the moors provided a perfect home for them.
Blair wondered if it was, indeed, bats which had given rise to the legends of the fae. It seemed a logical supposition, especially given that talk of the fae was currently everywhere he looked since the creatures had moved into the vicinity. He’d lost count of how many times recently he’d been wished ‘the luck of the fae’ by some well-meaning person, or heard gossip that the fae had returned. And on his frequent rides out on the moors, either alone or with others, it had become a regular sight to see posies and offerings of fruit and other foodstuffs on the mounds, placed there by those who sought the blessing of the fabled creatures.
James was worried. There was something preying on Blair’s mind; something that his guide was going out of his way not to share with his sentinel. And James, it was fair to say, was not happy about that. Not happy at all.
Yet every time he tried to broach the topic, Blair somehow managed to evade giving James the answer he wanted. Blair, James had discovered during the period they had been together, was incredibly skilled at changing the subject and diverting attention elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that his Academy training – no matter how relatively ill-adept he’d been in that area – enabled him to mask his feelings quite effectively.
What Blair didn’t seem to realise, however, was that it was the very fact he was concealing his reactions in that way – when he’d hardly ever made an effort to do so before – which made James smell a rat.
If James was a suspicious man, or if he did not know Blair as well as only a paired sentinel can know his guide, he might have wondered exactly what Blair was up to when he took his frequent solitary rides out on the moor. A lesser man might have suspected trysts with a secret lover. James, for his part, did not believe any such thing. For one thing, Blair often came back from those solitary jaunts even more white-faced and closed-off than he’d been before he went. Whatever was going on with him, it was most definitely not making him happy.
James resolved to watch Blair closely for the next little while, in the hope that he’d find something out. And if all else failed, he would pin Blair down and demand answers.
If the fae willed it, then hopefully he’d be successful.
Blair was tutoring Grace when he heard it: a scratching sound, coming from the closet in the corner of the room they used for lessons.
Grace had paused in her work and, knowing she must have noticed it too, Blair said, “You hear that, Grace? See if you can use your senses to find out what it is.” He assumed a mouse had found its way in through cracks in the mortar, and was scurrying around in the closet.
“I can’t hear anything, Blair,” Grace said. Her face was beet-red.
Blair blinked and looked at her closely. He’d never, in all the time he’d spent with her, known Grace to lie – yet she was clearly doing so now. “Grace,” he said, gravely disappointed. “Please do as I ask.”
Her face crumpled. “I’m sorry, Blair,” she told him, her lip quivering as if she was going to cry. “But it was so pretty, and I always wanted a pet. I know I’m not supposed to have one, but oh, it’s so beautiful! Please forgive me, Blair.”
Completely taken aback by Grace’s behaviour, Blair narrowed his eyes at her as she put her head in her hands, more than half-sure that her contrition was false. Then he rose and snicked the lock on the closet. Inside, down on the floor, the scrabbling noise could be heard louder than ever. Reaching in to the shadowy confines, his hands found a large glass jar, which vibrated under his hands with the movement of whatever was confined within.
“Wait!” Grace’s imperative voice stopped him from pulling it out so he could take a look. “It hates the sunlight, Blair.” Casting a look over his shoulder, Blair watched as Grace closed the shutters, plunging the room into darkness. A moment later, he felt her at his elbow. “I’ve got a candle,” she told him, and he felt a taper placed in his hand. “I’ll hold it, if you light it,” she said.
“Grace,” Blair said through clenched teeth, even as he moved over by feel to the fireplace to light the taper from the glowing embers banked there. “Don’t think for one moment you’ll get away with having lied to me like that.”
He returned to her side and, as he used the taper, light from the candle flared and Grace’s sad eyes came into view. “I’m really sorry, Blair,” she said miserably. “Truly I am. But when you see it, you’ll understand.” Despite her apparent remorse, there was a considerable stubborn pout to her lips. “I just didn’t want anyone to make me put it back. Though I suppose,” she added petulantly, “that’s just what you’ll do.”
Sighing at her blatant attempts to manipulate him, Blair reached into the closet, and lifted out the glass jar. Hefting it aloft, he brought it close to the candle in Grace’s hands to study its contents.
The creature within was tiny; no more than four inches tall. It was oddly man-shaped, almost like a little doll, its face currently hidden behind two surprisingly human looking hands but for the sharp-looking claws which extended from its fingers. From its shoulder-blades protruded a pair of intricate, filigreed wings.
Blair turned the jar this way and that, marvelling at how it caught the light from the candle. He’d initially thought its hide was jet-black, but now he could see that it was a riot of rainbow colours, glinting dazzlingly like oil on water.
“I’ve fed it and given it water,” Grace told him, breaking his reverie. “And look,” she guided his hand to the top of the jar. “I put holes in the top so it can breathe. And I’ve given it straw to lie in, so it’s got a nice warm bed. I’m taking good care of it, Blair.”
Ignoring Grace’s transparent attempt to convince him not to take her illicit pet away, Blair wondered aloud, “What is it?”
“It’s one of the fae, of course!” Grace answered.
At that moment the creature came out from behind its hands, and revealed itself to Blair – and he almost dropped the jar in shock. Miniscule though it was, it bore the very face which haunted his darkest dreams; a face from last summer when he’d lain wounded in the courtyard, and the thing had fallen dead beside him.
The face of a night terror.
Blair very much wanted to show the thing to James, but he doubted the wisdom of doing so – after that first time, Blair had carefully mentioned the night terrors to the baron on a couple of other occasions, only to get a blank look in return. So instead, he took it to Simon.
To his horror, Simon took one look at it, and rounded on Blair. “This is outrageous!” he said angrily. “You’ll bring bad luck on us all, treating one of the fae like this!” Simon leaned in close to the tiny being in the jar. “My apologies,” he said, in the gentlest tone Blair had ever heard from him. “As soon as the sun goes down, I will set you free.” Then Simon turned and glared at Blair. “And this must not,” he stated, “happen again.”
Blair was dumbfounded. “Simon, look at it!” he urged. “It’s a night terror! All right, it is a tiny one. But there is no mistaking what it is!”
“Lord Warden,” Simon said, suddenly all stiff formality. “You are the guide of our master, and as such I have the greatest respect for you. But I must ask you to cease this madness right now. The fae are not to be trifled with, lest we lose their blessing.”
Feeling as though he’d stepped into a nightmare, Blair asked, “And the night terrors? Did we have their blessing too?”
Simon snorted dismissively. “The night terrors are a tale to frighten children, nothing more.” Then the seneschal turned back to the fae in the jar, his face softening into wonder.
Appalled, Blair turned and fled.
Blair was afraid he was going mad.
After leaving Simon’s office, acting on a gut feeling, Blair made his way down to the town. Once he’d arrived he meandered here and there, making conversation with people he met. After exchanging the usual pleasantries he asked each person, as casually as possible, about the night terrors. Just as he had feared, very few of them had any idea what he meant, and those who did expressed the belief that the night terrors were mythical creatures, and not real at all. No one, without exception, remembered ever encountering one.
It seemed that the terrible summer past, during which so many of their friends and relatives had been killed, had been erased from everyone’s memories – everyone, that was, except for Blair. When the names of the deceased were brought up, those who Blair questioned initially showed confusion, which cleared after a moment. “He was killed in an accident,” they would say, their eyes strangely distant. Or: “Her heart gave out.” And even, “He died in his sleep.” That latter, at least, was closer to the truth – the poor man had been taken and devoured as he slept. Most frequently, he heard over and over, “The plague took them,” a more plausible explanation for the mass deaths which had occurred, Blair supposed, if one no longer remembered the truth.
Finally, not knowing what else to do, Blair found himself at Madam Rowena’s door.
The old lady answered his knock, her face grim. “Come in,” she bade him. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“Do you say that to everyone who knocks at your door?” Blair couldn’t help but ask.
Rowena shrugged. “To some of them,” she said, seeming considerably more dispirited than the last time Blair had seen her. “To you, however, I do not lie.”
Once more ushered into the kitchen, Rowena faced Blair across the table. “Gwen and the boys are out, so we can speak freely.” She fixed her gaze on Blair. “Why have you come?”
Such a question from the hedge-guide would usually result in Blair making a flippant answer, reflecting his disdain for her profession – don’t you already know? – but now was most certainly not the time. “Tell me about the night terrors,” he said instead, fearing terribly that he’d get the same answer from her as he’d got from everybody else.
“Fearsome creatures, who take people from their beds at night and devour them,” she said. “And they are very, very real.”
Blair’s breath exploded out of him, his relief was so profound. “You remember them?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically since Rowena had already said as much.
She nodded. “I do. So does my youngest grandson. I think the three of us are perhaps the only ones in the barony who have not been affected.”
“Why us?” Blair asked. But really, he’d already guessed the answer – that was why he’d come here, after all.
Rowena rose, and walked over to the stove. She put the kettle on the hotplate before she turned back to look at Blair. “Those of us with the Sight see under the surface of things,” she said. “Ordinary folk just see what’s in front of their eyes.”
“What about sentinels?” Blair demanded. “James is far from ordinary, yet he’s affected too.”
She shrugged. “Sentinels are a lot like ordinary folk, only they can see much further. But most of them have the capacity for Sight too, to see the truth hidden from regular eyes, if guided to find it. It is up to you to get your man to reel in his senses, and make him see what’s right under his nose.”
After seeing the fae in the jar, Blair had no doubt what, exactly, was right under his nose. “The fae are the night terrors,” he stated. “Or at least, their young. The dead adults James and the others found in the mountains weren’t eaten by scavengers – they were eaten by their own offspring. There are spiders in the southern continent who do the same thing. They die after their eggs hatch, and their bodies provide sustenance for the hatchlings.”
Rowena nodded. “That is likely,” she agreed. “And what is more, the offspring are great in number. Dozens of the babies are nesting in the eaves and cellars of each and every house, right here in the town. And already people are feeding them and nurturing them, hoping for the blessing of the fae.”
“But why?” Blair’s incredulity at the widespread madness knew no bounds. “How can everyone have forgotten about the night terrors? And why are people so enamoured of the little ones?”
“I believe it is a means of survival,” Rowena said, bringing cups over to the table. “The young creatures are vulnerable, so they protect themselves by creating an aura which makes people feel protective of them – even reverent. The same aura causes those affected to lose their memory of the grown beasts – because if we remembered, we would not be likely to welcome the little ones amongst us. If you recall, right up until last summer, it had always been believed that it was bad luck to kill a night terror, no matter how many people they took. I think perhaps the effect wears off, as the creatures grow and become able to physically protect themselves. But the memory of our fondness for the fae stays with us, perpetuated in legend and superstition, and that makes us reluctant to fight them, even when doing so would save our lives.”
“And in the meantime,” Blair continued the thought, “we feed them, and they grow – and eventually, when they’re big enough…”
“We become their prey,” Rowena finished. “We’re nothing more than cattle, to them.”
“Rowena,” Blair said, at a sudden horror-filled realisation, “if every adult had more than one baby…”
Rowena nodded. “There are far more of them than us,” she said. “Leastwise it appears so, from what I’ve observed. This time around, they’ll kill us all.”
“Or they’ll kill our children,” Blair said. “That’s what you told me; that’s what you saw, isn’t it? Their lifespan vastly exceeds ours - the night terrors were fully grown, even when my mother was a young girl. They must outlive us by several generations. By the time they reach adulthood, those who knew them as tiny imps will be long dead.”
“There is something else you must know,” Rowena said, sitting down wearily. “I come from a long line of seers. Sometimes the gift skips a generation – Gwen hasn’t got it, but her youngest son has. My mother had it, and my grandmother. And my great-grandmother…” Rowena sighed. “Back then, seers were not always treated with the respect they are now. My great-grandmother was denounced as a witch, and an angry mob stoned her to death. My grandmother – she was only five years old at the time – watched it happen.”
Appalled, Blair said, “That’s… that’s awful, Rowena. I’m so sorry.”
“There’s more,” Rowena said blankly. She took a deep breath. “My great-gran was denounced for plotting against the fae. That’s why they killed her.”
The implications of that sunk in, during the silence which followed.
“Rowena,” Blair said earnestly, “I’ll do whatever I can to protect you - and your grandson.”
To his surprise, Rowena laughed. “It’s not me you need to worry about,” she said. “It’s you. If you go around here, there and everywhere, asking questions about the fae and blithely talking about the night terrors, people are going to get suspicious, and their protectiveness toward the fae will force them to act. You demonstrate any ill-will towards the creatures at all, and they’ll see to it that you’re removed; simple as that.”
“James,” Blair said with certainty, “would never let anyone hurt me.”
“James,” Rowena pointed out, “is one of them.”
“I’ll make him see the truth,” Blair vowed. “He’ll listen to me.”
Rowena stood as the kettle began to whistle. “Your overconfidence will be the death of you, boy,” she said. “And no, that is not a prophecy. That’s just me wishing I could knock some sense into your silly head.” And with that remark, she moved over to take the kettle off the boil.
The news that Simon brought to James, that Blair had brought a fae in a glass jar to him, and had been raving about the fabled night terrors when he did so, filled him with dread.
James had known that something was amiss with Blair for a while, but he’d never previously entertained the notion that his guide might be ill. Now, however, he was sadly forced to face the fact that, quite probably, Blair had become unhinged. That the memory of his ordeal at the hands of his rapists, and the trauma he’d suffered thanks to Master Brackett, had finally tipped him over the edge into madness.
In the days that followed, James utilised his sensory abilities to keep tabs on Blair. He listened as Blair leafed through book after book in the library, going there himself afterwards to pick up the traces of Blair’s scent and the residual warmth of his fingertips to find out what he’d been reading. Blair, it seemed, was methodically combing through the ancient histories of the land, and looking up references to the fae. Most disturbingly, he had apparently lingered longest on the mythological tracts, all of which contained fantasies and children’s tales about the night terrors.
Worse was to come. Blair had, apparently, been asking questions; “What do you remember about the night terrors?” being the most common; and, “Don’t you think the fae look familiar?” being another. And when one day he heard Blair ask the same questions of Grace, bringing his madness into their daily lessons, James knew he had a responsibility to act.
He could not allow his guide to poison the minds of his people, and especially that of a child in his care, against the blessed fae, no matter that he loved Blair with all his heart.
Blair had put off the inevitable confrontation with James for almost a week. One reason for that was his overwhelming fear that, no matter what he said, James might simply not believe him. The confidence Blair had displayed in Rowena’s kitchen in relation to that issue had been in large part bluster; simply an attempt to talk himself into believing that James could be made to see the truth.
The other reason was that he’d thought that finding supporting evidence from elsewhere might help James to grasp reality. So he’d spent days reading and collating information, from children’s stories right up to the driest historical volumes ever written. And at last, armed with that body of evidence in the shape of several copied sheets of parchment, Blair had finally decided to face James, in the hope that he could remove the glamour from the baron’s eyes once and for all.
He’d also, by means of surreptitious questions, established that the scale of the problem was such that everyone else, without exception, appeared to be living under the same delusion.
The chamber he shared with his sentinel was lit by candlelight when Blair entered, James seated by the fire with a goblet of mulled wine in his hand. The baron looked up in welcome, flames from the fireplace, lit against the cooler air of approaching autumn, dancing in his eyes. “Blair,” he urged, standing up in greeting. “Come sit with me.”
Blair placed the sheaf of documents down, before striding over to be enveloped in strong arms. “Hey,” he said, as he felt himself held tightly to James’ chest. “Are you all right?”
James just held him tighter. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Something’s not right, Blair. I can sense it. I was hoping you could help me find out what it is.”
Pulling away, Blair searched James’ face, hope blossoming within. “You can feel it?”
James nodded. “Yes.” He looked desperately unhappy. “Sit,” he urged, steering Blair to the chair he’d recently vacated. Crouching at Blair’s feet the baron lifted a goblet from a tray – twin to the one he’d been using – and poured wine from the pot beside the fire into it. He handed it to Blair. “Drink, and I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” he said. “Then, perhaps, you can tell me what you think.”
“All right.” Blair took the goblet, and sipped at the wine – it was a little more tart than his usual taste, but deliciously warming. “What is it you feel?”
James was still crouching in front of Blair, looking at him searchingly. “Tell me about the night terrors, Blair,” he said.
Blair blinked. “Do you remember them?” Relief washed through him, making him feel light headed with the intensity of it. “James, that’s great!”
“What do you remember?” James asked.
Blair took another sip of his wine. “I remember everything,” he said. “All the people they killed, our intention to stand and fight them. I was so scared,” he confessed, “when you didn’t remember them. First I thought you were ill. Then,” he laughed, “when I found out no one else knew what they were either, I thought it might be me.” The room spun, suddenly, and Blair would have lost his grip on his goblet but for James reaching out to take it from his grasp.
Blair watched, as though in a dream, as James placed the goblet carefully down. Then he felt his hand taken in the baron’s and held tenderly. James was watching him closely, his expression full of love. “The night terrors,” James said gently, “are not real.”
“James…” The word felt thick on Blair’s tongue; unwieldy. Fear broke through the fog which swamped him. “What have you done?” he gasped.
“Hush, Blair. Hush.” James’ voice came from far away. Blair was no longer sitting in the chair, but lying down, cradled in the strong arms of his sentinel. “Relax,” he heard James tell him softly. “Don’t be afraid.”
“James!” Panicked, Blair tried to fight the deadly lethargy which overwhelmed him, to no avail. “Please…”
But his own voice tapered off into silence, as darkness took him.
Blair had trouble waking, feeling somehow heavy and paralysed, his mouth as dry as bone.
“It’s all right,” James’ voice beckoned. The sensation of a cool cloth on Blair’s forehead comforted and soothed. “I’m here, Blair. All is well.”
Without realising how he’d done so, Blair knew that he must have conveyed his thirst because he felt himself propped against a familiar, warm torso, a cup of icy cold water at his lips. Blair drank thirstily; gratefully. His immediate discomfort eased he relaxed, discovering a peaceful blankness of mind and body.
Blair drifted for a while. Then, after an indeterminate time, lucidity sluggishly began to return, Blair’s thoughts full of strange questions and a niggling sense of anxiety which, at last, dragged him inexorably towards full consciousness. As he opened his eyes the room swam murkily into focus, the darkness at its recesses unfamiliar and oddly disturbing.
Turning his head on his pillow, Blair could see James, sitting staring into the fireplace which dominated one bare, stone wall of the room. Blair shifted on the bed, and the sudden chink of metal as he moved caused James’ gaze to snap towards him.
Blair felt it then. The unexpected heaviness of metal surrounding his right ankle, the chain attached to it jangling harshly as Blair jerked in shock at the discovery. Following with appalled eyes the long chain of links, where they coiled and twisted across the floor, Blair could see that the other end disappeared through a small hole in the wall, the means by which it was secured invisible from inside this room.
James appeared by his side, attempting to hold him still. “Be easy,” he urged. “Just relax.”
Blair jerked away from James’ hands, his movements clumsy and uncoordinated, the chain manacled to his leg a manic riot of metal upon metal as he moved. He shrank right away from James until his back was pressed against the head of the bed, his knees drawn up in a self-protective gesture, as he swiftly examined his surroundings.
This was nothing more than a cell, with one single, barred window high on the wall. The fact that it also boasted the comfortable bed on which he lay as well as other rich furnishings, did not disguise the barren starkness underneath.
“Where are we?” Blair’s harsh croak betrayed his fright.
James ’voice was calm and measured. “We’re out in the country, a little more than a two-hour ride from the castle. One of my ancestors built this place, to confine his brother in after he committed murder. It was a tragedy – the brother was quite mad and not responsible for his actions. Instead of hanging him, my ancestor thought it kinder to let him live out his days in seclusion.”
“You drugged me.” Memory was returning, the dire straits he found himself in the most effective wake-up call Blair could ever imagine.
“Yes.” James was watching him levelly. “I didn’t want to frighten you unnecessarily. I thought it would be easier on you if you were to be transported here unconscious.”
“Easier?” Rage erupted – a far more liberating emotion than terror. “You drug me, carry me off to who knows where, chain me up in a cell, and you call that easier?” James reached out to him, his expression full of concern, and Blair angrily hit his hands away. “Don’t touch me!”
“Blair,” James placated, his voice so full of patronising condescension that, for the first time since they’d met, Blair felt an almost irresistible desire to punch him. “You must understand. You are suffering from a sickness of the mind, and it is far safer for you to be confined here until it passes. This is entirely in your best interests.”
“Horseshit!” Blair swore, anger and desperation inspiring him to unaccustomed profanity. “It’s not me who’s ill, James – it’s you! It’s all of you! The night terrors have twisted your thoughts. James, Please!” Blair poured every ounce of earnestness he possessed into his words. “Please, try to remember! Last summer – we were going to fight them! You went north with an army, just a few months ago, and you saw them all dead in a cave. James,” he pleaded, “Please, try!”
But to Blair’s dismay, James shook his head sadly. “Listen to yourself,” he said. “You are speaking of a children’s tale as if it were true. Blair,” James said turning the full force of his gaze on Blair, and speaking slowly and carefully as if to a child or an idiot. “The night terrors are not real. There was no fight. There was no army. These are stories your mind has concocted which, because of your illness, you believe to be the truth.”
“Then how come so many people died?” Blair ground out through clenched teeth. “You can’t deny that happened. What killed so many of them, huh? Answer me that!”
“A plague,” James answered easily. “A plague which, thanks to the return of the fae and the blessing they have given us, has gone forever.”
Desperation fuelled Blair’s next move. “All right, then!” he shouted. “In that case, explain this!” Arms made clumsy by the residue of the drug he’d ingested, Blair tugged his shirt over his head and off. Turning, he presented his bare back to James. “How did my back get scarred?” he demanded. “Tell me that, James!”
Blair stayed still, breathing hard. He felt the bed dip as James sat down behind him, and he endured the feathery touch of the baron’s fingers on the ridged tissue. Please, he willed fervently. Please, James. Think!
“I’m sorry, Blair,” James said after a moment. The misery in his voice caused Blair, for one shining second, to believe that James might have come to his senses; but his hopes were immediately dashed. “You were badly hurt by the men who abused you on your journey to the barony,” James went on. “Apparently more hurt than I could ever have realised. I’m so sorry they did this to you, and I’m sorry the memory of their foul actions have created this sickness in your mind.”
Confronting James with the evidence of his injury from the claws of the night terror – sustained when he’d saved the baron’s life by willingly risking his own - had been Blair’s final gambit, yet it had failed. If James didn’t even remember that, then what hope was there that he’d remember anything?
Blair felt James get up off the bed, and he turned to see the baron stride over to the huge wooden door of the chamber, then pause beside it. “That’s not what happened,” Blair called after him, his voice full of the intense despair he felt. “James!” He choked on the words. “James, try! Try to remember!” His voice broke as James banged three times on the door with his clenched fist – evidently the signal for whoever was on the other side to open it and let him out. “James!” Blair cried out again, his movements still uncoordinated as he moved off the bed to follow, only to become entangled in the chain and land on his knees. He was dimly aware of the indignity of how he must look – clumsy, shirtless and shaking on the floor; a picture of madness indeed.
The door swung open, and James paused in the doorway. “I’ll come back in a while,” the baron said, not looking directly at Blair, as if the sight of him was painful. “Perhaps you will be a little calmer by then.”
Then the door closed, the echoing bang and the rattle and clunk of locks being engaged leaving Blair agape with horror.
James did not return for a considerable period. By the time he did Blair had recovered somewhat from the after-effects of being drugged, and had a new plan of attack.
“It was a jest,” Blair claimed decisively as James came back into the cell, the other man moving over to stand looking down at him where he sat, in the chair that James had previously occupied, by the fire. The chain on Blair’s leg, he’d found, annoying though it was, was long enough to allow him to traverse most of the circular room and enjoy its ‘comforts’- though the lock which secured it to his ankle had proved to be impervious to all efforts to remove it. Glancing up at James, Blair laughed shortly, then fixed a look of earnest contrition on his face. “Of course I don’t think the night terrors are real. I hope you – and the fae - can forgive me. I know it was in bad taste.”
James was not in the least impressed. “I am a sentinel, Blair. I know when you are lying. Your words change nothing.”
Well, so much for that. Once again, Blair cursed his inability to control heart rate and other vital signs sufficiently to keep his true feelings from his sentinel.
“So, what now?” Blair demanded. “You’ll keep me in prison until I believe what you want me to believe?”
“You will remain here, yes,” James said. “Though this is not punishment, Blair. It is important that you understand that. You are being confined here for your own safety, and for the peace of mind of others who might be disturbed by what you say. You will be well looked after here, I promise.”
Blair glared at James. “For how long?”
“Until you no longer adhere to your delusions.”
Blair licked lips gone dry. “What if that never happens?” he asked.
“Then you will remain here for good.”
“What will you tell everyone?” Blair asked, helplessness rushing through him. “What about Grace? What will you say to her, and to Megan?”
“I will tell everyone the truth,” James answered. “That you are ill. That you have gone to live in the country, where you will, if the fae will it, be nursed back to health.”
Blair pointedly rattled the chain attached to his ankle. “A fine bedside manner my nurse has,” he said sarcastically, fighting creeping terror with belligerence. “And who is this nurse, by the way? I’m sure you have better things to do with your time than wait on your mad guide personally.”
“I’ve engaged an elderly couple, who served my father well and are now retired, to see to your care. They have moved into the house adjacent to this building. Though I must warn you, Blair,” James said seriously. “They have been ordered not to engage you in conversation, and to ignore your no doubt skilful attempts to make them do so. They will see to your daily needs – your meals, laundry, the occasional bath, and making sure you have candles and enough wood to keep the fire going. They will ensure your well-being inasmuch as that is possible, given your current infirmity. But you can be very sure that they will not pay any heed to your attempts to lure them into your delusions.”
“And this is going to cure me, how?” Blair asked. He looked around the room – now he was over his initial shock and more alert, he could see that the building was circular, the only entrance the heavy door James had entered through. The tiny window, high up the wall – too narrow for any adult to shimmy though, even if it were not heavily barred – was so small that Blair suspected it would not let in any more than the smallest sliver of daylight, once morning came. “James, I’m not insane,” Blair said. “But if you make me stay here, I soon will be.”
“I will provide you with things to occupy your time,” James said. “I will have books sent to you, and also parchment and writing materials. Perhaps it would help,” he said, the hopeful tone in his voice making Blair want to slap him, “if you write down the stories which plague you. Maybe that way, you could read them back and see how very unlikely they are.”
Blair snorted derisively.
James rose. “This gives me no pleasure,” he said miserably. “I love you, Blair. The thought of leaving you here and returning to the castle without you is very difficult for me.”
Blair found, understandably, that his sympathy for the baron’s plight was rather lacking under the circumstances. “I hope,” he said caustically, “when you eventually come to your senses, that you will be able to forgive yourself for this. Because right now, James, I don’t think I ever will.” He glared at James. “Don’t look to me to make this easy for you,” he said. “Because I have absolutely no intention of doing so.” And so saying, Blair fixed his eyes on the fire, the red-hot flames agitating in the grate mirroring his rage and distress.
After a moment, he heard James cross the floor and pound on the door. Blair waited until James had gone and the door had closed firmly between them, before burying his face in his hands.
The next morning – or at least Blair supposed it was morning, since it was only infinitesimally lighter in his cell - Blair found out why he had a chain on his ankle, despite being held inside a locked, stone chamber.
A noise of gears grinding startled him out of a fitful doze, and the chain meandered, snake-like, across the floor. A moment later, Blair was forced to follow, lest he be dragged after it.
“What the…” Blair was too startled to make much of an outcry. Instead he watched as link after link of the chain disappeared through the wall, giving him no choice but to shuffle along in the same direction. The movement stopped, to his very great relief, when he was a foot or so away from the stone, leaving him unable to move in any direction away from it.
A moment later the door opened, flooding the dim cell with daylight. Blair could see that the door led directly outside, giving him the impression that this building he was confined in was not unlike descriptions he’d heard of the ancient watchtowers which could be found along the coast, except that the stone ceiling, which had seemed lofty in the firelight, was actually no higher than about twelve or fifteen feet above his head, corbelled and tapering off to a single capstone right in the middle.
Once the door was open an elderly woman came in. She studiously avoided looking at Blair, instead moving over to the bed to strip the linen from it and replace it with new, fresh sheets. Behind her an old man shambled over to the fire, and set to work clearing out the old ashes and setting new wood and kindling in the grate.
Blair’s shocked disbelief at being restrained in this undignified way found its expression, once again, in annoyance. “I’m not dangerous,” he told them. “Chaining me against the wall is absolutely unnecessary.”
Neither of his keepers paid him any heed – it was as if he’d not spoken at all. Instead the two of them went about their various tasks in silence, ignoring Blair as though he simply did not exist.
Blair, for his part, found it impossible to keep quiet. “Good morning,” he said. “I’d be pleased to know your names,” he said, as courteously as he could manage under the circumstances, “if our acquaintance is likely to be a long one.” When he received no reply to that, he tried reassurance – if possible, he needed to get these people on his side. “I know the baron has instructed you not to converse with me, and I want you to know I take no offence since you are merely following his orders. Yet, wouldn’t this be less unpleasant for us all if we could at least maintain basic civility? It’s quite safe to look at me, and even to bid me good morning, I assure you.”
Blair’s words, once again fell on deaf ears.
Tasks were completed in stony silence, and not once did either of his jailers glance in Blair’s direction. The floor was swept, the water jug replenished, more water supplied for washing, the chamber pot taken and returned empty, firewood stacked beside the fireplace and fresh candles placed around the room; all with wordless efficiency. Eventually both of them left, only for the woman to return alone a short while later, a tray in her arms containing bread, fruit and a dish of oatmeal – Blair’s preferred breakfast dish. She set the tray down silently on the table, and left. Behind her the door closed with a resounding bang, throwing the cell once more into the half-light from the window.
A moment later, the noise of machinery behind Blair heralded a slackening of the chain, the links pouring back through the wall to pool on the floor beside him like water.
Blair found as he moved across to the table, the chain dragging heavily at his ankle, that his hands were shaking.
Life after that settled into a strange, dreamlike routine, consisting of hours of solitude punctuated only by the times Blair was dragged across the cell to be chained close to the wall so that his keepers could enter. Food was delivered in silence and, more often than not, taken away uneaten, Blair not having the stomach to consume very much at all. And every night Blair’s sleep was disturbed by nightmares, filled with a frightening and overwhelming sense of having been buried alive. But those dreams were not the worst – the ones from which he woke weeping were those where James treated him with tenderness and love, and told Blair that he believed him.
Blair’s found some of his own, familiar clothes in a chest – evidence at how well planned in advance this confinement had been. Although he discovered, to his dismay, that every single pair of breeches he owned had been altered; slit up one leg, the opening secured with straps and buckles so that he’d be able to fasten them once on. This, he immediately deduced, was to facilitate the chain on his ankle. It was clear that the intention was for the chain to stay attached for a protracted period – a discovery which filled him with a sense of cold, anguished dread and a desperate urge to get the thing off. Yet the metal refused to yield under his scrabbling fingers, the manacle around his ankle secured just tight enough not to chafe, and locked tight.
Inevitably, Blair entertained a constant and almost overwhelming desire for escape. But to achieve such a thing seemed an impossibility – the manacle on his ankle was securely fastened, clearly designed by a master metalsmith, the lock well-made and impervious to all Blair’s attempts to prise it apart. The chain – made of thick, unbreakable links - allowed him enough play to traverse almost all of the circular chamber, yet he was unable to reach the heavy door; which itself was secured by what sounded like a single, enormous lock and a heavy bar every time it closed.
At no point was Blair allowed anything sharp within his reach – the cutlery he was given to use was wooden, and he was never, despite pleading repeatedly for it, given the means by which to shave. Consequently, when James arrived to visit a week into his imprisonment, Blair was sporting the beginnings of an impressive beard.
Unlike when his keepers came, James entered the chamber without securing Blair to the wall first. Blair started in surprise when the door opened without warning, blinking in the sudden daylight like an owl before the door closed again with a bang.
As Blair stood there, dumbstruck, James moved around the chamber, lighting candles as he went to banish the afternoon gloom which barely illuminated the cell at all. Finally he turned to look at Blair, who discovered to his perverse satisfaction that his belligerence had not diminished during seven days of solitary confinement. “Have you forbidden me a razor to make me better look the part of a lunatic?” Blair demanded. “Or is it that you fear I’ll cut the throats of my jailers, despite the fact that they chain me to the wall every time they come in?”
“Blair,” James said pleadingly. “Please, don’t-”
“Don’t what?” Locked up with nothing more than his thoughts for an entire week, Blair did not feel inclined to be charitable – he’d built up a considerable amount of resentment and anger over the past few days. “Don’t tell you how humiliated I feel every time this chain pulls me to the wall? Don’t tell you what it’s like, never seeing the sun, apart from during a few minutes each day through the open doorway which I can’t go through? Don’t tell you what an ass you are?”
Ignoring Blair’s outburst as though it was no more than a childish tantrum, James picked up on just one part of what he’d said. “The chain,” he said, “is for the benefit of Peter and Maeve’s peace of mind. They were understandably nervous about taking on such a responsibility and, as you’ve seen, they are not young people. It would be an easy matter for you to overpower them in a bid to escape. I refuse to put them in a position where they are concerned about such an eventuality.”
Blair was livid. “I can’t believe you’d think that of me! James, when have you ever known me to threaten harm to anyone? Let alone an elderly couple? Come on!”
“You are not in your right mind,” James retorted. “How can I be sure what you’re capable of? You wished ill of the fae, Blair, comparing them to nightmare creatures of the tales of old. You spoke of your belief to all and sundry, both in the castle and in the town, trying to turn folk against our benefactors. You even spoke in such a way to Grace. Is it truly any wonder that I should take precautions to ensure people are protected from you? The man I knew – the guide I originally paired with – would understand that.”
Blair shook his head. “I once told someone that the sentinel I knew would never permit anyone to do me harm.” He laughed mirthlessly. “I was wrong about that, wasn’t I?”
“I can see you are in no mood to be reasonable,” James said, in a voice full of studied calm. “I had hoped otherwise.”
“I think I’m being extremely reasonable,” Blair said stonily. “If you wanted me to fall at your feet with kisses, then decrying me as a madman and locking me up is not the way to achieve it.”
James took a deep breath, then another, and a tendril of contact tickled that part of Blair’s mind which, since they’d paired, had facilitated their innate awareness of each other. Ruthlessly, annoyed that James was presuming to use him in that way, Blair thrust James out of his head. “No,” he said, his teeth gritted. “You don’t touch me. You don’t touch me like that ever again - or in any other way - until you set me free.”
The look of intense sorrow which passed over James’ face almost thawed Blair’s resolve – James was his paired sentinel, no matter this madness between them and, undoubtedly, after a week of separation, he had need of his guide. And since they’d forged a deep link, failing to draw on that would have repercussions for James’ control. But Blair was angry enough to stand firm, nevertheless. The fae had warped James’ memory, sure enough. But it was James himself who’d preferred to believe that Blair was mad and should be chained in a cell, rather than entertain the notion that he might actually have a point.
After a moment, James spoke again. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said. “I brought you some books to read – I’ll have Peter bring them in.”
If James expected thanks, Blair determined, he was destined to be disappointed.
After a tense moment, James moved to the door and banged on it thrice. It opened, and Blair could see the man – Peter, since he now had a name – standing outside. James turned, and looked at Blair sadly. “I love you, Blair, with all my heart. I know you hate me right now, but one day. I hope…” James shook his head, the thought unfinished. “I will come back to visit,” he said, “perhaps in a week. I hope you may be feeling a little better by then.”
When Blair gave no reply, James disappeared through the door, which closed behind him with a resounding bang.
Blair hobbled around the cell immediately afterwards, peevishly blowing out the candles that James had lit as he went.
When James returned to the castle, he sought out Simon - there was no one else he could confide in, or trust with the knowledge of where Blair was being held.
“How is he?” Simon asked, as soon as they retreated into his study.
James shook his head, hearing again in his head Blair’s rejection of him. “Angry,” he answered. “Scared too, though he took pains not to show it.” James looked at Simon miserably. “Apart from the fact that, once again, he expressed belief in the night terrors, he seemed completely lucid, and every bit as sane as he ever was.”
“Did you tell him anything?” Simon asked.
“No.” James sighed deeply. “He’s upset enough. If he were to hear that threats have been made against his life, it would only serve to distress him further.” James looked pointedly at Simon. “Perhaps it would be prudent to post guardsmen at the estate. Peter and Maeve are doing a fine job, but if they are set upon by people intent upon on a witch hunt, I doubt they’d be able to protect Blair or themselves.”
“I strongly advise against it,” Simon said. “Right now, only the four of us know where Blair is. Guardsmen – even the most loyal ones – have families and friends and, even with the best will in the world, tongues are wont to wag. Such juicy gossip would swiftly spread. Far better to keep his location a secret, known only to those who need to know.”
“How did it come to this?” James asked despairingly. “Just a short time ago Blair was well thought of in the barony - respected and popular. Yet now he is vilified as a witch.” James rubbed his face tiredly. “He’s merely a young man who has been through too much, in too short a time. He’s not dangerous – he’s ill. Why can’t people see it?”
“Reverence for the fae blinds them, my lord,” Simon said. “It seems that Blair went all over town, spreading his seditious talk. That, alongside the fact that he is believed to possess the gift of Sight, tends to bring out the old superstitions. Even I,” he confessed, “reacted badly when he came to me, with the little one in a jar. Afterwards, of course, I found out that Grace had captured it as part of a childish prank, not Blair. But Blair’s madness was obvious even so, with his talk of the night terrors and his linking of that legend to the fae.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help him,” James said. “But I fear he’s still so angry with me that he is not willing to listen to reason. Until he is ready to accept that he is indeed ill, I fail to see what steps can be taken to cure him.”
“All you can do is ensure that he is as comfortable as possible,” Simon said sympathetically. “When he is ready, perhaps more can be done.”
“Perhaps,” James allowed. “But I hate to confine him thus. His surroundings are less than salubrious for one suffering from such a darkness of spirit, yet I can think of nowhere better to keep him safe and secure. He clearly cannot remain here – even if he were not in danger, I cannot risk distressing Grace with what she might overhear if he were to be confined in the castle. And Blair being Blair; well, he is devious and engaging, and fully capable of talking his way into being set free, if he were to be guarded and cared for here among people he knows.”
“I understand your misgivings,” Simon told him, “but his current confinement is certainly better than the alternative. The whereabouts of that estate is not known outside your family – indeed, I had no idea it even existed until you told me so. Your ancestor’s desire for secrecy with regard to his brother’s confinement has served us well, under the circumstances, because if Blair were still here and the town elders had their way, he would be subjected to a public trial for witchcraft. Believe me, my lord,” he went on decisively, “you are doing the right thing. And this way, your position as baron is entirely free of taint. You moved swiftly to protect your people, no matter your personal feelings for your guide. You have gained a lot of respect for that, even if some people in the town would prefer to see Blair hanging from a noose.”
Hearing it put like that, James was forced to agree. But he still looked towards the day that Blair might be cured, or at least accepting enough of the situation to be confined in a less restrictive manner.
For Blair, locked in his dim, circular cell after James had left, a depression every bit as dark as the one he’d suffered when Master Brackett had come to the castle gradually fell upon him.
The books James had brought him had been carefully hand-picked, all of them omitting even the slightest mention of the fae or the night terrors. In a matter of hours, desperate as he was for something to occupy his mind, Blair had already read through nearly half of them. Reluctantly he decided he’d need to ration the rest – he had no idea how long it would be before he was supplied with more.
His jailers continued to come and go at regular intervals, never looking at Blair directly, and certainly never responding to his increasingly plaintive, one-sided attempts at conversation. He grew to anticipate their visits, going to stand beside the wall in readiness for the tautening of the chain. It intrigued him how he was more and more able to judge the imminent timing of their arrival accurately, despite having no access to a timepiece or sight of the position of the sun.
Alone with his thoughts for so much of the time, Blair found his mind going round in constant circles as he tried desperately to come up with ways to make James see the truth. Rowena had told him that sentinels were capable of Sight when guided to it. Yet Blair had never been trained in such things at the Academy, and he had no idea how to go about doing so – it was only recently he’d even begun to come to grips with his own Sight. Clearly the methods he’d tried so far, by simply attempting to make James see reason by presenting him with evidence, had failed spectacularly.
The nights, when the fire died down to embers and the chamber was thrown into darkness, were the worst. Unable to find solace in sleep Blair often lay awake, longing to be back in bed beside James at the castle, wishing with all his heart that this madness had never come to pass, and that all would return to normal. That he could wake, roused by the mouth and hands of a man who loved him, ready to begin another day tutoring Grace, riding on the moors, sitting beside James in council and living a life better than he’d ever dreamed could be his.
When he did sleep, fitful, restless sleep full of vivid, upsetting dreams, Blair often woke crying out into darkness, the echoes of his cry mocking his aloneness and making him long for James and freedom with all his heart.
A week passed, and Blair began to anticipate a visit from James with what felt suspiciously like excitement. He was still desperately hurt by what James had done to him, as well as deeply angry. But he had begun to recognise, after an endless period of rationalisation, that James was every bit as much of a victim in the current circumstances as he was. The baron was a man who took great pride in fairness; who was possessed of a deep compulsion to do the right thing. If ever he did come to his senses, Blair had no doubt that his guilt over sentencing Blair to this living torment would be crippling.
And a torment it was, despite however much James might protest that Blair was being well taken care of. The lack of natural light and exercise, the complete absence of human contact, the boredom and the daily indignity of being forced to stand against the wall were already taking their toll. He had not been given a mirror, but he suspected he already cut a pathetic sight – his beard was now well established, and his clothes hung loose on his frame, since his appetite was almost non-existent.
James had called him a madman. Blair now very much suspected that anyone else, if they were to see him, would assume the same. The thought made him laugh out loud, the eerie sound of his own voice bouncing off the walls and causing him to shrink back, disturbed, into the more accustomed silence which filled his days.
Afraid that his memory might become affected by the tedious sameness of each long, dreadful day, Blair had begun to make a tally of the length of his captivity by using the edge of one of the links of chain to scratch a faint mark on the wall, each one representing one full day. Consequently, he was fully aware when the seventh day after James’ visit came and went with no sign of his expected visitor.
Another day passed, then another, and still the baron did not come.
After that Blair took to pleading for information about James’ whereabouts, despite the futility of trying to get his captors to acknowledge him at all. At last, nearly two weeks after he’d last seen James, Blair found himself begging pitifully, the desperate tone of his voice reflecting his deepest fear. “He’s not ill or hurt, is he? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if anything happened to him?”
To his surprise the woman – Maeve – lifted her head from her task and looked right at him, unmistakeable pity in her eyes. “Hush,” she bade him. “The baron is well. We would have heard if it were otherwise, I assure you.”
It was the first time he’d ever heard her voice, or even had her look at him. Blair’s eyes filled with tears, and he hugged his arms about himself where he stood, chained close to the wall. “Thank you,” he choked out, gratitude suffusing him at that one, small kindness.
When yet more days passed with no sign of the baron, other fears began to plague Blair. He’d rejected James’ attempt to settle his senses on Blair; had told him, in fact, that he would no longer consent to allow him to do so. Maybe James had decided there was no further point in coming to see him? Maybe this was how Blair’s life would be from now on – enduring day by tedious day in semi-darkness, never speaking or being spoken to, abandoned for good by the sentinel he’d once so joyfully joined his life to?
Another week passed, then another, and a deep melancholy fell upon Blair. He no longer dreamed of escape – such a thing was clearly impossible. Even if he did manage it, where would he go? The only place he truly wished to be was by the side of his sentinel, acting again as his true guide. And in any case Blair had experienced life on the run before, and he had no desire to do it again; especially when he’d be running from the very person he most wanted to run to.
Gradually Blair ceased all attempts to converse with Peter and Maeve, passively accepting their visits without comment or complaint. And throughout the endless, empty hours in-between he sat staring into darkness, resigned to the belief that there was no further point in struggling against fate. He’d been cast aside, his own beloved sentinel preferring to believe him mad rather than see the fae for what they were. The night terrors would grow and thrive, and would one day kill their children’s children, just as Rowena had prophesied. And long before that day came, Blair would die alone and forsaken in the darkness - and there was absolutely nothing that he could do about any of it.
Though exhausted from his long journey back from the capital, James sought out Simon before heading off to bed, wishing both to apprise him of what had transpired and catch up with news from nearer home.
“I’m glad to see you, my lord,” Simon said a short while later, as the two of them sat in Simon’s office, partaking of a glass of good wine. “You have been missed this past month.”
James took a sip of wine. “I trust you coped?”
Simon inclined his head. “There were a few issues which will require your input. But apart from that, most matters were routine.”
“Good.” James took another sip, relaxing back in his chair and crossing his feet at the ankles as he leaned back. “Please let it be known that I will sit in council the day after tomorrow. I have… other business to attend to before then.”
“I received a letter from Peter,” Simon said, correctly guessing James’ priority. “Blair is in good health, though he has been asking for you.”
James’ attitude of relaxation faded as he sat forward, running a tired hand over his face. “He’s been left alone, without word, for too long,” he said regretfully. “It pains me to think that Blair’s likely been fretting all this time, wondering why I have not come to see him. Though,” he added, “if he’d been told what it was that kept me from him, I do not think it would have reassured him.”
“You could not have predicted that you would be obliged to attend an emergency baronial convocation,” Simon told him. “It was supposed to be a short trip, just to accompany your ward to the
“Chance had nothing to do with it, given the fact that my guide’s ‘heresy’ was the primary topic under discussion,” James said bitterly. “Baron Bannister heard that I’d enrolled Grace in the Sentinel School and would be in the capital to deliver her. He immediately sent word to the others via the Baronial Assessor, asking them to assemble there on a matter of grave importance, hoping to ambush me with the lack of prior warning.”
“So,” Simon asked carefully, clearly anticipating the worst. “What did the barons determine, with regard to Blair?”
James smiled – he was still relieved beyond measure at the verdict. “It was decided that there was already precedent for clemency, since it turned out that, in addition to her other maladies, Alicia Bannister is suffering from an almost identical delusion.” At Simon’s obvious incredulity, James added, “And yes, ironically, it was Baron Bannister himself who swung the vote in my favour. To push for Blair’s execution, despite that being the reason he called the meeting in the first place, would have meant that his own daughter would have been obliged to suffer the same fate.”
Simon smiled widely. “That is rather ironic, to be sure. I am sure his face was a picture when he voted against his own bill.”
“Indeed it was,” James confirmed. “As red as this very fine wine, in fact.” He saluted Simon with his glass, and downed the last drop. “The verdict,” James carried on, “was that as long as Blair remains where he can do no harm – Alicia, also – then no action will be taken. They are satisfied by my assurances that Blair is securely confined, and will remain so for as long as he suffers from his delusions.”
“Is this preoccupation with the night terrors something that Blair and Alicia cooked up together, do you think?” Simon asked curiously, after swallowing down his own wine. “A fantasy they indulged in, when Blair was acting as Alicia’s guide?”
James frowned. “I don’t know. Apart from the fact that both of them are raving in similar ways about the creatures, I would have said it was unlikely, given the toxic nature of their relationship. But their stories are too similar to assume it is chance. I would guess that it is not so much a story they both concocted, but more likely that Alicia imagined it first and, when Blair became ill, he remembered Alicia’s tale and fixated upon it.”
“That makes sense,” Simon agreed. But something in James’ expression must have alerted him to the baron’s disquiet. “But you are not sure, are you?”
James leaned over and snagged the decanter off the desk, before refilling both their glasses. “I encountered some disturbing things on my travels,” he admitted. “It seems that there are more than just Blair and Alicia who are suffering from this odd malady. In some villages there have been lynchings of people who decried the fae, and in the capital there is talk of those similarly afflicted going into hiding.”
Simon was appalled. “They have all spoken in similar ways about the fae?”
“Yes,” James confirmed.
“Maybe it is a disease,” Simon posited. “One which causes a sickness of the mind.”
“One which causes all those affected to espouse the same delusion?” James looked at the other man intently. “Simon, have you ever heard of such a thing?”
Simon, clearly, had not. “So what are you suggesting, my lord?” he asked. “That it may, indeed, be witchcraft?”
“Whatever it is,” James said firmly, “I do not believe Blair to be anything other than a victim. It is likely that those other poor souls were likewise deceived by some malicious influence.”
“But what could it be, my lord?” Simon looked honestly baffled. “What could possibly cause such warped thinking? I mean,” he laughed shortly, the idea clearly incomprehensible to him, “to compare such beautiful, benevolent creatures with a children’s’ nightmare tale. It makes no sense.”
“I don’t know,” James admitted. “But I assure you,” he drained his second goblet of wine and stood, preparing to take his leave, “if it will help Blair, I intend to find out.”
James rode out at first light, his urgent need to see Blair disturbing his sleep so that he was up and dressed long before sunrise. As he rode into the yard of the main house in the late morning, Peter strode out to meet him. “My lord,” Peter greeted, taking his reins as James dismounted.
“Good day,” James greeted politely. “Before I go to visit Blair, I’d be obliged if you and Maeve could apprise me of what has transpired since my last visit.”
Peter nodded agreement and, a short while later, the three of them gathered inside the house.
Maeve had the most to say, Peter - being rather taciturn by nature - deferring to his wife, as he often did. “He’s not well, my lord,” she said. “And may the fae forgive me, this confinement is not helping.”
James looked at her closely. “Has he spoken to you of his delusions?”
“No,” she said emphatically, “though, until he became completely silent, he spoke often – inconsequential matters and polite enquiries, more to break the silence than anything else, I think. But he has not tried to turn either Peter or myself against the fae. And we’ve obeyed your orders not to speak to him in turn. Though I must tell you, my lord, I think our silence is unnecessary cruelty, when the poor boy has been forsaken by you these past four weeks.”
Maeve had always possessed a sharp tongue where James was concerned – she had once been his mother’s handmaid, and had known him as an infant. As such, she sometimes seemed to forget he was now a grown man, and the baron to boot.
Likewise, James knew Maeve well. “You’re becoming fond of him,” he noted.
“It’s hard not to be,” Maeve allowed. She glanced at her husband. “We both are. The poor lad is bearing his confinement with dignity, but he seems so lost and haunted. And he has treated us with nothing other than quiet courtesy, despite the fact that we keep him chained up in that gloomy place.”
Those latter words, underlying the reality of his guide’s circumstances, made James squirm with something akin to shame. He loved Blair with all his heart – would give anything and everything he owned, in fact, to have the vibrant, intelligent young man he’d paired with back at his side. But Blair was no longer that man. Instead, he was beset by a crippling malady of the mind, and indicted by the Grand Council to remain confined and incommunicado, lest his madness infect others. As baron, James had responsibilities which extended way beyond the man he loved. No matter the fact that every breath he took without Blair filled him with a pain so deep and agonising he felt sometimes like he might die – he simply had no choice.
Still… some of the restrictions under which Blair was being held might, perhaps, be relaxed, if James deemed it safe to do so. His unforeseen, month-long absence had meant that, for a far longer period than he intended, Blair had been held in the same strict conditions James had first implemented, when all along he’d intended to gradually make Blair’s confinement more palatable.
“Is there anything else I need to know before I see him?” James asked.
“He’s not eating,” Maeve said bluntly. “Or he is, but hardly enough to keep a bird alive. More often than not his food is untouched when I go in to collect his dishes. Any more of this, and I will need to alter his clothes to fit, or have you send new ones.”
There was an edge of anger in the woman’s words which James easily perceived. “Maeve,” he asked bluntly. “What would you have me do?”
“Allow us to talk to him,” she answered; equally blunt. “Both Peter and I are entirely unlikely to be swayed by anything he might say. Keep your promises, and visit regularly. Give him things to do. If you can find a way, allow him out into the fresh air and sunlight from time to time.”
The words stung, James own self-inflicted wounds reopened under Maeve’s observations. For a vigorous and intelligent man like Blair, to be locked up and ignored for so long must have felt like torture. James had wished, every moment he’d spent at the whim of the other barons in the capital, to reassure him that things would improve. But he’d been afraid to get a letter out to Peter and Maeve, in case Baron Bannister’s agents intercepted it and thus discovered Blair’s location – he did not trust the man one whit, and knew him fully capable of doing Blair direct harm if he could not get the Grand Council to do the deed for him.
James could alternately, of course, have asked Simon to visit Blair during his absence, but he’d likewise been afraid that Simon might inadvertently lead someone to his guide who bore him ill will. Feelings in the town about heresy were currently running high, and as such keeping Blair’s location a closely-guarded secret even in his own barony was imperative.
At least, as a sentinel, James had an advantage when it came to ensuring he was not followed – something that Simon could never be sure of. Yet in being so cautious, it seemed, he’d caused other problems for his guide. There was nothing for it but to begin to put those things right, in the hope that, one day, Blair might recover his wits and forgive James for incarcerating him in this way.
“I will go to see him,” James said at length, after the pointed silence became oppressive. “I will judge whether it will be safe to relax some of the restrictions that are in place.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Maeve said. “That’s all I can ask.”
James heart was pounding with urgent anticipation by the time Peter escorted him to the door of Blair’s circular prison. He kept a firm grasp on his senses, despite an almost overwhelming desire to quest them forward and seek out Blair’s essence. His guide had forbidden him to find solace through their link while he was confined and helpless. James resolved to remain strong on that issue, unless Blair changed his mind and offered himself willingly, hoping to eventually gain back Blair’s trust by respecting his refusal.
Peter made as if to move towards the mechanism which tightened the chain, but James stopped him. “That won’t be necessary,” he said. “I am in no danger from Blair.” Acceding to James’ order without a word, Peter produced the key he carried at his belt and unlocked the door.
Inside, it took a moment even for sentinel eyes to pierce the gloom. It was a grey day, and the daylight which illuminated the space directly opposite the door was muted. James moved inside, and the door closed behind him with a resounding bang. Sentinel vision kicked in, and James gasped out loud at what he saw.
Blair was standing by the wall, right beside the bracket which fed the chain through the wall to the mechanism outside. He was barely recognisable as the man James knew – frighteningly gaunt, with haunted, desolate eyes. With a full beard obscuring the familiar, beloved features, Blair looked an eternity older than the young man he truly was.
James took a shocked step towards him, and Blair turned to meet his eyes. In a second Blair’s initial expression of resigned misery transformed into something far harder, which pierced James right through to the heart.
Blair didn’t speak, so James broke the silence. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I never meant for you to be left alone so long.”
At that, Blair’s angry expression changed again, this time to misery. “First I was afraid you might be dead,” he whispered, his voice cracked from disuse. “Then I began to think you’d abandoned me here to die.”
“No. Oh, no.” James moved forward, propelled by Blair’s despair. He wrapped his arms around Blair and pulled him close. In his arms, Blair stood stiffly, not returning his embrace, but James didn’t really expect him to. Into Blair’s ear, he murmured. “I had business in the capital, which kept me there longer than planned. Had I known I would be delayed, I would have made sure to tell you so. But as things stood it was too dangerous to try to get a message to you.”
Blair pushed him away at that. “What do you mean, too dangerous?” It seemed that weeks of solitary confinement had not dampened down his intellect – delusional or not. “What has happened?”
James reluctantly decided, despite his original intention to keep knowledge of such matters from Blair so as not to distress him, that the truth might perhaps make it easier for him to accept the need for his continued confinement. “News of your illness reached the other barons,” he confessed. “I was summoned to a Grand Council – they do not approve of one of their number being paired with a heretic. They fear your influence, both on me and on others. I was afraid to send you a message, in case the courier was followed.
“Is that what they’re calling it?” Blair demanded. “Heresy? James,” he said, “the concept of heresy died out centuries ago, along with belief in the old gods.” He looked away, seemingly speaking his thoughts aloud as much as addressing James. “I suppose it’s to be expected that one effect of the night terrors’ influence will be to bring established patterns of thought to the fore, as an understandable framework for rationalising the deception they perpetuate…” Blair trailed off, catching James’ disappointed and disapproving expression. “If you expected that locking me up like this would make me change my mind about the fae,” he said bluntly, “you were wrong.”
“So I see.” James felt inexpressively sad. In his heart of hearts, he’d hoped more than anything that he’d find Blair well again. It seemed, though, that he was as mired in his delusion as ever. Worse than that, the time spent alone with nothing to distract him seemed to have resulted in him inventing even more elaborate rationalisations for his belief.
“So what did they decide?” Blair asked. “The barons, I mean.”
Now it had come to it, James wished he’d never spoken. “They have ordered that you be kept confined and isolated,” he said, “for as long as you adhere to your heretical delusions.”
“Oh.” Blair nodded, swallowing. “I see.” It seemed that he’d, likewise, had hopes of this visit, and now they’d been dashed. He glanced around the darkened cell, a slightly sardonic smile on his face, his eyes apparently long-since having adjusted to the gloom. “In that case,” he said, “welcome to my humble abode. As you can see, no expense has been spared in ensuring my comfort. My chain is made of the finest metal, and what self-respecting lunatic requires daylight, anyway?”
“Blair,” James protested, hating every moment of this; hurting so much for Blair; longing with everything he was for his guide to be the same young man he’d fallen in love with. “Please-”
“Please, what?” Blair cut him off, his anger obviously returned to the fore. “Stop being angry with you for doing this to me? Stop knowing the truth? Stop wishing that you’d come to your senses, and see the fae for what they are?”
James turned his back on Blair, trying desperately to accommodate his shifting emotions. Part of him wished to flee and never look back, another part longed to provide comfort which he was certain would be rebuffed, and yet another traitorous voice within urged him to shake Blair until his teeth rattled. He stood, breathing heavily with hands clenched into fists, beaten down by his desperate need and love for Blair, his guilt for having to take this stand, and intense pity for his guide who was destined to remain locked in this dismal place for perhaps the rest of his life.
After an endless moment of torturous indecision, not knowing whether to stay or to go, James felt hands flutter over his shoulders, then grip him decisively, surprising in their strength. “I’m sorry,” he heard Blair whisper. “I don’t want to fight with you, James. I know this isn’t your fault.” Blair laughed, a horrible, choked parody of humour. “I never would have admitted it four weeks ago, but I’m really glad you’re here.” His voice broke. “I was really scared I’d never see you again.”
Broken from his stasis, James turned. And this time when he took Blair into his arms, there was no resistance, and he was held back just as tightly.
Part the Second - The Harrowing concludes in Chapter 2